Short version: Thoughts on this year’s blog, and what is to come next year.
Sydney, Australia, has a world famous fireworks display to mark the new year. This year, due to raging bush fires, there has been a call to cancel the display. This could only be symbolic, given that the contracts had been signed and the money paid. The fireworks went ahead. I think about the framing a former PM used, that climate change is “the greatest moral challenge of our generation”. That was 12 years ago. While a lack of economic literacy leads to the idea that the costs of the fireworks show could somehow be redirected to fight the fires, it is a deeper problem in human nature that allows the cost of dealing with climate change to grow impossibly in the future, rather than taking less painful action today. I feel another man made disaster gripping Australia, the obesity epidemic, to have similar roots.
It is difficult to think about the end of a year and the start of a new one without thinking about the scale of the challenges ahead. This briefing highlights how quickly time is running out to cut emissions. With governments in power across the English speaking world that so effectively wield tools of misinformation, I fear for our collective ability to make the right decisions. They are uncomfortable choices to make, but the consequences of ignoring them are going to be so much worse.
Reflection on 2019 Blog Posts
At the start of 2019 I wrote that “Last year I managed 11 posts out of 52 weeks for a 21% success rate.” It makes me proud to have hit “publish” for each week of 2019, though many came late. In total the posts came to a little over 30,000 words. They lack the quality and coherency of a novel or a thesis, but it has been a learning process, and reflects many of the topics I thought about in the last year.
Some favourites included: In Week 38 I looked at the carbon costs in consuming New Zealand apples in the UK, which alongside Week 4 (on plant vs animal protein) are the two posts I’ve most often shared over a meal. Scientific content peaked when I focused on sharing papers, such as Altmetric in Week 8 and cover pages in Week 29. In Week 39 when explaining microwave ovens, I painfully came across the perfect article only after I had written most of the content. The data set I used writing about consumption in Week 48 was the most fun to explore.
Goals for 2020 Blog
The amount of content on berglabs as a whole has increased at least 5-fold in the last year. A reorganisation is due. It’s not easy to find content on the blog. Certain themes, like nutrition, or summaries of academic work, could be better grouped. I hope to reorganise the tags to make things a little easier to find. I aspire to write longer more coherent pieces, but cannot sustain that weekly, and so perhaps a monthly or quarterly essay to give more time to go deeper into a topic. A projects page may help me find collaborators, or pitch ideas that I would like to see in the world (inspired by Kevin Lynagh). I’ve also been toying with a page dedicated to people I think should be on pedestals, and a page announcing my values, the few things I believe to be clearly “good” or “bad”.
Short version: This Black Friday weekend is a relevant time to attempt to press my thoughts on consumerism into a post. A revealing ONS data set about household spending. Also some thoughts on blogging and whales’ heart beats.
A note on structure
On top of a tangled set of thoughts about consumption, there was a lot of interesting content to read, listen to, and watch on this topic. The structure of this post suffered, and so if you’re just here to skim I suggest scroll down to the bottom and just check out Trends from the data and Whales’ Heart Beats.
I want stuff. Lots of people also want stuff. Often, if they can, they go out and buy stuff. This is a simple thought, but the many paths it leads down have been a tangle in my mind for some time. This post is an attempt to rectify the clash between the obvious value in markets and trade with the absurdity of waste (see the two videos below) in modern developed economies. This is highlighted by celebrations of consumerism that occur after Thanksgiving.
Chasers War on Waste
The true cost of fast fashion | The Economist
People want to be rich
I think it is reasonable to presume the overwhelming majority of people would like to have more money. Money provides security, safety, and freedom (and most of lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Casey Neistat points out that for a lot of people, money will solve all problems. although people with plenty of money still have problems.
This simple desire for material wealth gets complicated by how different that desire looks at different points of time. The majority of people in the developed world have access to goods and services that were restricted to only the most wealthy only decades ago. Advances in agriculture and medicine mean even the poorest citizens have access to goods like pineapples and penicillin that would have been unimaginable to emperors and kings of centuries past. This Louis CK bit makes light of changing expectations. That desire for newer and shinier at the expense of appreciation for what we already have is, in part, created by the desire for companies to grow their sales and profits. An array of narratives are pushed through advertising. A particularly disturbing yet powerful lie is that you can change who you are simply by owning something. The idea that you can be fitter/sexier/smarter by buying something, rather than by learning or growing, sells a lot of products, despite failing their buyers.
School of Life: History of Consumerism
Black Friday is a day of discounted selling by retailers following Thanksgiving Day, which is observed by shops throughout much of the world. Scenes of people rushing into stores and fighting over relatively cheaper items are symbolic of a period of significant spending by consumers as the end of the year, and particularly Christmas, approaches.
A lot of people work in retail. In Australia, it is 1.3 million, nearly 10% of the labour force. This is an enormous amount of human life dedicated to the mere act of selling things (1.8 Australian lifetimes is spent per working hour by the collective in shops, life expectancy in Australia = 82.5 years). Intuitively (and so simplistically as to be utterly inaccurate) this struck me as a waste of time, given retail exists as a middle man between producers and consumers. Of course in reality at points retailers make the entire system more efficient (for example by collecting fruit and milk in bulk and distributing it to stores in lieu of each consumer visiting a farm individually), but in practice profit incentives drive this enormous work force to motivate us all to consumer more.
One way consumption is driven is through pricing. The decision to purchase an item is in part determined by the price attached to that item. Commonly items are priced at X.99 rather than X+1, because that centipoint increase is far more psychologically significant than the additional profit. A further extreme of this is quantum pricing where fewer price points mean profit margins are obfuscated. The discounts of Black Friday create the perception that shoppers are saving money by buying things at a lower price than they would otherwise, combined with a false scarcity that this is the only time to buy. In reality most consumer goods depreciate rapidly so any future time is a better time to buy. Less scrupulous stores raise prices before the sales only to mark down to pre-sale prices. One clear sign of the power of this frenzied overconsumption is the willingness for people to take on debt to purchase luxuries. Loan Sharks take advantage of Black Friday pressures to consume.
Interesting observations from some actual data
A few weeks ago I came across the BBC series “My Money“, which takes individualsand looks attheir spending over a week. My fascination with how other people spend money stems from not having a good answer to “What is the appropriate/correct/optimal amount to spend on X”. There are intuitive answers to this, which is why spending £100 a week on cheese or £5 a quarter on electricity “feel” high and low, but that intuition is shaped by our relatively limited insight into other’s spending (likely dominated by our parents’ and partners’ habits) augmented by the media we consume, particularly the coercive forces of marketing.
I am consistently frustrated with the concept of normal. There are no “normal” people in the same way there is no way to roll 3.5 (the centre of the normal distribution for values) on a 6 sided die. This video featuring wrestler John Cena emphasises the difficulty in describing an “average” american. However discovering the UK’s Office of National Statistics collects and compiles data on household expenditure (among other things), and produces reports on the distribution of spending, provides data on where the distributions actually lie. I found exploring the data fascinating. I was particularly excited to find this data set breaking down typical weekly expenditure by item in pretty specific categories (e.g. “Cheese”, “Books”, and “Package Holidays – UK” are separate categories).
Here are some observations:
The big picture: income and expenditure
The distribution of incomes in the UK gives an insight into what households can actually afford.
The interactive graphic below gives insight into how the typical UK household spends (taken from this ONS report).
Trends from the data
A wealthier decile has more people per household.
Wealth increases steadily between the 2nd and 8th deciles, and sharply at both ends.
Overall spending trends
Spending in most product areas correlates with increasing disposable income on both a per person and per capita level.
Interesting specific spending trends
Food Poultry (strongly) and beef (weakly) correlate with increasing wealth, pork and lamb are flat across groups, and bacon and ham have a weak negative correlation.
Housing Poorer households spend proportionally much more on housing, making up 19.1 % of spending for the lower half of households, vs 11.1 % for the upper (I guess this is because of renting vs owning). This is after accounting for housing benefits to the lowest deciles.
Transport Transport spending is correlated with income, with a sharp increase in the top decile due to the purchase of new (presumably luxury) cars.
Clothes In the bottom three deciles women spend 2.5x more than than men on clothes, whereas that ratio is only 1.3x for the top decile. Only the top few deciles use drycleaning services.
Alcohol and Tobacco Spending on alcoholic drinks was correlated with income, but the trend was dominated by wine, while beer and spirits were fairly independent across the groups. Lower income deciles spent more per person on tobacco and other narcotics.
Health and Education Education (school fees) and sports subscriptions (gyms) correlated strongly with income.
Entertainment There is a hump like feature in the audio-visual equipment categories in the 6th and 7th deciles. Spending on hotels appears to have an exponential relationship with increasing disposable income.
Useful definitions from the ONS:
What is disposable income?
Disposable income is arguably the most widely used household income measure. Disposable income is the amount of money that households have available for spending and saving after direct taxes (such as Income Tax, National Insurance and Council Tax) have been accounted for. It includes earnings from employment, private pensions and investments as well as cash benefits provided by the state.
The five stages are:
1. Household members begin with income from employment, private pensions, investments and other non-government sources; this is referred to as “original income”
2. Households then receive income from cash benefits. The sum of cash benefits and original income is referred to as “gross income”.
3. Households then pay direct taxes. Direct taxes, when subtracted from gross income is referred to as “disposable income”.
4. Indirect taxes are then paid via expenditure. Disposable income minus indirect taxes is referred to as “post-tax income”.
5. Households finally receive a benefit from services (benefits in kind). Benefits in kind plus post-tax income is referred to as “final income”.
Note that at no stage are deductions made for housing costs.
Amusing group names:
While looking at consumer spending in the UK, I found the following categories that the ONS uses to divide UK residents. Some of them were incredulous to the point of being amusing.
Categories: Rural residents, Cosmopolitans, Ethnicity central, Multicultural metropolitans, Urbanites, Suburbanites, Constrained city dwellers, Hard-pressed living
Sub-categories: Farming Communities, Rural Tenants, Ageing Rural Dwellers, Students Around Campus, Inner-City Students, Comfortable Cosmopolitans, Aspiring and Affluent, Ethnic Family Life, Endeavouring Ethnic Mix, Ethnic Dynamics, Aspirational Techies, Rented Family Living, Challenged Asian Terraces, Asian Traits, Urban Professionals and Families, Ageing Urban Living, Suburban Achievers, Semi-Detached Suburbia, Challenged Diversity, Constrained Flat Dwellers, White Communities, Ageing City Dwellers, Industrious Communities, Challenged Terraced Workers, Hard-Pressed Ageing Workers, Migration and Churn.
Personal conflict: running tech
I like running, and improving my fitness more generally, I suppose because it helps me to self actualise. One of my personal weaknesses in fighting back against the commercial marketing machine has been in running tech. As such, I found this video from the New York Times both entertaining and helpful in realising the main thing I need to run faster is not a piece of equipment, but to simply run more and faster.
December blogging reflection
Lately I’ve been posting each week on Sunday come what may. There’s a pretty wide variance in how much time goes into each post, which is not always related to the quality of each post. Some topics I have a better understanding of before I start to write. Some observations are not insightful. Some posts go out unfinished.
Ideas vary in quality. Some ideas were probably not worth writing about at all, while others are so huge they could easily fill hundreds of pages. Not every idea is a good idea, and even a good idea poorly executed is not a good result.
Some topics deserve to be revisited, edited, improved, expanded etc. But writing in this weekly format is useful. Sometimes quantity results in quality. If I maintained a high expectation for each blog post I would write less, and my writing would not improve. Moreover in trying to write each week I am motivating myself to learn. I do hope to better organise myself in the next block of blogging (i.e. next year’s posts) to segregate space for tackling bigger topics less frequently, with a less structured more regular section.
As I was writing this post I received Peter Attia’s weekly email, describing his struggles with writing. It was extremely motivating to read words that felt so familiar they could have been my own. I would not wish insecurities on anyone, but it is deeply reassuring to be reminded those feelings are normal.
While on the topic of other writers; blogs I’d like to share: Econometrics By Simulation: interesting applications of statistical software. Beau Miles: Came across some of his films, the first content in a while to make me really miss Australia. Describes himself as “Award winning filmmaker, poly-jobist, speaker, writer, odd.”
Whales’ heart beats
A wonderful aspect of having scientists as friends is that they share exciting science with you that you would otherwise miss. One example is this paper about how the heart rate of blue whales changes as they dive for food. Their enormous hearts beat as slowly as two times per minute and as quickly as 37, which is about as fast as is physically possible. It also contains this informative figure, which I feel tells the story clearly and succinctly.
Short version: After attempting (and failing) to write a blog post each week for the past 6 months, I look back on those posts and reflect.
Identity and Expectation
A realisation occurred to me whilst thinking about the unfinished drafts for this blog. Fitness, particularly competitive fitness, is not a core part of my identity, and so it does not threaten my ego to post slow times on parkrun. By being comfortable running slowly, I run more, and in running more, I run faster. Being comfortable with being a slow runner makes me a faster runner. The ability to understand difficult concepts, and to communicate effectively, is a core part of my identity. This means being unable to understand difficult concepts, and being unable to write well, does hurt my ego. If I am insecure about these aspects, I read fewer scientific papers, I write fewer blog posts, and the result is I do not improve in these areas. The lack of progress makes me more insecure, and a cycle of procrastination begins.
The solution, therefore, is to be comfortable with not understanding, or in the case of this blog, to be comfortable writing poorly. The purpose I have identified, in attempting to write each week rather than each time I have something interesting or insightful, is a need to practice writing regularly, not a need to demonstrate the skill of writing. To be able to write more regularly, I need to stay true to that purpose, and not be swayed my the desire to be interesting, insightful, or demonstrate a level of skill I have yet to achieve.
With that in mind I post this unfinished, and hope to take time when I am up to date to examine the first 25 posts of 2019, and identify what I have done well, and what I need to improve on, as I focus my efforts on more regular content in the 26 posts to come.
Posts I liked:
The short summaries of papers from Week 8 was fun to write, but regrettably shallow. Although not a weekly blog post, I was happy with my comprehensive first race report. Writing about diet and alcohol had a real effect in my life; it made it easier to hold myself to my decision in the face of perceived social pressure. I got stuck for a while trying to write about video games, but overcoming that was useful to me in understanding my relationship with that form of entertainment. Week 15’s Minimalism felt reasonably cohesive.
Posts I did not like:
The most common mistake I see in my writing is the use of unnecessarily complex sentences. Phrases like “much of the time” instead of “often”. I would guess the reasons for this are 1) a lack of consideration and technique, 2) attempting to be precise for fear of being misunderstood and 3) an affectation in order to appear intelligent. Ultimately the goal of writing is to communicate. To be succinct first requires the ideas themselves to be coherent, and testing my ideas by attempting to write about them has helped me think more clearly. In a limited time, some ideas never become coherent, and the resulting posts are much weaker. For example, in Week 21 I didn’t understand my own conclusions about marriage or Romania, and so I feel the writing suffered. The book report in Week 7 was never written, and I cannot help but feel a tinge of shame when I think about it.
Minimalism is most simply the practice of attempting to minimise one’s possessions. Minimalism, and its popularity, is a response to the suffocating clutter many people experience. The cost of producing many items (clothes, appliances, toys) has fallen, and marketing to consume these items has become more prevalent and sophisticated, resulting in consumption beyond individual’s needs and capacity to manage possessions. Like many cultural phenomena, it is not merely a pragmatic solution to a problem, but also manifests as a set of values and an aesthetic (of which Apple Stores are an often cited example). Some of these are potentially problematic; A New York Times opinion piece opens with “[minimalism] has become an ostentatious ritual of consumerist self-sacrifice“.
My Experience with Minimalism
I have a natural urge to collect things. I inherited a sense of scarcity from parents who have escaped times of political upheaval. I detest waste, and find it easy to see potential uses for many items that ultimately I never use (scrap pieces of paper that might be handy to put down a note, packaging that might be used to carry something else someday, old electronics that I could strip for useful parts). The result is an ever growing collection of possessions that take both physical space and organisational time.
The mental problem I have with clutter is more significant. It is upsetting to wake up, and come home, to a growing pile of physical objects that correspond to tasks left undone. Books that would be nice to read, models it would be fun to build and paint, even an ever-thicker envelope of receipts that would, if analysed, give me insight into my spending habits (how much did I spend on cheese in 2017?). As this pile grows so does my sense that I am not in control of my life; if I were, wouldn’t I be able to get all these tasks done? “Maximalist” clutter becomes the physical representation of my poor time management and lack of drive. On each passing glance over this reminder, I am made a little more anxious, and my willpower is slightly sapped. Putting off those tasks trains the terrible habit of procrastination.
Minimalism provides an escape. By ascribing to the philosophy I am forcing myself through the discomfort of casting away what I perceive to have relatively low value. Through this I rid myself of the negative emotions that come from feeling out of control, and ultimately I find more time that is more comfortable. My first experience of this minimalist joy was moving to Oxford with only a suitcase of possessions. Suddenly, without distractions and incomplete projects surrounding me, I was more free to explore my new surrounds, to step up and tackle projects like this website.
Where I take issue with minimalism, particularly at the more extreme end (e.g. Fumio Sasaki’s), is the impracticality and expense. Ultimately you are outsourcing clutter to others, for example cooking and transportation. Food is a necessity. It is more affordable and often healthier if prepared from simple ingredients bought in bulk (e.g. flour, market vegetables). It is impractical to shop for food daily, and so storing groceries, the kitchen appliances needed to cook, and utensils to serve meals, are very practical anti-minimalist behaviours. Similarly while uber and bike sharing schemes can be convenient, owning and maintaining my own bicycle is cheaper and more pleasurable to ride.
Minimalist Book Report
I was given Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki for christmas in 2017, but only set aside time to read it while flying. In five chapters it summarises the authors experience in finding minimalisim, discusses the development of the problems he feels minimalism solves, lists tips on adopting a minimalist lifestyle, gives examples of ways in which minimalism has helped the author, and concludes with some brief notes on happiness. I found the individual experiences relatable, but the historical and philosophical arguments less compelling. The many short guides in Chapter 3, “55 tips to help you say goodbye to your things, and 15 more tips for the next stage of your minimalist journey” become repetitive, but I feel there is value in explaining the same concept in a number of different ways as different readers will find some phrasings easier to digest than others. Ultimately, minimalism has clearly benefited Sasaki and helped him find a coherent identity, and as such he provides useful advice to aspiring minimalists. The mix of quoted individuals in Chapter 4 (Steve Jobs, Einstein, Lao Tzu, Tyler Durden) reveal an attempt to put minimalism on a cultural pedestal that I find unconvincing. I am left feeling minimalism is a useful tool, but a shallow philosophy.
The face of minimalism, via her Netflix series, is Marie Kondo. Sasaki talks about Kondo’s influence on minimalism in his 2015 book, pointing out that her recent fame in the English speaking world was preceded by much earlier interest in Japan. Google trends supports this chronology. On the left in red, the search trends for 近藤 麻理恵 (Marie Kondo in Japanese) peak in December 2011 and May 2015, corresponding with the release of her book and being listed in the Time 100 most influential people respectively. Search trends for her name in English peak in January, with the release of her Netflix show.
Short version: This week is pretty heavy on personal reflection. I have struggled to keep in regular contact with friends, but recently have been improving. Some other thoughts on communicating, social media, and socialising in general.
Broadly, my priorities in life are 1. Maintaining good mental and physical health, 2. Relationships, 3. Science (my academic and career pursuits), and 4. Hobbies. Relationships are the area where I struggle most to allocate time effectively.
Having worked to stop setting unrealistic expectations in my academic pursuits, I can see the same harmful perfectionist tendencies in how I approach my relationships. I want all my interactions to be substantive, prompt, and to take up no time. This is simply not possible. Quick responses are necessarily glib. Writing something meaningful takes time and so cannot be prompt. This inherent time investment provides an excuse to delay, which breeds guilt at leaving messages piling up in a variety of inboxes. Then avoiding this uncomfortable guilt leads to avoiding the messages that ought to be a source of joy. In turn this means I set higher expectations on what I might communicate to make up for the ever growing delays. Occasionally I do set time for keeping in touch where longer phone calls or letters are produced, but these sporadic moments can end up being several months apart.
Not being able to exercise control over who I keep in touch with and when, I fall prey to biasing proximate interactions, even if they are less significant to me. This is exacerbated by finding it hard to say no, and generally being hungry for appreciation and approval. Thus these happenstance interactions can fulfil some of my social needs, whilst leading me to neglect people I would better enjoy sharing time with.
This week I’ve been reaching out to old friends, and it has been an anxious but rewarding experience. I’ve found with the people I’m closest to, months or even years go by and on meeting again we fall back into the same conversational flow as if it had only been a handful of days. I’d like to think this is the nature of strong relationships, though it is possible the causation is reversed; being poor at keeping in touch it is only people who hold relationships this way that I am able to successfully keep as friends. I do think that there is some underlying connection that is a source of mutual happiness and kinship, even if left dormant for an extensive period.
In short, these days it is rare that my truly closest friends are physically closest to me, and that has really revealed how important it is to take control of my social interactions. I think it’s worth noting as well that I’ve made very fulfilling connections here in Oxford, and that whilst my thinking can often be based around binary extremes, allowing circumstance to lead to making new friends is also incredibly rewarding.
Purpose: Facebook’s mission statement reads “Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” The world’s most popular social networking site has not handled its user’s data particularly well. I would intuit that with advertising as the main source of revenue for facebook, their internal focus is to get users to spend more time on the platform. That clash of purposes has become more clear as regulators become increasingly skeptical of tech giants, but I think there is also a clash of purposes in the minds of users, and therein lies the source of so much social media related unhappiness.
Addiction: This week Casey Neistat “quit” social media as he found “an hour and forty six minutes a day … a significant amount of my day is spent on that mindless scrolling”. I certainly have shared that sentiment, mostly regarding reddit. Endless scrolling is a bad habit I’ve mostly overcome, by taking note to myself of why I am looking at my phone or PC before I use it, and then to only use it for that purpose and put it away. Ultimately, as much as reddit can feed my curiosity, entertain me, and create a sense of community through comments, it is simply an aggregator of content that I would be better consuming from the source.
This blog began as a way to provide insight into me for prospective employers or academic mentors. Having happily found those relationships at ONI, it seems to have morphed into my place to share thoughts.
Keep in touch!
If this (or any one of my blog posts) sparks a thought you’d like to share, or if you think I’ve got something terribly wrong, or if you think there’s something I need to read/watch/listen to; start a conversation! You can leave a comment when viewing an individual post by clicking on the title of the post (I realise this is not at all intuitive and will think about a better way to make comments accessible). You could write me an email, or find me on facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or just find me and say hi!
Photos from the Week
Spring is bringing flowers to Oxford’s streets. I bought some cheese.
Short version: Writing accurately about science takes time, but a few bits to push in that direction. 新年快乐!
Writing About Science
I’ve noticed a lack of scientific content in my blog. Usually the week’s post is in the back of my mind throughout the week with a few notes in Google Keep. This week I started out early with a list of topics I’d like touch on, or even expand into, but by Sunday with relatively little progress and wanting to cover them in reasonable depth I’ve culled back significantly. At the moment my main motivation week to week in writing is to practice writing publicly, building confidence and prompting coherency in my thoughts. I would like to share insight, but presenting summaries of scientific work on interesting topics can very quickly grow into a lengthy task (e.g. Review Articles). Also, working full time in scientific research, often my weekend reading drifts into other fields, which then leads to less scientific blog writing.
My current context is filled with incentives to buy more stuff. One of the photos from the week is of a particularly expensive sports car that I passed on a run, and I feel that in sharing it I am participating in a culture that causes us to covet impractical luxuries. After all, given speed limits and traffic exist, it’s unclear what the purpose of owning a super car is beyond conspicuous consumption. That said, there is an aesthetic pleasure to be taken from such things.
Short version: Building good habits makes good behaviours easier. Australians find their history confronting. Green Tea seems to be good for you. Birds have social media in Sydney.
Habits, Mindfulness, and Technology.
At the start of 2018 I wrote “In short: learn, improve my routine, write more.” I’ve noticed on returning to work this year that habits which felt like hard work at the start of last year are coming much more easily. Building a good routine gradually, consistently, and trying to avoid self-flagellation when I failed, has yeilded bigger benefits than I anticipated. This has been most easily observed around physical and mental health, where I’m getting up ealier, feeling more energetic through the day, and getting more exercise in.
On the other side is a reminder how powerful bad habits are. In a vlog this week John Green spoke about discovering just how often he types reddit into a browser when he quit social media. I think handling technology that is driven by so many smart people working to grab more of our attention to sell more advertising, is hard. One way I’m going to work to improve my relationship with tech this year is to make sure I have a purpose each time I interact with it. The aim is see it and use it as a tool, rather than be guided by it to burn time.
Australian History: “Slavery by Other Means”
My friend Seb wrote two articles on Pacific Islander Labour in 19th and early 20th Century Australia. My intial response to this brutal chapter of Austalian history was to attempt to trivialise it. Thoughts like “not as bad as other slavery”, “life was harsh for everyone back then”, and “life as a labourer wouldn’t have been that bad”. I would guess these are responses to shield myself from feeling, be it empathy or disgust or guilt or simply sadness. I’m not sure if an emotional engagement with history is preferable to a clinical intellectualism, but I do think the tendancy to avoid discomfort in historical interest is harmful. The extemes are feeling so strongly we are paralysed or act irresponsibly vs being callous to injustices, but the best place to sit between the extremes is not clear to me. I think both the article and the general principle are worth consideration.
It seems like drinking Green Tea is pretty good for you. I think all nutritional science suffers from difficulties collecting accurate data from inherently unreliable test subjects, but a quick search of google scholar seems to come up with a compelling set of results. I’m convinced enough to be swapping out some of my coffees for the world’s most popular brew.
New Year’s Review and Resolutions: 2018 was a good year. Survived an intense year at ONI, ran a sub 90 half marathon, built good habits around personal reflection. 2019 I hope I’ll be better at keeping in touch with friends, prioritise tasks more effectively, and be more active in choosing what media to consume.
Blogging: Last year I managed 11 posts out of 52 weeks for a 21% success rate. This year I hope to do a little better by being happier with shorter posts rather than posting nothing at all (e.g. this one).
The short version:
I am too concerned with being seen as intelligent. I am actively choosing to care less about that. I’m back to blogging. Life is good.
The long version:
What do you really want?
Recently I was a visited by a former supervisor who was effective in calling me out on my self delusions. I worry too much about being seen as clever. I’m aware that this has caused me problems in the past, but in the present I am swayed by the short term pleasure of validation and sense of security I gain from feeling I’ve convinced others of my cleverness. Ultimately this is a futile and deeply wasteful aim. My supervisor reminded me, somewhat in the style of Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try”, that unless I commit to the choice to do something differently, I won’t change. I need to choose to stop caring if people think I’m clever or not. This is difficult for several reasons, 1. it is a deeply ingrained habit, 2. being seen to be clever seems to be important for being valued by an organisation, 3. it is part of my identity. I could replace it with an alternative value, being diligent, or capable. Preferably I would replace the concern with others opinion entirely with a drive towards a greater good, hence the question posed above. As far as I have been able to see through reflection, I am where I am today because of curiosity, competitiveness, and the need to be seen by others as clever. Removing the last of those leaves a gap that needs to be filled, and until a more specific goal materialises, I will roughly pencil in “make a good and meaningful contribution to the world”.
The eponymous ashtray refers to one sitting between my supervisor and I as we shared a dinner at the Turf Tavern, which was used as a metaphor for one’s comfort zone. Internally I bristled a little at the idea that I was uncomfortable going outside my “ash tray”; I feel my risk appetite is fairly high, and that I’m very willing to try new things. He was right though: I may be willing to travel to new places, or to try new foods, to meet new people, but having done those things before they were now within my ash tray. But ceasing my attempts to be seen a certain way was outside. He reminded me that you can always come back to your ash tray, and that is true too, making this choice now does not mean, if it turns out to have been the wrong one, I can never come back. The symbolism had the added benefit of making one’s comfort zone seem like an unhealthy and unpleasant place to stay.
It is difficult to fight our nature. We are social creatures, and to be ostracised by your community is a terrible, and much feared, fate. But vanity and narcissism, whether aesthetic or intellectual, are not the right paths to being included in a community. Respect and empathy are much more valuable both to oneself but also to the community as a whole. To this end, concerning yourself with projecting or accentuating certain aspects of yourself is actually counter-productive: its subtle dishonesty belies a lack of respect for one’s peers. Ultimately, as with most things, it is much easier to say these things than put them into practice.
This post comes approximately halfway through the year, and leaves a gap of approximately 18 weeks. It has been slightly painful to return to, or even think about, that delay as it has grown. As discussed above, I have a problem with being overly concerned about how people see me, and I would like to be seen as punctual, disciplined, consistent, and at the very least capable of maintaining a weekly blog. Unfortunately that is clearly not the case here, but at a certain point I ought to have given up on posting weekly in favour of the main aim of posting at all, which I enjoy. Further complicating this is that a blog is public one way communication; a tool of projecting (presumably desirable) aspects of oneself.
Structurally, I don’t want to let go of the weekly update structure, although it would put less pressure on weeks where time is in short supply. I’m going to experiment a little with creating more categories.
I’m writing from a train between Birmingham and Oxford. I’m very fortunate to have a sister early in her career as a musician, as it compels me to attend concerts I would otherwise have likely ignored. (You can hear her, and the rest of the orchestra, here.) I do enjoy them, and am learning that even though there is complexity to the pieces (and art more generally), my enjoyment of them need not be complex. I regret I don’t prioritise being better educated in music, but I believe that we ought not let the inability to engage in something fully prevent us from engaging at all, most obviously because we would not otherwise be able to try anything new!
I’m approaching the end of the first 6 months with ONI, and it has been an exciting, exhilarating, and exhausting experience. I am very lucky to be surrounded by interesting, intelligent, and most of all inspiring colleagues. Each day I feel I am growing both professionally and personally, and as such I suspect I am currently in the best place I could possibly be.
Health and Fitness:
Planning to run the Blenheim Palace and Oxford half marathons later this year, with a stretch goal time of under 90 minutes and a likely goal time of under 100 minutes. If I am able to dedicate myself to a training program 90 minutes might be achievable, but with running not being my highest priority the required training may be sacrificed in favour of professional and social commitments.
A happy thought about time:
I am coming to a happy place on the fact that I will always have more things I’d like to do in any given block of time than I can. I should not look sadly on all the things I let go or miss out on, but instead treasure the things I choose to do. This should help avoid escapist behaviours and that waste these precious moments.
Week in Summary
I was sick this week, the international presence in Oxford is wonderful for diversity of both ideas and rhinoviruses. I continue to take (Latin) dance classes, at the novice level it still feels (and no doubt looks) a little silly, but there is fun to be had in silliness. On Saturday I saw the Oxford Imps perform Improvised Cabaret at Modern Art Oxford. It was also a little silly, and it was certainly fun in its silliness. Life can sometimes be a little too serious, particularly in rigorous research, and they say laughter is good for the soul. On Sunday over brunch I learnt about container ships and efforts to commodify them.
Clark, D. (2016). Alibaba: the house that Jack Ma built. HarperCollins.
Sasaki, F. (2015) Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism Penguin
Thiel, P. A. & Masters, B. (2014). Zero to one: notes on startups, or how to build the future. Crown Pub.
Vance, A. (2017). Elon Musk. Editions Eyrolles.
Stone, B. (2013). The everything store: Jeff Bezos and the age of Amazon. Random House.
This post comes several weeks late. I was a little ill the actual week of this blog, and predominantly work has cascaded into time that I would otherwise allocate to writing. As such it comprises ideas that came together in Week 8 of 2018, but actually was published on Monday of Week 12 (blog catch up week).