Classified adverts

Friday 29th January 2016

Today I'm starting a new game to see who get the silliest classified advert printed in their local paper. You get double points if anyone actually rings up to buy it.

Here are a few I've placed to get you started.

 

 

 

 

 

Here's a link to the Cornish Guardian classifieds page. Go for it!

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Leftie

Friday 22nd January 2016

 

Nothing is designed for left-handed people

In five minutes I found these things in our house which are hard for southpaws to use:

This made me try a bunch of different things with my left hand. I already eat with my cutlery the left-handed way, thanks to liberal parents who let me decide which way round I wanted to hold the knife and fork as a child, without telling me that people would look askance at me in restaurants for the rest of my life.

Some things I found especially difficult were using a mouse, writing and greeting the old chap.

 

Writing my with left hand

I wrote a full side of A4 (in an upside down spiral-bound notebook, there's another one!) each day with my left hand, and after a couple of weeks there was a real improvement. Here's my progress.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 7

 

Day 14

 

 

Both hands at once

There are some interesting Youtube videos of people writing with both hands at the same time (normal as well as mirrored), a woman who writes with her hands and feet at the same time and even a woman writing with both hands in different languages.

There's always someone more hardcore than you.

 

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So how did I do? The introduction at the top of the page was written with my left hand. Did you work it out?

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Why quit sugar?

Friday 15th January 2016

A friend recently asked me to look into the I Quit Sugar phenomenon, to see if it has any health benefits. I'd never even heard of it, here's what I've learned.

 

Do what?

Sarah Wilson, an Australian journalist, decided to 'quit sugar' in 2011 as part of a newspaper column she was writing. She was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease in 2008 and was looking for ways to improve her health. According to Wikipedia she "has often said that she was addicted to sugar as a child".

The book was an enormous success, and led to a sequel I Quit Sugar for Life published in 2014, as well as spin off books I Quit Sugar Christmas Cookbook I Quit Sugar Chocolate Cookbook and so on. You get the idea. 

 

What does "quitting sugar" even mean?

You may well ask.

Before I started reading up on what "quitting sugar" meant it made me irate, because there's no way you could ever avoid all sugar. Nor would you want to - sugars are an important source of fuel for almost every living organism.

Let's have a quick biochemistry lesson.

 

What's sugar?

Sugars are small molecules, little rings of carbon with oxygen and hydrogen attached. Some of them are well known, like glucose and sucrose, but there are others like fructose, lactose and maltose.

Sugars are usually found on their own (like glucose), attached in pairs (sucrose is glucose and fructose joined together) or in short chains. If you join a whole bunch of sugars together then you get things like starch, which is made of glucose. You can make glucose syrup by breaking down starch with hydrochloric acid, something I keep meaning to try. 

Sugars are found in practically every food source: fruit, vegetables, bread, milk - and of course cake.

 

So what is she on about?

Contrary to the name I Quit Sugar, Wilson is actually talking about reducing the amount of processed foods and specifically fructose in her diet.

Fructose is mainly found in fruits, but it's also half of the sucrose molecule (along with glucose). To quote her website:

What are we referring to when we say “sugar”?

  • Sucrose (ordinary table sugar) is made up of 50 per cent glucose and 50 per cent fructose.
  • It’s the fructose bit that we’re referring to in our name I Quit Sugar.
  • Other sugars (glucose, maltose and lactose) are safe to eat in moderation. But fructose is not.

In an article in The Guardian in 2013 she elaborated further:

This is what quitting sugar is about – quitting the (mostly) processed foods saturated in (regular) sugar.

Why target fructose? Well, because it's the only food molecule on the planet not recognised by our bodies and is, thus, metabolised in detrimental (to our health, wellbeing, longevity and looks) ways once we put it in our gobs. It wreaks metabolic havoc, leading to a host of diseases, shuts down our appetite mechanism, causing us to eat more of everything, and makes us fat, in part because it's largely processed in the liver.

I don't know about you, but my science alarm bells have started ringing. Let's look at that last statement:

  • it's the only food molecule on the planet not recognised by our bodies

It is recognised by our bodies, there's an enzyme specifically designed to break down fructose, fructokinase, which is the first of many steps that your body takes to make use of it.

  • It wreaks metabolic havoc, leading to a host of diseases

There are specific diseases where you shouldn't consume fructose, but if you don't have those then it shouldn't cause any problems if you're consuming it in moderation.

  • causing us to eat more of everything, and makes us fat

The evidence is slim on this, with more research needed. Some studies have found that over-consumption of fructose is associated with fatty liver, others have found that it isn't associated with weight gain. 

Then there's this from her website:

Fructose is addictive. Some studies say it’s more addictive than cocaine and heroine [sic].

Really? Where are these "studies" published, because I can't find a single scientific study that backs up this claim.

And finally this, also from her website:

So why isn’t our book (and website) called I Quit Fructose, then?

    To be honest, it’s not very catchy, is it?

No, but it would have been more accurate. She also hosted a show called Eat Yourself Sexy so she's obviously more concerned with good names than science. 

 

Should I cut down the amount of sugar I eat?

Probably, but you probably eat too much generally, and if you're anything like me your diet could definitely be improved. I'm not a doctor, so take any my advice with a pinch of, er, sugar.

New UK government guidelines will recommend consuming no more than 30g of sugar a day. There's 35g of sugar in a can of Coke. Do you ever drink Coke? If so, the government thinks you should have less sugar.

They also say you should stop smoking, and drink a maximum of 14 units of alcohol a week. Doing both of these will make a definite, scientifically provable improvement in your health.

For example cigarette smokers at age 35 are twice as likely to die before they reach 65 as non-smokers. 89% of lung cancer deaths in England are caused by smoking. If you're going to carry on smoking then by all means have another cake - your time is limited.

 

Should I quit sugar?

Sure, why not. Try it if you like, it's unlikely to make anything worse and you might feel better. But this isn't the magic diet that suddenly makes your life wonderful again. As the wonderful Ben Goldacre, champion of evidence-based medicine (and who is a doctor) says, "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that".

If you're tired and stressed the whole time, you probably need to cram less into your busy life and sleep more. If you're overweight then you need more exercise and less food. If you're depressed then you need to seek treatment. And some problems just don't have solutions, as horrible as that sounds. If you've got terminal cancer, cutting down on fructose isn't going to help.

Think carefully before you sign up to Sarah Wilson's £80 programme. Can you improve your diet on your own, without her pastel website and irritating smile? Do you want to quit sugar because you know you're not taking very good care of yourself, and you're looking for an easy fix?

Something as simple as keeping a food diary has been shown to help with weight loss and improve diet. I used the free MyFitnessPal mobile app to track my food intake for three months and it made a huge difference to the way I eat.

 

Any more advice, Dr Mat?

I've told you before, I'm not a doctor. But I make a point of ignoring every new popular fad diet, because I just don't believe that any of them work.

Your digestive system is an incredibly beautiful, complicated process which has evolved over millions of years to ingest pretty much anything you can eat and keep you alive (unless you have a specific disease like Coeliac). Your liver does an almost magical job of removing toxins from your body without any help from you, despite the amount of alcohol you make it process.

I once spent three miserable weeks doing a Carol Vorderman "detox" diet (whatever that means) and discovered that, surprise surprise, I'm not lactose or gluten intolerant but I am grumpy when I'm not allowed any milk or wheat.

I don't smoke, I don't drink, I'm fairly fit, I'm not overweight, but I do eat considerably more than 30g of sugar a day.

Am I going to die? Absolutely, and so are you.

 

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Seeking quiet

Friday 8th January 2016

If I have one criticism of my brain, I'd say it's not very good at being quiet. This isn't a problem during the day but I'd like it to be a bit calmer at night please. I've not been a good sleeper since my mid-twenties, and I'm always looking for ways to silence my mind.

 

Meditation

When I was at university I went to meditation classes for a year or so, but I only ever got to that special, pre-enlightenment place a couple of times. Each time it happened, another part of my mind would suddenly shout "hey look - it's working!" and ruin the moment. The only real awareness that came to me was that the leader of the class seemed to be building himself a cult, and so I stopped going.

 

Sensory deprivation

When I was a kid I watched Altered States, a 1980 Ken Russell horror film about a researcher who takes hallucinogens in a flotation tank and regresses to a more primitive form of humanity. The film is pretty bad (I watched it again last December), but I've always wanted to try a session in a flotation tank to see how it feels.

Flotation tanks were invented in the 1950s by John C Lilly (worth a click just to see his hat!), an American scientist who researched sensory deprivation and human conciousness. He took a lot of LSD and was also the first scientist to communicate with dolphins. As far as I can tell he never took LSD in a flotation tank with a dolphin, or at least he didn't document it.

 

Float #1

It turns out that Cornwall's only flotation tank is in Par, a few miles down the road. My first experience was very pleasant. The tank is about 3m x 1.5m and the water is about 50cm deep. It's a strong salt solution which makes you very buoyant and float. I knew from a trip to the Dead Sea that it would sting my eyes, and they recommend covering any open cuts with vaseline. 

The water is the same temperature as your skin, and the air is the same temperature as the water, so after you get settled down and the water stops moving about it's hard to tell which bits of you are exposed to the air. It's also dark and they supply earplugs to enhance the sensory deprivation.

For the first fifteen minutes my mind was racing, thinking of things I'd done that day or tasks I had to complete. Eventually my mind started slowing down and I just enjoyed the feeling. A couple of times my mind went into pre-sleep mode, where my inner monologue stops and my thoughts are purely visual, often with strange and abstract scenes that I can't easily articulate.

After about 45 minutes I came back round to full conciousness. showered and spent the recommended 15 minutes in the relaxation room. On the drive home I felt light, refreshed and calm, like I'd been asleep for a few hours. This feeling stayed with me for the rest of the day. I found myself looking forward to the next session, a week later.

 

Float #2

I'd had a really busy morning, and I just couldn't get in the zone. It was very pleasant, but my brain chattered away the whole time and I only briefly got to be properly relaxed during the 45 minute session.

 

Float #3

After climbing into the tank I had the usual brain chatter for 10 to 15 minutes, then I zoned out and everything became quiet and still. Really quiet, my brain was actually silent for the first time I can remember since I was an adult. In addition, I couldn't feel my body, like it had been removed. I felt like I was just my brain and airways, breathing, floating in a black void. It was a beautiful feeling that lasted maybe ten minutes.
 
It was followed by a series of semi-dreams each lasting no more than a minute. Surreal images with no language, for example a spinning piece of wood with a small toy head embedded in it. There was no meaning to any of them that I could discern.
 
Then finally a release into a calm, crystal clear thought space that I've only ever glimpsed before. My thoughts were colossal, universe-scale, about the meaning of life and my purpose in the world. If I believed in God I'd call it a religious experience. All these thoughts came from within me, I'm not suggesting they were external. I think it was my sub-concious mind communicating clearly with my concious mind, in a way I've never experienced before.
 
On the way home I was buoyant and optimistic in a way I haven't been in ages. And that feeling stayed with me for several days before fading gradually. I've booked in some more sessions, I want to see where this goes!

 

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A year of Lost In Thought

Friday 1st January 2016

I can't believe it's been a year already. Here's a round-up of my first fifty posts, with my favourites and the most viewed posts in case you missed any.

 

My favourite posts

I've learned so much this year, it's really hard to pick out my favourite posts from the last twelve months.

  1. Coconutella - You have to try making this! See below for a simpler recipe
  2. Making a knife - I learned so much about metal that day
  3. Tesla testing - Every time I see one of these drive past my heart races
  4. Making soap - Some nasty chemicals but a great learning experience
  5. Making salt from seawater - A pretty simple one but great results

 

Most viewed posts

Over 5,000 different people have read my blog in the last year! These are the ones that people have read most:

 

Coconutella

Since I wrote the Coconutella post I've refined the recipe and made it much simpler, here's an updated recipe:

  • 170g smooth hazel butter (like Biona)
  • 340g chocolate - milk or plain depending on what you like
  • 3tbsp coconut oil

Melt the chocolate in a microwave and then mix all the ingredients together. Done!

 

Monopoly

A real high point of this year was a reader who sent me a photo of her finished Tomopoly that she'd made from my Custom Monopoly files!

 

Plans for 2016

Here are some of the things I'm hoping to do this coming year:

  • Make tomato ketchup
  • Try a flotation tank
  • Make a ferrofluid
  • Learn to write left handed
  • Eat brains!


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