Monday, June 18, 2018

June in Tuscany

Annamaria on Monday

A Trip to the Dentist and Other Delights

It wasn't a toothache screaming to be fixed.  But it was troublesome and demanded attention.  My dentist in NYC gave me a recommendation.  Dr. Ricci--who gave me an immediate appointment and told me his address.  I walked.  Here are some of the wonders I saw along the way:

The raibow flag is a symbol of support for gay rights in NYC.  In Italy it is a
symbol of Pace--peace.  To me it is both.

The Church of San Michele.

The dentist is on this street
The garden across the street from the palazzo where the dentist has his office.
His treatment room, it turned out, over looked this view.

The decoration over the entrance door to the dentist's office!

Later that same day:

A walk along the Arno to the meeting place...

For a drive to the Villa Corsini for an evening of food, conversation, music.

The next day:

Blue sies...

...and a trip to my idea of heaven on earth--Santa Cristina in Chianti...

...and lunch.

...Followed by a visit to an exhibit of the brilliant works of Steve McCurry, the man who took this photo...

,,,and also this one...

...and many more.  And then on to a lovely place in the hills above Florence for dinner after sunset.

Magical.  Even the visit to the dentist.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Father's Day: A Stack of Ideas

Zoë Sharp

Today is Father’s Day, something that originated in the United States in the early years of the last century. It seems that two women independently came up with the idea. One was Grace Golden Clayton, in Fairmont, West Virginia, who suggested such a day in 1908, to honour 361 men killed in a mine explosion. In Spokane, Washington, on June 19thtwo years later, a woman called Sonora Smart Dodd celebrated her father, a Civil War veteran called William Smart, who had raised six children after his wife died in childbirth. Ms Dodd felt that it was time fathers were as equally acclaimed as mothers.

William Jackson Smart, in whose honour the first Father's Day was held
Lobbying for the third Sunday in June to be made a national holiday started up almost immediately, and in 1924 President Calvin Coolidge recommended such action was taken. However, it wasn’t until Lyndon B Johnson signed an executive order in 1966 that the date was designated, and not until 1972, under Nixon, that the date was officially recognised.

Father’s Day has since been taken up around the world, although the date varies enormously, with Iran using March 14th, and Thailand December 5th.

Although the holiday has now become incredibly commercialised, I confess to always trying hard to find suitable gifts for my father, and what better pressie than books? I know in Iceland there is such a precedent at Christmas, where they have the Jólabókaflóð which means the Christmas book flood. The idea is that you gift books on Christmas Eve, and the remainder of the night is spent reading.

Well, I think I may have caused a minor book flood at my parents’ house during this last week, as my Father’s Day selections arrived. My father, having no sense of occasion, didn’t even wait until Saturday night before he began tucking in.

A man reading. ( Not my father.)
He’s not easy to buy books for, as he’s not really a reader of fiction, preferring interesting non-fiction instead.

Getting recommendations for just the right kind of books is always tricky. He likes biographies, providing they have a scientific or medical slant. He does not follow any sport except Formula One, and comments that in recent years this once hair-raising spectacle has become somewhat processional

The Monaco Grand Prix just wasn't the same after
the introduction of the new safety regulations...

For Father’s Day this year, the first one I found for him was Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield. ‘Everywhere we turn, a startling new device promises to transfigure our lives. But at what cost? In this urgent and revelatory excavation of our Information Age, leading technology thinker Adam Greenfield forces us to reconsider our relationship with the networked objects, services and spaces that define us. It is time to reevaluate the Silicon Valley consensus determining the future. Having successfully colonised everyday life, radical technologies—from smartphones, blockchain, augmented-reality interfaces and virtual assistants to 3D printing, autonomous delivery drones and self-driving cars—are now conditioning the choices available to us in the years to come. How do they work? What challenges do they present to us, as individuals and societies? Who benefits from their adoption? In answering these questions, Greenfield's timely guide clarifies the scale and nature of the crisis we now confront—and offers ways to reclaim our stake in the future.’

The second one was The Infinite Monkey Cage—How to Build a Universe by Prof Brian Cox, Robin Ince, and Alexandra Feacham. ‘Professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince muse on multifaceted subjects involved in building a universe, with pearls of wisdom from leading scientists and comedians peppered throughout. Covering billions of concepts and conundrums, they tackle everything from the Big Bang to parallel universes, fierce creatures to extra-terrestrial life, brain science to artificial intelligence. How to Build a Universe is an illuminating and inspirational celebration of science—sometimes silly, sometimes astounding and very occasionally facetious.’

Next up was The Science of Everyday Life: Why Teapots Dribble, Toast Burns and Light Bulbs Shine by Marty Jopson. ‘Have you ever wondered why ice floats, how the GPS on your mobile phone works (and what it has to do with Einstein), or why woollen jumpers shrink in the wash? In this fascinating scientific tour of household objects, The One Show's resident scientist Marty Jopson explains the answers to all of these, and many more, baffling questions about the chemistry and physics of the stuff we use every day.  Always entertaining and with no special prior scientific knowledge required, this is the perfect book for anyone curious about the science that surrounds us.’

And finally, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh. ‘What is it like to be a brain surgeon? How does it feel to hold someone's life in your hands, to cut through the stuff that creates thought, feeling and reason? How do you live with the consequences when it all goes wrong? Do No Harmoffers an unforgettable insight into the highs and lows of a life dedicated to operating on the human brain, in all its exquisite complexity. With astonishing candour and compassion, Henry Marsh reveals the exhilarating drama of surgery, the chaos and confusion of a busy modern hospital, and above all the need for hope when faced with life's most agonising decisions.’

In a similar vein, I recently sent him a copy of Accidental Medical Discoveries: How Tenacity and Pure Dumb Luck Changed the World by Robert W Winters. ‘Many of the world’s most important and life-saving devices and techniques were often discovered purely by accident. Serendipity, timing, and luck played a part in the discovery of unintentional cures and breakthroughs: A plastic shard in an RAF pilot’s eye leads to the use of plastic for the implantable lens. The inability to remove a titanium chamber from rabbit’s bone leads to dental implants. Viagra was discovered by a group of chemists, working in the lab to find a new drug to alleviate the pain of angina pectoris. A stretch of five weeks of unusually warm weather in 1928 played a role in assisting Dr. Alexander Fleming in his analysis of bacterial growth and the discovery of penicillin. After studying the effects of the venom injected by the bite of a deadly pit viper snake, chemists developed a ground-breaking drug that works to control blood pressure. Accidental Medical Discoveries is an entertaining and enlightening look at the creation of 25 medical inventions that have changed the world—unintentionally. The book is presented in a lively and engaging way, and will appeal to a wide variety of readers, from history buffs to trivia fanatics to those in the medical profession.’

Earlier still, on the recommendation of FaceBook friends, I got him Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky. ‘The Cod. Wars have been fought over it, revolutions have been triggered by it, national diets have been based on it, economies and livelihoods have depended on it. To the millions it has sustained, it has been a treasure more precious that gold. This book spans 1,000 years and four continents. From the Vikings to Clarence Birdseye, Mark Kurlansky introduces the explorers, merchants, writers, chefs and fisherman, whose lives have been interwoven with this prolific fish. He chronicles the cod wars of the 16th and 20th centuries. He blends in recipes and lore from the Middle Ages to the present. In a story that brings world history and human passions into captivating focus, he shows how the most profitable fish in history is today faced with extinction.’

Another such recommendation was The Moth: This Is a True Story by Catherine Burns and The Moth Group, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman. ‘Before television and radio, before penny paperbacks and mass literacy, people would gather on porches, on the steps outside their homes, and tell stories. The storytellers knew their craft and bewitched listeners would sit and listen long into the night as moths flitted around overhead. The Moth is a non-profit group that is trying to recapture this lost art, helping storytellers—old hands and novices alike—hone their stories before playing to packed crowds at sold-out live events. The very best of these stories are collected here: whether it's Bill Clinton's hell-raising press secretary or a leading geneticist with a family secret; a doctor whisked away by nuns to Mother Teresa's bedside or a film director saving her father's Chinatown store from money-grabbing developers; the Sultan of Brunei's concubine or a friend of Hemingway's who accidentally talks himself into a role as a substitute bullfighter, these eccentric, pitch-perfect stories—all, amazingly, true—range from the poignant to the downright hilarious.’

And lastly, Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II, by Vicki Croke. ‘Billy Williams came to colonial Burma in 1920, fresh from service in World War I, to a job as a "forest man" for a British teak company. Mesmerized by the intelligence, character, and even humor of the great animals who hauled logs through the remote jungles, he became a gifted "elephant wallah." Increasingly skilled at treating their illnesses and injuries, he also championed more humane treatment for them, even establishing an elephant "school" and "hospital." In return, he said, the elephants made him a better man. The friendship of one magnificent tusker in particular, Bandoola, would be revelatory. In Elephant CompanyVicki Constantine Croke chronicles Williams's growing love for elephants as the animals provide him lessons in courage, trust, and gratitude. But Elephant Company is also a tale of war and daring. When Imperial Japanese forces invaded Burma in 1942, Williams joined the elite Force 136, the British dirty tricks department, operating behind enemy lines. His war elephants would carry supplies, build bridges, and transport the sick and elderly over treacherous mountain terrain. Now well versed in the ways of the jungle, an older, wiser Williams even added to his stable by smuggling more elephants out of Japanese-held territory. As the occupying authorities put a price on his head, Williams and his elephants faced his most perilous test. In a Hollywood-worthy climax, Elephant Company, cornered by the enemy, attempted a desperate escape: a risky trek over the mountainous border to India, with a bedraggled group of refugees in tow. Elephant Bill's exploits would earn him top military honors and the praise of famed Field Marshal Sir William Slim.’

So, what are the non-fiction book you’d recommend for those with an inquiring mind? What was the last terrific non-fiction book you read? And what did you find that was suitable for your patriarchal parent this Father's Day?

Another man reading. (Also not my father.)
This week’s Word of the Weekis hermeneutic, meaning interpretive, thought to be a Latinised form of the Greek hermeneutikos, of or for interpreting, from hermeneutes, interpreter, and hermeneuein, to interpret (usually languages) into words, or to give utterance to.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Geopolitical Geometry


I’m well into my physical therapy routine, and all seems to be going well with the shoulder (puh puh puh). Almost four months down, two months to go.  I must admit that when I left for Mykonos from New York City (and abandoned the Hospital for Special Surgery’s state of the art rehab facility), I was more than a bit concerned about the sort of therapy I’d find on an island in the middle of the Aegean that doesn’t even have a hospital. 

I had nothing to worry about. I’m so impressed with the progress I’ve made through the efforts of my therapist, that I’m willing to recommend those in need of shoulder rehab to seriously consider coming to Mykonos for the last four months of your program. Preferably in the summer.

And if you’re a writer, my therapist comes with an unexpected bonus. He has wonderful tales to tell of Greece, the island, and its people.  No violations of therapist-patient confidentiality, mind you, just a treasure trove of ideas for characters and plot lines. And then there are all those ideas for blog posts, like this one.

What I’m about to write is not what I’d originally intended.  Today has seen a bit of cataclysmic political theater in the Greek government (something we in the US are all too familiar with on a daily basis).  All hell broke loose over a proposed deal agreed upon by Greece’s Prime Minister with his counterpart in neighboring F.Y.R.O.M. (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).  Among the hot-button issues raising the hackles on the backs of the necks of a majority of Greeks is that the deal allows FYROM to call itself “North Macedonia,” and all that flows from that.  Why that is so significant to the Greeks ties directly into the essence of how they see themselves.

The proposed deal led Greece’s primary opposition party to call for a no-confidence vote in Parliament, and that vote is scheduled for today, Saturday (likely to fail as of this posting). It also prompted representatives of the Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn (the third largest party in Greece’s Parliament) to call for the military to stage a coup and arrest the Prime Minister, among others. That led to those representatives being expelled.  As I said, there’s a lot going on for me to wax on about Greek politics.

But I’m taking a pass on that. Frankly, I’m tapped-out reading about what’s going on in the US and the UK, and I’m guessing many of you are too. So, I’m going to follow up on a recommendation from my PT guru (as he pulled and pushed my arm into positions I never though possible) that I Google “Ancient Greek Geometry.”  

His suggestion came after pointing out how gifted ancient Greeks were at understanding the way our world worked.  Since there seems to be a dearth of such folks hanging around in governments today, that sounded like a pretty good topic. So, here goes.

The ancients believed that the omphalos, or “navel” of the earth lay in Delphi, and many revered places in Greece were described in relation to their relative proximity to Delphi, e.g., the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, the holy island of Delos, and the Acropolis. He said that even his home village of Amfissa, close by Dephi, thought of itself in relation to such sacred places.  As measured on a straight line, Amfissa lay equidistant between Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain in Greece and sacred place of the gods, and storied Mount Taygetus (aka Prophet Ilias), the tallest mountain in the Peloponnese.

Omphalos of Delphi

But, how could the ancients have accomplished such measurements in the absence of satellites and mapping software?

Answer: Geometry. 

The Greeks did not invent geometry (though perhaps “discover” is a more appropriate word); credit for that accolade goes to the Egyptians and Babylonians (with Indians getting at least an honorable mention), but the Greeks most certainly took it from its rudimentary roots and turned it into a science. 

Most give credit to Thales (624-546 BCE) as being the founder of Greek geometry.  He’d picked up the bug for it traveling in Egypt. 


It was Pythagoras (582-500 BCE) who turned it into a true science, naming it mathematics (meaning “that which is learned”), and even saw the numerical relationships of the musical scale.


Perhaps the most recognized name in the development of geometry is Plato (427-347 BCE). Best known as a philosopher, he established his Academy in Athens and inscribed over its doors the school motto, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter.” (Some dispute that story, but not the point being made.)  Interestingly, although Socrates (c. 470-399) was not a fan of mathematics, Plato believed in teaching the Socratic method at his Academy as a preliminary discipline to the study of mathematics.


Of all the mathematicians in Greece, the one with the most long lasting influence turned out to be Plato’s student, Aristotle (384-322 BCE).  Aristotle laid down principles that Europeans continued to hold as the basis of all knowledge long after other Greek learning had fallen out of favor.

Aristotle contemplating a bust of Plato--Rembrandt

Other notable Greek geometry whizzes included Euclid (c.325-270 BCE), also called the father of Geometry by some, though he came along 200 years after Thales; Archimedes (287-212 BCE)—who can forget his bathtub experiment, one I think of every time I cause a bowl to overflow; and of course, Eratosthenes, who more than two thousand years ago proved the world was round by putting a stick in the ground and measuring its shadow.  NASA proved it more recently with a satellite…coming up with virtually the identical measurement as Eratsothenes.

Archimedes--Domenico Fetti

Sadly, Greece’s contributions to the study of geometry and mathematics fell away around the time of the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandra.

Alas, history once again taught us that giving up on a science-based world has far ranging effects on the development of civilizations.  Hmm.  Perhaps that’s the message my PT guy was trying to get across to me.  If so, he didn’t have to twist my arm to do it. :)

Thank you, Niko Drivas.