Book recommendation: Tricks of the mind

One year after I wrote this post,  I updated it significantly here.

Trick of the mind is getting on for six years old now, and despite it’s somewhat disconnected themes, I’d like to recommend it on the strenght of the memory section alone. It really is an excellent introduction to the power, and the methods, of using one’s memory properly.

Mr Brown spends some time on the major method of remembering numbers and, mildly unhelpfully doesn’t use the ‘standard’ set of translations. A little while ago I wrote a python script to translate numbers to words using the Derren Brown encoding and I thought I’d put it on the internet in case anyone else would like a go.

Numbers to letters using Derren Brown’s encoding.

The amazon link is below – feel free to follow 🙂

Some details on stress graphs. (almost an FAQ)

So many of you have probably seen the stress graphs that are part of this site.

A graph

I wanted to do a bit of explanation to people who are confused about them, and a few more details to those people who aren’t.



The graph shows the size of my todo list, it’s updated by a cron script every half hour and it’s publicly viewable. Tasks that have been in the inbox (I use the same inbox for incoming mail and for tasks) for more than a week are the red line, more than three days the purple and more than 24 hours the green (the blue is the ‘current’ state and includes all the tasks triggered by calendar actions and emails to reply to… The game is to make the graph smaller – it’s very simple but it’s remarkably effective for me.

The point is that it is, for the most part, a game. I have a lot of things to do for work (“draft paper”, for friends (“buy birthday cards”, and as part of the general overhead of life (“fix shower curtain” – one of my housemates calls it ‘life-admin’ which I think is a nice phrase). I’ve got to do all of these things sooner or later and the more of them I get though the nicer the graph looks. The key thing is that I believe that making something a game makes its easier and because of it I find that I get more work done, am a more attentive friend, and I have properly attached shower curtains.

But you have a six month version as well, what’s that for?

You can play games over long time periods… more seriously it is a fairly accurate indicator of my level of stress. When I’m stressed and I’ve got lots of big things to worry about, that’s when tasks like “wash car”, “look for CPS that are coming up” and “sort out next home visit” start to mount up and that’s when the graph starts to mount up. It’s really quite illuminating…

Isn’t this a lot of work?

It’s entirely automatic.  If it wasn’t then I’d be much more tempted to cheat, and more to the point, it would lose a lot of the accuracy…. Overall It’s probably taken me about four hours coding over the last five years, and it’s saved me *weeks*.

What does the raw data look like? 

I use a modified version of getmail to generate files like – it runs every 30 minutes as a cronjob on my webserver

 34 2012-01-21 1327152611 5 16 10
 32 2012-01-21 1327154411 5 14 9
 32 2012-01-21 1327156209 5 14 9
 34 2012-01-21 1327158012 5 14 9
 34 2012-01-21 1327159808 5 15 9
 34 2012-01-21 1327161611 5 15 9
 34 2012-01-21 1327163406 5 15 9
 33 2012-01-21 1327165211 5 13 9
 34 2012-01-21 1327167011 5 13 9
 31 2012-01-21 1327168810 4 12 8

(left to right this is, current size of inbox, date, seconds since epoch, emails older than 7 days, emails older than 24 hours, and emails older than 3 days.

Periodically, if I get commetitive with my past self or if I want to find out if I’m, say, what my least stressed day of the week is, I might look though this raw file to for comparision purposes.

How is the chart generated?

I  put the raw data though a matlab script (although I’d like it to be an R script) as follows…

I then use this Matlab code:

load ~/emailAnalysis/results.txt
 temp = results(:,3)-1238370000;
 ylim([0 80])
 hold on
 title('Size of inbox over time (seven days)')
 print -r3000 -djpeg /XXXX/inbox7day.jpeg
 hold off

to generate the graphs – both matlab and getmail code run as a cron job every half out on my webserver.

How to wake up early in the morning: the sleeping contest…

This is rewritten from my answer at stackexchange – I’m updating and rewritting it here because I think people might be interested, and because I’d like to keep more of my content under one (virtual) roof.

A couple of years ago, I was trying to get the hang of early rising – because I felt that I got a lot more done on those days when I got out of bed early.

unfortunately I didn’t really have anyone to be accountable to (My job is work based not clock based – sometimes very long hours but it definitely doesn’t work on the Victorian system).

So I advertised on Gumtree (I think Craiglist is the equivalent in the US) with the headline “Are you competitive and want to wake up early” The rules we had were these.

We each must email each other before 7.10am in the morning, every day except Sunday. If one of us is late, or misses an email due sleeping in, they get a ‘late point’. At the end of the month, the person with the most late points gives £10 to a charity chosen by the other, and the scores are reset.

We carried on this for about a year (I was winning) before we decided to stop it and move onto other things, but it was a really really good way of setting up competition. At various points we evolved into sending over to-do lists and so on…

What I’m looking to do in the future, particularly at *some point* when I need a project to learn the twitter api I’ll build the funcationality into a twitterbot that can keep score (i.e you’d tweet the bot one to tell it that you want to be involved in the 6am league, and then tweet it every morning before 6am, at the end of the month it would tweet everyone with their scores…) But if anyone would like to take that coding off my hands they are welcome to. 🙂


By the way, if you liked this post, you might like my similar one on changing my mind.


How to tell if you are a jerk to talk to.



We all like to think that we give other people’s ideas a fair hearing, based on the evidence.  We like to think that we don’t reject people just because they have a different point of view, only when their reasoning is flawed in some way.  After all, only jerk refuse to accept other people’s point of view…. right?

I’ve recently started keeping track of when I change my mind, and it’s been quite instructive, and I’d like to persuade everyone to try it.

By ‘changing my mind’ I don’t mean ‘I thought I wanted cornflakes but now want toast’.  I actually mean changing my position on an issue, any issue, from things as big as abortion and war to things as small as “is it acceptable to use a disabled toilet if you are not-yet-disabled and there isn’t a queue?”.

I also don’t mean  ‘changed my mind due to being provided with additional information’. Obviously,  I fairly regularly have conversations of the form:

Me: I believe X
Labmate: Actually Y, and here’s the link to a peer-reviewed article that shows Y under experimental conditions.
Me : I totally believe Y now.
Labmate: Y doesn’t need your belief to be true.

I mean I have been keeping track of how often I have changed my (reasoned) position on an issue solely on the basis of someone else’s (reasoned) argument.

The reason for this is that last year, in the heat of the moment, I challenged some I was arguing with (the arguee?) to name a single time they had changed their position on anything in the last decade.  The problem was, to my mounting horror, I couldn’t think of a time I had… Ever…

When you start thinking about it, this gets pretty worrying. If I can’t remember changing my mind, then it’s probably because I didn’t.  So either I’ve been right every time someone argued with me, or I’ve not been willing to admit the concept that I’ve been wrong.  If I’m not willing to be open enough to ‘lose’ (actually, ‘be persuaded’) then what right do I have to try and convince anyone else? Or, for that matter, to make any pretensions to call myself a researcher, if I can’t recall accepting another point of view on it’s own merits.

So recently I argued with a friend over abortion, and as a result of a number of sensible points that she raised, I’ve mildly changed my stance regarding how valid certain types of medical advances are to the debate.   Since then I’ve changed slightly my position on nationalisation and privatisation on the back of  a conversation with a man on a train, and also immigration following a conversation with a colleague at work. None of these are massive changes, but they are changes and they’ve moved me from one point in a spectrum of opinion to another.

I’m not being a doormat – I’m probably less pleasant to have a conversation with than before. But if you can’t recall a time in the last week/month/year that someone persuaded you of something by reasoned argument, then I recommend that you that you should try keeping track of it.  That way the conversation is about learning and consensus, not winning and bullying by force of personality.

So, when was the last time you changed your mind?

The benefits of planning after the fact.

This is a planning/productivity post – somewhat outside the normal remit of the blog but stick with it.

So I’m currently ill (it’s an inner ear thing, I’m not too bad as long as I don’t move my head much and it should be gone in a couple of days).

When I came out of A&E last night I looked up the file ‘ill.txt’ in my ‘retroactive plans’ folder. I wrote ill.txt the week after I had the flu last year – it contains a list of things that I did while I had the flu that I shouldn’t have done and things that I should have done but didn’t do.

So this time I’m trying to getting outside at least once a day for some fresh air and sunlight (hopefully keeping the body clock in sync). I’m making an effort to keep to normal wake up and sleep times because I had awful trouble with flu-based nightmares last time. I’m also making sure I’m eating cooked food with vitamins and stuff, as opposed to comfort gouging on jamie dodgers.

I’ve got a variety of files in my retroactive plans folder – I have notes on air travel (a big one is remembering to put your book in the seat pocket as soon as you get on the plane, because then you can read it during taxi/takeoff as opposed to waiting until you can get it out of the bag), conferences, christmas, paper writing, and giving talks. Once every few months I’ll look at the list and see if I’ve got anything coming up that I should do a little extra prep for…

So yeah – I find this useful – I thought I’d share it in case anyone else also finds it useful. There’s a lot of things that we don’t do regularly but we know we’re likely to do again so we might as well have the list of ‘things I would do differently next time’ and know where it’s kept.