7 Things I Learnt in Sweden

So, we were recently in Sweden for a wedding between two good friends. While I visited once before, in November 2012, this time round I stayed a lot longer and learnt a lot more. Here’s what I picked up:

1. Swedish Guys (and everyone else) love to hug

When I was a kid, growing up in the middle of nowhere in the UK, my impression of Scandinavians (if I had one at all) was of big bearded warriors with bushy beards and horns on their hats. Turns out there’s a bromantic element too (or at least what many Brits would see as one). At the wedding (and everywhere else) guys were bearhugging guys. It’s kinda weird to be bearhugged by every man including the groom’s 90-year-old grandfather, but I think this is one tradition it’d be good to spread around the world. So if you ever see me in a “free hugs” T-shirt, you’ll know why.

Continue reading 7 Things I Learnt in Sweden

Random plugs for cool stuff

So, I’ve been travelling like mad, and speaking at loads of events recently. That means I also get to meet lots of interesting people and learn about amazing projects. Here’s some cool stuff I’ve seen (in no particular order). If I’ve met you and your cool stuff is not on the list, ping me and I’ll consider it!

Code Club

Their spiel: Give every child in the UK the chance to learn to code. It is our aim to have Code Club in 25% of primary schools in the UK by the end of 2015. Code Club helps volunteers and schools find each other and creates projects for volunteers to teach at club sessions.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxhGIajRsq4]

My take: Code Club are doing amazing work, and growing really fast. Checking out their website inspired me to play around with Scratch myself. I’m now trying to code Sonic the Hedgehog in it, which is pushing me (and possibly the language) to the limits.


Their spiel: Printcraft is the world’s first 3D printing multi-player Minecraft server. Download your Minecraft models to print on your 3D printer or order models online and have them printed and delivered

[vimeo 64794367 w=500 h=281]

My take: This will be a great way to get more kids learning to do 3D printing. I’m still trying to work out the appeal of Minecraft myself, but smooshing together a game that kids love with 3D printing is gonna be big.

Make Things Do Stuff

Their spiel: Make Things Do Stuff is a campaign and website designed to mobilise the next generation of digital makers.

45 - Lego pi case

My take: Very kid-friendly site, reminds of DIY.org. A lot of really great organisations are involved in this, and I think it’ll have a very bright future. I’m definitely going to try out some of these projects.


Their spiel (well, wikipedia’s intro to it anyway): The Hexayurt is a simplified disaster relief shelter design. It is based on a geodesic geometry adapted to construction from standard 4×8 foot sheets of factory made construction material. It resembles a panel yurt, hence the name.


My take: I want to build one of these so bad. I’d previously considered retrofitting a shipping container as a home, but using components off the shelf (and cheap ones at that) like Hexayurt is much cooler. Disaster relief is all well and good, but I’d like to try living in one as my primary home. Also, I wonder how this could be adapted for space…

4 reasons we need to go to space

In these times of double-dip recessions, it can be difficult to see why we should spend money on space while we face so many other, more pressing needs. I see things differently. But then I would, since I’m one of the guys behind SpaceGAMBIT, focusing on open-source space technologies and education. But what got me thinking like that in the first place? Why am I so passionate about getting humanity into the wild black yonder?

1. Sooner or later, Earth is doomed


As the author Larry Niven said, “The dinosaurs went extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program it’ll serve us right!

Forget about the world ending due to the Mayan calendar. If an asteroid 6 to 10 miles across hits our planet, we’re toast. Toutatis (about 3 miles wide) passed by a few weeks ago and didn’t make impact, but that doesn’t stop something bigger hitting much closer to home one day. And it’s not just asteroids – we’re doing a pretty shabby job at looking after our planet as it is, so getting out there and building a backup, whether as a space station, moon base or planetary colony, makes sense in the long run. Sure, we’re not going to get to that point overnight, but it pays to start now, before we’re facing a massive rock of doom bearing down on us.

As Carl Sagan said in Pale Blue Dot:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

If we don’t have a backup, we put everyone we love and everyone we know at risk. Call me old-fashioned, but that seems like a bad thing. Continue reading 4 reasons we need to go to space

My pathetic news year’s resolutions

Just by typing this I’ve completed one of my daily resolutions. And I’ll tell you now, those resolutions are a pretty sorry bunch. I’m not trying to do 100 sit-ups a day or write a long blog post every week. And that’s exactly why they’re working.

So, without further ado, here’s the lineup of suspects

  • Floss one tooth a day
  • Do one crunch/squat/sit-up a day, or jog 10 meters per day
  • Complete one Duolingo French lesson each day (takes about 3 minutes)
  • Watch/listen to/read something genuinely worthy for 5 minutes

They work precisely because they’re so rubbish. Anyone can floss one tooth, and most people nan manage a crunch. And since you have floss in hand, or are on the floor already, it almost takes more effort to stop doing them than to keep going. So, flossing one tooth turns into flossing all my teeth, and one crunch turns into 30.

So, what happens if I do quit after one? Well, I’ve fulfilled my goal so I feel good. No guilt at all. But more often than not I’ll just keep going and push to 30 or 50.

Actually, I left one item off the list above. That’s to blog two words a day. So as you can see, this method seems to work out!

5 Apps to Game-ify your Life in 2013

With 2012 winding up and 2013 just around the corner, it’s time to start on those new year’s resolutions. Okay, so I haven’t started on mine yet, but whatever they may be I’m pretty damn sure I can stick to them. Why am I so confident this year? Because instead of them being a guilt-tripping chore, I’m using some apps to turn them into a game instead.

The whole trend is called gamification – basically turning life into one big computer game. This video explains it better than I can:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JXlf_z_px4]

So, here are the apps I’m using to actually get stuff done:


iPhone. Free

guide2-2d7f47ecdadfe6c1b8cff64bf4223e71Jerry Seinfeld keeps to his habits by maintaining ‘streaks’ – basically an unbroken chain of days where he does the habit which then motivates him to continue doing it. Nobody wants to break the chain if they’ve been doing exercise every day. Lift helps track your habits, gives you statistics on how well you’re doing and lets you socialise with others with the same goals.


iPhone/web. Free

downloadWhen I was a kid I had to study French in high school. I hated it. Until a few weeks ago I could barely remember any of it, but now I’ve turned learning the language into a game it’s all coming back, and then some. Duolingo gamifies learning French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German and English.

Zombies, Run!

iPhone/Android/Windows Phone. 7.99 USD

zombiesrunI’d never really been motivated to take up running or jogging. It’s not like we have to hunt for our prey anymore, so what’s the point? Well, what if you were stuck in a zombie apocalypse, and had to run to survive? Zombies, Run! puts you in just this situation. Plug in your earphones, start the story and RUN for your life!


iPhone/web. Free

I got switched onto Superbetter after watching a great TED Talk by Jane McGonigal

[ted id=1501 width=560 height=315]

After creating an account you can take on goals (like losing weight, quitting a habit, or just being generally ‘superbetter’) which involve fighting ‘bad guys’, doing daily activities and completing quests. Over time you level up and can unlock more content. I mostly use it for ideas for cool stuff to do each day, which I then track in Lift.


iPhone/web. Free

mzm.xgdjtetb.175x175-75This is my first day using the Fitocracy app, and I’m exhausted already. I guess that shows how good it is! As I mentioned above, I’ve been pretty lazy about exercise before, but if it becomes a game…well, then everything changes. Fitocracy lets you track whatever exercises you like, level up and connect with (and support) friends who also use the service.

2012: The Good, the Bad, and the Gone

It’s nearly the end of the year (namely, the year that didn’t end on December 21), and time to look back on things. Since nothing was particularly ugly for me over the past 12 months, I’m going to talk about what I got rid of instead.

The Good

  • Gamifying my life – I’ve really been doing more cool stuff since I started using apps to turn chores into a game. That means every day I watch one interesting video, study some language (via Duolingo) and actually bother to floss my teeth – all of which I track using Lift. And I’m doing more cool random stuff thanks to Superbetter. I’ll definitely be expanding on this in 2013.
  • Traveling all over – This year I was lucky enough to get to Malaysia, Sweden, England, Scotland and the US. Mostly due to my new responsibilities at SpaceGAMBIT.
  • Meeting people – I met fantastic people on my travels and at my own local hackerspace, Xinchejian. I even realised I had a godcousin (based on the logic that he’s my uncle’s godson, therefore my godcousin), and he’s into the maker scene too. It’s a small (weird) world.
  • BooksThe Life Nomadic changed the way I think about travel and possessions. Vagabonding also made me look at travel differently. A biography on Richard Feynman gave me a new role model. Radio Shangri-La was a great read about one woman’s journey to set up a commercial radio station in Bhutan. I’ll write more about all of these (and more) in a separate post.

The Bad

  • Nanjing – Of all the places I travelled to, this is the only one I wouldn’t head back to. It’s not a big “bad” per se, just a cold and consistently underwhelming place. That may be because I’m comparing it with Shanghai though.

The Gone

  • Half a tooth – note to self: wearing heeled boots, knocking back beers and then running on a wet, slippery pavement is not a great idea. Amazingly I managed to smash up my mouth and just walk away without noticing. Getting a crown put on the stump that remained was not pleasant, although the nurse did use a lightsabery wand to weld the cement, which I thought was pretty cool.
  • Most of my stuff – since I’m becoming more and more minimalist, that necessarily means less crap in my life. I’ve donated most of my books to coffeeshops, most of my clothes to charity and quite a lot of electronics to my local hackerspace. It feels so good to be free of it all!
  • Twitter – I’ve almost stopped using Twitter since I get a lot more feedback and coverage on Facebook. Maybe I’ll go back in future, maybe not.

So, that’s 2012 done – bring on 2013!

Why I’m a Minimalist

When I was a kid I collected leaflets of tourist destinations in the UK. Every time we went somewhere I’d grab a leaflet of that place and any other leaflets on offer. This must’ve gone on for at least a year or two until I had several shoeboxes of precious pamphlets about the delights of tourism in the Midlands and North Wales. Today, I can’t remember a single one of those destinations, and the boxes were thrown away long ago.

It’s funny how some things can seem so precious to us but actually be so useless.

Compared to Alex 1.0, I’ve since done a 180°. Now one of my habits is to throw away one thing every day, in pursuit of my goal of minimalism.

Wait? You’re a minimalist? So you want to throw out all of your possessions?

My goal in minimalism is to do more with less, and that means keeping at least some possessions around. For me, being a minimalist is more of a journey than a destination. I’ll never get down to zero possessions, but I am cutting down.

Why would on Earth would you want to cut down on stuff?

Plenty of reasons:

1. Freedom to move

400PX_asset_73606800I mean move in both senses. It’s much easier to move around my apartment with less stuff around, and having less stuff to pack means it’s so much easier to relocate to another apartment, city or country. I can happily relocate around the world with a 20-litre backpack (I recently came back from 2 long international trips with just this pack and got along fine).

A while ago I read The Life Nomadic by Tynan. This book, more than anything else, turned me onto minimalism for the sake of travel. It’s one of the few books that has changed the way I think and live.

2. Fewer decisions

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

I may not have as important a job as the President, but I still don’t want to waste my time picking out my clothes or deciding which bag I should use. Especially when it comes to clothing, most people are so self-conscious about what they wear that they won’t notice what you wear. Just think back to yesterday: what was your colleague wearing? If you can’t remember what they wore, chances are people won’t remember what you wear either.

3. Better things

41NIhM9JTfLThink about how many shirts you have in your wardrobe. How many of them do you REALLY like? And how often do you wear the ones you really like?

I only have two shirts that I regularly wear. Neither were cheap, but they’re merino shirts that last a long time, don’t get smelly, keep me at a nice temperature no matter the weather and are quick to dry. Yeah, they were expensive, but it costs more to own 20 T-shirts that aren’t as good and that I’d rarely wear.

It’s not just with shirts. I’ve pared down most of my life possessions, and find that it makes me appreciate the things I keep even more.

Over to you!

Are you a minimalist? What does minimalism mean to you? Want a hand minimising? Let me know in the comments!

Pics from my TEDx Talk

Thanks to the wonderful folks at TEDxStockholm, I was recently invited to fly over from Shanghai to give a TEDx Talk on my organisation, SpaceGAMBIT. I had a fantastic time while I was there, and met lots of cool people. I also ticked giving a TED Talk off my bucket list, something I never thought I would get to do. (OK, so technically a TEDx Talk isn’t a full TED Talk, but I’m working on it!)

Major thanks to:

  • Filippa Malmegård (for taking the pics and putting me up while I was there)
  • Carl Bärstad, Elías Zea and the rest of the TEDxStockholm and Sparkling Science gang
  • Everyone who attended and listened to my talk (and forgave my woeful CubeSat prop!)

Video of the talk should be up in a few weeks. For now, pictures only.

My lightweight packing list

So, I got back from my California SpaceGAMBIT kick-off tour a few weeks ago. I spent 10 days there, and only took a 20L backpack which wasn’t even full.

Here’s the breakdown (part 1, just bag and clothes):


Bag: Quechua Arpenaz 20XC – decent enough backpack with good weight distribution and nice padded shoulder straps. Would’ve liked something with more pockets and more flexible storage though. The zippers seem to keep out most water which is great. Interesting color scheme makes it easy to find if amongst other bags.

Bought at: Decathlon in Shanghai, China. 150 RMB (about 25 USD)


Shoes: Newfeel Miagos – these are super lightweight and with an understated look that I can use for casual or semi-formal meetings. I’ve even scraped by in some formal situations with these. Very comfortable, though the soles are starting to wear down now. Still, they’re cheap enough that I have no qualms about replacing them with another pair exactly the same.

Bought at: Decathlon. 99 RMB (about 16 USD)

Socks: I took some standard cotton socks with me on the trip. Bad idea. They started smelling bad quickly and drying them took too long. I finally upgraded to a pair of Smartwool socks (not exactly the ones pictured, but close). They’re made of merino wool, dry fast, feel great and take a long time to start smelling. I’ll be getting more of these for sure.


T-shirts: I took a couple of shirts from Decathlon with me which had worked well before. I only had 2 T-shirts I wore regularly anyway, and wore one while the other washed and dried. They’re mostly polyester and feel nice enough. But while I was away I bought an Icebreaker merino T-shirt that I’m now wearing all the time. Comfortable, light, fast-drying. Everything I need in a shirt.

65 USD at some sportswear store in LA


Fleece: Some cheap fleece from Decathlon. Did the job, kept me warm and comfortable.

Trousers/Pants: A pair of dark gray convertible cargo pants from Decathlon. No longer available on the website it seems. Nice fit, dry fast and a decent color. Annoyingly the left leg zip is red, so my red=right mnemonic doesn’t work here. I have to think red=communist=left wing=left. Being able to convert these to shorts while I’m still wearing them is a godsend.

Underwear: A few pairs of boxer briefs from Uniqlo. Very fast drying, which means I can wash them in the shower and by the time I wake up they’re dry again. While I was there I also bought a pair of Ex Officios (26 USD), which I’ve heard a lot of good stuff about, but they’re barely better than the (much cheaper) Uniqlos.



Raincoat: A compact, foldable Raincut raincoat from Decathlon. I keep this in my bag all the time. Incredibly useful thing to always have. Rolls up really small.