Saturday, 30 January 2016

In God we trust — and little else

It was with some bemusement I found myself watching the Fox News hosted US Republican Party presidential candidates' debate the other night ahead of the upcoming Iowa caucus. Most of it was utterly cringeworthy — no surprises there I hear you say. Perhaps we should cut them some slack; it is after all just a 'little' United States conservative affair to see who actually gets nominated, so they're playing to that particular gallery. None of them are running the whole show — for the time being anyway.
For all Marco Rubio's God talk, it's unlikely to land him the US's Commander-in-Chief job ...
Rubio: Preaching from the pulpit.
Yet I couldn't prevent myself from getting a little angry listening to some of the utterances by these potential leaders of the 'free world'. And the man who irked me the most was the one who has been touted to be US president some day — if not this time around, in future elections: the Republican's young saviour, Marco Rubio.

The amount of times he spoke of Jesus Christ and 'almighty God' doing their (or 'his', it's the one 'person', isn't it?) bit to make the United States of America 'great again' was actually quite disturbing. Who needs concrete, practical policies when God is standing by to lend a hand? Heck, this presidency gig is child's play.

OK, everyone is entitled to his/her beliefs, but when we're dealing with real-life issues, quoting from books of questionable veracity and putting your trust in something that we have scant evidence of its actual existence is worrying (on this front, do recall Iraq's 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'). Sure there's no need for science to find a remedy for the current Zika virus pandemic, God'll fix it. It's akin to an episode of the British/Irish sitcom Fr Ted, where one of the priests is in a life-threatening situation that required a practical solution but the original help he receives from his colleagues is a mass. Needless to say there was no divine inspiration and a more hands-on approach won the day.

What's more, this fundamentalist Christian approach has the potential to be, and has been, as damaging and dangerous in a multi-ethnic USA and beyond as Muslim fundamentalism is. It seems that Rubio, of Cuban-Catholic origin, is trying to be more Wasp (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) than the Wasps themselves.

At this remove it's looking like a straight shootout between Trump and Clinton for the Oval Office.
Is Mrs Clinton to be Trumped? Oh dear ...
The Florida senator even had the temerity to have a little dig at Sweden. This is the Sweden that regularly features amongst the top in the world for access to and standard of education, good health care, quality of life and such like. The 'great' United States of America could do much worse than to follow the Nordic country in how it runs its affairs.

Indeed, an indication of the political acumen on display in the debate was that Jeb Bush actually came across as one of the ablest (Ben Carson also performed well, but in this show biz contest he lamentably lacks the charisma to appeal to the masses). Missing on the night, it must be remembered, was the leading contender Donald Trump. That he's actually heading this race pretty much sums up what we're dealing with here.

Fair enough, there's not too much to inspire confidence on the Democratic side either, but it's a case of going with the lesser of two evils.

That aside, it is only the president's gig we're talking about: just the dog (or should that be god?) being wagged by the unelected US and world financial tail that controls more or less everything. Ah well, at least we get a bit of TV drama from this election smoke screen.
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Friday, 29 January 2016

Product endorsement, an ad-bomination

The ridiculous amounts of money the globe's top sports stars earn is something that is regularly debated. It's certainly a topic that comes up with many of my more advanced English students via a discussion book that explores what are seen as some of today's 'controversial' topics.

Diego Maradona and Mars; a match, um, made in heaven ...
The great Maradona in his Mars-sponsored Napoli shirt. 
The latest edition of this chat was with a high-up manager at an international company that operates in Colombia.

Both of us were (and are) of the opinion that the use by companies of such well-paid sports stars (and others) for product endorsement is a little silly; that the amounts paid don't really justify the results, which are intangible at best. Can you really say, for example, that using Lionel Messi to promote Head & Shoulders leads to bigger sales?

My student, owing to his line of work, had personal experience of this whole area. Working for the chocolate company Mars in Argentina in the mid 80s, he was asked to persuade his compatriot Diego Maradona to become the face of the chocolate bar in Europe following his move to the Italian club Napoli from Barcelona in 1984.

Maradona, apparently, had pretty much no idea what he was being asked to endorse. In fact, as my student who dealt with him put it, he was more thinking about the Spanish word marte, referring to the planet Mars. The footballer might have thought he was backing a Martian invasion for all he knew. (Although he no doubt devoured a few of the chocolate bars in his time — nothing healthier sure.)

However, when sufficient money was put on the table, a deal was reached. My student had forewarned his more senior management in the US that they were practically "giving money to a monkey" and it was risky business. At the time, such warnings fell on deaf ears.

Maradona's well-documented drug problems that later came to light meant that the Mars association was subsequently dropped.

OK, Maradona was a unique character, on the field in a majestic way but off it in a somewhat malignant manner. Needless to say not all sports stars carry the same product-association risk.

But it still begs the question: Is this type of much sought-after superstar endorsement worth it for companies? As stated above, I don't think so and neither does my student who is more qualified to speak on this topic.

Granted, there are other, perhaps more significant factors that contribute to the bloated salaries many sports stars receive. However, this just adds to the madness, while the practice itself seems mad. Couldn't the money be spent on more practical things?

Yet, the companies who engage in it surely have their homework done. It may be seen as advertising on the cheap in a way. Considering the cost of prime time ads and/or a big, prolonged marketing campaign, a one-off payment to some well-known face to say he/she eats or uses or does whatever with your product may make more economic sense.

Bearing in mind, though, that most 'normal' thinking adults couldn't care less if a certain star uses a certain product, why bother with such rather meaningless, high-profile endorsements at all? Save a bit of money lads. The quality, or otherwise, of the thing in question should speak for itself.
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Thursday, 21 January 2016

Waging a sweet war, for health's sake

Some like it in its brilliant-white crystal form, taken with a spoon. Others prefer it less refined, in its 'purer' state. While more, perhaps the majority in the world, prefer to ingest it, refined, into the bloodstream via a straw.

Kellogg's Frosties: a bowlful of sugar to kick-start your day ...
'A grrreat source of sugar ...'
It's a global addiction that has been going on largely unchecked for centuries. Yet it appears that individuals and governments alike are finally realising the error of their ways, initiating a fightback against this potentially damaging substance that has been marketed with a smile whilst being fed to us in huge doses.

Yes, the war on sugar appears to be entering a new, potentially pulverising phase. Indeed, some experts in the field are comparing today's 'battle against the sugar bowl' with last century's brave stand against nicotine — that is to say taking on the powerful tobacco industry, a fight that continues across the globe.

Of course inhaling cigarette smoke isn't an essential part of living, so preventing people from engaging in such a practice in the first place, or at least limiting the frequency, is the best form of attack.

However, we all have to eat and drink to survive. This is where the war on sugar gets tricky. For one, sugar, in the general sense, is found in all fruit and vegetables we consume, an important energy source helping to keep our bodies active and alive. As for any chemical in the body, it's a case of getting the balance right. With sugar, doing just that has become nigh on impossible for many these days.

The problem is the 'packaged' diet. That is to say, not preparing what you consume from its crudest form. If you're cooking vegetables or eating fruit from scratch, you control the additional flavours to make them that bit tastier. The same goes for cereals such as oats and wheat. Yet, in the world of 'just add milk' breakfast cereals as well as prepared fruit products like smoothies and even ready-made meals, there tends to be uncalled for amounts of additional sugar.

'And whaddya know?!' Sugar has been proven to have addictive properties, so if food/beverage companies pump enough of it into their products, they're on to a winner. It isn't for nothing Kellogg's Frosties' Tony the Tiger says 'They're grrreat'. Great for business perhaps, not for your health though.

A nice coffee with milk, leaving the sugar to one side, in La Perseverancia, Bogotá, Colombia.
Best to leave the sugar to one side ...
Then you have the soft-drink industry — arguably the worst of the lot for 'sugar crimes'. A recent study from Massachusetts-based Tufts University found that one in every 100 deaths from obesity-related diseases is caused by sugar-sweetened drinks. In other words, 184,000 deaths across the globe every year have now been linked to this type of beverage.

The research found that this is a particular problem in low- and middle-income countries, such as here in Colombia and in Mexico. Venezuela didn't feature in the report, but having just visited there, it appears they have a strong love affair with the sugar-laden refrescante. A significant reason, maybe, for the, um, huge obesity problem the country seems to have.

Another angle to all of this is the sugar-fat mix. Studies suggest that when you get this combination in food, as you do in many processed products, especially in the confectionery industry, the body has a hard time figuring out when it's eaten enough. One explanation, then, as to why people gorge out on chocolate and the like.

The cliche advice for such things is 'everything in moderation'. That holds for sugar, too. As stated, it's a good energy source for our bodies. The snag is the 'moderation' part. Unnecessary amounts of it are practically in our faces every minute of every day. As with illegal narcotics, it's a case of 'just say no'. Actually putting that into practice is the difficult part.
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Thursday, 14 January 2016

Ireland's (bitter)sweet '16

We are, as it's said, shaped by our history; and certain past experiences define us more than others. This year, Ireland is gearing up to commemorate the centenaries of a couple of such 'game-changing' events. In general, they are viewed as symbolising two distinct Irelands.

The 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic; a real game changer?
The 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic (from Facebook).
One, the more localised 1916 Easter Rising, a rather small, violent occurrence at the actual time organised by a group of Irishmen trying to forcibly remove the island from the British Empire, shaking off the shackles of colonial oppression. The other, World War One's Battle of the Somme, a more international event obviously enough, where thousands of Irishmen lost their lives fighting for that same British Empire, one that many of those slain soldiers felt was worth fighting for and not against.

As contemporary discourse continues to highlight, arguments can be made for and against both outlooks. And as the make-up of today's Ireland shows, the two 'factions' still exist, with pretty strong support, too.

Both events will be remembered with perhaps not so much pomp but a good dollop of ceremony on the whole island; a noble act honouring the sacrifices made and risks taken by these people in that tumultuous year you might say.

Yet, as is often the case, the aspired outcomes that made these people do what they did at that time were not realised. What's more, especially in the case of the Somme and World War One, we saw it all over again and on a greater scale just a couple of decades later.

For the leaders of the 1916 Rising, an all-island Irish republic hasn't been achieved. In fact, an upshot of their actions was to further deepen the divide and suspicion between the predominantly British nationalist/Protestant north-east and the Irish nationalist/Catholic leaning rest. While the dream of a united, independent Ireland outside of the British Empire, won by peaceful, political means, wasn't really a runner at that time, the military/guerrilla approach did much to seal the two-state solution.

Indeed, Irish nationalists in Ireland's north-east surely find it difficult to see the rising as the catalyst event that eventually led to an improvement in all-round conditions, an old proud race regaining control of their own destiny. No, their time was to come much later in the century.

Also, those thousands of Irish nationalists from Catholic strongholds who fought at the Somme, for the lucky ones who returned, they came back to a country that largely ignored their sacrifices. New Irish heroes had been made, or were in the process of being made — the Easter Rising saw to that. To have shown loyalty to and solidarity with the British cause in the hope of future political concessions found very little credence in post-1916 Ireland.

A mural in Bangor, Co. Down, remembering the 36th (Ulster) Division that fought in the Battle of the Somme.
Remembering the 36th (Ulster) Division (from bnp.org.uk).
On the contrary, the island colleagues of those Irish nationalists who fought at the Somme, the 36th (Ulster) Division, did see some initial reward, indirectly as it may have been, for their 'blood sacrifice' in the proceeding years. The creation of the official territory of Northern Ireland, very much part of the union with Great Britain and the Empire, allowed, more or less, for the establishment of, in the words of its first Prime Minister Lord Craigavon, 'a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state', a counterpoint to what was happening in the south.

Yet, on a greater scale, the end of World War One could be seen as marking the beginning of the end of the British Empire and a once 'great' Britain. Nothing would ever be the same again, the world had entered a new phase.

As we look back now, 100 years on from these era-defining moments, as the commemorations planned show, they still very much resonate on the island of Ireland. And its political shape, you could argue, whichever side you come from, resembles what the men and women of 1916 would have imagined it to be in years to come.

Two fairly distinct states exist. Northern Ireland remains very much part of the United Kingdom — albeit and thankfully much less sectarian and more democratic than it was in its early years. What is now the Republic of Ireland is pretty much as good as it could have been, territorially speaking if nothing else, for those who fought and died for it.

Yet the divisions among Irish people that the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising represent are, on a day-to-day basis anyway, much weaker now than at any other time since. Whatever about the past and its significance today, it's a case of finding that mutual respect and understanding in the present.
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Thursday, 7 January 2016

Basking (and biking) in Bogotá

We can often be quite selfish beings, or at the very least parochial. So while the El Niño weather phenomenon is causing significant hardship for many across Colombia and beyond in terms of severe drought, in Bogotá, to all extent and purposes, it's been rather pleasant, save for the odd price increase in some staple foodstuffs.
A recently constructed cycle path alongside Autopista Norte in Bogotá DC, Colombia.
Bogotá has some decent cycle paths; there could always be more of course.
The recent months of decent sunshine and dryness in the nation's capital have been, from a personal point of view anyway, well received. Bogotá, perhaps more than others, is a depressing place to be when the heavy rains, as they do, inundate the metropolis. Streets and footpaths turn into rivers, it's cold (relatively speaking), dark and the desire to leave your abode is low, unless you have your own door-to-door transport, preferably a boat.

When the rainy season visits Bogotá it generally makes you question, more than usual, what you're doing here. So the wet weather hasn't really been missed, for the moment in any case.

Now it must be noted that coinciding with this extended, exceptionally dry period is Colombia's chief holiday season. For roughly the past four weeks it's largely been work to rule, if you work at all that is. The country's on a go slow and will be for about another week. What this means for Bogotá is that there are fewer people and consequently less traffic about. Commuting in the capital is almost fun. This is an important factor: the rain may make the traffic that bit worse but it's not a whole lot better in sunshine when the place is in full swing.

Bogotá's new mayor, Enrique Peñolosa (centre) likes to get around on his bike.
Mayor Cool: Enrique Peñolosa (photo from Facebook).
Alongside this, for the last few weeks I've had a bicycle (a woman's one albeit) available to me for getting around. Not only does it cut down on rising transport costs but peddling around the city at this moment in time is rather enjoyable — not quite an oasis of tranquillity, but enjoyable nonetheless. Using the bike is something that has been officially promoted here for some time and will be even more so with new mayor Enrique Peñolosa, a man who never seems to miss a photo opportunity with helmet on, atop of his bike.

I'd generally been reluctant to use a bike in Bogotá for a number of reasons. Firstly, if I'd a class a good distance away, arriving all sweaty or soaking wet or both didn't really appeal. If the class was inside an hour's walk away, I'd go by foot. Then there was (and is) the security issue: Where do I securely stow the bike so it won't get robbed? Not all places are bike friendly and you run the risk of it being stolen tying it up in public.

However, right now with 'my' bike, both those problems don't really come into play: I don't have many classes so it's usually just for social reasons I cycle and where ever I go I tend to have a secure place to leave the bike.
Children having a water fight in Bogotá: in other parts of Colombia they're fighting to find water right now.
Water fight in Bogotá; in other parts there's none to drink.

All this could change in the coming weeks. If and when the rain returns, biking around Bogotá will be much less fun, nay impossible on some routes. When the masses return it will be more chaotic.

Then there's the small matter that in a few weeks I won't have access to the bike I’m using — it's a perk that comes with the nice apartment and temperamental cat (there's always a downside) I'm currently looking after.

Thus, it's a case of enjoying things while I can. It's a given that I'll have to vacate the apartment and leave the bike behind. Plus, it's unlikely that this sunny weather will keep up. If it were to, our water might be regularly cut off for conservation purposes. Goodness, we might begin to feel the adverse effects of El Niño then, just like the rest of the country is right now. Oh spare us the hardship, please.
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Saturday, 2 January 2016

The art of darts

The on-line edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines 'sport' as 'an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment'.
Streaming the William Hill PDC World Championship; proper darts!
The home theatre for the last couple of weeks.

The amount of 'physical exertion' required to make something a sport isn't specified and, ergo, it's open to debate as to what classifies as one and what doesn't.

For many, darts does not fall into the sport category. This is the 'game' — the chief version of it anyway —  where you throw metal arrows (darts) at a circular board numbered randomly from one to 20 with double and treble segments on each number, and a red 'bull' at its centre worth 50, surrounded by a narrow green ring valued 25.

In general, the main place you'll find people playing this, outside of the trade's professionals, is in a pub — that is to say in an alcohol-selling, (usually) laid-back venue.

So to describe it as a sport just doesn't sit well with many people's perceptions of such. For one, when most think of sport and those who practice it, they imagine well-ripped bodies, a picture book image of ultimate fitness. Darts' leading lights don't exactly, erm, 'fit' that description.

Yet, to come back to the dictionary definition, darts is certainly something that requires skill. Yes, anyone can throw a metal arrow at a board, in the same way that anyone can kick a football. But to throw it with accuracy and consistency over a period of time in a contest is something completely different. It is the quintessential game of millimetres. In terms of physical exertion, well there is a continuous throwing action required and you don't exactly get the chance to sit down and relax.

However you view it, the game/sport and the whole show around it appears to have grown significantly in popularity and exposure, as well as prize money for the players, in Northern Europe — Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands especially — over the last decade or so.

'Fernando the Great' demonstrates his tejo skills in La Perseverancia, Bogotá DC, Colombia.
Tejo — Colombia's 'darts' ...
That 'show' element has been crucial. A night out watching the globe's top darts players — something I've had the pleasure to do twice — is great craic (fun) as we say in Ireland. What's more, even with limited knowledge of the game, not that it's that hard to comprehend, it generally makes for compulsive viewing on TV. Real-life drama, as we've had on numerous occasions at the PDC World Championship over the last few days. (For the record, there are two rival world governing bodies, the other being the BDO, both of which host world championships.)

OK, I'm writing as one of the converted and once I understand any sport I tend to appreciate it, even if I don't play it. (However, I must state that I did win a darts doubles tournament in my local pub in Ireland years back; it was more thanks to my playing partner but a win's a win!)

It's why that over this Christmas period, although I'm thousands of miles away from the action, in a country where darts doesn't register a beat — though Colombia does have versions in tejo and rana, minus the professional organisation/glamour — I've been like a hermit, in a positive way methinks, streaming the world championship action in my apartment.

Some sort of normality, whatever that is, will resume when the PDC World Championship ends this Sunday. Like those who love Christmas, there'll be an empty feeling for a while, but there’s always next year.
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