2019 Week 25: Advice

Short version: Taking advice is not an easy skill to master. I ought to listen to the advice itself rather than assume its validity based on the person offering it.

Long version:

Advice

I have a bad habit when taking advice. I find it very difficult to listen when the advice comes from someone who does not follow that advice themselves. This is a sort of reverse authority bias, whereby I ignore good information that ought to be taken on it’s own merit. An intuitive example is the sporting one, a coach might study the tactics and strategy of a game, know their players and those of the opposition, the biomechanics of the body, and about nutrition and rehabilitation, and yet be themselves at a poor level of fitness. Thereby they might espouse accurate, useful, and ultimately critical advice, whilst being a terrible player themselves. Sport is also a good example of my bias at the group level, as often it takes skill in the activity to earn enough respect to be in a position to offer advice.

Further, I can find myself confronting the person giving me advice if I feel they are not being consistent to the underlying principle. This often comes across as confrontational, which is not how one should approach an offer of help (of which giving advice is a type). Even if it is not a direct confrontation, by challenging the person I distract myself away from considering the advice, and how it might address my own inadequacies. Seen from this perspective the motivation to react this way is obvious: it is much more comfortable to see someone elses weaknesses than our own. Conversely, once accepted and understood, it is only our own weaknesses that we are able to correct.

Confidence vs. Persistence

I am learning from the beginners rowing course, that while being confident is helpful (it prevents unnecessary hesitation, lowers stress, and makes the whole process more enjoyable), persistence (actual time practicing a skill, making it automatic) helps more.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 24: Vitamins

Short version: Vitamins are important, but confusing. I am learning to row.

Long version:

Vital Amines

The discovery of chemicals needed to sustain animals (including humans) other than minerals (e.g. salt) and the three macro-nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) is described in this paper. The term vitamins itself was coined by Casimir Funk who formed the portmanteau from Vital Amines. Particularly interesting to me was learning that the advent of the highly useful germ theory of disease led to the assumption that conditions caused by vitamin deficits (e.g. scurvy) were also caused by unknown pathogens, resulting in debates around the existence of these other nutritional compounds. The Wikipedia list of vitamins gives some chemical and medical insight into vitamins. Historically it seems that improvements in chemical extraction, purification, and structural determination led to the intermediate letter based classification we still use today, despite a more precise chemical understanding of these compounds having been achieved.

Also, multivitamins probably don’t do anything useful. Although, in the UK Vitamin D supplementation is useful in certain circumstances, especially winter.

Learning to Row

I am learning to row with City of Oxford Rowing Club. This was the second week of the six week beginners program, and below are photos of our second outing.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 23: Yams

Short version: Waitrose is getting rid of some of their packaging, but didn’t stock yams.

Long version:

British Supermarkets

The United Kingdom has a much more diverse supermarket landscape than the Australian duopoly I grew up with. The British landscape is tiered, with M&S and Waitrose as the expensive, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco as the middle, and Aldi, Iceland, and Lidl as the cheaper options. In my shopping there is a noticeable contrast in the demographic of the customers at Waitrose compared with Aldi, both on Oxford’s Botley Road. I suspect this is a product of the price differences appealing to different socio-economic classes. The data, however, suggests the difference is small.

The photo from the week is of Waitrose’s “Unpacked” campaign around removing packaging from their stores. Reducing waste is commendable, and the campaign has been successful in encouraging me to purchase more items from Waitrose. However on visiting many of the independent grocery stores on Cowley Road I realised that “Unpacked” is actually the default way of selling goods, rather than an “innovation”.

Yams

I tried cooking yams this week, as part of a larger project to improve my cooking by working through a single cookbook (written by the team of the former London restaurant Food for Thought).

The first problem was that I didn’t actually know what a yam is. The wikipedia page offers a disambiguation. This raises the question as to why a tuber produced primarily in equatorial regions would be popular in the UK. The ready availability of carribean food in general (of which yams are a component) in the UK is partially due to the Windrush generation. Finally a pop culture note: Kendrick Lamar’s yams are “authenticity, sex, and drugs“.

粽子

This Friday was the Dragon Boat Festival ( 端午节 ). My quest for yams brought me to some Chinese supermarkets here in Oxford and the presence of banana leaf wrapped rice (粽子) reminded me of the traditional Chinese holiday, and the story of Qu Yuan (屈原).

Photo from the Week

2019 Week 22: Street Art, Pride, Rowing

Short version: A colourful week, beginning with a day in Bucharest before returning from Romania to Oxford, where the streets were lively with Oxford Pride and Summer Eights.

Long version:

Street Art

Graffiti is a part of most urban environments (perhaps for as long as urban environments have existed) and continues to be seen by some as a blight and others as beautiful. When I first studied art, I remember the compulsion to learn the physical details of individual works, their historical contexts, and how they were and have since been interpreted. More recently I’ve tried more to focus on how I react to art emotionally, to try and build better awareness of my own feelings. In short, I enjoyed the street art in Bucharest.

Oxford Pride

Oxford held a pride parade. It feels like the community in Oxford is progressive on the issues of gender and sexuality, students seem pretty welcoming and rainbow flags fly throughout the year. Of course even in a progressive community it can be difficult to be in a sexual or gender minority, so demonstrations of support and solidarity serve a beneficial purpose.

Rowing

Summer eights ran again, finishing on Saturday. Bumps racing, and the ancillary traditions (such as competition between colleges over quality of Pimm’s), are strange from an outsider’s perspective, but I am inspired by the actual rowing to seek an opportunity to try it. Competition results can be seen here.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 19: Balls

Short version: in a week of upper-class entertainment, I attended a Ball in Oxford, and an Opera in London.

Long version:

Balls

In the university calendar of Oxford, the warmer months of Trinity term bring with them the college balls. Students dress up in black tie to enjoy carnival rides, food trucks, open bars, and dancing. Given colleges are the term time homes of Oxford students, they are something of an extravagant house-party. The nature of the ticket pricing (a single price for entry with everything being free within the ball) encourages over consumption, particularly of alcohol. It also encourages the practice of sneaking into balls, by scaling walls or attempting unusual canal crossings.

As something of an Oxford outsider, I think I miss out on the main joy of attending a party with your peers where you live and study. They are a spectacle, and good company, music, and drink are certainly pleasant. That said, having attended a few balls last year, the novelty has worn off. I’ve written about lowering my alcohol consumption, and similarly excessive consumption of “party” foods is an unwise choice. Even the loss of sleep, as balls tend to carry on into the small hours of the morning, seems to be a price I am less willing to pay. I feel both “old” and “anti-fun” as I write this, but my priorities have shifted from this particular expression of hedonism to value each activity in a purer and more moderate form, rather than thrown together in a single event. Dancing is not particularly enhanced by heavy eating or drinking. Thrill seeking comes best in more practical clothing. Good company is better enjoyed where conversation is not drowned out by party music. Overall, while the components of a ball are very enjoyable, I find the combined experience to be less than the sum of the parts.

Opera: Billy Budd

On Friday I attended the closing performance of Billy Budd, which impressed upon me an appreciation that Britain no longer uses impressment. I feel this piece from the Financial Times has a much more informed opinion on the performance than I could form. The English language opera with an all male cast had enough elements of the Christ story to make me reflect on the oddity that the United Kingdom is technically a religious state. Also the loyalty of the titular character, despite his tragic end, is something I feel a sense of envy over. The British Navy is not a hierarchy I aspire to be a part of, but to have a clear sense of purpose, of duty, and to live up to that purpose and duty, is something that I do aspire to.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 18: Allotments

Short version: This week ONI volunteered around Oxford to celebrate 3 years since being founded, and as part of that I worked on an allotment for the first time.

Long version:

The Children’s Allotment

On the 1st of May ONI celebrated its third “Oniversary”, and with corporate social responsibility in mind we decided to volunteer our time on projects around Oxford that could use some extra hands. I was tasked with leading a team to help The Children’s Allotment clear an abandoned plant nursery on the site of Oxford’s East Ward Allotments. My first response to the exercise was sceptical, but the result was an inspiring and enjoyable day, with some satisfyingly useful results. Together we worked up a sweat, collected a few scrapes and scratches, and had our shoes filled with earth, but ultimately managed to clear the entire area of rubbish and overgrown brambles. The surprise and joy of the Children’s Allotment team, and their heartfelt thanks, left us all feeling proud at what we had achieved.

When working with a group of people every day, it becomes easy to take for granted their consistently positive qualities, and I come to take for granted the work ethic of my incredible colleagues. “ONIees” are quick to get into their work and see it through with discipline and vigour. Old and young, tall and short, experienced gardeners and those who had never kept a houseplant, all promptly donned a pair of gardening gloves and got to digging, cutting, clearing, and moving ceaselessly until the job was done.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 17: Castles and Coffee

Short version: Wales has a lot of castles, and I rebuilt my coffee machine.

Long version:

Castles

The weekend hiking trip to Wales was bookended by visiting the UNESCO listed Caernarfon and Conwy Castles. I was reminded of a book I loved as a child; “Castle” by David Macaulay, which is unsurprising given the fictional castle depicted is modelled after Conwy. While to me castles are a setting for stories and an element in games, in reality they were imposing military installations. In particular given Oxford is currently home, it is disquieting to consider that Oxford (and Cambridge) were both teaching students while Conwy was being built as part of Edward Longshanks’ conquest of the Welsh.

Coffee

I like coffee. I am lucky to have been given a La Pavoni Europiccola, from which (literally) pulling shots of espresso gives me satisfaction and caffeination. Having such a manual machine highlights the chromatographic aspects of the process of making one of the world’s most popular beverages, and gives plenty of opportunities to experiment with process. For more on coffee, CGP Grey provides some interesting coffee facts in his video.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 16: Snowdonia Way

Short version: Over the long weekend I hiked some of the Snowdonia way with a friend, it was beautiful.

Long version:

Snowdonia Way

The “Snowdonia Way” is a 156 km or 196 km walking route through Snowdonia National Park. We followed a guide book, but the route is also described on a dedicated website and by the Long Distance Walkers Association. The full route takes 6-9 stages (functionally days) depending on choices of lowland or mountain routes, but ultimately to fit comfortably into the four day Easter long weekend we only covered two slightly modified stages, focused on climbing Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales.

Trip Summary

Oxford to Beddgelert
We chose public transport over driving; our start and end points could differ without the need to collect a parked car. Being a passenger also requires less focus than driving unfamiliar (and uninspiring) highway, and intuitively public transport seems the climate conscious way to travel. A train from Oxford to Birmingham, and another from Birmingham to Bangor, was followed by a bus to Caernarfon, and finally a bus to Beddgelert.

Bedgellert to Pen-y-Pass
We started in the late afternoon, walking out of Bedgellert which was bubbling with holidaying families. A well groomed path (above) passed Sygun Copper mine and continued along the southern edge of Llyn Dinas. A brief turn on gravel road led North onto the start of the Watkin Path, near which was the first night of camping. Snowdon could be glimpsed behind nearer hills, a beautiful challenge to look up and forward to.

Taking down camp early and heading up to the ridge, it quickly warmed to an uncharacteristically warm and sunny day in Wales. Some steep hiking and a very brief scramble led to a saddle only a meter or so across, which allowed two distinct valleys to be viewed while sitting over lunch. The climb to the summit finished on a rather crowded Snowdon peak (see below), with many day walkers audibly disappointed that the cafe was closed. The Pyg Track was the chosen descent, which begins with a steep set of switchbacks but flattens out to gentle views of Llyn Llydaw and the Miner’s Track below. The heat took a toll on water supplies, but thankfully the YHA at Pen-y-Pass had drinking water available on tap.

Pen-y-Pass to Dolwyddelan
The second full day of hiking began descending through the exposed Nant Gwynant to a hydro-electric power station. A sharp climb out led onto a surprisingly wet plateau, bordered by a plantation. Passing down into the next valley the path began winding through sheep farms, and the hike ended near the the well kept Dolwyddelan Castle.

Dolwyddelan to Oxford
Due to damage to the railway line caused by Storm Gareth, Dolwyddelan was no longer connected to the Welsh railway network, and so the return trip began with a bus back to Conwy, followed by trains through Birmingham and finally back to Oxford.

Overall Thoughts
Compared to the much flatter Oxford surrounds, the steeper slopes of Wales are excitingly wild and adventurous. The thousands of years of human presence comes through, particularly with the very visible effects of mining around Snowdon. It is impressive to think how much earth was moved by human and animal labour alone, particularly when struggling under a pack. We were incredibly lucky to get four days of unbroken dry weather in a famously wet part of the world, and it certainly left us wanting to take on more hiking in the warmer months ahead.

Hiking in Wales vs Australia

This trip was my first hike in the United Kingdom, and my first overnight trip outside of Australia. Comparing Wales to its Newer Southern counterpart, variation in temperature and a prevalence of civilisation were the most significant differences. My pack contained many more clothing layers and a much bulkier sleeping bag to account for cold nights. This resulted in a much heavier pack than I am used to (approx 13 kg total), but with the prevalence of small towns I could have shed weight easily by purchasing food along the way. The habit of carrying provisions for the whole trip makes more sense in the more sparsely populated Australia.

(more) Photos from the Week

2019 Week 14: Global Travel

Short version: I travelled from Oxford to Sydney and back within a week. That is incredible, but sadly places huge costs on the environment.

Long version:

Planetary Commute

Antipodes
This week I needed to be in Sydney for one day. To make the round trip in a week, about half the time is spent varyingly on flights and in airports. This left plenty of time to marvel at how trivial it now is to travel around the entire planet. Sydney is close to being on the opposite side of the planet (the antipode) to Oxford, so the total journey of 16,983 km is not far off the maximum distance two points can be from each other on the surface of the earth (approximately 20,000 km). Interestingly that antipodal distance is slightly less than half the 40,075 km equatorial circumference, due to the deformations in the shape of the earth. I was unable to easily find an exact calculation of the furthest two points on earth, due to errors in the data set, and the ever changing shape of the planet.

Kangaroo Route
When the British set out to colonise Australia, the trip took took 252 days. That trip can now be done commercially in less than 25 hours. (I had a longer layover that brought it closer to 30 hours). The magazine Air & Space recounts the history of this London to Sydney “Kangaroo route”.

Jet lag
Drastic changes in timezone leave an effect on the body. The NHS points out “There’s no treatment for jet lag“, but it does give helpful advice, such as attempting to move your sleep/wake cycle in sync earlier. While searching for papers on jet lag I found one on social jet lag and student performance that mines university logins. I found the charts classifying students based on chronotype interesting.

Fuel Efficiency and Carbon Impact
Passengers in a 747-400 have a fuel efficiency of about 3.1 L/100 km vs 10 L/100 km for cars. So a car with three people and a typical flight have the same carbon impact over the same distance. Thus my out and back journey consumed about 1000 L of fuel, producing 2500 kg of carbon dioxide. This is similar to the carbon emissions for a year of either eating a 75g hamburger per day, or heating a UK home.

Airborne Population (Fermi Problem)

With increasing demand and decreasing costs of air transport, at any point in time there is a proportion of the population on flights. Three ways of estimating this population:

Extrapolate from a single data point
If I assume everyone flies as frequently as I do (2 days per year, and multiply by the approximately 7 billion population on earth, that gives 14 billion flying days. Dividing this by the days in a year gives about 400,000,000 airborne people at any given time. Intuitively seems very high; it reflects my financial privilege that I fly much more than the average person.

Make a set of intuitive assumptions
Taking the following rough guesses: 1. all the flying is done by the wealthiest billion people 2. for every million of these people there is an airport where 3. a flight takes off every 15 minutes, 4. those flights last two hours, and 5. seat 500 people.
Calculations: (flight duration = 2 hours) ÷ (flight frequency = 0.25 hours) × (airports = 1000) × (passengers per flight = 500) = 4,000,000 airborne people at any time. This result seems more realistic, and fits intuitions that very large cities of many millions tend to have multiple airports, or large airports with multiple runways. Flights might run longer, but also less frequently over the night. Some large aircraft can carry more than 500, but are fewer and travel longer routes.

Use one highly relevant fact
Looking up a key fact, that there are 700,000,000,000 Revenue Passenger Kilometres flown per month, and knowing that the cruising speed for jets is about 900 km/h. Allows the simple calculations (distance travelled per month) ÷ (speed) ÷ (hours per month) gives an approximation of 1,000,000 airborne people at any time.

General Notes
Time of day and season would cause the actual number to vary significantly with time. Particularly peak travel periods around regional holidays (e.g. Thanksgiving, Diwali, Chinese New Year).

Photo from the Week

An Airbus A330-243 in Chengdu China, the layover on my journey to Sydney.

2019 Week 13: Tech

Short version: Technology is amazing. Cycling can be dangerous.

Long version:

Scientific Tech

Technology is amazing, and as a scientist I am very lucky to work with some of the latest, most advanced, and highest tech machines that exist. Sharing that excitement can be difficult however, as being able to measure with very high precision is not a particularly visual phenomenon. Manipulating the protein and nucleic acid building blocks of life is challenging and rewarding, but ultimately happens in drops of water that, to the naked eye, are indistinguishable to those from a mundane context.

Occasionally I have given tours of laboratories, and often I feel the equipment and materials present must be underwhelming to the visitor. The reality of science, when compared with science fiction, requires the machines we use to be simple, robust, and compatible with the rest of the lab. For example, transparent equipment with bright flashing lights is great for setting up interesting shots in a movie, but when experimental conditions need to be carefully controlled, simple refrigerator-like boxes are often the better solution.

The prevalence of powerful modern technology means that what is captivating tends to be a common phenomenon presented in an unusual context. Glowing materials can be striking (and an inaccurate representation of nuclear radiation in cinema) since most objects do not naturally emit (visible) light (at standard temperatures), but emission of light is a pretty routine phenomenon (you’re reading this on a glowing screen). In the context of the lab, a fluorescent tube or a glow stick might seem to have some high tech implication, but in an office or a disco, they are common. Similarly it is often a climactic point in a characters mastery of magical powers to lift an object with their mind, but a forklift or crane is somehow much less the substance of fantasy.

A few particularly exciting instruments I’ve had the privilege to work with:

Consumer Tech

I enjoy consumer technology, and fondly recall walking the cavernous trade show floor at CES. The sheer volume of sales of consumer devices helps to dilute the cost of design work, both in physical hardware and in virtual interfaces. The result is that the aesthetic experience of using a consumer device is often significantly better than that of a technologically more advanced scientific device. Youtubers like Lisa Gade, Marques Brownlee, and Dave Lee share the experience of the latest consumer devices, but I often feel conflicted watching such video. While fun, such content feeds into unnecessary marketing driven consumption that I is a social and environmental blight. I also find sports gadgetry a compelling source of procrastination, e.g. DcRainmaker‘s blog.

Safe Cycling

In March while cycling I was involved in a collision on the way to work. Luckily I came away with only very minor injuries. It is a useful reminder that there are risks to using the roads, and that those risks can be minimised. Three thoughts:

Have your kit in order:
Wear a helmet. Large meta-studies say they help. Doctors in emergency departments have told me they help. Bicycle helmets have saved me from major head injuries at least three times. Making sure they fit is important. After damage replace them.
Check that your brakes are working and work well, and practise stopping hard, especially in difficult conditions like downhill or in the wet.
Wear visible clothing. You need to be seen.

Ride like you are invisible:
Even when wearing high visibility clothing and using lights, it should be assumed that cars cannot see you. Even in cities where cycling is less common, drivers might only be looking out for cars and miss cyclists, something that’s particularly common when waiting to turn across traffic. Cars have a physical structure that can create blind spots. Many drivers are distracted by phones or passengers, especially when travelling at lower speeds or through slow moving traffic. Ultimately, the risks you take by assuming you will be seen by other cars can be minimised, even if it ought to be the responsibility of the drivers.

Organ Donation:
If you lost your life in an accident today, I would be devastated. But a sad day is worse if someone else misses their chance to live because we didn’t submit a trivial form. Please sign up to be an organ donor: Australians UK USA

Photos from the Week