Dear date: I don’t like horror films and I wouldn’t travel the world on my own, but I’m undecided about the sailboat

Great news! Boffins have identified three questions for predicting a lasting relationship, allowing us to avoid fruitless exploratory conversations.

Finding a compatible partner has become much less of a painful trial, reports the Telegraph today. We can now discount people within seconds and rest easy in the knowledge that our chosen partner will last longer than a few uncomfortable pub meals.

Yes, we now know the key questions for predicting a lasting relationship, and there are only three of them:

‘Do you like horror movies?’ ’Have you ever travelled around another country alone?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat?’

If your potential suitor answers the same as you would, you’re in.

We can thank mathematicians from dating site OK Cupid. The boffins (I love the word ‘boffin’, it suggests people who can redefine life but can’t wash their own pants) concocted a ‘compatibility algorithm’ to find the three questions.

Isn’t it great? We can now avoid excruciating conversations by bypassing extraneous topics. Heck, we can skip the preliminaries altogether: just pin the answers to our chests and all anyone need then say is ‘get your coat’.

In fact, I’m experimenting with this tactic virtually. I’ve answered the three questions in my Twitter profile and I’m now waiting for prospectors to come a-calling. I just need to make a decision about that sailboat.

You want me to promote your swimming pool company for no reason? Why, of course!

If you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, you can’t do better than send your pitches to people that clearly have no interest in them or in your business. Like the guide to installing swimming pools that I’ve been asked to push to my teacher readership.

The swimming pool of an East London primary school. (Image by KassandraBay on

The swimming pool of an East London primary school. (Image by KassandraBay on

I work for an educational charity. We work mainly with schools in the UK, helping them with curriculum delivery around politics, law and society. Today, I received this email:

My name is Jason and I run a swimming pool supplies business. Writing is as much a passion of mine, as my business is, and the two often cross paths. I have ghost written a number of articles and have been published in reputed home improvement journals.

I am keen to feature a guest post on you blog as it would do wonders for my portfolio as a writer. I realized it was time I stopped ghost-writing for others and built an online reputation for myself. Here are a few ideas that I feel you will like:

1) How to Replace the Light in Your Pool Without a Hassle

2) Things to Remember When Buying Chemicals for Your Pool

3) Which is better: Propane or Natural Gas Pool Heaters?

4) 10 Tips for Buying Yourself a Really Great Hot Tub

5) Why a Spa at Home Can be a Blessing In Disguise

6) 10 Reasons Why You Should Buy a Robotic Pool Cleaner Today

7) A Guide on Choosing the Right Pool Cleaner

8) Why a Salt Sanitization System is Important for Your Hot Tub/ Spa

9) Helpful Tips on Combating Pool Algae

10) 10 Things You Should do to if You Care for Your Hot Tub

11) How to Install an Above Ground Pool Without a Hassle

12) Which Swimming Pool Filter System Should You Buy?

I would be glad to write an article on any of the above topics and am open to any ideas or suggestions that you might have.

I hope your reply is in the positive, so your readers get the opportunity to benefit from what I have to say.



Well, Jason, I’ll see what I can do. I’m sure many of the poor urban schools we deal with will be grateful to know how to install a swimming pool in their reception area.

Kids are often knocking each other’s lights out, so tips on light replacement could be very handy. I’m not sure we should be encouraging an interest in chemicals though.

I’m told natural gas is already pretty abundant in teen environments, so that may not be an issue either.

And I’m glad you think our blog could ‘do wonders’ for your portfolio because that is, of course, why we’re here. We wouldn’t be fulfilling our charitable objectives if we didn’t promote the arbitrary, unrelated commercial interests of people we’ve never heard of.

So, send me your blog post, by all means. I’ve nothing better to do than reply to you and commission stuff I don’t want. But remember, editorial control rests with me.

Quiet carriage etiquette: do you pass the test?

I’m not very organised, but sometimes I like order. For example, I like ‘quiet carriages’ on trains to be, well, quiet. Sometimes I feel a bit lonely in that, so I am heartened to see someone has used his anger creatively to bang the message home (though not so loudly as to upset other passengers).

Image: Quiet Carriage, by Kai Hendry on (licence: CC BY 2.0)

Image: Quiet Carriage, by Kai Hendry on (licence: CC BY 2.0)

The subject of quiet railway carriages divides people nearly as efficiently as Marmite. I’ve found it’s one of those issues that can send pleasant conversations hurtling suddenly in unexpected and frightening directions. So, although I’ve whinged about quiet carriages before, I generally try to avoid the topic.

You see, I’m one of those people that thinks ‘quiet carriages’ should be just that: quiet carriages. We will forgive you for missing the signage (designed, apparently, by someone whose line of sight is tuned to a different frequency than everyone else’s); but, once you’re aware of the situation, you deserve all the indignant, passive-aggressive glances you get for turning perfectly good music into pebbly rattlesnake piss.

However, many people see attitudes such as mine as anal, aloof and uptight. So, I was delighted when I discovered this morning that someone else (a chap called Tom Scott) was so irked by behviour in quiet carriages that he came up with this:

The Quiet Carriage Proficiency Test.

Try it, it’s fun. And, if I had my way, it would be legally binding and enforced by burly train guards. Or by lynchmobs from Neighbourhood Watch.

If you want to be more efficient, ask more questions

A colleague recently asked why some services demanded CSV files when Excel files contained all the data they needed. Some people I know would have put their head in their hands, but I blessed the fact that someone was actually asking questions.

Images: Question Mark Cookies 3, by Scott McLeod on (licence: CC BY 2.0)

Images: Question Mark Cookies 3, by Scott McLeod on (licence: CC BY 2.0)

I explained that Excel files contain a whole load of formatting, specifically for use with Excel. CSV (comma separated values) is raw text: it is program-agnostic and can be read into all sorts of applications. Export a file to CSV from Excel and open it in a text editor (not a word processor) and you’ll see all the raw data, with each cell separated by a comma. Try opening an Excel file in a text editor and you won’t see much of any use.

The result? A colleague who has a better understanding of data formats – and of the tools he uses – than many of his colleagues.

He also asked me to remind him of the tool I had recommended for plotting postcodes to a map. I told him it was Google Fusion Tables, but faltered a little because I was in the middle of something else. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘you don’t need to explain how it works. Now that I know what it’s called I can go away and learn it myself.’ I could have kissed him.

In contrast, another colleague gave a temp exactly the same task a couple of years ago. I only found out after she had spent two days adding pins manually to an online map. I had to break it to them gently that, with just a list of postcodes and a Google account, she could have done the whole lot in a matter of minutes.

It fascinates and frustrates me that people tend not to question their efficiency or ask more of the tools they use. The simple question, ‘how could I do this more efficiently?’ leads me to search Google, or an application’s help pages, to see if someone has provided an answer already. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they have; and ninety-eight percent of the time it’s already a feature of the tool I’m using.

Then, I consider quickly whether the time needed to learn the shortcut is likely to be better spent than doing the task the long way. It usually is.

Two productivity tools that I find very handy

I usually turn my nose up at talk of productivity tools. I mean, how much time is wasted trying out the newest time-saving fads? However, there are two things in particular that I find so valuable that it would be selfish not to share them.

What better image to accompany a post about productivity than one of some amorous rabbits? Image: Bunny Love by David-O on Flickr (licence: CC BY 2.0)

What better image to accompany a post about productivity than one of some amorous rabbits?
Image: Bunny Love by David-O on Flickr (licence: CC BY 2.0)

The first is simple text editing. I don’t mean editing computer code: I mean no-frills, distraction-free writing.

There are a number of tools for this, which take away the clutter and force you to concentrate on writing (I use JDarkroom). I was skeptical when I first heard of such things and was slow to explore them, but I found they really did make an enormous difference.

There is no formatting, so I can’t get sidetracked by making my text look pretty. It takes up the whole screen, so I’m not distracted by the taskbar reminding me that I have other windows open that might be interesting to look at.

It simply presents editable text in a way that is easy on the eye, which makes it much easier to concentrate. I don’t use it all the time, but it has proven invaluable on occasion.

The second thing is organising notes. I use Evernote, which is an absolute godsend. For years, I would scour the free cover CDs of computer magazines, hoping for a simple tool that would let me organise notes and share them across programs and platforms (I used both Macs and PCs at the time). I tried a few, but they were a complete waste of time. When one seemed to do what I wanted, I would use it for a bit and then discover it wasn’t flexible enough. And it wasn’t compatible with anything else, so I would have to start from scratch when I found a new tool to try.

Eventually, though, tags and the cloud came along. Now we can easily label and organise all of our notes, images, bookmarks and what-have-you, and syncronise them seamlessly across our devices – all stored centrally so we don’t have multiple copies to worry about.

I have used Evernote pretty heavily for a few years, on PC’s, Macs and iPhones. I’ve also started using OneNote a little at work. OneNote is Microsoft’s note organiser, and integrates very nicely with its Office suite. I don’t know about Apple products, but I expect there’s a native equivalent for die-hard Apple users.

The most powerful thing about it is that I can make a note of anything I like, and find it again easily, regardless of how my notes are organised. With OneNote, I can attach notes to any other Office item (eg an email, contact or calendar), which is really helpful for keeping ephemeral bits of intelligence connected to each other.