Friday 24th June 2016

The paper fortune teller was like secret female knowledge at school when I was a kid, a closely guarded secret the the boys must never learn. So a few weeks ago I decided to free that knowledge for boys everywhere, go boys!

My version is slightly different, rather than telling your fortune it suggests new skills, activities or experiences you might like. I present: The Experi-o-matic™. Download it below, it comes with full instructions and if you're still confused there's a video below showing how to construct it.

To make it:

  1. Cut along the black borders so that it makes a square.
  2. Fold the square in half both ways to crease it.
  3. Place it with the print side down and fold all four corners in to the middle. The squares with the four colour words should be touching.
  4. Turn it over and fold all four corners in again, to make a smaller square. You should have all eight number squares visible.
  5. Fold it in half both ways to crease it.
  6. Turn it over again and put your fingers under the flaps with the colour words on them.

To play:

  1. Choose a colour. Spell out this colour while moving your fingers back and forth to open it in each direction. 
  2. Choose a number that’s visible. Count to that number moving your fingers back and forth again.
  3. Choose another number that’s visible, then count to that number too.
  4. Choose a question and say the answer out loud.
  5. Open the flap to reveal your new experience!



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Why I'm voting stay

Friday 17th June 2016

It's looking increasingly likely that the UK is about to vote to leave the EU. I'm really sad about that, but it's something I've come to accept. If you're undecided, maybe you'd like to read some of my reasons why I think we should stay. 

It's mainly because of this awesome old woman standing by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, selling her home made honey-flavoured spirits.


Can we go to Relate?

I've always used the Relate analogy when discussing the EU with friends. If your marriage is suffering but you still really love each other, then go to Relate and try to fix it. Yes there are lots of things wrong with the EU, but let's not leave just because it's really difficult right now. This is not the time to be selfish internationally. The whole world is in a difficult spot and we need to be involved to sort it out. Let's stay together and make it better instead.

But now I just don't know, maybe the EU has tried to build a marriage too quickly between a bunch of countries who have been bitter rivals for the best part of a thousand years. I think the EU is a really amazing concept, but maybe it's not designed to last in its current form.

If the UK does vote to leave, I can easily see the whole of the EU collapsing within 5-10 years as other countries hold referendums and vote to leave - France and the Netherlands are said to be considering their own if we go. But maybe that's for the best? It could lead to the formation of a new supra-national organisation that wouldn't have the same bad reputation as the EU, and could lead to greater peace and prosperity in the area. 

Alternatively, because the way that nationalism is on the rise across many EU countries, if we all become more isolationist I can believe that could lead to increasing conflict in Europe.

Britain is unique in Europe in thinking of WWII with pride instead of fear. A lot of other European countries were on the wrong side, or committed atrocities, or were conquered. British culture still celebrates that time as our finest hour with movies like Dad's Army.



Small fish, big pond

Being part of international groups like the G8, NATO and the EU helps the UK's voice get heard. The UK's seat on the UN Security Council allows us to have big say in world affairs, and the same applies to the EU.

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, recently said "I believe we’re always better when we work as closely as possible together, and separatism, or division, doesn’t seem to be a productive path for countries. More unity is a path toward greater prosperity."

I think a lot of people who want Brexit mistakenly think that we can go back to the past, glorious UK. The world has changed so much in the last forty years that I don't fancy our chances as a tiny island nation, especially if Scotland voted to leave the UK. But I guess we'd still be part of these other organisations, so we'll still have a voice. 




Trump says leave

One of my biggest reasons to vote remain is that I think voting leave sends the wrong signal. It tells people like Nigel Farage that the UK supports him, it furthers the cause of organisations like Britain First and the BNP, and it will probably mean we'll end with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. The UK government is likely to become dominated by hard right wing policitians. 

Donald Trump says we should leave, so my instant reaction is to vote remain. I want to be on Eddie Izzard's side in this debate, not Katie Hopkins'. This is the first time I've ever agreed with David Cameron in anything and it makes me uncomfortable and slightly itchy, but it's better than the alternative. 

Do I think the EU needs reforming? Absolutely. Do I want to see Nigel Farage smugly kick off his next campaign to allow smoking in pubs? On Tuesday he  said that he thinks "the doctors have got it wrong on smoking." Do you want this man any more involved in UK politics?


I love Europe

I love European people, their food, culture, and ways of life.

I love cycling holidays in France in September, seeing the grape harvest in full flow. I love markets in Italy, marvelling at how incredible their tomatoes taste. I love the Spanish attitude to work, I can't believe the siesta still exists today. I love buying home-made spirits from a toothless old crone in the middle of nowhere in Crotia. I love watching a sunrise on the beach in Ibiza. I love how how much joy there is in cities like Berlin and Amsterdam.

I know that these things are still going to exist if we vote leave, but I want to show the rest of Europe that we think they're awesome and want to be part of their club.

Kat are I are hoping to move to Valencia in Spain for a couple of years soon, and we can do that easily because we have freedom of travel and work inside in the EU. The main reason we've started planning it now is so that we still get to be there for a couple of years even if the UK does vote to leave. Because we're self employed, it could be very hard for us to get work visas without sponsorship from a Spanish company. 

Tell you what: if you vote to stay in the EU you're welcome to come and stay with us in Valencia. Deal?



Keep them nice, I'm feeling fragile.

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Copper refining part 2

Friday 10th June 2016

Last Friday I finally got around to melting down a bunch of old scrap copper that I'd had lying around for months. I've now got enough copper and tin to cast my bronze sword!

My technique has really come on since I built my bucket furnace. I borrowed a friend's leaf blower for the air induction and it's way better than Kat's old hairdryer.

I've discovered that it works much better with real charcoal than charcoal briquettes, which leave a lot of claggy residue in the furnace and stop it getting hot enough.

Here's a quick video showing the refining of the scrap copper into pretty little ingots. It takes about two hours to get hot enough to melt the copper at 1084 °C, but then it's so hot that it melts down the next batch in a couple of minutes.

The molten copper is indescribably beautiful and quite took my breath away. It's a pale shimmery metallic salmon colour with a strong orange glow. I think I'm a little bit in love with it. I watched a Youtube video of a guy pouring gold a while ago, he said that after you see your first pour the metal takes up a little piece of your heart forever. I think I know what he means. 

At the end of the video are the wooden model sword that I carved, and a test aluminium version that I cast last year. Can't wait to cast the bronze one!



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Language learning

Friday 3rd June 2016

In preparation for new adventures in Spain I've been brushing up on my Spanish and discovered how much language learning has changed since the last time I did it.

I took GCSE Spanish in 2002 but have spent more time in France than Spain since then. My Spanish had become really rusty and I found that the words I used a lot on holiday in France dislodged the same word in Spanish that I used to know.

I'm sure there's a technical term for this, but I think of it as a big wall of orange Spanish bricks where some of them have been pushed out and replaced with blue French bricks.


Why orange and blue?

There's probably a whole other blog post to do with colour associations of different items: semi-skimmed milk, salt and vinegar crisps, and Italian are all green. Who decided that these items were these colours and why?

Anyway, we started a Spanish evening class and it's going really well, but the class is focussed on grammar and syntax and I was seriously lacking vocabulary. One of the other students in the class recommended Duolingo and it's blown my tiny mind.



¡Hola Duolingo!

Duolingo is a free language learning website and app, designed by a team at Carnegie Mellon University in 2011 and used by 120 million people across the world.

It brings gamification (a system that could have been designed just for me) to language learning. It prompts you every day to do a bit of practice, and rewards you for a little bit of interaction every day.

There are four types of interaction: reading, listening, writing and speaking. The speaking part still needs a bit of work: it struggles to understand Kat and it helps if you speak in a deeper voice.

Some of the phrases it teaches are very strange: in the last few weeks it's made me laugh with the phrases Es seguramente mi elefante (it's probably my elephant) and Estoy en el programa de protección a testigos. That's witness not testicles as I first assumed, although I am also in the testicle protection programme.

Someone has collected all these weird phrases into a great video.


¡Aquí viene la ciencia!

The Spanish module is broken down into 65 discreet blocks, such as Food, Animals and The Subjunctive. It's structured so that you have to pass the simple modules before you can learn the harder ones, but there are two genius concepts:

  1. It keeps track of which words you've seen and predicts how often you need to see those words to keep them in long term memory
  2. You can compete with friends even if you're learning different languages

The combination of these two things means that I've been using it for about half an hour a day for the last hundred days, and I've become so much better at Spanish in that short time. I'm also beating all my friends who are using it too! Did I mention that I'm a little competitive?

As of today Duolingo reckons I've got 2,362 Spanish words lodged in my long-term memory and I'm 40% fluent.

It's taken the language learning world by storm. Studies suggest that 34 hours learning on the system is equivalent to 55-60 hours using the competitor tool Rosetta, or 130+ hours on a college course.


No es sólo para los idiomas

This kind of system isn't just being used for languages though.

A friend told me about another website called Memrise which applies the Duolingo concept to learning pretty much anything.

I took their 100 Questions You Simply Must Be Able to Answer course, because the weekly pub quiz is a major part of my life. It was a weird experience.

Memrise isn't as good as Duolingo, but after 90 minutes I felt like someone had just forced a hundred new facts into my brain whether I wanted them or not.

Now I know without even having to check that the Humphry Davy invented the miner's safety lamp (not Tony Blackburn) and discovered sodium, the first ever FA cup final was held in 1872, and the first space shuttle to launch was Columbia.

I'm not even sure that I want all these facts in my brain, but they're there. We'll see how long they stay for.


El futuro del aprender

This experience has made me think about how slowly my brain learns normally, and how many times I need to be exposed to a word or fact for it to stay in my brain forever. But on the other hand, intense experiences are recorded vividly forever.

For example, Duolingo has told me dozens of times that compromiso means committment, but I still answer compromise every time I see it. But I can recall with crystal clarity the accident where I wrote off my parent's car when I was 17.

Why is that? Respuestas en un postal a la dirección habitual, por favor.



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