Saturday, December 8, 2007

Water Wars - More Precious Than Oil

Darlings - here's a no-brainer investment tip: buy a good water ETF like PHO, and hang on to it for dear life for the next 20 years. Think I'm full of baloney? Just take a look at what is happening in the USA: severe, sustained drought in the southwest due to climate changes; the same in the southeast US (I sure wouldn't want to be living in Atlanta right now); more and more sink holes showing up in Florida due to depletion of water tables. We also have deteriorating and collapsing infrastructure, often more than 100 years old, that needs to be replaced. We have lead pipes and PCP pipes, both hazardous to people's health. We have antiquated sewerage treatment systems. We have systems that co-mingle sanitary sewerage with storm run-off. And we in the USA have a LOT of fresh water sources and the technology to provide safe drinking water to all of our population. BUT - THE COST! Oy! The cost! So, what are they going to do in China? Asia? Africa? From the Times Online December 4, 2007 Water shortages are likely to be trigger for wars, says UN chief Ban Ki Moon By Leo Lewis in Beppu A struggle by nations to secure sources of clean water will be “potent fuel” for war, the first Asia-Pacific Water Summit heard yesterday. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, told delegates from across the region that the planet faced a water crisis that was especially troubling for Asia. High population growth, rising consumption, pollution and poor water management posed significant threats, he said, adding that climate change was also making “a bad situation worse”. Mr Ban went on to condemn the lack of heed paid by governments to these warning signs: “Throughout the world, water resources continue to be spoiled, wasted and degraded. “The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict.” His remarks come as environmental experts in Great Britain have identified 46 countries — home to 2.7 billion people — where climate change and water-related crises will create a high risk of violent conflict. A further 56, representing another 1.2 billion people, are at high risk of political instability, claims a report by International Alert, which concludes that it is now “too late to believe the situation can be made safe solely by reducing carbon emissions worldwide and mitigating climate change”. Janani Vivekananda, one of the authors of the International Alert report said: “Water management will be a huge tinderbox and now is the time for international organisations to come together. There is huge potential not just for conflict but for co-operation.” Mr Ban's comments were echoed by many of the other speakers at the water summit, who gathered in southwestern Japan to discuss a range of issues, including policies that might prevent the various aspects of an Asian water crisis deepening into armed conflict. Yasuo Fukuda, the Japanese Prime Minister, vowed yesterday that water and climate change would be at the top of the agenda for the Group of Eight summit in Japan next summer. The Beppu summit, which began on the same day as UN Climate Change talks in Bali, also coincides with a study directly linking water shortages to violence throughout history. In a report published in by the United States National Academy of Sciences journal today, David Zhang, of Hong Kong University, has analysed a half millennium's worth of human conflict — more than 8,000 wars — and concluded that climate change and resulting water shortage has been a far greater trigger than imagined previously. If global warming continues, water shortages could trigger more wars, Dr Zhang told The Times: “We are on alert, because this gives us the indication that resource shortage is the main cause of war. Human beings will definitely have conflicts over this; whether it turns to war depends on the quality of the social buffer available to each nation, but the danger is right there.” The Asia Development Bank, which was also represented at the Beppu summit, informed delegates that without rational water development and better management, the future social development of Asian developing countries would be seriously jeopardised. The president of the ADB, Haruhiko Kuroda, said that his bank now plans to double investment in Asian water projects to $2 billion per year, given the potential for conflict if water governance remains weak.

Are the "Nessie" in Loch Ness Some of These?

Remains Of Prehistoric Sea "Monster" Found Bus-Sized Reptile May Be New Species Of Plesiosaur; Found Near Norway OSLO, Norway, Dec. 4, 2007 (CBS/AP) Remains of a bus-sized prehistoric "monster" reptile found on a remote Arctic island may be a new species never before recorded by science, researchers said Tuesday. Initial excavation of a site on the Svalbard islands in August yielded the remains, teeth, skull fragments and vertebrae of a reptile estimated to measure nearly 40 feet long, said paleontologist Joern Harald Hurum of the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo. "The new monster we found this year is of the same species as the one we excavated this year (and found last year) there are not two new species of large pliosaurs but one," Hurm told via e-mail. His team described those 150-million-year-old remains as belonging to a short-necked plesiosaur measuring more than 30 feet - "as long as a bus ... with teeth larger than cucumbers." The short-necked plesiosaur was a voracious reptile often described as the Tyrannosaurus rex of the oceans. Mark Evans, a plesiosaur expert at the Leicester City Museums in Britain, said he [did] not know enough about the Norwegian find to comment on it specifically. But he said new types of the sea reptiles are being found regularly. "We are regularly seeing new species of plesiosaurs popping up - in a way because, in the past 10 or 15 years, there has been what we call a renaissance in plesiosaur research," Evans said by telephone. Hurum said the team had only managed to excavate a 3-yard area of the find. The Norwegian-led team plans to present more detailed findings early next year, and return to Svalbard, 300 miles north of Norway's mainland, to excavate further next year. © MMVII, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report. Prior story.

The Judas Gospel Revisited

Did the National Geographic make a hash of the translation of the Judas Gospel? And, if so, was it deliberate? From The New York Times December 1, 2007 Gospel Truth By APRIL D. DECONICK AMID much publicity last year, the National Geographic Society announced that a lost 3rd-century religious text had been found, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. The shocker: Judas didn’t betray Jesus. Instead, Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted and beloved disciple, to hand him over to be killed. Judas’s reward? Ascent to heaven and exaltation above the other disciples. It was a great story. Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different. While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon. Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.” Likewise, Judas is not set apart “for” the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says, he is separated “from” it. He does not receive the mysteries of the kingdom because “it is possible for him to go there.” He receives them because Jesus tells him that he can’t go there, and Jesus doesn’t want Judas to betray him out of ignorance. Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves. Perhaps the most egregious mistake I found was a single alteration made to the original Coptic. According to the National Geographic translation, Judas’s ascent to the holy generation would be cursed. But it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original, which eliminated a negative from the original sentence. In fact, the original states that Judas will “not ascend to the holy generation.” To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception. So what does the Gospel of Judas really say? It says that Judas is a specific demon called the “Thirteenth.” In certain Gnostic traditions, this is the given name of the king of demons — an entity known as Ialdabaoth who lives in the 13th realm above the earth. Judas is his human alter ego, his undercover agent in the world. These Gnostics equated Ialdabaoth with the Hebrew Yahweh, whom they saw as a jealous and wrathful deity and an opponent of the supreme God whom Jesus came to earth to reveal. Whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas was a harsh critic of mainstream Christianity and its rituals. Because Judas is a demon working for Ialdabaoth, the author believed, when Judas sacrifices Jesus he does so to the demons, not to the supreme God. This mocks mainstream Christians’ belief in the atoning value of Jesus’ death and in the effectiveness of the Eucharist. How could these serious mistakes have been made? Were they genuine errors or was something more deliberate going on? This is the question of the hour, and I do not have a satisfactory answer. Admittedly, the society had a tough task: restoring an old gospel that was lying in a box of its own crumbs. It had been looted from an Egyptian tomb in the 1970s and languished on the underground antiquities market for decades, even spending time in someone’s freezer. So it is truly incredible that the society could resurrect any part of it, let alone piece together about 85 percent of it. That said, I think the big problem is that National Geographic wanted an exclusive. So it required its scholars to sign nondisclosure statements, to not discuss the text with other experts before publication. The best scholarship is done when life-sized photos of each page of a new manuscript are published before a translation, allowing experts worldwide to share information as they independently work through the text. Another difficulty is that when National Geographic published its transcription, the facsimiles of the original manuscript it made public were reduced by 56 percent, making them fairly useless for academic work. Without life-size copies, we are the blind leading the blind. The situation reminds me of the deadlock that held scholarship back on the Dead Sea Scrolls decades ago. When manuscripts are hoarded by a few, it results in errors and monopoly interpretations that are very hard to overturn even after they are proved wrong. To avoid this, the Society of Biblical Literature passed a resolution in 1991 holding that, if the condition of the written manuscript requires that access be restricted, a facsimile reproduction should be the first order of business. It’s a shame that National Geographic, and its group of scholars, did not follow this sensible injunction. I have wondered why so many scholars and writers have been inspired by the National Geographic version of the Gospel of Judas. I think it may stem from an understandable desire to reform the relationship between Jews and Christians. Judas is a frightening character. For Christians, he is the one who had it all and yet betrayed God to his death for a few coins. For Jews, he is the man whose story was used by Christians to persecute them for centuries. Although we should continue to work toward a reconciliation of this ancient schism, manufacturing a hero Judas is not the answer. April D. DeConick, a professor of Biblical studies at Rice University, is the author of “The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says.”

Phillipines' Newest Grandmaster is "Just So"

14-year-old Filipino is newest grandmaster December 08, 2007 01:48:00 Roy Luarca, Inquirer MANILA, Philippines -- It took a little longer, but Wesley So finally became a Grandmaster Friday. The Filipino sensation drew with Iranian GM Ehsan Ghaem Maghami in the ninth and final round of the third Prospero Cup International Open chess championship to complete the requirements for the coveted title at 14 years, one month and 28 days, the seventh youngest in the world to do so. Unable to gain headway with the white pieces, So readily accepted Maghami's truce offer after 19 moves of the Sicilian Najdorf to qualify as the country's eighth and youngest GM. He joins Eugene Torre, who became Asia's first GM in 1974, the late Rosendo Balinas (1976), Rogelio Antonio Jr. (1998), Buenaventura "Bong" Villamayor (2000), Nelson Mariano (2004), Mark Paragua (2005) and Darwin Laylo (2007) in the elite list of Filipino chess players. "Masayang-masaya po ako. Magandang pamasko na ito (GM title) sa akin, (I'm very happy. This is already a beautiful Christmas gift for me," said So, who finished the nine-round Pichay Cup held at the Duty Free Fiesta Mall in Parañaque City with 6 points, a full point behind champion GM Ni Hua of China and half a point off Torre, Paragua and Singaporean GM Zhang Zhong. The former Promil whiz kid, second of three children of accountants William and Eleanor So, obtained his first GM result in the Bad Wiesse Open in Germany in November 2006, but got stalled in his next international tournaments. Dedicating at least four hours to chess study everyday, So expanded his game-repertoire and eventually clinched his second GM norm in the World Junior Chess Championships in Yerevan, Armenia, in September. So, a high school sophomore of St. Francis of Assisi College System-Bacoor, also holds the distinction of being the country's youngest chess Olympian at 12 in Turin, Italy, in 2006, and youngest National Junior Open champion at 13 in May. So is regarded as the world's strongest player in his age-group with an Elo rating of 2531, edging Indian GM Parimarjan Negi (born 1993, Elo 2514). His strength was amply proven when So won this year's World Under 16 Team Championship Board 1 gold medal in Singapore with a phenomenal score of 9.5 points out of a perfect 10. "This is a dream come true for Wesley, said his mother Eleanor, comptroller of the De La Salle Health Sciences Institute in Dasmariñas, Cavite. "I'm very thankful his hard work and dedication has been rewarded." So became the second player to earn his GM title since former Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay took over the presidency of the National Chess Federation of the Philippines last year. The 27-year-old Laylo clinched his GM title by landing seventh in the sixth Asian Individual Chess Championship held at the Cebu International Convention Center in Mandaue City in September.Pichay lauded So's achievement. "This is really a memorable year for local chess. We produced not only one but two GMs in a span of three months and we are confident we can have more GMs next year," said Pichay, who has already hosted five major international chess tournaments in his incumbency. NCFP secretary general Tagaytay City Mayor Abraham "Bambol" Tolentino said So's achievement will encourage local chess players to devote more time to the game. Those who earned their GM titles at an earlier age than So were Sergey Karjakin of Ukraine (12 years and seven months), Parimarjan Negi of India (13 years, three months and 22 days), Magnus Carlsen of Norway (13 years, three months and 27 days), Bu Xiangzhi of China (13 years, 10 months and 13 days), Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan (14 years and 14 days), and Ruslan Ponomariov of Ukraine (14 years, 17 days). So, currently the country's second-ranked player with Torre, dislodged GM Etienne Bacrot of France, who got his GM title at 14 years and two months, at seventh spot. By comparison, the great Bobby Fischer of the United States was 15 years, six months and one day when he become a GM in 1958. The top-seeded Ni and Torre drew their match after 42 moves of the Larsen opening, as did Paragua and Zhang in only 10 moves of the Ruy Lopez. Ni, who tied for first place with compatriot GM Li Chao in the second President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo Cup last month, bagged the top prize of $5,000. Paragua, Zhong and Torre each pocketed $3,000. Eight players, led by So and unheralded Deniel Causo, shared fifth to 12th places and received $1,062 each.Bunched with them at six points were GM Rogelio Antonio Jr. and Fide Master Fernie Donguines, who split the point after 78 moves of the Torre Attack; and Li and IM Jayson Gonzales, who also halved the point. Singapore-based Filipino IM Julio Catalino Sadorra also earned his first GM result after drawing with GM Dao Thien Hai of Vietnam and finishing with 5.5 points. Causo, on the other hand, clinched his first IM result after stunning Laylo. Final standings: 7 points -- H. Ni (China); 6.5 -- M. Paragua (RP), Z. Zhong (Singapore), E. Torre (RP); 6 -- W. So (RP), D. Causo (RP), C. Li (China), E. Maghami (Iran), F. Donguines (RP), R. Antonio (RP), J. Gonzales (RP), W. Zhou (China); 5.5 -- J. Sadorra (RP), R. Bitoon (RP), D.T. Hai (Vietnam), N.A. Dung (Vietnam), J. Gomez (RP), E. Senador (RP), H. Nouri (RP), R. Dableo (RP), S. Severino (RP), C. Garma (RP), Y. Lie (China), R. Bancod (RP) Copyright 2007 and content partners. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

2007 World Cup

Hola darlings! As you know, I generally don't do much reporting of men v. men chess. Unfortunately, the Kid (Nisipeanu) was eliminated from the event - but he gave it a good shot and in general my attention would cease to be focused on such an event (men v. men only). But, the final four have been determined for the World Cup, and I have to say they present interesting match-ups. Youth v. Experience, 2007. What can I say? The final four, including Kamsky from the USA (interesting...) for Round 6 in the Knock-Out event are: World Chess Cup Round 6 9th-11th December 2007 Karjakin, Sergey UKR 2694 vs Shirov, Alexei ESP 2739 Carlsen, Magnus NOR 2714 vs Kamsky, Gata USA 2714 Of course I'm absolutely predictable. I'll be rooting for Kamsky and Shirov :) Since they'll both be behind black, they'll have their work cut out for them. I understand from what I've read at Mig's Daily Dirt that Shirov generally has Karjakin's number, so perhaps he has the edge. As for Carlsen/ Kamsky, I'm rooting for Kamsky both because he's the "old guy", he's a lawyer (YAH! we're not all Brian Lafferty types), and he's an American.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Honey, We ALL Need Money...

Chess prodigy Ivana Furtado needs money power Pramod Acharya / CNN-IBN Published on Fri, Dec 07, 2007 at 12:37 Panjim: Goa's Ivana Furtado is the youngest world chess champion and she is already working steadily to overtake the other big-wigs of the game. Equally at ease with her playmates as with the 64 squares, eight-year-old Ivana Furtado is a special talent and if you take a numeric test, she'll come out to be one of the sharpest at her age in the world. Her cute smile hides the razor sharp mind of the undisputed World Junior Chess Champion. "I am very, very happy as I have won the world championship. I want to become Grand Master in future," Ivana Furtado, World Junior Chess Champion, says. The little champ made her school proud by pocketing two world championships, one Asian title and two World School gold medals. And though she looks good to catch up with the seniors soon, it's the financial backing that needs to keep pace with her rapid rise. "There is still not enough financial support from authorities. Authorities will have to look at children like Ivana and the laurels that they are earning and support them for their bright future in the sports," Eli Furtado, father of Ivana, says. For now though, she's gunning for Koneru Humpy's crown. ********************************************************************************** The person who wrote this article did Furtado no favors. I found its tone is arrogant and insulting, to say the least. "Gunning for Humpy's crown"? Methinks the little girl has to grow a couple of shoe sizes and put in a hell of a lot more work before she can take on Humpy, who has paid her dues on her way to becoming the second highest rated female player in the world. Mr. Furtado might want to consider getting a better-paying job than looking for hand-outs to support his daughter's chess-playing. We ALL need money, and there are lots of other worthy young chessplayers out there looking for financial support too. Finally, the little girl is NOT "undisputed World Junior Chess Champion." She won a division championship title for her age group and is one of several "world champion" title holders from the Juniors and Girls "World Championship."

Guennol Lioness Sold for Record Amount

See my prior post. This report adds more details about the bona fides of the tiny artifact. Mea culpa, it was not, evidently, looted but was excavated by Woolley (some would say he was a looter, but that's what they did back then, in the wild woolly [pun, har!] days of archaeology.

From Archaeology News, a report from The Daily Mail:

£10m an inch - 3 1/4in carving of lioness roars into the record books as Briton buys it for £29m

Last updated at 23:19pm on 7th December 2007

At a mere 3 1/4in tall, it could be taken for an insignificant trinket.

But, this ancient carving of a lioness smashed sale records when it was bought by a British man for an astonishing £29million. The price - the most ever paid at auction for a sculpture - means the tiny artefact is worth nearly £10million an inch.

It had been thought it would fetch no more than £9million. But fierce competition for the 5,000-year- old Mesopotamian figure came from five bidders, three on phones and two in the main hall of Sotheby's New York saleroom.

The winner, who was standing at the back, did not enter the bidding until it reached nearly £14million. After the sale, the man confirmed he was English, but declined to give his name.

Known as the Guennol Lioness, the carving fetched twice as much as the previous record of £14.5million paid earlier this year for a Picasso bronze, Tete de Femme (Woman's Head), which at 3 11/2 in is almost ten times as tall.

The white limestone carving depicts a lioness's head on a muscular woman's body, with its tail curved around a slim waist.

Its first owner was probably a powerful tribal chief in Mesopotamia who wore it as a pendant on a leather thong to ward off evil.

It was found at a site near Baghdad about 80 years ago by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley and bought in 1931 by Joseph Brummer, a New York art dealer. In 1948, he sold it to New Yorker Alastair Bradley Martin and his wife Edith. Mr Martin, grandson of steel magnate Henry Phipps, spent his life building a collection of African, Asian and American folk art. The couple - who have Welsh origins, called their estate Guennol - which is Welsh for Martin.

For most of the time since the Martins bought the lioness, it has been on permanent loan to New York's Brooklyn Museum. It was carved by a craftsman from Elam, part of the cultural region of Mesopotamia. This was the same sophisticated civilisation that invented the wheel and saw the first written words, currency, and organised cities.

When new, it was probably painted. Four holes drilled in its back were for a thong to hang it round the neck, and its missing lower hind legs are thought to have been made of gold or silver.

Richard Keresey, worldwide head of Sotheby's antiquities department, said: "I like to think of it as one of the first great sculptures of civilisation. "The new owner has the distinction of possessing one of the oldest, rarest and most beautiful works of art from the ancient world." ********************************************************************************
Hmmm, bought by a mysterious Englishman, heh? My guess is that the bidder was an agent for someone from the Middle East, backed by lots of oil money, looking to bring the Guennol Lioness "back home." Unless the purchaser lends her to a museum, she will now sit in a vault or a glass case closely guarded in an underground gallery where few people will ever see her again. I think that's very sad.

Friday Night Miscellany

Whew - I'm exhausted! We had snow Tuesday night and last night - a total of 10 inches on top of what fell Saturday. More is due tomorrow night. I'm already sick of shoveling! Some strange stuff to entertain you: First - a Chinese man with green sweat, and the doctors can't figure out what's wrong with him. Ahem! He's obviously been eating too much Soylent Green, darlings! Pascal: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." Twain: "Man is kind enough when he is not excited by religion." Tom Robbins: "A sense of humor, properly developed, is superior to any religion so far devised." Frank commentary on religious fanatics (Christian and non-Christian) in "Let Us Kill All Teddy Bears" by Mark Morford at How to Good-Bye Depression: If You Constrict Anus 100 Times Everyday. Malarkey? or Effective Way?, a new book by Hiroyuki Nishigaki. Darlings, I have absolutely no comment on this. Reviews at (Okay, I do have a question: How do you "dent" your navel?) Blast from the Past: The Lake Worth Monster. Chimps outperform university students in memory tests. This is news?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

New International Women's Chess Tournament

Chessbase has announced a brand new tournament: İş Bankası - Atatürk International Women Masters Chess Tournament to be held in March, 2008. Sponsored by the Turkish bank İş Bankası for the next 10 years, the goal is to establish a women's tournament of the caliber of Corus and Linares, in addition to promoting women's chess in Turkey with a goal of winning an Olympiad. In addition to a $16,000 prize fund, there will be some appearance fees paid and other prizes (based on ELO and starting rank), in addition to a travel stipend of either $300 or $800, with free accomodations and transportation to and from the playing venue, and $50 pocket money. Play is limited to 10 players, two of whom will be Turkish players. The "invitation" list for the 8 non-Turkish players is the top 24 rated women in the world plus GM Peng Zhaoqin (#41 on the FIDE ratings list). An exciting new event. I look forward to reading who the players are who will accept the invitations.

Tania Sachdev: Criticism spurs her to greater heights

When Tania won her maiden women’s National crown in Chennai in December 2006, there were many, including some officials of the All India Chess Federation, who dismissed the achievement as a ‘fluke’. When she retained the title as the only unbeaten player in Pune, even her worst critics had to agree grudgingly, writes Rakesh Rao. Sportstar Weekly VOL.30 :: NO.49 :: Dec. 08, 2007 For more than a decade, Tania Sachdev remained the poor, rich girl of Indian chess. Her achievements were often dismissed and hard work overlooked. The attention given by the media was seen as “undeserving” by a majority of those who could not accept a Delhi girl doing well in a sport where players from the north were often among the also-rans. If Tania were a golfer, like her brother, or a tennis player, none would have cared to dismiss her talent because of the way she carries herself. Since this happy-go-lucky girl does not conform to the ‘image’ of a serious chess player, as perceived in the nation’s chess circle, she has faced undue criticism for years. But in the last 11 months, Tania has done enough to silence her detractors and attract more admirers than ever before. Performing beyond expectations, Tania bagged two back-to-back National women’s titles and in between, the Asian women’s crown and a Grandmaster norm. What came as a “bonus” was the 20-game International Master norm that accompanied the Asian title. That meant Tania had met the technical requirement of being an International Master. Winning the Asian title ahead of a strong brigade from China has made even the most stubborn cynics take note of this gritty campaigner. The attention moved from her presentable looks to laboured performances. It is not that Tania lacked achievements. She only lacked genuine appreciation. Now, for change, accolades are coming her way. Grandmaster Abhijit Kunte, who saw Tania win her second successive National title in Pune recently, hailed her success. “The quality of her games has surely improved in the past year. Her play looks more sharp, solid and compact. Undoubtedly, she is among the best in the country at the moment,” said Kunte. When Tania won her maiden women’s National crown in Chennai in December 2006, there were many, including some officials of the All India Chess Federation, who dismissed the achievement as a ‘fluke’. When she retained the title as the only unbeaten player in Pune, even her worst critics had to agree grudgingly. How does Tania react to all the criticism? “I am aware of the criticism that I’ve faced all these years. That has never made me angry but steeled my resolve to perform better,” reveals this English Literature graduate from the Delhi University. “Unlike some of the girls from my peer group, I have continued with my academics and other interests. I socialise and spend time on what I like to do, like any girl of my age. What people overlook is the fact that for me to prepare and perform in chess, it takes double the effort than most others. I play chess because of the joy it brings. Even watching movies, or going out with friends, make me happy. But I’ve never sacrificed my chess for friends or vice-versa. I know I am very fortunate, that my parents have supported me all along. They’ve taught me how to strike a balance between playing chess and leading a normal life. I guess I’ve managed both pretty well,” says Tania, whose well-rounded personality and honesty comes across strikingly, particularly when compared to some of the frontline players in the country. A well-travelled, well-read lady like Tania is a good ambassador for Indian women’s chess. She is articulate, presentable and noticeably humble. Her photogenic looks have made her one of the favourites for the Capital’s newspaper supplements. Apart from potential and performances, what sets Tania apart is her demeanour. She qualifies to be the face of Indian women’s chess. “One day, I want to become a television newsreader,” says Tania, admitting that she is fascinated by the job of a newscaster. “But I am in no hurry. At the moment, I am really enjoying the way I am playing. For now, news-reading can wait,” declares this 20-year-old, known to speak her mind. A closer look at the making of Tania the champion reveals that she has been remarkably consistent. Today, Tania enjoys her best rating of 2413 and is placed 46th among the ladies [in the world rankings]. For someone who has been playing competitive chess since 1992, Tania holds a unique record of being a top-10 finisher in each of her appearances in the World age-group championships. A bronze medallist in the World (under-12) girls’ category in 1998, she narrowly missed being in the medal-bracket quite a few times. At the Asian level, Tania has won gold medals in the under-20 and under-14 sections. Fortunate to get timely coaching and guidance from Delhi’s G. B. Joshi, Tania has worked with International Master Varugeese Koshy, Grandmasters Michael Krasenkow and Elizbar Ubilava from time to time. Since late 2006, IM Vishal Sareen has given Tania a lot of confidence by helping her understand the mental aspect of the game better. Overall, Tania is a perfect example of how hardwork can help in getting commendable results in spite of limited talent. No doubt, there are more talented girls playing chess in this country, but Tania has worked harder on her chess to make her results more visible. Aware that her hardwork is invisible to most in the country’s chess circle, an undeterred Tania is determined to let the results reflect her.

Important Evidence of Ancient Trade

This story presents important news about a possible trading connection between Turkey and China hundreds of years before Silk Road contact (circa 200 BCE), which is generally considered the first contact between East and West. But that "contact date" has been pushed WAY back, because of unique wheat and barley grains discovered in archaeological an dig two years ago, grains that are from Turkey, and date to 2650 BCE. This discovery, evidence of some kind of contact between two distant cultures, dates to approximately the time the beautiful wooden game boards of twenty squares were buried in the tombs at Ur, to be excavated by Woolley in the 1930's. The article mentions the Tarim Basin mummies discovered in 1987 as evidence of Caucasian people with dress similar to that worn in Turkey at the time, the mummies dating back to at least 2,000 BCE and quite possibly beyond. Some of the mummies had red hair and blonde hair, they were also tall - much taller than the "indigenous" Chinese, and they had high-bridged noses. Textile studies have pretty much conclusively confirmed that the Tarim Basin people were immigrants from the west, who arrived before 2000 BCE, using the same weaving techniques and patterns that were prevalent in eastern Europe. (See recommended reading: "The Mummies of Urumchi"). Goddesschess is always interested in news about ancient trade connections because trade is an obvious way to transmit board games from one culture to another. Where people interacted, they spoke, ate, laughed, drank, shared stories. They exchanged gifts, played games, made love and married, in addition to bartering, buying and selling goods of all kinds. As people moved across the lands, they took their culture - and their games - with them. From Archaeology News (a report from Radio ABC Australia): Ancient wheat suggests early China, Middle East trade Last Updated 06/12/2007, 16:12:40 Wheat grains nearly 5,000 years old found at a Chinese archaeological site two years ago, have revealed that western man travelled to China much earlier than previously thought. The research, published by Professor John Dodson and Professor Xiaoqiang Li, shows there are no modern wild varieties of the wheat and barley, which were found in the region in a domesticated form, and carbon dated to 2,650BC. It is now thought they originated in the Middle East, which showed exchanges between China hundreds of years before the Silk Road, previously thought to be the earliest contact, around 200BC. Professor Dodson, from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, has told Radio Australia's Connect Asia program, "Certainly an exchange of technology," he said."There could have been trade, so I guess we're saying certainly a trade in technology and ideas." Mummy links Professor Dodson says a major archaeological find in the region in 1987, the Xinjiang mummies, may be evidence of those who brought the wheat from the Middle East. Archaeologists discovered around 100 perfectly preserved corpses in a dry, hilly region in China's far northwest, which dated at 4,000 years old, and showed Caucasian features. Professor Dodson says the fact that the mummies were of ordinary families, not royalty, also gives insights into past relationships between China and the west. "The clothing they wore was of a style that was only recognised from Turkey and areas like that, so this seems to be pretty strong evidence that there were people making that journey east 4,000 years ago," he said. "The intriguing thing is that there might be a link between those people bringing in Middle East agricultural practices - there may be a good strong link there between these wheat grains and these barley grains that we're finding." You can find the full interview with Professor Dodson at the Connect Asia website:

Feuding Gypsy Clans

They are called "gypsies," "gipsies," "tinkers" and "Romany." They are mysterious - and like it that way. They are "clannish," close-knit and close-mouthed. That is why this is such a fascinating story. Gypsy clans feud over fortunetelling biz By GILLIAN FLACCUS, Associated Press Writer Wed Dec 5, 2:44 PM ET NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - A dispute between two Gypsy clans over control of the fortunetelling trade in this Southern California city has spilled into court, offering a rare glimpse of an insular culture that has long settled scores according to its own Old World rules of honor. The turf war in well-to-do Orange County has unfolded like a gangster movie, with allegations of death threats, a graveside scuffle, and nicknames like "White Bob" and "Black Bob" — details revealed in a police report and requests for restraining orders. "The older Gypsies are pulling out their hair, not wanting the courts in our business because they'll find out too much about us," said Tom Merino, who is distantly related to one of the clans but has spurned his heritage. "Ignorance is the Gypsies' weapon against the outside world." The Stevens and Merino clans, like other Gypsy families, have run numerous fortunetelling businesses in Southern California for decades. The trouble started two years ago when Edward Merino and his wife, Sonia, opened fortunetelling parlors in two trendy resort sections of Newport Beach, not far from where the Stevenses did business. Members of the Stevens clan promptly broke in, stole a credit card machine and threatened to kill the Merinos if they didn't shut the places down, the Merinos claim in court papers. Since then, the bad blood has only gotten worse. The Stevenses "are very territorial," Merino attorney Tom Quinn said. "This is crazy stuff." At the root of the conflict lies a delicate system of intermarriage and social customs that has defused tensions among Gypsy clans for generations, said Anne Sutherland, a University of California, Riverside anthropologist who has studied Gypsies. Gypsies trace their origins to India more than 1,000 years ago. They migrated to Europe in the 1300s. For centuries, Gypsies were enslaved and persecuted in Europe, where they were scorned as nomadic thieves and con artists skilled primarily at palm reading. Gypsies — also known as Romany — began arriving in the U.S. from Romania toward the end of the 19th century. Experts believe there are now about 1 million in America, one-fifth of them in California, where they dominate the fortunetelling and psychic shops in funky beach communities and other neighborhoods. The Stevens and Merino clans adopted an Old World custom of uniting families through marriage to cope with intense competition, much as European nobility once did to avert war. A Merino married the Stevens patriarch, George Stevens. But the family bond did not prevent tensions from flaring when, the Merinos say, the Stevenses demanded they pay $500,000 up front and $5,000 a week to open their fortunetelling businesses in the Stevenses' back yard. The Merinos refused to pay, and went ahead and opened their parlors. The alleged break-in soon followed. Gypsies have traditionally resolved disputes in front of a secret council of elders that can impose fines, make territorial decisions or order someone shunned. They don't like to involve non-Gypsies, who are considered impure. The Merinos, though, went to court after the alleged break-in and obtained a restraining order in 2006 requiring George Stevens to stay a safe distance away. That the dispute wound up in court reflects an erosion of tradition among the Gypsies, said Ian Hancock, an expert on Gypsy language and culture at the University of Texas. "It used to be that the Romany world was absolutely insulated from the outside world," said Hancock, a Gypsy himself. "But it's very hard to resist the pressures of MTV, and people are beginning to see alternatives." He cited cases in which Gypsy women in Houston hired lawyers to get their ex-husbands to pay child support — something previously unheard of. Things were calm for months until the Stevens patriarch died of a heart attack at age 53 last May. Edward "Davie" Merino showed up at the funeral, pulling up at the cemetery in a limo with what was described as a menacingly burly chauffeur. Merino says members of the Stevens clan attacked him and screamed, "We will make your life a living hell!" But the Stevenses claim that Merino flashed a gun and threatened to "come back and kill all of you." Both sides agree that before speeding off, Merino shouted that he wanted to make sure "the mother-(expletive) was dead." Merino declined repeated requests for an interview through his attorney and calls to his home were not returned. After the scrap, someone left ominous phone messages and threatened to kill Sonia Merino and the couple's children, ages 9 and 11, Edward Merino claimed in court papers. Edward Merino filed for restraining orders against four Stevens men and two Stevens women. Over the summer, a judge granted such an order against just one person, the new Stevens patriarch, Ted Stevens. Stevens' nephew, the only Gypsy directly involved in the feud who spoke to The Associated Press, said the Merinos concocted the allegations and are using the courts to try to drive their rivals out of Newport Beach. "They beat themselves up and then they testify that we hired people to come to their house and beat them up," said Steve Stevens, who goes by the nickname "White Bob" to distinguish him from his swarthier cousin, "Black Bob." Stevens, who owns two fortunetelling parlors and a deli, added: "I feel like they've made me out like a character on `The Sopranos.' I'm a businessman. I'm a family man. That's all I am."

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

India political "goddess" struggles in key state vote

The stakes are unbelievably huge in this political end-game. 05 Dec 2007 05:00:42 GMT05 Dec 2007 05:00:42 GMT Source: Reuters By Simon Denyer IDAR, India, Dec 5 (Reuters) - Billed as "the goddess of sacrifice", she descended in a helicopter from a cloudless sky, towards an expectant crowd. But Sonia Gandhi, India's most powerful politician, has been short of magic this week as she struggles to strike an emotional chord with voters in her Congress party's campaign a week ahead of state elections in the key western battleground of Gujarat. The vote, in which Congress is trying to unseat a Hindu nationalist state government, is being closely watched as the countdown begins to national polls due by mid-2009 and could even influence their timing. "This government believes in its own development and the development of a handful of people," Gandhi told a listless crowd of thousands in the town of Idar in southeastern Gujarat this week, many of them poor tribal farmers. "We are committed to throw the cheats, liars and people who make fake promises out of Gujarat," she said, speaking in Hindi from a prepared text, to a brief burst of flat applause. For a decade Gujarat, one of India's most prosperous states but also one of its most communally divided, has been a stronghold of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But its controversial chief minister Narendra Modi is more vulnerable than ever before as he heads into the elections, due to be held in two stages on Dec. 11 and 16, analysts say, with several dissident party members defecting to the opposition. It would be a major prize for Congress, which heads the national coalition government, to wrest Gujarat from Modi, who has been accused of encouraging communal riots in 2002 in which up to 2,500 people were killed, most minority Muslims. A win might encourage Congress to advance national elections. But many analysts think Modi might just about hang on -- partly because Congress has waged an uninspired campaign. "They started very late, organisationally they are not in good shape, and third you have not seen any focused campaigning by local Congress leaders," said Achyut Yagnik, a social scientist in the state's main city Ahmedabad. Modi swept the 2002 state elections, held just nine months after the riots, on an overt pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim platform, winning 127 of the state assembly's 182 seats. While he still plays the occasional anti-Muslim card, this time he is selling himself more as a champion of development in one of the fastest growing states in a booming India, boasting of everything from industrial development to rural electrification. Congress has tried to fight him on his terms, arguing that electricity has still not reached many households, and promising free televisions to everyone below the poverty line. DON'T MENTION THE RIOTS But the party which prides itself on its secular ideals has largely steered clear of attacking Modi for the 2002 riots, for fear of antagonising Hindu voters. Its strongest card is Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who renounced her own chance to become prime minister despite winning national elections in 2004. She may have struggled to connect with many people in Idar, but is attracting large crowds, and some, like 18-year-old student Neelam Rathore, were buying her message. "Modi is a loud and a smart liar. Sonia is simple, honest and is willing to sacrifice her life for the people," Rathore said. "I like the way she talks, I trust her." Gandhi briefly upped the ante on Saturday, lashing out at the "peddlers of death" running the state. "She is slinging Italian mud at me," Modi retorted. "That kind of mud only makes me and the lotus stronger," he said, referring to India's national flower and his party's symbol. Then a retreat. Gandhi, on the back foot, chose her words more carefully, avoiding any direct reference to the riots. Development, she said at one rally, was not possible without social unity, which the BJP had failed to deliver. Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says Congress is struggling to define its identity in Gujarat or spell out a clear alternative vision to Modi's. "They have not shown the stomach for a fight," he added. "It's a sign of indecisiveness. Modi has dented the confidence of Congress." (Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Jerry Norton)

Rare Maya "Death Vase" Discovered

Interesting artifact - not so much because of its design (although it is nicely designed) - but for the traces of its contents left over even after 1400 years - and what the experts surmised from those contents.

From the National Geographic News
Blake de Pastino
Updated December 4, 2007

An extremely rare and intricately carved "death vase" has been discovered in the 1,400-year-old grave of an elite figure from the Maya world, scientists say.

The vase is the first of its kind to be found in modern times, and its contents are opening a window onto ancient rituals of ancestor worship that included food offerings, chocolate enemas, and hallucinations induced by vomiting, experts say.

Archaeologists discovered the vase along with parts of a human skeleton while excavating a small "palace" in northwestern Honduras in 2005. (The dig was funded by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

Soil samples taken from in and around the vessel were found to contain pollen from corn, cacao, and false ipecac, a plant that causes severe nausea when eaten.

These traces suggest the vase may have been used in ancient rites the Maya practiced to produce trancelike states through intense physical purging, said Christian Wells, an anthropologist at the University of South Florida who lead the excavation.

"The way to have contact, to communicate, with ancestors is to have visions," Wells said of the Maya rituals.

"And you have a vision either by cutting yourself and bloodletting—which there's really no evidence for in this case—or by having some very powerful chocolate enema, or by drinking your brains out and throwing up.

"We think this beverage [in the vase] may have contained ipecac, which would have made the person who's drinking it throw up—a lot. Then, by throwing up a lot, they could've had visions that would have allowed them to talk with the ancestors."

Mysterious "Palace"
Wells' team believes that the white marble vase contained a corn-based gruel laced with the stomach-churning herb. Cacao, from which chocolate is made, may have been added for flavor.

The new findings could help solve the long-standing mystery of what purpose the ornamental vessels, called Ulúa-style vases, served.

Most of the vases known to scientists were either looted from graves or were unearthed long before modern archaeological methods were available, Wells said.

"It's really the first one that has ever been excavated [scientifically]," Wells said. "Until this case, we hadn't really had any idea about how these items were used."

Although the archaeologists may have uncovered the vase's purpose, they are still perplexed by where they found it—beneath a pyramid-like palace they discovered in a small, remote settlement in Honduras' Palmarejo Valley.

"It's a terraced building, and it had a single room on top—a long, narrow, rectangular room," Wells said of the newfound structure. "It was like a house, but a very nice one."

Both the palace and the vase suggest a level of prestige that seems out of keeping with what was otherwise an unremarkable farming village, he said. It's not clear whether its inhabitants were ethnic Maya or members of another culture influenced by the Maya Empire, he added.

"Compared to other sites in the region, this one's pretty small, pretty unimpressive. So why is this very super high-status product in this burial in this residential building?"

The team suspects that the person buried beneath the palace was of historic importance to local residents, likely an ancestor figure whose death marked the end of an era.

"An ancestor is an important person who could've been a founder of the community or a founder of the lineage of the ruling family," he said. The palace was built over the grave very soon after the burial took place, around A.D. 650, Wells said.

The vase was added to the grave about a hundred years after the burial, he added, likely to commemorate the ancestor's death.

"You typically see people digging up original ancestor figures and taking a relic bone or adding things to the [grave] and honoring them many years after they've died," Wells explained.

The nausea-inducing gruel that the vase likely held may have been drunk by a worshipper at such a ceremony, Wells said, or it may have been left as an offering to the dead.

But the most valuable gift may have been the vase itself.

A little larger than a coffee mug, the vessel is inscribed with sculpted scrolls and overlapping tiles resembling serpent scales, and each of its two handles is carved to resemble the head of a leaf-nose bat.

"These things were super labor-intensive to produce, and they had imagery that was very cosmically significant," Wells said.

The ornate vase may have found its way to the remote community through an ancient kind of social networking—in this case, by a valuable link to craftspeople who made these vessels in the Ulúa Valley, about a two-day walk away, Wells said.

"It could be that these kinds of marble vases ended up all over the place, and we just don't know because we haven't excavated them. But I suspect that there's something else going on here," he said.

"There's some special relationship that somebody had in this community with the producers of these vases over in the Ulúa Valley.

"This is something you would find in a Maya king's tomb," he added. "This is not something you would find in a very rural, backwater community."

Wells' colleagues Karla Davis-Salazar and Jose Moreno-Cortes presented the team's findings last month at the Southeast Conference on Mesoamerican Archaeology and Ethnohistory in Columbia, South Carolina.

Maize Beer
Christina Luke is an archaeologist at Boston University and an expert in Ulúa-style vases.

She said the discovery made by Wells' team is "very significant."
"Their vase is the best we have for really, really good context, excavated by professional archaeologists," she said.

Unlike vases unearthed a century ago, often by mining and railroad workers, "with this one, we know the exact context and where it was found," Luke said.

The pollen found with the vase seems consistent with ceremonial drinks used in ancient Mesoamerica, she added.

"It makes sense to me that the vase would have been used for some sort of consumption of a fermented frothy drink," she said. "I'd say either a maize beer or a chocolate drink or some combination of the two.

To suggest that the vase was used in a purging ritual, however, "is stretching things a bit," she said.

While ancient Maya are known to have practiced ceremonial enemas and vomiting rites, there's little evidence that they were performed in the region where the vase was found, she said.

"I don't know the data that you would draw on to say that there were definitely purging rituals [in that community]," Luke said.

"The ipecac may suggest that, but I'd be uncomfortable saying, Yes, it's 100 percent what's going on."

Wells agreed that it's not certain that the newfound cup held a vomit-inducing beverage based solely on the few grains of ipecac pollen found in it. But he said his theory is consistent with rituals conducted in the region, as depicted on painted vessels found from the period.

"We can only entertain the possibility and seek further evidence to evaluate the idea," he said.

His team plans to return to the Palmarejo Valley next summer to learn more about the site's role in the Maya world and to determine whether more vases or palaces might yet be discovered.

"My sense is that this vase is very unique to this special burial, this special building," he said.

"But I'm wondering now what would we find in these other buildings.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Antonio Canova's white goddess

“Conquering Venus” is the centrepiece of an exhibit of work by the sculptor who transcended time. From Wanted in Rome By Edith Schloss December 5, 2007 A gleaming white marble figure, elegantly reclining on a marble cushion, has always been the centrepiece, the icon, of the Villa Borghese museum, a treasure trove that is rivaled only by the Medici collection in the Uffizi gallery in Florence and the enormous hoard of the tsars in the Hermitage of St Petersburg. The Borghese princes from Siena who settled in Rome in one of its most perfect villas in the early 17th century, brought together not only a vast assembly of Roman and Greek sculpture, which had recently been dug up in the city, but also Renaissance works and pieces from their own time. The exquisite building became the private showcase for the delectation of informed visitors through the ages. In 1902, when the Italian government acquired it, it was opened to the general public. It was in 1804 that prince Camillo Borghese commissioned the most celebrated sculptor of the period to begin a sculpture of his new wife. She was not an aristocrat like himself, but the sister of a conqueror. She was Pauline Bonaparte. The sculptor was Antonio Canova, a brave worker devoted to his craft, famed for his fabulous final touch, believed to make cold stone come alive. Canova (1757-1822) was born in Possagno in the Veneto, the offspring of several generations of stonecutters. When the Venetian senator Giovanni Falier observed him in his grandfather’s marble yard he recognized his talent. He brought him to Venice to study at the academy and became his patron. In his early works Canova still followed the contortions of the Baroque, recently enhanced by the sagesse of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Eventually, like other young artists dazzled by the new finds of ancient art discovered in Pompei, he tried to seize classical values, to turn them into a new palatable style, exactly fashioned to the requirements of his own period – neo-classicism. Timeliness is something ineffable. In Canova, the bland faces of his adolescent models, the icy planes of their over-studied poses, his display of ardent craftsmanship, his terrible smoothness, make you shiver. We have trouble with any period style running counter to our own. The “Conquering Venus”, the pearl of Canova’s output, celebrating its 200th birthday, is not easy to face for the modern visitor at first. Nor are all the amorini, nymphs and gods who have been travelling from the finest museums all over the world to join her. Against the splendour of the background of the regular Borghese collection, the Raphaels, Titians, Correggios, Caravaggios, Berninis etc, they are beautifully and clearly displayed, in a state-of-the-art manner. We look at a “Venus” standing, an “Apollo”, a “Terpsichore”, an “Endymion”, “Amor and Psyche” cherishing a little butterfly of marble, bare little boys and big girls, portraits of matrons. All of them, naiads and nymphs and gods from lost Arcadia, are life-size, have long lines of legs, high bosoms and long curved bottoms and dainty fingers. Their precise heads are very small. Now look at the “Three Graces”, made between 1812 and 1814 after a painting of Raphael, for Tsar Alexander I, who took it to St Petersburg. (A second version was commissioned by the Duke of Bedford and now graces the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.) It is a group of three bodies hewn from one great square block of Carrara marble. A composition of limbs is scooped out from a solid. There is an interstice, a void, in the middle, around which a concentration of shapes must weave a fake fluidity. This is a very complex thing: not something built up, but something cut down. It is a balancing of closed with empty space, made according to an exact plan, according to imaginative insight. From a spatial idea, a concept, Canova proceeded to create a clear structural definition. You might regard him as a conceptual artist. When you look through the outer old-style timeliness, you find an astute inventive artist, clear-sighted and tough. It is exhilarating when you understand the drama created by a lump of stone, transcending time. Canova said: “Terracotta is life. Plaster is death. Marble is resurrection.” His terracotta maquettes, of a penitent “Magdalen”, a sitting “Madam Mère” – Napoleon’s deeply influential mother – a superbly swift embrace of “Amor and Psyche”, also make him amiable. The paintings and drawings are a bit clumsy, touchingly uncertain, as if, used to fighting the bitter resistance of stubborn stone, Canova found mere marks on canvas or paper too little to worry about. In the end, the “Conquering Venus”, the sculpture which is elevating Paulette, the vixen from Corsica, is a grandiose abstraction, a willful distillation of life. In real life she was brown, rosy, capricious, a flirt to the end. Not the least bit bothered having to pose naked and exhibit herself, she lies as if purring under the scrutiny of the pensive artist, proudly holding and beholding the apple of Paris, her triumph, in her slender fingers. Here she is exalted. Here she lies in gentle transport, her elegant legs crossed, tender bosom high, lips slightly open in her chiseled profile – chaste and idealized – the white goddess. A fine stone made civilizing beauty. Canova e la Venere Vincitrice. Until 3 Feb 2008. Galleria Borghese, Piazzale Scipione Borghese 5, tel. 068413979. 09.00-19.00. Mon closed. Booking compulsory

Susan Polgar Interviewed in India

Queen’s gambit Vikas Hotwani Tuesday, December 04, 2007 23:59 IST Chess Grand Master Susan Polgar is living proof of her dad’s theory that geniuses are made, not born If you thought the sporting world just revolves around cricket and soccer, Woman Chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar has news for you. “Actually, chess is the most popular game in the world — not only do people play it professionally, it’s a very popualr past time as well. If the general perception does not point to this, it’s because chess is not given that competitive recognition,” says Polgar when After Hours caught up with her during one of her rare visits to India. “This is my second visit to the country. The first time I came was in 1999 and I must say, the pace of development is phenomenal,” she notes. Susan is today also acknowledged for changing the sexist perception towards the game. “Before I came in, chess was seen to be a male-dominated game. However, my sister (GM Judit Polgar) and me, along with many other women who subsequently got involved with the game, turned that theory around. Today there are more women in the game than ever before,” she says. Recognized as a super genius, she’s set to feature in a special Nat Geo documentary that focuses on super intelligence. But what’s her own definition of intelligence? “I think it’s being able to react smartly to various situations. Some have general intelligence while others have specialised intelligence. I guess specialised intelligence is more important if you take into account the limitations of the human mind — one can’t be expert in everything,” she points out. As for the long raging debate in the chess fraternity over competitive face-offs between humans and computers, Susan chooses to see the positive side. “In the end, even if the computer wins, it’s a victory of the human mind. Computers are created by humans and programmed to win by them. If man creates cars which are faster than humans, it ultimately benefits us. What we must look at is using this technology to our advantage,” she says. An interesting fact about Polgar is that that she and her sisters — Grand Master Judit and International Master Zsófia — were groomed into chess prodigies by their father László Polgár, because he was convinced geniuses were made, not born. He proved that children could make exceptional achievements if trained in a specialist subject from a very early age. In Polgar’s case, that specialised subject was chess. Would Susan want her own children to be similarly groomed into super geniuses? “Of course — that’s something I really wouldn’t mind,” she signs off.

Tamil Brahmi script in Egypt

From the Hindu Online November 21, 2007 (I don't know how I missed this important story) Tamil Brahmi script in Egypt CHENNAI: A broken storage jar with inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi script has been excavated at Quseir-al-Qadim, an ancient port with a Roman settlement on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. This Tamil Brahmi script has been dated to first century B.C. One expert described this as an “exciting discovery.” The same inscription is incised twice on the opposite sides of the jar. The inscription reads paanai oRi, that is, pot (suspended) in a rope net. An archaeological team belonging to the University of Southampton in the U.K., comprising Prof. D. Peacock and Dr. L. Blue, who recently re-opened excavations at Quseir-al-Qadim in Egypt, discovered a fragmentary pottery vessel with inscriptions. Dr. Roberta Tomber, a pottery specialist at the British Museum, London, identified the fragmentary vessel as a storage jar made in India. Iravatham Mahadevan, a specialist in Tamil epigraphy, has confirmed that the inscription on the jar is in Tamil written in the Tamil Brahmi script of about first century B.C. In deciphering the inscription, he has had the benefit of expert advice from Prof. Y. Subbarayalu of the French Institute of Pondicherry, Prof. K. Rajan of Central University, Puducherry and Prof. V. Selvakumar, Tamil University, Thanjavur. According to Mr. Mahadevan, the inscription is quite legible and reads: paanai oRi, that is, ‘pot (suspended in) a rope net.’ The Tamil word uRi, which means rope network to suspend pots has the cognate oRi in Parji, a central Dravidian language, Mr. Mahadevan said. Still nearer, Kannada has oTTi, probably from an earlier oRRi with the same meaning. The word occurring in the pottery inscription found at Quseir-al-Qadim can also be read as o(R)Ri as Tamil Brahmi inscriptions generally avoid doubling of consonants. Earlier excavations at this site about 30 years ago yielded two pottery inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi belonging to the first century A.D. Another Tamil Brahmi pottery inscription of the same period was found in 1995 at Berenike, also a Roman settlement, on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, Mr. Mahadevan said. These discoveries provided material evidence to corroborate the literary accounts by classical Western authors and the Tamil Sangam poets about the flourishing trade between the Tamil country and Rome (via the Red Sea ports) in the early centuries A.D.

Famous Map of America Now At Library of Congress

Waldeseemuller Map will now be on permanent display at the Library of Congress! Map that named America is a puzzle for researchers By David Alexander Mon Dec 3, 12:09 PM ET WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The only surviving copy of the 500-year-old map that first used the name America goes on permanent display this month at the Library of Congress, but even as it prepares for its debut, the 1507 Waldseemuller map remains a puzzle for researchers. Why did the mapmaker name the territory America and then change his mind later? How was he able to draw South America so accurately? Why did he put a huge ocean west of America years before European explorers discovered the Pacific? "That's the kind of conundrum, the question, that is still out there," said John Hebert, chief of the geography and map division of the Library of Congress. The 12 sheets that make up the map, purchased from German Prince Johannes Waldburg-Wolfegg for $10 million in 2003, were mounted on Monday in a huge 6-foot by 9.5-foot (1.85 meter by 2.95 meter) display case machined from a single block of aluminum. The case will be flooded with inert argon gas to prevent deterioration when it goes on public display December 13. Researchers are hopeful that putting the rarely shown map on permanent display for the first time since it was discovered in the Waldburg-Wolfegg castle archives in 1901 may stimulate interest in finding out more about the documents used to produce it. The map was created by the German monk Martin Waldseemuller. Thirteen years after Christopher Columbus first landed in the Western Hemisphere, the Duke of Lorraine brought Waldseemuller and a group of scholars together at a monastery in Saint-Die in France to create a new map of the world. The result, published two years later, is stunningly accurate and surprisingly modern. "The actual shape of South America is correct," said Hebert. "The width of South America at certain key points is correct within 70 miles of accuracy." Given what Europeans are believed to have known about the world at the time, it should not have been possible for the mapmakers to produce it, he said. The map gives a reasonably correct depiction of the west coast of South America. But according to history, Vasco Nunez de Balboa did not reach the Pacific by land until 1513, and Ferdinand Magellan did not round the southern tip of the continent until 1520. "So this is a rather compelling map to say, 'How did they come to that conclusion,"' Hebert said. The mapmakers say they based it on the 1,300-year-old works of the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy as well as letters Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci wrote describing his voyages to the new world. But Hebert said there must have been something more. "From the writings of Vespucci you couldn't have prepared the map," Hebert said. "There had to be something cartographic with it." MISGIVINGS ABOUT AMERICA Waldseemuller made it clear he was naming the new land after Vespucci, describing how he came up with the name America based on the navigator's first name. But he soon had misgivings about what he had done. An atlas Waldseemuller produced six years later shows only part of the east coast of the Americas, and refers to it as Terra Incognita -- unknown land. "America has gone out of his lexicon," Hebert said. "(No) place in the atlas -- in the text or in the maps -- does the name America appear." His 1516 mariner's map, on the same scale as the 1507 map, steps back even further, showing only parts of the new continents and reconnecting the north to Asia. South America is labeled Terra Nova -- New World -- and North America is labeled Terra de Cuba -- Land of Cuba. "Essentially he's reconnecting North America to the Asian mainland, suggesting a continual world of land mass rather than separated by those bodies of water that separate us from Europe and Asia," Hebert said. Why the rollback? No one knows. In writings accompanying the 1516 map, Waldseemuller comes across as if he "has seen the better of his error and is now correcting it," Hebert said. He speculated that power politics played a role. Spain and Portugal divided the globe between them in 1494, two years after Columbus, with territory to the east going to Portugal and land to the west to Spain. That demarcation line is oddly absent from the 1507 Waldseemuller map, and flags marking territorial claims in South America suggest Portugal controls the region's southernmost land, even though it is in Spain's area of influence. On the later map, the southernmost flag is Spanish, Hebert said. "It is possible one could say the 1507 map is influenced strongly by Portuguese sources and conceivably the 1516 map may be influenced more by Spanish sources," he said. Although the map conceals many mysteries, one thing is clear: it represents a revolutionary shift in the way Europe viewed the world. "This is ... essentially the beginning or first map of the modern age, and it's one that everything builds on from that point forward," Hebert said. "It becomes a keystone map." (Editing by Eddie Evans)

Monday, December 3, 2007

"The Kid" Lives On

His name is Liviu Dieter Nisipeanu. I saw him play chess in the FIDE World Chess Championship held in Las Vegas at Caesar's Palace in August, 1999. Back then, he was slender, short haired, and extremely handsome and the last time I saw him in person - trailing him down a large and very empty hallway at Caesar's Palace on my way to a pay phone to call Isis and make plans to hook up for the night (the match ended about 9:20 p.m. in which Khalifman eliminated him), he was in tight black jeans, he had on white socks (eek!) and black shoes. They looked like tennies. I thought there was just a bit of a swagger in his walk, as well there should have been. I stopped at the pay phone bank on my left just before the escalators; he went on to the escalators and disappeared downward from my view. He wasn't old enough at the time, to get a drink legally (21). Now he's overweight and has a ponytail. Yech. But, just as he did in 1999 in Las Vegas, he can pull out brilliant chess games from - where? His gut? His heart? Some inner magical window into another world? Who knows? Frankly, I don't care. What I DO care about is that he's still in the running for winning the chess World Cup. Bravo, man. The biggest shock of the third round of the World Cup was the defeat in tie-breaker of top seed Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine, who has been on an absolute tear lately, winning everything in sight. Ivanchuk lost to Nisipeanu 2.5-3.5 after the match extended into Blitz games. In Round 4, Nisipeanu faces Karjakin. In truth, I don't know who to root for! Karjakin's name resonates with me for some reason, not least of which is I keep thinking of him as "Karkajan" which, obviously, is not his name, but in etymological terms, is a permissible variation. Anyway, from the wrong name of Karkajan is a skip and jump to the term "Shakerjan," the name for any shaman who practiced a very ancient divinatory game played by the nomadic tribes who used to roam the steppes of Kazakhstan before there was such a named "stan." I like this kid a lot. I like that "Jan" figures prominently in both words. On the other hand, Nisipeanu's name doesn't remind me of anything so much as a cheap imitation French cologne. And he certainly doesn't look like the kid he still should be - under 30. No, sadly, he now looks like a harried and much married middle aged American with too many kids and a too big mortgage and not enough money to pay for it all! Sigh. Kid, what happened? Compiled from reports at Chessdom and

We're All Just Figments of Our Own Imaginations!

Best quote of the day: It's bad enough that astronomers tell us the Earth isn't at the center of the cosmos; it's worse that biologists tell us we're all descended from pond scum. Now we have philosophers saying that the self is illusory. You are not really there. Joel Achenbach: What makes up my mind? The complexity of consciousness stumps us all 09:37 AM CST on Sunday, December 2, 2007 If I were to be eaten by a shark, I'm pretty sure the worst part would be not the pain or the mutilation or the actual dying and so forth, but rather the thought balloon over my head with the words, "I'm being eaten by a [expletive] shark!" Whereas a fish doesn't have this problem. A fish has no thought balloon, or just a teensy little one, with a monosyllabic fish-word like "Urp!" A fish probably suffers, but it doesn't have the additional suffering that comes from knowing that it's suffering, and from regretting that it went swimming instead of watching the golf tournament, and from hearing, as we all do whenever we're devoured by sharks, the theme music from Jaws . You know, that tuba. All of which is a deft way of introducing our subject today: The Mystery of Consciousness. It's one of the biggest unknowns, right up there with the origin of life. But it's under a multi-pronged assault by scientists, who vow to crack the code of the mind in the same way that they are deciphering the human genome. It's all very exciting, with the one catch that no one can really agree on what the mind is. "With consciousness, there is no agreement on anything," says Giulio Tononi, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, "except it's very difficult." Jim Olds, who directs George Mason University's Krasnow Institute, a think tank devoted to the study of the mind, says of his field, "We're waiting for our Einstein." The human brain is a hunk of meat that weighs about 3 pounds. It contains about 100 billion cells, called neurons. The networking of these cells involves 100 trillion meeting points, or synapses. This is the most complex object in the known universe. Human brains can do things that no computer can match. Sure, a computer can beat a human at chess, but only by calculating every conceivable move. The most advanced robots still lack the smarts of a 2-year-old, who can perceive the world in three dimensions and go searching for a kitty cat while somehow avoiding the edge of the coffee table. Negotiating the world requires massive bandwidth. "The engineering problems that we humans solve as we see and walk and plan and make it through the day are far more challenging than landing on the moon or sequencing the human genome," psychologist Steven Pinker writes in his book How the Mind Works. Beyond the basics of perception and motor skills, the human brain has a premium feature: consciousness. You could also call it sentience, or self-awareness, or just the thing that makes it such a drag to be devoured by a mindless oceanic carnivore. This is what keeps us from being zombies. We perceive ourselves as actors on the stage of life. "Consciousness is a big thing," Dr. Tononi says. "It is the single biggest thing of all. It is the only thing we really care about in the end." But we don't understand it. We don't know how, in the words of philosopher Colin McGinn, "the water of the physical brain is turned into the wine of consciousness." Will we ever know? Earlier this year, Dr. Olds gathered a bunch of big thinkers at George Mason University for a two-day conference on the mind. He and his allies want the federal government to invest $4 billion in an initiative that would be called the "Decade of the Mind." This would be a follow-up to a 1990s program called the "Decade of the Brain," which brought increased attention to neuroscience. The new initiative would be an attempt to take science into a realm previously explored only by philosophers, theologians and mountaintop yogis. "Brain science is an exhaustive collection of facts without a theory," Dr. Olds says. "This is for the nation as a whole to invest in one of the fundamental intellectual questions of what it is to be a human being." In a letter published this year in the journal Science, 10 scientists said that a Decade of the Mind would help us understand mental disorders that affect 50 million Americans and cost more than $400 billion a year. It might also aid in the development of intelligent machines and new computing techniques. A breakthrough in mind research, the scientists wrote, could have "broad and dramatic impacts on the economy, national security and our social well-being." There's reason to be optimistic. Look at what has happened in recent years with the development of brain scans, such as MRIs, that let us observe the brain at work in real time. As the technology improves, the brain becomes more transparent, less of a black box. That said, the mind isn't something that pops up on a computer screen. People have been poking around the brain in search of the mind for many centuries, and no one is even sure what neurological structures are the most critical to generating consciousness. Descartes, who gave us the most famous line in the annals of philosophy ("Cogito, ergo sum" – I think, therefore I am), believed the center of consciousness to be the pea-size structure known as the pineal gland. Nice stab, but it turns out that it doesn't seem to have much to do with creating the "I" in our head. Other brain structures are important, such as something called Brodmann area 46, and the anterior cingulate sulcus, and the thalamus, and of course the knurled, dipsy-doodle structure called the cerebral cortex. We can also be confident that consciousness does not depend on the cerebellum, which is 50 billion neurons worth of brain matter that you could surgically remove without "losing your mind." As Dr. Tononi puts it, you could toss the cerebellum in the garbage and "you would still be there." The classic idea of "dualism" solves the location problem by defining it away: The mind is perceived as separate from the body, something that can't be reduced to machinery. It's unreachable by the tools of the laboratory. Dualism flatters us, for it suggests that our minds, our selves, are not merely the result of rambunctious chemistry and that we are thus free to talk about souls and spirits and essences that are unfettered by the physical body. Dualism is pretty much dead to serious researchers, though an echo of it can be found among philosophers who are sometimes called the Mysterians. Philosopher David Chalmers famously made a distinction between the Easy Problems, which involve the ways that the brain creates specific elements of consciousness (vision, language, memory, attention, emotion, etc.), and the Hard Problem, which is the mystery of how all the elements come together in that powerful sense of self ("I am Spartacus"). But here's the most radical idea of all: The reason why the mind is hard to define is not because it has some mysterious qualities but because it doesn't really exist. We just imagine it. When you see a Toyota cruising down the street, you know you're looking at a complex machine with many parts. You also know there's a person inside, some intelligent being who's directing the Toyota's movements. The human brain is another complex machine with many parts – but it doesn't seem to have a driver most of the time. The brain operates day and night and performs myriad functions of which we have no direct awareness. Even our "conscious" brain is actually many different operating systems. It's as though the Toyota is being driven by hundreds of tiny elves, with no single elf in charge. This is the view espoused by philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained, who argues that the notion of a central executive in the brain is an illusion. "It's a mistake to look for the president in the Oval Office of the brain," he declares. It's bad enough that astronomers tell us the Earth isn't at the center of the cosmos; it's worse that biologists tell us we're all descended from pond scum. Now we have philosophers saying that the self is illusory. You are not really there. The mind might be what Dr. Pinker calls the "ultimate tease." He has written that "the most undeniable thing there is, our own awareness, would be forever beyond our conceptual grasp." The mind, in this view, isn't a single, specific thing. It's more like a process, or an "emergent" phenomenon. This means that the many disparate components are not themselves conscious, but when they get together, the consciousness precipitates into being. Grabbing hold of the mind, however, would be like trying to seize a puffy white cumulus cloud. Cracking the code of the mind may be ultimately impossible. My guess is that a century from now, scientists and philosophers will still be arguing about the what, where and how of it all. But we should still take a whack at it. Ten years and $4 billion: That's a reasonable cost. The evolution of the human mind is arguably the most important biological event in the history of our planet since the origin of life itself. We should try to understand how the brain makes the mind. And then we can make up our minds about what to do with ourselves. Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer and blogs at His e-mail address is

Dogs Are Smarter Than Humans Think! Duh!

From the Dogs display aspects of human intelligence By Roger Highfield, Science Editor Last Updated: 6:01pm GMT 28/11/2007 Dog lovers have long claimed that their pets are smarter than many of us realise. New evidence to back that view comes from research published today which concludes that, like us, our canine friends are able to form abstract concepts. Friederike Range and colleagues from the University of Vienna, Austria, show for the first time that dogs are able to learn how to classify complex colour photographs and place them into categories in the same way that humans do. "Dogs were for a long time considered to be just pets - so showing that they are able to also form abstract concepts maybe gives their cognitive abilities more credit," she said. However, the abstract concept they were able to grasp in this pioneering experiment was rather familiar, that of "dog." The team reports in the journal Animal Cognition a clever way to show that the dogs are not picking up subtle signals from their handlers: the dogs successfully demonstrate their learning through the use of computer touch-screens, eliminating potential human influences. Four dogs were shown both landscape and dog photographs simultaneously and were rewarded with food if they selected the dog picture on the touch screen. Then they were shown a new set of dog and landscape pictures. They continued to reliably select the dog photographs, demonstrating that they could transfer their knowledge gained in the training phase to a new circumstance, even though they had never seen those particular pictures before. In a second test, the dogs were faced with a choice between a new dog pasted on a familiar landscape and a completely new landscape with no dog. In this case, they reliably selected the landscape with the dog. "These results show that the dogs were able to form a concept, that is 'dog', although the experiment cannot tell us whether they recognized the dog pictures as actual dogs," said Dr Range. "Using touch-screen computers with dogs opens up a whole world of possibilities on how to test the cognitive abilities of dogs." The dogs that took part were a Border Collie (Maggie), one Border Collie mix (Lucy), one Australian Shepherd (Bertl), and one mongrel (Todor). Two dogs were male (Bertl, Todor), two were female (Maggie, Lucy). In earlier work, the team showed striking similarities between humans and dogs in the way they imitate others, showing they do more than copy. They also interpret what they see.

A Really LONG Post...

...containing Some Random Thoughts on the State of the Universe. The Universe: "Dark energy" – a mystery – scientists can’t figure out this "force" that makes up 70 to 75% of the known universe. Sounds rather like something from "Star Wars" – may the Force be with you… Hmmm….is this Goddess/God, maybe??? Venezuela: Is Goddess/God looking out for Venezuela? I suppose it depends what Gods you believe in. I am absolutely happy that Chavez’s blatant attempt to become a for-life "Putin of the Left" has been defeated by the electorate. I had no idea which way the vote would go. Maybe I’m not reading the right news sources. In the usual western news sources there seems to be so much focus on the people who support Chavez – who are inevitably described as poor and ignorant. the real picture is much more complicated than that. My outsider views on Chavez are, I’m sure, quite a bit different than those held by people who actually live in Venezuela and function under his government’s policies in their day to day lives. One thing I thought hurt Chavez – his continual insistence on using the USA as a big bug-a-boo, like Iran still calls the USA the Great Satan (been there, done that, boring!), attempting to whip the population up into a nationalistic frenzy. Oooooohhhhhhh, yes, the big bad USA was going to influence the outcome of voting on the referendum. Chavez said he’d cut off all oil imports to the USA if "we" tried in any way, shape or form to influence the outcome of the voting. Just how the USA was going to do this, however, has not been explained. Do we have hundreds of undercover agents in the country who would foment riots? Would we send out paid assassins to kill off 100,000 voters? Would we raid voting stations and steal millions of ballots? Would we drop a neutron bomb on Caracas? Would - gasp - The Washington Post or The New York Times (or both!) publish stories about Chavez's government? Proof - where is the proof? Oh yes, Mr. Chavez, cutting off your oil supplies to the USA would really hurt us. NOT. Oh, there would be some temporary dislocations and some bitching and moaning about increased gasoline prices, etc. but in the end, we’d adjust. We always have. We always will. That’s what is so great about the USA. You may be able to knock us down, but you’ll never knock us out permanently, no matter what you throw at us. We are a people created out of a great conglomeration of mixed bloods and mixed cultures (despite some folks’ continual insistence that we are WASPs, ha ha ha!). We have taken the best from all of the cultures we left behind to become Americans, and we left behind the weaknesses of those other cultures. Hell, that’s why we came here to begin with. My father’s French Catholic family came over in the early 1700’s and ever so slowly worked their way up the Mississippi River as loggers and lumbermen, going all the way north to Wisconsin, where they finally settled in large numbers "up north," as we southern county folks (Milwaukee and Racine) call it. Farmers and lumbermen – who intermarried all along the way with other French settlers, Creoles in New Orleans, English settlers, and one or two Native Americans. On my father’s side of the family, I’m a real "mixture." The National Geographic Society would probably love to get hold of my DNA! According to family folklore, one of the ancestral male Newtons (who were not called Newtons then), married an English woman named Newton and took her name, because it was easier for the locals to pronounce than the convoluted French name we had – something that roughly translated to "new town" in English. That's something like "nouveaux" for "new" and "ville" for "town" or village. "New - town" "Newton" – all the same in America. In England, we might have been called Neville. One thing I can tell you – we have no known relationship to Sir Isaac Newton, or to the inventor of Nabisco’s famous cookie "Fig Newtons." My mother’s family came over in the late 1800’s from Poland and worked in the foundries in 140 degree heat among molten iron and steel. On her side, I’m pure Polish – at least according to recorded last names that all in "ski." Polish and French mongrel whatever – I’m a typical American from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That is what makes the USA unique. We average folks do appreciate this about our country even if we don’t talk about it very much, even though we don’t think about it very much. It’s just something that is in our blood – our mixed "mongrel" blood, if you will. Hey, where else can you hear so much bitching about immigration? Right now, we’ve got a Presidential campaign going on. We HATE the Republicans; we HATE the Democrats; we hate the Mormons and anyone from New York City, unless your name is Giuliani, and then, we love him only conditionally (he's been married three times, after all. Geez!) We yell and scream at each other and fill the front pages of The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle with our rhetoric, and we keep on humming along anyway, the most productive and creative country in the world. We bumble along and stumble along, collectively speaking, and learn from our mistakes – eventually. So, Chavez’s rhetoric is just a hollow threat – barely a gnat buzzing in our collective ear. A foolish threat, really, when you think about it. And perhaps it cost him winning the referendum he wanted to win. I mean, people in Venezuela aren’t stupid. They have internet, they have satellite television and radio broadcasts. They have brains, they think, they talk to each other. Chavez is operating as a 19th century politician in a 21st century world. I just pray that he doesn’t set his country too far back along the path to progress. I’m all for sharing the wealth of the land among all the people. We do that here – through the tax structure. It’s not perfect, but it’s acceptable to us on the whole. We adjust; we tinker; the pendulum swings one way right, and then back to the left, generation after generation. Most of us folks are in the big PLOP middle of that pendulum swing. On the other hand, pure "book learned" socialism has been proved to be a failure, as has book-learned communism All the most successful and enduring governments in the world are mixtures of democracy, republicanism and socialist sentiments. So come on, Chavez, get with the program, already. Cuba is a dead country. The folks there are just waiting for Fidel to croak so that they can live again. Don’t model yourself after Fidel. He’s the past. Russia: Putin is hailing the voting results yesterday as a validation of his leadership. Cough cough, choke choke. Will the man just fade into the sunset and become a senior statesman as Gorbachev did when his Presidential term was up? I certainly hope so, but who knows what Putin has planned? I have tremendous respect for Gorbachev. History will prove Gorbachev to be a man of immense courage and long-term vision. I have NO respect for Putin who has, through his actions the past several years, clearly demonstrated that he has neither commitment to advancing democracy nor a true long-term vision for the future of his country. It is too bad. I had great hopes when Putin first came to office, because Russia needed the discipline he imposed after the seeming anarchy of the years following the "collapse of the iron wall" and the Yeltsin years. Unfortunately, Putin ended up destroying all of the historic democratic advances that were put into place under Yeltsin. It seems that he has no regard for truly advancing the Russian people out of their "peasant" mentality, still very much intact after the collapse of Stalanism. What a shame. Personally, I think there is a "resonancy" (is that a word?) between Americans and Russians. I think Russians – who have produced some of the greatest geniuses in the world – could become an incredibly marvelous, dynamic society, just like we have here – if they could just, as a whole, get over that "peasant" mentality – it’s a sort of gigantic inferiority complex. Americans became Americans because they didn’t want to be peasants anymore – that’s the bottom line, when all is said and done. Our ancestors were able to emmigrate here and start over. At the risk of sounding trite, they were able to leave behind the bonds of oppression and begin anew. Most of the Russian people do not have the option to leave everything they knew behind and start over in a new land but – even if they did – they might choose not to take it anyway. Whatever the case, politicians like Putin DO NOT HELP the Russian people, THEY HURT them. They hurt the very people they pretend to want to help to greatness. As I said in the case of Chavez, Putin is using 19th century political tactics in the 21st century. What a shame. He is under-valuing his own people. How long will he be able to get away with it? From what I read, Russia’s largest cities are in many ways very 21st century; but in the countryside, the 19th century ways still appear to resonate – or so Putin would have us believe. What is the real truth? Does anyone really know? We have so few Russian voices to whom we can listen - let alone trust - that we are hearing something real, something not scripted, something not propaganda. I freely admit to a legacy of ongoing paranoia from the horrid Communist years under which shadow of nuclear holocaust at any second I grew up. I trusted Gorbachev and Yeltsin. They are now vilified by Putin and his cohorts. I do not trust Putin – he has shifty eyes and the mannerisms of a weasel. Garry Kasparov, world chess champion for many years, speaks out, and because of his accomplishments he receives world-wide attention. I think many of the things he says make a lot of sense. Kasparov makes more sense to me that what I hear out of the mouth of Putin, who plays the same xenophobic tricks on Russia that Chavez has attempted to play on Venezuelans. Does Putin have it right? Is his phoney paranoia about US justified? Is the USA out to somehow "get" Russia? Think about this for a few moments. What is it, exactly, we would be expected to do in order to somehow take over Russia or perhaps destroy it forever? Launch a nuclear attack? Steal all of their oil and gas with our super-secret UFO machines? Join up with the Chinese and invade to take over all their natural resources? (Somewhat similar to a plot line in an old Tom Clancy novel). Use a thousand folks running NGOs, scattered across all of the Russian republics, to somehow overthrow the government? The degree to which you believe that any or all of these scenarios is likely to happen will have a direct effect on the amount of Social Security retirements you will eventually be entitled to receive from the US government :) Seriously, doesn’t it seem likely that if Putin thought he really WAS right (and a majority of the Russian people believed this along with him), he would not worry about retiring from office? He would just ignore the rules he is allegedly working under (Russian Constitution) and sworn to uphold, and wave his hand off the end of his nose at anyone who calls him a fascist dictator, for he would be confident in his "rightness." There is a pattern of behavior that supports his desire to become the next Russian "caesar." He has actively worked to pass laws and uses law enforcement with impunity to repress "dissenting" political parties from free assembly, from participating in elections, and has actively curtailed their publication rights by either shutting down newspapers that do not agree with Putin’s "official" line or jails dissent publishers. He also has his secret service people kill off people who really piss him off (we can name a few, can’t we). In contrast, in a free and open society, any political party should be able to mount a list of candidates on a ballot for any election with a minimum of red-tape, and have the voters choose them, or not. Anyone should be able to say just about anything they want to say – no matter how offensive we might find their speech. Does not the Russian Constitution (like the Constitution of the United States of America) guarantee these rights – and more – to all Russian citizens? And yet the reality is so different. The courts have been corrupted – honest judges are either sidelined or eliminated in one way or another – and so one finds oneself "going along to get along" just in order to survive. How sad. How very very sad. The promise that was Russia after the Iron Curtain collapsed is no longer even a ghost. That initial, ephemeral but promising spirit of freedom and glory has utterly and completely disappeared. Well, I don’t have all the answers. I do understand that political repression, whether imposed from the right or the left, is never the answer. At best, it’s a temporary fix, and inevitably invites more problems than it ends up suppressing. What’s that old saying – "the tide turneth for no man." The tide of human freedom is inevitable. I wish the Putins, Chavezes, Moraleses, George W. Bushes and Ahmadinejads of the world understood this fundamental principle of history. The Stock Market: Our tiny Investment Club (4 members) sustained little damage to our net worth during the past several months of up and down DOW. I’m so thrilled! As the "resident investment guru" I feel a grave responsibility for educating the members toward making correct investment choices, using appropriate analysis protocols – with long term growth in mind. I'm not tooting my own horn here, although it seems like I am! What I want to emphasize is that anyone - and I do mean anyone - can learn the fundamentals of sound investing, just like I did, by joining an investment club in December, 2000. I moved on from that club to found the current club I'm in, in January, 2005. On January 5, 2008, "Invest Wise" will celebrate our three year anniversary. We will be having another SPA DAY on December 15th. Yippee! I have decided that this SPA DAY will be in celebration of our anniversary. I just have to tell the rest of the ladies about it :) We made our very first investment in May, 2005. Our initial unit value then was $10. Today our official unit value is $18.23. That’s down from $18.43 unit value a month before – but I expect that once we record the dividends we will receive on our stock during December, that unit value will bounce right back up. When we hit $20 unit value we will have officially doubled our money. I’m not talking about doubling our money by piling up a lot of cash that sits earning little interest in our brokerage money market account. We are fully invested in the stock market. Our stock picking regimen is rigorous. But once we buy, we are subject to market forces just like any other investor. We have picked some real winners, no true losers - yet. Our goal is to double our money every five years. It looks like we are on track to do that well before our first five year anniversary! I couldn’t be more pleased! Mother Nature: You cannot – ever - defeat Mother Nature. If you think you’re greater than She is, She will slap you back down to size in no time at all. It takes only a hurricane or two, or a typhoon or two, or a tidal wave, or a volcanic eruption here and there, or a drought, to demonstrate just how powerless we puny humans are in the face of Mother Nature’s relentless power. I’m sitting here now typing this and the evening news is on NBC. There are weather problems on both the east and west coasts! Darlings, that’s nothing to what we can get hammered with here, in little ol’ Milwaukee. Well, I do have to admit, we don’t have any "extinct" volcanoes nearby that could suddenly bloom into life after a million years, like they do in Seattle (showing my geographic ignorance now, aren’t the Cascade Mountains near Seattle, and don’t the Cascades have extinct and/or dormant volcanoes???). Not that Seattle has been overcome by a volcanic eruption – just a lot of rain. So much rain, in fact, that the foundations of seemingly secure buildings housing very expensive condominiums – approved by the Building Inspection Department of the municipality, no less – are now being threatened to wash away! Oh my! Darlings, I’m SO glad I live in Milwaukee, right on top of a great lake where at least I know I’ll always have fresh water to drink – unless the Chavezes of the world figure out a way to steal that from us (in the name of the socialist people, of course)...
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