Q&A-plus for the brainbox Facebook

Stephen Fry was an early fan of Quora (Getty)

Stephen Fry was an early fan of Quora (Getty)

One sign of a good education is the recognition that questions are often more interesting than answers. A website called Quora increasingly illustrates this principle. It was launched in 2010 by a couple of twentysomething Facebook executives, with an initial valuation of $86m (£51m) — and now a figure in the billions. Stephen Fry and the actor Ashton Kutcher were early fans, but the initial response from many British users was rather muted.

This seems to have changed in recent months. Quora has ripened into one of the most consistently engaging and enlightening spaces on the internet. Its premise is simple. Using their real names, people post questions for others to answer. You vote an answer up or down according to whether or not you like it; the most popular rise to the top.

Some questions, such as “What are some of the most epic photographs ever taken?”, offer nothing more than standard and enjoyable internet procrastination. Others, such as “What’s it like to be a geek in prison?” or “How does Apple keep secrets so well?”, allow people with specialist knowledge of a subject to explain. One of the most-viewed questions is “What’s it like to be a drug dealer?”. The “best” answer is a fascinating 3,000-word account from a self-professed “mid-level trafficker” who sold more than $1m-worth of marijuana and cocaine after leaving university — and got away with it.

The best questions are the ones with no right answer. In response to “What is/are the most startling discoveries made by the human race?”, users have argued for electricity, money, the wheel, antimatter, antibiotics, the heliocentric model and cooking. The current leader is mathematics.

What is the most underrated piece of art? Quora thinks it is Harry Beck’s 1931 map of the London Underground. This could be because most of Quora’s users are in America, though as many as a third are thought to live in India.

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Fear not, Grasshopper, learning Mandarin just got Chineasy

ShaoLan Hsueh’s pictures were inspired by her children’s difficulties memorising characters (Rick Pushinsky)

ShaoLan Hsueh’s pictures were inspired by her children’s difficulties memorising characters (Rick Pushinsky)

It is one of the world’s toughest languages but after a few minutes using a simple picture system devised by London entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh, Oliver Thring was grasping the basics

Towards the end of last year, impulsively and bafflingly, I bought a couple of teach-yourself Mandarin books and a repeat-after- me CD, and tried to learn the language. I was beguiled by the delicate dancing calligraphy of the characters, their boxes, grids, sweeps and strokes. I learnt the singsong basics of pronunciation. Chinese is hard: most of its principles are brain-scramblingly different from Indo-European languages.

The US Foreign Service Institute ranks it among the most difficult tongues for English speakers to learn, and says you need 2,200 hours to become proficient. (French, Afrikaans and Romanian require fewer than 600 hours.) Being good enough to order noodles or ask the cab driver for the Forbidden City requires the methodical diligence of a medieval scribe.

So I gave up. And that might have been that, except for a book published next month that may revolutionise the teaching of Chinese round the world. Chineasy returns to the most fundamental elements of Mandarin — the pictograms that were probably the birth of all writing. The Mandarin character for “man” is a simple stick figure; “fire” some crudely drawn flames. Chineasy develops these glyphs into simple pictures, making it instantly easier to learn them.

Its creator is ShaoLan Hsueh, a slightly terrifying Taiwan-born entrepreneur and, I suspect, a borderline genius. “I pretended I was a caveman in ancient China,” she tells me when we meet. “I see the sun: I’m going to draw the sun. I see the rocks, the mountains, and I see my child.” Last February she gave a six-minute TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk explaining Chineasy: she claims that more than 3m people have since watched it.

She is on time to the second when she arrives at Mark’s Bar in central London. In a leather dress and a black Dior overcoat, she looks like a beautiful and dangerous Chollywood villain. She explains she developed the system by designing a fantastically complicated 3D “engine” — a sort of astral map that grouped the characters thematically and visually. Then she employed designers, illustrators and — latterly — film makers and code writers to draw the pictures and animations to accompany them.

The result brings a cool and elegant logic to a complicated task. Drawing leaves round the character for “tree” makes it intuitively memorable. Better still, many Mandarin phrases are compounds, building on simpler ones. “Fire” next to “mountain” means “volcano”; two fires on top of each other means “burning hot”. The glyphs for “man” and “tree” together mean “rest”. “In those days there were no Starbucks so people laid against the trees when they wanted to rest,” says Hsueh.

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Sorry, Nutkin, you’re Squirrel Cutlet to me

Oliver Thring carves up his catch, before Robert Gooch, right, flash-fries it in redcurrant sauce. The meat is porky, but very fibrous (Rob Howarth)

Oliver Thring carves up his catch, before Robert Gooch, right, flash-fries it in redcurrant sauce. The meat is porky, but very fibrous (Rob Howarth)

The grey squirrel arrived in Britain in 1876 as an exotic American interloper. It stores more fat than the native reds that had squeaked and scurried in these islands since the end of the last ice age, which meant that it gradually outcompeted them and nicked their territory.

Red squirrels, with their nervy and pensive facial expressions and adorable elfin ears, have been transformed in the public mind. They were hunted in Britain until the 1920s, when people realised that the greys were harrying them from the landscape. Today the reds survive in peril in isolated pockets such as the Isle of Wight.

The greys are thought to cost the economy about £14m a year. They eat young trees, gnaw timber, rip up insulation and build their dreys in people’s lofts. They also carry squirrel pox, a virus that kills the reds. Like rabbits and rats, the greys are fair game all year round. Farmers shoot and trap them in their thousands, but throw most of them away.

However, the British have become more adventurous at the table. There was news last month that rabbit sales were up 20%, pheasant by a third. With a triumphal caw, game is shooting through the barn roof. So I went to Suffolk on a sunny winter’s day to catch and eat a squirrel.

Robert Gooch runs an outfit called the Wild Meat Company and looks the part. He’s a stern sergeant- major type in cords of a rural shade, no-nonsense boots and a tatty quilted jacket. His farmhouse has single-entendre shooting cartoons in the downstairs loo and (yikes) an old golliwog ad in the kitchen. When I meet him he is gently ripping the feathers from a dead snipe.

We aim to trap a squirrel, skin it and cook it in his ancient Aga. Gooch grabs a rifle, under the photographer’s instructions, and we stamp towards the trap, scrub and dead grasses crackling underfoot. The device, hidden beside a leaky grain bin, looks like a large, rusty mousetrap and is covered in sticks and bricks to stop cats and badgers being caught in it.

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Eddie Jordan’s £25m yacht cruises onto start grid

Eddie Jordan posing with the Irish model Nicola Hughes (Leon Farrell)

Eddie Jordan posing with the Irish model Nicola Hughes (Leon Farrell)

The garage has space for two jet skis and a motorboat. A hot tub will soon be bubbling on the “sky deck”. Sun loungers from the Summit furniture company and fabrics from Armani have been ordered. Every turn seems to reveal another indulgence on Eddie Jordan’s new £25m superyacht, the largest yet built in Britain.

When its construction is completed at the end of this month, the boat will include a steam room, gym and nightclub. The 155ft vessel, which weighs 300 tons, has four decks and enough space to sleep 23 people, including its 11-strong crew.

Its manufacturer, Sunseeker International, has spent five years on the project. By last weekend, the boat had outgrown its construction shed at the boatmaker’s headquarters in Poole, Dorset, and was carefully wheeled out on a hydraulic yacht trailer.

Its top level, including the radar arch and antennae, will now be fitted outside. After completion and testing, its crew will spend a month training on the boat.

Jordan, a Formula One team boss turned commentator, has ordered Sunseeker to have the boat delivered in time for the Monaco Grand Prix at the end of May. The vessel will have a range of up to 4,000 nautical miles, with fuel tanks capable of holding 60,000 litres.

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That face on YouTube; we must be twins

Anaïs Bordier, left, and Samantha Futerman say they were separated at birth in South Korea 27 years ago (Kickstarter)

Anaïs Bordier, left, and Samantha Futerman say they were separated at birth in South Korea 27 years ago (Kickstarter)

A chance sighting has led two women to claim they are sisters adopted in different countries

It is either one of the most astonishing examples of the internet bringing people together — or one of the most elaborate hoaxes in the history of the web.

Anaïs Bordier and Samantha Futerman, raised in France and America respectively, believe they are identical twins who were separated at birth in South Korea 27 years ago. Their story is now being made into a documentary film, and a book will be published in the autumn.

That story began last February, when Bordier, then a fashion design student at Central Saint Martins in London, was watching a YouTube video on the popular KevJumba channel. She noticed that an actress in the film, who turned out to be Futerman, bore an uncanny resemblance to her. They shared similar mannerisms and had similar voices. Through what Futerman has called “a few light Google stalking sessions”, the women established that they had both been born in Seoul, the South Korean capital, on November 19, 1987, and adopted by different parents within weeks. As an actress, Futerman had a relatively large presence on the web, including a page on the Internet Movie Database and credits in several films, including Memoirs of a Geisha. “I was terrified and excited at the same time,” said Bordier last week. “Sam responded with a picture of her birth records. There was nothing there to say she was a twin. But then she sent pictures through and it seemed to settle it. It felt like having a heart attack, but it was also the happiest moment — a new world was opening.” Bordier already knew she had been placed into foster care through Holt International Children’s Services, an American agency, then adopted three months later and raised as an only child in the suburbs of Paris. She speaks English with a French accent. Futerman was fostered through a different agency, Spence-Chapin adoption services. She too was adopted about three months after being born and grew up in Verona, New Jersey. Continue reading at The Sunday Times (£)

The Final Cut: Davos

The Swiss mountain resort of Davos (Gary Cameron)

The Swiss mountain resort of Davos (Gary Cameron)

All you need to know but couldn’t be bothered to ask about…

What is Davos?

A ski resort in the Swiss Alps — and the highest city in Europe — with a permanent population of 11,000. As well as having excellent easy slopes and some good cross-country trails, it’s best known for hosting the annual invitation-only meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

And?

From Wednesday to Saturday last week about 2,500 people from 100 countries — captains of industry, about 40 heads of state, 20 central-bank governors, a smattering of billionaires, David Cameron, George Osborne, university presidents, scientists, entrepreneurs, tech gurus and the actress Goldie Hawn — gathered amid tight security for the 44th meeting. The WEF is a Swiss non-profit organisation that engages “leaders of society to shape global . . . agendas”. It was founded in 1971 by the German Klaus Schwab, who has presided over every event since then. He urged the delegates to “remember your souls” in his opening address.

What’s the point?

This year the theme was “The reshaping of the world: consequences for society, politics and business”. Depending on your temperament, your world-view and possibly the size of your share portfolio, you either think this represents a superb opportunity to solve major planetary problems or, like Boris Johnson, see the event as a “constellation of egos involved in massive mutual orgies of adulation”. (The mayor of London attended Davos at the taxpayer’s expense this year to charm the owners of some “whopping chequebooks” to invest in London.)

So it’s all about money?

Officially, delegates go to listen to speeches and take part in panel discussions; “Is Europe back?”, about recovery from the eurozone debt crisis, was one this year. But far more important are the opportunities for networking that Davos provides — that’s why the total cost of basic admission is about £45,000. In the restaurants and at sparkling parties the management consultants, chief executives and politicians do karaoke, hobnob and strike deals. This year a chalet for 10 cost up to £36,000 for the week, and the Belvedere hotel hosted 320 parties in five days, which accounted for 35% of its annual revenue.

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Going gets teff for grain farmers

Teff is grown by millions of farmers in Ethiopia for use as flour (Image Broker)

Teff is grown by millions of farmers in Ethiopia for use as flour (Image Broker)

A grain used to make a flatbread that is a staple food in Ethiopia has been described as “the new quinoa” after gaining popularity in Britain.

Flour made from teff, a gluten-free grain grown by more than 6m farmers in the African country, is stocked by eight British branches of Whole Foods, a US health food retailer, where 620g packets sell for £8.99. Tobia Teff, another company, sells teff flour, teff breakfast cereal, “puffed teff” for use in cereal bars and “teffmeal” for baking.

Now Marks & Spencer is among bigger retailers looking at selling products made from teff, which is reportedly favoured by the pop star Sting. The grain contains calcium, iron and protein.

Teff and quinoa, a high-protein superfood grown in South America, have benefited from growing concern among scientists that refined carbohydrates in rice, wheat and cornflour may damage health.

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Wheels on fire

The pro skater Lizzie Armanto on a Penny board in California (Thomas Rentschler)

The pro skater Lizzie Armanto on a Penny board in California (Thomas Rentschler)

The craze for Penny skateboards is taking the streets by storm. We jump on board

You thought you knew about skateboards and skateboarding. You thought it was all about extreme-sports enthusiasts, Tony Hawk and being Californian, and that if you didn’t wear cargo shorts, listen to Nirvana and spend your time in concrete half-pipes, then you weren’t in the game. Well, you’re wrong, because there’s a new kid in town: the Penny board.

This kind of skateboarding, championed by the Australian skate entrepreneur Ben Mackay, who created the Penny skateboard in 2009, is opening up the world of boarding to, well, everyone.

The board is based on the smaller, nippier designs of the 1970s. When Farrah Fawcett was chased on a skateboard through Griffith Park, Los Angeles, in the first season of Charlie’s Angels, the board she was riding closely resembled a modern Penny, as was the board used by Patti McGee, the world’s first female skateboarding pro. It’s stylish, collectible, caters to a fashion-savvy customer — and it’s easy to ride. “You can cruise the pavements as if you’re on a surfboard, then, when you get to your destination, it’s so tiny that you can just throw it in your bag,” says Rory Campbell, a photographer who uses his to get around London. “The wheels are softer,” he says, “which makes tackling even the roughest concrete so much easier than a regular board.”

For enthusiasts such as Campbell, it helps to know that skating is no longer all about grunge. Fashion has evolved considerably since the days of the great kerbside unwashed. Skaters move in fashion tribes: there are the sportswear enthusiasts, never far from a Kenzo T-shirt and a pair of box-fresh Air Max; the 1990s minimalists, in their denim and white T-shirts; and the East End poseurs, who are always more show and less skate.

And now there’s Penny boarding. The street-style movement has taken to documenting fashion bloggers and stylists clutching their boards, customised to the latest shade. For spring, the catwalks were dominated by designers’ new interpretations of skate classics such as bomber jackets and sweatshirts. Earlier this month, the London Collections: Men saw several shows featuring boarding paraphernalia. “Penny boards have been selling like crazy since we began stocking them just over a year ago,” says Nick Warry, manager and buyer at the London skate store Slick Willies, adding that the new Penny Pastels collection was flying off the shelves before Christmas. And the craze is not confined to teenagers. “We’ve even had a bridal couple buy boards for their wedding photos,” Warry says.

Celebrities can’t get enough of them, either. Miley Cyrus has been papped practising on one; Ellie Goulding has lessons on hers from her bassist, Simon Francis. Jaden Smith, Will’s son, has five. The JacksGap YouTube channel, run by the Britons Jack and Finn Harries — 3.2m subscribers and counting — recently uploaded a video in which the brothers and their mates raced Penny boards around their office building.

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Too late, Mantel, someone’s beaten you to Thatcher’s body

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The author is to publish a collection of short stories entitled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher but we find a rival willing to get a blow in first

How long has Hilary Mantel been thinking about murdering Margaret Thatcher? Longer than you might think, according to well-placed sources in the publishing industry.

The author, who has won two Booker prizes for her Wolf Hall novels, covering the intrigue and skulduggery associated with the life of Thomas Cromwell, has revealed plans to publish in September a collection of short stories with the title — elegiac? Gleeful? — The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

Ten brief narratives will feature the former prime minister, who died last April, as a character in “contemporary settings”, the publisher says. The book “shows us the country we have become”, adds Nicholas Pearson, Mantel’s long-term publishing director at 4th Estate. Seemingly, it is a country with some of the bloody machinations of its 16th-century forebear.

Mantel, who is believed to have been a student socialist, said in 2012 that Britain was “going back to the Middle Ages” in its treatment of the poor. She is not known to have supported Thatcher’s economic policies, but her keen analytical mind and her powers of description may yet settle the matter.

“I suspect the book has already been written,” said an industry insider. “This will be a holding operation before the next instalment in the trilogy.” The third volume in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is expected to be published next year.

The author is revealing little of the plots in the new volume but she has previously drawn criticism for her waspish description of other modern figures. Last year Mantel wrote that the Duchess of Cambridge, then four months pregnant, was a “plastic princess designed to breed . . . a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung”. The piece, published in the London Review of Books, prompted David Cameron to stick up for what Mantel had called the “perfect plastic smile” and to say that the piece had been “hurtful . . . completely misguided and completely wrong”.

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James Purefoy: Out of the morgue, into a killing spree

James Purefoy played Mark Antony in Rome (Julian Andrews)

James Purefoy played Mark Antony in Rome (Julian Andrews)

The former mortuary worker, who held the caning record at public school, is giving full rein to his dark side as a psychopath on TV

The British actor James Purefoy calls himself a “stealth celebrity”, and if you didn’t watch him hawking his pecs and thighs and what he called his “puffy, raddled boozer’s look” as Mark Antony in Rome on BBC2 a few years ago, and if you don’t have Sky, you might not recognise him. But nowadays he can scarcely walk down the street in New York. Up to 15m Americans watch him in The Following, in which he stars as a psychopathic serial killer opposite Kevin Bacon. Purefoy says his character, Joe Carroll, is a “dark f*****” who has “bizarrely and gorily delighted” the Yanks.

The second series starts this week. “Thank God it’s only on Sky Atlantic here,” he breathes. He speaks in a low, seductive voice and his brown eyes stare you out, like a peculiarly erotic dodo. The Following manages “about 500,000 viewers” in Britain, which means Purefoy can move around his area — Chiswick, southwest London — largely unmolested. If Pierce Brosnan hadn’t pipped him to be James Bond in the mid-1990s, that anonymity would be impossible.

His publicist lets me into a room in London’s Soho Hotel and floats into an adjoining loo. She promises not to listen in, but scuttles out 20 minutes later to flap at Purefoy when he is telling me he “wasn’t raped” at boarding school. “Go on, back in the bathroom — I’m perfectly capable of handling myself,” he says. She retreats, and then mewls: “I’m sitting on the floor.”

Purefoy, 49, has an ambivalent attitude to fame, which seems a curse as much as an asset: “I know it’s a pact you make when you go into this business, and the more famous you become, the worse it gets. But I’ve watched so many friends get badly burnt by it.”

The Homeland star Damian Lewis is an old chum, and Jason Isaacs, who played the Barbie-haired Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter, is godfather to Purefoy’s teenage son from an earlier marriage. (He and his girlfriend now have a baby daughter.) But fame, he says, has made some other sleb friends “flaky” and “much less trusting”.

He’s lovely — hunky, flirty and affectingly needy. His performance in The Following is superb; Purefoy says it caters to the American understanding of the British as “intelligent but emotionally stunted and cauterised”. He tends to dress in black, which helps to make him less bland; those man-boy looks have probably hindered him more than he would like to admit.

His parents, who lived in Martock, Somerset, shipped him off to prep school at seven and then to Sherborne in Dorset. He hated it, “didn’t fit in” and was eventually “asked to leave — I don’t know if that means expelled”.

Sherborne was “Tom Brown’s Schooldays — fagging, warming toilet seats, all the usual crap”. He’s “not in the slightest bit surprised” by recent revelations in this newspaper that dozens of former private school pupils are suing at least 20 institutions, claiming they have been sexually abused: “It’s like priests, for God’s sake. If you’re not allowed to have sex then it squeezes out in some other fashion. That’s why it’s all so horribly wrong.”

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