Friday, January 30, 2009

Free MOTs at Audi and other money saving tips

- My MOT isn't due until September but I thought I'd fill in this short form to apply for a free MOT with an official Audi garage. The ticket I printed off doesn't have a date on it, so hopefully it will still be valid several months hence.

The only catch I can see is that the re-test is not free, but there is nothing stopping you from taking it to another garage.

Other money saving stuff:

- If you don't mind food past it's best before date, and like to order in bulk, you'll love Approved Food & Drink. It isn't the most professional of sites, but it does the job.

- Check the HotUKDeals site once in a while for the latest hot offers.

- I've used HalfCost for cheap clothing twice now. Choice is a bit limited, but some stuff is unbelievably cheap and the service is great.

- Of course, no list is complete with the mack-daddy of mack-daddies that is MoneySavingExpert. If you do nothing else, sign up to the weekly e-mail.

Regards, your resident scrimper.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Film - Frost/Nixon

I was surprisingly immersed in Frost/Nixon at an early stage, despite knowing very little about the Watergate scandal and the Frost-Nixon conversations. Okay, it may not be the type of film that benefits by being on the big screen, but it sure gets my thumbs up.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Film - Valkyrie

Most of what I know of history, I know because of entertaining Hollywood movies.

*** 1/2

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Movie news

- Looks like Robert Downey Jr is playing Sherlock Holmes. The NY Mag reports, 'In addition to the fact that he's shedded his Inverness coat (so as not to cover up Downey Jr.'s newfound abs of steel), we learn that this Holmes is a bare-knuckle boxer, a martial-arts expert skilled in bartitsu, and an expert swordsman — not to mention a compulsive gambler.'

This is all wrong, what!. Downey Jr is a superb actor, but Holmes is supposed to be tall and slim, not short and stocky. Also, the original Holmes had a cocaine addiction, and even if you don't see the drug taking on screen, it is a significant part of his strange character (Jeremy Brett played it to a tee in the ITV series), and a character moulded by bare knuckle boxing and gambling is a very different kettle of fish altogether. Let's see what comes of this. With director Guy Ritchie at the helm, I have low hopes.

- Elsewhere, Mickey Rourke might be fighting in a real WWE Wrestlemania match in April. Don't do anything too risky buddy - I don't want to see The Expendables project being stalled because of a wrestling injury!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Book review - How To Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read, by Henry Hitchings

Henry Hitchings' book works a treat as a guide to the famous literature of the world, covering everything from Dante to the Quran. I've come to terms with the notion that in my lifetime I'll only be able to read a fraction of the books that I want to, but I can ill afford to spend my time reading worthless junk, so a spot of guidance is always welcome.

Hitchings writes fantastically well, and he succeeded in opening my eyes to the value of books that I may not have previously considered reading (Jane Austen, Proust, some Russians, Aesop, etc). Importantly, he is no book snob, even if he does say of Don Quixote, 'Nothing happens - several times.' Bah!

*** 3/4

Interesting quotes and notes from the book:

- 'When I meet with difficulties in my reading, I do not bite my nails over them; after making one or two attempts, I give them up.' - Michel de Montaigne

- 'Tell me what you have read and I'll tell you who you are' is true enough, but I'd know you better if you told me what you re-read.' - Francoise Maurice, 1952 Nobel Laureate

- No one has read everything and no one has seen everything.

- Mark Twain: 'A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.'

- A best seller chimes with a particular cultural moment. Remove a book from its cultural moment and it looks and sounds quite wrong. Its success has to do with what the Greeks called 'kairos' - the right time, the opportune moment when something special can happen.

- A crude but useful rule in all matter of the intellect is that if you cannot explain something simply you probably don't understand it quite as well as you imagine.

- Most books cost more to read than to buy, and this is especially true of lengthy classics available in cheap editions.

- If you cannot really recall what a book is about, can you honestly claim to have read it? Are you in a better position than someone who has not read it at all?

- ... plenty of people will feel narked that the rigorous thinking of philosophers fails to achieve consensus. Philosophy arrives at few concrete findings, and reflection seems in practice to have the effect of destroying what one though was perfectly robust knowledge. This may explain why many college philosophy graduates find the world of work hard to get on with. Their musings are enough to make one subscribe wholeheartedly to Sturgeon's Law - that 90 per cent of everything is crap.

- ... if you want to talk about things you don't really know about, you need some familiarity with the mechanics of deception...Often we will mistakenly think someone is lying when he or she is not. People who are just socially awkward will be taken for liars, while confident deceivers will be accepted as truth-tellers.

- Half a dozen Latin tags worth knowing:
1. sine qua non. Used of something one cannot do without. ... Thus 'A silly jumper is a sine qua non for golfers.'
2. ad hominem. Literally 'to the man'. An attack ad hominem finds fault with a person rather than his arguments.
3. mutatis mutandis. 'Once the things that need changing have been changed' or, more succintley, 'After all necessary changes.'
4. pro tempore. 'For the time being'. Usually abbreviated to pro tem, as in 'Let's accept pro tem her eligibility for this position.'
5. per se. 'In and of itself'. For example, 'Using Latin tags isn't an odious practice per se.'
6. pro bono. This is an abbreviation of the pro bono publico, meaning 'for the public good'. Someone operating pro bono does work of professional quality, but without payment.

- 'Socially useful' Shakespearean quotations:
> When plotting: 'Look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it.' (Lady Macbeth).
> When the space of time seems more than usually short: 'I wasted time, and now doth time waste me' (Richard II in the play of that name).

Film - Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good Luck is a thoughtful film about the moral integrity of tv news journalism during the McCarthy communist witch hunt era of the early 1950s. I know very little about this period and was shocked at McCarthy's blatant abuse of power and the culture of fear he created.

All credit to George Clooney, who went out of his way to get this little gem made.


Friday, January 23, 2009

My favourite Hong Kong photo (tilt-shift effect)

Obama appoints State Department heavies

I don't like politicians or politics all that much, and let's just say I have a few 'issues' with an $800bn+ spending plan. However, last night, when Obama appointed heavyweights Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell to the State Department, I felt an air of genuine nobility throughout the proceedings. How refreshing.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dubai - tilt-shift special effect

I've been converted by the rather neat tilt-shift effect. The idea is to play about with the focus and blurring to create the effect of a scale, miniature model of the original photo. The trick works really well with scenic photos that have a good level of depth to them.

If you aren't too fussed about doing lots of fine tuning, you can upload your photo to this excellent site to apply the effect, or you can use a package like Photoscape, which has a pretty good tilt-shift function.

This collection of pics ends the Dubai series.


View from my sister's apartment in the Old Town:

Random pics (not very tilt-shift effective, but what the hey):
PS - I realise this deluge of Dubai photos may not have made for particularly interesting viewing, but it serves an ulterior end - I am planning to build the blog into a personal reference tool, so there may be some strange stuff appearing on here in the future. You have been warned!

Dubai - metal Predator, with Alien head on pike? Yes please!

The film Predator featured heavily during my trip to the Far East. In Dubai, it was all about the Alien series. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I walked into a shop selling cultural decorative products such as rugs, paintings, etc, only to see a full size metal Predator holding the head of an Alien on a spear. Very odd.

I've even seen these metal Predators for sale in my local shopping center. Who buys this stuff?

Chinese New Year - Year of the Ox

In a few days, it will be the Year of the Ox. I thought this could be a good omen for the markets, until I learned about the difference between an ox and a bull.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dubai - misc

9 pictures

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dubai - scenes

14 pics

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dubai - these guys built it

18 pictures

The bulk of Dubai's populations comprises of South Asian migrant labourers, many of whom are employed in the rapidly contracting construction sector. I don't think I would last more than a couple of days in their shoes.

During the holiday, I described these hard working folk as Oompah-Loompahs, but they were more like the Doozers from Fraggle Rock.

Both sides of the picture

When financial and economic ratios are out of whack from their long-term averages, it is not unreasonable to expect an eventual correction and a return to more normal times.

However, while ratios serve as useful measures of the extremes, the trap that it is all too easy to fall into is to overestimate their predictive qualities by failing to properly appreciate from which side the correction will come. A few examples:

- House price to income ratio: This yardstick was severely stretched for many years. Many analysts focussed on the idea that a steady rise in incomes would allow for house prices to remain elevated. Others used it as a signal that house prices were too high and expected a correction - they were proven right, but only after many years of being wrong.

- Dividend yield/Bond yield: I've read quite a bit of analysis about how the dividend yield is attractive when compared to the bond yield, making stocks a good long term buy. But how will the ratio correct? If the world bond market is in a bubble, then bond yields could spike up very quickly when the bubble bursts. Also, the FT is reporting that 'Companies cut their dividends at the highest rate on record at the end of last year.'

- Price to earnings ratio: When the P/E ratio is low relative to the long-term average, this can be used as a preliminary buy signal for value investors. However, what does it mean for the future that you may be to buy a company's past earnings at a good price? Who knows. A good example is Barclays. They are expected to issue yearly earnings well above the market consensus of 5.3 billion, but the share are so cheap that entire company is valued at a mere 7.8 billion. This puts it on an amazingly low P/E ratio of 1.47. In other words, if you bought the entire company and it managed to replicate last year's earnings, after one and a half years you would have made all your money back (very roughly speaking) and you would then have a free bank on your hands. Alas, the outlook for future earnings for the banking sector is not so bright.

With hindsight, it's obvious why the ratios are out of whack and how they will correct, but the reality is less clear. Should we look to the numerator or denominator, or both? History can be a guide, but humility in the face of uncertainty is called for.

Quick thought - photo memories

I find I can relive my holidays much better through my photos if they have a particular smell associated with them.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Film - Slumdog Millionaire

I enjoyed watching Slumdog Millionaire last week. Overall, I'd give it about 3.5 out of 5 - it is definitely worth watching watching, has great acting throughout, and it wonderfully captures the dark, manic beating pulse of Mumbai. However, I do think the film has been over hyped, and that the unrealistic premise that holds the story together conflicts with a film that is otherwise very realistic, gritty and un-Bollywood like.

Is this the beginning of a wave of mainstream films from India? Perhaps. The provider's of entertaining film reviews at 'Ain't it Cool' have this to say about the upcoming 'Chandni Chowk to China' (backed by Warner Bros):

'... imagine KUNG FU HUSTLE mixed with a Bruce Lee movie mixed with the 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN mixed with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, with a dash of MOULIN ROUGE, James Bond and an Adam Sandler movie. I know that last ingredient smells bad, but trust me… when you mix it all together it makes a delicious dish.'

Not sure about this one.

Inflation in Zimbabwe - what a mess

Zimbabwe is introducing a Z$100 trillion note into the economy.

'The new 100 trillion dollar bill would be worth about $300 in U.S. currency. A loaf of bread in Zimbabwe now costs about 300 billion Zimbabwean dollars' - CNN
'As of November 2008, the latest figures put Zimbabwe's annual inflation rate at 516 quintillion per cent, with prices doubling every 1.3 days. Zimbabwe's inflation crisis is now the second worst inflation spike in history, behind the hyperinflationary crisis of Hungary in 1946...' - Wikipedia

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Something for the weekend - A Meal in Venice

A beautifully told, short story about a best meal ever eaten:

A Meal in Venice, 1978 : clusterflock

Friday, January 16, 2009

Dubai - Let's Off-Road!

11 photos

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dubai - construction 3/3

When darkness falls, Dubai turns into a giant set from the Blade Runner or Batman films, as bright tube lights light up the rooms of the skeletal structures like large larvae luminescing at night.

Dubai - construction 2/3

Pictures of the world's tallest building, the Burj Dubai, and a snap of Dubai's old landmark, the Burj al Arab. For a couple of days during our stay, misty clouds descended over the city to create beautiful, mysterious effect. Of course, in the day time these eerie clouds gave way to bright, uninterrupted sunshine.

As a side note, I see that property developer Nakheel has halted work on the construction of a 1 kilometre tower, which would have put the Burj Dubai in the shade. I'm not going to say I told you so ... actually, I am: In early October, I asked 'Is this an unprecedented vote of confidence in Dubai or is it misplaced confidence, an example of extreme hubris?', and commented 'we could guestimate that the project may be shelved if things deteriorate much further.' Mind you, it didn't take a genius to figure that one out.

Dubai - construction 1/3

It's strange seeing a country being built the ground up, or from the sea up in some cases.

Dubai - the litter eyesore

The littering problem in and around Dubai really stood out on this trip.

Dubai's streets are relatively litter free and the pay-to-enter parks are kept in almost pristine conditions, but when we ventured into the natural surroundings of the wadis and deserts, rubbish would be strewn everywhere. The popular patches of desert are quickly turning into rubbish tips, and beautiful gifts of nature such as Hatta Pools are scarred with pointless graffiti. It's partly a cultural problem and partly a problem of increasing usage, but mostly it comes down to a tragedy of the commons (1, 2).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dubai - Range Rover vector image

I put this image of the holiday Range-Rover through a vectorising programme and it came out quite nicely:

PS - Expect a final flurry of Dubai photos and comments through the rest of the week...I've found a new photo editing tool that produces a truly wonderful effect!

Book review - Something Fresh by P.G. Wodehouse

I'm a big fan of the Blandings stories, so it was nice to go back to the first book in the series, which sees dotty Lord Emsworth introduced to us in fine form. The story revolves around Emsworth's accidental purloining of a scarab (the Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty no less!) and the original owner's efforts to steal it back.

After reading a few Wodehouse stories, you quickly become familiar with the plot devices and start to know what to expect next. However, because Wodehouse is such a brilliant writer, reading his books is a bit like eating a nice cake ... you just keep wanting more.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Stallone's 'The Expendables' is getting seriously good looking!

Sylvester Stallone's latest project, The Expendables, continues to shape up nicely.

Stallone apparently had JCVD on the phone for a part in the film but for some unknown reason the 'Muscles from Brussels' chose not to star. I think this is for the best, as it looks like Dolph Lundgren will be taking his place in the line up:

I stole the above graphic from another blog, adding Randy Couture into the mix as well as a small film history for each actor.

I really enjoyed the most recent Rambo film but there is no getting away from the fact that the acting was pretty abysmal. This time around, we've got a bunch of high quality actors (Whitaker, Kingsley), a handful of great action actors (Rourke, Stallone, Statham) and a few other actioners who can easily deliver the goods if given the right parts (Li, Lundgren). Randy Couture is the only unknown quantity but he is the real deal, a mixed martial artist, pro wrestler, and multiple UFC champion.

As a long time fan of Stallone, it's great to see the legend given a new lease of life as his action years draw to a close. Indeed, I think this film could prove particularly pivotal in his career; if it delivers the goods, I imagine it could set Stallone up with a strong second career working behind the camera. There may be a lot at stake, and expectations seem to be running high ('Ain't it Cool' has already praised the script), but I'm going to watch this one whether it's a block buster or a flop that quickly goes to DVD!

As for the title of this film, surely it is a nod to one of the most famous lines of Rambo II:

'Rambo... you not expendable.' - Co Bao

I've put together this video to help explain:

Dubai - animals 3/3

Pictures taken when out and about.

I particularly like how the black and white bird chooses a similarly coloured sign on which to perch.

The stray cat problem in Dubai may be spiralling out of control, with an estimated 150,000 feline furries roaming the streets. Because wild cats can carry dangerous diseases, the authorities are looking to eradicate the problem. However, if the problem is 'solved' too quickly, the residents of Dubai can expect a surge in the rat and mice populations.

Dubai - animals 2/3

The Dubai Discovery Center

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dubai - food

I pretty much had my red meat protein fill for the year while in Dubai. New foods that I enjoyed included duck, roast turkey, turkey ham, beef pastrami, and beef sausages.

Memorable dishes from the quick eats include the infamous keema naan (top left picture) from Chicken Tikka Inn (so good that it demanded many a repeat visit), a great Lebanese meal at Saj Express, and a good selection from the McDonalds menu, including chicken nuggets (okay), the Big Mac (much better than expected), the Quarterpounder (okay, just), and the Cheeseburger (nice, pretty much a Big Mac lite). A small outlet in Deira also provided us with super strong masala tea for around twenty pence, and large bags of fried snacks (samosas, large battered chillis, pacoras, etc) for about a pound.

I also had a great eggs benedict breakfast in the Dubai Marina, ate like an emperor at the wonderful China Club, and smarted up for a Thai meal in the luxurious but comfortable Benjarong restaurant. It would have been nice to try some local food, but it is pretty difficult to find. Maybe next time.

Dubai - Art in Al Bastakiya

Al Bastakiya is an area along the Creek that used to house the wealthy residents of Dubai. It has been restored in the traditional style in an effort to retain and exhibit Dubai's heritage, and is dotted with cafes and galleries around every corner.

An unexpected surprise was the photography exhibition by Iranian artist Vahid Sharifian, titled 'My father is a democrat and through his chimney there are always hearts flying to the sky'. The gallery comprises of a series of wonderfully eccentric, technicolor pictures of Sophia Loren posing with food.

A spot of research reveals the originals were published in a cookbook by Sophia Loren titled, 'In Cocina Con Amore'.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Dubai - textures of an abra boat

The abra is a traditional small wooden boat, used to ferry passengers from one side of the Creek to the other.

Dubai - animals 1/3

Here are some shots of the aquarium at Dubai Mall. It has the world's largest viewing panel and an unbelievable array of species, including some pretty mean sharks.

The largest picture above shows the tunnel walkway that runs the length of the aquarium, providing a great immersive experience - I'm guessing that's some pretty tough glass, as the tank holds up to 10 million litres of water.

Dubai - Turner pic

This is one of most Turner-esque skies that I have ever seen.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Dubai - video photos

Three more video photos:

Creatures of the deep - at the Dubai Aquarium Discovery Center

Hatta pools 1/2

Hatta pools 2/2

Dubai - video photos and short clips

Flickr allows it's professional members (i.e. paying customers) to upload short video clips to its site - the idea is to create a genre that sits somewhere between the photo and the video, a kind of moving photo. I liked the idea and took a series of such 'video photos' whilst in Dubai (although I've uploaded the clips to Youtube because it is free!).

First, some off-roading clips:

The Hummer tentatively slides down a dune:

Jeep Wrangling up Pink Rock - the Jeep failed on its first two attempts. After your resident lardy got out of the vehicle, it zipped up without a sweat:

Range Rover raised off the ground (look at the clearance)

Desert pic - Hummer in the dunes

Of our desert trip convoy, the most likely vehicle to get stuck was the Hummer. Several times, we turned back to see this leviathan getting slowly swallowed up by bowls in the dunes, but impressive handling by the driver meant the the car did not once need to be towed out.

Our Jeep Wrangler was beautifully suited to the terrain and masterfully handled by Chris, who organised and led the mission.

Dubai desert pic

A few days before our holidays came to an end, we went on an excellent desert drive with a convoy of 4x4 vehicles. This picture was taken from 'Pink Rock', our final destination.

Dubai: Holiday entertainment

My holiday in Dubai proved highly restorative to the tissues, an ideal balance of action, relaxing, and eating.

In the days ahead, I'll be posting a series of photos looking at the country from several perspectives (landscape, animals, etc). For now, here is a summary of the audio-visual highlights I enjoyed along the way:

- I found the time to go through my back-log of wonderful 'In Our Time' podcasts by Melvyn Bragg.
- Listened to the audio book of The Odyssey, masterfully read by actor Ian McKellen, although I kicked myself for only loading a third of the book on to my ipod.
- Films: My brother in-law has a large Sony flat-screen with a superb sound system. We made full use of said technology by watching the first three Alien films (traditional Christmas fare, no?) and Glen Gary Glen Ross (an overlooked movie with fantastic characters, dialogue, and great acting). We also managed to squeeze in a whole bunch of early House episodes. On the flight back, I enjoyed watching Appaloosa, a new western starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, as well as a good portion of the excellent Dark Knight.

In addition to the above, we found the time to do much reading (Hot Water and Shoot the Puppy), and partook in many games of Scrabble.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Emirates A380 - my first positive flying experience

Our return flight from Dubai was delayed by an hour but it was worth the wait as the plane had been upgraded to the A380, the largest passenger carrier in the world.

I normally detest the whole flying experience because the continuous gentle rocking motion of planes makes me feel uncomfortable to the point where the in-flight entertainment, food etc merely serves as a misery reducing distraction. However, my experience of the A380 is one that I would look forward to repeating. The most attractive aspect of the flight was the effortless glide through the skies. I don't know if this is simply due to the size of the beast, or whether it is down to engineering magic tricks, but the A380 sailed with almost no rocking motion whatsoever.

The extra benefits for economy class passengers in the Emirates A380 may pale in comparison to business class and first class offerings (e.g. shower spas and a bar that runs the width of the plane), but they nevertheless produce a totally different flying experience, and for no extra charge:

- Slight wider seats and possibly more leg-room than usual. It may only be an inch or so, but it makes a world of difference in terms of comfort.
- Superb sound proofing: We were positioned near the front of the plane, away from the engines, but I'm sure the plane it superbly sound proofed throughout.
- In-flight entertainment: I usually try to avoid watching excellent films on planes because the small screens tend to diminish the experience, but the wider screens (10.6 inches) of the A380 allow for a much better quality experience. The entertainment system also has a USB port which can be used to plug in your own camera or laptop to view your own videos or photos.
- Toilets: I don't know if there are more toilets per passenger than normal, but we had five unisex toilets at the front of our section and queueing seemed less of a problem.
- Food: Emirates serves great food and the meal sizes are massive. We ordered a lamb curry dish which was superb, much better than the lamb dish on the flight in to Dubai. Does the A380 actually have better food as well, or were we just lucky? For a nice touch, a traditional English cream tea is also served when flying into England.
- At night, the ceiling of the walkways are lit up with tiny star lights. Pleasingly realistic bird song is also piped through the audio system to gradually wake passengers from their slumber. I didn't sleep at all during the seven and a half hour flight because I was enjoying the experience too much, but the chap next to me said he experienced his best sleep ever on a flight.

As a bonus, when we descended in to Heathrow we were treated to a crystal clear view of London at night. Quite amazing:

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Stallone is still going strong

From Reuters:

'Forest Whitaker is negotiating to join the cast of the action film "The Expendables," Stallone's latest writing and directing effort. Whitaker would play the CIA liaison for a group of mercenaries (played by Stallone, Jet Li, Randy Couture and Jason Statham) who are clandestinely sent to South America to overthrow a dictator.'
I can't wait.