Pictures of Herons


What do you need to take a good photo of a heron? A camera, sure. A heron, definitely. But there’s a bit more to it than that.

If you follow me on twitter you have probably seen, in recent weeks, me posting some of the photos that I’ve taken and a lot of them have involved that magnificent bird, the grey heron. I did some Binging (I don’t use Google anymore, evil bastards) of heron photos and I reckon mine stack up quite well. I therefore thought I’d put down the things I’d learnt – mainly through trial and error. That way, if you decide to take some pictures of a heron, you might have a bit of a head start.


You’ll need a camera that does this:

  • Gives you quick access to adjust shutter speed, aperture, ISO and (ideally) focus point
  • Focuses very quickly
  • Has a high frame rate, i.e. can take lots of photos very quickly
  • Shoots at higher ISOs without noticeable degradation in image quality

This almost certainly means an SLR. There are some non-SLR cameras that can do these things but they are insanely expensive. The Fuji X-Pro1 and Leica M9 are examples of this but even they have a limitation that an SLR does not. In addition to the above requirements you need a long lens – basically the longer the better. A heron is a big bird but they are shy as hell and don’t appreciate someone standing right next to them. You might be able to get away with a 200mm lens but 300mm is going to be much more reliable. Most SLR manufacturers offer zoom lenses up to 300mm that are not insanely expensive. Of course, if you have the budget to go above 300mm, even better.


Getting a good portrait shot of a heron is extremely tricky. Even with a long lens you need to be pretty close in order to get their head to fill the frame. Let’s assume you have managed to sneak up close enough. What do you do?

Firstly set your aperture. To get that perfect shot you need every bit of the heron’s head in focus and everything else out of focus. You will be shooting with a long lens so a shallow depth of field should be natural. The problem I actually find is making sure that the depth of field is not too narrow. Herons have long beaks. This means that the tip of the beak can easily be a different distance away from you than the heron’s eye. For a decent portrait you need both to be sharply in focus.

As far as possible you want a perfect side view so that the tip of the beak is the same distance as the eye. Always focus on the eye though – if the tip of the beak is very slightly unsharp you might be able to get away with it. If the eye is slightly unsharp then the image is useless.



The best light for photos is early morning or late evening when the sun is low and the light isn’t harsh. I tend to go out early in the morning at the weekends because Mrs Rabbit likes a lie in anyway. If you’re very lucky you might even be able to get the early morning light behind the heron, which can create a halo effect around it. In this photo the light coming from behind the heron makes the shot – the golden glow of the sun around the head, neck and beak. Without it, it would be fairly dull.


Additionally, if you are taking the photo in very bright sunshine, the white feathers on the heron’s face and neck can look washed out. Early or late in the day is the best time.


Herons tend to spend most of their life doing nothing. They can happily stand motionless for hours in the same spot but if you can catch one doing something you can make a much more interesting photo.

This is demonstrated, albeit brutally, by this shot. A heron I was watching grabbed a new-born duckling and gobbled it up.


There isn’t any sure-fire way to be in the right place when something like this happens. As I say, often herons will just sit doing nothing. But if you spend time watching their behaviour you can start to predict when they are just going to sit there for hours and when they are going to do something. If you watch a heron for five minutes and it takes no footsteps and it does nothing other than preen its feathers there is a good chance it will do nothing for the next hour. If it seems to be scanning the water, walking around, stretching its legs, looking left and right, then it is in active mode and there is a good chance you will observe hunting behaviour or if you’re really lucky a take-off…

In Flight

So you have found your heron, you have got close enough to it, it’s walking about and looking around. There is a good chance you are about to see a take-off. If you can capture that you might get a really special shot. The difficulty is that if the heron does decide to take off, it will do it extremely quickly. You will have no time to adjust your camera settings or even to bring your camera up to your eye. Those things all need to be done beforehand and you just need to wait ready to go, with your finger on the shutter-release. Sometimes you can wait for ages and they never take off.

Sometimes they do…


Heron in flight


Shots like these underline why my recommendations on the type of camera are so important. A heron goes from standing to flying very quickly – you need a quick focusing camera to get a sharp image of what is a rapidly moving target. You also need a camera that can give you a very quick shutter speed in order to freeze the heron in motion. And if your camera takes five shots in the second it takes the heron to fly off rather than two, you multiply your chances of getting a good shot by 2.5. Given how infrequently these opportunities come up, that’s a massive advantage.

Anyway, this is what I’ve picked up through trial and error and I have added a bit more below regarding some camera settings for those who want to try this. These tips are not the be all and end all though. If you have a camera that doesn’t focus very quickly or a lens that doesn’t go to 200mm or 300mm, it doesn’t mean you won’t get a good shot – the tips I have just increase your probability of getting one. The person behind the camera is always more important than the camera itself.

Anyway, if you know a heron that lives near you, why not give this a go? It’s great fun and so rewarding when one of your attempts comes off.

Happy snapping.


A Few Technical Details…


I generally shoot in Manual. That is I manually set both the shutter speed and the aperture. That sounds like a lot of work but if you have an SLR then it will give you very quick access to set these and with a bit of practice it won’t be a problem. I start by choosing the aperture that I need – I want to set it such that I can get a sharp image of the heron but a nice blurry background. After this I set the shutter speed – essentially as quick as possible without hitting an ISO level that will compromise image quality. This will vary from camera to camera but again, with an SLR you should have a lot more flexibility in this respect.


You definitely need your camera set to continuous focusing – i.e. as the subject moves your camera adjusts focus. There are a bunch of settings on my camera that allow me to choose how many focus points are used when doing this. I need more time to play with this to decide which one to use in which circumstances but the basic one of using just 9 points is my default and seems to work very well.

SLRs (and high end compacts and mirrorless cameras) let you select the focus point you want to use. This is really, really useful. If you want to take a portrait shot then you can move the focus point to the heron’s eye. If you want to take a flight shot then you can decide in advance – when this heron takes off, do I want it in the middle of the picture, the left, the right, the top or the bottom?

Another point on focusing. Some SLR cameras have an AF-ON button allowing you to focus with your thumb rather than the more common half-pressing of the shutter release. For me* this works much better – right thumb for focusing and right index finger for taking the photo. This is a lot easier than using one digit for both.


I’m using a Nikon D600 and mostly a 80mm-400mm f4.5-5.6G lens. The long primes will certainly be sharper with bigger max apertures but they are so expensive that they are really only within the budgets of professionals.

*Actually my camera doesn’t have a dedicated AF-ON button but there is a custom setting to assign it to another button, so if yours doesn’t have one, then check the custom settings.



In this post I am temporarily moving away from my specialist subject of economics and talking about porn. Porn is definitely not my specialist subject – honest, Guv.

Anyway. Deborah Orr makes a well-reasoned argument in favour of the government’s plan to clamp down on the accessibility of internet porn. That plan is to make Internet Service Providers (ISPs) block online pornography from all UK households, unless those households choose to contact their ISPs and ask for it.

In general, I agree with what Deborah is saying. For example, I don’t see how such a policy infringes anyone’s civil liberties, since they can easily choose to opt in. Yes, I agree the filters will occasionally block non-pornographic sites but that doesn’t seem like an insurmountable problem and I don’t really understand why those people who choose to access porn would have a problem asking their ISP to activate it. After all, just because you’ve been doing it without having to ask before, it’s not like your ISP doesn’t know you’ve  been doing it and it’s not like they’re now going to phone up your mum and tell her.

Regarding the “Page 3 of The Sun” angle, I suppose I had always had a dream that page 3 would get consigned to the dustbin of time through the will of the people. It hasn’t yet and although I am sure it would in time, I have no problem with it being banned by the government now. Either way, I don’t see why that would need to be part of the same legislation that asked people to have to “opt in” to see online porn.

There are however, a couple of points that no one seems to have mentioned yet so I thought I’d mention them myself…

Imagine I’m living in my dream house and then someone builds a main road that passes close to it. That main road might have a big benefit to lots of people. Jobs might be created, commuting time might be reduced etc. I however, need to fit double-glazing in order to keep out the noise of the traffic. That’s a direct cost to me and I might receive no benefit at all.

Now replace the main road with internet porn and replace double-glazing with porn-filters. At the moment if I were a parent, worried about what my child might see online, I might decide to pay for my own software to filter it out. I would have to pay some money because of something than only benefits other people.

A “negative externality” is a term used by economists to describe a situation in which people who receive no benefit from something get hit by part of the costs for it. A main road through your town causing you noise pollution or a drop in the value of your home, a power station that sends pollutants through your windows – these are all negative externalities you receive in order for other people to receive the benefits.

Online pornography is an example of a “negative externality”: We have demand in our society for porn – I have no issue with that. However, because of that demand we have costs passed on to those who do not want porn. That cost might be paying for expensive software to filter out the porn or the cost might be having children exposed to porn. Either way, these things are negative externalities and the proposed government legislation gives us a way of getting rid of them.

When the ISPs introduce filters it will cost them money up front and it will cost them money in maintenance afterwards. For example, the filters will often mistakenly block non-pornographic sites. The ISPs will therefore need to have a team of people taking calls and checking content of the disputed pages, then deciding whether or not to allow broader access to them. The costs of this service will be passed on to the consumers, so monthly charges will be higher under this scheme than they would otherwise be.

If this cost is passed on to those opting in rather than those not opting in then this is a good policy – the negative externality has been addressed – that is, the cost of the benefit had been distributed among those who receive it.

Ok. On to my second point.

My second concern is perhaps more important. You might remember a recent post where I talked about a study looking at the benefits of wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle. For cyclists wearing a helmet there were two competing factors:

  • If you had an accident in which you hit your head you were more likely to walk away without serious injury
  • If you wear a helmet you might become less concerned about the risks of having an accident and therefore more likely to have an accident

The study did show that the first factor was dominant and that wearing a helmet was sensible but it also suggested that some cyclists with helmets had had accidents that they otherwise would not have had.

This is my main concern with the proposed legislation. The government is trumpeting this legislation as protecting our children when they are online but in doing so they risk giving parents false-comfort. The internet is not dangerous to children purely because of pornography. Such filters will not prevent children accessing chatrooms and becoming friends with people who are not who they say they are etc. etc.

So my message to the government: By all means bring in the legislation but make sure you couple it with clear guidelines for the parents of the children you are trying to protect. With or without this legislation, parents need to know exactly what their children are looking at online and who they might be talking to. Without that education, this legislation could create harm as well as prevent it.

This policy could be a good one as long as we understand that it is not a solution – merely a step in the right direction.


Maths & Sport

I like sport. I like maths. I like sport and I like maths. This book therefore looks very interesting indeed.

The Hidden Mathematics of Sport

The Hidden Mathematics of Sport

There is an awful lot of interesting mathematics within sport. For example, I love all of the statistics that are available in cricket. I like browsing batting averages, bowling averages, run rates and strike rates. In football these days, they track things like number of passes attempted and their success rates for every player in every game. They even track things like how far each player has run – I absolutely love this kind of thing.

As well as statistics there are the mechanics – the speed of a tennis player’s serve, the maths behind the spin that they put on the ball when they hit a top spin or a back spin. What are the physics behind backspin on a snooker ball or reverse swing in cricket?

Recently, during a game of badminton, I smashed the shuttlecock and it hit @Biltawulf on the shoulder. Within a few seconds a massive red lump sprung up. A shuttlecock weighs about 5 grams. How fast must it have been travelling to cause such an injury? To demonstrate how much of a geek I am, that was the exact thing going through my head while he sat on the floor and blubbed.

Anyway, maths within sport is interesting to me so I’m going to buy this book. I suspect I’ll either love it or hate it. Why might I hate it when it’s about two things I love? Well, just because it combines two subjects I like doesn’t necessarily mean it will combine them well.

The book appears to cover many aspects of the mathematics behind sport but the BBC have reduced it to this on their website:

Can you calculate the world’s greatest sports person?

This makes me more than a bit suspicious. It reminds me a bit of when the Daily Mail does a story like “Scientists find the formula for perfect apple pie” and the equation is something like:

Tastiness of Apple Pie = {[(Colour of apples) + (Temperature of oven)] / (Butteriness of Pastry)} + (Pie Tin)

And it makes no sense to anyone who has ever done a sum in their life. I mean, in what units would the result of the above equation be measured?

When these things come out in the press, Ben Goldacre investigates and finds out that the story was created by some nobody who had been paid by an apple pie manufacturer’s PR company to come up with an equation for their marketing.

The story about making a formula for the world’s greatest sportsman is suspicious for similar reasons. I don’t really see how mathematically you could compare Sachin Tendulkar with Tiger Woods. The sports of cricket and golf are too different to simply make a sum that says one of these great sportsman scores 97/100 and the other scores 96/100.

I would go further and say that even within a sport it is very difficult to make a sum that accurately ranks all competitors.

If you look at Formula 1 statistics then Michael Schumacher is top in most of them. I think Ayrton Senna was better than him though and I think Jim Clark was better than both of them. Schumacher’s stats are relatively inflated due to the fact that he had a very long career and he spent most of it in a faster car than his rivals. Also, he was dominant in a period which featured no other truly great drivers. Senna died just before the start of Schumacher’s period of dominance and Hamilton and Vettel got their chance just after he retired. Mika Hakkinen was a very good driver but it wasn’t exactly the same as having Prost, Piquet and Mansell lining up on the grid next to you. If an equation to measure just the skill of a Formula 1 driver existed it would already be massively complicated just to take into account how good their car was and how good the people they were racing against were.

Let’s now have a look at football and that Man United team who won the treble in 1999. What formula would you use to compare the performances of Peter Schmeichel with those of Eric Cantona? It’s in the same sport, in the same team, in the same year and against the same opposition and it’s still hard to conceive of how one would go about making an equation which would accurately measure their relative performances.

Maths is a fantastic tool for some things but not for all things. “Who is the best sportsman?” is a topic of conversation to be had subjectively over a few beers. Maths cannot solve subjective problems and we shouldn’t expect it to.

Someone could try to make an equation to do just this and the first time they ran it, it might say Phil Neville were better than Paul Scholes. “Bollocks”, they’d think, “I must have got something wrong,” and they’d adjust it until Paul Scholes came out better than Gary Neville. That’s not using maths to solve a problem – that’s knowing that outcome and fitting bad maths around it. After the first round of tinkering, the new equation might say that Audley Harrison were better at boxing than my mum and then it would have to be reworked again.

They’d then continually rework it until at last it fitted perfectly with their opinions. Hoorah!

No, not hoorah. All that has been done in this exercise is trying to manipulate maths to fit with opinions and if that’s all we are doing we should just use our opinions as a basis and leave the maths out.

If this book understands when to apply maths and when not to it could be very good indeed.

Either way, it’s now in the post, so I’ll let you know.


Welcome to the USA

I went to the United States on Tuesday. I like the United States, or at least, I like most of the bits of it I’ve seen. I like New York and I think San Francisco is one of the most brilliant cities I’ve ever visited. Of course, like anywhere, it’s not all perfect (Camden, New Jersey was a particularly unfond memory) but although my experience of the country represents a tiny proportion of its entirety, I can say that my experience of what I have seen is overall very positive.

On Tuesday I went to Boston, which is also lovely. While Manhattan is like having America distilled into an ultra-concentrated espresso and then injected into your eyeballs, Boston is more like sipping a leisurely cappuccino on the seafront. It’s bustling but laid back and for a major city it is almost calming.

(Actually I don’t like cappuccinos (cappuccini?) so this is a stupid comparison but anyway I like Boston.)

Wherever I may visit in the USA, there is one thing of which I can be sure, will always be constant. It’s not the big portions of food. It’s not even the inefficient motor vehicles. It’s the welcome. But I’ll come back to that.

Tuesday was a hugely hectic day for me. I had spent most of the previous evening making this website (so visit it and buy some tickets please) and then had an early start to get across town to the City to attend a conference at which I had to present. My presentation was last on so I needed to pay attention to all of the other presentations throughout the day so that I didn’t contradict them without explaining why. I therefore had to make frantic notes all morning, and continually adapt my presentation to fit.

The other thing that was stressing me a bit was that the whole thing was starting to run a bit late. The event was due to finish two and a half hours before my flight was due to leave at Heathrow and while I couldn’t avoid presenting I definitely couldn’t miss my flight.

It all worked out ok in the end – it only overran by 15 mins and I got to my gate at Heathrow before they’d even started boarding. Still, it had been a manic dash across town and I was fucking knackered with a 7.5 hours on a plane to look forward to, during which I would have to write a second presentation that I would need to give in Boston the next day.

Then, when we were about to leave, they announced that someone hadn’t turned up for the flight and they had to take their luggage off the plane. We then remained at the gate for another hour and a half. By the time I reached Boston I had written my second presentation but if I’m honest was not in the best of moods. Bring on US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

For those who haven’t visited the United States, the CBP are the people you have to talk to in order to get through the airport and into the United States. There are posters up everywhere in the arrivals hall showing their ‘pledge’. The first two points from their pledge are these:

  • We pledge to cordially greet and welcome you to the United States
  • We pledge to treat you with courtesy, dignity, and respect

A poster of Harold Shipman pledging to help the aged would reconcile more easily with reality.

Before you get to meet these people though, you have the queue. It is often big and on this occasion it was massive. When you get to the front of the main queue you are directed to stand in an individual line so you can queue to see a specific border protection guard. At the front of that queue is a yellow line that is policed by other angry border protection guards. If you step over or even on the yellow line before your turn then god help you – they aren’t exactly polite about it.

Anyway, after queuing for an hour I was finally face to face with a border protection guard. Let me make something clear at this point. I am well acquainted with the process of getting into the United States. I had double-checked my online ESTA, double-checked my customs declaration and knew 100% I had done everything required of me before I stepped across the yellow line.

I handed over my passport and customs declaration form to the border protection guard (BPG).

BPG: How long are you planning on staying in the US?

Me: I’m flying back tomorrow.

He recoiled.

BPG: That’s it?!?

He said it like I’d just claimed to have a gargantuan willy and then popped a tiny one onto his counter.

Me: Yes.

He composed himself once more.

BPG: What’s the purpose of your visit?

Me: Business

BPG: What kind of business are you in?

I politely said what I do. (What I do is fairly obscure. Most of my best friends don’t really know what I do. I prefer not to bother them with the details in any case.)

BPG: What kind?

Me: What kind?

BPG: Yes. What kind?

Was he really so knowledgeable about my field of work that he knew details of specific areas? No, he wasn’t. And so we indulged in a bizarre conversation for all of 5 minutes in which he interrogated me with questions about my line of work that made no sense whatsoever.

I did my best to answer them and knowing how this all works, I did my best to be polite and helpful throughout. The conversation though, was nonsense. While it was in full-swing I wondered what would have happened had I been a brain surgeon.

BPG: What’s your line of work?

Me: I’m a brain surgeon.

BPG: What kind of brain surgery do you do?

Me: Well, I err, sort out embolisms and aneurisms and such like.

BPG: Explain to me what an aneurism is.

Me: It is when one of those insect things off Wrath of Kahn has burrowed into someone’s brain and done mind control and shit and you have to kill it with Domestos.

BPG: Ok, Sir. Welcome to the United States.

When Stephen Hawking drives through does this guy decide to test his knowledge of Cosmology? I’ll bet he actually does but it is all a façade – a ridiculous pretence of creating a safe border by trying to quiz people who could, if they were lying, skip past the questions easily if they’d bothered with 60 seconds of preparation on Wikipedia.

So back to our conversation. He had conceded that I knew more than nothing about a subject about which he knew nothing.

BPG: You lose your passport?

Me: Excuse me?

BPG: You lose your passport?

What they fuck was he talking about now? I lose my passport? My passport was in his hand. Then it clicked that he was talking about my last passport – I’d lost it in March and had had to get it replaced.

Me: Oh yes, sorry. I lost my old one in March.

BPG: Where’d you lose it?

Me: Sorry, I don’t know.

BPG: Was it stolen?

I didn’t know that either. He sighed like a punctured football in a vacuum.

BPG: You see, for all I know there are two passports out there for you and I can’t tell whether this one is the valid one.

Me: Right, but I have the one that isn’t cancelled and it does have a photo of my face on it.

BPG: I’m gonna need to see your driver’s licence.

Me: I don’t have it with me.

BPG: Sir? Why don’t you have your driver’s licence with you?

Me: I am not planning on driving while in the United States.

I am calm on the outside. I know how this all works.. The reality of the situation is this:

  • He is going to let me into the US and knew he was from the moment I presented the correct documentation.
  • I know he is going to let me into the US and have been through this ridiculous charade before.
  • He once wanted to be a real policeman but was unsuccessful for one reason or another.
  • He will always be bitter about this fact.

BPG: I’m going to need to see some more ID.

I thought for a moment. I was pretty sure I didn’t have any other ID on me that was more appropriate for such a situation than the passport I had already given him.

Me: I really don’t have anything more.

BPG: Do you have a business card?

I handed him a business card and he held it in both hands, at arms length and directly towards my face. He looked back and forth between the business card and my face for a few moments. My business card doesn’t include a picture. What the hell was he doing? Then he stamped my form and my passport and told me to have a nice day.

What did he see in my business card that finally convinced him? Nothing. He knew from the moment he saw my passport that he was going to have to let me in but because he was a power-hungry twat with a massive “I want to be a real cop” complex, he had backed himself into a corner by requesting further validation for my entry into the US. My business card was just his way of getting out of his corner without having to say, “Ok, come in anyway.”

My business card could actually be recreated by anyone for almost no money at all. If this was really the key to getting into the US then they have their priorities on passports all wrong.

As I mentioned at the start of this post , the USA is, once you’re in, a lovely country to visit. There are many beautiful places with many amazing sights and in my experience the people are friendlier and more sociable than anywhere else I have ever been. The CBP, though is every visitor’s first experience of the US, so why be so unnecessarily rude to people who just want to come into your country?

While I’m sure many border protection guards do a good job there are just as many who don’t and, for want of a better phrase, are utterly useless, power-hungry knob-ends.


The Film is Mightier than the Book

It’s a fairly common event to be discussing a film and having someone say, “It’s not as good as the book”.
Conversely it is a pretty rare event to be discussing a book and having someone say “It’s not as good as the film.”

It seems as though taking a book and making it into a better film is a tricky undertaking but there must be some out there, mustn’t there?

Yesterday I asked you on Twitter to name films which were better than the books on which they were based. 105 of you responded with a total of 204 suggestions. So thanks for that.

A quick note before I move on to the results though – please bear in mind that the number of votes cast doesn’t necessarily indicate the gulf in quality between book and film. It’s also obviously a function of how many people have seen and read them.

Anyway, here is the top 10:

The Top 10

Thoughts on the Top 10

These are my thoughts on the top 10. I’ve indicated on each film whether I’ve seen it and/or read the book on which it was based.

The Godfather (Saw it first, read it later)

Yes, I liked the films better too. The book was good but the films were brilliant. The book, if I recall correctly, covers the first film, plus the Don’s rise to power which is covered in the second film, (the Robert de Niro bit).

The two films benefit from some truly excellent acting performances. Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Diane Keaton and Robert de Niro are all excellent but it is Al Pacino’s transformation from goofy war hero to ruthless mafia boss which steals it. Forget that Scent of a Woman, “HOOOAAAAA” bollocks – this perfomance blows it out of the water.

The Shawshank Redemption (Read it first, saw it later)

Really? Admittedly I read the novella (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption) when I was a nipper but I remember feeling fairly non-plussed by the film of it. Apart from Morgan Freeman. He was good.

Blade Runner (Seen it. Never read it.)

The book was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I never read it. The film was excellent though

Lord of the Rings (Never seen it, never read it.)

I thought about reading it once but it looked massive and I couldn’t be arsed.

Fight Club (Seen it. Never read it.)

I don’t know what the book is like but I’m the only person I know who didn’t think the film was brilliant. It had a brilliant twist at the end but I was fairly bored up until that point. Still, the book might have been worse.

Jaws (Seen it. Never read it.)

The film was brilliant. I wish Steven Spielberg still made films like it, instead of Indiana Jones 4. God, that was awful.

I haven’t read it, but according to @danbeames the shark dies of old age or something in the book. Which sounds a bit less exciting than, “Smile, you son of a -” KAPOW!!!

Jurassic Park (Read it first, saw it later.)

The film has to take some credit for the truly groundbreaking special effects. I preferred the Richard Attenborough character in the book, who was a bit of a shit rather than a nice old grandpa with a dinosaur theme park. Michael Crichton obviously preferred the film since the Jeff Goldblum character died in the book but was still in the sequel. The two annoying brats spoiled the film though. On balance, the book wins.

Stand By Me (Saw it first, read it later)

This was a novella in the same book as Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It was good but the film was brilliant. The Richard Dreyfuss narration is a bit cheesey but I could watch it again and again.

The Bourne Identity (Seen it. Never read it.)


Stardust (Never seen it. Never read it.)

Never even heard of it.

A Pie Chart

This shows everything with more than 1 vote. Everything with 1 vote is stuck together in the Other section.

Notable Others

These are the other nominations I have both read and seen…

Romeo and Juliet

Probably a lot of screen adaptations. I thought the play was dull but the film version I saw (The Leonardo di Caprio one) was the biggest pile of shit I think I’ve ever had to sit through. “Oooh, we’re setting a Shakespeare play in a modern setting. Aren’t we clever? Let’s all pat ourselves on the back.” A truly pathetic piece of film making.

The Silence of the Lambs

That’s a possibility. The book was quite good but I did think Anthony Hopkins was a brilliant bad dude. Still, everyone says Brian Cox was a better Hannibal Lecter, so what do I know?

Also, if I recall correctly, in the book he ate the guy’s liver with some fava beans and a nice Amarone. I think it’s a better pairing with a human liver. The books wins because of it.

The Beach

Fairly dull book. Turd film.

The Running Man

Rarely can a film have been so loosely based the book. I read the book when I was a nipper. In the book, the character signs up for the game in a bid to get out of the squalid life of poverty he has. Survive 30 days and win a fortune. The game is completely different as well, he gets released into the public with a head start and then the hunters come after him. And they’re not dressed as Christmas trees either. Hard to compare them since the stories are so different but I found the book more enjoyable.


Yeah, the film was probably better, mainly because of the performance of Kathy Bates. “You Dirty Bird!”

No Country for Old Men

Hard to decide on that because both were brilliant and the film does follow the book very closely, even down to the dialogue which is identical in a lot of places. The casting in the film was superb. From Anton Chigurh and Sheriff Ed Tom, to the old man in the gas station and the fat lady who ran the trailer park, every one of them, no matter how small their part, were brilliantly cast. Someone commented that the book had a protracted ending compared with the film. That’s probably a fair comment.
I’m glad no one mentioned another Cormac McCarthy book, The Road. That book was brilliant – I cried my eyes out at the end. I haven’t seen the film but I bet they fucked it up.


No way. The book was 100 times better than the film. Robert Carlisle was brilliant as Begbie though.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Well, Gene Wilder definitely did a better job of playing Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp. Seriously, you wouldn’t let your kids near that guy. I can’t watch it though without wanting to brutally murder the insipid little shit that plays Charlie. “Granpwa Joe! Granpwa Joe!” Oh, fuck off.

Interestingly, it seems there is a pattern in my preferences. In general where I have read and seen both, I am preferring the version I experienced first. Perhaps it’s coincidence but it could be that reading the book after seeing the film doesn’t give you the same freedom to imagine it in your own way. I don’t know. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I have concluded from all of this but it was fun anyway. The full list of results is below. Thanks for playing.


The Full Listings

The Top 10


The Top 10

These films got 3 votes each

The Shining
Apocalypse Now
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Starship Troopers
The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Green Mile
The Wizard of Oz

These films got 2 votes each

Romeo and Juliet
Silence of the Lambs
The Beach
The Running Man
2001: A Space Odyssey
Beauty and the Beast
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Debbie Does Dallas
Don’t Look Now
Gone with the Wind
The Exorcist
The Mist

And these got 1 vote each

No Country For Old Men
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
101 Dalmations
25th Hour
30 Days of Night
All Harry Potter Films
All James Bond Films
American Psycho
Angel Heart
Big Fish
Children of Men
Clear and Present Danger
Clockwork Orange
Cobra Verde
Das Boot
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Gangbang Auditions 13
Gangs of New York
High Fidelity
High Noon
Hunt For Red October
I Am Legend
I Robot
Jackie Brown
King Creole
Morvern Callar
Mystic River
Patriot Games
Pet Sematary
Rear Window
Return of the Swamp Thing
Schindler’s List
Sense and Sensibility
Snow White
The 39 Steps
The Da Vinci Code
The Devil Wears Prada
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
The Englsh Patient
The Graduate
The Great Gatsby
The Iron Giant
The Jungle Book
The Last Temptation of Christ
The Lawnmower Man
The Little Mermaid
The Merchant of Venice
The Ninth Gate
The Princess Bride
The Snow Queen
The Third Man
The Time Traveller’s Wife
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
True Blood (TV)
War and Peace
Water For Chocolate

The Poshest Meal I Ever Had

Nine years ago my girlfriend (now my wife) organised a surprise birthday party for me and what a job she did too. There were friends from work, friends from the wine shop I used to work in, friends from university and old friends from school. Getting them all into my flat that day while I was out must have been a massive logistical effort and I had to hold back the tears when I walked in and saw them all.

A few months later it was her birthday. I’d just got my first bonus at work and I wanted to give her something special in return, so I booked a table at Le Gavroche. Le Gavroche is a restaurant in London which was opened by Albert and Michel Roux in 1967 and is now run by Albert’s son, Michel Roux Jr. It was the first restaurant in the UK ever to be awarded three michelin stars and it is more than a bit posh.

I should point out that at the time I was working as a software developer in the financial sector. My job involved taking business requirements and then developing the software to make the numbers work. Dining in high society was a million miles away.

The day of the dinner arrived and in my excitement I had a look at the Le Gavroche website:

….blah blah…exceptional cuisine…..blah blah….unparalleled service….blah blah….gentlemen must wear a suit….blah blah….luxurious bogs…..

What? Oh shit. Gentlemen must wear a suit? I didn’t have a suit. It was 3pm and I was due at the restaurant in 5 hours. And I needed a suit. My exceedingly understanding boss let me leave and I departed with a plan. I’d just got my bonus – I was going to see Paul Smith.

The Paul Smith shop on Floral Street is the Aladdin’s cave of clothes. Although I clearly had no fucking clue what I was doing a friendly assistant sorted everything out for me and in an hour my transformation from scruffy computer programmer was complete. Well almost.

Me: It looks fantastic. I just need you to take up the trousers and we’re done.

Him: No problem. It will be ready in 3 days.

Me: Oh. Poo.

I explained my situation. He could have turned up his nose at the idiot in front of him who clearly didn’t belong there but he didn’t. “Don’t worry. I know a trick,” he said. He then proceeded to pin the trousers and then fasten them up on the inside with double-sided tape. “They’ll be good for tonight if you’re careful. Come back in when you can and we’ll get them done properly.”

What a legend he was. Anyway, I hurried back to my flat, got ready and made it to the restaurant only a few minutes late. We were shown in and seated in the bar where we viewed the menus over champagne and amuse-bouches. When I saw the prices, I began to sweat a little. Secretly hoping Miss Rabbit would have a sudden hankering for soup, I told her “Don’t worry about the prices, just have what you want.” “What prices?” she replied.

Her menu, it transpired, had no prices. Yep, only the gentleman’s menu had prices on it. Sexist? No, I don’t think so, at least. More a tongue-in-cheek nod to an old-fashioned tradition. I had also been handed a wine list. It was like an encyclopaedia – had I received it in other circumstances I could have spent an afternoon reading the thing. No opportunity for that but I did have time for a quick peek at the uber posh stuff though. Anyone for Chateau d’Yquem 1849? Yours for just £30,000 a bottle. I didn’t order that.

I ordered Lobster Mousse with Caviar, followed by Dover Sole with Wild Mushrooms.(This probably sounds extravagant but remember where I was – it wasn’t as though Pot Noodle with Cheesey Strings was an alternative.)

Miss Rabbit ordered Langoustines followed by Lobster although I don’t remember exactly how each was done.

We were shown in to the restaurant and seated. This place was posh. Silver cutlery, bone china crockery, crystal glasses and Andrew Lloyd-Webber on the table next to us. Seriously. He and Lady Lloyd-Webber had the duck. I did my best not to look at him while he was eating it though.

The food was mind blowing. I thought lobster mousse would be nice but it was like eating a lobster flavoured cloud. The texture was like nothing I’d had before and nothing I’ve had since. It was also the first time I’d had caviar and it was quite nice. Probably not nice enough to justify how eye-wateringly expensive it is, but quite nice nonetheless.

It wasn’t just the food though – the service was equally amazing. It was almost as if the staff existed in another dimension until you needed them for something. They would then appear from nowhere, carry out their task with unimaginable care and efficiency, then vanish once more, reappearing again only when you wanted them to do so.

Despite my formal and unfamiliar surroundings, I soon began to relax. The food was going down nicely as was the wine, and I was beginning to forget that I was essentially a fish out of water. After the main course I needed to go to the toilet so I got up and started to walk towards the bathroom. Then disaster struck.

I am not used to eating with a napkin on my lap and as I stood up it had fallen on the floor. Worse still, some of my double sided sticky tape had popped out and fastened to it. I found myself walking down the middle of the poshest restaurant I have ever visited with my napkin stuck to the bottom of my trousers.

I stopped in the middle of the restaurant, turned round and looked at Ms. Rabbit with a look of utter defeat. It had been going so well, but now I had revealed in front of the whole restaurant that there was an impostor in their midst. It was a bit like that bit in Shaun of the Dead when they all pretend to be zombies until one of them makes a mistake. I realised I was going to be torn to pieces.

But then, just as I was looking for a window to jump out, a miracle occurred. The waiters suddenly appeared from their other dimension, fixed my trousers, retrieved the napkin, folded it into a swan, set it back on the table and vanished. And no one else had even had time to look up from their ’82 Lafites to notice. (No one that is except Miss Rabbit – she notices everything.)

And above all, that was the thing that really stood out for me that day. I was a couple of years out of university, the poorest person in the restaurant by some margin and obviously not naturally comfortable in my surroundings. The staff made me feel comfortable though. They weren’t there to judge the computer programmer treading his napkin half way down the restaurant. They were there to help us have a brilliant evening and we did. Just as the assistant in Paul Smith had helped me out without judging me earlier in the day.

When I got back to the table, we both ordered the Assiette du Chef for our dessert – seven mini puddings on one plate. We accompanied that with two glasses of Chateau d’Yquem 1990 (still to this day the best wine I have ever had) and they followed it up with petit fours and then truffles.

When we went to leave, the lady who had welcomed us into the restaurant asked if we needed a taxi, then proceeded to sprint down Upper Brook to Park Lane and hail one for us.

We’ve never been back to Le Gavroche, even though we both agree it was all round the most amazing experience we’ve had in a restaurant. You see, I have this perfect memory of the place and I worry it would be somehow diluted by a repeat visit….. and yet still, I do have a dream of going back again one day.

Either way, my objective for the day had been to do something special for Miss Rabbit’s birthday and despite one or two minor hiccups on the way I had truly achieved my goal. Between suit and meal I had spent my entire bonus in one day. What was the total bill? Worth every penny.


Rabbit’s Card Puzzle – The Solution

Last night I posted a puzzle on my blog. If you haven’t read it then you can read it here.
There were quite a few answers submitted but it was quickly solved by my fellow Stationery Club member, Adam Creen.

The answer to the puzzle was 9. Surprsingly, playing the game with nine players means that it is probable that a pair will occur on the first go but the most common guesses were much higher, 26 or 27.

It is quite strange when you think about it. Nine people with a shuffled pack of cards each turn over the top card and it is likely that two or more people will turn over the same card.
How can it possible be so low? If you have nine packs of cards you can prove it for yourself through practical means. However, you can also solve the puzzle with some reasonably simple maths as long as you approach it in the right way.
I have posted the maths below so you don’t need to read it if you don’t want to but you don’t need to worry about the maths to know why the answer isn’t 27 as instinct suggests. I think this is what our instinct tells us:

I am playing in this game and I turn over the top card from my pack and I have the Ace of Spades.
Player 2 turns over their card and there is 1 chance in 52 that it is the Ace of Spades.
Player 3 turns over their card and there is 1 chance in 52 that it is the Ace of Spades.
Continue going until we have 27 players and adding it all up we have 27 “1 out of 52” chances so a pair is likely.

Where our instinct let’s us down is that we neglect to account for the fact that the other 26 players may have pairs with each other. In fact when 27 players are in the game there are many more chances of them having pairs with each other than there are of them having a pair with me.

While there are 26 opportunities for them to have a pair with me there are a total of 351 opportunities for pairs in total. The opportunity for the players to have pairs with each other, not just with me, is why you only need 9 players and not 27.

While I did come up with this puzzle, it is heavily based on the famous birthdays problem – if you take a group of 23 people, it is probable that two of them share a birthday. I think that is rather astonishing and a lovely example of when it may be better not to trust our instincts.

If you want to see the numbers then keep reading. Otherwise thanks for playing.


The Solution

It is easier to first look at the game being played out card by card and look at the probability of no pair being formed. Let’s go through it in order with 9 players:

Anna turns over her card first.

Now it is Belinda’s turn to turn over her card. Of her 52 cards there are 51 which will not result in a pair. Therefore the probability of no pair being formed is:

(51/52) = 98.08%

Now it is Cathy’s turn to turn over her card. Out of her 52 cards there are 50 which which will not result in a pair. Therefore the probability of no pair being formed after Cathy’s turn is:

(51/52) x (50/52) = 94.30%

Now it is Deborah’s turn to turn over her card. Out of her 52 cards there are 49 which which will not result in a pair. Therefore the probability of no pair being formed after Deborah’s turn is:

(51/52) x (50/52) x (49/52) = 88.86%

Now it is Erica’s turn to turn over her card. Out of her 52 cards there are 48 which which will not result in a pair. Therefore the probability of no pair being formed after Erica’s turn is:

(51/52) x (50/52) x (49/52) x (48/52) = 82.03%

Now it is Fanny’s (sorry) turn to turn over her card. Out of her 52 cards there are 47 which which will not result in a pair. Therefore the probability of no pair being formed after Fanny’s turn is:

(51/52) x (50/52) x (49/52) x (48/52) x (47/52) = 74.14%

Now it is Gertrude’s turn to turn over her card. Out of her 52 cards there are 46 which which will not result in a pair. Therefore the probability of no pair being formed after Gertrude’s turn is:

(51/52) x (50/52) x (49/52) x (48/52) x (47/52) x (46/52) = 65.59%

Now it is Harriet’s turn to turn over her card. Out of her 52 cards there are 45 which which will not result in a pair. Therefore the probability of no pair being formed after Harriet’s turn is:

(51/52) x (50/52) x (49/52) x (48/52) x (47/52) x (46/52) x (45/52) = 56.76%

Now it is Imogen’s turn to turn over her card. Out of her 52 cards there are 44 which which will not result in a pair. Therefore the probability of no pair being formed after Imogen’s turn is:

(51/52) x (50/52) x (49/52) x (48/52) x (47/52) x (46/52) x (45/52) x (44/52) = 48.03%

So after Imogen’s turn the probability of no pair occurring has dropped below 50%. Therefore the probability of a pair occurring has risen above 50%.

You can see how the probability of a pair increases with the number of players in the graph below. Note where the probability of a pair occurring is when you do get to 27 players – you will get a pair on the first go in about 499 out of every 500 games!

Rabbit’s Card Puzzle

Two people sit down at a table, each with a shuffled pack of standard playing cards in front of them.
They each turn over the top card and place it face up on the table. If they have the same card they shout “SNAP!”

For this to occur both number and suit must match. Four of Spades does NOT match with Four of Hearts.

The chances of this happening on the first go is 1 in 52.

Now more people want to join this fantastic game. Each time a new player joins they bring their own pack of shuffled cards.
i.e. When there are 4 players, 4 cards are turned over. If there is a pair anywhere among the 4 cards they all shout “SNAP!”

As the size of the group increases, the chances of shouting “SNAP!” increases.

At some point the group becomes so large that it is more likely than not that “SNAP!” will be shouted when they each turn their first card over.

What is the smallest number of players required to make it more likely than not that “SNAP!” will be shouted when they each turn their first card over?

I will donate £10 to the chosen charity of the person with the first correct answer.
They need a rough reason though. You can’t just guess 1,2,3,4 etc. until you get the right number.

Please put your answer in the comments on this post, not on Twitter.

Good luck!


Science and Scientology

The two things one should not blog about during dinner parties, so I have been told, are politics and religion. On this blog I may have strayed once or twice into the former, so it’s probably high time I did the latter.

I sometimes think Scientologists are given a bit of a hard time. Recently, for example, we had the Twitstorm where some Lib Dem Councillor or other tweeted:

I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.

Scientologists grew outraged and the rest of us all had a jolly good laugh at their stupid beliefs and their stupid ire.

I realised when all this broke that although I too thought all of this was funny, I actually had a rather poor grasp of exactly what it was they believed. I thought it was probably stupid but was it really? I decided to do some research.

My first point of call was the official Church of Scientology UK website. It proudly states:

The word Scientology is taken from the Latin scio, which means “knowing in the fullest sense of the word,” and the Greek word logos.

Ok. That makes the word Sciology though, doesn’t it? After all the study of living organisms is biology, not biontology.*

It goes on to define their ‘Creed’ which includes:

That all men have inalienable rights to their own lives
That all men have inalienable rights to their sanity
That all men have inalienable rights to their own defense
That all men have inalienable rights to the creation of their own kind
That the souls of men have the rights of men

So far, so sexist but it would be hard to single out Scientology from other religions for sexism. Also I couldn’t really argue that these were stupid. Dull perhaps; vague definitely but not exactly stupid.

The rest of the content on the website, other than their community projects, is similarly vague. Trying to get a specific understanding of exactly what their beliefs are from the website is a bit like asking David Cameron pre-election what his fiscal policy would be:

I believe taxes should be fair.

Fair? Brilliant, what a novel idea! I’m voting for you – I require no further detail.

I was getting nowhere. I tried Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia, Scientologists believe that Xenu, the dictator of the Glactic Confederacy, came to Earth 75 million years ago with billions of his people, stacked them around volcanoes and killed them using hydrogen bombs.

Shit! Now that’s more like it! Wikipedia goes on to explain that the Xenu story is a secret teaching which Scientologists don’t discuss outside their church. The problem with Wikipedia though is that anyone can edit it. Is this the true Scientology belief or just people up to mischief?

The official website links to another called What is Scientology?. Although this mentions nothing about Xenu it does have rather a lot on the practice of ‘Auditing’.

The goal of auditing is to restore beingness and ability. This is accomplished by (1) helping the individual rid himself of any spiritual disabilities and (2) increasing individual abilities. Obviously, both are necessary for an individual to achieve his full spiritual potential.


Auditing, then, deletes those things which have been added to the reactive mind through life’s painful experiences and addresses and improves one’s ability to confront and handle the factors in his life.

What does auditing use to do this exactly? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the E-Meter!



Despite looking like a futuristic goat milking machine, this is in fact referred to as a ‘religious artifact’.

One of the primary reasons auditing works is because the strength of the auditor’s dynamic thrust is added to the preclear’s dynamic thrust…

Steady on. Despite the racey language, I had found some claims being made in an official context. So were they stupid ones? Could the claims be backed up?

At this stage, I must come clean about something. I am, by education at least, a scientist. I have a background in developing understanding through the scientific method. I believe in developing a hypothesis and testing it against experience, experiment and evidence to determine whether or not it is correct.

Sadly, the website presents no evidence for the validity of auditing. There is a section called validation of results which says:

…the Church makes no claims or guarantees of the gains someone will make in auditing. Church staff, however, have seen so many remarkable improvements in parishioners that they expect such results as a matter of course.

That’s not really a validation of results. I don’t think I could win a Nobel Prize for my cheese sandwich, no matter how much I stress unnamed colleagues have seen it performing excellently as a cold fusion reactor.

But religious claims without evidence aren’t exactly new are they? When asked why I don’t believe in a god, I generally say something like, “The overwhelming lack of evidence.” I may then get a response along the lines of “It’s not about evidence – it’s about faith.”

‘Faith’ is something I’m afraid I just don’t understand. I don’t understand how any subject no matter how unlikely it all seems can be arbitrarily raised above logical conjecture and the need for evidence. But let’s put that to one side and suppose everyone has their own faith ‘get out of jail free’ card they can use to circumvent any such inconveniences:

  • Scientologists played their faith card with Xenu, Thetans and Dianetics.
  • Christians played theirs with god, miracles and the immaculate conception.
  • Ancient Greeks played theirs with Zeus, Poseidon and Hades.
  • Vikings played theirs with Odin, Loki and Valhalla.
  • I played mine on my cheese-sandwich-cold-fusion reactor.

None of these things is any more likely or has any more evidence than any of the others. They are all simply things which if you believe, you must take based on ‘faith’. It is therefore impossible for me to agree that Scientology is any more stupid than any of these other creations; that thetans are less likely to exist than Biblical miracles or that Dianetics has any greater or lesser substance than prayer. I disbelieve all of them in equal measure.

There are plenty of stories suggesting that Scientology has an unhealthy recruitment policy, preying on and brainwashing the vulnerable. If this is indeed the case, I can only say I find it absolutely repellent. This and perhaps other points I have not researched may well mean it has other negativities but that’s not something I know enough about to pass judgment and an unhealthy recruitment ethic doesn’t necessarily make its beliefs any more or less stupid than the competition.

Stupid or not, there is one thing I do know about which Scientology pisses me off more than other faiths:

Fuck off with the name which tries to make you sound like you have any basis in science because you don’t.

Science is beautiful. Science is everything you are not. Science is ours. Leave it alone.


* Latin and Greek are hardly my strongest subjects, so I am probably going to get egg on my face once all my old Etonian followers read this.

P.S. Despite the title, this post was not written by Jane Austen.