Monday 30 April 2018

Writing the lives of forgotten women

Any history that doesn’t include women, and doesn’t make ample space for the lives of women of color, is itself fake news, writes Rachel Kadish, the author of The Weight of Ink, which won a 2017 National Jewish Book Award, in the Paris Review. Read on: 

When you need to tell the truth, sometimes nothing will do but lies.

Thanks to the labor of women of all backgrounds who have raised their voices in the face of indifference or opposition, some of the silences in our culture’s narratives are now getting long-overdue attention. The labor of filling the gaps is under way in venues large and small—only last month, the New York Times launched Overlooked, its series of obituaries for unsung women.

Yet while retrieving the facts of willfully forgotten lives is essential, some of the most necessary work of repair ultimately can be accomplished only by our culture’s most scrupulous liars: writers of historical fiction. This may sound like an endorsement of fake news, but in fact, it’s the opposite. Any history that doesn’t include women, and doesn’t make ample space for the lives of women of color, is itself fake news. The question, then, is how to correct our collective understanding of reality. And while the meticulously verified works of historians and journalists are essential to that goal, if we don’t set well-researched fiction by Louise Erdrich or Geraldine Brooks prominently by their side, we’ll miss one of the surest paths to repair.

During the twelve years I spent writing The Weight of Ink, a novel set in the Jewish communities of seventeenth-century London and Amsterdam, I pursued historical research to sometimes absurd lengths. I read tomes about seventeenth-century philosophy and sanitation; I spent hour after hour in document-conservation labs and rare-manuscript rooms. Writing passages set in the seventeenth century, I chose my language carefully, checking Merriam-Webster’s “first known use” listings to confirm that the words I’d selected were common parlance in that era. If a word wasn’t old enough (say, “chaperone”—first known use 1720), then I substituted a term my characters would have known (“duenna”—1623).

I undertook that research in order to write the story of a fictitious Portuguese Jewish woman, Ester Velasquez, who broke the rules of her time, who managed, through elaborate deception, to live a life of the mind forbidden to women of her era. I took pains with accuracy not only because I didn’t want readers to be distracted by careless errors but also because I anticipated that when I published the book, readers might say, That’s an interesting story, but of course we know it couldn’t have happened—based on the evidence, very few seventeenth-century women succeeded in doing even a little bit of philosophical writing, and those who did were nobility and certainly not Jewish. I wanted to be able to answer with confidence: Yes, Ester is fictitious, but every piece of her story is factually plausible. What I was after wasn’t a false feminist heroism but instead one grounded in fact; I wanted readers to imagine with a degree of certainty that women like Ester—women of capacious intelligence who tried to speak out despite restrictions—must have existed.

Susanna and the elders, 1610. Artemisia Gentileschi
To argue that something can’t have happened because it was forbidden is to ignore one of the basic rules of human nature: people try to do like the grass—they try to grow up through pavement. Most don’t succeed, but some do. When history puts a foot on people’s necks, they break rules. (My own mother’s family were law-abiding citizens in Poland until August 31, 1939. Then they bribed, lied, sneaked across borders. They were arrested and interrogated; they escaped and then broke rules again, until they became law-abiding citizens once more in the U.S. in 1942. We call that surviving.)

Throughout the centuries, there have been women who struggled hard to speak or create. Some, like the Brontë sisters, wrote under fake identities. Some, like Fanny Mendelssohn, composed music that was performed under the names of men. The further a woman was from a position of privilege, the more daunting the struggle for education and access and the more opaque the necessary disguise. It would be foolish to the point of hubris to believe we’ve already catalogued all those who masked their identities. Logic tells us there must have been other artists of erasure: women scattered here and there across cultures and centuries who expunged themselves from the record so the work of their hands and minds and hearts could be visible. And if they were good at it—if they succeeded—we’ve never heard of them.

The writer Hilary Mantel has said that the historical record is “what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it.” In every era, record keepers preserve the facts they consider important enough to note and safe enough to recount. The lives that pass unnoticed through history’s sieve, in contrast, are the ones no one memorialized, often because the people involved were poor or female or “irrelevant” because of race or religion or sexuality, or because their stories were considered dangerous.

The purpose of historical fiction isn’t just to add a pleasing emotional embroidery to what we already know about history. It’s to tell the dangerous stories—the human truths that fly in the face of propriety or power.

What the historical record has rendered invisible will remain so unless we avail ourselves of the power to fictionalize, to blend the real and the imagined with rigor and transparency. Facts are essential, but when they’re absent or insufficient, the informed lie of fiction can be the only way to get at the overarching human truth. The full story of a real Sethe will never appear in any historical record, but we have Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Annie Herron’s reality would not have been documented in her day, but in Alice Munro’s “A Wilderness Station,” we glimpse the harsh contours of her life in the nineteenth-century Canadian wilderness.

We’ve lost too many stories. Historical fiction, undertaken with integrity, is an act of repair. Lives have run through the sieve, but we can catch them in our hands.

Take it from me: Never judge a book by the blurb on its cover

As I plead with authors to write a blurb for my book, I recognise that they are less of a measure of the book’s worth than the benevolence of the names behind them, writes Emma Brockes in the Guardian. Read on: 

One of the more hideous things you have to do when you have a book coming out is suck up to other authors in the hope they’ll give you a blurb for your jacket. Everybody in this process hates it: the people doing the asking, the people being asked, the third-party friends leaned on to lean on their own contacts. And yet, in the absence of any better ideas, the quote economy chugs on.

I’ve been thinking about blurbs lately, not only because my own galley is out for approval, but because of two recent references to the practice, both of them exceedingly grumpy. The queen of the gentle letdown was the writer Nora Ephron, who – I just looked up an email I received from her many years ago – would respond to friends and acquaintances begging for endorsements with the joke that she gave up giving quotes when her gynaecologist “wrote a book and asked for one”; or her vet, or other versions of a line that evolved over the years and that, with characteristic generosity, she used to make the asker feel slightly less of an arse.

At the other end of the spectrum is the novelist Rose Tremain, who said in the Times last week: “I hardly finish any books. Our so-called literary world is now choked with the mediocre and the banal, piles of which arrive through my letter box, soliciting endorsements, every week.” One feels her pain: no one wants big slabs of text dropping uninvited on the doormat. On the other hand, cheer up, Rose – maybe one day these dreadful people will go away, and then you’ll have problems indeed.

Nora Ephron joked that she gave up giving quotes when her gynaecologist ‘wrote a book and asked for one’. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext

 I have been sniffy about Rushdie’s profligacy, but in my current mood it strikes me as chivalry of the highest order

Meanwhile, Susan Orlean, of the New Yorker, wrote rather crossly on Twitter that those asking for blurbs should observe some basic rules, among them: “1) Tell me when you need it. I don’t have the power to magically know this date. 2) Don’t praise my ‘novels’. I don’t write novels” – although she had the grace to acknowledge that “everyone hates asking for blurbs”, begging her own publisher to let her off the hook in the run-up to her forthcoming book.

They won’t, of course. Either everyone has to quit, or no one can. These days, I find myself looking at blurbs less as a measure of the book’s worth than of the benevolence of the names who provided them. Hilary Mantel is a legendary blurber, lending her name to a wide range of titles; Jonathan Franzen, for all his assumed unapproachability, is a veteran blurber over the years and I’ve always thought must be a good egg for that. And while I have found myself being sniffy about Salman Rushdie’s profligacy in this area, in my current mood it strikes me as chivalry of the highest order.

Even so, one can have too much of a good thing and I’m always suspicious of a book with too many actor, politician or rock star names on a jacket, which makes me admire the writer’s networking skills and assume the book will be terrible.

“I blurb only for the dead these days,” was a line reportedly used by Margaret Atwood many years ago, confirming my view: while giving a good blurb is a noble act, a good letdown is a work of real genius.

A 12-year-old Jacob Rees-Mogg once tried to 'sue' the BBC for £18

Conservative backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg once 'sued' the BBC for failing to pay him for an interview, when he was just 12-years-old.

When he was just a boy, the MP for North East Somerset appeared as a "schoolboy financier" on Radio 4's Today Programme, but after they failed to pay him he took matters into his own hands.

Now, we might not agree with everything that Rees-Mogg has ever done, but everyone deserves to be paid for their work - and just like any good freelancer, he sent an angry letter.

Trying to retrieve the £18 the Beeb owed him, Rees-Mogg penned a letter demanding the money, otherwise he would sue to the corporation.

In a clipping unearthed by News UK Archives from a 1981 article by the Evening Standard, Rees Mogg wrote:

Dear Today Programme, you are in debt of £18 which was payable as from 13/9/81.

I have no idea what your excuse is but I will not accept it. If it is not received by the 10/11/81 which is nearly two months.

I shall increase it to £36. If still not received within ten days I shall take legal advice.

I hope it does not come to that for I have no desire to prosecute the BBC.

The article, which can be seen below also comes complete with a fantastic picture of the young Rees-Mogg, arms folded, wearing a trench coat and fetching monocle.
A monocle! He was 12! Surely this was a gag?

Other amusing snippets from the article included that the Financial Times had been his favourite newspaper since the age of two and that he invested his profits into buying antiques.

Given that there are no stories about him ever successfully suing the BBC, we can only presume that he got the money he was owed.

Incidentally, his father Sir William Rees-Mogg was a member of the BBC's Board of Governors, which may have helped him eventually get the cheque.

Speaking to The Sun, Rees-Mogg commented on that particular letter and what he may have spent the money on.

The errors of my misspent youth…

I think I would have saved it rather than spent it.​

(Source: indy100)

Who's helping who in the cover blurb game?

Few books now appear without enthusiastic recommendations from other authors, but does anyone really believe them? Read what Anthony Horowitz writes in the Guardian

How many books can one man recommend? I sometimes feel that my name is on the cover of more books than I've actually written myself, which is worrying. I've endorsed children's authors as diverse as Suzanne Collins, Meg Rosoff, Simon Mayo and the late, great Robert Cormier. I found the historian, Nicholas Rankin, to be "completely delightful", and the poet, Roger McGough, "wise, funny and sad". The thriller writer, Stephen Leather, delivered in my opinion, "a wicked read" although I notice I've been bumped off the front cover of the latest edition by James Herbert ("another great thriller with a devilish twist"), which I do find slightly hurtful. I even turned up on a self-help book I hadn't read – the publishers took my name and helped themselves.

Authors promoting authors on book jackets is so widespread now that few books appear without them, a phenomenon gleefully mocked by Private Eye's Backscratcher column, which is quick to point out where favours are being called in. There are three ways in which I find myself on other peoples' covers.

The first is perfectly legitimate. I write a positive review for a newspaper and the publishers quote from it. Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote kindly about me in this very newspaper about a month ago, and as it happened his piece coincided with a new edition of my paperbacks. His words are already plastered over the covers and I doubt my publishers asked if he minded. That said, I decided to read his last book, Cosmic, out of a sense of gratitude and I can say with hand on heart that Frank is one of the funniest and most engaging writers on the planet – and I'm willing to bet you'll read that again on a cover one day.

Of course, reviews are open to interpretation – or re-interpretation. I was a touch surprised to find myself extolling the virtues of Jeffrey Archer's latest bestseller, Sins of the Father, last month because what I remembered writing was a slightly critical profile of the great man. But careful editing had turned me into his most craven admirer. I didn't mind though. I enjoy his work and you could say that, in the manner of one of his own stories, I had been hoisted with my own petard.

'I even turned up on a self-help book I hadn't read' ... Anthony Horowitz.
Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian
The second fast route to front cover fame is the summer and Christmas round-ups, which appear in most serious newspapers and which are a gift to publicists. This is where authors write about what they've been reading, and it's something I'm always very happy to do. After all, everyone enjoys recommending a book and I even get paid (usually a bottle of not very good champagne). But the question is, am I morally flawed if I promote books written by my friends? My choices last year were One on One by Craig Brown and The Thread by Victoria Hislop and as it happens I know them both personally. Well, in all honesty, I loved both the books and they were widely praised elsewhere but even so I did feel a twinge of conscience. Funny, now I think about it, that the Eye didn't pick up the Hislop connection.

But the most difficult approach comes from people who know me slightly or who work with me in some way – often being published for the first time. Will I read their manuscript and offer something for the cover? I have to say, I dread this. It's as if I'm walking into an emotional minefield. You might think I'm being churlish. But it seems to me that the request comes with so many suppositions. 1) That I have time to read the book 2) that I will actually like it 3) that if I don't like it I will pretend otherwise because I don't want to hurt their feelings and anyway what does it matter if I lie to the public, it's only a bit of blurb – and 4) that my name will help with sales anyway..

I do wonder just how much a name is worth. Have sales of Meg Rosoff's There Is No Dog soared because I said it was a work of genius? Would Alex Rider fans rush out and join the army of kids who love Robert Muchamore's Cherub books if I recommended them? They're probably reading them already. In fact, in the world of book promotion, there can be an inverse effect to the one intended. The Hunger Games has so far sold 36.5 million copies and I've been on the cover! Isn't that actually 36.5 million advertisements for me?

At the end of the day, author endorsements are probably of minimal value. Does anyone really believe them? Browsing through the crime section of my local Waterstones, I get a true sense of conspiracy. Harlan Coben praises Michael Connelly. Michael Connelly loves Jeff Abbott ("A hell of a page-turner"). Jeff Abbott is praised by Lee Child who is admired by Stephen King and by Jeffrey Deaver. There's Ian Rankin plugging Val McDermid who's a fan of Harlan Coben… or maybe it's the other way round. I'm not saying any of these authors are insincere. But the overall impression is simply that big writers like big writers and my reaction is – so what? Tell us something we don't know.

Étienne Terrus museum in Elne uncovers fake art in collection

A French museum dedicated to painter Étienne Terrus has discovered paintings it thought were by him were fakes.

The Terrus museum in Elne in the south of France discovered 82 works originally attributed to the artist were not painted by him.

More than half the collection is thought to be fake. The paintings cost about €160,000 (£140,000).

Staff at the museum were not aware of the forgeries until a visiting art historian alerted them.

More than 80 paintings said to be by Étienne Terrus were fake
(this one, of Collioure in the Pyrenees, is real and is now on display)
The council in Elne bought the paintings, drawings and watercolours for the museum over a 20-year period.

Eric Forcada, an art historian, contacted the museum in the town near Perpignan several months ago to express his doubts about the authenticity of the paintings.

The museum assembled a committee of experts from the cultural world, who inspected the works and concluded that 82 of them had not been painted by the Elne-born artist.

The news was announced on Friday as the museum opened after a renovation.

In interviews on Friday, the mayor of the Pyrenees town, Yves Barniol, said the situation was "a disaster" and apologised to those who had visited the museum in good faith.

Terrus was born in 1857 and died in 1922 in Elne, although he lived most of his life in Roussillon, also in the Pyrenees. He was a close friend of painter Henri Matisse.

The authentic Vue Cathédrale remains on display
Some of the paintings show buildings that were built after Terrus' death, France 3 said.

The town hall has filed a complaint against those who ordered, painted, or sold the fake paintings.

Local police are investigating the case, which they say could affect other regional artists too.

(Source: BBC)

Sunday 29 April 2018

Pound falls sharply against dollar and euro as UK economy almost grinds to a halt

Weak growth figure increases likelihood Bank of England will keep interest rates at 0.5% next month

The pound crashed more than 1 per cent against the dollar on Friday morning after official figures revealed that the UK economy almost ground to a halt in the first quarter.

Sterling fell 1.04 per cent against the dollar to $1.3768 and 0.9 per cent against the euro to 1.1395 on the back of news that UK GDP grew just 0.1 per cent in the first three months of the year.

Analysts had expected a slowdown due to the “Beast from the East” which covered much of the country in snow, causing travel chaos and halting construction work.

But the worse-than-expected number prompted fears that the economy’s problems are more deeply rooted than just bad weather, and increased the likelihood that the Bank of England will not raise interest rates next month.

GDP per person, which strips out economic growth resulting from a rise in population, actually fell in the first quarter, the Office for National Statistics reported.

Traders had been pricing based on the likelihood that the BoE’s Monetary Policy Committee would raise rates to 0.75 per cent from 0.5 per cent on 10 May but the latest GDP numbers further bolster the case for keeping rates where they are.

The pound has fallen steadily against the dollar since reaching a post-EU referendum high of $1.43 earlier this month Getty
The pound has fallen steadily against the dollar since reaching a post-EU referendum high of $1.43 earlier this month. On Monday, it slipped to a five week low after a series of disappointing economic indicators.

That came after sharp falls last week sparked by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney’s comment that recent data had been “mixed”.

Mr Carney said he didn’t want to be “too focused on the precise timing” of when rates might next rise and that the UK should “prepare for a few interest rate rises over the next few years”.

Chancellor Philip Hammond moved to calm fears about the health of the UK economy on Friday. “Our economy has grown every year since 2010 and is set to keep growing, unemployment is at a 40 year low, and wages are increasing as we build a stronger, fairer economy that works for everyone,” he said.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said the GDP figures were a “worrying indication” that the negative impacts of Brexit were now becoming clear.

“Brexit is sucking the life out of government, making it impossible to deal with the real challenges facing our country,” he said.

“The people must be offered a final say on the Brexit deal, with the option to remain in the EU. Only then can we begin to fix our under performing economy.”

(Source: Independent)

NHS recruits 100 docs from India, Home Office denies them visas

NHS bosses warn cap on visas for non-EU doctors leading to rota gaps and delays in patient care

Hundreds of doctors recruited by the NHS from overseas have been denied visas by the Home Office, leading to increased pressures in the health service.

NHS bosses said limits on the number of visas issued to non-EU doctors were contributing to rota gaps and delays in patients receiving care.

Some 100 Indian doctors are reported to have been refused for a scheme in the North-west that supplies junior doctors to 30 NHS trusts.

Chief executive of NHS Employers Danny Mortimer told the BBC he had heard of 400 cases of blocked visas of overseas doctors since December.

“We have examples of clinics being cancelled and delays in terms of patients receiving care. It exacerbates pressures in what are relatively small medical teams,” said Mr Mortimer.

Managers fear waiting times will increase as a result of the decision Getty
 Jon Rouse, chief officer of the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, said: “As we reach the end of a winter where the NHS has been stretched to its very limits, partly as a result of a lack of medical workforce, we find it almost impossible to understand how this decision can have been reached.”

Paul Myatt, workforce policy adviser at NHS Providers, said that faced with shortages of doctors, recruiting internationally was one of the few options available to trusts in the short term.

“It’s deeply frustrating for trusts and doctors that when a job offer has been made, after considerable time and expense, trusts are repeatedly being declined the certificates of sponsorship needed for doctors to get work visas,” he said.

“For the trust it means unfilled vacancies which often have to be filled by paying premium locum rates. For doctors, they may give up on working in the NHS and decide to work in another country.

“We appreciate that discussions are taking place within government about this issue but there needs to be a new sense of urgency to find a solution so that trusts can recruit the staff they need to care for patients.”

In February, NHS Improvement said that there were 100,000 vacancies across England’s 234 acute, ambulance and mental health trusts.

The Home Office said any Tier 2 applications – which doctors come under – that are refused in oversubscribed months could reapply in future ones.

A spokesperson added: “It is important that our immigration system works in the national interest, ensuring that employers look first to the UK resident labour market before recruiting from overseas.

“When demand exceeds the monthly available allocation of Tier 2 (General) places, priority is given to applicants filling a shortage or PhD-level occupations.

“The published shortage list, based on advice by the Migration Advisory Committee, includes a range of medical professionals, including consultants specialising in clinical radiology and emergency medicine, and we estimate that around a third of all Tier 2 places go to the NHS.”

(Source: Independent)

I’m a proud brown-skinned Indian, Diana Hayden slams Tripura CM

Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb said on 26 April at a workshop in Agartala that international beauty pageants were a farce and questioned the rationale behind crowning Diana Hayden "Miss World" 21 years ago. According to him, Aishwarya Rai is the true epitome of Indian beauty - presumably because of her fair skin.

Diana Hayden, Biplab Kumar Deb and Aishwarya Rai. (Photo courtesy:  Facebook)
Now Diana Hayden, who won the Miss World contest in 1997, has reacted to the comment saying that she’s deeply saddened by the Tripura CM’s comment. In an interview to News18, she said:

“I am fighting this brown skin bias since my childhood. And I have succeeded. People should be proud of my achievement, rather than belittling it. I am a proud brown-skinned Indian. I am hurt. The minister is in a prominent position and he should be careful about what he says.”
Diana Hayden

Here’s a recap of what Deb said:
“We see women as goddess Laxmi, Saraswati. Aishwarya Rai represents the Indian women. She became the Miss World and that’s all right. But I do not understand the beauty of Diana Hayden... Why are there no more beauty pageant winners from India? They (the jury) have captured the market in the country and have gone elsewhere.”
Biplab Deb, Tripura CM

(Source: The Quint)

The previous 10 births of Gautama Buddha

My latest for Buddha Poornima on the last ten previous births of Gautama Buddha, published in today’s Kannada Prabha. Here's the link:

Why ‘Louis’ has been chosen as the royal baby name

The baby’s full royal title will be His Royal Highness Prince Louis of Cambridge

Today Kensington Palace announced that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have named their third child Louis Arthur Charles.

The prospect of naming a newborn child can be very daunting for parents, so one can only imagine how the royal couple felt with the world waiting in anticipation for the big reveal.

The name of any baby born into the royal family typically bears a lot of historical significance.

The eldest of Prince William and Kate’s children, Prince George, is likely to eventually become the seventh monarch of that name to reign the nation, following the Queen’s father King George VI and grandfather King George V.

As for their second born Princess Charlotte, the decision over her name may have been inspired by her grandfather Charles, Prince of Wales, in addition to being the middle name of Kate’s sister, Pippa Matthews.

The name Louis is often associated with the French monarchy, with the last King of France Louis XVI ruling from 1774 until 1791.

However, the name also has many connections with the Mountbatten family of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Prince Charles’ great-uncle and mentor, with whom he was particularly close, was called Lord Louis Mountbatten.

The royal baby’s father and brother both also share the name.

Louis was chosen as Prince William’s third middle name when he was born, while Prince George’s full name is George Alexander Louis.

It’s not just the royal baby's first name that’s been garnering attention.

At one point, Arthur was deemed as the most likely name for the baby with 2/1 odds.

However, it’s now been chosen as the baby’s middle name, followed by Charles in an obvious nod to his grandfather.

The legendary King Arthur obviously springs to mind when the name Arthur is mentioned.

Prince Charles, who also boasts Arthur as a middle name, was apparently so drawn to the name that he originally wanted to use it for his second son.

However, the late Princess Diana didn’t agree with his preference.

"Charles wanted to call his first son 'Arthur' and his second 'Albert', after Queen Victoria's consort. William and Harry were Diana's choices while her husband's preferences were used in their children's middle names," it states in the book Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words.

The two monikers ended up being used as middle names for Prince Harry and Prince William respectively.

Prior to 2012, the second son of Prince William and Kate would have been given the title of “Lord”.

However, an official ruling made by the Queen on December 31 2012 meant that all of the royal couple’s children would be named princes and princesses.

(Source: Independent)

Amazon Alexa to reward kids who say: 'Please'

Amazon's smart assistant Alexa can now be made to encourage children to say: "Please," and: "Thank you," when issuing it voice commands.

The new function addresses some parents' concerns that use of the technology was teaching their offspring to sound officious or even rude.

In addition, parents can now set time limits on when requests are responded to, and can block some services.

The move has been welcomed by one of Alexa's critics.

In January, the research company ChildWise published a report warning that youngsters that grew up accustomed to barking orders at Alexa, Google Assistant or some other virtual personality might become aggressive in later dealings with humans.

"This is a very positive development," research director Simon Leggett told the BBC.

"We had noticed that practically none of the children that we had talked to said they ever used the words 'please' or 'thank you' when talking to their devices.

"Younger children will enjoy having the added interactivity, but older children may be less likely to use it as they will be more aware it's a robot at the other end."

Amazon has released coloured versions of its Echo Dot speaker to
accompany the new features
For now, the new facilities have been announced only in the US, where they will become available on 9 May via a software update.

'You're welcome'
The politeness feature - which has been branded Magic Word - encourages children to say: "Please," and: "Thank you," by acknowledging use of the terms.

So, for example, if the child asks: "What will the weather be today please?" Alexa will add to its response: "Thanks for asking so nicely."

Likewise, once Alexa has completed a task, if the child says: "Thank you," it will prompt one of several follow-ups, including "No worries," and "You're welcome."

Toymaker Mattel had previously considered going further, with its aborted smart-speaker, Aristotle.

In 2017, it had proposed a machine that would complete tasks only if the word "please" were included.

Amazon, however, said it had been advised that this approach would backfire.

"We talked to third-party child development experts as we were building this feature," a spokeswoman told the BBC.

"They said that if you are going to try and offer them guidance, then positive reinforcement is the best way to do that as it's not punitive.

"They had found that saying, 'You will not get this if you do not say please,' is not useful with kids and doesn't work."

She added that Amazon intended to see how parents and children reacted to the feature, and if it was welcomed would probably extend its capabilities.

Exclusive skills
The good manners facility is part of a host of new child-centric tools unveiled for Alexa - some of which will require a subscription fee.

A new Disney Stories skill and ad-free Disney Radio station are
two of the features included with a premium FreeTime subscription
The basic "free" FreeTime package includes the abilities to:

  • set bedtime hours during which it will not accept commands
  • switch off certain services, such as voice-purchasing or listening to news bulletins
  • block songs with explicit lyrics

A $2.99 (£2.15) monthly fee unlocks added functions, including:

  • wake-up alarms featuring well-known cartoon characters
  • access to several hundred child-focused audio books
  • exclusive use of premium software - known as skills - from brands including Disney and National Geographic

This offers a way for the company to make money from its Echo smart-speakers, which it sells for roughly the same price they cost to develop and manufacture.

In addition, Alexa's voice-recognition software has been tweaked to account for the fact children have higher-pitched voices than adults, and will soon respond to "Awexa" to help those that cannot yet pronounce the letter L.

"It is commendable that Amazon is trying to get kids to say their please and thank yous, but for most parents it will be the content controls and other kid-centric features that will be the most appealing aspect of the new offering," said Ben Wood, a technology consultant at CCS Insight.

(Source: BBC)

Three of family dead after dispute over parking space

Scuffle ends with death of two brothers and wife of one of the deceased

Three members of a family were killed following a dispute over parking space between two brothers in north-west Delhi’s Model Town, the police said on Friday.

Two persons have been arrested in connection with the case.

Jaspal Singh Aneja, a property dealer and financier, his wife Prabhjot Kaur, and Jaspal’s younger brother Gurjeet Singh Aneja, who owns a restro-bar in the area, were killed in the incident, which occurred on Thursday night.

The brothers lived on the ground and first-floor of the same building.

‘Ego issues’
The police said the duo had been embroiled in property dispute for the past seven years. The family said that the ‘murders’ were an outcome of ‘ego issues’.

The family members said that Jaspal was escorting a friend out of his house on the ground floor around 11.45 p.m. on Thursday when Gurjeet came along with his restaurant bouncer and a private security guard (PSG).

A police officer investigating the case said that Gurjeet stopped his car at a parking space over which the two families had fought over several times in the past.

The brothers started verbally abusing each other.

“Jaspal then challenged Gurjeet to come near him. When Gurjeet came out of his car, Jaspal, who had gotten into his own car, tried to run over Gurjeet’s foot. The bouncer and the PSO then intervened. Enraged, Jaspal pulled out his kirpan and started stabbing Gurjeet. His PSG then fired one shot in the air,” the officer said.

Jaspal’s daughter Harpriya (24) and wife Prabhjot, and Gurjeet’s son Jagnoor then intervened in the fight.

Jaspal allegedly stabbed Jagnoor and the two women allegedly started beating Gurjeet, the bouncer and the PSG with sticks.

Personal security guard
“The PSG then fired his gun. One bullet hit Prabhjot in the eye and another hit her upper thigh. Jaspal was also shot twice,” the officer said, adding that the brothers were likely drunk at the time of the incident.

Satnam Singh, the elder brother of the two deceased, said that he was visiting the two brothers when the incident happened.

‘Over in two minutes’
“I had just said goodbye to Jaspal and had gone to bring my car from the parking, which was a few metres away. By the time I came back, it was all done. It didn’t take more than two minutes,” he said, adding that Gurjeet and Jaspal had stopped speaking to each other a few years ago.

The family said that Prabhjot was rushed to Pentamed Hospital by her daughter, while Gurjeet and his son Jagnoor were rushed to Fortis. Jaspal, who had managed to walk to a neighbour’s house in an injured condition, was found by the police and rushed to Max Hospital.

Gurjeet, Jaspal and Prabhjot were declared brought dead. Jagnoor is still undergoing treatment. Nine PCR calls were made in the incident, the police said.

Talking about the history of the property dispute, Mr. Singh said that after their father Harnam Singh passed away in 2011, Gurjeet and Jaspal had fought over how the property would be divided.

Though they came to some sort of resolution, the two families often argued over parking space.

“They had about 18 cars and the fight over who would park where was a major problem. Who owns what part of the property was an issue they fought over often. They wanted each other to vacate the premises. The enmity increased over the years,” said Mr. Singh.

The police have registered two FIRs: one based on a complaint by Harpriya, and another based on the complaint by Gurjeet’s wife Mintu, who witnessed the incident from the first floor of the house.

“The PSG, Vicky, and the bouncer, Pawant Kumar, have been arrested by a police team led by Assistant Commissioner of Police Hukma Ram,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police (North-West) Aslam Khan.

(Source: The Hindu)

Saturday 28 April 2018

Women intellectuals and the art of the withering quip

“Perhaps most devastating of all was Joan Didion’s two-word response to a Woody Allen acolyte who took issue with her review of ‘Manhattan’ in ‘ The New York Review of Books’: ‘Oh, wow.’ ”, writes Dustin Illingworth in the Paris Review. Read on: 

“If one is a woman writer there are certain things one must do,” the British writer and journalist Rebecca West wrote to a friend in 1952. “First, not be too good; second, die young, what an edge Katherine Mansfield has on all of us; third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just can’t be forgiven.” West, ignoring her own advice, neither died prematurely nor blunted the fineness of her writing.

As a young woman, she made her name with witty, digressive book reviews that were often wonderfully cutting. (On Henry James: “He splits hairs until there are no longer any hairs to split, and the mental gesture becomes merely the making of agitated passes over a complete and disconcerting baldness.”)

She also wrote several novels and covered world events for prestigious magazines, including the trial of the English fascist William Joyce and the 1947 lynching of Willie Earle. Her final book, an idiosyncratic history of the year 1900, was published just before her death at the age of ninety. It was the capstone to a career that spanned almost seven decades.

West’s true audacity was not merely “to go on writing,” as she put it, but to flourish in an insular, nepotistic intellectual culture that was largely hostile to women. She was ambitious, unafraid, and prodigiously gifted—in a word, sharp.

The literary critic Michelle Dean’s new book of the same name, a cultural-history-cum-group-biography, examines the lives and careers of ten sharp women, among them Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Dorothy Parker, Renata Adler, Hannah Arendt, and Zora Neale Hurston. What unites this disparate group, Dean claims, is the ability “to write unforgettably.”

If this casts something of a wide net, it does so out of necessity: the collected body of work this constellation of women produced—a mixture of fiction, book and movie reviews, essays, cultural criticism, and journalism—comprises a map of twentieth-century thought. “The longer I looked at the work these women laid out before me,” Dean writes, “the more puzzling I found it that anyone could look at the literary and intellectual history of the twentieth century and not center women in it.”

Dean’s centering, or recentering, is both deeply researched and uncommonly engrossing. Indeed, Sharp’s pacing and wealth of anecdote compel one to consume the book like a novel. Many of the book’s satisfactions arise from the depictions of the incestuous, fiercely competitive beau monde these women inhabited. There is a delicious pleasure in reading about the stars and bit players of the fabled “New York intellectuals” of the forties—men and women alike—and their petty spats and rivalries that lasted for days or for decades.

Take, for instance, the jealous male critic who referred to Hannah Arendt as “Hannah Arrogant” behind her back. (The poet Delmore Schwartz went one further, calling her “that Weimar Republic flapper.”) Or the likely apocryphal story of a young intellectual it girl named Susan Sontag being approached by the novelist Mary McCarthy at a party. “I hear you’re the new me,” McCarthy is reported to have told her coolly. Diana Trilling, in turn, called McCarthy “a thug” after an unflattering portrayal of Trilling’s social circle appeared in McCarthy’s The Oasis.

 The film critic Pauline Kael called Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays “ridiculously swank” and “a novel [she] read between bouts of giggles.” And Renata Adler savaged Kael’s film-review collection When the Lights Go Down by deeming it “simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” It is within these gloriously caustic set pieces that one begins to understand Dean’s eponymous sharpness as multivalent: capacious intellect wedded to a surgical verbal acuity.

This is not to imply that their relations were solely combative. Indeed, Sharp is particularly astute in its complex portrayal of female intellectual solidarity, friendship, and dissent. Dean traces the fine strands of a genuine, if sometimes guarded, network of appreciation.

The most meaningful of these relationships was likely between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, the latter of whom delivered a poignant eulogy at Arendt’s funeral: “The first time I heard her speak in public—nearly thirty years ago, during a debate—I was reminded of what Bernhardt must have been or Proust’s Berma, a magnificent stage five, which implies a goddess. Perhaps a chthonic goddess, or a fiery one, rather than the airy kind.”

Such moments of warmth and mutual recognition dispel the caricature of the angry mid-century woman intellectual, slinging outrageous insults while ashing her menthol in a martini glass.

Instead, Dean shows how this fiercely whetted intelligence was often mobilized against the prevailing conditions of intellectualism. These women came of age in a culture mired in sexism, and “the key to [their] power,” Dean writes, “was in how they responded to it, with a kind of intelligent skepticism that was often very funny.” Irony, sarcasm, and a powerfully sardonic humor—what Dean calls “the tools of outsiders”—were weaponized in order to carve out intellectual space for themselves and each other. They punctured the swollen bladder of male self-regard with the pointed art of the rejoinder.

These ripostes were disarmingly mordant, droll, and often smartly compressed. Indeed, their brevity could at times belie their concussive force. When a young man wrote in to The Freewoman to protest a Rebecca West essay, her reply, published in a 1912 letter to the editor, was simply: “This is most damping.”

Mary McCarthy, while reviewing what were said to be the best short stories of a then famous journalist, wrote, “It would be kinder to think that he had discovered the majority of them in an old trunk.” In response to an auteur theorist in Film Culture who had pontificated on “the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value,” Pauline Kael asked, “The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?” Perhaps most devastating of all was Joan Didion’s two-word response to a Woody Allen acolyte who took issue with her review of Manhattan in The New York Review of Books: “Oh, wow.”

These coolly scornful quips were not often well-received. Then, as now, men could give but not get. (One thinks of Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”) The style and boldness of such dismissals violated the prescriptive politeness expected of women. “The difficulty,” Dean writes, “is that people have trouble with women who aren’t ‘nice,’ who do not genuflect, who have the courage to sometimes be wrong in public.”

The very quality that made these women “sharp”—their fearsomely barbed wit—was sometimes used as grounds to diminish their achievements. In a 1947 piece for Vogue, the literary critic Alfred Kazin called Mary McCarthy’s novel The Company They Keep “deeply serious” before proposing the book was “as maliciously female as one chorus girl’s comments on another.”

This qualified praise was symptomatic of the era’s gendered criticism. In the brittle, heatless world of high culture, being wickedly funny was tantamount to being unserious. Brilliant indecorousness, then, was another trait that bound Dean’s subjects together.

Which raises a question that looms over Sharp from its first page: Would these women—nonconformists, all—appreciate being gathered in such a book? Dean acknowledges their ambivalence toward any suggestion of a collective “sisterhood.” (“I can imagine Hannah Arendt haranguing me for placing her work in the context of her womanhood at all,” she writes in the book’s preface.)

Allegiance to group-based definitions was largely anathema to these women, particularly the fragmented politics of second-wave feminism. Few of the critics in Sharp identified as feminists, at least early on in their careers, and several were openly hostile to the movement. “We have a habit, now, of assuming that people had only one kind of reaction to the women’s movement: either they were all in, or they were all out,” Dean writes.

Not so with these iconoclasts, who might sympathize with the broad goals of feminism while recoiling from what they saw as its disappointing essentialism. “Like all capital truths,” Susan Sontag wrote in a 1975 The New York Review of Books essay, “feminism is a bit simple-minded.” Such internal divisiveness makes the book’s organizing principle somewhat elusive.

And yet that each woman would argue against her inclusion becomes, by the book’s end, Sharp’s primary animating force. Dean’s feat of intellectual wrangling is as impressive for what it holds together—the exquisite, creaking tension of ten arch individualists—as for what it deconstructs.

When speaking from the periphery, the art of having an opinion—“to go on writing and writing well,” as West had it—acquires a moral dimension. The extraordinary achievements detailed in Sharp are a necessary corrective for a culture that would admonish women—these women in particular—for being “too smart for their own good.”

Private schools in Rwanda close down as public schools become more attractive to parents

Private schools in Rwanda are on the verge of closing down due to low patronage. A report by Daily Nation says desperate proprietors who face closure of their institutions are now asking the government to sponsor students in private schools at public rates.

But the government has rejected the idea.

The “problem” started with the government’s twelve-year basic education policy which made public schools affordable and preferable.

According to the report, the Ministry of Education invested hugely in expanding capacity and teaching infrastructure at public schools across the country; introduced the school feeding programme and abolished school fees.

More than 30 private schools are said to have closed indefinitely this year, while others are struggling to stay afloat after losing students to public schools.

School owners told Rwanda Today that even those that had managed to stay open were struggling to meet their operational costs.

“We’ve suffered a sharp decline in the number of students enroled, yet the school has accumulated debt, unpaid salaries and owes arrears to suppliers. It is not clear if the school will re-open,” said Samuel Batamba, the head teacher at College Nkunduburezi in Gakenke District.

Mr Batamba said the school used to have 900 students but now has only 80 students after it failed to attract new students while others enrolled in public schools.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Education, the government owns 460 out of the more than 1,575 schools in the country.

The rest are run by religious bodies with the Catholic church owning 620 schools, the Anglican church 279, Adventist church 22 and Muslim schools are at 16. Another 178 schools are run by parents’ associations and individuals.

The most affected institutions are private boarding schools.

Figures show that students in private schools decreased from 101,510 in 2012 to 79,076 last year while enrolment in public and government-aided schools almost doubled in the same period.

According to John Gasana, the Vice chairman of the Private Schools Association, competing with public schools requires huge capital investment to improve infrastructure, equipment and hiring skilled teachers, something many private schools cannot afford.

(Source: Newspeak)

Firefox is about to stop supporting Windows Vista

Firefox is about to stop supporting Windows Vista and websites are not working. Is there a cheap or preferably free solution?

I read your article about Windows 10 updates and that most PCs with Vista should be tossed in the trash bin. I really don’t want to do that. I bought my computer with a disability settlement, and I simply don’t have the money for upgrades. It is an HP Model m8530f with an AMD Phenom 9550 quad-core processor and 5GB of memory. I use it for writing, blogging, internet access, simple games, nothing intense. But I do need to do something because there is only one web browser I can use effectively, and some websites have begun to shun us unfortunate Vista folks. Please tell me how to do this. I am not stupid or illiterate, just a little on the broke side, and a bit (OK, a lot) of a procrastinator. Jeanne

Microsoft launched Windows Vista in January 2007 and stopped supporting it in April last year. Any PCs still running Vista are therefore likely to be eight to 10 years old, and showing their age. In particular, hard drives are increasingly prone to fail after about five years, or 50,000 hours use, so it’s important to keep good backups.

Vista was a pretty good operating system, at least after Microsoft released the Service Pack 1 update, but very few people still use it. Microsoft has since launched Windows 7, 8, 8.1 and several versions of Windows 10. It’s no longer worth software providers and websites spending money testing and adapting their code to make sure it works with Vista, so you’re likely to face increasing problems using it online.

You are also at a greater risk from malware. Microsoft no longer provides Vista security patches, and has stopped updating Microsoft Security Essentials. You should therefore install antivirus software that still supports Vista, though I’m not sure which still do, apart from Malwarebytes and Comodo. Whatever you have already installed should be OK as long as the supplier keeps updating the virus signatures.

You will also run into more problems with browsers. I assume that the one browser you can use effectively is Firefox. The bad news is that Firefox will stop supporting Windows XP and Vista in June. Mozilla says: “For planning purposes, enterprises using Firefox should consider May 2018 as the support end date for Windows XP and Vista.” You have only a few weeks left.

Hardware matters
The good news is that your 2008-vintage desktop PC looks powerful enough to run Windows 7 or a flavour of Linux. Indeed, according to HP’s spec sheet, you could upgrade your m8530f to use a faster but hotter processor and up to 8GB of memory. I assume you could also upgrade the Nvidia GeForce 9300 GS currently installed, and probably swap your fast 750GB hard drive for a faster SSD. You could even upgrade the 350W power supply to a 550W version.

If your HP m8530f continues to work correctly, you don’t need any of these upgrades. The point is that if it fails, you should be able to replace or upgrade faulty parts without junking the whole machine. This may not even cost very much. People often break up PCs like this and sell the working parts on eBay for “spares or repair”.

The 2.2GHz Phenom X4 9550 has a PassMark benchmark score of 2542, which still qualifies as “mid range”. It’s only about a third of the speed of a current 3.6GHz Intel Core i3-8100 (PassMark 8078), but it’s still faster than the 1.1GHz quad-core Pentium N4200 (PassMark 2022) used in budget laptops like the Asus VivoBook Max.

 ‘I bought my computer with a disability settlement, and I simply don’t have the money for upgrades.’ Photograph: Alamy

Windows upgrades
The bad news is that I don’t think your HP m8530f will run Windows 10. HP says it hasn’t tested products that were bought before August 2013, and it hasn’t written any Windows 10 drivers for them. Windows 10 might still run with the drivers Microsoft supplies, but you’d have to try this yourself, and my web searches didn’t find anybody who’d written it up.

Microsoft doesn’t support an upgrade from Vista to Windows 10. Trying it would involve doing a “clean installation” that deletes your current software and applications. I can’t recommend that unless there’s a good chance of Windows 10 working.

However, you could upgrade to Windows 7. The first and most obvious drawback is that you would have to buy a Windows 7 Upgrade or the full Windows 7 software. (For your purposes, they’re the same thing.) You might be able to pick up a cheap copy locally or from eBay, but it can be hard to identify a reputable seller.

The second and less obvious drawback is that Windows 7 will only be supported until 14 January 2020. However, most businesses still use Windows 7, and I expect that most browser and anti-virus software suppliers will continue to support it after Microsoft support ends. This happened before, with Windows XP.

Note: I don’t recommend upgrading from Vista to Windows 8.1 – which will be supported until January 23 – because that also requires a clean installation.

The Linux option
GNU/Linux is well known for prolonging the life of hardware that is no longer a viable platform for Windows, and it supports all today’s major PC browsers. There are, of course, some drawbacks. The main problem is that Linux doesn’t run Windows software natively, and it doesn’t run programs such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, Apple iTunes, Intuit’s QuickBooks and most major games.

You can run some Windows software on Linux using Wine (originally from Wine Is Not an Emulator), but you may have to give up or replace some programs that are important to you.

The other problem is learning to use Linux. This is not as easy as its fans often claim, especially when something goes wrong. Of course, you would have to relearn some things whether you switched to Windows 10, MacOS or Linux, but Linux has the steepest learning curve.

Fortunately, you don’t have to commit to Linux to try it. You can use your PC to create a “Live CD” (or DVD or USB thumbdrive) that will run Linux without disturbing Vista. There are hundreds of options, but you might try Linux Mint – my usual recommendation for newbies – or Ubuntu Mate or Ubuntu Gnome.

Linux runs relatively slowly from a DVD so use a fast USB thumbdrive if you can. You can create one with a free utility, LinuxLive USB Creator.

If the experiment goes well, you can install Linux alongside Vista in a dual-boot configuration, so that you can load either at will. Lots of websites have step-by-step instructions. Read a few related to the version of Linux you decide to install.

You might also consider installing Ubuntu 18.04, codenamed Bionic Beaver, which is due to be released today. With this version, Ubuntu has returned to the standard Gnome 3 desktop instead of Unity.

Linux tends to change rapidly, but the LTS (Long Term Support) versions – such as Mint 18.3 and Ubuntu 18.04 – are supported for up to five years. After a decade of Vista, you may appreciate the stability.

(Source: The Guardian)

Kate Middleton's delivery of her third baby probably cost less than a typical birth in the US

Figures show procedure cost £5,670, while in America similar operation would amount to £7,749

It’s a boy!

The Duchess of Cambridge is officially a mother of three after giving birth to a royal baby boy earlier this week. All eight pounds and seven ounces of HRH Prince of Cambridge (whose name has not yet been announced) were welcomed in the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital in London, according to Kensington Palace.

“The Duke of Cambridge was present for the birth,” read a tweet from Kensington Palace. “Her Royal Highness and her child are both doing well.”

Fifth in line to the throne, the new prince’s arrival came at a lower cost than one might expect for a royal baby delivery – at least when compared to the cost of a similar delivery in the US.

For 24 hours in a deluxe room and a non-Caesarean delivery in 2015, the Lindo Wing charged £5,670 and that’s for luxurious maternity ward accommodations. the average cost of a normal delivery or a planned caesarean in the UK is just £1,755. If complications arise, it is still only £2,582 on average.

In the US, the average fee for a delivery without complications (and without a luxury ensuite and or deluxe room) costs $10,808 (£7,749) – which can increase to an estimated $30,000 when considering care given before and after pregnancy. That’s more than the delivery cost of both a royal baby and a non-royal baby in the UK.

According to findings by the International Federation of Health Plans, the US leads in total average hospital and physician costs for a delivery without complications. Delivering a baby costs $7,751 in Switzerland and $5,312 in Australia. Spain and South Africa both cost less than $2,000, charging $1,950 and $1,271 respectively.

Even though insurance typically covers most of the cost, American parents can still face a bill of roughly $3,000, while many Europeans have free maternity care.

(Source: BI)

Diplomacy on the menu: How food can shape politics

From caviar chosen in bad taste to presidents throwing up, food has over the years played a considerable part in diplomatic get-togethers.

World leaders and politicians often work long hours, negotiate difficult situations, spend a lot of time talking to people and maybe even have a few sleepless nights. But certainly, like the rest of us, they always have to eat.

There are two big meetings between leaders this week and a lot of thought has gone into the menus.

North Korea's Kim Jong-un is meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the first talks between the two countries' leaders since 2007. A flat sea fish to remind Mr Moon of his hometown port city of Busan will be served, but so too will Swiss rösti, a nod to the school years Mr Kim is said to have spent in Switzerland.
Over in the US, French President Emmanuel Macron is making the first state visit by a foreign leader under Donald Trump's presidency. The Trumps served up the best of American fare at the state dinner, with a few French touches.

Unifying menu
So is serving Mr Kim, who is believed to have a love of French cheese and wine, a Swiss dish a conscious ploy on the part of the South Koreans to win him over?

"It's certainly part of the tactics," says Johanna Mendelson-Forman, an adjunct professor at the American University in Washington DC and an expert in the field of culinary diplomacy.

"The whole menu is fascinating," says research consultant Sam Chapple Sokol, who argues that food at the summit is, literally and figuratively, setting the table for positive discussions.

"Because it calls upon all the regions of both Koreas, it's a unifying menu. So, the goal really seems to be unification on the table."

John Dory, a reminder of home for South Korean President Moon Jae-in
He points out that the North Korean government has never actually confirmed that Kim Jong-un lived in Switzerland, and so, "it is a little bit of a gamble, and almost an assumption on the part of the menu designers that this is the one Swiss dish to serve".

He adds: "Who knows, maybe he's never had it before, or maybe he's more accustomed to fondue or raclette."

Food faux pas
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called food "the oldest diplomatic tool" in fostering relationships. It is used in the hopes of improving co-operation but, as Mr Sokol explains, things don't always go to plan.

In 1992, then US President George HW Bush was visiting Japan as part of an Asia trip. At a state dinner, in between the second course (raw salmon with caviar) and the third (grilled beef with peppery sauce), he made history by becoming the first sitting president to vomit on the prime minister of Japan.

The food was reportedly not to blame, with US media at the time quoting the president's men as saying it was "just the flu".

Caviar. Maybe not for a socialist president
"There obviously was no malintent there," says Mr Sokol, "but I think that probably set us back a few years and he's still made fun of by people in Japan."

There are other unfortunate diplomatic examples too.

When former US President Barack Obama hosted his French counterpart François Hollande for a state dinner, the White House menu featured caviar from Illinois.

As part of a fancy state affair, this isn't unexpected. But for Mr Hollande, whose socialist government was careful not to spark further French resentment towards the wealthy "caviar left", as they were dubbed, this couldn't have been great for optics back home, according to Mr Sokol.

Breaking of bread
"Food is a tremendous, tremendous, powerful tool," believes analyst Dr Maria Velez de Berliner. "Whoever controls the access to food, they have control of the room."

This certainly proved true for UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979. In a European Council meeting with French President Giscard d'Estaing, who wanted to break for dinner, she refused to end the session before a decision was made.

Margaret Thatcher: No food till we agree
Unsurprisingly, she managed to make Mr d'Estaing more amenable to her proposals as the evening dragged on.

Ms Mendelson-Forman argues that food in diplomatic situations also has the capacity to break down barriers.

"Food humanises people - it humanises your adversaries," she explains.

During the 20 months of negotiations for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, tensions were high and the talks nearly collapsed at least five times, according to the New Yorker.

Negotiators had always eaten separately but on the 4th of July, America's Independence Day, the Iranians extended an invitation for the two sides to break bread together - with no shop talk allowed.

"It was the first time the Iranians and Americans looked at each other differently," says Ms Mendelson-Forman.

"They saw each other as negotiators first," agrees Dr Berliner, "and then they saw each other as people."

Within 10 days an agreement was finally reached, with both experts convinced it was made possible by the Persian meal the two sides had shared and the rapport it had helped foster.

It could be that this spirit will endure this week and in the near future.

The next big unprecedented diplomatic meeting on the calendar is Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un - could what's on their plates shape a breakthrough?

(Source: BBC)

Friday 27 April 2018

Korea talks: The intricate theatrics of a historic meeting

The historic summit between South and North Korea has been a carefully staged affair of intricate theatrics.

There is symbolism in almost every aspect of the meeting, from food to flowers and from table diameter to the planting of a pine tree.

It is all designed to "signify the arrival of peace on the Korean Peninsula and the era of co-operation and prosperity," according to the South Korean committee in charge of preparing the summit.

The venue
The meeting takes place in the Panmunjom village in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This in itself is already quite symbolic.

For the two previous summits, it has been the South's political leader who travelled to Pyongyang, the North's capital.

This time, the two sides' leaders meet at the military demarcation line and then walked to the Peace House for the actual talks.

The house is south of the border and it's been the first time a North Korean leader has ever crossed that line.

An honour guard of South Korean soldiers dressed in colourful traditional garb - rather than South Korean military uniform - lined the path of the two leaders.

The flowers
For decoration, their meeting room features flowers in traditional white porcelain vases.

But not just any flowers: peonies to symbolise greetings, daisies to stand for peace, and wild flowers picked in the DMZ.

The table
The two leaders sat down at an oval table exactly 2,018mm wide, a diameter to reference the year the summit takes place.

The chairs were also custom-made for the summit and they include a little dig at Japan.

Featuring a map of the whole Korean peninsula they also show the disputed Dokdo islands, controlled by Seoul but also claimed by Tokyo. Both Koreas are united in their dislike of Japan.

The decor
The symbolism in the room extends beyond the table and chairs.

The room is designed to feel like a traditional Korean Hanok house - with panelled windows made of paper.

The blue carpet is meant to represent the mountains and streams across the Korean peninsular.

And the large landscape painting on the wall is of Mt Kumgang, in North Korea. A South Korean government spokesperson said it was a mountain that many Koreans aspired to visit.

"Mt Kumgang is a symbol of reconciliation and co-operation between the South and the North."

The tree planting soil will in part come from the North's Mount Paektu
The pine tree
The afternoon featured a commemorative tree planting. The pine tree dates back to 1953, AFP reports, the year the Korean War armistice was signed.

Both leaders picked up shovels to ceremoniously plant the tree in soil brought from mountains in both the North and South. It was then watered by water from rivers in each of their halves of the peninsula.

There's a plaque by it saying: "Planting peace and prosperity."

The food
The dinner served to both delegations this evening will again be loaded with symbolism; every bite carries significant weight.

Produce and recipes will be from North and South Korea, from the two leaders' hometowns, and even sourced from the DMZ.

Not all symbolism is inter-Korean. The two little dots to the right are aimed at Japan
There will, for instance, be Pyongyang Naengmyun, famous cold noodles from the North, Swiss potato rosti because Kim Jong-un spent his youth in Switzerland, seafood from Moon Jae-un's hometown and the traditional bibimbab rice dish, with vegetables grown in the DMZ.

One of the desserts will again feature a map of the two Koreas - again with the disputed islands. The symbolism did not go unnoticed in Tokyo.

Japan's foreign ministry issued a "strong protest" over of the controversial mango mousse.

(Source: BBC)

Kim Jong-un becomes first North Korean leader to cross into South in 65 years

The leaders of North and South Korea concluded their first round of negotiations midway through talks on Friday after two hours of small talk, jokes and pledges to work together to bring long-term peace to the peninsula and make the world a safer place.

Kim Jong-un, regarded last year as an international pariah after conducting his sixth nuclear test, promised a “new beginning” and hailed a new era of peace. South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged “bold” decisions that would be a “great gift” to humanity.

When they broke for lunch a few hours later, the South said the two leaders had so far discussed "denuclearisation and a permanent peace" - but there were no further details.

They re-emerged having eaten in their own countries for a ceremonial tree planting ceremony, which was laden with symbolism.

Kim and Moon planted a pine tree - standing for peace and prosperity - on the Military Demarcation Line, an area synonymous with confrontation and division over the past 65 years.

The pine is a transplanted specimen said to have been seeded in 1953 - the year the Korean War ended - and soil and water from the North and South were used to bed it in.

Their historic meeting began at 9.30am local time as Kim emerged from the Panmungak, the North's symbolic building 80m north of border, with a large entourage including his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, sweeping down the wide staircase to make his way to the Military Demarcation Line that separates the two countries, where President Moon Jae-in waited to greet him.

With wide grins, the two men shook hands as they met for the first time, and Kim became the first North Korean leader to cross over to the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone since the Korean War ended in 1953 .

“You have come to the South, when will I be able to come to the North?” asked Mr Moon.

“Maybe now is the right time for you to enter North Korean territory?” quipped Kim, and in an unscripted move, the two men held hands as the stepped back over the divide into the North.

The images, broadcast live around the world, were highly emotional for the divided Korean peninsula, which never formally ended the Korean War of 1950-53. In a vast press room a few miles from the location of the talks in Panmunjom, South Korean journalists gasped and applauded.

The meeting of the two leaders was only the third in the history of the two nations, and it has raised hopes of finding an eventual solution to international tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missiles programmes.

In a guestbook at the Peace House summit venue, Kim wrote: "A new history begins now - at the starting point of history and the era of peace."

The reclusive Kim, 34, appeared nervous at first as he met Mr Moon and accompanied him along a red carpet to inspect an honour guard.

But he later relaxed, quipping that he hoped Mr Moon would enjoy the cold noodles speciality he had brought from the North and promising that he would no longer interrupt the South Korean president’s sleep with early morning missile tests.

Kim was "flooded with emotion", he told Mr Moon as their talks began in a grand meeting room in the Peace House in the village of Panmunjom on the southern size of the demilitarised border zone.

"I feel like I'm firing a flare at the starting line in the moment of (the two Koreas) writing a new history in North-South relations, peace and prosperity," Kim told Moon as they sat at a table, which had been built so that exactly 2018 millimeters separated them, to begin their closed-door talks. He urged “candid” and “future-orientated” talks.

“I’m so filled with excitement because of the meeting at this historic site. And I was truly moved that you have come all the way to receive me at the Military Demarcation Line,” he told President Moon.

Kim Jong-un's message in the guest book: 'A new history begins now - at the starting point of history and the era of peace' CREDIT: GETTY
Mr Moon responded that “It was your bold and courageous decision that has allowed us to come this far.”

After two hours of private talks, Kim’s security convoy left to take a lunchbreak in the North, with twelve guards jogging alongside his black Mercedes limousine.

A spokesman from Seoul’s presidential office briefed reporters that their interactions had been amiable, with Kim expressing his admiration for the South’s high speed rail, and Mr Moon making Kim Yo-jong “blush” when he said she was now a celebrity.

"The two leaders had a sincere and frank dialogue over the denuclearisation and the establishment of permanent peace of the Korean peninsula and development of inter-Korea ties," Yoon Young-chan, a spokesman added.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend the inter-Korean summit at the truce village of Panmunjom CREDIT: REUTERS
The meeting was also replete with grandiose statements of intent. “We should value this opportunity so that the scars between the South and North could be healed,” Kim was quoted as saying. “The border line isn’t that high; it will eventually be erased if a lot of people pass over it.”

But as the talks prepare to resume, little has been revealed of actual progress towards resolving one of the world’s most pressing security threats.

(Source: Telegraph)