Psychics or Psychotics?

March 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Psychics are causing an unforseen problem to gardai by disrupting investigations into unsolved murder cases.

Some have been urging detectives to mount searches for the bodies of missing people at specific locations, based on “information” they say has been relayed to them by spirits and ghosts. Other psychics claim to have had visions of people thought to have been abducted and murdered standing at specific locations which gardai are then asked to search.

Among the inquiries which have been affected by psychics is Operation Trace into the disappearance of six women in the Leinster area in the 1990s. The missing women include Annie McCarrick, a 26-year-old from New York, last seen in March 1993 with a man near Johnnie Fox’s pub in Glencullen in the Dublin mountains.

Information supplied by psychics has also prompted searches for Mary Boyle, a six-year-old who disappeared in 1977 in Co Donegal.

Gardai say they are put under pressure to mount searches when a psychic makes contact with a victim’s family to tell them that information they have provided to the force is being ignored. In other cases, distressed families will insist gardai meet with clairvoyants.

Diane Lazarus, a British psychic, “examined” the killing of Raonaid Murray, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who was stabbed to death in south Dublin in 1999. Lazarus’s involvement in the case, following a request by the victim’s family, has been described as “unhelpful and distracting” by senior gardai.

Alan Bailey, a detective who recently retired from the Garda’s cold-case unit, said Operation Trace, an acronym for tracing, reviewing and collecting evidence, was particularly affected. “Psychics approaching us was a regular occurrence. It became such a problem that we began to keep an index of people who were making contact,” he said.

“Missing-person cases tend to attract them. Some of them do seem to be genuinely concerned, but it’s always allied to a belief that they have some sort of psychic power. I have never seen one of them provide any information that was worthwhile. They usually claim the victim came to them in a dream and asked them to convey a message. They sometimes even name the killer but it’s based on nothing.

“Gardai were invited to receive information about one of the cases handled by Operation Trace. The detectives drove to a house in the midlands where they were invited to attend a seance where those in attendance named someone who they claimed killed Annie McCarrick. The psychics called the next day to say they had been contacted by other spirits who claimed the spirit who gave the information had been lying. They said the spirit was a bad one.”

Martin Donnellan, a retired assistant garda commissioner who spent 40 years as a detective, said no crime had ever been solved by a psychic. “I’m aware this has become a serious problem,” he said.

“These people are usually engaged by families, who will grasp at anything. It’s hard to tell a family that you won’t search a location. In truth, such searches are being organised to appease families. It’s an awful waste of garda resources. I can safely say I have no belief in this nonsense. They always say a body is buried near a tree, or in water, or sometimes a stretch of coast. When nothing is found, they’ll say the spirits are sending them the wrong signals, and come back with a new location. It can be a huge distraction [for] the investigation team.”

The families of some missing persons are opting to conduct their own searches, often involving divers, based on information provided by psychics. Recent searches for the body of Boyle, who vanished near her grandparents’ home in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, followed the receipt of information from a Dutch psychic.

Margo O’Donnell, a country singer from Co Donegal who has organised searches for the missing girl, said she believed in psychic abilities. “There was a search last year which was based on information supplied by a psychic some years ago. I do believe they have something. I couldn’t tell you what it is, but I’d like to check out what they say, although I’d accept that wee Mary Boyle has not been found,” she said.

O’Donnell declined to name the psychic involved, but believes that a body will be found soon. “Let me tell you that Mary will be found soon. That is fact,” she said.


3D Printers for Food

March 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

A device that uses purée as if it were ink will transform the way we cook

The idea of printing tonight’s dinner might sound a bit far fetched, but not too long ago people sniggered about the prospect of microwave ovens.

Jayden Yosefzai, the chief executive of Essential Dynamics, which has manufactured Imagine, one of the first commercially available 3-D food printers, explains:

“Imagine’s track path will be novelty, then utility, then indispensability.” Printers will start appearing in kitchens once people have accepted the technology and recognised its capabilities , he says.

3-D food printing uses purée instead of ink to sculpt food. A host of university researchers have developed prototypes: MIT’s Digital Fabricator concept, for instance, takes refrigerated ingredients and pipes them “into a mixer and extruder head that can accurately deposit elaborate food combinations with sub-millimeter precision. While the deposition takes place, the food is heated or cooled.”

Cornell Creative Machines Lab has worked with the French Culinary Institute to print a space shuttle-shaped scallop, a raw turkey cube with inner celery cube , an “easy cheesy shuttle” and personalised cookies and cakes. Meanwhile, the University of Exeter has concentrated on the creation of personalised sculpted chocolates.

Despite these impressive results, the field of 3-D food printing still conjures images of white coats rather than aprons. Imagine wouldn’t look out of place on a laboratory bench, and with a price tag of $2,995 (£1,894) is beyond most budgets. Or perhaps it is more a case that the term “3-D printing” doesn’t sound very appetising.

Stefano Marzano, the former chief design officer at Philips and new chief design officer at Electrolux ( both companies that have looked at potential designs for 3-D food printers), says: “Forget the mental image of 3-D printing and think about the freedom and liberty of creating new and fantastic shapes and tastes.”

Marzano believes that two forces will be instrumental in propelling the printers from the laboratory bench to the kitchen counter.

“It will be demand-led, starting in the professional arena with chefs wanting the opportunity to break the boundaries of food experimentation and the food industry wanting to create new shapes and accurately reproduce recipes.

“And if demand grows sufficiently, the printers could be a reality in kitchens within five years. The technology is there and can be developed fast if there is the demand.”

Researchers, cooks and designers have devised some tasty applications for 3-D printing should consumers develop a taste for it.

Imagine being able to recreate your favourite chef’s experimental recipes safe in the knowledge that it will look and taste exactly as prescribed.

Imagine creating personalised dishes for friends or, in one vision, adjusting the nutritional value of your food based on electronic inputs from sensors that measure individual needs.

“Chefs create sublime food that is engaging to all the senses. 3-D printing is an opportunity to stretch this art and create forms otherwise not seen,” Manzano says. “It should be seen not as a machine, but more as a palette for the painter.”

What could be more beautiful?

The Budapest Protocol

March 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

When Adam LeBor moved to Budapest, he received a crash course in dating, love and life — Hungarian style

As an ardent Romanian nationalist, the deputy mayor of Cluj was eager to explain the workings of the honeytrap operated by Hungary, the ancient enemy. “Every year they send out scouts to look for the most beautiful and intelligent girls. They bring them to a special school in Budapest where they train them in special skills … you understand?” he asked, giving me a knowing look.

I did, or at least I was hoping to. The first thing that any male visitor to Budapest notices is the legendary beauty of Hungarian women.

He continued: “Then the Government sends them around the world to the best universities, where they target future political and business leaders. They seduce them and marry them.”

“Why?” I asked.

He was amazed at my naivity. “So their husbands will support the Hungarian position on Transylvania, of course.”

Cluj, or Kolozsvár in Hungarian, and all of surrounding Transylvania, was part of Hungary until 1920, when it was ceded to Romania. The borders are still a sore point. But, as a correspondent for The Times, I needed evidence: dates, times, locations. Give me a name, I asked.

The deputy mayor sat back with a satisfied look in his face. “Manfred Wörner.”

In fact, Elfie Wörner, the wife of the former Secretary-General of Nato, was born in Berlin. Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who brokered the peace accords that ended the Bosnian war would have been a much better example. He married Kati Marton, a well-known Hungarian-American journalist, in Budapest.

But never mind. There was a much more important question to answer.

Why wasn’t I being targeted by these sirens? The Times, after all, is a newspaper with influence. I had a thick, embossed business card that opened the doors of governments and chancelleries across half of Europe. I was ready and waiting to be persuaded of the righteousness of the Hungarian, er, position on Transylvania, but nobody was bothering.

In fact, I was striking out all over the place, and not only because the honeytrap school existed only in the minds of Romanian conspiracy theorists. I arrived in Budapest in the early 1990s, having previously worked with several other freelancers out of an office in Islington.

London N1 was not a good training ground for dating in Budapest. All the politically correct ideas that I had absorbed about relations between men and women were useless; in fact, counterproductive. Hungarian (and Polish, Czech, etc) men held doors open for women and let them go through first, helped them on and off with their coats, pulled out the chair in a restaurant so their dates could sit down, complimented them on their looks, dress sense and hair and paid the bill — not always, but at least the first couple of times.

Confusingly, there was a different rule for bars or cafés. The man went first, just in case there was a fight inside.

Hungarians introduce themselves to each other with a smile and handshake. Strangers greet each other in lifts, wishing each other good day and saying goodbye when they leave. They even wish each other a good appetite in restaurants. After a while, I realised that behaving like this actually felt more natural than the N1 model. I also noticed that, when I returned to London with my new manners, such courtesies were appreciated by even the most modern women.

Of course, there is also a downside to this: old-fashioned courtesy often goes with old-fashioned sexism. There are hardly any women in Hungarian public life apart from newsreaders and tabloid celebrities, and not a single woman cabinet minister. Only 9 per cent of MPs are women, one of the lowest ratios in Europe. Outrageous as that was, it was not my immediate concern. Now that I had learnt to behave, more or less, the next step was to learn to speak. Speak, that is, in English that people can understand. It’s only when you live abroad, among people whose first language is not English, that you realise how much we native speakers have been socialised to communicate as much by what is not said as what is said. The passive circumlocutions and vague conditionals that we use every day are useless outside Britain, especially in social situations. Example: me, at party, to attractive young woman after long talk: “Could I ask you for your telephone number?”

Her, puzzled: “I don’t know. Could you?” (thinking: “Does he want it or not?”). Eventually even I got the hang of it, which also provided some useful inspiration for the tumultuous personal life of Alex Farkas, the hero of my thriller, The Budapest Protocol, who, purely coincidentally, is a foreign correspondent based in the Hungarian capital. Then I met my wife, Kati, at a party. We talked for a long time. She went to the bathroom and I ambushed her as she came out. I asked for her telephone number in clear, direct speech; she duly provided it.

We were married in little more than a year and two children quickly followed. Child-rearing in Hungary has so far proved much easier than dating, especially if you are lucky enough to get places at a good Óvoda (kindergarten). The state provides free childcare for the offspring of working mothers from the age of six months until the age of 7, when children start school. The children receive a three-course lunch, afternoon snack and fresh fruit. There are numerous extracurricular activities, from karate to folk-dancing.

Hungarians love and are tolerant of children, even noisy ones, and Budapest is a safe and child-friendly city. Our neighbourhood boasts several EU-standard playgrounds with safe and modern equipment. Mothers organise pass-on rotas of clothes that return, years later, long-forgotten but washed and folded, having been used by friends of friends of friends. Elderly ladies offer endless advice about the need for children to wear a hat.

Most analysts believe that the decline of the family in Britain helped to fuel the riots. Here the family remains profoundly important: even the coolest Budapest hipsters go home to their parents for lunch on Sundays. A respect for the elderly that has all but vanished in Britain’s inner cities still thrives. The young almost always give up their seats for the elderly on public transport. Older people even give up their seats to those travelling with toddlers, or try to. Travelling with our children on the tram, I have several times thanked and reassured grey-haired pensioners that they do not need stand up.

I witnessed a telling scene recently on the train from Lake Balaton to Budapest. It was a hot and sticky summer’s day and all six seats of the carriage were taken. A hot and bothered elderly lady looked in, shook her head, then walked along the corridor to find a seat. The woman next to me bounded up and brought her back. She gave the elderly lady her seat and explained to the two schoolboys next to her that she would stand in the corridor for ten minutes, and then sit in one of the schoolboys’ seats while he stood in the corridor, and so on. The schoolboys immediately agreed. In fact, they looked embarrassed that they had not given up their seats in the first place. The system worked smoothly all the way to Budapest.

Deeply impressed by this, I wanted to tell my wife all about the rota when I got home. She also wanted to talk … curiously enough, about Transylvania.

Steve Jobs was Ingenious not a Genius

March 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the questions I wrestled with when writing about Steve Jobs was how smart he was. On the surface, this should not have been much of an issue. You’d assume the obvious answer was: he was really, really smart. Maybe even worth three or four reallys. After all, he was the most innovative and successful business leader of our era and embodied the Silicon Valley dream writ large: he created a start-up in his parents’ garage and built it into the world’s most valuable company.

But I remember having dinner with him last year around his kitchen table, as he did almost every evening with his wife and kids. Someone brought up one of those brain-teasers involving a monkey having to carry a load of bananas across a desert, with a set of restrictions about how far and how many he could carry at one time, and you were supposed to figure out how long it would take. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously. I thought about how Bill Gates would have gone click-click-click and logically nailed the answer in 15 seconds, and also how Gates devoured science books as a holiday pleasure. But then something else occurred to me: Gates never made the iPod. Instead, he made the Zune.

So was Jobs smart? Not conventionally. Instead, he was a genius. That may seem like a silly word game, but in fact his success dramatises an interesting distinction between intelligence and genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected and at times magical. They were sparked by intuition, not analytic rigour. Trained in Zen Buddhism, Jobs came to value experiential wisdom over empirical analysis. He didn’t study data or crunch numbers, but like a pathfinder he could sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead.

He told me he began to appreciate the power of intuition, in contrast to what he called “Western rational thought”, when he wandered around India after dropping out of college. “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead…  Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”

Jobs also had a lot of imagination and knew how to apply it. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Einstein is, of course, the true exemplar of genius. He had contemporaries who could probably match him in pure intellectual firepower when it came to mathematical and analytic processing. Henri Poincaré, for example, first came up with some of the components of special relativity, and David Hilbert was able to grind out equations for general relativity around the same time Einstein did. But neither had the imaginative genius to make the full creative leap at the core of their theories, namely that there is no such thing as absolute time and that gravity is a warping of the fabric of space-time. (Okay, it’s not that simple, but that’s why he was Einstein and we’re not.)

Einstein had the elusive qualities of genius, which included an intuition and imagination that allowed him to think differently (or, as Jobs’s ads said, to Think Different). Although he was not particularly religious, Einstein described this intuitive genius as the ability to read the mind of God. When assessing a theory, he would ask himself, Is this the way that God would design the universe? And he expressed his discomfort with quantum mechanics, which is based on the idea that probability plays a governing role in the universe, by declaring that he could not believe God would play dice. (At one physics conference, Niels Bohr was prompted to urge Einstein to quit telling God what to do.)

Both Einstein and Jobs were very visual thinkers. The road to relativity began when the teenage Einstein kept trying to picture what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. Jobs spent time almost every afternoon walking around the studio of his brilliant design chief, Jony Ive, and fingering foam models of the products they were developing.

Jobs’s genius wasn’t, as even his fanboys admit, in the same quantum orbit as Einstein’s. So it is probably best to ratchet the rhetoric down a notch and call it ingenuity. Gates is super-smart, but Jobs was super-ingenious. The primary distinction, I think, is the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge.

In the world of invention and innovation, that means combining an appreciation of the humanities with an understanding of science — connecting artistry to technology, poetry to processors. This was Jobs’s speciality. “I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,” he said. “Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

The ability to merge creativity with technology depends on one’s ability to be emotionally attuned to others. Jobs could be petulant and unkind in dealing with other people, which caused some to think he lacked basic emotional awareness. In fact, it was the opposite. He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, cajole them, intimidate them, target their deepest vulnerabilities, and delight them at will. He knew, intuitively, how to create products that pleased, interfaces that were friendly, and marketing messages that were enticing.

In the annals of ingenuity, new ideas are only part of the equation. Genius requires execution. When others produced boxy computers with forbidding interfaces that confronted users with unfriendly green prompts that said things such as “C:\>”, Jobs saw there was a market for an interface like a sunny playroom. Hence, the Macintosh. Sure, Xerox came up with the graphical desktop metaphor, but the personal computer it built was a flop and it did not spark the home-computer revolution. Between conception and creation, TS  Eliot observed, there falls the shadow.

In some ways, Jobs’s ingenuity reminds me of that of Benjamin Franklin, one of my other biography subjects. Among the American founders, Franklin was not the most profound thinker — that distinction goes to Jefferson or Madison or Hamilton. But he was ingenious.

This depended, in part, on his ability to intuit the relationships between different things. When he invented the battery, he experimented with it to produce sparks that he and his friends used to kill a turkey for their end-of-season feast. In his journal, he recorded all the similarities between such sparks and lightning during a thunderstorm, then declared, “Let the experiment be made.” So he flew a kite in the rain, drew electricity from the heavens, and ended up inventing the lightning rod. Like Jobs, Franklin enjoyed the concept of applied creativity — taking clever ideas and smart designs and applying them to useful devices.

China and India are likely to produce many rigorous analytical thinkers and knowledgeable technologists. But smart and educated people don’t always spawn innovation. America’s advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. That is the formula for true innovation, as Jobs’s career showed.

Little Teeth and Big Dentistry

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

CHILDREN may be spared the ordeal of fillings for decayed first teeth after a study found the dentist’s drill may be doing more harm than good.

Research has found that a new pain-free technique of sealing off the decayed tooth with a crown until it falls out naturally is more effective and causes less damage to the teeth than giving children fillings.

Some dentists are so concerned about the damage caused by conventional fillings that they will no longer treat tooth decay and instead ask children to reduce their consumption of sugary foods and brush regularly until the tooth falls out naturally.

Many dentists also believe that bad memories of having fillings puts some children off going to the dentist.

The trial of 132 children, who were monitored for five years, found that 2% of those whose decayed tooth had been sealed with a crown suffered subsequent problems. For those who had had conventional fillings, 17% had experienced such difficulties.

The findings of the study, conducted by Dundee University and the James Cook University hospital, Middlesbrough, have led to a £3m government-funded trial to decide conclusively whether the practice of putting fillings in milk teeth should stop.

Jimmy Steele, a government adviser and lead on oral and dental health at the National Institute for Health Research, said: “This is challenging what has been the conventional wisdom for 150 years.”

The trial, funded by the institute, will study 1,460 children at 50 UK dental practices.

Unlike a filling, the alternative Hall technique seals the decay into the tooth with a stainless steel crown. Dentists believe that sealing it off from food and oxygen stops the bacteria from thriving and causing further damage.

Nicola Innes, a lecturer in paediatric dentistry at Dundee University and leader of both trials, said: “Sealing in decay is getting a lot of interest but we know that, although . . . there is a strong body of evidence supporting it, many dentists still view decay as a gangrenous type of disease that needs to be cut out surgically.”

Evolution of “Gay”

March 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Gay, throughout the ages

1. Noble, beautiful, excellent (c.1325-1802)
2. a. Bright or lively-looking, colourful (a.1375-)
b. Showily dressed (a.1387-) 
3. a. Carefree, light-hearted, merry (c.1400-)
4. a. Wanton, lascivious (c.1405-a.1450)
b. Dedicated to pleasure, uninhibited, promiscuous (1597-)
c. euphemistic (Of a woman) living by prostitution (?1795-1967)
d. originally US slang (Of men, at first, then also women) homosexual (1941-)
e. slang Foolish, stupid; socially inappropriate (1978-)

Taken from The Life of Slang by Julie Coleman


March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Cesc Fàbregas has advised Robin van Persie to consider seriously leaving Arsenal next summer because it could be his last opportunity. The Holland striker’s deal at the Emirates Stadium expires at the end of the next season, which is likely to trigger a bidding war as he enters the last 12 months of his contract.
William Flew believes that Van Persie should take his time over making a decision because he will be 29 in August next year and may not get a better chance to join another of the world’s leading clubs.
Manchester City and Barcelona have already expressed a tentative interest in him and others will assuredly follow if Arsenal do not succeed in getting him to extend his contract.
Arsenal have been attempting to engage Van Persie in contract talks all season, but he has resisted their overtures, leading to fears that they will be forced to sell him in the summer.

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