2020 Week 15: Growth amid Crisis

This has been another week of excitement, exhilaration, and exhaustion while working on SARS-CoV-2 projects at ONI. Doing experiments directly related to the pandemic is motivating, and I have noted that I find it easier to work 80-100 hour weeks on this project than 60-70 hours weeks on previous projects. I am very thankful to work with such an inspiring team, as well as to live with supportive friends. In the fourth week of this project, the sustained effort is also made possible by prioritising good diet, regular exercise, and making time for reflection and meditation.

While my week is dominated by the pandemic, I’ll share three moments unrelated to COVID-19. As I was drafting this post, I had a failure of discipline and did not get it out on time. I shared my new job title on LinkedIn. I attended an online interactive performance of The Tempest.

Practise Finishing or Practise Failing

The problem:
This post is a day late. I am disappointed, having managed to deliver on time for the past several weeks, and I felt the resulting introspection was worth sharing. I had enough time to write when I returned home on Sunday evening, but found myself falling into bad habits of procrastination I had hoped were gone. Surprisingly, the lack of resolve came not after a day of exhaustion, but one of relaxation. A day of Easter feasting, an absence of physical training, and only minimal experimental accomplishments left me lacking confidence to express my thoughts. When I could have been writing, I squandered time to distractions like YouTube and chess, sacrificing both a timely post and precious sleep.

A potential solution:
I have noticed a psychological benefit from completing 30-60 minutes of intensive indoor rowing. There are several points (usually at around 7 minutes and 20 minutes in) during these efforts where the temptation is to give up and stop rowing. The spartan rhythm of the exercise, and the absence of visual stimulation, are a backdrop for a battle between falling to weakness of will or building strength of discipline. I have found that days where I see the piece to the end, I am not only rewarded with exercise-induced endorphins and the satisfaction of completing the session, but also I find it is easier to see other tasks in my day to completion. Likewise, if I quit before finishing, it makes failing other tasks more likely. Either practising pushing through pain, or practising giving up when things are hard, reinforces the behaviour. Knowing this, I can focus on succeeding in the present moment, spurred on by recognising it will make the right choice easier in future. This knowledge also feeds into setting appropriate goals: goals which are impossible guarantee falling into a negative feedback loop.

Where else I want to apply this:
There are many brief moments through the day when I could learn a little, or train a little, or communicate better, or help someone. Sometimes I make the right choice, but often I throw that moment away in favour of consuming easy content (e.g. checking sales at an online store) or narcissistically checking for “likes” on social media. I should recognise that by building better habits around these moments, I will find it easier to do the better things. A little discomfort now is worth the behavioural change in the end.

People Growth Engineer

This week I announced my new job title as “People Growth Engineer”. Given the current pandemic related work, I am still applying my skills in the laboratory, but eventually the role will see me focus on the people of ONI rather than wet bench experiments. I am excited at the opportunity to contribute in a new way, driving growth throughout the organisation. I like that the unique title reflects my own passion for a scientific approach to continual learning and personal development. Specifically, the growth I will be engineering for ONI exists in three overlapping areas:
1. Growing the team through identifying the right people to join ONI.
2. Growing existing ONIees (ONIemployees) through individual skill development.
3. Cultivating a culture and fostering a common mindset that allow us to achieve our mission.
More detail to come as I transition into the role.

The Tempest

Over the long weekend I attended Creation Theatre’s performance of The Tempest via Zoom. I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction with the audience and actors, and the fun retelling through modern technology. Initially I was sceptical about setting aside time in this busy period for a play, but the life and laughter I took away from it gave me more joy than I would have expected from any other down-time. The actors involved the audience as Ariel’s spirits, acting out Prospero’s magic. Seeing other audience members on their web-cameras provided a good substitute for in person socialising in this time of social distancing. The humour could be a little cringe worthy at times, but taking Shakespeare playfully feels both authentic to the spirit of the comedy and makes supposedly high culture more accessible.

Photos from the Week

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2020 Week 12: Exponential Whiplash

Since I wrote last week about the pandemic, putting it in the context of other global health issues, the total fatalities due to COVID-19 have more than doubled, and major European economies have essentially halted. I had some awareness of the likely rate of spread, but was not anticipating how events have played out, and so count myself among those hit by “exponential whiplash”:

a cognitive phenomenon that sars-cov-2, the virus which causes covid-19, has been provoking around the world: exponential whiplash. Knowing in principle that something may take only a few days to double in size does little to prepare you for the experience of being continually behind the ever-steepening curve such doubling creates.The Economist

I shared on LinkedIn this week that ONI is working on research to support the fight against COVID-19 and since Wednesday my productive energy has been focused there. Like many businesses across the UK, a majority of ONI’s staff are working from home, but my skills let me keep working on new projects directly related to SARS-CoV-2. It is exciting and rewarding to be able to do so, but it is also sapping time and energy from my usual pursuits. Given that, I have only a few incomplete thoughts to share:

Things to share this week

Proximity bias
It is noticeable to me that these deaths are causing so much more economic and social pressure than the deaths by the causes I listed last week. I guess it is because these deaths are more proximate to wealthy societies, which have won huge victories against infectious diseases. Combined with the panicked behaviour I note below, I feel most people demonstrate they do not find all lives are equally valuable, even though they might espouse that value.

Pandemics vs. Climate Catastrophe
Something I’m thinking about: if society knew that these radical measures were necessary to prevent a much larger disaster much further away, would we be able to make the same cuts on air travel, entertainment, and consumption? Could we reinvent our way of life to prevent deaths from climate change, without anyone needing to die first?

Some people are panicking
I am hearing first hand accounts of stockpiling from both Australia and the UK; supermarket shelves being emptied despite no larger issues on the supply side. A friend had toilet paper snatched out of her shopping cart. There has been a spike in gun sales in the US. It saddens me to see people act out of fear, and with so much selfishness. I wonder if it is merely a lack of understanding, or a symptom of a more fundamental social focus on individuals vs. collectives.

Some people are too relaxed
I was very surprised to see stories in my twitter feed of crowds flocking to climb Mt. Snowdon and filling out beaches in Florida and Bondi. While I am feeling relaxed when it comes to my personal safety, wider compliance with public health directives such as social distancing are needed for those policies to be effective (see also vaccines).

Misleading headlines make me angry
Please take care of the media you engage with. I generally feel positive about coverage from the guardian, but headlines like Australian man, 36, diagnosed with coronavirus dies in Iceland are deceptive. It is designed to grab your curiosity (or fear) about the pandemic, and clearly implies that the Australian man was killed by COVID-19. The disease is most lethal in older people, so a younger person dying is notable. But the reality brought by the third sentence is:

“While he was found to be infected with the coronavirus, it is unlikely to have been the cause of his death,” epidemiologist Dr Thorolfur Gudnason,

I.e. an accurate headline is “Australian man, 36, dies in Iceland of unknown causes whilst infected with coronavirus”. This is a problem; in a media saturated landscape many will scroll past the headline in a feed, and it will add to anxiety needlessly.

Harvard Medical Students COVID-19 Curriculum
A friend passed on this resource, which I think provides a good balance of brevity and comprehensiveness on the disease.

Photos from the week

Marathons have been cancelled which takes the pressure off. I can take my time to get back into higher mileage running. It also means I enjoy the scenery a little more.

Lady Astronaut of Mars

“And basically, the novels are: I would like The Martian Chronicles but with more women and people of color, please.”

Mary Robinette Kowal speaking at Google on her novels.

About the books

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Fated Sky, the most recent book by Mary Robinette Kowal. It follows the multi award winning novel The Calculating Stars, and occupies the same “punchard punk” universe as the short stories Articulated Restraint, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, and We Interrupt This Broadcast. You can hear the author read an extract at the start of of this Talk at Google.

Kowal describes her use of sci-fi as “set dressing” to help “explore things that [she] is thinking about from the real world and it allows [her] to talk about them without all of the emotional baggage so [she] can approach them more as a thought experiment”. Dressed in sci-fi, Dr Elma York (main character) grapples with mental illness, patriarchy, and racism, while background elements invoke the politics of climate change.

My thoughts

I enjoyed the alternate history, the blending of the real life Mercury 13 and computers of Hidden Figures with an engaging character driven story. Kowal has done her homework, with help from Derek Benkoski (fighter pilot), Kjell Lindgren and Cady Coleman (astronauts), and Stephen Granade (rocket scientist), which gives Kowal’s depiction of space-faring such realism that it felt a little like reading astronaut Chris Hadfield’s autobiography.

It was new for me to read fiction where most of the cast, including the first person narrator, are women. As with film (I highly recommend checking out this blog post) women tend to be less represented in stories I read (e.g. The Lord of the Rings). While the main plot of The Calculating Stars centres on women fighting to be included as astronauts, The Fated Sky shifts focus to issues of race. The diversity of the cast is necessary for the story Kowal sets out to tell, and whilst she clearly has a progressive stance to share, at no point did I feel narrative was compromised to make a political point (though as far as I can tell I largely share the author’s views).

The first novel opens to a scene involving Elma and Nathaniel’s (main characters) sex life, and their emotional, sexual, and professional relationships feature significantly in both books. Kowal states in the Google Talk that she “wanted their relationship to always be rock solid”. I am fortunate that my relationship is similar enough to find myself relating to Elma and Nathaniel. While there has been criticism that “Nathaniel York is too perfect to be realistic” (which Kowal has responded to via twitter), being able to see the familiar stresses of over-commitment to work, mental illness, and maintaining intimacy over distance, helped me invest in them both as a couple and as individuals.

Fiction and Authors

It is new for me to come to the end of a story I have enjoyed for recreational-escapist-immersion and then be able to turn to the internet to learn about the author, her process, and how to examine fiction more generally. Kowal keeps a public journal, where as I began drafting this post she shared insights into her writing process. She tweets and answers questions through Lee the Puppet and collects typewriters. By following her online presence, I learned of the existence of narrative beats and about heat welding for puppetry. Seeing an author as an actual person (with their struggles and distractions and desires) makes writing less daunting, and so encourages me to write more.

Real Astronaut CVs

Science-fiction and fantasy make for interesting psychological insights into readers. While no one has experienced contact with aliens or magic, the audience’s immersion may be first broken by a very human behaviour. In the talk Kowal discusses that her writing is criticised for her depiction of Elma’s weaknesses as it seems contradictory for Elma to be so paralysed by anxiety in a social context but utterly comfortable with near death experiences in space craft. This is in spite of the real lived experiences of those with social anxiety disorder. Another criticism of the character I have seen in a few places regards her mathematical prowess:

The least relatable thing about Elma is that she’s so smart that no one else can match her. She went to college at 14. She does math in her head. Oh, you have to solve differential equations with a piece of paper and a pencil? You’re actually a dumbass in comparison.” — librarything review by yvonnekins

I remember feeling a similar jealous sentiment towards Patrick Rothfuss’ protagonist in the Kingkiller Chronicle series. It is easy to be jealous of characters who are defined by their intelligence, particularly if you operate in a world where intelligence is worshipped. When it comes to astronauts however, Elma’s skills did not break my immersion, as I have seen astronauts tend to have pretty incredible CVs, e.g. Jonny Kim. Also child pilot and accomplished physicist Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski is not a fictional character.

Some uncomfortable feelings when I come to write about books

Generally, despite really enjoying the story, coming to reflect on it here inspired some painful feelings. While it would be easier to ignore those feelings, that would miss an opportunity to grow past them, and fail to follow the example of sharing personal weakness set by Kowal and others who inspire me. I feel it is important to hold and express thoughts about the books I read, and I couldn’t do that if I avoided emotions that come with reflection. Emotions are difficult to untangle, but two strands I can draw out are:

1. I feel I should write about books but I don’t know why or how. I feel disappointed with myself that when I finished the first book all that made it into the blog was “I finished reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, it is excellent.”

2. I read slowly. It is also disappointing to me that it took me nearly 3 months to read The Fated Sky. I quickly convert that rate of four books a year through the relatively short human lifespan, and feel a great sense of loss that there are so many texts I will never read.

Closing Thoughts

I highly enjoyed both books (on paper), but given Kowal is a voice actor and does the narration, I would recommend listening to The Calculating Stars via audiobook. I eagerly anticipate the third book in Elma and Nathaniel’s story, due in 2022.

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 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