Saturday, June 30, 2007

Case against religion

There are several major religions, and different kinds of charges can be brought against each of them. So, maybe I should have put my title in the plural: Cases against religions. But I prefer to generalize by affirming that something is basically wrong with religion, globally.

No intelligent person would designate the destruction of the Twin Towers as a religious act. On the other hand, an upsurge in anti-religious expression of all kinds has been taking place throughout the Western World since 9/11 and the subsequent God-driven decision of George W Bush and his Anglo-Saxon allies to wreak havoc upon Iraq. I first evoked this anti-religious sentiment in my message of 9 December 2006 entitled God bashing [display].

Concerning Christianity, it often seems to be coming apart at the seams. Many will say, of course, that Christianity has been like that for centuries, and it's still surviving. However I don't go along with the argument that, since a building is still standing, it will stand forever. Behind all the superficialities of the papacy, the Catholic church appears to me today as an empty chrysalis, and the butterfly is likely to soon disappear forever. In my blog, I've alluded to fascinating findings such as the Nag Hammadi Scriptures and the tomb at Talpiot, which often appear like Joshua blowing his horn alongside the walls of Jericho. How long will it be before the walls of Christianity fall down? I don't know. I'm not a prophet. But I'm convinced that the phenomenon we call Christianity today has been reduced to a largely ceremonial thing, which exerts little or no effect upon the course of worldly events... except in notorious cases such as that of the current US president. And, in talking like that, I feel that I'm throwing my weight against a door that is already open.

Often, throughout my life, I've felt that the fabulous stories and lessons of the Old Testament retain all their ancient nobility, and that this dimension of Judeo-Christian reality remains, as it were, intact.

Today, alas, we know that this is no longer the case. The extraordinary research and scholarship of Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, brilliantly exposed recently in both a book and a DVD set entitled The Bible Unearthed, shatter every illusion we might have retained in this domain. In a nutshell, all the stories of the Torah and the Prophets are neither more nor less than that: enthralling but perfectly fabricated stories. For years to come, Israelis and Palestinians will still be capable of killing one another in their respective determination to administer the tombs of the alleged patriarchs, in the cave of Machpelah at Hebron. But we know now that there were no patriarchs. Neither an Abraham, nor an Isaac nor a Jacob. They were literary constructions: personages invented by scribes in Jerusalem writing in the 7th century BCE [before the start of the so-called Common Era: that's to say, the year zero, which Christians used to associate approximately with the birth of Jesus].

It goes without saying that you don't need to become familiar with archaeological findings in the Holy Land [I remain fond of that expression] or the land of the Pharaohs [and that one, too] to form an opinion concerning the case against religion. As Richard Dawkins makes it perfectly clear, not only in The God Delusion but in his celebrated books about genes and evolution, science has truly advanced to a point at which there is simply no longer any tiny place whatsoever for any kind of divinity. This is a conclusion that imposes itself naturally upon any serious inquirer equipped with a minimum of scientific culture. Indeed, this atheistic awareness has become an essential cornerstone of contemporary culture in general. So, the case against religion might be summed up, not surprisingly, in a single word: Science.

All-purpose hi-tech gadget

Seriously, the initial iPhone feedback from US technical journalists [which I won't attempt to summarize here, since it's all on the Google news] is not bad at all.

Furthermore, I have the impression that we Europeans might be in on a good thing, as the saying goes. During the forthcoming months, US users of the iPhone will be faced with inevitable teething problems. Hopefully, Apple engineers will clean up these problems, as they become known, and the iPhone model that will be offered to us Europeans towards the end of the year will be faultless! Normally, the future European iPhone should be more rapid than the initial US version. There are even rumors that we might have a GPS dimension.

I'm disappointed to learn that the iPhone doesn't run Flash stuff, because most of my web work over the last few years has been based upon this approach. So, you won't be seeing my websites on your iPhones. Happily, though, the iPhone doesn't aim to replace the time-honored phenomenon of ordinary computers connected to the Internet, no more than the iPod has replaced music blaring out on a hifi system in the living room...

Friday, June 29, 2007

Blasphemy in Europe

From a geographical viewpoint, Europe is a vaguely-defined entity, but the political body called the European Union is perfectly clear. It is composed at present of 27 member nations whose union is concretized by various institutions: above all, the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Parliament.

Many people are confused by the fact that another organization, called the Council of Europe, has nothing to do with any of the above-mentioned entities. The CE [Council of Europe], whose seat is in Strasbourg (France), is much older than the EU [European Union], since it was founded in 1949 by the Treaty of London. Today, the CE has far more members (47, including Turkey, Russia and many former Communist states) than the EU.

An important institution of the CE is its Parliamentary Assembly, referred to as the PACE. Today, the summer session of the PACE made two interesting recommendations concerning religion, which I summarize roughly as follows:

When they conflict, human rights must ultimately take precedence over religious principles. States should welcome and respect religions, in all their plurality, as a form of ethical, moral, ideological and spiritual expression by citizens, and should protect individuals’ freedom to worship. But there should also be a clear separation of church and state.

— Religious groups must tolerate criticism and debate about their activities, provided it does not amount to gratuitous insult. On the other hand, hate speech—inciting discrimination or violence against people of a particular religion—should be penalized. Meanwhile, blasphemy laws—which often result from the dominant position of one particular religion—should be reviewed. In particular, blasphemy should not be considered as a penal infraction.

The explicit use of the term "blasphemy" in the second recommendation is particularly interesting. This recommendation has probably been inspired by recent conflicts concerning allegedly blasphemous references to the prophet Muhammad in political cartoons.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Unesco World Heritage update

The Unesco committee that selects World Heritage sites, meeting in Christchurch (New Zealand) from 23 June until next Sunday, has added the Sydney Opera House to Unesco's list of prestigious cultural sites. In France, a similar honor was bestowed upon the city of Bordeaux.

The classified parts of the city add up to nearly four and a half thousand acres, representing almost 50% of the area of Bordeaux. This is the first time that Unesco has ever classified such a vast urban area. The most striking aspects of the ancient capital of the French wine world are the quays and 18th-century stone façades alongside the Garonne River. Since 1998, three religious buildings in Bordeaux were already World Heritage sites because of their inclusion in the pilgrims' routes to Saint James of Compostella.

Countdown iPhone minus one

Unless you're living like a Neanderthal in a limestone cave at the foot of the cliffs in a remote place such as Choranche, you're aware of two front-page media items: first, Paris Hilton is out of jail (for the moment), and second, Apple's iPhone is coming (at least to US customers) tomorrow, Friday. The excitement generated by these two events means that poor old Gordon Brown has chosen a difficult week (in reality, the poor bugger didn't choose anything; the choosing was done for him by friends) to hit the headlines with stories about his ascension to the top job in the UK. Fortunately, neither the Kiwis nor the Swiss can win the five required America's Cup match races until a forthcoming day in the AiP (after the iPhone) era: at some time between AiP 2 (next Sunday) and AiP 5 (next Wednesday). So, there's no danger of that victory interfering with AiP 0 (tomorrow). There's also little likelihood that George W Bush will be choosing one of the early AiP days to announce a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, because he wouldn't want to be forced to share his limelight with Steve Jobs. So, apart from the coming-out of the iPhone, I think we can safely say that nothing important is likely to happen in the universe in the next few days. On the other hand, we are indeed likely to see TV footage of the glamorous ex-jailbird using her new iPhone to talk to her boyfriend about the respective hardships and joys of life as an inmate. Meanwhile, I strongly recommend Apple's excellent guided tour of the functionality of the future beast, which you can see by clicking on the following banner:

Business as usual

There's an everyday expression in French, fond de commerce, whose literal meaning is "business assets". But it's often used in the case of small shopkeepers to designate the particular commercial setting and customers that enable them to earn their living. For example, I recall the prolific and popular French novelist Frédéric Dard [1921-2000] talking about his childhood on a radio program. At one stage, his mother had a small shop that sold merchandise designated in French as farces-attrapes, which means trivial objects used for practical jokes, tricks and party gags. [I'm not sure I ever saw such a shop back in Australia... or anywhere outside of France, for that matter.] Well, Frédéric Dard explained with glee that his mother's commercial operations meant, for example, that she had to stock an assortment of the finest imitation dog turds made out of rubber. In other words, her fond de commerce included these objects and, by the same token, the people who buy such stuff. She therefore had to maintain constant contacts with the wholesalers who produced these objects. So, whenever a manufacturer's representative called in at her shop, she would ask to be brought up to date: "Please show me a few samples of this year's creations in the field of dog shit."

In a totally different domain, I've always felt that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is like a small shopkeeper whose constant business preoccupation is terrorism.

As a consequence of September 11, 2001, Rudy nows knows more about how to deal with terrorists than anyone else in the world... including Bill Clinton, of course, and maybe even George W Bush. Rudy is a specialist in terrorist threats just like the mother of Frédéric Dard was a specialist in imitation dog turds. It's Giuliani's business, and nobody should dare to tell him how to run his business, particularly if they're Democrats. Above all, Rudy doesn't want to listen to anybody talking about bringing the troops home from Iraq.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee made it clear, tersely, that Rudy's establishment is not at all the best little shop in town: "Rudy's arrogance has gotten the best of him. How can a man who failed to prepare New York City for a second attack after the first one, who sent firefighters and emergency workers into Ground Zero without respirators and quit the Iraq Study Group to raise money keep America safe?"

Will those negative remarks slow down Rudy's operations? Not at all. Business as usual.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Songs and singers

At the time the Six-Day War [click here to display my recent article on this subject], the Israeli composer Naomi Shemer created a magnificent song, whose English title was Jerusalem of gold, which rapidly become an anthem associated with Israel's recovery of the Western Wall. I've always loved this song, which became for me a symbol of my encounter with Israel in 1989. In Paris, when I was learning Hebrew with the help of a lovely Israeli girl named Mihal, she taught me to appreciate the beautiful metaphors in Naomi Shemer's poem dedicated to the Holy City. Here's a version of this splendid song performed by Ofra Haza:

A few years ago, a special program on French TV celebrated the 50th anniversary of the creation of the modern state of Israel. A major musical event of the evening was a live performance of Naomi Shemer's famous song. Alas, the French performer selected for this task, a popular jazz-oriented singer named Michel Jonasz, did not speak Hebrew. No problem, he learned the words of the song phonetically! I was disappointed to think that anybody would dare to fake a rendition of this sacred song by mouthing the words phonetically. In my mind (in my ears, too, no doubt), this was akin to getting a computer to churn out the song using a synthetic voice.

Towards the end of her life, Naomi Shemer realized that she had in fact "borrowed" unwittingly the music of her song from a Basque lullaby named Pello Joxepe [Peter Joseph] sung by Paco Ibanez. She was terribly affected by this discovery, even to the point of considering that her terminal illness was a divine punishment for this plagiarism.

Getting back to the theme of phonetic singing, one of the most fascinating cases in France concerned an Israeli fellow named Moshé Brand, born in 1947, who arrived in Paris at the age of 22 and rose to sudden fame under the name of Mike Brant.

At the start of his career, managed by talented producers and musicians, Mike knew so little French that he had to reproduce each song phonetically, but his female fans were scarcely worried about the fact that Mike didn't really understand the sense of the songs he was being told to sing. Unfortunately, at the height of his huge success, he was out of his depth in the constant ambience of adulation and riches into which he had been projected, and in 1975 Mike Brant jumped to his death from an apartment building in Paris.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Tony Blair's new job

The least that can be said is that Tony Blair has not found himself in the same predicament as laid-off workers who have to spend ages looking for employment. He hasn't even handed over the reins of Britain to Gordon Brown yet, and we're already hearing about his new job: international envoy to the Middle East, employed by the so-called Quartet—the US, Europe, the UN and Russia—faced with the challenge of inventing a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Blair is fortunate in being able to count upon the services of a dynamic employment agent: George W Bush, who has always been efficient in finding jobs for friends. It goes without saying that everybody would be immensely pleased if Tony Blair were able to play a role in solving the enormous and longstanding problems of the Middle East, but I have a gut feeling that, for this work, he's not really the right man in the right place. How could Arab people ever accept suggestions from the man who helped Bush invade Iraq? I hope I'm wrong, and that Blair manages to drag a white rabbit of peace out of his magician's hat. But acts of magic, to me, are like God and miracles. They would be fabulous... if only they existed.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Dusty dog

I would have imagined naively that the big wicker basket I purchased recently for Sophia would be the nec plus ultra in the way of canine accommodation. Error!

Sophia has dug up this dust bath in front of the house. The donkeys, too, love to bathe in dust. I end up believing that dust is a primordial element, no less attractive than green grass, water or snow (in the case of a Labrador animal such as my dear Sophia). The biblical oldtimer who came out with the "dust to dust" expression knew what he was talking about.

Glimmer of hope

This colorful photo of female Darfur refugees is in stark contrast with the obscure reality: a UN estimate of over two million displaced persons, and maybe 200 thousand deaths since the start of ethnic violence in that region of Sudan, in north-eastern Africa.

No sooner had Bernard Kouchner (of "French Doctors" fame) been named minister of foreign affairs by Nicolas Sarkozy than he visited Khartoum, on 11 June 2007, and launched the idea of an international conference on the Darfur tragedy. And that conference took place today, offering a glimmer of hope.

"Silence kills," said Sarkozy, assuming fully his new role as an international statesman. And Kouchner evoked "a tiny glimmer of light in the depths of this darkness". The Paris conference obtained Khartoum's authorization to deploy more than 20 thousand peace-keeping soldiers supplied conjointly by the African Union and the UN.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


These awards concern achievements around my home in the Royans.

In the category of beautiful homes, the winner is:

The vomit-hued stone wall has been there since time immemorial, but I have the impression that a new cement lion appears in the garden, alongside a naked Venus, every year or so. Village-level kitsch paradise.

In the category of municipal fountains, the winner is:

I've been convinced for ages that this construction, in the middle of St-Jean-en-Royans, will look much better when water starts to flow in the basins. Meanwhile, the metal cabinet on the left informs us that the whole artificial affair will be run (one of these days) by electricity. Committee-designed art.

In the category of staircases and balconies, the winner is:

I've driven past this place for years, and it appears to be still intact. I've often imagined myself residing in the upper-level cubic habitation on the left, and wishing to step down into the garden for my customary midnight moonlit pee. The consequences of the operation would depend upon whether or not I'd been imbibing no more than water.

Finally, in the prestigious category of dare-devil shit-houses, the winner is:

Friends at Pont-en-Royans tell me that this outdoor cliff-hanging "powder room" (as Americans say) is perfectly safe, since the big horizontal beams at the base of the construction are well fastened into the rocks. OK, but I'm obsessed by the image of leaning on the fragile wall while I'm putting my pants back on, and finding myself—a few seconds later—swimming naked in the Bourne alongside wooden debris and other floating objects. Here's the topographical context (viewed from above) of this much-photographed Pont-en-Royans shit-house:

Flight symbols

In my previous post, My old passports [display], I mentioned that, in May 1962, I flew out of Paris, for London, from the airport at Le Bourget. Charles Lindbergh had landed here in the Spirit of Saint Louis, 35 years previously, after crossing the Atlantic.

Today, few flights use this quaint old airport, but Le Bourget has become internationally renowned as the site of the biennial Paris Air Show, which started in 1909.

For me personally, Le Bourget was a symbol of my flight to London in 1962 to obtain a long-overdue French visa, regularizing my de facto status as an employee of IBM in Paris. Much later, Le Bourget was also a symbol of my "flight" from Paris to the provinces, in that I attended the Paris Air Show with my daughter in 1993 on the eve of my departure. I recall every moment of that delightful sunny day, during which we watched acrobatic flyers, and had our ears pounded by the latest Dassault jets. The day ended at a Moroccan restaurant in the Marais quarter of Paris, not far from where we lived. My daughter, on the other hand, retains a quite different symbol of my departure from Paris: an antiquated crammed red Renault, which I had just purchased from a friend in the Marais, which had to be pushed manually to get me started on my route to the south. Not at all "Paris Air Show".

Le Bourget is an airport of the past, overtaken first by Orly and then Roissy (Charles de Gaulle). Today, as the one-week 47th Paris Air Show was drawing to a close, with a record-breaking attendance of 480,000 visitors, French TV presented the new installations at Roissy for forthcoming flights of the Airbus A380. Gigantic, like the aircraft itself!

My old passports

Pages in an old passport can have a similar nostalgic value to old letters or photos. Even the covers can tell a story.

In the old model, there was a crown on the cover, above the word Australia, and the expression British passport appeared beneath our coat of arms. Inside, to describe the bearer's nationality, complicated verbiage was required: Australian citizen and a British subject. Then, in the '80s, for reasons I never bothered to try to understand, we Australian expatriates residing in the Old World suddenly found ourselves queuing up with Eskimos and Americans to get into Britain, while the British queues were full of people wearing turbans and djellabas, and speaking among themselves in exotic languages. Personally, I had become so accustomed to thinking of Britain as the ancestral motherland of Australians that I never quite got over the shock of being considered there as an alien. And I'm still irritated when I find Australian dignitaries groveling in front of members of Britain's royal family.

The following page of my first passport has traces of my first sea, land and air voyages outside of Australia:

And here's my first French visa, delivered in London, enabling me to work officially in France:

Today, one has the impression that 4,000 French francs was a hell of a lot of money to pay for a visa. They were, of course, so-called "old francs". In present-day monetary terms, my visa wasn't particularly expensive: a few dozen euros.

While I'm aware that it's rather silly to remain attached to obsolete passports, these documents symbolize precious moments in my early life. They're a modern equivalent of the old family bibles in which our ancestors recorded dates of baptisms and first communions.

Around the house

The surrounding slopes are a jungle of greenery at present. An observer could well imagine that Gamone is a natural Garden of Eden, but this is an illusion, for the limestone soil is not rich at all. Thick wisteria leaves and rose bushes conceal the southern half of the façade of the house.

A local craftsman will be coming here in August to renovate this façade by replacing all the ancient mortar between the hunks of stone. Prior to his arrival, I'll have to cut back all these wisteria and rose branches.

On a sunny window sill at the southern end of the house, my miniature Jacaranda Avenue is coming along well:

Natacha gave me seeds from the Mediterranean coast for the two plants on the left, whereas the three smaller plants are grown from seeds I picked up last year in my native South Grafton. Unfortunately I'm unlikely to ever see these tropical American trees growing outside on the slopes of Gamone, because they only thrive in hot humid climates.

My strawberry, lettuce and tomato patches are coming along slowly but well, now that I've fenced them off so that my billy goat Gavroche doesn't wreak havoc upon the tender plants.

This morning, Sophia came back from our customary morning excursion up along the track beyond the house with a gigantic bone.

I have no idea where it was hidden, but I believe it's a bone she brought back from a walk over on the other side of the valley a few years ago. If I were conscientious, I would try to determine from what kind of a beast it comes. But Sophia doesn't need to know that. And neither, for that matter, do I. So, let's simply assume that it was some kind of a big non-human creature that died lawfully and as peacefully as possible. That's more than what can be said, these days, for many poor men, women and children.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Antipodes post #300

I still dream (thankfully, you might say), whether I wish to or not. But I no longer pay much attention to my dreams (if ever I did), because I don't think they play a significant role in my earthly existence. In the matinal clarity, when I stroll up the road behind the house, accompanied by my faithful Sophia (wisdom), maybe in the fuzzy hope of extruding a little vital energy for the oncoming day from the giant mass of the Cornouze on the other side of the valley, I have an opportunity of reflecting upon my dream objects of the previous night... with no particular goal in mind. I have the impression that there's a kind of one-to-one correspondence (as mathematicians say) between my dream objects and the concrete events of the previous day or so. I insist upon the adjective "concrete". What I mean to say is that my dreaming apparatus seems to hook on to things that happened during my day, often of a superficial nature, but it never bothers to get involved (or so it seems) with my profound thoughts. In other words, my dreaming apparatus is like a horde of vulgar paparazzi who shoot everything they see, obsessively, without worrying too much about the fundamental substrate of events, of thoughts, of our human existence. In fact, if I could get rid of them, I probably would... because their images of alleged reality no longer amuse me. But I'm like Princess Diana. I can't get the bastards off my back.So, I dream.

And what do I dream about? Yesterday, it was a backstage theater. This was weird, because I've never been concerned with stage theater, at any moment of my life, and I can't even recall having ever wandered around on a theater stage behind the curtains. In fact, my theatrical career is a little like that of my dear father. As a child, he had a one-line response in a play, performed in front of proud parents. But he also had whooping cough. Consequently, at the moment that a Shakespearean personage in the play asked my father a question necessitating a Shakespearean yes/no reply such as "Yes, my lord, it is I", my father coughed tempestuously... which brought the house down, and stopped the performance.

In my dream, I was wandering through an extraordinary backstage environment, crowded with fascinating artists and their theatrical constructions. Funnily, there was no hint whatsoever of the probable presence of spectators, theater-goers, until the end of my dream. Up until then, the only subject of interest was the construction of stage decors. And the least that can be said is that this was a gigantic preoccupation in my dreamworld. Everything was luxuriously executed, by expert stage designers, but it was constantly and totally false... as if the desire to escape from reality was no less important than the aim of recreating it. As a dreamer, seated in the first spectator lounges, I was astounded by the attention to detail manifested by the set designers and their craftsmen. But i was puzzled by their obvious desire to create a setting that remained totally make-believe, false.

On the sunny morning slopes of Gamone, it took me a little while to see what this dream was all about. My nocturnal musings reverted to the idea of a gigantic and intricate hidden world behind our "ordinary" world. And this virtual world is described in technical terms by great contemporary thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Brian Greene and Seth Lloyd. Before meeting up with these new analysts of the Cosmos, I was fascinated by an ancient genius: William Shakespeare. The other day, while searching for significant things to say about James Joyce in my article entitled Bloomsday [display], I was troubled by the fact that I wanted to talk, not so much about Joyce, but about Shakespeare. About the dreamworld of The Tempest, for example.

In my own strange dream [pleonasm: Can a dream be otherwise than strange?], I had been wandering through the backstage region of a vast theater, where a great play had just been performed.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Sarko, top of the class

The world might prefer (and so do I) the lovely image of Jose Manuel Barroso kissing Angela Merkel and offering her a splendid bouquet of flowers... but our Sarko was in top form last night in Brussels. And not drunk at all... except, as usual, upon his personal success.

Medieval Australia

I'm shocked by the fact that certain elected politicians in Australia are described in the local press as "Catholic MPs", as if their religious beliefs might impinge upon their political convictions and choices. Are so-called catholic MPs expected to cater for voters who might be Protestants, or Jews, or Moslems, or atheists? Or does the Catholic tag attached to such a politician mean that he/she is morally justified in ignoring non-Catholic citizens, and leaving them to rot in hell? To my mind, the expression "Catholic MP" cannot logically exist, and should not be tolerated in serious journalism. When an elected member enters the sanctuaries of the State, he/she should leave his religious beliefs in the cloakroom.

Today, no nation can claim to be adult, and no political constitution is sound from a purely human viewpoint, unless a strict separation is established, once and for all, between the supreme concept of the State (that is, in the case that concerns me, the nation of Australia), on the one hand, and the multifarious religious organizations that the land might shelter. Ideas of the latter folk should not be allowed to ooze, like medieval sewage, into the sacred domain of the Nation and the People.

Now, as if it weren't enough to have the Church—like an antiquated harlot in parrot-colored robes—trying to allure hesitant politicians in the context of the ongoing debate (not only in Australia) about research using human stem cells, there's a greater cause for concern in this domain. Apparently, a new social phenomenon is arising, described colorfully by Australia's national media organization as stem-cell tourism. What's it all about? Well, in the backwoods of Australia's great Asian neighbors, private charlatans have started to jump onto the bandwagon of stem-cell treatments by offering miraculous cures of a highly suspect nature. Their potential patients (customers) include Australians with a terminal illness or spinal injury.

Funnily, in speaking out against this quackery (a tiny voice in the wilderness), I would seem to be on the same side as the Sydney cardinal. This is an illusion. In French, there's a terse old saying: Robes don't make a monk. In Sydney parlance: Clothes don't make a drag queen. My simple advice to the cardinal (borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut's Deadeye Dick): Watch out for life. The same advice might be given to travelers of all kinds, including sexual tourists and stem-cell tourists.

BigPond story (continued)

In yesterday's message entitled BigPond deserves a big kick in the pants [display], I didn't go into details concerning the nature of the BigPond problem that has been annoying me for so long (well over a year). Furthermore, behind the visible part of my blog, I've been using email to instigate an investigation into BigPond's behavior, with the aim of forcing this organization to abandon their French blacklisting.

First, let me point out that my use of the expression "French blacklisting" is eloquent (people understand that image) but slightly approximative. A more precise way of describing the situation in technical terms consists of saying that certain BigPond mail servers (not necessarily all of them, because some of my emails to BigPond do get delivered) have placed the names of certain French ISPs (Wanadoo/Orange and Free) on what is known as a DNS block list.

Why? If I understand correctly, BigPond calls upon an outside firm to help them combat spam... which is a noble intention. Apparently, this outside firm (maybe TrendMicro) considers that Wanadoo/Orange and Free "continue to allow spam to be generated by their customers"... that's to say, by ordinary people like me. Consequently, BigPond has taken the decision to include the names Wanadoo/Orange and Free in DNS block lists on their servers.

To use a famous image (popular in French), it's like throwing out the baby with the bath water. Since BigPond believes that lots of spammers operate from Wanadoo/Orange and Free (which may or may not be true), they've decided to punish everybody, globally, by refusing to deliver any email emanating from these two French ISPs.

This morning, I was happy to receive an email from my old schoolmate Ron Willard who reminded me of the existence of an excellent technical website [display] on the subject of DNS block lists. It includes a more powerful image than my metaphor about the baby's bath. A US army officer is quoted as saying (no doubt in a Vietnam setting): We had to destroy the village in order to save it. BigPond has decided to destroy the possibility of emails from France in order to save their Australian customers from spam.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A professor named Dawkins

It's abnormal that the achievements of a relatively youthful Oxford professor named Richard Dawkins [well, six months younger than me] should be celebrated, while he's still a living crewman of Planet Earth [excuse my topical America's Cup language], through a book of praise such as this. Abnormal, but perfectly appropriate. Let me set aside my computerized pen [my Macintosh keyboard] and take a deep breath before pronouncing solemnly the following carefully-weighed words: The man named Richard Dawkins, born 66 years ago in Nairobi, is a 21st-century genius!

Why? In his revolutionary book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins changed "the way we think". He dethroned forever us humans from any claim whatsoever to using our intelligence to reign over the Cosmos. We have never been, and will never be, the Masters of Creation, nor even the subsidiary Princes. Not even the Judeo-Christian Yahveh can assume that role. The Kingdom of Creation does not belong to us poor human beings. We are cerebral insects. Our gods are our genes.

The pill is bitter. But it will do us good. As for the pharmacist Dawkins, he's my eternal hero.

BigPond deserves a big kick in the pants

The behavior of this Australian ISP [Internet service provider] with respect to French users is outrageous. Over the last few years, when my email address was, BigPond refused to deliver my emails to any of their customers. Since then I've changed my address to, and I've just found that BigPond still refuses to deliver my emails to their customers. These French ISPs, Orange and Free, are two of the largest and most respected organizations in this domain, and BigPond's crazy idea of blacklisting all French customers is scandalous. It would be interesting to identify the BigPond employee who's behind this strategy.

I intend to lodge a formal complaint with the international email authorities concerning this curious BigPond behavior, which is not in keeping with the spirit of the Internet.

Here's the precise technical data [in which I've obliterated part of the email address of my intended receiver] confirming the blacklisting:

s*** host[] said: 451 Mail from this IP address blocked due to DNS block list. (in reply to MAIL FROM command)
Reporting-MTA: dns;
X-Postfix-Queue-ID: EE6C213E75DF
X-Postfix-Sender: rfc822;
Arrival-Date: Thu, 21 Jun 2007 12:45:37 +0200 (CEST)

Final-Recipient: rfc822; s***
Action: failed
Status: 4.0.0
Diagnostic-Code: X-Postfix; host[] said: 451 Mail from this IP address blocked due to DNS block list. (in reply to MAIL FROM command)

America's Cup

Tomorrow, in the opening race of the 32nd America's Cup in Valencia, the Swiss defender Alinghi will be meeting up with the Kiwi challenger named Emirates Team New Zealand. From a purely sporting viewpoint, in this millionaires' hobby based upon the notion of mano-a-mano match racing, there's an intriguing flaw. Whereas the challenger has just endured an arduous series of races, acquiring practical experience out on the water, the defender has been sitting on the sidelines and merely watching, as it were. [This was not entirely true, since the defenders have been constantly match racing among themselves.] So, the New Zealand team will arrive at the starting line with their muscles flexed and their tactics tested, whereas the Swiss boat will normally need a little time to adapt itself to the atmosphere of combat. In the boxing domain, where there's a similar dissymmetry between the defender of a title and his challengers, the former has an opportunity of analyzing the weaknesses of his future opponent. In yachting, the situation is hardly comparable. Consequently, I feel that the Kiwi boat is the hot favorite, at least for tomorrow's first race.

My box of souvenirs holds my press card for the America's Cup regattas in Perth, which started in October 1986, with the finals being held in January 1987. At that time, my son and I were crew members aboard a local twelve-meter yacht, Zigeuner, and we had friends in the teams French Kiss and Challenge France. That was a short but exciting sunny sea-sprayed season in my life. At the height of the regattas, I helped the owner/skipper of the Zigeuner, Charles Russell-Smith, in the organization of a gentlemanly race between fourteen old-time boats that happened to be berthed at Fremantle during the America's Cup season, including several magnificent multi-masted vessels. Here's a newspaper photo of our own boat competing in this race, in which we ended up coming third:

In the context of our planning, one of my tasks had consisted of meeting up with the captain of the visiting Italian cruise ship Achille Laura, berthed at Fremantle, to provide him with precise information about our regatta, informing him that our old boats would be racing on a certain course, at a certain time, so that he would avoid maneuvering his vessel in ways that could interfere with our event... which was to be watched by spectators on countless small craft. Well, the captain of the Achille Laura was a smart bugger: smarter than me, in any case. With the aim of giving his passengers a closeup view of our regatta, he used the information I had given him to anchor his bloody big ship, in the early hours of the morning, right in the middle of our course!

Another happy memory of that season was my winning the journalists' prize for predicting the winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup for challengers, and the average winning margin. I used the Pascal programming language on my little cubic Macintosh to create a software tool enabling me to record and compare the results of all the early races, and this helped me guess the final outcome with remarkable precision. The media-center organizers had proposed a first, a second and a third prize for this prediction competition, and my entry was so precise that they awarded me all three prizes! I've still got a couple of ugly reddish-plastic prize suitcases at Gamone, with the following label:

At our flat in Fremantle, the prize also enabled my son and me to drink M&H champagne for a few weeks.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Simcha's silence

My subject line might be misleading. I'm incapable of saying whether Simcha Jacobovici, revealer of the Talpiot tomb, is deliberately silent, or whether the evolution of events obliges him to keep a low profile. In any case, I still don't have an answer to the question posed in my article of 10 June entitled Delay in obtaining the Talpiot book [display]. But I'm starting to have a few ideas on the subject, and to make a few guesses.

— My major guess is that experts quoted by Jacobovici and/or Pellegrino in their book have complained that they were misquoted, and that they're effectively blocking the marketing of the book.

— Another guess is that the beliefs of Jacobovici and/or Pellegrino have evolved over the last few months, since the book was published, and that they themselves are deliberately blocking further marketing of the existing book, while preparing a new edition.

— Yet another guess is that there is some kind of a legal problem concerning an affair that is being handled by Israeli justice: namely, the possibility that the so-called James ossuary—associated, according to Jacobovici and Pellegrino, with the Talpiot tomb—might be a forgery.

For the moment, while awaiting further enlightenment, let me say a few words concerning the latter guess. To start the ball rolling, here's the cover of BAR [Biblical Archæology Review] dated November/December 2002, which broke to the world the amazing news of the existence of a bone box inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus".

The ossuary, displayed in Canada, was hailed by many as the first material object ever unearthed that evoked explicitly the historical Jesus.

Sadly, the events that followed this Canadian excursion read at times like a cheap crime novel. To cut a long story short, the owner of the ossuary, a Tel Aviv antiquities dealer named Oded Golan, was accused of forgery. More precisely, it is claimed that he acquired an authentic bone box inscribed "James, son of Joseph" and that he added the final phrase: "brother of Jesus". Israeli police who raided Golan's apartment in Tel Aviv took this surrealist photo of the alleged James ossuary posed upon a grotty WC:

Now, there was no reason whatsoever, a priori, why this murky affair concerning Oded Golan and his bone box should be linked in any way to the Talpiot question. But, in saying that, we're underestimating the enthusiasm and detective-like intuition of Simcha Jacobovici. Everybody knows that, back in 1980, ten ossuaries were found in the Talpiot tomb. But one of them disappeared overnight. Well, again, to cut a long story short, Jacobovici and Pellegrino suggest forcibly that Golan's object is in fact this missing bone box. In other words, they are opposed to the claim that Golan was a forger.

In their book, Jacobovici and Pellegrino seem to suggest that the analysis of various patinas [the surface appearance of objects due to aging] proves that the James ossuary did in fact repose for a long time in the same environment as the nine remaining bone boxes of Talpiot. In other words, they are affirming that the James ossuary was indeed the missing tenth bone box of Talpiot. But many specialists disagree with this conclusion.

Finally, a few days ago, the eminent BAR editor Hershel Shanks—who remains a great friend of Simcha—published an editorial that reveals his basic incredulity concerning Jacobovici's theses. However Shanks remains elusive, and he admits that he is neither a statistician nor a DNA expert [which you need to be, to appreciate Simcha's claims]. On the other hand, he has interesting suggestions concerning the reasons why the Talpiot affair has created a storm throughout the world: "One reason for this flurry of attention is that if the Talpiot ossuary once contained the bones of Jesus, this would disturb the religious faith of millions of Christians who believe that Jesus was bodily resurrected and ascended into heaven (to say nothing of his mother Mary, who was also bodily assumed into heaven)." Shanks considers, however, that the whole affair will blow over rapidly, and soon be forgotten. I am not so sure.

Personally, for the moment, I remain open, intuitively and objectively, to the possibility that Simcha might be on the right tracks. In other words, I have not yet encountered any serious arguments that would appear to prove that Jacobovici is trying to lead us all on a wild goose chase. For example, Shanks explains: "If Jesus already had a family tomb in Talpiot, there would be no need to bury him in a temporary tomb, despite the onset of the Sabbath. It’s little more than a half-hour’s walk from Golgotha to Talpiot." To my mind, these words are stupid. I find it hard to imagine, on that fateful Friday afternoon, a group of friends of the executed disturber carrying his body all the way to Talpiot... and I challenge Hershel to perform this trek while carrying, say, a bag of cement.

But I believe, too, that we might never know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth concerning the Talpiot tomb. A times, we might feel that this affair, as presented by Simcha, is handled in a high-tech style. In fact, the Talpiot affair remains entrenched, to a large extent, in the boggy swamps of religion and legends, and we would be naive to expect total enlightenment. Besides, everybody has already made up their minds, long ago, on the issues at stake.

Canon dog

I like this French Canon publicity featuring a multicolored dog. [Click on the banner to display it.] It's crazy but lovely, like a multicolored dog.


I've just been looking back over recent articles on famous females:

Christine Lagarde
Powerful French woman [display]

Hillary Clinton
US presidential campaign [display]

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet
Same name as Australian mountain [display]

Anne Lauvergeon
Nice TV spot [display]

Ségolène Royal
Simple direct talk [display]

Jelena Jankovic
Tennistic Amazons [display]

Laure Manaudou
Beauty and the beast [display]

Tzipi Livni
Time for Tzipi? [display]

A psychoanalyst, observing the way in which I've selected and talked about these women, might be tempted to come up with interesting ideas (?) concerning my general attitude towards the female sex. It's a fact that the eight above-mentioned women appear to share common attributes. They're all powerful individuals in their chosen domain. Nothing to do with the wishy-washy notion of females as passive creatures prepared to be dominated by males. Maybe our psychoanalyst might believe in the paraphrase of a familiar dictum: Show me the women who fascinate you, and I'll tell you who you are.

Be that as it may, I must point out that, with one exception, these are not in fact the kind of ladies whom I would be tempted to invite along to Gamone for an extended weekend. [I can hear Bill Clinton heaving a sigh of relief... not to mention Hillary herself.] The fact is that I've always admired women who are capable of acting like men, but this admiration doesn't mean that such females attract me in a more global sense. I remember precisely the moment in my existence when this admiration first manifested itself. I had just married Christine, in 1965, and I was working as a technical translator with a big company named CSF, located near the Place de la Porte de Saint-Cloud in the chic quarters of Paris. There, my boss was an elegant lady with a training in technology. I had never before encountered such a phenomenon. Normally, in places where I had worked previously (mainly at IBM, in Sydney, Paris and London), creatures of that soft and superficially fragile kind were employed as secretaries, prepared at all times to obey their male superiors. But here was a lovely lady with a mind of her own. Besides, she was theoretically my boss... except that she didn't know enough English to intervene in any way in my work.

My work? Among other things, I used to write the English-language speeches of the CEO [chief executive officer] of that multinational company. In doing so, I had my first experience of getting paid to be a lapdog... not with respect to the lovely lady, unfortunately, but for the CEO. I would slip tiny excuses into his speeches, such as: "Excuse me for speaking English in such an atrocious fashion. Please understand that my management activities leave me with little time to improve my knowledge of Shakespeare's language." The guy got a great ego-thrill out of reciting such words, in perfect English, at the start of his speech. So, I was already a kind of gigolo. For the wrong boss.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Memory of the world

That's a big formula: Memory of the world. What's it all about? Well, Unesco has decided to register a certain number of outstanding historical documents as a permanent testimony of the human story of our planet. I'm enchanted to learn, for example, that the choice of US documents is neither the Gettysburg Address nor even the Watergate tapes, but a whimsical Judy Garland movie that charmed me infinitely as a child: the Wizard of Oz.

In the case of Sweden, Unesco has registered two sets of family archives: those of Alfred Nobel [1833-1896], founder of the prize, and those of the 88-year-old cineast Ingmar Bergman.

Concerning France, Unesco has selected the tapestry of Bayeux.

This fragment shows the Conqueror's half-brother Odo wielding weirdly a massive shaft at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. I've always liked to imagine, not very objectively, that he might have been a nominal forebear of my 13th-century ancestor Odo de Scevington [literally, in Saxon, place of the shaft], owner of a manor in Kent with the lovely name of Dolce. In any case, if future researchers use a computerized network to look up the Bayeux tapestry, they might find their way to my Skeffington typescript [click here to find it straightaway].

In the case of my birthplace, Australia, the Unesco Memory of the world project is perfectly explicit. The documents to be registered for posterity are our convict archives. Here's a treasured personal fragment of this memory:

This is the famous ticket of leave indicating that my Tipperary great-great-great-grandfather Patrick Hickey [1782-1858] was transported to New South Wales in 1829, and even spent time on notorious Norfolk Island. Today, I get a kick out of thinking that the future world, as envisaged by Unesco, will remember my maternal family and me, not for the pioneering efforts in Braidwood of Charles Walker [1807-1860], probably the elder brother of the whisky inventor Johnnie Walker, nor for smart hotel founders named O'Keeffe, nor for northern Irish Protestant pioneers named Kennedy and Cranston, nor even for any of us living folk (including my two Smith cousins, Australian doctors, who were indirect recipients of the Nobel Prize for Peace awarded to Médecins Sans Frontières a few years ago)... but for a vulgar and no doubt lovable Irish cattle-poacher whose son William Hickey [whom I'm researching] was an early bushranger.

Personally, I'm not troubled by this strange filtering process that determines what might, and what might not, be remembered. On the other hand, I was disappointed by the fact that, during my one-month visit to Australia last year, I was unable to visit Braidwood, the territory of Patrick Hickey. He got there easily in 1829. My ancestor Charles Walker, too. But William Skyvington never made it. Modern Australia was incapable [because their public transport is shit] of letting me visit the region of one of my major ancestral memories.

Powerful French woman

Back at the time I lived in the heart of Paris, I would often—of a Sunday morning—ride my bike out in the direction of the Vincennes woods, to the east of the city, where the old vélodrome was located. [I even did a season of track racing there, in 1972.] If it was sunny and I had time on my hands, which was generally the case, I would often be tempted to ride lazily along the cobblestones of the Bercy quarter, past the ancient wine warehouses.

Sadly, all this quaint old-worldliness was soon to disappear, making way for two landmark constructions. First, the Bercy stadium is big enough to house windsurfing demonstrations and motor-cycle races.

Then there's the home of France's treasury ministry, on the right bank of the Seine. It's a curiously-shaped building, like the start of a bridge that had to be abandoned, maybe because they ran out of funds. I often used to think that this building is designed in such a way that, if ever a treasury minister were to act in an unskilled way that forced France into bankruptcy, he would be able to put an end to his disgrace, effortlessly, by wandering to the end of the upper-floor hallway and jumping out the window into the noble river of Paris. His body would then float down past the Ile de la Cité where the people of Paris, thronged around the great cathedral of Notre-Dame, could hurl invective upon the corpse of the minister as it passed by. An event of that kind would indeed be very Parisian.

As of today, a brilliant woman named Christine Lagarde is holding the purse strings of the French Republic in her hands. In this role, she ranks fourth in the hierarchy of the French government. Prior to becoming the first woman to occupy this position in France, the lawyer Lagarde, with a natural gift for oratory, was accustomed to being a very big chief. In 1999, she had been placed in charge of the major US law firm, Baker & McKenzie in Chicago, with 2,400 associates. Not bad for a French female!

What exactly was it, in the profile of Christine Lagarde, that persuaded Nicolas Sarkozy to hand over to her the "reins of Bercy" (to employ a metaphor that's often applied to this ministry)? Well, she's something of a Martian in France, where the political milieu is not accustomed to the idea of a woman who evolves in the English-speaking world like a fish in water (as the French saying goes). It's a fact that we shouldn't expect this grand lady to ever set foot in such-and-such a French village to see if the local vineyard or cheese-making firm is getting along well, but she will surely be a precious diplomatic asset for France at the next World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2008. In other words, Christine Lagarde might be seen as a symbol of the desire of Sarkozy to move away, once and for all, from the false but enduring image of France as a land of wine, cheese and economic frivolity.