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.
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.
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.
Short version: Some thoughts around the topic of conspiracy theories.
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.
Short version: This Black Friday weekend is a relevant time to attempt to press my thoughts on consumerism into a post. A revealing ONS data set about household spending. Also some thoughts on blogging and whales’ heart beats.
A note on structure
On top of a tangled set of thoughts about consumption, there was a lot of interesting content to read, listen to, and watch on this topic. The structure of this post suffered, and so if you’re just here to skim I suggest scroll down to the bottom and just check out Trends from the data and Whales’ Heart Beats.
I want stuff. Lots of people also want stuff. Often, if they can, they go out and buy stuff. This is a simple thought, but the many paths it leads down have been a tangle in my mind for some time. This post is an attempt to rectify the clash between the obvious value in markets and trade with the absurdity of waste (see the two videos below) in modern developed economies. This is highlighted by celebrations of consumerism that occur after Thanksgiving.
Chasers War on Waste
The true cost of fast fashion | The Economist
People want to be rich
I think it is reasonable to presume the overwhelming majority of people would like to have more money. Money provides security, safety, and freedom (and most of lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Casey Neistat points out that for a lot of people, money will solve all problems. although people with plenty of money still have problems.
This simple desire for material wealth gets complicated by how different that desire looks at different points of time. The majority of people in the developed world have access to goods and services that were restricted to only the most wealthy only decades ago. Advances in agriculture and medicine mean even the poorest citizens have access to goods like pineapples and penicillin that would have been unimaginable to emperors and kings of centuries past. This Louis CK bit makes light of changing expectations. That desire for newer and shinier at the expense of appreciation for what we already have is, in part, created by the desire for companies to grow their sales and profits. An array of narratives are pushed through advertising. A particularly disturbing yet powerful lie is that you can change who you are simply by owning something. The idea that you can be fitter/sexier/smarter by buying something, rather than by learning or growing, sells a lot of products, despite failing their buyers.
School of Life: History of Consumerism
Black Friday is a day of discounted selling by retailers following Thanksgiving Day, which is observed by shops throughout much of the world. Scenes of people rushing into stores and fighting over relatively cheaper items are symbolic of a period of significant spending by consumers as the end of the year, and particularly Christmas, approaches.
A lot of people work in retail. In Australia, it is 1.3 million, nearly 10% of the labour force. This is an enormous amount of human life dedicated to the mere act of selling things (1.8 Australian lifetimes is spent per working hour by the collective in shops, life expectancy in Australia = 82.5 years). Intuitively (and so simplistically as to be utterly inaccurate) this struck me as a waste of time, given retail exists as a middle man between producers and consumers. Of course in reality at points retailers make the entire system more efficient (for example by collecting fruit and milk in bulk and distributing it to stores in lieu of each consumer visiting a farm individually), but in practice profit incentives drive this enormous work force to motivate us all to consumer more.
One way consumption is driven is through pricing. The decision to purchase an item is in part determined by the price attached to that item. Commonly items are priced at X.99 rather than X+1, because that centipoint increase is far more psychologically significant than the additional profit. A further extreme of this is quantum pricing where fewer price points mean profit margins are obfuscated. The discounts of Black Friday create the perception that shoppers are saving money by buying things at a lower price than they would otherwise, combined with a false scarcity that this is the only time to buy. In reality most consumer goods depreciate rapidly so any future time is a better time to buy. Less scrupulous stores raise prices before the sales only to mark down to pre-sale prices. One clear sign of the power of this frenzied overconsumption is the willingness for people to take on debt to purchase luxuries. Loan Sharks take advantage of Black Friday pressures to consume.
Interesting observations from some actual data
A few weeks ago I came across the BBC series “My Money“, which takes individualsand looks attheir spending over a week. My fascination with how other people spend money stems from not having a good answer to “What is the appropriate/correct/optimal amount to spend on X”. There are intuitive answers to this, which is why spending £100 a week on cheese or £5 a quarter on electricity “feel” high and low, but that intuition is shaped by our relatively limited insight into other’s spending (likely dominated by our parents’ and partners’ habits) augmented by the media we consume, particularly the coercive forces of marketing.
I am consistently frustrated with the concept of normal. There are no “normal” people in the same way there is no way to roll 3.5 (the centre of the normal distribution for values) on a 6 sided die. This video featuring wrestler John Cena emphasises the difficulty in describing an “average” american. However discovering the UK’s Office of National Statistics collects and compiles data on household expenditure (among other things), and produces reports on the distribution of spending, provides data on where the distributions actually lie. I found exploring the data fascinating. I was particularly excited to find this data set breaking down typical weekly expenditure by item in pretty specific categories (e.g. “Cheese”, “Books”, and “Package Holidays – UK” are separate categories).
Here are some observations:
The big picture: income and expenditure
The distribution of incomes in the UK gives an insight into what households can actually afford.
The interactive graphic below gives insight into how the typical UK household spends (taken from this ONS report).
Trends from the data
A wealthier decile has more people per household.
Wealth increases steadily between the 2nd and 8th deciles, and sharply at both ends.
Overall spending trends
Spending in most product areas correlates with increasing disposable income on both a per person and per capita level.
Interesting specific spending trends
Food Poultry (strongly) and beef (weakly) correlate with increasing wealth, pork and lamb are flat across groups, and bacon and ham have a weak negative correlation.
Housing Poorer households spend proportionally much more on housing, making up 19.1 % of spending for the lower half of households, vs 11.1 % for the upper (I guess this is because of renting vs owning). This is after accounting for housing benefits to the lowest deciles.
Transport Transport spending is correlated with income, with a sharp increase in the top decile due to the purchase of new (presumably luxury) cars.
Clothes In the bottom three deciles women spend 2.5x more than than men on clothes, whereas that ratio is only 1.3x for the top decile. Only the top few deciles use drycleaning services.
Alcohol and Tobacco Spending on alcoholic drinks was correlated with income, but the trend was dominated by wine, while beer and spirits were fairly independent across the groups. Lower income deciles spent more per person on tobacco and other narcotics.
Health and Education Education (school fees) and sports subscriptions (gyms) correlated strongly with income.
Entertainment There is a hump like feature in the audio-visual equipment categories in the 6th and 7th deciles. Spending on hotels appears to have an exponential relationship with increasing disposable income.
Useful definitions from the ONS:
What is disposable income?
Disposable income is arguably the most widely used household income measure. Disposable income is the amount of money that households have available for spending and saving after direct taxes (such as Income Tax, National Insurance and Council Tax) have been accounted for. It includes earnings from employment, private pensions and investments as well as cash benefits provided by the state.
The five stages are:
1. Household members begin with income from employment, private pensions, investments and other non-government sources; this is referred to as “original income”
2. Households then receive income from cash benefits. The sum of cash benefits and original income is referred to as “gross income”.
3. Households then pay direct taxes. Direct taxes, when subtracted from gross income is referred to as “disposable income”.
4. Indirect taxes are then paid via expenditure. Disposable income minus indirect taxes is referred to as “post-tax income”.
5. Households finally receive a benefit from services (benefits in kind). Benefits in kind plus post-tax income is referred to as “final income”.
Note that at no stage are deductions made for housing costs.
Amusing group names:
While looking at consumer spending in the UK, I found the following categories that the ONS uses to divide UK residents. Some of them were incredulous to the point of being amusing.
Categories: Rural residents, Cosmopolitans, Ethnicity central, Multicultural metropolitans, Urbanites, Suburbanites, Constrained city dwellers, Hard-pressed living
Sub-categories: Farming Communities, Rural Tenants, Ageing Rural Dwellers, Students Around Campus, Inner-City Students, Comfortable Cosmopolitans, Aspiring and Affluent, Ethnic Family Life, Endeavouring Ethnic Mix, Ethnic Dynamics, Aspirational Techies, Rented Family Living, Challenged Asian Terraces, Asian Traits, Urban Professionals and Families, Ageing Urban Living, Suburban Achievers, Semi-Detached Suburbia, Challenged Diversity, Constrained Flat Dwellers, White Communities, Ageing City Dwellers, Industrious Communities, Challenged Terraced Workers, Hard-Pressed Ageing Workers, Migration and Churn.
Personal conflict: running tech
I like running, and improving my fitness more generally, I suppose because it helps me to self actualise. One of my personal weaknesses in fighting back against the commercial marketing machine has been in running tech. As such, I found this video from the New York Times both entertaining and helpful in realising the main thing I need to run faster is not a piece of equipment, but to simply run more and faster.
December blogging reflection
Lately I’ve been posting each week on Sunday come what may. There’s a pretty wide variance in how much time goes into each post, which is not always related to the quality of each post. Some topics I have a better understanding of before I start to write. Some observations are not insightful. Some posts go out unfinished.
Ideas vary in quality. Some ideas were probably not worth writing about at all, while others are so huge they could easily fill hundreds of pages. Not every idea is a good idea, and even a good idea poorly executed is not a good result.
Some topics deserve to be revisited, edited, improved, expanded etc. But writing in this weekly format is useful. Sometimes quantity results in quality. If I maintained a high expectation for each blog post I would write less, and my writing would not improve. Moreover in trying to write each week I am motivating myself to learn. I do hope to better organise myself in the next block of blogging (i.e. next year’s posts) to segregate space for tackling bigger topics less frequently, with a less structured more regular section.
As I was writing this post I received Peter Attia’s weekly email, describing his struggles with writing. It was extremely motivating to read words that felt so familiar they could have been my own. I would not wish insecurities on anyone, but it is deeply reassuring to be reminded those feelings are normal.
While on the topic of other writers; blogs I’d like to share: Econometrics By Simulation: interesting applications of statistical software. Beau Miles: Came across some of his films, the first content in a while to make me really miss Australia. Describes himself as “Award winning filmmaker, poly-jobist, speaker, writer, odd.”
Whales’ heart beats
A wonderful aspect of having scientists as friends is that they share exciting science with you that you would otherwise miss. One example is this paper about how the heart rate of blue whales changes as they dive for food. Their enormous hearts beat as slowly as two times per minute and as quickly as 37, which is about as fast as is physically possible. It also contains this informative figure, which I feel tells the story clearly and succinctly.
Short version: A quick guide on reverse engineering a drug, no correlation between shoe size and penile length, and an infographic on the pension fund that owns 1% of the world.
Last week I wrote about patents. I cut out an incomplete section about the role of patents in drugs, where the costs of development (particularly testing for regulatory approval) can exceed a billion US dollars. Here parents are important because modern chemistry allows relatively easy reverse engineering to occur (i.e. working backwards from the product to understand how to make it). As an example, I briefly describe how this could be done with paracetamol (a common painkiller and antipyretic). I’m writing relatively late this week but will hopefully return to this post to update it with diagrams to better explain the process.
1. Purification Even for a drug taken in relatively high doses such a paracetamol, the actual pill ingested is not a pure substance, but contains several “filler” agents to help make the pill more stable, easier to swallow, and to better control the release of the drug. Just as a black pen can be separated into its constituent dyes by water running through paper (e.g. ink smearing), so too can many chemicals under the right conditions be isolated by solvents flowing across a solid material. This is known as chromatography and is the underlying technique by which more advanced lab equipment such as HPLC can be used to isolate the different chemicals that make up a single tablet. By first running a reference material containing common “fillers” like carbohydrates (e.g. lactose, starch), we can more easily identify the unknown substances to investigate in identifying the target drug.
3. Retrosynthesis Knowledge of chemical synthesis is required to intuit how to make a given structure, but in trying to emulate the incredibly complex molecules of nature, a vast array of theoretical tools have been developed. The synthetic steps are drawn here, and for a synthetic organic chemist familiar with the reactions, working backwards from the structure may not be trivial, but is quite logical.
4. Synthesis Now we can go into the lab and make the drug, following the retrosynthetic steps from the starting materials.
Penile Length and Shoe Size
Since I changed my default search engine to google scholar it has led me to accidentally search the literature when what I’m looking for is more mundane. This week while attempting to search “UK shoe size conversion”, the first result for me on google scholar was “Can shoe size predict penile length?“, a paper where two London urologists determined there is no relationship between shoe size and penis size. I haven’t been particularly concerned with penis size since puberty (if you are concerned, this NHS page may help you), but would (if asked) have assumed that the size of all body parts are roughly correlated, apparently not.
Norwegian Wealth Fund
The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund is the largest in the world, with US$1 trillion in assets and about 1% of almost all companies in the world. This interactive map shows the incredible list of investments.
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: 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: 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. Edit; I have now added the race report here.