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.
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.
This week, in several situations, I ran out of time. By not setting end times for experiments, training sessions, or social occasions, I find myself realising on reflection that I regularly continue longer than would have been optimal. Of course the future is unknown, but making an estimate of how much time I ought to spend before I start, and then evaluating the situation once that time has elapsed, should help me to fit more into each day. This week’s longer post on productivity is highly relevant.
Things I wrote this week
I finished a set of thoughts on how to get more life into the fixed amount of time each day, i.e. productivity. Eventually I’ll reorganise the homepage of this website to have pages dedicated to a few significant topics, and I suspect productivity will be one of them.
Things to share this week
Atmospheric Optics collates visual phenomena that occur due to the spontaneous formation of optical systems in the sky, a common example being rainbows. Thinking about ice halos reminds me of X-ray crystallography, perhaps the most famous example being Photo 51.
Artist Simon Weckert walked around with a cart full of smartphones to trick google maps into plotting non-existent traffic jams. Whilst I find google maps traffic useful on the rare occasions when I drive, I find the “performance” of having a bright red cart full of smartphones intruding into live updating maps a cute reminder of the difference between reality and abstractions.
I want to get more done. I constantly have unfinished to-do lists and projects I would like to take on, if only I had more time. Rather than simply aspiring to have more time (e.g. by living longer), it is equally valuable to do more living in the time I have. I see increasing productivity as converting time I feel is wasted into time I feel is useful, by either decreasing the time useful tasks take or removing tasks that are not useful. This post is a collection of things I have found to help with this, and areas where I am seeking to improve.
Things that I think work
If I am mentally or physically unwell, my productivity rapidly decreases. Keep health as a priority. Assess it regularly, and take time to eat well, exercise, and sleep. Follow good hygiene practices. When ill, make recovery the single highest priority.
Increasing productivity and focus first require that you actually start doing something productive. Whatever that is, learning, training, meeting people, or something else, I often find myself hesitating to start. Fears of failure may be reasonable or unreasonable, but not starting at all makes failure a certainty. Of course some projects are more risky; the costs are higher, the harms can be bigger, but generally the first few steps don’t require such a big commitment, and having started I will be in a better place to assess what can be done. Simply put, just start.
Solve what you need to do, not what is easy to do
Focus on what is important, and do not be distracted by what is easy. I think most people are familiar with a time when, rather than write a difficult essay, or make a difficult phone call, suddenly they were inspired to reorganise their desk or tidy their house (Tim Urban goes more into procrastination in this TED talk). I’ve lately been thinking about it in terms of the diagram above; trying to focus my attention away from the easy but unproductive tasks and towards harder but more useful tasks. A related concept comes from an anecdote about Warren Buffett advising Mike Flint about goal setting.
Example – Science Easy Productive: Setting up experiment Hard Productive: Interpreting experimental results Easy Unproductive: Selecting nice colours for charts and plots Hard Unproductive: Writing new spreadsheet software
Example – Writing Easy Productive: Choosing a topic to write about Hard Productive: Actually writing about the topic Easy Unproductive: Selecting fonts, organising stationary Hard Unproductive: Writing in an unknown language
Example – Fitness Easy Productive: Signing up for a gym membership Hard Productive: Actually using the gym membership Easy Unproductive: Watching YouTube videos about how to exercise Hard Unproductive: Making YouTube videos about how to exercise
Use technology effectively
Tim Ferris shared this article about how to use your iPhone productively. I was a little underwhelmed by the focus on apps and content to consume, rather than actual phone tweaks that help avoid distractions. Smart phones are powerful devices that can be highly detrimental for productivity. While I am certainly more productive with a suite of tools in my pocket at all times, I can also be distracted by the similarly immense collection of toys. Armies of clever people work to increase the amount of time users spend in their app or on their website, and they are often successful. Some things I have found useful:
Make your phone binary. Either it is a “toy” used for relaxation and entertainment or it is a “tool” to help you work more effectively. If it is a toy you don’t need it with you when you are working. If it is a tool then don’t install games or use it to browse content where the main purpose is to be entertained.
Put your phone in black and white. Screen technology creates images more vivid, and therefore more captivating, than reality. For the majority of useful functions, a phone doesn’t need a colour screen. Putting it in black and white makes it less attention grabbing.
Do one task at a time. Build a habit of telling yourself what task you are picking up your phone to perform, performing it, and putting the phone away again. Sending that text message doesn’t need to lead to browsing Instagram. Checking the bus timetable doesn’t need to lead to reading a news article.
Turn your phone off. When you don’t need your phone, turn it off. Notice how often you pick it up and stare at a blank screen, and put it back into your pocket. If what you need to do isn’t worth waiting a few seconds for the phone to start up, it probably isn’t worth doing at all.
Time spent checking social media is not particularly useful, but time spent looking at your own content is especially not useful. I learned that in the early days of LinkedIn, 25-35% of clicks were people looking at their own profile. The speculated reason for this, with some evidence, is vanity. I can certainly feel the urge to check posts for likes, retweets, kudos, etc. It is validating to have people consume your content and approve it. It is also not worth checking repeatedly. The few minutes many times a day adds up to a meaningful amount, the interruption disrupts flow, and the emotions (envy, insecurity, and even the validation from being “liked”) are broadly negative.
Multitasking in some situations can boost productivity, and in others just slow things down. Learn what tasks go well together for you, and which ones shouldn’t go together. I am sure this varies significantly
An example of good multitasking: Listening to the news while doing steady state exercising. Not every training session should be hard, often I have less intense, putting-in-the-miles work outs. This is a great time to catch up on news.
An example of bad multitasking: Listening to music while writing. I enjoy it, but changes in songs, and particularly interesting lyrics, tend more often to disrupt my train of thought than to drown out distractions.
Define “possible” honestly
Motivation matters. Setting the bar too high for what level of productivity I want to achieve, or putting too many things on a to-do list, leads to failure, and that failure can sap away confidence and motivation to do more. Be realistic with what can be achieved, keep the ego in check, and when things become overwhelming take time to pause, cut back, and start again with a lighter load.
Things I haven’t worked out
Consume content carefully
I read slowly, and I suspect inefficiently. There is so much content being produced at such an incredible rate, I find myself “tab hoarding”, filling hard drives with PDFs, trying to skim academic papers that I forget immediately, and buying books faster than I finish them. I think the problem is needing to be selective, and to learn to not be “completionist” in my reading, but rather focus on finding things that sit comfortably in my Zone of Proximal Development, and skipping things in a text that I already know, or are well beyond my grasp.
Keep in touch
I am still not good at keeping in touch with friends. I lose time I could be using to catch up with them (via a plethora of communication platforms) fretting about how much I have failed to meet my own expectations on frequency of correspondence. I suppose this is because I am not good at selecting which relationships I ought to prioritise, and effectively let random encounters define which people I spend time with. In not wanting to leave anyone out, I leave everyone out.
Long term goals
Finally, and most challenging to me, finding a major goal to unify my interests, my work, and my hobbies, so that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. I lack direction, and this means that many projects I begin and abandon which might not otherwise have been wastes of time, become so.
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Short version: This Black Friday weekend is a relevant time to attempt to press my thoughts on consumerism into a post. A revealing ONS data set about household spending. Also some thoughts on blogging and whales’ heart beats.
A note on structure
On top of a tangled set of thoughts about consumption, there was a lot of interesting content to read, listen to, and watch on this topic. The structure of this post suffered, and so if you’re just here to skim I suggest scroll down to the bottom and just check out Trends from the data and Whales’ Heart Beats.
I want stuff. Lots of people also want stuff. Often, if they can, they go out and buy stuff. This is a simple thought, but the many paths it leads down have been a tangle in my mind for some time. This post is an attempt to rectify the clash between the obvious value in markets and trade with the absurdity of waste (see the two videos below) in modern developed economies. This is highlighted by celebrations of consumerism that occur after Thanksgiving.
Chasers War on Waste
The true cost of fast fashion | The Economist
People want to be rich
I think it is reasonable to presume the overwhelming majority of people would like to have more money. Money provides security, safety, and freedom (and most of lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Casey Neistat points out that for a lot of people, money will solve all problems. although people with plenty of money still have problems.
This simple desire for material wealth gets complicated by how different that desire looks at different points of time. The majority of people in the developed world have access to goods and services that were restricted to only the most wealthy only decades ago. Advances in agriculture and medicine mean even the poorest citizens have access to goods like pineapples and penicillin that would have been unimaginable to emperors and kings of centuries past. This Louis CK bit makes light of changing expectations. That desire for newer and shinier at the expense of appreciation for what we already have is, in part, created by the desire for companies to grow their sales and profits. An array of narratives are pushed through advertising. A particularly disturbing yet powerful lie is that you can change who you are simply by owning something. The idea that you can be fitter/sexier/smarter by buying something, rather than by learning or growing, sells a lot of products, despite failing their buyers.
School of Life: History of Consumerism
Black Friday is a day of discounted selling by retailers following Thanksgiving Day, which is observed by shops throughout much of the world. Scenes of people rushing into stores and fighting over relatively cheaper items are symbolic of a period of significant spending by consumers as the end of the year, and particularly Christmas, approaches.
A lot of people work in retail. In Australia, it is 1.3 million, nearly 10% of the labour force. This is an enormous amount of human life dedicated to the mere act of selling things (1.8 Australian lifetimes is spent per working hour by the collective in shops, life expectancy in Australia = 82.5 years). Intuitively (and so simplistically as to be utterly inaccurate) this struck me as a waste of time, given retail exists as a middle man between producers and consumers. Of course in reality at points retailers make the entire system more efficient (for example by collecting fruit and milk in bulk and distributing it to stores in lieu of each consumer visiting a farm individually), but in practice profit incentives drive this enormous work force to motivate us all to consumer more.
One way consumption is driven is through pricing. The decision to purchase an item is in part determined by the price attached to that item. Commonly items are priced at X.99 rather than X+1, because that centipoint increase is far more psychologically significant than the additional profit. A further extreme of this is quantum pricing where fewer price points mean profit margins are obfuscated. The discounts of Black Friday create the perception that shoppers are saving money by buying things at a lower price than they would otherwise, combined with a false scarcity that this is the only time to buy. In reality most consumer goods depreciate rapidly so any future time is a better time to buy. Less scrupulous stores raise prices before the sales only to mark down to pre-sale prices. One clear sign of the power of this frenzied overconsumption is the willingness for people to take on debt to purchase luxuries. Loan Sharks take advantage of Black Friday pressures to consume.
Interesting observations from some actual data
A few weeks ago I came across the BBC series “My Money“, which takes individualsand looks attheir spending over a week. My fascination with how other people spend money stems from not having a good answer to “What is the appropriate/correct/optimal amount to spend on X”. There are intuitive answers to this, which is why spending £100 a week on cheese or £5 a quarter on electricity “feel” high and low, but that intuition is shaped by our relatively limited insight into other’s spending (likely dominated by our parents’ and partners’ habits) augmented by the media we consume, particularly the coercive forces of marketing.
I am consistently frustrated with the concept of normal. There are no “normal” people in the same way there is no way to roll 3.5 (the centre of the normal distribution for values) on a 6 sided die. This video featuring wrestler John Cena emphasises the difficulty in describing an “average” american. However discovering the UK’s Office of National Statistics collects and compiles data on household expenditure (among other things), and produces reports on the distribution of spending, provides data on where the distributions actually lie. I found exploring the data fascinating. I was particularly excited to find this data set breaking down typical weekly expenditure by item in pretty specific categories (e.g. “Cheese”, “Books”, and “Package Holidays – UK” are separate categories).
Here are some observations:
The big picture: income and expenditure
The distribution of incomes in the UK gives an insight into what households can actually afford.
The interactive graphic below gives insight into how the typical UK household spends (taken from this ONS report).
Trends from the data
A wealthier decile has more people per household.
Wealth increases steadily between the 2nd and 8th deciles, and sharply at both ends.
Overall spending trends
Spending in most product areas correlates with increasing disposable income on both a per person and per capita level.
Interesting specific spending trends
Food Poultry (strongly) and beef (weakly) correlate with increasing wealth, pork and lamb are flat across groups, and bacon and ham have a weak negative correlation.
Housing Poorer households spend proportionally much more on housing, making up 19.1 % of spending for the lower half of households, vs 11.1 % for the upper (I guess this is because of renting vs owning). This is after accounting for housing benefits to the lowest deciles.
Transport Transport spending is correlated with income, with a sharp increase in the top decile due to the purchase of new (presumably luxury) cars.
Clothes In the bottom three deciles women spend 2.5x more than than men on clothes, whereas that ratio is only 1.3x for the top decile. Only the top few deciles use drycleaning services.
Alcohol and Tobacco Spending on alcoholic drinks was correlated with income, but the trend was dominated by wine, while beer and spirits were fairly independent across the groups. Lower income deciles spent more per person on tobacco and other narcotics.
Health and Education Education (school fees) and sports subscriptions (gyms) correlated strongly with income.
Entertainment There is a hump like feature in the audio-visual equipment categories in the 6th and 7th deciles. Spending on hotels appears to have an exponential relationship with increasing disposable income.
Useful definitions from the ONS:
What is disposable income?
Disposable income is arguably the most widely used household income measure. Disposable income is the amount of money that households have available for spending and saving after direct taxes (such as Income Tax, National Insurance and Council Tax) have been accounted for. It includes earnings from employment, private pensions and investments as well as cash benefits provided by the state.
The five stages are:
1. Household members begin with income from employment, private pensions, investments and other non-government sources; this is referred to as “original income”
2. Households then receive income from cash benefits. The sum of cash benefits and original income is referred to as “gross income”.
3. Households then pay direct taxes. Direct taxes, when subtracted from gross income is referred to as “disposable income”.
4. Indirect taxes are then paid via expenditure. Disposable income minus indirect taxes is referred to as “post-tax income”.
5. Households finally receive a benefit from services (benefits in kind). Benefits in kind plus post-tax income is referred to as “final income”.
Note that at no stage are deductions made for housing costs.
Amusing group names:
While looking at consumer spending in the UK, I found the following categories that the ONS uses to divide UK residents. Some of them were incredulous to the point of being amusing.
Categories: Rural residents, Cosmopolitans, Ethnicity central, Multicultural metropolitans, Urbanites, Suburbanites, Constrained city dwellers, Hard-pressed living
Sub-categories: Farming Communities, Rural Tenants, Ageing Rural Dwellers, Students Around Campus, Inner-City Students, Comfortable Cosmopolitans, Aspiring and Affluent, Ethnic Family Life, Endeavouring Ethnic Mix, Ethnic Dynamics, Aspirational Techies, Rented Family Living, Challenged Asian Terraces, Asian Traits, Urban Professionals and Families, Ageing Urban Living, Suburban Achievers, Semi-Detached Suburbia, Challenged Diversity, Constrained Flat Dwellers, White Communities, Ageing City Dwellers, Industrious Communities, Challenged Terraced Workers, Hard-Pressed Ageing Workers, Migration and Churn.
Personal conflict: running tech
I like running, and improving my fitness more generally, I suppose because it helps me to self actualise. One of my personal weaknesses in fighting back against the commercial marketing machine has been in running tech. As such, I found this video from the New York Times both entertaining and helpful in realising the main thing I need to run faster is not a piece of equipment, but to simply run more and faster.
December blogging reflection
Lately I’ve been posting each week on Sunday come what may. There’s a pretty wide variance in how much time goes into each post, which is not always related to the quality of each post. Some topics I have a better understanding of before I start to write. Some observations are not insightful. Some posts go out unfinished.
Ideas vary in quality. Some ideas were probably not worth writing about at all, while others are so huge they could easily fill hundreds of pages. Not every idea is a good idea, and even a good idea poorly executed is not a good result.
Some topics deserve to be revisited, edited, improved, expanded etc. But writing in this weekly format is useful. Sometimes quantity results in quality. If I maintained a high expectation for each blog post I would write less, and my writing would not improve. Moreover in trying to write each week I am motivating myself to learn. I do hope to better organise myself in the next block of blogging (i.e. next year’s posts) to segregate space for tackling bigger topics less frequently, with a less structured more regular section.
As I was writing this post I received Peter Attia’s weekly email, describing his struggles with writing. It was extremely motivating to read words that felt so familiar they could have been my own. I would not wish insecurities on anyone, but it is deeply reassuring to be reminded those feelings are normal.
While on the topic of other writers; blogs I’d like to share: Econometrics By Simulation: interesting applications of statistical software. Beau Miles: Came across some of his films, the first content in a while to make me really miss Australia. Describes himself as “Award winning filmmaker, poly-jobist, speaker, writer, odd.”
Whales’ heart beats
A wonderful aspect of having scientists as friends is that they share exciting science with you that you would otherwise miss. One example is this paper about how the heart rate of blue whales changes as they dive for food. Their enormous hearts beat as slowly as two times per minute and as quickly as 37, which is about as fast as is physically possible. It also contains this informative figure, which I feel tells the story clearly and succinctly.
Short version: A few big things to talk about; nuclear war, bribes, engineered environments, mistakes, and courses.
In Oxford I enjoy meeting people passionate about studies I might not have otherwise ever considered. This week I was introduced to ALLFED, a group who spend their time working out how to feed the population who survive a nuclear war. In the current political climate it can be both frightening and paralysing to think the fate of billions rests on the whim of a few individuals. Knowing some out there are trying to be prepared give me confidence that humanity can survive its own incredible destructive power. This work fits under the umbrella of Effective Altruism, which is persuasive (I have a few friends who are strong proponents) but also complex.
There is a common understanding that bribery is wrong, but it is not immediately obvious why. The answer I seem to find is that the central issue of bribery is when a person is able to take an advantage for themselves (the bribe) in exchange for acting against the external interests they represent (e.g. the university in the case of a college admissions administrator). Some examples:
This year a scandal broke regarding admissions to US colleges, where coaches were bribed to select students without athletic ability on an athletic basis. At face value the harm here appears to be a violation of meritocratic principles; students ought be selected on their talent rather than the wealth of their parents. In fact generally wealthy parents are able to have their students attend top universities despite their academic or sporting ability, via large donations to universities. The wrong here comes from the coaches personally profiting from the student’s admission, rather than the university itself.
People have managed to make some incredible changes to their environment. This week The Wave opened in England, an artificial lake that generates artificial waves so that people can surf. There is also warm weather skiing on plastic and the more extreme indoor ski slope cooled to negative temperatures in hot Dubai. The football world cup will required air conditioned stadiums. All this gives hope that technology can repair the damage we are doing from burning fossil fuels, but also these feats of engineering require enormous amounts of energy themselves.
Depending on your familiarity with logarithms, this may either appear indecipherable or trivial. I particularly remember encountering logs around the age of 15, and it being the point in my mathematical learning where maths stopped being intuitive. It was confronting to not find the subject easy. Unfortunately I couldn’t see or be shown how pushing past that initial discomfort would lead to valuable personal growth, and I moved away from mathematics to subjects I “felt I was better at”. I think the feeling of being overwhelmed, of being stuck, drives many people away from opportunities to grow and empower themselves, and it is a feeling I am still striving to become more comfortable with.
Short version: I ate an apple, which got me thinking about climate change. I’ve also been talking about mental health. Purdue went bust. Not every article with 300 citations is novel.
Climate Economics: Food Miles
I was eating an apple, here in Oxford, and discovered from the oft mocked apple sticker that it had been grown in an orchard in New Zealand (on the other side of the planet). This struck me as a problem; surely the fuel in transporting food around the world is an externality contributing to climate change. I wanted to know the specific quantity of fuel burned to make this possible, and found this study from New Zealand university Lincoln that claims there is a smaller climate impact from consuming New Zealand apples in the UK compared with local ones. I am sceptical, and will hope to follow up on this in a later post, but the data is summarised in table 7.3 on page 72. Summarising and converting the units to equivalent millilitres of Diesel burned we get:
Equivalent Fuel Burned (diesel in mL) per apple (assume 100 g) for:
Direct energy consumption at orchard
“Chemicals” e.g. fertiliser pesticides
Shipping (NZ) and “Cold storage” (UK)
So New Zealand is much more efficient at producing apples (about 5x less energy per apple is needed at the orchard), which largely corresponds to better yield per area of land (at 50 tonnes vs 14 tonnes of produce per hectare in New Zealand and the UK respectively), but also is due to better use of renewable electricity generation in NZ (particularly hydroelectric, wiki links to UK and NZ). This energy difference is almost entirely closed by the fuel used in shipping, but the use of “cold storage” of apples in the UK emits a further 44.8 mL equivalent diesel burned.
In short, the study suggests that fresh apples in the UK cause the same emissions per apple as New Zealand apples shipped to the UK, but if the apples are kept in refrigerated storage then the UK apples have a worse impact on the climate.
One notable thing from this exercise is that when you buy a 20p apple at Tesco, you are also paying for about 15p of diesel that was burned to get it from the tree to you.
This week’s Economist cover is a graphic that describes the warming climate. Meanwhile this photo article from the Guardian (also this week) hit me emotionally. The climate is changing, and the effects are disturbing. Currently my approach is very ivory tower: observing and considering, but not actively campaigning. I have friends who are much more active in Green Political Parties and movements like Extinction Rebellion. I think it may be time to explore similar options. I could blog each week about climate change in an attempt to raise awareness, but I would be very surprised if any of my readers were unaware of the issues?
Last week my friend Jessy shared some insight from her time answering a crisis hotline (read on facebook or linkedin). At work we now have staff trained in mental health first aid. It is good to see mental health issues lose their stigma, even if it is a gradual process. I thought someone might find things I do to maintain good mental health useful.
Mental Health Tool kit (or “Things I do that I think help me mentally”) Have a plan: Be enrolled in a health care program, have a GP, speak to them about mental health. Know services in your area. Have hotlines in your contact list. (If you broke your leg or developed an odd growth you would know what to do, what if you broke your mind or developed an odd pattern of thoughts?) Reflect: Write things down to get them out of your head. Write a couple words about how you feel each day somewhere. Notice if something keeps coming back. Even just putting information somewhere else helps me relax that I won’t forget it, so I can let it go even briefly. Exercise: Match the mental stress with physical stress, release endorphins. “Get out of your mind by getting into your body”. Do something that makes you sweat for 10 minutes. Endorphins make you feel better. Matching the physical stress to your mental stress helps align how you feel. If you are physically worn out, you will sleep. Sleep: Get good sleep. Put distractions far away. Passing out from alcohol is not sleep. Eat Clean: Sugary oily foods (fast foods) taste great but make you feel terrible. You also know that they are bad for you so you feel guilty. Eating well makes you feel better. Control: Organise your room. Go somewhere you want to (ideally under your own power like walking or cycling). You have so much freedom and power. Remind yourself of this by using it. Breathe: Slow your breathing. Count four on the way in, hold for four, count four on the way out, hold for four, repeat until you don’t remember how long you’ve been trying this. Mindfulness: Take some time to practice mindfulness (this is a skill that I can’t explain in a couple sentences, but I’d recommend trying the free sessions on Headspace). Unplug: Go offline. You don’t need technology to survive. Switch off. Leave smart devices behind. Even leave your watch behind to lose track of time. Just be.
On Monday Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy. Opiates are incredibly useful and powerful drugs, but are also addictive. The US over prescribed them, peaking at 81.2 prescriptions per 100 persons in 2010-2012. Those prescriptions and subsequent addictions and addiction related deaths are linked to the marketing of OxyContin in many lawsuits against Purdue Pharma. For a humorous take on a dire situation, see John Oliver (April 2019).
Quirks of Academia
A high school student in Australia recently published in a mathematics journal, and it made the news. I have read some slightly bitter comments along the lines of “so what”. There is a lot of pressure inside academia to publish papers (a metric of performance) and seeing a relatively simple result gain media coverage can inspire envy.
Short version: This week I returned to studying, worked some long hours, and had my usual running routes blocked by some very wealthy children.
Taking Notes on Laptop vs Paper
I started a molecular biologyMOOC. The beginning of the course suggested note taking on paper is more effective, and cited this study. It was persuasive, but I will continue to mostly work digitally. I justify this by the ease of carrying, organising, and searching digital notes being more convenient than paper systems. This reminds me of the observation that smart-phone-toting-always-online-humans are effectively cyborgs, with tremendous capabilities for memory, problem solving, and long distance communication. That said, I do find scrap paper to sketch diagrams very helpful in the initial learning.
This week I performed some long experiments, and was complimented by colleagues on being able to sustain energy and remain positive throughout. On reflection I think maintaining good physical health (via exercise and diet) plays a significant part. Avoiding insulin spikes from binging sugar helps, even though appetite will increase during the small hours from sleep deprivation. Knowing how long you need to keep going and spacing caffeinated drinks across that time helps too. Importantly I have learned that some sleep is better than none. To prevent a heavy workload from becoming impossible; minimise unnecessary tasks and focus on completing only what is needed, then recovering (sleeping). Finally it is important to account for a diminished capacity when planning. As you tire speed of work decreases and rate of mistakes increases. Thankfully I am part of a very dedicated and supportive team, and so we are able to work together to ensure the experiments run to plan.
Flood of Children
The University of Oxford has prestige which, beyond the university itself, is used by businesses to create demand and profit. Tutoring school aged students is such a business. Summer programs run by groups unaffiliated with the university (but often using holiday vacated undergraduate accommodation) bring hundreds of teenagers to Oxford for courses costing thousands of pounds. The associated walking tours lead to pedestrian congestion as the children are shepherded around the city center (pictured below).
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.
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: Life is full of metrics, and applying optimisation is useful, but be mindful of why not merely the how. Rowing is big in Oxford.
I can be a little obsessive about optimisation. I think it comes from doing a lot of mathematics. In the upcoming book The Metric Society, Steffen Mau describes a world where increasingly scores can be assigned to all aspects of life. I would guess the most common metrics people are concerned with are their bank balance and their weight, usually trying to maximise one and minimise the other. In everyday life I often find myself crunching numbers at the supermarket, aspiring to shave seconds off my running pace, cramming one extra experimental condition into the day. Is optimisation ultimately worth aspiring to? I’ve been reminded by friends this week that life isn’t always an optimisation problem. Optimisation can help me get faster, or spend more time at an art gallery, but it can’t tell me which one would make me happier, or is a more worthy way to spend time. I think it is important that I remember the ever growing pool of metrics are tools, rather than ends in themselves. More on this another week.
Rowing: Torpids 2019
This week the Isis in Oxford has been busy with the shouts and splashing of students rowing races. Oxford is relatively famous for its rowing. The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge along the Thames attracted between 250,000 and 400,000 spectators in 2017. However unlike that race, or in Olympic rowing, the boats in this week’s races (known as Torpids) do not compete in parallel, but rather line up in sequence and chase one another.
Introduction to bumps racing: Oxford is made up of many colleges which compete in, amongst other things, rowing. Since the main river through Oxford is narrow, and the race is contested by many boats (73 men’s boats and 61 women’s boats this week), it is not possible to race side by side. Instead they compete in divisions of 12 boats (13 boats per race including the top boat of the next lower division), with each boat starting simultaneously but separated by intervals of 130 feet. The aim of the first boat is to finish the course without being “bumped” by a boat further down the sequence, whilst all other boats are aiming to catch the next boat ahead. In Torpids specifically, once you “bump” (by overtaking, making physical contact, or the boat in front conceding) you leave the race, whilst the boat that has been bumped carries on. This protects the boat that achieved a bump from then being bumped in that race, even if the boat immediately behind would have eventually (or imminently) caught it. How this plays out is that in each race a boat usually only maintains its rank (known as rowing over), moves up one position (bumping), or moves down one position (is bumped), and so only the top four seeded boats meaningfully contest the position of top ranked boat (known as “head of the river”). Getting a bump on each of the four days is nearly always the best performance a crew can hope for, and is rewarded by “blades” (oars decorated with the names of the crew) being earned. Since a boat that has been bumped carries on rowing, it is possible to be bumped multiple times, and this is reflected in some pretty significant drops (e.g. Pembroke 2nd boat falling 8 places on the last day of racing). Further complicating the results calculations is that a boat that is bumped can continue on to bump, which is the only circumstance where a boat can gain multiple places. This creates the incredibly unlikely possibility that a boat can rise from the bottom of it’s division (the 13th boat) to the top (1st) in one race: only achieved by each boat bumping the one in front in the specific sequence of reverse order; 13 bumping 12, 12 bumping 11, and so on until having been bumped by 3, 2 then bumps 1. This would result in the boats then being ordered in reverse order to their starting order. Assuming then performances consistent with that first race, all boats would then proceed to row over (finish the course without being bumped). Notably this system of racing strongly encourages starting as hard as possible to catch the boat in front as early as possible.
Notable Performances of Torpids 2019: Teddy Hall Men’s 1st boat were the highest seeded crew to get blades, gaining four places in Division 1, whilst GTC Women’s 1st boat also got blades in division 1, with an even more impressive 5 places gain. Brasenose Men’s 1st boat gained the most places on their path to blades at 7, while Hertford Men’s 2nd boat had the biggest fall of an impressive 14 places.