Saturday, 19 March 2011


“Moon! Moon! I am prone before you. Pity me, and drench me in loneliness.” – Amy Lowell

The biggest full moon in 19 years is with us tonight and the rags have already dubbed it “supermoon”. This Saturday, the moon will arrive at its closest point to the Earth in 2011: a distance of 356,575 kilometers away. The moon has not been in a position to appear this large since March 1993. At its peak, the “supermoon” of March may appear 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than lesser full moons (when the moon is at its farthest from Earth). Yet to the casual observer, it may be hard to tell the difference. The variation of the moon’s distance is not readily apparent to observers viewing the moon directly.

Unless the moon lies close to the horizon, when it can appear absolutely enormous. That is when the famous “moon illusion” combines with reality to produce a truly stunning view. For reasons not fully understood by astronomers or psychologists, a low-hanging moon looks incredibly large when hovering near trees, buildings and other foreground objects. The fact that the moon will be much closer than usual this weekend will only serve to amplify this strange effect.

Driving back home tonight, I saw the moon up in the clear sky and yes, it looked stunningly beautiful but not much larger than usual. Obviously I did not catch it early enough when it was close to the horizon.

The “supermoon” will not cause natural disasters such as the Japan earthquake, a NASA scientist has stressed…

For Song Saturday, something apt: A piece from Karl Jenkins’ suite “Imagined Oceans”, which set in music lunar landscapes, and more specifically the names of the imagined oceans on the moon;s surface. Here is his Mare Serenitatis – “Sea of Serenity”.

Friday, 18 March 2011


“Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth like chocolate.” - Fernando Pessoa

It has been a short but extremely busy week at work. There have been non-stop meetings, numerous urgent things to take care of, hundreds of emails and a couple of crises to resolve. I am certainly glad it is the weekend. As a special treat this weekend the following will be made:


Ingredients for the Choux Pastry

260 mL milk
1 tsp sugar
pinch of salt
100g unsalted butter, diced
120g plain flour
4 free-range eggs

Method for the Choux Pastry
•    Preheat the oven to 220˚ C.
•    For the choux buns, combine the milk, sugar, salt and diced butter in a heavy-based saucepan. Heat gently and stir until the butter has melted.
•    Quickly sieve the flour into the saucepan and whisk together with the liquid ingredients.
•    Keeping the heat low, beat the ingredients together vigorously for about five minutes.
•    The paste is ready when it clumps together in a smooth ball and comes away cleanly from the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
•    In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs together thoroughly until there are no strings of egg white. Slowly, in two or more batches, beat the eggs into the paste.
•    Fit a piping bag with a nozzle and spoon the choux pastry mixture into the bag.
•    Pipe balls the size of a 50 cent coin onto baking sheets lined with silicone paper, or greased baking trays.
•    Bake in batches in the oven for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown and crisp (if the buns are just yellow, they will deflate upon cooling). When they are done, the inside should be hollow. Tip them on to a wire rack to cool.

Ingredients for the Profiterole Filling and Sauce
Vanilla ice cream
250 g of couverture cooking chocolate, cut into small pieces
200 mL milk
100 mL double cream
50 mL crème de cacao liqueur

Method for the Sauce and Assembling
With a small knife slice open each choux ball.
Fill with vanilla ice cream, and put in the freezer immediately.
Make the chocolate sauce by heating the milk, cream and liqueur.
Once the milk mixture is just about to boil, add the chocolate pieces, stirring all the while.
Remove from the heat once the chocolate has all molten and the mixture is a rich dark brown colour.
Once ready to serve, put 5-6 ice-cream filled choux balls into a dessert or parfait glass and pour hot chocolate sauce over them.
Serve immediately.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


“Self-sacrifice is the real miracle out of which all the reported miracles grow” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

The word of the day today is sievert.
sievert |ˈsēvərt| (abbr: Sv) noun
Physics: The SI unit of dose equivalent (the biological effect of ionising radiation), defined as that which delivers a joule of energy per kilogram of recipient mass.
ORIGIN 1940s: named after Rolf M. Sievert (1896–1966), Swedish radiologist.
1.0 Sv = 1.0 joule/kilogram or 100 rem.

The sievert has the same units as the gray and is equal to the absorbed dose times the quality factor, which compares the health consequences of that type of radiation with those of x-rays. The rem bears the same relationship to the rad as the sievert does to the gray.

Just in case you got lost in that definition, let’s put it in a practical context. Firstly, one Sievert of radiation is a huge dose, which will do great harm to living things. That is why we generally speak of millisieverts when talking about daily or even yearly exposure under normal circumstances. A millisievert (mSv) is a thousandth of a sievert. Contextualising it further: An average person would probably absorb six millisieverts per year from natural and artificial (e.g. X-rays for diagnostic purposes) sources. A radiation worker would be expected to absorb about 20 millisieverts per year, averaged over five years with a maximum of 50 millisieverts in any one year. You can see now what I mean about the sievert being a huge dose of radiation…

The workers in Japan working to limit the effects of radiation leaks in the stricken nuclear reactors have to access areas where their exposure is 600 millisieverts, equal to several years of daily exposure limit. These workers are putting their health and life at great risk as exposure to such levels of radiation can be highly destructive. These effects are divided into short-term and long-term:

Short term effects: Exposure to high levels of radiation can harm exposed tissues of the human body. Such radiation effects can be clinically diagnosed in the exposed individual; they are called deterministic effects because once a radiation dose above the relevant threshold has been received, they will occur and the severity depends on the dose. They include the symptoms of radiation poisoning such as burns, tissue damage, blood cell damage, death of rapidly dividing cells (causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, hair falling out, anaemia, immune deficiency, etc).

Long-term effects: Studies of populations exposed to radiation, especially of the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have shown that exposure to radiation can also lead to the delayed induction of cancer (thyroid, leukaemia, bone, skin, breast, lung, etc) and hereditary damage. Effects such as these cannot usually be confirmed in any particular individual exposed but can be inferred from statistical studies of large irradiated populations.

Let’s contextualise again: Exposure for a short time to a single 1 sievert (1,000 millisievert) dose of radiation would cause (temporary) radiation sickness such as nausea and decreased white blood cell count, but not death. However, exposure to 1 sievert of radiation is estimated to increase the lifetime risk of fatal cancer by around 5%. Above this, severity of illness increases with dose. For example, a single dose of 5 sieverts (5,000 millisievert) would kill about half those receiving it within a month. Survivors would have chronic disease and a greatly increased risk of cancers.

There about 180 emergency workers at Japan’s damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi complex of nuclear power stations. They are already being lauded as heroes by the Japanese as they are putting themselves at a huge health risk and premature death through radiation exposure. Another word springs to mind immediately:

kamikaze |ˌkämiˈkäzē| noun
(in World War II) A Japanese aircraft loaded with explosives and making a deliberate suicidal crash on an enemy target.
• The pilot of such an aircraft.
adjective [ attrib.]
Of or relating to such an attack or pilot.
• Reckless or potentially self-destructive: He made a kamikaze run across three lanes of traffic.
ORIGIN Japanese, from kami ‘divinity’ + kaze ‘wind,’ originally referring to the gale that, in Japanese tradition, destroyed the fleet of invading Mongols in 1281.

The last definition of the word may be applied to these workers in that they act self-destructively in order to achieve their mission. Which makes me think of:

altruism |ˈaltroōˌizəm| noun
The belief in, or practice of, disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others: Some may choose to work with vulnerable elderly people out of altruism.
• Zoology Behaviour of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.
altruist noun
altruistic |ˌaltroōˈistik| adjective
altruistically adverb
ORIGIN mid 19th century: From French altruisme, from Italian altrui ‘somebody else,’ from Latin alteri huic ‘to this other.’

We are a strange species, we humans. A curious mixture of the angelic and the demonic; of the evil and benevolent, the bad and the good. We may choose to kill others of our kind with abandon, or go to great lengths to preserve the life of strangers, not caring about our own well-being or our own life… We destroy and then preserve, we demolish only to build up again. We exploit and then relent, in order to conserve. Oh, the glory and curse of being a human!


“Youth is like spring, an over praised season more remarkable for biting winds than genial breezes. Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.” - Samuel Butler

Autumn sunshine ushers in the beautiful warm days and cool nights of a Melbourne autumn. We have been warned that this year may be another one where we may have lots of rain and a cold winter. I always have my doubts regarding these long-term weather predictions, considering the weather report is so often wrong for the day, but it was explained to me once in terms of planet-wide atmospheric modelling and input from historical statistical data, which at the time made sense. However, I am inclined to believe more in crystal ball gazing, especially these days where climate variation is becoming more marked and ever more uncharacteristic and unpredictable…

One of the wonderful things about the public holiday last Monday was our walk in the Darebin Parklands. The day was glorious, warm and sunny, not too hot, not too cool, not windy and the vegetation was lush and verdant, hints of autumn colour here and there, but still looking its best as late summer would have it; the added bonus being that the frequent rains had kept everything green.

I remember the day and luxuriate in it and I am mindful of the rich offerings of nature that we are privileged enough to enjoy here and now. Furthermore, we are fortunate enough to live in a peaceful country, I have a job, a home, a family, friends, prosperity enough to be lacking none of our needs, no threat of calamity in the near future. How grateful this makes me feel, especially in the context of the recent disasters and atrocities that are occurring worldwide! How lucky we are and how thankful we must feel…

For Poetry Wednesday, a seasonal offering six haiku specially composed for the mellowness of approaching Autumn.

Haiku for Autumn

A thrill in the bough:
A hidden bird? No, surprise
At first yellow leaf…

Warm sun; fair, mild, day;
Benign, calm nature. Yet the
Dusk brings bad temper.

Flowers finish blooming,
Leaves turn to red; grass to hay –
Fruit turns to honey.

The first chill needs wool;
Long night needs heavy blanket;
Sandals exiled now.

Contentment of Fall:
Rich harvest, vintage, nutting –
But grasshopper dies…

Cold sheets, lengthening night
Beg your warm embrace. Alas!
You left; like summer.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011


“An open enemy is better than a false friend” -  Greek proverb

On this day, the ides of March, in 44 BC Julius Caesar was assassinated. According to second century historian Plutarch, Caesar was warned to beware the Ides of March by a soothsayer while his wife Calpurnia also insisted that he not venture out on that day as she had dreamed that he would be killed.  Caesar dismissed them both and went to the senate as he had planned. When entering the senate building he saw the soothsayer and greeted him ironically with the words: “The Ides of March be come…” upon which the soothsayer replied softly: “…but yet they are not yet past!”  Moments later Caesar lay dead on the floor of the senate, murdered by his colleagues and “friends”.

Amongst the 16 conspirators wielding daggers was his good friend Brutus. Caesar seeing Brutus attacking him, is said to have uttered: “Et tu, Brute…” meaning, “You too, my friend, Brutus?” However, this may not have been what Caesar actually uttered. Some other authors claim that Caesar in fact said, in Greek (which he as other noble Romans spoke fluently): “Kαὶ σὺ, τέκνον…” translated as “You too, my son…” While both of these phrases are taken as evidence of Caesar’s recognition of utter betrayal, the Greek words may have a more sinister meaning. A proverbial Greek phrase common amongst Romans at the time began in this way, and translated was: “You too, my son, will have a taste of power…” Caesar was thus pointing out to Brutus that his turn too would come when he was powerful to be betrayed in a similar way. His last words therefore rather than expressing bitter despondency at the betrayal of his friend, may be interpreted as a threat or a curse…

Betrayal is hard to stomach, especially if it comes from someone that we are close to. Its normally bitter taste becomes a hundred times more unpleasant in that case and we find it hard to contain our misery and distress. False friends are indeed more pernicious and destructive than open enemies. Their actions bring to us great heartbreak. Our feelings of misplaced trust and our lost faith in our friend adds insult to our injury.

Japan has placed its trust in an old enemy that has been masquerading as a friend. Nuclear power wrought the shocking destruction in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 when the atom bombs were dropped by the Americans in a desperate and horrific act that ended the war. It is this same old enemy of nuclear power that was befriended by the Japanese and their trust was placed in this false friend fuelling the nuclear reactors that supplied their country with electricity – cheap, efficient, non-polluting power…

In the wake of the quake and tsunami, damage to the nuclear reactors has caused consternation as radiation leaks and a potential meltdown have alerted the world to the possibility of a nuclear disaster bigger than Chernobyl. Dangerous levels of radiation leaking from the crippled nuclear plant has now forced Japan to order 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors after the explosions and fire in the power stations dramatically escalated the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. The old scars on the psyche of the Japanese people have been scratched and the threat of another contamination with its concomitant misfortunes have awakened painful memories of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Hibakusha (survivors of the nuclear blasts) and the nation’s terrible aftermath in the wake of the atom bomb blasts.

Anti-nuclear demonstrations have begun in earnest worldwide, as our fragile planet is once again threatened by our inane activities. It is surprising that a sentient species such us continues to repeat mistakes of the past, continues to play with the fire that has burnt us deeply previously, and we fail to learn from our past experiences. We continue to strike up friendships with pernicious and covert enemies and we act surprised when such false friends are revealed for what they are.

Monday, 14 March 2011


“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” - Oscar Wilde

It was a public holiday in Melbourne today, Labour Day. The day was sunny and fine and we started it by taking a long walk to the Darebin Parklands. It seems that many other people had the same idea as us, with the place was full of families, cyclists, children and adults, people walking dogs and many others like us. Yesterday it had rained fairly heavily and the creek was full of water, the rushing water flowing rapidly and carrying now and then debris. Twigs, broken branches. On the banks there some uprooted saplings and one could see on the banks that yesterday the water level was much higher.

We came back home rather tired and seeing how I still haven’t recovered from my cold, we sat down and watched a movie. We saw the Ryan Murphy 2010 film “Eat Pray Love”, the screen adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best seller. We had got this film yesterday at the Latrobe University Sunday market and seeing how we had heard so much about it, we decided to watch it today. It was really quite disappointing…

First, let me say that we haven’t read the book and most of the good things I have heard concern the book. Yes, yes, I know, don’t judge a book by its film, but this is a book I have now not been inspired to read. However good the book is, the film has ruined it pre-emptively for me. This was a movie that went on and on for two-and-a-half hours and the only relief was the scenery in Italy, in India and in Bali. But it was no travel documentary, but a “deep-and-meaningful voyage of self-discovery by a woman who is going through a mid-life crisis”. Yawn… Wake me up when it’s over, please.

Julia Roberts plays Liz Gilbert who has achieved success as an author, has a husband, friends, a house, a career she likes, and lives the good life in New York. Yet like so many others in her shoes (those who have not experienced real misfortune, or need, or poverty, or deep tragedy), she finds herself lost, confused, and unsatisfied with all the wonderful things that life has offered her. She decides to start searching for what she really wants in life. She gets a divorce (and presumably with quite a lot of cash in hand), embarks on a journey around the world that becomes a quest for self-discovery. In her travels, she discovers eating in Italy; praying in India, and, finally loving in Bali. Her character comes out as selfish, ungrateful and mawkish in a self-pitying sort of way. She whines a lot…

The travels of Liz are inward-looking and her whole wide-world is an insulated water-coloured one untouched by economic crises, wars, terrorism, natural disasters, poverty, uncertainty, climate change, religious intolerance, or any other major issues of philosophical importance. The world inhabited by Liz is Lizocentric and everything revolves around her paying homage to her shallow existence and short-sighted view of the narrowest perspective.

She visits Italy and her Italy is a caricature of some 50s and 60s films of the type “Gidget Goes to Rome” or “Three Coins in the Fountain”. She goes to Italy for the food, not the art nor the literature; not the history nor the philosophy. Even her attempts at learning the language are pathetically related to the food… She goes to India next and her India is some mystical fun-fair that reeks of supermarket-shelf religion: “On Special Today – Guru Meditation at Ashram”. Nothing deep and meaningful, no insight, no true enlightenment, no involvement in Indian society and its multitudinous current-day problems. No involvement in the religious issues posited by the coexistence of Islam and Hinduism. She is not touched by the real India. Her interaction with other inmates of the Ashram is self-serving and her brand of Indian spirituality is that which she could have found easily in New York. She flies to Bali and Liz’s Bali is shallow and comfortable. Her interaction with the medicine man is trite. Her only selfless act is her charitable gesture towards a traditional healer in need. But is it really selfless or does she do it as a moral catharsis that makes her feel better? She finds love in Bali and she scorns it because she doesn’t need it, or so she says. She has no compunction in telling the man that offers her his love: “I don’t have to love you to love myself!” Amazing self-obsession!

This is an extraordinary story of a woman who is so selfish for the most part, that all she wants out of life and people is to take, take, take. There is no natural selfless giving, no gracious sharing, no acceptance of the bounty of good fortune, but always a quest for ever more things and people according to what she feels she needs at that moment. This is a spoilt brat all grown up, an egotistical woman, a mediocre human being (not really evil, but at the same time not really good or virtuous or gracious), a boring person, a shallow existence. Poor Julia Roberts does her best to give the role all she can, but this is individualistic and selfish bilge dressed up as a philosophical-religious-mystical-emotional homily. Is this heroine what modern women aspire to?

I may sound a trifle acerbic, but the film was quite annoying in many ways. It was a fantasyland of platitudinous, facile and superficial tediousness. It was presented in such a didactic, life-changing, aggrandising way that one was immediately distanced by it. I did not want to do anything with this Liz woman, as shown by the movie. This was not a human being that I felt had made the world a better place to be in. Liz had striven hard to make Liz feel better, more comfortable, more loved, more spoilt, more content. And of course for Liz and every other Liz, “Après moi, le déluge”…