Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Fabulous educational project

This 64-year-old American intellectual and administrator, Nicholas Negroponte, of Greek origins, is a visionary, of the same kind as Apple's Steve Jobs. A former member of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and the kid brother of the "other" Negroponte [John, US Deputy Secretary of State], he is promoting an exciting international project known as One Laptop Per Child, which consists of designing a low-cost basic computer for children in developing nations. [Click here to view an interesting video on this subject.]

The machine, manufactured in Taiwan by Quanta Computer Inc, has a nice Martian look:

Initially planned to have a sales price of a hundred US dollars, the laptop will in fact be marketed at twice that price... which is still remarkably cheap. Up-to-date information on the project can be found at their website:

Not surprisingly, this kind of daring technological and educational project needs to gain momentum before it can be evaluated in meaningful terms. For the moment, only three nations have signed up to acquire machines: Peru, Uruguay and Mongolia. These initial orders amount to a "mere" 200 thousand machines, but it is to be hoped that enthusiasm for the laptop will escalate as soon as the bush telegraph [in default of the Internet] spreads the news that it's a great deal.

Anecdote. When I first heard of the grand project of Nicholas Negroponte [who, incidentally, helped me personally when I was in Boston, in the early '70s, preparing and shooting my TV documentaries on artificial intelligence and the brain], I was intrigued by the presence of a crank handle, making it possible to power up the computer in villages without electricity.

Cyclists are familiar with a device called the home trainer:

I imagined that it would be a great idea, in remote places, to install home trainers along with Negroponte's laptops. If that were done, then the organizers of the Tour de France would have a superb system for punishing cyclists full of illegal pharmaceutical products. Instead of fining them and banning them from pedaling, they could be sentenced to Club Med vacations in exotic villages that are about to discover computing. I reckon that a single sufficiently-doped cyclist, in the course of a few dozen sessions (the equivalent of stages in the Tour de France), could generate enough electricity to initiate an entire community into the joys of computing. And, if there were any power left over, it could be used to warm up an evening meal for the village folk.

Gay God

Throughout the Cosmos, and beyond, members of the Harry Potter sect were astounded—to say the least—to hear author J K Rowling saying recently that she had always imagined Merlin-like Dumbledore as a homosexual.

That's like suggesting that God might be gay and non-Caucasian. But when you think about it: How do we know She isn't?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Rugby trainer turned to politics

French TV viewers are so accustomed to images of Bernard Laporte, former trainer of the national rugby team, either observing a match or delivering a fiery sermon to his players that it's funny to see him attired in a suit and seated on the red-upholstered front bench of the French parliament.

I hope we'll be able to see Laporte in all kinds of future political settings. To be frank, though, there's a chance that this might not be the case. Some observers imagined that the aura of popularity concerning Laporte might be dulled by the poor performance of France in the recent world cup, and that even his mate Sarkozy might end up having second thoughts about the wisdom of having offered Laporte—on a silver platter—a top political post in the sporting domain. But Laporte's image has been darkened recently by business and financial affairs that have nothing to do with rugby. Since most of these imbroglios have already found their way into courtrooms, it would be out of place to attempt to say too much about them, even if we disposed of firm facts (which does not appear to be the case). All I can say is that a referee might well jump into the picture, one of these days, and pull out a card whose color matches the upholstery of those elegant ministerial benches.

Saving the planet

She's not in the same heavyweight category as Al Gore, but Australian star Cate Blanchett has just revealed that she's making a personal effort to save the planet's natural resources.

"I really love a refreshing shower. But I'm careful about how much water I use. So, I've just had a shower timer fitted, which means I don't have more than four-minute showers."

On the other hand, she denied a rumor about no longer washing her hair at all. And she ended her interview in the UK's Daily Express by a curious evocation of her home land.

"I do live in a desert called Australia, you know!''

We're all familiar with the "sunburnt country" image invented by Dorothea Mackellar [1885-1968]. But I feel that Cate Blanchett has parched us out excessively when she refers to the Australian continent as a desert. Although I know it's wrong to judge an individual from her physical appearance, Cate doesn't strike me as an expert on deserts. I have no idea whether she spends much time Googling about the environment. Besides, I wonder what kind of a computer she uses.

Mac user

Who is this middle-aged Macintosh user, in a cluttered office, whose personal computing comfort apparently necesitates the simultaneous use of no less than three giant 30-inch high-definition screens? Hint: For over three years, this American has been a member of the board of directors of Apple Computer. Other hints: He recently made a highly successful movie, and the existence of this movie no doubt influenced the folk who award Nobel prizes... because they gave him a shared Peace Prize! It's Al Gore, of course, who happens to be one of the planet's most high-profile Mac enthusiasts.

As the old saying goes (well, more or less): "Tell me what computer you use, and I'll tell you what sort of a person you are." We've evolved a lot since the time when the French Socialist politician Laurent Fabius, asked whether he used a computer, replied: "Yes, I have a Minitel." The Minitel was the primitive little gadget (now obsolete) built by French Telecom, in pre-Internet days, which enabled ordinary citizens to access various databases. Here in France, I'm surprised that journalists don't seem to have got around to producing an in-depth report on the daily down-to-earth personal relationships between prominent politicians and computing... as distinct from the things they pay specialists to do for them. Let me lay my head on the block. I would bet that Sarkozy does not have a personal Macintosh, and that he knows next to nothing about the technicalities of using a computer and the Internet. I don't know why, but he strikes me as that kind of individual.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Undoing the past

There's a common French understatement for situations in which you're mildly ashamed of yourself because of a negative action for which you were responsible, maybe inadvertently. Suppose, for example, that you drive alongside an old lady standing on the sidewalk, and you discover in your rear-vision mirror that you've splashed mud over her. The expression is: "I wasn't proud of myself..."

Over the last few days, my ongoing demolition of the remaining vestiges of an ancient stone water trough at Gamone has often made me say that I'm not particularly proud of myself. I have the constant impression that I'm devoting a lot of time and energy to the destruction of a man-made object that was simply designed to last, as it were, for ever. I feel at times that I'm undoing the past like a vandal. In reality, I shouldn't have any such qualms, because the structure I'm demolishing has been, for ages, an amorphous mass of half-broken boulders of so-called marne (poor-quality brittle stone) held together by dusty mortar. When I first set my eyes upon the ancient trough, which once collected water from the spring up behind my house, I immediately hosed tap water into it, to see if it could still be used. Within five minutes, all the water had seeped away between the boulders. Besides, the front side of the trough was largely ruined, and the global appearance of the decrepit boulders and mortar was in no way aesthetic. All in all, it was not the kind of structure that I was tempted to try to restore. Besides, I was convinced that it was beyond restoration, and I could see no reason for treating it as a precious object. So, I removed the boulders that were about to fall, and I used the remaining walls, built against the embankment, to support a corner of a wood shed.

Since demolishing this wood shed, to make way for a big yard between the road and the house, with room for a new wood shed up against the hill, I've started to remove the final vestiges of the old trough: a pair of low walls, each one about a meter high and a meter wide, firmly embedded in the embankment. And, when I discover the massive nature and solidity of the construction, I'm a little ashamed to find myself destroying it.

Using a crowbar and a sledgehammer, I've been unearthing dozens of big boulders that formed the buried background against which the trough was built. To my mind, this style of construction is a thing of the past, quite unlike work that might be performed by a peasant or an ordinary farmer who decided to build a trough in a rough and ready fashion. That's to say, I'm convinced that this trough was constructed back in the time when the Chartreux monks were making wine at Choranche. It was almost certainly built by expert craftsmen who would have been hired to perform this task. And they built it to last. But they could hardly imagine that many of the boulders would end up splitting in the cold, and that the mortar would, in time, turn to dust. Be that as it may, I'm not particularly proud of myself, today, to be demolishing this ancient trough. With every blow of my sledgehammer, or every time I throw my weight upon the crowbar to dislodge a boulder, I have the impression that the phantoms of the craftsmen are looking over my shoulder with a sad expression on their faces.

Mediterranean Union

In the same way that General de Gaulle used to dream of a European Union that would stretch from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains in western Russia, Nicolas Sarkozy has been starting to evoke the concept of a Mediterranean Union that would encompass all the nations on the edge of the legendary "middle of the Earth", from Beirut in the Levant to the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Sun sets over the Atlantic, and from the European Riviera down to the Maghreb, the Sahara and the primordial motherland of Judeo-Christian culture: Egypt.

It's certainly a grand idea, which stirs the imagination. After all, this is where a lot of human and social action has been taking place since the dawn of civilization. For the moment, though, it's little more than a vague dream... in spite of the fact that the French president threw this idea into a major speech delivered in Tangier during his recent state visit to Morocco. Faced with this concept, certain media in the Maghreb are frankly hostile, considering such French ideas as a resurgence of colonialist thinking.

Concerning the creation of the European Union, the challenge involved nations located within a single continent. A hypothetical Mediterranean Union, on the other hand, would involve at least two continents, Europe and Africa... not to mention Turkey and the edge of the Middle East. And it would seek to associate peoples of the three great monotheistic faiths. At a political level, the creation of such a heterogeneous entity would be a Herculean task, akin to landing on the Moon. But it's exciting, if not encouraging, to see that a French bulldog such as Sarkozy dares to dream of such a project. One never knows what might happen...

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Olé!

[This is my 500th Antipodes post.]

Tomorrow, at the Vatican, 498 ecclesiastic "martyrs" of the Spanish Civil War [1936-1939] will be beatified. In quantitative terms, this must be a record of eternal bliss, suggesting that members of the Church in Spain have been the most saintly men and women on Earth.

By whom were these individuals martyrized? Mostly by anarchists and Communists. Does that mean that, in the context of this terrible and bloody conflict, these "martyrs" were on the side of the Fascist dictator Franco? That would be a rather stark way of putting things. Let's say that they were on God's side...

Not used to Europe

Yesterday morning, Sophia started to bark, the bell rang and, when I scrambled downstairs, I found a fellow delivering the new phone directories. He spoke to me immediately in English, which is unusual in this corner of the world:

Fellow: "Mister Skyvington? Here are the new phone directories."

Me: "Thanks. But tell me: How come you speak such good English?"

Fellow: "My mother taught me. I'm English. Born and brought up in the UK."

I liked the subtle humor in the bit about being taught English by his mother. This anecdote makes me realize that I'm not yet fully accustomed to everyday possibilities opened up in recent times by the creation of Europe. Indeed, it's perfectly simple and banal for an English guy to decide that he's going to live in the south of France and earn his living working for the French postal service... particularly with a short-duration job contract for the delivery of phone books.

In the future, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find an English fellow coming along here to read the electricity meter... which is not exactly one of the most sought-after jobs in France. Here at Gamone, first of all, the electricity employee has to locate the meter. If I don't happen to be here to inform him of its whereabouts (attached to the far side of an electricity post about twenty meters down from the house), it's quite possible for a newcomer to conclude that there's no meter at Gamone. And the employees who come here to read the electricity meter are inevitably newcomers, because few people would ever wish to retain such a job from one period to the next. The employee then has to figure out how to make his way down the slopes to the post with the meter. Finally, he has to struggle through the thorny blackberry bushes that usually surround the meter. I cut them back whenever I have time, and think of doing so, but they always seem to have grown back in all their thorny glory by the time the electricity employee arrives here.

Incidentally, French people often congratulate me on my fluent French [which I speak, nevertheless, with a strong foreign accent, which is often a mystery for my hearers]. Inspired by the English guy this morning, I really must get into the habit of explaining, simply and truthfully: "My ex-wife taught me." I've often recalled her first lesson. I had just informed my future wife, in faulty French: "Je veux te marier. [I want to marry you.]" She replied: "Two problems. First, only a priest or a mayor can use the verb 'to marry' in a transitive fashion when they say, for example, that they married Peter and Jane. As for Peter, he would use the verb in a reflexive fashion, and say in French: 'I married himself with Jane'... if you see what I mean. The second problem, Willy [as she called me], is that I'm not at all sure that I wish to marry myself with you."

Friday, October 26, 2007

Keepers of French treasures

Concerning state-owned buildings in which people either work or reside, or both [as in the case of a foreign embassy, for example], the French language draws a top-level distinction between assets of a mobile nature, such as the furniture, and the building itself, associated with the land on which it is located, which are obviously of an immobile nature. The former objects are referred to as mobilier (goods and chattels), whereas the latter are called immobilier (real estate).

On Wednesday evening, I was fascinated by a TV documentary concerning the mobilier national: that's to say, the vast state-owned stocks of splendid furniture and miscellaneous objects that are distributed out to all kinds of official buildings such as the Château de Fontainebleau or the palatial French embassy in Rome. The documentary revealed, above all, the extraordinary amount of skilled restoration work that is being carried out non-stop behind the scenes, by the nation's finest craftsmen and women, in order to maintain all these goods and chattels in a perfect state, capable of representing the prestigious and elegant image of France.

Every outstanding item of furniture is referenced in such a way that a researcher can go along to the National Archives in Paris [just down the street from where I lived for a quarter of a century] in order to obtain a detailed description of the nature and background of the object.

The anecdote that most impressed me involved crockery at the French embassy in a foreign city: Switzerland, if I remember correctly. The lady from the Quai d'Orsay [the famous Parisian address of France's ministry of Foreign Affairs] who's in charge of this aspect of embassy mobilier dragged out all the crockery for a global inspection, and she found that four dinner plates had tiny chips on the edge. The damaged items were wrapped up and taken back to the national porcelain factory at Sèvres, on the western edge of Paris. [Click here to see an English version of their website.] There, an amazing process was set in motion, with the final goal of replacing the four plates. First, the chipped crockery was soaked in an acidic mixture enabling the etched gold to be recuperated. Next, the unique mold of the Swiss embassy plates had to be located in their vast reserves.

A potter then used a traditional wheel to produce four roughly-shaped plates, and his colleagues referred to the mold to attain the exact form and dimensions of the original crockery. An expert then demonstrated his technique for whisking each new plate through a cold bath of enameling liquid. He's maybe one of the only fellows in France with this manual skill, which involves balancing an item of crockery on the tips of three fingers as it swirls through the bath.

The gold-etching technique involves placing a set of mysterious gluey black stencils on the middle and circumference of each plate and then sprinkling gold dust over it. Somewhere along the line, the new plates were baked in an oven. It goes without saying that all the techniques employed at Sèvres are ancient and secret, so the documentary was in no way a do-it-yourself introduction to the manufacture of fine personalized crockery. In any case, by the time the sparkling new hand-crafted plates reached the embassy, the replacement operation had no doubt cost a small fortune: the price of prestige.

Extrapolating from what the TV documentary seemed to say, I'm led to believe that, every time an embassy guest uses a knife on the food in such a plate, an infinitesimal quantity of gold is consumed along with the foodstuffs. I wondered: Would that be the secret of the legendary excellence of French diplomacy? Whenever a foreign diplomat leaves the ambassador's dining table, after an exquisite taste of France, he has a warm glowing feeling in his stomach...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Antipodean environmental news

I've realized for ages that France and Australia are rarely on the same wavelength on sociopolitical issues. Today, in the environmental domain, there's a particularly striking contrast.

— In France, the Grenelle of the Environment is in full swing. I evoked this major national get-together at the end of my article entitled Wild rabbits and environmental issues [display]. The latest news is that the president Nicolas Sarkozy will almost certainly announce the creation of a "carbon dioxide tax".

— On the front page of today's The Australian, there's an article about two "experts" in the UK, named Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner, who back the refusal of Australia and the US to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

It goes without saying that I find the French approach more reassuring than the Prins/Rayner hot air. Incidentally, you might do a Google search on the Pommie jack-of-all-trades Gwyn Prins to determine whether you think he deserves to be thought of as an environmental expert. As for the dilettante American Steve Rayner, he refers to himself as an "undisciplined scholar, committed to changing the world through social science". Big deal! Pretentious fellows such as the Prins/Rayner duo are definitely bad news for the future of the planet Earth. But I would imagine that only idiots would be prepared to take them seriously.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

We don't need another hero

The war-time story that I am about to tell has given rise to a controversy in France, which culminated yesterday when schoolteachers were expected—at the request of the president Nicolas Sarkozy—to read out in front of their students the final poignant letter to his parents penned by a young martyr named Guy Môquet.

His father, Prosper Môquet, a French railway-worker and trade-unionist, was the Communist member of parliament for a precinct of Paris. In 1939, since the PCF [Parti Communiste Français] supported the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it was disbanded by the government, and Môquet senior was arrested. A few months later, he was deported by the French authorities to a prison camp in Algeria. Meanwhile, his son Guy, a student at the Lycée Carnot, had become a militant in the PCF youth movements.

Môquet junior distributed Communist leaflets denouncing the treason of French industrial leaders, and advocating the liberation of jailed Communists such as his father. Insofar as a French law of 1939 prohibited Communist propaganda, three French policemen arrested 15-year-old Guy Môquet at the Gare de l'Est métro station in Paris on 15 October 1940, and he ended up at a prison camp in Châteaubriant near Nantes. A year later, he was still imprisoned at that same place when a German commandant was assassinated at Nantes. In the reprisals, Guy Môquet was the youngest of 27 hostages at Châteaubriant who were executed by a Nazi firing squad on 22 October 1941.

Sarkozy's decision—announced on the day of his presidential investiture—instructing teachers to read out Guy Moquet's final letter, on the anniversary of his death, was unexpected and somewhat foolhardy. The French president should have known that, in imposing his conception of the celebration of a hero, he would irritate countless citizens. On the one hand, Communists don't wish to see one of their emblematic figures recuperated, as it were, by a right-wing politician such as Sarkozy. Besides, it's not clear whether the young Communist militant and martyr Guy Môquet should be placed in the category of authentic Résistance fighters... like the five heroic revolver-toting students from another Parisian lycée, Buffon [Jean Arthus, Jacques Baudry, Pierre Benoît, Pierre Grelot and Julien Legros], executed in February 1943 : the subject of an excellent TV film aired, by chance, last night. Finally, many teachers, professional historians and other observers consider that the State has no right to impose its points of view, or promulgate decisions of any kind whatsoever, in the domain of history.

The most profound opposition of all came from intellectuals who pointed out that Sarkozy is confusing two related but fundamentally different concepts: on the one hand, the scholarly pursuit of history, and on the other, the emotional phenomenon referred to, in French, as memory, concerning events that are so recent that their recollection still causes pain. Schoolteachers are expected to handle—as objectively as possible—the first of these concepts: history. Sarkozy's directive, however, lies clearly in the domain of memory: that's to say, relatively recent dramatic events that still hurt... which have no place in history classrooms.

I was shocked when I first heard of Sarkozy's decision, and I was utterly flabbergasted—like countless French people—when it was revealed that Sarkozy's buddy Bernard Laporte, trainer of the national rugby team, was so ridiculously zealous that he mimicked the president's sensitivity by reading out Guy Môquet's letter to the team just before their opening match... which they lost to Argentina. On the other hand, I'm reassured to find that so many French teachers refused intelligently to tolerate Sarkozy's silly brainchild.

Visibility

Back in the 15th century, when Victor Hugo's personages Esmeralda the Bohemian and the hunchback Quasimodo lived on the Ile de la Cité in an atmosphere of constant misery and petty criminality, the façade of the great cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was hidden behind a mass of humble houses and shops, in a maze of tiny lanes.

It wasn't until the 18th century that the so-called parvis was cleared and extended, enabling Parisians to discover the façade of the cathedral in much the same way that we see it today.

When I was a more-or-less devout Christian child [what a funny idea!], I once asked my father naively why he never attended Sunday mass, like me, at our Anglican cathedral in Grafton. He informed me curtly, as if he didn't really expect me to appreciate his subtle argument, that his Nymboida bush land was his personal cathedral.

Likewise, for me today, Gamone is my sanctuary. And yesterday, following my demolition of the woodshed and my removal of the tip of the embankment, the northern façade of my humble cathedral became totally visible [in a photographic sense] for the first time since it was erected, two centuries ago.

It's a funny feeling, getting a bird's-eye view of a particular façade of your house for the first time. Neither those who built the house, nor those like Hippolyte Gerin for whom it was their home during their entire existence on Earth, ever had this privilege. Sure, they obviously had a pretty good idea of what their house looked like from the north, just as Esmeralda and Quasimodo might have imagined what the western façade of Notre-Dame would look like when viewed from a distance. But the former occupants of Gamone never had a true global vision of this wintry façade, which never sees the Sun.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Red mountain

As soon as I noticed the exceptional color of the Cournouze, hit by the rays of the setting sun beaming through a gap in the mountains, I dashed upstairs to fetch my Nikon. Whenever the cliffs light up in this way, the show only lasts for a few minutes.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Nobel pub talk

Does an outspoken Nobel Prize winner such as 79-year-old James Watson—US co-discoverer, in 1953, of the structure of DNA—have the right to make shallow remarks, in public, about sensitive racial issues? A week ago, in an article in Britain's Sunday Times Magazine, Watson said that he is "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours... whereas all the testing says not really". Concerning the notion that the intellectual capacities of all humans are equal, Watson descended to a pub-talk level in saying that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true".

Following this interview, Watson's scheduled presentation at London's Science Museum was immediately canceled. Above all, his longtime employer—the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, 35 miles east of Manhattan—decided to suspend Watson's responsibilities as their chancellor.

Watson's book The Double Helix, presenting the hectic search for the structure of the DNA molecule, is one of the most thrilling and best-written scientific tales I've ever read. When the discovery was made, in collaboration with Englishman Francis Crick [1916-2004] and New Zealand-born Maurice Wilkins [1916-2004], James Watson was merely 25 years old.

Accounts of this amazing breakthrough in fundamental knowledge are marred solely by the fact that the essential collaboration of the brilliant English crystallographer Rosalind Franklin [1920-1958] has rarely been fully recognized.

Concerning Watson's much-publicized words last weekend, I look upon them as harmless provocative nonsense from a silly old bugger who's currently promoting a new book with a sensationalist title: Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science. While I find it erroneous for any scholar today to suggest that human intelligence can be measured, and that the respective intellectual capacities of different races can be compared, I'm not shocked by the fact that an outspoken old-timer could let such words slip out of his mouth, as if he had downed a pint too many in a London pub. If it were I who had discovered the structure of the basic molecule of life, I think I might have spent the rest of my days in a permanent state of intellectual intoxication, and I would have never stopped making crazy statements.

Explanation of the spinning woman demo

In view of feedback I've received, I feel obliged to make it clear that the demo presented in my offbeat article entitled Right brain versus left brain [display] is merely an amusing and innocuous hoax, which has nothing to do with the viewer's brain. My presentation of the demo and my subsequent comments were deliberately facetious: a big joke! It would have been neither more nor less silly to claim that viewers who see the girl spinning in a clockwise direction have right-wing political beliefs, and vice versa.

Only the final two sentences in my post [where I suggest that interested observers should examine the individual images in this animated GIF, using a graphics tool such as Fireworks] are to be taken seriously. The truth of the matter is that everybody sees exactly the same animation, which does indeed change directions suddenly, before reverting to the initial direction. The demo is ingenious in that the 34 fixed images composing the animation have been designed and drawn in an exceptionally skillful manner. Viewers are intrigued by the fact that, when the woman changes directions, she does so in such a smooth and seamless fashion that we have the impression that this change has taken place—like the perception of beauty—in "the eye of the beholder". This is an illusion. The change has well and truly occurred in the animation, not in our brains. In most of the silhouettes in the animation, various visual features of the woman—including her face, her breasts and her pony-tail hair—provide explicit clues as to the direction in which she is spinning. But I have extracted a unique image, shown here, in which all these visual features are missing:

Here, the viewer is unable to decide between two perfectly plausible possibilities:

— We are facing the silhouette of a woman poised on her left leg and spinning in a clockwise direction.

— The silhouette is a rear view of a woman poised on her right leg and spinning in an anticlockwise direction.

Consequently, when this pivotal image occurs in the animated sequence, the direction of spinning can be either maintained [as is usually the case] or reversed [exceptionally] in a totally seamless fashion. And this is why the woman seems to spin in a clockwise direction for a while, then suddenly change directions, and finally revert to the initial direction.

Some readers might not be familiar with the concept of animated GIFs. Back in the early Internet days, people often included an animated image of this kind in the email contact section of their rudimentary websites, showing a letter being folded, place in an envelope and slipped into a mailbox. Animated GIFs provide a good example of software gadgets—a little out of fashion nowadays—that are relatively laborious to create, but simple to borrow and use.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Reversing roles

I'm not usually narcissistic to the point of taking a photo of myself... with such a preponderance of green hues (the fault of my bathroom lighting) that you might imagine me as a political candidate for an ecological party. To appreciate the trivial anecdote I'm about to relate, you need to imagine me as I was this morning, attired in dusty working clothes, in the process of demolishing my woodshed with a sledgehammer. I stopped for a moment to contemplate the big pile of firewood that my neighbor Gérard Magnat delivered yesterday afternoon.

Up until now, I would have simply tossed the pieces of wood into the adjacent shed, and then stacked them up. But, since I've decided to do away with the woodshed, the task has become more difficult. I have to move all that firewood up into the empty corner of the house. It didn't take me long to decide that the best approach, rather than moving the wood manually in a wheelbarrow, is to wait until my Honda transporter is repaired, some time next week. While these thoughts were going through my mind, Sophia started to bark, and I noticed that an automobile had stopped down below my house. A young man and a woman, carrying briefcases, wandered up the road towards me.

Me: "What brings you up here on this lovely sunny morning?"

Visitor: "We were hoping that you might have a moment to talk with us about the word of God."

Me: "Sure. What faith are you?"

Visitor: "Jehovah's Witnesses."

Me: "That's interesting. I have a lot of ideas about God and Jehovah's Witnesses. Please step over here into the sunshine, because my explanations are lengthy and rather complex. Now, where can I start?"

The two visitors were a little perplexed by my directorial manners, but they stood there silently and listened obediently to my monologue, which lasted for about half an hour. And I talked non-step, with enthusiasm, as if I were a preacher, except that my sermon was an attack upon religion, and a plea for the values of science and atheism. From time to time, the fellow would interrupt me politely, to ask a question. Each time, I would reply calmly, but inevitably in the sense of demonstrating that his questions were uninformed, indeed idiotic. Insofar as my visitors had come to preach to me, we were faced with a delightful case of reversed roles.

Our encounter ended on an amusing note. One of the minor details in my explanations concerned the name of their religious organization. I had drawn their attention to the fact that, as any student of Hebrew knows, the e-o-a vocalization of the Tetragrammaton, as in their silly term "Jehovah", could not possibly be correct, and that a more plausible solution was an a-e vocalization as in the two-syllable pronunciation "Yahveh". Well, this suggestion seemed to trouble them greatly. Funnily, they didn't react upon hearing a pure atheist such as me declaring that the "God delusion" (to borrow the title of the excellent book by Richard Dawkins) was an absurd human invention that did not correspond to cosmic reality. But they were visibly disturbed at the idea that there might be something wrong with the name of their particular branch of Christianity.

Visitor: "Let me ask you a final question. You're familiar with the name John."

Me: "It's my second given name."

Visitor: "You surely don't mind that the French say Jean for John. The Italians say Giovanni, the Greeks say Yannis, the Israelis say something else, and so on. Well, why don't you agree that Jehovah is simply another way of pronouncing Yahveh?"

Me: "I agree with you one-hundred percent. Historically, except for devout Jews, the terms Yahveh and Jehovah have ended up designating, in a perfectly equivalent manner, the mysterious concept of the Tetragrammaton in the Hebrew bible. But, if we agree on that point, then why don't you accept a majority decision and suggest to your superiors that they change the name of your organization to Yahveh's Witnesses?"

They laughed as if I just had just cracked a huge joke, and turned to leave, wishing me well with my task of moving the stack of wood.

Retrospectively, I can say that I surprised even myself (let alone, I suppose, my visitors) by the ease with which I was able to produce such a lengthy impromptu discourse in French, spontaneously and effortlessly, while remaining perfectly calm and friendly, like a polite clergyman. What I'm trying to say is that the amazingly smooth and continuous style in which my lesson unfolded suggests that it probably wasn't as spontaneous as I might have imagined. In other words, my brain is no doubt working constantly, unconsciously, on this kind of discourse. Unbeknown to me, the rhetoric of my Sermon on Mount Gamone had almost certainly been thought out and fine-tuned in advance. If God existed, I would be inclined to agree that He seems to act in mysterious ways.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dog on a wall

When I cut away the straggly honeysuckle and jasmine shrubs in front of the house, Sophia quickly discovered that she could obtain a slightly better view of happenings down in the valley by jumping up onto the bare wall. So, I put her rug there, whereupon Sophia instantly abandoned her big wicker basket and posed as a sentinel on the wall.

Don't we all like to climb up on top of walls to get a better view of things? I recall the extraordinary experience of walking along the top of the great stone wall around the old city of Jerusalem.

With or without the web?

These days, there are two major approaches to using computers. For a long time, it was a matter of switching on your personal machine and running a software tool such as Word or Excel, for example. More recently, the Internet has provided a more powerful means of exploiting computing resources, which consists basically of getting connected to countless remote machines whose geographical whereabouts are not only unknown but irrelevant. Ideal examples of this new approach to using computers are provided by the Google behemoth, but less spectacular web-based computing services make it possible to make purchases of books or even groceries from your living room.

In the case of Apple's iPhone, we are at present on the borderline between these two approaches. Up until now, if a developer wanted to extend the possibilities of this device from a computing viewpoint, the only possibility consisted of working through the Safari web browser. This wasn't a very convenient solution, because you can't even access Flash websites on the iPhone. A few days ago, Steve Jobs decided to turn the situation upside-down by announcing a forthcoming software development kit that will enable developers to work with the iPhone as if it were more-or-less a normal Macintosh computer.

Some observers see this as an indication that the web-based approach has been a failure in the case of the iPhone. Be that as it may, developers will be happy to envisage the iPhone as what it really is: a genuine Macintosh of kinds. Nobody likes castrated computers.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Final role of woodshed

Before completing the demolition of my woodshed, to enlarge the area between the road and the house, I used the structure for a final task. One of the solid beams served as a support for the block-and-tackle and chains enabling me to hoist my Honda transporter [which refuses to start] onto my trailer, to take it to a repair shop.

Although the Honda transporter is very heavy, I was able to perform this task in an effortless manner. Here's the final result:

I took my neighbor Dédé along with me, for the drive to Romans. He likes mechanical things, and calling in at the shop of a dealer handling machinery of the Honda kind is more exciting for Dédé than visiting a museum. We also had time for a bit of tourism. That's to say, Dédé hadn't visited Valence for decades, so I took him to see the new station for the TGV [high-speed train]. He was amazed, and kept repeating: "The station's all glass and metal."

Enrolled voter

I've just received an official confirmation that, for the first time in my life, I'm an enrolled voter in Australia. To enroll through the Internet, I was obliged to prove my identity. This was done, not through my birth certificate, nor even my passport, but thanks to the number on an expired driver's license. Really, Australia hasn't yet got its act together as far as the question of identity is concerned. This is really weird, because our new passports contain a computer chip, whereas a driver's license is just a piece of colored plastic. Maybe somebody will explain to me, one day, why Australia has this tradition of using driving licenses as identity documents. An even sounder proof of identity in Australia is a firearms license. The only problem is that the draconian legislation on firearms prevents about 99% of the population from obtaining such a license.

It'll be interesting to see if they let me vote through the Internet... which wouldn't surprise me. Now I have to scratch my head and decide for whom I'm going to vote. I'll be able to get some good guidance from the excellent animations by Peter Nicholson in The Australian.

Click the image to see a delightful spring racing event.

Two Apple announcements in France


In this morning's French news, there are two much-awaited Apple announcements: the Leopard system on 26 October, and the iPhone on 29 November. I immediately ordered the so-called Leopard "family pack" allowing for five installations, including two for me, and one for my daughter.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Grafton in aeronautical history books

Towards the end of 2002, while using Google, I discovered by chance that my birthplace, Grafton, was mentioned in the French-language website of the Fédération Française de Vol Libre [display] as the place where the hang glider was invented. The author of this article was a French university lecturer named Jean-Paul Budillon in the nearby city of Grenoble. For me, this reference to Grafton was unexpected, to say the least. Initially, I imagined a misunderstanding at the origin of this story. Hang gliders usually take off from mountain slopes... and there are simply no mountain slopes in my native town. But Jean-Paul Budillon mentioned precise dates and events, and even indicated the reference of an article and photos in an October 1963 issue of Grafton's Daily Examiner. I sent off a request for enlightenment to the CRHS [Clarence River Historical Society]. Their president, Frank Mack, delved into newspaper archives and sent me back a copy of the article. I learned that the wing had been designed and created by a Grafton man named John Dickenson, and that the glider pilot, Rod Fuller, took off by being towed behind a speedboat.

Rod Fuller is shown in these pictures in the latest equipment for those who like water-skiing with a difference. It is a ski-wing, designed and made by John Dickenson for the Grafton Water Ski Club. The ski-wing is something new and its design has been registered by Mr Dickenson. The wing, about 18 feet in length, will soar to a height of 70 feet. Its construction is rather unusual and, despite the frail look of the wing, it soars like a kite. The ski-wing was made from light timber and plastic, of the type used for covering bananas. It was made in a few weeks and donated to the ski club by Mr Dickenson. It will be one of the highlights of the club's water-ski carnival next Sunday. A water-skier straps himself to the wing and is pulled behind a speedboat until air-borne. It operates in similar fashion to a kite, but is much more risky to operate than the box-type kites formerly used behind speedboats. In the top picture, the Crown Hotel forms a background.
— The Daily Examiner of 21 October 1963


I put this data up on a personal website, along with other low-quality photos and a technical drawing of John Dickenson's invention.



For several years, my website article on Grafton's "ski wing" evoked no reactions whatsoever. Then a hang-glider pilot from New Zealand, Graeme Henderson, stepped into the arena and started to publicize John Dickenson's historical role. Henderson had found a Canadian article of May 2004, published in the Cloudstreet magazine of the BCHPA [British Columbia Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association], which mentioned Dickenson's pioneering work.

The article in question [display] was written by Mark Woodhams.

My first encounter with Graeme Henderson was somewhat abrupt, in that he appeared to be criticizing the content of my innocuous web page about John Dickenson and Rod Fuller. The issues at stake were slightly technical. Since I knew little about hang-gliding, I promptly deleted my offending web page. In spite of his blustery manners, I congratulate Graeme Henderson today for having played a dynamic and efficient role in gaining recognition for Grafton's pioneers, shown in this recent photo alongside a replica of the historic wing:

The latest news is that John Dickenson's place in hang-gliding history has just been recognized officially by the highest instances, through an award from the FAI [Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world's Air Sports Federation]. Here is the citation:

FAI Hang Gliding Diploma

John Dickenson invented the modern hang glider at Grafton, Australia. It was flown on 8 September 1963. John built scale models to determine design concepts, until a full sized glider was towed behind a speedboat. He incorporated the control bar into the airframe by designing the A-frame to distribute flight, refining this further when he invented the pendulum weight-shift control system. John developed the piloting techniques, and taught all the early pilots, including Hang Gliding pioneers Bill Moyes and Bill Bennett, to fly the wing. John Dickenson’s invention has been copied by every manufacturer globally, with few minor changes for over a decade.


[Click the banner to visit the FAI website.]

This is an enormous honor for Dickenson, Fuller and Grafton. The city's Big River made it possible—through Dickenson's inventiveness and Fuller's courage—to concretize the myth of Icarus. I would like to suggest that Grafton might look into the idea of a twinning operation with the town of Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet [not far from where I live], which is the hang-gliding capital of France. Click [here] to see their website concerning the fabulous Coupe Icare. Ten minutes ago, I was talking on the phone with Jean-Paul Budillon, who suggested that his hang-glider friends of Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet would no doubt be delighted to receive John Dickenson as a guest of honor for next year's Icarus Cup...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Right brain versus left brain

Scientific breakthrough! My sister Anne sent me this fascinating demo, which she found in an Australian newspaper. In the following image, do you see the lady spinning in a clockwise or an anticlockwise sense?

Apparently, if you see her spinning clockwise, then you use predominantly the right-hand side of your brain. [This is the case for my sister and me.] But, if you see her spinning anticlockwise, then you use predominantly the left-hand side of your brain. [If the lady is not yet spinning at all, this simply means that you've got a low-quality Internet connection... not necessarily to be confused with a low-quality brain. Wait a while to see if things start moving. If not, consult a specialist of one kind or another.] Reputed scientific journals often refer to left-hand-sided humans as "queer" or "disoriented"... but it appears that further medical research needs to be carried out in this domain before we can definitely refer to these unfortunate folk as... sick, to call a spade a spade.

If you make a certain "mental effort" [a free-will action that's hard to define, requiring great cerebral concentration], you might in fact find that the lady suddenly starts spinning in the opposite direction... but she quickly returns to the direction that's most natural for you, which corresponds most truly to your innate brain structure.

PS: I was wondering, for a moment, whether the sense in which the lady is spinning might depend on whether your computer is located in the northern or the southern hemisphere. I'm referring, as you can guess, to that weird affair about the direction in which water swirls down into the plughole of your bath tub... with its freaky corollary about the way that people having a bath on the Equator see their dirty water literally dropping down vertically through the plughole like a stone. At a quite different level, a troubling metaphysical question has crossed my mind: If God exists, then does He use predominantly the right-hand or the left-hand side of His brain? [After all, it would be nice to be on the same wavelength as Him in matters of this kind. N'est-ce pas?] Finally, it goes without saying that I would be terribly disappointed if I were to learn that there might be some kind of a conspiracy theory behind this demo, and that this delightful animation of a spinning big-breasted female silhouette might be nothing more than a series of still images, running in a loop, that have been drawn and arranged in such a way that the spinning lady does in fact change directions from time to time. [The file in question is referred to in computing jargon as an animated GIF. You can download it instantly and then examine it calmly, image by image.]

What went wrong

I'm aware, of course, that the sense of the word "wrong" in my title depends on whether you were supporting the Wallabies, the All Blacks, the French, etc. I might add that there's even a subtle way of the interpreting this word in the case of observers who are concerned about the future of international rugby in general, as a great game. In any case, over the last weekend, France has witnesed the sudden birth of a vast new generation of rugby wizards, commentators, expert journalists, would-be team managers, coaches, etc. I never imagined that there were so many rugby specialists in France. And here I am, me too, about to jump up onto this bandwagon...

Many French people seem to agree on the following three things:

— It's a pity (whatever that means) that a tired French team, still getting over its combat with New Zealand, got kicked out on Saturday by the English.

— It was not only unexpected, but illogical too, that great teams such as New Zealand and Australia, accustomed to spectacular offensive play, should be bludgeoned out of the competition, at a surprisingly early stage, by the defensive strategies of the Old World.

— It would be good (whatever that means) if South Africa were to emerge as the victorious nation.

The consensus opinion here seems to be that future rugby should be played ideally in much the same way that the Southern Hemisphere is currently doing so, but that teams such as the All Blacks and the Wallabies must invent methods and strategies, urgently, to handle situations in which their uninspired opponents devote all their energy and resources to building brick walls across the field. It's a bit like boxing, where three ingredients are required in every recipe for success:
(a) You need to attack.
(b) You need to be able to defend yourself.
(c) Last but not least, you need to have tricks up your sleeve to know how to deal with an opponent who insists upon doing little more than constantly defending himself.

Put in those elementary terms, rugby sounds almost as if it were nothing more than a mere game.

Aerial urban surveillance

In my article of 29 August 2007 entitled Sydney skies [display], I criticized Australia's decision to place a jet fighter above the city during the APEC gathering. Funnily enough, my scenario about the possibility of an innocent private aircraft getting blasted out of the sky by this fighter almost became a reality.

Later, in my article of 6 September 2007 entitled Stadiums [display], I mentioned the vast security resources that French authorities planned to use during the Rugby World Cup.

It was only yesterday, on TV, that we had a closeup presentation of one of these resources, used in the sky at Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris. Apparently there's a tiny remote-controlled aircraft floating around constantly in the air above the great stadium, and it's video camera can see everything that's happening on the ground. In a control room, several police specialists control the movements of the robot aircraft, and watch the images it provides on a large screen on the wall. The images are so precise that you can easily distinguish human individuals, including groups of people who might be up to mischief.

The female police officer whose job consisted of "flying" the tiny noiseless aircraft explained that, if nobody gets upset about this surveillance method, it's primarily because it's invisible. She added: "Most modern police departments throughout the world are now using this technique." Hearing this, I pricked up my ears. Was the police department in Sydney actually using this approach during the APEC? If so, was the publicity about the jet fighter in Sydney's skies simply a strategy to make people forget about the presence of tiny robot aircraft equipped with video cameras? Was the ban on all other aircraft over Sydney designed to make sure that the little robotic devices would be free to glide around in an airspace free of turbulence and obstacles?

If ever it so happens that Sydney is not yet aware of this new robotic technology, then it might be a good idea if a few Australian police delegates were to visit France, at the end of the rugby matches, to see what it's all about. In making this suggestion, I'm thinking above all of the safety of private pilots wishing to take their family or friends on future joy flights over the Sydney coastline or the Blue Mountains, while unaware that the local police are protecting Important Visitors and searching for potential Troublemakers and Dangerous Terrorists. It would be so much less messy to collide with a tiny robotic drone than to get pulverized by a jet fighter belonging to the Royal Australian Air Force.

Bone box excursion

In my recent article entitled Bloody beliefs [display], I described a place of pilgrimage, not far from where I live, named Notre-Dame-de-l'Osier. Well, I went back there last Sunday to witness a curious event, of an anachronistic unworldly nature: the arrival in the church, for a few hours, of a bodily relic of a relatively recent Christian saint, Thérèse de Lisieux.

She became a nun at the age of 15, and her life was uneventful. Afflicted with tuberculosis, she died unknown at the age of 24, leaving behind a simple autobiography entitled Story of a soul, which made her posthumously famous throughout Christendom. It was said that the corpse of Thérèse Martin produced a strong scent of roses for several days. Now that is literally what the Church has often referred to, ever since the Middle Ages, as an "odour of sanctity". As weird as this phenomenon might appear to us today, this allegedly pleasant odour of such-and-such a dead body has often played a role in transforming the deceased individual into a candidate for sainthood!

Inside the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-l'Osier last Sunday, I was surprised by the size of the crowd of reactionary Catholics who had gathered to welcome a relic of Thérèse de Lisieux.

Up until recently, I had imagined it as unthinkable that Catholics in France, in the year 2007, would still allow themselves to be mystified by a fragment of bone from the body of a young woman who had died of tuberculosis 110 years ago. I thought that the primitive adoration of relics had disappeared with the Middle Ages. Not at all! The people I saw in the church at Notre-Dame-de-l'Osier a week ago looked like the ordinary parishioners you might see of a Sunday morning in front of innumerable French churches. Inside their brains, though, they must nurture very weird beliefs... of corpses that smell like roses, and of bone fragments, capable of bringing them nearer to God, which are worthy of being carted ceremoniously around the countryside in a glass and gold box. In fact, I went off to Notre-Dame-de-l'Osier with my new movie camera, thinking that it might be an interesting subject for a short reportage. But the vision of all those crazy people parading in front of the reliquary nauseated me to such an extent that I lost whatever desire I might have had to communicate with them and make a video.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Fresh macadam

My most marvelous olfactive memory of all times was fresh bitumen: the smell of hot macadam laid upon the dirt cycling track at McKittrick Park in South Grafton when I was about 12 years old. In my adolescent imagination, this oval was a sacred stadium: the hallowed place where my Walker uncles, Johnny and Charlie, had once been track-cycling champions. [Click here to see an article including a photo of my uncles.] And the bitumen surface was the icing on this fabulous cake of sporting achievements that I had heard about from as far back as I could remember.

Last Tuesday, I was thrilled once again by the smell of fresh macadam when the Gamone road was extended up to the house of my neighbor Bob Morin. Meanwhile, my splendid wood shed, emptied of its contents and stripped of its tiles, has set out upon the same inexorable road to extinction as giant Dodo birds, Tasmanian Aborigines, old computers and French rugby hopes.

In fact, if the fellows laying down the macadam were so keen to start gouging out the earth alongside my wood shed, I now realize that it was primarily because the extra space acquired in this way made it easier for their giant trucks to move around the bend at the level of my house. But I don't regret the start of operations, because I'm now obliged to finish the demolition of the wood shed, organize the completion of the earth removal and start planning the construction of a garage of kinds. I work most efficiently of all, in the practical domain, when I'm forced by circumstances to do things.

Meanwhile, Sophia seems to like the new road, for the macadam is gentler than stones on her soft paws. The Gamone road, for my dog, is henceforth a Le Mans speedway... particularly when she's heading downhill.

Bob, too, is immensely happy with the new road, which makes it possible, for the first time in ages, to drive an ordinary automobile up to his house. This probably means that he'll soon be putting his property up for sale.

Three males, two females

I like this peaceful pastel photo, taken yesterday, of the three Gamone males: Gavroche, Moshé and Mandrin.

The following photo of two females in the snow, Gamone and her mother Sophia, reached me mysteriously this morning by email:

It was accompanied by a complicated graphic explanation informing me that "a friend" had taken this photo on a portable phone and sent it to me. When I examined the phone number of the sender, I found with astonishment that it was... me! True enough, almost two years ago, after acquiring my Nokia portable, I took a photo of the dogs and tried to send it to one of my websites. The procedure was so awkward and uncertain that I was never tempted to take another photo on the portable phone. As I've often said, I'm an addicted computer user, oriented Apple, but I've never been on the same wavelength as portable phones. [In other words, I'm a perfect future customer for the Apple iPhone, as soon as it reaches France.] In any case, for unknown reasons, the photo of the dogs took nearly two years to reach me. No problem. As everybody knows, dogs are timeless. Fortunately, like God, they're eternal.

Talking of eternal dogs, look at this fabulous photo, sent to me yesterday by Christine, of her lovely Gamone lounging in a fireplace:

What warm and peaceful harmony: an ideal image of a hot dog!