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World Cup ad does not mention World Cup

Friday, 4 April, 2014 0 Comments

Starring Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, England’s Wayne Rooney and Brazil’s Neymar, this video ad from Nike shows each of its sponsorees getting into the flow for the main event, which starts 69 days from today. But why is there no mention of the World Cup itself? Because up there with Coca Cola, Visa, Sony and Emirates is the name of Adidas, one of the top-line sponsors of Brasilia 2014 and one of Nike’s main rivals. Great clip, though.

The money shot

Thursday, 3 April, 2014 0 Comments

After his success in directing The French Connection, William Friedkin was at the height of his creative maturity. Reportedly, there was immaturity, too, in the form of a borderline psychopath who screamed at staff, fired guns to scare actors, fired people in the morning and rehired them in the evening. Perhaps it was not surprising that he was given the job of directing The Exorcist, the mother of all demonic movies. Warner Brothers provided him with a budget of $4 million but Friedkin drove it through the roof and the film ended up costing $12 million. He was simply fanatical about his shots, regardless of time or money.

The story goes that one day while filming in New York City he was doing a scene that involved bacon cooking on a grill and he didn’t like how the meat was curling so he stopped work and sent his assistants off to find some preservative-free bacon that would remain flat. Friedkin worked so slowly and precisely that a crew member who was sick and came back to the set three days later found that they were still doing the same bacon shot. Patience, and an obsession with precision, sometimes pays off, however. After costing $12 million to make, The Exorcist has raked in more than $440 million to date.

Germany’s chief Putin “understander”

Wednesday, 2 April, 2014 0 Comments

Moscow, 11 December 2013: “Meeting with Helmut Schmidt” is the title of Vladimir Putin’s press release and it’s filled with oleaginous praise: “It is a great pleasure and honour for me to meet with you in Moscow, for you are not only the patriarch of European politics but of global politics as well.”

Last week, the former German chancellor used the pages of Die Zeit, a weekly newspaper printed in Hamburg and of which he is a co-publisher, to pay back the compliments he had received in the Kremlin. “Helmut Schmidt hat Verständnis für Putins Krim-Politik” is how the abbreviated piece was titled in the online edition; “Putins Vorgehen ist verständlich” was the title in the print edition. Both were repulsive in their attempts to legitimize Russia’s aggression, and both were nauseating in their efforts to display “understanding” for Moscow’s thuggery. At one point in the print version, the vain, doddery, chain-smoking oracle says: “Until the beginning of the 1990s, the West had never doubted that Crimea and Ukraine — both — were part of Russia.” In fact, until the beginning of the 1990s, they were part of an entity called the Soviet Union.

Schmidt-Carter Helmut Schmidt was German Chancellor from 1974 to 1982, and Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States from 1977 to 1981 so their paths often crossed. Carter’s White House Diary portrays the Hamburg-born politician as an unpredictable whinger, constantly lecturing the Americans on global economics, and then disappearing when Washington needed his help. According to Carter’s notes, Schmidt “acted like a paranoid child” who believed that if life were fair, he would have been president of the United States instead of the man from Plains, Georgia. And in an observation that’s relevant to today’s debate, Carter noted on 5 January 1979: “I was impressed and concerned by the attitude of Helmut toward appeasing the Soviets.”

In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost the presidential election to Ronald Reagan. The upside for the Democrat was that he would no longer have to deal with the German leader. In his diary, he noted that he was “glad to deliver Schmidt… to Reagan.”

Undo my sad

Tuesday, 1 April, 2014 0 Comments

Sweden will be represented in the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 in Copenhagen on 10 May by Sanna Nielsen singing Undo, the chorus of which goes “Undo my sad.” But what exactly does this cryptic message mean? What is the singer of hits such as I går, i dag and Hela världen för mig saying with “Undo my sad”? One immediately thinks of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the dark curse of the long Nordic winter, but a cursory look at the lyrics of Undo suggests otherwise. Sample:

Undo my sad
Undo what hurts so bad
Undo my pain
Gonna get out, through the rain

Grammarians would, no doubt, prefer “Undo my sadness”, but that would then force Ms Nielsen to follow up with the rhyming “Undo what hurts so badness,” and that would not be right. Regardless, Undo sounds like a winner.

Horripilation: Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

Monday, 31 March, 2014 0 Comments

Each week brings with it dreadful stories that would make one’s hair stand on end. Take the one about the four princesses who say that they have been trapped in the Saudi Arabian royal compound in Jeddah for the last 13 years. The mother of the four girls was married off to King Abdullah at the age of 15, and she claims that they have been subject to constant abuse and are effectively being held under house arrest. Sadly, such tales about court intrigue are not new and Shakespeare captured the horror of it all some four centuries ago in Hamlet, where the ghost addresses the young prince:

But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

Language note: Shakespeare’s “porpentine” is better known today as the porcupine, and the idiom of hair standing on end refers to the sensation of hairs, especially those on the neck, standing upright when the skin contracts due to fear. This phenomenon was once called “horripilation” and was defined in 1656 as “the standing up of the hair for fear… a sudden quaking, shuddering or shivering,” by Thomas Blount in his splendidly named Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting such hard words as are now used.

Michael and Francis in a country church

Sunday, 30 March, 2014 0 Comments
Michael and Francis in a country church

On the left: “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven” — Revelation 12:7 On the right: “To depict the pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, […]

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Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Saturday, 29 March, 2014 0 Comments

Describing his early poems, Dylan Thomas said that they were “eggs laid by tigers.” Peter Bruun, Martin Ullits Dahl and Jonas Westergaard from Copenhagen liked the Welshman’s phrase so much that it became the name of their band. Along with their name, the group get all their lyrics from the Swansea bard, who was born 100 years ago this year.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Coffee: Is there anything it can’t do?

Friday, 28 March, 2014 0 Comments

Note: CVD stands for Cardiovascular Disease. “Moderate coffee consumption was inversely significantly associated with CVD risk, with the lowest CVD risk at 3 to 5 cups per day, and heavy coffee consumption was not associated with elevated CVD risk.” That’s the conclusion of a paper titled “Long-Term Coffee Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease,” which appears in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association.

And there’s more good news in the specialist publications. Take the current issue of Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, for example. It contains a letter by R. Cardin, M. Piciocchi and F. Farinati on the matter of “coffee and chronic liver damage.” Conclusion? “In summary, coffee appears to be protective in liver damage progression, irrespective of the aetiology. Its use should be recommended and the mechanisms and compounds involved further investigated.”

espresso This comes on the heels of an article in the New Scientist by Simon Malkin titled “Drink two espressos to enhance long-term memory.” And that ties in neatly with the following: “In a 2012 experiment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, mice were briefly starved of oxygen, causing them to lose the ability to form memories. Half of the mice received a dose of caffeine that was the equivalent of several cups of coffee. After they were reoxygenated, the caffeinated mice regained their ability to form new memories 33 percent faster than the uncaffeinated.”

That’s from “This Is Your Brain on Coffee” by Gretchen Reynolds, which appeared last June in the New York Times. Snippet: “In one large-scale epidemiological study from last year, researchers primarily at the National Cancer Institute parsed health information from more than 400,000 volunteers, ages 50 to 71, who were free of major diseases at the study’s start in 1995. By 2008, more than 50,000 of the participants had died. But men who reported drinking two or three cups of coffee a day were 10 percent less likely to have died than those who didn’t drink coffee, while women drinking the same amount had 13 percent less risk of dying during the study.”

Is there anything it can’t do?

He gained Crimea but the Kremlin is now a pariah

Thursday, 27 March, 2014 0 Comments

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard: “With a national fertility rate of 1.4, chronic alcoholism, and a population expected to shrink by 30m to barely more than 110m by 2050 — according to UN demographers, not Mr Putin’s officials — the nation must inexorably recede towards its European bastion of Old Muscovy. The question is how fast, and how peacefully.”

The international business editor of the Daily Telegraph is remorseless in his disdain for the new lord of Crimea. In a piece titled “Putin’s Russia caught in US and Chinese double-pincer,” he combines geography and demography with strategy and finance in assessing the hubris and thuggery that have blinded the Kremlin in its decision making. His verdict on Putin is merciless:

“At the end of the day he has condemned Russia to the middle income trap. The windfall from the great oil boom has been wasted. Russia’s engineering skills have atrophied. Industry has been hollowed out by the Dutch Disease: the curse of over-valued currency, and reliance on commodities.”

If you want to learn more about the true nature of this pariah state, read about The Magnitsky List and William Browder’s heroic battle with Russian evil.

Afghanistan 1977: Haven of Peace and Tranquility

Wednesday, 26 March, 2014 0 Comments

Reuters: “Afghanistan accused Pakistan’s intelligence service on Monday of staging last week’s attack on a hotel in Kabul in which nine people including foreigners were shot dead by militants.”

CNN: “The number of people killed when militants stormed an election commission office in the Afghan capital Tuesday has risen to five, a spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry said.”

That’s how it is today in Afghanistan, but if we go back to 1977, we find the country’s national airline, Ariana, transporting passengers to a promised land of peace and tranquility. All that ended on 25 December 1979 when Soviet Airborne Forces landed in Kabul. Two days later, KGB and GRU operatives dressed in Afghan uniforms occupied major military and media buildings, attacked the Tajbeg Presidential Palace and killed President Hafizullah Amin. Within two weeks, Soviet forces in Afghanistan exceeded 100,000 personnel. What followed was a decade of barbarism, followed by retreat and the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Ariana is flying again, but peace and tranquility remain a mirage for Afghanistan.

Ariana

Cyberwar with Waze

Wednesday, 26 March, 2014 0 Comments

When Google paid $1 billion last summer for Waze, an Israeli firm that had created a traffic and navigation app for smartphones, The Economist mused that if the users’ data were built into Google Maps, it “should give a timelier, fuller picture of conditions on the roads.” That’s because motorists can use Waze to report traffic jams, accidents, roadworks, speed traps and fuel prices. The Economist also noted that Waze was hugely popular in Israel, with “almost 100% penetration” among smartphone-owning drivers, according to Yahal Zilka of Magma Venture Partners, which had led the first round of investment in the company.

But within that “almost 100% penetration” lies a grave danger. Check this out:

“As part of their studies in computer science at the Technion in Haifa, two students constructed a program capable of disrupting traffic reports provided by the popular navigation service Waze by creating fictitious traffic reports to steer drivers off course. Using the program that they constructed, the students were able to create a traffic jam that continued for hours and forced thousands of drivers to steer clear of their regular routes.”

The report by No Camels concludes: “The cyber attack simulated by the students could have severe consequences on traffic patterns, enabling a user to discourage drivers from using a toll road leading to bankruptcy for the traffic authorities…”

Given the shortage of employees skilled in dealing with cyberattacks, those Technion students should have no problems getting well-paid jobs at home or abroad.