Saturday, 27 March 2010


“My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.” - Edward Elgar

For Music Saturday today some Bach played by the incomparable Glenn Gould. This is the first movement from the Concerto in G Minor for Clavier (BWV 1058). Pseudopurists may wince, but I think the artistry of the performer and the wonderful arrangement would have pleased Bach greatly. Bach was always one for arranging and rearranging both his music and others’. The music flows like a tumbling stream down a mountainside and the conversation between soloist and ensemble is beautiful.

Much was said of Gould and his playing not the least of which his habit of vocalizing the music as he was playing it. All I see is a consummate artist who immerses himself in the music, body and soul. He was born in Toronto in 1932, and enjoyed a privileged, sheltered upbringing in the quiet Beach neighborhood. His musical gifts became apparent in infancy, and though his parents never pushed him to become a star prodigy, he became a professional concert pianist at age fifteen, and soon gained a national reputation. By his early twenties, he was also earning recognition through radio and television broadcasts, recordings, writings, lectures and compositions. Shortly after his fiftieth birthday, Gould died suddenly of a stroke in 1982.

Thursday, 25 March 2010


“I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.” - Groucho Marx

The Athenaeum Club in Melbourne, situated in the Paris-end of Collins Street, has been a City institution since 1868. It is an exclusive “Gentlemen’s Club” (yes, women are excluded from membership), which was founded to provide a venue for Melbourne’s civic, business, academic and political leaders. It is considered to be one of Australia’s oldest and finest clubs, although for several years there have been numerous debates and controversy as the Club continued to firmly exclude women from its membership. Despite a spirited fight, the ban on women members remains even to this day!

(Male) members and guests (who can be female) “can relax in the reading rooms, play billiards or snooker, enjoy a work out, stay overnight or dine in one of several distinctive venues, and always be assured of good company. The Club is complex with an ever-growing program of social, sporting and cultural functions for the entertainment and edification of Members. The Athenaeum Club’s location, service, facilities and first-class dining support its well-deserved international reputation.” says the club blurb.

Whether I agree with its rules or not, I enjoy being a guest of members of the club and last Wednesday evening I was invited to a dinner party in one of the private dining rooms in the club. This was a function catering for 24 guests and the evening was one of civilised and refined dining, pleasant conversation and unashamed luxury. It is very pleasant once in a while to splurge on such decadent pleasures, especially if the company is delightful and the repartee witty.

We were met by our host in the anteroom of the dining room where we enjoyed our pre-dinner champagne and got introduced to our fellow guests. We were then ushered into the dining room where we sat down and immediately were attended by waiters who made sure we were comfortable and help us settle. The dinner then started and was punctuated by some brief speeches and much pleasant conversation. The menu is listed below:

BBQ Jumbo Tiger Prawn Tails with mango, broad bean, cherry tomato and avocado salad rouille.

Main Course
Roast Rack of Lamb with tomato, pumpkin, potato and basil tart with asparagus and rosemary sauce, mint jelly on the side.

Caramelised Lemon and Blueberry Tart with double cream, raspberry and Cointreau coulis.

Cheese platter with biscuits

Coffee or tea with Chocolates

2009 Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough NZ
2008 O’Leary Walker Cabernet Sauvignon, Clare Valley SA
2007 Brown Brothers, Muscat Dessert Wine, Rutherglen Vic

The dinner was quite delightful and the opportunity to celebrate with my host and his other friends was a privilege and an honour.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


“In Greece wise men speak and fools decide.” - George Santayana

The Madonna lily, Lilium candidum, is this day’s birthday flower.  It is a bloom that is closely associated with the Virgin Mary, the white petals symbolising her body and the yellow anthers her soul.  Doubting Thomas caused the Virgin’s tomb to be opened up after the Assumption as he doubted that she had been lifted to heaven, and it was found to contain nothing but beautiful  roses and lilies.  Traditionally, the plant is said to bloom from the Feast of the Visitation to St Swithin’s day:
    From Visitation to St Swithin’s showers,
    The lilie white reigns, queen of flowers.

Other Christian legends attribute the sprouting of the white lily from the tears of the repentant Eve as she was ousted from Paradise.  In Greek legend, the flower was sacred to Hera, wife of Zeus and symbolised motherhood and marriage.   The origin of the flower is related to the ruse played upon Hera by Zeus so that he might allow his illegitimate son by Alkmene, Herakles, to suckle upon Hera’s breast. Zeus told Hypnos, the god of sleep to visit Hera that she may sleep. Zeus then placed the baby Herakles upon her breast, who then voraciously suckled the milk of immortality from Hera.  Drops of milk scattering to the earth sprouted the lily, while drops of milk squirting up into the sky generated the Milky Way (galaxias = milky in Greek). The flower symbolises purity and if a man trampled on lilies in a garden, it meant that one of the daughters of the household would be shamed.  Many blooms in a season indicated that bread would be cheaper and smelling a lily caused freckles to appear (no doubt related to the traces of pollen left behind on the nose!).  The lily is symbolic of the Annunciation, Easter, sinlessness, heavenly bliss, beatitude and charity.  Astrologically, it belongs to the moon.

Lady Day is the day when the church commemorates the feast of the Annunciation. It was on this day that the archangel Gabriel proclaimed to the Virgin that she would conceive and bear a son nine months later. His name would be Emmanuel.
    Ave Maria, gratia plena
    Dominus tecum:
    Benedicta tu in mulieribus.

Hail Mary, full of grace
The Lord is with you:
Blessed are you amongst women.

                                        Luke I:28

This is the fulfilment of the prophet Isaiah’s prophecy:
    Ecce, virgo concipiet,
    Et pariet filium
    Et vocabitur nome ejus Emmanuel.
    Butyrum et mel comedet,
    Ut sciat reprobare malum,
    Et eligere bonum.

Behold, a virgin shall conceive,
And bear a son
And he shall be called Emmanuel.
Fed on butter and honey,
He will grow to the age of refusing what is bad
Choosing what is good.

                                    Isaiah VII:14-15

Today is also the National Day of Greece, which commemorates the day the Greek War of Independence against the Turks began in 1821. This was to finally liberate the country after 400 years of Turkish occupation. Greece is a Southern European country surrounded by seas, the Aegean to the East, the Ionian to the West and the Cretan to the South.  It gained its independence from Turkey in 1821 and has had a history of political upheavals since then. It is a country of islands and mountains, hot dry summers and cool to mild winters.  The fertile plains are few, most of the land being poorly watered and drained, and too rocky or mountainous for farming.  Greece, nevertheless is one of the world’s largest producers of olives and olive oil with other agricultural produce also being exported to the rest of Europe.  It has an area of about 132,000 square km and a population of about 11 million.  Athens is the capital city with other major centres being Thessaloniki, Patras, Volos, Larissa, Iraklion and Kavalla.  Tourism is a major economic boost but the clothing and footwear industries also contribute.

Greece, like many other European countries, presently finds itself in dire economic and financial straits with its public purse at least 50 billion Euros in the red. This is giving rise to immense hardship for the majority of the population and is the cause of great uncertainty for the immediate future. It is not only a European problem as the deteriorating economic situation there would have immense consequences in Europe and then by extension, around the world. It is calculated that given the present birth rate, each Greek baby that is born, is born with a $30,000 Euro debt on its head. Whether the European Union and/or the International Monetary Fund will “rescue” Greece or not, still remains to be decided. However, at the moment the government is desperately trying to cut expenditure and increase taxes in a last ditch attempt to try to save the economy and convince Europe that it is “worthy” of being rescued. In the background are opportunists that will step in to lend the money that is needed at exorbitant interest rates, which will harm more rather than help.

What caused Greece to end up in this financial black hole? Well, years of reckless spending, corruption, graft, tax-evasion, crime, illegal immigration and “black money”, with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. The politicians have been exposed with their hands in the public purse in numerous scandals, while even the ordinary persons in the street have been living beyond their means and have enormous debts on credit cards and personal loans. Greece embraced with gusto the “modern” Western consumerist lifestyle, which it could ill-afford. Productivity decreased as imports increased and exports decreased. Urbanisation made deserts of the rural areas and farming has been relegated to serfs (usually illegal immigrants) who are usually taken advantage of. Greeks have been spending money they do not have and have been celebrating with gusto their decadence. Surely such a situation is not tenable…


“This is one of the disadvantages of wine:  it makes a man mistake words for thought.” - Samuel Johnson

I have had a very long day today. It started at 5:30 a.m. when I woke up and I was in at work at 7:00 a.m. It was full of meetings, staff consultations, answering emails, reporting to my manager, the CEO, organizing several important regulatory compliance issues and then going home briefly to change to evening clothes to go to a work-related dinner. This was a very useful networking exercise with quite a lot of “behind-the-scenes” deals being made and connections established for future collaborations. I must say that I am rather naïve when it comes to this sort of thing and rather innocently believe that if one is accomplished and merits advancement, then one will get ahead. However, tonight’s dinner proved me wrong. What surprised me was that I rook to it very readily and before the night was over had made three important connections and will follow up over the next few days with meetings and hopefully mutually advantageous articulations…

A bonus tonight was an excellent dinner and wines (more of that on Friday) and delightfully civilised conversation and repartee. The wine especially was very good and I certainly enjoyed my fill. As a consequence, I go back to the ancient Greek poets who could epigrammatically summarise the human condition so pithily:

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 of Myrina (536 AD
- 582 AD), was a Greek poet and historian. He studied law at Alexandria, completed his training at Constantinople and practised as an advocate (scholasticus) in the courts. Literature, however, was his favorite pursuit. He wrote a number of short love poems in epic metre, called Daphniaca. He next put together a kind of anthology, containing epigrams by earlier and contemporary poets and himself, under the title of a Cycle of New Epigrams. About a hundred epigrams by Agathias have been preserved in the Greek Anthology ahd show considerable taste and elegance. After the death of Justinian (565), some of Agathias's friends persuaded him to write the history of his own times. This work, in five books, begins where Procopius ends, and is the chief authority for the period 552-558. It deals chiefly with the struggles of the Byzantine army, under the command of the eunuch Narses, against the Goths, Vandals; Franks and Persians. The author prides himself on his honesty and impartiality, but he is lacking in judgment and knowledge of facts; the work, however, is valuable from the importance of the events of which it treats. Edward Gibbon contrasts Agathias as "a poet and rhetorician" with Procopius "a statesman and soldier."

Monday, 22 March 2010


“It is best to read the weather forecast before praying for rain.” - Mark Twain

Today, the United Nations observes World Meteorological Day. This is annually held on March 23 to commemorate the official establishment of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) on this date in 1950. Many different activities and events are organised worldwide for this occasion.

The International Meteorological Organisation was established at the first International Meteorological Congress in Vienna, Austria, in 1873. The organisation aimed to establish meteorological station networks. These networks were linked by telegraph and improved weather forecasts. This contributed to the safety and efficiency of shipping services around the globe. The International Meteorological Organisation became the WMO on March 23, 1950. It became the UN’s specialised agency for meteorology, operational hydrology and related geophysical sciences in 1951. The WMO plays a crucial role in contributing to people’s safety and welfare. Its work is important in providing food security, water resources and transport.

Each year, on 23 March, the WMO, its 189 members and the worldwide meteorological community celebrate World Meteorological Day around a chosen theme. In 2010, the theme is “60 years of service for your safety and well-being”. The meteorological community worldwide is to be commended as it works together continuously beyond national, political, religious and social borders, to save and protect people, their homes and their livelihoods. Many volunteers also support the WMO with generosity and dedication.

The WMO is becoming increasingly important nowadays as we are subjected to immense climatological change that will wreak havoc with our weather and be responsible for major disasters in the decades ahead. Meteorologists will be even more relevant in serving humanity in the near future.

During the last 2 billion years the Earth's climate has alternated between a “fridge”, like the last Ice Age (which ended about 10,000 years ago) and a hothouse, like for example, the Age of the Dinosaurs. Since the end of the last Ice Age, the earth’s climate has been warming. Global warming refers to an average increase in the Earth’s temperature, which in turn causes changes in climate. In the last 100 years, global temperatures have increased by about one degree on average. This may not seem like much, but 100 years is a very short time geologically speaking and one degree is a lot. At the peak of the last ice age (18,000 years ago), the temperature was on average only seven degrees colder than it is today, and glaciers covered much of North America and Europe!

A warmer Earth may lead to changes in rainfall patterns, a rise in sea level, and a wide range of impacts on plants, wildlife, and humans. When scientists talk about the issue of climate change, their concern is about global warming caused by human activities. Climate change has become a controversial topic lately as there have been many claims that the reports of scientists and their research is spurious. Scientists counterclaim that the interests of large multinational corporations that deal in fossil fuels (and have a business interest in how much petrol is sold and consumed) are attempting to protect their profitable business interests and are trying to discredit scientific findings, which indubitably show that human activity and human-mediated environmental change is affecting our climate.

Climate change whether it is primarily caused by humans or whether it is part of the normal earth climate cycles is a big problem as the population of the earth has increased dramatically over the last couple of centuries and the world’s population will suffer dramatic effects due to climate change over the next few decades. Can we humans do something to subvert the changing climate? Once again, opinion is divided, but there are many little things we can do to make an environmental difference, and perhaps limit the contribution we humans have on the environment and climate change. If we try, most of us can do our part to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that we put into the atmosphere.

Think globally, act locally!

Use fewer resources:
Conserve water
Lower your thermostat in winter and raise it in the summer by three degrees
Use energy-conserving compact fluorescent lightbulbs
Turn off the lights and appliances when you don’t need them
Buy appliances with the Energy Star symbol

Drive less, and more efficiently:
Establish car pooling
Walk, bike, or use public transport
Buy a hybrid car (powered by both petrol and electricity)

Reduce waste at home:

Take your own reusable bags with you to the supermarket
Recycle plastic and glass containers and newspapers, magazines, and other paper
Buy post-consumer recycled goods
Get your name off of junk mail lists

When buying food and goods, choose responsibly:

Buy environmentally produced coffee
Avoid eating threatened species (e.g. some fish species)
Avoid buying products that cause the damage or destruction of important habitats.

Sunday, 21 March 2010


“To live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or color is like living in Alaska and being against snow.” - William Faulkner

Clint Eastwood has developed in his career from an “action hero” who played in spaghetti Westerns and bad cop movies to well-rounded artist who directs and acts in some of the best films to come out of Hollywood in the last few years. Yesterday we watched his 2008 movie “Gran Torino”, which he directed and starred in. It was an excellent film – gruelling and challenging to watch, but at the same time significant in its message. It made a serious comment on contemporary American society without overstatement, no trace of disingenuousness and with an honesty that one usually does not associate with Hollywood films. The screenplay by Nick Schenck is based on a story by Dave Johansson and it hits hard on all the right spots.

By way of contrast, the previous day we had watched Kevin Kostner’s 1997 sickly saccharine, patriotic extravaganza “The Postman”. This was a film that had good intentions, and as an idea it was great, but it is weighed down by so much sentimental schmaltz that it is hard to take it seriously. It was a contemporary Western in its scope and it had touches of pap that ensured the acceptance and endorsement of the patriots. It was such a predictable and emotionally manipulative film that it was offensive. What a difference from the gutsy and genuine “Gran Torino”.

“Gran Torino” is about prejudice and racism, primarily, but it also has as its theme cultural values of contemporary America, changing definitions of families, the blight of gangs and the vulnerability of youth. It is also about courage and about making decision that redeem our lives. Religion is also touched upon. Although I abhor violence in films, the violence in this movie was an integral part of the action (essential to the story, I would say), but it was not overt and excessive. The implicit violence was much more horrible and justly obscene.

The story concerns a recently widowed old man, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), who is embittered and grumpy and dissatisfied with his neighbourhood, in which he seems to be the only white American. He doesn’t get on with his sons or his grandchildren and his only consolation is his 1972 “Gran Torino” Ford car, which he keeps in mint condition. His next door neighbours are Hmong, whom he regards with suspicion, distrust and contempt, this view coloured by his experiences in the Korean war, for which he was decorated with a medal. Thao (Bee Vang) is the teenager son of the Hmong family who is being harassed by a local gang that his cousin leads. He attempts to steal Walt’s Gran Torino as part of his initiation into the gang, which he grudgingly agrees to as he was coerced and intimidated into joining the gang. Walt nearly kills Thao when he catches him, but slowly a special relationship develops between the two of them and Walt begins to realise that he may have more in common with the Hmong family next door than he does with his own family…

The movie develops into a terrifying climax in which the innocent pay a high price in return for justice and a chance of living the American dream. “Gran Torino” is a patriotic film, but it is gritty and hard-hitting and strikes at the root of the problem that prevents the America of today  from becoming the world leader that it was in earlier times. The United States is a country that was built by migrants. Walt himself is a “polack” and his best friend is a “wop”. He has worked all his life in a Ford factory making cars, and he himself was the one who built his Gran Torino on the conveyor belt. He has had a good wife, had a family, paid his taxes and has built a house, which he maintains in manicured condition. He sees his American Dream crumbling around him and he is willing to do something to fix it, as if it were a crack in the wall or a blown gasket in his car.

This is a great movie! Go out of your way to find it and watch it. Challenging and grim, but nevertheless full of hope and courage.


“Racism is man's gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” - Abraham Joshua Heschel

Art Sunday today highlights the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. This is an icon of the Virgin Mary which is a Polish national symbol as well as a holy religious relic. It has been in the country for the last 600 years, but legend relates that the icon was painted by St Luke the Evangelist on a cypress table-top from the house of the Holy Family. The icon is documented to have been brought from Jerusalem via Constantinople and Belz, to finally reach Częstochowa in 1382.

The original image was repainted after being damaged in 1430, when Hussite raiders devastated the church in which the icon was kept. The painting was repaired, but ineptly as the original painting was encaustic (hot wax painting technique) and the restoration was tempera. The paint sloughed off and the solution was to repaint the picture after scraping the wood.

The painting is of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Infant in a pose known in the Orthodox Church as “Η Παναγία η Οδηγήτρια” (I Panayía I Odogétria, “The Virgin who Shows the Way”). The Madonna shows the way of salvation by directing attention to the Christ Child, who extends His right hand in benediction, while holding the gospels in His left hand.

The image of the Black Virgin is a recurrent theme and many shrines possess an icon or statue of a black Madonna. About 450 have been documented around the world, but mainly in Europe. Concerning why the Virgin Mary is depicted black, in Aramaic (the language of Jesus) black means “sorrowful”. Nowadays the Virgin Mary is often depicted as a black woman and thus points to the trans-racial universality of the Christian faith. This image of a black Madonna is easier for people in Africa, say, to identify with. In Japan, Japanese Christians depict the Madonna as a Japanese woman and similarly so in china, where her features are Chinese.

The image seemed apt for today, which is the international day against racism. The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was established in 1966, following a tragic event that shocks the conscience: The massacre in 1960 of 69 young students peacefully protesting against apartheid laws, adopted by the South African government, a brutal regime that applied the theory of inequality between races, regardless of humanity’s moral and ethical advances. Proclaiming this International Day for the 21st of March, the United Nations General Assembly called upon the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.