Thursday, July 31, 2008

Vietnam in a glass

My order of gourmet Vietnamese coffee came through the post last week, and I've been enjoying authentic Trung Nguyen coffee every day since. The order included four blends of premium coffee in 250g packs, a bunch of free instant coffee sachets, and another coffee filter (it's good to have two of these for sharing).

These coffees simply don't work with normal milk. They are to be had black (sugar is optional), or with sweetened, condensed milk. Adding the sweetened milk changes the drink in to more of a desert type drink.

I love this stuff, perhaps because the aroma and flavour brings back strong memories of my holiday in 'nam ... floating down the Mekong Delta, overnight coaches down the length of Vietman, playing 'speed' (a card game) on a boat in Halong Bay. Ah, good times.

It's all about the mashie niblick

Last Sunday was the perfect day for golf, with nice weather and short queues at the holes. Our game started off a bit wobbly, but things quickly fell in to place, and we managed the best collective score to date. As a bonus, Levi closed the round with a strong personal best of 35.

On an individual note, I was the only player to manage a shameful six, but I kept my head about me and managed to skip ahead of Levi at the last moment (credit to Abs for reading out the scores just before the end, which seemed to spur me into action!).

Friday, July 25, 2008

Book - Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (not a review)

For a while, I thought I couldn't escape Japanese author Haruki Murakami.

Murakami was first introduced to me on the BBC series, Imagine. Shortly after, Newsnight Review discussed his latest book, 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running'. Then a weekend newspaper magazine I was reading at the gym profiled the author. Then another newspaper discussed the man. Given that Murakami doesn't talk to journalists, this was a lot of coverage.

I figured there must be something special about the man's work, and when I visited the local library, I went in search for something by the him. I came out carrying 'Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman', a collection of short stories.

I was massively disappointed after reading the opening story, from which the book gets its title. Something was very wrong. I wondered whether the translation was bad, whether Murakami is all hype and no substance, or worse, whether there was there a lot more to the story and I just wasn't getting it? Let me tell you, the first story read as if it had been written by a student, not a celebrated author. There was little story to speak of, and the prose was stilted. The story was a flat piece of nothingess. I was hugely disappointed.

I flicked through the contents of BWSW and decided to try again with a very short story. If this also failed, that would be it, no more Murakami. I chose the interesting sounding 'The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes'. The story was excellent. The Sharpie Cakes tale has a heavy dose of the surreal that reminds me of Nikloai Gogol's short stories, and the prose seems to run much smoother. It was delicious.

This is the joy of short story collections, I realised; they are a great introduction to new authors. While you don't have to finish a novel once you start reading, it is easy to finish a short story, and you don't have that 'did I give the author a fair chance?' feeling. To minimise commitment, I recommend starting with the shortest stories in these collections and working up to the longest.

And what to make of the book overall? I'm only half way through, so the proper review will follow in a few days. I just had to get all this off my chest. Why Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman opens with such a bland story remains a mystery.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hong Kong Mal sends music videos from the Far East

First we have a cheesy pop song with perfect matching, cheesy video. I love it.

And now for some Cantonese opera. To avoid distraction from the obscenely funny hats worn by the performers, it's probably better just to listen to this video and not watch it. Note how the body shape and sound of Eastern opera singers contrasts with that of typical Western opera performers.

The operatic singing by the lady is quite something. It sounds as if someone is playing the violin.

Film: Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder is due for release in September. I've just glanced at a couple of US reviews, and it's got the thumbs up from 'my kinda people'. As a fan of Vietnam films, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey Jr (the black guy in the poster), I can't wait. It's one for the big screen.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Turning trading profits into coffee

I booked a £25 pound profit in the financial markets today.

After speaking to an extremely helpful chap at Dragon Coffee, I placed an order for a selection of Vietnamese coffees (Trung Nguyen brand).

The weasel coffee I'm currently drinking was freshly ground at a local market in Vietnam, but it tastes a bit like spent engine oil. I'm still drinking it, but I can't wait for the new order to arrive.

Fascinating 'death rehearsals' in South Korea

Photo’s and comments from ‘When death is a reminder to live’, 22 July 2008:

South Korean workers are being sent on “well-dying” courses to encourage them to assess their priorities in life and as a suicide prevention measure. The country has the highest rate of self-inflicted death in the developed world, with 24.7 cases per 100,000 people. Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor are among companies that have booked “fake funerals” for their employees.

South Korean companies are sending employees on 'fake funeral' courses to help prevent suicide.

Participants sit at candlelit desks and are told to write their last will and testament.

Attendees are prompted by questions such as: "If you died today, what would you tell your family"?

Many of those in the room become emotional as they read out their wills.

Before they are "buried", participants are asked to pose for their funeral portrait.

Participants enter a "death experience room" where they choose a coffin and put on a "death robe".

Course members get into their coffins and a flower is laid on each person's chest.

Funeral attendants place a lid on the coffin and dirt is thrown on the casket.

Once the lids are opened the resurrected trainees are asked how they felt.

The "well-dying craze" has become an integral part of training at Samsung, which has built its own fake funeral centre.
click on image to enlarge

Review: BBC iplayer

If you haven't used BBC's iplayer recently, give it a try. It is many times better than the Beeb's first attempt, and integrates radio and television archives beautifully. Given the amount of content available, it's surprisingly easy to navigate, runs fast, and the quality of the video player is superb. For a (tax payer) budget of £100m, should we expect anything less?

My wish list for the iplayer would include a function to add user profiles that could track your usage, and perhaps create recommendations based on past viewing. Also, simple Youtube type functions such as book marking shows, etc would be great. On a minor note, it would be nice to be able to change the presentation format such as font colours (what's with the pink?).

Monday, July 21, 2008

Film quote: Heat

My days are significantly more isolated than most and I often wonder whether there is something wrong with my seeming inability to tire of this relatively cloistered existence. Perhaps if I felt loneliness or boredom, I would go back to being a company man. But I do not.

'I'm alone, I am not lonely.' - Neil McCauley (played by Robert De Niro)

Book review - Bears: A Brief History by Bernd Brunner (translated by Lori Lantz)

I made the most of the sunshine today and sat in the garden with a good book, my neighbour's cat happily sleeping in the shade of my chair.

Bears: A Brief History by Bernd Brunner (translated by Lori Lantz) is a wonderfully entertaining book. As the cover suggests, Brunner's book provides a historical account of bears in our culture. For such a compact work, the author manages to crams in interesting facts on every page, and the book succeeds fully as a wide-reaching account of bears in relation to man's understanding of them, covering the perspectives of folklore, myth, scientific understanding and actual interactions between bear and man. Congratulations to Bernd Brunner on a nice idea beautifully executed.


ps - I forgot to mention that in addition to the above, 'Bears' is liberally peppered with excellent illustrations throughout.

Recipe ideas for using Reggae Reggae Sauce

Reggae Reggae Jerk/BBQ is created by Levi Roots and has gone on to achieve massive success after getting support on Dragon's Den. The Subway sandwich chain has even launched a Reggae Reggae Sauce chicken sandwich. I love the sauce, but I wonder how much of it's success can be attributed to what amounts to a twenty minute, free advert on the nation's most popular television channel. Still, couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

A note to self. Ideas for using Reggae Reggae Jerk/BBQ sauce:

Baked beans - tried, great
Scrambled eggs - tried, good
Added to lentil curry - great
Spread directly on buttered toast - excellent

Grilled meats (chicken/lamb)
Tomato sauces for pasta dishes
Stir fry dishes with Quorn, etc
Cheese toast
Fish finger grills in pitta bread
Tuna /Salmon
Onions, garlic and chick peas

Film Review: The Machinist

I watched The Machinist last night. It is a surprisingly good film, atmospheric, beautifully shot, but very, very dark. Christian Bale plays Trevor Reznik, a machinist factory worker who has been suffering from insomnia for a year and is losing track of reality. As the film progresses, Reznik descends into a hallucinatory, personal abyss.

Because The Machinist wasn't a hit on the big screen, I figured the story would just continue play out with the protagonist following a linear path to total paranoia, but I was happily surprised to find that the film rewards the viewer with a decent explanation by the end. I found it to be a far more 'complete' film than Fight Club, for example. That said, it is one of those films that you have to be receptive to in the first place.

The Machinist is also famous for one of the most severe body transformations by an actor. In an interview, Christian Bale says he dropped from his normal 180 pounds to a withered 121 (8.6 stones) pounds to play Reznik. His diet involved little more than coffee and apples for a few months. Here is the result:

He didn't have to go to this extreme. Bale could have lost a bit of weight and his character could have talked about how little he eats, but instead he let his body do most of the talking. It is a powerful image the certainly adds to an understanding of the character's condition, and combines with the story and direction to leave a strong 'after taste' in the viewer's mind long after watching.


ps - Bale is reported to have gained 100 pounds in the six weeks after wrapping on The Machinist, so he could start filming Batman.

pps - In my opinion, Christian Bale would make the perfect Don Quixiote. I'd love to see a quality adaptation to film of this classic novel in my lifetime.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Book review - The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The third book I finished today, in between shots at the British Open, is The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Here is a rare book, one that has the potential to affect your outlook on the world in which we live. It had the highest number of 'stop and think about that' moments of any book I can remember and is absolutely essential reading for anyone with a critical, philosophical, or analytical mind. Oh, what the hell, I'd say The Black Swan is recommended reading for everyone.

The subject matter relates to our misunderstanding of of randomness and uncertainty, with a focus on prediction and the large impact of highly improbable events. Taleb devotes much energy in explaining the many ways in which we deceive ourselves - these deceptions of knowledge include the creation of narratives to structure an explainable story around a series of random events, selectively choosing information to support our biases (confirmation), and much else besides. It all sounds a bit much, but Taleb's conversational style makes it extremely easy going.

Two weaknesses, but not really: The Black Swan is so close to being a five star book, but it loses half a star for being a little bit scatter brained in its presentation, as this poor organisation may makes it unnecessarily difficult to reference the ideas in an easy manner. But what ideas they are. Also, there are endless summaries of The Black Swan available on the net. If there is a draw back, it is in the 'knowing' tone of the author's voice. However, it's easy to adapt to this tone as a reader, and it's a nice change for the character of the author to show through on the pages of such a book, even if it may not be 100% agreeable.

A caveat, but not really: I appreciate that I have read this book at a time when I have already been theorising on life and probabilites associated with it, and that this makes me particularly receptive to the ideas in the book, but that doesn't mean I should give it a lower rating. There is so much by way of food for the brain in The Black Swan book that I will have to go over again and ferret out the interesting ideas and quotes.


Book review - How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

Rubbish. I was expecting to be gently introduced to the great works of literature, and hoped this book would provide me with recommendations and perhaps even the motivation to read them. It did nothing of the sort. I could only skim read this boring, academic book, and I struggle to see where its value lies. I guess it's best just to pick up the 'great' books, start reading, and to draw my own conclusions.


Book review - Love Among the Chickens by P.G Wodehouse

'Love Among the Chickens' is one of Wodehouse's earlier works. It is a light, enjoyable read that introduces us to Stanley Ukridge, a lovable, rogue type character who is always coming up with hair brained schemes of one sort or another. You can tell it's an early Wodehouse work, as less events seem to take place than in his later stories, and the humour may be a touch thinner on the ground than usual. Nevertheless, it works just fine as a light comedy, and is a perfect summer read if you don't want anything to heavy by way of content or weight (it's a short book).


Watching golf on tv can be fun, no really

It's been too long since the RMF visited the golf course, what with the bad weather and other hindrances getting in the way. Still, if we can't play golf, we can at least watch the professionals playing the game on tv.

Watching golf can be a test of patience for the viewer, especially when Tiger Woods, a reliable crowd puller, is absent. However, this year's British Open is hotting up nicely indeed. Greg Norman, aka 'The Shark', is currently leading the pack at +2, while last year's winner and the people's favourite, Padraig Harrington, is biting at the heels with +4, along with Choi. Watching these guys battle through extreme weather conditions is something to behold.

Without dismissing Choi or any other challengers, the history books will have to be be rewritten if either Harrington or Norman take the title. A win by Harrington would make it the first time a European will have successfully defended his title back to back since 1906. If 53 year old Greg Norman wins, he will be the oldest player to win in over a hundred years. Not bad.

Alas, watching all this golf just deepens one's yearning to blow the dust of my mashie-niblick and hit the course.

Utopian nightmare - song lyrics fragment

From The School of Unfinished Projects. The video pans across an american, middle-class, gated community, where something has gone seriously wrong. The community has become insulated from the rest of society and it's compass of what is important has become severely distorted. The people are super clean, super thin, on drugs. They are are dying amidst great material wealth.

Don't eat, wipe your feet,
At the gates of this city street.
I'm diseased and lonely,
Somebody save me.
...Won't somebody save me?

BBC Proms, what

Last night, I went to the gym to have a quick workout. During one of my many visits to the water fountain, I looked up at the tv screen above and saw a woman singing opera. It was the first night of the BBC Proms. I couldn't hear any sound but I was drawn to the performance with a magnetic pull. Standing there and reading the subtitles, I was transfixed by the lyrics. They had a deep, melancholic, poetry about them. I sat on a cycling machine and plugged in my earphones. The emotional tones matched the lyrics perfectly. The strange world of the opera had connected with me.

Later, I discovered the opera singer to be Christine Brewer. She was performing Richard Strauss’s 'Four Last Songs'. I look forward to hearing more of this stuff.

I am definitely getting old. Righty, must retire downstairs to watch the golf, what.

Later, the same day: I discover the performance on BBC Iplayer. (Move the slider forward by about fifty minutes to see Christine Brewer).

Laptop overheats - solve with power management settings

A couple of months back, I reported that my laptop was constantly overheating and dying on me on without warning. This is just a quick report to say that the solution of changing the power settings to 'Minimal Power Management', has pretty much fixed the problem.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Final calorie analysis

Here is a chart of my daily calorie intake over the past eighty days. If I overindulged, I would try and make up for it the following day. Indeed, when I consumed the maximum 3150 calories, the very next day I hit my daily minimum of 1130.

When I started this mission, I calculated that my body consumed around 2197 calories a day and that I would need to reduce this by 333 calories, to 1864 calories (the horizontal red line in the chart), to achieve the target of losing a stone. Surprisingly, my actual average intake over the eighty days works out at 1872 calories, a tiny difference of a 8 calories! Adding a bit more exercise than usual into the mix explains how I achieved the target before the end of September.
More good news: the rest of the RMF posse is only a fraction behind. We will all be a stone lighter by September, of that I am sure.

ps - I've stopped with the food diary now, although I'm still keeping a mental track of my calorie intake.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I have lost a stone in weight and it was easy

"I don't like being outdoors Smithers, for one thing, there's too many fat children."At the end of April, the RMF members set a goal to lose a stone in weight by the end of September. It is now mid June, which is pretty much the half way point, and I'm happy to report that I have achieved the target.

Here are some thoughts from along the way:

* I enjoyed the challenge a bit too much, partly because I like to test my will power. That said, I didn't push myself too hard because I wanted to see how I could achieve the goal by small increments.
* I learned that habits are easy to form (snacking in the evening, for example) and hard to break.
* Keeping a tumblog really helped the process.
* I also kept a daily log, estimating the calories of almost everything I ate during this time. This was probably the most useful tool of all. I'll do some analysis on the calorie log in the next post.
* When doing weight training, it helps to focus intently on one's actions. However, when doing cardio for a long period, distractions (such as watching sports on tv) are effective in helping you to 'lose yourself' and keep going for longer. Caffeine also helps, as does having a moderately sugary drink to keep one's energy levels up.
* Having a cheat day works wonders. After pigging out on Saturdays, I felt 'dirty' and would make up for it the following day.
* I seemed to hit a plateau at 10.6 stone for a few weeks. Then, after a week spent binging on chocolate and the like, I cleaned out the closet and ate a mere 1,500 calories per day for three days. This has pushed me through the 10.6 stone barrier. I wonder whether taking whole week off the diet actually helped me to break through the plateau by telling my body that there was no need to 'hold on' to the calories. A week is a bit much, but I ain't complaining.
* I believe converting calories in to body weight is not a simple, linear equation, as many would have you believe. Nevertheless, it is an excellent basis of thinking on which to base a weight loss project. Reading the science stories on dieting and weight loss with interest during the period has led me to believe that there is no magic bullet solution and moderation is the key.
* Most dieters put weight back on after a while. For the RMF, the next challenge will be to keep the weight off. The simple idea that you need to control both diet and exercise to manage your weight is very true. It's simply more sustainable than eating as you were before and going crazy at the gym, or not doing any exercise and eating very little to compensate. We need to move, and we need to eat (calories for energy, and nutrients to keep the body in order).
* I ate lots of small meals and lived by the motto 'stay hungry' - that is, not to feel like I always needed to eat, but also not feeling filled up. I breached this rule on both sides on occasion.
* Eating less deserts but more fruits and carbs may be more healthier from a nutritional perspective, but you have to watch out for refined carbs and for natural fruit sugars. From an energy perspective a calorie is a calorie.
* It's nice to feel lighter. I have more energy than before, and my clothes fit a lot better. I might push myself down to 10 stone and then work my way back up to 10.5, which feels like my natural weight.
* The good thing about cutting back on calories to achieve your weight is that when you hit your target, you can increase your calorie intake to keep your weight stable. I estimate I'll be able to eat about an additional 400 extra calories per day. That's 400 calories of additional healthy foods ... okay, maybe with the occasional doughnut for good measure!

--- Addendum ---

The latest weigh-in puts me a shade under the target. I initially weighed 72.5 kg (11.4 stones, 159.9 pounds). My target was 66.1 kg. Sensible units converts a stone in weight into units we all understand:

# 45 wireless computer mice.
# 42 human kidneys.
# 15 cans of baked beans.
# 11 basketballs.
# 8.5 hardback copies of ”Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”.
# 4.7 MacBooks Air.
# 3.8 average physics textbooks.
# 1.3 average domestic cats.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bargain Jargain web-sites

I recently used these web-sites and had excellent service:

Deal Extreme: For tacky crap on the technology front. Prices are in dollars so your pounds can buy a good amount of tacky crap. The gear is posted all the way from Hong Kong, but postage is free and there is no minimum order. It all sounded a bit dodgy to me. However, because they take Paypal, which is relatively safe, I thought I'd give it a go. I bought a USB port expander and two MP3 cassette tapes so I can listen to music and podcasts from my Ipod on my car stereo. It all came to £8.87 with no hidden charges, and all the stuff works.

Halfcost: A clothing clearance store. A few good items here, but buy in bulk because postage is £3. Also, stock disappears fast. I bought these shoes for £9.99.

Look out for these movies

I don't go to the movies as much as I used to. I don't know if it's a part of growing old, but exploding buildings, car chases, and flying ninjas are no longer sufficient ingredients for an enjoyable film. I don't know what's happening to me! These days I tend to look for something with a semblance of a story line and good acting. Okay, so 'Wanted' - the last film I saw- was a pure, popcorn CGI, extravaganza, but it was the exception.

Here are a couple of soon to be released films that will be best enjoyed on the big screen:

'Wall-E' from the Pixar crew is making big waves in the states. The first thing I thought of when I saw the main character was Johnny 5 from 'Short Circuit'.

'Dark Knight', the latest Batman instalment, is also living up to the hype. It appears to be truer to the comics and is much darker and more atmospheric than the previous Batmen (?).

Monday, July 14, 2008

Petrol prices - questions, but no answers

Just a couple of random thoughts on the black gold:

I find it interesting that petrol prices haven't jumped a few pennies higher over the past week and a half, despite higher oil prices ($150 a barrel isn't that far off). Are we at the point where higher prices crunch down on demand, or will prices continue to ratchet up?

Is the fact that the prices on petrol forecourts of the main operators are similar, proof enough of anti-competitive, (implicit) collusion? After all, I imagine each petrol company will have a different hedging strategy, in which case prices to the customer should surely vary across operators.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Wanted film review

Rating Wanted (director: Timur Bekmambetov) is a difficult task. It's stupidly unrealistic (swerving bullets) and far fetched (a weaving loom produces names of people to be assassinated). The CGI is taken to the absolute limit, and it is so tightly jammed with tightly packed action, that the likes of Rambo and Die Hard pale in comparison. Alas, it I imagine the visual treats will only work on the big screen or a decent home cinema set-up, and it simply doesn't pass the 'would I watch it again?' test. For this, I give it 2/5.

However, as an adaptation of an adult, comic book actioner, it does what it does extremely well. Many films fail because they are not consistent in their realism, or unrealism. In Wanted, the action starts (and doesn't stop) very early on, so there is no need for the viewer to suddenly suspend their belief half way through the film. While the script is cringeworthy in parts, the main actors (James McAvoy, Angelie Jolie, Morgan Freeman) play their roles very well. On the action side of things, the film delivers the goods with slick car chases, fight scenes, etc, and the viewer isn't given a chance to be bored for a minute. And the script, while based on the dodgiest of premises, at least has a little twist in the plot to keep the viewer interested in how the story will play out. So, if you want to suspend all belief, and be entertained by an adult, comic action film that has been well executed, it's well worth watching. From this perspective, I give it 4/5. Also, it was nice to spot Russian actor Konstantin Khabensky turn up as one of the assassins. Khabensky is the main actor in NightWatch, a famous Russian film also directed by Timur Bekmambetov.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Some rave reviews for JCVD

I'm so happy this film seems to have worked.

"Funny without relying on punchlines, clever, insightful, neatly balancing action with drama, impeccably crafted and blessed with a charismatic star willing to simply lay it all out there and let things fall where they may, JCVD is a revelation. If there’s any justice in the world at all this film will both launch its director to major acclaim while also triggering a full-on rebirth for its star, one that should take him worlds away from the DTV action ghetto that he’s been consigned to for years. Nearly half way through 2008, this is the best film I’ve seen all year." (

"Van Damme earned my respect a long time ago as an action star, I've always been a fan of his, even when he didn't know how to act, JCVD will hopefully turn non believers into believers - it damn well should! In my book, with this picture, the man has proven himself 100% as more than a dude than can throw a mean kick. He's a multi talented performer, one to be reckoned with GO JC GO!" (

Friday, July 04, 2008

The magic power of compounding, a cash ISA example

I've put together a quick table to illustrate the power of compounding.

UK savers can put £3600 a year in to cash isa's (tax free savings). Assuming an interest rate of 5%, if you save this sum every year for 30 years, it turns into a nominal amount of quarter a million. If you live a long, healthy life, and can save £3600 a year for a further ten years, your nest egg almost doubles to four hundred and fifty thousand.

However, if you are young and sprightly, a stock market tracker ISA is probably the way forward, given the historically higher returns of around 7% or so (after inflation). Combine this with the cash ISA and if history is any guide, you'll have around £1 million on retirement.

Of course, there is a big snag. You need to have the money to invest in the first place.

: (

Monkey Shines on Zone Horror

I few nights back, I surfed around the more obscure cable channels and found a film called 'Monkey Shines' on a channel called Zone Horror. I clicked 'i' on the remote for further information and couldn't believe the described plot. This is the story line as described on imdb:

"When Allan becomes a quadriplegic he loses all hope for living until he meets Ella - a monkey trained to fetch and carry for him around the house, obeying him in all things. But Ella is part of another experiment, and when she starts responding to Allan's underlying rage and frustration she has the ability to carry our her master's darkest wishes."

Let me tell you, this monkey did not shine, nothing in this film shined. How these obscure channels manage to survive despite broadcasting rubbish all day long is beyond me.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

House prices continue the slow unwind

Here is the latest UK house price data for your rumination. Scotland is holding up best at close to break-even and Ireland is faring the worst by a long way, down 18.60% compared to the same time last year.

One popular measure of housing affordability is the house price to earnings ratio and few people would disagree that this metric remains very high. The debate has always centred around how the ratio was going to return to historically lower levels. Would house prices stagnate and earnings gradually increase until historic affordability averages were achieved, or would falling house prices have to feature in the equation? Well high inflation eating away at people's disposable income, and with the government foolishly calling for wage restraint, it looks like house prices are bearing the brunt of the pain. Let house prices fall, I say.

Disclaimer - I am an owner of tiny flat, but have no interest in accumulating property later in life.