Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lively neighborhood

This is the road a few kilometers up above Gamone. The cliff in the background has a name like a movie star: Tina Dalle. In fact, dalle is the French word for a stone slab. This particular cliff, which I can see quite clearly from the slopes behind my house, is used as a training site by the French rock-climbing federation. In the foreground, the road snakes through a couple of small tunnels just before it reaches the plateau of Presles.

In the middle of the vast tree-studded plateau beyond Presles, these moss-covered limestone rocks are the entrance to a splendid cavern called Prélétang, which was used as a shelter, for millennia, both by wild animals and Neanderthals. The latter, who spent most of their time down in the valley, would only venture up to Prélétang during the summer months. Unfortunately, I arrived here a little too late to meet up with such residents.

Back in those days—during a relatively warm period, some 50 millennia ago, at the end of the fourth and final Ice Age—all the members of Neanderthal families would go out together, in summer, on hunting excursions. So, the plateau up above Choranche must have been quite a lively place. By comparison, today, I saw only a single hunter at Gamone, searching for an elusive wild boar, and I heard no more than two or three shots... which were nevertheless sufficient to terrify my dog Sophia, whose archaic brain has learned over eons of time that loud bangs of all kinds spell trouble and danger.

Before the arrival of the Neanderthals, Prélétang was occupied above all by cave bears, for whom the cavern was an ideal place for hibernation. Bones of these animals were found inside Prélétang, and one is tempted to imagine a Neanderthal family, seated around a fire at the entrance to the cavern and chomping into bear steaks. Alas, the Neanderthals would have found it difficult to kill such huge beasts. So, the bear bones probably resulted from attacks by wolves or cave lions, or maybe simply old age.

What's that block of colors doing in the middle of my Stone Age reverie? Answer: They're the graphical representations used in my recently-acquired genetics bible, described in my article entitled Big book [display], to designate the four kinds of bases found in the nucleotides of a strand of DNA. In simple terms, you can call them the four "letters" of the "alphabet" of life on the planet Earth. All kinds of life, with no exceptions: plants, bacteria, insects, fish, frogs, birds, bears, Neanderthals, you, me, etc. Even Sarah Palin and Pope Benedict XVI are said to be composed of DNA. Indeed, as far as can be ascertained, the only allegedly living entities (?) that might not be built out of strands of adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine are God, the Holy Ghost, angels, cherubim and maybe various fantastic creatures such as elves, centaurs, fairies, leprechauns, unicorns, mermaids, etc... although I hasten to admit that the basic problem concerning all these entities is that scientists have not yet been able to carry out enough serious laboratory testing.

Now, what was it that got me started talking about such questions? DNA. You see, certain researchers are starting to evoke the possibility of using their skills in genetic engineering, combined with a few archaic tufts of hair, say, to rebuild all kinds of marvelous creatures that we have long imagined as extinct.

What's that big fellow doing in the middle of the computer screen? Well, he's one of the first candidates for reconstruction that comes to mind, because scientists have just announced that they've finally deciphered more than three-quarters of the genome of the woolly mammoth, using specimens of hair from an animal that died in Siberia at about the same time, 20 millenia ago, that naked apes like me started to arrive in Choranche, where they may have wondered why all the Neanderthals had apparently disappeared. (Don't ask me. For all I know, they may have moved down to the French Riviera.)

Nobody, of course, is going to attempt to synthesize a latter-day mammoth from scratch, as it were. The only feasible technique for producing something that might look like a woolly mammoth consists of taking an elephant cell and modifying its DNA so that it starts to resemble the genome of the extinct animal.

Californian scientists have also recovered and successfully analyzed the DNA in the tooth of a cave bear that lived over 40 thousand years ago. So, there's another candidate for genetic resurrection. But will researchers be content with recreating a few wild beasts? Well, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and a Roche company in Connecticut have just spent two years sequencing the Neanderthal genome, which is 99.5 percent identical to our human genome. It would be perfectly feasible to take a chimpanzee cell and nudge its DNA into emerging as something that looked like Neanderthal stuff.

I'm sure that a latter-day Neanderthal would feel perfectly at home here on the slopes of Choranche. Besides, I've got a spare bedroom at Gamone, I can dish up all kinds of food (once my guests tell me what they like and don't like to eat), and I would be prepared to drive him/her up to Prélétang for summer hunting excursions. The only minor problem is that I can't be certain beforehand that my dog Sophia might not be racist. That would surprise me, though. Besides, I'm sure that Neanderthals would be nice neighbors.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

How did they do it?

Whenever I see an exceptionally spectacular human creation—such as a fortress perched above sheer cliffs, for example, at the tip of a mountain—my spontaneous reaction consists of asking: How did they do it? Even before deciding whether or not the construction impresses me, or even pleases me aesthetically, I'm obsessed by the question of how, in concrete terms, it came into being.

The Parthenon is a special case in that, the more I learn about its structure, the more I ask that same question: How did they do it? Superficially, the great Athenian sanctuary appears to be quite regular from a geometrical viewpoint: nothing but a parallel series of vertical columns supporting a horizontal superstructure. But this is a gigantic illusion. When everything is measured, we learn with astonishment that there are no straight parallel lines whatsoever in the Parthenon. Everything is curved, often enormously. And the raison d'être of this curved design is to create the optical illusion of linearity, straightness and parallelism. In other words, if the stones were really straight, they would look curved. So, they've been deliberately curved by the architect in order to create the impression that they are straight.

Stonehenge, at first sight, is the sort of construction that tempts many folk to wonder whether it might have been built with help from the magical powers of Druids, or maybe even extraterrestrial giants. Finally, however, it's not too difficult to imagine ways in which the giant blocks might have been transported and then raised into their vertical positions.

No doubt the biggest construction mystery of all time has concerned the Great Pyramid of Giza... which happens to be the only one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World that still exists.

Well, a former French architect named Jean-Pierre Houdin, with no specialized training in Egyptology, has just invented a revolutionary theory according to which the construction of the pyramid would have involved an internal ramp whose linear segments would have emerged into an open platform at each edge of the ascending pyramid, enabling a block to be turned and lifted onto the next segment of the ramp.

Houdin performed his calculations and computer modeling using resources supplied by the hi-tech company Dassault Systèmes. The following video gives you a good idea of the construction techniques imagined by Houdin:

As strange as it might seem, we can say retrospectively that, up until this theory was invented, the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza had simply remained a total mystery. One might conclude that humanity seems to get along quite well without having to find answers to the question: How did they do it?

ADDENDUM: I've just finished reading an excellent book on Jean-Pierre Houdin's theory of the construction of the Great Pyramid. Coauthored by the celebrated US Egyptologist Bob Brier, the book is available from Amazon either in English or in French.

I bought the French version, because I wanted to read the preface by the French TV personality and intellectual François de Closets, who actually played a role in publicizing this huge breakthrough in our knowledge of the ancient world.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tinny manners, old chap

In the UK, a disgruntled ex-member of the extreme right-wing BNP [British National Party] decided to publish the total list of members on the Internet. Very tinny manners, indeed.

The list of latter-day Fascist Poms contains names and postcodes. A bright web programmer succeeded in linking up the codes to a Google map, and then displaying the density of BNP members in every corner of Britain by misty red clouds. The outcome looks like a wet windshield splattered with the blood of dead insects, or maybe the face of a child with chicken pox.

[Click the image to visit the "BNP near me" website.]

Funnily enough, this way of directly stigmatizing one's neighbors, and sending them to Coventry, could be considered as a typically Fascist action. Not at all woody in a true British sense.

Now, if you're wondering where I dug up the weird adjectives "woody" and "tinny", here's the answer:

Friday, November 21, 2008

Stuff called spam

I went to live and work in the UK in December 1962... at a time when an obscure musical group called the Beatles was starting to become popular up in Liverpool.

The 1962-63 winter was harsh, and I could never figure out why anyone would want to stay in such an environment. Brits were then offered spectacular spring entertainment in the form of the Profumo affair, featuring personages straight out of a James Bond novel.

At the end of June 1963, I decided that my six months with IBM in their Wigmore Street headquarters had been more than sufficient as an experience of life in Britain. So, I returned to France.

The reason why I'm talking about my first and last stay in the UK is that I'm obliged to make an amazing confession. During those six months in London, I never got around to eating spam. Worse than that, I hadn't even discovered yet, at the ripe old age of 23, that such a strange foodstuff as spam existed. I had learned to appreciate English delicacies such as fish and chips, cold pork pies, etc, but the spam phenomenon somehow escaped me. In fact, during my stay in South Kensington, I usually ate in Italian, French and Indian restaurants.

Years later, I returned to England for a few extended weekend visits, assisting a French girlfriend from Paris who organized tours. We were lodged in cheap hotels, and fed in standard tourist restaurants.

And that's when I finally discovered the famous canned meat called spam, produced by Tulip in Denmark under license to the Hormel Foods Corporation. It was hilarious to see intrigued French tourists in an English restaurant, trying to identify the exact nature of the mysterious ham-like product they found in their plates. The Internet did not exist then. Today, we can visit the official Spam website. Meanwhile, the Wikipedia page on the Spam foodstuff indicates euphemistically that most pejorative uses of the term spam evoke "undesirable repetition". Readers hear of the Monty Python masterpiece that no doubt launched the concept of spam throughout the civilized world.

As of today, we're privileged to have free legal access through YouTube (authorized by the copyright owners) to many of the great Monty Python sketches.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Gmail window

In the course of countless encounters with Google's dull Gmail window, I've never fallen asleep through boredom, or suffered otherwise. I guess you could say that, when I open an email reader, I'm not exactly looking for exciting computer graphics. This afternoon, when Gmail suggested that I can henceforth choose a more attractive screen display, I said to myself: Why not? I chose their so-called mountain presentation. I was impressed when Google reacted: For the mountain presentation, we would like to know where you live. That surprised me a little, for I was convinced that Google has known for ages where I live, with whom, in what kind of a dwelling, etc. In other words, I have the impression that Big Brother Google was momentarily forgetful, or maybe simply polite in an old-fashioned way, in asking me where I lived. In any case, here's the result:

Unfortunately, my screen capture is not big enough to do justice to the rsult. So, let me explain that I was thrilled to discover that Google has in fact incorporated into my Gmail window a photographic fragment of a local limestone mountain. In their list of choices, I didn't notice a farm-house presentation. If ever it became available and I chose this option, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find Google offering me a background display of Gamone. For that matter, I wonder why they haven't thought of proposing me a William presentation, with photos of me in the background. That'll come...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Belgian graphic artists

I've often wondered what it is about Jacques Brel's "flat land", Belgium, that has given rise to so many talented graphic artists, particularly in the domain of comics.

Guy Peellaert, who died in Paris last Monday, was renowned for his work on disk jackets and movie posters. His depiction of David Bowie as a canine centaur, for his Diamond Dogs album, was a masterpiece.

My daughter was born in Brussels. I must ask her, one of these days, if she thinks there might be some kind of a surrealist gene in Belgians.

Big book

For a long time, particularly since my discovery of the extraordinary books of Richard Dawkins, I've thought it would be a good idea for me to get acquainted with the technical details of genetics: that's to say, of molecular biology. My reading matter in this domain was starting to get a little antiquated. Above all, much of it was poorly written stuff, and this is no longer acceptable in a field where authors are expected to write almost as well as Dawkins. What I wanted was simple: a good textbook about genetics, DNA, etc... Well, in this morning's mail, Amazon supplied me with exactly what I was looking for.

This huge book looks fabulous. The bible! Just what I need. Didactic with superb graphics. The only problem is that I won't be able to read it in bed of a late evening. It weighs a ton, and the paper product doesn't even include the latest chapters, supplied on a DVD. Great stuff as a substitute for evening TV.

Virtual yacht race

I'm still wasting time—along with over a hundred thousand other individuals—in a fascinating Internet game: a virtual version of the Vendée Globe yacht race. At the end of my recent article entitled Everest of sailing [display], I indicated that the game's server had given up the ghost. In fact, that minor incident didn't last for long, and nobody seemed to get hurt.

Over the last day or so, I've been lucky, with relatively good winds. When I woke up this morning, my boat named Gamone was located down near Dakar in Senegal, in about the 7000th position.

Meanwhile, the leading boat, Sauvageon, was already down at the level of Guinea-Bissau. At any particular moment, on your computer screen, the software only displays a few randomly-selected yachts... seen as tiny blobs of color. Between Gamone and Sauvageon in the above display, there are some 7000 virtual yachts! To the north of my Gamone, all the way up to France, the rest of the fleet is strung out in an armada of some 93 thousand virtual vessels.

I'm very impressed by the quality of the software behind this web game, which has been developed by a French company named Many Players. [Click here to visit their website.] If I understand correctly, the virtual regatta software is based upon Flash, which happens to be the powerful tool I've been using for years in my personal websites.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quiet guy

Although Obama was elected a fortnight ago, Osama still hasn't said a word about it. This situation is unexpected, frustrating, disturbing...

Maybe Osama's Internet is temporarily down, preventing him from getting out messages to the world. Or maybe he's switching from a Windows PC to Linux or a MacBook, and he's still working at getting his learning curve up to an operational level. We cannot of course exclude the possibility, as strange as it might appear, that bin Laden is no longer interested in America. He might simply be lazy, or away from his cave office on an extended vacation with his wife and kids.

Although Barack Obama is not the kind of fellow who shows his emotions, I'll bet he's furious to realize that Osama bin Laden hasn't reacted yet in any way whatsoever to the US presidential elections. It's just not right. We all feel that Osama has a moral responsibility to say something—no matter whether it's positive or negative—about Obama's victory. This notorious guy can't just sit silently there in his cave, somewhere in the vicinity of Pakistan, and act as if nothing has been happening in the outside world. Besides, why doesn't Osama bin Laden have a personal blog, like every other self-respecting Citizen of the World? Don't try to tell me they don't have good broadband connections (at least as good as those of my native Australia) up in that corner of the wilderness. If these terrorist chaps can master the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, they should have enough hi-tech know-how to install fiber optics links for Internet. Or, as former CIA field officer Robert Baer mused in his TIME article on this mystery [display]: Why doesn't Osama simply burn a DVD with up-to-date messages and videos? The best stuff could then be displayed through YouTube.

There is, of course, another explanation. It's quite possible that America's bogeyman, Osama bin Laden, is in fact dead and buried... in which case the cessation of trying to track down his ghost might coincide harmoniously with the long-awaited withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

BREAKING NEWS: I'm delighted to learn that Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, seems to have read my blog during the night (unless he happens to have other other sources of information and inspiration), for he has just made a public declaration concerning Barack Obama, labeling him—if I understand correctly the Arabic, which I don't—a "Negro house slave". Nice concept, a little dated...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Crazy and French

I think it was the English girl Samantha Davies, skipper of Roxy in the Vendée Globe race around the planet (at present in the 13th position), who said recently that there are two prerequisites for starring in this extraordinary sailing challenge. First, it helps if you're crazy; second, you have to be French.

[Click the photo to visit the Roxy website.]

I would say "intrepid" rather than "crazy". As for being French, the latest rankings certainly lend weight to that idea. The first ten yachts form a group extending over a hundred nautical miles, then there's a big gap to the remaining vessels. Of the first ten skippers, one is an Englishman from Southampton. The nine others are French, and they all reside in Brittany.

BREAKING NEWS: As of this morning, Sunday 16 November, instead of ten, there are now only five yachts within a bracket of a hundred miles. And all the skippers are Frenchmen from Brittany!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Smart birds

My dog loves walnuts, which are abundant at Gamone. Periodically, when she's feeling a bit hungry (which is most of the time), Sophia rambles down to the walnut trees and has a small feast. She has no trouble cracking the fruit open with her powerful jaws and then rummaging through the smashed mass for edible fragments. Then she comes back to the house with a single walnut clenched in her mouth, and settles down on the lawn to crack it open and eat it in an almost ritual style, as if there were something special about this particular walnut that she chose to bring back to the house, as a kind of trophy.

It doesn't take much, in Sophia's mind, for a perfectly ordinary act to be elevated to the status of a special event. For example, she can dart off constantly to various places in the vicinity of the house in order to piss and drop her turds. But, whenever Sophia realizes that I'm going to wander up the road and accompany her on such an excursion, our walk is transformed immediately into a Special Event, even though I might accompany her for no more than a hundred meters or so. She leaps around in joy and scrambles across the slopes, as if this were an extraordinary outing, while looking back from time to time to make sure that I'm still participating in our journey.

Although, as I said, Sophia is perfectly capable of breaking open walnuts on her own, she's happy if I can do the job for her. At Gamone, I have a constant stock of orange mesh bags full of fresh walnuts, which I use above all in my bread and cake making. I break the walnuts open using an ordinary steel hammer and a thick wooden cutting block that I brought back from Bangkok, many years ago. As soon as Sophia sees me sitting down alongside a bag of walnuts, the block and a hammer, she joins me, to wait for fallout. On such occasions, the average is one walnut kernel to Sophia for three into William's bowl.

When an animal has neither powerful nut-cracking jaws nor a master with a hammer, it has to rely upon other means, as reveled in this delightful Japanese video:

The other evening, Tineke and Serge evoked enthusiastically a recent TV documentary on the extraordinary cognitive capacities of the native crow from the island of New Caledonia, which has taught itself to find or even build tools (from pine leaves) to catch wood grubs.

[Click the image to visit the Wikipedia page about this fascinating bird.]

Professor Russell Gray, of Auckland, discusses the amazing cognitive talents of this bird in the following two videos:

If I were kind with regard to my lovely dog, I would say that my life with Sophia has made me more and more respectful, over recent years, of the engineering achievements and intellectual qualities of non-human animals. As I said to Tineke and Serge, I have become totally enraptured, on twilight evenings at Gamone, by the spectacle of the flight of bats. Please don't tell Sophia I said this, but I think this evolution in my regard is a consequence, above all, of my intense reading of the brilliant books of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. To do justice to everybody, let's conclude that I'm under the combined influence of Dawkins, Pinker and Sophia.

Elevator into the heavens

An article in this morning's Australian press made the unexpected suggestion that my native country should get involved in some kind of space program. It goes without saying that I like this idea, but I don't necessarily find it very realistic. It's a bit like saying that Australia should get involved in nuclear energy research. A more plausible down-to-earth goal would consist of simply updating the nation's antiquated infrastructure of railways, roads and bridges. Be that as it may, I was intrigued above all by the particular space project that was mentioned in the article. It was suggested that the waters off Western Australia might be a fine place for... an elevator into the heavens!

The principle of such a magical device was enunciated for the first time, many years ago, by a Russian rocket scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky [1857–1935], who lived in the countryside in a log house. The general theory behind such an elevator is quite sound. You merely need to attach a strong elevator cable to a geostationary satellite. But an obvious practical problem has made it impossible, up until now, to envisage the actual construction of such a Jacob's ladder into the sky. The problem is the huge weight of the elevator cable, 62 thousand miles long! If it were built of steel, say, it would snap immediately under its own weight.
[Click here to see the Wikipedia page on this subject.]

The good news is that recent advances in nanotechnology make it possible to envisage the existence of an ultra-thin, ultra-lightweight and ultra-strong ribbon that would theoretically be able to perform perfectly as an elevator cable. What I don't know is whether Australia is technologically advanced enough to be able to work in this domain, and tackle such a project. The following short American video presents this kind of space elevator:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Unexpected medical practitioner

Google has constant access to a vast corpus of data concerning the informational demands of the citizens of the planet, and the organization has become powerful in that it uses imagination to invent ways of exploiting such information. Consider, for example, the following unexpected banner:

[Click the banner to see what it's all about.]

What does Google have to do with flue trends? Well, Google is aware of the geographical zone from which such-and-such a request for information emanates. And, when a lot Internet users in Texas, say, are asking for information about influenza, that could well mean that symptoms of an impending outbreak are arising in that area. And field data has proven that this kind of correlation corresponds to reality. In other words, Google has discovered an ingenious technique for predicting flu outbreaks.

It has often been said that various birds and animals seem to be capable of detecting advanced signs of an impending natural catastrophe such as a tsunami. But no serious observers have ever dared to claim (as far as I know) that humans have this kind of mysterious talent. Personally, I'm not superstitious, and I like to imagine that I reason objectively. But, if I were living in San Francisco, say, and I learned that Google happened to be receiving an exceptionally large number of requests from local people for information about earthquakes, I reckon I would prefer to get to hell out of the place as quickly as possible.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Commemorating horror without pride

There are two ways of looking at commemorations of warfare and related events.

• First approach. You sanctify proudly all those on your own side, be they winners or losers. This will then allow your national leaders to ramble on mindlessly about their "pride" in the sacrifices of their fellow countrymen.

• Alternative approach. You decide once and for all that, in warfare—past, present and future—there are neither winners nor losers, only absurd horror.

If ever there were a global conflict that was won by nobody, with no cause for pride on either side, it was the so-called Great War. Indeed, the alleged loser was back in force, two decades later, plunging Europe into a still greater holocaust.

Here in France, I'm impressed by the role of television in drawing attention to the absolute stupidity and horror of war. It's not necessarily TV of the ordinary kind that families might watch. Sometimes, you need to be equipped technically to receive specialized history channels. Also, you have to want to see such stuff.

Many of my compatriots, on the other side of the planet, declare that they have "pride" in what took place, during the so-called Great War, at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. I ask these folk: Has television enabled them to realize, in depth, what's concealed behind this silly expression of so-called pride? Maybe not.... for two reasons:

• First, the scope and depth of Aussie TV are appallingly limited. I witnessed this poverty during my visit to Sydney in 2006. Viewers spend their time watching sport and commercial junk interspersed with publicity. I gained the overall impression that the TV phenomenon in Sydney had little in common with what I think of as normal television here in Europe. So, we might envisage Australians as deprived TV viewers... at least as far as serious historical documentaries and associated debates are concerned. Their blinkered media infrastructure prevents them from seeing what the outside world has to say about many issues.

• Second, here in Europe, the relevant TV programs concerning the 1914-1918 conflict never talk of any "pride" attached to the countless deaths. Would-be "pride" is a ridiculous construct of purely Aussie origins, associated with parochial Anzac mythology. And I'm pleased to see that this bloated myth, which infected my childhood, is being examined at last under a microscope.

There cannot possibly be any kind of pride in the horrendous slaughter that characterized the Great War, only sadness.

Peace and love... and entertainment

In the Holy City of Jerusalem, there have often been nasty conflicts between various lovable and charitable Christian neighbors who happen to have inherited significant chunks of real estate at the Crusader-built church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is alleged to have been crucified and buried. The latest popular punch-out involved the major proprietors, Orthodox Greeks, and their Armenian fellow travelers. In the following video coverage of the event [turn up the audio volume], you can see Israeli policemen trying vainly to intercept the blows, which symbolize gloriously the power of the Lord.

It goes without saying that this free-for-all is taking place at the holiest of holy places in Christendom, and that the pious pugilists appear, through their robes, to be ecclesiastics of various kinds.

I can't tell you much I love this great stuff. What a pity it doesn't happen more often. I can imagine a sort of regular world series of all-out brawls between Christian groups of all denominations. Matches would be organized, not only in Jerusalem, but in all the planet's great cities where the religious fighting spirit lives on: Rome, Paris, Belfast, Salt Lake City, etc. Onward Christian soldiers! Later, the international organizing committee might explore the interesting idea of inviting teams from other faiths—such as Judaism and Islam—into the tournaments. The shows might be enhanced by bouts in feminine categories, maybe mud-pit wrestling matches between Western nuns and blue-shrouded Taliban females. To my mind, religion must become a synonym of fun. And why not fighting fun?

I love to invent names. This planetary sporting/entertainment affair could be called the World Crusader Tournament.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Everest of sailing

The Everest metaphor is nice, but the truth of the matter is that the number of navigators who have sailed single-handed around the globe would appear to be considerably less than the number of individuals who have scaled the world's highest mountain. In the waters off the French port of Sables d'Olonne, the 30 monohulls will hear the starting gun in exactly one hour.

This yacht race around the world can probably be considered as the toughest and most anguishing sporting event in the world.

BREAKING NEWS: I use the word "breaking" in a literal sense: Something has broken! The French TV channel 3 made an amusing free offer to Internauts enabling them to enroll as virtual skippers in a web version of the Vendée Globe. It was highly popular. Over thirty thousand virtual yachts were lined up for the start this afternoon. Unfortunately, a couple of hours after the start of our regatta, the server exploded. For the moment, our tens of thousands of virtual vessels appear to have been lost at sea a few dozen nautical miles off the French coast. For the moment, skippers have received no explanation whatsoever from the organizers of the virtual regatta, so I have no idea whether there's any possibility of our being salvaged. This disaster could well go down in virtual maritime history as the biggest sailing catastrophe of all time.

At 8 o'clock this evening, the France 3 website displayed a sad message:

Meanwhile, in the real world, the race appears to be evolving perfectly, with a dozen leaders separated by a nautical mile. Apparently there are fewer mishaps in the real world than in the virtual.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

New gadget in side column

In the right-hand side column of this blog, just below my profile block, I've inserted a new gadget labeled LATEST COMMENTS. This helps to solve a common problem. From time to time, readers browsing through my archives decide to comment upon a relatively old blog post. In such cases, the comment is likely to go unnoticed. This new gadget indicates the three most recently-received comments, even though they might refer to old posts. For example, Ken de Russy has just attached a comment to my New Icarus article of 28 September 2008 [display].

Incidentally, I must apologize for my laziness in indexing my posts within the context of my Accessor tool. It takes a lot of time and energy to perform this task, and I simply haven't got around to it. In this domain, I wouldn't be surprised to find that Google, one of these days, will propose a magic tool capable of transforming an entire blog into a PDF file that can be browsed through like a book. The existence of such a feature would render my Accessor more or less obsolete. In general, I'm awed by Google, as I've often said. But, for somebody like me, it can be frustrating at times to develop a tool such as Accessor while knowing full well that, one day, Google will do it better. Hey, that would be a great slogan for this ubiquitous corporation:

One day, Google will do it better!

They can pay me for this brilliant idea by sending a check to my Gamone address.

Wacko of the week award

In the category of Forgettable Grand Declarations, I was tempted to give this week's Wacko Award to an angry Sarah Palin, responding to unnamed McCain campaign aides who've been criticizing her recently, unjustly (of course): "That’s cruel and it’s mean-spirited, it’s immature, it’s unprofessional and those guys are jerks, if they came away with it taking things out of context and then tried to spread something on national news. It is not fair and not right." It was the lady's choice of the eloquent term "jerks", above all, that incited my immediate admiration.

But then I realized there would have to be a tie with a loud-mouthed European prime minister. While visiting Moscow last Thursday, Silvio Berlusconi referred to the US president-elect as "young, handsome and suntanned". Witty Silvio's a scream, isn't he!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Presidential dog stuff

My autumn dog Sophia and I are delighted to learn that one of the major issues facing the Obama family is the choice of an animal for Malia and Sasha.

Ah, if only the problems of the universe could be reduced—as they could and should be—to dog talk!

Master Bruno

I encourage readers of my Antipodes blog to browse through what I've published concerning my Alpine hero, the hermit Bruno.

His story has always inspired me at Gamone. I've often imagined myself—in a fuzzy non-religious fashion—as a kind of "disciple" of Bruno. I admire particularly his absolutism, which culminated in his abandoning the trivialities and superficial comforts of the everyday world and living in direct contact with harsh nature. Whenever I have the privilege of wandering through the so-called desert of Cartusia, where he settled in 1084 (at about the age of 54), I am awed by the wild beauty of Bruno's territory, and amazed that he was capable of settling down there in solitude.

Gamone water puzzle

Urban folk often forget about water... unless their administrators happen to inform them suddenly that the municipality might be running out of water. Here at Gamone, I've always been interested in the water situation. In 1994, I was the first resident in my small neighborhood to be connected to the municipal water supply. Before then, my Gamone predecessors had to depend upon a spring, fifty meters beyond the house. Since my arrival, I've taken advantage of this spring water to water my garden. Unfortunately, it ceases to flow during certain dry periods of the year. A local acquaintanceRené Uzel, younger than me, who lived here at Gamone for several years when he was a child—told me that, during the dry periods, they had to drive down to the village to bring back water for the family.

These days, at Gamone, it's wet periods that create a problem. I've been troubled by a puzzle, illustrated in this diagram of my spring:

Spring water accumulates constantly in a small pool up above my house, surrounded by high banks. A concrete tank, marked captor, collects the spring water. This tank, with a steel lid, is located well above ground level, just outside the banks of the spring pool. This captor tank is perfectly accessible, and I can verify constantly that it's functioning correctly simply by wandering up to the Gamone spring and lifting the captor's lid. At the outlet marked spring, a garden hose takes the water down to a sprinkler on the lawn alongside my house. Consequently, for many months during the year, my lawn is watered non-stop by the spring... even when it's pouring rain!

In this idyllic context, the only problem is the existence of a massive spill (as indicated in the above diagram) whenever there's a lot of rain up above Gamone. This spill is of a brief duration (no more than a week, two or three times a year), but the excess water hurtles down the slopes in the form of a small but powerful torrent, particularly since the municipality has laid a bitumen road above Gamone, crossed by steel gutters that focus the flow. Recently, the spill from Gamone's spring has started to provoke minor landslides below my property.

Now, here's the puzzle: Is this spill water in fact a subterranean overflow from my spring, which might be collected by reconstructing the present captor? Or is it maybe an autonomous underground channel [unlikely hypothesis], unrelated to my spring? The most intriguing item of information is that, when the spill ceases, the captor continues to supply spring water to my lawn. Obviously, if the spill were fed by leaks down at the bottom of the pool marked Gamone water, then the spring and the spill should be synchronized, as it were. As soon as one stops or starts, the other should stop or start at almost the same time. So, how can we explain the puzzle? Why does the spill only occur after heavy rainfall above Gamone, and why does the spring continue to supply water well after the spill has ceased?

Yesterday, for the first time ever, our municipal employee Pierre Faure ventured a logical answer to this puzzle. The spill is the outcome of leaks, not at the bottom of the pool, but around its upper edges.

Pierre's simple explanation enables everything to fall into place (including the water, you might say). After heavy rain above Gamone, the level of the spring pool rises, due in part to ground-level rivulets. When the surface of the pool reaches the level of the external fissures around its perimeters, the spill starts. I insist upon the fact that this phenomenon is not clearly visible. There are no obvious signs that the pool, surrounded by high earthen banks, might be overflowing.

So, now that the spill puzzle has been elucidated, what should we do to handle the situation ideally? Observing the huge spill, local folk such as René Uzel and Pierre Faure, not to mention the mayor Bernard Bourne, have often said: "William, maybe the captor of your spring is not adequate." In general, I've scoffed at their remarks, since the sprinkler on my lawn has always proved, to my mind, that the captor is working perfectly.

Today, I'm forced but happy to admit that their remarks are uncannily spot-on. My spring captor (built many years ago by René Uzel's father) is simply inadequate, in that it fails to handle an excessive volume of water in the pool. An ideal captor (a big concrete cistern) would be ten times the size of the present one, and it would have two outlets: a tap at the bottom for watering my lawn, and an overflow pipe at the top for calmly conveying excess water down to Gamone Creek. So, yesterday evening, I raced down to the bar in Pont-en-Royans where I can always be sure to find certain local tradesmen at the end of their working day, and I said to René Uzel, who runs his own little earth-moving business: "Come up to Gamone as soon as you've got time, and tell me how much it'll cost to rebuild your father's captor."

It's lovely to see that affairs of this kind evolve in an old-fashioned context of rural awareness and experience, in which newcomers such as me need time in order to comprehend what the native dwellers are trying to tell us. We should never believe wholeheartedly what they seem to be saying, for their conclusions are often fuzzy, nor should we ever reject entirely what they have to relate. It's fun finding the truth, which is inevitably somewhere in between.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obamazing victory

Well, the miracle has happened. I didn't sleep a lot during the early hours of our European morning, because I was glued to CNN on my wide-screen TV, watching history unfolding.

After getting accustomed to the TV color code (blue for the Democrats, red for the Republicans), I was amused by this striking image of the new first family, evoking the title of Stendhal's great novel, The Red and the Black. For Stendhal's hero Julian Sorel, the color red designated the army, whereas black evoked the clergy. Last night in Chicago, I had the impression that the red symbolized Barack Obama's constant theme of leftist change, whereas black was of course the color of the skin of this new American statesman and leader. Maybe, those splashes of red in the Chicago evening were intended to indicate Obama's desire to reach out towards his former Republican opponents in a bipartisan spirit. The simplest explanation, of course, is that Barack Obama's wife and elder daughter felt like wearing bright clothes to celebrate, and that nothing's brighter than red. In any case, it's unlikely that their bright clothes cost them thousands of dollars.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Revolution in the world of books?

I've put a question mark at the end of my title, because I really don't know with certainty what's likely to happen in the near future. Meanwhile, I urge you to take a look at the present state of the Google Book Search service. To do so, pull down the Google menu labeled more and choose the Books item.

[Alternatively, you can simply click the above banner.]

It's a surprising service. Google seems to be aware of the existence of a vast quantity of published books, both ancient and modern. But don't expect to be able to download many of them, because either they're under copyright, or maybe they haven't been fully scanned yet, or there's some other reason preventing their downloading. I have the impression that what we see today provides us with no more than a taste of what's to come. It's all rather complicated, because Google is obliged to come to terms with the two great poles of the book industry: publishers and authors.

The current state of this confrontation is well described in the celebrated TidBITS website, which provides Macintosh-oriented news. Click the banner to display an excellent in-depth article on this subject by Glenn Fleishman. The article is so full of pertinent information that you might decide to print it out, as I've just done.

I have the feeling that Google might be about to revolutionize many aspects of the conventional book world. Then there's all the current talk about electronic books...

Open Google Book Search and type in "william skyvington". You'll discover that Google is convinced that I've written a book about contemporary Iran. This is really quite hilarious, because I know almost nothing about Iran. I've never been there, and I've certainly never written a book about Iran. As I've already pointed out, I've known for some time that the true author of this book on Iran happens to be the fellow who once published my book on Great Britain. For reasons I ignore, something got short-circuited when Google was examining the books published by the French Jeune Afrique company, and they decided that I was the author of two books, not just one. So, even Google can make mistakes, but the gigantic company is such a behemoth that I have no idea how to go about correcting this silly error.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Rising

Yesterday, in Cleveland, the second of Barack Obama's three appearances in this major swing state, 80 thousand spectators were warmed up by Bruce Springsteen with these powerful words: "Senator Obama, help us rebuild our house big enough for the dreams of all our citizens. I want my country back, I want my dream back, I want my America back." Then, as Obama came onto the stage, Springsteen and his musicians broke out with their stirring hymn:

I too hope that, within two days, Americans and their friends throughout the planet will be able, at last, to come on up for the rising.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Birthday offering

For French Catholics, November 2 is the Day of the Dead. People visit cemeteries and place flowers on the tombs. Within our tiny family, November 2 is quite the opposite. It's the birthday of Emmanuelle.

Last night on TV, I watched the Elizabeth I movie: the 2005 creation with Helen Mirren as the queen, which preceded the production on the same subject starring Cate Blanchett.

I found it moving... and I'll be looking forward, one of these lazy days, to seeing the more recent version of this famous epoch. [It's hard for an ordinary viewer to keep up with all the royal stuff that's coming out.]

Inspired by the movie, and before slipping off to sleep, I browsed through my familiar Kings and Queens of England by Antonia Fraser to check up on the background information concerning the Virgin Queen's passion for her "Robin", Lord Leicester. In the context of descriptions of suitors for the queen's hand, I was promptly alerted by a phrase that had escaped me during my past readings:

Another English candidate was Sir William Pickering, a diplomat...

I was startled in that I have a paternal ancestor named William Pickering [1843-1914]: an Oxford-trained surveyor who designed the future city of Auckland in New Zealand. When I was a child in Grafton, my grandmother had often talked to me with pride about her father, from whom I derived my Christian name.

This afternoon, I took out my folder of Pickering files, which has been full of genealogical holes since the beginning of my research, a quarter of a century ago. For reasons I can't explain, this Pickering line is the last genealogical vector that I've got around to exploring seriously... although I've often imagined it vaguely as maybe the richest source in my genetic makeup.

In spite of all my research in this domain, I've rarely felt that I "relate" deeply to the Skyvington lineage from Dorset [display], and less so to the confused Irish context on my mother's side [display]. But I've often experienced a gut-level certitude that I'm a chip off the genetic block of my paternal grandmother Kathleen Pickering.

After a strenuous and marvelous afternoon of in-depth research on the web, I finally succeeded amazingly in filling in all the genealogical gaps on the Pickering side of my ancestry, enabling me to get back directly, in a remarkably short line, to my 16th-century ancestor Nicolas Wadham, founder of the college that bears his name at the University of Oxford. And this lineage passes alongside a celebrated personage: Jane Seymour, the second wife of Henry VIII, father of the heroine of the movie I was watching on French TV last night. Basically, my family history moves from Wadham to Martyn, then on to Latton and finally Pickering.

So, here is my birthday gift to my daughter: an image of the ancient arms of a major branch of her English ancestors, the Wadhams.

Needless to say, I intend to put all this newfound stuff into clear writing as soon as possible.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Stuff that appears to be unintelligible

At first sight, the following text (sent to me by a friend) appears to be unintelligible, but in fact it turns out to be perfectly readable:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are. The olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers are at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses, and you can sitll raed it wouthit any porbelms. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.

Talking about apparently unintelligible stuff, you might contemplate the following delightful case (also sent to me by a friend):

If you click the image, you'll be offered a baffling French-language video [requires the Windows Media Player]. In case you imagine that a knowledge of spoken French would enable you to know what it's all about, I'm afraid I must inform you that this is not the case. Even for somebody who understands perfectly all that is said in this video, the affair still remains highly mysterious, indeed incomprehensible. But here are few hints about what seems to be happening. The fellow is building this space vessel in his backyard with the aim of setting out on an astral voyage. The high point of the video, towards the end, is when his mother gives us a glimpse of the vessel's electronic guidance device, which will be controlled by the guy's mind, using parapsychology.

Five good reasons why I dislike lists

1. Whenever I see somebody's list, say, of 5 good reasons why McCain should be elected president, I can be almost certain that it'll be followed shortly after by a list of 5 good reasons, maybe formulated by the same person, why Obama should be elected.

2. It's a fact that, in our computer-oriented society, we're accustomed to numbered lists of items. [I myself am a culprit at times concerning the use of lists in my writing.] We should realize however that, while this linear style of expression might appear to be clear, it is not necessarily valid or convincing. The basic problem with a list of alleged good reasons is that it should ideally be read at the same time as a list of bad reasons, or opposite reasons.

3. A list of N reasons why something or other should be done, or believed, smacks of smugness, as if everything has been summed up nicely and completely in an itemized fashion. Reality is a far more fuzzy affair, in which almost every alleged "reason", if pushed to its limits, is of a borderline nature.

4. If God has intended us to think in terms of lists of reasons, He would have been far more explicit concerning this style of expression. Among other things, He would have provided us with a list of reasons why we should adhere to His list of 10 commandments. Furthermore, He would have told us how many items there should be in a typical list before we can get around to considering the case closed. For example, I can think of one good reason why I don't believe in God, namely: He doesn't exist! But this list is surely too short.

5. The final reason for my disliking lists is the existence of further reasons, not included in the present list. Etc...

Romantic Australia

I see that a new packet of romantic Down Under hype is about to hit the fan. I'm referring, of course, to the much-awaited Australia saga by Baz Luhrmann, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

Personally, if I saw an anemic Nicole Kidman on a cattle station, I would have doubts about the quality of their beef. Can she survive the dusty heat and the burning sun? She looks like the sort of tasty fair creature who would attract flies, mosquitoes, spiders, snakes, etc... and it would be a frantic life-or-death affair getting her to a doctor in time. Funnily enough, sticking to facts, we hear that it was angelic Nicole who actually saved Hugh's life during the shooting by using her delicate fingers to remove a scorpion from her partner's leg. So, maybe I should shut my mouth and wait for the movie before saying anything more.

There's a funny spoof trailer:

Once again, this movie will no doubt be capable of persuading countless hordes of fatigued New Yorkers and Parisians to think about packing up their bags and moving out to the exciting El Dorado that awaits them Down Under. I can already imagine such innocent folk stepping into an antiquated subway train at Wynyard, on their way out to Mascot, to board bravely a Qantas plane bound for Darwin... where they'll be thrilled to discover that the damage from Japanese bombing and cyclone Tracy has all been cleaned up spotlessly.