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 15: Minimalism

Short version: I’ve been getting into minimalism lately. On the flight back to Oxford I read Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki.

Long version:

Minimalism

Minimalism is most simply the practice of attempting to minimise one’s possessions. Minimalism, and its popularity, is a response to the suffocating clutter many people experience. The cost of producing many items (clothes, appliances, toys) has fallen, and marketing to consume these items has become more prevalent and sophisticated, resulting in consumption beyond individual’s needs and capacity to manage possessions. Like many cultural phenomena, it is not merely a pragmatic solution to a problem, but also manifests as a set of values and an aesthetic (of which Apple Stores are an often cited example). Some of these are potentially problematic; A New York Times opinion piece opens with “[minimalism] has become an ostentatious ritual of consumerist self-sacrifice“.

My Experience with Minimalism

I have a natural urge to collect things. I inherited a sense of scarcity from parents who have escaped times of political upheaval. I detest waste, and find it easy to see potential uses for many items that ultimately I never use (scrap pieces of paper that might be handy to put down a note, packaging that might be used to carry something else someday, old electronics that I could strip for useful parts). The result is an ever growing collection of possessions that take both physical space and organisational time.

The mental problem I have with clutter is more significant. It is upsetting to wake up, and come home, to a growing pile of physical objects that correspond to tasks left undone. Books that would be nice to read, models it would be fun to build and paint, even an ever-thicker envelope of receipts that would, if analysed, give me insight into my spending habits (how much did I spend on cheese in 2017?). As this pile grows so does my sense that I am not in control of my life; if I were, wouldn’t I be able to get all these tasks done? “Maximalist” clutter becomes the physical representation of my poor time management and lack of drive. On each passing glance over this reminder, I am made a little more anxious, and my willpower is slightly sapped. Putting off those tasks trains the terrible habit of procrastination.

Minimalism provides an escape. By ascribing to the philosophy I am forcing myself through the discomfort of casting away what I perceive to have relatively low value. Through this I rid myself of the negative emotions that come from feeling out of control, and ultimately I find more time that is more comfortable. My first experience of this minimalist joy was moving to Oxford with only a suitcase of possessions. Suddenly, without distractions and incomplete projects surrounding me, I was more free to explore my new surrounds, to step up and tackle projects like this website.

Where I take issue with minimalism, particularly at the more extreme end (e.g. Fumio Sasaki’s), is the impracticality and expense. Ultimately you are outsourcing clutter to others, for example cooking and transportation. Food is a necessity. It is more affordable and often healthier if prepared from simple ingredients bought in bulk (e.g. flour, market vegetables). It is impractical to shop for food daily, and so storing groceries, the kitchen appliances needed to cook, and utensils to serve meals, are very practical anti-minimalist behaviours. Similarly while uber and bike sharing schemes can be convenient, owning and maintaining my own bicycle is cheaper and more pleasurable to ride.

Minimalist Book Report

I was given Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki for christmas in 2017, but only set aside time to read it while flying. In five chapters it summarises the authors experience in finding minimalisim, discusses the development of the problems he feels minimalism solves, lists tips on adopting a minimalist lifestyle, gives examples of ways in which minimalism has helped the author, and concludes with some brief notes on happiness. I found the individual experiences relatable, but the historical and philosophical arguments less compelling. The many short guides in Chapter 3, “55 tips to help you say goodbye to your things, and 15 more tips for the next stage of your minimalist journey” become repetitive, but I feel there is value in explaining the same concept in a number of different ways as different readers will find some phrasings easier to digest than others. Ultimately, minimalism has clearly benefited Sasaki and helped him find a coherent identity, and as such he provides useful advice to aspiring minimalists. The mix of quoted individuals in Chapter 4 (Steve Jobs, Einstein, Lao Tzu, Tyler Durden) reveal an attempt to put minimalism on a cultural pedestal that I find unconvincing. I am left feeling minimalism is a useful tool, but a shallow philosophy.

Marie Kondo

The face of minimalism, via her Netflix series, is Marie Kondo. Sasaki talks about Kondo’s influence on minimalism in his 2015 book, pointing out that her recent fame in the English speaking world was preceded by much earlier interest in Japan. Google trends supports this chronology. On the left in red, the search trends for 近藤 麻理恵 (Marie Kondo in Japanese) peak in December 2011 and May 2015, corresponding with the release of her book and being listed in the Time 100 most influential people respectively. Search trends for her name in English peak in January, with the release of her Netflix show.

Photo from the Week

Sunset over Kingsford Smith International Airport

2018 Week 5: Trolley Problems

There isn’t a unifying theme this week, just a mixture of things I’ve been thinking about.

Trolley Problems
Last night I attended a Raclette party and over deliciously melted cheese enjoyed conversing with American, British, Chinese, and Swiss friends. For most of the world, the prevalence of guns in the United States of America is frighteningly alien, and I recommended an episode of the podcast More Perfect about the history of the  Second Amendment which I found fascinating. Following speculation about situations where someone might use a gun, the discussion became a more abstract consideration of the trolley problem (there is also a relevant Facebook meme page).  I find it interesting that most people adopt the utilitarian perspective in the more foreign situation of pulling a lever to move a trolley, but if you reframe the decision where the actor is a doctor, the 5 are suffering failures of 5 different organs, and the 1 is an unknown backpacker come in for a check up, people find it intuitively more difficult to take the life of the stranger in the more familiar context. Perhaps this is an intuition about the risk of organ transplants making the lives of the ill less valuable than the life of this healthy traveller, or perhaps it is something about breaking the trust that the traveller imbues in the doctor. Clearly the characters tied to the tracks have no such relationship with the lever operator. One way in which this discussion is particularly timely is in considering self driving cars, who will need these decisions programmed into their code ahead of time. This MIT app lets you make judgements of such moral dilemmas, then gives you some feedback on your preferences, and you can even invent your own (the associated paper is here).

British Library
This week I visited the British Library. Each time I go I am struck by the scale of legal deposit. The system guarantees the British Library will hold a copy of every book (and some other text types) published in the United Kingdom, which some quick googling suggests is around 500 books a day, every day of the year. It can be confronting, particularly when I feel relatively poorly read, that such an unceasing torrent of new material is being created daily. Another perspective is several hundred hours of Youtube video are added every minute. In a world where there is so much information, it is a good reminder to treasure each unit of attention one has, and to invest it wisely. I hope, dear reader, you feel this is worth your time.

Motivation and Mental Health
This week I felt the first few cracks of trying to squeeze as many productive hours into a week as possible. On reflecting, I am reminded that positive feedback is important, and low motivation can be the result of too much focus on the negative. Setting up for “easy wins”, where you are able to make progress without much difficulty or excitement, can help build momentum to tackle more difficult tasks. I also need to improve sleep hygiene, checking the bright light of a smartphone in the middle of the night is not aiding rest and recovery.

Writing from the Radcliffe Camera