2020 Week 29: Holidays

I’m taking some holiday at the end of this week, and the change in routine is a moment for reflection. I have been thinking about the past years, the progress I’ve made and the things I still need to work on. A goal of this blog is to create posts that are interesting and useful to others, but also to maintain a routine of writing regularly. Moving forward I’ll (try again to) keep these weekly posts brief, and put more time into longer, higher quality posts.

Things that keep me happy

I am happy with my life, and part of that is having developed habits that cultivate happiness.

Physical Exercise
Regular physical exercise. Days that start with sustained high-heart-rate exertion go better than days that do not.

Meditation and Mindfulness
I’m learning to be more present, more focused, and more aware of my own thoughts. Practising meditation develops these skills.

Personal Reflection
Knowing what actually happened in the past through written reflection helps me get a better perspective on my own life. I can keep myself accountable, and see a bigger picture to better plan and act.

Taking time to appreciate
When things go well, or are pleasant, taking a little extra time to appreciate having those things in my life makes my usual focus on problems less of an emotional burden.

Good Relationships
I am most appreciative to be able to call so many good people my friends.

Things to Share

Zwift runs a virtual Tour de France
The virtual cycling platform that is increasingly filling my strava feed bridges e-sports and traditional sport.

COVID-19 Vaccine News
Initial trial results from the mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 from NIAID and Moderna.

PhD Students in Australia are suffering:
A survey of students at the University of Sydney shows that already precariously placed PhD students have been pushed off the financial edge by the pandemic.

Photo from the Week:

Exploring new parts of Oxford on staycation

2020 Week 22: Strava and Going to Space

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – wisdom attributed to hockey player Wayne Gretzky.

Starting a company and succeeding is a difficult shot to make, but success first requires an attempt. Starting a company that sends people into space, or to another planet, is a shot so difficult as to seem impossible. Yet, as I write this, the draft sits alongside a live stream of US astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken flying the Dragon spacecraft from SpaceX and NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Working at a start-up, and having read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk, the feat of carrying two people into space is made far more impressive by knowing how close to failure SpaceX has come. I was especially happy to see the first stage land safely on the drone ship; SpaceX’s compilation of failures has consoled me at the lab when work was not going to plan. In this time of global pandemic, there is something captivating and hopeful about developments in space technology. For more blog content from two people who are actually involved in space, I’d suggest checking out Christine and Casey

Strava: Thoughts on Start-ups, Running, Micro-blogging, and Numbers

I use Strava as a training log, social-media, and micro-blog platform.

Strava
Strava is many things. To me, it is first my logbook for exercise and training. It is also a social media channel. I can see the training logs of my friends, colleagues, and a few athletes who inspire me. We share photos, and sometimes brief notes, from sessions. As I train for the Edinburgh marathon, Strava is where I micro-blog about running.

Strava is also a company, and for 180 people in the US and UK, it is where they go to work. Strava is a late stage start-up, and as they recently announced, Strava is currently not profitable. That announcement, alongside changes to features free and paid users have access too, is covered in depth by DCRainmaker, perhaps the definitive fitness-tech blogger.

Startups, expectations, and the internet
People expect stuff online to be free, especially if it was free in the past. Tweets at Strava about the changes show a user base upset by a company moving free features behind a paywall, despite providing most of their service (tracking exercise) for free. Google and Facebook, with users in the billions, use advertising to keep their services free for users, but this creates a gap between the desires of the consumers and the paying customers of the platform. That gap can have significant harms, such as political polarisation and the subsequent shift by major parties to policy extremes (suggested reading: Facebook did an internal study on this and decided not to act on it).

Rather than appeal to advertisers or users to pay, many startups simply subsidise their services with investors’ money in order to grow their total number of users. Uber and Lyft lose money on rides in the hope of gaining a profitable monopoly. When delivery services subsidise the cost of food, it creates interesting arbitrage opportunities.

Returning to “Going to Space” Paypal (alongside fin-tech start ups today established financial firms alike) literally pays users to sign up for a free service, and that strategy led Elon Musk from sleeping in his office with one computer to controlling multi-billion-dollar aerospace and automotive companies (and still sleeping in his office).

Finishing time distribution of marathon races from marastats.com

Numbers
Things we can quantify are motivating. People think a lot about their weight, because it is a number that is perceived as a proxy for health or attractiveness. Marathon finishing times tend to cluster at just under “round number” finishing times as people push to get in below their goal time. Today I planned my run to achieve 2000 m of climbing in May, and would have been upset (or probably gone for an extra run) if I had come in to see only 1998 m. Financial numbers (personal savings, or the valuation of a home, or personal income, or the value of a company) are often felt as proxies for success, or safety.

I’ve recently noticed that if I keep my step count visible on my watch, I am actually motivated to take extra walks, despite regularly exercising beyond the need to walk further in a day. The lesson to me is to be careful about which numbers I make more visible, and therefore tend to optimise for. It’s not just counting the shots you take and the shots you make, it’s also choosing carefully which game to play.

Photos from the Week: Shotover Mornings

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

2020 Week 16: Decision Fatigue

Priorities become clear in a crisis. The pandemic continues to dominate life, news, and my research. I continue to cope well despite long hours most days, largely (as I’ve discussed in the last couple weeks) due to a community of supportive people around me along with a good diet and regular exercise. Another reason I’ve noticed is “crisis mode” narrows my focus onto a few specific tasks, removing choices, and thus I avoid decision fatigue. I am lucky that there are so many possibilities in my regular life, but invariably I end up feeling torn between possible commitments. In lock-down I can only be at home or in the lab, so I am not choosing between interesting lectures in Oxford, or potential hiking trips, or social events. There is much less fear of missing out, when there is less to miss out on.

Other thoughts from the week:

Will ending lock-down lead to a sudden increase in injuries?

I suspect when lock-down ends and gyms reopen, some proportion of people returning to their workouts after several weeks off will injure themselves. There have been several unexpected effects of the pandemic, such as a decline in accident and emergency admissions (perhaps because increases in hand-washing have led to fewer incidents of food poisoning, or perhaps because people are afraid of contracting COVID-19 by going to hospital). Gyms are closed to prevent transmission of the disease, and so people are not training and their strength and technique are diminishing. Though I hope everyone will return to training accounting for the break when gyms eventually reopen, I suspect there will be a measurable minority who attempt to resume at their pre-lock-down fitness and overexert themselves, resulting in injury and increased demand on rehabilitation services.

Things that seem special may not be

SARS-CoV-2 likely originated in animals (probably bats), making it a zoonotic disease. Bats have been known to carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans including marburg, the previous SARS, and Ebola. Naturally this raises questions about some special attribute of bats that make them more likely to spawn pandemic generating viruses. This paper from the University of Glasgow suggests that the only thing “special” about bats is their diversity. Together with the commonly disease associated Rodentia (rodents), Chiroptera (bats) account for 3938 species, or 60% of all mammal species. If viruses are randomly distributed amongst mammals, and the ability of those viruses to then infect humans is similarly random, then the observed frequency of diseases like COVID-19 coming from bats is explained without any special attribute of bats themselves.

This is a good reminder of a general principle, that because what we observe is so small relative to totality of existence, we are much more likely to attribute “special” meaning to general phenomena. I think this is most useful to remember when it comes to relationship and personal problems, as we assume our uniqueness implies a uniqueness of our problems. An example from this TED talk on depression describes a couple who are both hiding their prescription for antidepressants from each other because they both feel the other could not possibly understand.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 8: Do the living outnumber the dead?

Life is busy, I over estimated my ability to find time to read this week, and have started but not finished several texts. I (correctly) sought professional advice for some minor tendon issues, and running is feeling much more comfortable with some specific rehab exercises. I met two researchers in cyber security, and it turns out in the UK there are fairly strict laws on signals interception which make their research difficult. In other news a Russian satellite is probably stalking a US spy satellite in orbit.

Things I wrote this week

No longer posts again this week. I’m working on summarising some books I’m reading.

Things to share this week

Do the living outnumber the dead?
The short answer is no. While the global population has grown rapidly, the current 7 billion is far fewer than half the estimated 100 billion who have ever lived. This sort of population growth estimation reminded me that the sum of the n-successive powers of two is less than 2 to the power (n+1), so if the population was consistently doubling within a lifespan, then there would be more people alive than had lived previously. There is a nice intuitive explanation of this;
Consider binary
Binary 1 is Decimal 1
Binary 10 is Decimal 2
Binary 100 is Decimal 4
Generalising; binary 1 followed by “n” zeros is expressing 2 to the power n
Intuitively; the smallest four digit number is always larger than the largest 3 digit number
I.e. 1000 > 111 (or 222 for base 3, or 999 for base 10)
So the sum of 1+10+100 is 111 in binary (or any other base) which is less than 1000, and so 2^n > {2^(n-1) + 2^(n-2) + … + 2^1 + 2^0}
(I will look up how to express mathematical formulas on my own blog in future)

Science was stranger in the 1960s
NASA funded a project involving humans trying to train dolphins to speak by living with them and injecting them with LSD. Covered by The Guardian and New Scientist. Details probably in this book (but I haven’t had a chance to check it out).

The following come from my (current) three biggest sources of lost time, YouTube, Unnecessary-Fitness-Reading, and Chess.

Elon Musk reminds me of the importance of minimalism in production
Quote: “The best part is no part, the best process is no process
Context: Musk gives MKBHD a tour of the Tesla Factory, and explains that removing unnecessary parts or processes from a product removes a risk of failure at no cost. In the case of Tesla, increasing production speed is a major issue, so eliminating unneeded steps leads to better manufacturing.

Strava makes more cool info-graphics
This time looking at motivation for running.

NBC covers boom in chess streaming
This article about e-sports sadly leaves out my favourite chess streamer, Jerry.

2020 Week 6: Fragile

A satisfying week of ratcheting up my output. Some long but interesting experiments at ONI, catching up on reading, a couple of social evenings, and the most intense week of training since September 2019. That said, I’ve been feeling a little fragile. My physical and mental health are both good. I’m happy with what I’m getting done each day but have caught myself with muddled thoughts here and there. Particularly, I am worrying about illness and injury a little more this week. A couple observations on this:
1. The news of coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is causing alarm, but people are generally much less concerned about familiar diseases such as influenza. In the case of a far away outbreak, I can follow the advice that after taking reasonable precautions (e.g. washing hands before eating) it is foolish to worry about the possibility of getting sick (there is no need to suffer before the actual illness starts). I was not able to follow this advice when a different viral outbreak occurred in my social circle. I am vaccinated, and so very likely immune, but knowing I have been exposed directly it is difficult to silence my paranoia.
2. I have been recovering from a running injury, relatively minor but still the most significant injury I have had to date. I am left feeling much more vulnerable than I did before my injury, even though I ought to have been following the same injury preventing exercises either way. I let the idea of being particularly resilient become entwined with my identity, and having that misplaced belief confronted is emotionally challenging.

Things I wrote this week

The irony is not lost that I continue to delay a piece on productivity. I’m also writing about The Fated Sky (link to publisher and extract) which I finished reading this weekend.

Things to share this week

Donald Knuth and getting to the bottom of things
Knuth is a legendary computer scientist, and as well as writing The Art of Computer Programming, he also wrote the dialogue Surreal Numbers, or Surreal numbers: how two ex-students turned on to pure mathematics and found total happiness: a mathematical novelette. I recently learned that he does not use email, as he explains here:
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.
I find this inspirational in several ways: I aspire to find a passion that allows me to focus so clearly on the one goal. I would love to have the opportunity to pursue that passion so single mindedly as to not need the convenience of email to “stay on top of things”. I would love to reach expertise where others go out of their way to reach me despite not using email.

The Dalek Game
While opening too many tabs writing about The Fated Sky, I came across Kathleen Jennings illustrations of Daleks, based on a game played by replacing words in titles with the iconic Dr Who villains. Related; I look forward to trying Blurb Wars next time I’m with some creative people.

Functional Threshold Power
FTP is the maximum power output that a person can transfer (e.g. to a bike or rowing machine) continuously for an hour, and is a common measure of cardiovascular endurance amongst cyclists. I’ve been looking at this set of charts about FTP, and it is humbling to see myself on the left tail of the distribution. Some relevant literature from Nature.

Photos from the week

Rare winter sunshine on the river Thames

2020 Week 5: Mountain Motivation

Week 5 sees the end of January 2020, and momentum building both in work and play as I accelerate away from the holiday season. I have been reminded in multiple ways that qualities we celebrate and often treat as innate, such as intelligence, strength, and courage, are developed through practice rather than fixed at birth. It is inspiring and motivating to see others grow. On a trivial note, today’s date is a palindrome 2020-02-02 (ISO 8601 format).

Things I wrote this week

I attended the Banff Moutain Film Festival when it toured in Oxford, and my thoughts are in this post.

I finished an overdue race report on the 2019 Blenheim Palace Half Marathon.

Things to share this week

Transparency and Teamwork
I’ve been chatting with some friends at work about transparency, and a famous example of extreme transparency in an organisation comes from Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater. A Summary and Table of Life Principles is provided as a free excerpt from his book. On the same topic, I’m still coming back to and digesting Google’s project Aristotle, described in this piece from the New York Times.

19,547 Calories
Kilian Jornet is a professional athlete who enjoys going up mountains. Last year he skied non stop for 24 hours and managed to gain 23 km in elevation, or nearly three “Everest”s. Doing this required nearly 20,000 kcal (as estimated by Strava), so refuelling would take 37 Big Macs (it actually surprised me how low that number is).

Physical Training Update

I am hoping to break 3 hours for the marathon in 2020, but training has been delayed by an Achilles injury. Rest was the right approach, and I’ve tried to substitute indoor rowing and indoor cycling as low impact alternatives for endurance training. It has been satisfying to see the numbers for weekly “Relative Effort” (based on heart rate) on Strava go up, but as I resume running this hasn’t translated well into speed over ground.

It is frustrating to have to hold back and turn down opportunities to train with friends. It is teaching me the importance of focusing on long term goals to make smarter choices in individual sessions. I’ve also been thinking about this TED talk about the importance of training “easy”. I tend to train “hard” every workout, but this may be less effective the fitter I become. When new to running, race-pace and training-pace can be the same thing, but as fitness increases maximum effort sessions take more recovery time and are more likely to result in injury. Some hard sessions are necessary, but not every session can nor should feel hard.

I’ve also learned that for indoor rowers, power into the machine (watts) is proportional to speed cubed, rather than squared as I would have guessed. That is, an additional 50 W of power brings a 500 m split time of 2:31.8 s/500 m (or 100 W) down to 2:12.6 (19.2 seconds faster), but the next 50 W increment only saves 12.1 seconds more, then 8.6 s, then 6.5 s, until halving the split to 1:15.9 (i.e. doubling the speed) requires 8 times more power at 800 W.

Photos from the Week:

Training fasted

On Tuesday I tested out how my training was impacted by fasting. Overall I lost about 20% of my power output over 30 hours of fasting. Over this period I lost about 2 kg of body mass, which I assume was mostly due to emptying my digestive system and some loss in water due to losses of salt and glycogen. Both this weight and power were quickly restored after resuming eating.

Numbers from the fast:
7 hours before fast begins:
90 minutes moderate exercise, approx 3600 kJ
5 hours before fast begins: Weight 67.7 kg
0 hours (final meal before fast): Consumed 1 bowl (~200 g) oats + 30 g pea protein in water, approx 3500 kJ
5 hours into fast: Light exercise (30 mins indoor cycling) approx 1000 kJ
16 hours into fast: Hard exercise (30 minutes indoor rowing) approx 1700 kJ. Able to sustain 93% of maximum steady state power output.
18 hours into fast: Weight 66.4 kg
28 hours into fast: Weight 65.7 kg
29 hours into fast: Hard exercise (30 minutes indoor rowing) approx 1600 kJ. Able to sustain 81% of maximum steady state power output.
2 days after fast: (normal diet resumed) Weight 67.9 kg

Energy expended over fast roughly approximates to 9000 kJ, i.e. 110% of glycogen stores, or equivalent to 250 g fat.

Things I consumed during the fast:
2 double espresso (coffee with no sugar or milk)
Multivitamin
about 1 g salt
about 4 L of water

Things I felt during the fast:
Hungry (for periods, but not consistently. Hunger mostly peaked in the first few hours, at approximately 10 hours in).
Foggy (felt a little more distant than usual after the afternoon coffee wore off).
Unmotivated to exercise vigorously (wanted to quit while performing hard rowing efforts earlier and more intensely than usual).

Thoughts:
This was a spontaneous experiment. I happened to have a very early breakfast on Tuesday and missed lunch due to being needed in the lab, so decided to use the inconvenience as an opportunity to test performance impacts of fasting. The result was a small loss of power, and a moderate loss of motivation to exert that power.

I feel, but have no first hand evidence, that long distance running has left me pretty well physiologically adapted to having a large energy reserve and being able to utilise it (e.g. running a marathon uses up approx 10,000 kJ, or about the same as the entire fasting period). I also think that mentally, knowing that I am capable of going on long runs before breakfast, and knowing what it feels like to use up my glycogen stores (known as “hitting the wall” in running or “bonking” in cycling), together give me confidence to undertake fasting with exercise safely.

Given many people in the developed world struggle with obesity, I would recommend experimenting with fasting. Simply re-calibrating one’s sense of hunger (and knowing it is possible to delay the need to eat by at least several hours) could help with generally reducing calories consumed and therefore weight loss. Obviously some people struggle with disordered eating, which can be more harmful than obesity. Online communities around weight loss can drift from being supportive about achieving a healthy weights to creating unhealthy expectations about weight loss, particularly rapid weight loss.

Science:
Rafael de Cabo and Mark P. Mattson published a review on Intermittent Fasting in the last week of December 2019, which longevity specialist Peter Attia commented on in his email today. The science is currently inconclusive, but there seems to be a growing body of evidence that the human body is capable of going extended periods without food not only without detrimental effects, but with benefits to overall health.

2019 Week 49: Conspiracy Theories

Short version: Some thoughts around the topic of conspiracy theories.

Long version:

Conspiracies

Two reasons to engage
Sometimes I go on the internet and peer into the worlds of groups I don’t agree with. Conspiracy theorists are one such group. A positive reason to read conspiracy theories is the logical and rhetorical exercise; training comprehension and critical thinking skills to see through fallacious logic. A negative reason is to feel a sense of superiority by mocking flawed beliefs. My experience is a mix of the two.

The internet
The internet has been a powerful tool for allowing people to find others with similar interests. Previously the rarer an interest, the less likely an idnividual would be to find others who shared that interest, no matter how passionate they were. Now a small number of sufficiently enthusiastic people can build wikis, forums, and social media presences to connect and commune. Whilst this is wonderful for achieving plurality of interests, it can also result in a harmful echo chamber. Mixed with the serious support communities and trivial meme pages are hate groups and trouble makers.

Why I think people care
The value conspiracy theories provide their believers is that (1) they provide a compelling narrative to explain something difficult to contemplate and (2) that people have a natural excitement about and fixation on secrets.
1. Conspiracy theories tend to centre around fear inducing events, e.g. assinations, terrorist plots, diseases. It is an uncomfortable state to not know or understand why an event came to pass, and extremely disturbing events cannot be ignored. The idea that such events are orchestrated by some powerful group (much like a deity) is compelling because it answers the “why” that cannot be silenced, in place of a much more difficult and potentially impossible journey to understand the true causes.
2. Knowing that a certain piece of information is “secret” increases its percieved value. As we approach Christmas, consider that much of the excitement of a wrapped present is the initial discovery of what it contains. People are generally much more interested in speculating about what is contained in secret documents than they are interested in reading those documents when they become public. The feeling of “being in on a secret” creates a sense of power or insight, which encourages the retention of that belief.

A useful data point
I suspect conspiracy theories give a useful insight into gaps of understanding, and where areas of doubt intersect areas of intrigue. The topics that conspiracy theories center on require enough initial interest to attract attention in the first place, but also need to be sufficiently complex that there is room for compelling alternative conceptions.

How I would have liked to write this section
Ideally I would have picked a few of the most popular conspiracy theories (e.g. the moon landing was faked, something about aliens, something about the illuminati) and pointed out some of the flaws. Perhaps even constructing a conspiracy theory of my own as a demonstration of how if a conclusion is taken to be true, all evidence can be warped to meet that conclusion. This would lead nicely to a comparison with generally accepted methods of hypothesis testing. Unfortuantely I did not have time to do so.

Fitness things I discovered this week

  1. There are some well documented exercises to help with achilles tendinopathy.
  2. Erg (i.e. indoor rowing machine) is short for “ergometer” from Greek words for “work” and “measure”. I had assumed it was some sort of acronym.
  3. The near ubiquitous Concept 2 erg has an online logbook and corresponding smartphone app that allows you to collect data from erg workouts.

Photo 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