Thursday, December 25, 2008

Dubai holiday diary, in the style of George Orwell's diary

Day 0
Fly out from Heathrow. Realise I only ever drink tomato juice when on aeroplanes.

Arrive in Dubai in the evening. Take a taxi to sister's apartment in the Old Town, which is situated very close to the Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world. Compared to my last visit, around five years ago, the landscape is filled with many more buildings. The level of construction doesn't seem quite as intense as expected, but it is night time and visibility is limited. No eggs.

Day 1
One and a half eggs (omelette).

Traveling around in the day, I appreciate Dubai is indeed a city that is very much 'under construction'. The smell of building aggregates - I think it is the cement in particular - is everywhere and my throat is a little prickly, as if a fine layer of dust is trapped inside.

We revisit Chicken Tikka Inn, the famous fast food restaurant that gave me and my friends food poisoning on our last visit with its much loved keema naan. I order the keema naan again. It is beautiful and I suffer no ill effects beyond a longing for more keema naan.

Very warm with no sign of clouds.

Day 2
One and a half eggs (omelette).

In the Old Town there seems to be too many shops, cafe's, and restaurants for the number of people. Many apartments are empty for now. When they are fully occupied the level of custom in the shops will increasingly significantly, but I wonder how long they can continue in these conditions.

Many of the roads do not have paths running alongside them and there are very few people walking about in some areas. Very calm but slightly eerie.

We packed a picnic lunch and headed out for a day trip in the new Range Rover, which proceeded to break down on a main highway. Ate our food on the sandy verge, away from the traffic, while waiting for rescue. When being towed back home, we saw another new Range Rover had suffered the same fate.

Weather is hot in the day and pleasantly warm in the evening. Imagine it is very cold in England.

Day 3
One and a half eggs (scrambled). Temperature is in the low twenties through the day. Perfect.

Wondering about the gold and spice souks, we see plumes of smoke bellowing in the distance. Later learn that an old cinema burned down. Prices are generally extremely high compared to a few years ago, but we enjoy sweet tea from a little drinks outlet in the souk at a mere twenty pence a cup. Also buy a very large bag of various fried, battered snacks (large chilis, sweet banana, etc) for around two pounds.

Visit Bastakiya, where old, traditional buildings have been preserved to create a kind of museum village, where people can learn about the old way of life in the region. The area is dotted with several galleries and cafe's. The drinks in these venues are extremely expensive relative to similar venues in the UK. Dubai has experienced significant inflation in recent years, and the weaker pound exacerbates this effect for British tourists. I suspect the economic decision to maintain a fixed exchange rate regime (dirham is pegged to the USD) has played no small role in this matter.

Black cat seen wondering about the apartments. Cats are much thinner than English cats, and their features are more angular. Imagine they mostly find their own food.

Slightly chilly in the evening but still very hot in the day.

Day 4
One egg (fried).

Very mixed feelings about visiting the large aquarium and aquatic learning center today. Animals on show include penguins, sharks, otters and a very large local grouper fish.

Visit a chinese restaurant in the evening, and eat grouper along with halal duck.

Day 5
One and a half eggs (omelette).

See an albino cat when out and about - it is extremely thin and nervous. Do not expect it to live much longer.

Traffic volume is much higher than a few years ago, although the authorities have tried to accommodate by building wider roads. The main Sheikh Zayed Road is now seven lanes wides in some parts. I have seen many examples of reckless driving, but am certain road etiquette is much improved, with very little usage of horns.

Visit the Dubai Marina, which is straight out of CSI Miami, and a nearby beach where people are roasting themselves to a crisp in the midday sun. Walk around Safa Park, which has excellent views of the Dubai landscape and a surprising level of greenery. Seeing many varieties of tropical birds but not a single British species.

Later in the evening we go to the Madinat Hotel for a 'mocktail' drink at Bari-Bar. Very relaxing atmosphere with views of the famous Burj Al-Arab hotel. Start to feel a bit queasy after my drink. It could simply be my cold getting worse, or that I don't seem to respond well to cold coffee drinks, or perhaps it is a psychological response to paying around eight pounds for a drink. The scale of inflation and the widening difference between the luxury and budget segment of the economy hits home when we go to a 'dirty-dirty' eatery (Kurachi Darbar), where a bottled water costs 1 dirham versus 20 dirhams (just under four pounds) at Bari-Bar.

(Note the ring pulls used on the drinks cans are of the very old variety i.e. the type the pull off completely).

Day 6
Christmas eve. Two eggs (fried).

Shaded over in the morning for the first time since our arrival. Full sun appeared at around half past nine. Peak temperature of around 25 degrees.

I am eating about twice as much as what I eat back home. The food is great here, especially my sister's good cooking, but I am also looking forward to a more disciplined diet when I return home. For now the temptation is too strong.

Walk along the beach front and have tea and carrot cake at The Lime Tree Cafe. See my first British species bird, a sparrow.

Day 7
When sitting on the balcony in the morning, a small pigeon lands nearby. Perhaps it is the pigeon that laid eggs there earlier in the year.

Breakfast not eaten yet. I suspect it will include a couple of eggs.

Book quote (7/7) - How to be an Alien by George Mikes

- THE NATIONAL PASSION

Queueing is the national passion of an otherwise dispassionate race. The English are rather shy about it, and deny that they adore it. On the Continent, if people are waiting at a bus-stop they loiter around in a seemingly vague fashion. When the bus arrives they make a dash for it; most of them leave by the bus and a lucky minority is taken away by an elegant black ambulance car. An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.

At week-ends an Englishman queues up at the bus-stop, travels out to Richmond, queues up for a boat, then queues up for tea, then queues up for ice cream, then joins a few more odd queues just for the sake of the fun of it, then queues up at the bus-stop and has the time of his life. Many English families spend lovely evenings at home just by queueing up for a few hours, and the parents are very sad when the children leave them and queue up for going to bed.

How to Be An Alien review

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Book quote (6/7) - How to be an Alien by George Mikes

- HOW TO COMPROMISE

It is all right to have central heating in an English home, except the bath room, because that is the only place where you are naked and wet at the same time, and you must give British germs a fair chance. The open fire is an accepted, indeed a traditional, institution. You sit in front of it and your face is hot whilst your back is cold. It is a fair compromise between two extremes and settles the problem of how to burn and catch cold at the same time.

How to Be An Alien review

Book review - Hot Water by P.G. Wodehouse

Hot Water is yet another slice of Wodehouse brilliance. The storyline contains all the usual deceptions, coincidences and colourful characters that I have come to expect from Wodehouse's alternate reality, and while Hot Water may not quite match up to the brilliance of the PSmith or Blandings series, it is still an absolute joy to read.

****1/4

Now that I've finished my holiday reading well ahead of schedule, I am turning to my first ever audio book - Homer's The Odyssey, narrated by Ian Mckellen. I'm jumping head first into this Greek epic without doing any background reading, as I want to maintain all elements of surprise. Let's hope the strategy pays off.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Book quote (5/7) - How to be an Alien by George Mikes

- HOW TO BE RUDE

In the last century, when a wicked and unworthy subject annoyed the Sultan of Turkey or the Czar of Russia, he had his head cut of without much ceremony; but when the same happened in England, the monarch declared: 'We are not amused'; and the whole British nation even now, a century later, is immensely proud of how rude their Queen was.
Terribly rude expressions (if pronounced grimly) are: 'I am afraid that . . .' 'unless . ..' 'nevertheless . . .' 'How queer . . .' and 'I am sorry, but . . .'
It is true that quite often you can hear remarks like: 'You'd better see that you get out of here I ' Or 'Shut your big mouth I ' Or 'Dirty pig! ' etc. These remarks are very un-English and are the results of foreign influence. (Dating back, however, to the era of the Danish invasion.)

How to Be An Alien review

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book quote (4/7) - How to be an Alien by George Mikes

- HOW NOT TO BE CLEVER

A continental gentleman seeing a nice panorama may remark:
'This view rather reminds me of Utrecht, where the peace treaty concluding the War of Spanish Succession was signed on the 11th April, 1713. The river there, however, recalls the Guadalquivir, which rises in the Sierra de Cazoria and flows south-west to the Atlantic Ocean and is 650 kilometres long. Oh, rivers. . . . What did Pascal say about them? "Les rivieres sont les chemins qui marchent. . . ." '
This pompous, showing-off way of speaking is not permissible in England. The Englishman is modest and simple. He uses but few words and expresses so much - but so much - with them. An Englishman looking at the same view would remain silent for two or three hours and think about how to put his profound feeling into words. Then he would remark:
'It's pretty, isn't it?'

How to Be An Alien review

Friday, December 19, 2008

Book quote (3/7) - How to be an Alien by George Mikes

- TEA

... you have tea for breakfast; then you have tea at eleven o'clock in the morning; then after lunch;then you have tea for tea; then after supper; and again at eleven o'clock at night. You must not refuse any additional cups of tea under the following circumstances: if it is hot; if it is cold; if you are tired; if anybody thinks that you might be tired; if you are nervous; if you are gay; before you go out; if you are out; if you have just returned home; if you feel like it; if you do not feel like it; if you have had no tea for some time; if you have just had a cup.

How to Be An Alien review

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Book quote (2/7) - How to be an Alien by George Mikes

- SOUL AND UNDERSTATEMENT

Foreigners have souls; the English haven't. On the Continent you find any amount of people who sigh deeply for no conspicuous reason, yearn, suffer and look in the air extremely sadly. This is soul. .. All this is very deep: and just soul, nothing else. The English have no soul; they have the understatement instead.

If a continental youth wants to declare his love to a girl, he kneels down, tells her that she is the sweetest, the most charming and ravishing person in the world, that she has something in her, something peculiar and individual which only a few hundred thousand other women have and that he would be unable to live one more minute without her. Often, to give a little more emphasis to the statement, he shoots himself on the spot. This is a normal, week-day declaration of love in the more temperamental continental countries. In England the boy pats his adored one on the back and says softly: 'I don't object to you, you know.' If he is quite mad with passion, he may add: 'I rather fancy you, in fact.'
If he wants to marry a girl, he says:
'I say . . . would you? . . .'
If he wants to make an indecent proposal:
'I say . . . what about . . .'

Overstatement, too, plays a considerable part in English social life. This takes mostly the form of someone remarking: 'I say ...' and then keeping silent for three days on end.

How to Be An Alien review

Off for the holidays

I'm heading off to Dubai tomorrow morning. I expect it's going to be very different to when I last went, which was around five years ago, and am quite looking forward to it.

I'll be gone for a couple of weeks so blog updates will be few and far between, although you can look forward to some 'time-delayed' quotes from 'How to Be An Alien'.

Just in case you don't hear from me again, I wish you all a happy holiday.


: )

Monday, December 15, 2008

Book quote (1/7) - How to be an Alien by George Mikes

- THE WEATHER

This is the most important topic in the land. Do not be misled by memories of your youth when, on the Continent, wanting to describe someone as exceptionally dull, you remarked: 'He is the type who would discuss the weather with you.' In England this is an ever-interesting, even thrilling topic, and you must be good at discussing the weather.

EXAMPLES FOR CONVERSATION

For Good Weather

'Lovely day, isn't it?'
'Isn't it beautiful?' '
'The sun . . .'
'Isn't it gorgeous?'
'Wonderful, isn't it?'
'It's so nice and hot. . .'
'Personally, I think it's so nice when it's hot- isn't it?'
'I adore it - don't you?'

For Bad Weather

'Nasty day, isn't it?'
'Isn't it dreadful?'
'The rain . . . I hate rain . . .'
'I don't like it at all. Do you?'
'Fancy such a day in July. Rain in the morning, then a bit of sunshine, and then rain, rain, rain, all day long.'
'I remember exactly the same July day in 1936.'
'Yes, I remember too.'
'Or was it in 1928?'
'Yes, it was.'
'Or in 1939?'
'Yes, that's right.'

Now observe the last few sentences of this conversation. A very important rule emerges from it. You must never contradict anybody when discussing the weather. Should it hail and snow, should hurricanes uproot the trees from the sides of the road, and should someone remark to you: 'Nice day, isn't it?' - answer without hesitation: Isn't it lovely?'
Learn the above conversation by heart. If you are a bit slow in picking things up, learn at least one conversation, it would do wonderfully for any occasion. If you do not say anything else for the rest of your life, just repeat this conversation, you still have a fair chance of passing as a remarkably witty man of sharp intellect, keen observation and extremely pleasant manners.

How to Be An Alien review

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What's $50 billion these days

It's interesting that recent news of a potential $50bn fraud by Bernard Madoff isn't garnering anywhere near as much publicity as previous swindles by the likes of Nick Leeson and Jerome Kerviel, which generated massive media storms. With news of bailouts and fiscal stimulus packages in the hundreds of billions, and with banks and corporates collapsing all around us, a $50 billion loss appears little more than a hill of beans in a landscape of much larger problems. And yet, if the claims are true, this will be the biggest Wall Street swindle of all time, by a long, long way.

Bernard Madoff seems to have created a classic Ponzi scheme, in which claims of profits were totally false and where Madoff only managed to pay off old investors with money from new investors. With his fund generating unbelievably steady and above market profits month in, month out, even through the credit crisis, several people indeed thought there was something dodgy going on. Alas, more people thought it was either legitimate or that if it was a fraud, they wanted in on the ill-gotten gains. A key lesson in 'How to Make a Wall Street Ponzi scheme' includes the following lessons: (1) Be in change of all the processes needed to transact and book the trades so you can cover up your losses and dodgy dealings. (2) Hire a two-bit audit practice to approve your numbers, knowing they don't have the resources for proper due diligence. To help smooth this process, make them investors in your fund.

Bleed the World

Think about those less fortunate than you this Christmas.

World record base jump in Dubai highlights difference between the English and the French

This is quite something. A French guy and a Brit sneak into the Burj Dubai and base jump off the top. Hat-tip to Chris for the link.




The French guy's deep, philosophical verbiage (quoted below) is in stark contrast to the matter of fact, practical, and more limited commentary from the Brit. George Mikes picks up on this difference in How to Be an Alien.
'It's very surreal.
When the sun rises, and lights up everything...you're all alone.
... You feel like everything belongs to you.
A little moment of eternity.
... There's nothing but us.
At that point, I'm free.
I'm doing what I want to do.
No one's there to tell me it's good or bad,
it's a moment of freedom, of total freedom.'

'During the fall, it's a bit like being in a dream.
When the chute opens up it's like waking up.
What's always the best is the first time.
The first time you jump off something,
it's always different.
Once you leave the edge, you're happy.
The stress comes while you're waiting, before you go.
Once you start to act, it all happens by itself.'

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Picasa for storage, Flickr as a gallery

While I use Picasa for storing and sharing my digital pics, I love visiting the professional work hosted at Flickr.

This superb picture of Hong Kong is by StuckinCustoms, created using the HDR effect:

The Library of Congress is also sharing a vast collection of colour photos from the 1930s-1940s:




Book review - How to be an Alien by George Mikes


Despite my international travel and soaking up of other cultures, I have tended to assume that my native way of life in England was 'normal', and have remained blissfully unaware of the strange tendencies that I grew up with. After reading How to Be an Alien (1946) by George Mikes, I am enlightened. Mikes' little book provides a light-hearted, outsider's perspective on the peculiar English way of life. Through his gentle mockery we learn that we are perhaps the strangest creatures of all.

A few one-liners:

- On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners.

- An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.

- A fishmonger is the man who mongs fish; the ironmonger and the warmonger do the same with iron and war. They just mong them.

****

More quotes from How to be an Alien:

- Study these rules, and imitate the English. There can be only one result: if you don't succeed in imitating them you become ridiculous; if you do, you become even more ridiculous.

- In England everything is the other way round. ... On the Continent there is one topic which should be avoided - the weather; in England, if you do not repeat the phrase 'Lovely day, isn't it?' at least two hundred times a day, you are considered a bit dull. On the Continent Sunday papers appear on Monday; in England - a country of exotic oddities - they appear on Sunday. On the Continent people use a fork as though a fork were a shovel; in England they turn it upside down and push everything - including peas - on top of it.

- On the Continent public orators try to learn to speak fluently and smoothly; in England they take a special course in Oxonian stuttering. On the Continent learned persons love to quote Aristotle, Horace, Montaigne and show off their knowledge; in England only uneducated people show off their knowledge, nobody quotes Latin and Greek authors in the course of a conversation, unless he has never read them.

- ... people on the Continent either tell you the truth or lie; in England they hardly ever lie, but they would not dream of telling you the truth. Many continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game.

I'll be posting more quotes from this book over the next couple of weeks.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book review - Cocktail Time by P.G Wodehouse

Cocktail Time by P.G. Wodehouse starts off in fine form, with elderly trouble maker Lord Ickenham catapulting a Brazil nut at the head of his friend, Sir Bastable. It's an act of charity, you see, as Bastable needs to be snapped out of aging into an old 'dishpot', and a Brazil nut to the head seems just the remedy. From here, the regular Wodehousian adventure ensues.

Ickenham is a cracking character but after finding pure joy in the PSmith books and the Blandings series, I have very high expectations when I pick up a Wodehouse, and Cocktail Times didn't quite measure up.

Enjoyable but not riveting.

***

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Book review - Candide by Voltaire (translated by Theo Cuffe)

Candide (1758) is a wonderful dialectic adventure story, with a strong philosophical bent and excellent characters to boot. When I started the book, I questioned what the hell I was reading - the pace is ultra frenetic with action so dense that a Hollywood action movie wouldn't be able to keep pace, and the events are beyond far-fetched. However, after a few short chapters I had adapted and was firmly hooked into Voltaire's crazy world.

Candide works perfectly well without requiring a knowledge of political and philosophical context. At under a hundred pages in length, this really is a classic that should be read by all.

****1/2

Quotes:

- He (Pangloss) could prove to wonderful effect that there was no effect without cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, his Lordship the Baron's castle was the finest of castles and her Ladyship the best of possible baronesses.
'It is demonstrable,' he would say, 'that things cannot be other than as they are: for, since everything is made to serve an end, everything is necessarily for the best of ends. Observe how noses were formed to support spectacles, therefore we have spectacles. Legs are clearly devised for the wearing of breeches, therefore we wear breeches.

- The king laughed. 'I cannot begin to understand the passion you Europeans have for our yellow mud; but take all you want, and much good may it do you.'

- This sequence of events completed Candide's despair; in truth he had endured misfortunes a thousand times more painful, but the cold-bloodedness of the magistrate, and of the captain who had robbed him, raised his spleen, and plunged him into the blackest melancholy. The wickedness of man now revealed itself to him in all its ugliness; his mind fed exclusively on gloomy thoughts.

- The immense riches seized by this scoundrel were engulfed along with him, and nothing saved but a single sheep. 'You see,' said Candide to Martin, 'crime is sometimes punished; that blackguard of a Dutch owner got the fate he deserved .'

- 'Yes,' said Martin, 'but did the passengers on board have to perish too?' God punished the thief, the devil drowned the rest.

- '... I have seen so many extraordinary things that nothing seems extraordinary to me any more' (Martin)

- 'I hope,' said Martin, 'that one day she may make you very happy, but I doubt it very much.' - 'You are very hard,' said Candide. - 'Because I know what life is,' said Martin.
'But look at those gondoliers,' said Candide; 'do they not sing all day long?'

- 'Yes, but you don't see them at home with their wives and squealing children,' said Martin. 'The Doge has his troubles, and the gondoliers have theirs. It is true that, all things considered, the lot of a gondolier is preferable to that of a Doge, but I think the difference is so slight as not to be worth arguing over.'

- 'Now tell us this, my dear Pangloss,' said Candide. 'While you were being hanged, and dissected, and beaten, and made to row in a galley, did you continue to believe that all was for the best?'

- 'I hold firmly to my original views, ' replied Pangloss. 'I am a philosopher after all: it would not do for me to recant, given that Liebniz is incapable of error, and that pre-established harmony is moreover the finest thing in the world ...'

- Pangloss conceded that he had suffered horribly, all his life, but having once maintained that everything was going splendidly he would continue to do so, while believing nothing of the kind.

- During this conversation, news was spread abroad that two viziers of the bench and the mufti had just been strangled at Constantinople, and several of their friends empaled. This catastrophe made a great noise for some hours. Pangloss, Candide, and Martin, as they were returning to the little farm, met with a good-looking old man, who was taking the air at his door, under an alcove formed of the boughs of orange-trees. Pangloss, who was as inquisitive as he was disputative, asked him what was the name of the mufti who was lately strangled. “I cannot tell,” answered the good old man; “I never knew the name of any mufti, or vizier breathing. I am entirely ignorant of the event you speak of; I presume that in general such as are concerned in public affairs sometimes come to a miserable end; and that they deserve it: but I never inquire what is doing at Constantinople; I am contented with sending thither the produce of my garden, which I cultivate with my own hands.” After saying these words, he invited the strangers to come into his house. His two daughters and two sons presented them with divers sorts of sherbet of their own making; besides caymac, heightened with the peels of candied citrons, oranges, lemons, pineapples, pistachio nuts, and Mocha coffee unadulterated with the bad coffee of Batavia or the American islands. After which the two daughters of this good Mussulman perfumed the beards of Candide, Pangloss, and Martin.

“You must certainly have a vast estate,” said Candide to the Turk; who replied, “I have no more than twenty acres of ground, the whole of which I cultivate myself with the help of my children; and our labor keeps off from us three great evils—idleness, vice, and want.”

Candide, as he was returning home, made profound reflections on the Turk’s discourse. “This good old man,” said he to Pangloss and Martin, “appears to me to have chosen for himself a lot much preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the honor to sup.” “Human grandeur,” said Pangloss, “is very dangerous, if we believe the testimonies of almost all philosophers; for we find Eglon, king of Moab, was assassinated by Aod; Absalom was hanged by the hair of his head, and run through with three darts; King Nadab, son of Jeroboam, was slain by Baaza; King Ela by Zimri; Okosias by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the kings Jehooiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity ... “Neither need you tell me,” said Candide, “that we must take care of our garden.” “You are in the right,” said Pangloss; “for when man was put into the garden of Eden, it was with an intent to dress it: and this proves that man was not born to be idle.” “Work then without disputing,” said Martin; “it is the only way to render life supportable.”

The little society, one and all, entered into this laudable design; and set themselves to exert their different talents. The little piece of ground yielded them a plentiful crop. Cunegund indeed was very ugly, but she became an excellent hand at pastrywork; Pacquette embroidered; the old woman had the care of the linen. There was none, down to Brother GiroflĂ©e, but did some service; he was a very good carpenter, and became an honest man. Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide, “There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not travelled over America on foot; had you not run the baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.” “Excellently observed,” answered Candide; 'but we must cultivate our garden.'

(Last quote copied from Candide on-line, with 'but we must cultivate our garden' changed to match the version I read)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The PNC Cost of Christmas Index is up 8.1%!

So much for falling prices. The cost of Christmas is up 8.1% on a year ago.


Cyber-shoppers face a mere 2.3% increase for the same basket of goods, but the absolute cost for buying over the internet is way higher at $31,956 versus $21,080 via the traditional channels. The report says this is partly due to the shipping cost for birds - oh, the irony.

(Hat tip to super star economist Greg Mankiw)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Book review - Notes From the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky


I enjoyed Dostoevsky's 'The Gambler' but 'Notes From the Underground' is way over my head. I persevered to around the half way mark before throwing in the towel.

I know I am missing something here, as Notes From the Underground is held in the highest regard. But life is too short and there are too many good books out there.

*

Friday, December 05, 2008

Paris Hilton reads War and Peace

The front cover of the latest 'Intelligent Life' magazine is superb.

The main article discusses how large parts of society are expressing an interest in intellectually stimulating culture, and what may be behind this wave.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Surf's up in Venice

Here's something you don't see everyday. It's the famous St Mark's sqaure in beautiful Venice.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Book review - Big Ideas: The Essential Guide to the Latest Thinking by James Harkin

Bah, I had high hopes for this book but they were dashed pages after the introduction. 'Big Ideas' is spoiled by Harkin's condescending tone and snarky comments about how so many of the modern thought makers are misunderstanding the reality of the situation. It is also let down by the fact that interesting ideas like The Tipping Point and The Long Tail are given as equal a short shrift as concepts such as Slacktivism and Crunchy Conservatism. I grant that different people are interested in different things but some ideas are clearly less wishy-washy than others and deserve a bit more explanation. One the plus side, the book is short and easy to skim through in a couple of sittings.

**

A few goods bits:

- On the J-Curve (not the economic theory):

'... the book purported to offer an account of how nations that emerge from authoritarianism go through a period of instability and disorder before they settle into a stable democracy. It was a rather pedestrian idea, and doubtless would have sunk without a trace had it not been for two things. These are the fact that Britain and the US were having doubts about their invasion of Iraq, and it's title, The J-Curve.'

'...If it had been written by a European academic, it undoubtedly have been called 'Dictatorships in Transition: Towards a theory of transition to post-authoritarian democracies', and would, as a result, have withered in the political science section of some of our more comprehensive bookshops. As it was, it cleaned up.'
- On Futurology:
"Writing to Friederich Engels in 1857 about a risky punt he had taken on the political rebellion in India, Karl Marx gave solid advice. 'It's possible,' he admitted, 'that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.' Ambitious forecasters take note."

'The results of his study are now in, and they make sobering reading. In over 300 pages of his book, Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Tetlock demonstrates in meticulous academic detail that most expert forecasters are no better than the rest of us at he prognostication game. Worse, when he informed them that they had been rumbled, most of them refused to eat humble pie and instead claimed to have been right all along.'
PS - You can expect a ripple of book reviews over the week, as I've read a bunch of books.

Free Moleskine notebook

I just received a free Moleskine notebook in gratitude for filling in a short questionnaire on Granta's web-site. This little creature is extremely well put together and comes with a cool pouch at the back for holding loose scraps of paper, receipts etc. However, while the pad may stand heads and shoulders above your average notebook, I can't see myself ever shelling out the £10 retail price to buy one off the shelves. Mind you, I never thought I'd pay £3 for a cup of coffee.


The Moleskine brand is a marketing man's dream. By strongly associating their products with famous writers and artists from our past, from Hemingway to Picasso, the company behind Moleskine have a generated a mystique and veneration beyond imagination. It's almost a cult movement. The internet is filled with discussions on which types of pen are best suited to the Moleskine's paper, hacks on how to add tabbing systems and pen holders to the books, and there are even Flickr galleries and Youtube video's where people exhibit their work.

The thing is, Moleskine aficionados are well aware of how Moleskine is stretching the truth by linking the notebook to famous artists but this, along with the steep price, is overshadowed by the books sheer quality, the optimum size, and the general aesthetic appeal. It is definitely the Apple of the notebook world, a tool that not only captures your imagination but actuallys spur it into action.

Myself, I'm not ready to join the Moleskine movement. Just as owning a the best golf clubs would not make me a better golfer, so owning the best notebook on the market won't do anything to improve my writing or sketching skills (although I can do a mean stick man). For now, the book will sit at the back of my draw, atop the unused watercolours and artist pads.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Shipping note

Just over a month ago, I commented on how freight shipping rates had plummeted over 90% from the high. Since then, prices have just kept on falling. From the FT:

'Rates for the largest ships, known as Capesizes, are down 98.8 per cent from the record $233,988 per day set on June 5 to $2,773 on Sunday.'