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Monday, 15 December 2008


I'm really impressed with this custom design store. Zazzle has a great range of products - t-shirts, mugs, greetings cards, note cards, postcards, badges, stickers, bags, hats, etc. and is easy and fun to use, whether you just want to create individual, one-off products for your own purchase, or set up a store and make money selling your designs publicly.

It also has some unusual products - you can completely personalise your own Keds shoes, and now you can make designs for embroidery on a range of different products.

Marketing is simple - you can earn money by selling your own products, or by promoting other people's designs in your store, and you can set your own sales margin. Each day, Zazzle gives out awards for the best designs. Although these are kudos only, you do get a nice little rosette next to your product, and it is featured on the front page for that day. The Zazzle model is very well run, with payment credited quickly and reasonable shipping times.

I've found that black and white photographs work a bit better than colour, and vector graphics are really good. I ordered a selection of my own products, to see what the quality is like, and I was surprised and delighted with the professional finish. The cards and envelopes are the kind you'd find in good high street stores, and the gloss finish is perfect. The mugs are good quality glaze and the designs are rendered faithfully. The t-shirts are high quality, and very good value for money.

I've made a variety of products from photographs of flies and butterflies, some vector art and some old family photos with funny captions. My favourites that I've done so far are my Birthday Elephant, Svengali and Matisse's Cat designs.

Thursday, 3 April 2008


One of the potential money-making ideas that I shall write about more fully sometime is the wonderful, user-designed t-shirt site, Threadless. I've tried in vain to get designs accepted, but the standard both of the ideas and of the execution of the graphic design, is so incredibly high that I've not yet managed. The result is a site with the most brilliant and unusual ideas, and truly innovative works of art that you can buy and wear, anywhere on the web.

Anyway, I'm not going into the submission details right now, I'm just giving a tip that they have the most amazing sale on at the moment. Beautiful t-shirts have had their prices slashed, with some as little as $5. Get down there as quickly as you can, all the designs are available only while stocks last. Get your unusual Christmas gifts there now, the variety surely has something for everyone.

The designs here are among my favourites, all currently on sale at only $5. The top one is "Caged", by Frank Barbara. Below that is "Damn Scientists" by John Slabyk, and under that is "Calling Home", by Glenn Jones. Even if you're not really a t-shirt fanatic, it's still worth heading over to Threadless evry now and again anyway, just to get inspired by the brilliant artwork there, and the sheer volume of it.

If you have any interest in graphic design at all, the user message boards are full of helpful tips from established graphic designers, and you can submit your own work to critique by the community. The site is very popular, so your work is viewed and commented on usually almost as soon as you post it, so you can get really quick, honest and helpful feedback. Shop, participate or just grab a bargain, but hurry - designs sell out quickly, and it's not often that prices are this low!

Monday, 3 March 2008


There's nothing I love more than a really good laugh, and being a generally happy person, I laugh quite often. The only problem is that I suffer from narcolepsy with cataplexy, and so "falling about laughing" is absolutely literal in my case. My favourite television programme is "You've Been Framed", and for half an hour a week I am completely incapacitated by home video funnies.

It's only because of the brilliant support of Mr. Kizzy that I'm able to fully appreciate the show, though. In our house, it's Mr. Kizzy who looks after the video recorder, and always makes sure we get You've Been Framed on tape, even though he doesn't like it himself at all. The problem is that, once a particular clip has got me going, my head drops and my eyelids droop, so I don't get to see the next couple of clips, even though I can hear the soundtrack. By having a copy on tape, I can watch it again to see the bits I missed the first time.

Sometimes, I've thought that what I need is a soft neck brace, so that I can keep my head upright when I know that I'm going to laugh, but that still leaves the problem of trying to keep my eyelids open.
Then I found this device. It's called the "Lundie Loop", and I actually found it through the website of the Myasthenia Gravis Association.

Myasthenia gravis is a much more serious and debilitating condition than narcolepsy, and is characterised by - as the phrase translates from the Latin - excessive muscular fatigue. Its cause is entirely different to cataplexy, and affects a much greater range of muscular groups.
As with cataplexy, though, one of the signs is involuntary drooping of the eyelids. The Lundie Loop is designed to help sufferers to keep their eyes open, even when the muscles are too weak to lift the lids themselves. Whether it works or not, I don't know. I just found it rather intriguing and highly ingenius. I might try to get hold of one, and see how it works for me.

I am, of course, only being semi-serious, although I'd genuinely be prepared to wear almost anything that works - Lundie Loop included, if for example I'd paid for tickets to see a favourite comedian perfom live. I'd love to have the joy of laughing uninterrupted through the whole show, and without missing any of it.

There is a line that I'd draw, though. I cannot tell you how wonderful this "Pillowig" concept by Joon Youn Park looks to me, but I'd never wear it. Even for a person like me who is relatively unconcerned about what other people think, it's a step too far.

Even so, it just looks so wonderful - whenever I get one of my sudden, crushing, sleep attacks (and I'm talking about sleep now, not cataplexy) this photograph has the same effect on me as I think a picture of Willy Wonka's factory would have on a chocoholic. It is genuinely only a concept design, anyway.

This Sleeping Jacket, on the other hand, is just brilliant, and be ideal for both sleep and cataplectic attacks. As far as I can tell, it's genuine, too, from a designer called Matthew Gale. Finally, it brings me to my wonderful, newly discovered Latin word of the day...

...Excubo. I sleep outside.


Here's a really nice, easy way to make a bit of money online if you live in the UK. Some time ago, I came across YouGov, a survey and opinions website run by the UK government. Once you've signed up and completed a simple profile about yourself and your household, you start receiving email notifications of surveys that you can complete. Some surveys are paid, at 50p each, and others give entry to a prize draw for a much larger amount, perhaps £20,000. You don't have to do them, and can still stay registered as long as you want. It costs you nothing, and you don't get any spam.

Unlike other "Get paid for surveys" sites I've used, the software works well, even though I use Firefox. I also don't find myself going through the frustrating process of answering half the questions, only to be told that I don't fit their required profile. When I'm notified of a YouGov survey, it is always possible to complete it, and the payment is always credited.

I don't get notifications very often, perhaps about two or three a month. The questions range from what kinds of technology products I have or might consider buying, to my opinions on particular household brands, to my political views and preferences for certain politicians. They're quite interesting to do, and only take about ten minutes each. The money you earn is credited to your account, and you can view your survey and payment history by logging in to your account. When you get to £50, they send you a cheque.

One of the best things about it, though, is a relatively new introduction. If you have friends and family who'd like to sign up, you can download a personalised link, like the one that I'm using here and in the sidebar. For each new member that signs up via your personalised registration link, you receive equivalent amounts in survey credit for each survey they complete during their first three months of membership. If you can recruit a few people, that's actually pretty impressive, as it's not just a percentage commission, but the whole survey fee, per referral.

Okay, I won't be retiring on my YouGov income anytime soon, but it's quick and easy. The referral bit has a lot of potential. I'm actually worried that it might be so generous that it costs them more than they thought, and they might withdraw it. I think it's worth getting in there now and referring a load of friends, and enjoying the benefits while they last.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008


Finally, I'm back in the blogosphere again! It feels like forever, although it is actually less than three weeks, since we were burgled and my laptop was stolen. It has certainly highlighted to me the importance of taking regular backups, which I hadn't been doing. Fortunately, as I had only had my previous laptop for three months, the loss of data was nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

The one thing left to sort out is that our patio doors are still mostly boarded up. The burglars actually put a brick through a double-glazed, toughened glass door. They must have been really desparate. Two lights were on in the room, and we were asleep upstairs, too. Instead of a double door sized window onto our back garden, we currently have only a foot-wide gap to see through, and the rest is fibreboard.

Perhaps it is because of this, though, that a little mouse felt safe enough to run across in front of the glass in broad daylight this morning.

In fact, he came across a dozen times, pausing each time in front of the blue rubble bag into which we put all the broken glass, and then darting across to the pile of seed and nuts I left out for the birds, taking a single peanut and scurrying away again.

I watched him for about ten minutes, as he dashed in, picked up the peanut and then ran off, meticulously continuing until there were no peanuts left in the pile.

As he sped off with his loot, I looked to see where he was disappearing to, expecting that it might be our garage, only a few feet away. I was wrong, though.

To my great surprise, he was running the entire width of our garage, under our next, door neighbour's car and diagonally away farther than I could see into their garden. What an incredible, arduous shopping trip for such a tiny creature!

I don't know what made him so bold - I've never seen a wild mouse in daylight before - but on his penultimate trip he caught sight of me, and looked straight at me as he paused by the rubble bag, and I thought I might not see him back again.

Wrong again - he still came back for the last peanut. Maybe he thought cold weather was on the way, or maybe he'd just discovered what seemed like easy pickings, but he was a delight to see anyway, did no harm and is welcome to my peanuts any time.

Although I'm sure our burglars also felt desparate in their own way, I can't sympathise, and I do begrude the damage they've done and the trauma they've caused. Perhaps they think we have more than them, and so they can morally rationalise their actions, but they do not take into account how hard we've worked to get here. We love our house and the suburb we live in, but this is not a wealthy area full of big houses. It is a mass of standard 1930s semi-detached houses. It epitomises ordinariness, in many ways.

Still, we're okay, and everything is getting back to normal slowly. We're putting extra security on the house to stop it happening again, and I'm just about to replenish the mouse's nut supply.

Friday, 8 February 2008


I don't think that I could ever be a dedicated follower of fashion in a clothing sense, and I rarely take an interest in lifestyle advice programmes or magazines, which sometimes makes me think that I'm not much swayed by appearances. However, this is completely cast aside any time that I find an elegant, innovative industrial or mechanical design.

Some time ago, I was looking at the fascinating Gorey Details, hoping to find some unusual Christmas presents, when I came across a beautiful postcard, and just had to buy it. It was a photograph of the Spacelander electric bicycle, taken from an exhibition in the Brooklyn Museum, New York. I knew nothing about the bicycle itself, and assumed that it was probably a single model built as a prototype, never going into production.

Then, this week, an old photograph from the wonderful Modern Mechanix was reproduced on several blogs, and I felt sure that this was the same lovely bike as my postcard. Sure enough, it is. I hope my reproducing the image here counts as "fair use", as I've struggled to find out who owns the copyright. The postcard is printed by

This prompted me to find out more about the Spacelander, which I was able to do thanks to the fantastic research compiled by Leon Dixon, whose website, The National Bicycle History Archive of America, is an amazing resource that will delight all enthusiasts. Thanks to Dixon's research, I was able to find out that, far from being only a prototype, the Spacelander was manufactured and sold, although only 522 were ever produced. This figure he counted up from the manufacturer's original shipping lists, which he still owns.

The designer himself, Benjamin Bowden, was born in London in 1906, and died just a decade ago in Forth Worth, Florida. The New York Times carried his obituary. He designed for the British sports car company, Healey, and later moved to Ontario where he had a hand in improving the performance of the Ford Thunderbird. The Spacelander is the most beautiful bike I have ever seen, and I am surprised that the creator of such a perfect marriage of form and function is not more famous. If these were in production today, I would most certainly buy one, and I doubt that I'm alone in that. Like all iconic designs, it is ageless, and looks as futuristic now as it did in 1946.

Monday, 4 February 2008


I'm a long-standing fan of David Lynch, and, as I've said before, I love flies. Now, Isabella Rossellini was once married to David Lynch, and now it looks as if she's maybe taking the insect investigations a lot further, too.

Just to clarify, when I said, "I love flies", I absolutely did not mean carnally!!


One of the things about having narcolepsy is that it is difficult to find work. It's not really that I'm incapable, in fact I can do quite a lot of things that employers find useful. The problem is that most emplyers want these things done at particular times, and that's what isn't so easy. Although in general I'm more alert in the mornings, there are days when I start falling asleep at nine o'clock in the morning, and others when I might be reasonably alert all day. Because one of the peculiarities of narcolepsy is night-time insomnia, my most productive work hours can sometimes be at two or three o'clock in the morning.

Hence, I've been trying to see what potential there is for making money online, where I can choose to work when I am feeling most alert, and take naps whenever I need to without letting other people down. I'm going to do a series of posts on what I find out, and try to give an honest analysis of what potential I think there is for earning, and how this compares to what the sites themselves say about it.

One of the first money making opportunities I found on the web was Amazon Mechanical Turk. It's a web application by the same people who are better known as an online bookstore, and is named after a famous chess-playing automaton built by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769. Kempelen convinced many people throughout Europe that he had built a machine with artificial intelligence, able through its cogs and gears to beat some of the best chess players of the day. The Turk was, however, in machine intelligent terms, a fraud, since its achievements at chess were actually being accomplished by a grand master concealed inside.

Amazon Mechanical Turk's principle alludes to that cautionary tale, some tasks are repetitive and fairly simple, yet are not accomplished well by machines or need human input. Once you register, you are able to choose from thousands of available HITs - Human Intelligence Tasks. This is perhaps the simplest possible model of crowdsourcing, and perhaps clickworking is a better description, since many HITs do not require and great deal of skill.

Examples of the kinds of things that appear on Mechanical Turk are:

  • Write a short plot description for a specified movie - $0.50
  • Choose you favourite photo from a given set - $0.01
  • Give you opinion about a topic on a website - $0.10
  • Make a list on a website - $0.25
  • Guess the colour to appear on a given website on a given day - $0.01
  • Write a short blog article on a specified subject - $1.00
  • Answer a survey question - $0.01
Some HITs have a bonus payable for good work, and these can be very lucrative indeed, compared to the standard payment. Some can be very interesting, and can lead to new finds on the web. It isn't big money, in my opinion, but more a worthwhile recreation. Having said that, I believe that it is easily possible to make a lot more than I do, with dedication. It is quite possible that good coders might be able to write scripts to help them with some HITs, and thereby earn far more.

Mechanical Turk is a subsidiary of, and tends to have a US bias in its HITs, and also in its payment system. Earnings are accrued in an account, and workers can have tis transferred to their US personal bank account, or converted into gift certificates. Workers in India can take payment from their accounts in the form of a cheque in Indian rupees, but in the rest of the world the gift voucher is the only payment option.

I find Mechanical Turk more a bit of fun than anything else. By playing around for about an hour, I can earn a couple of dollars, but I'm pretty slow and easily distracted by the more interesting tasks, and spend quite a while looking at the background sites to the HITs. It's definitely worth a look, though.

Thursday, 31 January 2008


Someone was asking on a forum the other day about the best treatment for crows' feet. I don't know, but I think it would be very difficult to catch one and try it out. I suggest that any crows having difficulty walking should consider flying instead.

Do people choose their jobs, or do their jobs choose them? I love the name of the BBC's whaling correspondent.


In an earlier post, I mentioned that I have narcolepsy with cataplexy, which is a very odd condition, and becomes odder all the time. One of the recent discoveries about it involves the identification of orexin producing cells in the hypothalamus, and their depletion in narcolepsy. Hence there is a diagnostic test which involves a lumbar puncture to take a sample of cerebro-spinal fluid and analyse it for orexin concentration. In narcoleptics, the level is either abnormally low, or undetectable.

I was very worried about having the test. Notwithstanding the unpleasantness of the test itself, it has taken me more than half my life to find a sympathetic neurologist who would agree that my symptoms might be narcolepsy with cataplexy, and the diagnostic validity of this test is taken to be so strong that I was terrified the outcome. What if the orexin count was not low? It would leave me wondering if my symptoms were psychiatric all along, and perhaps my neurologist would think that too.

Photograph by MegElizabeth

Anyway, I needn't have worried. I was honest with my neurologist about my apprehension, and he said that whatever the outcome, he felt strongly that something neurological was going on, and that nothing would alter his standard of care to me. You can see why I didn't want to lose him! As it turned out, my orexin levels were, as he put it, "barn door abnormal".

I take modafinil for the narcolepsy, and venlafaxine for cataplexy at the moment, although I used to take prozac for the latter. Over at Ben Goldacre's brilliant Bad Science blog, there's a discussion going on about the quality of research into the effectiveness of selective seratonin re-uptake inhibitors, SSRIs, like prozac. Most particular to the confusion as to their effectiveness seems to be the selective reporting of positive trials, and mis-reporting of some that had less favourable results. Venlafaxine is a selective seratonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), and I don't know how well its trials and their fair publication compare.

One thing that is always interesting about psychoactive drugs is that there are high variations from individual to individual in their effect, dosage and efficacy. They also seem to act differently for different conditions. For example, fluoxetine (prozac), when prescribed for depression, usually takes a couple of weeks to start taking effect. When I was prescribed it for cataplexy, the effect was within 48 hours. It seems to me that it must be acting through different channels in each case. The human nervous system is an enigmatic and complex machine, and I don't think our current understanding is adequate to explain these differences. It is interesting, for instance that Parkinson's patients can develop secondary narcolepsy, and exhibit the full range of narcolepsy and cataplexy symptoms, although the primary defect is in the dopamine system. Recent research has seemed to indicate that REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD) is strongly associated with later development of Parkinson's Disease, unless it is associated with narcolepsy, in which such a progression is not expected.

It all makes me wonder whether depression is really a single illness at all, when it has many different triggers (and none) and manifests itself differently from person to person in its extent, prognosis and response to treatment. When the brain and its workings are so difficult to understand, then any medical trial has the problem that even in the patient group, we may not be comparing like with like. Faced with the difficulties in trials of comparing an active drug accurately with placebo, and the added difficulty of comparing placebo to no treatment at all, the possibility that very similar symptoms may arise from different organic mechanisms within the study group makes any inferences very tricky indeed.

I'm not arguing against trials - on the contrary, I think we need to know far more. But we also need to better understand the nature and origin of the illnesses before we can make hard pronouncements. We need well organised, well reported trials, but we also need to be willing to challenge all underlying assumptions openly and honestly, and not censor or prejudice any possible debate.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008


Well, this is the first time I've tried to put any maths into my blog, and I can tell you for sure I'll have to learn a lot more about how to do all the typesetting and stuff before trying again!!! Hats off to the clever folks who do it all the time.

I wanted to share a puzzle that I tackled some while ago now, when I was doing my first undergraduate year in mathematics. It was satisfying in one way, but remained always rather unsatisfying in another.

The course in question was a rather gentle introduction to some topics in number theory, and the lecturer wanted to encourage us to experiment and learn for ourselves a bit, so as well as the compulsory assignments we did each week, he set a weekly "challenge problem", which was optional. Whereas the assignment tested that we had understood the course and could apply what we had learned, the "challenge" was intended to go some way beyond the course itself. The lecturer gave the added incentive that he would keep a record of the challenge problem solutions he received, and at the end of the semester there would be a prize for the best student.

Initially, about eight or so students submitted solutions, but it tailed off quickly, and by about half way through the semester, the only students still submitting solutions were myself and another student. This carried on until the final lecture, when we both waited expectantly for the winner to be announced. Instead, however, he said that he was still unable to separate us, and so he was launching a final challenge for everyone to think about over the Christmas break. He said he would wipe the slate clean, and, regardless of how many, if any at all, of the previous challenges had been completed, the person who delivered the correct answer, with proof, soonest after Christmas would win the challenge prize. Should he receive more than one correct answer, the prize would go to the student whose solution was the most elegant.

What he then handed out read as follows:


The following Christmas teaser was set by Dr J Brownowski in the New Statesman and Nation, 24th December, 1949:

Find the smallest natural number which is such that if the digit on the extreme left is transferred to the extreme right, the new number formed is one and a half times the original number

He also gave a hint, without which I am sure that I would not have been able to solve it. I had a solution by the soonest date, and so did two others. One turned out to be wrong. The other was also correct, and had been submitted by the same student with whom I had been neck-and-neck all along. Since the lecturer still could not separate us, he finally announced us as joint winners.

I said at the beginning that the process was satisfying, and this was partly of course the pleasure of winning, but also because I had in doing so undertaken some puzzles, including this one, that I would never have thought I could solve previously. The dissatifaction, though, was entirely with my solution to this last problem. My initial approach, using the hint, was fine, and led to a most general solution. However, the second half, which was in order to find the lowest possible solution has always seemed inelegant, and I've wondered whether there was a better way of finding the answer. I hope that I've eluded to the part I mean enough, since my own solution, in the graphic is, I hope, too small to read, and those who want to try it themselves can avoid enlarging it.

The hint, was, in ROT13,
vasvavgr qrpvznyf

Monday, 7 January 2008


Perhaps I've just had too good a Christmas, and my normal bad temper is on rebound, or perhaps some things are just remarkably annoying. I usually make a point of not watching programmes like "The Wright Stuff" on UK Channel 5, but my other half is off work with the 'flu today, and put it on.

As the programme went to an advertisement break, the teaser question we were left with was:

In what year was MRSA first discovered?
a) 1880
b) 1950
c) 1980

It's often possible to answer these questions on a psychological basis rather than actual knowledge; they are almost always designed to surprise. Now, I don't mind the intellectual superiority that people intend to show by asking these kinds of questions, as long as the answer is actually correct, and illuminates the subject in some way. However, it was all too easy to predict that the given answer would be - and indeed was - 1880.

Since MRSA is methycillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, it doesn't take a genius to suppose that MRSA cannot have been discovered until after methycillin was developed. This was by Beecham, in 1959. It was first reported in the UK in 1961 that certain Staphylococcus Aureus had been found to be resistant to methycillin.

The bacterium itself was discovered in 1880. It resides perfectly normally on human skin, nose, throat and the colon, and doesn't necessarily indicate the presence of infection. It usually responds to methycillin, among other antibiotics.

Why does this wind me up so much? Because what it does to the watching population is give the impression that MRSA has been around for over 100 years, and has not been a problem until now. I think the average viewer may conclude that all the recent concern is merely scaremongering, and will also find the conflict with what they thought previously will add to a sense that science is not to be trusted, and that scientists change their advice according to political expediency.

Staphylococcus Aureus in itself is not a worry. MRSA is a big concern. It may well have been caused to thrive today by continued overuse of antibiotics. It is very hard to see how we can get back from this position, but disinformation is unlikely to help.