Saturday 23 July 2011


“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” - Isaac Asimov

The bombing and shootings in Oslo was the news that we heard first thing this morning. It definitely puts a dampener on one’s good humour and one has to question what it is that makes people bottle up so much hate that they have to kill, maim, demolish and destroy. The gunman who killed at least 80 people at an island youth camp northwest of Oslo disguised himself as a policeman to lure in his victims, then shot them twice to make sure they were dead. Seven people were also killed in an explosion that ripped through the government buildings in the heart of Oslo. Surely these are not the actions of sane persons? That is the only explanation that I can think of…

It seems that this insanity was motivated by political reasons. All the more reprehensible and crazy. To want to kill someone because they think differently to you is one of the most unreasonable and inhuman of acts. The 32-year-old suspected of massacring at least 80 young people at a summer camp and setting off a bomb in downtown Oslo that killed at least seven is a mystery to investigators: A right-winger with anti-Muslim views but no known links to hardcore extremists. This is the golden-haired, blue-eyed, dark angel of death that dragged a whole country into mourning and the world into new depths of despair.

When the world becomes a dark and terrible place, when despair threatens to overcome me, when the burden carried get heavier and heavier, what else is there to do but turn to music? Music will speak to us when words have failed; will ease the mind when it needs rest; music will soothe the heart and heal it when it is broken; music flows from heaven into our soul.

Here is a piece from J.S. Bach, from his Cello Suite No.2 – VI: Gigue (BWV 1008), played by Mischa Maisky. If anything can soothe a troubled mind it is music like this.

Thursday 21 July 2011


“The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.” - Epicurus

There seems to be some world-wide preoccupation with food presently. I wish I were talking about the starving millions who are desperately trying to get some nutrition, but unfortunately it is quite the opposite. It is a morbid desire of the well-fed to gorge themselves even more, and the sick single-mindedness of those with a jaded palate to try and find new taste sensations to tempt their tired tastebuds. The success of programs such as Master Chef on the television, the plethora of cookbooks published and sold every day, the infinitude of food and recipe “lifestyle” magazines available, and the cooking and recipe obsession in our media attests to this conclusion.

Do not get me wrong, I enjoy my food as much as the next person. I like sitting down to have a well-cooked meal, I relish sampling new tastes and I am willing to try my hand at realising some recipes in the kitchen. However, to religiously watch program after program of people cooking or competing for some prize by cooking, buying cookbook after cookbook, or reading recipe after recipe in magazines and papers, is not for me. We eat to live, not live to eat. This simple dictum is something that many people seem to have forgotten, obsessing endlessly with food, cooking, recipes, new tastes and obscure ingredients that will contribute to some novel recipe that they are striving to try.

Despite the overabundance of dietary research and the excess of recommendations of the conclusions of such studies to the general public, it is rather sad to see most people blissfully ignoring the obvious. Dietary excesses, consumption of imprudent amounts of the wrong foods, a blind dependence on foods that are universally acknowledged as bad for our health and wellbeing, all of these are still major problems that beset western nations.

The epidemic of diet-related diseases in western countries is another indicator of the magnitude of the problem of our fixation on food. Junk food is still something that is being consumed in enormous quantities and its pernicious effects on our health can be seen in doctors’ surgeries, our hospitals, clinics and the early deaths of people who have succumbed to diseases that are caused by what we eat. We are what we eat is another well-worn saw, but unfortunately it is true: Eat junk and you become junk…

Something that I personally find extremely offensive is the so-called “molecular cuisine”. This is the creation of “gastronomic delicacies” by utilising processes and equipment that would be more at home in a chemistry or physics laboratory. Complex processes are used to often make the ingredients completely unrecognisable and what ends up on the plate are congealed messes of striking colours, insubstantial foams, globules of sweet/savoury glug, intensely flavoured colloids, aromatic gases trapped into all sorts of edible containers, edible papers printed with designs in food dye and fruit inks, etc. Liquid nitrogen, for flash freezing and shattering can be used, carbon dioxide gas, for adding bubbles and making foams, enzymes, lecithin, maltodextrin, transglutaminase, hydrocolloids and other horrors can be used to make food that surprises (mainly unpleasantly) rather than providing nourishment and a balanced diet. This is novelty food in its worst form.

How difficult it is to cook a simple dish of few ingredients well! It is often these dishes that even the best restaurants are judged by. I have found the humble Caesar salad a good test dish with which to investigate how well a chef can deal with a simple order such as this. And I am talking about the classic, simple Caesar salad, no added chicken or salmon or olives or other extraneous ingredients. One of the best Caesar salads I have had was at Florentino’s Restaurant here in Melbourne, some time ago. Alas, this is no longer on the menu, having ceded its place to some more fashionable entrées, such as beetroot salad with goat’s curd and orange…

Give me small quantities of simple, fresh, well-prepared food eaten in convivial surroundings with compatible company and that is all I require for pleasant and nutritious fare. One enjoys many more meals that way and one’s good health as a consequence, contributes to a long life.


“Playing a robot is possibly the most difficult role you can have as an actor, because you have to take all your innate emotional responses and completely suppress them. Even the way you walk is affected.” - Kristanna Loken

Photographs are very special to us as they preserve our memories. They help us to conquer time somewhat through their maintenance of the past in a very real and immediately accessible way. Looking through our albums we travel back in time and revisit events, see again faces of family, friends, lovers, or even enemies… One way that is even better for preserving memories, many people would say, is video recordings. To hit the play button and see a piece of one’s personal history displayed in lurid technicolour can definitely transport one back to earlier times, sunlit memories which are vividly played out in front of our ageing eyes once again.

It seems now that we have some more ways of preserving and remembering the past. The process of “reborning” (what an awful word!). A “reborn” baby is a term that originated in the early 1990s and it describes the craft of painting, hairing and weighting store-bought or specialised “'reborning” baby doll kits, to resemble a real human baby. This began as a craft to evolve doll-making into a new area of verisimilitude with the “Reborn babies” bearing an uncanny similarity to real babies. Once you have seen these dolls you can understand a little perhaps the term “reborn”.

The technique has gone a step further now, with the “reborn” dolls being modelled on real babies and children so that a simulacrum is created and preserved for posterity. Parents can now order such a “reborn” copy of their child at any time they choose and capture forever a startlingly real, three-dimensional representation of their child. Seeing the two side by side as in the photograph above can be quite an unsettling experience. The Charles McQuillan photograph (that won a prize in the Press Photographers’ Year Awards, 2011) shows Sara, from Dowhill, Northern Ireland, together with her “reborn” self. This has been created a permanent memento for her parents who thus have a preserved 3D copy of their little girl as she was at that age.

Reborn doll kits, created especially for “reborners”, come in a disassembled blank kit form and are made from a soft silicon vinyl. Kits are available in regular and limited edition runs, for hobbyists and collectors. Each “reborn” doll can easily take 200 or more hours to create. Each layer of heat-set oil paint is baked onto the doll using a household oven at low temperature. By using thin successive layers of paint, the delicate effect of a baby’s skin tone can be created, complete with fine details, like capillaries and veins, milk pimples and newborn pressure marks.

When the painting process is completed, the baby has hand-rooted hair that is applied one hair at a time with a special needle. These details, with different choices of hair and eye colouration, allow for subtle differences that make each baby an original, with no two babies ever being the same. During assembly the babies are weighted with glass beads throughout their head, limbs and body to replicate the weight and feel of a new baby. They are then ready to be dressed. Obviously, if the “reborn” doll is a replica of a real person, specialised casting of the face has to occur so that the resemblance to the original is captured.

Somehow, I find this a little creepy. It is the same type of feeling that one has when one visits a wax museum. This unsettling experience has been investigated by researchers, especially where our reactions to androids and robots are concerned. Being confronted by something that looks human but is not, sparks conflict in our brain. Especially so where motion of the android is concerned. Faced with a gap between how we expect the simulacrum to move and how it actually moves causes the brain to become confused.

University of California in San Diego researchers showed 20 people video of the very lifelike Japanese Repliee Q2 android. This is one of the most life-like in the world and it was shown performing tasks like drinking water, picking up paper from the floor and waving and nodding. They were also show video of a human performing the same actions and then finally a video of the android without its “skin” on doing the same things, but looking obviously like a robot. The researchers found by studying the brain activity of the observers that the parietal cortex of all subjects showed increased activity. This is the part of the brain that connects the region processing body movements with the region that interprets and correlates these movements. The brain was trying to correlate the irreconcilable movements with the appearance of the person or “thing” making them. Its expectations for appaearance and motion to be congruent weren’t met.

It looks as though in the very near future we shall have to get used to more of this as androids and robots are to make an appearance in our everyday life as very visible players. Our brian will just have to get used to it. Still creepy, though…

simulacrum |ˌsimyəˈlākrəm, -ˈlak-| noun ( pl. simulacra |-ˈlākrə, -ˈlakrə| or simulacrums )
An image or representation of someone or something: A small-scale simulacrum of a skyscraper.
• An unsatisfactory imitation or substitute: A bland simulacrum of American soul music.
ORIGIN late 16th century: From Latin, from simulare from similis ‘like.’

Wednesday 20 July 2011


“Absence sharpens love, presence strengthens it.” - Benjamin Franklin

When the people closest to us are absent our lives suddenly become quite different. We become aware not only of the glaring lack of their presence, but also of the countless ways that these people contribute to our everyday existence and make our lives special. The longer the absence the more miserable we become, yearning for the return of the objects of our affections. When a lover is absent and at a great distance the heart languishes and the acuteness of the lack of one’s partner resembles a physical illness. We miss our other half as if it were torn asunder and the edge of us is raw and wounded.

Here is a poem I wrote while in this very situation. Absence of the beloved increases our sensitivities and our feelings are so much more attuned to pain than joy. In the nearness of our beloved our hearts have wings and they fly high to heaven, while in our beloved’s absence, the heart limps and needs the crutch of poetry and sad song.

At a Distance

While you are away, the distance between us
Amplifies the remembrance of your recent vicinity,
And makes me yearn for your presence
In increasing quanta of desire.

Your news still reaches me and your voice
May sound in my mind, in honeyed tones,
But your touch is what I most need;
The proximity of skin to skin.

The image of your smiling face is ever fresh
As I look at your sunlit photograph,
But what I most long for is the sparkle of your eyes
As you look at me within a breath’s distance.

Your clothes, empty shells, hang limply
In the deserted wardrobe and play with my longing.
I smell, but all I detect is freshly laundered odours,
When I would delight in the perfume of your warm flesh.

My heart beats and marks time while you are away,
It beats no stronger or more quickly, until you are near;
What I wish for is that soon it will beat in synchrony
With yours, as we lie together breast to breast.

Your absence fills my world with emptiness,
The distance between us an infinity unbridged;
On your return my empty soul will be charged,
And your nearness, the panacea for my every illness.

Tuesday 19 July 2011


“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.” - Albert Camus

It is becoming more and more depressing and distressing to read the news. Is it a sign of me getting older that I cannot understand what is happening around the world? Or is it a symptom of our declining civilisation? Is it perhaps an indication of the degeneracy of our younger generation? Could it be that we are seeing evidence of a relaxation of morals and a complete loss of the sense of shame and self-respect that allows people to act in ways that hardly qualify as human? The religious amongst us will be prompted to reply that it is due to our loss of faith – godlessness breeds lawlessness and encourages vice, it may be said…

It is hard to open a paper, look at the news items on the internet, or hear the news on the radio or TV and not become aware of numerous reports of heinous crimes, big swindles, sex offences, crimes against children and elderly people, senseless villainy, outrageous acts that people commit not only unflinchingly, but sometimes also take pride in boasting about.

The latest news today was of the 17-year old youth who is accused of bludgeoning his parents to death with a hammer, and while their bloody bodies lay in the bedroom, he hosted a party. This is the terrible case of Tyler Hadley of Florida who has been charged with twin counts of first-degree murder, which apparently happened on Saturday. Blake and Mary-Jo Hadley, his parents, are thought to have been struck with the hammer in their heads and torsos sometime after their son posted on Facebook around 1:15pm on Saturday alerting friends to an evening party at his house, north of West Palm Beach. The bodies of the hapless pair were moved into the bedroom and the door locked, and later that evening about 60 people attended the party, which was loud enough to prompt a noise complaint and a visit by police. When they arrived at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday to warn about the noise, the party was already breaking-up. The police received a tip later that morning that a murder may have taken place. They returned to the home at 4:20 a.m., finding the bodies covered with towels, files, books and other household items, and the hammer between them.

What prompted this reprehensible crime that goes against all that our society holds sacred and lawful? What could have caused this young man to kill in such a violent manner his 47-year-old mother, an elementary school teacher, and his 54-year-old father, who worked for a power company? If one could take look at the family’s photo albums, their family videos, their lounge room, what would they find? Innumerable pieces of evidence of the parents’ love for their child, a record of birthday parties, Halloween costume photos, prizes from school for good work or sporting achievements, marks of an ordinary life full of hope and affectionate reminders of numerous proud milestones of Tyler’s growing up. What went wrong?

In the UK, a father and daughter are facing gaol after they got reunited on the Internet after two decades apart only to start an illicit sexual relationship. Nicola Yates, 26 and her biological father Andrew Butler, 46, confessed to being guilty of incest. They were revealed to be living streets apart in Birmingham for many years and found each other after using a family tracing website. Yates was 20 at the time and Butler was said to be in a relationship with another woman but soon the father and the daughter began living as “girlfriend and boyfriend”. Their relationship reportedly emerged when Yates’s shocked family discovered the pair had become lovers. Four years ago they had been apprehended for the same charges, and Yates was punished with a community order for 18 months and her father had been sentenced four months in jail. The new charges are now for a repeat offence, when the pair flouted the taboos of society, laws of the land, and the sensibilities of the other family members.

Even if one has been separated from one’s parents from birth, surely whatever sexual attraction there may be when one is reunited with them in adulthood, must go immediately cold when one discovers the truth! Such is our social conditioning that this prohibition must become active in our minds whenever there is any hint of an incestuous relationship developing. With good biological reason too, as the risk of genetic disease of the offspring increases greatly in such unions.

The phone-hacking scandal of the Murdoch media empire and the allegations of police payoffs, gross breach of privacy, illicit activities of every kind, reveal a frightening lack of morality and complete disregard of ethical behaviour. Especially so when the profession involved is journalism where honesty, truth and impartiality should be held in the highest regard as ideals to be striven for. Now, with the Murdochs’ most trusted lieutenant, Rebekah Brooks , arrested on suspicion of phone hacking and paying the police for information, the $12 billion bid for the satellite company British Sky Broadcasting bid abandoned, the 168-year-old News of the World closed down, and nine others arrested, Rupert and James Murdoch are to face an enraged British Parliament.

The July 13th triple-bomb blasts in Mumbai, in which 21 people have been killed and many more injured is yet another in a long line of religious and nationalistic violence that has plagued the subcontinent for such a long time now. We must remember that the fifth anniversary of the Mumbai train blasts that killed more than 180 commuters fell on 11 July. Suspicion has fallen on the Indian Mujahideen, an Islamic militant group linked to Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba that has claimed past terrorist attacks using similar explosives.

In neighbouring Pakistan, The Taliban have released a video that seems to show the execution of a group of police officers. The video shows 16 police officers lined up and killed on a hillside in north-western Pakistan, appears to be authentic said Pakistani police. Taliban gunmen accuse the captives of betraying Islam and killing six children, and then open fire on them with automatic weapons, killing all of the police, who slump dead to the ground. Pakistani security officials say the video was taken last month after insurgents overran a checkpoint in the Upper Dir district near the border with Afghanistan. Military officials have described the executions as merciless.

Economic crisis, crumbling financial situations, nations facing bankruptcy, violent demonstrations, massive protests, unemployment, strikes, discontent…

And that is just a small sample in the last few days. How many more such reports I have read and despaired over! Every day something new, more insanity, more depravity, more loss of our collective humanity. Then again, on reflection, I have to admit that none of this is new. London had its Jack the Ripper in the 19th century. Religious fanaticism is nothing new – look at he Crusades! Wars, murder, sex crimes, incest, deceit, power games, rich and powerful men getting away with illicit activities have occurred again and again throughout history. What we see nowadays of course is the ease of communication delivering every item of news to us relentlessly and continually. What is to be determined is whether this will be for our benefit. Will such an inundation with information and rapidly delivered news make us strive to be better or will it complete inure us and degrade further our crumbling moral sense?

Monday 18 July 2011


“Romance has been elegantly defined as the offspring of fiction and love.” - Benjamin Disraeli

On Sunday, the weather started turning a little nasty in the afternoon and we decided to stay in and watch a film. This was a film that was once again retrieved from the specials bin at our DVD store and which we had missed seeing previously. It was the 2007 Julian Jarrold film “Becoming Jane” with Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy. It is about the youthful years of Jane Austen, before she became a famous novelist. It revolves around her supposed romance with a young Irish lawyer. This is another “chic flick” manufactured in a fictional biographical style by the screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams, based on fragmentary references in some letters that Jane Austen wrote her sister, Cassandra.

The plot begins in 1795 when Jane Austen was a vivacious 20-year-old living in the country and making do with her rather impecunious family circumstances in the household of her father, a parson. She is an emerging writer who sees the world through young, romantic eyes and having an idealised vision of marrying for love, something that was then almost unthinkable. Her parents wish her to marry “upwards, into money” so that her life will be assured and her social status will be improved. Mr. Wisley, nephew to the very rich local aristocrat Lady Gresham, foots the bill as the prospective match, especially since he eyes Jane with amorous glance.

Jane, however, meets the young Irishman, Tom Lefroy who has been sent to the countryside by his crotchety uncle, Judge Langlois in order to punish one of his indiscretions. Lefroy is roguish, intelligent, non-aristocratic and depends solely on his uncle’s generosity to live. Jane and Tom are initially repelled by mutual antipathy, with sparks flying as sharp repartee and witty ripostes are exchanged. His arrogance raises Jane’s ire, but his intellect, worldly ways and experience attract her. The couple begin to flirt, which flies in the face of the mores of the age, and are soon faced with a terrible dilemma: If they marry, they will risk everything that matters - family, friends and fortune, whereas if they do the “right thing” and follow the advice of their relatives, they will lose the chance of being together and enjoying their love.

Historians and Jane Austen biographers have howled blue murder: The film is historically inaccurate and at best highly speculative and unsubstantiated. At worst it is downright erroneous and historically untenable. It must be stressed that the screenwriters didn’t have much historical material or evidence to work from. A couple of letters written by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, and an admission by an elderly Tom Lefroy that he had once been in “boyish love” with the writer are what have spurred the screenwriters to concoct the plot. Historian Jon Spence worked as a consultant on the film and has written a book of the same name, which probably should be read for homework before one sees this film. Spence gives attention to the inspiration he feels Lefroy gave to Jane, but this inference is developed into actual events in the movie.

Hence, on slightly shaky foundations, the film-makers have built a story of repressed passion and defiance of social mores that is a work of fiction worthy of a Jane Austen novel in its own right. Hollywood tends to take such liberties with fiction and biography according to Hollywood holds a terror that would make many a famous personage’s bones shake in their grave. That considered, one must then decide whether this fictitious biopic works as a movie.

It is a handsome film with a strong sense of atmosphere, many an authentic touch in terms of mise-en-scène and quite gorgeous cinematography. The music adds a nice touch and the costumes, little details in terms of the curtseying, the representation of the customs and language of the times are well captured. The two leads are likeable enough, although neither of them is a favourite actor of mine. They do perform their roles well enough, but I had the feeling that it was all contrived. There was no naturalness in their performance. A little a like a dated theatre performance, perhaps.

The story was rather predictable and quite unoriginal, the gimmick being the fame of the author and the temptation to treat her life as if it were one of her own novels. I found some scenes exceedingly soppy and melodramatic, dragged down by clichés. However, all of that said, one must admit that the film is not worthless and is engaging enough to be seen to the end. It is no masterpiece of the cinematic art and understandably, it did not win a “Best Screenplay” Oscar. It is a good enough B-grade movie, certain to appeal to the romantically inclined, maybe even to fans of Jane Austen’s work.

Sunday 17 July 2011


“Obscenity is not a quality inherent in a book or picture, but is solely and exclusively a contribution of the reading mind, and hence cannot be defined in terms of the qualities of a book or picture.” - Theodore Schroeder

Continuing my Vienna Art & Design blog from last week’s Art Sunday, I am considering today another artist of Klimt’s circle, Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Schiele was one of the prime artists that created art in the expressionist style. Expressionism developed almost simultaneously in different countries from about 1905. This is generally regarded as a northern European development of the Fauves’ celebration of colour, which was extended by a push to new emotional and psychological depths.

This was art characterised by symbolic colours, great contrast and exaggerated imagery. German Expressionism in particular tended to dwell on the darker, sinister aspects of the human psyche. In its broadest sense, this expressionist art raises subjective feelings above objective observations. The paintings reflect the artists’ state of mind rather than the reality of the external world. The German Expressionist movement began in 1905 with artists such as Kirchner and Nolde, who favored the Fauvist style of bright colours but also added stronger linear effects and harsher outlines.

Although Expressionism developed a distinctly German character, the Frenchman, Georges Rouault (1871-1958), linked the decorative effects of Fauvism in France with the symbolic colour of German Expressionism. Rouault’s work has been described as “Fauvism through dark glasses”. Rouault was a deeply religious man and some consider him the greatest religious artist of the 20th century. He began his career apprenticed to a stained-glass worker, and his love of harsh, binding outlines containing a radiance of colour gives poignancy to his paintings, which show a resemblance to stained glass.

Austrian expressionist artist Egon Leo Adolf Schiele, born June 12, 1890, died October 31, 1918, provoked art critics and society for most of his brief life. Even more than Gustav Klimt, Schiele made eroticism one of his major themes and was briefly imprisoned for obscenity in 1912. His treatment of the nude figure suggests a lonely, tormented spirit haunted rather than fulfilled by sexuality. At first strongly influenced by Klimt (whom he met in 1907), Schiele soon achieved an independent anticlassical style wherein his jagged lines arose more from psychological and spiritual feeling than from aesthetic considerations. He painted a number of outstanding portraits, such as that of his father-in-law, Johann Harms (1916; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City), and a series of unflinching and disquieting self-portraits. Late works such as The Family (1918; Oesterreichische Galerie, Vienna) reveal a newfound sense of security.

In this “Self-Portrait with Physalis” Schiele’s characteristic style is shown to the foremost. It was painted in 1912 (oil, opaque colour on wood. 32.4 x 40.2 cm, located in the Leopold Museum, Vienna, Austria). The white of the background highlights the curving lines of the Chinese Lantern plant stems and their striking orange fruit and autumnal leaves, while providing a high contrast background for the face. The bust of the artist is off-centre and his quizzical, slightly bemused look with raised eyebrows is hard to fathom, although one can see the trials and tribulations of his young life. Schiele is looking at us with a challenging, yet vulnerable, wide-eyed face – this is the year he was imprisoned for obscenity and one can see the querulous eyes, state: “Obscene? Why?”. His dark hair mirrors his coat and his arms appear to be pressed tensely against his body, his hands (although not shown), one can imagine clasped tightly. His young face is tortured and its colours appear make-up-like, as if we are looking at a grease-painted mask. This is an expression of the artist’s angst-filled soul rather than a true objective likeness of his external appearance. The portrait makes the viewer uneasy and curious, while at the same time exciting a sense of empathy and a need to explore further, beyond the stems of the physalis.