Saturday, November 30, 2013

Book addict (2/4)

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”- W. Somerset Maugham, Books and You

“We read to know that we are not alone.” - William Nicholson

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” - Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid 

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” - Groucho Marx

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.” - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” - John Green, The Fault in Our Stars 

“It's not that I don't like people. It's just that when I'm in the company of others - even my nearest and dearest - there always comes a moment when I'd rather be reading a book.”
― Maureen Corrigan, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books  

Best bits from the Weekend Financial Times

  • Gillian Tett comments on an interesting paper from the Dallas Federal Reserve that investigates the effects of immigration on the state: put it another way, Mexican tomato pickers do not compete with American receptionists (not least because almost half of the immigrants in the study apparently have few or no English-language skills).
What immigration does do is lower the price of “immigrant-produced goods and services”, which equates to an income gain of $3.4bn-$6.6bn a year, the study suggests. And while this needs to be offset against the rising strain on public infrastructure and services, this is not such a big issue in bare-bones Texas, which has “a skimpy safety net and lower levels of publicly provided services than other large states”.
  • Simon Kuper writes about the food patterns have changed dramatically in a few decades. Globalisation has brought lower prices and more variety, making food an everyday route to happiness for the masses (go capitalism, go!):
Immigration is bringing good ethnic foods even to poorer neighbourhoods. And until the current spike in prices, food had been getting cheaper for decades. Americans on average now spend just a 10th of their disposable income on food, says the US Department of Agriculture. That is around the lowest level in human history. Most westerners can now afford to think about food as a source of everyday happiness.
  • Best of all this week is John Kay's wonderful, considered piece (Kay's writing stands out for clarity and thoughtfulness and getting to the heart of the matter) on the London housing market:
...people plainly can afford to buy houses in London. House prices can be high and rising if – and only if – people can afford to pay these prices. Some people who used to be able to afford central London house prices are now unable to do so, while others who used not to be able to afford them – or chose not to afford them – can now do so. If prices are rising, it is because the latter group outnumber the former. What has changed is not housing but the backgrounds of the people who live in these homes and their sources of wealth.
A home in Carlton House Terrace is the ultimate “positional good”. This is a term coined by Fred Hirsch in an insightful work titled Social Limits to Growth (1976). Economic growth is associated with increased availability of most commodities, but for some the absolute supply is fixed. ... The price of positional goods will normally rise faster than incomes. People aim to spend more of their income on positional goods as they become richer, but only a few can ever realise these ambitions. 

...Where gentrification has a longer history, you can identify successive layers of incomers, as on an archaeological site: most houses are occupied by people who could not now afford to buy them.

The monetary rewards attached to different occupations and social positions change from one period of history to another. The houses remain, the backgrounds of their occupants change. Central London houses are always affordable. The economic and political climate determine who can afford them at any particular point in time, and that in turn determines the social complexion of the capital.
  • Lastly, the FT has published its lengthy list of "Books of the Year", which is worth a perusal if you are stuck for what to read next.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Book addict (1/4)

A selection of pictures from Buzzfeed, with quotes on reading from Goodreads:

“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” - Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

"I'm going to go to my room and read for awhile, okay? I'm fine. I really am fine: I just want to go read for a while.” - John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” - Stephen King, On Writing

“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” - Stephen King

“Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it.
Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.” - William Faulkner

“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.”- John Locke

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul.” - Joyce Carol Oates

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Book: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

In this simple little book, Japanese author Haruki Murakami presents his thoughts and experiences on running marathons. The book is partly a memoir on his life, partly a reflective travelogue of key running marathon and triathlon experiences, and partly a collection of meandering thoughts that often tie marathon running back to the art of writing.  

A mixed bag of quotes and notes from the book:

•    “I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more.”
•    “I don’t know why, but the older you get, the busier you get.”
•    Some of Murakami’s music likes: The album “Reptile” by Eric Clapton, and music by the band Lovin' Spoonful . Murakami owned and ran a jazz club for seven years after university. After a couple of his written efforts were published (he wrote them in the free minutes he could find while running the club), Murakami closed the jazz club to see if he make a go of being an author.
•    Murakami is very comfortable being alone: “I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when give a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.”
•    On running: “I run to acquire the void. …the kinds of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run remain subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void.”
•    A runner’s mantra: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”.
•    A mantra used my Murakami to separate the mind from the body when the pain really hit hard, “I’m not human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.”
•    On achieving a terrible marathon time: “There are three reasons I failed. Not enough training. Not enough training. And not enough training. …Without knowing it, I’d developed a sort of arrogant attitude , convinced that just a fair-to-middling amount of training was enough for me to do a good job. It’s pretty thin, the wall separating healthy confidence from unhealthy pride.”
•    On a strange sensation felt after the 47th mile of a 62 mile, single day marathon: “…I felt like I passed through something. …like my body had passed clean through stone wall. ..I don’t know the logic or the process or the method involved – I was simply convinced of the reality that I’d passed through. After that, I didn’t have to think anymore…All I had to do was go with the flow and get there automatically”. After running this epic marathon, Murakami feels a great sense of satisfaction and confidence, but then something he describes as the “runner’s blues” kicks in, diluting the attraction and dulling the instinct to run long distances in good times. This last for several years before the fog lifts.
•    Then author runs the original marathon route in Greece in reverse, from Marathon to Athens. Along the road, in the stifling heat, he comes across three dead dogs and eleven dead cats.
•    On quitting when life gets too busy: “Running every day is a kind of lifeline for me, so I’m not going to lay off or quit just because I’m busy. If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I’d never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.

*** 1/4

Book - How To Be an Existentialist by Gary Cox

People who reject existentialism tend to do so not because they don’t understand it but because they can’t face it.  As Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil:  “I do not like it.” – Why? – “I am not up to it” – Has anyone ever answered like this?”   … understanding existentialism requires far more intellectual honesty and courage than cleverness and academic ability.

A person can know about existentialism and be convinced of its truth, but they are not a true existentialist if they make no effort to live the life. 

How to Be an Existentialist offers a truly enlightening introduction to existential thought and what the philosophy means in practice. It is not a straightforward philosophy to grasp and Cox does an admirable job in getting the key messages across. Unlike some of the modern strands of philosophy that tend to get lost in complexities and semantics, existentialism is offering a way out of the dark, but only for the brave.

How to Be an Existentialist is not written in the perfect conversationalist style but is so much better this than a dry, complex text on what can be a difficult subject.

I have several pages of quotes to copy out from this one, so expect a gradual drip-feed of existential advices over the coming weeks.Together, the snippets will provide a summary of the key aspects of the book, including concepts such as temporality, being-for-others, being-towards-death, freedom, authenticity, wilful ignorance and bad faith. The concepts all sound academic but Cox's explanations make them all clear as day and each is taking the time to ponder over.

**** (a slight change to the tone, some pictures, and a summary at the end, and I would have given How to Be an Existentialist the full five stars)

And here are some subject related comics from xkcd:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Idioms from Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack (2/2)

Reviewed earlier here. Second batch of idioms can be found here.


The rest of my favourite idioms from the book:

Work and Trade

Full blast - a furnace running at maximum power

Not fit to hold a candle - one of the lowest level jobs for unskilled workers (usually children) were given the job of holding a candle for craftsmen.

Letting the cat out of the bag - con men tricked people into thinking they were buying valuable piglets at a bargain but the piglets were often switched for cats.

Having work cut out - If a tailor had his materials cut out for him, he had a pile of work 'cut out' for him.

Fired or given the sack - A worker caught stealing would have his tool fired down in front of other workers so he couldn't work elsewhere and repeat his crime. When his job was complete or it was time to move on, he would be given his sack.

Mad as a hatter - Hatters in the Middle Ages used mercurous nitrate, which was toxic and could lead to a condition similar to Parkinson's Disease.

19 to the dozen - Means operating as fast as possible. From the 19,000 gallons of water that could be steam pumped out of tin and copper mines, with every dozen bushels of col burned.


Final straw - "It is the last straw that breaks the camels back" - Biblical proverb

Feet of clay - suggests a weakness. The state in Nebuchadnezzar's dream is made of brass, gold and silver but his feet are made of iron mixed with clay, leaving a weakness that might not be obvious.

Wolf in sheep's clothing  - Matthew (7:15) "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing. Inwardly they are ravening wolves."

People and Places

As bold as brass - re Magistrate Brass Crosby. Let a printer off who published some Parliamentary proceedings (when it was illegal to do so). Crosby was then arrested for not upholding the law and thrown in jail, but was released as a hero, with the support of the public.

Cock and bull - Two coaching inns in Stony Stratford (middle point between Birmingham and London, and Oxford and Cambridge), the two inns became central points for exchanging news and stories. The two competed for the best stories and unbelievable tales became known as Cock and Bull tales. 

Hobson's choice - Hired out horses strictly on rotation to give each one equal choice. Hence, Hobson's choice is no choice at all.

The Real McCoy -Elijah McCoy, born 1844 was a highly successful mechanical engineer. His inventions were copied but people insisted on "the real McCoy".

Parting shot - from the Parthinian warriors of south west of Asia, who archers rode away from the enemy but then turned to fire their arrows. 'Parthinian shot' became 'parting shot'.

Sweet FA - Fanny Adams was a six-year old girl who was murdered, her body cut up and thrown into a river. At around the same time, the British Navy switched their rations to a low grade of chopped up, sweet mutton that was tasteless and unpopular. The sailors darkly joked that the meat was the murdered girl. Sweet FA went on to mean anything boring and monotonous, not worth describing.


Screwed  - based on a 19th century prison punishment, prisoner made to turn a crank up to 10,000 times a day, made harder or easier by the setting of a screw (set by the warden).

Steal thunder - "See what rascals they are. They will not run my play and yet they steal my thunder" Playright John Dennis talking about the thunder sound effect he discovered for his play at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. His play was unpopular and was replaced quickly with a showing of Macbeth. He was fuming when he attending and heard his thunder effect in use.

Getting someones goat - Goats were thought to have a soothing influence on horses. A stealthy opponent may take the goat away, leaving the horse to get agitated ahead of a race.

Off the cuff  - Speaking without notes. In the Victorian era, speaker would sometimes write their speeches on their cuffs (detachable at the time) so they could read without the appearance of having notes.

Saved by the bell - Victorian era . A royal guard at the Horse Guard Parade in London was famously accused of being asleep on duty (a serious charge at the time). He denied it, claiming he had heard Big Ben chime 13 times at midnight instead of 12. The clock was checked, he was proved right and freed.

A Busman's holiday - spending your holiday doing exactly what you would do at work. Stems from tradition of horse drawn carriage bus drivers, who would spend holidays in the rear to make sure the relief driver was looking after his animals.

Nest egg - A porcelain egg placed in a nest to encourage chickens to lay more eggs.

Up the spout - Early bookmakers and pawnshops had spouts which funds would be sent up to the office for safe keeping. .

White elephant - Something that is useless/a burden. According to legend, in early Thailand (Siam), white elephants belonged to the Kind and were not allowed to be neglected. The King would give these elephants as royal gifts to people who caused him displeasure. They couldn't be refused and imposed a massive burden on the recipient.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Idioms from "Red Herrings and White Elephants" by Albert Jack (1/2)

Reviewed earlier here.


The origins of more idioms as promised:


Cold feet - in a book by Fritz Reuter (1862) a poker player who doesn't want to lose his fortune, excuses himself from the table because he has cold feet.

Curry favour - In a French poem, Fauvel is a dangerous centaur. Sycophants would curry (grooming) favour (Fauvel), to stay in his good books. 

What the Dickens /Dickens to pay - Back in the 16th century the devil was Devilkin, usually pronounced 'Dickens'.

Good egg - In Captain Priest (1855), "In the language of his class, the Perfect Bird generally turns out a bad egg." That is an egg that appears perfect but is bad on the inside. The phrase was eventually reversed to describe decent people as 'good eggs'. 

As sure as eggs is eggs - A misquote from logic: as sure as x is x. Used by Dickens, either on purpose or by accident.

Sour Grapes  - In one of Aesop's Fables, a fox repeatedly tries to jump up to get a hold of some grapes. In the end the fox gives up and convinces himself that the grapes were sour and he didn't really want them.


Berk - slang, shortened from Berkshire Hunt (yes,quite)

Berserk - From Norse mythology, these warriors were wild and uncontrollable and would cast their weapons aside and fight empty handed.

Gone Doolally - 19th century, British Empire. In reference to the military base at Deolali, 100m north of Bombay. Because ships left from Deolali to Britain just twice a year, soldiers were often had to wait for long periods and the exhaustion and boredom could result in strange and eccentrc behaviour. The base also contained an asylum.

Wreak havoc - Began life as "Cry Havot", the frech call for plundering once a battle was won. Richard II banned use of the phrase on penalty of death but it was brought back to life by Shakespeare.

In cahoots - American term developed from the French 'cahute', meaning a small hut, somewhere people could collude unseen.

Use your loaf - slang, loaf of bread, head.

Plum Job - Plum was a slang term for a thousand pounds.

Not a sausage - slang, sausage and mash, cash

Take umbrage - Latin roots, 'umbra' means shade; to be put in the shade, feeling resentment.

Scot free - a 'scot' was a tax imposed on the Scandinavian people in the 13th century. Peasants were exempt, hence 'scot free'.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans

Bit between your teeth - i.e. unbridled enthusiasm. If the horse has the bit in his teeth as opposed to at the back of his mouth, he is insensitive to the rider's instruction and uncontrollable. In 470 BC, the Greek Aeschylus said "You take the bit in your teeth like new-harnessed colt".

Go with the flow - From Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, in which he said it was better to go with the flow" rather than to change the natural course of things, and "all things flow naturally".

Not worth his salt - workers were often partly paid in salt, known as salarium, from which the modern word 'salary' derives.

Scallywag - Latin 'scurra vagus' meaning wondering fool.

To set off on the wrong foot - Superstitious belief that left-sided things were evil and you should start your journey with the right foot first.

Lick something into shape - Belief that animals would lick their newborn into shape, esp. bears.

Take with a pinch of salt - Based on the story of King Mithridates of Pontus, who built immunity to poisons by taking a doses of poision with a single grain of salt to make them more palatable.

Spill the beans - Voters placed a white or brown bean into a jar and the outcome would be known if the jar was spilled.

Lost their bottle -  a boxer's water bottleman may conveniently disappear when the boxer was taking a beating, forcing a premature end to the fight. Phrase started as 'lost his bottleman' to indicate cowardly behaviour.

Bandied about - from the game of Bander, involved hitting a ball to and fro.

Down to the wire - a wire would be placed above the finish line of a horse race with somebody watching over to determine who crossed the wire first.

At the drop of a hat - sporting referees would often drop hats to signal the start of a race, boxing match, etc.

Keep it up - phrase used in Victorian garden badminton

Nick of time - nicks were carved into a piece of wood to keep score. A last minute point was a 'nick in time'.

Throw your hat into the ring - the public threw their hats into a ring to challenge prize fighting boxers. The hats were collected in a pile and then shown to the crowd for the owner to step up.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Quotes - Hunger by Knut Hamsun (translated by Robert Bly)

The riveting, mesmerising and disturbing book that is "Hunger" was reviewed a few days back. Here are some choice quotes from the book:

"The autumn had come, that cool and delicious time of year when everything changed colour and died."

"How steadily my predicament had got worse! By now I was so utterly denuded of objects that I didn't even have a comb left, or a book to read when I felt hopeless."

"...I was nothing but a battleground for invisible forces..."

"Small jerks began to appear in my legs, my walk became unsteady precisely because I wanted it to be smooth."

"I strolled to the door, keeping the posture of a man who can place another easily in an important post."

"How gaily and lightly these people I met carried their radiant heads, and swung themselves through life as through a ball-room! There was no sorrow in a single look I met, no burden on any shoulder, perhaps not even a clouded thought, not a little hidden pain in any of the happy souls. And I, walking in the very midst of these people, young and newly-fledged as I was, had already forgotten the very look of happiness."

"God had poked his finger down into my nerves and gently, almost without thinking, brought a little confusion among those threads. And God had pulled His finger back, and behold - there were filaments and fine root like threads on His finger from the threads of my nerves. And there remained an open hole behind His finger which was the finger of God, and a wound in my brain behind the path of His finger."

"A simple glance from her was like a kiss from another woman, and when she spoke her voice poured through my veins like wine right into my heart."

"A swarm of vague thoughts were battling about in my brain."

"I myself felt like an insect about to go under, attacked by annihilation in this world ready to go to sleep. I jumped up, labouring with profound terrors, and too three or four long steps up the path. No! I cried, and clenched both fists, this has to end! And I sat down again, brought out the pencil and paper in order to grapple with the article. When the rent was right before my eyes, it would never do to give up."

"I wrote the man's address down and prayed to God silently for this position - I would accept much less than anybody else for the work, half a krone would be princely or perhaps even less; the price would not be a consideration."

"Now I was walking around starving so much that my intestines were curling up inside me like snakes, and moreover there was no guarantee that food would come to me by the day's end either. And as time went on, I was becoming spiritually and physically more and more hollowed out, I let myself sink to less and less honorable deeds every day. I told blank lies without a blush, cheated poor people out of their rent, and fought against the grossest impulses to make off with someone else's blanket, all without remorse, without bad conscience. Rotten patches were beginning to appear in my insides, black spongy areas that were spreading."

"As soon as I was alone, I leaped up and started tearing my hair in despair. No, nothing would do any good for me, there was no salvation! My brain was bankrupt!"


Writing for the Financial Times, Robert Shrimsley comments on how some relationship break-ups have been broadcast in public by third parties and how "social" media is getting ever more intrusive. He summarises:
"Where once the onus was on an individual to respect someone else’s privacy, now it is on the individual to protect it. Everything is on the record; anything that can be captured is fair game. The companies that are shaping our future, the Facebooks, Twitters and Googles, do not believe in the right to privacy. To them, insisting on privacy is a selfish, wilful denial of something to others. As the protagonist in Dave Eggers’ new tech satire The Circle puts it: privacy is theft.
It seems ironic that as the web breaks down virtual boundaries, it is enticing people to recreate physical ones. You need higher fences to keep out Google Street View. Keep your conversations behind closed doors if you don’t want to read them on Twitter; and wear sunglasses and a hoodie if you don’t want to be identified by Google Glass. With potential intrusion so widespread we can now all experience the trappings of celebrity – well, apart from the designer clothes and accompanying riches. Although in the future, it is not so fanciful to believe that having spent years building their profile, the most successful people may minimise their online presence to safeguard their privacy.

Perhaps the largest irony of all is that at a time when many are complaining about governments spying on citizens and the harvesting of personal data by tech companies, the greatest threat to the privacy of the individual is the action of other individuals."

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Book quotes and notes: In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore

Reviewed earlier here.

A mixture of notes and quotes from In Praise of Slow:
  • In 1982 the American physician Larry Dorsey coined the term "time sickness", referring to the individuals belief that time is getting away from them and there isn't enough of it, and that you must pedal forever faster to keep up.
  • The Japanese have a term for death from overwork: karoshi.
  • On children: "Living like high-powered grown-ups leaves little time for the stuff that childhood is supposed to be about: messing around with friends, playing without adult supervision, daydreaming."
  • "We have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting down the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts". 
  • "I read the paper while watching TV - and find that I get less out of both"
  • "Le fast thinker" is term created by a French sociologist for someone who can, without skipping a beat, summon up a glib answer to any question. 
  • We expect fastness from others and others expect it from us. 
  • "People are born and married, and live and die, in the midst of an uproar so frantic that you would think they would go mad of it" - William Dead Howells 1907 
  • "When things happens too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself" - Milan Kundera, Slowness
  •  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, towns squares may have had mechanical clocks but each town effectively had it's own time zone (who cares if the only clock in town is running slow or fast). However, when the Industrial Revolution took hold, specialisation, organisation, and competition made time central to the operation of enterprise. From this point on, clock worship took off. With specialisation and production lines, a factory depends on people working to strict schedules. Honore talks about speed to market being key (I think this was less of a factor than the points mentioned earlier).  
  • By 1855 most of Britain had accepted GMT as the standard reference time. In 1884, 27 nations also adopted GMT as the prime meridian. By 1911 most of the world was on the same clock.
  • "To teach workers the new time discipline demanded by modern capitalism, the ruling classes set about promoting punctuality as a civic duty and a moral virtue, while denigrating slowness and tardiness as cardinal sins."
  • The average New Yorker "always walks as if he had a good dinner before him, and a bailiff behind him" - 19th century observer.  
  • Nietzsche detested a growing culture of "...of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to get everything done at once".
  • Part of the solution may lie in how we think about time - in Chinese, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, time is cyclical vs a one-shot deal. 
  • Consumerism is another powerful incentive to go fast and cram as much experience and consumption as possible. 
  • Technology is a false friend. e.g. washing machine and vacuum led to rising standards of cleanliness. E-mail brings. Technology has let work seep into every part of our lives. My thought: need to use tech discriminately to get the most out of it.
  • As well as glittering careers, we want to take art courses, work out at the gym, read the newspaper and every book on the bestseller list, eat out with friends, go clubbing, play sports, watch hours of television, listen to music, spend time with the family, go to the cinema, go on holidays...and maybe even do some meaningful volunteer work. "The result is a growing disconnect between what we want from life and what we can realistically have, which feeds the sense that there is never enough time."
  • "For fast-acting relief from stress, try slowing down" - Lily Tomlinson
  •  "(Our) thoughts, feelings, and loves are a whirlwind. Everywhere life is rushing insanely like a cavalry charge ... Everything around a man jumps, dances, gallops in a movement out of phase with his own" - Octave Mirabeau
  • OED on "Slow" definition: "not understanding readily, uninteresting, not learning easily, tedious, slack, sluggish". It is a dirty word. 
  • When people moan they are so busy and so run off their feet, they often mean to imply they live important, energetic and significant lives.
  • Working less often means working better. ILO shows that workers from Belgium, France and Norway are more productive than workers from the US.
  • Doing things slowly, like cooking, helps to re-ground the individual and manage the superficiality of urban life. Also, note that when eating, it does no good to eat too fast. It takes the brain 15 minutes to register the signal that you are full up.
  • On the Slow movement 'Citta Slow': "the movement's core idea - that we need to take some of the speed and stress out of urban living - is feeding into a global trend."
  • People think more creatively when they are relaxed, calm and unhurried, free from stress. Eureka moments seldom come in an office-environment. 

  • On meditation:

    "The meditation clearly has an effect, though, even on the fastest, most stress-addled mind. I feel wonderfully mellow at the end of the first evening. And as the weekend progresses, I begin to slow down without even trying. By Saturday night, I notice that I am taking more time to eat and brush my teeth. I have started walking, instead of running, up the stairs. I am more mindful of everything - my body, its movements, the food I eat, the smell of the grass outside, the colour of the sky. By Sunday night, even the meditation itself is starting to seem withing reach. My mind is learning to be quiet and still for longer. I feel less impatient and hurried. I am so relaxed I do not want to leave. Without my realising it, my brain has also been engaged in some very useful Slow Thinking. By the end of the weekend, ideas for work are bursting up from my subconscious mind like fish from a lake."

  • "Speed can be fun, productive and powerful and we would be poorer without it. What the world needs ... is a middle path, a recipe for marrying 'la dolce vita' with the dynamism of the information age. The secret is balance; instead of doing everything faster, do everything at the right speed. Sometimes fast. Sometimes slow. Somewhere in between. ..One way to make time for Slowness is to make time for activities that defy acceleration - meditation, knitting, gardening, yoga, painting, reading, walking .."    ...."It is true that some manifestations of the Slow philosophy not fit every budget. But most do ...(and) simply resisting the urge to hurry is free."

Friday, November 22, 2013

Book Review - Hunger by Knut Hamsun (translated by Robert Bly)

Hunger is must-read masterpiece. Written back in 1890 by the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, the story remains strikingly fresh and powerful. It is so powerful in fact that it felt that my psyche was somehow being slowly infected with the main character as the story progressed.

Hunger tells the story of a writer who is experiencing extreme poverty, his existence being one with no long term plans beyond trying to find somewhere to sleep and some means of getting a meal. He writes articles for a newspaper but these only pay off on occasion, and when they do the money lasts but a short while and he is soon scrambling to stay alive once more. The protagonist is also cursed with severe mental imbalances that are made worse by his desperate circumstances. However, despite all these hardships our man maintains a certain kind of dignity and honour with minimal self-pity. Also to be admired is his somewhat wreckless generosity, his deep desire not to do wrong and his sense of inner conflict when he does transgress his personal ethical code.

Hamsun's genius is that he writes from the character's interior in such a raw, believable way that you don't just relate but are brought as close as possible to feeling what the character is going through, even though you will have never actually shared these experiences (to the same degree or in the same manner).

It's a shame that Knut Hamsun sullied his name by being a supporter of the Nazi movement (he publicly lamented the passing of Hitler), but that doesn't detract from the quality of his writing and I look forward to reading some more of his works in future ("Pan" and "Mysteries" look particularly interesting). .

Select quotes will follow in a future post.

**** 1/2

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book - Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack

In "Red Herrings and White Elephants", Albert Jack collects and clearly explains the meaning and historical sources of some of the popular idioms (phrases) found in the English language. The idea is simple, the tone is enjoyable and the findings are often eye-opening.

Because idioms have little to no literal relation to context of the subject being talked or written about, I imagine they can be present a tough hurdle for understanding the English language. For a native, however, they are enriching, funny little things that we often add to sentences without giving a second thought. Albert Jack proves that they are well worth the second thought. 


Below are a selection of my favourites from the first two chapters. More to follow in separate posts.


To have someone over a barrel - in medieval Britain, a drowned person would be draped over a barrel to clear their lungs, reliant on third parties.

At a loose end - idle seaman would often be given the job of checking and tying loose ends of ropes i.e. finding themselves "at a loose end".

On the fiddle - the rims of plates were called fiddles and when a plate was overly greedily filled they were "on the fiddle".

Money for old rope - some sailors were allowed to keep hold of unusable and sell it once they got to shore (it was still usable, just not fit for the ship's purposes).

Freeze the balls of a brass monkey - the brass tray carrying cannonballs would contract in cold conditions, spilling the balls over the side.

You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours - when a sailor flogging a fellow officer they would often apply light strokes on the understanding that he would receive similar treatment if he was similarly punished.


Bite the bullet - At the time of the Indian Mutiny, Indian soldiers working on the side of the British Empire were made to bite together together two parts of a cartridge so they could used. Unfortunately, the cartridges contained either pork or cow fat.

Beat a hasty retreat - Reference to the retreat drumming beat

Pull your finger out  - Canons would have their gunpowder loaded and held into place by a wooden peg. In a time of battle, people would shout to others to pull their fingers out, so they could fire at the enemy.

Hoisted by one's own petard - to blow yourself up (be hoisted) with your own container of gunpowder (a petard)

Throw down the gauntlet - when a knight threw down their armoured glove to invite a duel. If it was picked up, the challenge was accepted.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Book: In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore

Against Sundials
The gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish hours! Confound him, too,
Who in this place set up a sundial,
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small portions! When I was a boy,
My belly was my sundial -- one surer,
Truer, and more exact than any of them.
This dial told me when 'twas proper time
To go to dinner, when I had aught to eat;
But nowadays, why even when I have,
I can't fall to unless the sun gives leave.
The town's so full of these confounded dials
The greatest part of the inhabitants,
Shrunk up with hunger, crawl along the street.
                                                                                    - Plautus

In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore starts of well but tapers off a little thereafter. When I opened the book, my optimism lifted upon seeing three pages of critical praise, much of it stemming from reputable sources. Then I read the first quote which described it as "The No Logo of its age" and my heart sank several notches below where it had started. No Logo sucked.Off the bat then, I was reading this book with a critical and cautious eye.

Like No Logo, In Praise of Slow book has a tendency to over eggs its case, sometimes with selective facts and sometimes with faulty or biased thinking. For example, the author, despite having written for the Economist, says that "capitalism is getting too fast for it's own good". This is a sweeping statement that flies in the face of that the fact that on balance, the benefits capitalism has brought clearly outweigh the negatives. A more balanced approach would be to take this net benefit position as an explicit starting point and then going on to say that the "need for speed" creates unnecessary side-effects which we would do well to mitigate? Okay, I guess the book is supposed to be a rousing manifesto to action instead of a balanced investigation but I do think something a bit more measured and considered would have been more powerful in persuading the rational mind. The anti-capitalist slant clearly appeals to the masses and will help shift volume, but for me it is a clear detraction, an opportunity missed.

Gripes aside, there are a great many positives to be found. Hornore does a particularly good job of discussing how scheduling and the need to be ever faster and more efficient permeates our lives at great speed during the Industrial Revolution, to create stresses and sub-optimal outcomes, and he goes on to illustrate how the rate of change is forever increasing. On this, I concur. It is a plain fact of the age as it has been for every age since the 1800s onwards. Getting ahead means doing more things faster and this results in agitation when we are slowed down, especially if this slowing down is due to other people's slowness. We cook faster, eat faster, and travel faster. We often think fast, and will cram our experiences and cram our consumption. Faster and faster. Everything is a race. And because there isn't enough time, sleep has to be forsaken. We need to be reminded every now and then that there is much value in slowing down; not being lazy but simply taking the time to appreciate things and to do things rightly and properly.

Overall, "In Praise of Slow" is well worth reading, even accounting for its faults. It is well written and makes many good points. It also makes the reader think about the pace of their own life and how it may be changed it for the better.

Quotes and notes to point rushing these things ; )

*** 1/2

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tea and gravity

It is a curious thing that when you accidentally knock a cup of tea, so often the force is just great enough to cause the tea to swell right up to the lip of the mug, without spilling over.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Recent films watched

Gravity (***3/4) / Mud (*** 3/4) / Pulling John (***1/2) / Philomena (***3/4) / Bobby Fisher Against the World (****)


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Oatmeal cartoon - taking of the hot sauce

You know, if I had to choose between Ketchup and Sriracha ... sorry Heinz.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Book Review: Stiff - The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

“When you get right down to it, there is no dignified way to go, be it decomposition, incineration, dissection, tissue digestion or composting. …It takes the careful application of a considered euphemism – burial, cremation, anatomical gift-giving, water reduction, ecological funeral – to bring it to the point of acceptance."

(The US and UK covers of Mary Roach's book seem to show different pairs of feet!) 

Mary Roach is a fantastic author and her first book, Stiff - The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers , is an insightful and eye-opening (when you're not wincing) read on what can be an uncomfortable subject: dead bodies. Having written for a wide variety of periodicals including Salon, Slate, Inc, Discover, GQ and Wired, Roach is well schooled in writing in a breezy, fun style while educating us at the same time, which makes her very well placed to tackle this type of taboo and sometimes disgusting subject.

Since Stiff, Roach has published a few more books including "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science Of Life In Space" and more recently "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal", both of which look to be on par with Stiff and which I eagerly await reading. In the mean time plenty of the author's articles are available in the public domain.

Summary book points and comments

- Human cadavers play a crucial role when it comes to forensic investigations, particulalry figuring out times of death. Research in this field often involves planting donated bodies in different locations and making observations on rates of decomposition etc. We learn, for example, that algor mortis (the cooling of dead bodies) takes place at roughly 1.5 degrees per hour until the body temperature balances with the external temperature. Also, the potassium level of the gel in a cadaver’s eye is also a useful indicator for time of death, if death occurred in the past 24 hours.

- Roach’s description of autolysis (self-digestion) is where things get really squeamish. We learn that when a person dies, their enzymes immediately begin to break down our cells walls, the result being internal liquidation. What's more, this internal meltdown means our internal bacteria now have a new food source made available to them - before we died, the bacteria merrily digested the food we ate, now they are digesting us....omm nom nom. It is this internal digestion that produces the gas and bloating effect, sometime resulting in dead people breaking wind. The next stage in the cycle is putrefaction and decay - we basically become a big human soup and the brain pours out of the ears and mouth.  Like I said, not a chapter for those with more delicate sensibilities.

- Surgery is one area where the use of cadavers is essential, yet bodies are difficult to come by. This is true in the modern era but was far more pressing in the past, when for hundreds of years venturing into the insides of bodies was off-limits and the knowledge of our inner working was a mixture of piece-meal knowledge and conjecture. The likes of Huang Ti (2600 BC), Galen and Hippocrates - all producers of classic texts on human anatomy - did get a lot surprisingly right despite the prohibitions on dissecting bodies.

- In Egypt, around 300 B.C,. King Ptolemy passed a decree permitting dissection of deceased criminals. However, it is understood that Herophilus, the father of anatomy, took things a little too far and went on to dissect live criminals. Even in England up until 1836, the only group of people legally allowed to be dissected were deceased criminals.  The shortage of criminal bodies available for dissection and surging demand from the medical schools created a black market for bodies – enter the infamous body-snatchers Hare and Burke who set about murdering instead of digging up bodies from cemeteries.

- The role of cadavers in car safety was also crucial in developing modern tempered glass windshields, which have sufficient strength in them to prevent the driver from smashing straight through the glass pane on impact, but also sufficient flexibility to minimise impact damage to the head. It is estimated that human lives saved as a result of human cadaver research (much research today uses crash test dummies) is in the region of 8,500 each year since 1987 (“For every corpse whose head has hammered a windscreen, 68 lives per year are saved”).

- An unintended consequence of the California Clear Act regulations, was that "humane societies switched from cremating their euthanized pets to what one official calls ‘the rendering situation’. I called up a rendering plant to learn into what the dogs were being rendered. ‘We grind ‘em up and turn ‘em into bone meal’, the plant manager had said. Bone meal is a common ingredient in fertilisers and animal feed – including many commercial dog foods.“

- In the ghoulish "Just a Head" chapter, we learn of some grim experiments that firmly belong in the realm of science-fiction (I'm thinking Futurama specifically), where Vladimir Demikhlov, a  1950s Soviet Union scientist, transplants the heads of puppies, including shoulders, forelimbs and oesophaguses that emptied outside of the dog, onto the the bodies of other dogs. From his reports:

"09:00 The donors head eagerly drank water or milk, and tugged as if trying to separate itself from the recipient's body"

"22:30 When the recipient was put to bed, the transplanted head bit the finger of a member of staff until it bled"

"February 26, 18:00. The donor's head bit the recipient behind the ear, so the latter yelped..."

Roach notes that the experiments may not have failed had Demikhlov understood immunology, since the brain enjoys "immunological privilege" i.e. the brain is not rejected as hostile foreign body. 

This brings us to Robert White's brain transplant experiments in the 1960s White transplanted isolated brains inside the necks and abdomens of other animals. Roach comments "While the inside of someone else's abdomen is of moderate interest's not the sort of place you want to settle down in to live out the remainder of your years." When Roach meets Robert White he scarily refers to isolation chamber studies where human subjects where fully sensory deprived. The finding was that insanity doesn't take long to set in. Before thinking this is all just cruelty with no purpose, White's experiment were a step on the road to full human head transplant (useful for quadriplegics in an organ [body] donor scenario).

- In the penultimate chapter, Roach investigates the idea of being turned into human fertiliser as an environmentally friendly means of cadaver disposal. The idea sounds cold and uncaring but the reality is anything but. To me this harks back to ancient rituals where bodies would be left in the open to decompose and to be picked at by vultures and other creatures, thereby returning the body’s to the cycle of life that much faster. Indeed, the more I think about the idea of lying in a dry box, six feet under, for who knows how many decades, the more I am at unease with the "traditional" approach. Perhaps it is time to consult the will-maker with a new request?

- Roach finishes the book with her thoughts on what she would like done with her remains after she dies, noting that it is somewhat irrational to try to control what happens to you once you are gone (afterall, you are not around to care), and that making elaborate requests can be an unnecessary burden. What still matters though, is the cares and wishes of the living and these should really be taken into account. The caveat is organ donations – friends and family wishes are vetoed in this particular respect says Roach (I agree). If her husband isn’t around to influence the outcome, Roach says she has a preference for willed body donation (i.e. donating to science). All in all, a very considered approach from somebody who really understands the value of dead bodies.

**** 1/2 - I highly recommend getting over the yuck factor and reading this book to appreciate the physiological processes when we expire, as well as all the good uses who could potentially be put to, instead of being shut in a box and dropped in the ground. Even though Stiff doesn't really discuss dying - the necessary pre-requisiote for the existence of a cadaver - reading the book did make me feel more comfortable with the idea of mortality.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I like this list

A cool but worrying presentation about inequality

Over time, more and more people around the globe are being pulled out of poverty as capitalism and the market mechanism makes every better off. However, this is only true on the avaerages - we can see from the above presentation that inequality within developed countries is increasing and is much more pronounced than Joe Public perceives. Bear in mind the above video is based on 2009 data. Since then, inequality the differentials have increased.

Monday, November 11, 2013

SMBC - appreciate your audience!

A couple of bits from The Economist this week

  • "The tax paid on home sales in Kensington and Chelsea in the fiscal year 2012-13 exceeded the tax paid on all homes in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales put together". Wow.
  •  In an article on low pay, The Economist notes that Ed Miliband back the idea of a living wage of £7.65 per hour outside London and £8.80 in the capital. KPMG are also apparently in support, noting that this modest increase would improve the lot of the low-wage army by £2,500 a year. Fortunately The Economist understands that when you increase the price of a good, the quantity demanded falls. Why KPMG don't understand this simple truth, I am not sure.

The expert colorisation of these photos serves wonderfully to make history more real. More pictures can be found here:

This last picture of Japanese archers dates back to 1860.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

A bearish view for the long-term

SocGen analyst Albert Edwards paints a picture that sends shivers down my spine:

"Many investors I meet continue to marvel at US labour's inability to rebuild its wage share of GDP and how dominant capital and profits have become. I believe society will ultimately demand and implement a change. We have already seen a potent grass-roots backlash against cross-border tax arbitrage and tax-havens, which has forced the politicians to react here in the UK. Yet inequality in the US continues to grow.

Investors should make no mistake. The anger of the 99% will ultimately not be bought off by yet another central bank inspired housing bubble, engineered to pacify them and divert their attention as their real incomes fall and inequality continues to grow.

The current bubble will burst, despite the Fed postponing the event by climbing to ever higher diving boards. All the time rising inequality is draining the swimming pool dry and the crunch when it comes will be ugly."
Note how he who once ruled the world (Alan Greenspan) stepped off the world stage and straight into obscurity, from light to dark. There is a useful lesson in this observation: people in powerful positions appreciate that they are in the spotlight only while they reign. Thereafter, they have limited "skin in the game", (to steal an analogy from Taleb). Thus, the effects of their actions that are of greater relevant to them are those that manifest during their reign.

You could say their decision making carries a very high discount factor, with a step change higher in the rate at the point of the person's expected exit of the elite, decision-makers' podium. This model explains why happens on these people's watch is of greater import to them than the lasting legacies, particularly when the benefits of these legacies require reputational costs during in the years of their reign (i.e. costs have a low discount factor and future benefits a very high discount rate). 

There are trade-offs that will be made, but generally speaking the rulers of the world economies will do every thing in their power to shift the pain of economic crisis across the masses (diluting effect combined with obfuscation)  and forward in time (projecting effect). And so it is, that policy makers will spread and push, and spread and push, until they can spread and push no more. The end times are not necessary calamitous but the rising levels of inequality and generational transfer suggest an element of system is starting to fold in on itself.


"Wonga did not create modern Britain; modern Britain created Wonga."

Tim Harford has written a useful piece of commentary on the much reviled Wonga. It is worth reading to assist the reader in breaking above and beyond the political-culture induced, snap response of high-minded indignation, towards something a little less black and white but a lot more considered.

I see Ed Miliband has described Wonga as one of the "worst symbols of this cost of living crisis". Unfortunately for all of us, the default response for any politician will always be to look outward and point fingers, not for the betterment of the masses but for obvious purposes of self-promotion. It takes a brave and reckless soul to infiltrate the political ranks and turn on the system that he is part of, turning the fingers of damnation to those around him, including perhaps even himself the reproach.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Book: The Logic of Life by Tim Harford

"It rarely pays to assume that any human being is incapable of weighing pros and cons of the decision in front of him."

The Logic of Life is not a book about the super-computing, spock-like, homo economicus or 'economic man', who is widely (and rightly) rubbished as a mythical creature who has little place in our model for how life works. Instead, Tim Harford explains that while human beings may be behaviourally flawed, man's actions, (including criminal acts) can be viewed as being broadly rational in the context of man's motivations - these reach well above the financial to include fear, love, etc.

My favourite sections are commented on below:

Rational crime

The idea of rational crime was developed by the Nobel prize winning Gary Becker, who stated that criminals weigh the costs and benefits of their actions and act accordingly (for his interview with Harford, Becker even parks illegally, accepting the low probability of a fine). Harford asks whether a sixteen year old really weighs up the gains from a street robbery against the risk of a spell in jail, commenting that most people would expect their behaviour to be irrational. Data based research shows that even juveniles respond logically to sentencing. Yet again, people respond incentives in a predictable way, even those devil-may-care teenagers!

Here's a nice bit on on rational addictions:

"It can also be rational to get hooked in the first place. Imagine a young man who is thinking of trying a new drug. He knows that everybody who tries it loves it, at least at first. Then some users find their lives degenerate into an increasingly desperate and futile attempt to recapture that initial buzz, leading to the pain of cold turkey or the anguish of eternal, unfulfilling addiction. Others seem able to enjoy the highs and remain quite content for the rest of their lives. He has no way of knowing into which category he will fall. Is it rational for him to ingest the drug? 

If you say 'no', read the paragraph again but replace 'trying a new drug' with 'getting married' and 'cold turkey' with 'divorce'. Getting married is not so different from getting hooked. It might not work out, it will restrict your future freedom of choice, and quitting if things turn sour is going to be extremely difficult and painful. But it will probably be a lot of fun, too."

A further insight from the rational choice economists is that advertising of nicotine patches and gum actually encourages non-smoking teens to take up smoking. It sounds odd but the logic is sound: products that assist quitting an addictive activity like smoking reduce the cost of taking it up, perversely making smoking more attractive.
However, it is not always so clear-cut. Harford highlights that the impatient, dopamine system in the human brain responsible for quick decisions can misfire with addictive chemicals and also with addictive behaviours such as playing the slot machines. In contrast, the cognitive system that is responsible for longer-term decisions takes longer to react. Harford cites a simple experiment where ten subjects were asked if they would like some fruit or chocolate. Seven chose chocolate. When other groups were offered the same choice but for delivery a week later, 70% chose fruit.

I suffer the same conflict when I go to the supermarket to buy healthy food for myself and then get home wanting a cream cake or chocolate. I also have a lot of high-brow selections on Lovefilm and Netflix and often find myself searching for some pop-corn cheese instead of that foreign art-house movie that will make me a better, cultured person. Harford proposes ordering your films and then keeping away from the list, letting the DVD’s come through as per your set-up. However, this isn’t a perfect solution, since if you feel like watching Expendables, a silent movie or French classic probably won’t be a good substitute. It’s a tough one.

There are other instances where the strong-willed self can outwit the weak-willed self with strategies e.g. defaulting your options to your long-term interests and making change more difficult. It’s a bit like a negotiator tying their hands. He gives the example of people who put themselves on casino blacklists, using self-barring to address their gambling problems.

However, Harford also notes “Schelling observed..that it’s not always easy to tell whose side you should be on. People can save too much, exercise too much, diet too much, and commit themselves to ‘improving’ activities – subscriptions to the Times Literary Supplement or membership of the Royal Opera House – that they do not really want.

On speed-dating:

Some facts from a study of 1,800 men and 1,800 women:
- Women proposed a match to one in ten men.
- Men proposed a match to two in ten women.
- Characteristics receiving more offers: tall men, slim women, non-smokers, professionals.

No surprises so far. Here's the interesting bit: People changed their preferences substantially based on the group that turned up that evening (so much for looking for the’one’). Men may prefer women who are not overweight, but if twice as many overweight women turned up one evening the same number of men proposed matches. Similarly, women may prefer tall men to short but in a group of short men, the short guys had more luck. The same applies to levels of education. People lowered their standards and settled for what they could get (i.e. market conditions). Only when there was an age mismatch did people prefer to hold off for another evening. Harford says “None of this to deny true love exists. But while love is blind, lovers are not: they are well aware of what opportunities lie ahead of them and they rationally take those opportunities into account when they are dating.”


In this chapter Harford describes Thomas Schelling’s explanation for community segregation (this could be on racial terms, income, etc). Imagine you have a chessboard with draughts pieces of each colour placed on alternate squares, so the board is filled with pieces. Then remove twenty pieces by random to create some empty gaps and add back five pieces randomly. Assume either sides are happy to live in a mixed set-up. However, a few of these pieces are now surrounded by the pieces from the other side. These surrounded pieces uproot to be closer to their own kind. Suddenly, the board dynamic changes and a chain reaction creates large scale segregation through no individual’s fault. They were happy to live in a mixed community and they end up segregated.

I'm really looking forward to reading Harford's new book on macroeconomics and also re-visiting his original book, The Undercover Economist.


PS - The Logic of Life is also a re-read. I read the book a few years ago but forgot everything about it other than that it was really good, so figured it was due a revisit .. a most logical approach that produced an optimal outcome.