Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sh*t returns

It's not something we like to talk about but as the Gates Foundation notes:

"About 2.5 billion people use unsafe toilets or defecate in the open.  Poor sanitation causes severe diarrhea, which kills 1.5 million children each year"
The Economist points out that the basic design of the western toilet has remained unchanged for way too long and that this could change where it counts now that Gates is offering a $100k prize for designing "...a toilet that costs less than five cents per user per day to operate, that requires neither a supply of clean water nor sewerage infrastructure to take the waste away, and that will generate energy and recover salts, water and other nutrients."

The beauty of this effort from the Gates Foundation is in the social return, with the article concluding that "the foundation plans to spend up to $80m a year on sanitation, an investment that the World Health Organisation estimates will produce a return of 900% in the form of social and economic benefits from increased productivity and reduced health-care costs."

An article on exercise and calories

When it comes to losing weight, personal experience tells me that exercise is not a very useful tool. It makes you hungry. End of story. Keep it simple. Exercise can be conducive to a healthy lifestyle, however it is no surprise that most people end up frustrated with the outcome when they try to adjust both diet and exercise levers at the same time, as they are fighting each other.

Now, the paper "Hunter-Gatherer Energetics and Human Obesity"  introduces a new insight in support of addressing obesity through energy inputs and not by energy outputs.In the study, the highly active Hadzu tribe were studied to establish their calorie burn. It's a surprise but the authors of the study report:

"Contrary to expectations, measures of TEE (daily energy expenditure) among Hadza adults were similar to those in Western (U.S. and Europe) populations. In multivariate comparisons of TEE controlling for FFM and age, Hadza women’s energy expenditure was similar to that of Western women (n = 186) and Hadza men’s TEE was similar to Western men (n = 53); lifestyle had no effect on TEE (women: F(139) = 0.18, p = 0.67; men: F(49) = 0.17, p = 0.68)"

"...Measurements of TEE among Hadza hunter-gatherers challenge the view that Western lifestyles result in abnormally low energy expenditure, and that decreased energy expenditure is a primary cause of obesity in developed countries."

"... The similarity in TEE among Hadza hunter-gatherers and Westerners suggests that even dramatic differences in lifestyle may have a negligible effect on TEE, and is consistent with the view that differences in obesity prevalence between populations result primarily from differences in energy intake rather than expenditure"

The author has a written an article in the New York Times about the study. So, it appears that exercise may burn the calories in the short-term, but over the longer horizon the complex interactions of the body make some adjustments that we just don't understand. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tennis foot?...Tennis ball to the rescue!

I played tennis last weekend and am still feeling the after effects by way of a pretty sore foot; specifically, the aches have made a home in the tendons of the arch of my right foot. It could be a mild case of plantar fasciitis but I am hoping the symptoms are due to poor shoes and a bout of excess enthusiasm, versus a deeper cause such as not having a proper gait (having practiced the fine art of walking for most of my life, it would be a little embarassing if I still didn't have this particular skill mastered).

Ironically, the best cure or palliative also comes by way of the tennis ball. The trick is to roll your foot over the tennis ball so the pressure effectively massages the sore area. The beneficial effects have a short half-life, so I am forced to keep a tennis ball on my person for ad-hoc foot massages, but the trick definitely works wonders.

Highly recommend to anyone with sore feet for any reason. Just take a tennis ball and run your foot over the top in a to and fro motion, with a reasonable amount of pressure (a bit like you are rolling out some dough), for about a minute or so.

Book review: The Last Days of Socrates by Plato

Having read a couple of short books about the lives and works of Socrates and Plato, I had high hopes when I strarted reading The Last Days. They were dashed from the start. Don't get me wrong, there are some great passages (see quotes below), but they are few and far between. The problem however, lies more with myself: I forgot where Plato and Socrates belonged in the timeline of philosophical thought and so went in with expectations too high.

The Last Days of Socrates presents a series of dialogues with Socrates in the run-up to his trial, where he is sentenced to death. Whilst I wasn't expecting any ground breaking thoughts, I did at least want to be enraptured by Socrates' rhetorical skill. Instead, I found the subject of the dialogues to be lacking in breadth, with too much focus on matters of the soul and unconvincing thinking on the idea of why Socrates should accept the death penalty instead of trying to escape. There was some interesting thinking about ultimate 'Forms' and accepting death as an escape, but that's about it.The style was also not particularly engaging.

In this era, much thought was the result of deduction with little true experimentation, so I guess we can't really ask for much of this book beyond some fanciful thinking. As a historical artefact of where our thought has developed from, it is an interesting work, but it is probably less beneficial to the armchair reader than the true philosophy student, who is better able to put the dialogues in context of the evolution of western philosophy.

** 1/2

Some quotes:

"It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”

"You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth for anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action; that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one. For let me tell you gentlemen, that to be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not; it is to think that one knows what one does not know. No one knows with regards to death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good. Is not this ignorance of a disgraceful sort, the ignorance which is the conceit that a man knows what he does not know? And in this respect only I believe myself to differ from men in general, and may perhaps claim to be wiser than they are:--that not possessing any real knowledge of what comes after death, I am also conscious that I do not possess it."

"It strikes me that you are taking the line of least resistance, whereas you ought to make the choice of a good man and a brave one, considering that you profess to have made goodness your object all through life."

Expendables 2 - second viewing

Watching the Expendables 2 for a second time allowed me to pick up on the subtleties that I missed out on the first time around, such as Dolph Ludgren matter-of-factly throwing a chicken off the back of a jeep, and baddy number 28 being thrown off the Expendables' plane into the ocean in the opening action sequence, only for his body to get crunched under the propellers of the trailing speedboats.

Knowing what was coming next also allowed me to focus on the quality of the action and for my eyeballs to move around the screen a bit more, capturing more death and destruction than I was able to the first time around. This has been the second best £3 spent that I have spent this year. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

Fans of Seinfeld will be happy to know that Jerry has a new series of shorts on the internet which, as usual, are about nothing in particular. The first one with Larry David is a good start ... next on my list are the episodes with Alec Baldwin and Ricky Gervais. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book: The Tao of Magoo... I mean The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff

I picked "The Tao of Pooh" up from a Christian Bookstore of all places. It is a really nice book that uses the world of Winnie the Pooh to introduce the basic tennets of Taoism, a difficult to define branch of buddhism. While I don't agree with everything it preaches, the book is at the very least a useful and gentle reminder that you do not have to chase contentedness and that nature provides its own pace. It gets a little too 1970's style hippy-ish in a few places, but overall the message is to be commended and the simple children's book style is very endearing.

Follow your inner self like Pooh Bear and don't over complicate matters. Much of life's enjoyment is in front of you. It's all there.


I'll post some quotes from the book another time.. For now here are a few of the beautiful illustrations from the book:

Batman alternative endings - only watch after seeing the movie

Nicely done.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rocky IV training montage

I'm watching Rocky IV right now. The series gave us the best training montages of all time:

An Art Deco dream home

I happened across this stunning house for sale in Yorkshire.

"This superb 4 / 5 bedroom house in the Yorkshire town of Castleford is an outstanding example of Art Deco architecture that has been wonderfully maintained by the present owners.

Built to the designs of  the architects Blenkinsopp & Scratchard in 1934, 'Chatelaine' was commissioned by the physician Dr Innes Pragnell who used it as her home and surgery until the 1950s. The house retains many original features including terrazzo flooring, Japanese oak parquet flooring and sunken black bath with mosaic tiling.

Accommodation on the first floor includes a master bedroom with an attached dressing room and three further double bedrooms. Accommodation on the  ground floor includes a living / dining room, kitchen and a fifth bedroom / study. On the upper floor there is a sun room that opens out onto a large roof terrace of about 100m2. The house has off street parking located behind an electric gate. There is a paved garden to the side and a grassed garden area."

What's so special about this place other than its retro beauty? Here it is ... the property is selling for a mere £249,000. Quite something.

Friday, August 24, 2012

An article on the investment industry

Nicholas Taleb, of "Black Swan" fame, reminds us why "Why It is No Longer a Good Idea to Be in The Investment Industry" with his new paper.

In the paper, he puts forward the following "econophysics" equation:

Explains it all doesn't it....if you are a rocket scientist! To me, it's half mumbo and half jumbo. Fortunately, the hieroglyphics are accompanied by normal words. The message is not ground breaking but it is a powerful reminder of the nature of the investment industry:

The “spurious tail” is ... the number of persons who rise to the top for no reasons other than mere luck, with subsequent rationalizations, analyses, explanations, and attributions.  

The performance in the “spurious tail” is only a matter of number of participants, the base population of those who tried. Assuming a symmetric market, if  one has for base population 1 million persons with zero skills and ability to predict starting Year 1, there should be 500K spurious winners Year 2, 250K Year 3, 125K Year 4, etc. One can easily see that the size of the winning population in, say, Year 10 depends on the size of the base population Year 1; doubling the initial population would double the straight winners. Injecting skills in the form of better-than-random abilities to predict does not change the story by much. Because of scalability, the top, say 300, managers get the bulk of the allocations, with the lion’s share going to the top 30.  So it is obvious that the winner-take-all  effect  causes distortion.

"This is quite paradoxical as we are accustomed to the opposite effect, namely that a large increases in sample size reduces the effect of sampling error; here the narrowness of M (fund manager) puts sampling error on steroids."

"To conclude, if you are starting a career, move away from investment management and performance related lotteries as you will be competing with a swelling future spurious tail.  Pick a less commoditized business or a niche where there is a small number of direct competitors. Or, if you stay in trading, become a market-maker."

My interpretation is that it's a difficult gig raising funds even if you are a skilled investor simply because you are drowned out by the random outperformers who take the lion's share of the capital. The problem gets worse as the population of fund managers grows simply because the outperforming noise gets even louder. It's almost inescapable.

My spanner, or supplementing thought, to Taleb's paper and conclusion is that even if you are ready and willing to pitch up against the spurious tail and make a living as an honest fund manager, it is unlikely that you will ever truly know whether you are a genuinely skilled enough to beat the market or whether you are part of the spurious tail. Better just to get a real job and speculate a bit on the side with one's own money, me thinks (why pay 2 and 20 to some other fool when I can be fool enough with my own money with no such vig).

Some clippets of interesting writing

Here are some enlightening quotes that I have read of late.

From Michael Lewis's Vanity Fair piece on Daniel Kahneman:

"He was working, equally unhappily, on a paper about human intuition—when people should trust their gut and when they should not—with a fellow scholar of human decision-making named Gary Klein. Klein, as it happened, was the leader of a school of thought that stressed the power of human intuition, and disagreed with the work of Kahneman and Tversky. Kahneman said that he did this as often as he could: seek out people who had attacked or criticized him and persuade them to collaborate with him. He not only tortured himself, in other words, but invited his enemies to help him to do it. “Most people after they win the Nobel Prize just want to go play golf,” said Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology at Princeton and a disciple of Amos Tversky’s. “Danny’s busy trying to disprove his own theories that led to the prize. It’s beautiful, really.”

From Richard A.Posner's rebuttal to the book "How Much is Enough?" (The Economist should have made some of these points made in its review of the book. Instead, the once great magazine just kind of nodded and agreed with the book, completely failing to come to the defence of the market mechanism...bah!)
"Keynes, middle- rather than upper-class, worked hard all his life, but he was highly cultivated, a member of the Bloomsbury set, a balletomane, an admirer of the “good life” in a distinctively English sense unrelated to material comfort." (I'd assumed most developed countries shared this idea of the good life...well, you know what they say about assuming things).

This next paragraph carries little mental weight, but is a fun read:

"In recent years, England has become much more like the United States, but I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was, how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials, how treacherously uneven the floors and sidewalks, how inadequate the heating and poor the food — and how tolerant the English were of discomfort. I recall breakfast at Hertford College, Oxford, in an imposing hall with a large broken window — apparently broken for some time — and the dons huddled sheeplike in overcoats; and in a freezing, squalid bar in the basement of the college a don in an overcoat expressing relief at being home after a year teaching in Virginia, which he had found terrifying because of America’s high crime rate, though he had not been touched by it. I remember being a guest of Brasenose College — Oxford’s wealthiest — and being envied because I had been invited to stay in the master’s guest quarters, only to find that stepping into the guest quarters was like stepping into a Surrealist painting, because the floor sloped in one direction and the two narrow beds in two other directions. I recall the English (now American) economist Ronald Coase telling me that until he visited the United States he did not know it was possible to be warm."

"The Skidelskys are correct that because goods and services can be produced with much less labor than in 1930, we could live now as we did then while working many fewer hours. We want to live better than that."

"Americans value leisure, but it is expensive leisure, and so they have to work hard in order to pay for it. As a result they have less leisure time than if their preferred form of leisure were lying in a hammock, but on balance they obtain more pleasure."    
"The greatest defenders of slacking seem to be incapable of doing it themselves. Bertrand Russell, for instance, squeezed in the writing of In Praise of Idleness between 30,000 letters, more than 70 books and a further 16 volumes of work unpublished in his lifetime." - point noted.

Quantitative easing

Many do not understand what it's all about. What is important however, is not the mechanism but the effect. The Bank of England yesterday reported on the impact of the hundreds of billions spent on quanitative easing to date:

"By pushing up a range of asset prices, asset purchases have boosted the value of households’ financial wealth held outside pension funds, although holdings are heavily skewed with the top 5% of households holding 40% of these assets."

Two points:

- Central banks have severly distorted the prices of global security prices in a singular direction.
- The gains continue to go to those at the top.

Film: Seven Pyschopaths

Earlier today we were talking about how we really could do with more movies along the lines of "In Bruges", and in an instant my housemate found this trailer. It is the second movie ... from the maker of In Bruges! Seven Pyschopaths is due out later this year and has a hell of a cast. One to look out for.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Spider web photo experiment

This is the first time that my camera has managed to focus on a spider web using auto-focus!

Film: The Expendables 2

The Expendables 2 is the best film I have seen all year and is the rare case of the sequel being better than the original.


We have much improved actions sequences with a healthy fill of gratuitous, blood splattering scenes that were sorely lacking in the first movie. There was talk of the violence being watered down at the request of Chuck Norris but fortunately it is not the case. Indeed, Chuck Norris's appearances are really kind of special, helping to catapault the movie into something closer to a comic book film along the lines of X-men (replace genetic mutants with super powers with old men with massive guns and arms the size of tree trunks).

If you grew up through the 80s and loved the actioners this film is the icing on the cake and it is a very tasty icing indeed; part homage, part cheesey parody (without being naff), part serious, and part humble (despite being full of super confident muscle men the actors clearly understand where they fit in the broader hollywood schematic). Lundgren again gives one of his best performances (he is not a good actor but is clearly stretching himself here), and Van Damme is simply pitch perfect as the bad guy, a role that he eats it up - a duff bad guy would have destroyed this movie so Van Damme deserves extra credit in this respect. Also, unlike the first Expendables, this movie has a lot more comedy and many more memorable scenes; the final action sequence in the airport is something to behold in particular (think of it as the ultimate gathering of action hero bad asses). Go watch.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cat pic

I have just received a text from an ex-housemate saying that he visited my blog and it is overly loaded with cat pics.

The question is whether you can ever have too much cat?

 Pebbles Magoo, taken earlier today

They say that for every piece of 'constructive' feedback, ten people are thinking the same thing and just haven't said so. Now I don't have a sufficient complement of readers for this to be possible, but I get the drift. A little less cat and a bit more something else.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A second post on the LIBOR crisis

Alphaville provide some choice snippets from a House of Commons Treasury Select Committee report on the LIBOR hearing: 

"The FSA and the Bank of England were engaged in crisis management, alert to the possibility of further bank failures, rather than LIBOR manipulation. This is understandable, given the circumstances of the financial crisis, but with the advantage of hindsight constitutes a failing by the authorities."

"The evidence suggests that the Bank of England was aware of the incentive for banks to behave dishonestly, yet did not think that dishonesty was occurring. Nor did it appear to have asked the FSA to check to see if such dishonesty was occurring. With hindsight this suggests a naivety on the part of the Bank of England. They were certainly relatively inactive. This confirms evidence from other Treasury Committee inquiries of the dysfunctional relationship between the Bank of England and the FSA which existed at that time to the detriment of the public interest."

"It remains possible that the entire Tucker-Diamond dialogue may have been a smokescreen put up to distract our attention and that of outside commentators from the most serious issues underlying this scandal."

"Barclays did not need a nod, a wink or any signal from the Bank of England to lower artificially their LIBOR submissions. The bank was already well practised in doing this." 

In an earlier post on the issue, I commented:

"Conditions were created that allowed for a rigged game to be played at the expense of the public. The scandal succinctly highlights how we can be taken for suckers if we choose to keep our eyes closed and blindly trust the system. There is no great architect. But there are dark corners where the free market cannot shine its light. We must either we find a better torch or tear down the structure and start afresh. Without the light you can't see what's going on. And bad things hide in dark places"

We should view the FSA more like the torch and the Bank of England as the torch bearer, since the BoE could have asked the FSA to investigate the LIBOR set-up.

Could our venerated central bank really have been so naive as to assume that all was well in the LIBOR market? The answer is no. The LIBOR market structure was clearly lacking the requirements for the creation of an efficicent price (interest rate). It cannot be "naivety" on the part of the central bank for this implies a lack of experience or natural innocence, and the imperfect structure of the LIBOR market had existed for too long to go unnoticed. The layman didn't know this until it came to light in the presses, but the BoE is constantly involved in the LIBOR market. It is at the heart of what they do and they understand. They know it now and they knew it then. So the word "naivety" is inappropriate. It should be closer to "stupidity".

From the Bank of England's "About" section:

"Standing at the centre of the UK's financial system, the Bank is committed to promoting and maintaining monetary and financial stability as its contribution to a healthy economy."

Photo - morning dewdrops on grass

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

London Olympics 2012 - Mo Farah

My favourite memory of the Olympics is Mo Farah winning the 5000 metres on the penultimate night of the games (posted to blog for reasons of memory preservation)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Groupon - Horn blows

I started rabbiting on about how overvalued this stock was at the start of the year, when the shares were $17.90. The shares swiftly fell to $9, a price at which I figured it might be wise to lock in the theoretical gains. Well, I've just checked the share price and it's trading at under $6 a pop.

Facebook is also down a third from its IPO price. Somebody's passed the sniffing salts under the market's nose.

More pictures of Pebbles Magoo

aka the Pobble-meister, aka Mrs Pembles, aka Mrs Magoo. Taken over the past week.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Wye Valley - A few close-up shots from a recent holiday

(Traditional Welsh tea comprising of slices of bara brith and a couple of welsh cakes...really good eating).

Tinturn Abbey

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The rain isn't all bad

a few recent pics:

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

My nemesis

...destroyer of aubergine plants

"Eat, Fast and Live Longer" - Michael Mosely BBC 2

While I've posted quite a bit on the benefits of calorie restriction over the years, I have never managed to follow up my curiousity with the kind of gusto that I put behind my researches into vitamin D. And this is despite having practiced calorie restriction with great discipline in the past (see posts on the "30 Days Down" experiment, which showed marked improvements in blood sugar and cholesterol levels after eating 650 calories a day for 30 days).

Michael Mosely's recent BBC 2 Horizon documentary "Eat, Fast and Live Longer" has now re-ignited my interest in this field of research. Mosely is a high quality science journalist with a bent for self-experimentation, which puts him him right up my street. However, because a few of his conclusions in previous shows have been found somewhat wanting (just somewhat, mind), I must survey the research on the state of play in this field before enacting any more deliberate lifestyle changes.

For now, I will remain committed to adding a stone to my weight. Depending on the outcome of my research, I may well try to lose it again shortly after!

Monday, August 06, 2012

Internet Radio: Radio Paradise

My internet radio has pretty much become a single station machine, forever stuck on Radio Paradise. Give these guys a try and see if they don't steal one of your presets:

"RP is a blend of many styles and genres of music, carefully selected and mixed by two real human beings. You'll hear modern and classic rock, world music, electronica, even a bit of classical and jazz. What you won't hear are random computer-generated playlists or mind-numbing commercials.
Our specialty is taking a diverse assortment of songs and making them flow together in a way that makes sense harmonically, rhythmically, and lyrically — an art that, to us, is the very essence of radio."

Stallone's Last Supper