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Series of the Year: The Night Manager

Thursday, 22 December, 2016 0 Comments

In an age of sleeplessness and over-extended streamed series, The Night Manager manages to get in and out in six, 90-minute episodes. That’s a serious plus for the time constrained. This co-production by the BBC and AMC is a lavish update of a 1993 John Le Carré novel that feels a bit like James Bond meets Tom Ripley. In fact, Hugh Laurie meets Tom Hiddleston in the most picture-postcard parts of Egypt, Britain, Switzerland, Morocco, Spain and Turkey.

Laurie plays arms dealer Richard Roper, whose ability to fly beneath the radar has frustrated British intelligence agent Angela Burr (Olivia Coleman) for more than a decade. She’s obsessed with catching this Big Fish and her angler turns out to be Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, the hotel night manager of the title.

Director Susanne Bier pans between the treacherous, charming Laurie and Hiddleston, a former soldier turned stylish night manager at upscale hotels. Elizabeth Debicki is the elegant American arm candy for Laurie’s character and her attraction to the attractive Hiddleston gives the storyline a needed touch of animality. Typically le Carré, the plot features elaborate conspiracies at almost every turn. Add in lots of drinking and you’ve got what’s needed to make The Night Manager our Series of the Year.

The Night Manager

“Promise to build a chap a house, he won’t believe you. Threaten to burn his place down, he’ll do what you tell him. Fact of life.” — Richard Roper, The Night Manager


Book of the Year: Conclave

Wednesday, 21 December, 2016 0 Comments

With Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator, Robert Harris explained ancient Rome to an intrigued modern world. Now, he does it the same for the Vatican with Conclave.

As its title suggests, the novel is about a papal conclave. This one takes place sometime in a near future where the pope has died and the cardinals are gathering to elect his successor. All the classic elements of the English mystery novel format are here: a locked room, intrigue, rivalries, enmities, sex (!) and a surprise ending. Robert Harris writes about power, secular and religious, with an insight that places him beyond all his peers, and that’s why Conclave is our Book of the Year.

At the end of the aisle, where the nave gave on to the cupola of the dome, they had to pause beside Bernini’s statue of St. Longinus, close to where the choir was singing, and wait while the last few pairs of cardinals filed up the steps to kiss the central altar and descended again. Only when this elaborate manoeuvre had been completed was Lomeli himself cleared to walk around to the rear of the altar. He bowed towards it. Epifano stepped forward and took away the crozier and gave it to an altar boy. Then he lifted the mitre from Lomeli’s head, folded it, and handed it to a second acolyte. Out of habit, Lomeli touched his skullcap to check it was in place.

Together he and Epifano climbed the seven wide carpeted steps to the altar. Lomeli bowed again and kissed the white cloth. He straightened and rolled back the sleeves of his chasuble as if he were about to wash his hands. He took the silver thurible of burning coals and incense from its bearer and swung it by its chain over the altar—seven times on this side, and then, walking round, a separate censing on each of the other three. The sweet-smelling smoke evoked feelings beyond memory. Out of the corner of his eye he saw dark-suited figures moving his throne into position. He gave back the thurible, bowed again and allowed himself to be conducted round to the front of the altar. An altar boy held up the missal, opened to the correct page; another extended a microphone on a pole.

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. He clasped his hands, closed his eyes for a moment, took a breath, and intoned in a wavering plainsong, amplified around the basilica:

“In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti . . .”
And from the colossal congregation arose the murmured sung response:
“Amen.”
He raised his hands in benediction and chanted again, extending the three syllables into half a dozen:
“Pa-a-x vob-i-is.”
And they responded:
“Et cum spiritu tuo.”
He had begun.

Conclave


Song of the Year: And Dream of Sheep

Tuesday, 20 December, 2016 0 Comments

“Little light will guide them to me.” The line has a special relevance at Christmas, and the terror killings of innocent Christmas revellers in Berlin lend it extra poignancy. And Dream of Sheep by Kate Bush is thus deemed our Song of the Year.

Prior to her 22-date run of sold-out London concerts in 2014, Kate Bush spent three days submerged in a tank filled with water. The goal was to create a sense of authenticity while making a video for And Dream of Sheep, a song about a woman lost at sea. The clip — which features the singer strapped in a lifejacket, hoping to be rescued — was created for her return to the stage, during which she performed The Ninth Wave, her 1985 song cycle.

Although originally released on Hounds of Love, the song has been reworked and the new version appears on Kate Bush and the K Fellowship: Before the Dawn, a live album that captures her 2014 show on three CDs and four vinyl albums.

“Little light shining
Little light will guide them to me
My face is all lit up
If they find me racing white horses
They’ll not take me for a buoy
Let me be weak, let me sleep and dream of sheep.”

Kate Bush


Person of the Year: Peter Thiel

Monday, 19 December, 2016 0 Comments

The speech Peter Thiel gave at the Republican Convention in Cleveland could have been written by legions of other critics of the elites who have misgoverned the US since the 1980s. Thiel, the billionaire investor and Facebook board member, is the only eminent Silicon Valley figure who publicly supported Donald Trump during his election campaign. He’s disruptive and a natural contrarian with a talent for making rewarding bets. He was a co-founder was PayPal and he was the first major investor in Facebook, and his wager on Mr. Trump will place him in a key position to formulate a tech policy for the new administration. Here’s what he said in Ohio in July:

Good evening. I’m Peter Thiel. I build companies and I’m supporting people who are building new things, from social networks to rocket ships. I’m not a politician. But neither is Donald Trump. He is a builder, and it’s time to rebuild America.

Where I work in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to see where America has gone wrong. My industry has made a lot of progress in computers and in software, and, of course, it’s made a lot of money. But Silicon Valley is a small place. Drive out to Sacramento, or even just across the bridge to Oakland, and you won’t see the same prosperity. That’s just how small it is.

Across the country, wages are flat. Americans get paid less today than ten years ago. But healthcare and college tuition cost more every year. Meanwhile Wall Street bankers inflate bubbles in everything from government bonds to Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees. Our economy is broken. If you’re watching me right now, you understand this better than any politician in Washington D.C.

And you know this isn’t the dream we looked forward to. Back when my parents came to America looking for that dream, they found it right here in Cleveland. They brought me here as a one-year-old and this is where I became an American. Opportunity was everywhere. My dad studied engineering at Case Western Reserve University, just down the road from where we are now. Because in 1968, the world’s high tech capital wasn’t just one city: all of America was high tech.

It’s hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech, too. When I moved to Cleveland, defense research was laying the foundations for the internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon–and it was Neil Armstrong, from right here in Ohio. The future felt limitless.

But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain. And it would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t even work at all. That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan project. We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government.

Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East. We don’t need to see Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails: her incompetence is in plain sight. She pushed for a war in Libya, and today it’s a training ground for ISIS. On this most important issue Donald Trump is right. It’s time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild our country. When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?

Of course, every American has a unique identity. I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American. I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform; but fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline, and nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.

While it is fitting to talk about who we are, today it’s even more important to remember where we came from. For me that is Cleveland, and the bright future it promised. When Donald Trump asks us to Make America Great Again, he’s not suggesting a return to the past. He’s running to lead us back to that bright future.

Tonight I urge all of my fellow Americans to stand up and vote for Donald Trump.

“What’s striking about this speech,” wrote Trump nemesis Larry Lessig, “is, except for its references to Trump, how obviously true it is. Something has gone wrong in America. Growth is not spread broadly. Technical innovation is not spread broadly. We were a nation that tackled real and important problems. We have become a nation where — at least among politicians — too much time is spent arguing over the petty. ‘Who cares?’ about which bathroom someone uses — which coming from a gay libertarian must mean, ‘it’s none of your business.’ The wars of the last generation were stupid. We need to focus on building a ‘bright future’ that all of America can share in.”

Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One, makes for stimulating reading, and it should be read by all journalists because it will help them understand the man who used his wealth to pursue, and eventually shut down, Gawker. Now, he’s an important adviser to the Trump transition team and he certainly had a say in the decision to invite the leaders of the major tech companies to last week’s meeting at Trump Tower. The love fest that existed between President Obama and Silicon Valley is definitely over, but Silicon Valley celebrates disruption and Peter Thiel, our Person of the Year, is a serious disruptor.

Peter Thiel


The Spielberg trademark

Sunday, 18 December, 2016 0 Comments

In 1964, when he was 17, Steven Spielberg caught the attention of Universal Studios with his 140-minute film Firelight, about a UFO invading a small town. He went on to direct episodes of TV series such as Columbo and Marcus Welby, MD, as well as his own psychological thriller Duel in 1971, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the breakthrough came. That was the year Steven Spielberg presented the movie industry with the concept of the summer blockbuster in the form of Jaws. The rest is Hollywood.

If you watch any of his films, you’ll notice a trademark element: the Spielberg Face. This is his signature. Characters watch in awe, wonder, fear, sadness, hope, joy. It’s his way of showing us that this is a vital scene. The great storyteller Steven Spielberg is 70 today.


My mother’s Christmas cake

Saturday, 17 December, 2016 0 Comments

The tin that was used for baking this cake was bought in Ballylanders, County Limerick, in the early 1950’s for 2 shillings and 9 pence. It measures nine inches across. Now that Ireland has gone metric, that measurement can be expressed as 23 cm. A euro equivalent for “2 shillings and 9 pence” is harder to compute, though, as the price refers to a foreign country — a pre-decimalization Ireland of almost no disposable income, zero inflation and a tendency to regard even humble baking tins as once-in-a-lifetime purchases. But, regardless of whether you are using an antique tin or a modern one, it is vital that you line it with a double-thickness of silver foil.

INGREDIENTS

750 grams sultanas
350 grams self-raising flour
150 grams “soft” brown sugar
250 grams butter
4 tablespoons water
4 tablespoons brandy
4 eggs
1 teaspoon almond essence
pinch or two ground almonds

PREPARATION

Preparing the fruit Put the sultanas (light-coloured ones are preferred but the darker variety will do) in a saucepan and add the water and brandy. Heat gently until the mixture begins to steam. Remove from heat and cover saucepan.

Next, place the brown sugar in your mixing bowl. Take four eggs and break each one separately in a saucer to test for quality before adding to the sugar and beat until the mix is creamy. Add a half-teaspoon of almond essence for flavour.

The wooden spoon test Gradually sieve in the flour and fold into the mix adding a few pinches of ground almonds as you go along. Remember those sultanas and brandy? Cut the butter into the steamed fruit and add to the flour, sugar and eggs in the mixing bowl.

Use the “vertical wooden spoon” test to see if the consistency of mix is suitable. If the spoon stands to attention, you are on the right track. Finish off by adding the remainder of the flour.

More lining for the tin now. This time it’s greaseproof paper, folded doubly. Pour the mix into the lined tin and paste into the corners. Make a hollow with your hand in the centre to allow for expansion.

The baking tin Bake at 180 degrees for twenty minutes and then at 160 for an hour; leave in the oven and probe the centre of the cake with a knitting needle (recommended) or other sharp object until satisfied that it is baked thoroughly.

A slice is best enjoyed with a big cup of tea. If a roaring fire is at hand, appreciate the warmth, and remember that this cake was once made by a person who lived her life for the benefit of others, many of whom were grateful, and remain so.


Nike and the Breaking2 gimmick

Friday, 16 December, 2016 0 Comments

If you’re interested in running, the news of the year was the announcement on Monday that Nike plans to “enable” a sub two-hour marathon time. Breaking2 is what it calls the project. Sarah Barker of Deadspin isn’t buying, however. It’s a gimmick, she says:

“They’ve identified East African talent upon whom they’re going to thickly apply advanced science, including nutrition, hydration, and shoes (strong retail potential amongst sub six-hour marathoners!), and set them loose on a cool, windless, sea level course with speedy pacers galore.”

And she’s not done: “This isn’t Roger Bannister and John Landy competing to break the four-minute mile; that record was within reach, and attained on a normal track during a relatively normal meet. Nike entering the race only confirms what we already knew: it’s about ego and the tremendous things money can buy, rather than athletic competition.”

Barker’s bottom line: “With details lacking and IAAF standards out the window, a downhill, wind-aided course, genetic manipulation, spring-loaded shoes and other such time-saving factors have been posited to get the job done.”

For Ross Tucker at the Science of Sport, those “spring-loaded shoes” could be decisive and he cites the athletic achievements of Oscar Pistorius to make his case: “Let’s say we could make a shoe with a stiffer material, or a spring, so that less energy is lost on compression of the material and the runner gets more return (remember, for instance, that carbon fiber blades lost only 8% of their energy compared to the able-bodied limb losing 54% of its energy — this illustrates the concept that drives a reduction in the O2/physiological cost).”

In other words, says Tucker, springs in the shoes, “which reduce the physiological cost of running by around 4%, could be enough to help a runner go from a 2:04 to a sub-2 hour marathon.” So, if you’re willing to set aside the rules, and belief in credibility and physiology, a sub-two-hour marathon will happen next year. Nike has the money and it’s persuaded three high profile runners — Eluid Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese — to miss out on the Spring marathons next year to give the barrier a shot. They’ll have a spring in their step, no doubt.

Nike runners


Apple and Tesla at Trump Tower

Thursday, 15 December, 2016 0 Comments

Here’s the context: “After Wednesday’s meeting, Mr. Cook of Apple and Mr. Musk of Tesla stayed at Trump Tower to meet privately with Mr. Trump.” It’s a small detail but the Wall Street Journal has it and none of its rivals, either by omission, commission or lack of access, does.

At the start of yesterday’s meeting with President-elect Donald Trump, the “tech titans” introduced themselves individually in a breaking-the-ice ceremony. “Larry Page, Alphabet and Google, probably the youngest company here,” said Larry Page.

Donald Trump: “Looks like the youngest person.” [Laughs]

Mr. Page: “Really excited to be here.”

Larry Page is 43, so one can understand his boyish enthusiasm. The CEO of Apple is 56 and less excitable, however. “Tim Cook, very good to be here. And I look very forward to talking to the president-elect about the things that we can do to help you achieve some things you want.”

As many have pointed out, he was the only leader who didn’t say what company he worked for. But when the others had left, Mr. Cook of Apple and Mr. Musk of Tesla stayed at Trump Tower to meet privately with Mr. Trump.


The good neighbour

Wednesday, 14 December, 2016 0 Comments

“There is no excess of goodness,” said C.S. Lewis, adding, “You cannot go too far in the right direction.” In expressing goodness, the good neighbour will do many things for those in need including… repairing your chimney! Happy Birthday, Atty Hennessy!

Atty Hennessy


Tech elite sent to Trump Tower

Tuesday, 13 December, 2016 0 Comments

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos will be there, as will Apple CEO Tim Cook, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz and technology investor Peter Thiel. Making up the list is Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, CEO and chairman of Google parent Alphabet, respectively. We’re talking about the meeting between President-elect Donald Trump and tech-industry executives today in New York.

Apart from Thiel, the Silicon Valley elite backed Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, so sackcloth, ashes and humble pie will be handed out to them by liveried footmen as they trudge up the steps of Trump Tower.

Like most journalists, Kara Swisher of Recode is a certified Trump hater, and the headline on her piece ticks all the bias boxes: “As Trumplethinskin lets down his hair for tech, shame on Silicon Valley for climbing the Tower in silence.” Here’s how she imagines the thoughts of the Valley elites upon being summoned to Manhattan:

“Fuckfuckfuck — now I have to become a reality show star in a new episode of ‘The Apprentice: Nerd Edition,’ bowing and scraping to that luddite Trump, who will probably simultaneously berate us in person and bully us on Twitter later with a lot of poop emoticons. Even worse, I have to act like Thiel is a genius, which he kind of is for backing a man who called serious and sophisticated hacking incursions by sovereign nations ‘the cyber’ and said ‘somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds’ — did he mean the bed or the hacker? I have no idea still — could have pulled it off.”

As regards tech, Trump has come down hard on issues considered vital to the industry’s interests, including trade and immigration. The Trump administration will possibly restrict the number of workers who enter the US with an H-1B visa — a type used by many tech employees. Incidentally, that’s the visa Donald Trump’s wife Melania received in 1996 to legally work in the US.

Etymology note: The expression “sent to the Tower” traditionally meant being imprisoned or punished in the Tower of London.


Mobile is eating the world: 2016

Monday, 12 December, 2016 0 Comments

“As we pass 2.5 billion smartphones on earth and head towards 5 billion , and mobile moves from creation to deployment, the questions change,” say Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm behind lots of successful Silicon Valley startups. He assesses the state of the smartphone, machine learning and GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon) in his annual presentation.