Friday, December 14, 2018

In the beat of a heart

Do you wake up one day and realise that age has caught up with you? When does that happen? First wrinkle? First grandchild? Bus pass? Listening to Radio Four? Buying sensible slippers? Walking into a room and forgetting why you went there? Recalling the first time you heard the Beatles?  

Or is it the first indication that your heart might not be as healthy as you thought. And the realisation that it only has so many beats to give in a lifetime. And you still have a house full of books to read.   No heartbeat used to be the legal sign of death, but as the heart is now stopped routinely for surgery, that had to be legally redefined as 'lack of brain stem function' etc. I should add that they do start the heart again after any surgery is complete.

So let's go back to Black Monday. A very odd day. A very stressful day.  Monday the 19th of November was so  stressful, that at  3 AM on Tuesday the 20th, I woke up with severe chest pain left sided, up left side of jaw, into left arm and thought, as you do, I am having a heart attack.  So what do all normal people do when they think they are having a coronary? I went downstairs to let the dog out. 

Then I took my blood pressure. 180/140…. A tad high when my norm is 100/70.

I sat on the sofa, watching my BP slowly fall, and then went back to bed. 


For the next few days I was absolutely exhausted, dizzy, with my heart bumping around like an angry rabbit in a box. So I thought I should trot of to see the doc. He’s a great guy, empathetic with the bubonic plague and leprosy that I suffer on a daily basis with my hyperactive imagination.  He was all jokey until he sounded my heart. Then he swore loudly (very loudly) and booked me in for blood tests, treadmills and ECGs and other exciting stuff all within a week.

 All this is free.

 Our NHS is fabulous.

So I was put on a treadmill and wired up. On and on it went, higher and higher, faster and faster.

The operator was talking to me about Christmas, Santa, children, parties, turkeys, her work, my work… and so it went on as I walked on and the speed got higher. By the end of ten minutes I was walking briskly up a gradient like the lower reaches of an Alp. I wasn’t unduly fatigued by any of this. The technician informed me I was operating at the cardiac function of a 25 year old male.

                                                      I have the heart of a twenty year old man.
                                                       He wants it back. 

 Mmmmm, carefully phased I thought as she pulled trace. After trace. After trace from the jaws of the machine.
Then I went into the cardiologist, (who looked as though she had been on a few visits to the cake shop), who looked puzzled. 'Very few hearts like yours around in the west of Scotland,' she said – we do have the worst incidence of heart disease in Europe. I don’t know what effect Brexit will have on that.  

My naughty cholesterol was 3 (!!), my good cholesterol was 1.6 (anything over 1 protects the heart), then my BP 110/70 and a low resting pulse that responds well to exercise stress.

So far so good.

Then she started to draw her pen along the trace.

Then she asked the big question- 'So what kicked off these ectopic beats?' She pointed at the trace, where the peaks and troughs changed from molehills to Everest and the Mariana trench.
That was when the technician mentioned work. And the memory of that Monday flooded back.

The computer system was down, central server failure somewhere in Manchester.  Cyber attack. Day Four of playing guess the patient,  treating with no histories. My mobile phone was stolen from the front desk at reception where it was sitting to show the twitter feed as the servers went back up one by one. 

You may have seen the Facebook post. ‘To whoever forced me to go into Glasgow on Back Friday to get a new phone, I hope that while Santa lands on your roof,  Rudolf shits down your chimney.’

Or something similarly festive.

                                                            Food good for cholesterol

Oh, and the small matter of the council chasing me for 50,000 pounds/ 63 000 dollars for not declaring a property that I rent out on my landlord’s registration. I pointed out that was because the property concerned was nothing to do with me. And sent them my registration and list of properties. ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘the property in question is not listed. That’s why you are being fined.’  So I said, ‘Why would I register a property I don’t own?' Even pointing out that this situation had happened before, with the same property in fact, and that there was another woman with the same name as me, unregistered landlord, and it turned out to be hers.

No, they said it is yours.

Legally, the council have the right to send sheriff officers into your house to lift goods ‘to the value of’. I had visions of the motorhome being driven away. And there is no day in court to explain yourself (or in my case, point out their error), just emails that say, ‘our records say you own the property’.  And I reply ‘Your records are wrong.’

I did suggest that they tried the land register in Edinburgh but they are not allowed to spend the £15 that costs, and go by their own register (the one I had not registered the property that I didn’t own on). Are you following this?

 The only thing (and this makes it worse) that stopped it was the fact I treat somebody very high up in the council, who said ‘just say you’re a good pal of mine’. 

It was sorted in 48 hours.

                                                          naughty foods

So I am being calm. While suing the arse off the council and using the money to sponsor a homeless donkey.

Others that don’t have a history of running marathons, or that don’t have my Dad’s genes, might have had something a little more life changing. And not in a good way.
I have heard of cardiac depression, a very serious tweak of the psyche that happens with heart issues.   I don’t have that but there is a distinct lack of ‘something’.  The cardiologist said to get back out exercising as that has always been the counterbalance to my stress, but the thought of my heart flinging out that extra beat is so daunting, that I can’t bring myself to run across the road in a hurricane.  Even standing in a queue in  a upmarket,  with the ever present  kid screaming in my ear, my heart suddenly went onto  Buddy Rich mode,  the middle section of Love For Sale I think it was.
And it goes into Buddy Holly mode, all together one.…. Heartbeat, why do you…. etc.

Caro Ramsay

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Interesting times

Stanley - Thursday

These turbulent times, particularly in the United States, are good cause to revisit the Dunning-Kruger effect and to remind ourselves of its consequences.

Simply put, the Dunning-Kruger effect states that people of lower ability think they know more than they do and consequently have an illusion of superiority. They lack the meta-cognitive skills of reflection, which results in them not knowing what they don't know.

The effect was described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, in a 1999 study titled Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Apparently the idea for the study came from the case of bank robber McArthur Wheeler, who robbed banks with his face covered with lemon juice, which he believed would make it invisible to the surveillance cameras. This belief was based on his misunderstanding of the chemical properties of lemon juice as an invisible ink. When he was apprehended later in the day after he'd robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight and was shown the surveillance tapes, he expressed shock and exclaimed 'but I wore the juice!'

I don't know whether Wheeler won a Darwin Award. If he had it would have confirmed one of Darwin's many insights: 'Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.' (Descent of Man)

Charles Darwin
In a later study, Dunning and Kruger tested their theory on students in an introductory psychology course. They looked at how well the students assessed their performance on tests in three areas: logical reasoning, English grammar, and personal sense of humour. After receiving their results, the students were asked to estimate their rank in the class. Incompetent students estimated their rank higher than their results indicated, while competent students tended to underestimate their rank. Students who scored at about the 10th percentile estimated they'd scored at about the 60th percentile.

The two researchers also examined gun owners and found the same effect - those who scored poorly on a tests of guns and shooting wildly overestimated their expertise.

(Getty Images)
It is important to note that most Dunning and Kruger's studies were done using students in the United States. It is important because some multi-cultural studies they conducted indicated that the Dunning-Kruger effect was also influenced by cultural background. For example, Japanese students overall tended to underestimate their ability.

My memory may be faulty as to the exact numbers, but I remember reading a few years ago about one of the huge multinational tests on mathematics or science. I don't remember which. Students from the USA came about tenth in the rankings, but first in their confidence in how well they'd done.

Of course, Dunning and Kruger were not the first to notice the effect they describe. Here are a few historic examples I found on Wikipedia.

'Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.' - Confucius

'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.' - William Shakespeare (As You Like It)

'A little learning is a dangerous thing.' - Alexander Pope

'Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.' - Friedrich Nietzsche

'One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.' - Bertrand Russell

It seems that the clash between competence and the illusion of competence is spreading far and wide with the illusionists gaining the upper hand (hopefully temporarily). The situation is exacerbated by a growing climate of anti-intellectualism, fuelled by religious extremism and cultism, and diminishing funds for education.

As Robert Kennedy said in a speech in Cape Town in June 1966: 'There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not we live in interesting times.' 

Robert Kennedy (Photo: S Trollip)
Given the hubris of some of the world's leaders, I hope the times don't become too interesting.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

I think The Apprentice promotes bad behaviour

Leye - Every other Wednesday

By source

I’ll get straight to the point. I think that the TV show, The Apprentice, promotes bad behaviour. I think it is not enough that it respects the 9pm watershed in the UK, I think that each episode should be preceded by a warning such as:

‘The programme you are about to watch includes scenes of deception, backstabbing, vicious character assassination, blatant lying, connivance, extreme selfishness and self-interest, bullying, abuse, intimidation, and all manners of malfeasance from the beginning and throughout.’

This might not even be enough. Perhaps the warning should also include a caveat: 

‘The process you are about to watch in no way depicts what is deemed acceptable behaviour for candidates applying for a role in any organisation.’

If you are one of the few people who do not watch bad tele, unlike me, then an explanation of The Apprentice is necessary.

From Wikipedia:

The Apprentice is a reality television program that judges the business skills of a group of contestants.

The Apprentice was created by British-born American television producer Mark Burnett. Billed as "The Ultimate Job Interview," the show features fourteen to eighteen business people who compete over the course of a season, with usually one contestant eliminated per episode. Contestants are split into two teams, with one member from each volunteering as a project manager on each new task. The teams complete business-related tasks such as selling products, raising money for charity, or creating an advertising campaign, with one team selected as the winner based on objective measures and subjective opinions of the host and his advisers who monitor the teams' performance on tasks.
The losing team attends a boardroom meeting with the show's host and their advisers to break down why they lost and determine who contributed the least to the team. 

Episodes ended with the host eliminating one contestant from the competition, with the words ‘You're fired!’

The first host of the show was Donald Trump, and oh boy did he relish pointing at the belittled contestant and telling them ‘You’re fried!’ One wonders if his time on the show has anything to do with the president he is today. He does seem to fire a lot of his staff at the White house. And his obsession with ratings – It’s like he thinks the presidency is just one big show. Like he thinks he’s still hosting The Apprentice. Only that he’s not. This is much more serious. Much, much, much more serious. But I digress.

The UK version of the show is hosted by respected multimillionaire businessman, Sir Alan Sugar, and very much like the original series, each episode of The Apprentice UK sees a bunch of contestants competing to become Lord Sugar’s next business partner. And here is where it gets nasty. Really, really nasty.

Camera crew follow the contestants as they interact in their joint abode, as they carry out each episodes task, and individually as they talk to the camera, expressing their opinions on the other contestants.

The show promotes competition. Nothing wrong with that. But in my view, it promotes unhealthy competition. And bad conduct. Take for example each task. A project manager is selected for each team, and from what I’ve seen, the team leader is punished if they choose a collaborative approach. They are instead expected to solely come up with a an idea and a plan, force this plan upon their team by being ‘authoritative’ or ‘firm,’ and then they are expected to delegate,  delegate, delegate. 

They are punished for being weak if they seek the opinion of their team mates, use Non Violent Communication, seek harmony and promote collaboration. Indeed, they are expected to force their team to do their will. It's not about working together; it's about telling other people what to do and making damn sure they do it. 

What we usually witness each episode, is the team mates competing against one another, the team lead being a tyrant, and each team member sabotaging one another – especially when they are alone with the camera.

Too often the project leader uses their solo time with the camera to berate their team’s uselessness at the task and how, if the team fails, it’s the fault of someone or everyone other than them.

Same with the team members. Once they’re alone with the camera they quickly start to make their case for not getting eliminated should the task fail. They eagerly point out how ineffectual the project leader is, how stupid the plan is, how they had no hand in the brain-dead idea, and they never fail to list the shortcomings of their team members – the same shortcoming they will bring up should they be facing the axe in the boardroom.

At the end of the task, before the winning team is announced, both teams are invited to the boardroom where Lord Sugar, with his co-hosts on either side of him on the other side of the table, asks each team about their tasks. Even before the winner is announced, the team members start sabotaging each other, telling on one another, making up stuff, interrupting and talking over each other, exchanging insults, raising their voices, making accusations, misrepresenting the truth and generally being nasty. And they’re on the same team!

It gets even nastier when a team losses. They all go for each other. They lie, they insult, they go for the jugular. Each one of them, fighting to be saved, throws everyone else under the bus.

And at the end of this shameful show of blatant self-serving terrible behaviour, what happens? One person (usually) is kicked off and the others are rewarded for their nastiness by having another chance to become Lord Sugar’s next business partner. Really? Does Lord Sugar really want to work with such vile, conniving, two face people? Does anyone want to work with such people?

I would like to know how former contestants have fared at job interviews following their time on the show.

To be fair, The Apprentice is not the only show the depicts bad behaviour, but The Apprentice is a job recruitment game show and for this reason I think it is fair to be critical of the behaviour seemingly encouraged of the contestants. Perhaps the show should come with the warning: ‘Do not behave like this in a real job interview.’

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Things change and stay the same

Do you know that those beautiful wide tree lined boulevards in Paris were designed by Haussmann to prevent insurrections of Revolutionaires and prevent barricades like this.
And to allow room for the cavalry.

My friend who lives in the Marais on rue de Bretagne sent this from Le Parisien. It's on her street.
Does it remind you of this?
And the gilet jaunes
Look similar to these Revolutionaries?
Last night President Macron addressed the Republique for 13 minutes after four weekends of rioting. He apologized for his hurtful words and offered tax reliefs and promised to raise the minimum wage among other economic measures. Macron addressed the need to bring the country into dialogue and that yes, retirees, single parents, and the countryside were important and needed a voice but not in a violent way.
Let's hope it works!
Cara -Tuesday

Monday, December 10, 2018

EM Forster, HG Wells, Tom Stoppard, and the Meaning of Life

Annamaria on Monday

Where to begin?

Chronologically perhaps. But my chronology—not theirs.

Somewhere around fifty years ago, while living in Brooklyn Heights and working on Wall Street, I was on a packed subway—going to work, standing up.  The train stopped somewhere under the East River.  It was summer, and the NYC subways were not air-conditioned in those days.  Sweltering! This incident was a common occurrence, and that day it lasted much longer than usual.  It would not have been at all memorable, but it sticks in my mind because of the book in my hand and the story I was reading—“The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster.  That fiction, published in 1909, seemed, at that moment, to have everything to do with what I was experiencing.


If you don’t know the story, you can find it here:

It tells of a futuristic society in which the bulk of the human population live in tiny cells under the surface of the earth, where a machine takes care of all their needs.  It provides music and entertainment.  And the means to communicate with people half a world away through what reads (in this hundred+year-old story!) a whole lot like our FaceTime.  Food also comes through the machine (FreshDirect, perhaps?).    The main characters are a rebellious young man and his mother.  He wants to fight the machine.  She believes—as most people in the story do—in the omnipotence of the Machine.  Then the machine stops.  (Like the subway train I was on!)  And to survive, the people in Forster’s story have to fight their way to surface to survive.  You can see why I never forgot any of this.

The story is a masterpiece of what was science fiction a hundred years ago.  Scholars believe that Forster wrote the story as a response H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, in which there is a clash is between good and evil.  Forster, instead, foresaw a future where the central conflict would be between mankind and machines.

Where Wells comes into my thinking today is not with The Time Machine, but with his War of the Worlds.  That brilliant novel imagines machines long left buried underground by aliens.  The creatures from outer space return to dig up their technology and wreck havoc on humanity.  The Martians lose that war, defeated—not by human beings, however brave. It is the earth’s microbes that infect the invaders and kill them. The humans, therefore, survive.

Microbes cast as the saviors of humanity!

Of late, my beloved science section of The New York Times has published a few articles about research into the actions of microbes on humans.  We have known for some time about how they can cause disease.  But nowadays, it’s looking as if the flora in our guts might have as much to do with our behavior as does our upbringing or the rules of our religions.  Data has begun to show that the microscopic critters in our intestines might be the source of happiness, optimism, crankiness—all manner of motivational emotions. Certainly, they play a huge role in digestion, taking the food we eat and turning into new substances that profoundly affect our wellbeing—for good or for ill.  Which microbes we have in our guts determines what chemicals go into our bloodstreams and therefore into our brains.  This little creature takes in carrots and gives you Zoloft.  That one turns carrots into Valium.  Or something like that. 


Which brings me to this past week, when I had the pleasure and the privilege of seeing Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.  The main conflict in his story is between scientific researchers who hold two opposing prejudices.  Some believe that the brain is all we humans have, and in a more or less mechanical way, it determines behavior.  Others of Stoppard’s characters hold that there are greater forces, outside our human “mechanical” brains and the lust for self-interest.  They believe in God, for instance.  Or altruism.  Or coincidence as an active determinant of human connection.  Forces not explained by the mere clicking of synaptic endings.

In the midst of the play’s action, one of the characters describes the role of microbes that live in cows. As is always the case, when my brain comes up against Tom Stoppard’s, I have a really hard time keeping up.  I wish I had the script to go by in describing what the woman in the play said.  Stoppard may have gotten this part of the story from an actual occurrence from nature, or maybe he made up something that only sounds real.    Anyway, what the actress said went something like this:  a microbe that lives in a cow needs to stay in the cow to reproduce.  But it comes out in the cow’s poop.  To get back inside the cow, the microbe infects an ant and lays its eggs inside the ant. The “diseased” ant then finds itself compelled to relentlessly climb up and down blades of grass and in the process leave some of the eggs at the top of the grass, which the cow then eats.

I think I have this part of the play right.  It all went by very fast in the theater.  But—the point certainly was that the microbe is doing some pretty fancy maneuvering to get what it wants: back inside the cow.  Real or fictional (or botched up by me), the process sounds quite plausible, given the strange ways in which all kinds of critters on this planet control one another.

And it is especially fascinating since scientists are toying with the possibility that microbes, might—in some extremely complicated ways—be in charge of us.

Where do you think we humans all fall in this story?  Are we the cow?  The ant? Or the microbe?

Are we controlling the machines?  Or are they controlling us?  

Most important: Will the microbes be able to save our planet? 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Kumano Kodo Nakahechi - a Journey Through History and Time

--Susan, every other Sunday

Last Saturday night, I returned to Tokyo after a week-long, 100-km hike along one of Japan's oldest and most sacred pilgrim routes.

On the Kumano Kodo

For over 1,000 years, Japanese emperors, nobles, and other Buddhist pilgrims have walked the Kumano Kodo, a series of mountainous trails through the Kii Peninsula, in what is now Wakayama Prefecture.

An ancient teahouse at Tsugizakura Oji

The Nakahechi Route (sometimes called the Imperial Route, because starting in the 10th century, it was the trail favored by retired emperors undertaking this pilgrimage) bisects the peninsula, beginning at the ancient shrine of Takijiri-Oji and carving an arc-shaped trail over mountains and through forested valleys to Kii-Katsuura and Shingu on the eastern coast.

The Nakahechi Route

Along the way, pilgrims reflected upon their past, present and future, with each time period corresponding to one of the three Kumano Grand Shrines: Hongu Taisha (the past), Nachi Taisha (the present) and Hayatama Taisha (the future).

One of many smaller shrines along the route. This one commemorates a 19th century pilgrim who died on the trail.

Each of these Grand Shrines has existed for well over a thousand years (Hongu Taisha is celebrating its 2,050th anniversary this year), and is dedicated to one of the three Kumano deities who descended to earth at Gotobiki Rock, a sacred stone on the grounds of Kamikura Shrine that visitors reach by ascending an ancient flight of 538 stairs.

Gotobiki Rock

After alighting on Gotobiki Rock, the deities split and settled at the three Kumano Grand Shrines.

Kumano Hongu Shrine, dedicated to Kumano Gongen (also known as Ketsumikono-okami) is home to the largest torii--Shinto sacred gate--in Japan. It stands on the original site of the shrine and measures 33 meters high and over 40 meters wide.

The massive Otorii at Kumano Hongu Shrine

Hongu Jinja also serves as the head shrine for all of the 3,000+ subsidiary Kumano shrines across Japan.

Yatagarasu, the sacred three-legged "eight-span" crow.

(As an aside: you can generally tell a Kumano shrine by their numerous images of the three-legged crow, Yatagarasu, the sacred messenger of the gods who led the first emperor of Japan to the mountain where he accepted his destiny and assumed the throne.)

Kumano Hongu Shrine - a welcome sight after days on mountain trails.

Pilgrims walking the Nakahechi typically reached Hongu Shrine on the third or fourth day after leaving Takijiri, about half way along the almost 100-km trail.

Two days later, they would reach the coast and Nachi Shrine, home to Japan's highest free-falling waterfall, Nachi-no-taki (Nachi Falls).

Spectacular Nachi Falls

The free-falling portion is 133 meters high, and the ancient staircase to the bottom of the falls has precisely that many steps, though visitors can also observe the falls from a pagoda on the grounds of Nachi Shrine.

The overland hiking portion of my pilgrimage ended at Nachi Shrine - I spent that night in an onsen (volcanic hot spring) hotel built into an island just off the coast of Kii-Katsuura.

"Pilgrimage" doesn't always require "roughing it" in Japan.

After almost a hundred kilometers on the trail, I was more than ready to experience the natural hot spring caves, with their spectacular views of the Pacific.

The light in the lower right is one of the hot spring caves, with a view of the sea.
I took this photo from my guest room window.

The following morning, I completed my pilgrimage (by train...) with a trip to Shingu and the final Grand Kumano Shrine - Hayatama Taisha.

Hayatama Taisha, the third of the Kumano Grand Shrines

To make up for the train, I also climbed the hundreds of steep stone steps to Gotobiki Rock.

After the climb.

I chose to treat my week on the trail as a real pilgrimage, contemplating life, death, and my past, present, and future. While I hope to share many of my experiences from the trail, I'll be unpacking others, far more personally, for years to come.

I bought a bag of  tea grown on these bushes. The Kumano Kodo is the trail that splits off to the right.

I'd heard it said that walking these ancient trails was like stepping back in time. In addition to being only a third of the story, it's an enormous understatement. I have seldom felt as connected to the past, the present and the future as during my seven long, but irreplaceable, hiking days on the Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep . . .

We seldom take the time to reflect on where we've been, where we are, and where we're going. The needs of the day take precedence.

The future is that way.

But my holiday wish for everyone, this year, is that you take the time to step off the beaten path (into the trees, or into history, if you can) and center yourself in your life and your dreams again.


Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Story of Chanukkah, It's Telling is Long Overdue


With December upon us, I was thinking of my traditional Christmas post when it hit me that this week is Chanukkah, and I’ve written nothing about it. Ever.  Shame on me.  So I searched around for a way to tell its story and through the kind help of my-son-the-rabbi settled upon the version told on the website Judaism 101.  I’ve tinkered a bit with it, but it’s virtually lifted straight off that website. So thank you, whoever wrote this piece.  By the way, for those of you who wonder why one who writes about Greece is writing about Chanukkah… read on.

Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight-day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev (roughly equivalent to December).

Chanukkah is probably one of the best-known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as gift-giving and decoration. It is ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on the Jewish calendar.

Alexander the Great

The story of Chanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.

Antiochus IV
More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.

Judah Maccabee
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud (the written version of original oral law and commentary comprising Jewish civil and ceremonial law), at the time of the rededication there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. Significantly, an eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle, not the military victory.

Chanukkah is not a very important religious holiday. The holiday's religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu'ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and you won't find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim! Chanukkah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of Maccabees, which Jews do not accept as scripture.

The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or sometimes called a chanukkiah) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three blessings are recited. On subsequent nights only two blessings are said.

After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. Candles can be lit any time after dark but before midnight. The candles are normally allowed to burn out on their own after a half-hour minimum, but if necessary they can be blown out at any time after that haif-hour.  Special candle lighting rules apply on the Sabbath (Shabbat), by reason of the Sabbath rule against igniting or extinguishing a flame.

Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first). On the eighth night, all candles are lit.

It is traditional to eat fried foods on Chanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Among Ashkenazic Jews (essentially those from Central and Eastern Europe), this usually includes latkes (pronounced "lot-kuhs" or "lot-keys" depending on where your grandmother comes from—aka "potato pancakes").

Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians, so their children don’t feel left out of receiving gifts. It is extremely unusual for Jews to give Chanukkah gifts to anyone other than their own young children. The only traditional gift of the holiday is "gelt," small amounts of money--because coins are a symbol of independence!

Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus' oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight.

I never knew that last bit.  Perhaps I should have studied more and eaten less latkes.

Happy Chanukkah.