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?


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.


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.


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.