Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Moving mountains (addendum to previous post)

Following my initial version of yesterday's post, I received feedback suggesting that my stance on global warming was lukewarm (pardon the pun), since I didn't seem to be as excited about this danger as I might be. Now, it's possible that I expressed myself ambiguously when clumsily associating events of the early '70s with today's grave environmental situation, as attested by countless serious witnesses. So, at the risk of repeating myself, I wish to make it clear that I believe, like most responsible observers, that global warming brought about by the excessive emission of greenhouse gases is a frightening threat, and that every citizen should stand on the rooftops and cry out—as best and loudly as he/she can—about this imminent danger.

Yesterday, I was trying to make two further points:

(1) In the beginning, we should adopt a cautious attitude, a priori, to many things that are being said on such a hot topic, even if this means being patient until we hear from authoritative specialists... such as those gathered together in Paris this week.

(2) If the problems are indeed as grave and urgent as what it appears, then they will surely need to be "managed" (I'm aware that this word is rather silly, but I prefer to remain fuzzy) by a world body associated with the UN.

Since writing yesterday's post, I see with alarm that the hobgoblin in the White House is even more dim-witted and nasty than what I had already imagined. The Californian Democrat Henry Waxman has just revealed that Bush administration officials had attempted to "mislead the public by injecting doubt into the science of global warming". Waxman spoke of a former lobbyist for the oil industry who happened to be head of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. This lobbyist "imposed his own views on the reports scientists had submitted to the White House" as part of what Waxman called an "orchestrated campaign to mislead the public about climate change".

In spite of numerous recorded cases of political interference in the work of US climate scientists over recent years, Bush dared to let off hot air in his recent State of the Union address about the need to deal with "global climate change". To my mind, it's the microclimate in Washington that needs to be dealt with, drastically and rapidly.

Meanwhile, as the world awaits forthcoming information from the current IPCC meeting in Paris, there is talk of pressure being brought to bear on Ban Ki-moon, the new UN Secretary-General, persuading him to convene a summit conference of the world's leaders to deal with the threat of global warming.

Back in 1969, Ban Ki-moon's predecessor U Thant stated that "the members of the United Nations have perhaps ten years left in which to subordinate their ancient quarrels and launch a global partnership to curb the arms race, to improve the human environment, to defuse the population explosion and to supply the required momentum to development efforts". Those words were spoken 38 years ago. Let us be absurdly optimistic and hope that, during that time, members of the United Nations have indeed become wiser and less quarrelsome than what they were at the time of U Thant.

A ray of light and hope in France. This morning, Nicolas Hulot's much-publicized ecological pact (mentioned in an earlier post) brought about a spectacular rendezvous of ten presidential candidates who explained, one after the other, why they had signed it. Is it thinkable that a TV star could in fact end up moving mountains more effectively than even a Secretary-General of the United Nations?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Too late? A first answer on Friday

This week, Paris is the world center of worries about the weather. Some 500 experts associated with a UN-sponsored body called IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] have gathered together at the Unesco headquarters in the City of Light with the aim of examining their latest scientific report on the state of the planet's climate. This report has not yet been released to the general public, but leaks from IPCC members suggest that the findings and predictions are dramatic, if not grim. Is there still time to intervene before global warming makes the planet an unpleasant place for our descendants? Greenpeace apparently thinks so, according to this sign attached to the Eiffel Tower:

One of the hypothetical climatic changes that interests me is the possibility that the nearby Alps, losing their capacity to host skiing, would become a summer paradise for visitors who, literally, want to keep cool. At the moment I'm writing these words, a log fire is burning in my fireplace down in the living room. Indeed, a touch of global warming would be greatly appreciated at Gamone (particularly by the donkeys and the billy goat, whose snouts are chilled by their having to scrape aside the snow to get at the grass).

I'm dazzled by the evolution of environmental thinking over the last quarter of a century. By chance, I had an opportunity of attending the first UN world conference on the environment in Stockholm in 1972, where I collaborated with Eric M Nilsson in making a documentary film for French television. At that time, environmental issues were being publicized by a curious organization known as the Club of Rome, founded by the industrialist Aurelio Peccei [1908-1984] at a 1968 reunion in the Italian capital.

This "invisible college" or "think tank" commissioned a report exploiting mathematical methods invented by an MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] model-maker, Jay Forrester. The results were published in a book, The Limits to Growth, which became an overnight best-seller. I've still got my copy, purchased up in Stockholm in 1972, but—to borrow a quaint expression I discovered this morning on the Dilbert blog—nobody would give a rat’s ass today about the totally fictional scenarios cooked up by those alleged MIT experts back at the start of the '70s.

Once again, I like to apply my favorite yardstick, credibility, to all apocalyptic declarations (particularly, but not exclusively, if they happen to be made in America by experts). For the moment, although I admire the evangelical work being carried out in this domain by Al Gore, Nicolas Hulot and others, I believe that only a world body can tackle effectively this gigantic challenge for survival. In any case, next Friday, we should get some tangible and credible feedback from the specialists meeting in Paris.

Monday, January 29, 2007

On the road to Valence

Like the apostle Paul, it's often when I'm traveling that I receive revelations... but that's probably all we have in common. The reasons why driving is conducive to revelations are easy to understand. When I'm alone in the old Citroën, and the road is straight and wide, the only thing I can do (besides guiding the automobile and being on the alert for possible dangers) is to think about things. So, whenever I have to drop down to Valence to do some shopping, I end up doing a lot of thinking about all kinds of things, both big and small. Most often, my thoughts remain at a fairly low level, like the clouds over Choranche. But it sometimes happens that a good idea springs forth. Sometimes, even, a great idea. As for revelations, they are exceptionally rare events. And the most profound and intense revelations are those that hit you like a thunderbolt from the heavens when you're least expecting it.

The flash of enlightenment that struck me on the road to Valence, a few days ago, was the outcome of reading that has been taking a certain amount of time to sink in, to make its messages at home in my neurons. Readers who have observed some of the posts in my blog (including the confusing one on the theme of the meaning of life) won't be surprised to hear that the spellbinding stuff I've been reading—the source of my awakening—was written by an English scientist, six months younger than me, named Richard Dawkins. If you click on this stylized image of a DNA spiral, you can visit the official Dawkins website... which reveals, incidentally, that he has acquired stardom status throughout the world as a result of his excellent writing style and his courageous and well-informed stance on current themes such as the rational impossibility of divinities responsible for the alleged "intelligent design" of the Cosmos. To my mind, this popular success of Dawkins is a promising positive outcome. After all, a planetary battle is currently raging against the forces of religious obscurantism, and it is reassuring that a few of our commanders should be enlightened scientists rather than mindless politicians, puppets, prophets, priests and soldiers.

The Dawkins-inspired revelation that has just struck me? Like most people, I've always imagined up until now that the fundamental entity of human existence on Earth (that last precision, "on Earth", excludes extraneous allusions to what might or might not exist in the Heavens) is the individual, like you or me, and that our species survives through the biological process of procreation, which involves tiny secondary entities—of interest only to scientific experts—known as chromosomes and genes. Well, today, I realize that this is a totally upside-down (antipodean) view of things, which must indeed be designated as false. The fundamental entities of human, animal and plant existence on Earth are the tiny genes, not individual human beings such as you or me. The genes of animals and plants survive eternally (or almost) in ways that are unthinkable for the animals and plants themselves, which must be seen as mere transient containers or carriers for the immortal genes.

Now, those few assertions might look like a small step for a humble thinker like me, but they're a giant step for global philosophizing about the meaning of our existence. To use another metaphor, we humans are like the Aéropostale planes and FedEx vans that crisscross the planet, so that the mail gets through. [See my earlier post on this theme.] But the mail itself is composed of genes.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Fifty posts in my blog!

While I never set out to break records, I'm happy to see that my blog has passed the mark of 50 posts. And this article in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald (which didn't surprise me, of course) is a good pretext for celebration:

Click on the above cutting to see the article in the
Sydney Morning Herald, or on the following image to see
the original article in the US publication International Living.

Memories of Vietnam

For old-timers such as me, this morning's Internet images of the anti-Bush protest rally in Washington bring back media memories of the Vietnam days. It's moving to learn that Jane Fonda herself was there in the crowd: her first presence at an anti-war rally in 34 years. Admittedly, for the moment, the throngs of protesters are not as large as in the Vietnam demonstrations, but this is no doubt just a start.

The most pernicious argument being used by Bush supporters to condemn the idea of cutting off funds for the pursuit of the war in Iraq is that this would amount to abandoning the US troops who are already there. Surely Congress could allocate no more and no less than the exact level of funding required to get the troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. If this step were to be taken, immediately, Congress could not be accused of abandoning the troops.

In evoking Vietnam, I wonder if George W Bush recalls the famous warning of the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana in The Life of Reason: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." There's another relevant assertion in this same great book: "Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim." To my mind, many Americans, today, have forgotten their aims.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Annual Choranche & Châtelus luncheon

It's not easy to get out a blog on time—or even, for that matter, to get out a blog at all—when the blogger's advanced age accords him the privilege of being invited to the annual luncheon for the two dozen or so senior citizens of the neighboring villages of Choranche and Châtelus. Events started early this morning (outside temperature = minus 10 degrees) with a bus trip to the new walnut museum in the village of Vinay, housed in a former old barn for drying walnuts.

The visit was interesting, but it was amusing to realize that several members of our group knew more about walnuts than anything we might learn from the museum. This is normal for people who live on properties with scores of walnut trees (I've got fifty or so at Gamone), and who spend a certain time every year gathering and processing their walnuts. One nice piece of information I did learn, however, was that male walnut pollen is transported to the female flowers solely through the action of the wind, with no intervention whatsoever of insects, who simply have an aversion for walnut flowers. For me, this solves a mystery at Gamone. I've always wondered why the trees on the upper edge of the paddock bear more fruit than elsewhere. It's simply because they receive the full force of the wind blowing into Choranche from the Isère Valley.

In the museum's collection of walnuts from all over the planet, I came upon specimens of the Australian variety: Juglans Australis.

This interested me in that my recipe for preparing pickled walnuts at Gamone (using English malt vinegar) comes from Australia. I'm intrigued to see that the Australian fruit have a blackish shell, and that they're relatively small.

We sat down for lunch in a fine restaurant at Vinay at around midday, and left some four hours later. Really, in France, luncheons of this kind are inevitably marathons. Here's a photo of me serving red wine:

At gatherings of this kind, I realize that the residents of tiny villages such as Choranche and Châtelus, in spite of their many differences, end up forming something that might be called a clan. To a large extent, I remain a foreigner, if only because of my accent, but I've been here long enough (a dozen years) to be accepted. In the above photo, the people alongside me are descendants of families who've been here for half-a-dozen generations.

In the museum, there were several old photos of groups of young women who worked at walnut harvesting. Often, when I see such photos, I'm struck by the fact that the people all seem to look alike. The clothes and the hairstyles are partly responsible for this impression, of course, but I end up realizing that another factor comes into play. People in small villages are highly intermarried (I often discover new instances of relationships at gatherings such as today), and the individuals in old group photos often looked alike for the simple reason that they no doubt shared a good proportion of common genes. In reaching that conclusion, I'm probably stating something that has always been obvious to everybody except me. As they say in picturesque French: I'm using my weight to burst through a door that was already wide open.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Australia Day

The Australia Day website at says:

On January 26, 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip took formal possession
of the colony of New South Wales and became its first Governor.

This is an excessively brief résumé of primordial events behind 26 January 1788. A young Australian, visiting this website today, might imagine that Phillip's arrival resembled the royal yacht Britannia drawing up at Circular Quay. There is no mention of the basic fact that Phillip's eleven vessels carried 548 male and 188 female convicts, and that the British governor was founding explicitly, not a colony in the etymological sense,

but rather a harsh antipodean prison where convicts, out of sight of British gentry, would be left to rot.

My own modest contribution to Australia Day 2007, of a highly personal nature, will consist of displaying this image of a country singer named Buddy Williams. If I understand correctly (which I don't, and probably never will), my cyclist uncles John and Charles Walker succeeded in contacting this celebrated singer when he was visiting South Grafton, at about the time I was born, in September 1940. And there has always been a family legend according to which the baby (me) was once held in the arms of this mythical man. Be that as it may, my childhood at Waterview was bathed musically in Buddy Williams laments, played on an old clockwork gramophone. I would love to find copies of these old cowboy songs, but they may have disappeared forever.

I often feel that we spend a good part of our adult lives trying vainly to recover fragments of a certain childhood melody or aroma. For me, that nostalgic melody is Buddy Williams singing the Orphan's Lament, and the magic aroma is that of freshly-laid bitumen on the cycling track at McKittrick Park in South Grafton.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Secondhand car salesman

I don't know who invented the delightful reference to a secondhand car salesman that sums up doubts about somebody's credibility. We first heard it used long ago to express skepticism concerning the US president Nixon. A journalist simply asked the rhetorical question: "Would you buy a secondhand car from Richard Nixon?" [This eloquent metaphor doesn't necessarily cast aspersions upon the used automobile profession, because the private individual who's not revealing the whole truth about the vehicle he's trying to sell could well be simply its present owner.]

This morning, while making espresso coffee in my splendid De Longhi machine [no members of my family or friends work for that company] and using a sponge to wipe a few spots of steamed milk off its stainless steel exterior, I started to think about a curious news article that appeared yesterday on the Internet. Somebody stated that many pathogenic bacteria in the kitchen could be eliminated by simply "burning" them in your ordinary microwave oven. The article included the following alarming kitchen statistics:

It has been estimated that a kitchen sponge may contain 10,000 bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella, per square inch.

Now, that's surely shuddering information for anybody who's smart enough to know what it means. Unfortunately for me, I would be totally incapable of recognizing the evil presence of a bustling throng of ten thousand bacteria gathered together for a crime evening of muddy misbehavior on a spongy square inch of my kitchen premises. I'm sure they're worse than WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) in Iraq, but I would first need to know that they're really there, and out to get me, before I would think about calling GIs into my Gamone kitchen. But I said to myself, while waiting for my espresso to drop down into the cup:

"Who the hell could benefit from sending out this weird message about using your microwave oven as a sterilizer?"

It doesn't take much imagination to find a plausible answer. The manufacturers of microwave ovens, of course! You might claim that I'm addicted to conspiratorial theories [and I wouldn't deny that this is partly true], but there has to be some obvious or less obvious reason why the world's kitchen-dweller would suddenly be invited to bake their sponges [I'm talking about cleaners, not cakes] in the microwave oven. Naturally, we should not exclude the possibility that this affair may have been promoted by a sudden altruistic urge from enlightened health-bestowing experts who wish well upon their fellow men... but, these days, I no longer really believe in "explanations" of that kind.

[Incidentally, while we're talking about microwave ovens, I recall the delightful Dilbert strip in which the pointy-haired boss got his suit drenched in the rain, and his office colleagues persuaded him to dry it out in the microwave oven... with the consequences that you can imagine!]

Intrigued by the strange idea of throwing kitchen sponges into a microwave oven (like dirty clothes into a washing machine), I started to wonder what might happen if the stuff to be sterilized included a metallic sponge or a grubby wad of stainless steel "wool" of the kind that we often use on our dirty kitchen utensils. To put it differently, I had the impression that it might not be a sound idea to buy a secondhand automobile from the guy who gave us the ingenious idea of using a microwave oven as a sterilizer.

After opening up ritually my morning news on Google [no members of my family or friends work for that company], I was relieved to discover that "corrections" have indeed been posted concerning the original microwave article. I'm reminded of French TV publicity for a glue product that shows a guy suspended from the ceiling after the soles of his shoes have been smeared with the magic glue. The ad people had to insert warnings for kids: "Above all, don't be tempted to perform this glue experiment with a schoolmate!"

Talking about the credibility of stuff you find on the Internet, I'm drawn inevitably into reflections upon current crap from George W Bulsh... As you might have guessed, I can't wait for that guy to get impeached or eliminated from the world scene in one way or another (along with his Anglo-Saxon lapdog buddies Blair and Howard), because he's frankly dangerous as long as he remains at large. In expressing that opinion, I'm merely paraphrasing the judgment made by a certain Republican senator named Chuck Hagel:

"We have totally destroyed our standing and reputation and influence in the Middle East, by what we're doing. And the more we sink down into this bog, the harder it is to get out of and the more enemies we make."

This courageous defector pleaded with Senate colleagues who are not brave enough to take a hard stand on Iraq: "Why are you elected? If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes."

Not quite, Senator Hagel. Not shoes. Secondhand automobiles.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Warm whiteness

As far as the eye can see (which isn't very far, because of the haze), the countryside is shrouded in a thin blanket of snow, which started to fall during the night... at the same moment that Bush, on the other side of the Atlantic, was making his pitiful State of the Union speech.

Sophia loves the soft slippery landscape. Long ago, to my amazement, she invented a form of skiing that might be described more accurately as dorsal sliding. She finds a slope, rolls over on her back, and uses her paws to start sliding downwards. Her genes have probably transmitted that technique from her remote ancestors in Labrador (eastern Canada). In those days, dogs that knew how to slide down the slopes on their backs could probably cover vaster hunting territories than those that didn't, enabling them to survive and proliferate. (I've already pointed out that I'm marked by my recent reading of this fabulous Dawkins book.)

Knowing that my neighbor Bob isn't at home, and that he won't be able to get up to his house for a day or so, I trudged up the track (dressed in my recently-purchased R M Williams coat and Akubra hat) with a dish of dog food for his gigantic Saint Bernard named Uranie. Now, when you think about it, that's the world upside-down, isn't it. A Saint Bernard dog with a small wooden barrel of brandy attached to its collar is supposed to wade through the snow to nourish stranded humans, not the other way round.

The presence of snow is marvelously soothing. Everything is quiet and soft and white, and you have the impression (which is more than a mere impression here at Gamone) of being out of contact with the bustling universe. Curiously, you don't feel cold at all. The whiteness makes you warm. I guess it's a bit like being in the womb... but I hasten to add that I have no recollections of that experience. I can understand people who are obsessed by snowscapes, who are thrilled by the idea of living in Arctic environments. On the other hand, unlike Sophia, I don't have the impression that, from a genetic viewpoint, I'm a cold-climate dweller. However I get sunburnt easily, so I'm not an equatorial being either. When I think about it, I'm more and more convinced that the prehistoric ancestors who provided me with my principal stock of genes probably lived in a nice mild climate—not too hot, not too cold, with a bit of rain from time to time—like that of South Grafton on the Clarence River in New South Wales. But I'm not sure that many paleobiologists would necessarily agree with that suggestion.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hole in the ground

Last weekend, Mandrin's mistress dropped in at Gamone. The Mandrin I'm talking about is not the celebrated bandit (described in an earlier post), but rather the donkey of that name, belonging theoretically to my neighbors up the track. For the last couple of months, this old donkey has been the victim of a broken marriage. Mandrin was reared by a lady from a neighboring village: the friendly person who called in on me the other day. A couple of years ago, she gave Mandrin to my neighbors. But this couple split up a few months ago and, in the subsequent confusion, the poor old male has been a little neglected. (I'm talking of the donkey, not the husband.) Not long ago, Mandrin decided spontaneously (for reasons that were surely clear in the mind of a sensitive and intelligent donkey) to leave my neighbors' property and set up residence here at my place, in the vicinity of my donkey Moshé.

Well, the lady and I agreed that the best solution would consist of actually putting Mandrin in Moshé's paddock, to see if these two castrated males would coexist harmoniously. This photo provides a happy affirmative answer. So, from now on, I have two donkeys living here at Gamone.

The lady was accompanied by her 8-year-old grandson: a delightful little kid whose intelligent character struck me as soon as he shook hands with me, like an adult. After the simple operation of leading Mandrin into Moshé's paddock, the boy was wandering around with his grandmother behind my house, and he asked me in an excited tone of voice (like that of the Little Prince, whom I mentioned in an earlier blog): "Please, Monsieur, can I crawl down into the hole?" Here's a photo of the hole in question:

In view of the risk of an accident, it would be unwise to crawl down into this hole behind my house unless somebody's present on the outside. With the grandmother's approval, I gave the little boy a powerful electric lamp and helped him to slide down into the hole, which is in fact a curious horizontal tunnel about 20 meters long, ending abruptly in a cleanly-cut earthen wall. When he emerged, a few minutes later, I asked him to describe any awesome phenomena that he might have encountered in the hole. Wild beasts? Traces of prehistoric cave dwellers? He told us excitedly, like a Jules Verne explorer returning from a voyage to the center of the Earth, that there were big piles of fallen rocks inside the tunnel. When I asked him how high they were, he indicated the height of his ankles.

Many observers (besides myself) have wondered who dug out this tunnel, and when, and why. While I don't yet have any firm answers to these questions, I've reached certain tentative conclusions.

— Most people suggest immediately that the tunnel was created by a farmer (maybe a winegrower, long ago) seeking water. That idea is most unlikely, because there's a natural supply of water some fifty meters further up the slopes. Sure, it dries up in summer, because it's not really a spring, in the normal sense of this term, but rather an exit of subterranean trickles between the porous rocks. But, if this higher supply were to dry up, it would be pointless hoping to find water further down the slopes. So, I rule out this suggestion.

— Was it a tunnel designed to lead to some other place? This idea is absurd, because the tunnel points straight into the hillside behind my house, and there's nowhere to go.

— Was it an underground storage place for farm products of some kind? I can't imagine what one would want to store in such a place, unless it were wine or spirits. But it's hardly wide and high enough to be thought of as a conventional wine cellar. And the fact that the tunnel is not lined in any way dissuades me from thinking of it as a proper and permanent storage place.

— Could it be that the hole was construed as a place to hide either people or things? I believe that this is the most plausible notion. But it's then a matter of deciding the circumstances in which this hiding might have been carried out. As everybody knows, Nazi oppression in the Vercors was horrendous, but it took place unexpectedly up on the plateau, for a brief period in the summer of 1944, not here in the Royans.

— In earlier times, the only great conflicts in this region took place during the so-called Wars of Religion, between Catholics and Huguenots, back in the 16th century, when the monastic vineyards of Choranche were totally devastated by the Protestant troops. Is it possible that the tunnel at Gamone might have been dug rapidly in order to hide precious objects such as documents or winemaking equipment? Insofar as I'm convinced that the ancient stone cellar in my house was constructed around the year 1600, at the end of the religious conflicts, this hypothesis is plausible.

— Finally, there's an observation that supports the idea that my tunnel might be very old. Normally, when you dig a hole in the ground as voluminous as my tunnel, you have to leave the excavated earth lying around somewhere in the vicinity. Well, it has been relatively easy for me, whenever I've called upon an excavator to perform earthmoving operations around the house (as I did, on a large scale, a few years ago), to distinguish between displaced earth and untouched ground. In fact, I was amazed to discover that there were no traces of displaced earth anywhere in the region behind my house, where the natural ground had often been used as a buttress during the construction of walls. So, my present theory is that the hole in the ground was indeed a 16th-century hiding place. If anybody has a better idea, or can detect flaws in my reasoning, I would be delighted to hear from them.

How silly of me. I completely forgot to ask the little boy what he thought of my theory.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The most popular man in France

Beyond the frontiers of France (in Australia, for instance), if one were to ask the question "Who is the most popular person in France?", I imagine that typical replies would range from sportsmen (maybe Zinadine Zidane) through to singers (Mireille Mathieu or Johnny Halliday), with a few movie celebrities or even politicians thrown in for good measure. In any case, I suspect that few outsiders would even recognize the name of Abbé Pierre, who was often designated by citizen votes as the most popular individual in France. He died this morning at the age of 94, after a lifetime devoted to taking care of his fellow men and women.

The honorific title "Abbé", often used to address distinguished churchmen, might be translated as "Abbot". It is a fact that Abbé Pierre spent seven years of his early life as a Franciscan monk. In 1942, during the Nazi occupation of France, Abbé Pierre—whose real name was Henri Grouès—was attached to a maquisard unit near Grenoble. In 1949, he created the Emmaus Foundation [named after the village near Jerusalem mentioned in Luke 24, 13-32, where two disciples encountered Jesus after the Resurrection], whose mission consists of employing impecunious individuals to collect surplus household goods of all kinds, repair them if necessary, and then sell them as second-hand merchandise, often in spacious bazaar-style premises. These so-called "rag-gatherers of Emmaus" live and work together in a communal fashion. Today, in France, there are some four thousand members of this organization, which is now present in forty countries throughout the world.

In the harsh winter of 1954, Abbé Pierre was shocked by the misery of homeless people, and he made a radio broadcast that led to a huge surge of charity and positive operations. Fifteen years ago, this story was made into a film, with the French actor Lambert Wilson playing the role of Abbé Pierre.

In France today, the media repercussions of the death of Abbé Pierre are enormous, and the admiration expressed for this saintly man (who recently revealed that his vows of celibacy ran aground from time to time) is universal. Beyond his status as a slightly unorthodox member of the Church (in favor of married priests, female ordinations and contraception), Abbé Pierre was truly a modern French hero.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Red balls in the ocean

Red sails in the sunset? [old song] I've been enchanted by a delightful anecdote, told to me yesterday by my son, concerning the extraordinary dog Gamone (born here at Gamone, Sophia's daughter), who now resides with her mistress (my ex-wife) in Brittany.

For Gamone, the most-treasured object in the universe is a dirty reddish rubber ball, about 20 centimeters wide, inherited from Natacha's lovely old dog. François tells me that Gamone is capable of catching her red ball in what we humans would describe as total darkness. Gamone must have the kind of hi-tech night-time vision once employed by US GIs against Bin Laden and the Taliban.

My son took Gamone for an outing to the magnificent nearby Breton seaside. What did Gamone find there ? Dozens of red balls, in fact mooring buoys, floating in the sea, a few meters from the beach. Gamone was out of her mind. How the hell had her familiar red ball been cloned into all these countless maritime specimens? François tells me that Gamone dashed intrepidly into the Breton waves in an attempt to solve this mystery.

I don't know the exact language used my my son (who communicates satisfactorily, like me, with certain living species) to inform Gamone that it was—as they say—a false problem. No e-mails on this subject have reached me yet, but that might merely indicate that our dog Gamone has run into typical access obstacles that hold up her communications for a dog's-hair elapse of time. So, I'm hoping that everything has now fallen into place, and that the dog Gamone realizes, in the context of her red balls, that she is not necessarily the only Gamone—well, almost—on the planet.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A funny American

In 1962, when I arrived in Paris for the first time and started working with IBM, I wasn't yet capable of reading French newspapers. So, I used to buy a popular English-language newspaper that happened to be produced in Paris: the international edition of the New York Herald Tribune. In the Godard film Breathless, which had come out in 1959, Jean Seberg played an American student who earned her living in Paris by wandering through the streets and hawking this newspaper. I would often run into real-life girls with the same job as Jean Seberg, attired in the famous New York Herald Tribune T-shirt.

One of the first things I would read in the New York Herald Tribune was the daily back-page article by Art Buchwald, which was often humorous and generally well-written. Back in Australia, I had not been a regular reader of a newspaper (apart from anecdotes concerning the presidential careers of Charles de Gaulle and John F Kennedy, current world affairs didn't interest me much), and I was not accustomed to the carefree insider style of a columnist such as Buchwald, whose lopsided grin accompanied each article.

Art Buchwald ended his long expatriate existence in Paris shortly after I arrived there, and he carried on his daily column from Washington, in the style of a cosmopolitan man about town. For example, in my yellowish copy of the New York Herald Tribune that appeared on the weekend of 23-24 November 1963, reporting the assassination of Kenndy, I see that Buchwald's column concerned a private dinner at the French embassy.

A few days ago, 81-year-old Art Buchwald—described by an admirer as America's most durable and best-loved political humorist—died in his cherished house on Martha's Vineyard. Over the last year, knowing that he was condemned to die from one moment to another, Buchwald produced many light-hearted but profound comments on death. His philosophical conclusion, in the purest Buchwald style: "The big question we still have to ask is not where we're going, but what were we doing here in the first place."

Friday, January 19, 2007

Like a bat out of hell

Among the colloquial expressions from my childhood and adolescence that I've never forgotten, that's one of my favorites. It's a metaphor for moving fast, in the sense of escaping. Back in Grafton, though, it was a silly metaphor, because the only bats we ever saw were so-called flying foxes, which flew no faster than crows. Here at Gamone, I love to watch small bats darting around in the twilight. But they seem to return every few seconds to the same flight zone, as if they were intrigued by the observer (me)... which wouldn't really be an effective strategy for escaping from Hell.

Last night, the bats I watched in the darkness were the automobiles competing in the Monte-Carlo rally.

To reach the starting line, spectators had to walk out of the village of Saint-Jean-en-Royans for a few kilometers, in total darkness. But it was worth the effort. I managed to find standing room alongside the starting enclosure, just behind the automobile about to leave. In the final ten seconds or so of the countdown to the departure, the events are spectacular. The driver turns on his main lights, and the result is a little like lighting up a football stadium... which means that these guys are never actually driving in the dark at all. Then there's a metallic clang as he operates his brakes (I suppose) and starts revving up the motor to a deafening pitch. For a few seconds, the angry beast seems to be straining at the leash, like a Boeing about to set off down the runway. When the vehicle finally takes off, it's truly like the proverbial bat out of hell. The machine seems to hurtle madly from zero velocity to God only knows what fantastic speed in a couple of seconds.

After the first half-dozen departures (including the two superb vehicles of the Subaru World Rally Team, one of which was handled by the Aussies Chris Atkinson and Glenn MacNeall), I scrambled a hundred meters along the grassy drain on the edge of the road so that I could stand on the first curve, from where I had the impression that the automobiles were racing directly towards me, in a blinding blaze of white light. There I struck up a conversation with a spectator whose attitudes, even in the dark, gave me the impression that he knew what the rally was all about. He turned out to be a 34-year-old former Formula-Renault circuit driver from Lyon. Whenever a vehicle flashed past, often accompanied by ear-shattering backfiring (due, so I learned, to poorly-regulated ignition), my neighbor provided me with a rapid analysis of the identity of the machine, the performance of its driver over the opening stretch of two hundred meters that we were observing, and even his judgment on the aesthetic qualities of the noise of the motor. For example, for a certain angle of the dangle of the exhaust pipe, the speeding vehicle emits an unpleasant metallic sound, as if some of its nuts and bolts were loose.

The most interesting thing I learned is that the Monte-Carlo Rally, to a large extent, is a rich man's pastime. At the top of the lineup, a dozen professionals are working for automobile manufacturers (Citroen, Ford and Subaru), but the majority of the 47 entrants are ordinary drivers who have used their wealth and their connections to get into the race. I was struck by the fact that these drivers are in fact behaving in a way that is normally prohibited. They're driving hugely-expensive automobiles at a break-neck speed on narrow winding roads, often on the wrong side, with their headlights full on, and creating an unearthly din. The only ingredient that's missing is a few grams of alcohol in their blood! I remarked to my informed neighbor that the relative lack of publicity stickers on the vehicles had intrigued me. He explained that the overall impression created by a phenomenon such as the Monte-Carlo no longer corresponds to the sort of public image that automobile manufacturers wish to convey.

On the drive home, I had to be careful not to put my foot down too heavily on certain stretches of the dark road. It's a sobering thought to realize to what extent we humans are essentially bright monkeys with an inbuilt gift for imitating things we encounter in the world around us.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Don't knock Hubby!

Up until today, the Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal had a dynamic and outspoken spokesman, 44-year-old Arnaud Montebourg. Unfortunately, last night on television, he cracked a trivial joke. An interviewer asked him if Ségolène, in her presidential campaign, was bogged down by any handicap. Montebourg replied spontaneously, with a grin: "Ségolène Royal has a sole weakness: her partner." Now, this kind of a joke didn't go down well with the boss. During the night, Montebourg realized that he had committed an idiotic faux pas, of the kind that cannot be tolerated in the context of such a saintly female as Ségolène. At dawn, he submitted his resignation, while explaining that his words were intended as a pure joke. Acting magnanimously in the style of a soccer referee who wants the game to go on calmly, in a dignified manner, Ségolène told her spokesman that his remarks were "out of place", and she suspended him for a month. For a political party whose emblem is the red rose, you might call that, in soccer terms, a pink card.

It takes a lot of imagination for French observers to figure out the possible consequences of this novel situation in which the female candidate is in fact, in everyday life, the partner of the chief of France's Socialist party, François Hollande. Everybody in France knows that Bernadette Chirac, the wife of the French president, has devoted a lot of energy over the last decade, in liaison with the judo champion David Douillet, to a huge charitable operation that consists of collecting small coins (referred to as "yellow pieces" in French) to benefit hospitalized children in France. A wag suggested that, if ever Ségolène were to replace Chirac, then François Hollande might take over this charitable work of Bernadette.

The husbands of female chiefs of state are a fascinating subject. We've become accustomed to the chap named Philip Mountbatten who has been walking along unobtrusively in the wake of Elizabeth II for the last half a century. Then there was the delightful case of the likable hubby named Denis Thatcher who had been courageous enough to marry the future Iron Lady.

If ever the Democratic senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is elected as the future president of the USA (an idea that pleases me greatly), it will be interesting to see whether she decides to hire her husband for some kind of White House job. On the other hand, it's understandable that Hillary might not like the idea of putting Bill in a situation where he could be tempted to prowl around once again among the female office staff.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Although I've never had an opportunity of witnessing the start of the Sydney/Hobart yacht race or the Melbourne Cup or Sydney's Royal Easter Show, I'm aware that major annual events of this nature divide up the year and punctuate life in Australia like mileposts in time. Here in France, Bastille Day and the Tour de France (which coincide in fact) play a similar role.

In the next few days, two major events will be taking place in the region where I live. One is the biennial International Hotel Catering and Food Trade Exhibition in Lyon, which lasts for no less than five days. I attended it a few years ago, and was highly impressed by this lavish celebration of luxurious eating, set in a city that many people think of as the French capital of great restaurants. [Click the image to go to an English-language website concerning this exhibition.]

Tomorrow evening, the nearby village of Saint-Jean-en-Royans will be the center of the automobile rally world. For the first time in a dozen years, the Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo has returned to the Vercors. I last watched it taking off from down at the corner of my property, the year I bought Gamone. But the drivers later complained that the Vercors was too dangerous, in the sense that leaving the road would often amount to running over the edge of a cliff. So, they never came back here. Tomorrow's opening leg is a short night drive from Saint-Jean up towards Bouvante (the place where the Chartreux monks—those who made wine here at Choranche—had their monastery) and then across to a popular resort on the plateau for cross-country skiing... when there's snow, which is not the case at present. [Click the image to go to an English-language website concerning the Monte-Carlo Rally.]

I've just driven to Saint-Jean to do some shopping in their small supermarket. The village is covered in red and white balloons and ribbons: the colors of the principality of Monaco. There'll be huge crowds there tomorrow. I haven't yet figured out where I'll go to watch. If I drive up to the plateau, I'll be stuck there until late in the evening. So, I might simply stay in Saint-Jean and watch the start. Some of the local ecologists are scandalized by the idea of an automobile rally in a nature park such as the Vercors, and they've issued a petition against it. I don't really agree with them, because I look upon the Monte-Carlo leg as a very special event, which is unlikely to harm the environment. I hope that no silly buggers decide to cut down a tree that falls cross the road, or to pour oil on the road (as they did a few years ago, up behind Gamone, for the local Saint-Marcellin rally).

One thing is certain. At the food fair in Lyon, it's unlikely that anybody will be demonstrating against ecological dangers. But it's probably a fact that rich food and wine in France have harmed many more people than the automobiles of the the Monte-Carlo Rally.

Simple thoughts that soar into the air

To demonstrate pictorially that she was thinking of her big brother (that's me), one of my dear sisters has just sent me this nice photo, taken during her recent visit to the USA, of a FedEx van in Miami:

I can sense already that the airwaves are filling up with a huge question: What the hell does a FedEx van in Miami have to do with an Aussie recluse who lives in an Alpine wilderness in the south of France? In a nutshell [forgive me for overusing that metaphor, but my farm-that-isn't-really-a-farm-at-all is covered with scores of walnut trees, and I spend days every September picking up nuts], my sister has heard me express my admiration for these international delivery organizations, which not only deliver urgent stuff on the other side of the planet (important for an Antipodean such as me), but allow you to use the Internet to follow every step of the transport operations.

There's an expression that annoys me: snail mail. There's nothing snailish whatsoever about the giant aircraft that take off from places all over the planet, often in the middle of the night, in order to get the mail through. In France, where the national organization is called Chronopost, the concept of international mail couriers evokes the heroic Aéropostale company, which became one of the founding partners of Air France in 1933. And the pioneering epoch of air mail leads us to think too of the great writer and pilot Antoine de Saint Exupéry.

In France, the name of this illustrious adventurer adorns the international airport of Lyon. But he is remembered throughout the planet as the author of The Little Prince, which is as great a work of imaginative literature (in my opinion) as Lewis Carroll's adventures of Alice.

[If you click the image to the left, a link takes you to a presentation of an opera on The Little Prince.]

So, I thank Anne for thinking of me while she was in the USA, since her thoughts (not to mention her photo) have led me in turn to think of wonderful exploits and people.


One of the motivations that got me started on this blog was my regular reading of the blog of the Dilbert creator, Scott Adams, which can be found by going to his main website at and then clicking the blog banner. Or you can click here:

I like the way Scott Adams talks each morning about whatever springs into his head, which might be anything from a scruffy hotel in which he's just spent the night to one of his intricate theories about humanity and society. I've always maintained that the excellence of the language appearing in the Dilbert cartoons contributes greatly to their impact. There's never a word too many, or the wrong word, and every phrase seems to have been constructed with care. Well, in Scott's blog, we find the same kind of linguistic faultlessness... which has often made me wonder (I guess I'm jealous) if there might be some kind of an editorial team working in the shadow of the artist. Scott seems to speak openly of himself as a successful businessman, rather than a great cartoonist of the traditional American kind. [I've inserted the verb "seems" to underline that the alleged "fact" I relate is rather fuzzy, because I'm totally out of my depth when it gets around to concepts such as "a successful businessman" or, even more so, "a great cartoonist of the traditional American kind".] So, it would be perfectly normal if he had a team of talented individuals to assist him.

Scott often speaks of his having to steer a straight line to avoid rejection by the numerous newspapers to which he is syndicated. This means that he has to avoid images that might shock narrow-minded viewers. Although he has never said so, I would imagine that he has to avoid cartoon situations in which he might be accused of making a political statement, in one way or another. Well, in his last two blogs (called Vacationing Toward Victory and Better off Losing?), Scott has just gone completely over the deep end... in an anti-Bush sense.

The most amusing thing is that Scott has made this explicit political coming-out (which is unlikely to really surprise any of his fans) at a time when he is supposed to be receiving specialized therapy—of a psychological kind, if I understand correctly—to rectify a serious speech defect. I wonder if somebody could persuade Dubya—who doesn't express himself all that well—to go along to the same therapist...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

My God, what a close shave!

At the time I was born, in September 1940, boy babies in the United Kingdom and the British Empire incurred the risk of being named Winston. I believe that my Protestant great-aunt Henrietta Kennedy [1881-1952] made an attempt to impose this choice upon my parents, but I escaped narrowly thanks to the weighty presence among my paternal ancestors of two great-grandfathers named William. The eldest Beatle wasn't as lucky as me. Born on 9 October 1940 at the maternity hospital in Liverpool, he was named John Winston Lennon.

When I was a youth in Grafton, I remember hearing the funny-sounding names of French politicians on the radio news. The Fourth Republic was regularly falling apart and then getting patched up for a short period, before collapsing yet again. Surnames that amused me were Queuille and Pflimlin (which—I've since learned—was barely pronounceable even for the French). An individual who was often mentioned on the news was Guy Mollet, general secretary of the political organization that would later be transformed into the party that is now backing presidential candidate Ségolène Royal. Just for the record: Back in those days, sitting on a kitchen chair in Grafton with my feet up alongside the warm stove and listening to accounts of events in faraway France, I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would meet up personally, one day in France (while working for French TV), with two statesmen who were often mentioned on the news: Jules Moch [1893-1985] and Pierre Mendès-France [1907-1982].

Every now and again, people in the UK get a kick out of reminding the French of a mind-boggling secret diplomatic mission carried out by France in 1956. [Last night, in the UK, there was a radio broadcast on this affair.] At that time, Guy Mollet was the French prime minister, and his British counterpart was Anthony Eden. Well, according to a record in British state archives unearthed by the BBC, Mollet took the initiative on 10 September 1956 of crossing the Channel, turning up on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, and suggesting to a flabbergasted Eden that... maybe England and France should look into the possibility of joining hands and becoming a single nation!

Sure, it's easy to appreciate retrospectively, today, the bee in Mollet's bonnet, and why it got transformed in this spontaneous and spectacular fashion into a fly in Eden's ointment. [Excuse the mixed metaphors.] In Egypt, Nasser had just nationalized the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, England's friend Jordan and France's friend Israel were on the point of coming to blows, and anti-French tensions were mounting in Algeria. Fortunately, Eden had enough good old British phlegm and common sense to calm down his French visitor, and pack him off back to Paris. And there's no reason to suppose that Mollet's crazy idea might have prevented the dramatic events that ensued in the Suez Canal...

Can you imagine, today, a European nation called Frangland, with the Channel running right down the middle of it? My God, what a frightening thought! Gentlemen in bowler hats scurrying down the Champs-Elysées, gendarmes marching along the Mall and changing the guard at Buckingham Palace...

One of the rare entities of a combined French/British nature that has endured for any length of time is a student residence in Paris known as the Collège franco-britannique. Over forty years ago, within those hallowed walls, I met up with a splendid French girl who was studying at the Sorbonne. We decided to get married, and we even ended up having two marvelous children. Admittedly, our marriage didn't last too long, but we have remained good friends, even though the waters of a Channel flow between our respective lives. I would even claim that there's nothing better than a Channel to delimit the territories of very different people who are intent upon remaining friends.

I really can't figure out what Guy Mollet had in kind when he set out for London in 1956. Who knows? Maybe he just dropped across there on a regular shopping trip, like countless French people, to pick up a few odds and ends at Harrod's or Marks and Spencer's. Then he got carried away while having a few pints with the boys in a nice pub, eating warm pork pies and chatting up charming young London birds. Inevitably, thoughts of union started to germinate in Mollet's mind. Besides, he wasn't used to drinking warm beer. He suddenly banged his fist on the bar of pub, startling the drinkers, and yelled out a cry of joy like Archimedes jumping out of his bath: "Jesus, man, I love this place. I love the people. And I'm the prime minister of France. Why don't we get married?" Before the folk in the pub could stop him, Mollet dashed off to Downing Street, to spring his idea upon the father of the future bride...

No, it probably didn't happen like that. In any case, I'm convinced that it's better for England and France to carry on living side by side in sin, with the Channel running down the middle of their big bed.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Show me your machines

My former mentor Pierre Schaeffer [1910-1995] invented musique concrète, which consisted of using equipment such as microphones, audio filters and tape recorders to create music composed of multifarious noises. One might have imagined this graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique as an electronics geek fascinated by machines, but this was not at all the case. I believe Pierre always had more respect for pianos, violins and the human voice than for devices that you plug into an electricity socket. He used to refer mockingly to a Japanese admirer, himself a composer, who turned up one day at Schaeffer's musical research center in Paris and said: "Maestro, show me your machines!" It was like a mindless command from an alien: "Take me to your leader!" Pierre detested the idea that anybody might attribute more importance to equipment than to the humans who manipulated it.

As a longtime computerist, I tend to be fascinated by certain machines, particularly when they seem to be capable of performing interesting tasks in an "intelligent" style. (Don't ask me what the adjective "intelligent" means.) But the anecdote about Schaeffer and his Japanese visitor springs into my mind and interrupts my enthusiasm—like a circuit breaker—whenever I feel myself getting too carried away by impressive electronic equipment. For example, the other day, when I was adding my two cents worth of praise concerning the Apple iPhone, I had the impression that my old friend Pierre was looking down on me from his heavenly research center and softly sneering.

Ah, not a day goes by without my thinking what a pity it is that Pierre is no longer with us to cogitate upon the consequences of the Internet. I'm not sure that he would have actually got around to using the net himself (except maybe for writing a blog), but I'm convinced that he would have invented several theories and written a dozen books about it. And he would have encouraged all of us to produce multimedia accounts about the metaphysics of the Internet, and he would have then shot down our work in flames, concluding that we were all incapable of correctly analyzing this new phenomenon. And, as usual, we would have all agreed with Pierre...

Recently, my daughter gave me this new machine, which is supposed to make such things as toasted sandwiches. It's not, however, the sort of machine that whips up my enthusiasm. Curiously, the appliance doesn't have an on/off switch. So, you have to actually pull the plug out of the socket to turn it off. Worse, during my unique test of the device, it succeeded in blowing the circuit breaker in my kitchen... which also shut down abruptly my Macintosh. So, you might say that this appliance didn't get off to a good start with me. I'd gladly give it away to a needy neighbor, but no neighbor needs a fire to break out in his kitchen.

In any case, as I mentioned in a previous blog, I already have a pair of excellent French machines: one for making bread and the other for toasting sandwiches.

Meanwhile, without becoming paranoid about the possible consequences of power outages or the circuit breaker shutting down my computer, I've taken steps to handle these eventualities... which could arise because of a lightning spike. My latest new gadget is a so-called UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply).

It includes a big battery and weighs over five kilos. As soon as there's a drop in power, or a total outage, the unit goes into action and keeps the computer running, at least up until you can close it down correctly. In fact, I bought two of these UPS units: one for the Macintosh and its peripherals, and the other for my broadband box and phone sets. One of these days I'll buy a third one for my TV, and a fourth one for my hifi system. But I repeat [Do you hear me, Pierre?]: I am not at all an ordinary electronics gadget-lover.

In a recent post, I included a photo of kangaroos intrigued by solar lamps on an Australian lawn. The friend who sent me the photo informed me that these lamps are made in China, and that there's no longer any kind of local manufacturing industry in Australia for such products. One of the pleasant surprises concerning the above-mentioned UPS units is that they're completely made in France, which is a rare enough situation to deserve special mention.

Now, I haven't even got around to describing the electronic peripherals I also purchased to backup my Macintosh correctly, and to burn video DVDs... one of which I intend to send, in the next few days, to relatives out in Australia. But I already have the impression that this is surely the most boring blog article I've written up until now. Pierre Schaeffer was right. That "Show me your machines" stuff is even duller than the dog-eared magazines we're invited to browse through while waiting for a haircut or a medical visit.

How to read my blog

I've spent a large part of my professional existence (not only in France, but in Australia too) teaching people how to use computers in one way or another. So, it's hardly surprising that I should think about explaining how to read my blog, because I know that such things don't necessarily "come naturally" to newcomers. In a previous post, I talked about sending in a comment to the blog. This time, I intend to deal with the sidebar links, to the right of the actual articles.

At the top, in the ABOUT ME zone, there's a button labeled VIEW MY COMPLETE PROFILE. In fact, you won't learn much by clicking this button, but it's a standard feature of all blogs such as mine, administered by Google.

The next sidebar zone is labeled LINKS, and the buttons point to three of my websites.

Next, there's a zone labeled PREVIOUS POSTS which, as its name suggests, contains buttons that take you to some (but not all) of my previous blog articles (called posts in blog jargon).

Finally, down the bottom, there's a small but important sidebar area labeled ARCHIVES, which enables you—often in an indirect manner, involving several steps—to display all the articles I've written, starting with the post of 9 December 2006 whose title was Why have I created this blog?

Incidentally, one of the things I never know with certainty is how my blog is actually displayed on other computers. When I publish a new article, I have to do a fair amount of tweaking to position correctly the graphics and the text. In doing this, I'm looking at my blog as it appears on a Macintosh running the Firefox browser. Maybe it looks quite different on other platforms.

That's all I'll have to say of a didactic nature. I ask readers who knew all this already to excuse me for being pedantic.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Empty space

Next summer, if you'd like to camp or set up your caravan in a delightful setting just opposite the village of Choranche, look for this house:

The words Camping chez la Mère Michon (nickname of the female proprietor) are quite big. You can't miss them.

The reason I mention this camping spot is that the owner and her family are friends of mine, and I told Michelle that I might be able to help her, a few years ago, by setting up a small website concerning her camping park. In fact, her camping venture evolved rapidly, since many passing drivers were attracted to her park by the huge Mère Michon sign. Finally, my website didn't play a significant role in the affair. In the camping domain, not even a planetary computer network can compete with the expression Camping chez la Mère Michon painted in huge letters on the front of your house. Besides, Michelle never had a computer, so I couldn't put an e-mail address in the website. Consequently, my website was soon forgotten, and it rotted away like an old tent or caravan left standing out in the wind and rain and sun and snow. Another trivial detail. Certain observers who think they're clever and funny (like me, for example) would contend that some of the success of Michelle's sign is that many motorists imagine for a split second that they've seen the expression Mère Nichon, which might be translated roughly as Mother Boobs, and they wonder whether they've come upon a nude camping park.

Now, why am I rambling on about all this? Well, it so happens that websites I've built for friends are often a flop, for one reason or another. And, in such cases, I end up inheriting their empty space (obtained free of charge from the French Internet company named Free). Michelle's camping park is located in the neighboring commune of Châtelus, and the abandoned website was named I couldn't think of anything serious to do with the empty webspace, since the commune is a rather small and dull place. So, I decided to build a small website (in French) about a charming but totally fictitious Provençal village called Châtelus. And that's what you can see there today if you click the above address.

Another webspace that I inherited through disuse is the one in which this blog is housed. If you want to see the perfectly normal public website for which this space was initially acquired, simply reduce the address to Here's how this primordial website came into being, in a local café a few years ago:

David: William, I've often thought that a website might help me to get jobs.

William: What kind of jobs?

David: Well, theoretically, anything at all, provided that it's well-paid. I'd be prepared to travel abroad to perform tasks of one kind or another, in situations where my employer wouldn't have the time or capacity to carry out those tasks for himself.

William: So, you see yourself as a man who would get paid to perform missions of an unspecified nature...

David: Well, my employer would finally have to specify exactly what he wants me to do. And how much he's prepared to pay me, along with expenses. And my job would consist of doing it, in a way that satisfies my employer.

William: It all sounds a bit vague, a bit mysterious. People might think you're talking in terms of jobs of a more or less illicit nature...

David: No, I've got to leave things vague, because a typical mission might be anything at all, such as renting a holiday home for my employer and his family on a Greek island, or purchasing some special kind of product that can only be found in Africa, or maybe picking up business documents in South America...

William: OK, I'll build you a vague little website. And it's up to you to decide how to use it effectively.

Retrospectively, I think our conversation was pub talk, because I'm not sure that David ever used his tiny self-promotional website in any way whatsoever. I don't even know whether he noted down the address of it. In any case, he never picked up e-mail sent to the site (most of which was spam, I believe). So, I decided to borrow his webspace for my blog. And that's why readers who don't know this simple story might imagine today, when they see my blog address, that I think of myself as a man of mysterious missions or, worse still, that I've settled here in order to carry out missionary work aimed at christianizing the wild Alpine Yeti in the vicinity of Choranche and Châtelus. Not at all! On the other hand, I do tend to think of this blog, from a communications viewpoint, as a kind of mission of an unspecified nature...

Getting around on the slopes

I've decided to invest in a new vehicle: a little red four-wheel-drive thing that will make it easy for me to scamper around on the mountain slopes and shuffle through the narrow cobblestone streets of picturesque villages. And when I turn up in this hot rod at local Saturday dance evenings, girls are going to get knocked off their feet, maybe literally.

No, those are mere dream words. In reality, the local firemen came around to check out the neighborhood, to determine whether they would be able to maneuver their vehicle comfortably if they happened to be called here for a fire. It took them no more than five minutes to realize that, not only would they not be able to maneuver their huge firetruck in any way whatsoever in the vicinity of my place (because the roads are too narrow, steep and twisty), but they wouldn't even be able to approach the residences of neighbors further up the road, because the bitumen stops about fifty meters beyond my place, and is replaced by a dirt track full of potholes. So, the firepersons (there was a female in the group) left their truck at my place and went off in their small red van to inspect the two properties further up the track.

I don't think I'm being over-optimistic in affirming that the fire danger at my place is minimal, since my ancient house is henceforth composed of little more than stones, bound together by two (invisible) gigantic slabs of reinforced concrete that stretch from one end of the house to the other, at two levels. One of the architects working on the restoration of the house, a dozen years ago, said jokingly: "William, in years to come, archaeologists are going to be truly mystified when they come upon the ruins of your house. There'll be a heap of crumbling old stones of the kind used by peasants to build their mountain cabins back in the Napoleonic era. And, in the middle of all this dusty building material, there'll be two splendid slabs of 20th-century reinforced concrete, with hardly a chip in them. The archaeologists are likely to wonder if the slabs were maybe transported here by aliens, to set up a landing platform for their spaceships..." [One of the reasons I'm writing this blog, as you might have guessed, is to lend a hand to these future archaeologists, by leaving electronic explanations of the original situation at Gamone.]

For the moment, I'm a little disturbed by a theoretically embarrassing situation that's likely to arise soon. You see, my neighbor further up the track is selling his property, and potential buyers will soon be coming up here, no doubt, to take a look at the place. For their initial visit, they'll be accompanied by the real-estate agent, who's likely to dissuade his clients from talking to Gamone neighbors. But people who are truly interested in the property for sale will inevitably come back here on their own and ask me for low-down information about the local situation. [If not, they would be idiots.] And that puts me in a delicate situation. On the one hand, I could tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That is: (1) dirt track with potholes and no immediate municipal plans to lay down macadam; (2) present impossibility of fire service; and (3) impossibility of driving up to the house after heavy winter snowfalls. On the other hand, I could refrain from providing potential customers with negative facts of this kind, in which case they might have reasons to hate me later on, when a sick or injured person can't receive the visit of a doctor in winter, or when a fire breaks out.

Happily, there's a way out: a convenient personal technique for avoiding this kind of dilemma. Faced with questions that I don't really want to answer, I simply apply my skills as a storyteller and start rambling on non-stop about the beauties and hardships of this splendid region back in the 14th century, when monks were creating vineyards on the rocky slopes. A lot of what I have to say is more or less true, but I invent things if necessary. I generally find that, after twenty minutes or so of my complicated unworldly tales, most normal urban people start coughing and fidgeting, or looking around to make sure that their automobile is correctly parked, or indicating by gestures (since they can't get a word in edgewise) that their kids and their dog are impatient to carry on walking. So, they give me a friendly smile and leave, swearing to themselves (I imagine) that they'll never again get caught up with this crazy talkative Aussie hermit...

Thank goodness my blogs are not like that.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


I've often wondered whether certain aspects of my character might be "explained" (let's leave those inverted commas in place, since I don't wish to tackle the possible meanings of that fuzzy term) by the fact that I grew up on an island. A big island, certainly, but an island all the same... "girt by sea", as our national anthem Advance Australia Fair puts it. French people are always asking me about how big Australia is, and I usually say "fourteen times as big as France"... which is not a particularly eloquent explanation. The following image from Margaret Nicholson's excellent Little Aussie Fact Book (Penguin) provides a better idea of the size of the huge island:

Islander characteristics, to my mind, are such things as a love of autonomous seclusion, a constant anguish of being invaded by outsiders, and a vague underlying curiosity about what might be taking place in the remote and ill-defined "outside world". Many islands have an associated mainland. In the case of my treasured island of Rottnest, for example, the mainland is Western Australia. But the island continent of Australia, taken as a whole, is an exception in that this island knows no mainland. You might think of Australia as a super island that is its own mainland. We Australians may have inherited this way of looking upon the universe from Great Britain, whose peoples think of their native island in that way. But we might just as well have inherited an island mentality from our Irish ancestors, for they too see their birthplace—at least symbolically—as the heart of the universe.

We islanders used to be united by our respect of the Robinson Crusoe myth. Knowing that our homeland can be lashed by terrible tempests and subjected to all kinds of possible disasters, we would strive to fortify our abode, to be able to defend ourselves, because we knew that we couldn't count upon help from the outside world. Today, of course, this is no longer the case in Australia, which has placed herself under the protective cloak of the USA.

Even though I now live far away from the sea, I still have an islander's awe of big ships, which was a childhood image that soothed me whenever I was upset. I have always thought that this is a remnant of our collective memory of ancestors who came to the Antipodes in ships.

Last night on French TV, the weekly maritime magazine called Thalassa (sea in Greek) dealt with several islands, including the fabulous feudal domain of Sark in the English Channel, which I visited long ago when I was writing my guide book Great Britain Today (Jeune Afrique, 1978). The French documentary then turned its attention to a quite different island, in the Pacific, whose name I had almost forgotten: Nauru.

I recall that, when I was a youth in Australia, the magical name of this island was a synonym of dizzy riches obtained through the sale of phosphate. Up until its independence in 1968, Nauru was a trust territory administered by Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Since then, all the immense wealth acquired from the sale of its phosphate appears to have dissolved into thin air (?)... leaving the island's small population more or less destitute. And the island itself, from an environmental viewpoint, is a total catastrophe. In fact, one of Nauru's only sources of revenue today is the rent paid by the Australian government for a detention center holding asylum-seekers who have tried to enter Australia. Between islanders, that kind of basic collaboration is normal. N'est-ce pas?

Friday, January 12, 2007


I must add my voice to the chorus of admiration that sounded all over the planet when the magician Steve Jobs unveiled his iPhone a few days ago. When Jean-Louis Gassée handed me my first Apple computer back in the early '80s, he said prophetically: "William, this little machine is going to change your life." Retrospectively, we could paraphrase his vision: "Apple's little machines are going to change the life of the planet."

There's a problem in deciding what the future iPhone is, and what it isn't. René Magritte's painting of a pipe bears an intriguing caption: This is not a pipe. Similarly, the iPhone should probably have a caption: This is not a phone. Not an ordinary cell phone, that's for sure, because conventional phoning is merely one element in a rich set of functions, one of which is familiar to people through the iPod.

Funnily enough, Steve Jobs himself preferred a different kind of negative affirmation: This is not a computer. He doesn't want to find small businessmen complaining one day, for example, that they can't use their iPhone to print out the company payroll. And Jobs's warning is understandable in that certain observers have already started to express their concern that they might not be able to run Microsoft Word on their future device. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. Who knows? Who cares? Anything seems to be possible.

A week or so ago, a futuristic electric automobile called the Chevy Volt was presented at Detroit, but the manufacturer insisted upon the fact that this vehicle was not yet a reality, nor even a short-term feasibility, but rather a pure concept.

I find it exciting that we have moved so rapidly into a virtual-reality era in which we define future objects in terms of what they are not. As I grow older, I am more and more convinced that I am not going to turn into a blasé old man. Old man, maybe, surely, but not blasé.