Monday, September 29, 2008

Fruit season

Sophia's religious convictions surely pass through her belly. At this time of the year, she's certain that God exists, and that He has placed her in a land of plenty, at Gamone, where tasty delicacies such as apples and walnuts fall from the heavens.

My fig trees are still too young to bear fruit, but the next best thing to having your own fig trees is living alongside a neighbor whose fig trees have a plentiful yield... especially when the neighbor in question is not, himself, keen on figs. That's the case with Bob.

I wander up to Bob's place every afternoon to bring back a plate of excellent figs. Sophia, too, has become very keen on over-ripe figs that fall from Bob's trees.

Mrs Moose super star

Once again, on SNL [Saturday Night Live], lovely Tina Fey did a great job impersonating Sarah Palin, while Amy Poehler played the news anchor Katie Couric. Recent words from the real Mrs Moose—for example, on the sense of her wishy-washy explanations about the proximity of Alaska and Russia—provided SNL writers with lots of good material.

[Click the image to see the video.]

If you want to witness a complicated surrealist aspect of the real Sarah Palin, in the religious domain, look at the following video:

[Click the image to see the video.]

To call a spade a spade, it's becoming clear that Sarah Palin is a weirdo. More precisely, a dangerous fuckwit. But it's nice to know that she's there, standing alongside John McCain, and shouting out her bullshit from the rooftops, for all to hear, because she's no doubt doing wonders for the presidential hopes of Barack Obama.

Family history writing

Maybe certain friends who read my Antipodes blog are interested in Grafton, which was my birthplace. In my monograph on my maternal genealogy entitled A Little Bit of Irish, I've just completed and uploaded chapter 4, concerning my maternal ancestors in Grafton named Kearney, O'Keefe and Dixon. After clicking the cover image, click MENU then request the downloading of the PDF file for chapter 4. It's quite bulky (10 megabytes), so don't try to download anything unless you've got a broadband Internet connection.

Once you've downloaded the file, it's preferable to read it on the screen of your computer, rather than printing out some or all of the 53 pages on a color printer, since you can use the enlarge feature of your PDF reader to zoom in on photos, etc.

Chapters 2 and 3 of my monograph deal with an earlier and more exciting dimension of my maternal genealogy: the Walker and Hickey branches in Braidwood, at the time of the gold rush and bushrangers.

The title of my monograph is slightly ironic in that I no longer believe that our pioneering ancestor Charles Walker [1807-1860] was really a Catholic Irishman from Cork, as he made himself out to be, but rather a Protestant Scotsman, maybe even [according to a family legend that is old enough to be taken seriously] a brother of the fellow who invented Scotch whisky. I find it hard to imagine that the owners of the Caroline—a Newcastle banker, William Chapman, and a man from Calcutta, Eliot MacNaughten—would have hired an Irishman from Cork, in 1833, as the steward aboard a vessel carrying the families of convicts to New South Wales. Besides, nobody has ever found the least trace of our ancestor's alleged birth and life in Ireland. I have the impression that, once settled as the owner of a sheep grazing property in a largely Irish area of the Braidwood region, called Irish Corner, my ancestor simply lied about his nationality and religion in order to wed a 16-year-old Irish Catholic girl, daughter of a transported convict.

Today, many of the Australian descendants of Charles Walker are devout Catholics. I've invented a joke on this theme. I can imagine making the above allegations in front of one of these Catholic descendants, and concluding as follows: "So, you see, your supposedly Irish Catholic ancestor may well have been a Scottish Protestant." Reaction of the Catholic Walker descendant: "I've always known that Scottish Protestants are lying bastards."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Proving the past

There has been a bit of contestation, in recent times, about the question of whether or not John Dickenson's wing, demonstrated at the Grafton Jacaranda Festival in 1963, was an authentic precursor of modern hang gliders. An obvious but risky way of handling these doubts consists of rebuilding a Dickenson wing, to strict specifications (observed by the master himself), and seeing how it behaves. It would have been appropriate if this experimentation could have been carried out, say, in Grafton, New South Wales, on the banks of the Clarence. But that kind of imagination is missing, these days, in my birthplace. So, it's an English hang-gliding specialist, Mark Woodhams, who's determined to perform the simple but much-awaited research.

[Click the photo to access the Dickenson website.]

The current world trip of John Dickenson and Tricia is a little like a revival of a beloved and respected pop-music group. In a way that is not yet possible with current gliders (not even FusionMan), Dickenson is stepping around the planet from one friendly free-flight zone to another. Meanwhile, John and his historic wing are being followed through the air by a tracking device called the Internet.

New Icarus

While I've been blogging on about interesting subjects such as France's Icarus Cup festival and John Dickenson's role in the history of free flight, a Swiss guy named Yves Rossy, nicknamed FusionMan, has added a new dimension to this domain by swooping across the English Channel with a jet-powered wing strapped to his back.

[Click the photo to visit Yves Rossy's high-powered website.]

The charm of Dickenson resided in the fact that he was an amateur inventor, of a kind that is no doubt becoming extinct. To build his primitive delta wing in 1963, he used plastic film of the kind that was used to protect bananas in plantations to the south of Grafton.

The 49-year-old airline pilot Yves Rossy—who was curiously refused entry to the Coupe Icare, maybe because the organizers thought he might kill himself—is not really the kind of guy who would think about recuperating plastic bags to build his jet-powered kite. He's a pure specimen of 21st century professionalism with a capital P. He used to fly fighter jets. Now he's a regular airline pilot. Imagine him making an announcement to passengers: "This is your commander, Yves Rossy. We are about fly over the English Channel, and shall be touching down in exactly ten minutes." Hearing this, as a passenger, I would start looking around for a parachute under my seat...

Meanwhile, to bring us back down to Earth (metaphorically speaking), a 39-year-old Frenchman named Stéphane Rousson has just announced that he intends to tackle the record-breaking cross-Channel achievement of Louis Blériot by means of a pedal-powered balloon.

To my mind, Rousson looks more like a banana-bag Dickensonian inventor than FusionMan. Doesn't that photo remind you of the closing images from Speilberg's marvelous ET ?

The kind of device to be used by Stéphane Rousson was in fact imagined by a certain Frenchman named Goupil (colloquial term for a sly fox) back in 1885.

Goupil's dirigible airship was to be constructed of a silk sheathing around a wooden carcass. In the original article published in Chronique industrielle, the inventor points out that it will indeed be possible, shortly (?), for a cyclist to rise into the air and ride along a desired itinerary... but "only when the atmosphere is not perturbed by storms". So, you've been warned!

The following image reveals a more stable and compact machine, invented three years later, which made it possible to pedal calmly, keeping your cap on, through even the most violent tempests.

Seasoned fliers have learned that the greatest luxury, on long-distance flights, is to be able to stretch yourself out. This goal was attained in a design of 1889, which might be thought of as a kind of precursor John Dickenson's invention of 1963.

Somebody said in a comment to one of my recent posts about John Dickenson: "People have been successfully hang gliding since the 1800s." I don't know whether the devices illustrated in the above engravings were what you might call successful inventions. In this line of thinking, the thing that impressed me most in my recent face-to-face encounter with John Dickenson is the fact that, not only did he invent and test a free-flying wing, but he also survived his invention! In making that declaration, I feel a little like a joyful Saint Thomas crying out on the clifftops that he has actually poked his fingers through the holes in the blue plastic banana bags.

PS While I was watching the breathtaking Yves Rossy videos, sponsored by the Geneva watchmaker Hublot, a lovely but pointless small thought crossed my mind. I imagined my 75-year-old grandmother, Mary Jane Walker née Kennedy, watching the historic Dickenson/Fuller flights back in 1963, during Grafton's Jacaranda Festival. I can't vouch for it, but this possible scenario was perfectly feasible. Maybe my mother drove GrandMa to the banks of the Clarence, to watch the fun and action. Then, in my imagination, I thought of having my reincarnated grandmother seated magically alongside me today, in front of my Macintosh, watching the Yves Rossy videos. How would she react to what is displayed on the screen? Without attempting to answer that unanswerable question, I now see myself, half a century downstream (or upstream, depending upon how you look at time and evolution), in a similar posthumous role to that of my grandmother. I fear greatly that the reincarnated (virtual) William won't have the least idea of what seems to happening around him. To put it bluntly, the encounter will surely be so disastrous, so utterly meaningless, that I'm glad I won't be there to witness the painful confusion. It's weird to think that the advances of our technological awareness are a little like the evolution of our attitudes towards cigarette smoking. I love history!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Gulp it down

The ad says: A frank discussion at last on a subject that has long been taboo. The elegant fellow is asking his sophisticated but timid lady friend if she swallows it. Cigarette smoke, that is.

Today, we have extravagant TV publicity for perfumes and all kinds of body-oriented products. We've become blasé about what and just how much we're being asked to swallow. But it would be irreligious if ever we were to forget the glorious days of cigarette publicity.

The idea of believing in yourself implied, of course, that you should pay no attention to annoying people who claim that smoking might be a terrible danger. For example: What's all the talk about plutonium?

Click the banner to access a delightful collection of smoking ads assembled by the faculty of medicine of Stanford University.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Strong arms

French stand-up comedians are intrigued by this familiar surname. "Not only did he win the Tour de France seven times. He set foot on the Moon, and he plays a fabulous jazz trumpet."

Lance Armstrong exerts the same kind of New World fascination upon ordinary French people as the powerful US saviors of Normandy in 1944. When SuperMan moves in to your rural towns and villages, you simply sit down by the roadside, in awe, and watch the action.

In France, cycling enthusiasts are stunned by the announcement of Armstrong's daring comeback. But you might say that the role of a SuperMan is to be amazing. From now on, let's turn our attention above all to Armstrong's marvelous militancy in the fight against cancer, and to his encouragement of clean dope-free cycling. He is an exceptional sporting personality and an impressive human being who demands our respect and attention.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Flying with eagles

It's not always easy to maintain that an individual named X invented, in the year Y, a phenomenon to be known as Z. In this respect, I draw the attention of readers to an interesting exchange of views on hang-gliding history that has been taking place, over the last few days, through comments attached to the following two posts:

Inventor of the hang glider [display]

Australian inventor of hang glider on French TV [display]

Such conflicts are inevitable, if not constructive, since nothing is clear-cut in the case of such a profound human endeavor as the desire to fly like Icarus. Does such-and-such a prototype deserve to be labeled an "invention" even if it didn't actually work ideally, or didn't even work at all? For those who reply yes, then the inventor of free flight (French wording) was surely the German Otto Lilienthal [1848-1896], photographed here a week before a mortal crash:

Certain observers contend that a historical prototype only merits the designation "invention" if it was a direct precursor of a popular modern device. Such critics are wading through historical quicksand, since their alleged "inventions" are appearing and disappearing at the same speed as current progress in technology and marketing. This is particularly true in a domain that is considerably more familiar to me, personally, than hang gliders. I'm referring to computers. Maybe certain naive folk would be happy if today's history books were to claim, say, that Bill Gates invented the computer! It goes without saying that I wouldn't agree with them.

Yesterday, I expressed my admiration of the aerial spectacle provided by the magnificent eagle Sherkan, his Swiss trainer Jacques-Olivier Travers and their French parapente pilot Laurent Cochard. Might it be said that this trio invented the concept of flying with eagles? No!

This engraving comes from an issue of the excellent magazine Scientific American (to which I subscribe today) dated 1865. A Baltimore inventor had sent in a letter to the editor suggesting the exploitation of a team of eagles as "a means of air transport that would be extremely simple and not costly". He calculated that, since a bird can carry up to 10 kg in its claws [legend of vicious eagles clutching lambs and children], only ten would be required to transport an adult passenger, enclosed (for safety?) in a metallic cage. The Baltimore fellow explained that a "system of ropes" could be manipulated like reins by the human passenger, obliging the eagles to orient their flight in any desired manner. American science in 1865!

Getting back to the case of my compatriot and friend John Dickenson, I've often dreamed that my birthplace of Grafton, inspired by Dickenson's delta-wing legacy, might get around to organizing an "overdrive" version of our archaic Jacaranda Festival. I now know that John, too, has had this same idea in the back of his mind. Unproductive squabbling about aeronautical history has thrown a spanner into the works, to the extent that the revisionists appear to have frightened Grafton authorities, who must think at times (wrongly, of course) that they're being duped by the Dickenson story.

I would dearly love to talk like the pope, and tell my fellow Graftonians that they should not be afraid to go forward bearing the banner of Dickenson. But the real problem is: What would be the ideal geographical location in Australia to organize a fabulous free-flight Aussie Icarus air show? And who would be prepared to invest in the launching of such an event?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Icarus show

The Coupe d'Icare [Icarus Cup] is an annual air show that takes place about 20 km to the north of Grenoble, in the village of Saint Hilaire du Touvet, perched on the cliff tops of the Chartreuse mountain range. It's not far away, as the crow flies [oops, I meant to say: as the parapente glides], from the great Carthusian monastery: the Grande Chartreuse. One understands immediately that it's the kind of landscape, or rather skyscape, in which fearless individuals are inspired to soar upwards, undaunted by the threat of maybe having their wings burned by the Sun.

Not knowing how I might best approach the show, from a practical viewpoint, I parked my old Citroën as soon as I came upon a festival atmosphere. In the sky, above the gigantic cliffs, scores of parapentes and hang gliders were circling around like colorful insects, and the public address system was informing us of the identity and nature of each aircraft. Every minute or so, one of them would drop down towards us, ready to land smoothly in a vast grassy field surrounded by seated onlookers.

Many aircraft [archival images] were decorated with weird colorful trappings, since one of the basic goals of the Coupe d'Icare, if I understand correctly, is to entertain the crowd.

Often, the parapentes carried, not only the pilot, but one or even two passengers. Dozens of slim airfoils, manned by daredevil experts, provided us with acrobatic displays: loops, spins and cliff crawling, terminating in high-speed descents and horizontal landings that always appeared to me as near crashes.

Still a few hundred meters away from the landing zone, I was amazed to see a parapente accompanied by a big bird, gliding and swooping around the aircraft. Hardly believing my eyes, I wondered whether it was merely some kind of robotic device linked to the aircraft.

Five minutes later, I learned with amazement that I had witnessed the flight of the eagle Sherkan and his human friend and trainer, a Swiss master of falconry, Jacques-Olivier Travers, conveyed by a third team member, Laurent Cochard, an experienced parapente pilot.

This is a truly beautiful and unique story, which is rapidly becoming world-renowned. I haven't found any English-language video that presents this case of an amazing bird/man relationship, but you can click the photo to access a short presentation on French TV. To obtain more information, Google with the French expression "aigles du leman" (eagles of Lake Léman), and look for their English-language pages. Magnificent stuff!

Getting back to the air show, I soon realized that the main action was no doubt taking place, not down on the landing field, but up on the clifftops. So, I wandered along to the nearby funicular railway, where the crowds were such that I had to wait nearly an hour. The wait was well worthwhile. The antiquated wooden cars scale the 700-meter cliffs at snail's pace, but at a maximum angle of 83 degrees.

And the ascension ends with a scary trip through a black tunnel: the steepest passenger tunnel of any kind in the world. I prefer not to think of what might happen if the steel cable connecting the two cars were to break. A couple of local girls with whom I started to chat while awaiting the departure assured me that it was unthinkable that the cable might ever break... because it had been in operation since 1924, and it hadn't broken yet. Good optimistic thinking!

Up on the clifftops, a gigantic noisy carnival was in full swing. In certain places—particularly inside the vast tents where visitors could sit down for exotic meals of all kinds—I had to shoulder my way through the joyful crowds, which included hordes of kids.

I nearly got eaten up, with my camera and all, in the embrace of a couple of giant Oriental puppets, who would not have surprised me one iota if they had suddenly ascended into the blue Icarian sky above the delightful village of Saint Hilaire du Touvet.

Strange creatures on stilts created panic in the crowd. One imagined that they might slip and slide off the cliffs.

Elsewhere on the plateau, crazy but serious members of a local quintet in black costumes and top hats insisted that visitors arriving in the lovely little alpine village should wipe their feet on door mats.

Confused tourists, of course, were at a loss to know how to react... so we saw them wiping assiduously their feet. Delightful detail: From time to time, the absurd crew decided that such-and-such a visitor had to be measured with a wooden yardstick to see if he/she might not be too big to enter the village. Their actions were conducted so seriously that tourists obeyed... whereupon successful entrants of a plump kind were rewarded with a tap on the buttocks with the yardstick. Nice fun of a second-degree kind. Simple and innocent, but never vulgar nor tiring.

Elsewhere on the gentle Chartreuse slopes, a proud dad was initiating his kid into the art of jumping into nothingness.

Ah, what a magnificent concept for those who, unlike me, are not the victims of vertigo. Jumping into nothingness! If only my father had behaved like that! I would have been spared both a religious adolescence and a lifetime of catching up on existentialists such as Albert Camus and Richard Dawkins. [Soon, maybe, I should think about the idea of awarding nice little Gamonian key rings to perspicacious readers of Antipodes who succeed in detecting blog posts in which William has failed to sneak in even a tiny mention of his Oxfordian hero Dawkins.]

Meanwhile, in the free flight domain, as elsewhere, business is business... which means that a lot of owners of hang gliders are trying to sell them, no doubt with a view to purchasing parapentes.

A few days ago, in an article entitled Inventor of the hang glider [display], I spoke of my joyful encounter with my compatriot John Dickenson, who has been a guest of honor at the Coupe d'Icare. A replica of Dickenson's 1963 wing was hung up in one of the halls at Saint Hilaire du Touvet.

Unfortunately, its curved whitish form could hardly be distinguished from that of the enclosing marquee.

In conclusion, recalling the trivial quarrels in Australia about Dickenson's role as a pioneer, I look out upon the grandiose dimensions of the Coupe d'Icare, and I'm ashamed of my fellow-countrymen... The other day, John and I chatted at length about the kind of marvelous air festival that might be staged in my birthplace of Grafton... if only the local authorities were to react seriously to Dickenson's claim to fame, which has sadly never been the case. Today, after having glimpsed, like John, the fabulous events of the Coupe d'Icare, I'm more than ever thoughtful on this theme. To stage such an annual happening, it goes without saying that it helps a lot if you happen to have cliffs of the French Pre-Alpes [the generic name of the Chartreuse and Vercors ranges] in the background. More than that, you need an attractive mountain village up on top, and a luscious green landing field down in the valley. Needless to say, preparations for an aeronautical festival such as the Coupe d'Icare are helped immensely if you also happen to have a giant provincial city such as Grenoble just a stone's throw away [oops again... a parapente glide] down the road.

Having expressed those minor doubts of a factual nature, I continue to believe firmly that the land of John Dickenson should observe what has been happening in France, and look into the idea of organizing a great Down-Under Icarus show. We've got the pretexts and the potential, and surely the public and the right places. All that's required is a bit of imagination, kindness and cooperative thinking...

Not ready to discard my Mac

I've played the following video several times, in an attempt to grasp its profound meaning:

It certainly doesn't make me want to throw away my Mac and move to MicroShit. On the other hand, this sketch with Mr Bean is charming:

It's amusing to see that the Apple ads of the "I'm a Mac... and I'm a PC" series have created what might be called a publicity paradigm, in the sense that they're being used as a yardstick of excellence. PC people realize that they can't create anything better than these ads, which viewers are not likely to forget overnight, so they merely try to jump on the bandwagon in one way or another, in a vain attempt to borrow the Apple momentum.

Local bottles

The three bottles in this photo have the same capacity, 50 centiliters, which is two-thirds that of an ordinary wine bottle. As you can see, I often use a fashionable tall and thin version of this bottle for my walnut wine, but the transparent glass has the disadvantage of revealing stains. This modern bottle, popular in France for prestigious samples of white and rosé wines, has an empty weight of about 450 grams.

The central bottle in the photo is a famous pot de Lyon [Lyon flagon]: the recipient used for ages in restaurants in the illustrious gastronomical city as a table flask for wine drawn from casks.

On the left, you see an ancient specimen of a pot de Lyon that I unearthed at Gamone last Friday, by chance, following heavy rain that had washed away the soil that had concealed the bottle for a couple of centuries. The thick green glass of this antique bottle weighs just over a kilo: that's to say, well over twice the weight of its modern descendant.

Electronic frisbee made in China

My friend Corina, who has an excellent French-language blog named Jour après jour [Day after day], is interested in devices such as watches and clocks that are construed to keep time in a fuzzy fashion. Her latest discovery on the web is an elegantly-designed timepiece that enables you, for a price tag of merely $229, to attain the ultimate Nirvana in which Time is what you want it to be.

[Click the image to visit the website that sells this beautiful object.]

Designed by Sander Mulder, the timepiece is described poetically:

About Time

Poetry in motion,
this innovative clock reveals the passing of time by
rolling around your desk and
telling time in one long continuous sentence.

Designed in reaction to our stressed lives,
where we tend to plan our daily activities to the minute,
this clock simply tells you
"It's about six o'clock" or "it's almost seven now".

While rolling around your table,
the slow but constant, almost meditative motion
allows you to relax and maybe even
forget about time for a few minutes.

A cheaper version of this kind of clock is being sold by Ikéa. I happened to purchase my specimen a couple of months ago, for half-a-dozen euros, and I noticed recently that the same product is still being proposed in their Grenoble store for one-point-something euros. Who knows? Maybe, if you wait a while, Ikéa will get around to paying you to take one back home with you!

The plastic casing is pure Ikéa, whereas the time-keeping mechanism is pure Chinese. A nice tandem. And that's the way the fortune cookie crumbles. I really must offer this object as a gift to Corina, the next time I see her. I haven't had time [How could I, with such a device?] to analyze the product carefully, but I have the impression that the Chinese engineers have incorporated into their mechanism—no doubt for pure fun, like fireworks—some kind of incredibly miniature high-tech device for generating random numbers, which are then used to determine the slowing factor applied to the displayed time. On the other hand, a lot of the energy supplied by the clock's battery has been channeled by the Chinese engineers into the audio production of a huge once-a-second thud that is guaranteed to prevent anybody from sleeping in the same room as this extraordinary gadget.

Science historians might claim that Albert Einstein was the first genius to point out that space-time is "warped", as they say metaphorically. But Ikéa's Chinese clock manufacturers are the first people to provide us with a low-cost device for demonstrating this phenomenon in a down-to-earth daily and noisy manner.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Australian inventor of hang glider on French TV

A short video portrait of John Dickenson, who invented the concept of hang gliding in Grafton in 1963, is being aired every evening on regional TV news for the south of France.

As I said in yesterday's article on this subject [display], in Dickenson's home country, Australia, certain revisionists have been trying absurdly to deny his role in history. In France, there is no such bickering. On the contrary, two Frenchmen—Stéphane Malbos and Jean-Paul Budillon—were the first aeronautical historians to discover the importance of John Dickenson's pioneering work. Well before nasty disputes on this question were ignited in Australia, no doubt through jealousy and vested interests, the website of the French Federation of Free Flight (with headquarters at Nice on the French Riviera) made it clear that John Dickenson was the inventor of the delta-wing hang glider. Towards the end of 2002, I relayed this information in my personal website concerning my childhood township of South Grafton.

Table finished

My bedside table in steel and walnut is finished... except for the final treatment of the wood. It cost me exactly a hundred euros. And I purchased a nice Ikea halogen lamp, maximally pivotable, that's exactly what I need for reading Richard Dawkins in bed. As you can see from the photo, the table had to be narrow, to fit in between my West Australian jarrah-wood bed and bookshelves.

I'm often disturbed when I jump into bed with single book. I say to myself: It would be so silly if I had to get out of bed, in an hour's time, and look around for another book, to continue my night-time reading. So, I prepare a heap of three or four books for the night. On such occasions, of course, I usually fall asleep ten minutes later. In any case, with my new bedside table, there's a lower shelf capable of housing enough potential reading for impossibly long nights.

Time for Tzipi

I've repeated the title of a short article I wrote nearly a year and a half ago [display]. I admire this woman. I persist in believing that Tzipi Livni might achieve marvels at the head of that rugged nation, still so close to its violent pioneering roots. Many people think back nostalgically to the era of Golda Meir. Born in Tel Aviv, the daughter of diehard Irgun activists, Tzipi Livni has been a lawyer and a fighter, who once worked for the Mossad. At the head of the Kadima party, her major opponent from now on is Bibi Netanyahu, who will surely do his best to make it difficult for Tzipi Livni to accede to the top post of Israel. It'll be a good fight. May the best (wo)man win!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Homemade furniture

My title is wrong. What I want to talk about is not exactly home-made, but rather home-designed, furniture. For example, I love reading in bed of an evening, before going to sleep. And this means that I need an ideal lamp, which can be oriented in such a way that it lights up my book but doesn't shine in my eyes. It's not exactly the same problem as computer lighting, which I've solved ideally by means of fluorescent U-tubes of the following kind:

This solution doesn't work well for reading in bed, because the lamp head can't be swiveled as much as one would like. So, I set out to find an ideal solution.

Parenthesis. To my mind, bedtime activities of all kinds are tremendously important. Personally, I'm afraid I seem to have moved beyond the stage of sexual gymnastics, unfortunately, for want of female partners in the Vercors wilderness. Half an hour ago, my lovely young neighbor Alison astonished me (I'm still under the shock) by revealing spontaneously that she sleeps with her dog Pif (which, incidentally, explains a hell of a lot of things), but that's not exactly what I had in mind when talking of bedtime activities. What I'm thinking about, precisely, is the possibility of snuggling into bed with a fine book by Richard Dawkins, Brian Greene, Steven Pinker, etc. Don't quote me as saying that it's better than sex. But almost...

Above all, I needed a bedside table. And I soon decided that the best solution (I've already adopted this approach for my computer desk) consisted of asking an expert tradesman to build me the steel frame of the ideal table.

Cost = 55 euros. Next, I needed a couple of walnut slabs. That's the point at which the design of furniture became a splendid quest for authenticity. I soon located a timber mill alongside the mysterious tiny village of Albenc, known to Nostredamus, described in my article of 10 October 2007 entitled Intriguing tourist [display]. I purchased an aged slab of walnut. Cost = 30 euros. I now await the cabinet-maker's trivial invoice for two finished walnut shelves. What I'm trying to say is that designing one's custom-made furniture can be—in the case of a simple bedside steel-and-walnut structure—an exhilarating low-cost experience... with warm repercussions, after effects, every time you snuggle into bed with a good book.

Inventor of the hang glider

This morning, in a villa on the slopes of the Chartreuse mountain range above Grenoble, I finally met up with a celebrated fellow-Australian, John Dickenson, who is recognized internationally as the inventor of the hang glider.

[Click the photo to visit the Dickenson website, based upon the remarkable
research efforts of an inspired New Zealander, Graeme Henderson.]

John and his wife are staying with a French enthusiast of aeronautical history, Stéphane Malbos, who was responsible for publicizing the Dickenson story, years ago, at a time when few Australians were aware that this revolutionary invention—giving humans the power to glide like eagles—had been made in 1963 in Grafton, New South Wales... which happens to be the rural town where I was born in 1940.

This weekend, Stéphane will be taking John Dickenson along to France's annual high mass of hang gliding: the Icarus Cup pageant in the nearby town of St-Hilaire-du-Touvet, which presents all kinds of exotic variations on the hang-gliding theme.

[Click the poster to visit their website. If you don't read French,
you can find amusing images of hang-glider specimens.]

This morning's encounter with John Dickenson was immensely moving. I sensed immediately that I was in the presence of a man of imagination, a quietly-spoken inventor of the Leonardo da Vinci kind. It's sad to learn that a tiny bunch of jealous loud-spoken usurpers, some of whom have money and influence, have been advancing empty arguments in an evil attempt to deprive John Dickenson of the honors in aeronautical history that are his due.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

High-tech Pif

Not having seen Pif for several days, I was happy to glimpse his tiny black silhouette this morning. He stood strangely still at a corner of the road, gazing down towards Sophia and me.

I sensed immediately that there was a change in Pif's behavior, for he seemed to hesitate before coming down to meet up with us. But, after a few minutes, he finally dashed down.

I was amused to see that Pif now wears a nice little blue metal badge informing us that he has an electronic chip implanted in his body. For Alison to resort to such technology, I would guess that Pif has probably been doing a few disappearing tricks over the last couple of weeks.

After romping around with Sophia for twenty minutes or so, Pif was happy to gulp down the usual food I offer him whenever he visits us.

As always, he splashed his broad snout around in the bowl of water in front of the house.

Then, he surprised me by calmly trotting off back home, like a wise little dog. This behavior was so unexpected that I wondered, for an instant, whether Pif might not be under the influence of a mysterious high-tech homing device. A more plausible explanation: Maybe Pif has simply attained the canine equivalent of the age of reason.

PS As of this morning (Wednesday 17), I realized that my belief that Pif might have attained an age of wisdom was probably a false alert. The dog arrived here early this morning, as excited as ever, to race around madly with Sophia, well before his mistress left their house on her noisy scooter. And there are no signs yet that he's thinking of trotting back up home. Meanwhile, I've reminded Pif that, once he leaves Gamone and settles in Spain with his mistress, Sophia and I will expect him to send us a postcard from time to time.

I've just spoken with Alison Morin. She tells me they'll be leaving for Spain next Monday. I'm relieved to learn that Pif gets on wonderfully well with other dogs, and that he does in fact calm down and behave himself when he's in a new and unknown environment. In Spain, he'll be living with Alison in a house that is ready to welcome him. As for his electronic chip, Alison tells me that it was actually implanted several months ago, but she had only recently thought of attaching the badge to Pif's collar. Apparently, as of next year, all domestic animals (such as Sophia, Gavroche, Moshé and Mandrin) will need to carry such chips. Maybe I should ask the authorities if they can install one in me, too. Who knows? It might turn out to be useful...

Is there such a thing as French blood?

The question in my title is deliberately rhetorical and provocative, merely to draw attention. It's like a newspaper heading such as: Must man who bit dog wear muzzle? A more rigorous down-to-earth title for the present post would have been: Are there correlations between DNA and the geographical origins of Europeans? It would appear that the answer to that intriguing question is yes. In any case, what I want to do in this post is to summarize what I've understood—if anything at all—about this question, and about the answers provided by research assisted by the GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical company. Maybe readers who are better versed in genetics than me might correct possible blunders in what I have to say... or they might consider that this subject is so fuzzy that it's better not to say anything at all.

Let's start at the beginning. We all know that the basic stuff of life, DNA, can be imagined as a lengthy "word" written by means of only four "letters". In the following fragment of DNA, I've represented the four "letters" by arbitrary colors:

Now, let me drop the inverted commas around "letter": a metaphor for nucleotide. From one human being to another, throughout the planet, 99% of DNA sequences are identical. But every now and again, for such-and-such a fragment of DNA, one of the letters might be different, as illustrated here:

As you can see, in the normal fragment of DNA, the third letter is green, whereas in the case of the individual we've just encountered, the third letter is red. If this kind of variation occurs for at least one in every hundred new individuals they examine, geneticists refer to the changed letter as an SNP, pronounced "snip". In the case of humans, potential snips are commonplace. They probably number around 3 million. But, as I said, for any particular snip, only a small proportion of humans will possess the changed letter. Concerning the vast majority of snips, geneticists have no idea whatsoever of the consequences upon an individual, if any, of the changed letter. On the other hand, certain snips have been identified as sources of possible health problems, meaning that they can be used as medical indicators... which is why snips are of interest to pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline.

Let's get back to the question of European geography. The research project was headed by Manfred Kayser, a geneticist at Erasmus University at Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Researchers were able to use a vast collection of European DNA samples that had been obtained by GlaxoSmithKline in the context of their constant hunt for genes responsible for side effects brought about by certain pharmaceutical products. Within the DNA sample for each European studied by Kayser's teams (including researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles), half a million snips were examined. When I say "examined", that merely means that the researchers noted whether each snip letter, for that individual, was normal or anomalous. The result of this analysis was a huge collection of yes/no snip data for each person being studied. Using conventional number-crunching methods, all this data was reduced in such a way that the individual's snip profile could be represented as a point on a two-dimensional graph. And the researchers added an elementary item of information to each point: namely, the place where that individual happened to be born.

Well, the results were astounding. All the points corresponding to individuals born in France formed a cluster, which was located alongside another cluster of the points corresponding to individuals born in Italy, and so on... In other words, the geneticists' graph of snip profiles was equivalent to a geographical map of Europe! Consequently, it's a fact that, if a new human candidate were to be examined, and his snip profile happened to fall inside the French cluster, there's a good chance that he's a Frenchman.

In fact, there's very little genetic diversity within Europe, because people have remained largely within their territorial borders. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the greatest diversity existed in Mediterranean Europe, whereas Scandinavian, British and Irish data was more uniform. Noah Rosenberg, a geneticist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, concluded: "A pattern in which genes mirror geography is essentially what you would expect from a history in which people moved slowly and mated mainly with their close neighbors."

It's important to understand that this research has little to do with chromosomes, genes and inheritance. It's simply a matter of the statistical analysis of snip data, correlated with geography. It would be crazy to imagine that the researchers are suggesting, for example, that there's a "French gene" that might be injected into an Englishman (Heaven forbid!) to transform him into a Parisian. That would be just as crazy as the idea of a "lipstick gene" for pigs.

Gamone rainbow

There has been so much rain in the region over the last week or so that I welcomed this late Sunday afternoon rainbow over the Bourne, with the sunlit Cournouze in the background. Talking of rainbows, the poetry-inspired book by Richard Dawkins entitled Unweaving the Rainbow [which I've mentioned already in Antipodes] is truly a masterpiece. I should say: yet another Dawkins masterpiece.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Virginity for sale

This charming US specimen of the female sex claims she's a virgin. Based upon that hypothesis, she's offering her body to the highest male bidder/screwer at a starting price of a million bucks. To me, that sounds like an absurdly expensive deal. And it also sounds a bit like what we old-timers used to call prostitution. But I'm sure there'll be takers. The bottom line [no pun intended] is that the young lady, whose code name is Natalie Dylan [Google with this name to obtain the whole "truth" concerning this affair], intends to use her ill-gotten gains to pay her way through university, where she would like to major in family and conjugal psychology.

It's a fact that males often insist upon the virginity of their future spouses. I've heard that, in certain societies, deftly-fingered gentlemen make a living out of patching up ruptured hymens so that maidens are as good as new for their wedding nights.

OK, some of you have guessed it already: I've been waiting for ages to have a pretext for telling one of my favorite dirty jokes. If you happen to be an under-age reader of Antipodes, please go to bed, so that we grown-ups can be left alone to enjoy our childish humor.


Veronica knew that saintly Stanislas would be out of his mind if ever he discovered, on their wedding night, that she wasn't a virgin. So, she paid a specialist to install a high-tech AH [artificial hymen] system composed of a flexible nylon frame with an ultra-thin plastic film held in place by elastic supports: a masterpiece of AH engineering.

On their wedding night, everything appeared to be coming along fine. Gentle movements. Sighs. Thrusts. Soft groans of pleasure. Then a loud crack. Stanislas cried out in terror: "What the bloody hell was that?"

Veronica: "Stanislas darling, it was just my virginity that went pop."

Stanislas: "Un-pop it immediately, for Christ's sake. My John Thomas and balls seem to be entangled in a painful mesh of rubber bands!"

Wilderness, the key to Australia's future

I have just received a highly interesting email concerning yesterday's article about the Australian Outback. The author, John Thompson, has kindly authorized me to include this email in my blog. The photos, too, are included by courtesy of the Queensland-based tourism business operated by John and his wife: Nature-Bound Australia. They have two excellent websites:

Hi William,

I have just read your blog response to the media article portraying Australia as a failed state. I guess all media releases are drafted around drama and extreme "hooks" but behind this release there is considerable truth.

I have spent more than 30 years taking small groups of people into the Australian bush as a specialist tour operator. We are a boutique business, husband and wife, providing a highly personalised holiday experience and we focus on national parks and wilderness areas. On the side we are constantly in touch with people of the outback, tiny settlements, legend and history. It is true that there is a move by families and individuals away from the bush toward opportunities in the metropolitan areas along the coast. It is called a rural crisis. Banks and essential services and enterprises have vacated leaving small villages and towns in disarray, there are serious health service issues and the list goes on.

There are trends toward large scale property amalgamations being taken up and placed under corporate rather than family control. The plight of Aboriginals is an embarrassment and there are now serious issues revolving around global climate change, major rivers drying up, food production areas under threat and so on.

We have nearly two generations that are turned off from the wilderness on the strength that it is dangerous, uncomfortable, boring, nothing to see, a self perpetuating disease passed down by parents bent on wrapping their city children in care and comfort.

There has been a huge influx of Asian residents in our cities and they have no inherent connection with the outback, its spirit, legends or history and therefore no apparent interest. Tourism Australia has literally "flogged" the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Sydney, leading to massed mainstream visitations around tourist hubs to the detriment of wonderful regional and outback features and destinations, communities, family businesses, infrastructure and so on.

One of the major issues is politically we have no real visionaries who have the strength to see beyond their political careers, short term and to make some major milestone decisions. But there are a few positives to all this. The conservation movement is starting to gain teeth on issues like wholesale destruction of our limited old growth forests. Some 45% of Australia, the arid regions, has recently been highlighted as one of the world's greatest remaining wilderness areas and millions of American dollars by private foundations are going into enhancing this cause. Private not-for-profit nature conservancies are buying up large wilderness properties and positioning young scientists and managers on these in an effort to return the land to a pristine state and to assist endangered wildlife. There is no time to wait for national park departments and bureaucracies to initiate essential acquisitions.

There are of course incredible resources in Australia from coal, uranium, bauxite, sun, monsoonal rains, space and many controversial issues surrounding these. We are a country that simply extracts these resources and sells them to overseas companies which in turn are influencing control of our major companies, whereas some political strength might consider incentives which encourage Australian companies to value add to their resources and to develop their leading technologies before selling to the world. At present so many of our smart people and ideas have to go overseas for venture support.

I'm aware of one gentleman, a visionary, who has lobbied some 290 politicians in support of a major railway to run through the inland of Australia from Melbourne to Darwin to open up regional areas to new opportunities and development, bringing Australian goods readily to the Asian markets and taking huge numbers of large road transport off the major highways where drivers are under stress and tragic accidents are occurring regularly. Another gentleman who has made his wealth through technology has now applied his skills, contacts and wealth to buying up large traces of wilderness.

While the population is gathering in the south around cities and coast and these areas are under stress and threat from water issues we have a third of our nation largely unpopulated in the tropical zone where abundant water is available to be harnessed, for a whole new wave of food production if a visionary government could emerge.

It is real that other countries and funding could see and seize this opportunity through investment stealth (invasion) and have the Asian markets a short sea voyage or flight away.

My feeling is the governance of the country is not going to change and there is a case that we are too over-governed with three controlling stratas: national, state and local. We really need fearless visionaries with an ethical agenda, to take our great country by the throat and give it a good shake.

Our overseas guests on tour are absolutely wrapped in Australia and point to the natural history assets we have, the space and the people as wonderful. As we don't take tours into the city and theme parks etc they can only be referring to the Australian bush, so somehow it is a jewel worth saving.

We don't know how lucky we are but perhaps, as a nation, we are taking it all for granted.

Best wishes,

John Thompson
Managing Director
Nature-Bound Australia
PO Box 1209
New Farm Queensland 4005