Tag Archives: Nonfiction

first woman orbits solo in space on 06/16/1963

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Astronaut Valentina Tereshkova

Surely, it must have been the Soviet’s ambitious plan to claim superiority of its scientific advance and social progress over the capitalist imperialists. However, in recognition of its achievement, free from bias and embellishment, we should transcend the subjectivity of the political ideology and reach universal truth and applicability, which is a principle of studying history as championed by the ancient Athenian historian and general Thucydides that still reverberates down to date.

Fifty-six years ago from today was when twenty-six year old Valentina Tereshkova successfully orbited alone in a rocket named “Vostok 6” with her call sign “seagull.” It was two years after Yuri Gagarin had commenced the age of spaceship, and it was the first time of womankind to be in space. Coming from a model proletariat family of a tractor driver father killed in action in the Winter War against the Finns and a textile worker mother, Tereshkova was the “It” poster woman for the Soviet Union’s social and cultural ideological emblem. Raised by her mother, she didn’t go to school until the age of eight and left six years later to work in a local factory. It was during this period Tereshkova discovered a singular hobby of parachuting.

The Soviet authorities were looking for candidates to become the first woman to go into space two years after Gagarin’s space travel. Goddess Fortuna winked at her and inspired her to apply for the candidacy, which was the job to be had only for the asking, because she was the woman they were looking for: (1) there were relatively few she-pilots to endure the rigorous training requiring mental as well as physical strength; and (2) she was the child of a war hero whose life was sacrificed for a patriotic cause with immaculate proletariat family credentials. That is, Comrade Tereshkova was the Soviet’s ideological manifesto incarnate in all aspects.

After fifty-eight orbits lasting more than two days, Tereshkova returned to earth and found herself famous. But she deserved such recognition and respect because she demonstrated courage, go-aheaditivess, and strength eloquent of womankind in the most elegantly powerful way without brandishing a banner of feminist screed that the equality of women’s rights must be also exercised in space by orbiting in a rocket. Moreover, her non-elitist social and cultural backgrounds in comparison to those of famous Western European or American woman notables was worth noting that true equality meant for all regardless of rank and meritocracy because it would reveal everyone’s adumbral talent.

‘The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine’, by Lindsey Fitzharris – review

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian MedicineThe Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One thing that inspires me to utter “Thanks be to God” is to be born after the age of butchering, so to speak,  without the use of anesthesia during an operation or any invasive surgical procedure. And never forget a bottle of Listerine that has become a household name. In consideration of the aforesaid, the preeminent triumph of medical science in the west is arguably the invention of antiseptic methods that has saved thousands of lives. The linchpin of this epochal achievement in the history of medical science is Joseph Lister, an English Quaker surgeon whose dedication to the profession was wonderfully interacted with his altruistic character and diligent pursuit of knowledge in his profession. The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris enlightens the reader about the macabre world of nineteen-century surgery and its progress by advancement in antiseptics pioneered by Promethean Lister.

In this highly entertaining and informative book, Fitzharris guides the reader to Lister’s medical path with fittingly concomitant case history of surgery, hospital care, and germ-theory, all of which essentially contribute to his advocation of antiseptic methods in post-operative treatments. The author’s vivid illustration of the horrifying surgical procedures before the advent of anesthetics is not surely for the faint-hearted, but it is an axiomatically effective means to introduce the reader to the staging of a young medical student named Lister, who was solemnly determined to prevent a patient who endured such demonic pains from dying aftermath due to the persistent infection caused by putrefaction of germs in the operated area. Fitzharris’s employment of in-between vignettes about his contemporaries, family members, and others who influenced Lister both personally and professionally also intends to provide the reader with a variety of causes that led Lister to his dedication to the championing of antiseptics in the applicability for precluding unnecessary deaths of patients. She does it all with her consummate narrative skill that grabs the reader’s attention on every page.

Although this book is about Joseph Lister and his benevolent medical munificence to humanity, it is hard to strictly categorize it as biography because it does not purport to deify him with an Olympian laurel wreath. Rather, the book is focused on the magnificence of scientific triumph over human frailty, which is achieved by a collective effort to find the sine qua non thereof on the principle of betterment for humanness. Fitzharris does an excellent job of delineating this collegiate endeavor to make human life better by reconstructing Lister as a practical idealist with a vision to match in his revolutionary invention of antiseptic methods based upon a scientific theory and his zeal for continuous pursuit in learning of knowledge. Drawing on a wealth of research on the subject and her erudition, Fitzharris creates polyphony that intelligently interweaves multiple strands of her learning. This is a scintillating read that educates the reader on the history and science without a bore.

‘A Harlot’s Progress (2006)’, directed by Justin Hardy – review

71+BMGiROqL._RI_Throughout human civilization, prostitution has been arguably something of a necessary evil, intentional or unintentional, an institution of erotic bartering between a client and s prostitute for wants of flesh and fortune. For a client, it’s all about releasing his rapacious libido in a brothel, whereas for a prostitute offering a pleasure of the flesh can be a means to a social mobility in a period when women’s place was confined by biological determinism. But that social mobility would be possible with the intervention of Goddess Fortuna. ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ follows a life of an unfortunate prostitute named Mary through the eyes of William Hogarth, an English painter and social critic renowned for choice of his subjects crossing the strata of the social class system for inspirations.

The painter Hogarth chooses Mary as his unofficial muse for various paintings depicting modern moral subjects as a series of picturesque statements of social criticism on the oppressed conditions of the poor whose lives are already determined by their biological and social statuses. Likewise, Mary’s downfall from a beautiful courtesan to a common, over-the-hill backstreet slut is already a foregone conclusion for the nature of the profession. Besides, she’s not exactly cut out for a fine prostitute with artful plans to forward her rank and condition; she has a pride but no courage. She yearns for a polite society, but her frailty of character prevents her from advancing in her career to a mistress of a high-birth man. In other words: Mary chose a wrong job that ruined her life.

The film is said to be based upon a true story with references to the famous figures of William Hogarth and his friend Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones. It gives the veracity of the event with a charge of authority, rendering the story of lachrymose life of Mary emotionally powerful and factually unchallenged in the veneer of historicity. Yet, in terms of objectivity of the stance that the film takes, its view on prostitution in the 18th century London is clearly askew on the side Mary because she is cast as being a victim of the social evil with her purity of the soul torn apart by men’s rampant animalistic sexual desires as presented by all uniformly unattractive and perverted men on screen. In fact, the only pitiful character in the film seems to be Mother Needham, who is mercilessly abused on the pillory for three consecutive days and nights of stoning, defiling, and cursing from the public who were once or twice her clients and neighbors. The sight is sufficient to incite pathos because of her plea for life authentically delivered by the excellent performance of actress Geraldine James.

No one can throw stones at Mary for her life of “sin and depravity” because there’s no one who is immaculately cleared of guilt and sins to judge her character as arbitrator of morals. But then she is responsible for her own life with her own free will to choose to be a harlot. For not all destitute women driven by abject economic conditions are succumbed to the trade of the flesh. Nonetheless, this film is a good period drama that resurrects the ethos of the time with the parlance, habits, and costumes of different classes peculiar to the 18th century, well executed by a cast of classically-trained fine thespians.

‘Socrates: A Man for Our Times’, by Paul Johnson -review

Socrates: A Man for Our TimesSocrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the constellation of philosophers in the intellectual firmament, there is none other than Socrates whose influence on humanity, ranging from academic disciplines to everyday cultural memes, strikes the chords with the contemporary minds at its simplest form. It is this essence of Socrates’s simple but profound moral philosophy that has been enshrined in the pantheon of Immortal Knowledge of our collective human civilization for thousands of years. In Socrates by Paul Johnson, this immortal philosopher is hard to resist and difficult to find fault with through the author’s cicerone guide to the streets of the ancient Athens, where Socrates is in his usual convivial mood to speak in public and welcomes the reader with his genuine warm smile to join his conversation.

The stratagem of moral education in the form of philosophy is to tame the appetites (the senses or the id) and to guide spirits (emotions or the ego) in man to reach the highest level of humanness, which is the reason (the judgment or the superego). The process of this moral education is civilization, a standard by which barbarism is judged and separated from the educated mind, and Socrates thought it essential to implement it in all aspects of Athenian life because it was the surest avenue to happiness, meaning of human life. In fact, Socrates was the first philosopher to democratize the concept of philosophy from lofty abstraction of an academic plane to practical realism of a living guide. Johnson describes Socrates as something of a Prometheus, who translated the heavenly into the terrestrial in the sense that Socrates wanted to unlock the goodness of life for the benefit of mankind. For Socrates was the one who brought philosophy down from the wondering skies, domesticated it the huts and villas of people, and familiarized it with the ordinary life in examination of good and evil.

Socrates seems even more likable thanks to Johnson’s historical accounts of Socrates’s personal traits and physiognomy: the corroboration comes from his young, handsome, controversial, but nonetheless valiant aristocratic friend Alciblades that (1) Socrates was a selfless comrade in battle, fearless in fighting, and artless in helping his battle buddies: (2) commendable hardiness enabled him to wear thin clothing despite the cold and the snow; (3) he disliked letting his emotions show on his face; (4) he regarded poverty as a shortcut to self-control; and that (5) he kept fit in the stadium and gymnasium and even danced because he believed that a healthy body was the greatest of blessings. It is also well known that Socrates was an ugly man with a flat, broad nose and beer belly, especially by the standards of Greece in the 5th century that highly valued regularity of features we would call Byronic today. And yet, Socrates, ever imperturbable and optimistic, was not depressed by his ugliness because to Socrates beauty was not inherent in itself but was by the virtue of its use. It was more of utilitarian nature for practical purpose. Socrates’s way of accepting himself as he is relates to logotheraphy, neuroplasticity, and habit of positive thinking, now bestriding the domain of self-help literature.

I have always been a fan of Paul Johnson’s writing style in harmony with his wealth of erudition and fountain of humor, a fascinating combination that makes his reads so likable and interesting. And here again, he did it again: with his customary witty narrative packed full of lots of unknown anecdotes and personal tidbits on subjects he writes about, Johnson tells the reader about Socrates as precisely and candidly as possible based upon historical evidence to resurrect him in the textual theater of literature. His interpretations draw on his exceptional knowledge of the philosopher and the history of his time, but he wears his learning lightly and always writes with a general reader in mind. Hence, the figure of Socrates in his book is no longer seen as the ancient adumbral thinker but a jovial, avuncular teacher who really cares about the lives of his students of all walks of life in this highly entertaining book. This book presents a pleasant banquet of the mind and spirit hosted by the consummate storytelling narrative of Johnson in the honor of Socrates, the people’s philosopher.

the ancients already knew it

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The brain is a foundation of the universe that controls our physical as well as mental being. In a similar manner of the cosmos constantly moving across the great divine space, the brain fires nerve cells called neurons and expands their territories from the physical realms of perception to the world of consciousness, which creates a model of our own reality. The brain is the leviathan enterprise that puts together the tesserae of our existence under our constant attentive care of its functional longevity by understanding its fabulous varieties that neither age cannot wither away nor custom can stale away.

Our brains keep learning and adopting throughout our lives by the two neurological processes: Neurogenesis by which the brain creates neurons and neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire the connections between the neurons. These processes continue to change and grow our brains into very old age as scientifically corroborated by the finding of these neurological processes in the brains of 70-year-olds with terminal illness. Also, Albert Einstein whose brain was dissected after his death to unravel the secret of the genius was found to have more interconnections between the neurons in his brain. This is very telling evidence because Einstein was considered “slow” during his high school years. What Einstein made genius was his use of imaginations and reasoning skills that required of him the use of the faculties of the mind to the extent possible by firing and wiring millions of neurons. To further illustrate the wonder works of neurogenesis and neurolplasticity, scientists have found it in the avian world. Unlike other birds, canaries produce new melodies every ear to attract a mate. On examining their brains, scientists discovered that canaries generate each neurons each spring.

The theory of the brain is not as complex as it seems. Simply put, thoughts are like “sparks” rising from a campfire or sunlight’s igniting fire when focused through a magnifying glass. A thought repeated with intense focus becomes concentrated mental power, which becomes a dominant, archetypal energy that authorizes our thoughts and actions. These thoughts in the form of neurons form neural networks, which are like paths through a meadow. What we should do is a change in our brain by rewiring the neural pathways that drive our thought and actions. Einstein, whether or not he knew about neurology, constantly expanded the neural networks by engaging himself in finding a Rosetta Stone for Relativity Theory and other questions of the Universe.

The workings of the brain are in conjunction  with the upkeep of physical exercise, social interactions, and new daily challenges because they are portent stimuli to ignite ongoing mental sparks in the brain. In fact, the ancient Greeks and Romans already knew about the key elements of keeping the body and mind fit with the slogan of “Mans sana in corpore sano” (Sound mind dwells in healthy body.” Father of western narrative history Herodotus noted a holistic connection between diet, drink, exercise and lifespan. Socrates pointed out that many people did not think clearly because their body wasn’t in good health. His pupil and founder of Lyceum Aristotle added that physical exercise was essential for general mental and physical capacity. Then there was famous Roman orator, writer, and statesman Cicero proclaimed that soundness of mind depended on applying one’s energies to something of interest. This relates to the empirical finding of keeping the mind fit and alert in spite of horrible existential situations as evidenced by founder of Logotheraphy Viktor E. Frankl, who endured the horrors of daily life at Auschwitz and other subsequent concentration camps by persistently forcing this thought to turn to drafting his books on the tablet of his mind to publish them after the war. It’s both a priori and a posteriori illustration of how channeling one’s interest to intellectual or creative activities keeps his mental state stable and fit in such a dreadful mire of despondency and atrociousness.

In light of the above, it is not a hyped fashionably cliched mantra that we are what we think and what we do all the time. Popularity of self-help literature bestriding the bestseller charts has the origin of truth in the workings of the brain in the form of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. For my own brain at the moment of writing this essay is firing and wiring neurons, expanding the neural pathways and the yonder territories of my consciousness. The brain is then also plastic because it is being shaped by everything we do and what we opt not to do. It’s really a self-fulfilling prophecy without recourse to deities or even demons. Consequently, the more actively we use our brain to accomplish new daily challenges by fulfilling demands placed upon our daily tasks however trifle and insignificant that may seem and learning something creative or intellectually stimulating, the healthier our bodily and mental health becomes. Which is elegantly summed up by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Still achieving, still pursuing… Learning to labor and wait.” For this reason, the brain and the mind are concomitantly intertwined to constitute our wholeness so fascinating, so awesome that even a Psalmist praised God because we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Surely, the praise is worth the singing, for our brain and its works are indeed a wonder.

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