2019 Week 43: Big Things

Short version: A few big things to talk about; nuclear war, bribes, engineered environments, mistakes, and courses.

Long version:

Big Problems

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.

Big Presents

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.

In China large gifts were given by banks to politicians, and in Australia political donations by banks have been scrutinised, while the volumes of donations in the US are much higher. Cash donations, crystal tigers, coffee; for politicians these rarely come without strings attached. A journalist buying coffee or even a meal in exchange for an interview seems natural, a company paying a politician to be awarded a contract is graft. In between these, it is difficult to work out where courts or courts of public opinion ought to draw the line.

Big Artificial Environments

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.

Big Mistakes

In my reading about health, smoking seems to be the worst decision a person can make. This week I saw some calculations about how smoking is a terrible financial mistake, in addition to the health costs.

Big Classes

This week I finished a Massive open online course (MOOC) on statistics, making it the first online course I’ve completed. Previous attempts, such as the biology course I started in Week 28, have been derailed by lack of interest or energy. I was particularly reminded of the importance of working in your Zone of Proximal Development by this line of mathematics.

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.

Photos from the week

Dry Ice Fog for Halloween

2019 Week 41: Changing your mind

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.

Phone Distractions

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.

Photos from the week

2019 Week 31: Taboos

Short version: In a busy week I’ve been drafting some thoughts about topics that are considered awkward, impolite, or worthy of censorship.

Long version:

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.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 30: Every Olympic sport

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.

Long version:

Olympics

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.

Hot Weather

Oxford had the hottest day on record this Thursday, at 37 °C. The 38.1°C in Cambridge was close to the all-time record in the UK of 38.5°C [update: it was actually the hottest day on record]. For an Australian these are not particularly remarkable temperatures, where the “Angry Summer” heat waves were 10°C warmer again, but the ABC put out a video explaining why lower temperatures in the UK feel hotter. Climate change will continue to bring hotter and more frequent heat waves.

Investigative Science

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.

People do Impossible Things

A couple times this week the incredible feats humans are capable of have come up in conversation. Talking about personal strength goals, my aspirations pale in comparison to athletes like Chen Xiexia who at a bodyweight of 48 kg set the olympic record for Clean & Jerk by lifting 117 kg overhead. A number of friends are experimenting with intermittent fasting, but even a fast of a few days merely makes the record 382 day fast more impressive (an interesting article about the line between fasting and eating disorders). I remember reading (though I struggle to find the source) that it was once thought there was a limit (approx 10) to the number of marathons the human body was capable of running, but since then several athletes have run more distance than a marathon a day for several days, including Terry Fox who ran 5,373 km with one prosthetic leg and suffering from cancer. Most recently I learned that the USSR banned blindfolded chess simultaneous exhibitions because of health concerns (Morphy, Capablanca, and Alekhine reported headaches from playing blindfolded matches), but you can watch Magnus Carlsen playing a blindfolded simultaneous exhibition match.

Social Media Activity

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.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 21: Weddings

Short version: Two friends got married, and I joined them in celebrating in Romania.

Long version:

Weddings

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

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.

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 11: Communication

Short version: This week is pretty heavy on personal reflection. I have struggled to keep in regular contact with friends, but recently have been improving. Some other thoughts on communicating, social media, and socialising in general.

Long version:

Personal Reflection

Broadly, my priorities in life are
1. Maintaining good mental and physical health,
2. Relationships,
3. Science (my academic and career pursuits), and
4. Hobbies.
Relationships are the area where I struggle most to allocate time effectively.

Having worked to stop setting unrealistic expectations in my academic pursuits, I can see the same harmful perfectionist tendencies in how I approach my relationships. I want all my interactions to be substantive, prompt, and to take up no time. This is simply not possible. Quick responses are necessarily glib. Writing something meaningful takes time and so cannot be prompt. This inherent time investment provides an excuse to delay, which breeds guilt at leaving messages piling up in a variety of inboxes. Then avoiding this uncomfortable guilt leads to avoiding the messages that ought to be a source of joy. In turn this means I set higher expectations on what I might communicate to make up for the ever growing delays. Occasionally I do set time for keeping in touch where longer phone calls or letters are produced, but these sporadic moments can end up being several months apart.

Not being able to exercise control over who I keep in touch with and when, I fall prey to biasing proximate interactions, even if they are less significant to me. This is exacerbated by finding it hard to say no, and generally being hungry for appreciation and approval. Thus these happenstance interactions can fulfil some of my social needs, whilst leading me to neglect people I would better enjoy sharing time with.

This week I’ve been reaching out to old friends, and it has been an anxious but rewarding experience. I’ve found with the people I’m closest to, months or even years go by and on meeting again we fall back into the same conversational flow as if it had only been a handful of days. I’d like to think this is the nature of strong relationships, though it is possible the causation is reversed; being poor at keeping in touch it is only people who hold relationships this way that I am able to successfully keep as friends. I do think that there is some underlying connection that is a source of mutual happiness and kinship, even if left dormant for an extensive period.

In short, these days it is rare that my truly closest friends are physically closest to me, and that has really revealed how important it is to take control of my social interactions. I think it’s worth noting as well that I’ve made very fulfilling connections here in Oxford, and that whilst my thinking can often be based around binary extremes, allowing circumstance to lead to making new friends is also incredibly rewarding.

Social Media

Purpose:
Facebook’s mission statement reads “Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” The world’s most popular social networking site has not handled its user’s data particularly well. I would intuit that with advertising as the main source of revenue for facebook, their internal focus is to get users to spend more time on the platform. That clash of purposes has become more clear as regulators become increasingly skeptical of tech giants, but I think there is also a clash of purposes in the minds of users, and therein lies the source of so much social media related unhappiness.

Addiction:
This week Casey Neistat “quit” social media as he found “an hour and forty six minutes a day … a significant amount of my day is spent on that mindless scrolling”. I certainly have shared that sentiment, mostly regarding reddit. Endless scrolling is a bad habit I’ve mostly overcome, by taking note to myself of why I am looking at my phone or PC before I use it, and then to only use it for that purpose and put it away. Ultimately, as much as reddit can feed my curiosity, entertain me, and create a sense of community through comments, it is simply an aggregator of content that I would be better consuming from the source.

Blogging

This blog began as a way to provide insight into me for prospective employers or academic mentors. Having happily found those relationships at ONI, it seems to have morphed into my place to share thoughts.

Keep in touch!

If this (or any one of my blog posts) sparks a thought you’d like to share, or if you think I’ve got something terribly wrong, or if you think there’s something I need to read/watch/listen to; start a conversation! You can leave a comment when viewing an individual post by clicking on the title of the post (I realise this is not at all intuitive and will think about a better way to make comments accessible). You could write me an email, or find me on facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or just find me and say hi!

Photos from the Week

Spring is bringing flowers to Oxford’s streets. I bought some cheese.

2018 Week 1: Production Scientist to Nano-image-r

It has been an excitingly busy start to the year

Career updates
On Friday I had my last day as a Production Scientist. On Monday I start at Oxford Nanoimaging. I’ve enjoyed my time with Alere Toxicology UK (which became part of Abbott) but I want tougher problems to solve. I was fortunate to have good colleagues; I’m coming to the belief that who you work  with matters more than what work you do, though the two are linked. The next project will be with a company three orders of magnitude smaller (~100,000 to <100), and the work is likely to be much more challenging. That is very exciting, but also a little daunting.

Catching up with old friends
I have been consistently terrible at keeping in touch with friends. This is in part due to a strong proximity bias favouring interacting with people physically closer to me over interactions I might enjoy more. It is also due to setting unrealistic expectations about how those long overdue catch ups ought to go, i.e. that they somehow have to “make up” for the gap, even though it has never been clear how that might occur. The result is procrastination. This week I was successfully prompted by circumstance, and it was lovely. Two great discussions were on how magnets can affect moral judgements and how positive and negative feedback can shape preferences and identities.

New years day
I stood on Lambeth Bridge in London to see the New Year’s Eve fireworks. It was extremely crowded, but jovial. London’s transport system impressed by coping incredibly well with the flood of people leaving central London.

Writing from home.