Category Archives: Dan’s Thoughts

I don’t do Voicemail

I have never liked voicemail.

I’m not keen on phones in general (there is a great Medium post, Why I don’t answer most phone calls, which explains why the telephone is my least-preferred means of communication).

But voicemail, ick. Unlike phone calls, voicemail has no redeeming features.

Here are the reasons why voicemail is evil and needs to be burned with fire:
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Your Detox-debunking article is Bullshit

It’s that time of year when a lot of folks’ thoughts turn to detoxing. It’s also the time when a lot of other folks’ thoughts turn to rubbishing the idea that detoxing could ever be anything beneficial. As a some-time scientist, logical positivist, gleeful-debunker and proud skeptic, you might hazard a guess at where I stand on this. No. I’m firmly on the side of the detoxers.

My anti-anti-detox-bullshit detectors went into overload yesterday when I saw a friend share a Cosmopolitan (I know, I know, fish: barrel) article entitled Why Your Detox Is Bullsh*t. I’ll happily admit I didn’t read the article – life’s too fucking short. My immediate response to the headline was:
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Fat

Following on from my posts about mindfulness and willpower, I promised I would write something about diet. Specifically about how I have managed to go from being a bit of a fat bastard, to a svelte hunk. Well, I started writing that blog post, and it got longer and longer, and people started asking me when I would put it online, and I started to have doubts about parts of it, to want to wrap everything in big, fluffy disclaimers. As the post started clump into subheadings, and as the contents under each heading got longer, I decided to split it into a series of posts. I will start now, by giving a little background, a personal history of me and fat.

For most of my life, I have been a skinny person. I’d always presumed that I would remain a skinny person. Weight/size was never an issue for me and, to be perfectly honest, I often felt a bit snooty about those for whom it was. Before my 30th birthday, I don’t think I could have told you quite how much I weighed – I probably only weighed myself once or twice in the previous ten years – but I’ve a feeling it fluctuated somewhere around the 8 or 9 stone mark (50-60kg). I’ve recently seen photos of myself from my early 20s and, believe me, I look like a famine victim.

This wasn’t down to any obsessive food-avoidance or anorexic/bulimic behaviour on my part. I could, and usually did, eat for England. Breakfast in those days would be one or two bowls of cereal, full to overflowing, ideally drenched with the cream off the top of the milk. For lunch, I would pop out of work and buy two packs of sandwiches, a large bag of crisps, a Belgian bun, and maybe an apple. And in the evening, whack a frozen pizza in the oven and, when it’s done, cover the top in a thick layer of mayonnaise and wolf the lot. And yet my weight never changed. Static. Skinny as a beanpole.

I don’t know entirely what happened when I hit 30, although I have some idea. I’m guessing that age and metabolism played some part in it, but also at that time my job changed radically, I started eating three course meals at restaurants every day, sometimes several times per day. I went from being happy with one or two glasses of wine per week, to drinking a bottle at lunch-time and another one or two in the evening. Yes, I think it was probably the wine that had the biggest effect; that, and the Jack Daniels and Cokes.

Suddenly I realised that I’d grown fat. My trousers didn’t fit me any more. My waist measurement had crept up from 32″ past 34″ and was now a 36″. In the course of two years, I’d gone from somewhere south of 10 stone, to a verging-on-the-obese 15 stone. In 2001, I briefly fought this trend – I used a month’s paternity leave as an opportunity to detox completely, and during that month of healthy eating and endless exercise I shrank back almost to 13 stone (83kg). But within another 6 months or so, all of that work was undone, and for the next 10 years I remained somewhere between fat and obese (although my height did a good job of hiding that from others), until at some point I realised that I’d hit 16 stone and Something Must Be Done.

That point was in 2009. Since then, I have done various things to try and control my weight. I’ve never let it become an obsession, but I have tried to maintain a downwards trend. I started off slowly, getting a little over a stone off in my first year, before slipping backwards a bit, and then attacking the problem more scientifically. Little by little (and occasionally a lot by a lot) I slimmed down until now I’m back to around 13 stone, with a body-shape I’m happy with, and a healthy BMI.

In my next post, I’ll talk about cycling (and walking, and other forms of exercise), how it helped kick-start my return to good health, and what it can and can’t do for fat bastards like the former me.

Mindfulness

A while ago, I posted a brief suggestion on how to be happier. Although I haven’t stuck religiously to my own advice (of finding some positives in each day), and there have been one or two times when my mood has dipped, life on the whole continues on an upwards trajectory. Particularly since Christmas I’ve felt fitter, healthier, happier and more productive. In the interests of sharing (and at the risk of painting myself as some sort of a self-help guru) I thought I’d list some techniques that I’ve been trying, and that are working for me. I will write separate posts on willpower and diet/exercise, but for now I will focus on the practice which I have found most useful: mindfulness.

What is mindfulness? Well, I guess you could just call it noticing things. Initially, noticing things about yourself – your breathing, body, mind and feelings – but ultimately mindfulness can be trained and expanded to help you be more aware of everything going on in the world and the people around you. I won’t go into a detailed explanation here of how to practice mindfulness (other than to say that the starting point involves meditation), because there are other resources listed below which do it far better than I could.

I first came into contact with mindfulness way back in 1989, when I was studying Psychology at university. Some of my fellow students got incredibly nervous about the coming exams, and as a result, one of the lecturers organised regular lunch-time workshops on relaxation and other coping techniques. I learned here that breathing deeply doesn’t mean breathing sharply, it means drawing the air all the way into your body; I learned how focusing on the breathing, and reciting simple mantras, can bring one’s mind back to rest from the hubbub of the everyday; and I learned that my own brain has the power to alter the temperature shown on a thermometer held in my fingers. Over the years I’ve drawn on these techniques to try and calm myself in times of stress, and to put the world in better perspective. More recently, the Sheffield Buddhist Centre (disclaimer: I am not a Buddhist) introduced me to the “mindfulness of breathing” meditation (and also the excellent “cultivation of loving kindness” meditation), and I realised that this practice was connected to the deep breathing I had learned years before in Bristol.

Since then, I have tried to find some time in my daily life for meditation; almost invariably I’ve failed. More recently still, Amazon sent me a book to review: The Mindful Manifesto, and it convinced me that, even if mindfulness is not the answer to every problem in the world, it’s a damn good alleviator of almost all of those problems (and, yes, there is scientific evidence backing this claim up in many fields – for example in one study, when people who had suffered three or more previous episodes of depression were given regular mindfulness exercises to carry out, their relapse rate was slashed from 66% to 37%).

But, finding a spare 20 minutes (which usually seems to be about the recommended length for a meditation) in my daily routine has proved impossible. 20 minutes doesn’t sound like much, but mornings are usually a more-or-less frantic dash to get to work in good time, lunch times are unpredictable, often brief (and anyway there is no suitable space at my work where I’d feel comfortable meditating). And evenings are already far too brief to fit in the bits of personal admin, book reading and socialising that I aim to do. So for months I was left high and dry with no meditatory outlets.

…until I decided to ignore the 20 minutes rule (which was never really a rule in the first place). At some point, I decided to give myself a goal of noticing my breathing at least once per day. Oh, and also of smiling and meaning it once per day. It seems like such a nothing of a goal that it oughtn’t to have any effect on life, but like the water dripping that eventually hollows out a cave or builds up a stalagmite, it has. I started by just pausing for a couple of slow, deep breaths while I was in bed in the morning. Then I started slotting additional breaths and smiles into the minute moments of downtime throughout my day: when stuck at traffic lights, waiting for a bus, or just standing for a moment to admire the scenery. And after just a few weeks, I can feel them solidifying into habits. In the meantime, I have also discovered the excellent Headspace website, which offers free 10 minute introductory guided meditations which you can listen to through your computer or phone, at your desk or on a bus. These have built powerfully on my little habit, and turned it into something which occasionally even makes me feel ecstatic, marvellously unburdened.

It’s still early days, but my meditation habit is growing step by tiny step, and daily I feel that my mood and my outlook on the world gets brighter and brighter. Meanwhile, I am working mindfulness into more and more areas of life – using it to keep me focused on my work, to prevent over-eating and drinking, and to be more present and empathic in my relationships with family and friends. I hope that you can find a spare two breaths in your every day to join me and be happy.

Trash

In 1996, I was responsible for the “kiosk” in Diesel’s Covent Garden flagship store (a Mac running the Diesel website). I had to go into the store once a month to “fix” it.

On the website were two video ads and a handful of audio files. Netscape (1.2, I think) treated these links as “downloads” to be opened with a helper application. Every time somebody using the kiosk clicked on a video or audio link, a new copy of the file was “downloaded” (from the copy of the website stored on the Mac’s hard disk), and placed on the desktop. When I came for my monthly visit, the hard disk would be full, and the desktop would be stacked 6 or 7 deep with icons of the same few files.

My job then was to delete these files. Macs then (OS5 or 6 – or was it 4?) were a lot simpler than they are now, and I myself was no Apple genius. So I had to drag all 9-gazillion of the files into the Trash. Which was a problem. Because the Trash (and, indeed, the hard drive) was an icon on the desktop. And the Desktop was geological-layers-deep in icons. (And, because the Mac wasn’t totally locked down, the Trash icon itself could be anywhere on the Desktop).

And so I began an elaborate game of Towers of Hanoi. Before I could delete the files, I had to find the Trash. So I would painfully drag the files, one at a time, until I unearthed that little waste mpeg basket. After an hour or so of this, I would unearth the Trash icon. And then the work would begin all over again, dragging the files into the Trash and, finally, emptying it.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion that this may be what first triggered my RSI; and my hatred of drag-and-drop as an interaction mechanism; and, quite possibly, a lasting suspicion of all Apple products.

social networking

For almost 18 months now, I’ve been meaning to blog about my “current situation” (admittedly a moving target over that period). But my blogging has gone stale: I only wrote 8 posts in 2008 – in the distant past there have been single days when I’ve almost managed this many (the period leading up to September 11 2001 seems to have been particularly fertile). But what’s even more obvious to me is that I didn’t write anything of substance in 2008, just quick status updates and links to photos I’d taken.
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