Wednesday, 31 December 2014

open you the west door and turn the old year go

Open you the East Door and let the New Year in.
Happy 2015!

universal coordinated time

The tradition of dropping the ball in New York’s Times Square—and derivative celebrations, which began with the year 1908 after fireworks displays were banned in Gotham over safety concerns has much older roots that connect the count-down with navigation on the high-seas and reflect on the nature of time and time-keeping itself. The Naval Observatory in Washington, DC had installed a time-ball in 1845 for the benefit of fleets launching out from the Delmarva Peninsula for the antipodes that fell daily to mark high-noon. This temporal landmark goes back to the Royal Observatory east of London, which rests on the Greenwich meridian. While it was relatively easy for ships at sea to calculate changes in latitude (north, south) by gauging their position under the stars, reckoning degrees, minutes and seconds of longitude proved much more of a challenge.
A navigator could figure how far east or west one had traveled by knowing the difference in time at his present location relative to his point of departure, but clockworks did not yet have their sea-legs and it was not possible to keep good measure, until the development of the sturdy maritime chronometer, invented in 1737 in England, whose chief berth was at Greenwich, later declared to be the Prime Meridian in a convention chaired by US president Grover Cleveland. A bright red ball was installed on the observatory’s bell tower—visible from all around, that has fallen daily since 1833 as an aid cue for passing ships to synchronise their watches—although at 1300 since the crews were busy calibrating earlier with the noon-time angle of the sun. The newspaper magnate wanted to give the gathered crowds a similar cue, bereft of his former pyre and beacons, with a dazzling effect and commissioned the first illuminated ball to be lowered at the stroke of midnight to usher in the New Year.

banned to the bone or disc-jockey jump

Though Western music was officially restricted in Soviet Russia, some bootleg copies of jazz standards and the emerging rock-and-roll were already circulating in the 1950s and the privileged few who got to listen were starving for more and wanted to share—of course, the taboo experience with others. Vinyl as the media, however, came at a high premium and conventional propagation would have aroused the suspicion of censors, so the aficionados/bootleggers/pirates discovered an innovative and resourceful solution: raiding the dumpsters of medical facilities with radiology departments, they took discarded x-ray films and impressed the grooves of the music onto the radiographs. Colossal has a fine little gallery of these improvised albums plus several links that document more on the history of this phenomenon.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

in der silvester-nacht

Though not to be characterised as weird or foreign and not exclusive to Austria, the country’s edition of the English daily, the Local, present a nifty summary of some of the ways Austrians ring in the New Year. Special credit, I believe, is due for not shying away from terms like agora- and ochlophobia (the latter being specifically the fear of crowds and not just being exposed and out in the open, fear of the Marktplatz) and molybdomancy (BleigieรŸen)—that is, divination by molten lead quickly cooled in water, complete with a description of the fun and an exhaustive Rorschach list of interpretations.

There are also some delicious recipes and more on merry-making. New Year’s Eve is goes by the name of Silvester for the sainted pope who baptised the Roman emperor Constantine and legitimised Christianity within the Empire, whose holy day is commemorated on the last day of the year and is combined with traditional celebrations and customs in Central Europe, like the countdown and fireworks. What are some peculiar traditions and rituals of your own? There’s still time to go out and augur your fortune with some ingots, a candle and spoon.  In der Silvester-Nacht wird das Blei zum schmelzen gebracht.

affix oder oh won’t somebody please think of the children

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers—under no official charter but not in the public-trust either—after a year of planning and negotiations, with deference to actual lexica and corporate nonce-words, is releasing an onslaught of new internet suffixes (DE/EN), some two-thousand new possibilities culled from different languages and markets. New German top level domains expand from .de to a whole uncharted wilderness of tags with the new naming conventions, like .gay, .islam, and .kinder as well as names of retailors and brands.
English speaking areas have the monopolisation potential as well with choices like .shoes, .pizza, .ninja—as if .biz and .free weren’t already chintzy and fly-by-night enough. All this cacophony strips dominance away from some appellation-squatters, I suppose—and maybe bursts a bubble for the online real-estate market, but it also makes for a lot of confusion too—where nothing’s not miscellaneous and not parsed and not delivered through search-engines.
I imagine most trafficking comes this way already anyway and most people are not willing to venture a guess at something new—for the very real fear of being led down a rabbit-hole and come to a look-alike site that’s maybe stealing one’s data. This move is rife, I think, for ideologues and for more spoofs, dodging and forgeries, but it is the off-chance that cartels go after one of the new domains that has people most concerned—seeing that confectioners are staking claim to the .kinder name to build brand loyalty to certain candies. What do you think? Are you prospecting for a new style, a manner of address?

Monday, 29 December 2014

dewey decimal or oracular vernacular

Before the advent and propagation of the internet and search machines, the inquiring public relied on certain institutions and librarians in particular for answers.

I do hope that there still are such venerable human experts—at least, the trained and the willing that are still there to field inquiries and riddled with such questions, like Mental-Floss shares a cache recently uncovered in the New York public library system. It seems that librarians jotted down the questions they found either humourous or very challenging, and I would wager that there are similar repositories to be found in libraries the world around. I remember well when librarians were mysterious oracles and when browsing the stacks lent a way of formulating a question that had been asked, in some form, before. Seeing these notes is certainly an interesting juxtaposition to allowing predictive software finish one’s sentence, where is, what is, how do I...

la vie en rose ou cressoniรจre

During autumn’s travels in Normandy, which we’ve been woefully remiss in writing about, H and I stopped at the village of Veules-les-Roses—a darling little spot, whose mills and watercress (Brunnenkresse) bogs (cressoniรจres) are fuelled by the shortest river in France, la Veules—only eleven hundred metres long, escaping to the sea through a breach in the high chalk cliffs of the plateau of Pays de Caux.
This village was a jewel to discover, even on a soggy day, and has been made the subject of literature and visual arts. It was very pleasant to have this pause amidst all the other history and dramatic views of this region.


boilerplate or ultramar

Abrecht Dรผrer’s famous and celebrated woodcut of an India rhinoceros—which the artist never saw in person, has much more than รฆsthetic value, approaching the crossroads of modernity from all possible angles. The trading magnates of Europe were cut off from Asia via the overland route, the Silk Road severed by the Ottoman Empire, and so they sought other ways to reach China and India. Spain opted to reach the East by sailing West and Portuguese explorers scaled the African coast on a southerly trip to round the Cape of Good Hope and onward across the Indian ocean. Seamanship and navigation had reached a level of sophistication that made such long voyages possible and profitable. There was, however, the problem of competing colonial claims to lands and exclusive trading outposts. The kings of Spain and Portugal eventually turned to Pope Leo X to settle matters and both sides tried to woo a blessing from the Pontiff. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesilhas settled the dispute to a degree by dividing the world outside of Europe, Africa and Asia, between the two maritime empires. Keeping up patronage, however, was important and Portuguese King Manuel I had merchants in Goa fetch a rhinoceros and bring it to Lisbon, via Saint Helena.
People were absolutely astonished to see such a beast, which was unknown in Europe since Roman times—the animal described by the classic naturalist Pliny but generally regarded the rhino as some legendary creature. Vilified and curious, Europeans at this time were also rediscovering elements of their heritage that had gone missing during the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages weren’t all that grim and backwards but it is interesting to think how we know more of the Romans than people half a millennium nearer to them, and ruins were being excavated and art uncovered that no one suspected. Manuel was keen on getting this exotic specimen, however, to present to the Pope—thinking it would complement his pet white elephant Hanno, which the Pope rode around the streets of Rome on. Sadly, after being admired in Lisbon and communicated to draughtsman Dรผrer, the rhinoceros went down in a shipwreck off the coast of La Spezia and never made it to Rome—doubly sad because the rhinoceros is an able swimmer and probably would have survived had he not been chained to the deck. Of course, this print became as famous as it did and still remains in circulation because of emerging printing-technology in Dรผrer’s home-haunt of Nรผrnberg, another aspect of the modern age.

the art of asking or just take the doughnuts

Ranked as one of its top literary picks for the past year, Brain Pickings’ maven Maria Popova interviewed author Amanda Palmer on her new work with the subtitle or: how I learned to stop worrying and let people help, which seems to be a very necessary and circumspect exploration of compassion and self-esteem.
The lessons speak in the language of creativity and talent but the message is not meant exclusively for the artistic set, as we are all trying to carefully navigate the chasm between individual and social entitlement narratives, wanting too much, and the inability to welcome that which we truly need—all the sharing and caring and small kindnesses that make us human to each other. Palmer provides a series of imaginative images that don’t allow one to forget their callings—decrying the common measures of success, saying no one is to the manor born, and long before any one of us is illegitimised, recognized, we need to christen ourselves with a spell and magic wand of our own making and feel ridiculous doing so. Problematically, most of us don’t think our passions are worth that kind of bother—especially when others might be charitably disposed to help—and yet, most of us will still have the gall to ask when is our ship coming in. We may have adopted some sort of purist standard to apply to our entertainers and celebrities—maybe so we can see them fail, and are certainly quick to call fraud, poser and imposter even when trifling assistance is ultimately a means to a greater end. Henry David Thoreau, as the author illustrates, gave up a lot of comforts to pursue a quiet and contemplative life on Walden Pond and eventually came to realise his goal.
Thoreau did also graciously accept help when offered by kindred spirits—including fellow author Ralph Waldo Emerson and his mother and sister who brought the hermit doughnuts. Most of us would think less of what Thoreau created because of that detail. What do you think? Do such aspirations only belong in the rarified world of artists or is it a universal and daily struggle?

Sunday, 28 December 2014

ill-will ambassador

For Christmas from H, I received this wonderful Grumpy Cat stuffed animal. Better known by her stage name, the cat called Tartar Sauce made her human caretakers millionaires through a substantial media empire.  Apparently, I am known to pull the same facial expression, from time to time. Though not exactly intended to convey cuddliness—more like, “, Mister Bond, I expect you to die”—I think she’ll make a very good mascot, nonetheless.

spatial fossils

The ever brilliant BLDGBlog revisits the field-trip they got to take two summers ago to the secretive compound that manages the constellation of satellites that form the global positioning system for military and civilian applications.

Surely being treated to such a tour could inspire many tangential musings on place and time and the technological triangulation behind translating this vast array with many moving parts into something reliable and useful. The visitors, however, choose not to reflect on the navigation aspect but rather how GPS coordinates are being used more and more in large-scale architectural projects and how the errors in mapping—precision that’s only off by millimetres but still nonetheless present and preserved—are being set in stone, fossilised as it were in big building programmes. Such cosmological footprints are found in the unburied strata of the Earth and, as in the reflection, evidence of solar flares and sunspots in the growth rings of trees. The philosophy is not lost on the team that runs GPS neither, realising that this fifty-thousand kilometre wide array could also be used a massive detection field for the aberrations of space-time due to encounters with gravitational waves or dark matter. Every sub-system on Earth that accesses and makes decisions based off of this satellite telemetry is a part of this experiment and exotic, cosmic discontinuities may be leaving subtle footfalls everywhere.


Mental Floss has a semi-regular special series entitled Afternoon Map that invites one to pour over imaginative cartography and charts visualising demographics. With some concession to sea-levels and icecaps to keep geo-politics recognisable, contributors at Open Culture share the land masses aligned as Pangea with modern borders included. What is most amazing about such a venture is to think how much has changed before and since with continental-drift and we know a little bit about how those puzzle-pieces fit together.

Saturday, 27 December 2014


A sufficiently academic study from the University of Geneva demonstrates that while life’s stressors may be an enabling factor when it comes to indulging those things that we seek, as profiled by Boing Boing, that same drive does not yield any increased relish for said awards. It is a bit disheartening and telling that striving on an everyman’s level is equally alienated from the goal, whether or not we invite any middle-man. What do you think? Is this about our own expectations, guilty pleasures and the measure of success, or the motors of progress and productivity?

subway special

Down in the underground, Neat-o-Rama features a brilliant gallery from Russian photographer Andrey Kruglikov capturing beautiful images of the metro stations of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. These stops are surely inviting and reminiscence of when no expense was spared for public convenience. Would that all spaces might be so house-proud. It is an interesting time to reflect on this grand artistry when residents are apparently hording subway tokens as a hedge against the declining rouble.

twenty-five metres squared or this small space

Earlier this summer, the Kingdom of Sweden relaxed zoning and permit regulations in order to promote home- improvement projects and ultimately address the housing shortage. Though this initial retraction applies only to structures less than twenty-five square metres in area and up to four metres in height, there’s been already an incredible creative volume of living spaces eked out within these parameters, celebrated in a picture book, as Quartz features. I think that such codes ought to only be relaxed in small, livable and sustainable increments to foster wonder and inspiration.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

pause for station identification

Happy Holidays, and please enjoy while this interpretative dance troupe presents to you their version of the Yule Log!

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

father frost

Reviewing a list of seasonal gift-bearers, I found it a bit jarring at first to see the list of regional variations on the familiar characters of Santa Claus and Saint Nikolaus to abruptly change to Saint Basil for the Greeks and other lands that follow the Orthodox Church.

It is not as if the historical personage of Saint Nikolaus, also hailing from Asia Minor, comes to us directly down the chimney in his present rosy and jovial form without some significant outside influences and concessions to preexisting customs, but—without knowing the evolution of the saint, it seems that this aesthetic monk who is the patron (among other things) of Russia—though Nikolaus is the protector of Moscow—and hospital administrators, and sometimes professional commencement speaker who delivers presents on 1 January seems vastly different. Not a direct counterpart, the Orthodox Church considers Nikolaus moreover an advocate for sailors, though sharing the same charitable feelings for children and the poor, and instead allows this early Church doctor and delegate to the synod that Constantine convened at Nicaea in order that those squabbling Christians could hash out their differences once and for all to champion the cause of delivering gifts and good cheer at Christmas time. As Nikolaus became conflated with Santa Claus, his helpers and Father Christmas, so too did Basil take on the manners and duties of ะ”ะตะด ะœะพั€ะพะท (going by many names), Father Frost. Originally a Slavic spirit of the wintry weather, parents used to ransom their children with treats for the spirit to protect them during these harsh months. Saint Basil helped Father Frost have a change of heart and he reversed his ways and began paying back the community. Compare this to one of Basil’s historical missions when he rallied the town of Caesarea to denote all their material wealth to raise an army to defend themselves from immanent Raids.
All the people of the town, from the richest to the poorest readily complied but when the attackers never materialised, no one was quite sure what they had given, so Basil decreed that the gold coins be baked into sumptuous loaves and given out to all residents, and so was the wealth redistributed. This lucky tradition is observed in Greece and other lands on New Years to this day—the vasilopita, Basil’s pie. Father Frost was also considered secular enough a figure to sneak past the Communist regimes that sought to eradicate religious practises. Saint Basil’s reputation for caring for the poor also stemmed from his marshaling of traditions that formed the self-sufficient monastic orders. Outside the gates of Caesarea, there was a grand campus called the Basiliad, which was a model for later monasteries with a guesthouse, hospital, a hospice and a library. This basic unit of government greatly influenced the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church and the monastic movement took hold in far-flung places like Ireland, helping to preserve learning and the faith with supporting institutions, like the Roman Empire, fell is but one accomplishment among the retinue of Basil’s legacy—plus bring presents.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

frame story or ship of theseus

Already condemned after violating a couple of canon-rules when trying his hand with the latest iteration of the Star Trek universe, a lot of fans have girded themselves for the worst as the producer takes over the helm for the Star Wars franchise—however, as I have discovered, and really just down to the wire as I just finished the engrossing and complex novel that H gave me for Christmas last year—not that it was due to expire or that a sequel is forthcoming, just that I wanted to finish it and the pace quickened as I neared the end—screen-writer JJ Abrams can direct a really fine book and surely deserves some faith.
Co-authored with Doug Dorst, S or the Ship of Theseus is an epistolary novel, a story told through letters, primarily, but with the substantial subtext of the correspondence taking place on the pages and in the margins of a Bildungsroman, beloved and familiar to both of the main characters but grow to appreciate it more as their complimentary notes uncover more details and clues about the possible identity of the mysterious, semi-legendary anarchist author himself. It was a really fun and involved experiment that was quite an undertaking, not only in creating the parallels that stand on their own merits as plotlines but also a very accomplished work in terms of type-setting and book-binding: not only does the novel have the heft, appearance and smell of a much circulated library book, there are also numerous other artefacts tucked between the pages—postcards, newspaper clippings and even a decoder. The layers of action reminded me a little bit of The Never-Ending Story, and while I do not believe that the marginalia detracted from the reader’s imaginations, I also do not feel that every story might benefit from such a telling—though I think it is an interesting projection of the way we maybe read things—unafraid to mentally highlight certain passages for instantaneous research to their conclusion and cite our own footnotes.

Monday, 22 December 2014

la befana or bedknobs and broomsticks

One Italian Christmas time custom is that of La Befana, the good hostess and housekeeper from Umbria. She gave food and shelter to the Three Wisemens from the East on their way to Bethlehem. Grateful and somewhat off track, they invited La Befana to join them on their journey. Busy with housework to make her home ready for the New Year celebrations, however, being either an adherent of or the Sabine goddess herself of the New Year in disguise, called Strenua, she refused their invitation. Later, after her guests had departed and seeing the yonder star, La Befana had a change of heart and rushed to meet the Magi, riding her broomstick westward.
La Befana never managed to catch up and never found the child that they sought, and after all these centuries La Befana flies and searches from Christmas to Epiphany, and delivers gifts to any good child she comes across, hoping it might be the right one—and generally a swat and a garlic to ones that prove contemptible. It is said that La Befana will also sweep the homes of good families, so their house is tidy for the new year.

tschunk oder yerba mate

H and I tried the beverage that is apparently enjoying a big following among hacker-circles and their associates called Club Mate. Like many energy drinks, Club Mate includes an extract of the yerba mate plant from South American but is not adulterated with sugar and caffeine that make cola and energy drinks disarming and potentially harmful. It was not quite to our liking, tasting a bit like a mix between tea and tobacco. As a cocktail ingredient, as when combined with rum, lime and cane sugar and called a Tschunk, I do not know if it might be more palatable.
Maybe it is an acquired taste and no matter—this venerable drink, around since the 1920s, has its own admirers, plus I do quite like the mysterious logo—which reminded me of this arresting, unrelated image.

non-canon or holy terror

Columnist Candida Moss approaches the subject of the lack of a biography of Jesus during His K-12 years, childhood and adolescence into early adulthood, through an apocryphal gospel known as the ฮ ฮ‘ฮ™ฮ”Iฮšฮ‘ (the Book of Childhood Deeds) or the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, written sometime in the second century.

Whether this tract was published originally as a dissenting view of the Christian tenet of God manifest as a human—sort of a lampoon or spoof, or as more material to fill in the gaps for a Christian audience hungry for details and more miracles is unclear. Pre-teen Jesus seems to have the problems most children go through and seemed incapable at first of refraining from using his miraculous powers. Though non-canonical as well, there are plenty of other competing stories that place Jesus during his formative years as touring India, Tibet and Persia—and even placing Him in Britain and Japan, learning from other magi. Most scholars believe that as part of a family of carpenters, He would have spent this time as an apprentice, but the Bible is silent on these matters. What do you think? Was Jesus a disciple Himself or a bully with a halo, Who did learn restraint?

Sunday, 21 December 2014

2014: dรฉjร  vu, jamais vu

Another year has passed and PfRC is taking a look back at some of the events, big and small, that can be filed under 2014.  What a banner one it was, marked in equal parts of remembrance and foreshadowing.  It was a year of reflection and despite what some pundits say as we are very much at risk in repeating ourselves, I think there was also quite a lot of soul-searching.  Let’s see what 2015 has in store for us.

January: Latvia joins the European Union. The Syrian civil war crosses into Lebanon, threatening to engulf the whole region. Pot shops open their doors to recreational smokers in Colorado and big business quickly descends to turn a profit. A tragic sinking occurs in the waters off Lampedusa with many migrants fleeing violence in northern Africa drowning. A Chinese rover on the Moon, dependent on solar power, survived another two-week long lunar night to explore some more. We sadly had to say good-bye to singer and freedom-fighter Pete Seeger.
February: The Olympic Winter Games are held in Sochi. Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych is deposed and in the aftermath of the Maidan Protests, civil unrest explodes. We had to bid adieu to actors Maximilian Schell, Shirley Temple, Sid Caesar and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

March: Russia annexes the Crimea at the urging of pro-Russian separatists. Sanctions against Russian interests ensue. The Chinese year of the Wood Horse begins. Researches discover the largest virus known in a sample of tundra ice. Territorial tensions mount in the Pacific, prompting America to focus its attention of Japan and China. A Malaysian airliner veers off course and disappears.

April: Former popes John Paul II and John XXIII are canonised. America throws its diminishing weight around in the international banking sector. Systemic discipline problems surface in the elite US Secret Service. Mickey Rooney, Bob Hoskins and writer Gabriel Garcia Mรกrquez sadly departed.
May: The world at-large begins to recognise the severity of the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Poet Maya Angelou left us. Europe begins to solemnly commemorate the centennial of the start of the Great War. Former Soviet satellite states feel increasingly vulnerable as the situation in Ukraine deteriorates as Cold War tensions seem set to return. There is a military coup in Thailand.

June: A group of militants styled the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant aim to create a caliphate and begin attracting confederates from the West. A controversial and covert swap transpires between Guantanamo detainees in exchange for the release of an American prisoner-of-war. Germany wins the World Cup in football, and throws a minor hissy-fit over the National Security Agency’s spying practises when it is revealed that the chancellor’s phone was also tapped.

July: In response to kidnappings and killings, Israel launches a major offensive against the Gaza Strip, prompting the United Nations and others to condemn the reaction and declare solidarity with the Palestinians. The Drug-War in Mexico intensifies.  The former French president is taken into custody over corruption charges.
August: The US and cadets return to Iraq and Afghanistan, realising sadly that withdrawal was not only premature but that the whole venture misguided. Comedian Robin Williams exited along with Richard Attenborough and fellow-legend Bill Cosby was accused multiple times of rape, constituting one of the saddest episodes for fandom in recent times. Children from Central and South AmErica cross the deserts of Mexico to cross the border into the United States.

September: America embarks on a campaign against Islamist militants in Syria but every overture, violent or peaceful, are in the main ineffective. Personality—if ever one deserved to wear that mantel, Joan Rivers left us.

October: India and Pakistan exchange fire over Kashmir. Protests break out in Hong Kong over reforms that would remove some of the special treatment afforded the autonomous administrative district, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tianmen Square massacre. Germany observes the twenty-fifth anniversary also of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  

November: The successor to the Kyoto Protocols forecast dire and irreversible changes at human hands to the environment. The European Space Agency successfully piggy-backs on a comet. China surpasses the US as the world’s biggest economy ahead of schedule. The Duchess of Alba and author PD James also left before their time.

December: Massive protests erupt in several urban-centres in the United States over the slaying deaths of unarmed African American males at the hands of white officers while keeping to their beats of broken-window policing.
Inhuman terrorist act occur in Sydney, Yemen and Pakistan.  The Central Intelligence Agency hinted at some of its suspected depravity by releasing a fraction of the files that documented the agency’s efforts to keep us all safe in a post 9/11 world.
Summed up in a rhetorical parallel: did the US condone and carry out torture, yes—and whether or not it could be justified in the minds of these perverse and duplicitous individuals, did it produce any actionable intelligence, no.  The US moves to normalising relations with Cuba. 

pot to kettle or the dutch disease

In the face of the precipitous downfall of the Russian rouble (₽) over a constellation of sanctions, perceived weaknesses, an alleged slack in demand for petroleum over weakened industrial demand, which is at the same time being offset by increased American production(which does smack as a bit suspicious, given the overall climate and charged accusations of conspiracy to undermine that seems like burning one’s wick at both ends), some economists are diagnosing Russia with the so-called Dutch Disease—which turns out to be a relatively recent market characterisation, describing the misguided attempts that the Netherlands committed in the 1970s when, after the discovery of off-shore oil reserves, began cultivating that natural resource at the expense of all other export sectors, whereas I would have guessed it to have had much more historic roots, like in the Dutch founding a stock-market based on tulips or an empire based on exotic spices.
By extension, they claim that Russia has no economy per se but rather is an oil company accorded the membership of statehood, but that is more than a little bit dangerous and near-sighted as the same could be said of most national marketplaces that call themselves post-industrial. America is hardly a competitive oil company—more a captive consumer—and is more akin to a name-brand that licenses its economic activity out to franchisees. This collective Schadenfreude over the fate of the rouble is woefully premature, too—I think, considering the range that the single currency has. Though by population and other measures of wealth, the rouble sphere of influence is not as great as the Euroraum, covering a large portion of Eurasia and extending from Norway to Alaska, the long way around and fully one eighth of the habitable land on Earth, I imagine that the internal needs of the country could still be met and indeed thrive without regard for external scalars. Moreover, if hostile voices insist on countering with the same poisonous rhetoric, I imagine that the foreign debt that Russia was formerly welcomed to both finance and borrow could be easily turned to tactical purposes. What do you think? Of course, there is real cause for concern, but there also might be old Cold War fears and prejudices pushing agendas as well—and not just the well-oiled oligarchs.

Friday, 19 December 2014

studio system

Back in 2004, then regime of North Korea made overtures to the Czech Republic to prohibit its cinemas from showing the movie Team America: World Police because of an unflattering depiction of Kim Jung Il in puppet form.
The Czech government rebuffed such demands, saying that those kind of requests have no place in free and democratic countries. Before that, Charlie Chaplain resorted to financing the production of his parody The Little Dictator, entirely with his own funds, because all the Hollywood studios were afraid to touch the subject and be seen as taking sides. Now a studio is in similar straits over a lampoon—and while I can appreciate the difficulty of the decision, with no pretentions of being a profound masterwork of a film, it may be not worth it to pick this fight and instead be accusing of caving to bullies and blackmailers—and is ultimately not releasing the movie to anyone.  What do you think about that? Does the studio merit being foisted on its own freedom of speech and expression?

j’adoube or game and gambit

After being invented in the India sub-continent, the game of chess in its recognisable and modern was one of those cultural commodities, like language, writing and religion, which was quickly disseminated all over the world and was firmly entrenched by the year one thousand. The game was so popular and universally played that societies were also quick to undertake reimaging their boards and chessmen after their own iconography and values.

The rules of engagement were the same but sculptors and artists were given great license to reflect their own outlook on the world. Chessboards from Islamic countries hosted an army of abstract figures because of the proscription against making things in the likeness of natural beings and had a vizier accompanying the sultan instead of a queen, Asian boards represented their court traditions, pawns all around were simple and anonymous, and these finely crafts objects would have been treasured and handed down as heirlooms. The historical details of the place and period in which these playing pieces were made comes across, as does the makers’ sense of hierarchy and how to mount defenses. Instead of our modern Rook, the Tower, the Viking royals of this set discovered on Scottish Lewis Island under Norse rule are flanked by fearsome berserkers. All the queens of these sets share the same forlorn and distant look, and perhaps because she is frustrated that her movement is limited to one diagonal square at a time. The question of mobility for this sovereign was one of the only major changes to the rules in centuries—though sadly not an attitude adopted by society at large until much, much later: about five hundred years later going from having even less range than a pawn to becoming the most versatile and powerful piece on the chessboard. For a time, this liberation caused the European game to be named “Mad Queen” chess, which sounds like a story for Lewis Carroll.

candida or grist for the mill

This is somewhat of a delicate subject, especially coming from those who are not exactly sympathetic to the matter, but I learned that the germ candida, a species of yeast, that’s responsible for infections in women also presents itself as diaper-rash in infants, thrush (a particularly nasty coated-tongue that young children get), acne in adolescents and most interestingly the dry patches of skin that usually attributed to psoriasis and dandruff (glands in the skin and hair folicals are designed to prevent these out-breaks but are often compromised by other factors). This yeast travels with us as part of our gut flora all our lives but is mostly kept in check by other beneficial bacteria that complement our digestive tracts that compete for space and nutrients, symbiotically breaking down those foodstuffs that we can’t handle whole ourselves. Though not the only cause of fungal infections, repairing too quickly to antibiotics or other such non-discriminatory treatments that, like a wrecking-ball, kill off those good germs that keeps us balanced.