Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Power of Art by Simon Schama - quotes on Turner

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)

... the storm of derision that greeted the painting (Slave Ship) must have been all the harder to take because it came just a year after Turner's most famous success. The Fighting Temaraire Tugged to Its Last Birth to be Broken Up had been received with almost universal enthusiasm. It was then, as it still is (by popular vote, no less) the Great British favourite. So why was the one painting such a critical and popular success and the other such a failure?

...Nothing, on the other hand, could have been less conciliatory or less comfortable than Slave Ship, a voyage into a sweaty nightmare; incoherent in its several parts; implausible in its rendering of the sea; fantastic in its action; frantic in its apocalyptic striving. The Fighting Temaraire was a lullaby, Slave Ship is a cry from an opium dream. And yet it's the much greater painting; the failure a more profound work than the success.

Death on a Pale Horse

Mortality was pressing on him. Having enjoyed rude health for most of his life, he now started to lose weight, wheeze with asthma and feel arthritic aches. To keep the pain at bay Tuner resorted to taking stramonium (tincture of thorn apple), the narcotic sending his always hyperactive imagination into planetary orbit. Out of those restless nights came nightmares - sometimes literally - as in Death on a Pale Horse, 1825-30, the animal from the Book of Revelation rearing up in space. But even this gothic fantasy is not in fact apocalyptic. For the skeleton slung across its back is itself limp. Death is dead ...

Book review - The Power of Art by Simon Schama

The Power of Art by Simon Schama is a beautiful, supremely illustrated book that looks at the works and lives of Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, Turner, Van Gough, Picasso and Rothko.

Schama is a historian and this book is very much an art history, but this is no gentle walk through the galleries of the greats. Instead Schama gives us us a detailed delving into the ambitions and high drama in these artists' lives, moments from which art of awesome power is created. The opening paragraph says it all:

"GREAT ART HAS DREADFUL MANNERS. The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure and then proceed in no short order to rearrange your sense of reality."
The tv series on which the book is based is absolutely fantastic, and the book follows along the same lines. However, unlike the tv series I found the book somewhat harder to access. As it stands, my knowledge of art and art history is pretty minimal and I felt this was a hindrance to some extent. If I had a basic knowledge, I'm sure this book would significantly increase my appreciation of the greats.

For now I am giving The Power of Art three stars - the six reviews on Amazon give it the full five stars and I'm pretty sure I would if only I knew a bit more.

*** (abandoned after reading the entry on Caravaggio and Turner, but with the aim of returning when I am ready)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A beautiful quote from the FT Editorial (25 Sep)

'Capital markets clearly need better regulation but policymakers should guard against unintended consequences. Markets are places of trial and, very frequently, error. Their genius is not perfect efficiency, but the rewarding of success and the weeding out of failure. No better alternative has ever presented itself.

This is a difficult time to defend free markets. Nevertheless they must be defended, not only on their matchless record when it comes to raising living standards, but on the maxim that it is wise to let adults exercise their own judgement.

Market freedom is not a “fundamentalist religion”. It is a mechanism, not an ideology, and one that has proved its value again and again over the past 200 years.'
- FT

Good things about the financial crisis

The trend over the past decade and then some has been one of the banks raiding academia, buying up the young gifted scientists, physicists etc and setting them to work in complex financial matters. I contend that contribution of these gifted thinkers in the field of finance is infinitesimally small and that much wastage resulted from the banks' largely illusory belief that the increasing complexity of financial instruments necessitated the hiring of physicists. Well, one good thing about the current crisis is that with the whole sector experiencing major shrinkage, many of these folk (along with the new science graduates) can return to applying their skills in their original fields. This reallocation of resources suggests that at least at the margin, the world will be experience more progress on the scientific frontier. I'm all for it.

Paul Newman

Paul Newman has passed away. The guy had class in spades.

'The Hustler'

I remember walking down an isle in Sainsburys some years ago and being surprised at seeing bottles of salad dressing with his face all over them. This was no small operation:
'Newman was a co-founder of Newman's Own, a food company from which Newman donated all profits and royalties to charity. As of May 2007, these donations had exceeded US$220 million.'

The Dark Bailout

Friday, September 26, 2008

Safe as houses?

Here's an interesting table of property prices around the world, from the Global Property Guide. Click on the image to see it full size.

Look to the middle column for the most recent year-on-year changes. The chill wind of a cooling housing market is blowing around the world. At the bottom of the pile we have Latvia (Riga), which is down a whopping 33%. The US is down 19% and Ireland, which is officially in recession, is down 14%.

Time to learn Chinese (+27%) , me thinks.

The credit crunch blame game

Who is to blame? The regulators. The central banks. The greedy investment bankers and other lending institutions. The public who took out mortgages they couldn't afford. Everyone. Everyone is to blame. But who has stepped up and said, 'yes, it was me'? No one has. Everyone blames somebody else.

Many people are calling the crisis a failure of capitalism but I see it more as a failure of transparency. I do have a bit of a philosophical issue with the stock market in that the resultant creation of a separation between owners and management may to lead to excessive risk taking and excessive short-termism, but I also think that the banking crisis didn't have to play out this way if we had better transparency in the first place. For a free market to work efficiently information must flow freely but in this case not even the banks seem to know the full scale of their exposures to toxic debt. If there was full transparency where investors could truly see the risks of their investments, then assets would have been better priced and risks better managed. Alas, it was not to be.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ye old faithful trainer

I've had my trainers for over a decade now. I was going to throw them away a few years ago but I couldn't bring myself to letting go; they were too much like an old pair of old slippers that had perfectly moulded to the shape of my feet. Alas, the grip is now worn through to the rubber cushion, the cloth is fraying, and quite a few small holes are appearing all over the place . A few days ago I treated the trainers to a thorough scrubbing with soapy water and a tough brush. I'm amazed at the results. Okay, they are still far from being back to new but they've definitely got a new lease of life. I'm hoping to keep them going in to 2010, after which I'll put them out to pasture.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

TV - 'The Day After Peace' and the Peace One Day Campaign

'The Day After Peace' is a truly inspiring documentary about Jeremy Gilley's idealistically ambitious concept of introducing 'Peace One Day', an annual day of peace on September 21 (today) when people would stop waging war and killing each. In other words, the aim is no less than a day of global cease fire. It takes years of struggle for Gilley to make progress and by the end of the film, which spans over a decade of his campaigning, Gilley looks wrecked both physically and emotionally. Whether he succeeded or not, I believe the effort would have been worthwhile. That he did succeed to a large extent says so much about the state of humanity in a world seemingly filled with cynics. I just can't believe the national media don't jump all over this story.

Links:
- The documentary is 1 hour and 20 minutes and will be on the BBC IPlayer for six more days. Watch it, seriously. It is easily the best programme I have seen all year and serves as a beautiful example of how one man can make a difference.
- Here is an interview with Jeremy Gilley
- The Peace One Day site
- If you have any doubts about the impact of this day of cease fire, just read these recent news stories: 'Afghan Taliban back UN anti-polio drive, Peace Day', 'NATO to halt Afghan operations for Peace Day'

Ramadan Big Pictures

The Boston Globe's popular 'Big Picture' site has a 35 photo feature on Ramadan.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The anti-hunger

It's been a pretty strange ramadan this year. I felt a little dehydrated for the first few days of fasting but that cleared up pretty quickly. Since then I've been experiencing some of the symptoms of hunger and thirst but without actually feeling like eating or drinking anything. It's quite strange. There is a lack of energy, general light headedness, and a feeling of 'not quite being there', yet I have absolutely no desire to eat. It's as if the connection between these feelings and the part of the brain that creates the desire to eat and drink has been severed.

On the downside because I don't feel like pigging out in the evenings I haven't been piling in the food stuffs like I have done in previous years, and my weight keeps on dropping. I'm currently down to nine stone and three-quarters. I'm looking forward to hitting the gym proper in a few weeks and getting my body back on track.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Quick comment on the crunch

When the Large Hadron Collider started sending protons whizzing around its circuit at a billion miles an hour many watchers were quietly relieved that it didn't create a black hole in the process. But they were looking in the wrong place. A large black hole has indeed opened up in the financial dimension and it has so far swallowed up Northern Rock, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Lehman brothers. The force is strong and threatens to pull in the UK's largest mortgage lender, HBOS. We will have to wait and see whether the helping hand extended by from Lloyds TSB will save the day, or whether it turns into a suicidal death grip for both companies. I appreciate that HBOS is 'too large too fail', that if it went to the wall the whole economy would likely follow, but one price of this take-over is that we will be allowing the creation of monster institutions that definitely will be too large to be allowed to fail. I reckon this will come back to haunt us in a big way in the future, but right now it's all about managing the present. We'll deal with the future when it arrives.

A bank sends me chocolates

ING just sent me a little box of chocolates. Most unexpected, especially from a bank.

Tropic Thunder blackout

When I was watching Newsnight Review last week, the programme opened with an assessment of the much anticipated film Tropic Thunder. I turned channels until the review had passed. On Jonathan Ross's movie programme, Wossie interviewed the main actors in the film. Interesting stuff but the interview were interspersed with clips from the film, something that is potentially ruinous to full enjoyment of the film. I hit the mute button for these bits and squinted my eyes until the clips passed. Tropic Thunder is the kind of film where the less you know about it, the better. All you need to know is that it is a very funny comedy Vietnam war movie with Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Junior (he's the black guy).

Critics are a strange beast. The talking heads on Newsnight are great at talking about how a film works on 'so many levels' and drawing comparisons between a seeming banal plotline and say, the Russian Revolution. It's interesting at an intellectual level, but it's not practical because much of the enjoyment of a film comes from not knowing what is going to happen next, and we want to draw our own insights. When I assess whether a movie is worth watching, it's always a balancing act between trying to find out how good a film is while finding out as little as possible about the film as possible. A good way of doing this is by hitting sites like Meta-critic or Rotten Tomatoes that collect lots of reviews and give an average score.

PS - Newsnight Review should have a policy of permanently banning guest reviewers when they spoil the plot of a film or give away key scenes, which they do all the time!

Liberal Conspiracy in the Independent


Congratulations to Sunny for making it in to the Independent's top 10 list of 'blog sites transforming our democracy' with his excellent Liberal Conspiracy site.

While I spend my days twiddling my thumbs and reading P.G. Wodehouse, Sunny is busy changing the world for the better. The many year's of hard work and ego-maniacal empire building seem to paying off nicely. Go get 'em Jimmy.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A quote from Summer Lightning by P.G Wodehouse

"To the management, on the other hand, the vital issue was all this broken glassware. ...The head-waiter, swooping down on the fray like some god in the Iliad descending from a cloud, was endeavouring to place this point of view before Ronnie. Assisting him with word and gesture were two inferior waiters - Waiter A and Waiter B.

Ronnie was in no mood for abstract debate. He hit the head-waiter in the abdomen, Waiter A in the ribs, and was just about to dispose of Waiter B, when his activities were hampered by the sudden arrival of reinforcements. From all parts of the room other waiters had assembled - to name but a few, Waiters C, D, E, F, G, and H - and he found himself hard pressed. It seemed to him that he had dropped into a Waiters' Convention. As far as the eye could reach, the arena was crammed with waiters, and more coming. Pilbeam had disappeared altogether, and so busy was Ronnie now that he did not even miss him. He had reached that condition of mind which the old Vikings used to call Berserk and which among modern Malays is termed running amok.


Ronnie Fish in the course of his life had had many ambitions. As a child, he had yearned some day to become an engine-driver. At school, it had seemed to him that the most attractive career the world had to offer was that of a professional cricketer. Later, he had hoped to run a prosperous night-club. But now, in his twenty-sixth year, all these desires were cast aside and forgotten. The only thing in life that seemed really worth while was to massacre waiters; and to this task he addressed himself with all the energy and strength at his disposal.
"

Book review - Summer Lightning by P.G. Wodehouse

Summer Lightning is another hilarious story from P.G. Wodehouse that makes for a perfect follow-on from Leave It to Psmith'.

Set in the now familiar Blandings Castle, Summer Lightning concerns the troubles that brew when word spreads that Uncle Gallahad is writing his potentially scandalous memoirs. Add to the mix: the lovable Ninth Earl's prize pig Empress, getting kidnapped; the slimy private detective Pilbeam lurking in the background; The Efficient Baxter making a return after being fired in Leave it to Psmith; and of course an obligatory imposter to Blandings (you have to have at least one!), and you have the ingredients for much hilarity. How Wodehouse manages to seamlessly blend so many strands and sub-stories together without a hitch is a mystery, but our role is not to ask but enjoy.

****1/2

After getting my required dose of Wodehose I have moved on to 'Power of Art' by Simon Schama and 'Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time' by Karen Armstrong. Both books have started off with a punch.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Comedy clips for the weekend - Harry & Paul

Football manager of your average preimer division team:


Breeding Clarksons on Clarkson Island:


I saw you coming:


Important man 1:


Important man 2:


Revered Mandela selling alcopops:

Film Review: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is an overlooked gem of a film about trying to escape a dead end, chaotic life in a violent neighbourhood. The film is not one for the feint of heart - it is too gritty to be everyone's come of tea, and you probably have to be in the mood for something heavy to appreciate it.

In recent, bigger budget films I haven't been at all impressed with Shia Le Beouf's acting, but in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Le Beouf gives us a top notch, believable performance as young protagonist Dito growing up in a neighbourhood that is always on the verge of swallowing him up, along with his friends. My favourite performance however, is by Chazz Palmienteri as Dito's father. When I usually see Palmienteri, the first thing I think of is a cheap mafia gangster figure but he really can act.

****

Saturday, September 13, 2008

My local Subway has a vacancy for a ...

'Sandwich Artist'

Book review - A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

Just like the picture below, my copy of A Guide to the Birds of East Africa also had a quote sticker on it saying, 'A book of immense charm: a sort of P.G. Wodehouse meets Alexander McCall Smith.' This put me off for some reason. Perhaps I felt it puffed the book up too much. I mean, comparing anyone with Wodehouse ... really!


A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is a simple tale in which Mr Malik and Harry Kahn decide who gets to ask Rose Mbikwa to the ball by means of a bird spotting competition. The story starts of comfortably but after a while I got tired with the authors endless descriptions. The style of narration annoying in the extreme, with Drayson starting too many paragraphs with the likes of 'A word about...', 'I should explain...', 'A feature of...', 'Think back to when you were..', 'We are in...', 'But to get back to', 'a little more about...'. It comes as no surprise that Drayson is also a naturalist; he writes as if he is taking us on a nature tour, pointing out things along the way.

Despite the fact that A Guide to the Birds of East Africa got some pretty good reviews as a perfectly pleasant story, after page around fifty I decided it was too annoying and boring to carry and decided to abandon it. I was a third of the way in, and the story wasn't really going anywhere - the bird spotting competition hadn't even started.

Since jettisoning this tedious book, I have moved on to P.G. Wodehouse's 'Summer Lightning'. About fifty pages in to Summer Lightning, I found myself again fanning through the remaining pages to see how much I had left ... because I wanted to try and ration it over as long a period as possible. It is another exquisite slice of pure delight. Alas, after three days, I am already two-thirds of the way through. Pace yourself, boy!

Film Review: Cindrella Man (2005)

Cindrella Man is an enjoyable slow burner that ultimately delivers the goods. The film tells the true story of boxer Jim Braddock, who struggled to survive during the Great Depression. It is well acted with Russell Crowe as Braddock and Renée Zellweger playing his wife. Paul Giamatti is absolutely superb as Braddock's manager.

The film succeeds in capturing the intense poverty of the average man in American during the depression, and how everyone's hopes can hinge on any glimmer of light (Braddock). It also seems to be a pretty accurate representation of what actually happened, apart from the demonising of Braddock's his final opponent - my opinion is that Ron Howard (director) didn't have to go down this route, but I can see why he did; light needs darkness.

That I hadn't heard of Braddock before must have added to my enjoyment because I had no idea how it would end. If this is true for you, don't read the Wikipedia entry until after the film.

****

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hadron Collider Day not what I expected

I know it's my fault for not doing any background reading but I thought the men in white coats at CERN were actually going to smash protons into each other when the Large Hadron Collider had its official launch a few days ago. Instead, all we saw was protons making their first full circuit around the collider, a kind of warm-up. The proton smashing antics are still some weeks away (October 21) and the results will take substantially longer to come in. As the Director General of CERN said, 'This is the end of the begining'.

Nevertheless, the experiment is so grand in scale I figured I should expend a bit of my own grey matter energy and try to learn what it is all about. The best single site I found is from the BBC, who have gone into Hadron Collider overkill with way too much material (news, radio documentaries, video) for any sane man to plow through, although what I've seen so far is all good stuff. Before I head back to the BBC site to listen to some short documentaries about the atom let me provide a feast of facts that have been collected from far wide:

- The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) cost around £4.4 billion, with the UK contributing £500 million. I've just worked it out and The Hadron Tax comes to around £8.20 per head of the population.
- The particle accelerator is built underground at a depth of between 50 and 175 metres. It has a circumference of 17 miles. It's big, very big.
- The accelerator will send protons colliding into each other at a mind-blowing speed of 11,245 circuits a second, close to the speed of light.
- Things will get pretty warm down there. It is estimated that temperatures more than a hundred thousand times hotter than the sun will be reached. If all goes to plan the collision energy will be as high as 14 trillion electron volts.
- The data produced by this beast of a machine will be so immense - we are talking 15 million gigabytes of data a year - that it will have to be analysed by some 80,000 computers from all over the world. CERN is using grid computing and volunteer computing (see LHC@home - SixTrack project) to utilise the computing and energy resources of the masses.
- The LHC will probably run for around 10 years, after which it may be upgraded.

But what is the point of it all?

- The aim is to give us insights as to the goings on around a trillionth of a second after the big bang (the birth of the universe).
- Our current understanding is that the ordinary matter that we observe comprises a mere 4% of the universe. The rest is thought to be made up of dark matter (23%) and dark energy (73%). The LHC experiments should tell us more about these mysterious components.
- One of the most important questions that will be asked is 'where does mass come from?'. Yup, the very stuff of life, mass, is a mystery. The majority of scientists expect it will be found in the so far only theoretical 'Higgs-Boson' particle. This has become known as the "God particle", given how crucial it is in our understanding of everything. However, if no Higgs-boson is detected this would lead to a lot of head scratching as particle physicists will have to re-evaluate their past 40 years of work. (See the 'Purpose' in the Wikipedia entry for other crucial questions the physicists will be asking).
- The LHC is very much a step into the unknown and we could see all sorts of weird results, with unexpected sub-atomic particles popping up, new dimensions being found, and small black holes appearing. All of these things are unlikely, but possible.
- All in all, it's an expensive experiment that helps us understand the very basis of our existence but it may lead to interesting new technologies. Work by CERN has already given us the world wide web, and much else besides.

My question is whether trying to know how it all began is a bit like trying to cross a room by walking, in stages, half the distance each time - you can get closer and closer but you never actually get there. That is, I believe we will deepen our understanding but our knowledge will never be 'complete'.

Credit crunch forces new thinking - there will be cakes

What do you do if you are a small time cake maker who can't get refinancing in the credit crunch? You go straight to your customers and offer to pay them 12 cakes a year in lieu of interest.
It's a nice little story but accompanying photograph to the story shows the cake maker holding one of the crappiest cakes I've ever seen. He should have consulted an investment bank before going on his roadshow - actually, he probably could have poached the entire marketing team from Lehman for a couple of cakes.

Film Review: Great Expectations (1946)


I had better add Dicken's to my reading list. Great Expectations (1946) is a brilliantly directed masterpiece from David Lean. Despite being over fifty years old this film had me hooked from start to end. It is fast paced, well acted, and the story is beautifully told, with an exquisite array of characters that fill the film with colour. This is story telling at its finest.

**** 1/2

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Nestle is still dodgy - marketing of Bear Brand milk in Laos

Nestle makes the ever so tasty Yorkie and KitKat, a range of tasty breakfast cereals, and much else delicious foods besides. Alas, ever since I read about the Nestle baby milk controversy, some ten years ago, I chose to boycott their products.

Have Nestle made amends for the brand damaging fiasco that took place in Africa? The answer seems to be 'no'. I just read this article from the British Medical Journal that looks at how Nestle's marketing of a Coffee Creamer in Laos (where illiteracy is high) is leading to it being mistaken as a substitute for breast milk.

Along with not eating battery farmed eating chicken, these actions represent the total sum of my ethical sanctioning against big business. I know there is much else to protest about in this field - indeed many people would say there is something dodgy going on everywhere you look so why look in the first place - but I believe it is better to so something, however small, than to do nothing at all.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

'They took our jobs!'

Reading a blog article about the possible uselessness of a cap on immigrant workers, I was reminded of this South Park clip:



Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A page of the Times from 1942

In the last post, I linked to a newspaper page from the Times in 1942. Here are some wonderful miscellanea from a window into a world that once was:


There's also a great column on war time soup recipes from the Ministry of Food, that includes the strange sentence, 'Soup is very easy to digest, an important point when you are tired.' I've never been so tired that I've had to choose my food according to potential ease of digestion but hey-ho. The recipe for croutons finishes with '..bake in an oven until crisp. You can utilise the heat which remains in your oven after you have been cooking..'. People don't use the oven to cook their daily meals these days but if they did I imagine it wouldn't have been too long before we started seeing similar tips in the papers again, what with energy bills where they are.

A couple of thoughts on the printed word

- I'm not a fan of reading newspapers for their so called 'news'. To gain a broader perspective and to learn about our culture and history, I would much rather subscribe to a daily newspaper from between 50 and 100 years ago. I thought this was an eccentric impossibility but then I read that the Times has 200 years of archives newspapers freely available on-line. Just take a look at this single page from 1942. Superb stuff. And now Google has struck a deal to do the same but on a much larger scale, scanning the back catalogues of around 100 papers.

- I had one of those 'but I had that idea as well' moments yesterday when I learned that CSI creator Anthony Zuicker will be making a series of digital novels:

Zuiker will write a 60-page outline for each book, then supervise a novelist who'll turn it into a 100-chapter book. Zuiker will write and direct 20 "cyber-bridges," the two-minute video segments that supplement the pages.

The footage "will drive the reader ferociously back to the book," said Zuiker. "For instance, you'll watch a live snuff film that figures in the plot, you'll give the killer your phone number, and he'll call you back, and you'll see an analysis of photographic forensic evidence."
My idea was slightly different: to have a book that works fully as a standalone novel or series of novels, but to be able to go deeper in to its ever expanding world by using the internet. Web pages would include simulated art, photos of scenes, characters, recipes of food eaten, sounds, stories of characters that only make short appearances in the novel (every person has a story to tell), and on and on. The possibilities are endless, but it would designed so you get the most out of it only after reading the entire book. I don't like the idea of making the additional media crucial to story development, because it would be pretty annoying if you have to break up your reading with visits to your computer at set points through the book. Anyway, there are those that say, and those that do.

Very lost in translation

These photos from China show what can happen if you use a computer to translate a word and have no idea what the result should look like.

Anyone for some tasty Wikipedia?


Source: Revealing Errors blog

Effects of fasting on cognitive skills

I operate at a much slower speed during the month of fasting, a time when I tend to feel closer to a zombie than a fully operational human. The thing is, I don't feel hungry but I do feel quite a bit shorter on glucose, on energy. Physical exercise goes out of the window and my grey cells definitely stop firing on all cylinders. Like Dracula, the day-time hours are not for me during this month.

A few days ago, I wondered whether the productivity decline during fasting affects all muslims - not much of a problem for your average desk job, but what about pilots, doctors, nurses etc, where lives are at stake? Do people try harder, do they slow down but act more deliberately? I've no idea, but a piece of research in the most recent edition of The American Journal of Nutrition makes me feel a bit better:

A double-blind, placebo-controlled test of 2 d(ays) of calorie deprivation: effects on cognition, activity, sleep, and interstitial glucose concentrations

Background: Anecdotal information and limited research suggest that short-term caloric deprivation adversely affects cognition. However, this issue has not been studied using double-blind, placebo-controlled procedures, because the formulation of a calorie-deficient feeding regimen identical to one with calories is impossible using ordinary foods. Therefore, test meals varying in caloric content, but indistinguishable in sensory characteristics, were formulated using hydrocolloid-based gels as the principal structural component.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of 2 d of near-total caloric deprivation on cognitive function, satiety, activity, sleep, and glucose concentrations in a controlled environment.

Design: A double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study of caloric deprivation was conduced in a controlled environment for 48 h. Cognitive function in 27 healthy young subjects was assessed repeatedly with standardized tests of vigilance, reaction time, learning, memory, logical reasoning, mood, and satiety. Wrist-worn monitors were used to assess ambulatory vigilance, activity, and sleep. Interstitial glucose concentrations were assessed continuously with a minimally invasive monitor.

Results: When the subjects received the near calorie-free diets, mean calorie consumption totaled 1311 kJ (313 kcal) over the testing period. During the fully fed treatment sessions, the subjects consumed a mean of 9612 kJ/d (2294 kcal/d), which matched their individual, daily energy requirements. Satiety and interstitial glucose concentrations were lower during the calorie-deprived diet. There were no detectable effects of calorie deprivation on any aspect of cognitive performance, ambulatory vigilance, activity, or sleep. The mood states assessed, including fatigue, were not affected by calorie deprivation.

Conclusions: Cognitive performance, activity, sleep, and mood are not adversely affected in healthy humans by 2 d(ays) of calorie-deprivation when the subjects and investigators are unaware of the calorie content of the treatments.

As Mr Ijaz often says, 'It's all in the mind!'

Monday, September 08, 2008

TV : By Any Means - the BBC working backwards again

Charley Boorman and Ewan MacGregor have worked together on the 'Long Way Round' and 'Long Way Down', which were great programmes that had a sense of purpose about them. Boorman's latest series is called 'By Any Means' and involves Charlie Boorman and company galavanting around the world using all modes of local transport. It's an enjoyable show, but it does feel a bit contrived, with the adventurers rushing around to give us a sense of urgency. By Any Means isn't fake, but you do find yourself asking 'why are they doing this?' over and over, and when things go wrong it does feel as if they have put themselves in a scenario for things to go wrong, with the purpose of making good tv. I'll keep watching but this trend of mixing real with artificial is making me feel a queasy.

TV - Joanna Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights

In this programme, Joanna Lumley heads of to Norway in search of the Northern Lights. I was blown away by the last 10 minutes, where you get to see the lights in all their glory.

However, I have a rant. There are parts of the programme that give a bit of colour and sense of adventure, such as the a husky sled ride, the stay in the ice hotel, etc, and we learn a bit about Norway along the way so I didn't mind too much, but there was the sense that the producers were working backwards, asking 'what makes for a good adventure?' and then making sure the programme has these things in it.

This bit got my goat the most: on her journey, Lumley stays overnight in an ice-hotel, which is pretty cool. However, there is a piece of footage in this scene, where she talks to the camera that gives the impression Lumley is using a little hand-held camera. Here is a shot:

I don't have a video camera myself, but I'm pretty sure the horizontal lines, square frame, battery light, and recording light are all fake. It wouldn't be a problem, but this is supposed to be a 'real' programme.

The Michael Phelp's Diet

Just read this story on the diet of the half-man, half-fish that is Michael Phelps. It adds up to around 10,000 calories a day:

Breakfast: Three fried egg sandwiches; cheese; tomatoes; lettuce; fried onions; mayonnaise; three chocolate-chip pancakes; five-egg omelette; three sugar-coated slices of French toast; bowl of grits; two cups of coffee.

Lunch: Half-kilogram (one pound) of enriched pasta; two large ham and cheese sandwiches with mayonnaise on white bread; energy drinks.

Dinner: Half-kilogram of pasta, with carbonara sauce; large pizza; energy drinks.
In his words, 'Eat, sleep and swim, that's all I can do'.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Book review - Aunts Aren't Gentleman by P.G. Wodehouse

Aunts Aren't Gentleman is the second Jeeves and Wooster book I have read. The first was The Inimitable Jeeves and it didn't impress me all that much. Alas, Aunts Aren't Gentlemen also failed to click at a meaningful level and I remain annoyingly unconverted to the J&W collection. I feel as if I am missing a crucial element of understanding because I love the rest of Wodehouse's stories and Jeeves and Wooster are everyone's favourite characters. Maybe I should just try the tv series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in fine form, apparently.

I know that I'll try these books again one day but for now Wodehouse's non-J&W works are sufficiently extensive to keep me going for a few years.

***

Quote from Aunts Aren't Gentlemen:

'... his idea of a good time was to go off with a pair of binoculars and watch birds, a thing that has never appealed to me. I can't see any percentage in it. If I meet a bird, I wave a friendly hand at it, to let it know that I wish it well, but I don't want to crouch behind a bush observing its habits.'

Random weekend thoughts and trivia

- The Large Hadron Collider will be switched on in a few days time. The idea behind this $6bn experiment is to send protons whizzing around the 17-mile underground circuit at a speed of 11,ooo circuits per second, smash them into each other, and hopefully learn something of the origins of the universe; without disturbing the time-space continuum and creating a black hole that sucks in all the core EU countries. I predict our lesson will be most brief: that before mass, before atoms, before strings and before the big bang and birth of the universe, there was another race of people who had built a massive hadron collider to learn the origins of their universe. The cycle repeats every 4.5 billion years. (You can listen to coverage of the end of our universe on Radio 4.)

- The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke, has won a Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. The film is getting quite a bit of attention from the critics, and not all good, but I'm happy for Rourke, an actor who has been through life's meat grinder good and proper. He was a top rate actor who gave excellent performances in the likes of Diner and Angel Heart in the 1980s, before falling, no crashing, off the scene for well over decade. In 2003, Rourke reminded us of his presence with an understated and minor role in Once Upon A Time in Mexico, and then he blew us away with the best character in Sin City (Marv) a couple of years later.

- I watched 'Stealth' a few days ago. It is a movie about a newly developed fighter plane that operates itself using artificial intelligence. The plane goes rogue and has to be brought under control by a team of hot shot pilots. Stealth is the perfect blend of cheese and corn. When I was watching this masterpiece I noticed a familiar face - it was the black guy from Terminator 2, the key worker at Skynet who blows himself up in the lab in an effort to help Conner and company. This dude's name is Joe Orton. I checked a handful of his films in IMDB, and here are the plot lines: 'The best minds in the US are tucked away in a remote town where they build futuristic inventions for the government's benefit'(Eureka), and 'At the stroke of midnight the Y2K computer bug kicks in, causing widespread chaos in the US' (Y2K). Looks like Orton has the government technology/disaster niche all to himself. I've heard of stereotyping, but this takes the biscuit!

- Ramadan: Despite the longer days, fasting this year has been too easy. I conditioned myself a few days before Ramadan by eating tiny breakfast and lunches and loading up with food in the evening. My body seems to have adjusted nicely. I still operate at half-speed though and get the standard headaches from thirst, but the hunger pangs have been absent this time around.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Great pictures of London and the Olympics

Check out these great photos of London, from the popular Big Photo blog at the Boston Globe.

The Olympics collection is also breath-taking.

Hat-tip to Nav for the links.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A new browser: Google Chrome

Google have entered the browser wars, throwing down with an offering called 'Chrome' (beta). Unlike a lot of other Google products, a lot of thought seems to have gone into the Chrome browser before they unleashed it on to the public, and so far reviews for this first attempt are pretty impressive.

I haven't tried Chrome yet, but the browsing experience seems to be right up there with the best of 'em, with quite a few new innovations to boot. It has a slick, minimalist interface and I like the fact that separate tabs can be dragged around your screen, out of the browser. Furthermore, because tabs/web pages run as individual processes you can see how much memory each process is using and shut them down individually if they are causing your system to slow down. When it comes to performance, Chrome is geared up to handle java script at a much faster speed than IE and Firefox, but for general browsing, speed tests don't show much difference between the trio.

Google have smartly entered the fray at a time when the browser is increasingly taking on the role of the operating system. These days all the major browsers are pretty nifty (IE 8, Firefox, Safari for Mac users, Opera), and it's all about picking to suit. I imagine the additional competition from Chrome will lead to even more innovation, which can only be good for the customer.

I'll probably install Chrome as a secondary browser as it is nice and small and I have an affinity for all things Google, but for now I'm sticking with Firefox for my internet needs, although I do need to get around to upgrading to Firefox 3.0. I've customised my browser to take up less screen space, and I love the add-ons; for people with older, slower systems, running the Flashblock and Ad-block add-ons in Firefox improves performance many times over. While Chrome will also have add-ons, given that Google makes all its money from advertising, I wonder whether they will allow advertising blocking.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Book review - Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

Down and Out in Paris and London is a sobering account of a time of extreme hardship in George Orwell's life, covering when he worked as a lowly plongeur in a frantic hotel in Paris, and his return to London where he joined the city's tramp population and spent his days moving between charitable wards in search of a place to sleep and a meal. It is 'the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless,' a life of grime, a life of constant movement with little purpose, of going without for long periods of time, of just about hanging onto the bottom rung of existence on a diet of bread and margarine or the 'tea-and-two-slices'.

This eye-opening book is essentially an extended diary, a straight forward accounting of experience and opinion, but it works so well because it also reads like an adventure - Orwell meets many colourful characters along the way and we always wonder how things are going to turn out for Orwell and company when they go looking for the basic necessities in life. Orwell has a great knack for writing description and because he is writing not as an outside observer but as someone who is essentially living the tramp's life, he succeeds in providing the reader with unique insight on the way of life of a down and out, on the constant struggle for food and a place to spend the night.

The only niggle I have is that Orwell doesn't explain how got into this position of extreme poverty, but apart from that this is an excellent book that I recommend to all.

****1/2

Quote:

'...you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future. Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry...When you only have three francs you are quite indifferent; for three francs will feed you till tomorrow, and you cannot think further than that. You are bored, but you are not afraid. You think vaguely, 'I shall be starving in a day or two - shocking, isn't it? And then the mind wonders to other topics. A bread and margarine diet does, to some extent, provide its own anodyne.'

Toilet diversity

The humble toilet has changed a great deal over the ages. In the times of the Romans, going to the toilet tended to be a simple and very public affair (see first pic). While some countries continue to adopt variations of the simple hole in the ground, if you go to Japan you can experience the height of toilet technology. Check out this link for pictures of bogs around the world.

A writer for the Freakonomics blog observes a reduction in toilet diversity across Europe over the past fifty years but I am not so sure. Perhaps he is right, or perhaps the writer's income has risen and the hotels he frequents adopt the standard model that we are used to. All I know is that when I go to Europe, the toilets continue to differ a great deal. It is perfectly understandable that cultures and traditions influence toilet design, but I am less sure about the reason for such great differences in urinal designs. Urinals seem to vary as much within a country as they do across countries. Surely there are some best practices and optimal designs criterion (minimum splash back being a major criterion!) that designers can work from? Also, with water prices going up everywhere, I wonder if urinals will become more of a standard feature in people's homes?

ps - there are some interesting comments in the Freakonomics blog entry.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Book review - Making Money by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is a highly successful writer, and Making Money has been well received, with one critic, commenting:

"Pratchett is in top form in Making Money. Who else, after 32 hilarious, cult-inducing Discworld books could still manage to create characters like Mr. Fusspot’s canine chef, Aimsbury, who is allergic to the word “garlic”? (Not the substance itself; just the word—it makes him throw a knife and speak in fluent Quirmian for four seconds). Or Gladys the golem who wears a blue dress and insists to Moist that A Man And A Young Woman Should Not Be In The Same Bedroom, despite the fact that golems are, not to put too fine a point upon it, sexless? Or the long dead wizard of Unseen University, Professor Flead, who agrees to help Moist only if he afterwards he will be permanently insorsiced into Ankh-Morpork’s Pink Pussycat Club?

At the rate Mr. Pratchett is going, he will soon have enough money to purchase ¼ of his native England, the other 3 bits of course being currently owned by the Queen, J.K.Rowling, and Paul McCartney. And good riddance to Mr. Pratchett; we’ll not likely see such inspired lunacy from anyone else."
Last week, when I was some hundred pages into Making Money, I almost gave up. I decided to persevere but alas, I only lasted to around page 280, when I truly ran out of steam and abandoned the book for good. I'm glad for having tried, but it looks like the genre is no longer for me.

While Making Money is a colourful and clever book that is filled with endless jokes and other fun-filled nonsenses, I found Pratchett's writing style to be too bland to keep me going. I liked the main character, a certain Moist Van Lipwig, and the episode when he introduces paper money into society is brilliant, but the fun didn't last and just after the halfway point the book started feeling like a chore. This is when yo must give up. I don't believe in finishing a book for the sake of it - it is a twofold sin because not only are you not enjoying reading it, but you are reading something bad at the expense of something potentially brilliant.

I have moved on to 'Down and Out in Paris and London' by George Orwell and am loving every minute of it.

---

Quotes from Making Money:

Pucci's eyes lit up. 'You know something, don't you?'
'Not exactly, but I think I know where there is something to be known.'

Give him a fool any day. Slow people took some time to catch up, but when they did they rolled right over you.

Tenth Egg Street was a street of small traders, who sold small things in small quantities for small profits. In a street like that, you had to be small-minded. It wasn't the place for big ideas. You had to look at the detail.

These were men who counted every half-farthing and slept at night with the cash box under their bed. They'd weigh out flour and raisins and hundreds-and-thousands with their eyes ferociously focused on the scale's pointer, because they knew they were men who lived in the margins.

And they (the 'Igors') were perfectionists. Ask them to build you a device and you wouldn't get what you asked for. You'd get what you wanted.

He looked nervously at the little man. He wasn't insane, Moist was sure, but it was clear that mostly, for him, the world happened elsewhere.

He'd bought it - why? Because it was like the lockpicks: a token to prove, if only to himself, that a part of him was still free. It was like the other ready-made identities, the escape plans, the caches of money and clothes. They told him that any day he could leave all this, melt into the crowd, say goodbye to the paperwork and the timetable and the endless, endless wanting.
They told him he could give it up any time he liked. Any hour, any minute, any second. And because he could, he didn't...

Film Review: North by Northwest


North by Northwest (1959) is a fast paced Hitchcock film about an advertising executive who is mistaken for a secret agent and chased all over America by a group of foreign spies intent on assassinating him. The acting by the leads - Carey Grant and Eva Marie Saint - is spot on and the film is stylistically unbeatable. The dialogue, like Carey Grant's suit, remains crisp throughout. Unfortunately, the film does falter a bit toward the end, which involves and overly long chase scene and a formulaic ending. Nevertheless, North by Northwest is worth watching, particularly if you have an eye for style.

*** 3/4

Monday, September 01, 2008