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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Aubergine pasta sauce
April 17, 2007, 11:30 pm
Filed under: Food, Recipes

One of my most popular recipes at the moment is an aubergine pasta sauce. For a while, I had been making this dish for myself as a quick dinner when eating alone because whenever I suggested it to anyone they didn’t show any interest. Aubergines do not arouse any excitement it seems. Recently though, it seems to have caught on and I’m always being asked to make it.

The recipe below is mine, but adapted from three recipes. One is from the recipe book of the Walnut Tree Inn, from back when it was an excellent and highly regarded Italian restaurant, another from the River Cafe cook book, and the last is from Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking. I highly recommend all three.

Ingredients (for 2 hungry people)

  • 250g pasta – fettucine or other flat pasta is good, wholewheat works well
  • 1 aubergine, halved lengthwise and very thinly sliced
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1-2 chillis or dried chilli flakes (these work really well actually)
  • 1 tin tomatoes, or equivalent amount of chopped fresh tomato
  • Parmesan
  • Olive oil, quite a lot
  • Salt, pepper
  • Optional: fresh basil or coriander
  • Optional: 1 ball of mozzarella, preferably buffalo mozzarella, torn or chopped into bite sized pieces

In a large saucepan heat the olive oil. The amount you use is at your discretion. At the very least, you need a good covering of the base of your pan, but considerably more is preferable. The reason is that later on the aubergine will soak a lot of it up. This is a good thing and a bad thing – it’s good because it’s delicious, but it’s bad because you run the risk of burning the aubergine if you’re not careful. More on that in a moment.

Soften the finely chopped onion in the oil. Now add the thinly sliced aubergine. It’s important to make these slices as thin as you can be bothered. I usually go for about pound coin thickness as a trade-off between effort and reward. At this point, you can also add the chilli or flakes. Cover this pan and cook, occasionally uncovering and stirring so it doesn’t stick and burn. You need to keep cooking until the aubergine is soft enough to eat. Taste it to check when you reach this point – it’s always important to do this at every stage of cooking anything actually.


Now add the tomatoes, turn up the heat and reduce until the sauce is thick and there is no loose liquid in the pan, but no further than this. Season to taste. Take it off the heat and add the herbs and cheeses and stir them in. Mix with the pasta and serve. You may have difficulty with the melted mozzarella going everywhere, but it’s all part of the fun.

Mashed sweet potatoes – any ideas?
April 17, 2007, 11:10 pm
Filed under: Food, Recipes

I’ve always had difficulty making really good mashed sweet potatoes. Can anyone help?

Usually when I try this I treat it like mashed potato – I peel and cut the sweet potato into fairly small cubes and boil them until they’re soft, then mash them with salt, pepper and butter. The problem is that although it’s quite tasty, they tend to be watery. I assume that this is due to some difference between ordinary and sweet potatoes so that the latter absorb water if they’re cooked in it.

Tonight I tried an alternative, peeling and baking them in the oven in a dish covered in aluminium foil. It was better – they weren’t quite so watery – but it was still not quite right. The texture was still not firm enough for my liking.

I haven’t yet tried steaming them, or baking them with their skins on and then scooping out the flesh, and maybe these will work, but tonight’s experiment suggests I’m missing something fundamental if I want to make them more solid and less watery.


Stomach expansion
April 11, 2007, 1:45 am
Filed under: Food

Readers of my old blog will remember that I went to visit the Fat Duck on poker winnings. Well, more poker has been won, and tonight Alastair and I went to visit Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant in London. For those of you not in the know, the Fat Duck and Gordon Ramsay are two of the three best restaurants in England (those with three Michelin stars), the other one being the Waterside Inn at Bray (a report will follow when we get round to it, but more poker needs to be played first). We opted for the (nominally) seven course tasting menu (which actually featured rather more courses). We just got back and we’re rather full. For those who like such things, here is what we had:


  • Cornetto with aubergine mousse and courgette flowers, topped with caviar
  • Mozeralla balls with parmesan and pesto

Amuse-bouche: Breakfast plate


  • Mushroom stuffed with mushroom mousse
  • Pork crackling with bacon
  • Duck egg shell, with beans, scrambled egg, tomato froth

Alastair enjoying it:



  • Ballotine of foie gras with pickled vegetables and camomile reduction (also note: featured some rather tasty truffle action)

Here’s me about to tuck in – note, this is one of the very few times you will see me with a tie, so enjoy it.



  • Lobster ravioli with lobster reduction, sun dried tomato


  • Alastair had: Fillet of line caught halibut with coriander, ginger pappardelle and passion fruit butter sauce


  • Dan had: Pan fried line caught sea bass with roasted baby violet artichokes, borlotti beans and a cep veloute


  • Roasted fillet of Northumberland beef, kohlrabi, horseradish cream, truffle and root vegetable infusion

Beef fillets were on top of something of beef cheek and savoy cabbage. Kohlrabi is a sort of root vegetable a bit like turnip. The ‘vegetable infusion’ was a beef consomme with truffles. It was poured over the dish, and also served in a tea cup alongside. The horseradish cream was mashed potato and horseradish served separately in a sort of copper pan.Here’s me about to drink some of my beef consomme:


And the beef close-up:



  • Creme brulee (not actually brulee) with lemongrass, raspberry.
  • Pineapple and Champagne soup with chilli and fromage frais


Yep – you slurp it through a straw.


  • Alastair had: Granny Smith parfait with honeycomb and chocolate brownie.
  • Dan had: Raspberry and lemon millefeuille with basil, lime and milk ice-cream.


  • Bitter chocolate space-balls on a stick
  • Rosewater Turkish delight
  • Strawberry ice cream with white chocolate shell, served on liquid nitrogen base


Update for Ed: a close up of those puddings in that last picture