2019 Week 26: 6 Month Review

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.

Long version:

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.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 15: Minimalism

Short version: I’ve been getting into minimalism lately. On the flight back to Oxford I read Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki.

Long version:

Minimalism

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.

Marie Kondo

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.

Photo from the Week

Sunset over Kingsford Smith International Airport

2019 Week 11: Communication

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.

Long version:

Personal Reflection

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.

Social Media

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.

Blogging

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.

2019 Week 6: Happy Chinese New Year

Short version: Writing accurately about science takes time, but a few bits to push in that direction. 新年快乐!

Long version:

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.

Chinese New Year

新年快乐!(Happy Chinese New Year!) It is the year of the pig.

Some Hopefully Useful Scientific Content

Stuff I read this week

There is an annual report into happiness. Nature celebrates women behind the periodic table. Google is developing a timber high rise in Toronto. Economic downturn improves health (particularly smoking and obesity). NHS has some simple to follow gym-free workouts particularly neck, back, and knee. Drones being used to poison rats on the Galapagos, possibly targeting Possums in New Zealand next.

A thought on Consumerism

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.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 2: Habits and Goals

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.

Long version:

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.

Green Tea

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.

Social Media for Birds (and Science)

Picture of the week is an Australian white ibis or Bin Chicken. Noticable is the yellow tag, which lets you know his name is Wazza. You can help him (and research) out by posting on social media for wing tagged birds.

Writing from home.


2019 Week 1: New Year

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).

Some Travel Photos:

2018 Week 26: Going beyond your ashtray

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.

Blogging:
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.

Music:

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!

Life Updates:

Science:
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.

2018 Week 8: Science Blogging

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.

Science Blogging
Further inspiration to keep on blogging came recently from Nature, and highlighted a couple of great blogs: DoctorAl (a biologist at Wilfrid Laurier University) and Scientist Sees Squirrel (an ecologist at University of New Brunswick). Another scientist to cross my news feed is the incredibly inspirational  Dr Emma Pooley.

Reading List
One of my goals for 2018 is to read 24 books. At that rate I ought to have finished four by now, however I have yet to finish even one. Instead I’ve been consuming: Instant MessagesReddit, Forums, Academic PapersWikipedia, The Economist, and occasionally The New York Times (thanks to a free subscription courtesy of the google local guides program).

Currently the books on my desk are:

  • 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.

Delays


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).

 

Writing from the office.

2018 Week 6: Overdue

I’ve broken a relatively short streak of regular Sunday blog posts. A (self imposed) stressful week at work and a (wonderfully) socially packed weekend left little time for personal, let alone public, reflection. Nevertheless regular writing is a habit I am trying to cultivate, hence the following:

Asking for help
The main lesson from work this past week is to ask for help. When you find you need it, delaying for fear of “looking incompetent” is foolish. Worst case you need to solve it by yourself any way, likely case you at least notify others that there may be an issue, and best case you save a lot of time and learn something in the process. The perceived hit to the ego and reputation is much smaller than the actual cost, which is likely to be paid anyway if the problem is one where you are really stuck.

Hamilton and Headphones
I was incredibly fortunate to see the the musical Hamilton in London this weekend. I had seen Lin-Manuel Miranda perform at the white house poetry jam via YouTube, and had enjoyed sharing the hip-hop meets history video with friends as an example of an unexpected combination (often alongside Beat-boxing video-game themed flute). A frightening first impression had me wishing my life, like Hamilton’s, depended on my work such that I’d be able to pursue it with more energy, but eventually it was pointed out to me that this would not be a healthy incentive. The take home messages for me are to be cautious about pride standing in the way of reason, and to consider where to draw the line on ambition. Also, experiencing narratives is valuable, as is writing more.  The next day, exploring the lyrical complexity of the Broadway recording, it struck me how incredible the advancements in technology are that make live performance the rarity rather than the mainstay of modern music. Particularly in combination with mobile internet and streaming services, that so much content was so readily accessible to me, where once no monarch let alone man would have such a repertoire at their beck and call.

Gardens and Games
The featured image for this week comes from the Oxford Botanical Garden greenhouses. Coming from a warm country, it was comforting to be amongst heat, humidity, and horticulture. I also enjoyed playing Avalon and Tsuro for the first time, Avalon reminded me a lot of Mafia and Tsuro is a more confrontational form of Snakes and Ladders.

Writing from the office

2018 Week 3: What is nano

Career
I’ve answered the “So what do you do?” question a couple times this week, and the answer I’ve been giving has been “I do research for a start-up that makes microscopes”. More specifically, they are super-resolution microscopes, the development of which won Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell, and William E. Moerner the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. If you’re feeling confident about science their lecture  is a good place to gain an understanding, and if not perhaps the next few paragraphs will help out.

Nano
There is a joke amongst academics that the difference between micro and nano is more funding. The joke plays on the prefixes we use to describe units being somewhat arbitrary. We know we could just as easily refer to 100 nm as 0.1 μm, but they don’t. If you didn’t feel part of the “we”, let me try and include you:
Intuition of scale is limited to what we experience. We can demonstrate this with a thought experiment. Imagine an object (I’ll pick apples) and it is easy to visualise the difference between one, two, and ten. Similarly slicing the imaginary apple we see that a whole, half, and tenth are increasingly smaller portions. Our imagination starts to struggle as we keep adding 0s (changing the order of magnitude) to the quantity. You might picture 100 apples as a rather large pile, but not be quite so sure what 1000 or 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 apples would look like, beyond “lots”. Similarly it becomes harder to imagine how small 0.01 or 0.001 or 0.0001 of an apple is, beyond “a speck”. Unless you are really familiar with large or small quantities of apples, your intuition, like mine, probably goes from about 1/100 (a tiny bit of apple) to 1,000 (a rather large amount of apples), or 5 orders of magnitude. We could express this with the typical metric prefixes by saying 1 centiapple to 1 kiloapple.
Generally we do better with length: a human hair has a width of about 100 micrometres (sometimes called microns, the same micro that gives us microscopes), which is 0.000100 metres. The height of the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa) is 830 metres, and we can probably push a little further: looking from the top of it the furthest we could see would be about 100,000 metres away. This translates into an intuition spanning 9 orders of magnitude, which is convenient as the prefix “nano” expresses being 9 orders of magnitude smaller than the unit length. In this example the number of hairs you could fit side-by-side along 100 km is the number of nanometres in one metre. This number is more commonly called a billion, which Neil deGrasse Tyson plays with in this video. So “nano” is just a shorthand used to quickly get us down to a very small scale. You can explore that more in these two visualisations (I highly recommend you do).
The reason that nano is so exciting is that two important processes happen on that scale, and both allow you to be reading this blog. The first is that the fundamental building block of the computer, the transistor, can be fabricated on the nanometre scale. The second is the fundamental building block of you, cells and their constituent proteins and DNA, exist on the nanometer scale. We typically measure the width of individual atoms in the unit “ångströms”, which is 0.1 nanometers, and so an understanding at the nanoscale is an understanding of physical space at the smallest scale that “structure” (as we typically mean it) make sense. Smaller than the nanometer, we enter the entirely unintutive world of quantum. So, a complete mastery over the nano-scale would translate into a mastery over biology and materials science, going well beyond what current science fiction and futurism could suggest. To work at that scale requires a way to see what is going on, and super-resolution microscopy is one such way of looking.

Lessons from Failing: Potential vs Effort
Last week I wrote a little about failing. It would be painful and unhelpful to revisit my failures every week, but I do hope sharing might prevent someone repeating the mistakes. At a minimum, by consolidating my thoughts publicly I prevent my tendency to avoid asking for help.
Working through my own failing, Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit”  was particularly helpful. A major theme is that our culture celebrates talent instead of the hard work that goes into achievement, when the effort is more significant. I suspect I was particularly vulnerable to glorifying potential (in my case I called it intelligence) because as a child I was told I was intelligent, and that became core to my identity. In turn I came to believe I shouldn’t need to work hard, because “innate” intelligence should be effortless. In fact if you hear “young Nick works really hard”, you might quietly assume focus is being drawn to effort because of a lack of talent which would be needed to achieve. It is very satisfying to think about all the opportunities talent might bring, but all the opportunities in the world are meaningless if there is no application towards any one of them.
In defeating this belief as a mathematics tutor I used the example of genetic potential for athletic feats. Often you hear children (and adults) proclaim (sadly with pride) that they are “bad at maths”. As if they somehow lack the biological machinery to do sums. The problem is they experience a false comparison, between themselves and those who have been consistently applying effort over time. It is easy to assume talent is what explains achievement when the effort is so rarely public and further hidden by being spread little by little over a long time. Compare the more intuitive idea that an obese person is not necessarily “bad at running”, but severely under-trained. They may have the genetics to set a world record, but if they turn up to the track as they are the results would suggest they are incapable of performing. Moreover if they try and perform at the level of those who turn up week in, week out, it will be a physically painful and socially humiliating experience. It is only through consistent training, gradually moving through incremental progress, that we can see underlying talent. More than that, outside of the most competitive arenas it is training rather than genetic talent that makes all the difference to performance. I feel it is also worth noting here, though it doesn’t fit quite so well, that it is setting out to make small amounts of progress and achieving it that snowballs into love of an activity. If the bar is set unattainably high, the positive reinforcement, and pleasure, from succeeding does not occur and motivation eventually collapses.
In short, in a culture where we celebrate the smartest, the fastest, or your other superlative of choice, it is important to realise that actual success in life is not about having the most potential, but it is about what you do with however much you have.

Structure
It was pointed out that this blog lacks structure and/or cohesion. At the moment the main “goal” is to create content, largely to refine my own thinking and share it with friends, family, and colleagues. To that end the unifying theme has been merely “what have I been thinking about this week”. Eventually a more meaningful structure may evolve, or I may consolidate topics spread over several weeks into a more structured format or section, but for now take it as the digital equivalent to sitting down with me over a beverage of choice and having a chat.

Writing from the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford