2020 Week 28: Challenge

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

Does success come at the cost of happiness?

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

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

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

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

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

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 27: Warning Label

Brief update; I am content. I have been feeling more confident generally about life this week. I am learning to perform my new role, from both success and failure. I am taking my time to appreciate good emotions, and not dwelling on bad ones. Physical training continues to plan. I have enjoyed several good conversations. Having identified my passion for engaging with talented and motivated people, I am fortunate that I get to do that so frequently at ONI.

Choosing a Perspective

Philosophy ought to come with a warning label. Dwelling too deeply into difficult, unanswered, and perhaps impossible questions carries the risk of becoming seriously lost in one’s own mind. A recent conversation ended with the question: If we can change how we feel about our experiences, thereby potentially enjoying any experience, which experiences should we choose (and choose to enjoy)? Intuitively we should choose to be happy and to do good in the world, but how do we pin down what is good in the world aside from what makes us and others happy?

I have been thinking about this David Foster Wallace speech (transcript). it focuses on choosing how you relate to people and describes a routine visit to a supermarket. Wallace asks the audience to consider hidden acts of compassion and kindness behind the people making up the frustrating queues and parking lots and highway traffic. Another, perhaps more simple, choice of perspective is to appreciate the supermarket itself. If the abundance and affordability of vegetables is celebrated, then a squeaky trolley wheel or a long queue pales compared to the miracle that the world has provided you food. For much of human history, much of human labour was spent securing a supply of food. Today for most that supply is trivial, and in my mind, worthy of appreciation.

Yesterday while drafting this I shared a quote from that speech: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” Focusing on the shopping and not the shoppers can bring happiness through attention and awareness and discipline, but it does seem a trivial exercise compared with caring and sacrificing for others.

Vaccine Updates

While the UK is getting closer to normal with the reopening of the central cultural venue, the pub, I suspect until the deployment of a vaccine for COVID-19 social and professional interactions will continue to be shaped by the disease. On Tuesday Chemistry World published this helpful update on the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. On Thursday The Economist declared Oxford the current leader.

Photo from the Week

2020 Week 26: Find what you look for

The first half of 2020 is coming to an end, a time to assess progress on personal goals (or KPIs or OKRs). One personal goal was to write shorter weekly posts in favour of longer irregular posts. The 3 times I’ve succeeded in writing longer posts so far are A note on fear and death under the current pandemic, Lady Astronaut of Mars, and Productivity Update February 2020. I’ve been learning a little about funnels, and think that this might be a useful model for planning such posts in the future.

A side effect of science

As scientific research on SARS-CoV-2 is published, the general public is becoming more aware of preprint servers, redaction, and the messy side of science. I have not kept up with the deluge of publications, but a few friends have been asking for my opinion on some headlines. I shared the following observation:

As universities shut down, scientists saw the opportunity to return to doing research (which they enjoy) by studying SARS-CoV-2 in their field. Hypothetically, a group that studies kidney disease, might look into the effect of COVID-19 on the kidney. It’s improbable that a respiratory disease improves kidney function, so if an effect is observed it is probably detrimental. The likely result will be a publication linking SARS-CoV-2 and kidney deterioration. It may well be the case that common strains of corona-virus or influenza (or any illness) have a similar negative effect on the kidney that, under normal circumstances, would not be of a sufficient magnitude or interest to investigate. In this way, scientific publications and the resulting mainstream media headlines might cause undue alarm simply due to the unusual focus of the entire scientific community on a single disease.

By a similar mechanism to over-policing, intensive research focus can make a disease seem worse than similar, less investigated diseases. Be careful what you look for, you might actually find it.

Quote I’m Pondering

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.

Marie Curie

As a People Growth Engineer, my personal interest in self improvement is now linked to my professional responsibilities. ONI, through democratising life science research, is building a better world, but for us to achieve this we need to improve as a company, and therefore as individuals. Personal development and self improvement can feel selfish, but along with observing Curie’s duty “to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful”, individual improvements do lead to a better world for all.

Photo of the Week

2020 Week 25: Happily Overwhelmed

How am I doing this week? Overwhelmed, but happy. This is a good place to be, the stimulation is driving growth, but lower priority projects (like blogging) suffer. A few thoughts:

Studying Diagrams

This visualisation tool exploring the relationship between academic papers helps leverage our brains’ adaptations for visual pattern recognition to gain insight into unfamiliar fields of study.

Mindset Adopting

Angela Duckworth’s recent post highlights mastery behaviours and their association to the growth mindset.

Awareness Practising

Sometime I only notice a decision after I’ve made it. This is good if the automatic decision is beneficial (exercising first thing in the morning) but bad if the decision is harmful (procrastination). I am returning to practising mindfulness to gain more awareness of these choices.

Photo from the week

Wild strawberries in the garden.

2020 Week 23: Protests, Poisons, and Pasta

Following the Killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, protests against racism have spread across the US and the world, including here in Oxford. The police should not kill people. People should not fear violence or death from the police. Black lives matter. Going beyond these general, and hopefully obvious, statements requires looking into an incredibly complex set of historical, socio-economic, and policy questions. I tried to read and synthesise a meaningful comment this weekend, and was overwhelmed. I fear that the outpouring of emotion in these protests becomes twisted into a force for further political polarisation. In 2014 Police Chief Edward Flynn made comments that have stuck with me since; it is worth remembering that the ugliness of the world is faced and fought daily by good people, and we ought not forget their courage and sacrifice when people who look like them do terrible things.

Chemistry and Cleaning

When people are frightened, and poorly informed, they tend to act against their own interests. The US president speculated at a press conference if something like disinfectant could be used by injection to treat COVID-19. If a student posed this question to me I would attempt to guide them via the Socratic method to the nature of Denaturation. If the leader of the Free World poses it, a non-trivial minority poisons themselves.

Photos from the Week: Pasta

There have been many surprises in 2020; I would not have expected The Economist to print a recipe for making pasta from scratch in response to a global pandemic. Photos from my attempt:

2020 Week 22: Strava and Going to Space

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – wisdom attributed to hockey player Wayne Gretzky.

Starting a company and succeeding is a difficult shot to make, but success first requires an attempt. Starting a company that sends people into space, or to another planet, is a shot so difficult as to seem impossible. Yet, as I write this, the draft sits alongside a live stream of US astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken flying the Dragon spacecraft from SpaceX and NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Working at a start-up, and having read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk, the feat of carrying two people into space is made far more impressive by knowing how close to failure SpaceX has come. I was especially happy to see the first stage land safely on the drone ship; SpaceX’s compilation of failures has consoled me at the lab when work was not going to plan. In this time of global pandemic, there is something captivating and hopeful about developments in space technology. For more blog content from two people who are actually involved in space, I’d suggest checking out Christine and Casey

Strava: Thoughts on Start-ups, Running, Micro-blogging, and Numbers

I use Strava as a training log, social-media, and micro-blog platform.

Strava
Strava is many things. To me, it is first my logbook for exercise and training. It is also a social media channel. I can see the training logs of my friends, colleagues, and a few athletes who inspire me. We share photos, and sometimes brief notes, from sessions. As I train for the Edinburgh marathon, Strava is where I micro-blog about running.

Strava is also a company, and for 180 people in the US and UK, it is where they go to work. Strava is a late stage start-up, and as they recently announced, Strava is currently not profitable. That announcement, alongside changes to features free and paid users have access too, is covered in depth by DCRainmaker, perhaps the definitive fitness-tech blogger.

Startups, expectations, and the internet
People expect stuff online to be free, especially if it was free in the past. Tweets at Strava about the changes show a user base upset by a company moving free features behind a paywall, despite providing most of their service (tracking exercise) for free. Google and Facebook, with users in the billions, use advertising to keep their services free for users, but this creates a gap between the desires of the consumers and the paying customers of the platform. That gap can have significant harms, such as political polarisation and the subsequent shift by major parties to policy extremes (suggested reading: Facebook did an internal study on this and decided not to act on it).

Rather than appeal to advertisers or users to pay, many startups simply subsidise their services with investors’ money in order to grow their total number of users. Uber and Lyft lose money on rides in the hope of gaining a profitable monopoly. When delivery services subsidise the cost of food, it creates interesting arbitrage opportunities.

Returning to “Going to Space” Paypal (alongside fin-tech start ups today established financial firms alike) literally pays users to sign up for a free service, and that strategy led Elon Musk from sleeping in his office with one computer to controlling multi-billion-dollar aerospace and automotive companies (and still sleeping in his office).

Finishing time distribution of marathon races from marastats.com

Numbers
Things we can quantify are motivating. People think a lot about their weight, because it is a number that is perceived as a proxy for health or attractiveness. Marathon finishing times tend to cluster at just under “round number” finishing times as people push to get in below their goal time. Today I planned my run to achieve 2000 m of climbing in May, and would have been upset (or probably gone for an extra run) if I had come in to see only 1998 m. Financial numbers (personal savings, or the valuation of a home, or personal income, or the value of a company) are often felt as proxies for success, or safety.

I’ve recently noticed that if I keep my step count visible on my watch, I am actually motivated to take extra walks, despite regularly exercising beyond the need to walk further in a day. The lesson to me is to be careful about which numbers I make more visible, and therefore tend to optimise for. It’s not just counting the shots you take and the shots you make, it’s also choosing carefully which game to play.

Photos from the Week: Shotover Mornings

2020 Week 21: Delete Money

Currently most of my conversations are about work, exercise, and food. Work is interesting but continues to be mostly confidential. Exercise is going well, and I’m micro-blogging my training in the description of each session on strava. Food continues to be tasty, the importance of which is highlighted in the amusingly titled paper:

“If you do not find the world tasty and sexy, you are out of touch with the most important things in life”: Resident and family member perspectives on sexual expression in continuing care.

Here is an unrefined thought that is not about work, exercise, or food:

A thought experiment about the absence of money

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the world are taking on debt to keep their economies functioning. I’ve been considering the thought experiment that, perhaps, society could function without money at all. As increasingly individual income and expenditure are merely editing a number in a database, those numbers could remain static and people could simply act as they would in a system governed by money. Obviously the existence of money serves many purposes; a store of value, a medium of exchange, an incentive to not over consume, a signalling mechanism in a variety of contexts, a decision making mechanism via auctions. But the actual changing of numbers in databases (or exchange of paper bills) is not necessary for the actual construction of buildings or transport of commodities. At the outset, if all consumer goods were priced at 0, initially people might over-consume or hoard, but ultimately what would be the purpose? They could not on-sell the goods, not would consuming beyond their need be a positive outcome for themselves. If we assume generally rational and socially minded actions from individuals, would this system be possible? Further, in considering where the system is hardest to implement (how would we ensure just allocation of unique property e.g. housing?) it highlights the different roles money itself plays in organising a society.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 15: Growth amid Crisis

This has been another week of excitement, exhilaration, and exhaustion while working on SARS-CoV-2 projects at ONI. Doing experiments directly related to the pandemic is motivating, and I have noted that I find it easier to work 80-100 hour weeks on this project than 60-70 hours weeks on previous projects. I am very thankful to work with such an inspiring team, as well as to live with supportive friends. In the fourth week of this project, the sustained effort is also made possible by prioritising good diet, regular exercise, and making time for reflection and meditation.

While my week is dominated by the pandemic, I’ll share three moments unrelated to COVID-19. As I was drafting this post, I had a failure of discipline and did not get it out on time. I shared my new job title on LinkedIn. I attended an online interactive performance of The Tempest.

Practise Finishing or Practise Failing

The problem:
This post is a day late. I am disappointed, having managed to deliver on time for the past several weeks, and I felt the resulting introspection was worth sharing. I had enough time to write when I returned home on Sunday evening, but found myself falling into bad habits of procrastination I had hoped were gone. Surprisingly, the lack of resolve came not after a day of exhaustion, but one of relaxation. A day of Easter feasting, an absence of physical training, and only minimal experimental accomplishments left me lacking confidence to express my thoughts. When I could have been writing, I squandered time to distractions like YouTube and chess, sacrificing both a timely post and precious sleep.

A potential solution:
I have noticed a psychological benefit from completing 30-60 minutes of intensive indoor rowing. There are several points (usually at around 7 minutes and 20 minutes in) during these efforts where the temptation is to give up and stop rowing. The spartan rhythm of the exercise, and the absence of visual stimulation, are a backdrop for a battle between falling to weakness of will or building strength of discipline. I have found that days where I see the piece to the end, I am not only rewarded with exercise-induced endorphins and the satisfaction of completing the session, but also I find it is easier to see other tasks in my day to completion. Likewise, if I quit before finishing, it makes failing other tasks more likely. Either practising pushing through pain, or practising giving up when things are hard, reinforces the behaviour. Knowing this, I can focus on succeeding in the present moment, spurred on by recognising it will make the right choice easier in future. This knowledge also feeds into setting appropriate goals: goals which are impossible guarantee falling into a negative feedback loop.

Where else I want to apply this:
There are many brief moments through the day when I could learn a little, or train a little, or communicate better, or help someone. Sometimes I make the right choice, but often I throw that moment away in favour of consuming easy content (e.g. checking sales at an online store) or narcissistically checking for “likes” on social media. I should recognise that by building better habits around these moments, I will find it easier to do the better things. A little discomfort now is worth the behavioural change in the end.

People Growth Engineer

This week I announced my new job title as “People Growth Engineer”. Given the current pandemic related work, I am still applying my skills in the laboratory, but eventually the role will see me focus on the people of ONI rather than wet bench experiments. I am excited at the opportunity to contribute in a new way, driving growth throughout the organisation. I like that the unique title reflects my own passion for a scientific approach to continual learning and personal development. Specifically, the growth I will be engineering for ONI exists in three overlapping areas:
1. Growing the team through identifying the right people to join ONI.
2. Growing existing ONIees (ONIemployees) through individual skill development.
3. Cultivating a culture and fostering a common mindset that allow us to achieve our mission.
More detail to come as I transition into the role.

The Tempest

Over the long weekend I attended Creation Theatre’s performance of The Tempest via Zoom. I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction with the audience and actors, and the fun retelling through modern technology. Initially I was sceptical about setting aside time in this busy period for a play, but the life and laughter I took away from it gave me more joy than I would have expected from any other down-time. The actors involved the audience as Ariel’s spirits, acting out Prospero’s magic. Seeing other audience members on their web-cameras provided a good substitute for in person socialising in this time of social distancing. The humour could be a little cringe worthy at times, but taking Shakespeare playfully feels both authentic to the spirit of the comedy and makes supposedly high culture more accessible.

Photos from the Week

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2020 Week 14: Quieter Paths

Oxford has grown quieter under the current lock-down. Government guidelines still allow for outdoor exercise, and so I have continued to run to and from the lab. The photos from the week capture some beautiful moments from these runs.

Things to share this week

Places you can visit from self isolation
Take a look around the American Museum of Natural history via google street view.
Enjoy the paintings of The National Gallery via google street view.
NASA has virtual tours of the Glenn Research Center and the Langley Research Center.
The Guardian published a guide to virtual tours of landmarks.
There are also entirely virtual worlds with real people to explore in massively multiplayer online games.


Children’s COVID-19 E-book
A friend has written a children’s book on COVID-19, which you can download here. The link is also soliciting donations which will go to support medical charities fighting the pandemic.

Theory of Everything (2014)
I’ve had this on my “to watch” list for a couple years. It focuses on the relationship between cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane through his scientific ascension and physical decline. I enjoyed the theatrical sets; the narrow blackboard-walled room where Penrose introduces black holes, the cold hospital where Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, and the sandstone quads and bridges of Cambridge. The relationship between Stephen and Jane is complicated by two love triangles involving Jonathan (who joins the family as friend and carer) and Elaine (a nurse to Stephen who became his second wife). However, when the real Jane says “There were four of us in our marriage“, rather than four people she is referring to Physics and ALS as the other two partners. I felt that the film prioritised the romantic tension between the characters over the more difficult to portray relationship vs career tension created by extreme devotion to physics, resulting in a compelling but less accurate story. The portrayal of scientists relies on Oxbridge archetypes and falls short of the political nuance of Contact (1997), one of my favourite films. For example, in a letter to Astronomy & Geophysics Adrian L Melott points out the missed opportunity to depict Dennis Sciama as a skilled mentor. You can watch the trailer via YouTube.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 12: Exponential Whiplash

Since I wrote last week about the pandemic, putting it in the context of other global health issues, the total fatalities due to COVID-19 have more than doubled, and major European economies have essentially halted. I had some awareness of the likely rate of spread, but was not anticipating how events have played out, and so count myself among those hit by “exponential whiplash”:

a cognitive phenomenon that sars-cov-2, the virus which causes covid-19, has been provoking around the world: exponential whiplash. Knowing in principle that something may take only a few days to double in size does little to prepare you for the experience of being continually behind the ever-steepening curve such doubling creates.The Economist

I shared on LinkedIn this week that ONI is working on research to support the fight against COVID-19 and since Wednesday my productive energy has been focused there. Like many businesses across the UK, a majority of ONI’s staff are working from home, but my skills let me keep working on new projects directly related to SARS-CoV-2. It is exciting and rewarding to be able to do so, but it is also sapping time and energy from my usual pursuits. Given that, I have only a few incomplete thoughts to share:

Things to share this week

Proximity bias
It is noticeable to me that these deaths are causing so much more economic and social pressure than the deaths by the causes I listed last week. I guess it is because these deaths are more proximate to wealthy societies, which have won huge victories against infectious diseases. Combined with the panicked behaviour I note below, I feel most people demonstrate they do not find all lives are equally valuable, even though they might espouse that value.

Pandemics vs. Climate Catastrophe
Something I’m thinking about: if society knew that these radical measures were necessary to prevent a much larger disaster much further away, would we be able to make the same cuts on air travel, entertainment, and consumption? Could we reinvent our way of life to prevent deaths from climate change, without anyone needing to die first?

Some people are panicking
I am hearing first hand accounts of stockpiling from both Australia and the UK; supermarket shelves being emptied despite no larger issues on the supply side. A friend had toilet paper snatched out of her shopping cart. There has been a spike in gun sales in the US. It saddens me to see people act out of fear, and with so much selfishness. I wonder if it is merely a lack of understanding, or a symptom of a more fundamental social focus on individuals vs. collectives.

Some people are too relaxed
I was very surprised to see stories in my twitter feed of crowds flocking to climb Mt. Snowdon and filling out beaches in Florida and Bondi. While I am feeling relaxed when it comes to my personal safety, wider compliance with public health directives such as social distancing are needed for those policies to be effective (see also vaccines).

Misleading headlines make me angry
Please take care of the media you engage with. I generally feel positive about coverage from the guardian, but headlines like Australian man, 36, diagnosed with coronavirus dies in Iceland are deceptive. It is designed to grab your curiosity (or fear) about the pandemic, and clearly implies that the Australian man was killed by COVID-19. The disease is most lethal in older people, so a younger person dying is notable. But the reality brought by the third sentence is:

“While he was found to be infected with the coronavirus, it is unlikely to have been the cause of his death,” epidemiologist Dr Thorolfur Gudnason,

I.e. an accurate headline is “Australian man, 36, dies in Iceland of unknown causes whilst infected with coronavirus”. This is a problem; in a media saturated landscape many will scroll past the headline in a feed, and it will add to anxiety needlessly.

Harvard Medical Students COVID-19 Curriculum
A friend passed on this resource, which I think provides a good balance of brevity and comprehensiveness on the disease.

Photos from the week

Marathons have been cancelled which takes the pressure off. I can take my time to get back into higher mileage running. It also means I enjoy the scenery a little more.