Short version: Writing accurately about science takes time, but a few bits to push in that direction. 新年快乐!
Writing About Science
I’ve noticed a lack of scientific content in my blog. Usually the week’s post is in the back of my mind throughout the week with a few notes in Google Keep. This week I started out early with a list of topics I’d like touch on, or even expand into, but by Sunday with relatively little progress and wanting to cover them in reasonable depth I’ve culled back significantly. At the moment my main motivation week to week in writing is to practice writing publicly, building confidence and prompting coherency in my thoughts. I would like to share insight, but presenting summaries of scientific work on interesting topics can very quickly grow into a lengthy task (e.g. Review Articles). Also, working full time in scientific research, often my weekend reading drifts into other fields, which then leads to less scientific blog writing.
My current context is filled with incentives to buy more stuff. One of the photos from the week is of a particularly expensive sports car that I passed on a run, and I feel that in sharing it I am participating in a culture that causes us to covet impractical luxuries. After all, given speed limits and traffic exist, it’s unclear what the purpose of owning a super car is beyond conspicuous consumption. That said, there is an aesthetic pleasure to be taken from such things.
Short version: I’m drinking a bit less, the media still likes skewing science to get page views, live music is wonderful, it snowed more in Oxford.
Personal Experience: Last week I wrote about having made the change to not eat meat. More recently I’ve been toying with cutting back on alcohol. Throughout January I observed a one drink per day maximum. This was most difficult socially, as I don’t have a single reason for cutting back, and there are many contexts where accepting drinks is the polite behaviour. Moreover it often felt more difficult to explain setting a threshold of one, than simply saying I didn’t drink, or was undertaking Dry January. I think in general this comes from a desire for principled consistency. While consuming alcohol is fun, I felt overall I was able to have just as good a time while consuming less, with benefits felt in sleep and recovery from training.
Guidelines: The Australian Government Department of Health recommends no more than two standard drinks per day long term and no more than four standard drinks per day (where a standard drink is 10 g or 13 mL of ethanol). The British NHS has a similar 14 units per week, to be spread over 3 or more days , but using smaller units (8 g or 10 mL of ethanol). Of course the US is a little trickier to compare due to the lack of the metric system but the CDC recommends one drink for women and two for men, with much larger units (14 g being 0.6 ounces, or 18 mL).
I listened to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra perform Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges: Suite, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4. I particularly enjoyed the drama of the final piece, and the incredible energy of the orchestra. The soloist Augustin Hadelich has a pretty incredible life story, and incredibly clean sound.
Short version: Why I don’t eat meat, some things I’m reading at the moment, and three photos from my week.
Eating Less Meat
Since having moved to the United Kingdom, I’ve been eating less meat. The strongest motivation comes from a desire to minimise carbon impact and waste. The change has been made easy by meat substitutes being widely available and cheap (and delicious).
Evidence: Intuitively, in order for humans to gain nutrition from an animal, that animal needs to consume either other animals or plants first. Given these processes cannot be completely efficient, there is always a lower energy cost to the environment to eat lower on the food chain. The real effect of this is described in the chart below.
Riding the Tube, I noticed the surge in banking start ups, particularly Viola Black running an advertising campaign referencing Monzo. It seems their SEO game is a little weak, as a google search for them has the top result being from Monzo forums. It makes sense that with Monzo and Revoult being valued over $1bn, you would see a surge in competitors, but the market seems a little saturated?
Jack Straw’s Lane, Oxford
I broke my bike last week, and had to run to pick it up this weekend. Discovered some new routes around Oxford.
Short version: Building good habits makes good behaviours easier. Australians find their history confronting. Green Tea seems to be good for you. Birds have social media in Sydney.
Habits, Mindfulness, and Technology.
At the start of 2018 I wrote “In short: learn, improve my routine, write more.” I’ve noticed on returning to work this year that habits which felt like hard work at the start of last year are coming much more easily. Building a good routine gradually, consistently, and trying to avoid self-flagellation when I failed, has yeilded bigger benefits than I anticipated. This has been most easily observed around physical and mental health, where I’m getting up ealier, feeling more energetic through the day, and getting more exercise in.
On the other side is a reminder how powerful bad habits are. In a vlog this week John Green spoke about discovering just how often he types reddit into a browser when he quit social media. I think handling technology that is driven by so many smart people working to grab more of our attention to sell more advertising, is hard. One way I’m going to work to improve my relationship with tech this year is to make sure I have a purpose each time I interact with it. The aim is see it and use it as a tool, rather than be guided by it to burn time.
Australian History: “Slavery by Other Means”
My friend Seb wrote two articles on Pacific Islander Labour in 19th and early 20th Century Australia. My intial response to this brutal chapter of Austalian history was to attempt to trivialise it. Thoughts like “not as bad as other slavery”, “life was harsh for everyone back then”, and “life as a labourer wouldn’t have been that bad”. I would guess these are responses to shield myself from feeling, be it empathy or disgust or guilt or simply sadness. I’m not sure if an emotional engagement with history is preferable to a clinical intellectualism, but I do think the tendancy to avoid discomfort in historical interest is harmful. The extemes are feeling so strongly we are paralysed or act irresponsibly vs being callous to injustices, but the best place to sit between the extremes is not clear to me. I think both the article and the general principle are worth consideration.
It seems like drinking Green Tea is pretty good for you. I think all nutritional science suffers from difficulties collecting accurate data from inherently unreliable test subjects, but a quick search of google scholar seems to come up with a compelling set of results. I’m convinced enough to be swapping out some of my coffees for the world’s most popular brew.
New Year’s Review and Resolutions: 2018 was a good year. Survived an intense year at ONI, ran a sub 90 half marathon, built good habits around personal reflection. 2019 I hope I’ll be better at keeping in touch with friends, prioritise tasks more effectively, and be more active in choosing what media to consume.
Blogging: Last year I managed 11 posts out of 52 weeks for a 21% success rate. This year I hope to do a little better by being happier with shorter posts rather than posting nothing at all (e.g. this one).
At the end of this September I plan on running the Blenheim and Oxford half marathons, ideally setting a personal best. Last year I ran the Blenheim Palace race in 1:47:13, and ambitiously I would like to do better than 1:30:00. I suspect this is too large an improvement to expect even with 3 months to train, but it provides a target to work towards an incentive to train harder.
This weekend I visited Oxford’s Arboretum, and Blenheim Palace. It was lovely to enjoy the summer sunshine. With so much interesting content so easily accessible online and on paper, it can be difficult to prioritise taking time to just experience the outside world. Emotionally, it felt very valuable to be out somewhere a little different, to take a small holiday. Some photos from the weekend:
It has now been two out of a relatively few visits to the palace that have included a car show, and this time it was the Pre ’50 American Auto Club Rally of the Giants. It is remarkable the strength of the relationship people form with their cars, and this is particularly noticeable in the context of a community that defines themselves by the restoration and care of classic machines. The reasons that come to mind for this strength are: cars are one of the largest purchases commonly made, cars provide freedom (of movement) to a unique extent, and for many commuters cars are a often occupied second home. I enjoy the practicalities and aesthetics of cars (and motorcycles, and bicycles), but for something so common, the economics don’t seem to add up. Intuitively, for such an expensive piece of infrastructure, the majority of (privately owned) vehicles seem to spend a rather minimal amount of time being used. While I (like many) enjoy driving, it would seem the more hours I spend driving my car, the fewer hours I would have to focus on other tasks, and as such relocating or finding alternative transport (even if slower) would net gain me more hours of useful time. I suppose it would be interesting to quantify this from the perspective of homo economicus, but a quick search of the literature give me only “semi-structured interviews with 19 regular private car commuters” and “discrete choice models of the household’s decision to own zero, one, two or three or more vehicles“, i.e. interesting descriptions of individual and collective behaviour with regard to owing cars, but not a judgement on if it makes sense.Quotes
Some interesting comments include “Drivers frequently fail to appreciate the full costs of their travel and equate running costs with fuel costs only” and “Thus the autonomy and empowerment drivers feel can benefit health and wellbeing and access to a car is associated with superior physical health, less depression and lower mortality rates”.
I suppose, ultimately, it would require pricing relatively difficult concepts such as the flexibility of point to point transport to an individual, or the sense of safety it provides, or the value in transporting dependants.
I have a mixed relationship with photography. On the one hand, I’ve cringed at concerts watching people stare at the performance through camcorder viewfinders, and now smartphone screens. I feel the experiential hoarding can obscure the experience itself, particularly when time is taken to get a technically impressive recording. On the other hand, I enjoy reliving memories through my photos, and a take pride in getting an image I like, such as the one of Sydney Harbour from the home page. The compromise I’ve reached is to allocate specific instances or events where I will attempt to take good photos, as primary to the experience, and otherwise leave the tripod at home and the smartphone in my pocket.
Equipment I’ve been lucky to have had Canon loan me an 80D , which set the bar for photography tech very high. A DSLR gives plenty of options to tweak, along with clarity and resolution, but they are bulky and expensive. Currently the only dedicated camera I have is a Garmin VIRB X. Recently I’ve upgraded my phone from a Nexus 5 (2013) to a Pixel 2 (2017), and so far I’ve loved the photos it takes.
Canon EOS 80D taken with my main camera for years, the Nexus 5 (2013)
Pixel 2 vs Sony RX100 Mk2
In 2013 MKBHD called the RX100 “The best pocket camera ever made“. I’m lucky to have a friend here who has one. This weekend we walked around Port Meadow on a foggy morning. While the photos themselves weren’t particularly interesting, it was a great opportunity to see how much software processing on the Pixel 2 is able to overcome the hardware deficit vs. the RX100. The phone really falls down when it comes to zoom, and a fairer comparison for point and shoots might be to pair it up against the latest RX100 Mk V, but it is amazing what is possible with a lens not much larger than a shirt button.
Phone vs Point and Shoot comparison: Pixel 2 Photos on the left, RX100 Mk 2 on the right.
Last weekend I visited the Tate Modern in London. Two sets of photographs really stood out. First, the recording of Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, was a confronting combination of vulnerability, objectification, and voyeuristic grotesqueness. Second, Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980-1981, as a sheer feat of dedication; in order to complete it Hsieh would have been able to sleep no more than an hour, and travel no further than half that, for the entire year. Also, somehow, in those near identical photographs, a quiet reminder that each of us has precious little time.
This weekend I visited the Ashmolean in Oxford. In one of the top floor galleries, is High Street, Oxford (1810). While the painting is captivating; it is humbling to think that the street I walk nearly every day has been walked by so many before me, my thoughts drifted to its google maps street view partner. The idea that gradually the whole world is being preserved in the same detail as an acclaimed landscape is awesome (in the formal sense).
Finally I want to share some photos of flowers. I visited the Oxford Botanic Gardens again, this time with a colleague who was also in need of some humidity. The bright colours and proximity to the subject really take advantage of what the Pixel 2 software can do. (The blue flowers link to a higher resolution version if you want to check out the detail and the red one to my Instagram).
This post comes a week late. Small technical issues (e.g. upload limits) and legal precautions (checking copyright on posting photos of artworks) make it easy to lose focus. I’ve been reminded that ultimately I write this blog for myself, so if the application of arbitrary pressure (being a week late) can force me to overcome these hurdles (at the cost of dropping some content I would have liked to include), it suggests my initial expectations are too high, or too inflexible, to be sustainable.