2020 Week 28: Challenge

This week has been challenging, but that is a good thing. I am still overwhelmed, and still happily so. While I struggle and fail at some of my tasks at ONI, in others I am bringing the company closer to achieving its mission. I am reconnecting with friends and family, and helping them where I can, while they help me see my flaws and weaknesses. In physical fitness, I miss the mark in many sessions, but the overall trend is improvement. My discipline is too weak too often, but it is getting stronger.

Does success come at the cost of happiness?

Some incomplete thoughts I would still like to share, with two motivations. 1. By sharing the fears I am uncomfortable with, I become more comfortable and less afraid. Those insecurities become less powerful. 2. I hope that others who suffer the same fears might find my example useful.

A couple years ago I caught up with a friend here in Oxford, who I had worked with in Australia. He asked me about a theory I shared when we worked together in 2014: To succeed you need to be unhappy. I had suggested that contentedness leads to complacency, if you are happy there would be little motivation to work hard. I believed that to truly excel one had to be pushed by some sufficiently powerful force to suffer and sacrifice in pursuit of excellence. The pressure driving me in 2014 was an unpleasant insecurity, and I extrapolated that others’ driving forces would be emotionally negative. Working for several days with little to no sleep hurts. Studying personal failures in detail is unpleasant, but necessary to overcome them. Satisfaction would mean that what was achieved was sufficient, and therefore prevent further progress. To be great, one needed to feel deeply unhappy. At that time I felt that “being clever” something I thought I understood then but now struggle to define, was all important, and I was driven by insecurities around my own intelligence to demonstrate just how clever I was. Taking too many university courses at once, obsessing over intellectually competitive extra-curriculars, and plotting my path towards the meccas of academia.

Nearly 6 years have passed since I espoused those ideas. Only in the past year have I really felt those insecurities melt away. It hurts much less to think about the various failures of the past, in part because the passing of time makes them seem less significant, but much more because the things I value have shifted. I care less about some abstract conception of intelligence, and much more about my actions and processes. Rather than attempting to placate my ego by proving to myself and others that I am clever, I am more detached from how my abilities are seen and more focused on working towards a “good”.

As I stand here, a little excited that this will be my 101st post, I feel happy and content, but also anxious and driven. Life is more pleasurable when time is taken to appreciate the moments of happiness and peace, however or whenever they occur. More than this simple hedonism, these positive emotions help relieve the burden of the pain that comes from growing and struggling to make our world better. I am often distracted, and I view distraction as hesitation or aversion from facing pain. Writing is hard when there is a gap between the initial and desired output; I must face the weakness of my ideas and words. Too much pain is paralysing, but to avoid pain totally gives in to the easy path of complacency.

In short, I still feel that to excel, to grow, to build, requires suffering. That suffering need not be constant, and the desire to suffer can be driven by happiness, and by love, and these positive drivers make the burden of growth all the easier to bear.

Photos 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

A note on fear and death under the current pandemic

Short version:

Since I posted last week, coronavirus continues to dominate media and conversation. First, my advice is unqualified, go to the NHS and CDC instead. If you’re here for my thoughts they are:

1. Don’t panic. It doesn’t help, and this is relatively normal.
2. Journalists know less than clinicians and epidemiologists. Avoid media, instead use the NHS and CDC. For scientific updates, the WHO and journals (The LancetThe New England Journal of Medicine, and Nature). Engaging more than once per day is not helping you stay healthy. Stress weakens the immune system.
3. If you’re healthy and under 50, your personal risk is very low (but the elderly should isolate).
4. If this pushes you to take care of your hygiene and health as you should have been doing already, that’s great.

Long version:

Death

Currently, my media (and conversation) are saturated by the coronavirus pandemic. People seem generally frightened. As I write this, there have been just over 5000 deaths, the first being on January 11th in China. Of course as you read this that number will be higher, and if you are reading it relatively soon it will likely climbing at a faster rate. The final death toll will likely be in the millions. That is, of course, terrible, but it is only terrifying if these numbers are the first point of engagement with public health statistics. This paper from the Journal of Emergency Management points out that the flu outbreaks in 1957 and 1968 both had death tolls over a million, and while the flu of 1918 is being cited as analogous, it hit a population exhausted by 4 years of world war, and when life expectancy was under 50 due to bacterial infections (penicillin being discovered in 1928). People are dying constantly, for example in our modern context:

About 150,000 people die every day
42,000 die from heart attacks and strokes
11,000 die daily due to air pollution
8,000 die from lower respiratory infections (like COVID-19, but this data is from 2016)
4,300 die from diabetes
4,000 die from tuberculosis, every day
4,000 die from malaria, every day
3,800 die from motor vehicle accidents

So, in context, the total deaths we have seen over two months are on a similar order of magnitude to the deaths associated with car accidents or diabetes that happen every day. That said, the death rate will climb, and public health interventions can flatten the curve (worth the click through) to help save lives, but I feel that a significant part of the fear of death is the relative unfamiliarity of most people with it, when it is a very common occurrence.

A note where I hedge: As discussed in 2019 Week 32: Unsympathetic Science, mass shootings draw attention (and therefore public fear) to gun deaths despite being a regular occurrence in the US. I feel the situation here is similar in that the initial fear creates media interest which in turn creates more fear and the feedback drives a frenzy. Unlike the diseases we are familiar with, there are many unknowns to coronavirus, and there is a possibility that it overtakes the causes of death described above.

Reactions

So the psychological behaviours of this pandemic is also interesting.

1. Hoarding toilet paper seems extremely odd to me, and I made the observation that no one has ever died from a lack of toilet paper. Large parts of the world don’t use toilet paper at all. I assume people, being afraid, want to take action to attempt to feel prepared. Panic buying is a self fulfilling prophecy: since stores stock shelves based on what they usually sell, when a sufficiently large minority feels they need to stockpile, they create the shortage they are attempting to prepare for.
2. This virus seems to sit at some optimal point for generating a media frenzy. Health issues like obesity or opiates have not been able to capture the public consciousness to the same extent. Even the return of previously eradicated diseases like measles has not fully captured the public consciousness. Perhaps the authoritarian lock down by the Chinese government creates a setting that lends itself to the public imagination.

A thought experiment I have been playing with:

If you are afraid of the current coronavirus pandemic, how much would you pay to avoid it. £10? £100? £1000? Much more? I would guess you are more afraid of (and therefore willing to pay much more to avoid) coronavirus than you would be of a regular flu, but the flu kills many tens of thousands each year and many people don’t feel the need to buy the annual vaccine. Presumably you are more concerned with death than with suffering the fever or cough, and so whatever the amount you price avoiding coronavirus, I would expect you would also pay to avoid a heart attack, stroke, cancer, or lethal car accident. Given that, here are some things you can do to decrease your chance of death by a much more significant amount!

Stop smoking

Smoking statistics are intense. Smoking kills more than 0.1% of the US population each year (a likely estimate for the total coronavirus deaths), but 5% of the US population has a smoking related disease right now. With 300 under 18s becoming daily cigarette smokers every day, this is not a problem that comes from “before people knew it was bad for them”.

Drive safely

You probably know of someone who died in a car accident. Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and speeding are known to be dangerous, but in the US alone 9 people die each day from distracted-(using a smart phone while)-driving.

Maintain a healthy weight

Costing obese UK citizens 9 years of life expectancy, poor diet is catching up to smoking as the single worst health decision a person can make. Cutting back on high calorie low nutrition food (e.g. sugary drinks and snacks) and finding time to exercise regularly makes you less susceptible to a wide range of diseases (including coronavirus).

Prepare to get help for mental health

Addiction kills slowly. Suicide kills quickly. Both are preventable if people can get help, but when help is needed most it is hardest to navigate towards it. Start talking to friends, loved ones, and your health services about mental health and drug use, so that if things do go bad one day, you’re familiar with the system when you actually need it.

Note, I did not have time to convert DALYs into expected years of life saved for each of the above decisions, but this paper has a very useful table if you want the numbers.

Other things that didn’t fit above but I wanted to share:

A disease burden of influenza special issue from 2018

Netherlands infectous disease burden

Highly shared summary on slowing the disease progression from Tomas Pueyo

How long the virus survives on stuff

Economist explains the structure of the virus and how it relates to possible drug targets.

Lady Astronaut of Mars

“And basically, the novels are: I would like The Martian Chronicles but with more women and people of color, please.”

Mary Robinette Kowal speaking at Google on her novels.

About the books

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Fated Sky, the most recent book by Mary Robinette Kowal. It follows the multi award winning novel The Calculating Stars, and occupies the same “punchard punk” universe as the short stories Articulated Restraint, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, and We Interrupt This Broadcast. You can hear the author read an extract at the start of of this Talk at Google.

Kowal describes her use of sci-fi as “set dressing” to help “explore things that [she] is thinking about from the real world and it allows [her] to talk about them without all of the emotional baggage so [she] can approach them more as a thought experiment”. Dressed in sci-fi, Dr Elma York (main character) grapples with mental illness, patriarchy, and racism, while background elements invoke the politics of climate change.

My thoughts

I enjoyed the alternate history, the blending of the real life Mercury 13 and computers of Hidden Figures with an engaging character driven story. Kowal has done her homework, with help from Derek Benkoski (fighter pilot), Kjell Lindgren and Cady Coleman (astronauts), and Stephen Granade (rocket scientist), which gives Kowal’s depiction of space-faring such realism that it felt a little like reading astronaut Chris Hadfield’s autobiography.

It was new for me to read fiction where most of the cast, including the first person narrator, are women. As with film (I highly recommend checking out this blog post) women tend to be less represented in stories I read (e.g. The Lord of the Rings). While the main plot of The Calculating Stars centres on women fighting to be included as astronauts, The Fated Sky shifts focus to issues of race. The diversity of the cast is necessary for the story Kowal sets out to tell, and whilst she clearly has a progressive stance to share, at no point did I feel narrative was compromised to make a political point (though as far as I can tell I largely share the author’s views).

The first novel opens to a scene involving Elma and Nathaniel’s (main characters) sex life, and their emotional, sexual, and professional relationships feature significantly in both books. Kowal states in the Google Talk that she “wanted their relationship to always be rock solid”. I am fortunate that my relationship is similar enough to find myself relating to Elma and Nathaniel. While there has been criticism that “Nathaniel York is too perfect to be realistic” (which Kowal has responded to via twitter), being able to see the familiar stresses of over-commitment to work, mental illness, and maintaining intimacy over distance, helped me invest in them both as a couple and as individuals.

Fiction and Authors

It is new for me to come to the end of a story I have enjoyed for recreational-escapist-immersion and then be able to turn to the internet to learn about the author, her process, and how to examine fiction more generally. Kowal keeps a public journal, where as I began drafting this post she shared insights into her writing process. She tweets and answers questions through Lee the Puppet and collects typewriters. By following her online presence, I learned of the existence of narrative beats and about heat welding for puppetry. Seeing an author as an actual person (with their struggles and distractions and desires) makes writing less daunting, and so encourages me to write more.

Real Astronaut CVs

Science-fiction and fantasy make for interesting psychological insights into readers. While no one has experienced contact with aliens or magic, the audience’s immersion may be first broken by a very human behaviour. In the talk Kowal discusses that her writing is criticised for her depiction of Elma’s weaknesses as it seems contradictory for Elma to be so paralysed by anxiety in a social context but utterly comfortable with near death experiences in space craft. This is in spite of the real lived experiences of those with social anxiety disorder. Another criticism of the character I have seen in a few places regards her mathematical prowess:

The least relatable thing about Elma is that she’s so smart that no one else can match her. She went to college at 14. She does math in her head. Oh, you have to solve differential equations with a piece of paper and a pencil? You’re actually a dumbass in comparison.” — librarything review by yvonnekins

I remember feeling a similar jealous sentiment towards Patrick Rothfuss’ protagonist in the Kingkiller Chronicle series. It is easy to be jealous of characters who are defined by their intelligence, particularly if you operate in a world where intelligence is worshipped. When it comes to astronauts however, Elma’s skills did not break my immersion, as I have seen astronauts tend to have pretty incredible CVs, e.g. Jonny Kim. Also child pilot and accomplished physicist Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski is not a fictional character.

Some uncomfortable feelings when I come to write about books

Generally, despite really enjoying the story, coming to reflect on it here inspired some painful feelings. While it would be easier to ignore those feelings, that would miss an opportunity to grow past them, and fail to follow the example of sharing personal weakness set by Kowal and others who inspire me. I feel it is important to hold and express thoughts about the books I read, and I couldn’t do that if I avoided emotions that come with reflection. Emotions are difficult to untangle, but two strands I can draw out are:

1. I feel I should write about books but I don’t know why or how. I feel disappointed with myself that when I finished the first book all that made it into the blog was “I finished reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, it is excellent.”

2. I read slowly. It is also disappointing to me that it took me nearly 3 months to read The Fated Sky. I quickly convert that rate of four books a year through the relatively short human lifespan, and feel a great sense of loss that there are so many texts I will never read.

Closing Thoughts

I highly enjoyed both books (on paper), but given Kowal is a voice actor and does the narration, I would recommend listening to The Calculating Stars via audiobook. I eagerly anticipate the third book in Elma and Nathaniel’s story, due in 2022.

2019 Week 48: Consumption

Short version: This Black Friday weekend is a relevant time to attempt to press my thoughts on consumerism into a post. A revealing ONS data set about household spending. Also some thoughts on blogging and whales’ heart beats.

A note on structure

On top of a tangled set of thoughts about consumption, there was a lot of interesting content to read, listen to, and watch on this topic. The structure of this post suffered, and so if you’re just here to skim I suggest scroll down to the bottom and just check out Trends from the data and Whales’ Heart Beats.

Consumerism

I want stuff. Lots of people also want stuff. Often, if they can, they go out and buy stuff. This is a simple thought, but the many paths it leads down have been a tangle in my mind for some time. This post is an attempt to rectify the clash between the obvious value in markets and trade with the absurdity of waste (see the two videos below) in modern developed economies. This is highlighted by celebrations of consumerism that occur after Thanksgiving.

Chasers War on Waste

The true cost of fast fashion | The Economist

People want to be rich

I think it is reasonable to presume the overwhelming majority of people would like to have more money. Money provides security, safety, and freedom (and most of lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Casey Neistat points out that for a lot of people, money will solve all problems. although people with plenty of money still have problems.

This simple desire for material wealth gets complicated by how different that desire looks at different points of time. The majority of people in the developed world have access to goods and services that were restricted to only the most wealthy only decades ago. Advances in agriculture and medicine mean even the poorest citizens have access to goods like pineapples and penicillin that would have been unimaginable to emperors and kings of centuries past. This Louis CK bit makes light of changing expectations. That desire for newer and shinier at the expense of appreciation for what we already have is, in part, created by the desire for companies to grow their sales and profits. An array of narratives are pushed through advertising. A particularly disturbing yet powerful lie is that you can change who you are simply by owning something. The idea that you can be fitter/sexier/smarter by buying something, rather than by learning or growing, sells a lot of products, despite failing their buyers.

School of Life: History of Consumerism

Black Friday

Black Friday is a day of discounted selling by retailers following Thanksgiving Day, which is observed by shops throughout much of the world. Scenes of people rushing into stores and fighting over relatively cheaper items are symbolic of a period of significant spending by consumers as the end of the year, and particularly Christmas, approaches.

A lot of people work in retail. In Australia, it is 1.3 million, nearly 10% of the labour force. This is an enormous amount of human life dedicated to the mere act of selling things (1.8 Australian lifetimes is spent per working hour by the collective in shops, life expectancy in Australia = 82.5 years). Intuitively (and so simplistically as to be utterly inaccurate) this struck me as a waste of time, given retail exists as a middle man between producers and consumers. Of course in reality at points retailers make the entire system more efficient (for example by collecting fruit and milk in bulk and distributing it to stores in lieu of each consumer visiting a farm individually), but in practice profit incentives drive this enormous work force to motivate us all to consumer more.

One way consumption is driven is through pricing. The decision to purchase an item is in part determined by the price attached to that item. Commonly items are priced at X.99 rather than X+1, because that centipoint increase is far more psychologically significant than the additional profit. A further extreme of this is quantum pricing where fewer price points mean profit margins are obfuscated. The discounts of Black Friday create the perception that shoppers are saving money by buying things at a lower price than they would otherwise, combined with a false scarcity that this is the only time to buy. In reality most consumer goods depreciate rapidly so any future time is a better time to buy. Less scrupulous stores raise prices before the sales only to mark down to pre-sale prices. One clear sign of the power of this frenzied overconsumption is the willingness for people to take on debt to purchase luxuries. Loan Sharks take advantage of Black Friday pressures to consume.

Interesting observations from some actual data

A few weeks ago I came across the BBC series “My Money“, which takes individuals and looks at their spending over a week. My fascination with how other people spend money stems from not having a good answer to “What is the appropriate/correct/optimal amount to spend on X”. There are intuitive answers to this, which is why spending £100 a week on cheese or £5 a quarter on electricity “feel” high and low, but that intuition is shaped by our relatively limited insight into other’s spending (likely dominated by our parents’ and partners’ habits) augmented by the media we consume, particularly the coercive forces of marketing.

I am consistently frustrated with the concept of normal. There are no “normal” people in the same way there is no way to roll 3.5 (the centre of the normal distribution for values) on a 6 sided die. This video featuring wrestler John Cena emphasises the difficulty in describing an “average” american. However discovering the UK’s Office of National Statistics collects and compiles data on household expenditure (among other things), and produces reports on the distribution of spending, provides data on where the distributions actually lie. I found exploring the data fascinating. I was particularly excited to find this data set breaking down typical weekly expenditure by item in pretty specific categories (e.g. “Cheese”, “Books”, and “Package Holidays – UK” are separate categories).

Here are some observations:

The big picture: income and expenditure

The distribution of incomes in the UK gives an insight into what households can actually afford.

The interactive graphic below gives insight into how the typical UK household spends (taken from this ONS report).

Trends from the data

General trends

A wealthier decile has more people per household.

Wealth increases steadily between the 2nd and 8th deciles, and sharply at both ends.

Overall spending trends

Spending in most product areas correlates with increasing disposable income on both a per person and per capita level.

Interesting specific spending trends

Food
Poultry (strongly) and beef (weakly) correlate with increasing wealth, pork and lamb are flat across groups, and bacon and ham have a weak negative correlation.

Housing
Poorer households spend proportionally much more on housing, making up 19.1 % of spending for the lower half of households, vs 11.1 % for the upper (I guess this is because of renting vs owning). This is after accounting for housing benefits to the lowest deciles.

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

Clothes
In the bottom three deciles women spend 2.5x more than than men on clothes, whereas that ratio is only 1.3x for the top decile.
Only the top few deciles use drycleaning services.

Alcohol and Tobacco
Spending on alcoholic drinks was correlated with income, but the trend was dominated by wine, while beer and spirits were fairly independent across the groups.
Lower income deciles spent more per person on tobacco and other narcotics.

Health and Education
Education (school fees) and sports subscriptions (gyms) correlated strongly with income.

Entertainment
There is a hump like feature in the audio-visual equipment categories in the 6th and 7th deciles.
Spending on hotels appears to have an exponential relationship with increasing disposable income.

Statistical definitions

Useful definitions from the ONS:

What is disposable income?

Disposable income is arguably the most widely used household income measure. Disposable income is the amount of money that households have available for spending and saving after direct taxes (such as Income Tax, National Insurance and Council Tax) have been accounted for. It includes earnings from employment, private pensions and investments as well as cash benefits provided by the state.

The five stages are:

1. Household members begin with income from employment, private pensions, investments and other non-government sources; this is referred to as “original income

2. Households then receive income from cash benefits. The sum of cash benefits and original income is referred to as “gross income”.

3. Households then pay direct taxes. Direct taxes, when subtracted from gross income is referred to as “disposable income”.

4. Indirect taxes are then paid via expenditure. Disposable income minus indirect taxes is referred to as “post-tax income”.

5. Households finally receive a benefit from services (benefits in kind). Benefits in kind plus post-tax income is referred to as “final income”.

Note that at no stage are deductions made for housing costs.

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

Amusing group names:

While looking at consumer spending in the UK, I found the following categories that the ONS uses to divide UK residents. Some of them were incredulous to the point of being amusing.

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

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

Personal conflict: running tech

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

December blogging reflection

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

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

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

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

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

Whales’ heart beats

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

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 45: Competition and Robots

Short version: Some thoughts on the blurry line where competition becomes toxic, and also robots.

Long version:

Competition

The story:
Athlete Mary Cain wrote and spoke with the New York Times about her experience training with the Nike Oregon Project, which ended recently after the head coach Alberto Salazar was banned due to involvement with doping. The environment at Nike Oregon Project was physically and mentally damaging for athletes like Cain, and for her the experience was clearly toxic. It is harder to say the project as a whole was toxic, because for other athletes (including Mo Farah) that environment led to enormous success. I am reminded of the ritual of stabbing a pin into ones chest practiced by elite military groups. Objectively this is painful and physically damaging, but so is much of what is used in selecting elite units.

My thoughts:
Pain, either physical or emotional, ought not always be avoided, but neither should it be sought out. In competitive environments an ability and willingness to suffer is a factor in success, whether the environment is a sports field, or a business sector, or a war. In my experience that suffering is much easier to bear when I feel I am choosing to face it, rather than it being imposed upon me. This is the contradiction of self-harm, that when suffering is imposed on someone they sometimes react by imposing further suffering upon themselves. It is worryingly unclear to me where the line is between good and healthy competition vs. a bad and damaging environment, but the evidence would suggest that the in a given environment like Nike Oregon Project, some can thrive while others will be crushed.

Robots

I encountered robotic arms that emulate a bartender in London this week, pictured below. It feels like something out of science fiction, where human like robots perform labour for their fleshy masters. While the spectacle of the arms at work is attention grabbing, a more elegant solution to dispensing beverages is the Coca Cola freestyle, (pictures of the internals from reddit here and here) which also can produce a large variety of mixtures, but in location and design is very similar to the more mundane soda dispenser. Consumer technology is often marketed through the cold lense of quantitative performance metrics, but our relationship with that technology (and our willingness to consume it) is just as emotional as the art that inspires it. We as a society built this robotic bartender (and so many other things), not because it was a practical solution to the problem of how to add tonic water to gin, but because it entertains us by feeling like the future we imagine.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 42: Hot, Loud, Crazy, and Numb.

Short version: Heating Engineering is effective but unintuitive. Tim Minchin’s Back tour, DNA and Microscopy, We loses billions, a dip in my Mental Health.

Long version:

Heating – Great Engineering Terrible Design

If you have radiators for heating the numbers on the valve are not arbitrary, but adjust flow to maintain temperature automatically. Therefore they can be set to a desired temperature and left in that position without need for adjustment based on weather.

Central heating was a novel experience for me when I moved to the UK. A common system (which is fitted in my home) is to have a single boiler that heats water (in my case by burning gas, the alternative being electric heating) that then flows into radiators throughout the house. Each radiator has a valve. Only recently I learned that the valves attached to each radiator are more complex than they appear; rather than simply controlling flow directly (like a tap at a sink), they contain a material that is sensitive to temperature (wax) and the flow is adjusted to keep the radiator at a fixed temperature. If the radiator is set at position 3, corresponding to 20°C, and the temperature in the room is 21°C, no water will flow as the expansion of wax closes the valve. If the room cools to 19°C then the wax contracts and opens the valve, allowing hot water to flow. This document from Honeywell provides some more explanation.

On the one hand, this is clever engineering that ultimately saves energy by preventing unnecessary heating. On the other, the arbitrary 0 to 5 scale, instead of marking the temperature that the valve maintains, makes this feature counter-intuitive. Without being told about this I doubt I would have ever noticed this self-regulation. The combined thermal mass of radiators and the rooms they heat is large, thus the changes from adjusting the valve occur too slowly to observe easily.

Even something ubiquitous and seemingly simple can be surprisingly complex.

Tim Minchin

I saw Tim Minchin play in Oxford this weekend. Songs included 15 Minutes and Woody Allen Jesus. The show was fun, loud, irreverent, self-indulgent, and self-aware. It was an immersive reminder to me that while technology gives us the incredible opportunity to experience almost the entire library of music almost anywhere, there is an intimacy and immediacy to seeing a live performance that makes the experience more powerful. In this comedic performance, the energy of the performers and their impromptu interactions with each other and the audience makes listening alone to recordings comparatively cold and dry.

At a few points while monologuing Minchin pointed out how his earlier songs which come from the perspective of a (relatively) impoverished artist now conflict with his huge (financial) successes. He also addressed the modern “tribes” of progressives and conservatives, and the contradiction of his (huge) personal carbon footprint and his concerns about the environment. It particularly hit home (given the last section of this blog post) to hear him describe his first experience with depression; being sad that his hundred-million-dollar cartoon was binned from a house looking over the ocean, which was paid for by his hugely successful musical. There is a sense that when one is so lucky, so privileged, that mental illness is unacceptable, and yet, it does affect us.

Two Interesting Things from Nature

A narrative regarding the discovery of the structure of DNA, and a comment about the need for easier access to microscopy.

Business in 2019

Is crazy. Consider this quote from this article:

If you wake up on a Casper mattress, work out with a Peloton before breakfast, Uber to your desk at a WeWork, order DoorDash for lunch, take a Lyft home, and get dinner through Postmates, you’ve interacted with seven companies that will collectively lose nearly $14 billion this year.


Derek Thompson
writes in The Atlantic

Venture capitalists have essentially subsidised tech-y westerners to the tune of $100 each (Assuming about 140 million people use these loss making services). Meanwhile WeWork seems to be imploding.

Mental Health

I’ve had a (hopefully brief) decline in mental health recently. It is tempting to look for causation. I could guess at less daylight, or colder temperatures, or working beyond a sustainable amount recently. Maybe it is my experimental work, which while intellectually stimulating, occasionally has patches of repeated failures. Each failed experiment whittles away at confidence and motivation, and creates a sense that the whole exercise is pointless. Importantly though, sometimes there is no cause, or the cause is not concurrent with the effect. All I really know is I woke up on Friday feeling numb, unmotivated, and wanting desperately to escape my own thoughts. I am very lucky to have colleagues and friends who are understanding and supportive. I have learnt that alcohol is a bad way to escape. I am trying to be patient with myself. If I get nothing useful done in a day that is frustrating, but a constant stream of self-berating doesn’t help. I know things will get better.

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.