bookmark_borderFlying around on my mother’s broomstick

Flying with kids
Originally uploaded by viralbus

During our recent holiday in my parents’ house in Tuscany, we spent a fair amount of time practicing our flying skills on my mother’s broomstick.

Anna wasn’t that great at flying on her own, so I sometimes let her ride on my back.

Léon, on the other hand, was quite capable of flying on his own, although Marcel normally would fly close to him to prevent any accident (see this photo).

Perhaps we should buy broomsticks for the entire family?

bookmark_borderBaby boom riots

Goodnight babies
Originally uploaded by Herkie

Stuart Bonar has written an interesting blog posting on Liberal Democrat Voice about the English riots and the birth rate:

The first postwar [birth] peak was in 1947 (881,026 births), which was exactly 21 years before the 1968 riots. The next peak was in 1964, with 875,972 births; this was exactly 21 years before the 1985 riots.

Unmentioned by Willetts, of course, are the riots of 2011. Well, the third postwar peak in births (lower than the other two at 706,140, but still a peak with a trough either side) occurred in 1990. Yes, that’s right: 21 years ago this year.

So, each post-war peak in births has been followed, exactly 21 years later, by violent rioting in the capital. Willetts makes the argument, put simply, that when you get a big bulge of youngsters coming through, you get trouble…

Of course not everything can be explained in this way, but I found it interesting nonetheless. I wonder whether similar correlations hold for other countries.

bookmark_borderAutomatic transmission

When I was learning to drive a few years ago, I bemoaned the complexity of manual transmission and suggested a better way: “As far as I can see, all of this could be done with the vertical part of a joystick or similar, holding it still to maintain the speed, moving it forwards to go faster, and pulling it backwards to slow down (and braking depending on how hard you’re pulling it).”

When I wrote this, I had never tried to drive a car with automatic transmission. However, during our recent holiday in Tuscany, we rented an automatic Lancia Delta Sport, so I got the opportunity to try it.

At first I hated it! It seemed to disengage the engine just as I was trying to go faster for the purpose of changing gear, and in the same way slowing down was interrupted at the wrong time.

With time I got used to it, though, especially after I found the manual override – it allows the driver to select plus to go up a gear and minus to go down one, which is useful to anticipate the gear change.

However, it did show me what the problem of my old suggestion was: If the driver is slowing down, the best gear change depends on what happens a few seconds ahead. For instance, if the driver goes down from 40 to 30 and then back up to 40, it might be best not to change the gear at all, whereas if the change for 40 to 30 is followed by a further deceleration to 20, it would have been better to lower the gear sooner rather than later. The car cannot know this, however, so it will have to err in one of the two situations.

The only way to make a better automatic drive would be for the controls to be different. If for instance cars had a control for target speed and a brake, in the first scenario the driver would leave the target speed at 40 but press the brake to go temporarily down to 30, whereas in the second scenario the driver would alter the target speed to 20 without pressing the brake at all.

Why aren’t the car companies coming up with ideas like these? 😉

bookmark_borderThe 五笔 input method

I’ve just started learning Chinese in my spare time. Given that I studied Japanese for almost two years at university, Chinese has never been an entirely closed book to me in its written form (to me, obviously a ?? is a teacher, but I had no idea until recently that the Chinese pronounce it xi?nsheng, rather than something sensible such as sensei).

I decided to figure out how to write it on my computer from the outset – these days I hardly ever write anything by hand.

The most obvious way of typing Chinese is by entering the pronunciation in Pinyin and then have the computer display the various options. However, Chinese has so many homophones that it requires you to stop up and read the suggestions extremely frequently, which slows you down.

I therefore decided to learn a stroke-based method instead, and I decided to go for ??/Wubi, which apparently is the most widespread method in the PRC.

It’s an extremely efficient method – any commonly used simplified Hanzi can be written with four keystrokes or less.

As an example, here’s the first paragraph from Chinese Wikipedia’s article about Wubi:


According to Google, this is transcribed as follows in Pinyin:

W?b? zìxíng sh?rù f? shì Wáng Y?ngmín zài 1983 nián 8 yuè f?míng de y? zh?ng hànzì sh?rù f?. Zh?ngwén sh?rù f? de bi?nm? f?ng’àn h?ndu?, dàn j?b?n y?jù d?u shì hànzì de dúy?n hé zìxíng li?ng zh?ng sh?xìng. W? b? zìxíng wánquán y?jù b?huà hé zì xíng tèzh?ng duì hànzì jìnxíng bi?nm?, shì di?nxíng de xíng m? sh?rù f?. W? b? zì xíng sh?rù f? zh?yào yòng yú sh?yòng ji?nt? zh?ngwén de zh?ngguó dàlù, guòqù, w? b? d?zì b? p?ny?n f?ngbiàn, dàn suízhe zhìnéng p?ny?n de x?ngq?, w? b? y?j?ng bù jùbèi y?ushì. Diàochá bi?omíng, mùqián, zài dàxuésh?ng zh?ng, sh?yòng w? b? de rén y?j?ng h?n sh?ole. Érqi?, h?ndu? sh?uj? méiy?u QWERTY jiànpán, wúf? zài sh?uj? shàng sh?yòng w? b?, shì w? b? de jùdà lièshì.

I’ve written a program to generate the Wubi keystrokes to key this text (contact me if you’re interested in the program):

ggtt pbga lwty if j gyna d 1983rh 8eee ntje r ggtk icpb lwty if. khyy lwty if r xydc yypv tvqq, wjg adsg wyrn ftjb j icpb r yfn ujf t pb gae gmww tkh ntnt. ggtt pbga pfwg wyrn ttgl t pb gae trtg cf icpb fjtf xydc, j maga r gae dcg lwty if. ggtt pbga lwty if ygsv etgf wget tuws khyy r khlg ddbf, fpfc, ggtt rspb xx ruuj yywg, wjg bdud tdce ruuj r iw fhn, ggtt nnxc i hwtl wdrv. ymsj geje, hhue, d ditg k, wget ggtt r w nnxc tvit b. dmeg, tvqq rtsm imde QWERTYqvte, fqif d rtsm h wget ggtt, j ggtt r andd itrv.

Note how much shorter it is than the Pinyin version, and don’t forget that keying the Hanzi through Pinyin would require a lot of interactivity whereas the Wubi version can be keyed without looking.

However, I am finding the learning curve for Wubi to be quite steep. Lots of characters are really easy to type (w for ?, eeee for ?, wwf for ?, and even khlg for ?? are all easily learned), but can anybody explain to me why ? is rnb in Wubi?!?

bookmark_borderReturning to the Gold Standard

Edmund Conway has written an interesting article about the future for fiat currencies.

He points out that tomorrow it will be 40 years ago that the Gold Standard was abolished (and fiat currencies introduced). He then asks:

So are we nearing the end of this economic era? All the hallmarks are there. We’ve been through the periods of faith in the system, peaking with the certain belief in the 1990s and early 2000s that inflation targets really would help keep governments on an even keel. We’ve had the financial crisis that usually marks the beginning of the end of established monetary systems. And now we are seeing the debasement.

Consider the price of gold, which has recently scaled new highs. […] The price reflects many factors, including economic growth, but chief among them is a diminishing faith in the ability of fiat currencies to maintain their value.

[…] It is no coincidence that the price really started to spike (in other words faith in currencies versus gold plunged) in 2001, which just so happens to be the year central banks first started experimenting with quantitative easing (QE) – in Japan.


As ever these days, any hope, such as it is, lies in China. It is fast realising that its investment in US debt will not be fully repaid.

However, in the long run it has two options: to allow the US to debase or default; or to negotiate, forgive a chunk of the debt and dramatically reduce those imbalances. It can afford to do so economically; whether it can afford it politically is another question. However, such a bold move (and I do not expect it any time soon) would at least mark a fitting gesture from an economy which will help construct the next international monetary system.

What would the next international monetary system be like? Would we see a return to the Gold Standard, a move which Conway has previously dismissed as madness? (The latter article is also the source of the illustration above, which illustrates that the Gold Standard implies the abolishment of independent monetary policy, whereas we’ve sacrificed fixed exchange rates instead for the past four decades.)

I’m not sure what we’ll see. However, very few countries have had truly free-floating currencies for the past decades, so I’m not sure sacrificing independent monetary policy will be seen as a big problem to most countries, although it of course will have major implications for the US and the UK.

bookmark_borderThree weeks in Italy

Pieve Pontenano
Originally uploaded by viralbus

We’ve just returned from three weeks in Tuscany, where my parents had invited us to spend the summer holiday with them in their house in a tiny village called Pieve Pontenano in the mountains less than 100 km south-east of Florence.

The weather was quite pleasant most of the time, with temperatures around 30 degrees in the shade (the main exception being Marcel’s birthday, when it was raining heavily) – the day we flew back to Scotland, temperatures were about 20 degrees lower in Prestwick than in Pisa, so it was quite a shock to the system to return.

My parents’ internet connection isn’t great, which is partly why I haven’t blogged while I was away, but it is actually really nice to be away from everything for a while.

We went on a day-trip to Rome with the two big ones, and another to Siena with all the kids and my mum. Siena was surprisingly even more touristy and expensive than Rome, so I wouldn’t recommend going there during summer.

We also went on shorter trips to local towns such as Arezzo, Bibbiena and Montevarchi – the latter was by far the better place to buy clothes because very few tourists seem to go there (apart from David Cameron).

We all enjoyed it. Léon got much better at speaking Danish (rather than just understanding it) – when I was lying in bed in the morning I could often hear him speaking Danish to my parents with his almost pedantic pronunciation. 🙂

I wish I could say it was nice to be home, but if only their internet connection had been better and the kids hadn’t needed to start school soon, it would have been been severely tempting to stay there for another three weeks.