Saturday, September 29, 2007

Old Books III

From 'The American Journal of Education' (1856), on the 'Instruction of Idiots':

What is the proportion of idiots to the population? The data we yet possess do not seem to be sufficient to answer this question accurately, in regard to our own country, though approximations have been made towards a census of this class, in several States. In the mountainous districts of Europe the number of cretins, as already stated, is very great. In the Alpine districts they constitute from 5 to 10 per cent of the population; in Great Britain, according to recent returns, there are over 50,000, a little more than one-half of one per cent ...
How comforting. And on the causes of idiocy:
It has often occurred that when one or both parents were so fully possessed with the greed of gain, that intellectual and moral culture were wholly neglected, and in their furious pursuit of wealth they paused not for the rest of the Sabbath, thought not of the future, and heeded not the appeals of the poor, the sick, or the dying for sympathy or succour, their offspring have been idiots of the lowest class.
I'm confident our current thinking will also provide much to be laughed at 150 years from now. If only I could filter the wheat from the chaff.

Old books II

From 'Proverbial Philosophy: A Book of Thoughts and Arguments' (1859):

Memory is not wisdom; idiots can rote volumes:
Yet, what is wisdom without memory? a babe that is strangled in its birth,

Old texts

As well as developing a taste for old films (there's a good one on the BBC to tonight, again with Lee Marvin), I've started to move away from contemporary fiction in favour of the classics and older works in general.

I've found Google Books is a wonderful tool to search for long lost writings. Indeed, it's quite easy to spend a few hours lazily adventuring around this lost world, stumbling around and enjoying the delights of forgotten works. While recent books are only partially scanned due to copyright laws, you can restrict your searches to 'Full Versions' to limit your findings to books and articles that have been scanned in their entirety. Wonderful.

Pandora radio

The world works in funny ways. A few days ago, I got rid of the remnants of my CD collection. All that is left is a CD box set on learning Spanish and two RnB CD's by Ginuwine, which I have kept to play as background music if needed. I'll probably get rid of these before the year is through.

I still love music but I tend to listen to the radio these days, and on this note I've just stumbled across an excellent web-site called Pandora.

Pandora is an ad-free, streaming radio website that tailors the music to your tastes. It's extremely simple to operate. Just click on 'Create a New Station', type in one of your favourite artists or the name of a track, and ummm, that's it. Pandora then uses some nifty, behind-the-scenes software to create a personalised music stream. You can add more artists to your station and create multiple stations, but that's all optional. Yahoo has a similar service, as does lifefm, but Pandora is pure magic.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Film: The Big Heat

I watched The Big Heat (1953) yesterday. Even though it's filmed in black and white, there is a certain crispness about the film that injects energy into every scene, bringing the film to life. It's a good story, filled with action and quality acting throughout (Lee Marvin has a meaty role as a mob hand). Also, the art deco flavour of the sets is beautiful.

It was a bit of a surprise seeing people getting shot and pulled out of exploded cars without so much as a scratch on them, but this doesn't detract from the credibility of the story one bit. So many films now seem to focus on getting the effects right at the expense of good storyline.

I highly recommend this film to all.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tim Cope is a real adventurer

He has just completed a 3 year+ journey following in the footsteps of Genghis Khan.

"Out on the road I am challenged to learn," says Cope, who has become a rugged mystic. "Feeling the air, in touch with the way the world works, aware of everything around you. In the winter time you even realise when the days shorten by one or two minutes. If I'm in an apartment for a week I totally lose touch with what the moon's doing, where the stars are, what the weather's doing, and I start to lose my strength. To live in the city, in a world of abundance and disconnection where everything is controlled at the touch of a button, for me that feels like... death."

Monday, September 24, 2007

RM Clubhouse

Making the most of the last few days of sunshine we played around six hours of golf this Sunday.

The scorecard is taking a new shape. I seem to have hit a plateau, with an average of 35-36, while the rest of crew are closing in on the holy land (breaking 40). Highlights:

* Me and Abdul put in solid performances, but our averages notch a few decimal points higher.
* Levi pulls out some monster puts to take his 5-game average all the way down to 42.8.
* Ijaz joins the party, and is seen practising verbal self-harm after missing a few 'gimme' puts.
* After abusing the friendly Mulligan rule, sometimes taking as many as 3 Mulligans on a single hole, we establish a quota of 1 Mulligan per player, per round.
* We note the population of squirrels has grown in past weeks, while the population of rabbits receded. The seasons are changing.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Calorie restriction II

Here is a picture of Mike Linksvayer. At the time of the picture, Mike was 36 years old and had been on a calorie restricted diet for six years:

I don't think it's the best look, but perhaps it's a price worth paying.

And here is a link comparing a normal diet against a CR diet.

The monkey on the right is on a normal diet, and the one on the left is on a CR diet.

Caloric restriction

Want to live a longer, healthier life? The paradoxical answer may be to eat less, a lot less.

For a while now, it's been known that lifespans can be increased by drastically reducing calorie intake, at least for certain animals. It's called calorie restriction, and many people are already trying it in an effort to extend their lifespans. You can find a couple of good articles on calorie restriction here and here.

What's particularly interesting is that scientists are starting to find their way around the actual biological processes involved. A new study reveals that mitochondria, the cell's natural energy battery, plays a key role:

Researchers report in the journal Cell that the phenom is likely linked to two enzymes—SIRT3 and SIRT4—in mitochondria (the cell's powerhouse that, among other tasks, converts nutrients to energy). They found that a cascade of reactions triggered by lower caloric intake raises the levels of these enzymes, leading to an increase in the strength and efficiency of the cellular batteries. By invigorating the mitochondria, SIRT3 and SIRT4 extend the life of cells, by preventing flagging mitochondria from developing tiny holes (or pores) in their membranes that allow proteins that trigger apoptosis, or cell death, to seep out into the rest of the cell.
Here are some quotes from another report on the same study:

Sinclair and his colleagues found that, when either rat or human cells were deprived of nutrients (as in a caloric-restriction diet), the overall cellular concentration of a compound known as NAD dropped precipitously -- but not within mitochondria. Indeed, following any kind of cellular stress, mitochondrial NAD concentration actually increased.

Sinclair's team found that mitochondria can synthesize their own NAD to withstand stress, thereby helping the cells stay alive long enough to repair themselves.

Two members of a family of genes called sirtuins were required for this effect to occur, the authors found. Those proteins, SIRT3 and SIRT4, both reside within the mitochondria, and they need NAD to do their jobs.

"We were able to mimic calorie restriction in a dish," said Sinclair, "and that's important, because for decades, people knew calorie restriction made the cells less prone to death, but not how it worked, and we tracked it down to the mitochondria and to SIRT3 and SIRT4."

... This suggests that if SIRT3 and SIRT4 could be chemically activated, it might be possible to achieve the benefits of caloric restriction without the diet. That could slow the progress of diseases based on cell death, such as Alzheimer's, cancer and diabetes, he said, and possibly extend life span as a result.

A tablet for extending your life is some way off, but it's encouraging that progress is being made in this important field. In the meanwhile, you could join the society of calorie restictors, reducing your daily intake to a mere 1,500 calories a day (for men). Personally, I favour eating, and will probably continue to keep eating like a horse . . . and when those tablets eventually come along, well, I'll eat them as well.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The is free

New subscribers to the Economist can get 12 issues of the magazine for £12, which is pretty darn good. However, for the real scroungers amongst us, even this is too much. It is good news then, that the content on the is now free (only archive material and some other tit bits are restricted to paying customers). This happened kind of covertly, so thank to Felix Salmon for pointing it out. Ben Edwards, publisher of the, comments:

For most of's history, the site was a mix of paid and free content. In September 2006 we moved to making all content free on our homepage, with a mix of paid content in other parts of the site and all content moving behind the pay barrier within a month of publication. As of June 1, 2007, all content is now published as free on initially and remains free for 365 days - a move which, as one of your readers points out, we have signalled clearly in our marketing.

After that, content transfers to the archive, which sits behind a pay barrier and requires an activated web or print subscription to view.

We introduced this change for two reasons:

Firstly, we rightly calculated it would raise traffic to Page views and uniques are growing at 50% year on year and growth continues to accelerate rapidly. This creates new advertising inventory, improves the quality and number of links to, expands print sampling to potential new customers and increases the number of print subscriptions we sell through As you point out, customers who want a print-like experience continue to buy print - and in growing numbers. Our web publishing complements the print experience rather than competes with it: our customers use web and print very differently.

Secondly, the change replaces a pricing system that had become complex with a simple, clean rule that our customers find easy to understand. With this change, our premium product has become our archive. Other premium elements are still being introduced to the website - for example, our recent launch of the full audio edition of The Economist.

Thought seed: the Capitalism-Communism spectrum

In a recent episode of Tribe, Bruce Parry spent time living with the people of Anuta, a tiny paradise island with a community of just two hundred and fifty people. The Anutans lived harmoniously together, sharing all their resources with one another. Here is a description of their way of life:

"Concern for others is the backbone of Anutan philosophy. 'Aropa' is a concept for giving and sharing, roughly translated as compassion, love and affection. Aropa informs the way Anutans treat one another and it is demonstrated through the giving and sharing of material goods such as food. For example, the land on Anuta is shared among the family units so that each family can cultivate enough food to feed themselves and those around them."
As with many other tribes, money (even bartering) seemed to play only a peripheral role the Anutan's idyllic lives. I'm not sure how long this will last as the community could clearly benefit from a medical centre. I assume this would cost money.

The episode got me thinking about competing theories of organisation, from capitalism to communism, and everything in between. Perhaps communism and other social modes are better suited to community living, where social cohesion and sharing is of more benefit to the community than capitalist/free-market models, which are much more about each man for himself. However, as a society grows in number, perhaps the social model breaks down and the free market mechanism takes over as the optimal model, with it's magical hand of the free market making resource allocation decisions far more efficiently than a large centralised regime.

I wonder if any simulations or studies have been performed on population size and effectiveness of these different modes.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

House prices over the years

I've circled house price figures for Japan and Hong Kong over the past decade. Just a little reminder for us UK folk, who are accustomed to double-digit, year-on-year percentage gains.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Northern Rock panic

I went to Northern Rock this morning to withdraw my savings. It was total chaos. Here's a short video clip I took on my mobile:

Friday, September 14, 2007

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

House prices

Many people are calling the housing market overvalued on the basis that rents don't even cover the payments on interest-only mortgages. Because of this fact, buy-to-let investors have to either contribute to their mortgages every month, or put down a very large deposit to reduce the monthly payments. The economics just don't add up, or do they?

My thought on the housing market is:

Monthly payments on 'interest-only' mortgages should always exceed the monthly rent.

Flipping this statement around and thinking from the buy-to-let perspective, what I am saying is that the rental proceed on a property should never cover the interest. Huh? Hear me out. My argument is that when you buy a house with an interest-only mortgage, your new landlord becomes the bank or building society and still don't really own the house. All you have done is switched one type of rent for another. However, this new rental agreement has several advantages over the traditional landlord:

* Whereas a normal landlord is able to kick you out of the house according to the break clauses of the contract, bank lenders don't this. That's one less worry.
* Landlords may increase rents every year. While rents don't rise that much in reality, incremental increases over the years add up. In contrast, the bank lender charges you a fixed interest rate (rent). This is based on a % of the nominal value outstanding on the mortgage and will not rise over time in nominal terms.
* Also, you have a hedge on the housing market. House prices rise over the long-term and even if you aren't betting on capital appreciation, should prices rise then you only have to pay down the original value. Good times.

Together, these factors must have a positive value. That is, they are all something that people would pay for. So, renting from a bank/building society is clearer better than renting from a landlord, and it is right that it should cost more. Perhaps the economics add up just fine.

(I know missed a lot of things out in this simplified example, but it's something to think about).

Monday, September 10, 2007

He's read books you know

Just happened across a collection of photos of beautiful libraries around the world. It's well worth a visit. You can almost smell the mustiness of the yellowed pages.

Man's relationship with knowledge has changed drastically over the years as knowledge has been made available to all, first through the invention of the printing presses, and now via the internet. With information now readily available at the click of a button, I am led to wonder whether our capacity to remember facts will be a lesser valued attribute in the years ahead.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

RM Golf Clubhouse - Live scorecard

We decided to venture further afield this week, trying our hand at another 9-hole course with much longer holes. It was most unnerving not being able to see the pin, and many balls were blasted into the surrounding woodland. It was a valuable and humbling experience ... and after a late lunch we scuttled back to our 'home' course in Stanmore!

Back on familiar territory, Abs and Levi proceeded to knock out personal best scores of 38 and 41 respectively. Nice work chaps.

Here's the link to the latest scorecard.

You know your mind is somewhere else when ...

... you fill your morning tea mug with Rice Krispies.

Previous episodes of absent mindedness include dropping my toothbrush out of the window after brushing my teeth, and putting my bathrobe on over my clothes instead of my coat (these both happened a few years ago).

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Something for the weekend

A couple of interesting science articles for the weekend:

On biased research:

A research team at Children’s Hospital Boston performed a meta-analysis of 206 nutrition-related studies on milk, juice and soft drinks conducted from 1999 to 2003. Of the 111 that had declared financial sponsorship, 54 percent were at least partly funded by industry. Industry-supported studies were four to seven times more likely to favor their sponsors than research paid for by disinterested parties.
Some depressing news:

... results, published today in the Lancet, showed that depression had more impact on sufferers than angina, arthritis, asthma, and diabetes.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Spring clean

I love getting rid of stuff. It seems to lighten the metaphysical burden of existence.

A few years ago I waged several great wars with my clothing. Many bin bags were filled with clothes that I hadn't wore in ages and that I was never going to wear, and out they went. Very little was spared and I felt extremely cleansed afterwards. To date, I miss nothing that I have given away or thrown out, nada. I highly recommend the practice to all.

Today however, I realised that I had added to my wardrobe without doing the necessary taking away, and that my total clothing supply was creeping higher. It was time for a purge.

And purge I have: I've just rid myself of a further 5 shirts, 2 pairs of trousers, 1 pair of jeans, a leather belt, 1 pair of shorts, 3 jumpers, an undershirt thingy, and one suit jacket. This leaves me with just one pair of jeans and two pairs of tracksuit bottoms for my bottom half, so to speak, but it's plenty enough for the time being.

Feels good.

Long words

'Reductionist, heterodoxy, interregnum, formative'

... this simple man is in above his head.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The RMF Clubhouse

The RM Society is making the most of the last summer days by packing in as much golf as possible. Here is the updated scorecard for 2007.

It's been a good year so far, with improvements all round.