Friday, August 31, 2007

The good book


The times, they are a changin'.

Tyler Cowen at the 'Marginal Revolution' has written an interesting post on 'The Ethics of Book Abuse', in which he discusses people's reverential attitudes to books, or otherwise. My personal take is that the younger generation generally have a very different view on books compared to older generations. At one extreme, we have my mother's old practice of wrapping text-book covers in tough paper to prevent damage. This probably comes from a time when books where expensive and perhaps more importantly, knowledge itself was scare. My outlook is quite different. I will do whatever I need to maximise my benefit from the book. Assuming it's mine, I'm happy to tear or dog-earing pages, highlighting tracts of text, or adding my own comments in the margins. It's all about extracting information and moving on. In a world where information is so readily available, it is less about the 'object' and more about how best it can service my needs. Some of my friends still treat books with a certain reverence, but I really don't see the point. I find it helps to think of a book as a big newspaper or magazine.

'He's read books you know, he's amazing!'

- King Henry on Becket (in the film 'Becket')

The Shield

I never thought I would say this but my favourite tv show is on Channel 5!

'The Shield' is a gritty police drama where it's difficult to tell the good guys from the bad. The series is so dark (and gruesome), you sometimes step back and ask why you are watching it ... nothing good is happening. The show takes place in a run down part of America where gang warfare is rife, where the station is stretched for resources, and where the dirty hand of politics reaches far and wide. All the cops who are any good at their jobs are on the take, and the best detective is a monster who understands the streets and does what it takes to get the job done, dishing out his own version of street justice and dipping his beak into various, nefarious activities along the way. He is the cornerstone of the station's relative success - they need him but they don't want him. This guy is so corrupt that when they sent in a 'straight-as-an-arrow' internal affairs guy to bust him, the IA guy ended up getting corrupted in the process (this cat and mouse game was superb while it lasted, with the the IA guy played superbly by Forest Whittaker, who slowly became everything he despised).

There's just one more episode tonight before this season comes to a close. And then we wait until the next, final series ... hopefully Sky won't buy the rights to this like they did with Lost and 24!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Origami Yoda

After seeing this, I thought it was not a proper origami that could be followed. And then I found the instructions. Yoda, in sixty steps, will be made ... but not by me, I don't have the patience.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A cost-benefit analysis of anti-terrorism spending

In a recent posting at Econlog, Bryan Caplan discusses Kip Viscusi's (esteemed risk expert) outlook on terrorism:

'Viscusi told me that, in his judgment, the median number of deaths from domestic terrorism in the coming year will be zero, and the mean number of deaths in the coming year will be 50 - "or about half the number of motor-vehicle related deaths per day."

If Viscusi is right, it's safe to say that we're annually spending more than a billion dollars per life saved. Good grief!'

If this interests you, you must read the handful of comment responses for further insight.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Book: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (2)

Continuing with The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (1835), here are a couple of quotes from 'The Nose':

Having said this, he left the newspaper office in deep vexation and went to see the police commissioner, a great lover of sugar. In his house, the entire front room, which was also the dining room, was filled with sugar loaves that merchants had brought him out of friendship.

This doctor was an imposing man, possessed of handsome, pitch black side-whiskers and of a fresh, robust doctress, ate fresh apples in the morning, and kept his mouth extraordinarily clean by rinsing it every morning for nearly three quarters of an hour and polishing his teeth with five different sorts of brushes.

Microsoft Image Resizer: a wonderful tool for shrinking photos

This little download is absolutely essential if you regularly upload photos to the web for general viewing. Go to this Microsoft page, scroll down the right hand side of the page and click on the executable file called 'ImageResizer.exe'.

Now, when you right click on an image or multiple images in the file manager, you'll see a new option to 'Resize Pictures':

Clicking on 'Resize Pictures' brings up this simple menu:

Select 'Small' for most web shots for blogs, Facebook etc. A new copy of the file is made in an instant:


As you can see from the above screen shot the 'Small' version is over 90% smaller than the original, so will be much quicker to upload. Also, on sites like Facebook, which don't allow you to magnify pictures, these shots will also be clearer than the full size versions.

Magic.

Thought seed

The idea of intellect needs to be updated. When I was growing up, education was largely an exercise in recall/memory. This notion of intellect is outmoded. In today's world, knowledge is readily available via the internet. Information is no longer in the hands of the few.

In this age, knowing is one thing, but it is better to be able to make effective enquiries, to solve problems and think productively, and to know how to know (i.e. be able to source quality knowledge on an as needed basis).


'He's read books you know, he's amazing!'

- King Henry on Becket (in the film 'Becket')

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Trapped in the Closet


Here is chapter 1 of R Kelly's musical opera 'Trapped in the Closet':



There are 22 chapters so far (all on Youtube), with many more to come, according the the aliens that is:
Interviewer: Is there an end in your mind, some day, for Trapped in the Closet...?

R Kelly: Well, it's pretty much when the aliens decide to leave. It's on them. They're out here, studying us, I think, you know, trying to figure out what are we going to think about this Trapped in the Closet, but the whole things is, man, I don't see Trapped in the Closet ending.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Book: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

Just read the wonderfully surreal 'Diary of a Madman', from The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (1835).

Here are some quotes:

This day - is a day of the greatest solemnity! Spain has a king. He has been found. I am that king. Only this very day did I learn of it. I confess, it came to me suddenly in a flash of lightning. I don't understand how I could have though and imagined that I was a titular councillor. How could such a wild notion enter my head? It's a good thing no one thought of putting me in an insane asylum. Now everything is laid open before me. Now I see everything as on the palm of my hand. And before, I don't understand, before everything around me was in some sort of fog. And all this happens, I think, because people imagine that the human brain is in the head. Not at all: it is brought about by a wind from the direction of the Caspian Sea.

... I didn't go to the office...To hell with it! No, friends, you won't lure me there now; I'm not going to copy your vile papers!

It's all ambition, and ambition is caused by a little blister under the tongue with a little worm in it the size on a pinhead, and it's all the doing of some barber who lives in Gorokhovaya Street. I don't know what his name is; but it's known for certain that he, together with some midwife, wants to spread Mohammedanism throughout the world...'

I decided to occupy myself with state affairs. I discovered that China and Spain are absolutely one and the same land, and it is only out of ignorance that they are considered separate countries. I advise everyone purposely to write Spain on a piece of paper, and it will come out China. But, nevertheless, I was extremely upset by an event that is going to take place tomorrow. Tomorrow at seven o'clock a strange phenomenon will occur: the earth is going to sit on the moon. This has also been written about by the noted English chemist Wellington.

... I hurried to the state council chamber to order the police not to allow the earth to sit on the moon. The shaved grandees, great numbers of whom I found in the state council chamber, were all very intelligent people, and when I said, 'Gentlemen, let us save the moon, because the earth wants to sit on it,' they all rushed up at once to carry out my royal will, and many crawled up the wall to get to the moon, but just then the lord chancellor came in. Seeing him, they all ran away. I, being the king, was the only one to remain. But, to my surprise, the chancellor hit me with a stick and drove me to my room. Such is the power of popular custom in Spain!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dubai buys into Vegas


Only a few weeks ago I was comparing Dubai to Las Vegas: both are built on sand. I thought the similarities pretty much stopped there, but I was wrong. Bloomberg news is reporting the Dubai government 'will invest as much as $5.1 billion in Kirk Kerkorian's MGM Mirage, giving the Las Vegas casino company a partner as it expands into real estate.' We have to ask what the government is thinking investing in a casino when gambling is strictly forbidden in islam.

Dubai World's chairman, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, defends the position by noting the fund already has a small stake in Kerzner International, who own of the Bahamas' Paradise Island casino. He says "Through our Kerzner investment we're already into gambling, so this shouldn't come as a surprise," and “The important thing is that MGM’s non-gambling revenue is rising.”

I find this justification extremely very weak and believe it speaks volumes about ethics, double-standards and how easily the profit motive over-rides principles at the highest levels. Scanning the Middle Eastern and UAE press, I am struggling to find any meaningful criticism of the investment, but this is a part of the world where censorship rules so it is no real surprise. I firmly believe if Dubai is investing in casinos they should allow their citizens to gamble freely. Taking the 'do as I say, not as I do' approach is not good PR.

As an aside, here is an article from 2001, when Dubai issued a fatwa on Pokemon of all things:

Dubai Department of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs has issued a ‘fatwa' banning Pokemon because of the nature of the game of the game and its adverse effects on religious beliefs and behaviour of children. The department said that after a thorough study of the rules of the game and its nature, a special committee formed for this purpose found that Pokemon was against the teachings of religion because it was a clear form of gambling and ‘even more dangerous than that.'
This rant is part of the 'things that get my goat' series. It is what blogs are for, unless of course you live in China or the Middle East.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

An old classic discovered: Becket

A few nights ago I was treated to a film called Becket, which - even though I have am only a third of the way through - is absolutely superb. Becket was made way back when in 1964 and stars the acting legends Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O'Toole as an wonderfully intense, unconstrained and maniacal King Henry. Watching this film gives me a new respect for O'Toole and has me wondering about all the hidden celluloid gems that lie awaiting discovery.

From the film:

Thomas a Becket: Tonight you can do me the honor of christening my forks.
King Henry II: Forks?
Thomas a Becket: Yes, from Florence. New little invention. It's for pronging meat and carrying it to the mouth. It saves you dirtying your fingers.
King Henry II: But then you dirty the fork.
Thomas a Becket: Yes, but it's washable.
King Henry II: So are your fingers. I don't see the point.

Facebook: Amy goes to rehab

They tried to make me go on Facebook, I said 'No, no, no'.

In the end, Amy Whinehouse did go to rehab.

And I went to Facebook.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

FTSE crashes 4.10% (to 5,858)

in a day. The media will be filled with news of impending doom, scaring the man-on-the-street with fear-filled stories at the very time he should be buying stock and enjoying the 7%-9% long-term return provided by the market.

Why fish?

I never 'got it', until now:

"I fish because I love to, because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful; and hate the environs where people are found, which are invariably ugly; Because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties, social posturing I thus escape; Because in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing things they hate, my fishing is, at once, an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion; Because trout do not lie, or cheat, or cannot be bought, or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility, and endless patience; Because I suspect that men are going along this way, for the last time, and I, for one, don't want to waste the trip; Because mercifully there are no telephones on trout waters; Because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness; Because bourbon out of an old tin cup always tastes better out there; Because maybe one day I'll catch a mermaid; And finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important, but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant and not nearly so much fun."

- John Voelker, Michigan Supreme Court Justice, attorney, and author.

(Hat tip to David Lamb)

Cut interest rates

The US economy is in trouble and the Federal Reserve may have to cut rates if the the mess in the financial sector really spills over to the real economy. Nevertheless, this particular US presenter seems to be taking things a little personally. Enjoy.



Thank god for traditional British reserve, long may it last.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Fatty developments: part II


A few more developments on 'fat', building on my earlier post on the topic:

* The BBC have just reported on a rat-based study from the Royal Veterinary College, suggesting that junk-food eating, pregnant mothers may be predisposing their children to a preference for similar unhealthy food:

The female rats used in the Wellcome Trust funded research were either given a balanced diet of "rat chow" - an unappealing but reasonably healthy diet - or access to as many doughnuts, biscuits, muffins, sweets and crisps as they could consume.

This diet was continued in some rats up to birth, and then during the breastfeeding period until weaning.

Unsurprisingly, the rats given free rein to eat sweets consumed more food overall.

Significantly, however, their babies showed marked differences in behaviour compared with the offspring of chow-fed rats.

The young rats were split into different groups - some of those from chow-fed mothers given nothing but their chow to eat, while the babies of junk-fed mothers, and the rest from chow-fed mothers, were given a mixture of chow and junk food to see which they chose.

Those in the chow-only group consumed the least food, while those from healthy-eating mothers given junk food again were tempted to eat more.

They ate roughly twice as much as those on the chow-only diets.

The researchers suggested that the "pleasure chemicals" released by the mother when eating fatty foods might have an effect on the developing brain of the foetus.

While we can't draw any firm conclusions about what this means for humans, I wouldn't be at all surprised if evidence eventually comes out supporting this idea about 'foetal programming' with respect to one's diet. For sure, it is easy to construct an evolutionary based theory as to why such pre-programming would be beneficial for offspring. The notion also seems to fit very well with epigentics, which I discussed earlier. Indeed, my first article on epigentics concluded with, 'So, next time you stuff yourself with donuts, liquor, drugs, or whatever else your poison may be, bear in mind that somewhere inside your body, these little (biochemical) switches may be clicking on and off !'. In the same piece, as an aside, I commented that 'I haven’t looked in to it yet, but I have hypothesized for a long time that the while the prevalence of diabetes among Indian’s can be attributed to to diet, the higher risk of of diabetes in the next generation (who eat a more Western diet) can be atrributed in part to hereditary factors. I may be reaching here, but epigenetics would provide the perfect bridge.' Well, the press release from the Royal Veterinary College reports that:

The study published in The Journal of Physiology carried out by Professor Neil Stickland and Dr Stephanie Bayol showed that rats fed doughnuts, muffins, chocolate, crisps, cheese, biscuits and sweets during pregnancy and lactation gave birth to offspring which showed increased fatness and muscle waste. The offspring also showed signs of insulin resistance, a condition that precedes the early onset of type-2 diabetes, as early as 3 weeks of age.

* The dangerous pot belly - The BBC has another story telling us that all not fat is not equal. Reporting on study from the University of Texas, a strong link was found between having an apple shaped body (i.e, a pot-belly) and the risk of heart disease. Because of this, the BMI health measure may be less effective that a simple waist-to-hip ratio (WTR) measure. So, as well as keeping an eye on our total body weight, we also need to consider our body shape.

Quoting Professor James de Lemos, who led the research:

"Fat that accumulates around your waist seems to be more biologically active as it secretes inflammatory proteins that contribute to atherosclerotic plaque build-up, whereas fat around your hips doesn't appear to increase risk for cardiovascular disease at all.

"We think the key message for people is to prevent accumulation of central fat early on in their lives.

"Even a small pot belly puts us at higher risk when compared to a flat tummy."

While these findings may not be particularly ground breaking - I've come across such research before - they should help in getting people to think about body fat in a different way.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Where is Manimal?

Watching tv a few days ago, I flicked over to BBC 1 to watch the closing minutes of an episode of Casualty, where I saw a doctor played by an actor with a familiar face. I couldn't quite place him, but then it clicked - this chap was the lead actor from Manimal! Manimal is one of the lesser known action heroes from the 1980s but he was definitely a childhood favourite.

Wikipedia says Manimal '... was meant to have the ability to change himself into any animal, in practice his onscreen transformations were almost always into a hawk or black panther, with the exact same backdrops each time, presumably to save on the budget, though he did become a snake once. (In the episodes when Dr. Chase turned into a bull, dolphin, and horse, the actual transformations occurred off-screen.)'

Dr Chase, was the 'master of the secrets that divide man from animal, animal from man, Manimal.'

It's good to see Manimal resurfacing, this time having transformed himself into a competent doctor on Casualty.

For fans of the Manimal series, here are some clips from Youtube:

This transformation is burned into my childhood memories:



A fan's compilation of Manimal's kung-fu fighting. Watch out, Manimal is lethal!



Thank you Manimal.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Tap

From the Economist:

'The success of bottled water is in many ways one of capitalism’s greatest mysteries. Studies show consistently that tap water is purer than many bottled waters—not including those that contain only tap water, which by some estimates is 40% of the total by volume. The health benefits that are claimed for some bottled waters are unproven, at best. By volume, bottled water often costs 1,000 times the price of tap water. Indeed, even with oil prices sky high, a litre of bottled water can cost more than a litre of petrol. And on top of that, there are the environmental costs of transporting bottled water and of manufacturing and disposing of the bottles.
Yet sales of bottled water have been booming. In 2006 Americans spent nearly $11 billion buying 8.25 billion gallons (31.2 billion litres) of the stuff, an increase in volume of 9.5% on a year earlier. The average American drank 27.6 gallons of bottled water last year, up from 16.7 gallons in 2000.

In Britain, despite the failure of Dasani, sales of bottled water have soared from 990m litres in 1998 to 2.28 billion litres in 2006—worth $3.3 billion and accounting for 15% of the total soft-drinks market. Its share is forecast to rise to 21% next year.'

Promoting free trade helps The RMF to go global

My last piece, 'Free trade and the politicians who get out goat' has been picked up by the Wall Street Journal, finally unleashing The RMF onto the unsuspecting masses. Okay, what actually happened is that the WSJ uses a nifty piece of software called Sphere, which scouts the blogosphere for relevant blogs and lists them below related stories (see graphic below). It's good to see the blogosphere getting integrated into the mainstream media in this way.


Okay, enough trumpet blowing and more content!

Going back to the importance of standing up against politicians who aim to impose obstacles to free trade, the WSJ discusses the Smoot-Hawley tariffs in relation to the 1930s Great Depression:

'Though many associate the Great Depression with the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929, the market actually rallied during the six months following Black Tuesday, while the defeat of Smoot-Hawley appeared likely. The market turned south again in April 1930 as those hopes of defeat gradually dimmed.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank a full 8%, from 250 to 230, over just two trading days in June 1930, in direct response to the Senate's passage of Smoot-Hawley and Hoover's announcement that he would sign it. Exacerbated by other flawed governmental policies, an international trade war continued to drive the market down until the Dow hit a low of 41 on July 8, 1932, having lost 89% of its value from its September, 1929 high. It would be 25 years before the market recovered its 1929 peak.'

Enough said.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Free trade and the politicians who get our goat

Reading the economics blog of Gregory Mankiw - Harvard professor, and author of my favourite economics text book - I learn of a petition protesting against US protectionist policies against China. Long live free trade!

'In 1930, Congress passed and President Hoover signed into law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. At the time, this protectionist measure was vigorously opposed by 1,028 of the nation’s top economists. They rightly predicted the tariffs would devastate the economy. And, in fact, the country subsequently plunged into the Great Depression.

Now some in Congress are considering ways to enact similar protectionist policies against China. Once again, 1,028 of America’s top economists, from all 50 states and top universities, have signed the following petition sponsored by the Club for Growth in opposition to protectionist policies against China. In addition to many other prominent and well-respected economists, signatories include Nobel Laureates Finn Kydland, Edward Prescott, Thomas Schelling, and Vernon Smith.'

The petition:

'We, the undersigned, have serious concerns about the recent protectionist sentiments coming from Congress, especially with regards to China.

By the end of this year, China will most likely be the United States' second largest trading partner. Over the past six years, total trade between the two countries has soared, growing from $116 billion in 2000 to almost $343 billion in 2006. That's an average growth rate of almost 20% a year.

This marvelous growth has led to more affordable goods, higher productivity, strong job growth, and a higher standard of living for both countries. These economic benefits were made possible in large part because both China and the United States embraced freer trade.

As economists, we understand the vital and beneficial role that free trade plays in the world economy. Conversely, we believe that barriers to free trade destroy wealth and benefit no one in the long run. Because of these fundamental economic principles, we sign this letter to advise Congress against imposing retaliatory trade measures against China.

There is no foundation in economics that supports punitive tariffs. China currently supplies American consumers with inexpensive goods and low-interest rate loans. Retaliatory tariffs on China are tantamount to taxing ourselves as a punishment. Worse, such a move will likely encourage China to impose its own tariffs, increasing the possibility of a futile and harmful trade war. American consumers and businesses would pay the price for this senseless war through higher prices, worse jobs, and reduced economic growth.

We urge Congress to discard any plans for increased protectionism, and instead urge lawmakers to work towards fostering stronger global economic ties through free trade.'