Eating to Live Forever: A Sustainable Healthy Eating Habit

Visionary technologist, writer, and current director of engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil believes that he’ll live forever. Within mere decades, he says, nanotechnology will allow us to halt and even reverse aging. His current mission is to stay alive until that happens. Much of the advice below is sourced from his book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough To Live Forever.

Eating healthily is hard. It requires willpower and it’s hard to care about long-term benefits when there’s cake in front of you. But there’s an even harder problem — what does ‘healthy’ eating even mean?

Mmm… pop tart butter ball surprise.

I’ve never been visibly unhealthy but a lot of my meals were — picture Eric Cartman and Chief Wiggum in charge of the food for a five-year-old’s birthday picnic, but with more chocolate.

I never thought this was an issue as long as I stayed fit. Since then family illnesses, other people’s opinions, and some basic research convinced me that I should probably reconsider.

The beginning

A few years ago, after reading In Defense Of Food, I decided to give up soft drinks almost entirely. The evidence against soft drinks and refined sugar more generally is uncontroversial, and many think that in a few decades the soft drink industry will be viewed in the same way we view the tobacco industry today. But what about the other aspects of diet?

Is it enough to look at calorie count, or should you care about the balance of macro-nutrients (carbs, fat, protein, etc)? Does it matter more what you eat, where your food is sourced, or how it is prepared? Should you eat low-fat? Low-carb? Paleo? Atkins? Slow carb? Soylent?

As nutritionism is notoriously faddish, it’s important to look beyond what people around you are doing right now (juice cleanses, anyone?) and consider what matches up with the evidence we have and the understanding of how food is processed in our body.

Kurzweil’s approach

It’s hard not to believe Kurzweil — he’s more than just technically literate, has sufficient resources at his disposal, and has an enormous amount of self-interest in following the most effective diet possible. While his book contains a wealth of fascinating information on biological processes and chemical makeup of different types of food, Kurzweil’s main advice boils down to the following points:

  • Cut out sugar and simple carbs almost entirely
  • Eat mainly whole foods
  • Reduce fat intake, especially saturated fats
  • Eat a lot of vegetables of various colours
  • Drink lots of water and green tea, avoid excess alcohol and coffee
  • Take a variety of supplements

Does this make sense? Probably…mostly. Sugar and simple carbs cause glucose spikes, which cause insulin spikes, which might reduce insulin sensitivity, leading to diabetes and potentially other long term downsides. Fats, especially saturated fats, contribute to increased risks of heart disease. Many vegetables are low in both of the above while containing high levels of important vitamins and fibre. Water is important for almost every process in our bodies.

As for supplements… Kurzweil has recently cut down his daily dose of supplements to ‘only’ 150 pills. He believes that aggressive supplementation is a necessary part of a modern diet, as it allows us to make up for dietary deficits and ‘hack’ our bodies by exploiting our understanding of the chemical processes underlying disease and ageing. Though he may have a point, I think Nassim Nicholas Taleb has an interesting stance on this: our knowledge of supplements and their impact is still very limited, and while they may have some positive effects it’s not possible for us to know what negative effects supplements will have without further long-term research.

Further, the fact that Kurzweil has his own dietary supplements business makes this part of the advice less interesting and potentially more biased (though I don’t believe that this is necessarily true).

My approach? Write the above points down on a business-card sized piece of paper that I keep in my wallet and read before every meal, checking whether the meal complies. I’m hoping that this will guide me in the right direction.

Effective Language Learning – Pardon My French

I’ve had an interest in French for a while. I got a basic grasp of the language during primary school, and never learnt enough in secondary school to comfortably have a conversation with someone. I started becoming interested in improving again about two years ago, and since then I’ve tried several different approaches. I’d like to share what has worked for me and what hasn’t.

My initial approach involved all of the usual things well-intentioned newbies do: I signed up to some evening classes, printed off verb tables to review “when I had time” and resolved to “sometimes speak French” with friends who were already fluent in the language.

While these all worked to some extent (I went to two out of ten evening classes, memorised a few verb conjugations and exchanged a handful of sentences in French with my friends before reverting to English), none were really a success. Frustration set in, and soon I was back to square one.

But then I stumbled upon a post on Tim Ferris’ blog, entitled ’12 Rules for Learning Foreign Languages in Record Time — The Only Post You’ll Ever Need’. Though initially sceptical, I found a lot of the advice useful and set about trying it. Here’s what I’ve found the most useful and effective, as well as some other things I’ve discovered since.

Listen to Stromae’s Formidable enough times and you’ll never forget how to conjugate être in the imperfect tense.

Immerse yourself

Almost every language teacher will recommend immersion as the best way to learn. That doesn’t necessarily mean travelling to a place where they speak the language though — there are plenty of other ways to achieve it.

The first step is to make a habit of engaging with things in the language you’re trying to learn, and the only sustainable way to do that is to enjoy it. For me that meant finding some good French webcomics and books, which I now read along with others on an almost daily basis.

It doesn’t matter exactly what you do, but try to consume media in your target language wherever possible, instead of watching films/TV in your own language. There are lots of great French YouTube channels (Nus et cullotés, Norman, news, …), TV shows (Braquo), films (qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au bon dieu, Amélie, …) and books (Le Petit Prince, Le Petit Nicolas) which will help you achieve a feeling of immersion at home. And since this is about having fun, you won’t even realise how much you’re learning — listen to Stromae’s Formidable enough times and you’ll never forget how to conjugate être in the imperfect tense.

Practise speaking

It’s important to practise speaking as early as possible — before you feel ready — because you’ll never actually feel ready. Speaking will force you to make mistakes and discover gaps in your knowledge much more quickly than anything else will. While it can certainly feel difficult and draining at first, there is no substitute for it. After all, what is the goal of learning a new language if it isn’t to communicate with other people?

This can be made fun by combining it with something social. There are great free language exchange groups on and Couchsurfing, where you can meet people who speak the language you’re learning and want to learn the language you speak. The great thing here is that there is an incentive for both sides to speak bits of both languages, and I’ve found it to be more constructive than learning with someone who is already fluent in both languages.

Streamline rote learning

The least fun part of learning a language is memorising grammar, but it has to be done. Everyone hates staring at pages in a book or on a screen for ages only to forget everything soon after, but luckily there’s a better way.

Enter Spaced Repetition Systems.

I wish I’d known about these when I was a student. Spaced Repetition Systems (I use Anki) are like flashcards, but smarter. They’ll track the cards you struggle with, and show you those more frequently. Cards which you consistently get right will be pushed to the bottom of the deck. The really smart thing here is that these tools try to show you each card again just before you’re about to forget it, allowing you to spend as little time as possible memorising things while remembering more! You can make your own flash cards, or use pre-made ones. I use this deck for verbs, but there are also decks for vocab and phrases here.

Commit to doing the boring things

Even though you’ll now be able to do rote learning more effectively you still have to… well… do it. It’s no use having a “learn regular French verb endings” item on your to-do list if you (like me) never get around to doing it. Commit to spending a small amount of time studying these at regular intervals. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 5 minutes every day or 20 minutes once a week, but put it in your diary and make sure it happens. The only way I’ve found to get myself to do this is to use a tool like Beeminder, which is built to help you commit to goals and overcome short-term laziness in favour of long-term benefits.

Experiment — and fail.

There are many ways to approach language learning. The right method for you depends on how you like to learn and what stage you’re at. If a method doesn’t work for you, try not to be discouraged and give up on learning altogether, but switch to a different method. Sometimes the marginal benefit from a certain method might be so low that you’re better off doing something else for a while and coming back to it later (e.g. you’ve memorised present tense verb endings and some basic vocab — get out there and practise speaking before you memorise anything else!).

On the other hand, there’s no shortage of advice or apps for language learning and it’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of changing your approach too frequently. I’d highly recommend reading the post on Tim Ferris’ blog which I mentioned at the beginning of this article as a start. The key apps I keep coming back to are Beeminder and Anki as mentioned above, and Duolingo. Here’s a detailed review of Duolingo as a tool for learning French from scratch, by someone who went through all the lessons on it from start to finish.

What have you found most helpful? I’d love to hear about it. More importantly, bon courage!

Shortcuts to Intermediate Climbing

I’ve been climbing regularly for about a year now. Mostly bouldering (no ropes, just a crash pad), at a great indoor wall in Bermondsey called The Arch. While I’ve still got a long way to go to becoming a good climber, there are a few key things I’ve learnt that let me progress from the beginner stage. As these things seem to be common among climbers but not obvious to beginners, I’ve shared them below to save anyone starting out the trouble of figuring them out for themselves.

Don’t do pull-ups

Overhangs. These climbs, where the wall has a slope of more than 90° (more than vertical), tend to be the hardest for beginners. The key is to expend as little energy as possible by keeping your arms straight and pushing from your legs to move up. Whenever you’re static for more than a second, make sure your arms are straight. Think about doing pull-ups — is it easiest to rest halfway through one, or at the bottom with straight arms?

Twist your body

Most people have their body square to the wall when they start climbing. This feels natural, just like climbing a ladder, but has several disadvantages. Having your body (hips and/or shoulders) twisted will keep you closer to the wall while allowing you to reach further — watch an experienced climber at work on an overhang problem and notice how often they twist their body from left to right depending on which way they have to reach for the next hold.

This was me at The Arch almost a year ago. Arms bent, body square to the wall, standing on the balls of my feet. If only I’d had this article…

Thumbs up

Pushing on a hold with your thumb while pulling with your fingers makes for a much stronger, more stable grip, and is less tiring. Good grip technique will allow you to progress more quickly without having to spend time doing boring finger strength exercises.

Pay attention to your feet

It’s easy to focus on the arms and hands, but if you’re climbing right then your legs will be doing most of the work. Think about where you place your feet, and place them carefully and deliberately. It’s almost always best to use the very tip of your toes rather than the balls of your feet. If there’s only one foothold available, the second leg doesn’t have to dangle. Place it somewhere deliberate on the wall or even in the air for counter balance.

Standard Moves

Flag. Drop knee. Smear. Rock over. Toe hook. Heel hook.

While it took me a while to realise this as a beginner, good climbers largely rely on a combination of standard moves, and knowing what these are gets you a long way. The trick, especially in bouldering, is figuring out how to combine the moves around the available holds. This is why boulder routes are called ‘problems’ — they’re as much a puzzle as an exercise.

Try this book if you like taking a methodical approach to learning. It’s £15 for a used version, but if you ask nicely I’ll lend you mine.

Fail more

As with anything, if you’re not failing regularly then you’re not pushing yourself enough. Once you get comfortable climbing at a certain level, start trying harder problems. If you struggle with specific types of problems (like I do with overhangs), then spend more time trying those.

Get excited

As Einstein said, the best way to learn is by “doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes”. I find climbing enjoyable, but as with anything there are times when other things take over, you become busier, and find it hard to keep making time for it.

To counter this, remember why you want to climb. Watch amazing videos. Read inspiring books. Try different types of climbing. Challenge yourself. Find a group of people to go with. I was lucky enough to have some people in my group of friends happy to go climbing with me, and am making more friends along the way.

I feel like I’ve learnt a lot this past year, mostly about how much there is to learn. This year I’d like to learn more about rope techniques, and climbing outdoors. While I’ll still be bouldering too, I’ll be making time to go on some trips to the Peak District and other UK climbing sites. Get in touch if you’d like to join me.

If you enjoyed this, do share/recommend and check out some of my other posts!

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Smart Packing: A Way To Increase Eurotunnel Capacity?

How much more traffic could Eurotunnel carry if cars were loaded in an optimal way?

The Eurotunnel, built in 1994, has grown into one of the most popular routes across the English Channel, taking 10.3 million passengers between England and France every year. A compelling alternative to ferries and the passenger train service, Eurostar, Eurotunnel allows customers to drive their car onto a train in Folkestone and drive off the train in Calais 35 minutes later.

Eurotunnel trains have two decks where cars drive in at the back on one side, and out at the front when the train reaches the other side. Each deck is made up of around a dozen carriages, with doors between them. When a car is too long to fit in a carriage with the other cars already in there, it has to leave a space at the back of this carriage and start a new carriage. This is where there might be potential for improvement — can we make these spaces smaller by loading cars in a different order?

I’ve often taken the Eurotunnel, sometimes having to wait 20 minutes for a train because our car just didn’t fit on the previous train. I’ve also been on trains where there are noticeably large empty spaces in carriages, wondering if these could be eliminated or significantly reduced by being smarter about how cars are loaded onto the train. Just how much spare capacity is there?

How things are packed matters

It’s not difficult to estimate an upper bound on the amount of spare capacity: take a train, count the number of cars per carriage, estimate their lengths, and see how much unused space is left.

So that’s what I did. On a recent train I took, I walked through and counted the number of cars in each carriage, as well as recording their makes and models so I could look up their lengths.

The train I was on had 2 decks with 12 passenger car carriages on each deck, making for a total of 24 carriages. 101 cars were on the train, with between 4 and 5 cars in each carriage.

How many more cars could we fit on if we loaded them in the optimal order?

Based on the length of the cars in the most fully packed carriage, I estimate a carriage to have approximately 23m of usable space in it. This gives us 24 * 23 = 552m of usable space. The total length of all the cars in the train was 460.5m. This leaves 92m, meaning that if the cars had been packed optimally, utilising every last cm of space, we could have packed on 20% more cars…

This is not realistic, of course. Cars come in fixed sizes, so we’ll never be able to do anything about a 1m space at the end of a carriage. But it gives us an upper bound, as we know that we couldn’t possibly fit more cars in when all the unused space is full.

What about a lower bound? I found an alternative configuration for the cars in the train I was on, taking into account the length of each of the cars, which would leave 50.5m of free space at the end of the train. This translates to approximately 10%.

Waiting for the next train

If my train was representative, we could transport 10-20% more cars on each fully loaded train. How significant is this? What costs would be involved?

I’m sure any Eurotunnel executive would love to have an easy way to raise profits by 10–20%, but unfortunately that’s not what this is. This number only applies:

  • During busy periods, when trains run full and there is always a backlog of cars waiting for the next train. Making use of this during less busy periods would imply running trains less frequently, negatively impacting the customer experience.
  • If we can get the cars in the right order. Even if we can work out an improved configuration, is it actually feasible to get the cars in that order given that they probably won’t arrive in that order? Would there be a lot more overhead in terms of time, space, or staff required to do this, which might negate the benefits?

While 10–20% during busy periods might not mean a lot to Eurotunnel’s bottom line, it would mean a lot to the 10 or so cars who would currently be stuck at the front of the queue waiting 20+ minutes for the next train. While this takes care of the first point, we’re still left figuring out how to get the cars in this order.

Could another car have fit behind this one?

So let’s take a step back. At this point you might wonder how I arrived at that improved configuration from earlier. Maybe I spent hours in Excel, painstakingly trying out different configurations and seeing which one was best. Or maybe I wrote an algorithm which did that and spat out the best configuration it could find. In fact, I did neither. This is the method I used, starting from the way cars were arranged on the train I was on:

  1. If the first car in a carriage can fit into the carriage in front of it, then move it forward one carriage.
  2. There is no step two. That was it.

This might seem obvious, almost to the extent that it seems wrong.

How could this make any difference? Isn’t that how the cars are loaded anyway?

Mostly, yes. But this is not always easy — when cars are being loaded, they’re in a tight line, and having a car go into a carriage to then reverse out of it if it doesn’t fit isn’t an option, as this would require the whole line of cars to move back. This results in scenarios like the diagram below.

Two different scenarios with the same cars

The first case is where there is enough space to fit another car in the carriage, but because it’s hard to tell whether it will fit it doesn’t make sense to risk having the purple car go forward in case it has to reverse out again.

The second case is what would ideally happen, and is the improvement presented in the alternative configuration I suggested.

How can we make this happen?

There are two strategies we could use to turn the first scenario into the second one:

Make trial and error an option

When loading into a tight space, hold back the line of cars while seeing if the car at the front can fit.

Pro: no extra infrastructure needed

Con: extra loading time required

Figure out whether a car will fit in a space before it moves forward

Use a combination of sensors and data about the length of each car to measure whether a car will fit into a space, giving a green or red light to indicate whether a car should proceed to the next carriage or not.

Pro: no extra loading time required

Con: extra infrastructure needed


I would be interested in knowing if the first strategy has been considered, as it could be implemented and tested very quickly. The second strategy would require more planning and investment, but would pay back over time.

The next step would be to make intelligent use of both decks. Since both decks are loaded simultaneously, cars could be redirected onto the deck which would allow them to leave the least unused space in their carriage, with minimal overhead in terms of staff or time — for example, the staff could have an app telling them which deck to direct each car onto, based on where they would make the best use of space.

I can’t imagine there would be anything worth doing beyond that point, but here’s a challenge: you can find the data and my calculations in this shared document. Let me know your ideas, or any improvements on mine. And if you really want to expand on this, collect and share your own data!

Secrets of Bagan: City of Two Thousand Temples

Bagan is the highlight of the Myanmar tourist trail. An ancient city once containing 4000 temples (2200 remain), built between the 11th and 13th century AD, Bagan has a lot to offer. The most popular things to do in Bagan are to rent a bike or horse and cart to explore these temples, and to watch the sun set over the fields full of temples from the top of the ever-busy Shwesandaw Pagoda.

Sitanagyi Paya

On our second night in Bagan we were out to find a temple we could climb to get a good view of the sunset, without being squeezed in among a mass of people. Our search brought us to Sitanagyi Paya, a few km south of New Bagan. Constructed in the 13th century AD, this temple seemed perfect for us: while we couldn’t find the usual grand entrance containing stairs to the top, there was some bamboo scaffolding going up the side of the temple. As we climbed up the scaffolding a local man stopped us and told us that climbing was not allowed — but there was a way in.

He brought us to a small window in the side of the temple, which he said gave access to a network of tunnels covering the whole of the temple, and led us inside.

Window to the inside

The inside was pitch black and felt like a very narrow cave filled with almost unbearably dense, dust-saturated hot air. He drew a map of how the tunnels were laid out and explained the route we would take. Following him further inside, I became very aware of the immense weight of the temple towering over us. The guide (who is there daily and maintains the temple) was extremely friendly and concerned for our well-being as he led us on, checking with every step that we were ok and happy to go on further.

Our guide’s map and one of the crawl spaces between tunnels

As we adjusted to the darkness in the temple and shone our torches around, we noticed the various forms of wildlife residing there. Our guide quickly put us at ease and assured us that neither the cockroaches, spiders or bats bite humans and demonstrated this by taking one of the spiders in his hand and letting it crawl off.

We entered several different tunnels separated by smaller crawl spaces, as the light from the small window to the outside faded away and the air became even more stifling. As we entered new spaces the bats would fly within inches of our faces— again our guide assured us that they would not get any closer.


The tunnels themselves had been entered and ransacked by the Japanese during WWII, leaving little of interest other than a headless statue of the sitting Buddha. Despite this the whole experience certainly made this the most memorable temple visit for us in the whole of Bagan, and we would highly recommend it.

A few more general tips for Bagan

  • Though we were reluctant at first, we really enjoyed the half-day horse and cart tour we did. It cost us $12, and allowed us to see all the main temples in a short time while being out of the heat for most of it. Do take care when picking a driver; the first one we spoke to seemed very loud and aggressive and turned out to be drunk.
  • Some people rent bicycles, but the E-bikes (bikes with an electric motor) offer the same freedom, are not much more expensive, and won’t tire you out. We rented ours from Than Dar in New Bagan (061 65272, 09 256228575). The battery lasted for about half a day; when it ran out we just called them and they came to replace it at no extra charge.
  • Be Kind To Animals The Moon in Old Bagan is a great restaurant with a wide range of vegetarian food and lots of great fruit shakes,. We also liked Pwint Mar Lar in New Bagan, which serves local food in large portions.
  • Buddhist temples require you to remove footwear upon entering. Wear shoes that you can easily slip on and off.
  • Check out other resources on the web — I would recommend George and Heidi’s blog and Phil’s blog.

Our friendly cart driver by the full moon