My first academic publication

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Don’t mention the Work

A surprising weekend recently – we went away to visit family in Paris, and met 20+ new people, but didn’t talk about work once.

Work is such an important part of identity, and of conversation, for me and in the lives of those around me that I was somewhat surprised – and rather delighted.

That weekend not a single person asked us what we do for a living, where the office was, were we busy at the moment, how did we get into to doing that, or anything of the sort. And we in turn did not ask those questions back.

No quick-matching of a new friend with an old one who happened to have a similar job. Less shorthand, more longhand.

In his Life of Alexander The Great (and, indeed, Julius Caesar), Plutarch said that:

When a portrait painter sets out to create a likeness, he relies above all upon the face and the expression of the eyes, and pays less attention to the other parts of the body. In the same way, it is my intention to dwell upon those actions which illuminate the workings of the soul, and by this means to create a portrait of each man’s life. I leave the story of his greatest struggles and achievements to be told by others.

Meeting someone new is like inching open a box of secrets. You don’t know what will emerge first or, when it does emerge, how representative it is of what remains hidden. Knowing that person’s job or chosen career might provide a glimpse into what’s inside. But only rarely does it allow you to remove the hinges and see the whole.

So it was lovely to build up a picture of our new acquaintances more gradually – to be removed from our own professional identities – by exchanging not a single word about work.

I can’t remember the last time that happened. Really.

Plutarch has the last word:

My preamble [to the Life] shall consist of nothing more than this one plea: if I do not record all their most celebrated achievements or describe any one of them exhaustively, but merely summarise for the most part what they accomplished, I ask my readers not to regard this as a fault. For I am writing biography, not history, and the truth is that the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them, while on the other hand a chance remark or a joke may reveal far more of a man’s character than the mere feat of winning battles in which thousands fall, or of marshalling great armies, or laying siege to cities.


Photo credit: Laura Liberal.

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Calvin and… sorry, what did you say?

I’m guilty of this, I think we all are. Listening > Emails.

Leaving West Ealing

Balcony view over Drayton Green… *sigh*…

The bare-chested hooligan next to me threw a water bottle filled with suspiciously yellow fluid towards the stage, so I decided to squeeze away from him. Oasis, live at Wembley Stadium, 22 July 2010.

The next day I was at the Ealing Blues Festival. Elderly patrons bopped behind us while families picnicked and middle-aged rockers nodded sagely to the beat. Less than ten miles away in the same city, but the two gigs were a world apart.

Ealing is a village surrounded by a city. London keeps its distance. Since moving here four years ago, my wife and I have settled happily into life in West Ealing, and now that we’re moving out we have created a lengthy Bucket List of places to revisit: Santa Maria, The Red Lion, Crispins, Mamas, Brent Lodge Park (where we got engaged, at the heart of the maze), The Village Inn, the canal walk and the Osterley Locks. If the list looks a little pub-heavy… well, that’s because we made it at The Drayton Court, our second living room.

Now we’re moving up to Hertfordshire, driven out (like so many young couples) by the British urge to buy and the difficulty of finding somewhere affordably spacious in Ealing. We always knew that we wouldn’t be able to buy here, yet we stayed because we fell in love with the community feeling we sensed on that July day back in 2010. We’ve been fortunate to make local friends, and through them we’ve developed a sense of belonging that most people miss when they move to London after finishing university. I’ve spent many years living in west London; Ealing is the first place I’ve ever bumped into someone I know in the street.

Now it’s time to buy, and it’s time to go. To some friends it seems that the south-east is divided into two halves: there’s London, and there’s outside London – so it’s a big thing when we tell them we’re going to move out. But for us, we left London four years ago. Ealing is a village surrounded by a city. And we can’t wait for this year’s Blues Festival.


This post originally appeared in Ealing Today.

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“Cambridge United, We’re Coming For YOU”


My beloved Luton Town won the Football Conference (the 5th tier of English football) in fine style yesterday, with 101 points and 102 goals to boot.

At one stage they were 10 points behind main rivals Cambridge, and all seemed lost. I remember being at a game last autumn when “Cambridge United, we’re coming for you” echoed from the stands, but there was still a long way to go.

So – how did they win it?

I was curious. And when I’m curious, I make charts.

Here’s a chart showing the cumulative points totals of the two teams:

As you can see, Cambridge were some way ahead until about game #26, when Luton drew level, then overtook.

But the real story here is that Cambridge’s form changed more than Luton’s. Luton’s trajectory trended gently upwards from around game 19 onwards, but Cambridge’s nosedived from around game 16 and took about 20 weeks to recover. So if Cambridge had continued at the same pace as they set at the start of the season, they would have won the title comfortably.

We can see this more easily if we look at a second chart. This one shows each team’s average points per game, using a five-game moving average:

Here the trends are clearer. Luton started slowly but then really got very strong – meanwhile, Cambridge went downhill: the red line drops and drops up to game 31, and their recovery was too little, too late.

I wanted to know how Luton’s cumulative points compared to previous winners. So I made a third chart: this one shows the game-by-game cumulative points for Luton and Cambridge this year, and for the champions of the previous three years:

So in fact Luton only got the third highest total – two other teams also topped 100 points, and they got even more than the Town. Luton actually tailed off somewhat at the end compared to Fleetwood and Crawley in their championship seasons.

What’s most striking here is that Cambridge actually had an even stronger trajectory than any of the winners from the past four years! Their points total (the red line) is the highest of all up to game 21. But as that red line shifts sideways rather than upwards, you can see how Cambridge fell away after the first 1/3rd of the season. The other four teams all won the league.

So, what distinguishes a champion?

And is it possible to predict a champion from their form as the year goes on?

Here’s one more chart, showing the average points per game for Luton, Cambridge, and the previous three winners:

Well well well. There’s a clear jump up in average points per game for all the champions from about game 18. Before then, they averaged around 2.0-2.5 points. After then, the team that wins the league consistently averages 2.5-the max 3.0 points per game on a five-game average.

So if you like a gamble, look out for that next year – that’s how to predict the next Conference champions.

Hard luck to Cambridge – perhaps they will get to League Two next year through the play-offs. But whoever you support, thanks for reading!

~ Todd


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Me: “I’m writing a post about minimalism”

My wife: “Keep it short”


We have more books and DVDs and clothes than we need. So I donated my last birthday to charity:water instead, and they just emailed to say the money is at work in Tanzania.

I’m getting very interested in the idea of minimalism.

Current minimalist activities:

1. Inbox Zero

This means getting your unread message count done to zero. I have managed it three times in the past month, can do better. To do so I am:

  • Replying to / Marking as read / Deleting everything straight away – otherwise I read emails more than once
  • Scheduling email blocks in my day to make time for this
  • Using Mailbox on my phone to archive emails easily
  • Aiming to stop using my inbox as a to-do list

2. Trello Zero

I now use Trello as my to-do list. To some extent I have simply shifted to-dos from inbox -> Trello. So I am also attempting to break my habit of turning every idea into a to-do item.

3. Moving house

This is a great catalyst for minimalism. It is a pretty extreme technique – we are moving for other reasons, not as part of my experiments with minimalism! But the pain of moving house is somewhat proportional to the amount of stuff you have to move, so less stuff = less hassle.

We are moving house in four weeks, so a major declutter is underway. We plan to remove anything we haven’t used in the past year, or won’t use in the next year. This morning alone we took five bags of books, DVDs and clothes to the charity shop. Last time we moved we recycled / gifted / binned 15% of our stuff. This time we’re aiming for 25%.

4. Workspace clutter

Physical – notes everywhere = distraction. Any colleagues reading this will laugh, as I usually keep an untidy desk. But they may notice that my desk is now 100% clear – I took all my notes home with me to sort out last week :)

Digital – my desktop now gets a regular clean-up. I have turned off a lot of push notifications. I am also a ruthless unsubscriber.

And now: breathe…

If you’re interested in minimalism, start here: Zen Habits –


Image credit: Billy Lam

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I did a marathon… Aside from that, here’s what surprised me

I finished the Manchester Marathon in 3 hours 38 mins. That’s how I felt at the end.

If you are bloody-minded enough to do the same, there’s masses of advice on the internet already. So instead of repeating or summarising, here’s a list of things that surprised me.

Surprise #1: Starting fast worked well

The night before the race I made a last-minute change of plan. I decided to start fast. That was the opposite of what everyone told me to do: you’re supposed to start slow, then speed up towards the end if you can manage it. Pah! I knew I’d be knackered at the end and wouldn’t want to speed up even if I could. I’m 100% certain that I got a better time as a result.

Surprise #2: Gel packs to the max

I showed up with two energy gel packs, but the experienced-looking runners had bandoliers full of them. I had brought too few. By the end I was dependent on well-wishers’ jelly babies – goddamn it I loved those little guys. A shot of sugar straight to the bloodstream. Would’ve liquified and injected them if I could.

Surprise #3: Pain, pain, go away

I was fine for the first 5 miles, then my right leg started to stiffen up. Not good, that was way too soon. I decided to push on at the same pace and hope it went away. It did – but then my left ankle started to hurt. That stopped about the same time as my arms started aching (arms, wtf?). And so on and so on. Different bits hurt at different times, you’ve just got to roll with it. Had a couple of painkillers in my pocket, and finally gave in and took one at about 15 miles. It made no noticeable difference to my body, but having painkillers with me helped psychologically.

Surprise #4: It’s a race against the course and the clock, not against the other runners


The consequence of starting fast is that you will inevitably slow down as the race progresses. Even those going at a steady pace – never mind the freaks who are speeding up – will begin to overtake you. This is not a good thing psychologically. I felt like I was going backwards from about 9 miles in. Runners streamed past me, like I was like driving at 40mph in the middle of the motorway. It took me a mile or so to reset: I’m running my own race, for my own time; I don’t need to beat all these people.

Surprise #5: Obsession with my split time

My gradual slow-down was measured in precise detail by my Nike+ app. Every kilometre a robotic American lady told me how long I had been running, how much distance I had covered, and what my average time per kilometre was. Time per kilometre was my main guide. I knew that an average of 4:59/km = 3 hrs 30 mins, that 5:19 = 3 hrs 45 mins, and 5:39 = 4 hrs 00 mins. I started out around 4:51 per km, but I knew I couldn’t maintain that pace. The average km time kept creeping up. As I passed the halfway mark, I worked out that I’d need to stay under 5:13 to finish in under 3 hrs 40 mins. As the average time per km crept up, I got more and more nervous – 5m05s, 5m06s, 5m07s… every time a the American lady started on a new kilometre announcement I whispered a silent prayer that the average pace would not have increased. The battle lines were drawn: I had to slow down my slow-down.

Here’s my pace chart, showing speed per km. Thankfully I managed to stay just ahead of the 3 hrs 40 mins pace. I averaged 5:12/km for the marathon as a whole.

I didn’t feel like I hit the famous ‘Wall’ at any specific point – but looking at this chart, I guess it was at around 16 miles, when I started to shift down before stabilising at a lower pace. Coincidentally, it was at around that point that I decided I would never run a marathon again.

Surprise #6: Terry Prachett, runner’s friend

I spent ages beforehand crafting a lengthy, pumped-up playlist for the race, and deliberately avoided the songs on it so that they would sound fresh on the day. But by the time I reached halfway through the race, I was bored. Even I can only listen to so much Britpop. So I switched to an audio book, and found salvation. I can recommend Terry Prachett’s The Night Watch as a pleasant distraction to all future marathon runners – though I have had to re-listen to the chapters that played during the last few miles, as somehow I don’t seem to have followed that part of the story.

Surprise #7: Random supporters are there for you

Thousands of people lined the route and cheered the runners on. That really helped, much more so than I expected. I managed a weak thumbs up to most of those who shouted for me personally. Pro tip: write your name on your top in big letters – it will substantially increase your share of random personalised encouragement.

Surprise #8: Runners’ cameraderie

Another nice surprise. It’s daunting to see paramedics treating stricken runners, and it’s nerve-wracking to see ambulances racing past you to some unknown pain point – what lurks just a few miles ahead? But those who were still standing would actively encourage fellow runners who were in trouble. Many people began to walk near the end, but they got regular pats on the back and kind words in the ear from those passing them – come on mate, nearly there now!

Surprise #9: Time and space warp towards the end

The last 10km seemed like entire marathons that had been surreptitiously added on to the main event, and the same for the last 3km. I literally could not imagine how I was going to run that far. It boggled my mind, the sheer thought was exhausting. (This is rather ridiculous in hindsight, because by the time you’ve only got 3km to go you have already run 39km!). So I tried to trick myself. The last 15km became three sets of 5km, a distance which I know I can do ok. But when the first kilometre of the first set of 5km took what seemed like half an hour, I realised that my targets had to get shorter. By the time I got into the final kilometre, I was running two traffic cones at a time – just get to that one… now just get to that one… And then for the final 500m, all I could aim for was to get from one group of people to the next – just get to the girl in the pink coat… now just get to the guy in the glasses… come on, nearly there…

Surprise #10: What’s next?

You can’t train for a marathon just by running a bit further each time. I ran 220 miles over 6 months in training – but I also had to cross-train (interval training, hill running), do weights in the gym for the first time ever (intimidating!), eat more healthily, drink less beer, etc. Without a specific goal in mind, I’m rather lacking in direction sportwise – I need a new (and preferably less gruelling) challenge!

Here’s my training plan for the final three months.

For now, I’m happy to fill the time with writing :)

So thanks for reading!

~ Todd


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What’s it like to study at Oxford?

From a friend:

At school people would beat me at pool, but at least I was smarter than them. Here, people still beat me at pool, but now they’re smarter than me too.

That’s what it’s like for most people at Oxford. You used to be one of the best — now you feel extremely average.

That requires readjustment. Some find it difficult — but for most it’s a relief. You have to look beyond academic ability to find other, less traditional talents.

The search continues…


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There’s a purity and a beauty in training for a specific goal.




I have a Post-It on my computer with the targets I have set for the game I’m working on.

I have a couple more personal goals that I’m not yet ready to share here.

I’m running my first marathon in two weeks.

A specific goal.




You trim your sails to make it so.

Firing Einstein: Unoptimise Your Life

We should definitely fire that Einstein guy. And Newton, slacking off under that tree over there. And as for Archimedes – man, what a waster. Get out of the bath and back to work, ffs.

Inefficiency is the serpent in the garden of our techo-paradise. There’s a crusade against it. Its soldiers ask us: how do we minimise waste, increase output, prioritise correctly?

But necessity is not the true mother of invention – it’s the wicked step-mother, hassling and stressing you out. To invent, you require a little inefficiency.

The Romans had a concept called otium. Senators did it. It means spending time mixing business and pleasure. Cicero, Horace, Livy and Seneca would withdraw to their villas to practice a mixture of relaxing, writing letters to friends, patrons and clients, conducting research, composing works of art and science.

This was unoptimised time. Unoptimised time that produced some of the greatest works of the ancient world. Cicero was an archetypal orator, Horace wrote beautiful poetry, Livy was one of the fathers of history, Seneca wrote the beautiful On The Shortness Of Life (just finished reading it; highly recommended).

For St Augustine, otium was a requirement for creativity. It means making the time and space to think. It’s hard to find, and hard to justify to others. But it will get results.

Unoptimise your life.


Picture by Jill Heyer, via Unsplash

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