My favourite books of 2020

One of my last posts back in 2016 was about recent books I’d read. I haven’t read nearly as much since then as I might have hoped, but here are a few I enjoyed last year.

Famine, Affluence, and Morality — Peter Singer

I promise I’m not trying to show off with the charity books, but purely by coincidence this one is very similar in theme to “Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference” from my previous post.

This is a very short book, composed of three articles Singer, a moral philosopher, wrote for lay audiences in the 1970s. The core argument of the main article, from which the book takes its name, can be broadly presented as this: there’s no moral distinction between a child drowning in a pond next to you and a person starving on the other side of the world. Most people would agree that helping the drowning child is not only a good thing to do but an obligation, and consequently it’s also a moral obligation to do what we can to help the more geographically distant.

The Thursday Murder Club — Richard Osman

This one is cheerier, despite the name. This debut novel from TV’s most genial quiz show host is a murder mystery in a retirement community. It’s cosy and pleasant, good natured and optimistic, but also a decent mystery. It’s also the only book I read last year with a proper laugh-out-loud GregWallace joke. This was a perfect book for 2020, and given its performance on the fiction charts it seems quite a lot of people agree with me.

The Last Day — Andrew Hunter Murray

Another debut novel, this one from one of the researchers for QI, and host of the spinoff podcast No Such Thing As a Fish. This is a post apocalyptic sci-fi set after a cosmic disaster leaves Earth tidally locked to the Sun so that one side is always in day, the other side always in night, and only the sliver of surface in permanent twilight remains habitable.

Part mystery, part thriller, part “ooh, I know the bit of London he’s talking about.”

The End of Everything — Katie Mack

A pop science exploration of the many ways the universe might come to an end. Heat death, a big crunch, spontaneous vacuum decay. Not only informative, but also one of the funnier books about the ultimate and inevitable destruction of everything that ever has been.

And on that note, I think it’s time to make a bit more progress on this year’s reading list.

GO NORTH

The last day that I worked from my office was March 10 last year. I had some planned work from home days for personal reasons that happened to bump against the day we were all told we should work from home for the next few weeks. You know the rest. I hope my desk plant is doing okay.

In the time since then, especially in the early days when it was all a bit of a novelty and everyone was doing Zoom workout sessions every morning (I was never doing Zoom workout sessions every morning) we experimented with lots of different ways to have fun social events with a distributed team. My favourite by far have been the Parsely interactive text adventures from Memento Mori.

The Parsely games are modelled on the old single-player text adventure computer games from the 80s where the player issues simple commands like GO NORTH or GET KEY and the computer interprets them and responds with a textual description of the environment and the results of the player’s actions. The only one of these I actually remember playing is the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game where I failed to get out of Arthur Dent’s house before its demolition. That game was hard.

The difference with the Parsely games is that there’s no computer involved (besides the ones you may be using to communicate with your friends and colleagues). Instead one of the players takes on the role of the computer. It’s up to that player to decide how lenient they want to be in interpreting the other players’ commands. It can be a lot of fun as the computer player to come up with creative ways to say “you can’t do that” in response to unexpected commands. (“Stab butler” “You remember an old adage your father told you as a child: never stab a butler”)

It’s still a conceptually single player game, but all of the other players take turns issuing commands as that player. In a strict interpretation of the rules, they’re not allowed to confer, adding an extra layer of difficulty — and often either hilarity or frustration, depending on the group. The more players you have the harder this makes it. We usually start with this rule, but sometimes relax it if the group is stuck for too long.

My team ran the gamut from those with a lot of experience of text adventure games to those who had never even heard of them let alone played one. All of them enjoyed playing and signed up for another game right away.

I’d be remiss in not giving this credit: I first encountered the Parsely games thanks to the Incomparable Gameshow podcast, a spinoff from the main Incomparable podcast about geeky media of al kinds which probably deserves a blog post of its own at some point.

If you’re interested in trying it out, you can download the first game (Action Castle) for free, and the PDF containing 10 games is only $20.

Is this thing on?

It’s amazing how the dust piles up when you don’t post for a week or two. Or five years.

Last time I posted was the beginning of 2016. That was just before the celebrities started to die off, signalling the beginning of a pretty bad five years for many people. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge how lucky I am that I tend to be relatively isolated from the worst of what goes on in the world, be that economic instability or social upheaval or pandemics. May I never come to think that I ever did anything to earn that privileged position.

My last five years have been dominated by parenthood, which was pretty new to me at the beginning of 2016, but which I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of. It’s mostly about cleaning chocolate off everything and not going out, which prepared me well for 2020.

I somehow conspired to put on a substantial amount of weight while training for and running two marathons, which is an achievement in some sense.

Work continues to be work, though no longer at work these days, and unlikely to be back until deep into the second half of this year. I still try to write code every day, but a lot more of my job happens in emails and documents these days.

I’ve read some books, though never as many as I’d like. I’ve watched a lot of TV, possibly more that I would like. I started playing video games again, having bought a PS4 just before the PS5 came out. I did that on the grounds that everything on it is new to me anyway and should now be substantially cheaper. Spider-Man is good.

I’m still living in the same place, now by far the longest I’ve lived in a single place since I left my parents’ house. Its capacity to accrue clutter has not abated in that time, largely as a consequence of the aforementioned parenthood. We own a lot of Play-Doh.

I traveled a bit, though not recently. Maui was a highlight, for Christmas in 2019 (I nearly wrote “last year” – hah!) Going inside a glacier in Iceland was also pretty neat. These days I’d be lucky to get to an Iceland supermarket, so I’m glad we made memories while we could. Here’s to doing that again soon.

Anyway, that’s me. I’m sure I forgot a bunch of stuff. I might post again soon. I might post again in five years. I might not. I hope you’re well. Here’s to 2021.

January reading

At the end of last year I started writing short reviews on Goodreads of the books I’d finished reading. Nothing super in-depth or thoughtful, just a few sentences about each book in the moments after I finished it. I write them as if someone has just asked me what I thought of the book but I can tell they were kinda just being polite so they don’t want me to go on and on.

Anyway, here’s what I read in January (each one links through to my short review).

Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference — William MacAskill (unfortunately I lost my initial review of this one, so what’s here is really brief)

The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen  — Brian Cox, Jeffrey R. Forshaw

How Proust Can Change Your Life — Alain de Botton

Level Up Your Life: How to Unlock Adventure and Happiness by Becoming the Hero of Your Own Story — Steve Kamb

If you’re interested you can add me on Goodreads or follow my ‘Books’ collection on Google+ to see more as I write them. I also hope to do monthly posts like this one, but go ahead and look at my posting history if you want to decide for yourself how likely that is.

Thank you for reading

I didn’t think I was going to make a new year’s resolution this year, but it happens that I noticed something about myself in the last days of the year that I’d really like to change. It is this: I’m often reluctant to accept offers of help, even to the point of ingratitude.

This year, I resolve to gratefully accept offers of help.

Thank you note with smiley face , isolated on white

Here follow some words, probably more than are necessary, to clarify why I’ve chosen this resolution.

A few people I’ve mentioned it to have understandably taken it to mean that I’m in need of more help than I’m willing to ask for or accept. That’s fair enough to assume. I know that many people find that to be the case with them. Most of Facebook is people saying they need to get better at accepting help because they’re overwhelmed by one thing or another and struggling to cope. That is thankfully not the case with me.

My problem isn’t that I need help, it’s that I can be really crap at interpreting offers of help.

I do know what an offer of help really means. It means someone thinks things could be made easier for me and they are willing, possibly at a cost to themselves, to make it so. It could be as simple as I’ve got my hands full so I’m doing something one-handed that would be more straightforward with two, and they don’t want to just sit and watch me while twiddling their thumbs. In fact it’s this sort of small scale situation that tipped me off to the whole issue.

Even though I know what the offer really means, in the moment I often interpret a helping hand as an implication of inability. An accusation that without help I would be unable to do whatever it is I’m doing. Because of this unfounded interpretation, instead of gratitude you may instead be greeted with resentment. Worse if instead of offering you just jump in and start doing things for me. Worse and worse again if in trying to help you inadvertently make things more difficult. Gratitude, if it was ever present, is quickly swept away. The thought counts for little, at least until my rational self talks the rest of me into begrudgingly acknowledging it.

This, clearly, is not how it should be.

It’s well established that emotions are not only the motivators of our actions but they are also a reflection of them. We become happy by acting happy as much as we act happy because we are happy. On that basis, I intend to draw my own attention as much as I can to circumstances in which I should be grateful, and to express it. As much as possible I’ll do that by accepting offers of help, even if I don’t need it. Sometimes that’s not a reasonable thing to do (e.g., there’s nothing the other person can reasonably help with, or the cost/benefit is so out of whack it would be unkind to accept). In such cases all I can do is take the time to give specific and genuine thanks, and an explanation of why I’m not accepting the offer.

Why accept help that isn’t needed? A key insight that I hit upon when considering this resolution is that the primary beneficiary of an offer of help is not always the recipient. Often it’s the person offering who benefits most from the interaction. Humans, given the right circumstances, are a generally altruistic bunch, and we derive pleasure from knowing that we’ve helped someone.

If you help me out of the bus with a buggy you probably haven’t actually made the activity much easier for me. We have a lightweight buggy that I can comfortably lift on and off a bus by myself, and the overhead of coordinating with another person to lift it would probably slow me down. But you’ll very likely feel good about offering, and much more so if I accept. If I thank you for the offer but turn it down — no thanks, I’m fine by myself — it robs you of that simple pleasure.

Moreover, people who aren’t even anywhere nearby can get looped into this whole equation. Imagine you offer to help me off the bus with the buggy and I turn you down. Later you offer to help someone up the steps with their luggage but they don’t need your help. How many times do you need your goodwill turned away — even politely and gratefully — before you stop offering? Eventually you encounter someone who would be delighted for you to lend a hand but the people who came before have spoiled the party for everyone by spurning your help.

That’s why my resolution isn’t limited to cases in which the help is likely to be directly useful. Allowing someone to feel good for helping, and giving myself a chance to appreciate the generosity that is their motivation, and to practice the action of gratitude, is an act of kindness to both of us.

Sober October

I’m taking part in Sober October. This is a fund-raising campaign for Macmillan Cancer Support, which does something worthwhile related to cancer. Curing it probably. Or helping people who have it. Something like that. The idea of the campaign is that you don’t consume alcohol during the month of October, Macmillan’s social media marketing people send you frequent emails implying that skipping the sauce for a few weeks is dreadfully challenging, and then people give money to Macmillan.

Go sober for October

Except in my way of doing this, I’m not especially bothered about nagging my friends for charity money. I assume most of my friends already give to the charities they choose to support, and many will have good reason not to give any more in response to ad hoc requests. Some may not have the extra income. Others are part of gift matching programs that make it more effective to make their donations in a smaller number of larger sums. So I’m not asking for donations, but if you want to donate, you can do so on my profile page.

What I am doing is keeping track of the amount of money I save by not buying alcohol and donating that amount myself.

The bulk of the savings so far have been from a weekend trip to Vienna, where I would have spent quite a lot on wine with dinner on several nights.

My total saving for the month wasn’t as much as it might have been, because for reasons unrelated to Sober October I missed out on two stag parties this month. One was the same weekend as the Vienna trip. The other was the same weekend we moved. The second party completed the London Monopoly pub crawl. I would have loved to be there to witness and participate in such a momentous feat — even not drinking — but it wasn’t to be. I’ve decided to throw a bit more money in for both of these parties anyway.

I was at a Halloween party this weekend, which meant another few beers traded for soft drinks (and made for a pretty smug Rory on Sunday morning). I have an evening of birthday drinks for a friend coming up on the 31st. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m rather hoping for the birthday drinks to last until the stroke of midnight so this beautiful sober stagecoach can turn back into a tipsy pumpkin.

And no, I’m not planning on taking part in Movember.

And now we play the weighting game

Over the last few years I’ve made occasional efforts to lose some of my extra weight. A few days or weeks eating slightly less and feeling guilty about the food I did eat. Brief flirtations with activity or calorie tracking apps that always felt lacking. A surprising stream of new and imaginative reasons why “this one doesn’t count”.

Weigh is not a topic that comes up frequently in conversation, at least in my circles, but it raises its head just enough that I know that people are thinking about it even when they’re not talking about it. I think maybe we could do with talking about it.

Even at my worst I don’t think I ever really considered that I was any more overweight or out of shape than “normal”, which I would have defined as a pretty wide range. There’s always someone else nearby I can point at (not literally) and say, “I’m not fat. That person is fat.” As if a decade or two down the line I’d be diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease and wriggle out of it by pointing at someone else and pleading, “What about him?”

Bubble football

In fact several times over the last few years, including as recently as this July, I edged over 90 kg (about 200 lbs). At only 174 cm (5′ 8″) that weight put me into the category of obese. I had more than 30% body fat. I was technically too heavy to safely play bubble football (not that it stopped me).

After that weigh-in on July 21st I decided it would be the last time I weighed more than 90 kg. It wasn’t my first time making such a resolution, but I think it will be the last.

I set out first to find out what my goal weight should be, and then to reach it. Body mass index (BMI) is an imperfect tool for many reasons, but for most people it’s a reasonable guideline for ideal weight. It’s recommended that you aim for a BMI between 18.5 and 25, which for me at 174 cm means a goal weight of 66 kg ± 10 kg. That took me by surprise. Having lumbered around with the delusion that I was “a little on the heavy side of normal”, it was striking to learn that I was really 14 kg heavier than the top end of the normal weight range.

Three months later I’m happy to report that I’m now more than 10 kg closer to my goal, and I haven’t slowed down. Looking at myself today I realise two things: that the first 10 kg already makes a really big difference to how I look and feel; and that it’s much easier to see now that I actually do have another 5 – 10 kg to go. That surprising number I worked out back in July wasn’t a mistake. There are just more ways to hide extra fat on a human body than I thought.

Down and to the right
Down and to the right

If I keep up my current rate — and I’ve been pretty consistent up until now — I could be in the recommended healthy weight range by the beginning of next year. With Christmas in between it might be more reasonable to expect it will take a couple of weeks longer. But it doesn’t really matter all that much how long it takes. What matters is how long it lasts.

The times they are a-changin’

It’s a strange thing, moving house. It’s always much more work than you think it’s going to be, even if you take into account that it’s going to be more work than you think it’s going to be. Taking your possessions out of one home to put them in another is like trying to move all the toothpaste from one tube to another. It doesn’t really help all that much that the second tube is a little bit bigger.

Not our new home
Not our new home

This move had an additional wrinkle. We negotiated quite a bit on the rent, and part of the deal was that we accepted the flat unfurnished. We’re likely to buy our own place at some point and now seemed like as good a time as any time to start aquiring some of our own furniture. The day after moving, we spent a few hours in IKEA collecting four large trolleys full of flat-pack furniture. We’ve spent much of the week since then slowly constructing it.

It’s an interesting game of constraints to try to clear enough room to build a storage unit that will house enough of our stuff that we can clear enough room to build… and so on. It’s like one of those sliding picture puzzles in which only one space is ever free to move into. We’re more than half way through the furniture building phase, though the second bedroom looks like an Amazon fulfilment center. We have top men working on unpacking them.

I bet these cubes aren't nearly as heavy as this box of books.
I bet these cubes aren’t nearly as heavy as this box of books.

We haven’t moved far. But as with any major city you don’t need to move far in London to make a significant difference. We’re now on a quiet street off a quiet street, where we were previously on a busy main road that’s used by two bus routes and apparently most of the ambulance service and the Metropolitan Police.

We’re still a very reasonable walking distance from the old flat and all the places we love near it. But we’re also that much closer to some new places: an independent bookshop, one of our favourite cinemas, even a grocery store with an Irish food section for when I’m homesick and craving a rock shandy.

It’s only been a week, and there’s plenty to do before I’ll say we’re properly settled here, but we’re getting there. I no longer get that uncomfortable trespassing feeling when I let myself in after a day at work. The cardboard is receding. And we’ve moved on finally from an inflatable airbed, then briefly a futon, to a proper grown-up king size bed.

I’m looking forward to our time in this new home. Curling up on the giant sofa watching Christmas movies. Seeing the leaves come back to the trees outside the bedroom windows in Spring. Trying to figure out how to turn the heating off in July. I foresee good times ahead.

Now where did I pack the coffee grinder?

Barmbrack

Growing up we had a rule that we weren’t allowed to mention Christmas until Halloween was over. This was a way for my parents to maintain a little extra sanity even as the toy ads and shops’ Christmas decorations came out at the tail end of the summer holidays. We never needed a similar rule about Halloween, but if we had I imagine it would have been opposed to celebrating in September.

Barmbrack

Nonetheless, partly inspired by a recent episode of the Great British Bake Off, and partly as a way to introduce my new bride to some more of her adopted Irish culture, I decided to make a barmbrack today. This dried-fruit–based teacake is closely associated with Halloween in Ireland. In my own experience a brack contains a ring that’s supposed to bring good luck to the person who finds it, but according to Wikipedia the tradition involves the brack containing a selection of objects which predict different types of future events for the finder, not all of them positive:

In the barnbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Other articles added to the brack include a medallion, usually of the Virgin Mary to symbolise going into the priesthood or to the Nuns, although this tradition is not widely continued in the present day.

I don’t much like the idea of an unhappy marriage or bad luck, and having spent a hefty amount on being wed this year I’m not about to jump at the chance of doing that again any time soon. I do happen to have a shiny sixpence, so after appropriate cleaning (and wrapping it in baking parchment) that went in the mix.

I got the recipe from Edible Ireland, though there are recipes all over the web. I chose that one because I liked the introduction that went with it:

I have a friend who used to work in the famous Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street in Dublin years ago. She told me once about about the letters they got around this time of year, usually from tourists who had bought a loaf of barmbrack in the store to take back home with them. The people writing the letters were concerned that they’d found a ring in their bread, with one person saying they’d had it appraised and another one joking that they were relieved they hadn’t also found the finger that came with the ring. Most people sent the ring back.

 

Where’s the (synthetic) beef?

There’s an interesting story in the Guardian today about the production of the world’s first synthetic beef burger[1. It came to my attention because much of the funding came from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, but although the Guardian leads with this fact, I think it’s the least interesting part of the story.], which is great news for anyone (like me) who’s attracted to vegetarianism for ethical and environmental reasons, but who would struggle with a meat-free diet.

A team led by physiologist Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University [grew] 20,000 muscle fibres from cow stem cells over the course of three months. These fibres were extracted from individual culture wells and then painstakingly pressed together to form the hamburger that will be eaten in London on Monday. The objective is to create meat that is biologically identical to beef but grown in a lab rather than in a field as part of a cow.

“Cows are very inefficient, they require 100g of vegetable protein to produce only 15g of edible animal protein,” Dr Post told the Guardian before the event. “So we need to feed the cows a lot so that we can feed ourselves. We lose a lot of food that way. [With cultured meat] we can make it more efficient because we have all the variables under control. We don’t need to kill the cow and it doesn’t [produce] any methane.”

I’m excited by this because it’s been a long-term promise of synthetic biology to improve food production efficiency by skipping the time-consuming phase of beef production known as “walking around farting and eating grass”.

In 1798 Thomas Malthus observed that population growth must be expected to ultimately outstrip humanity’s capacity to produce food (which goes by the gloriously dramatic name of the “Malthusian catastrophe“). The common expression of this idea is that population grows geometrically (doubling at a fixed rate) but food production only grows arithmetically (increasing by a fixed quantity in a given time). This supposition makes some amount of intuitive sense. Food production would seem to be bounded by available space, while person production grows with the number of people. So like most people I accepted the idea as obvious when it first crossed my attention.

If this cow had a chance, she'd eat you and everyone you care about.
If this cow had a chance, she’d eat you and everyone you care about.

As it turns out though, food production has historically grown geometrically. The world population has grown sevenfold in the last 200 years, and although we haven’t been as successful as we might have been at ensuring its fair distribution, we’ve had no trouble keeping up with production. In fact the amount of food produced per capita is increasing, and has been for some decades.

The trend in global food production is reminiscent of other technological growth curves, notably the increase in computing capacity described by Moore’s law. In all cases the overall shape looks like a continuous geometric curve, as if driven by an endless and increasing stream of very small advancements. But these curves are actually better viewed as the sum of a series of more significant developments.

The effects of most new technological developments can be viewed as a logistic curve. This is a sort of stretched S shape — it starts off looking like a geometric curve, but at a certain point the growth slows an then it flattens out asymptotically. Think of the initial large improvements brought about by a new technology, followed by a levelling off as it approaches its maximum usefulness. What’s interesting is that If you overlay these logistic curves on top of each other, in aggregate they produce a geometric curve. That is, as long as the innovations keep coming.

The upshot of all of this is that so long as we can keep producing improvements to our technology, and applying that technology as widely as possible, we can keep up with the demands of population growth. With the most current estimates predicting that world population will top out at about ten billion (around the middle of this century) it seems well within our capacity to keep pace at least until then. This latest development, once it’s commercially viable, may reduce the energy requirements of meat production by 80% or more. It’s just the next development in the sequence, helping to maintain the exponential growth rate that humanity has maintained for centuries.