Friday 30 November 2007


“Whenever science makes a discovery, the devil grabs it while the angels are debating the best way to use it.” - Alan Valentine

Just this week, our state Government publicised its decision to legislate that genetically modified (GM) food crops that until now were banned, could be cultivated freely in our State. This was in response to pressure from farmers who maintain that GM crops are more profitable and their deregulation will save their livelihoods. There has been quite an outcry from many groups in the community, first and foremost the environmentalists and following them the more conservative political groups. The first GM crop to be grown is canola, from whose seed much of the vegetable oil used widely in the food industry is extracted.

GM foods are derived from GM organisms, whose genes have been modified using modern biotechnology. This is a process that occurs in research labs and which creates organisms containing an improved genetic make-up, making GM crops more resistant to disease, higher yielding and more robust. This is a process akin to eugenics (the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. Developed largely by Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race, it fell into disfavour only after the perversion of its doctrines by the Nazis).

Without knowing the exact mechanism, farmers centuries ago made use of various breeding methods to produce farm animals, grain and plants which were bigger, healthier, tastier or easier to raise and grow. This natural process is not objectionable to anyone, but it achieves the same ends as GM processes in laboratories. Nowadays, scientists are identifying and modifying genes controlling specific characteristics in the laboratory, in a process that is much faster and more efficient than the centuries old method of animal husbandry and crop improvement through laborious cross-breeding and trial/error methods.

The question foremost in people’s minds is: Are GM foods safe for human consumption? The short answer to that is, yes. If you have ever eaten corn, corn meal, pop corn, corn flour, you have been eating a GM food. Only, the genetic modification has occurred over many generations by selective breeding. The wild American corn was small, stumpy, with few seeds and not as nutritious nor as tasty as modern corn. Many generations of farmers improved the quality of corn by selective breeding, which in effect genetically modified the corn.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have concluded that the use of modern biotechnology (including genetic modification) does not result in food which is inherently less safe than that produced by conventional techniques. In fact, all GM foods are subjected to rigorous safety assessments by the industry and regulatory agencies of the places of origin before they are put into the market. To date, none of them have been proved as unfit for human consumption.

There have been reports that GM foods available in the market may cause allergy and have health implications. In fact, all GM foods have been subject to stringent safety assessment before they are available in the market. While it is possible to develop foods containing toxins or allergens by both traditional breeding and genetic engineering, the advantage of genetic engineering is that the gene of interest can be well defined and introduced into organisms more precisely. Hence, the possibility of developing a food with toxins and allergens can be better recognised when compared with conventional breeding.

Increasing world population numbers, reduction in arable land, increasingly variable and unsuitable climactic conditions and scarcity of fresh water means that farming of the future will be much different from that which we were used to up till now. In some situations around the planet, the only solution to overcome these problems is to develop GM foods that are better adapted to these new, adverse conditions and they have a higher yield than traditional foods raised by conventional means. I have no problem consuming GM food, my stomach digestive juices will treat it the same way they do conventional food and my body will derive the same nourishment from it. However, I respect the objections that some people may have to the growing of GM food and its consumption. Their reasons for their objections have to be valid, nevertheless, and not some garbled rant about GM foods being bad because they are “unnatural”. We do not live in a “natural” environment and we have ceased to do so for several millennia.

Thursday 29 November 2007


“Cough: A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity.” – Samuel Johnson

I am going to be very busy over the next few months. The reason is that as well as my regular job I am going to be working above and beyond the call of duty on another project that I have just consented to. Some of you may know that in 2005/6 I was involved in a massive project, that being the editing of the first ever, comprehensive Australian Medical Dictionary. It is the “Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing and Health Professions”, a monumental work of over 2100 pages with many tens of thousands of entries. It was a gruelling task, but at the same time extremely satisfying and amazingly interesting. The hard work paid off and currently this dictionary is the most popular in Australasia.

I have just consented to be one of the three editors-in-chief for the second edition of the dictionary that will be published in 2008. That is the way that scientific publications go. With the break-neck speed of innovative developments, evolving new knowledge and practice in medicine and all of the health professions, it is imperative to keep up and constantly correct, amend, update and improve. So for the next few months I shall be doing that as well as working my day job and I’ll definitely try to keep up blogging away as well.

Writing a dictionary is much more difficult than writing a book, even if it is a scientific book that one is considering. For this dictionary, we have 50 specialist consultants, 20 appendix consultants, and 21 reviewers, and they are all under the editorial control of the three editors-in-chief, myself and two other wonderful (if slightly crazy people, as we lexicographers must be to agree to do this type of work!). I am in charge of 20 consultants (in as many general topic areas), and as well as that, I look after the entries in four specialist areas. This implies that I shall define over a couple of thousand terms in the dictionary myself, and have the final say over the definition of several thousand of other terms. This is quite a powerful position to find oneself in, but at the same time it is a position of great responsibility.

So on this Thesaurus Thursday, what better word to give you, than:

lexicographer |ˌleksəˈkägrəfər| noun
A person who compiles dictionaries.
ORIGIN early 17th cent.: modern Latin, from Greek lexikon (biblion) ‘(book) of words,’ from lexis ‘word,’ from legein ‘speak’ and Greek graphé ‘writing.’

Or if you prefer Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) definition from his dictionary (1755) of the English Language:

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday 27 November 2007


“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” – Albert Camus

To An Old, Fellow-University Student

Friend, my heart has grown so old
Now that my life in Athens is over,
The same life, sweet, as when we partied,
And bitter, as when we starved.

It won’t be a homecoming, like it was in this place
In the celebrations of youth,
But rather I’ll be a visitor accompanying my hope,
A traveller with a dream that faded away.

I’ll stand like a pilgrim outside your house,
And they’ll tell me they know not where you’ve gone.
Another man will accompany your Aphrodite,
And strangers will now live in Irene’s house.

I’ll go to the Samian’s tavern
Where we used to drink, and I’ll ask for wine,
It will taste different, as you won’t be there,
But I’ll drink it anyway to get drunk.

I’ll go towards the Zappeion singing,
Staggering, just as we used to do together;
The plaza will be beautiful, the horizon broad,
But my song will be like a dirge.
Kostas Karyotakis (1896-1928)

Σε Παλιό Συμφοιτητή

Φίλε, η καρδιά μου τώρα σα να γέρασε
Τελειώσε η ζωή μου της Αθήνας,
Που όμοια γλυκά και με το γλέντι επέρασε,
Και με την πίκρα κάποτε της πείνας.

Δε θα ‘ρθω πια στον τόπο που πατρίδα μου
Τον έδωκε το γιόρτασμα της νιότης
Παρά περαστικός με την ελπίδα μου,
Με τ’ όνειρο που εσβήστει, ταξιδιώτης.

Προσκυνητής θα πάω κατά το σπίτι σου
Και θα μου πουν δεν ξέρουνε τι εγίνεις.
Μ’ άλλον μαζί θα ειδώ την Αφροδίτη σου
Κι άλλοι το σπίτι θα ‘χουν της Ειρήνης.

Θα πάω προς στην ταβέρνα, του Σαμιώτικου,
Που επίναμε για να ξαναζητήσω.
Θα λείπεις, το κρασί τους θα ΄ναι αλλιώτικο,
Όμως εγώ θα πιω και θα μεθύσω.

Θ΄ανέβω τραγουδώντας και τρεκλίζοντας
Στο Ζάππειο που ετραβούσαμεν αντάμα,
Τριγύρω θα ΄ναι ωραία, πλατύς ορίζοντας
Και θα ΄ναι το τραγούδι μου σαν κλάμα.
Κώστας Καρυωτάκης (1896-1928)

Kostas Karyotakis (1896-1928) is a Greek poet, one of the most important of the 1920s and amongst the first to write in a modernist style in Greece. There are rich images, often surrealistic, but always rich in expression and adorned by a sensitivity to nature and the emotions it arouses. He was not greatly thought of during his life, but after he committed suicide his poems came to the forefront and were critically acclaimed.

He was born in Tripoli but because his father was an engineer the family moved all over Greece, causing the child to become introspective and solitary. He got a law degree from the University of Athens and became a public servant in Thessaloniki. He disliked his work and loathed the very bureaucracy he was forced to uphold. In 1919 he published his first collection of poems, followed by two more collections in 1921 and 1927. Critics ignored or wrote bad reviews of these collections of fine poems.

In June 1928 he was transferred to the provincial town of Preveza. He wrote letters to friends and relatives describing his loneliness and desperation there. On the 20th of July he tried to drown in the sea for ten hours, but failed in his attempt. The following morning he purchased a gun and went to a little café. After a few hours, he went to a nearby beach and there, under a gum tree he shot himself through the heart.

More of his poems may be read here in English translation:

The poem above set to music by Lena Platonos is sung by Savina Yannatou.

Monday 26 November 2007


“Thou hadst better eat salt with the Philosophers of Greece, than sugar with the Courtiers of Italy.”
- Benjamin Franklin

For Book Tuesday today, I am considering an extremely interesting book that I have just finished reading. It is “Alpha to Omega: The Life and Times of the Greek Alphabet” by Alexander and Nicholas Humez. The book was re-issued in 2000 after a successful first run a few years back and it is available online. I was fortunate enough to get a used copy of the fine first edition, which is absolutely delicious in typographical quality as well as well as in content, being printed in wonderful creamy, archival, acid-free paper and using a graceful, easy to read font, the layout well designed and set. Books that are produced beautifully and with craftsmanship, as well as having good content are rarer and rarer to get nowadays.

This is the sort of non-fiction book that I love to read as every page has interesting facts, amusing anecdotes, historical trivia, engaging tangents and a solid backbone of linguistic analysis with the flesh of historical and sociological erudition. The authors take the Greek alphabet (from which the Latin and subsequently all Western alphabets are derived) and dissect it. Each chapter is devoted to a letter, beginning with alpha and ending with omega and beyond (beyond as even three disused or little used Greek letters are covered too: Koppa, Digamma and Sampi)!

Each chapter has as its starting point a few Greek words beginning with the letter which is the subject of that chapter, and these words are analysed, examined in a historical context, with the connections to other languages (but especially to English) being highlighted. The style is witty, amusing, light, digressive, but always accurate and involving, and never losing sight of the concept of the book, which is a tribute to Greek thought and civilisation through the letters of the alphabet, and of course its words.

The authors who are extremely learned and must have enjoyed the writing of this book immensely, demonstrate without doubt that “the Greeks had a word for it”; it, being everything! If you enjoy words, word origins, history, Greek myth, culture, languages or simply a good old amusing read, this book is a gem and I cannot recommend it too highly.


“The greatest part of our happiness depends on our dispositions, not our circumstances.” -
Martha Washington

Happiness… What is it? When do we feel happy? When can we truly say we are content with our lot in life and be satisfied, pleased, joyful? For me personally, happiness is health, a comfortable home, a job I enjoy doing and people around me whom I love and who love me. That sort of existence provides me with many moments of delight, instances of enjoyment, long-term satisfaction and pleasure that is additive with each passing day. Much of that state of happiness depends on giving rather than receiving. I am happiest when I can make others happy too. Happiness hinges on our interactions with other people, it is a state that withers if we are living in isolation, relying only on selfish goals to provide us with feelings of well-being.

And money, what about money? I am reminded of the old adage: “Anyone who says you can't buy happiness just doesn't know where to shop.” But a surplus of money will often only allow us to buy luxuries and superfluities. This will make people go into a consumer frenzy because as Marvin J. Ashton says: “You can never get enough of the things you don't need, because the things you don't need can never satisfy.” Imagine being surrounded by every material comfort and all the consumer goods you ever wanted. Imagine being able to have anything you ever dreamed of having. And as soon as you saw something that can be bought you could buy it. Would that make you happy? Bertrand Russell maintains that to be happy we must always be hankering after something: “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” With this I tend to agree…

Having prefaced my Movie Monday entry in this way, let me now consider the film that I’ll talk about: Gabriele Muccino’s 2006 film “The Pursuit of Happyness”. This is a film inspired by a true story, that of Chris Gardner, played by Will Smith in one of his better roles. Jaden Smith (Will Smith’s own son) plays Gardner’s young son very well and the movie is a predictable rags to riches story, a glorification of the “American Dream”, a “success-rewards-those-who pursue-it” story.

I must admit, I enjoyed the film; there was poignancy and pathos in it, there was some humour and even though the plot was conventional and unsurprising, the film could be watched with enjoyment. The portrayal of the relationship between father and young son was sensitively done and one could forgive the heavy-handedness of the plot and the repetition of some scenes (how many times can someone lose and find a portable bone scanner in a big city like San Francisco?). One could even forgive the Hollywood sandpaper and veneer job over some of reality’s harder edges. Upon seeing the film ending, one could rejoice in the personal success of Chris Gardner - at least all of this on first viewing.

However, on reflection (and I suspect on second viewing of the film), the sugar coating dissolves somewhat. I thought about the relationship Chris has with his long-suffering wife and her desperation that causes her to abandon him and their son. The scene where the child asks his father “is it my fault that mommy left us?” caused me to ask, which brand of happiness is Chris Gardner pursuing? Is happiness in his case equated with earning a big salary and achieving success as stockbroker (that arch-stalwart of capitalistic vocations!)? What has he sacrificed to achieve that? At what cost, success?

If a family is united, if the parents love one another and their prime goal is the happiness of their children, then surely their first goal is to keep the family together? Chris wants to be a successful salesman selling expensive (and unnecessary) medical equipment. He sacrifices the integrity of his family in order to be a success in this job. He becomes a trainee stockbroker and often puts his son in situations that could prove to be threatening for the child, physically and psychologically. He realises his dream, he succeeds in his quest for status, prestige and all importantly, money. He too can have a private box at the football game now. That is his happiness.

I think on reflection, what I found objectionable about the movie was that it obliterates the middle classes from its vision of the world. Chris Gardner must be either a down-and-outer living in poverty, or alternatively he must be a high-flying executive earning hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars by advising people how to invest and play the stock market. The world is black or white. Black is poverty and misery, white is luxury and happiness. His love for his son is the only middle ground, but even that is secondary to his first priority, which is his personal “success”, whatever that is, at whichever time. Chris Gardner on second consideration is quite selfish. He is someone who knows what skid row is like and will do anything to raise himself up by the scruff of his neck to the upper echelons where money means everything. Is this what the American Dream is all about? Is success on a personal, selfish level more important than anything else? Is to have money the only way we can be successful, worthy of respect, happy?

The bad guys are the needy, the impoverished the people of Gardner’s class (consider how his friend does not give him the $14 he owes him – although he does help him move). The good guys are the rich ones – they give Gardner opportunities, a perfect day at the football in a private box, ultimately a job and his boss who borrows $5 from him even has the integrity to return it! It IS all about money, isn’t it?

The film is quite disturbing the more I think about it and I wonder how I will feel about it on second viewing. On the one hand there is nobility, higher values, love between a father and his son, the just reward of effort, and the success that crowns the struggle of a worthy person. On the other hand there is the undercurrent of overt, implicit and subliminal capitalistic propaganda. “You too can succeed and be happy (provided you make enough money)”…

Going back to what I started out with in this blog, I think Norman MacEwan sums it up pretty well: “Happiness is not so much in having as sharing. We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Maybe I have it wrong. If you have seen this movie, tell me where I misinterpreted what it is all about.

Sunday 25 November 2007


The rest of the story has Maxentius calling in a squad of philosophers to dispute with St. Catherine and lead her to apostasy, but the saint instead converts them. Maxentius orders her to be starved in prison for 12 days, but a dove brings her food from Heaven. Then the emperor's wife and 200 knights visit her, and she converts them too. In a fury, Maxentius orders that she be tortured on a device featuring four spiked wheels, but angels are sent to destroy it. At last, he has her beheaded.

The Golden Legend has a rather confused account of how the wheeled device operated, and this confusion carries into the images of St. Catherine's passion. Portraits of the saint usually show her with the ruined wheel, the sword used to behead her, and the palm branch of martyrdom, as in the painting by Caravaggio (ca. 1598. Oil on canvas, 173 x 133 cm, Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid).

Because the Legend says St. Catherine was a queen, she also usually wears a crown. Indeed, because she was the only queen among the martyrs of Roman times many images rely on just the crown and the palm branch, sometimes with a book. The book presumably refers to St. Catherine's erudition "in the arts liberal, wherein she drank plenteously of the well of wisdom, for she was chosen to be a teacher and informer of everlasting wisdom" (Caxton's translation of the Legend).


St. Catherine was widely popular from the middle ages through the 17th century, and her images are among the most common in the art of those years. In Voragine's Golden Legend St. Catherine tells the Emperor Maxentius, "I have given myself as his bride to Christ." This suggestion was elaborated both in the art and in later versions of the Legend, which offer a tale of her miraculous visit to Heaven and marriage to Jesus, who gives her a ring, as in this painting by Correggio: 
”The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine” (ca. 1520, Wood, 105 x 102 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris).


"If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it." - Margaret Fuller

It is St Catherine’s Day today and for reasons that shall become obvious, it is also the International Day to object to Violence Against Women. St Catherine was an Alexandrian princess who was baptised a Christian secretly. When her father arranged for her to marry a pagan prince, she refused. She was condemned to be broken on a spiked wheel (the “Catherine Wheel”) in approximately 310 AD.

She is the patron saint of carters, spinners and spinsters. These workers celebrated her day by drinking hot ale and eating pies:
Rise, maidens, rise Bake your Cattern pies Bake enough and bake no waste And let the Bellman have a taste.

Also lacemakers claim her for her own as she was confused with Queen Catherine of Aragon who burned all her lace and ordered new when times were hard, thus supporting the lacemakers. Lacemakers jumped for luck over a lit candle on this day:
Kit be nimble, Kit be quick Kit jump o’er the candlestick.

The flower associated with St Catherine is love-in-a-mist, Nigella damascena. However, An Early Calendar of English Flowers, associates the laurel with this Saint.
Soon the laurel alone is greene When Catherine crownes all learned menne.

Incidentally, a “poet laureate” indicates the old custom of crowning great poets and winners of poetical competitions in ancient times with laurel. A Bachelors degree is derived from this crowning with laurel, also. Bachelor is derived from baccalaureatus i.e. “berry laurelled”, hence “Catherine, crowning all learned men”. Here is a painting by Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni: “Saint Catherine Disputing” ca. 1380 Tempera on wood, gold ground , Metropolitan Museum of Art)