Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pru Healthcare

I'm very excited about the new health care policy I've taken out with Pru. In truth, I don't care for the insurance element, as I have no plans on using it (fingers crossed). What appeals is the package as an overall lifestyle approach; it includes reduced rate membership at various gyms, discounted health screenings, a strong educational component, and much more. Incentive to look after oneself comes by way of earning 'Vitality' points, that can reduce insurance premiums in the following year. Indeed, with little effort and commitment, it's possible to earn enough points to become a platinum member and reduce one's premium by 100%! What's more, platinum members get ridiculous discounts with various full-body health check providers, and at Champneys health spa (£40 a night including massage and food). Nice.

No more Internet Explorer ... Firefox rules the day

Where are the icons?

After cleaning up my desktop, the next step was to optimise my internet browser. Sorry Microsoft, but from now on I will no longer be using MS Internet Explorer. Firefox is simply too good, and it can be optimised and tailored to no end.

The best thing about Firefox is the availability of add-ons, hundreds of little plug-ins that offer all sorts of functionality. For example, I'm using a couple of add-ons that block almost all advertisements and 'Flash' code, which can be seriously resource intensive. This is great because it speeds up page loading. For the first time ever, I am able to open some thirty tabs (seperate web pages) in Firefox without a noticeable decrease is speed - previously, opening thirty tabs would have slowed down everything on my machine to a halt, as endless adverts gobbled up precious computing power.

For now, here's a pic of my current browser layout, optimised for space and accessibility:


PS - If you are scared of change and want to cling to MS Internet Explorer with both arms, at least download this IE7 Pro add-in. It is an all-in-one solution that does all sorts of wonderful things including ad blocking, flash blocking, tab history management, crash recovery etc.

Stephen Fry has a blog

The wonderful Stephen Fry has a blog that is developing in to something quite exquisite. It has three entries to date, each of painfully high quality. Indeed, his first post on handheld tech devices landed him a job as a technology writer for the Guardian.

Here's an excerpt from his latest piece on the topic of addiction:

"Imagine that one day someone hit himself lightly on the head with a parsnip. Instead of stopping (for this is a foolish thing to do) he carried on doing it. When he eventually did stop he went about his business but discovered, much to his surprise, that he had a sudden unconquerable urge to hit himself lightly on the head with a parsnip all over again. So he did. And the more he did it, the more he needed to do it. The act of doing it gave him a tiny surge of joy, a little rush of pleasure that had to be elicited, never mind what a twazzock he looked, parsnipping himself on the head all day.

Smoking is no less stupid than that. In fact it is a whole bicycle-shed more stupid, because it’s smelly, unsociable, carcinogenic etc etc etc. But the principle is the same: smoking has absolutely no point other than to stop the misery of not smoking. Smokers claim that it aids concentration, soothes the nerves and so on, but we know really that it only does those things because it’s tobacco addiction that messes with concentration and jangles the nerves in the first place. Tapping your head lightly with a parsnip would aid concentration too if not doing it made you all jumpy and desperate."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Winding up the gollup

The RMF contingent will be absent from the course this weekend, and I fear changing weather conditions may mean no more golf for the rest of the year - bad times.

At least we packed a lot of rounds into 2007, and this means we should be ready to attack 18-holes proper in the new year - good times!


Friday, October 26, 2007

Severely Restricted Diet Linked To Physical Fitness Into Old Age

Last month, I reported on the latest scientific findings in the field of calorie restriction. Science Daily now reports on a new study that provides further evidence supporting the idea that severely reducing calore intake can extend the lifespan of rats, and perhaps humans. Quoting the article:

"This is the first study to report that caloric restriction reduced production in visceral fat of the inflammatory cytokine IL-6 and enhanced performance on overall physical function assessments," said Tongjian You, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions and principal investigator.

"In addition, rats that ate a normal diet lost a significant amount of lean muscle mass and acquired more fat, while calorie-restricted rats maintained lean muscle mass as they aged."

The stumbling block on this path to remaining forever young is that humans could not adhere to such a severe diet.

"Based on an average of 2,000 calories per day for adult women and 2,500 for men, cutting by 40 percent would mean surviving on 1,200 and 1,500 calories per day, respectively, said You.

"It's very difficult for people to maintain that type of diet for short periods of time, and it would be nearly impossible over a lifetime, while staying healthy. Starting on a diet like that in the senior years would be harmful."

You said that a more moderate form of caloric restriction, 8 percent, is achievable in humans, based on recent findings, and may have positive effects on specific oxidative stress and inflammatory biomarkers.

Its fascinating stuff. Now pass me a gulabjamun.

Unlocking my Nokia 3120

Because most mobile phones in the UK are restricted to a particular network, if you try to switch the SIM card in your mobile phone, there is a good chance the new SIM won't work. This can be a bit of a pain if you want to switch to a pay-as-you-go chip and keep the same phone, or if you are going abroad and would rather buy a local SIM card to make and receive local calls rather than paying extortionate international roaming charges. So what's the best solution to unlock your phone?

- Ask your network to unlock your phone. I think Orange charges about £30.
- Go to a market stall that unlocks phones (it's perfectly legal). They seem to charge between £10-£20.
- Use an on-line phone unlocker site. They only charge a few pounds, but there are many stories of codes not working and money not being refunded, so I'd stay away from these sites if possible.
- Use a free code provider such as Trycktill.com (with further instructions on MoneySavingExpert).

Nokia phones seem particularly easy to unlock for free. I used one of seven codes (the 7th) provided by Trycktill to unlock my Nokia 3120 (on the Orange network), and it worked a treat.

ps - you can still keep your using your old SIM and phone package on an unlocked phone.

Golfing in Afghanistan


It's touching to see the game of golf making a comeback in war-torn Kabul. Here are some quotes from the Kabul Golf Club web-site:

- Lockers and showers are not available, but you can go jump in the lake for free.

- Closed down in 1978 by the Soviet Union, Kabul Golf Club has recently re-opened. However years of neglect had taken its toll on the course. The Taliban, who outlawed golf (in addition to nearly all sports), lined the browns with land mines and even set up bunkers on the course to shoot at Soviet soldiers.

- Attack the course! Play aggressively. There are no gimmes. Don’t even ask for the stroke index because this is Afghanistan and they’re all tough.

- Water hazards - You’ll find one of these on the course although it's dry. So use your imagination and treat it in the normal way. If your ball lands in it, even though you could actually play the shot, it’s deemed unplayable and a penalty and drop must be taken. Look at it like this, you can retrieve your ball without getting wet. What more do you want?

- The Kabul Golf Club is built along a road leading to a popular park so don’t be surprised when cars and buses stop and cause a traffic jam so their passengers can watch you play and take photographs. It’s not unheard of for a gallery to collect and follow a flight from hole to hole, applauding for their favorite player. Just enjoy being a celebrity and wave politely as if this happens every time you play.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Godfather

The source of the RMF tagline:

Gollup !

Enjoyed a cracking round of golf in Milton Keynes yesterday with Mr Abs. The course is probably a bit tougher than Stanmore, with more obstacles, unforgiving greens, and a mountainous eighth hole that seems purposely designed to punish and humiliate those who think they are having a good round ... so I'm all the happier for getting a personal best of 30 ... woo hoo!

It's late in the year, but I've found three more par-3 courses in London that are all very well priced and of a decent standard: Gunnersbury Park (18 holes), Hanger Hill, and the Playgolf center in Hendon. Perhaps its time to add a little variety to the proceedings.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cheap gyms

Following the cheap gym deals post below, Boots health insurance are running the same Pru deal but with a special offer until the end of the month.

They are giving half price health insurance (although mine worked out to be about only 1/3 cheaper than the original Pru quote), along with 1000 Boots club card points, and a free health check and eye check. The gym portion of the deal is the same.

I've given notice to my Fitness First club and will be snapping this up.

Cleaning up my desktop

In an effort to reduce the clutter on my computer desktop, I spent about an hour moving icons around and deleting unused shortcuts. It's possible I may have taken things a little too far:


There is still some clutter - the duplication of browser icons in the bottom left. I've used Firefox and Explorer side-by-side together for over a year now, and have come to the conclusion that Firefox is superior on every count. The only valid reason for continuing to use Explorer is that one of my financial trading sites operates a bit more efficiently in this browser. It also saves me from logging in and out of my main e-mail accounts in Firefox when I want to use of my lesser e-mail accounts (although I've just found a Firefox plug-in that makes this a cinch).

Despite the slick interface I'm pretty sure it doesn't take me any more mouse-clicks to navigate and access all the programs I used before. Pretty cool.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Gym deals

If you are paying full whack for gym membership, or if you want to join a gym on the cheap, just take a look at these amazing offers:

BUPA & Fitness First have teamed up to offer free, off-peak, gym membership if you take out any BUPA insurance policy. I went for the cheapest HC (heart and cancer) cover, and because I don't intend to use this policy, I ramped up the insurance excess to £2000 to bring down the monthly premiums. So, how much am I paying for this HC cover with free off-peak membership at my local Fitness First?

£8.35 a month.

You can pay an extra £10-£15 a month for full, peak-hour access, but I usually go at off peak hours anyway, so this suits fine. Either way, its much cheaper than joining Fitness First at the desk.

Pru Health: These guys are running a great deal. Take out a medical insurance policy with Pru (again asking for the most basic cover and the highest excess) and you'll get free membership to Cannon's, LA Fitness, or a subsidised monthly rate of £5-£15 at Virgin Active. There are a few restrictions and variables to this deal so I recommend taking a look at the site and getting a quote for yourself.

In my case, the monthly insurance quote came to £22.50, plus £5 a month for the Virgin Active membership. There's also a £25 activation fee and for the first 3 months you have to pay a higher gym membership rate of around £25, but after that it's plain sailing. My average monthly cost over the first year works out to about £30 for both the insurance policy and the Virgin Active membership (no restrictions on hours). Again, taking the insurance policy and the gym membership works out cheaper than joining the gym at the door - without the policy, membership at Virgin Active alone would have cost around £55 a month.

The biggest caveat in this deal is that you have to use the gym an average of twice a week over each 3-month period to show you are looking after your health. If you don't your monthly cost rockets. Mind you, I quite like this catch because it helps motivate my lazy ass. Also, in Pru's scheme looking after yourself actually lowers your insurance premium the following year.

I'm enticed by the Disneyland that is Virgin Active (free internet access, swimming pool etc), but for the time being, I'm taking the cheap ass Fitness First deal.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Turning off blog comments

Economics blogger Gregory Mankiw has decided to turn off the comments section on his blog, saying:

I just don't have the time to police comments and enforce good behaviour, especially since some posts were generating more than 100 comments. And I don't want to host a party in which a small vitriolic minority consistently tries to ruin the event for everyone else. So I decided to turn the comments feature off.

Maybe the absence of comments will deter some readers from coming by. I hope not. But if attendance falls off a lot, I will start looking for another hobby. Maybe golf.
Poor Mr Mankiw. Golf doesn't t just take time, it takes over your life.

Monday, October 15, 2007

More 'Socks in Bed'

A few years ago, some fragments of the greatest r n b song ever, were found. After much excavation, explorers have discovered some verses to another song from the album:

TAINTED GOODS

You can take it all
My car, my boat, my house
My dog, my cat, my pets,
I'll let them fall

To see you gone
Cos I don't love you no more
You're cheap, you whore, you cheat
Don't think it's you I need,

But I'll take this box

and be gone for good
Yeah, I'll take my socks
to keep me warm at night

Bitch, take flight, cos I'm alright

Say hello to my little friend


The gulab jamone!

Essential downloads for your PC

Some of my friends have lost their PCs due to viruses and other nasties. This is the problem with Windows; despite its size, it doesn't come with built-in virus protection and other such essentials.

To save your PC from infections, spyware, external hacker attacks and to generally keep it clean and zippy, I can highly recommend the following programs. I've been running these programmes at the end of each month for 3 years+ (on Windows XP) with absolutely no ill-effect. And of course, they are all free:

Virus Protection

AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition. You should only use one virus checker on your machine to avoid conflicts. AVG is comprehensive, unobtrusive, easy to use, and provides frequent update patches recognising the latest viruses. There is NO value in paying for anti-virus protection. (Download.com link).

Anti-Spyware

I've used a few of these programmes in my time, and Microsoft's Windows Defender (Download.com link) is my favourite and it does to do the job pretty well. It's also is a cinch to use and has a very clear interface. However, to be doubly sure that my system is clean, I will sometimes run Ad-Aware (Download.com) straight after.

Firewall

Microsoft Windows comes with its own firewall. Just go to 'Security Centre' in the 'Control Panel' and make sure it is activated. However, be warned that this software is widely thought to be too weak to be effective. When you get the chance, I recommend turning it off and downloading a more robust program. I've been using Sunbelt's Personal Firewall (Download.com), which is free for 30 days and then reverts to a more limited version that still performs all the essential functions. Importantly, every time you are about to load a new program, or update your system files, Sunbelt's software asks you whether you want to go ahead. This can be time consuming, but it ensures nothing dodgy gets onto your system without you knowing about it. Using this feels like my system is behind Fort Knox.

Looking at a detailed test of firewalls, Sunbelt (previously 'Kerio') is no longer one of the top dogs, and I'll be switching over to Comodo Firewall (Download.com) shortly. Comodo is highly rated but I'll get back to you in a week or two with a short review.

General system cleaning tool

CCleaner (Download.com) is absolutely fantastic. The first time I ran it, it deleted over a gigabyte of useless data, temp files, internet browser histories etc.

At first, I was unsure whether some of these files might be important, and was very cautious, but these days I just run it and delete everything it finds, and I have never had a problem. It can be tailored to clean the folders and programmes of your choosing, and is very simple and extremely fast.

You can also use CCleaner to scan your registry for unused file extensions etc, for uninstalling programmes, and for controlling which programmes open every time you start your PC. I've used it for all the above and it works a treat.

That's it. Everything you need to maintain a clean PC for safe home use.


UPDATE - After some further reading, I have decided that while Comodo may be the the best firewall out there, I am going to stick with Sunbelt as my firewall. Sunbelt works perfectly fine for me, I like it, and I am used to it.

RM Golf Clubhouse - scorecard

More high quality golf was enjoyed this weekend. This time around, Sunny Jim Bob joined us as the fourth man. While Sunny hadn't swung a club for several years we could tell from his practice swing that we had potentially lethal opponent on our hands. We were right to be worried - his first round of 53 was followed by a blistering 33 in the second. Priyesh provided strong competition all the way and matched the score, while I sneaked in a cheeky 33 at the last minute, after trailing all the way. The first ever 3-way draw. Indeed, even Abs pulled out a highly respectable 36 in the second. Another first; there wasn't a single '6' between the four of us ... always a good sign.

Now, let's turn to the scorecard:

- I've managed to match Priyesh's scores (almost hole for hole) in the last three games, but a personal best of 32 brings his 5-game average to a 34.6 (3.84 per hole). The perfectionist now has the best handicap of 8. Meanwhile, Abs' consistency continues to bring his average down and the Spaniard is coming close to breaking the 4-shots per hole benchmark. It's good to see improvements all round, even if my game has largely plateaued (bah!).

Previous week:


The next holy grail is to break 30.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Film: Hell in the Pacific

Lee Marvin is an actor before my time and only now am I starting to appreciate his work. Still, better late than never.

Hell in the Pacific (1968) is a superb character study of two soldiers (one Japanese, one American) who are stranded on an island in the Pacific during a time of war. It is a taut, psychological film, far from the the Hollywood mainstream, and Lee Marvin is matched in acting ability by Toshiro Mifune, playing the Japanese soldier. Hell in Pacific is extremely short on dialogue. Indeed, when the characters do speak, they don't understand each other. Instead, the language of this film is in the eyes, the body language, and the actions.

My gripe lies with awkward and sudden ending, and I am not surprised to learn that this wasn't the intended ending, but that it was clunkily tacked on afterwards. I'm not sure what went wrong, but the original ending could have turned this film from an excellent film in to a masterpiece.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Film: White Heat


This is another classic from way back when (1949). It's a fast paced, action-packed ride with James Cagney playing the role of a mobster who is losing his grip on reality. Most of the actors seemed a bit wooden against Cagney, but that's more than made up for by the zippy story line.

While I preferred 'The Big Heat' over 'White Heat', this film is still well worth watching.

Film: Ratatouille








This is quite possibly the best rat-based comedy that I have ever seen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sunday, October 07, 2007

RM Golf Clubhouse - scorecard

The RM party was out in full force this weekend and the golf was cracking. Mind you, so far its only ever ranged between being 'good' and 'absolutely excellent'.

Personal bests were scored in each round and everyone played a tight game. I took the first 'practice' round, with six pars and a total round of 31. However, while this brother's score continues to hover around an average of 4 per hole, the rest of the RM crew is closing in fast. Abs stepped up his game another gear from last week, and pulled out a strong personal best of 34 to take the second round. With sub 40 scores for the other two rounds, the man's 5-game average has dropped from 41.9 to 38.2. Priyesh - visiting the course for the first time in a couple of months - pulled off the classic hustle. After a first 'getting-in-to-the-swing-of-things' round in the mid 40s, and a joint second place in the second, he proceeded to blow away the competition on the third round with personal best of 32! Talk about being the unknown element.

The narrowing skill gap is making for much more interesting game play ... but I may think differently about this when I start consistently losing!

Robot Kenichi Ebina

This is Kenichi Ebina. I don't think he's human.

This is not a photo


It's the most photo realistic piece I've ever seen. Here is the step-by-step guide of how the artist created this airbrush masterpiece.

But is it art?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Friday, October 05, 2007

A beautiful picture

Rembrandt's 'Scholar in Meditation' (cropped image):

Ode to the internet

It's amazing really.

Sitting at the computer,

any thought can be followed up in an instant.

The internet.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

Reading about the history of cotton, I happened across an interesting mythical plant-animal: the vegetable lamb of Tartery.

This is from the 'Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions' (1856):

And from the 'Imperial Magazine, or Compendium of Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Knowledge' (1828):


And a couple more pics:


Amazing stuff.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Monday, October 01, 2007

RM Golf Clubhouse stays opens in Autumn


Another weekend, another golfing session. But this was far from your regular affair. It was the first time we played golf in proper autumnal conditions. Wildlife wise, squirrels and rabbits were equal in number, and this time around we were treated to our first close-up sighting of a deer.


On the course, I went around in 33, 41, 33 and 41, while Abs delivered his strongest and most consistent performance to date, with scores of 44, 45, 39 and 40. The final round was the best by far. Abs led the way and by the 5th hole he was 3 shots up. I clawed back one shot on each of the next three holes, bringing us to all-sqaure on the final hole (9th). On the 9th, our tee-offs landed just of the green, some way from the flag. My first putt stopped quite a bit short but I was left with a chance as Abs' putt still left a testy 5 footer. This was it, a final hole shoot out. Abs sized up the break and putted ... sinking the ball with a thud! This left me with a 10 foot putt to draw. I measured it up, and delivered just the right level of pace ... and I missed the hole by a couple of inches! I was beat for the first time (without any handicap adjustment) in the best possible style. This is what the game is all about.