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.

2020 Week 10: Coronavirus

My physical and mental health are good. Life is satisfyingly busy. Lots of time this week eaten by logistics, so a brief post on the topic of many conversations this week.

Things to share this week

Coronavirus

The new strain of coronavirus is being covered widely in the media. The latest scientific information can be found at The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Nature. This virus has drawn huge attention, particularly compared with other common transmissible diseases. It is good that people are learning to take hygiene and self imposed quarantine seriously, since the common flu strains cause tens of thousands of deaths each year. It is not good if people panic, and I echo the sentiments of Dr Abdu Shrarkawy, particularly: “Temper fear with reason, panic with patience and uncertainty with education. We have an opportunity to learn a great deal about health hygiene and limiting the spread of innumerable transmissible diseases in our society.”

Side point: perhaps the most striking example of the gap in public understanding of epidemiology is the hits to Constellation Brands‘ “Corona” beer. An example of fearful lack of patience comes form the brief Australian toilet paper shortage.

Photos from the week

2020 Week 7: Curfew

This week, in several situations, I ran out of time. By not setting end times for experiments, training sessions, or social occasions, I find myself realising on reflection that I regularly continue longer than would have been optimal. Of course the future is unknown, but making an estimate of how much time I ought to spend before I start, and then evaluating the situation once that time has elapsed, should help me to fit more into each day. This week’s longer post on productivity is highly relevant.

Things I wrote this week

I finished a set of thoughts on how to get more life into the fixed amount of time each day, i.e. productivity. Eventually I’ll reorganise the homepage of this website to have pages dedicated to a few significant topics, and I suspect productivity will be one of them.

Things to share this week

Atmospheric Optics collates visual phenomena that occur due to the spontaneous formation of optical systems in the sky, a common example being rainbows. Thinking about ice halos reminds me of X-ray crystallography, perhaps the most famous example being Photo 51.

Emma Stoye of Nature collated scientific photos from January, including the tracks from the head-crab like robots I shared a couple weeks ago.

The UK brought forward its ban on cars that burn hydrocarbons to 2035, some good news for the climate. I suspect unrelatedly, Telsa shares broke $1000 (and continue to be the centre of reddit shenanigans).

Artist Simon Weckert walked around with a cart full of smartphones to trick google maps into plotting non-existent traffic jams. Whilst I find google maps traffic useful on the rare occasions when I drive, I find the “performance” of having a bright red cart full of smartphones intruding into live updating maps a cute reminder of the difference between reality and abstractions.

Photos from the week

2020 Week 5: Mountain Motivation

Week 5 sees the end of January 2020, and momentum building both in work and play as I accelerate away from the holiday season. I have been reminded in multiple ways that qualities we celebrate and often treat as innate, such as intelligence, strength, and courage, are developed through practice rather than fixed at birth. It is inspiring and motivating to see others grow. On a trivial note, today’s date is a palindrome 2020-02-02 (ISO 8601 format).

Things I wrote this week

I attended the Banff Moutain Film Festival when it toured in Oxford, and my thoughts are in this post.

I finished an overdue race report on the 2019 Blenheim Palace Half Marathon.

Things to share this week

Transparency and Teamwork
I’ve been chatting with some friends at work about transparency, and a famous example of extreme transparency in an organisation comes from Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater. A Summary and Table of Life Principles is provided as a free excerpt from his book. On the same topic, I’m still coming back to and digesting Google’s project Aristotle, described in this piece from the New York Times.

19,547 Calories
Kilian Jornet is a professional athlete who enjoys going up mountains. Last year he skied non stop for 24 hours and managed to gain 23 km in elevation, or nearly three “Everest”s. Doing this required nearly 20,000 kcal (as estimated by Strava), so refuelling would take 37 Big Macs (it actually surprised me how low that number is).

Physical Training Update

I am hoping to break 3 hours for the marathon in 2020, but training has been delayed by an Achilles injury. Rest was the right approach, and I’ve tried to substitute indoor rowing and indoor cycling as low impact alternatives for endurance training. It has been satisfying to see the numbers for weekly “Relative Effort” (based on heart rate) on Strava go up, but as I resume running this hasn’t translated well into speed over ground.

It is frustrating to have to hold back and turn down opportunities to train with friends. It is teaching me the importance of focusing on long term goals to make smarter choices in individual sessions. I’ve also been thinking about this TED talk about the importance of training “easy”. I tend to train “hard” every workout, but this may be less effective the fitter I become. When new to running, race-pace and training-pace can be the same thing, but as fitness increases maximum effort sessions take more recovery time and are more likely to result in injury. Some hard sessions are necessary, but not every session can nor should feel hard.

I’ve also learned that for indoor rowers, power into the machine (watts) is proportional to speed cubed, rather than squared as I would have guessed. That is, an additional 50 W of power brings a 500 m split time of 2:31.8 s/500 m (or 100 W) down to 2:12.6 (19.2 seconds faster), but the next 50 W increment only saves 12.1 seconds more, then 8.6 s, then 6.5 s, until halving the split to 1:15.9 (i.e. doubling the speed) requires 8 times more power at 800 W.

Photos from the Week:

2020 Week 4: Xīn Nián Kuài Lè! 新年快乐!

Saturday was Chinese New Year, and I was fortunate to celebrate in traditional style by making dumplings and watching the CCTV New Year’s Gala. 2020 is the year of the rat, and the first year in a new cycle of 12 years. The ordering of the animals is explained in this amusing story.

Things I wrote this week

No longer posts to share just yet, I’ve been working on sharing some thoughts about productivity, and am hoping to finish it off in the coming week. I’ve also started writing some fiction, for the first time since school, inspired by a writing club which has started at work.

Things to share this week

Chinese news wasn’t all song and dance, the Wuhan virus caused the lock down of two cities, Wuhan and Huanggang.

Davos hosts the World Economic Forum where Russia continues its cold war antics.

This paper caused some controversy; it is unclear if algorithms or people are driving more extreme content since we don’t know how the algorithms work.

Photo from the week

Dumplings for Chinese New Year 2020

2019 Week 52: Retrospective Part 2

Short version: Thoughts on this year’s blog, and what is to come next year.

Long version:

Climate Catastrophe

Sydney, Australia, has a world famous fireworks display to mark the new year. This year, due to raging bush fires, there has been a call to cancel the display. This could only be symbolic, given that the contracts had been signed and the money paid. The fireworks went ahead. I think about the framing a former PM used, that climate change is “the greatest moral challenge of our generation”. That was 12 years ago. While a lack of economic literacy leads to the idea that the costs of the fireworks show could somehow be redirected to fight the fires, it is a deeper problem in human nature that allows the cost of dealing with climate change to grow impossibly in the future, rather than taking less painful action today. I feel another man made disaster gripping Australia, the obesity epidemic, to have similar roots.

It is difficult to think about the end of a year and the start of a new one without thinking about the scale of the challenges ahead. This briefing highlights how quickly time is running out to cut emissions. With governments in power across the English speaking world that so effectively wield tools of misinformation, I fear for our collective ability to make the right decisions. They are uncomfortable choices to make, but the consequences of ignoring them are going to be so much worse.

Reflection on 2019 Blog Posts

At the start of 2019 I wrote that “Last year I managed 11 posts out of 52 weeks for a 21% success rate.” It makes me proud to have hit “publish” for each week of 2019, though many came late. In total the posts came to a little over 30,000 words. They lack the quality and coherency of a novel or a thesis, but it has been a learning process, and reflects many of the topics I thought about in the last year.

Some favourites included:
In Week 38 I looked at the carbon costs in consuming New Zealand apples in the UK, which alongside Week 4 (on plant vs animal protein) are the two posts I’ve most often shared over a meal. Scientific content peaked when I focused on sharing papers, such as Altmetric in Week 8 and cover pages in Week 29. In Week 39 when explaining microwave ovens, I painfully came across the perfect article only after I had written most of the content. The data set I used writing about consumption in Week 48 was the most fun to explore.

Goals for 2020 Blog

The amount of content on berglabs as a whole has increased at least 5-fold in the last year. A reorganisation is due. It’s not easy to find content on the blog. Certain themes, like nutrition, or summaries of academic work, could be better grouped. I hope to reorganise the tags to make things a little easier to find. I aspire to write longer more coherent pieces, but cannot sustain that weekly, and so perhaps a monthly or quarterly essay to give more time to go deeper into a topic. A projects page may help me find collaborators, or pitch ideas that I would like to see in the world (inspired by Kevin Lynagh). I’ve also been toying with a page dedicated to people I think should be on pedestals, and a page announcing my values, the few things I believe to be clearly “good” or “bad”.

Photos of the Year

(click to expand)

2019 Week 50: Elections

Short version: This week the UK voted to give the Tories a 39 seat majority. I met some homeless people in Oxford.

Long version

Democracy

While Hong Kong fights for democracy, it is less appreciated in the UK where only 67% of the eligible population turned up. Perhaps this is due to a high frequency of elections, or apathy at continuing delays of Brexit. As a foreigner, I would blame the oddity of tactical voting combined with the sad reality that many voters in the UK will be effectively “wasting” their vote when they select the candidate they feel most represents them. These problems are due to the simplistic first past the post voting system. CGP Grey has a series of youtube videos that explain different voting systems, and particularly this video following the 2015 election highlights the problems in the British system.

In short, consider this split of votes:
White chocolate party – 14%
Milk chocolate party – 29%
Dark chocolate party – 26%
No chocolate party – 31%

Most people want some chocolate, but because those groups are fairly evenly split between Milk and Dark, with a small group of white chocolate supporters, the 31% minority of anti-chocolate voters has the largest vote share and wins. This voting system is sometimes called “Winner takes all”, which is accurate.

In Australia preferential voting is used, also known as instant-runoff voting, but on reading around this topic, the most effective voting system seems to be the Schulze method, which is a type of Condorcet voting used by several geeky groups such as Linux distribution groups and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Ultimately, the problem I have been thinking on and made little progress with is that these “rules of the game” are relatively insignificant compared with the more general problem of communication, education, and achieving consensus about how we ought live our lives and structure our societies. Big problems, like climate change, public health, and violence, require broad participation more than the selection of specific policy makers. Whilst I would support electoral reform, it is more important to understand why people make individual decisions against their own interests.

Homelessness

This week I was part of a volunteer group that got together to discuss what we could do to help solve local homelessness. The discussions we had with people who live on the the streets and paths of Oxford mirrored those from the related episode of “You can’t ask that“, with the main difference being most of the homeless community in Oxford were not as interested in talking. Those similarities included a diversity of reasons for being on the street, but a sadly common experience with violence.

It was humbling to be reminded how fortunate I am to have my physical and mental health, my friends, and my ability to work. I do not think it is healthy to compare struggles with those of others, but I do think it is right to appreciate the small things that can so easily be taken for granted. Clean socks, being able and willing to clean my teeth regularly, and a stove to cook on, would not usually be exciting in a world of technological marvels, but they are wonderful to have and painful to go without.

Illusion of the Year

The illusion of the year was awarded to the Dual Axis illusion. The multiple interpretations highlight how our vision is fundamentally two dimensional, and the construction of a third spatial dimension from this information can be ambiguous. Ultimately I feel this is the problem with the uptake of virtual reality headsets, that the apparent increase in dimensional space is minor since we really only perceive in two dimensions anyway. Another observation here is that if we were truly aware of 3D, untangling knots would be as simple as solving two dimensional mazes, but we are easily confused by string passing over and under itself.

Photo from the Week

2019 Week 49: Conspiracy Theories

Short version: Some thoughts around the topic of conspiracy theories.

Long version:

Conspiracies

Two reasons to engage
Sometimes I go on the internet and peer into the worlds of groups I don’t agree with. Conspiracy theorists are one such group. A positive reason to read conspiracy theories is the logical and rhetorical exercise; training comprehension and critical thinking skills to see through fallacious logic. A negative reason is to feel a sense of superiority by mocking flawed beliefs. My experience is a mix of the two.

The internet
The internet has been a powerful tool for allowing people to find others with similar interests. Previously the rarer an interest, the less likely an idnividual would be to find others who shared that interest, no matter how passionate they were. Now a small number of sufficiently enthusiastic people can build wikis, forums, and social media presences to connect and commune. Whilst this is wonderful for achieving plurality of interests, it can also result in a harmful echo chamber. Mixed with the serious support communities and trivial meme pages are hate groups and trouble makers.

Why I think people care
The value conspiracy theories provide their believers is that (1) they provide a compelling narrative to explain something difficult to contemplate and (2) that people have a natural excitement about and fixation on secrets.
1. Conspiracy theories tend to centre around fear inducing events, e.g. assinations, terrorist plots, diseases. It is an uncomfortable state to not know or understand why an event came to pass, and extremely disturbing events cannot be ignored. The idea that such events are orchestrated by some powerful group (much like a deity) is compelling because it answers the “why” that cannot be silenced, in place of a much more difficult and potentially impossible journey to understand the true causes.
2. Knowing that a certain piece of information is “secret” increases its percieved value. As we approach Christmas, consider that much of the excitement of a wrapped present is the initial discovery of what it contains. People are generally much more interested in speculating about what is contained in secret documents than they are interested in reading those documents when they become public. The feeling of “being in on a secret” creates a sense of power or insight, which encourages the retention of that belief.

A useful data point
I suspect conspiracy theories give a useful insight into gaps of understanding, and where areas of doubt intersect areas of intrigue. The topics that conspiracy theories center on require enough initial interest to attract attention in the first place, but also need to be sufficiently complex that there is room for compelling alternative conceptions.

How I would have liked to write this section
Ideally I would have picked a few of the most popular conspiracy theories (e.g. the moon landing was faked, something about aliens, something about the illuminati) and pointed out some of the flaws. Perhaps even constructing a conspiracy theory of my own as a demonstration of how if a conclusion is taken to be true, all evidence can be warped to meet that conclusion. This would lead nicely to a comparison with generally accepted methods of hypothesis testing. Unfortuantely I did not have time to do so.

Fitness things I discovered this week

  1. There are some well documented exercises to help with achilles tendinopathy.
  2. Erg (i.e. indoor rowing machine) is short for “ergometer” from Greek words for “work” and “measure”. I had assumed it was some sort of acronym.
  3. The near ubiquitous Concept 2 erg has an online logbook and corresponding smartphone app that allows you to collect data from erg workouts.

Photo from the Week