Saturday 6 August 2011


“Into each life some rain must fall.” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A full day again, although dull, cold, gray and wet. Did quite a few chores, but also managed to watch a movie in the afternoon and went out to dinner as well.

In keeping with the return of the Winter weather and the rain, here is Valentina Igoshina playing beautifully Frédéric Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ Prelude in D Flat Major, Op. 28, No. 15.

This piece is replete with Chopin’s inner conflict and contemplation of his inner self. The composition was borne of the mind of Chopin in 1858 during his stay at the Valldemossa monastery. Amantine Dupin commented: “It casts the soul into a terrible dejection. Maurice and I had left [Chopin] in good health one morning to go shopping in Palma for things we needed at our ‘encampment’. The rain came in overflowing torrents. We made three leagues in six hours, only to return in the middle of a flood. We got back in absolute dark, shoeless, having been abandoned by our driver to cross unheard of perils. We hurried, knowing how our sick friend would worry. Indeed he had, but now was as though congealed in a kind of quiet desperation, and, weeping, he was playing his wonderful prelude. Seeing us come in, he got up with a cry, then said with a bewildered air and a strange tone, ‘Ah, I was sure that you were dead.’

When he recovered his spirits and saw the state we were in, he was ill, picturing the dangers we had been through, but he confessed to me that while waiting for us he had seen it all in a dream, and no longer distinguishing the dream from reality, he became calm and drowsy. While playing the piano, persuaded that he was dead himself, he saw himself drown in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might—and he was right to—against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds. His composition of that night was surely filled with raindrops, resounding clearly on the tiles of the Charterhouse, but it had been transformed in his imagination and in his song into tears falling upon his heart from the sky.”

Thursday 4 August 2011


“The reason fat people are happy is that their nerves are well protected.” - Luciano Pavarotti

Well, that was the end of our unseasonal Spring weather! This evening after a spectacular sunset through curtains of rain and shifting clouds we welcomed back Winter, which is here to give us a cold and wet weekend. All the more timely then is some research that seems to point out that comfort food seems to improve our mood. Apparently, we get an emotional high when we consume fatty foods…

Belgian researchers in the University of Leuven, led by Dr. Lukas Van Oudenhove have recently shown that fatty foods help eaters to cope with unpleasant and depressing events in their lives by decreasing the degree of sadness that the consumers of these foods felt. The results of this study were published online in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.  In this series of experiments, the researchers recruited 12 healthy non-obese people and performed functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, before and during the infusion of a fat preparation or alternatively a weakly salty solution into their stomachs (without telling the subjects which solution they were receiving). In addition, the participants were asked to listen to sad or neutral music or view pictures of sad or neutral faces.

Hearing sad music or looking at people with glum faces lowers the mood across the board. Before and during the imaging of the brain, the participants were asked to rate their hunger and mood. The researchers found that the participants that had received the fat were less than half as sad as the participants that received the saline infusion. The authors stated:

“We demonstrated, for what we believe to be the first time in humans, that a purely interoceptive, subliminal appetitive stimulus (intragastric fatty acid infusion in the fasted state) interacts with an exteroceptively generated negative emotional state, at both the behavioral and neural level. More specifically, fatty acid infusion attenuated both the behavioral and neural responses to sad emotion induction”.

That is, eating fat seems to make us less vulnerable to sad emotions, even if we don’t know that we are eating fatty foods. This is quite amazing, because it is not the actual pleasant taste and texture of the fatty food that seems to have this beneficial effect on our brain and emotions, but rather the chemical effect of the fat molecules themselves when they enter the stomach (and then via the blood, into the brain). The gut “talks” to the brain, or so it seems!

The exact mechanism of these results is not known but they do suggest that there is a normal, physiological response that regulates food intake, hunger, and our emotional state.  Future studies are planned, which will focus on working out the exact mechanism and may help in the treatment of obesity, eating disorders and even depression.

Now, some other research conducted at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York has been looking at the brains of dieters. Apparently, if you starve yourself the brain cells are forced to atrophy away and be cannibalised by surviving brain cells. This is a last ditch effort to survive and use body parts as a source of energy to ward off the effects of starvation.

Results published in the journal “Cell Metabolism”, show that the body responds to starvation by producing fatty acids, which, in turn, ramp up the hunger response in the brain increasing our impulse to eat. Experiments conducted on mice found that by blocking this mechanism of autophagy or self-cannibalisation, it was possible to prevent the feelings of hunger. Dr Rajat Singh, the lead researcher, said that:

“A pathway that is really important for every cell to turn over components in a kind of housekeeping process is also required to regulate appetite. Treatments aimed at the pathway might make you less hungry and burn more fat, a good way to maintain energy balance in a world where calories are cheap and plentiful.”

The moral of the story is eat what you enjoy and eat a balanced diet, but do not overeat. There is a place for fat in our diet, as there is a place for sugar and dairy, for fruits, vegetables, pulses, and cereals, for seafood and meat. However, quantity is the key to success. As my grandfather used to say:

“When you are sitting down at table to eat your meal, you should feel hungry. Then, eat only as much as will only just satisfy your hunger, no more. If you left the table and you were invited to eat again, there should be space enough in your stomach to eat again, but of course you should not do that, because you’re no longer hungry!”

(photo courtesy of @drummeler)

Wednesday 3 August 2011


“And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” – King James Bible, Deuteronomy 19:21

In the news earlier this week was the case of Ameneh Bahrami, an Iranian woman who was blinded in both eyes and disfigured after having acid hurled in her face by Majid Movahedi, a university classmate after she repeatedly spurned his offer of marriage. The event occurred in 2004 and a protracted court case began as an Iranian court considered the evidence and deliberated on the punishment according to the Sharia (Islamic Law) system of Qisas (“eye for an eye” retribution). Iran’s judiciary had finally given the green light to the meting out of retributive punishment for Mohavedi through the pouring of acid into his eyes last Sunday. This would have been the first blinding of a convict in the country, but human rights groups across the world called on Bahrami, who had asked for “eye for an eye” justice in court, to pardon him.

Majid Movahedi, now 30 years old, had been taken to Tehran’s judiciary hospital to be blinded with acid after being rendered unconscious, but his victim spared him at the last minute. The 34-year-old Bahrami decided to pardon him as Sharia law not only allows for qisas, it also advises for clemency to be considered, especially before and during the holy month of Ramadan, which started on Monday in Iran. The woman was quoted as saying that she felt good about showing the perpetrator mercy, but asked for financial compensation instead of blinding Movahedi, an option she had previously refused to consider.

Bahrami conceded that the international focus on the case was a factor she considered in pardoning her attacker. This ensued after the highly publicised case decision in November 2008, when a criminal court in Tehran ordered retribution on Movahedi after he admitted throwing acid at Bahrami, and entitled her to blind him with acid. In the final chapter of this horrific story, Bahrami has said: “It is best to pardon when you are in a position of power.” The perpetrator sobbed when he heard the news of his pardon and said Bahrami was “very generous”.

In reaction to the news, Amnesty International, which had urged Bahrami to pardon Movahedi, called on Iran to review its penal code. Amnesty representatives said: “…Deliberate blinding inflicted by a medical expert is a cruel punishment which amounts to torture, which is prohibited under international law. The Iranian authorities should review the penal code as a matter of urgency to ensure those who cause intentional serious physical harm, like acid attacks, receive an appropriate punishment – but that must never be a penalty which in itself constitutes torture.”

Bahrami has an electronics degree and worked in a medical engineering company before the attack. She moved to Spain with the help of the Iranian government where she has undergone a series of unsuccessful operations. She briefly recovered half the vision in her right eye in 2007 but an infection blinded her again. Bahrami has recently published a book in Germany, “Eye for an Eye”, based on her personal life and her suffering since she was blinded.

Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said Mohavedi would remain in gaol until a court decided on the alternative punishment or settle on compensation. The unfortunate thing is that there have been several other acid attacks on women in Iran. Last week in a copy-cat attack, a young woman died after a man poured acid on her face for rejecting his marriage proposal. The attacker remains free.

retribution |ˌretrəˈbyo͞oSHən| noun
Punishment that is considered to be morally right and fully deserved: Settlers drove the Navajo out of Arizona in retribution for their raids.
retributive |riˈtribyətiv|adjective,
retributory |riˈtribyəˌtôrē|adjective
ORIGIN: Late Middle English (also in the sense ‘recompense for merit or a service’): From late Latin retributio(n-), from retribut- ‘assigned again,’ from the verb retribuere, from re- ‘back’ + tribuere ‘assign.’

Tuesday 2 August 2011


“Water, thou hast no taste, no color, no odor; canst not be defined, art relished while ever mysterious. Not necessary to life, but rather life itself, thou fillest us with a gratification that exceeds the delight of the senses.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I have recently become aware of a creative writing group hosted by Magpie Tales. I read a couple of poems that blogfriends have written and which have been inspired by a striking photograph by Skip Hunt. The photograph is of an old mill, which has fallen down from its lofty mount and decommissioned. I have tampered with the photograph somewhat (apologies to Skip!) and was inspired to write this:

The Iron Sunflower

The sun bakes the red earth
And sky above is blue as blue bottles can be
With light streaming through them.

Drought, and the only noise of midsummer noon,
Is the hum of the machine and the smell of diesel
As water is pumped from deep secret caverns, below.

The bluebottle fly buzzes lazily, imitating the pump,
Sated on her feast of rotten thirsty carcass,
With her eggs safely secreted therein.

The listless children drone in the schoolhouse,
Overcome by heat, repeating by rote the lesson in chorus
Reminiscent of a dirge of Greek tragedy.

The precious water, hard-won by efforts of man and machine
Is stored, as treasured things are, safely locked up,
In corrugated iron tank, not to be wasted on useless things – like flowers.

The head of one of past seasons’ large sunflowers
With a few black, shiny seeds hangs up deep in the dark recesses of the shed,
Strung up high, safe from rodents and birds, a sad souvenir of old times.

The sun bakes the earth and cracks it, breaks its spirit:
No touch of green, no sunflowers this year,
And the wind blows, only to lift great clouds of red dust.

Fallen by the wayside an old mill-head rusts away mirroring the dusty soil.
Its sails are petals of an iron sunflower – the only flower this year.
As the monotony of the pump numbs the ear,
And the stench of petrol deadens the nose,
The rusting iron flower is a reminder of gentler times,
When machines were driven by wind, and their creaks were musical
And the air carried only the faint smell of fresh sunflowers –
Water could be spared then for useless things…


“As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.” - Socrates

To be well educated is a goal that many people aspire to, but especially so if they are parents and they wish to provide what is best for their children. It is quite interesting that most people when asked what a good education is, generally respond with answers that can be summed up as “the collection of a great number of facts in one’s head”… Learning seems to be equated with memorisation of bits and pieces of information. A “smart” person is one that people see as rattling off hundreds of facts (often trivial) and “factoids”. Which needless to say is rather sad!

Others may equate “education” with some lofty activity confined in an ivory tower and engaged in by gowned academics who invariably are balding and wear glasses (amazing also how many people equate wearing glasses with being “brainy”, but that’s another matter…). These university types are far removed from the real world and engage in research and teaching, commonly are absent-minded and disengaged from everyday cares and concerns. They are a fount of knowledge and ostensibly “well-educated”.

My dictionary defines the word “educate” as:
educate |ˈejəˌkāt| verb [ with obj. ]
Give intellectual, moral, and social instruction to (someone, especially a child), typically at a school or university: She was educated at a boarding school.
• Provide or pay for instruction for (one’s child), especially at a school.
• Give (someone) training in or information on a particular field: The need to educate people to conserve water | A plan to educate the young on the dangers of drug-taking.
ORIGIN: Late Middle English: From Latin educat- ‘led out,’ from the verb educare, related to educere ‘lead out’.

Many of us that work in education reflect frequently on the above definition and try to understand our role in the system whereby we provide the context within our students can learn. As an educator I have tried to limit my teaching role and rather provide an environment in which students can learn in a manner that is best suited for them personally. Frequently I find that I am learning as much as they are, while facilitating their learning. Education is an exercise in clear thinking and an enabling of the learners to do the right thing. Good teaching is a facilitation of learning and the best learning comes from self-discovery of one’s own ignorance, the more one learns.

I have often thought of education, teaching and learning through the analogy of a banquet. I as the educator am the cook and host. I provide on the banquet table a selection of healthful, fresh, nutritious and attractive dishes. I ensure that they are served at their best so as to tempt my guests. It is up to them to come in, look at the feast and fill their plate with a balanced, nutritious and well-serving meal…

It may be worthy to consider what Socrates answered when he was asked what a good education was. His response didn’t mention at all the accumulation of facts, but rather it hinged on behaviour. He regarded “well-educated people” as those who:
•    Actively control difficult situations rather than being controlled by them
•    Deal with and face all events with logic and courage
•    Are honest and fair in all of their dealings with other people
•    Face difficult situations, and interact with unpleasant people, in a well-intentioned and pleasant manner
•    Keep a check on their personal desires and control their self-indulgences
•    Are not overcome by their defeats and ill-luck; and finally (and perhaps most importantly),
•    Have not been spoilt by their successes and fame.

Greek philosopher Socrates was tried, convicted, and executed in Athens, Greece, in 399 B.C. In the case of Socrates, the legal proceedings began when Meletus, a poet, delivered an oral summons to Socrates in the presence of witnesses. The summons required Socrates to appear before the legal magistrate, King Archon to answer charges of impiety and corrupting the youth

The preliminary hearing before the magistrate at the Royal Stoa began with the reading of the written charge by Meletus. Socrates answered the charge. The magistrate questioned both Meletus and Socrates, then gave both the accuser and defendant an opportunity to question each other. Having found merit in the accusation against Socrates, the magistrate drew up formal charges.

The document containing the charges against Socrates survived until at least the second century C.E. Diogenes Laertius reports the charges as recorded in the now-lost document: “This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognise the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.”

Socrates spent his final hours in a cell in the Athens gaol. The ruins of the gaol remain today.  The hemlock that ended his life did not do so quickly or painlessly, but rather by producing a gradual paralysis of the central nervous system. The trial of Socrates, produced the first martyr for free speech. As I. F. Stone observed, just as Jesus Christ needed the cross to fulfil his mission, Socrates needed his hemlock to fulfil his (image above is “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David - 1787).

I have blogged about this today as I had an interesting discussion yesterday with a fellow academic and his views differed from my own, and from Socrates’. He did have a bit of a swollen head and his self-importance prevented him from acknowledging something that was obvious to some observers of the conversation. What do you think? Do you agree with Socrates’ views of a well-educated person?

Monday 1 August 2011


“For me, the filmmaking has to be about the dramaturgy.” - Neil Jordan

Yesterday we enjoyed our Sunday very much as it was a beautiful day, fine and sunny, spring-like in its freshness and gentle warmth. We got lots done in the garden, went to the market and in the afternoon walked to the Parklands where it was a pleasure to see the wattles in bloom, enjoy the flowering plum-trees, the masses of violets and the blossoming natives. We got home three hours later, not having realised how quickly time passed. At home we washed up and then went out to an early dinner at our local pub. Then, back at home, we watched a movie on DVD. Unfortunately, this put a dampener on the day as it was quite a dud!

The movie was Phillip Noyce’s 2010 potboiler “Salt”, starring Angelina Jolie. There was such brouhaha when the movie first came out that we ignored it quite completely (as it turns out, wisely). However, once again we succumbed to the specials bin at our DVD store and decided to see what all the fuss was about. The plot was standard spy thriller guff and the scriptwriter followed just about every convention in order to make an “exciting” movie. Typical dick-flick with Angelina pouting away in order to drive home this point.

In short, the story revolves around Evelyn Salt who is a successful CIA agent respected by all, especially her boss, Ted Winter. She is married to a German arachnologist, the two being much in love. One day a Russian spy comes into the cover offices of the CIA and says he is a defector. He asks for Evelyn Salt and tells all that the President of Russia will be assassinated during his forthcoming visit to New York City to attend the funeral of the recently deceased USA Vice President. He further reveals that the name of the assassin is Evelyn Salt. Salt tries to contact her husband, but as she cannot do so, decides to go on the run and doesn’t stay to defend herself against the accusations. Her boss does not accept that she is a mole or a double agent, however, her subsequent actions shake his faith in her innocence. What follows is a conventional spy movie with lots of violence, attempts at twists and turns in the plot and some spectacular special effects.

Unfortunately, the movie is illogical, much too stereotypical and completely unbelievable. Jolie in the title role is fine enough, but somehow she does not convince the viewer. Admittedly she has a tough job making her character believable as it is too much of a cardboard cutout. There is scene after scene of action and murder, violence and car chases, thrills and spills. I kept thinking that the film was like a computer game. The plots and twists were annoying and unsatisfying and one could easily get lost in what we were meant to believe in terms of whose side Salt was on. Being neither Russian nor American we could almost not care, as neither side appeared to be worth belonging to…

Even the ending of the film was unsatisfying as it was too much of a set-up for a sequel. The whole thing was too formulaic and predictable, but at the same time annoying as it tried to pretend to be something else. Nothing worse than a potboiler trying to convince you it’s high art. We could see after watching the movie why it was so controversial. Those who watched it purely for its thrills and spills, the mindless violence and the stereotypical “us and them” cold war primary school mentality plot would enjoy it. The rest of us who want some depth, some motivation, some characterisation, some clever plot development, think this is a terrible film. Watch at your own risk.

Sunday 31 July 2011


“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” - Henry Ward Beecher

The Australian painter Margaret Olley died last Tuesday, 26th July 2011. She is noted for her colourful still life paintings and intimate interiors.  She was a traditional painter, oblivious to changing fashions and movements of the art world. Olley chose to paint her surroundings, immersing herself in everyday subjects that reflected her interest in the personal and the intimate. Her love for painting is explicitly shown in every one of her works and her own personality and inner beauty is exemplified by her choice of subject and the way she depicted it.

Margaret Hannah Olley was born on 24th June 1923 in Lismore, New South Wales. After spending some of her childhood in remote Upper Tully, south of Cairns, Queensland, her family moved to Lower Tully where her sister Elaine and brother Ken were subsequently born. Living in a small country town, gave her rich experiences, like riding a pony to school. This helped o give her a sense of adventure and independence, which the young artist was able to use in the future. It was not until she attended Somerville House, a Brisbane girl’s boarding school, in 1935, that her talent for painting and drawing started receiving encouragement.  Olley’s art teacher at Somerville House persuaded Olley’s parents to send Margaret to art school.

In 1941, she started at Brisbane Central Technical College. The next year Olley moved to Sydney and enrolled at East Sydney Technical College, where her boarding school friend and fellow artist Margaret Cilento also attended. Olley graduated in 1945 with A-class honours. After graduating, Olley quickly became involved in the post-war Sydney art scene. In the late 1940s, she and Donald Friend became some of the first artists to spend time painting in the Hill End area of New South Wales.

William Dobell painted an Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Olley in 1948. This was also the year Olley had her first solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries.  In 1949, Olley took her first international trip. She stayed in France and travelled extensively to parts of Spain, Brittany, Venice, Lisbon and London. When her father died in 1953, Olley returned to Brisbane where she designed sets for the Twelfth Night Theatre. 

Olley travelled through north Queensland with Donald Friend in the early 1950s, and following this trip she went to Papua New Guinea. She held an exhibition of her paintings of this period in the Macquarie Galleries in 1955 to mixed critical acclaim.  After the 1955 exhibition, Olley returned her focus to drawing. In 1959 she gave up alcohol, which marked the beginning of a decade of success with collectors. The colour in her work became more confident, and underpinned by stronger compositional design, although over the years a concern for the flat picture plane would become progressively supplanted by one for the form and weight of objects set within three-dimensional space.

Olley is also known for her friendships with important Australian artists including William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend and Jeffrey Smart. Olley is regarded as a generous benefactor having donated many works to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Olley’s generosity to the gallery was celebrated in its “Great Gifts, Great Patrons” exhibition in 1994. She donated works of Donald Friend, Arthur Boyd, Walter Sickert, Edgar Degas, Duncan Grant and Matthew Smith for this exhibition.

Margaret Olley held honorary doctorates from Macquarie, Sydney, Queensland and Newcastle universities. In 1991, Olley was made a Member of the Order of Australia for service as an artist and for the promotion of art. In 2006, she was awarded Australia’s highest civilian honour, the Companion of the Order, for service as one of Australia’s most distinguished artists, for philanthropy to the arts and for encouragement of young and emerging artists.

The painting above is titled “Pears and Clivias” and exemplifies Olley’s style admirably. Joyous colour, naturalistic style, a detailed canvas laden as though it were a Victorian drawing room. Exuberant colour and shapes fill the eyes with richness and above all it is a satisfying, highly decorative painting that refreshes and calms the viewer. Olley, who preferred to be known as a painter rather than an artist, saw beauty in humble items, reflecting this in her still life works such as this, of fruit bowls and flowers. NSW Art Gallery director Edmund Capon said of Olley: “We often talked about colour and what was her favourite colour. Her answer was swift and straightforward: ‘Green’, she would say ‘it’s the colour of rebirth’.”

Vale, Margaret Olley!