Saturday 7 March 2009


“Our ideals, like the gods of old, are constantly demanding human sacrifices.” - George Bernard Shaw

German pianist and composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was celebrated during his life as a worthy successor to Beethoven. He is famous for his symphonies and chamber music, but also for his monumental “German Requiem”. He is ranked among the masters of the Romantic era. Although he showed talent at the piano at an early age, he spent much of his young life performing rather than composing. Brahms's career was given a boost by composer Robert Schumann (1810-56) and his pianist wife Clara (1819-96).

His close relationship with Clara Schumann, especially after she was widowed, has been the source of much speculation ever since. The pair exchanged passionate letters and went on holiday together, but Brahms opted to leave her behind to pursue his career and a life of bachelorhood. By the end of the 1860s he'd settled in Vienna, where he lived until his death from cancer in 1897. Musically he maintained the Romantic tradition of Ludwig van Beethoven, in opposition to the rise of composers such as Richard Wagner and Brahms's friend, Franz Liszt.

His most famous composition is the lullaby, "Lied Wiegenlied" ("Cradle Song"), popularly known as simply "Brahms' Lullaby." His compositions include German Requiem (1866), Violin Concerto in D (1878) and Piano Concertos in B Flat (1878-81). Here is the 3rd movement, Poco allegretto, from his Symphony No. 3 in F Major. It is an absolutely delicious piece. Poignant and melodic, imbued with a wistfulness and nostalgia that is immensely winsome. The movement has been thought to reflect Brahms’ love for Clara Schumann.

Enjoy the weekend!

Friday 6 March 2009


“Drink the first. Sip the second slowly. Skip the third.” - Knute Rockne

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is a very powerful body in Australian medical and research circles. It carries a great deal of clout and is the body that has funded most of Australia’s greatest medical research projects. The NHMRC released today its latest version of the National Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol.

In Australia, alcohol consumption is calculated in terms of the “standard drink”, which is defined as any drink containing 10 grams of alcohol. One standard drink always contains the same amount of alcohol regardless of container size or alcohol type (i.e., beer, wine, or spirit). For example, a “nip” of spirits (30 mL of 40% Alc/vol) is a standard drink, a 285 mL glass of full strength beer (4.5% alcohol) is 1.1 standard drinks, while the same glass of light beer (2.7% alcohol) is 0.6 standard drinks.

The NHMRC advises drinkers not to consume more than 4 standard drinks on a big night out (keep in mind that a normal bottle of wine, that is, 750 mL at 12% alc/vol is 7.5 standard drinks!). The preferred “dose” of alcohol per day, if you are to drink it at all, is recommended at two standard drinks. This will reduce your risk of dying from alcohol-related disease at below 1 in 100. This is slightly less than your risk of dying in a car accident one day. If you decide to drink six standard drink per day, your chances of dying from alcohol-related diseases increases to 10 in 100.

Now all of that was for the men! Women are recommended to drink 2/3 less for the same risks as those mentioned above. That is, women should have 1.3 standard drinks per day to reduce their risk of dying from alcohol-related disease to below 1 in 100. This is because of hormonal and metabolic differences between the sexes, which mean that women can cope less efficiently with detoxifying the alcohol in their body. There are also important genetic differences in terms of the enzymes in the liver and how efficiently they can cope with alcohol detoxification. Some people have a very efficient inducible enzyme system so the more they drink the better they cope with alcohol detoxification (within reason!). Others, unfortunately do not have these genes that “turn on” the appropriate enzymes, so even a small amount of alcohol will have dire effects. These genetic effects are valid in both sexes.

In Australia we have a saying for the person who cannot hold their drink too well and is affected adversely with even a small glass of alcohol. They are called a “one pot screamer” (a pot is a large glass of beer – 425 mL which at 4.5% alc/vol is 1.6 standard drinks!). The ancient Greeks of course knew all of this and would not think of drinking wine neat – they always diluted it with water, using a large vessel called a “krater” (from the verb “kerannymi” – I mix). The modern Greek word for (undiluted!) wine is “krasí”, which is derived from the krater of old. And yes, in case you are wondering, a volcano’s crater is from the same word, seeing how a volcanic crater resembles a wine mixing vessel!

The Greeks were very a very moderate people, if you believe Cleobulus (one of the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece) who said: “The mean is best in all things”, presumably this applied to wine bibbing as well! Besides, which the Greeks had other methods for becoming inebriated:

A Kiss within the Cup

I am no wine-bibber; but if thou wilt make me drunk,
Taste thou first and bring it me, and I take it.
For if thou wilt touch it with thy lips,
No longer is it easy to keep sober or to escape the sweet cup- bearer;
For the cup ferries me over a kiss from thee,
And tells me of the grace that it had.

Agathias (ca AD 536-582/594, Byzantine poet and historian).
Enjoy your weekend, I need to go and have my standard 2 drinks!

Thursday 5 March 2009


“With what price we pay for the glory of motherhood…” - Isadora Duncan

“OVUM DONORS: Healthy women between 18 and 35 years are required for ovum donations in our fertility clinic. The procedure is perfectly safe and you will have the satisfaction of helping a childless family experience the joy of parenthood. You will be rewarded for your efforts.”

On a Greek TV program on Satellite TV there was a story about ovum donors in Greece. As well as the “official” fertility clinics associated with the major state-administered hospitals, there is also a whole industry of small, private fertility clinics that supply infertile women with “donated” ova, at the price of about €6,000 each. The donated ova are bought from the “donors” for €600. This industry is illegal and both the ovum “seller” and the “purchaser” of the ova can be prosecuted by the legal system. However, this is not the case and the industry is burgeoning as fertility decreases and many more women find themselves in the position of needing IVF procedures in order to conceive.

On the other hand, many a desperate young woman who needs money is forced to resort to “donating” her ova and thus go through many such procedures in a relatively short period of time. One woman was relating how she had “donated” seven times recently, as she had financial difficulties and she was unemployed. Another related how she had lied about her age (she was over 40) in order to sell her ova. A third woman said that she did it because she felt sorry for the childless couple, but unless she were “paid for her trouble” she would not have donated her ova.

This is a vexed question. The joys of parenthood, the wonder of pregnancy and birth, motherhood and the creation of a family are surely the right of any woman. In the past, more often than not there was the problem of multiple births and many women having too many babies (that often cost the woman her life). Nowadays we are finding that fertility is decreasing in both men and women and the average couple can have rather a hard time in conceiving. Many women, who have deferred becoming pregnant until their 30s are finding that they are infertile and their only hope is IVF. This is coupled with the problem of ageing societies and a decreased birth rate in most Western countries. We are populations in decline, unlike the developing countries where the population is increasing.

Adopting used to be a solution in the past and although this potentially had many problems, it was a strategy that made many a happy family. The raising of a child and the creation of a happy home environment has nothing to do with the genetic make-up of the child or its genetic relationships with the people it calls mother and father. However, adopting is much harder nowadays than it was in the past. The reasons are another big topic for discussion, but let’s say that the state bureaucracy can sometimes hinder more than it can help in its efforts to make our society better.

We are in a position nowadays where science and technology performs miracles. Life is created in a test tube and the barren are made fertile. A woman can carry her own baby, whether it is her husband’s or not. She can carry her husband’s baby, the ovum having come from another woman. The baby can be completely different genetically, created with donated ova and donated sperm. A surrogate mother can carry the couple’s baby for them. Two women can become a couple and have a baby with donated sperm. We are reaching a stage where soon, Huxley’s science fiction “Brave New World” will become a reality.

The question remains. Do we pay for this ovum donation? Is it an ethical thing for someone to sell bits of their body? People peddle their kidneys to rich tourists in need of a transplant in some countries. This “transplantation tourism” has become a massive problem. What is next? Legalising execution of criminals and auctioning off their vital organs to the highest bidder? A black market trading of organs following abduction and murder? Is everything for sale nowadays? Has money become such a vital force in our culture that people are prepared to anything for it?

And aptly the word of the day:

In vitro fertilisation (noun)
In vitro fertilisation (IVF) is a process by which egg cells are fertilized by sperm outside of the womb, in vitro. IVF is a major treatment in infertility when other methods of assisted reproductive technology have failed. The process involves hormonally controlling the ovulatory process, removing ova (eggs) from the woman's ovaries and letting sperm fertilise them in a fluid medium. The fertilized egg (zygote) is then transferred to the patient's uterus with the intent to establish a successful pregnancy. The first test tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in 1978.
ORIGIN: Latin, literally ‘in glass.’ + late Middle English: via French from Latin fertilis, from ferre ‘to bear.’

Wednesday 4 March 2009


“This is the spot where I am mortal…” - Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller

Memento mori! This, in Latin, means “be mindful of dying” or “remember you are mortal”. In the not too distant past it was a potent and ever timely reminder of human frailty, as most people had several blood relatives succumbing to death’s imperious invitation all too soon and with amazing frequency. Disease, wars, infant mortality, accidents, all carried away large numbers of the population so people were surrounded by death and each day that they personally survived was a triumph, but ever-present in their mind was the stern warning: “Memento mori!”

This omnipresent idea of death and of human mortality in the past spawned a whole genre of literally and artistic works, all of which drove home this point and these artworks were a constant reminder of the transience of our life. The preoccupation with death was balanced by the intense religious feelings that people had and the reassurance that everlasting life, life after death, heaven (for the righteous!) would be recompense enough for a short earthly existence. The agnostics and epicureans of course, would use this as an excuse for making the most of our earthly existence, as Callimachus affirms: “O Charidas, what of the underworld?” “Great darkness.” “And what of the resurrection?” “A lie.” “And Pluto?” “A fable; we perish utterly.”

We have become unused to the idea of physical, actual death. Sure enough we see it all the time on television screen, in the movie theatre, in video games, in our literature, in our news bulletins. However, most of us have not experienced it first hand and when we do, the machinery of the death industry insulates our experience of it in a sanitised, expurgated, censored version that protects our sensibilities. Our culture is youth, life and present-oriented. Memento mori has gone out of fashion. Our idea of ourselves centres on invincible youthfulness and immortal self-assurance. Here is my memento mori for today:

Fog on the River

The fog hangs heavy above the river;
Skeleton trees only just discernible,
Sparse, silent, frozen, dead.

The grey water flows slow
And the river travels, to far away lands
Between banks that never change.

A dewdrop hangs and sparkles on a twig
Before it drops delayed by a spider’s web
On its trip to sodden earth.

Deep in the silent cloud that hangs above the river
I shall venture, losing myself,
Enclosed in a soft cotton shroud.

Abducted by the mist,
I’ll forget and be forgotten, fading
In the oblivion of downy foggy clouds.

And the waters of the river will flow on silent,
And the fog will each skeletal branch embrace,
And the banks immutable, impassive,
Will stare, will understand, will witness all,
But oh, so silently…

Tuesday 3 March 2009


“Prayer requires more of the heart than of the tongue.” - Adam Clarke

Yesterday was “Clean Monday” for Greek Orthodox people, marking the beginning of the great fast of Lent. Lent is the period of fasting before Easter, in commemoration of Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert. Interestingly, the 40-day period is one that recurs in the Bible: Moses spent 40 days on Mt Sinai, Elijah spent 40 days travelling to the Mount of God. In most Western churches (including the Roman Catholic faith), Sundays are not included in the period of fasting and the fast begins on Ash Wednesday. In the Greek Orthodox faith, the period of Lenten fasting begins on “Clean Monday” and continues until midnight on Easter Saturday, a period of 48 days. The Greek term for Lent is Μεγάλη Σαρακοστή (Meghale Saracosté), meaning the “great 40th day”, fast being implied, and the “great” including the extra 8 days of fasting. The “lesser 40th day fast” of the Greek Orthodox Church is the one preceding Christmas and lasts 40 days. It was traditional for children to cut out a paper figure of an old lady with seven feet showing beneath her long skirt. This figure was dubbed “Mrs Lent”. She had no mouth as she was fasting, her hands are crossed in an attitude of prayer and contrition and she has 7 feet, one for each week of the Great Lent. As Lent progressed, one of the feet was cut off on the Saturday, the last one on Holy Saturday before Easter. In the days before calendars, Mrs Lent was an easy way to keep track of the progress of the fasting and the advent of Easter.

The term “Clean Monday” also refers to the Spring cleaning which was traditionally done on this day. Everything was taken out of the house, furniture dusted, floors mopped, walls were whitewashed, houses aired, and the rubbish taken out of the village and burnt. This represented a purification of the house, readying it for the Lenten period ahead. In Greece, Clean Monday is a time when children go out and fly kites, a practice known as koúlouma, which usually combines this kite-flying with a picnic in the countryside. It is customary to eat a special unleavened bread on this day, called a laghána. The baking of this special bread may be related to the Roman Feast of Ovens, the Fornacalia at around this time. During this feast, it was customary to eat wheaten flat cakes resembling the laghána. The Fornacalia cakes may also be linked to the tradition of baking pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

The Great Carnival is gone and o’er Masquerading, feasting, alas no more. Lent is here, Clean Monday dear - Eat your olives and almighty God fear!
Greek Folk Rhyme

The term Lent is derived from the Anglo-Saxon lenctene, meaning the time when days lengthen. The Scottish term for Lent is “Fasterns” while the Gaelic and Welsh terms also allude to the period of fasting. In Latin the term carnesprivium is given to Lent and means “the time of abstinence from meat”. Before the fast, all foods forbidden during Lent had to be consumed and generally this was a time for merry-making and feasting. Carnival is derived from the Latin carnelevarium, meaning “taking away of meat”. Other sources link carnival with carnevale, literally, “goodbye to meat”. No eggs, milk, cheese, meat or fish are partaken during the period of fasting, a largely vegetarian diet being followed. The Roman Catholic faith has relaxed the requirements of Lenten fasting whereas the Greek Orthodox church still applies the same stringent requirements to the faithful.

Shrovetide is the period just before Lent when people made their “shrifts”, or they were “shriven” i.e. made their confessions. Lent is a period of meditation, fasting, doing penance, preparing spiritually for Easter and giving money to charity. No weddings should be performed during Lent, couples usually waiting until Easter Sunday, a very popular day to celebrate a wedding in many countries. Traditionally, the 40-day period of Lent was also a time that new candidates for admission into the Christian faith prepared for their baptism, which occurred on Easter Sunday.

This year, Greek Easter falls one week after Western Christian Easter, and hence the beginning of Lent is one week later than the Western Church Lent, which started last week.

Spend some time over Lent trying to help others, think a little less of yourself and try to reflect a little on your good fortune. Pray for those things that you always take for granted, not for personal gain nor for useless luxuries. There are millions of people out there who are much worse off than you and who have to battle each day for the continued privilege of simple existence. Reflect a little and reconsider your actions, repent if you need to, ask for the forgiveness of those you love, they are the one whom you often hurt most deeply. Shed a tear for another’s pain, lend a helping hand, be kind to a stranger. And who knows, once Lent is over, you may decide to do all of those things all year round.
Have a Good Lent!

Monday 2 March 2009


“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” - Peter Ustinov

The weekend was very busy, as I was working away on my two special projects that are taking up my spare time: Editing a medical dictionary and writing a pathology textbook. In amongst the many hours spent over poring proofs and typing away on the computer, I had a break and we watched a movie. It was good to get away from the intellectual stuff and just veg. out in front of the TV screen, with something not too taxing for the brain.

We watched Marc Lawrence’s 2007 film “Music and Lyrics” which he not only directed but also wrote. The leads are the unlikely coupling of Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, which couple somehow manages to work with quite a bit of chemistry. There is energy and sympathy there and the repartee seems spontaneous and fresh. This is a typical romantic comedy with a predictable plot, but in an interesting context – the pop music industry.

The plot centres around Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a pop-star has-been now playing the nostalgia circuit for middle-aged housewives (the big gig is a Berry Farm!). He meets young and vivacious Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) who waters the plants in his apartment but has an undiscovered knack for writing lyrics. Sophie saves his day when the current pop megastar Cora (Haley Bennett) asks him to write and record a duet with her. There is an amusing satirical contrast between the pop scene of the 80s and 00s and Cora’s character is particularly delicious – a mix of Britney Spears/Madonna/Shakira.

The musical score of the movie has some pleasing numbers of Wham-like or George Michael-type of numbers as well as the weird-and-wonderful ethno-pop of Cora, the mistress of the Buddha and Booty show. The horrific mix of Alex’s ballad with Cora’s Hindu fantasy is very amusing. Grant’s one liners are delivered with aplomb and provide a constant source of mirth in the movie. Barrymore plays the ingénue convincingly and her lines are replete with the lyrics that inspire Alex, my favourite being the “Love Autopsy”…

This is a movie that amuses and gives one plenty of smiles and chuckles, even though there are no belly laughs. A pleasant, easy to watch movie that would appeal to most people. Only fluff, but quite amusing and easy enough to watch for a little relaxation. Why am I beginning to sound apologetic? Watch it, it’s not pretending to be Bergman nor is it the wittiest thing ever written or filmed. It’s modest and cute and fun.

Sunday 1 March 2009


“Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” - Zhuangzi

For Art Sunday today, a Russian artist who paints in the surrealist idiom, reminiscent a little of Magritte, a little of Dalí and with a turn of the brush that’s quite his own – he prefers to call his style a “metaphorical realism”. It is Vladimir Kush, who has become quite well-known, with his quirky, yet very accessible art. He was born in 1965 in Moscow, and even as a child of 4, Vladimir would sit on his father’s lap drawing. His father, a huge influence on him, was a mathematician.

Growing, Vladimir attended art school after his regular high school until 9 p.m. Art school was a world of a new inspiration. The art school Vladimir Kush attended was focusing on a Cezanne style of painting, which Kush began to emulate at the age of 14. Soon bored with it, he painted his first surreal picture. When Vladimir was 17, he entered the Moscow Art Institute. At age 18, he entered into the mandatory two-year stint of military service where Kush was allowed to paint murals and big canvases. Of course, Vladimir Kush had to include military elements in these romantic or even fantastic landscapes. Kush's free time was spent painting surrealistic pictures, which he had to hide from his commanders.

In 1987, Vladimir began exhibiting with the Union of Artists where his paintings began to sell. The artist drew political caricatures for a newspaper (using Uncle Sam as a main character), and painted portraits on the streets in the heart of Moscow. At that time, Kush was invited to paint a series of portraits for the U.S. Embassy staff. Vladimir eventually had to curtail his work on these portraits after the KGB became suspicious of his involvement with Americans. At that time, Vladimir Kush first saw a book with Salvador Dali works.

In 1990 Vladimir Kush had a successful show in Germany with two other Russian artists. Kush then flew to Los Angeles, where he had sent 20 of his recent works for a showing. This was a beginning of his American odyssey, and Kush finally settled in the USA. Kush has two galleries, one in Hawaii and one in California, where he exhibits his works – paintings and sculptures.

The painting here is called: “Departure of the Winged Ship”.