Summer break

June 30, 2013

As usual I will be taking a break from blogging over the summer months. I will be back around mid-September. Have a great holiday!

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Who said that first # 1

June 30, 2013

I am currently reading Who Said That First by Max Cryer, a New Zealand television producer, broadcaster, entertainment producer, singer, cabaret performer and author. It deals with the origins of common expressions, divided alphabetically from “A-1” to “your country needs you”. Here is my selection from the first half of the book:

Arm candy  The attractive woman, escorted by a man with whom she need not have any relationship, who creates an impression that arouses envy towards the man among those who see them together. The origin of this term is attributed to journalist Marcia Froelke Coburn in the Chicago Tribune (21 August 1992) when commenting on Marilyn Monroe’s brief appearance (as George Sanders’ party partner) in the 1950 film All About Eve. Later the term achieved gender-equity and may refer to a good-looking man partnering a woman.

Axis of evil  Axis is a mathematical term describing ‘a straight line about which a body or geometric figure rotates’. The first known use of the word axis to describe an alignment of nations was by Gyula Gombos, the Premier of Hungary, in the early 1930s, referring to an axis that connected Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany with Hungary. The term went into wider use when Italian premier Benito Mussolini made a public address on 1 November 1936 saying that the Berlin-Rome line was not an obstacle but an axis (asse in Italian) around which European states with a will to collaborate could revolve. The axis of nations was mentioned in English in newspaper reports the following day, and in time became a familiar term during WW II as a collective description of Germany, Italy and Japan- the Axis Powers, as opposed to the Allied Powers: Britain, United States and Russia. In 2002 David Frum was a speechwriter for President George W Bush. He teamed the already familiar term axis with ‘hatred’, changing it to ‘evil’ for the President’s State of the Union address on 29 January that year. Referring to countries believed to sponsor terrorism and harbour weapons of mass destruction, the President’s speech declared: States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. President Bush’s speech was widely reported and put the term axis of evil into common English usage.

Be afraid – be very afraid  The statement, ‘Be afraid’ goes back to antiquity- to the King James Bible, Romans 13:4: ‘If thou do that which is evil, be afraid.’ Expanding this into ‘Be very afraid’ was already occurring in the vernacular prior to its gaining major attention in the 1986 horror movie The Fly, in which teleportation goes wrong and a man becomes half-insect. At a key moment during the horrific transformation, the character of Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) says, ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid: The line – written by David Cronenberg, George Langelaan and Charles Edward Pogue – became part of the trailer advertising the movie internationally and quickly moved into common use.

Because it was thereBritain’s famous mountaineer (and colourful character) Sir George Leigh Mallory had a passionate desire to climb to the top of Mt Everest. After a failed endeavour in 1923, he gave lectures about the Himalayas and started to plan another attempt. Asked why he’d wanted to conquer it the first time, he replied, ‘Because it was there.’ During his 1924 attempt to reach the summit, Mallory died on the mountain. Twenty-nine years later the Everest summit was finally reached by Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay. On returning, Hillary was asked virtually the same question, ‘Why did you want to do it?’ and replied by quoting Mallory: ‘Because it was there.’ The mountaineering fraternity knew he was quoting Mallory, but journalists did not, and Hillary was sometimes erroneously credited with inventing the phrase. In 1986 Mallory’s niece Mrs Newton Dunn wrote to the Daily Telegraph and explained that Mallory’s sister (Mrs Dunn’s mother) had questioned his response. Mallory’s impatient comment was, ‘Because a silly question deserves a silly answer.’

Been there, done that This term of sardonic world-weariness was already in use in Australia before it reached a wider audience in 1982 when an Australian actress in America was credited with its use. Lauren Tewes (who played cruise director Julie McCoy in The Love Boa~ was quoted in the Gettysburg Times (22 February 1982) saying that after her divorce she had no plans to re-marry: Using an Australian expression, she says, ‘Been there, done that.’ A year later the expression appeared in Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary of New Words and has been in common use internationally ever since.

(The) customer is always right The expression started out the other way around, and in French. In 1908 the Swiss hotel proprietor Cesar Ritz coined the phrase, ‘Le client n’ a jamais tort’ -‘The customer is never wrong.’ The wording underwent a change in English, possibly with the help of H. Gordon Selfridge, whose London store opened in 1909 and used the Ritz slogan in English- and back to front.

Deep Throat The term was coined by an experienced writer/director of pornographic movies, Gerard Damiano. His 1972 movie Deep Throat about a young woman with an unusual appetite was an underground sensation as well as being an above-ground headline story when 22 American States banned showings within their jurisdictions. Two years later the phrase moved into an entirely different area of publicity with the release of the book All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. This backgrounder to what was known as the Watergate scandal was a major sensation. It told of the informant within official circles who gave secret information about the level of involvement of the President. This person was identified only by a code name borrowed from the blue movie -‘Deep Throat’. (In 2005, the former Associate Director of the FBI, W Mark Felt, revealed that he had been the Deep Throat who gave information to Woodward and Bernstein.) The 1972 movie had certainly given the expression a certain (somewhat clandestine) public awareness. Their use of the term implies that Woodward and Bernstein recognised this. But the ructions about Watergate propelled the term deep throat into wide – even international – usage. Boosted by its intriguing connection with a secret whistle-blower inside US government circles, the term came to be used to describe any anonymous informant. But none of this would have happened without Gerard Damiano.

Elementary my dear Watson Sherlock Holmes never said it in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. Doyle died in 1930, and nine years later a movie was released called The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which contained the line, ‘Elementary my dear Watson.’ The scriptwriters were Garrett Fort and Basil Dean.

Elvis has left the building In 1954, when Elvis Presley was just starting out, he sang on the Louisiana radio programme. He came over as an appealing singer, minus the wriggling and sneering that had yet to develop. Teenage girls began to take notice, and Presley’s continuing performances on the show rapidly acquired an audience. Over the next couple of years, the Presley phenomenon far outgrew the 28 states to which the Hayride programme was broadcast. Aiming to conquer audiences nationwide, Elvis gave his last performance for the show on 15 December 1956. His broadcast had a fairground audience of 10,000 excited teenagers, who screamed all the way through, and continued screaming for more when he left the stage. Attempting to dampen the hysteria and get on with the rest of the show, announcer Horace Logan said: ‘Elvis has left the building; little knowing his spontaneous remark would go into show-business history. The term was subsequently widely used to signal that Elvis had left a concert venue when he’d finished performing but, curiously, its meaning reversed. That first time in Louisiana, Horace Logan wanted the audience to stay so the show could go on. But over the years, when Elvis had finished performing solo concerts, it was said to encourage audiences to leave … Elvis would not be returning to the stage. In time, the term became a catchphrase which no longer referred to Elvis personally. It came to mean that the excitement is over; the proceedings (of whatever kind) have come to an end.

Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it An abbreviated form of the original statement in the Hartford Courant newspaper in 1897: ‘A well-known American writer said once that while everybody talked about the weather nobody seemed to do anything about it.’ It has been assumed that the American writer referred to was Mark Twain, but there is no evidence that Twain ever said it or wrote it. The favoured candidate is Charles Dudley Warner, the then editor of the Hartford Courant and a friend of Mark Twain’s, who may have been reporting something Twain said. Whatever its ancestry, a version of the expression emerged as the name of a song (‘Everyone complains about the weather’) in the 1953 movie (and 1961 theatre musical) Calamity Jane.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it  Variously described as an old saying from Sweden, or an old saying from Texas, the expression was seen in the Wall Street journal in October 1976 in the form: ‘If it ain’t broke let’s don’t fix it.’ The expression sprang into greater prominence during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The President’s Director of Office Management and Budget was Bert Lance, who in May 1977 was quoted in Nation~ Business as saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ The words have become a favourite warning of the cautious against anything new and untried.

Keeping up with the Joneses This expression could have had us keeping up with the Smiths but was changed by its creator at the last minute. In 1913 American cartoonist Arthur Momand realised that in his neighbourhood people seemed over-conscious of conspicuous prosperity, and a certain sense of competition prevailed. He devised a comic-strip that showed characters living up to – or beyond – their means, in order to keep pace with a community that appeared to be more wealthy than it actually was. He planned to name the cartoon strip ‘Keeping Up with the Smiths’, but after consideration changed the family’s name to Jones because it flowed better. The cartoon strip ran for 28 years across the US.

Lie back and think of England  The line and its various versions (‘close your eyes and or and think of the Empire’) have absolutely no verifiable provenance. The remark was purportedly advice given by Lady Hillingdon to young women apprehensive about sexual activity. The source is said to be her 1912 diary. But there is absolutely no proof (and even the name varies, from Hillingdon to Hillingham). There was a genuine baroness, Lady Hillingdon (1857-1940), but neither her diary nor any other statement of advice from her on sexual matters has ever been seen. Other sources claim that Mrs Stanley Baldwin thought ‘of the Empire’, but nobody knows exactly who first said what, or when, but it has become too popular an expression to be laid aside for lack of provenance.

(The) lunatics have taken over the asylum In the earliest days of cinema, neither the actors’ nor the director’s names were displayed or advertised. That anonymity gradually gave way to the star system, but there was still a feeling at the administration level that actors and directors were just staff. In 1918, three of the greatest stars- Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, together with director DW Griffith founded a movie studio of their own to be called United Artists. When this news reached the head of Metro Pictures Richard Rowland, his reaction was:’ The lunatics have taken over the asylum.’ (Metro Pictures later teamed with Samuel Goldwyn and Louis Mayer, became MGM, and eventually bought United Artists.)


The Borgias: power corrupts and absolute power is even more fun

June 23, 2013

The Borgia dynasty is one of the most infamous in European history – rape, paedophilia, nepotism, bribery, incest, treachery, murder and worst of all … simony – the sale of Church offices. The Borgias were one of the key families in ecclesiastical and political affairs from the middle to late 15th century until the early 16th century, producing two popes. Italy in this period was an explosive cocktail of city states, duchies and kingdoms. Such was the bitterness of their rivalries that they would sometimes prefer the intervention of foreign powers. A pope was not just the head of the Church; he was also a secular ruler. This was the time of powerful family dynasties. The Borgias’ desire for power brought them into conflict with the Medici, the Sforza, the Dominican friar Savonarola, and the French king among others. There is a black legend that is tied to this family, but many of the stories now told about their depraved behaviour emerged after their fall from grace. Do they really deserve their notoriety?

The family was of Spanish origin with Borja being the family name. Alfons de Borja was born in La Torreta in the Kingdom of Valencia in 1378. He was a professor of law at the University of Lleida, then a diplomat for the Kings of Aragon before becoming a cardinal. He was elected Pope Callixtus III in 1455, at age of 76. A compromise candidate, with little to recommend him, he would remain on the throne for just three years. He didn’t achieve a great deal, but he was able to name two of his nephews as Cardinals.

One of those nephews, Rodrigo Borgia, had been born in Xàtiva, also in the Kingdom of Valencia in 1431. He studied law at Bologna and was appointed as cardinal at the age of 25. He remained held the post for more than thirty years, enabling him to acquire money and power. Then in 1492 he seized the moment. Pope Innocent VIII had passed away after nearly eight years as pontiff. There was stalemate in the papal elections between Cardinals Ascanio Sforza and Giuliano Della Rovere. Realising that he couldn’t win, Sforza decided to back Rodrigo. The four mule loads of bullion that made a one-way journey from the Borgia palace to that of Sforza can’t have hindered the operation. In defence of the Borgias it has to be said that they were not the only family who had resorted to bribery. But in this election Della Rovere, who was backed by the King of Naples, could not match this wealth and his bid for the papacy ended in failure. He was embittered, but his time would come a decade later. Rodrigo Borgia was now Pope Alexander VI. While a cardinal, he had maintained an illicit long-term relationship with Vanozza dei Cattanei, having four children with her – Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia and Gioffre. Rodrigo also fathered children by other women, including a daughter with his mistress, Giulia Farnese. In total, he had eight illegitimate children. This was extreme, but what we need to bear in mind is that the pope before him had two illegitimate children, and the one after him had also had bastard child.

As Alexander VI, Rodrigo was recognized as a skilled politician and diplomat, but was widely criticized during his reign for all the  corruption, depravity, nepotism and murder that took place. As pope, he struggled to acquire more personal and papal power and wealth. The papacy could not be inherited, but he could provide money, power and land for all the family. You can say many things about Rodrigo Borgia, but there can be no doubt that he loved his family. He made his eldest son Giovanni, a captain-general of the papal army, and he named Cesare a cardinal. Alexander used the marriages of his children to build alliances with powerful families in Italy and Spain. He married Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza to strengthen ties with Milan. He also married Gioffre, his youngest son, to Sancia of Aragon of the Kingdom of Aragon and Naples. Giovanni would also be linked to the Spanish royal house through marriage.

There is no doubt that that the Borgias knew how to have a good time. Johannes Burckhardt the papal secretary described a typical evening of fun:

On Sunday evening, October 30 [1501]. Don Cesare Borgia gave a supper in his apartments in the apostolic palace, with fifty decent prostitutes or courtesans in attendance, who, after the meal, danced with the servants and others there, first fully dressed and then naked. Following the supper, too, lampstands holding lighted candles were placed on the floor and chestnuts strewn about, which the prostitutes, naked and on their hands and knees, had to pick up as they crawled in and out among the lampstands. The Pope, Don Cesare, and Donna Lucrezia were all present to watch. Finally prizes were offered—silken doublets, pairs of shoes, hats, and other garments—for those men who could perform the act most frequently with the prostitutes.

At this point it might be useful to talk about Cesare Borgia. Cesare’s education was meticulously prepared by his father.  Until his 12th birthday he was educated by tutors in Rome. He grew up to become an accomplished young man skilled at war and politics. After attending the University of Perugia, where he studied law and the humanities he went to the University of Pisa to study theology. On graduation his father immediately made him a cardinal.

Cesare was suspected of murdering his brother Giovanni, but it is impossible to know whether this is true or not.  There is no doubt he benefitted from it. He was now free to abandon the cloth and pursue political and military ambitions. He married a French princess Charlotte d’Albret and became a condottiero, a military leader.

After Alexander’s death in 1503, Cesare sought to influence the election of the next Pope. He was looking for a candidate who would not threaten his plans to create his own principality in Central Italy. He succeeded, his candidate, Francesco Nanni Todeschini Piccolomini became Pope Pius III. However, he would die less than a month after his coronation. Cesare was now forced to support Giuliano Della Rovere. The cardinal promised Cesare that he could keep all of his titles and honours. Unsurprisingly, in these treacherous times, Della Rovere betrayed him. Cesare died in 1507, while leading a surprise attack on VianaCastle in Navarre, Spain.

I haven’t mentioned the other star of the family, Lucrezia. She has the reputation of being the femme fatale of the dynasty. This is the fate of so many women in history; they are either completely ignored, or made out to be monsters. We have already seen how she was a pawn in her father’s dynastic ambitions. We have already mentioned her marriage to Sforza. Before that she had been betrothed to two Spanish princes.  There does seem to be little evidence for the rumours of incest with one or more of her brothers—or indeed with her father—apart from the testimony given by Giovanni Sforza himself during the divorce proceedings. The Sforzas were no longer necessary, so the pope’s son-in-law had become an inconvenience. Indeed, in 1497 there seems to have been a Borgia-led plot to assassinate him, but he was able to flee Rome just in time. Divorce would have to do. Sforza was eventually forced to agree to the divorce on the grounds of impotence, despite his testimony that the marriage had been consummated more than a thousand times and the fact that Lucrezia was actually pregnant! The paternity of Giovanni, who was born in secret, has never been established. One year later, Pedro Calderon, a Spaniard, was fished out of the Tiber. Perotto, as he was known was believed to have been conducting an affair with Lucrezia. This did not please Cesare, who had him killed because an affair might well have compromised the negotiations then taking place for another marriage.

This marriage would turn out even worse. Her second husband, Alfonso of Aragon, whom she genuinely loved, was murdered by Cesare—quite possibly out of jealousy, though there were also political overtones. Cesare wished to strengthen his relations with France and completely break with the Kingdom of Naples. As Alfonso’s father was the ruler of the Kingdom of Naples, the young husband was in great danger. Although the first murder attempt did not succeed, Alfonso was eventually strangled in his own quarters.

She may have felt genuine grief, but her father had soon arranged a third marriage – to another Alfonso, the Este duke of Ferrara. This marriage was also ostensibly successful, in that Lucrezia bore her husband a number of children. Unfortunately her pregnancies were difficult and she lost several babies after birth. But, she also had  a number of affairs including with the poet Pietro Bembo and her bisexual brother-in-law, Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. Nevertheless, she achieved comparative respectability and managed to outlive the rest of her family, before dying in Ferrara in 1519 after giving birth to her eighth child, Isabella Maria.

The Borgias have fired the popular imagination for five centuries and this interest shows no sign of flagging. Machiavelli was inspired to write “The Prince” a decade after meeting Cesare. Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo wrote about them. They are said to be the models for the Corleones in writer Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Sarah Dunant, who writes best-selling historical fiction set in Renaissance Italy, has a new novel Blood & Beauty, which looks at this much-maligned family. Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti based his opera on Hugo’s play about Lucrezia.  There have been a handful of movies dating back to 1911. In that year La cena de los Borgias (known as The Feud of the Borgias) an 11-minute silent movie was produced in Italy. Unfortunately I was unable to find it online. They have also been staples of the small screen. In 1981, the BBC aired a 10-part miniseries, The Borgias, which was the butt of many a joke. And more recently, Showtime, the company which gave us The Tudors, produced The Borgias. The series, which has now been cancelled after its third season, was created by Neil Jordan and features Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo. Dunant thinks that the leading role was miscast; she feels that the late James Gandolfini would have been perfect for the part. Finally the have appeared in the newest technologies. And they are mot missing from new technology either making an appearance in the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise-franchise has also featured the family.

There is no doubt that the Borgias have had a pretty bad press for the last 500 years. They did engage in a lot of sordid behaviour. Nevertheless, they were a product of their time and place. Many of these stories only appeared decades after the deaths of those involved. I love the Renaissance. What particularly intrigues is the marked contrast between the scandalous politics and the beautiful art that was created. The creativity and the corruption seem inseparable. I wouldn’t go as far as rehabilitating them, but we do need a more subtle and nuanced view of the Borgias.


Word Stories # 2 Nepotism

June 23, 2013

Nepotism is the practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs. The word nepotism comes from the Italian nipote, which in turn derives from nepos, the Latin word for grandson or nephew). As you will have seen from my piece about the Borgias, the word originated from the practice of Renaissance popes of conferring important positions to their nephews and grandsons. I have even read that the word was used as a euphemism for an illegitimate son. The practice was finally ended in 1692 when Pope Innocent XII issued the bull Romanum decet Pontificem, prohibiting popes in all times from bestowing estates, offices, or revenues on any relative.

Nepotism can be found politics, entertainment and business, particularly small businesses. Even if you take larger companies you find that a third of the companies in the Fortune 500 are family-controlled firms. Peter Buffett, the son of Warren, the third-richest person in the world did not follow his father into the family business. He is a sceptic about family succession:

Well, you know, my dad talks about the ovarian lottery, this idea that you’re born into these circumstances that you can’t, at least as far as I’m concerned, you can’t control when you’re on the other side of being born. And so I think there’s a version of that that holds true in this. You know, the odds of having a son or daughter that are as passionate, and excited and driven as a founder of a business was, or even the person that took it over—whatever that might be, whatever passion and drive was there in that person—the odds of that being in the next generation, I think are incredibly small. You would know the details better than I, but I think that if the child is truly passionate about it and lives and breathes the same thing, absolutely. But again, what are the odds?

The BBC World Service did an excellent programme about nepotism at Italian Universities. In Italy there is a perception that it is not what you know, but who you know that counts. The programme feature Professor Roberto Perotti, who wrote a book on Italy’s nepotism culture, called The Rigged University. He has published revealing studies of university teachers, showing the extraordinary concentration of surnames in many departments. Here is a quote from a BBC article about the programme:

Luigi Frati, the Rector of La Sapienza University in Rome, has become one of the most notorious figures in the scandal, which local media have dubbed “Parentopoli” – or “Relative-gate”. A doctor by training, Professor Frati has, both as rector and formerly as head of the university’s medical faculty, overseen the promotion of his wife, a former local high school history teacher, to the post of Professor of Medical History. His daughter also gained a post as Professor of Legal Medicine – without any specific medical education. And his son was made an associate professor in cardiology aged just 31, one of the youngest Italians to gain such an appointment. He has denied claims of nepotism, insisting that all his loved-ones just happen to be the best qualified. Responding to the allegations, he told Italian television, “In Italy we are not used to being meritocratic through strictly objective criteria. We are used to doing it our own way.” It’s hard to disagree. The high court has made nepotistic appointments technically illegal in Italy’s public sector, though no-one has ever been successfully prosecuted for them.


Oliver Sacks explores hallucinations

June 15, 2013

I have recently finished reading Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks. A doctor and professor, Oliver Sacks is the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, Musicophilia, and nine other books. In 1990 Awakenings, which deals with the use of L-Dopa to treat o catatonic patients, was made into a film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. In Hallucinations Sacks is interested in subjective experience and the book is a catalogue of case studies, which is typical of how he presents his work. In the introduction to the book he sets out his stall:

I think of this book … as a sort of natural history or anthology of hallucinations, describing the impact of hallucinations on those who have them, for the power of hallucination is only to be understood from first-person accounts.

Sacks likes to focus on the subjective experience, as opposed to the objective accounts of neurological disease that textbooks prefer. Indeed, Sacks has had his own personal experiences. He has been a lifelong migraine sufferer, whose first attack took place when he was three or four years old:

I was playing in the garden when a shimmering light appeared to my left, dazzlingly bright. It expanded, becoming an enormous arc stretching from the ground to the sky, with sharp, glittering, zigzagging borders and brilliant blue and orange colours. Then behind the brightness came a growing blindness, an emptiness in the field of vision, and soon I could see almost nothing on my left side. I was terrified—what was happening? My sight returned to normal in a few minutes, but these were the longest minutes I had ever experienced.

His other experience of hallucinations was with recreational drugs in the 1960s. Sacks used amphetamines, pot and LSD for his neurophenomenological explorations. The results were certainly interesting – he would engage in debates with spiders about whether Bertrand Russell’s paradox had undermined Frege’s system of thought.

Before going any further we need to define our terms. The Merriam Webster defines hallucination thus:

perception of objects with no reality usually arising from disorder of the nervous system or in response to drugs.

The word comes from the Latin alucinatus, the past participle of alucinari – to wander in the mind. It was the French alienist Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol who first used hallucinations to refer to any sense disturbance. This is an important point to bear in mind. Hallucinations can occur with any of our senses – and remember we have more than five senses.

Why do we hallucinate? In fact, given how complex perception is, it is hardly surprising that we do. Human perception is imperfect; even a normal brain will fabricate quite a bit of data in order to help us make sense of our complex world. The world we experience around us is a construct that is much more than the raw input of sensation. Often hallucinations are a product of sensory deprivation as the brain does seem to abhor a vacuum. If it doesn’t have anything or enough to process from the outside, it will make something up.

Hallucinations is divided into fifteen chapters, each of which deals with a specific area. Here is a flavour of the book:

In the first chapter, Silent Multitudes: Charles Bonnet Syndrome, we meet Rosalie, a blind woman in her nineties who sees processions of people in brightly coloured “Eastern dress” parade in front of her:

“In drapes, walking up and down stairs … a man who turns towards me and smiles, but he has huge teeth on one side of his mouth. Animals, too. I see this scene with a white building, and it is snowing—a soft snow, it is swirling. I see this horse (not a pretty horse, a drudgery horse) with a harness, dragging snow away … but it keeps switching.… I see a lot of children; they’re walking up and down stairs. They wear bright colours—rose, blue—like Eastern dress.”  Curiously, Rosalie’ eyes were open and even though she could see nothing, her eyes moved here and there, as if looking at an actual scene. Sacks found nothing suggestive of confusion or delusion. Neurologically, she was completely normal. He reassured her that she was not going crazy. Hallucinations are not uncommon in those with blindness or impaired sight, and that these visions are not “psychiatric” but a reaction of the brain to the loss of eyesight. She was suffering from Charles Bonnet syndrome, a condition that causes patients with significant visual loss to have complex visual hallucinations.

In the second chapter, The Prisoner’s Cinema: Sensory Deprivation, introduces us to the noted sceptic Michael Shermer, who spends his life debunking the paranormal.  He used to take part in cycling races. In the early hours of the morning of August 8, 1983, he was travelling along a lonely rural highway in Nebraska as part of the transcontinental Race Across America. He had not been riding for 83 straight hours and had covered 1,259 miles. This is what he experienced:

“A large craft with bright lights overtook me and forced me to the side of the road. Alien beings exited the craft and abducted me for 90 minutes, after which time I found myself back on the road with no memory of what transpired inside the ship.…” After taking a nap, Shermer realized that he had been hallucinating, but at the time it had seemed completely real.

In chapter three, A Few Nanograms of Wine: Hallucinatory Smells, we hear about Mary B., a Canadian woman, with dysosmia, the impairment of olfactory stimuli processing which leads to an altered sense of smell. After a hysterectomy performed under general anaesthesia, she felt physically fine, soon returning to her Pilates and ballet classes. But she would be locked in an invisible prison by a disorder no one could see. Tomatoes and oranges started tasting metallic and a bit rotten, and cottage cheese tasted like sour milk. Then lettuce began to smell and taste of turpentine, and spinach, apples, carrots and cauliflower tasted slightly rotten. Fish and meat, especially chicken, smelt as if they’d been rotting for a week. Bread tasted rancid; chocolate, like machine oil. The only meat or fish she could eat was smoked salmon, which she started having three times a week. It was gradually getting worse and worse. Wine smelt revolting; so did anybody who was wearing scent.  Her husband had to have coffee at work so disgusting was the smell to her. She tried in vain to find a pattern:

There was no rhyme or reason to it,” she wrote. “How could lemons taste okay but not oranges; garlic, but not onions?”

In the chapter on epilepsy, The “Sacred” Disease, Sacks refers to an epileptic woman who believed that she was receiving messages from God telling her to run for Congress. This message proved popular with many voters. Although she lacked political skills or experience and was standing as a Republican in what was a safe Democratic district, she only lost by a narrow margin.

In chapter ten, Delirious, Sacks tells us about the poet Richard Howard’s delirium following back surgery. The day after the operation, lying in his hospital bed and looking up, he saw small animals all around the edges of the ceiling. They were the size of mice but had heads like those of deer. They felt so real that Howard could not see them. The following day, he began seeing a “pageant of literature.” The doctors, nurses, and ancillary staff were all dressed up as nineteenth-century, literary figures. The pageant was taking place on several floors of the hospital simultaneously. As the floors seemed transparent to him, he could watch all the levels of the performance at once. When real visitors came, the pageant would disappear, but as soon as they left, it would start again Sacks says that Richard is a man with an acute and critical mind, but hallucinations can be so powerful that all this goes out of the window.

In the twelfth chapter, Narcolepsy and Night Hags, we meet Stephanie W. whose first narcoleptic hallucination occurred when she was on her way home from kindergarten at the age of five. They continued into adulthood. While some were benign, such as an angel appearing over a highway exit, others were terrifying like seeing the people before her take on the appearance of being dead. Now that she has been correctly diagnosed and is taking effective medication, her life has been transformed.

In chapter 14, Doppelgängers: Hallucinating Oneself, Sacks deals with patients who see doppelgangers of themselves. A particularly weird form is the heautoscopy, in which where there is interaction between the person and his double, more often than not hostile. There may even be confusion as to who is the “original” and who the “double”. Sacks cites a 1994 paper describing an episode in a young man with temporal lobe epilepsy. The patient had woken up with a dizzy feeling. He got up, but he saw himself still lying in bed. This made him angry with the guy in bed, even though he knew it was himself. In an attempt to wake the body in the bed, he first shouted at it; then tried to shake it before finally jumping on his alter ego in the bed. The lying body did not react. It was then that the patient began to feel bewildered about his double existence. He became scared because he could no longer tell which of the two he really was. He just wanted to become one person again and. He decided to jump out of the window of his third-floor flat “in order to stop the unbearable feeling of being divided in two.” He hoped that this would frighten the double in bed into merging with him again. The next thing he remembered was waking up in pain in the hospital.

Hallucinations is an excellent introduction to this subject. I would have liked a chapter on schizophrenic hallucinations, but Sacks felt that that would have required another book to do it justice. This is a very humane book, which seeks to lessen the stigma of hallucinations – most people associate hallucinations with mental illness. Here is Sacks describing his own methodology:

I feel that if I describe things respectfully, tenderly, and truly, then this is an important thing to do. It’s not voyeurism, it’s not exploitation, but an essential form of knowledge. I think the detailed case history has no equal in conveying understanding, not only of what a condition is like, but of the ways in which a person may respond to a condition

In his work with elderly patients Sacks has found that quite a lot of older people of sound mind, but with poor vision or hearing, will start getting hallucinations. Many are afraid to mention this because, as well as the social stigma, they think it may be a sign of dementia or madness. Sacks want to say that this is not necessarily so. People who experience them are often capable of leading completely normal lives.


Oliver Sacks video

June 15, 2013

Here is Sacks speaking at Ted.com:


The complete IDiot’s guide to teaching evolution

June 8, 2013

Kansas Outlaws Practice Of Evolution

In response to a Nov. 7 referendum, Kansas lawmakers passed emergency legislation outlawing evolution, the highly controversial process responsible for the development and diversity of species and the continued survival of all life. Lawmakers decried spontaneous genetic mutations.

“From now on, the streets, forests, plains, and rivers of Kansas will be safe from the godless practice of evolution, and species will be able to procreate without deviating from God’s intended design,” said Bob Bethell, a member of the state House of Representatives. “This is about protecting the integrity of all creation.”

…”Barn swallows that develop lighter, more streamlined builds to enable faster migration, for example, could live out the rest of their brief lives in prison,” said Indiana University chemist and pro-intelligent-design author Robert Hellenbaum, who helped compose the language of the law. “And butterflies who mimic the wing patterns and colours of other butterflies for an adaptive advantage, well, their days of flouting God’s will are over.” The Onion, Nov 28, 2006 

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A few weeks ago a fourth grader’s science quiz went viral on the internet. It was a creationist exam and the questions and answers included:

The earth is billions of years old.   FALSE

On what day did God make the dinosaurs? THE SIXTH

Dinosaurs lived with people. TRUE

What is the “history book of the universe?”  BIBLE

What did Noah tell God to build?  AN ARK

What caused there to be fossils? THE GLOBAL FLOOD

The next time someone says the Earth is billions (or millions) of years old, what can you say?  WERE YOU THERE?

There have always been many Christians who have rejected the theory of evolution. But before 1925 it was very much a religious dispute between fundamentalists and modernists. However, as public education expanded, what high school students were learning in their science classes began to attract more attention. And it all came to head in one of America’s trials of the century – a trial about an idea.

The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes is popularly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. It took place in July 1925 and was immortalised in the film Inherit the Wind. However, this presented a rather simplified vision of events. In fact, the reality was in many ways was much more interesting. The trial, which was the first to be broadcast on national radio, was quite frankly a bit of a media circus. It was deliberately staged in order to attract publicity to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, which had seen its local industry decimated in the years before the trial. Indeed, Scopes, a substitute high school teacher, was unsure whether he had ever actually taught evolution, but he allowed himself to be incriminated himself so that the case could have a defendant. Scopes was charged with violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach human evolution in any public school.

At the heart of the story were three larger-than-life characters – Clarence Darrow William Jennings Bryan and Henry Louis Mencken. Darrow was the big-shot lawyer and religious sceptic who, for the only time in his career, waived his usually hefty fees in order to represent the defendant. Bryan, the prosecution lawyer, was a devout Christian, a genuine radical and a brilliant orator, who had unsuccessfully stood for the American presidency three times. An opponent of laissez-faire capitalism, social Darwinism, eugenics, and militarism, he argued that the citizens had should have their say over what was taught in public schools. He just didn’t trust science, which he perceived as an elitist enterprise. Finally, there was the professional cynic H.L. Mencken, who had a glorious time laying into the locals. A mob almost lynched him after he called the people of Dayton “yokels,” “primates,” morons,” and “hillbillies.” But Mencken saved his worst barbs for Bryan:

It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.”

Generally, when you hear about the trial you get an image of Bryan as the religious nutter. That is how Darrow wanted to portray him in his famous cross-examination. The fact that the prosecution lawyer was cross-examined by defence counsel was rather unusual. Here are some of Darrow’s questions to Bryan:

If Eve was actually created from Adam’s rib, where did Cain get his wife?

How many people lived in Ancient Egypt?

But, when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale – or that the whale swallowed Jonah, excuse me, please, how do you literally interpret that?

Do you believe Joshua made the sun stand still?

Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?

Darrow wanted to portray him as a biblical literalist but Bryan’s views were more nuanced:

“But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.

We don’t often hear about the textbook at the centre of the controversy. Hunter’s Civic Biology, which was published in 1914, did undoubtedly reflect early 20th century mores. Here are a couple of extracts which capture the flavour:

The Races of Man.At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest race type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.

Eugenics When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics.

This makes chilling reading but it has nothing to do with whether evolution is legitimate science or not. Eugenics, which had a lot of supporters on both the left and right, but this will have to be a subject for another post. Anyway, back to the trial. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, but the verdict was subsequently overturned on a technicality. Bryan died in Dayton less than a week after the trial, but the struggle continued. The anti-evolution statute was upheld maintained and similar measures were brought in by other states and school districts.

There has been an ongoing debate about the teaching of evolution ever since. The fist step in this battle was to ban teaching of evolution outright. And this happened until the launch of Sputnik I created a panic about the scientific race with the USSR. Evolution came back into favour in school biology classes. Now the demand was for equal time for creationism and evolution. When this was unsuccessful, creationism morphed into creation science. But in Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a Louisiana law requiring that creation science be taught in public schools, along with evolution, was unconstitutional because the law was specifically intended to endorse a particular religion.

The final incarnation has been intelligent design. The basic idea is that the design we see is too complex to have emerged by itself. Therefore, there must be a creator at work. This assumes that design must be top-down, but evolution is a bottom-up process in which design and complexity emerge out of blind but non-random processes. If we look around us, we can see that bottom-up design all around us. Many species have genetically determined structures which appear to have lost most or all of their ancestral function. This is known as vestigiality. In whales there are small vestigial leg bones deeply buried within the back of the body. The wings of ostriches, emus, and other flightless birds remind us that their ancestors were able to fly. In humans the coccyx, is the remnant of a lost tail.

Whereas scientists do not seriously dispute that evolution is a robust theory, ordinary Americans think very differently. Opinion polls suggest that only 15% of the public believe that humans evolved without any divine help, whereas 46% think that God created humans in their present form and 32% think that humans evolved but with God’s help. American fundamentalist Christians are the most notorious example but evolution is under threat from many religions around the world. There are Hindu creationists in Asia, and Islamic creationists in Turkey. There are a variety of views in Judaism with regard to creationism. Many orthodox Jewish groups accept Darwinian evolution while many conservative Jewish groups reject it. Why do we always hear about the American case? I suppose that this is partly because it is shocking that in the country with the best scientists in the world these ideas still persist. But maybe it is also considered culturally inappropriate to criticise other religions.

Creation science and intelligent design are bullshit, whatever the source. This is pseudoscience which posits supernatural causes which lie outside the realm of methodological naturalism and scientific experiment. Science can only test empirical, natural claims. By invoking miracles they go beyond what science can deliver. Their claims are not falsifiable i.e. there is no way to show the theory to be false, regardless of any conceivable observations or experiments.

But, creation science and intelligent design are also bad religion. If there is a God, it will not be through science and reason that you find Him/Her, but through faith and revelation. There is no incompatibility between evolution and religion.