Sugar and the Mythical Hyper Kids

Shocking discovery of the day: finding out that the well-known parenting fact that if you give kids lots of sugar, they become hyperactive turns out to be….well, a myth.

OK, so if you’re reading this and you don’t have kids – or you’ve not spent any time around young kids since you were of a similar vintage –  it’s maybe not quite as surprising to you.  But it appears that ingesting the industrial amounts of sugar doesn’t actually make your descendants go bananas after all

It turns out that it’s a myth that is endorsed by 59 per cent of the public, 50 per cent of teachers and 39 per cent of those with some form of neuroscience training. In other words, even those with specialised education get it wrong…But the real interest for all the parents out there is probably this quote:-

“Some researchers suggest that simply expecting sugar to affect your child can influence how you interpret what you see. A study published in the August 1994 Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology showed that parents who believe a child’s behaviour is affected by sugar are more likely to perceive their children as hyperactive when they’ve been led to believe the child has just had a sugary drink.”

Something to consider the next time you leap to a conclusion about your child’s (or anyone else’s) actions without being aware of the full context.

First Man

I took a rare trip to the cinema today to watch First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong’s life leading up to the first moon landing back on 20th July 1969. I’m a sucker for anything to do with space exploration and an unashamed advocate of piling more of our collective money into any pursuits that have even the slightest possibility of expanding humanity’s notion of what is possible in reality.

The topic was historical (despite still seeming futuristic almost 50 years later) and it interests me how divisive the subject can be. Some people are  passionately against piling back into something which became, for a period of time, a global obsession.

In fact, taking a quick look online, there seem to be a range of views about why we shouldn’t fund further exploration – including the high cost in relation to the actual practical returns, the brain drain into the space industry away from other high-impact research, the risk of inadvertently making contact with another intelligence which leads to our extinction (directly through being attacked or indirectly by becoming best buddies but inadvertently being wiped out by some form of alien bacteria that accompanied said little green tourists).

But the film itself was great. It gave a real sense of just how difficult and dangerous the whole endeavour was from start to finish. It reminded me that quote by John Young when asked whether he was nervous about making the first space shuttle flight in 1981:

“Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fuelled system in the world, knowing they’re going to light the bottom, and doesn’t get a little worried, does not fully understand the situation.”

When it comes to space exploration, there’s a couple of great books that are definitely worth checking out. The first is Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Right Stuff’ which focuses on the first Project Mercury pilots that were selected for the NASA space program. A fascinating tale of what made a group of men literally sit on top of rockets with no guarantees and the heavy-drinking environment that surrounded the scene. The second is ‘Moondust’ in which the author Andrew Smith travels to interview every man alive who has ever walked on the moon. Which is only twelve people –  in the history of mankind. Each of whom agrees: once you’ve seen that tiny blue sphere hanging in the dark void of space, your relationship with your home planet has changed forever.

So I’ll wrap up with the words of JFK, back from when the space race was really heating up back in 1962:-

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too…”

“…But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold…”

“…Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”

I Want To Scan Your Brain

I recently read a great book by Daniel Levitin called “This Is Your Brain On Music”. Levitin was a session musician, sound engineer and record producer before becoming a neuroscientist.

The book’s full of fascinating insights but for me, there was one key takeaway: it is only in very recent times that music has changed from being participatory to being a spectator sport for the majority of our civilisation. Some of the oldest artefacts discovered are musical instruments (such as bone flutes and drums). On almost every single occasion that humans come together for a purpose, music is just – there.

Of course, only a very small minority of the human population can classify as expert musicians. But we need to remember something else. The evidence shows that we are all expert listeners: we’re all able to decide on what we like, and dislike, when it comes to music, even if we can’t articulate the reasons why.

Amazing when you actually think about it: after all, pretty much all the songs that we’ve ever heard – or ever will hear – are made up of just twelve musical notes (ignoring octaves).

If you have any interest in music whatsoever (spoiler: unless you’re some kind of AI reading this blog, you do…) it’s well worth a read. But I’ll leave you with my favourite piece of trivia from the book:-

” Because the haemoglobin of the blood is slightly magnetic, changes in the flow of blood can be traced with a machine that can track changes in magnetic properties. This is what a magnetic resonance imagine machine (MRI) is, a giant electromagnet that produces a report showing differences in magnetic properties, which in turn can tell us where, at any given point in time, the blood is flowing in the body.”

“The research on the development of the first MRI scanners was performed by the British company EMI, financed in large part from their profits on Beatles records. ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ might well have been titled, ‘I Want To Scan Your Brain’.”

The Southpaw Advantage?

Most boxers prefer to both fight in an orthodox stance. In other words, have his or her left foot and hand further forward. The reasoning is simple: most people are right-handed so whilst your weaker left hand is free to wear out your opponent over time with speculative jabs, you’re then free to load up the power on your more powerful right hand and unleash the shots that will win the competition.

But studies suggest that around 10% of the world is left-handed. So what happens when an orthodox boxer meets a southpaw – a left-hander who leads with the weaker right? In many cases, the southpaw fighter will come out on top.

The reason’s quite simple. The southpaw must have spent a far greater proportion of his life fighting right-handers than any orthodox fighter. On top of that much greater experience, shots will come flying in during the heat of battle from the opposite angles to the ones that the right-handed boxer is used to.

This alone has caused many boxers over the years to have hangups over taking fights against southpaws – and years ago, it wasn’t unheard of for southpaws to learn how to fight orthodox in order to be able to secure fights.

It makes sense. As with anything difficult, the more focused practice you undertake, the better you’ll become. However the story is even more fascinating.

It turns out that statistically neither southpaws nor orthodox boxers are more successful. But both southpaw and orthodox boxers stood a better chance of winning against orthodox boxers than southpaws.

And to top it off, a greater proportion of the highest rated boxers are southpaw than you would expect.

I came across an interesting study from 2013 (‘The Southpaw Advantage: Lateral Preference in Mixed Martial Arts‘). A few of the key ideas:

“Performers with a left-orientation have a greater likelihood of obtaining elite levels of performance in many interactive sports.”

“the proportion of ‘lefties’ in the general population has remained stable over 10,000 years and the stability of this effect over time suggests some consistent advantage to being left-handed. otherwise evolutionary mechanisms would have removed this polymorphism from the population. Sport may reflect an environment where these advantages are demonstrated: for instance, left-handedness is associated with a greater likelihood of obtaining elite levels of performance in many interactive sports including baseball and tennis with significant over-representations of left-handed players at the highest levels of competition.” 

Another hypothesis is that being left-handed is particularly useful in sports where the speed of reaction is important. In other words, the less time your opponent has to react to your left-handed ways, the greater your advantage might well be.

So maybe it just all comes back to one thing. Perhaps left-handedness has survived the evolutionary chopping block precisely because it makes some of us just pretty darn good at fighting.

Swearing and the Inevitable Decay of Society (Or Not)

How damaging is bad language? Do the words that we hear (or utter) have a negative influence on our lives, or those of others?

Apparently the local council near Finsbury Park in London is putting its foot (collectively, presumably….feets?) down and enforcing new rules that forbid the use of bad words by musicians during such festivals in the park like the Wireless Festival. It sounds like an idea that’s doomed to failure from the start.

After having lived through the ridiculous aftermath of Tipper Gore’s Parental Advisory sticker crusade against all those US rock band albums consumed in my formative years, I’m pretty convinced that the language had no negative effect on me. Perhaps that’s because used well, it seems to enhance the music in many cases, bringing some kind of emotional punctuation that goes beyond the range of all other instruments.

Given that I spend a vast amount of my time reading a lot of words, it’s never been an issue that I’ve spent any time thinking about before today. So today’s rabbit hole involved asking: are we getting ruder in society when judged by the words that we use?

Spoiler alert: I have no real evidence – and the answer is probably yes – but who cares?

There’s definitely been a change, at least since the olden days when I was young. I can’t really remember seeing books like Mark Manson’s  or the subtle bedtime stories of Adam Mansbach in those days. And I found some research that certainly this up, showing that there’s been an increase in the use of swear words in American Books between 1950-2008.

But simply on the basis of the words we choose to deploy in person as we go through our day, are we getting ruder across society as a whole? And if so, does that show us becoming lazier in some way when it comes to our language? Could this be a leading indicator that’s warns of (shock, gasp) an imminent breakdown in civilisation? After all, in the years before the media exploded, the BBC (in the UK at least) always acted as guardians of the youth’s moral standards in the form of the Watershed. With this interweb thing having taken off, anyone can say what they like to everyone, right?

There’s so many sides to this. For a start – what classifies as a swear word? With key themes replicated in different cultures around the world, swearing does seem to be a universal part of the human experience. And it’s not even just humans – chimps are at it as well. The definition of what constitutes a swear word fills books in itself. And then we start to look at its use in art. To me, standup comedy is the creative pursuit which has the strongest feedback loop there is, requiring constant evolution of language every single time an act is performed – understandable where the addition or omission of certain words (at the right time) can be the difference between success and failure. And I can’t go on without pointing out that there are inherently funny words in our language (of which a subset are most definitely if not swear words, inspired by profanity). As Wikipedia puts it:-

The funniest nonsense words tended to be those that reminded people of real words that are considered rude or offensive. This category included four of the top-six nonsense words that were rated the funniest in the experiment: “whong”, “dongl”, “shart”, and “focky”

But back from that tangent…is the move towards swearing a bad thing, as Haringey Council seem to imply? Well, it’s indisputable that most societies have shifted decisively towards more individual freedom of expression in the past few years. And it’s clear that swearing carries out a purpose for us beyond simply signalling our own lack of imagination. Interestingly, swear words remain accessible to those suffering from the latest stages of Alzheimers and dementia, even after most of the rest of the vocabulary is gone.

The jury’s out. It’s probably for the most part a generational thing in any event. But good luck Haringey Council at next year’s Wireless Festival. I’m sure a crowd of drunk music fans will support your every effort to remove swearing from the event….

The Tasks & Tools of Procastination

Task lists, tools, other weapons of mass procrastination……what is it with software? The collision of our ever-growing lists of incomplete tasks and new shiny web toys is truly a nightmare forged in the dark recesses of the mind for all but the very worst of project managers.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve tried the lot over the past ten or fifteen years. Perhaps you started on the journey with one of Stephen Covey’s quadrant-based task prioritisation, which acted as the gateway drug into the military rigour of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology or the mythical nirvana of Inbox Zero.

Then, as the tools and team interdependencies became more critical for the nation as we collectively spent more of our sedentary working days working up our screen tans whilst emailing our colleagues across the desk, the focus shifted from methodologies to tools. Yes, that’s right – the answer to productivity and teamwork was nothing other than – more software! Ideally entirely customisable and brightly coloured. I, for one, just couldn’t get enough – from ToodleDo, Wunderlist, Todoist, Asana, Trello…the list was endless.

Not yet satisfied, I then discovered that no, what was really missing was having software that connected everything for me – automatically! So by a combination of IFTTT and Zapier, I managed to concoct a dastardly set of triggers. In a scene reminiscent of the systemic failures during the financial crisis of 2008, the simple act of starring an innocent message in Slack would leave catastrophic devastation in its wake – auto-posting updates to ten different platforms, each with a selection of messages, reminders, notifications, emails, phone calls, kettles boiling, hoovers emerging autonomously out of the airing cupboard….you get the picture……..Welcome to Digital Armageddon.

Yet through all that, I had one nagging thought. Throughout my career, without fail, the people who always seemed to get through the most work seemed to have an amusing reliance on paper. Imagine! Nothing fancy mind you. Maybe a notepad. Perhaps a simple postcard, replaced each day. Whatever form it took, an ever-present medium, tattooed with ink as and when required.

Hmmm….

Me, I’m a list person. But writing out long lists by hand, striking things off and then having to rewrite them regularly sucks. So I was delighted to discover probably the simplest yet most deceptively powerful tool yet: WorkFlowy.

I almost don’t want to describe it. It’s that good, I don’t need to sell it. Just try it.

In essence though it’s a way of making lists – that can be nested inside other lists until eternity decides to call it a day (apparently). Sounds boring huh? But you can tag and share lists for others to collaborate – who don’t even need an account or have to login!

I’ve never downloaded a trial of any software that I knew nothing about and ponied up for an annual subscription in under ten minutes. None. So take it from me – that’s a good sign. But anything that takes the time out of organising your tasks and gives you it back to actually do them? That’s a win in my eyes.

I can’t say any more other than this: it rocks.  Give it a go.

Look No Hands! 

One story that caught my eye today was the Tesla that managed to predict a car crash ahead and react before a human could have responded. 

The Autopilot technology, rolled out overnight to all Tesla cars by way of an software update, includes a radar processing capability – in effect, the ability for your car to see ahead of the car directly in front of you. 

There have been a few stories about the value of this newfound driving superpower kicking around but today’s story comes with a video of the incident which demonstrates precisely how powerful this technology could be in helping to avoid accidents


I drove a fair distance today, the last hour or so of which was in the worst fog I’ve seen for many years. Whilst nothing’s going to be perfect,  I would 100% have preferred to have been driving a Tesla (obviously…). But what’s really interesting here is the potential for so-called ‘fleet learning‘ – each car uploading data from its daily experiences to a central database, with this improved collective knowledge then being recycled for ongoing use by the same vehicles. 

A Safety Skynet anyone? 

Sometimes Progress Needs A Little Shove

During a number of recent conversations about technology and the rate of progress (general thrust: technologists underestimate – and the general public overestimate – how long adoption will take), I’ve been thinking about tipping points. In most cases, these appear obvious only in retrospect after a little time has passed to firmly place events in some kind of perspective.

However some events clearly have more impact than others. I read a great article today about Kathrine Switzer who ran the Boston Marathon in 1967. So far, so unremarkable you might think. Nothing unusual there –  unless you realise that women were banned from running marathons 50 years ago.

It gets better though. Not only did Switzer run in and complete the race (in a very creditable 4 hours 20), one of the organisers was so affronted when he spied the interloper, he took it upon himself to physically launch himself at her in an attempt to shove her off the road, before a male running companion removed him.

The drama was caught by a photographer whose three pictures were shared far and wide in the press, starting that same evening. As the article says, “her run, and the photos, changed the lives of all female runners”.

Only 6 years later, Switzer’s would-be assailant, Jock Semple, opened up the Boston Marathon to women (Switzer came third) and the 1984 Olympics saw the introduction of the woman’s Marathon for the first time. And today, almost half of all entrants in marathons around the world are female.

I guess sometimes rules have to be broken in order to allow widescale progress to take place. Rules that, by definition, have after all been designed for the purpose of protecting the status quo. And ironically it’s often the very people who are most opposed to progress that inadvertently lay the foundations for it to take place.

Emojis Matter

Emojis and emoticons seem to have become increasingly widespread over the last few years. I have to admit – I’m not a huge fan myself. But I can 100% see why they’ve become so popular. After all, who within Bitcoin doesn’t like ToTheMoonGuy?

With access to technologies becoming increasingly commonplace (SMS, tweets, Facebook interactions), we’re communicating more frequently but using far fewer words in each exchange. And within these reduced mediums, one well-placed emoticon can easily convert a vicious personal attack into nothing more than comical banter between friends.

It’s interesting to watch how society is starting to deal with this evolution in language. Ignoring the cost implications of the technologies that have in some cases been misunderstood (a woman in Scotland racked up an extra £1,000 bill as a result of her emoticon addiction when she failed to realise that each emoticon message was being charged as a picture message by her mobile provider), they are now assuming more formal significance.

There are reports of juries being directed to focus on the use of emoticons in written evidence led in court. We saw it happen in the recent Silk Road trial of Ross W. Ulbricht for example. But the difficulty here is that there is no standardised usage yet for the symbols. Usage of emoji can vary between two individuals or within certain communities so it remains a challenge for outsiders to interpret at this stage.

I don’t really have any firm conclusions on this one way or the other to be honest. But I’m interested to see whether we will ever reach a stage where the meaning behind emoticons (or their descendents) become genuinely standardised. Or will the development follow that of the written word or currency, where to date the world has shown itself to contain enough niches to support entirely separate versions. My instinct is that we are a long way off a common language using symbols.

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The Cake Is A Lie

The Cake Is A Lie

If you haven’t come across “the cake is a lie” meme, try reading the quick post on Medium by Tobias van Schneider, Design Lead at Spotify (aside: anyone else notice just how good Medium is now becoming as a platform for both content creation and discovery?). In essence, the statement means “your promised reward is merely a fictitious motivator”. In other words, you’re striving for something that you’ll never get.

Schneider puts the idea in the context of risk aversion, pointing out that as we get older, we devote more of our time to trying to avoid losing the many things that we’ve accumulated (income, personal image, gadgets) than we do to pursuing growth. Hence the struggle that banks and other established businesses have to actively pursue innovation at any meaningful level. Research has proved the loss aversion theory which tells us that people tend to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.

On a corporate level, you could argue that’s no bad thing. If that wasn’t the case, we simply wouldn’t have a business environment in which a startup with “nothing to lose” can seek to disrupt an established industry. However on an individual level, the warning should be considered more deeply. Schneider suggests that every time you face a big decision, ask yourself whether your dilemma about whether or not to proceed is simply down to the fact that you’re looking to protect that cake. If so, be very wary.

You don’t get happy by putting all your energies into protecting a cake that you never actually eat.

Today’s my 100th successive blog post. I’ve been blogging (on this website and elsewhere) for a few years now but never with this level of consistency. So what changed?

As most people are aware, I’m a fan of Seth Godin’s work. And as he says, “The only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship”. The perfect is the enemy of the good. If I was worried about perfect grammar, ground-breaking commentary and creating a comprehensive database of knowledge on the subjects that interest me, I would never have got started. Posts would take days rather than hours and we all know that real life has a habit of getting in the way whenever it can.

If we’ve never met in person, you might not know that I enjoy acting. And if there’s one lesson that I’ve learned from my entirely undistinguished but thoroughly enjoyable time on stage to date, it’s that the very best actors are invariably the ones who aren’t acting. Or – more accurately – they’re living in the moment and responding naturally to everything that takes place in front of them. Undoubtedly, there’s talent involved. But, even more importantly, I believe that it’s also a habit. Crucially, they’ve managed to construct an environment in which they’re free to take the risk of getting things wrong. The best are never afraid of falling flat on their faces because that’s what gives them the chance to develop their ideas. It’s all about eating the cake, not protecting it.

I guess that’s what this blog represents to me. An attempt to build and maintain a place where I can do the same. For those who are reading it, thanks! For those who aren’t – well, I intend to keep on going. Because to quote Godin once more, “The cost of being wrong is less than the cost of doing nothing”.

 

PS. Here’s a list of the posts that were some of the most enjoyable to write (see it’s not all about Bitcoin, honest…)

  1. Why The Internet Of Things Needs The Blockchain
  2. Satoshi’s Songs: Can Bitcoin Save The Music Industry?
  3. Why Science Fiction Shapes The Future
  4. How Do People Get New Ideas?
  5. AI And Summoning The Demon
  6. Startups, Maslow, Happiness, Unemployment
  7. The Six Walls of Surveillance
  8. Farm2050 Collective & The Coming Global Food Shortage
  9. The Genius ISM’s
  10. Collaborative Consumption
  11. Why Art Is Just As Important As Science
  12. The Stark Reality: Surveillance or Security
  13. The Social Challenges Of Peer To Peer Markets
  14. Bitcoin, Accounting And The Blockchain
  15. Coffee and Bitcoin: The Last Few Months