2020 Week 7: Curfew

This week, in several situations, I ran out of time. By not setting end times for experiments, training sessions, or social occasions, I find myself realising on reflection that I regularly continue longer than would have been optimal. Of course the future is unknown, but making an estimate of how much time I ought to spend before I start, and then evaluating the situation once that time has elapsed, should help me to fit more into each day. This week’s longer post on productivity is highly relevant.

Things I wrote this week

I finished a set of thoughts on how to get more life into the fixed amount of time each day, i.e. productivity. Eventually I’ll reorganise the homepage of this website to have pages dedicated to a few significant topics, and I suspect productivity will be one of them.

Things to share this week

Atmospheric Optics collates visual phenomena that occur due to the spontaneous formation of optical systems in the sky, a common example being rainbows. Thinking about ice halos reminds me of X-ray crystallography, perhaps the most famous example being Photo 51.

Emma Stoye of Nature collated scientific photos from January, including the tracks from the head-crab like robots I shared a couple weeks ago.

The UK brought forward its ban on cars that burn hydrocarbons to 2035, some good news for the climate. I suspect unrelatedly, Telsa shares broke $1000 (and continue to be the centre of reddit shenanigans).

Artist Simon Weckert walked around with a cart full of smartphones to trick google maps into plotting non-existent traffic jams. Whilst I find google maps traffic useful on the rare occasions when I drive, I find the “performance” of having a bright red cart full of smartphones intruding into live updating maps a cute reminder of the difference between reality and abstractions.

Photos from the week

2019 Week 48: Consumption

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.

Consumerism

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

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 individuals and looks at their 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

General trends

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.

Statistical definitions

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.

From Effects of taxes and benefits on UK household income: financial year ending 2017 via ONS

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.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 44: Migrants

Short version: Thoughts prompted by recent news about migration. Some very brief notes on nutrition and technology news.

Long version:

Migrants

Content warning: if you’re having a bad day, maybe skip this one:

Context
Since it was revealed that the 39 people who died in a refrigerated lorry container were Vietnamese nationals attempting to illegally enter the UK, I’ve been thinking a lot about migrants. There are a number of things to unpack here, and I find it hard to tell if I am more hesitant because I lack expertise on the topic, or I find the exercise emotionally confronting.

Scale
I have written about how data can be unsympathetic. Just as mass shootings are powerful examples of a larger gun violence problem, so too are the 39 dead migrants a shocking but statistically small part of a much larger issue. The missing migrant program attempts to track data, and in 2016 there were 39 fatalities every two days for the entire year. These recent deaths make up a small fraction of the 2,589 total for 2019 so far.

Emotions
In some ways the idea of sneaking into the United Kingdom in a truck with 38 other people is utterly alien, and in other ways it is entirely relatable. The tension between those extremes creates some difficult emotions. I am a migrant, as are my siblings, my parents, most of my friends and colleagues. I know the desire to go to foreign lands to seek out opportunities, to live a more comfortable life, but only from a position of immense privilege where I take little risk in fulfilling those desires. Meanwhile I owe my existence to my parents who fled difficult times in the lands of their birth.


I found the following image most disturbing:

The last message from Pham Thi Tra My, 26, was sent to her family at 22:30 BST on Tuesday – two hours before the trailer arrived at the Purfleet terminal from Zeebrugge in Belgium.
Her family have shared texts she sent to her parents which, translated, read: “I am really, really sorry, Mum and Dad, my trip to a foreign land has failed.
“I am dying, I can’t breathe. I love you very much Mum and Dad. I am sorry, Mother.”

From BBC article Essex lorry deaths: Appeal to Vietnamese over victims’ identities

Pham Thi Tra had a smartphone, just like mine or yours. A piece of technology that could connect her with nearly any human on the planet. She could communicate with her parents half the world away from that refrigerated container, but could not call someone meters away to open it, to save her life and the lives of her fellow travellers. In a globally connected world she could trivially access so much information, and she decided the dangerous journey to the UK was worth the risk.

Justice
I am conflicted. Laws restricting migration that mean desperate people risk their lives to cross borders in such dangerous ways. These laws seem to exist to protect my quality of life and privilege at the expense of opportunities for others. I believe human beings should be of equal value be they born in Hanoi or Hobart, but the harsh economic reality is they are not. It seems unjust that laws exist to prevent them from pursuing the same quality of life, however if I were given the opportunity to open all borders around the world, I would hesitate. I do not know what such a world would look like, for example people might rush towards centers of wealth only to be crushed by competition with one another for those opportunities.

Some other unstructured thoughts about migrants:

Language:
The words we use around migration is not trivial. We tend to call wealthy migrants expats, (short for expatriate), compared to the derogatory connotations of “immigrant”. In Australia “asylum seekers” are often connected to “boat people“, perhaps in comparison to aeroplane people?

IOM Publications
Photos by Amanda Nero gave me some more insight into the camps around Calais. They also produce comprehensive reports.

Migrants Make Things Better
McKinsey and the UN conclude some significant positive effects of migration.

Australia
Australia has shockingly hypocritical views on immigration for a country overwhelmingly populated by non-native peoples. Some data on migration flows in Australia.

Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN)

I’m taking vitamin D supplements this winter, due largely to this pretty long report about vitamin D which feeds into the NHS recommendation. I would like to research and write in more detail about the authors and research behind such reports, but considering what is Changing My Mind, the authority of the government, academic, and health care institutions linked to the SACN reports is convincing.

Technology News

Science Fiction Settings:
Blade Runner was set in November 2019.

Asthma:
The NHS is thinking about the carbon cost of different inhalers.

Starcraft
AI is getting good at StarCraft II.

Google Buys Fitbit
The press release from Fitbit. Engadget article. DCRainmaker blog post. 2 billion dollars is a lot of money, but it is substantially less than the peak of Fitbit at nearly 10 Billion shortly after its IPO (see chart below). It doesn’t feel that long ago that Fitbit acquired Pebble, a maker of e-ink smart watches and a rarely successful kickstarter project.

Historic Market Cap of Fitbit

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 43: Big Things

Short version: A few big things to talk about; nuclear war, bribes, engineered environments, mistakes, and courses.

Long version:

Big Problems

In Oxford I enjoy meeting people passionate about studies I might not have otherwise ever considered. This week I was introduced to ALLFED, a group who spend their time working out how to feed the population who survive a nuclear war. In the current political climate it can be both frightening and paralysing to think the fate of billions rests on the whim of a few individuals. Knowing some out there are trying to be prepared give me confidence that humanity can survive its own incredible destructive power. This work fits under the umbrella of Effective Altruism, which is persuasive (I have a few friends who are strong proponents) but also complex.

Big Presents

There is a common understanding that bribery is wrong, but it is not immediately obvious why. The answer I seem to find is that the central issue of bribery is when a person is able to take an advantage for themselves (the bribe) in exchange for acting against the external interests they represent (e.g. the university in the case of a college admissions administrator). Some examples:

This year a scandal broke regarding admissions to US colleges, where coaches were bribed to select students without athletic ability on an athletic basis. At face value the harm here appears to be a violation of meritocratic principles; students ought be selected on their talent rather than the wealth of their parents. In fact generally wealthy parents are able to have their students attend top universities despite their academic or sporting ability, via large donations to universities. The wrong here comes from the coaches personally profiting from the student’s admission, rather than the university itself.

In China large gifts were given by banks to politicians, and in Australia political donations by banks have been scrutinised, while the volumes of donations in the US are much higher. Cash donations, crystal tigers, coffee; for politicians these rarely come without strings attached. A journalist buying coffee or even a meal in exchange for an interview seems natural, a company paying a politician to be awarded a contract is graft. In between these, it is difficult to work out where courts or courts of public opinion ought to draw the line.

Big Artificial Environments

People have managed to make some incredible changes to their environment. This week The Wave opened in England, an artificial lake that generates artificial waves so that people can surf. There is also warm weather skiing on plastic and the more extreme indoor ski slope cooled to negative temperatures in hot Dubai. The football world cup will required air conditioned stadiums. All this gives hope that technology can repair the damage we are doing from burning fossil fuels, but also these feats of engineering require enormous amounts of energy themselves.

Big Mistakes

In my reading about health, smoking seems to be the worst decision a person can make. This week I saw some calculations about how smoking is a terrible financial mistake, in addition to the health costs.

Big Classes

This week I finished a Massive open online course (MOOC) on statistics, making it the first online course I’ve completed. Previous attempts, such as the biology course I started in Week 28, have been derailed by lack of interest or energy. I was particularly reminded of the importance of working in your Zone of Proximal Development by this line of mathematics.

Depending on your familiarity with logarithms, this may either appear indecipherable or trivial. I particularly remember encountering logs around the age of 15, and it being the point in my mathematical learning where maths stopped being intuitive. It was confronting to not find the subject easy. Unfortunately I couldn’t see or be shown how pushing past that initial discomfort would lead to valuable personal growth, and I moved away from mathematics to subjects I “felt I was better at”. I think the feeling of being overwhelmed, of being stuck, drives many people away from opportunities to grow and empower themselves, and it is a feeling I am still striving to become more comfortable with.

Photos from the week

Dry Ice Fog for Halloween

2019 Week 38: Food Miles and Mental Health

Short version: I ate an apple, which got me thinking about climate change. I’ve also been talking about mental health. Purdue went bust. Not every article with 300 citations is novel.

Long version:

Climate Economics: Food Miles

I was eating an apple, here in Oxford, and discovered from the oft mocked apple sticker that it had been grown in an orchard in New Zealand (on the other side of the planet). This struck me as a problem; surely the fuel in transporting food around the world is an externality contributing to climate change. I wanted to know the specific quantity of fuel burned to make this possible, and found this study from New Zealand university Lincoln that claims there is a smaller climate impact from consuming New Zealand apples in the UK compared with local ones. I am sceptical, and will hope to follow up on this in a later post, but the data is summarised in table 7.3 on page 72. Summarising and converting the units to equivalent millilitres of Diesel burned we get:

Equivalent Fuel Burned
(diesel in mL) per apple (assume 100 g) for
:
NZ ApplesUK Apples
Direct energy consumption at orchard15.679.4
“Chemicals” e.g. fertiliser pesticides12.917.6
Shipping (NZ) and “Cold storage” (UK)65.244.8
Total93.7141.8

So New Zealand is much more efficient at producing apples (about 5x less energy per apple is needed at the orchard), which largely corresponds to better yield per area of land (at 50 tonnes vs 14 tonnes of produce per hectare in New Zealand and the UK respectively), but also is due to better use of renewable electricity generation in NZ (particularly hydroelectric, wiki links to UK and NZ). This energy difference is almost entirely closed by the fuel used in shipping, but the use of “cold storage” of apples in the UK emits a further 44.8 mL equivalent diesel burned.

In short, the study suggests that fresh apples in the UK cause the same emissions per apple as New Zealand apples shipped to the UK, but if the apples are kept in refrigerated storage then the UK apples have a worse impact on the climate.

One notable thing from this exercise is that when you buy a 20p apple at Tesco, you are also paying for about 15p of diesel that was burned to get it from the tree to you.

Climate Change

This week’s Economist cover is a graphic that describes the warming climate. Meanwhile this photo article from the Guardian (also this week) hit me emotionally. The climate is changing, and the effects are disturbing. Currently my approach is very ivory tower: observing and considering, but not actively campaigning. I have friends who are much more active in Green Political Parties and movements like Extinction Rebellion. I think it may be time to explore similar options. I could blog each week about climate change in an attempt to raise awareness, but I would be very surprised if any of my readers were unaware of the issues?

Mental Health

Last week my friend Jessy shared some insight from her time answering a crisis hotline (read on facebook or linkedin). At work we now have staff trained in mental health first aid. It is good to see mental health issues lose their stigma, even if it is a gradual process. I thought someone might find things I do to maintain good mental health useful.

Mental Health Tool kit
(or “Things I do that I think help me mentally”)
Have a plan: Be enrolled in a health care program, have a GP, speak to them about mental health. Know services in your area. Have hotlines in your contact list. (If you broke your leg or developed an odd growth you would know what to do, what if you broke your mind or developed an odd pattern of thoughts?)
Reflect: Write things down to get them out of your head. Write a couple words about how you feel each day somewhere. Notice if something keeps coming back. Even just putting information somewhere else helps me relax that I won’t forget it, so I can let it go even briefly.
Exercise: Match the mental stress with physical stress, release endorphins. “Get out of your mind by getting into your body”. Do something that makes you sweat for 10 minutes. Endorphins make you feel better. Matching the physical stress to your mental stress helps align how you feel. If you are physically worn out, you will sleep.
Sleep: Get good sleep. Put distractions far away. Passing out from alcohol is not sleep.
Eat Clean: Sugary oily foods (fast foods) taste great but make you feel terrible. You also know that they are bad for you so you feel guilty. Eating well makes you feel better.
Control: Organise your room. Go somewhere you want to (ideally under your own power like walking or cycling). You have so much freedom and power. Remind yourself of this by using it.
Breathe: Slow your breathing. Count four on the way in, hold for four, count four on the way out, hold for four, repeat until you don’t remember how long you’ve been trying this.
Mindfulness: Take some time to practice mindfulness (this is a skill that I can’t explain in a couple sentences, but I’d recommend trying the free sessions on Headspace).
Unplug: Go offline. You don’t need technology to survive. Switch off. Leave smart devices behind. Even leave your watch behind to lose track of time. Just be.

Purdue Pharma

On Monday Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy. Opiates are incredibly useful and powerful drugs, but are also addictive. The US over prescribed them, peaking at 81.2 prescriptions per 100 persons in 2010-2012. Those prescriptions and subsequent addictions and addiction related deaths are linked to the marketing of OxyContin in many lawsuits against Purdue Pharma. For a humorous take on a dire situation, see John Oliver (April 2019).

Quirks of Academia

A high school student in Australia recently published in a mathematics journal, and it made the news. I have read some slightly bitter comments along the lines of “so what”. There is a lot of pressure inside academia to publish papers (a metric of performance) and seeing a relatively simple result gain media coverage can inspire envy.

Tumbling down the rabbit hole led me to this (now defunct) blog, poking fun at Mary M Tai’s paper and claim to have developed a new method for finding the area under curves. That method may actually be over 2000 years old. That paper has 363 citations today (another metric of academic performance). I found this funny.

Photo from the Week

Some late nights in the lab have let me share runs with the wildlife of Oxford.