Monday, November 16, 2009

Da Vinci's Brain

I went to the exhibition of da Vinci's machines on Saturday. Someone had come up with the bright idea of building the machines from da Vinci's notebooks (no,I'm not talking about Albert da Vinci, bricklayer, of Mangaweka. I'm talking about his Italian cousin, Len.) and displaying them.
It seems fairly certain that, like Einstein (Al Einstein, that is. Not Zac Einstein, terracotta tilemaker of Dunedin.), da Vinci had roughly the same amount of brain as the rest of us mortals.
Around 1200 grams, that is, for a man. Women have slightly less, but they use more of it.
In fact, such are the similarities between us all.. on a biological, cellular, and molecular level) that we can pretty well say that we are one and the same creatures, all of us. We are legion.
The differences between an Esquimeaux (that's what they call themselves, innit? I intuit that is is so..) and a South African Bushman are insignificant.
A DNA particle here, a DNA widget there. And there's something in those indescribably small parts that makes the difference between a da Vinci and a Chuckles Manson, an Einstein and an Eichmann.

Providing we accept that the brain is the centre of the mind (there are cogent arguments for there being different seats of reason. Man's second head, for instance.) then we have to acknowledge that minor differences make for major changes. After all, there is no black and white about the brain: it is a grey area. Sorry. I've been saving that one. Perhaps I should have kept it to myself.

But is it genealogical? Is it nature? What about nurture? Neither dV nor E were, it seems, granted spectacularly brilliant or supportive parents. They just were what they were.

Some would point to this as being a proof of a god... but if that were so, one would expect E and dV to have been aware of it: and Einstein was definitely an atheist, and it's been nicely argued that da Vinci was, as well. As well as Shakespeare, that is.

Anyway. I've read that all it takes to be a successful god-botherer is to have the ability (or gullibility?) to believe in three impossible before breakfast. Da Vinci, it seems, was capable of having three world-changing ideas before the morning candle was lit. Einstein and Shakespeare, of course, knew the mind of god, and both found it wanting - invented, as it had been, by power-hungry politicians of little human ability.

The da Vinci exhibit was startling. I went with my friends Reg and Rolls. They both came out looking as I felt: stunned. Like a trio of mullets.

The following day I went, with my love, to a memorial exhibition bought and paid for by the Belgian government: Passchendaele. The Belgians, bless 'em, remember that New Zealand lost the cream of her manhood there in the First World War. From a country of less that a million souls over 100,000 men went overseas to fight. That was 50% of our breeding stock. We lost 18,000: and there is no way we can blame sloppy Pommy generalship. The nation loved it. But we're still paying the piper, even now, nearly 100 years later. Nearly 5% of the Nation's population was either killed or wounded (more than any other nation's, bar none.). An Army battalion was taken from the line after suffering that sort of casualty rate.

The ANZACs, the Diggers, were involved in ten major battles during World War One in Turkey and the Western Front, and they died in droves. Our men, men who should have been our ancestors, stood and faced the enemy, side by side, pakeha and Maori, Aussie and Kiwi: and we died equally. I came from the memorial wanting to weep.

Belgium remembers. Thankyou, Belgium.

LISTENING TO: Instrumental Memories, various artists. A collection of instrumental numbers from the 50s and 60s. They are quite brilliant: the Mac's "Albatross" is playing right not now.

READING: Ted Dekker's "Saint". This is one of his really, really, really good ones.

WORD OF THE DAY: Centenarian. Some bastard saw fit to tie a 103-year old to her bed, with a knotted sheet. Shit. Disgust barely comes into it. A person like that deserves to be kicked for a couple of parasangs.

More RATS.

It was while pondering this enormous question that he realised his eye had slipped, and he had to start counting again.
Arthur Tomlinson was made to be an outdoors boy. There were no dangers in the great New Zealand outdoors, save perhaps the odd Captain Cooker pig in the hills, descended from some wily old porkers that had either managed to escape the edge of the butchers knife when Cook had landed a couple of hundred years ago, or had been set free by settlers just forty years ago.
So intent had the lad been on counting his lucky stars that the fire escaped his attention. The old dunny was a good fifty yards down a track, leaving the house sheltered from view by some flax and a few huge Totara and Rimu trees. When the old man found him, fast asleep, leaning against the back wall of the toilet, he’d wept.
Grampa Smith wasn’t a man who wept easily. He, too, was an uncomplicated kind of cove. What you saw was what you got.
As it was with Arthur. What you saw was a man of medium height, no more than five-nine. Well built, with wide shoulders and thick, ropey muscles on his arms and legs. He had a fine layer of fat under his skin: raised, as he was, on butter, the best pork dripping, mutton roasts, milk by the gallon, cheese by the pound, and vegetables by the barrow-full, he always had a bit stored away for those long weekends he spent in the bush.
Arthur was reasonably well educated for a man of his time. The old man had had the boy reading well before he started school at age six, and he was strict about the lad doing his homework.
“You get one chance at most things, Arthur,” he'd say. “You’ll take the education that’s on offer, and you’ll be thankful for it.”
“Righto, Grampa Smith.”
If ever there was a person for whom the adjective “practical” was invented, it was Arthur Tomlinson. He saw a task, and he sat and figured out a way of getting the job done. He was fearful of few things: letting Grampa Smith down was chief among them.
The war was omnipresent. It was what everyone thought of when they rose from their beds, and what they prayed about when they retired from the day's labours. Patriotism was rife, and women were looking hard at every able-bodied man in town, especially those who could handle a rifle. A number of men were already serving, and rumours of a new front somewhere in Turkey were being confirmed. Every evening, as the hu-hu moths fought to spend a few bright minutes in the light of Grampa's kerosene lantern, he and Arthur talked about the war, and what sort of role Arthur should or could play.
Arthur Tomlinson was no stranger to killing. He often went into the hills behind Northridge and usually returned with a gutted pig or deer carcase. He took no dog with him. He despised dogs for their slavish attitude, and he despised hunters who needed a dog to help bring down the quarry. Either the shot was there, or it wasn’t. A hunter who set a dog against a deer ruined the meat. A man who set a dog against a pig was looking to own a dead dog – and ruined meat. An animal that’s been killed while in a panic or rage will have muscles that have been marinated in adrenalin, and the meat is tainted, tough, and tastes of fear and rage. Shoot the beast when it’s unaware it’s in peril, and the meat will be fine.
So Arthur continually practiced his skills with a rifle. He shot prone, he shot standing, he shot at the kneel, and he shot sitting on his rump. Almost every shot he made would arrive on target. He slipped up every now and then, and when he did he’d note the shot in his note-book, recording everything: the wind, the humidity, what load he’d put into the cartridge when he’d put the bullet together.
Arthur Tomlinson was as complex as a knife. Handle and blade. Utilitarian. Solid. Honest. Neither good nor bad-looking: his plain face would disappear in a crowd of three. It was a broad face, with widely-spaced eyes – the gift that gave him such excellent eyesight. The more widely the lenses are separated, the better the parallax will be. His focal length was phenomenal, and everything he saw was in perfect 3-D. His hair matched his brown eyes, and his skin took a tan readily, which meant he was often mistaken, by strangers, to be a Maori.
On the day the first ANZAC troops, volunteers all, landed at Gallipoli, Arthur was having a few problems of his own.

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