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I just want to put some of this down for posterity - i.e. to remind myself in future, of what was obvious at the time.

Politics · Mon 28 September 2020

I'm having problems focusing on my work. It's very difficult to avoid distractions.

One big distraction is something called the World Wide Web... well in my job the most difficult distraction is actually work email - there are lots of different things that distract attention by email. Email is great but it can so easily mean you have no focussed time at all.

I went on a time management course and realised that I should save at least one or two hours per day away from email. I've heard many times, people recommending "No email before noon" or suchlike. I can't imagine being able to go as far as that and also manage meetings etc, but at least I can defend some portion of time.

The problem is not just deciding to stay away from distractions. It's forcing yourself to do it.

I've found one way that helps me: forcing my laptop to be disconnected from the internet between 7am and 9am. It's not much - I mean, many people don't even consider work emails before 9am, though my daily pattern is a bit non-standard. Starting the day this way does help me focus, and make sure I've achieved at least one bit of thoughtful work most days.

Here's how I do it on my linux laptop. I couldn't find any reliable guides for it - I thought there'd be an easy command of some sort. But here's my way:

I tried a few options before this one, including commands that were supposed to auto-run whenever my laptop opened (to check the time and decide whether or not to enable wifi), but there were various problems getting that working, partly because there's a small delay in the "normal" wifi manager connecting, so it's hard to synchronise with that.

In the end I went for a rather brute-force approach: I used "cron" to ensure that once per minute, for every minute between 7am and 9am on a weekday, the "nmcli" command turns off my laptop's networking. Then at 9am it turns it on.

If you don't know cron or crontab, look it up, it's a really common way on linux to schedule commands.

# sudo crontab -e
# seems to need to be in sudo. Not sure why! Probably env vars.
0 9 * * 1-5 /usr/bin/nmcli networking on
* 7-8 * * 1-5 /usr/bin/nmcli networking off

You can see there's a "networking on" command and a "networking off" nmcli command. The numbers at the start of the line specify the day and time - for example "1-5" means Monday to Friday. And " 7-8" means to turn the networking off whenever the hour is 7 or 8, and whenever the minute is anything ("").

This method might seem a bit stupid (why not just turn wifi off once, rather than every 60 seconds?) but actually works very reliably, and has some handy side-effects. It is technically possible for the user (me) to turn wifi back on, and in practice there's often a temptation to do this. Sometimes there's even a good reason! But even if you do, cron will simply come along approx half a minute later and turn it off, meaning that the "rabbit hole" temptation of "oh I'll just check that one thing online" can't lead you off and away from your quiet time.

IT · Wed 23 September 2020

This flavour combination was fabulous - the hot deep flavour of muhammara (from Turkey/Syria, so I'm told) and the herby zesty za'atar (ours is from Palestine) make a great complement to the classic taste of grilled aubergine. We're not from the Levant so don't take this as authentic, but this is evocative and quite easy.

Muhammara is a fiery dip, and mixing it with mascarpone (or similar) in a ratio os 1:2 gets the heat just right for this, in our opinion, though you may wish to tweak it! Serves 2 hungry eaters, takes about 30 minutes (aside from making the pizza dough, which is optional to do it yourself).

Heat your oven to 200 C.

Put the pizza base out onto a lightly-floured baking tray. Mix the muhammara and mascarpone together, and spread this evenly over the pizza base, leaving the edges clear like you normally do with pizza.

Slice the aubergine in half down the middle, then slice thinly to make semicircle slices (about 3mm thick). In a bowl, toss the aubergine slices with 1 tbsp of the olive oil. Then lay them out nicely on the pizza, to make a scallop pattern - don't just pile them on, you want each aubergine piece exposed equally to the heat. You'll cover almost the whole pizza.

Sprinkle the za'atar evenly over the aubergine pieces, then drizzle the remaining olive oil evenly over the top. Put it in the oven for about 20 minutes, until it's looking lovely.

Chop the tomatoes into little quarters. Take the pizza out of the oven, and dot the tomato pieces all over, then also sprinkle the parsley over. Leave the pizza for a minute before eating! It's too hot, and also it's good for the tomatoes to take up some of the heat.

Recipes · Sun 20 September 2020

Snapchat lets people share little photos and videos with each other, mostly used to tell the story of their day. Snapchat also created a map where you can click around the world and drop in on anonymous little slices of life. Try it - it's an odd but absorbing thing.

There's one thing I noticed that I really don't understand. People posting funny comments, or snaps of the cocktail they've ordered, or just things they notice in the street - sure, I get it. The thing I don't get is... Why are hundreds and hundreds (at least) of people posting videos of the very boring road ahead of them as they drive?

Here are some I saw locally, in London:

And here are some from around the world:

These are NOT snaps of high-speed driving, or showing off about the car. (Not even doing something daft on a motorway.) They're NOT snaps while held at a red light or in a traffic queue. They're NOT about something funny/interesting outside the window, and usually no-one is talking, let alone talking to camera. There may be some music playing but it doesn't seem particularly about sharing music.

They are incredibly mundane. The driver is going along, driving with one hand, and basically showing us the road as they see it. It's boring. We can see the steering wheel and the backs of some other cars. It might be partly possible to work out what road they're on, but they're not seemingly doing it to share their exact location.

What I'm fascinated to understand is: WHY are they doing it?

Like I said - they are NOT showing off about speed, or car ownership, or friends, or jokes. Their mates are probably not impressed, or even interested, and don't seem to be commenting back and forth on each others' rides. Why bother?

(And, of course, why do something that's certainly illegal (in the UK as well as elsewhere), and known to be dangerous - and before you ask, yes I'm certain that it's the driver filming these, not a passenger (there are some passenger snaps, but many fewer; e.g. some taxi rides). But the moral outrage can come later. The primary thing I'm wondering is WHY BOTHER?

Now I'm well aware that people post all kinds of random shizzle on Snapchat - you can see it right there - and they're not all meant to be amazing. Snaps are often part of a "story", a collage of your day, and I guess these videos are part of the story perhaps of someone's night out. But why include all the boring bits? (These videos are not short - often multiple snaps in a sequence.)

One possibility is: Snapchat incentivises people to post many snaps, or to post frequently. It could alternatively be slightly more innocently that people develop a "habit" of posting snaps, but it seems odd to me they'd post pointless snaps without any incentive. Wouldn't they instead prefer to look at snaps, or post verbal callouts, or suchlike?

Can anyone enlighten me? What makes people post snaps like these?

misc · Sat 19 September 2020

Back when I first tried alcohol-free beer, I only knew of one from Sainsbury's (not bad) and Becks Blue (meh) - little did we know that by 2020, there would be so many that it's hard to keep track of them all! There are many good ones but also a few to avoid. I'm shocked to report that not only have we tasted over 70 alcohol-free beers, but also... a whopping twenty-two of them are so nice that I'd enthusiastically recommend them to all of you.

I won't list them all directly here (but you can see the spreadsheet if you like - oh yes... and here's a PDF of it). Here are some of the most fabulous and notable ones we encountered. Cheers!

Our other top picks are:

food · Thu 30 July 2020

This was a great dish making a centrepiece of the cauliflower with Indian spicing. I made it up based on something that looked nice on Masterchef. A notable non-cauliflower-lover gave it top marks so I'm sure you'll love it too.

Serves 2, takes about 50 minutes, plus extra time at the start to marinate.

For the rice:

For the cauliflower:

For the carrot:

First, marinate the cauliflower. You can do this way in advance, e.g. 2 hours - but give it at least half an hour if you can. Mix the coconut oil, vegetable oil and all the dry spices. Chop the cauliflower into four big quarters - remember, you want these to come out whole at the end of the process, try to cut them so they'll stay entire. Now marinate the cauliflower in the oil and spice mix, turning it a few times to try and get all the surfaces flavoured.

When there's about 40 minutes until service, turn on the oven to 180 C. Oil a baking tray or baking tin and pop it in the oven to pre-heat.

Now start off your rice. Wash it in a sieve or suchlike, washing it until the water runs clear, then leave it to soak in fresh cold water for 10--20 minutes. Make sure all the bits you need for the rice are ready.

Take the baking tray out of the oven - be careful of the hot oil - and lay the cauliflower pieces flat-side down into the hot oil. Return to the oven. They'll cook for about 30 minutes, and halfway through you'll want to turn them so that "the other" flat side is down in the oil.

Drain your rice and put it in a pan that has a tight-fitting lid (it's handy to oil the pan a little, in advance). Add all the other ingredients to the rice pot, as well as 2/3 mugful of cold water (or less, if you're using coconut milk - 1/3 mugful?). Bring this to the boil, stir, then turn the heat down to the lowest it can possibly go and put the lid on. You now need to leave this un-disturbed for 20 minutes for the rice to absorb. Meanwhile you can get on with the carrots.

Slice the carrots into very thin coins and put them in a pan with a little oil and 100ml water. Bring to the boil, salt, and cook vigorously for about 12-15 minutes until soft.

Drain the carrots. If you've still got the bowl in which you marinaded the cauliflower, you can pop the carrots in there to pick up any leftover spice. If not, don't worry. Put the carrots and coriander, together with a dash of water (e.g. from cooking the carrots) and a dash of oil, all into a blender and blend to a smooth puree. Check seasoning, add a bit more salt if needed.

To serve: with a big spoon, scoop the rice out to make a mound. Take the puree and spread it over the plate next to the rice. Take the cauliflower pieces from the oven and place them on top of the puree.

recipes · Mon 27 July 2020

It's official! Vegan ice-cream is now good.

Don't believe me? I don't mind, that means more for me :) But if you want my credentials: I'm not even a vegan and I think these ice-creams are great.

It's summer. There's a problem. You want ice cream, but the dairy industry produces masses of CO2, making the world hotter. Dammit, a vicious circle. Never fear! Try these amazing ice creams:

  1. Jude's vegan vanilla - it is LOVELY and creamy, with the decandent vanilla bean taste you want.

  2. Oatly strawberry - lovely pink strawberry flavour.

  3. Ben & Jerrys "Coconutty Carameld" - a weird but great combination, the coconut against the caramel -- the type of thing B&J are known for.

  4. ROAR "Coconut mango passion fruit oat cookie" -- what a crazy flavour. This tropical ice cream has really fresh flavours of mango and passionfruit both coming through boldly. I'm not really sure why it has oat flakes in it, but the overall effect is an over-the-top tropical cocktail. -- Oh and I also really like their "hemp seed chocolate brownie" ice cream, which is a straightforward great chocolatey one.

These companies all do other flavours too (for vegan chocolate ice cream, Oatly's is also good). But if you've not tried vegan ice cream before you might not know where to start, so here's your executive summary.

food · Mon 15 June 2020

The UK's response to Covid-19 is a national tragedy. It's not just a case of "bad luck": we had approx 2 weeks extra time than Italy in coming up with our response, and yet we somehow managed to achieve a higher number of Covid deaths, and even, a higher number of Covid deaths-per-million.

For me, it's the deaths-per-million that is the number to care about, since it adjusts for the big differences in numbers you would get simply from a country being large or small. For a long time we were tracking along with the same rates as France and the Netherlands, both countries that "got the virus" at about the same time as us. Then our stats pulled away, now being twice the (normalised) fatality rate as those countries. Twice.

You can also measure "excess deaths" which helps account for deaths not necessarily labelled as "covid deaths". As of May 15th, the FT lists us as having 59,500 excess deaths (+65%), versus Italy's 46,700 (+47%) and Spain's 43,500 (+62%). (Update: the FT has an article on 28th May analysing our higher death rate in more detail.)

The minor differences in how each country reports their data are insignificant here. They can't possibly explain away this tragedy. We had two extra weeks to get our preparations in place. And there are plenty of reasons the UK should have been one of the best-prepared countries in the world. This BMJ editorial gives a good overview of the UK's public health failures in handling the coronavirus. There were (probably) mistakes in the scientific advice, and these are mentioned in the article. But don't let that misguide you - there were big, very big errors of judgment at the political level too. And it is the government which has the responsibility for getting us through crises like this. Our numbers should not have been anywhere near as bad as Italy's or Spain's.

Politicians are dedicated experts at pinning the blame on anyone but themselves, though. The UK government are already trumpeting loudly the defence that they're "following the science", and surely they will use that defence when the public inquiry comes.

So. Putting aside many of the other uncertainties - if they were indeed following the science, then:

None of these are "science led" actions, even considering the differences in advice from different scientific advisors. I'm nervous that the scientists involved, who are presumably much less experienced at media and spin than the politicians, may end up scapegoated for mistakes and ambiguities which we can see in retrospect. One of the scariest implications of that would be the big disincentive for scientists to get involved with giving their expert advice to the UK government in future.

If you are involved in science: beware of framing your conversations around flaws/gaps in the scientists' advice - even though that can be an interesting discussion (particularly because it's more concrete than discussing politicians' ideologies). As the list above shows, the people in charge made lots of concrete statements and decisions that deserve clear scrutiny. Similarly, there's no point blaming politicians nor scientists for innocent mistakes. Instead, focus on clear deliberate actions such as listed above. So much of the UK's response was shaped strongly by political ideology and political allegiances. We need to investigate these.

politics · Mon 08 June 2020

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