The End

Friday 23rd December 2016

When I started Lost in Thought I was in a pretty dark place. Four of my good friends had recently left the town where I live, and I was feeling lonely. This is the story of how I started this blog, and why I'm ending it. 

 

A dark place

In the autumn of 2014, I wasn't very happy. In addition to my friends leaving, work was stressing me out. I was thinking that I'd had enough of running my own business. It was affecting my sleep, and that was making me tired and annoyed. I dreamed of quitting work and cycling around the world. 

Kat and I weren't getting on that well either. She was starting to feel more like a friend than a partner, and I didn't feel loved. 

My notes from that time read:

I feel trapped and I can't make the most of life.
 
I don't have a purpose. I'm just sitting here waiting and hoping life will improve.
 
I want to experience everything the world has to offer. 

Maybe I just need a new hobby?
 
 
 

  

 

The meta-hobby

And that's how I came up with the idea for Lost In Thought.

Rather than one new leisure activity, I would start the meta-hobby, industrialising the process to have as many new experiences as possible. 

So I sat down and wrote a list of all the things I wanted to do - there were about fifty items on the original list.

Many of them were learning to make different things: butter; salt; charcoal; a sword.

Some of these things are still on the list two years later, and I hope to make them one day: golden syrup, elephant toothpaste (what?); magnetic putty. 

Other items were experiences I wanted to have: drive an electric carstay silent for a day; be fruitarian for a week.

And some of those are still to be experienced: prepare a body for burial; find a tardigrade; hold a fluorescent tube under a power line and watch it light up.  

 

  

 

A new me

I set aside Fridays for my new hobby. Friday mornings I check my work email and reply to anything urgent, then leave the office to add something new to my life.

Some posts took a few hours like making a spectroscope, while others took a month or more, like building a pizza oven.

Lost in Thought has made time pass more slowly for me, it's taught me to be more inquisitive and think more analytically. I love having the time to consider everything in as much detail as I want. For me, time is the ultimate luxury.

I know it sounds daft, but Lost in Thought has given a real purpose to my life and has completely rejuvenated me. Losing 5% of my body fat probably helped.

I've astounded myself with the things that I've managed to do, from driving my car on a race track to casting my own sword. Yes, it's probably a mid-life crisis, but I'm really enjoying it!

I honestly feel like a totally different person to that sad Mat of late 2014. I have a renewed enthusiasm for the world and a love for life. It's given me huge amounts of confidence and made me realise that I can do just about anything if I put my mind to it!

I've done all sorts of things that I would have never expected, from learning lace-making to eating lungs, and I've loved every minute of it. Except maybe the lungs.

In addition to the posts I've published here, I've written others that are just for a select group of people, and one that I wrote just for myself. 

I've been overwhelmed by the number of people who've read my posts. 5,000 people have read about my experiences making salt from seawater, and 6,000 read my post about making Nutella from scratch. The video of making my bronze sword has had over 125,000 views on Youtube!

I've discovered that I love writing, and I've been overjoyed to find that other people have enjoyed reading it, getting involved with comments and suggestions about new experiences I might enjoy. I want to thank you with all my heart for reading this.

 

  

 

The end

But it's come to an end now.

Two days ago Kat and I moved to Valencia in Spain for a new adventure for a couple of years. Our lives have become considerably more complicated, where even a trip to the supermarket is a fascinating experience. 

I've spent the last few months trying to decide whether to carry on writing Lost in Thought from Spain. I'd love to chronicle everything I'll be experiencing, but I think it's going to be challenging enough for me just to live it without also having to write about it. 

But more importantly, I've come to realise that writing this blog was just another hobby for me. It's been beautiful and has changed me more than I can express, but I think I've had enough of it. I might well write the occasional post, but this is the last regular post for now. 

Thanks for coming with me on this journey, and I hope to see you in Spain!

 

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Owning less stuff

Friday 25th November 2016

We're off to Spain for new adventures in a couple of weeks, and we've spent the last three months sorting our possessions into the four S's: ship, store, sell or skip. It's easy to gradually acquire new things and each of the four times I've moved house I've watched the pile grow.

1995

When I went to university in 1995, everything I took fitted in my parents' car along with me and them. I had a duvet, a hi-fi, a bunch of CDs, a few pots and pans and some particularly colourful clothes. Let's say it was about a cubic metre in total. A large packing box, 63cm on a side, is one-quarter of a cubic metre so four of those boxes make up a cubic metre like this:

Looking back now, I marvel at how simple my life was, even though I lost many nights' sleep worrying about it at the time! 

1998

When Kat and I moved to Brighton after graduating in 1998, we hired a transit van to move into a one bedroom flat. We had a double bed, a sofa, a TV, more clothes (still pretty colourful), a lot more cookware and loads more CDs. We had about four cubic metres of possessions. 

A year later we moved into a three bedroom flat and over the next five years we filled it with stuff. 

2004

When we decided to live abroad for a bit, we took stock of the flat and realised for the first time just how much stuff we had. I estimate it totalled about 25 cubic metres: beds, sofas, chests of drawers, a dining table and chairs, fridge, washing machine, a full set of kitchen equipment, garden furniture, a wall of books and even more CDs.

 

We sold or gave away a bunch of it, and made two trips back our parents' lofts to store the things we couldn't bear to part with. We were back down to about 15 cubic metres. I know this because when we came back two years later we managed to fit it all in a 3.5t Luton van. 

2007

In the nine years since then we've really upped our game.

2016

We currently live in a five bedroom house, and the thing about big houses is that you have to fill them with stuff or they look empty. We added more beds, a giant dining table and chairs, a work shed full of tools, a home office, dressers, more sofas, two kayaks, a sailing boat and four bicycles. And for some reason we still had a mountain of CDs in the loft, even though we didn't even unpack them from the boxes last time we moved.

I worked it out to be in the region of 55 cubic metres, which means we could pretty much fill an HGV with all our stuff. 

How did this happen? 

There's no way this would all fit into our parents' lofts again, and the more we looked at all the things we'd bought the less we liked them. As Tyler says in Fight Club, the things you own end up owning you. I was drowning in things and I hadn't even noticed. 

We started off a little hesitantly - we gave away two of our bicycles and I sold my vintage computer collection on eBay (I love eBay). We became bolder and donated all our CDs to a local community radio station.

Gaining confidence, we compiled a complete spreadsheet of everything in the entire house and categorised it into ship / store / sell / skip. Everything marked skip was piled up outside the back door and taken to the dump. 

We stored about two transit van loads in Kat's parents' loft (thanks guys!) back in September. There were lots of photo albums and some furniture that Kat commissioned, but looking back on it now I can't remember what's in most of those boxes. 

There was a lot of overlap between ship, store and sell, and it was tricky to identify items that we were happy to sell and definitely didn't want. We arranged a date for a moving sale in September, sorted through drawers and cupboards and the loft (OMG, the loft), stuck bargain price tags on everything and opened our doors. 

Reactions from purchasers varied, but the most common question was always "aren't you going to miss this?" as they held one of our dozen kitchen knives or a handful of books that I'd forgotten we even owned. And as the day wore on I realised that I really wouldn't. 

By the end of the day we were exhausted, but feeling lighter and freer than I've felt in years. What a liberating experience! 

Kat and I have spent the last few months talking about our new plans for a cut-down life.

We're both really keen to try living in a smaller house, so we don't have the pressure of filling a big home with stuff.

We'd like to be more carefree with possessions, buying second hand and then selling on, rather than buying new and keeping it. 

Are you excited by the idea of a serious declutter? Does it fill you with fear? Leave a comment below!

 

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Perfect muesli

Friday 28th October 2016

My life can be broadly categorised into four phases by the kind of cereal that I have for breakfast, like the classic Ages of Man from Greek mythology:

The Coco Pops age (4-14)

This was the golden age, where the most important thing in my life was opening the next box of Coco Pops to find out which toy is in the packet.

I had no concept of nutrition and so the cereal with the most chocolate in it was obviously the best. It filled me up for almost an hour every morning before I was hungry again. 

 

The Shreddies age (14-32)

Eventually I realised that I needed to eat something a bit more substantial for breakfast.

I always found Shreddies extremely comforting, and through the upheaval and homesickness of going to university I found Shreddies a constant companion.

When we lived in New Zealand I had to eat sub-standard Canadian imported Shreddies which had bilingual ingredients, but luckily in Melbourne there was a British shop where I could get the real thing at vastly inflated prices. 

 

The Weetabix age (32-40)

The transition to Weetabix was abrupt, and no-one was more surprised than me.

I literally woke up one morning and disliked the taste of Shreddies. I don't know if they changed the recipe overnight or whether my taste buds revolted. 

I also find Weetabix very comforting, and while I had braces on my teeth there were many extremely painful days where all I could eat was soggy Weetabix. 

 

The Muesli age (40 - ?)

Over the last year or so, I've found myself coveting Kat's breakfast cereal of choice, muesli.

If you'd told me from the past about this I would have laughed in your face, but to mangle Shakespeare, a man loves the cereal in his age that he cannot endure in his youth

I've tried a whole bunch of muesli in the last twelve months, but none of them quite cut it. I want something without added sugar, salt or skimmed milk powder so Alpen is out. I want something with the right balance of fruit to nuts, and Brazil nuts seem to make my mouth tingle in a bad way so Jordan's and the Dorset Cereals range are out. I also want something that's reasonably nutritious without too many calories so granola is out, and that leaves me with one option: make my own. 

So here are the results of my experiments to find the perfect muesli. If you want to try experimenting, you can change the ingredient sliders below - share your recipe in the comments. 

           







Nutrition

Nutrition values per serving (0g)

Calories 0Kcal
Protein 0g
Fat 0g
    of which saturates 0g
Carbohydrates 0g
    of which sugars 0g


Make a batch

To make 500g of this recipe you'll need:

    Ingredients

    Use the sliders below to specify quantities of ingredients per serving:

    0g Jumbo oats
    0g Wheat flakes
    0g Almond flakes
    0g Mixed vine fruit
    0g Dessicated coconut
    0g Dried apricots
    0g Dried apple
    0g Mixed seeds
    0g Chopped hazelnuts
    0g Dried papaya
    0g Dried cranberries


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    Being nice to my future self

    Friday 14th October 2016

    I've been working on this as a concept for a long time and I wanted to write it down to clarify it for myself, although of course you're welcome to read it too. 

    You what?

    It's a pretty straightforward idea. When I was young I used to go out and get blind drunk or whatever, even when I knew that I had to get up early to work the next day.

    Come the morning and the inevitable hangover, I'd be cursing myself for not taking it easy or going to bed before 3am. 

    After a while, I became aware that the person who had to get up early was actually me, and I could make life better for that person. It's not just me, research suggests that most people have the same level of compassion for their future selves as they do for other people in the present. 

    This idea was first described by Derek Parfit in a book called Reasons and Persons in the 1980s. He suggested that our future selves aren't really us at all, which comes about by a series of tiny changes in ourselves, day by day.

    As psychologist Hal Hershfield says

    It's fine to think about that future self as another person—it just has to be another person you feel close to and have a lot of overlap with. The marriages that work best and the friendships that work best are the ones where people feel like the other person is almost part of them. So perhaps the key to being "future-conscious" is making sure that, insofar as our future self feels like someone else, it's someone we love and care about.

     

    How does this help?

    By making you more connected with your future self, you're less likely to procrastinate and more likely to do things that are beneficial.

    There's now a website, futureme.org, where you can write emails to your future self. I've written myself a message to be delivered a year from today, containing my hopes for what my future self will be doing. 

    US Bank Merrill Edge have launched a website called Face Retirement that shows how you're going to look at retirement age in an effort to make you save more into your pension.

    I really hope I don't look like this at 67.

    But I get the general principle. Feel like eating the entire cake? Want to stay up to 5am because Bryan's still awake and you have Fear Of Missing Out? Might as well finish the bottle? 

    Think about what your future self would say, and listen to them/you.

    Tomorrow morning you'll feel okay, and you can say "thanks, me from the past!"

     

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    Scrabble

    Friday 2nd September 2016

    I love Scrabble, but I've always thought that the letter distribution was wrong. Kat and I normally play a (perfectly legal) version where there are two bags of letters: vowels and consonants. You can choose how many of each type when you pick new tiles, I find this helps with the letters, otherwise I end up with a rack full of vowels and have to waste a turn changing them. Playing two bags reduces the randomness a little and makes the game based more on skill than chance.

    Show us your Butts

    The story goes that Alfred Butts, who invented Scrabble, used the front page of the New York Times in 1938 to get the frequencies of the different letters and used that to calculate how many tiles of each letter to use for 100 tiles in total. Sadly I've been unable to find out exactly which edition of the newspaper he used, but I can only imagine that the stories were all about India initialising institutions, because I've always found there are way too many i tiles in the game.

    First I did a letter frequency analysis on the front page of the New York Times and BBC News websites, averaged the letter counts of both websites and graphed them against the Scrabble letter tiles. There were 34,980 characters in total, twice the number of letters that Alfred Butts used.

     

    So far so good, there's not a huge difference between them. The most obvious difference is that J, Q, X and Z all appear with a frequency of less than 1% on the two news websites, so none of those tiles should be in the game at all, but that's going to kill a lot of the fun.

    Looking at these news websites more closely there are lots of words that aren't in the Scrabble dictionary, and a lot of small words like the, of and is which skew the results. I don't think this is a good sample. A much better sample of words would be the complete 267,751-word Official Scrabble Words (OSW) dictionary, which I downloaded and analysed.

    There were 2,250,566 characters in total, a hundred and fifty times as many characters as Alfred Butts analysed and all of them legal Scrabble words. Alfred must have spent many hours doing his analysis; my PC completed it in about five seconds. 

    The distribution of the OSW diverges much more than a sample of news text does from a Scrabble set. It is also different from normal letter frequencies in written English, where the first top five letters are E, T, A, O and I in that order. But the Scrabble dictionary is pretty different to written English!

    The OSW analysis has more R's and T's, way more S's and fewer E's, but there are still no J, Q or X letters. Let's be charitable and add in one of each of these letters and we come up with a new distribution:

    Luckily we have several Scrabble sets in the house, so we can make a new set with the adjusted number of tiles.

    Here is the original Scrabble set on the left, with my amended set on the right. You can see the additional letters are a lighter colour because they're from a different edition of Scrabble. The removed letters from the original set are at the bottom on the right.

    To be fair to the inventor, he didn't have the OSW or the computing power to work this out. 

    The next step is to test it out!

    Here are the results of the first game that Kat and I played using the new set. We didn't play the two-bag rule, and I felt that the letter distribution was definitely better.

    The most obvious change was that the seven extra S tiles meant that there were many more instances of making an already-played word into the plural and scoring more points. It needs more games to find out if it's a real improvement though.

    Want to give it a go? You'll need an additional A, C, L, M, P, R, seven S's and two T's. You can buy individual tiles on eBay.  

    From now on, new posts are going to be every other week.

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    Feminism

    Friday 26th August 2016

    "I love women so much I married one" goes the joke, and I've always considered myself a feminist simply because I think gender equality is a no-brainer. But a conversation with a friend a little while ago made me question that - can men really call themselves feminists?

     

    What do you mean by feminism?

    This seems like a good place to start. A simple definition says it is:

    The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.

    A more detailed answer would include specifics like universal suffrage (voting), reproductive rights like access to contraception and abortions, gender equality at work and protection from violence and abuse. 

    How can I not agree with all these things? So that makes me think that duh, obviously I'm a feminist. 

     

    I think you'll find it's more complicated than that

    But the more I read up about this, the more contradictory opinions I found. For example this article states: 

    People of all genders can be feminists if they’re willing to do the work to dismantle patriarchal oppression

    I am, by anyone's definition, the very model of the patriarchy: white, male, affluent and heterosexual. I benefit from just about every privilege that society has to offer, but I'm not actively trying to oppress anyone. I think it's criminal that less than 10% of company boardrooms are staffed by women and that even with a female Prime Minister we still only have a 30% female cabinet

    My business is 50% female owned, which sounds great but there are only two of us, so I shouldn't be patting myself too hard on the back. I've never stopped my wife from accessing contraception or subjected her to domestic violence, but surely all men should be able to say the same thing - I don't want a medal. And I don't do my fair share of the housework, but I don't think that's got anything to do with sexism.

     

    Can I call myself a feminist?

    I make every effort to treat all women as absolute equals, and I criticise friends who make overtly sexist comments (just as I criticise friends who are racist or homophobic) but it seems that isn't enough.

    That same article continues:

    It’s not a man’s place to label themselves as a feminist since at its core, feminism is for gaining equality for women. A woman you are close to can assign that label to you, but you have to earn it!

    WTF? There's no way we're going to have gender equality if only women can label which men get the special badges. 

    Luckily some people disagree. areyouafeminist.com gave me this lovely rosette when I completed their online test. Granted, it was a pretty simple test comprising two questions. 

    But as a part of the patriarchy I do things all the time that aren't feminist like watch movies that don't pass the Bechdel Test, hold doors open for women, or occasionally find myself looking at a particularly fine pair of breasts.

    • Do I believe that women are in any way inferior to men? No.
    • Do I believe that gender is social construct? Yes, and I realise that it's not binary.
    • Do I believe that men and women are fundamentally different? Yes, I can draw you a picture if you like.

    But I can't truly know what it's like to be a woman, oppressed by the patriarchy.

     

    Walking the walk

    So I started looking for ways to be a more active feminist day-to-day. xojane have a list of 35 practical steps that men can take to support feminism.

    Some are straightforward:

    • #1 Do 50% or more of the housework (I still don't think this has anything to do with sexism in my case)
    • #4 Give women space (as in make it clear you're not following them along a street at night, not outer space)
    • #14 Make sure that honesty and respect guide your romantic and sexual relationships with women (weirdly specific, how about in all relationships?)

    Others really made me think: 

    • #19 Pay attention to the sex of experts and key figures presenting information to you in the media
    • #20 Ensure that some of your heroes and role models are women (I've added photos of some of my female heroes to this post)
    • #30 Inject feminism into your daily conversations with other men (this is going to be a challenge)

    And then there's the last one:

    • #35. Self-identify as a feminist

    And so finally: I am a feminist.

    I think.

     

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    Can you name all nine of my female heroes and role models pictured in this post? There's a prize for the first correct answer!

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    Code Club

    Friday 29th July 2016

    I read about Code Club when it first started in 2012, and we've just finished our first term of teaching it at Lostwithiel School.

    The idea is to encourage 9-11 year olds to start programming in after-school clubs, we had about a dozen kids coming along to our club and they all made fantastic progress!

     

    Across the country

    Code Club is entirely run by volunteers, across the UK there are almost 4,000 clubs with almost 50,000 children! That's about a fifth of the total number of primary schools on the country, which isn't bad for the first four years.

    Code Club itself is run the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the same organisation that makes the tiny cheap computer which is the UK's best selling PC of all time.

     

    CS First

    We've been following Google's brilliant CS First programme, and for the first term we chose their Storytelling topic to teach the kids in our club to code using Scratch, a free visual language created by MIT that runs entirely in the browser so there's no need to install anything on the school laptops.

    The Storytelling topic is great because its main focus is using the tools to tell interesting stories, rather than just teach while loops in a dry manner. It's brilliant, and I bet the kids didn't even realise they're learning anything!

     

    Looking back

    I've always had a computer, we got a Sinclair ZX80 in 1980, and my parents ran a small business hiring out ZX Spectrums and Dragon 32s in the early 1980s.

    I spent a reasonable amount of my childhood typing in lines of Basic code from computer magazines.

    10 DIM s(60): DIM c(60)
    20 BORDER 0: PAPER 0: BRIGHT 1: INK 7: CLS 
    50 GO SUB 370
    60 LET z$="00"
    70 CLS 

    I kind of understood it, but not enough that I could write my own games.

    Later on I wrote a couple of text adventures games on my Commodore Amiga and played about with the Amiga's Shoot Em Up Construction Kit, but never really seriously. I didn't learn any real structured programming until I started building websites in 1997.

     

    Looking forward

    When we're running Code Club I always think about how my life might be different if this had existed when I was young.

    Everything I've learned about programming has been self taught, trial and error, or learning by reading other people's code.

    The basics of coding aren't complicated, and I think they're well within the grasp of most 9-11 year olds. If someone had taught me code when I was nine I would be a much better programmer now!

    Look what we've done with the current generation of programmers, a lot of whom are self-taught like me. Imagine what the next generation of programmers are going to be capable of building!

    But something's been bothering me about this ever since we started Code Club, which was very clearly articulated by a Wired article back in May.

    Machine Learning like Google's Go-playing AI or their self-driving cars aren't following computer programmes in the way that we're teaching kids to code, and it's only a matter of time before even the humans that created these tools aren't capable of understanding how they behave at their core.

    How useful is it to be teaching this way of coding which might be going obsolete by the time they finish school?

     

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    What's going to kill me

    Friday 8th July 2016

    Bit of a light-hearted one this week! I'm a fit white non-smoking British male aged 40, what am I likely to die of over the next decade? Let's start with the basics and work inwards. 

     

    Top causes of death 2013

    The incredibly helpful Office For National Statistics publish an annual report on causes of death. The latest dataset I could find is for 2013, but I can't imagine that it makes that much difference. Here are the leading causes of death for males across all ages.

    Check out the interactive graphic on their site if you're feeling morbid and want to investigate the data for your age/gender.

    But looking at the data for all ages is pretty misleading, what if we look at just my age range, 35-49:

     

    According to the last census, there are 13,463,000 British men in the 35-49 age range. Of those there were 6,861 deaths in this dataset (year 2013) which means that if I was a perfectly average member of society I'd have a 0.05% chance of dying this year. Looking good so far. 

     

    #1 - Suicide (20.1%)

    One in five of the men in the UK in my age range who die are taking their own lives. I can't decide if that's really serious, or just because there aren't many other things that men my age die from.

    Kat and I took part in the incredible Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) programme a few years ago when we built their website, so I know that not all of these suicides are intentional.

    The programme taught us that a large number of people who kill themselves don't mean to do it, and we spent a long time during the programme talking about people being 'at risk of suiciding' when they're unhappy or mentally ill.

    The course is free and well worth going on if you have an ASIST trainer near you. 

    Suicide is the #2 killer of males in the 5-19 age range, and #1 from 20 all the way up to 49. It drops to #7 for the 50-64 age range and disappears from the top ten from age 65 onwards. I couldn't find out if this is because men stop committing suicide after the age of 49 or it's just that other things start killing them more so that suicide isn't as prominent in the results.

    Okay, so that's number one, but to be honest I don't feel that it's a big risk factor for me personally. Like most people I've considered suicide at one time or another, but never seriously. 

     

    #2 - Heart disease (17.7%)

    I wasn't entirely sure what this category included, so I read up and found that it covers heart attack, stroke, angina, aneurisms and many more. The good news is that 90% of these diseases are preventable and due to high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, lack of exercise, obesity, high blood cholesterol, poor diet, and excessive alcohol consumption.

    So as long as I avoid these things I should be fine. My diet's not great, but I'm working on that.

     

    #3 - Liver disease (15.4%)

    Still enjoying this? Liver disease is another large category that includes infectious hepatitis, parasite infections, alcoholic liver disease, a bunch of genetic diseases and I think they're including liver cancer but I can't be sure.

    I've managed to avoid any blood-borne viruses and parasites so far, I don't really drink and I had my DNA sequenced last year so I'm certain I don't have any of those genetic diseases, so this isn't a likely cause of death for me. 

     

    #4 - Accidental poisoning (11.7%)

    Ooh, this looks more promising. This category includes poisoning by household and industrial chemicals as well as deaths from alcohol and drug overdose. I couldn't find data specifically about my age range, but 67% of these deaths are illegal drug overdoses and 80% of those are opiates (including heroin), cocaine or benzodiazepines, none of which I'm into. The remaining third seems to be mainly alcohol, paracetamol and antidepressants.

    I take paracetamol from time to time, but I know what a truly horrible way that is to die so I'm unlikely to accidentally poison myself with it. This doesn't look like a very likely candidate for my death after all. 

     

    #5 - Cerebrovascular diseases (5%)

    We're getting into unlikely figures now with just 341 deaths in 2013 in my age range across 13.5m men. This category covers blood either clotting in the brain or leaking into it, like transient ischemic attack, ischemic stroke and subarachnoid haemorrhage - try saying that after a few whiskies. Risk factors include hypertension, smoking, obesity and diabetes, so I'm quietly confident.

     

    #6 - Lung cancer (4.5%)

    I don't see this happening to me. 85% of all lung cancers are related to smoking (no matter what Nigel Farage says) and the remainder are split between genetic factors, asbestos, air pollution ... and radon.

    Living in Cornwall we're at much higher risk of radon-related cancers as the map above shows, and we actually had radon detectors in our house for six months as part of an Environment Agency study. They said that we're just on the borderline of having to do something to mitigate the risk.

    So that's a possibility, but it's pretty low risk, about 3% of total lung cancers - 1,100 people a year in the UK die from radon-related lung cancer. I couldn't find any data splitting that down by age and gender, but I assume that it's older people because the effects will be cumulative. For a reason I don't understand, you're at higher risk of developing cancer from radon if you smoke

     

    #7 - Transport accidents (land) (3.8%)

    About 1,700 people a year die in road accidents in the UK, down from over 3,500 at the beginning of the century. This category is the #1 cause of death for 5-19 year old males and #3 in the 20-34 age range, so it's already in steep decline as a cause of death for me generally.  

    I think I'm also at a lower risk than most males because I work from home so there's no travel to work.

    I occasionally take part in track days where you get to drive your car on a race track, and you might think this would up my risk, but organised motor sport events have very low fatality rates - lower than driving on the roads. For a start everyone is going in the same direction, the drivers are all awake, no-one is hungover and everyone is concentrating on what they're doing - rather than texting!

    I don't think this is the one. 

     

    #8 - Bowel cancer (3.5%)

    This includes any cancer of the large intestine or rectum, and appears in the top ten causes of death for the first time at this age range. It's #4 in 50-64, #6 in the 65-79 and #8 in the 80+ age range. I've been unable to find out why it peaks in 50-64 old males. It's mainly caused by diet, obesity, smoking, and lack of physical activity.

    The only one that worries me there is diet; looking further into the risk factors though, red meat and alcohol are the main culprits here so maybe that's not so bad after all. 

     

    #9 - Lymphoid cancer (3.3%)

    This category includes an cancers of the lymphatic system. Risk factors include infection with Epstein–Barr virus, family history, HIV/AIDS, immunosuppressant medications, some pesticides, and possibly large amounts of red meat. I think I'm okay here. 

     

    #10 - Brain cancer (3.2%)

    Finally we have brain tumours. The risk factors are largely unknown, but include our friend Epstein-Barr virus again, some industrial chemicals and ionizing radiation. Maybe our trip to Chernobyl will come with a high price?

     

    Summary

    I know this is all a bit bleak for a Friday morning, but I feel I've got a much better handle on what might kill me. I assumed that accidents with power tools or playing too much squash were my biggest risk factors, but it turns out to be suicide and heart disease.

    What are yours and how do you feel about it? Click to open the graphing tool, select your gender in the top right and then your age range at the bottom.

     

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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?

     

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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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    Choice

    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.

    Start

    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.

    Results

    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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    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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    Phonyetics

    Friday 11th December 2015

    I always laugh when I hear people struggle to spell words phonetically, when they say random words starting with that letter instead of the standard (if dull) NATO phonetic alphabet.

    I've been collecting a list of confusing words that don't start with the sound of that letter, just to confuse people further.

    I'd like to find some better words for some of the letters, if you've got any more add a comment below! 

    Thanks to Bryan for his suggestions, do you have any more? Leave a comment below.

     

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    Learning curve dip

    Friday 27th November 2015

    I've had two recent experiences of learning new skills and they're both doing my head in. I've hired a race instructor to teach me how to drive my car on track, and I've hired a poker coach to improve my game.

     

    L plates

    I've had a driving licence for over twenty years, but I only felt I learned to drive in August when I went out for a day with Mike Cooper, a driving tutor. I drove a 160-mile circuit of Oxon, Berks and Bucks while Mike sat in the passenger seat, explaining how to improve my car control, situational awareness and improve my fuel efficiency. We then had a second day on a race track at Castle Combe, where Mike expanded the lesson to driving at speed.

    Mike used to be a physics teacher, and his driving training is grounded in physics. We spent most of the days talking about the forces involved in driving such as weight transfer during braking and cornering.

    Ever since then I've felt like I'm learning to drive again, and it's a really strange feeling. Like most people I used to drive mainly on autopilot, and sometimes I'd get to my destination without remembering any of the journey there.

    After spending a couple of days in the car with Mike I initially struggled to have the radio on because I found it distracting. It was really frustrating that I couldn't drive without concentrating any more.

     

    Poker coaching

    My second experience of learning again has been hiring a poker coach, who'd rather remain nameless. He's won $100,000 over the last few years playing online, which seems like pretty good qualifications!

    I'd previously read a few books on poker, and I was pretty happy with my skill, enjoying the game and I thought that a coach would just fine-tune my game. It turns out I was doing it all wrong though, and he suggested changes to pretty much every part of the way I played. 

    My game completely disintegrated and I started losing money, even playing against opponents that I could easily beat before. I was extremely frustrated at my play, and it took a good two or three months for this to recover.

     

    Learning curve dips

    Both of these experiences have shown me a phenomenon that I've just noticed in myself - a learning curve dip.

    When I start learning a new skill, my understanding goes up quickly and I have a lot of fun, but then as I learn more my skill actually drops and I enter a phase that I find very frustrating.

    If I've got the patience to keep going, eventually I come out of the other end and my skill level goes up again beyond the level that I go to during the fun phase, and after that it's satisfying.

    Here's a graph of what I mean:

    I think what happens is that I only understand the skill at a very basic level by the end of the fun phase, and as I learn more I realise how much more there is to learn, which makes me feel like a novice again. The initial fun phase could be called beginner's luck.

    One thing that I've come to understand is that if I haven't experienced the frustrating phase, I haven't got a good understanding of the subject! Looking back at skills I've learned this year, I'd say that I've quit during the frustrating phase of most of them.

    This might also be what is commonly called Second Album Syndrome, where a band produces a great first album, released at the top of the fun phase, and then as they progress they release a second album which isn't as good as the first.

    I couldn't find a lot of information about this on the web, so maybe it's just me? Do you find the same thing? Leave a comment below.

     

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    Silent Sunday

    Friday 6th November 2015

    Maybe I'm a bit of a masochist, but I like experimenting on myself. Continuing on the alliterative theme from Mobile-free Monday, I wanted to see if I could be completely silent for a whole day. This was never going to happen on a weekday at work, so Sunday seemed like a good day to try it.

    Here's what happened.

     

    Midnight

    We're driving back from a party when midnight strikes. I suddenly feel like I want shout - why didn't I do this a few minutes ago?

     

    12:15 am 

    Messed it up already by speaking to the dog - "do you need to go to the toilet before we go to bed?" Does that even count? It's going to be very hard to control the dog without speaking.

     

    8:00 am 

    I set a reminder on my phone telling me not to speak, which is what wakes me up.

    I guess the easy thing to do would be just communicate by text all day, or get a Stephen hawking style robot voice app. That's probably cheating. 

     

    9:00 am 

    Go for a long dog walk on Bodmin moor with a very understanding friend. She tries to be silent too and lasts all of ten seconds. I have a whistle to communicate with the dog, but feel a bit bad blowing it at my friend when I want to attract her attention from a distance.

    It's very hard to communicate without speaking, I wish I'd played charades more.

    My friend tells me off for laughing, but there's no way I could stop doing that for a day. At some points on the walk she starts communicating using gestures too, angling her hands over her head as a sign for a house.

    We need better gestures for question words - instead of why, when, how etc I'm reduced to looking bemused. If I was doing this for any longer I'd definitely learn sign language. 

     

    Noon

    I'm trying to not use writing to communicate, but it's really hard. If you were illiterate then a day (or vow) of silence would really cut you off from the world. Monks apparently had their own sign language.

    I'm concentrating really hard on a computer-related task, then turn to Kat and accidentally start a sentence! This is surprisingly hard. 

     

    1:15 pm

    I wave at Kat from across the kitchen to see if she wants a cup of tea. She suggests that I use the whistle, but is that cheating? I'm not sure. I'm quite enjoying my silence, it frees me from having to communicate with people. I like to have a day without communicating at all, but that would be very hard indeed.

     

    1:30 pm

    The hardest time to remember not to talk is when I'm concentrating. I finish watching a YouTube movie about a scientist who died from snakebite and then say out loud "what a silly man". Kat is taking great delight in telling me to shush.

     

    3:00 pm 

    It's such a beautiful day that we're walking the dog again. I'm really enjoying the contemplation of being quiet. Is Kat deliberately misunderstanding all my gestures, or am I unintelligible? A bit of both. Try miming "Here is my secret stash of sticks if you're looking for some to throw for the dog in future."

    I realise how much of my normal speech is just silly puns and jokes, both of which are very hard to do with gestures.

    Luckily I haven't yet had to interact with any strangers alone. Kat handles the ticket woman at the castle, and I'm doing a smile-and-nod-politely to the other walkers we've seen out.  

     

    4:30 pm

    We bump into a few friends in town, but Kat kindly tells them that I'm not talking today.

    On my own I would have transgressed all sorts of English social niceties.

     

    4:45 pm

    Accidentally spoke again. I swear it's computers that put me off.

     

    5:45 pm

    Watching a Charlie Chaplin movie, Modern Times. Now there's a man who can do silence well.

     

    9:00 pm

    Pub quiz, this is the home straight. I've got a pen and paper, all I have to do is avoid saying hello to our team mates as they arrive (failed on the first one) and shouting out the answers.

    Several people start conversations with me in the pub and I look awkward. Luckily Kat explains that I'm not speaking, and it makes me smile that none of them seem surprised!

    11 pm

    It's been a really interesting day. Being silent (or trying to) has been very relaxing and a good experience. Give it a go!

     

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    How do casinos make money?

    Friday 23rd October 2015

    I've been obsessed with poker for about five months now. I've just this week completed my goal of turning an initial £10 stake into £100! There were two things that originally got me interested in it.

    Firstly, unlike many other gambling games, it involves a degree of skill. I thought that if I learned the maths and probability behind it, maybe I could do well.

    Secondly, playing it in a casino doesn't involve playing against the house. And as we all know, the house always wins. For example Blackjack and Roulette incorporate rules specifically designed to give the casino an edge of the players, and slot machines have a fixed percentage that they return over time.

    I didn't really understand how it all worked, so I've done some reading and here's what I've learned. It turns out I was wrong!

     

    Blackjack

    The house edge in Blackjack comes mostly from the rule that if the player busts then they lose - it doesn't matter if the dealers subsequently busts too. This happens often enough to make a bit of money for the casino every time it does.

    This means that even a good Blackjack player will lose on average 1% of the their stake over time, but 1% is pretty good compared to some other casino games.

     

    Roulette

    In the case of Roulette the house edge comes from the green 0 pocket on the wheel.

    Using European Roulette as an example, there are 37 pockets that the ball can fall into. If you put £1 bets on all 37 numbers you'd be guaranteed to win £35 every time the ball rolled, losing you £2 per go. The house edge here is 2.7%.

    Or let's say you place £1 on black and £1 on red, so you'll win £2 back most of the time. But every 1 in 37 times (on average) the ball will fall into the 0, so over time you're losing 2.7p each time the ball rolls. The house edge is still 2.7%.

    American Roulette has a 0 and a 00 pocket, which increases their edge to 5.3%.

    To be honest I don't know why anyone ever plays Roulette, but many people over the years have told me about a mathematically proven system that beats the house.

     

    The Martingale System

    The idea is simple - you place a bet on red (or black if you prefer) and each time you lose, you double your stake. This is formally named the Martingale System

    As an example:

    • I bet £1 on red
    • If red comes up, I've won £1
    • If red doesn't come up, I bet £2 on red next time
    • If red comes up, I've won £1 (£4 in winnings minus £3 in stake)
    • If red doesn't come up, I bet £4 on red next time
    • If red comes up, I've won £1 (£8 in winnings minus £7 in stake)
    • If red doesn't come up, I bet £8 on red next time
    • If red comes up, I've won £1 (£16 in winnings minus £15 in stake)
    • and so on...

    Eventually I'm bound to win, because red has to come up at least once!

    The first reason this doesn't work is that no matter how much you bet, you only win back your original stake. So you'll need to make your original stake really large.

    Say we started off with a £1,000 bet on red, eventually we're going to win back £1,000 when red comes up, even if it takes ten spins. But if it takes ten spins, then by spin ten we're betting £512,000 just to win £1,000! If you've got half a million quid lying around, are you really going to risk all of it to win a grand? And what happens if it takes twenty spins? Pretty unlikely, but you'll need just over £1bn in case it happens.

    The second reason this doesn't work is because of the 0. One time in 37 (on average) the little ball is going to fall into the zero pocket and you've got to start all over again. It's pretty unlikely to happen once (2.7% likely in fact), but in our ten-spin example it's not looking good for you.

     

    Slot machines

    This, I discovered, is where the really big money comes from. Slot machines are programmed to return a fixed percentage back to gamblers over time.

    This is typically around 80-90%, but that's over millions of spins, and you're not guaranteed to get anything like that back.

    In this example photo that I snapped in a pub the other day, it's 74%. Those are pretty terrible odds.

    Taking Nevada in 2009 as an example, poker brings in around 1.6% of the total gaming revenue for the state.

    Compare this with 4.7% for Roulette, 13% for Blackjack, and a whopping 51% for slot machines!

    So let's avoid those too.


     

    Rake

    So I started playing poker online, thinking that I was being clever by not having the compete against the house. But pretty quickly I started to wonder how websites like Pokerstars was making money out of all this. And that's when I discovered rake.

    Rake is the commission taken by a poker room (real or online) from a game. It ranges from 2.5% to 5% depending on where you play, and is usually expressed in a tournament buy-in as £X + Y where X goes into the prize fund and Y is the rake that the poker room take for organising the tournament.

    For example, I entered a 6-handed tournament on Pokerstars last week that was advertised as a $1.50 buy-in (I know, big spender!) which the details listed as $1.40 + $0.10 entry fee, with a prize pool of $8.40. So Pokerstars are making $0.60 each time one of these tournaments start.

    To give you an idea of how much money they're making out of this, they recently celebrated their 100 billionth hand, and most of their tournaments cost more than $0.50 to enter. Last year Pokerstars was sold for $4.9 billion in cash.

    It turns out that rake is the major factor stopping the average player from winning money at poker. One poker forum post said "rake isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing".

    Although it looks like they're giving you free drinks and food, in a live casino you're actually paying something like $15 an hour to play.

    Of course you are, and I can't believe I ever thought differently.

    Learning this has really changed my opinion of poker - I'd much rather play a home game with some friends, because I know that no-one's taking my money apart from my mates!

     

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    Nostalgia

    Friday 18th September 2015

    I've never understood nostalgia, it's always felt dishonest to me. Sure, I've got an Atari 2600 and play it very occasionally, but I'd rather get drunk and play GTA V ;)

    But nostalgia seems to be a large and growing industry. The town where I live is dominated by antiques shops that pedal nostalgia, so I wanted to investigate it further.

    Here's what I discovered.

     

    Mal du Suisse

    The word was first coined in the mid-1700s to describe a particular kind of home-sickness seen in Swiss soldiers. Also known as mal du Suisse, the Swiss illness, it was brought on by singing traditional Swiss songs, Kuhreihen, and led to "an almost irrepressible yearning for home".

    Singing these songs was apparently forbidden because they led to nostalgia to the point of desertion, illness or death!

    I can empathise with this: I used to suffer from almost unbearable home-sickness. From a young age I used to feel physically sick whenever we went on holiday even with my parents, and it lasted several days before I got over it.

    My first few days at university were horrible and I continued to get home-sick even after I'd left home and moved to Brighton. It faded away in my mid-twenties but I know how those Swiss soldiers felt.

     

    Modern life is rubbish

    These days nostalgia has a different meaning - an interest in the past. Although this is usually an interest in your own past, personal nostalgia, it can be older than that. Organisations such as the Sealed Knot are examples of historical nostalgia.

    Personal nostalgia can include collecting toys from your childhood, listening to old music or watching old TV shows. Reddit's nostalgia section lists Pizza Hut drinking glasses from the 80s, the distinctive plastic taste of water in the summer, and toy styrofoam aeroplanes among the top scoring links.

    Nostalgia websites are big business: TV Cream lists every single TV show I ever saw as a child while The Nostalgia Machine generate music playlists from a chosen year. A vintage Star Wars AT-AT can fetch £100 on eBay, and you can bet they're not going to be given to small children to play with.

    I wouldn't be surprised to see a rise in nostalgia cooking and even nostalgia restaurants that serve food from a certain era. How about a café dishing up overcooked, mushy school dinners from the 80s, served by bitter old women in aprons?

     

    Homesick for a home I never had

    That last example illustrates the reason why I'm so against nostalgia. The food of my childhood was dreadful, the TV shows were rubbish, the toys weren't that great and the music was pretty cheesy.

    But put them all together, filter out the negative bits and you've got a perfect little world of your own creation. And the reason you can't return to this past is that it isn't real.

    As this rather interesting paper says, "If one defines nostalgia as a yearning for an idealized past, the bittersweet nature of it becomes clearer. One can never return to this past, it never truly existed. And the present reality, no matter how good, can never be as good as an ideal which nostalgia has created."

    Maybe I've got a better memory than most, or maybe my past wasn't as great as yours, but this is why nostalgia doesn't work for me. It feels fake because only the positive aspects of the past are remembered without discussing the negatives, or the positives of the present.

    This is exemplified perfectly by the US magazine Nostalgia, which describes itself as re-living "the days when teenage couples sipped milkshakes at the soda fountain, when families gathered around the radio for nightly entertainment, when men wore hats in public and ladies only wore dresses." No mention of whites-only seats on the bus, chauvinist adverts or the threat of nuclear war.

     

    The best days of my life

    So far so good, but the more I researched nostalgia, the more I was surprised to discover the positive aspects.

    In 1979 sociologists found that people were more likely to use nostalgia when they experience "fears, discontents, anxieties, and uncertainties" and overcame these negative emotions by "using the past in specially constructed ways".

    It also described that "hurts, annoyances, disappointments, and irritations" are "filtered forgivingly through an ‘it was all for the best’ attitude".

    In 1996 researchers studied what they termed mood repair in sad subjects who deliberately used positive nostalgic memories to improve their mood. Maybe there are benefits of nostalgia after all.

    A fascinating series of studies published in 2006 looked at many different aspects of nostalgia. They reported that subjects who used nostalgia "scored higher on brief measures of social bonding, positive self-regard, and positive affect".

    These people had "less attachment anxiety and avoidance, higher self-esteem" and "greater confidence in their ability to initiate interactions and relationships, disclose personal information, and provide emotional support to others." That's quite a list of positive attributes.

    Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology said that "loneliness has been shown to be a trigger for heightened nostalgia. [...] Nostalgia helps someone feel connected again. It helps to decrease the negative feelings of being alone."

    A 2010 study by the Mental Health Foundation found that one in 10 people in the UK often feel lonely, and Britain was recently voted the Loneliness Capital of Europe so maybe nostalgia can help with this too.

     

    Give it a whirl

    So on reflection, Nostalgia seems less like a Swiss disease, and more like a psychological Swiss army knife!

    This genuinely surprised me, and so I've decided to give nostalgia a try.

    Want to come over to play Ghostbusters my Atari 2600 and eat Vienetta?

     

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    Drink driving

    Friday 28th August 2015

    Having previously said I don't drink, I'm going to see how drunk I can get and still be under the UK alcohol limit. I decided it was a teeny bit unethical to get behind the wheel, so I'm going to test myself on GTA V instead.

    I created a simple course that mimics my everyday life. So I'm going to drive from my luxury penthouse apartment to the clothes shop for a new dress, then go for a haircut before driving to the golf course.

    But first, Science™. Or if science isn't your thing, just skip to the heading marked Sober.

     

    Blood alcohol concentration

    When a bottle says that it's 5% or 40% alcohol, that's the amount of the liquid in the bottle which is pure ethanol, the stuff that gets you drunk. So a pint (568mL) of Carlsberg Export at 5% is 28.4mL of ethanol (568 * 5 / 100).

    In the UK we use a system called units to make it easier to keep track of what you've drunk. One unit is 10mL of ethanol. So a pint of Carlsberg Export is 2.84 units (28.4 / 10), although it just says 2.8 on the can to avoid confusing drunk people.

    Still with me?

    Drink drive limits are expressed as the amount of ethanol in a certain amount of blood, or breath. The UK drink drive limit is currently 80mg of ethanol per 100mL of blood (or 35 μg per 100mL of breath). 80mg/100mL is more commonly expressed as 0.08 BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration).

    But how much do I need to drink to stay below that?

     

    The Widmark method

    The generally accepted method for calculating blood alcohol is the Widmark method, which is gives the blood alcohol concentration in g%:

    BAC = (0.8 * ethanol in mL * 100) / (weight in Kg * 1000 * gender constant)

    The gender constant is 0.68 for men and 0.55 for women and relates to the different amounts of water in the bodies of men and women. Re-arranging this to give me the most I can drink and still be below the UK drink drive limit gives me a wonderfully simple formula:

    Ethanol in mL = weight in Kg * gender constant

    For me, this is 47.6mL ethanol, which is 4.76 UK units. This is just over a pint and half of Export, or four shots of gin, which is what I'm going to drink.

    I know before I even open the bottle that I'm going to be utterly incapable of driving anywhere.

     

    Sober

    First, I need a benchmark, so I drove the course sober in 5 minutes and 39 seconds.

     

    Drunk in the game

    If you've played GTA V, you'll know that there are all sorts of ways to get high in the game. As an extra benchmark I wanted to get plastered in the game (still sober in real life) and then drive the same course to see what time I get. The vehicle swerves all over the road after you've had a few and is very hard to control.

    The main problem here is that you can't shop or get a haircut while the police are after you, and drink-driving catches their attention pretty quickly.

    It didn't end well and no matter how many times I tried, I couldn't get to the golf club without dying. Here's an example.

     

    Drunk in real life

    To be honest I wasn't looking forward to this, it's definitely one of the worse ideas I've had lately. But here goes.

    I drank four shots of gin and a pint of tonic water in ten minutes and then tried to play the game. I got round the course in 7 minutes 12 seconds, but I found it hard to navigate the menus and failed to buy a dress or get a haircut.

    There's no way I should be driving in real life. My driving wasn't that bad, I could control the car much easier than being drunk in the game, but I found it very hard to concentrate on playing and keeping the truck on the road. I guess this is why we have drink-drive laws! Apologies for the mumbly, slurred commentary in the video.

     

    Want to give it a go?

     

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    Playing cards

    Friday 7th August 2015

    One of my favourite questions is 'how did it come to be like this?'. My recent obsession with playing poker has led me to wonder why the standard 52-card deck looks the way it does, specifically the face cards. Here's what I've discovered.

     

    Ante up

    Being British I've got a tendency to think that everything was invented here, but playing cards originated in China. As early as the 9th century there are references to a "leaf game", which is about the same time that China invented printing on sheets of paper instead of rolls. Sadly the rules for this game were lost by 1067. Card game enthusiast and sinologist William Henry Wilkinson suggested that the first playing cards may have been paper currency, being the game and the stakes combined. By the 15 century there were four suits to a pack of 38 cards.

    These cards made their way to Mamluk in Egypt by the 11th century. The Mamluk deck was 52 cards in four suits (polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups) of 13 cards with three male face cards: king, viceroy and under-deputy. Possibly because of Sunni Islam aniconism, the cards used the words of the titles but didn't include their pictures.

    Here is an example of the Mamluk deck, remember these are the front of the cards not the back!

     

    Pre-flop

    From Egypt, playing cards made their way to southern Europe by the 14th century, and traditional Latin decks still use the same four suits. These were originally made by hand, with the earliest playing card print woodcut dated to 1418. Once print became widespread in Europe there was an increase in variety of different card types created by different manufacturers.

    The earliest card game to which the rules are still known is Karnöffel, from what is now Germany in early 15th century, using 48 cards but can be played with a standard 52-card pack with the aces removed. These are some example cards.

    It is about this time that the Tarot deck came into existence, with the oldest examples from Italy. I didn't realise that the decks were related, but Tarot cards are based around five suits numbered 1-10 with King, Queen, Knight, and Jack/Knave cards.

    As cards spread to Germany the suits changed to Leaves, Hearts, Bells, and Acorns, and included a Queen card for a while. As they spread into France the suits evolved to Clovers (clubs), Tiles (diamonds), Hearts, and Pikes (spades), the Queen was permanently included and the Knight was dropped.

    It's the French set that evolved into the standard pack used in most card games today, but there are still different sets which are widely used in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland.

     

    Post-flop

    In France, a number of variants appeared, with the card manufacturers in Paris and Rouen dominating.

    The Parisian pattern became predominant in France by 1780, and is known as the portrait officiel. It most commonly has 32 cards (the 2-6 cards are removed) with a 1 instead of an ace. The most interesting feature of this pack is that all the face cards are named: the King and Queen of Hearts are called Charles and Judith, which is nice.

    However it was the Rouennais pattern that was exported to Britain starting around 1480. English manufacturers started making their own, and a ban on the import of playing cards in 1628 isolated the designs from the rest of Europe.

    James I passed a law requiring a company logo on the Ace of Spades to prove that cards were made in England and tax had been paid. Similar taxes were introduced in other countries, with the ace of clubs being the most elaborate in France, and the ace of diamonds in Russia.

     

    Turn

    The English cards were of a poor print quality, and so the Rouennais cards lost their detail to become the more familiar stylised representations until Charles Goodall and Son fixed the designs in their current form in the late 19th century.

    Reversible cards were patented in the late 18th century. Before then card players had to flip their cards the right way up, which can give a clue to your hand, but it meant losing more detail on the face cards.

    Here's Charles growing up:

    Indices (the numeric value) on the corners of the cards were introduced in 1874, and it was around this time that the Knave changed to a Jack in English language packs - early indices used Kn for knave but this was too similar to K for king. Similar problems occurred in Latin languages (the words for King and Queen both start R) and  Germanic languages (where they start K).

    Rounded corners were introduced to help reduce wear on the edges of the cards, and designs were added to the back of the cards to help discourage writing on the backs and giving away information.

    Jokers were introduced by the USA around 1860 as a third trump card to play the game Euchre, and were standardised into the English-language packs.

     

    River

    Finally, the face cards in a standard pack are facing specific directions and feature specific items. These are great for pub quiz questions:

    • There are 42 eyes shown in a standard pack. The Jack of Spades, the Jack of Hearts and the King of Diamonds are drawn in profile, with only one eye showing.
    • The King of Diamonds (the only king with an axe) and the King of Hearts have their weapons behind their heads and are sometimes called suicide kings
    • The King of Hearts is the only king with both hands showing and without a moustache
    • All three Spades and the Jack of clubs are facing right, the others all face left
    • Jacks have coloured (usually yellow) hair whereas queens and kings have white hair

     

    Showdown

    The advent of online poker has seriously changed the appearance of cards for the first time in maybe 100 years. There's no longer a requirement for them to be reversible since the computer always deals them the right way up. The indices are generally larger, especially on mobile apps, to make it easier to identify your hand.

    But old traditions die hard, and the King of Hearts from Zynga Poker is still a suicide king, although he doesn't have both hands showing.

    The most important change is that the players don't need to use the same pack as each other. Sites like PokerStars, below, allow you to optionally use four-colour decks that make it easier to differentiate suits. You can buy these decks for real-life play, but some players find them distracting.

    Shame this hand was only for play money:

     

    Fancy a game of poker?

     

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    Why I don't drink

    Friday 22nd May 2015

    It's lemonade, I swearIf you're pushed for time, the short answer is that I've just never really liked alcohol.

    The first time I remember getting drunk I was 10 or 11 and my parents let me have a snifter of Pomagne that I'd won at a school fête (hey, it was the 80s).

    It made me feel dizzy, then I fell off my chair and threw up.

    The second time I remember getting drunk was at a friend's house when we were maybe 13,

    I got slaughtered and puked in his garden and passed out. I have a hazy recollection of my friend's dad standing over me looking vaguely concerned (80s again).

    Can you see a pattern here?

    Therapeutic index

    Let's talk pharmacology for a minute. The therapeutic index of a drug is the gap between the effective dose and overdose.

    The best drugs have a very large therapeutic index: the surgical painkiller Remifentanil scores 33,000:1, which means that you can overdose by 33,000 times the effective dose without any toxic effects. That's pretty safe.

    THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, has a therapeutic index of 1,000:1 which is why there are no recorded deaths from smoking too much weed.

    Some drugs have much smaller indices: paracetamol is about 20:1 and ethanol (the chemical in booze) is just 10:1. Ten times as much alcohol as it takes to have an effect is enough to produce a toxic effect - not just making me feel a bit groggy, but causing damage to my body.

    This is why it always makes me feel sick, I find it too easy to go from merry to wasted in a couple of drinks.

    "Relaxing" with a bottle of wine

    I originally only planned to stop drinking for a month, joining friends on a Dryathlon in January 2013. I didn't do it to raise money, just for the experience.

    I quickly learned some things about myself - if I'd had a hard day at work, or a stressful meeting, I'd automatically reach for the whisky and then remember I wasn't drinking that month.

    It didn't exactly scare me, but made me aware that I was using alcohol to stabilise myself. As the month progressed I found myself doing it less, but noticed it more and more in other people. Some Facebook friends only ever post about how they've had a hard day and are now relaxing with a bottle of wine.

    Sleep

    By the end of the month I'd noticed a really important change - I was sleeping much better. I'd always suffered from really horrible nightmares, I would regularly wake up covered in sweat, heart pounding, and with a full bladder.

    I kept a log of my nightmares for a while, which included:

    • 28th Jan: Francis was killed and eaten by Gila monsters
    • 19th Feb: My fingers were being eaten by rats
    • 10th Dec: Shot and killed two men

    This completely stopped during my month off, and it's never come back. People have suggested that my body was waking me up to go to the toilet by making me have a nightmare, which is apparently a recognised phenomenon in children, but I've been unable to find any quality research backing it up.

    Peer pressure

    For the first month, when I told friends I was doing Dryathlon they didn't seem bothered. But when I didn't start again in February I got a few funny looks. Friends who love their beer looked slightly worried and ask me to this day "so are you still not drinking?". Kat's grandfather was horrified when I turned down his very expensive red wine at lunch the other day.

    If there's one thing I've learned, it's that I can have just as much fun sober as I ever did drunk, and I don't have a hangover in the morning. In fact for the first time ever I've learned that there's a big difference between going to bed lashed and going to bed late - I can go to bed sober at 2am and feel fine the next day!

    Health

    I've really noticed an improvement in my health since I stopped drinking. I'm fitter, I catch fewer colds and I've lost weight (although this is not a scientific survey). A pint of Carlsberg Export is 244 calories, so if I sank eight pints a week, I was consuming an extra day's calories each week.

    I'm happier

    I don't know if there's a simple term for what I am now, but one thing I'm not is teetotal. I've had five or ten drinks over the last few years, and I've been thoroughly smashed twice.

    I'm really not trying to persuade you to stop getting drunk, and I'm really not judging you if we hang out for an evening and you're incapable of standing up or constructing a sentence by 10pm. What I am saying is that I'm happier not drinking.

    If you're going to the bar I'll have a lemon, lime and bitters please.

    At what age did you first get drunk, and on what? Let me know in the comments!

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    Who should I vote for?

    Friday 1st May 2015

    I decided to run a competition to find out who I should vote for in the general election. Did you know that we're having an election next week? Maybe you hadn't noticed.

    I can't remember who I voted for last time, it was either the Greens or the yellows. One thing I do know is that I've never voted for the winning party nor had my choice of MP elected.

     

    Choosing a colour

    First I took a number of tests to see who I should vote for.

    The fascinating Political Compass has a very thorough test that plots your politics on a grid (see image), and put me nearest to the Greens but miles away from all the other parties.

    I went through the extremely complex Vote For Policies website, which gave me a 50/50 split between Green and Labour.

    I took the poll at Votematch and I scored 82% for the Greens, 73% for Labour and 66% for the Lib Dems.

    I also took the quick I Side With poll, which gave me 97% Plaid Cymru (?!) 95% Green, 94% Lib Dem and 92% Labour.

    Finally, just to make sure, I took the very quick Tickbox poll, which told that I should be voting Green.

    So far, so good - it looks like I should vote Green.

    However they're almost certainly not going to win here (in 2010 they got 1.7% of the vote) so is there any point voting for them?

    So I thought I'd put all the candidates to the test and score them.

     

    Our candidates

    Here in the constituency of South East Cornwall we've got six candidates, with William Hill's odds in brackets:

     

    My questions

    I thought it would be interesting to see where they stand on issues that are important to me, so I emailed all of them with three questions covering, local, national and global issues.

    I did this before the 2010 election with three different questions that were open-ended. I got a very poor response so these questions are much quicker with simple yes/no answers.

    Hi [first name],

    I live in Lostwithiel, in South East Cornwall where I believe you're standing in the general election in May.

    I haven't decided who to vote for yet, so if you've got a few minutes I'd appreciate your thoughts on the following questions:

    1. Do you support plans to build the UK's first spaceport in Cornwall?
    2. Do you support Dignity in Dying's campaign to legalise assisted dying in the next parliament?
    3. Do you think we're doing enough to tackle climate change around the world?

    If you'd rather speak to me, call [my number] any time.

    Best wishes,

    Mat.

    I'm going to score them on: how quickly they respond (3 points for the first to reply, decreasing by one each time); the way in which they respond (4pts for a long call, 3 pts for a short call, 2pts for a long email, 1pt for a short email, 0 if they don't reply), and how much their responses correspond with my views (0, 1 or 2pts per question).

     

    Andrew Long - Mebyon Kernow

    Andrew replied within quarter of an hour of me emailing him, and gave detailed, well-reasoned responses to my questions:

    1. He's in favour of the spaceport, as well as continued development of the AeroHub at Newquay Airport.

    2. He's in favour of assisted dying provided the proper safeguards are in place. He pointed out that this is his personal view, as Mebyon Kernow doesn't have a party policy on the issue.

    3. He doesn't think we're doing enough to tackle climate change, he thinks the government should be encouraging wave energy and geo-thermal as well as existing renewables, and he believes that we need to protect our land for the production of food.

    So 3pts for replying first, 2pts for a long email, and 6pts for his answers to my questions.

    Total: 11 points

     

    Phil Hutty - Liberal Democrats

    Phil called me within an hour and a half of receiving my email, and we had a very interesting fifteen minute conversation. He's very bright, enthusiastic and passionate about Cornwall. I'll paraphrase his answers:

    1. We didn't talk much about the space port as he didn't know too much about it, but more generally about the Cornish economy. He'd like to make Cornwall more appealing for business by dualling the A38, adding a second railway line into the county and cancelling the Tamar Bridge toll.

    2. He was in favour of assisted dying, providing the right safeguards are in place.

    3. He thought we should do more to tackle climate change. He mentioned some interesting new technologies that can replace fossil fuel-generated power, and said that he sees wind and solar farms as an interim step for power generation until better technologies come along. He said that he was in favour of building new nuclear power stations if they're needed, to reduce our CO2 output.

    So Phil scores 2pts for replying second, 4pts for a long call, and 6pts for giving answers that agree with my opinions.

    Total: 12 points

     

    Declan Lloyd - Labour Party

    Declan responded in a couple of hours with a short email. To paraphrase his answers:

    1. He thinks Cornwall is the best place for a spaceport and will bring quality employment

    2. He agrees with people having the right to die with at their own time, with the correct oversight.

    3. He thinks we're not doing enough to tackle climate change, and opposes mining for shale gas.

    So Declan scores 1pt for replying third, 1pt for a short email, and 6pts for giving answers that agree with my opinions.

    Total: 8 points

     

    Bradley Monk - UKIP

    Bradley responded within about four hours. He sent a long email with detailed replies to my questions. To summarise his reply:

    1. He fully supports a Cornish spaceport and the highly paid jobs it will bring to the county

    2. He fully supports assisted suicide, having been personally affected by the issue

    3. While he's skeptical about the human involvement in climate change, he agrees that we need a wider mix of energy generation, but doesn't think wind and solar are the sole answer.

    If I'm being honest I was surprised at how eloquent and well-reasoned Bradley's answers were, and I was expecting his answers to include references to the EU and immigration, which they did not.

    So Bradley scores 2pts for a long email, and 4pts for giving two answers that agree with my opinions.

    Total: 6 points

     

    Martin Corney - Green Party

    Martin sent me an email reply within a week, here's a summary:

    1. He supports the spaceport because he loves technology and sees it as part of a Green world.

    2. He is against assisted dying because of the risk to the vulnerable.

    3. As you'd expect, he doesn't think we're doing enough to tackle climate change and believes that fossil fuels should stay in the ground.

    So Martin scores 2pts for a long email, and 4 pts for his answers to my questions.

    Total: 6 points

     

    George Trubody - Independent

    George replied with a long-ish email after week or so (after I chased him), his replies were:

    1. He would welcome the investment and jobs that it a spaceport would bring. He made the point that Newquay Airport is owned by Cornwall Council who have always struggled to make it profit, so any new business would help.

    2. He didn't know enough about assisted dying to comment.

    3. He doesn't think we're doing enough to tackle climate change.

    So George scores 2pts for a long email, and 4 pts for his answers to my questions.

    Total: 6 points

     

     

    Sheryll Murray - Conservative Party

    Unfortunately Sheryll didn't reply to me, so I'm unable to give her a score. This is a shame, because everyone says she's a nice person and a good MP, and because I really wanted to back the winner for once.

     

     

     

    Conclusion

    I've learned that I'm a natural Green voter, but this year I'm voting for Phil Hutty, our Lib Dem candidate.

    Sadly too late for this election I discovered that it only costs £500 to stand as a candidate in a general election, so I've added it to my i-Spy Book Of Life for the next election in 2020!

    I hope I can count on your vote.

     

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    Mobile-free Monday

    Friday 17th April 2015

    I often find myself compulsively checking my phone. I know it's not healthy, so I thought I'd try turning it off for 24 hours to see if I could cope.

    Some days I might check Facebook twenty times, like a nervous tic, to see if friends have posted anything exciting or liked my stuff. And I know it's not just me, some friends are constantly on their phones while we're out together or even just sitting about chatting, which seems pretty rude but I know I do it too!

    So I turned my phone off before I went to bed on Sunday night, and didn't turn in back on again until Tuesday morning. Here's the diary of that day.

    Monday

    5:00 am Woke up to find the dog on the bed, taking up more than his fair share of the space again. Couldn't get back to sleep, and normally I'd put my headphones on and listen to a podcast on my phone. Lay there for a while cursing this experiment then fell asleep.

    9:00 am Got up and instinctively reached for my phone to listen to some music while I had a wash. Washed in silence instead, which was eerie.

    9:30 am Had to ask Kat to check my calendar on her phone because I'd totally forgotten what we were doing. Started making notes on how my mobile-free Monday was going, and I had to learn to write with a pen again. My handwriting was even worse than I remembered.

    11:00am Went out for a walk with friends who were all on time, luckily. Kept reflexively checking my pocket to make sure my phone was there, and my heart skipped a beat when it wasn't. Every half hour or so I wished I'd brought a camera with me to capture this beautiful walk, but then relaxed into it and just enjoyed the view.

    2:30pm Tried and failed to do mental arithmetic (if 217g is 12% of the total weight, what is the remaining 88%?) and ended up using the calculator on Kat's phone. Is that cheating? All afternoon I had a vague sense that I was missing out on lots of exciting Facebook posts or messages from people inviting me to wild parties.

    8:00pm By the evening, not having a mobile felt natural and really rather pleasant. Started reading a book and became totally engrossed in it.

    10:30pm Decided that I might do this every Monday.

     

    Tuesday

    I turned my phone back on in the morning, and one solitary text message was waiting for me. Nothing exciting happened, I didn't miss out on any parties and the world didn't stop revolving.

    I finished the book at lunchtime and started another one.

     

    The next Monday

    I thought I'd do it again the next Monday, just to see what happened, and I didn't miss the phone at all. The only problem was trying to arrange a date with friends, because I didn't have access to my calendar and I had no idea what's in it. My handwriting was just as bad as last week.

     

    I'm not sure I'm going to do this every Monday, but it's given me a new perspective and made me think before I reflexively reach for the phone to entertain me in every moment of downtime.

    Have you ever tried a mobile-free day?

     

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    The i-Spy Book Of Life

    Friday 3rd April 2015

    Part of the reason I write this blog is to motivate myself to finish projects, but another reason is to score points in my very own i-Spy Book Of Life. Gamification could have been invented for me.

    The i-Spy Book Of Life a private record of my ambitions and achievements, in the style of the i-Spy books that I loved as a kid. It's split into categories like Sport, Practical skills and Home life. Each category contains ambitions, for items I haven't yet completed, or achievements that I have.

    I assign points for each item which I score when I complete the item. The Sport category for example contains items for completing a triathlon (2 points), getting my private pilot's licence (20pts) and learning to paraglide (2pts, achieved in 2005).

    The scoring system is based on roughly two full days of effort for one point, more for harder tasks or where I need a bit more motivation and less for easier items.

    Some categories read like a bucket list, for example the Geography category contains a long list of places I want to visit: The Arctic (5pts plus a bonus 2 for seeing the Northern Lights), The Taj Mahal (1pt) and The Grand Canyon (1pt) are top of the list.

    A number of items reward learning new skills: making glass, cheese, soap, salt and beer (not all at the same time) are all 1 point each.

    Some of the items are simple to achieve: going on a hen night scores me one point, and one point every time I fix something on the car myself.

    Others are a bit more involved: I score 25 points for living in a foreign country for a year, and I got 21 points for wearing braces on my teeth for 18 months.

    A few of them are really hard to achieve: I get a hundred points for living to 100, and 500 points for going into space!

    Two important things that I decided when I started making it are:

    1. I don't have a record of the total number of points I've scored. Each item in the book is separate and to combine them together would be like giving myself an overall score in life, which I'm keen avoid.
    2. I don't want to make it public. Obviously I'm telling you that it exists, but I want to be able to put in private items, and I don't want other people judging my ambitions.

    What would you put in your i-Spy Book Of Life? Leave a comment below.

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