Friday, November 30, 2012

Epson BX630FW printer

My HP G85 multifunction printer-scanner-copier-fax finally died after thirteen year's service, three or four house moves and a return trip to Virginia. I've replaced it with the Epson four-in-one device pictured, and at time of writing (and photographing) I am desperately trying to get the WiFi connection to work between my laptop and the uncommunicative black cuboid in the corner. Why doesn't it just work? Why are the instructions so maddeningly sparse and opaque?

(A few minutes later): it turns out that you have to ignore the quick set-up sheet: start by updating the printer firmware and install the PC device drivers via a USB link; then configure the printer's access to the wireless LAN on the printer itself; finally use the laptop control panel 'add new printer' function to get the WiFi connection working.

Not so hard then ...

The past is another person

One time, when I was in my early twenties, I drove down to the south of France with my then girlfriend. We were both members of the International Marxist Group and engaged in "revolutionary tourism" - we were going to stay with comrades in Montpelier. At some point in the journey, under blazing summer skies, the car broke down. It was her car, not mine, and I had neglected at any stage to check the oil so it had all burned off. Somehow, in a strange village and in halting French I have the faintest trace of memory that we got the car fixed and I received a dressing-down from the mechanic for my stupidity.

As I reflect now, my memories of that day extend no further. I have no idea how I went about solving the problem - I can't inhabit that scene at all: the 'me' of forty years ago might as well be a complete stranger. (An unkind person might say that at least practical cluelessness is an historical invariant).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Updating facebook

I spent some time today updating my social media sites. LinkedIn is in good shape and as a site is pretty responsive to edits; facebook, on the other hand ...

Popular as it is, fb has always seemed to me an opaque mess. I never really know how my own entry appears to anyone else and I get confused between wall posts (on your own page), wall posts (on someone else's page), messages, chat, emails and comments. Some are private, others are displayed for all to see - I never really know which.

My other beef is that the fb server often seems asleep at its post. I edit my profile and press the send button ... and it hangs ... for a long, long time ... and then fails. Horrible.

The etiquette of self-description on facebook is strange. Unlike LinkedIn, where you list all the high-powered jobs you've had and the qualifications you've managed to amass, on facebook a certain informal modesty seems de rigeur. At any rate, that's the vibe I get.

My broader feeling about facebook is that it's really oriented to ephemera. I want to write longer and more considered pieces (well, I try!) and the blog format seems somehow more appropriate. So on my fb profile I try to steer people here.

I have plans to get some writing 'out there' in 2013 so the social media angle can't possibly be ignored.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

'The Master' (2012 film)

"At the end when Freddy asks Amy Adam's character where her daughter is, she says "DCF" - can someone explain what that means, I'm kinda clueless?" (From a fan site).

Amy Adams plays the cult-leader's wife, looking a lot like Princess Leia from Star Wars. I also picked up on this acronym and figured it was Scientology jargon for becoming an unperson or being carted off for re-education. We're told 'It's not about Scientology' but The Master is clearly inspired by the cult.

At its core, this is a film about charismatic, manipulative cult leader Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who takes a shine to psychologically damaged seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and brings him into 'The Cause' where he attempts to 'deprogram' him.

Dodd is a smart top-of-the-range psychopath (he charms, fabricates and lies - holding back violence and naked aggression as a last resort); Freddie Quell is a bottom-of-the-range psychopath: stupid, inarticulate, poor impulse control, violent and odd. Their relationship is part utilitarian (it's convenient for Dodd to have a violent enforcer), part filial (there's a father-son relationship in there somewhere) and part homoerotic (they have a tendency to roll-around together in a manly kind of way, and they get a bit misty-eyed towards the end).

The film impresses for the sheer acting quality of its main stars and the depth of its analysis of cult-dynamics. I was wowed but was asked to mention here Clare's opinion that the main characters were deeply unlikeable and unsympathetic, which could lead the viewer to feel under-engaged with the film (but not me!).

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Art of the Novel

Setting, plot, choice of characters, depth of characterisation, message: a five dimensional space. Thus go the elements of the novel.

In a recent BBC interview, Iain Banks explained that he always starts with plot; other authors (Henry James comes to mind) imagine a bunch of interesting characters in a setting and claim to let things work themselves out.

The famous French novel Madame Bovary was renowned in its time for its treatment of the hypocrisy of the nascent french rural bourgeoisie - namely its message. Now we read it for its timeless characterisation of the flibbertigibbet Emma B.

Every writer wants to craft an eternal classic. The secret seems to be some combination of a message which soars above the merely conjunctural and parochial, real people in an interesting situation, an interesting story to tell and the author has to actually care about the intent of the book.

Add in a deep writing talent and you're in with a chance :-).

Of tyres and tubes

On Friday we mundanely drove the latest load of garden greenery-waste to the municipal dump. Shocking then that my back tyre was so flat. At the garage air pump on the way back it registered 6 psi - fifty pence saw it back to the mid-twenties.

A slow puncture? A year ago a fast encounter with a pot-hole on the top of the Mendips caused an explosive blow-out (as in a big bang and the car lurches at speed). An hour-long wheel change in the gathering gloom at the Castle of Comfort car park followed.

This morning down to the Wells Tyre Centre for advice. I checked on the Internet and you can buy self-repair kits: these are aerosol-like containers which squirt goo into the tyre which then seals the hole - but, it said, only for tubeless tyres. Cue blank incomprehension on my part - there's more than one type of tyre?

The Wells Tyre man explained: 99% of car tyres, including mine, are tubeless. But the gunk is a poor idea as it can prevent a later, proper repair.

So far, the tyre in question is holding its pressure, leaving me wondering how it ever got deflated in the first place.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The last wasp

Our wasp nest at the bottom of the drive has been deserted for the last two days. The wasps have all emigrated or died off for the winter. In fact, we were discussing fool-proof methods of blocking the entrance to prevent re-colonisation in the Spring. And then this lonesome soul appeared today; sleepy and dozy, no-one told him that everyone else has departed.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Skype on the iPad

I can be reduced to a shuddering blob of incandescent fury by the iPad. It flatters, performance-wise, as a PC peer but its functionality is that of the stripped-down apps on a smart phone.

Take Skype for iPad, which I set up for my mother yesterday. On the PC there is an "options" menu which allows privacy settings, contact management, ring-tone control etc etc.

On the iPad - nothing. The proximate bug was that her iPad wouldn't ring on an incoming call. Subsequent googling has persuaded me that somewhere in the iPad's "Settings" system app may lie an answer but why not replicate what the PC application provides?

Dentist note: a filling disintegrated yesterday, after I bit on a nut. This confirms my belief on the dangers of a healthy lifestyle: if I restricted myself to junk-pap my fillings would last forever. And running around in your sixties? Bound to cause joint damage.

I say to all the proponents of health who focus on exercise: "Be brave, take on the food lobbies, the important thing is to tell people to eat less and better! Exercise only works at the margins."

I came home with a new white filling and an appointment two weeks time to see if it survives, otherwise it's a crown for me.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Xylitol fiesta

Having checked out the Wikipedia article on xylitol we have become completely xylitol-crazy. The Amazon search for xylitol returns sugar-substitute sweeteners, chocolates incorporating the wonder-substance (including orange and mint-flavoured chocolate), peach jam with xylitol, nasal sprays and even more recondite products.

We have purchased with discretion; the Xylitol chewing gum arrives on Monday ... :-)

Healthy teeth and gums with xylitol

From "The Times" today: (by Helen Rumbelow, published November 21 2012).

"In Scandinavia, where xylitol was first championed because of the ready access to birch trees, children are regularly given free xylitol sweets in schools and nurseries.

And do they have better teeth?

“Oh yes, they tend to.”

Next I talk to Aubrey Sheiham, emeritus professor of dental public health at University College London.

“Flossing is almost completely useless, it doesn’t stop tooth decay,” he says, adding that he has “slides of bacteria waving as the floss goes past”.

“It is still useful for stopping gum disease, but you have to be meticulous — it’s time-consuming.”

On the other hand, he, like so many at the forefront of preventative dentistry, “would advise people to use xylitol. I have some xylitol mints in my desk drawer. If you look at the evidence it is overwhelming that xylitol works. If a child gets it a couple of times a day, they will get less decay.”

By the end of the month, I go back to the hygienist. I wait, open-mouthed, for the result. She says that she cannot find a single speck of plaque on my teeth or beneath the gum line, no bleeding, inflammation, nothing.

She dramatically puts down her tools, saying there is simply no point her trying to do anything to such a perfectly clean mouth (this, needless to say, has never happened to me before). I immediately resolve to stick with the programme, find creative new uses for my packs of floss and, what’s more, begin to dole out xylitol sweets to my delighted children after meals. Oh, and take whatever bunkum my dentist tells me about prevention with a big spoonful of sugar.

Keep decay at bay: your daily guide

1 Neutralise the mouth: Ultradex. Using a pre-rinse means you don’t brush on teeth softened by acidic food. Ultradex contains chlorine dioxide, which has been proven to remove bacteria.

2 After brushing teeth: Listerine Original. The Original version has the best results in clinical trials. This has provoked controversy because of a potential link between mouthwashes containing alcohol and oral cancer, but the American Dental Association has declared that there is no evidence to support this fear.

3 Final fluoride rinse: Fluorigard or similar Fluoride rinses are proven to help strengthen and repair teeth, especially if used last thing at night.

4 Look for 100 per cent xylitol. Sweets such as Smints and many popular gums that contain xylitol are not suitable, as their xylitol content is diluted by other sweeteners. Only Peppersmith makes mints and gum sweetened with pure xylitol on the UK high street, but you can find lots of alternatives on the internet. (Peppersmith peppermint chewing gum, £1.42, "

So this morning I ordered this product from Amazon. Not least because: "When xylitol gum pellets were given to Finnish children in daycare centres after meals, scientists discovered that it also significantly lowered their incidence of ear infection."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

'Great North Road' - Peter Hamilton

There are certain staples to Mr Hamilton's world-building: lots of worlds, usually ethnic or settled by countries or US states; wormholes (here 'gateways') linking them together; and a tough, feisty, gorgeous and uninhibited heroine (Angela Tramelo). Also as usual, there are a vast number of often well-drawn characters, the plot is complex and finely-balanced, and the length exceeds one thousand pages. 'Great North Road' is a fun and gripping read, and the Kindle version is cheap so I would advise you to get out and buy it right now. Here's a bare plot-outline.

The dynastic patriarchs of the novel are the Norths, who have cloned themselves. The A-Norths run the algae-oil ponds on the Sirian planet St Libra, connected to Earth by Gateway at Newcastle-on-Tyne. They supply Greater Europe with its fuel and are stupendously rich. The B-Norths are far fewer and live on St Libra, doing research into rejuvenation and longevity. The C-Norths occupy a habitat-complex orbiting Jupiter (another familiar Hamilton trope) and do advanced science and technology to protect humankind.

There is some kind of impersonal threat - the Zanth - which randomly renders whole star systems uninhabitable: this has led to the formation of the militarized Human Defence League.

The story starts with the mysterious murder of a North in Newcastle. Alarm bells ring amongst the Norths and the HDL as the modus operandi seems identical to another North slaying 20 years ago. There is reason to believe the perpetrator back then was some kind of alien, although the official blame was laid with Angela Tramelo, now in custody.

A large part of the novel is a 22nd century police procedural in the streets of Newcastle. Cop Sid Hurst has the resources of ubiquitous smartdust coating the city, AIs of enormous power, surveillance technologies to dream of .. and yet the case resists solution. Is there really alien involvement or is this just North-against-North corporate infighting? The balance of evidence keeps shifting.

Real lives are uneventful most of the time. To keep the pages turning the characters must continually face problems they can neither solve nor completely fail at. This makes plotting difficult and there are several places where the reader asks 'why didn't they do the obvious and check this, use that technology?' Still, even Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert had shake-your-head-in-disbelief plot lapses so we have to cut the man a bit of slack here.

I thought the most interesting character was Saul Howard, who is smart, reasonable, polite, worried, and irresolute when decisive action is called for. Human really.

Monday, November 19, 2012

ePillow talk: clandestine communications

General David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell exchanged their secret love-letters in the following way.

They set up an email account, for example a hotmail account in the name of Paula David, and wrote notes to each other which they saved in a 'drafts' folder. Only the two of them had password access to the account.

A security commentator was openly contemptuous - he's the head of the CIA and he's using a method commonly exercised by teenagers.

Actually, the problem of secret communication with your mistress is harder than you might think. It is not sufficient to be secret; the fact of communication itself must also be kept secret.

This second condition pretty much rules out keeping encrypted letters on the General's or Paula's hard drive for emailing as an attachment: it will be picked up in a minute by the forensic team .. "What's this then? Can we take a look? Why not?"

This could suggest that everything should be in the cloud. A hosted, web-based email account isn't bad although using it leaves cookies and browser history lying around - difficult to get rid of. The necessary cleansing is tedious and error-prone, and once the secret is out communications are not secure, as the couple discovered.

I once had a senior executive job with Cable & Wireless and retained a Yahoo mail account. C&W security gave me print-outs of my private emails within the week: a little social-engineering had got them the password.

I would recommend the General to have used a Cloud-based storage account (e.g. Amazon's facility) and upload TrueCrypt containers with a hidden partition, which allow deniable encryption*.

But it's cumbersome.
* Here's how it works. TrueCrypt has a facility to create a special partitioned volume. The volume looks like a normal encrypted folder, which under protest you can show to the FBI and which contains innocuous stuff. The General could have  kept a daily diary to 'share securely with his biographer'.

But there is a hidden second level of encryption hiding in the randomised spare space of the volume. That's where the true secrets reside.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Wasp airfield

There was a frost overnight. At 10.30 this morning our wasps at the bottom of the drive were basking in the sun, warming up so they could take off.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wells Carnival Pix

The previous post showed some videos: here are some pictures from last night's Wells Carnival.

A tired cat dancer

At this point the procession had been halted for about five minutes; I guess they couldn't get one of the longer floats around the tight bend from Chamberlain Street into Sadler Street leading to the Market Square. The dancers did their thing in place for a while, then ran out of steam.

A chubby float dancer

Not all the dancers were svelte, studio types. Several had the BMI you associate with Greggs in the High Street.

The Sweet Shop

This is just such a traditional float scene.

Butch Cop

The 'Jailbreak' float. I swear this cop has bristles.

Yes, "It's Food"

There were plenty of food vans lining the route: not all exhibited the famous grocer's apostrophe.

Wells Carnival

It's Wells Carnival time again. Last year was drowned by torrential rain (see here): this year by contrast was fine. Here's a selection from the sixty-odd floats and performers last night.

"Marry the Night" dance troupe

German Monsters

A Tableau (i.e. they don't move)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Vote for your PCC! :-)

What a job specification. You're essentially a regulator, dealing with a vast and opaque police bureaucracy which controls the information you get to see. Somehow you have to exert public oversight, but how can you tell what the public wants?

Seems to that a tough, no-nonsense and experienced politico-bureaucrat is required.
In fact my reverse-engineered job description hasn't been published. On the website, the candidates have vied with each other to list banal law-and-order platitudes: so vote for me! In fact you have to dig quite a bit to find their experience (or not) for this not-unimportant job.

In Bryan Caplan's book, 'The Myth of the Rational Voter', he considers a model where almost all voters are under-informed and vote effectively at random. By the magic of the Central Limit Theorem these votes cancel and just a few thousand enlightened voters, who have done their homework, can carry the day.

Better get out there and vote then!
NB: What will actually happen is not random but tribal voting, split along party lines. Smart voters are diluted out.

Update (Saturday): yes, that happened but there was a substantial anti-politics vote which saw a lot of independents in.

Monday, November 12, 2012


This is the Hollywood version of the facilitated escape of 6 US diplomats from Tehran back in 1980. It was the CIA which did it although the Canadians helped and got the credit. They were smuggled out on Swissair as a film production crew for the fake SF film of the title.

Full marks for a top-grade thriller: the CIA operative had nerves of steel. The dialogue was witty too: we're in Hollywood meeting a top film executive who's going to be crucial to the cover story. He's on set for another rubbish swords 'n' sorcery epic. A minions runs up with a complaint: 'The Minotaur says his costume is too tight - he can't act.'

Sotto voce to camera: 'If he could act, he wouldn't be playing the Minotaur.'

Imagine this for a spoof plot. A machine-bureaucrat ascends to the CEO job and is exposed in less than two months as an inept prisoner of process. He is booted out ('resigns') with a pay-off of almost half a million pounds. And his employer is a public corporation of impeccable moral standing.

Hard to believe.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


Wells, Somerset this morning: bathed in mist and brilliantly lit by the low morning sun. I was bundled in layers of clothing, only my face exposed to the still, chilly air, en route to the paper shop.

Walking back from the city centre past the mediaeval buildings emerging in soft-focus from the diffuse air, I saw a young man, mid-teens, wearing full camo. This army cadet was jogging towards one of the Cathedral School buildings when he was passed by a worried young lady of about ten dressed in girl-scout uniform, scampering at speed in the opposite direction.

Nine am on Remembrance Sunday, a most challenging time of day.

We have a wasp nest buried deep under our front garden, accessed via the pipe shown below (spot the wasp!). We'll cover the entrance once they've died back over the winter but I must say that for cold-blooded insects on a morning close to zero they've retained all their activity. It was like an air force base as I came up the drive.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


Here's a picture of Clare in her new self-made dress - an action shot :-).

Trivia department: I was opening a can of ever-so-healthy oily fish stuffed to the gills with omega-3 this morning when the lid came back suddenly, the edge inflicting a deep cut on the web of skin between thumb and forefinger. It was interesting to see a cross-section of the skin and the red tissue beneath. I write this plastered, in the non-intoxicated sense.

Sometimes you're kind of involved in something and you hear a scratching on the carpet outside the closed door. You ignore it for a while and then part of your mind computes the likely damage so you desist and open it. The animal, happy now, makes no attempt to enter but just sits on guard outside on the landing.

"He hates closed doors," observed Clare.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Embarrassment at the Chemist's

"I've come for my tights."

The shop girl delicately raises her eyebrows a fraction.

"I ordered them on the Internet, they're here for collection."

Now a smile plays on her lips. In desperation I point mutely at Clare.

As she returns with the box, you can tell the girl is not buying it  ...

Intermittent fasting; month 3

After three months of intermittent fasting (currently three days per week) I have lost a total of 24 pounds (10.9 kg). Target weight of 11st 6lb ought to be in place before Christmas - don't say it will be all to do again in January :-).

Date Stone Lb Pounds Kg Delta(Lb)
07/08/2012  13 8 190 86.4  
08/09/2012  12 13 181 82.3  9
06/10/2012  12 7 175 79.5  6
08/11/2012  11 12 166 75.5  9
    0 0.0  
      0 0.0  

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

'The Testimony' by James Smythe

I reviewed James Smythe's forthcoming 'The Explorer' a few posts ago. Smythe writes 'proper fiction', that is, he creates interesting and believable characters and puts them in situations.

He's classified as science-fiction because his situations are, well, unusual.

Suppose one day pretty much everyone on Earth heard a mysterious message in their heads .. "My Children" ... . And suppose this coincided with terrorist attacks on America. And then there were follow-up messages. What would happen?

Smythe charts the collision of politics, theology and nukes as the world goes to hell. It's so plausible it hurts and one despairs at the stupidity of the human condition.
An engrossing, insightful and thought-provoking novel which I'm pleased I bought.

Tree Lopping

The (apocryphal?) story about the pensioner, up a ladder, pruning his tree with a chainsaw, slips .. and cuts his wife's head off.

Fiat lux. We took our unpowered saw and bolt-cutter-style lopper to our tree shown below and our neighbour now has winter sun in her garden.

Hard work for an hour and three car-loads of foliage for the dump tomorrow.

'Portrait of a Lady' is a free classic on Kindle. I find Henry James's prose style dense, convoluted and smug. It's like he's intoxicated with his own cleverness. I feel I should persevere, but Colm Toibin's 'The Master' (previous post) is much more accessible.

Monday, November 05, 2012

'The Master' - Colm Toibin

Not the current film about cults; not the Henry Miller of 'Tropic of Cancer' fame. This is instead the story of the Victorian/Edwardian novelist Henry James.

Henry James was born into a rich and intellectual New England family two decades before the Civil War. He left America as a young man and lived in London, Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome. There he tended to hang out with the local literary-inclined aristos and, if present, the American colony: but always as a solitary, detached observer.

James is the author of novels such as 'Portrait of a Lady' and 'Wings of the Dove', both of which fictionalised his femme fatale cousin, Minnie Temple. Henry James - smart, educated, gay - befriended smart, feminist, somewhat-neurotic women and pleasantly accomplished young men.

He was more yearned after than yearning, selectively blind to the needs of those closest to him when to accede would threaten his independence.

An ailing Minnie Temple pleaded - as much as her dignity permitted - for his help in moving from New England to the sunnier climes of Rome. Henry 'failed' to notice. Minnie died shortly afterwards.

His dearest friend, the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, in the depths of her depression begged him to join her in Italy. Feeling claustrophobic, he ignored her, receiving news of her suicide in Venice shortly after.

His reaction to such tragedies was to novelise them; many of his acclaimed works were reflections on such personal disasters.

How do we know this? Through Toibin's novel which purports to illuminate Henry James' inner life. What I think Toibin has done is immerse himself in James' life and works, and then 'reverse-engineer' his character and temperament. The result is a singular portrayal.

Clare said she ended up not liking Henry James at all (because of the selfishness, the betrayals). I felt a curious affinity with someone desperate to retain freedom against the cloying expectations and impositions of others, no matter how close and sympathique.

James was always the detached observer whose safest place was in his study, wielding his pen.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Snow on Mendips; torrents in Wells

It was raining from the early hours. As we walked into town for 9 am Mass a river was running down the side of our street.

In Chamberlain Street the flood was lapping the pavement and covering two thirds of the road. We had to cross for the church, and Clare got a bootfull.  Cars in town, driving in from the tops, had an inch of snow on their roofs

By 10 am it was cold with blue skies; the cold front had gone through.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

From "The Times" today ...

It’s the weight loss programme that everyone is talking about and it means you can eat whatever you want... most of the time. Mimi Spencer investigates.

“Oh, Meera’s doing that,” says my husband at the breakfast table, spooning Greek yoghurt onto a mountain of granola. I’ve just told him that I’m writing a piece about intermittent fasting (IF). My husband couldn’t be less interested in diets. Fitness? Definitely. Bikes? Absolutely. But not diets. And I’m surprised to discover that Meera is “doing” IF. She’s one of those no-nonsense women who you’d assume thinks dieting is for bimbos, narcissists and irredeemable fools. She is also built like a pencil. Why would she fast? “She told me all about it on the train to Exeter,” continues husband. “I think I might give it a go.”

“Giving it a go” involves an act of extreme, almost poetic simplicity: a dramatic calorie slash two days each week. That’s it. There’s no bible to follow, nothing to buy, no bars or shakes. For the moment, this is the Diet With No Name. Some call it intermittent fasting, others alternate day fasting (ADF) or the 5:2 – but they are all riffs on the same premise: twice a week, you eat little more than an egg, two satsumas, three oatcakes and a carrot.

The recent rush of interest in IF began after a Horizon programme called Eat, Fast, Live Longer was broadcast on BBC Two in August. Dr Michael Mosley followed the method for several months, losing 14lb and 25 per cent of his body fat in the process. Mosley’s conclusion was unequivocal: this was the “beginning of something huge... which could radically transform the nation’s health”. It was, he stated, “revolutionary”.

Watched by 2.5 million people, and by a quarter of a million more on YouTube, Mosley’s Horizon stressed the regime’s health-giving benefits – how, given base-level good health, a decent set of genes and careful supervision, it could substantially lower a catalogue of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, Alzheimer’s… In short, intermittent fasting could inhibit the ageing process.

Of course, what many viewers heard loudest was weight loss. Accelerated, straightforward, sustained weight loss. Sure, we’d all like to live longer – but that’s something for the future, like a pension pot. Weight loss is very much in the present tense, and all you have to do is fast. A bit. Not for ever, not daily, not even completely. This makes it, potentially at least, the biggest diet since Dukan, since Atkins: a novel way to lose weight which, as a bonus side dish, may help you to live longer, too.

Barely ten weeks on, and it seems that everybody is on it. When I mention it over coffee with the school-run mums, Liz says that Victoria has been doing it for weeks. Kathy, a paediatrician, started yesterday. It came up in Sasha’s office, and four of her colleagues were already doing it, all of them men. This is fascinating in itself, since, in my experience, men tend to approach diet fads the way they might approach a box of Lil-Lets. But IF is different. Men are early adopters on this one, possibly because it promises not just a leaner body, but a longer-lived, disease-resistant one; not just a flatter belly, but a sharper mind. It can’t hurt that Nasa is looking at fasting to improve the cognitive functioning of pilots. Perhaps Mosley is right. This could be huge.

“A lot of medics are embracing it,” he tells me, “because they see the hard evidence behind it. Until I started investigating fasting, like most doctors, I regarded it as a fringe activity – toxins being eliminated from the body and all that nonsense. But I was genuinely astonished by the research.”

So what exactly does the research reveal? Scientists have known since the Thirties that there is a link between restricted calorie intake and longevity – and we’ve all heard of the calorie restricters, the Californian “CRONies” (calorie restriction with optimal nutrition) who live like hunger strikers. But recent research by Professor Valter Longo at the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California has revealed that occasional calorie restriction has a similar effect: you get the benefits without the purgatory.

When we consume calories, our cells are locked into what Mosley calls “go-go mode”; they burn fuel like fury and grow too fast for damage to be efficiently repaired. One of the agents that governs this process is insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a hormone produced in the liver that keeps our cells constantly active. While we need adequate levels of IGF-1 when young and growing, high levels later in life accelerate the ageing process. When IGF-1 levels drop – as happens in a fast state – the body slows production of new cells and instead repairs old ones. This is “autophagy”, a word derived from the Greek for “self-eating”.

“The evidence comes from Laron mice that have been genetically engineered so they don’t respond to IGF-1,” explains Longo. “They are small but extraordinarily long-lived, typically surviving 40 per cent longer than average.” The oldest has lived to the human equivalent of 160 – and, vitally, they are immune to heart disease and cancer when they die. Immune to cancer. This is an astonishing discovery. Says Longo, “The results are so remarkable that we think oncologists should consider fasting as an option for patients who might have run out of alternatives.”

In the UK, a study led by research dietician Dr Michelle Harvie at the Genesis Prevention Centre in Manchester found that women on a restricted diet (650 calories, predominantly from milk, fruit and vegetables) for two days a week can lower their risk of breast cancer by up to 40 per cent. The key to weight loss, says Harvie, is compliance: “The two-day diet we devised could be a life-saver for women who find it difficult to restrict what they eat every day. There is a sensible message to come out of this: the standard approach is not based on evidence and it doesn’t work, so let’s try to be a bit more innovative. We’ve been studying intermittent fasting for seven years now and, as far as we know, this works.”

Before we put up the bunting, it’s worth noting that the science is still in its infancy; human trials are only just beginning. “What we don’t know yet,” says Harvie, “are the long-term effects. No one has yet done that work.”

What is increasingly widely accepted, though, is that short-term fasting can benefit the brain. “Dietary energy restriction extends life span and protects the brain against age-related disease,” confirms Mark Mattson, head of the laboratory of neurosciences at the National Institute on Ageing and professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. “When the brain goes under energy restriction, particularly when administered in intermittent bouts of major caloric restriction such as alternate day fasting, we see neural activity that’s associated with protection against degeneration from stroke and ageing.” A recent paper from researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in California established that “short-term fasting leads to a dramatic up-regulation in neuronal autophagy”.

“Ah, autophagy,” says Brad Pilon on the phone from Canada. “It’s just a beautiful, well-orchestrated, incredible thing.” If there’s a poster boy for intermittent fasting, it’s Pilon. At 5ft 10in, 12st 8lb and a mere 9 per cent body fat, he has been an IF evangelist for years. Armed with a masters in nutritional science from the University of Guelph, Ontario, he published Eat Stop Eat, outlining the method, in 2006. Nobody much noticed. The book just bumped along. “Everyone was grazing back then,” he recalls. “I was selling 20 books a month at most.” These days, he’s shifting 50 a day.

“Basically, fasting gives your body a chance to house-keep,” he says. “Constant growth is not a good thing. There must be time for recovery and rebuilding at a cellular level if optimal health is the goal.” Pilon boycotts all calories during his biweekly, 24-hour fasts; these typically run from 2pm to 2pm, leaving no single day completely deprived of food (and, says Pilon, “I get to sleep through most of the fast”). “Fat loss starts at about 12 hours into a fast,” he says, “and plateaus at around 18 hours.” At this point, the body is busying itself with autophagy. It is also in ketosis, a term you may recall if you have ever dabbled with Atkins – when the body has exhausted its glucose reserves and is tucking into fat.

“As fasting takes off,” he continues, “people are going to be interested in the metabolic stuff, but it’s the behavioural stuff that really matters. It’s about learning to eat less as a lifestyle. Sure, numbers are important, hormones, metabolic changes – but don’t get pulled into all that. We might find out that IGF-1 is not the big deal it’s made out to be. No matter what, the end result of fasting is better health. I’m commonly asked, ‘How many calories am I “allowed” during a fast? Can I go to that wedding if I’m fasting?’ For me, that’s not the point. The idea is to learn to take a total break from eating.” Michelle Harvie makes a similar point: “If anything, intermittent fasting helps people to recheck their diet. They think about what they eat. It’s not rocket science.”

Maybe not. But how difficult is it to do? Rather than Pilon’s total calorie annihilation, I – like many IF beginners I meet – go for the cheat’s 5:2 version, which allows women 500 calories on two non-consecutive fast days each week (it’s 600 for men). On my first fast day, I weigh 9st 6lb (60kg) and my BMI is an OK 21.4; my body fat, though in the “normal” range, seems enormous: 30 per cent. That’s 2st 11lb of fat… I imagine it in jars, the way Dr Christian would illustrate it on Embarrassing Bodies, yellow like lemon curd. It’s enough to put me off breakfast. Which, it turns out, is just as well.

It’s immediately clear that 500 calories looks pitiful if you gather them together in one place: a mug of lentil soup, a plum, half a chicken breast, seven blueberrries and a breadstick. It looks like tea for a toddler. Once weighed, measured, counted and cut into “inch cubes”, everything looks tiny. Usual portions are way out; to nudge under 500 calories, you’re looking at a quarter of a small avocado, a 3oz steak (around a third of an average serving), eight almonds, a bowl of carrot soup. No cheeky glass of vino with your salmon salad, no crusts from the kids’ tea, no pavlova – which is a tragedy if you happen to have one in the fridge.

Instead, my husband and I share an apple for lunch. I eat my half slowly, in small bites, the way you might consume something very rich, such as Valrhona chocolate. I consider the apple core. I quite fancy it, but would it send me over my lunch limit? I’ve already had 30g of Bran Flakes for breakfast. (166 calories. When a cereal box says “a 30g serving”, measure it. Go on. Be amazed. It’s not enough to fill a child’s cupped hand.) And there’s chicken salad for supper – a no-skin, white-meat, one-slice chicken salad to book-end my day. There will be some sprouts, a radish and a cherry tomato, perhaps a handful of leaves, a shaving of raw cabbage. And no pavlova. Until tomorrow.

After a week of 5:2, it’s clear that this is categorically not fasting, at least not as we know it. Although you are limited to around a quarter of the recommended daily calorie intake, there is still food going in, still flavours to occupy the mouth, still mini meals to define a day. It’s do-able. And the effects are immediate. I lose 3lb in a week.

By week three, the novelty has worn off. We’re a bit tetchy when it comes to the apple-sharing. Pilon’s advice is to stay busy – “No one’s hungry in the first few seconds of a skydive,” he says in his breezy, 9 per cent fat way. Curiously, though, over the course of a day, I don’t feel particularly hungry. There are occasional spikes, when I want to gnaw my shoes for sustenance. But for the most part, the hunger is a mere background hum, easy to ignore, like a tumble dryer in the room next door. Besides – and this, I think, is key – there’s no need to panic. The following day, just hours away, you can feed. This is what marks the 5:2 out from other restrictive regimes; if today is tough, tomorrow will always be infinitely sweeter.

And, though it may seem counter-intuitive, you really can eat whatever you please on the “off-duty” days, as demonstrated by Dr Krista Varady of the University of Illinois, one of the leading researchers in the field of alternate day fasting, who carried out a trial comparing two groups of overweight patients. One group was put on a low-fat diet on their feed days, while the other ate lasagne, pizza, fries – a typical American high-fat diet. “When they signed up for the study,” says Varady, “the people randomised into the high-fat group weren’t happy, because they assumed that they wouldn’t lose as much weight as those on the low-fat diet. But they did. They were losing as much and sometimes more weight, week after week.” According to Varady, most people don’t compensate for fasting by grossly overeating the next day. A calorie slash of 75 per cent on a fast day generally gives rise to a 15 per cent increase on the following feed day (as she might say, “Do the math”).

Three weeks in, and I’ve lost 5lb 8oz. My BMI is a sparky 20.4, and my body fat 23 per cent. I’ve had to buy new jeans. And new bras. I’m not sure how my brain is faring, but I knocked off the crossword this morning while the kettle boiled; Michael Mosley says he’s thrashing Su Doku. “I did a series of tests recently, and my cognitive performance had, in fact, improved,” he adds with a laugh.

So is this all too good to be true? As Michelle Harvie admits, we don’t yet know. Nutritionists are quick to point out the dangers of calorie restriction in any form for diabetics, anorexics, pregnant women, children and people who are already extremely lean. According to Mike Gibney, Professor of Food and Health at University College Dublin, “Such is the wealth of data on these diverse species that one must accept the literature that caloric restriction prolongs life expectancy. The big question is the translation of that concept to man.” Besides, as longevity expert Professor Steven Austad of the University of Texas puts it, we have yet to discover whether calorie restriction, if it works at all, “is anything more than the elimination of excess fat”.

All of this is food for thought, and for further research. Until then, occasional fasters should certainly proceed with care. There may be headaches, dizziness, fatigue, dehydration. Over in Southern California, Valter Longo himself advises caution: “There’s going to be a drop in blood pressure, a drop in glucose levels, and metabolic reprogramming,” he says. “Some people faint. It’s not common, but it happens.”

I haven’t fainted yet, but I do think I have gone far enough, so I’ve scaled back my fasting to one day a week. Michael Mosley has done the same. “I’ve plateaued a bit,” he tells me. “I’m 12st now and my wife said I was looking gaunt, so I decided to do the maintenance version of one day a week, to give my body a rest.” And does he still believe that intermittent fasting is a radical game-changer, a revolution for the world at large? “Only time will tell if this is a fad or something more meaningful,” he says. Right now, the jury’s out. But smaller jeans? Who’s going to argue with that?

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The dynamics of food

This is what I have discovered from a certain amount of Internet foraging.

1. Carbohydrates (breakfast cereal, anything sugary) go straight to glucose which fuels the body, and in excess end up as body fat.

2. It's possible to live on a diet highly biased to lean meat + fat. The meat provides raw material for protein synthesis and the fat can synthesise glucose. This is the basis of the Atkins diet and similar.

3. Existing body fat will not be broken down to provide needed glucose until the blood glucose level first drops to a low value. Subjectively this will feel like being hungry. Don't be afraid.


An obvious conclusion is that starting the day with a generous bowl of cereal is a poor idea, whether the cereal is high or low in Glycemic Index. The resulting carbohydrate dump will convert to blood glucose, and only when that has been used up will body fat itself be raided.

Far better to have a meat + fat breakfast: ham and eggs; cheese, fish with a minimum of carbs via veg or fruit or bread.


A couple of days ago I dipped below 12 stone for the first time (from 13 stone 8 in August). Intermittent fasting (breakfast is allowed) several days per week seems to be working.