Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The next big experiment

An update on CERN's Hadron Collider: Remember the great Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment? It was supposed to develop our understanding about what happened a mere trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, as well as running experiments searching for Higgs-Boson particle - the mysterious and as yet undetected particle that provides the universe with mass (is it wrong to blame the Higg's Bosons for my weight gain?) . Alas, shortly after the LHC was up running, gremlins broke in and toyed with the machinery and the whole thing went off-line for repairs. With the collider not expected to come back to life in September, the white coats at the Fermilab are getting ever closer to the elusive Higgs-Boson.

The next big experiment - the US National Ignition Facility (NIF): I find this even more fascinating than the LHC because of it's practical potential. The NIF project - which has just completed construction - is a fusion project that aims to create make a star in its lab. Yes, you read that correctly: to make a star.

By replicating the conditions and processes that power the sun and the birth of the stars, scientists hope to prove that it is possible to create a process that generates a surplus of energy output relative to the energy input required to get it going in the first place. If it works it will green-light development in the fusion field, providing us with confidence that it is indeed possible to create a process that produces a net energy surplus. If it fails, it will be a major road block in the world of fusion.

This could be the holy grail of energy, not only because of its miraculous 'something from nothing' nature, but because energy from fusion would infinite and super green - theoretically the process can produce the energy equivalent of two tonnes of coal from a mere fifty cups of water, and all with no dangerous waste, pollutants or any such toxic material.

Experiments at the NIF get going in a few months, but we'll have to wait until next year when they start producing significant results. We wait with baited breath.

Here is NIF's recipe for making a star:

Recipe for a Small Star

* Take a hollow, spherical plastic capsule about two millimeters in diameter (about the size of a small pea).

* Fill it with 150 micrograms (less than one-millionth of a pound) of a mixture of deuterium and tritium, the two heavy isotopes of hydrogen.

* Take a laser that for about 20 billionths of a second can generate 500 trillion watts – the equivalent of five million million 100-watt light bulbs.

* Focus all that laser power onto the surface of the capsule.

* Wait ten billionths of a second.

* Result: one miniature star.

In this process the capsule and its deuterium-tritium (D-T) fuel will be compressed to a density 100 times that of solid lead, and heated to more than 100 million degrees Celsius – hotter than the center of the sun. These conditions are just those required to initiate thermonuclear fusion, the energy source of stars.

By following our recipe, we would make a miniature star that lasts for a tiny fraction of a second. During its brief lifetime, it will produce energy the way the stars and the sun do, by nuclear fusion. Our little star will produce ten to 100 times more energy than we used to ignite it.

Here's how it looks on the ground:

The main lab is the size of three American Football pitches.

One of two laser bays. 192 laser beams are fired around the bays, passing through multiple amplifiers until they are ready to strike the target. In a final stage of the process the laser beams are converted from infra-red to ultra-violet.

The target chamber, where the reaction takes place.

Inside the reaction chamber, all the laser beams will be channelled on to a tiny target (it's on the end of the point, in the picture).

The target chamber, which contains the pea sized fuel capsule.

Computer image of laser beams striking target chamber.

A star is born.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Predator and Alien pic 3/3

South Park Margaritaville tells the story of the economic crisis

I've just watched the 'Margaritaville' episode of South Park on Youtube and it is absolutely fantastic. I highly recommend that you take 20 minutes out of your life to watch this. It explains the financial crisis with great clarity and it doesn't skip a beat.

Here are the Youtube links to the version I watched (parts 1,2,3). If it is taken off-line, which it will be soon, just run a search for more.

This clip explains how the government consults the charts when deciding how to deal with a bankrupt insurance company:

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Predator and Alien pic 1/3

Here they are in their natural habitat:

(via Ain't it Cool)

Sleep talk

Through trial and practice, I have created a regime that closely matches the advice of sleep doctor Adrian Williams, whose ground rules are:

"Don't have any caffeine drinks after 2pm, exercise some time between 4pm and 7pm, have a milky drink and a bath before bedtime and try to exclude noise and light from the bedroom, recommends Dr Williams. "

I switch to decaf after 4pm, tend to have a bath after dinner, hit the gym from around 4-6, and I am presently drinking a milky tea (decaf). Sleep is clearly high on my subconscious and conscious priority list.

Also, I have found that just as knowing when to exit a trade is an essential part of speculation, so knowing when to wake up is crucial to getting a good night's sleep. Beyond waking up naturally, I find that waking up after 1.5 hour increments (usually after 7.5 hours or 9 hours) works a treat to prevent feeling tired in the morning; this is not based on voodoo science but on the idea that 'each sleep cycle lasts from 90 to 110 minutes on average'.

Good night, sleep tight.

; )

Friday, March 27, 2009

Branagh wins award for Wallander

Kenneth Branagh has just won a best actor award for his performance as washed-up Detective Kurt Wallander. I loved the Wallander series and watched it twice over. The look and feel of the production combined with superb acting by all involved to create a highly memorable and darkly atmospheric experience. The only problem is that a mere three episodes were made.

PS - Why doesn't iPlayer have a pay to view option on its archived programmes?

Quick thought - health policy

Mayhaps a highly cost effective method to improve everybody's health could be to install free-to-use weighing scales in the major shopping centers through the country?

Terrorism posters in bad taste just generate more fear ... enough already

I thought this poster was some kind of joke about the world we live in, but no:

The powers that be (media and government) seem to be in a kind of fear generating overdrive at the moment. Surely there are better ways to spend government money? Say this campaign cost £1m, how many lives could that money have saved by spending the funds elsewhere (road safety, NHS, etc)?

Some may argue that such a campaign is providing a great benefit by making the country a safer place, but others (myself included) will contend that it is doing little more than creating a culture of fear so the authorities can be seen to be doing something about it (i.e. providing both the problem and the solution), with the net effect still being one of generating more fear than existed before the campaign was launched. As you can tell, even from a distance all this scare mongering is wearing me down. I'll admit that I haven't thought about these issues in great depth but at face value it feels as if there is a fine line between protecting our freedoms and restricting our freedoms and its a line that seems to have been crossed. Indeed, I wonder if there is a degree of disconnect between what the public desires in terms of the liberty-security trade-off and what the government is aiming to achieve.

Anyway, semi-rant over, here are some spoofs of the posters to enjoy (via Boing Boing (it has many more on its site):

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The mob is burning the innocents at AIG

AIG is a lot more than the division that burned it to the ground, but nobody seems to care and innocents are suffering.

I used to work in the financial sector and my experience is that it is largely filled with extremely hard working, good people. Yes, 'good people'! I believe the system evolved into a dangerous structure that rewarded excessive risk taking, but that is very different to blaming all the people who worked in the sector and calling for their blood, which is what the public and the government seem to be doing. Indeed, this mob mentality may well turn out to be the equivalent of the government shooting itself in the foot because by bullying senior workers into resignation it is only going to take the authorities that much longer to fix the problem. The common response is that punishing them is not a problem because 'where will they go?' but that is the wrong question. What we need to ask is 'who will replace them?'. Hiring and firing is costly, and it takes people many months to know the ropes before they are up to speed, and in the meantime the crisis lingers, and tax payer money continues to evaporate in the fire.

The mob has turned on itself, it just doesn't know it.

Super Portable idea continued

Just had another idea for the Super Laptop: fit an A4 size solar panel to the lid of the laptop.

This could be used to charge the battery while running and while switched off, or in stand-by mode. Combined with the energy efficiency of the latest laptops - Apple's most popular notebook, 'the MacBook, can run on just one-quarter the power of a single lightbulb' - I bet you could keep it running continuously on a normal day. Also, it would be pretty cool to add a switch to divert the energy to the USB ports to charge accessories such as ipods, phones etc.

Invention idea - The Super Portable

I have just scribbled this idea for a 'Super Portable' on the back of a receipt and scanned it in here.

The laptop/notebook would have a decent sized keyboard and a screen size of around the size of an A4 piece of paper so it could be used for long periods of time. The relatively large size (for a portable) would also allow it to be used as a hard surface for drawing/writing on paper etc, and give plenty of room to integrate the following hardware:

1) A fold-up plug - would be a bit fiddly but the idea is that you have a back-up if your battery goes flat.

2) A slimline mouse or trackball. I thought such small mice didn't exist, but then I saw this.

3) If it had an external DVD player, a large space would be opened up to add a tray for general storage of bits and pieces.

4) Instead of having thumb-drives that stick out on the side of a laptop, why not make deep USB connections that allow the thumb-drive to be inserted all the way in, leaving no protrusion?

All of these additions could make the machine a bit weighty, but the idea is that with all the technology embedded you don't need a separate lap-top bag, and the various items, including the mains plug could always be disconnected and left at home if you don't need them for the trip.

As for viability, apart from the mains plug idea, which may be a no-go, it looks kind of viable to me. In truth though, it's probably the equivalent of when Homer Simpson was given free reign to design a car and came up with this beauty:

The end of The Game Group is nigh

They are a games distributor for consoles (e.g. X-Box, Playstation, etc) and their stock is currently trading at 144p. If I was a long-term trader, I would sell their stock for the simple fact that games distribution will be moving on-line in the near future, making console game shops and potentially consoles themselves redundant.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Buy pounds

We know the pound is trading very weak, but just how weak? The chart below shows the effective exchange rate for sterling, using Bank of England data.

The effective exchange rate, also known as the trade-weighted index, is one of the best ways to illustrate the competitiveness of the pound. Instead of comparing the pound against a single currency such as the dollar, yen, or euro, the effective exchange rate shows the pound against a weighted basket of the currencies of its trading partners.

In the 1992 crisis the currency crashed out of the ERM, and it took many years for sterling to regain it's former strength. Alas, much of this strength probably came from financial inflows which were quick to leave when the credit crisis struck. However, looking at the chart, one can quite reasonably make the case that from a purely competitive standpoint the pound has overshot on the downside and that at current levels it could be a good 'buy' for the long-term.

In the financial world, it is easy to look at charts of financial ratios such as dividend yield, or price to earnings, make an assumption that one side of the ratio is stretched, and then get caught out when the predicted correction appears but from the other side. However, while the exchange rate is also a ratio, when you are trading currencies it doesn't matter where the correction comes from (sterling or the other currencies).

So, there it is, I reckon the pound will be a lot stronger in the years to come.

From a 14.4 kbps to a 200MB connection, and beyond!

The band is about to get a whole lot broader, reports the BBC with the headline 'Virgin eyes 150Mb broadband speed'. When this happens is less an issue of capability - Virgin says their technology has a theoretical limit of 200Mbps - and is more a question of commercial viability and having enough content to exploit the high speeds.

My 2-3 MB connection seems sufficiently whizzy for my needs but I bet I once had similar thoughts about my old 64 Kbps connection.

Firefox turns into IE!

I have just discovered that a rare few web sites are not updated to work on the latest versions of Firefox and Internet Explorer, which I recently upgraded to.

Looking for a solution that didn't require completely reverting back to the old browsers, I came across Portable Firefox, a neat idea that allows you to carry around your own version of Firefox as an executable file on a thumb drive. It brought up the old version of Firefox just fine but the Flash function was disabled and the Flash workaround I found on the web didn't work. Bah.

I then did some digging and found a cool programme that downloads all the older versions of Internet Explorer, and apparently they don't interfere with the latest install of IE8. Before going down this route however, I had a quick look at Firefox site and found this great IE Tab Add-on. It worked an absolute treat. IE Tab simply adds a little Firefox swirl logo to the bottom right of the status bar, and if you click on it, it toggles between IE and Firefox. Right now IE Tab uses an older version of IE, so it works as a super quick solution if you need the IE7 platform. Nice.

Film Review: Duplicity

Duplicity should be called Triplicity or Quadricity, because after a while you don't know who's conning who. Indeed, when I walked out I felt a bit cheated myself.

It isn't that Duplicity is an outright bad film, but I do think it could have been so much more. Almost every aspect left noticeable room for improvement. The production value is great, except for the pointless '24' type cut-aways that served no purpose. The acting is perfectly reasonable, although whether the resolutely wooden Clive Owen should have played the male lead is highly questionable, and I certainly don't share critic Roger Ebert's view that the viewers see 'Julia Roberts and Clive Owen generate fierce electricity'. The dialogue is dense and snappy as expected but the good lines turns out to be a prerehearsed script which is repeated over and over, to death. And the story itself treads a fine line between being smart and undoing itself with its own convolutedness.

At it heart, Duplicity is a light-hearted caper movie that takes itself a bit too seriously. A good one for tv, perhaps.

** 1/2

"Come on Tim!" - the latest on the bailout

The stock markets today absolutely loved US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's latest bailout initiative, which the Wall Street Journal describes as a plan for the 'creation of a series of public-private investments to soak up $500 billion, and maybe as much as $1 trillion, in troubled loans and securities at the heart of the financial crisis. To encourage investors to buy those assets, the U.S. government will offer lucrative subsidies and shoulder much of the risk.'

The BBC provides a little summary example of how it will work:

- Bank seeks to sell pool of mortgages worth $100
- Private auction decides that asset is now worth $84
- Private investor and government put up $6 each
- They then borrow remaining $72 from government
- That loan is guaranteed against any losses
- If asset is later sold at higher price, government makes profit and private investor pays back loan and pockets profit.
- If asset is sold at lower price, government and private investors could lose initial investment.


So, of the $84 bid price, the asset the taxpayer is stumping up a whopping $78, of which $72 will come in the form of an attractively priced, non-recourse loan. Non-recourse? What that means is that private investors can enjoy 100% of the upside but if the value of the asset subsequently plummets, their losses are limited to the extent of their initial investment, which in the above case is a mere $6 on an asset valued at $84. Not bad if you can get it, eh.

With such a skewed return profile, the auction of these assets is clearly going to fetch a much higher price than if the government wasn't providing a back-stop on the losses with tax payer money. Indeed, a central reason for Geithner's structure including such attractive sweetners must be to ensure the auctions don't fail and end up producing low bids, as this would mean that the banks balance sheets would get further destroyed either by selling at the low bid and receiving very low revenues, or by turning down the low prices determined in the auction and not selling (if that is even an option), in which case I imagine the banks would have to mark down the assets on their balance sheets even further. Indeed, in theory the revealed price could be so low that it sends banks into a state of immediate bankruptcy by blasting a hole in their assets. Perhaps it is beause of this risk that Geithner has heavily skewed the deal in the buyers favour. This way, the auction will ensure the assets fetch an artificially high price, in turn providing a kind of subsidy for the banks selling the assets off, and also perhaps a high reference price for those who want to keep the assets on their balance sheets.

All in all it looks like a cracking deal for the hedge funds, private equity guys and other investors whom the auctions will be open to. I wouldn't mind a piece of the action myself. Indeed, while tax payers are involuntarily going in 50/50 on the upside of the deal, I think they should be allowed to buy more interest if they desire. As it stands, the wealth is being transferred straight from the tax payer to the investors at these auctions, and in turn as a subsidy to the banks. I just don't see why the public shouldn't be allowed a higher level of participation. After all, their money is behind the deal.

On that note, while Geither's give-away looks like a bad egg for the taxpayer, just compare it to the UK plan, which has been to insure the losses (beyond a small first loss) on over £600 billion of toxic assets, and this figure is going to rise. We UK taxpayers are on the hook for the potentially massive downside, enjoy none of the upside, and the toxic assets continue to remain on the bank's balance sheets, leaving a lingering opaqueness about the whole affair. In terms of trade-offs, I'd say Geithner seems to have struck the better balance of the two.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tweet: Expendables update

Who says blogging is a futile activity. It managed to get 50 Cent thrown off Stallone's upcoming Expendables project, and a good thing to as he really hasn't proved his acting chops quite yet. Think, poor 50 would have paled against the likes of Lundgren and Eric Roberts ... sorry I meant against the likes of Stallone and Rourke. Yes, that's better.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Firefox, Explorer and Chrome

You know you are getting old when you keep rejecting the pop-up invitation to upgrade your internet browser. Well, after six months of hitting the 'Later' button, I accidentally accepted the option to upgrade my Firefox from version 2 to version 3. Thankfully, the upgrade was completely painless and the many personalisations that I had made to the browser were automatically ported across to the new version. Importantly, all the core add-ons continue to function perfectly fine and the one that didn't (Super DragandGo) was easily replaced. The latest Firefox looks kind of snazzy and is definitely faster than the older version, but it'll be a while before I take a look under the hood to see what's new.

In a fit of optimism, I decided to download the Google Chrome browser, which was a very quick process although everything hung when importing the settings from Firefox (just skip this stage if it happens to you). Chrome looks like a nifty, lightweight browser that could be worthy of a play around. Judging by the slow pace of development of other Google Projects, many of which are in eternal 'beta', I reckon it will remain light years behind Firefox. However, it may be worth keeping in the background as it was lightning fast when accessing Gmail.

After these relative successes, I figured it was time to upgrade my Internet Explorer v7 to the latest v8, which has just been launched. In typical Microsoft fashion, the IE installation process took absolutely ages and it was the only browser update that required a full system restart at the end. Also, once installed, it told me to download a Microsoft Update patch that is over 200MB in size. Um, no thank you. I think I'll stall that one for as long as possible!

One day, I'll get around to playing with all these browsers and all the new functions they offer. These include such amazing things as 'web slicing', 'accelerators', 'incognito modes' and 'omniboxes'. I used to brim with enthusiasm at such things. Right now, I kind of feel like Walt Kowalski (Gran Torino) when he reads out his dog's lucky numbers.

Okay, it isn't quite that bad.

Hayfever medicines - much cheapness

The generic versions of Clarityn (Loratadine) and Zirtec (Cetrizine Hydrochloride) just keep on getting cheaper at the on-line pharamacies. The former cost a mere 69p for 30 tablets, and the latter just 28p for 30 tablets. Both are non-drowsy and are just as effective as the branded versions. The only real difference is the price - they are over 90% cheaper.

That said, postage is a few pounds so order in bulk to really save money.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fun stories in the financial world

Today's top finance stories in the Times:

It's just one big ray of sunshine.

Americans can't answer rudimentary science questions

So says the excellent kottke blog, quoting the results of a survey by the California Academy of Sciences on over 1000 people, which revealed that:

- Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
- Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
- Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth's surface that is covered with water.*
- Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

This is a pretty surprising result, but I wonder what it actually tells us - what was the scientific thinking behind this scientific survey?

Importantly, there is no relative comparison to our level of knowledge in past years. Yes, it's bad in absolute terms but has it got better, worse, or stayed the same? Also, to what extent does it matter that the general public don't know certain factual information. The greater problem would be if scientists, ecologists and environmentalists couldn't answer these questions, as it is relevant to their work.

The broader question is to what extent learning such rote facts improves our everyday lives? If we do indeed know less scientific facts than previous years, perhaps we are better equipped at dealing with the more practical aspects of learning i.e. aspects of learning that actually improve our thinking processes (e.g theoretical knowledge, techniques, methods, approaches to dealing with information, critical thinking, etc). Surely in today's age of readily available information, knowing a fact is worth extremely little compared to be knowing how to be able to retrieve facts and how best to deal with them.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Money saving penions news

This information is relevant to anyone you know who has incomplete National Insurance (NI) payments over the past six years, particularly those who are closer to retirement and are worried they don't have enough years to qualify for a basic state pension:

- Under the current National Insurance (NI) regime you can make good on incomplete payments going back up to six years. It currently costs £421.20 to buy a missing year of NI contributions but the government has cottoned on that in terms of returns on investment this represents too good a deal, and from April 6 the yearly contribution will be increasing by almost 50% to £626.60.

While around 15% of men fail to qualify for a full state pension due to insufficient NI contributions, this figures rises to a staggering 70% for women.

Read this article in the Daily Telegraph and contact the Pensions Advisory Service for further advice.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Quick thought: Madoff, Stanford and AIG

Simply put, AIG was brought to it's knees by poor risk assessment and a consequent mispricing of its insurance products. Think of a company offering car insurance premiums at a few pounds per policy instead of a few hundred pounds per policy, and then imagine what happens when there is a massive pile-up and loads of claims are made at the same time. Whoops, we find out the emperor has no clothes and cannot pay up. All the policies are worthless.

That's pretty much what happened to AIG, but the insurer was so large and there was so much at stake that the government decided that it had to step in and make good on the rotten policies that had been hatched by severely ill-judging minds. So, it turns out that the taxpayer was underwriting the whole scam all along, they just didn't know it. To date, the US government has already paid over $100 billion to the various counterparties.

This leaves a sour taste in my mouth and makes me wonder what the government would have done had Madoff or Stanford criminal enterprises been so large that their failure would have endangered the financial system. Would the government have stepped in and make their illusory profits real with taxpayer money so that everyone's balance sheet's stayed nicely healthy? Surely not. It sounds too far fetched a scenario. But then I am reminded that AIG's London office is currently under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office to see if any criminal conduct took place. If it did, AIG's operations will sit a lot closer to Madoff or Stanford than we currently imagine. It's all an ugly mess.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Nooo...I'm all out of Vietnames chilli sauce

It finally happened. My Vietnamese Trung Thanh chilli sauce has run out.

Unlike Trung Nguyen coffee, I can't find a supplier of this magic sauce in the UK, so unless I go back to 'Nam it's just memories from here on. On a positive note, at least it was finished off in style, providing the perfect accompaniment to a portion of deep fried pacoras. Nice.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Suits you sir!

Talk about a credit crunch bargain. I just bought a suit from BHS for a mere £69 that came with a free shirt, a free tie and a free pair of shoes. It's all perfectly wearable, although given the high level of polyester, nylon and plastic, I must remember to stay away any naked flames.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Film Review: Gran Torino

I really enjoyed Gran Torino. It's a very simple film, but one that I kept thinking about long after I left the cinema.

The story revolves around Eastwood's character, and rightly so - he has all the best lines and he continues to act his socks off, perhaps creating an entirely new 'acting by growling' genre in the process. If there is one areas where Gran Torino fails, it is in the decision to use untrained actors for key roles, a risky venture which I feel doesn't quite pay off, especially when contrasted against an Eastwood in top form. However, if you take this into account before you go into the cinema, it can be worked around.

There is rumour about Gran Torino being Clint Eastwood's acting swan song. I really hope this is not the case as he clearly has a lot more to give us on screen.



Father Janovich: Why didn't you call the police?
Walt Kowalski: Well you know, I prayed for them to come but nobody answered.

Film Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Despite a great idea, great effects and great acting from the leads, Benjamin Button is just way too long and boring to recommend. I really wanted a lot more from this film.

Slumdog Millionaire didn't seem quite Oscar worthy to me but it is leaps and bounds more entertaining than The Sleepy Case of Benjamin Button.

** 3/4

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tweet ! Woo hoo - The entire series of The Wire comes to BBC 2 ...

... just heard it on BBC Radio 1! With The Shield back for it's final run on C5, I'm being spoiled.

Van Peebles watch

I recently spotted actor Mario Van Peebles in an episode of Damages. Well, when I started watching the next episode his name came up as the director!

Peebles clearly has many talents, and yet if you look at his back catalogue of films it is packed top to toe with cheap turkeys, with only the occasional bit role in a decent film.

Free businesscards from moo.com

Moo.com is offering a free sampler of ten personalised business cards.

The web-site is easy to use and each business card can be personalised with your own images. I just received my sampler pack (free postage) and I am pretty impressed with the quality. Now, if only I needed some business cards!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Film Review: Watchmen

When I was growing up I thought the relatively straight-forward super-hero's such as Spiderman, Superman and the Hulk were great, but I have found Hollywood's latest incarnations of these super-hero staples to be major let downs. So it is that I am glad to see the likes of X-Men, Batman and now Watchmen emerging and filling the void, offering characters and stories with much greater depth and complexity.

Watchmen provides a very dark, subversive spin on the super hero genre. I have read that the film plays very close to the original comic and while the hard core fans will admire this honesty, I felt the end product may have worked better as a film had the director allowed himself a bit more liberty to cut certain scenes and instead develop other parts of the story. Nevertheless, despite my several hang-ups (exceedingly gratuitous, overly artificial CGI for the Mars scenes, too much content for a single film) Watchmen is superbly made with a cool soundtrack, multiple themes that interrelate, and a conclusion that leaves you asking rather heavy questions about morality, sacrifice and very nature of man.

Prepare yourself for this one: including trailers you will be in the cinema for around three hours!

*** 3/4 (a few changes and this would have scored 5/5)

Monday, March 09, 2009

Film Review: Lion in Winter (1968)

In 1964, the legendary actor Peter O'Toole gave us a cracking performance of King Henry II in Becket, a film that saw him pair up with Richard Burton as his worthy adversary, Samuel Becket. Lion in Winter (1968) sees O'Toole returning in fine form as a demented Henry II, this time sparring with his tough cookie of a wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, played by Katherine Hepburn. Eleanor is imprisoned in a castle for most of the year but after kindly being let out for Christmas, she is quick to get up to her own scheming and plotting, helping to drive the family even further into an abyss of complete disarray.

For an award winning period piece, I was surprised by the film's lack of decoration, both in terms of the sets and the costumes. However, this is more than made up for by the excellent script, with dialogue that is blunt but brilliantly cutting. Indeed the lack of pomp and ceremony underscores that fact that despite the fictional historical setting, at its heart Lion in the Winter is really just a family drama about a highly dysfunctional family in the heat of a power struggle.

Lion in the Winter delivers where it counts with gusto, with a sparking script and top notch acting to boot. Fantastic.



Henry II: The sky is pocked with stars. What eyes the wise men must have had to see a new one in so many.

Eleanor: You look fit. War agrees with you. I keep informed; I follow all your slaughters from a distance. Do sit down.
Prince Richard: Is this an audience... a good night hug with kisses... or an ambush?

Henry II: I want to reach a settlement. I left you with too little earlier.
Philip II: Yes, nothing is too little.

Henry II: My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived.

Prince Richard: You're so deceitful you can't ask for water when you're thirsty. We could tangle spiders in the webs you weave.

Henry II: Give me a little peace.
Eleanor: A little? Why so modest? How about eternal peace? Now there's a thought.

Prince John: A knife! He's got a knife!
Eleanor: Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It's 1183 and we're barbarians!

Eleanor: You're not an assassin.
Prince Richard: Look again.

Eleanor: How dear of you to let me out of prison.
Henry II: It's only for the holidays.

Henry II: I want no women in my life.
Princess Alais: You're tired.
Henry II: I could have conquered Europe - all of it - but I had women in my life.

Eleanor: If you're broken it's because you're brittle...

Henry II: I hope we never die.
Eleanor: So do I.
Henry II: Do you think there's any chance of it?

Prince John: I thought I'd come and gloat a little.
Eleanor: Mother's tired. Come stick pins tomorrow morning; I'll be more responsive.
Prince John: It's no fun goading anyone tonight.

Eleanor: I adored you. I still do.
Henry II: Of all the lies you've told, that is the most terrible.
Eleanor: I know. That's why I've saved it up until now.

Prince Richard: I am a constant soldier, a sometimes poet and I will be king.
Prince Richard: I will have the crown
Henry II: You will have what Daddy gives you.
Prince Richard: I am next in line!
Henry II: To nothing!

Eleanor: I could peal you like a pear, and God, himself, would call it justice.

Henry II: Good God woman. Face the facts!
Eleanor: Which ones? We have so many.

Prince Richard (to Eleanor): You're incomplete. Your human parts are missing. You are as dead as you are deadly.

Henry II: It's no good asking if the air's good if there's nothing else to breath.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Correlation cartoon

A classic, from xkcd.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Diets 'weighed up'

This Diets 'weighed up' article reviews a relatively comprehensive and well conducted study on the effectiveness of four different low-calorie diets on over eight hundred people. The study involved randomly prescribing one of four diets to the subjects, varying the ratios of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat), and while the carbohydrate restriction diet was not as extreme as in the Atkins Diet, the overall findings are informative:

"The weight loss by those on a high carbohydrate diet was not significantly different from those on a low carbohydrate diet. This study appears to show that as long as total calories are reduced, the restriction of specific parts of a diet, such as carbohydrates, fat and protein, does not have an effect."
This reinforces my belief and personal experience that weight management is less about 'what' goes in and more about 'how much'. Obviously, the more one cares about healthy living, the more important it is to consider 'what' it is that we are consuming.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Liberty infringement in the UK - stop it already!

(via Boing Boing). You know the 'state' of affairs is extreme when you get arrested for damaging and taking photo's of a drain grate (cover), and then, when the police find out they were mistaken all along, they re-arrest you as a potential terrorist, lock you up for two days, take your DNA and fingerprints, and search your home.

Quick thought: Stocks are cheap ... are they ?

There is much commentary flying about saying that stocks are cheap on historical grounds, or on the basis of this or that ratio or trend, and that it might be a good time to invest. I am a long-term optimist but I think essentially producing a 'buy' recommendation by reducing stock market to this level of simplicity is seriously wrong-headed and deceptive.

My reasoning is thus: If you see a car in the showroom for £10,000 and the next day it is reduced to £5000, then yes, you have the same car for half the price. However, if a stock is priced at £100 and the next day it falls to £50 then it is highly unlikely that you are looking at the same stock. Yes, it will have the same ticker and it will probably represent the same percentage share in the company, but that is about it. Because a stock price reflects the expected future cash flows of the company discounted to the present day, if the share price has halved you can be pretty sure the expectations of the company's earning power has experienced a big hit - perhaps they have even announced a profits warning. Because of this, the stock you looked at yesterday is not the same stock that you are looking at today.

Also, follow through the faulty logic of buying a share simply because it is 'cheaper' and there is a real risk that you will keep on buying the stock as it falls all the way down to zero i.e. the point of bankruptcy. At that stage you are forced to realise that the company is not what it once was.

Economic recovery fits and starts

I see two central aspects to economic recovery: the process and the result. It is entirely possible that we can achieve the right result by following the wrong process, but I believe this simply paves the way for ruin further down the road.

Unfortunately, short-term, uncoordinated thinking that seems focused on putting out fires as they occur does not bode well, and just because economic visibility is close to nil (mind you, it isn't usually far off that in a good year) that is no excuse for similarly poor visibility on the policy front. Don't get me wrong, I do think progress is being made, but I just see it as being woefully inadequate in too many areas.

Rant over. Thank you kindly.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Willem Buiter bashes the economic models used by policy wonks

One for the economists:

In a blessay titled 'The unfortunate uselessness of most ’state of the art’ academic monetary economics' Buiter says the following and a lot more:

"Linearize and trivialize

If one were to hold one’s nose and agree to play with the New Classical or New Keynesian complete markets toolkit, it would soon become clear that any potentially policy-relevant model would be highly non-linear, and that the interaction of these non-linearities and uncertainty makes for deep conceptual and technical problems. Macroeconomists are brave, but not that brave. So they took these non-linear stochastic dynamic general equilibrium models into the basement and beat them with a rubber hose until they behaved (my bolding). This was achieved by completely stripping the model of its non-linearities and by achieving the transsubstantiation of complex convolutions of random variables and non-linear mappings into well-behaved additive stochastic disturbances.

Those of us who have marvelled at the non-linear feedback loops between asset prices in illiquid markets and the funding illiquidity of financial institutions exposed to these asset prices through mark-to-market accounting, margin requirements, calls for additional collateral etc. will appreciate what is lost by this castration of the macroeconomic models. Threshold effects, critical mass, tipping points, non-linear accelerators - they are all out of the window. Those of us who worry about endogenous uncertainty arising from the interactions of boundedly rational market participants cannot but scratch our heads at the insistence of the mainline models that all uncertainty is exogenous and additive.

... There actually are approaches to economics that treat non-linearities seriously. Much of this work is numerical - analytical results of a policy-relevant nature are few and far between - but at least it attempts to address the problems as they are, rather than as we would like them lest we be asked to venture outside the range of issued we can address with the existing toolkit.

The practice of removing all non-linearities and most of the interesting aspects of uncertainty from the models that were then let loose on actual numerical policy analysis, was a major step backwards. I trust it has been relegated to the dustbin of history by now in those central banks that matter.

.... The Bank of England in 2007 faced the onset of the credit crunch with too much Robert Lucas, Michael Woodford and Robert Merton in its intellectual cupboard. A drastic but chaotic re-education took place and is continuing.

I believe that the Bank has by now shed the conventional wisdom of the typical macroeconomics training of the past few decades. In its place is an intellectual potpourri of factoids, partial theories, empirical regularities without firm theoretical foundations, hunches, intuitions and half-developed insights. It is not much, but knowing that you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom."
Buiter sure has a way with words. The post already has generated some interesting comments as well as a couple of interesting responses by the likes of Brad Setser. I'll follow up on the debate in a few days - let's see where it goes.

PS - If I taught economics at GCSE or A-level, I'd make my students read the Marginal Revolution economics blog. If I taught at university level, Buiter's blog would be absolutely essential reading.

Quick Thought: On information

The idea I just had is:

'In a world of information abundance, everything becomes a discipline.'

In addition to the two forms of knowledge described in the above Samuel Johnson quote, I would add another type of knowledge: the wisdom of knowing how to approach new knowledge, of knowing what to look for and what it is that you are looking at - the knowledge of knowledge.

Quick Thought: on brainwaves in the bathroom

Some people get their brainwaves when going for walks but I find there is simply too much going on around me to empty my mind to the right level in this environment, although I do find walking very helpful for deliberate brain storming or for developing specific ideas.

No, when we are talking about ideas 'coming to you' out of the almost subconscious ether, I am pretty sure tend to get my most interesting ideas (to me, anyway) when I am in the bathroom. It doesn't matter what I am doing in there but the simple act of being engaged in a task that I don't have to think too much about seems to create just the right level of 'mind emptiness' that makes it nicely receptive and conducive to idea generation.

A lesson in procrastination

The internet is a great tool for procrastinators, providing one with the excuse of 'Before I get to work I'll just read this article, or watch a video on Youtube, or check my e-mail, or write a blog entry about procrastination ... and so on'.

As a professional procrastinator I know that this game never has to end because the internet is forever ready and waiting with something slightly more interesting to do than what it is that really needs to be done. Indeed, sometimes I will do pretty much anything I can to avoid attacking my 'to-do' list, even though it currently comprises of a single item!

Today, for example, I was reading a brief Q&A with the popular econoblogger Tyler Cowan and was puzzled by his answer to the question ' Happiness is _____'. Cowan answered with the word 'Ineffable.' Having never come across this word, I looked it up. It means: (1) incapable of being expressed or described in words (2) not to be spoken because of its sacredness; unutterable: the ineffable name of the deity.

Under 'ineffable', Wikipedia provides the following quotes:

" Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." — Ludwig Wittgenstein
"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name." — the Tao Te Ching
The great Wiki in the sky also provides examples of things that are said to be 'essentially incommunicable':

* The nature of qualia (sensory experiences), such as colors or flavors
* The nature of dreams
* The nature of emotions (with love being a prominent example)
* The nature of religious experiences, e.g. Søren Kierkegaard's analysis of Abraham in Fear and Trembling, Problemata III, and in particular the mystic's realization of nonduality
* The near-death experience
* The experience of birth
* The psychedelic experience is largely considered ineffable to psychologists, philosophers and psychonauts alike
* The musical experience, following Theodor Adorno, Vladimir Jankélévitch, among others
* The human soul (see also sentience and the hard problem of consciousness)
* The name of a god or gods, in some religions
* The Dao

I thought to myself, with this word my world of the English language has been embiggened, and then I remembered that 'embiggen' was not a real word, or perhaps it was. I knew it had been spoken by Lisa Simpson in The Simpsons but after a quick search I was surprised to learn that it had also been used many years earlier in the 1884 publication 'Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc'.

I was hoping Google Books would provide a view to the original source, but alas, not this time. My trail went cold. Instead, I found a fascinating book from 1857 titled 'Milledulcia: A Thousand Pleasant Things: Selected from Notes and Queries', which I downloaded in its entirety. Here is the noble preface from Milledulcia:

I fear this will consume many of my future hours. I have so far enjoyed just one of the thousand pleasant things, but it was extremely interesting. Here is the surreal entry in full:


Keeping a poet is a luxury enjoyed by many, from the Queen down to Messrs. Moses, Hyam & Co.; but the refinement of keeping a hermit would appear to be a more recherche and less ordinary appendage of wealth and taste.

Here is an advertisement for, and two actual instances of going a hermiting:-
"A young man, who wishes to retire from the world and live as an hermit in some convenient spot in England, is willing to engage with any nobleman or gentleman who may be desirous of having one. Any letter directed to S. Lawrence (post-paid) to be left at Mr. Otton's, No. 6. Column's Lane, Ply- month, mentioning what gratuity will be given, and all other particulars, will be duly attended to.—Courier, Jan. llth, 1810."
It is not probable that this retiring young man was engaged in the above capacity, for soon after an advertisement appeared in the papers which there are reasons for thinking was by the same hand.
"Wants a situation in a pious regular family, in a place where the Gospel is preached, a young man of serious mind, who can wait at table and milk a cow."
The immortal Dr. Busby asks—

"When energising objects men pursue,
What are the prodigies they cannot do"

Whether it is because going a hermiting does not come under the Doctor's "energising objects" is uncertain; but this is clear, that the two following instances proved unsuccessful:-

M. Hamilton, once the proprietor of Payne's Hill, near Cobham, Surrey, advertised for a person who was willing to become a hermit in that beautiful retreat of his. The conditions were, that he was to continue in the hermitage seven years, where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his bed, a hassock for his pillow, an hour-glass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, food from the house, but never to exchange a syllable with the servant. He was to wear a camlet robe, never to cut his beard or nails, nor ever to stray beyond the limits of the grounds. If he lived there, under all these restrictions, till the end of the term, he was to receive seven hundred guineas. But on breach of any of them, or if he quitted the place any time previous to that term, the whole was to be forfeited. One person attempted it, but a three weeks' trial cured him.

Mr. Powyss, of Mareham, near Preston, Lancashire, was more successful in this singularity : he advertised a reward of 50Z. a-year for life, to any man who would undertake to live seven years under ground, without seeing any thing human: and to let his toe and finger nails grow, with his hair and beard, during the whole time. Apartments were prepared under ground, very commodious, with a cold bath, a chamber organ, as many books as the occupier pleased, and provisions served from his own table. Whenever the recluse wanted any convenience, he was to ring a bell, and it was provided for him. Singular as this residence may appear, an occupier offered himself, and actually stayed in it, observing the required conditions for four years.


And so, from 'ineffable' to 'going a hermiting', my morning had passed!

Monday, March 02, 2009

AIG's record breaking quarterly loss, and a new annual record for the US corporate history books

Insurance group AIG has just reported the largest quarterly loss in corporate history with a Q4 print of -$61.7bn.

As expected, the newswires are all over this story. However, of the six or seven articles I've scanned, beyond recycling the same fact about the quarterly record, there is no mention about whether the total loss for 2008 is an annual record. Surely readers would like to know? I appreciate business journalists are a busy bunch right now but there really is no excuse for not putting the 2008 loss in context, especially as reporters saw this monster number coming and could easily have prepared a historical comparison table or paragraph well ahead of time. Plain sloppy is what I say.

Anyway, from my quick (and possibly dodgy) reckoning here is how it stacks up:

AIG loss: $99.3bn (2008)
AOL Time Warner loss: $98.7 billion (2002)
GM loss: $30.2bn (2007)

So yes, it looks like AIG has just pipped AOL to the top-spot!

The top three losses in the UK are:

RBS loss: £24.1bn (2008)
Vodafone loss: £21.8bn (y/ending March 2006)
Lloyds loss: approx £10.8bn (2008)

Half of these six have come in the last seven days!

Peter Bernstein - Long run returns

In this article about long-run returns, Peter Bernstein says:

'If the long-run expected return on bonds in the future were higher than the expected return on equities, the capitalist system would grind to a halt, because the reward system would be completely out of whack with the risks involved.'
I like Peter Bernstein but to me this notion utterly fails to take full account of capitalism as an adaptive system.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Week in review - business news

I just wanted to jot down the key events in what has been a historical week for the UK economy:

- Royal Bank of Scotland, which is majority owned by the government, announces a loss of £24.1bn, the largest in UK corporate history.
- Sir Fred Goodwin, RBS's ex-CEO, exits with a pension pot worth £16.9m. There is a public outcry and ministers from all sides call for Goodwin to return a portion of the pension entitlement. He politely declines. Prime Minister Brown threatens legal action.
- RBS announces it will put around £325bn of problem assets (15% of its balance sheet) into the government's newly announced Asset Protection Scheme (APS). If these assets fall in value RBS will take the first loss of upto £19.5bn, and remainder of losses will be split 90/10 between the government and the bank. For this insurance RBS will pay a fee of £6.5bn, or 2% of the total exposure, but they also have to agree to lend £50bn to UK customers and businesses over the next two years. Still, not bad if you can get it.
- The government also injects a further £19bn into RBS, taking its ownership up to 95%, although voting rights are capped at 75%. Many call it a nationalisation in all but name.

- Not wanting to be left out, Lloyds (43% state owned) follows up with an expected loss of £10.8bn. The bank is thought to be in talks with the government to put around £250bn of assets into the APS.

- HSBC announces plans what will probably be the largest right issue in UK history (> £12bn).

- In the US, 2008 Q4 GDP is revised down from -3.8% (annualised) to -6.2%, the US government becomes the largest shareholder of Citigroup, and President Obama unveils a $3.6trn budget for the fiscal year 2010.

Definitely a week to remember.

Calorie counting chart - crisps (UK brands)

For my reference I've put together this chart showing how many calories you'll find in the popular brands of crisps in the UK.

(shows total calories per serving/pack)

The baked crisps obviously pack less of a calorie punch, while the luxury crisps (Pret A Manger, Jonathan Crisps, Sensations) lie at the top end of the spectrum.

It is no surprise that the crisps that generally have a heavier feel about them have a lot more calories than the lighter feeling crisps, but the difference between the ends of the spectrum is quite something: the difference between the average of the top ten and average of the bottom ten is close to a hundred calories, which is the difference of a toast or a medium sized banana, or just under three ginger nut cookies!