Sunday, July 29, 2007

Aussie bungler of the year

I would like to nominate Kevin Andrews, minister of Immigration, for the Bungler of the Year award. Speaking of the departure for India of liberated Haneef, the bungler is quoted as saying: "If anything, that actually heightens rather than lessens my suspicion." Andrews is a bloody stubborn bungler, too, who doesn't even appear to be aware that he screwed things up. And don't expect him to apologize for his bungling. He summed up his idiotic actions with the following weird words: "I have had to defend this matter with one arm tied behind my back because of protected information." The guy's a nut, and the only decent thing he could do would be to resign.

Tony Abbott, minister of Health, spoke of the bungler as follows: "He's a terrific bloke and he's done a good job." When somebody goes out of his way to describe a mate with rotten egg on his face as a "terrific bloke", this is often a euphemism for saying: "He's not quite the total arsehole you might imagine him to be." OK, fair enough. Abbott seems to be telling us that Andrews is only a minor arsehole.

Short trip to the UK

My three destinations in the UK are purely genealogical, connected to my paternal ancestors:

London [two days], to take photos of my grandfather's childhood neighborhood in Finsbury Park.

Dorset [two days], to visit [for the first time] the villages around Blandford Forum, near Poole.

Skeffington village [one day] in Leicestershire [also for the first time].

I'm amazed at the extent to which I can use the Internet to organize all the transport and accommodation details of a short trip such as this.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Acquiring knowledge

My article of 23 July 2007 entitled Wandering in a spiritual wonderland [display] includes a photo of an iron nugget that Alain discovered during our excursion to the Grande Chartreuse. Since then, Natacha and Alain have shown me several other mineral specimens they found while wandering around in another Carthusian site [which I've never visited personally]: the former monastery of Saint Hugon, about 40 km north-east of Grenoble, alongside the road to Albertville [in the Savoie département]. One of these specimens was a small rectangular fragment of iron whose surface was similar to that of the first nugget. The other day, the three of us sat outside at Gamone, under the linden trees, gazing at the mineral specimens on a table in front of us, and trying to understand their origins.

In this kind of situation, I've often had the impression that, if I were to concentrate sufficiently upon such-and-such an object that intrigues me, it would end up releasing some of its secrets, providing me with a better understanding of its nature. That was how I felt, a couple of years ago, when I tried to seize the nature of this mysterious object that I unearthed in nearby Châtelus, on the other side of the Bourne:

Since I found this object at a place where there's a legend about an ancient Roman settlement, I imagined it immediately as a sculptured fish. But it was equally likely that natural forces had given rise to this form. No doubt, if I were to show this "red fish" [as I call it] to an archaeologist and then a geologist, I would soon learn which of these two hypotheses is correct... but I've never done so. Instead, I've spent a fair amount of time simply gazing intensely at this object, hoping that it might suddenly send me a message revealing its nature. But no such message has ever reached me yet.

Getting back to the iron specimens from the two Chartreux territories, there were two basic questions:

(1) We referred to these specimens as "iron" because they were attracted by a magnet. But what was their exact geological nature?

(2) How come these specimens were lying around in open fields, waiting to be picked up by a passer-by with keen eyesight such as Alain?

In fact, once Natacha and Alain started out "thinking aloud" with me, I soon realized that they already possessed a good deal of information concerning such specimens:

— They had learned that there was a very special kind of iron ore in the vicinity of the monastery of Saint Hugon. What made it so special was the fact that the ore melted at a relatively low temperature, which meant that it could be transformed into iron by means of a simple wood-fueled furnace.

— The monks soon realized that the most profitable approach to marketing this precious raw material consisted of carrying out an elementary smelting process at the exit from their mines, using the ample timber resources they had on hand. Then the resulting crude iron could be brought down into the valley by mules, and subsequently transported to large-scale furnaces for final processing.

Little by little, as we talked about these operations, we started to obtain answers to our queries about the specimens placed on the table in front of us. They were fragments of crudely-smelted iron that had probably dropped off the back of mules on the way down to the valley. The special variety of iron ore found near the Saint Hugon monastery apparently existed also in the vicinity of the Grande Chartreuse. A final query: How come the two specimens have such a lovely smooth brown surface, with no traces of rust, even though they've been lying out in the open for centuries? There again, Natacha and Alain had acquired information that enabled us to obtain an immediate answer to this question. The ore of Saint Hugon contains a certain amount of manganese, which tends to give the resulting iron a kind of "stainless steel" quality. So, there we had a fairly good comprehensive picture of the context in which these two iron specimens had been found.

Now, why am I relating all these trivial anecdotes? It so happens that they take me back to my recent article about the work of David Deutsch entitled Brilliant book [display].

One of the four so-called strands proposed by the author for a future Theory of Everything is inspired by the philosophical ideas of Karl Popper. Scientists used to claim that they acquired knowledge by a famous process known as induction, which consists of examining things in the real world while hoping that the things in question will end up revealing spontaneously their inner secrets. One of the most celebrated examples is that of Isaac Newton watching an apple falling from a tree, and using this observation to induce the laws of gravitation.

Popper pointed out that the time-honored explanation of the creation of scientific principles by induction is a convenient piece of fiction. Nobody can truly acquire knowledge simply by waiting for real-world happenings and things to "reveal their inner secrets". Newton's apple didn't transmit enlightenment into his head. If there was a revelation, it came from Newton's brain, not from the fallen apple.

What really happens in a context of alleged induction is illustrated eloquently by the brainstorming carried out by Natacha, Alain and me concerning the two specimens of Carthusian iron. These objects did not radiate out magically a beam of information about themselves, enabling us to acquire knowledge about their nature. On the contrary, our emerging knowledge concerning the specimens was based upon information that was forged in our brains, and this information came from our reading, our talking, our experiences and our imagination. Rather than stating that the specimens gave rise to a phenomenon of induction, we can conclude that our brains created this knowledge, in much the same way that a writer invents a good story. And, talking of stories, maybe it's time I ended this one, which is becoming long and complicated...

Friday, July 27, 2007

Can Cadel Evans bring it off tomorrow?

On the eve of the penultimate stage of this year's berated Tour de France, there's exactly one minute and thirty seconds between Cadel Evans and the yellow jersey. Theoretically, in tomorrow's 55.5 km time trial between Cognac and Angoulême, Evans should be able to beat Alberto Contador by anything up to two minutes. Now, I don't intend to start selling the bear's skin [as the old French saying goes] before the animal has been shot, but I have a feeling that Australia might indeed be on the verge of obtaining her first global victory in the Tour. Clearly, there are many observers in France who would be very happy if things could happen in this way, because lots of people have serious doubts concerning the case of Contador, and it would be ever so nice if he were to be brushed quietly out of the way.

There was a weird atmosphere in the Tour just prior to Rabobank's decision to fire Michael Rasmussen. Cycling aficionados have been observing the muscly legs of champion bike-riders for the last century, and they've ended up creating a more or less standard image of what is expected in the physical form of a great cyclist. Well, Rasmussen's legs are light years away from the standard picture. When you watch him walking from behind, he looks like a skinny kid who has just got off his toy scooter. Now, this could simply mean that we observers have formed a screwed-up impression of what cyclists should look like from a physical viewpoint. But it's perfectly plausible, on the other hand, that Rasmussen is really nothing more than a lightweight shitbox crammed with explosive chemicals.

Over the last few days, the cycling public in France has witnessed several unexpected examples of the deplorable conflictual relationship between the world body that governs cycling [the Union Cycliste Internationale] and the Tour organizers. I have the impression that the Union is jealous of the huge success of the French event, and is trying to recuperate part of the rich fallout of the Tour.

There has also been a lot of open talk about the doping phenomenon in other sports. Maybe we've simply moved into a high-powered era in which the old-fashioned notions of clean and honest sports can no longer exist. Sometimes I have a nightmare vision of what might happen if the authorities simply gave in, and allowed sporting champions to consume whatever shit they liked. If this were the case, tomorrow's cyclists would glow in the twilight with a bluish halo. Their thighs would be so powerful that bikes would need to be built out of new high-tech materials sufficiently strong to avoid being crumpled. And, when such cyclists stopped for a piss by the roadside, the grass and weeds would cease to grow there for several years.

A couple of days ago, I received an email from the organizers of the Tour Down Under, who are all excited about receiving the visit, next year, of Miguel Indurain. It goes without saying that, for this Australian cycling event, the victory of Evans in the Tour de France would be a gigantic happening.

Judicial examination for former French leader

French legal concepts are rather different to the so-called English common law that forms the basis of Australia's system. I've spoken of the Clearstream affair in two earlier posts, entitled Chirac has some explaining to do [display] and Destruction of computer files [display]. Up until today, in the context of an alleged scheme designed to frame Nicolas Sarkozy, the former prime minister Dominique de Villepin has merely been suspected of playing a role. This morning, the legal system went one step further by announcing that Villepin will be subjected to a so-called judicial examination, to be carried out under the control of a special magistrate referred to as a juge d'instruction [inquiry judge].

For Villepin, this new development means that he and his lawyers will have full access to his legal dossier, which was not the case up until now. Although Villepin is not yet actually charged with violating any law whatsoever, the announcement concerning his judicial examination mentions explicitly no less than four infractions that would figure in the charges that could well be brought against him, at the conclusion of the examination. I shall indicate the French name of each infraction, and try to describe it in English.

Complicité de dénonciation calomnieuse: The accused was an accomplice in a spontaneous operation that consisted of publicly denouncing the victim by citing facts known to be false. In other words, if Villepin were to be accused [which, I insist, is not yet the case], it would be due to his calumny suggesting that Sarkozy received illicit funds paid through Clearstream.

Recel de vol: Handling stolen goods. The Clearstream documents at the origin of this affair were indeed stolen.

Recel d'abus de confiance: The word recel means "concealment", and the expression abus de confiance might be translated as "breach of faith". The charge involves using something that belongs to another individual with the intention of harming the true owner. To be frank, I don't understand exactly what could be involved here. I believe it's the general notion of stealing banking data and falsifying it with intent to harm an individual to whom the original data is supposed to apply. Very complicated!

Complicité d'usage de faux: Association with accomplices making use of forged documents.

An interesting aspect of this announcement is the possibility that Dominique de Villepin will probably refuse to answer questions from the inquiry judge, and insist that his case be brought before a special jurisdiction known as the Court of Justice of the Republic, created in 1993, whose sole mission concerns charges aimed at a minister who was still in function at the time of the alleged infractions.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Brilliant book

This excellent book by the Oxford physicist David Deutsch came out a decade ago, but I've only just got around to reading it. Seeking to lay the foundations of a vast theory of everything, Deutsch introduces four great domains of knowledge that he refers to as strands:

— Quantum physics

— Epistemology, inspired by the work of Karl Popper

— Theory of computation, inspired by the work of Alan Turing

— Theory of evolution, inspired by the work of Richard Dawkins.

It's rare to find an eclectic author who's prepared to blend such different disciplines into a synthetic whole.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Chicken out

Tomorrow morning [Thursday, 26 July], Michael Rasmussen won't be lined up for the start of the next stage of the Tour de France, which is henceforth in a state of total chaos. His team, Rabobank, asked him to step down. The Danish rider, suspected of doping, had not obeyed the rules of the game. It's a relief, in a way, to know that his frail silhouette will no longer be casting a shadow upon the probity of the Tour. But will this be the last unpleasant surprise of this Tour de France 2007?

Sophia's ninth birthday

My lovely lady dog Sophia, described as a cross-bred Labrador with a golden robe, was born nine years ago.

A few minutes ago, I told her [in our everyday French dog talk] that she's a lovely old lady, and I gave her a fine Saint Marcellin cheese. In her usual discreet style [a little like that of Cécilia Sarkozy], Sophia refrained from making any public statement on this occasion.

I'm reminded of our Skeffington ancestor, the lunatic second Earl of Massereene [1743-1805], who once threw a party for his dog, while insisting that invited animals should be attired for the festivities in dress clothes. I'm fond of that crazy ancestral personage, Clotworthy Skeffington, whose escape from a Parisian prison preceded the storming of the Bastille. I admire him in the same way I love dogs and underdogs in general, and Sophia in particular.

Cloudy shroud

Last Saturday, while visiting the Grande Chartreuse with Natacha and her husband, I was momentarily alarmed when I saw Alain disappearing into an unlit alcove at the monastic gateway. I recall tales in which a guy goes out to buy a box of matches, while waving goodbye to his wife and family... and reappears half a century later on the other side of the globe. I imagined my having to soothe his lovely wife with banal words: "Natacha, I'm sure Alain's not lost for Eternity. Besides, he left with your car keys." In fact, Natacha's husband reappeared almost instantly, with no apparent help from the Holy Ghost. Alain had merely discovered a charming little subterranean chapel for visitors. It was foolish of me to have imagined that he might have decided on the spur of the moment to abandon us and become a monk.

Inside the chapel, somebody [no doubt a creative artist from the nearby Carthusian museum] had installed a splendid cloth replica of the famous Shroud of Turin:

Most people agree today that this piece of medieval cloth is a fabulous hoax, but it keeps a lot of serious people busy in arguing for or against its alleged authenticity. [Click here to see a website on this affair.] Personally, I believe it's a forgery manufactured in the secret Roman laboratories of Leonardo de Vinci based upon on-the-spot forensic data concerning the crucifixion of Jesus supplied by a descendant of Mary Magdalene. I see no other explanation capable of accounting for the perfection of this inspiring artifact.

Incidentally, in a neighboring domain, all those Polish pilgrims who died a few days ago in a terrible coach accident near Grenoble were returning from a nearby place called Our Lady of Salette, where the Virgin apparently appeared and spoke to a couple of local children, named Maximin and Mélanie, about a century and a half ago.

We all know that peasant kids don't necessarily have the expert reactions of professional journalists such as my daughter, for example, but I find it a pity that nobody has thought it worthwhile, on one of these frequent apparitions of the Virgin, to pop the question directly to the divine First Lady: "Is the Shroud of Turin genuine?" Theoretically, she should know... but, then again, she might still be in the dark [which is normal, you might say, in the case of a shroud]. A direct question of this kind might be like having asked Hillary Clinton, not so long ago, for her evaluation of the authenticity of tales about Bill's big cigar. The trouble with shrouds is that they're meant to hide things.

Turd France

I'm not too proud of that pun, on a par with the title of a rugby guide just published by my celebrated compatriot Ross Steele... whom I first met when he and I were members of the school debating teams, respectively, of Casino and Grafton. [French readers might be intrigued to hear of the existence of an Australian country town named Casino... which doesn't look like Monte Carlo.]

The expression "Turd France" sounds a little like "Tour de France" pronounced by Australians who don't speak French. But it's spot on for designating the shitty stuff we're seeing at the moment I write. This morning, at the start of the third grueling Pyrenées stage, Michael Rasmussen's yellow jersey evoked merde in the minds of spectators who booed him: an unbelievable incident in the annals [double-n] of the Tour. As for the positive test of the heroic Alexander Vinokourov [where the adjective "positive" really means the exact opposite], that's the last straw on the camel's back. As they might say in French, it's the drop of urine or blood that causes the test tube to overflow.

Yesterday, on TV, we saw a charming public-relations lady attached to the Astana team informing us with a smile that their coach [vehicle] had been halted and searched—to no avail—by customs authorities. This morning, the following photo of a hotel visit by gendarmes suggests that the search for incriminating evidence is still under way.

On the one hand, it's great to see that the police, customs and Tour authorities are vigilant in a severe and successful style, because they'll inevitably clean up this dirty sport. But, if the mythical image of the Tour is stupidly destroyed by its own would-be heroes, and the financial sponsors back off, will there still be any sport left to clean up?

Land of law?

From my antipodean observational outpost here in France, I'm frankly alarmed by the way in which my native land is handling the case—or rather the lack of a case—against the accused terrorism supporter Mohamed Haneef. Clearly, the police investigation up in Queensland got screwed up, which explains why a federal law-enforcement directorate is now called upon to review the fiasco. My first reaction is positive: Thank God Australia employs a so-called Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions!

I don't know why Queensland premier Peter Beattie, in criticizing the methods of his police force, had to resort to the foreign [Hollywood] image of the Keystone Cops. Homegrown anecdotes of idiotic police blunders abound, notably in the bushranger domain.

The thing that worries me, when I observe what has happened in the case of Haneef, is a lurking suspicion that Australia might no longer be what we commonly refer to as a land of law. Sure, it's a land of politics, with a lowercase "p", and a land of Dollars, with an uppercase "D". But it appears to be a land in which an Indian doctor can find himself involved, overnight, in a frightening imbroglio, as indicated by the following extract from today's The Australian:

Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty was also forced to deny reports police had written the names of overseas terror suspects on Haneef's personal diary, and that Haneef was being investigated for plotting to bomb a Gold Coast skyscraper.

Many years ago, when I saw customs officials in the port of Fremantle confiscating jars of baby food that my wife was bringing ashore to feed our Emmanuelle during our brief stopover in Western Australia, I formed the vague opinion that certain Australians in authority often tend to be excessively zealous, as if their credibility depended upon their obtaining outstanding results. I witnessed this same behavior twenty years later, in exactly the same city, when I saw WA cops taking pleasure in arresting drivers leaving places of revelry associated with the America's Cup regattas.

If all the events surrounding Haneef were to mean that the threats of terrorism in Australia will henceforth be diminished, one might conclude that it's worthwhile. But that's like saying that the invasion of Iraq could be justified a posteriori if it had reduced the outlaw phenomenon in that land. In my view, in their sunny microcosm, Queensland cops are surely just as dumb as George W Bush.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

French president speaks of his wife

This photo records the joyous homecoming of the Bulgarian nurses from a weird and frightening place, Qaddafi Land, whose reigning principles don't necessarily include logic, law and humanity:

This later photo reveals a star participant in the event, an airliner labeled République française:

Don't look around in the crowd for a French lady named Cécilia Sarkozy, described this morning by a French newspaper as "distant, cold, reserved, rebellious, independent, elegant, and today conquering and celebrated". She didn't want to stay in Sofia for the inevitable hollow praise. Soon after the nurses came home, accompanied by their Palestinian doctor friend [now a citizen of Bulgaria], Cécilia Sarkozy took French leave of everybody.

The wag who said that François Hollande looks and behaves like a delicatessen proprietor was unkind—not only, you might say, to delicatessen proprietors—because he's really quite a smart and likable guy... otherwise the Socialist party wouldn't have made him their chief, and Ségolène Royal wouldn't have made him her companion. Be that as it may, François Hollande couldn't find words bitter enough to express his horror at the idea that the legitimate wife of President Sarkozy might have played a significant role in the release of Qaddafi's hostages. But, instead of examining Hollande's dull gibes, let's listen to the words of Cécilia's proud husband.

A problem has been solved. Full stop. There's no point in theorizing about a new organization of French diplomacy, or the status of the wife of the chief of state, or some other reasoning. They had to be evacuated. We evacuated them. That's the only thing that counts. It's time to inject pragmatism into international problems, as in purely national problems. Cécilia did a remarkable job. It was a question of women. A humanitarian problem. I felt that Cécilia would be capable of performing a useful act. She did so with lots of courage, lots of sincerity, lots of humanity and lots of brio, by understanding immediately that a key to success was our capacity to take into account the sufferings of everybody: those of the nurses, of course, but also those of the fifty families who had lost a child. Cécilia's sensitivity enabled her to perceive the situation perfectly.

Interesting illustration

A few minutes ago, in the recently-created French news website called Rue89 [a curious blend of the word for "street" and the year of the French Revolution], I accessed an article concerning the disturbing demand made by the German minister of Culture in the Hesse Land to include so-called "intelligent design" themes in high-school biology courses. I was intrigued to discover that the article is illustrated by an image that appears to have no connection whatsoever with what is related in the article. [Click here to display the article.]

I suspect that a prankster has found a way of hacking the Rue89 server. This doesn't surprise me, because I was struck by the technical naivety of the folk behind the Rue89 project [redundant journalists from Libération] when they described publicly the structure of their future website, shortly before it was launched. I remember saying to myself that it was inevitable they would get screwed in one way or another.

It's quite possible that my interpretation of the situation is totally off the mark. Perhaps the author of the article, a certain Pierre Rouchaléou, actually chose this image to illustrate his account of the conflict between serious science and the so-called "creationist" movement, whose members believe that Genesis provides a factual description of the creation of the universe and living creatures. After all, if you were seeking a striking image that is intimately connected with the creation of human life, it's harder to imagine a better choice than a close-up of a hairy vagina. In any case, it's a perfect strategy for luring people (like me) into reading attentively every word of the article. Maybe it's an image of Eve stretched out under an apple tree in the Garden of Eden.

My guess, though, is that it's a prank. Maybe the prankster is using this image to point out that he regards the minister of Culture in the Hesse Land as a [expletive linked to female genitals]. If I find further information concerning the use of this image, I'll include it immediately in my blog. After all, the article and the image seem to form a truly antipodean duo.

Last-minute news: Mea culpa! Straight after publishing the present post, it took me a few minutes to discover that I'm an ignorant philistine. The huge closeup image is a well-known painting (well-known, that is, to everybody except me) by Gustave Courbet [1819-1877] entitled The Origin of the World, which hangs in the Orsay Museum in Paris. So, it's an appropriate, if not ideal, illustration for the article, in that this image and its title should be acceptable for both scientists and Genesis nuts.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Wandering in a spiritual wonderland

The ancient inhabitants called it Cartusia. I've always been fond of that Latin name. Bruno and his six companions entered this spiritual wonderland in 1084, in search of God. Today, the French name of this magnificent Alpine territory is Chartreuse. The peak in the middle of the photo is Chamechaude, which means "bald head". Bruno's descendants are called Chartreux [or Carthusians, if you prefer a more English-sounding term]. Ever since arriving in the Dauphiné, I've admired the tale of Bruno, with whom I sense a vague affinity. A few years ago, I made a small website on the theme of this hermit [display].

This morning, Natacha, Alain and I set out from the Grande Chartreuse monastery in order to climb up to the primordial spring whose waters have enabled generations of monks, over the last nine centuries, to survive and indeed thrive in this rugged wilderness.

The stacks of wood in front of the quaint old sawmill will be keeping the monks warm during next winter. In fact, the immense timber riches of the Grande Chartreuse belong now to the French Republic.

Alain found an iron nugget. What is this specimen of iron doing in such an unlikely place? My unpublished novel entitled God's Metal answers that question in a roundabout conjectural way.

Curiously, Bruno's superb spring is hardly mentioned in Carthusian literature. Natacha and I don't understand the reasons for this absence.

The splendid limestone fountain is full of icy water and fat tadpoles.

The ruins above the spot where the water comes to the surface resemble those of an ancient Greek temple. For the moment, we ignore the nature and purpose of the edifice that once existed here.

Walking upwards beyond the spring, we approached the aerial summits of the cliffs surrounding Bruno's great valley. The wind blowing up from the valley was focussed here into a gale-force blast that almost knocked me over from time to time.

This sign says that we're in the so-called desert of the Chartreux monks, where silence is the rule.

On the way back down, we passed alongside Carthusian settlements of an economic nature: the old farming installations that once enabled the monks to earn an income as graziers.

At the end of this lovely day, I was intrigued by the same questions that arise every time I visit Bruno's exotic wilderness, which is extraordinarily beautiful but harsh, particularly in winter. Why and how did a renowned middle-aged scholar [from the great medieval city of Reims] settle down as a religious hermit in such a remote place?

Sunday, July 22, 2007


On this sunny Sunday morning, I decided to drive to the Valence train station to buy a return ticket to England for five days in August. It's a splendid new station out in the countryside, catering primarily for TGV [high-speed train] links.

I've become accustomed to using the Internet to make purchases of all kinds, but I prefer a person-to-person contact in the case of train tickets. I have the impression [but I may be wrong] that the human operator in a train station has access to more information than an Internet user, and knows how to find an optimal solution to queries in a minimum of time. Above all, I guess I'm old-fashioned, since I simply like the idea of dropping in at a railway station to buy train tickets from a human employee. Besides, in the special case of the Valence TGV station, I get a kick out of visiting such a nice place, whether it's a matter of buying tickets, catching a train or picking up visitors.

On the other side of the planet, in my native New South Wales, people don't seem to have such a positive attitude towards trains as they do here in France. A few days ago, in The Sydney Morning Herald, there was a derogatory but well-written article entitled The curse of CityRail [read], which started out as follows:

Sydney is supposed to be a major global city. We're constantly telling ourselves how world-class we are, and major surveys keep agreeing - most recently we were ranked fifth best city in the world to visit. And we are the largest city in a wealthy, highly developed nation. So can someone explain to me, in extremely simple terms, why our train system is reminiscent of a third world country - or, worse still, England?

Last year, I spent no more than a month out in Australia, but that was more than sufficient to provide me with ample evidence concerning the antiquated train system. First, I wasn't able to visit Braidwood by train, because the railway doesn't even go there! Second, one afternoon, I spent over an hour in a halted Sydney north-shore suburban train, for reasons I never learned. Third, my trip up to Grafton and back provided me—without my asking—with old memories of my adolescence, because the train system doesn't seem to have evolved in any noticeable fashion since then. But I wouldn't go out of my way to complain about anything, because I have the impression that this antiquated railway system corresponds to my overall conception of my native land and its people. Australia is a place where nothing much has ever happened, and probably never will. Maybe the constant humid heat provokes torpidity, preventing people from being creative. In any case, every country has the trains it deserves.

The above-mentioned article in The Sydney Morning Herald includes a significant reflection: We're constantly telling ourselves how world-class we are... To my mind, most praise of Sydney is indeed locally-produced hype. I'm not so sure that many non-Australians are convinced that Sydney is "world-class", whatever that might mean. For European visitors, Sydney is definitely not a charming city. Once you've had a beer in one of the few surviving pubs at the Rocks, strolled through the Botanic Gardens, wandered around the Darling Harbour area and taken a ferry to Manly, you've "done" Sydney. There's truly nothing more to be seen there... unless, of course, you're a native-born Australian, like me, who finds it meaningful to visit the place where Braidwood bushrangers were hanged, and to drive with one of my sisters to the shoreline of La Pérouse, where the vessels of the French navigator were seen for the last time. In other words, Australia is a great place for Australians, who are sensitive to its interest and charms, and don't necessarily mind if the train system is shitty. Things only start to go haywire if you're tempted to make silly and unnecessary comparisons between Sydney and great cities such as London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Jerusalem...

The author of the article in The Sydney Morning Herald mentions a recent ranking of Sydney as the "fifth best city in the world to visit". To appreciate correctly the significance of such a judgment, one would need to know more about its origins. If, for example, we're talking of a poll conducted by a travel magazine that caters essentially for globe-trotting Florida widows, then we should view its findings with a certain relativity. In any case, visitors of that kind don't catch trains, neither in New South Wales nor anywhere else.

Having said all this, I do believe that the fellow in charge of trains in New South Wales [whose identity I ignore] should pull his finger out, and look around for ideas about improvements and evolution. And I'm sure I'm not the only Australian with this opinion.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


When I was a youth at high school in Grafton, I disliked the concept of so-called prefects. They were a group of elected senior students charged with minimal duties such as making sure that pupils marched into their classrooms in straight lines. The thing I disliked about the prefects concept was that most of us got elected to this silly position, which meant that the few outsiders who weren't sufficiently popular to be chosen as prefects were automatically looked upon as social outcasts. I think, for example, of my classmate Tom Mogan, whose father was the governor of Grafton's notorious jail. Tom was a quiet introspective individual. I got to know him a little through the fact that we were among the few members of a Latin class run by a great teacher named Robert Sinclair [with whom I met up a year ago, when I was out in Sydney]. Tom was not the sort of person who would get elected as a prefect, because he didn't seem to be concerned with all the trivial aspects of school life [such as sport, for example] that provide a context for becoming a popular student. I learned recently that Tom became a Catholic priest, and spent the final years of his life working with destitute Aborigines over in Western Australia.

Here in France, the term préfet [prefect, from the Latin praefectus] is a Napoleonic title bestowed upon individuals who are placed in charge of a region or a département. French prefects are distinguished individuals who have generally been educated in the finest schools of France. Their job consists of representing the authorities of the French republic at a tangible local level, a little like the role of a governor in an imperial colony. It's a fact that French prefects wear exotic old-fashioned military-style uniforms that give them a very serious look. Although their role appears at times to be largely honorific, the work of a French prefect can be difficult and hazardous in certain situations, particularly in the case of local catastrophes, when they have the personal responsibility of managing events. In a nutshell, if something goes hugely wrong [such as a local officially-approved garbage-disposal facility giving out lethal fumes, for example], the entire blame can fall upon the poor prefect.

Funnily enough, soon after my arrival here in the Dauphiné, I discovered that the Isère prefect was a second cousin of my ex-wife, and that the prefect of a neighboring département was a fellow I used to know back at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, when I was an English assistant. In both cases, these former acquaintances had risen to such a superior social status that it was quite out of the question—if ever I had wished to do so—of simply dropping in on them to say hello. [There might be some kind of Shakespearean philosophical implication in that last statement, but I don't know what it is.]

Talking of French prefects, one of the very first fellows to get such a job, here in the Isère département where I live, was a certain Joseph Fourier. From a modest background, this scientist caught the attention of Napoléon within the context of the Emperor's exploratory mission in Egypt. Then, in 1801, Napoléon put him in charge of the tumultuous region around Grenoble in which the flames of the French Revolution had been kindled just fourteen years previously, at the castle of Vizille. At that time, a Grenoble librarian named Jacques-Joseph Champollion [who did a lot of work in cataloging the confiscated library of the Chartreux monks] succeeded in becoming a close acquaintance of the prefect Fourier. This Champollion fellow had a young brother who went on to crack the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics... but that's another fabulous story, to which I shall certainly return, one of these days, in my blog. Getting back to Fourier, I would suppose that he led a rather hectic life, representing the authorities of the newly-created French Republic in the headstrong Alpine city of Grenoble. We might imagine that this arduous and no doubt messy administrative job left the young prefect [33 years old when he arrived in Grenoble] little time for personal activities.

Well, that was not quite the case. The prefect of whom I am talking was of course none other than the celebrated mathematician Joseph Fourier, whose work still remains the daily sustenance of scientists all over the planet. At Sydney University, I was brought up on a basic mathematical diet of Fourier series. Soon, I learned to manipulate the famous Fourier transform, which might be described superficially as a mathematical method for investigating all kinds of marvelous phenomena. For example, back in the early '70s, when I became interested in the themes of music and machines, in an article by a certain James Beauchamp [University of Illinois], I came upon the following exciting assertion: We may now be at the threshold of the discovery of mathematical descriptions for beautiful tones, as they are commonly termed in conventional music. The rest of the article might be described as a celebration of the power of the Fourier transform, executed on a computer, as a means of putting some order into audio data. In his prefectoral offices in Grenoble, Fourier actually carried out physics experiments concerning the propagation of heat that resulted in his formulation of a theory of thermodynamics.

Since the epoch of the prefect Fourier, the world has heard of the clerk named Einstein in a patents office who invented the theory of relativity. Today, we still have cases of extraordinary individuals who exploit their time in mundane jobs to invent marvelous theories [more about that later on]. Meanwhile, a silly speculation: If Joseph Fourier had been a student in my high school in Grafton, like my quiet mate Tom Mogan, would he have been popular enough to get elected as a prefect? Yes, certainly, for one of Fourier's major gifts was his eloquence. The Champollion brothers gave him a nickname, Chrysostom, recalling the illustrious 4th-century Greek saint whose name evokes his legendary golden mouth.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Tour talk

Yesterday's stage of the Tour de France—which moved through the magnificent region of Provence, around Arles, where I spent a few days not so long ago—was won by a South African rider, Robert Hunter. This was the first time a South African had ever won a Tour stage.

I thought it might be amusing to give my readers a few specimens of Tour talk. This information might be of help if you wish to sound well-informed and intelligent when conversing about the Tour de France. First of all, there's an all-purpose formula that has been exceptionally popular among cycling journalists this year. It consists of saying something along the following lines: In a stage such as this, it's impossible for a rider to win the Tour de France, but it's perfectly possible to lose it. You can serve that formula up with all kinds of sauces. For example, instead of talking about a stage, you might apply variations of the formula to other kinds of situations. For example: In joining that breakaway group, Cadel Evans is unlikely to increase his chances of winning the Tour, but he could easily run the risk of losing it. Or maybe: Using that special kind of bicycle in a time trial is unlikely to help him win the Tour but, if something were to go wrong, it could cause him to lose it. Etc, etc.

If you want to sound serious when talking about the Tour, never refer to the main group of riders as the bunch. Use the French term, peloton. But make sure you pronounce it correctly, not pay-loh-ton, but peuh-loh-ton, almost ploh-ton.

There's a funny cycling expression in French that can be learned easily and thrown into your comments when watching TV. Consider the common situation of a breakaway group some two minutes in front of the peleton. Often, a rider leaves the peloton and attempts to join the breakaway group, except that he gets stuck halfway. Stranded in this no-man's-land between the breakaway group and the peloton, should he continue to wear himself out, hoping that he'll finally catch up with the breakaway group? Or should he accept the idea that this task is too difficult for him, and wait for the peloton to catch up with him [to devour him, as cycling journalists often put it]? A rider who finds himself in this situation is said to be in a state of chasse-patates [literally, chasing potatoes], but nobody seems to know the origin of this expression.

In yesterday's stage, there was a crucial moment when Astana riders [the team of Alexander Vinokourov] suddenly produced an unexpected and violent burst of speed that broke the peloton into fragments within less than a minute. All the expert journalists such as Laurent Fignon and Laurent Jalabert started to use a technical expression, coup de bordure, to designate what had happened. By the end of the day, scores of journalists everywhere had borrowed this expression, but it's not certain they really knew what it meant. I'll therefore attempt to explain what it means. The following diagram represents a typical situation in which the peloton [moving towards the left] is riding directly into the wind:

Here, the red rider is momentarily doing all the hard work, plowing into the wind, whereas each of the green riders is protected from the wind by the fellow in front of him. You might even say that all the green riders are getting sucked along, to a certain extent, by the momentum of the peloton. I call this the snake effect because, when the leaders of the peloton decide to increase the speed, the riders are soon strung out in a serpentine form. You inevitably see striking demonstrations of this snake effect during the final stage on the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

The following diagram represents the situation that existed yesterday, during the stage from Marseille to Montpellier, where a strong southerly wind was blowing in constantly from the Mediterranean and striking the riders from the side:

In this kind of situation, almost everybody [shown in red] is in direct contact with the wind. Even though it doesn't hit the peloton head-on, but merely at a right angle, the wind still hinders the riders considerably. A tiny group of four or five riders can take advantage of this situation by creating what French cycling specialists refer to as a coup de bordure, which I have translated as an edge effect. They collaborate by alternating rapidly their roles in a circular anti-clockwise sense, so that the rider who is about to take the lead is momentarily protected from the sidewind by the fellow he will replace. Behind these revolving lead riders, the peloton will tend to string itself out in a line along the leeward edge of the road (whence the name, edge effect), with each rider hoping vainly to have an opportunity of moving to the leeward side of the fellow in front of him. In this kind of unstable and tense formation, breaks can arise rapidly, whenever a rider cannot keep up with the fellow in front of him. And, unless riders behind the weak cyclist realize immediately what's happening, overtake him and catch up with the front riders, the mass of the peloton can quickly start to disintegrate... as it did yesterday, condemning the French champion Christophe Moreau to a disastrous delay.

Meanwhile, the main Tour talk, once again, has returned to the sad question of doping. If ever the entire block of German sponsors and media [not to mention the Danish compatriots of Michael Rasmussen] were to leave in disgust, it's certain that the Tour would have a hard time trying to get back onto its feet once again. So, let's hope that no major doping crisis occurs.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Digging up the past at Gamone

Walking around my house at the present moment, you might imagine that the place has endured an attack by moles during the night. There are tiny mounds of freshly-upturned earth everywhere. No, it wasn't moles, but rather a friend of my neighbor Bob: a bright young guy from a nearby village whose hobby consists of using a metal detector to find ancient objects.

After the usual assortment of old-time toothpaste tubes and caps of oil cans, he soon found a fragment of an ancient pure silver spoon. Then he made an interesting discovery at the northern edge of my house, about six inches underground: a coin from the Ancien Régime, when France still had kings. It's a copper coin, 28 millimeters in diameter, called a sou, produced in France throughout the 15-year period from 1777 up until 1791, during the reign of Louis XVI, who was guillotined on 21 January 1793 on the vast square in Paris that is known today as the Place de la Concorde. Having remained in the earth for over two centuries, the Gamone sou is not in a pretty state, but its features can still be detected fairly easily. Here's the heads side:

Starting to the lower left of the monarch's neck, the Latin legend reads LUDOV XVI D GRATIA [Louis XVI by the grace of God]. The king's long hair is tied in a bow at the back of his neck. Notice in particular the curve of his large nose. The ten-year-old elder son of the executed king and his wife Marie-Antoinette, sometimes referred to as Louis XVII, was alleged to have died in prison in 1795. For decades, however, many people believed that he had been stealthily abducted from the tower of the Temple in Paris, and that he continued to live in clandestinity, awaiting a chance to regain the French throne. In this spirit, during a period of several decades, at least two hundred large-nosed Frenchmen have claimed to be this mythical survivor.

Here's the tails side, which is barely decipherable:

You can make out the vague traces of a shield with three fleur-de-lis symbols, surmounted by a crown. Here, for comparison, are images [found on the Internet] of a sou in a perfect state:

On the second side of the coin, the Latin legend reads FRANCIAE ET NAVARRAE REX, meaning "King of France and Navarre".

In the context of my research and reflections concerning the history of Gamone, what does it mean to have found this coin here? Well, it merely confirms what I've always believed, namely that the original owners [Chartreux monks] disappeared from the Royans shortly after the French Revolution, and that their properties were immediately purchased by local people. The main Carthusian monastery at Bouvante, called Val Sainte-Marie, was sold on 31 March 1791. I would imagine that the Gamone sou belonged, not to a monk, but to a local farmer who purchased the Choranche vineyards. In view of the spot where this coin was found this morning [just in front of the northern door into the house, rather than in the vicinity of the vaulted tufa cellar where the monks made wine], I would guess that the fellow who lost it was probably constructing, shortly after 1791, the simple stone dwelling in which I now live.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dog's life

Talking jokingly about a Tour de France cyclist running into a dog is even less politically correct than making disparaging remarks about the Pope's spooky eyes. But, since neither Marcus Burghardt nor the beige Labrador were injured in their spectacular collision yesterday, I take the liberty of saying that I find this sequence amusing:

Everything happened in the best possible way, as if the rider and the dog had rehearsed this crash as a stunt for a film. First, the dog moves slowly into a location where a collision with Burghardt is unavoidable. The cyclist, seeing that he can't avoid hitting the dog, brakes violently and turns his handle bars abruptly through an angle of nearly 90 degrees. At that same instant, the dog prepares itself for the impact by simply lying down flat on the road, whereby its heavy body becomes, as it were, an unmovable object, ready to absorb the considerable momentum of the moving cyclist, like a stationary rugby player about to tackle a running opponent. In such a collision, according to the physical laws of mechanics, something had to give. Fortunately, it was neither the cyclist nor the Labrador, but rather the front wheel of Burghardt's bike, which folded up like a sat-on pizza.

What I really like in this video is the way the dog gets up calmly and walks slowly away from the scene of the crash. It seems to be saying to itself, with disgust: "These days, a dog can't even cross a quiet country road without having to battle with bloody bike wheels."

Free wi-fi in Paris

I've been trying to invent a shortcut term for the expression "free wi-fi". The French pronounce "wi-fi" as wee-fee. So, the term free-fi is almost acceptable here, except that there's already a French ISP [Internet service provider] named Free, who's not involved in the Parisian project. Besides, free-fi doesn't sound too good in English. In any case, free wi-fi is about to become a reality in Paris, under the auspices of the left-wing mayor, Bertrand Delanoë [pronounced deu-lah-no-way], and the municipality. Starting in September, there will be 400 hotspots, located in public parks, municipal premises, libraries, museums and employment bureaux.

That's a nice promotional image of a fellow seated (I think) in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, using free-fi, but it doesn't look too realistic. Balancing a portable computer on your outstretched leg is not exactly an ideal ergonomic position. The user probably wouldn't be able to read much on his screen, because of the sunlight. And I don't see the carrying case in which he brought his computer to the park.

Talking of hotspots, I'll never forget my first visit to a McDonald's in Sydney, last year. They seemed to be employing a team of recently-trained school kids as staff. I ordered an apple pie and Coke from a young guy who had most likely just started his McDonald's career that very morning. Then, since it was the first time I had ever set out to use wi-fi in a McDonald's, I asked him: "If I understand correctly, there's a hotspot in this restaurant." He froze, speechless, as if I had just told him that there was a rat in my apple pie, or a snake in the toilets. Or maybe he thought I was using exotic language to request some kind of rare McDonald's dish that the employee-training program had neglected to mention. All he could do, still without saying a word, was to call over the adult female in charge of the restaurant, who confirmed immediately that all I had to do was to sit down, anywhere, and turn on my MacBook. It did, in fact, work perfectly.

So, you might say that using the Parisian free-fi system will be exactly like a McDonald's hotspot, but without the apple pie and Coke.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Naked house

Since I cut away the wisteria and rose bushes in front of the house [in preparation for the replacement of the mortar between the stones], the façade looks naked.

Above the wide glass door on the left, at the upper floor level, there's an entire section of reddish brick, which seems to have replaced a former window. Beneath it, you can see that a former owner has inserted a U-shaped steel girder. I would imagine that, originally, there was a massive wooden beam in this position. It probably rotted away and broke, allowing the stones beneath the original window to fall. The owner, probably a poor and unskilled farmer [nothing to do with the wealthy monks who made wine here up until they were dispersed by the French Revolution], no doubt decided, after the girder was in place, that there was no point in trying to reconstruct a window. So he simply blocked up the hole with red bricks. Maybe, when the façade has been restored, I'll install an old-fashioned sundial at that place. [In the Royans, there are sundials everywhere.]

I also intend to find a solution to conceal the steel girder... and another smaller one down to the right, above the spot where Sophia's basket is located. It should be fairly simple to hide the steel behind slabs of oak. It would be vain, though, to try to make the house look like a refined old residence. It will always remain a rough and ready farmer's dwelling.

Talking about the appearance of houses, I'm often dismayed by the way in which young French couples, having moved into a new pastel-hued house in a rural setting, immediately purchase a pile of parrot-colored plastic junk for their kids.

Is it a fact that children would feel unhappy if they were asked to play with toys made out of discreet dark-green, grey or brown plastic? Do the little brats really refuse to accept anything that's not bright green, red or yellow? Or is it rather the manufacturers of this junk who imagine that kids adore parrot colors? Or would it be the parents who use these aggressive colors as a way of announcing publicly that they're raising a family, and that they're sufficiently well-off to be able to buy plastic junk for their lovable offspring?

French road sign

I wonder how foreign drivers in France react when they see this sign:

Accotement meuble. What on earth might that mean? To obtain a satisfactory translation, I think you would need a good and rather big French/English dictionary... unless, of course, your automobile guide book provides you immediately with the meaning. The noun accotement is a technical term, used by road builders, that designates the earth and gravel "shoulder" between the macadam and the adjoining land. But it's an unusual term. In French, if a driver wanted to say, for example, that he parked his vehicle on the edge of the road, it is rather unlikely that he would use the term accotement. Normally he would speak of the bord de la route: literally, the edge of the road.

Beginners in French will recognize the common noun meuble, meaning "furniture". For example, a furnished flat, in French, is an appartement meublé. So, is the road sign telling drivers to watch out for discarded furniture on the roadside? No, meuble is also an adjective meaning "moving", in the sense of "unstable". That explains why meuble is used for "furniture", that's to say, the mobile part of your residence, as distinct from an immeuble, which is the immobile building in which a residence is located.

So, this complicated road sign is simply warning drivers that the edge of the road was probably laid down recently, and hasn't had time to settle down yet. That's to say, it's unstable. If drivers were to park there, their vehicle might sink down into the earth and get bogged.

Instead of expecting foreign drivers to carry a dictionary with them, I think it would be more reasonable to invent some kind of a graphic sign. Here's a suggestion:

It could surely be improved by specialists, but I think it's already more easy to understand than the expression accotement meuble.

It's interesting, I think, to compare the two approaches from a sociological viewpoint. The verbal road sign is in fact very French, in an intellectual way. The roadbuilders are talking to the motorist as if he were an old fellow-student of their civil engineering school, and explaining the current situation in technical language: "You have to understand, my dear friend, that we've only recently laid down this macadam, and reinforced the shoulders of the embankments on either side. You'll appreciate therefore that the earth and gravel mix we've used as fill is not yet totally stabilized." My graphic approach is more down-to-earth, in a pragmatic New World style, and I don't seek to explain anything whatsoever: "If you don't want to get hurt, get your arse out of here." To be perfectly honest, I adore that old-fashioned expression: Accotement meuble.

Pair of giants

The summit of Australia's highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko, is 2,228 meters above sea level. In today's stage of the Tour de France, the riders will tackle two giants, both of which are considerably higher than Kosciuszko: the Col de l'Iseran [2,770 meters] and the Col du Galibier [2,645 meters]. For Tour aficionados, the vision of these two Alpine passes is awesome. In the course of stages like the one that is about to start this morning, the concept of the Tour is elevated to mythical summits. Everybody knows already that there will be glory for a small elite—whose identities are still unknown—and suffering for many others. Here's a photo of the approach of the Iseran:

And here's a chart indicating the slopes from Val d'Isère up along the 17 kilometers leading to the summit of the Iseran:

In Tour de France terminology, slopes are classified into numerical categories, indicating their severity. But summits such as the Iseran and the Galibier are indicated as HC, hors catégorie (outside the categories): that's to say, so steep that they're well beyond the upper limits of the existing categories. That terminology reminds me of the alleged system of counting employed by Australian Aborigines: one, two, three, many.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Concept shock

Travelers who visit the Antipodes, in one or the other direction, are familiar with the feeling of disorientation known as culture shock, brought about by the simple fact that people do many things differently at the opposite extremities of the globe. However, once you're accustomed to visiting foreign lands, there's usually no longer any real shock, merely a mild bewilderment upon discovering that familiar activities—such as eating, for example, or talking to strangers—are not performed in the same way as back home.

Concept shock, on the other hand, is a far more serious rupture, since it concerns, not so much the way that Antipodeans act, but the way they think. Let me give you an authentic personal example of concept shock that affected me when I was out in Australia for a few weeks, a year ago. One evening, on television, I saw an Australian news documentary concerning a young woman [let's call her Mary] who had become the victim of an allegedly wicked female cousin [Betty, say], who appeared to be a fraudster. The gist of the story was that Betty had apparently stolen [or at least acquired illicitly] certain identity documents and banking data that belonged to Mary, and the evil woman was now exploiting this stuff to steal money from her innocent cousin.

Now, my first reaction to this tale was that it sounded complicated and far-fetched, if not dubious. As they say metaphorically in French, the affair seemed to be tied together crudely with string that was simply too thick to be kept out of sight, but too coarse to hold. Much more would need to be known about the relationship between Mary and Betty before we outsiders could be certain that one was definitely a goody and the other a baddy. Fair enough, I said to myself. It's obviously an affair that needs to be handled by society's competent authorities: police, lawyers and finally judges. But I was in for a shock: a concept shock! Instead of culminating in an appeal to such authorities, the TV producers decided that they would take the case into their own hands. And, to maximize the reality of the show, they called upon Mary, Betty and their respective friends to participate in the performance, playing what they thought of as their authentic personal roles... but not necessarily with adequate acting skills.

Watching this fiasco with relatives, I complained that the notion of a TV channel taking justice into its own hands was utterly shocking. I tried to point out that a concept was at stake here: the time-honored concept of old-fashioned Justice with a capital J. But I had the impression that my relatives didn't understand what I was raving on about. They seemed to think that it was bloody good reality TV. And it was, too. But it was hardly an instance of the concept of Justice.

Today, I find myself confronted with a jolting case of concept shock when I discover the way in which the Australian minister of Immigration, Kevin Andrews, has just overturned a court order to free the Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef. The most ridiculous aspect of the minister's disregard for the basic legal principles of the nation (in this case, the respect of a court decision) is the antiquated concept brought forward to justify his outrageous decision: Haneef's failure to pass a so-called "character test"...

I'm profoundly shocked. That's all I can say. Concept shocked.

Hecatomb for Aussie cyclists

Yesterday was a particularly nasty day for three Australian cyclists in the eighth stage of the Tour de France, between Le Grand-Bornand and Tignes.

Stuart O'Grady, winner of this year's strenuous Paris-Roubaix classic, suffered terrible injuries—five broken ribs and fractures to three vertebrae and a shoulder blade—when he crashed on the descent of Cormet de Roselend, between Beaufort and Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

Michael Rogers was racing downhill splendidly when he crashed. At that instant, he was what the commentators call the virtual yellow-jersey holder, which means that his theoretical lead, timewise, put him in front of all the other riders, including the real yellow-jersey holder. Then, in a split second, Rogers was hurtled, as it were, from heaven to hell. There was a tragic TV sequence that showed Rogers lying on the road while a fellow-rider crawled back up out of the dense greenery on the slopes of the curve where he and the Australian had crashed. Later, viewers witnessed a sad event: Rogers weeping profusely as he stopped on the roadside, his right shoulder and arm in pain, and let himself be guided into the automobile of his team manager. [For a moment, I was tempted to take a photo of this event, as seen on TV, to include it in my blog. But there's no point in retaining such negative images.]

— As for the sprinter Robbie McEwan, who fascinated spectators by appearing out of the blue to win an earlier stage, he simply couldn't make it to the finishing line in the maximum allowed duration for the stage, so he was formally eliminated.

Meanwhile, the Danish rider Rasmussen won the stage and picked up both the yellow and red-dotted jerseys.

Talking of Australian cyclists, I'm always amused by the way in which French commentators speak of Cadel Evans, who is now well-placed as a forthcoming yellow-jersey candidate. His unusual first name [he's the only Cadel I've ever heard of] has the merit of being perfectly pronounceable by the French, with no risk of error, but things are not nearly so easy in the case of his surname. The French know how to pronounce the English words "even" and "heaven". Well, they figure that the Evans surname looks more like "even" than "heaven". So, they call him Cadel Ee-vahnz. Personally, I find this pronunciation as quaint as his first name.

Spooky regard

I know it's not nice to make disparaging remarks about people's physical aspects. On the other hand, it's hypocritical to refrain from doing so merely in order to be politically correct. Besides, we should be free to consider public figures as exceptions, since making fun of their appearance is the everyday stuff of caricaturists almost everywhere.

If you read the Dilbert blog by Scott Adams (as I do, daily), you will have seen his recent remarks on this disturbing portrait of the Pope. The eyes are frightening, to say the least. Nothing in that lopsided regard is harmonious, let alone reassuring in a friendly way. Personally, I would feel ill at ease trying to look into the eyes of such an individual and talk with him on honest terms. Fortunately, he never asks me to do so.

Apparently, many fans of Star Wars have drawn attention to the physical resemblance between the Pope and a character in the Star Wars universe named Senator Palpatine.

In this juxtaposition of their portraits, Benedict and Palpatine appear to be sharing the same terrible joke. Maybe its punch line has something to do with Protestants or other aliens roasting in Hell...

Talking about Star Wars, as the son of parents named Skyvington and Walker, I've often felt ripped off—in an illogical sense—by the guy called Skywalker. If he had been politically correct, Anakin would have at least sent me an email to let me know, and maybe even request my authorization, before he started throwing my family names all around the cosmos.

Video clip of Dédé

I'm pursuing my experimentation with the Sony camera and the Macintosh editing software called iMovie. Click the following photo to see a tiny clip of my neighbor Dédé Repellin, who wanders up along the Gamone road most mornings, early, and drops in for a chat:

As I say to Dédé in this clip, I'm thinking of starting a documentary project on the village of Pont-en-Royans, as an exercise enabling me to get used to working in video.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Food talk between males

Yesterday evening, my Bastille Day ended on a friendly European note. A pair of young Swiss guys stopped at Gamone in a massive silver automobile and asked me in broken English [I don't speak a word of German, and they knew no French] if there was some place where they might pitch their tent for the night. I invited them to settle in under the big linden tree alongside the road. They were well-equipped, with an elegant high-tech tent and folding chairs. After congratulating me on my having found such a splendid place to spend my holidays, they were a little surprised to learn that I actually lived here all year round. This morning, they told me their night was peaceful, apart from a visit by a giant toad. Before driving off, they even wanted to pay me, but I told them I wasn't a professional camping operator.

During my morning walk with Sophia up towards Bob's place, I noticed that their white mare was leaning through the strands of the electric fence and eating grass on the roadside, which simply meant that the current wasn't turned on. Later on, Bob himself dropped in. He now stays with his girlfriend in a neighboring village. As for his daughter, she has gone away to the south of France to look into finding a school enabling her to become a horse-training professional.

Bob: It's lucky I dropped in, because my daughter forgot to turn on the electric fence, and the white mare was outside the paddock.

Me: Bob, let me be frank with you concerning your daughter. In my opinion, there's no way in the world she'll ever become a competent horse-trainer, because she doesn't pay attention to simple things such as turning on the current to an electric fence.

Bob: It's true that she often forgets to lock the house. But she's young: only eighteen.

Me: I have a "theory" that somebody who doesn't pay attention to details cannot usually be looked upon as a practical person. Among other things, I wonder how such a person could possibly prepare a meal. Is your daughter a competent cook?

I won't quote Bob's hilarious reply, but it suffices to say that he provided me with excellent evidence to support my theory. Now, you might say that the question of whether or not my neighbor's lovely daughter is a practical person, who knows how to cook, is none of my business. On the contrary. I've already inherited their stray donkey, but I don't want to find their two huge mares prancing—once again—over my lawn.

As far as food preparation is concerned, Bob assured me that he himself is a competent cook. That's how he has remained fit and happy. I've sensed for ages that my neighbor, who's a big solid former rugby-player, didn't find it comfortable to live in a vegetarian environment. This morning, our friendly conversation culminated in an interesting rhetorical question (introduced spontaneously and unexpectedly by Bob, not me): Is it an easy matter for an attractive young girl to find a future husband when young men discover that she survives basically on vegetables? I must admit that, when I was a young man, I never thought much about this kind of question, because I was delighted to have discovered a wife with a fine sense of basic French cooking. I guess you could say I was lucky.

God save the court

A court of law in Timisoara has just thrown out a case against God filed by a 40-year-old Romanian citizen named Mircea Pavel. Insofar as the plaintiff himself just happens to be doing a spell of twenty years in jail for murder, an observer might conclude that Pavel is attacking God because (a) he feels that the Lord has not taken adequate care of him, and (b) he has nothing better to do with his time. Be that as it may, the Romanian court apparently examined the affair seriously before throwing it out. Pavel's lawyers gave the identity of the accused as God, residing at present in the Heavens, and represented in Romania by the Orthodox church. The divine defendant was charged with "fraud, breach of faith, corruption and bribery". In particular, the plaintiff insisted upon the fact that the accused had failed to answer his prayers. "At the time of my baptism," explained Pavel, "I drew up a formal contract with the accused whereby I would be delivered from evil. Well, for the moment, the defendant has failed to honor our contract, in spite of the fact that I have sent him numerous contributions and countless prayers." In throwing out the case, the Romanian court explained: "God is not subject to law... and, in any case, we don't have his full address."