Thursday, April 30, 2015

Holland Park on a spring evening

This evening I took a stroll in Surrey's Holland Park. Until today, I'd only ever seen it from the window of SkyTrain. I remembered a long-ago day of exploring Holland Park in London, and
felt once more like a tourist in an unfamiliar city, checking out what was to be seen.

I also stopped at Newton Library, not to smell the roses, but to enjoy the delightful white and pale pink rhododendrons in bloom. The year I moved to Vancouver, rhodos flowered in early March. I remember the date because it was my brother's birthday. After living up north, I thought I was in the tropics.


Image of Hermes from theoi

Upon hearing the word Hermes, many think first of an expensive leather satchel. The name of this god has also been used to sell jewellery, fragrances and other luxury products.

In ancient Greece, Hermes was a messenger god who travelled quickly on his winged sandals. This originally referred to the ability of this god (called Mercury by the Romans) to seal things up in such a way that they could never be opened.

The hermetic seal, named after Hermes, represents alchemy. It refers to the philosophy of the Greek mathematician Pythagoras. Square, circle and triangle symbolize body, soul and spirit.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Image from wikimedia

Hera, Queen of Mount Olympus, was both sister and wife to Zeus. This goddess was the overseer of women and marriage, as well as the sky and starry heavens.

Jealous of her philandering husband's liaisons, she took revenge on his chosen ones. Hera pursued the pregnant Leto without mercy, driving her from the land and obliging her to give birth to the twins Aphrodite and Apollo on a floating island in the sea.

The mortal Semele suffered a worse fate. On discovering that she was expecting Zeus's child, Hera tricked the girl into begging the god to show himself to her in his full glory. This proved lethal. As Hera expected, Semele was consumed by his dazzling lightning bolts. However, her unborn son Dionysus was saved.

Hera could be vain as well as wrathful. One of the three most beautiful goddesses, she featured in the story of the Judgment of Paris. It began at a wedding celebration from which Eris the trouble maker was excluded. In revenge, she sowed discord and induced Athena, Aphrodite and Hera all to lay claim to a golden apple which Eris had inscribed To the Fairest.

After arguing, the three asked Zeus to judge among them, but he wisely delegated this task to the mortal Prince of Troy. Paris chose Aphrodite, bribed by her promises to give him the lovely Helen, already married to King Menelaus in Sparta. Helen's subsequent abduction by Paris led to the Trojan war.

Of course Hera was outraged when she was not chosen, and subsequently became the enemy of Troy (also known as Ilium, from Homer) helping the Greeks to vanquish the city.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Sand circles as in crop circles?

My years of walking the beach at White Rock have revealed some strange effects of both nature and art.

These spiral sand sculptures seen a couple of days ago left me wondering. The outside of the perfect shape was as wide as a harrow, but it tapered to nothing in the middle. No footprints or evidence of machine use visible, at least not from the promenade. How was it done?

Another fresh surprise last night at White Rock was a new busker playing a Chinese zither.

Made me think. The world around us is endlessly fascinating. Beautiful, mysterious, and haunting.


Image of Hephaestus at his forge Hephaestus Audio

Some versions of his story say this that this lame god of fire and crafts was flung from Mount Olympus by Hera, his mother, because of his deformity.

Other accounts of his early life say Zeus threw down his son and crippled him when the boy tried to shield his mother from her husband's advances.

Hephaestus returned to Olympus in any case, as a master craftsman who fashioned weapons, shields and  armour, even for Achilles. He also made arrows for Eros. His forge was located in a volcano, and his work caused frequent eruptions.

Interestingly enough, this lame and ugly god was married to the lovely Aphrodite. Their wedding was arranged by Zeus to prevent other gods from warring for the favour of this gorgeous goddess.

Though sexual fidelity was rare among the Olympians, jealousy was not. Aphrodite incurred her husband's wrath when she had an affair with his brother Ares.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Brain that Changes itself by Norman Doidge

Book cover image from Norman Doidge

As undergraduates at UBC in the late sixties, we used to joke about coffee killing brain cells. The science of the time told us that the brain had a finite number of cells, and neurons did not replicate. Now we know better.

In this amazing book, Toronto psychologist Norman Doidge shares case histories and research stories that demonstrate just how erroneous these ideas were.

Many of us know Hebb's concept (previously suggested by Freud, says Doidge). We create and strengthen neural pathways as we learn new things; "neurons that fire together wire together." The reverse is also true. Huge implications for those trying to break bad habits or forget old trauma.

Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone likens our brain tissue to a pile of snow that we sled on. We can create ruts as we use and re-use the same routes to slide down, or we can break new ground and create routes where none existed before. After either kind of use, the snow hill remains basically the same, but it never returns to its original condition.

Doidge presents some amazing case histories. With brain training, Cheryl regained her balance after five years of a falling sickness brought on by a drug side effect that virtually destroyed her vestibular apparatus. Michelle was born with half a brain but lives a full life on the other half, which has adapted to fill the void. Nicole survived a rare brain tumour only to become paralyzed. With neuroplasticity based treatment, she recovered enough to work as a physically able full-time producer for a television show. She still finds time for her volunteer work with sick children.

In addition to presenting case histories, the author takes the reader into the experimental laboratories of various groundbreaking neurologists, both historic and contemporary. VS Ramachandran has devised a simple mirror box that tricks the brain's perception in order to deal with the pain and trouble caused by painful or frozen phantom limbs, those that are still felt even though they have been amputated.

He and others have also demonstrated that like the learned aspects of phantom limb pain, the paralysis that follows strokes has learned components. Dr. Edward Taub has used this idea to develop CI, or constraint-induced stroke treatment that involves "massed practice." This breakthrough approach to paralysis addresses both the brain damage in the motor cortex and the learned behaviour of not trying to use "paralyzed" body parts. It has even helped patients whose strokes occurred years before.

Taub's therapy uses mitts and slings to restrain good arms and hands while patients practice intensive incremental physiotherapy to help retrieve "the motor programs that Taub believes are still in the nervous system, even after many strokes, illnesses or accidents." His pioneering approach has helped not only stroke victims, but people born with cerebral palsy, for whom such mobility gains as they have achieved were formerly assumed to be impossible.

This book is the most fascinating work of non-fiction I have read in quite some time. Who could resist such chapter titles as "Brain Lock Unlocked: Using Plasticity to Stop Worries, Obsessions, Compulsions and Bad Habits" and "Turning our Ghosts into Ancestors: Psycholanalysis as a Neuroplastic Therapy?"

Recently, Norman Doidge published a second book on neuroplasticity, reviewed here in The Guardian. It has already been made available in 20 languages, and has sold over a million copies in a hundred countries.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


Image of Hades from wikipedia

Hades, the ruler of the underworld on the nether side of the river Styx was one of the six original Olympian gods. He was the sibling of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hestia and Demeter.

In spite of his Olympian status, Hades rarely left his underworld kingdom. However, he did come into the daylight world to get married. With Zeus's permission, he forcibly abducted the girl Persephone while she was picking flowers in a field.

Her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest, was deeply upset. She neglected the crops grow and the world descended into winter for the first time. Afterwards, it was only during the girl's annual visits to her mother that plants flourished and bore fruit, only to die down when Persephone returned to spend time with her husband Hades.

The image shows Hades with his three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guarded the gate that led to the underworld, ensuring that the dead were able to arrive but not leave again.

One of the twelve labours of Hercules involved capturing Cerberus without weapons, and bringing him to the surface world. The hero was not able to complete this feat single-handed, however. Other gods helped him.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Image from wikimedia

Helios had the challenging job of driving the chariot drawn by the horses of the sun.

These ancient horses still interest us. Rudy Weller's fountain statue, The Four Horses of Helios, is a Picadilly landmark.

Helios was the father of Phaeton, a headstrong boy who prevailed upon his father to allow him to drive the powerful horses. Unable to control them, he fell to his death. 

His name lives on. Today a Phaeton is the name of a horse drawn carriage, an open touring car, a motor home, and an automobile made by Volkswagen.

Friday, April 24, 2015

New Granville Island Gallery opens with Zimbabwean sculpture and more

Right: One of the largest and most spectacular pieces, this female bust is made of a stone that is left rough in places (the hair and jewellery) and polished to a smooth sheen for the skin.

Last night the Ukama Gallery held a grand opening on Granville Island. Proprietor Janine Vertone displayed a collection of paintings by local artists and works by Shona carvers in stone from Zimbabwe.
I was delighted to accept the invitation to attend this event because I'd seen this style of stone work at the Zimsculpt exhibition that took place in Van Dusen Gardens in 2011.

The painting below is one of many African animals on display by Alberta-born Artist Kindrie Grove.
Girl with bird, below, was another astonishing work, along with Flight and Girl on a swing, beneath.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Spring walk in Queen's Park

Queen's Park in New Westminster hearkens back to the time when the "Royal City" was the capital of what was then the colony of British Columbia.

Today this spectacularly beautiful park boasts playgrounds, playing fields, and arts centre.

A naturalized meadow with a stream and a long walking trail are other points of interest, as are the lovely old houses, perfectly kept up, on the street that passes the road that borders the park on the side opposite the Pattullo Bridge.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Hope Princeton Road

"It's always at sunset, the Hope Princeton Road, you come to mind and that lightens my load..." So sings the great Canadian folksinger James Keelaghan in a song named after this long stretch of road through southern BC. My Skies, its album, won a Juno Award in 1994.

The Hope Princeton is a stretch of highway, with high looping turns and runaway lanes. Last weekend we saw it in an early spring evening with a dusting of snow on the trees.

Monday, April 20, 2015

All weathers in a weekend

For our weekend trip, Okanagan lake was a brilliant blue, with clouds forming and saskatoon bushes blooming along the side of the road.

The hills of the drylands were tinged with a spring blush of sage green, and lilt by sunny clumps of arrowleaf balsamroot.

The warmer drier climate made itself felt as we travelled south, where fruit trees were coming into full bloom in the roadside orchards. 

The dry hills around Osoyoos were covered in sage and the grape vines were about to burst their leaf buds but hadn't done so yet.

The Hope Princeton Road was in an early stage of spring, and Manning Park still had snow on the trees and beside the road, which fortunately was bare and dry.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Magnolia petals falling reflect the ephemeral nature of beauty and life

During my first year at UBC -- eons ago now -- I stayed in the women's residence at Totem Park.

It was the sixties and things were in flux. I took Arts I, an experimental program that was just launching, and so avoided the huge lecture style first year classes.

I was also fortunate to be able to sign up for a French class that was held in the lounge of my residence. This was all the more advantageous because this was an 8:30, so I usually had time for breakfast or at least coffee before heading to class.

Besides the terror that I would fail it because I couldn't understand the native speaker teacher from Paris, I retain few memories of that course.

What I do remember is a scene from a French version of the play Antigone, in which two characters sit beneath a tree with magnolia petals falling on their shoulders. At the time, the image of magnolias was as mysterious to me as that of Sophocles himself. A green girl from the northern part of BC, I had never seen a magnolia, and wouldn't discover these delightful trees until the following spring. Yet that image of ephemeral beauty entered my consciousness then, and has remained with me.

These magnolia petals dropped in front of Summerland Waterfront Resort and Spa on Okanagan Lake. If I stand and step close to the window of my writing room, I can see similar purple petals that have dropped from the magnolia in our front garden.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Morning light on Okanagan Lake

A morning walk along the lakeshore shows the water calm and blue.

The day before, the wind ruffled the surface with whitecaps and dark wave patterns. Like sea waves, the breakers crashed on the rocks, right beside the highway. Both sea and sky were gray and louring.

How fresh and unthreatening the sunny lake looks after a good night's sleep.

Friday, April 17, 2015

White tailed deer on Okanagan Mountain

 High above Okanagan Lake, whitetail deer show up clearly against a background of plowed-up earth. On the right, deer and fawns browse in the ditch.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Don't harass the rattlesnakes!

Snakes like heat, so the climate of Osoyoos suits them. These signs on the way to Nk'Mip Winery and Desert Cultural Centre warn that the rattler is an endangered and protected species on this high, dry plateau, part of the limited habitat where these snakes can live in Canada.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Spirit Ridge at Osoyoos is home to Nk'Mip Cellars

Nk'Mip (or Inkameep) Cellars is the first North American winery created by Aboriginals.

This is not just a winery but a fabulous resort located on Spirit Ridge. The land belongs to the Osoyoos Indian Band and overlooks hills of vineyards and Osoyoos Lake.

Spirit Ridge wines have won prizes worldwide, and can be tasted at a gorgeous facility. Nk'Mip resort includes a restaurant with a panoramic view from the patio, as well as condos, a spa, a Desert Cultural Centre and more.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Inniskillin, a historic Canadian wine

Neatly pruned rows of vines stretch away from the boutique shop in Oliver, BC, the Canadian wine capital. This estate winery represents Jackson Triggs and Inniskillin.

Inniskillen, the proprietor explains, has a long history going back to the War of 1812. The winery began on the Niagara escarpment, Canada's only other grape-growing area.

The name was derived from the island town of Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, home of the Inniskilling Dragoons.

This regiment helped to repel the Americans from Queenstown in the War of 1812, and later its leader was granted Crown land in the Niagara area. That farm was called Inniskillin, and later became the site of the Ontario winery. The BC winery was added later.

The Inniskillin label covers some award winning wines, some of them decorated with an aboriginal design of a warrior on horseback, commemorating the old cavalry regiment.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Speaking of Dionysus...

Stained glass window shows pyramid where casks are aged

It's a great time to visit the wineries of the Okanagan Valley. As the grapevines prepare to burst into leaf and the fruit trees come into flower, the highway has little traffic and the specialty wine stores are open. Many sell boutique wines unavailable elsewhere.

At the Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna, we learned how champagne is made and how to open sparkling wine: hold the cork and twist the bottle firmly. Once the friction seal is broken the pressure of the wine inside pushes the cork out smoothly.

We also heard about three history-making French women dubbed the "champagne widows." 

Left alone at 27, Madame Cliquot took over her husband's business, the House of Cliquot, in 1805. To Veuve Cliquot (the widow Cliquot) we owe not only the design of the pressure-resistant champagne bottle, but rose champagne itself.

Another widow, Louise Pommery, took over the House of Pommery in 1860. This lady created the first dry champagne, or Brut. She also bought up some limestone caves beneath the city of Reims, and began the long tradition of storing and aging wine in this excellent temperature-controlled environment.

Lily Bollinger took over the House of Bollinger from her deceased husband in 1941. It was her champagne that was favoured by the fictional James Bond.

Dionysus take note: these stories dramatize the important contributions of women to Dionysian/Bacchanalean rites.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


Image of Dionysus from The Louvre, Paris, from wikipedia

Dionysus, the god of wine, had a dual nature. Like the moods brought on by the fermented grape drink, he could be turn from divine ecstasy to brutal rage.

Like many Greek gods, he had a peculiar birth. When Zeus, in an invisible form, made his mortal mother Semele pregnant, Hera god wind of it, and sought revenge by causing Zeus to show himself to her. This was too much for the mortal woman, and she was burned to death by the sight of his glory.

However, Zeus managed to rescue the unborn Dionysus, and stitched him into his thigh until he reached full term, in the bargain conferring immortality on his half-mortal son.

Hera, still jealous, made another attempt on the life of Dionysus by arranging for him to be killed by the Titans. However, Rhea rescued him and he survived to grow up. Later, he went to the underworld to find his dead mother Semele, and was able to overcome Thanatos and bring her back alive to Mount Olympus. This was a highly unusual feat.

Dionysus was the subject of a spring festival that involved theatrical productions. Most of the classic Greek dramas written by famous ancient Greek playwrights including Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes were created to celebrate the Dionysian feast.

Saturday, April 11, 2015


Image from

It is from the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone that we get the ancient Greek story that explained how the seasons came about.

The goddess of cereals and crops, Demeter was devastated when Hades, god of the underworld, abducted her daughter Persephone while she was picking flowers, and took her below the earth in his dark chariot.

The mother was so distraught at the loss of her daughter that she stopped making the crops grow and the first winter resulted. Later, Hades allowed Persephone to leave his dark kingdom and rejoin her mother, but only for part of the year. Down below, she had eaten five pomegranate seeds. Having ingested food in the underworld forever tied her to the shadowy world of Hades.

The mother goddess still grieved for her daughter while she was with Hades; thus, she neglected her duty of producing grain, the crops withered, and winter came. With the annual return of Persephone, Demter rejoiced and the world became fertile and productive once more.

Friday, April 10, 2015


Image of Mattei Athena from The Louvre

The virgin goddess Athena was the patron of the city of Athens. She was supposed to have sprung full-grown and armoured from the brow of Zeus. Wise and pure, she represented intelligence, reason, art and literature. Athena was so favoured by her father Zeus that she was allowed to play with his special weapon, the thunderbolt.

Her symbols were the owl and the olive tree. Among her achievements were the invention of the bridle, the ship, and the chariot, as well as several kinds of farm implements and musical instruments.

In Mycenae, this goddess went by the name of Mykene, and in Thebes, Thebe. Minerva was the name of her Roman variation; however, this name may have been derived from an Etruscan goddess as well.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


Image from

In this classical pose, the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis, holds the antlers of a wild stag with one hand while she reaches into her quiver for an arrow with the other.

This goddess represented contradictory characteristics. On the one hand, she was a virgin goddess of the hunt. On the other, she afforded divine protection to wild animals.

Artemis was a virgin by choice, and by Zeus's permission. When Actaeon spied on her nudity while she was bathing, her reaction was merciless. After she turned him into a stag and set his hounds upon him, he died between the teeth of his own dogs.

Yet it was to Artemis that women prayed for succour from the pangs of childbirth. Indeed, she is said to have assisted her own mother in birthing Apollo, her twin brother. Artemis was also the goddess of the moon, who drew silvery arrows from her quiver to shoot beams of moonlight.

Artemis of Ephesus had a different appearance, with a tiered headdress, a many breasted figure, and wild animals and bees on her skirt. The marble Artemision, her temple near Ephesus, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It measured 377 X 180 feet and contained 127 Ionic columns, each 60 feet high, and resembled this model. Today only one uneven pillar remains standing.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Image of Ares at Hadrian's Villa from wikimedia

Ares was the Greek god of war, shown here with shield and helmet, ready to do battle. Other representations show him with a spear, or riding in a chariot.

Though his brother Hephaestus was the husband of Aphrodite, Ares had many children with her, among them Phobos (terror), Deimos (fear), and Harmonia (harmony). Eros was another, assuming he did not spring from the foam of the sea with his mother.

The son of Zeus and Hera, the warrior Ares resided on Mount Olympus, where he sat upon a throne upholstered in human skin. His sacred animal was the dog.

Ares kept company with Eris, goddess of strife, discord and contention, and he and often quarreled with his half-sisters Artemis and Athena.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


Image from Greek Mythology

Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, love and desire, is among the best known of the Greek Pantheon. Was she the daughter of Dione by Zeus? Or did she arise spontaneously from the sea, a woman on a giant scallop shell, as seen in the famous Boticelli Venus (her Roman counterpart)? Accounts differ.

Aphrodite was often seen with the mischievous young Eros (Cupid), he of the heart-piercing arrows of love. Like her, he was said to have been self-born from the foam of the sea.

In other accounts, he was her son by Ares, her brother the war god, or the messenger god Hermes. Aphrodite married Hephaestus, the crippled god of the forge who was cast out by his mother Hera and raised elsewhere, but returned to Olympus as a master craftsman.

The myrtle tree, as well as the swan, sparrow and dove, were sacred to the lovely Aphrodite.

Monday, April 6, 2015


Image from Wikimedia

Apollo was the ancient Greek god of music. He focused mainly on the lyre and directed the chorus of the Muses. He was also associated with light and the sun; one of his epithets was Phoebus (radiant) Apollo.

Often seen wearing his crown of laurel, or carrying a lyre or a bow and arrow, he was also believed to have the power to heal. He purified those who had committed sinful deeds, and could both bring and destroy plagues including rats and locusts.

The jealous Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of Olympus, banished Leto to wander until she gave birth to her twins on this tiny island near Mykonos. Swans flocked around Leto as she brought her son into the world. Thus the swan was sacred to him and Delos became the temple of Apollo.

His twin sister Artemis was also born on the tiny "floating" Aegean island of Delos, which was fixed by pillars to the ocean bed afterwards. With its avenue of lions and temple ruins, Delos today remains a place where no human is born or dies and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

At Delphi on the Greek mainland, Apollo killed the fearsome Python (a snake or dragon), and made a dedication at the sanctuary. Known thereafter as Pythian Apollo, he bestowed divine powers on a priestess who became the Pythia, an oracle who inhaled vapours from the temple fissure and gave answers to supplicants. In this way, Delphi became Apollo's most sacred oracle.

Like his father, Apollo pursued many women. The nymph Daphne avoided his advances by turning into a laurel tree. Cyrene accepted the god's embraces and bore him a son, Aristaeus. The mortal woman Hecuba, wife of the Trojan king Priam, also gave birth to his son, Troilus, who was supposed to save the city of Troy; however, he was killed by Achilles before he could do so.

Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, was seduced by Apollo with the promise that he would teach her the art of prophecy. When she learned this art and then rejected him, the angry god decreed that her prophecies would never be believed.

Coronis bore the healing god Asclepius to Apollo, and he also fell for the Spartan prince Hyacinthus. This passion was ended by the jealousy of Zephyrus, who turned the wind to blow the discus the young men had been playing with. It hit Hyacinthus on the head and killed him.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

God is large and my heart is clean

My Turkish was extremely limited, but I still had to try to converse with my mother in law. One day I came home and told her, in my fragmentary language, that my friend had lost her baby as soon as he was born.

Anne, as I called her, (it means mother in Turkish), looked at me with profound sympathy, and said something that crossed the troublesome boundaries between the two vastly different languages, travelling straight from her heart to mine.

"Allah buyukdir." Literal translation: God is large. The words were simple, but they struck deep. With this short sentence, my mother-in-law commented on the mystery of life, the inexplicability of loss, and the possibility of comfort and consolation.

On a much happier occasion, she said something else that touched me profoundly. I was still nursing my daughter, but Anne and I decided to go together to London Drugs for a half hour's shopping. For the first time since the arrival of her grandparents, both her granny and I left Yasemin at the same time. Her Dad wasn't home either, so the baby was left in the sole care of her granddad.

In the drugstore, I turned to my mother in law suddenly. "I hope the baby is all right." Her answer was short and simple. "Kalbim temmiz," she said, literally, my heart is clean. She was telling me that if the child was in distress, she would know, even at a distance. I felt assuaged by a great expansion of trust and understanding. At that time, we had known each other only a few weeks.

The powerful memory of this exchange gave me the confidence and courage I needed soon after to leave the baby in her grandmother's care while I returned to work.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Here is A-si-a

View from Salisbury YMCA from travelihub

At the YMCA Kowloon, I met Ogi at the front desk. Later in the breakfast room, we sat and conversed, while his Japanese friend, a fellow hotel management trainee, ate in silence.

Ogi had lived in San Francisco and Vancouver, and he asked me the meaning of some English song lyrics. I asked him something too. I don't remember now what my question was, only his answer, which was unequivocal.

"Here is A-si-a," he said, awarding three syllables to his home continent. It was clear that I should expect no further explanation.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Ne Marche Pas!

Contemporary image from Hotel Duminy

The Duminy Hotel, Paris, circa 1976, was a modest place. The blinds were wooden slats, the rooms small, and the accommodation basic.

The daily hotel tariff was less than the cost of a good meal. Baths, however, were charged separately. To bathe, one had to get the chambermaid to unlock the room which housed only a tub.

I wanted a bath. After mentally going over my carefully composed French sentence, I approached the woman with the ring of keys. "Je veux baigner, s'il vous plait."

Her response was unexpected. With a shrug of irritation, or possibly indifference, she turned on me and said in a loud voice, "Ne marche pas!" It doesn't go.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Alan Turing: the Enigma, by Andrew Hodges

Original cover image from pbsstatic

When I ordered this book a couple of years ago while doing background research for my novel in progress, The Habit of Secrecy, I had to wait for a copy to come from Italy. Published in the 1980s, it was hard to get.

Now, since the release of The Imitation Game, people are far more aware of Ultra, Enigma and the short but extraordinarily productive life of the mathematician Alan Turing, codebreaker extraordinaire who invented the world's first computer at Bletchley Park during WWII, and was also the first to conceive of the idea of artificial intelligence.

This biography is a thorough and sympathetic portrait of a Cambridge- educated scientific genius who was plucked from the academic world of mathematical research to serve at the secret facility of Bletchley Park. He soon decided that breaking the enigma code required a computing machine, and promptly invented one. After the Americans entered the war, he crossed the Atlantic in 1942 to work with US colleagues. He returned home on a troopship in the spring of 1943, the only civilian aboard.

Andrew Hodges, an Oxford mathematician, begins the volume with an account of Alan's early life. He recounts details of the boy's eccentric interests, his relationship with his family, and the loss of his treasured childhood friend Christopher, who introduced him to the whole idea of codebreaking at school. The author shares a number of details that show insight into Turing's character.

Early in the war, Alan Turing took responsibility for a Viennese refugee, Bob Adelman, finding him a home with friends, and later paying for his education. Turing kept in touch with this young man, doing what he could for him. When he returned from America, he brought Bob an electric shaver, for which he built a transformer so that it could be used on UK power.

Nicknamed The Prof at Bletchley, Turing created a makeshift clay chess set and baked it in the fireplace at the pub where he lodged. This was used to play chess with friends, including Joan, a fellow maths whiz who venerated him, and to whom he was briefly engaged. He was known for his sense of humour as well as his eccentricities, which included wearing his gas mask to cycle to work as a defence against hay fever.

A fellow mathematician, Hodges goes into the technicalities of Turing's codebreaking activities in enough detail to fascinate, but not to bore the reader. This book provides a clear glimpse into the life of someone with the right skills who was in the right place at the right time to make an incalculable contribution to the Allied victory in WWII.

At the same time, the book shows something altogether more tragic. While rigid class structures and social rules were of necessity relaxed to facilitate the work of the motley group at Bletchley during the wartime emergency, this latitude did not continue afterwards. Turing was gay, and unwisely, he made no attempt to hide it. In Manchester after the war, a young man stole from him, and he reported the incident to the police. Perhaps he was as unaware of social consequences as he was hyper-aware of mathematical and logical ones. In any case, he admitted to having had an affair with the thief, even though he knew homosexuality was illegal.

This led to charges against Turing, and an ignominious court case. To avoid a prison term and ensure he could continue working, he agreed to take hormone treatments to reduce his libido. At this time, he was also stripped of the top level security clearance which he had enjoyed since before Bletchley.

Alan Turing was found dead of cyanide poisoning at the age of 54. He was deemed to have committed suicide using a cyanide-laced apple, though many thought accidental death a more logical explanation. After all, he had just registered for a conference. Looking back today, it remains hard to fathom exactly what led to this tragic early death. Turing was at the peak of his intellectual powers. He was working at Manchester University on advanced computing.

Like others who did secret war work, Turing was sworn to secrecy and received no recognition when the war was over. After his death, it took twenty years before a computing award was established in his honour. Only much later was his London birthplace to marked, according to custom, with a blue plaque. In 2001, the first statue of him was erected in Manchester. Today, there is also a statue at Bletchley Park, now a museum with Alan Turing's name prominent on the Roll of Honour.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sunset walk at low tide

A heron stands near the edge of the tide line as the sun sets behind White Rock.

This is a very shallow beach. At low tide, the sand is arranged in a series of scalloped islets with winding waterways between them.

This heron stands on a sandy spit, hoping for a boon of fish.