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How it happened.

07 March 2020 06:00PM life

"You know, I always worry about someone grabbing my bag when I sit here."

"You worry about someone grabbing your bag."



"No seriously, what?"

"It's nothing!"

"It's not nothing, you've been acting weird all evening. Is something wrong?"

"No nothing's wrong, it's fine."

"It's clearly not."

"No, it's fine, it's good, I promise."

"Just tell me."


"Seriously, just tell me."

"I have it."

"What? Coronavirus?"

"No! No, I have... it"

"I don't understand."

"The item."


"That we ordered."


"A few weeks ago?"



"Oh. OH!"

"Do you... do you want to see it?"

"Oh my god!"

"I think I should just give it to you. Here-"

"It's in a bag? Why is it in a bag?"

"You can take it out of the bag if you like."

"I... don't know if I can?"

"Do you want me to do it?"

"Yes? Maybe? I don't know!"

"I'll take it out of the bag."

"Oh my god, it's in a box. An actual box. Oh my god, sorry I wasn't expecting to have this reaction since we ordered it together but-"

"Do you want to put it on?"

"I don't think I can!"

"Do you want me to put it on for you?"


"Hold on-"

"Oh my god it's real. Sorry, I just... Oh my god. I love you."

"I love you too."

And then they gave us free prosecco.

There is no 'back'

04 March 2020 06:43PM rants

Back when I was working my first supermarket job, we had a bit of a joke.

Whenever anyone came in looking for something and asked us to 'just check out the back', we'd nod politely and duck out through the giant, flappy panels - and take a five minute break. Then we'd return, looking appropriately apologetic, and give the customer the bad news.

Because there is no back.

In most supermarkets, what you see on the shelves is what's in stock. The back is a loading dock and a skip bin, maybe a goods lift, a very beige break room and an even beiger cash office - but that's it.

It makes sense, if you think about it: why keep something out the back where you'll need to pay a staff member to bring it out on to the shelves, when you could just have everything available on display?

Bonus points - and by points, I mean dollars - if you can figure out from past buying patterns exactly how often things run out, so you can order them right as they do and not have anything sitting around any longer than it needs to be.

(You can probably see where this is going.)

This is a carefully calibrated system, and it doesn't take much to upset it. Say, for example, someone gave the very sensible advice to grab a few extra items every shop - perhaps buying two weeks supply of, say, toilet paper, instead of one. Suddenly, without anyone panic-buying anything, people are buying twice as much toilet paper. The system isn't set up to handle it, the shelves go empty, and suddenly we've got a national toilet paper crisis on our hands.

It's funny to laugh at the 'stupid preppers', but there's a reason you don't know anyone who's doing it: it's because most of us aren't. Most of us are acting pretty sensibly, and following the advice that's given to us - it's the just-in-time supply chain that's in chaos, not society.

It's interesting that our first instinct - and I include myself in this, I too have done the snarky tweets and the office kitchen eye rolling - is to blame each other at the first sign of trouble, when what we're really seeing is a crack in the smooth, seamless edifice of consumer capitalism. That might sound a bit radical, but I don't mean it that way necessarily - it's just an interesting illustration of which aspects of our society we're primed to notice, and which parts we're encouraged to let blend into the background.

Or maybe it's that making fun of 'dumb people' is funny, while realising that our way of life is predicated on the continued operation of a devastatingly complex and interlocking supply chain is scary, so we choose to pay attention to the former while ignoring the latter for our own sanity.

I guess what I'm saying is... it looks like maybe we're in for a tough time, whether that's from the virus or the economy or the climate, and whatever it is, we're in it together. Maybe cultivating a little faith in your fellow humans isn't the worst thing to do.

Living in the future

02 January 2020 07:39PM climate

It's January 2020, and it's starting to feel like the future - but probably not in the way we expected.

We Are The Ancestors

Over the past few years I've had these occasional moments of perspective, where I think to myself, "We are living in the before times. One day, I will tell my children about this, and they will stare at me in awe."

Sometimes it's everyday things, like seeing the city skyline from my backyard. Sometimes it's less everyday things, like watching the fireworks on New Years and thinking, at the back of my mind, about the energy and time they represent. Sometimes it's fun, like marvelling at the intricate logistics of some little widget I want being manufactured and flown across the ocean and delivered to my door. Sometime's it's vaguely sickening, like thinking about that same thing happening for the hideous fake plastic plant I got in the office gift swap.

It's a sense of decadence and opulence, at a scale that's simultaneously incredibly intricate and unfathomably enormous. It's like we're at the heart of a machine that's both too complex and too large to comprehend, and its energy is directed almost entirely to satisfying wants rather than needs. We can accomplish wondrous things with a word or a gesture, and we mostly use it to snark at each other and order food.

It feels like we're living out a sci-fi trope. It feels like we're the Ancient Civilisation, and that any minute we're about to Fall, and one day our Descendants will stumbly across our Artefacts in the Ruins and tell Tales of Those Who Came Before. In shape, at least, if not in scale.

And I think maybe the reason I'm starting to notice this feeling more and more is because things are already starting to change. Not a decline, necessarily, but definitely a change.

Pre-emptive Adaptation

Here are some things which, over the last few months, I've noticed people I talk to doing.

But what's more interesting, I think, is who is doing it, and how they're doing it. For the most part, these aren't activists or radicals. They were pretty regular people from parts of my life I'd assumed were pretty isolated from climate-related issues. And they weren't making a big deal out of what they were doing - in fact, quite often they were a little bit sheepish about it, or cited things like cost as pseudo-justifications.

They're small changes, and stringing them together into a pattern might be wishful thinking, or my peer group maturing, but I think it's possible that we're taking our first, tentative steps into climate-impacted lifestyles.

We're told, over and over again, that this is not an individual-scale problem. That compared to the gigatonnes of carbon and the billions of dollars swung around by governments and corporations, your decision to have a meat-free Monday just doesn't register.

I have some issues with where that places the responsibility for the problem - and power to fix it - but for the most part, it's true.

But I don't think that's what these people were doing. I think what we're seeing here is something else.

I think we're quietly, unconsciously preparing for the future we know is coming.

A smaller, quieter future

We're heading towards a future where parts of the way we live now just don't happen. We'll live in a future where we live closer together, out of necessity and convenience. We'll leave our neighbourhoods less, as car ownership becomes less viable*. We'll leave our cities less, as air travel becomes prohibitive**. Our food will look different and come from closer as the kinds of agriculture that make sense change. Our consumer goods will last longer, or become less necessary, as the same happens to manufacturing.

This is not a Scandanavian urbanist daydream. It's a necessary consequence of a lower-carbon economy. Yes, it might sound pleasant, but like any change, if you get stuck behind the curve, you'll be running very uncomfortably to catch up.

Imagine, for example, finding yourself trapped in an outer suburb in a 250m^2 house which relies on air conditioning to stay cool as the climate heats up and a car to access as fuel prices rise and a barbecue you can't afford to put steak on and a yard to water as restrictions get tighter and tighter but nobody will buy or rent your house and there's nowhere left to go. Maybe you're insulated from the fires and the floods by the privilege of living in a developed country, but you sure aren't protected from financial hardship and crushing despair. If anything, it's made worse, because you can't tell what's wrong - everything just gets a little bit harder every day and there's nothing you can do to stop it***.

Once you stop and think about it, our lifestyle is actually extremely fragile, and the sooner we put the brakes on, the more comfortable that speed change will be.

Nobody's forcing you to change - yet. But eventually they will, whether through legislation, taxation, social expectation or the inexorable price changes due to supply and demand. And when that happens, I think a lot of people are going to be in for a bit of a shock, because this is a smaller future, with smaller dreams. It won't be realistic to dream of owning a house in the suburbs and travelling around the world.

The future isn't going to be worse. Or at least, it doesn't have to be, if we get our shit together. But it is going to be different, which kind of brings me back to the conversation around lifestyle changes. Because if we don't start changing expectations about how our lifestyles "should" look now, then we're only making things harder for each other down the line.

If you're interested in precipitating this epiphany for yourself, I recommend reading Station Eleven and Lost Connections within 24 hours of each other in an ill-fated attempt to hit your Goodreads target.

* because I don't know that the maths works out on everyone having an electric vehicle - or at least, an electric car. Other kinds of rideables, maybe more so.

** in my ideal version of this future we replace jet planes with solar powered airships, but that's still a slower, more significant exercise.

*** and you will probably vote increasingly conservatively because of this, but that's... a much bigger problem and this post is already running long.

Physics and other lies

18 December 2019 11:30PM scicomm

So an article about how we need to stop lying to our kids about physics landed in my inbox this morning and I'd be lying if I said it didn't rub me the wrong way.

As someone who's worked in formal education, physics outreach, and science communication, there's a couple of points I found particularly frustrating, and I think the best way for me to get them off my chest is... well, to get them off my chest.

So here we go:

1. simplifications and approximations aren't lies.

We use simplified, approximate versions of things all the time. Framing these as lies is... ironically, a massive oversimplification of how people learn. We start with simpler, more familiar ideas, and build up to harder, stranger ones, and our understanding increases and develops as we go.

And the fact is, you probably still use some of these simplifications yourself without even realising it, because you've never needed anything more complex.

For example, we teach kids about the 'sounds that letters make'. We get them to 'sound out words' and tie pronunciation to orthography even though those two are totally separate. Should we teach every kid the international phonetic alphabet instead? maybe! is it more useful to teach them some approximate rules to roughly map written words to spoken ones? absolutely! and do most adults ever need to do anything else? nope!

(And my understanding of Einsteininan physics is that it at a human scale it does more or less approximate to Newtonian physics. Unlike English phonology, which... doesn't)

2. there is value in being able to do things.

Because here's the thing. Relativity works well to describe things that are very very big, and quantum physics works well to describe things that are very very small. But most classrooms don't have a radio telescope or a particle accelerator. And there is value in being able to get kids to 'do' science.

Formulating hypotheses, designing experiments, taking measurements, struggling through the maths and coming to a conclusion is a crucial part of science.

Trusting the data, not the wisdom you're imparted with by authority figures, is a crucial part of science

And learning to update, or replace, your models when they're no longer adequate, is a crucial part of science.

We can do that with Newtonian physics. Right now, that's a lot harder with Einstein's physics.

3. you're actually doing the right thing

But my real issue is that I actually agree with the substance of this argument. I think there's absolutely room to introduce these ideas earlier. You're right that they're interesting, exciting ideas to play with, and I think spending time with a working scientist who uses these ideas every day and intuitively 'gets' them' is the perfect way to do it.

On a more meta level, I think flagging the idea that a model is incomplete and there are things it can't explain would be awesome - the same way I think it would be awesome if we explicitly addressed the fact that letters don't map to sounds. I think exposing kids to more complete models and analogies - even if they can't observe the phenomena directly - is fantastic. And all of that is exactly what you're doing!

(And to facilitate that, maybe what we need is more explicit teaching of the philosophy of science, and of learning. We want people to treat ideas like tools they can use, not true facts they have to rote learn. It's a way of looking at the world that most of us stumble on to at some point, but we could perhaps do a better job at teaching it explicitly.)

It's just that... this framing is arrogant, unnecessarily aggressive, and comes off as attacking teachers, who get the short end of the stick an awful lot already. If you want people to accept your ideas, you don't immediately want to put them on the defensive. As a science educator (and not even a formal one), that's what this did. I felt attacked!

If you want me to use your ideas, you need to show me how they're better - not just chastise me for using the wrong ones. Sell me the opportunities that come with teaching the physics of lasers and black holes, don't lambast me for using 'old ideas'. Help me see the universe the way you do, don't pile on me because I can't yet. And acknowledge that there might be legitimate reasons to do things the way they're done now, and that there's people who devote their lives to teaching the same way you devote yours to physics.

You've clearly come up with some elegant, well thought-out ways of getting your physics ideas across. I just wish you'd put the same effort into getting your teaching ideas across too.

Can I be proud of this?

20 October 2019 08:45PM introspection

Genuine, non-rhetorical question here: how do you measure your own success? Or - what makes you confident that you are a worthwhile person? — Grace, 2019

This is a great question.

For me, I think it's being able to step back from a thing I made or did and think, "Yeah, that was cool." Almost a pride-in-your-work, job-well-done, I-did-my-best vibe.

That sort of applies at any scale - I have felt proud of everything from spending a year writing a thesis to dropping an especially awful pun.

So what makes something that I do or make something that I can be proud of? I mean, a lot of it is pretty dependent on context. That which makes a good thesis does not make a good pun*.

But while the external criteria are going to be different for everything, the things that make me proud of it are sort of the same every time. They're things like:

To take a step back, I think you can approximate this as "did I act in line with my values?" That is, the things I like and think are useful and important.

That necessitates a degree of reflection, both to have an idea of what your values are in the first place, and to determine if something you've done or made was in line with them. It can help to articulate them to yourself, but the closer it comes to being a gut feeling, probably the closer it is to being true. It's very hard to talk yourself into or out of feeling proud of something you've done, and that's one of the strengths of this.

It's worth noting that this is an entirely self-referenced judgement. You're not looking at how others percieve you, comparing yourself to them, or against some arbitrary external criteria. That stuff might form a part of what you're measuring - but the yardstick you're measuring it against is yours and yours alone.

I think that assuming the negative is a pretty good test case here. If you do something and you're actively not proud of it, or regret it - you act against your values - that probably wasn't a thing you should've done. If you're doing something and you just feel the absence of pride, that's probably a sign that you need to change what you're doing**. And if you're not doing anything at all, you're pretty unlikely to feel anything at all. And to me, at least, that looks like a pretty set of measurements of 'success'.

It's shifting the value off the way you are (or are seen) and on to the way you act. I think that's powerful because while you can't always control the way you look or the way you're percieved, you can (often) control the way you act. It doesn't try to force you to change yourself, but it can help you to do the things that you want to do or think are important - if you want it to.

I don't think this is the only valid way to measure your self worth, but it's the one that I find myself doing, and I think it has its advantages. As to how you start to cultivate it, I'm not sure I can offer much - I feel like I do this pretty instinctively (or at least automatically) at this point, but perhaps taking time to reflect on what you value and how you feel about the things you do is a good place to start. I'm biased, but I think writing a journal (or perhaps some kind of "blog") is a great way to do this. ;)

That's perhaps more in-depth an answer than you really needed, but as I said - it's a good question.

* Although that's perhaps debatable.

* This is also a pretty neat summary of why I haven't been feeling great about my job for the last few months.*

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