Monday, August 31, 2009

Facebook - search for 'The Johal'

I was in the garden today, enjoying the last of the summer sunshine, surfing the web and reading Don Quixote, when the name of somebody I barely knew at university popped into my mind - his name is Jagtar Johal. I jumped on Facebook to see if I could find him. He wouldn't remember me, but I thought I'd try. I found a Jagtar Johal in Leicester and befriended him ... but it was the wrong Johal. This one was a local kick-boxing hero, not the studious, pool-playing Johal I knew. I wonder, where is 'the Johal' now, what is 'the Johal' up to?. Facebook and Google searches proved fruitless. The Johal is off the grid. Bye bye Johal.

80s style action films are back

Rambo 5 has the green light.

Money saving - 3M

3M are doing some good deals on post-its, sticky tabs, and packaging tape. Best of all, for a limited time they are offering free postage on all orders. Nice.

Film review - The Hurt Locker

If you want a decent, action film about life on the front line in Iraq you could do a lot worse than The Hurt Locker. Keep in mind that The Hurt Locker isn't a documentary but a well made explosive, action film that gives you food for thought. My problem with the film was that it didn't really go anywhere but I guess that's true to the actual situation.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book review - Does the free market corrode moral character?

"Does the free market corrode moral character?" is a nice little book from the Templeton Foundation that contains responses to this question from a variety of prominent thinkers. I quite like books like this because they open my eyes to new angles or schools of thinking, reminding me that different people have different ideas and that we all see things from different perspectives.


Some quotes from "Does the free market corrode moral character?":

John Gray

It is important to avoid thinking in terms of ideal models. In recent years there has been a tendency to think that free markets emerge spontaneously when state interference is removed. But free markets are not simply the absence of government. Markets depend on systems of law to decide what can be traded as a commodity and what cannot. Slavery is forbidden in modern market economies; so are blackmail ...

Free markets always involve some moral constraints of this sort, which are policed by governments. More generally, free markets rely on property rights, which are also enforced - and often created - by government.

The traits of character most rewarded by free markets are entrepreneurial boldness, the willingness to speculate and gamble, and the ability to seize or create new opportunities.

Free markets demand a high degree of mobility and an ingrained readiness to exit from relationships that are no longer profitable. A society in which people are constantly on the move is unlikely to be a society of stable families or to be notably law-abiding.

Tyler Cowan

In matters of morality, the free market functions like an amplifier. By placing more wealth and resources at our disposal, it tends to boost and accentuate whatever character tendencies we already possess. The net result is usually favorable. Most people want a good life for themselves and for their families and friends, and such desires form a part of positive moral character. Markets make it possible for vast numbers of people, at every level of society, to strive for and achieve these common human ends.

Robert Reich

Great deals also frequently come at the expense of our Main Streets - the hubs of our communities - because we can get lower prices at big-box retailers on the outskirts of town. As moral actors, we care about the well-being of our neighbors and our communities. But as consumers we eagerly seek deals that may undermine the living standards of our neighbors and the neighborliness of our communities. How do we cope with this conflict? Usually by ignoring it.

Our market transactions have all sorts of moral consequences we'd rather not know about. We may get great deals because a producer has cut costs by setting up shop in poor nations and hiring children who work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, or by eliminating the health and pension benefits of its American employees, or by cutting corners on worker safety. As moral beings, most of us would not intentionally choose these outcomes, but as seekers of great deals we are ultimately responsible for them.

If the market mechanism were so transparent that we could not avoid knowing the moral effects of our buying decisions, presumably we would then have to choose either to sacrifice some material comforts for the sake of our ideals or to sacrifice those ideals in order to have the comforts. That would be a true test. Absent such transparency, we don't need to sacrifice either. We can get the great deals and simultaneously retain our moral scruples without breaking a sweat.

John C. Bogle

But in recent decades we have become an agency society, one in which corporate managers hold control over our giant publicly-held business enterprises without holding significant ownership stakes. Call it managers' capitalism. Similarly, the financial intermediaries that now hold voting control of corporate America are agents for the vast majority of individual investors. In the early 1950s, individuals held 92 percent of all U.S. stocks, and institutions held just 8 percent. Today, individuals hold only 25 percent directly while institutions-largely mutual funds and pension funds - hold 75 percent.

But these new agents haven't behaved as agents should. Too frequently, corporations, pension managers, and mutual-fund managers have put their own financial interests ahead of the interests of the principals whom they are duty-bound to represent, those 100 million families who are the owners of our mutual funds and the beneficiaries of our pension plans. This failure is hardly a surprise. As Adam Smith wisely put it, "managers of other people's money (rarely) watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which...they watch over their own.... [T]hey very easily give themselves a dispensation. Negligence and profusion must always prevail."

"Fettered" capitalism has indeed corroded our moral character, by both privatizing the rewards of the market and (in the form of federal bailouts) socializing its risks. Both are betrayals of the free market and its genuine virtues. Our society has a huge stake in demanding higher moral values in a less fettered market system.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

More on the placebo effect ... it's getting stronger

In April, I asked 'where do I get some of that placebo medicine? The trials show that it's pretty effective.'

Then I asked a question of the placebo effect, 'When a drug or treatment is proven to be no better than a placebo, its efficacy tends to be dismissed. That's how I used to approach this result, but tonight I came up with a different response. It is to then ask the question 'How effective is the placebo?'. After all, surely it is the end result is that matters most.'

Building on this, the whole placebo debate has taken an interesting turn as news emerges that the placebo effect is getting stronger, at least in America. This is important because it raises the bar, or 'futility boundary', that drugs have to pass in their trial phase.

From Wired:

'In many cases, these are the compounds that, in the late '90s, made Big Pharma more profitable than Big Oil. But if these same drugs were vetted now, the FDA might not approve some of them. Two comprehensive analyses of antidepressant trials have uncovered a dramatic increase in placebo response since the 1980s. One estimated that the so-called effect size (a measure of statistical significance) in placebo groups had nearly doubled over that time.'

Friday, August 28, 2009

Film review - Inglourious Basterds

When Tarantino burst onto the movie scene with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction he redefined film making. Since then, his work has been a little wild. He gave us the okay Jackie Brown, the stylistically excellent but overly long Kill Bill, and then there was Death Trip and the less said about this film the better - it was enough to make me question whether Tarantino had truly lost himself in his own world.

I am happy to report that Inglorious marks a return to form. It's Tarantino all over from an aesthetic perspective and the story isn't half bad. The film is some way from perfect but it's still a great, blood-splattered ride and there is great acting from relative unknowns - the despicably evil 'Jew Hunter' played by Christopher Waltz is fantastic and he steals every scene that he is in.

*** 1/2

Re-reading Don Quixote in 2009

In 2007, when I commented on Edith Grossman's superb translation of Don Quixote, I suggested readers ignore the utterly pointless introduction by Harold Bloom:

If you are reading Edith Grossman's translation, I recommend skipping the first 20 to 30 pages of unnecessary discussion of DQ from the literary perspective, comparing Cervantes to Shakespeare and the like. Just go straight to the story and get stuck in.
Well, I am now reading Don Quixote for the fourth time (ah, the joys of having a short memory!) and have taken my advice to heart and ripped out these pages:

Here are a couple of quotes from Bloom's pages:
- W.H. Auden found in Don Quixote a portrait of the Christian saint as opposed to Hamlet, who "lacks faith in God and in himself." Though Auden sounds perversely ironic, he was quite serious and, I think, wrong-headed. Against Auden I set Miguel de Unamuno, my favourite critic of Don Quixote. For Unamuno, Alonso Quixano is the Christian saint, while Don Quixote is the originator of the actual religion, Quixotisim.

- Don Quixote and Sancho Panza both exalt the will, though the Knight transcendentalizes it, and Sancho, the first postpragmatic, wants to keep within limits.
It takes quite a bit of motivation to pick up Don Quixote, which is some 940 pages in length not including Harold Bloom's analysis, and reading passages like those above can suck it right out of you. Such a long-winded, pompous and academic introduction that presupposes a great deal of literary knowledge on the part of the reader is completely unjust as it makes the book exceedingly difficult to enter in to. Indeed, I wonder how many how people have returned this book to the shelf after getting caught up in Bloom's dense and unnecessary verbiage, which is in stark contrast to Cervantes own style. Whose idea was it to include this ruinous commentary by Bloom, I wonder? It just doesn't belong, especially when we are provided with a translator's note by Grossman and a prologue by Cervantes himself.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I really enjoyed JCVD. It's a low budget movie and the director seems to be have a thing for using the 'rose tinted' lens at every opportunity, but it's the best thing the old karate chopper's done in a while. I don't understand why Van Damme didn't accept a role in The Expendables but hopefully JCVD will set him up for some decent roles in the future.

Here is the famous monologue, where JCVD speaks from the heart.

Nooo ... katlama memories

Today Zaf commented on the katlama post:

"Right now I am doing an impression of the old yellow pages advert with JR Hartley ringing to see if anyone has a copy of his fly fishing book. Only I am ringing restaurants/ kebab houses in East London asking if they have any katlama.
I have been fasting all day, am absolutley famished and only a katlama will do the trick."
Man am I hungry for this.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cash for clunkers

A few months back I ranted about the absurd scheme set up by the UK government that rewards people for scrapping perfectly good cars. Well, the US set-up a similar 'Cash For Clunkers' scheme and it has been taken up with great gusto by the public.

Here is a perfectly good car being destroyed to stimulate the economy. Make sense to you?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Film review - Man on Wire

Man on Wire is a charming documentary about Philippe Petit's dare-devil wire walk between the Twin Towers. The trials and tribulations of the team who set-up the wire for Petit to walk across (illegally) lend just the right level of suspense to the story.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

JCVD on tv tonight !

All credit to Channel 5 for getting this film so shortly after it left the big screens. It's on tonight at 10:55 and looks like his best work in a long while.

In other action-hero based news, it looks like Bruce Willis has joined the cast of The Expendables for a cameo appearance. It just keeps getting better.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book review: Adam Smith and the Pursuit of Perfect Liberty by James Buchan

This book is well reviewed but I found the style exceedingly difficult and after thirty odd pages of tough slogging I had lost all enthusiasm. At least I picked up a few interesting quotes:


'The phrase 'invisible hand' occurs three times in the million words of Adam Smith's that have come down to us, and on not one of those occasions does it have anything to do with free-market capitalism or awesome international transactions.'

'The hermit of Glasgow University and the Edinburgh Custom-house thought the Irish prostitutes in London were the most beautiful women in the British Empire by virtue of their diet of potatoes.'

'Some of the most important events of a life occur before it has begun.'

I'm going to need another belt

Oh man, I used to be on the third hole on this belt.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book review - Spuds, Spam and Eating for Victory by Katherine Knight

A nice little book for folk with an interest in food and social history, 'Spuds, Spam and Eating for Victory' investigates how Britain dealt with food shortages during and after the second world war.

If I feel brave enough one day, I may try a couple of the war-time recipes that are provided in the final chapter.


A few scribbled notes from the book:

- Rationing was used not just to allocate scarce resources but also as a social policy to improve public health.

- The programme to supply milk and orange juice at low cost (free for expectant mothers and young children) that started in the second world war started to fade out in 1968, and in 1971 Thatcher stopped the national free supply of milk to primary school children.

- The cod liver oil programme (high in Vit A & D) was less successful, with an uptake of only 33% of it's potential at its height.

- 2nd world war approach to food was all about frugality, economy, stretching and substituting (mock duck was joined by mock cream, mock marzipan etc). Butter was creamed to go further, meat protein was replaced by more plentiful vegetable protein, vitamin A and D was added to margarine to make the need for butter redundant, and fat bearing tissue on meat scraps was rendered down to release all the fat. The oven was also used to maximum capacity, with neighbours sometimes offering spare space to each other.

- In 1969 the calorie requirement for men was 3000 kcal (vs 2,500 kcal today).

- Sugar found a substitute in saccharin, which is several hundred times sweeter than sugar but carries a slightly metallic taste. Also, it is not absorbed by the body.

- "Dig for Victory" - Cultivation became a cult after Britain realised it couldn't be self-sufficient in food production. Fields were producing only a third of cheese and sugar, a fifth of the fruit, ten percent of the cereals, and half the meat consumed by the British public. By 1940 an extra 1.9m acres were ploughed and ready for planting. Farmers became relatively prosperous as food production was subsidised.

- Food wastage became an offence in 1940, punishable by imprisonment from 3m to 2 years.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Book review: What on Earth Happened by Christopher Lloyd

What on Earth Happened is an achievement and a half. For a comprehensive understanding of how the earth came to be I don't think the layman could do better than to read this book. What on Earth Happened is packed with interesting illustrations and charts and while it doesn't assume any knowledge it will appeal to a very broad age range. The writing is clear and to the point, radiating an infectious enthusiasm, and there is something of interest and note on almost every page. It is the breadth of book that truly sets it apart, however, for when I finished reading it I felt I had a much better understanding and appreciation of the world around me, of the earth itself, of plant life, of animal life and of man's understanding and the development of knowledge over the years.

It doesn't quite get the full five stars because the authors own biases seemed to come through quite heavily toward the end and I also thought it could have been a little better organised. Nevertheless, this is highly recommended for inquisitive minds. Fantastic.

**** 1/2

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Recipe - Courgette Matchsticks

... or 'zucchini matchsticks' if you're on the other side of the Atlantic. Whatever you call them, they are simple and delicious.

The recipe is from Smitten Kitchen, as is the picture - sorry, we ate ours too fast!

Almonds, parmesan and courgettes, all together? I know what you are thinking. You'll need either a lot of faith or a courgette glut before you try this one. When you do, you'll probably love it. The rest of the ingredients are salt and pepper and a little cooking oil. That's it. Cook time is about a minute and a half.

My only tip is to add the zucchini about twenty seconds or so after the almonds, as the almond slithers can blacken up pretty quickly.

Friday, August 07, 2009

An experimental lunch

A light lunch comprising of pan-fried green tomatoes rubbed in seasoned breadcrumbs, fried egg, stir-fried dried anchovies (whole), and a bit of salad.

It's the first time that I have eaten fried green tomatoes (just unripe normal tomatoes) and they are quite nice, easily nice enough to make again. The anchovies are not the prettiest of sights with their beady little eyes staring you in the face, and they pack a hell of a flavoursome, salty punch. The little fish weren't at all bad but I'll need to find a recipe that makes them more crisp.

Film Review - Moon (2009)

Just caught the last showing of 'Moon'.

The film stars Sam Rockwell a few times over and the voice of Kevin Spacey, and that's pretty much it. I was expecting to have to put up with long periods of 'artistic' tedium but there was nothing of the sort. For a low budget sci-fi flick it hit all the right buttons. Rockwell is his usual brilliant self.

4.5 / 5

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Is vitamin D quickly becoming the ultimate wonder drug?

Last night I ran a Google news search on Vitamin D. Here are some of the headlines from the previous 24 hours:

'Study: Cancer patients likely benefit from vitamin D supplementation'

'OMRF researchers link vitamin D deficiency with lupus'

'Vitamin D deficiency may raise caesarean risk'

'... Vitamin D May Fight Alzheimer's Disease'

'High-dose vitamin D prevents bone breaks in elderly'
- The Institute of Medicine has also just had a two day meeting on Vitamin D reference intakes. Here is one of the slides from Dr Holick's presentation:

It isn't the prettiest slide but the point is clear. While correlation is not causation the weight of evidence is building and the case for supplementation can be very strong depending on where you live. Harvard's medical site reports that 'Except during the summer months, the skin makes little if any vitamin D from the sun at latitudes above 37 degrees north ... or below 37 degrees south of the equator. People who live in these areas are at relatively greater risk for vitamin D deficiency.' And where does the UK lie?

London is 51 degrees north.

PS - Remember, it's virtually impossible to get enough Vitamin D from your diet alone.

“A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” - Hume

Elephant Hawk-Moth caterpillar

We found this beast of a caterpillar in the garden a week or so ago. Not knowing whether it was poisonous, ruinous to our plants, etc, I decided to 'rehouse' it away from the garden. Alas, if I'd taken temporary custody of said beast, it would have metamorphosed into this wonderful moth.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Photo posters

There are so many photo printing deals going around these days that it's quite rare for folk to pay full price for their snaps. That said, it's worth pointing out that many of the on-line services are pretty darn cheap even without a special discount. For example, this morning I received the above two photo's from Photobox enlarged to A4 size, for a mere £1.25 each. The packaging was excellent and the quality of the prints is great - they make for great mini-posters.

PS - The taxi photo on the left is my all-time fave, and was taken on the fly in Hong Kong (March 2008). The one on the right was taken at a flea market in Veranna, Italy, on the edge of Lake Como (June 2009). Both were touched up a little in Photoscape, easily my preferred photo editing software.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Book review - The World of Chocolate: A Fascinating Guide to the Food of the Gods by Christine McFadden

Christine McFadden's book about chocolate is a fast, entertaining read. The book is well illustrated and it met my objective spot on - I wanted to learn a little more about chocolate but didn't want a hefty tome that investigated the history of the world from the perspective of chocolate.


Some notes on 'The World of Chocolate':

- The cacao tree was cultivated by the Olmec people, and then the Mayans (Central America). Mayans believed it came from the gods and this belief is captured in its name, 'Theobroma (food of the gods) cacao'.

- Christopher Coloumbus tried chocolate but found it bitter and dark. He brought cocoa beans back to Spain only for curiosity value. 17 years later Cortes saw it being used as a food and currency and fully exploited his knowledge, setting up plantations around the Caribbean. The cultivation secret was closely held for a while but it eventually got out and in 1580 the first processing plant was set up in Spain. Other countries followed, setting up their own trade routes and processing plants.

- The first cargo of cocoa beans landed in Spain in 1585 and 'Chocolaterias' sprang up all over the country. It became a fashion to drink a brew with a picatoste bread for dipping. The drink is still traditionally drunk in the morning, with churros instead of picatoste. At first it was used in Spain and other places to flavour savoury dishes, it's use for confectionary and desserts coming later.

- Chocolate was originally used by the Aztecs as a provider of energy, spiritual wisdom and as a nuptual aid, but to use chocolate in cooking would have been sacrilege. The drink was served bitter, greasy (cocoa butter) and cold. Ingredients such as chilli would be added but sugar was came much later. In Mexico its use as a confectionery never really took off but it is still used extensively as a flavouring in cooking (e.g. mole sauces).

- Britain was much slower to adopt the chocolate drink, which appeared more or less simultaneously with coffee from Africa and tea from Asia.

- Milk chocolate is not really chocolate in the eyes of aficionados. A good brand will have about 40% cocoa solids vs 20% found in the mass produced chocolates. Also, vegetable fats may be used to replace cocoa butter in the mass produced chocolates. Some say British chocolate should be called 'vegolate'.

- High quality chocolate has a high cocoa % and correspondingly lower sugar percentage. Also, look for vanilla vs vanillin.

- White chocolate contains cocoa butter (or vegetable oil) but no cocoa solids.

- Cacao: refers to the botanical tree name, and is used for fermented beans.
- Cocoa: the manufactured powder for end use (drinks etc)

- To assess quality use the senses:

* Appearance - smooth and silky is ideal
* Sound - listen for a clean 'click' when snapping
* Touch - no graininess in the mouth, and a high % cocoa chocolate starts to melt in the hand
* Taste - work with a clean palate and taste the many flavours and aromas

- A couple of vintage chocolate advertisement posters:

Monday, August 03, 2009

More on Vitamin D

Since I posted on the widespread vitamin D deficiency across the population, I've come across several reports supporting the case for upping our dose of vitamin D. The latest is a piece in the Washington Post reporting on two studies that both find extremely low vitamin D levels in American children.

"About 9 percent of those ages 1 through 21 -- about 7.6 million children, adolescents and young adults -- have Vitamin D levels so low they could be considered deficient, while an additional 61 percent -- 50.8 million -- have higher levels, but still low enough to be insufficient"
Take a look at this graphic for non-hispanic blacks:

Pretty much the entire population segment is not getting enough vitamin D.

As for myself, I've had my blood tested and am awaiting the results.

Health notes - BMI, waist measures of South East Asians in the UK

Just a few notes to myself for reference:

From the British Heart Foundation's 'A Quick Guide to Heart Health'.

... some ethnic groups have a different level of risk. For example, South Asian people living in the UK are one and a half times more likely to die from coronary disease before the age of 75 than the rest of the population.

... People of Asian backgrounds are more likely to have a higher proportion of body fat to muscle than the rest of the population. They also tend to carry this fat around their middle. So Asians have a greater risk of developing problems such as diabetes and coronary heart disease at a lower waist size than other people in the UK.

- Your health is at risk your waist size is:

European Men: Over 97 cm (37 inches)
European Women: Over 80 cm (32 inches)

- Your health is at HIGH risk if your waist size is:

European Men: Over 102 cm (40 inches)
Asian Men: Over 90 cm (36 inches)

European Women: Over 88 cm (35 inches)
Asian Women: Over 80 cm (32 inches)

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Plum crop

We've had a pretty dismal summer in England this year but at least the weather has been good for our berry trees. Here's the last half of our plum crop, all from a single tree:

Hampstead Heath

I saw this single baby shoe in Hampstead Heath a few days ago and thought of the famous, six-word short story by Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Polenta Taragna

Last night my sister and mother cooked up some polenta taragna, a simple traditional dish of Northern Italy that I sampled in Bergamo. It's basically polenta and buckwheat flour that's cooked with lashings of butter and parmesan cheese (we used Twineham Grange as a suitable vegetarian alternative).

We've got a good batch of this polenta left over in the fridge and I'm look forward to cutting it into slices and testing the various re-heating methods (grilling, baking, pan fry). I'm thinking some sausages in a mildly spicy tomato sauce will partner very well with this buttery, cheesy meal.