Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mind the gap!

Readers who haven't had the privilege of being jolted around in the London underground train system will need to know that the gap in question lies between the doors of carriages and the edge of the platform. Its width varies from one platform to another, even from one part of a platform to another. And passengers who forget to "mind" this abyss stand the risk of falling into the depths of subterranean London, and maybe breaking an arm or a leg. So, that's why the transport authorities hired a woman named Emma Clarke whose delightful voice floats out constantly, from one end of the underground network to the other, warning passengers of this danger. She also chatters on nonstop about all kinds of trivial things, as if traffic would grind to a halt were it not for all this verbiage. Emma Clarke tells you, for example, that you must stand on the right-hand side [if I remember correctly] of escalators. She informs you that volunteers are collecting money for such-and-such a worthy charity, just as she lets you know that pickpockets have been sighted in such-and-such a zone.

Personally, accustomed to the quiet and smooth métro in Paris, I'm horrified by the noisy London underground. Besides, their stylized maps are far removed from geographical reality, the color-based signs associated with the various lines are meaningless for newcomers, and the basic system for designating itineraries—using directional adjectives such as northbound and southbound—is poorly conceived. In other words, I look upon the London underground as an uncomfortable mess... almost as antiquated and unpleasant as Sydney's trains.

But let me return to Emma Clarke. Having attained celebrity status, she started her own elegant website, with all kinds of unexpected goodies:

Now everything would have been fine, and Emma Clarke would have continued to expand into a bigger and more sophisticated media business if only she had remained a serious young lady, respectful of her employer and her audience. Alas, Emma started to crack jokes on her website. For example, she made a fake public announcement to inform US tourists that they're talking too loudly. And other cheeky things. Well, London Transport doesn't seem to share Emma's sense of humor. In any case, they've just fired her.

Having reached this point in my presentation of the wonders and woes of Emma Clarke, I hasten to add that there might not be a word of truth in all that I've just been saying. Maybe the charming voice of the alleged female is the synthetic audio output of a robot. Her existence could well be a gigantic hoax conceived by smart marketing people and computer experts at London Transport, with the aim of smoothing the edges of their rough network by introducing an imaginary feminine touch. Be that as it may, I'm obliged to point out that my disparaging remarks about the London underground were, of course, totally false. Just ask a typical Londoner and he'll tell you that their trains are the finest service in the universe... even better than Sydney's fabulous system.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Republican thinking

A few months ago, in my articles entitled Land of law? [display] and Indian doctor and Aussie patient [display], I evoked the case of a 28-year-old Indian physician working in Australia, Mohamed Haneef, who was looked upon momentarily, in an unfounded manner, as a possible accomplice of terrorists who had been operating in the UK. Here's a family photo of Haneef and his wife on a Queensland beach, before the affair blew up:

Many observers felt that, in the context of this affair, the behavior of certain Australian authorities was faulty. The outgoing minister of Immigration, Kevin Andrews, spearheaded guilty charges against Haneef in a stubborn style that did not even accord the foreign physician the benefit of the doubt. For the moment, although Haneef is no longer considered as a possible terrorist, the aftermath of the affair is still in the Australian law courts, and Haneef is still in India. But, since the downfall of John Howard and his cronies a few days ago, people are already evoking the idea that there should be a major inquiry, as soon as possible, into what went wrong in this fiasco.

In Australia, the time-honored independent inquiry procedure for dealing with an exceptional affair of this kind is referred to as a Royal Commission. This antiquated expression—in a context where few entities of a "royal" kind still exist—underlines the fact that it is the highest possible tribunal that exists in the land.

In the French Republic, an administrative controversy such as the Haneef affair would be dealt with in a perfectly everyday manner by a permanent tribunal: the Conseil d'Etat [state council], whose modern republican form has existed for over two centuries. The following painting shows the swearing-in ceremony in 1799:

Talking of republican institutions, I was intrigued to see that this theme didn't come up explicitly during the recent elections in Australia.

The ARM [Australian Republican Movement] still exists, of course, but it would appear to be hibernating a little for the moment, no doubt waiting for the electoral smoke to clear. In fact, with Kevin Rudd as the new prime minister, and Malcolm Turnbull as a senior member of the future opposition, the time will soon be ripe, no doubt, to start talking intensely once again about the exciting idea of republicanism in Australia. Do we really need to procrastinate endlessly, while awaiting the reign of a King Charles or a King William? What the hell does the identity of the current reigning Windsor have to do with Australia's potential future as a great southern republic?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

World's greatest video publicity library

Ever since first arriving in France, 45 years ago, I've appreciated the overall excellence of French publicity. A highly visible symbol of movie publicity—handled by the firm of Jean Mineur [1902-1985]—was the little fellow who hurled a whirling sickle at a bull's-eye target. French cinema audiences grew up with this cunning midget.

Another constant presence was the creative work of Raymond Savignac [1907-2002], whose colorful posters appeared everywhere in France, on walls, billboards and in the Parisian underground stations. He became famous overnight through his pink Normandy cow that produced milk-based soap:

In an international context, it might be said: Show me your publicity, and I'll tell you what kind of a society you are. It's a fact that US publicity often smells like the fresh ink and crisp paper of new banknotes, and sounds like the ring of an old-fashioned cash register. British publicity invariably exploits quaint caricatural characters with strange accents. Australian publicity often looks homemade, like a cart that Dad has assembled for his kids. Scandinavian publicity can be stark, like a TV reality show. As for French publicity, it often appears to be the work of would-be cineasts who are obliged to earn their living (richly) lauding products such as perfume, yoghurt and automobiles for the simple reason that nobody has ever invited them (yet) to create feature-length art films.

For 18 years, up until 2005, the phenomenon of publicity throughout the world was examined in depth in an interesting weekly TV program called Culture Pub, which became a cult program among publicity aficionados. Yesterday, Culture Pub reappeared as a website:

Its collection of thousands of online publicity videos—including over 60 Australian specimens [display]—is presented as the biggest library of this kind in the world.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Red can be wrong

Everybody recalls the simple reassuring words of the 23rd Psalm of David, which I prefer in the old-fashioned language of the King James version:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths
of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.


We have here a striking case of the celebrated ovine metaphor, which was later enhanced by the evangelist John.

The fundamentally awkward nature of the assimilation of Christians to lambs struck me dramatically when I settled down here in Gamone with a small flock of sheep, and started to participate regularly in the slaughter of lambs. Since then, whenever I run up against the Biblical shepherd metaphor, I'm reminded immediately of bloody and smelly sheep operations at Gamone. I think, for example, of the day I used my self-defense revolver to send a rubber marble through the skull of a young animal, which was an alternative to seeing it stunned mortally by the usual technique of a hammer blow delivered by the butcher. I think of all the plastic bags full of dirty fleeces, hoofs and guts that I've dragged down the slopes to burn. I think too of stacking dozens of packs of prime lamb in my freezer, followed by memories of countless excellent dinners at Gamone. Needless to say, these recollections have altered considerably, for me, the poetic charm of the ancient texts.

The words of the 23rd Psalm have even given rise to a popular song, which I heard hundreds of times on the radio during my childhood. Since then, I've often wondered why most people—at least in the English-speaking world—retain the number 23 associated with this poetic text. This number 23 reappeared later in my life, in Paris. For many years, I lived in a flat at 23 rue Rambuteau.

The surname of this 65-year-old ecclesiastic, André Vingt-Trois, means 23 in French. Apparently the identity of one of his paternal ancestors was unknown, so the authorities referred to him by a number, like a soldier or a prisoner. And that number became a surname. As a youth, André studied at the Henri IV lycée: the same school where I taught English for three years, back at the time I met up with Christine. In 1968, when Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his comrades were mounting the barricades in the Latin Quarter, André Vingt-Trois was studying for the priesthood at the seminary down in Issy-les-Moulineaux: the south-western suburb of Paris where I would be working, a few years later, as a scientific consultant for the research division of French Telecom. After his ordination in 1969, Vingt-Trois remained in Paris for three decades, before a stint as archbishop of the city of Tours, on the banks of the Loire. Today he's back in Paris as the archbishop of Paris. And last weekend, the pope made him a cardinal: that's to say, one of the major princes of the Roman Catholic church.

Unfortunately, this man has decided to intervene in a domain in which he knows no more, a priori, than the local grocer... if only there were still grocers in the parish of Notre-Dame de Paris: the use of human stem cells for medical research. Parading as a specialist in the fuzzy field referred to as bioethics, "Monsignor 23" has dared to denigrate France's great annual fund-raising event, coming up shortly: the Téléthon.

Now, if there's one thing I hate, it's narrow-minded religious fanatics who step outside their intellectual prison called Beliefs and Faith with the aim of attacking Reason and Science. The cardinal's obstruction of future medical research might well have been a tragedy. In fact, it's likely to be seen rather as a tragicomedy, for the silly man doesn't seem to have done his homework.

Two days before Vingt-Trois was awarded his red hat, international media announced that Dr Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University had taken less than a month to coax a banal cell from a woman's cheek into behaving as if it were an authentic embryonic stem cell. That's to say, this "doctored" cell was henceforth capable of developing into any of the 200 or so basic types of human cell. Consequently, medical researchers will be able to exploit such cells with no risk of being accused—by Vingt-Trois and his kind—of destroying human embryos. Cells of this kind [seen in the blue photo, above, from Kyoto] can be described as reprogrammed. To indicate that they can be made to evolve into any type of human cell, they are designated as pluripotent.

At practically the same moment that the Japanese researcher announced this extraordinary and exciting news, an American biologist named James Thomson, at the University of Wisconsin, revealed that his team had obtained similar results.

In the revolutionary fervor of May 1968, it's a pity that "Danny the Red" didn't think of trying to get the seminary at Issy-les-Moulineaux transformed into a scientific research institute...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Dancing into the light

The choreographer Maurice Béjart, who died in Lausanne last Thursday at the age of eighty, was the son of a celebrated philosopher, Gaston Berger [1896-1960], inventor of an early form of futurology [forecasting the future] known in French as prospective. When asked to describe the circumstances in which he became a choreographer, Béjart often referred to his fascination for the musique concrète conceived and composed by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. One of Béjart's most fabulous ballet creations was based upon the haunting rhythm of Boléro by Maurice Ravel [1875-1937], in which a solo dancer—either male or female—moves like a great graceful bird upon a raised red circular platform, surrounded by a small group of companion dancers. An outstanding performance of this work starred the great Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who was a couple of years older than Béjart. This precious Internet video is in two parts:



 Béjart was inspired by the pioneer Russian dancer and choreographer Serge Lifar [1905-1986], who started his career in the troupe of Serge de Diaghilev. A long time ago, back in Paris, Albert Richard [founder of La Revue musicale, in which I had done some writing] once invited Christine and me to a dinner evening with the aging Lifar, whom he had known for ages. My brief contacts with the exciting universe of contemporary music appear to me, today, as quite ethereal, particularly since many of the individuals I encountered at that time—such as Iannis Xenakis [1922-2001], for example—are no longer alive. But I never imagine any of these artists and intellectuals as having moved into darkness. The earthly existence of Maurice Béjart, above all, was spent dancing into the light. The legendary light of the first day of Genesis.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Start of a new epoch

This victory of Labor and Ken Rudd will mean, above all, that Australia will get out of Iraq, and get around to tackling global warming. Meanwhile, as a journalist suggested, it would be nice if John Howard were to be granted a comfortable retirement job in England, where he could receive a title of nobility from the queen, and spend his time watching cricket.

Friday, November 23, 2007

New address

One of the reasons why I wanted to terminate my current Antipodes blog yesterday concerns a technical question. Up until now, my blog has been housed physically in a webspace that I obtained from the French ISP [Internet service provider] named Free. And the address of the blog has been

http://missionman.free.fr/myblog.html

Since I wasn't happy with this solution [for various technical reasons], I decided that I would adopt a better approach offered by Google, which consists of using their so-called Blogspot webspace. But, in making this change, resulting in a completely new address for the future blog, I imagined vaguely that the old blog might cease to exist. So, I acted in yesterday's article as if the existing Antipodes blog were being terminated. Now, the address of the new blog is

http://skyvington.blogspot.com

That's all I can say for the moment, since this is my very first article in the new webspace, and I still have no idea whether the articles I've written over the last year will remain accessible or not.

PS Since writing that last paragraph, I've found reassuring positive answers to all my doubts. I discover retrospectively that there was no need for me to talk yesterday about terminating the old Antipodes blog. Apparently the change to the new webspace has worked seamlessly, and I've even been able to insert the new address into the top of the Antipodes curtain article as it's displayed in the old webspace. So, normally, my existing readers should be able to find their way to the new address. Thanks Google!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Antipodes curtain

Today's a funny anniversary. Christine and I were divorced exactly thirty years ago. From a numerical viewpoint, it's a striking date: 22-11-77. These numbers have always remained in my memory. Besides, I use them as a password on my attaché case.

I've been writing this Antipodes blog for exactly a year. Statistics: some 530 articles. That's a big collection of articles, of which I'm proud. But I'm not convinced that this blog has much sense, since it has remained a unilateral affair, giving rise to negligible explicit feedback. At the outset, I had imagined my Antipodes blog as an ideal communications vector with relatives and friends in my native Australia, but the truth of the matter is that not a single comment has ever emanated from this category of readers. Today, I'm aware that quite a few people would appear to be reading my blog every day, but I have no idea who they are, since they've never manifested themselves. So, we can't really speak of communication. And I think it's time to draw the curtain on this initial Antipodes affair.

If any future evolution in my plans were to occur, I would mention it here. Meanwhile, thanks for reading me...

Wily weather

A strong wind has been blowing at Gamone for several days, destroying a relatively young walnut tree and driving me mad.

Today, all has become quiet. Fourteen years ago, when I discovered my future home, I often used to tell people that it was a place where nothing could fall onto my head... meaning that Gamone was not located beneath precarious rocky slopes. True enough. But we can't escape from violent autumn winds, which can be no less harmful than falling rocks.

The windy weather at Gamone disturbs me because of its wily nature. One moment, all is calm, and I have the impression that the tempest has moved on. But the silence is eery. A few seconds later, the woods on the other side of Gamone Creek start murmuring, then hurling, as they capture the wind. And bedlam is soon resuscitated.

The sun heats you up. Winter chills you. We know we'll get wet by standing in the rain, or frozen by sleeping in the snow. We pay attention, take ordinary precautions... and nobody gets hurt. The problem with the wind is that we never know how it's going to behave. It's wily weather, not to be trusted. I've always hated the wind.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fortified mailbox

My humble metallic mailbox at Gamone is now surrounded by so many boulders that visitors might imagine that I'm trying to fortify it against invaders. Initially, that was almost true. I had installed the mailbox—solidly, in a hidden concrete base—in an ideal position for the postwoman, enabling her to deliver mail without getting out of her little yellow automobile. Then I discovered that trucks stopping at Gamone often failed, on the way out, to see my mailbox in their rear-vision mirror. To let their tires know that there was an object to be avoided, I piled up a few rocks around the mailbox. Since then, with the help of the Holy Spirit (in charge of messages of all kinds, both heavenly and earthly), my mailbox has survived.

Today, the extra rocks have nothing to do with protecting my mailbox. It's merely a matter of having no better place to store the boulders resulting from my recent demolition of the old wood shed.

Talking about mailboxes, I've often wondered why my neighbor Bob, a hundred meters up the Gamone road, doesn't have one. At first, when there was no macadam from my place up to his, it was normal that the postwoman should leave Bob's mail at my place. That system has been in place now for several years. But, as of a couple of months ago [when my South Grafton friends Andrew and Ingrid Pollack dropped in on me, during their rugby excursion to France], a fine macadam road has existed from my place up to Bob's. And I've even offered him a fine secondhand mailbox that comes from Christine's place in Brittany. But Bob wants to carry on living without a personal mailbox, preferring to rely on me to carry on receiving his mail in my big fortified mailbox. Funny, no?

Not really. In France, having a personal mailbox is akin to having your name listed publicly in the phone directory. For silly reasons, back at the time when automobiles had to turn in my front yard before continuing up along the narrow dirt track at Gamone, Bob and I often had disputes. Fortunately, we've now got onto the same wavelength, and we chat together for hours on end like old friends. Bob has told me at length about his ongoing conflict with a nasty guy named Stéphane who once considered himself as a would-be "young agricultural worker", with a right to purchase the land that Bob was acquiring. It so happened that I, too, had run up against this Stéphane fellow a few years ago, shortly before Bob appeared on the scene. He had the audacity to inform me that, since I was a middle-aged neo-ruralist with no intentions of using my ten acres of sloping pastures for agricultural purposes, then I should envisage the idea of inviting him to use my land. I told Stéphane promptly, in unequivocal terms, to fuck off, and I threatened this outrageous idiot in such an outspoken manner that he backed off... which resulted surprisingly in the situation of our finally becoming, not friends, but quiet-spoken mates. So, this fuckwit Stéphane turned his attention to attacking Bob, who had just decided to acquire a property at Gamone. These days, when Stéphane's legal advisors wish to annoy Bob, they would like to find a mailbox in which to deposit their futile complaints. But Bob has no mailbox.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Voting for the first time

From a democratic viewpoint, I've never expressed my political opinions officially, neither in my native Australia nor in France, since I've never been called upon to vote. During my relatively short periods of residency in Australia, there were never any elections on the horizon. And in France, of course, foreign residents cannot vote. This morning, at last, I got around to voting for the first time in life. That's to say, I posted my ballot papers to Australia for next Saturday's federal election. In the Sydney electorate of Kingsford Smith where I'm enrolled, I was able to vote for an unusual guy: 54-year-old Peter Garrett, a former singer in the Australian rock group Midnight Oil, who has been handling environmental questions for Opposition chief Kevin Rudd.

To be truthful, I've never been impassioned by the political concept of voting, although I can't imagine any preferable method for choosing leaders. In the case of Australian elections, in particular, I have little personal enthusiasm to vote, because I've always been dismayed by the Australian political scene, particularly during the dull Howard epoch. However, in the context of my visit to Australia last year, I thought it wise to enroll myself as a voter. From that point on, once your name is on the lists, voting is theoretically compulsory. Let's be positive. Maybe, after next Saturday's election, things will pick up and I'll start to become interested in Australian politics.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Robotic phone message

Readers who've seen Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey will recall that the AI [artificial intelligence] creature named Hal—who looked physically like a red lamp on a firetruck—often took the initiative of speaking to the human crewman Dave.

This afternoon, I feel a little like Dave, in that I've just succeeded in coaxing the Google Android telephone to send me this text message asking if everything's OK at Gamone:

It's a small step for telephony, but a giant step for my mastery of the Google Android SDK [software development kit] and the Java programming language. What you must understand is that this telephone doesn't exist yet in flesh and blood [if I can be allowed to speak that way about a future cellphone]. So, the phone call in question was actually emulated on my MacBook, on a virtual cellphone. But that's neither here nor there, for anything that works correctly in an emulated software environment should be perfectly operational when it's transposed onto a real piece of electronic equipment.

In my article entitled iPhoney gadget, a couple of months ago [display], I illustrated the possibility of using a software gadget to see what such-and-such a website would looked like when displayed on an iPhone. In the case of my Google Android phone demo, the big difference is that the virtual phone is not merely displaying something I created on the web, but actually behaving in accordance with my precise programmed instructions. In a Kubrick setting, you might say that, not only did I receive a message from Hal, but I actually programmed Hal to send me this message.

Skeptics might be tempted to ask: "How do we know that William really programmed a virtual Google Android cellphone to display this message? Maybe he simply used Photoshop to paste this line of text into an existing image." That's a problem with emulation. I can't really prove that what I show you is authentic. But I cross my heart that I'm not cheating. On the other hand, I must admit that this demo is basically an elementary tutorial thing supplied with the Google Android documentation. But I'm thrilled to find that I could get it to work. Now I'll be able to start work on my real cellphone software project, which will be a much bigger thing...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Qantas bull

Most news websites are now polluted with ads. I'm often annoyed, when concentrating upon an interesting article, to find a totally irrelevant publicity video flashing in a corner of my screen. In such situations, I usually resize the window so that the ad noise is no longer visible. Well, this morning, while reading the Australian press, my eyes were attracted by the image of the forehead of a curious grey beast, branded with an expression that meant nothing to me: earth+.

Behind the grey head, the whitish background seemed to be a sloping snow field. Was the animal a yak? Maybe a cloned mammoth? Then I saw the textual part of the ad:

Everything fell into place. It was a nice friendly grey-haired bull. What I had mistaken for trees on a sloping snow field was simply the animal's right horn. And I was watching Australia's national airline doing its best to maintain the regular statistics concerning drunken Aussies getting gored in Pamplona. But I remained intrigued by the image of the Qantas bull, which just didn't seem right. I wondered where on earth+ the ad agency had photographed this grey-haired animal. Maybe it was a retired senior Spanish bull purchased specially by the ad agency for its photos. It's more likely, though, that this bovine photo presents a young Australian breed of beef cattle (maybe a harmless steer or a cow) and that the ad shows only a small area around the animal's eyes for the simple reason that a larger view would reveal instantly that the beast in the photo has no connections whatsoever with bull running in Pamplona. In other words, they're trying to pull the bull over our eyes.

Here's an image of an authentic black Pamplona bull about to gore a fellow who might well be a Qantas earth+ tourist:

I'm wondering whether earth+ aims to attract Irwin-inspired Aussie animal-lovers who might be enticed by the idea of hopping across to Spain next July to watch a nice presentation of friendly grey-haired bulls skipping through the picturesque streets of this balmy town. I can imagine a future Qantas ad in which Bindi is feeding popcorn to the charming beasts of Pamplona, with a choir of angels in the background singing Still call Australia home. [To rediscover a celebrated specimen of Qantas publicity work, click here to see my article of 18 February 2007 entitled Watch out for life!]

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Kevin Rudd... for Australia

In a few days, this serious young guy named Kevin Rudd could well become the next prime minister of Australia. I think he will. The polls say he'll succeed. I hope he gets elected.

Personally, I'm fed up with the obsolete Bush lapdog John Howard, who condoned stupidity, lies and torture. Howard has run out of steam, run out of talk, run out of appeal, run out of ideas, run out of projects for the future. Kevin Rudd is surely the next link in Australia.

Father and daughter find work

Hard times. In France, as elsewhere, the employment situation can be grim. Today, we were reassured to learn that a famous Frenchman and his daughter have both taken on new jobs. But the individuals in question have never really been—as it were—on the breadline.

In virtue of his status as an ex-president of France, Jacques Chirac has become automatically an operational member of a prestigious top-level body called the Constitutional Council, whose role consists—as its name indicates—of making sure that newly-voted laws respect scrupulously the French constitution. Rarely has the Council's verdict been awaited with as much impatience as today, because the wise and august members [including another ex-president: Valéry Giscard d'Estaing] were called upon to examine a novel law of a controversial high-tech nature which enables DNA testing to be used as a possible yardstick for determing whether a particular non-French individual can be considered as an authentic genetic member of such and such an existing French family. Not surprisingly, many French citizens were shocked by the idea that genetic science might encroach upon human questions of that nature. Be that as it may, the Council decreed today that all is well with this new law.

As for Claude Chirac, who used to handle public relations for her father, she has been offered a challenging role in charge of communications for the gigantic group named PPR run by François-Henri Pinault, which includes major French enterprises such as the Fnac, Conforama and La Redoute, along with luxury businesses such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga.

Claude's job would appear to be remote from the preoccupations of her mother, Bernadette Chirac, celebrated for her sponsorship of a French charity operation that consists of collecting small change in the form of pièces jaunes [brass coins]. The Chiracs are a closely-knit family whose ideals were forged in a context that incorporated above all the malady (nervous anorexia) of Claude's elder sister.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Suburban warehouse

In the suburban context of the small nearby city of Romans, what could be more ordinary than this tidy closed warehouse, painted in black? Maybe it's a shoe factory, representing the ancient fame of Romans. Does it house the production of some other kind of manufacturer? Is it simply the hangar of an industrial enterprise?

In fact, it's the headquarters of a French magician, Dani Lary, made famous through his appearances in the Saturday-evening TV shows of Patrick Sébastien.

[Click the image to visit the excellent website of Dani Lary.]

Stale moronic jokes about France

I often stumble upon sad and senseless Anglo-Saxon stuff in a dubious category that might be termed French jokes, which flourished recently when French president Jacques Chirac created a huge wave of anti-French sentiments by pointing out truthfully [as events prove] that US president George W Bush was acting unwisely in attacking Iraq. The nastiest specimens of this silly would-be humor revert inevitably to a couple of widespread urban legends: first, the notion that France might have opted out dishonorably (surrendered) in the face of Hitler; and second, the allegation that the French, today, might not honor fully the role of Anglo-Saxon soldiers who gave their lives in the Battle of Normandy in June 1944. These two accusations are groundless. Facts, rather than would-be jokes, are necessary in this domain.

Countless books, videos and websites recount admirably the stark facts of this epoch, which were often complex... concerning particularly the relationships between Churchill, Eisenhower and de Gaulle. In any case, there is no longer any room for deliberate ambiguity; no longer any place for moronic "French jokes".

Apple and the others

Apple's latest publicity in the personal computing domain, directed aggressively against Microsoft's Vista system, is a little like firing upon an ambulance... but few of us Mac enthusiasts feel sorry for Bill Gates and his failing universe.

In the iPhone domain, Apple's ads have been delightfully naive, invoking nice reassuring individuals such as an airline pilot equipped with his ever-present friendly iPhone.

This kind of publicity can be easily spoofed. I love this specimen about a friendly guy whose favorite pastime is punching cops and then running like hell. In a memorable line that deserves to go down in cellphone ad history, he explains: "Finding an escape route after a random act of violence can be tricky." Thankfully, he owns an iPhone!

In a neighboring domain, Google has just announced its much-awaited Android system, with $10 million of prize money offered to ingenious software developers. I'm going to try to jump onto this bandwagon, in ways that I'm already indicating to interested friends.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Lollies

Just as few people apart from me—born beyond Waterview, South Grafton—can know that a chook is a chicken, or that a poop is a smelly human shit in all its round brown glory (akin to Dorothea McKellar's My Country), I don't expect many readers to understand that a lolly is a piece of candy. So what the hell! I've never imagined for an instant that colloquial Aussie English of the kind I encountered during my childhood contained any elements that might have justified its preservation. It was empty parlance, detached from its origins. Even within the microcosm composed of my English-Protestant-oriented father and my Irish-Catholic-oriented mother, there was a nasty daily opposition concerning the way in which one might pronounce such a fundamental word as "bread". Dad said bred, in a curt clear-cut monosyllabic fashion, whereas Mum liked to drag out this word as brea-eud... as if the extra effort in the pronunciation represented a final essential stage in the baking. Can you imagine it? Parents who disagree upon how to pronounce the word bread? How could they possibly agree upon anything else in the universe? They didn't...

Today, like an ugly old man trying to entice little girls, John Howard is offering lollies to potential voters. It's perfectly normal. Some 8.5 billion dollars worth of candy. The style of Aussie politics disgusts me. Dirty old men flashing their overcoats on the edge of the school playground. Exhibiting their lollies.

Harmony and its absence

I often tend to drop the term "harmony" into my everyday conversation, to explain my choice of behavior, or my preference for a particular approach or solution to such and such a problem. Whenever I do so, I'm aware that I'm cheating, that I'm acting—as they say in French—"in bad faith", because the musical metaphor of harmony is so fuzzy, when transposed into non-musical domains, that it's akin to declaring that one is guided, like Joan of Arc, by mysterious voices from afar.

The context is a tiny bit clearer when I speak of the absence of harmony, because most of us can detect the presence of discord, dissonance, cacophony and clamor. But, even at that level, I'm still cheating when I decry disharmony in a superficial fashion, because I was profoundly attached for years to the celebrated musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer [1910-1995]. Indeed, my brilliant mentor would be perfectly justified in zapping me instantly into oblivion with a terrible electronic crescendo from the heavens—like the voice of the Castafiore shattering a crystal glass—if ever he were to hear through the divine grapevine that his old disciple Skyvington had been advocating, even for an instant, the blessings of harmony!

Normally I don't appreciate complicated and pretentious ways of saying simple things. For example, the expression "mind-set" [meaning a certain way of looking at things] horrifies me, because it represents what the French designate, colorfully, as trying to emit gas from a level above that of your anus. Likewise, using the expression "sea-change" [meaning a major change of address] is ridiculous unless you really happen to be diving into the upside-down world of Shakespeare's Tempest. When I hear a suburban housewife in Australia explaining that "My husband's mind-set imposed a sea-change"—meaning that the family had decided, for multifarious reasons, to move to another town—I end up wondering whether there's any hope for the English linguistic culture.

Having said this, I must admit that there's a silly trendy formula that I love, which I would have been proud to invent: cognitive dissonance. If you look up this delightful expression in Wikipedia [display], you'll find references to a book, half a century old, entitled When Prophecy Fails. The author, Leon Festinger, apparently tackled the case of a flying-saucers cult that believed the end of the world at hand. It might be imagined normally that crazy folk, observing that their crazy predictions don't materialize, would revise their crazy beliefs, and turn to less-crazy expectations. According to Festinger's cognitive dissonance thesis, this is not the case. In a nutshell (pun intended: nut shell), crazy folk often tend to solve their cognitive problems [a euphemism for crass ignorance: an incapacity to get around to understanding what's happening in the world] by deciding consciously to plunge even more deeply into the abysms of stupidity. They make plans to stage the Olympic Games of Ignorance.

I've detected traces of cognitive dissonance in my contacts with the Australian lady who owns an unsigned/unfinished ceramic plaque with a portrait of Queen Victoria [display]. Sheridan has remained convinced that a female ancestor was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Victoria, and that the portrait in question was one of a series of gifts from the queen. I've gone to extraordinary lengths in revealing that Sheridan's Heath ancestors were no doubt related to the great London dynasty of Heath artists [engravers, miniature portraitists and experimenters] who worked in the shadow of British royalty, and that the bridesmaids legend is rubbish. Family beliefs, however, are stronger than research. In the face of cognitive dissonance, little can be done. When humans decide to adopt false beliefs, all contrary evidence can be construed to suggest that black is white, that two and two add up to five, or anything other than four!

Humanity is a fascinating case study. We're not basically scientists, but rather swindlers! Opposed to facts, fantasy is infinitely more exciting. In the cognitive domain, listeners know that dissonance can be Mozart!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sydney

When I was in central Sydney for a few weeks last year, I was fascinated by the opportunity of walking around in circles for hours and hours, trying to get a feel for the city, and examining the ways in which it had evolved since the '50s and '60s. Inevitably, too, I was constantly tempted to compare the Australian metropolis with the great European city in which I had lived, on and off, for three decades: Paris.

My initial impression of Sydney was a sensation of great physical fatigue, induced by the endless lines of people walking rapidly from X to Y, and from Y to X... where X and Y are entities that mathematicians would refer to as unknowns. After a few days of observation, I ended up imagining that X and Y are probably, basically, train stations and office buildings... but we might need to throw in a Z that designates eating establishments. In other words, the visible population of central Sydney would appear to be moving constantly between these three poles: trains, offices and places where they can eat and drink [which does not appear to mean pubs in the English sense, or restaurants in the French sense].

One thing is certain. Nobody in Sydney simply strolls. Either you're going somewhere, in a determined fashion, or you're not going anywhere... which means that you're located somewhere in a stationary slot, in an essentially invisible state. And funnily enough, I never had the impression that many of the local lemmings were actively engaged in shopping.

In Paris, one often feels that half the population is seated and relaxed, watching the other half of the population moving around, either working or giving the impression that they're working. In Australia in general, and in Sydney in particular, this notion of observing explicitly one's fellow citizens is unthinkable. It would be likened to voyeurism of a perverted kind. In public transport, for example, the general idea is that everybody burrows their head, ostrich-style, into a newspaper or a book. In the streets of central Sydney, it's the same thing. Each person barges stubbornly forwards towards his/her specific destination, eyes fixed on the road ahead, like a runner in a marathon. For a visitor, even the simple task of halting somebody to ask for directions is far from easy, for the outsider has the impression that nobody sees him, or wants to see him. Sydney pedestrians are a robotic race, a little like those TV bunnies that run on long-life batteries.

It's weird to discover the same dense and uniform style of robotic rat-race [I realize that I'm switching metaphorical animals at an alarming rate, and I haven't even got around to kangaroos yet] in the motor traffic on the major road arteries into and out of the city. There's no doubt about the fact that Sydneysiders are going somewhere... but the where and why are not clear.

Curiously, local journalists don't seem to be particularly lucid when called upon to describe their city. Here's a telling specimen, written by a female, in the Sydney Morning Herald: "Sydney is a trophy wife. Like her smug husband, we bask in the glory of association and smooth over the rough spots. Sydneysiders struggle with their glamorous, sparkling city." Really, this is twitter, which no doubt reveals less about Sydney than about the state of the woman who concocted these words, who is probably a "trophy wife" with a "smug husband". In any case, it's absurd to liken central Sydney, metaphorically, to a glamorous female. Sydney, in my eyes, secretes the same kind of unhealthy bird-like sexuality, based solely upon plumage, as a school mistress, an austere business secretary, a uniformed nurse or a policewoman. It's all about permissiveness, or rather the lack of it, and nothing to do with intrinsic sensuality, carefree eroticism or plain fun. In Paris, everybody knows that all kinds of human encounters, often of a sexual nature, come into existence more or less spontaneously within the rich and complex fabric of the city. In clockwork Sydney, this would be unthinkable.

The title of the female journalist's article was Welcome to the CBD: all arteries, no pulse. Borrowing her physiological metaphor, I would say that central Sydney is basically one of the least horny hangouts I've ever encountered.

November 11

The initial November 11 was in 1918, when the Armistice was signed on a cold wet day [like today at Gamone] in a railway carriage at Rethondes in the forest of Compiègne, to the north-east of Paris. Towards the end of that afternoon, in the Chamber of Deputies, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau read out the terms of Germany's surrender. The citizens of Paris started to dance in the streets, while watching a parade of captured cannons.

During more than four years of warfare, 1.4 million French soldiers had died, and 600 thousand had been wounded.

At the start of 1916, troops from the other side of the planet had moved to France to take part in the combats.

Referred to globally as the Anzac [Australian and New Zealand Army Corps], they were immediately hurled into the hell of the Somme. By the time the Armistice had been signed, 60 thousand Anzac troops had died on the combined fronts of the so-called Great War. Today, an Australian memorial is located at Villers-Bretonneux, up in Picardy, just to the east of Amiens.

While driving around in my Citroën this morning [looking in vain for a pharmacy, to obtain medicine for a severe cold], I discovered that commemoration services were taking place around the cenotaph of every town and village on my route.

I wish to conclude this evocation of the terrible events of 1914-1918 with this photo of a young Anzac soldier named Francis Pickering who succeeded in returning home safely to the family cattle station at Breeza in New South Wales:

As I've already explained on several occasions, this Pickering lad was the family hero whose nickname "King" (reflecting his prowess in various domains, including sport) was given as an official Christian name, in a spurt of zeal, to my father, born in 1917... who was embarrassed throughout his entire life by this silly regal name. Fortunately, the nurses in the maternity clinic at Rockhampton (Queensland) had a sense of humor, and they associated the new baby with a local Aboriginal celebrity known as King Billy. So, my father ended up being referred to by this nickname, soon shortened to Bill.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Approaching weather seen from a distance

Not long ago, this was the splendid vision from my bedroom window:

This afternoon, the situation at the far end of the Bourne Valley [also known as the Cirque de Choranche] was somewhat different:

The furthest slopes, covered in pine trees, are only 8 kilometers to the east of Gamone, and one has the impression that they're at more or less the same level as my house. But they rise, in fact, to over 1,000 meters, whereas the altitude here at Gamone is only about 350 m. Consequently, it can be snowing at the far end of the valley at the same time that my house is bathed in sunshine. Often, for me, the conditions observed from my bedroom window are a little like watching tomorrow's weather prognostics on TV. So, there's a fair chance that a bit of snow might be falling here in the next day or so. In any case, the temperatures have dropped considerably over the last few days, and I keep a log fire burning constantly in my living room.

Fortunately, there's some excellent TV these days, including a lavish four-part production of Tolstoy's War and Peace [budget of 28 million euros, 15,000 extras, 1,800 stunts, 1,500 horses, 105 shooting locations, 2,400 costumes, etc], a rerun of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon [trailer] and a couple of fine documentaries on the epoch of Charles de Gaulle. This evening, while toasting my feet, I'm looking forward to watching a recent French documentary about a great kitsch tenor whom I used to hear on the radio when I was a kid in South Grafton: Mario Lanza. Tears of nostalgia guaranteed!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Magic port of Sydney

I've only left Sydney once aboard an ocean liner, the Bretagne, which sailed from the Pyrmont terminal (now amalgamated into the modernized quarter of Darling Harbour) in the early hours of the first morning of January 1962. Everything about that departure was magic, and remains legendary, indeed mythical, in my memory today. In the context of that departure, there were several signs of imminent events that would shape my life. However, as a naive 21-year-old country lad [whose only significant achievement was three or four years of serious professional experience as a computer programmer with IBM], it was unthinkable that I might have recognized any of these positive omens in the port of Sydney on that final evening of 1961.

The vessel itself had been built a decade earlier for a French company named SGTM based in Marseille. [In the name, Société générale de Transports maritimes, notice the amusing spelling fault: the first r in Transports has been omitted.] Besides, the Bretagne had an almost identical sister ship named the Provence. The Greek company Chandris had purchased and refitted the Bretagne a few months before I sailed from Sydney. This Greek ownership meant that, towards the end of the voyage, we were offered a splendid encounter with Athens. Little did I know that, within a couple of years, I myself would be employed as a sailor and helmsman on a Greek ship, the Persian Cyrus, which stopped for a memorable day or so in the great French port of Marseille. I could not have imagined, either, that I would soon be falling in love with, and marrying, a girl from the French province named Bretagne.

Here's a postcard of the Bretagne under French colors:

Under Greek colors, as I knew her, the vessel was painted white:

Shortly after my trip aboard the Bretagne, the Greeks decided to anglicize her name to Brittany. This must have been an ill omen, for the ship was burnt out in April 1963 at its home port of Piraeus.

I've often thought that stepping aboard a great ship and sailing to foreign lands is one of the greatest experiences I can imagine. Today, I was interested to see that a newly refitted liner, the Pacific Dawn, has just been launched from Sydney.

She's viewed here from the Opera House corner of Circular Quay:

As a child, when I was anguished by dark thoughts of death and the futility of our existence, I often forced myself to conjure up in my imagination the image of a giant ship plowing through the seas, to restore me instantly to a peaceful state of mind. Even today, I still ignore the origins or profound sense of this tactic, not to mention the reasons why it generally worked.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Neurons

In memoriam: Christian L

For the last couple of years, I've been participating as a guinea pig in a project conducted by the French medical-research organization named Inserm [Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale] aimed at determining whether a regular supplement of folates and omega-3 might have a positive effect upon the incidence of vascular accidents. In concrete terms, this means that I consume a couple of big tablets every morning... without knowing whether they might contain folates, omega-3 or simply placebo junk. Then, once a year, at the hospital in nearby Romans, I meet up with a Parisian nurse who tests me in one way or another for half an hour. Besides taking a blood specimen, she has a nice little test for seeing whether or not I might be developing advanced signs of something terrible like Alzheimer's disease. The test consists of asking me to name, say, every kind of animal (or country or color, etc) that springs into my mind in the space of thirty or so seconds. Now, to be quite honest, this kind of test scares shit out me... for the simple reason that it never fails to evoke the most nightmarish situation that I can possibly imagine. I'm referring to the idea that I might wake up one day and find that, for one reason or another, I no longer possess the most fabulous but fragile baggage that I've been acquiring over the last half a century: my mastery of French. I would like to imagine that my acquaintance with the language of Molière has infiltrated my brain to such an extent that my neurons now reek of it, as if they were eggs left to rot in a charming old French hen house, alongside a pig pen.

I imagine my brain, when I'm optimistic, as an aging Camembert cheese abandoned in one of those primitive fly-proof containers that we used to call safes back in Waterview, South Grafton, NSW, Australia. In the best of cases, if I wished to appear modern, in a technological spirit, my cerebral apparatus might be likened to the motor of an aging automobile, which seems to be branded Citroën, but which might well have been assembled imperfectly out in Australia. My soul is surely impregnated with the image of Notre-Dame de Paris, in the same way that the Shroud of Turin seems to convey a shadow of Christ... but I fear that my spiritual photo might simply be that of the humble redbrick church—referred to pompously as a "cathedral"—in my birthplace, Grafton.

In any case, I'm in no way opposed to the idea of exercising my brain.

"You are old, father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head —
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."

Links through images

Back on 25 March 2007, in an article entitled Half the local Aussie population is leaving! [display], I described the departure from the nearby village of Pont-en-Royans of an Australian expatriate friend named Sheridan Henty, who is a direct descendant of the celebrated Australian pioneers known as the Henty brothers. When I was in London last August, I went along to both Sotheby's and Bonhams to seek information concerning Sheridan's ceramic plaque with a portrait of the young Queen Victoria. Experts pointed out that my closeup photos of the object reveal that, for a miniature painting, it is rather crudely executed in certain places, as if the painter were not particularly skilled in this art form, or as if he had not in fact finished his painting job. This imperfect craftsmanship, combined with the fact that the portrait is unsigned, means that the commercial value of the plaque on the art market is next to nothing... which is a pity in the sense that it's a delightful portrait.

My attempts to discover the origins of this portrait caused me to look closely into the genealogy of Sheridan's Heath ancestors in England. One of her key ancestors was a wealthy shipping merchant, Miles Heath [1710-1777], who built a town house in the Strand, London, named Three Cocks Court. Sheridan has a plate bearing her ancestor's arms.

At the top, above a plate-armor helmet, a stubby round tower has erupted in flames. Inside the shield, there are three cocks. This ancient coat of arms originated in the context of a 16th-century Kentish ancestor named Henry Crow.

When carrying out genealogical research concerning a common name such as Heath, one encounters individuals who, at first sight, appear to lie outside the researcher's domain.

One such person was a baronet, Sir James Heath [1852-1942], of whom I know little. His bookplate [an image on paper, to be glued in books] appears to contain a few of the same elements as in the earlier coat of arms [except for the flames]. This makes me wonder whether James Heath might be a descendant, like Sheridan, of Miles Heath. In any case, this is a line of research I intend to pursue.

If such a link were to be established, this would make Sheridan a distant relative, through marriage, of a celebrated British dynasty that I've heard about ever since I was child: the Fitzroy family, whose chiefs have been for centuries the dukes of Grafton. Indeed, it was Sir Charles Fitzroy [1796-1858], governor of New South Wales, who in 1851 gave the name of his late grandfather, Augustus Henry Fitzroy [1735-1811], the 3rd Duke of Grafton and a former British prime minister, to the country town in New South Wales in which I would be born, nearly a century later.

In 1918, Hylda Madeleine Heath, the daughter of Sir James Heath, married Major Cecil Robert Bates [builder of the Cunard and White Star shipping lines], and their son, Sir Geoffrey Voltelin Bates, in 1957, married into the Fitzroy clan.

Whenever I phone up Sheridan to tell her such stuff, akin to family gossip, I get the impression that I bring a little sunshine into her life.