Thursday, April 18, 2013

Guns in the USA - what's really wrong...

Want to know what's really wrong with the USA and guns?

Read these two NY Times Headlines, one after the other in today's paper...

First the gun control laws won't change giving Obama's Government a headache, and in the next breath the US are selling $10 billion worth of arms to the Middle East - go below

For Gun Bill Born in Tragedy, a Tangled Path to Defeat

The failure this week of the Senate’s search for consensus on gun control after the Newtown shooting can be traced to timing, convoluted rules and a counterproductive alliance.

U.S. Arms Deal With Israel and 2 Arab Nations Is Near

A $10 billion deal would provide missiles, warplanes and troop transports to help Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates counter threats from Iran.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Poetry Under The Stars

Dubai's poetry under the stars

The Dubai Festival of Literature is now in its fifth year and attracts some of the world's best known authors and poets.

Two hundred events run throughout the week-long event and range from performances and debates to workshops.

For the first time there is also poetry in the desert under the stars. 

Polina Semionova - Ballet Dancer

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Monday, April 8, 2013

Obama - fights back tears - emotional plea for gun bill

Obama in an emotional plea for the gun bill - video

The Sweet Sound of Success - Music

It is an amazing story of survival - a parable of how small businesses can use the old ways to make money, but then adapt and prosper down the generations.
Today, the quiet town of Markneukirchen, nestling in the mountains of eastern Germany near the Czech border, would be called an "economic cluster", a place where different companies combine in a close-knit single industry.
But when tradesman started making musical instruments in the town nearly four centuries ago, there was no fancy term for the way they were organised.
It was just the way they did things: violin-makers set up near manufacturers of bows, while the trombone workshop relied on the mouthpiece maker just up the street.

Start Quote

We only survive because we make special things for special musicians”
Kerstin VoigtVoigt Brass
Today, the town and the valley around it have 113 different enterprises, all involved in making musical instruments. They rely on traditional methods, but utilise all the modern ways of connecting with far-away markets.
Everybody you talk to in the town has a story about how they learnt their particular trade - whether it be making a clarinet or a mandolin or a horn - from their father or uncle, nearly always a male member of the previous generation. They talk of the importance of learning properly by getting their hands dirty.
Behind curtains
This town's remarkable phenomenon started in the 17th Century when a group of Protestants fled across the border from religious persecution in Bohemia.
Among them was a group of instrument makers who settled in Markneukirchen.
By the 1900s, 80% of the world's musical instruments were made in the town.
Markneukirchen's town orchestraMarkneukirchen does not just sell its instruments, it can also play them rather well
It is a classic German town, with a central plaza, dominated by a church, with cobbled streets running off it. If you go along these streets, you occasionally see a sign or a shop window, indicating the occupant makes zithers or bows, or mouthpieces for trumpets.
But more often than not, you will learn only from an in-the-know local exactly what profitable crafting goes on behind the front curtains.
In Albertstrasse, for example, there is a maker of violin bows and chin rests at number nine and a maker of zithers at number 23. Neither have showy shop fronts - but they do sell to the world. Invariably, manufacturers in the town talk of the importance of high quality.
"We have more than 100 manufacturers of musical instruments," says Frank Bilz, who does much of the marketing for the town's industry.
"Most of them are very small workshops with father, son and mother doing the book-keeping - that's 80% of them. The other 20% are very small to medium-sized companies. And some of them are bigger, with 150 up to 300 employees."
Blood lines
You get a sense from the town that tradition matters - these are not people who swerve to meet the latest fad.
Bjorn Stoll, for example, learnt to make double basses from his father, but in previous generations, the Stolls made strings for basses rather than the complete instruments.
MarkneukirchenMarkneukirchen has more than 100 makers of musical instruments or parts for them
"My grand-grand-grand-grandfather started in 1835 making strings for instruments," he says. "My grandfather made strings and my father was the first bass maker."
Or take the case of Voigt Brass, set up by Juergen Voigt in 1988. He started learning to play the trombone at the age of 10, and then, at the age of 14, how to make one from his uncle.
He worked for 20 years for a bigger manufacturer, and then, in 1988, he decided to set up on his own at home. Today, he still gets his hands dirty in the workshop but the business is run by his daughter, Kerstin, the ninth generation in the trombone trade.
"It's in my blood," she says.
The business has expanded from the Voigt home to a workshop on the edge of town, but the methodology remains the same: rely on human skill and manual dexterity. There has been investment in machinery and also an embrace of the internet as a sales tool, but it remains a high-skill manual operation.
Chinese competition
Kerstin VoigtKerstin Voigt says the business is in her blood
How can such companies and their old-fashioned ways compete with China?
Kerstin Voigt accepts that China can mass produce cheaply, but says her company gets its edge because it tailors instruments to the needs of musicians. If someone wants a particular mouthpiece, that's what they get.
"We only survive because we make special things for special musicians," she says.
The bass maker, Bjorn Stoll, echoes that: "China is no problem for me. China makes low price and low quality. China also makes good quality, but the good quality is expensive. Good musicians in China want European instruments."
That is a recurring theme among the instrument makers of Markneukirchen. Long-lasting profits depend on high quality produced with a keen eye to costs and price. They do not simply go for cheapness.
Communist past
During the days of communism, the former East German regime realised the value of the industry to its foreign-exchange coffers.
The businesses in the town were reorganised collectively. Foreign demand was assessed by the state trading agency, and the makers of instruments were allocated schedules of production in January to fulfil through the year.
The instruments were given to the agency in return for wages and then exported for hard currency. The state, in turn, was very grateful for the foreign exchange, so much so that the musical instrument makers were celebrated on stamps.
East German StampsEast Germany celebrated Markneukirchen's success in stamps
Academics from all over the world have come to Germany to try to find out how the highly-successful "mittelstand" of small and medium-sized companies can be replicated.
From Markneukirchen there are suggestions, but no single, clear answer - no obvious mystery ingredient X which might be copied and emulated around the world.
The trombone manufacturer, Kerstin Voigt, says simply: "Tradition."
But companies that stick with tradition too long go out of business. What she does is keep the traditional ways of manufacturing which she learnt from her father, but employ machinery where possible - provided quality is not compromised.
They cannot compete on price with low-wage, ultra mass-producers, but they can compete at the higher end of the market where quality counts.
And they believe strongly in training the next generation. There is a belief in continuity - of learning the basics and adapting to meet new markets.
They are people who find virtue in doing something well.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Sleepy Kitten

Sleepy? Get your own pillow!

Telepathy - Reading Minds - will we ever create the technology to read minds?

Will we ever… create the technology to read minds?

There’s tantalising evidence that technology could one day allow us to transmit thoughts telepathically between two brains. The question is how far can we go?
In a lab at Harvard Medical School, a man is using his mind to wag a rat’s tailTo send his command, he merely glances at a strobe light flickering on a computer screen, and a set of electrodes stuck to his scalp detects the activity triggered in his brain. A computer processes and relays the electrodes’ signal to an ultrasound machine poised over the rat’s head. The machine delivers a train of low-energy ultrasound pulses into the rat’s brain, stimulating its motor cortex – the area that governs its movements. The pulses are aimed purposely at a rice-grain-sized area that controls the rat’s tail. It starts to wag.
This link-up is the brainchild of Seung-Schik Yoo, and it works more than 94% of the time. Whenever a human looks at the flickering lights, the rat’s tail almost always starts to wag just over a second later. The connection between them is undeniably simple. The volunteer is basically flicking a switch in the rat’s brain between two positions – move tail, and don’t move tail. But it is still an impressive early example of something we will see more of in coming years – a way to connect between two living brains.
Science-fiction is full of similar (if more flamboyant) brain-to-brain links. From the Jedi knights of Star Wars to various characters in the X-Men comics, popular culture abounds with telepathic characters that can read minds and transmit their thoughts without any direct physical contact or the use of their senses. There’s no evidence that any of us mere mortals share the same ability, but as Yoo’s study shows, technology is edging us closer in that direction. The question is: how far can we recreate telepathy using electronics? A human wagging a rat’s tail is one thing. Will we ever get to the point where we can share speech or emotions or memories?
The first step would be to decode what someone is thinking. Neuroscientists have made substantial progress in deciphering images from patterns of brain activity, and several groups are working on decoding inner speech. People have managed to commandeer computer cursors, artificial limbs and virtual drones through brain-computer interfaces (BCI), which use brain activity to control man-made devices. But to achieve true telepathy, brain activity has to be decoded and used to influence another brain. “We’ve got brain-to-computer interfaces, but we need the other side of it – computer-to-brain interfaces,” says Yoo.
Last year, Christopher James from the University of Warwick built a very rudimentary one. He used scalp electrodes to mentally control a set of LEDs, which flashed at one speed when James thought about moving his left hand, and at another when he imagined moving his right hand. James’ daughter was watching the LEDs, and though she couldn’t consciously distinguish between the two flashing speeds, her visual cortex – the part of the brain that processes sights – registered the difference. By measuring the activity in her brain, another set of electrodes could work out what the LEDs were doing.
This may have been an electronic link-up between two human brains, but as James points out, it’s not telepathy. “It’s not like someone sits there imagining a complex thought, and it appears in the other person’s head,” he says. “My daughter was completely unaware. At no point did she say ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. It would have been more informative to put the words on the screen.” She also had to look at the LEDs to register what was happening, which violates the “no senses allowed” rule of true telepathy.
Brain dictionary
Yoo’s study, linking a human to a rat, was closer. Miguel Nicolelis from Duke University provided another striking example earlier this year, by connecting the brains of two rats that were faced with the same task –press one of two levers to get a rewarding drink. When the first rat made its choice, electrical activity in its motor cortex was recorded and converted into a simpler signal – either one electrical pulse or a train of them, depending on which lever it pressed. The signals were beamed to another implant in the motor cortex of the second rat, which had its own levers. If it picked the same one as its anonymous partner – which it did 64% of the time – both rats got an extra drink. By the way, one rat was in the US city of Durham, North Carolina, while the other was in Natal, Brazil.
These examples are impressive, but all of them involved the transmission of very simple information – nothing more complex than a binary choice. Left or right. One or zero. The telepathy of science-fiction is still looking pretty fictional.
What would it take to send a more complex message? A sensation? A memory? We know it’s certainly possible to evoke vivid sensations by stimulating different parts of the brain. Target the retina or the visual centres and you can produce illusory flashes of light called phosphenes. And in the 1950s, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield famously elicited vivid colours, sounds and memories by stimulating different parts of a surgical patient’s brain.
But to do this in an accurate, targeted way is far more difficult. Just consider sharing something simple like the feel of a door. “You feel a lot of different sensations like temperature and texture, and multiple areas of the brain are being engaged to interpret what’s going on. You have to decode all of that,” says Yoo.
Now, think about opening the door. “You have to make the decision to open the door, know what a door is and looks like, identify a handle, know that the handle goes down, and instruct your arm to move,” says James. At the moment, our brain-computer interfaces can only cope with the last bit. Scientists have indeed used electrical implants to connect the motor cortex with muscles in an arm, allowing patients to move otherwise paralysed limbs. But the rest of the steps recruit many more parts of the brain involved in memory, language, decision-making, and more.
To make matters worse, all of this will vary from individual to individual. The neurons in my brain that encode the concept of a door may reside in the same general area as their counterparts in your brain, but not in exactly the same spot. To effectively decode complex content from one brain and encode it in another, you’d need to compile a thorough “dictionary” for each brain, linking neural activity across the whole grey blob with different concepts or sensations. “We have to individually customise it all,” says Yoo.

There are technological challenges too. Researchers like James and Yoo have relied on electroencephalography (EEG) – a technique that uses electrodes positioned on the scalp to measure underlying brain activity. On the plus side, it’s simple to use and doesn’t use surgery. Unfortunately, James compares it to “recording 150 conversations in a packed ballroom while you’re sitting outside with 50 microphones.”
Drill deeper
Stimulating the brain from the outside is equally crude. Scientists are limited to techniques like transcranial magnetic stimulation, which use magnetic fields to zap large areas of the brain into excitement or submission. And Yoo’s technique – focused ultrasound – is newer, but still involves immobilising a rat’s head under a large machine. Neither technique is well suited for delivering precise sensations.
The best alternative is to actually drill through the skull and implant electrodes. These have improved to the point where we can record activity from a small, tight cluster of neurons and stimulate them with fast and careful timing. But you would have to plaster the whole brain with them. And did I mention the drilling? “Is it something that humans without severe medical problems should put up with?” asks Michael D’Zmura, a psychologist from University of California, Irvine. “I think not.” 
All of which raises the critical question: why would you bother? “You have to compare these options to what we’re capable of when we speak to one another,” says D’Zmura. We already have incredibly sophisticated biological hardware for making and interpreting sounds, which don’t rely on any implants or surgeries.
That said, everyone mentions the possibility of communicating with locked-in patients, who are fully awake and aware but unable to move or talk. But it is hard to see what benefit a truly telepathic connection would provide beyond what simpler brain-computer interfaces could achieve. These machines have already allowed locked-in patients to controlartificial limbs or send messages to their loved ones, and since these people are awake, getting messages to them is not the issue.
So the ideal of communicating complex information may be a red herring. James finds it easier to envisage situations where conveying simple sensations is more useful. “If you have a busy air-traffic controller whose senses are all over the place, you could imagine bypassing them all and delivering a type of alert when two aircraft are coming close to one another,” he says. It does not have to be a clear message. It could be something as simple as a tingling feeling – less Professor X’s psychic rallying cries, and more Spider-Man’s spider-sense.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Habits of Happiness

Pick up happiness habits. Photo / Thinkstock
Pick up happiness habits. Photo / Thinkstock

This new series expands on the foundation of the 10 happiness principles we covered in the happiness audit. It's called habits of happiness and it's a natural next step from the principles we have already discussed. Our habits are SO important. We literally are our habits. Our life is a manifestation of the habits we keep as we are what we repeatedly do.

Habits are woven through every moment of our waking life: The habit of being on time.
The habit of drinking plenty of water. Or wine. The habit of listening well. The habit of talking over others. The habit of avoiding conflict. The habit of kissing our partner good morning. The habit of working late. The habit of doing everything for everyone. The habit of walking the dog each morning. Habits. Habits. Habits.
We are all a multitude of habits. Some are working for us, and others may be old, or outdated, or just plain unhelpful.

Change can be hard to make in life. We get settled in our comfort zone, and even though we may not be that happy much of the time, there is much comfort in familiarity. Moving towards creating a happier life and being the person we want to be requires change and a conscious shift out of that comfort zone. That change can be hard to sustain. The reason for this is that we often try to make change using willpower alone.
Willpower is a finite resource and eventually it runs out. We join the gym with the intention of going four times a week for an hour each time as we want to be this fitter, thinner healthier version of ourselves. And for the first few weeks, while the willpower reserves are high, we do it.
Then, before long a stressful day with a few unexpected chores or issues crops up and we miss our session. And then the next day is "too busy" And before we know it that gym membership is something we see only once a month on the bank statement. Our willpower, although a force to be reckoned with, is often not enough to make lasting change stick and we slip back into comfortable old habits.
Making change that lasts is far more powerful when we look at developing a series of positive habits or rituals. Think about cleaning your teeth for example. That is a positive health ritual in your life that requires no effort: it's an automatic part of your day. No willpower involved and it happens twice a day, every day, no matter what. That's the sort of ease and effortlessness that we want to tap into.
Effective change is more often than not a thousand small choices, not one big decision. To create the life you want you need to exercise these muscles of making small positive choices and consciously examine our habits. We are going to examine a different habit of happiness each week, so you have a bite-sized happiness takeaway each week.
Something to think about, something to try, something to learn, something to do. We are going to layer tiny change on tiny change to build momentum that propels you forward to a life you absolutely love!
I recommend you buy yourself a journal or notebook to keep some notes of your journey in. I will also be creating some worksheets and checklists for you as we go along that you will be able to get from my website to support your journey. You just need to sign up for the newsletter list so you are in the loop.

We are going to explore in depth the following areas as we move forward each and every week to a more fulfilled, connected, simpler and happier life.
1. Blitz limiting beliefs
2. Create a compelling vision of what you want
3. Develop body love
4. Declutter inside and out
5. Practice emotional honesty
6. Know and love who you are
7. Cherish consciously chosen relationships
8. Develop resilience and radiate positive energy
9. Manage time like a ninja
10. Get clean with money
11. Do what you love
12. Take action make change!
So, commit to yourself, and continue the journey with me with the habits of happiness.
Action step
Buy yourself a pretty journal or workbook that you can make notes in as we work through this series.

Louise Thompson is a life coach, yoga teacher and corporate escapee. For more from Louise visit