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 19: Balls

Short version: in a week of upper-class entertainment, I attended a Ball in Oxford, and an Opera in London.

Long version:


In the university calendar of Oxford, the warmer months of Trinity term bring with them the college balls. Students dress up in black tie to enjoy carnival rides, food trucks, open bars, and dancing. Given colleges are the term time homes of Oxford students, they are something of an extravagant house-party. The nature of the ticket pricing (a single price for entry with everything being free within the ball) encourages over consumption, particularly of alcohol. It also encourages the practice of sneaking into balls, by scaling walls or attempting unusual canal crossings.

As something of an Oxford outsider, I think I miss out on the main joy of attending a party with your peers where you live and study. They are a spectacle, and good company, music, and drink are certainly pleasant. That said, having attended a few balls last year, the novelty has worn off. I’ve written about lowering my alcohol consumption, and similarly excessive consumption of “party” foods is an unwise choice. Even the loss of sleep, as balls tend to carry on into the small hours of the morning, seems to be a price I am less willing to pay. I feel both “old” and “anti-fun” as I write this, but my priorities have shifted from this particular expression of hedonism to value each activity in a purer and more moderate form, rather than thrown together in a single event. Dancing is not particularly enhanced by heavy eating or drinking. Thrill seeking comes best in more practical clothing. Good company is better enjoyed where conversation is not drowned out by party music. Overall, while the components of a ball are very enjoyable, I find the combined experience to be less than the sum of the parts.

Opera: Billy Budd

On Friday I attended the closing performance of Billy Budd, which impressed upon me an appreciation that Britain no longer uses impressment. I feel this piece from the Financial Times has a much more informed opinion on the performance than I could form. The English language opera with an all male cast had enough elements of the Christ story to make me reflect on the oddity that the United Kingdom is technically a religious state. Also the loyalty of the titular character, despite his tragic end, is something I feel a sense of envy over. The British Navy is not a hierarchy I aspire to be a part of, but to have a clear sense of purpose, of duty, and to live up to that purpose and duty, is something that I do aspire to.

Photos from the Week

2018 Week 26: Going beyond your ashtray

The short version:
I am too concerned with being seen as intelligent. I am actively choosing to care less about that. I’m back to blogging. Life is good.

The long version:

What do you really want?
Recently I was a visited by a former supervisor who was effective in calling me out on my self delusions. I worry too much about being seen as clever. I’m aware that this has caused me problems in the past, but in the present I am swayed by the short term pleasure of validation and sense of security I gain from feeling I’ve convinced others of my cleverness. Ultimately this is a futile and deeply wasteful aim. My supervisor reminded me, somewhat in the style of Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try”, that unless I commit to the choice to do something differently, I won’t change. I need to choose to stop caring if people think I’m clever or not. This is difficult for several reasons, 1. it is a deeply ingrained habit, 2. being seen to be clever seems to be important for being valued by an organisation, 3. it is part of my identity. I could replace it with an alternative value, being diligent, or capable. Preferably I would replace the concern with others opinion entirely with a drive towards a greater good, hence the question posed above. As far as I have been able to see through reflection, I am where I am today because of curiosity, competitiveness, and the need to be seen by others as clever. Removing the last of those leaves a gap that needs to be filled, and until a more specific goal materialises, I will roughly pencil in “make a good and meaningful contribution to the world”.

The eponymous ashtray refers to one sitting between my supervisor and I as we shared a dinner at the Turf Tavern, which was used as a metaphor for one’s comfort zone. Internally I bristled a little at the idea that I was uncomfortable going outside my “ash tray”; I feel my risk appetite is fairly high, and that I’m very willing to try new things. He was right though: I may be willing to travel to new places, or to try new foods, to meet new people, but having done those things before they were now within my ash tray. But ceasing my attempts to be seen a certain way was outside. He reminded me that you can always come back to your ash tray, and that is true too, making this choice now does not mean, if it turns out to have been the wrong one, I can never come back. The symbolism had the added benefit of making one’s comfort zone seem like an unhealthy and unpleasant place to stay.

It is difficult to fight our nature. We are social creatures, and to be ostracised by your community is a terrible, and much feared, fate. But vanity and narcissism, whether aesthetic or intellectual, are not the right paths to being included in a community. Respect and empathy are much more valuable both to oneself but also to the community as a whole. To this end, concerning yourself with projecting or accentuating certain aspects of yourself is actually counter-productive: its subtle dishonesty belies a lack of respect for one’s peers. Ultimately, as with most things, it is much easier to say these things than put them into practice.

This post comes approximately halfway through the year, and leaves a gap of approximately 18 weeks. It has been slightly painful to return to, or even think about, that delay as it has grown. As discussed above, I have a problem with being overly concerned about how people see me, and I would like to be seen as punctual, disciplined, consistent, and at the very least capable of maintaining a weekly blog. Unfortunately that is clearly not the case here, but at a certain point I ought to have given up on posting weekly in favour of the main aim of posting at all, which I enjoy. Further complicating this is that a blog is public one way communication; a tool of projecting (presumably desirable) aspects of oneself.

Structurally, I don’t want to let go of the weekly update structure, although it would put less pressure on weeks where time is in short supply. I’m going to experiment a little with creating more categories.


I’m writing from a train between Birmingham and Oxford. I’m very fortunate to have a sister early in her career as a musician, as it compels me to attend concerts I would otherwise have likely ignored. (You can hear her, and the rest of the orchestra, here.) I do enjoy them, and am learning that even though there is complexity to the pieces (and art more generally), my enjoyment of them need not be complex. I regret I don’t prioritise being better educated in music, but I believe that we ought not let the inability to engage in something fully prevent us from engaging at all, most obviously because we would not otherwise be able to try anything new!

Life Updates:

I’m approaching the end of the first 6 months with ONI, and it has been an exciting, exhilarating, and exhausting experience. I am very lucky to be surrounded by interesting, intelligent, and most of all inspiring colleagues. Each day I feel I am growing both professionally and personally, and as such I suspect I am currently in the best place I could possibly be.

Health and Fitness:
Planning to run the Blenheim Palace and Oxford half marathons later this year, with a stretch goal time of under 90 minutes and a likely goal time of under 100 minutes. If I am able to dedicate myself to a training program 90 minutes might be achievable, but with running not being my highest priority the required training may be sacrificed in favour of professional and social commitments.

A happy thought about time:
I am coming to a happy place on the fact that I will always have more things I’d like to do in any given block of time than I can. I should not look sadly on all the things I let go or miss out on, but instead treasure the things I choose to do. This should help avoid escapist behaviours and that waste these precious moments.

2018 Week 6: Overdue

I’ve broken a relatively short streak of regular Sunday blog posts. A (self imposed) stressful week at work and a (wonderfully) socially packed weekend left little time for personal, let alone public, reflection. Nevertheless regular writing is a habit I am trying to cultivate, hence the following:

Asking for help
The main lesson from work this past week is to ask for help. When you find you need it, delaying for fear of “looking incompetent” is foolish. Worst case you need to solve it by yourself any way, likely case you at least notify others that there may be an issue, and best case you save a lot of time and learn something in the process. The perceived hit to the ego and reputation is much smaller than the actual cost, which is likely to be paid anyway if the problem is one where you are really stuck.

Hamilton and Headphones
I was incredibly fortunate to see the the musical Hamilton in London this weekend. I had seen Lin-Manuel Miranda perform at the white house poetry jam via YouTube, and had enjoyed sharing the hip-hop meets history video with friends as an example of an unexpected combination (often alongside Beat-boxing video-game themed flute). A frightening first impression had me wishing my life, like Hamilton’s, depended on my work such that I’d be able to pursue it with more energy, but eventually it was pointed out to me that this would not be a healthy incentive. The take home messages for me are to be cautious about pride standing in the way of reason, and to consider where to draw the line on ambition. Also, experiencing narratives is valuable, as is writing more.  The next day, exploring the lyrical complexity of the Broadway recording, it struck me how incredible the advancements in technology are that make live performance the rarity rather than the mainstay of modern music. Particularly in combination with mobile internet and streaming services, that so much content was so readily accessible to me, where once no monarch let alone man would have such a repertoire at their beck and call.

Gardens and Games
The featured image for this week comes from the Oxford Botanical Garden greenhouses. Coming from a warm country, it was comforting to be amongst heat, humidity, and horticulture. I also enjoyed playing Avalon and Tsuro for the first time, Avalon reminded me a lot of Mafia and Tsuro is a more confrontational form of Snakes and Ladders.

Writing from the office