Hillary – and the curious history of mango diplomacy

When US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered Pakistan help last week in exporting mangoes to the US in a bid to dampen anti-American sentiment, it marked the latest chapter in the fruit’s curious history of diplomacy and intrigue.

Clinton’s offer came three years after the Bush administration opened up the US market to Indian mangoes in exchange for allowing Harley-Davidson to sell its famed motorcycles in India – a deal that generated goodwill as the two countries finalized a civilian nuclear agreement.

Washington’s mango-powered diplomacy this time around is part of a broader $7.5 billion aid effort that is meant to improve the image of the US in Pakistan, a move officials hope will provide the Pakistani government with greater room to cooperate on turning around the war in Afghanistan.

I have personally vouched for Pakistani mangoes, which are delicious, and I’m looking forward to seeing Americans be able to enjoy those in the coming months,” Clinton said during her visit to Islamabad last week.

The prominence of mangoes in South Asian diplomacy should come as no surprise since scientists believe the sweet and fleshy orange fruit originated in the region before Buddhist monks and Persian traders introduced the plant to other areas of the world.

Pakistan and India recognize the mango as their national fruit, and summer in both countries is defined by the sights and sounds of vendors hawking piles of soft, sweet-smelling mangoes or pureeing them to create refreshing drinks that cut through the scorching heat…

RTFA. Interesting tidbits about one of my favorite fruits.

The article ends appropriately with an Indian proverb: ”You can’t hurry a mango tree to ripen its fruit.”

Music training primes nervous system, boosts learning

Those ubiquitous wires connecting listeners to you-name-the-sounds from invisible MP3 players — whether of Bach, Miles Davis or, more likely today, Lady Gaga — only hint at music’s effect on the soul throughout the ages.

Now a data-driven review by Northwestern University researchers…pulls together converging research from the scientific literature linking musical training to learning that spills over to skills including language, speech, memory, attention and even vocal emotion. The science covered comes from labs all over the world, from scientists of varying scientific philosophies, using a wide range of research methods.

The explosion of research in recent years focusing on the effects of music training on the nervous system, including the studies in the review, have strong implications for education, said Nina Kraus…director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

Scientists use the term neuroplasticity to describe the brain’s ability to adapt and change as a result of training and experience over the course of a person’s life. The studies covered in the Northwestern review offer a model of neuroplasticity, Kraus said. The research strongly suggests that the neural connections made during musical training also prime the brain for other aspects of human communication.

An active engagement with musical sounds not only enhances neuroplasticity, she said, but also enables the nervous system to provide the stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns so important to learning…

“A musician’s brain selectively enhances information-bearing elements in sound,” Kraus said. “In a beautiful interrelationship between sensory and cognitive processes, the nervous system makes associations between complex sounds and what they mean.” The efficient sound-to-meaning connections are important not only for music but for other aspects of communication, she said…

“The effect of music training suggests that, akin to physical exercise and its impact on body fitness, music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness and thus requires society to re-examine the role of music in shaping individual development, ” the researchers conclude.

Sounds like – the story of my life. Certainly, some of the most enjoyable bits.

Spiders pour from cargo hold – ship ordered to leave Guam

A South Korean cargo ship had to be turned away…after an infestation of spiders was discovered in the cargo hold.

Customs officials discovered the infestation in the MV Altavia’s cargo after the South Korean ship docked in Guam, one of the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean.

Thousands of spiders, some with bodies as big as 10 pence pieces, started pouring out of the ship’s crates as Guam’s Port Authority workers began moving the containers off the boat onto the dock, last Wednesday.

The shipment had been destined for a US military base construction site on the island for 8,000 US Marines.

The ship was told to leave the port and moor off shore while officials investigated if the species was venomous or posed any danger, Guam’s agriculture officials said.

It was then turned away completely two days later and told to return home with the spiders still on board.

“It was because of the quantity,” Joseph Torres, director of Guam’s Department of Agriculture told US military newspaper Stars and Stripes…

It is unclear what happened to the ship or spiders after the ship left Guam.

The spider species remains unidentified.

Probably on their way to Okinawa. Har!

Has the 3D bubble already burst?

Hollywood’s faith in the power of 3D movies to deliver a bright future of packed cinemas and spectacle-wearing audiences has been jolted by figures that show the high-tech format may already be floundering.

Seven months ago James Cameron’s science fiction epic Avatar burst onto the screen in three dimensions, taking in $2.7 billion and becoming the highest grossing film of all time…

But now, with the tally of major films released in the new format expected to reach 22 by the end of the year – with up to $7.50 extra being charged per ticket – there are signs that 3D may not, after all, be the panacea for falling ticket sales…

When Avatar came out in December, 71 per cent of Americans who went to see it on opening weekend – often the peak moment for a new release – opted for a cinema showing the 3D version. In March, when the animated fantasy How to Train Your Dragon was released, 68 per cent of the audience chose to see the film that way. By May that figure for Shrek Forever After was down to 61 per cent. At the beginning of this month only 56 per cent saw The Last Airbender in 3D, and a week later the proportion fell even lower, to 45 per cent, for the newly-released animation Despicable Me…

Critics say part of the problem may be the technology itself. While Avatar was specifically made in the new format, studios have hurriedly converted films that were originally made for two dimensions. The process…can be done in a matter of weeks, allowing for a quick release. However, a lot of the time it simply doesn’t work and delivers murky pictures…

After seeing director M.Night Shyamalan’s…The Last Airbender…Roger Ebert said it “looked like it was filmed with a dirty sheet over the lens”. He said Hollywood’s current infatuation with 3D was just an excuse to add surcharges to already expensive cinema tickets…

Some of those who know the film industry best are convinced the latest trend will go the same way as the 3D fads of the 1950s and 1980s. “3D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension and Hollywood’s current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal,” according to Ebert.

I can’t speak from personal experience. I haven’t found the potential interesting enough to drag me to the nearest whoop-de-doo cinemaplex. And no way would I bust my personal budget for entertainment hardware for a 3D replacement for my existing HDTV sitting happily in our living room.

Might get a bigger set, some day. That’s always a worthwhile investment. Especially if we get more proper football matches in HD. 🙂

Automated gates allow banned criminal into UK

Bought a baby for £150 to qualify for council housing

An embarrassing failure to prevent a banned criminal from entering Britain has led to major concerns over the country’s border controls.

The breach raises questions over the effectiveness of ‘facial recognition’ scanners, installed at a cost of millions of pounds to try to prevent known criminals and terrorists from entering the country.

Earlier this year a convicted immigration offender, who had been deported at the end of her prison sentence and banned from re-entering the UK, managed to get past one of the scanners and into the country, raising fears that such abuses could be widespread.

It is the second blow in a week for the Home Office’s electronic border controls, after the department had to cancel a £750 million contract with the US company Raytheon to operate an “e-Borders” scheme.

The automated gates at the centre of the security breach were installed as a replacement for human immigration officers. They measure unique details about the traveller’s face as they pass through, and compare those measurements with details stored on a microchip within the new biometric travel documents known as e-passports.

The Home Office has installed the technology at eight airports including Gatwick and Stansted at a cost of £9 million, with plans to introduce it at Heathrow soon.

The investigation that exposed the flaw was only triggered because the woman who got past the scanner took the unusual step of going public when she appeared at an industrial tribunal, thus alerting the authorities to the fact that she had re-entered the UK.

As a long time geek, I think technology can resolve a helluva lot of questions. Proven technology.

Throwing crap hardware and equally crap software into the field – while piling gold into the coffers of connected corporations – is an exercise in futility and false hope.

We did the same in the United States with electronic monitoring of our southern border. We outsourced millions into contracts for ineffective systems. Drug smugglers probably have better apps than the coppers.

Meanwhile, over in the 51st state, you’re moving from fuzzy-minded followers who were in control of the Labour Party – to a coalition of “less foolish, we hope” beancounters. Good luck with that.

Saint Louis pigeons poop on pop stars – force end to concert

Pooping pigeons forced the Kings of Leon to abandon their St. Louis, Missouri, concert after just three songs Friday night.

An infestation of the birds in the rafters of the Verizon Amphitheatre bombarded the musicians as soon as they took the stage, according to Andy Mendelsohn of Vector Management.

“Jared (Followill) was hit several times during the first two songs,” Mendelsohn said of the band’s bassist.

“It’s not only disgusting — it’s a toxic health hazard. They really tried to hang in there,” Mendelsohn added.

Followill, who describes himself as a “germophobe,” said there was already poop on his pedal and carpet when he walked out on stage.

The aerial attack began during the opening song — “Closer” — when he was bombed in the face. His bass tech wiped most of it off with a sanitary wipe, he said…

“I was hit by pigeons on each of the first three songs,” he said. “We had 20 songs on the set list. By the end of the show, I would have been covered from head to toe…”

Opening bands The Postelles and The Stills came offstage complaining of getting riddled with large amounts of excrement…

Concertgoers were apparently spared the aerial bombardment.

“No fans got pooped on as far as we know,” the band’s publicist said.

I think the pigeons either had good aim or good taste – or both.

The music is pretty boring, cookie cutter musical poop. IMHO.

Mass grave uncovered in Monterrey, Mexico

Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission

Police have unearthed at least 51 bodies in a mass grave outside Mexico’s business capital Monterrey since Thursday, a grisly sign of the escalating drug violence in the northern city.

Acting on a tip from an informant, investigators have been digging up a rural area 12 miles east of Monterrey, uncovering dozens of corpses, some burned beyond recognition, others with bullet wounds, said the governor of Nuevo Leon state, where Monterrey is located.

“(Investigators) believe these could be people related to organized crime, a product of war between these cartels,” Governor Rodrigo Medina told reporters. “This is the level of violence we expect when these groups clash.”

Many of the victims found in the mass grave were believed to have died as recently as two weeks ago, police said.

Timely action by the police, I see.

Wealthy Monterrey, whose residents earn on average twice as much as other Mexicans, was until recently an oasis of relative tranquility amid the drug violence that has gripped northern Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched an army-led crackdown on drug cartels after taking office in late 2006.

But the modern, high-rise city is no longer immune. Cartels have dumped their victims in streets, staged brazen kidnappings and even blocked off major roads to thwart the police.

Decade upon decade of corruption and cronyism among politicians who bought and sold their offices produce exactly what anyone would reasonably expect. A thoroughly corrupt nation with no security services which can be trusted by the state to bring down gangsters.

There is little or no reason for ordinary citizens to risk their lives – or so they feel. Turn in a drug dealer to the police and you are the one liable to be killed for tomorrow’s headline. Perhaps, now that the wealthy are threatened, something more than street warfare will begin.