Thursday, April 09, 2015

If at first you don't succeed..

... try again. This blog has moved to, and joined with http://lapalma-island will be joining soon. The new blog looks much prettier, and hopfully this time I won't wipe it out while trying to upgrade. (And yes, I have a backup now. You bet your bibby I have a backup.)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Somebody's got to do it.

 I've been showing an international group of journalists around La Palma for the tourist board. So I took them to all the most beautiful parts of the beautiful island, and we ate in the best restaurants, and we had good conversations and I got paid for it.

But then I suppose that somebody has to do it.

On Saturday we watched the sunset from the dome of the enormous Gran Telescopio Canarias at the Roque de Los Muchachos observatory. As usual, it was spectacular to watch the sun set into the sea of clouds beneath us.

Even the people and their shadows looked amazing.
Then we went up to the Roque itself where we saw the twilight and Venus (on the right) through the Muchachos themselves.  ("Muchachos" is Spanish for "young men". With a lot of imagination the rock formation looks like a group of people.)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

At Bleeding Last!

I finished the second edition of "A Breathtaking Window on the Universe" in July 2013. Almost immediately, I started work on the Spanish version. But I got interrupted by family holidays, distributing books, and writing "The Seer's Stone" and translating it into "La piedra ocular" (while local government subsidies were available.) That took longer than anticipated, as these things generally do.
Meanwhile I was tour guiding, blogging, writing the odd short story (some of them were very odd) doing an online course about moons, and sometimes even doing housework.

Family holidays came around again. Then I was I was tour guiding, blogging, writing the odd short story, learning about oral story telling, applying for governement business coaching and cleaning up after a mouse.

I sent "La Piedra ocular" off to the printers in October 2014 and re-started work on the second edition of "Una espectacular ventana al universo". Yay!

I got the coaching. Double Yay! And almost the first thing my coach said was, "You really, REALLY need to do something about"

So I abandoned my secnd edition again, and sorted that out, quick before I had to pay for another year's hosting at I planned it all out (see and got it up, and killed it before I could take a backup. (See

That meant that I had to pay for an extra year's hosting anyway. So I went back to the much-delayed second edition.

And tonight I finally, finally sent the changes off for professional proof correction (absolutely necessary with Spanish)

I still need to buy an ISBN and double check half the URLs, but it feels like a major (and long overdue) milestone.

I'm going to have some champagne.

Monday, March 16, 2015


The factoria de innovaciĆ³n (Innovation Factory) held a presentation of their work this morning, and I was invited to exhibit my books.

So I did. The Spanish ones, anyway.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pi Day

For those sane people who don't know, March 14th is pi day, because if you write March 14th the American way, it's 3.14, yes? Actually, the first five digits of pi are 3.1415, which made this year a bit special. In fact 9:26:53am was super special because pi is 3.141592653 (and the rest). It's tradicional to eat pie on pi day, which is probably why the idea caugh on. I mean, how much of an excuse do you need? But as usual I was too busy to muck around rolling out pastry, so we had shepherd's pi.

Friday, March 13, 2015

R. I. P. Tery Prattchett

Buggerlit millenium shrimp!

And other expressions far too foul even for Old Ron.

I hope he's sitting in Death's strange garden, with the Death of Cute Kittens purring on his lap.

(No, the Death of Cute Kittens isn't in the books, only in my head. She's inspired by the Death of Rats, of course. And yes, she has a pink velvet bow around her neck.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I really need to finish translating the second edition of "A Breathtaking Window" into Spanish. I was working through all the minor changes from the English second edition, seeing which ones needed to go into the Spanish version (most of them). I came across a URL on my page, and decided that the best thing would be to move it over to now, so that I could put the new one in my book. I had to move star island by May anyway. Part of my grand Unify-the-Blogs plan.

So I moved it over and it completely overwrote the whole ****ing site.

The one I spent about a month on - or was it six weeks?

And I didn't have a proper backup for lack of disk space.

It could be worse though. I got the site ready (all the visual stuff like colours and background images) at, and I still had the file I used to transfer it. And I know how to do stuff. But I still have to transfer over posts and pages from lapalma-island, and re-do all the writing stuff. The page of my publications took bloody forever, because of all the links I had to check. I suppose that's good in a way, since it's due to selling a lot of stories over the years. It's a fuck-ton of work, and this week I have three morning's work at the Roque and a translation for the Tourist Board. And the Tourist Board are in a hurry.

So the second edition in Spanish is postponed yet again, although it's a lot further forward.

And I am not a happy bunny. For one thing, I'm very cross with myself. I know how important backups are. I should have gone out and bought a ****** flash drive.

Oh yeah, at the time I didn't take the backup, I had no money. And the next week, I had money but forgot about it.

Oh well, it'll all get fixed eventually. But I'm still not happy.

So in the mean time, there will be sporadic updates to this blog again.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Moving house

Not the writer, just the blog. This blog has moved to, and joined with The new blog looks much prettier, and I've just posted photos of the 60s wedding in Los Sauces. Carlos looked great in his costume!
A particularly elegant guest at the 60s wedding in Los Sauces
A particularly elegant wedding guest.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 9: Making Habits.

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.


Successful famous people often have a regular routine. Working steadily on your main goal is clearly an important part of success, but then it's clearly not the whole thing. A daily walk will help keep your brain and body in shape, but by itself it won't produce the theory of evolution by natural selection. As scientists say, the plural of anecdote is not data. What we need is studies of large numbers of people to find out what works and what doesn't. We need science.

One thing at a time
It's tempting to go for a complete makeover. Don't. Look at all the people who make ten New Year's resolutions and break them all by the end of January. Start small, and change one thing at a time. You can break a large habit down into smaller parts, and do them one at a time. Don't change your whole diet in one go. Maybe start by weaning yourself off the sugar in your coffee. Leave fruit for elevenses until the sugarless coffee is automatic.

If your motivation's weak, you’re unlikely to make a new habit stick. So have a think about why you want to do this. But don't daydream that you've done it. Surprisingly, that's counterproductive. Daydream about working on your goals. That way you'll work harder at it, and you're less likely to be blind-sided by problems. Best of all, imagine your future with the good habit, then without the good habit, and contrast the two. That works best, as long as you expect to succeed. People who don't think they can succeed tend to give up, which at least saves wasted effort. (This is another reason to start small – you'll have a more realistic idea of what you can achieve.)

The catch is that it's no fun thinking of the yawning gap between your goal and the status quo, and taking an inventory of everything that might go wrong. But oddly, once you realise that it's difficult but doable, you'll probably be motivated. And then you need a plan – the right sort of plan.

Most people have really vague plans, like “lose weight,” or “be kinder.” What you need is to plan a very precise (preferably small) action and a a very specific situation to trigger it. “Whenever I'm getting myself coffee, then I'll have 2 sugars instead of 3” or “If I see someone struggling with a buggy, then I'll offer to help.” Link the situation with the response, and there's a much better chance you'll form a habit. 94 studies show that this works.

You may have to tweak the plan. Say you want to exercise and you start with, “If I reach the lift at work, then I'll take the stairs.” That limits you to the stairs at work. OK, so “If I reach any lift, then I'll take the stairs.” But what if it's 25 floors, or you're in the middle of an important conversation with somebody who's taking the lift? Hmm. “If I reach any lift and I'm not mid-conversation, then I'll take the stairs for at least 2 floors.” Sometimes these things just won't work for you, and you'll need a different technique. “If I leave the car in a car park, then I'll park at the far end and walk across the car park.” It's not a lot of exercise, but it's better than nothing.

Don't plan using the time of day. If you plan to go for a run at 8pm you probably won't be looking at the clock at 8pm. Don't rely on your memory: use an event. Go for a run after Dr Who. The best cue for a new habit is something that happens every day at a regular time. People trying to eat more healthily found that arriving at work and lunchtime were good cues, because it links to an existing habit. A lot of your day is already chains of habits – add a new link. The best time to floss is right after you brush.

OK, that's the if. Now for the then. Make it specific, If you're trying to be nicer to your spouse, then “If it's my turn to cook, then I'll make something they like.” If you're trying to eat more healthily, “If I'm food shopping, then I'll remember to get low fat milk.” It's often good to include alternatives. “If there's time after breakfast, then I'll go for a run or ride my bicycle.”

You should also plan for when it starts to go wrong. “If I get a craving for a cigarette after meals, I'll distract myself by clearing the table and loading the dishwasher.” “If I can't be arsed to do yoga, I'll light some incense and put on soothing music to get me in the mood, then I'll get the mat out and just do two sun salutations” “If I'm too tired to do the de-cluttering I promised myself, I'll play some rock and roll.”

Every time you repeat your habit, it gets a little easier. But the number of repetitions varies depending on the person, the habit you're trying to form and how you go about it. It's a good idea to have a plan (or plans) for dissatisfaction. “If I feel I'm not making any progress, then I'll remind myself how far I've come.” “If I'm short of motivation, I'll remind myself why I'm doing this and put on some energising music and/or promise myself a small reward afterwards.”

Self monitoring helps. Both the traditional chart to record progress and noticing how it's going. You may want to tweak. Would it be easier at a different time of day?How about two short cleaning sessions instead of one long one? Of course once you've noticed a problem (“I'm bored with apples”) you have to do something about it (“I'll have a banana instead.”) You may need to tweak again. “Bananas don't keep very well. I shop on Wednesdays, so I'll have a banana on Thursday and Friday, a mango on Saturday when I tend to skip fruit, and then I'll have apples or oranges for the rest of the week.”)

Don't beat yourself up if you miss a session. A few misses won't hurt much. [Sheila sez: Specifically don't be like an ex-boyfriend of mine, and conclude that one miss means you've given up and you're useless and there's no point trying ever again.]

Be careful with rewards. What happens when you get bored with the reward? It works better if the reward is your own satisfaction.

It shouldn't be so very hard to acquire a new habit. You've acquired loads of habits without even trying! And once you've made your desired behaviour into a habit, you'll probably go on doing it even when the house burns down and the cat explodes.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean, Chaper 8: Online all the time

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

Facebook can get out of hand. Not just late-to-cook-dinner out of hand, but 5-hours-a-day,-sneaking-off-work-to-check-it-until-you're-fired,-then-sneaking-peeks-at-it-during-your-session-with-a-psychologist out of hand.

Some people set their email program to download every 5 minutes, even though there's usually nothing, and if there’s something, it's usually spam. 59% of people check their email in the loo. Of course it only takes a moment to check email, but it takes another minute or so to get back into whatever you were doing before. One minutes, every five minutes.

Email is what behavioural psychologists call a “variable-interval reinforcement schedule.” You never know when the next email will arrive, and you never know how interesting it will be when it does. So you put up with the frustration when you get nothing worth reading, and the habit is strengthened when you do get something. Like slot machines.

Checking email every 5 minutes at work reduces your productivity. Checking email every 5 minutes on holiday can lead to burnout and/or divorce.

Some people check email once or twice a day. Some people check it every 30 seconds and always respond immediately. Some people feel it's taking over, and some delete anything that doesn't look interesting. Jeremy Dean suggests that for most of us, checking once every 45 minutes or so would work better. Other mini breaks might consist of shutting your eyes for 5 seconds to rest them, or getting a drink. You're unlikely to do that every 30 seconds, it's less tiring, and you could think about your work while you do it.

Multitasking doesn't really work. You're actually switching rapidly between tasks, and probably forgetting stuff each time. And it stops you ever getting into a flow state.

Twitter takes multitasking a step further. You can hold multiple conversations at once, although 80% of users only talk about themselves, and 10% of users generate 90% of all tweets. In practice, it's not so much conversations as information spread. But while you're waiting for some juicy information, it's another “variable-interval reinforcement schedule.” So we tend to check Twitter at shorter and shorter intervals until we make a conscious decision to change.

Does checking email and twitter every 30 seconds count as an addiction? Sort of, but it's probably more useful to ask whether it's making you miserable. And it's often a symptom of depression or anxiety as much as a cause of it. The catch is that the more your life has been screwed up by overuse of the Internet, the more likely you are to distract yourself by using the Internet. And the internet is pretty much always available.

It's up to us how we use it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The new website's up

Well the new website's up, although I'm sure there are broken links and missing images. I'll be adding more later, but meanwhile, feel free to go have a nosy around

Monday, February 09, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 7: When habits kill

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

Habits can be lethal, but no, he doesn't mean smoking.

Pilots have to go through a long check-list before take-off. These check lists reduce accidents, but they get so routine that occasionally the pilots will say “Check” without really checking. The results can be tragic, so there's a lot of research on how to avoid this. For example, moving the check-list from paper to computer halved the error rate.

Humans have such a strong tendency to see what they expect or want to see, especially when stressed. Give musicians music with mistakes in it, and by and large, they'll play correct notes instead. Most people don't spot spelling mistakes, especially in the middle of a word. [Sheila sez: no wonder it's so hard to proof read your own writing!] This sort of slip offers a fascinating window into how habits work.

We also substitute one action for another, like going to the fridge for milk and fetching orange juice instead. [Sheila sez: Am I the only one who actually put the orange juice in my tea?] We think we asked for coffee when we only thought about it, then get annoyed when coffee doesn't appear. [Sheila sez: I used to do that with letters. I'd write them in my head, and then be convinced I'd written them on paper and posted them.]

Another favourite is repeating part of a habit. Boil kettle, pour water into mug. Boil kettle again, pour water into full mug so it overflows and you have to mop up.

We do these things mostly in very familiar places, like the kitchen and bedroom. It's partly because we spend quite a lot of time there, but also because they're so very full of environmental cues to our habits.

Health and Safety has a bad reputation, but they became more effective when they stopped merely educating people. I remember when they ran TV adverts showing how very easy it is to go through a car windscreen if you're not wearing a seatbelt, and how very, very horrible it is if that happens. That persuaded people that they ought to wear seatbelts, but it didn't make them wear seat belts. The habit of shutting the car door and driving off was too strong.

So the psychologists started looked at what else was going on. And they found that environmental cues play a huge role in habits. Like the tragic case of the train driver who unconsciously developed the habit of driving off when he heard the guard ring the bell twice – missing out the vital “CHECK THE SIGNAL IS AT GREEN” part.

Explaining to people that smoking kills didn't stop people smoking. Banning them from smoking in certain places did, because it disrupted the habit. Check-lists also help.

Jeremy Dean finishes the chapter by saying, “We think of ourselves as biology, psychology and behaviour and neglect [snip] how we are embedded in our environments, both physical and social. Our habits [snip] also grow out of these. [snip] The situation has more power to control our habits than we think.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Do I dare?

Only three weeks ago I managed a quick and perfect installation of WordPress to get ready for my blog upgrades. Today I tried to do it for real, and it all went splat. Perhaps because this was on top of the old site instead of a nice new one.

I have a backup of the site. Maybe I just need to take a very deep breath, clean it all out, and start again. Scary, scary thought.

Meanwhile, I should mention that I haven't abandoned the read through of "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean. I'm just busy with websites. And yeah, you could say that I've got out of the habit.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

A conference in Saudi Arabia

OK, so what do you think a conference on "Women in Society" in Saudi Arabia looks like?

I was guessing that it looked like laundry bags (and sounded very interesting). My son guessed that it would be an empty room.

It's all men.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Working on the website

I have too many blogs. There's this one, and the one about La Palma, and one about astronomy and one about El Hierro. Plus there's my main site (or at least it used to be my main site, but it's very neglected and old-fashioned.) And my bookshop. All this takes up far too much of my time and interferes with writing. So I'm combining them.

Stage 1: Move to (This goes first because the web hosting is up for renewal.) Coming along nicely.

Stage 2: Add articles from

Stage 3: Move combined blog to Leave redirects behind.

Stage 4: Add the other two blogs and the bookshop.

Stage 5: Finish the whodunnit.


Friday, January 30, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 6

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

[Quick interjection from Sheila. This chapter deals with mental illnesses, which tend to be misunderstood by the general public. Clinical depression is not the same as feeling a bit down. Clinical depression is to the blues as a bit of a breeze is to a hurricane. There are similarities BUT! If you, or someone close to you is suffering, please, please get much, much better help than this blog post.]

People often joke that “They're really OCD about their kitchen,” but genuine OCD is a nightmare. Still, it's almost like a sensible habit gone ballistic: most of us would rather like to be cleaner, tidier and more hygienic and punctual, as long as it doesn't take over our lives.
In pop psychology, Tourette's syndrome is associated with involuntary swearing, but only 10% of sufferer do that. They feel an urge building and building until they twitch – say, stabbing out an elbow. It's as compulsive as OCD, and the two things often go together. They're both linked to the basal ganglia, deep in the brain, and drugs help both. These tics are sort-of extreme habits, like OCD, only they're social habits, like raising the eyebrows in greeting.
Perhaps surprisingly, psychological therapy also helps. First you have to become aware of the tic. Then you have to try to work out what triggers it (it could be external, like computer games, or internal, like thinking about Batman). The idea is to catch it before the urge becomes irresistible. Then you do something else instead. If you're about to jerk your head to one side, tense your neck muscles.
That works for habits too.
Of course you have to stick at it, which isn't easy. But in one study, over half of the children with Tourette's managed an improvement. You'd think an adult would find it easier to battle a chocolate habit, wouldn't you?

Clinical depression is partly the result of habitual thoughts. Depressed people tend to believe that their problems are a) all their fault b) permanent and c) unfixable. E.g., I lost my job because I'm useless, therefore I will never find another job, and there's nothing I can do about it. Optimistic people tend to believe the opposite – I lost my job because of the recession, I'll get another when the economy picks up if not before, and I'll find one sooner if I apply for lots of jobs, I'll be flexible about which jobs, and I'll get training if necessary.
Perhaps it a good thing that most people believe they're better drivers than average, more charitable than average and smarter than average. (Depressed people are an exception. They don't behave worse, they just rate themselves worse – arguable more accurately.) Clearly we can't all be better than average, but it does tend to protect our self-esteem.
Depressed people also tend to ruminate – to think a lot about how depressed they are – while non-depressed people deal with a bad mood by distracting themselves.
Of course thinking habits aren't the only cause of depression, but they do illustrate how unhelpful habitual thoughts can be.
When Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is used to treat depression and anxiety, it's based on challenging the habitual thoughts. Drag them out into the open and take a good look.
“If I don't do everything perfectly, that means I'm a complete failure at everything. And if anything goes wrong, it's entirely my fault, always.”
“O RLY?”
Both these steps are harder than they might sound.
It's also worth mentioning that some negative thoughts are helpful. Worrying about a problem generally spurs you to go find a solution. Worry about your health -> eat more veggies and less chocolate. Worry about the electric bill -> save up for it. Of course sometimes worry produces very unhelpful actions. Worry about your health -> assume you're dying soon -> picture the funeral in heartbreaking detail -> drink an entire bottle of rum to forget about it. Worry about the electric bill -> picture yourself living in a cardboard box -> go on a shopping spree to cheer yourself up. Pessimism only works if it produces concrete action instead of abstract misery.
And it's not at all helpful to take the concrete action to extremes, like checking that you've locked the door 20 times instead of once or twice.
If you need help, please reach out for it. Help is available. You don't have to be stuck in a depressing loop.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

She's Back!

My enthusiasm came back! She's sitting on my shoulder, with that lovely silky fur snuggled up against my neck. On Sunday morning I read in Writer's News about a competition for page-turning novels run by a writers' agency. Unlike most such competitions, they were prepared to look at "almost complete drafts" as well as finished ones. And I have an almost complete draft of a whodunnit set in the observatory. I've been wanting to finish it for ages, but it's taken a back seat while I did the two books with local government support. So I got it out and looked it over, and (OK, I'm obviously biased, but) I think it counts as a page turner. Of course there was a catch. Entries had to be in "by the 26th of January". I wasn't sure whether that meant midnight Sunday or midnight Monday, so I decided to do what I could an enter by midnight Sunday. I started a mad rush to write the CV and covering letter and polish up my novel to make it at least clear what I plan to put in the gaps. I managed to sort out a glaring continuity errors as well. And my wonderful enthusiasm came back! She does love fiction and short-term deadlines. Before I knew it, it was 1 am. Oops. Well, I'd missed one deadline, right? I just had to hope that they meant Monday night. I went to bed and me and my enthusiasm got back into it in the morning. We fixed another continuity error, and spellchecked and did the synopsis. I finally submitted it at 11:30 pm on Monday. Best case is that I win the prize (£1,000 and they take me on as a writer. The previous winner did very well indeed.) Obviously that would be fantastic, but I'm sure there are lots of good entries and a few excellent ones. Second best case is that I don't win the priize, but they take me on anyway. That would be fantastic too. Worst case is that I don't even make the short list. But even then, I'm a good step further on with the novel. I must go and get my enthusiasm the fresh mango that I promised. She's definitely earned some.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 5

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

I'm going to try to go faster. I want to get to the practical advice, and I suspect other people do too.

In a novel called “The Dice Man” by George Cockroft, the protagonist, Luke Rinehart, uses a drastic method to escape the rut. He writes down six possibilities, throws the dice, and does whatever. It works because he's consciously making a list of options and then adding a random element. Of course he didn't have to put things like “murder” down as one of the options!

So why don't more of us do it? Well, in the novel, other people are appalled by the random behaviour. We find routines comforting. Flying is less scary the more you do it. Surgery is less tiring the more you do it (which is a very good thing when you arrive in A&E near the end of the shift).

Habits tend to be emotionless. You do have feelings while you, say, brush your teeth, but they're feeling about whatever you're thinking about, which is unlikely to be your teeth. We tend not to be proud of our habits, and feel they don't say much about us and aren't very important for reaching goals – we feel we aren't in control and anyway, we hardly notice most of them.

One of the effects of Parkinson's disease is that patients find it very hard to form new habits and may even forget old ones.

Children tend to be happier in families with regular routines like all eating together, sitting in the same places. It can feel weird to go to a friend's house, where they do things differently.

Most of us learn young to be polite to strangers, so people are nice back and it's self-reinforcing. Sadly, some people start out very pessimistic about strangers; they expect rejection, and that makes them behave in ways which makes rejection more likely. A simple habit of not bothering with “Please”, “Thank you” and “Good morning” can all too easily lead to a lonely old age.

Habits are important at work, too. Companies which stagnate tend to bust (not surprising) but companies which innovate too fast also go bust. You need to have most of the workforce to be running on habit most of the time, because habits are efficient.

Much of our eating is habitual. But if you count when to start, when to stop, what to eat, who to eat it with etc. as separate decisions, we make over 200 of them per day, and very few of them are conscious. Food just falls into our mouths by itself. Much of our shopping is similarly automatic – we buy pretty much the same food that we bought last week.

All this repetition is efficient, but it get very boring. So we decide to change, and then we find we're doing the same old, same old again.

The first step to change is to notice what we're currently doing. We don't need to resort to dice to get out of the rut. We can change things around once we know which bits aren't helping, but it's best to go slowly.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 4

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

The author, Jeremy Dean had a power cut. He looked out of the window and saw that the neighbours' lights were off too, so he called the power company and they said that the engineers were on their way. He lit candles, and went to the bathroom. He flicked the switch, and nothing happened. It took a fraction of a second to understand why. Two hours later, the lights were still off when he went to the bathroom again, and flicked the switch again. Still no light.

Derp! What was he thinking?

Absolutely nothing. A habit is what happens when you're not thinking. You might like to look up Skinner's pigeons (Http://

Humans aren't pigeons. For one thing, they have dreams and goals. In theory, our goals decide out actions – dream of a clean house, get out the mop and bucket. But all too often our dream of getting slim doesn´t stop slices of black forest gateau falling into our mouths. It's partly that strong habits pop back up as soon as you stop concentrating, but there's more going on.

Your environment cues habits. Mostly this is a good thing, because it frees up your brain for other stuff. But it's out of conscious control. Give people sneaky reminders of old age and they'll walk more slowly afterwards. Stereotypes can be nastier than you think. Or they can be helpful – remind Asian-Americans of Asian stereotypes before a maths test, and they'll get much higher scores (because they answer more questions). Remind people of intelligence before a general knowledge test and they'll do better at that too.

Which might explain why it's easier to change habits when you've just moved. Your old environment isn't there to cue your old habits.

Direct cuing is when something in the environment elicits your behaviour. In the common room with Pat and Chris = switch the TV on.

Motivated cuing is when the habit becomes completely divorced from the original goal. For example, when you're a student, you go out drinking with friends. You learn to associate alcohol with freedom and good company. Years later, socializing is still associated with alcohol. Give people sneaky reminders of socializing, and they're more likely to pick the “Free beer” voucher than the “Free coffee” voucher. And once you take a drink you're thinking less clearly and running more on habit, so you're more likely to take another and another. It can get out of hand.

This sort of disconnect is common. Once you associate “Go somewhere else” with “Car”, it becomes very hard to walk to the shops. You want a carton of juice and you're behind the steering wheel and halfway there before you remember - “Oh yeah, I was going to start walking.”

It's all too easy for humans to wind up doing things which don't align with their long-term goals. There's far too much going on in the unconscious.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Has anybody seen my enthusiasm?

Has anybody seen my enthusiasm? She's been gone since Blue Monday and I've looked everywhere.

I've a horrible feeling that she's got out onto the Internet. She's larger than most, her fur is a lovely silky cream colour with chocolate socks and snout, and there's a corkscrew at the end of her tail, where it got caught in my twisted sense of humour.

If you see her, please tell her that I'm sorry. Of course she doesn't have to go on eating cat biscuits - I've bought some posh chocolate just for her, and we'll share a fresh mango.

Please help. I can't possibly go on nailing jelly to the ceiling without her.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 3

 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

People are astonishingly bad at describing what they find attractive in member of the (usually) opposite sex. But they're no worse if the researcher switched photos – they usually go ahead and describe why they're attracted to the person they originally thought less attractive, and they do it just as enthusiastically as people who're looking at the original photo.

Freud thought of the subconscious as something you could dig out with skilled help, and that's the popular understanding. But it seems to behave more like a black box. Ask people which of four pairs of identical tights they prefer, they generally pick the one on the right,. Ask they why, and they come up with all sorts of explanations except the position. If you suggest the position might have influenced them, they give you a funny look. Ask them about their self esteem, and their answer has no relation to what their body language says.

People with damage to the frontal lobes of the brain may have no breaks on their habits. Put a pair of glasses in front of them, and they'll put the glasses on – on top of the other two pairs they put on a minute ago. At the other extreme, there's alien hand syndrome, where the patient's hand is completely out of the patient's control. It grabs doorknobs, undoes buttons, even hits people, without the patient (consciously) wanting to do any of those things. The patient feels as though someone else is controlling the hand. It's like Dr Strangelove, but of course it's not at all funny for the patient.

These are extreme examples, but they show “how our habits are continually bubbling up from the unconscious”. It's just that most of us inhibit the habits sometimes. Not always. Yup, plonk a piece of chocolate in front of Sheila, and the same thing happens every time.

It's no bad thing that our unconscious can recognise faces, catch balls etc. without conscious intervention. It's just weird and slightly disturbing that we can't see the working, even when we think we can. Ask students why they like the drink they're about to get at the canteen, and they make less accurate predictions about how much they'll drink. Ask them why they chose THIS poster instead of THAT one, and they'll be less happy with the poster a week later.

It's a bit like the fable of the fox and the “sour” grapes, or the smokers who insist that smoking isn't dangerous.

This makes changing habits very tricky. The habit is down there in your unconscious, which, by definition you don't understand and don't control. But recognising the problem is an important first step, and the habit itself is a clue to what's wriggling down in the murky depths.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


The Isaac Newton Group (who run the two big British telescopes on La Palma) will be holding a conference in March on the evolution of galaxies. And they want lots of copies of my book to give to atendees.
So that's me happy.

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Eccentrics" by David Weeks

Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies.

A recent email conversation reminded me about my much-loved book on eccentrics written by a proper psychologist who did proper research. One of the first questions he tried to answer was whether or not eccentrics are slightly mentally ill. The answer was a resounding "No!" By all the usual measures, eccentrics are both physically and mentally healthier and happier than the general population. He put this down to:

  1. The stress reduction due to not giving a *COUGH* what other people think and
  2. The innocent pleasure of actually doing what you enjoy, whether that's living in a cave which floods at high tide, moving the the staircase of your house every few months, or keeping 6,000 garden gnomes and knitting them little woolly hats. 

 The case studies are hilarious, and make me and my family look positively tame. I really wish that the book was available in Spanish, so I could by copies for all the people who are e.g. mortally offended that I have "weeds" in my garden.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 2

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

We like to think that we chose our habits on purpose. Yeah right.

Habits build up slowly, like learning to back a car into a tight spot, and we're not always aware that a habit is forming. We tend to assume that we acquire habits as a means to an end. That includes bad habits, although the goal might not be a good one – like getting drunk to forget that you’re an alcoholic.

But sometimes it's the other way around. If your daily walk in the park goes past the ducks, you probably think you do it because you like the ducks. You'll think that even if you did it at random the first time, then the second time you did it because you did it the first time, and the third time because you did it twice before, and so on. The thing is, you're not lying; you really believe you chose it because of the ducks. It's rather like being talked into buying a more expensive car than you wanted, and then convincing yourself that it was worth the extra money. Or changing your mind on an issue, and then being convinced that you always held the view that you've only held since last Thursday. We all want to be right, especially about ourselves.

Of course in real life our habits are some combination of intentions and past behaviour. If a habit is weak (you don't do it that often) you tend to do what you intended (drink more water, watch less TV, whatever). But if you have a strong habit, like eating fast food for lunch every working day, chances are the habit will win. Bizarrely, people with strong habits tend to be more confident that they'll change even though there's much less chance that they'll actually do so. We feel we have more control exactly when we have least.

The main difference seems to be the frequency. If you perform the habit a few times a year, you can probably change. If you do it weekly or more, it's going to be harder. If you do it every time you're in that situation (sit in car, turn on radio: walk into Starbucks, order a latte) it's going to be much harder.

For years psychologists have successfully changed people's intentions. People happily committed to low fat diets, wearing sunscreen, getting more exercise etc. They just don't follow through.

Actually many of our habits are fine. We formed them (or our parents formed them for us) for good reason. It's a darn good idea to brush your teeth, and to look both ways before crossing the street, however preoccupied you are. But we tend not to notice these habits. Instead, we notice the minority of habits which are creating trouble.

You haven't failed to change those habits because you're weak. It's because you're human.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Why aren't I writing?

Why aren't I writing? I'm a writer and I should be writing! I've been
reading John Scalzi's “You're not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your
Laptop to the Coffee Shop”, and he often produced 5,000 words in a
day. Welp.

Maybe it has something to do with trying to catch up with cleaning and
laundry after the party season, and the quarterly tax return, and
taking the decorations down, and distributing my books around the
island, and planning my website overhaul and trying to get fitter and
having a minor lurgy. I can see how that might interfere with writing
a bit. Oh, and I knitted myself a new pair of gloves, because I
couldn't find the old ones. Of course the old gloves turned up just as
I was finishing, along with another pair that I'd forgotten about, but
hey, it was quite nice to knit something.

And so far this year I've written 5 blog posts (most backdated) and 500
words of creative non-fiction which is nearly ready to go, and 500
words of publicity for my books (ditto) and further drafts on two
short stories. So I have been writing – just not very much for the
last ten days.

But I haven't done anything about finally finishing the second edition
of Una espectacular ventana al universo or starting a new book. I have
several ideas about new books, but I haven't done any bum-in-seat,
fingers-on-keyboard work on it at all.

Oh well, 260 words of blog post, at least. I hope it knocks some rust
off the wheels.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Making Habits, Breaking Habits

Christmas in Spain doesn't finish until January 6th, when the three kings take their presents to Baby Jesus, and to good children.

So it's sort-of new year today. Or at least, it's the first day of 2015 when I've had time to get off the hamster wheel for some medium-to-long term planning. So I'm reading "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
Like most people, I don't do very well at New Year's resolutions, so I thought I'd try some science. Jeremy Dean is a psychologist, and unlike most self help, this books based on research not personal opinions.

Chapter 1 Birth of a habit

So how long does it take to form a new habit?

If you Google it, the answer's always 3 weeks - but nobody seems to quote any actual - you know - SCIENCE. Jeremy Dean never did find out where the "21 days" comes from, apart from the Internet echo chamber. But he did find a 2010 study whgich found that it depends on what the new habit is. No, really?

The bad news is that it seems to take anywhere from 20 to 250 days. The good news is that skipping the odd day wasn't nearly as bad as some websites suggest. And that was students just trying on their own, without any advice.

You spend somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of your waking hours on habits.

  • You're only half aware of doing them.
  • You have no strong feelings about them. 
  • You tend to do the same things in the same situation. You get in the car, and you put the radio on.
This sort of automatic behaviour saves a lot of time and effort. You really notice it when you move house, and all that automatic behaviour has to be done conciously (Where is the damn potato peeler? Where'e the light switch?) It's very tiring. But since your cues for automatic behaviour have been removed, it does at least make it easier to change our habits.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Happy New Year

OK, so it's a purely arbitrary point on the Earth's orbit, but hey, let's have fun. And getting off the hamster wheel for some reflection and forward planning isn't a bad idea either.