Sunday, August 31, 2008

Juicy publicity

Before this sexy ad was aired, few people were aware that all kinds of exotic creatures have a craving for orange-flavored soda water:

It makes you feel like saying: "Yes please, I would like to have some of the same stuff." Apparently, in Britain, this video was judged to be far too sensually explicit. In France, it didn't raise an eyebrow.

Childhood paradise

We all need a vision of Paradise, with a capital P, otherwise we would surely be tempted to step out of the rat race, in one way or another, politely if possible... like Amy Winehouse not turning up to sing in Paris. Return to sender, address unknown. Nobody's home...

Here's a fuzzy scene from one of my childhood visions of Paradise:

At the Mulligan's property at OBX Creek, among other things, I discovered a magic macadamia nut tree. There were three brothers in the vicinity: Athol, Stan and Norman. A small sawmill near the house had produced timber for the dinghy in the above photo, which had the sweet aroma of shellac. The brothers fiddled around with souped-up motor bikes that they raced on a dirt track at Bawden's Bridge over the Orara.

When I returned to Australia in 1967, with my wife and daughter, I was proud to cook dinner for everybody, in my parents' house at Southampton Road in South Grafton. I chose chicken. Athol Mulligan, observing the dish, said: "Billy, your chicken looks like it's been run over by a steamroller." And everybody christened my dish, instantaneously, Continental Chook.

Here at Gamone, in the company of Sophia, I still serve up Continental Chook from time to time... and I've often dreamt that the Mulligans of OBX Creek might drop in magically, one evening, as guests.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Nightmare: Mrs Moose governs the globe!

Here's a terrifying thought experiment. Hypothesis: John McCain is elected president. Now imagine: In the exciting high-altitude post-electoral atmosphere, while screwing over-energetically his golden girl Cindy, the 72-year-old war hero ruptures some kind of bodily aeronautical valve, fails to manipulate correctly the bail-out device, and crashes in flames to his death. Oh my God! It's youthful Mrs Moose, 44-year-old Sarah Palin from Alaska, totally inexperienced in worldly affairs and primed with primitive religious beliefs, who would then take the reins of the most powerful nation of the planet...

Let's be optimistic. In selecting Simple Sarah as his presidential running-mate (she strikes me as the sort of earthy backwoods creature who knows both how to run and how to mate), John McCain has surely removed all barriers on Barack Obama's highway to Washington.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Professional bias

The expression "professional bias" designates a mental conditioning brought about by the particularities of one's job. A contrived example is that of a race-car driver, say, who overtakes dangerously when he's out driving in the family automobile with his wife and kids.

Long ago, I started to suspect the existence of professional bias due to computer programming. I recall seeing a case of this, for the first time, in the conversational behavior of a colleague in Paris. He would periodically abandon the current topic about which he had been speaking in order to explore such-and-such an aspect in detail. Then, at the end of his detailed exploration, he would return to what he had been saying earlier on. On such occasions, he would inform his listeners that he was implementing the familiar programming concept referred to as a stack. He would do this by pointing out explicitly the moment at which he was about to "push down" (hide momentarily) the initial topic, and then, later on, the moment at which the hidden topic was about to "pop up" (reappear) once again. Insofar as a stack can be composed of multiple levels, which might be exploited in an irregular order, it can quickly become tedious for a listener confronted with a conversationalist with this kind of professional bias.

I soon realized that I myself was afflicted with this professional bias, which happens to infuriate my ex-wife and our two children. I have an even worse affliction due to the same causes. Faced with an ordinary real-world challenge such as building a kitchen cupboard, say, I tend to consider that the task has been satisfactorily completed as soon as I've convinced myself that I know how to perform the task in question, rather than when the intended outcome of the project has indeed become a reality. I conceal this strange outlook, unwittingly, behind a verb that also infuriates my ex-wife and children. I speak of "mastering a situation", which is a synonym for knowing how to do something. Inversely, whenever I'm reprimanded because I haven't actually done something I should have done, I get upset by the suggestion that I might not "master the situation" in an ideal fashion. In my mind, the fact that the job has not in fact been performed yet is of lesser importance than my conviction that I know how to do it. These reactions are of course pure symptoms of professional bias due to excessive immersion in computer programming activities, where the only thing that counts is the existence of adequate algorithms for performing tasks, no matter whether or not the algorithms in question have actually been applied to solve specific problems, or carry out particular computational jobs. I would be a hopeless boss of a small company (or a big one, for that matter). When the employees complained that they hadn't received their pay checks, I would say: "What's all the fuss about? Everything's in perfect order, and our computer can print out the payroll rapidly at the flick of a switch! "

Sometimes I felt a little ill at ease to realize that my mind might be warped by my work. I was reminded of a brief image in a film where you have a rear view of a sexton who kneels down piously on his right knee every time he passes in front of the altar. When the camera swings around to provide us with a front view of the dear man, we discover that he has worn a knee-level hole in the right leg of his trousers. I wondered whether excessive computer thinking might not have worn a hole in my mind.

Things have advanced rapidly since the time when I had such qualms. From one end to the other of a book such as How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, which is already over ten years old, the author—a professor psychology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—exploits the so-called computational theory of the mind, according to which everything aspect of human thinking can and must be explained in terms of computing-programming paradigms and machine metaphors. When I wrote Machina Sapiens back in 1976, I thought at times that I might be a bit reckless in imagining that computers might get around, one day, to "thinking" in a more-or-less human-like fashion. Today, on the contrary, I realize that I didn't go nearly far enough in suggesting that, since Man is a kind of machine, it is quite feasible to imagine machines that will end up behaving much like human beings. We realize, though, that the task will be extremely difficult, and probably take a long time, not because there's anything of a non-mechanical nature in a human being, but because Evolution has had an immensely long time to put together the spectacular machine called Homo sapiens.

This man, named Douglas A Melton, is a US researcher in genetics, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, whose goal consists of creating cells that are missing or defective in certain patients, particularly those suffering from diabetes. Yesterday, the journal Nature revealed that Melton's group has made a great step towards modifying the function of adult cells. This operation is designated, by means of a pure computing metaphor, as reprogramming the function of the cells. The Washington Post described the breakthrough as follows:

Through a series of painstaking experiments involving mice, the Harvard biologists pinpointed three crucial molecular switches that, when flipped, completely convert a common cell in the pancreas into the more precious insulin-producing ones that diabetics need to survive.

Here, the notion of molecular "switches" being "flipped" sounds like electronic engineering. In fact, it is computer talk, reflecting the fact that the DNA in a cell can be considered as a purely digital storage device, like the memory of a computer.

Up until last year, researchers in medical genetics were obliged to work with authentic embryonic cells, and this disturbed religious folk who felt that scientists were acting unethically. Then there was the welcome discovery that adult cells of any kind could be transformed into an embryonic state, enabling them to be coaxed into developing into any kind of desired cell for experimental work. The outcome of the Harvard work is that it will be possible to avoid the necessity of returning to the embryonic level, since adult cells will be reprogrammed in such a way that they actually become cells of a related kind.

For the moment, Melton and his fellow researchers have been working only with the cells of mice. So, a lot of work still remains to be done before the successful creation of a revolutionary branch of medicine that might be referred to as genetic surgery. In that future domain, based upon the notion of reprogramming human cell functions, it's likely that the technicians will talk among themselves, to a large extent, in the jargon of computer programmers.

No need for talk

In a recent blog post, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, wrote:

As most of you know, I draw a comic featuring a guy who inexplicably has no mouth, who lives with a cartoon dog that inexplicably has no mouth. And I end up with Spasmodic Dysphonia, a condition that prevents me from speaking.

I'm reminded of an anecdote back at the time, thirty years ago, when I was writing a tourist guidebook about Great Britain. I asked for permission to use a comic strip [display] I'd seen in Paris-Match drawn by the French cartoonist Pat Mallet, who happens to be a few months younger than me. The authorization came by return mail, and the letter included a personal phone number. So I decided to phone up Pat Mallet to thank him. A friendly male voice told me it was a pleasure to collaborate in a book about the folk on the other side of the English Channel (known, in French, as La Manche).

ME: For months, I've been faced with the daily task of finding words to describe Great Britain. In the case of your comic strip, I'm terribly impressed by your skill in describing a typical aspect of London without using any words whatsoever.

VOICE AT THE OTHER END OF THE LINE: I must point out that you're not speaking with Pat Mallet himself. I'm his father, and I handle his phone calls. Pat himself has been totally deaf since the age of nine, and unable to communicate by speech.

I love this wordless cover from a Pat Mallet album of 1985, published by Glénat, called Ainsi est la vie (Such is life):

This marvelous drawing of a poetic dog admiring the sunset from the parapet of a luxurious seaside restaurant, while all the humans are lost in conversation, is a perfect illustration of the frivolity (at times) of speech. [And there I've gone again, adding unnecessary words.]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

New school year for French diplomacy

The transition period from the end of August to the start of September is referred to, in French, as the rentrée: the return to work and serious affairs, after the summer vacation (for the fortunate few who can afford vacations). Certain observers might consider that diplomats, like retired employees (such as me), are on full-time vacation, in that they don't have to trot off to a dull office in a French city every weekday. Fair enough. You might recall that, in my Guinea pig article of 17 July 2008 [display], I joked about the fact that my weekly dose of experimental pills constitutes a primitive calendar. This morning, at my annual checkup at Romans, the Inserm guy asked me how I was coping with their pills, and I told him that story. He replied: "In any case, your entire daily existence is composed, now, of weekends." The poor bastard must be overworked.

Every year since 1993, the French Republic has been organizing an annual get-together in Paris of its 180 ambassadors and senior administrators of the prestigious Quay d'Orsay ministry of Foreign Affairs. Here's a photo of last year's class:

The 16th Conférence des Ambassadeurs has just got under way, and it will last for three days.

The diplomatic role of France in the world has been enhanced, since July, by the fact that the Republic has been presiding over the European Union. Obviously, the primary preoccupation of the present conference is the situation in Georgia. In his opening address, today, Nicolas Sarkozy insisted upon the necessity of Russia's immediate retreat from the occupied provinces of Georgia.

Meanwhile, the foreign minister Bernard Kouchner has a grand planetary vision for French Foreign Affairs. He would like to see the the Quai d'Orsay evolving into a "ministry of globalization". This change should lead to both modernization and cost-cutting in France's 158 embassies and 21 multilateral representations throughout the world. If and when these reforms are enacted, there'll be less glitter in French diplomacy. Ideally, the glamor, foie gras and champagne will be replaced by sound suggestions about making the planet a more peaceful and pleasant place for humanity. We'll see...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Black is tricolor

There's no doubt about the fact that France supports Obama. The blue, white and red colors of the French tricolor are designated in French as bleu, blanc, rouge. But, in the joyous days of France's soccer victory in 1998, a new color system emerged, designated as black, blanc, beur. What's this new color, beur? It's inverted slang for "Arabe". Effectively, French society today is a mixture of dyed-in-the-wool oldtimers named Dupont or Martin, or something like that, and all kinds of exotic newcomers from diverse backgrounds. A new melting pot has come into existence.

France is unlikely to retain fond memories of George W Bush and his old pal Donald Rumsfeld, searching for illusive weapons of mass destruction in their Axis of Evil. What stupidity, shared by Blair in the UK and Howard in Australia. The less said, the better...

Traveler with baggage

Even when the journey's only a couple of hundred meters long (the distance between our two houses at Gamone), the voyager will travel with his basic luggage. For a human, this might start with a toothbrush and a change of underwear. For Pif, it's his plastic "bone", which squeaks when it's bitten.

Our canine neighbor Pif, belonging to Alison, intrigues Sophia and me. For a start, he often runs around in circles trying to catch his tail.

Pif doesn't quite know what to make of the smelly billy-goat Gavroche, roughly his same size, when he drops in at the house for his daily dish of cereals.

The two animals share a common fascination for photographers, and look upwards with a view to understanding what's happening.

In such situations, Pif's floppy ears bend backwards, revealing their pink interior. There's no such problem for the rigid ears of Gavroche. Meanwhile, the great canine queen of Gamone resides calmly, as usual, in an ethereal domain, well above such trivial earthly agitation.

It's eleven o'clock on a sunny Monday morning, and Pif has just arrived at Gamone, full of smiles, and jumping (literally) with joy. There can be problems, of an evening, in persuading the delightful dog to go back home with Alison when she returns from work (as a waitress in the restaurant at the famous caves of Choranche) on her scooter. Let's say, to simplify, that Pif takes pleasure in having two homes. I'll be sad when Alison takes him away to Spain in a few weeks. It goes without saying that Pif will be traveling, as usual, with his squeaking bone.

ADDENDUM: Just after finishing the above post, I received an unexpected visit from my Choranche neighbors Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier, who stayed here for a delightful outdoors lunch in the shade of my giant linden tree. Among other things, they were able to observe the case of Pif at first hand. Their conclusions: It would appear that Pif has moved in at my place, heart and soul. And he seems to lead a joyful existence here. Be that as it may, we all feel that it would be unwise for Alison to set off to an unknown lifestyle in Spain, in three weeks' time, with Pif in tow. Tineke suggested that I should write a letter to Alison offering to hold on to her dog up until she gets settled in Spain, and is ready to receive him. I think I'll do this. On the other hand, I don't wish to appear dog-matic. Insofar as it's obvious that I'm fond of Pif, it would be incorrect to think that I simply wish to hang on to this little creature. On the contrary, it would be great if this dog were to discover the exciting atmosphere of a horse ranch in Spain. But it would be wrong if Pif were to be more or less abandoned by Alison in Spain, as has been the case at Gamone.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Homo faber

Man the tool-making animal. Here in France, "faber" has given rise to the surname Fabre and its variants. In medieval times, blacksmiths received this name. They could be thought of as inheritors of the Greek god Haephaestus (Vulcan for the Romans).

Homo faber was one of the favorite expressions of my mentor Pierre Schaeffer. He liked to imagine that God had made Man "in his own image", as a maker, so that imaginative individuals would spend their time on Earth inventing tools to make more and more things, as a kind of end in itself. It doesn't really matter all that much what you actually make (with obvious exceptions such as nuclear weapons, anti-personal mines, etc). The important thing is to become a maker, a tool-wielder. I often thought that Schaeffer looked upon his invention of musique concrète (musical compositions made by assembling real-world noises) as a pastime for obsessional makers.

In recent times, we've discovered that humans are not the only creatures capable of using tools. Chimpanzees and their sex-obsessed cousins the bonobos learn from their elders how to use stones to crack open nuts, or sticks to catch termites.

You might imagine that, by now, human inventors have come up with every possible tool that could possibly be imagined. I only have to open a kitchen drawer to find all kinds of simple but marvelous tools. Here, for example, is the world's finest corkscrew:

You would never guess the purpose for which the following exotic implement (roughly the size of a small spoon) was invented:

It's a spoon of a special kind, used for soaking a cube of sugar in absinthe liqueur. Don't ask me why its form should be so complicated. Maybe all spoons get to look that way after you've imbibed a few glasses of absinthe.

My daughter recently gave me a tiny German instrument designed for opening walnuts:

One of these days, I really must remove the silver key from its card and get around to trying it out. For the moment, like an ape, I carry on using one of humanity's most ancient inventions for this purpose: the hammer. Maybe the Munich invention could be used to open oysters, which would be really great.

Talking about walnuts, I've probably said already on this blog that I often produce a delicacy using a recipe from the Australian pioneering days: pickled walnuts.

In that context, I'm in need of a tool that hasn't been invented yet. I'm thinking of a device to facilitate the initial step in the recipe for making pickled walnuts, which consists of piercing the green fruit to produce dozens of punctures. Why do we need to puncture the walnuts? In the next step of the recipe, the pierced walnuts are soaked in brine for a fortnight, and the holes allow the liquid to seep deep inside the fruit, to neutralize their toxicity. For the moment, to puncture the walnuts, I use a primitive method: a steel-spiked dog's comb.

You can imagine that this technique is inefficient, because I have to hold the fruit in my left hand while piercing it with the comb held in my right hand, then I have to withdraw the hard fruit from the spikes to repeat the operation from another angle. I do this about half a dozen times for each walnut, while trying to avoid wounds to the fingers of my left hand. What I need is some kind of device to pierce the walnuts rapidly and efficiently. Now, whenever I evoke the desired tool, people invariably react by saying that it should be easy to invent such a device, and they start talking about a pair of spiked rollers, or maybe spiked plates. But the problem is more difficult than what it appears, for the simple reason that the walnut, when pierced, tends to stick to the spikes. So, in the case of spiked plates, there would have to be an associated pair of metal plates with holes, which could be used to withdraw the walnuts from the spikes. Then there's the problem of ensuring that each walnut is pierced all over its skin. This would necessitate some kind of "intelligent" system for turning each walnut around so that it gets pierced all over. This is surely possible, in theory, but we're likely to end up with blueprints for a complicated device. So, is it worth it? Maybe the dog's comb can still look forward to a long and healthy future existence.

There's a second tool that I need at Gamone. It concerns my latest kind of electric fence, seen here:

The fence is composed of a steel rods surmounted by white nylon insulators, referred to as pigs' tails, to hold the electric ribbon:

Periodically, I need to withdraw the stakes from the ground so that I can remove the grass and weeds, and then I might decide to change the location of the fence. In the rocky earth at Gamone, it can be difficult to remove such rods. I need a tool of the following kind:

Here, the clasp would need to grasp the stake securely, enabling me to use the tool like a lever in order to unearth the stake.

No sooner had I drawn this diagram than I invented a way of using successfully a heavy-weight wire-cutter and a sledgehammer (the same tool I use for fixing the stakes in the ground) to unearth stakes.

Admittedly, this solution is imperfect, because it's hard to exert downwards pressure on the outstretched wire-cutter while squeezing the arms together in order to grip the stake. There's still room in the modern world for Homo faber.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Messy road-cycling situation

As a former adolescent cyclist of sorts in my home town of Grafton (back in the days when bicycles had only recently been invented), I've always been interested in the Australian cycling world. A few days ago, I received an email circular from the organizers of Australia's Tour Down Under, and I promptly dropped in on their website.

Next January's scheduled event in Adelaide is part of the so-called ProTour circuit, under the auspices of the world-level body that governs professional cycling: the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale]. The Tour de France, on the other hand, is organized by the Amaury group, owners of the newspaper L'Equipe (which angered the Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe not so long ago).

The director of the 2009 Tour Down Under assures us that everything "is on track and on schedule". He explains that the UCI has confirmed that the South Australian event "will remain in the top echelon of world cycling. We have also spoken to the elite teams who rate the event highly and plan to be in Adelaide in January 2009."

These reassuring words surprised me somewhat, because the news from France, just after Bastille Day, was that 17 ProTour teams competing in the Tour de France had decided to refrain from taking out ProTour licences for 2009. The Australian website includes a menu concerning teams for the Tour Down Under, but the data is obsolete. The 19 teams that are listed are those that competed in last January's event, rather than those that will be turning up in Adelaide in 2009. So, what gives? Would the organizers of the Tour Down Under be jumping the start in persisting in talking as if it's business as usual?

Today, speaking from Beijing, UCI president Pat McQuaid revealed a plan that his body intends to submit to the Amaury people in France, in the hope of resolving the conflicts that have existed over the last few years. I have the impression that today's UCI press release is full of good intentions, but we know nothing, for the moment, concerning possible reactions of the Tour de France organizers. I feel that South Australia is excessively optimistic in suggesting that they can calmly and confidently begin the countdown to the 2009 Tour Down Under. It would be more realistic if they were to inform potential spectators explicitly that international road cycling is still in a global mess.

Happiness is a friendly computer

We computer enthusiasts are not hard to please. It's easy to make us happy. All we ask for is a friendly computer. That means, of course, a subtle bag of goodies. To start the ball rolling, the machine itself must be sufficiently powerful, reliable and easy to use. No problems at that level; I'm a Mac user. Next, the Internet connection must be fast and stable enough to make you forget that you're even linked to this planetary behemoth.

[If you're interested in following up the origins of the curious terms Behemoth and Leviathan, evoking chimeric Biblical creatures, click the painting by William Blake to access the Wikipedia article on this subject. I hasten to add that, like Bigfoot, these archaic animals are not described in The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins.]

One of the basic challenges in the quest for happiness as a computer user consists of finding the ideal software tools for the kind of work that concerns you. These days, in many everyday computing domains, the competing products are much of a muchness. For example, I've got into the habit of using the Firefox browser rather than Apple's much lauded Safari, but I wouldn't attempt to justify my choice objectively. Once upon a time, I used to think that nothing could be better than the Eudora application for email, whereas I now find that Apple's Mail tool suits me fine. Obviously, this "much of a muchness" aspect breaks down if you're reckless enough to start comparing Ferraris with aging pickup trucks. The differences between, say, the latest Mac OS and a veteran Windows system, or even a Linux thing tied together with bits of string and wire, are not purely a matter of taste and familiarity. There are objective tests for determining whether or not one solution is better (more efficient in a friendly way) than another. Above all, the "much of a muchness" judgment is no longer pertinent when Internet users are obliged to devote money and energy to protecting themselves constantly from spam and viruses, or wondering whether such-and-such a service provider is indeed delivering their emails.

The reason I'm rambling on about such things is that I wish to say a few words about one of the time-honored tools of personal computing: word processors.

Over the years, I've used many different kinds of word processors, including one that I built myself, named Irma (Intelligent Rewriting Tool for Authors), with which I produced the conference proceedings, published in 1980, entitled Videotex in Europe. For me, the most exotic wood processing software of all was surely the LaTeX system, implemented on the Macintosh as a tool named Textures. On a high-resolution laser printer, it produces truly beautiful output, like a finely-printed Bible, but it's diabolically complex. About half the author's energy and imagination are used up in determining what the printed output should look like, and only the other half in what it might contain in the way of words. That's to say, it's an esthete's toy for would-be printers. As for Microsoft Word, described in typical French invective as a "gas factory", I've always hated it. I'm convinced that it would have never become widespread were it not for the early business strategy of encouraging (or at least not discouraging) its unpaid acquisition... like distributing free cigarettes and alcohol to teenagers. One of my favorite word processors, up until it went out of existence on the Macintosh, was FrameMaker, which was a truly friendly and well-documented tool for authors. To replace it, I tried my hand at InDesign, but I've never succeeded in mastering it intuitively. Even such an elementary task as inserting half a page of text into a chapter, and moving an illustration, seem to be unnecessarily complicated, particularly when you're not using the tool on a daily basis.

So, why am I happy today? Well, I've just decided to drop InDesign for my genealogical documents and get back to Apple's nice Pages tool, which is amazingly simple to use.

It might sound trite to say so, but I'm convinced that an author who's well-equipped with friendly word processing resources (including on-line access to good dictionaries) finds it so much easier to be inspired, find ideas, and express them optimally.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Disappearing trick

As everybody knows [well, let's say, everybody with a good Catholic education], a strange event once took place on August 15. Mary took off skywards, literally, clothes and all, in what must be classified as the second case in world history of gravitational escape... not counting the flight of pterosaurs and phoenixes, and setting aside the hordes of angels and other heavenly creatures such as fairies, pixies, winged sprites and Irish leprechauns, goblins, hobgoblins, witches on magic broomsticks, etc. As everybody knows, prior to the so-called Assumption of Mary, there had been the equally spectacular Ascension of her son.

Compared with such happenings, the disappearing trick that occurred yesterday in the website of a high-quality Australian newspaper was a trivial stunt, but it's nevertheless interesting. Unless I happened to have been momentarily bewitched (which is not impossible, but rather unlikely), I claim to have witnessed with my own eyes a fascinating article, of a highly critical nature, on Australia's defense system. Now, this is an interesting topic that I've already mentioned in my blog:

Australia's submarines, 26 December 2007 [display]

Australian arithmetic, 2 January 2008 [display]

Expensive, aesthetic and nasty, 21 January 2008 [display]

I made a mental note of yesterday's article, saying to myself that it might be a good subject for a blog article... in spite of the fact that, these days, I no longer have much to say about my native land. Well, today, when I tried to find this article, I was surprised to discover that, overnight, it had completely disappeared into thin air, leaving no traces whatsoever.

In a neighboring domain, I have a trivial but significant Australian anecdote to relate. There's a web forum that gathers together Australian bloggers. A few weeks ago, I submitted a short calmly-written post concerning a question that has often interested me, particularly since my trip to Australia in 2006. Why does a supposedly prosperous nation such as Australia, with immense riches in the earth, continue to suffer from a relatively underdeveloped infrastructure (roads, railways, bridges, telecom, defense system, etc) ? I imagined that, since bloggers are supposed to be talkative and well-informed folk, I would get some worthwhile factual answers to my question. What I wanted to learn, in a nutshell, was the amount of tax from mineral sales that is actually invested in the Australian infrastructure. Alas, a forum moderator sent me a polite email to say that they were not prepared to publish my post.

Your discussion related to infrastructure comes very close to crossing the line relating to what is fair game on the Forums. We do not allow political discussions. I encourage you to steer readers to your blog if you wish to start a discussion in this area. I do not think that it would take long for any discussion along the lines that you have started to get political.

Will there be medals in Beijing for catching up with China in the time-honored game called censorship?

Amazing American discoveries

Few observers would deny that the most fantastic American discovery of all time was the Book of Mormon.

[Click the photo to access the Wikipedia page on this amazing subject.]

Maybe the word "discovery" is not quite correct, because the golden plates upon which the original document was inscribed were actually handed over to Joseph Smith in 1827 by the angel Moroni. What I'm trying to say is: Can we seriously use the term "discovery" in the case of a holy gift from a heavenly creature? Long ago, there was a good old English word, derived from the Latin noun inventio (the act or faculty of discovery), that served perfectly well for great findings of this kind. For example, after Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in the year 327 and unearthed the true cross of Jesus (along with the crown of thorns and some nails), her amazing exploit was referred to formally as the Invention of the Cross. Since then, this usage of the term "invention" has become obsolete. So, there would be a danger of being misunderstood if one were to speak of the invention of Moroni's document.

A few decades after the Moroni event, reports of another miraculous American discovery started to appear in the press... and they still do. I'm referring to sightings of an extraordinary creature known today as Bigfoot. [Click the photo to access the Wikipedia page on this amazing subject.] Superficially, Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch, looks like a large hairy ape, but there are strong arguments for considering this humanoid creature as a cousin of Man: a kind of surviving Neanderthal.

Yesterday, at Palo Alto in California (site of the prestigious Stanford University), there was an extraordinary press conference about the latest Bigfoot sighting.

[Click the photo to access an article about this amazing press conference.]

It's all rather secretive, in the sense that the three men behind this press conference did not actually bring along any biological samples of the Bigfoot corpse they claim to have discovered... which remains stored in a refrigerator at an unidentified location.

Various aspects of this latest Bigfoot affair seem to fall into place once you visit the shopping section of the trio's website [click the lapel pin, which can be purchased for $6.50, or a dozen for forty bucks]. It would appear that the three discoverers are associated with this commercial affair. In any case, two of them turned up wearing Bigfoot caps... priced $24.99 on the website. It goes without saying that this website would become a tremendous money-making affair... if only a real specimen of the legendary beast were to be found.

Incidentally, reading between the lines of his excellent The Ancestor's Tale, I have the impression that Richard Dawkins doesn't believe in Bigfoot. That's hardly surprising. Dawkins doesn't even believe in God.

As for me, I think that we should believe in both of these great American discoveries: the angel Moroni and the ape man Bigfoot. Clearly, if God didn't intend us to believe in these creatures, then why did He put them on Earth and allow them to be discovered? That's the solid line of reasoning I used in my decision, long ago, to wear glasses... along with the fact that they help me to see things better. If God didn't intend us to wear glasses, then why did He provide us with a nose and a pair of ears?

Amazing Aussie powers

I've always known that we Aussies are not just a pile of crap. We have hidden talents. Look at this awesome demonstration:

Mass Spoon Bending - Click here for more amazing videos

There are two reasons why Aussies are different (I mean superior) to ordinary humans such as Americans, Europeans and Eskimos. First, the fact that we're born in the antipodean magnetic flux of the Southern Hemisphere has a lot to do with our mysterious powers. Second, we're perpetually immersed in a whole lot of spiritual energy fallout from the Aboriginal Dreamtime, which causes the typical Aussie mindset and psyche to evolve in exciting new ways. It's a pity that there aren't more revealing TV documentaries in this domain. I really must make a suggestion along these lines to some of my professional friends in French television.

Friday, August 15, 2008

August 15 in Tinos

The stark eyes of the old ladies in black, disembarking at Tinos, are fixed upon the church with the sacred icon. They will crawl on blood-stained knees up to the grail. It's the theckapende avgoustou.

It was an ordinary day, in 1965, for tourists such as us.

Tinos, today, remains my mythical backyard.
My Garden of Eden. My eternal paradise.

Dead wood from a windmill in Tinos
The wobbly weathercock of Grecian winters
will no longer indicate the pale blue meridian
from Asia to Africa.
It lies on the arid ground between rocks and snakes.
Alongside, three aged teeth in black oak
will never more bite the Etesian winds, full of salt,
during their long seasons of wild wheat
on the burning slopes of archaic Tinos.
This sacred soil once offered water and bread
to Poseidon and Amphitrite.
The Cyclades filled the sails of Ulysses and made
the warm bread rise, covered in seeds of sesame.
Old toothless windmill, memory of the Aegean.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Retirement preoccupations

What a delightful blog title and simple banner:

For readers who might not be aware of personal facts concerning George W Bush, Crawford is the Texan municipality where he owns a ranch. If I understand correctly, it's not absolutely certain that Bush will in fact retire there when his presidential mandate ends... on 20 January 2009.

Actual countdown clocks are now displayed on the web:
They stopped counting long ago!
Articles and blog posts are also starting to appear concerning the possible nature of Bush's historical legacy. Most specialists consider that he will not be considered as the worst president in US history, because the competition for that title is pretty tough in God's Own Country. But he stands a good chance of being thought of as "one of the worst", at least in the modern era. All I hope, when these historical "honors" are bestowed, is that some of the Bush infamy rubs off onto his old mates in the UK and Australia: Tony Blair and John Howard. I don't know whether these guys—along with Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and all the others—ever lose sleep thinking about all the chaos and bloodshed for which they're directly responsible in Iraq. How do they remember their condoning torture ?

In the Dawkins book I'm reading [see my previous post], my Favorite Author brings up a fascinating topic concerning the planet Earth: collisions with large meteorites or comets. An awesome impact wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It hit Mexico at a place now named Chicxulub, leaving a crater with a diameter of 180 kilometers.

Devastating collisions with heavenly bodies continue to be a threat. The big difference now is that earthlings should be able to foresee imminent dangers of this kind, and even deploy gigantic futuristic technology capable of saving our souls. Dawkins sees this as a potential challenge for determined statesmen such as Dubya and the late great Ronald Ray-Gun.

Politicians who invent external threats from foreign powers, in order to scare up economic or voter support for themselves, might find that a potentially colliding meteor answers their ignoble purpose just as well as an Evil Empire, an Axis of Evil, or the more nebulous abstraction 'Terror', with the added benefit of encouraging international co-operation rather than divisiveness. The technology itself is similar to the most advanced 'star wars' weapons systems, and to that of space exploration itself. The mass realisation that humanity as a whole shares common enemies could have incalculable benefits in drawing us together rather than, as at present, apart.

Indeed, it would be marvelous if George W Bush, once retired, were to spend his time and resources in transforming Crawford into a fabulous planetary fortress destined to detect and counterattack threats from the heavens. Everything's imaginable when you've got God on your side.


I'm not happy with the grammatical laxity in the above countdown clock. The word "quicker" is an adjective, not an adverb. I complained... and received the following friendly reply:

Hi William.

Thanks very much for the note. I am not kidding when I say this has been a running argument between me and my fiance for the last four years!!!!

I do realize that the text is grammatically incorrect, and for a short time we did have the proper wording in there. But it was just a bit too much of a mouthful, and as I'm sure you know, most Americans don't even know the difference. They prefer the vernacular over the grammatically correct.

Thank you very much for the note and we hope you enjoy the weekend!!!

All the best,

Vince and Merry

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Exotic pilgrimage

In a book I've been reading over the last few days, I was delighted to come upon an outline of an activity that used to interest me greatly (and still does, as an aficionado): Macintosh programming.

The Mac has a toolbox of routines stored in ROM (Read Only Memory) or in System files permanently loaded at start-up time. There are thousands of these toolbox routines, each one doing a particular operation, which is likely to be needed, over and over again, in slightly different ways, in different programs. [...] If you look at the text of a Mac program, whoever wrote it, in whatever programming language and for whatever purpose, the main thing you'll notice is that it consists largely of invocations of familiar, built-in toolbox routines. The same repertoire of routines is available to all programmers. Different programs string calls of these routines together in different combinations and sequences.

Jargon such as that last sentence suggests that the writer is more than a mere user of computer products. Clearly, this didactic author is not in the same basic ballpark as the countless millions of lucky folk who perform their daily work with the help of a Macintosh. The writer would appear to have gone a big step further, and actually gotten his hands dirty in writing Mac software. In an earlier paragraph, he had explained in modest terms his relationship with this machine:

The computer I happen to be familiar with is the Macintosh, and it is some years since I did any programming so I am certainly out of date with the details.

Who is this former adept of Macintosh programming? And why is he is writing about his technical experience in this domain?

In The Ancestor's Tale, published in 2004, Richard Dawkins calls upon the paradigm of Mac software to demonstrate the functioning of a genome. More precisely, he's trying to explain why we should not be alarmed to learn that the human genome is no bigger than that of a mouse: some 30,000 genes. If you were to compare the architectural blueprints of an Olympic edifice at Beijing with a rough drawing I once made of the future shed at Gamone for my donkey Moshé, you would see immediately which of the two construction processes was designed by a planetary people capable of generating artificial fireworks, and which one was sketched by an Aussie hillbilly. In the same spirit, why shouldn't a human genome and a mouse genome, placed side by side, be vastly unalike?

The answer is simple. Genomes aren't blueprints; they're computer-like programs. Over the last day or so, front-page news stories have described Apple's ire at discovering that a proposed iPhone program is pure bullshit. Expensive to acquire, this iPhone application does nothing more than display ostentatiously the fact that the purchaser is apparently wealthy. [This kind of second-degree gag amuses me immensely.] Well, if you were to take out some kind of magic magnifying glass and examine this bullshit program, you would probably find that it "looks" more or less the same, in terms of digital volume, as any of the more brilliant iPhone applications. The difference is not in the vulgar quantity of bits, but in the way they are organized to form a complex computational entity capable of performing big things.

I could ramble on for ages about this brilliant book by Dawkins, but the best thing, dear reader, is that you should buy it and absorb it slowly and languidly, as if you were seated at a table of rare venison and unworldly wines, served by medieval Botticelli maidens against a sonorous background of Monteverdi... or something like that. The brilliant idea of Dawkins consists of leading us on an exotic backwards pilgrimage towards the dawn of creation, in which we meet up with all our genealogical cousins: chimpanzees, gorillas, etc... right back to the origins of life on the planet Earth. This magnum opus by Dawkins is yet another specimen of beautiful writing, fabulous literature and magnificent science. His literary style was inspired, of course, by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Replacing vast phylogenetic trees of Earth's animals by my own humble genealogy, I think of my father. He went through life burdened by a pair of ridiculous Christian names: King Mepham. I explained the first element in last year's article entitled November 11 [display]. As for the second name, it all gets back to Kentish ancestors at a village named Meopham [website], associated with an ancestral Simon Mepham who was an early archbishop of Canterbury [1328-33].

In the cosmic Dawkins saga, the intrinsic "value" of a Mepham forefather on the ancient road back through Canterbury might be likened to that of our concestor [a Dawkinsean neologism for "common ancestor"] who witnessed the disappearance of the dinosaurs. None of these creatures [including probably the archbishop] was the kind of clear-cut individual you might have invited back home to meet up with Mother, let alone Father. They were tiny inconsequential but lovable minuses, like all of us. We can't even imagine what they might have looked like. But we know they existed. Meanwhile, I've spent hours trying to determine what an ancestor of me and my dear cousin Sophia—a descendant of wolves—might have looked like. I have my ideas...

Monday, August 11, 2008


As I watched last night's US/China basketball match, I felt confused. On the surface, it looked like yet another conventional Olympic ball game between two nations. But I soon sensed that there was more to it than that. It seemed more like some kind of a weird religious process in which zealous missionaries were teaching a company of recently-ordained converts how to conduct the sacred rituals of a sect. As befits this kind of ceremony, enhanced with subtle symbols, the ancient priests wore white. Even their names were written in white letters on a white background, as if they weren't really meant to be read, but merely imagined... like the pronunciation of the holy name of Yahveh. The Chinese spectators encouraged their players by crying out the English word China. This same word appeared on their ritual garments.

In the congregation, George W Bush and his wife watched the proceedings. Earlier in the day, they had attended a protestant church near Beijing's Forbidden City, where the Chinese worshipers sang Amazing Grace in English and Chinese. Afterwards, the US president declared: "Laura and I just had the great joy and privilege of worshiping here in Beijing. You know, it just goes to show that God is universal, and God is love, and no state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion." The preceding day, he had already taped a message on this same theme: "This trip has reaffirmed my belief that men and women who aspire to speak their conscience and worship their God are no threat to the future of China. They are the people who will make China a great nation in the 21st century."

It goes without saying that these people will need to learn how to play basketball, eat hamburgers, drink certain ritual beverages, go to church on Sundays and express themselves in English.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Unwarranted anguish and misunderstandings

It's four days since my last news concerning our charming little black neighbor Pif, seen here this morning (with an elegant silver chain around his slender neck) in the company of Sophia.

I'm aware that people all over the planet will soon be crying out for an update on events. But first, a little French joke, whose relevance will soon become apparent. Although it's not exactly a politically-correct joke, it's quite innocent. Nothing to do with mindless insinuations about an arriviste lad, say, thinking of changing his religion with a view to becoming rich.

Little Mustapha lives in the Maghreb quarter of town, but the educational administration sends him to a nearby school, on the other side of the river, in a posh Catholic neighborhood. The diplomatic school mistress introduces Mustapha to his new friends.

School mistress: Mustapha comes from across the river, and you might be tempted to imagine that he's different from us. But this is wrong. To prove that Mustapha is a little child who's no different to all of you, I suggest that we change his name. We'll christen him Michael.

That evening, back home in the Maghreb quarter, Mustapha informs his parents, excitedly, of his first day in the Catholic school.

Mustapha: I'm no longer Mustapha. My new name is Michael.

Father, slapping his son in the face: Stop your bullshit. We called you Mustapha when you were born, and that's your name forever.

Mustapha: No, I assure you, Father. I've become Michael.

Mother, slapping her son in the face: Your father told you to stop this bullshit. Your name's Mustapha.

Mustapha receives a few more blows from his parents, for good measure, to remind him that his name is not Michael. The next morning, at school, his face is covered in bruises, as if he had been boxing.

School mistress, alarmed: My poor little Michael, whatever happened to you?

Mustapha: Nothing unusual, Miss. Last night, back home in the Maghreb quarter, I got beaten up by a couple of crazy Arabs.

Yesterday morning, when Pif turned up stealthily in my kitchen, something was wrong. The little dog's face was disfigured by swollen lips, and he was unusually lethargic. I was alarmed, wondering immediately if Alison might have whacked her dog too hard, to punish his recent disobedience. I didn't know how to react best. I phoned up Bob, to ask him whether it was possible that his daughter might have been excessively violent with Pif. Bob assured me that this was unthinkable. So, I got around to imagining that maybe Sophia had bitten Pif's snout in a sudden fight, during my short absence the day before yesterday. Finally, I wandered up to Alison's place, on the off-chance that she might be at home.

She was. As soon as I drew her attention to Pif's disfigured mouth, Alison understood immediately what had happened: "He has been bitten, maybe by insects or a snake! " This was a good analysis of the situation. We've noticed that Pif likes to go off onto the slopes on his own, where he's liable to meet up with bees or wasps, not to mention snakes. Alison added that she had noticed that something was wrong with Pif, the previous evening, when he had disappeared into a nearby field, as if he wanted to be alone. She reassured me that she was going to keep Pif at home all afternoon, and look after him, ready to take him along to the veterinarian if any more troubling signs appeared.

Today, the crisis is over. Pif is in perfect form. As usual, he has moved back down here and immediately dragged Sophia's rugs out of her wicker basket and onto the lawn. Clearly, Pif's a survivor. It's less clear whether he intends to survive up at his place, with Alison, or down here at Gamone with Sophia and me.

Memorable day

I'm not likely to forget the opening day of the Beijing games. It's the day I picked up my new French identity card.

I hope the data is blurred enough to discourage forgers and fraudsters. [UPDATE October 11, 2011: Intrigued by frequent visits to this blog post, and worried that somebody might be trying to steal my identity, I've blurred the image even more.]

If only I'd thought of it earlier, I would have made arrangements to get married today, like countless couples in China. Apparently all the 8s in today's date are a happy omen for people in love. [story] With my new French identity card, it goes without saying that I'm empowered to whisk away a bride in less time than it took for the Aussie rugby man Sonny Bill Williams to abandon his Bulldog mates in Sydney and join the Toulon club in France. But I was faced with a few obstacles:

• I had no way of knowing beforehand that the French authorities would enable me to pick up my identity card today, 8 August 2008, at the mayor's office in Choranche.

• I'm not really sure I want to get married.

• Surprisingly, there's no waiting list of female candidates.

This afternoon, therefore, instead of curling up on the couch with a new wife, I'll curl up all alone in front of the TV and watch the opening ceremony at Beijing.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nice guy with an infectious smile

Many years ago, when I took my son to New York for a short vacation, we were greatly amused by the way in which a sordid crime had become the non-stop theme of TV news during the first day or so of our stay. A Mexican resident, Tony Gonzalez, had murdered several innocent people in a brutal fashion, and none of his former friends could figure out what might have made him act that way. Journalists succeeded in tracking down all kinds of people who knew Gonzalez well, and their comments were unanimous: "Tony's such a nice guy. I can't understand what came over him, to make him commit those murders. He's always so kind to his mother and sister, and all his friends saw him as a happy guy who was incapable of hurting anybody. Tony always speaks with such a lovely quiet voice. Etc. Etc." My son and I found this stuff hilarious. We felt that Gonzalez should be released immediately from police custody and awarded a certificate for fine citizenship and good-neighborly conduct.

I'm reminded of Tony Gonzalez when I see the way in which the US anthrax suspect Bruce Ivins has been presented by various colleagues since his suicide. He was described as a churchgoer with a friendly disposition, who did a juggling act at community get-togethers, composed humorous songs that he performed on guitar or piano to farewell colleagues, and never seemed to have "any particular grudges or idiosyncrasies".

Alas, it's only today that we learn from hearsay that a psychiatrist had described Ivins as "homicidal, sociopathic with clear intentions". To go to the trouble of posting envelopes containing powdered anthrax spores through the mail, the perpetrator would indeed need to be sociopathic with clear intentions.

Today, we can finally read the emails of Ivins. It's a little too late, of course, since the nice guy with an infectious smile has committed suicide. I can't help thinking, rightly or wrongly, that any run-of-the-mill computerized spy should have been able to intercept these emails, which are poems of evil pulsations.

Verily, I say unto ye that Americans are fabulous fools (whom I often admire enormously, nevertheless, in the domains of science and technology). They proclaim the existence of an evil axis on the other side of the planet, but they can't necessarily detect the smelly crap exuded by their own assholes.

Risky valley of the Bourne

I'm about to talk about a geographical entity, the valley of the River Bourne, which runs below my home place, Gamone. I assume you're at ease using browser keys to move forwards/backwards with respect to my blog. You might click the following photo of a typical corner in our road to see a local map of places I'm about to mention.

As you can see, Gamone lies between Pont-en-Royans and the village of Choranche. Just to the south of these three places, you see the road (in yellow) that leads eastwards to the winter ski resort of Villard-de-Lans. And a thin blue line indicates the River Bourne, which flows just below the road, in an east/west direction. That's to say, Choranche, Gamone and Pont-en-Royans are located on the right bank of the Bourne. As the crow flies, I'm quite close to Villard: some 20 km. It's a delightful little town, with good restaurants and bars. I rarely set foot there, however, because I'm daunted by the narrow mountain road that runs through the Gorges of the Bourne.

During the ski season, particularly of a weekend, hordes of vehicles from the Valence region and the Ardèche department use this itinerary. It's a magnificent scenic road, but there are many places where vehicles have to halt to allow the passage of those traveling in the opposite direction. For me, driving in such circumstances is strictly unpleasant... no doubt because I never got accustomed to this kind of environment when I was younger. So, I stay at home.

For many years, we've been aware that we live alongside a rickety road that's often disturbed by fallen rocks. When I purchased Gamone, in 1993, I proudly informed my family and friends that I had found a rare place devoid of rocks that might fall onto our heads. And that state of affairs remains perfectly true today... as long as I stay at home. If I go out driving, that's another kettle of stonefish.

This morning, we received a surprising publication from the local authorities, revealing the results of a recent study of risky places along the road up to Villard-de-Lans. You might click the photo of work at the level of the home of my great friends Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier to see a graphical outline of these dangerous places, marked in orange or red.

I learn with delight but stupefaction [even though I'm not bothered unduly at a personal level] that the Isère departmental authorities have decided to invest in a huge 14-year project, costing 15 million euros, aimed at saving our roadway along the valley of the Bourne. The only problem is that this road will be closed for five months every year. So, I'm less and less likely to spend sunny afternoons and balmy evenings soaking up the Vercors atmosphere of Villard-de-Lans. What the hell. My Gamone descendants will...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ads you won't see

From time to time, we hear of publicity campaigns that get totally screwed up by current events even before they're launched... as distinct from the achievement of the John McCain crew, who needed to actually launch their latest anti-Obama campaign in order to get it screwed up.

In France, a creative genius in an ad agency had a brilliant idea for a campaign concerning a new automobile. The idea is that Dad has just purchased this vehicle, and he's driving his kids to school. But he's so infatuated by his new car that he simply forgets the kids on the back seat and just carries on driving for hours, absentmindedly. The planned tag lines were:

7.42 am: Your kids are on the back seat, ready to be driven to school.
3.37 pm: Your kids are still on the back seat.

What a great idea for an amusing ad. The only trouble is that, over the last few weeks, there were two separate cases of a French parent simply forgetting their child in a parked automobile. And the kids in question died as a result of the suffocating heat.

More recently, in Canada, the Greyhound bus company was about to lunch a campaign centered upon the relaxed atmosphere of overland bus travel. [I agree with their good intentions. Around 1985, I had the thrill of crossing Australia in this way on two occasions.] Sadly, their planned tag line evoking the absence of "bus rage" was ruined at the last minute by a crazy guy with a big knife and a taste for human flesh. So, I guess we'll never know the exact nature of the "reason" that the Greyhound folk had in mind.


Talking about things that might not be brought to the attention of readers, I'm wondering whether my compatriots in Australia have heard about a 39-year-old psychopathic Frenchman who's accused of having murdered, apparently in a fit of insanity, an 11-year-old boy. Here are police drawings of the accused fellow and his 49-year-old female companion:

At the time they were captured, a couple of days ago, they were trying to spread the message that they were "Australian pilgrims" who had come to France on a mysterious mission of destruction. My neighbor Madeleine, who doesn't necessarily bother to digest news stuff she picks up on TV, asked me yesterday: "Did you see that story about an evil Australian couple who murdered a child not far from here? " I had trouble convincing Madeleine that the suspected murderer and his lady friend are untraveled natives of France, with no links whatsoever to Australia, except maybe as hallucinations in their distorted minds.

It's a little spooky that diabolical fuckwits of this kind [caught out by a DNA analysis] might imagine Australia—which, most probably, they totally ignore—as a plausible origin. Where could they have picked up the idea that Australia is a likely place from which "pilgrims" might decide to set out on a satanic mission to France? One guess is that this association might be based upon recent Catholic Youth ballyhoo they glimpsed on TV when the pope was visiting Sydney. Or maybe they've been watching too many exotic Aussie travelogues.