Thursday, May 30, 2013

Film: Universal Soldier - Day of Reckoning

This movie started off as a slice of pure B movie heaven. It then went on to surprise by ending on an originally philosophical questioning note that left me in a state of blood-drenched admiration. This time around the main stage is given over to Scott Adkins, with Van Damme and Lundgren now on the same side, as key players in an underground UniSol rebellion movement. All good stuff.


Cool bike tricks

Adam Smith quote - 9 of 10

"Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object, when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object, than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things. But, in consequence of the division of labour, the whole of every man's attention comes naturally to be directed towards some one very simple object. It is naturally to be expected, therefore, that some one or other of those who are employed in each particular branch of labour should soon find out easier and readier methods of performing their own particular work, whenever the nature of it admits of such improvement. A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the invention of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it. Whoever has been much accustomed to visit such manufactures, must frequently have been shewn very pretty machines, which were the inventions of such workmen, in order to facilitate and quicken their own particular part of the work. In the first fire engines {this was the current designation for steam engines}, a boy was constantly employed to open and shut alternately the communication between the boiler and the cylinder, according as the piston either ascended or descended. One of those boys, who loved to play with his companions, observed that, by tying a string from the handle of the valve which opened this communication to another part of the machine, the valve would open and shut without his assistance, and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his play-fellows."

- Quote from The Invisible Hand by Adam Smith (Penguin Great Ideas series)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

John Kay always gives me something to think about

In his latest piece, the wise economist John Kay discusses the race to build the fastest communication lines between trading exchanges, in order to provide traders with an edge that is measured in the milliseconds:
 ...Spread Networks has spent an estimated $300m building a fibre optic link through the Appalachians. The shorter cable reduces the time taken to send data by about a millisecond.
I hadn't given much thought to this constant push to be that little bit faster than the competition but Kay saliently points out that being ahead of the pack in this manner is little different to trading on insider information, a key difference being that the latter is illegal:
"Making profits from better-informed knowledge of business or government (where obtaining that might seem an activity of public value) is a criminal offence: making profits from marginally faster dissemination of that knowledge (where achieving that appears to have no public value at all) is a legitimate market practice."

This has little bearing on the armchair investor or indeed on anyone other than high frequency trading community, but it is still interesting food for thought.

More on export subsidies ... why can't we see the light?

A few posts back I briefly discussed the EU's nonsensical idea of whacking a tariff on cheap solar panels from China. After a quick Google search, I find a nice supporting paper from Cafe Hayek:

"Compared to the no-subsidy alternative, we non-Chinese people get larger quantities of valuable outputs at lower prices. From our perspective, it is as if production conditions in China naturally allow firms there to produce at these very low costs. Because economic theory is clear that the home economy benefits if  lower-cost foreign suppliers are permitted to serve the home economy unimpeded by protectionist measures, if the costs of creating these artificially low prices of exports fall on foreigners and not on us, we in the domestic economy should welcome such lower prices, whatever their source."

As to the question posed in the title "why can't we see the light?," the answer is because vested interests, like charity, begins at home.

Giant biscuits for breakfast

For the modern working family who don't have time to make some toast, let alone a cooked breakfast in the morning, the innovative marketeers blessed us with cereals. These flakes or puffs of carbohydrate could be coated in anything from sugar to vitamins and minerals, in keeping with the latest fads. Just pour on the milk and knock it back, and go and do something better and more important than eating (I mean, like what's that about anyway).

Now we witness the evolution. I go to the supermarket and see the breakfast aisle is increasingly given to breakfast biscuits (images below). It has transpired that we are such a busy people nowadays that we must eat breakfast while we are on the move, typically on the way to work. I have a dystopian image of of rows of people seated on tube trains, quietly stroking the glass screens of their smart phones in one hand while eating their adult biscuits with the other: the marketing man's dream. Tap, tap, stroke, tap, bite, stroke, tap, tap, tap.

I imagine the marketing men are already working on a lunch biscuit and a dinner biscuit perhaps (think a meaty middle and sweet, paste-filled tip for desert). It's the logical conclusion. Why stop to eat anything?

For people who think these breakfast bars may be unhealthy, here is Belvita's scientific chart that clearly shows how their biscuit energy is released slowly over a four hour period. Specifically, your energy level will rise to somewhere between the "y" and "d" on y-axis after about three quarters of an hour, after which the energy release remains exactly constant for four hours exactly, and then it's all gone. That's the science.

The EU solar panels fiasco

So the EU is looking to apply some pretty hefty taxes on solar panels imported from China, arguing a case of anti-competitive dumping. I'm struggling to see the logic here. If China wants to distort its markets with the result that we are able to purchase more of its goods at a lower price, then surely this is all to the good? It means cheaper solar panels for consumers and businesses. Some European solar players argue they are being hurt by the cut-price competition but all of this economic resource can be be put to use elsewhere to produce something else that we are good at making, and some of this good can then be exchanged for Chinese solar panels. Also, there is a large industry built around solar panel installation that benefits from the existing situation and will suffer as higher prices lead to reduced demand.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How to end global conflict: tea, biscuits and a game of football

A story from the BBC: 
York Mosque praised for offering EDL protesters tea
A mosque has been praised for serving tea and biscuits to English Defence League supporters after the far-right group arranged a demonstration there.
About six people turned up to protest at the mosque in Bull Lane, York, on Sunday and were invited inside to play football with worshippers.
More than 100 supporters of the mosque had gone there after learning of the planned EDL protest.
Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu said the mosque's response was "fantastic".
He said: "Tea, biscuits, and football are a great and typically Yorkshire combination when it comes to disarming hostile and extremist views."

Was it Yorkshire tea? Were the biscuits digestives, rich tea, or shortbreads, or was there a selection on offer? The details of the potent combination must be recorded for posterity and the information passed along to the Ministry of Defence. Can the conflicts of the world be solved by a good cup of tea and a sit down, followed by an optional game of soccer. It's worth a try. 

A most wonderfully simple guide to storytelling

A good chap by the name of Tommy Tomlinson has posted a great piece on the basic structure of story telling. Apologies in advance Tommy, I know it's a bit rich of me to post so much of your post here!

"... I’m gonna draw three objects.
This is a sympathetic character. It’s probably someone you like, but at the very least it’s someone you’re emotionally invested in. You care what happens to this person.
This is a hurdle. It’s an obstacle of some kind — could be a bad guy, could be a physical challenge, could be some sort of internal emotional demon.


And this is the pot of gold — some kind of goal, some kind of reward, physical or emotional or whatever.

story is the journey of this character you care about, confronting and dealing with this obstacle, to reach this pot of gold.

In addition to these three pictures, you need to answer two questions:

1. What’s the story about?

2. What’s it REALLY about?

Here’s what I mean.  What the story’s about is literally what happens in the narrative — who this character is, what goal he or she is trying to reach, what obstacle is in the way. The unique set of facts.

What the story’s REALLY about is a way of saying, what’s the point? What’s the universal meaning that someone should draw from this story? What’s the lesson?

When you think about it that way, you’ll find that you end up with a second obstacle and a second goal.

Think about the first Rocky movie. What’s it about? It’s about a no-name boxer in Philly (sympathetic character) who gets a chance to fight the champ (obstacle) and goes the distance (pot of gold).
He doesn’t win the fight — they saved that for Rocky II. The goal isn’t always the ultimate prize. Sometimes the goal is completing the journey. Proving you can go the distance is a worthy goal in itself.

But what’s the movie REALLY about? In a larger sense, the obstacle is not Apollo Creed. The obstacle is Rocky’s own self-doubt. The goal is making something of himself, not just out of pride but so he can prove himself to Paulie and feel worthy of Adrian’s love.

Why is that second layer of meaning important? Because not everybody is a professional boxer. But all of us have doubted ourselves and had other people doubt us. All of us have had the universal feeling of knowing that going the distance is a victory in itself.

(hat-tip to Tim Harford for tweeting the link)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Adam Smith quote - 8 of 10

"To give the monopoly of the home market to the produce of domestic industry, in any particular art or manufacture, is in some measure to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, and must in almost all cases be either a useless or a hurtful regulation. If the produce of domestic can be brought there as cheap as that of foreign industry, the regulation is evidently useless. If it cannot, it must generally be hurtful. It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy. The tailor does not attempt to make his own shoes, but buys them of the shoemaker. The shoemaker does not attempt to make his own clothes, but employs a tailor. The farmer attempts to make neither the one nor the other, but employs those different artificers. All of them find it for their interest to employ their whole industry in a way in which they have some advantage over their neighbours, and to purchase with a part of its produce, or, what is the same thing, with the price of a part of it, whatever else they have occasion for.
What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.
The general industry of the country being always in proportion to the capital which employs it, will not thereby be diminished, no more than that of the above mentioned artificers; but only left to find out the way in which it can be employed with the greatest advantage. It is certainly not employed to the greatest advantage, when it is thus directed towards an object which it can buy cheaper than it can make. The value of its annual produce is certainly more or less diminished, when it is thus turned away from producing commodities evidently of more value than the commodity which it is directed to produce. According to the supposition, that commodity could be purchased from foreign countries cheaper than it can be made at home; it could therefore have been purchased with a part only of the commodities, or, what is the same thing, with a part only of the price of the commodities, which the industry employed by an equal capital would have produced at home, had it been left to follow its natural course. The industry of the country, therefore, is thus turned away from a more to a less advantageous employment; and the exchangeable value of its annual produce, instead of being increased, according to the intention of the lawgiver, must necessarily be diminished by every such regulation."

- Quote from The Invisible Hand by Adam Smith (Penguin Great Ideas series)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Hollywood is turning my blog post into a film the title of this wonderfully uplifting article in the Weekend FT:

"It was on my lunch hour; I’d just gone on (a website where people submit content and then vote it up or down depending on if they like it) and saw a question: “Could a battalion of US marines destroy the entire Roman empire?”
I thought to myself, “Oh, that sounds like a fun story.” So I just started writing.
I started at noon and I was done by 1pm. I’d expected that maybe a hundred nerds would read it and enjoy it, and that some people would have had a fun lunch hour because of me. Instead, it changed the trajectory of my life. By the time I went home at five it’d had a quarter-of-a-million readers, a week later I had a manager, and a week after that I had a contract with Warner Brothers. They brought me on to write a treatment, and then a screenplay based on that treatment."

"...I’m a technical writer by trade and was writing software manuals at the time. But it so happened that the last book I wrote was a 700,000-word encyclopedia covering every war, punitive action and military involvement in US history.
I’d also read recently about a Roman senator who had plotted against Augustus – all this just fell into place. It felt like something I’d been working towards for years – the fact that I’ve learnt how to write quickly and just start pushing out words. If I hadn’t had that apprenticeship I wouldn’t have been able to do this."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

So avant-garde Jazz is useful

Film: Star Trek - Into Darkness

Star Trek is always good fun. This one has another guest appearance from the original Spock, a good turn from Peter Weller (aka Robocop!), an even greater turn from Benedict Cumberbatch as the invincible Khan, and some great lines from the young Spock:

Christopher Pike: That's a technicality.
Spock: I am Vulcan, sir. We embrace technicalities.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Adam Smith quote - 7 of 10

"Such taxes, when they have grown up to a certain height, are a curse equal to the barrenness of the earth, and the inclemency of the heavens, and yet it is in the richest and most industrious countries that they have been most generally imposed. No other countries could support so great a disorder. As the strongest bodies only can live and enjoy health under an unwholesome regimen, so the nations only, that in every sort of industry have the greatest natural and acquired advantages, can subsist and prosper under such taxes. Holland is the country in Europe in which they abound most, and which, from peculiar circumstances, continues to prosper, not by means of them, as has been most absurdly supposed, but in spite of them."

- Quote from The Invisible Hand by Adam Smith (Penguin Great Ideas series)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Adam Smith quote - 6 of 10

"The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country? How much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world!"

- Quote from The Invisible Hand by Adam Smith (Penguin Great Ideas series)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Adam Smith quote - 5 of 10

"A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work, he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles than applies to good purpose."

- Quote from The Invisible Hand by Adam Smith (Penguin Great Ideas series)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Adam Smith quote - 4 of 10

"...  the certainty of being able to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men's labour as he may have occasion for, encourages every man to apply himself to a particular occupation, and to cultivate and bring to perfection whatever talent of genius he may possess for that particular species of business."

- Quote from The Invisible Hand by Adam Smith (Penguin Great Ideas series)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Adam Smith - quote 3 of 10

"Among men ... the most dissimilar geniuses are of use to one another; the different produces of their respective talents, by the general disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, being brought, as it were, into a common stock, where every man may purchase whatever part of the produce of other men's talents he has occasion for."

- Quote from The Invisible Hand by Adam Smith (Penguin Great Ideas series)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Adam Smith quote - 2 of 10

"Private people, who want to make a fortune, never think of retiring to the remote and poor provinces of the country, but resort either to the capital, or to some of the great commercial towns. They know, that where little wealth circulates, there is little to be got; but that where a great deal is in motion, some share of it may fall to them. The same maxim which would in this manner direct the common sense of one, or ten, or twenty individuals, should regulate the judgment of one, or ten, or twenty millions, and should make a whole nation regard the riches of its neighbours, as a probable cause and occasion for itself to acquire riches. A nation that would enrich itself by foreign trade, is certainly most likely to do so, when its neighbours are all rich, industrious and commercial nations. A great nation, surrounded on all sides by wandering savages and poor barbarians, might, no doubt, acquire riches by the cultivation of its own lands, and by its own interior commerce, but not by foreign trade. It seems to have been in this manner that the ancient Egyptians and the modern Chinese acquired their great wealth. The ancient Egyptians, it is said, neglected foreign commerce, and the modern Chinese, it is known, hold it in the utmost contempt, and scarce deign to afford it the decent protection of the laws. The modern maxims of foreign commerce, by aiming at the impoverishment of all our neighbours, so far as they are capable of producing their intended effect, tend to render that very commerce insignificant and contemptible. It is in consequence of these maxims, that the commerce between France and England has, in both countries, been subjected to so many discouragements and restraints. If those two countries, however, were to consider their real interest, without either mercantile jealousy or national animosity, the commerce of France might be more advantageous to Great Britain than that of any other country, and, for the same reason, that of Great Britain to France."

- Quote from The Invisible Hand by Adam Smith (Penguin Great Ideas series)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Space Oddity: Astronaut on Space Station sings Bowie - this is good

Adam Smith quote - 1 of 10 - pin making

"To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture, but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of a pin-maker: a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them."

- Quote from The Invisible Hand by Adam Smith (Penguin Great Ideas series)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book: The Invisible Hand by Adam Smith (Penguin Great Ideas)

The Invisible Hand is a collection of excerpts from Adam Smith's classic "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations". The first few chapters concern the division and specialisation of labour are crucial reading for all, along with the later commentary on tariffs and protectionism. The middle section on mercantilism is no longer so relevant, partly due to the thankful influence of this very book, and so is less interesting unless perhaps you are a student of economic history.

Despite being published over two hundred years ago, Smith's words have stood the passage of time most excellently; the writing is exceedingly clear and convincing and it is also a joy to read with talk of importations, exportations, manufactures, manufactories and such like. As an aside, Keynes' book on his "General Theory" is impenetrable in comparison, despite being written much later.

I'll post the quotables to the blog over the next few weeks. There are quite a few to work through!

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

**** (ignoring the section on mercantilism)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Book: The Lamp of Memory by John Ruskin (Penguin Classics)

Having read and enjoyed several quotes from the Victorian cultural converter John Ruskin, I had high-ish hopes for this book. Alas these hopes were mostly dashed, for there was simply too great an emphasis on architecture, a subject of no particular interest to me. I appreciate that architecture was a key focus of Ruskin's life but the cover of this book and the wording on the back cover simply left me ill prepared for the extent to which the subject dominated. Also, while many excellent passages peppered the pages, Ruskin's writing seemed to waffle on for way too long.

Where the book really shone for me was with the essay "Of King's Treasuries", which is all about books and is the source of the quote on the cover.

* For the essays "The Lamp of Memory", "Cambridge School of Art Inaugral Address" and "Traffic", the low rating likely reflects my lack of interest in architecture.

*** for "Of Kings Treasuries"

Quotes from the essay "Of Kings' Treasuries":

- It happens that I have practically some connection with schools for different classes of youth; and I receive many letters from parents respecting the education of their children. In the mass of these letters I am always struck by the precedence which the idea of a “position in life” takes above all other thoughts in the parents’—more especially in the mothers’—minds. “The education befitting such and such a station in life”—this is the phrase, this the object, always. They never seek, as far as I can make out, an education good in itself; even the conception of abstract rightness in training rarely seems reached by the writers. But an education “which shall keep a good coat on my son’s back;—which shall enable him to ring with confidence the visitors’ bell at double-belled doors; which shall result ultimately in establishment of a double-belled door to his own house;—in a word, which shall lead to ‘advancement in life’;—this we pray for on bent knees—and this is all we pray for.” It never seems to occur to the parents that there may be an education which, in itself, is advancement in life;—that any other than that may perhaps be advancement in Death; and that this essential education might be more easily got, or given, than they fancy, if they set about it in the right way; while it is for no price, and by no favor, to be got, if they set about it in the wrong.

- For all books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time.

- (Of the books for all time) ...The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and melodiously if he may; clearly, at all events. In the sum of his life he finds this to be the thing, or group of things, manifest to him;—this, the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down forever; engrave it on rock, if he could; saying, “This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapor and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.” That is his “writing”; it is, in his small human way, and with whatever degree of true inspiration is in him, his inscription, or scripture. That is a “Book.”

Perhaps you think no books were ever so written.

But, again, I ask you, do you at all believe in honesty, or at all in kindness? or do you think there is never any honesty or benevolence in wise people? None of us, I hope, are so unhappy as to think that. Well, whatever bit of a wise man’s work is honestly and benevolently done, that bit is his book, or his piece of art.It is mixed always with evil fragments—ill-done, redundant, affected work. But if you read rightly, you will easily discover the true bits, and those are the book.

- Do you know, if you read this, that you cannot read that—that what you lose to-day you cannot gain to-morrow? Will you go and gossip with your housemaid, or your stable-boy, when you may talk with queens and kings....

- This, then, is what you have to do, and I admit that it is much. You must, in a word, love these people, if you are to be among them. No ambition is of any use. They scorn your ambition. You must love them, and show your love in these two following ways:

I.—First, by a true desire to be taught by them, and to enter into their thoughts. To enter into theirs, observe; not to find your own expressed by them. If the person who wrote the book is not wiser than you, you need not read it; if he be, he will think differently from you in many respects.

Very ready we are to say of a book, “How good this is—that’s exactly what I think!” But the right feeling is, “How strange that is! I never thought of that before, and yet I see it is true; or if I do not now, I hope I shall, some day.” But whether thus submissively or not, at least be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours. Judge it afterwards, if you think yourself qualified to do so; but ascertain it first. And be sure also, if the author is worth anything, that you will not get at his meaning all at once...

- I say first we have despised literature. What do we, as a nation, care about books? How much do you think we spend altogether on our libraries, public or private, as compared with what we spend on our horses? If a man spends lavishly on his library you call him mad—a bibliomaniac. But you never call any one a horsemaniac, though men ruin themselves every day by their horses, and you do not hear of people ruining themselves by their books. Or, to go lower still, how much do you think the contents of the bookshelves of the United Kingdom, public and private, would fetch, as compared with the contents of its wine-cellars? What position would its expenditure on literature take, as compared with its expenditure on luxurious eating? We talk of food for the mind, as of food for the body; now a good book contains such food inexhaustibly; it is a provision for life, and for the best part of us; yet how long most people would look at the best book before they would give the price of a large turbot for it?

Thursday, May 09, 2013

A new addition to my Twitter feed to keep it light: KimKierkegaardashian

Recent tweets include:

  • He who cannot reveal himself cannot love. So take advantage of the warm weather to wear less makeup.
  • Send me pics of your best Kardashian Glow tan! So that we may glimpse the damage done to your soul.
  •  I never thought I would ever say this... But I'm wearing flats today. I have lost my footing temporarily, but I hope I have not lost myself.

Tesla motors on, shaking up the industry

It may be a temporary bubble but the stock value of electric car company Tesla has now surpassed Fiat.  I can't tell if he is saying it through gritted teeth but Bill Ford, exec Chairman of Ford Motors, says “My hat’s off to them,”  noting that “..It’s really hard to start up a company, particularly in the auto business, and be successful.”

If you've never heard of Tesla look them up. It's a good story and they are headed up by Elon Musk, who also founded the company. He has a name like an evil corporate titan in a sci-fi or super-hero comic but is the real article, a maverick entrepreneur with a hell of an imagination and buckets of relentless determination.

Vent: Gwynne's over inflated notions on the importance of good grammer

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" - Wittgenstein

 In a recent interview on Radio 4 the famed grammarian, Mr Gwynne, responded to the question "Why is good grammer essential?", by stating that since we think with words so it must be that without words we cannot have thoughts except at the most basic, elementary level; the greater your vocabulary, the greater will be your ability to think. Gwynne goes on to say that because grammer is how you use words, if you use words in the wrong way it means you're going to think in the wrong way, which leads to wrong decisions and less happiness. So, he concludes, good grammer leads to happiness. When asked for an example, he says "I don't think that's very easy to do".

I think there is something fundamentally misplaced and wrong-headed with the idea of viewing people with poor grammer as poor thinkers. If I look at a painting or experience a piece of music or other artwork that resonates deeply within me, striking a chord with my soul or making me see the world in a different light, I can never capture how I feel about it words. I can try but I'll never really get to the essence of it. On another strand if I say "I didn't not do it, bruv", I know exactly what I mean and so, most likely, does the person being spoken to, even if they despise the sentence.

I'll stop now. Vent over. Ah, I'll sleep well tonight.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Hayek quote

The folks at Cafe Hayek have just blogged a wonderful quote by Hayek. Self-sufficiency is all fine and dandy in principle but this right here is where it's at:

"It is one of the accomplishments of modern society that freedom may be enjoyed by a person with practically no property of his own (beyond personal belongings like clothing – and even these can be rented) and that we can leave the care of the property that serves our needs largely to others.  The important point is that the property should be sufficiently dispersed so that the individual is not dependent upon particular persons who alone can provide him with what he needs or who alone can employ him."

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Book: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin (Penguin Classics)

I bought The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Penguin Great Ideas)as part of a job lot in a charity store. More often than not the books you think you won't be interested in do indeed turn out to be turkeys but on the odd occasion you can be pleasantly surprised as you learn of a new subject with an unexpected interest, thanks to an author who strikes all the right chords with the reader - a new window on to the world is opened.

This book was a turkey.

I was hoping for some wise gems of wisdom since Walter Benjamin was a highly respected cultural theorist and he wrote this essay during a pivotal moment in history just when mass production by mechanical means was taking hold, changing the very meaning of art as it became highly reproduced and widely distributed. Instead of feeding my glimmering spark of interest the book proved very dry and academic, with a strong political angle and thick with paragraphs such as:

"The masses have a right to see the ownership structure changed: Fascism seeks to give them a voice in retaining that structure unaltered. Fascism leads logically to an aestheticization of political life. The violation of the masses, which in a leader cult forces it to its knees, corresponds to the exercised by a film camera, which Fascism enlists in the service of producing cultural values."

I see the book is very well rated on Goodreads but then again I also see that people who read this book also read the likes of "Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" and "Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments".

I have dipped my toe in these waters and I am stepping back out again. 

* (Other essays in the book concerned Proust and Kafka. Not having read these authors, I simply couldn't engage with these pieces and so left them be).

Food: Cucina Povera - Pasta with White Fish and Peas

Throw some brown pasta into a pan. Drop in a couple of fish fillets. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add a handful of frozen peas and simmer for 3 minutes longer. Drain the water, add lots of s&p and some chilli oil and stir in. Empty the contents on to a plate, add a bit of grated cheddar and drizzle heavily with olive oil.

It's simple, quick, high in protein and low in cost (works out to about 50p a serving), and involves minimal washing up. My kind of meal.

A good adaptation of the above is to replace the pasta with whole grain rice, factoring in the extra cooking time and taking the cheese out of recipe.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Income Inequality by Don Boudreaux

Whatever your views on income inequality, I recommend reading Don Boudreaux's response "I do not care in the least" piece over at Cafe Hayek. Not that I'm trying to convert you into a libertarian or anything.

; )

xkcd: one for the font obsessed

Advertisement police: risking health and safety for a good shot?

At end of a current Toyota Yaris tv advertisement (screenshot above), a lady parks up infront of a shop and happily saunters out. Now, I have some questions to ask. Look at where she has parked, it's directly infront of a zebra crossing and junction. Also, isn't that a yellow line leading from here left foot to somewhere underneath her Yaris? There is a yellow line on the road on the right hand side of the screenshot, so it's quite likely. Just imagine the potential carnage when she comes back out of the store with her shopping.

Advertisement police: Garnier Pure Active Charcoal Face Wash

In this advert, Garnier promote a facewash with bits of charcoal in it. In the small print statistic, mid-way through the advertisement, we see that 77% of 53 women agreed with it's effectiveness claims (i.e. 41 people). In fact, the statistic is caught in the still below. So the product doesn't live up to it's claims for almost 2 out of 10 people who will buy and use it? Also, what's with the small sample size? Given that a single tv slot around 20 seconds long likely costs somewhere in the region of £5000, was the Garnier's budget so tight that that could only find 53 women for their sample, or did they just not care? I could ask further questions as to who made up the sample and what the control was but I'll concede that a cosmetic survey doesn't need the rigour of a medical trial. But really, 53 women, come on now.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Book: The Money Bazaar by Andrew Krieger

Feeling like doing a spot of cardio work in the gym today, I thought I'd take this book to leaf through while pedalling away on the exercise bike. I was completely hooked after the first few pages and by the time I was done cycling I had made it a third of the way through. Not bad goings. I finished it off later in the day, making this the first proper book I have read cover-to-cover in a single day.
I'm surprised that I hadn't heard of The Money Bazaar until a few weeks ago. The author is Andrew Krieger, a famous currency trader who controversially shorted the New Zealand dollar and made a few hundred million for his employer before moving on to work for Soros' legendary Quantum Fund.

Krieger has done a great job with The Money Bazaar. It was published back in 1992 when most currency deals were still voice brokered and the world balance of economic power was completely different, which lends an interesting contextual angle. The first few chapters provide an introduction to the market and currency trading from an autobiographical perspective, and the final chapter also closes with a personal reflection. In between we are given a clearly written explanation of the evolution of the market as Krieger discusses the impact of policy decisions such as The Plaza Accord, the Bretton Woods Agreement, the Smithsonian Agreement and the Louvre Accord. This may sound dull but the events marked pivotal points in the development of the currency market. Also, because Krieger writes of the evolution from a trader's perspective versus that of a dry academic, we are provided with a unique insight rarely afforded to the lay man.

Overall, this is a great book for those with an interest in the currency markets. It is not a 'how to trade' book - there are plenty enough of this type of book out there and I wouldn't touch them with a barge pole - but provides wisdom and lessons by explaining how we got to the current state of competitive, freely floating exchange rates.

 **** 1/2  - The Money Bazaar is out of print but can had second hand on e-bay or Amazon for a song.

Virginia Woolfe on wealth and freedom

It is 1918. Virginia Woolfe writes of a change in outlook upon receiving a comfortable endowment from an aunty:

"I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918. I need not, I am afraid, describe in any detail the hardness of the work, for you know perhaps women who have done it; nor the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned, for you may have tried. But what still remains with me as a worse infliction than either was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide—a small one but dear to the possessor—perishing and with it myself, my soul—all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart." 

"Food, house, and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labor cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me."

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Book: The Big Questions by Steven E.Landsburg

The Big Questions is not the type of book that will appeal to everyone. It is heavy on mathematical emphasis (but not on mathematics itself), extremely broad and almost meandering in its subject matter, and it's written by an intellectually minded economist who puts forward his views and beliefs with no reservation and with a fairly righteous tone (unlike Tim Harford, say, who manages to convinces through economic reasoning in a friendly conversationalist style).

On the plus side, The Big Questions is packed with food for the grey cells and is is written strikingly clearly with few wasted words. Also, while the hotch-potch of ideas may distract, it does make for a book that can be easily dipped in and out of. Overall then, here is a smart book, that may (will) rub you up the wrong way but will also get you thinking. Afterall, what good are such books if you already agree with everything they have to say?
My favourite sections of The Big Questions included a discussion around the potential informational content of a repetitive argument (e.g. two people repeatedly stating that their favoured team will win the championships this season); thought experiments around saving or killing people for the common good (e.g. would you kill one innocent person to prevent a billion people suffering from a mild headache for an hour?); and career choices (it's better to try and be a clown than it is to try to be an Olympic athlete).

I'm giving the book three and a half stars because I skimmed a couple of chapters and wasn't particularly interested in the deep mathematics, but I do think it is definitely worth reading because it is packed with interesting thoughts and thought experiments that will lead you to ask deep questions of yourself.

*** 1/2