Short version: Some thoughts on the blurry line where competition becomes toxic, and also robots.
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.
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.
Short version: Patents reward innovators but limit the impact of new technologies. Also “patents” are the answer to the question “Why did Samsung build the only outdoor ice rink in Texas in a small town.”
What I learned reading and thinking about patents
Patents are a part of the law, which is an ever changing system. As governments create and change laws, and those laws are interpreted and tested in courts, we collectively decide how the rewards of science and technology are distributed.
There is very little that is certain or obvious about patents. Their existence is both an incentive and a barrier to innovation. They can both enrich and impoverish inventors. They can both be utterly invisible and hugely controversial.
Patent trolling was used in the US to extort businesses, which seems to have peaked around 2015, and has since declined.
Some patents provide useful and specific descriptions of technology, whilst others are deliberately broad and vague.
Biotechnology has struggled to fit into the existing patent infrastructure, particularly as the line blurs between what is an invented object and what is part of nature.
Patent Trolls: Why Samsung built an ice rink in Texas
Craig Venter’s company raced public researchers to be the first to sequence the Human Genome. You can read the story in Patrick Bradley’s paper. I found the twitter exchange below interesting, but was not able to verify or refute Venter’s claim that it was “untrue and was propaganda”. Certainly there was a race, and patents played a part, as they continue to do in biotechnology research.
BRCA1 and BRCA2
The other famous case within biotech patents is of Myriad Genetic’s patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2, two mutations related to breast cancer. Enforcing the patents meant diagnostic tests for inherited breast cancer were expensive. The debate centred on the question of whether DNA sequences could be considered a discovery or an invention, i.e. a technical question about how biotech fits within the existing patent system. Ultimately the patents were struck down. The underlying question, how much should we allow companies to profit from their research (at the expense of society, but to give incentives for more research) remains.
Intellectual Property and Piracy
Looking at patents led on to questions about copyright, trademarks, and intellectual property in general. In a world where replication of content is so trivial, and distribution technologies (i.e. the internet) are spreading so rapidly, it is unlikely legal enforcement can keep up in a meaningful way. This crash course provides some information, and I would like to return to think about the ethics of digital piracy, peer to peer sharing, and what the fairest way to regulate content could be.
A note about being connected on the internet
I find it strangely wonderful how connected the internet makes us. From a train, a coffee shop, or even my bed, I can reach out to authors and scientists, and access nearly all of the knowledge humanity has created. In researching this post, I could find out the Marshall high schools’ Samsung scholarship winners, or tweet at scientists like Craig Venter, or access patents from hundreds of years worth of inventions. It is such a powerful tool.
Other things in my life this week:
Rivers in Oxford have been rising, causing flooding around the Isis and Cherwell (see photos from the week). This excellent tracker from Anu Dudhia makes it easy to keep an eye on conditions.
Short version: Thoughts prompted by recent news about migration. Some very brief notes on nutrition and technology news.
Content warning: if you’re having a bad day, maybe skip this one:
Context Since it was revealed that the 39 people who died in a refrigerated lorry container were Vietnamese nationals attempting to illegally enter the UK, I’ve been thinking a lot about migrants. There are a number of things to unpack here, and I find it hard to tell if I am more hesitant because I lack expertise on the topic, or I find the exercise emotionally confronting.
Scale I have written about how data can be unsympathetic. Just as mass shootings are powerful examples of a larger gun violence problem, so too are the 39 dead migrants a shocking but statistically small part of a much larger issue. The missing migrant program attempts to track data, and in 2016 there were 39 fatalities every two days for the entire year. These recent deaths make up a small fraction of the 2,589 total for 2019 so far.
Emotions In some ways the idea of sneaking into the United Kingdom in a truck with 38 other people is utterly alien, and in other ways it is entirely relatable. The tension between those extremes creates some difficult emotions. I am a migrant, as are my siblings, my parents, most of my friends and colleagues. I know the desire to go to foreign lands to seek out opportunities, to live a more comfortable life, but only from a position of immense privilege where I take little risk in fulfilling those desires. Meanwhile I owe my existence to my parents who fled difficult times in the lands of their birth.
I found the following image most disturbing:
The last message from Pham Thi Tra My, 26, was sent to her family at 22:30 BST on Tuesday – two hours before the trailer arrived at the Purfleet terminal from Zeebrugge in Belgium. Her family have shared texts she sent to her parents which, translated, read: “I am really, really sorry, Mum and Dad, my trip to a foreign land has failed. “I am dying, I can’t breathe. I love you very much Mum and Dad. I am sorry, Mother.”
Pham Thi Tra had a smartphone, just like mine or yours. A piece of technology that could connect her with nearly any human on the planet. She could communicate with her parents half the world away from that refrigerated container, but could not call someone meters away to open it, to save her life and the lives of her fellow travellers. In a globally connected world she could trivially access so much information, and she decided the dangerous journey to the UK was worth the risk.
Justice I am conflicted. Laws restricting migration that mean desperate people risk their lives to cross borders in such dangerous ways. These laws seem to exist to protect my quality of life and privilege at the expense of opportunities for others. I believe human beings should be of equal value be they born in Hanoi or Hobart, but the harsh economic reality is they are not. It seems unjust that laws exist to prevent them from pursuing the same quality of life, however if I were given the opportunity to open all borders around the world, I would hesitate. I do not know what such a world would look like, for example people might rush towards centers of wealth only to be crushed by competition with one another for those opportunities.
Some other unstructured thoughts about migrants:
Language: The words we use around migration is not trivial. We tend to call wealthy migrants expats, (short for expatriate), compared to the derogatory connotations of “immigrant”. In Australia “asylum seekers” are often connected to “boat people“, perhaps in comparison to aeroplane people?
Google Buys Fitbit The press release from Fitbit. Engadget article. DCRainmaker blog post. 2 billion dollars is a lot of money, but it is substantially less than the peak of Fitbit at nearly 10 Billion shortly after its IPO (see chart below). It doesn’t feel that long ago that Fitbit acquired Pebble, a maker of e-ink smart watches and a rarely successful kickstarter project.
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.
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.
Short version: Intuitions about how we look at data. Taking small steps with code. Art at the Tate Modern.
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.
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.
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):
with open(os.path.join(path, filename), "r") as file:
for line in file:
if len(line) > 6:
linecount = linecount +1
print("I found "+str(linecount)+" lines and put them into "+filename[0:len(filename)-4]+"_folders.txt")
linecount = 0
print("I did not process "+filename)
linecount = 0
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Photos from the week
From the Tate Modern exhibition by Olafur Eliasson
Short version: I try and explain how microwaves work, I changed my search engine, and ran the Blenheim Palace half marathon.
This week over a (reheated) dinner I tried to explain how microwave ovens work. It was a good reminder of the difficulties of discussing science; first in actually knowing the underlying science, then in communicating it to different people with different (unknown) levels of prior understanding. It was humbling to stumble between gaps in my understanding of a common household appliance and a failure to find the language to explain what I did understand. After refreshing myself on the physics, I try to explain again.
To start: Microwave ovens convert electrical energy to heat, and are used for warming and cooking food. Other electrical cooking appliances (e.g. stoves, ovens, grills, toasters, and kettles) use the property that a flow of electricity heats the wire (conductor) it flows through. Microwaves make electromagnetic waves (like visible light or radio waves) in the microwave region of the spectrum (hence the name), which heat food (particularly water) as they pass through it. Conventional methods of heating food heat from the surface which gradually warms inwards, where as microwaves can heat food from the inside directly.
Assumed knowledge: It is easy (and fun!) to get into a spiral of questions about what “heat”, “food”, “electricity” and “electromagnetic waves” are. More information about the parts of a system help build a foundation form where the combined system can be understood; it is hard to understand the science of cooking without understanding a little of the chemistry of what food is, or the physics of what heat is. Also seemingly unrelated knowledge can be useful; if how a musical instrument generates certain sounds is known, then the similar principles of resonant frequencies helps to explain how the microwaves are generated by the magnetron, another type of resonant cavity.
The best I can do: Food goes in a metal box (a cavity) that stops microwaves escaping. Electricity (240 V AC mains) goes to a transformer that changes the voltage into two windings, a high voltage (approx 2000V) and a low voltage (approx 5 V). The lower voltage powers the user interface (e.g. the clock) and the higher voltage powers the microwave generator, called a magnetron. The magentron is a cylindrical vacuum cavity (closed metal tube with no air) where electrons are thrown off a central filament and travel to the outer walls. Strong magnets cause the electrons to travel along curved paths, and the cavity has spokes that extend from the outer walls most of the way towards the central filament. The spacing of these spokes and the strength of the magnets is tuned so that a specific frequency of electromagnetic radiation (microwaves) are generated by moving charger in the magentron, and these microwaves are guided by a metal tube (wave guide) into the larger cavity containing the food. The generated microwaves bounce around the cavity until they interact with water molecules (and sugars and some fats) in food to vibrate them. This is observed microscopically as heating.
Microwaves and super-res: At the moment I work with super-resolution microscopes, which connects with microwave ovens in an interesting way: The grill that lets the user see their food being heated has holes (approx 1 mm across) that are much larger than the wavelength of visible light (approx 0.001 mm) but much smaller than the wavelength of the microwaves (approx 122 mm). Waves cannot “see” and object much smaller than the wavelength of the wave, called the “diffraction limit”. Thus the grill on the door of a microwave oven is “diffraction limited” from the perspective of the microwaves, in the same way that cellular structures can be “diffraction limited” from visible light. I am not sure if the equivalent optics exist for microwaves as in visible light, but it could be possible (though not particularly useful) to super-resolve structures using microwaves. Given microwaves are used in radar, perhaps such techniques are already used for detection of rain, birds, or aircraft.
This has had frustrating consequences; where as typically to find out where a place is, what tomorrow’s weather would be, or to play a song, I simply press the hot-key for a new browser tab and type what I want, that now gives me search results from the academic literature. There are no papers telling me if it will rain in Oxford tomorrow.
I do think this is a useful step. I’ve been reading a little about nudges, a concept linked to Richard Thaler. Changing the default search makes it slightly easier to do literature searches, and slightly harder to do general web searches, which I hope (and expect) will nudge me towards consuming better quality content.
I came across the term “Value-action Gap“, which adds a technical but intuitive term where I would otherwise use the more judgemental “hypocrisy” or the more debater-jargon “principle consistency”. I like hearing opinions on why it is that people often act out of alignment with their beliefs, and am often surprised at my own capacity for cognitive dissonance.
Blenheim Palace Half Marathon
Slightly disappointed with my time, but it was a fun race. I will be adding a race report soon.
Short version: Plastic is everywhere, but it doesn’t make you sick. There are some familiar bird sounds at the new physics building. An honest apology keeps me involved. Oxford’s St Giles Fair returns.
Ultimately, however, a reason plastic is so ubiquitous is probably also a reason it is relatively harmless: plastics are fairly inert. They don’t break down easily, and so similarly don’t get broken down or absorbed by the body easily. This study found worryingly that Chinese infants’ exposure to BPA is 10x higher than that of adults, but also found that these levels of exposure pose little risk to health.
There is a fairly comprehensive and recent report from the World Health Organisation, which similarly concludes that plastic is everywhere, but there is not evidence that it is causing harms to health. It does suggest the need for further investigation into possible health effects, and that plastic waste management needs to be improved.
Interesting to me was that while browsing this topic, I came across the website “plasticsmakeitpossible“, produced by the American Chemical Council, which in turn is made up of some pretty large companies. I’ve not delved much into how established corporations sway public opinion at arms length, and I think it would be interesting to discuss websites like “plasticsmakeitpossible” in a future blog post.
This week while waiting outside the Clarendon Laboratory, I heard the strangely familiar sound of Kookaburras coming from the new physics building (the Beecroft Building). My first thought is that the birds were being kept nearby for study, but after hearing the exact same pattern of calls (recording below) I realised it was being played on a loud speaker. My guess is that it is to deter real birds from nesting/resting on the new building, but I could not find any details of this system from the architects website. The sounds do not play at regular intervals so I suspect some sort of motion sensors are involved.
I recently received an email from a study explaining that a large amount of valuable data had been deleted. It must have been tempting to try to blame the system or a fault in the technology, but this individual took ownership of their mistake (essentially having pressed the wrong buttons), and I found myself with more trust in them as a result.
This event is also a useful reminder to implement good data management processes, including backups of irreplaceable data and some sort of delay mechanism for the permanent deletion of data.
St Giles Fair
Oxford hosts the St Giles Fair on the Monday and Tuesday following the first Sunday in September. For at least 200 years the central streets of Oxford have been closed to make way for stalls and rides, and strolling through the rides, games, and food stalls is becoming a tradition for me as well.
Short version: Back to work. Jocko’s letter made me cry and that’s OK. First triathlon, went fine. Sriracha sauce as a spaceship.
Back to work
I returned to work this week after taking nearly two weeks of holiday. I continue to find it odd that when I am busier I also get more done, but I also suspect that is the combination of routines and inspiring colleagues. The ONI band is practicing more often, and live music provides a wonderful reminder of my family home. Hearing from others about their successes both in work and outside it creates some envy, but also motivates me to strive to make more out of my time.
Something that made me cry
At the end of my holiday I took some time to reflect on the past year, including when I experienced particularly strong emotions. Often in a professional context it is appropriate to suppress emotions, and it is also common that men feel the need to project a stoic facade at the world. In the past I have taken this too far and lost awareness of my emotions, which is detrimental. I still feel generally we should act out of reason rather than emotion, but we should also be aware of our emotions and use their patterns to guide our understanding of ourselves. To this end, I wanted to share this letter written by a Navy Seal to his daughter. It left me feeling a powerful mix emotions, seeing aspects of myself in both the father and the daughter. It left me in tears.
I took part in my first triathlon on Monday. It was fun. I’ve written a race report you can read here.
Social media is often an echochamber, but there are opportunities to find new ideas. This week I came across spacegooose who imagines everyday items as spaceships, e.g. Sriracha sauce.
Amusingly while departing Oxford I came across this piece about vacations. It is noticeable here in Paris that the city has emptied out; plenty of stores and cafes have a note in the window mentioning a reopening later in the month.
I’ve enjoyed taking the time to read, think, and jot down some of these thoughts. Alas at the moment most of these thoughts are barely comprehensible to me on rereading, and will require a little more work before sharing.
Photos from the week come from some lovely runs around Oxford and Paris.
This week in Biology Lettersan article was published describing New Zealand’s giant parrot, a bird estimated to weigh 7 kg and stand about waist height. This would be similar in size to a modern albatross, as well being twice as large as the largest known parrot, however at such size it likely could not fly. It adds to New Zealand’s collection of exceptionally large and extinct birds, such as the famous Moa.
Bicycle Business Blunders
This article from the Atlantic has some incredible photos of abandoned bicycles in China. The collapse of ofo, a bike sharing company that placed millions of bright yellow bikes in cities around the world, came up discussing Matt Levine’s piece on MoviePass. Rapid growth is alluring to investors, but clearly doesn’t always lead to success.
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