Friday, October 31, 2008

Favorite magazine stoops to intelligent design

In my mailbox this morning, I received a nasty trick, stuck away in the cobwebs of the back pages of the latest issue of Scientific American.

I'm referring to an unexpected article about a Dominican priest who happens to deplore the conflict between Darwinism and Christian faith. It's not a habit of mine to behave like an offended reader and send letters to the press... except, maybe, in the case of a pretentious Fascist female journalist who works for The Australian, who regularly drives me up the wall. [The Aussie newspaper usually succeeds in "mislaying" my emails from France, so they don't get published.] But I was so shocked by the presence of religious rubbish in my favorite US science magazine that I immediately sent off a letter to the editors:

There is no place in your excellent time-honored magazine for an article such as "The Christian Man's Evolution" by Sally Lehrman. I would imagine that readers come to your magazine today for a broad and in-depth perspective of scientific achievements and goals, not for journalistic stuff about a fine fellow such as Francisco Ayala, whose religious beliefs cannot possibly concern us. I am afraid that the presence of this article is a promise of worse to come, next year, when the scientific world will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's masterpiece. If Scientific American intends to give fair, if not equal, coverage to Darwinian evolution, creationism and so-called intelligent design, then I am dismayed to realize that I have subscribed to the wrong reading. Between science and all the rest, there is no such thing as fair coverage.

I see this article (which even evokes the beliefs of Sarah Palin) as a breach in the great traditions of Scientific American, and I shall no doubt refrain from renewing my subscription to the magazine.

Incidentally, I've thought it well to add a final seven-word explanation to my simplistic blog profile, which now reads as follows:

After working in various computing jobs, I retired to an old farm property on the edge of the French Alps, where I spend my time writing, playing with the Internet and wandering around on the mountain slopes with my dog Sophia, admiring the beauties of Creation... in the scientific sense of this concept.

It scares shit out of me, in a Halloween spirit, to imagine that any of my friends, acquaintances and anonymous readers of Antipodes might imagine for an instant that my vision of Creation (with a capital C) could be anything other than Darwinian, Dawkinsian, poetic and artistically fuzzy, but purely scientific...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The world is afraid

Here in France, many people are holding their breath, anguished by the thought that something might happen in the unpredictable USA, between now and next Tuesday evening, to prevent Barack Obama from becoming president. In browsing through the Internet press, I have the impression that the Western world at large shares this same fear that something might go wrong at the last minute: either electoral fraud or simply the unspoken refusal to elect a black man. The most terrifying scenario of all, as many commentators have pointed out, would be the election of McCain, followed closely by his death, resulting in the appointment of Mrs Moose to replace him.

Concerning Sarah Palin, there would appear to be no limits to her ignorance and stupidity, combined with a stubborn belief in herself. She's the proverbial dumb bitch, capable of making even George W Bush look like a bright guy. She accompanies her hot air with winks, no doubt believing that common folk will find her smart and cute. And a lot of other dumb Americans probably do find her smart and cute, because she reminds them of the nice fuzzy image they have of themselves. In a policy speech on what she thinks of as misdirected federal funds, Palin wrinkled her silly forehead while looking for examples of wrongful spending, and blurted out: "Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." [Note the archaic teenage colloquialism, meant to make her sound savvy.]

Research exploiting the insect in question, Drosophila, has contributed greatly to modern genetics, and so-called vinegar flies are still playing a role in this domain. The US embryologist Thomas Hunt Morgan used these tiny red-eyed creatures to investigate mutations, and he was the first geneticist to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, in 1933, for his discoveries on the role of chromosomes in heredity.

Palin is such an idiot that she can't even realize that research in genetics might one day put an end to trisomy 21, from which one of her own kids suffers. Appalled by Palin's words, the White House correspondent for Newsweek, Richard Wolffe, said: "This is the most mindless, ignorant, uninformed comment we have seen from Governor Palin so far, and there has been a lot of competition for that prize." Personally, I would prefer to give Palin the jackpot prize for her beliefs in so-called creationism: you know, all that shit about Adam and Eve walking around with dinosaurs some six thousand years ago. In any case, no matter what outstanding stupidity awards we give her, that woman is clearly an American catastrophe.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bionic heart will soon start throbbing

The old-fashioned American gesture of holding a hat over one's heart is hilarious, like the opening of some kind of Stetson song-and-dance routine in a musical comedy.

To my mind, it's ridiculous. It doesn't correspond to any reality, not even symbolically. On the other hand, I can imagine a society in which a male, swearing an oath of allegiance in the name of his biological forefathers and offspring, would be expected to place his hat over his genitals. But the ideal symbolic place for a hat, in such a ritual, would be up above his brain, in its normal position, sitting on top of his skull. As far as solemn oaths are concerned, that's where all the action takes place, rather than in your gut or your genitals or even your heart. Many common folk still seem to respect the medieval belief that the heart is the origin of human sentiments, whereas the brain is merely a cold calculating organ. But it's time to abandon antiquated symbolism such as hats held over hearts, which is just as silly as astrology, superstition and religious ritual. I'm not suggesting that laws should be passed to prohibit such behavior. I'm merely saying that antiquated antics of this kind should be interpreted by intelligent observers as external signs of relative stupidity, like fumbling with rosary beads, or making a sign of the cross on your breast.

The heart is in fact a rather simple pumping gadget, of a vastly lower order than the brain. These days, in a surgical environment, the usual work of the heart can be taken over by a machine that looks like this:

Needless to say, neurosurgeons have no equivalent machine to replace the patient's brain during an operation. On the other hand, the problem with a typical heart-lung machine is that a patient can't expect to move along the hospital corridors with the apparatus trailing along behind him. Before leaving the operating theater, a patient has to get back to using his own patched-up heart, or maybe a donor's revived organ. Obviously, what we need is an artificial heart that a patient can "wear" in his chest in much the same way that you might walk around carrying a portable computer in a bag thrown over your shoulder.

The design, production and installation of such an artificial heart has been the constant challenge of the 75-year-old French cardiologist Alain Carpentier, who founded a company with the aim of developing such a prosthesis. [Click the photo to see the Wiki article about this celebrated international medical figure.]

Today, Carpentier's invention has reached the stage of an operational prototype that has been tested successfully in animals:

Often, we hear people say despondently that, if only their leaders were to invest as much money in medical research as they invest in aeronautics, space and defense, then citizens would lead far better lives. Well, Alain Carpentier's artificial heart is based, to a large extent, upon fallout from the domains I've just mentioned. Fifteen years ago, the professor struck up a partnership with Jean-Luc Lagardère, chairman (now deceased) of a vast industrial group that had evolved from the renowned French high-tech corporation named Matra, which manufactured a wide range of electronic products that included missiles and minicomputers. Professor Carpentier is a distinguished medical researcher, who was awarded the Albert Lasker prize in 2007 for his research on heart valves, which resulted in products made out of chemically-treated pig tissues.

When the latest white-skinned model of the artificial heart is placed upside-down on a table, so that its tubes are hidden, it looks a little like a freshly-prepared chicken ready to be roasted. Some chicken!

Clinical testing of the device on human patients will start in 2011, and it should normally be ready for real transplants by 2013.

If we telescope together the last three-quarters of a century in such a way that the US president behind Hiroshima and Nagasaki were able to become a patient of Professor Carpentier, we create the setting for a fascinating philosophical question. Let's suppose that Harry Truman were to be fitted with an artificial heart. Would it still be appropriate for him to place his Stetson over the electronic device whenever he listened solemnly to the Star-Spangled Banner?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Final days of a man of sadness

Theoretically, George W Bush will of course continue to be the US president until the investiture of a new man—who, I hope, will be Barack Obama—next January. In a week's time, Bush will descend politically, however, from his present lame duck status to a dying duck level. After that, good riddance to bad rubbish. The world, at last, will be able to look forward to talking about this grotesque individual in the past tense.

He has been here. And I see no bravery.

[Click the photo to hear James Blunt's moving lament.]

The Bush years started at that 9/11 moment. Between the attack in Manhattan and the turmoil in Wall Street, seven years later, there was the bloody fiasco in Iraq and then, at home, the Katrina catastrophe. These Bush years will have been some of the darkest in US history.

The departing president will nevertheless be able to look back on certain rare moments of tenderness when special friends provided him with an illusion of endless love [display].

Australia apparently absent in Beijing

Last weekend, a major economic get-together took place in Beijing: the 7th ASEM [Asia-Europe Meeting]. This summit—which might be seen as a prelude to the forthcoming G20 meeting organized by George W Bush in Washington on November 15—drew together representatives from the 27 member nations of the European Union and the 10 members of ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], along with China, Japan, South Korea, India and Pakistan.

ASEM, embracing most of Asia and Europe, now represents almost 60% of the world’s population and 60% of global trade.

In this morning's The Australian, I learned that, according to a recent poll, "Kevin Rudd's stewardship of the Australian economy amid the global financial crisis has been endorsed by voters". But there seems to be no mention whatsoever of this weekend's 7th ASEM in Beijing. Weirdly [informed readers of my blog will correct me if I'm mistaken], Australia and our Mandarin-speaking prime minister do not appear to have been present in Beijing.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Exquisite mushroom

At this time of the year, I often find one or two specimens of this exquisite mushroom on the lawn beneath my bedroom window. It's the Coprinus comatus, commonly referred to as the shaggy ink cap mushroom. Its conical cap starts out smooth and white before becoming scaly and hairy. Then, within a day, black ink starts to drip from beneath the cap. Yuk! Normally, it's not my habit to eat exotic things of this kind, but I've made an exception with this mushroom, ever since finding them sprouting up at Gamone, and since learning that they must be eaten almost as soon as they appear. I've noticed that, whenever I step out onto my lawn in autumn, I automatically look around for ink caps. In fact, if I fail to pick them in the afternoon, my billy goat Gavroche discovers them in the early hours of the morning, whereupon he takes pleasure in destroying these delicate plants... which he doesn't even want to eat. Naturally, I studied the question of ink caps in my mushroom bible before daring to eat them for the first time. In the beginning, I used to fry them rapidly in butter, and eat them on toast. More recently, I've evolved to the stage of simply eating the young mushrooms raw, like fruit. There's even a recipe (which I haven't tried yet) about frying them rapidly in oil and then sprinkling them with sugar and cinnamon. The funny thing about this exquisite mushroom is that the Latin name Coprinus comes from the Greek word for shit! I wonder why it got such a name. It's true that, whenever I come upon the inky remains of shaggy cones lying half demolished in the grass after an attack from Gavroche, the global scene has a rather shitty look.

Bread and meat

It often pays to memorize an important principle in the vivid form of a vulgar proverb. In Australia, where we've always had a healthy habit of calling a spade a fucking spade, I learned, as a young man, that it's an error to look around for your meat in the same shop that provides you with your daily bread. [I can hear you correcting me. Supermarkets provide us today with almost everything we need. Meat, bread, sugar and spice and all things nice, you name it. OK, I'm old-fashioned.] Wise and experienced Aussie elders told me that, to succeed in a professional career, it's preferable to avoid trying to pick up office chicks [I'm talking from a male viewpoint]... unless, of course, you happen to be engaged in the honorable process of looking around for a legitimate spouse, in which case no legal behavior is barred. When I settled down in France, though, I had the impression that this great Australian proverb was largely unknown, or in any case unpracticed, no doubt because both French bread and French meat are, well, rather different to what I had been accustomed to eating in my native land.

Most people in France admire the Socialist politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, seen in the above Gala photo with his wife Anne Sinclair, a former TV journalist. When he left for the US to take up an appointment as director of the IMF [International Monetary Fund ], the first premature question that sprung into many left-wing minds—such as mine, for example—was: Will Strauss-Kahn be back in France in time to oppose the current president, if need be, in a future election? A couple of weeks ago, Strauss-Kahn spoke with authority on French TV concerning the current financial crisis. Naturally, his economic talents and wisdom, not to mention his role at the IMF, lend weight to his analysis of the situation. Then everybody was shocked to hear that DSK [as he's called in France] was accused of being on over-friendly terms with one of his female colleagues. Today, it's reassuring to hear that the IMF has concluded that there was no genuine misdemeanor on the part of DSK, merely a serious but forgivable error of judgment of a bread-and-meat kind.

New family property

That title is a little pompous. It sounds as if I'm about to evoke the latest Skyvington acquisition in the way of castles, manor houses and country estates. In fact, for our son François, this new place is likely to be no less magnificent than a castle, a manor house and a country estate all rolled into one... on the clifftops above the sea in northern Brittany, in a rural environment named Kerouziel, in the commune of Plouha (Côtes d'Armor). In this Google Maps image, our son's future property is located at the tip of the arrow, just a few hundred meters from the water's edge:

It has often been said that the three most important things in the case of a house in the country are (1) the view, (2) the view and (3) the view. That's true, for example, in the case of my house at Gamone. It's even truer still in the case of the future house of François... which he won't actually own officially before next January. Here's the view, towards the sea, from his front door:

The ancient smugglers' path along the clifftops is located just beyond that field of cauliflowers. In the following photo, Christine and Emmanuelle are seated on the rocks just down from the house and looking out over the sea:

Looking north-westwards from that observation point, up towards the exotic little port of Gwin Zegal, you have this fabulous misty view of the bare rocky coast:

In the opposite direction, they look down over the charming little beach of Palus Plage, with the elegant port of Saint-Quay-Portrieux further to the south-east:

In the following photo, Christine and Emmanuelle are strolling back to the house. In the background, you can glimpse the tiny "island"—a mere outcrop of rocks, not far from the shore—that is visible in the top right-hand corner of the Google Maps image.

The house itself, small and modest, is ideal for François. It's no doubt the perfect place for him to look out over the waters and dream up creative ideas.

In fact, the primary merit of this house is the fact that it exists. Nowadays, it would be unthinkable for the authorities in charge of the shoreline land to allow any kind of construction at such a site. But existing constructions are, of course, perfectly legal. Owners are permitted to modify and even extend existing houses in any reasonable way, but they would not be allowed to demolish an existing construction and build a new house in its place. Finally, here's a photo of the land attached to the house:

I should add that this affair came up quite rapidly, more or less by chance. So, I myself haven't even had a chance of seeing the place yet. On the other hand, François has already extended an invitation to me and Sophia to stay there, on the romantic Breton clifftops, whenever he's away at work in Paris or elsewhere. That's a nice idea, and I'll surely accept his invitation one of these days. Here at Gamone, we don't see much of the sea, since there are too many mountains blocking the view... which is otherwise excellent.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Big Banksy is watching you

This is the most recent and probably biggest ever work, on a post office wall in central London, of the secretive British graffiti artist Banksy [about whom little is known]:

[Click the image to visit Banksy's fascinating website.]

It depicts a small boy on a ladder who is finishing a huge sign—whose message is "one nation under closed-circuit television"—while a security agent and his dog stare up at him. Banksy created this painting in April. He worked so rapidly and stealthily—first erecting three-story scaffolding during the night, and then concealing himself behind a plastic sheet while he did the painting—that nobody was aware of the artist's presence before the work was completed and unveiled. The most amusing aspect of the affair is that the area is watched over by a TV surveillance camera, which can be seen in the middle of the wall.

Unfortunately, dullish London authorities consider that such a work must be thought of as vandalism, and Banksy's masterpiece will therefore soon be painted over.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Moose rap

I'm including this photo just in case you've been out beyond the Solar System over the last few days, without Internet access:

Funnily enough, few commentators seem to be aware of the exact circumstances in which John McCain struck this intriguing pose... so I feel obliged to set things straight. You see, for the last week, Sarah Palin and her boss have been rehearsing secretly a song and dance routine called the Moose rap, which Sarah had intended to present on last weekend's Saturday Night Live show. Well, either McCain was totally obsessed with this rap number, or he simply decided to surprise everybody by a sneak preview of Sarah's act. Whatever the reason, at the end of his debate with Barack Obama, McCain suddenly amazed everybody by breaking spontaneously into a stand-up presentation of their Moose rap. The security guys and medical personnel jumped onto him instantly, just after this shot was taken. They thought he was having a fit, or preparing to do something beastly to Obama. A police officer told journalists that McCain's opening antics were so stunningly moose-like that there were irrational fears among onlookers that Palin might be in the audience, and that she might suddenly whip out a gun and shoot the Republican candidate.

In the wake of this incident, Sarah herself decided that the Moose rap was dangerous stuff to perform, so she thought it preferable to hand over the words and music to other artists, as she explains here:

Truly, in the context of phenomena such as the Moose rap, the US presidential campaign is attaining deliriously high levels of intelligence, artistic sophistication and political perfection.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Towards the end of the morning, I started to drive down towards Pont-en-Royans with the intention of posting a letter. No sooner did I reach the main road, a few hundred meters down from my house, than I saw a young guy by the roadside, with a backpack, trying to hitch a lift towards the village. I couldn't understand where he might have come from, because the road up towards the Vercors plateau has been blocked for ages, because of seemingly never-ending roadworks in the Gorges of the Bourne. As I pulled over, I noticed that he was using a portable phone to take images of my familiar mountain, the Cournouze. His destination, he told me, was La-Chapelle-en-Vercors. After a train trip from his home in Montpellier, he was dismayed to discover that there were no bus services from the Isère valley up onto the Vercors plateau. Moreover, the road was blocked, so he didn't know what to do. He explained rapidly that he was a so-called acrobatic worker: the experienced mountain climbers who haul themselves up on ropes to repair edifices such as church steeples, or to install metal nets on slopes where rocks might fall onto roads. He told me that he had to be in La-Chapelle for a practical exam concerning the evacuation of injured rock climbers. As we drove down through Pont-en-Royans, I was amused to see that he was in fact communicating constantly on the phone with his wife back in Montpellier, telling her how he was having trouble reaching his destination, but also describing with the enthusiasm of a mountain-lover the landscape through which I was driving him. He was such a nice friendly guy, and his excursion was so important to him, that I couldn't simply drop him off at Sainte-Eulalie, at the start of the road that leads up to the Vercors plateau. Besides, I'd been intending for weeks to drive up there to see the recently-opened three-kilometer tunnel. When I informed him I could drive him all the way to La-Chapelle (less than half-an-hour up the road), he was absolutely thrilled, and got back into excited explanations to his wife, informing her how he had been picked up by such a kind gentleman...

As for me, this was an excellent pretext to see the new tunnel, which has replaced a spectacular and dangerous cliff-hanging road, which my children and I have driven along on many occasions:

My passenger told me that his mother was Italian, and his father Tunisian. He had an enthusiastic Mediterranean personality. As we approached the village of La-Chapelle, he was taking photos of everything he saw, even signposts and roadside cows, and explaining excitedly to his wife that it was the most beautiful spot on earth. When I dropped him in the middle of the sunny village of La-Chapelle-en-Vercors, he couldn't find words enough to thank me, and suggested that surely some kind of divine intervention had led to such a fortunate solution to his problems. With or without God's presence, it's a fact that there were so few vehicles moving up onto the Vercors plateau today that he could have been left standing by the roadside for hours.

On my way back down to the valley (where I posted my letter an hour or so later than planned), I felt elated at having been able to assist this fellow and take personal pleasure, at the same time, in a bit of tourism. Above all, I was amazed and thrilled to discover that, thanks to the new tunnel, I'm truly less than 30 minutes away from some of the most magnificent mountain scenery you could ever imagine. If only I had a wife, I'm sure I would have felt like phoning her enthusiastically and telling her this great news.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Weighty endorsements

Barack Obama recently received the endorsement of three great US newspapers: the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. And I wouldn't be surprised if the New York Times were to come out explicitly for him in the near future. Besides, it has just been announced that one of the four well-known individuals in the following photo has endorsed the Democratic candidate. Try to guess which one.

Hint: It's not the guy at the microphone, nor the lady. Another hint: The fellow in question once made a lot of stupid blunders concerning Saddam Hussein. Final hint: His military rank is General.

During the next few weeks, if Obama encounters any more nonsense about his alleged inability to handle the job of commander in chief of the planet's most powerful nation, he'll be able to retort: "It's funny you should feel that way, because Colin thinks I'm OK for the job." With that kind of weighty endorsement, Obama won't normally need to dress himself up in a fighter-pilot costume and get himself flown down onto the deck of an aircraft carrier.

This morning, Colin Powell referred to John McCain as a "friend of over 25 years" before stating that the Republican presidential candidate "was a little unsure as to how to deal with the economic problems we're facing". Apparently, the former US secretary of state has no such qualms about the aptitude of Obama. As for Sarah Palin, Powell said curtly: "I don't believe she's ready to be president of the United States." To my mind, that's an understatement... a bit like suggesting, say, that I'm not ready to be pope.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Autumn views from my window

The morning temperature hasn't dropped to zero yet, so the Cournouze still looks basically greenish, even under a leaden sky full of low clouds and mist.

The slopes just in front of my house are still quite green, with a few trees turning rusty.

It's what I think of as no-man's-land weather. Outside, it's too chilly to go walking with the dog, while inside, it's hardly cool enough to light up a log fire. Maybe I would be tempted to do so by the promise of a nice long TV evening. Well, it just so happens that the subject of this evening's weekly Thalassa program is Marseille and the surrounding region. To my mind, that sounds like a good pretext for a fire in my living room.

Messages from Mac men in black

Many years ago, my marvelous friend Marie [whom I encountered at a Paris computer fair, where we were both employed] told me about a trade show of female lingerie where she had been working as a hostess: "William, I can't be expected, of course, to know what goes on in a man's mind when he sees sexy females. But there were times during that trade show when I imagined that, if I were a male, gazing at some of those girls parading in front of us would have been a kind of sweet torture." I told Marie that her imagination was no doubt spot on.

Faced with entities of a quite different kind, the latest sexy Macs, I've often felt that Apple's men in black are capable of enhancing their products with an aura of lust. Click on the following image to see a video that describes the latest MacBook:

At one point in the video, I felt frustrated that I couldn't lay my hands upon the naked aluminum unibody, as it's called, run my finger tips over the glass trackpad, or simply gaze wide-eyed and breathlessly upon the LED-backlit display.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Body language

I've always disliked this expression, "body language", because I simply hate the very idea that my physical carcass might be capable of "saying things", spontaneously and uncontrollably, which don't necessarily coincide with the purer expressions of my mind. But I'm obliged to accept the veracity of this concept, which implies that successful lying is a rare art, which can only be mastered by a handful of great actors. For years, my two children have told me with amusement that, as soon as I'm about to talk rubbish, my facial features start flashing and beeping like a red lamp on a police vehicle. So, I'm a lousy liar.

There's something even worse than body language. I'm referring to an individual's distinctive gait. I was made aware of this characteristic, personally, back in the early '60s, in Sydney. I had made arrangements by phone to meet up with my friend John Weiley in William Street, which swoops down in a long line from Kings Cross. At a distance of several hundred meters, I was surprised to see a creature waving his arms as if to send a message. It was John, whom I hadn't seen for about a year, informing me that he had recognized me. When we met up, John surprised me by informing me that my gait made me recognizable from a great distance. Up until then, I didn't even know that I had a personal gait.

Irish joke. The other day, strolling along High Street, I thought I saw Patrick Hickey approaching me. The closer I got to Patrick, the more I was sure that he too realized it was me. When we met up, though, we both realized it was neither of us.

The ugly gait of George W Bush, with rigid shoulders and arms, resembles that of a disgruntled but self-confident wrestler who has just been thrown out of the ring. As for John McCain, no matter whether he remains immobile or moves, agitating his robotic arms, he still looks like an exhibit at Madame Tussaud's waxworks.

It goes without saying that we should not mock certain celebrities simply because their gait reminds us of a certain comical character. That would be too easy. While it was true that George W Bush looked like a numbskull wrestler, it was normal that we should have to wait for a few years, and a few thousand deaths of soldiers in Iraq, before we knew with certainty that he was indeed a numbskull political wrestler. Naturally, it would be nice if the gait of a political candidate could warn us beforehand of his/her mentality.

Let me just add a word or two about the most famous Yogi Bear on US media at the present moment: Joe the Plumber.

Is he real or invented? Apparently, he exists. His name (which might sound un-Alaskan, if not un-American, to Mrs Moose) is Joseph Wurzelbacher, but reports remain fuzzy about his authentic credentials. Is he really a typical tradesman trying to make a buck for his wife and kids, or might he be a comedy figure? Today, in God's Own Country, anything is possible. In any case, I hope that Joe, through his notoriety and the sexy shape of his head, has a chance of sneaking up on procreative Palin, coming to tradesman's terms with her, and—who knows, in an ideal scenario—maybe even snaking her plumbing.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mission: Not necessarily impossible

The latest news is that Lance Armstrong, after his comeback in the Down Under Tour in January, will be riding in next year's Giro d'Italia, giving him a crucial test before his attempt to win an eighth Tour de France title.

"I'm so excited to be coming to the 2009 Giro. I raced a long time professionally and never did the Giro. It was one of my biggest regrets. I'm going to be able to erase that regret. Who knows, maybe with a good result."

Armstrong's comeback will focus attention upon his global campaign to fight cancer: a disease he survived before his seven straight victories in the Tour de France. That dimension of his mission, at least, will be surely accomplished. As for the rest: Does it matter? Yes, it does... but in ways that transcend everyday sport. Lance Armstrong has become a symbol, and the world is looking henceforth at the human being, in all his profundity, not merely at the way he pedals on the slopes. This change of outlook indicates—if it weren't already obvious—that we're in the presence of an extraordinary individual.

Guns or butter, maybe both?

As an adolescent at high school in Grafton, I studied economics for no more than a year. It turned out to be a disturbing but mind-opening educational experience in my existence. The context and facts are fuzzy. I remember writing an economics essay that I considered—with my usual egotism and pretentiousness—as brilliant. When the teacher, a certain Les O'Neill, didn't agree with my personal judgment, or didn't award me the credit I deserved (in my imagination), I behaved preposterously by complaining to the headmaster, John Orme, that my economics instructor was obviously incapable of recognizing my excellence. And the affair fizzled out when the teacher in question more or less admitted that he might not have understood correctly what I had tried to write, or accepted that it was non-plagiarized original thinking. I had won, in a way, but I was hardly inclined to think of myself as a winner, since I had appealed to non-scientific criteria. In fact, I had just offered myself the luxury of provoking an ideal lesson in the "science" of economics, whose principal actors are, not atoms and molecules, but human beings. I had become an economic entity.

Today, a 55-year-old guy named Paul Krugman from Princeton University has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics.

A specialist in trade theory, Professor Krugman has two extra qualities that demand my respect and endear me to him. First, he's a columnist for my favorite newspaper, the New York Times. Second, he seems to hate the guts of an intellectual moron named George W Bush.

"Bush has degraded our government and undermined the rule of law," wrote Krugman wrote in May 2007. "He has led us into strategic disaster and moral squalor."

Truly, my global faith in humanity is restored when I realize that Alfred Nobel, having made a fortune by inventing dynamite, went on to celebrate geniuses in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, economics and even peace! Wow, what blind but awesome vision!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Food to be picked up

This afternoon, while strolling up the road with Sophia, I encountered the fellow whose dog recently found truffles on my lawn. He was out driving with his wife, their child and dogs. They had found huge quantities of mushrooms in a nearby valley, and gave me a big bag full.

The beige ones are hedgehog mushrooms [Hydnum repandum, French hydne sinué, pieds de mouton]. The others are black trumpets, also called horns of plenty [Craterellus cornucopioides, French trompettes de la mort]. These two mushroom species have become popular in France for the simple reason that they're often available in supermarkets. The hedgehog mushrooms (so-called because of their spiky underside) will be fine for an omelette tomorrow. As for the black trumpets, they can be dried and eaten later on.

Meanwhile, I've carried on gathering walnuts and apples.

I wash the walnuts rapidly in chlorinated water, then leave them to dry. As usual, I'll peel, slice and prepare the apples so that can be kept in the deep freezer, enabling me to cook apple pies right throughout the year. Sophia, too, consumes walnuts and apples several times a day.

Whenever she brings an apple back to the lawn in front of the house, she starts a kind of ritual, moving around while playing with the fruit and sniffing it, waiting for the ideal time and place to devour it. My dear dog has a truly Epicurean respect for fine fresh food.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


When I worked at Ilog in Gentilly (just outside Paris) and I annoyed my brilliant colleagues with nasty technical questions (mainly about Unix stuff), I would periodically receive a kind but firm RTFM reaction: "William, read the fuckin' manual! " But this kind of blunt advice was relatively rare, for the simple reason that my job consisted precisely of writing most of the company's manuals. In any case, I often felt that it was extremely efficient, in the case of complex computer queries, to question a wizard in an adjoining office—there were many such creatures at Ilog—rather than plowing through tons of documentation. (Incidentally, Ilog shares are being purchased by IBM at this very moment, in the context of an official month-long takeover bid that went into action a few days ago.) Needless to say, as a former professional in this domain, I've always respected and admired good documentation... of which many of the planet's finest specimens have been signed by a Californian company named Apple.

Every now and again, I say to myself that we modern humans should strive constantly to free ourselves from excessive documentation concerning various devices. I'm thinking, not of my Macintosh nor even of my Nikon, but of simple hardware such as my splendid Riviera&Bar bread machine. A month or so ago, I decided audaciously that I was determined henceforth to use my appliance intuitively, without browsing through the instruction booklet. Normally, that should have been easy, because there are only three parameters for which values have to be chosen: the program for the desired kind of bread, the weight and the kind of crust. Well, I noticed that there were up/down arrows on the control panel, and I immediately imagined that these might be used to jump back and forth between the parameters. When the ingredients were ready, and everything seemed to be set up correctly, I pushed the start button... but nothing happened. So, I repeated the set of operations, but to no avail. I concluded that the machine was broken, so I emptied out the ingredients and ended up cooking the bread in my ordinary oven. The next day, I took the bread machine along to the repairs section of the shop where I had purchased it. Three weeks later, they phoned to say that the machine had been fully tested, and that they had not detected the slightest fault. This time, I decided to browse through the instruction booklet while setting up the machine. On the first page, I discovered that the up/down arrows on the control panel made it possible to delay the start of the baking process for any number of hours, which explained why the machine had given me the impression that it wasn't working. This time, of course, I didn't touch these arrows. The machine went into action immediately, and finally gave me one of the best loaves I've ever baked. The moral of this anecdote is that it always pays to read—and maybe even reread—the fuckin' manual.

In a quite different domain, I've decided to finally make an effort to master the nice little Sony camcorder that I purchased last year.

So, I invested two hundred euros in the following Apple product:

It's unthinkable to attempt to manipulate a sophisticated software tool such as Final Cut Express in an intuitive manner. In other words, I'm obliged to study the documentation. The only problem is that the manual is a PDF file 1152 pages long! So, I've spent hours today printing it out on paper. I'm not complaining, though, because Final Cut Express is a truly amazing software tool. The Sony HDR-SR7E camcorder, too, is an awesome piece of technology... and its manual is a "mere" 117 pages long. That's even shorter than the 157-page manual for the LiveType software tool for inserting titles and graphics into a movie, supplied at no extra cost with Final Cut Express.

There's no doubt about the fact that electronic machines in general, and computers in particular, have made our existence vastly more sophisticated and complex. And we're obliged to spend a huge amount of time reading fuckin' manuals.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Marvelous mazes

This is a shameless plug for two old websites of which I'm proud.

I created these Flash websites several years ago. Today, I'm happy to see that they haven't aged much.

New approach to Australian tourism

Everybody remembers fondly the video commercial promoting Australian tourism that ended with a question that shocked the British: "So where the bloody hell are you? "

Today, a new approach is about to be adopted, created by the filmmaker Baz Luhrmann. Here's the curious video message designed to coax hordes of fatigued US tourists to sunny Down Under:

Will it work? Like bloody hell, it will. As they say in the classics: "Sometimes we have to get lost to find ourselves. Sometimes we gotta go walkabout." Me, gotta go walkabout...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I'm still standing

In general, I make no attempts to determine who might be reading this blog. It would be an exaggeration, though, to say that I'm writing essentially for myself, because I welcome reactions... for example those of Jannie Funster, this morning, who said she found me through the Leonard Cohen tag in my Blogger profile. I'm sad to realize that those for whom I conceived this Antipodes blog two years ago—my relatives in Australia—have never responded by a single iota of comments. That's their problem, not mine. I'm amused and thrilled to discover that certain readers (my dearest, in fact) have got around to thinking that Antipodes is surely a regular outpouring from William, and that any delays or interruptions in the production of this blog are a sign of alarm. William must be drunk, sick or maybe dead! I like to bear this weight of journalistic responsibility, associated with the concept of a blog. Besides, it's a fact that I feel uncomfortable whenever I realize that I haven't written anything, for a few days, in the Antipodes context.

Often, when I haven't written anything for a few days (generally for legitimate reasons), I've received alarmed reactions from friends. On the other hand, I've never received healthy feedback of the kind that reprimands me for having written bullshit! Now, nice naive folk (like me) might conclude that this means that William has rarely written bullshit. Naturally, I would like to believe this... but I don't.

Broken symmetry

The 87-year-old American physicist Yoichiro Nambu, born in Japan, has been awarded half of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics "for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics". Today, he's a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

Nambu's mind-boggling work deals with a mysterious concept, spontaneous symmetry breaking, which can nevertheless be described in a simple context. Symmetry breaking? Let me talk rather about egg breaking...

Real-world eggs are more or less symmetric with respect to an axis that goes through the middle of the egg from the blunt end to the pointed end (where the adjectives "blunt" and "pointed" are purely relative). Here's an interesting experiment that you can perform in front of a friend... not necessarily a good friend. Tell him/her that you're going to hold an egg in front of you, fixed between the palms of your two outstretched hands: your left palm pushing in on the blunt end, and your right palm on the pointed end. Next, you are going to squeeze the egg between your palms, harder and harder, until something happens... Roughly speaking, the egg will explode in one of four general directions. If you friend is unlucky, he/she will get sprayed with fallout. Otherwise, you might get hit in the face with your scrambled egg, or the fragments might fly either upwards or downwards. The interesting question is: Why would an essentially symmetrical egg "choose" to explode in one of these four general directions rather than in another?

In a real-world experimental situation, it's easy to imagine obvious reasons why an egg-squasher might succeed in obtaining one outcome rather than another. To put egg on your friend's face, for example, you would only need to wriggle your palms around in such a way that they channeled the eggy projectile away from you. But let's be theoretical, and imagine a perfectly symmetrical egg held between ideally innocent hands in a weightless environment. It would still explode, and the fragments would still fly out in one of the four general directions. In other words, within a perfectly symmetrical context, a disparity has suddenly appeared. How? Why? What caused the unbiased egg, brought up—like a member of British royalty—to be impartial under all circumstances, to "choose" one of these four directions?

An explanation of Yoichiro Nambu's answer to these questions would lie far beyond the scope of this humble blog and the talents of this ever-curious but unpretentious blogger. Let me simply say that, in the weird world of quantum physics and string theory, inhabited by a mysterious creature known as the Higgs boson, all sorts of unthinkable things can indeed arise spontaneously. Even nothingness can suddenly be transformed into somethingness. Astonishing, no?

Spoof trailer for a font movie

The Extensis company produces a Macintosh font tool named Suitcase Fusion, which is a must for people who like to play around with a variety of exotic fonts. Since they're about to release a new version of this product, they've created a splendid spoof trailer for an alleged movie named Bravefont, described as a "historical, romantic, action-adventure, science fiction drama". Produced by Orlando Caps and directed by Bauer Bodoni, the movie stars Stone Serif, Lucida Blackletter, Sean Symbol, Corvina Skyline, Gill Sans and Dom Casual.

[Click the banner to see the spoof trailer.]

It's adolescent humor of the kind that might be imagined by American college students, but nicely produced.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Australian backyard view

My friend Bruce Hudson sent me this delightful view of cockatoos on his back lawn near the New South Wales town of Young. It's a splendid image of everyday Australia.

I was struck by the fact that almost all the beautiful gold-crested birds, engaged in eating capeweed seeds, are aligned in parallel. Scientists have found (the references escape me for the moment) that animals tend to orient themselves, while at rest, with respect to geomagnetic fields. Maybe Bruce might undertake rigorous experimentation in the context of his backyard cockies (as they're called Down Under).

Meanwhile, I've installed a kangaroo banner in the right-hand column of my blog pointing to the wilderness tours organized by John Thompson. Ever since our recent Internet encounter [display], I've liked the intelligent style of this man (whom I've never met) and the nature of his touristic services. He sounds like authentic Australia.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

French expecting

Everybody in France is familiar with the egg-head image and highly-strung behavior of Bernard Laporte, who was the telegenic trainer of France's rugby team before Nicolas Sarkozy appointed him state secretary for sport.

Last July, at a garden party at the president's Élysée Palace in Paris, onlookers were delighted by explicit manifestations of affinity (for want of a more pertinent word) between Laporte and another political celebrity in the Sarkozy universe: Rachida Dati, minister of justice.

Recently, glamorous Rachida—a splendid emblem of achievement in modern France, liberated from sexism and racism—has started to get rounder and rounder, like a rugby ball.

No doubt about it. Officially, the unmarried lady is expecting. It's none of our business, of course, but everybody has been wondering: Who's the father? Rachida doesn't want to reveal his identity to the avid French public. Not surprisingly, a rumor has arisen: Maybe it's Bernard Laporte! Today, in a surrealist anti-coming-out at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, Laporte declared publicly that he's not the future Dati dad.

This news disappointed me... like missing out on the World Cup.