I am thankful to enjoy working with really talented people. Musically gifted physicists, roboticist poets, athlete immunologists, and project managing dancers. One significant benefit of spending time with inspiring people is being close enough to see them fail. At a distance, from where we see our heroes and legends, the bar can seem impossibly high. This saps motivation: why attempt the unachievable? Seeing the daily struggle of what it takes to be great, makes it possible. Great people do not only raise the bar, they also set it within reach.
Quote I’m Pondering
“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”
In captivity, John learned, in ways that few of us ever will, the meaning of those words – how each moment, each day, each choice is a test. And John McCain passed that test – again and again and again. And that’s why, when John spoke of virtues like service, and duty, it didn’t ring hollow. They weren’t just words to him. It was a truth that he had lived, and for which he was prepared to die. It forced even the most cynical to consider what were we doing for our country, what might we risk everything for.
As the Trump coup slowly and painfully fades from the news cycle, Obama’s eulogy for John McCain is a reminder of what leadership can look like, from both sides of politics. This quote is a reminder that from positions of immense power, and crippling powerlessness, not to forget the significance of the immediate decision that is before us.
For most of my life, the United States looked to be the leading country in the world. It was an American flag that flew on the moon, Hollywood told stories from the American perspective, American soldiers protected the weak from tyranny, and American universities were home to the world’s leading researchers. I was a high school student when the election of Barack Obama on a platform of hope looked to be a rejection of a racist past. The promise to fix a broken health care system and an acknowledgement of the burden of climate change made me feel optimistic in a world of cynicism following the Iraq War and the financial crisis. I first visited the US in 2012, and was enthralled at the sense of opportunity as I lived on the energising chaos of Silicon Valley Hackerspaces. I think fondly of my time in New York and Boston in 2014, every new relationship a wonderful opportunity to learn. The mix of cultures, of passions, and the uniting desire to do something made me feel that this ought be home.
Hard Work and Sacrifice
Americans work hard. Compared with Europeans and Australasians they take fewer holidays, they work more hours. They set ambitious goals. The technological prowess of the United States is most famously demonstrated by the space program. NASA continues to be science’s most recognisable and captivating brand.
Some of the hardest work to be done in the US is mending a racially and politically fractured society. Consider the following:
Racial harmony is not going to come by us holding hands and singing Kumbaya. That understanding has to be earned, it has to be worked for, and there are sacrifices involved and I think that breaking isolation requires work and sacrifice.
Creating copy, companies, or cultures, produces imperfect products. I am grateful to have autonomy in the creative environment of a startup, but so much of what I produce is so very flawed. I seek to balance a necessary awareness of my failures with motivation to carry on in spite of them.
Quote I’m Pondering:
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.
The quote celebrates action, commitment to an attempt. It places failure above inaction, where cynically one could argue that to have tried and failed has the same outcome as not having tried at all. It is encouraging, it inspires action and the continuation of action in spite of criticism.
While I have heard “the man in the arena” quoted in several places, I found the preceding passage of the Bull Moose’s speech interesting:
Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt.
Over the last few years I have been striving to better respect and understand my emotions, and to hold myself true to worthy beliefs. This quote resonated with me as a criticism of my earlier self, with much less respect for emotion and a much more nihilistic view of belief. It is tempting in today’s political media landscape to take on that cynical view. Perhaps, philosophically, all systems of value are equally justifiable. Perhaps emotions can leave one vulnerable to irrationality and pain. One could maybe live a more comfortable life by facing it with a sneer of indifference. I would rather be marred by dust, sweat and blood, and to have dared in service of a worthy cause.
Don’t Shave the Truth
If you want to be known as honest, then not telling lies is not sufficient… don’t even shave the truth.
In a speech on accountability, it is a useful reminder that to be honest takes more than just saying true things, it is considering how a message is received, it is working to ensure that truths are not told so as to imply a lie.
Since I wrote last week about the pandemic, putting it in the context of other global health issues, the total fatalities due to COVID-19 have more than doubled, and major European economies have essentially halted. I had some awareness of the likely rate of spread, but was not anticipating how events have played out, and so count myself among those hit by “exponential whiplash”:
“a cognitive phenomenon that sars-cov-2, the virus which causes covid-19, has been provoking around the world: exponential whiplash. Knowing in principle that something may take only a few days to double in size does little to prepare you for the experience of being continually behind the ever-steepening curve such doubling creates.” The Economist
I shared on LinkedIn this week that ONI is working on research to support the fight against COVID-19 and since Wednesday my productive energy has been focused there. Like many businesses across the UK, a majority of ONI’s staff are working from home, but my skills let me keep working on new projects directly related to SARS-CoV-2. It is exciting and rewarding to be able to do so, but it is also sapping time and energy from my usual pursuits. Given that, I have only a few incomplete thoughts to share:
Things to share this week
Proximity bias It is noticeable to me that these deaths are causing so much more economic and social pressure than the deaths by the causes I listed last week. I guess it is because these deaths are more proximate to wealthy societies, which have won huge victories against infectious diseases. Combined with the panicked behaviour I note below, I feel most people demonstrate they do not find all lives are equally valuable, even though they might espouse that value.
Pandemics vs. Climate Catastrophe Something I’m thinking about: if society knew that these radical measures were necessary to prevent a much larger disaster much further away, would we be able to make the same cuts on air travel, entertainment, and consumption? Could we reinvent our way of life to prevent deaths from climate change, without anyone needing to die first?
Some people are panicking I am hearing first hand accounts of stockpiling from both Australia and the UK; supermarket shelves being emptied despite no larger issues on the supply side. A friend had toilet paper snatched out of her shopping cart. There has been a spike in gun sales in the US. It saddens me to see people act out of fear, and with so much selfishness. I wonder if it is merely a lack of understanding, or a symptom of a more fundamental social focus on individuals vs. collectives.
Some people are too relaxed I was very surprised to see stories in my twitter feed of crowds flocking to climb Mt. Snowdon and filling out beaches in Florida and Bondi. While I am feeling relaxed when it comes to my personal safety, wider compliance with public health directives such as social distancing are needed for those policies to be effective (see also vaccines).
Misleading headlines make me angry Please take care of the media you engage with. I generally feel positive about coverage from the guardian, but headlines like Australian man, 36, diagnosed with coronavirus dies in Iceland are deceptive. It is designed to grab your curiosity (or fear) about the pandemic, and clearly implies that the Australian man was killed by COVID-19. The disease is most lethal in older people, so a younger person dying is notable. But the reality brought by the third sentence is:
“While he was found to be infected with the coronavirus, it is unlikely to have been the cause of his death,” epidemiologist Dr Thorolfur Gudnason,
I.e. an accurate headline is “Australian man, 36, dies in Iceland of unknown causes whilst infected with coronavirus”. This is a problem; in a media saturated landscape many will scroll past the headline in a feed, and it will add to anxiety needlessly.
Harvard Medical Students COVID-19 Curriculum A friend passed on this resource, which I think provides a good balance of brevity and comprehensiveness on the disease.
It was another exciting (but confidential) week at ONI. Evenings included a little live music, training, reading, and trying out the game Terraforming Mars. The increase in daylight going into spring is improving my mood, and conversation continues to be dominated by COVID-19.
Honeywell, as a google image search will suggest, are mostly known for making safety equipment and thermostats. As a chemist, I also am familiar with buying Honeywell research chemicals. In this paper they have revealed that they are also developing quantum computing. While a huge conglomerate like Honeywell doesn’t need its various business units to be aligned, there is a (tenuous) link between thermostats and quantum computing. The delicate states of the ytterbium ions that hold the quantum information require ultra low temperatures, in this case -260.5°C at the trap.
New Zealand has a unique wildlife, including a historic lack of mammals, and subsequent flourishing of bird life. On the arrival of mammals (including us humans) bird life that had existed without predators suffered, but this recent paper shows that is not entirely due to lack of intelligence in birds.
Rockets are expensive, and not just the kind that will get us to Mars. “Israel, for example, routinely expends $50,000 interceptors on home-made rockets that cost about $1,000“. The solution to this? Lasers.
In short, consider this split of votes: White chocolate party – 14% Milk chocolate party – 29% Dark chocolate party – 26% No chocolate party – 31%
Most people want some chocolate, but because those groups are fairly evenly split between Milk and Dark, with a small group of white chocolate supporters, the 31% minority of anti-chocolate voters has the largest vote share and wins. This voting system is sometimes called “Winner takes all”, which is accurate.
Ultimately, the problem I have been thinking on and made little progress with is that these “rules of the game” are relatively insignificant compared with the more general problem of communication, education, and achieving consensus about how we ought live our lives and structure our societies. Big problems, like climate change, public health, and violence, require broad participation more than the selection of specific policy makers. Whilst I would support electoral reform, it is more important to understand why people make individual decisions against their own interests.
This week I was part of a volunteer group that got together to discuss what we could do to help solve local homelessness. The discussions we had with people who live on the the streets and paths of Oxford mirrored those from the related episode of “You can’t ask that“, with the main difference being most of the homeless community in Oxford were not as interested in talking. Those similarities included a diversity of reasons for being on the street, but a sadly common experience with violence.
It was humbling to be reminded how fortunate I am to have my physical and mental health, my friends, and my ability to work. I do not think it is healthy to compare struggles with those of others, but I do think it is right to appreciate the small things that can so easily be taken for granted. Clean socks, being able and willing to clean my teeth regularly, and a stove to cook on, would not usually be exciting in a world of technological marvels, but they are wonderful to have and painful to go without.
Illusion of the Year
The illusion of the year was awarded to the Dual Axis illusion. The multiple interpretations highlight how our vision is fundamentally two dimensional, and the construction of a third spatial dimension from this information can be ambiguous. Ultimately I feel this is the problem with the uptake of virtual reality headsets, that the apparent increase in dimensional space is minor since we really only perceive in two dimensions anyway. Another observation here is that if we were truly aware of 3D, untangling knots would be as simple as solving two dimensional mazes, but we are easily confused by string passing over and under itself.
Short version: Some thoughts around the topic of conspiracy theories.
Two reasons to engage Sometimes I go on the internet and peer into the worlds of groups I don’t agree with. Conspiracy theorists are one such group. A positive reason to read conspiracy theories is the logical and rhetorical exercise; training comprehension and critical thinking skills to see through fallacious logic. A negative reason is to feel a sense of superiority by mocking flawed beliefs. My experience is a mix of the two.
The internet The internet has been a powerful tool for allowing people to find others with similar interests. Previously the rarer an interest, the less likely an idnividual would be to find others who shared that interest, no matter how passionate they were. Now a small number of sufficiently enthusiastic people can build wikis, forums, and social media presences to connect and commune. Whilst this is wonderful for achieving plurality of interests, it can also result in a harmful echo chamber. Mixed with the serious support communities and trivial meme pages are hate groups and trouble makers.
Why I think people care The value conspiracy theories provide their believers is that (1) they provide a compelling narrative to explain something difficult to contemplate and (2) that people have a natural excitement about and fixation on secrets. 1. Conspiracy theories tend to centre around fear inducing events, e.g. assinations, terrorist plots, diseases. It is an uncomfortable state to not know or understand why an event came to pass, and extremely disturbing events cannot be ignored. The idea that such events are orchestrated by some powerful group (much like a deity) is compelling because it answers the “why” that cannot be silenced, in place of a much more difficult and potentially impossible journey to understand the true causes. 2. Knowing that a certain piece of information is “secret” increases its percieved value. As we approach Christmas, consider that much of the excitement of a wrapped present is the initial discovery of what it contains. People are generally much more interested in speculating about what is contained in secret documents than they are interested in reading those documents when they become public. The feeling of “being in on a secret” creates a sense of power or insight, which encourages the retention of that belief.
A useful data point I suspect conspiracy theories give a useful insight into gaps of understanding, and where areas of doubt intersect areas of intrigue. The topics that conspiracy theories center on require enough initial interest to attract attention in the first place, but also need to be sufficiently complex that there is room for compelling alternative conceptions.
How I would have liked to write this section Ideally I would have picked a few of the most popular conspiracy theories (e.g. the moon landing was faked, something about aliens, something about the illuminati) and pointed out some of the flaws. Perhaps even constructing a conspiracy theory of my own as a demonstration of how if a conclusion is taken to be true, all evidence can be warped to meet that conclusion. This would lead nicely to a comparison with generally accepted methods of hypothesis testing. Unfortuantely I did not have time to do so.
Short version: Patents reward innovators but limit the impact of new technologies. Also “patents” are the answer to the question “Why did Samsung build the only outdoor ice rink in Texas in a small town.”
What I learned reading and thinking about patents
Patents are a part of the law, which is an ever changing system. As governments create and change laws, and those laws are interpreted and tested in courts, we collectively decide how the rewards of science and technology are distributed.
There is very little that is certain or obvious about patents. Their existence is both an incentive and a barrier to innovation. They can both enrich and impoverish inventors. They can both be utterly invisible and hugely controversial.
Patent trolling was used in the US to extort businesses, which seems to have peaked around 2015, and has since declined.
Some patents provide useful and specific descriptions of technology, whilst others are deliberately broad and vague.
Biotechnology has struggled to fit into the existing patent infrastructure, particularly as the line blurs between what is an invented object and what is part of nature.
Patent Trolls: Why Samsung built an ice rink in Texas
Craig Venter’s company raced public researchers to be the first to sequence the Human Genome. You can read the story in Patrick Bradley’s paper. I found the twitter exchange below interesting, but was not able to verify or refute Venter’s claim that it was “untrue and was propaganda”. Certainly there was a race, and patents played a part, as they continue to do in biotechnology research.
BRCA1 and BRCA2
The other famous case within biotech patents is of Myriad Genetic’s patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2, two mutations related to breast cancer. Enforcing the patents meant diagnostic tests for inherited breast cancer were expensive. The debate centred on the question of whether DNA sequences could be considered a discovery or an invention, i.e. a technical question about how biotech fits within the existing patent system. Ultimately the patents were struck down. The underlying question, how much should we allow companies to profit from their research (at the expense of society, but to give incentives for more research) remains.
Intellectual Property and Piracy
Looking at patents led on to questions about copyright, trademarks, and intellectual property in general. In a world where replication of content is so trivial, and distribution technologies (i.e. the internet) are spreading so rapidly, it is unlikely legal enforcement can keep up in a meaningful way. This crash course provides some information, and I would like to return to think about the ethics of digital piracy, peer to peer sharing, and what the fairest way to regulate content could be.
A note about being connected on the internet
I find it strangely wonderful how connected the internet makes us. From a train, a coffee shop, or even my bed, I can reach out to authors and scientists, and access nearly all of the knowledge humanity has created. In researching this post, I could find out the Marshall high schools’ Samsung scholarship winners, or tweet at scientists like Craig Venter, or access patents from hundreds of years worth of inventions. It is such a powerful tool.
Other things in my life this week:
Rivers in Oxford have been rising, causing flooding around the Isis and Cherwell (see photos from the week). This excellent tracker from Anu Dudhia makes it easy to keep an eye on conditions.
Short version: Thoughts prompted by recent news about migration. Some very brief notes on nutrition and technology news.
Content warning: if you’re having a bad day, maybe skip this one:
Context Since it was revealed that the 39 people who died in a refrigerated lorry container were Vietnamese nationals attempting to illegally enter the UK, I’ve been thinking a lot about migrants. There are a number of things to unpack here, and I find it hard to tell if I am more hesitant because I lack expertise on the topic, or I find the exercise emotionally confronting.
Scale I have written about how data can be unsympathetic. Just as mass shootings are powerful examples of a larger gun violence problem, so too are the 39 dead migrants a shocking but statistically small part of a much larger issue. The missing migrant program attempts to track data, and in 2016 there were 39 fatalities every two days for the entire year. These recent deaths make up a small fraction of the 2,589 total for 2019 so far.
Emotions In some ways the idea of sneaking into the United Kingdom in a truck with 38 other people is utterly alien, and in other ways it is entirely relatable. The tension between those extremes creates some difficult emotions. I am a migrant, as are my siblings, my parents, most of my friends and colleagues. I know the desire to go to foreign lands to seek out opportunities, to live a more comfortable life, but only from a position of immense privilege where I take little risk in fulfilling those desires. Meanwhile I owe my existence to my parents who fled difficult times in the lands of their birth.
I found the following image most disturbing:
The last message from Pham Thi Tra My, 26, was sent to her family at 22:30 BST on Tuesday – two hours before the trailer arrived at the Purfleet terminal from Zeebrugge in Belgium. Her family have shared texts she sent to her parents which, translated, read: “I am really, really sorry, Mum and Dad, my trip to a foreign land has failed. “I am dying, I can’t breathe. I love you very much Mum and Dad. I am sorry, Mother.”
Pham Thi Tra had a smartphone, just like mine or yours. A piece of technology that could connect her with nearly any human on the planet. She could communicate with her parents half the world away from that refrigerated container, but could not call someone meters away to open it, to save her life and the lives of her fellow travellers. In a globally connected world she could trivially access so much information, and she decided the dangerous journey to the UK was worth the risk.
Justice I am conflicted. Laws restricting migration that mean desperate people risk their lives to cross borders in such dangerous ways. These laws seem to exist to protect my quality of life and privilege at the expense of opportunities for others. I believe human beings should be of equal value be they born in Hanoi or Hobart, but the harsh economic reality is they are not. It seems unjust that laws exist to prevent them from pursuing the same quality of life, however if I were given the opportunity to open all borders around the world, I would hesitate. I do not know what such a world would look like, for example people might rush towards centers of wealth only to be crushed by competition with one another for those opportunities.
Some other unstructured thoughts about migrants:
Language: The words we use around migration is not trivial. We tend to call wealthy migrants expats, (short for expatriate), compared to the derogatory connotations of “immigrant”. In Australia “asylum seekers” are often connected to “boat people“, perhaps in comparison to aeroplane people?
Google Buys Fitbit The press release from Fitbit. Engadget article. DCRainmaker blog post. 2 billion dollars is a lot of money, but it is substantially less than the peak of Fitbit at nearly 10 Billion shortly after its IPO (see chart below). It doesn’t feel that long ago that Fitbit acquired Pebble, a maker of e-ink smart watches and a rarely successful kickstarter project.