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Sleepless in Fulham: Rambling and gambling by David Young
Sunday, 26 August 2007
How religion poisons everything.
Topic: Religion

Christopher Hitchens joins Richard Dawkins in writing a book defending the atheist position. It’s called ‘God is not great’. In this interview with The Atlantic he fires off some wonderful zingers:

On finding out that he was Jewish:

You found out a few years ago that you’re technically Jewish.

As is Carol. We do a rather vestigial Passover seder so our daughter knows what the tradition is.

What value do you find in that?

The value in celebrating the murder of Egyptian children? I don’t think very much. But it is a tradition.

on Catholicism:

My favorite time in the cycles of public life is the time when the Pope is dead and they haven’t elected a new one. There's no one in the world who is infallible for those weeks. And you know, I don’t miss it.

On the Second Coming:

There’s a film—I’ve never seen it—about a village atheist in America. At one point, there’s some incredible thunderstorm or some other apocalyptic event that makes it seem as though the Second Coming really is about to happen. Everyone’s incredibly impressed. And even he thinks it seems to be true. But he keeps muttering as these events unfold, “But where did Cain get his wife?” All the old questions have to occur to you when you read the Bible. Maybe you can’t read, but you hear the story—wait a minute, there are only two guys in the world, and their parents, and then one of them finds a wife. Where did she come from? Once you’ve thought it, you can’t unthink it.

The subtitle of the book is ‘How Religion Poisons Everything’. If you don’t want to read 307 pages of Hitch’s screed to get to that conclusion, just watch 4 minutes and 43 seconds of Brian Sewell building up to the same point while relating the story of the Last of the Medici. Glorious stuff. The man deserves a knighthood for this alone.

_ DY at 7:35 PM BST
Updated: Monday, 27 August 2007 6:03 AM BST
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Monday, 13 August 2007
The American sex divide
Topic: Misc.

I found an interesting map recently. It shows the US with its cities coded by colour and size to show whether single men outnumber single women or vice versa. The results are quite interesting. Rather than showing a random distribution, there is instead a very clear East v West split. It's as though at some point in their lives, men go west and women go east.

I wasn't surprised that the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area is male dominated and I've always had the feeling that Las Vegas is male dominated too. But I didn't expect LA to be the place with the biggest surplus of single men. The North East by contrast seems very short of single men. That's been the premise of a lot of American films and TV shows (single woman struggling to find a man in New York). I didn't realise how true it was until now!

Plan your next holiday accordingly!


_ DY at 10:52 AM BST
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Friday, 10 August 2007
Not ready for sub-prime time.
Topic: Politics

Well I eventually figured out what the youtube link I posted below was about. If you listen long enough to Jim Cramer's rant, he says that 14 million people took out mortgages in the USA in the last three years. Half of them took advantage of so-called 'teaser' rates - introductory low interest periods for the first two or three years. Many of these borrowers were poor credit risks and many didn't understand that the low mortgage payments offered were only temporary. They could be forced to sell their homes when the bills go up.

I can understand his horror at the thought of seven million people being made homeless, but in a lot of cases the only way to have prevented this would be for them never to have had the house in the first place. I can't share his horror at the thought of investment bankers losing their jobs. As far as I'm concerned, the problems at the US investment banks are entirely of their own making. And it would be wrong for prudent people who didn't overstretch themselves to be made to bail out those who were reckless.

The fascinating thing for me is that while the US has had the same credit splurge that the UK has had, house prices have started falling, particularly in Florida. That's because, as one eminent UK economist* put it: 'In Britain we buy and sell houses, but in the US they also build them.' A friend of mine likes to send me spreadsheets showing me the average 'inventory' of US housebuilding firms. 'Inventory' in this case means the number of unsold houses on their books, divided by the average monthly sales rate. The last time he showed me the numbers, the inventory period was over eight months! Typical UK builders have no 'inventory' at all in the part of the UK where I live! He keeps asking me why I don't try to live in the US. Young Americans who have lived within their means and have saved responsibly will soon be rewarded by having a large amount of housing options to chose from. This contrast with the UK could hardly be more stark. One reader of this site recently wrote to tell me:

I thank God that I was not born three or four years later and shudder to think what it must be like to leave college today with £30,000 of debts and no prospect of ever affording a bedsit in Hackney for your trouble.  

All of this brings me back to my last piece about land use in Britain. I've had some sensible replies like the one above and some idiotic ones too, like this:

I guess you didn't hear about the flooding in the news? Spare land has important uses other than housing and farming. Flood plains

This is a pure red herring put up by people who have their own homes and who don't want more housing competing with theirs in the market. Of course I'm aware of the flooding. But if you offer someone with no home the choice of continuing to have no home or to have a home that floods for a month once every twenty years, I know what he'll take. In any case, it is not hard to get around the issue. You put a garage on the ground floor and the living quarters one storey higher. Next!

Yes, the UK can import all the food it needs. That assumes that it has the money to afford to do so in the future. It also assumes the cost of transporting globalised food doesn't go through the roof with the record oil prices. Every country in the world wants to be western. That also means importing food so that they can develop their farmland. What happens when every country wishes to import rather than grow food?

The tragedy of the underdeveloped countries is that there are barriers to them selling their food in Europe and the US. As a result they can't earn enough by farming and many of their people chose to flee to Europe as economic migrants.  The protection of the European farmer is one reason for the huge movement of people into Europe. If we bought food from overseas then we could release our land for new homes and the poorer countries wouldn't be so poor. The revenues they earn from their food exports would be used to buy our manufactured goods. It's win-win, except for European farmers who fear change. For everyone else it would be a massive gain.

This same person then described me as 'still as selfish as ever'. Incredible! Apparently it's selfish of me to want there to be more homes and more trade with the developing-world with which they could drag themselves out of poverty and give our high-tech export industries a new market! Written no doubt by someone who's got their own piece of middle England (or I suspect southern Ireland) who doesn't want anything changing now that he's on his feet.  Who's really selfish?

* Probably Roger Bootle, but it might have been Tim Congdon or Patrick Minford.

_ DY at 2:50 PM BST
Updated: Friday, 10 August 2007 3:00 PM BST
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Tuesday, 7 August 2007
Not ready for prime time.
Topic: Television

Pete Birks often comments on the poor standard of financial news coverage on British television and radio. I've noticed it too. I've been meaning to tape some of the stuff I see on News 24 and copy it down just to show how bad it is. I had in mind to go on to compare it unfavourably with US business news coverage, where more people own equities and there is a higher level of investment knowledge. I think the British public deserve better.

But are we ready for this? 

I can't see it going down too well on BBC Breakfast Time somehow. For the record I've no idea what this guy is talking about, but I think he wants US interest rates cut.

_ DY at 4:27 PM BST
Updated: Tuesday, 7 August 2007 4:38 PM BST
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Thursday, 2 August 2007
Let's build.
Topic: Politics

I went to Guernsey this weekend to stay with a friend. On the way there the Aurigny ATR72 flew at an altitude of around 15,000 feet on a path from Gatwick to Poole before crossing the channel. It was the ideal vantage point to see the landscape of West Sussex and Hampshire.

There is almost nothing there.

It's easy to think that the whole of the south of England is overbuilt. But it's a myth. There is a huge amount of empty space. I have a running argument with my mother about the need for more house-building and it always ends with her telling me something like - 'You can't concrete over the whole country. It has to be able to grow its own food.' She recently suggested that I spend a week on a farm to help me understand whatever it is that I am missing.

I certainly am missing something. Her son is renting (and sharing) at the age of 38 and has been overweight since his late twenties. Obesity is soaring, children are getting adult-onset diabetes. Yet she worries about the strategic need to maintain national food self-sufficiency. It finally dropped on me last month that her earliest memories are of the Second World War and the post-war rationing. It must make a deep impression and I wonder whether it's influenced the way policy-makers of her generation have thought about land-usage ever since.

I don't worry about that so much, as I don't think future wars are going to be like WW2. Either we get nuked or we'll face some sort of insurgency/civil war driven by fanatics, like in Iraq and Sri Lanka. I don't see the country being surrounded by U-boats and denied supplies of food from the Commonwealth. In any case it's also possible for the UK to have a greater population density and still have agriculture. The Netherlands has a far greater population density than the UK and it exports food to us!

All of which brings me to this piece in the Times -  

We’ve got lots of countryside. Let’s get building.

which demolishes the overbuilding myth and suggests changes to the way homes are designed.

ps - on the return journey the plane crossed the channel on a different flightpath, reaching the mainland at Brighton. Once that's out of view there's nothing to see until you land at Gatwick.

_ DY at 2:56 AM BST
Updated: Thursday, 2 August 2007 5:31 PM BST
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Friday, 6 July 2007
Winners can laugh. Losers make their own arrangements.
Topic: Poker

Great moments in text messaging:

From DY to Andy Ward -

"Titmus, Oakley and I win a fiver in pub quiz - and I doubled up with a side bet with Oakley. We are winners!"

From Andy Ward to DY -

"No one remembers who came second :-)"


Monday, 2 July 2007
What would Amis make of this?
Topic: Religion

Martin Amis recently said that if he were asked to describe Las Vegas in only one word it would be 'unislamic'. The Sahara Hotel and Casino has other ideas. The picture on the wall opposite the bed in my room there clearly shows the 'Ka'ba' - the black stone in the centre of Mecca. The picture above my bed (not pictured) was of the golden dome of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (or Al Quds if you're so inclined)!

The caption on the In House television reads: 'Free 7 spot Keno ticket, You Can Win $1,000!'

I'll pray to that!

_ DY at 6:56 PM BST
Updated: Tuesday, 3 July 2007 3:27 AM BST
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Friday, 22 June 2007
Greetings from Las Vegas.
Topic: Misc.

I've been in Vegas since Tuesday night. Blogging will be light for the next week as I don't have a laptop. It's been great to see so many friends and familiar faces here, but I'm not convinced the cash games are better than the ones at home. So far I'd say they are worse, but this could be due to poor game selection on my part. Frode told me to play the Bellagio at 6am, but my body clock is completely wrong for this.

Sunday, 17 June 2007
Should we ignore the Middle East in order to help it?
Topic: Politics

Prospect magazine had an interesting article about the Middle East in its May edition. 'The Middle of Nowhere' argues that 'despite its oil, this backward region is less relevant than ever, and it would be better for everyone if the rest of the world learned to ignore it.'

That's actually two statements rolled into one. The latter one is the important one. It's an interesting thesis and for many an appealing one. Just learn to ignore AIPAC, Tikkun, the ISM, etc and the problem should get better by itself! I don't doubt that the region would benefit if Iran stopped interfering, but it's less clear to me whether it would benefit from a more laissez-faire attitude in the West.

The article makes some intersting observations about the Middle East and I recommend that everyone read it. But I think it's misleading to point out that the region has "only about five per cent of the world's population". What matters most is what percentage of the world's young people it has and how fertile they are. Middle Eastern nations are mostly very young in comparison with the rest of the world, apart from Africa. And they have larger families. On current trends, Yemen's population will overtake that of Russia within a few decades.

But of more concern to me is the second statement - that the conflict would benefit if the rest of the world took less notice. The reason it bothers me is that there already is a violent conflict that the world takes little notice of and the lack of external interest doesn't appear to make peace more likely. It's a conflict that doesn't involve oil or Islam.

I'm talking about Sri Lanka, where a Tamil minority wishes to break away from the Sinhalese majority to form its own state to be called 'Eelam'. Since 1983, the Sri Lankan civil war has claimed 68,000 lives. The Tamils pioneered the use of suicide bombing, years before the Palestinians adopted it. Yet the civil war there gets a fraction of the attention from the world's media and politicians that is given to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Why?

I must confess I have a personal axe to grind here. I'm getting fed up of reading books and articles about terrorism that don't make reference to the Sri Lankan Civil War. I read the whole of Nathan Sharansky's otherwise excellent 'The Case for Democracy' waiting for him to make the comparison. It never came. I keep waiting for a critic of Israel to make a comparison of Israel's handling of public security with Sri Lanka's. Surely if an unflattering comparison could be made, I would have heard it by now? I've skim-read a lot, though not all, of Norman Finkelstein's 'Beyond Chutzpah' and I've not yet seen any such comparison, though I have seen an unflattering comparison made with the British handling of the threat from the IRA. If Sri Lanka has a better human rights record then say so. Either it doesn't, in which case Israel isn't so bad, or it does, but nobody wants to say so, because 68,000 people have died!

Friday, 8 June 2007
Where are they now?
Topic: Misc.

Two decades ago I represented my school in a public speaking competition. I was part of a three-man team; one person introduced the main speaker and one person did the vote of thanks afterwards. We did reasonably well in the heats with our talk on crime, but lost in the grand final to an all-girl team who spoke on the horrors of life in Iran under the Ayatollahs.

The main speaker of our team was an ebullient young man with a gift for self-promotion. Many people said that he was a bullshit-artist, so perhaps I should have been a bit more sceptical 12 months later when he told me that the headmaster had selected his idea for the following year's competition over mine. I took this at face value and let him get on with it. I wasn't interested in the topic he wanted to discuss. I later found out that the conversation with the headmaster had never taken place. It was a flat-out lie. 

He went to America after he finished school. The sister of a schoolfriend tracked him down in California where he was living with an American woman. When she left the room, he leaned over to my friend's sister and said 'Don't tell her my real age ... she thinks I'm 35'. Some habits are hard to break.

I often wonder what became of him.

Separately, I see that the beautiful Hollywood actress Brittany Murphy has married an Englishman of the same age as me. I wish her all the best in life and hope that there is no truth at all in the terrible rumours circulating about him.

Friday, 1 June 2007
Some anniversaries.
Topic: Misc.

It was 40 years ago today.

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album was released 40 years ago today. I wasn't around then, but I do recall a Channel 4 documentary made about it in 1987 titled, obviously enough, 'It was twenty years ago today'. What stands out in my mind was the angry response of viewers to Gus McDonald's 'Right to Reply' show that the whole thing had been a huge advertisement for LSD. Can't have been a succesful ad campaign though, as I don't recall a sales spike thereafter.

It was one year ago today.

It's exactly a year since I was last on a plane. Well, you've got to keep you're carbon footprint down, haven't you? Lol, don't worry, I haven't gone soft, as a certain US president seems to have lately. I'm still not convinved at all. But if you are, then you should check out Andy Ward's site where he'll tell you what to do. And if you missed the chance to talk to him about it in Tunica in January, you can speak to him about it in Vegas next week.

Thursday, 24 May 2007
Ignorance is global.
Topic: Misc.

After my last post about Peter Popoff, I got a comment stating 'Do you now understand why we make fun of Americans?'. It's easy to find examples of ignorance in America. Its culture is quite open to us. Here are some other examples of mind-boggling credulity:

Israel - This clip is worth watching. Like Peter Popoff, Uri Geller was exposed on the Johnny Carson show decades ago. Despite this, he's still able to appear on Israeli television doing his same old schtick! This time watch the suspicious way he appears to stick something on the end of his thumb, just before the compass needle moves. What could it be, I wonder? Does this crap still impress people?

James Randi is the nuts!

Saudi Arabia - If, like me, you watched a World Cup game last year, be afraid. Be very very afraid. You're going straight to hell.

What I love about this clip is the dead-pan way the host expresses concern while the cleric talks the most hilarious bullshit I've heard in years. I can't make up whether he's taken in by it or whether he's decided to give the religious loony enough rope to hang himself. Brilliant viewing either way.

_ DY at 1:03 PM BST
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Saturday, 5 May 2007
It beggars belief.
Topic: Religion

After writing about Derren Brown, I had a look at some clips of him on Youtube and checked out some other stuff relating to trickery. This one has me stumped:

It concerns the televangelist Peter Popoff who was exposed as a charlatan in the late 1980s. Shortly afterwards he declared bankruptcy. Amazingly he's now back doing pretty much the same thing, as the Inside Edition clip exposes.

This time, he gets people to apply for some free 'Miracle Spring Water'. Recipients discover that the miracle only works if you sprinkle the enclosed sachet of 'Dead Sea Salt' over a cheque for $27 made out to him. As the man himself explains 'It's not the water that releases the power, it's your obedience to the instructions of the prophet of God'.

What stuns me is that he's operating under the same name as before. How he can get away with this in the age of the internet I cannot possibly understand. It doesn't take a minute on Google to find out about his past. Words truly fail me.

_ DY at 6:09 PM BST
Updated: Saturday, 5 May 2007 8:29 PM BST
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Friday, 4 May 2007
Trick or treat?
Topic: Television

Sorry for the infrequent posting lately. I made a decision a few months ago to 'spring clean' my life and eliminate a few things that were annoying me. I stopped playing online poker in January and stopped looking at the Gutshot and Hendon Mob discussion forums in February. Stepped up the physical exercise, lost a lot of weight and started playing much longer hours in live action. I've been a lot happier and more successful, but the blog has suffered a bit as a result.

Derren Brown has a series on Friday nights called Trick or Treat. I didn't see the first one, but I've seen the poker one with Neil Channing, Jeff Duvall, Paul Parker, Nik Persaud and Tony Holden. And I saw another one with a 'trick' involving a dummy. While watching the latter on video this morning, I realised that his 'trick or treat' cards are exactly the same. Turn 'trick' upside down and it shows 'treat' (and vice versa). It means that the 'random choice' made by the applicant is non-existent. Brown makes the choice after the card is selected by choosing whether to turn it over horizontically or vertically. Quite funny once you realise it.

It's things like that which make you wonder though whether Brown does what he claims he does - psychological tricks - or whether it's just standard magic dressed up for a post Paul Daniels era audience. There tends to be only enough room on TV for one famous magician at any time and to break through you need a gimmic ... rude (Daniels), comatose (Blaine) or mind-controller (Brown).

Whatever the case, his show's worth seeing. In one of his shows, he did a trick involving paying for something using blank bits of paper instead of money. The trick worked by having a conversation whilst handing over the 'cash' in which he used the words 'it's fine, take it'. Viewers actually saw the trick fail in one of the three instances shown. It was interesting that this was when he approached a vendor whose English wasn't fluent. For me this supports the idea that what he did there was actually genuine.

I've spoken to all bar one of the professional players selected for the poker show and they all felt that there was something fishy about it.

Channel 4, tonight 10pm

_ DY at 2:23 PM BST
Updated: Friday, 4 May 2007 2:24 PM BST
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Saturday, 14 April 2007
Compulsory reading for those who want to understand teen violence.
Topic: Politics

The spate of murders of teenagers by teenagers in Britain has rightly made the news and drawn the attention of commentators to the problem. Alas, I fear that many of them are missing the point. The National Union of Teachers says that black fathers must do more. Tony Blair says something equally inane. Do any of them know what they are talking about? I can't claim any inside knowledge of the life of the underpriviliged black teenager, but I think I know where to start looking for a clue as to the nature of the problem. For that I must thank Juliette White for introducing me to Paul Graham.

I've cited Graham before in reference to his excellent 'Inequality and Risk' essay (see the Essential Reading list on the left hand panel). Today I recommend that anyone who has a sincere desire to get inside the mind of teenage delinquency read another titled 'Why Nerds are Unpopular'. I wish I had been able to read it when I started school.

Extract 1:

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren't left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies. Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they'll do as adults.

And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years' training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop. Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.

What happened? We're up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don't start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30. Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they'd be a net loss. But they're also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.

If you stop there, what you're describing is literally a prison, albeit a part-time one. The problem is, many schools practically do stop there. The stated purpose of schools is to educate the kids. But there is no external pressure to do this well. And so most schools do such a bad job of teaching that the kids don't really take it seriously-- not even the smart kids. Much of the time we were all, students and teachers both, just going through the motions.

Extract 2:

In almost any group of people you'll find hierarchy. When groups of adults form in the real world, it's generally for some common purpose, and the leaders end up being those who are best at it. The problem with most schools is, they have no purpose. But hierarchy there must be. And so the kids make one out of nothing. We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that's exactly what happens in most American schools.

Instead of depending on some real test, one's rank depends mostly on one's ability to increase one's rank. It's like the court of Louis XIV. There is no external opponent, so the kids become one another's opponents. When there is some real external test of skill, it isn't painful to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. A rookie on a football team doesn't resent the skill of the veteran; he hopes to be like him one day and is happy to have the chance to learn from him. The veteran may in turn feel a sense of noblesse oblige. And most importantly, their status depends on how well they do against opponents, not on whether they can push the other down.

Court hierarchies are another thing entirely. This type of society debases anyone who enters it. There is neither admiration at the bottom, nor noblesse oblige at the top. It's kill or be killed. This is the sort of society that gets created in American secondary schools. And it happens because these schools have no real purpose beyond keeping the kids all in one place for a certain number of hours each day. What I didn't realize at the time, and in fact didn't realize till very recently, is that the twin horrors of school life, the cruelty and the boredom, both have the same cause.


Graham is talking about suburban American schools and the persecution of the nerds (who realise that there is more to life than mere popularity) and the rest (who don't). But his words have a vital relevance to the violence on the streets of London. Young men are killing each other over arguments about who's got the best postcode. Parks that lie between two estates become battlegrounds for turf wars where absolutely nothing except 'respect' and 'reputation' is at stake. The problem may be mainly manifesting itself among the black teenagers of South London, but it could just as easily occur in places where everyone is white. The vital ingredient of this recipe is the chasm between what young people are doing and what is of relevance in the real world. As long as our education system promotes only academic learning and neglects vocational education, kids will rebel. It's very hard for a 14-year old to see the value in learning about the square on the hypotenuse, the marriages of Henry VIII or the causes of the First World War when his core concern is how he's going to get a career and with it the respect that comes from achieving something.

I observed over three years ago that a room full of young people aged between 17-20, half of whom were black, with little or no academic ambition was happy to sit in total silence when someone spoke to them about something that they thought would give them a career, money and respect. I said it then and I'm more convinced of it now. Making school more relevant is the key to reducing the violence and delinquency.

_ DY at 1:57 PM BST
Updated: Sunday, 15 April 2007 11:57 AM BST
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