Saturday 12 April 2008


“He who hears music, feels his solitude peopled at once.” - Robert Browning

Yesterday on the train, commuting to work I was struck by a young man who was listening to his iPod. Even though he was sitting about 3-4 seats away from me, I could hear the loud music he was playing through his headphones. Surely he must have been deaf to be able to withstand the music playing that loudly in his ears. Bemused, I looked on and the woman sitting next to me started a conversation about the loudness of the music and what that young man was doing to his hearing. Today I did some searching on the net and was interested to find a treasure trove of studies on this topic.

Teenagers seem to know that loud music can damage their hearing, yet most see no reason to lower the volume on their iPods. Students at two high schools in the Netherlands were interviewed by researchers and found that the teens were aware that blasting an MP3 player could harm their hearing. Most said they usually played their own players at maximum volume and had no plans to change that. Like many teenagers, the students often denied their own personal risk. Most knew the general hazards of loud music, but believed they had a "low personal vulnerability" to hearing loss, the researchers report in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Parents can also look for signs of a problem, like when a child complains of ringing in the ears or sounds being "muffled”. Many parents may be unaware of the hearing risks posed by MP3 players, and of the 73 students in the study, few said their parents had warned them that playing the devices too loud could harm their hearing. Many students in the study said they did not know how to tell when their MP3 players were too loud. Volumes at or above 90 decibels (dB) are believed to be hazardous, but noise levels need to reach 120dB to 140dB to become uncomfortable or painful. Manufacturers, according to the researchers, could equip MP3 players with an indicator that displays the volume level in terms of decibels, along with a signal - such as a flashing light - that goes off when decibel levels reach the danger zone.

As a general "rule of thumb", MP3 users should set the volume no higher than 60 per cent of its full capacity when using "ear bud" style headphones -like those that come with iPods. With over-the-ear headphones, they recommend 70 per cent as the maximum. Just as there are safety standards for occupational noise exposure, researchers suggest that more long-range studies are needed to develop safety guidelines for "leisure-time" noise exposure.

Here is something to caress your ears, the immortal Maria Callas singing “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s opera “Norma”. The opera is about a druidic priestess in ancient Gaul, during the occupation by the Romans. She falls in love with a Roman, they become lovers and she intercedes on his behalf when he is captured by her fellow Gauls. Unbeknownst to her he is having an affair with another priestess, her close friend. Here Norma sings an invocation to the “Chaste Goddess”, the moon. The opera ends tragically with Norma burnt alive on a pyre, but at last she is joined by her lover, who realizes it is her he truly loves.

Friday 11 April 2008


“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd rather not.” - Mark Twain

Are you angry? Feeling anxious, edgy, frustrated? Maybe you are suffering from depression or dire melancholy. Forget psychoanalysis, medication, counseling or prozac. Research is suggesting that what you eat may affect your mood. The evidence that is beginning to accumulate in support of this “food as medicine” notion is varied and is being published widely. One of its early proponents is Dr Khursheed Jeejeebhoy (formerly of the University of Toronto see: who maintained that consumption of some foods is associated with a feeling of happiness and an optimistic mood.

Studies at the University of Wales support this hypothesis and show when students were given different breakfast combinations, their emotional responses varied. A breakfast low in kilojoules, carbohydrates and fat, but high in fibre gives a boost to happy feelings and optimism, but also improves memory. Contrariwise, other studies have shown that typical junk foods loaded with simple carbohydrates, low in fibre, high in fat and calories combined with stress lead to irritability, anger, panic attacks, impatience, fuzzy thinking and addictive behaviours. Jack Challen, a nutrition expert, has labelled this dietary consequence as the “pissy mood syndrome”.

The scientific basis for these observations may have a lot to do with the chemistry of the brain. Serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine are all chemical messengers that transmit signals between nerve cells. Food can influence levels of these compounds in the body. Carbohydrates increase the levels of serotonin, causing a feeling of well-being but also drowsiness. Dopamine and noradrenaline increases cause feelings of alertness, heighten reaction times and increase energy. Protein-rich foods raise levels of these compounds in the brain: Meat, chicken, fish, soy, nuts, eggs and dairy products.

It should be kept in mind, however, that overeating will cause drowsiness as the more food in the stomach, the more blood is drained away from the brain to the intestines for the digestion process. Hence the feeling of sleepiness after a very heavy meal. A light meal of relatively few calories that is protein rich is the best for an alert mind.

Depression is relieved b foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids: Salmon, prawns, lobster, walnuts. Drinking lots of water and keeping hydrated also helps one’s mood. In this respect, cutting down coffee and alcohol (which are both diuretics and hence can cause dehydration) intake may help.

If you still feel aggressive and not quite relaxed, chomp on some chocolate. This has been used from ancient times by Aztecs as a healthful food and modern science has confirmed that it contains over 300 compounds that influence mood. Just make sure it’s good quality dark chocolate, as high sugar intake is definitely bad for one’s mood. Immediately after one eats sugar, there is a short-lived “Sugar high” followed soon after by a “sugar low” where despondency and dejection set in.

A healthy diet will certainly improve your mood, but this is helped by regular exercise. The latter causes an increase in body chemicals called endorphins. These substances produced within the body, have a positive effect on the brain, rather similar to morphine.

So in summary, for good mood:
• Low fat, low carbohydrate, low kilojoule, high protein, high fibre diet
• Regular exercise
• Drink lots of water
• Keep coffee and alcohol consumption down
• Eat shellfish
• Dark chocolate
• Low sugar

Enjoy a healthy meal, enjoy a healthy life.

Thursday 10 April 2008


“To keep the body in good health is a duty...otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” - Buddha

The plant for this day’s birthdays is avens (herb Bennet), Geum urbanum. The generic name of the plant is supposedly derived from the Greek word for “to taste”, geuomai. This is related to the use of the root of the plant as an additive to ale, preventing it going sour and conferring upon it a clove-like flavour. The root was also used as a substitute for cloves in stewed apples and apple pies. Bennet is a corruption of Benedict, after the Saint, as it was considered a plant sacred to him. The plant was attributed with miraculous healing properties, especially for all internal injuries and chest complaints. The upper leaves with their three leaflets symbolised the trinity in medieval times, while the five-petalled yellow flower symbolised the five wounds of Christ on the cross. Astrologically, avens is under the dominion of Jupiter.

Avens is still used nowadays by herbalists as a medicine, because of its astringent effect. Avens-based herbal cures are mainly used to treat disorders that affect the region of the mouth, the region of the throat, as well as problems that affect the gastrointestinal tract of a person. Avens-based herbal medications lead to the tightening of soft gums; it can heal canker sores, and makes a really good gargling solution to treat infections in the region of the pharynx and the larynx. Avens-based herbal medications also help in bringing about a reduction in the irritation affecting the stomach and the gut. Avens-based herbal cures can be used in the treatment of disorders like peptic ulcers, problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, in the treatment of diarrhoea and chronic dysentery. The herb is included in many herbal lotions and ointments, these can bring soothing relief from the symptoms of haemorrhoids. Avens can also be made into an herbal douche to treat problems like excessive vaginal discharge; a herbal avens-based douche can also be used for general cleansing of the vaginal cavity. One more reputed property of the avens is that it possesses a mild quinine type effect and can supposedly bring relief from a fever by lowering the body temperature.

And our word of the day is:

herbalism |ˈ(h)ərbəˌlizəm| noun
The study or practice of the medicinal and therapeutic use of plants, now especially as a form of complementary and alternative medicine.
ORIGIN Middle English: via Old French from Latin herba ‘grass, green crops, herb.’ Although herb has always been spelled with an h, pronunciation without it was usual in British English until the 19th century and is still standard in the U.S.

Wednesday 9 April 2008


“Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.” - Heraclitus of Ephesus

The Ying and the Yang conspire within yet again, as northern hemisphere memories and southern hemisphere realities meld and vie for supremacy. The shade of gray that results will depend on the amount of white mixed in with the black. Heraclitus, that distant relative smiles and, yes it’s April once again…

April in the Antipodes

My heart stirs silently like a seed,
Swollen, its thirst slaked after a long Winter’s rains.
Green vibrant juices begin to flow
Under a cracking husk.
I feel within me rise Spring’s viridian sap;
Life awakens yet again,
The seed must germinate, the flower must bloom.
The clock within has struck the hour.

But all the Spring that I conceal within
Each April dies as Antipodean moon
Wanes, waxes cold, looking at me
Up in the sky fixed upended.

The burgeoning cotyledons every April will unfurl,
In cold grey Autumn skies and chilling winds
They find no shelter, no encouragement.
The first, emerald-green leaves will wither,
As yet another seedling lies shrivelled up, yellow, unfulfilled.
Sleep yet again my Northern April,
As Winter, Winter follows,
Spring merely poetic licence...

ἐκ τῶν διαφερόντων καλλίστην ἁρμονίαν…

Tuesday 8 April 2008


“Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself; it only requires opportunity.” - George Eliot

The human being is considered to be the peak of evolutionary progress, the paragon of intelligence, the richest in emotional responses, the very centrepiece of creation. Human beings are gifted with reason, with compassion, with altruism, with a rich inner world that allows them to live life to the full, protecting the weak and innocent, to take care of their world, think of the future. Humans have music, have art, have culture. They live to write poetry and paint canvases, sing songs and dance ballets. What a wonderful world we humans live in, enjoying it as we do when each of us is endowed with such wondrous and marvellous gifts…

Aren’t idyllic dreams of a perfect world wonderful? The most despicable, the most horrendous, most terrible, most barbaric acts are those carried out by humans beings. Whatever can be imagined in the most warped mind can be realized by humans. Whatever can be dreamed in the most terrible nightmare can be made grim reality by humans. Whatever can be thought of in order to degrade, torture, despise, denigrate, terrify, terrorise other humans, we see reported in the news daily. And it does not stop there. We humans can even become more monstrous, more mindlessly destructive and repulsive. We can extend our activities to torture animals, not for the perhaps defensible purpose of food provision, but for the sake of… art!

Animal lovers and welfare activists beware, what follows is highly distressing and thoroughly sickening.

Guillermo Vargas a.k.a. ‘Habacuc’ (born 1975) is a Costa Rican “artist” who used a starving, sick street dog as part of an exposition in Managua, Nicaragua. He allegedly found the dog tied up on a street corner in a poor Nicaragua barrio and brought it to the showing. He tied the dog, according to furious animal lovers, in a corner of the exhibition salon where it died in his “art installation”. His point was, that there are thousands of dogs around Costa Rica dying every day and nobody cares. Using his “artistic sensibilities” he heightened public awareness of their plight… This is the link to a YouTube video on the exhibition (in Spanish and not for the faint-hearted!)

It is reported that the dog was left to die with no food and no water as patrons passed by in the gallery. The director of the Códice Gallery has stated that the animal was only tied up for 3 hours on one day and was fed and that finally the dog escaped. Guillermo Vargas has been selected to represent Costa Rica at the Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008 and an online petition has been made with over 1.8 million signatures against this selection (see here).

The controversy rages whether in fact the dog died of starvation in the gallery or whether it was released (see here). To have to consider that the dog was used in this way at all, for the sake of “art” is disgusting. There are millions of people worldwide who do really good work in animal shelters, stray animal hospitals, volunteer organisations, the RSPCA. Doing what Mr Vargas did to the dog to draw attention to its plight is like torturing a human on Oprah to draw attention to the fact there are millions of people being tortured worldwide. Or raping someone in the midst of a public gathering to draw attention to the plight of rape victims. Or putting a child in a cage on display and not feeding it to draw attention to the millions starving worldwide.

That not one of the refined “art lovers” went to liberate that tied dog I find even more repulsive than the cruel act of tying up the dog. “One of the ill effects of cruelty is that it makes the bystanders cruel.” Said Thomas Fowell Buxton, and though we find cruelty inherent in our human nature, at least we should make every effort to quash it, because it should seem unnatural to us. We have reason and intellect, we have emotion and sensitivity enough to be able to renounce the baser instincts of our humanity and rise above that in order to ennoble ourselves. Or is the world going completely mad?

Monday 7 April 2008


“Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen.” - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We watched an old film on DVD yesterday, which can only be classified as “dated fluff”. Therein lay its charm. It was quite an amusing retro look at the world, idealized and mixed with a dollop of fantasy, a slip of whimsy, a drop of charming performances, a smidgeon of romance, a soupçon of comedy and all set in a wintry, snowy New York City of the late 50s. Add to that some good jazzy music and what I thought would be a dull hour-and-a-half turned out to be some good light-hearted fun.

The film is Richard Quine’s “Bell, Book and Candle” of 1958, starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. They are wonderfully supported by a very young Jack Lemmon and a delightfully fluffly, elderly Elsa Lanchester (remember her as the Bride of Frankenstein in the 1935 movie?). The plot is based on a play by and one could very well see that this movie perhaps inspired the very successful TV sitcom “Bewitched”.

The plot revolves around some modern-day witches living in Manhattan, and who have some very special powers, but also some very interesting limitations. For example, a witch cannot cry and cannot blush. She can have “fun” but she cannot fall in love – well that’s what the rules say anyway. Kim Novak plays the young witch and Jimmy Stewart is the publisher who gets hexed. Helping it all along is a gorgeous Siamese cat, Pyewacket, the witch’s familiar of course! All sorts of mayhem follows embroiling Jack Lemmon and Elsa Lanchester, not to mention Ernie Kovacs playing a drunken author of books on magic, but as one would expect it all turns out right in the end.

Interesting is the ambience of late 50s New York and a wonderful little underground boîte called the “Zodiac Club” where all Manhattan witches go to have fun. It’s all very civilized and so nostalgic that it could very easily become fashionable all over again!

Sunday 6 April 2008


“One eye sees, the other feels.” – Paul Klee

A single painting today: Georges Seurat’s famous canvas, “Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte” (1884-1886). Seurat is the greatest proponent of the pointillists. They painted by placing very small brush strokes of pure colour right next to each other which when viewed from a distance will cause spatial summation to occur and for the desired colour to appear and forms to be seen.

It is basic knowledge that eventually things get to small to see. What isn't so well known is how the visual system treats the light coming from places to close together that we cannot tell that there are two places, say two dots, a red and a blue, right next to each other, as Seurat did on his canvas. What appears to happen is that the light is added together as if it came from one place.

Georges Seurat (December 2, 1859 – March 29, 1891) was only 26 when he first showed “A Sunday afternoon on the isle of La Grande Jatte” 1884 at the eighth annual and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886. In scale, technique, and composition it appeared as a scandalous eruption within Impressionism, a deliberate challenge to its first practitioners, such as Renoir and Monet. It immediately changed the course of vanguard painting, initiating a new direction that was baptised "Neoimpressionism."

Seurat died at age 31. He created other ambitious canvases, but “La Grande Jatte” has remained his definitive achievement. Although the picture was only rarely seen in the three decades following his death in 1891, its visibility was dramatically increased in 1924, when Frederic Clay Bartlett purchased the picture and placed it on loan at the Art Institute of Chicago. It has hung there ever since. Seurat's first major painting to enter a public collection, “La Grande Jatte” has become an icon, one of the art world's most recognisable images.