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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Audi adventure

Friday 19th August 2016

I've never been to Silverstone before, so when a friend suggested a day at the track driving Audi's RS range I jumped at the chance. They offer a bunch of different experience days, but obviously we went for the most expensive one. We got the chance to drive three cars: the RS3 Sportback, RS6 Avant, and the R8 V10 plus.

Apologies in advance if you're not into cars, click here to hide all the technical jargon.

 

RS3 Sportback

When I was looking through the programme, I assumed that the RS3 and RS6 were just there to keep us quiet until we got a chance to play in the R8, but I couldn't have been more wrong.

Of the three cars, I think I fell in love with this one the most. It's huge fun to drive and the 2.5 litre 367 PS engine pushes you firmly back into the fancy leather bucket seats from 0-60 in 4.3 seconds.

Like all the cars we drove it's a 7-speed auto gearbox with manual paddles if you want them, but we were far too busy grinning to change gear. They all also have Audi's pretty impressive quattro four wheel drive system. The RS3 is a snip at just £40,000.

We took it out in the morning for a slalom course, and then out on the full track later on in the day.

For sheer joy factor this car wins hands down, it would be a practical daily driver but was incredibly enjoyable to throw around on the track. 

 

RS6 Avant

It's hard to put across how much of a monster this car is. From the outside looks like a normal estate, but when you get inside it feels like a leather tank.

It has stupid amounts of power from the 560 PS V8 giving a 0-60 time of 3.6 seconds. It's difficult to visualise this until one of the instructors showed us two sets of cones 50 metres apart and said that we'd go from standstill to 60 mph between them.

That's impressive in anything, but in a family car that weighs just under two tonnes it's quite a sight.

While we were driving it like this the fuel consumption was a whopping 5.3mpg!

It made me realise that you need to be careful buying low-mileage 'demo' cars from the manufacturer. This car had done just over 1,200 miles which was entirely foot-to-the-floor acceleration followed by high-g turns and full stomp braking. After half an hour the cars were all shimmering slightly from the heat haze and the brakes were pinging audibly as they cooled.

This car is incredible fun as you fight to keep it on the road because of the weight, but it's also just shy of £90,000 for the base model. 

I won't be buying one, but I will be giving them knowing nods when I see them on the road from now on.

 

R8 V10 plus

Finally then we come to the £140,000 5.2 litre 610 PS R8 V10 plusthat does 0-60 in 3.2 seconds. Yes, this is 0.4 seconds faster than the RS6, but to be honest I didn't notice the difference.

Inside it's a strange combination of basic and confusing. It has a manual adjuster for the seat position and a CD player mounted behind and between the seats.

It has a total of 20 buttons, switches and dials on the steering wheel using at least five different types of interaction. In the bottom right are a button that starts/stops the engine and one that changes the exhaust noise from loud to very loud. How often are you really going to push those on a normal drive? I didn't try the asterisk button on the right, but I can only guess that it makes it snow.

I know that it's trying to emulate the massive complexity of an F1's wheel, but I'd rather they put these buttons on the centre console and let me concentrate on the road. 

Actually addictive

To drive it's a pure joy - it sounds incredible and changes gear so quickly and perfectly that there's no point trying to do it manually. It sticks to the track no matter how fast you're going and whatever direction you point the wheels.

I was unbelievably sad when it was the end of my turn to drive it, and I had a physical longing for another lap. Audi have created a drug on wheels with this car, if someone had offered me another hour behind the wheel for an extra £500 I would have handed them my credit card. But to be honest it's not as fun as the RS3.

 

Driving joy

To me one of the great joys of driving is the feeling that the car is just losing traction, and the skill involved in keeping that in balance. In my Mazda MX-5 I can get this feeling at 40 mph driving winding country lanes when the rear wheels slide out round a corner. In the RS3 I felt it on the slalom track at 50 mph, tyres screeching around the cones. To get this same joy in the R8 we had to be doing at least 70mph, and that means you're rarely going to feel it on the road unless you're endangering other drivers. 

There were at least five people there who had been given the experience day as a freebie when they bought an Audi R8. This seems a bit weird because they already own the car, but after speaking to them they all said that they'd really enjoyed a chance to see what the car is capable of doing.  

One guy said that it's just not a fun car to drive on the road because you don't get an opportunity to drive it fast, and that he takes it to a local airfield to drive up and down as fast as he wants.

And this is why I think expensive sports cars are a con: they're not designed to drive on normal roads, but they're too far expensive for most owners to consider taking them on track days. Anything above say £40,000 just isn't worth it.

When I've seen expensive cars on tracks they're always driven carefully and slowly, so even then the owners aren't getting all the fun out of them. I genuinely believe that they're only good for posing on city streets, and my theory is backed up by the placement of the exhaust noise button on the steering wheel. 

 

Fancy tech

All of these cars feature some serious on-board computers. The driver's input - steering and pedals - are moderated by the car, which looks at the speed, direction of travel and traction data from the wheels, and then the car may decide to steer a bit less than you commanded, or ease off slightly on the throttle. It's done very well and you don't really notice it most of the time. But it made me wonder what's going to happen to these cars in five or ten years when they're on their third owner and no longer maintained by an Audi garage. 

We own a 2008 Audi A4, and in the last few months some of the sensors have been starting to go wrong - we went through three oil level sensors in a year, and a warning pops up regularly telling me that the rear brake light has failed, even though I can see it's still working. Our car doesn't have half as much technology as these cars, but it's already annoying when the fancy tech starts failing. 

So what are these cars going to be like in 2026? It's fine while Audi are maintaining them at large expense, but our local garage really struggles with any faults relating to electronics. In ten years' time I suspect that they're not going to be able to fix the majority of car problems, and so either the dealers will have to really expand their service centres, which is going to really increase the cost of owning one, or cars will need to become much more reliable. 

 

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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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Five percent

Friday 1st July 2016

Back in May I made a silly bet with a friend that I could lose 5% of my body fat more quickly than he could. I learned a lot about nutrition and completely changed my relationship to food along the way! My diet has always been pretty poor and if I'm going to live to be a hundred I need to sort it out. 

We don't have any lawyers at Lost In Thought, but if we did I'm sure they'd say that I'm not a doctor, this isn't dietary advice and you shouldn't follow a diet from some random blog that you found on the web. 

 

 

Measuring time

I bought some body fat calculation scales which use electrical impedance along with your weight to calculate your percentage of body fat.

I started off weighing 68.4kg with 18.4% fat according to the scales. This means I'm carrying 12.6kg of fat around. Ew! This is a mixture of subcutaneous fat, under my skin, and visceral fat which surrounds my organs and is considered the bad fat.

An average range for a 40-year old adult male is 18% - 24% body fat. If I somehow manage to lose 5% I'll be in the fitness body fat category according to Wikipedia. I can do fitness.

This makes me smile because Alfie, who I'm competing with, is starting at 15.9% so he'll be in the athlete range at 10.9%. Not sure I could do athlete, but good luck to him.

However my calculations tell me that if I'm going to lose 5% fat I have to shed 7.5kg of fat and I'll weigh 60.9kg. I've never been that light in my life and I'm going to look skeletal.

The other way would be to increase the percentage of non-fat, either by gaining muscle or by drinking lots of water to increase my total weight. Another quick calculation tells me I could drink 27 litres of water to achieve this. According to this article six litres of water will kill a 75kg adult human, so that's probably out. I told you I'm not a doctor, right?

I'm going to have to work out a lot and keep an eye on my muscle mass (which the scales also tell me) and try to put on muscle as I lose fat. If I start losing muscle as well then it's going to take even longer.

 

Day 1

Today is pretty hard. The scales tell me that my resting metabolism is 1550 kcal per day, so I set that as my food goal in MyFitnessPal. I quickly realise that my diet has always been very heavy in carbohydrates and fat, very low in protein. This is bad, I need to be eating lots of protein to build muscle in between workouts.

So I start learning about nutrition for the first time in my life. I've only ever used MyFitnessPal to count calories before, but now I start keeping an eye on the ratio of carbohydrates to fat to protein.

 

Day 4

Hmm, I'm 0.9% fatter than I was when I started but 0.4kg lighter, so all I've done is lose muscle (or become dehydrated). The reading on the scales jumped about a lot during the first four days so I'm going to say that 19.5% is my new starting body fat and I'm aiming for 14.5%. Or am I cheating already on day four?

 

Day 5

I've been reading up on the best ways to lose fat and the consensus is that I need a low carbohydrate diet. This encourages your body start burning fat, but the constant low blood sugar is making me feel dizzy. I'm trying to eat 50% carbohydrates, 30% fat and 20% protein.

Here are the MyFitnessPal charts of my carbs (blue), fat (red) and protein (green) ratios for three days at this point, as you can see it's hard to stick to the ratios!

 

Day 10

Back to my original fat levels and lost 1.3kg. The dizziness has gone now. I've changed to 40% carb, 30% fat and 30% protein. This is a huge amount of protein: at least a chicken breast, a steak or a fish every day, which is unusual for me. My coffee intake seems to have gone up dramatically, not sure if this is related.

 

Day 15

Okay, we're starting to get somewhere. I've lost 0.7% fat and only 0.1% muscle so it looks like I've got the balance right at 35% carbs, 35% fat and 30% protein. My normal meals of pasta with some kind of sauce have been replaced by a grilled chicken breast, half a head of steamed broccoli and a small portion of quinoa. 

 

Day 20

After a weekend of serious walking I wonder if I might actually achieve this goal. I've now lost 1.8% fat and put on 0.8% muscle. The scales tell me that my visceral fat has gone down too, which is an unintended health benefit. I've eaten more fillet steak in the last month than the preceding 40 years. I'm really hungry a lot of the time though, which isn't a good sign. 

 

Day 25

Starting to get a bit bored of this now. One thing I've learned is that how much I need to eat during a day is very different to how empty my stomach feels. In the past I'd always eat when my stomach rumbled, but I realise now that I don't need to.

Eating loads of salad and loving it! Here are some more MyFitnessPal ratios:

 

Day 30 

I think I can keep this up for about another week at the most. I'm losing about 0.1% body fat a day on average, so I might make it to 14.5%. I'm down to 64.3kg, the lightest I've ever been as an adult. I've discovered that the best time to take my measurements is when I'm fully hydrated, so I've taken to drinking a pint of water mid-morning, waiting for my body to pee out what I don't need and then get on the scales. 

 

Day 35

This morning I step on the scales and I weigh 63.8kg. I glance at the mirror and I look too thin. I've been feeling a bit weird, light-headed and a little angry. I've lost a lot of weight and not much fat for the last five days, so I think I'm about ready to give up. It's been a really interesting experience, not one I'd like to repeat but I've learned a huge amount about nutrition. 

There's an increasing body of evidence to suggest that we shouldn't be counting calories but eating a high fat, lower carb diet. There's an interesting article here. To quote from it:

The EPIC study revealed that one can [of cola] a day (approximately 150 calories) was associated with substantially increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Conversely, PREDIMED revealed that consumption of a handful of nuts, (30 g of walnuts, 15 g of almonds and 15 g of hazelnuts) or four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil per day (approximately 500 calories) significantly reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke. 

 

Day 39

Done it, woohoo! I've been away for three days at a dance music festival, not eating or sleeping much. I hopped on the scales when I got home and I'm down to 14.5% fat! I feel pretty good to be honest, like I've got a younger body, a lot more energy and feel more alive (despite the festival). 

Here are the final graphs:

That was hard work

This has easily been the hardest thing I've done for Lost In Thought, but also one of the most rewarding. I've stopped logging my calories for now because I don't want to lose any more weight, but I'm still going to eat sensibly with more fat and protein and fewer carbs. I didn't think my 5% fat loss was going to be achievable without some serious weight lifting, and I'm really thrilled that I achieved my goal! I'm going back to weighing myself once a week instead of every day, as all the health professionals recommend. 

This is lunch today to celebrate. I know what it looks like, but this is actually what I wanted to eat for lunch. Kat's smirking reading this, because she can't believe I would ever choose to eat it. But in all honesty I've completely changed how I feel about food and drink in just over a month. 

 

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Casino trip

Friday 6th May 2016

One of the things I love most in the world is looking through the window into other people's worlds. Earlier this week three of us from my local poker club went to the Genting Casino in Plymouth for my first ever real life poker tournament.



We arrived at 6:15pm, and were almost the first in the door. The hostess was extremely welcoming, in a way that I found a little disconcerting - it's not normal in the UK and feels quite false. Kind of like how friendly strippers are.

 

Dark and warm

The casino is a strange place, dark and warm with soothing flashing lights encouraging you to spend your money. I was expecting the continual clatter of coins but all the money is electronic now, you put your casino card in the slot machine and it spits back the winnings onto the card.

I can't imagine ever feeling comfortable in this space, but the majority of people were obviously regulars who were completely at home.

 

He's a maniac

The game started at 7pm with 18 players over two tables. Over the next hour another nine joined us, almost all of whom were regulars who knew each other. I took this to be a bad sign. The guy to my right turned out to be a maniac, going all-in with pretty much anything, which is handy because that's where you want that kind of player to be seated. He saved me a lot of chips by making huge bets, allowing me to comfortably fold.

The thing that surprised me most was the hyper-male environment. Playing online you don't know anyone's gender, and I'd kind of assumed that there were some females players. I realise now that I was probably wrong about that. The only two women at the tables were dealers, and I only saw a couple of no-tails all night in the whole casino.

 

Getting it in with nines

The next thing that surprised me was how aggressively everyone was playing. I hardly got to play a hand in the first two hours because people were making bets for most of my stack. It made me play very tight, and the only hand I got involved in early on was my pocket nines all-in against AK - I was a 55% favourite and won. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Slowly I grew to realise that most of the players on my table weren't serious poker players - they were just gambling for the sake of it. Some of them were £40 down within an hour. They kept buying back in as quickly as they could, then going all-in on the very next hand. This is really different to our little Losty Poker Club where everyone plays quite sensibly in comparison.

After 90 minutes we went on break, and immediately most of the players took to the roulette wheel, blackjack or the slots - another thing that marked them out as gamblers because of the poor odds of winning.

 

After the break

As soon as we came back from the break I was dealt a pair of queens, and played them very aggressively only to get called by AK. I was a 56% favourite, but he flopped an ace (making me a 10% underdog) to win, and my first live poker tournament was over.

I was very relieved!

I went outside for a walk around to get rid of the adrenaline, then returned to have some food and wait for my mates to get knocked out. I had to regularly fend off the hostesses who were rather pushy in trying to get me to play the other games, which I politely declined.

 

A third of nothing is nothing

One of my friends went out half an hour later, and the other finished 45 minutes after that. On the drive into Plymouth we'd made a rather optimistic agreement that we'd split our winnings three ways, but a third of nothing is still nothing. The only thing I came away with was my complimentary soft drink token.

All in all it was a really fascinating experience, but not one I want to repeat.

 

Play it safe

I picked up a copy of the casino's Play It Safe leaflet, giving help and advice on gambling responsibly. The first thing I noticed was the photo on the cover: there were as many female players in that photo as in the entire building. Maybe that's just Plymouth, but I doubt it.

The leaflet starts:

For most people, a night out at a casino is a leisure activity to be enjoyed in the same way as a trip to the football or an evening at the cinema [... ] However, for a very small number of people the temptation to push their luck or re-experience the elation of an early win can be compelling and sometimes irresistible.

From what I saw, the large majority of people there fell into their 'very small number' category. It felt like a lot of people had gambling problem, and it made me feel very uncomfortable to realise that the casino obviously know this too. They're taking advantage of these people's addictions, like a 19th century Opium den or probably quite a lot of pubs.

 

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Lotus Exige

Friday 22nd April 2016

A few weeks ago I got to drive a Lotus Exige for the first time. What a lovely car! Not sure I want to buy one though.

I went on a driving experience day at Thruxton race track, having only driven at Castle Combe before I was pleasantly surprised at how long and straight the track is at Thruxton. It seemed a lot safer too, there's very little run-off at Castle Combe before you end up in the tyre wall.

I wasn't expecting much out of the day to be honest, but the instructor who took me out was simply brilliant. When he learned that I had a bit of previous track experience he changed his instruction and started teaching me the finer details of the track, and we ended the day learning a bit of heel-and-toe braking.

The Exige was an absolute joy to drive: 190BHP and 914KG of high grip fun. You could put you foot down in pretty much any gear and it would charge ahead. Inside it was really minimal, with just two dials and a bare metal floor.

The days I've had at Castle Combe were quite serious affairs, everyone brings their pride and joy and the car park is full of men wearing race suits fiddling with their exhausts to get them through noise control. In contrast the atmosphere at Thruxton was much more fun, and there were even some actual women there!

The whole day had a really nice 'meet your heroes' kind of feel to it. Thruxton have two Lamborghinis, a pair of Ferraris and a whole fleet of Porsches. When the cars weren't being driven they were lined up in the pits like superstars, so men with Cheshire-cat grins could pose in front of them while their girlfriends took photos. It made me realise just how much cars mean to some people!

The day was only marred slightly by Tiff Needell giving people high-speed rides around the track in a BMW M4. I spent a long time discussing with my instructor the apparent contradiction between what he was telling me (approach the corner head on, do all my braking in a straight line, balance acceleration and steering on the way out) with what Tiff was doing - drifting round the corners, screeching the wheels as much as possible, and occasionally spinning off the track. The instructor sighed a little, nodded and told me to ignore him.

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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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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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Me and my genome

Friday 16th October 2015

I just got my DNA sequenced. We're living in the future.

 

A very short history of DNA sequencing

1995 - A few months before I started university the first free-living organism's DNA (Haemophilus influenzae) was sequenced at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. This bacteria has 1.8m base pairs.

2001 - A couple of years after I left university, the Human Genome Project published the first complete human genome at a cost of $3 billion. Human DNA has around 3bn base pairs.

2015 - Fourteen years later I can get my DNA analysed for £125.

 

Sorry, what?

A company in the States called 23andme offers personal genome testing. You spit in a test tube and send it to them. They look at your DNA to identify your ancestry, assess your risk of genetic diseases, predicted response to drugs, and check for inherited conditions. They started in 2008 but only began offering the service in the UK at the end of last year.

Ever since I found out they were offering the service in the UK I've wanted to get it done, and writing it up here seemed like a good excuse to do it! This blog is the best idea I've ever had.

So what have I learned?

 

Photo by Steven Coles, https://www.flickr.com/photos/stewf/270942458

I am the 0.1%

No real surprises here, I'm 99.9% European.

The remaining 0.1% is from Yakut, a part of northern Russia the size of India with less than a million inhabitants. This explains why I've always loved playing the board game Risk!

An estimated 2.8% of my DNA is from Neanderthals, compared to a European average of 2.7%. Neanderthals are the closest evolutionary relatives of modern humans, who went extinct about 40,000 years ago.

 

Genetic Risk Factors

This is the bit I'm really interested in, I'm not that bothered about how much DNA I share with Neandethals. 23andme looks at sections of your DNA that are associated with an increased risk of a variety of diseases. If you come up as a higher risk, it doesn't mean that you're definitely going to get the disease, but you might want to look into it further.

23andme gave me typical risk for nine genetic risk factors including Parkinsons, but it did flag up higher risk for two diseases that I wasn't aware of. It turns out that the rest of my family are well aware of one of them, so I'm looking at ways to avoid it.

For the other genetic risk I've registered for clinical trials with the National Institute for Health Research, to see if I can help find a cure in case I get it! I'm not really concerned about this, it's a late-onset disease and there's no history of it in my family who have all survived way past the age it normally appears.

 

Drug response

This section of the report gives me the all-clear for expected responses to drugs like Warfarin and Abacavir which can cause problems if you're sensitive to them.

It gave one abnormal response, I'm likely to metabolise a certain kind of medicine more quickly than normal. So if I ever do need to take it, I can let my doctor know that I might need a higher dose than most people.

Given how much doctors seem to hate self-diagnosis and information gleaned from the internet, I can only imagine my doctor's response to this.

 

 

Inherited conditions

A clean sweep here for 45 inherited conditions. To be honest I'd probably already know if I'd inherited most of them, like cystic fibrosis or the delicious-sounding Maple Syrup Urine Disease.

 

Guess Who?

The last section is fun - do my genes match me? According to 23andme:

  • I'm likely to have straight-ish non-balding blonde hair and blue eyes
  • I drink an average amount of coffee and metabolise it more slowly than average
  • I can taste bitter things, I have typical odds of disliking coriander and can smell asparagus in my urine after eating it
  • I have a lower than average preference for sweet foods. 

 

Summary

Absolutely fascinating, I'm really glad I did it. If you're interested here's a link - let me know what you discover!

 

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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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Fruitarian for a week

Friday 24th July 2015

I once told a vegan friend that I thought she was pretty hardcore for voluntarily keeping to such a strict diet. 'No way,' she told me, 'fruitarians are hardcore.' That was ten years ago, and ever since then I've thought of them as the radical extremists of the food world.

So I thought I'd give it a go for a week. I've always had a fairly distant relationship with fruit: I'll eat strawberries with cream, watermelon and a grape or two, but I'm going way outside my comfort zone here.

 

What's the point?

There are a wide range of reasons to be fruitarian:

  • Religious - for example Jaines who follow a path of non-injury towards all living beings
  • Environmental - some estimates put agricultural greenhouse gas emissions at 18% of the total. Eating organic is a big part of the diet (but not one I'm following)
  • Ethical - some people take issue with the way that meat is raised
  • Health - but it can be hard to get enough vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc

 

What do Fruitarians eat?

Fruit, duh.

Of course, it's more complicated than that. According to Wikipedia, people who eat 75% raw fruit consider themselves to be fruitarians, a figure that fruitarian.info states as 50% or more. The Fruitarian defines it as "raw fruit and seeds only". Blimey.

I couldn't find a strict definition of what fruitarians eat. The general consensus seems to be fruits and nuts, mainly or entirely raw. Think of it as a raw vegan diet - any plant products you can eat raw, so no grains, pulses, bread or potatoes.  Most importantly (for me) they don't consume coffee.

Some fruitarians only eat one type of food at a time, so if you're having peaches for lunch, then that's all you eat. Have a break of 45 to 90 minutes and then eat a different kind of food. Now that's self control.

 

Monday

8am Last night I crammed myself full of chocolate and chips at the pub quiz, but I was still hungry when I woke up. Feeling slightly scared, I made an early morning trip to our amazing local grocers and bought £30 worth of fruit to try to keep myself alive until lunchtime.

9am Breakfast is a banana, a handful of grapes, some figs, dates, strawberries and a passion fruit. I've probably committed a terrible mistake already, but I'm feeling pretty good.

12pm I'm surprised to find that I'm not massively hungry, but I'm waiting for the inevitable caffeine headache to kick in this afternoon. Lunch is some watermelon, another banana, a peach, some dried apricots, cherries and more grapes.

1pm The caffeine headache begins. I really want an espresso, hot water and lemon is really not doing it for me.

4pm Feeling insanely hungry, I cast about for something substantial to eat. There's only fruit! Mild panic attack ensues. Can I really keep this up for a week?

6pm One upside of a fruitarian diet is that I'm spending much less time preparing food. Dinner is a massive plate of salad, followed by half a coconut and half a bag of pistachios. Caffeine headache still dominating the experience, and I'm feeling really tired.

 

Tuesday

9am While walking the dog this morning, I considered eating some his dry, tasteless biscuits. Don't judge me. Another big plate of bananas, peach, strawberries, figs, dates and pistachios. Starting to feel a bit more familiar now, but the caffeine headache is making the experience quite unpleasant.

12pm I've had enough of the headache, so one cup of coffee later and I'm feeling great! Lunch is a big plate of salad and avocado, followed by watermelon and coconut. Still not sure I can do this for a week.

7pm We're going to out to celebrate with a friend tonight at a restaurant, so instead of behaving like an idiot and demanding a fruitarian meal I've decided to eat a normal dinner. After all, it's only 50-75% raw fruit, and I need some vitamin B12, right? Dover sole never tasted so good!

 

 

Wednesday

9am Back to a fruity breakfast this morning with a banana, mango, strawberry and blueberry smoothie, some figs, nuts and coffee.

12pm Another big plate of salad, loads of coconut and pistachios. You get the idea. I'm amazed how just one cup of coffee a day sorts me out.

6pm My Wednesday evening exercise class almost kills me. Need more food.

7pm Another social do at a pub tonight with a noticable lack of anything fruity. I settle for a pork pie, sausage rolls and a cheese sandwich.

 

Thursday

9am I'm really enjoying a pure fruit breakfast, I might carry on with this after the week is up. Melon, banana, strawberries, blueberries and passion fruit.

12pm Getting in my stride now, I make fruitarian sushi rolls using grated cauliflower instead of rice. It's pretty decent, although the cauliflower doesn't have the same sticky properties and fragments a little.

6pm Trying to keep up the diet this evening, so I have a big plate of salad for dinner.

10:30pm That didn't work at all, I'm really hungry so I scoff a bowl of Weetabix and a Magnum.

 

Friday

9am Another big plate of fruit for breakfast. Still enjoying it, but I'm going to be so happy when this is over.

12pm Another big plate of salad. Finding it hard to be excited about salad.

6pm I need all my energy for poker night, so consume a burger, a bag of cookies and bunch of soft drinks. And it works!

 

Saturday

9am Yet more fruit.

12pm Yet more salad. Just holding out for dinner.

8pm Meat feast pizza, hooray!

Sunday

8am Squash match this morning. A breakfast smoothie just doesn't cut it, so I munch a mid-match Mars bar.

12pm The diet restrictions are starting to crumble as I have a plate of pasta, cheese and salami for lunch, followed by sweets and cake at the town fair.

7pm Hunger takes over and I go into a feeding frenzy, consuming anything I can find in the house. The dog is lucky he doesn't have bite marks on him.

 

Conclusion

I won't lie, this week's been really hard. I'm not a natural fruit eater and I've found it very difficult indeed to get enough calories when I'm doing any kind of exercise. I'm now 2kg below my target weight.

I can just about see how people follow diets like Raw 'til 4, but I just don't understand how anyone can be fruitarian for any length of time! But somehow they do. Michael Arnstein has been a fruitarian since 2008 and he can run a hundred miles in 12 hours, so my original hypothesis has been proved - fruitarians are hardcore.

To some people, this experiment will look like a total failure - I was 100% fruitarian for around 36 hours. But I see it as a real success - I've got a new appreciation for fruit. I can see myself continuing with fruit for breakfast, but not every day.

Have you ever tried this? Think you'll give it a go? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

 

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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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How old can I look?

Friday 8th May 2015

I must admit I'm not a fan of the selfie, but in the interests of science I took a bunch of photos of myself to see how Microsoft's how-old.net website reacts to different expressions. How old can I make myself look?

 

From above

Fair play to Microsoft, they got this one spot on - I am indeed 39. Lucky guess?

 

Angry

I've read articles saying that the best way to get a young score is to pull a neutral expression that minimise any lines on your face. I can add a decade by looking angry.

 

Confused

Result! An extra 16 years by looking confused.

Kat always says I look like Beaker from the Muppets when I pull this face. Sadly the website couldn't tell me how old Beaker looks:

 

Gurning

I can only hope I look this good at 48.

 

Scowling

I'm pretty sure I've got a face. Maybe it's too old to detect.

 

Tongue out

Bit surprised by this one, is this what 52 year old men do?

 

Black and white

This is the same picture that scored me 39 at the top of the page, now scores 49 in black and white. What's going on there? Maybe it thinks that the world used to be in black and white and so anyone with a black and white must be old?

 

Saturation

I wondered how Photoshop could change my age, if black and white adds ten years. Going from least to most saturated (left to right) takes me from 48 to 44, but at the extremes it couldn't detect my face. Young people are more colourful, obviously.

 

Me too

Finally, I thought I'd try putting multiple copies of myself in the picture and see if it gave the same answer:

I think we've learned something important here: how-old.net needs more work. In a row of six identical colour photos of me it can only spot faces in two of them and gives them ages of 44 and 51, and in black & white there's an 8-year age difference between six identical photos, from 40 to 48.

To look as old as possible, I need to look confused. Have a go yourself and see how old a score you can get, then leave a comment with your tips for looking old!

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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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What's this about?

Hi I'm Mat and I'm addicted to new hobbies. I used to think this was a bad thing but now I'm embracing it.

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