2019 Week 43: Big Things

Short version: A few big things to talk about; nuclear war, bribes, engineered environments, mistakes, and courses.

Long version:

Big Problems

In Oxford I enjoy meeting people passionate about studies I might not have otherwise ever considered. This week I was introduced to ALLFED, a group who spend their time working out how to feed the population who survive a nuclear war. In the current political climate it can be both frightening and paralysing to think the fate of billions rests on the whim of a few individuals. Knowing some out there are trying to be prepared give me confidence that humanity can survive its own incredible destructive power. This work fits under the umbrella of Effective Altruism, which is persuasive (I have a few friends who are strong proponents) but also complex.

Big Presents

There is a common understanding that bribery is wrong, but it is not immediately obvious why. The answer I seem to find is that the central issue of bribery is when a person is able to take an advantage for themselves (the bribe) in exchange for acting against the external interests they represent (e.g. the university in the case of a college admissions administrator). Some examples:

This year a scandal broke regarding admissions to US colleges, where coaches were bribed to select students without athletic ability on an athletic basis. At face value the harm here appears to be a violation of meritocratic principles; students ought be selected on their talent rather than the wealth of their parents. In fact generally wealthy parents are able to have their students attend top universities despite their academic or sporting ability, via large donations to universities. The wrong here comes from the coaches personally profiting from the student’s admission, rather than the university itself.

In China large gifts were given by banks to politicians, and in Australia political donations by banks have been scrutinised, while the volumes of donations in the US are much higher. Cash donations, crystal tigers, coffee; for politicians these rarely come without strings attached. A journalist buying coffee or even a meal in exchange for an interview seems natural, a company paying a politician to be awarded a contract is graft. In between these, it is difficult to work out where courts or courts of public opinion ought to draw the line.

Big Artificial Environments

People have managed to make some incredible changes to their environment. This week The Wave opened in England, an artificial lake that generates artificial waves so that people can surf. There is also warm weather skiing on plastic and the more extreme indoor ski slope cooled to negative temperatures in hot Dubai. The football world cup will required air conditioned stadiums. All this gives hope that technology can repair the damage we are doing from burning fossil fuels, but also these feats of engineering require enormous amounts of energy themselves.

Big Mistakes

In my reading about health, smoking seems to be the worst decision a person can make. This week I saw some calculations about how smoking is a terrible financial mistake, in addition to the health costs.

Big Classes

This week I finished a Massive open online course (MOOC) on statistics, making it the first online course I’ve completed. Previous attempts, such as the biology course I started in Week 28, have been derailed by lack of interest or energy. I was particularly reminded of the importance of working in your Zone of Proximal Development by this line of mathematics.

Depending on your familiarity with logarithms, this may either appear indecipherable or trivial. I particularly remember encountering logs around the age of 15, and it being the point in my mathematical learning where maths stopped being intuitive. It was confronting to not find the subject easy. Unfortunately I couldn’t see or be shown how pushing past that initial discomfort would lead to valuable personal growth, and I moved away from mathematics to subjects I “felt I was better at”. I think the feeling of being overwhelmed, of being stuck, drives many people away from opportunities to grow and empower themselves, and it is a feeling I am still striving to become more comfortable with.

Photos from the week

Dry Ice Fog for Halloween

2019 Week 41: Changing your mind

Short version: An interesting question to reflect on, a mantra I find useful, another reason to avoid diabetes, the Nobel Prize rejection, and making my phone less distracting.

What would it take to change your mind?

I’ve been thinking about this question recently. In many ways our beliefs about the world, what we hold “in mind”, is intertwined with our identity. How those ideas form, and how they can be changed, informs who we are and how we act. I have not spent much time thinking about what specific influences would be required to change my beliefs. I would like to think that, as a scientist, I am willing to “turn on a dime” in response to strong evidence, but what specifically constitutes strong evidence?

On a population level changing minds is critical to governance. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr gave a TED talk with some fascinating images; advertisements run on Facebook that she suggests influenced Welsh citizens to vote against their own interests on the Brexit referendum. I wonder if those citizens would be able to identify what caused them to be so fearful of hypothetical Turkish migrants (specifically) or the EU (generally), and what evidence or experiences they would now require to lose those fears.

I would suggest you try the thought experiment (and would love to hear your thoughts!). Consider what might cause you to change your mind on beliefs that you hold at different strengths. What might make you change the political party you feel aligned with? Your religious views? Views on climate change? On who you are? At the moment my own thoughts are quite confused, but I find the exercise interesting.

A useful mantra

When trying to understand why someone has acted to cause you harm, I find it useful to remember the order of these three causes:
Apathy. Incompetence. Malevolence.

I realised that it is very rare that a negative occurrence is the result of malicious intent, but often we suspect that cause. I’ve explained my thoughts (and the three word reminder above) a couple times in person in recent weeks.

First for something malicious to occur someone needs to care enough to do consider a malicious act and then act on that thought. Most people just do not give significant thought to others, and generally people err on the side of inaction. Even when a relationship is positive and significant, the frequency of thinking of doing something good translating into actually doing it is relatively low, and most people only have a small number of such intense relationships. Consider how many such strong relationships you have, compared with how many people you cross paths with regularly, and this can likely be extrapolated to others. Just as apathy may cause you to thoughtlessly inconvenience one of these people, so too might their apathy inconvenience you. (There is a related punchline in a joke about gun ownership I rather enjoy: if you are buying a gun for personal defence you must (absurdly) have a high opinion of yourself that anyone cares enough about you to try and attack you).

Second, much of the time when we try to influence the world we make mistakes and influence it in an unintentional way. Just as a good intention can produce a bad outcome, so too does an attempt to manifest a bad intention have a chance of producing a good outcome, or no outcome at all. Since most people tend not to practice malicious acts regularly (I hope), then most people even if attempting to cause harm will do so poorly. More often people trying to be good may fail, and therefore accidentally cause harm. The harm is caused by incompetence rather than malice.

Finally, only if apathy and incompetence are considered and ruled out should we consider ill will. Our mind rushes to this conclusion first, stories we learn from an early age arrange themselves around characters acting in opposition, “good” vs “bad”. It is more comfortable to consider a simple and ordered narrative where people are competent and their actions match their intentions, rather than the complex disordered reality where the two are often not coupled. We are at the centre of our own misfortune, and so assume people can see what we do and must therefore notice and care about our strong emotion. Ultimately these are misguided assumptions.

Remember, when next bitterly considering why you were wronged, the likely reason is Apathy, then Incompetence, and only then, Malevolence.

Diabetes and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes is a prevalent disease in the developed world, and can partially be addressed through lifestyle interventions, like maintaining a healthy diet (and hence weight) and exercising. If there weren’t already enough reasons to avoid diabetes, I’ve recently come across the term “type-3” diabetes, an alternate name for Alzheimer’s disease, due to similarities between the diseases and correlation between Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes.

Nobel Prize Winner’s Nature Rejection Letters

This week the Nobel Prizes were announced, including one for Peter J Ratcliffe, for his work on hypoxia. I’ve seen some tweets sharing a letter to Ratcliffe declining to publish a paper from him. The message is often one of encouragement to persevere in the face of criticism, or that Nature has made a serious blunder by not publishing the work.

The assumptions here are interesting. Ratcliffe’s Nobel Prize indicates a significant contribution, but it does not mean that every paper he wrote warranted publication at all, let alone publication in any specific journal. Perseverance is naturally a requirement for success in a field (trivially if you quit before you succeed you cannot succeed), but that perseverance needs to include a willingness to adapt to both criticism and praise from peers, not blindness to it (though that adaptation can also be bolstering evidence and pushing back against the criticism, rather than conceding to it). Finally the publisher here (Nature) is responding to the comments of the reviewers who would be other researchers in the field (peers), rather than merely dismissing the work, which I feel can be lost in the suggestion that Nature made a mistake not publishing the work: they were following the procedures which fundamentally led to their success and prestige as a journal.

As an aside: Ratcliffe ended up having 28 papers (to date) in Nature family journals, of which 3 are in nature itself, so I doubt anyone is holding a grudge.

Phone Distractions

I wrote about changing my search engine, and while some tasks now take longer I have adapted and think there is some improvement to the content I consume. This week, at a friend’s suggestion, I switched my phone to monochrome (greyscale), in an attempt to make it less visually alluring. I am surprised how effective such a small change is, the content is the same, but the stimulus is reduced, and it makes it easier to moderate my time mindlessly scrolling.

Oxford Half Marathon

This week I ran the Oxford half marathon, and while at the moment I am still overdue on the Blenheim Palace half race report, I’m hoping to write both and update the respective blog posts soon.

Photos from the week

2019 Week 40: Charts and Code

Short version: Intuitions about how we look at data. Taking small steps with code. Art at the Tate Modern.

Long version:

Sneaky Spreadsheets

This week I have been processing some experimental data and realised how the same data can be plotted in seemingly different ways. Often looking at the numbers themselves can be challenging, particularly if there are hundreds of points with multiple values at each point. For this example we take some simple data about income distribution in the UK. The numbers alone are accurate but making inferences takes consideration and a little mental arithmetic.

A linear column chart is the simplest and fastest way to visualise the data in a spreadsheet program (excel, google sheets, open office calc). It shows the 99th percentile as much larger than the other values, and the increases seem bigger between the higher percentiles.

Taking a logarithmic plot makes each step along the distribution seem more even, but the 99th percentile still seems noticeably larger.

But by changing the minimum axis value on a logarithmic plot the distribution seems much flatter overall.

And we can go to the opposite extreme, by plotting a pie chart the high income earners (top 1%) seem to take a massive share of the pie.

Code

I am not proficient in code, and find that embarrassing. That is an odd statement, I’m not proficient at many things (skateboarding, Portuguese speaking, cello playing) but few of those things cause me to feel embarrassment. Technological proficiency, unlike skating or playing a string instrument, is a part of my identity, and I feel that being able to code (or at least write basic scripts) is a part of being good with tech. When I go to write code, I am confronted by the gap between what I feel my skill should be and where my skills actually are, which is uncomfortable. Moreover it causes me to hide, refraining from asking for help, and I end up doing things in a slow and repetitive way. To push back against that urge, here is an attempt to write a simple python script to extract folder information from a directory tree.

import os
import re
print "This removes files from saved directory trees"
path = "./"
print "I will run in the local folder"
linecount = 0
for filename in os.listdir(path):
        if filename[len(filename)-4:]==".txt":
            with open(os.path.join(path, filename), "r") as file:
                output= open(filename[0:len(filename)-4]+"_folders.txt","w+")
                for line in  file:
                    if len(line) > 6:
                        if line[len(line)-6]!=".":
                            if line[len(line)-5]!=".":
                                if line[len(line)-6:]!="Cloud\n":
                                    output.write(line)
                                    linecount = linecount +1
            print("I found "+str(linecount)+" lines and put them into "+filename[0:len(filename)-4]+"_folders.txt")
            linecount = 0
        else:
            print("I did not process "+filename)
            linecount = 0

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Photos from the week

From the Tate Modern exhibition by Olafur Eliasson

2019 Week 29: Front Page News

Short version: I summarise and share thoughts on articles from the covers of current editions of high impact journals. I ran late at night and it was serene.

Long version:

Front Page Science

Human knowledge is vast, and discovering is more difficult than learning from others what was discovered before. This explanation of what a PhD is visualises that point. Scientists need to communicate with each other about their results, and do so by publishing articles collected and edited by journals. Today with journals available online it is rare to open a physical periodical rather than read individual articles digitally (or printed one by one). Those hard copy collections still exist, and necessarily they have a front cover. This week I looked up the covers of some high impact journals (see below), read the related article, and wrote down my thoughts.

Snooze Report
On the cover of Nature.
This paper studies sleep in Zebrafish. While we all sleep, it is a complicated process with many aspects still not understood. Zebrafish are a model organism, that is they can be used as a substitute for understanding processes in humans, and have been studied extensively. Zebrafish are known to sleep based on behavioural criteria (essentially they stop moving for a while for regular periods), but it is hard to compare Zebrafish sleep to humans (or mammals in general) in a more detailed way. This is because sleep is studied in humans by looking at electrical signals from the brain (via electroencephalograms or EEG), but fish do not have a similar part of the brain (the neocortex) where human sleep signals are recorded. The team behind this paper, mostly from Stanford, used a light microscope based method to look at Zebrafish brains while they slept, and discovered two sleep signatures that they call “slow bursting sleep” and “propagating wave sleep” that they claim to be similar to our “slow-wave sleep” and “rapid eye movement sleep“.

Artificial Muscles
On the cover of Science
Much of science and engineering aims to replicate nature, be it materials (the first plastics replaced natural materials like silk and ivory), phenomena (electric lighting replacing flames), or biological feats (aircraft allowing human flight). Being able to artificially produce the mechanical properties of muscle (fibres that can contract) is important for robotics and prosthetics that more accurately mimic what natural creatures can do. This group, mostly from MIT, have created fibres that can lift 650 times their weight, and withstand thousands of cycles.

African Killifishes
On the cover of Cell
The advances made in DNA sequencing accelerated rapidly, and whole genome sequencing is now routinely available to researchers. This research team studied the genetic code of 45 killifish species to better understand the relationship between genes and life span. Killifishes have a range of life spans due to species diversifying and adapting to different environments. Killifish with shorter lives tended to have more genetic code, including both more redundant code and more detrimental mutations.

Controlled patterning of stem cell cultures
On the cover of Nature Methods
Three key concepts underpin this paper: Stem cells are cells that can become other types of cells. Morphogens are chemicals that, through their distribution, influence how cells develop, and eventually leads to the organisation of different types of cells in complex organisms. Microfluidics is the process of handling very small amounts of liquid. Those three come together in this method that explains how using a microfluidic device to introduce morphogens in a gradient over stem cells alters the patterns that they develop.

Atomistic Simulations of Membrane Ion Channel Conduction, Gating, and Modulation
On the cover of ACS Chemical Reviews
Reviews are an intermediate type of publication between cutting edge research and established science found in textbooks. This paper covers computer simulations of membrane ion channels, and is a comprehensive 72 pages (excluding the 923 references). Membrane ion channels are important for electrical activity in biological systems, i.e. the nervous system. Computer simulations have become increasingly important in chemistry, made particularly famous in 2013.

A one-dimensional individual-based mechanical model of cell movement in heterogeneous tissues and its coarse-grained approximation
On the cover of Proceedings of the Royal Society A
My mathematical understanding is far from the frontiers of mathematical research, and so I don’t often read papers from mathematicians. This paper presents a model, that is a mathematical representation, for cell movement in tissue. The power of mathematics, and of models, is to be able to generalise from limited information. In this case the hope is a generalised model might inform a better understanding of disease.

Guiding spin waves in artificial antiferromagnets
On the cover of Nature nanotechnology
Spin is a fundamental property of subatomic particles, such as electrons. Magnetism is a directly observable consequence of spin, in a similar way to static electricity being a directly observable consequence of charge. We manipulate charge in conventional electronic devices, and spintronics aims to manipulate spin in a similar way. This paper describes spin-waves being controlled, and is a step towards more complex applications of spin.

Rapid Plant DNA Extraction
On the cover of ACS Nano
The paper describes a method for extracting the DNA from plants using a patch covered in hundreds of sub-millimeter needles. This reduces a multi hour chemical extraction to a few minutes work.

Nanopore metagenomics enables rapid clinical diagnosis of bacterial lower respiratory infection
On the cover of Nature biotechnology
Oxford Nanopore, like ONI, is a spin out of Oxford University. They develop a device for rapid and portable DNA sequencing. In this paper they apply that technology to diagnosing bacteria in respiratory infections. Conventional identification by growing the bacteria taken from a patient sample takes 2-3 days, whereas the Nanopore method could give results in a few hours.

Night Runs

Early this week I wanted a long run, but only had time to start at midnight. I decided to go for it, and found I really enjoyed the quiet streets. Particularly the lack of vehicle traffic meant I could run on the road. Even having the whole footpath to myself the alternating sloping driveways and flat footpath required attention, while the smooth asphalt gave me space to get lost in my thoughts. I had decided to run unplugged, without music or a podcast, and even turned off the backlight on my watch, setting the pace purely on feel. After the first few kilometres I found a rhythm and just listened to my foot fall, soaking in the serenity. An additional fun moment was running through some road works barricades, which gave me the impression of being on the course of a race.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 27: Socratic method

Short version: This week I had a couple of students in the lab for work experience, and it reminded me how much I enjoy teaching. Some thoughts.

Long version:

Socratic Method

One of the joys of my education was being repeatedly challenged to answer questions that I didn’t know the answer to. I found this an incredibly powerful way to learn both information and problem solving skills. It requires capable teachers with time to be able to explore each student’s individual thinking, as well as confident students.

Students are used to being tested on content they ought to have learned, being praised for preparing and chastised for a lack of practice. Thus it can be disquieting for them to be confronted with a question they have not prepared for. Post-education this is not very useful when working in science, where questions need to be answered that have not been answered before.

A wonderful example of taking relatively common experiences and following a path of questions and answers is “Fun to imagine“, an armchair conversation with Richard Feynman.

Science through fresh eyes

There is an XKCD comic for many situations, and one such specific situation is that there will always be many people who have yet to learn something you take for granted. In the lab, my team and I get to take for granted the understanding of many scientific concepts. However, through the eyes of inexperienced students the mundane becomes new. This is easily seen as a weakness of the students, but it is also joyful to see tools and ideas I take for granted be seen as exciting and new.

A good example of this is Pendulum Waves, which was demonstrated at the Cowley Carnival (see below).

Confidence

If you play these games of asking and attempting to answer questions, often your guesses will be wrong. In order to persist and learn you must enjoy the game, and therefore you must be able to enjoy being wrong. CGP Grey summaries it well: “if you want to always be right, you have to always be prepared to change your mind”.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 26: 6 Month Review

Short version: After attempting (and failing) to write a blog post each week for the past 6 months, I look back on those posts and reflect.

Long version:

Identity and Expectation

A realisation occurred to me whilst thinking about the unfinished drafts for this blog. Fitness, particularly competitive fitness, is not a core part of my identity, and so it does not threaten my ego to post slow times on parkrun. By being comfortable running slowly, I run more, and in running more, I run faster. Being comfortable with being a slow runner makes me a faster runner. The ability to understand difficult concepts, and to communicate effectively, is a core part of my identity. This means being unable to understand difficult concepts, and being unable to write well, does hurt my ego. If I am insecure about these aspects, I read fewer scientific papers, I write fewer blog posts, and the result is I do not improve in these areas. The lack of progress makes me more insecure, and a cycle of procrastination begins.

The solution, therefore, is to be comfortable with not understanding, or in the case of this blog, to be comfortable writing poorly. The purpose I have identified, in attempting to write each week rather than each time I have something interesting or insightful, is a need to practice writing regularly, not a need to demonstrate the skill of writing. To be able to write more regularly, I need to stay true to that purpose, and not be swayed my the desire to be interesting, insightful, or demonstrate a level of skill I have yet to achieve.

With that in mind I post this unfinished, and hope to take time when I am up to date to examine the first 25 posts of 2019, and identify what I have done well, and what I need to improve on, as I focus my efforts on more regular content in the 26 posts to come.

Posts I liked:

The short summaries of papers from Week 8 was fun to write, but regrettably shallow. Although not a weekly blog post, I was happy with my comprehensive first race report. Writing about diet and alcohol had a real effect in my life; it made it easier to hold myself to my decision in the face of perceived social pressure. I got stuck for a while trying to write about video games, but overcoming that was useful to me in understanding my relationship with that form of entertainment. Week 15’s Minimalism felt reasonably cohesive.

Posts I did not like:

The most common mistake I see in my writing is the use of unnecessarily complex sentences. Phrases like “much of the time” instead of “often”. I would guess the reasons for this are 1) a lack of consideration and technique, 2) attempting to be precise for fear of being misunderstood and 3) an affectation in order to appear intelligent. Ultimately the goal of writing is to communicate. To be succinct first requires the ideas themselves to be coherent, and testing my ideas by attempting to write about them has helped me think more clearly. In a limited time, some ideas never become coherent, and the resulting posts are much weaker. For example, in Week 21 I didn’t understand my own conclusions about marriage or Romania, and so I feel the writing suffered. The book report in Week 7 was never written, and I cannot help but feel a tinge of shame when I think about it.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 25: Advice

Short version: Taking advice is not an easy skill to master. I ought to listen to the advice itself rather than assume its validity based on the person offering it.

Long version:

Advice

I have a bad habit when taking advice. I find it very difficult to listen when the advice comes from someone who does not follow that advice themselves. This is a sort of reverse authority bias, whereby I ignore good information that ought to be taken on it’s own merit. An intuitive example is the sporting one, a coach might study the tactics and strategy of a game, know their players and those of the opposition, the biomechanics of the body, and about nutrition and rehabilitation, and yet be themselves at a poor level of fitness. Thereby they might espouse accurate, useful, and ultimately critical advice, whilst being a terrible player themselves. Sport is also a good example of my bias at the group level, as often it takes skill in the activity to earn enough respect to be in a position to offer advice.

Further, I can find myself confronting the person giving me advice if I feel they are not being consistent to the underlying principle. This often comes across as confrontational, which is not how one should approach an offer of help (of which giving advice is a type). Even if it is not a direct confrontation, by challenging the person I distract myself away from considering the advice, and how it might address my own inadequacies. Seen from this perspective the motivation to react this way is obvious: it is much more comfortable to see someone elses weaknesses than our own. Conversely, once accepted and understood, it is only our own weaknesses that we are able to correct.

Confidence vs. Persistence

I am learning from the beginners rowing course, that while being confident is helpful (it prevents unnecessary hesitation, lowers stress, and makes the whole process more enjoyable), persistence (actual time practicing a skill, making it automatic) helps more.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 18: Allotments

Short version: This week ONI volunteered around Oxford to celebrate 3 years since being founded, and as part of that I worked on an allotment for the first time.

Long version:

The Children’s Allotment

On the 1st of May ONI celebrated its third “Oniversary”, and with corporate social responsibility in mind we decided to volunteer our time on projects around Oxford that could use some extra hands. I was tasked with leading a team to help The Children’s Allotment clear an abandoned plant nursery on the site of Oxford’s East Ward Allotments. My first response to the exercise was sceptical, but the result was an inspiring and enjoyable day, with some satisfyingly useful results. Together we worked up a sweat, collected a few scrapes and scratches, and had our shoes filled with earth, but ultimately managed to clear the entire area of rubbish and overgrown brambles. The surprise and joy of the Children’s Allotment team, and their heartfelt thanks, left us all feeling proud at what we had achieved.

When working with a group of people every day, it becomes easy to take for granted their consistently positive qualities, and I come to take for granted the work ethic of my incredible colleagues. “ONIees” are quick to get into their work and see it through with discipline and vigour. Old and young, tall and short, experienced gardeners and those who had never kept a houseplant, all promptly donned a pair of gardening gloves and got to digging, cutting, clearing, and moving ceaselessly until the job was done.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 12: Video Games

Short version: Playing video games has been a formative experience for me, which makes it a complicated topic to write about. Also: I ran a marathon this week.

Long version:

Introduction:

I have spent hundred of hours immersed in virtual worlds, which is a fairly common but not universal experience. More recently I have not been playing games at all. It was only on trying to write this that I realised this fairly radical shift has been largely unexamined by me.

This post started from a dinner conversation where I found myself in an extended monologue trying to convey the variety of experiences accessible through video games to friends who were unfamiliar. These past weeks I’ve discovered the sheer volume of ideas I’d like to share about video games, and so I suspect this will be a topic I will need to revisit. The History of Video Games wikipedia page is over 16,000 words and barely mentions a specific title.

What are video games?

An attempt at definition would be a good place to start. Format seems the most obvious identifying feature: video games are games which, in some way, involve interaction with electronically generated video. In a world where powerful handheld computers are ubiquitous, I assume most people have had some interaction with video games. It is a broad category, with a range of experiences from digital versions of traditional board games and card games to much more complex virtual worlds.

Why I find it so hard to write about video games:

Ultimately, I struggle to feel my writing does justice to the complexity of the experience of playing video games. I tried formally studying video games by taking a course during my undergraduate years. It was helpful, but it was also ultimately unsatisfying. A large part of this were flaws in my attitude, an undeserved intellectual arrogance I have yet to fully overcome. Still, I feel that a stigma associated with video games as a form of art is that they are simplistic, culturally insignificant in the same way as popular children’s fiction might be. This conflicts with my personal experience with video games as being emotionally and artistically significant.

Why I play video games:

Stimulation
From the rapid flashing of a classic arcade game to the cinematography of a more plot driven experience, video games captivate. Most obviously this is observed in the iphone becoming a pocket sized babysitter to modern parents. Video games hold attention, and particularly fast paced shooters and platformers provide excitement and speed.

Puzzles, Strategy, and Problem Solving
Strategy games like Civilisation, Total War, and Age of Empires fill the gap between chess and history, asking players to take control of armies, factions, or even nations. Games like Portal provide more fast paced puzzle solving from a first person perspective. Overall these games give a more cerebral satisfaction: you feel smart when you win.

Narrative
Later editions of games like Final Fantasy have been accused of containing more non-interactive video than actual gameplay. Games like Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age contain dozens of hours of voice acting. While role playing games are designed to tell a story, some first person shooters such as Bioshock Infinite and Half Life have also elicited strong emotions.

Escapism, Perfectionism, Rules
Beyond these, video games provide worlds to lose yourself in. While a book or a TV show often leaves the audience dreaming about an alternate universe, it does not fully immerse you in the same way as a video game can. Dangerously, it is possible to play a game perfectly. Ultimately these worlds are constructed, and save points and the limits of the medium make perfection possible in a game in a way it cannot be in reality. This is perhaps the distinction between the virtual and the real that I have most struggled with.

Some things I want to share about gaming other than games:

The Smash Brothers Documentary: a 4 hour insight into the competitive community around the Nintendo game Super Smash Bros. Melee.

ASU English Professor James Paul Gee talks about video games and a theory of learning.

There Will Be Brawl, a gritty film noir series based in the Super Smash Bros universe.

Pure Pwnage a mocumentary about gaming with plenty of truth.

Some significant video games:

Starcraft: a real time strategy game, hugely influential in esports, notably being broadcast on television in South Korea to millions of fans.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: A highly acclaimed role playing game.

Counter-Strike: an extremely popular first person shooter.

Also this list of games ‘included on at least six separate “best/greatest of all time” lists’.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 11: Communication

Short version: This week is pretty heavy on personal reflection. I have struggled to keep in regular contact with friends, but recently have been improving. Some other thoughts on communicating, social media, and socialising in general.

Long version:

Personal Reflection

Broadly, my priorities in life are
1. Maintaining good mental and physical health,
2. Relationships,
3. Science (my academic and career pursuits), and
4. Hobbies.
Relationships are the area where I struggle most to allocate time effectively.

Having worked to stop setting unrealistic expectations in my academic pursuits, I can see the same harmful perfectionist tendencies in how I approach my relationships. I want all my interactions to be substantive, prompt, and to take up no time. This is simply not possible. Quick responses are necessarily glib. Writing something meaningful takes time and so cannot be prompt. This inherent time investment provides an excuse to delay, which breeds guilt at leaving messages piling up in a variety of inboxes. Then avoiding this uncomfortable guilt leads to avoiding the messages that ought to be a source of joy. In turn this means I set higher expectations on what I might communicate to make up for the ever growing delays. Occasionally I do set time for keeping in touch where longer phone calls or letters are produced, but these sporadic moments can end up being several months apart.

Not being able to exercise control over who I keep in touch with and when, I fall prey to biasing proximate interactions, even if they are less significant to me. This is exacerbated by finding it hard to say no, and generally being hungry for appreciation and approval. Thus these happenstance interactions can fulfil some of my social needs, whilst leading me to neglect people I would better enjoy sharing time with.

This week I’ve been reaching out to old friends, and it has been an anxious but rewarding experience. I’ve found with the people I’m closest to, months or even years go by and on meeting again we fall back into the same conversational flow as if it had only been a handful of days. I’d like to think this is the nature of strong relationships, though it is possible the causation is reversed; being poor at keeping in touch it is only people who hold relationships this way that I am able to successfully keep as friends. I do think that there is some underlying connection that is a source of mutual happiness and kinship, even if left dormant for an extensive period.

In short, these days it is rare that my truly closest friends are physically closest to me, and that has really revealed how important it is to take control of my social interactions. I think it’s worth noting as well that I’ve made very fulfilling connections here in Oxford, and that whilst my thinking can often be based around binary extremes, allowing circumstance to lead to making new friends is also incredibly rewarding.

Social Media

Purpose:
Facebook’s mission statement reads “Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” The world’s most popular social networking site has not handled its user’s data particularly well. I would intuit that with advertising as the main source of revenue for facebook, their internal focus is to get users to spend more time on the platform. That clash of purposes has become more clear as regulators become increasingly skeptical of tech giants, but I think there is also a clash of purposes in the minds of users, and therein lies the source of so much social media related unhappiness.

Addiction:
This week Casey Neistat “quit” social media as he found “an hour and forty six minutes a day … a significant amount of my day is spent on that mindless scrolling”. I certainly have shared that sentiment, mostly regarding reddit. Endless scrolling is a bad habit I’ve mostly overcome, by taking note to myself of why I am looking at my phone or PC before I use it, and then to only use it for that purpose and put it away. Ultimately, as much as reddit can feed my curiosity, entertain me, and create a sense of community through comments, it is simply an aggregator of content that I would be better consuming from the source.

Blogging

This blog began as a way to provide insight into me for prospective employers or academic mentors. Having happily found those relationships at ONI, it seems to have morphed into my place to share thoughts.

Keep in touch!

If this (or any one of my blog posts) sparks a thought you’d like to share, or if you think I’ve got something terribly wrong, or if you think there’s something I need to read/watch/listen to; start a conversation! You can leave a comment when viewing an individual post by clicking on the title of the post (I realise this is not at all intuitive and will think about a better way to make comments accessible). You could write me an email, or find me on facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or just find me and say hi!

Photos from the Week

Spring is bringing flowers to Oxford’s streets. I bought some cheese.