Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year (unless you've been bad)

For my last post of 2012, I bring you some of the lesser known Christmas nasties from across Europe (I read about these on Buzzfeed):

...Sometimes Krampus appears with a sack or a washtub strapped to his back; this is to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to Hell
... Unlike North American versions of Santa Claus, in these celebrations Saint Nicholas concerns himself only with the good children, while Krampus is responsible for the bad. Nicholas dispenses gifts, while Krampus supplies coal and the ruten bundles.

"In the folklore of Bavaria and Austria, Perchta was said to roam the countryside at midwinter, and to enter homes between the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (especially on the Twelfth Night). She would know whether the children and young servants of the household had behaved well and worked hard all year. If they had, they might find a small silver coin next day, in a shoe or pail. If they had not, she would slit their bellies open, remove stomach and guts, and stuff the hole with straw and pebbles. She was particularly concerned to see that girls had spun the whole of their allotted portion of flax or wool during the year."

 Grýla, is in Icelandic mythology, a horrifying monster and a giantess living in the mountains of Iceland. She is said to come from the mountains at Christmas in search of naughty children. ... most of the stories told about Gryla were to frighten children – her favourite dish was a stew of naughty kids and she had an insatiable appetite. 
"...anyone not dressed head to toe in new clothes at Christmas would be ‘devoured’ by the fearsome Yule Cat, with its ferocious claws, sharp teeth and glaring eyes.  The terrifying creature struck fear into the hearts of Icelanders, particularly the children, and the cautionary tale was often used to make people work extra hard in the run-up to Christmas and make sure youngsters were well behaved. Even today, the tradition has stuck and Icelanders like to make sure they have a new outfit for the festive season."

Vitamin D - a good reference guide

This summary guidance paper from Barts School of Medicine (London) provides a good summary of what we know about the vitamin. Here are some snippets for my own reference:

....The major natural source of vitamin D is sunlight, with a small
amount coming from the diet. For white populations 20-30
minutes of sunlight exposure to the face and forearms in the
middle of the day during summer generates approximately
2,000IU vitamin D. Two or three exposures a week are
estimated to generate healthy levels during summer.
Populations with pigmented skin need 2-10 times the exposure
of a fair skinned individual.

The capsules  that I regularly take contain 1000 IU, which is 500% of the current recommended daily allowance (note, RDA recommendations vary considerably globally). However, all the evidence to date suggests it is the UK RDA that is woefully low, afterall 20 minutes in the sun gives most people 1000% of their RDA. With respect totoxicity, in the pamphlet's discussion of vitamin D as a treatement for osteomalacia, it talks about a dosage of "A single oral dose of 200,000 IU" to bring people's levels back into the normal range. That's the equivalent 200 of my tablets (i.e. eating two bottles of tablets in a single sitting), which in turn equates to 100,000% of the RDA.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Post study observations

I feel that I am gradually returning to my normal self. It's not that studying professional qualifications was a stressful experience, so much as the relentless slog sapped a little of of the colour from the edges of life. For example, for a long time I could not recall any of my dreams. Since my latest exam* however, I have recalled about three of my night imaginings (although I'd rather not have remembered the one about somebody being run over on the main road outside our house). I've also a good run of ideas over the past week. Note, the ideas themselves are not good, as you can bear witness:

  • Handwritten style letter templates for web based e-mail. Sending an e-mail to a friend overseas? Why not use a template in the style of a traditional blue airmail letter. Sending a short e-mail to friend. Perhaps a telegram template will do nicely? I have e-mailed the idea to Microsoft and do not expect a reply. I also tried to sell the idea to my sister for £1. She declined.
  • The "Life-Stages Baby Buggy Company". With baby buggies so expensive (£500 is common) why not set up a company which rents out buggies to parents for the first x months. The buggies could be designed to be super luxurious but with detachable material, which could be industrially washed. When the little one outgrows the buggy, parents could return the buggy and trade up to the next size as appropriate. The idea is to save parents the hassle of sourcing and selling, a big convenience and space saver. I tried to sell 100% of this company for £1. No takers.
  • Frosty Boys Ltd. Those frosty winter mornings are a real pain if you park your car outside and have to scrape all the ice off the windows before you get going to work. With the demand for newspaper boys on the decline, there is a need for the young money-hungry to diversify. Why not offer a frost scraping service for 50p-£1 per car to guarantee frost free cars from Dec through to Feb? You could sell vouchers for people to buy as christmas presents. I can't give this idea away.
(*For reference, I don't get my results until February so they may not be over yet). 

Is there a great stagnation in action movies?

Asks Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution. My comment:

A great stagnation? Surely the opposite, what? I put it to you that we've been through the slump and are in the middle of a renaissance ... a Renaissance where Stallone is Da Vinci, leading the charge; his paintbrush is an automatic assault rifle, his paint the blood of the hapless baddies. Following the latest non-CGI bloodfest that was Rambo, we have been given Expendables and Expendables 2. Stallone has resuscitated a genre. Arnie is also back on the scene and Van Damme is getting (a bit) better alongside. Okay, so these action movies won't win any oscars but that's not the point of a pure action movie. And if we look abroad we have films like The Raid that have come out of nowhere and have set new standards for action scenes. To me, the question is whether this wave is a last hurrah or whether some new, young actors and directors can step up to the mantle and keep the torch burning.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Autumn turns to winter

...fallen leaves are absorbed into the concrete

...a prevailing wetness renders park benches unusable

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Holstee Manifesto ... some nice words, nicely presented

William Henry Channing: "My Symphony"

To live content with small means;
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
And refinement rather than fashion;
To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not, rich;
To study hard, think quietly,
Talk gently,
Act frankly;
To listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart;
To bear all cheerfully,
Do all bravely,
Await occasions,
Hurry Never.
In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common.
This is my symphony.

(kindly sent by my housemate)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Unstructured thoughts on tv and radio..a lament of the era of 5 channel terrestrial tv

The proliferation of channels and relentless advancement of technology has created an expanse of variety of consumable entertainment, enabling users to dial in to shows highly specific to their preferences (although I'm still waiting for channel Sky Ninja to launch). Indeed, with the internet pipes enabling more and more streaming of archive materials, even the "record" button is becoming increasingly redundant. This is very empowering for the individual but it's worth considering the societal impact. In days gone by, folk would go to work the next day and talk about what happened in the latest episode of Dallas, Coronation Street, or Eastenders, that had been broadcast the previous night - there just wasn't that much worth watching, so many people would watch the same thing. Now, there is so much to choose from and even if somebody is watching the same series as you, they are probably watching at a different time to you, making the shared experience, well, less shared. So, we absorb higher utility during the experience itself but the utility from talking about the experience afterwards has most diminished. With less to talk about we turn back to our magic boxes to hit us up with more tailored entertainment. Live sports broadcasts still carry the same utility across time but everything else has become fragmented.

(Caveat: for the sake of brevity, I have deliberately put fourth a one-sided view).

Holmes, the master of mindfulness

"More often than not, when a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together his long-fingered hands in an attitude that begs silence. He may be the most inactive active detective out there. His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness."

(from a nice opinion piece in the New York Times, via Farnham Street Blog)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Warming up to the Hit Factory Live

As an early Christmas present, my sister bought tickets for us to hear some of the great eighties popstars perform at the O2 arena. This is smack bang in the sweet spot of my childhood  : )

Here are some videos from some of the line-up:

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Wonders of Capitalism: Tesco Everyday Value Shaving Foam - 26p

The absence of excessive human traffic at Waitrose and Tescos this morning makes me think that retailers are really going to be up against it this Christmas. I expect to see many profit warnings and lowering of expectations through the first quarter of 2013 (assigned probability of approx 70%).

On a more positive note, I'm super impressed with Tesco's ability to offer a decent sized can of shaving foam at a price of 26p. That's around a tenth of price charged by most other brands. At this price, you can't have high expectations for quality, although a quick Google search reveals a reviewer rating the foam 9.5 out of 10. Also, a handful of folk over at the reviewing website Dooyoo have given the product 5 stars. Not bad at all. I'm not a fan of the Tesco shopping experience in general but it's astounding they can get the foam on the shelves so cheaply.

For the miracle of capitalism to take hold, consider the following for a moment: the manufacturer of the product will have purchased the required materials (plastic, metal, gas, various ingredients to make the foam, inks for branding) from various suppliers, each of whom will have applied a mark-up. The manufacturer will then create the product through a manufacturing process requiring machine work and labour work. Once produced and labelled up, the cans will be shipped off to Tescos (not literally in this instance as the manufacturer is UK based, but some miles will still need to be covered which will incur petrol costs at a marginal minimum). So, we can deduce there are at least three stages where different companies will have been involved. Now, unless this is all part of a grand scheme to promote cheap shaving foam to beareded and mustachioed fellows across the country, we can also assume that a profit margin is also required at every stage along the journey. Remember, you walk out of the shop you've spent just 26p! If we convert this cost into labour hours required to work at the minimum wage (e.g.a Tesco shelf stacker) it works out to a cost of just under 3 minutes of a workers time. 

This kind of thing is fantastic news for the consumer. But it does raise another strategic issue. As the competition for value lines increased over the past decade or so, Tesco ditched it's old red and blue stripe value imaging, commenting that the move was to ‘relieve consumers of the embarrassment of buying the cheapest products on its shelves’. This is all well and good but there was a reason for that tacky labelling, which was to differentiate the audience and only attract customers who are willing to pay the price of embarassment (the basic idea: if you can help it, you want people to spend more as much as possible for each purchase. The people who were buying the earlier garish designed stuff would readily have gone to the poundshops, Lidl, etc instead so would have left Tesco with no shaving foam in their basket. The value offering captured part of this market segment).

So, whereas other manufacturers were broadly offering product differentiation with some element of price competition, the value lines were pure plays on cost. Hence the massive difference in prices. But the problem for retailers, which is an upside for customers, is that competition forced quality up, held prices down and also led to improved labelling, bringing us to the current state of play where in many instances shoppers don't feel any sense of social unease when they pick up a Sainsbury's Basics, Tesco's Everyday Value, or Waitrose Essentials products. The branded sales are being cannibalised.

Ah, the joys of capitalism. Companies will rise and fall but consumers will always prosper (so long as the conditions for healthy competition are in place).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Quick thoughts on directed willpower and self-control

Willpower is defined by Google as "the trait of resolutely controlling your own behavior". But what are the drivers of willpower? Mmmm.

I think it comes down to motivation, which in turn comes down to a combination of how much you want something and also how much effort you are willing to put in to get it:

- I would really like to be a ninja. I am not willing to put in any effort to become one. It is a fantasy. Therefore I will not become a ninja. I could learn a kick or two, but no more.
- I would very much like to become a qualified accountant. Quite a lot of effort is required to achieve this goal. I am willing to put in quite a lot of effort to achieve this goal. I will almost definitely become a qualified accountant.
- I would quite like an omelette for dinner. It doesn't require a lot of effort. I will have an omelette for dinner. It is not fantasy.

But effort is a tricky beast in most avenues in life, as effort alone doesn't always produce the desired results. Probabilities are also important and they are affected by innate ability as well as the external environment. Examples (not real):

- I would really like to become a successful trader. A lot of effort is required to achieve this goal. I am willing to put in a lot of effort to do achive this goal. I probably will not succeed because the market is largely random and most folk get washed out.
- I would really like to be a professional golfer. A lot of effort is required to achieve this goal. I am willing to put in a lot of effort to achieve this goal. I probably will not succeed because most people don't and I am not naturally very talented. Also, the percentage of successful professional golfers is very small. Success is contingent not just on my own abilities but it also depends on the skillset of the competition.
- I would really like to lose weight. A lot of effort is required to achieve this goal. I am willing to put in a lot of effort to achieve this goal. I probably will not succeed because them's the odds. If I put effort into my initial researches I can change the odds. Then I may succeed.

Without rambling on and turning this into a blessay, there are interesting follow on questions to be asked:
- What is your existing cost base? (think of cost in terms of time, cost, and physical, and mental exertion). Worth mentioning separately is the cost of maintenance.
- Do you have a healthy mix of goals? If you are directing much of your effort to a low probability outcome, are you aware of this. How do you get an edge?
- Where probabilities are important, it may be useful to increase "n" as much as possible so success eventually comes around. This is more relevant in small scale pursuits and competitions.
- Can you synergise your efforts by linking goals to the same cost structure?
- For many pursuits, failure is simply part of the overall iterative process of life. It is necessary to learning and adapting.
- How important is the end point, and how instructive and fulfilling is the journey along the way, even if the end goal is not achieved?

Self ramble over, I shall proceed downstairs to construct my omelette.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Terry Gilliam comments on the Disney-Depp Quixote

In this short interview, Terry Gilliam gives his take on Johnny Depp's decision to run ahead with Don Quixote. Like a true angry Brit, he has written a letter.

Sainsbury's Basics Fish Fingers - a favourite

I actually prefer these fish fingers over the popular brands, and at 60p for 10 sticks, what's not to like. They are 100% pollock fillet, responsibly sourced and taste dang fine. I'll happily eat a box of 10 sticks in a single sitting, yielding some 32g of protein. Throw them into a couple of sandwiches and that's a further 16g of protein (4 slices x 4 grams). Maybe add some cheese for another 5g of protein. Voila, there you have an almighty, post-workout protein bomb, delivering a pile-driving, wagon load of over 50g of protein. Oh, and if you nuke up some frozen veg to eat alongside and maybe add a fried egg, well, that'll be your dinner sorted for little more than £1.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Are Superdry investors about to get soaked?

Earlier this year, Superdry investors suffered a dramatic fall in the share price when the company announced a profit warning. Since then, the share price has recovered nicely off the lows (£6.23 at pixel time) and a recent statement indicates that sales are back on track. However, with key people at the top either decided to leave or effectively being pushed out, and major systems and controls challenges still standing, questions remain. I'm eyeing them up from the short side because even if the company fixes its internal processes and people issues, I struggle to see them being able to retain their pricing power when the fad for wearing clothing heavily emblazed with "Superdry" runs out of steam. It's an interesting business model because the brand is so strong that even in recessionary times they have never advertised or had an in-store sale. They are happily getting t-shirts out of the door at £25 a pop. The question is whether it can last.

[For reference, if I was to sell the stock I'd probably put a stop-loss somewhere around the £9.00 mark]

Is Depp doing Don Quixote without Gilliam?

I am sad to report that unless there is a cunning and subversive strategy at play here, it looks like Johnny Depp is making Don Quixote without Terry Gilliam. After repeated failed efforts by Gilliam, it is starting to look like he is dreaming the impossible dream.

: (

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Film: Seven Pyschopaths

This film was really good, crazy, pyschotic fun. It has the same dark comedy of "In Bruges" (it's by the same director) but this time the cast of key characters is wider and the story is even more twisted. Walken comes close to stealing every scene he's in, but everyone is in top form including Woody Harrelson (victim of a kidnapped dog) and Sam Rockwell (dog borrower by profession). Farrel is perfectly fine as the frustrated sane one (okay, even he's an alcoholic) but it's the others who are having all the fun as pyschos.


Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Wordsworth Books: a great example of the free market in action


Last week, I purchased the above book on Amazon for a mere £1.99 including postage. When the book arrived, the quality of the paper and print seemed just as good as a regular off-the-shelf book. Yet somehow, the publisher had managed to produce and ship the book to Amazon, and Amazon had managed to ship it to me for a small mark-up, all for £1.99. This stirred my curiosities enough to fire an e-mail off to Wordsworth, the publishers. The next day, the Director of the company wrote back with a wonderful explanation. See below for the communications:

"Hi, as a big fan of your classics and also as someone with a keen interest in economics, I was wondering how you are able to make any margin on your books that sell for £1.99. Surely the postage costs alone must be about a pound? At first I thought the price was perhaps due to surplus stock or a special offer but it's held steadfast for ages. Well done, however you do it"


"Hi Riz,

Thanks for your email.

The reason we can manage to do this is a mixture of economics and history. We launched the ‘£1 Classic paperback’ twenty years ago now, and it was hugely successful right from the outset. Because in those days there was no discounting of book prices, it massively undercut all of the competition, and the income derived was ploughed back into the company to produce further titles. To publish a new title is quite expensive – typesetting and proofreading alone costs £3.50 a page – but the vast majority of these titles are still in print, so they have been generating an income for us for two decades now.

Because we sell only to trade customers, postage isn’t a major factor, as we ship mainly in pallet loads. The profit per copy of the classics is only about 35p per book, but if, as in some cases, we are selling 50,000 copies per year, and with around 500 titles in print, you can see how the sums work for us. You can also see how it would be next to impossible financially to replicate our business model, which is helped by the fact that there are only a handful of us involved in the running of the company.

Your final question might be that, bearing in mind that we can produce high-quality books so cheaply, how do larger publishers justify the high price they charge for their equivalent editions, but of course I could not possibly comment!"

Monday, December 03, 2012

The final ACCA exam?

I won't find out my result until February of next year, but if all goes well then the exam that I sat earlier today will have been my final ACCA exam. The trick now is to try and most the most of my time. To get the ball rolling this afternoon I lay on the sofa watching the original Conan the Barbarian.

Book: Ukridge by P.G Wodehouse

Ukridge is a light, breezy read. The book is a collection of short stories about Stanley Featherstone Ukridge's many escapades and misfortunes in his quest for a quick buck. It was the perfect antidote to the Audit revision I was working on and worked wonders to restore the balances in the late evenings, when the head got too fuzzy and blocked up with International Auditing Standards.

Some gems:

"I have everything," he said, querulously, emphasising his remarks with a coffee spoon. "Looks, talent, personality, a beautiful speaking voice - everything. All I need is chance. And I can't get that because I have no clothes fit to wear. These managers are all the same. They never look below the surface, they never bother to find out if a man has genius. All they go by is his clothes."

"Always sow the good seed, laddie. Absolutely nothing to beat the good seed. Never lose the chance of establishing yourself. It is the secret of a successful life. Just a few genial words, you see, and here I am with a place I can always pop in for a bite when funds are low."

And some Ukridge-isms for reference:

"It isn't the right spirit. It isn't the spirit that wins"

"... upon my Sam"

"... the big, broad flexible outlook"

**** (I read this book some six years ago, when it received the same rating).

Saturday, December 01, 2012

More reviews for the new Universal Soldier

This review starts with "Not to put too fine a point on it, but if more action movies were like Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, the world would probably be a better place" and ends with "...Part of me wants this director to graduate to bigger budgets and more consequential fare, but another part of me just wants him to make these awesome Universal Soldier flicks till the end of time."