Thursday, May 31, 2007

Building fences

Over the last thirteen years, since settling down at Gamone, I've planted hundreds of chestnut posts in the rocky soil to build wire-mesh sheep fences. If the donkey leans against such a fence, or a sheep runs into it at full speed, it won't survive for long. [I'm talking of the fence, not the donkey or sheep.] So, I often recycle old posts and even previously-used wire mesh to build new sections of fencing. At a Gamone level, that's the sustainability concept.

I've repainted the pointed ends of these posts with bitumen (sold in cans in hardware stores), to minimize rotting in damp soil.

In the above photo, I'm holding the heavy steel spike used to create post holes. The general idea is that you stand with your feet apart at the spot where you intend to make a post hole, and you raise and then hurl this spike into the ground. To produce a hole that's deep enough for a post (about thirty to forty centimeters), you might have to raise and drop the spike a dozen or more times.

This photo also shows how I'm using a pulley device (a steel block and tackle), attached to a linden tree, to stretch the wire mesh so that it lies flat up against the chestnut posts. At that stage of the fence building, all I have to do is to hammer in U-shaped nails (I don't know what they're called in English) to fix the mesh to the posts.

Back in South Grafton, when I was a child, my father often talked about fencing. I seem to recall that local farmers and graziers used eucalyptus posts and barbed wire, but I don't know how they dug holes. Probably with a spade and shovel...

Fencing is a primordial rural preoccupation. My neighbor Madeleine once told me that, after their marriage, Dédé said that, either they would go on a honeymoon, or they would use this time and money to build a fence around their future property at Choranche. Their splendid fence is still there, as solid as their marital union.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Childhood myths

I'm using the word "childhood" to designate, not only my own early years in Australia, but the wider concept of the infancy of Humanity. The great myth of Noah's ark belongs to these two domains.

As a boy in Grafton, I had witnessed two major floods, in 1950 and 1954. In our dull existence in a small country town, floods were exciting happenings, tinged with anguish, because nobody knew to what height the waters might rise. On the other hand, people rarely feared for their lives, because few of us were in the vicinity of swirling currents and treacherous depths. Besides, there were boats and dinghies everywhere, even amphibian military vehicles nicknamed "ducks". During the tense countdown to an impending flood, many local men saw themselves faced with long hours of harsh effort, in the chilly dampness, to protect their families and belongings from the rising waters. Some of these flood fighters were convinced that an ideal way of sustaining their bodies during these combats consisted of a regular intake of warming alcohol, often rum or whisky. An outcome of this belief was that a few rare accidents during a flood involved drunken men who slipped in the water and drowned.

I've always looked upon the biblical tale of Noah's Ark as an archaic precursor of themes I'd witnessed as a ten-year-old child in South Grafton. As soon as weather reports made it clear that there would soon be a flood, farmers started to move their animals to higher grounds. As the waters slowly rose, families in isolated places were offered a choice between moving by boat to safer places, or staying stoically in their inundated houses. In my juvenile vision of a Clarence River flood, the waters seemed to cover the entire flat world. I had no reason to imagine that there might be places on Earth that remained high and dry.

The ancient people who left us legends of the Deluge probably saw things in a similar way to me, at the age of ten, on a farm in South Grafton. If the rain were exceptionally heavy, the resulting flood would be universal (or global, as we would say today, knowing that the Earth is round), and the only way of surviving would be to scramble aboard a gigantic biblical boat. If there were room on the vessel, a farmer might ask the captain to save some of his dearest animals.

Normally, there's a time for infantile tales: childhood. As we grow up, most of us set aside such legends, replacing them by adult explanations. Sadly, some folk remain immature kids throughout their entire lives. In the USA, a recent poll revealed that half the population believes that a supernatural being named God created the universe, in much the same form as we see it today, at some time during the last ten millennia. In other words, for these folk, who have the superficial appearance of adults, it's as if scientific research in general, and Darwin's theory of evolution in particular, simply never existed. The extremists, who call themselves creationists, believe that Genesis is a literal description of the way in which the cosmos came into being. A milder form of this anti-scientific affliction consists in believing in the concept of intelligent design, which alleges that "all things bright and beautiful" were conceived and produced by a superior being intent upon creating a satisfactory abode for humans.

[NOTE: In my personal profile attached to the Antipodes blog, I speak of spending my time at Gamone "admiring the beauties of Creation". I have hoped that readers would understand that my use of the term "Creation", with a capital C, is a trivial case of poetic license, which is not meant to suggest that I see the cosmos as the outcome of a biblical Genesis-type creator. In fact, I often use the term "Creator", with a capital C, to designate Big Bang principles, evolutionary events, and their on-going consequences.]

Some Australians might be pleased to know that America's star creationist is a Queensland expatriate named Ken Ham, who has set up a so-called Creation Museum in Kentucky featuring a reconstruction of Noah's Ark carrying robotic dinosaurs. First, Crocodile Dundee, then Steve Irwin, and now Ken Ham. There would seem to be big openings in America for Aussie clowns. I don't wish to waste any more time describing the US operations of this nitwit whose success story appalls but does not surprise me. Whether we like it or not, America is America. Use Google to learn more about the Ham scam.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Powerful TV commercial

The Italian truck manufacturer Iveco (which also happens to be the world's leading manufacturer of diesel motors of all kinds) has scored a hit with a brilliant TV commercial exploiting the powerful image of the All Blacks. [Click here or on the image to see this commercial. To make it play, you have to choose a language.] There's no doubt that the visual image of the All Blacks and their famous haka has always been a striking symbol. [Click here to see the official website of the All Blacks, which explains the origins of their war dance.] And there's also no doubt that Iveco must have paid a huge amount of money to create this exceptional advertising.

Monday, May 28, 2007

School for chefs

On Saturday afternoon, by chance, I came upon one of the most fascinating TV programs I've ever seen in the domain of high-class cooking. It was the fifth and final episode of a cooking competition, L'Ecole des Chefs (the school for chefs), that has been going on at a weekly rhythm for the last month. There's a good French-language website about the competition [click here to display this website], which includes typical video extracts.

The general idea is that seven promising young apprentices were selected from several French écoles hôtelières [culinary colleges] and invited to participate in an extraordinary month-long training experience, guided by four distinguished chefs:

Alain Dutournier of the Carré des Feuillants (Paris)
Yannick Alleno of the Hôtel Meurice (Paris)
Alain Llorca of the Moulin de Mougins (Alpes-Maritimes)
Régis Marcon of the Clos des Cîmes (Haute Loire)

In yesterday's episode, there were four finalists, two males and two females. At the start of the final trial, each contestant received an assortment of splendid foodstuffs, to be used in the preparation of two dishes. The first dish was to be based upon Mediterranean rock lobsters (the equivalent of Australian crayfish), and the second on roast lamb cutlets. Each of the four finalists worked in association with one of the four above-mentioned chefs, who acted as a coach, but without actually participating in the manual operations of the food preparation and cooking. All phases of the activities were precisely timed, and we TV spectators were treated to a lengthy presentation of the work of each of the four finalists, followed by the comments of the jury members, another group of four distinguished chefs:

Joël Robuchon
Thierry Marx
Marc Veyrat
Marc Haeberlin

The resulting TV program was highly informative and didactic, since we were invited into the hectic kitchen environment of the dynamic young culinary creators and their experienced coaches. Apart from the immense imagination and practical competence of the apprentice chefs, I was impressed by their ability to work calmly and efficiently under the huge pressure of the competition. Not only did they have to think and act rapidly, but they had to deal with the constant advice and criticism of their respective coaches, while knowing all the time that they were being filmed and, above all, that they would be serving the outcome of their cooking to four of the world's most famous chefs.

In the world of high-class cooking, it is not by chance that the French word for a master of cooking is chef, which simply means "chief". He/she rules over the kitchen in a style that appears to be almost tyrannical at times, crying out orders to his/her subordinates that must be obeyed instantly, exactly as the chef has commanded. The atmosphere is almost military. There is no time for discussion, and no place for disobedience. The only acceptable reply to an order is "Oui, chef!" Meanwhile, the chef has his/her eye on everything that is happening in the kitchen, including the possibility that one of the electric ovens might suddenly break down.

There were all kinds of tiny but fascinating details, such as the way in which these culinary artists use their bare fingers, all the time, to pick up hot pieces of food in pans, to turn them over while they are being cooked. When performed by a great chef, even the way of tipping a saucepan with one hand and using a spoon in the other hand to splash buttery juice rapidly and regularly over the roasting lamb becomes an artistic gesture. The terminology used in rapid discussions between professionals is precise and apparently universal. Plausible names for newly-invented dishes were generally invented spontaneously during a ten-second conversation between the apprentice and the coach, often while they were walking from the kitchen to the jury's dining table. Once there, the apprentice had to describe in a few brief remarks the specificity of his creation, just as if he were conversing with diners in a top-class restaurant, and he had to remember to wish them "Bon appetit!" Several times, the members of the jury complimented the apprentices on the simple fact that they had mastered the technique of serving up their dishes hot, straight out of the oven. This did not prevent the apprentice chefs from devoting a lot of last-minute attention to the purely aesthetic fashion in which the food and sauce were laid out the plates. Funnily, while watching this interesting program, I often had the impression that it was some kind of a sporting event, involving highly-trained young athletes.

The self-assurance of the fourth contestant, whose first name was Hugo, worried me as soon as I saw his initial discussion with his coach, Régis Marcon. The two of them appear to be smiling but determined individuals, used to making up their own minds, and I was afraid that a conflict might erupt in front of the TV cameras. Hugo had decided spontaneously that he would use vanilla to flavor the sauce for the green vegetables accompanying his roast lobster. Well, Marcon disagreed firmly but politely, warning his apprentice that this would give rise to an excessively "heavy-flavored" sauce. Hugo's immediate reaction: "Chef, I'll prepare my vanilla sauce, and then you'll taste it. If you like it, I'll use it. If not, I won't." Later, in real time, we saw Régis Marcon sticking his finger in Hugo's vanilla sauce, tasting it and flashing an expression of amazed delight. Hugo had just invented a new concept of serving up lobster!

Hugo was the winner. The prize: he will spend the next six months touring the planet, working in each of Joël Robuchon's restaurants. There is little doubt that, on Saturday's TV, we witnessed the birth of a future great chef.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Doggish behavior

We dog-lovers tend to get carried away by the exceptional intellect of our favorite animal. Not necessarily dogs in general, nor even other dogs, but our dog... who happens to be a unique genius. As the saying goes: The only thing that's missing is the ability to speak. But dogs bark, and that's exactly what Sophia has been doing, non-stop, for the last twenty minutes.

Why? You see the stone slab in the form of a mysterious jungle beast (maybe a petrified bunyip that swum here from Australia back in the age of dinosaurs). Well, Sophia knows that there's a terrified lizard curled up behind it, hiding. I don't know why Sophia's annoyed by the presence of the tiny reptile. It's not as if she wants to eat the lizard, although it's likely that she would smack it with her paw, just for fun, and traumatize the poor lizard. No, Sophia is barking out of sheer silly doggish behavior. However it's reassuring at times to discover such trivial manifestations of canine stupidity. I realize, on such occasions, that I should cease to have a guilt complex about never having sent Sophia to a superior school for exceptionally intelligent dogs.

Now, having taken the liberty of speaking in these derogatory terms about my dear Sophia, I must admit two things:

— I'm impressed by Sophia's ability to smell the presence of a tiny lizard hiding behind a rock. I wouldn't be capable of doing so, even if the lizard farted.

— Back in the days when dangerous reptiles used to hide behind rocks at the entrance to caverns where my ancestors resided, the barking of Sophia's ancestors no doubt saved human lives. Otherwise, one of my potential ancestors would have got gobbled up by a boa, and I wouldn't even be here today to talk to you about Sophia. We must be grateful to barking dogs. Thanks, Sophia. In a moment, I'll go downstairs and move the slab, so that you can have some fun attacking and destroying that lizard.

Busy Sunday

Every year, I watch the TV coverage of the Grand Prix de Monaco. I'm not exactly a fan of automobile racing, which can be quite boring on TV, but the legendary Monaco event is inevitably exciting.

For me, there's also an element of nostalgia. Shortly after my arrival in France in 1962, an Australian friend drove me down to watch the race. At that time, tourists could wander around the circuit at ease to find a vantage point. I recall that we spent most of the race at the famous Mirabeau hairpin. These days, of course, the famous race is a gigantic event that paralyzes road circulation on the French Riviera.

As if car racing wasn't enough to draw a crowd on the shores of the Mediterranean, the red carpet of the 60th Cannes Film Festival will be rolled up this evening after the announcement of winners.

Finally, for those who love to spend hours in front of their TV [on a par, I suppose, with spending hours in front of a computer screen], there's the French Open in Paris, which starts this afternoon.

At a personal level, to put the events of this busy Sunday in their proper perspective, I should point out that the Monaco supershow on my wide flat TV will be relegated to the status of a background blur and noise. I don't intend to spend time at Cannes, and the ball is out at Roland Garros. In fact, if it's sunny this afternoon, I plan to build a fence around the patch of Batavia lettuces I planted yesterday.

The future enclosure [of the sheep fence style] will protect my lettuces from Gavroche the billy-goat. But what about snails, which are presently thriving just a meter away from my lettuce patch?

My ex-neighbor Bob, who dropped in yesterday to pick up his mail, is an experienced vegetable gardener. He made an interesting suggestion: "Grow your lettuces to feed your snails. Then collect these lettuce-fed Burgundy snails from time to time. They're far more tasty than lettuce." Bob's right. A few years ago, I used to prepare regularly a stock of Gamone's excellent Burgundy snails, but the dry summer of 2004 seemed to eliminate them. I see now, at exactly the same time I'm planting lettuces, that the snails appear to be back in force. Gastronomical days ahead...

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Chirac has some explaining to do

We've heard a strange financial allegation concerning Jacques Chirac, former president of France. Apparently he has an account at the Tokyo Sowa bank, and the balance of the ex-president's account would appear to be 45 million euros. Now, that's a hell of a lot of spare cash, and people are obviously wondering where it came from.

The global context in which this bank account has come to light is referred to, in France, as the Clearstream Affair, since it concerns a Luxembourg clearing house of that name.

Everything started in 2001, with a judicial inquiry into alleged commissions associated with the sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991. This inquiry was assigned to a celebrated French magistrate, Renaud Van Ruymbeke, who had already handled several high-profile affairs. He was appreciated for his competent style in terminating the case of the 1996 murder in a French youth hostel of an English schoolgirl, Caroline Dickinson. This case was finally solved, after nine years of futile investigations [click here to see the BBC timeline], thanks to the diligence of an alert US immigration officer.

In January 2004, the French prime minister Dominique de Villepin called upon a mysterious general, Philippe Rondot, well-versed in intelligence affairs, to do some detective work in the domain of the frigates affair. Then, a few months later, an anonymous individual sent the judge Van Ruymbeke several documents that claimed to name prominent people whose illegal commissions concerning the Taiwan frigates had been paid into secret accounts at the Clearstream bank. And one of these named people was Nicolas Sarkozy.

Finally, after numerous investigations and incidents, it emerged that these alleged Clearstream documents were forgeries, and the identity of the forger was revealed. And it was during these investigations, in May 2006, that the Canard enchaîné weekly newspaper revealed the anecdote concerning Philippe Rondot's discovery of the president's mysterious bank account in Japan.

In France, the most famous magistrate in the financial corruption sphere is Norwegian-born Eva Joly. A few days ago, she made life more uncomfortable for the ex-president by declaring publicly that she hopes that French justice opens an inquiry into Chirac's alleged Japanese bank account. So, many observers predict that sparks will start to fly after June 17, when the ex-president's penal immunity terminates.

This question of a mysterious bank account has nothing to do, a priori, with the other affair [click here to see my previous article on this subject] for which Chirac might have some explaining to do: salaries paid to fictitious employees at the city hall of Paris, in fact money directed towards Chirac's political party.

Romantic table

Romantic table. My daughter used this expression, a few days ago, when she saw this photo. The top is a heavy plaque of white marble with traces of gray. The support is black forged iron and steel.

In a previous post, I mentioned a friend who's trying to sell his former restaurant in Pont-en-Royans. [Click here to see this post.] His name is Eric. After diluvian rainfall, Eric's former restaurant is a wreck, but there are still enough resources left to serve me up a green Chartreuse liquor (on the rocks) whenever I drop in. I love to sit on the upper balcony of Eric's dilapidated place, of a late afternoon, and contemplate the hanging houses. Periodically, a tiny flock of ducks flies down from the Vercors to their habitat on the Bourne at Pont-en-Royans. They swoop past Eric's place in a gracious curve, like jet fighters at an air show. They give me the impression that they know I admire their aeronautics. They're surely doing their act for me and my dog Sophia.

My romantic table is in fact a gift from Eric, who's getting rid of his former restaurant equipment. The lawn in front of Gamone is henceforth adorned with two such lovely white marble romantic tables.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Final bottles of walnut wine

In an earlier article, I mentioned my production of walnut wine and my use of a siphon device. [Click here to see this article.] Today, I've been preparing the final bottles, using the wine in the lower half of the plastic cask. The closer I get to the bottom of the barrel, the more the raw wine looks like sludge. Concerning the last five or six soupy liters in the cask, I had in mind the advice of a colleague, who told me he simply discards them. After this afternoon's experiments, I accept his advice. I tried several techniques in an attempt to extract clear wine from the sludge: siphoning, paper filters and straining through a cloth that I was obliged to wash constantly. There's a delightful old saying in French, applied to things that aren't worth doing: Le jeu n'en vaut pas la chandelle. Literally, this means that the outcome of an operation does not cover the cost of the candles you need to light up the scene where the operation is carried out.

The sludge is heavier than the clear walnut wine, so it remains at the bottom of the barrel. But it remains suspended in the liquid, and never settles as a solid sediment. This suggests that there is no doubt a certain presence of solid matter — remnants of the green walnuts — even in the wine that seems to be relatively clear. And this is probably why the imbiber of a small glass of this beverage has the impression that it's a little like bitter medicine.

Funnily enough, here in the Napoleonic atmosphere of France where most matters are tightly controlled, the production of walnut wine remains a kind of do-it-yourself rural art, akin to gathering medicinal herbs to prepare archaic unctions instead of relying upon the local pharmacist. In any case, for those of us who live in the countryside of the Dauphiné region, surrounded by walnut trees, offering a glass of walnut wine is a traditional gesture of friendship towards visitors.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


It's encouraging to hear that Raul Reyes, second in charge of the Farc [Columbian Marxist guerrilla], has actually contacted Nicolas Sarkozy, asking him to try to bring about the creation in Columbia of a demilitarized zone in which negociations could be carried out with a view to exchanging prisoners, including Ingrid Betancourt.

Circular thinking

I've always been amused by a silly little joke about a road worker erecting a pile of rocks in the middle of a street and placing a red warning lamp on top.

Passerby [to road worker]: "Why have put that pile of rocks in the middle of the street?"

Road worker: "To support the flashing red lamp."

Passerby: "And why have you put a flashing red lamp in the middle of the street?"

Road worker: "To let people know there's a pile of rocks there."

George W Bush is reasoning in this absurd circular way about the situation in Iraq. He invaded the country because invalid intelligence (lies) caused him to believe that Osama bin Laden might be intent upon transforming Iraq into a terrorist haven enabling Al Qaeda to prepare attacks against the United States. Today, Bush acknowledges that Iraq has indeed been transformed into a terrorist haven, and he now argues that this is a justification for pursuing the war.

While it would be asking too much to suppose that the intellectual capacities of Dubya might enable him to recognize the existence of circular thinking, other smart observers see things this way. The New York Times quotes Richard A Clarke, former presidential security adviser, as saying: “One day, Bush tells us we are fighting in Iraq so that terrorists won’t come here [to the US]. Then he releases intelligence that says terrorists trained in Iraq are coming here. Which is it?” The New York Times also quotes Thomas Sanderson, terrorism specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as declaring: “We created the biggest terrorism training ground known, which is Iraq.

Meanwhile, at a press conference in London yesterday, Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, launched their 2007 report. Basing her speech upon a central theme that she called "the politics of fear", Irene Khan said:

"Five years after 9/11, new evidence came to light in 2006 of the way in which the US administration treated the world as one giant battlefield for its 'war on terror', kidnapping, arresting, arbitrarily detaining, torturing and transferring suspects from one secret prison to another across the world with impunity, in what the US termed 'extraordinary renditions'. Nothing more aptly portrayed the globalization of human rights violations than the US-led 'war on terror' and its program of 'extraordinary renditions' which implicated governments in countries as far apart as Italy and Pakistan, Germany and Kenya. Ill-conceived counter-terrorism strategies have done little to reduce the threat of violence or ensure justice for victims of terrorism but much to damage human rights and the rule of law globally."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Hard stuff to believe

Animal research carried out by scientists in Argentina suggests that Viagra could be used as a remedy against jet lag in the case, say, of travelers flying from Europe to Australia. So, what the bloody hell are we waiting for? Well, two remarks:

— Qantas might indicate the flights that employ horny hostesses of the kind we heard so much about a few months ago. [I'm thinking of the liberated lady who distributed special in-flight services in the toilets.] I mean, if guys are going to do the trip while sky-high on Viagra, well they might as well have an opportunity of going the full way, if you see what I mean.

— Meanwhile, I remain a little wary. If I understand correctly, Viagra has only been tested in this context, up until now, on hamsters. As I see things, there's no guaranty that jet-lagged hamsters, reaching Sydney by air, would roam around like zombies for a few days, and wake up in the middle of the night. What I mean to say is: Are these Argentinian scientists sure that hamsters and humans suffer similarly from jet lag? And could take advantage of the same remedy?

To call a spade a spade, I have a nagging suspicion that these Argentinian scientists, keen to suggest snake-oil solutions, might be looking upon us jet travelers as a bunch of dumb pricks.

Scientific research in Grenoble

Every time I leave the nearby city of Grenoble, to return to Choranche, I drive alongside a vast scientific research zone, snuggled in the northern tip of the big triangle located between the two great waterways known as the Snake and the Dragon: that's to say, the Isère and the Drac. (The latter looks and behaves like a normal stream, but it's actually an Alpine torrent.)

This zone houses two extraordinary research tools, whose construction was financed by a consortium of nations:

— The ILL [Institut Laue-Langevin] is a nuclear reactor that produces neutrons. This research reactor produces the most intense neutron flux in the world. Its thermal power is over 58 megawatts. By comparison, Australia's recently-inaugurated Opal reactor, which is also designed to produce neutrons for research, has a power output of only 20 megawatts. Grenoble's ILL reactor is funded by France, Germany, the UK, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium and Poland.

— The ESRF [European Synchronotron Radiation Facility] is a giant ring-shaped tunnel that accelerates X-rays. Grenoble's accelerator, which is one of the three biggest synchrotrons in the world (the others existing in the US and Japan), is funded by France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Israel, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

If I've listed all the nations whose scientists use these tools, it's to give you an idea of the kind of international atmosphere that reigns in the great provincial city of Grenoble, which has always been a major center of learning.

The two facilities lie side-by-side. In the above photo, you can see the circular dome of the ILL reactor just behind the big ring of the synchrotron. To a certain extent, they might be considered as complementary tools, since beams of neutrons and high-energy X-rays can both be used to analyze the physical nature of targets that are placed in their way. The differences between neutrons and X-rays are illustrated in the following radiographs:

I was reminded of Grenoble's extraordinary scientific research facilities a few days ago. In his book called Programming the Universe [click here to see my previous article on this theme], Seth Lloyd tells us that he had been thrown into a stupor when told that, "not only was an electron allowed to be in many places at the same time, it was in fact required to be there (and there, and there, and there)". He couldn't seize this weird conclusion in a totally intuitive fashion, so he remained in a state of intellectual trance. It was not until years later, when Seth Lloyd happened to be working at the ILL in Grenoble, that the American researcher finally saw the light, as described here: "I awoke from my trance. Neutrons, I saw, had to spin clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. They had no choice: it was in their nature. The language that neutrons spoke was not the ordinary language of yes or no, it was yes and no at once. If I wanted to talk to neutrons and have them talk back, I had to listen when they said yes and no at the same time. If this sounds confusing, it is. But I had finally learned my first words in the quantum language of love."

In the context of Lloyd's fascinating book, I got a kick out of hearing him say that an arrow from a quantum Cupid [a Qupid?] had finally hit him while he was working in the capital of the French Alps. Over the last 14 years, I've visited Grenoble on countless occasions. But I still find that I'm overcome by a tingling sensation of excitement whenever I set foot there. I don't know whether it has anything to do with Lloyd's "quantum language of love". Often, I've imagined that some kind of tellurian energy is accumulated in the celebrated mountains which, as Stendhal once said, can be glimpsed at the end of every street in this fabulous city at the heart of the ancient Dauphiné province.

Hail Jaws, full of grace

The Washington Post has just published a delightful story revealing that "a team of American and Irish researchers have discovered that some female sharks can reproduce without having sex". However the presence of Irish researchers in the team is not reassuring. Now, I've got nothing against the Irish in general, and Irish science in particular. I've even, myself, inherited a good dose of Irish genes. And I'm sure that, if ever I were to set foot in Ireland, I would be perfectly at ease in a pub conversation on the question of virgins and sharks. But frankly, listening to Irishmen talking about the virginity of sharks is, to my mind, a little like asking Eskimos to tell us what they think of sandstorms.

It all started when a female hammerhead shark was born in an Irish zoo in 2001, where there were simply no male sharks. The lead author of the scientific paper on the virgin shark tale, Demian Chapman, is quoted as saying that, during his research in Belfast, he bet various local scientists that the shark mystery would turn out to be something other than parthenogenesis (the scientific name for virgin birth). In Chapman's own words: "I lost so many pints of Guinness over that one." I would be less suspicious if he hadn't encouraged the theme of beer to drift into this otherwise plausible story. Full of grace? Or full of Guinness?


Irish joke

A young lady is examined by her gynecologist.

Gynecologist: Lady, I have excellent news for you and your husband.

Lady: I don't have a husband. I'm not married.

Gynecologist: Well, it'll be good news for your male friend.

Lady: I've never had any male friends.

Gynecologist: What I mean to say is that it'll be interesting news for the last man with whom you had a sexual union.

Lady: But I've never had a sexual union with any man.

The gynecologist strolls over to the window of his surgery, draws the curtain aside and stands there in silence, peering up into the sky. After a while, the young lady becomes impatient and asks the gynecologist what he's doing.

Gynecologist: The first and last time this happened, they say a bright new star came into existence and moved slowly across the sky. This time, my young lady, I don't want to miss the show.

Alpine Swifts

I've just been admiring the aerial ballet of a flock of Alpine Swifts above the oak trees on the ridge up behind my house. They're darting and diving incessantly, to capture edible insects. These elegant birds, which reappear once or twice a year for short spells at Gamone, have always fascinated me, because ornithologists claim that they simply never alight anywhere on the surface of our planet during their entire existence. I've always found that story hard to believe... like the tale of the 5th-century Syrian ascetic Simeon Stylites who is said to have resided permanently on top of a stone column. What I mean to say is: How could ornithologists possibly keep track of individual swifts, day and night, to make sure that they never land anywhere? That would be even more difficult, to my mind, than parents trying to keep track of the nightly movements of their teenage offspring.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Australia, world champion polluter

Within Australia's CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization], Mike Raupach is the chief of the Global Carbon Project, which measures the growth rate of carbon dioxide emissions. He can therefore be considered as one of Australia's leading experts on the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and the risks of global warming. An article in today's Herald Sun indicates some of the alarming findings of Raupach and his research team. In 2004, Australia's per capita emissions were 4.5 times the world average, and increasing twice as fast as those of the US. In China, explained Raupach, annual carbon emission amounts to one metric ton per person, whereas in Australia and the US the per capita output is over five times the Chinese figure. In the case of a significant yardstick known as carbon intensity, which is the quantity of fossil fuel consumed to produce a unit of energy or wealth, Australia has in fact become the world's most wasteful nation.

In the forthcoming elections, one of the main reasons why I'll be voting Labor is that it's shameful that the Howard administration has never signed the Kyoto agreement.

The Environment Society of Australia [click here to visit their website] informs us that Clive Hamilton, director of the Australia Institute, has just brought out a book, Scorcher: the Dirty Politics of Climate Change, which deals with "greedy corporations, craven politicians and public disengagement". Hamilton is particularly critical of Howard's claim that Australia, as an energy exporter, should be pardoned for its excessive emissions. "Our energy exports have no bearing on Australia's emission-reduction obligations at all. The emissions from our exports of coal, gas and oil are counted in the country where they burnt." Hamilton recalls the fact that Howard asked for advice on greenhouse pollution from the country's major polluters, without bothering to listen to environmental experts. Hamilton concludes: "In short, the Howard government has been able to hoodwink the community with impunity because many Australians have preferred to believe the lies."

Monday, May 21, 2007

Thoughts that should just go away

When I was a child, I was terribly marked [in an interior way, because I've never mentioned this anecdote up until today] by an image of horror related to a news item. Two young kids had come upon a discarded refrigerator in a municipal dump. They scrambled inside. The door shut. And they suffocated to death.

In our house at Grafton, we had one of these self-shutting refrigerators. I came to hate it. Even today, more than half a century later, I'm terrified when I discover, for example, a village butcher's shop in which the unwitting butcher could shut himself into a cold room and freeze to death. On the other hand, I hasten to relativize what I'm saying, in that I've never developed any abnormal tendency towards claustrophobia. But I've never been tempted to go for a ride in a submarine or a bathyscaph, and I have no desire to get involved in the sport of speleology, which delights some of my Choranche neighbors.

In another domain, as a child, I was alarmed at the thought that kids my own age, suffering from polio, might be expected to survive in a newly-invented respiratory device named an iron lung. Here's a photo [circa 1953] of an entire ward of such gadgets in an American hospital:

In a related realm, I found it hard to fathom [no pun intended] that certain individuals would wish to earn their living by donning a diving bell, such as this one in my hometown museum in Grafton:

No, in general, I prefer to spend my time with my head out in the open air... which explains why I like living here at Gamone.

Now, why am I saying all this? Well, ten years ago, the French intellectual world was stunned by the publication of an autobiography by a 46-year-old man about town [of the kind that French media people would now refer to, in crazy English, as a people] named Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby's 140-page book informs us that he was struck down on 8 December 1995, in an abrupt and totally unexpected manner, by a cardiovascular accident. When he woke up in hospital, he was terrified to find himself a victim of a mysterious condition referred to as LIS [locked-in syndrome]. What this meant is that Bauby, while totally conscious of his situation and predicament, could no longer communicate with the outside world. Happily [the adverb is unseemly], Bauby's body retained a single functioning element: his left eye. He could flap his eyelids like the wings of a tiny but beautiful butterfly. Over a period of two months, with the help of a literary Florence Nightingale named Claude Mendibil, Bauby used the open/closed eyelid movements of this left eye as a binary semaphore device enabling him to transcribe his tale onto paper. Of an afternoon, Bauby's female alter-ego would read out aloud to her literary partner: the daily press, or even Zola.

In November 1996, Claude Mendibil read out to Jean-Dô (as he was called affectionately) the final version of their typescript. Reaction of a tired but contented Bauby: "I could never have written another line." The best-seller was born. And Jean-Dô disappeared into the diving bell of Eternity exactly four days after its publication.

Since then, his book has appeared in English. And today, a film on the awesome drama of Jean-Dominique Bauby is being shown at Cannes.

I was wrong in thinking, once upon a childhood time, that there are thoughts that should simply go away. In thinking of such unthinkable thoughts, we unlock the locked-in world. In writing about the unwritable, we achieve, not only art and enlightenment from anguish, but profound freedom.

Appalling legacy

In comparing George Bush and Tony Blair, a wag [no pun intended] said recently that Bush has done everything wrong, with one exception: his success in getting Blair to back him up over Iraq. Inversely, Blair has done everything right, with one exception: his decision to back up Bush over Iraq.

The name Chatham House might not mean much to you. You'll know what I'm talking about as soon as I point out that, up until September 2004, this London-based think tank was known as The Royal Institute of International Affairs. [Click the banner to visit their website.] Here's how they describe themselves:

Chatham House is one of the world's leading organizations for the analysis of international issues. It is membership-based and aims to help individuals and organizations to be at the forefront of developments in an ever-changing and increasingly complex world.

This organization has just published a 12-page report, Accepting Realities in Iraq, which describes the appalling legacy which Bush and Blair—and let's not forget Howard, too—have left there. [Click here to obtain a copy of this so-called briefing paper.]

The report reads like an exercise in conjugating the verb fail, and declining the concept of failure. A spine-chilling extract [page 2]:

It can be argued that Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state which faces the distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation.

The report quotes [page 3] the words of Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based think tank called CSIS [Center for Strategic and International Studies]:

It is more than possible that a failed president [Bush] and a failed administration will preside over a failed war for the second time since Vietnam.

Observers have been pointing out constantly that the Bush/Blair/Howard legacy in Iraq can only be described as civil war. The Chatham House paper is far more scathing [summary on page 1]:

There is not 'a' civil war in Iraq, but many civil wars and insurgencies involving a number of communities and organizations struggling for power.

How many more deaths and how much more destruction will it take until the diabolical and stubborn Bush/Blair/Howard trio wakes up to an obvious fact? They have only one option left: Get the fucking hell out of Iraq as soon as possible...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Jimmy Carter blasts Bush and Blair

Never before in recent political history has a former US president spoken so harshly about both the current president and the British prime minister. Jimmy Carter claims that the current presidency is "the worst in history". The 2002 Nobel laureate said that the Bush approach represented "the overt reversal of America's basic values as expressed by previous administrations". He added: "We now have endorsed the concept of pre-emptive war where we go to war with another nation militarily, even though our own security is not directly threatened, if we want to change the regime there or if we fear that some time in the future our security might be endangered."

Carter was particularly outspoken in his criticism of Tony Blair's relationship with Bush: "Abominable. Loyal, blind, apparently subservient." He explained: "I think that the almost undeviating support by Great Britain for the ill-advised policies of President Bush in Iraq has been a major tragedy for the world."


In an earlier blog, named Geography lesson, I evoked the Picard bridge at Pont-en-Royans. [Click here to display this earlier message.] At the Vercors end of the bridge, there's a charming bar-restaurant named the Picard, which I've been patronizing ever since I settled at Choranche. The proprietor, Jean-Noel, has been a friend of mine for years. A few months ago, Jean-Noel purchased an adjoining café, which means that the new Picard has doubled in size, as you can see here:

When I went in there recently, after taking my dog for a sunny walk alongside the Bourne, the girl behind the bar offered a big bowl of cool water to Sophia, who lapped it up enthusiastically, as if she were dying of thirst. The truth of the matter, I believe, is that my dog simply takes pleasure in discovering that friendly people in such places don't forget her. When we were moving around Provence recently with Natacha and Alain, they would have on hand, in the back of their automobile, a supply of water for Sophia. And it was a joy to see the dog downing water enthusiastically at every stop in our excursion.

It sounds silly to say so, but I find it's in fact a great joy for human observers to give water to a thirsty dog. It's one of those simple moments when you know you're doing the right thing. And it's so much better when the dog actually reveals that he/she was truly thirsty.

Plants, too, can behave similarly. In my message called Gifts from Provence, I showed a photo of a tiny fig tree that Natacha and Alain gave me. [Click here to display this earlier message.] Well, it downs water like a thirsty dog. Sometimes I notice that its leaves are drooping, and I rush to quench its thirst. Half an hour later, the tree is beaming with new-found vigor.

Strangely, my donkeys don't seem to have any particular desire to drink water. For years, whenever I've left a tub of water in Moshé's paddock, he immediately strives to turn it upside-down. I gather that the donkeys get the liquid they need through the huge quantities of grass and weeds that they're eating constantly.

Gregan out

The French sporting press appears to be surprised and saddened by the idea that George Gregan, in World Cup year, might no longer be the emblematic captain of the Wallabies. And journalists here tend to be ironical concerning the solution of dual captains.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Illustrious Graftonian

The latest issue of the newsletter of the Clarence River Historical Society [click here to see their website] presents a drawing of a member of the state parliament of New South Wales whom I knew and admired: William Weiley [1901-1989].

Bill Weiley [father of my friend John, the celebrated Australian cineast] was a friend of my parents and grandparents. Around 1960, John took me along to Sydney's Parliament House for a luncheon with his father, and this encounter made a great impact upon me. It was neither the food nor the parliamentary splendor that impressed me, but rather Bill Weiley's enthusiasm for a theme he had just discovered: the Dead Sea Scrolls. I've never forgotten his words:

"Take a Sydney phone directory. Tear it in half. Reduce it to confetti, and mix it up. Now throw away two-thirds of your confetti. What you've got left is akin to the state of the Dead Sea Scrolls."

I was terribly impressed by this didactic demonstration, no doubt exaggerated, of the precariousness of our Biblical past.


Gumption. I love that old Scottish word (which I recall from my childhood), although I'm not really sure it means much, and even less sure that I grasp what little meaning it might have. My online dictionary says it designates "shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness". Then there's a wishy-washy example about a woman who had the gumption to put her foot down and dissuade a fellow from pursuing his crazy schemes. In fact, I don't like that example. In my mind, this vague stuff called gumption—whatever it might be—is exactly what you need to pursue crazy schemes. I would go so far as to say that, without a good supply of gumption, it would be crazy to even think about crazy schemes. In such contexts, gumption is a sine qua non.

For some time now, I've been saying to myself [that's a habit derived from living for too long in France: the homeplace and haven of reflexive verbs] that, if only I had the necessary gumption, I would embark upon a popular-science book project, to be known simply by a one-word title: Creation. The basic idea—the inspiration, if I were to take myself more gumptiously—is that, while the scientific writers Brian Greene and Richard Dawkins have already done a hell of lot about making the world a more understandable (but not necessarily easier) place to live in, they are both visibly weak (well, less than optimal) in the domain of computing.

I had this impression about Dawkins when I first read The Blind Watchmaker. Like everything by Dawkins, it's a fabulous book, but his biomorphs (computerized graphic gadgets) reveal instantly that the author is a novice computerist, unfamiliar with more sophisticated realms of information science... otherwise he would have alluded to the pioneering work of precursors such as John von Neumann and others. [Click here to see my earlier blog article.]

The "missing link" between Dawkins and me (to borrow a silly Darwin-inspired expression) might be referred to pompously as the computing paradigm. Already, back at the time of my Machina Sapiens [click here to see an earlier reference to this book], I hinted at the fact that we computerists are tempted to see almost everything in terms of... computing. There's a trivial saying in France. What do you bike-riders talk about when they come together? They talk about... bikes! Well, we computerists are like bike-riders. It's a fact. We see the world as some kind of a giant computer...

In the USA in 1971, when I was filming Les machines et les hommes for French TV, I encountered an amazing man named Ed Fredkin. If I remember correctly, he was in charge of computers in the artificial-intelligence laboratory at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], whose intellectual star was, of course, Marvin Minsky. Fredkin invited me to his family home to talk about his work and my TV project. There, in his family environment, I lost no time in discovering that Edward Fredkin was an amazing individual... probably one of the most surprising and talented people I've ever met. He didn't fit into the US academic mold. He belonged to an intellectual America that has fascinated me on countless occasions, that has nothing to do with Bush mediocracy. As a retired jet pilot in the US Air Force, Fredkin came upon computers as some kind of a gigantic and delightful game, which enabled him to become a millionaire, among other things. When I met up with him, he was fascinated by the possibilities of computer music, and had actually designed a prototype thing that emitted ugly noises. Ed was persuaded that this amazing gadget would enable him to earn further millions, and he started out naively by manufacturing hundreds of these devices which were stored, when I met up with Ed, in the basement of his luxurious Massachusetts home.

Today, the former jet-fighter pilot Edward Fredkin is living somewhere on the planet Earth in recluse... as a digital monk. I would love to see him again, but I don't know how to go about getting back in contact with him.

Meanwhile, an MIT acolyte named Seth Lloyd has become famous by publishing a wonderful book on the subject that enthralls me. Basically, in terribly rough terms, the idea is that quantum mechanics can be visualized as a computerized affair. It's all very vague, very hard to fathom. That's why I'm hoping, as a writer, that I'll be able to amass enough mysterious gumption to tackle this affair, and put a little much-needed order into the Cosmos.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Geography lesson

In this blog, I often refer to the nearby village of Pont-en-Royans, which is famous for its houses clinging to the vertical cliff above the River Bourne. The French word pont means "bridge". So, the name of the village means "Royans bridge", where Royans is the region in which we are located.

In this photo, you see the old stone bridge, called the Pont Picard, high above the waters of the Bourne. For centuries, this bridge was one of the rare access points between the Isère valley (to the left in the photo, a dozen kilometers below the village) and the rugged Vercors mountains, which start as soon as you cross over the bridge. If you stand on the bridge and look upstream, you see the chilly waters of the Bourne tumbling down from the Vercors range.

Towards the top of this photo, there's a rocky plateau. My property, Gamone, is located on the lower slopes of that mountain.

Local political meeting

Before today, the first and last time I attended a political meeting in France was in 1969, when a dynamic young political figure named Michel Rocard was campaigning in the Yvelines département near Paris. This morning, at Choranche, it was a more modest affair. The Socialist member of parliament, André Vallini, was accompanied by his vice-candidate, Jean-Michel Revol, and the local councilor, Bernard Perazio (my former neighbor, whom I've known for years).

In the audience, besides a journalist-photographer from St Marcellin, the wife of the mayor of Choranche and me, there were three other people. The major theme of the discussions (introduced by the mayor's wife) was the possibility of serving bio food in the school canteen.

Vallini, a 50-year-old professional lawyer, is well-known throughout France since his much-publicized role as president of a parliamentary commission, last year, that inquired into a great miscarriage of justice known as the Outreau Affair. A group of irreproachable citizens had been wrongly accused of sexual misconduct, and condemned in an outrageous fashion by a biased, stubborn and immature judge, as a consequence of dubious evidence extorted from children. Vallini's TV appearances at the head of this commission earned him the reputation of an outstanding individual, capable of soaring above partisan politics. Indeed, if Ségolène Royal had been elected, he would have surely been named Minister of Justice. Meanwhile, a jury of 120 political journalists recently elected Vallini as the "parliamentarian of the year".

Latest Nicholson animation

I've just received the latest Nicholson animation, which features the Dalai Lama. [Click on the image to see it.] Incidentally, on the opening page of Nicholson's animations, there's an invitation to subscribe to their alert service, which means that you receive an e-mail as soon as a new animation exists. I've been using this service for months now, and I recommend it to all Nicholson fans.

I think I've said before that it's a pity that Peter Nicholson limits his repertoire to the relatively tiny universe of Australia's political leaders. I've always imagined that his extraordinary artistic talents and his sense of political satire could be extended to embrace other personalities and situations in the world at large. Indeed, Nicholson's excellent depiction of the Dalai Lama (image, voice, attitude and thoughts) demonstrates what I'm saying.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

My magic mountain

It's 8 o'clock in the evening, and well past sundown. In this photo I took ten minutes ago, in the diminishing light, the Cournouze seems to be floating on clouds.

Upside-down world

In Europe, throughout the 15th to the 19th centuries, people were fascinated by all kinds of variations on the theme of mondus inversus, an upside-down world in which things would happen in quite a different way to familiar events in our real world. Animals would get humans to work for them. Buffoons would reign, while kings would be their clowns. And, in the antipodean vision of exotic lands on the other side of the globe, people would walk on their hands, with their legs in the air.

In an earlier post whose title was Epinal images [click here to display this post], I spoke of colorful old French engravings from the city of Epinal. The upside-down world theme was a popular subject for these images, as illustrated here:

Yesterday, a Reuters dispatch from India described a wacky offbeat event of a mondus inversus kind. In the state of Bihar, an electric train carrying a hundred passengers ground to a halt because somebody had inadvertently pushed the alarm button. Unfortunately, in its halted position, the train's pantograph (the hinged frame, with a strong spring, that collects power from the overhead line) was touching a neutral section of cable, which did not carry electricity. When a train is moving, its momentum carries it across these neutral sections. But, in its stopped position, the train would have to move a few meters forward along the rails in order to receive the required current. Consequently, the conductor simply asked the hundred passengers if they would be so kind as to get out and push the train forward over these crucial few meters! They got the job done successfully in half an hour, and the train was able to get back to using electric rather than human power.

That story reminds me that, when I was a kid, I used to watch in wonder as pairs of railway workers used their arms to move a big lever up and down, driving a lightweight trolley along the rails and enabling them to attain remote sites where work was being carried out on the lines. I had an exciting vision of my pack of Wolf Cubs setting out in a convoy of such vehicles for a distant camp in the middle of the woods. In my upside-down world, kids would take over the state railways network and use the lines for boy-powered trolley excursions. As I grew older, I even imagined seating our girlfriends on the edges of the trolley, where they would be able to admire our muscular forearms propelling them into Great Adventures.

Holy days

A few days ago, when I took this photo of the last section of the road leading up to my house, I had the false impression that the warm dry season was under way.

The grass and weeds had shot up rapidly over the last few weeks, so I put the two donkeys down in the paddock where I used to run my sheep... until they strayed to my neighbor's place last year, at the time I went out to Australia. My neighbor and I had been waiting for winter snow to drive the sheep down from the rocky slopes, enabling us to capture them. But this did not happen, since last winter was exceptionally warm. My neighbor told me that the five stray sheep did make a brief appearance at his house, accompanied by three baby lambs! But they moved back up the mountain as soon as the snow melted. We have the impression that they've become totally wild, and there's no obvious way of catching them. Pierrot, a local sheep owner, has tried to coax them towards his van with a bucket of food pellets, but the sheep are not attracted by this familiar technique. It's amazing that they haven't been decimated yet by roaming dogs. For the moment, they've never ventured near the road, where they could become a traffic hazard. Naturally, if this were to occur, our only solution would be to go out with rifles (with permission, if possible, from the local gendarmes) and cut them down.

The warm dry weather didn't last for long. It has been drizzling at Gamone for the last twenty-four hours or so, and I have the impression that I'm dwelling in the middle of an equatorial rain forest.

When strolling around in front of the house a few hours ago, waiting for Sophia to return (drenched) from her morning piss/turd excursion, I noticed that my neighbor's huge truck (I'm talking of another neighbor, down in the valley, not the guy with my stray sheep) was still parked in front of his house. This reminded me that today is in fact a religious holiday in France. Ascension Day. Isn't it amazing that the whole economic activity of the nation grinds to a halt because of an alleged miracle that took place two millennia ago, when an individual who had been nailed to a wooden cross, up until he was pronounced dead, apparently recovered magically his good health and finally drifted up into the heavens like a hot-air balloon?

I remember above all Ascension Day in 1964, when I was residing at the Franco-British College at the University City in Paris. I had recently encountered a Breton girl, Christine, whom I would end up marrying one year later. She had been obliged to explain to confused Anglo-Saxon students such as me why the country was on holiday once again, just a fortnight after the May 1 holiday... celebrating workers! Christine's theological English wasn't sufficiently fine-tuned for her to give us a convincing summary of the events described in the gospels concerning the ascension of Jesus. So, she resorted to mime, and flapped her arms and wiggled her fingers in such a way that we immediately understand that Jesus had in fact taken off like a bird.

Another of Christine's excellent mime acts concerned the illustrious writer Chateaubriand, shown here in a famous painting by Girodet:

He lived in a castle in the small Breton town of Combourg, not far away from Christine's childhood home in Saint-Brieuc. Well, to inform us Anglo-Saxons that she was talking about the writer, rather than the fat steak of the same name, Christine would resort to a mime act that consisted of waving her fingers at the level of her hair to simulate the appearance of Girodet's Chateaubriand contemplating the ruins of Rome. Much later on, Combourg would become one of my hotel halts during my annual bike trips from Paris to Brittany and back.

In exactly eleven days, the French economy will halting once again, on the final Monday of this jolly month of May, to celebrate the religious festival of the Pentecost (also referred to as Whitsunday). Initially, this was a Jewish holiday. Well, after the above-mentioned ascension, it appears that the Holy Spirit chose this festival day to descend upon the heads of the former friends of Jesus, accompanied by a huge gush of wind and tongues of fire, causing them to speak in new languages ("in other tongues"). I don't think Christine had invented a mime act for this complex affair. I guess she thought it was high time that we Anglo-Saxons, blessed by the Holy Spirit, got around to understanding a new language, which would greatly simplify our communications: French.