2020 Week 27: Warning Label

Brief update; I am content. I have been feeling more confident generally about life this week. I am learning to perform my new role, from both success and failure. I am taking my time to appreciate good emotions, and not dwelling on bad ones. Physical training continues to plan. I have enjoyed several good conversations. Having identified my passion for engaging with talented and motivated people, I am fortunate that I get to do that so frequently at ONI.

Choosing a Perspective

Philosophy ought to come with a warning label. Dwelling too deeply into difficult, unanswered, and perhaps impossible questions carries the risk of becoming seriously lost in one’s own mind. A recent conversation ended with the question: If we can change how we feel about our experiences, thereby potentially enjoying any experience, which experiences should we choose (and choose to enjoy)? Intuitively we should choose to be happy and to do good in the world, but how do we pin down what is good in the world aside from what makes us and others happy?

I have been thinking about this David Foster Wallace speech (transcript). it focuses on choosing how you relate to people and describes a routine visit to a supermarket. Wallace asks the audience to consider hidden acts of compassion and kindness behind the people making up the frustrating queues and parking lots and highway traffic. Another, perhaps more simple, choice of perspective is to appreciate the supermarket itself. If the abundance and affordability of vegetables is celebrated, then a squeaky trolley wheel or a long queue pales compared to the miracle that the world has provided you food. For much of human history, much of human labour was spent securing a supply of food. Today for most that supply is trivial, and in my mind, worthy of appreciation.

Yesterday while drafting this I shared a quote from that speech: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” Focusing on the shopping and not the shoppers can bring happiness through attention and awareness and discipline, but it does seem a trivial exercise compared with caring and sacrificing for others.

Vaccine Updates

While the UK is getting closer to normal with the reopening of the central cultural venue, the pub, I suspect until the deployment of a vaccine for COVID-19 social and professional interactions will continue to be shaped by the disease. On Tuesday Chemistry World published this helpful update on the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. On Thursday The Economist declared Oxford the current leader.

Photo from the Week

2020 Week 4: Xīn Nián Kuài Lè! 新年快乐!

Saturday was Chinese New Year, and I was fortunate to celebrate in traditional style by making dumplings and watching the CCTV New Year’s Gala. 2020 is the year of the rat, and the first year in a new cycle of 12 years. The ordering of the animals is explained in this amusing story.

Things I wrote this week

No longer posts to share just yet, I’ve been working on sharing some thoughts about productivity, and am hoping to finish it off in the coming week. I’ve also started writing some fiction, for the first time since school, inspired by a writing club which has started at work.

Things to share this week

Chinese news wasn’t all song and dance, the Wuhan virus caused the lock down of two cities, Wuhan and Huanggang.

Davos hosts the World Economic Forum where Russia continues its cold war antics.

This paper caused some controversy; it is unclear if algorithms or people are driving more extreme content since we don’t know how the algorithms work.

Photo from the week

Dumplings for Chinese New Year 2020

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)
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).

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.

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 Altmetric Top 100

Fires in the Amazon and Australia, a case of HIV cured, and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, were all big headlines for science in 2019. This summary of the science that shaped 2019 from Nature covers a few more stories. There is not one clear metric to quantify the “biggest” story in science, but Altmetric creates a ranking based on the media (social and conventional) impact of scientific papers. I previously wrote about 2018’s Altmetric Top 100, and this year I take a look at the themes.

AI and Fake News

The top paper of 2019 was this description of a system developed at Samsung to create realistic video of talking heads from single images. The authors provided a video summary of the work, and the result is impressive and unsettling. AI image generation also took out the 5th slot with image generation.

While crossing the uncanny valley remains a challenge for visual effects artists, the strong emotional reaction to this paper is driven by a fear. As it becomes easier to fabricate content, it becomes harder to trust the media we consume. There is also the fear that we could become victims of these “deepfake” techniques. Fake news was the subject of the 51st ranked paper “Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook” and the 58th ranked paper “Fake news on Twitter during the 2016 U.S. presidential election“. On fake stories making real news; the 44th ranked paper about the 44th President’s birth was pushed up the altmetric rankings as “The researchers avoided calling the subjects’ views ‘racist’, earning them a high-scoring Twitter roasting.”, highlighting how issues of race can drive a flurry of discussion on social media.

The world is on fire

Bill Nye demonstrates the point on Last Week Tonight

As Climate change continues to worsen so do its effects. If you’re not familiar with the scale of the problem I recommend this briefing; Global warming 101. About 1 in 6 papers in the top 100 were on or about climate change, with 3 of the top 10. World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency has an authorship exceeding 10,000, stating that “Earth is facing a climate emergency”, and highlighting the disturbing gap between the scientific and political consensuses.

Human Health

Just as health research makes up a huge share of scientific research projects, so too did papers on health make up a big share of the altmetric 100. Many of the papers featured are only surprising in the unwillingness of the public to conform to the recommendations. Vaccines work (and do not cause autism), exercise is good for you and most people need to do more, highly processed food and sugary drinks are bad for you, and eating only junk can lead to terrible health (including blindness).

In a moment of doctors showing that publications don’t have to be more complex than “check out what this guy just coughed up”, this cast of the right bronchial tree was coughed up and became this publication, ranking at 19th.

This highly discussed paper (74th) was retracted, demonstrating both that scientific papers (even in top journals) should be questioned, and that scientists are actively doing that questioning. The article relates to the He Jiankui affair that made headlines for the gene editing of human beings, however that work itself has not been formally published, and the scientist himself was sentenced to prison.

Scientists have fun too

“Joke” papers such as 8th ranked “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial” and 61st ‘”Death is certain, the time is not”: mortality and survival in Game of Thrones show that scientists (and critically, publishers) can have a sense of humour too.

Take Home Points

  • With tools like google scholar and increasingly open access publishing, the scientific literature is becoming ever easier to consume.
  • AI is becoming more powerful at image generation and manipulation, and will threaten the reliability of video footage as evidence.
  • The climate has changed and the consequences are already being felt. Urgent action is necessary.
  • Whilst advances in medicine are lessening the burden of diseases, educating the public to make good choices on vaccines, drug consumption, and nutrition would have an enormous impact on health.
  • Publishers and reviewers have a sense of humour (requires further verification).

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.


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

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.

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 spending is correlated with income, with a sharp increase in the top decile due to the purchase of new (presumably luxury) cars.

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.

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.

Rural residents, Cosmopolitans, Ethnicity central, Multicultural metropolitans, Urbanites, Suburbanites, Constrained city dwellers, Hard-pressed living

Farming Communities, Rural Tenants, Ageing Rural Dwellers, Students Around Campus, Inner-City Students, Comfortable Cosmopolitans, Aspiring and Affluent, Ethnic Family Life, Endeavouring Ethnic Mix, Ethnic Dynamics, Aspirational Techies, Rented Family Living, Challenged Asian Terraces, Asian Traits, Urban Professionals and Families, Ageing Urban Living, Suburban Achievers, Semi-Detached Suburbia, Challenged Diversity, Constrained Flat Dwellers, White Communities, Ageing City Dwellers, Industrious Communities, Challenged Terraced Workers, Hard-Pressed Ageing Workers, Migration and Churn.

Personal conflict: running tech

I like running, and improving my fitness more generally, I suppose because it helps me to self actualise. One of my personal weaknesses in fighting back against the commercial marketing machine has been in running tech. As such, I found this video from the New York Times both entertaining and helpful in realising the main thing I need to run faster is not a piece of equipment, but to simply run more and faster.

December blogging reflection

Lately I’ve been posting each week on Sunday come what may. There’s a pretty wide variance in how much time goes into each post, which is not always related to the quality of each post. Some topics I have a better understanding of before I start to write. Some observations are not insightful. Some posts go out unfinished.

Ideas vary in quality. Some ideas were probably not worth writing about at all, while others are so huge they could easily fill hundreds of pages. Not every idea is a good idea, and even a good idea poorly executed is not a good result.

Some topics deserve to be revisited, edited, improved, expanded etc. But writing in this weekly format is useful. Sometimes quantity results in quality. If I maintained a high expectation for each blog post I would write less, and my writing would not improve. Moreover in trying to write each week I am motivating myself to learn. I do hope to better organise myself in the next block of blogging (i.e. next year’s posts) to segregate space for tackling bigger topics less frequently, with a less structured more regular section.

As I was writing this post I received Peter Attia’s weekly email, describing his struggles with writing. It was extremely motivating to read words that felt so familiar they could have been my own. I would not wish insecurities on anyone, but it is deeply reassuring to be reminded those feelings are normal.

While on the topic of other writers; blogs I’d like to share:
Econometrics By Simulation: interesting applications of statistical software.
Beau Miles: Came across some of his films, the first content in a while to make me really miss Australia. Describes himself as “Award winning filmmaker, poly-jobist, speaker, writer, odd.”

Whales’ heart beats

A wonderful aspect of having scientists as friends is that they share exciting science with you that you would otherwise miss. One example is this paper about how the heart rate of blue whales changes as they dive for food. Their enormous hearts beat as slowly as two times per minute and as quickly as 37, which is about as fast as is physically possible. It also contains this informative figure, which I feel tells the story clearly and succinctly.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 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 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

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 23: Yams

Short version: Waitrose is getting rid of some of their packaging, but didn’t stock yams.

Long version:

British Supermarkets

The United Kingdom has a much more diverse supermarket landscape than the Australian duopoly I grew up with. The British landscape is tiered, with M&S and Waitrose as the expensive, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco as the middle, and Aldi, Iceland, and Lidl as the cheaper options. In my shopping there is a noticeable contrast in the demographic of the customers at Waitrose compared with Aldi, both on Oxford’s Botley Road. I suspect this is a product of the price differences appealing to different socio-economic classes. The data, however, suggests the difference is small.

The photo from the week is of Waitrose’s “Unpacked” campaign around removing packaging from their stores. Reducing waste is commendable, and the campaign has been successful in encouraging me to purchase more items from Waitrose. However on visiting many of the independent grocery stores on Cowley Road I realised that “Unpacked” is actually the default way of selling goods, rather than an “innovation”.


I tried cooking yams this week, as part of a larger project to improve my cooking by working through a single cookbook (written by the team of the former London restaurant Food for Thought).

The first problem was that I didn’t actually know what a yam is. The wikipedia page offers a disambiguation. This raises the question as to why a tuber produced primarily in equatorial regions would be popular in the UK. The ready availability of carribean food in general (of which yams are a component) in the UK is partially due to the Windrush generation. Finally a pop culture note: Kendrick Lamar’s yams are “authenticity, sex, and drugs“.


This Friday was the Dragon Boat Festival ( 端午节 ). My quest for yams brought me to some Chinese supermarkets here in Oxford and the presence of banana leaf wrapped rice (粽子) reminded me of the traditional Chinese holiday, and the story of Qu Yuan (屈原).

Photo from the Week

2019 Week 17: Castles and Coffee

Short version: Wales has a lot of castles, and I rebuilt my coffee machine.

Long version:


The weekend hiking trip to Wales was bookended by visiting the UNESCO listed Caernarfon and Conwy Castles. I was reminded of a book I loved as a child; “Castle” by David Macaulay, which is unsurprising given the fictional castle depicted is modelled after Conwy. While to me castles are a setting for stories and an element in games, in reality they were imposing military installations. In particular given Oxford is currently home, it is disquieting to consider that Oxford (and Cambridge) were both teaching students while Conwy was being built as part of Edward Longshanks’ conquest of the Welsh.


I like coffee. I am lucky to have been given a La Pavoni Europiccola, from which (literally) pulling shots of espresso gives me satisfaction and caffeination. Having such a manual machine highlights the chromatographic aspects of the process of making one of the world’s most popular beverages, and gives plenty of opportunities to experiment with process. For more on coffee, CGP Grey provides some interesting coffee facts in his video.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 10: Fitness in Science

Short version: I grew up thinking science-y people weren’t fit, but there is plenty of fitness in science, and scientific reasons to keep fit. I share some thoughts on anatomy, metrics, protein powder, and astronauts.

Long version:

Personal Observations

I remember thinking of exercise as inherently a waste of time; why would you ever want to run in circles and just end up at the same place? I’m sure this was in part informed by the media I consumed growing up; portraying the stereotypical nerd as being interested in mathematics, science, technology, along with a lack of physical fitness (also, in retrospect, portraying very fit people as not particularly bright). I identified with those archetypes and spurned exercise through much of school, as did many of my peers. It was later in life that I realised improving cardiovascular endurance was important to health. Starting to run I discovered the joy of Runner’s High. A competitive mindset and an internship in an anti-doping laboratory led me to build regular exercise into my routine, something I’ve enjoyed maintaining for the past few years.

Athletes’ Anatomy

Athletes setting world records are obviously different from the norm. Skill, dedication, talent, training, and genetics all contribute. I find conversations about athletes success tend to drift towards the genetic element, perhaps the intrigue is due to the allure of quantifying potential, or perhaps it provides a comforting fatalism for the undertrained. Most likely it is interesting simply because it is poorly understood compared with the simplicity of regular training or perceptible skill.

David Epstein gave a TED talk in 2014 where he shared a number of facts about the nature of athletes’ physicality. It particularly stood out to me that a transition in sport occurred (in parallel with the rise of broadcast media) from favouring a generalist body type of average proportions, to a plurality of extremes. One of the most memorable statistics is that Hicham El Guerrouj and Michael Phelps, who differ in height by 17 cm, have the same length legs (running advantages longer legs proportional to height, whereas swimming is the opposite). These characteristics are difficult to change: no amount of training will allow these two to exchange their body type. Training can however alter different aspects of the body to similar extremes.

Physiological adaptations from training can be as radical as the size difference between NBA basketball players and Olympic gymnasts. Specifically, athletes’ hearts really are significantly bigger than those of the untrained population (particularly endurance athletes). The body responds to stress, and the process of repeated exertion to influence adaptations that increase performance for a given activity is the basis of all training. When I worked in anti-doping an office legend described a cycling team that, in the days before blood doping was banned or effectively enforced, would need to sleep with heart rate monitors that would wake them if their heart rate got too low for fear of their hearts stopping altogether.

Marathon Times and Personal Metrics

I’m pretty motivated by quantifiable goals. Either arbitrary times (usually round numbers) or achieving a certain relative performance (e.g. placing in the top 1%). This paper examining marathon finishing times suggests I’m not alone. Times tend to bunch below “whole numbers” such as 3 hours and 4 hours, as well as smaller bunching observed across 5 minute increments, as people dig a little deeper to get below their goal times.

More statistics on half marathons and marathons. BAA Marathon and Half-Marathon results with the code shown. (I would like to be able to code informative charts like this.)

Protein Powder

The literature suggests that, when combined with training, protein supplementation increases gains in strength. I find that protein powder is a convenient way to add protein to my diet, particularly as a vegetarian. The NHS points out that the same benefits of protein powder can be achieved from other protein-rich foods, and that the lack of vitamins and nutrients of protein powder compare to a balanced meal make it a poor replacement for meals. It also recommends not exceeding intakes of 111 g per day for men or 90 g for women, which more or less concurs with the BMJ’s study suggesting the benefits of protein supplementation cease after 1.62 g/kg/day i.e. 120 g for a 75 kg person.

Importantly from an environmental perspective, looking at the World Resources Institute protein scorecard I wrote about in Week 4, dairy (from which whey protein is sourced) has the third highest impact, more than chicken and pork. Fortunately vegetable sources (i.e. pea protein) has a much lower footprint than conventional animal sources and pea protein is just as effective as whey protein in producing additional muscle growth.

That all said, there are good reasons to be skeptical of any benefit of supplementation at all beyond a healthy balanced diet. Trying to define a healthy balanced diet though could easily be several papers (or blog posts) by itself.

NASA Twin Study

I am eagerly awaiting the release of the integrated paper covering the NASA Twin Study. I suspect this will be the most intensive series of measurements made of any individual for some time. A brief summary by the Scientific American.

Photos from the Week: Solid water.

In the first photo, unusually clean ice traps dissolved gasses as they are forced out of solution. The second and third photos show Oxford’s spring weather variation.