Short version: A colourful week, beginning with a day in Bucharest before returning from Romania to Oxford, where the streets were lively with Oxford Pride and Summer Eights.
Graffiti is a part of most urban environments (perhaps for as long as urban environments have existed) and continues to be seen by some as a blight and others as beautiful. When I first studied art, I remember the compulsion to learn the physical details of individual works, their historical contexts, and how they were and have since been interpreted. More recently I’ve tried more to focus on how I react to art emotionally, to try and build better awareness of my own feelings. In short, I enjoyed the street art in Bucharest.
Oxford held a pride parade. It feels like the community in Oxford is progressive on the issues of gender and sexuality, students seem pretty welcoming and rainbow flags fly throughout the year. Of course even in a progressive community it can be difficult to be in a sexual or gender minority, so demonstrations of support and solidarity serve a beneficial purpose.
Summer eights ran again, finishing on Saturday. Bumps racing, and the ancillary traditions (such as competition between colleges over quality of Pimm’s), are strange from an outsider’s perspective, but I am inspired by the actual rowing to seek an opportunity to try it. Competition results can be seen here.
Short version: Two friends got married, and I joined them in celebrating in Romania.
My experience suggests a conventional life has the following milestones: birth, completing education, entering the workforce, getting married, buying a house, starting a family, leaving the workforce, and dying. The start and end points are pretty universal, the ordering in the middle varies. I have passed the first three of those milestones, and this weekend two more friends passed the fourth.
Weddings are a significant life event, celebrating the commitment (of usually two people) to a specific romantic sexual relationship. Because the shape and meaning of that commitment varies so broadly, the actual experience of a wedding varies widely. This specific wedding consisted of a mixture of English, Romanian, and Vietnamese elements, reflecting the combined heritage of the couple. The mix was fun. I would expect as people move more for work and education, multiculturalism flourishes in major cities, that weddings that borrow from multiple cultures become more common.
From a distance, weddings are also economically significant, with the average cost of a wedding in the USA being $33,000, or approximately half the median household income. Ceremony and community do seem important in cementing a relationship, but ultimately the stability of a relationship depends on the future decisions of the parties involved much more than the present commitment to that future. In reading around this it was interesting to observe that divorce rates as a ratio of [marriage rate : divorce rate] are statistically dependent on the demography of the population.
Romania is country of intense contrast. The mix of medieval, soviet, and modern buildings is reflected in the culture. One in five Romanians work abroad (including a handful of my own colleagues at ONI). The economist describes both a low quality of life, and a technological and economic boom. I observed some incredible displays of wealth; colossal palaces, trendy cafes, and sports cars. Similarly, however, the abandoned buildings, absent infrastructure, and visible underclass belie a series of scandals regarding government corruption.
Short version: I regularly listen to podcasts and articles, and this week “Jocko Podcast” entered my regular rotation.
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 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.
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.
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.
ABC Radio’sHack 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 Lovecasttalk 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.
Short version: in a week of upper-class entertainment, I attended a Ball in Oxford, and an Opera in London.
In the university calendar of Oxford, the warmer months of Trinity term bring with them the college balls. Students dress up in black tie to enjoy carnival rides, food trucks, open bars, and dancing. Given colleges are the term time homes of Oxford students, they are something of an extravagant house-party. The nature of the ticket pricing (a single price for entry with everything being free within the ball) encourages over consumption, particularly of alcohol. It also encourages the practice of sneaking into balls, by scaling walls or attempting unusual canal crossings.
As something of an Oxford outsider, I think I miss out on the main joy of attending a party with your peers where you live and study. They are a spectacle, and good company, music, and drink are certainly pleasant. That said, having attended a few balls last year, the novelty has worn off. I’ve written about lowering my alcohol consumption, and similarly excessive consumption of “party” foods is an unwise choice. Even the loss of sleep, as balls tend to carry on into the small hours of the morning, seems to be a price I am less willing to pay. I feel both “old” and “anti-fun” as I write this, but my priorities have shifted from this particular expression of hedonism to value each activity in a purer and more moderate form, rather than thrown together in a single event. Dancing is not particularly enhanced by heavy eating or drinking. Thrill seeking comes best in more practical clothing. Good company is better enjoyed where conversation is not drowned out by party music. Overall, while the components of a ball are very enjoyable, I find the combined experience to be less than the sum of the parts.
Opera: Billy Budd
On Friday I attended the closing performance of Billy Budd, which impressed upon me an appreciation that Britain no longer uses impressment. I feel this piece from the Financial Times has a much more informed opinion on the performance than I could form. The English language opera with an all male cast had enough elements of the Christ story to make me reflect on the oddity that the United Kingdom is technically a religious state. Also the loyalty of the titular character, despite his tragic end, is something I feel a sense of envy over. The British Navy is not a hierarchy I aspire to be a part of, but to have a clear sense of purpose, of duty, and to live up to that purpose and duty, is something that I do aspire to.
Short version: This week ONI volunteered around Oxford to celebrate 3 years since being founded, and as part of that I worked on an allotment for the first time.
The Children’s Allotment
On the 1st of May ONI celebrated its third “Oniversary”, and with corporate social responsibility in mind we decided to volunteer our time on projects around Oxford that could use some extra hands. I was tasked with leading a team to help The Children’s Allotment clear an abandoned plant nursery on the site of Oxford’s East Ward Allotments. My first response to the exercise was sceptical, but the result was an inspiring and enjoyable day, with some satisfyingly useful results. Together we worked up a sweat, collected a few scrapes and scratches, and had our shoes filled with earth, but ultimately managed to clear the entire area of rubbish and overgrown brambles. The surprise and joy of the Children’s Allotment team, and their heartfelt thanks, left us all feeling proud at what we had achieved.
When working with a group of people every day, it becomes easy to take for granted their consistently positive qualities, and I come to take for granted the work ethic of my incredible colleagues. “ONIees” are quick to get into their work and see it through with discipline and vigour. Old and young, tall and short, experienced gardeners and those who had never kept a houseplant, all promptly donned a pair of gardening gloves and got to digging, cutting, clearing, and moving ceaselessly until the job was done.
Short version: Wales has a lot of castles, and I rebuilt my coffee machine.
The weekend hiking trip to Wales was bookended by visiting the UNESCO listedCaernarfon and Conwy Castles. I was reminded of a book I loved as a child; “Castle” by David Macaulay, which is unsurprising given the fictional castle depicted is modelled after Conwy. While to me castles are a setting for stories and an element in games, in reality they were imposing military installations. In particular given Oxford is currently home, it is disquieting to consider that Oxford (and Cambridge) were both teaching students while Conwy was being built as part of Edward Longshanks’ conquest of the Welsh.
I like coffee. I am lucky to have been given a La Pavoni Europiccola, from which (literally) pulling shots of espresso gives me satisfaction and caffeination. Having such a manual machine highlights the chromatographic aspects of the process of making one of the world’s most popular beverages, and gives plenty of opportunities to experiment with process. For more on coffee, CGP Grey provides some interesting coffee facts in his video.
Short version: Over the long weekend I hiked some of the Snowdonia way with a friend, it was beautiful.
The “Snowdonia Way” is a 156 km or 196 km walking route through Snowdonia National Park. We followed a guide book, but the route is also described on a dedicated website and by the Long Distance Walkers Association. The full route takes 6-9 stages (functionally days) depending on choices of lowland or mountain routes, but ultimately to fit comfortably into the four day Easter long weekend we only covered two slightly modified stages, focused on climbing Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales.
Oxford to Beddgelert We chose public transport over driving; our start and end points could differ without the need to collect a parked car. Being a passenger also requires less focus than driving unfamiliar (and uninspiring) highway, and intuitively public transport seems the climate conscious way to travel. A train from Oxford to Birmingham, and another from Birmingham to Bangor, was followed by a bus to Caernarfon, and finally a bus to Beddgelert.
Bedgellert to Pen-y-Pass We started in the late afternoon, walking out of Bedgellert which was bubbling with holidaying families. A well groomed path (above) passed Sygun Copper mine and continued along the southern edge of Llyn Dinas. A brief turn on gravel road led North onto the start of the Watkin Path, near which was the first night of camping. Snowdon could be glimpsed behind nearer hills, a beautiful challenge to look up and forward to.
Taking down camp early and heading up to the ridge, it quickly warmed to an uncharacteristically warm and sunny day in Wales. Some steep hiking and a very brief scramble led to a saddle only a meter or so across, which allowed two distinct valleys to be viewed while sitting over lunch. The climb to the summit finished on a rather crowded Snowdon peak (see below), with many day walkers audibly disappointed that the cafe was closed. The Pyg Track was the chosen descent, which begins with a steep set of switchbacks but flattens out to gentle views of Llyn Llydaw and the Miner’s Track below. The heat took a toll on water supplies, but thankfully the YHA at Pen-y-Pass had drinking water available on tap.
Pen-y-Pass to Dolwyddelan The second full day of hiking began descending through the exposed Nant Gwynant to a hydro-electric power station. A sharp climb out led onto a surprisingly wet plateau, bordered by a plantation. Passing down into the next valley the path began winding through sheep farms, and the hike ended near the the well kept Dolwyddelan Castle.
Dolwyddelan to Oxford Due to damage to the railway line caused by Storm Gareth, Dolwyddelan was no longer connected to the Welsh railway network, and so the return trip began with a bus back to Conwy, followed by trains through Birmingham and finally back to Oxford.
Overall Thoughts Compared to the much flatter Oxford surrounds, the steeper slopes of Wales are excitingly wild and adventurous. The thousands of years of human presence comes through, particularly with the very visible effects of mining around Snowdon. It is impressive to think how much earth was moved by human and animal labour alone, particularly when struggling under a pack. We were incredibly lucky to get four days of unbroken dry weather in a famously wet part of the world, and it certainly left us wanting to take on more hiking in the warmer months ahead.
Hiking in Wales vs Australia
This trip was my first hike in the United Kingdom, and my first overnight trip outside of Australia. Comparing Wales to its Newer Southern counterpart, variation in temperature and a prevalence of civilisation were the most significant differences. My pack contained many more clothing layers and a much bulkier sleeping bag to account for cold nights. This resulted in a much heavier pack than I am used to (approx 13 kg total), but with the prevalence of small towns I could have shed weight easily by purchasing food along the way. The habit of carrying provisions for the whole trip makes more sense in the more sparsely populated Australia.
Minimalism is most simply the practice of attempting to minimise one’s possessions. Minimalism, and its popularity, is a response to the suffocating clutter many people experience. The cost of producing many items (clothes, appliances, toys) has fallen, and marketing to consume these items has become more prevalent and sophisticated, resulting in consumption beyond individual’s needs and capacity to manage possessions. Like many cultural phenomena, it is not merely a pragmatic solution to a problem, but also manifests as a set of values and an aesthetic (of which Apple Stores are an often cited example). Some of these are potentially problematic; A New York Times opinion piece opens with “[minimalism] has become an ostentatious ritual of consumerist self-sacrifice“.
My Experience with Minimalism
I have a natural urge to collect things. I inherited a sense of scarcity from parents who have escaped times of political upheaval. I detest waste, and find it easy to see potential uses for many items that ultimately I never use (scrap pieces of paper that might be handy to put down a note, packaging that might be used to carry something else someday, old electronics that I could strip for useful parts). The result is an ever growing collection of possessions that take both physical space and organisational time.
The mental problem I have with clutter is more significant. It is upsetting to wake up, and come home, to a growing pile of physical objects that correspond to tasks left undone. Books that would be nice to read, models it would be fun to build and paint, even an ever-thicker envelope of receipts that would, if analysed, give me insight into my spending habits (how much did I spend on cheese in 2017?). As this pile grows so does my sense that I am not in control of my life; if I were, wouldn’t I be able to get all these tasks done? “Maximalist” clutter becomes the physical representation of my poor time management and lack of drive. On each passing glance over this reminder, I am made a little more anxious, and my willpower is slightly sapped. Putting off those tasks trains the terrible habit of procrastination.
Minimalism provides an escape. By ascribing to the philosophy I am forcing myself through the discomfort of casting away what I perceive to have relatively low value. Through this I rid myself of the negative emotions that come from feeling out of control, and ultimately I find more time that is more comfortable. My first experience of this minimalist joy was moving to Oxford with only a suitcase of possessions. Suddenly, without distractions and incomplete projects surrounding me, I was more free to explore my new surrounds, to step up and tackle projects like this website.
Where I take issue with minimalism, particularly at the more extreme end (e.g. Fumio Sasaki’s), is the impracticality and expense. Ultimately you are outsourcing clutter to others, for example cooking and transportation. Food is a necessity. It is more affordable and often healthier if prepared from simple ingredients bought in bulk (e.g. flour, market vegetables). It is impractical to shop for food daily, and so storing groceries, the kitchen appliances needed to cook, and utensils to serve meals, are very practical anti-minimalist behaviours. Similarly while uber and bike sharing schemes can be convenient, owning and maintaining my own bicycle is cheaper and more pleasurable to ride.
Minimalist Book Report
I was given Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki for christmas in 2017, but only set aside time to read it while flying. In five chapters it summarises the authors experience in finding minimalisim, discusses the development of the problems he feels minimalism solves, lists tips on adopting a minimalist lifestyle, gives examples of ways in which minimalism has helped the author, and concludes with some brief notes on happiness. I found the individual experiences relatable, but the historical and philosophical arguments less compelling. The many short guides in Chapter 3, “55 tips to help you say goodbye to your things, and 15 more tips for the next stage of your minimalist journey” become repetitive, but I feel there is value in explaining the same concept in a number of different ways as different readers will find some phrasings easier to digest than others. Ultimately, minimalism has clearly benefited Sasaki and helped him find a coherent identity, and as such he provides useful advice to aspiring minimalists. The mix of quoted individuals in Chapter 4 (Steve Jobs, Einstein, Lao Tzu, Tyler Durden) reveal an attempt to put minimalism on a cultural pedestal that I find unconvincing. I am left feeling minimalism is a useful tool, but a shallow philosophy.
The face of minimalism, via her Netflix series, is Marie Kondo. Sasaki talks about Kondo’s influence on minimalism in his 2015 book, pointing out that her recent fame in the English speaking world was preceded by much earlier interest in Japan. Google trends supports this chronology. On the left in red, the search trends for 近藤 麻理恵 (Marie Kondo in Japanese) peak in December 2011 and May 2015, corresponding with the release of her book and being listed in the Time 100 most influential people respectively. Search trends for her name in English peak in January, with the release of her Netflix show.
Short version: I travelled from Oxford to Sydney and back within a week. That is incredible, but sadly places huge costs on the environment.
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.
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).
Short version: Technology is amazing. Cycling can be dangerous.
Technology is amazing, and as a scientist I am very lucky to work with some of the latest, most advanced, and highest tech machines that exist. Sharing that excitement can be difficult however, as being able to measure with very high precision is not a particularly visual phenomenon. Manipulating the protein and nucleic acid building blocks of life is challenging and rewarding, but ultimately happens in drops of water that, to the naked eye, are indistinguishable to those from a mundane context.
Occasionally I have given tours of laboratories, and often I feel the equipment and materials present must be underwhelming to the visitor. The reality of science, when compared with science fiction, requires the machines we use to be simple, robust, and compatible with the rest of the lab. For example, transparent equipment with bright flashing lights is great for setting up interesting shots in a movie, but when experimental conditions need to be carefully controlled, simple refrigerator-like boxes are often the better solution.
The prevalence of powerful modern technology means that what is captivating tends to be a common phenomenon presented in an unusual context. Glowing materials can be striking (and an inaccurate representation of nuclear radiation in cinema) since most objects do not naturally emit (visible) light (at standard temperatures), but emission of light is a pretty routine phenomenon (you’re reading this on a glowing screen). In the context of the lab, a fluorescent tube or a glow stick might seem to have some high tech implication, but in an office or a disco, they are common. Similarly it is often a climactic point in a characters mastery of magical powers to lift an object with their mind, but a forklift or crane is somehow much less the substance of fantasy.
A few particularly exciting instruments I’ve had the privilege to work with:
I enjoy consumer technology, and fondly recall walking the cavernous trade show floor at CES. The sheer volume of sales of consumer devices helps to dilute the cost of design work, both in physical hardware and in virtual interfaces. The result is that the aesthetic experience of using a consumer device is often significantly better than that of a technologically more advanced scientific device. Youtubers like Lisa Gade, Marques Brownlee, and Dave Lee share the experience of the latest consumer devices, but I often feel conflicted watching such video. While fun, such content feeds into unnecessary marketing driven consumption that I is a social and environmental blight. I also find sports gadgetry a compelling source of procrastination, e.g. DcRainmaker‘s blog.
In March while cycling I was involved in a collision on the way to work. Luckily I came away with only very minor injuries. It is a useful reminder that there are risks to using the roads, and that those risks can be minimised. Three thoughts:
Have your kit in order: Wear a helmet. Large meta-studies say they help. Doctors in emergency departments have told me they help. Bicycle helmets have saved me from major head injuries at least three times. Making sure they fit is important. After damage replace them. Check that your brakes are working and work well, and practise stopping hard, especially in difficult conditions like downhill or in the wet. Wear visible clothing. You need to be seen.
Ride like you are invisible: Even when wearing high visibility clothing and using lights, it should be assumed that cars cannot see you. Even in cities where cycling is less common, drivers might only be looking out for cars and miss cyclists, something that’s particularly common when waiting to turn across traffic. Cars have a physical structure that can create blind spots. Many drivers are distracted by phones or passengers, especially when travelling at lower speeds or through slow moving traffic. Ultimately, the risks you take by assuming you will be seen by other cars can be minimised, even if it ought to be the responsibility of the drivers.
Organ Donation: If you lost your life in an accident today, I would be devastated. But a sad day is worse if someone else misses their chance to live because we didn’t submit a trivial form. Please sign up to be an organ donor: AustraliansUKUSA