2020 Week 32: Ownership and Plots

I’m thankful that my physical and mental health are good. Time spent around writing leads me to explore interesting ideas, but the actual output (this post) is relatively unsatisfying. Maintaining the habit of posting weekly feels important though, so as usual, some partially refined ideas:

Taking Ownership

I was reminded to take ownership of certain projects this week. It is advice I am primed to hear, but even having accepted it, the actions needed are not trivial. It requires overcoming ego, as Jocko describes in an early chapter of Extreme Ownership. The idea, also presented in the quote below, implies a certain arrogance, but I feel it can be accomplished with humility.

There is only one means of salvation, then take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men’s sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for every one and for all things.”

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

On the topic of ego; this heartwarming 51 second video from Clay Tall Stories also points out how ego can be dangerous. I hope that content like this can defeat the stigma of talking about mental health that exists in so many parts of the world.

Thoughts Better Expressed as Charts

A joy of studying and thinking mathematically is that functions (easily visualised as plots or charts) express relationships. By identifying functions that approximate (model) real world experiences, an optimal outcome can be predicted. I describe two examples that came up this week.

Discontinuity: Sudden Drop Offs

One of the most familiar relationships is the straight line, linearity. If we travel at a fixed speed (e.g. our walking speed) going twice as far takes twice as long, and three times as far takes us three times as long. If we are moving bricks, the more time we spend moving them the more bricks we shift. Sometimes though, there is a discontinuity, a sudden change in output.

Examples (Be wary of the discontinuities in life):
1. If we consider the example of moving bricks, the more bricks we carry per trip, the faster we move them, until the load becomes too heavy to move and we are stuck.
2. I can read so many articles per day, but after a certain point I no longer am able to remember what I am reading.
3. I can physically train so many hours, but after a certain point over-training leads to injury and I would have been better not doing any at all.

Linear Expectations Meet Logarithmic Reality

Because linearity is common and familiar, it can become an expectation, but in fact often each additional amount of effort or cost spent may offer less and less. Notably in the plot above, if linearity is the expectation, and the actual relationship is logarithmic, the difference (expectation – reality = disappointment) increases approximately linearly.

The first book I read on a topic gives me a lot of information, but each additional book has more and more overlap with content I have already consumed. This means that even though the trend is to know an area of knowledge better, I learn less and less with each subsequent hour spent reading. If I expect to continue learning as rapidly as in those initial hours, days, or months as in the subsequent ones, I will be disappointed.

Predictions on Remote Working in 2001 from 1976

I am trying to better apply hypothesis testing to my own life, so it is amusing to see the predictions made 44 years ago around remote work and computing knowing how there has been a rapid acceleration in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Photos from the Week:

2020 Week 31: Plenty to Discover

It is joyful that, having run thousands of kilometres in Oxford, I continue to discover new routes that are fun, beautiful, challenging, and sometimes all three. This week was the first time I ran through Lye Valley Nature Reserve and Mesopotamia, Oxford.


Adrenaline is not the friend of efficient work. I had some exciting events occur this week, but as thrilling as they were, they cost a lot in disrupting and distracting from the routine.

Proof reading

Things take longer to read when you have less familiarity with them. I was surprised how long it took me to read a friends manuscript this week. I suspect that there is a parabolic curve on the [amount learned] vs. [time spent] graph. There is an optimal level of novelty where ideas are able to be grasped but not already understood, and the further away from that point the faster the intellectual returns diminish.

Living in a different timezone

A friend is working in a drastically different timezone to where they are living during the pandemic. An untested suggestion I made, inspired by the excessive Casey Neistat monitor set-up, is to loop a 24-hour video of a landscape set to be in the timezone of work (and hence sleep). I suspect that the subtle cues of being able to sense the time of day from a landscape help with shifting and living on a different timezone. More trivially, if you have to do this, shift your meals, exercise, caffeine, etc. onto the desired timezone, and black-out windows to prevent being woken by the local time-zone. This is something I’ve only ever had to do for short periods to pre-acclimatise before long distance flights.

Fantasy choices

I watched Howl’s Moving Castle on the weekend, finding myself repeatedly muttering under my breath “that’s beautiful” at the imagery. One piece of magic featured in the film is a door which, at the turn of a dial, opens onto four different locations. A discussion of the film that followed asked “if you could have a magic door connecting you to four places, where would you choose?”. A cynical answer would be to place doors in two cities with significant air traffic and charge for the teleportation service, e.g. near instant transport from London to Los Angeles. People have gamed real systems in this way. Perhaps the question is really asking “what are your four most important places”, e.g. a family home, your best friends house, your favourite holiday spot, and your place of work. Assuming the freedom to choose where to live, the playful question can have a very serious implication; where is the best place for someone to be?

Photos of the week

2020 Week 30: Backup your Data

Friendly reminder: is your data backed up? Maybe you want to check on that.

This week I had the satisfying experience of automating a tedious task and saving myself time by generating reports via Google’s Apps Script. As I am more reliant on cloud services like Google Docs, OneDrive, and Strava, the news this week that Garmin was hit by a ransomware attack is a good reminder to maintain local backups.

News: Garmin hit by Evil Corp’s WastedLocker

Garmin, maker of a wide variety of GPS related products, has experienced a significant outage this week, which is ongoing at the time of writing. Bleeping Computer reports this is due to a criminal attack holding Garmin’s data to ransom for $10 million. Given Strava recently has been taking criticism from users due to pushing people towards paid subscriptions, Garmin’s trouble here is likely to benefit Strava. It also serves as a reminder to all of us to maintain good back ups of valuable data, and to be wary of single points of failure when there are malicious actors in the world (as well equally damaging benevolent incompetence). Meanwhile I’m going back to manual uploads.

Photos from the Week – Holiday Activities

2020 Week 22: Strava and Going to Space

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – wisdom attributed to hockey player Wayne Gretzky.

Starting a company and succeeding is a difficult shot to make, but success first requires an attempt. Starting a company that sends people into space, or to another planet, is a shot so difficult as to seem impossible. Yet, as I write this, the draft sits alongside a live stream of US astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken flying the Dragon spacecraft from SpaceX and NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Working at a start-up, and having read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk, the feat of carrying two people into space is made far more impressive by knowing how close to failure SpaceX has come. I was especially happy to see the first stage land safely on the drone ship; SpaceX’s compilation of failures has consoled me at the lab when work was not going to plan. In this time of global pandemic, there is something captivating and hopeful about developments in space technology. For more blog content from two people who are actually involved in space, I’d suggest checking out Christine and Casey

Strava: Thoughts on Start-ups, Running, Micro-blogging, and Numbers

I use Strava as a training log, social-media, and micro-blog platform.

Strava is many things. To me, it is first my logbook for exercise and training. It is also a social media channel. I can see the training logs of my friends, colleagues, and a few athletes who inspire me. We share photos, and sometimes brief notes, from sessions. As I train for the Edinburgh marathon, Strava is where I micro-blog about running.

Strava is also a company, and for 180 people in the US and UK, it is where they go to work. Strava is a late stage start-up, and as they recently announced, Strava is currently not profitable. That announcement, alongside changes to features free and paid users have access too, is covered in depth by DCRainmaker, perhaps the definitive fitness-tech blogger.

Startups, expectations, and the internet
People expect stuff online to be free, especially if it was free in the past. Tweets at Strava about the changes show a user base upset by a company moving free features behind a paywall, despite providing most of their service (tracking exercise) for free. Google and Facebook, with users in the billions, use advertising to keep their services free for users, but this creates a gap between the desires of the consumers and the paying customers of the platform. That gap can have significant harms, such as political polarisation and the subsequent shift by major parties to policy extremes (suggested reading: Facebook did an internal study on this and decided not to act on it).

Rather than appeal to advertisers or users to pay, many startups simply subsidise their services with investors’ money in order to grow their total number of users. Uber and Lyft lose money on rides in the hope of gaining a profitable monopoly. When delivery services subsidise the cost of food, it creates interesting arbitrage opportunities.

Returning to “Going to Space” Paypal (alongside fin-tech start ups today established financial firms alike) literally pays users to sign up for a free service, and that strategy led Elon Musk from sleeping in his office with one computer to controlling multi-billion-dollar aerospace and automotive companies (and still sleeping in his office).

Finishing time distribution of marathon races from marastats.com

Things we can quantify are motivating. People think a lot about their weight, because it is a number that is perceived as a proxy for health or attractiveness. Marathon finishing times tend to cluster at just under “round number” finishing times as people push to get in below their goal time. Today I planned my run to achieve 2000 m of climbing in May, and would have been upset (or probably gone for an extra run) if I had come in to see only 1998 m. Financial numbers (personal savings, or the valuation of a home, or personal income, or the value of a company) are often felt as proxies for success, or safety.

I’ve recently noticed that if I keep my step count visible on my watch, I am actually motivated to take extra walks, despite regularly exercising beyond the need to walk further in a day. The lesson to me is to be careful about which numbers I make more visible, and therefore tend to optimise for. It’s not just counting the shots you take and the shots you make, it’s also choosing carefully which game to play.

Photos from the Week: Shotover Mornings

2020 Week 14: Quieter Paths

Oxford has grown quieter under the current lock-down. Government guidelines still allow for outdoor exercise, and so I have continued to run to and from the lab. The photos from the week capture some beautiful moments from these runs.

Things to share this week

Places you can visit from self isolation
Take a look around the American Museum of Natural history via google street view.
Enjoy the paintings of The National Gallery via google street view.
NASA has virtual tours of the Glenn Research Center and the Langley Research Center.
The Guardian published a guide to virtual tours of landmarks.
There are also entirely virtual worlds with real people to explore in massively multiplayer online games.

Children’s COVID-19 E-book
A friend has written a children’s book on COVID-19, which you can download here. The link is also soliciting donations which will go to support medical charities fighting the pandemic.

Theory of Everything (2014)
I’ve had this on my “to watch” list for a couple years. It focuses on the relationship between cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane through his scientific ascension and physical decline. I enjoyed the theatrical sets; the narrow blackboard-walled room where Penrose introduces black holes, the cold hospital where Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, and the sandstone quads and bridges of Cambridge. The relationship between Stephen and Jane is complicated by two love triangles involving Jonathan (who joins the family as friend and carer) and Elaine (a nurse to Stephen who became his second wife). However, when the real Jane says “There were four of us in our marriage“, rather than four people she is referring to Physics and ALS as the other two partners. I felt that the film prioritised the romantic tension between the characters over the more difficult to portray relationship vs career tension created by extreme devotion to physics, resulting in a compelling but less accurate story. The portrayal of scientists relies on Oxbridge archetypes and falls short of the political nuance of Contact (1997), one of my favourite films. For example, in a letter to Astronomy & Geophysics Adrian L Melott points out the missed opportunity to depict Dennis Sciama as a skilled mentor. You can watch the trailer via YouTube.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 11: Epidemiology

It was another exciting (but confidential) week at ONI. Evenings included a little live music, training, reading, and trying out the game Terraforming Mars. The increase in daylight going into spring is improving my mood, and conversation continues to be dominated by COVID-19.

Things I wrote this week

People are dying from a new strain of coronavirus, but I am not worried. I try to explain why in this note.

Things to share this week

There has been good news on viruses: the last patient being treated for Ebola was discharged, starting the final count down until the outbreak can be declared over.

Honeywell, as a google image search will suggest, are mostly known for making safety equipment and thermostats. As a chemist, I also am familiar with buying Honeywell research chemicals. In this paper they have revealed that they are also developing quantum computing. While a huge conglomerate like Honeywell doesn’t need its various business units to be aligned, there is a (tenuous) link between thermostats and quantum computing. The delicate states of the ytterbium ions that hold the quantum information require ultra low temperatures, in this case -260.5°C at the trap.

Political news about the democratic primaries quietens down as Biden seems to have secured the nomination. Meanwhile the internet continues to create conditions for fierce political conflict, the latest battleground being the knitting world.

New Zealand has a unique wildlife, including a historic lack of mammals, and subsequent flourishing of bird life. On the arrival of mammals (including us humans) bird life that had existed without predators suffered, but this recent paper shows that is not entirely due to lack of intelligence in birds.

Rockets are expensive, and not just the kind that will get us to Mars. “Israel, for example, routinely expends $50,000 interceptors on home-made rockets that cost about $1,000“. The solution to this? Lasers.

Photos from the week

2020 Week 9: Book thoughts

Some exciting breakthroughs at work leave less time for extracurriculars. Life is generally good.

Things I wrote this week

I finished writing some thoughts about The Lady Astronaut of Mars series by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Things to share this week

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.

Earth temporarily has two moons! (Technically a temporary satellite).

Bill Gates writes some sensible thoughts on COVID-19, he has been advocating better pandemic preparation for some time. I hope to write a longer piece on the virus soon.

2020 Week 8: Do the living outnumber the dead?

Life is busy, I over estimated my ability to find time to read this week, and have started but not finished several texts. I (correctly) sought professional advice for some minor tendon issues, and running is feeling much more comfortable with some specific rehab exercises. I met two researchers in cyber security, and it turns out in the UK there are fairly strict laws on signals interception which make their research difficult. In other news a Russian satellite is probably stalking a US spy satellite in orbit.

Things I wrote this week

No longer posts again this week. I’m working on summarising some books I’m reading.

Things to share this week

Do the living outnumber the dead?
The short answer is no. While the global population has grown rapidly, the current 7 billion is far fewer than half the estimated 100 billion who have ever lived. This sort of population growth estimation reminded me that the sum of the n-successive powers of two is less than 2 to the power (n+1), so if the population was consistently doubling within a lifespan, then there would be more people alive than had lived previously. There is a nice intuitive explanation of this;
Consider binary
Binary 1 is Decimal 1
Binary 10 is Decimal 2
Binary 100 is Decimal 4
Generalising; binary 1 followed by “n” zeros is expressing 2 to the power n
Intuitively; the smallest four digit number is always larger than the largest 3 digit number
I.e. 1000 > 111 (or 222 for base 3, or 999 for base 10)
So the sum of 1+10+100 is 111 in binary (or any other base) which is less than 1000, and so 2^n > {2^(n-1) + 2^(n-2) + … + 2^1 + 2^0}
(I will look up how to express mathematical formulas on my own blog in future)

Science was stranger in the 1960s
NASA funded a project involving humans trying to train dolphins to speak by living with them and injecting them with LSD. Covered by The Guardian and New Scientist. Details probably in this book (but I haven’t had a chance to check it out).

The following come from my (current) three biggest sources of lost time, YouTube, Unnecessary-Fitness-Reading, and Chess.

Elon Musk reminds me of the importance of minimalism in production
Quote: “The best part is no part, the best process is no process
Context: Musk gives MKBHD a tour of the Tesla Factory, and explains that removing unnecessary parts or processes from a product removes a risk of failure at no cost. In the case of Tesla, increasing production speed is a major issue, so eliminating unneeded steps leads to better manufacturing.

Strava makes more cool info-graphics
This time looking at motivation for running.

NBC covers boom in chess streaming
This article about e-sports sadly leaves out my favourite chess streamer, Jerry.

2020 Week 7: Curfew

This week, in several situations, I ran out of time. By not setting end times for experiments, training sessions, or social occasions, I find myself realising on reflection that I regularly continue longer than would have been optimal. Of course the future is unknown, but making an estimate of how much time I ought to spend before I start, and then evaluating the situation once that time has elapsed, should help me to fit more into each day. This week’s longer post on productivity is highly relevant.

Things I wrote this week

I finished a set of thoughts on how to get more life into the fixed amount of time each day, i.e. productivity. Eventually I’ll reorganise the homepage of this website to have pages dedicated to a few significant topics, and I suspect productivity will be one of them.

Things to share this week

Atmospheric Optics collates visual phenomena that occur due to the spontaneous formation of optical systems in the sky, a common example being rainbows. Thinking about ice halos reminds me of X-ray crystallography, perhaps the most famous example being Photo 51.

Emma Stoye of Nature collated scientific photos from January, including the tracks from the head-crab like robots I shared a couple weeks ago.

The UK brought forward its ban on cars that burn hydrocarbons to 2035, some good news for the climate. I suspect unrelatedly, Telsa shares broke $1000 (and continue to be the centre of reddit shenanigans).

Artist Simon Weckert walked around with a cart full of smartphones to trick google maps into plotting non-existent traffic jams. Whilst I find google maps traffic useful on the rare occasions when I drive, I find the “performance” of having a bright red cart full of smartphones intruding into live updating maps a cute reminder of the difference between reality and abstractions.

Photos from the week

2020 Week 6: Fragile

A satisfying week of ratcheting up my output. Some long but interesting experiments at ONI, catching up on reading, a couple of social evenings, and the most intense week of training since September 2019. That said, I’ve been feeling a little fragile. My physical and mental health are both good. I’m happy with what I’m getting done each day but have caught myself with muddled thoughts here and there. Particularly, I am worrying about illness and injury a little more this week. A couple observations on this:
1. The news of coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is causing alarm, but people are generally much less concerned about familiar diseases such as influenza. In the case of a far away outbreak, I can follow the advice that after taking reasonable precautions (e.g. washing hands before eating) it is foolish to worry about the possibility of getting sick (there is no need to suffer before the actual illness starts). I was not able to follow this advice when a different viral outbreak occurred in my social circle. I am vaccinated, and so very likely immune, but knowing I have been exposed directly it is difficult to silence my paranoia.
2. I have been recovering from a running injury, relatively minor but still the most significant injury I have had to date. I am left feeling much more vulnerable than I did before my injury, even though I ought to have been following the same injury preventing exercises either way. I let the idea of being particularly resilient become entwined with my identity, and having that misplaced belief confronted is emotionally challenging.

Things I wrote this week

The irony is not lost that I continue to delay a piece on productivity. I’m also writing about The Fated Sky (link to publisher and extract) which I finished reading this weekend.

Things to share this week

Donald Knuth and getting to the bottom of things
Knuth is a legendary computer scientist, and as well as writing The Art of Computer Programming, he also wrote the dialogue Surreal Numbers, or Surreal numbers: how two ex-students turned on to pure mathematics and found total happiness: a mathematical novelette. I recently learned that he does not use email, as he explains here:
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.
I find this inspirational in several ways: I aspire to find a passion that allows me to focus so clearly on the one goal. I would love to have the opportunity to pursue that passion so single mindedly as to not need the convenience of email to “stay on top of things”. I would love to reach expertise where others go out of their way to reach me despite not using email.

The Dalek Game
While opening too many tabs writing about The Fated Sky, I came across Kathleen Jennings illustrations of Daleks, based on a game played by replacing words in titles with the iconic Dr Who villains. Related; I look forward to trying Blurb Wars next time I’m with some creative people.

Functional Threshold Power
FTP is the maximum power output that a person can transfer (e.g. to a bike or rowing machine) continuously for an hour, and is a common measure of cardiovascular endurance amongst cyclists. I’ve been looking at this set of charts about FTP, and it is humbling to see myself on the left tail of the distribution. Some relevant literature from Nature.

Photos from the week

Rare winter sunshine on the river Thames