Wednesday, July 30, 2008

China's promises

People who are about to fall into a state of TV enthrallment during the Olympic Games might take a few minutes off to reflect upon what has happened in China since 2001, when Beijing was designated as the host city for 2008. I'm thinking, not of air pollution, but of the promises of a political nature made by the Chinese government.

Concerning access to the Internet, Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC [International Olympic Commitee], claimed recently that there would be no Internet censure in China during the Games.

Today, on the contrary, the IOC admitted that it had always known that China would never remove Internet restrictions for foreign journalists covering the Games. Even the websites of the celebrated Falun Gong spiritual movement, with millions of adepts in China and throughout the world, are outlawed. [Click the logo to visit their information center... unless you happen to be located in China.]

Concerning Tibet, the current situation is hard to analyze. On the one hand, it's a fact that China recently sent two senior Communist officials to meet up with Tibetan negotiators. On the other hand, reports from the exiled Tibetan government in India claim that over 200 people have been killed in violence in Tibet over the last four months.

Finally, in the domain of human rights, there is no more eloquent statement of China's broken promises than the Amnesty International report on this subject. [Once again, unless you happen to be located in China, you can access the Amnesty website simply by clicking the following banner.]

We read, on the first page of this report: Regrettably, since the publication of Amnesty International’s last Olympics Countdown report on 1 April 2008, there has been no progress towards fulfilling these promises, only continued deterioration. Unless the authorities make a swift change of direction, the legacy of the Beijing Olympics will not be positive for human rights in China.

Monday, July 28, 2008

New kind of news tool

No sooner had I informed my friend Corina [the cultivated young lady who signs her perspicacious Antipodes comments as cm] that I was contemplating the creation of the French Leaves blog than she told me, by return email, that she was working in a similar domain, with a rather different approach.
[Click the banner to access her new website.]

In examining Corina's approach, I realize that we're all looking for ways of assimilating, organizing and digesting the stream of challenging messages we receive every day through the Internet.

Incidentally, in case you're wondering why there's a bat in the banner, I'll give you a hint. Corina is Romanian. In fact, I would be happy if Corina were to realize that her notorious 15th-century compatriot is no longer the most batty vampire-oriented personage who has ever existed. In chapter 2 of his brilliant book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins describes these delightful animals in such a lovable in-depth way that I've developed an intense admiration for these tiny creatures, who are my constant friends at Gamone.

New blog

For a long time, I've been aware of the fact that my Antipodes blog is a relatively personal affair, which tackles a broad and heterogeneous range of topics, often in an undisciplined style. The Antipodean notion is bipolar. For Europeans, the Antipodes is Australia and New Zealand. For an Australian like me, when I was a youth, my exciting vision of the Antipodes was an unknown land named France on the other side of the planet Earth. In my blog, no doubt, there are traces of these two complementary attitudes. If so, I would like it to stay that way.

On the other hand, I've often been tempted to concentrate on a more precise objective: namely, an English-language presentation of various French themes in domains such as politics, culture, science and technology, sport, etc. So, I've finally decided to launch a second blog, with that aim in mind.
[Click the banner to access a prototype version of the new blog.]

The web address of this new blog is http://skyvington.com

Normally, my articles should be more objective and less personal than those in Antipodes. Also, the rhythm will be considerably slower: maybe a new article every three or four days. You won't, of course, find anything in this new blog about Gamone, Sophia, my donkeys Moshé and Mandrin, my billy-goat Gavroche, Richard Dawkins, etc. And there probably won't be many references to my native land, Australia.

For readers who might be interested in this kind of French-oriented blog, I beg you to be patient. For the moment, I'm trying to master the new software tool, called WordPress, which is a total do-it-yourself thing. So, I'll need some time to get accustomed to this new challenge that I've set myself.

POST SCRIPTUM

I've made a Blogger-based version of this new blog at http://frenchleaves.blogspot.com

Between the WordPress and Blogger versions, which is better? As far as I'm concerned, it was a thrill to build my own WordPress system, but I suspect it's more efficient and rapid to stick to the Blogger environment. I'll have to think about it...

New search engine

Today is the launch date for a new search engine named Cuil, pronounced cool, built by former Google employees.
[Click the image to access the tool.]

For people accustomed, like me, to using Google, Cuil is a little weird, primarily because it churns out astronomical quantities of links. In the case of an author of a book, for example, Guil indicates every imaginable website that mentions the book. My first impression is that this might be overkill. But it's preferable to play around with Cuil for a while, and give it time to eliminate any teething problems, before forming a judgment.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lily-white cyclists

No, I'm not talking about dope, but rather about their skin color. In an interesting article in the newspaper Le Monde, a journalist has drawn attention to the fact that the colorful peloton of Tour de France riders includes not a single Black, Arab or Asian. How can this be explained? In France, it's mainly a rural sport, rather than a suburban activity. Becoming a competitive cyclist requires a significant financial investment, and you need room to store your bike and associated tools and equipment. By comparison, it's cheaper for a youth to spend his spare time kicking a soccer ball. Consequently, boys of immigrant background who grow up in a low-income suburban environment of high-rise flats are unlikely to get involved in cycling. But I would imagine that the phenomenon of a lily-white peloton is likely to evolve considerably in forthcoming years.

Another journalist was intrigued by the fact that this year's winner, the 33-year-old Spaniard Carlos Sastre, appears to be such an unobtrusive fellow, whom people would probably not recognize if they bumped into him on the street. This is a reflection of the ingrained idea that Tour de France champions are necessarily forceful characters: attackers who exude power and authority, like Bernard Hinault or Lance Armstrong. This attitude is no doubt a remnant of the epoch when Tour champions such as Fausto Coppi [1919-1960] and Jacques Anquetil [1934-1987] generated a mythical and almost divine aura.

Gamone roe deer

Half an hour ago, I spotted this female roe deer and her two fawns on the other side of Gamone Creek. Earlier this afternoon, I heard a male deer barking in the nearby woods. So, there's a nice little family installed there.

Gamone dogs

Yesterday morning, I went out early to buy some food for the weekend, leaving Sophia inside the cool kitchen. When I returned to Gamone, I was amused to find Alison's dog Pif seated on a mound of earth alongside my mailbox, like the proverbial dog near Gundagai [display], calmly awaiting my return. Descending from my car, I was welcomed by joyous barking by both dogs, for I was literally the key figure who could open the kitchen door and enable the dogs to get engaged in their everyday jousting.

Pif has a size and weight disadvantage, so he tries constantly to imagine the optimal angle of attack.

As for Sophia, she knows that her best strategy is to remain firmly planted on her front paws, with her large jaws wide open. It's a bit like bull-fighting, with Sophia in the role of the matador, while Pif is a tiny black bull.

Pif discovered this efficient attack angle at the very beginning of his contacts with Sophia. By placing his body up against Sophia's bulky frame, Pif can try to get a grip on the furry fat of Sophia's neck, while remaining at a safe distance from Sophia's jaws. It's a tactic that works for a while... up until Sophia simply spins around to meet Pif head-on.

Pif loves the loose dirt on this mound where my old wood shed used to be located. He's capable of scrambling up an almost vertical embankment, such as those alongside the road above my house.

We see here the technique employed by Alison in an attempt to prevent her horses from strolling back down to my place. She has simply blocked the public road by means of a makeshift string "gate", attached on one side to a rubber hose. Apparently the horses imagine that the string is electrified. So do tourists. Yesterday, a middle-aged couple from Marseille, in a small brand-new automobile, were blocked by Alison's gate, and started to back down. But there's a problem in backing down an urban vehicle along a sloped road such as this: The driver simply cannot see the macadam in the rear-vision mirror, which can be quite unnerving! Consequently, fearing that the vehicle might be heading towards the gorge that he detects vaguely through the passenger's window (in the case of the road from my place up towards Bob's house), the driver tends to steer his vehicle into the embankment. This was exactly what was happening when I raced up to help the confused tourists yesterday. Finally, I helped them back down safely into the flat zone alongside my house.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

My sunbathed mountain

During the years from 1882 until 1885, the painter Paul Cézanne [1839-1906] produced some 80 images of the giant Sainte-Victoire mountain near Aix-en-Provence, trying to capture it in every imaginable context of weather, luminosity and hues.

In a hugely more modest fashion, I find myself behaving similarly, using a Nikon instead of watercolors, with respect to "my" mountain, the Cournouze.

I captured this twilight image late yesterday afternoon, when a final broad shaft of sunshine from the valley of the Bourne above Pont-en-Royans was hitting the tiny white church of Châtelus and the wooded slopes to the south.

Endgame

For fifteen years, TV viewers have glimpsed the devil, El Diablo, participating regularly, in a roadside fashion, in the Tour de France.

This role is played by a nice German guy, Didi Senft [click the photo].

In spite of this diabolical presence, the starting order for time trials in the Tour de France is inspired by the Gospels [Matthew 20, 16]:

So the last will be first, and the first last.

That's to say, the first rider to take off this afternoon for the 53-km time trial between the village of Cérilly in Auvergne and the city of Saint-Amand-Montrond in Berry, in the middle of France, will be the Austrian Bernhard Eisel of Team Columbia, in 145th and last position in the present overall ratings, some 3 hours and 47 minutes behind the leaders. This last position in the Tour, the so-called red lantern, is in fact coveted in an offbeat way, and riders often fight to retain this honor. Meanwhile, the action this afternoon will be out front, between Carlos Sastre and Cadel Evans.

While there's little point in my making a prognostic, I refuse to imagine for an instant that the Australian can be beaten, because he's so solidly dependable in this kind of solitary situation.

BREAKING NEWS

OK, I'm a lousy cycling forecaster. And Cadel Evans is a tired finisher, forever incapable of the extra punch that might have made him a winner. It's sad, in a way, because Cadel got so close to the glorious goal... like last year. For the moment, disenchanted by this humbling defeat, I don't even wish to hear Cadel's "explanations" on TV, in primitive French. Clearly, something has always been missing in the behavior, style and performance of this cyclist, as if he weren't really designed for a n° 1 role. In any case, it's not today that Australia will be wearing yellow in the world road cycling domain.

Powerful talk

Randy Pausch, a 47-year-old professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, died yesterday of complications from pancreatic cancer. Among other things, he was a great teacher in the domain of virtual reality. If you haven't yet seen his celebrated Last Lecture, delivered un September 2007, I strongly recommend that you set aside everything for an hour or so and sit down calmly in front of your computer, maybe with friends and drinks (for a private wake: a kind of Pausch party), while you watch this extraordinary video:



This video is indeed an amazing statement about vitality, and a rebuttal of the numbing effects of imminent death. Randy Pausch has provided his children—and us spectators, too—with a profound heritage.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Things that never happen

Everybody knows that certain theoretically-imaginable events simply never occur in reality. In modern computer-oriented jargon, they might be described as nightmares of a purely virtual nature. Often, in the middle of a long flight, I've wondered—while standing up in the toilets, say, and calmly peeing—how events might unfold if the floor were to give way. Other passengers might complain that somebody's spending a hell of a long time in the toilets, but it's possible that I wouldn't be seriously missed until the plane touched down. And then the experts would start trying to determine the place where I might have fallen. Finally, the investigating committee would announce solemnly that I had simply disappeared down a hole in the toilets, and that my body was no doubt lost forever. A jet set disappearance. In fact, when you think about it, not such a bad way to die.

On flights between Europe and Australia, I've always preferred to travel with Qantas, because Australia's national Flying Kangaroo airline has always had an excellent reputation. I liked the style of their personnel, who seemed to care genuinely about the comfort and well-being of their passengers. I'll never forget the case of a Qantas cabin steward, long ago, who took pleasure in describing, over the aircraft's audio system, the various places in the Australian wilderness over which we were flying. It was like being driven along in a tourist coach with a competent guide.

In any case, concerning my archaic anguish about falling through the bottom of the plane, everybody knows that such things do not happen, neither on Qantas aircraft nor anywhere else.

Correction! Unlikely events of this kind can in fact happen from time to time... such as this morning, over the Philippines, when a hole suddenly appeared in the right wing fuselage of a Qantas Boeing 747 carrying 350 passengers and 19 crew members. The aircraft nosedived through an altitude gap of some six kilometers, with everybody aboard breathing through oxygen masks, before landing safely at Manila. Although many were scared, nobody was hurt.



As I said, Qantas is a great airline, and nothing bad can ever happen to passengers in the cozy warm pouch of the flying kangaroo. Well, almost nothing...

BREAKING NEWS [no pun intended]:

A short well-written article on the BBC News website [display] reveals that the presence of corrosion had been detected in this 17-year-old aircraft back in February. A Qantas spokeswoman reacted by saying: "There was nothing out of the ordinary in these checks." There are, of course, several different kinds of hypotheses concerning the sudden appearance of a gaping hole in such a position of the fuselage... which, incidentally, may have resulted in passenger luggage falling to earth like bombs of a novel kind. An interesting feature of the above-mentioned BBC site is that they've set up a reader-feedback device designed to receive testimony from passengers aboard the Boeing with a hole in its belly. I hope, though, that the website management verifies the authenticity of input, otherwise we're likely to find tales from imaginary travelers on that ill-fated flight.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Nice promotional video

I like the cloudy graphics (probably Flash artwork) and drowsy musical tone of the French Olympic promotional video.

Click the above image to access their website, skip the introduction and then click the link marked LE FILM in the upper right corner.

It's highly possible, of course, that French sporting results at Beijing will also be cloudy and drowsy... at least in the athletics domain. But, as Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, might have said (but didn't, apparently): The important thing is, not to win, but to participate.

Danger scale

I've been reading Steven Pinker's bestseller about language, published back in 1994, entitled The Language Instinct. It is indeed an excellent and refreshing book, which insists upon the fact that humans are not really taught to communicate by language, even though many parents surely imagine that their children would never have learned to speak were it not for the teaching efforts of their parents... who've often made a huge effort to become experts in "baby talk", believing naively that this was the only way of being understood by their toddlers. No, as Pinker's title suggests, the basic capacity to use language is a human instinct shared by every individual. The proof that our linguistic ability is instinctive is the fact that we say many things that have probably never been said before. So, how could we have been taught to make such statements?

Anecdote. Many years ago, I encountered briefly an exceptional woman: the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a world authority on the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951], whose mysterious and celebrated Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus had fascinated me when I was a student back in Sydney. Anscombe, closely linked to friends in Brittany who shared her Catholic faith, told us a weird story about one of her sons who had never uttered a single sound up until the age of four. One day, unexpectedly, he proclaimed loudly in perfect English: "Mother, you must punish my brother, for he just tried to lock me up in a wardrobe." Stupefaction! From then on, he spoke normally, as if some kind of a mental dam had been unclogged. This trivial anecdote would have probably never impressed me so much were it not for the associations between Anscombe and Wittgenstein.

Recently, I was fascinated by a TV documentary concerning the amazing story of the Israeli crooner Moshe Brand, who was a French celebrity under the name of Mike Brant, up until he jumped to his death from the balcony of a building in Paris. He too, as a child in Israel, never pronounced a single word. Then, at the age of four, he suddenly started to speak in Hebrew, revealing an exceptionally powerful and beautiful vocal tone that would contribute later to his international success as a singer.

Getting back to Pinker's book, I'm amused by his debunking of the silly myth about Eskimos having a huge variety of words for snow. The truth of the matter is that Eskimos probably use fewer words than a run-of-the-mill Alpine skier to talk about various kinds of snow.

When I arrived in France, I was intrigued by cases of a single English word being replaced by two or more French terms. For example, whenever an English-speaking person talks about finding bones [in French: os] in his fish dish, French observers are greatly amused. They imagine, say, a humble trout with a huge thigh bone. The correct French word for the bony things you find in a fish skeleton is arête.

Another stumbling block was the word scale. In a measurement context—for example, in maps—the French equivalent is échelle, which is also the word for ladder. But in music, when referring, say, to the scale of C major, a quite different word appears in French: gamme. Apparently, this new word has something to do with the Greek letter gamma. So, back at the time I was taking guitar lessons in Brussels, not only did I have to replace C, D, E by do, , mi, etc, but I had to force myself to refrain from speaking, say, of the échelle de do majeur.

The subject I wanted to evoke today (after taking quite some time to get around to it) is danger scales for potentially catastrophic events. To start the fireball rolling, let's say that everybody has heard of the famous Richter scale for earthquakes. As strange as it might appear, this logarithmic scale has no upper limit. Consequently, we could never refer to an earthquake of "the greatest possible magnitude", because there would be always be room at the top of the scale for an even more disastrous earthquake. That's nice scientific rigor, but I wouldn't feel like buying a used car from an earthquake scientist who told me that the vehicle required no more than a couple of minor repairs.

I wonder how many people are aware of a similar scale for accidents in the domain of peaceful nuclear energy, known as the INES. Now Ines, pronounced een-ess, happens to be an elegant French female Christian name of Greek etymology, meaning "pure and virginal", which I've encountered once or twice. But the INES that concerns me today is an acronym for the International Nuclear Event Scale, whose eight degrees extend upwards from zero to seven, from green to red.

As I pointed out in my articles of 17 June 2007 entitled Nice TV spot [display] and 27 December 2007 entitled Nuclear energy [display], France is covered with a relatively dense system of nuclear reactors run by a state-owned corporation named Areva, whose president is Anne Lauvergeon. Well, over the last fortnight, several minor accidents have occurred. The first was at the Tricastan site on the Rhône.

Many years ago, Christine and I spent some time there, when it was still thought of as the Pierrelatte center for refining the stuff with which you make atomic bombs. I was participating as a computing instructor in a job skills recycling program aimed at transforming nuclear energy technicians into computerists. I remember, above all, that we were housed in a VIP lodge in the woods, and that the notorious Mistral wind, blowing through the Rhône Valley, drove me mad during my entire stay at Pierrelatte. Indeed, these days, whenever my friends Natacha and Alain extoll the splendors of Provence, I still think to myself: Provence, yes... but Mistral, no!

Over the last fortnight, there have been no less than four accidents in nuclear installations operated by the French electricity authority, EDF. One occurred in the nearby city of Romans, and another in my home département, Isère. We're informed that they were all trivial events on the INES scale... which is nice to know. The latest accident, resulting in the irradiation of a hundred Tricastin employees, was of level zero on the INES scale. A French journalist, not accustomed to the habit (derived from computing) of starting to count with zero, asked rhetorically whether the nuclear authorities might end up trying to convince us that we're faced with negative dangers from their reactors!

There is, in fact, a competent French government agency, called ASN [Nuclear Safety Authority], in charge of safety and security in the nuclear energy domain. [Click their logo to access English-language documentation.]

Funnily enough, we're faced with a similar situation to the doping affairs in cycling, as sketched in my article of 18 July 2008 entitled Half empty or half full? [display]. If we seem to be hit suddenly by an avalanche of nuclear incidents, this doesn't necessarily mean that the whole engineering infrastructure is deteriorating. On the contrary, these danger alerts stem no doubt from the fact the security and detection processes are becoming more and more refined and intense. So, let's be optimistic.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cadel, a flat-out manager

Arithmetically, if all goes well, Cadel Evans should win this year's Tour de France, envisaged beforehand by former champion Laurent Fignon as a transitional event (a dull vintage, one might say) because, for the moment, there are no outstanding champions.

I hope he does, and I think he will. We'll see, next Saturday, in the all-important time trial. French cycling journalists drew attention, this afternoon, to the expert way in which Cadel Evans, with little or no assistance from Silent Lotto team members, is using all his resources to manage his status in the Tour.

Meanwhile, I'm dismayed to have to point out that, within the media context of this spectacular sport, characterized by athletic beauty and daring showmanship, Cadel is no doubt the least aesthetic and exciting cyclist we've seen for a long time. On a bike, he's frankly ugly: sprawled out with his head down, in the fat flat toad style of the Irish champion Sean Kelly. His bike wobbles all over the road, like a mad woman's shit [as my refined mates used to say back in South Grafton, when I was an adolescent cyclist]. These factors might explain why race commentators imagine constantly that Cadel is worn out, at breaking point... even when there's nothing wrong with him whatsoever. He's simply and sadly a rider who never exudes an impression of dominating power. And this view of Cadel is amplified by the fact that he never actually launches an attack against anybody. He's a defender, a defense manager, not a warrior.

Today, we're tempted to contrast Cadel with the impressive Andy Schleck from Luxembourg, who rides with his head held high, watching all around him, darting behind anyone who moves, sniffing the air and dashing into combats like a mad young dog: a metaphor suggested yesterday by his brother Frank, champion of Luxembourg, who took the yellow jersey away from Cadel a few days ago.

The French cycling world often uses a curious word, panache, which designates literally a vain show of feathers, like those of a male peacock. A down-to-earth explanation of the sense of this word would involve talking about a cyclist's being seen in an attractive light on TV, as a star, and earning the reputation of a kind of Zorro on wheels. Cadel Evans, alas, doesn't radiate panache. In his present role as a flat-out manager of Tour de France events, he oozes nothing more than dull managerial weariness. But it's not this kind of weakness that will prevent him from wearing the yellow jersey, as I hope, on the Champs Elysées next Sunday.

Santa Claus is not necessarily trash

A popular cult film in France, Le Père Noël est une ordure [Father Christmas is a scoundrel ], produced in 1982, starred Gérard Jugnot as a sleazy commercial Santa Claus.

Dressed as Father Christmas, Félix was earning his living on Paris sidewalks by carrying a billboard and distributing leaflets for a local strip joint. After a minor shoplifting incident and a scuffle with department store personnel, Félix lost his white beard and had to run for his life. The rest of the film is a symphony of delightfully sick humor, enhanced by splendid acting, with exotic dialogues that countless French aficionados of my generation know off by heart.

The world has just learned with amazement of another evil Santa Claus, Radovan Karadzic, who has spent the last decade or so running for his life.

A few days ago, in a totally different domain, my friend Corina informed me of the existence of an extraordinary Italian monk, Friar Cesare Bonizzi, known as Fratello Metallo (Metal Brother).

In the unlikely event that this white-bearded Capuchin could no longer count upon records and rock concerts to earn precious dimes for his monastery in Milan, he would surely be able to do Santa Claus stints.



After hearing the above stuff, I'm prepared to vouch for the fact that Fratello Metallo is not a disguised scoundrel fleeing from justice.

BREAKING NEWS

Today, it's surrealistic to discover Karadzic's website [display], including "10 favorite ancient Chinese proverbs as selected personally by Dr Dabic". I hope the authorities have the good sense to preserve this legacy site, which is a tiny fragment of the long history of evil and terror in the Balkans. It's almost like finding a nice little unpublished postscript to Mein Kampf.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Satire

The New Yorker cover with an image of Barack Obama and his wife, presented by artist Barry Blitt as terrorists, created an uproar.

It was intended, in good faith, as satire. The definition of this term starts as follows in my online Macintosh dictionary:

the use of humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics...

For me, there's a slight but significant hitch in this case of alleged satire. The artist has indeed used exaggeration to depict the Obama couple as imagined by their enemies, but the resulting concoction is simply not funny. There is no hint of humor or irony in this caricature, which does nothing to ridicule Obama's mindless opponents. For me, this cover drawing is far too literal to merit the title of satire.

Let's move back in time to the Nazi epoch. Many Germans looked upon Jews with delusions of a similar craziness to those concerning Obama today. The typical Jew was stigmatized as ugly, evil and cruel, caring only for wealth, and capable of taking control of weak nations (like France) that had allowed themselves to become the victims of Bolshevism. A well-meaning but unimaginably naive magazine might have thought it funny to put the following image on their cover, as an intended satire of Nazi nonsense:

Alas, far from being a humorous satire intended to ridicule Nazis, this poster was a nasty specimen of hate propaganda, designed to promote a notorious film, Der ewige Jude [the eternal Jew], supervised by Joseph Goebbels and directed by Fritz Hippler. So, you might say that there's a fine line separating satire from offensive shit. The distinction resides in the talents and desires of the individuals who are manipulating, for good or for evil, such powerful messages.

I've often felt that Americans don't always reveal a firm and subtle mastery of political humor and satire. They tend to remain too close to the literal surface, without an aptitude for handling what the French refer to as the second degree of irony, which occurs at rare moments when a skilled humorist succeeds in making fun of fun itself.

In the neighboring domain of stage comedians of the one-man-show kind, I've often been intrigued by comparisons between celebrities from Australia, Britain, America and France. It's a vast and fascinating subject, which cannot of course be handled summarily, here in my blog. In fact, it would be an excellent subject for a doctoral thesis in sociology, provided that the researcher could incorporate video excerpts into his/her thesis.

As for me, I find that the most brilliant political cartoonists, the funniest stage comedians and the most expert producers of TV satire in the world happen to operate right here in France.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Thank God the web exists

It's commonplace to warn users against things they might find on the Internet, which is not necessarily a synonym for perfect Information with a capital I. Wikipedia is not necessarily the biblical Word, nor Google, the Gospel. It's a fact that, in non-Macintosh circles, spam and viruses have given the Internet a bad reputation. The proliferation of hoaxes and urban myths has no doubt made many gullible folk believe that they should be wary of everything they encounter on the Internet. And sex, too, has often become a dirty word on the web, particularly when it veers towards nasty pornography and pedophilia.

In spite of all these negative connotations, I thank God daily for His creation of the Internet... even though it's only mentioned indirectly in the Bible, where we hear of evil Apple in Bill's luxurious garden of Eden. I'm convinced that, for once, God got his design work right, and gave us something infinitely more positive than the Crusades, the Inquisition, Nazism, Aids, etc. Thanks, God!

Seriously, people often suggest that TV is a far better medium for acquiring factual information than the Internet. Well, I disagree entirely. TV can often be rich in images and interviews, spectacular, captivating and highly persuasive. Even in France, though, TV transmits massive quantities of superficial bullshit. Why do I preface that last assertion with the qualifier "Even in France"? Well, if we were to talk about TV shows in many other countries [which I'll refrain from naming, so as not to offend any of my English-speaking friends], I would say that the bullshit degree often rises exponentially.

Here at Gamone, my satellite dish provides me with so many wonderful programs that I often have to force myself not to watch TV... otherwise I would never find time to get around to worthwhile tasks such as writing my Antipodes blog, or communicating with friends such as my dog Sophia and my billy-goat Gavroche, my donkeys Moshé and Mandrin, or Alison's dog Pif and her horses Bessy and Aigle [now quasi-permanent guests at Gavroche].

Last night, I watched what I thought to be an excellent program in the domain of paleo-anthropology named Search for the Ultimate Survivor, produced by John Rubin for National Geographic.

With the help of 36-year-old Louise Leakey, daughter of Richard Leakey, this documentary discussed the migration of Homo erectus beyond Africa. We encountered an alleged giant nicknamed Goliath, and an Indonesian midget known as Hobbit. All this was excellent TV, but I don't regret verifying things calmly, this morning, by in-depth web consultations. Maybe the ancient giants were simply well-fed creatures no bigger than modern humans, whereas the midgets might have resulted from nutritional circumstances. In both cases, it would appear to be unwise to talk of distinct subspecies of Homo erectus.

We've all seen the advertising punch line: You've seen the film; now you should read the book. An updated version: You've seen the TV documentary; now you should use the Internet to check the facts and put things in their proper perspective.

To conclude on a light note, here's a silly but delightful erectus joke:
In Australia, a visiting Japanese businessman is being interviewed by a young lady specialized in political journalism.

Journalist: In Japan, how often do you have major elections?

Japanese businessman: Me, have big election everly morning.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Jesus festival in Sydney

I've already pointed out in my Antipodes blog article of 2 December 2007 entitled Reenactments [display] that historical reenactments tend to bore me. The most nauseating reenactments of all are those that attempt to recreate intense suffering and torture. Fortunately, I wasn't a spectator of the Catholic reenactment of Golgotha in the streets of Sydney last night, for this tasteless drama would have surely made me break out in an itchy red rash followed by fever and vomiting. Well, almost...

That ridiculous photo really makes me sick... like the images in the old movie Mondo Cane of Italians whipping their backs, during a religious procession, until they're bloody pulp. I'm nauseated primarily by the mindlessness of the creators of such a show in the streets of Sydney, who were no doubt reimbursed royally for their artistic efforts. Their production is senseless shit, with no links whatsoever to plausible history or facts. Their patron saint, no doubt, is Mel Gibson. They're playing for the gullible gallery, to suck them in. I'm saddened to realize that there are hordes of simple folk who need to gulp down such sick visual crap in order to be able to claim that their existence has a sense. They're deluded, of course, but they'll never be educated enough to know it. So, they jubilate innocently and eagerly in this reenactment of their poor lord and would-be savior attached to a structure that reminds me of a massive concrete pylon in the expressway at Circular Quay. Back in the pioneering days, Australia donated eucalyptus trees to Israel, to clean up the coastal swamps. It's utterly ludicrous to imagine for an instant that ancient Palestine, at the epoch of Jesus, might have possessed trees capable of providing timber for such a great cross as in Sydney 2008. But who worries about facts?

The thing that disturbs me most is that compatriots in my native land as a whole, rather than just a handful of silly pilgrims, might be appreciating all this superficial papal bullshit. I'm sure there'll be descriptions, in next Monday's Sydney Morning Herald, of hedonistic papal parties in luxurious residences on the foreshores of Sydney.

Half empty or half full?

I've always considered that the famous case of a glass containing only half its total capacity is a symbol of situations that reoccur constantly in our daily existence. Halfway along the road to a goal, some people think that they're so far away from the desired result that they should abandon their pursuit, whereas others, at a similar point, consider that the end of the tunnel is in sight and that they should strive to reach it. Personally, I tend to give up easily, because I'm plagued continually by the idea that all is vanity, and I say to myself that nothing whatsoever in the Cosmos is finally worth striving for. But I'm not at all certain that I really believe what I say to myself on such occasions. There is, in me, an undeniable and profound Sisyphean streak.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.

What a splendid expression, this translation by Justin O'Brien of the superb French prose of Albert Camus: "la fidélité supérieure qui nie les dieux et soulève les rochers". So many mysteries—not superficially religious—are subsumed under that vague but marvelous notion of a "higher fidelity". Fidelity, above all, indeed exclusively, with respect to our fundamental and absurd human nature as godless creatures born to be rock raisers.

He, too, concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

It's the Tour de France that puts me in this pensive mood. Half the commentators are crying out that the glass is almost empty. Dope has taken over; it's time to burn down what remains of this cycling extravaganza and get involved in some less obnoxious pursuit. The other half point out with enthusiasm that the news about busting doped cyclists is obviously good news, which means that successful means for catching cheaters are being invented and implemented.

For once, I myself fall unequivocally on the half-full side. Instead of despairing, we are driven to optimism by our higher fidelity to an archaic, magic and mythical phenomenon: the Tour de France.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dope-inspired miracles

Maybe it was unwise of me, in this morning's article entitled Guinea pig [display], to rave on jokingly about pills and miracles. You never know. French gendarmes might drop in here unexpectedly and carry me off handcuffed and kicking, in front of all my shocked blog readers. Even if I were to scream out in self-defense that my blogging performance is never enhanced by anything more powerful than a few glasses of wine, are people going to believe me? Maybe the Internet authorities should look into the idea of asking bloggers, at the end of particularly grueling and spectacular posts, to upload a urine sample. I'm sure that this must be technologically possible, maybe using webcams in the style of porn artists. As we've been saying for years, unless a draconian approach of this kind is adopted, the whole great blogging system might soon fall into disrepute.

Most people have heard of famous places such as Lourdes where medical miracles are brought about [if I understand correctly, which I don't] through the divine intercession of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, I'm not sure that many Catholics are aware of the existence of explicit patron saints of medicine and pharmacy.

Their names are Cosmas and Damian. They were third-century twin brothers, of Arabic descent, who generally operated together. Cosmas was the physician, while Damian was primarily an apothecary. The ancient archives fail to make it clear whether the Cosmas/Damian tandem intervened in the specialized domain of sporting medicine. To my mind, this is highly unlikely. Cosmas and Damian are celebrated in that they asked for no fees, and that doesn't sound like typical behavior in the world of sport.

One thing, in any case, is certain. In the Roman and Greek directories of patron saints, nobody stands guard over the domain of dope. This is all the more surprising in that one of the fundamental requirements of sainthood, the power to perform miracles, is an everyday phenomenon in the spheres of dope in sport. Just look at the way that Riccardo Ricco has been flying up the mountain slopes over the last week or so. If that's not a miracle, what is?

Now that the young Italian is out of work, probably for the rest of his sporting existence, his manager might look into the idea, with the help of the pope, of recycling this cyclist into a candidate for canonization, maybe while he's still alive... because the fast-track process is becoming faster and faster. The charming Cobra, already as famous as a rock star (like the pope himself), would become the future patron saint of dope, and he could spend his days, attired in a saintly jersey, pedaling around Rome, Italy and even Europe at large distributing free samples of the latest cocktail of the EPO hormone.

Guinea pig

An American couple from Massachusetts, traveling as tourists in the snowy wastes of Alaska, meet up with an Eskimo man and his wife, living in a primitive hut.

Eskimos: We've heard a lot about Massachusetts, because our eldest son has spent the last few years in the post-graduate anthropological research department at Harvard.

Tourists: Really? How marvelous! What exactly is he studying?

Eskimos: No, he's not studying anything. He's being studied.

Me, too, I'm being studied... by the prestigious French medical research organization called Inserm. A few years ago, after a strenuous incident that consisted of my dragging unaided my runaway ram out of the rushing waters of the River Bourne, I was the victim of a minor cerebral accident that manifested itself (and still does) by a slight numbness in the tip of my right thumb. I referred briefly to this affair in my article of 4 January 2007 entitled Best wishes for eternal health [display]. Well, ever since then, in the interests of medical research, I've been consuming a daily dose of two fat pills. They're wrapped in weekly packets, referred to as blisters, as shown here:

I have a huge supply of these packets in a cardboard box that I keep in my refrigerator, and I start a new packet each Monday. Throughout the week, I cannot possibly forget to take the pills, because they function as a kind of primitive calendar... which takes a bit of getting used to. For example, when I see that the two left columns are empty, that means that either it's Tuesday afternoon, or else it's Wednesday morning and I haven't yet consumed my daily dose. OK, it's not rocket science, but it's better than making notches in a stick. And I can always confirm my intuitive awareness of the current date by calling upon my faithful Macintosh. [Some readers are likely to wonder: Why don't you use your computer for this purpose right from the start? All I can reply to people who ask such questions is that they are obviously insensitive to the joy of the daily consumption of pills.]

Now, the hitch in my job as a guinea pig is that I don't really know what I'm consuming. Theoretically, the big yellowish pills could well contain omega-3, and the smaller reddish ones, a mixture of vitamins. But either of them might be placebos. So, I won't normally know the objective truth until the end of the experiment, scheduled to last for several years.

The most interesting aspect of this affair is that I meet up with a representative of the organization every summer, at a local hospital, for a kind of checkup. Whenever they phone me up, two or three times a year, the researcher (generally a female with an African accent) always seems to be surprised, first, that I'm apparently in excellent health and, second, that I haven't yet got fed up with taking their pills. Yesterday, I couldn't resist the temptation to invent reasons to explain to the lady on the phone why I've never missed out a single day of their pills:

"I'm not supposed to know whether there are active ingredients in my particular pills, or simply placebos. But I've been convinced for ages that you're giving me the real stuff, and that it's doing me good. For me, that knowledge is intuitive and mysterious, and I can't explain what's happening. It's as if I were to see a vision, say, of the Virgin Mary. But it's clear and certain in my mind. Sometimes, around midday, I feel slightly sick and drowsy. Then I realize that I haven't yet taken my daily dose. I only have to gulp down the two precious pills and, within twenty minutes, I'm back in perfect form. It's a true miracle."

During my forthcoming checkup, I imagine they might decide to scrutinize me carefully for advanced signs of dementia.

Meanwhile, in Sydney, Benedict XVI has just visited the memorial chapel of a local nun, named Mary MacKillop [1842-1909], who's on the fast track towards canonization. Click the photo to visit a web article about this humble individual, whose claim to fame is that she created a new order for nuns specializing in free Catholic education for country kids.

Apparently, she already has one cancer-oriented miracle in her posthumous curriculum vitae, but she needs a second one to acquire full-blown sainthood. I'm looking into the idea that maybe I could lend Mother Mary a hand through the above-mentioned pills revelation. It's an undeniable fact that the pills started to exert their miraculous effect upon me when I was out in Sydney in August 2006. I think I should start out by sending a friendly email on this question to the pope.

Tiny jewel

I was happy to find this ladybird in my garden this morning. In the domain of superstitions, these tiny beetles called coccinellids are thought to be good omens. Since ladybirds are predators of garden pests such as aphids, I'm hoping that this little creature will soon find a mate of the opposite sex and produce a big family of baby ladybirds to protect my rose bushes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Colorful males

Often, civic authorities in the great harbor-side city of Sydney become agitated, flustered and indeed overwhelmed by the prospect of dealing with a handful of foreign visitors. This was the case for the APEC summit [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] last year, as suggested in my article of 29 August 2007 entitled Sydney skies [display].

Once again, this histrionic behavior has characterized the present papal festival. On such occasions, normal life in the metropolis is shut down temporarily, and the citizens have to bide their time until the visitors leave. I find this weird. Sydney's a big place, and there should be lots of room for everybody. The local population should normally be expected to carry on calmly with their usual activities, instead of being drawn, by their mindless leaders, into a state of temporary trauma.

By comparison, look at Paris. Over the last few days, the city was host to some 43 heads of state, including a certain unwelcome individual, the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, who could be considered as a huge potential target for assassination.

The City of Light was invaded by contingents of men and their machines for the great Bastille Day parade. But everything went over smoothly in a perfectly friendly atmosphere. And in the evening, beneath the Eiffel Tower, no less than 600,000 people attended a free concert, followed by a gigantic fireworks display.

By comparison, the events planned for Sydney this week will be trifling. There's only a single major foreigner in town, the pope, and everybody is supposed to love him. So, there's no point in disrupting the life of the nation to protect him... even though we cannot of course be certain that, in the midst of all those lovely young people who believe in magic, there might not be a fuckwit with a gun who would be thrilled to consider boring Benedict, for want of imagination, as a bull's-eye.

Compared with last night's excited concert crowd of 600,000 in the middle of Paris, there'll probably be no more than 500,000 calm Catholic attendees at next Thursday's mass... at Randwick, an empty racecourse located six kilometers from the famous harbor-side skyline of Sydney skyscrapers. So, what's all the fuss about?

I hasten to point out that the word "fuss" is no exaggeration. Believe it or not, back in 2006 (when I was last in Sydney), the NSW government actually voted an act of parliament dedicated to this forthcoming Catholic festival, which stipulated that it would be a crime to "annoy" future Catholic pilgrims. It's only today that we hear a lot about this absolutely insane legislation, at a propitious moment when happy hordes of anti-papal Sydney males are contemplating a naked parade through the streets with their pricks shrouded in fluorescent condoms, to protest against Vatican decisions that accentuate the ongoing Aids holocaust in Africa. Happily, a local court has just ruled retrospectively that the "annoy" clause in the Aussie law is bullshit.

Meanwhile, the Aussie papists have donned their brightest robes, and they're awaiting the emergence of the old white-robed German, who's currently biding his time in solitude, apparently playing the piano, in a rural estate on the outskirts of Sydney.

Another male—whom I admire immensely— is attired in a different color, and I'm delighted to learn that one out of three Australians is following this cycling glory, every evening, on local SBS TV.

Faces of great cyclists, who spend their daily existence in a state of physical agony, are often drawn and contracted, as if they haven't slept well. The facial features of Cadel Evans are stark, accentuated, like those of a Biblical shepherd or fisherman, with a mysterious sad smile. A French newspaper said that Cadel looked like an exhausted zombie. Was he really weeping, yesterday, when the yellow jersey was drawn over his injured shoulder? Were his grimaces expressions of intense inner joy? Tears of a wounded giant? In an instant of glory, we witnessed the frail human carcass of a champion who had been crucified momentarily, accidentally, upon the terrible slopes of the Pyrenées. Like a child, after the official ceremony, Cadel Evans hung on to the rag lion, mascot of the French bank that sponsored his yellow jersey. For a moment, the champion cyclist was all alone, with his warm felt animal and his cold solitary glory. But all the world was watching this fabulous hero. All Australia.

Over the next few days, the color of Australia will be neither red nor white, but yellow! Aussie action will be situated, not at Randwick Racecourse, but upon a mythical field of heroes in the south of France. Cycling enthusiasts in Australia will understand what I'm trying to say. Monsieur Evans, the entire nation is behind you, including those who are praying at Randwick. Go for it, Cadel!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Blue, blues

My second-favorite computing company has made a graphic effort to remind us that today is the 14th of July, Bastille Day.

Symbolically, this year's celebrations are dominated by the color blue. For the first time, soldiers of the UN Blue Beret peacekeeping force will be marching in this morning's military parade in the City of Light.

As the defense minister Bernard Kouchner just remarked, today's 14th of July will be considered exceptionally, in the future, as "the day after the 13th of July 2008". What he's saying, jokingly, is that statesmen were preoccupied yesterday by the summit meeting to promulgate the concept of the Union for the Mediterranean.

Finally, there's the blue of the flag of the European Union, of which France has just been assigned the presidency.

Alongside all this bright blue, however, there's a wave of military blues in France today. To call a spade a spade, between Nicolas Sarkozy and the French armies, the current relationship is as cold as an unfired cannon. Something seems to have gone tremendously wrong between the supreme commander and his troops. For many reasons (which are too detailed to be examined here, even if I were capable of doing so... which I'm not), the French armies seem to have lost confidence in their chief, and he in turn no longer knows how to charm his soldiers. This distrust came to a head in the context of the shooting drama of 29 June 2008 at Carcassonne, when a soldier accidentally fired real bullets into a crowd at a military festival, wounding seventeen innocent spectators. Many military representatives consider that Nicolas Sarkozy failed to handle the aftermath of that tragic affair in a just manner. A journalist claimed that feelings between the president and military personnel have sunken to the lowest level since the notorious putsch of French generals in Algeria against Charles de Gaulle on 21 April 1961. To put it mildly, on this Bastille Day, that's a sobering observation.