Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sydney loony

Here in France, as elsewhere, Sydney’s terrible ordeal was front-page news, and we could follow events in real time, not only through the Internet, but on French TV news. At an early stage of the affair, I was impressed by a short video by a Wollongong academic, Adam Dolnik, who pointed out that the armed guy with hostages in the Lindt coffee shop on Martin Place was surely a lone loony, rather than a dyed-in-the-wool Islamic terrorist, because the dumb bugger hadn’t even been able to turn up with the appropriate “Islamic State” flag for his evil purposes.

As the day wore on, and fragments of information started to appear concerning the guy’s criminal background, I couldn’t understand (and I still don’t) why Australian media refrained from even hinting at his identity. After all, this dangerous fruitcake had become a minor media celebrity in Sydney… and I even stumbled across a Wikipedia page [click here] concerning the fake sheikh.


A photo of the Lindt window, flashed throughout the world, displayed an extraordinary juxtaposition of contrasting elements: the sort of image that will surely go down in the annals of news photography.


In the early hours of a sad morning, we learnt that there were two innocent martyrs: Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson.


I've just watched a fine video summary of the tragedy, from Channel 7, entitled Window two, hostage down. [I refrain from trying to provide a workable link to this video, but you might be able to use the title to access it.]

This calamity unfolded in a Sydney street, Martin Place, that was transformed long ago into a sanctuary devoted to the victims of warfare. On the eve of the centenary of Gallipoli, the Islamic loony committed a senseless crime whose consequences will be etched forever—in the spirit of this place—in the memory of the nation.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

De-extinction

The awkward term “de-extinction” designates the idea of recreating a living organism that had become extinct. This idea gives rise to two quite different questions:

• First, of course, it’s a matter of deciding how to attempt to perform such a de-extinction operation, at a purely technological level.

• Second, there’s the question of the ethical implications of such an act. In other words: Would we have a right, morally and socially, to perform such-and-such a de-extinction operation?

The de-extinction of dinosaurs would appear to be a failure at both levels. So, you should feel free to go ahead with plans for a nice wedding, say, with no fear of unexpected interruptions.


Things get somewhat more complicated when we envisage the de-extinction of Neanderthals.


Let’s suppose that we did in fact succeed in carrying out a successful de-extinction operation. What would you then do with such a fellow? It would be unwise to let him wander around freely as if he were a normal citizen of the world, because he would surely run into trouble, for countless obvious reasons. You could always try to get him adopted by a nice family of well-off God-fearing American Republicans. Or maybe you might think about packing him off to an outback cattle station in Australia to work as a jackeroo. But, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, there would be certain unknown unknowns… including the ugly idea that our Neanderthal friend might be enticed into becoming a militant in a jihadist organization.

The de-extinction of a woolly mammoth would appear to be a far more reasonable project.


On the one hand, with the help of modern elephants, the operation is probably feasible, and there would be room enough in the wilderness of lands such as Canada or Siberia to organize an ideal home-place for the resurrected creature, and maybe create a family environment.

In my native Australia, there are two fascinating candidates for de-extinction. The first is an amazing creature that was last seen as recently as 1985: the Gastric brooding frog.


Its mode of reproduction was really weird. The female swallows her fertilized eggs and then uses her stomach as a womb, finally giving birth to baby frogs through her mouth (as you can see in the above photo).

The other perfect candidate for de-extinction is the Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, which became extinct in 1936.


An Australian scientist, Mike Archer, has made a brilliant presentation of the case for de-extinction of these two creatures. Click here to watch his fascinating talk on this subject. At one point in his talk, Archer presents an old-timer who led him to his bush hut which used to be visited by Tasmanian tigers. And he introduces the marvelous theme of maybe keeping these animals as pets. Personally, I almost broke into tears of emotion when I heard Mike Archer making his case for this aspect of a de-extinction project. I looked fondly at this painting of a Thylacine and her pup:


And I said to myself that, since my dog Fitzroy has now developed the regular habit of sleeping inside the house, his charming old kennel is free to receive a guest.


So, if ever Mike Archer were looking for a nice place to house one of his future Thylacine pups, Fitzroy and I would be more than happy to receive such an adorable creature at Gamone. As for the idea of also accepting the Neanderthal fellow, to look after the tiger pup, I’m prepared to look into the question… but I would probably prefer a Neanderthal maiden who wouldn’t mind combining her Thylacine-care activities with housekeeping work at Gamone.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Criminals

It has just been revealed officially that this evil trio—Donald Rumsfeld, George W Bush and Dick Cheney—allowed the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] to torture inmates in their prisons.


Insofar as torture is considered to be totally illegal, it would be good if these three fellows could be brought to trial, and punished accordingly for condoning knowingly the use of torture. Unfortunately, this will probably never happen.


Today, it’s sickening to realize that the orange jumpsuits worn by terrorism suspects at Guantanamo have become the standard garb for victims of Islamic beheadings. This ugly outfit will go down in history as part of the heritage of Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Surveillance for dummies

This is the kind of surveillance camera that I’ve installed near the entry to Gamone:


You might imagine that this device has been designed to look like a garden lamp. In fact, the glass dome is simply a semi-spherical protection that houses the elements of the camera. Besides, most people are now accustomed to the presence of this kind of surveillance camera in shopping centers.

A few days ago, I visited a big BricoMarché hardware shop that opened recently near Romans. I noticed that a small section of their electricity department presented various surveillance devices. I asked a red-shirted employee to indicate their “best” camera. (I put “best” in inverted commas, because this adjective is deliberately fuzzy, if not meaningless.) The fellow pointed immediately to a row of cardboard boxes containing the following product:


He was eager to inform me why I should have confidence in this particular product: “As you can see, that’s the model of camera that’s installed throughout our store.” I receded in disbelief. Did this fellow really believe what he was saying? Was the store really equipped with dummy surveillance cameras? I tried to clarify the situation: “That’s a dummy lamp.” The employee didn’t seem to understand what I had just said, so I started to explain myself. “Look here, there aren’t even any cables emerging from that fake camera unit.” The fellow picked up a box, clearly labeled "dummy camera", and started to read a description of the enclosed product. This was probably the first time he’d ever encountered the phenomenon of dummy surveillance cameras.

Behind this story, there’s a moral. If you've set up a shop that sells saucepans, you should at least teach your salesmen how to boil an egg.

Fortunately, there are a few well-known cases in France of stores whose employees have been trained optimally concerning the products they sell. The most celebrated example of excellence is the Fnac, whose employees are generally quite bright in fields such as photography, audio, home computing, etc. At Castorama, Leroy Merlin and Bricorama, too, their employees appear to know how to handle the stuff they sell. Let's say that, in these reputed stores, a customer wouldn't meet up with a sales employee who doesn't know that the store proposes dummy surveillance cameras.

However, nothing could possibly beat the practical expertise to be found in an old-fashioned village hardware store such as that of Michel Blanc in nearby Saint-Jean-en-Royans. Today, sadly, such stores have become almost as rare as hens’ teeth. Admittedly, it would be pointless to venture into such a delightful old place (with its characteristic aromas) with the intention of purchasing a surveillance camera, because they’re not exactly on that wavelength. But, the day when the last old hardware shop will have closed its doors in France, a precious fragment of the soul of the nation will have disappeared.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Medieval meat

Maybe I’m exaggerating when I refer to these huge pieces of freshly-shot wild boar as medieval meat.


You’ll have to excuse me. My head is in the historical clouds. I’ve been preoccupied for several weeks now by my work on the next book to be published by my Gamone Press.


It’s not so much the meat itself—which has been cooking slowly for the last few hours, in white wine, in my marvelous French-made SEB slow cooker (“crock-pot”)— that is medieval, but rather the means by which I obtained it. In a pure feudal spirit, one of the hunters who had killed the animal, on the outskirts of Gamone, dropped in yesterday with a big white plastic bag holding the pieces of wild boar. In contemporary terms, this spontaneous gesture is the way in which the hunting community (often denigrated by rural newcomers) expresses thanks to the land-owners on whose properties they’ve been operating.

To tell the truth, it took me some time to become accustomed to all the agitation and noise of hunters on the slopes opposite Gamone. I suppose I imagined naively that I might get hit by a stray bullet. These days, on the contrary, I’m fond of these wild weekends, which must be thought of as expressions of ancient traditions in the valley of the Bourne. Besides, Fitzroy and I are well-placed—on our Gamone balcony—to see and appreciate what’s going on. This afternoon, for example, two hunters were wandering around with their dogs in the tall grass on the slopes. Suddenly, the fixed gaze of my dog led my regard towards the presence of a big roe deer, sprinting down towards Gamone Creek, just a few meters below the hunters and their dogs… who were clearly unaware of the deer’s presence.

For Fitzroy, too, there’s the pleasure of gnawing into a wild boar bone.






Getting back to my future book, I’m often tempted to say that living in a place such as Gamone without seeking to find out a little about the previous occupants strikes me as mindless, indeed immoral. I didn’t invent Gamone. I only “own” the place in a short-lived legal sense: the time to write a book, you might say. To use a quaint Victorian term, Fitzroy and I are lodgers at Gamone.

My historical research unearths many surprises, some of which are pleasant with a touch of sadness. Today, if somebody in this corner of the world were to evoke the name of the Macaire family, they could only be thinking, normally, of my aging neighbor Paul Macaire and his dear wife. You have to delve into local history to learn that members of this family once attained great world heights… but outside of France. These illustrious Macaire individuals belonged to a celebrated category of French religious expatriates: the Huguenots. Funnily enough, insofar as these Huguenots disappeared from the local scene, the French are not particularly aware of their existence and of the gigantic role they played on the world scene. I would bet that, if you were to carry out random street interviews in nearby Pont-en-Royans (once 100% Protestant), few people would have the vaguest idea of the meaning of the term Huguenot.

In this global context of forgetfulness and false ideas, I am keen to write my Gamone book during the all-too-short time that I remain a lodger here…

Parable of the lamps


Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like unto a great new light cast by the lamps of Led.

Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, There is incandescence throughout the land of Canaan. And the multitude in the great market of Superu look not upon the lamps of Led, but prefer still the iniquity of incandescence.

And the scribes and Pharisees did cause a law to be passed throughout the land which would forbid the sale of incandescence. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and the old lamps of incandescence. And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and smashing of glass. Then shall the righteous lamps of Led shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath lamps to change, let him change them.

There was in Galilee a young man named Francis, who said unto himself, The old light of incandescence is sweet unto the eyes, whereas the lamp of Led is harsh. But soon there will be no longer the old light in the land. So went he into the market of Superu where he gathered up unto himself a great load of incandescent boxes of many shapes and colours, for many years to come.

And the young woman who did take the shekels of Francis said unto him, Take heed, for the jugs are old, but the wine in the jugs is new. But Francis did not understand her words.

In his house on the shores of Capernaum, Francis did start to open his incandescent boxes of many shapes and colours. But lo, within, there was no sweet incandescence, only the lamps of Led. And the children of Francis did say unto their father, You have been screwed like a lamp of Led.

Whereupon Francis did go unto Jesus and ask, Master, why do the many incandescent boxes from the market at Superu hold lamps of Led? And Jesus did answer, Ah man of little faith in the new light. The Holy Spirit moves in the market of Superu in mysterious ways. Dost thou know how many men it takes to change the old light into the lamp of Led? And Francis did not know, for he was full of iniquity.

And Jesus did answer with a cunning grin, It takes no man at all, for it is the work of my Father in heaven.

POST SCRIPTUM  Although the parable of the lamps speaks for itself, in the language (more or less) of our lovely King James Version of the Holy Bible, I’ve been told (by the hero of our parable, my son François Skyvington) that parishioners might fear that the scribe William has been consuming mind-distorting mushrooms. To set things straight, here is the authentic anecdote. Several years ago, my son heard that French authorities were adamant upon removing all the old incandescent light bulbs, and replacing them by led lamps, for economic reasons of power consumption and efficiency. For reasons that only my son might explain, he was somewhat disturbed by this change, for he felt that the old incandescent lamps, in spite of their technical and economic weaknesses, retained a certain charm and conviviality when compared with the new led lamps. Fearing that incandescent lamps were apparently an endangered species, François went into the local Super U store at Lanvollan and purchased a huge assortment (for a significant sum of money) of what he imagined to be the old-fashioned incandescent lamps (as indicated on the packaging), of all shapes and varieties. In that way, he was assured, no matter what happened, that he would not soon run out of incandescent light bulbs. When François informed the female cashier that he was happy to be able to stock up on the old products, he was so pleased with his purchase and proud of his perspicacity that he didn’t pay attention to her certain ironic regard. Back home, François found with amazement that, while the cardboard packaging seemed to indicate the presence of old incandescent bulbs, the actual products inside the packaging were all modern led lamps. Screwed like a light bulb!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Alarms

In my house at Gamone, I’ve just assembled and installed two alarm panels like this:


The alarm on the left is a smoke detector, while that on the right detects lethal carbon monoxide gas. They both run on batteries.

I’ve installed one panel in the staircase, in the vicinity of my ground-floor wood-burning stove. The other panel is installed on a wall in the kitchen. These detectors are not expensive, and they’re easy to install. So, I’ll probably get around to installing other identical panels throughout the house.

My son François told me that he inadvertently tested his CO detector when cleaning the interior of the chimney pipe that evacuates smoke from his wood-burning stove. There were two 90-degree bends in his piping (which have since been eliminated thanks to a single vertical pipe from ground level to the roof), and it would appear that CO had collected between these bends. Consequently, as soon as François started to brush away the soot that had gathered in these bends, the CO floated down into his living room and set off the alarm.

François and I both felt that it would be reassuring if we were able to test our smoke detectors… without setting fire to our houses. At lunchtime today, I succeeded in doing just that, thanks to half-a-dozen barbecue sausages from my deep freezer. I cooked them on a flat iron pan of the kind used for making pancakes, heated by my gas range. Naturally, as the temperature rose, and the sausages sizzled, a bit of smoke escaped from the pan. Suddenly there was a piercing whistle, but I had no idea of its origin. Since I was also using an induction plate to cook vegetables to accompany the sausages, I had the crazy idea that the molecules in the induction system might be “resonating”  weirdly and catastrophically… and I half-expected something to explode. The whistle continued to shriek. Finally, I noticed that the smoke detector was also flashing a red lamp… and I realized what had happened. So, I rushed to the kitchen door and opened it to let out the smoke, which ended the whistle shrieks.

It was a successful and convincing test. Besides, I had the impression that the sausages and vegetables—which I ate on an outside coffee table, in the autumn sunshine, sharing tidbits with my dog Fitzroy (who had been just as disturbed by the alarm as I was)—tasted better than ever.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Morning mists and an autumn chill in the air

In French, the word for mists is brume. So, the new calendar that was invented in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789 invented the lovely term Brumaire to designate the autumn month extending from the middle of October to the middle of November.


This morning, my surveillance camera was awoken by the first rays of light streaming down through the mists.


A few seconds later, the romantic charm of the misty morning was shattered by the arrival of an unexpected vehicle, which made such a noise that my dog Fitzroy seemed to fear that we were being attacked by an army tank.


What the hell was that? I suddenly remembered that my neighbor had told me that they were planning on starting the construction, this November, of an outdoor swimming pool! Why not? At a lifestyle level, nothing could be more pleasant than lounging in the sunshine of Choranche on the edge of a pool of clear Alpine water, while a barbecue on the lawn exudes a mouth-watering aroma of grilled sausages. Chilled beer? Or would you maybe prefer a glass of icy Sauvignon?

We often tend to forget that Choranche is just a stone’s throw to the north of Provence. From a sunshine viewpoint, however, you need to be a champion stone-thrower to cover the distance.

Selfies of an unexpected kind

Just as I decided long ago to have nothing whatsoever to do with the childish but pernicious Facebook phenomenon, I’ve always been determined to avoid the temptation to start publishing so-called selfie portraits in this blog. I hasten to add—lest I be considered as more egocentric than I really am—that humanity is unlikely to suffer greatly from my absence on the terrain of Facebook and selfies.

Yesterday afternoon, the weather at Gamone was a little less wet than usual, so I decided to climb up onto the tiled roof of my carport in order to continue work on the triangular section of red-pine boarding (a tough hardwood called Mélèze in French) that closes the empty opening above the carport roof. This is the place where I recently installed a powerful LED lamp and a camera.


Well, having finished my work up on the roof, I wandered back to my faithful computer to see if I had received any e-mail. Surprise! My surveillance camera had sent me a bunch of e-mails with photos of an unidentified old guy who’d apparently been hovering around in stealthy circumstances on top of the carport roof.






Do they count as selfies? Maybe we should refer to these photos as stealthies.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Survival of the fittest

There's no doubt in my mind that Richard Dawkins will survive, for he's surely one of the fittest thinkers on our planet Earth.


The poor man (no doubt a millionaire) is constantly under attack. The latest case of mild anti-Dawkins impertinence comes from an unexpected critic: the great US biologist Edward Osborne Wilson, who’s a world authority on ants, and “the father of sociobiology” (the investigation of animals who live in a societal context).


During a recent BBC interview, Wilson was asked to comment upon differences between his views of natural selection and those of Dawkins. The 85-year-old Harvard professor replied:
“There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and there never has been, because he’s a journalist, and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found and the arguments I’ve had have actually been with scientists doing research.”
Now, lots of people would be thrilled to be described as a journalist by a distinguished scientist such as Wilson, who has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for general non-fiction. If Wilson were to declare publicly that William Skyvington is a journalist, I would be awfully proud, and I would promptly start to inundate many of the world’s great newspapers with freelance articles… about my dog Fitzroy, for example. But I suspect that the former Oxford professor Richard Dawkins is not necessarily happy to be labeled as a mere journalist by an old fellow born in Alabama.

In fact, a couple of years ago, Dawkins sacrificed all chances of remaining a good buddy of the Harvard man when his review of Wilson’s latest book culminated in the following advice:
“… this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force. And sincere regret.”
Is the Wilson/Dawkins dispute merely a storm in an academic teacup between two strong egos? Not at all. Their conflict, very real and profound, concerns one of the most fundamental aspects of evolutionary theory. In a nutshell: When genetic mutations affect the “fitness” (survival potential) of members of a set of living creatures, how do we identify the beneficiaries (either positive, negative or neutral) of the newly-created situation?


At the risk of putting my neck on the block, I would say that, over the century and a half since the publication of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin,  there have been three kinds of reactions to this question.

1. The nicest and most convenient answer is designated globally as adaptationism. The gist of this explanation is that mutations tend to modify all living creatures in such a way that future generations of their descendants will be better adapted to handling the challenges of their daily existence. In our “best of all possible worlds”, mutations enable giraffes to grow longer necks so that they’ll be able to reach tasty leaves on tall trees. These days, few folk (apart from religious crackpots of various flavors) would be content with this adaptationist answer… which doesn’t even take into account the ugly realities (see Dawkins for ample explanations) of giraffe necks.


2. Most observers have imagined, often on the basis of common sense, that evolution’s famous fitness to survive is to be applied to such-and-such a category of animals… where the term “category” usually means a family or a species. For example, mutations that camouflaged grubs with respect to their background (reducing their role as bird fodder) were “aimed” (insofar as evolution might be thought of as aiming at anything at all) at making life safer for grubs in general. These days, whenever evolutionary explanations of this kind are evoked, the keyword is “group”, since fitness for survival is thought of as affecting such-and-such a group to which the mutated specimens belong. And this remains the level at which E O Wilson seeks to interpret evolutionary theory.


3. Starting with the celebrated publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976, Richard Dawkins upset the apple cart by proclaiming that the primary beneficiaries of evolutionary mutations are not at all the bulky creatures (organisms) that we run into in the everyday world, but rather the tiny almost-abstract entities known as genes. Many would-be readers were put off by the book’s title. What on earth was this selfish little Homunculus, designated as a gene? Was Dawkins suggesting that this nasty invisible microbe, intent upon getting its way on the planet Earth, might be a scientific model for our human societies? What an ugly idea! But worse still, the explanations of Dawkins called upon a nice but often nasty concept: kinship.


In other words, not only are the Dawkins genes selfish, but they spend their time trying to keep things in the family, in notorious Sicilian traditions. [I'm joking, of course.]

Now, all I’ve just said is more or less true, and it’s easy to see that a conflict might have arisen between Wilson and Dawkins. The former prefers to imagine that genetic mutations make his ants and bees happier, whereas the latter asserts that egocentric genes don’t really give a sentimental shit about worldly entities (organisms) such as birds and bees; all they’re concerned about is their fellow-strings of DNA, devoid of souls, sentiments and subtle intentions.

The scientific arena is so terribly arid that it’s a godsend that two famous pugilists should arrive on the empty scene, and start slugging stupidly at one another. But Wilson versus Dawkins is a bad match. An unfair fight. It's not a question of age, but of acuity.

Now, to celebrate the victory of a fight that never really took place: If ever you weren’t familiar with Richard Dawkins, I suggest that you listen to our intellectual hero for a moment (28 minutes).

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Artistic dog

My dog Fitzroy continues to demonstrate his tastes in sculptural forms. These days, I have a large stock of high-quality firewood in the shelter alongside the house, and this includes a big pile of wood chips. Well, yesterday, I was surprised to see Fitzroy pounce onto the top of this pile of wood chips, and start burrowing with his muzzle. I imagined that he’d spotted a mouse. However, as he moved away from the firewood shelter, Fitzroy held no mouse in his jaws. There was merely an unusually-shaped piece of wood, which I promptly photographed.


As you can see, it’s a fragment of beech wood comprising an old knot. I would imagine that Fitzroy was attracted by the delightful combination of shapes, hues and textures. As I said, my dog has a highly-developed artistic taste. And we can use the word “taste” quite literally. We humans admire beautiful objects by merely looking at them. But Fitzroy goes one step further, and sets about finding what they taste like.


In any case, I’m convinced that my dog is talented in the world of forms and colors. If only my neighbor Tineke Bot were to decide to organize sculpture classes, I would immediately enrol Fitzroy.

I often meet up with references to Fitzroy’s birthplace, Risoul, in the French Alps. The other day, it was mentioned as one of the less expensive ski stations in France.


I like to think that Fitzroy's artistic sensitivity stems from the fact that he was born in such a magnificent place... but I realize that this is not good thinking. Here are photos I took of Fitzroy with his mother and family members at Risoul, just over four years ago:

Click to enlarge

I’ve put a circle around Fitzroy, in the background, with his head leaning against the stone step.



The two pups had been stalking that poor hen, strolling quietly just behind it, following it in every direction, and driving the hen crazy. Finally the mother of the dogs intervened, enabling the hen to escape.

Here is my very first vision of Fitzroy staring straight into my eyes.


Since then, he’s been doing that constantly, many times every day, for the last four years. For me, that penetrating gaze is the symbol of Fitzroy’s presence in my life.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Shortest distance between two points

Don’t ask me why I adore this image:


My joy is strictly Platonic. The old Greek fuddy-duddy tried to persuade us that Heaven is full of ideal forms: of dogs, cats, good guys, bad women, mathematical triangles, tables, chairs, whatever… And the vulgar objects that we encounter here on Earth are pale copies of these ethereal forms. Well, the above image indicates that something went wrong on Plato’s way to the theatre. His ideal straight line got screwed up. It ran into a bug. And that bug happened to be a fragment of green DNA-based life. Piss off, Plato…