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Book Review: Made To Stick

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 26-Apr-2010 by asqui

418clVfrihL._BO2[1] As the subtitle says, Made To Stick is a book about Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. Chip and Dan Heath explore the naturally “sticky” ideas which penetrate your mind and stick around, without your knowledge or intention.

The book comes to life with constant examples; they cover false stories like the kidney heist, where a businessman wakes up in a bath tub full of ice to discover his kidney has been harvested by organ thieves, and true stories, like the guy who lost 200 pounds by eating Subway sandwiches every day.

There are also a number of case studies that explore how to turn an abstract idea, such as a CEO telling employees to “maximise shareholder value”, into something more concrete and sticky, which relates to actual day-to-day work of the employees and is therefore much more likely to be understood and applied!

Chip and Dan set forth the six aspects of generating a sticky idea as SUCCESs:

  1. Simple
    Find the core of what you are trying to communicate. Strip back the detail and make it a simple message, but without dumbing down. (Think proverbs.) Relate it to things that your audience knows about already, to help it take hold.
  2. Unexpected
    Capture attention with a surprise. Avoid gimmickry. Break people’s “guessing machines” by making them guess something counterintuitive about the core issue. Make it “postdictable” — it’s not predictable, but once you know the answer it all falls in to place and makes sense.
  3. Concrete
    Make ideas easy to understand and remember. Strip down the abstractions to something concrete. Use specific and vivid examples; make it real. Involve the audience. Talk about people, not data. The more specific you are, the more sense it makes.
  4. Credible
    Make your message easy for people to believe and agree with. Use external credibility from an authority (expert, celebrity) or anti-authority (regular Joe), or internal credibility derived from things like providing specific details.
  5. Emotional
    Make people care by tapping in to the emotions that appeal to them, be it empathy or rebellion. Don't assume that others care at the same level that you do — make them care! Appeal to self-interest.
  6. Stories
    Use stories as a simulation, to tell people how to act, or as an inspiration, to give people energy to act. Stories can be like a flight simulator to engage people an have them imagine themselves in a situation, play by play.

If these summary notes don't make a lot of sense to you, that's because you should go and read the book in its entirety. Then you'll know how to turn a phrase like "maximising shareholder value" into something a little more... 'sticky'.

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."
  — John F. Kennedy, 1961

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A Plumbing Puzzle: Solution

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 17-Apr-2010 by asqui

Faucet AeratorLast week I posed an obscure plumbing problem where the bathroom basin was behaving in a rather peculiar manner. When you wash your hands with warm water then switch to maximum cold, the water coming out of the faucet is hot for some time.

After significant head scratching I managed to establish the root cause of the problem: The “faucet aerator” was to blame.

The faucet aerator is a thing screwed on to the end of the spout; it mixes some air into the stream of water in order to make it all soft and fluffy. The particular faucet aerator fitted had a “water saving” feature, which intentionally limited the flow of water passing through. (Blue mesh in the picture)

This combined with the pressure differential between the hot water and the cold water, meant that when using the mixer to create warm water what was actually happening was this:

  1. Hot and cold water rush in to the mixing chamber together.
  2. The warm water can’t exit fast enough because the spout is blocked by the “water saver”.
  3. The hot water pressure is significantly higher, which overpowers the cold water.
  4. Hot water dominates and begins to flow directly into the cold water pipe!
  5. As the pipes between the boiler and the basin warm up, the hot water becomes progressively hotter.

Then you desperately attempt to rinse the soap from your hands before they catch fire, but you can’t do it quick enough, at which point you desperately swing the mixer over to maximum cold only to have the scalding hot water that has just backed up into the cold pipe dump out on you, followed by some warm water for a time, and eventually cold water (by which time your hands are already burnt).

Needless to say I quickly did away with the extra “water saving” part of the faucet aerator, and that faucet has been fine ever since!

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A Plumbing Puzzle: Hint

 3 Comments- Add comment Written on 11-Apr-2010 by asqui

Here is a slight hint for the “Plumbing Puzzle”:

As ‘DIY’ correctly noted in this comment, the root cause of the observed effect is that the hot water is at a higher pressure than the cold. The reason for this is that the cold water is fed from a water tank in the loft, whilst the hot water comes from the combi-boiler (which is fed directly from the water mains).


If the mains water pressure is higher than that of the water coming from the water tank then what’s the point of having a tank? I’m not sure; I’ve yet to consult a plumber for the answer to this.

It could be a historic artefact. Maybe once upon a time the mains water pressure was not that great. Or maybe the water mains pressure is good with only one or two faucets on, but would be unable to supply all four flats in the property if everyone happened to turn on their faucets and flush the toilet at the same time? Or maybe it’s for isolation, so that someone in another flat flushing the toilet won’t make your shower go hot. (But that doesn’t really work out, because it would make your shower go cold instead, since the hot water from the combi-boiler is still fed from the cold water mains!) I don’t know.

What I do know, however, is that this isn’t the full solution to the puzzle. Even with a pressure differential, why would the hot water push back into the cold pipe rather than coming out of the faucet? Surely it's easier to come out from the faucet than to push back against the cold water?

So the question remains: How does the hot water end up in the cold water pipe?

Give up? Click here for the solution.

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A Plumbing Puzzle

 3 Comments- Add comment Written on 05-Apr-2010 by asqui

Mixer tap Here’s a puzzle based on the true story of a slight plumbing problem we had when we first moved in to our current home.

Consider the following observations regarding the behaviour of the mixer tap in the bathroom basin:

  • The cold water flow rate is fairly paltry.
  • The hot water flow rate is more reasonable.
  • After washing hands with warm water, turning the mixer to maximum cold yields warm water for a time.
  • When trying to investigate this phenomenon, feeling the water pipes under the basin shows they are both warm.

From this information it should be possible to conclude where the problem lies. However, it is probably not immediately obvious what is going on. (It certainly wasn’t to me, at the time!)

Can you work out where the problem lies?

Click here for a hint.

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59 Seconds: Think a little; Change a lot

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 30-Mar-2010 by asqui

59 Seconds: Thing a little; Change a lot 59 Seconds is a book wherein Richard Wiseman tackles some common myths  and then debunks them by citing scientific studies with differing results.


  1. Visualising success will help you achieve it.
  2. “Retail Therapy”: Buying things for yourself makes you happier.
  3. Punching a punch bag can help you relieve stress.

What makes this book unique is that after debunking, Richard then continues to talk about techniques that, according to other scientific studies, actually work.

Truths: (well, hypotheses supported by the cited studies, at least)

  1. Visualising the path to success, including specific actions that you will take, will help you achieve it.
  2. Buying experiences makes you happier than buying things. 
  3. Getting a pet can help you relieve stress more than a punch bag.

These findings are neatly summarised in little sections throughout the book which specify actions you can take (allegedly in 59 seconds) to derive the relevant benefits.

Another thing that makes this book unique is Richard’s casual writing style, with regular bursts of deadpan satire and exaggerations slipped in to make sure you’re paying attention. (And like The Undercover Economist, this book also features an amusing study involving students and an open bar — or so they think.)

See also: Richard Wiseman interview on the Freakonomics blog (includes amusing anecdotes about the practical complexities of “accidentally” dropping your wallet in the street... 200 times... for a study)

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20,000 miles on the bike

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 14-Mar-2010 by asqui

Odometer about to hit 20,000 milesDuring the summer of 2008, on my way home from work, I reached 20,000 miles on my commuter bike. Between commuting to university, countless training rides with various cycling clubs, and later commuting daily to work in London, I had managed to rack up a mileage close to the circumference of the earth!

This trusty Dawes Horizon has been serving my commuting and training needs since 2003.
The Dawes Horizon touring bicycle 

As you ride more and more, things start to wear out, crack or break, and need replacement. First come the obvious ‘consumables’, things like brake pads, which rub against the rim of the wheels to make you stop; the chain which propels you forward with every stroke of the pedal; the teeth on the chain rings which are attached to the pedals, and the the cassette of sprockets through which the chain drives the rear wheel; and eventually the tyres too begin to wear through.

Here is a selection of tyres; old and new. The new ones still have orange labels on. The old ones look entirely black from hundreds of miles of road grit.
Bicycle tyres, old and new.

In the chain, each link is held together by rivets spaced ½ inch apart. As the chain bends around each of the cogs in the drive train the links rotate about these rivets and, over time, begin to wear them out. The resultant effect is that the chain appears to grow longer as each of these rivets wear. Left long enough, this will cause the teeth on chain rings and sprockets to wear prematurely, and eventually the chain will begin to jump up and over the teeth when you apply more pressure to the pedals. You want to replace your chain long before that stage.

Here are some old chains that had piled up before I cleared them out (you wouldn’t tell it without measuring them, but they are too worn to be any good) and the chain rings from my earlier Eddy Merckx bike (the teeth are in perfectly good shape, but the cranks had to be replaced for other reasons).
Old worn out chainsIMG_4429

As the brakes rub on those wheel rims more and more, through the warm summer and the cold, gritty winter, the rims start to wear out too. Left long enough you’ll wear right through the sidewall of the rim and before you know it you’ll go over a bump and the rim cracks and begins to collapse. You really want to replace your rims before you reach that stage.

Here is a collection of old wheels, front and rear, stocked up for occasional use in spare parts.
Old bicycle wheels, front and rear

Next the pedals begin to show signs of wear, from bumps and scrapes and the occasional wipe-out. The cosmetics don’t matter so much, but eventually the bearings begin to wear and grow loose, and make odd clicks and other noises.

If this pedal looks rather odd to you, it is because it is designed for use with special cycling shoes which feature a small metal cleat on the sole. The cleat clips in to the pedal and keeps your foot in position; to release you twist out, sort of like a ski binding.

These cleats on the shoes tend to wear out too, especially if you walk around a lot as I do.

Spot the difference: An old worn cleat on the left; a new one just fitted on the right.

The repetitive movement of all those pedal strokes takes its toll on the interior of the shoes too. These are the shoes I bought with the bike, and the original insoles; it may soon be time to replace them.

The bottom-bracket is the bearing that the pedals are attached to. I’ve only had to replace that once — the one that came with the bike originally was not very good quality and wore out quickly.

The rack on the back lets you clip on a suitably equipped ‘pannier bag’ for transportation. The rubbing caused by vibrations has led to notable wearing in the aluminium arms of the rack.

Occasionally you get more spectacular results from wear, like when your handlebar snaps off.

I’ve actually had this happen to me twice on this bike (and miraculously managed to stay upright on both occasions). For future reference, creaking and crackling noises from aluminium handlebars means that there is a crack, and you’ll really want to replace them before they snap off on you.

Another time my front fork snapped off; unfortunately I couldn’t really avoid crashing that time.

If you do your own bike maintenance you soon begin to collect various tools, some more exotic than others — the ‘chain whip’ on the right is used to hold the gear cassette on the back wheel still when you want to unscrew the bolt that holds it in place.

Through all the rides you get to take in some truly amazing countryside and unique sights.


And if you push the pedals hard enough, you may even get a little something to show for it.

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Book Review: The Undercover Economist

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 01-Mar-2010 by asqui

The Undercover Economist book cover Is the coffee in train stations expensive because the coffee retailers are exploiting the desperate and barely awake commuters who are "price-blind"? Not really. The reason the coffee is so expensive is that the retailer needs to pay the extortionate rent charged by rail company, which owns the train station and therefore has a monopoly on the first land those coffee-deprived commuters set foot on. It's that rail company, with its scarce resource, that makes the extra profit from your expensive coffee, not the coffee retailer.

Tim Harford is the Financial Times' Undercover Economist, and his book of the same name applies economic theory to explain everyday curiosities, in a similar manner to Freakonomics. Also like Freakonomics, The Undercover Economist is a fascinating read with no economics pre-requisites, which should appeal to any non-economists.

Why are airport departure lounges so crappy and uncomfortable? Is it because the airport is struggling for money and can't afford more comfortable chairs? Perhaps. How about Tesco own-brand products, with their plain red and blue packaging; is the cost of a few more colours a limiting factor in the design of this packaging? In truth, the regular departure lounges have to be sufficiently bare and uncomfortable to motivate the business and first class passengers to fork out for their drastically more expensive plane tickets (and the associated departure lounge experience). It's not that better product design would break the bank for Tesco’s own-brand vegetable soup, just that better design would make the customer less likely to fork out for the more expensive alternative option.

It is important for retailers to keep the “premium gap” open, and not let the budget options trail too closely behind the premium option. If the premium gap gets too narrow, then some premium customers will “leak” to the budget option when they decide it’s good enough for them.

This is the sort of analysis you can expect from The Undercover Economist, illustrated with engaging examples (such as explaining the effect of zero-marginal-cost by looking at the drunken chaos that results from offering fixed-entry unlimited-drinks parties to university students).

And if you haven’t had enough after reading the book, you can follow the More or Less radio show (also available as a podcast) hosted by Tim Harford and packed with more amusing and topical analysis.

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Lake District: Carlisle, Caldbeck, and Grasmere

 3 Comments- Add comment Written on 20-Feb-2010 by asqui

Last weekend Kelley had a reading at the Wordsworth Trust, in the Lake District, so we decided to make a long weekend of it. The timing was perfect, given St. Valentine’s day on the Sunday.

Thursday Evening

First we took the overnight sleeper train to Carlisle on Thursday night — they woke us up with tea and biscuits at about 4:30am. A former colleague of mine, David, lives near Carlisle in a village called Caldbeck and graciously offered to pick us up at our rather anti-social arrival time.


After a few more hours sleep at his house, and after the kids were off to school, we were out for a walk with David and his wife, Clare. We went up Ullock Pike, along Longside Edge, to Carl Side with the option of continuing to Skiddaw. The weather was not the “clear skies” that were forecast. We spent a good time being buffeted by wind and sleet, and opted out of Skiddaw extension:

Kelley on the descent from Karl Side; David and Clare up ahead.Kelley on the descent from Karl Side; David and Clare up ahead.

Later on: Back down to sea level. 
Later on: Back down to sea level.


Saturday’s main event was Kelley’s poetry reading at the Wordsworth Trust, where she was representing Flambard Press in the final of a series of three events highlighting small independent publishers. But not before we’d had a tour of Dove Cottage and lunch, courtesy of the Wordsworth Trust.

Saturday: A tour of Dove Cottage before the poetry event.
Saturday: A tour of Dove Cottage before the poetry event.

The view from William Wordsworth’s own private piece of mountain.
The view from William Wordsworth’s own private piece of mountain.

Kelley participating in the question panel, after everyone had spoken.
Kelley participating in the question panel, after everyone had spoken.

The view from Grasmere. 
The view from Grasmere.


On Sunday we got up early and managed to sneak up the nearby Helm Crag whilst the weather was relatively nice. We were back in time for a hearty lunch, though not before Kelley managed to sink calf-deep into a concealed bog near the Far Easedale Gill.

Sunday: Walking up Helm Crag near Grasmere; the weather a little more pleasant.
Sunday: Walking up Helm Crag near Grasmere; the weather a little more pleasant.

45 minutes later: Atop Helm Crag.
45 minutes later: Atop Helm Crag.

The sheep were un-phased by the giant snow flakes.
The sheep were un-phased by the giant snow flakes.

Nutrition: Welsh Rarebit with bacon and poached egg; chocolate milkshake on the side. 
Nutrition: Welsh Rarebit with bacon and poached egg; chocolate milkshake on the side.


Finally on Monday, it was time for a leisurely morning and a trip on the bus to Windermere in time to catch our afternoon train back to London. The regular train was faster, though not nearly as roomy nor quiet as the sleeper train we took up there. Still, it was a good acclimatisation exercise to prepare us for our return from the peaceful countryside to the bustling city of London.

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Admiral Car Insurance

 3 Comments- Add comment Written on 27-Jan-2010 by asqui

Adm_Logo_rgb[1] It’s that time of year again: time for some life-admin in the form of renewing the car insurance. It’s the most fun I’ve had since Christmas! Even though I’m now over 25 and have managed to build up two years’ no claims discount, apparently I still need all the help I can get when it comes beating down the price of my car insurance. (Maybe it’s something to do with this incident; though it wasn’t my fault!)

I ended up renewing my policy with Admiral, after discovering that their customer service is absolutely awesome, their renewal quote was reasonable, and they gave me a discount just for asking!

Admiral: Their website is a bit clunky, but the customer service is awesome. These are definitely the people I’d want to be dealing with if I ever need to make a claim. (Now, if only every call centre could be this good.)

The Process

To save dealing directly with insurers one-by-one you can go to comparison sites that gather quotes from dozens of insurers at once; and to save having to choose which of the comparison sites to use, you go to Martin Lewis’ Car Insurance Guide. There he will tell you not only which comparison sites to use, but the most efficient order to use them in! (Updated every quarter based on a full survey!) He’ll even optimise your job role: if you’re a software consultant you can save ~5% on your premium just by calling yourself a computer engineer instead.

After some eye-watering “best” quotes from the comparison sites, the renewal quote from Admiral wasn’t looking so bad. To take it down further I took my wife off the policy — she has decided not to go through with getting a full UK license for now, so taking her off the policy as a provisional driver was bound to help.

I also checked in with my friends at A-Plan insurance brokers to see if they could work some magic (don’t bother filling out the form on the website — call them on the phone and you’ll get a ballpark figure in 5 minutes. Ask for Jason Jarratt; tell him I sent you :-) Unfortunately Jason’s quick search yielded similarly eye-watering quotes to what I’d seen before,  so much so that he didn’t think there was much hope of finessing down the price with some direct negotiations. He advised me to stick with my current insurer.

The Findings

In the end, after about half a day of research I was barely able to beat my renewal quote. This came as quite a surprise; I thought insurers were meant to screw you on the renewals to exploit the inattentive and lazy? Maybe they only do that after the first couple of renewals, once they know you’re not paying attention and don’t have enough spare time to shop around...

I had already called Admiral to see about taking my wife off the policy and Tiffany was very friendly and helpful, so I figured there was nothing to lose in calling them again. Much to my surprise they were accepting calls at 8:30pm, how nice! I think their call centre is in the USA since both times I called the person I spoke to had an accent; I guess it makes it easier for them to be so friendly if it’s only 3:30pm where they are (rather than 2am for a call centre in India).

The Clincher

So I called Admiral and said I’d found a slightly cheaper quote; could they match it? After confirming the details of the policy to check everything was up to date (it was), the also-super-friendly Bethann put me on hold and went to speak to her manager. A minute later she was back with the offer of a discount that was almost 10% off the premium! My premium is pretty hefty, so that discount is nothing to scoff at. That’s quite a result for just asking!

It’s a good thing I got that discount too, because before she let me go the super-friendly-Bethann also managed to charm me in to an optional courtesy car upgrade. I got a bit of a spiel from Tiffany as well, before she’d let me go, so I assume it’s their ploy to win you over with awesome customer service then try for the up-sell. It’s okay; she earned it.

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The Man with the 7-Second Memory

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 01-Jan-2010 by asqui

Meet Clive Wearing; a man with the worst case of amnesia ever known. Twenty-five years ago he lost his memory and now his wife, Deborah, is the only person he recognises. He is constantly under the impression that he has just come out of a lengthy period of unconsciousness, so every time he sees her he greets her with the enthusiasm of being reunited after years apart.

Clive Wearing has a neurological disorder called anterograde amnesia which is a condition that doesn't allow new memories to transfer into long-term memory. This means that he will never remember anything since his incident, similar to Leonard in the movie Memento.

On March 29, 1985 Clive came home with a very bad headache which wouldn’t go away for days, and wouldn’t respond to any medication. By the fourth day he had a high fever, and forgot his daughter’s name; by the fifth day he was very delirious.

Clive had contracted the Herpes simplex virus which attacked his brain and caused damage to the left and right temporal lobes as well as the frontal lobe. The temporal lobes contain a structure called the hippocampus which is involved in memory function, and in Clive’s case the hippocampus has almost certainly been destroyed in both sides of the brain.

Before his illness, Clive was a successful musicologist and conductor. One of the few things that have survived intact is his ability to read music and play the piano.

Now his memory-span is so short that he will often forget the beginning of a sentence before you have completed it. Or he may begin answering a question but forget the question before he’s finished with his answer. It’s not uncommon to forget what you ordered for lunch by the time the food is served; but Clive additionally doesn’t remember which flavours belong to which foods.

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