The Samovar

Rational responses to terrorism
April 30, 2007, 7:05 pm
Filed under: Politics, Terrorism

When I say that we are over-reacting to the threat of terrorism, I am occasionally challenged to explain what an appropriate reaction would be, how we can quantify it, etc. Documents such as Europol’s EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (via Lenin’s Tomb) are a good start. (See also this article for a view of the situation in the US.)

The tables below list all the terrorist incidents in 2006 (the first one), and the number of arrests made (the second one). Sorry I’ve included them as images because WordPress seems to have difficulty with copying and pasting tables in and I didn’t want to write them out by hand.

The first thing to notice is that of 498 terrorist attacks, only one was identified as ‘Islamist’. On the other hand, close to half of the arrests made were of people suspected of ‘Islamist’ terrorism. On the other hand, ‘Separatist’ terrorism (such as ETA in Spain) accounted for 424 of the 498 attacks, but accounts for less arrests in total than of ‘Islamist’ terrorism.

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that our anti-terrorism resources are not being used efficiently.

UPDATE (2nd May 2007): Actually this conclusion is not such a reasonable one to make because the statistics below don’t tell you about the number of casualties per incident. See the comments for more details.

The tables and the rest of the report make interesting material to study. Most of the 2006 incidents were due to Basque separatists in Spain and Corsican separatists in France. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t give figures for the number of casualties, wounded, and the amount of property damage caused by these incidents, but it does repeatedly refer to the fact that casualties were usually low. Given this, it becomes appropriate to consider terrorism as an economic cost, and therefore the resources given to combat it should be proportional to the damage caused. Similarly, restrictions on civil liberties, legislative changes, etc. cannot be justified based on the costs of terrorism compared to other forms of damage to society (cars, pollution, etc.).



April 29, 2007, 5:05 pm
Filed under: Frivolity, Games | Tags:

Azahar was looking for words containing each of the vowels aeiou precisely once in order. The full list (from the complete OED) is below. Technically minded folk might also be interested in the appendix at the bottom of this entry.

How many can you get before looking?







Whole words

With definitions where the word is obscure or obsolete.

abstemious, abstemiously
abstentious: “Characterized by abstinence”
acheilous: “without a lip”
adventious: “Of the nature of an addition from without; extrinsically added, not essentially inherent; supervenient, accidental, casual.”
affectious, affectiously: “affectionate”
Alpestrious: “Alpine”
anemious: “Of plants: Windy, i.e. growing in windy and exposed situations.”
annelidous: “Of the nature of an annelid or worm.”
arsenious: “Of the nature of, or containing, arsenic.”
arterious: “arterial”
caesious: “Bluish or greyish green. (Chiefly in Bot.)”
camelious: “Jocular word invented by Kipling (in form cameelious) to describe the hump given to the lazy camel in Just So Stories.”
facetious, facetiously
fracedinous: “productive of heat through putrefaction; pertaining to putrid fermentation.”
Gadsprecious: “from Gad, substituted for God: With ordinary ns., sometimes preceded by an adj.; also with the adj. used elliptically, as God’s blest, precious, etc.”
gravedinous: “Drowsy, heavy-headed.”
materious: “Consisting of matter. Also: significant, important; = MATERIAL”
placentious: “Pleasing, or disposed to please; complaisant, agreeable.”
tragedious, tragediously: “Full of, or having the character of, tragedy; calamitous, tragic.”

Multiple words

My dictionary search also picked up these hyphenated words and phrases, but I can’t be bothered to get the definitions for them all.

dandelion plush
(my) cake is dough
trade-wind cloud

Technical Appendix

The regular expression (regex) for finding such words is:


The OED search box doesn’t support full regexs though, so you have to search for *a*e*i*o*u* where the * means any number of any characters. This finds 660 words which you can check by hand or copy into a text editor which supports regexs.

There is also the problem of æ (used in the word cæsious) which you need to check separately.

Infantile, but…
April 25, 2007, 1:29 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags:

Looking at the BBC news front page I noticed this lovely juxtaposition:


My five of the top 50
April 24, 2007, 1:36 pm
Filed under: Food

This year’s list of the top 50 restaurants in the world has been released, and guess what? I’ve been to five of them already! 🙂

  • The Fat Duck (2)
  • Hakkasan (19)
  • Gordon Ramsay (24)
  • St John (34)
  • Bukhara (37 – in Delhi!)

To really improve my list I want to get to el Bulli (1) in Spain and The French Laundry (4) in California.

It’s got some strange things on it. For example, I doubt I’d put St John on that list, and Hakkasan seems much too high (Gordon Ramsay was much better). Maybe it’s improved a lot since I went there though, it’s moved up 17 places since last year.

Political miscellany: speed cameras, parecon, slavery
April 19, 2007, 4:39 pm
Filed under: Politics

Speed cameras

The BBC have a feature on speed cameras:

Before speed cameras, the number of road deaths was falling dramatically but this is no longer the case. So do speed cameras really make our roads safer?

The article includes some interesting discussion of the difficulties in evaluating the statistics about whether or not speed cameras really make a difference. I’ve never really been sure about speed cameras myself, but I’m not against speed restrictions in principle.

What the article doesn’t mention is average speed checks. This is a new form of speed camera that is being used quite often now on motorways. The way it works is that they have a series of cameras along a stretch of road. As you pass each one, the camera automatically records your license plate and the time you passed the camera. Since they know the distance between the cameras, this allows them to work out the average speed you were travelling at between any two cameras along the road. If this is higher than the speed limit, you get fined. The clever thing about this is that you can’t just race along above the speed limit and slow down as you pass the cameras. Although you’ll notice that people who don’t yet understand the system still do this, it won’t take long before they learn.

There are some issues with this of course. First, it’s not clear that this could be used in town very easily, where your average speed is typically quite low, and instantaneous measurements are more appropriate. Secondly, there are civil liberties implications. Can we trust the government with a network of cameras which can track our license plates? Probably not.

Still, despite that I’d be in interested in a study which showed how effective these new average speed checks are in reducing accidents.

Personally, I favour installing automatic speed limiters in everyone’s cars.

Participatory economics

Lenin’s Tomb has an entry on parecon (which I have previously written about here and here) with an even more interesting discussion in the comments. Marxists and pareconists are usually quite hostile towards one another, but the discussion at the Tomb is thoughtful, particularly Lenin’s contributions.


Chris Dillow has an entry about African economic underdevelopment, slavery and geography. In particular, it introduced me to Nathan Nunn who has done recent work demonstrating a link (although not necessarily a causative one) between economic underdevelopment and slavery.

… and just so you know I’m serious
April 18, 2007, 12:24 am
Filed under: Books, Neuroscience

Hmm, it strikes me that three posts in one night (and at least four in a row) about food suggest I’m a rather frivolous person. Well, hey! I’ve been on holiday for a week. What can I say? Anyway, in partial mitigation of my consumption-related posting:


I have a plan, and that plan is to read a book by every Nobel prize for literature winning author. (Well not the poetry. I can’t hack poetry for some reason.) So… opinions? Pointless exercise or not? Any of them I should particularly prioritise or avoid? Will I even be able to get copies of books by all of them? Some of them seem pretty obscure.

So far, I’ve only read 16 of them. How many have you read? (This could be a meme, but this is a very serious post, so let’s not make it one.)


Before I wrote these entries I read this paper:

The timing of action potentials in sensory neurons contains substantial information about the eliciting stimuli. Although the computational advantages of spike timing–based neuronal codes have long been recognized, it is unclear whether, and if so how, neurons can learn to read out such representations. We propose a new, biologically plausible supervised synaptic learning rule that enables neurons to efficiently learn a broad range of decision rules, even when information is embedded in the spatiotemporal structure of spike patterns rather than in mean firing rates. The number of categorizations of random spatiotemporal patterns that a neuron can implement is several times larger than the number of its synapses. The underlying nonlinear temporal computation allows neurons to access information beyond single-neuron statistics and to discriminate between inputs on the basis of multineuronal spike statistics. Our work demonstrates the high capacity of neural systems to learn to decode information embedded in distributed patterns of spike synchrony.

Good stuff.

Gravy drinking zeitgeist
April 18, 2007, 12:00 am
Filed under: Food, Recipes

OK, this is the last food related post of the evening.

Over the last year or two I’ve been eating at some pretty darn posh restaurants, largely on online poker winnings, including the Fat Duck and Gordon Ramsay. I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon.

At the Fat Duck, they serve their spectacular venison dish with a cup of ‘venison tea’ on the side. This is a sort of venison consomme (clear, thin liquid, intensely flavoured) with (oddly) frankincense. The idea being that you drink this ‘tea’ as you eat the main dish.

Another dish they serve there is lamb with a bowl of cold, jellied, lamb consomme with a ‘salad’ of thinly sliced lambs tongues on top. Again, the idea being that you dip into this cold soup / jelly as you eat the main dish.

When I recently went to Gordon Ramsay, they served the beef dish with a cup of beef consomme at the side. Same idea. They made the point explicitly that this was the same stuff as you were eating in your main dish by bringing an empty cup and a dry plate of food to the table, and then pouring the liquid into both your plate and the cup from the same glass jug.

I know someone (hi Mikey!) that used to – and probably still does – drink the remaining gravy from the gravy boat after a roast dinner. At the time I’m sure that nobody else in the world was drinking gravy, and it seemed a bit self-indulgent and gluttonous, even to me! These days though, it seems to be quite standard in all the best restaurants. 😉 Nice one Mikey, you were ahead of the game there.

Anyway, I bring this to your attention as an interesting (and fashionable) possibility you might like to consider next time you make a roast dinner. I had roast lamb the other day and made a sort of lamb consomme which we used as a gravy, but I couldn’t persuade anyone else to have it in a cup alongside their dinner and I couldn’t quite bring myself to be the only one doing it. It was only ‘sort of’ a lamb consomme because I didn’t go to all the effort of making the liquid clear using egg whites and multiple infusions of meat that seems pointlessly time consuming to me. In hindsight, I should have at least strained the liquid through kitchen paper or something so that it was clearer, and then there might have been more interest in having it in cups.

For reference, the gravy/consomme was made as follows:

Cut off a chunk of your roasting joint, or more sensibly buy a separate piece of cheaper meat, to make the gravy with. To make it strongly flavoured enough, you probably want to use a quarter of the amount of meat to make the gravy as you use for roasting.

Cut up the meat very finely and cook it in a lightly oiled pan at a very high heat until it goes quite dark but doesn’t burn. Now deglaze this pan with some liquid (i.e. pour the liquid in to the very hot pan and dissolve the almost burnt bits of meat in the bottom of the pan). I used red wine for the lamb. If you’re using wine or other alcohol, it will probably reduce and disappear fairly quickly. Now cover with water and bring to the boil. Add some finely chopped vegetables, herbs and maybe some spices. I used what I had to hand which was an onion, lots of rosemary and parsley and some bay leaves. Other good things to put in are carrots, leeks, celery and any appropriate herb. Putting a single star anise or clove in is also great.

Simmer this liquid for an hour or so, then strain it. If you want a thick gravy, you can reduce it further and thicken it by dropping a ball of butter and flour mixed into a paste into the liquid and stirring as it boils until the ball disappears and the gravy thickens. Or, use it as it is as a thin gravy or in a tea cup. Oh, also remember to season with salt and pepper.

It might seem like a lot of effort for gravy, but actually it’s not as much effort as it sounds. A lot of the first steps above can be carried out as you’re preparing the meat and vegetables for your roast dinner,then you can leave it to simmer as everything is cooking, straining it just before serving.

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