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

2020 Week 4: Xīn Nián Kuài Lè! 新年快乐!

Saturday was Chinese New Year, and I was fortunate to celebrate in traditional style by making dumplings and watching the CCTV New Year’s Gala. 2020 is the year of the rat, and the first year in a new cycle of 12 years. The ordering of the animals is explained in this amusing story.

Things I wrote this week

No longer posts to share just yet, I’ve been working on sharing some thoughts about productivity, and am hoping to finish it off in the coming week. I’ve also started writing some fiction, for the first time since school, inspired by a writing club which has started at work.

Things to share this week

Chinese news wasn’t all song and dance, the Wuhan virus caused the lock down of two cities, Wuhan and Huanggang.

Davos hosts the World Economic Forum where Russia continues its cold war antics.

This paper caused some controversy; it is unclear if algorithms or people are driving more extreme content since we don’t know how the algorithms work.

Photo from the week

Dumplings for Chinese New Year 2020

2019 Altmetric Top 100

Fires in the Amazon and Australia, a case of HIV cured, and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, were all big headlines for science in 2019. This summary of the science that shaped 2019 from Nature covers a few more stories. There is not one clear metric to quantify the “biggest” story in science, but Altmetric creates a ranking based on the media (social and conventional) impact of scientific papers. I previously wrote about 2018’s Altmetric Top 100, and this year I take a look at the themes.

AI and Fake News

The top paper of 2019 was this description of a system developed at Samsung to create realistic video of talking heads from single images. The authors provided a video summary of the work, and the result is impressive and unsettling. AI image generation also took out the 5th slot with image generation.

While crossing the uncanny valley remains a challenge for visual effects artists, the strong emotional reaction to this paper is driven by a fear. As it becomes easier to fabricate content, it becomes harder to trust the media we consume. There is also the fear that we could become victims of these “deepfake” techniques. Fake news was the subject of the 51st ranked paper “Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook” and the 58th ranked paper “Fake news on Twitter during the 2016 U.S. presidential election“. On fake stories making real news; the 44th ranked paper about the 44th President’s birth was pushed up the altmetric rankings as “The researchers avoided calling the subjects’ views ‘racist’, earning them a high-scoring Twitter roasting.”, highlighting how issues of race can drive a flurry of discussion on social media.

The world is on fire

Bill Nye demonstrates the point on Last Week Tonight

As Climate change continues to worsen so do its effects. If you’re not familiar with the scale of the problem I recommend this briefing; Global warming 101. About 1 in 6 papers in the top 100 were on or about climate change, with 3 of the top 10. World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency has an authorship exceeding 10,000, stating that “Earth is facing a climate emergency”, and highlighting the disturbing gap between the scientific and political consensuses.

Human Health

Just as health research makes up a huge share of scientific research projects, so too did papers on health make up a big share of the altmetric 100. Many of the papers featured are only surprising in the unwillingness of the public to conform to the recommendations. Vaccines work (and do not cause autism), exercise is good for you and most people need to do more, highly processed food and sugary drinks are bad for you, and eating only junk can lead to terrible health (including blindness).

In a moment of doctors showing that publications don’t have to be more complex than “check out what this guy just coughed up”, this cast of the right bronchial tree was coughed up and became this publication, ranking at 19th.

This highly discussed paper (74th) was retracted, demonstrating both that scientific papers (even in top journals) should be questioned, and that scientists are actively doing that questioning. The article relates to the He Jiankui affair that made headlines for the gene editing of human beings, however that work itself has not been formally published, and the scientist himself was sentenced to prison.

Scientists have fun too

“Joke” papers such as 8th ranked “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial” and 61st ‘”Death is certain, the time is not”: mortality and survival in Game of Thrones show that scientists (and critically, publishers) can have a sense of humour too.

Take Home Points

  • With tools like google scholar and increasingly open access publishing, the scientific literature is becoming ever easier to consume.
  • AI is becoming more powerful at image generation and manipulation, and will threaten the reliability of video footage as evidence.
  • The climate has changed and the consequences are already being felt. Urgent action is necessary.
  • Whilst advances in medicine are lessening the burden of diseases, educating the public to make good choices on vaccines, drug consumption, and nutrition would have an enormous impact on health.
  • Publishers and reviewers have a sense of humour (requires further verification).

2019 Week 48: Consumption

Short version: This Black Friday weekend is a relevant time to attempt to press my thoughts on consumerism into a post. A revealing ONS data set about household spending. Also some thoughts on blogging and whales’ heart beats.

A note on structure

On top of a tangled set of thoughts about consumption, there was a lot of interesting content to read, listen to, and watch on this topic. The structure of this post suffered, and so if you’re just here to skim I suggest scroll down to the bottom and just check out Trends from the data and Whales’ Heart Beats.

Consumerism

I want stuff. Lots of people also want stuff. Often, if they can, they go out and buy stuff. This is a simple thought, but the many paths it leads down have been a tangle in my mind for some time. This post is an attempt to rectify the clash between the obvious value in markets and trade with the absurdity of waste (see the two videos below) in modern developed economies. This is highlighted by celebrations of consumerism that occur after Thanksgiving.

Chasers War on Waste

The true cost of fast fashion | The Economist

People want to be rich

I think it is reasonable to presume the overwhelming majority of people would like to have more money. Money provides security, safety, and freedom (and most of lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Casey Neistat points out that for a lot of people, money will solve all problems. although people with plenty of money still have problems.

This simple desire for material wealth gets complicated by how different that desire looks at different points of time. The majority of people in the developed world have access to goods and services that were restricted to only the most wealthy only decades ago. Advances in agriculture and medicine mean even the poorest citizens have access to goods like pineapples and penicillin that would have been unimaginable to emperors and kings of centuries past. This Louis CK bit makes light of changing expectations. That desire for newer and shinier at the expense of appreciation for what we already have is, in part, created by the desire for companies to grow their sales and profits. An array of narratives are pushed through advertising. A particularly disturbing yet powerful lie is that you can change who you are simply by owning something. The idea that you can be fitter/sexier/smarter by buying something, rather than by learning or growing, sells a lot of products, despite failing their buyers.

School of Life: History of Consumerism

Black Friday

Black Friday is a day of discounted selling by retailers following Thanksgiving Day, which is observed by shops throughout much of the world. Scenes of people rushing into stores and fighting over relatively cheaper items are symbolic of a period of significant spending by consumers as the end of the year, and particularly Christmas, approaches.

A lot of people work in retail. In Australia, it is 1.3 million, nearly 10% of the labour force. This is an enormous amount of human life dedicated to the mere act of selling things (1.8 Australian lifetimes is spent per working hour by the collective in shops, life expectancy in Australia = 82.5 years). Intuitively (and so simplistically as to be utterly inaccurate) this struck me as a waste of time, given retail exists as a middle man between producers and consumers. Of course in reality at points retailers make the entire system more efficient (for example by collecting fruit and milk in bulk and distributing it to stores in lieu of each consumer visiting a farm individually), but in practice profit incentives drive this enormous work force to motivate us all to consumer more.

One way consumption is driven is through pricing. The decision to purchase an item is in part determined by the price attached to that item. Commonly items are priced at X.99 rather than X+1, because that centipoint increase is far more psychologically significant than the additional profit. A further extreme of this is quantum pricing where fewer price points mean profit margins are obfuscated. The discounts of Black Friday create the perception that shoppers are saving money by buying things at a lower price than they would otherwise, combined with a false scarcity that this is the only time to buy. In reality most consumer goods depreciate rapidly so any future time is a better time to buy. Less scrupulous stores raise prices before the sales only to mark down to pre-sale prices. One clear sign of the power of this frenzied overconsumption is the willingness for people to take on debt to purchase luxuries. Loan Sharks take advantage of Black Friday pressures to consume.

Interesting observations from some actual data

A few weeks ago I came across the BBC series “My Money“, which takes individuals and looks at their spending over a week. My fascination with how other people spend money stems from not having a good answer to “What is the appropriate/correct/optimal amount to spend on X”. There are intuitive answers to this, which is why spending £100 a week on cheese or £5 a quarter on electricity “feel” high and low, but that intuition is shaped by our relatively limited insight into other’s spending (likely dominated by our parents’ and partners’ habits) augmented by the media we consume, particularly the coercive forces of marketing.

I am consistently frustrated with the concept of normal. There are no “normal” people in the same way there is no way to roll 3.5 (the centre of the normal distribution for values) on a 6 sided die. This video featuring wrestler John Cena emphasises the difficulty in describing an “average” american. However discovering the UK’s Office of National Statistics collects and compiles data on household expenditure (among other things), and produces reports on the distribution of spending, provides data on where the distributions actually lie. I found exploring the data fascinating. I was particularly excited to find this data set breaking down typical weekly expenditure by item in pretty specific categories (e.g. “Cheese”, “Books”, and “Package Holidays – UK” are separate categories).

Here are some observations:

The big picture: income and expenditure

The distribution of incomes in the UK gives an insight into what households can actually afford.

The interactive graphic below gives insight into how the typical UK household spends (taken from this ONS report).

Trends from the data

General trends

A wealthier decile has more people per household.

Wealth increases steadily between the 2nd and 8th deciles, and sharply at both ends.

Overall spending trends

Spending in most product areas correlates with increasing disposable income on both a per person and per capita level.

Interesting specific spending trends

Food
Poultry (strongly) and beef (weakly) correlate with increasing wealth, pork and lamb are flat across groups, and bacon and ham have a weak negative correlation.

Housing
Poorer households spend proportionally much more on housing, making up 19.1 % of spending for the lower half of households, vs 11.1 % for the upper (I guess this is because of renting vs owning). This is after accounting for housing benefits to the lowest deciles.

Transport
Transport spending is correlated with income, with a sharp increase in the top decile due to the purchase of new (presumably luxury) cars.

Clothes
In the bottom three deciles women spend 2.5x more than than men on clothes, whereas that ratio is only 1.3x for the top decile.
Only the top few deciles use drycleaning services.

Alcohol and Tobacco
Spending on alcoholic drinks was correlated with income, but the trend was dominated by wine, while beer and spirits were fairly independent across the groups.
Lower income deciles spent more per person on tobacco and other narcotics.

Health and Education
Education (school fees) and sports subscriptions (gyms) correlated strongly with income.

Entertainment
There is a hump like feature in the audio-visual equipment categories in the 6th and 7th deciles.
Spending on hotels appears to have an exponential relationship with increasing disposable income.

Statistical definitions

Useful definitions from the ONS:

What is disposable income?

Disposable income is arguably the most widely used household income measure. Disposable income is the amount of money that households have available for spending and saving after direct taxes (such as Income Tax, National Insurance and Council Tax) have been accounted for. It includes earnings from employment, private pensions and investments as well as cash benefits provided by the state.

The five stages are:

1. Household members begin with income from employment, private pensions, investments and other non-government sources; this is referred to as “original income

2. Households then receive income from cash benefits. The sum of cash benefits and original income is referred to as “gross income”.

3. Households then pay direct taxes. Direct taxes, when subtracted from gross income is referred to as “disposable income”.

4. Indirect taxes are then paid via expenditure. Disposable income minus indirect taxes is referred to as “post-tax income”.

5. Households finally receive a benefit from services (benefits in kind). Benefits in kind plus post-tax income is referred to as “final income”.

Note that at no stage are deductions made for housing costs.

From Effects of taxes and benefits on UK household income: financial year ending 2017 via ONS

Amusing group names:

While looking at consumer spending in the UK, I found the following categories that the ONS uses to divide UK residents. Some of them were incredulous to the point of being amusing.

Categories:
Rural residents, Cosmopolitans, Ethnicity central, Multicultural metropolitans, Urbanites, Suburbanites, Constrained city dwellers, Hard-pressed living

Sub-categories:
Farming Communities, Rural Tenants, Ageing Rural Dwellers, Students Around Campus, Inner-City Students, Comfortable Cosmopolitans, Aspiring and Affluent, Ethnic Family Life, Endeavouring Ethnic Mix, Ethnic Dynamics, Aspirational Techies, Rented Family Living, Challenged Asian Terraces, Asian Traits, Urban Professionals and Families, Ageing Urban Living, Suburban Achievers, Semi-Detached Suburbia, Challenged Diversity, Constrained Flat Dwellers, White Communities, Ageing City Dwellers, Industrious Communities, Challenged Terraced Workers, Hard-Pressed Ageing Workers, Migration and Churn.

Personal conflict: running tech

I like running, and improving my fitness more generally, I suppose because it helps me to self actualise. One of my personal weaknesses in fighting back against the commercial marketing machine has been in running tech. As such, I found this video from the New York Times both entertaining and helpful in realising the main thing I need to run faster is not a piece of equipment, but to simply run more and faster.

December blogging reflection

Lately I’ve been posting each week on Sunday come what may. There’s a pretty wide variance in how much time goes into each post, which is not always related to the quality of each post. Some topics I have a better understanding of before I start to write. Some observations are not insightful. Some posts go out unfinished.

Ideas vary in quality. Some ideas were probably not worth writing about at all, while others are so huge they could easily fill hundreds of pages. Not every idea is a good idea, and even a good idea poorly executed is not a good result.

Some topics deserve to be revisited, edited, improved, expanded etc. But writing in this weekly format is useful. Sometimes quantity results in quality. If I maintained a high expectation for each blog post I would write less, and my writing would not improve. Moreover in trying to write each week I am motivating myself to learn. I do hope to better organise myself in the next block of blogging (i.e. next year’s posts) to segregate space for tackling bigger topics less frequently, with a less structured more regular section.

As I was writing this post I received Peter Attia’s weekly email, describing his struggles with writing. It was extremely motivating to read words that felt so familiar they could have been my own. I would not wish insecurities on anyone, but it is deeply reassuring to be reminded those feelings are normal.

While on the topic of other writers; blogs I’d like to share:
Econometrics By Simulation: interesting applications of statistical software.
Beau Miles: Came across some of his films, the first content in a while to make me really miss Australia. Describes himself as “Award winning filmmaker, poly-jobist, speaker, writer, odd.”

Whales’ heart beats

A wonderful aspect of having scientists as friends is that they share exciting science with you that you would otherwise miss. One example is this paper about how the heart rate of blue whales changes as they dive for food. Their enormous hearts beat as slowly as two times per minute and as quickly as 37, which is about as fast as is physically possible. It also contains this informative figure, which I feel tells the story clearly and succinctly.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 46: Patents

Short version: Patents reward innovators but limit the impact of new technologies. Also “patents” are the answer to the question “Why did Samsung build the only outdoor ice rink in Texas in a small town.”

Long version:

What I learned reading and thinking about patents

Patents are a part of the law, which is an ever changing system. As governments create and change laws, and those laws are interpreted and tested in courts, we collectively decide how the rewards of science and technology are distributed.

There is very little that is certain or obvious about patents. Their existence is both an incentive and a barrier to innovation. They can both enrich and impoverish inventors. They can both be utterly invisible and hugely controversial.

Patent trolling was used in the US to extort businesses, which seems to have peaked around 2015, and has since declined.

Some patents provide useful and specific descriptions of technology, whilst others are deliberately broad and vague.

Biotechnology has struggled to fit into the existing patent infrastructure, particularly as the line blurs between what is an invented object and what is part of nature.

Patent Trolls: Why Samsung built an ice rink in Texas

This article from Harvard Business School outlines how patent trolling, the use of frivolous patent lawsuits by businesses uninterested in innovation, led Samsung to try and win favour with potential jurors in Marhsall, Texas by building an ice rink there. Samsung also set up high school scholarships in the town, but when a supreme court decision meant that the jurisdiction where the suit was filed needed to be in the state of incorporation, the branding on the ice and the scholarships dissipated. More recently a paper was published about patent trolls last year.

Samsung, seeking favour with potential jurors, awarded scholarships to high school students in Marshall, Texas.

Patent Examples

The race to patent the Human Genome

Craig Venter’s company raced public researchers to be the first to sequence the Human Genome. You can read the story in Patrick Bradley’s paper. I found the twitter exchange below interesting, but was not able to verify or refute Venter’s claim that it was “untrue and was propaganda”. Certainly there was a race, and patents played a part, as they continue to do in biotechnology research.

BRCA1 and BRCA2

The other famous case within biotech patents is of Myriad Genetic’s patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2, two mutations related to breast cancer. Enforcing the patents meant diagnostic tests for inherited breast cancer were expensive. The debate centred on the question of whether DNA sequences could be considered a discovery or an invention, i.e. a technical question about how biotech fits within the existing patent system. Ultimately the patents were struck down. The underlying question, how much should we allow companies to profit from their research (at the expense of society, but to give incentives for more research) remains.

Intellectual Property and Piracy

Looking at patents led on to questions about copyright, trademarks, and intellectual property in general. In a world where replication of content is so trivial, and distribution technologies (i.e. the internet) are spreading so rapidly, it is unlikely legal enforcement can keep up in a meaningful way. This crash course provides some information, and I would like to return to think about the ethics of digital piracy, peer to peer sharing, and what the fairest way to regulate content could be.

A note about being connected on the internet

I find it strangely wonderful how connected the internet makes us. From a train, a coffee shop, or even my bed, I can reach out to authors and scientists, and access nearly all of the knowledge humanity has created. In researching this post, I could find out the Marshall high schools’ Samsung scholarship winners, or tweet at scientists like Craig Venter, or access patents from hundreds of years worth of inventions. It is such a powerful tool.

Other things in my life this week:

Rivers in Oxford have been rising, causing flooding around the Isis and Cherwell (see photos from the week). This excellent tracker from Anu Dudhia makes it easy to keep an eye on conditions.

I finished reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, it is excellent.

Three friends have signed up to the Edinburgh marathon, so running has gotten more social.

Photos from the Week – Flooding

2019 Week 45: Competition and Robots

Short version: Some thoughts on the blurry line where competition becomes toxic, and also robots.

Long version:

Competition

The story:
Athlete Mary Cain wrote and spoke with the New York Times about her experience training with the Nike Oregon Project, which ended recently after the head coach Alberto Salazar was banned due to involvement with doping. The environment at Nike Oregon Project was physically and mentally damaging for athletes like Cain, and for her the experience was clearly toxic. It is harder to say the project as a whole was toxic, because for other athletes (including Mo Farah) that environment led to enormous success. I am reminded of the ritual of stabbing a pin into ones chest practiced by elite military groups. Objectively this is painful and physically damaging, but so is much of what is used in selecting elite units.

My thoughts:
Pain, either physical or emotional, ought not always be avoided, but neither should it be sought out. In competitive environments an ability and willingness to suffer is a factor in success, whether the environment is a sports field, or a business sector, or a war. In my experience that suffering is much easier to bear when I feel I am choosing to face it, rather than it being imposed upon me. This is the contradiction of self-harm, that when suffering is imposed on someone they sometimes react by imposing further suffering upon themselves. It is worryingly unclear to me where the line is between good and healthy competition vs. a bad and damaging environment, but the evidence would suggest that the in a given environment like Nike Oregon Project, some can thrive while others will be crushed.

Robots

I encountered robotic arms that emulate a bartender in London this week, pictured below. It feels like something out of science fiction, where human like robots perform labour for their fleshy masters. While the spectacle of the arms at work is attention grabbing, a more elegant solution to dispensing beverages is the Coca Cola freestyle, (pictures of the internals from reddit here and here) which also can produce a large variety of mixtures, but in location and design is very similar to the more mundane soda dispenser. Consumer technology is often marketed through the cold lense of quantitative performance metrics, but our relationship with that technology (and our willingness to consume it) is just as emotional as the art that inspires it. We as a society built this robotic bartender (and so many other things), not because it was a practical solution to the problem of how to add tonic water to gin, but because it entertains us by feeling like the future we imagine.

Photos from the Week