52 Things I Learned in 2019

The Thighs of Steel Core Team arrive in Athens after 9 weeks and over 6,000km of cycling. This photo sums up the best of what I learned in 2019.
  1. Your gut behaves like a second brain of over 100 million nerve cells called the enteric nervous system, which can communicate with your head-brain through the vagus nerve, and also by releasing bacterial metabolites into the bloodstream. We are what we eat, in other words. Read a digest of the science on my blog.
  2. Fingerspitzengefühl is a splendid German word, literally meaning ‘finger tip feeling’ and best translated as ‘intuitive flair’ or ‘instinct’. I have no memory of where I picked this up.
  3. This year, The Guardian updated its style guide to recommend journalists use terms that more accurately reflect the science of climate change – sorry – climate breakdown. Editor-in-chief Katharine Viner says: ‘The phrase “climate change”, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.’ Words are important. Read about other word choices in The Guardian.
  4. Fires in equatorial Asia contribute 8 percent of global carbon emissions and 23 percent of methane emissions despite only accounting for 0.6 percent of the world’s burned area. That’s down to the burning of carbon-rich peatlands in countries like Indonesia. I learned a lot more while writing this article for Forests News.
  5. Rejection is joyous. Read more on my blog – or watch this TEDx talk by Jia Jiang.
  6. ‘Activity gives you more energy, not less’, one of five key ideas from the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Read the other four on my (new) blog.
  7. Millennials are the burnout generation. There is so much in this article, but here’s one idea that struck home: ‘[Burnout] takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks, intermingled with other obligations that should either be easily or dutifully completed.’ Read the full article on Buzzfeed.
  8. In Utah there’s a 6,000 tonne quaking aspen that is between 80,000 and 1,000,000 years old. I’ve learned how to age trees (without chopping the in half) twice this year and forgotten both times. Every species grows at a slightly different rate, and at different rates at different ages and in different environments, but a half decent rule of thumb is that the girth of the tree will increase by about an inch every year. I found this PDF from Wokingham District Veteran Tree Association useful.
  9. Over the past decade, about 550,000 more Britons left London than moved to the city. Read why people are leaving London on BBC News. Read why I think small is sociable on my blog.
  10. A psychedelic experience has the potential to be a Black Swan event for the individual. Read through this thought on my blog. Better yet, read Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind and/or watch this video of him in conversation with Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London:
  11. As well as the amelioration of symptoms of depression, specific anxiety (not generalised) and PMS, psychedelic microdosing has been linked with physical enhancements in strength, stamina and flexibility. The talk I gave at Love Trails Festival showed me that runners are really interested in the practical application of vanishingly small amounts of psychedelic substances. Read more in Advances in Psychedelic Medicine (Google Books).
  12. Injuring your hamstring can take months and months to recover from. Bloody annoying when fifty percent of your stress-reduction strategy involves running.
  13. There are five major varieties of bullshit jobs: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers and taskmasters. The antidote to bullshit jobs and the bullshitisation of our lives is to care. We won’t be rewarded financially, but we will be rewarded in other ways, including with the intrinsic reward of being able to sleep at night. Read Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber at your local library or online for free at The Anarchist Library.
  14. People on a meat-heavy diet could shrink their food-related footprint by at least 33% by becoming vegetarian. Eat less beef, lamb and cheese. Substitute with pork, chicken, eggs and molluscs. Replace with beans, pulses, grains and soy. Read my digest of a New York Times deep dive on the subject.
  15. Reading a book is ‘forced meditation’. Please, please watch Bookstores, a documentary paeon to reading. It includes a wonderful interview with ‘total baller’ Dr Ruth J Simmons at ~29:30: ‘If you enforce reading, you are likely to enforce time for reflection because it’s hard to read without reflecting … Busyness does not make our lives meaningful; it is the interior life that makes the greatest difference to us in the end.’
  16. The average shower lasts seven minutes and uses 65 litres of water. That sounds like a lot, but most of the water we ‘drink’ is embedded in the food we eat: producing 1 kilo of beef for example consumes 15,000 litres of water while 1 kilo of wheat ‘drinks up’ 1,500 litres. Read my investigation into the environment demerits of showering on my blog.
  17. It takes us about 50 hours of typing to write an episode of Foiled. Read more about our process on my blog.
  18. There’s such a thing as the Celtic Media Awards! We go again next year…
  19. On 29 July, volunteers in Ethiopia planted 350 million trees across 1,000 designated sites in 12 hours. Read more on Atlas Obscura.
  20. This year, I learned how to play The Trellis by Nick Mulvey (who, incidentally, went to the same university as me – I remember watching his old band Portico Quartet in the student union). Get the TAB from Bantham Legend and play along with this video:
  21. From a standing start, fully dressed at my desk, the minimum viable swim (out to beyond my depth, plus three head dunking dives and back) takes exactly 13 minutes. Read why you should always take the swim on my blog.
  22. Climbing trees is good for you in ways that you can’t quite remember until you’re up there, looking down. ‘Trees deliver us from the banal, and reaching the top of one is like coming up for air and breaking the bubble of our timetabled lives.’ Read The Tree Climber’s Guide by Jack Cooke.
  23. On flat ground, I take 64 paces to walk 100 metres. A useful thing to know if you’re trying to navigate in low visibility (or trying to find an obscure map feature as part of your Lowland Leader Award assessment). Learn more about pacing from Mountain Safety.
  24. Fractal environments, such as those we experience in abundance when in the countryside or beside the sea, help regulate emotions and reduce stress in a similar way to music. Read The Nature Fix by Florence Williams for a full exploration on the myriad ways nature does us good – or read this Atlantic article on Why Fractals Are So Soothing.
  25. Leave love letters. Read the secret story on my blog.
  26. I really like Emmental. Also: always travel with a pat of butter. Tortilla chips slathered with butter makes for a surprisingly good cycling snack. Ignore the doubters.
  27. Neapolitan street food is dangerous. Frittatine di pasta is a depth charge of carbohydrates, macaroni, béchamel and pork weighted with enough oil to power a medium-sized caravan. Digestible only when halved, quartered, and shared to soak up limoncello. Eat more on my blog.
  28. Unlike those at liberty, asylum seekers imprisoned in detention centres are allowed to work – for the princely wage of £1 per hour. Read Michael Darko’s story of indefinite detention on my blog.
  29. Refugees and asylum seekers dress well and wear cologne because it helps them integrate into society. ‘For me, to look good and to be clean could help me in front of society. People might accept me.’ Read Mahmud’s story on my blog.
  30. The Croatian Adriatic coast is beautiful, but the Adriatic coast road will be too full of touring motorists in mid-summer for you to fully relax and enjoy the ride. As you can’t see in the photo below.
  31. Albania may very well be the most hospitable country in the world for touring cyclists. Thank you, Albania. Read the story of Thighs of Steel in Albania on my blog.
  32. Cycling around Ikaría, a Greek island home to Europe’s highest concentration of centenarians, is really fucking hard. Read the story on my blog.
  33. Diving into the sea head first can really mess you up. From a height of ten metres, you break the surface at 36.6mph and that exerts crazy force on your body as the water slows you by more than 50 percent in a fraction of a second. I guess that’s why diving is an Olympic sport. I got a dislocated shoulder, but maybe I was lucky not to get concussed. Read more about the risks of diving on SportsRec.com. Next time, I’ll be following this sage advice from Tourism On The Edge.
  34. Greek can be disturbingly similar to Spanish in the most unhelpful ways. For example: aquí in Spanish means here; εκεί in Greek means there.
  35. The maximum capacity of Samos refugee camp is 648. The current refugee population in the town is nearing 8,000. Read my Are You Syrious? Special about Samos and stay in touch with the data by subscribing to Aegean Boat Report.
  36. Some female refugees who have been raped refuse abortions because they believe pregnancy will expedite their asylum application. Read how women’s bodies are being abused by the asylum system on my blog.
  37. There is one doctor for (at the time) 6,000 refugees on Samos. Read more snippets from Samos on my blog.
  38. 17,205 people were granted asylum in the UK in 2018. Over the same period, Germany granted asylum to 139,555 people. In Turkey, there are in excess of 3,600,000 Syrian refugees, living with the limited legal rights granted under ‘temporary protection’, in the shadow of a war zone. Read my full report from İzmir on my blog.
  39. You can know a culture through its language. While in the Netherlands I learned two Dutch word-philosophies: gezellig and niksen. Gezellig is an earthier version of the Danish hygge, while niksen is doing-nothingness. Both vital. You can take two minutes of niksen using this timer – it took me two attempts to complete because I am, at heart, a millennial.
  40. The Netherlands has a border with France. Read about my trip to Urk with The Tim Traveller. Or, better still, watch this:
  41. E.M. Forster is an excellent novelist. Read my other Summer / Autumn recommendations on my blog. And ‘beware of muddle’.
  42. The best things in life are free, but some other stuff is free as well if you ask nicely. Read more about getting shit for free on my blog or check out my second look review of the free (to me at least) Punkt MP02 mobile phone.
  43. Since the Tories first came to power in 2010, admissions to A&E of homeless people has tripled. Read the horrifying absract in the BMJ. But perhaps this was the election that brought us closer together. Read why on my blog.
  44. TOTALLY UNRELATED TO THE RESULTS OF THE GENERAL ELECTION: it is theoretically possible to acquire French citizenship (and regain an EU passport) in only two years if you study for a masters in the country and have no ‘assimilation defects’. Read this petite histoire on Pret A Voyager before embarking, however.
  45. Divock Origi.
  46. I have already spent more time with friends and family in 2019 than I did last year. Yep: I keep a spreadsheet. I’ve spoken at least twice with a total of 47 people this year, 14 of whom I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to at least 20 times.
  47. According to my rough estimates, I have visited 59,323 web pages so far this year – that’s over 1,100 unique pages every week and a 14 percent increase on 2018. Can I think of more than a dozen web pages that have made a positive difference to my life in 2019? No, I can’t. 8 percent of unique page views were on the BBC Sport website, for example. I frequently fantasise about a life without the Internet. But then I wouldn’t be able to write you these love letters, would I?
  48. Through Spring, Summer and Autumn 2019, I lost my five-year daily habit of diary writing. Now I’m trying to trust the process again.
  49. By and large, I stuck to my No News Is Good News reading habit. I accessed almost double the number of BBC News stories as I did in 2017 – but nearly half of them were actually sports stories like ‘Enes Kanter: Turkey seeks arrest of New York Knicks star’. WTF. I have no interest in baseball (is that even baseball?) If you exclude sports stories, then I only accessed 56 ‘news’ stories in 2019. Of those, my primary interests were Brexit, the General Election and the environment.
  50. I enjoy ice skating exactly as much I suspected. I’ll try not to leave it another thirty years before my next outing. (Artwork below by my niece, aged 5.)
  51. After keeping a nightly journal of ‘5 Great Things’ since 5 February, I have learned that the greatest things in my life are quite often miniscule, and almost always related to other people. The strongest element of keeping such a journal is reflecting on past entries so here’s an incredibly mundane sample of three, picked from random days in the two notebooks I’ve filled this year:
    ‘Loads of walking >18km’
    ‘Being woken up by Django licking my face’
    ‘Sauna’

    I should say that Django is a dog. I was inspired to start the journal by this article on For The Interested.
  52. Leather trousers are surprisingly comfortable.

That’s it!

Well done for getting this far. If you’ve enjoyed reading, then I’d be thrilled if you share the link with your friends or on your social media. Thank you!

Ultimate Medal Hope

Last week I was invited to join my friend’s Ultimate Summer League team. Minutes later, I chucked her Frisbee into the river Thames. I’ve double-checked and the invite still stands.

Ultimate is the codified sport of throwing a Frisbee around a field. The rules are a cross between American Football and Netball: you score in end zones, but you can’t travel with the disc and there’s no physical contact allowed.

I’m not sure about the dress-code. I sincerely hope the uniform isn’t also a cross between American Football and Netball. Shoulder pads and short skirts are not a good look on me. Continue reading Ultimate Medal Hope

The Betrayal of All Humanity

I saw a woman walking down a footpath towards the sea. One woman of a group of three pedestrians, not yet elderly, certainly no longer young.

They carried between them the paunch of middle age, tucked neatly under a belt or a waistband. The woman wore sensible leggings stretched out underneath a summer shift, a pursebag between the stripe of a strap across her back, sandals slapping on the footpath.

“I’ll let you know the next time we get one and I’ll send it over,” her friend was saying, as they swung past me on the final zig of the sea-bound zig zag.

“That’d be great,” the woman replied, leaning to her partner by her side. “Last time we paid, what was it? Sixty? You can go by train, but…”

As she said these words, she veered to her left, reached out a hand, grasped a stray branch and, with the deft clench of an expert, stripped the branch of leaves. She walked on, without breaking her stride.

“Oh no, you’ll want to fly,” her friend said.

But it was too late. In that moment, the woman had betrayed all of humanity for the apes we are.

Not so bad after all: British sport on the world stage

I was listening to a comedy show on the radio last night and they were taking the piss out of British sporting success. Very funny, I’m sure. But it all sounded a little hackneyed. What about our golfers? What about our rugby players? What about Formula 1?

‘We British don’t like winning; it’s so common…’ they joked.

Tommy-rot, I thought, and so looked up a few things on Wikipedia.

Here’s a list of recent (last 10 years) major British sporting success:

  • Rugby Union: 2003 World Cup
  • Cricket: 2010 World Twenty20
  • Golf: US Open 2010 (McDowell), 2011 (McIlroy)
  • Formula 1: Champions 2008 (Hamilton), 2009 (Button)
  • Heavyweight Boxing: 2002 WBC, IBF (Lewis), 2011 WBA (Haye)
  • Olympics Medal Table: 4th place 2008

The only major sports that are perhaps letting us down are Tennis (no Grand Slams since 1936) and Football (only one major championship, in 1966). But even those have not exactly lacked success.

We’ve had a player in the ATP Men’s Tour Top 20 for fourteen of the last fifteen years, with Tim Henman and now Andy Murray.

In football, national success has been hard to come by, but Liverpool and Manchester United have both won the Champions League in the last ten years.

Not so bad after all.

Gourmet-a-tron Mexican Spice Mix

Anything tastes good with this. I know: I’ve tried it with Tesco Value “Mince”.

Ingredients

This usually makes about one spice pot’s worth of spice mix. I’m pretty careless with the quantities; it’s not precise.

  • 2 tbsp chilli powder
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1.5 tsp onion powder
  • 0.5 tsp garlic powder
  • 0.5 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 0.5 tsp cumin
  • 0.25 tsp chilli flakes

You can add some salt and sugar if you want extra flavour-zing. I normally throw in a dash of salt, perhaps a teaspoon.

Mixing

The way I mix this is to throw all the ingredients into a bowl, then funnel the contents into the spice pot and shake the pot until well mixed. Simple and effective.

Use

I shake a generous load all over mince and then fry. I like it spicy and flavoursome so one pot-load usually only lasts me about four 500g meals. But it’s worth it.

Recipe for the-only-thing-easier-than-making-it-is-eating-it hot salsa

This salsa is ridiculously easy. It won’t take more than about five minutes and will leave your lips tingling, but not your tonsils.

Ingredients

Makes 300g of salsa.

  • 1 400g can of plum tomatoes.
  • 2 green chillies.
  • 1/3 of an onion.
  • 1 handful of fresh coriander.
  • 1 squeeze of a lemon.

The total cost of these ingredients is about a £1*. This is cheaper than supermarket salsa, tastes better and doesn’t have Xanthan Gum in it. Whatever that is.

Tools

  • Knife.
  • Bowl.
  • Sieve or colander (optional).
  • Blender (optional).

Method

  1. Drain the can of tomatoes. You can use a sieve or a colander or just pour the juice out of the can. It will look like you’re losing a heck of a lot of product. Don’t panic, just drain those plums! Now throw them into the bowl.
  2. Chop the stalks off your chillies. Take out some of the seeds and pith while you’re there. Throw into the bowl.
  3. Chop off a third of an onion. Throw into the bowl.
  4. Grab a handful of fresh coriander. Throw into the bowl.
  5. Chop a lemon in half and squeeze some into the bowl.
  6. Blend the ingredients until they are salsafied! If you don’t have a proper blender then just mash and chop with your hands and your knife. Salsa should be pretty rough anyway – you’re not making a soup here.
  7. EAT.

You can always modify to taste with garlic, salt or chocolate. I won’t shout at you.


* You will have to buy a whole onion and a whole lemon. Save them for next time.

Technology in Sport: Justice vs Drama

Day 3 of the Fifth Ashes Test between Australia and England:

  • Alastair Cook on 99 not out. Michael Beer bowls and Philip Hughes takes a low catch at short leg. Out.
  • Ian Bell on 67 not out. Watson bowls and Bell nicks a catch to Haddin. The umpire raises his finger. Out.

Except both men called for a TV review and both were successful. Cook went on to make 189 and Bell 115.

Without those 138 runs, England would be on 350, only 70 ahead of Australia’s first innings score, instead of being more than 200 runs ahead. Those reviews mean this series is over: England will win the Ashes.

Is This A Good Thing?

Not England winning the Ashes, of course that’s a good thing – but is the use of technology in sport always a good thing?

Technology in sport is a controversial subject. India are currently refusing to play with a referral system in their series against South Africa. But that kind of stand is the exception: the use of technology is widespread at the highest level in cricket, rugby and tennis. It is currently being tested for use in football.

But who’s driving the change? Do we really need technology? Who is it for?

These are questions that get to the bottom of what sport is and what it is for. Here are my observations:

1. Technology is only used at the top level of sport

During the 2010 Ashes, at least 99.93% of people were spectators, not participants (33,000 average daily attendance at the Ashes, 22 players – not including the millions of people like me listening on the radio or watching on TV).

  • Therefore the injustice of a wrong decision is only directly felt by a tiny minority of people involved in the sport. Of course fans are passionate about their team – but so are the opposing fans. We cancel each other out.
  • And therefore the purpose of the sport is not to be just to the players, but to entertain the overwhelming majority of people involved in the spectacle: the spectators.

2. Technology is used to correct bad decisions by the officials

These bad decisions could be the result of incompetence, the extreme difficulty of making the decision or dishonesty (throwing the game one way or another).

  • Sport has an integrity that should be protected. Dishonesty of all kinds, at all levels, should be policed.
  • Therefore technology can play a part in protecting the sport from outside manipulation.

3. There is often still an element of human judgement required

Take the Bell ‘dismissal’ last night. The review pictures was inconclusive so the umpire on the field had to make a judgement call. He decided to change his decision and gave Bell not out. In fact, a technology unavailable to the umpire, the snickometer, appeared to show that Bell had nicked it and should have been given out.

  • Therefore, even with technology, wrong decisions are still made.

So Why Use Technology?

Given these observations, before using technology in sport, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

1. Given the fact that most of the people involved in the sport are spectators, watching for their entertainment: does the technology add or detract from the drama of the spectacle?

2. Given the fact that the integrity of sport should be protected and that technology can be used to monitor the decision-making of officials: are the officials at risk from outside manipulation (i.e. match fixing)?

3. If wrong decisions are possible, is “justice” still a valid argument for using the technology?

The Logical Conclusions

I expect a lot of people will disagree with these, but hey! This is what logically follows from the statements predicated above.

1. If technology doesn’t add drama for fans: don’t use it

The only people to benefit from the limited justice it provides are the players and the purpose of their sport is to entertain, not to be fair to the participants.

2. Use video replays after the event to monitor sport integrity

Football has the right balance at the moment. (2019: Oh shiiiiit…*) The FA use television reviews after the game to ensure the integrity of the game by punishing players who got away with offences during the match, or by striking out unfair punishments.

This not only protects the integrity of the sport, but also means that the players (who are, after all, professionals) get fair treatment from their employers. What happens on the field, however, is entertainment. They still get paid, whatever happens.

After the event reviews can also be used to check up on the integrity and capability of officials. There’s nothing wrong in trying to make sporting officials better at their job.

3. If technology increases the drama of the spectacle: use it!

Tennis is, by nature, a very stop-start sport and the Hawk-Eye review system is arguably quite exciting for spectators. So use it, by all means.

But remember that justice has very little to do with it. The Hawk-Eye review system is 75% drama and perhaps 25% justice.

Why? Not only can the technology (occasionally) be incorrect or unhelpful, but players are also only allowed three incorrect challenges. I understand this is to stop abuse of the system, but this rule doesn’t match the idea of “justice” in the real world. If you have been correctly convicted at trial for theft three times, it doesn’t mean you should be jailed without trial for a fourth theft.

I think the jury is still out on whether the review system in cricket is a good thing or not. Cricket, like tennis, is also a stop-start game, but almost ALL of its drama is compressed into those moments when the umpire raises his finger and gives a batsman out. The review system takes that drama away as soon as the batsman calls for the big screen.

And that’s a real shame for the spectacle, even if England have profited recently!


* UPDATE, October 2019: Football has totally screwed things up with VAR. There is no aspect of its implementation that is satisfactory for the game, according to my logic.

The only fair (to players, referees and fans) use of technology in football is the use of goal-line technology, where the decision is (more or less) black-and-white and (more or less) immediate.

Every single other decision in football is your interpretation of various shades of grey: ultimately, it’s an opinion, even offside. All that VAR has done is add another layer of disagreement, while stripping the immediate drama and enjoyment from the game.

For what it’s worth, James Milner agrees with me.

Global Social Media Use Statistics: FIFA.com Goal of the Year Case Study

This has to be the most boring blog post title EVER. But, hey, I love stats. I studied the reported social media use from each of the ten nominations for goal of the year. These nominations came from nine countries: South Africa, Brazil, Japan, The Netherlands (two nominations, although only one got any serious sharing), Argentina, France, Northern Ireland, Sweden and Turkey. I assume that these share statistics will roughly represent the social media usage in each of the countries nominated because football fans are very loyal and most of the goals came in international matches or national league matches in the country of the player’s birth, rather than national league matches in a country foreign to the player.

So, after 24 hours of global sharing (to allow for timezone differences), what do we find?

  • No one uses Buzz. 
  • Only three countries use Twitter that much: The Netherlands, Japan and – above all – Brazil. Brazil had over 30% of shares done through Twitter. 
  • Every single other country represented used Facebook to share more than 90% of the time.

Here are the hard stats, for the countries that drew more than 500 shares (sorry South Africa!):

Brazil (915 shares)

Twitter: 32.57%
Facebook: 66.67%
Buzz: 0.77%

Japan (2995)

Twitter: 18.3%
Facebook: 81.34%
Buzz: 0.37%

The Netherlands (2792 – two nominations)

Twitter: 9.6%
Facebook: 89.94%
Buzz: 0.47%

Argentina (1005)

Twitter: 6.17%
Facebook: 93.23%
Buzz: 0.6%

France (1439)

Twitter: 5.98%
Facebook: 93.26%
Buzz: 0.76%

Northern Ireland (3247)

Twitter: 5.67%
Facebook: 94.09%
Buzz: 0.25%

Sweden (9066)

Twitter: 2.14%
Facebook: 97.67%
Buzz: 0.19%

Turkey (at least 12281 – Facebook stops reporting precise data at these amounts)

Twitter: 2.17%
Facebook: 97.71%
Buzz: 0.11%

So there you have it. Fascinating, eh? I’m sure this will be interesting to someone, won’t it? That Brazil uses Twitter a lot? Or, at least, that goal trended in Brazil or something. Could just be a fluke. That’s the problem with statistics I suppose. Oh well. Enjoy the goals anyway.