13
Nov
15

Roundup – DOT COM FOR MURDER

Best of the Best:

Cheap Oil Helps China Unseat Canada as Top U.S. Trade Partner [Victoria Stillwell on Bloomberg News] (11/4/15)

China is poised to become the biggest U.S. trading partner this year, eclipsing Canada for the first time as the slump in oil prices reduces the value of energy exports for America’s neighbor to the north. Trade in goods with China reached $441.6 billion this year through September, exceeding the $438.1 billion balance with Canada for the first time in U.S. Commerce Department data going back to 1985.

The Russian Recession Is Helping Airbnb Win Moscow [Ilya Khrennikov on Bloomberg News] (11/2/15)

A record number of Russians are opening their apartments and cars to strangers to supplement their salaries, helping to lift the siege mentality the Kremlin’s been promoting since the U.S. and other former Cold War foes imposed sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine last year…The lodging website’s Russian business has more than doubled in the past year, elevating Moscow into the top 10 cities by outbound bookings as travelers seek cheaper alternatives to hotels. And unlike several other cities, such as New York and Barcelona, Moscow’s government says it has no plans to introduce special regulations or tax rules for Airbnb…BlaBlaCar, the long-distance ride-sharing service that was valued at $1.6 billion in a fundraising round in September, said it’s been astounded at how fast it has grown since entering the Russian market early last year…BlaBlaCar connects drivers and passengers, estimates gasoline costs and recommends each traveler pay a third. In most of Europe, the company takes a commission of about 12 percent, but its Russian service will be free until more people get used to the concept. Ildar Valeev, a 26-year-old motor-oil salesman who has to drive between cities for work, said he loves not only having companions but also choosing them. BlaBlaCar users are asked to indicate their music preferences and degree of chattiness (Bla, BlaBla or BlaBlaBla) to help ensure compatibility.  He said his favorite trip is one he took recently from Izhevsk to Ufa, cities 340 kilometers apart, with three colorful characters who were very “BlaBlaBla.” “I had a bodybuilder, a stripper and a museum worker,” Valeev said. “There was a lot to talk about.”

Climate Change Kills the Mood: Economists Warn of Less Sex on a Warmer Planet [Eric Roston on Bloomberg News] (11/2/15)

Three economists studied 80 years of U.S. fertility and temperature data and found that when it’s hotter than 80 degrees F, a large decline in births follows within 10 months. Would-be parents tend not to make up for lost time in subsequent, cooler months. An extra “hot day” (the economists use quotation marks with the phrase) leads to a 0.4 percent drop in birth rates nine months later, or  1,165 fewer deliveries across the U.S. A rebound in subsequent months makes up just 32 percent of the gap…Control over the climate at home might make a difference. The researchers suggest that the rise of air conditioning may have helped offset some heat-related fertility losses in the U.S. since the 1970s.

Over 40 percent of China’s online sales counterfeit, shoddy: Xinhua [Adam Jourdan on Reuters] (11/2/15)

More than 40 percent of goods sold online in China last year were either counterfeits or of bad quality, the official Xinhua news agency said, illustrating the extent of a problem that has bogged down the fast-growing online sector. According to the report, which was delivered to China’s top lawmakers on Monday, just under 59 percent of items sold online last year were “genuine or of good quality”, Xinhua said.

Ian Fleming: Pussy Galore was a lesbian… and Bond cured her [Alison Flood on The Guardian] (11/4/15)

A letter in which Ian Fleming asserts that his lesbian Bond girl Pussy Galore “only needed the right man to come along … to cure her psycho-pathological malady” will be sold at auction later this month. The letter, which is also included in the just-published collection of Fleming’s James Bond letters, The Man With the Golden Typewriter, was written in response to a Dr Gibson…In his June 1959 letter to Gibson, Fleming writes that Galore “only needed the right man to come along and perform the laying on of hands in order to cure her psycho-pathological malady”. Gibson was, Fleming’s nephew Fergus Fleming notes in the book, one of the Bond creator’s “most diligent motoring correspondents”, and the letter also thanks him for his “kind invitation” for Bond to join the Aston Martin Owners’ Club

New Analysis Shows Problematic Boom In Higher Ed Administrators [Jon Marcus on New England Center for Investigative Reporting via The Huffington Post] (2/6/14)

The number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty, according to an analysis of federal figures. The disproportionate increase in the number of university staffers who neither teach nor conduct research has continued unabated in more recent years, and slowed only slightly since the start of the economic downturn, during which time colleges and universities have contended that a dearth of resources forced them to sharply raise tuition…Universities and university associations blame the increased hiring on such things as government regulations and demands from students and their families—including students who arrive unprepared for college-level work—for such services as remedial education, advising, and mental-health counseling.

‘It’s very white’: Las Vegas audience exposes Bernie Sanders’ Latino problem [Rory Carroll on The Guardian] (11/9/15)

A mariachi band, a Latino neighbourhood, Spanish language posters and bold immigration pledges: Bernie Sanders was pulling out the stops for Nevada’s Hispanic vote. Short of dancing salsa, the Democratic candidate did all he could to woo this crucial constituency at a rally on a soccer field in Las Vegas on Sunday night. He surrounded himself with Latinos on stage and promised to fight for agricultural workers and to shelter families from deportation. It signalled the start of an effort to narrow Hillary Clinton’s wide lead with the state’s Latinos. There was just one problem: the audience at the Cheyenne sports complex was mostly white. Latinos largely shunned the call to “feel the Bern”, leaving the crowd to dance stiffly to the Mexican music and a question mark over the campaign’s prospects in Nevada.

Humans have created a new top predator that is taking over the Northeast [Jennifer Welsh on Business Insider] (11/1/15)

One recent example is the creation of the coywolf — a hybrid of the coyote and the wolf that is also known as the Eastern coyote. According to a new article from The Economist, their population seems to have reached more than a million. These animals have a completely new genetic makeup: Their genes are about one-quarter wolf DNA and two-thirds coyote DNA; the rest is from domesticated dogs. A 2013 study suggests this dog DNA is mostly from a few specific breeds, including German Shepherds and Doberman Pincers. Human activity likely played a role in the species’ creation. As humans cut down wolves’ forest homes and hunted down their populations, the lack of available partners for wolves led them to search elsewhere for mates, leading them to coyotes and dogs. Scientists think this intermixing began with wild wolves in southern Ontario about a century or two ago. The coywolves’ success is astounding scientists. According to The Economist: “The animal’s range has encompassed America’s entire north-east, urban areas included, for at least a decade, and is continuing to expand in the south-east following coywolves’ arrival there half a century ago. This is astonishing. Purebred coyotes never managed to establish themselves east of the prairies. Wolves were killed off in eastern forests long ago. But by combining their DNA, the two have given rise to an animal that is able to spread into a vast and otherwise uninhabitable territory.”

The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy [Ross Anderson on The Atlantic] (10/13/15)

The Kepler Space Telescope collected a great deal of light from all of those stars it watched. So much light that Kepler’s science team couldn’t process it all with algorithms. They needed the human eye, and human cognition, which remains unsurpassed in certain sorts of pattern recognition. Kepler’s astronomers decided to found Planet Hunters, a program that asked “citizen scientists” to examine light patterns emitted by the stars, from the comfort of their own homes. In 2011, several citizen scientists flagged one particular star as “interesting” and “bizarre.” The star was emitting a light pattern that looked stranger than any of the others Kepler was watching. The light pattern suggests there is a big mess of matter circling the star, in tight formation. That would be expected if the star were young. When our solar system first formed, four and a half billion years ago, a messy disk of dust and debris surrounded the sun, before gravity organized it into planets, and rings of rock and ice. But this unusual star isn’t young. If it were young, it would be surrounded by dust that would give off extra infrared light. There doesn’t seem to be an excess of infrared light around this star. It appears to be mature. And yet, there is this mess of objects circling it. A mess big enough to block a substantial number of photons that would have otherwise beamed into the tube of the Kepler Space Telescope. If blind nature deposited this mess around the star, it must have done so recently. Otherwise, it would be gone by now…Boyajian, the Yale Postdoc who oversees Planet Hunters, recently published a paper describing the star’s bizarre light pattern. Several of the citizen scientists are named as co-authors. The paper explores a number of scenarios that might explain the pattern—instrument defects; the shrapnel from an asteroid belt pileup; an impact of planetary scale, like the one that created our moon. The paper finds each explanation wanting, save for one. If another star had passed through the unusual star’s system, it could have yanked a sea of comets inward. Provided there were enough of them, the comets could have made the dimming pattern. But that would be an extraordinary coincidence, if that happened so recently, only a few millennia before humans developed the tech to loft a telescope into space. That’s a narrow band of time, cosmically speaking…Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish an alternative interpretation of the light pattern. SETI researchers have long suggested that we might be able to detect distant extraterrestrial civilizations, by looking for enormous technological artifacts orbiting other stars. Wright and his co-authors say the unusual star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star.

Have Green Card, Will Travel: More Immigrants Relocating to Texas [Teresa Wiltz on Stateline] (10/20/15)

[R]ecently, demographers have noticed a surprising new migration pattern: Increasingly, foreign-born professionals are opting to leave their initial U.S. homes, often in California, Florida, Illinois and New York, and pulling up stakes to head to the Lone Star State. Immigrants generally have become much more mobile over the last few decades. And California, the nation’s most populous state, still receives the lion’s share of international migrants. But Texas leads the nation in the growth of its foreign-born population — and that’s because more immigrants are moving there from other states, according to a new report by the Texas Office of the State Demographer. Today, foreign-born migrants are one of the largest drivers of population growth in the nation’s second most populous state. The foreign-born population of Texas, in total numbers and share of the overall population, is greater than at any point since statehood in 1845. One in six Texas residents was born in a foreign country, and roughly 40 percent of them moved from somewhere else in the U.S., according to the Texas Demographer report. This shift has significant policy implications for the state, particularly for education.

An Engineering Theory of the Volkswagen Scandal [Paul Kedrosky on The New Yorker] (10/16/15)

In a powerful book about the disintegration, immediately after launch, of the Challenger space shuttle, which killed seven astronauts in January of 1986, the sociologist Diane Vaughan described a phenomenon inside engineering organizations that she called the “normalization of deviance.” In such cultures, she argued, there can be a tendency to slowly and progressively create rationales that justify ever-riskier behaviors. Starting in 1983, the Challenger shuttle had been through nine successful launches, in progressively lower ambient temperatures, across the years. Each time the launch team got away with a lower-temperature launch, Vaughan argued, engineers noted the deviance, then decided it wasn’t sufficiently different from what they had done before to constitute a problem. They effectively declared the mildly abnormal normal, making deviant behavior acceptable, right up until the moment when, after the shuttle launched on a particularly cold Florida morning in 1986, its O-rings failed catastrophically and the ship broke apart. If the same pattern proves to have played out at Volkswagen, then the scandal may well have begun with a few lines of engine-tuning software. Perhaps it started with tweaks that optimized some aspect of diesel performance and then evolved over time: detect this, change that, optimize something else. At every step, the software changes might have seemed to be a slight “improvement” on what came before, but at no one step would it necessarily have felt like a vast, emissions-fixing conspiracy by Volkswagen engineers, or been identified by Volkswagen executives. Instead, it would have slowly and insidiously led to the development of the defeat device and its inclusion in cars that were sold to consumers. If this was, in fact, the case, then Horn was basically right that engineers were responsible. The scandal wouldn’t have been caused by a few rogue engineers, though, so much as by the nature of engineering organizations themselves. Faced with an expensively engineered diesel engine that couldn’t meet strict emissions standards, Volkswagen engineers “tuned” their engine software. And they kept on tuning it, normalizing deviance along the way, until they were far from where they started, to the point of gaming the emissions tests by detecting test conditions and re-calibrating the engine accordingly on the fly.

Copyrights and Wrongs [Tim Hartford via The Financial Times] (10/6/15)

The truth is that 10 years of copyright protection is probably sufficient to justify the time and trouble of producing most creative work — newspapers, films, comic books and music. Thirty years would be more than enough. But we’re moving in the opposite direction, with copyright periodically and retroactively extended — as though Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or James Joyce could ever have been motivated by the anticipation that, long after their deaths, copyright terms would be pushed to yet more ludicrous lengths. Why don’t we see a more sensible system of copyright? Two words: Mickey Mouse. That is an oversimplification, of course. But the truth is that a very small number of corporations and literary estates have a lot to gain from inordinately long copyright — and since it matters a lot more to them than to the rest of us, they will focus their lobbying efforts and get their way. Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain in 2024 — unless copyright terms are extended yet again.

Nine Things Successful People Do Differently [Heidi Grant Halvorson on Harvard Business Review] (2/25/11)

When you set yourself a goal, try to be as specific as possible. “Lose 5 pounds” is a better goal than “lose some weight,” because it gives you a clear idea of what success looks like. Knowing exactly what you want to achieve keeps you motivated until you get there. Also, think about the specific actions that need to be taken to reach your goal. Just promising you’ll “eat less” or “sleep more” is too vague — be clear and precise. “I’ll be in bed by 10pm on weeknights” leaves no room for doubt about what you need to do, and whether or not you’ve actually done it.

A history of nudity: Playboy’s censorship is a throwback to the medieval era [Jonathan Jones on The Guardian] (10/14/15)

Playboy is to abolish the nude. Many people will celebrate this, even if the magazine once seen as the bible of sexual liberation is getting out of the business of soft porn because it has been outdone by the internet, and not for any idealistic feminist reason. But don’t open any champagne until you have visited a few art museums. If you look at enough art, you may feel more like putting on a black armband. For this could be the end of civilisation as we know it. All great civilisations have celebrated the naked beauty of women. All barbaric ages have feared it. In the measly middle ages, nudity was loathed and dreaded; the bare flesh of women was an object of hatred, as were witches. A stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral reveals the intensity of medieval contempt for the human body. It shows people worshipping a nude statue – but the pagan idol has horns and is literally demonic…This hatred for the body, enunciated by key Christian thinkers including St Paul, expresses itself in art as a contempt for women, a portrayal of the supposed poisonous truth behind the lie of beauty. When you realise this is what they were rebelling against, it is impossible to keep up the unhistorical, hackneyed view that sees artists like Titian and Rubens as old sexist masters slavering voyeuristically over naked women. Not only do medieval images exclude or demonise the nude, but late medieval portraits in northern Europe cover as much of women’s flesh as they can with tightly fitting headresses. The bodies of women are dangerous, they can bewitch you. By contrast the loving, luscious nudes of the Italian Renaissance can be properly understood not as 500-year-old icons of the patriarchal gaze but liberating, even empowering images of women set free from religious hatred…Surveying art history, it just does not seem that nude images have ever been the best way to oppress anyone. Societies that praise naked beauty tend to be democratic – the nude was invented in ancient Athens and revived by Italian republics – and forward looking. Cultures that fear and suppress naked art are more likely to be religiously hidebound and to control and fear women.

Egypt Vote Is a Sign of Arab Winter [Noah Feldman via Bloomberg View] (11/19/15)

Egypt tried democracy and saw it fail. Can citizens of other Arabic speaking countries credibly hope for improvement in the foreseeable future? It seems their states will remain a global exception to democratic progress. As was the case before 2011, Arab thought leaders will have to ask themselves why dictatorship has been so much more durable in their countries than, say, Latin America, which is also poor, also formerly colonized, and yet has turned the corner to democratization. Some answers include the weakness of civil society and the middle class. But there’s another looming: the failure of the experiment with democratically oriented political Islam. Islamic democracy held the promise of empowering the middle class and generating a locally distinctive, legitimate form of constitutional democracy. Yet in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was born and was most significant to political life, the experiment failed. Unlike Tunisia, where political Islam compromised and was integrated into democratic life, Egypt will be a decisive example for Arabic-speaking countries for the next generation at least. None of this was inevitable. The explanation for the multiple and varied failures of the Arab Spring isn’t an example of the iron laws of history. If the Tunisian exception has any regional importance, it’s to remind us that under roughly comparable circumstances, different results were possible. A full understanding of the Arab Winter would require careful assessment of what’s actually happened in different countries, and what those developments mean for the future. In the broad view, the civil society component shouldn’t be overlooked. The Nobel committee was onto something when it gave the peace prize to the leaders of four Tunisian civil society institutions. In practice, these figures weren’t the definitive players in the emergence of Tunisian democracy — far from it. But their organizations mattered to the transition, as recognized nongovernmental sources of social organization. When politics seemed to be deadlocked, they had the legitimacy to speak collectively and productively — even though no one ever elected them.

This Newly Declassified Video of the US Testing Chemical Weapons Is Insane [Jason Koebler on Motherboard on Vice] (10/12/15)

It’s no secret that the United States is one of the few countries in the world to have used chemical and biological weapons. But it’s still surprising to watch this newly declassified video, which talks at length about the Navy’s development and testing of biological and chemical weapons, including two large-scale tests on the California and Carolina coasts. The 1952 video, called “Naval Concepts of Chemical and Biological Warfare,” appears to be a training video produced by the US Naval Photographic Center. It details at length “offensive biological and chemical warfare” tactics and capabilities of the Navy, and features footage from two specific tests carried out with non-pathogenic agents in the United States. The video’s narrator does not say what specific chemicals were used in the tests but notes that they are stand-ins for biological weapons.

Guys Retire to Hang With Their Wives. And the Wives? [Suzanne Woolley on Bloomberg News] (10/27/15)

About 60 percent of men cite spending more time with their wives as one of the strongest motivations to retire, according to a new survey based on more than 12,000 defined-contribution plan participants 55 or older. Just 43 percent of women say the same. The research, from Fidelity Investments and Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, is based on 401(k) savers and recent retirees in plans for which Fidelity is the record-keeper…A large chunk of pre-retirees under the age of 60 cite spending time with a spouse or partner as a big reason they want to retire. The older people get, though, the less likely they are to cite this as an incentive…The more money pre-retirees have saved, the likelier they are to want to retire to spend time with their spouse or partner. For women, the data suggest, grandchildren are the big pull. In the survey, 70 percent cited spending more time with their grandkids as one of the strongest incentives to retire. A working paper (PDF) out of the National Bureau of Economic Research, summed up in an article on the Harvard Business Review‘s website,1 found that the arrival of a new grandchild increases by more than 8 percent the probability that a woman approaching retirement age will indeed retire, all other things being equal.

Policing Free Speech at the University of Missouri [Noah Feldman via Bloomberg View] (11/11/15)

The legal issues follow from those I wrote about in March when the University of Oklahoma expelled two fraternity members for leading a racist chant. On the one hand is the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech against state actors like a public university. On the other hand are federal laws that, as interpreted by the Department of Education, require the university to ensure it isn’t a racially or sexually hostile educational environment. In practice, that certainly requires regulating some harassing, discriminatory speech. Reconciling the tension between these laws isn’t easy. The prevailing theory that allows the government to outlaw discriminatory speech acts is that the government isn’t actually prohibiting speech. It’s prohibiting a course of conduct, namely discrimination. Discrimination can be accomplished by a range of means, one of which is speech. There’s not much case law to clarify the right way for courts to think about this analysis.

The Way We’re Testing Antibiotics Is All Wrong [John Tozzi on Bloomberg News] (10/13/15)

For 50 years, hospitals have used a single test to decide how to treat the most stubborn infections. But according to a growing body of research, that test is now wrong more often than we’d thought. All because of the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that behave one way in lab tests and another way in the human body. The findings have huge implications for how doctors fight the growing problem of so-called superbugs, which can’t be easily treated with antibiotics. The bacteria infect 2 million people each year in the U.S. alone, and kill 23,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Wrongly Convicted Prisoners’ Freedom on Hold Because of Illinois’ Budget Fight [Lolly Bowean on Chicago Tribune] (10/13/15)

Long before he was exonerated of a 1994 home invasion, robbery and sexual assault, Christopher Coleman imagined starting a real estate business in his hometown of Peoria. Coleman, now 41, thought he was steps away from opening that business after he was released in 2013 after nearly two decades in prison. His plan: to use a July payout from the state Court of Claims for his wrongful imprisonment — $220,732 — as seed money. He said he even quit his job and began lining up business deals. But instead of repairing and renting out houses as he hoped, Coleman is one of several wrongly convicted inmates whose compensation has been delayed by the state’s budget impasse. He has no idea when he’ll actually receive his money…After more than four months of negotiations, lawmakers have yet to pass a budget, leaving dozens of agencies, programs and initiatives along with untold number of residents in limbo. The Court of Claims, which handles compensation for the wrongly convicted, cannot make payments to those who are exonerated. That money, based on a formula that considers how long inmates were incarcerated, typically helps them begin a new life, get job training and medical care, and take advantage of educational opportunities.

What Are a Hospital’s Costs? Utah System Is Trying to Learn [Gina Kolata on The New York Times] (9/7/15)

Only in the world of medicine would Dr. Vivian Lee’s question have seemed radical. She wanted to know: What do the goods and services provided by the hospital system where she is chief executive actually cost? Most businesses know the cost of everything that goes into producing what they sell — essential information for setting prices. Medicine is different. Hospitals know what they are paid by insurers, but it bears little relationship to their costs. No one on Dr. Lee’s staff at the University of Utah Health Care could say what a minute in an M.R.I. machine or an hour in the operating room actually costs. They chuckled when she asked. But now, thanks to a project Dr. Lee set in motion after that initial query several years ago, the hospital is getting answers, information that is not only saving money but also improving care…The linchpin of this effort at the University of Utah Health Care is a computer program — still a work in progress — with 200 million rows of costs for items like drugs, medical devices, a doctor’s time in the operating room and each member of the staff’s time. The software also tracks such outcomes as days in the hospital and readmissions. A pulldown menu compares each doctor’s costs and outcomes with others’ in the department. The hospital has been able to calculate, for instance, the cost per minute in the emergency room (82 cents), in the surgical intensive care unit ($1.43), and in the operating room for an orthopedic surgery case ($12). With such information, as well as data on the cost of labor, supplies and labs, the hospital has pared excess expenses and revised numerous practices for more efficient and effective care.

Cautious chic: photographing women, style and beauty in North Korea [Charlotte Jansen and Mihaela Noroc on The Guardian] (10/28/15)

Over the last two years, 30-year-old Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc has travelled the world with a backpack and camera shooting portraits of women. So far she’s visited 45 countries for The Atlas of Beauty, a project she hopes will offer insight into how social, cultural and political values shape and define women’s roles and femininity. Noroc’s latest journey took her to North Korea, where she was able to take almost 30 portraits. Her images hint at the reality of everyday life for women in the secretive state…Noroc explains: “I approached women in the street, accompanied by my two female guides, who helped me explain my project – this was the routine for most of the portraits. In most countries I’ve observed that women smile in front of the camera and that tended to be the case when I shot women in North Korea – but I here I tried to find something more profound, to get them to open up and reveal something more authentic, to see a story in their eyes.”…Though women in North Korea might be unfamiliar with global fashion and beauty because of the regime’s tight control on the flow of information, Noroc noted that this doesn’t mean they are not concerned with their appearance: high heels and conservative outfits – accessorised with a pin of the chest of their country’s leader – are common…Access to the internet or foreign television is almost nonexistent in the country – so entertainment must take different forms. Noroc noted that people loved to sing and dance, with concerts in public squares and mass dances for celebrations. The Moranbong Band, an all-female music group whose members were selected by the country’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, are “hugely popular, a phenomenon,” the photographer says. “You hear their songs everywhere and everyone knows their lyrics – this singer [pictured below] also sang some of their songs. I also saw a military marching band performing one of their songs.”

Russia’s new princelings: who is Putin’s rock’n’roll daughter? [Stephen Grey, Andrey Kuzmin and Elizabeth Piper on Reuters via The Guardian] (11/11/15)

His younger daughter, Katerina, has largely escaped public attention since her father became president in 2000. But in January this year, a Russian blogger reported that she was active at Moscow State University and had taken the surname Tikhonova, after her grandmother, Yekaterina Tikhonovna Shkrebneva. Examining Tikhonova’s business deals, properties and oligarch connections builds a picture of a new generation of Russia’s ruling elite, and a rare insight into the family life of Russia’s most powerful man. After unconfirmed media speculation, this week Reuters reported that a senior Russian business figure who knew Katerina Tikhonova said she was indeed Putin’s daughter. The news agency said that two senior academics – one at Moscow State University and a scientist with close contacts there – also confirmed her relationship to Putin. Tikhonova, 29, has described herself as the “spouse” of Kirill Shamalov, son of Nikolai Shamalov, a long-time friend of the president. Shamalov senior is a shareholder in Bank Rossiya, which US officials have described as the personal bank of the Russian elite…Tikhonova holds a successful academic post running publicly funded projects at Moscow State University, and helps direct a $1.7bn plan to expand its campus. Her official advisers at Moscow State University include five members of Putin’s inner circle – including two former KGB officers who served with her father in the 1980s when he was deployed to Dresden, in former East Germany. According to the university’s website, she is currently attached to the mechanics and mathematics faculty. She is listed as an author, along with other academics, of a chapter in a maths textbook and at least six scientific papers since 2011. The papers include studies on medicines and space travel; one is listed as a study of how the human body reacts to zero gravity…Tikhonova is also active beyond the university. Under her grandmother’s name, she has competed for years as an acrobatic rock’n’roll dancer. In 2013, she and her dancing partner came fifth in a world championship event in Switzerland. Today, she is chairman of two organising committees of the All-Russian Acrobatic Rock’n’Roll Federation, according to its website. The Federation’s sponsors include Sibur, Novatek and Gazprombank – companies that are co-owned or co-controlled by friends and associates of the president. These people include Timchenko; Kirill Shamalov; and his elder brother, Yury. The same companies are also mentioned on Innopraktika’s website as among its corporate partners.

Post-Mortem: Can We Watch ‘The Leisure Class’ And ‘Project Greenlight’ In Reverse To See What Went Wrong? [Vince Mancini on FilmDrunk] (11/9/15)

The odd thing about The Leisure Class is that it’s almost unwatchable, yet it’s not bad in many of the traditional ways. It’s not maudlin. It isn’t hokey or convoluted. It doesn’t make bad creative choices. It’s almost as if it doesn’t make creative choices. It feels like a school assignment where a directing student had to work with a script in a foreign language. At worst, it’s tedious, the kind of story where you can’t stop breaking in to ask “Wait, why are you telling me this?” It feels like someone took the script from Houseguest starring Sinbad and shot it like it was The Firm. Or tried to remake Wedding Crashers with two uncharismatic English guys and shot it as a drama. It’s truly odd. Not so much an unfunny comedy as a thing that doesn’t know whether it’s a comedy…They made the decision to go with Jason Mann largely on the strength of his unique take on their three-minute script assignment, valuing the director-for-hire assignment more highly than the original story. Which is an odd choice. They were going to surround the winner with a professional crew regardless — why choose based on look? In retrospect, this may have been a great way to end up with a director who rarely joked but cared deeply about anti-helation layers. To say nothing of the fact that they hired a director largely based on what he could do with someone else’s script, and then immediately turned around and let him shoot his own…Critically speaking, here’s the track record for the movies that came from the show: Stolen Summer: 36% on RottenTomatoes; The Battle of Shaker Heights: 41%; Feast: 56%; The Leisure Class: 0%; And of course, none of them have been financially successful so far, at least not counting the success of the show. That’s a pretty bad track record, and you could blame the show for that. But is it any worse than any other way of making movies? M. Night Shyamalan is like two for 12 now. Making movies is hard. At the very least, Project Greenlight is a fun cooking experiment. You just might not want to taste the results.

Afghanistan’s female marathon runner defies danger to go the distance [Sune Engel Rasmussen on The Guardian] (10/28/15)

In August, she ran an unofficial marathon from the Paghman Valley to Kabul with three other young women. As they entered the capital, they were bombarded with the kind of insults reserved for Afghan women who have the audacity to do anything out of the ordinary in public. “The children were stoning us, the people said bad words like ‘prostitutes, why don’t you stay at home? You are destroying Islam’,” Zainab recalled. The women had to cut the race short. After that, the father of her training partner, Nilofar, forbade his daughter to run the Bamiyan marathon. Zainab’s own parents are proud of her running, she said. Her mother does worry about her athletic daughter, though she sometimes joins her running around the backyard, along with Zainab’s sisters. Her brother, a student in Germany, has taken up kickboxing and runs regularly with his friends.

Welcome to ‘Norway’, Texas: where Norwegians think ‘crazy’ is normal [Tom Dart on The Guardian] (10/28/15)

Put it down to polite Scandinavian reticence, perhaps. But though Norwegians have been using “texas” as slang for “wild and crazy” for decades, as Texas Monthly reported last week, apparently no one told the residents of the Norwegian Capital of Texas – and yes, there is one. An estimated 30-40% of residents in Clifton, population 3,500, can trace their heritage back to the land of fjords, social progressivism and $15 beers. Thousands of tourists have visited in recent years to see the Norwegian historical sights and festivals. Yet, “texas” as this might sound, the linguistic quirk is news to the locals…They saw the story on the internet last week: it went viral after a Texas Monthly article noted that “texas” is Norwegian slang for a crazy atmosphere – as in “Det var helt texas” – “It was totally nuts!”

Summer same-sex wedding spending exceeded $800 million [Quentin Fottrell on Marketwatch] (11/12/15)

Some 96,000 same-sex couples got married between July 2015 and October 2015, bringing the total number of married same-sex couples in the U.S. to 486,000, which accounts for 45% of all same-sex couples, according to a separate study by research firm Gallup, which interviewed nearly 9,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Americans. Approximately one in 10 summer weddings in the U.S. was held by same-sex couples. Gallup asked those who report being married or living with a partner whether their spouse or partner is the same sex as them.

Report highlights the obscene price of NFL’s paid patriotism [Lee Carpenter on The Guardian] (11/5/15)

By late Wednesday afternoon the depth of just how much patriotism the defense department has been selling to sports teams had come clear in a report commissioned by Republican senators John McCain and Jeff Flake – both of Arizona. And it was extreme, if not obscene. According to the report, taxpayers spent close to $7m on patriotic displays at professional and college sporting events over the last four years. This included the unfurling of a gigantic flag held by service members at an Atlanta Falcons game, the re-enlistment ceremony for 10 soldiers at Seattle’s Century Link Field and the recognition of Air Force officers at a Los Angeles Galaxy soccer game. In fact the report lists 74 pages of examples where military branches (mostly the National Guard) paid more than 50 sports teams for patriotic acts that were disguised as benevolent contributions by the teams themselves…For years, sports teams have wrapped themselves in gigantic flags like those unfurled across fields for the national anthem. But until the costs for such displays leaked out back in the spring no one much knew the Georgia National Guard paid the Falcons $879,000 the last four years – in part – to have its soldiers hold one of those enormous flags. McCain and Flake’s report leave open the possibility more abuse exists. These were just the contracts the senator’s staffers could find in records searches.

Afghan refugees in Iran being sent to fight and die for Assad in Syria [Saeed Kamali Dehghan on The Guardian] (11/5/15)

Iran is recruiting Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, promising a monthly salary and residence permits in exchange for what it claims to be a sacred endeavour to save Shia shrines in Damascus. The Fatemioun military division of Afghan refugees living in Iran and Syria is now the second largest foreign military contingent fighting in support of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, after the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Iranian state-affiliated agencies reported in May that at least 200 Fatemioun members had been killed in Syria since the beginning of the war. How many more have died since is not clear. Iran has always claimed it is participating in an advisory capacity in Syria, dispatching senior commanders to plan and oversee operations, but the Afghan involvement shows it is using other methods.

Curiously Strong Remains:

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