Some of my random thoughts, expressed in 100 words or less.

LIFE

Choose your traps wisely

We all become caught in traps. The longer you live somewhere, the less freedom you have to leave. The same applies to partners, kids, jobs, houses, possessions, debt, friends, hobbies and routines. Each gently but increasingly binds you into living where you are now, doing what you do now. As each trap closes, it makes others close faster. Even if you avoid most traps, age and illness will catch you. Traps are unavoidable. So choose your traps carefully - where you live, who you're with, what you do - rather than fall into them accidentally. Seek golden cages rather than bear-traps.

"The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken" - Bertrand Russell

Quality of Life is not Standard of Living

'Standard of living' is a phrase used by politicians to describe people's ability to satisfy wants and needs. It's expressed in terms of income; an economic measure of welfare. Unfortunately, people confuse it with 'quality of life', which means how free, healthy and happy you are, in addition to wealth. Your standard of living is generally controlled by your employer/customers and government; whereas your quality of life is under your own control and can be improved for free: exercising, visiting nature, moving elsewhere, eating healthily, learning new skills, and spending time with family and friends.

UnWishing

I think it's a bad idea to make wishes. When we wish, we express our desire to be in a more ideal world where things are better than they are now. Yet studies into happiness that show happiness often comes from how we see our situation compared to others around us . A wish is a comparison of your life against a more perfect life; logically, it should make you less happy. Instead, make unwishes - that you can keep something you already have and value: your health, your family, your free time.

Time & Space

People in rich countries are wealthy not because they are special or deserving of it, but as a result of the gifts of past generations: knowledge, society, freedom, capital.

Since we have been helped generously 'across time' by our ancestors, I think we should feel an obligation to help others generously 'across space', all around the world.

Clearing out space

I used to store all my old belongings, in case I needed them one day. Nowadays, I like to get rid of things, because having more space (or living in a smaller space) has more value to me than keeping things 'just in case'. But it's sometimes very hard to let go. One day though, I realised: Eventually, I'll be dead, and I'll be forced to give up all of my things then. So the question is never "should I lose this thing?" - it's "when do I lose this thing?"

What really matters in life?

According to this book by a palliative nurse, the most common ‘dying regrets’ are:

  1. "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
"
  2. "I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
"
  3. "I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
"
  4. "I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
"
  5. "I wish that I had let myself be happier."

Consequently, perhaps we should:

  1. Be who we want to be, do what matters.
  2. Set our lives equal with our work.
  3. Speak our minds.
  4. Value our friends.
  5. Maximise happiness, not money or status.

On talking with smart people who believe unusual or crazy things...

Intelligent people can quickly create convincing arguments and rationale to support any idea, regardless of whether or not it is true. Consequently, asking "Why do you believe X?" may produce apparently intelligent justifications for beliefs that are actually held for non-intelligent reasons, such as 'it was the first opinion they heard on the topic', or 'they acquired it before they learned how to reason'. It's much more illuminating to ask "What was the series of thoughts or events that originally caused you to start believing X?"

"Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." - Michael Shermer

To avoid being tempted to spend money on unnecessary gadgets...

  1. Upon seeing a wonderful gadget online, immediately save the webpage into a folder called 'buy this'.
  2. Stop reading about the gadget - as you've decided to buy it - and go on to browse other web pages.
  3. Never open the 'buy this' folder under any circumstances...!

Clearing out space (2)

Sometimes I find it hard to part with some particular object when I'm clearing out. When this happens, I find it helpful to imagine how it will look in 100 or 1000 years time. If it still exists in any form, it will be broken, rotten, and damaged beyond all repair. Visualising this makes it a lot easier to part with things I don't need, especially when they still have some resale value.

On retiring earlier

Many people don't realise that reducing their spending has a double effect on their ability to retire early. Firstly, they are saving more. Secondly, they adapt to enjoy life with less spending. Since you have more 'units of saving' and since each unit pays for more of your future cost-of-living, you can retire much sooner.

For example, if you live on half your income, and save the other half at 6% real, you can retire after just 12 years (check in Excel). The long term return on the US stockmarket is 6% real... (see p494).

Dematerialise

To save more, avoid buying anything you can survive without:

cars (& fuel, servicing, tax, insurance, tolls, parking), fancy meals & holidays, tobacco, alcohol, books (use libraries), music (libraries, radio), DVDs (library, TV), art (visit galleries, museums, nature), subscriptions, clothes & shoes you never wear, computer games (play free), expensive sports, new technology, seldom-used tools / appliances / gadgets / kitchenware

Drink more water. Collect photos, not souvenirs. Give things away. Fewer belongings = smaller house = smaller costs & less heating, furniture, items insurance. Rent for your lifestyle today; don't 'buy big for the future'. Renting also avoids repairs, property taxes & insurance.

You can't argue with a robot

Sometimes when you are having a discussion with someone, you will realise that no matter what evidence or reasoning you present, they seem unable to consider your point. Perhaps they may say "Well, I still don't agree", without any explanation as to why. At this point I find it helpful to ask "What evidence or reasoning would make you change your mind?". If they say they don't know, or that nothing will change their mind, then stop talking to them and walk away. It's pointless to argue with a robot trapped in a 'GOTO 10' loop.

Fixing the pay disparity

Rather than trying to extract more money from the rich - a difficult task - perhaps we should try to elevate the poor to being rich another way. Imagine a world where the law prevented the CEO of a company from being paid more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid worker.

Are CEOs more than 20 times smarter and harder working than the rest of the employees? I doubt it.

"Best practices"

I'm against the idea of 'best practices'. I think the concept derives from politics, not engineering, and is an attempt to force one group's favourite choice onto everyone, discouraging trying alternatives and thus any future progress. After all, if what you're doing isn't 'best practice', then it must be... worse?

There is no point in history where humans successfully discovered better practices than what we know now in 2012. Likewise, people in 2112 will laugh at today's 'best practices', but only if we are free to try new approaches.

How to be happy - my best guess?

  • Ensure your diet contains L-Tryptophan & L-Tyrosine (& all other chemical precursors for serotonin and dopamine). Bad diets can cause e.g. medical depression and anhedonia (inability to find pleasure). No happiness chemicals in your brain = no happiness.
  • Try to be a good & kind person.
  • Make up for your mistakes.
  • Exercise often.
  • Reserve time for favourite hobbies, foods, people and places.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Get lots of sleep.
  • Reflect on the things you're lucky to have in life.
  • When sad: talk to friends and ask their advice.

"Best practices" part 2

When was the last time you saw a set of 'best practices' that carefully specified the conditions under which they would work, with examples to highlight the limits of the ideas? The belief that simple sets of rules can optimally address the infinite possibilities of life is hilarious.

Also, when was the last time you saw a set of 'best practices' that listed all the other 'non-best' practices it had been compared against, and how they were compared?

HEALTH

Almost-Vitamins

Most people know what a vitamin is. It's a substance that your body needs as part of your diet, right?

Sort of. A vitamin is defined as a substance you need, but can't naturally produce.

But what about essential nutrients your body can make a little of by itself, but could benefit from extra? Or what if a part of your metabolism is broken without you knowing about it (broken by diet, or by genetics?) You won't find those things in a vitamin pill. Perhaps choline or L-tyrosine, for example.

I wonder why we don't have multi-almost-vitamin pills.

The universe does not care how you classify things

I find it fascinating that people frequently think of substances as being only one of either 'food', 'medicine', 'supplement', 'poison', 'drug' - as if the laws of physics or biology care how we think of things?

  • A plate of mussels has more zinc than a medicinal dose of zinc.
  • Water, as a drink, could kill you in more ways than most poisons (inhalation, water intoxication, burning, carrying solutes or germs).
  • "Tea" contains mind-altering stimulant and dopaminergic drugs.
  • Ethanol, popular at meal-time, kills ten times as many people as all other poisons added together.
  • Turmeric is an anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal cancer drug - mostly used to flavour curry.
  • Several new, expensive, brand-name heart medications are basically filtered fish oil in a pill.

"I don't like taking pills"

Some people say things to me like "I try to avoid taking pills"... as if making something small and tablet-shaped makes it bad somehow?

Of course, if the pills in question happen to be M&Ms (packed with refined sugar and saturated fat), I've observed that's usually OK for them.

(Another favourite is "I only take 'natural' cures/foods" - as if there is anything in our diet that is completely unshaped by mankind).

Why doesn't Nutrition rank alongside Maths and English at school?

It's certainly more useful than trigonometry or calculus.

Most people I meet have some basic awareness of the roles played by sugar/carbohydrate, fat, and protein in their diet. Few have heard about sulphurous compounds or methyl donors, which can have a much larger effect. It's also rare to meet someone who can tell the difference between omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 oils.

FOOD

Cinnamon sugar snakes.

I had this idea a few days ago...

  1. Take 1/3 of a packet of marzipan, tear into it into 2x2x1 cm pieces.
  2. Roll the pieces in your hands to make them into long cylinders.
  3. Get a little cinnamon powder and sugar, mix it, and dust a plate with it.
  4. Roll the marzipan cylinders in the cinnamon dust.
  5. Optionally add eyes and a mouth to the snakes with a toothpick.
  6. Store them in the fridge, eat when chilled.

A nice way to serve lemon and honey.

I learned this on a rainy day in Adelaide, Australia.

  1. Take a tall drinking glass.
  2. Put 3 cm of honey in the bottom (clear or crystallised).
  3. Add 3 cm of lemon or lime juice on top, preferably freshly squeezed.
  4. Fill the glass 3/4 full with boiling water.
  5. Serve with a long spoon.
  6. Do not stir the glass!
  7. Instead, use the spoon to pull spoonfuls of honey up through the hot lemon, and eat it.

My favourite ways to serve toast.

  1. Put some wholemeal bread (or Finnish rye bread) in the toaster.
  2. When toasted, soak it all over with olive oil. Spread gently with a knife if needed. Don't leave gaps.
  3. Now that the oil layer prevents water soaking into the bread, add either:
  • Smoked salmon strips, the flesh of some cherry tomatoes, and lemon juice.

  • Korean kimchi salad (and pour on some of the chilli liquid from the kimchi jar).

10 minute emergency recipe for party food.

  1. Get pasta shells, red pesto, green pesto, sliced mushrooms, chicken (precooked?).
  2. Cook the pasta, slice + microwave mushrooms, lightly fry the chicken if needed.
  3. (optional) While waiting, make cinnamon snakes.
  4. (optional) Or cube some cheeses, drain pineapple chunks, put on cocktail sticks.
  5. Put green pesto, mushrooms and pasta in one bowl, stir it up.
  6. Put red pesto, chicken and pasta in the other bowl, stir it up.
  7. Tada. All done in 10 minutes.

Fun toast

  • First slice of toast: 25% jam, 25% honey, 25% marmalade, 25% chocolate spread
  • Second slice of toast: 25% cheese triangle, 25% cottage cheese, 25% soft cheese, 25% hard cheese
  • Third slice of toast: 25% red pesto, 25% green pesto, 25% olive oil/vinegar, 25% mini-salad (smoked salmon, lettuce+tomato, cucumber, 1 olive)
  • Don't cut up the toast slices into quarters, keep them whole.
  • In my experience, anyone who sees this will be... impressed.

TRAVEL

Arriving in Finland / using your phone for the internet.

When you arrive in Finland, the first thing you should do is get mobile 3G internet working on your phone:

  1. Ask someone for directions to "R-kioski".
  2. Buy a 'saunalahti' (sow-na-lah-tee) SIM card. It costs 6 euros, and includes 6 euros of credit.
  3. Put it in your phone. This helps your phone's GPS, and (automatically) for 2 euros a day you get unlimited fast internet everywhere. Just enable 3G, ignore weird messages. Using an iPhone/iPad? Look here.
  4. If your 3G doesn't work, try using 'internet' or 'internet.saunalahti' as the APN.
  5. You can buy topups and 1-week / 1-month data packs cheaply here.
  6. Use Google Places (or whatever) to find nearby restaurants, sightseeing, transport, doctors, ...
  7. Use the Android Market (or whatever) to get some Helsinki tourism applications.

COMPUTING

Avoiding visual distractions in MacOS

  1. Messy desktop? To disable desktop icons, copy this into a terminal window (Utilities/Terminal): defaults write com.apple.finder CreateDesktop -bool false ; killall Finder
  2. Enable hiding on the dock using its right-click menu.
  3. Right click icons on the top-right of the screen that you never use (e.g. bluetooth), and remove them.
  4. Press control-option, click on finder in the dock, keep the keys held down, then select 'hide others'. This minimises all open windows.
  5. Enjoy your beautiful, clutter-free desktop.

How to survive the 'Slashdot effect', in 1 easy step.

The slashdot effect is when your site gets mentioned on e.g. slashdot.org, then 10,000,000 people browse it at once and your webserver dies. One solution is to replace your webserver software (usually apache) with an efficient alternative, such as 'nginx' or 'G-Wan'. However, a simpler solution is a 'reverse caching proxy' such as Varnish or squid. By running hundreds of simplified lightweight 'mini-webservers', you may be able to speed up your site and handle up to 500x more visitors at peak times (in my case, about 250x). Seems too good to be true? Try it. Using Linux:

yum install varnish 
# edit /etc/sysconfig/varnish, etc/varnish/default.vcl: port 80 for varnish, 8080 for 'backend'
# edit /etc/httpd/conf/httpd.conf: port 8080 for apache
service httpd restart; service varnish start   # restart
chkconfig --level 3 varnish on                 # enable varnish on reboot
# all done! type 'varnishstat' to see it at work.

Sorting lists like a non-crazy programmer

Imagine you have a list containing these strings to sort:

  • Track 3a, Track 1a, Track 12a, Track 2a, Track 20a

Your natural impulse will be to call listname.sort() or equivalent, producing:

  • Track 1a, Track 12a, Track 2a, Track 20a, Track 3a

Yuck. What you want is:

  • Track 1a, Track 2a, Track 3a, Track 12a, Track 20a

And what you need is 'natural sort'. First, split strings into 'letters' and 'integers', rather than 'letters' and 'digits', using a regular expression to identify groups of digits. Then, specify the sort order for each type. Read more here...

RANDOM

What lies beyond the seas of St Andrews?

If you studied at St Andrews, as I did, you may have looked out aross the sea from one of the beaches without ever imagining what lay at the other side. Here's the answer, due East from St Andrews on the shores of Denmark: Torsminde.