Friday 26th February 2016

It's always fascinated me that most people take as long to buy a pair of jeans as a house. Is there a fixed amount of time that we're willing to consider making a choice, or is it just easier to buy a home?


How do you make decisions?

I have friends who agonise over the smallest decision, buying What Hi-Fi for six months before choosing a new set of speakers, and others who buy the first car they see because they like the colour.

Others have never had a successful relationship because they're always looking for the perfect partner, and those who settled down for life with the first person they met.

There are loads of articles on the web to help you make decisions, and even software to do it for you.

I seem to make the right decisions a lot of the time without really knowing how to go about it. 

Decision paralysis goes back centuries, even appearing in Aesop's fables. The most common way to resolve it is to artificially limit your choices.

I've always joked that Kat is vegetarian because she doesn't like too much choice on a menu, but she genuinely seems overwhelmed when we go to veggie restaurants.


Don't overthink the question

This is the mantra for our pub quiz team. If the question is "Which is the only gem stone that isn't mined from the ground" don't argue about whether the answer might be Moldavite, just write down pearls and move on.

This is the Centipede's Dilemma a lovely poem by Katherine Craster from 1871:

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

Quick decisions

Here's a quick test to see how you do at making decisions quickly. You'll be shown several stacks of coins, and you need to click on the stack which is the most valuable.

The test involves your ability to make the right decision quickly, so you haven't got time to add them up - take your best guess.


Question 1/5

Click the stack of coins which is the highest value.

Question 2/5

Click the stack of coins which is the highest value.

Question 3/5

Click the stack of coins which is the highest value.

Question 4/5

Click the stack of coins which is the highest value.

Question 5/5

This is the last one.


Thanks for taking part!

You got 0 out of 5 right in 0 seconds.


More complex decisions

As an example, we're currently looking to move to Spain for a year or two, for a new adventure. But Spain's a big place, and so we artifically narrowed it down to the east coast because I want to be near the sea.

We flew into Malaga and drove up to Barcelona. We made notes about every town and city we passed through, and gave each one a score out of ten. The icons on the map below go from red (<4 points) through orange (5 points), yellow (6 points) and into green (7+ points). The map is interactive if you want to see where we went and what we thought about it.

But as it turned out, we didn't need to do this. As soon as we arrived in Valencia, we both decided that this was the place. We were just over half-way through the trip, but it just felt right.


Go with your gut

The more I read about decision making, the more I understood that the basic rules are to evaluate the options and then go with the one that feels right to you. Obviously this doesn't apply to some decisions, like air strikes against Daesh, which need a bit more debate. But most of your day-to-day decisions, and a number of the larger ones, can be done just going with your gut.

I've started applying this philosophy to my life and it's really working out well! I was in the Co-op trying to work out whether I wanted sausages, chicken or prawns for dinner. I realised that I kept glancing back at the prawns, and they were delicious.



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Online learning

Friday 19th February 2016

A couple of years ago I discovered online learning, and I wanted to share some of the awesome courses that I've discovered.


Introduction to Forensic Science

This course is run on FutureLearn by the University of Strathclyde.

It's a free six week course with about 2-3 hours work per week. It's aimed at the general public so there's not much hard science in it. It follows a reconstruction of a real murder case in Scotland, and at the end of the course we got to vote on whether we thought the defendant was guilty or not.

It runs periodically and there were about 1,500 people in my intake. I've rarely seen such an enthusiastic online community, with theories flying around on the forums about whether he did it or not. 

This was easily the most fun I've had on an online course, and I'd really recommend it - sign up for the next one here which starts on the 18th April.

Other courses I've enjoyed on FutureLearn include Moons, Begin Robotics and The Science Of Nuclear Energy.


Periodic Videos

This is a series of videos made for the University of Nottingham about each of the chemical elements. While this might sound a bit dry they're really brought to life by the brilliant Sir Martyn Poliakoff, who has the most amazing hair I've ever seen.

Some of the videos are longer like Gold, and some shorter like Astatine, but they're all interesting.

There are 118 videos in total, so it's quite an achievement when you finish watching them all! In total the videos have over 116 million views and the channel has 700,000 subscribers.

Prof Poliakoff was knighted in 2015 with the commendation specifically naming his YouTube videos. He said "With a few hours of work, I have lectured to more students than I have reached in my entire career."


Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

This free course is run on Coursera by the University of Edinburgh. It's made up of six hours of lectures, broken up into 10-15 minute chunks, with a quiz at the end of each week.

It's easily the most interesting course that I've done online, and I've seriously considered becoming an Astrobiologist since I completed it. But it's not a simple course at all, there's some complex biology, chemistry, geology and astronomy.

The course is designed so you can start it whenever you like and take as long as you want. This is great if you don't have a lot of spare time, but it lacked the interaction with other students that I've enjoyed on some other courses.

You can sign up for the course here.


University Certificate in Astronomy

This one's pretty serious, it's the first module of a BSc in Astronomy, run by the University of Central Lancashire as a distance learning course. It's a full academic year and 20 credits towards a degree, running from October to May, and costs £470 to join.

It looked pretty straightforward in the course material, but I've found it really difficult! I was hoping for a nice introduction to Astronomy as a total newb, but it's full of hardcore maths and physics.

It's fascinating and very challenging - but it must be sinking in because I got 71% for my first assignment!

There's more info about the course here.


Crash Course

Finally, something a bit simpler. Crash Course is a YouTube channel made by PBS in America, on a wide variety of subjects from World History to Psychology.

I've just finished their Big History and Astronomy courses, both of which are a series of ten-minute videos and are absolutely fascinating.

Big History is only ten videos and presented by the VlogBrothers Hank Green and his brother John (who wrote The Fault in Our Stars).

The Astronomy course is 45 videos presented by ex-NASA scientist Phil Plait, who does an incredible job of making astronomy understandable. 


What have we learned?

I keep coming back to the idea of how much of a change this is to the way humans passed on information even fifty years ago. In the past you needed to be in the same room as the lecturer, writing down notes or with a copy of their textbook.

The Open University really started this shift with their TV programmes starting in the 70s, but they didn't seem very accessible to me. Now you can watch a full course on your mobile while you eat breakfast.

But then I'm brought back to how basic the whole process still is - the lecturer encodes the information as a video or a series of letters in a book, which you have to view with your eyes, decode into meaning and then hopefully your brain stores at least some of it.

Wouldn't it be much more efficient to have a swarm of tiny robots that make new memories for you directly by wiring up synapses in your brain? Now there's digital learning.



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I heart hearts

Friday 12th February 2016

Over a romantic dinner with the wife last week we wondered where the heart symbol comes from, and where on Earth you can grow roses at this time of year. Here's what I found.

Heart-shaped ... something

The shape pre-dates its use as a symbol for love by several centuries.

Like many concepts from ancient history, it's up for debate but its earliest use may have been as a stylised plant seed, possibly the seeds of Silphium (itself a bit of a mystery).

Coins from the C6th BCE in Cyrene (now Libya) shown here show this stylised seed shape that resembles a heart.

The shape's romantic connection appeared in the C12th, with the oldest recorded example in an illustrated French story, with the heart held upside-down, shown in the left panel below.

By the late C14th the heart was typically shown the other way up, and in the C15th its use became widespread in religious depictions associated with Jesus, as shown in the middle panel below. At this time it was common to include the aorta at the top of the heart.

It found widespread use as a playing card suit (shown on the right, below) in the modern form with a dip at the top instead of the aorta by the mid C16th, but well into the C18th the aorta was common in religious painting.

Valentine's cards are though to date back to the C15th, like this example. Some claim that St Valentine himself, a third century Roman priest, was the first to send a valentine's card. He was sentenced to death for illegally marrying young lovers, and the night before his execution he sent a love note to the jailer's daughter. It didn't help.

The use of the heart symbol on Valentine's cards started in the C19th, who also invented a sadly forgotten practice of sending fake bank notes as tokens of their love.

I was surprised to learn that the heart only became associated as a shorthand for the verb to love in 1977 with the I ♥ NY campaign.


Winter roses

In the UK Valentine's day is in the middle of winter which isn't when roses flower. Surely daffodils would have been a better choice of romantic flower? And where the hell do roses come from at this time of year?

Roses are intertwined with love as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans where it was the flower associated with Aphrodite or Venus. Like hearts, the rose symbol was co-opted by Christianity, with the five petals symbolising the five wounds of Jesus in medieval Europe.

Today, 83% of all cut flowers in the world come from Kenya, the Netherlands, Colombia and Ecuador, with the first two mainly serving Europe and the second two the USA. Kenya supplies 88 million tons of cut flowers each year to Europe.

In the UK most of our February roses come from Kenya.  A 2008 report by Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit  organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food, found that flowers are critical to the Kenyan economy and that around this time of year the army and police spend more time guarding flowers than protecting the locals.

The environmental cost is pretty awful as are the poor working conditions. The report is worth a read, and led me to discover Veriflora, which is like Fairtrade for flowers. It's worth asking your florist about when you're buying your beloved a dozen roses next week, and maybe get them something from closer to home?



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Five sci-fi books that changed the way I think

Friday 5th February 2016

I was inspired to write this because I've just finished the incredible Accelerando and I'm looking for more books like it.

It's really hard to get this list down to just five books, originally I started at just three to make it more accessible but just couldn't do it!

I've bought one copy of each of these books to give away to the first five people to leave a comment. You can only have one book, so say which one you'd like, and then send me a message with your address.

Update: all books gone! Sorry.


5. Flowers For Algernon

Daniel Keyes, 1966

The moving story of a young man with an IQ of 86 whose intelligence is boosted in an experiment.

It's one of the very few books to move me to tears, and the only sci-fi novel. It gave me a glimpse into the world of intellectual disability the way that The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time helped me understand autism.

Later made into a movie called CHAЯLY but I can't bear to watch it, I can't believe it could be as good as the book.




4. Starmaker

Olaf Stapledon, 1937

Although it's only 337 pages, this is the largest scale of a book I've ever read.

Several times I had to put it down for a few days because it was making my brain hurt, it was the first sci-fi novel to give me a sense of scale of the universe and my tiny, tiny place in it.

This novel is utterly incredible, and proves that vintage sci-fi can be just as relevant - it's 80 years old!

There's no way you could make this into a film so it's safe.



3. Accelerando

Charles Stross, 2005

As the title suggests, a book about the ever-increasing pace of technological change.

Incredibly dense and filled with so many ideas that I had to stop reading every few hours and consult Wikipedia to get my head around the story.

Halfway through I realised that some of the concepts he portrays as futuristic already exist, such as the metacortex, an external part of your brain. Parts of my mind are already stored online, for example my ambitions.




2. Consider Phlebas

Iain M. Banks, 1987

I used to be a misanthrope until I read my first Culture novel!

Reading this book, and the rest of the series, made me fall in love with humanity and gave me hope that our species has a future.

If the future is anything like the way Iain M Banks tells it, I'm gutted that I was born too early.

My only problem with these novels are the character names! Using lots of Zs and Xs and apostrophes in names to make them look alien is really dated.




1. The Forever War

Joe Haldeman, 1974

An interstellar war fought between humans and aliens is the backdrop for this story of alienation of troops returning from war, said to be an analogy of the author's experiences after Vietnam.

This book made me appreciate how strange it must be come back to a country that you have fought for, only to find it changed beyond recognition.

Ridley Scott is apparently making it into a film right now, let's hope he does a good job.



What are your favourite sci-fi novels? Leave a comment below.


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