Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Film: The Zero Theorem (2014)

Managed to catch Terry Gilliam's latest movie on one of the big screen this evening, and thought it was very good, although I didn't quite grasp the final twenty minutes.

The movie asks the age old existential question of the meaning and meaninglessness of it all and leaves the answers sufficiently open to interpretation without becoming a meaningless art movie where everything is left to the viewer i.e. there is an intent and clear posing of questions, as well as suggestions of answers. Here are some comments from Gilliam himself:

"Pat Rushin’s script intrigued me with the many pertinent questions raised in his funny, philosophic and touching tale. For example: What gives meaning to our lives, brings us happiness? Can we ever find solitude in an increasingly connected, constricted world? Is that world under control or simply chaotic? 
We’ve tried to make a film that is honest, funny, beautiful, smart and surprising; a simple film about a complex modern man waiting for a call to give meaning to his life; about inescapable relationships and the longing for love, peopled with captivating characters, mouthfuls of wise and witty dialogue; raising questions without offering easy answers. Hopefully, it’s unlike any film you have seen recently; no zombies, no caped crusaders, no aliens or gigantic explosions. Actually, I might have lied about that last item."
From another interview with Gilliam:
The Skinny: The Zero Theorem is, at times, quite bleak. Bob [Lucas Hedges] tries to persuade Qohen Leth [Christoph Waltz] that everything is meaningless, that there is no such thing as a calling. Do you see yourself as a Bob figure, trying to disabuse the audience of a notion of meaning?
Terry Gilliam: No, not really. It's sort of testing the main character is what it's really doing. Matt Damon [playing a figure known only as Management] describes [Leth] towards the end as a man of faith. Qohen believes there is a meaning to life and that our lives make sense, and he certainly wants to believe that. Everybody else is kind of conspiring to say it's not true, except that in the course of this Bob, the teenager, Bainsley [Mélanie Thierry] the girl, these are people that come into his life that he actually begins to care about and love. It's about re-humanising the character, in a strange way.
I think, for me, people say 'what's the meaning of life?' To me, the point is – and strangely enough that's kind of what Matt Damon's character says –you've gotta give meaning to your life. I mean, there's no meaning to life: my cells are dividing, things are happening, structures are being formed, other things are eating other things. It's wonderful organised chaos. So whatever meaning there is to life is what you give to your life. You gotta do the work, you can't sit around waiting for a phone call to tell you.What I always thought was funny with The Zero Theorem was that he is trying to prove a negative positively. That's the weird thing when you are trying to prove that 100% must equal zero, or zero must equal 100%, it's a very weird thing because how do you do that? We build these structures that keep falling apart, which fail to produce the result.
**** (gets an extra half a star for being made on a shoe-string budget)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

30 day willpower experiment complete

I have completed the 30 day willpower challenge that I set just over a month ago and decided to mark the day by drinking caffeine, eating junk food, watching TV, and by not meditating, going to the gym, or stretching. Now I feel like a lethargic, oily mess, with a frenetic brain that may well struggle to get to sleep tonight (the cappuccino I ordered at Costa Coffee was a 'regular' but the cup was about the size of my head!). I'll take the rest of the week off, but am already looking forward to the next challenge(s).

I will put together a more comprehensive review of the experience, with lessons learned and other observations, but this will have to wait until I have a new laptop, for this morning I fried the motherboard on the trusty IBM X32 when I tried to charge my ipod with a dodgy adapter that I had just taken delivery off from one of those cheap Chinese tech sites. I will sorely miss this once rugged, beautifully utilitarian machine.

Film: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Wes Anderson's quirky films don't always do it for me, but I do always enjoy them for their unique style. The Grand Budapest Hotel, I am glad to say, is both quirky and excellent. It features an all star cast, with Ralph Fiennes at the helm as the excellent hotel concierge M.Gustave. The sets in this movie are beautiful and the dialogue sparkles with zany brilliance. One to watch.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Film: Robocop (2014)

The Robocop reboot is a little better than I expected but the benchmark set by the original was simply too high. 

Also, like the first Christopher Nolan "Batman", I felt Robocop spent way too long on the 'how Robocop came to be' story, possibly keeping too material in reserve in case there was enough demand to warrant a sequel. The special effects were pretty good in the movie, and the dystopian future painted by film seems ever closer and resonant, but the film just wasn't engaging enough.

That said, there is one great bit in the original., where Robocop is pitted against a horde of police robots. He obliterates them with ease, but the cool bit is how his biomechanics have been altered: without being aware of it, he switches to an automatic mode when engaged in combat, however after the event his human brain rationalises his actions as excellent work on his own part. Whether this was deliberate or not, it is a great clip that highlights how the human brain works; that we are creatures of instinct and automatic responses, but our brain often rationalises and post-processes these instinctual actions into lies of self-control. For that, Robocop gets an extra star.


Book: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

“Ed sent me a quote from the venerable martial artist Bruce Lee, which he hoped would serve as inspiration: ‘There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.’ I copied that thought on to a Post-it note and stuck it wall. Then I tore it down and memorised it.”

Moonwalking with Einstein is an intelligent, fun read that tells the story of the author’s journey as he goes from a journalist reporting on the 2005 US Memory Championships, to somebody who - just one year later - returns to take the top spot at the same event.

Foer’s journey is an interesting one and he meets a host of curiously fascinating characters along the way (Tony Buzan, Ben Pridmore, Kim Peek, Daniel Tammet and his coach and fellow memory champion, Ed Cooke). The journey of a memory champion is only part of the story however, as much of the book is given to other aspects of memory. There are sections on the science of memory (we know very little), a chapter on a man (patient S) who can’t remember anything, a chapter on a man who remembered everything and there is quite a bit on the historical role of memory in society (think of it as the container for knowledge before books became widely available). Foer’s investigation into the genius memory savant Danniel Tammet also raises doubts about whether Tammet is “just” a highly trained memory expert who is cashing in by spinning his story in a different light.

As somebody with a terrible memory, I really enjoyed this book, and am almost motivated to buy a deck of playing cards and start putting some of the techniques to use! Indeed, we learn that the brain training can have a physiological impact in some instances - observations of London cabbies (only 3 out of 10 pass the knowledge after spending years trying to learn some 25,000 streets and 1,500 landmarks) showed that they had a larger than usual hippocampus. While this tells us that the human brain is mutable (‘neuroplasticity’), the brain scans of memory champions didn’t reveal anything unusual. Foer observes that this is good news since if memory champions have normal brains, then perhaps anybody can become a memory champion if they put the effort in, and he proves the case.

The historical role of memory is particularly fascinating. Foer observe that memorisation was once a widely practised art that was highly practical in an age when the written word was rare to come by. When the printing presses made books widely available at low cost after 1440, the role of the brain as a container for factual recall became less relevant, This is something I find a little sad, particularly when our memory works so well as a fantastic indexer (because memorisation is not linear, you can often navigate straight to the memory you are after).

Today, Foer notes that the focus is on reading widely and briefly (extensively), versus concentrating and dwelling (reading intensively) on books to get the most out of them and to remember more of what we have read.

Foer doesn’t go into depth on the science side but we do learn that while there is disagreement on the number of memory systems in the human brain, most agree that there are two types of memory:
“non-declarative” memories – things you remember unconsciously like riding a bike. These memories don’t appear to depend on the hippocampus for their safe-keeping. The cerebellum is key to motor skills learning, the neocortex for perceptual learning, and the basal ganglia for habits.

There are “declarative” memories, which are things you consciously recall like the colour of your car. These memories can be categorised into “semantic facts” that are free-floating (e.g. concepts such as breakfast is the first meal of the day) and “episodic facts” that are located in time and space (e.g. what I ate for breakfast and where I was when I ate it). Both rely on the hippocampus and structures in the medal temporal lobes.
One well supported hypothesis is that memories are nomadic, forming in the hippocampus and then migrating to the neocortex over the longer term as the memories are revisited and reinforced, making them permanent. Sleep is thought to be important in this process of long term memory formation.

A landmark study in 1956 by George Miller showed that in most instances, the most we can remember in our working memory is is 7 plus or minus two.

Foer notes that chess masters appear to be memory geniuses, able to play games blind, or play many games at once, but in reality this is because they have spent countless thousands of hours playing chess and have almost unconsciously learned different configurations (scatter chess pieces at random on a board and they are chess masters are reduced to mere mortals in the memory game). Similarly, experienced SWAT teams see danger a mile off based on past patterns and chunks of information.  Experts are not seeing things anew each time but are drawing on their long-term memories of past experience.

There are many tips on how to achieve a good memory for certain uses, with the memory palace being a central tool in the memory champion's arsenal. The idea here is a simple one: by planting memories and clues throughout a setting that we are deeply familiar with like our house, for example,  we can employ the excellent spatial part of our memory to recall the points more easily. If you want to get more adventurous with your setting, you can anything with multiple locations (loci) that you are familiar with e.g. buildings, journeys, the human body. You can even link multiple locations together.

When creating images for memorisation, make them powerful, incorporate smell, taste, etc. Te more extreme the image, the greater the likelihood of recall. When assigning images to cards, for example, really get to know the characters or objects and their salient characteristic. This helps to slow the rate at which the images fade.

Remembering a poem is particularly difficult compared to a list of items or string of numbers due to connecting words such as “the”, “and” etc. A mnemonic trick is to repeat a few times and convert it into a series of images. Scepsis, a contemporary of Cicero, created a system of shorthand images for the connectors.

When Foer hits what he calls the “OK plateau” he learns that he needs to increase the aspects of feedback (collect and analyse data and measure against targets and past performance). To improve you need to fail, get feedback, and use this to get better. Of course, attention is a pre-requisite to remembering.

Overall, Moonwalking with Einstein is an excellent, smoothly written book, that offers a perfect mix of personal journey, science, and insights into the quirky and nerdy world of the memory champion.
**** 1/2

Friday, March 14, 2014

A couple of wise xkcd comics of late

This one is sad and eye-opening:

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Revenge of the spam bots

The spam bots are at it again, submitting meaningless comments to my blog. The comments get blocked but I do get to enjoy them before they are obliterated. Here's a classic that came through earlier today:

"If you do not grind with Imp, this talent is worthless. .... The Demonology tree involves bonuses involving your pet, your stats, and your conjured stones."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Double milk


Way back when, I jotted down some ideas for low-cost, high protein foods, noting that dried milk powder is the champion by a long way. I recently discovered that Tesco are selling an everyday 450g box of the stuff for a mere £1.15. That's over 160g of protein for just over a pound. And the contents of the box is surprisingly pure: milk powder, vit A and vit D.

- If you make a protein shake with milk and add a 30g scoop of this stuff, that's going to bring in some 40g of protein! As a additional plus point,. it is actually making my protein milkshake taste a lot nicer.

I might just have to go and stock up on this stuff.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Book: Strange News From Another Star by Herman Hesse

Strange News From Another Star is a mesmeric collection of short stories by Herman Hesse. The prose is beautiful and the fairy-tale type stories are surreal, philosophical and always deeply contemplative. My favourite tales, in order, are: 'Augustus', 'The Poet', 'Iris', and 'Faldum'.

*** 1/2

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Book quotes: The Pleasures of the Table by Brillat Savarin (1825) - (2/2)

A continuation of quotes from the wonderful "The Physiology of Taste" (1825):


On the Effects of Coffee

I am one of those who have been obliged to give up coffee, and I will conclude this article by telling how rigorously I was subjected to its power. The Duke of Mossa, then minister of justice, called on me for an opinion about which I wished to be careful, and for which he had allowed me but a very short time.
I determined then to sit up all night, and to enable me to do so took two large cups of strong and highly flavored coffee. I went home at seven o’clock to get the papers which had been promised me, but found a note telling me I would not get them until the next day.

Thus in every respect disappointed, I returned to the house where I had dined, and played a game of piquet, without any of the moody fits to which I was ordinarily subject. I did justice to the coffee, but I was not at ease as to how I would pass the night.

I went to bed at my usual hour, thinking that if I did not get my usual allowance, I would at least get four or five hours, sufficient to carry me through the day. I was mistaken. I had been two hours in bed and was wider awake than ever; I was in intense mental agitation, and fancied my brain a mill, the wheels of which revolved, grinding nothing.

The idea came to me to turn this fancy to account, and I did so, amusing myself by putting into verse a story I had previously read in an English paper. I did so without difficulty, and as I did not sleep I undertook another, but in vain. A dozen verses had exhausted my poetic faculty, and I gave it up. I passed the night without sleep, and without even being stupefied for a moment, I arose and passed the day in the same manner. When on the next night I went to bed at my usual hour I made a calculation, and found out that I had not slept for forty hours.


On the Eating and the Pleasures of the Table and its Effects

At the first course every one eats and pays no attention to conversation; all ranks and grades are forgotten together in the great manufacture of life. When, however, hunger begins to be satisfied, reflection begins, and conversation commences. The person who, hitherto, had been a mere consumer, becomes an amiable guest...

 After a good dinner body and soul enjoy a peculiar happiness. Physically, as the brain becomes refreshed, the face lightens up, the colors become heightened, and a glow spreads over the whole system.
Morally, the mind becomes sharpened, witticisms circulate.


Meditation XXI. - Obesity.

To have exactly fat enough, not a bit too much, or too little, is the great study of women of every rank and grade.

One kind of obesity is restricted to the stomach, and I have never observed it in women. Their fibres are generally softer, and when attacked with obesity nothing is spared. I call this variety of obesity GASTROPHORIA. Those attacked by it, I call GASTROPHOROUS. I belong to this category, yet, though my stomach is rather prominent, I have a round and well turned leg. My sinews are like those of an Arab horse.

I will begin my treatise by an extract from a collection of more than five hundred dialogues, which at various times I have had with persons menaced with obesity.

AN OBESE. — What delicious bread! where do you get it?

...OBESE. — It is a bad regimen. I am fond of rice pates and all such things. Nothing is more nourishing.
AN IMMENSE OBESE. — Do me the favor to pass me the potatoes before you. They go so fast that I fear I shall not be in time.
I. — There they are, sir.
OBESE. — But you will take some? There are enough for two, and after us the deluge.
I. — Not I. I look on the potatoe as a great preservative against famine; nothing, however, seems to me so pre-eminently fade.
OBESE. — That is a gastronomical heresy. Nothing is better than the potatoe; I eat them in every way.
...OBESE. — No, sir. I have two things which I prefer. This gateau of rice and that Savoy biscuit — I am very fond of sweet things.
I. — While they talk politics, madame, at the other end of the table, will you take a piece of this tourte a la frangipane?
OBESE. — Yes; I like nothing better than pastry. We have a pastry– cook in our house as a lodger, and I think my daughter and I eat up all his rent.
I. —(Looking at the daughter.) You both are benefited by the diet. Your daughter is a fine looking young woman.
OBESE LADY. — Yes; but there are persons who say she is too fat.
I. — Ah! those who do so are envious, etc., etc. By this and similar conversations I elucidate a theory I have formed about the human race, viz: Greasy corpulence always has, as its first cause, a diet with too much farinacious or feculent substance. I am sure the same regime will always have the same effect. Carniverous animals never become fat. One has only to look at the wolf, jackal, lion, eagle, etc.
Herbiverous animals do not either become fat until age has made repose a necessity. They, however, fatten quickly when fed on potatoes, farinacious grain, etc.
Obesity is rarely met with among savage nations, or in that class of persons who eat to live, instead of living to eat.

Nothing is so common as to see faces, once very interesting, made common-place by obesity.

Obesity has a lamentable influence on the two sexes, inasmuch as it is most injurious to strength and beauty.
It lessens strength because it increases the weight to be moved, while the motive power is unchanged.
Obesity destroys beauty by annihilating the harmony of primitive proportions, for all the limbs do not proportionately fatten.
Obesity produces a distaste for dancing, walking, riding, and an ineptitude for those amusements which require skill or agility.

It also creates a disposition to certain diseases, such as apoplexy, dropsy, ulcers in the legs, and makes all diseases difficult to cure.

...if obesity be not a disease, it is at least a very troublesome predisposition, into which we fall from our own fault. The result is, that we should all seek to preserve ourselves from it before we are attacked, and to cure ourselves when it befalls us. 

The cure of obesity should begin with three precepts of absolute theory, discretion in eating, moderation in sleep, and exercise on foot or horseback.

"What is that?” said I, putting on my stern look which I call up but once a year. “Well, eat and grow fat, become ugly, asthmatic and die of melted fat. I will make a note of your case and you shall figure in my second edition. Ah! I see, one phrase has overcome you, and you beg me to suspend the thunderbolt. Be easy, I will prescribe your diet and prove how much pleasure is in the grasp of one who lives to eat.”


On the Effects of Thinness

Thinness is a matter of no great trouble to men. They have no less strength, and are far more active. The father of the young woman I spoke of, though, very thin, could seize a chair by his teeth and throw it over his head. It is, however, a terrible misfortune to women, to whom beauty is more important than life, and the beauty of whom consists in the roundness and graceful contour of their forms.

Quotes on libraries (3/3)

Nothing is pleasanter than exploring a library.
    – Walter Savage Landor

    Libraries are our friends.
    – Neil Gaiman

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.
- Marcus Tullius Cicero 


"My mother and my father were illiterate immigrants from Russia.  When I was a child they were constantly amazed that I could go to a building and take a book on any subject.  They couldn’t believe this access to knowledge we have here in America.”
- Kirk Douglas 

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library." 
- Jorge Luis Borges

"Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading!" 
-Rainer Maria Rilke (German poet)

Friday, March 07, 2014

Farewell to Mike Parker, a man who made the world a little bit nicer to live in

On 23rd February the man who brought Helvetica to the world passed away. Here is a snippet from the Economist's obit on Mike Parker:

Of the more than 1,000 types he developed, his greatest success was Helvetica. It was he who adjusted it, or corralled it, to the needs of the obdurate, cranky, noisy Linotype machines which then printed almost everything in America. Originally it was the brainchild of a Swiss designer, Max Miedinger, who devised it in 1956. In contrast to the delicate exuberance of 16th-century types, Helvetica was plain, rigidly horizontal—and eminently readable. It became, in Mr Parker’s hands, the public typeface of the modern world: of the New York subway, of federal income-tax forms, of the logos of McDonald’s, Microsoft, Apple, Lufthansa and countless others. It was also, for its clarity, the default type on Macs, and so leapt smoothly into the desktop age.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Book: Peter Schlemihl by Aldebert Von Chamisso

I thought I'd give Peter Schlemihl a re-read before letting it go to charity. The novella tells a wonderful tale about a man who trades his shadow for untold riches, only to be forever haunted by the regretful decision. The story stormed Europe when it was published back in 1812 and is one that deserves to be known more widely today.

**** 1/2 (the same score I gave it the first time round)

A few nice lines captured for posterity:

- "I came to my sense after the first unthinking transports of rapture."
- "But my own powers are failing though I have used them to my utmost and not without fruit."
-  "He (Schlemihl's dog Figaro) sprang backwards towards me in transports of innocent and extravagant joy."
Schlemihl is being offered a trade: give me your soul and your shadow is returned...choices, choices

Book quotes: The Pleasures of the Table by Brillat Savarin (1825) - (1/2)

Way back in April 2013, I wrote a review of "The Physiology of Taste" (1825), a timeless classic by Brillat Savarin that covers so much, in so few pages, in so entertaining a manner.

A bit late, but as promised here some of my favourite quotes and passages from the book. The quotes are noted for their beautiful use of the English language, their wisdom and their colourful crazinesses. Topics covered include the appetite, the eating of small birds, observations on turkeys, the importance of eating truffles with ones meal, the effects of coffee and an investigation into obesity. And because the book is well out of copyright, I can cut and paste with reckless abandon!


Aphorisms of the Professor

To Serve as Prolegomena to His Work and Eternal Basis to the Science.

I. The universe would be nothing were it not for life and all that lives must be fed.
II. Animals fill themselves; man eats. The man of mind alone knows how to eat.
III. The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed.
IV. Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.
V. The Creator, when he obliges man to eat, invites him to do so by appetite, and rewards him by pleasure.
VI. Gourmandise is an act of our judgment, in obedience to which, we grant a preference to things which are agreeable, over those which nave not that quality.
VII. The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas; it mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us for their departure.
VIII. The table is the only place where one does not suffer, from ennui during the first hour.
IX. The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity, than the discovery of a new star.
X. Those persons who suffer from indigestion, or who become drunk, are utterly ignorant of the true principles of eating and drinking.
XI. The order of food is from the most substantial to the lightest.
XII. The order of drinking is from the mildest to the most foamy and perfumed.
XIII. To say that we should not change our drinks is a heresy; the tongue becomes saturated, and after the third glass yields but an obtuse sensation.
XIV. A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman who has lost an eye.
XV. A cook may be taught, but a man who can roast, is born with the faculty.
XVI. The most indispensable quality of a good cook is promptness. It should also be that of the guests.
XVII. To wait too long for a dilatory guest, shows disrespect to those who are punctual.
XVIII. He who receives friends and pays no attention to the repast prepared for them, is not fit to have friends.
XIX. The mistress of the house should always be certain that the coffee be excellent; the master that his liquors be of the first quality.
XX. To invite a person to your house is to take charge of his happiness as long as he be beneath your roof.


On Appetite

Appetite declares itself by languor in the stomach, and a slight sensation of fatigue.
The soul at the same time busies itself with things analogous to its wants; memory recalls food that has flattered its taste; imagination fancies that it sees them, and something like a dream takes place. This state is not without pleasure, and we have heard many adepts say, with joy in their heart, “What a pleasure it is to have a good appetite, when we are certain of a good meal.”
The whole nutritive apparatus is moved. The stomach becomes sensible, the gastric juices are moved and displace themselves with noise, the mouth becomes moist, and all the digestive powers are under arms, like soldiers awaiting the word of command. After a few moments there will be spasmodic motion, pain and hunger.
Every shade of these gradations may be observed in every drawing-room, when dinner is delayed.
They are such in nature, that the most exquisite politeness cannot disguise the symptoms. From this fact I deduced the apothegm,


On Great Appetites

When we see in early books a description of the preparations made to receive two or three persons, and the enormous masses served up to a single guest, we cannot refuse to think that those who lived in early ages were gifted with great appetites.
The appetite was thought to increase in direct ratio to the dignity of the personage. He to whom the saddle of a five year old ox would be served was expected to drink from a cup he could scarcely lift.
Some individuals have existed who testified to what once passed, and have collected details of almost incredible variety, which included even the foulest objects.
I will not inflict these disgusting details on my readers, and prefer to tell them two particular circumstances which I witnessed, and which do not require any great exertion of faith.
About forty years ago, I made a short visit to the cure at Bregnier, a man of immense stature and who had a fearful appetite.
Though it was scarcely noon I found him at the table. Soup and bouilli had been brought on, to these two indispensables had succeeded a leg of mutton a la Royale, a capon and a salad.
As soon as he saw me he ordered a plate which I refused, and rightly too. Without any assistance he got rid of every thing, viz: he picked the bone of mutton and ate up all the salad.
They brought him a large white cheese into which he made an angular breach measured by an arc of ninety degrees. He washed down all with a bottle of wine and glass of water, after which he laid down.
What pleased me was to see that during the whole of this business, the venerable pastor did not seem busy. The large mouth fulls he swallowed did not prevent him either from laughing or talking. He dispatched all that was put before him easily as he would have a pair of birds.
So it was with General Bisson who drank eight bottles of wine at dinner every day, and who never appeared the worse for it. He had a glass larger than usual and emptied it oftener. He did not care for that though, for after having swallowed six ounces of fluids he could jest and give his orders as if he had only swallowed a thimble full.
This anecdote recalls to me my townsman, General P. Sibuet, long the chief aide of Napoleon, and who was killed in 1813 at the passage of the Bober.
He was eighteen years old, and had at that time the appetite by which nature announces that its possessor is a perfect man, and went one night into the kitchen of Genin, an inn keeper of Belley, where the old men of the town used to meet to eat chestnuts and drink the new white wine called in the country vin bourru.
The old men were not hungry and paid no attention to him. His digestive powers were not shaken though, and he said “I have just left the table, but I will bet that I eat a whole turkey.”
“If you eat it I will pay for it,” said Bouvier du Bouchet, a rich farmer who was present, “and if you do not I will eat what is left and you shall pay for it.”


On Turkeys

The same researches informed us that the turkey gradually became acclimated in France. Well informed observers have told me that about the middle of the last century of twenty young turkeys scarcely ten lived, while now fourteen out of every twenty mature. The spring rains are most unfortunate to them; the large drops of rain striking on their tender heads destroy them


On Game (the eating of small birds)

It is a pity this bird is so rare, that few others than those who live in the southern departments of France, know what it is. * Few people know how to eat small birds. The following method was imparted confidentially to me by the Canon Charcot, a gourmand by profession, and a perfect gastronome, thirty years before the word gastronomy was invented:

Take a very fat bird by the bill and sprinkle it with salt, take out the entrails, I mean gizzard, liver, etc., and put it whole in your mouth. Chew it quickly, and the result will be a juice abundant enough to permeate the whole organ. You will then enjoy a pleasure unknown to the vulgar.
"A woodcock is never in all its glory except when roasted under the eye of a sportsman, and preferably the sportsman who killed it..."

"The time has come for this method, hitherto confined to a small circle of friends, to be made known far and wide for the happiness of mankind" (regarding a particular manner of roasting pheasants).


On Fish 

There has been a great deal of argument about the rival merits of sea fish and freshwater fish. The question will probably never be decided for as the Spanish proverb says,sobre los gustos, no hai disputas (translates to "One can't argue about tastes").

It will be remembered that not long ago any well arranged entertainment began with oysters, and that many guests never paused without swallowing a gross (144). I was anxious to know the weight of this advance guard, and I ascertained that a dozen oysters, fluid included, weighed four ounces averdupois. Now look on it as certain that the same persons who did not make a whit the worse dinner, on account of the oysters would have been completely satisfied if they had eaten the same weight of flesh or of chicken.


On Truffles

It is safe to say that at the time of writing (1825), the fame of the truffle is at its zenith. Nobody dares to admits having been present at a meal  which did not include a single truffled dish.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Quotes on libraries (2/3)

A library is the delivery room for the birth of ideas, a place where history comes to life.
    – Norman Cousins

    I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.
    – Virginia Woolf

Cutting libraries during a recession is like cutting hospitals during a plague.
– Eleanor Crumblehulme

Everything you need for better future and success has already been written. And guess what? All you have to do is go to the library.
– Henri Frederic Amiel

A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them.
– Lemony Snicket

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Book: The First 20 hours by Josh Kaufman (a summary)

The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman firmly lands in the bracket of improving/ideas books that offers very little by way of new insight and so doesn't really warrant appearing in anything longer than a pamphlet or long-form article. Indeed, I haven't read the book and recommend you follow a similar approach. Instead, listen to the TED lecture but only from the 8-minute mark onward (even the first half of the video isn't worth listening to!), take some notes, read one or two reviews to take comfort that you aren't missing anything critical to the message, be inspired, and start looking into some new skills to master. I do think the overall message is important and very well communicated by Kaufman; I just think that a full length book isn't the best medium for the message.

The central idea: it takes approximately 20 hours of focused and deliberate practice to learn a new skill to a reasonable level of proficiency. Put in this time and you will be pleasantly surprised by the results of your efforts.

Key elements to the approach:

1. Deconstruct the skill - break the skill down into its key component pieces and practice the most
important things first.
2. Learn enough to self-correct - Don't get lost in research procrastination. By all means, have multiple books and resources at hand but use these tools to notice and correct errors instead of procrastinating. In other words, get stuck in and learn by doing!
3. Remove barriers to practice - Have everything in place to practice the skill. The TV, internet, etc are all distraction traps.
4. Practice for at least 20 hours - Pre-committing to 20 hours means that you won't stop at the initial "frustration barrier". Remember that a major barrier to learning something new isn't intellectual but emotional.

The idea is common sense codified into a simple framework. However, while the 20 hour rule may be appear little more than gimmicky cheese tailored to win over a publishing contract, if you apply the rule with some discipline then at least you will have given your efforts a fair shot at success.

I do think that with so many options available at our disposal, it would be a shame to spend all of our lives specialising in a narrow range of skills or worse still, just sitting on the couch. Surely, the act of learning new things is enriching in itself and the breadth of knowledge surely makes for a more fulfilled individual. Mastery clearly pays in the modern workplace but this is not always true, and it is certainly not true when applied to the personal sphere.

Here is a cool summary graphic from another blogger (click on the image to embiggen):

And here is the video, just don't forget to skip forward 8 minutes:

Kaufman also has some useful bonus material on his web-site for people who have bought the book, including summary sheets and some useful Q+As. He asks not to provide a link so I won't, but if you are a master Google sniper, you'll find the materials with ease. Here are some of my choice tips from the bonus page:

Info junkie? - If you are drowning in too much information, with too many choices and things that you want to pursue, simply list them down in a "someday maybe" list. This helps to mentally offload the ideas, freeing up your mind space to select the one you want to do most and focus on it without distraction. Note, Kaufman recommends learning one skill at a time, appreciating that most people have time constraints (and if you have extra time in the day, use it to better develop that skill).

What about ambiguous goals such as personal speaking? Ask why you want to achieve this goal and specifically what you want to get out of it. Maybe set a target of getting to a stage where you feel comfortable about the task without panic setting in e.g. a stage where it is fun to to talk to a group of people for 5 minutes. Try and find opportunities to practice, getting up and speaking as much as possible.

What if the skill requires physical training i.e. is beyond your physical ability - Training is different to  building a skill e.g. acquisition of motor skills, balancing etc. The skill can require strength which requires training (cardio, strength).

Paul Bloom TED lecture: The Origins of Pleasure

I recently discovered this excellent TED lecture by the Yale Psychology professor Paul Bloom. Bloom recently ran a great Cousera course called "The Morality of Everyday Life", where I learned a great deal about morality/ethical behaviour from both a scientific and philosophical perspective. If you are interested in this type of thing, I highly recommend signing up for the next run of the course once the dates are made available. 

Book: Chess by Stefan Zweig

Chess is masterful novella by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer who sadly committed suicide with his wife back in 1942.

The story takes places on a cruise ship, whose party includes an arrogant world chess  champion. A wealthy passenger challenges the champion to a game and gets crushed. However, during a rematch, a stranger appears in the crowd and suggests moves worthy of a grand master, which puts the champion in a bind. "Chess" tells the story of this odd stranger and how he came to be so good at the game. The tales is strikingly well written, psychologically powerful, and grips you from start to end.

Well worth your time (at just 76 pages, you'll be done in a couple of sittings).

"In chess, as a purely intellectual game, where randomness is excluded, - for someone to play against himself is absurd ...It is as paradoxical, as attempting to jump over his own shadow."

Monday, March 03, 2014

Quotes on libraries (1/3)

“In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.”
― Mark Twain

“To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul.”
― Cicero

People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.
– Saul Bellow


Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.
    – Ray Bradbury

I’m really a library man, or second-hand book man.
– John le Carre

    A library book, I imagine, is a happy book.
    – Cornelia Funke

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Book quotes: Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture Edited by William Irwin and Kyle Johnson

Notes and quotes from" Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture", which was reviewed yesterday:
Every night on my show, The Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut … I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument.  – Stephen Colbert

[My book is] not just some collection of reasoned arguments supported by facts. That is the coward’s way out. This book it Truth. My Truth.  – Stephen Colbert

If only the whole body of human knowledge worked this way (like Wikipedia). And it can, thanks to tonight’s word: wikiality. … We should apply those principles to all information. All we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true…what we’re doing is bringing democracy to knowledge. – Stephen Colbert

Like our Founding Fathers, I hold my Truths to be self-evident, which is why I did absolutely no research. I didn’t need to. The only research I needed was a long hard look in the mirror. – Stephen Colbert

A wise man proportions his beliefs to the evidence. – David Hume

If what you’re talking about is your sense, what you feel, taste, smell, or see, then all you’re talking about are electrical signals interpreted by your brain. – Morpheus, The Matrix

Sow a though, reap an action: sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap destiny,’ – William James

“The paramedics said I was technically dead for 97 seconds. It was the best 97 seconds of my life.” House, of course, won’t stand for any of this. He tells the patient: “Okay, here’s what happened. Your oxygen-deprived brain shutting down, flooded endorphins, serotonin, and gave you the visions.”

“I’ve been trapped in this useless body long enough. It’d be nice to finally get out.” House blasts back: “Get out and go where? You think you’re gonna sprout wings and start flying around with the other angels? Don’t be an idiot. There’s no after, there’s just this.”

HOUSE: If you believe in eternity, then life is irrelevant – the same as a bug is irrelevant in comparison to the universe.
EVE: If you don’t believe in eternity, then what you do here is irrelevant.
HOUSE: Your acts here are all that matter,
EVE: Then nothing matters. There’s no ultimate consequences.

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation.

“What’s the point in living without curiosity?” – House.

Book: Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture Edited by William Irwin and Kyle Johnson

This book presents a compendium of philosophical essays that use contemporary philosophy illustrate various concepts and schools of thinking. The approach is generally successful and engaging, although when cultural examples were used that I had little interest in (e.g. Harry Potter, Metallica), I did tend to drift off, which led to me skipping about a quarter of the book. Also, because of the essay compendium nature, several issues were covered repeatedly (e.g. deontological approach versus the utilitarian approach). My final gripe is that the book seems to land in an awkward no man’s land, positioning itself somewhere between a text book and an arm-chair read for the lay person.

All these issues aside, it is a very good book and contains a great array of essays with cultural references that hit my sweet spot (Batman, The Office, Southpark, Family Guy, House, Lost and 24 all feature). Sometimes the link between the cultural reference can be a bit loose and passing, but sometimes the message and context mesh perfectly. My favourite pieces included:

The Colbert Report and individual/cultural relativism
The Matrix, metaphysics and mind-body dualism
Terminator and people vs machines (what is a person?)
Southpark and why does God allow evil (Cartmanland)
The Office and the virtues of humour
Batman and the deontological approach vs the utilitarian approach (why doesn’t Batman Kill the Joker?)
Batman, determinism, free-will and Heidegger and concept of “being-in-time”
24 and the ethics of torture
House, the quest for meaning

If you are want to read this book and are not studying a philosophy course, I recommend starting with the essays that perk your interest versus reading the text in any particular order.


Notes and quotes to follow as usual.