The Value of Norouz – A 3000-year old festival of rebirth

Today marks the first day of Norouz (also spelt Norooz, Nawruz, Nowruz), the Iranian and Central Asian New Year, which has been celebrated for millenia. Now, more than ever, we need to treasure this ancient celebration of renewal. Here is my article on this celebration, together with some photos I have taken from Iran.

Lentil sprouts and hyacinths at a roadside stall in Tehran, Iran

In Iran, poetry remains an important and relevant part of cultural life and is a ubiquitous part of the Norouz festival. The patron poet of Norouz is the 14th century mystic “safe-keeper” Hafez, who was described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “a poet for poets”. Hafez often used wine as a metaphor for love, and during Norouz a book of his poems often has a prominent place on the Haft-seen (the tabletop arrangement of symbolic items). Indeed his words in verse have never seemed more apt.

Whether raising themes of love and devotion “The sun never says to the earth ‘you owe me’. Look what happens with a love like that… it lights up the whole sky” or a message of hope “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being”, his philosophy of the spirit of love underlines the value of Norouz, a celebration of renewal which has spanned countless nationalities and religions and is a vestige of a primordial harmony which seems increasingly besieged in today’s world.

Norouz itself literally means “New Day” and coincides with the arrival of spring. It is celebrated on the same day as the pagan festival Ostara, and the roots of Norouz lie in ancient Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism and Mitraism. The festival is likely to have been arisen in the Achaemenid era (The sixth century BC), and it is a testament to its cultural importance that it has endured such longevity over three millenia. It is a public holiday in thirteen countries, and is also celebrated worldwide by the diaspora from those countries, together with Kurds, Parsis and followers of the Baha’i faith. In Iran, the celebration is largely frowned upon by the ruling clerics. As it predates Islam by over a millennium, Norouz is seen by many in the theocratic regime as a pagan ritual.

Decorated eggs at a roadside shop in Tehran, Iran

Norouz is a time for family and friendship. In most homes, the beginning of the festival comprises an intense period of spring-cleaning and preparation for feasts and exchange of gifts. People are expected to pay house visits to each other and check on each others’ health, meaning that an endless supply of pastry, cookies, nuts and fruits are required. The spirit of reconciliation also means that this is a time to heal wounds new and old, and the practice of holding grudges during this period is considered a bad omen.

A central component of Norouz is the Haft-Seen table spread, with items chosen which each symbolise a particular theme:

A simple norouz haftsin for a family home

The core tenets of the haft-seen are literally seven (haft) S’s (words which begin with S) and are: Sabzeh, a lentil sprouts growing in a dish, representing rebirth. Samanu, a sweet wheatgerm-derived pudding representing wealth and abudance. Senjed, a dried Persian olive which represents love. Seer, garlic which represents good health. Seeb, an apple which represents virality. Sumac, which represents sunrise or the victory of light over dark and Serkeh, vinegar, which represents patients and wisdom.

Alongside these core components, other common items include a mirror with two candles, the poetry book of Hafez or the Shanmaheh, a holy book such as the Quran, Avesta, Bible or Torah, painted eggs, a bowl of water with a goldfish, a hyacinth and various other sweets. In addition, it is not uncommon for each home to introduce their own take, with items that are important for them.

Sprouts and hyacinths in bunny pots

The celebrations last thirteen days, and on the last day an extra celebration known as Sizdah Bedar (literally thirteenth outdoors) happens whereby families and friends spend all day outdoors in nature, and childrens’ play, music and dancing takes place. Traditionally, the leaves of the greenery are tied with a whisper by young singletons expressing a wish to find a partner, and then they are discarded.

A Half-Seen in the State Dining Room of George W. Bush’s White House, 2008 (TOP PHOTO). A spread from Secretary of State John Kerry’s office in 2015 (BOTTOM PHOTO)

Regardless of the ceremonies in Norouz, its themes are universal. In a world where anger and fear seems to be increasingly prospering over love and hope, let us find some optimism in this transcendental celebration of new possibilities and new life which has not only survived, but prospered, through the centuries.


Playing The Clarinet For Stephen Hawking

This article is my own, and I published it in the Huffington Post today:

Professor Stephen Hawking said in an interview with the New York Times:

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”

This encapsulates both his tremendous sense of humour, and the immense success of his many personal and professional endeavours over the physical limitations of Motor Neurone Disease.

I was fortunate to study in the same college where Stephen Hawking worked as a Fellow: walking past his office on the way to dinner, sometimes eating in the same hall. It always felt surreal to live and study in the same place as this scientific luminary, and I spent many awe-struck dinners manoeuvring through the long students’ tables in a rather unseemly way so that I could catch a glimpse at how he uses his computer-based communication system.

Every so often, he used to join the students in the college bar where he might have been sipping a soft drink or talking to students.  It took a few terms to pluck up the courage to ask for a photo with him, and he graciously obliged. Indeed, Professor Hawking never gave the impression of an aloof celebrity scientist, he always seemed to be an authentically down-to-earth man who appreciated life and the people around him.

His self-deferential style of comedy is a feature of his many cameos on popular television series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons and Futurama. He knowingly portrayed himself as a petty, self-important egotist in these and routinely stole the show. One of his funniest recent gigs was his retort to satirist John Oliver’s question “Does that mean that there is a universe our there where I am smarter than you”was “Yes. And also a universe where you’re funny”.

Nevertheless, arguably the greatest testament to his character remains how he tirelessly fought over the last few years in support of the National Health Service. His robust defence of the NHS, without which he said “I wouldn’t be here today” turned to a clinical attack of politicians in a speech at the Royal Society of Medicine where he warned of a “US-style insurance system” being brought about by ministers cutting funds and privatising the healthcare service. Alongside the NHS, he also battled to safeguard science funding and recruitment following the UK’s EU referendum decision. As I work in medicine, this elevated his status in my mind from a hero to a kind of mythic entity: he was spending his sunset years fighting for what he believed was right, with the fire in his soul burning brighter than ever.

“The NHS is Britain’s finest public service and the cornerstone of our society. The NHS brings out the best in us. We cannot lose it.”

My most vivid memory of Professor Hawking is from playing clarinet in a College Orchestra concert during my first term. I had been tasked with performing the solo from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ piece The Lark Ascending, but had not quite expected Stephen Hawking to be sitting directly opposite me. My nerves combined with a lazy embouchure and resulted in a largely squeaked segment, which seemed to last an eternity. I looked at Professor Hawking but could not deduce his thoughts as I massacred a classic English piece in my first (and last) performance.

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”


Film Review – Black Panther

No significant spoilers in this review

I just saw the latest offering in the Marvel stable in IMAX 3D – Black Panther. Alongside Moon Knight and Hank Pym (who both suffer from inner demons), I’ve found the challenges of Black Panther one of the most interesting in the Marvel comics universe. Chiefly, his turmoil as he struggles with the duties of a king and his own personal values as a person and responsibilities to the world as a whole.

Black Panther from Captain America: Civil War. Source:

This is explored deftly in the new film, which gives us a socio-political quandary right at the beginning – can the isolated secret technology-rich African nation of Wakanda accept responsibility to the rest of the world (and its own continent) and open up, using its resources to help other peoples? It’s a real-life problem that many countries face, and is rendered more stark by the fact that the fictional nation of Wakanda is surrounded by poor neighbours.

Map and Location of Wakanda. Source: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe #12 (December 1983).

This is a great popcorn film, full of well-choreographed action sequences, stunning costumes and beautiful cinematography and computer-generated imagery. In particular, the combination of these during the fights in water at a cliff-edge were pure eye candy. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed looking at a film so much, and the key feature here is the balance: there is never too much to see on the screen, but just enough for one to appreciate. I would highly recommend watching this film on an IMAX rather than standard screen, although the 3D elements of the film weren’t particularly crucial to the experience.

Cliff Edge water fight scene. Source:,

The performances in the film were decent, though not perfect. Chadwick Boseman was very good as T’Challa, as were Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira as his warrior queen and general respectively. I didn’t quite find Letitia Wright’s Shuri as convincing, but that may be personal taste as she is a good actress in other films I’ve seen. Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi was outstanding, and this actor is quickly showing the range in his performances – from an excellent Black Mirror episode, to Sicario, to Get Out and now this performance laiden with subtleties. He’s come a looooong way since playing a pretty stereotyped London Nigerian parking attendant in Harry and Paul. I’ve loved Martin Freeman since his role in the UK’s Office but I found his Everett Ross performance a bit ham-fisted. Andy Serkis was outstandingly over the top as Ulysses Klaue and you can’t help to think he is wasted in his many motion capture roles, I want to see him on-screen! He reminded me of Sharlto Copley in District 9 except even more unhinged. Michael B Jordan as the thuggist Killmonger didn’t do it for me as a principal antagonist – I never felt invested in the character and why he turned out as he did, and was left thinking “What if Daniel Kaluuya had played this role…”. But this is a minor gripe given the variety of great performances throughout the cast.

Cast of Black Panther. Source:

My only other criticism of the film was that the humour wasn’t as up-there as I thought it would be – there was a particularly weak joke about “sneakers” which I’m sure was intended to be funny but the cinema was silent. This could be because I had been spoilt by Taika Waititi’s outstanding Thor:Ragnarok which had me in stitches from the beginning to the end. But the themes in this film are, perhaps, such that comedy isn’t really an important element to the story, whereas the third Thor outing had invested itself in being a comedy showpiece, which is executed expertly. In any case, I can’t complain as both films, and indeed so many of the recent Marvel Cinematic offerings, were pure entertainment. Indeed, this studio is struggling to put a foot wrong, with the exception of the absolutely awful Inhumans series.

I would thoroughly recommend this film as a piece of entertainment with some interesting questions throughout.


Book Review – “The Beautiful Death”: A fantastic graphic novel

I enjoy reading, and love tucking into my Kindle after a long day’s work. However, when I really want to treat myself I like to read Graphic Novels. I offer to the reader that this medium can provide unique experiences through a combination of word and artwork, and should be judged separately from classical literature.

The Beautiful Death from Titan Comics

As I love tales of dystopian or post-apocalyptic words, I chanced upon “The Beautiful Death”, a new 5-part series from French creator Mathieu Bablet. This is titled La Belle Mort in French, which undoubtedly sounds more enticing. I glanced at a few scenes and was immediately reminded of some classic horror manga by the Japanese legend which is Kazuo Umezu, as well as the great Junji Ito.

Basically, this is a tale set on our planet, where insects of varying sizes have taken over and humanity, as we know it, has ended. We follow three survivors who are trying to survive in this desolate world, as they follow and repeat their routine of finding a shop or home to get some canned food. They haven’t met anyone else in a long time.

Giant alien caterpillars? Source: Titan Comics

I won’t give much else of the plot away, suffice to say that it is gripping and the relationship between the characters grabs you from the beginning. What I love about this story, and indeed much Japanese manga, is that you can’t take anything for granted. The world and the protagonists are never black-and-white, but multiple shades of grey. Perhaps this is often missing in other graphic novels where there is often a hero we need to “root” for.

A desolate world awaits you. Source: Titan Comics

The world depicted in both the writing and the illustrations is barren and isolating, and the choices that the characters have to make are equally stark, leaving a “What would you do” theme throughout. The finale to the book left me gasping and has stayed with me for a while. In fact, it has rekindled my love of short-series books, as one can pick them up and finish them in an evening in the time it takes to watch a movie. I’m going to look out for this author in future, and indeed he has opened my eyes to other French artists in this medium.


Exploring the worlds of Vincent Van Gogh in Film and Virtual-Reality

The film Loving Vincent and the VR Experience The Night Cafe let you enter the mind and works of Vincent Van Gogh in unique and magical ways.

The enigmatic Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most influential and iconic figures in art. We have all encountered his most famous paintings, even if we’re not consciously aware of some of them. They imprint themselves into our collective minds in a way that is difficult to explain and comprehend. He is also a fascinating and seemingly undecipherable person, who suffered severely from depression and eventually killed himself.

Recently, we have been allowed a dip into his world through not one, but two different modalities. The film Loving Vincent is an animated biographical drama which has been lovingly and painstakingly crafted in the style of his own paintings. I watched it and was blown away by the small details in the film, which explores the circumstances surrounding Vincent Van Gogh’s death in 1890. It started as a Kickstarter campaign with 796 backers originally pledging $64,000. The outcome is a unique work of art.

It sounds rather hubristic, but I have no doubt that this film will win the 2018 nomination for best animated film.

The second way of jumping into Van Gogh’s mindscape is through The Night Cafe – A VR tribute to Vincent Van Gogh on the HTC Vive and Oculus rift. Being able to walk through a painted Van Goghian world in three dimensions is a surreal and immeasurably enjoyable experience. Although it is short, this experience from Borrowed Light Studios is free and has to be one of the most well-crafted and beautiful experiences in room-scale immersive virtual reality.

Here is my play-through:

I felt that I was living within a world made of his paintings. Not only did I appreciate his art in a new way, it also made it clear to me how Virtual Reality can have a role in forming new types of experiences that we could not imagine before.


Cryptocurrency 101 – Thinking of jumping in?

It has been hard to avoid hyperbolic news articles about the digital currency bitcoin and the enigmatic blockchain.  These words conjure various emotions for many people – for some they are secretive technologies which are purposefully obscure and impenetrable. Many associate bitcoin with greed and hypercapitalism. It has just had a mega dip, fuelled by fear and uncertainty, yet it looks like a rebound is on the cards. Could it be the time to buy?

What is the blockchain?

Simple explanation: Invented in 2008. a block is a record of new transactions (which could mean money, but can also mean voting records, medical data and many more uses). Blockchain is decentralized, meaning that it does not rely on a single computer/server/organisation.  Information on the blockchain is encrypted, and to process any transaction a complex math problems need to be solved using processing power. These problems become more difficult over time, this is “mining”.   Once each block is completed it gets added to the chain, creating a chain of blocks – a blockchain, which is permanent and unalterable. 

Now it sounds paradoxical given the focus on encryption, but blockchain is actually a public ledger – people won’t know your identity but the information from your transaction can be seen publicly. Therein lies the mantra “always trust the blockchain”.

Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin therefore use the blockchain so that monetary units can be encrypted and stored electronically within the network.

Can I get rich quick, or is this a dotcom/tulip bubble?

It is true that speculators have made this seem like a crazy market, but the fact remains that we are still in early days when it comes to cryptocurrency. The total market cap is still a tiny fraction of the Dotcom companies at the turn of the millenium.  Bitcoin was The meteoric rise of Bitcoin towards the end of 2017 may not happen again for a while, or it may do. The truth is, who knows? But the blockchain is here to stay, and we are only just discovering some of its potential. Smart money would suggest that Bitcoin and the other “altcoins” (alternatives to bitcoin) remains a good investment, especially now that it has dipped.

How to get bitcoin?

The most well-established method of purchasing Bitcoin right now is by using the San Francisco based digital exchange Coinbase. Using this exchange, you can also buy other big altcoins, each of which has its own modus operandi. If you want to sign up, please feel free to use my referral link which will give both of us $10 of free bitcoin:

What about hacks of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies?

Yes, there have been several high-profile hacks of exchanges in the news. The most notable was MtGox in 2014 when almost $450 million worth of bitcoin was stolen. Recently $500 million NEM coins was stolen from another Japanese exchange – Coincheck. Although the amount stolen is more, as the market is larger now, this has had less of an impact on cryptocurrency.

Nevertheless, people are understandably worried about the risk of hacking and stealing their hard-earned money.


The solution is to keep the majority of your cryptocurrency in a wallet. When it is on an online exchange, you always run the risk of losing it to hacks.  The safest bets are hard wallets such as the Ledger Nano S:

Only you can access the wallet, assuming you don’t lose your password!

If a hard wallet is difficult to get hold of, then at the very least a software wallet should suffice.  Exodus wallet provides the best option at present for your home computer or laptop: ). You can also find mobile app wallets such as CoinomiEnjin and Eidoo which store cryptocurrency, although remember to keep your passwords safe!

Trading Exchanges

But if you do want to trade between bitcoins and altcoins, hoping to find the “new bitcoin”, then make sure you keep your altcoins spread throughout different exchanges, not just in one. There are many exchanges, some of which are more mainstream and which have a solid infrastructure, and others which are more “badlands” territory, but where you can sometimes find bargains!  These are the ones that I use, with referral links:

Mainstream exchange (safest bets): 
BINANCE – bì or 

Binance is Chinese-owned and is a newer exchange, yet seems to be the most popular choice for new altcoins to be added at present. The infrastructure for both the online exchange and the mobile app is solid, and wallets for altcoins are well-maintained. They also promise to give you airdrops (free coins after a hard-fork) for bitcoin and other coins.

BITTREX – A safe bet for the largest spread of alts, however their infrastructure can become poor when volume is high. Wallets also take a lot of time to be updated, and also bittrex doesn’t give airdrops following hardforks. Nevertheless, it seems like a “safe bet” and the interface is easy to use.

More alternative exchanges:

These  can be the place to find bargains or coins which have not yet reached the mainstream exchanges. Alternative exchanges can also be home to “deadcoins” – coins which have been long abandoned. Whilst this sounds like dodgy territory, sometimes these tiny coins can be pumped and dumped by groups on Whatsapp and Telegram. If you find yourself holding one of these coins, you can make a tidy profit if you cash out!

COINEXCHANGE – or This is the home of “pumping and dumping”. This is a practice which attracts greed but it is very risky, because you can be the one buying at the highest price!  But if you hold a coin with a limit sell and others pump (and then dump) it,  you can suddenly cash out with minimum work even if you don’t make as much as they do!

CRYPTOPIA – or…rer=Cartesiain This New Zealand based exchange is also a marketplace for goods.. It still has pump and dumps, though perhaps not as much as Coinexchange.

Future ones to look out for (exchanges will be online later in the year):
A number of new exchanges will be released over the coming months, which promise enhanced levels of security and smoother interfaces:

COINMETRO : This will come out soon and looks promising. The team communicate very well and have a telegram group here: They are also doing an initial coin offering (link…820437c44238bd ) giving people a future stake in their exchange.

ALTCOIN.IO or This is coming out in a month or two and also has a telegram group .

These exchanges are in early development, yet are promising because they appear to prioritise communication with the customer.


Mining is another way to make money from the cryptocurrency phenomenon. But that doesn’t have to mean setting up a maze of rigs and wires like the photo above. You can sign up for cloud mining websites which do the mining for you, once you pay for a contract for a certain period of mining. This way you can get a steady regular income without having to worry about your electricity bills. There are a number of scam mining companies to avoid, so please do your own research! The two biggest cloud mining sites at the moment are:

GENESIS MINING: This is the largest cloud mining service and is easy to get started with, though their contracts do tend to be sold out a lot of the time! Feel free to use my affiliate code:  hWN94y

HASHFLARE The new kid on the block is not as slick an operation as Genesis Mining, but has more availability at present. 


Staking is an alternative to mining in some sense – all you need to do to earn with this method is hold coins in a desktop wallet, and the coins adopt a variable Proof of Stake(PoS) interest rate that gives a periodic payout.  Be careful, as a lot of the coins which work with PoS have found their value going down, so although your holdings may increase, their net value may decrease.  A lot of the coins which offer this are the smaller ones which you might only find on places like Coinexchange and Cryptopia, and you will need to download the specific wallet for that coin. Examples of PoS coins are PIVX, Netcoin, Reddcoin, Stratis, NEO, Dash, OKCash and Magi.

Good luck to you, and may you all get wealthy. Remember, wealth isn’t about having money, but having options, dreams and freedom. Don’t just dream of a lambo or island, but also giving money to something which means a lot to you.