Currently most of my conversations are about work, exercise, and food. Work is interesting but continues to be mostly confidential. Exercise is going well, and I’m micro-blogging my training in the description of each session on strava. Food continues to be tasty, the importance of which is highlighted in the amusingly titled paper:
Here is an unrefined thought that is not about work, exercise, or food:
A thought experiment about the absence of money
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the world are taking on debt to keep their economies functioning. I’ve been considering the thought experiment that, perhaps, society could function without money at all. As increasingly individual income and expenditure are merely editing a number in a database, those numbers could remain static and people could simply act as they would in a system governed by money. Obviously the existence of money serves many purposes; a store of value, a medium of exchange, an incentive to not over consume, a signalling mechanism in a variety of contexts, a decision making mechanism via auctions. But the actual changing of numbers in databases (or exchange of paper bills) is not necessary for the actual construction of buildings or transport of commodities. At the outset, if all consumer goods were priced at 0, initially people might over-consume or hoard, but ultimately what would be the purpose? They could not on-sell the goods, not would consuming beyond their need be a positive outcome for themselves. If we assume generally rational and socially minded actions from individuals, would this system be possible? Further, in considering where the system is hardest to implement (how would we ensure just allocation of unique property e.g. housing?) it highlights the different roles money itself plays in organising a society.
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.
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
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.”
Twitter backlash can change a person’s life. In this 2015 New York Times Magazine article a person making jokes (in poor taste) to her 170 followers went viral and triggered an outpouring of public shaming. The internet makes the spread of information so fast and irreversible that I am fearful of making a mistake that lands me in infamy.
I learned about this glider that you can launch by running and I want one. (Video of it in action). Much of my excitement is driven by the possibilities of carbon neutral air travel. Related; this scientist has turned to tree planting to offset the emissions from his air travel.
Short version: A few big things to talk about; nuclear war, bribes, engineered environments, mistakes, and courses.
In Oxford I enjoy meeting people passionate about studies I might not have otherwise ever considered. This week I was introduced to ALLFED, a group who spend their time working out how to feed the population who survive a nuclear war. In the current political climate it can be both frightening and paralysing to think the fate of billions rests on the whim of a few individuals. Knowing some out there are trying to be prepared give me confidence that humanity can survive its own incredible destructive power. This work fits under the umbrella of Effective Altruism, which is persuasive (I have a few friends who are strong proponents) but also complex.
There is a common understanding that bribery is wrong, but it is not immediately obvious why. The answer I seem to find is that the central issue of bribery is when a person is able to take an advantage for themselves (the bribe) in exchange for acting against the external interests they represent (e.g. the university in the case of a college admissions administrator). Some examples:
This year a scandal broke regarding admissions to US colleges, where coaches were bribed to select students without athletic ability on an athletic basis. At face value the harm here appears to be a violation of meritocratic principles; students ought be selected on their talent rather than the wealth of their parents. In fact generally wealthy parents are able to have their students attend top universities despite their academic or sporting ability, via large donations to universities. The wrong here comes from the coaches personally profiting from the student’s admission, rather than the university itself.
People have managed to make some incredible changes to their environment. This week The Wave opened in England, an artificial lake that generates artificial waves so that people can surf. There is also warm weather skiing on plastic and the more extreme indoor ski slope cooled to negative temperatures in hot Dubai. The football world cup will required air conditioned stadiums. All this gives hope that technology can repair the damage we are doing from burning fossil fuels, but also these feats of engineering require enormous amounts of energy themselves.
Depending on your familiarity with logarithms, this may either appear indecipherable or trivial. I particularly remember encountering logs around the age of 15, and it being the point in my mathematical learning where maths stopped being intuitive. It was confronting to not find the subject easy. Unfortunately I couldn’t see or be shown how pushing past that initial discomfort would lead to valuable personal growth, and I moved away from mathematics to subjects I “felt I was better at”. I think the feeling of being overwhelmed, of being stuck, drives many people away from opportunities to grow and empower themselves, and it is a feeling I am still striving to become more comfortable with.
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: In a busy week I’ve been drafting some thoughts about topics that are considered awkward, impolite, or worthy of censorship.
There are topics that are uncomfortable to discuss, that etiquette guides suggest one avoids at a dinner party. Topics such as sex, money, politics, physical and mental illness. These are also incredibly important topics to discuss. In general I feel that all topics should be open to discussion, and that we should shake off the idea that certain things are taboo. Some thoughts:
Sex: It is highly likely that you exist because your parents had sexual intercourse. Sex is both important, and fun, but oddly it is often a topic people feel very uncomfortable talking about. Sexual repression, particularly by Abrahamic faiths, is likely a significant contributing factor. It is interesting to note from a perspective of censorship, that film and television guidelines tend to allow much more graphic violence than graphic sexual content in a given category, despite most individuals having much more lived experience with sex than violence. I do wonder if there is a positive to this apparent contradiction: is desensitisation to violence better that desensitisation to sex?
Stereotypes and discrimination: In Australia the series “You Can’t Ask That” puts uncomfortable questions to marginalised Australians. In attempts to avoid seeming ignorant about minority identities, individuals may not engage with them for fear of revealing that ignorance, which further entrenches that ignorance. By asking “taboo” questions this show may help break down that barrier in the general public.
Some things are better left unsaid: There are topics of discussion that, on balance, create harm. Spreading certain types of information, regardless of truth, can have damaging effects (e.g. how to develop biological weapons, graphic descriptions of torture, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories). However it is difficult to delineate when discussing topics becomes harmful (e.g. when does skepticism become fearmongering).
Blogging Note: I would like revisit this in more depth when I have read, thought, and discussed this a little more.
Short version: The Olympics is one year away. The weather is getting hotter. Sometimes scientists lie. People keep doing impossible things. I’m more active on social media.
One year from this Wednesday, on Friday 24th July 2020, the Tokyo Olympic games will open. The games will feature 339 events in 33 different sports, encompassing 50 disciplines. Although playing sport was compulsory in school for me (I played tennis and football (soccer) poorly), it was only while working in anti-doping alongside passionate athletes that I became motivated to try more athletic activities. Since then I have found participating in sports gives me a much greater appreciation for the strength and skill of professional athletes (though many Olympians are “amature” as not all sports have enough of a following to create professional opportunities). This creates an interesting personal challenge: to attempt to “play” each sport between now and the opening ceremony in 2020, and thereby be a much more informed spectator.
Last week I wrote about staying up to date by reading work from other scientists. Publishing papers is how academic scientists progress their careers, which creates an incentive to cheat. To sharpen my skepticism I keep an eye on papers that get taken down for false or misleading data; Retraction Watch is a blog that covers such cheating. This week I stumbled upon their collaboration Forensic Friday, which lets you practice your ability to discern real and fake data.
I’ve been much more active lately on social media, particularly uploading photos from this blog to instagram. I am interested in reaching out to more people. Aside from the vain joy of having a larger audience, I hope you (the reader) find some of my content interesting, or even better comment or reach out to guide me to create better content.
Short version: Two friends got married, and I joined them in celebrating in Romania.
My experience suggests a conventional life has the following milestones: birth, completing education, entering the workforce, getting married, buying a house, starting a family, leaving the workforce, and dying. The start and end points are pretty universal, the ordering in the middle varies. I have passed the first three of those milestones, and this weekend two more friends passed the fourth.
Weddings are a significant life event, celebrating the commitment (of usually two people) to a specific romantic sexual relationship. Because the shape and meaning of that commitment varies so broadly, the actual experience of a wedding varies widely. This specific wedding consisted of a mixture of English, Romanian, and Vietnamese elements, reflecting the combined heritage of the couple. The mix was fun. I would expect as people move more for work and education, multiculturalism flourishes in major cities, that weddings that borrow from multiple cultures become more common.
From a distance, weddings are also economically significant, with the average cost of a wedding in the USA being $33,000, or approximately half the median household income. Ceremony and community do seem important in cementing a relationship, but ultimately the stability of a relationship depends on the future decisions of the parties involved much more than the present commitment to that future. In reading around this it was interesting to observe that divorce rates as a ratio of [marriage rate : divorce rate] are statistically dependent on the demography of the population.
Romania is country of intense contrast. The mix of medieval, soviet, and modern buildings is reflected in the culture. One in five Romanians work abroad (including a handful of my own colleagues at ONI). The economist describes both a low quality of life, and a technological and economic boom. I observed some incredible displays of wealth; colossal palaces, trendy cafes, and sports cars. Similarly, however, the abandoned buildings, absent infrastructure, and visible underclass belie a series of scandals regarding government corruption.
Short version: in a week of upper-class entertainment, I attended a Ball in Oxford, and an Opera in London.
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.