2019 Week 2: Habits and Goals

Short version: Building good habits makes good behaviours easier. Australians find their history confronting. Green Tea seems to be good for you. Birds have social media in Sydney.

Long version:

Habits, Mindfulness, and Technology.

At the start of 2018 I wrote “In short: learn,  improve my routine, write more.” I’ve noticed on returning to work this year that habits which felt like hard work at the start of last year are coming much more easily. Building a good routine gradually, consistently, and trying to avoid self-flagellation when I failed, has yeilded bigger benefits than I anticipated. This has been most easily observed around physical and mental health, where I’m getting up ealier, feeling more energetic through the day, and getting more exercise in.

On the other side is a reminder how powerful bad habits are. In a vlog this week John Green spoke about discovering just how often he types reddit into a browser when he quit social media. I think handling technology that is driven by so many smart people working to grab more of our attention to sell more advertising, is hard. One way I’m going to work to improve my relationship with tech this year is to make sure I have a purpose each time I interact with it. The aim is see it and use it as a tool, rather than be guided by it to burn time.

Australian History: “Slavery by Other Means”

My friend Seb wrote two articles on Pacific Islander Labour in 19th and early 20th Century Australia. My intial response to this brutal chapter of Austalian history was to attempt to trivialise it. Thoughts like “not as bad as other slavery”, “life was harsh for everyone back then”, and “life as a labourer wouldn’t have been that bad”. I would guess these are responses to shield myself from feeling, be it empathy or disgust or guilt or simply sadness. I’m not sure if an emotional engagement with history is preferable to a clinical intellectualism, but I do think the tendancy to avoid discomfort in historical interest is harmful. The extemes are feeling so strongly we are paralysed or act irresponsibly vs being callous to injustices, but the best place to sit between the extremes is not clear to me. I think both the article and the general principle are worth consideration.

Green Tea

It seems like drinking Green Tea is pretty good for you. I think all nutritional science suffers from difficulties collecting accurate data from inherently unreliable test subjects, but a quick search of google scholar seems to come up with a compelling set of results. I’m convinced enough to be swapping out some of my coffees for the world’s most popular brew.

Social Media for Birds (and Science)

Picture of the week is an Australian white ibis or Bin Chicken. Noticable is the yellow tag, which lets you know his name is Wazza. You can help him (and research) out by posting on social media for wing tagged birds.

Writing from home.


2019 Week 1: New Year

New Year’s Review and Resolutions:
2018 was a good year. Survived an intense year at ONI, ran a sub 90 half marathon, built good habits around personal reflection.
2019 I hope I’ll be better at keeping in touch with friends, prioritise tasks more effectively, and be more active in choosing what media to consume.

Blogging:
Last year I managed 11 posts out of 52 weeks for a 21% success rate. This year I hope to do a little better by being happier with shorter posts rather than posting nothing at all (e.g. this one).

Some Travel Photos:

2018 Week 26: Going beyond your ashtray

The short version:
I am too concerned with being seen as intelligent. I am actively choosing to care less about that. I’m back to blogging. Life is good.

The long version:

What do you really want?
Recently I was a visited by a former supervisor who was effective in calling me out on my self delusions. I worry too much about being seen as clever. I’m aware that this has caused me problems in the past, but in the present I am swayed by the short term pleasure of validation and sense of security I gain from feeling I’ve convinced others of my cleverness. Ultimately this is a futile and deeply wasteful aim. My supervisor reminded me, somewhat in the style of Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try”, that unless I commit to the choice to do something differently, I won’t change. I need to choose to stop caring if people think I’m clever or not. This is difficult for several reasons, 1. it is a deeply ingrained habit, 2. being seen to be clever seems to be important for being valued by an organisation, 3. it is part of my identity. I could replace it with an alternative value, being diligent, or capable. Preferably I would replace the concern with others opinion entirely with a drive towards a greater good, hence the question posed above. As far as I have been able to see through reflection, I am where I am today because of curiosity, competitiveness, and the need to be seen by others as clever. Removing the last of those leaves a gap that needs to be filled, and until a more specific goal materialises, I will roughly pencil in “make a good and meaningful contribution to the world”.

The eponymous ashtray refers to one sitting between my supervisor and I as we shared a dinner at the Turf Tavern, which was used as a metaphor for one’s comfort zone. Internally I bristled a little at the idea that I was uncomfortable going outside my “ash tray”; I feel my risk appetite is fairly high, and that I’m very willing to try new things. He was right though: I may be willing to travel to new places, or to try new foods, to meet new people, but having done those things before they were now within my ash tray. But ceasing my attempts to be seen a certain way was outside. He reminded me that you can always come back to your ash tray, and that is true too, making this choice now does not mean, if it turns out to have been the wrong one, I can never come back. The symbolism had the added benefit of making one’s comfort zone seem like an unhealthy and unpleasant place to stay.

It is difficult to fight our nature. We are social creatures, and to be ostracised by your community is a terrible, and much feared, fate. But vanity and narcissism, whether aesthetic or intellectual, are not the right paths to being included in a community. Respect and empathy are much more valuable both to oneself but also to the community as a whole. To this end, concerning yourself with projecting or accentuating certain aspects of yourself is actually counter-productive: its subtle dishonesty belies a lack of respect for one’s peers. Ultimately, as with most things, it is much easier to say these things than put them into practice.

Blogging:
This post comes approximately halfway through the year, and leaves a gap of approximately 18 weeks. It has been slightly painful to return to, or even think about, that delay as it has grown. As discussed above, I have a problem with being overly concerned about how people see me, and I would like to be seen as punctual, disciplined, consistent, and at the very least capable of maintaining a weekly blog. Unfortunately that is clearly not the case here, but at a certain point I ought to have given up on posting weekly in favour of the main aim of posting at all, which I enjoy. Further complicating this is that a blog is public one way communication; a tool of projecting (presumably desirable) aspects of oneself.

Structurally, I don’t want to let go of the weekly update structure, although it would put less pressure on weeks where time is in short supply. I’m going to experiment a little with creating more categories.

Music:

I’m writing from a train between Birmingham and Oxford. I’m very fortunate to have a sister early in her career as a musician, as it compels me to attend concerts I would otherwise have likely ignored. (You can hear her, and the rest of the orchestra, here.) I do enjoy them, and am learning that even though there is complexity to the pieces (and art more generally), my enjoyment of them need not be complex. I regret I don’t prioritise being better educated in music, but I believe that we ought not let the inability to engage in something fully prevent us from engaging at all, most obviously because we would not otherwise be able to try anything new!

Life Updates:

Science:
I’m approaching the end of the first 6 months with ONI, and it has been an exciting, exhilarating, and exhausting experience. I am very lucky to be surrounded by interesting, intelligent, and most of all inspiring colleagues. Each day I feel I am growing both professionally and personally, and as such I suspect I am currently in the best place I could possibly be.

Health and Fitness:
Planning to run the Blenheim Palace and Oxford half marathons later this year, with a stretch goal time of under 90 minutes and a likely goal time of under 100 minutes. If I am able to dedicate myself to a training program 90 minutes might be achievable, but with running not being my highest priority the required training may be sacrificed in favour of professional and social commitments.

A happy thought about time:
I am coming to a happy place on the fact that I will always have more things I’d like to do in any given block of time than I can. I should not look sadly on all the things I let go or miss out on, but instead treasure the things I choose to do. This should help avoid escapist behaviours and that waste these precious moments.

2018 Week 8: Science Blogging

Week in Summary
I was sick this week, the international presence in Oxford is wonderful for diversity of both ideas and rhinoviruses. I continue to take (Latin) dance classes, at the novice level it still feels (and no doubt looks) a little silly, but there is fun to be had in silliness.  On Saturday I saw the Oxford Imps perform Improvised Cabaret at Modern Art Oxford. It was also a little silly, and it was certainly fun in its silliness. Life can sometimes be a little too serious, particularly in rigorous research, and they say laughter is good for the soul. On Sunday over brunch I learnt about container ships and efforts to commodify them.

Science Blogging
Further inspiration to keep on blogging came recently from Nature, and highlighted a couple of great blogs: DoctorAl (a biologist at Wilfrid Laurier University) and Scientist Sees Squirrel (an ecologist at University of New Brunswick). Another scientist to cross my news feed is the incredibly inspirational  Dr Emma Pooley.

Reading List
One of my goals for 2018 is to read 24 books. At that rate I ought to have finished four by now, however I have yet to finish even one. Instead I’ve been consuming: Instant MessagesReddit, Forums, Academic PapersWikipedia, The Economist, and occasionally The New York Times (thanks to a free subscription courtesy of the google local guides program).

Currently the books on my desk are:

  • Clark, D. (2016). Alibaba: the house that Jack Ma built. HarperCollins.
  • Sasaki, F. (2015)  Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism Penguin
  • Thiel, P. A. & Masters, B. (2014). Zero to one: notes on startups, or how to build the future. Crown Pub.
  • Vance, A. (2017). Elon Musk. Editions Eyrolles.
  • Stone, B. (2013). The everything store: Jeff Bezos and the age of Amazon. Random House.

Delays


This post comes several weeks late. I was a little ill the actual week of this blog, and predominantly work has cascaded into time that I would otherwise allocate to writing. As such it comprises ideas that came together in Week 8 of 2018, but actually was published on Monday of Week 12 (blog catch up week).

 

Writing from the office.

2018 Week 6: Overdue

I’ve broken a relatively short streak of regular Sunday blog posts. A (self imposed) stressful week at work and a (wonderfully) socially packed weekend left little time for personal, let alone public, reflection. Nevertheless regular writing is a habit I am trying to cultivate, hence the following:

Asking for help
The main lesson from work this past week is to ask for help. When you find you need it, delaying for fear of “looking incompetent” is foolish. Worst case you need to solve it by yourself any way, likely case you at least notify others that there may be an issue, and best case you save a lot of time and learn something in the process. The perceived hit to the ego and reputation is much smaller than the actual cost, which is likely to be paid anyway if the problem is one where you are really stuck.

Hamilton and Headphones
I was incredibly fortunate to see the the musical Hamilton in London this weekend. I had seen Lin-Manuel Miranda perform at the white house poetry jam via YouTube, and had enjoyed sharing the hip-hop meets history video with friends as an example of an unexpected combination (often alongside Beat-boxing video-game themed flute). A frightening first impression had me wishing my life, like Hamilton’s, depended on my work such that I’d be able to pursue it with more energy, but eventually it was pointed out to me that this would not be a healthy incentive. The take home messages for me are to be cautious about pride standing in the way of reason, and to consider where to draw the line on ambition. Also, experiencing narratives is valuable, as is writing more.  The next day, exploring the lyrical complexity of the Broadway recording, it struck me how incredible the advancements in technology are that make live performance the rarity rather than the mainstay of modern music. Particularly in combination with mobile internet and streaming services, that so much content was so readily accessible to me, where once no monarch let alone man would have such a repertoire at their beck and call.

Gardens and Games
The featured image for this week comes from the Oxford Botanical Garden greenhouses. Coming from a warm country, it was comforting to be amongst heat, humidity, and horticulture. I also enjoyed playing Avalon and Tsuro for the first time, Avalon reminded me a lot of Mafia and Tsuro is a more confrontational form of Snakes and Ladders.

Writing from the office

2018 Week 3: What is nano

Career
I’ve answered the “So what do you do?” question a couple times this week, and the answer I’ve been giving has been “I do research for a start-up that makes microscopes”. More specifically, they are super-resolution microscopes, the development of which won Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell, and William E. Moerner the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. If you’re feeling confident about science their lecture  is a good place to gain an understanding, and if not perhaps the next few paragraphs will help out.

Nano
There is a joke amongst academics that the difference between micro and nano is more funding. The joke plays on the prefixes we use to describe units being somewhat arbitrary. We know we could just as easily refer to 100 nm as 0.1 μm, but they don’t. If you didn’t feel part of the “we”, let me try and include you:
Intuition of scale is limited to what we experience. We can demonstrate this with a thought experiment. Imagine an object (I’ll pick apples) and it is easy to visualise the difference between one, two, and ten. Similarly slicing the imaginary apple we see that a whole, half, and tenth are increasingly smaller portions. Our imagination starts to struggle as we keep adding 0s (changing the order of magnitude) to the quantity. You might picture 100 apples as a rather large pile, but not be quite so sure what 1000 or 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 apples would look like, beyond “lots”. Similarly it becomes harder to imagine how small 0.01 or 0.001 or 0.0001 of an apple is, beyond “a speck”. Unless you are really familiar with large or small quantities of apples, your intuition, like mine, probably goes from about 1/100 (a tiny bit of apple) to 1,000 (a rather large amount of apples), or 5 orders of magnitude. We could express this with the typical metric prefixes by saying 1 centiapple to 1 kiloapple.
Generally we do better with length: a human hair has a width of about 100 micrometres (sometimes called microns, the same micro that gives us microscopes), which is 0.000100 metres. The height of the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa) is 830 metres, and we can probably push a little further: looking from the top of it the furthest we could see would be about 100,000 metres away. This translates into an intuition spanning 9 orders of magnitude, which is convenient as the prefix “nano” expresses being 9 orders of magnitude smaller than the unit length. In this example the number of hairs you could fit side-by-side along 100 km is the number of nanometres in one metre. This number is more commonly called a billion, which Neil deGrasse Tyson plays with in this video. So “nano” is just a shorthand used to quickly get us down to a very small scale. You can explore that more in these two visualisations (I highly recommend you do).
The reason that nano is so exciting is that two important processes happen on that scale, and both allow you to be reading this blog. The first is that the fundamental building block of the computer, the transistor, can be fabricated on the nanometre scale. The second is the fundamental building block of you, cells and their constituent proteins and DNA, exist on the nanometer scale. We typically measure the width of individual atoms in the unit “ångströms”, which is 0.1 nanometers, and so an understanding at the nanoscale is an understanding of physical space at the smallest scale that “structure” (as we typically mean it) make sense. Smaller than the nanometer, we enter the entirely unintutive world of quantum. So, a complete mastery over the nano-scale would translate into a mastery over biology and materials science, going well beyond what current science fiction and futurism could suggest. To work at that scale requires a way to see what is going on, and super-resolution microscopy is one such way of looking.

Lessons from Failing: Potential vs Effort
Last week I wrote a little about failing. It would be painful and unhelpful to revisit my failures every week, but I do hope sharing might prevent someone repeating the mistakes. At a minimum, by consolidating my thoughts publicly I prevent my tendency to avoid asking for help.
Working through my own failing, Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit”  was particularly helpful. A major theme is that our culture celebrates talent instead of the hard work that goes into achievement, when the effort is more significant. I suspect I was particularly vulnerable to glorifying potential (in my case I called it intelligence) because as a child I was told I was intelligent, and that became core to my identity. In turn I came to believe I shouldn’t need to work hard, because “innate” intelligence should be effortless. In fact if you hear “young Nick works really hard”, you might quietly assume focus is being drawn to effort because of a lack of talent which would be needed to achieve. It is very satisfying to think about all the opportunities talent might bring, but all the opportunities in the world are meaningless if there is no application towards any one of them.
In defeating this belief as a mathematics tutor I used the example of genetic potential for athletic feats. Often you hear children (and adults) proclaim (sadly with pride) that they are “bad at maths”. As if they somehow lack the biological machinery to do sums. The problem is they experience a false comparison, between themselves and those who have been consistently applying effort over time. It is easy to assume talent is what explains achievement when the effort is so rarely public and further hidden by being spread little by little over a long time. Compare the more intuitive idea that an obese person is not necessarily “bad at running”, but severely under-trained. They may have the genetics to set a world record, but if they turn up to the track as they are the results would suggest they are incapable of performing. Moreover if they try and perform at the level of those who turn up week in, week out, it will be a physically painful and socially humiliating experience. It is only through consistent training, gradually moving through incremental progress, that we can see underlying talent. More than that, outside of the most competitive arenas it is training rather than genetic talent that makes all the difference to performance. I feel it is also worth noting here, though it doesn’t fit quite so well, that it is setting out to make small amounts of progress and achieving it that snowballs into love of an activity. If the bar is set unattainably high, the positive reinforcement, and pleasure, from succeeding does not occur and motivation eventually collapses.
In short, in a culture where we celebrate the smartest, the fastest, or your other superlative of choice, it is important to realise that actual success in life is not about having the most potential, but it is about what you do with however much you have.

Structure
It was pointed out that this blog lacks structure and/or cohesion. At the moment the main “goal” is to create content, largely to refine my own thinking and share it with friends, family, and colleagues. To that end the unifying theme has been merely “what have I been thinking about this week”. Eventually a more meaningful structure may evolve, or I may consolidate topics spread over several weeks into a more structured format or section, but for now take it as the digital equivalent to sitting down with me over a beverage of choice and having a chat.

Writing from the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford

2017 Reflection, 2018 Plans

2017 has been a year of changes

I (finally) finished my undergraduate degree.
In February 2011 I started a Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Arts double degree, and in September 2017 I graduated with a Bachelor of Science majoring in Chemistry. The reasons a 3 year degree took me 6.5 years to complete deserve their own post, but having concluded a degree was necessary, finishing left me untethered from the University of Sydney.

I moved from Sydney to Oxford.
Sydney is where I have lived almost my entire life.  I am now far from those family and friends, living in Oxford. I have decided to minimise and anonymise the people of my personal life in this blog, but they are significant. Particularly it was one relationship that drove this move, and I am very fortunate that 6 months on it has been a change that has made me very happy. I am also lucky to have made new friends along the way.

I stopped tutoring and teaching.
Since finishing high school,  tutoring (maths and science) and coaching (debating) have been my primary sources of income. I have enjoyed it deeply as playing the expert is validating. Unfortunately investing in students requires substantial energy, and I needed to spend that focus on other career paths.

I had my first job with a public company.
For the last four months of 2017 I worked for Alere Toxicology, during which time its acquisition by Abbott was completed. My job title was “Production Scientist”, and I worked preparing consumables for the DDS2, and microplates for ELISA, testing. This temporary position is coming to a close in early 2018, and I intend to reflect more fully on it then.

I started this blog.
Writing is useful for reflection as well as communication. These posts clarify my messy thoughts about where I am and where I am going. The blog was also mentioned in a job interview in the last few days of this year, so gradually it is proving a useful tool in helping others understand who I am.

2018 Plans

In short: learn,  improve my routine, write more.

 

Writing from London

CVs and Résumés

I’ve been tinkering a little with this website, and so far it’s essentially becoming a curriculum vitae (CV). That’s probably a useful thing for potential employers to get to know me (and see that I have basic web/IT/media skills), but once I find a job that might be less useful as a front page/home page for my personal website.

Currently my actual CV is just a google doc bullet point list of various things I’ve done. As a document it could definitely be formatted better, and likely ought be tailored specifically to each role I apply for.

I thought I’d share some CV’s I’ve seen that I’ve enjoyed.

I’ve noticed in interviews so far in Oxford that interviewers will “discover” something in my CV and ask about it during the interview. This highlights the short amount of time that prospective employers will spend skimming the CV, so it’s probably sensible to cut mine down to one page, and try to better highlight the major achievements, and relevant experience. That reformat is probably this afternoon’s task (as well as doing a little re-wiring of some networking cable here)

Writing from the Oxford Hacker-space.