Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Exceptional events

Yesterday, people throughout the world were startled to hear about the Hollywood-style treatment of mysterious stone boxes that might have contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, his friend Mary of Magdala and maybe their child named Judah. On that same day, the San Diego Catholic diocese filed for bankruptcy protection in the hope of avoiding lawsuits from 150 individuals who alleged they had been sexually abused by priests. Obviously, the two happenings are totally unconnected, but it's intriguing to realize that these two high-profile events took place simultaneously on the seventh day of Lent 2007. God only knows what's in store for Christians by the time Easter arrives. Maybe even a miracle...

Maybe we'll learn that it was Pandora herself who brought these charming boxes to the quiet garden suburb of Talpiot (Hebrew term meaning armory), to the south of Jerusalem.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Romantic love in Valence

While awaiting reactions to the amazing story of the possible bones of Jesus, I've been engaged—by chance—in an unexpected but delightful Internet dialogue with a lady named Anne Peynet. Her father drew a picture that now belongs to the history and culture, not only of the neighboring city of Valence, but to France and the entire planet. This kind lady has authorized me to reproduce this drawing in my blog:

According to a legendary tale (which is surely authentic), the graphic artist Raymond Peynet [1908-1999] happened to be passing alongside the Valence music kiosk at the end of a public concert. Everybody was leaving—musicians and audience—except for a violinist, carefully placing his instrument in its case, and a young female front-row member of the audience. A minute later, the violinist came down from the stage, kissed the front-row girl, and they wandered off—thanks to Peynet's pencil—into the eternal role of romantic love.

The Peynet kiosk still exists, more lovely than ever, against an urban background, in the ongoing restoration work being carried out by the municipality of Valence:

Does Peynet-style romantic love still exist in our harsh modern world? I certainly hope so, and I think so... but it's not really the kind of question that could be settled in a scientific manner. If you were to ask young people today what they think of the round-hatted violinist of Valence and his tender pigtailed girlfriend, everybody would agree, I imagine, that they're a pair of lovely lovers.

He might, in fact, be IN...

There's a story about a priest leading pilgrims through the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Following his presentation of the ugly 19th-century stone structure covering the alleged tomb, a lady asked cautiously: "If I understand correctly, the tomb itself is in fact empty?" The priest replied with a grin: "Lady, if he's in, then we're out!"

This is gigantic stuff. The term "mind-boggling" is far too weak. The adjective "awesome" would be great, except that idiots now use it to describe golfers. This is all about shaking the roots of Christianity. About what?

For the moment, I believe that we should all wait for more ample explanations...

Monday, February 26, 2007

What's in a name?

Thirty years ago, in 1976, the Internet and the Google search engine did not yet exist. But my French-language book on artificial intelligence was already a reality:

At that time, I was pleased with my use (invention?) of the expression Machina sapiens as a title. Today, if you want to observe an interesting case of culture transfer, Google with "machina sapiens". To put it bluntly, my title has been ripped off—with no recognition—by sundry users.

There have been less explicit cases of culture transfer. In 1995, the great French writer Jean d'Ormesson wrote a best-seller: a popular science presentation of the history of nearly everything.

Eight years later, in 2003, an American brought out another best-seller with a similar title, of a similar kind: a popular science presentation of the history of nearly everything.

Coincidence, like magic, is a fabulous concept... but it's often difficult to believe in such things.

Culture transfer

We can speak of culture transfer when people of one society borrow cultural fragments from another. Maybe "sharing" would be a better word than "transfer", because the borrowed fragments are not, of course, lost to the first society.

Throughout my blog, I've often spoken of culture transfer between two antipodean societies: my birthplace, Australia, and my homeplace, France. Meanwhile, in off-blog conversations, I've often discovered that some of these culture transfer situations are not well understood. The worst situation of all is when both societies seem to be capable of transferring culture fragments in the same domain, but of a totally conflictual nature. In such extreme cases, communications can be totally screwed up, since the messages end up destroying one another. That's what seems to be happening in the environmental domain...

Out in Australia, we had—until recently—an environmentalist hero named Steve Irwin, who promoted the idea that our relationship with the planet Earth might be linked in weird ways to the pastime of stirring up combats with crocodiles.

Here in France, we have an environmentalist hero named Nicolas Hulot who accomplishes extraordinary missions of a crocodile-combat intensity. The great difference is that Hulot never gets into fights with the wonderful animals of the world. He doesn't even whisper in their ears. He simply talks to us humans about the planet Earth. About all things bright and beautiful... and the ugly stuff, too.

In France, nobody has ever heard of Steve Irwin. In Australia, the same thing might be said of Nicolas Hulot. Transposing the language of a crocodile combat into the domain of culture transfer, this would be called a draw. In our planetary combat, it's a more dramatic situation.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Women in white

Looking at recent posts, Freudian readers of my blog might conclude that I've got some kind of a fixation for women in white. Now, that might or might not be the case. It's a fact that, like many males, I've often been fascinated by female dentists, nurses, etc. But I've never known whether the whiteness played a role in this fascination, or whether it wasn't simply the protective soothing presence of these ladies. On the other hand, I was recently enchanted by the vision of a splendid female gendarme, dressed in blue, with a pistol in her belt, talking nonchalantly with friends outside the local supermarket. Maybe I'm simply attracted by uniforms, no matter what color. In any case, there's probably no point in my pursuing this daring exercise in sexual fantasies, since it's likely to send my blog readers to sleep...

Just one final remark. Or rather a question. Do you know, off hand, the etymology of the word "candidate", as in a phrase such as "the French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal"? It comes from the Latin candidatus, designating an individual dressed in white. In the Roman empire, individuals who came to the forum with the intention of proposing their services for a public office were traditionally clothed in white robes.


Why were these people peering through the windows of a Greenwich Village restaurant last Friday? Were they admiring the drumsticks and thighs advertised in the red sign? No, they were watching a pack of a dozen or so rats running around on the floor of the restaurant.

It's enough to make tourists feel like staying back in their hotel room and surviving on healthy peanut-butter sandwiches...

An amusing sequel of this horror tale (well, it's amusing for lucky folk like me who don't have the habit of consuming finger-licking fastfood) is that New York pest-control experts talk as if it's perfectly normal for rats to be found in such an unexpected environment. One of these specialists stated: "Even the most famous restaurants can get rats." Another Manhattan rat exterminator declared that wiping out vermin is impossible. But I'm not sure whether or not this man should be believed, because wiping out rats would mean the end of his business.

One of my uncles once supplied us with a nice little restaurant horror story of a mild homely kind. He lived in an attractive beach setting where the principal restaurant was run by an Asian family. The establishment had a fine reputation, but my uncle refused to ever go there for a meal. When pressed to explain why, my uncle told us he'd heard a rumor about somebody opening the door of the dunny behind the restaurant and finding the Asian cook seated there calmly chopping up beans. Unlike the rat incident in Manhattan, no video crew was on hand to provide us with images of the Asian cook, so we have to rely upon the sincerity of the anonymous rumor-monger who gave the story to my uncle. As for me, I would bet my beans that this rumor was invented, say, by the guy who ran the fish-and-chips shop further down the road.

The following restaurant photo has nothing to do with horror tales:

This 37-year-old female chef named Anne-Sophie Pic—whose body is arched like a ballet dancer as she leans over her stove—runs a time-honored family restaurant in the nearby city of Valence. She has just been awarded three stars by the Michelin red guide: the first time ever that a lady has received such a culinary honor. So, the local press has been treating Anne-Sophie as a heroine over the last week or so.

Now, having said earlier on that I don't normally go into fastfood restaurants (except in Sydney, where it was the only way of finding a so-called broadband hotspot for accessing the Internet), I should point out, in all fairness, that I'm not wealthy enough to eat at the renowned Pic restaurant. In fact, I do all my own cooking... and I think I'm quite good at it.

Five years as a political hostage

People in France are familiar with the photo of Ingrid Betancourt, who has dual French-Colombian nationality. While campaigning politically in Colombia on 23 February 2002, Ingrid was kidnapped by FARC guerrillas (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Today, there are no firm projects for rescuing her. Worse, nobody even knows if she's still alive.

In France, Ingrid's daughter Mélanie Delloye has been fighting relentlessly to make sure that her mother's plight is not forgotten. It's a small consolation to be able to take advantage of the forthcoming French presidential elections to remind everybody that more needs to be done to find her mother.

The Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal has just signed a manifesto submitted by the French committee concerned with the Betancourt case. Among other things, Madame Royal has promised that, if she were to be elected president of France, she would call upon both the European Union and the USA in a long-overdue attempt to rescue Ingrid Betancourt.

Friday, February 23, 2007


I try to maintain this blog at a certain level of correct gentlemanly communication, which means that I wouldn't normally think of submitting a post named Shit! But I've just broken down in the face of fucking Cheney, who dares to suggest that the spirit of Aussie mateship—and John Williamson's embarrassingly-fundamentalist True Blue lyrics (which I don't necessarily admire)—might support Australia's continued military support in Iraq and Afghanistan. This Yankee mother-fucker (who deserves, like Bush, to be brought to justice for war crimes) obviously takes us simplistic Australians for morons.

I ask humbly: Are we?

All I can reply—as a proud seventh-generation son of pioneering founding fathers and mothers of Australia named Walker, Hickey, O'Keeffe, Dixon, Kennedy, Cranston, Pickering and Skyvington—is that we are definitely not idiots.

I've always loved intensely Dorothea Mackellar's fabulous country, whose beauty is reflected neither in Dick Cheney's alien verbiage, the silly words of Williamson nor mindless money-making Qantas adds.

Political gestures

A private citizen can't do a lot in the political domain. We might talk of gestures rather than actions. I made such a gesture recently in sending an email to the environmental authorities of the Australian opposition party stating that I would be happy to act as a liaison with the grand environmentalist pact of the French celebrity Nicolas Hulot. No reply (elementary rudeness). At the same time, although I'm not a French citizen (voter), I contacted the dynamic people in charge of the political campaign of Ségolène Royal, who stands a great chance of becoming the future president of France. I told them they might use the interesting idea of top-right-corner mini-banners... and they responded positively.

This morning, I went along to the municipal office in Choranche to lodge my bulky application for French citizenship.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Apart from that, my lady, everything's fine

One of France's best-known satirical songs starts with a noblewoman talking on the phone with her butler James, at the end of a two-week holiday, making sure that everything's fine at the country castle.

James: Everything's fine, my lady...except for a minor incident: the death of your gray mare. Apart from that, my lady, everything's fine.

Lady: My gray mare is dead? How did that happen, James?

James: She was burnt to death in the fire that destroyed your stables. But, apart from that, my lady, everything's fine.

Lady: A fire in my stables? How did that happen, James?

James: Well, your castle was burnt to the ground, and the fire spread to your stables. But, apart from that, my lady, everything's fine.

Lady: The castle burnt down? How did that happen, James?

James: Well, you see, when his lordship learned that he was financially ruined, he committed suicide. And, in so doing, he knocked over a candle that set the castle on fire. And the fire spread to your stables. And that's how your gray mare got burnt to death. But, apart from that, my lady, everything's fine.

I couldn't help thinking of this song when I read the amazing words of vice-president Dick Cheney, when asked to comment upon Blair's decision to withdraw many British troops from Iraq: "I look at it and see it is actually an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well."

Sure, there have been over three thousand American deaths, countless thousands of Iraqi deaths, the destruction of a nation, and the creation of a state of civil war and a breeding ground for terrorists. But, apart from that, everything's fine.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

History in the making?

Monday evening, while watching a live TV broadcast of the Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal answering questions from a citizens' audience, I had the vague impression that I might be observing history in the making. Initially, I was wary of expressing the intense emotional impact upon me of the TV presence of Madame Royal, because I felt that I might have been a duped minority spectator. At a certain moment, a man in a wheelchair broke down emotionally while putting his questions to the Great White Lady, and she left her podium and moved physically across to her interrogator, to comfort him. This was a moment of verity that will surely go down in French political media history.

Meanwhile, Ségolène Royal was her real fabulous self. And I was merely one of the huge audience of spectators who observed the televisual behavior of our candidate. Ségolène is already a virginal myth: Mary, Joan of Arc. But she's also, and above all, a lovely and intelligent lady, perfectly capable of managing the great and ancient household named France. Like countless French citizens, I hope that Ségolène Royal will be the future president of the French Republic.

Time for a G change

A year ago, when the French telecom people wired up Pont-en-Royans and Choranche in such a way that I could finally have broadband access to the Internet, I was annoyed to find myself sucked into signing up for a year with the ISP [Internet service provider] called Wanadoo/Orange, which is in fact an emanation of the state-owned France Télécom organization. As soon as this contract terminates, in a month or so, I intend to switch to a more friendly French ISP: Free, which already accommodates most of my Internet creations [as can be seen in the list of my websites]. From that point on, my current e-mail address will be obsolete. This old address can already be replaced by any of the following valid personal e-mail addresses, all of which I consult daily:

I've just learned that an extraordinary e-mail possibility, called Gmail, is now being offered free to everybody by Google. [Click the image to visit Gmail.] My new e-mail address within this system is Please use it!

After having examined closely the advantages of the Gmail system, I would advise everybody to join up. For example, in Australia, as weird as it might sound, I have certain relatives and friends to whom I cannot send e-mail [with certainty that it will be delivered], because of the idiotic behavior of a few Aussie ISPs [including, above all, Big Pond]. If everybody had a sound Gmail address, this ridiculous problem would cease to exist. So, it's time for a G change!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Great inventions

Americans often praise a new invention by saying it's "the best thing since sliced bread". This has always intrigued me, since I've never really thought of sliced bread as a great invention. In France, nobody would dream of buying a sliced baguette. How would you carry such a limp object on the back of your bike?

The computer scientist John McCarthy (inventor of the Lisp language) surprised me back in the early '70s by affirming that the invention that had made the greatest impact upon society was, not the computer (which had been around for a couple of decades), but the photocopier. McCarthy argued that, if computers were to be suddenly eliminated by a magic wand, many people would hardly notice that these big boxes full of electronics (I repeat: he said this during the early '70s) were no longer there. On the other hand, if secretaries could no longer make photocopies, that would be the end of business, industry and research. Today, the wheel has turned in the sense that, most often, I use my computer's scanner and printer to copy documents.

We learned of the death, a few days ago, of the 93-year-old man behind one of the greatest inventions of the second half of the 20th century: the remote control device. In 1956, Robert Adler created such a gadget based upon ultrasonics. Today, as in countless homes across the planet, I have half-a-dozen different kinds of remote control devices lying around the house, and it's becoming more and more difficult to use them intuitively, since there's no such thing as standardization in this domain. Meanwhile, every family has its private jokes about an old-fashioned relative trying to change TV channels with a portable telephone, or make a phone call with a zapper. Here at Gamone, my dog Sophia doesn't even need to wait around for visits from my relatives to observe comparable cases of such confusion.

My favorite remote control gadget is the elegant and simple device included with all new Macintosh computers. I got a first one with my iMac, and another with my MacBook. I get a kick out of playing with the device for a few minutes from time to time, because its effects are really nice to watch. If I were perfectly truthful, though, I would have to admit that I don't make any serious use of this device on the Macintosh. I'm not keen to operate my computer in a remote style. On the contrary, I try to develop a closer and closer contact with my computer, so that the virtual distance between us (a new concept I just invented) is minimal.

When I think about, as an invention, the Macintosh remote control device is a little like sliced bread. It's nice to know that such a thing exists, and I admire the imagination of the inventor. But it's not exactly an invention that excites me personally.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why have I never been a soldier?

That's a pertinent question. Why has nobody in Australia ever asked me to wear a military hat, or don a uniform? I seem to recall that my father had been enrolled in the Grafton regiment of His Majesty's colonial light-horse cavalry (or something like that), whatever that might have been, but I have no recollections of seeing him dressed up to kill local Red Indians.

Meanwhile, asking me why I've never been a soldier is more than just a trivia thing. In fact, it's the only outstanding question in my lengthy French naturalization dossier, which I intend to submit to the préfecture in Grenoble in the next few days. I'm expected to send these authorities a short personal letter explaining why I've never been an Aussie soldier. To tell the truth, up until I was forced to think about it, I had no sound idea whatsoever of why I've never been an Aussie soldier. As far as I know, nobody in Australia ever sent me a letter stating that I should line up for military service. I was a baby during the final years of World War II, and a school kid during the Korean War. As far as the Vietnam War was concerned, I don't know retrospectively whether or not my country expected me to lend a hand in the extermination of Asian neighbors with Monsanto's notorious orange exfoliation nicety. I don't think so, and I certainly hope not. I would like to tell the French authorities that the real reason why I've never been a soldier is that I've never felt like going out of my way to kill my fellow-men. But I fear they'd take that as a lighthearted explanation. So, I'm searching for more serious justifications.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Watch out for life!

To the as-yet-unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: Watch out for life. I have caught life. I have come down with life. I was a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness, and then a little peephole opened quite suddenly. Light and sound poured in. Voices began to describe me and my surroundings.

Those are the opening lines of a smart little novel, Deadeye Dick, by Kurt Vonnegut, once described by Graham Greene as "one of the best living American writers". This outspoken author, now 84 years old, made headlines in 2005 with an interview for The Australian in which he described suicide bombers as "very brave people" who "are dying for their own self-respect". Not surprisingly, Vonnegut's words were misunderstood by most people, including the interviewer, and his son stepped into the turmoil in an intelligent attempt to justify the celebrated novelist's "provocative posturing".

During the time my peephole has been open on the planet Earth, I've seen certain senseless symbols. The most notorious of all were on stage, for all the planet to observe, at exactly the moment my peephole opened: the visual symbols and brainwashed chants of Nazism.

I've always been attracted by symbols [this, after all, is their raison d'etre] but wary of their origins and repercussions. For example, I've always loved the symbol of Qantas, Australia's national airline. But there are limits to my love. I find that the celebrated video on the theme of I still call Australia home, which apparently brings tears to the eyes of many Australians, is frankly embarrassing, like a Steve Irwin sequence. Its supposed message is like that of religious faith. Qantas has used its airliners to transport a team of mindless singing [?] schoolgirls to various significant places on the planet, and asked them to proclaim robotically that their religious faith in Australia was such that they weren't impressed by any other places in the world.

No matter what they saw, the angelic schoolgirls in white shirts were supposed to chant [click the image to watch the video], like the brainwashed offspring of a religious sect, that they still saw Australia as home. You might say that the girls went everywhere, but they saw strictly nothing. We even discover them gallivanting with Aborigine kids in the bush, which—as everybody serious Australian knows—would be unthinkable for these urban teenagers (including a judiciously-chosen black-skinned girl). Obviously, I don't blame these delightful schoolgirls for their narrow-sightedness. They were simple pawn-symbols in a superficial publicity scheme. Their tender peepholes weren't yet tuned to watching out for life.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Tucker of one kind or another

Among the readers of my blog, there are certain non-Australians, so I should explain for these cultural outsiders that the word "tucker" (not to be found in my online Macintosh dictionary) is a colloquial Aussie term for food. In particular, the expression "bush tucker" (nothing to do with the eating habits of the dearly-beloved US president) designates alleged survival food of the kind once consumed by Aborigines in the outback. A popular Aussie TV personality named Les Hiddins has been trying for years to convince ordinary urban people that they should learn how to collect and prepare appetizing food of this kind.

Witchetty grubs, for example, are said to be a delicacy. Personally, though, I've never had an opportunity of getting stuck into such tucker. As a child, I vaguely remember eating kangaroo tail soup, but I never moved up the gastronomical scale to such foodstuffs as goannas, snakes, locusts, ants or spiders. On the other hand, here in France, I've often eaten frogs' legs, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that you can now buy them in Sydney shopping centers. For ages at Gamone, I collected and prepared snails, up until I seemed to have exterminated them (mea culpa!) by over-harvesting. In a related domain, French friends have often told me they appreciate ostrich meat, believing wrongly that this animal is Australian. In fact, the ostrich meat we find in supermarkets is produced on farms here in France.

Talking about tucker, there's a subject I've intended to bring up for ages, but I've been waiting for the right moment to do so. Let me start out by saying that I'm not exactly what you would call a "good Australian", in the sense that I've spent most of my adult life in another land. Besides, I tend to be excessively critical of many aspects of Australia, as if my birthplace and I weren't always on the same wavelength. Now, I have a theory that this apparent lack of harmony between Australia and me is related—believe it or not!— to a primeval question of tucker.

Let me be more explicit, at the risk of shocking certain readers, not to mention representatives of the Australian food industry. Retrospectively, I believe that my expatriate non-problem has always been... Vegemite. Non-Australian readers are advised to Google to acquire an in-depth understanding of this specifically "Down Under" foodstuff, about which much has been written. It looks and smells a little like dirty grease leaking out of an old tractor. As for its taste, I really can't say, because I've never been hungry enough to munch a slice of factory-made bread with this yucky stuff on it. But I'm an exception. As I just stated, I'm definitely not what most people would call a "good Australian", so you really shouldn't rely on me to describe the taste of Vegemite. There must be hordes of true-blue Aussie poets and gourmets who could handle this challenge in a reliable fashion. [A recent Peter Nicholson animation refers to Vegemite.]

Let me get back to my theory, which I'll try to explain in simple terms, with no use of advanced mathematics, chemical formulae or neurological schemata. Basically, I believe that Vegemite attacks the brain directly! To call a spade a spade (or a cat a cat, as they say in French), Vegemite-eaters are transformed into addicts who drowse into a state of zombie-like apathy as soon as they fail to receive their daily dose. Now, since Vegemite is only readily available, at a low price, for people who are lucky enough to be residing in Australia, this means that any Vegemite-addicted Aussie who dares to travel abroad and reside dauntlessly in foreign lands is liable to go through harassing periods of dire craving. I would imagine that most victims of this advanced clinical state would not resist for long, and they jump aboard the first plane back to Australia. The core of my theory is that the only reared-in-Australia individuals who have the necessary stamina to remain living overseas today are either

(a) a minority of well-off expatriates whose supplies of Vegemite are flown in regularly or acquired, like Viagra, through the Internet; or

(b) the fortunate few, like me, who happen to hate this muck.

I can hear you all asking: If an Aussie kid such as you wasn't caught up on Vegemite, then what the hell did you eat to survive? The answer: peanut butter. As a child, my consumption of peanut butter sandwiches was bettered by no other bodily intake apart from air and water. Familiar foodstuffs such as fish and chips, meat pies and even ice cream were lagging far behind. Today, if a sensitive physiologist were to examine me closely, and sniff around the most private parts of my being, I'm sure that she might detect a faint archaeological aroma, from the distant past, of South Grafton peanut butter. In any case, it's an experiment that would be worth performing...

In view of what I've just revealed, readers will understand that I was troubled to learn through the Internet that an American manufacturer of peanut butter has just been obliged to take back astronomical quantities of their stuff because of a salmonella attack. All I can say is that, if this kind of tragedy had occurred back in South Grafton in the 1950s, I surely wouldn't be here today, in the south of France, writing this tucker-oriented blog.

This post is already quite long, and I haven't even got around to the fascinating subject of another questionable foodstuff: canned bully beef. Like the equally fascinating subject of canned spam, this will have to wait for another day when my blogger's mind drifts to tucker.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Air heroes

Up in the air, if you run into trouble, there's not a lot you can do... except—if the worst comes to the worst—fall to your death. Today, we hear of the deeds of two air heroes, whose praise must be sung.

The first is an Air Mauritania pilot of a Boeing 737 named Ahmedou Mohamed Lemine. Realizing that the hijacker of his plane did not speak French, the pilot announced a plan over the public-address system. He informed French-speaking passengers that, as soon as the aircraft touched ground at Las Palmas (Spain's Canary Islands), he intended to brake violently and then accelerate just as abruptly. The plot was perfect. The hijacker, standing in the middle aisle, fell on his arse, dropping his pistols. The flight attendants then poured boiling coffee on his silly face, and a dozen passengers manhandled the dazzled ex-hijacker while the plane was taxying, transforming him into an ideal airmail package for delivery to the local police. All's well that ends well.

The second air heroine is the German paraglider Ewa Wisnierska who, in the sky of New South Wales, survived miraculously after being sucked by a thunderstorm to an altitude higher than Mount Everest. The account of what happened to Ewa is frankly unbelievable... but that's what miracles are all about. Once again: All's well that ends well.

An air hero: Ahmedou Mohamed Lemine. An air heroine: Ewa Wisnierska. The next time I fly, I'll be thinking of both of you.


Strabismus is the medical term for an abnormal alignment of the eyes: the condition of having a squint. Telstrabismus occurs when the telecom authorities of an entire nation have a vision problem. Symptoms of this squint can be observed in the words of a Telstra loser named Winn that have just appeared on the net. Let's step back a month or so: apparently the time it takes for a squinter such as Winn to adjust his eyesight. On 9 January 2007, the announcement by Apple CEO Steve Jobs of a revolutionary device named the iPhone gave rise to acclamation throughout the world... except from Telstra. Finally, today, Winn's reaction to the iPhone announcement has made headlines. And what does this senior executive of Telstra have to say about the iPhone? Hold on tight to your needles. Winn's words to Apple: Stick to your knitting. And I say to Winn: Make a rendezvous with your ophthalmologist! How can he possibly dare to insinuate that the Cupertino giant Apple is not qualified to manufacture mobile phones? The proof of Winn's squint: Apple has in fact invented such a device, which they're gearing up to manufacture, just as they invented and manufactured iMacs and iPods. My advice to Winn: Try to focus on that tiny letter at the start of the term iPhone. Do you see it more-or-less clearly? Say it out loudly, Mr Winn, and don't forget it. Clearly (for me, but maybe not for you), you've got an iProblem.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Dutch kids

At primary school back in South Grafton, although I knew almost nothing about a country on the other side of the world named Holland (to be honest, I knew little about anything in the world beyond my birthplace), I had formed the opinion that life must have been exceptionally tough for Dutch kids. For example, we'd heard the story of the brave little fellow named Hans Brinker who'd stuck his finger in a dyke to save his flat low land from being covered by the sea. We South Grafton children had seen the Clarence River in flood, and the idea of a foreign land where kids were expected to hold their frozen fingers in dykes all night long was definitely not our kettle of fish.

Not long ago, at Choranche, I asked my friend Tineke Bot [a celebrated Dutch sculptor who has lived and worked here ever since she was a young girl] to give me the lowdown on that poor kid named Hans Brinker, often known as Peter of Haarlem, and I was surprised but somewhat relieved to learn that he had never existed. Tineke told me laughingly that the brave little Dutch boy with his finger stuck in the dyke was a figment of the imagination of an American female author—named Mary Elizabeth Mapes Dodge [1831-1905]—who was probably just as ignorant about Holland as me and my schoolmates at South Grafton Primary School.

Today, we learn that Dutch kids don't really have much to complain about, as indicated in a Unicef report that compares the well-being of children in the industrialized world. The Netherlands topped the list. For many English-speaking parents, the most alarming aspect of this report was the fact that British and American children would appear to be among the worst off in the industrialized world. My native Australia wasn't included in the study, because the required data was apparently unavailable. So, I can still carry on believing that, back in South Grafton, we kids were a hell of a lot better off than the poor little legendary boy with his finger stuck in a dyke.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


In the near future, I intend to play around with the presentation of my blog, with the intention of improving and enhancing its graphic look, which remains a little bit classic... euphemism for old-fashioned. In theory, my blog should not be disturbed unduly by attempts at changing its look. But that's only "in theory". In reality, I wouldn't be surprised if these attempts at changing my blog were to provoke, as in politics, frightening upheavals of a kind that would even distress Mr Howard... who is nevertheless easily distressed, even by the appearance of a bright young black-skinned US political personality of a Democratic kind.

Talking about political upheavals, I can't help hearing imaginary Hoganish questions in the background: "Black-skinned guy? Opposing my buddy Bush? Did I hear you correctly? A bloody gutless Yankee Abo cousin..." Thankfully, nobody would have ever dared to pose explicitly such stupid rhetorical interrogations. One might say, though, that they're in the blustery murky Howard air.

Incidentally, I now agree retrospectively with Howard—but for unexpected reasons—when he stated that the date of the next US presidential election is fateful. Today, I can well understand that US Democrats, if ever they were brought to power (as seems likely), might be inclined to drop, not only Howard, but Australia... which is infinitely worse. Democrats might be excused for looking upon Howard's recent lapdog snarls—which insinuated rudely that the imminent success of America's great Democratic Party might be a terrorists' dream—as a doggy-bag of smelly big-mouthed unrepentant Bush-shit. But let's not jump ahead, since that's not the subject of my present post.

For the moment, besides evoking the possibility that my blog might soon be in an "under construction" state, I wished to indicate the presence of a rare warning sign in France, just up the road:

This is the first time I've ever seen such an English-language road sign in France. It goes without saying that I intend to protest vigorously [I've already done so] against this abomination. Nobody wishes to see the French countryside converted into a Tower of Babel. It's bad enough already with Breton and Provençal equivalents of place-names. Here in France: On parle français. Voyagers who don't happen to know what that means should look it up in the dictionary before dragging their bulky camping-car or caravan into the valley of the Vernaison and getting stuck there.

Bananas and old automobiles

This morning, at the supermarket, I bought a large quantity of bananas, because I've always been an addicted banana-eater—an apple-eater, too—and bananas are remarkably cheap at present. In nightmares, I imagine a red-faced John Howard snarling viciously, as only our nasty stubborn Bush-loving lapdog PM can snarl: "Bill Skyvington's nothing more than a gutless unAustralian banana-eater!"

I told the girl at the cash desk [What's the right expression in English for such a person?] that bananas were expensive when I was out in Australia six months ago. She said with a grin, looking at the big bag of bananas I was buying: "I see you're catching up on lost time." Meanwhile, I couldn't help wondering how the South American producers of these fruit could possibly earn their living when their produce was being sold in France for such a ridiculously low price. What does one do in such a situation? I'm accustomed to buying coffee sold under an Equitable label [Google for details]. I hope that such a commercial device will come into play in the case of bananas... otherwise my favorite fruit will have a sour taste in my mouth.

On the way home, I came head-to-head with dozens of old automobiles competing in some kind of an improvised rally. It seemed to me that they were creating, unwittingly, a potentially dangerous situation, because there was no apparent control of the event by gendarmes, and the drivers probably did not know [or did they?] that there are countless sections of local roads where it is out of the question for a pair of approaching vehicles to continue simultaneously. One or the other must stop, to let the approaching automobile pass.

These ancient automobiles reminded me of the so-called sports cars I once saw in a Redex rally, probably in 1953, that went through Grafton when I was a kid. On that occasion, I recall above all the evening departure, from Pop's garage in Fitzroy Street, of two dashing fellows who fell to their death, an hour or so later, over a cliff on the road to Glen Innes. I forget their names, but they represented my first encounter with the phenomenon of death on the roads.

Incidentally, I see there's a book on this subject, which mentions the legendary Aussie driver Jack (Gelignite) Murray. [He earned his Gelignite nickname because he liked to use explosives in dissuading competitors... but that's a long story.] There's a delightful anecdote about Gelignite Jack sitting on top of his overturned automobile in an outback creek bed. Every time somebody stopped to stare at him, Jack would ask if he happened to have a 5/16 Whitworth spanner. Asked why he wanted his particular spanner, Gelignite Jack replied, pointing to his wrecked vehicle: "I thought that, while she's upside-down, I'd adjust the brakes."

Remind me to tell you the story about a legendary Aussie named Blue Adair, who put out the last gigantic blaze of an oil well lit by the troops of Saddam Hussein near Kuwait...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I first set foot in France on Sunday 4 February 1962. That date of arrival marked me forever. The truth of the matter is that I've always been profoundly infatuated by France and the French, and will surely remain so until my dying day. France, for me (and for countless others), has always occupied the role and the position of the supreme nation and people upon Earth. Another way of putting my essential Francophile nature: If I were to leave France, where else might I go? To my Australian birthplace? Surely not. It's a magnificent but dull country, dominated by mindless adored zombies such as John Howard, where nothing really ever happens. I've often imagined that it would be splendid to migrate to Israel, like a pioneer, but I fear that the nostalgic kibutznik epoch ended long ago... and besides, I'm not Jewish.

French friends are surprised by the fact that I'm not a naturalized French citizen. For a long time, Australia decreed that any citizen who sought to be naturalized would automatically lose his/her Australian nationality. Today, that is no longer the case. I can ask for French nationality while retaining my Australian citizenship. That's the process I set off this afternoon in Saint Marcellin, in requesting an essential tax document... obtained immediately. I'll make it known publicly when things advance... but it's a long process: maybe a year and a half. I'm in no hurry. In any case—as I said jokingly on the phone, the other day, to an employee of the Grenoble préfecture—I've got ample time to learn the words of the Marseillaise... as if I didn't know them perfectly well already.

Judgment on Earth

A charming and intelligent lady friend of mine, named Marie, once had the unpleasant surprise of coming home early and finding her husband in bed with one of his male students. As the mother of three kids, Marie told me she had never suspected for a moment that her husband might be bisexual. The shock was so great that she filed immediately for a civil divorce, which she rapidly obtained. Marie then worked for a few months on a novel about her experience, exploiting her writing talents—as a college professor of French literature—to pour vitriol upon her former husband. That was about the time I met up with Marie and her lovely kids. I even ran into her gay husband one day, and found him to be a fine fellow. I urged Marie to abandon her novel, even if the act of writing it had played a therapeutic role. In the French provincial bourgeois context in which they lived, the publication of such a document, with its thinly-disguised personages, would have been a silly burden imposed upon her ex-husband and their kids.

Months later, Marie sent me a strange greeting card. The elegantly-printed document informed me, in the solemn style of a wedding invitation, that the Roman Catholic Church had bestowed upon Marie an ecclesiastic divorce. I asked myself: What was this: an ecclesiastic divorce, adding its weight to the ordinary civil divorce? I learned that good Catholics go about love and marriage in this double-decker fashion. Two separate jurisdictions exist, and they are invoked separately. You get married first at the town hall, and then at the church (or maybe the other way round). Likewise, you get divorced first through a system of ordinary lawyers and judges, and later through the church system.

Church system? Few folk realize (since it's not a terribly fashionable subject) that the primeval system of Canon Law has never ceased to exist in the modern Catholic world, just as strongly as back in the time of the Inquisition. Use Google to look up facts...

Not long ago, a charming and intelligent lady friend of mine, named Natacha, informed me that she has discovered an unexpected vocation: Roman Catholic Canon Law. If I understand correctly, the studies that Natacha has embarked upon could lead her, one day, to playing a role of advocate in tribunals such as the one that once formally divorced my friend Marie.

Not only does the Church maintain these ancient institutions. She also attempts naively [we always accord the feminine gender to the Roman Catholic Church in France] to recuperate things that really don't belong to her... such as tomorrow's Valentine's Day. French authorities have been inviting faithful couples to step forward—in a Billy Graham style—and declare that their union might have something to do with the alleged doctrine of an enlightened Jewish trouble-maker named Jesus who was apparently put to death long ago in the fascinating city of Jerusalem.

The real Saint Valentine—if ever he existed—had little to do with the Beatles-styled concepts of peace and love and sending greeting cards. But the Church would like to convince parishioners that she has something serious to say about such matters in the modern world.

As Bob Dylan put it: Times, they are a-changing...

Monday, February 12, 2007


It used to be the case in France that everybody who'd earned their baccalauréat [final secondary-school diploma] was familiar with a three-centuries-old maxim from the pen of Nicolas Boileau [1636-1711]: Ce que l'on conçoit bien s'énonce clairement. This might be paraphrased: If what you've got to say is well thought out, then you'll be able to say it clearly. The reverse statement is interesting: If what you say is unclear, then you didn't think it out well enough beforehand.

I've always been irritated by the inarticulateness of certain well-known speakers of Australian English. An example that comes to mind immediately is Steve Irwin setting out to explain why he thought it fine to carry his baby son into a crocodile pit. I'm willing to admit, though, that inarticulateness, like beauty, might be in the eye (ear?) of the beholder. Maybe countless admirers might have considered, like Steve himself, that his explanations of the crocodile stunt were perfectly well conceived and clearly expressed... which implies that I'm the sole wacko who found them inadequate, if not silly.

John Howard's inarticulate remarks on US presidential candidate Barack Obama irritate me similarly: "If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats."

The elements of his statement, taken one by one, are shallow, if not stupid: "running al-Qaeda in Iraq", "put a circle around March 2008", "praying as many times as possible"... and, when you string them all together, the outcome reminds me of Steve Irwin talking about his kid and his crocodiles. In particular, Howard's explicit insistence that a presidential victory of America's great Democratic Party would be an answer to terrorists' prayers is disgusting. There's no other word for it. Our PM failed to take advantage of an excellent opportunity to keep his mouth shut. And now, the stubborn fellow won't even apologize for his insults to Obama and to the Democrats in general. Meanwhile, I intend to renew my electoral enrollment, because I'm starting to like some (but not necessarily all) of the words from Kevin Rudd.

Generally, political figures have an impressive talent for speaking articulately and persuasively. Whatever faults they might have had, the Democrat presidents Kennedy and Clinton were masterful orators. Yesterday evening, listening to Jacques Chirac talking about the role of his wife Bernadette, I was greatly impressed by his skill at finding just the right words to say just the right things. Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, too, handled words brilliantly in yesterday's lengthy speech in which she finally presented her presidential program.

On the world scene, alas, we have two champions of inarticulateness: George W Bush and John Howard.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Trying to be serious about Lisa/Nasa

The other day—when I pounced upon the weird story of the Lisa Nowak mess, only to learn later on that the poor girl was charged with attempted murder—I was perfectly sincere when I added a line or two to my post stating that I would refrain from joking about Lisa's case... which would be best handled conjointly by her family and friends, her employer and legal folk. My initial reflections are surely those of a responsible citizen. But I've seen an avalanche of healthy Lisa/Nasa humor, and I conclude that there's no sense in trying to be more Catholic than the Pope.

Clearly, the aspect of the sordid tale that fascinates every observer is the fact that this crazed woman decided to wear diapers during her long trip across America so that—as journalists put it euphemistically—she wouldn't need to "go to the bathroom"... which can be translated in earthly non-American terms as "stop to piss" or "stop to shit". And the nation's media people took up instantly this aspect of Lisa's odyssey as if it symbolized the unhappy asshole ending of her road movie.

Personally, I often use my ancient automobile to cross France in a north-westerly direction in order to meet up with my dear ex-wife... who happens to be "ex", above all, in the sense that we lead rich independent lives. Before undertaking such a journey from the Dauphiné to Bretagne, I always perform a count-down of vital operations. I verify the state of my old Citroën. I check the pressure of tires. I prepare a plastic box of delicious sandwiches to be consumed during the trip... since I consider that the availability of good food and drink is a positive safety factor. It goes without saying, since I never travel without my dear dog Sophia, that I make sure that everything is taken care of at that level: comfortable sleeping quarters in the rear of the vehicle, ample dog food and water. The only thing I've never thought of is diapers... not to mention pepper spray or a hammer [but there, I'm diverging].

The reason why all America is fascinated by Lisa Nowak's diapers is that they bring this whole crazy astronautic story down to the surface of the planet Earth. She may be [or rather may have been] a Nasa heroine but, like everybody else on the planet, Lisa pees and shits, and she had to take account of these necessities within the context of her romantic cross-country mission.

There's no apparent reason why I have to be serious about Lisa Nowak. But she happens to be one of the most serious people on Earth... if not in the Heavens. Lisa's an ecological angel. From time to time, she might guzzle rocket fuel, or even automobile fuel, but don't imagine for an instant that she's going to piss or shit haphazardly upon her lovely land of America. Nasa Amazons such as Lisa Nowak don't do that.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Beating Google... and illiteracy

In the space of a few years, the Google search engine has become a fabulous phenomenon, enabling us to find practically anything on the net. Personally, when somebody asks me for my Internet coordinates, I've got into the habit of replying: "Google William Skyvington between quotes." That way, I can be sure they'll find me. But it's not the only computer tool that I use daily. Wikipedia is already amazing, and it seems to be growing exponentially. Then there's the splendid online English dictionary on the Macintosh. Once upon a time, not so long ago, a private researcher/writer would have forked out much money to purchase paper dictionaries and encyclopedias of a far less efficient nature than the services rendered by Google, Wikipedia and the dictionary. Besides, today, the above-mentioned services might be thought of simply as the cherries on the icing of the personal computer cake. I say to myself constantly that I'm living in a truly fantastic age...

There's talk on the net news about a research firm named Powerset that would like to upstage Google by means of a search engine that accepts queries in natural language (ordinary English, for instance), such as: "If I asked you to take me to your leader, where would you lead me?" [That's a trivial example I've just dreamed up.] This is a research domain that enthralled me a quarter of a century ago, when I wrote an essay (in French) on artificial intelligence titled Machina Sapiens. Since then, like everybody else, I've cooled down considerably as far as dreams of English-speaking computers are concerned. It's not a matter of computers not being smart enough to speak English. On the contrary, machines are smart enough today not to need to speak English.. which is a quite different kettle of fact-finding fish. For example, a polite ornithologist no longer needs to ask:
"Dear computer, please be so kind as to point me in the direction of information of a general nature concerning the interesting subject of the birds commonly described as robin redbreasts." A couple of Google keywords do the job perfectly: "robin redbreasts".

Globally, I don't know what this means. Kids are already conversing telephonically in abbreviated keywords through text messages. Is Google going to lead them even further away from the great cultural traditions of linguistics and literature? No, computers have never made anybody illiterate... but kids attain unaided that ignoble end when they choose to stop thinking. And that's the problem, not computers.

Truly, I don't know what it takes to persuade kids to think. I can only speak for myself. For me, it was my grandparents, my parents and—to a certain extent—the place where I grew up, named Grafton. But I'm aware that this is in no ways an answer to the general question.

Infamous Aussie

A few days ago, in my post named Astronaughty female, I alluded to a psychiatric disturbance known as the Jerusalem syndrome. And today, I brought up the current-affairs subject of yet another conflict in the Holy City, concerned with the al-Aqsa mosque.

It has often been said that one of the most likely spots on Earth at which World War III could erupt is the Temple Mount: the magic pinnacle of this ethereal and volatile city, capable of casting a fleeting spell of madness upon certain inspired visitors. Well, an Aussie Protestant pilgrim named Denis Michael Rohan—born, like me, in 1940—is often quoted as an exemplary case of clinical Jerusalem insanity, for he succeeded in setting fire to the al-Aqsa mosque at seven o'clock in the morning on 21 August 1969. He watched and laughed as the ancient sanctuary burned, taking photos of the flames on his Instamatic camera. A medieval pulpit was destroyed, along with most of the dome, including the beams and ceiling.

Not surprisingly, many Muslims were convinced for years that mentally-disturbed Rohan was in fact a Zionist agent. The contemporary Israeli writer Amos Elon tell us that, when arrested, the crazy Aussie informed police that he did indeed wish to destroy the Muslim mosque so that the Temple might be rebuilt, "for sweet Jesus to return and pray in it".

I believe that Rohan was tried in Tel Aviv. I've often wondered what became of him. Did he return to Australia, and maybe form a sect out in the desert near Alice Springs? Or did a divine voice convince him that he could safely jump off the Sydney Harbour Bridge and glide above the waters like a seagull, or mount towards the heavens like a dove? For me, it's frustrating to realize that I have (or at least had) such a notorious fellow countryman, who might have succeeded in starting World War III, and yet I do not know what became of him. So, any recent information concerning this individual will be appreciated.

When I first started to visit the Holy Land regularly, in the '80s, I wouldn't have imagined I look enlightened. Be that as it may, I could never understand why I was subjected at times to intense interrogations from the Israeli authorities. They would ask me why I was carrying such a sophisticated Nikon camera, and why I had decided to stay at a Protestant hostel in the center of the Christian Quarter of the Old City, and what I intended to do in Jerusalem. At that time, I had not yet heard the tale of the would-be Aussie Messiah. Maybe the Israeli authorities were worried that a guy like me might suddenly imagine himself as a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and start running around the city madly looking for money-lenders' tables to overturn, or souls to raise from the dead. Well, I can reveal publicly today, retrospectively, that these exotic ideas never even crossed my mind.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Earth moving in the Holy City

This afternoon, for an hour or so, I was caught up in friendly e-mail contacts with a few French journalists concerning significant flaws in their Internet reporting on current events in Jerusalem. For example, they had published a report in which it was said that Israeli bulldozers were operating on the Temple Mount. First, I pointed out that the equipment shown in photos consisted of excavators, not bulldozers, and that they were being used for an archaeological investigation down on the plaza of the Western Wall, alongside the earthen ramp that leads up to the Temple Mount. Then, since I know Jerusalem and its history fairly well, I was able to correct other errors of this kind, and even send the journalists a rapidly-drawn map of the Temple Mount area enabling them to understand exactly where the excavating was taking place with respect to the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa mosque and the Western Wall.

It was interesting for me to see that, after each of my e-mails, the article in question, published on the web by a major French media organization, was promptly modified and republished to reflect my suggestions. Then one of the journalists would send me back an e-mail reply thanking me for my help. Since my children are not particularly keen on seeing their father fiddling around in the same professional fields in which they themselves operate, I used a trivial alias in communicating with these journalists. Likewise, I don't wish to indicate here the identity of the organization with which I was in contact, except to say that it is one of the biggest state-owned media systems in France. In any case, I was thrilled to discover that it is perfectly feasible for an unknown private individual such as me to intervene directly, in this fashion, at the level of content concerning such an important current-affairs story.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Heroes, hooligans, porn-singers and dope-takers

During my visit to Australia last August, one of my many pleasant discoveries was a book whose title is to be read at a second-degree level of humor: Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters by Johnny Warren [1943-2004]. He was the sporting hero who played a big role in promoting soccer in Australia.

A week ago, the television showed barbarian Sicilian spectators whose rioting—after a match between Catania and Palermo—caused the death of a policeman. Since then, all matches in Italy have been suspended. The government has decreed strict security regulations for stadiums, but it appears that only four grounds comply with these regulations. Unless work is carried out to make the other stadiums compliant, there's the strange possibility of matches being played behind closed doors.

In France, where certain fans can be just as moronic as in Italy, the soccer world was thrilled to learn on 26 January 2007 that former sporting hero Michel Platini had been elected president of the UEFA [Union of European Football Associations].

In the USA, there were no rioting fans in the context of the Superbowl, but I see that the halftime show has raised eyebrows once again. Last year, Janet Jackson's bra slipped down, revealing one of her breasts... which shocked puritanical TV viewers. This year, it appears that Prince performed behind a huge veil, so that spectators could only see the silhouette of the singer and his guitar... which was cunningly positioned in such a way that it looked like his giant penis.

Talking about sports with problems, Floyd Landis will not be lining up for the Tour de France, since his case of a positive drug test in last year's events has not yet been clarified. Over the last year or so, I've been aware that the daughter of a friend down on the French Riviera had started a promising career in competitive road cycling. When I last asked about her progress, I was surprised to learn that the girl had suddenly abandoned the sport completely. The reason? The people around her, in charge of her cycling career, were starting to insist upon the necessity of her taking certain pharmaceutical products.

I wonder if there are any totally calm and clean sports. One likely candidate: the weird thing called curling, where people with brooms sweep around a huge stone disk as its slides along the ice. I can't imagine that people who play that sport could be anything other than really nice quiet innocent folk. But who knows? Maybe players could get into a dispute through love rivalry, in Lisa Nowak style, and start bashing each other over the heads with their brooms. These days, I'm prepared for anything.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Things that happen conjointly

From a scientific viewpoint, causality is a concept that enables us to predict that such-and-such an event will soon occur as a consequence of an earlier event. For example, if you pour hot water on a ball of snow, it will start to melt.

In the context of mathematical statistics, there's another concept, correlation, which can be applied to sets of events that have already happened, with a view to demonstrating that they appear to be interdependent. You might say that, faced with correlated events, we suspect the existence of causal relationships, but we are not able to specify them precisely. In certain cases, observers discover correlations between series of events that could not possibly be related by causality. For example, we might find that a graph expressing variations in the price of lemonade in Sydney over the last decade is almost identical to statistics concerning the number of foxes killed by hunters in England. Pure coincidence!

In France, at the present moment, road safety authorities are dismayed by the fact that the number of deaths in accidents during the month of January was considerably higher than a year ago. Specialists immediately wondered why. Was there some causal factor behind this disappointing statistic? They have been unanimous in pointing out that there is indeed a strong correlation in France between road deaths and presidential elections. In other words, as strange it might seem, greater numbers of French drivers kill themselves when there's an election just around the corner. The suspected causal relationship involves the weird French tradition of presidential amnesties. In regalian style, one of the first acts performed by a newly-elected president is to grant amnesties to vast numbers of small-time delinquents and citizens who have committed petty misdemeanors such as parking their vehicle illegally or speeding. The alleged reasoning of pre-election drivers is as follows:

If I were to drive recklessly and get pulled over by a gendarme, I might be condemned to paying a fine. But when the new president arrives on the scene next May, he/she will wash away our sins by granting the traditional amnesty. So, there's no reason why I should worry about getting pulled over by a gendarme. So, I'll drive recklessly.

Now, that sounds a bit far-fetched. But experts swear it's a fact that French drivers "reason" in that weird way.

I'm particularly interested in another concept, not unlike correlation, known as synchronicity: a term applied to coincidental happenings that are so amazing that observers get around to wondering if these events were not brought about mysterious forces that we do not yet understand scientifically. A typical case of synchronicity is when you come upon an old letter from a friend whom you haven't seen for ages and, while you're browsing through the letter, the friend in question phones you. It's not surprising that many serious people consider that believing in a concept such as synchronicity is akin to believing in magic. But some scientists are prepared to admit that certain coincidental happenings are so extraordinary that it's tempting to imagine them as instances of situations that we do not master totally in terms of conventional probability theory. Most often, when such happenings are discussed among people of a scientific bent, they soon end up evoking things such as quantum events or Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

My favorite personal synchronicity anecdote concerns the British novelist Lawrence Durrell [1912-1990], who was one of my heroes when I was a young man. I had heard that he lived in a village in Provence, and I imagined erroneously that the name of this village was Nîmes. In fact, Nîmes is a large city, and Durrell's village was located quite a long way away from the city.

[My misunderstanding was like that of a French tourist in Australia who, having heard that a friend lives in the bush to the north of Sydney, starts searching for his friend by taking a taxi to North Sydney.]

Be that as it may, I strolled around the heart of Nîmes, early in the morning, a little dismayed to discover that it was indeed a huge "village"... and nevertheless met up personally with Durrell, seated all alone at a café patio alongside the ancient Roman arena. Exceptionally, Durrell had driven into Nîmes early in the morning to get his automobile repaired. We spent an hour together, conversing about trivia such as Henry Miller's shock at the idea of having to use an outdoor dunny at Durrell's place, and Durrell's relatives in Tasmania who would regularly send him a crate of apples every year.

I've often imagined that I had this marvelous encounter with my novelist hero, not through mere chance, nor even through a causal chain of events, but rather because—somehow or other—I had "willed" that I should meet him there, at that place and at that moment. Now, call me crazy, if you like, call me unscientific... but I can think of no better explanation of this synchronicity.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Astronaughty female

I love the extraterrestrial tale that's all over the web this morning. It's just so American, and at the same time so human, but no Star Wars screenwriter would dare to invent such an unlikely affair. The gist of the story, if you haven't seen it already, is that a 43-year-old female astronaut named Lisa Nowak was arrested for the attempted kidnapping of another woman, an Air Force captain, whom she apparently considers as a romantic rival with respect to a male astronaut. Although the term "kidnapping" is used, it would appear that Nowak's actions could be described more correctly as a premeditated assault, since she concealed her identity by means of a wig and used a can of pepper spray to get a hate message across to her rival. After the attack, police discovered that the astronaut had been carrying, besides the pepper spray, a pellet pistol, a knife, a steel hammer and a meter of rubber tubing... which is almost enough to deter space invaders. If an ordinary passenger tried to get aboard an airliner with such equipment, it would surely arouse suspicions. It might be a fact that this is normal stuff carried around in their handbags by female astronauts. After all, would you expect amazons in that line of work to go around with lipstick and powder puffs in their bags?

One would imagine naively that the Nasa would carefully screen their candidates [click here for news] to reject individuals capable of getting enmeshed in such an imbroglio. Even the mother superior of a nunnery would surely be smart enough to detect signs of vocational inadequacies in the case of a woman who's capable of expressing her charity towards others by means of pepper spray.

Medical authorities in the Holy City have long been aware of a kind of hysteria—known as Jerusalem fever or Jerusalem syndrome—that attacks pilgrims every now and again. The victim (usually, according to hospital statistics, an American male protestant) suddenly goes mad. He throws off his clothes and starts to cry out prophecies in the street. Fortunately, the victim gets back to normal after a calm day or so in a Jerusalem psychiatric clinic.

It's possible that I have a mixed-up mind, but I've often imagined that the euphoria of floating around the Earth in a spaceship could bring on the same kind of ecstatic affliction. I'm convinced that an imaginative astronaut would be capable of creating such a crazy entertaining happening. In any case, the next time they send Lisa up in the air, I'll be glued to the TV news accounts, on the off-chance that she might provide us with a spontaneous space act of one kind or another.

PS Maybe I should cease to joke about these events. Since writing my post this morning, I've learned that Lisa Nowak is charged with attempted murder. So, I'll leave today's blog intact, but I'll say no more about this weird affair. Meanwhile, I can hear the bells of electronic cash registers ringing already as literary agents vie to purchase the film rights of this fabulous story.

Monday, February 5, 2007


Anxiety is surely the next best thing to sex. They are forces of a similarly mysterious nature on the Shakespearean stage of Man in the Cosmos. With anxiety, like sex, there's a gut feeling that physical action needs to be taken, to achieve some inexpressible end. This action concerns our body. In the case of sex, we seek to disappear corporeally into the heavenly haven of another being—re-entry into the primeval womb—to protect ourselves from harm or even annihilation. That's what the verb "procreate" is all about. With anxiety, we would like to scream out that we want to get off the world, because it's moving too fast, but we finally store up our scream in our fragile fear-filled body, in frustration and stunned silence, awaiting encouragement. Meanwhile, we tremble. That's what anxiety is all about.

The supreme critic Voltaire had a nephew named Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian [1755-1794] who wrote fables, using the imagined thoughts of animals to express various moralistic convictions. Now, I can understand the motivations of Claris de Florian insofar as I often use the same subterfuge. If I quote my dog as saying or even thinking such-and-such a thing, that doesn't mean that I would care to express myself in the same outspoken terms, because I don't necessarily agree with my dog. QED

One of the best-known fables of Claris de Florian concerns a dull field cricket (I'm talking of an insect, not a sport) that observes a butterfly. Unfortunately, teenage morons arrive on the scene, are attracted by the presence of the beautiful butterfly, and end up tearing it to pieces in a barbaric fashion. The cricket, witnessing the scene, makes one of the saddest declarations (which I have not attempted to translate poetically) that has ever accompanied the accomplishment of an absurd crime:

Brilliance in this world costs too much.
I'll bask in peaceful retirement.
To live happily, let's live hidden.

Anxiety-ridden Claris de Florian got put into prison during the French Revolution, and he succumbed to his hardships at the age of 38. Maybe he might indeed have been better off if he had decided to live hidden like a cricket rather than gallivanting around in the style of a butterfly.

Happily, today, certain great minds affirm outspokenly that passive anxiety—in the face of religious fanaticism—simply isn't cricket.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Educational project

Can you identify the dull brownish object that I've photographed alongside a euro coin (to indicate its size)? It's a specimen of a Black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, collected at midday on the hill opposite my house. The fellow who found it uses a couple of trained dogs. They came upon three truffles, and he gave me this one. Its exquisite sweet smell is difficult to describe: something like the musty mushroomy aroma of old books stored in a damp corner of a cellar. Nearly half the world's production of this exotic plant comes from France, and 80% of that production comes from the south-east corner of France. Truffles are sold for a fortune at the markets of Richerenches, down in Provence, just to the south of Grignan.

Now, what am I going to do with my truffle? Make a few omelettes? Maybe... but, above all, I'll use a few fragments of the truffle for an intensive canine educational project... which in fact went into operation this afternoon. In a nutshell, I intend to transform my dear dog Sophia into a talented truffle-finder!

Friends have often explained to me the technique. Basically, most dogs pick up easily the pungent aroma of a truffle, but it's not at all the sort of stuff that a dog would wish to eat. So, the dog-trainer combines the use of truffle fragments, placed in a small plastic container with holes all around it, with pieces of tasty dog-food such as ham or chicken. The training consists of coaxing the dog to dig up the plastic container with the truffle fragments, then you reward the dog with ham or chicken. For example, in the beginning, I actually buried chicken bones alongside the truffle container.

Sophia is so obsessed by tasty food (as you might conclude through seeing photos of my plump pet) that she's an ideal candidate for this kind of training. Once she's convinced that there's something worth digging for, she'll work like an engine to get it. Within a space of ten minutes, in a state of excitement (with me yelling out the French word truffe!), Sophia performed half-a-dozen successful tests. All I have to do is to repeat the hide-and-seek game regularly, every day for ten minutes or so, for as long as it takes to bring about automatic reactions from my dog. Meanwhile, I do intend to cook at least one omelette, because I too appreciate tasty food.