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He’s done it … Zuckerberg is Iron Man

MARK ZUCKERBERG has a new housemate: Jarvis, an artificial intelligence assistant he created this year that can control appliances, play music, recognise faces and, perhaps most impressively, entertain his toddler.

The Facebook founder spent 100 hours putting together the virtual assistant — named after the artificial intelligence system in Iron Man — which understands spoken commands as well as text messages, he wrote in a 3,000-word Facebook post recently.

Among Jarvis’ skills: adjusting the home thermostat, turning on lights and operating the toaster. The virtual assistant texts Zuckerberg images of visitors who stop by during the day, and opens the front door for those it recognises. It can also tell when Zuckerberg’s one-year-old daughter, Max, wakes up “so it can start playing music or a Mandarin lesson,” he wrote.

In a tongue-in-cheek video he posted on Facebook, Zuckerberg offers an example of Jarvis at work: “Max woke up a few minutes ago. I’m entertaining her,” the virtual assistant (voiced by Morgan Freeman) tells Zuckerberg, before turning his attention to the toddler. “Good morning Max, let’s practise our Mandarin.”

The year-long project was part of an effort to learn about the state of artificial intelligence, Zuckerberg wrote, and also an opportunity to experiment with cutting-edge technology at a time when voice-activated assistants such as Amazon’s Echo and Google Home are gaining widespread popularity.

“At this point, I mostly just ask Jarvis to ‘play me some music’ and by looking at my past listening patterns, it mostly nails something I’d want to hear. If it gets the mood wrong, I can just tell it, for example, ‘that’s not light, play something light’, and it can both learn the classification for that song and adjust immediately. It also knows whether I’m talking to it or Priscilla is, so it can make recommendations based on what we each listen to. In general, I’ve found we use these more open-ended requests more frequently than more specific asks. No commercial products I know of do this today, and this seems like a big opportunity.”

Building the robot was the easier — and less time-consuming — of his two goals for the year, he said. The other was to run 365 miles in 2016.

“Now I have a pretty good system that understands me and can do lots of things,” Zuckerberg, adding that he has tried to give his robot a sense of humour.

“I’ve taught it fun little games like Priscilla or I can ask it who we should tickle and it will randomly tell our family to all go tickle one of us, Max or Beast. I’ve also had fun adding classic lines like ‘I’m sorry, Priscilla. I’m afraid I can’t do that’.”

But there are also some kinks to work out, particularly around voice commands. When Zuckerberg demonstrated the technology for a Fast Company story, he had to ask the robot to turn off the lights four times before it complied. Shutting down the music took another two tries. (“Wow, that’s like the most fails that it’s ever had,” the 32-year-old told the reporter, visibly embarrassed.)

Next up, Zuckerberg plans to create an Android app for the robot and connect it to more appliances around the house, such as his Big Green Egg grill. The ultimate challenge, he says, is “to build a system that could learn completely new skills on its own”.

“In the longer term, I’d like to explore teaching Jarvis how to learn new skills itself rather than me having to teach it how to perform specific tasks,” he wrote.

“If I spent another year on this challenge, I’d focus more on learning how learning works.”
— The Washington Post

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Killing in the shadows

FOR the professional killers in films, there is no problem in the world that can’t be solved with enough money and motivation. They are charismatic and unstoppable, with the ability to disappear without a trace.

No supernatural powers are needed as they used natural born skills or honed talents to get the job done. In no particular order, here are some of our favourite hitmen (and women) of the silver screen.

Starting with efficient hitman John Wick (2014), who comes out of retirement for revenge when his fragile peace is interrupted by antagonist Iosef.

Becoming a one-man army, his no-nonsense killing style is gripping to watch. Forget flashy fist fights as he uses guns for his one-shot-one-kill style.

Here’s a contract killer in The American (2010) played by George Clooney called Jack and he takes his job seriously. His ice cold nature is portrayed at the start when he does not hesitate to kill his lover when his identity was compromised.

When hiding in a village to construct a weapon as his final job, he meets a prostitute named Clara. Despite not trusting her, he ends up falling in love. All goes well until his profession was being called out. With his life in danger, he needs another way out.

Looper (2012) introduces several twists by mixing time travel and paradoxical contracts on the assassin’s own life. These people are masters of their craft and will do whatever it takes to finish the job.

After the contract is over, retired agents are shipped back to the past to close the loop. This is where young Joe played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and old Joe played by Bruce Willis fight. Worse, old Joe is on a mission that makes them both the target of other killers.

As for the most chilling hitman seen on the screen, it goes to Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007). Hired to retrieve money, he goes from town to town unleashing terror on everyone he meets.

Further, he is mentally unhinged and without emotion. Whether or not you are his rival, this dangerously psychotic man will continue his blood hunt with
growing intensity.

After accidentally killing a police during a robbery gone wrong, Nikita (1990) is recruited to become an assassin for the French government. Trained to be a cold, remorseless killing machine, she does so in the film.

A natural with firearms, it seems nothing can stop her. That’s until she falls for a man that brings out her human side. Conflicted, she is even forced into an assassination during what she thought was a romantic trip with her new boyfriend.

This week, it is time to travel to the past in Assassin’s Creed as Callum Lynch will be reliving the adventures of his ancestor, Aguilar, in 15th century Spain. This is only possible due to a technology that unlocks his “genetic memories”.

There, he finds out that he is the descendant of a mysterious secret society called Assassins to battle the oppressive Knights. This also unlocks knowledge and skills for him to battle them in the present day.

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Accolades for Shila Amzah in China

SHILA AMZAH garnered three trophies — Top 10 Song (Hong Kong and Taiwan), Top 5 Most Popular Female Artiste and Best Female Singer (Hong Kong and Taiwan) — at the 2016 Music Pioneer Awards, held in Guangzhou, China recently.

The awards were based on results from 24 major radio stations around China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as the audience vote. This is her the second year winning the Best Female Singer title, beating the likes of BING, He Jie, Fiona Sit, Tanya Chua and others.

“I want to thank my parents and my family, my management team in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, Shilala HK, as well as my fans from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China for supporting me and voting for me. Also thank you to all the DJs and media for playing my songs,” said the Mandopop singer.

Shila, who garnered more than a million votes for the Most Popular Female Artiste category, also performed a song from her Mandarin album, My Journey, at the award show.

Established in 2001, the Music Pioneer Awards is an annual music award show which honours artistes in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. This year, the award show was attended by the region’s most influential artistes, including Andy Hui, Hacken Lee, SNH48 and more. — Kr8tif Express

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Majestic Christmas with The Solianos

NO strangers to the entertainment industry, The Solianos is one of the most recognisable names in Malaysian music.

For more than 30 years, The Solianos have been one of the most distinguished vocal harmony groups, beginning with their predecessors, Tony Soliano and jazz legend Alfonso.

Alfonso was an admired name in the music industry since the ‘70s. Currently, The Solianos — comprising Don Soliano Guerzo (bass), Tristiano Soliano (vocals/piano), Isabella Soliano, Irene Soliano, Rizal Soliano (drums) and Conrado (Coni) Soliano (trumpet/flugelhorn/vocals) — are performing daily at Colonial Cafe in Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur as its resident band since December 2013.

To celebrate the festive season,
The Solianos released
The Majestic Christmas Album.

“This is the very first Christmas album we have launched,” Don said. “We are fortunate to get the chance to collaborate with the Majestic Hotel, who are the main sponsors.”

The album features classic Christmas hits such as Jingle Bells, White Christmas, I’ll Be Home For Christmas and an original composition, A Majestic Christmas.

“My late father, Salvadore Guerzo — who was an original member of The Solianos — got the songs arranged and archived on his computer,” Don said.

Salvadore had been working on the songs for 10 years before his death in January 2012.

“I picked the songs, and some I have even rearranged according to his charts. We usually play the songs for live performances but we decided to do an album.

“I’m thankful that I managed to save my father’s work. We also dedicated this album in his memory.”

Coni said the band started out as The Soliano Brothers in 1969 consisting Remy, Valentino, Rizal and Tristiano.

“Over the years, we included more members of the family and changed the name to The Solianos.

“We have been performing mostly at hotels and private functions. Some times we do session work for other singers.”

Coni had the privilege of working with Datuk Sheila Majid, Datuk Zainal Abidin and even had the chance to perform with Shirley Bassey.

“As musicians, this is what we have to do,” Coni said. “Lawyers practise law and we practise music. Although we perform with others, the most important thing is we don’t disrupt The Solianos’ schedule.”

On Dec 15, The Solianos were presented with a “Recognition For Excellence in Music” certificate by the Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

The certificate was presented by Ambassador J. Eduardo Malaya in recognition of the band’s achievements in jazz music and entertainment in Malaysia as well as their contributions to the enhancement of good relations between the people of both nations.

The limited edition album is sold at the Colonial Cafe and The Majestic Boutique. It is also available on iTunes and Spotify.

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Carolling with a twist

A GROUP of Christmas carollers is out to prove that there is nothing the hearing-impaired cannot do. All 10 members of Deaf Beat are hearing-impaired, but that did not stop them from performing their hearts out at #SigningCarols.

The performance, part of “A Musical Extravaganza”, was held at Berjaya Times Square in Kuala Lumpur last weekend.

Deaf Beat was formed by the YMCA of Kuala Lumpur in 2007 and soared high performing around the world, including mesmerising audiences at the Hong Kong Paralympic Games in 2008 with their drumming skills.

“I have been with them since they started nine years ago, they are my babies. We decided to be a part of the Berjaya Times Square Musical Extravaganza to embrace the spirit of Christmas by building bridges between the deaf community and the public who can hear.

“Through #SigningCarols, public who are able to hear will not only take a step closer to the deaf community but learn to sing Christmas carols in sign language,” said YMCA administrator for deaf work Morley Ng.

Born with impaired hearing, Ng said the deaf community is faced with many internal challenges.

“There are many in the deaf community who choose to live in their comfort zone and refuse to come out in public and show what they can do.

“They are aware that they must step out but many are still shy despite help from corporate bodies.

“Events like these provide a platform for the deaf community. By having Deaf Beat performing, hopefully it will inspire the rest of the community to step out and prove what they can do.

“As for the public who can hear, some usually take a step back from the deaf community because they don’t know how to communicate. But there are also others who go to YMCA and pick up sign language on their own initiative.”

Ng added that they started rehearsing in October for last week’s show and the prep sessions were not easy as they only rehearsed two hours every Monday.

Deaf Beat member, Mackey Chua Hock Chye, 40, said this was first time he learnt to sign Christmas carols.

“It’s not that difficult to learn. It’s different from playing the drums. I can feel the beat through the vibration of the drums and cues from one another, but to sign the carols, I need to learn the songs by following the trainer who is standing in front of us,” said Chua.

“We are no different from other people and we believe that even the hearing-impaired community should be able to enjoy traditional carols. It’s truly a joyous season where we get to share and learn from one and another. I am deaf, yet I can perform carols in sign language. If I can do it, I am sure people who can hear can do so too,” said Deaf Beat member, Yee Kee Xin, 30.

Ng said people should approach the deaf community with open hearts.

“To learn more about the community, people should take up sign language classes at YMCA. That will help you to approach the deaf community better, to build a connection to get a better perspective of what’s beneath the silence,” he said.

The troupe performed Silent Night, Merry Christmas and Joy To The World at the main entrance of Berjaya Times Square surrounded by shoppers. Some of the shoppers joined in and slowly moved their hands following the performers.

Also, more than 50 children and adults from the YMCA Pusat Majudiri “Y” For The Deaf sang and signed along before being greeted by Santa Claus who made an appearance.

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Against the current

MANY would look at their disability as a setback, but not Malaysia’s national para-athelete Mohd Sabki Ariffin, who successfully completed the 6km open-water swimming competition in Tanjung Rhu recently.

The 35-year-old, who completed the swim in under two hours, said this was an accomplishment for him as it was the second time he was participating in an open water swimming competition.

“I decided to take part in this competition as I wanted to build my stamina and upper body strength while pushing myself further,” he said, adding that his disability motivated him to be a better athlete.

“Since I intend to participate again in the Southeast Asian Games next year, this competition is a mini challenge for me to rate my swimming skills.”

Sabki said swimming in an open water environment is by far the most challenging sport he has ever done.

“The hardest part is the strong current and waves. This is one of the main reasons I tire quicker than I thought,” he said.

“If you have strong willpower and set your mind to what you want, you will eventually achieve it, whatever the obstacles.”

The para-athlete received a special award for his achievement.

Meanwhile, national swimmer Kevin Yeap, who bagged the championship medal, said swimming in open water, especially against the current, required consistent training and steadfast determination.

“It was not an easy change as swimming in a pool is much easier,” he said, adding that he had been training for the past year.

The national swimmer, who had previously participated in a 10km open water swimming competition, said there should be more of such competitions as the tough environment will allow swimmers to challenge themselves.

“I hope there will be more competitions as it allow swimmers to build their stamina while pushing their potential,” he said.

Runner-up Tern Jian Han, who clocked one hour and 23 minutes, said it was an accomplishment as it was his second such competition.

“Being able to complete the race in a short time despite the strong current is certainly a proud moment for me as I did not expect this outcome,” he said.

He said the close fight between him and Yeap made the competition even more worthwhile.

“My strategy was to be as fast as Yeap but I started feeling extremely tired during the last 100m,” he said.

Philippines dinner

Yuletide traditions around the world

Christmas is a joyous occasion celebrated in almost every part of the world. Join us as we take a look at Christmas traditions and festive dinners in other countries.

1. The Philippines

Filipinos go all out every year to celebrate Christmas, and have carols playing in shops from as early as September. However, the formal celebrations start on Dec 16 when many people go for the first of the nine pre-dawn or early morning masses.

Their customs are a mixture of western and native Filipino traditions where they have Christmas trees, cards and carols from West and the Filipino Christmas tradition of making a parol — a bamboo pole or frame with a lighted star lantern on it made out of bamboo strips and coloured Japanese paper.

At the Noche Buena, which is a midnight feast after the Christmas Eve mass, most households will have these traditional dishes laid out: lechon (a roasted pig), ham, fruit salad, rice cakes – bibingka and puto bumbong (traditional Filipino Christmas food), steamed rice and sweets.

2. India

Midnight mass is an important service for Christians in India, especially Catholics. The whole family will walk to the church for mass followed by a feast of different delicacies, and the giving and receiving of presents.

Instead of traditional Christmas trees, a banana or mango tree, or whatever tree people can find are decorated. Sometimes people use mango leaves to decorate their homes. In Southern India, Christians often put small oil clay lamps on the roofs of their homes.

Christmas dinner in India mainly consists of a variety of curries to go with rice, naan or chapatti. They also cook biryani with chicken, lamb or mutton curry, followed by cake or sweets such as kheer.

3. South Africa

Going carolling on Christmas Eve is very popular in Sotuh African towns and cities. Carols by candlelight services are a must on Christmas Eve and many attend morning church service on Christmas.

Traditional fir trees are popular and children leave stockings out for Santa to fill. On Christmas afternoon, people visit family and friends or go for a trip to the countryside for games or a swim.

The usual Christmas dinner consists of turkey or duck, roast beef, mince pies or suckling pig with yellow rice, raisins and vegetables, followed by Christmas puddings or a traditional South African pudding called malva.

4. Kenya

Houses and churches are often decorated with colourful balloons, ribbons, paper decor, flowers and leaves. For a Christmas tree, some people will have a Cyprus tree as replacement.

Christmas dinner includes a barbecue of goat, sheep, cow or chicken. This is eaten with rice and flat bread.

The big Christmas meal is called nyama choma. People often brew their own beer and different tribes have their own special dishes. A western Christmas cake is usually present in big cities, but these aren’t very common in rural areas.

5. Germany

Christmas trees were first used in Germany during the Middle Ages. The trees are secretly decorated by the family matriarch. The tree was traditionally brought into the house on Christmas Eve.

In some parts of Germany, the family would read the Bible and sing Christmas songs such as O Tannenbaum, Ihr Kinderlein Kommet and Stille Nacht (Slient Night) in the evenings.

Wooden frames covered with coloured plastic sheets and electric candles are placed by the windows as decoration. Christmas Eve is the main day when Germans exchange presents with their families.

The traditional Christmas meal can either consist of duck, goose, rabbit, roasted pig or lamb. This main dish is accompanied by German delicacies such as apple and sausage stuffing, red cabbage and potato dumplings.

Christmas stollen is the standard festive dessert, and is considered one of the best in the world. It is shaped with tapered ends and a ridge down the centre.

6. Great Britain

On Christmas Day, everyone sits down for a mid-day feast with colourful Christmas crackers beside their dinner plates. When they pull on it, a paper hat to wear at dinner, small trinkets or a riddle to read aloud pops out.

The family enjoys a feast of turkey with chestnut stuffing, roast goose with currants, or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for dinner. Brussel sprouts the likely vegetables.

Plum pudding topped with a sprig of holly is the traditional dessert. Brandy is poured over the pudding and set aflame. Family members will enjoy a dramatic show as it is carried into the dining room. Whoever finds the silver charm baked in their serving is said to have good luck the following year.

7. United States

The lights, tree, stockings and carolling are all part of the American Christmas, some of which have been adopted and used in other parts of the world. One particular tradition that is uniquely American is eggnog — a concoction of milk, sugar, raw eggs, alcohol, vanilla flavour and spices.

Americans reserve roast turkeys for Thanksgiving, and often opt for ham or roast beef on Christmas Day.

8. Mexico

Since Mexico is a predominantly Catholic country, Christmas revolves around religious rituals. Celebrations often begin on Dec 16.

The ninth evening of las posadas (the nine days of religious observance) is Christmas Eve. The children will lead a procession to the church and place a figure of baby Jesus in the nacimiento or nativity scene there. Everyone then attends the midnight mass.

The nacimiento is very popular in Mexico. They are often very large, with the figures being life-size. Sometimes a whole room in a house is used for it, although this is less common now. The figures are often made of clay and are traditionally passed down through families. Christmas trees are slowly becoming more important, though not as important as the nativity scene.

9. Brazil

The presepio is a Brazilian tradition where people create nativity scenes and set them up in homes, malls and public platforms. The word is derived from presepium, which means the bed of straw upon baby Jesus slept in Bethlehem. In modern times, presepios are set up in early December and maintained until New Year’s Eve.

Catholics in Brazil attend midnight mass, known as the missa de gallo. Families get together after mass and indulge in a feast around midnight known as ceia.

In most parts of the country, people attend late mass, go for parties, eat and wake up on Christmas morning and head straight to the beach.

10. Australia

The biggest event of the Christmas season in the land down under is called “Carols by Candlelight”. People come together at night to light candles and sing Christmas carols under the stars.

The highlight of Christmas Day is the holiday mid-day dinner. Some families enjoy a traditional British Christmas dinner of roast turkey or ham and rich plum pudding doused in brandy.

Other families head for the backyard barbeque to grill their dinner in the sunshine. Many families even go to the beach or the countryside to enjoy a picnic of cold turkey or ham and a salad.

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Rasiah’s instinctive sense of right and wrong

THE legal profession is not exactly an ideal calling for a person with an instinctive sense of right and wrong.

That’s because the law is a charged field where principles may be subverted by interests and interests are disguised as principles.

Practitioners who care only for the law and nothing else, are apt to use their knowledge of it to predict material consequences from which they benefit; others who care for more than the law find reasons for their conduct in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.

Datuk Rajasingam Rasiah was possessed of an instinctive sense of right and wrong; on those grounds alone he would not have found the law a congenial calling.

But because of the independence a successful legal practice conferred, he stuck to its espousal until the day he died in Penang on Oct 31 at the age of 81.

A host of legal practitioners, scores of friends and colleagues from his days as a left-of-centre politician, and dozens of life’s unfortunates whom he represented at the Bar, came to his wake and funeral to salute a man who viewed the law as primarily an avenue for the advancement of social justice.

Rajasingam’s visceral sense of right and wrong manifested itself early in life when he quit his first job as a surveyor in Yan, Kedah, in the early 1960s because he did not like what he felt was evidence of bias in his boss.

Born in Taiping in 1935, the second of three children of a hospital assistant father and homemaker mother, Rajasingam studied at King Edward VII school — spawning grounds for the famous movers and shakers to have come out of the town the British chose as their first administrative seat when they expanded their influence into Malaya in the later half of the 19th century.

After completing his war-delayed schooling in the second half of the 1950s, Rajasingam proceeded to Technical College in Kuala Lumpur, then the locus of upwardly mobile Malayan students intent on forging technocratic careers.

He studied survey and obtained a job in Yan with the Survey Department.

With a conscience that recoiled at the slightest infliction of injustice, Rajasingam quit his job when an immediate superior evinced that most rancid of biases of plural societies: race discrimination.

For a person as averse as Rajasingam was to injustice — what can be more unjust than discrimnation targeted at one’s origins — the study of the law beckoned as a haven for its theoretical freedom from humankind’s infirmities.

So it was off to London for studies and when he returned in 1966, armed with a law degree, he did his pupillage in Penang under Triptipal Singh, then a leading name in criminal law.

His social conscience also meant that he would get involved with the Labour Party.

When that entity was rendered dysfunctional under ISA-driven repression, it was Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia and when that party, too, was denied the oxygen for flourishing, it was Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, the first genuinely multi-racial opposition group, formed in 1968, and making its pitch to the urban English-educated masses.

The practice of the law, though, absorbed most of Rajasingam’s time, but as was his wont, he deployed his knowledge in defence of those caught in the undertow of the 1960s’ biggest ideological battle: that between left wingers

and establishment types.

In that pursuit, there was little money to be had, but his socialist inclinations meant that social justice ideals outweighed other considerations.

The most famous instance of this preference for fighting for the underdog was in the case of a firearms charge, under the ISA, that was brought against Johnson Tan Han Seng, one of life’s ne’er-do-wells which Rajasingam pursued all the way up to the Privy Council.

The case took virtually the whole decade of the 1970s to be disposed. In 1979 the Privy Council sprung Tan from the gallows by ruling that the evidence for his conviction, based on his cautioned statement, was flimsy and flawed.

It was one of those cases where victory endows counsel with the eminence that comes from peer respect and public recognition.

Success, however, did not soften his vaunted sense of right and wrong.

A one-term occupation (1974-78) under the Parti Gerakan banner of the MP’s role for Jelutong, a notable opposition stronghold in Penang, could have been longer had he not disagreed with Chief Minister Dr Lim Chong Eu on which income groups better deserved newly-built low-cost housing on the island.

Rajasingam was for the allocation of the units, then costing RM14,000 each, to the manual worker category rather than to higher-ups on the socio-economic ladder.

He was one of the few prominent lawyers to support the removal of Lord President Tun Salleh Abbas in 1988 who was impeached under the administration of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed.

Rajasingam suspected Salleh of bias when it came to cases of people who wanted to revert to their former religion after having embraced another one.

The judicial panels hearing the cases were selected by Salleh and these invariably ruled against reversion.

Supporting Salleh’s removal did bring in its train hints of preferment but Rajasingam ignored these. As ever his sense of right and wrong was inducement-proofed.

Towards the end of his life, he devoted a good deal of his time to supporting renovation and other works to Penang’s famous hilltop temple.

His attachment to his religion and charitable works was unostentatious.

Rajasingam is survived by his wife Datin Tilagamah and specialist doctor children, Vijeyasingam and Daghni.

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Grandmas in vogue

IN Russia, elderly women are usually expected to forget about fashion and watch their grandchildren. Not 71-year-old Olga Kondrasheva, who is fighting stereotypes by modelling for a glossy magazine.

“I’m over 70 now but my life is just beginning and it’s so interesting,” said Kondrasheva, slim and sporting wavy white hair, a few minutes before a studio photoshoot for the Russian edition of Cosmopolitan magazine in central Moscow.

With a lifelong zest for adventure, she used to take part in zoological expeditions to study wildlife across Russia and has worked as an extra in films. 

She admitted she “never trained as a model”, but said she has “always been fascinated by this line of work”.

“I’m discovering a totally new side to myself. When I’ve had my hair and make-up done and I’ve got a nice outfit on and there’s some lovely music playing, it’s wonderful.”

Kondrasheva found herself posing for the cameras thanks to a website called Oldushka (Oldie) launched by photographer Igor Gavar.

“I wanted to show that older people can work in the fashion industry and they can be beautiful — even with wrinkles and white hair,” said Gavar.

The site serves as an informal modelling agency by showcasing studio shots of Gavar’s elderly subjects, who like catwalk queens a quarter of their age have been spotted in all kinds of places on the street, in a supermarket, and even a dance floor.

Gavar has managed to organise numerous photoshoots for his dozen or so “muses”, including 80-year-old former air stewardess Irina Denisova and 64-year-old Lyudmila Brazhkina, a retired engineer.

Several striking silver-haired men are also on Oldushka’s books, though of those who have scored shoots in Russian fashion catalogues, magazines and advertisements so far, all but one have been women.

The retirement age in Russia is 55 for women and 60 for men. Many continue working long afterwards out of economic necessity — and few look forward to retirement, knowing that years of money worries likely lie ahead.

The average pension in Russia is only around RM864 per month, but Oldushka allows its models to “earn a little bit extra,” Gavar said.

He and the model split the fees for any shoots secured through the website, which have so far ranged from US$40 to US$300 (RM180 to RM1,340).

They say the work gives women a new lease of life and a confidence boost at a time when their main role in Russian society as “babushkas” or grandmas is to provide large amounts of free childcare.

“It brightens up my life. Doing this is always so joyful, so positive,” said Brazhkina.

“And I enjoy being viewed in a different way during the photoshoots — not the way I see myself in the mirror. It’s like a little holiday!” she said, smiling.

Old age has been enjoying something of a moment in global fashion as feminists challenge traditional beauty standards and as the West comes to grips with an ageing population.

Last year French label Celine chose 82-year-old author Joan Didion as its new face, while Dolce & Gabbana, American Apparel and Saint Laurent have all featured elderly models in recent campaigns.

Russia faces a similar demographic trend as developed Western countries, with nearly a quarter of the population currently over retirement age, a figure expected to rise to 27 per cent by 2025 — or 39.9 million people, according to the health ministry.

Eduard Karyukhin, head of the Dobroye Delo (Good Deed) organisation that works with elderly people, says “the stereotype of a retired woman who stays at home and looks after the grandchildren is changing”.

“Elderly people have enormous potential,” Karyukhin said. “They just need help with organising their leisure activities.”

The women involved in Oldushka said family members sometimes find it hard to understand their new pastime.

“My husband was very angry at first. He kept asking me: what are you doing this for?” said Kondrasheva.

“But then he saw this was making my life interesting with lots of activity and it was keeping me fit. And now he is supportive.” — AFP

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‘You can get by Christmas without turkey’

EURASIAN of Dutch-French descent Richard Augustin loves nothing more than an elaborate cookout in his hometown of Penang and his residence in Petaling Jaya to celebrate the yuletide.

When the 42-year-old freelance writer returns to Penang, traditional family recipes from his paternal and maternal grandparents’ culinary collection take centre stage.

Three must-haves are devil curry, salted roast pork and stuffing, while a hodgepodge of dishes such as shepherd’s pie, prawn pasta and corned beef croissant sandwiches bulk up the menu.

Like most devil curries, Augustin’s family recipe is vinegar-based, made with pork.

“According to my aunt, my grandmother used to make it with siew yuk (Chinese roast pork) and many of the food we know today went through some form of modification when Penang was under the Japanese occupation.

“A lot of dishes back then came out of necessity. Vinegar-based means it will last longer as opposed to a coconut milk-based curry and because leftover pork was used, it also extended its shelf life — not like there was much left to begin with,” he laughed, adding that his spicy-tangy curry is his most requested dish.

The salted roast pork and stuffing may sound like your typical western fare but it takes on a completely Asian profile thanks to its wok cooking method and liberal use of soy sauce.

“It’s made with soy sauce, dark soy sauce, honey and pepper, and you cook it in a hot wok,” said Augustin who believes the pot roast-like dish was modified for a time when there was no access to an oven.

The pork loin is simmered and basted frequently until it is cooked through and tender before sliced thinly and served with potatoes.

“It goes incredibly well with rice and sambal belacan.”

At the dinner table, his mum Violet’s salted roast pork is accompanied by his late father Herbert’s signature stuffing. Made with a decadent combination of liver, mince pork and chicken, boiled mashed potatoes, egg and spring onion, the stuffing is fried in a searing wok until all moisture is reduced and the texture becomes crumbly.

“It’s my favourite. I always make extra because it makes a great sandwich the next day.”

In addition to holiday staples, the Penang native said it was important to serve up traditional favourites for continuity, keeping it similar to how he and his siblings experienced Christmas when they were children.

At home in Petaling Jaya, Augustin began hosting Christmas parties since 2007. Over the years, it has become more elaborate as the former chef treats it as an opportunity to try out new recipes.

This year, he made his parents’ salted pork and stuffing and a roast turkey, which he made last year too, while his girlfriend, Elisa Saw, made baked salmon in parchment paper and Vietnamese steak salad with vermicelli.

For some kitchen theatrics, Augustin had an action station dishing out fresh pasta with prawns and rocket.

He paid special attention to dessert, making pecan pie and a boozy rum and raisin ice-cream which his guests happily devoured.

Although Augustin dislikes repeating his menu, roast turkey reappeared this year due to special requests but he will not be serving it next year.

“I don’t want to serve turkey again because it’s expensive and you can get by Christmas without turkey.

“Cost-wise, you can buy three chickens and roast them.

“It will please the crowd just the same and you can use the same turkey recipe with a shorter cooking time.”

An expert baker known for his dark chocolate and Nutella frosted cake, Augustin likes sending his guests home with some homemade fruitcake with a twist.

“My fruitcake is made with gula melaka, butter, coffee, rum and vanilla so it’s not your traditional fruitcake.

“Personally, I don’t like fruitcake but this one isn’t too sweet and you get layers of flavours from the rum-soaked fruits and that lovely rich, caramelised taste from the gula melaka.”

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