Monday, December 31, 2007

Gigantic news from Down Under

It's still 2007 here in France, whereas the new year is already an hour and a half old in my motherland. And the following dramatic story has already been transmitted across the planet on the Internet by Reuters, accompanied by an image:

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian newlyweds kissing on the backseat of their hire car were unaware their chauffeur was street drag racing, until a police siren broke their romantic bliss and ended the race. The chauffeur, clocked at up to 130 kph (80 mph) racing a young driver in a rental car, was fingerprinted on the side of the road and the hire car confiscated. "It's alleged that as the traffic light turned green both the (cars) accelerated harshly from the intersection and continued to travel at speed along the highway," police said in a statement. Both drivers were taken away by police, while newlyweds John and Laina Tauranga were escorted home in a police car.

Shit! Fuck me! Stone the crows! Can this really be true? Was this vehicle truly racing at 130 kph while the innocent newlyweds were kissing on the back seat? Thank God that the Australian police force is constantly vigilant, to detect frightening happenings of this kind, and to attenuate the consequences of such barbarian acts upon innocent victims. What a terrible atmosphere of drama in which the newlyweds John and Laina are going to start their married life. I hope they'll receive appropriate psychological counseling to recover from this ordeal. Unbelievable...

The new year, as I said, is less than a couple of hours old in my motherland, but I can sense already that dramatic Aussie stories are going to amaze me more and more throughout the coming months.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Old bridges in Australia

In my blog, I write one day about major themes such as Australia's future submarines, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto [who, I've just learned, used to be in the same class for foreign students as my Australian cousin Peter Hakewill at the Institute of Political Science in Paris] and all kinds of issues. Then, the next day, I'm submitting a lukewarm article whose title evokes bridges. Certain readers might be surprised or disconcerted by my eclectic behavior.

Please be patient. I'm merely working, as unobtrusively as possible, on my Google image. As I've already indicated, in my article entitled Identity issues [display], the Google folk appear to be scratching constantly their heads, trying to figure out what my Antipodes blog is all about. Now, this is a most pertinent question, since Google is displaying oriented ads on my blog site, and their ads are supposed to reflect what my blog is all about. Sometimes, Google's robots seem to sense, quite rightly, that my daily preoccupations might have something to do with Australia... which is, after all, a keyword that sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb. On the other hand, like certain members of my family in Australia, the Google robots don't seem to have assimilated or accepted various otherwise-obvious facts:

(a) The Antipodes blog is really concerned, not with my birthplace of Australia, but with my adopted land: France.

(b) I've been living in France for most of my adult life, and I persist in loving life in France, which has become for me, not only a gigantic legend, but a myth. Like Joan of Arc, I now hear voices...

(c) I'm a grave and no-doubt incurable victim of the Francophile virus, which has attacked me particularly in the intellectual region of my being. For me, in the Cosmos, there's France... and then the rest.

(d) Linguistically, there was Egyptian, Greek and Latin (with a little bit of Hebrew thrown in for the fans)... followed by French. Alongside this linguistic diamond, English was a magnificent chunk of flint, particularly with Shakespeare. Since then, as a worldly touristic and business Esperanto, the flint has disintegrated into porous rock.

(e) My ex-wife, children and dearest friends are all French.

(f) I dash to my mailbox each morning in the hope of receiving the final official document from Australia [a long-awaited stamped copy of my birth certificate] that will enable me to be gifted with the most profound but purely symbolic and superficial honor of my life: French citizenship!

OK, let's stop all this shit talk about France. The subject that I wish to tackle in the present article [since I know that Google is watching over my shoulder] is bridges: old Australian bridges. No hurry, because Australia has the habit of holding on to its antiquated infrastructure. Within the normal lifespan of an Australian, you're not likely to be surprised by the proliferation of new bridges, road, railways lines, etc. That's the charm of my native land. Nothing new under the rainbow...

First, there's the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which will shortly explode into New Year fireworks:

Then there's my home-town bridge across the Clarence in Grafton:

Finally, in this short touristic coverage of Aussie bridges, there's Bawden's Bridge over the Orara River, in the murky shadows of which I was apparently conceived on a tepid January afternoon of 1940 by a randy male named King Skyvington and a female named Enid Walker, otherwise known as my dear and fabulous Dad and Mum.

OK, Google, it's now up to you. I suspect that you're going to conclude that I'm attempting, through my Antipodes blog, to lure unsuspecting citizens of the world into going out to Australia and settling there. Fair enough. That's partly true. But they should be warned. Watch the Sydney fireworks on New Year's Eve, with no risks of danger, and cross the Clarence River, if you must, by means of the decrepit bridge of which we are so fond. But beware, dear tourists, of becoming romantically bewitched under Bawden's Bridge over the Orara, and using it as a backdrop for procreation. Its bizarre waves are capable of giving rise to un-Australian offspring who might be enticed by antipodean lands such as France. Weird creatures such as me.

Now, let's see how Google is going to react to this article about bridges in Australia.

Tense frustrations concerning Colombian hostages

We must understand that it's normal for the promised transfer of hostages of the Colombian Farc to be subject to all kinds of more-or-less unexpected delays and obstacles. We're not playing a polite diplomatic game among gentlemen. Everybody knows perfectly well that, if ever regular Venezuelan and Colombian political powers and armies were capable of detecting the slightest breach in the defensive system of the Farc, they would exploit it instantly, and blast the arse off these arrogant outlaws. So, the outlaws have every reason to be ultra-wary.

Needless to say, like every other citizen of the world concerned by the struggle for the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt, I hope sincerely that the bloody Farc will screw up something or other, and get blasted into eternal oblivion. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

They're not honorable guerillas, merely mindless outlaws, inhuman jungle vermin... like some of my ancestral bushrangers (not to mention any names).

Prohibition of smoking

There's no doubt about it: the prohibition of smoking in French cafés and restaurants, as of next Wednesday, is likely to be a gigantic event in the history of French society and the Republic.

It's such a "big" idea (where I dare not imagine all that might be encompassed by my fuzzy adjective) that it might not go off smoothly. There'll surely be some unpleasant surprises. For me, the situation is potentially more frightening than the notorious "year 2000 bug", which turned out to be a fizzer. [If I remember correctly, the term "fizzer" is Australian jargon for a damp firecracker that doesn't explode correctly... but I ask to be corrected if I've made a mistake.) Smoking has always been such an integral part of everyday life in French cafés and restaurants that its global prohibition is a little like a crazy fascist law banning, say, the use of the first-person singular form of verbs, meaning that the celebrated Cogito ergo sum of Descartes would henceforth have to be rendered in everyday parlance as "People think, therefore they are".

Parenthesis. Amusing anecdote, inspired by my comparison, which has nothing to do with the prohibition of smoking. In 1969, a French author, Georges Perec [1936-1982], wrote a 300-page novel, La disparition, without ever using the letter "e". Close the parenthesis.

Let me get back to the forthcoming ban on smoking. I hope that French "authorities" (whoever they are) will make a point of collecting all sorts of statistics, during the coming weeks, about unusual happenings. I'm thinking of freak crimes, inexplicable accidents, domestic disasters of all kinds, etc. I reckon there might be a lot of this kind of stuff in France over the next month or so. Don't try to persuade us that it's a normal resurgence of matters that are smoldering constantly, or that the harsh winter conditions can provoke despair and violence. If a foreign archduke, visiting Nicolas Sarkozy in the president's winter residence, were to be assassinated by a crazed gunman during the next few weeks, it should be relatively easy to track him down. [I'm referring of course to the crazed gunman, not to our wandering Sarkozy or the assassinated archduke.] French detectives would simply have to start searching for a heavy-smoking underworld personage who had the habit of making nasty political allusions to archdukes on the "zinc" [metal-topped café counter] while consuming his matinal espresso and "grilling" [French slang for smoking] his habitual Gauloises.

PS Sometimes, interesting elements of my blog are hidden in exchanges with friends who send in comments. This is the case concerning an interesting comment from Silvio [display] on the subject of Australian sporting prowess.

Pakistani test explosion

The test explosion seen in this video took place on 28 May 1998 in the hills of the Chagai district of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan:

The yield of Pakistan's first fission weapon was 9 to 12 kilotons of TNT (as compared to the 15 kilotons of the Hiroshima bomb).

Things could easily get out of hand in Pakistan in the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, in the sense that the nation could theoretically be taken over by radical Islamists. If there were any real chance of this happening, it's certain that military hawks throughout the world (maybe even in neighboring India) would be tempted to evoke the terrifying concept of preemptive strikes.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Ways of looking at the world

In illustrating this humble article by a fragment of the hallucinating triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, I've let myself be carried away by a series of associations. At the outset, all I really needed was a simple Necker Cube:

This is a familiar graphical device that demonstrates how an image can be interpreted in two different ways. The horizontal line at the bottom can be envisaged as either the front edge of a cube, or alternatively the rear edge.

Since a Necker cube is a rather austere object, I thought it might be preferable to call upon one of the numerous fantastic graphical constructions of M C Escher [1898-1972], some of which might be described tersely (too tersely, of course, since the artist was a genius) as enhanced Necker Cubes.

Then I said to myself: Well, if I'm looking for a disconcerting graphical vision of things, why not get back to Hieronymus Bosch, who demonstrated so strikingly that the ordinary world is extraordinary?

In fact, I merely wanted to preface an account of my recent rereading of the masterpiece by Richard Dawkins: The Extended Phenotype. The underlying theme of this brilliant text is that the author would like to persuade his readers to choose between two plausible, if not equivalent, ways of looking at the world of Darwinian evolution. On the one hand, there's the classical notion that an organism such as a bird in the Amazonian jungle, for example, will emerge as an evolutionary winner if its fitness for survival is maximized with respect to that of other birds. On the other hand, there is Dawkins' celebrated "gene's-eye view" of the situation, presented in his earlier book The Selfish Gene, according to which all evolutionary battles take place primarily at the level of genes, which only emerge as victorious survivors if they are capable of replicating (reproducing themselves) more plentifully than their rivals.

Normally, we think of the phenotype of a gene as the macroscopic effect it has upon the organism in which it resides. For example, when a gene is responsible for giving a child red hair, this particular outcome designates a phenotype of that gene. In the Dawkins title, the adjective "extended" highlights an amazing aspect of certain selfish genes. In a nutshell, the effects of a gene can sometimes extend well beyond the bodily limits of the host organism (human, animal or plant) in which it resides. A spectacular example of this effect is provided by beavers that build dams that increase their chances of survival. It would be absurd to imagine a stressed beaver gene mumbling to itself: "I must get around to building a dam, otherwise I won't survive." But the presence of the gene has the same final effect as if it were consciously aware of the need to build dams.

In using the metaphor of a Necker Cube, Dawkins is telling us that we're free to switch back and forth between two complementary images:

— On the one hand, there's the image of beavers surviving because their inherent fitness includes the ability to build dams.

— On the other hand, you have the relatively abstract image of a gene whose presence in a beaver causes the animal to build dams, whereby ensuring the survival of the gene in question... not to mention the survival of the beaver that hosts that gene.

The raison d'être of The Extended Phenotype consist of trying to persuade us that the second attitude is preferable. But you have to read the arguments minutely, through to the final pages, to be fully impregnated with the power of Dawkins' fascinating message.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Assassination politics

The etymology of the word "assassin" is weird. At the time of the Crusades, the original Assassins were fanatical members of a Muslim sect in Persia who consumed hashish—their name meant "hashish eaters" in Arabic—in order to get high before carrying out murder raids. Since then, assassination has become a callous political act in all kinds of societies throughout the world, including the USA.

Benazir Bhutto went to school in her native Karachi, then she moved on to Harvard and Oxford, where she was the elected president of the celebrated debating club known as the Oxford Union. Educated in these great ivory towers of western civilization, she returned to a context of violence that carried off her father and brothers. Later, she and her husband were accused of getting involved in various corruption affairs.

Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan from exile on 18 October 2007, and immediately escaped from an initial assassination attempt that killed and injured hundreds of people. Today, her luck ran out. Observers are asking an obvious question: Is it possible that today's attack might be the work of al-Qaeda and followers of Osama bin Laden? There's a more down-to-earth question: In the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination, will General Pervez Musharraf still allow the 2008 elections to take place? If so, how will Bhutto's PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party] react to the brutal disappearance of their charismatic leader?

Nuclear energy

In my recent article entitled Australia's submarines [display], I suggested that there is insufficient political consciousness and statesmanlike imagination in Australia to envisage a big project such as the construction of a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines. In The Australian today, there are a few negative remarks on this question. For example, Opposition Senator Nick Minchin states: "Australia has no capability or expertise to build or maintain nuclear submarines and the Collins-class boats have proved that conventional submarines can do the job. Rather than have a distracting debate, Labor should just rule out the nuclear option now." Peter Briggs, president of the Submarine Institute of Australia, stated that the main problem is lack of knowledge: "I think they should rule out the nuclear option because frankly we do not have time for such a major debate if we are to deliver new submarines by 2025. Australia has no nuclear industry and no nuclear facilities at our universities, and so we don't have the personnel or the knowledge required."

I'm dismayed by this defeatist thinking, which reflects Australia's stubborn head-in-the-sand attitude towards nuclear energy. And, with Kevin Rudd now elected, it's almost certain that the nuclear-energy situation in Australia will be bleaker than ever.

Here in France, of course, nuclear energy has become an everyday affair. Technological progress and advanced expertise should normally decrease the risks of catastrophes, and relatively few people—apart from Greenpeace and a handful of environmental groups—would contend today that developments in this domain should be halted. On the contrary, the commune of Cadarache in the south of France (near Marseille) will soon be hosting a huge futuristic research program called ITER [International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor] funded by the European Union, India, Japan, the People's Republic of China, Russia, South Korea and the USA.

Over half a century ago

Starting in 1950, Australia dominated the Davis Cup for a period of four years, first with the duo Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor. Then the young Australians Lewis Hoad and Ken Rosewall took over. In Melbourne in 1953, Hoad and Rosewall beat the US players Vic Seixas and Tony Trabert.

The 1954 finals in Sydney gave Seixas, 31, and Trabert, 24, a chance to get even with the 20-year-old tennis twins Hoad and Rosewall.

And that's exactly what they did, in the first two days, in a series of four-set matches.

Back in those final sunny days of December 1954, my paternal grandparents [Pop and Ma, as we called them] had invited me to drive down to Sydney with them to watch the finals of that Davis Cup tournament at White City Stadium. I seem to recall that we attended the doubles match, on the second day, since that was the kind of social tennis to which we were accustomed back in Grafton. For us, it was hard to imagine a game of tennis in which the server wasn't gazing in the direction of the backside of his partner (often of the opposite sex), crouched near the net. Singles matches appeared to us as unusually solemn and solitary events, in which you didn't even have somebody to chat to during the calm periods while your opponents were collecting the balls for the next stroke.

On 28 December 1954, at the splendid lawn courts between Kings Cross and Edgecliff, I got autographs from the four players.

This 1954 tennis tournament in Sydney remains in the local history books as a much-publicized event, probably because of the hero status of Hoad and Rosewall. Personally, I wasn't greatly surprised to see the young Australians defeated. Physically, they looked like young Australian sportsmen of the kind one could see anywhere. Seixas and Trabert, on the other hand, appeared to me as Martians, particularly when seen up close. They seemed to exude a mysterious mixture of power and sporting wisdom, quite unlike the naive grins of the Aussie kids. I had the impression that, for these superior Americans, tennis was not just a game; it was their business.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A man and his mother

One of my earliest and dearest childhood friends in my native South Grafton is Ron Willard, son of my most unforgettable primary-school teacher. Ron was the first person I contacted when I went out to Sydney last year. And, for a long time, Ron has accepted totally and bountifully a great mission of love: taking care of his mother.

My Antipodes blog is being read by childhood Grafton friends who know the individuals of whom I'm talking. The actions of Ron—a kind of modern celibate monk—are the testimony of a beautiful and rigorous interpretation of the sense of our life on Earth, and of the adoration and celebration of our eternal Mother: an emanation of the Greek goddess Gaia, not to mention earlier Egyptian divinities.

Australia's submarines

It has just been announced that Australia plans to build "the world's most lethal conventional submarine fleet". That curious expression is an example of the propensity to exaggerate whenever Australians talk about Australia. It's a little like referring, say, to "the world's most powerful horse-cavalry division". If foreign navies throughout the world were to reach a gentlemen's agreement with Australia to the effect that only classic diesel-powered submersible vessels would be employed in future underwater conflicts with the Royal Australian Navy, then we would probably be in a relatively comfortable situation. But, if an uncouth enemy were to ignore the rules of the game by using attack submarines of the nuclear-powered SSN class (not to be confused with submarines that actually launch nuclear missiles), then Australia's antiquated SSG models might not be nearly as "deadly" as claimed.

Australia's recent history in the submarine domain, dating from the Bob Hawke era and culminating in the existence of six faulty Australian-made Collins-class vessels, has been catastrophic, from both a financial and a technological viewpoint. Will the situation be better when these old-fashioned mediocre submarines (whose computer systems are off-the-shelf products from Raytheon) are replaced around 2025 by the newer models, to be manufactured by the same shipbuilder?

As an outside observer knowing little about defense strategies in general and submarines in particular, I have the impression that the decision that has just been announced has been largely inspired by the cogitations of an Australian think tank named Kokoda.

For $22 you can even purchase a paper signed by Ross Babbage, dated April 2007, entitled Australia's Future Underwater Operations and System Requirements. Although I haven't yet invested in a copy of this report (and no doubt never will, because I've got more exciting stuff to read), I'm convinced that the decision of the Royal Australian Navy reflects intimately the thinking of the above-named author. So, it would appear to be a blatant case of one-man thinking. What a tank for submarines! Incidentally, at the Kokoda website, the summary of Babbage's report is accompanied by a quaint drawing:

Don't you agree with me that this rudimentary sketch looks like an illustration from an old volume by Jules Verne? If you look closely, you can even see a midget robot submarine that has emerged from the entrails of the mother vessel. Believe it or not, this is an authentic aspect of Australia's future submarine fleet. Vicious little unmanned tadpoles will be expected to do all the dirty work while the host vessel sits quietly on the seabed, trying to remain undetected.

Recently, I got into a discussion with an Australian friend concerning the antiquated nature of the transport infrastructure in New South Wales. I was thinking primarily of roads, bridges and railway lines. He reacted simplistically by claiming that the volume of tax revenues in Australia is insufficient to cover expenditure in this domain. Now, that sounds to me like naive bullshit. In Australia, the land is composed of metaphorical gold. Theoretically, there are more than enough riches in Australia's soil to build the world's greatest roads, bridges, railway lines and nuclear-powered submarines. There's enough uranium in Australia to power all the nuclear vessels of all the navies of the globe. The only vital natural resource that is totally lacking in Australia is political consciousness. The concept of statesmanship is unknown in Australia. Politicians get elected because they promise, say, to lower interest rates for wage-earners paying mortgages on their suburban houses. Australians voters simply don't comprehend the notion of electing an individual with political wisdom, vision, imagination and profound humanitarian moral principles (as distinct from the candidate's uninteresting personal beliefs of a religious kind). For loud-mouthed snake-oil candidates, seeking to be elected, mythical Australia is the richest land on Earth... and I agree with them a priori. But, for elected representatives of the nation, there's never enough cash in the coffers to build a safe road, a modern bridge, a decent train service or a self-respecting nuclear-powered submarine.

An article in this morning's The Australian says: Although Defence has not yet ruled out the possibility of Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, this option is considered highly unlikely on strategic, practical and political grounds.

Note the final adjective: political. That's what I was saying a moment ago: Australia is simply not mature enough, politically, to own a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. As the old saying goes, or might have gone: Every nation has the submarines it deserves.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Glad Xmas tidings

For all kinds of news and good wishes, there's an ideal time. So, I was happy to take advantage of this Xmas season in an attempt to provide my daughter with a relatively clear bird's-eye view of the Cosmos as I now see it. In the domain of glad tidings, at this time of the year, it goes without saying that I'm faced with a lot of heavy-handed competition, particularly from the pope and his crowds of followers, including the hordes who hear him on TV. I'm thrilled to learn that primeval Bethlehem would appear to be getting back into the stride of Xmas celebrations, since I'm fond of that celebrated town, which I know quite well. Christianity was already a thousand years old when the Crusaders built a church there, above the alleged manger with little or no room for a newborn child. Here at Gamone, I've had ample opportunities of seeing the kind of context in which lambs are born. I've also had the privilege of lingering alone, for a matinal half-hour or so, in the crazy Greek Orthodox grotto at Bethlehem that is alleged to represent the place where Jesus was born.

The Bethlehem Nativity tale is total make-believe of the most superficial kind, but it's nice mythology. Personally, I'm far more moved by the equally absurd tomb of Rachel, on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

Today, everybody (including, probably, the Roman pope) knows perfectly well that all those stories are nothing more than stories. OK, fine, no problem. Why shouldn't we carry on telling such nice old stories to our children, and to anybody else who wants to hear them? Fair enough, but it's not very honest to transmit supposedly glad tidings to friends when the alleged news is obviously false, like the tale of Bethlehem. Today, that's called disinformation [from the Russian dezinformatsiya of circa 1950].

My own glad Xmas tidings are based exclusively upon science, reason, logic and philosophical cogitations of a non-religious kind. Trying to expound this subject to my daughter provided me with an opportunity of translating my thoughts into French... which was an excellent exercise for somebody like me who wants to straighten up the ideas in his mind.

I don't intend to try to summarize here, in my humble Antipodes blog, the sense of the Cosmos... as I sense it. For the moment, I shall content myself with this portrait of an intellectual actor who has enlightened me in a primordial fashion: Alan Turing. His conclusions have accompanied me constantly over the last half-century, ever since my discovery of computing. I referred to him at length in my book entitled Machina Sapiens. Insofar as I might evoke the hero concept, Turing is certainly one of my greatest intellectual heroes. Why? He made it clear to us that a theoretical universal computing machine is capable of computing anything and everything, including tasks that have been relegated to the domain of so-called artificial intelligence. Before you can get around to comprehending the sense of the Cosmos, you have to assimilate this seemingly modest but extraordinary conclusion of Turing, which would appear to justify all present and future activities in the domain of so-called virtual reality, including the perfectly plausible science-fiction notion that we humans, today, might in fact be virtual-reality puppets. To be truthful, Alan Turing was simply talking about everyday digital computers such as our delightful Macs. During his short and tragic time on the planet Earth, my hero was unable to imagine the amazing and almost unthinkable phenomenon of quantum computers. But that's another story, infinitely better than Bethlehem...

Cake contest

In a recent article [display], I mentioned my first steps in the preparation of the Italian cake called tiramisù. My daughter and I had planned that one of the highlights of her Xmas excursion to Gamone would be a tiramisù contest, with each of us producing a specimen of our current skills in this creative domain. My cake was classic, and Emmanuelle was kind enough to give me good marks. But my daughter's tiramisù blew me out of the contest.

Basically, it was [past tense of the verb to be] a multi-layered specimen of plain mascarpone and egg cream with interspersed raspberries, both solid and mashed. I was startled to discover that my daughter adheres to a puristic tiramisù school whose elitist members don't dunk the biscuits in coffee, and don't even sprinkle cocoa on the surface of their creations. Besides, when I asked Emmanuelle if she needed my bottle of Sicilian Marsala wine, she declined my offer with a polite sneer of the kind that no doubt characterizes senior members of the caste of tiramisù creators. In any case, motivated rather than discouraged by the shock of this contest, I'm determined to continue my research in this field. I have a vision of a tiramisù that incorporates a natural product from Gamone: walnuts. Maybe it's too early to let the cat out of the bag, and maybe I'm dreaming, but I've even been wondering whether it might not be possible to produce my own walnut-based biscuits for an ethereal tiramisù of a totally revolutionary kind.

Sophia's snow genes

This weekend, after rubble from the demolished rock at Choranche was cleared away [display], the road leading up to the Vercors plateau was finally opened. My daughter and I drove up to Saint-Julien-en-Vercors on Sunday, and gave Sophia her first taste of snow this winter.

My dog's Labrador genes went into action instantly, as it were, in the sense that Sophia was inebriated by the presence of the nice soft snow. She started off by rolling on her back in the snow, and then she got around to making sprints over a distance of fifty meters or so, as if the snow had transformed her into a high-speed husky. As I often say, a wonderful way of attaining happiness, at least for a few precious minutes, consists simply of watching a happy dog.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Near misses

In French, a young lady capable of winning a beauty pageant or the title of Miss France, say, is referred to as a "miss"... and this English term can even be found in French dictionaries. On December 8, the winner of the Miss France 2008 contest was Valérie Bègue, from the French island in the Indian Ocean named La Réunion.

In the above photo, behind the new miss, the lady in a black and white hat is Geneviève de Fontenay. Having chaperoned the Miss France contest for ages, she has become a celebrity in her own right. It might even be said that, in France, the look and the outspoken personality of Madame de Fontenay are probably better known than the identity of the latest miss.

Now, the famous chaperone turned red with fury when she learned that some old photos of Valérie Bègue, posed in a suggestive manner, have been published in a French magazine. Madame de Fontenoy announced that the new Miss France should resign immediately, and she even referred to La Réunion in an impolite fashion that might be construed as offensive, indeed racist. As for Valérie and her countless supporters in La Réunion and elsewhere, she doesn't appear disposed to yield her newly-won crown. So, a war has broken out between Miss France and Geneviève de Fontenoy.

Not to be outdone by miss-behavior in France, Belgium provides us with a shocking case of an unexpected miss-adventure involving their newly-elected national miss, named Alizée Poulicek.

Normally, in Belgium, individuals in the public limelight are expected to be fluent in at least two languages: French and Flemish. Well, Miss Belgium doesn't seem to understand a word of Flemish. To put it bluntly, in the case of Miss Belgium, something is seriously amiss.

Elsewhere on the planet, another miss has hit the news: Miss Teen USA South Carolina 2007. Somebody asked her what she thought of the fact that many Americans can't locate their land on maps. To my mind, her reply was more stunning than the sexy photos of Miss France and more alarming than the linguistic infirmities of Miss Belgium.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Identity issues

The firm that wants to sell generic Viagra to my alter-ego Bruno, mentioned in my recent article entitled Unsaintly stuff [display], is trying to invent a correct and friendly opening line for their spam. Their latest email to saintly Bruno starts as follows: Monsieur Saint.

When they get around to flogging their stuff to superior customers, they'll surely start their spam with, say, Monsieur Christ. In France, there are ordinary folk whose family name is Dieu [God]. Long ago, when Christine and I were living in Houdan, to the west of Paris, our local garage-owner was a Monsieur Dieu. If you got your brakes adjusted or your old tires changed, you could always be assured of receiving service and spare parts of divine quality.

In a quite different domain, that of my blog, I decided to authorize the insertion of Google ads. Who knows, maybe the new revenue will finally enable me to purchase, say, a tiny Mediterranean island. Apparently, a Google expert [maybe a human being, but not necessarily so] had to spend a short time visiting my Antipodes blog and deciding what kind of Google ads they should insert into such a website.

It's fun to examine the nature of various Google ads that have been displayed on my blog. They're a reflection, I suppose, of the underlying theme or profound nature of Antipodes as seen by Google. As somebody might have said: "Show me the Google ads displayed on your blog, and I'll tell you what kind of a blogger you are." It's not unlikely that, even for Google [androids and humans], it might be a little difficult to put the contents of my Antipodes blog into a nicely-labeled category. Consequently, some of the Google ads are likely to be a little unexpected... which makes this whole thing fun, if not funny. It goes without saying that I'm not allowed, personally, to click on any of these ads, because Google might interpret that as an illicit attempt to persuade them that genuine customers are clicking ads displayed on my Antipodes website. But nothing prevents me from noting down the details of the links, and then looking into their identity.

For example [I hope your browser displayed an orange dot at the start of this paragraph. If not, please let me know, and I'll stop trying to insert orange dots into my blog articles.], this morning, I noticed that there's an ad in my blog concerning the online services of the University of Liverpool [display].

I'm pleased that Google reckons that Antipodes readers might like to sign up for studies at an Internet university located in Beatles Land. The Fabulous Four came to fame at exactly the moment I met up with Christine at the Cité Universitaire in Paris, in the middle of the '60s. I've always sensed an ethereal link with John Lennon in that the poor guy, born a fortnight after me, got hit with the Winston name that I had succeeded narrowly in avoiding... thanks to a last-minute intervention of my dear mother against an aging aunt.

Things start to get a little weirder when I find an ad [display] concerning a UK firm, Anthony Island, whose specialties are listed as "executive security, close protection, incident crisis/management and surveillance/intelligence reports". I'm honored, but a little amazed, to think that readers of Antipodes [that's to say: you!] are preoccupied by those kinds of activities and affairs. I had always imagined you, naively, as nice simple folk interested either in my birthplace, Australia, or my adopted homeplace, France. I can't imagine why the hell you might wish to drop in on such a strange organization. But that's your problem, not mine.

Things get more disturbing still when my displayed Google ads refer to US organizations. Is it a fact that readers of my Antipodes blog might be interested in the services of Ahura Scientific [display], "for all your specialized security needs"? Their link, as it appears on my blog, speaks of "chemical detectors" that enable you to "immediately identfy explosives and chemicals used in terrorist attacks". To put it bluntly, Google would appear to believe that readers of my Antipodes blog are anguished by terrorist attacks. Frankly, I ignored this.

Things don't stop there. On the contrary, the latest Google ad on my Antipodes blog evokes the celebrated Pinkerton organization in New Jersey [display]. This is astounding news. I had no idea that you're all obsessed by security to this extent! Why the hell didn't you drop me a comment to tell me about your anguishes?

Things get back to normal with the most-recent Google ad: a link to the business administration department of the University of Geneva. Thank God, I think, that's more me! After all, I once taught computing in the business school of the Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia. But how did Google learn that?

Finally, I'm obliged to admit that I'm not at all sure who I really am, and what I write about.

Am I really writing this blog for anguished citizens who might be tempted to call upon Ahura or Pinkerton to save themselves from being annihilated by international terrorists? Or are my readers rather intelligent citizens who might like to study with academic sources located in delightful places such as Liverpool or Geneva? That's an interesting interrogation. Fortunately, I'm surrounded by wise friends. Besides my constantly-celebrated dog Sophia, there's a donkey and a billy goat. I'll let you know, as soon as possible, what they think about this whole identity crisis.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Power of words

There's talk in my native Australia about the fact that the new prime minister Kevin Rudd is not exactly an impressive orator. I agree. Commentators are bending over backwards in their determination to make it clear that this lack of eloquence is a commendable and specifically Australian quality. The more you mumble, the more you're an authentic Aussie. As my friend Geoff, considering me totally out of touch with my native land, once explained: "You fail to understand, William, that Australia doesn't have a literary culture." In other words, those like me who would expect powerful and logical words from our leaders must be considered as misguided un-Australian observers.

Here in France, there's a delightful ongoing scandal about a senior civil servant who has been renting dirt-cheap for decades (since the epoch when Jacques Chirac was mayor) a huge Parisian flat owned by the municipality. At one stage, the guy in question had to move to another city, whereupon he wrote a letter suggesting that he should hang on officially to the superb cheap accommodation in Paris, while offering to sublet it to a friend. In his letter, he stated that this solution, for his family and himself, would be "a factor of tranquility". Well, a talented journalist at Libération, telling us this tale, added a marvelous satirical comment, composed of no more than five words: "On ne saurait mieux dire." This terse appreciation might be translated into English as: "There's no better way of putting it."

I'm delighted every time I have the chance and privilege of encountering well-spoken or well-written words. I'm persuaded that our leaders should be able to expression themselves in powerful spoken and written words. In the USA, this was the case with leaders such as John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Here in France, eloquence has always been considered as a primary necessity... at least up until the arrival on the presidential scene of the latest incumbent, whose words would often appear to have little more power to stir the emotions, sadly, than those of a police officer surveying the scene of a crime, or a notary public assessing the extent of damages after an accident. You might judge that my harsh evaluation of the deplorable lack of eloquence of Nicolas Sarkozy, like that of Rudd, is blunt. But I believe, as they say, that there's no better way of putting it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Risk of confusion

In the French-language Gala page [display] where I found this excellent juxtaposition of two superb specimens of Sarkozy-type women, there are other fascinating pairs of photos. For presidential birdwatchers, it's great visual data.

I'm surely not by far the only male who has been in an embarrassing situation where an innocent phrase such as "Tell me, Marie" has slipped out inadvertently while conversing intimately with a friend named Maude who happens to have replaced, as it were, a former friend named Marie. On such occasions, those who are skilled in feigning some kind of momentary schizophrenic fit might do well to give it a go, but most fellows have to be content with turning red and mumbling something stupid such as "I really don't have a brain for names". The worst situation of all is when your former dear one used to have a private nickname—such as Cinderella or Goldilocks, for example—and your new friend suddenly inherits unwittingly this tender title.

The Sarkozy style of handling French affairs is such that he functions permanently in a demanding high-power operational mode that computer specialists refer to as multiprocessing... which means doing several things simultaneously. It's a pity that the poor guy, no doubt constantly exhausted from a physical viewpoint, now has this added burden of having to devote precious energy [which could certainly be better spent] to avoiding the terrible trap of mixing up his women.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Weird wet road

A few days ago, the municipal employee, Pierrot Faure, expressed his surprise at finding this big patch of wetness on the road that runs down alongside my house.

The water seems to emerge from a point just in front of Sophia, and it spreads across all the lower part of the macadam [to the right in the photo]. As soon as the temperature drops below zero, a thin but treacherous sheet of ice forms around the hair-pin bend at the level of my house and extends down towards Gamone Creek over a distance of some thirty meters.

What's the source of this mysterious water?

— Pierrot was worried that the wetness might indicate a ruptured joint in the metal pipes that bring down the municipal water supply to my house, which are probably located in this vicinity.

— Maybe there's a natural emergence of mountain water at this spot. Further up in the photo, behind Sophia, you can a wet stain on the higher side of the road. This is water that seeps down periodically from my natural spring, twenty meters further up the slopes. When it reaches the macadam, it trickles into a depressed steel gutter [pink dashed line in photo] that crosses the road just behind Sophia, at the place where the stain disappears.

These two hypotheses are equally disturbing in the sense that they both evoke the presence of a source of water beneath the macadam. But water can be a subtle entity when we find traces of wetness on sloped land, because it's never easy to determine the exact direction in which it is seeping or trickling. This morning, my neighbor Bob Morin proposed a third hypothesis for the wet road, and I'm inclined to think that he has hit upon the correct explanation. Some of the water that's supposed to fall into the gutter, on the left, apparently seeps under the gutter to the other side of the road, and then trickles down on the edge of the macadam [you can see traces of this flow in the photo] before spreading out leftwards to form the wet patch. If this explanation is correct, then nobody will need to dig up the road to solve the problem.

Photos of the rock by Tineke Bot

My neighbor Tineke Bot is not only a sculptor but also a talented photographer. Living just near the Choranche rock that was recently demolished, she was able to take a nice series of photos of these operations, which I've uploaded into my webspace [display].

In my article entitled Choranche rock 'n' roll [display], I described the main initial phase of this demolition. In the days following the initial explosion, the engineers realized that a sizable portion of the rock was still in place, so they decided to perform a second explosion... which is what you see in the final photo of Tineke's presentation. Her second-last photo is amusing. Shortly before the dynamite was scheduled to explode, somebody noticed that several hang-gliders were drifting in the mist, dangerously close to the site.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Blog bug

Breaking news: Less than twenty minutes after posting this article, I was no longer troubled by the pernicious bug at the origin of my article. As you can see, my header [with the word ANTIPODES, followed by a descriptive line and an image of the Cournouze at sunset] is once more impeccable. Does this mean that my ten Hail Marys gave rise to a miraculous intervention? I'll leave it up to my readers to decide whether this might have been the case. Meanwhile, I place more trust in advice I found on the Blogger forum, suggesting that Google recently changed something without letting us know, and that the following lines of magic code should now be inserted into my HTML template:

#header-inner {

I'm wondering now whether or not I should simply delete the present article from my blog. On the one hand, since the bug has now been fixed, and readers no longer discover a squashed header block at the top of this window, the article has become pointless and indeed confusing. On the other hand, the article has the merit of introducing and demonstrating, in a real-time context, the novel approach to solving computing bugs that consists of frankly appealing explicitly to divine Providence. For the moment, I think it's preferable to leave the article in place, as evidence of a kind...

---------- end of breaking news ----------

For the second time in less than a fortnight, there's a bug in my blog: the squashed header block at the top of the window. I don't believe the bug was caused by anything I did personally. It just appeared suddenly... like an apparition of the Virgin. Maybe it has something to do with the rather blasphemous terms of my article about Saint Bruno. Along with other bloggers, I've reported this problem to the Blogger forum. There no longer seem to be any old-fashioned blood-and-bones human beings in charge of Google's Blogger system. So, I don't know if, how or when this bug might be fixed. Meanwhile, while awaiting a hypothetical solution to this bug problem either from Google or from the Blogger forum, I've decided to try the following bug fix, to see if it works:

1 Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

2 Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

3 Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

4 Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

5 Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

6 Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

7 Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

8 Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

9 Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

10 Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

That's a count of ten. For the moment, we'll see if that's sufficient. Fortunately, because of the cut-and-paste feature of my word-processing software, and the fact that Google is offering me astronomical storage space for my blog, I'll be able to augment considerably, if necessary, the number of Hail Marys. One way or another, we'll get this bug fixed.

Unsaintly stuff

This typescript has been sleeping in a drawer at Gamone for two years. It needs to be rewritten, but I haven't found time to tackle the task.

Concerning the true story of Bruno [1030-1101], his official biography contains little factual information. In my novel, I've taken liberties by imagining events that might have taken place, such as Bruno's efforts to acquire metallurgical know-how and mineral resources enabling the Church to manufacture high-quality weapons for the forthcoming First Crusade. I gave a copy of the typescript to the head of the Chartreux monastic order. Later, I learned from a common friend that the Reverend Father (as he's often called) was most dismayed by the fact that my tale describes a brief romantic encounter between my fictional Bruno and a young rural woman, giving rise to the birth of a child. This invention—demanded by the fabric of my story—never appeared to me as outrageous. There was a lot of sexual liberty within the Church at that epoch. Besides, there's even a theory about Bruno himself being the illegitimate son of a high-ranking ecclesiastic and a noble woman in Cologne.

This morning, my small website about Bruno [display] received this amusing spam in French:

Seeing that my Free webspace is named "saint.bruno", the spammer—a pharmaceutical firm called Pharmaxite—imagined that the webmaster's surname is Saint and that his given name is Bruno. So, Pharmaxite started the spam by addressing me as "Dear Bruno Saint". The subject line of the spam might be translated as "Bruno Saint, the end of malfunctions for less than a euro". And the spammer then uses calm therapeutic language in an attempt to get the receiver interested in a pharmaceutical product of the Viagra variety.

In the list of mortal sins, I would imagine that trying to sell sex drugs to a saint, regardless of the fact that the potential customer has been dead for nine centuries, would be just as evil as trying to conjure up a mental image of the Virgin Mary under the shower. Maybe I should forward this spam to the Reverend Father so that he can look into the idea of asking Rome to excommunicate the Pharmaxite firm... if that's theologically possible. It's not unlikely, though, that they would start out by excommunicating me... which might have a negative affect [one never knows] upon my ongoing attempt to obtain French nationality. So, I'll refrain from taking any kind of action, while praying that God and the Holy Spirit are already fully aware of the ugly phenomenon of spam, and are drawing up plans to eliminate it in one way or another.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bali: agreement, but no numbers

News broadcasts on French TV have focussed on a handful of dramatic images of the Bali conference on global warming. First and foremost, we've watched the extraordinary video excerpt showing Al Gore daring to call a spade a spade by criticizing explicitly the stubbornness of his mother country. Then, at the height of the standoff between the USA and the rest of the world, we saw the conference leader Yvo de Boer breaking down under the strain, and fleeing the podium in tears. We admired the Papua New Guinea delegate Kevin Conrad politely advising Washington's Paula Dobriansky, if she didn't want her nation to tackle climate change, to "get out of the way". And we witnessed the once-defiant American lady finally bowing down to planetary democracy. Finally, we saw an explosion of joy and relief.

The agreed-upon roadmap is timid. It's better than nothing, but without projected statistics on cuts in emissions that Europe would have liked to have seen in the final Bali text. The tone of a joint statement by Greenpeace France, the Nicolas Hulot Foundation and the Action Climat-France Network is one of disappointment: "The scientific consensus is reduced [in the Bali roadmap] to a page note that refers to a chart stating that each nation can choose its preferred scenario. [...] The Bali roadmap accepts the risk of a three-degree Celsius rise in temperature, upheaving ecosystems in an irreversible manner, and resulting in hundreds of millions of climate refugees."

Personally, I too was rather disappointed by the lukewarm performance at Bali of my Australian compatriots Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong, not to mention Peter Garrett, who were neither heroes, ecological evangelists nor even impressive speakers in the Al Gore style. Their fighting style and persuasive talents, in this planetary arena, can hardly be described as globally warming.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Blacks, blanks

Even my comments must be blanks... in the sense that I don't have much to say about this fellow Australian: a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl—shown alongside her father—who was gang-raped by a bunch of guys who claimed absurdly and horridly that this innocent child was a "consenting partner"! Consequently, they were acquitted...

We white colonialists never managed to understand you: you, the original Australians... and invent an intelligent system of harmonious collaboration between you and us. This has been our fault, not yours. All I would like to say today, personally—in a vain attempt to attenuate your ancient pain, distress and anger, for which my ancestors were responsible—is a single simple word: Sorry!

Assassination trial of a Corsican goat herdsman

In each of the hundred or so geographical departments of the French Republic, the national authority is represented by an individual known as a prefect. I mentioned already this republican concept in my article of 21 July 2007 entitled Prefects [display]. In view of the highly symbolic nature of the role of these distinguished individuals (not to mention their everyday down-to-earth responsibility of maintaining republican order throughout the nation), killing intentionally a French prefect is a particularly grave crime, which might be likened to assassinating the president or prime minister of France. In other words, the Republic doesn't take such acts lightly... and rightly so.

On the evening of 6 February 1998, the 60-year-old prefect Claude Erignac was gunned down, from behind, in a street in Ajaccio. Over a year later, nine Corsican separatists, suspected of being associated with the commando that assassinated Erignac, were arrested. And one of the arrested men claimed that the fellow who actually shot the prefect was a goat herdsman named Yvan Colonna.

The named culprit immediately went into hiding in the wild hills of Corsica. Four years later, in July 2003, Colonna was finally tracked down and brought into custody, and his trial before a court of assizes in Paris started a month ago.

It's interesting to note that the unique accusations of Colonna as the trigger-man in the Erignac assassination emanate from the small circle of Corsican separatists who've already been condemned for participating in this crime. In other words, they (and close family members) are saying that the execution was carried out by a specific individual, Yvan Colonna, who can be considered as a fellow-member of their separatist clan. Now, this is weird. Everything would be so much clearer, in a way, if they were to say that the gunman was an Italian mafioso, for example, or a disgruntled tourist from Brittany, say, or even a crazy American psychopath who happened to be visiting the birthplace of Napoleon. Today, the wife of Alain Ferrandi, sentenced in 2003 to life imprisonment, refuses to retract her declaration that Colonna visited her husband at their home, just after the crime, accompanied by Pierre Alessandri, also imprisoned for life.

Colonna's trial has highlighted what appears to be a curious criminal behavior, specifically Corsican. One has the impression that condemned Corsican separatists are capable of accusing such-and-such a former comrade in arms, as it were, because this strategy enables the real culprits, meanwhile, to save their skins. In other words, while Colonna's defense lawyers are attracting attention by doing their best to prove that their client could not have possibly committed this crime, the true criminal is sinking more and more into obscurity.

This morning, in a dramatic last-minute operation, Colonna's lawyer Gilles Simeoni even went as far as the law and legal ethics would enable him to go in insinuating, rather explicitly, the identity of the obscure individual whom the wife of Ferrandi might be trying to cover up by allowing the blame to rest upon Colonna.

The least that can be said is that the evidence against Colonna is flimsy, and that the charismatic calmly-spoken 47-year-old Corsican doesn't behave like a killer. In France, the expression "intimate conviction" is often used to designate our privately-held opinions concerning the possible guilt or innocence of a convicted individual. At the present moment [Thursday afternoon, 13 December 2007], while I'm writing this blog article, Colonna's trial has not yet ended. Consequently, it's out of the question for me to express publicly my "intimate convictions" concerning the case of Yvan Colonna. I can say, however, that the vast information provided by the Internet concerning all the intricacies of an affair such as this would appear to aid us immensely in forming a sympathetic evaluation of this individual.

Breaking news [Thursday evening, 13 December 2007]: Yvan Colonna has just been sentenced to life imprisonment for the assassination of the prefect of Corsica, Claude Erignac, in 1998.

Personal conclusions [Saturday evening, 15 December 2007]: This affair was judged, not by a citizen jury, but by an exceptional group of professional magistrates. It would therefore be ridiculous to claim that these expert dignitaries might have acted in a lightweight or erroneous fashion. So, we have to search for deeper reasons for their condemnation of the Corsican shepherd... whose lawyers have just launched an official appeal, as expected, to a higher court. Clearly, the greatest single negative factor in the case of Yvan Colonna was the fact that he decided to attempt to hide from French Justice, and indeed succeeded in doing so for four years. Everybody knows that this kind of behavior is frankly unpardonable within the context of the French Republic... whose noble forms were traced initially by a Corsican named Napoléon Bonaparte. If you've got nothing to hide, then you shouldn't hide. Inversely, if you did hide from French Justice, then you probably had something to hide... such as an assassination, for example. Incidentally, this is not a valid logical deduction... but it's enough to put you behind bars for the rest of your life.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Amazing old map of the world

Click the above image to obtain an enlarged version of the map in question, drawn exactly five centuries ago by a German monk named Martin Waldseemüller [1470-1521], in a monastery in the province that is now Lorraine in France. This map, purchased recently by the US Library of Congress, includes for the first time ever the name America, which was possibly (but not necessarily) a reference to an Italian seafaring merchant named Amerigo Vespucci [1454-1512]. Recall that Christopher Columbus [1451-1506], who died a year before the creation of Waldseemüller's map, had always imagined, after crossing the Atlantic, that he had reached the eastern coast of Asia.

The most amazing aspect of Waldseemüller's map is the inclusion—in a vaguely-shaped form—of the great expanse of water that we now know of as the Pacific Ocean. The shape of the western seaboard of Waldseemüller's rendering of South America is remarkably realistic, suggesting that Waldseemüller, in 1507, had access to cartographical information from sources whose identity still remains a mystery.

Waldseemüller's map—now framed in a solid aluminum container filled with inert argon gas—is about to be displayed publicly for the first time at the Library of Congress in Washington.

Choranche rock 'n' roll

My recent article entitled Rock is ready to fall [display] described the giant rock at Choranche overhanging the road from Pont-en-Royans up to Villard-de-Lans. This afternoon, lots of spectators gathered on the slopes of Châtelus to watch the successful dynamiting of this rock.

Tineke and Serge are standing alongside the painted marks delimiting the safety zone for spectators. Many of the people who turned up here, mingling with road-workers in their bright uniforms, were residents who had been evacuated by the authorities. Since it was quite cold outdoors, the mayor and councilors of Châtelus had the brilliant idea of setting up a roadside stand to serve us free drinks: cups of warm red wine flavored with cinnamon. The mounting excitement of the onlookers may have been enhanced by the wine. In any case, the atmosphere was festive. At one stage, a Belgian dentist who has recently moved into an old farmhouse in Châtelus started entertaining us with his accordion.

Meanwhile, the truck that had delivered its precious cargo of dynamite to the site started to unload big rolls of plastic.

A red mobile crane had hoisted the heavy plastic to the top of the rock, where workers were draping it over the rock, so that houses down to the left might be protected from projections due to the blast.

The first indication that the explosion had taken place was visual. The rock was encircled by brilliant red flashes. Then everything was hidden by a gigantic cloud of yellowish smoke, and an enormous dull thud resounded throughout the so-called Circus of Choranche. A minute later, when the smoke had cleared, we were amazed to see that the rock had disappeared, the road was perfectly intact, and all the vegetation on the slopes beneath the site had been cleared by the hail of rocks, forming a twenty-meter-wide path down to the edge of the Bourne.

When I succeeded in photographing the site from a closer distance, I was intrigued to discover that the interior of the rock contained the same blue limestone found below my property, commonly referred to as Gamone bluestone.

Down at the site, everything was now calm. Except for a few big fragments and a lot of rubble, most of the rock had been disintegrated and blown clean across the road, as planned, and I had the impression that not even a single tire had been touched by the blast. But the site was ghostly, as if a great crime had just been perpetrated here.

For Tineke, in a way, this was the case. As a sensitive sculptor, from the moment she bought the property thirty years ago, she had always imagined the great rock as the fist of an outstretched arm, ready to protect her from the obscure forces of the surrounding mountains. Now the authorities had come along and blown the hand off her protector. But Serge and Tineke were thrilled to discover that the engineers had carried out their task impeccably, and that the houses adjacent to the explosion had suffered no damage whatsoever.

I was amused to see that grubby leather gloves, abandoned by a worker a few days ago, were still lying on the parapet, a few meters away from the heart of the explosion. I pointed them out to Tineke, who confirmed that she too had seen them lying there yesterday. Maybe, I thought, they were magic gloves, no longer serving any useful purpose, that had dropped to the parapet from the hand of Tineke's protector.