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.

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

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 9: Optimisation and Rowing

Short version: Life is full of metrics, and applying optimisation is useful, but be mindful of why not merely the how. Rowing is big in Oxford.

Long version:

Optimisation:

I can be a little obsessive about optimisation. I think it comes from doing a lot of mathematics. In the upcoming book The Metric Society, Steffen Mau describes a world where increasingly scores can be assigned to all aspects of life. I would guess the most common metrics people are concerned with are their bank balance and their weight, usually trying to maximise one and minimise the other. In everyday life I often find myself crunching numbers at the supermarket, aspiring to shave seconds off my running pace, cramming one extra experimental condition into the day. Is optimisation ultimately worth aspiring to? I’ve been reminded by friends this week that life isn’t always an optimisation problem. Optimisation can help me get faster, or spend more time at an art gallery, but it can’t tell me which one would make me happier, or is a more worthy way to spend time. I think it is important that I remember the ever growing pool of metrics are tools, rather than ends in themselves. More on this another week.

Rowing: Torpids 2019

This week the Isis in Oxford has been busy with the shouts and splashing of students rowing races. Oxford is relatively famous for its rowing. The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge along the Thames attracted between 250,000 and 400,000 spectators in 2017. However unlike that race, or in Olympic rowing, the boats in this week’s races (known as Torpids) do not compete in parallel, but rather line up in sequence and chase one another.

Introduction to bumps racing:
Oxford is made up of many colleges which compete in, amongst other things, rowing. Since the main river through Oxford is narrow, and the race is contested by many boats (73 men’s boats and 61 women’s boats this week), it is not possible to race side by side. Instead they compete in divisions of 12 boats (13 boats per race including the top boat of the next lower division), with each boat starting simultaneously but separated by intervals of 130 feet. The aim of the first boat is to finish the course without being “bumped” by a boat further down the sequence, whilst all other boats are aiming to catch the next boat ahead. In Torpids specifically, once you “bump” (by overtaking, making physical contact, or the boat in front conceding) you leave the race, whilst the boat that has been bumped carries on. This protects the boat that achieved a bump from then being bumped in that race, even if the boat immediately behind would have eventually (or imminently) caught it. How this plays out is that in each race a boat usually only maintains its rank (known as rowing over), moves up one position (bumping), or moves down one position (is bumped), and so only the top four seeded boats meaningfully contest the position of top ranked boat (known as “head of the river”). Getting a bump on each of the four days is nearly always the best performance a crew can hope for, and is rewarded by “blades” (oars decorated with the names of the crew) being earned. Since a boat that has been bumped carries on rowing, it is possible to be bumped multiple times, and this is reflected in some pretty significant drops (e.g. Pembroke 2nd boat falling 8 places on the last day of racing). Further complicating the results calculations is that a boat that is bumped can continue on to bump, which is the only circumstance where a boat can gain multiple places. This creates the incredibly unlikely possibility that a boat can rise from the bottom of it’s division (the 13th boat) to the top (1st) in one race: only achieved by each boat bumping the one in front in the specific sequence of reverse order; 13 bumping 12, 12 bumping 11, and so on until having been bumped by 3, 2 then bumps 1. This would result in the boats then being ordered in reverse order to their starting order. Assuming then performances consistent with that first race, all boats would then proceed to row over (finish the course without being bumped). Notably this system of racing strongly encourages starting as hard as possible to catch the boat in front as early as possible.

Notable Performances of Torpids 2019:
Teddy Hall Men’s 1st boat were the highest seeded crew to get blades, gaining four places in Division 1, whilst GTC Women’s 1st boat also got blades in division 1, with an even more impressive 5 places gain. Brasenose Men’s 1st boat gained the most places on their path to blades at 7, while Hertford Men’s 2nd boat had the biggest fall of an impressive 14 places.

More details:
You can see the full results of Topids 2019 here. The full Rules of Racing are here. St Hugh’s Boat Club provide a Glossary of Rowing Terms here.

Upcoming Rowing Events:
Oxford and Cambridge compete again in London on Sunday 7th April 2019. Bumps are next being raced in Oxford on 29th May to 1st June 2019.

Other Rowing Stuff:
Australian Rowers Eat 25-30 MJ per day, British Rowing, Rowing Australia, RowingNZ,US Rowing.

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.


2018 Week 36: Catch-up

Short version: realising that most tasks are either accomplished now, or not at all, has resulted in an increase in productivity for me.

Long version:

I have often thought, when delaying a task, that there will be some future period where, with a little more effort, focus, and discipline, I will be able to “catch up”. Inevitably this does not occur; the put-off tasks diminish in importance, the opportunity evaporates, or an alternative presents itself. Sometimes a project fails altogether. Often failure relieves the burden of the task, but in a generally unsatisfactory way. Worse is when the task lingers as an ugly reminder of personal inefficiency or lack of drive.

Over the past couple weeks I’ve come to realise that there is no “catch up”. There is no mythical time where there will be nothing else to do but go back and do the things that weren’t (seemingly) important or urgent enough. Life keeps throwing more opportunities, ideas, topics, events, projects, courses, and challenges at you. Moreover keeping track of all the undone tasks results in a discouraging and stressful sense of always being behind, of always being inept, and a self-fulfilling sense of being lazy.

Changing to a frame of mind where that opportunity is either taken now or is missed prevents tasks for lingering. This also effectively raises the bar for taking on a task. It forces a decision between two actions, instead of allowing a distraction to insert itself into a day e.g . either I write now, or I play chess and don’t write, but I can’t allow the option to play chess and then write, because “then” is not a time. This helps avoid the dark playground.

Of course there are certain tasks that cannot be completed in one session. Life does require some degree of planning for the future. Some things are better revisited with rest, or reflection, or necessarily have other dependencies which make the task much easier to perform later than now. I, however, certainly err on the side of being less expeditious, and ultimately get less done that I could otherwise.

Finally: there’s a certain irony to writing a blog post about “do it now”, originally titled for Week 36, in early Week 38. Of course sometimes things are worth revisiting, or some time becomes available. Ultimately every inaction charges its opportunity cost with interest, and in this case means that time to reflect on my present is lost to reflecting on the past. This one felt important though.

Writing from Oxford Railway Station

2018 Week 4: Discretionary Hours

This week I have been thinking a lot about time. In planning life, time and money are the two resources that are most familiar and quantifiable. For a desired activity, the decision to pursue it requires that I can I afford its cost in time and money. I specify “quantifiable” since there are other costs to an activity: focus, energy, health, good-will. Time and money are unique in that they have clear units, and time particularly unique in that everyone gets the same amount allocated to them (life expectancy aside).
So broadly, the two sides of the time question are 1. (macro) How do I best allocate my time?  and 2. (micro) How do I use that time most effectively within those tasks.

Part 1 (macro): How do I allocate my time?
As a starting point consider how most people spend their time. This New York Times infographic gives some insight.

How much can you get done in a day?
First lets deal with quantity, rather than quality. The obvious upper bound is 24 hours per day, but that is just as obviously unsustainable.

I share a fond memory with a close friend of laughing uncontrollably as we assigned time estimates for our commitments into a spreadsheet, and observed the total hours per day grow more and more absurdly beyond 24 (the punchline was the necessity of accounting for spreadsheeting within the spreadsheet) (more spreadsheet jokes here).


Sleep is one limitation: the record for going without any sleep at all is 11 days and resulted in memory lapses, paranoia, and eventually “He could no longer distinguish the difference between reality and nightmare”. A man in Hunan China died after watching an 11 day soccer marathon, and Moritz Erhardt’s death on the “magic roundabout” of investment banking internships prompted Goldman Sachs to restrict intern workday hours to a mere 17. This study in the aptly named journal “Pain” observed 40 people who were assigned to sleep for either 4 hours or 8 hours over a 16 day period. Figure 3. in that study summarises the results nicely: those on less sleep became less sociable, more tired, more aggressive, and experienced more physical pain. Personal experiences:
I tried the consecutive all nighter approach as a procrastinator in high-school, and though I enjoyed the extra hours, the costs of diminished mental performance, forgetfulness and increased susceptibility to physical illnesses were not worth it. Interestingly, I did experience the “hallucinations” as slipping in and out of dreams while awake, and particularly a sense of not remembering how I had gotten where I was or why I was there.

Eating (and drinking) is more life-critical than sleeping, but (usually) takes up much less time. Eating also makes us sleepy, not because of a change in blood flow but possibly because of glucose inhibition of orexin neurons. Importantly, like sleep, shaving time here is unwise: eating too quickly is associated with obesity but also eating too quickly, even not to being full, is harmful. I tend to eat too quickly, but that aside there is also shopping, preparing, cooking, and cleaning to account for around eating.

Commuting is another issue. Recently I’ve been weighing cycling, busses, and buying a motorcycle or car. Driving (an extremely popular option) seems to be a clear loser: it’s the most expensive, most affected by traffic, and has poor opportunities to multi-tasking (cycling is exercise). A motorcycle would be the fastest by far, but comes with safety risks. Cycling is the cheapest and creates an opportunity to get daily exercise, but isn’t particularly safe or weather proof. Busses are the slowest, but are the safest and have the best capacity to indulge in entertainment, study, or keeping in touch with friends.

Personal Care is the final “necessity”, taking showers, doing laundry, brushing and flossing teeth, excreting waste, and nursing inevitable injuries takes a few minutes per day. Interestingly the American Time Use Survey results also includes in the “Personal Care” category “an average of 54 seconds spent on ‘personal or private activities,’ like having sex”, or a little under 5 and a half hours a year. Hopefully that is under-reporting due to social stimga.

I’ve found that on a week day, taking (roughly) 8 hours to sleep, 2 hours to commute, 2 hours to acquire, prepare, and eat food, and 1 hour to clean my space and myself, leaves 11 hours to get work done, which is approximately how my days play out. This leads to the observation that gives this post its title: although moving from an 8 hour day to an 11 hour day is only a 3 hour increase, or 12.5% of a working day, taking sleep, transport, the assumed 8 hours of work as fixed, it becomes a 50% loss of the remaining 6 hours into which household tasks (like cooking and cleaning) as well as socialising, recreation, reflection, and hobbies also fall. Although we all have 24 hours a day, the “discretionary” hours matter a lot more in budgeting, just as discretionary income gives a better idea if one can afford a luxury.

I really enjoy my job, and want to maximise the time I invest in it to be as successful as possible. To be able to do other things I enjoy, as well as things I need to do to perform like sleep, I need to be careful about budgeting sustainably. Critical to this is making sure that an hour at work is productive, and not performative, which leads nicely onto Part 2.

(I have a suspicion that in places like law firms and investment banks where it can be difficult to assess output, a driver behind the 24 hour internships (where performance must diminish with sleep deprivation) is that “hours in the office” is an easy quantifiable metric to compete on and thus signal dedication to the company.)

Part 2 (micro): How do I make my time more efficient and productive?

Specifically, how to be more efficient, more productive, and make better use of the limited resource that is time. It is critical that we prioritise efficiency over expenditure. It would be pointless to work 20 hour days and get nothing done.

This weekend I worked through an online course on increasing productivity. Video can be more effective than text at presenting information (everyframeapainting is a great example) but often, as was the case in this course, it is not. Even played at double speed, a couple minute “lecture” on the time you’d save by playing video lectures at double speed is inefficient vs losing the video format all together. It did however include a number of tips that, though well known, are potentially very useful.

  1. “Measure twice, cut once” (effective) preparation saves time
  2. Create useful objectives, e.g. by using SMART criteria
  3. For a complex task, consider the inter-dependencies of the components
  4. Work tends to expand to fill the time allocated
  5. 80/20: Much of the benefit can come from little of the work
  6. Multitasking that switches “brain states”  costs focus which costs time (if a facebook popup or an email grabs you for only a few seconds, it can take much longer to get back into the focused state you were in)
  7. Hence it is more efficient to batch similar tasks together (go to the bathroom and pick up the printing at the same time)
  8. Use good multi-tasking (make phone calls on your commute, socialise while exercising)
  9. Plan for breaks (part of setting realistic goals)
  10. Seek Flow
  11. Automate repetitive tasks (e.g. use hotkeys and scripts)
  12. Outsource things that you’re not efficient at
  13. Communicate honestly and specifically
  14. And, I would add to the course, ask for help before you need help.

The other parts
All of that doesn’t consider motivation, drive, and energy. We all have guilty pleasures, but slipping into a Youtube/Netflix binge or being sucked into a social media feed can consume a big chunk of precious time (50 minutes per day, according to facebook).  Every minute does count, but making it feel that way is much harder than counting where they go.

Writing from the Radcliffe Camera