Saturday, 2 May 2009


“Autumn’s a second spring when every leaf’s a flower.” - Albert Camus

The year’s wheel turns and once again the leaves are turning to gold and red. The sun is changing to silver and the days are becoming shorter, the nights colder. Where has the summer with all of its fury gone? Spring only a distant memory. As leaves fall, the bare twigs all point in one direction, to winter.

Youth is gone, middle age cedes its place to senility. Autumn’s gold succeeded by the snows of winter.

Here is Oleg Maisenberg playing “Autumn Song” (October from “The Seasons”) by Peter I. Tchaikovsky.

Friday, 1 May 2009

MAY DAY - 2009

“Earth laughs in flowers.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today is May Day, which for many people has come to symbolise the ideals and aspirations of workers all around the world. It is a public holiday in many countries, being celebrated as a Labour Day, commemorating the fight for the eight hour working day. This is the reason May Day called International Workers’ Day. The idea for a “workers holiday” began in Australia in 1856. This idea spread to the rest of the world and became associated with May 1st in connection with the Haymarket affair, which occurred during the course of a three-day general strike in Chicago, Illinois that involved workers of many kinds.

An incident at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. plant, in which police opened fire and killed four strikers was the reason for a rally to be organized the next day at Haymarket Square. Even though things started peacefully enough, as police moved in to disperse the event, an unknown person threw a bomb into the group of policemen. A dozen people died, including seven policemen. A sensational trial followed in which eight defendants were tried for their political beliefs, and not necessarily for any involvement in the bombing. The trial led to the public hanging of seven anarchists. The Haymarket incident outraged people around the world and in following years, memory of the "Haymarket martyrs" was commemorated in various May Day job actions and demonstrations.

Although May Day began in the United States, the U.S. Congress designated May 1st as “Loyalty Day” in 1958 due to the Soviet Union taking on the day as a large scale Communist festival with workers marching and taking part in all sorts of labour-devoted activities. “Labor Day” is on the first Monday in September in the United States. People around the world often use May Day as a day for political protest.

In the past however, this day was traditionally a fertility festival. Young people would rise well before sunrise and go out in the countryside to gather “May”. May is any kind of blossom and greenery but especially hawthorn blossom (May-blossom), birch or rowan. Sloe or blackthorn are avoided as they are ill-omened. To leave a branch of May-blossom on a friend’s door is compliment and will them luck.
Good morning, Mistress and Master,
I wish you a happy day;

Please to smell my garland

‘Cause it is the First of May.

A branch of may I have brought you,

And at your door I stand;

It is but a sprout, but it’s well sprouted out,

The work of our Lord’s hand.

However, other gifts can be insulting!
Nut for a slut; plum for the glum;
Bramble if she ramble; gorse for the whores.

The jaunts in the countryside often ended up in the couples cavorting in the fields and more than one match was made under the observances of tradition. The Maypole is a tradition in many countries and is a relic of a fertility ritual where the Maypole has phallic associations. It is a tall pole adorned with greenery and all kinds of flowers. Ribbons are fixed to the top and hang down to the ground. Men and women each take hold of a ribbon and proceed to dance around the pole to the strains of joyful music.

The dew from the hawthorn tree, Crataegus monogyna, was thought to make young girls beautiful if they washed with it on May morn:
The fair maid who the first of May,
Goes to the field at break of day
And washes in dew from hawthorn tree
Will ever after handsome be.

In Greece, on May Day people go out into the countryside in order to have a good time, pic nic and gather flowers. The season is symbolised by Spring flowers gathered in the morning and brought home in order to be woven into a wreath, which will adorn the front door of the house. The wreath is left to dry on the door, not to be taken down until Midsummer’s Day when it is ritually burnt in St John’s Fires.

Thursday, 30 April 2009


“Even the gods love jokes.” - Plato

April |ˈāprəl| noun
The fourth month of the year, in the northern hemisphere usually considered the second month of spring: The flower festival was to be held in mid-April | [as adj.] April showers.
ORIGIN Old English, from Latin Aprilis.

The derivation of the name Aprilis is uncertain. The classical etymology is from the Latin aperire, “to open”, in allusion to its being the season when trees and flowers begin to “open up”, which is supported by comparison with the Modern Greek use of άνοιξις (anoixis = opening) for Spring. Since most of the Roman months were named in honour of gods and goddesses, and as April was sacred to Venus (the Festum Veneris et Fortunae Virilis being held on the first day of April), it has been suggested that Aprilis was originally her month Aphrilis, from her Greek name Aphrodite (Aphros = sea foam as she rose from the sea), or from her Etruscan name Apru.

I’ve left this rather late for April, but I still managed to get this in for Word Thursday, being the last day of the month. We are well advanced into Autumn now in the Southern Hemisphere, of course, and as the days shorten here and an early winter chill is making its teeth felt, we can only dream of the Northern Spring.

April is a favourite months of mine – Autumn or Spring, warm or cool, dreary or bright. Why? Some of sort of strange affinity? Some unexplained seasonal affectivity? Some deep-seated memory? Who knows?


Dying April,
Newborn May.
Northern spring showers
Unseasonal southern heat.
My flesh burns
As the cool moonlight
Touches it, lightly, from a distance
As softly as the memory
Of your single embrace,
When our frigidities did for a
Single moment briefly unite us.

The sun in Taurus.
Approaching Gemini,
Yet Scorpio stirs in my flesh
Awakening dark desires,
Readying his deadly sting.
I yearn for your kiss
My lips already parted;
Irises wide open, coals burning.
Mercury runs, his silver shadow fleeting.
Venus smiles knowingly
And Eros loosens his bow –
If only this time, his arrow would not miss its mark!

An old poem, of April and of the Northern/Southern contrasts… Enjoy the month of May tomorrow! The image is from a fresco in the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, Italy. It is the “Allegory of April: Triumph of Venus” (1476-84) by Francesco del Cossa.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009


“We do not remember days; we remember moments.” - Cesare Pavese

The birthday plant for this day is wormwood, Artemisia absinthium. It derived its name from Artemis, the ancient Greek goddess of the moon and the hunt. Wormwood is probably linked to the belief that the herb grew along the track left by the serpent when it slithered out of the Garden of Eden. The herb is used to flavour the potent liquor absinth and also used in making the liqueur Chartreuse. It symbolises absence, calamity, false judgment and affection. In the Old Testament, wormwood signifies moral bitterness. It is under the rule of Mars, astrologically.

The Waking Stones

The April moon waxes its crescent
Its keen cold edge a-shaving eaves;
As wormwood green unfurls its leaves
The wan moonlight shines iridescent.

The night its ancient magic weaves
My eyelids turn to lead, quiescent;
Drab night birds raise cries incessant,
Unseen, as secretive as furtive thieves.

Dark stones are touched by moon
And in their heart a waking spell
Is roused; they shake, they swell
And they stir none but too soon.

Absinth undrunk, curt note, farewell;
The serpent gone, its tracks strewn
With Artemisia grey, a sad old tune,
An empty house where once I used to dwell.

The stones have woken, and they walk
I sleep and dream and lie alone.
Rocks run, and all the while they talk
In voices loud, in endless monotone:

“She’s left you now, she’s up and gone
Nevermore will the doors unlock…”
I dream, and waking stones do mock
My hopes betrayed, but taken hostage until dawn.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009


“From the bitterness of disease man learns the sweetness of health.” - Catalan Proverb

The outbreak of swine influenza in Mexico was no surprise to epidemiologists. A pandemic (a worldwide epidemic) of influenza was long overdue. The last one was in 1968 and it began in Southeast Asia, becoming known as the “Hong Kong ‘flu”. That one in the late 60s killed about a million people worldwide. Virologists advise that a major pandemic of influenza occurs once every couple of decades or so. The present strain of influenza virus that is causing us problems has killed about 160 people in Mexico and more than 50 confirmed cases in the US, two in Scotland, one in Spain, and possible cases in New Zealand, France, Norway Germany, Sweden and Israel. One of the ominous signs is that most people who died were between the ages of 20 and 50 years. A hallmark of past influenza pandemics is deaths in previously healthy young adults.

Influenza comes from the Italian, meaning literally ‘influence’ (from medieval Latin influentia). The Italian word also has the sense ‘an outbreak of an epidemic,’ hence ‘epidemic.’ It was applied specifically to an influenza epidemic that began in Italy in 1743, later adopted in English as the name of the disease. In the past, people thought these epidemic diseases arose out of the evil influence of malaligned planets. In the late 19th and early 20th century, people thought influenza could be due to bacteria, as the then newly-discovered micro-organisms were proven to be the cause of many diseases: Diphtheria, cholera, plague, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, tetanus, whooping cough, etc. Microbiologists looked for bacteria in the lungs of people who had died of influenza and found them in the billions. An almost ubiquitous bacterium that was found in these cases was one that was subsequently called Haemophilus influenzae (literally: The blood-loving bacterium of influenza). However, this was a false lead. It was only a secondary infection that colonised the diseased lungs of influenza sufferers (the name stuck!).

That influenza was caused by viruses was demonstrated by Richard Shope in 1931 in swine. Patrick Laidlaw and his group at the Medical research Council of UK in 1933 isolated the virus. Since then, we have learnt much about the biology of the disease. There are three main types of the virus: Influenza A (birds are the natural hosts with humans being affected and suffering the most severe disease. Horses and pigs can also be infected by this type); Influenza B (almost exclusively human hosts); and Influenza C (the natural hosts of which are swine and humans).

All of these influenza viruses share certain characteristics, for example they all have genetic material made of RNA, which exists in eight segments inside the virus. Also, all of these viruses have a coating of proteins, which are known as haemaglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). Numbers after the H and N proteins indicate the specific form that these proteins take. For example, the Spanish ‘flu of 1918 that killed 40 million people worldwide was the H1N1 subtype of the infuenza A virus; the Asian ‘flu of 1957/8 that killed 1.5 million people worldwide was the H2N2 subtype of the influenza A virus. The Hong Kong ‘flu of 1968 was the H3N2 subtype of the influenza A virus.

The current strain of swine ‘flu was first detected in Mexico in March 2009. It is a recombinant influenza virus derived in part from H1N1. By recombinant we mean that the virus has had a rearrangement of its genetic material. This happens naturally in cells, typically in animals that are infected by more than one strain of virus. As the viruses multiply in infected cells, the genetic material from two strains of virus gets mixed up and a new “recombinant” virus is created spontaneously. These double infections and such recombinations of viral genetic material are more likely to occur where there are overcrowded conditions and people live close to animals.

Furthermore, the influenza virus is notorious for its spontaneous mutations. It is these spontaneous mutations (slight changes in its genetic material occurring naturally) that cause the influenza epidemics every few years or so. The more genetically different a new influenza virus is to its predecessors the more “foreign” it looks to our immune system (even if we have been immunised against influenza in the past). Essentially, each new subtype of virus is regarded by our immune system as a completely different virus and this is the reason why we have to get immunised every now and then with the latest “version” of influenza that is around a the time. The recombinant virus causing the current swine ‘flu is very different to past strains and people all over the world have no immunity against it. This means the virus spreads easily between individuals and causes severe disease before the immune system “kicks in” with an effective response. In many cases of course, this immune response is much too late and the infected patient dies as the virus multiplies out of control in their body.

How do we fight such pandemics of influenza? Firstly by trying to check the spread of infection: Isolating patients, preventing close contact between large numbers of people in confined spaces (hence the closing of schools) and destroying infected animals. Also by good hygiene, washing of hands, not touching the face and the wearing of face masks (however, these face masks rapidly become ineffective barriers as they become moistened ). Patients who present with the infection may be given antiviral drugs. These are not antibiotics (antibiotics will not kill viruses, they are only effective against bacteria), although antibiotics may be prescribed to deal with secondary bacterial infections (remember the Haemophilus influenzae?). On April 27, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recommended the use of oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) for both treatment and prevention of the new strain of swine influenza virus, but it warned that it was resistant to amantadine and remantadine.

A new vaccine can be manufactured as soon as new virus samples are isolated and purified, but such a process can take as long as six months. Given the gravity of the present situation, this development time may be shortened somewhat. The WHO has already warned that to try to contain the new influenza virus outbreak is impossible. All we can do is try to mitigate its effects. This is in the wake of the WHO upgrading the pandemic status to phase 4 (phase 4, implies sustained human to human transmission with community-wide outbreaks). Phase 5 is widespread human infection, with human-to-human transmission in at least two countries in one WHO region. Phase 6 is a global pandemic proper.

So how do you know if you have swine ‘flu? The symptoms are fever, chills, sore throat, cough, body aches and pains, muscle aches, headache and fatigue. Some patients have also reported diarrhoea and vomiting. All of these symptoms are not specific to swine ‘flu, so a great deal of suspicion must also accompany the diagnostic process and there needs to have been some contact with a suspected case of the disease.

Should we be afraid? Being apprehensive makes us cautious, and discretion is the better part of valour. Being sensible and avoiding travel if we can, taking good care of our health, having a good diet, good hygiene and avoiding crowded places are all good strategies. And of course see a doctor at the first sign of a ‘flu-like illness!

Monday, 27 April 2009


“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” - Thomas Edison

We watched a pleasant and amusing movie at the weekend, which was quite a good way to pass the time for a little while. Escapist bubbles to relax by, although once we started watching it, there were sharks swimming in the bubble bath… It is the 2006 John Jeffcoat movie “Outsourced”. It starred Josh Hamilton, Ayesha Dharker, Matt Smith, Asif Basra and Sudha Shivpuri. I had not seen any of these actors play in any other film before but they were quite good and did the light and fluffy script justice.

The story starts in Seattle where Todd (Hamilton) is the manager of a call centre peddling trashy and tacky novelties. Todd’s boss, Dave, (Smith) gives him the news that his whole department has been outsourced to India and that he has been made redundant. To add insult to injury, Dave tells Todd that he has to go Mumbai to train his Indian replacement. Todd cannot even resign as his stock options in the company will rendered worthless, so he goes to India… Todd’s adventures begin with all of the usual cross-cultural misunderstandings and traveller’s woes, but to his dismay he soon discovers that his new temporary place of employment and his staff are not what he expected. He has the job to teach Indians to talk “American”, improve their efficiency and work ethic and make the workplace paralysed by cultural clashes function effectively. Furthermore, he cannot go back home until the call centre average per call falls to 6.00 minutes. Just when he thinks that he is battling with an invincible adversary he notices Asha (Dharker) who shows him that it takes more than Indians understanding Americans to make the enterprise successful.

The film won several audience awards in various film festivals (Cinequest Film fest; Indian Film Fest LA, Seattle International Film Fest, etc) and also the Best of Fest in the International Palm Springs International Film Festival and was an official selection for the Toronto Film Festival. This is not a laugh until you cry film, but rather a chuckle often film. It does not probe too deeply into the serious issues it raises but rather gently introduces these issues to us so that we can sympathise with both the Americans and the Indians, by seeing the situation from both sides.

Although the film is for the main part quite sanitised, we are given a glimpse of the true India here and there and one is interested to learn more, discover more, read more, see more. There is quite a bit of fun being poked at both Americans and Indians, but it is good natured fun, not catty nor vindictive. There are differences that are highlighted, but these are respected. The inevitable romance that develops between Asha and Todd is rather refreshing in its intensity and uncharacteristic earthiness (compare to most Indian films out of Bollywood).

The film concerns itself with themes of our time, one of disappearing jobs, forced intermingling of different cultures, and what it means to broaden our horizons, learn about our fellow human beings and how they live, and how in order to survive we must expand our world view. It’s well worth watching if you can lay your hands on it.

Sunday, 26 April 2009


“The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example.” - Benjamin Disraeli

We had our first truly winter’s day here in Melbourne today with rain, cold and wind. A little early this year, but we should all get used to the wildly changing climate around the world. And it’s going to get worse in the years ahead…

For Art Sunday today, Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). He was a French artist, one of the leading Symbolists. He was a pupil of Chassériau and was influenced by his master's exotic Romanticism, but Moreau went far beyond him in his feeling for the bizarre and developed a style that is highly distinctive in subject and technique. His preference was for mystically intense images evoking long-dead civilizations and mythologies, treated with an extraordinary sensuousness, his paint encrusted and jewel-like. Although he had some success at the Salon, he had no need to court this as he had private means, and much of his life was spent in seclusion. In 1892 he became a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts and proved an inspired teacher, bringing out his pupils' individual talents rather than trying to impose ideas on them. His pupils included Marquet and Matisse, but his favorite was Rouault, who became the first curator of the Moreau Museum in Paris (the artist's house), which Moreau left to the nation on his death. The bulk of his work is preserved there.

The work here is his “Perseus and Andromeda” of 1870. It illustrates the Greek myth, which is so reminiscent of the story of St George and the Princess:

Cepheus and Cassiopeia the king and queen of Ethiopia had a daughter called Andromeda. Andromeda was beautiful. Cassiopeia was proud of her daughter and boasted about her beauty constantly. Cassiopeia even said that Andromeda was more beautiful than all the daughters of Poseidon the sea god. This made them very angry, so Poseidon decided to punish Cassiopeia. Poseidon sent a huge sea monster (called the Kraken) to ravage the land of Ethiopia. In order to calm Poseidon down, Andromeda was to be sacrificed to the monster. Unable to change Poseidon's mind, she was chained to a large rock by the seashore to await her fate.

Luckily Perseus happened to be flying by. He had winged sandals! He was carrying with him the severed head of the Gorgon, Medusa. It had snakes for hair and was so ugly that any creature that gazed directly at it was turned to stone. Perseus saw Andromeda and the dangerous position she was in. With quick thinking he uncovered the head of Medusa, pointing it straight at the eyes of the sea monster. Just in the nick of time the sea monster turned to stone. Perseus and Andromeda fell in love and were married to save the kingdom. The Greeks said that when Perseus, Andromeda and Cassiopeia died their images were put into the night sky as constellations of stars.

Enjoy your week!