Sunday, September 30, 2007

Finding people through the Internet

One of my female friends back in Paris was a prolific and eclectic writer. She had decided, a long time ago, to invest in a multi-volumed copy of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and I believe that this big expensive tool played a major positive role in her work as an author.

Today, thanks to Internet tools such as Google and Wikipedia, everybody has access to a far greater encyclopedia than the Britannica. Over the last day or so, I've been in a research situation that illustrates one of the ways in which the Internet is a far more powerful source of encyclopedic knowledge than any mere printed book could ever be.

In my articles entitled First word of a poem [display] and Rilke's hermit [display], I pointed out that I've been working on the creation of a movie script based upon Rilke's novel entitled The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. In the context of the author's fictional personages, there are references to a few dozen authentic historical individuals, some of whom are well known (for example, the French poetess Louise Labé, or the Spanish Carmelite nun Theresa of Avila), whereas others are no longer as well known today as they were back at the time when Rilke was writing his novel. I had trouble identifying two individuals, mentioned briefly by Rilke, named Anna Sophie Reventlow and Julie Reventlow. In a conventional encyclopedia, of the kind printed on paper, these individuals may not have marked their times sufficiently to earn a place in history, as it were. In the context of the Internet, using Google, individuals such as these two Reventlow ladies are often described in genealogical contexts... and that's exactly how I was able to obtain precious information about them, enabling me to understand why Rilke has brought these authentic individuals into the fictional world of his novel.

I was even able to find portraits of the two women. Furthermore, obtaining this information through the Internet enabled me to become acquainted, by email, with the man who produced the genealogical website, who is in fact a descendant of the family in question. And this was like using the Internet to unearth and enter into contact with real-life memories of Rilke's world... which is far more than what you can do with a paper encyclopedia.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Two cultures

When I was a young man, a widely-read little book by the British scientist and novelist C P Snow presented a dichotomous vision of contemporary intellectuals. On the one hand, there were those with a scientific education and preoccupations. On the other, there were traditional intellectuals concerned by the humanities (literature, philosophy, history, etc). Snow coined the striking expression "two cultures" to designate this breakdown. He claimed that the existence of this dichotomy constituted a fundamental barrier in the quest for harmonious and universal solutions to society's problems.

Personally, I first became aware of this phenomenon when certain people expressed surprise at the fact that I should wish to study both mathematics and philosophy, simultaneously, at university. Much later, at the research service of the French Broadcasting System, I had the privilege of working with Pierre Schaeffer, a splendid innovator in multidisciplinary thinking. But I still came upon colleagues who found it strange, for example, that a computing professional such as me might be interested in the linguistics of Noam Chomsky. (Today, of course, most people would no longer find this strange, because they know that computers exploit languages such as Basic and Java.)

The planetary success of the personal computer and the Internet has narrowed the gap, I think, between "cultivated folk" (in the old-fashioned sense) and "technical people" (who know how to write programs, for example). Besides, many ordinary individuals know that science—through disciplines such as cosmology, genetics and neurophysiology—has much to say (if not everything) about human beings and the world in which we exist. So, only an exceptionally reactionary observer would cling to the notion of a giant cleavage between science and traditional culture. Even the antiquated separation between science and philosophy has practically disappeared... and old-fashioned religion is slowly paying the price of increased scientific enlightenment. What I'm hinting at, in that last statement, is that it's becoming more and more intellectually difficult to maintain the beliefs of traditional religions.

In the midst of our new "computer culture", I often hear people on TV complaining that addiction to modern machines such as computers and portable phones is having an adverse effect upon a certain aspect of traditional culture: namely, the ability to spell correctly and to write in a grammatically correct fashion. Yesterday, for example, a well-spoken French fellow, employed in some kind of a stock-market job, explained in a TV interview that young people like himself communicate so rapidly and so profusely today, using computers and portable phones, that they tend to disregard such niceties as spelling and well-structured sentences. Now, this might be true as far as text messages and chat forums on the Internet are concerned, but I think we should relativize things before making global generalizations about the alleged negative effects of modern communications systems. In particular, it's ridiculous to suggest that there might be any kind of paucity in spelling and literary expression in the vast domain of what we might refer to as encyclopedic websites, characterized above all [but not exclusively, by any means] by Wikipedia. Here, on the contrary, all the is are dotted, all the ts are crossed, and every comma counts. Everything is rigorous, striving towards informational completeness and perfection. The web, at this level, is not a place for fast facts à la McDonald's.

Maybe the antiquated "two cultures" expression might be resurrected usefully in a modern context. On the one hand, there are the speedy youngsters, using portable phones and chat forums, who don't give a damn about spelling or expression, as long as their many muddy messages get through. On the other hand, there are the countless great web authors who are engaged in the passionate challenge of installing humanity's history and intellectual heritage on the Internet. It is normal that these two "cultures" should coexist, but it would be idiotic to confuse these two totally different preoccupations. One is a culture of immediate facility; the other, a culture of ageless wisdom. And the actors, in each of these two cultures, are not at all the same.

It could only happen in France

The following true story is perfectly trivial, but it's amusing in the sense that it could only happen in France. It starts with a typical photo of Nicolas Sarkozy, in a hurry, taken on 12 September 2007 as he leaves the weekly Conseil des ministres at the Elysées Palace.

Journalists confronted with this image [taken by an AFP photographer] were intrigued to notice that Sarkozy was carrying what appeared to be a handwritten paper. Once the photo was enlarged [no doubt on a computer screen], the contents of this document could be easily examined and analyzed. Surprise! The round handwritten letters had obviously been penned by a female, and the document appeared to be a personal letter that started out as follows: "I have the impression that I haven't seen you for ages, and I miss you..." The short letter indicates that the writer and her husband will be away from France for a while, then it ends on a highly personal tone: "I'd love to succeed in seeing you during the following week or weekend. Millions of Besitos." Although I'm not familiar with this kind of language, I would imagine that "besitos" are little kisses. My God, everybody thought, this is as good as love notes between Charles and Camilla! Was it imaginable that the president of France, leaving a ministerial meeting, was carrying an open love letter under his arm, for everybody in the world to see? Was this another example of the Sarkozy shock style (like spending a few days on the luxury yacht of a friend, or jogging in front of press photographers) aimed at startling mildly the world in general and his French compatriots in particular?

Next step in the puzzle. Journalists had no trouble in identifying the woman who wrote the letter: Isabelle Balkany, a 60-year-old local-government personality, and the wife of Patrick Balkany, a member of parliament. The Balkanys have always been close political associates and personal friends of Nicolas and Cécilia Sarkozy. Was it thinkable that Nicolas Sarkozy might be involved in a romantic relationship with the wife of a prominent politician?

Following step. Isabelle Balkany quickly explained to curious journalists that she was indeed the author of this letter, but that it was addressed, not to the president, but to his wife, Cécilia Sarkozy. "I'm simply an old friend of Cécilia's." Fair enough. But, in that case, why was Nicolas walking around with Cécilia's personal mail, opened, in his hand?

Final step [for the moment]. Here we move into higher realms of expression, which can only be appreciated if you know how to read and write immaculate French. I'll try to summarize the situation. There are certain tiny linguistic details in written French [as in written Latin] that reveal the sex of the individual to whom the letter is addressed. For example, if you see the sentence "Tu es désirable", you don't know whether it's a male or a female who's being described as desirable. But, if you see "Tu es beau", you know it's a male who's being described as handsome. And, if you see "Tu es belle", you know it's a female who's being described as lovely. Well, in the context of the affectionate communication written by Isabelle Balkany, there's a tiny word, vu [past participle of the verb voir, to see], whose spelling would normally indicate the sex of the individual to whom the letter is sent. If Isabelle Balkany's sentence "I have the impression that I haven't seen you for ages, and I miss you..." were intended for a female receiver, such as Cécilia, then the tiny word should have been written with a final e, as vue. In fact, it's written as vu.

Maybe this simply means that Isabelle made a spelling mistake. Maybe she speaks and writes French, as the saying goes, like a Spanish cow. If not, it's Nicolas who may have made a faux pas by strutting out of the ministerial meeting with a private love letter under his arm... unless, of course, he did so deliberately. Who knows? In any case, as I said at the beginning of my article, this delightful storm in a wine glass could only happen in France.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Top 50

Whereas France is hosting the world cup in rugby, the nation's most popular individual is a soccer star: Zinédine Zidane. For those of you who might have forgotten the event, or missed seeing it because they were holidaying in a tropical jungle without access to TV, Zidane was the guy who used his hard bald head to butt the Italian player Marco Materazzi, who apparently made some kind of improper remark concerning a female member of Zidane's family.

Click here to see the entire list of France's 50 most popular individuals, as determined by a poll conducted by the Journal du Dimanche. If you browse around in the chart, you'll find lots of actors, singers, sporting heroes, TV personalities and even an ageing nun, a few politicians (including a president of the French Republic) and a soccer trainer... but no business chiefs, scientists or rugby stars.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Façade at Gamone

When I bought Gamone, on Australia Day 1994, it was a rough place.

The left-hand ground-floor of the building served as stables for animals, probably goats. Outside, a steel trellis was covered with grapevines. Notice too, on the far right-hand side of the photo, the primitive outdoor toilet. The house was not yet connected to the municipal water supply.

The main façade of the house was stained with advanced signs of humidity. Inside, all the woodwork was rotten, and there were big holes in the remaining floorboards. Looking back on things today, I think I was courageous, if not intrepid, to invest in such a place... but it was love at first sight!

Today, the scaffolding has been removed from the façade of Gamone, and the restoration work can be admired.

The following photo shows a broken iron element that was dislodged during the restoration work. Can you guess what it was?

It was a scraper for removing mud from your boots. I'm not sure that such an article could be found in modern hardware shops. You can see it in the following photo, taken half a century ago, of Hippolyte Gerin, who used the iron boot-scraper as a bracket to stack up tools:

Click here to see a series of fifteen larger photos concerning the evolution of Gamone from the time of Hippolyte up until today. In the closeup photos of the restored façade, there are good images of specimens of the famous bluish stone called pierre bleue de Gamone [Gamone blue stone]. The restored façade also presents specimens of blocks of solid limestone (probably recuperated from noble ruins), porous tufa (from nearby Bouvante) and poor-quality marne (clayey rock that cracks easily, no doubt collected on the adjacent slopes). You can also find pinkish stones, bits of brick and even wood! The façade of Gamone remains, more than ever, a material and mineral poem.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Family fashion

On the point of writing a blog article about a fascinating TV show I watched last night, it was funny for me to consult the excellent weekly Télérama and to find, by chance, that the stuff I was reading was signed by the journalist Emmanuelle Skyvington... who writes remarkably well indeed (in French, of course). OK, I'm not going to post a blog about the intended subject (a nasty murder affair of secondary interest). There's no point in having two Skyvingtons talking simultaneously about the same things. It's weird, here in this grand nation where I still see myself as a guest, to discover that a certain media item might be handled in a kind of family fashion.

Indigenous peoples

The UN General Assembly recently adopted a non-binding declaration upholding "the human, land and resources rights of the world's 370 million indigenous people". Guess which countries opposed this declaration. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

Australia defended its decision to oppose the declaration, saying that the document was "outside what we as Australians believe to be fair". Fair enough. The minister of Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, explained haphazardly: "We haven't wiped our hands of it. But, as it currently stands at the moment, it would provide rights to a group of people which would be to the exclusion of others." I fail to understand such mumbo-jumbo.

Once upon a time, the British colonialists in Van Diemen's Land—the early name for present-day Tasmania—set out to exterminate the Aborigenes, as if they were vermin. One of the last survivors, Truganini, pleaded to be buried in her mountainous homeland. Instead, her remains were placed in a glass museum case. Today, I have the impression that our Aborigines are still being treated, not as fascinating human beings, but as specimens in an antiquated museum.

Nazi photos unearthed

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington [click here to see their website] has just unveiled an amazing album of 116 photos of Nazis associated—directly or indirectly—with the Auschwitz concentration camp. The photos were taken in 1944, between May and December, shortly before the liberation of the camp by Soviet troops on 27 January 1945. The album belonged to Karl Hoecker, SS adjutant to the commandant of Auschwitz. There are joyous images of naive individuals who do not appear to realize that they are residing just alongside Hell on Earth:

There are precise images, too, of the highest-ranking Nazi indviduals in charge of Auschwitz:

Back at the time I was following the Faurisson affair as a free-lance journalist, in the early '80s, there were constant allusions to these three particular demons—Hoess, Kramer and Mengele—but this is the first time I've ever seen an image of their faces.

World cycling championships

In Stuttgart today, the seventh place in the female time-trial event, over a distance of 25 kilometers, was obtained by the illustrious cyclist Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli, from the Dauphiné/Savoy region of France. Jeannie's titles and trophies are awesome:

— 5 times world road-cycling champion;

— 4 times world time-trial champion;

— 3 victories in the feminine Tour de France;

— 19 times French road-cycling champion;

— 7 times French time-trial champion.

In all, Jeannie has held 38 world records of one kind or another.

The most amazing thing about this fabulous cyclist—who finished this morning just 1' 21" behind the German Hanka Kupfernagel (and well ahead of the current French champion in this discipline, Maryline Salvetat), is that Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli is 48 years old! For those of you who are older than that, think back to what you were doing at the age of 48. [Personally, I had just returned to Paris after eighteen months in Perth, Australia. I was leading a dissolute life, and smoking over a packet of cigarettes a day.] At the age of 48, could you have dreamed of finishing seventh in a world sporting championship?

Why didn't I think of volunteering to play?

How silly of me. Why didn't I have enough imagination to think of sending an email to John Connolly suggesting that he might hire me temporarily as an nth-grade replacement player in the Wallabies team for next Saturday's match against Canada in Bordeaux? He's wrapping so many major Wallabies players in cotton wool—so that they'll be able to take a rightly-deserved rest before the tough action, and avoid the risk of getting injured—that I'm convinced he would have appreciated the services of volunteers such as me, on the spot here in France, to make up the numbers... even if this meant that I would have been obliged to do a crash course in modern rugby rules, which no longer have much to do with the way in which we once thrashed around at school in Grafton [where we played 13-man League, not 15-man Union].

Once upon a time, when a player was about to kick a penalty or attempt a transformation after a try, they hadn't yet invented those plastic support gadgets. So, a team-mate had to lie on the ground alongside the ball and hold the top of it in place with an outstretched index finger. Now, that's the kind of service that I would be perfectly capable of rendering if only I had thought of asking Connolly to hire me in the match against Canada. What's more, I'm sure that some of those Canadian guys speak French. In close encounters, in scrums and rucks, I could have muttered all kinds of dirty insults at them in French, and this would have surely upset the Canadian team. In any case, those bloody Canadians would have been completely destabilized to find an Aussie opponent wearing glasses. I tell you, if ever it's a close match next Saturday, Connolly will certainly regret that I didn't think of asking him to invite me to play.

Multilateralism

That's the new planetary buzz word, launched by the new general secretary of the UNO, Ban Ki-Moon. It can be defined as the opposite of unilateral political actions. In the spirit of multilateral thinking, no world-shaking act—such as attacking Iraq with the hope of discovering weapons of mass destruction, for example, or attacking Iran with the hope of finding concealed nuclear weapons—should be carried out in a unilateral fashion, merely because a single world power has decided to do so. Multilateralism means that major operations of this nature must first be envisaged within a multi-nation context, so that they eventuate, if necessary, as the outcome of a broad significant consensus.

Yesterday in New York, French president Nicolas Sarkozy preached the multilateral message before the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization. And his discourse created a mild surprise by borrowing famous terminology invented by a certain Franklin Delano Roosevelt [1882-1945], greatly respected in France:

"I wish to say, in the name of France, solemnly and gravely, that there is so much injustice in the world that we cannot hope to live in peace. I want to speak to the consciences of all those who are responsible for the conduct of the world's affairs. The world is in need of a new state of mind. A genuine New Deal at a planetary level is required: an ecological and economic New Deal. In the name of France, I call upon all nations to unite in order to found a new 21st-century world order based upon the powerful idea that the commonly-held possessions of Humanity must be placed under the responsibility of Humanity as a whole." Personifying France in the style of de Gaulle, Sarkozy concluded: "France believes that we can wait no more. France demands action. France encourages action. France will be present at a rendezvous for action in the service of peace in the world."

Rugby craze

In France, even cats are following the Rugby World Cup on TV.

This young rugby fan, named Lulu, is a new member of the household of my Mediterranean friends Natacha and Alain. They noticed that the cat seemed to be watching TV out of the corner of its eye, as it were. When they installed Lulu's scratching pedestal in front of the TV set, Natacha told me they were astonished to discover that the cat apparently follows the movements of the rugby action on the screen, for long periods of time. What I don't know yet is whether Lulu is betting on the Blacks or the Wallabies... or maybe even France.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Prayer

Before arriving in Cartusia in 1084 and starting his legendary existence as a hermit in the Alpine wilderness, 54-year-old Bruno had held for many years a comfortable ecclesiastical job at the cathedral in the French city of Reims. Before settling down in France, the future founder of what would become (after his death) the Chartreux monastic order had received his basic education in his German birthplace, Cologne.

A week or so ago, in that same city of Cologne, the current cardinal, Joachim Meisner, evoked the concept of "degenerate art": an expression that rings an ugly-sounding Nazi bell. Media articles on this affair showed a photo of the cardinal in prayer, like Bruno.

The juxtaposition of Meisner's declaration and the photo of him in prayer gives the impression that the reasons for the German prelate's unexpected judgment on art can only be found in the private dialogue of prayer between the cardinal and God. Now, this suggestion infuriates me. When scientists and technologists—not to mention other intellectual leaders of society, including art experts—are called upon to back up their beliefs and allegations by hard facts, they obtain these precious elements of justification by many subtle and often complex means. Legal folk would speak of evidence. In any case, private dialogues with God are totally unacceptable as a justification for incendiary declarations concerning things in our everyday world... particularly when the declarations in question come from a German churchman, and they sound shockingly close to Nazi talk.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Rilke's hermit

I'm working intensely at present on the filmscript project based upon The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. The final years of Rilke's life were spent in hermitic conditions in a small manor-house in Switzerland. I was intrigued to rediscover a passage in the Notebooks [written when Rilke was not yet thirty] that prefigures this solitary existence at Muzot.

When we speak of hermits, we take too much for granted. We imagine that people know something about them. No, they do not. They have never seen a solitary; they have simply hated him without knowing him. They have been his neighbors who made use of him; they have been the voices in an adjoining room that tempted him. They have incited things against him, then they made a great noise and drowned his voice. Children have been in league against him because he was tender and a child, and as he grew, the stronger grew his opposition to grown people. They tracked him to his hiding place, like a hunted beast, and his long youth had no closed season. And when he did not sink exhausted, but escaped, they decried what had come forth from him, and called it ugly and cast suspicion upon it. And, when he paid no heed, they came out into the open and ate away his food, breathed his air and spat upon his poverty so that it became repugnant to him. They denounced him, as one stricken with contagious disease, and cast stones at him to make him depart more quickly. And they were right in their ancient instinct: for he was in truth their foe.

But, then, when he never raised his eyes, they began to reflect. They suspected that with all this they had simply done what he desired, that they had been fortifying him in his solutide and helping him to cut himself off from them for ever. And now they changed their tactics, and used against him the final weapon, the deadliest of all, the opposite mode of attack — fame. And at this noise he has almost every time looked up and been distraught.

— Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

September 24, 1940

On 24 September 1940, my peephole into human existence was opened at a maternity clinic with the glorious name of Runnymede, evoking the historic water-meadow in Surrey where Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215. My Runnymede of 1940 was located at Grafton in Australia, and the only document that got signed thereabouts was my birth certificate.

Although I have no clear recollections of the circumstances in which this photo was taken, I'm practically certain that it shows my mother Kathleen holding me in front of her Walker family house in Waterview. This is the same charming house that appears in this photo [of much the same epoch] of Kath's champion cyclist brothers Johnny and Charlie:

While claiming that a blogger such as me has every right to use this powerful communications medium to celebrate narcissistically his own birthday, I hasten to add that other events of an infinitely more consequential nature were unfolding on the planet Earth in September 1940. In any case, as Elton John once put it: I'm still standing!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Exceptional filmmaker

I'm a little ashamed to admit that I've never yet had time to view any of the mammoth documentary films created by the celebrated 54-year-old US filmmaker Ken Burns.

It's literally a matter of finding time, because each of this man's major productions—The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994) and Jazz (2001)—lasts for an average of a dozen hours. So, it's a bit like planning to read Tolstoy.

The reason I mention this award-winning cineast [apart from the fact that critics on the web are currently praising his most recent fifteen-hour masterpiece, The War] is that his name appears when you're using the excellent Macintosh video-editing tool named iMovie. He invented a simple but ingenious technique known today as the Ken Burns effect, which consists of applying subtle panning and zooming to photos, with a view to breathing life into otherwise fixed images. And Apple's software tool implements this effect in a methodical manner.

I'm convinced that my former mentor Pierre Schaeffer [1910-1995] would have been thrilled to discover the simple power of the Ken Burns effect. At the Research Service of the ORTF [former French broadcasting system], we were often accused of producing TV documentaries of a "talking heads" kind, which might have been created just as well in radio. Like Schaeffer, I've always considered that images don't really need to move very much in order to be meaningful, if not exciting. They merely have to give the illusion that they're moving. From this point of view, I see the Ken Burns effect as a highly Schaefferian concept.

Schaeffer, celebrated throughout the world as the inventor of musique concrète (music composed of sounds that would normally be described as noises), used to warn us that, if you intend to recreate the sound of a bucket of nails falling onto a steel plate, for example, then you must not be tempted to use a microphone to record the actual sound produced by a real-life bucket of nails falling onto a steel plate. You can obtain a far more "realistic" sound by using a specially-prepared piano, or ideally a synthesizer. It's a Schaefferian truism to say that, to give the impression of being authentic, things don't really need to be authentic. They merely have to... give the impression of being authentic. And this is precisely what "movements" of the Ken Burns kind succeed in achieving.

Voluble ex-stars

Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin belongs to the category of public figures who can't easily be put down. His political ascension was exceptional in the sense that he was never at any moment an elected member of parliament. He was educated to become a diplomat, and his achievements in the diplomatic domain enabled him to become a cabinet director, presidential secretary for Chirac and finally a senior minister.

As indicated in my article of 5 July 2007 entitled Destruction of computer files [display], Dominique de Villepin has been seriously embroiled in an aspect of the Clearstream affair, and he is even placed under a court order that prevents him from communicating with Jacques Chirac. But nothing stops this proud aristocrat from speaking out publicly on various subjects... including, in particular, the presidential style of Nicolas Sarkozy. "The French cannot live in a permanent whirlwind," said Dominique de Villepin today on radio. "I think we must escape a little from the present frenetic situation, but this doesn't mean we shouldn't work harder, or that we shouldn't launch projects. Nicolas Sarkozy is ambitious. I believe that, little by little, he should tame his ambitions, and tame himself in order to attain serenity."

Funnily enough, another white-haired former prime minister, Lionel Jospin, has also been quite voluble over the last few days. In a book to be published this week, he attacks retrospectively and violently the lady who happened to be Sarkozy's opponent in the recent presidential election: Ségolène Royal. According to Jospin, who himself was defeated by the right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002: "For the first time ever in the case of a socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal founded her entire campaign, not upon great political themes, but upon herself, and the special relationship that she claimed to have established with the French people. Everything was designed methodically, using polls and qualitative studies, to sustain what we must call a myth."

And, while all these words are being thrown around, we hear today of the death of the celebrated mime Marcel Marceau, at the age of 84.

Known throughout the planet, his personage Bip—in many ways, a stylized stage version of Chaplin—has spoken his final silence.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Scars and sundials

My ex-wife, Christine Mafart, invented a delightful metaphor for the numerous irregularities in the façade of my house at Gamone. She referred to them as scars: traces of wounds, now healed by time, inflicted upon the façade of this old house that was erected back in the days of a certain Corsican soldier named Napoléon Bonaparte [1769-1821]. It's easy to understand why there were wounds and scars. When the Chartreux monks were chased away from Bouvante and Choranche, in the wake of the French Revolution, a local farmer would have purchased this property and set about transforming the ancient wine-making premises of the monks into a place where he could reside with his family and earn his living. To build a house, this fellow probably called upon his vigorous offspring to collect boulders on the slopes of Choranche, and bring them back to Gamone on the backs of donkeys or in bullock-drawn carts. If finely-cut stones could be found in the ruins of local ecclesiastic and noble structures, then so much the better. That's why my house has various splendid stone elements tucked away in the mass of hillside boulders.

If an oak beam crumbled and stones fell to the ground, the owner would do his best to patch up the disaster, using whatever materials happened to be on hand. For a few decades, carrying on the wine-making activities invented by the monks, the families at Gamone would have lived in a relatively prosperous style. But, after the abrupt and terrible devastation of France's vineyards by the phylloxera pest in the late 1800s, the folk at Gamone were no doubt reduced to survival level, because the sloping rocky land at Choranche does not lend itself to ordinary agriculture. Maybe they tried to survive by rearing goats, for meat or cheese. That hypothesis applies to the period between the phylloxera catastrophe and the agricultural activities of Hippolyte Gerin. At a certain moment in time, walnuts appeared on the scene. Needless to say, it's frustrating for me to know so little about how these people lived and worked at Gamone.

In unknown circumstances and at an unknown date, a great hole appeared in the façade of my house at Gamone, just above the steel girder seen in the old photos attached to my article entitled Gamone enhancements [display]. The owner didn't scratch his head, nor did he seek an aesthetic solution. He simply filled up the hole in the façade with vulgar red bricks. And this became the most ugly scar on the ancient façade of Gamone.

Today, thanks to the excellent restoration work of Eric Tanchon [click here to see the home page of the future website I intend to build for Eric], the huge hole above the lefthand steel girder in the façade of Gamone has been rendered smooth and relatively unnoticeable. In fact, it's a big blank rectangle on the façade, and I immediately wondered if I might not be able to occupy it, say, by a sundial. Why not?

Sundials are a local tradition. In the neighboring village of Rencurel, an ancient house boasts two sundials, separated by the colorful image of a soldier.

The principal reddish sundial, for afternoon viewing, is located on a southern wall, whereas an early-morning yellowish sundial and the brightly-colored Epinal-type soldier are found on an eastern façade of this ancient house.

In the neighboring village of St-André, I came upon lovely modern sundials, created from ancient models, executed under the guidance of my aging friend Bernard Peignet, proprietor of the castle.

On the façade of the village church, a simple sundial accompanies a big clock, so there should be no excuse for arriving late at Sunday morning mass.

Having appreciated these splendid specimens of sundials, I was impatient to know whether the flat space above the openings into my living room might be able to house, one day, such an object. Alas, I had forgotten just one essential data item. Most sundials in France are attached to southern walls. It's feasible to put a sundial on an eastern wall [see the above case of a lopsided sundial at Rencurel], but it's not an ideal solution. My empty space at Gamone is on a façade oriented toward the east, which only receives sunshine in the early hours of the morning. Putting a sundial on this wall would be akin to erecting a windmill in a deep valley where the wind rarely blows. It would be like a grandfather clock with a weak spring.

New idea. I would like to fill in the empty space on the eastern façade of Gamone with an Epinal image on the theme of an Antipodean upside-down world. Something like this:

I must talk about this idea with my Dutch friend and neighbor Tineka Bot.

Gamone enhancements

Yesterday afternoon, the tradesman who's restoring the façade of my house reappeared with sand-blasting equipment: basically a big diesel compressor unit and a steel bin, with an output tube and nozzle, housing the special fine-grained sand used for cleaning façades. Next Monday, Gamone will be submerged for another day in an artificial sandstorm, but the job should be completed by the end of day. Then it'll be a matter of getting rid of the sand and dust in which the house is presently submerged.

I'm already exploring a few enhancements that might be applied to the newly-restored façade. First, I intend to install a so-called marquise over the main door of my house, which leads into the kitchen. This term means literally the wife of a marquis. I have no idea why it has come to designate an old-fashioned awning made of forged iron and glass, fixed to the façade above a door, to protect people from the rain while they're waiting for the door to open. I was amazed to discover a manufacturer of marquises in a nearby village. It's not as if the possibility of getting wet while waiting for the door to open is a major problem. The real reason why I wish to install such an object is that, when the scaffolding is removed on Monday, the façade of Gamone will appear as a vast rectangular wall, punctuated by various openings. The role of the marquise will be to put the accent upon one of these openings: the door into the kitchen. The door opening in question can be seen in the middle of the following photo, with the wooden gate, behind the back of Hippolyte Gerin [1884-1957]:

In this photo, the door opening on the right leads into a room that now houses my washing machine and deep freezer. On the left, to the rear of the two ladies, the two openings separated by a brick column lead into my living room. Here's a better photo, showing Hippolyte standing behind two youths and a dog:

You can see a pair of wooden shutters on the kitchen window. I still have these shutters, stored away while the façade is being restored, but I'm not likely to put them back in place. The truth of the matter is that openings in the restored façade reveal a subtle aesthetic blend of stone and brick, which must be left as such, naked, rather than concealed behind shutters of any kind.

As you can see in the above photo, the openings into my living room are surmounted by an ugly steel beam. During the restoration in 1994, a similar beam was installed above the opening into the room with the washing machine and deep freezer [see the first photo]. Consequently, one of my first tasks, now that the façade is restored, will consist of hiding these two steel girders. In fact, I'm going to ask the guy who manufactures the marquises to weld a line of thick steel bolts to each girder, which will enable me to cover them with oak slabs. The nuts fixing the slabs against the girders will be concealed in the mass of the wood, and covered with mastic. With a little bit of effort, the future Gamone façade should look much neater than back in Hippolyte's time.

Fool on the hill

On 14 December 2006, in my article entitled Why? How? [display], I explained that my Swedish filmmaker friend Eric M Nilsson had asked me to participate in a philosophical project inspired by these two basic questions. I've just browsed through Eric's film, which will be broadcast on Sweden's channel 2 at 10 pm on 21 October 2007. Since the one-hour documentary is in Swedish, I'm incapable of appreciating the exact ways in which Eric has amalgamated my words with those of the other main participant: a Swedish pastor. But Eric assures me that it's good TV, and I trust his artistry and his judgment. Click on the following stylized rendering [by Eric] of the Cournouze mountain seen from Gamone to hear an introductory statement [which may or may not be honest] from the scientific Fool on the hill:

Friday, September 21, 2007

French sport

Theoretically, France should be able to defeat Ireland in this evening's pool D match of the Rugby World Cup. But theory doesn't amount to much in rugby, where all kinds of unexpected factors come into play. Theoretically, France should have been able to defeat Argentina in the opening match of the Cup, but it didn't. And, since then, the French have been haunted by the possibility that their team could get kicked out of the Cup during the pool matches, before the start of the real action. This evening, we'll see. It's a do or die thing. If Ireland were to win, France would be definitely out.

Evil-minded observers [Who isn't, when it's a matter of commenting upon a major sporting defeat?] would say that the bald-headed French trainer, Bernard Laporte, didn't get his act together before France's opening match. Or rather, he got his act together a little bit too well. Problems and criticism stem from the fact that loud-mouthed charismatic Laporte has become more of a popular star in France than any of the national players. He has a delightful south-western accent, and TV viewers love to see and hear him getting excited and screaming like a distraught dad at his hefty kids. Besides, we come upon Laporte all the time on TV, because smart companies have hired him to sell all kinds of wares and services. And many viewers have ended up wondering how the hell this video star could possibly find time to train the French rugby team.

Above all, Bernard Laporte has friends in high places... including one sports-minded friend in a particularly high place: Nicolas Sarkozy. Poorly-planned public relations enabled French citizens—not to mention the members of France's rugby team—to learn that Laporte has already accepted a golden job that has been offered him by his mate, the president. After the Rugby World Cup, Bernard Laporte—who knows next to nothing about politics—is destined to assume a senior governmental role in the French sporting domain. So, if ever France were to fail this evening, it would look a little like Sarkozy has signed up a lame duck to look after French sport. Let's hope this doesn't happen...

Meanwhile, French sport reached a summit with the victory in heavy-weight judo of Teddy Riner: a splendid young black-skinned clone of the great David Douillet. Although I know almost nothing about judo, I love to think that a young French Black, bursting over with personality and friendliness, has become—in a sense—the most powerful man on the planet, even more so than any of the rugby giants. Teddy Riner is truly the sort of quiet and beautiful guy [like Yannick Noah] whom you would like to invite to a home barbecue, to talk about anything and everything with the kids. Is there any better criterion of human excellence?

I love my dog

And she seems to love me too. Or rather, she depends upon my presence. In any case, it's a big deal for Sophia when I deign to lead her on an excursion just a few dozen meters away from our house at Gamone. Most of the time, from an objective viewpoint, Sophia doesn't have enough canine perspicacity to imagine visiting such remote places on her own. So, of a morning, she barks frantically, inviting me to step out onto the road alongside our house, so that I can accompany her... or rather she, me. For Sophia, this is exotic tourism! She sniffs around wildly for tiny lizards. My lovely dog has the same camouflaged calcareous colors as the rocky slopes of Gamone. Twenty meters away from the house, Sophia seems to be saying to herself: "What a chance for me to have a Master who's prepared to lead me on voyages to the Antipodes!" Like me, Sophia knows perfectly well that our Antipodes is located, in all simplicity, right here at Gamone. This special place, for my dog and me, is both the zenith and the nadir of the universe. Gamone is not only the Theory, but the daily Practice, of Everything.

Australia intends to censor the web

I've often thought that Australia surely appears to the world at times, from a sociopolitical viewpoint, as an immature nation. When political candidates seek to be elected, and when citizens vote, they often seem to do so, not through profound principles about what's good for the people and right for the nation, but merely on the basis of a single pervading question: What's in it for me? Things are warming up for a forthcoming federal election, and the tactics of the two major contenders [current PM John Howard and Opposition leader Kevin Rudd] are already producing what a local journalist referred to poetically as "a shriekfest about smears, fears, sneers, jeers, cheers, leers...".

To my mind, there is no more abject indicator of sociopolitical immaturity than an appeal to censorship. And this is what John Howard and his minister of Communications, Helen Coonan, are presently seeking to impose upon the Australian people.... in a telltale elusive manner, as surreptitiously as possible, so that few observers are likely to realize what is happening, and kick up a fuss.

This lady wants to extend a black list of websites to be outlawed, purely and simply, by the ACMA [Australian Communications and Media Authority]. For the moment, apparently, ACMA shields the Aussie public from certain websites containing pornography or offensive content. It would be interesting to know what exactly is meant by the terms "pornography" and "offensive content", just as it would be intriguing to learn something about the individuals who perform this censorship, their credentials and their operational criteria.

The planned Coonan censorship extensions concern websites in the domain of "terrorism and cyber-crime". Superficially, that sounds great. Australia simply has to ban websites that seek to expound terrorist ideology and cyber-crime methods, and—abracadabra!—these obnoxious phenomena will disappear magically from the wide brown country. What idiotically naive thinking! Are Australians not mature enough to separate the wheat from the chaff? To see what web stuff they wish to examine, and what they want to reject spontaneously? Are Howard and Coonan afraid that some silly kid in the suburbs is going to learn from the Internet the art of making roadside bombs, or the methods for delving into the online bank accounts of unsuspecting citizens? What rubbish! The nation's leaders would do better to enhance the sophistication of their intelligence, security and law-enforcement services...

To paraphrase one of my favorite conclusions on affairs of this nature: Every nation has the censorship it deserves.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Don't Tase me, bro!

Australian TV viewers thought it hilarious when a comic crew succeeded partially in getting through the security barriers at the APEC circus a fortnight ago. Personally, I found the stunt lukewarm, neither terribly funny nor even brilliantly executed. The comedians simply demonstrated that some of the security folk must have been pretty dumb... which isn't really surprising.

The reality show in which Florida student Andrew Meyer got subdued by police using a Taser stun gun was a much better TV event, from every point of view.

Here's the video, already viewed by millions of people throughout the world, which starts with US senator John Kerry ending his speech, and Andrew Meyer asking his questions:


It amazes me to realize how the Internet can turn people into planetary stars in a rapid and almost effortless manner. If we compare the two events—the comedians at the APEC conference in Sydney and this fame-seeking guy questioning John Kerry in Florida—their common feature is the presence of law-enforcement people armed with guns. That's to say, the Sydney comedians could have easily been shot by over-zealous security officers, whereas the Florida student was well and truly the victim of a firearm. In a bid to be acclaimed in a video show, I'm not sure it's worthwhile running the risk of being shot at. But maybe I'm a coward, and that's one more major reason why I'll never be a famous video star.

New role for Big Blue

I was intrigued by this striking French ad that asks: "How can zeros and ones help New York police to arrest criminals?"

An instant later, I was a little surprised to learn that the question was being asked by my former employer, IBM.

I wasn't sufficiently interested in this subject to click on the banner in the hope of receiving an answer to IBM's question. So, I still ignore the way in which zeros and ones can help New York police to arrest criminals. But this ignorance is not likely to prevent me from sleeping soundly at night.

Back in 1957, when I started to work with IBM Australia as a Fortran programmer on a magnificent electronic beast called the IBM 650, the corporation had the habit of recalling in its public relations that punched cards had been used successfully for the first time in the 1890 US census, which could never have been processed correctly and on time were it not for Herman Hollerith's ingenious invention, adopted by IBM in 1928.

For those of us who worked in those pioneering days of computing, our 11th commandment, applied to our precious stocks of punched cards, was: "Do not fold, spindle or mutilate." And we were no doubt the only individuals who knew the meaning of the verb "to spindle" (to poke a hole through paper documents with a metallic spike).

Times have changed a lot since then. Nobody uses punched cards any more, except maybe in a few old Jacquard weaving looms. IBM has ceased to be the master of the computing universe. Today, everybody knows that Microsoft markets software called Windows, Word and Excel, whereas Apple offers a machine named the Macintosh as well as delightful gadgets called the iPod and the iPhone. I wonder how many ordinary people would be capable of naming a single hardware or software product manufactured by IBM.

Spelling and driving

In yesterday's post entitled Australian passport, I mentioned a government website called smartraveller.gov.au. Here's a trivial question for the folk who dreamt up the "smartraveller" name: If they came upon a website named www.cartraveller.com [not be clicked, because no such site exists], would they expect it to deal with people who travel in cars or rather carts? What I'm trying to say is that it's not very smart [particularly in the case of a government website] to drop a consonant when combining words such as "smart" and "traveller". If the authorities allow themselves to do such things, they shouldn't be surprised if kids get around to writing "bookeeping", for example. If a young man were to send his girlfriend an email asking whether she would like to accompany him on a Mediterranean "boatrip", she would be justified in imagining that the voyage might have something to do with huge snakes.

Talking of spelling, I find it disappointing that Australia has never turned wholeheartedly to American rules, which have the merit of producing words that are shorter and more logical in their pronunciation than their old-fashioned English equivalents. According to the built-in dictionary on my Macintosh, for example, "traveller" comes up as a spelling error. I agree that "traveler" is preferable, because there's simply no obvious reason whatsoever for the antique "ll". That's to say that there are cases in which double consonants are logical, such as "bookkeeping", and cases where they aren't, such as "traveller". In most instances that come to mind, I prefer American to Australian spelling: "honor" rather than "honour", "jail" rather than "gaol", "practice" rather than "practise, etc. Having said this, I admit that it's often a trivial matter of taste and habits. For example, even in my wildest Americanism fantasies, I would never write "Sydney Harbor"... no more than I would follow the author of Thorn Birds in referring to an Australian cattle station as a "ranch".

On the other hand, I've often been intrigued by the fact that Gordon Brown (left) heads a body whose name is written as the Labour Party, whereas Kevin Rudd (right) represents an Australian entity called the Labor Party. It goes without saying that the reasons behind this distinction [if they exist] are surely not earth-shaking, and aren't likely to affect my voting choice in a forthcoming election.

In the domain of disappearing dregs of Australian allegiance to the ancient British Empire, I often wonder why Australians still persist in driving on the left-hand side of the road. While I'm prepared to forgive the Poms for carrying on this tradition [because they would be morally traumatized if ever they had to give in to all those aliens over on the Continent, by adopting the euro and driving on the right-hand side of the road], I can't understand why Australia doesn't decide to get onto the same wavelength as Europe and America. The longer this anachronism persists, the harder it will be to change it.

When I was a child, the expression Southern Hemisphere was little more than a geographical label for remote lands that were once described as terra incognita. Today, it's nice to see the French sporting media, in the rugby domain, according a new nobility to this expression. Indeed, they talk constantly of "Southern Hemisphere rugby", as opposed to the Old World variety of this ancient game. There's no doubt about it that the Wallabies, the Springboks and the Blacks [not to mention other valorous Pacific-island teams] appear to have discovered the right side of the rugby road on which to drive.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Australian passport

It was fun getting my passport renewed. It all worked so smoothly that I'm tempted to believe that the efficient services of the Australian embassy in Paris were designed with one purpose in mind: to make it easy for William to get his passport renewed. Everything was handled by Internet, telephone [friendly French-speaking hostess] and the splendid French Chronopost service. Then the new passport got delivered to me yesterday at Gamone by a guy in a van who was thrilled to inform me that he remembered the path up to my place from the time he delivered my broadband Internet box. I'm amused by the tiny logo at the bottom, which signifies (I suppose) that there's an electronic chip inside the passport.

My passport photo is ideally sinister. The authorities don't want you to smile. You have to look as if you've just been caught in the act of setting up a roadside bomb in Kalgoorlie, say, and you're about to answer trivia questions from the police designed to see if you might not be un-Australian. I think I look like all that.

I've just browsed through a paper document that came with my new passport, entitled Hints for Australian travellers, signed by a certain Alexander Downer. Living in France, where I can phone free-of-charge to Australia, I find that the department of Foreign Affairs and Trade puts an unnecessary accent on the reverse-charge telephone procedure [even to the point of printing Telstra publicity on the back of the slightly-undersized plastic passport jacket]... but I imagine that this service might be interesting for an Aussie lost in Iraq or Indonesia.

I consulted a government website, mentioned in the literature, called smartraveller.gov.au. And I was amused by the following advice:

Make sure your passport has at least six months validity and carry additional copies of your passport photo with you in case you need a replacement passport while overseas.

The idea of carrying spare copies of your passport photo is bizarre. Does this imply that, beyond Australia, there are backward zones of the planet in which photography hasn't yet appeared? Maybe... That reminds me of an anecdote at the unique restaurant in Choranche, back in the days before portable phones. From time to time, motorists would stop there for a drink and ask politely: "Is it possible to make a phone call?" And the proprietor, my old friend Georges, would take pleasure in replying cynically: "Just a moment while I find out whether the telephone exists at Choranche."

Awards

In an otherwise banal and factual news dispatch taken up by the UK Telegraph, the verb "award" is somewhat surprising:

Apple is expected to award a German iPhone distribution deal to Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile and a French deal to France Telecom's Orange later this week.

It's a little like Apple is henceforth giving out prizes to the best students in the class, where the "class" is neither more nor less than the global European telecom infrastructure.

Asked to respond to allegations that he might have disturbed European mobile networks by playing them off against each other before choosing partners, Steve Jobs said: "It's kind of like getting married. We dated a few people but didn't get married to them. I guess there are a few upset girlfriends out there." Funnily, that's the same metaphor I used in my previous article.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Europe versus Microsoft

At a professional level, I used to be in close contact with Microsoft. Once upon a time (in the early '80s), their spreadsheet tool was called Multiplan (inspired by the grand ancestor VisiCalc). In the context of my initial contacts with Apple France executives Jean-Louis Gassée and Daniel Blériot, I was asked to produce a demonstration floppy (non-rigid disk) of Multiplan on the famous Apple II computer. Shortly after, this primitive hardware/software tandem was replaced by the revolutionary Macintosh and Excel.

Several years later, I wrote stuff about Microsoft tools running on the Macintosh. This work must have been appreciated by the French branch of Bill Gates's corporation, for they offered me a helicopter ride to a journalists' get-together in a fairy-tale castle near Chartres.

That was the time when computer users everywhere were delighted to discover that Microsoft's word-processing tool, named Word, was totally (and no doubt deliberately) unprotected. That's to say, anybody could start using it freely on their PC or Macintosh. That was the ingenious marketing trick that got a whole planetary generation addicted to Word. It was the computing equivalent of free marijuana.

It could be said, retrospectively, that this pioneering epoch of personal computing was an essentially macho affair. For reasons I can't explain, neither the managerial nor the technical levels of the PC revolution seemed to put the limelight upon any outstanding females.

Today, I find it ironical that Bill Gates's arch-enemy in the Old World is a brilliant 66-year-old Dutch woman, Neelie Kroes.

In her powerful role as the European Commissioner for Competition, Neelie Kroes doesn't want Europe to become a capitalistic jungle, where the strong devour the weak. In 2004 she set out to bust the Microsoft trust, by accusing the US corporation of failing to implement system-level interoperability, thereby condemning all competition. A European law court has just confirmed that Microsoft's fine of 497 million euros was justified.

Here in France, to verify that Microsoft is not yet playing the game in the sense implied by their European condemnation, you merely have to wander into a retail store and say that you want to purchase a PC without the Windows software. As a surprised salesman pointed out, that request sounds a little like wanting to buy an automobile without a motor. The analogy, though, is stupid. It's silly to try to compare computers with old-fashioned machines such as automobiles. The motor in an automobile (essentially hardware) is not at all the equivalent of software in the context of a computer. Somebody who wants to buy computing hardware without imposed software is more like a guy who wants to get married without having others choose his wife. But we no longer need such metaphors to get the message across. Today, almost everybody is aware that it's perfectly feasible to envisage buying a PC and installing Linux on it. So, to put it metaphorically, Bill Gates should pull his finger out.

This whole affair might, of course, turn out to be a non-problem... if Europeans were to wake up to themselves, and decide massively to buy magnificent Macs.

Monday, September 17, 2007

French fighting words

In speaking of Iran's stubborn refusal to abandon research that could lead to the production of nuclear weapons, French leaders have been using quite martial language.

On 27 August 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy set the tone in his foreign affairs speech to a gathering of French ambassadors: "Iran equipped with nuclear weapons would be unacceptable." He stated that UN sanctions—such as Resolution 1737 of the Security Council, adopted on 23 December 2006—were the only means of avoiding a catastrophic choice "between the Iranian bomb and the bombing of Iran".

This morning, Bernard Kouchner, French minister of Foreign Affairs, declared that we must "get ready for the worst, where the worst means war".

This afternoon, François Fillon, French prime minister, said that Iran "must understand that the tension is extreme". Then he backed up Kouchner by affirming: "The world is faced with a real threat of the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapon."

Do these bellicose words from Sarkozy, Kouchner and Fillon mean that France is getting geared up to envisage an attack of Iran? Certainly not, because Sarkozy has made it clear that force is not the right solution to this problem. They are merely pointing out explicitly that an atmosphere of potential warfare will exist as long as the UN sanctions approach has not been strengthened. In any case, the situation will probably become clearer after the forthcoming Washington meeting between the six nations [China, France, Germany, Russia, UK, USA] that are examining the possibility of extending the existing sanctions.