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

2019 Week 44: Migrants

Short version: Thoughts prompted by recent news about migration. Some very brief notes on nutrition and technology news.

Long version:

Migrants

Content warning: if you’re having a bad day, maybe skip this one:

Context
Since it was revealed that the 39 people who died in a refrigerated lorry container were Vietnamese nationals attempting to illegally enter the UK, I’ve been thinking a lot about migrants. There are a number of things to unpack here, and I find it hard to tell if I am more hesitant because I lack expertise on the topic, or I find the exercise emotionally confronting.

Scale
I have written about how data can be unsympathetic. Just as mass shootings are powerful examples of a larger gun violence problem, so too are the 39 dead migrants a shocking but statistically small part of a much larger issue. The missing migrant program attempts to track data, and in 2016 there were 39 fatalities every two days for the entire year. These recent deaths make up a small fraction of the 2,589 total for 2019 so far.

Emotions
In some ways the idea of sneaking into the United Kingdom in a truck with 38 other people is utterly alien, and in other ways it is entirely relatable. The tension between those extremes creates some difficult emotions. I am a migrant, as are my siblings, my parents, most of my friends and colleagues. I know the desire to go to foreign lands to seek out opportunities, to live a more comfortable life, but only from a position of immense privilege where I take little risk in fulfilling those desires. Meanwhile I owe my existence to my parents who fled difficult times in the lands of their birth.


I found the following image most disturbing:

The last message from Pham Thi Tra My, 26, was sent to her family at 22:30 BST on Tuesday – two hours before the trailer arrived at the Purfleet terminal from Zeebrugge in Belgium.
Her family have shared texts she sent to her parents which, translated, read: “I am really, really sorry, Mum and Dad, my trip to a foreign land has failed.
“I am dying, I can’t breathe. I love you very much Mum and Dad. I am sorry, Mother.”

From BBC article Essex lorry deaths: Appeal to Vietnamese over victims’ identities

Pham Thi Tra had a smartphone, just like mine or yours. A piece of technology that could connect her with nearly any human on the planet. She could communicate with her parents half the world away from that refrigerated container, but could not call someone meters away to open it, to save her life and the lives of her fellow travellers. In a globally connected world she could trivially access so much information, and she decided the dangerous journey to the UK was worth the risk.

Justice
I am conflicted. Laws restricting migration that mean desperate people risk their lives to cross borders in such dangerous ways. These laws seem to exist to protect my quality of life and privilege at the expense of opportunities for others. I believe human beings should be of equal value be they born in Hanoi or Hobart, but the harsh economic reality is they are not. It seems unjust that laws exist to prevent them from pursuing the same quality of life, however if I were given the opportunity to open all borders around the world, I would hesitate. I do not know what such a world would look like, for example people might rush towards centers of wealth only to be crushed by competition with one another for those opportunities.

Some other unstructured thoughts about migrants:

Language:
The words we use around migration is not trivial. We tend to call wealthy migrants expats, (short for expatriate), compared to the derogatory connotations of “immigrant”. In Australia “asylum seekers” are often connected to “boat people“, perhaps in comparison to aeroplane people?

IOM Publications
Photos by Amanda Nero gave me some more insight into the camps around Calais. They also produce comprehensive reports.

Migrants Make Things Better
McKinsey and the UN conclude some significant positive effects of migration.

Australia
Australia has shockingly hypocritical views on immigration for a country overwhelmingly populated by non-native peoples. Some data on migration flows in Australia.

Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN)

I’m taking vitamin D supplements this winter, due largely to this pretty long report about vitamin D which feeds into the NHS recommendation. I would like to research and write in more detail about the authors and research behind such reports, but considering what is Changing My Mind, the authority of the government, academic, and health care institutions linked to the SACN reports is convincing.

Technology News

Science Fiction Settings:
Blade Runner was set in November 2019.

Asthma:
The NHS is thinking about the carbon cost of different inhalers.

Starcraft
AI is getting good at StarCraft II.

Google Buys Fitbit
The press release from Fitbit. Engadget article. DCRainmaker blog post. 2 billion dollars is a lot of money, but it is substantially less than the peak of Fitbit at nearly 10 Billion shortly after its IPO (see chart below). It doesn’t feel that long ago that Fitbit acquired Pebble, a maker of e-ink smart watches and a rarely successful kickstarter project.

Historic Market Cap of Fitbit

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 42: Hot, Loud, Crazy, and Numb.

Short version: Heating Engineering is effective but unintuitive. Tim Minchin’s Back tour, DNA and Microscopy, We loses billions, a dip in my Mental Health.

Long version:

Heating – Great Engineering Terrible Design

If you have radiators for heating the numbers on the valve are not arbitrary, but adjust flow to maintain temperature automatically. Therefore they can be set to a desired temperature and left in that position without need for adjustment based on weather.

Central heating was a novel experience for me when I moved to the UK. A common system (which is fitted in my home) is to have a single boiler that heats water (in my case by burning gas, the alternative being electric heating) that then flows into radiators throughout the house. Each radiator has a valve. Only recently I learned that the valves attached to each radiator are more complex than they appear; rather than simply controlling flow directly (like a tap at a sink), they contain a material that is sensitive to temperature (wax) and the flow is adjusted to keep the radiator at a fixed temperature. If the radiator is set at position 3, corresponding to 20°C, and the temperature in the room is 21°C, no water will flow as the expansion of wax closes the valve. If the room cools to 19°C then the wax contracts and opens the valve, allowing hot water to flow. This document from Honeywell provides some more explanation.

On the one hand, this is clever engineering that ultimately saves energy by preventing unnecessary heating. On the other, the arbitrary 0 to 5 scale, instead of marking the temperature that the valve maintains, makes this feature counter-intuitive. Without being told about this I doubt I would have ever noticed this self-regulation. The combined thermal mass of radiators and the rooms they heat is large, thus the changes from adjusting the valve occur too slowly to observe easily.

Even something ubiquitous and seemingly simple can be surprisingly complex.

Tim Minchin

I saw Tim Minchin play in Oxford this weekend. Songs included 15 Minutes and Woody Allen Jesus. The show was fun, loud, irreverent, self-indulgent, and self-aware. It was an immersive reminder to me that while technology gives us the incredible opportunity to experience almost the entire library of music almost anywhere, there is an intimacy and immediacy to seeing a live performance that makes the experience more powerful. In this comedic performance, the energy of the performers and their impromptu interactions with each other and the audience makes listening alone to recordings comparatively cold and dry.

At a few points while monologuing Minchin pointed out how his earlier songs which come from the perspective of a (relatively) impoverished artist now conflict with his huge (financial) successes. He also addressed the modern “tribes” of progressives and conservatives, and the contradiction of his (huge) personal carbon footprint and his concerns about the environment. It particularly hit home (given the last section of this blog post) to hear him describe his first experience with depression; being sad that his hundred-million-dollar cartoon was binned from a house looking over the ocean, which was paid for by his hugely successful musical. There is a sense that when one is so lucky, so privileged, that mental illness is unacceptable, and yet, it does affect us.

Two Interesting Things from Nature

A narrative regarding the discovery of the structure of DNA, and a comment about the need for easier access to microscopy.

Business in 2019

Is crazy. Consider this quote from this article:

If you wake up on a Casper mattress, work out with a Peloton before breakfast, Uber to your desk at a WeWork, order DoorDash for lunch, take a Lyft home, and get dinner through Postmates, you’ve interacted with seven companies that will collectively lose nearly $14 billion this year.


Derek Thompson
writes in The Atlantic

Venture capitalists have essentially subsidised tech-y westerners to the tune of $100 each (Assuming about 140 million people use these loss making services). Meanwhile WeWork seems to be imploding.

Mental Health

I’ve had a (hopefully brief) decline in mental health recently. It is tempting to look for causation. I could guess at less daylight, or colder temperatures, or working beyond a sustainable amount recently. Maybe it is my experimental work, which while intellectually stimulating, occasionally has patches of repeated failures. Each failed experiment whittles away at confidence and motivation, and creates a sense that the whole exercise is pointless. Importantly though, sometimes there is no cause, or the cause is not concurrent with the effect. All I really know is I woke up on Friday feeling numb, unmotivated, and wanting desperately to escape my own thoughts. I am very lucky to have colleagues and friends who are understanding and supportive. I have learnt that alcohol is a bad way to escape. I am trying to be patient with myself. If I get nothing useful done in a day that is frustrating, but a constant stream of self-berating doesn’t help. I know things will get better.

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 40: Charts and Code

Short version: Intuitions about how we look at data. Taking small steps with code. Art at the Tate Modern.

Long version:

Sneaky Spreadsheets

This week I have been processing some experimental data and realised how the same data can be plotted in seemingly different ways. Often looking at the numbers themselves can be challenging, particularly if there are hundreds of points with multiple values at each point. For this example we take some simple data about income distribution in the UK. The numbers alone are accurate but making inferences takes consideration and a little mental arithmetic.

A linear column chart is the simplest and fastest way to visualise the data in a spreadsheet program (excel, google sheets, open office calc). It shows the 99th percentile as much larger than the other values, and the increases seem bigger between the higher percentiles.

Taking a logarithmic plot makes each step along the distribution seem more even, but the 99th percentile still seems noticeably larger.

But by changing the minimum axis value on a logarithmic plot the distribution seems much flatter overall.

And we can go to the opposite extreme, by plotting a pie chart the high income earners (top 1%) seem to take a massive share of the pie.

Code

I am not proficient in code, and find that embarrassing. That is an odd statement, I’m not proficient at many things (skateboarding, Portuguese speaking, cello playing) but few of those things cause me to feel embarrassment. Technological proficiency, unlike skating or playing a string instrument, is a part of my identity, and I feel that being able to code (or at least write basic scripts) is a part of being good with tech. When I go to write code, I am confronted by the gap between what I feel my skill should be and where my skills actually are, which is uncomfortable. Moreover it causes me to hide, refraining from asking for help, and I end up doing things in a slow and repetitive way. To push back against that urge, here is an attempt to write a simple python script to extract folder information from a directory tree.

import os
import re
print "This removes files from saved directory trees"
path = "./"
print "I will run in the local folder"
linecount = 0
for filename in os.listdir(path):
        if filename[len(filename)-4:]==".txt":
            with open(os.path.join(path, filename), "r") as file:
                output= open(filename[0:len(filename)-4]+"_folders.txt","w+")
                for line in  file:
                    if len(line) > 6:
                        if line[len(line)-6]!=".":
                            if line[len(line)-5]!=".":
                                if line[len(line)-6:]!="Cloud\n":
                                    output.write(line)
                                    linecount = linecount +1
            print("I found "+str(linecount)+" lines and put them into "+filename[0:len(filename)-4]+"_folders.txt")
            linecount = 0
        else:
            print("I did not process "+filename)
            linecount = 0

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Photos from the week

From the Tate Modern exhibition by Olafur Eliasson

2019 Week 39: Microwaves, Search, and Running.

Short version: I try and explain how microwaves work, I changed my search engine, and ran the Blenheim Palace half marathon.

Long version:

Microwave (ovens)

This week over a (reheated) dinner I tried to explain how microwave ovens work. It was a good reminder of the difficulties of discussing science; first in actually knowing the underlying science, then in communicating it to different people with different (unknown) levels of prior understanding. It was humbling to stumble between gaps in my understanding of a common household appliance and a failure to find the language to explain what I did understand. After refreshing myself on the physics, I try to explain again.

To start:
Microwave ovens convert electrical energy to heat, and are used for warming and cooking food. Other electrical cooking appliances (e.g. stoves, ovens, grills, toasters, and kettles) use the property that a flow of electricity heats the wire (conductor) it flows through. Microwaves make electromagnetic waves (like visible light or radio waves) in the microwave region of the spectrum (hence the name), which heat food (particularly water) as they pass through it. Conventional methods of heating food heat from the surface which gradually warms inwards, where as microwaves can heat food from the inside directly.

Assumed knowledge:
It is easy (and fun!) to get into a spiral of questions about what “heat”, “food”, “electricity” and “electromagnetic waves” are. More information about the parts of a system help build a foundation form where the combined system can be understood; it is hard to understand the science of cooking without understanding a little of the chemistry of what food is, or the physics of what heat is. Also seemingly unrelated knowledge can be useful; if how a musical instrument generates certain sounds is known, then the similar principles of resonant frequencies helps to explain how the microwaves are generated by the magnetron, another type of resonant cavity.

The best I can do:
Food goes in a metal box (a cavity) that stops microwaves escaping. Electricity (240 V AC mains) goes to a transformer that changes the voltage into two windings, a high voltage (approx 2000V) and a low voltage (approx 5 V). The lower voltage powers the user interface (e.g. the clock) and the higher voltage powers the microwave generator, called a magnetron. The magentron is a cylindrical vacuum cavity (closed metal tube with no air) where electrons are thrown off a central filament and travel to the outer walls. Strong magnets cause the electrons to travel along curved paths, and the cavity has spokes that extend from the outer walls most of the way towards the central filament. The spacing of these spokes and the strength of the magnets is tuned so that a specific frequency of electromagnetic radiation (microwaves) are generated by moving charger in the magentron, and these microwaves are guided by a metal tube (wave guide) into the larger cavity containing the food. The generated microwaves bounce around the cavity until they interact with water molecules (and sugars and some fats) in food to vibrate them. This is observed microscopically as heating.

A comprehensive explanation:
Can be found in this paper by Michael Vollmer. Also this video is a good guide.

Microwaves and super-res:
At the moment I work with super-resolution microscopes, which connects with microwave ovens in an interesting way: The grill that lets the user see their food being heated has holes (approx 1 mm across) that are much larger than the wavelength of visible light (approx 0.001 mm) but much smaller than the wavelength of the microwaves (approx 122 mm). Waves cannot “see” and object much smaller than the wavelength of the wave, called the “diffraction limit”. Thus the grill on the door of a microwave oven is “diffraction limited” from the perspective of the microwaves, in the same way that cellular structures can be “diffraction limited” from visible light. I am not sure if the equivalent optics exist for microwaves as in visible light, but it could be possible (though not particularly useful) to super-resolve structures using microwaves. Given microwaves are used in radar, perhaps such techniques are already used for detection of rain, birds, or aircraft.

Small Nudge to Search:

This week I changed my default search engine from google to google scholar.

This has had frustrating consequences; where as typically to find out where a place is, what tomorrow’s weather would be, or to play a song, I simply press the hot-key for a new browser tab and type what I want, that now gives me search results from the academic literature. There are no papers telling me if it will rain in Oxford tomorrow.

I do think this is a useful step. I’ve been reading a little about nudges, a concept linked to Richard Thaler. Changing the default search makes it slightly easier to do literature searches, and slightly harder to do general web searches, which I hope (and expect) will nudge me towards consuming better quality content.

Value-Action Gap

I came across the term “Value-action Gap“, which adds a technical but intuitive term where I would otherwise use the more judgemental “hypocrisy” or the more debater-jargon “principle consistency”. I like hearing opinions on why it is that people often act out of alignment with their beliefs, and am often surprised at my own capacity for cognitive dissonance.

Blenheim Palace Half Marathon

Slightly disappointed with my time, but it was a fun race. I will be adding a race report soon.

Photo from the Week:

2019 Week 28: Notes, Hours, Kids

Short version: This week I returned to studying, worked some long hours, and had my usual running routes blocked by some very wealthy children.

Long version:

Taking Notes on Laptop vs Paper

I started a molecular biology MOOC. The beginning of the course suggested note taking on paper is more effective, and cited this study. It was persuasive, but I will continue to mostly work digitally. I justify this by the ease of carrying, organising, and searching digital notes being more convenient than paper systems. This reminds me of the observation that smart-phone-toting-always-online-humans are effectively cyborgs, with tremendous capabilities for memory, problem solving, and long distance communication. That said, I do find scrap paper to sketch diagrams very helpful in the initial learning.

Working Long Hours

There are many professions that are associated with working long hours; truck drivers, doctors, bankers, and the whole culture of Japanese salarymen. Of scientists, organic chemists seem to work particularly long hours, and anecdotally there is life in the Chemistry Research Laboratory no matter when I pass by. Working in an ambitious startup can involve challenging schedules; Elon Musk suggested in a tweet 80-100 hours are needed to “change the world”.

This week I performed some long experiments, and was complimented by colleagues on being able to sustain energy and remain positive throughout. On reflection I think maintaining good physical health (via exercise and diet) plays a significant part. Avoiding insulin spikes from binging sugar helps, even though appetite will increase during the small hours from sleep deprivation. Knowing how long you need to keep going and spacing caffeinated drinks across that time helps too. Importantly I have learned that some sleep is better than none. To prevent a heavy workload from becoming impossible; minimise unnecessary tasks and focus on completing only what is needed, then recovering (sleeping). Finally it is important to account for a diminished capacity when planning. As you tire speed of work decreases and rate of mistakes increases. Thankfully I am part of a very dedicated and supportive team, and so we are able to work together to ensure the experiments run to plan.

Flood of Children

The University of Oxford has prestige which, beyond the university itself, is used by businesses to create demand and profit. Tutoring school aged students is such a business. Summer programs run by groups unaffiliated with the university (but often using holiday vacated undergraduate accommodation) bring hundreds of teenagers to Oxford for courses costing thousands of pounds. The associated walking tours lead to pedestrian congestion as the children are shepherded around the city center (pictured below).

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 20: Podcasts

Short version: I regularly listen to podcasts and articles, and this week “Jocko Podcast” entered my regular rotation.

Long version:

Podcasts and constant stimulation:

The world feels very information dense. From a notepad sized device we still refer to as a “phone” despite rarely using it to make telephone calls, I can access more content than can be physically stored in any library in the world. Anywhere in the developed world where people might be waiting, taking a break, or even simply walking down the street, you can see people turning to this incredible network of information sharing. That creates both a pressure and a desire to consume more information, more stimulation, when performing less intellectually intensive tasks. When performing household chores, routine cleaning in the lab, or taking gentle runs, I tend to put my headphones in and listen to a podcast. This is what I listen to.

The Economist

The main place I get news and current affairs. Factual, dense, and in a weekly format that prioritises significance over promptness. When I debated in high school and university, The Economist was frequently the recommended reading. Had I gotten into the habit of reading it towards the start rather than end of my debating career, I suspect I would have performed better for it. I particularly enjoy the different levels of coverage, from the one or two sentence summaries in “The world this week”, through the summarised articles in “Leaders”, and then the in depth coverage in regional and topical sections.

Nature Podcast

Technical, detailed, and yet presented in an entertaining manner, the Nature Podcast has been an enjoyable way to hear about research highlights across the sciences. It is also humanising to hear the actual voices of the authors of scientific papers. It can be easy to forget that those scientists are relatable, mostly normal people.

Freakonomics Radio

I enjoyed the books by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, and the podcast follows a similar format. Particularly memorable episodes include:

How to Get More Grit in Your Life (Ep. 246), which led me to read Angela Duckworth’s book, which in turn helped me to overcome my obsession with cleverness and talent and focus more on getting things done.

The Upside of Quitting (Ep. 42), which helps me remember the problems of sunk cost.

Are We in a Mattress-Store Bubble? (Ep. 251), as I have occasionally wondered how there seems to be a proliferation of certain stores, I found this episode particularly amusing.

Should We Really Behave Like Economists Say We Do? (Ep. 207), where producer of the podcast Greg Rosalsky attempts to live an economically rational life, with notably poor consequences.

Jocko Podcast

Since discovering the Jocko Podcast while in Australia, I have binged on the Jocko Podcast, listening to the first 50 episodes at time of writing. I have long aspired to master personal discipline, and Jocko is a fairly accomplished mentor. His daily picture of his watch, rising before 5 am each day to exercise, is inspiring. The historic readings he chooses seen through his personal experience of war give me a strong sense of appreciation for the safety and freedom I enjoy every day.

Other podcasts I listen to sometimes:

BBC Radio 3’s The Essay (my default playlist on the speakers in the lab is a concert from Radio 3). In particular I enjoyed the series on fictional forests and Contagious Cities.

ABC Radio’s Hack is a current affairs program targeted at youth and young adults, that I would often hear on actual FM broadcasts in Australia.

TED Radio Hour on NPR edits TED talks into podcast format, and is an interesting way to be pushed into an area I might not usually interact with.

BBC Newshour before I had access to the Economist podcast, Newshour was my go to news in audio form. Occasionally I still listen to get more up to date news, or to hear from a correspondent.

Savage Lovecast talk back radio format, occasionally with guests, offering advice on sex and love. In a world with a sometimes divisive plurality of sexual identities, it is pleasantly unifying to see the common struggles we all face.

Athletes Unfiltered inspiring stories of (predominantly) runners and cyclists. I find listening while hanging out laundry makes me eager for the next opportunity to get on the bike or into my running shoes.

More Perfect has my favourite episode of any podcast, telling the complex and surprising story of gun law in the United States of America. The more recent episodes have had less of an impact on me.

Joe Rogan Experience I find many of Joe’s guests entertaining, but the tendency towards fringe content makes listening feel more like a guilty pleasure than gaining knowledge.

Podcasts I haven’t listened to but have been recommended several times

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 14: Global Travel

Short version: I travelled from Oxford to Sydney and back within a week. That is incredible, but sadly places huge costs on the environment.

Long version:

Planetary Commute

Antipodes
This week I needed to be in Sydney for one day. To make the round trip in a week, about half the time is spent varyingly on flights and in airports. This left plenty of time to marvel at how trivial it now is to travel around the entire planet. Sydney is close to being on the opposite side of the planet (the antipode) to Oxford, so the total journey of 16,983 km is not far off the maximum distance two points can be from each other on the surface of the earth (approximately 20,000 km). Interestingly that antipodal distance is slightly less than half the 40,075 km equatorial circumference, due to the deformations in the shape of the earth. I was unable to easily find an exact calculation of the furthest two points on earth, due to errors in the data set, and the ever changing shape of the planet.

Kangaroo Route
When the British set out to colonise Australia, the trip took took 252 days. That trip can now be done commercially in less than 25 hours. (I had a longer layover that brought it closer to 30 hours). The magazine Air & Space recounts the history of this London to Sydney “Kangaroo route”.

Jet lag
Drastic changes in timezone leave an effect on the body. The NHS points out “There’s no treatment for jet lag“, but it does give helpful advice, such as attempting to move your sleep/wake cycle in sync earlier. While searching for papers on jet lag I found one on social jet lag and student performance that mines university logins. I found the charts classifying students based on chronotype interesting.

Fuel Efficiency and Carbon Impact
Passengers in a 747-400 have a fuel efficiency of about 3.1 L/100 km vs 10 L/100 km for cars. So a car with three people and a typical flight have the same carbon impact over the same distance. Thus my out and back journey consumed about 1000 L of fuel, producing 2500 kg of carbon dioxide. This is similar to the carbon emissions for a year of either eating a 75g hamburger per day, or heating a UK home.

Airborne Population (Fermi Problem)

With increasing demand and decreasing costs of air transport, at any point in time there is a proportion of the population on flights. Three ways of estimating this population:

Extrapolate from a single data point
If I assume everyone flies as frequently as I do (2 days per year, and multiply by the approximately 7 billion population on earth, that gives 14 billion flying days. Dividing this by the days in a year gives about 400,000,000 airborne people at any given time. Intuitively seems very high; it reflects my financial privilege that I fly much more than the average person.

Make a set of intuitive assumptions
Taking the following rough guesses: 1. all the flying is done by the wealthiest billion people 2. for every million of these people there is an airport where 3. a flight takes off every 15 minutes, 4. those flights last two hours, and 5. seat 500 people.
Calculations: (flight duration = 2 hours) ÷ (flight frequency = 0.25 hours) × (airports = 1000) × (passengers per flight = 500) = 4,000,000 airborne people at any time. This result seems more realistic, and fits intuitions that very large cities of many millions tend to have multiple airports, or large airports with multiple runways. Flights might run longer, but also less frequently over the night. Some large aircraft can carry more than 500, but are fewer and travel longer routes.

Use one highly relevant fact
Looking up a key fact, that there are 700,000,000,000 Revenue Passenger Kilometres flown per month, and knowing that the cruising speed for jets is about 900 km/h. Allows the simple calculations (distance travelled per month) ÷ (speed) ÷ (hours per month) gives an approximation of 1,000,000 airborne people at any time.

General Notes
Time of day and season would cause the actual number to vary significantly with time. Particularly peak travel periods around regional holidays (e.g. Thanksgiving, Diwali, Chinese New Year).

Photo from the Week

An Airbus A330-243 in Chengdu China, the layover on my journey to Sydney.