2020 Week 18: Autonomy

This week I have had more autonomy in how I allocate my time at work. While I enjoyed the freedom, it also created expectations to perform. I might aspire to a stoic determination around ideas of “never complain, never give excuses”, but having actual excuses be removed increases the pressure I feel to deliver.

More Thoughts:

Caterpillars in Shotover

On the recommendation of a friend I ran in Shotover Country Park this weekend (see Photos from the Week below). The trails are well kept and soft under foot. There is a good variety of long steady climbs, short punchy climbs, and beautiful flat sections, great for all manner of training. There were also thousands of small (1 cm or so) caterpillars hanging from trees which I was inevitably coated in. Curious, I turned to the scientific literature and found a comprehensive description of this behaviour in the appropriately named journal Animal Behaviour. As it turns out, this is a defence mechanism to avoid predators (stink bugs and wasps). When the caterpillars detect the vibrations their predators make when hunting nearby, they dangle themselves from silk threads to escape being eaten. Interestingly they can differentiate the vibrations of wasps and stink bugs (two predators), and dangle further (30 cm) for wasps than the less adept stink bugs (only 10 cm of dangling). Not only did the study record and artificially replicate the vibrations caused by the predators to confirm this, they also measured that the extra dangling significantly increased survival in response to the wasps, but was not needed for the stink bugs. Science is awesome. Unfortunately for these caterpillars, the extra dangling also made them much more likely to become unwilling passengers on my run. Good pictures of them in this tweet.

Short Observations on Social Pressure

I remember being taught about peer pressure at school. Usually the intention was that if children are aware of what is motivating them to do something the teacher or parent thinks is negative, that they will be less likely to behave in that way. I would like to think that I’ve become more aware since I was a child, and yet peer pressure still nudges me to make bad choices. I was tagged in a run by a friend as part of a “5k for the NHS challenge”. He ran under 20 minutes and, being competitive, I wanted to beat that time. It is something that I feels possible, but would require a more intense change of pace than what seems reasonable given my current training. I really felt pressure, for about 10 days, to go out and try and run a sub 20 5k, which would have been a mistake. With other more significant pressures in my life at the moment, it is interesting to note that such a trivial (and well meaning) nudge to perform can cause such an emotional burden.

Of course the other side of this is that I was motivated to give £5 to the NHS. I have often been cynical about runners raising money for charity: the run seems so unnecessary, even costly, as the event costs could also go to the charitable cause. Fun runs do align with some causes, as exercise reduces susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, but in general it seems contrived to me. I must concede though, that had I not been nudged to donate via Strava, I would not have donated that £5. From this single point of data, it has been effective.

Stuff I’m reading at the moment

Measure What Matters by John Doerr, and Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz. I am hoping to get some summarised thoughts out soon.

Photo from the Week

2019 Week 39: Microwaves, Search, and Running.

Short version: I try and explain how microwaves work, I changed my search engine, and ran the Blenheim Palace half marathon.

Long version:

Microwave (ovens)

This week over a (reheated) dinner I tried to explain how microwave ovens work. It was a good reminder of the difficulties of discussing science; first in actually knowing the underlying science, then in communicating it to different people with different (unknown) levels of prior understanding. It was humbling to stumble between gaps in my understanding of a common household appliance and a failure to find the language to explain what I did understand. After refreshing myself on the physics, I try to explain again.

To start:
Microwave ovens convert electrical energy to heat, and are used for warming and cooking food. Other electrical cooking appliances (e.g. stoves, ovens, grills, toasters, and kettles) use the property that a flow of electricity heats the wire (conductor) it flows through. Microwaves make electromagnetic waves (like visible light or radio waves) in the microwave region of the spectrum (hence the name), which heat food (particularly water) as they pass through it. Conventional methods of heating food heat from the surface which gradually warms inwards, where as microwaves can heat food from the inside directly.

Assumed knowledge:
It is easy (and fun!) to get into a spiral of questions about what “heat”, “food”, “electricity” and “electromagnetic waves” are. More information about the parts of a system help build a foundation form where the combined system can be understood; it is hard to understand the science of cooking without understanding a little of the chemistry of what food is, or the physics of what heat is. Also seemingly unrelated knowledge can be useful; if how a musical instrument generates certain sounds is known, then the similar principles of resonant frequencies helps to explain how the microwaves are generated by the magnetron, another type of resonant cavity.

The best I can do:
Food goes in a metal box (a cavity) that stops microwaves escaping. Electricity (240 V AC mains) goes to a transformer that changes the voltage into two windings, a high voltage (approx 2000V) and a low voltage (approx 5 V). The lower voltage powers the user interface (e.g. the clock) and the higher voltage powers the microwave generator, called a magnetron. The magentron is a cylindrical vacuum cavity (closed metal tube with no air) where electrons are thrown off a central filament and travel to the outer walls. Strong magnets cause the electrons to travel along curved paths, and the cavity has spokes that extend from the outer walls most of the way towards the central filament. The spacing of these spokes and the strength of the magnets is tuned so that a specific frequency of electromagnetic radiation (microwaves) are generated by moving charger in the magentron, and these microwaves are guided by a metal tube (wave guide) into the larger cavity containing the food. The generated microwaves bounce around the cavity until they interact with water molecules (and sugars and some fats) in food to vibrate them. This is observed microscopically as heating.

A comprehensive explanation:
Can be found in this paper by Michael Vollmer. Also this video is a good guide.

Microwaves and super-res:
At the moment I work with super-resolution microscopes, which connects with microwave ovens in an interesting way: The grill that lets the user see their food being heated has holes (approx 1 mm across) that are much larger than the wavelength of visible light (approx 0.001 mm) but much smaller than the wavelength of the microwaves (approx 122 mm). Waves cannot “see” and object much smaller than the wavelength of the wave, called the “diffraction limit”. Thus the grill on the door of a microwave oven is “diffraction limited” from the perspective of the microwaves, in the same way that cellular structures can be “diffraction limited” from visible light. I am not sure if the equivalent optics exist for microwaves as in visible light, but it could be possible (though not particularly useful) to super-resolve structures using microwaves. Given microwaves are used in radar, perhaps such techniques are already used for detection of rain, birds, or aircraft.

Small Nudge to Search:

This week I changed my default search engine from google to google scholar.

This has had frustrating consequences; where as typically to find out where a place is, what tomorrow’s weather would be, or to play a song, I simply press the hot-key for a new browser tab and type what I want, that now gives me search results from the academic literature. There are no papers telling me if it will rain in Oxford tomorrow.

I do think this is a useful step. I’ve been reading a little about nudges, a concept linked to Richard Thaler. Changing the default search makes it slightly easier to do literature searches, and slightly harder to do general web searches, which I hope (and expect) will nudge me towards consuming better quality content.

Value-Action Gap

I came across the term “Value-action Gap“, which adds a technical but intuitive term where I would otherwise use the more judgemental “hypocrisy” or the more debater-jargon “principle consistency”. I like hearing opinions on why it is that people often act out of alignment with their beliefs, and am often surprised at my own capacity for cognitive dissonance.

Blenheim Palace Half Marathon

Slightly disappointed with my time, but it was a fun race. I will be adding a race report soon. Edit; I have now added the race report here.

Photo from the Week:

2019 Week 28: Notes, Hours, Kids

Short version: This week I returned to studying, worked some long hours, and had my usual running routes blocked by some very wealthy children.

Long version:

Taking Notes on Laptop vs Paper

I started a molecular biology MOOC. The beginning of the course suggested note taking on paper is more effective, and cited this study. It was persuasive, but I will continue to mostly work digitally. I justify this by the ease of carrying, organising, and searching digital notes being more convenient than paper systems. This reminds me of the observation that smart-phone-toting-always-online-humans are effectively cyborgs, with tremendous capabilities for memory, problem solving, and long distance communication. That said, I do find scrap paper to sketch diagrams very helpful in the initial learning.

Working Long Hours

There are many professions that are associated with working long hours; truck drivers, doctors, bankers, and the whole culture of Japanese salarymen. Of scientists, organic chemists seem to work particularly long hours, and anecdotally there is life in the Chemistry Research Laboratory no matter when I pass by. Working in an ambitious startup can involve challenging schedules; Elon Musk suggested in a tweet 80-100 hours are needed to “change the world”.

This week I performed some long experiments, and was complimented by colleagues on being able to sustain energy and remain positive throughout. On reflection I think maintaining good physical health (via exercise and diet) plays a significant part. Avoiding insulin spikes from binging sugar helps, even though appetite will increase during the small hours from sleep deprivation. Knowing how long you need to keep going and spacing caffeinated drinks across that time helps too. Importantly I have learned that some sleep is better than none. To prevent a heavy workload from becoming impossible; minimise unnecessary tasks and focus on completing only what is needed, then recovering (sleeping). Finally it is important to account for a diminished capacity when planning. As you tire speed of work decreases and rate of mistakes increases. Thankfully I am part of a very dedicated and supportive team, and so we are able to work together to ensure the experiments run to plan.

Flood of Children

The University of Oxford has prestige which, beyond the university itself, is used by businesses to create demand and profit. Tutoring school aged students is such a business. Summer programs run by groups unaffiliated with the university (but often using holiday vacated undergraduate accommodation) bring hundreds of teenagers to Oxford for courses costing thousands of pounds. The associated walking tours lead to pedestrian congestion as the children are shepherded around the city center (pictured below).

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 20: Podcasts

Short version: I regularly listen to podcasts and articles, and this week “Jocko Podcast” entered my regular rotation.

Long version:

Podcasts and constant stimulation:

The world feels very information dense. From a notepad sized device we still refer to as a “phone” despite rarely using it to make telephone calls, I can access more content than can be physically stored in any library in the world. Anywhere in the developed world where people might be waiting, taking a break, or even simply walking down the street, you can see people turning to this incredible network of information sharing. That creates both a pressure and a desire to consume more information, more stimulation, when performing less intellectually intensive tasks. When performing household chores, routine cleaning in the lab, or taking gentle runs, I tend to put my headphones in and listen to a podcast. This is what I listen to.

The Economist

The main place I get news and current affairs. Factual, dense, and in a weekly format that prioritises significance over promptness. When I debated in high school and university, The Economist was frequently the recommended reading. Had I gotten into the habit of reading it towards the start rather than end of my debating career, I suspect I would have performed better for it. I particularly enjoy the different levels of coverage, from the one or two sentence summaries in “The world this week”, through the summarised articles in “Leaders”, and then the in depth coverage in regional and topical sections.

Nature Podcast

Technical, detailed, and yet presented in an entertaining manner, the Nature Podcast has been an enjoyable way to hear about research highlights across the sciences. It is also humanising to hear the actual voices of the authors of scientific papers. It can be easy to forget that those scientists are relatable, mostly normal people.

Freakonomics Radio

I enjoyed the books by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, and the podcast follows a similar format. Particularly memorable episodes include:

How to Get More Grit in Your Life (Ep. 246), which led me to read Angela Duckworth’s book, which in turn helped me to overcome my obsession with cleverness and talent and focus more on getting things done.

The Upside of Quitting (Ep. 42), which helps me remember the problems of sunk cost.

Are We in a Mattress-Store Bubble? (Ep. 251), as I have occasionally wondered how there seems to be a proliferation of certain stores, I found this episode particularly amusing.

Should We Really Behave Like Economists Say We Do? (Ep. 207), where producer of the podcast Greg Rosalsky attempts to live an economically rational life, with notably poor consequences.

Jocko Podcast

Since discovering the Jocko Podcast while in Australia, I have binged on the Jocko Podcast, listening to the first 50 episodes at time of writing. I have long aspired to master personal discipline, and Jocko is a fairly accomplished mentor. His daily picture of his watch, rising before 5 am each day to exercise, is inspiring. The historic readings he chooses seen through his personal experience of war give me a strong sense of appreciation for the safety and freedom I enjoy every day.

Other podcasts I listen to sometimes:

BBC Radio 3’s The Essay (my default playlist on the speakers in the lab is a concert from Radio 3). In particular I enjoyed the series on fictional forests and Contagious Cities.

ABC Radio’s Hack is a current affairs program targeted at youth and young adults, that I would often hear on actual FM broadcasts in Australia.

TED Radio Hour on NPR edits TED talks into podcast format, and is an interesting way to be pushed into an area I might not usually interact with.

BBC Newshour before I had access to the Economist podcast, Newshour was my go to news in audio form. Occasionally I still listen to get more up to date news, or to hear from a correspondent.

Savage Lovecast talk back radio format, occasionally with guests, offering advice on sex and love. In a world with a sometimes divisive plurality of sexual identities, it is pleasantly unifying to see the common struggles we all face.

Athletes Unfiltered inspiring stories of (predominantly) runners and cyclists. I find listening while hanging out laundry makes me eager for the next opportunity to get on the bike or into my running shoes.

More Perfect has my favourite episode of any podcast, telling the complex and surprising story of gun law in the United States of America. The more recent episodes have had less of an impact on me.

Joe Rogan Experience I find many of Joe’s guests entertaining, but the tendency towards fringe content makes listening feel more like a guilty pleasure than gaining knowledge.

Podcasts I haven’t listened to but have been recommended several times

Photos from the Week

2018 Week 2: What is your biggest failure?

This was my first week at ONI and it was great. The team is brilliant, and represents almost as many countries as it has people. In my previous job, as in this one, a personal blog is not the place to discuss the specifics of work (that might be commercially sensitive), but it is an exciting and satisfying environment to be in.

I’m on a 14 day streak for Chinese on duolingo. I first heard about duolingo from the TED talk of Luis von Ahn, which is probably a little dated, but certainly interesting from a “history of crowd sourcing” perspective. Notably it seems to have grown to be much more about learning languages than translating the entire internet, which is not to say crowd-sourcing has been unsuccessful (see Niantic and PokemonGO). Freakonomics did a podcast about how (financially) valuable it is to learn a second language,  talking with Albert Saiz who wrote a paper. In short, it’s not particularly valuable, unless the second language you’re learning is English.

Before we get serious I’ve discovered a guy here called Chris McIntyre writes a weekly email called “Interesting Things I Come Across” and it lives up to its name.

There are some questions that seem to come up in interviews no matter the position or experience. Having a concise answer to “Tell us about yourself” or “why do want the position”.  One I found difficult is “What is your biggest failure”, and in answering it over and over I’ve started to make sense of it. My failure is quite literal. I failed a number of subjects during my studies at University. Specifically 8 discontinues, 6 absent fails, and 3 fails, from 2014 to 2016. It still stings to look that up, and look at a rather large hole in an otherwise reasonably good transcript. I’m still afraid to admit it.

For most of my life I held the foolish belief that it was impossible for me to burn out. I thought that I was intelligent, but lazy. I relied on the “Panic Monster” to push through days without sleep so I could start a term’s project a couple days before the deadline. I remember explaining the reason I had so overwhelmingly over-committed myself was that “I could never have the discipline to do things gradually over time, but I always managed to scrape through, so the best way to be efficient  was to do lots and lots of things”. These beliefs were so core to how I saw myself that eventually when I did burn out, it was took me 3 years to finally accept and change these unhealthy views.

Thankfully I’ve since learned that I, like most, do not have an unlimited capacity for pressure. That I do need rest. That being smart is not all that matters. That talent is important, but consistent application of effort over time counts twice as much. Perhaps most important of all, that it is OK to ask for help.

That’s an imperfect summary, but it is certainly a good place to start.

Written (mostly) from the Oxford Hackerspace.