Category Archives: off topic

Flying in a f**king jet

In January of this year I got to fulfill my long-time ambition of flying in a fast jet (that’s me in the picture above). I got a lot of questions from friends and family about it. So I thought I would write about it here, in case anyone else is interested.

What was the plane?

An Aero L-39 Albatros advanced jet trainer. Developed in Czechoslovakia, it is the most widely used jet trainer in the world and similar in size and performance to the Hawk used by the Red Arrows. Maximum speed Mach 0.8. This particular plane was apparently ex-Ukrainian Air Force. To my untrained eye, it looked it in excellent condition. The picture below is of the actual aircraft on the day.


Where did you do it?

At in Tauranga, New Zealand, while on holiday.

What happened before the flight?

The first scheduled date was cancelled due to low cloud. We rescheduled to a few days later and the weather was beautiful.

I was kitted out in a flight suit, helmet and a small life jacket (!). I was then given a briefing by my pilot, JC, a serving Air Zealand Airlines long-haul pilot and ex New Zealand Air Force pilot. When I was asked what sort of flight I wanted, I opted for ‘Top Gun’ (aerobatic). There doesn’t seem to be much point in getting into a fast jet and then going sightseeing.

As I have a history of detached retina, and accompanying eye surgery, it was decided that we would only do positive G manoeuvres (where the blood flows away from your head, e.g. a turn with the cockpit on the inside), no negative G manoeuvres (where the blood flows into your head, e.g. a turn with the cockpit on the outside).

I was helped into the back seat of the plane (it is a bit of a climb), strapped in and attached to the intercom. As mine was the first flight of the day we did various checks before take-off, including powering the engine up and down. We then got clearance from air traffic control and off we went.

What happened during the flight?

We flew out over the sea and did a succession of rolls, turns and loops. I have been in various small aircraft before (propeller driven planes, gliders, helicopters and a gyrocopter), but this felt quite different to all of those. Much more powerful and responsive. It was also the first time I have been upside down in aircraft. Looking up at the earth is a very surreal experience.

it was a beautiful day in a beautiful part of New Zealand and the views were stunning (pretty much all of New Zealand is beautiful). I couldn’t see the pilot at all because of his seat, but he kept telling me what was going on and checking I was ok via the 2 way intercom. I guess he was pretty keen to ensure that I didn’t panic or redecorate the inside of the cockpit.

At one point I looked down at some small white shapes flying below. I thought they were seagulls. But then I realized they were other aircraft.

At the end we did a low pass over the town before landing.

How did you feel afterwards?

Exhilarated. Tired. Relieved.

What about the G forces?

We got up to +4G in the loops. When you do a positive G manoeuvre the blood tries to drain out of your head. This can cause a loss of consciousness. I had been briefed to do the ‘Anti G Straining Manoeuvre’ during turns and loops, to reduce the chance of passing out. It is pretty much like straining to do a tricky poo (but hopefully without the actual pooing). You can see a video of someone doing AGSM under +9G of acceleration here:

I didn’t feel the G force much on my torso, which was tightly strapped down, but my arms felt incredibly heavy if I tried to move them during the loops. I did feel a little light headed at one point and my hands tingled. But I tried to be conscientious with my AGSMs and I didn’t feel close to passing out.

Did you feel sick?

I was starting to suffer a bit on the last couple of manoeuvres. In retrospect I probably should have asked him to go easier on me towards the end, rather than trying to tough it out. But thankfully I didn’t need the sick bag provided (‘do a Clarkson’).

Did you get a G-suit?

No. They are made to measure, so the pilot got one, but I didn’t. On balance, it was more important that he didn’t black out.

Did you get a go on the controls?

No. The plane was dual controls, but I was under strict instructions not to touch anything. I have had a go at the controls in a glider, but a jet is too high performance for a rookie.

What was the view like out of the canopy?

Amazing. I couldn’t see directly ahead because of the pilots seat, but otherwise the visibility was excellent. Comparable to what you can see from a glider.

Did you take a camera?

No. You probably wouldn’t be able to hold onto it during the manoeuvres. If you dropped it, then it could have bounced around inside the cockpit and possibly got wedged somewhere disastrous (e.g. under a foot pedal). However there was GoPro in the cockpit and they sent me a high quality video of the flight a few days later as a memento. The image above is taken from the video.

Was there an ejection seat or parachute?

The plane has ejections seats, but New Zealand civil aviation rules required them to be deactivated. The pilot told me that bailing out with a parachute was complicated and impractical for people who weren’t experienced pilots. So we didn’t have parachutes either. We would both be landing in the plane, whatever happened. In the unlikely event of loss of engine power, we would probably have enough height and speed to glide back to the airport. If not, we would probably head for a beach.

Were you scared?

I was a bit apprehensive on the morning. But I wasn’t going to back out on a long-time ambition. Especially as there was no refund for cancelling on the day. Also I was reassured by having a very experienced pilot and the fact that his safety was intimately linked to mine.

Was it loud?

It wasn’t very loud from inside the cockpit. Partly due to me wearing a helmet and the cockpit pressurization might have also made a difference. My family said it was pretty loud from where they were standing though.

Did they play the theme music to Top Gun?

Sadly not.

How long were you in the air for?

I think something around 25 minutes. That was enough!

What were the takeoff and landing like?

Surprisingly smooth.

How much did it cost?

Somewhere around (cough) $2,500 US. That is a lot of money (although an order of magnitude cheaper than flying a Mig-25). But I prefer to spend my money on experiences, rather than things, and I have a very understanding wife. I am probably still going to be banging on about ‘that time I flew in a fast jet’ when I am in a nursing home.

Would you recommend it?

Yes. If you have got a strong stomach and the sufficient bank balance, it is a pretty amazing experience. However flying in a glider is also pretty amazing and much cheaper (your local gliding club will probably take you up on a flight for around $100). So I recommend trying that first.


Second 2 photos by Claire Brice. Post title inspired by Andrey Butov.

Volunteering Your IT Skills

There is a lot to be said for running a small software business (just me, with my wife doing some of the admin). For a start it gives me a great deal of flexibility, which I used to spend 2 months travelling abroad with my family last year. It is also low in stress, as I don’t have any employees to manage (my wife manages herself!). But even with some consulting work, going to the occasional conference and running some face-to-face training courses, I was starting to feel a little bit isolated after 13 years working mostly on my own. At that time the news was full of heart-rending stories of the suffering of refugees trying to flee war and repression. I don’t like the way the world is heading at present and wanted to do something to help these people in whatever small way I could. So I started volunteering at a charity for refugees and asylum seekers in my home town.

I initially tried to avoid doing computer things for the charity. But it quickly became clear that my IT skills were much more useful to them than anything else I could offer. Consequently I have been sorting out various IT issues, teaching people basic IT skills and have built them a simple CRM and reporting system, based on Airtable. Replacing the previous paper system with an electronic one is saving the staff and volunteers a lot of busy-work, which frees up their time to do more useful things. It is also giving the charity a lot more insight into how they are doing. And it has got me out from office and meeting some really great people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Win-win. Sometimes I feel spread a bit thin with my various work, charity and personal commitments (which is partly why the blog has been a bit quiet recently) but overall I am very glad I started volunteering.

So, if you are feeling a bit isolated, consider volunteering for a local charity. I suspect many small charities are desperate for volunteers with IT skills. Even if you are a programmer with quite specialist skills (like me), it is easy to forget that you are still an IT systems god compared with 99% of the population.

How to build a gym in your garden

Human physiology has evolved for a challenging existence on the African savannah. It doesn’t cope well with sitting in front of a computer all day, with high energy foods constantly within easy reach. But going to the gym is a hassle: get your gear together, drive to the gym, get changed, do your workout, have a shower, get changed back, drive home. Even just going for a run means 2 changes of clothes and a shower. I wanted something high intensity that I could do in a few minutes every day. I work from home, so I built a gym in my garden, right outside my office. I posted some pictures of it on social media and a few people asked for details of how I made it. So I thought I would write it up here, in case anyone else was interested.

Construction materials:

  • 3.0m x 0.1m x 0.1m fence posts (2 of)
  • 1.8m x 0.1m x 0.1m fence posts (3 of)
  • 1.2m outdoor pull-up bars with fixings (coach bolts and washers) (3 of)
  • 20kg bags of Postcrete (19 of)
  • 20kg bags of gravel (2 of)

The total cost of all the above was about £240, including delivery of the fence posts and pull-up bars.

You should be able to get the fence posts from any fencing supplier. Make sure they are pressure treated, so they don’t rot away in a few years. Anything narrower than 0.1m x 0.1m might not be strong enough. Anything bigger is going to be pretty unwieldy to work with.

You can buy outdoor pull-up bars from various sources. I got mine here. Make sure the bars and their fixings are either galvanized or powder coated, so they don’t rust. I choose bars long enough that I have the option to do wide-grip pull-ups.

Postcrete is a special form of concrete for fence posts (I think it might be called Quickcrete is some countries). You just add water and it sets solid in minutes. Leave it to ‘cure’ for 24 hours before putting any weight on it. I used 5 bags of Postcrete for each of the 3.0m pull-up posts and 3 bags of Postcrete for each of the 1.8m dips posts. You could probably get away with less, but I preferred to ‘over-engineer’ it. I also threw some old bricks and hardcore into the holes for extra bulk. You can  use standard cement, which is cheaper, but not as convenient.


You need to dig your post holes according to the height and spacing you want for the bars, which will depend on your height. The pull-up bar should be roughly the same height as your knuckles with your arms full outstretched above your head. The dips bars should be slightly more than shoulder width apart and level with your lower ribs. If you are very tall, you might need longer posts than I did. The holes should be approximately 3 times the width of the fence posts. Put approximately 0.1m of gravel in the bottom of each hole for drainage. The gravel also helps with getting the posts at the same level.

Digging a 1.0m deep by 0.1m x 0.1m across hole is difficult using a spade. I recommend you use a post hole digging tool. I bought one from building supplier Wickes for £25. The bolts were a bit loose, but once I had tightened them up it was fine. You can also rent them, but 3 days rental was as expensive as buying one hole digging toolDigging the holes is hard work! I did 30 minutes of digging every now and then. Usually when I got fed up with whatever I was working on. Tip: Cover the loose dirt from the hole with something waterproof as it is much harder to move later if it gets wet.

Attaching the bars before you set the posts isn’t practical. Setting all the posts before attaching any bars is asking for trouble. So we alternated setting the posts and attaching the bars.

Setting the posts and attaching the bars is definitely not a one-person job, so I conscripted the family to help. We used rubber bands to hold 2 spirit levels onto 2 adjacent sides of a post, to make sure it was completely vertical (you can also buy specialist post levellers). One person then held the post while the other one added the Postcrete and water. To attach the bars just drill 4 pilot holes into a post and then use a socket and ratchet to tighten the coach bolts onto the washers.

iPhone 040.jpg

I also bought a heavy duty rubber mat and post caps to finish things off.

Normally I only create digital things (software, websites, documentation, blog posts etc) so it was really nice to make something physical for a change. Given my modest DIY skills, I am very pleased with how it turned out. It feels very solid and everything is pretty straight and level. Not bad for a software engineer!

Pull-ups, dips and leg raises cover a lot of the major muscle groups between them. Currently I am trying to do pull-ups and dips on alternate days. I usually do 3 sets of as many as I can, with at least a few minutes rest in between. I also do some negative reps. A negative pull-up is where you jump up and then lower yourself as slooooooowly as you can. This sort of eccentric training is very good for building strength (and also useful if you aren’t yet strong enough to do a pull-up). Just hanging from the bar is good for stretching your back muscles.

Because my gym is right outside my office and only takes a minute or so per set, there is no excuse. I also have a reminder set up in the Balanced app on my iPhone. In a few weeks I have gone from 3 pull-ups to 8 pull-ups (with good form). Once I have improved my strength futher and reached a plateau on those exercises, I may try some more exotic exercises. I hope eventually to be able to do a ‘muscle up’!


32 fun and geeky things to do with kids

Not only do you have to feed, clothe and generally look after the physical welfare of children. You have to entertain them as well. Kids have low boredom thresholds and short attention spans, so this is no easy task. The good news is that there are lots of things you can do that are fun for the adults as well. Here are some of the things I have done with my son (now aged 7) over the last few years. I’m interested in science and computers, so some of them are unashamedly geeky. I hope that it gives you some ideas for things to do with your own kids. Or other people’s kids (other people’s kids are the best, you can give them back when you have had enough).

Note that some of the links below are Amazon affiliate links. If you buy something, I get commission to spend on more toys! Other vendors are available.

Make a potato cannon (spudzooka)

Potato cannons are great fun. Ram a spud down the barrel, spray some butane, hairspray or similar into the combustion chamber, create a spark and WHOOOOMP. Your spud can go over 100 metres. If that doesn’t put a big smile on your face, you must be clinically dead. You can see one in action here. They are relatively easy to make. Various plans and videos are readily available on the Internet. Mine was based on these plans and the parts were sourced from the UK supplier they recommend.

make a spud cannon

Disclaimer: A potato cannon is potentially very dangerous (the clue is in the word ‘cannon’) so exercise common sense.

  • The fumes from the glue during construction are potent. Do your construction in a well ventilated area and avoid sparks.
  • Use pressure rated materials and don’t use high power fuels such as acetylene. Your spud cannon could explode.
  • The spud comes out of the barrel at great speed. Never point it at a living thing.
  • Firing the gun is definitely a job for an adult.

Learn to program

The Scratch programming environment is ideally suited for creating simple games and is a fun and free way to learn to program. Programs are constructed by snapping together colour coded blocks – there is no syntax to learn and very little typing. Within an hour children can go from nothing to having created a simple example game with graphics and sound.

programming for children

Children too young for Scratch can still play simple programming games.

Make a house from cardboard boxes

Children have a habit of ignoring expensive presents in favour of the boxes they came in. We had a load of cardboard boxes and packing tape left over from moving house. We used them to make various constructions, including a train and a house.

cardboard box playMake mega bubbles

Blowing bubbles is fun. The bigger the bubble, the more fun! We purchased a mega bubble kit. It contains a bubble wand, some instructions and the secret ingredients list for making mega bubbles (hint: include some cornflower to make the bubbles more durable).

mega bubblesDo some star gazing

Every child and adult should have the chance to gaze in wonder at the stars from time to time. Ideally do your star gazing well away from city lights, on a cloudless day when there is no moon. The very impressive Star Walk astronomy app (for iOS and Android) will tell you where the satellites, planets and stars are. The best time to spot satellites is shortly after sunset. You can use to work out when the International Space Station is passing overhead.

ISSYou can sometimes see several of Jupiter’s moons just with binoculars. If there is a full moon, look at that instead.

Tip: If you have a trampoline in your garden, that can be a comfy place to lie back and look at the stars.

Make a water slide

Water slides can be great fun, especially if you have a slope in your garden. You just need a big sheet of thick plastic, a hose pipe and some washing up soap. The Slip N Slide slides aren’t particularly well designed or made, but the plastic sheet has lasted ok.

slip n slide water slideFor the more ambitious, there are some instructions on how to make your own monster slide here.

Watch Star Wars

Star Wars is an essential part of any budding geek’s education. But I think episode 3 is too dark for a 7 year old, so we have only watched episodes 4, 5 and 6 (the best ones!) so far. More on this topic over at Scott Hanselman’s blog.

Make an igloo

If you get a good amount of snow (rare in the UK) you can make your own igloo. After a couple of attempts at this, I believe the best approach is to make ‘bricks’ by packing loose snow into boxes. Each ring of bricks being of smaller diameter than the one below. Ideally use rectangular/square boxes of varying sizes, with the  biggest ‘bricks’ at the bottom. More details here.

iglooMake something from Lego

I love Lego and I think it is great for encouraging creativity in kids. But, in becoming the corporate titan it now is, Lego seems to have lost its way a bit (particularly in their pink and pony themed ‘friends’ range for girls, ugh).

When I was a child there were few kits or different types of pieces. Mostly I had red, white and blue 2×4 bricks and I used my imagination to come up with my own designs. (Interesting trivia, apparently the founder of Lego was a pacifist and he didn’t want little boys making tanks, so that is why there were originally no green or brown bricks.) But now Lego seems to be all about following instructions and finding the right piece. I bought loads of 2×4 bricks and other basic pieces from the website. The website UI is a bit confusing at first, but once you get used to it, it is a great resource for buying Lego relatively cheaply. You can also buy second-hand Lego from e-bay. I just kept bidding low on job-lots and picked up a few bargains (plus one rather disgusting consignment that got sent straight back for a refund). Here is something I made recently, mostly from 2×4 bricks (I got a bit carried away).

My Lego cruise linerTip: You can wash second-hand Lego by putting it in a string bag in the dishwasher. But don’t put it on maximum temperature, unless you want a Salvador Dali effect!

If you are going to buy new kits (hard to avoid) get the Lego Creator ones, as they generally allow you to create at least 3 different models from each kit. This means better value for money and it encourages kids to pull their creations apart and make new things from them. The Crazy Action Contraptions kit is also good fun.

Play computer games

My son loves playing computer games. There are a lot of great apps for kids. Here are some of the better ones.

Pre-school kids:

Older kids:

  • Bridge constructor (iPad)
  • Cut the rope (iPad)
  • Splitter Pal (iPad)
  • Incredible machine (iPad)
  • Maths vs zombies (iPad)
  • Wipeout wall (iPad)
  • Crane Lite (iPad)

I also think the open and constructive nature of Minecraft makes it a good game for children. But, be warned, it is very addictive.

There is also a good list of ‘analogue’ games at

Make a scale solar system

You can make a scale model of the solar system with household items to show just how vast the solar system is. This link allows you to work out the size and distance of each planet based on the size you choose for the sun. For example, setting the size of the sun to 300mm (about the size of a soccer ball) means an earth of about 3mm (about the size of a peppercorn) at 32m. Choose the size of your sun according the items or space you have available.

Tip: If you are doing it in your garden you need either a very small sun or a very large garden!

If that isn’t mind boggling enough, try this flash simulation which goes from subatomic particles to the whole universe (requires Flash).

Watch Mythbusters

My son and I both love the Discovery Channel TV series ‘Mythbusters’. In case you aren’t familiar with the premise: the hosts try to replicate various myths to see if they hold any truth (e.g. are you safe from bullets under water?, would a penny dropped from a skyscraper kill you?). It’s basically the scientific method disguised as an entertainment show. And very entertaining it is to. If you can’t get it on your TV, you can see lots of excerpts on Youtube.

MythBustersTip: Many of the episodes are not suitable for young children (e.g. is it possible to decapitate someone with a ceiling fan?). So check them out first.

Read Peter’s Railway

Peter’s Railway is a wonderful series of books about a boy and his grandfather building a miniature railway. They combine quite a lot of science and engineering with a great story and illustrations.

Peter's RailwayLaunch a bottle rocket

  • Take an empty plastic 2 litre drink bottle.
  • Fill it about a quarter full of water.
  • Find a cork that will fit tightly.
  • Get a foot pump with a needle valve and push it through the cork.
  • Push the cork into the bottle.
  • Point the bottle rocket in the air.
  • Keep pumping until it takes off.

It can go surprisingly high and fast in a gratifying demonstration of Newton’s third law. More information here.

Disclaimer: Half a kg of water travelling at 10+ metres per second could do some damage, so be careful and make sure it doesn’t fall over during pumping.

Play trump cards

I used to play trump cards when I was a kid. In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, you have a pack of cards on a certain theme (e.g. sports cars or jet fighters) each with certain attributes (e.g. top speed or horsepower). When It is your go, you call out what you think is the best attribute of your top card. If it is better than your opponent’s top card you take his card and go again. If not he takes your card and it is his turn to choose. The game continues until one player has all the cards. The best thing about trumps is that it is teaching kids to understand numbers on the sly. It certainly helped my son to learn his numbers.

Tip: Top Trumps used to be the best brand of trump cards in my youth. Now they have gone for all sort of lame merchandising tie-ins such as Harry Potter and Star Wars. Sigh. The Ace trumps brand is better (and cheaper). Or you can go for the fantastically geeky Dr Hal’s Physics trumps.

Dr Hal's physics trump cardsPlaying 21/Pontoon/Blackjack with your kids is also a good way to improve their addition.

Play double or quits

I heard that Warren Buffet put a fruit machine in his house to teach his children about the folly of gambling. So I sometimes offer my son to play double or quits with his some of his pocket money. If he accepts, we flick the coin. If he wins I double his money and he has the option to play again. If he loses I keep his money. The first few times we played, he kept playing until he lost his money. Now he has learnt a bit about probability (the hard way) and won’t play, or perhaps just 1 flick of the coin. Result!

Tip: If they lose, don’t give them their money back. No matter how much they plead. Otherwise they will learn entirely the wrong lesson. Tough love.

Do some experiments

There are plenty of books with experiments you can do with kids at home, e.g. Do try this at home by the Science Museum.

home experimentsDig a hole

We designated our son a corner of the garden as his. He has spent many a happy hour there digging holes and filling them in. Sometimes the simplest things in life are the best.

dig a holeMake a small explosion

Most things in fine powder form will combust very rapidly (big surface area). Kids love explosions. We poured some icing sugar down a long carboard cylinder onto a tee-light candle to make a satisfying ‘whoomp’.

Disclaimer: Try this outside and entirely at your own risk.

Make a stop motion animation

It is relatively easy to make a short stop motion animation using a digital camera (ideally on a tripod) plus some toys or Lego. You can use free software, such as Windows Movie Maker, to join the stills into a movie. There are lots of videos showing how to this on YouTube, for example.

Solve a 3D maze

3D mazes are fiendishly difficult and quite addictive.

perplexus 3d mazePlay chess

Chess is great for helping kids to concentrate. Keeping it interesting for the adult can be a challenge though. I’ve tried the following to handicap myself with various degrees of success:

  • Only allowing myself a few seconds per move.
  • Starting with less pieces (e.g. no queen or no castles).
  • Allowing them to change sides part way through.

Chess for childrenDo some electronics

We bought our son the Hot Wires electronics kit and he has played with it loads. The kits is surprisingly well made, but the instructions aren’t great. They clearly show how to make 100 different circuits, but they don’t really explain how any of the circuits or components work. However my son was quickly building his own simple circuits and learning by trial and error.

electronics for childrenGo to a hands-on museum

The best museums are ones where you play with the exhibits. Our favourites are:

Watch a Youtube video

Whatever geeky things you are into, there are almost certainly some videos about it on YouTube. I particular like the Open University 60-second adventures in Astronomy series.

Tip: I strongly recommend you turn ‘Safety’ on if you are browsing YouTube with kids (or your parents, come to think of it).

Grow something

I think it is important that kids know food doesn’t appear by magic in supermarkets. Potatoes are pretty easy to grow.

grow somethingPlay a board game

My son likes Monopoly (interestingly, a game originally invented by Quakers to teach people about the evils of property ownership). All the dice rolling and money changing hands is good for his numeracy. But it is a rather brutal game that can go on forever. I prefer Ticket to ride, which he is also very keen on. This is a German-style game of strategy that can be played in an hour and you have no idea who has won until the very end.

Ticket to ride gameWe have also had a lot of fun with Cube Quest, which is a good mix of dexterity and tactics.

Do some plumbing

We had some drain pipes and guttering left over from renovating our house. Rather than throw them out we let our son play with them. He has spent many happy hours connecting them up and putting toy cars, balls and water down them.

Fly an RC helicopter

The latest remote control helicopters are amazing. I have a little Syma indoor RC helicopter that I bought for about £15. It flies amazingly well and it is still going strong after countless crashes onto a tile floor. I find it hard to believe such an amazing piece of engineering is so cheap.

remote control helicopterI also have its big brother, but I find the indoor version much easier to fly (and less dangerous!).

Have a Scalextric party

For our son’s birthday we hired some guys to set up their Scalextric track in our house. The kids had so much fun. It was unanimously declared ‘best party ever’.

Scalextric partyTip: Book an extra 30 minutes for the adults at the end!

Play Mastermind/Brain Master

My son enjoys playing this classic logic game from my youth. It can be a bit trying when you are trying to guess the colour and they score you wrong, but you can award yourself bonus marks if you can spot that have scored you wrong without seeing the code!

mastermind logic gameBuild a go-kart/gravity racer

I’m not very good at making things, apart from software. But my father is. He made my son this rather splendid go-kart. I just wish it was big enough for me.make a go kartDisclaimer: It is possible to flip a go-kart. We proved it. So do wear some protective gear.

Bonus extra

Fly a model rocket.

Your turn

What fun and geeky things have you done with kids? Please add a comment below.

Losing weight with a minimum of willpower

If you are happy with your weight you can skip this post. Normal programming will be resumed soon.

We all know how to lose weight: eat less and move more. So why do so few people succeed? You only have to spend a few minutes walking around any wealthy western country to see that obesity is a huge problem. The human body is truly an incredible thing, evolved over millions of years. It is so much more than just a mere transport and fuelling system for the brain. We only get one body, it is a tragedy to neglect it.

The past is always with us

Our evolutionary past is working against us. Agriculture is less than 10,000 years old. That is only about 400 generations. A blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. While our technology and culture may have changed beyond all recognition in that time, our bodies and brains are still very similar to those of our palaeolithic ancestors. Their innate drives to eat salty, fatty and carbohydrate rich food and minimize their energy consumption helped to keep them alive on the hostile African savannah. But these ancient drives do little to help urban humans with almost unlimited access to food and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Hence the burgeoning waist lines we see all around us today.

Tightening trousers

Over the last few years I had put on a few kgs. I have been spending a lot of time in front of the computer; working on my software product, doing consulting and writing this blog. Having a young child also reduced the time available for exercise. The 32 inch waist trousers I have been wearing for the last 20+ years (not the same pair, I would like to point out) were starting to feel uncomfortably tight. I either had to lose weight or go clothes shopping. Surely anything is better than clothes shopping.

But how to lose the weight? Previous attempts to lose weight have never lasted:

  • I went trekking in the Himalayas, spending 16 days walking up to the top of Mera Peak (6,476 metres). Weight loss wasn’t the goal, but the extreme exertion at high altitude meant I had the beginning of a ‘six pack’ when I got back. It didn’t last though.
  • I wrote down everything I ate on a spreadsheet and worked out the calories by weighing the food and using the calorie information on the packet or the CalorieKing website. I tried to eat less than 1800 calories a day[1]. It worked for a while, but the bookkeeping was tedious and I got bored and hungry. I gave up after a few weeks.
  • I tried the Zone Diet. Again it worked for a while, but I found the constraints (maintaining certain proportions of protein, fat and carbohydrates) tedious. I was also less than convinced by the science. I gave up after a month or two.


I decided to try a different approach. It is based on the same approach I take to my business – learn the concepts and measure the results. 8 months later I have dropped from 17.5% body fat to 13.0% body fat and lost over  6 kg (13 lb) in weight. I will spare you the before and after photos, but suffice to say that I can now easily fit into 30 inch waist trousers (damn – I still had to go clothes shopping!). And I never went hungry. I wasn’t even particularly disciplined, taking a week off here and there when I went on holiday. I won’t be appearing on the cover of a men’s fitness magazine or slimmer of the year. But I think it’s not bad for a 45 year old with a sedentary job, a distinct lack of ‘thin genes’ and a weakness for most fattening things.

I don’t claim to be an expert nutritionist or physiologist. Even if I was, the knowledge in this field seems to be constantly changing. But here is the approach that worked for me. It might work for you.

The slow carb diet

The cornerstone of my new approach was inspired by (but didn’t follow the letter of) Tim Ferriss’ slow carb diet. You should go and read his article, but the key elements are:

  • diet 6 days per week – eat lots of lean protein, beans, pulses and veggies, no high energy carbs (e.g. sugar, bread, rice, pasta, potato, fruit, beer and sugary drinks)
  • binge 1 day per week – pig out and eat whatever you like, all-you-can-eat buffet here I come!

There is more detail in his Four Hour Body book [2].

This approach makes sense in terms of our evolutionary heritage. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors wouldn’t have had access to refined carbohydrates, such as bread, and fruit would only have been available in season. They would also have regularly alternated between feast and famine.

A typical diet day’s intake for me is:

  • 2 eggs for breakfast with chilli sauce (fried with a tiny amount of oil sprayed into a non-stick pan)
  • a big salad for lunch
  • cajun style fried white fish with lots of veggies for dinner
  • several teas, coffees and glasses of water plus a glass of red wine

The binge day helps both physiologically (it presumably stops your metabolism slowing down in response to the reduced calories) and psychologically (you are never more than 6 days from eating what you want).

Pick an exercise regime you can stick with

I also increased the amount of exercise I do. The key to this was doing things I found enjoyable and a combination of routine (doing some exercises the same day every week) and variety (varying what I did on other days). I have found that a routine of capoeira, running and kickboxing pad work plus some swimming, weights and cycling for variety suits me. I average 3-4 30-60 minute exercise sessions per week.

I really enjoy capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian fusion of martial art, dance and music. It is very strenuous, but the fact that I am learning a skill (and trying to avoid getting kicked in the head) stops me thinking too much about the exertion. I also find running and weight training quite bearable when I am listening to an interesting podcast. I am lucky enough to live near a beautiful park with a lake. Running around the lake is even quite enjoyable on a sunny day. The fitter I get, the more enjoyable it becomes. Different things work for different people. People have even lost weight combining World of Warcraft with a treadmill or exercise bike. Don’t try to force yourself to do stuff you hate, you won’t stick with it.

Your body burns mostly glycogen stored in the muscles for the first 30 minutes of exercise. So you need to exercise for more than 30 minutes to start burning fat.

It takes a lot of exercise to burn off a small amount of food. About 15 minutes of running is required to burn the calories from a single slice of bread. I knew someone who was significantly overweight despite cycling 10 miles a day. It was only when he changed his diet as well that he started to lose weight.

Any form of exercise that builds muscle mass (e.g. weight training) is good, because extra muscle will increase your metabolic rate which will burn more calories.

Weigh yourself every day

If you weigh yourself every day, you will soon see a direct correlation between weight loss and how well you stick to your diet/exercise regime. I found this daily feedback very helpful for motivation. If you only weigh yourself once a week your progress may get lost in the noise, e.g. due to the varying content of your digestive tract. I weigh myself every morning, as soon as I get out of bed. Here is a graph of my daily weight over the last 8 months:

You can see the sawtooth pattern of the weekly binge day. It is easier to see overall progress using a 7 day moving average:

Each peak was a suspension of the diet and exercise regime for holidays, birthdays and conferences.

A bit of science

Different foodstuffs vary hugely by the amount of calories per gram. You could eat 10kgs (22lbs) of green vegetables per day and not exceed your daily calorie intake (you might get a divorce though). Look at the side of the packet when you buy food, you’ll be surprised. For example, 1 gram of:

  • spinach = 0.2 cal
  • onion = 0.4 cal
  • kidney beans = 1 cal
  • bread = 3 cal
  • french fries = 3 cal
  • sugar = 4 cal

Try to avoid food where you don’t know what goes into it. For example, a lot of home delivery pizza contains vast amount of hidden salt, fat and carbs.

All calories are not equal. One would think that eating fat makes you fat. But there is increasing evidence that carbohydrates, not fat, is enemy number one when it comes to losing weight. Particularly carbohydrates with a high GI (ones that are quickly absorbed into the blood stream). Carbohydrate intake affects insulin levels, which in turn affects fat deposition. I was moderately active before and I didn’t eat excessively, but I ate a fair amount of bread, rice and potatoes. Reducing the amount of carbs has been the biggest change for me and I believe the main cause of my weight loss. Note that many ‘low fat’ foods (e.g. low fat yoghurts) contain large amounts of added sugar.

Protein makes you feel full. Studies show that x calories of protein will make you feel less hungry than x calories of carbohydrates or x calories of fat. High GI carbohydrates can even make you feel hungry (as you will know if you have ever felt starving after drinking lots of carbohydrate rich beer).

Low carb doesn’t have to be boring. Pickles, chilli sauce and balsamic vinegar liven things up without adding calories. The amusingly named Ring of Fire (‘so hot it will burn you twice’) is my favourite chilli sauce. It’s not actually that hot.

It is easy to underestimate how much you are eating. Studies show that overweight people tend to be worse at estimating their calorie consumption. I watched a TV documentary in which they asked an overweight women to work out her daily calorie intake. She calculated 1000 calories per day. Precise measurements showed it was, in fact, 3000 calories per day. The large bowl of fruit she ate every morning was 1000 calories on its own.

Smaller plates=smaller portions. Studies have shown that simply reducing the size of your plate can reduce overall calorie intake.

Starving yourself doesn’t work. Not only does it require willpower that few of us possess, but also the body simply adapts to the lower calorie intake by reducing metabolic rate. This can then cause you to put on weight if you return to your old eating habits.

Studies show that most overweight people do not have low metabolic rates. In fact, they typically have higher than average metabolic rates due to their increased mass requiring more work to maintain. If you are fat, the chances are that you are eating too much and not doing enough exercise, rather than it being due to a slow metabolism.

Watch what you drink

Watch what you drink, as well as what you eat. Drinks can contain surprisingly high amounts of calories. A single small can of cola contains around 5% of your daily energy intake. Alcoholic drinks and milkshakes can also contain a lot of calories.

Drink more water. A lot of rubbish is talked about hydration. But water does make you feel more full. So it is a good idea to have a big glass of water between and/or during meals. I find it easier to drink water if it is chilled in the fridge with a squeeze of lemon. No need to waste money on bottled water. It works even better if the water is in the food. Soup is a good way to make yourself feel full without consuming too many calories.

Food supplements

Tim Ferriss also recommends PAGG (Policosanol, Alpha lipoic acid, Garlic extract and Green tea) food supplements for weight loss. But these are about £70/$100 per month and I haven’t been able to find any peer-reviewed, double-blind trials that shows that it actually works. I won’t be spending that sort of money without some proper scientific evidence. I am not aware of any other food supplements that are proven and without side effects.

Social factors

Get your partner or house mate to diet with you. It is much harder to stick to your diet if the fridge is full of things you can’t eat. Declaring your intention to lose weight publicly can also provide extra motivation. Feel free to post your current weight and target weight in the comments. ;0)

Be realistic

Have realistic expectations about how fast you will lose weight. I came nowhere near losing the ’20 lbs. of Fat in 30 Days’ that Tim Ferriss claims. I averaged around 0.3 kgs (0.7 lbs) lost per week over the initial 4 months, and less after that. If it has taken you years to put on the weight, you are unlikely to lose it in a month or two. Despite claims to the contrary by people with books to sell.

The long term

Losing weight and keeping it off requires a long term change of lifestyle. Only time will tell if I can improve on, or even maintain, my current weight loss. I expect I will put a bit of weight back on over the winter. But I think I have found a regime that works and that I can live with. Putting this article in the public domain gives me a bit of extra incentive!

A call to action

If you need to lose some weight, then today is as good a day to start as any. If you do, it would be interesting to get some additional data for a follow-up post in a few months. Email me (andy at oryxdigital dot com) if you are interested in taking part.  You can remain anonymous, if you wish.

[1] Note that I am following the (ridiculous) convention of referring to kilo calories (kcal) of food energy as ‘calories’.

[2] It is an interesting and entertaining book. But beware that:

  • a lot of it is controversial, as you will see from the comments in Amazon
  • I find many of his claims of results of weight loss and weight gain hard to believe, and I think they certainly aren’t representative of what most people will achieve
  • experimentation is good, but self-experimentation is not as reliable as formally conducted, peer-reviewed, double-blind experimentation, especially when the author has a book to sell

Capoeira photo by HoveringDog.

PerfectTablePlan Royal Wedding Special

PerfectTablePlanIt is the Royal Wedding tomorrow and everything has gone Royal Wedding crazy here in the UK. I did send the happy couple a complimentary copy of my Perfect Table Plan software a while ago. I haven’t heard anything back, but I will be checking my support emails tomorrow morning, just in case. ;0)

I am doing my bit to cash in honour the occasion by putting the Home Edition of Perfect Table Plan on one-day discount site BitsDuJour on the big day. 51% off for 29th April only.

After the discount, BitsDuJour’s commission and support costs, I won’t be making much per sale. But I figure it might be worth it for the exposure to a different audience. Also some of the purchasers might upgrade later. My product is rather different to most of the other products featured on BitsDuJour, so it will be interesting to see how it does.

Will you, or anyone you know, be planning a seated event  (wedding, charity gala, award ceremony etc) in the future? If so, you can get the 51% discount here.

Why statues weep

I have written articles for a range of different magazines and periodicals over the years. Many of the articles were related to software, but by no means all. A long-forgotten article I wrote for UK-based The Skeptic magazine some time back in the 1990s recently resurfaced when I was asked for permission to include it in a ‘best of’ compilation of 21 years of the magazine. Sucker that I am for seeing my name in print, I jumped at the chance.

The article ‘Myths of Secret Powers’ combines my long term interests in martial arts and skepticism and discusses whether the martial arts are able to unlock mystical secret powers unknown to western science  (executive summary: no). I am flattered that my name appears in print alongside many of the great and good in the skeptical movement, including: Richard  Wiseman; Susan Blackmore; Chris French; Ray Hyman and interviews with magician Paul Daniels and writer, broadcaster and ‘national treasure’ Stephen Fry. Other articles in the book cover a wide range of subjects, including:

  • Cryptozoology.
  • False memories.
  • The predictions of Nostradamus.
  • the Turin Shroud.
  • Alien abductions.
  • Alternative medicine.

There is much to interest anyone who thinks there is merit in taking a rational, evidence-based approach to understanding the world we live in. It is certainly a refreshing tonic to the tidal wave of woolly thinking foisted on us by a credulous and lazy media.

You can purchase the book from Philosphy Press or through Amazon.

Surely no amount of execution can save this idea?

Things have been a quiet here as I have been on holiday in New Zealand for the last 5 weeks. I tell you this not merely to gloat (it was lovely, by the way) but to explain how we happened to be in Hong Kong overnight looking for somewhere to eat, when my wife spotted the ad below.

That’s right. A toilet themed restaurant where “Food is served in mini toilet bowls” and the dessert looks like a, well, see for yourself. The ad was in a tourist brochure and they have a website, so it appears to really exist.

I was curious about what the real toilets in this restaurant look like. Not curious enough to eat out of a toilet bowl to find out though.

How to build an igloo

We have had loads of snow here in the UK. Loads by UK standards anyway (I don’t think a Scandinavian would be very impressed). So I decided to take full advantage of the flexibility my job allows and build an igloo. It was my second attempt and it turned out much better than rather wonky one I did a few days ago. This post is a quick overview of the modest amount I have learnt about igloo building, in case you are inspired to build your own.

how to build an igloo

First of all, building materials. The snow needs to be the sort you can squash together to make a snowball. If it is too powdery to stick together, forget it – you won’t be able to make a worthwhile igloo. Try again tomorrow.

Next you need to mark a circular base for your igloo. If you don’t then it is hard to get a decent overall shape. Two twigs and a bit a string is all you need to draw a circular outline. Don’t be too ambitous though, it takes a surpising amount of snow to build an igloo and the amount goes up fast as you increase the diameter. 1.5 to 2 metres diameter is plenty for a first attempt.

Then you need to have a bucket-shaped receptacles in a range of sizes. I used a household bucket as the largest, 2 different sizes of flower pot and a child’s bucket as the smallest. Start with the largest receptacle. Use it as a mould to create ‘snow bricks’. Pack the snow into the mould tightly to make strong bricks. Lay a circle of these bricks as close together as possible, leaving a gap for the door. Then place the next layer of  bricks on top, interleaving them like standard brickwork. Pack the gaps between the bricks with loose snow like mortar in brickwork.

Every few layers you need to swap to a smaller mould. Each layer needs to curve inward a bit more than the previous one to form the dome. It is quite surprising how easy it is to build an arch out of snow. It is stronger and stickier than you might think.

It took 3 adults a couple of hours to complete the igloo. I don’t think the Inuit will be offering us a job anytime soon, but it was very satisfying. Considerably more satisfying than the several hours I spent this morning failing to work out how to get rid of a maximise icon in Mac OS X.

A YouTube video of a similar approach using stacking boxes