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.

Bad driving TV pilot seeks Contributors!

I may have found a TV participant solicitation even worse than the homeopathic wart cure show from a few weeks ago. This time they’re looking for bad drivers, so of course the only participants they could possibly look for are women. From the email:

We are looking for husbands & boyfriends who would like to help their partner become a better driver.

Does your wife need a dozen attempts to parallel park the family car? Have you bitten your tongue for years?

Has your girlfriend ever crashed the motor trying to reverse into a space? Instead of holding your head in your hands do you want to work with us to help her?

Have her poor parking skills become a long running family joke?  If so – we’d love to hear from you.

Women can’t drive and all couples are hetero. This promises to the be the most entertaining new show of the 1970s.

Pogopalooza

I spent most of last week working in New York. There was quite a posse of Londoners there, but by Saturday morning the majority had been struck by Bacchus’s arrow and were convalescing in their hotel rooms, leaving me with a bit of time to myself. So I wandered over to Tompkins Square Park in the East Village to have a look at Pogopalooza, the world championship of extreme pogo (Xpogo).

Pogo warmup (Pogopalooza)

I enjoy any activity in the general category of taking children’s games or toys and going bigger or more extreme (I count skateboarding and juggling in this category too). I’d never encountered extreme pogo before, but I knew it would be relevant to my interests.

I arrived before the advertised starting time so the competitors were just warming up, bouncing around and doing the occasional somersault and similar tricks. The paved area of the park had been laid out with large wooden boxes and rails for the competitors to include in their tricks, like a skate park. There was an announcer on a PA system periodically entreating the small crowd to stick around for the main event to see some impressive big-air moves and a series of attempts at breaking world records.

There were sponsor stalls all around selling and giving away samples of various drinks and snacks, and on the far side of the area there were more stalls selling pogo sticks. There was also an area for members of the public to try out some pogoing for themselves.

Saturday in New York was about surface-of-the-sun temperature, so I watched the warm-ups for a short while but then hid out in a shadier part of the park reading my book until the competition was set to start. When I came back 40 minutes later the area was crammed with people.

Pogo world record attempt (Pogopalooza)
Two competitors attempt to break the world record for fewest bounces in a minute.

The first event was one of the world record attempts. Two at a time the ten competitors tried to beat the record for the fewest bounces in a minute. There were adjudicators from Guinness ready to affirm any successes. A few people came close to the current record of 39 bounces, including the current record holder, who missed it by only one bounce, but no-one managed to beat it.

This record-breaking attempt was followed by the first qualifying round of the competition proper. Three bouncers took to the performance area at the same time, and were allowed five minutes to get the attention of the judges, who were judging on variety, inventiveness and difficulty of tricks. There were no penalties for falls, which encouraged the competitors to try their most difficult manoeuvres.

It was clear from this event — if it wasn’t already obvious from how ripped the guys taking part were — how physical this sport is. I expected them to be frantically cramming in as many moves as they could into the allowed time, but no-one went even a full minute without taking a break to rest for and plan his next spectacle. Sometimes this was to allow space for a fellow competitor who wanted to use the same part of the performance area, and a few guys even took time out to re-arrange the boxes and crash mats, but I think it was mostly because bouncing on one of these devices for more than a short while is exhausting.

I decided to try it out for myself so I wandered over to the free jump area. They had all sorts of varieties of sticks, from standard children’s toys to old-fashioned wooden ones that looked like hospital crutches, but I knew which one I wanted to try. After signing my life away on the waiver I immediately sought out one of the big sticks, a Flybar 800, the same one the competitors were using.

This thing was big, and powerful, and as soon as I jumped on for the first time it was clear which of us was going to be in charge of the relationship. When I managed to keep it upright for a few bounces — a feat in itself — it was carrying me around that free jump area like a bull at a rodeo. The slightest deviation from a vertical balance caused it to leap off in random directions like an American football bouncing on grass. It was knackering. My legs threw in the towel after only a few minutes, so I stumbled off to grab a regenerative cup or three of free ice-tea before heading back to my hotel for a very necessary shower.

The finals of the competition were on Sunday in Union Square Park, but sadly I didn’t get a chance to see who made it that far.

On learning to cook

When I wrote about Lift I mentioned that one of my new habits I’m trying to establish is to cook dinner regularly. I’m never going to manage to do it every day, but it’s something I’m working at getting better at. It’s the type of skill the kind of guy I’d like to be is good at.

For a few months I’ve been slowly teaching myself to cook using Tim Ferriss’s “The 4-Hour Chef“. Ferriss is a divisive guy. Some people think he and his series of “4-Hour”-brand books are essentially a scam. The titles certainly have the air of the worst of the self-help section[1. “Teach yourself Japanese in 6 easy lessons”], and maybe some of the criticisms are valid.

On balance though I’d say that there’s a high enough density of useful advice and plain old inspiration to make his writing worthwhile. If nothing else, I’ve cooked a few of his recipes and got some good meals out of them. That’s more of a practical outcome than you’ll get from the bad self-help authors Ferriss is sometimes lumped in with. I also find him entertaining, which is important for any book that’s pushing up against 700 pages. Your tastes may vary.

The big advantage of “The 4-Hour Chef” for me is that it’s not just a recipe book. It’s a teaching book. Every recipe introduces the equipment and techniques that it requires, without assuming any prior knowledge. They start out simple and build up to more difficult dishes as you gain the skills you need to prepare each one. Every dish introduces one or two new techniques for you to add to your repertoire, with an explicit focus on making it as difficult as possible to mess up.

This progressive approach isn’t without its drawbacks. It makes it problematic to skip any recipes, which is an issue if a dish calls for ingredients you can’t get or equipment you don’t have. I’ve had a couple of long delays to my progress while I waited for kitchenware to arrive from Amazon, not wanting to move on until I’ve successfully prepared each dish. Still, you have to walk before you can run, and you have to scramble an egg before you can make a soufflé.

The most important lesson I’ve learned though is a meta-lesson: learning doesn’t come for free. It’s not a matter of making a series of successful meals until you get to the end and suddenly you’re a great cook. Sometimes you’ll mess up; sometimes your ingredients will differ from what’s called for in some small but important way; and sometimes the food gods are just in a bad mood.

In these cases you just fall back on a phone and a take-out menu, and try to figure out what you can do differently next time. New skills are acquired through experience, and experience, typically, is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

Yesterday I messed up almost every part of a sous-vide chicken with dinosaur kale. And I don’t care. Because a couple of weeks ago I was eating take-out while a botched rib-eye sat in the bin beside me, and a few days later I cooked the best damn steak I’ve ever eaten.

Has Traditional Medicine Let You Down?

One of the great things about living in London is that so much of popular entertainment is made here, especially television. If you’re interested in how television is made then it’s easy  to get free tickets to recordings fairly frequently. If you don’t care at all about what you see you could go to a different recording nearly every week, and even if you’re more selective you can still manage one every couple of months. You’d be amazed how many chat shows and game shows there are across all the channels we have now.

So it is that I get fairly frequent emails alerting me to new shows in production that are looking for audience members or participants. Most of them look pretty uninteresting, but I glance at them all so I don’t miss the occasional gem. Of course there also those special few that make me go, “WTF?”

A couple of days ago I got an email asking, “Has Traditional Medicine Let You Down?” It read as follows:

Hello there!

We thought that you might be interested to know that we are currently looking for people to become involved in a brand new series.

HAS TRADITIONAL MEDICINE LET YOU DOWN? A GROUND BREAKING NEW HEALTH SERIES WANTS YOU?

Outline Productions are making a ground breaking new series for a major broadcasting channel, and we want you to be part of it.

Are you one of the many in the UK who have Verrucas, Athletes Foot or Warts?

Has traditional, over the counter medicine not worked for you?

Or are you a male who would be interested in trying out an alternative, natural aphrodisiac to boost your sexual libido and performance?

If this sounds like you or someone you know please get in touch ASAP via our website

This email has it all: a Ron Burgundy-style misplaced question mark (“A new health series wants you?”); an overall tone reminiscent of Homer Simpson’s classic, “Hello sir! You look like a man who needs help satisfying his wife”; a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey approach to capitalisation. And of course the fact that they’re apparently genuinely making a television programme about curing warts with alternative medicine. What are they going to suggest, homeopathic doses of toad?

It hurts my brain to think that some people might read this and think, yes, TV is clearly the way forward with addressing this annoying verruca problem that modern medicine has somehow failed to rid me of.

Loser leaves town

Apparently Australian politics is run by Vince McMahon:

Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, has been sacked by her party just months before the next election and replaced by the man she ousted three years ago.

Gillard laid down the challenge to [Kevin] Rudd when she called on Wednesday for a do-or-die ballot, on the condition that the loser retire from parliament to end the debilitating Labor leadership war.

Reports suggest that Gillard also had all of her hair forcefully shaved off. She’s expected to return to politics under a new name and wearing a mask early next week.

Lift

For a few months now I’ve been using an app called Lift to track my adherence to a set of habits I’m trying to cultivate. Lift is an app with which you “check in” to the habits you’re trying to build. Every time you, say, floss in the morning you can check in to the “floss” habit, and Lift will track how many times you’ve done that this week, or this month, and how long your current unbroken streak is.

Lift (list)I find this a great way to keep my motivation for some things that I might otherwise find myself being too lazy to do. If I know I’ve eaten breakfast every morning for a week then I’m less likely to skip it tomorrow when I find I’m running late for work again. Even for habits that I’m never going to have a long streak in — like cooking dinner — I can at least aim to do better this week than last week.

Lift (habit)Setting it apart from the other habit trackers that I’ve tried, Lift also has a social element. Everything you do in the app is public. You can see what habits other people are trying to develop, and see how they do. And of course everyone can see what you do too. There’s a sense of support in seeing how many other people are working towards similar goals to your own. You can give “props” — basically virtual high-fives — to other users for their check-ins. It’s nice to check in after a run and immediately get a few props from fellow runners acknowledging the work you’ve put in.

Lift started life as an iPhone app but it has since expanded to have a web app component, opening it up to all of the non-iPhone users too. It looks like it ought to work pretty well on a mobile browser so you could use the web app pretty effectively on an Android phone.

If you decide to try it out you can follow me.

New Bus for London

I’ve just had my first journey on the new Routemaster bus, officially the New Bus for London. As of today the 24 route is to be entirely served by the new bus (aside from the occasional use of the older buses until a handful of delayed deliveries arrive). It will be the first route to exclusively use the new buses.

The 24 is my regular. It stops amazingly close to both my work and my home. It’s a lot slower than the tube but it’s convenient to have no changes and little walking. It also passes some of London’s more interesting locations (including Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and Trafalgar Square) so it’s good for people-watching. I tend to take the tube in the morning but catch the bus in the evenings when I’m in less of a hurry.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t expect to be using it at the weekend but today we happened to be out meeting one of my wife’s school friends near Victoria.

New Bus for London

The bus we took today was incredibly busy. I don’t know to what extent that’s because the route is always popular on weekends, because there was a lot going on in the West End on this particular day, or just because people wanted to try out the new bus. There was certainly an element of transport geekery in the air though. I heard at least two pairs chatting enthusiastically about the vehicle we were on and some other types of bus we passed along the way.

The new bus is a nice mix of classic and modern. The outside is boldly future-looking, with an emphasis on opening it up to the outside with large (often curved) windows. It will be easy to tell this bus apart from those serving other routes, even at a distance. Inside, the colours are beautiful deep reds and gold, making the seats look almost like old theatre seats, and of course the rear stairway and corner door are taken straight from the original Routemaster from the 1950s.

The extra door seems like it will make it much more efficient to get on and off, especially in the near future before most people realise they can use any of the three doors to board the bus.

I like having the assistant at the rear door, as it makes it possible to thank someone one the way out. I grew up with Dublin buses, on which you can thank the driver on the way out. But until now London buses have always required you to board at the front and leave by the middle doors, the prospect of actually having any interaction with a person being apparently too much for native Londoners to bear.