2020 Week 38: I’m Bad at Holidays

How does one procrastinate on holiday? I took this week off work, with the weekends either side giving a total of 9 days for rest and recuperation. Somehow I don’t feel particularly rested or recuperated as I write this. I was aware at the start that I would need to deliberately focus on taking time off, else the fascination with my work would keep me flitting into and out of tasks yet undone. That awareness was not followed with action: I managed to simultaneously not disengage enough to benefit, but also not to be productive enough to return tomorrow with an empty in box and a clear to-do list. Some habits are hard to break.

Two Thoughts on Time

100 Days

There are 102 days left in 2020. This coming Wednesday 23rd September marks the first of the final 100 days of the year, and in a year featuring a US presidential election, the significance of 100 days is prominent. Locally, it feels alarmingly short, yet long enough to attempt some ambitious goals. I hope to follow this post up with some promises by Tuesday evening.

Time Ratios

I feel my intuition for currency is clearer and more comparative than my intuition for time. Asking if an activity or pursuit is “worth it”, or for someone to “prove their worth”, or even if something is “worth their time”, all conflates time with some type of quantifiable value. Perhaps an alternative way to consider individuals and their time is the extent to which they support or are supported in hours. Fiat currency can be created, and the amount of currency is substantially less than the value of things in the world. People, and thus people-hours, are not so easy to create. Every day, every person has the same 24 hour span to use. Some give more hours to society, by supporting others, while others who are supported consume. This is an idea I would like to explore further.

Obsession

This week I finished Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz. Among detailed lessons in achieving football dominance, what stands out is Ferguson’s discipline and obsession. The discipline to outwork his staff and his competition, fuelled by an obsessive passion for football. Paul Graham describes the necessity of obsession in his Bus Ticket Theory of Genius, and I am growing to believe it is a necessity of becoming truly world-class in any pursuit. Of course, there are many people who follow football fanatically, so if this is a truly necessary requirement for success, it is not the only one.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 37: Imprecise Language

Working with people in a scientific context, I’ve noticed a disparity between the precision offered by language and the concepts it communicates. Physical parameters such as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and white blood cell count can all be measure and conveyed, which will give an indication of someone’s physical health. Scientific concepts such as the Brillouin zone may not be commonly discussed, but when communicated there is a precise understanding being shared. Concepts such as love, stress, and pain, are much more frequently discussed, but it difficult to ensure what is being expressed by the speaker is also being understood by the listeners. In some conversations, it is easy to remove ambiguity through numbers: “it was a heavy bag” becomes “it was a 30 kg bag” or “the car was driving fast” becomes “the car was driving 100 km/h”. In contrast, I am yet to learn how to make “the cut hurt” or “they love her” more precise.

Stress

Starting something new is hard. Elon Musk describes founding a startup as “like eating glass and staring into the abyss“. In trying to better understand stress I found this NASA technical report describing the effect of stress on human cognition. It begins with the difficulty of defining what “stress” actually is, and the document as a whole serves as an example of the difficulty of bringing scientific precision to a commonly understood concept.

Human Power

Energy and power are more accurately described than emotional states. This paper titled Human power (HP) as a viable electricity portfolio option below 20 W/Capita includes a numerical description of the amount of power (i.e energy per unit time) that a human can exert. Novice runners often start out too fast, and thus feel they “cannot run for more than 10 minutes”. The chart below explains this: the power output that is comfortable for around 1 minute (e.g. rushing for a bus) is unsustainable for a longer effort.

Photos from the Week

Extreme Ownership

Reading Notes

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin uses experiences from their military career (primarily during the Iraq War) to describe principles of leadership. I found the book helpful, particularly as it addressed several weaknesses I see in myself. Both in war and business, the contexts used to describe implementing the principles were higher stakes and more challenging than the situations I find myself in, so I feel the solutions offered would also help solve my problems. Since encountering Jocko’s philosophy via his podcast over a year ago, I feel implementing the ideas in Extreme Ownership have helped me to grow and succeed.

The military content, which makes up a majority of the text, at times glorifies war and some readers will find it distasteful. I would suggest simply reading and considering the core principles, which together make up approximately 30 pages of the 320 page book. The 12 chapters each follow a structure of: 1. military anecdote 2. leadership principle 3. application to business. I found these anecdotes illuminating. In the first chapter, where Jocko describes taking ownership of mistakes leading to a death by friendly fire, he writes “I dreaded opening and answering the inevitable e-mail inquiries about what had transpired. I wished I had died out on the battlefield. I felt that I deserved it.” Even within the intense environment of war, something as common as email can cause “dread” because of the courage required to take ownership of mistakes. The example uses the dire consequences of war to motivate me to take ownership of my own mistakes.

The Principle of Extreme Ownership

Everything that happens to you is your responsibility. Do not make excuses. Do not blame others. Inevitably things will go wrong, and you will fail, but taking ownership can lead to learning, growth, and overcoming that failure. Making excuses, and blaming others, prevents growth and leads to more failure.

I find this a useful mindset. I have much more control over my own actions than others. I can choose what I do, but not what others do. If I externalise control to the world or others around me, and blame the world and others, then I am unable to solve my problems. If I focus on what I can do, on what I can control, then I can make progress.

Quotes I Found Helpful

Note: I hope to add more quotes and expand on these quotes later.

Every leader and every team at some point of time will fail and must confront that failure (p. 8)

This is consolation, failure is to be expected rather than feared. Failure does not mean an individual or team cannot ever succeed. Knowing this, it is possible to move past the embarrassment of one’s failure, and focus on how to improve and overcome.

It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. (p. 54)

Standards are set and maintained through tolerance. While an individual or team can have lofty aspirations, consistent performance requires intolerance of sub-standard behaviour. In short: Hold the line.

Relax, look around, make a call (p. 161)

Mantras like this help the right decision be made in difficult situations. This needs to be balanced with hesitation, which can be more damaging than haste. Relax: take a deep breath, move past the adrenaline and the pounding heart, clear your thoughts. Look around: detach, take in the bigger picture, understand the context of the situation, what is actually happening here. Make a call: once the situation is understood and a pause can be taken, only then make a decision.

2020 Week 29: Holidays

I’m taking some holiday at the end of this week, and the change in routine is a moment for reflection. I have been thinking about the past years, the progress I’ve made and the things I still need to work on. A goal of this blog is to create posts that are interesting and useful to others, but also to maintain a routine of writing regularly. Moving forward I’ll (try again to) keep these weekly posts brief, and put more time into longer, higher quality posts.

Things that keep me happy

I am happy with my life, and part of that is having developed habits that cultivate happiness.

Physical Exercise
Regular physical exercise. Days that start with sustained high-heart-rate exertion go better than days that do not.

Meditation and Mindfulness
I’m learning to be more present, more focused, and more aware of my own thoughts. Practising meditation develops these skills.

Personal Reflection
Knowing what actually happened in the past through written reflection helps me get a better perspective on my own life. I can keep myself accountable, and see a bigger picture to better plan and act.

Taking time to appreciate
When things go well, or are pleasant, taking a little extra time to appreciate having those things in my life makes my usual focus on problems less of an emotional burden.

Good Relationships
I am most appreciative to be able to call so many good people my friends.

Things to Share

Zwift runs a virtual Tour de France
The virtual cycling platform that is increasingly filling my strava feed bridges e-sports and traditional sport.

COVID-19 Vaccine News
Initial trial results from the mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 from NIAID and Moderna.

PhD Students in Australia are suffering:
A survey of students at the University of Sydney shows that already precariously placed PhD students have been pushed off the financial edge by the pandemic.

Photo from the Week:

Exploring new parts of Oxford on staycation

2020 Week 21: Delete Money

Currently most of my conversations are about work, exercise, and food. Work is interesting but continues to be mostly confidential. Exercise is going well, and I’m micro-blogging my training in the description of each session on strava. Food continues to be tasty, the importance of which is highlighted in the amusingly titled paper:

“If you do not find the world tasty and sexy, you are out of touch with the most important things in life”: Resident and family member perspectives on sexual expression in continuing care.

Here is an unrefined thought that is not about work, exercise, or food:

A thought experiment about the absence of money

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the world are taking on debt to keep their economies functioning. I’ve been considering the thought experiment that, perhaps, society could function without money at all. As increasingly individual income and expenditure are merely editing a number in a database, those numbers could remain static and people could simply act as they would in a system governed by money. Obviously the existence of money serves many purposes; a store of value, a medium of exchange, an incentive to not over consume, a signalling mechanism in a variety of contexts, a decision making mechanism via auctions. But the actual changing of numbers in databases (or exchange of paper bills) is not necessary for the actual construction of buildings or transport of commodities. At the outset, if all consumer goods were priced at 0, initially people might over-consume or hoard, but ultimately what would be the purpose? They could not on-sell the goods, not would consuming beyond their need be a positive outcome for themselves. If we assume generally rational and socially minded actions from individuals, would this system be possible? Further, in considering where the system is hardest to implement (how would we ensure just allocation of unique property e.g. housing?) it highlights the different roles money itself plays in organising a society.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 20: Professional Interactions

It has been a week filled with conversations. I spend a lot of time in my new role talking to people, some of whom I have worked with for years now and others who I am meeting for the first time. I have relished the opportunity to learn so much from so many, and I hope I am able to offer some insight in return.

Don’t lie to your dentist

People lie about flossing to the dentists providing them a service, and that bug of human behaviour is important to understand generally, and overcome personally. Rational adults, when asked by their own health care professionals about their behaviour, will provide inaccurate information. That information is intended to guide a decision that will affect the patient, so the incentive is for the patient to provide accurate information to receive the best possible care. Yet the desire to provide the answer they feel is “correct” overcomes their own interests. I would imagine similarly people tend to underestimate their drinking and smoking, and overestimate their exercise habits, when visiting their doctors.

Deception is a complex topic. All acting is based on the ability to assume an identity that is not ones own. The Economist lauds the benefits of teaching your children how to bluff. But deception, particularly financial or sexual, can destroy relationships. In this specific instance though, the harm of the dishonesty accrues directly to the person being dishonest, and yet the self-harm occurs. My guess would be that the combination of guilt, the desire to please, and a misunderstanding of the underlying reason for the question, combine to create a sense that providing the “socially acceptable” answer is more important than the truth. The frequency of instances of such behaviour suggests that those motivating factors are common.

Office Emotions

In the (thankfully distant) past, I have suppressed negative emotions in an attempt to overcome them, and while there were some short term benefits, the overall effect was detrimental as the deeper causal issues were ignored. Generally places of work expect employees to “act professional”, i.e. without consideration or expression of individual emotion. This is flawed on several counts, it is difficult to do, it constrains identities, and it diminishes the ability to build trust between colleagues that can be so vital for well functioning teams. There is of course a dichotomy, too much unconstrained emotion can lead to disruption of a team’s work, and places difficult burdens on others. Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is where the optimal position is on this, an environment that has positive relationships and provides emotional support, without spreading the (inevitable) negative experiences of an individual throughout the organisation.

Photo from the Week

Cows crossing Port Meadow

2020 Week 17: Brief Thoughts

It has been a tough week, with little time to explore ideas outside of work in any depth. A few short thoughts and two photos from head clearing exercise.

Thoughts:

On Fear

Courage is not experiencing an absence of fear, but rather acting in spite of it. If you are oblivious to danger, it is not a demonstration of courage to face it.

On Solutions

The prevalence of multiple solutions may indicate the absence of a good one. However there is a latency between consensus and improvements from innovation. The most popular isn’t necessarily the best, but it is optimal in some way, even if that is only being seen or known.

On Rhetoric

Nearly all events can be described in a more positive or negative light. This pandemic can be seen as a terrible loss of life, or a success of modern medicine and governments to save millions of lives. Every “failed” experiment teaches you something about the world. The Guardian produced a related video on perspective.

On Excess

I’ve been thinking about what I feel is “good” and “bad” in a universal sense, but almost everything I think of is context dependent. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Physical exercise is good for you, but too much leads to injury. Healthy foods are good for you, but too much still makes you obese. Learning is good for you, but too much leaves no time to act on what has been learned (never mind the topic). Even drinking too much water can kill you. This of course is not a new idea.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 16: Decision Fatigue

Priorities become clear in a crisis. The pandemic continues to dominate life, news, and my research. I continue to cope well despite long hours most days, largely (as I’ve discussed in the last couple weeks) due to a community of supportive people around me along with a good diet and regular exercise. Another reason I’ve noticed is “crisis mode” narrows my focus onto a few specific tasks, removing choices, and thus I avoid decision fatigue. I am lucky that there are so many possibilities in my regular life, but invariably I end up feeling torn between possible commitments. In lock-down I can only be at home or in the lab, so I am not choosing between interesting lectures in Oxford, or potential hiking trips, or social events. There is much less fear of missing out, when there is less to miss out on.

Other thoughts from the week:

Will ending lock-down lead to a sudden increase in injuries?

I suspect when lock-down ends and gyms reopen, some proportion of people returning to their workouts after several weeks off will injure themselves. There have been several unexpected effects of the pandemic, such as a decline in accident and emergency admissions (perhaps because increases in hand-washing have led to fewer incidents of food poisoning, or perhaps because people are afraid of contracting COVID-19 by going to hospital). Gyms are closed to prevent transmission of the disease, and so people are not training and their strength and technique are diminishing. Though I hope everyone will return to training accounting for the break when gyms eventually reopen, I suspect there will be a measurable minority who attempt to resume at their pre-lock-down fitness and overexert themselves, resulting in injury and increased demand on rehabilitation services.

Things that seem special may not be

SARS-CoV-2 likely originated in animals (probably bats), making it a zoonotic disease. Bats have been known to carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans including marburg, the previous SARS, and Ebola. Naturally this raises questions about some special attribute of bats that make them more likely to spawn pandemic generating viruses. This paper from the University of Glasgow suggests that the only thing “special” about bats is their diversity. Together with the commonly disease associated Rodentia (rodents), Chiroptera (bats) account for 3938 species, or 60% of all mammal species. If viruses are randomly distributed amongst mammals, and the ability of those viruses to then infect humans is similarly random, then the observed frequency of diseases like COVID-19 coming from bats is explained without any special attribute of bats themselves.

This is a good reminder of a general principle, that because what we observe is so small relative to totality of existence, we are much more likely to attribute “special” meaning to general phenomena. I think this is most useful to remember when it comes to relationship and personal problems, as we assume our uniqueness implies a uniqueness of our problems. An example from this TED talk on depression describes a couple who are both hiding their prescription for antidepressants from each other because they both feel the other could not possibly understand.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 11: Epidemiology

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

Things I wrote this week

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

Things to share this week

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

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

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

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

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

Photos from the week

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.