Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Family history

I certainly didn't grow up with any particular interest in family history. In my childhood context in Grafton, genealogy was not an everyday topic of discussion. Retrospectively, I greatly regret the fact that I never got around to asking my elders for stories about their past. Worse still, I remember times when such stories were forthcoming, but it was I who wasn't interested in listening. For example, my paternal grandmother once started to tell me about her ancestors in Northern Ireland referred to as Orange Men, and this subject bored me to such an extent that I didn't take notice of anything she said... and today I'm totally incapable of following up this link, about which I possess no data whatsoever.

I've nevertheless made progress in this domain. The time has come to start thinking about sharing the results of my research with others, including descendants. People who are no more than vaguely aware of my existence have a good chance of discovering my genealogical websites through Google. A broader challenge consists of making data available to people who have no idea whatsoever of my existence.

A good approach consists, I think, of publishing my global family tree with the time-honored RootsWeb organization, which administers an easy-to-use project named WorldConnect.

An interesting aspect this system is that people are free to download my family tree in the form of a so-called gedcom file, which they can then examine and use on their own computers.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tour talk

French journalists have had fun with the surname of the Schleck brothers, Fränk and Andy, from Luxembourg, who were the most prominent opponents of Lance Armstrong. We got treated to puns about blank Schlecks, bad Schlecks, rubber Schlecks, Schleck-mate, etc.

This afternoon, on the moonscape slopes of the terrifying Bald Mountain in Provence, it was touching to see young Andy doing his utmost to get his brother Fränk in front of Armstrong. The brothers ride together in synergy; as if they were identical twins. But Lance was too smart to be trapped.

There was a rumor, this morning, that Armstrong might have made a proposal to the Schleck brothers to join his forthcoming US team, sponsored by Radio Shack. If this were to eventuate, let me be the first observer to coin a nickname for the new team: Radio Schleck.

There was an intriguing moment just before the riders started today's climb. French TV journalists noticed that Armstrong, while pedaling hard, was conversing briefly with one of the Schleck brothers. First journalist: "What on earth could Armstrong be talking about with a Schleck brother?" Second journalist: "He's probably supplying them with last-minute financial details of a contract with Radio Shack."

At the end of the stage, Armstrong was most pleased with the way that things had turned out on the Ventoux. He was stunned by the record-breaking crowds of spectators, including a large proportion of Americans. At times, the density of onlookers was such that the effects of the notorious Ventoux winds appeared to be attenuated by the human walls. I noticed, too, judging by the flags, that crowds of Australians are following the Tour, which has become a truly international sporting event.

Happy birthday

Sophia was born on 25 July 1998. So, today is her 11th birthday.

The "birthday cake" I cooked for her was rather special, but I knew she would find it delicious. Normally, whenever I shell prawns (which is quite often, because I'm fond of several prawn dishes), Sophia waits for the heads and shells. Today, after preparing half a kilo of prawns, I put the heads and shells in a mixer. Then I added an egg and fried the mixture in olive oil. I had the impression that Sophia was pleasantly amazed to find herself being offered such a delicacy.

Happily, she's in perfect physical form. In fact, the only problem with Sophia is that, through living alone with me at Gamone, she seems to have become somewhat antisocial... like me. So, on hot days, when I take her down to the Bourne for a dip, she often growls at unfamiliar dogs that approach her. She leads an extremely regular existence, of a clockwork kind, even to the extent of rolling around on her back, once a day, in exactly the same patch of weeds alongside the house. At another spot, near the main door of the house, there's a corner of bare earth that I've been trying to cover with grass for years. But Sophia has made it clearly known to me that she prefers to lie down there from time to time in a soft heap of thick warm dust. So, I've given up trying to grow grass there. Sophia has won. Funnily, the regularity of Sophia's daily existence (which starts early in the morning when she wanders upstairs to wait alongside my bed until I wake me up) seems to rub off onto me, and exert a kind of reassuring, stabilizing force in my own life.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thanks for the memory

A few years ago, the price of hard-disk drives started to drop, while their capacities jumped exponentially. That's why I've got three little beasts like this sitting behind my iMac, for random backups (alongside my Time Machine backup, which runs permanently):

Like most computer users, I simply greeted this hardware affair with pleasure, without ever bothering to think about the reasons for the hugely positive evolution of the economics of hard-disk backups. I imagined naively that manufacturers had simply improved their production methods in such a way that prices could be slashed while the drives themselves could have increased storage capacity. In fact, the explanations are considerably more complicated than that. These days, customers have indeed been reaping vast benefits from the development and commercial availability of entirely new storage technologies... and things are still getting better all the time.

In a recent issue of Scientific American (the only paper publication to which I subscribe), there's a splendid article on this subject written by an English physicist named Stuart Parkin, who has been working in California on the invention of astounding new storage technologies. [Click the photo to access the Wikipedia article on this man.] In the context of my blog, I cannot of course attempt to explain the nature of the complex technologies at the origin of our low-cost high-capacity hard-disk drives. But I can't resist the temptation of quoting an amazing item of information provided by Parkin in his Scientific American article:

Today the collective storage capacity of all hard-disk drives manufactured in one month exceeds 200 exabytes, or 2 x 10-to-the-power-20 bytes [I don't know how to display an exponent in Blogger]—enough to store all the extant analog data in the world, that is, all the data on paper, film and videotape.

You might ask: Who is actually purchasing this astronomical quantity of storage potential? And what are all these storage devices being used for? Those are good questions, which I'm incapable of answering. It can't all be Google...

New Armstrong team

This evening, at the end of the time trial around the beautiful lake at Annecy, Lance Armstrong announced his new team.

Almost everybody, today, is greatly impressed by the man named Armstrong.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Shit happens

Something big and nasty can screw up when you're least expecting it. Incidentally, concerning the title of the present article, click here to see an excellent page of multifarious evocations of this short statement of wisdom. Over the last day or so, it has happened (that's to say, shit happened) twice on a large scale, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Shit in the USA. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, police arrested a black man when they found him trying to force open the door of a house in a nice neighborhood. It turned out that the black man in question was merely trying to open the door of his own house. Worse still (for the dumb cops), the black culprit, named Henry Louis Gates, happens to be a distinguished scholar at Harvard.

Barack Obama was greatly irritated by this stupid incident.

Shit in France. The French Foreign Legion looks great when they parade on the Champs-Elysées on Bastille Day. These smart soldiers are not quite so friendly when they decide to practice shooting on the outskirts of the great Mediterranean metropolis of Marseille using tracer cartridges, in which combustible chemicals leave a visible trail of fire. In this way, it would appear that mindless légionnaires sparked off a bushfire that created havoc in the suburbs of Marseille.

True enough, shit happens. Once upon a time, people believed in the spontaneous generation of living entities from non-living matter. According to theories of spontaneous generation, complex forms of life can be generated by decaying organic substances. After all, Aristotle believed that putrid matter could produce fleas, dirty hay could give rise to mice, and rotting logs in lagoons could create crocodiles. Today, we've evolved considerably. Whenever shit happens, there's a golden rule for honorable detectives: Cherchez le shitter!

BREAKING NEWS: Barack Obama has just expressed his opinion:
"I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well."
The president might have mentioned a third over-reactor: himself. And, while we're at it, maybe I should include myself as yet another excessive observer in the chain reaction. These days, whenever we're tempted to comment about anything, we're inevitably doing so without sufficient information, or sufficient expertise. In such a situation, once again, as Obama discovered, a little bit of shit is often just hanging around there, waiting to happen.

Basic stuff

For a few hours after a lengthy plane trip (of the kind, say, between Europe and Australia), I always have a weird intermittent feeling that I'm still floating in the sky. I imagine that this is a common experience (like jet lag), but I've never known what it's called.

People who've had the privilege of traveling in a 2-horsepower Citroën automobile are likely to discover that their body memorizes the sensation of going around corners. I don't think I've been back in a deuche (slang abbreviation for "2 chevaux", 2-horsepower) for a quarter of a century, but my body can still feel the unsettling way this vehicle swoops down into corners. I say "swoops down" because the vehicle gives the impression on corners that the suspension is so slack that the chassis is going to grind into the macadam. It feels as if you're riding along in a hybrid contraption composed of a rocking deck chair on wheels, enclosed in an enlarged and slightly glorified sardine can.

Why am I evoking this amazing and unforgettable automobile? Well, I still laugh when I recall a shocked American couple in Paris, decades ago, describing the 2-horsepower Citroën as "basic car". I've always loved that quaint expression, which says all that needs to be said... just as the vehicle itself comprises all that is really required, with no frills attached, to get from A to B.

In fact, what I adore is the adjective "basic". It's a handy old-fashioned word... which became the name of a computer programming language with which we all had a love/hate relationship at one time or another. Nowadays, of course, just as nobody uses the Basic language, practically nobody uses the adjective "basic". In environmental contexts, people prefer more sophisticated words such as "ecological", "renewable", "sustainable", etc. For me, "basic" means all that, and more. It's an adjective that evokes, for me, the time-honored philosophical principle of Occam's razor, which stipulates, in a nutshell, that "simplicity is beautiful". If there are several hypothetical solutions to a problem, it's often a good idea to start out by preferring the simplest one.

That's my basic cake. I've been baking it regularly for years.

-- Mix 250 g of melted butter with 250 g of sugar.

-- Add 5 eggs and beat.

-- Mix in 250 g of flour. Add a packet of yeast and vanilla sugar.

-- Cut up a few apples and place them, along with sultanas, in a glass baking dish. Pour the cake mixture on top... and let your dog lick the emptied bowl.

-- Bake for 40 minutes at 200 degrees. Ease out the cooked cake (with a flexible trowel) and turn it upside-down.

In terms of culinary simplicity, I don't, of course, get anywhere near my dear mother, whose recipe for basic chook (chicken) was: Fill it with bread crumbs and dried herbs, then stick an onion in its bum and bake it until it smells good.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Babies sell French water

Evian mineral water from a locality of that name in the Haute-Savoie department, marketed by the Danone corporation, is a huge commercial success throughout the world. A few years ago, Evian decided to use the theme of water babies in their publicity:

Then they created an amazing children's chant, with a hypnotic effect, as an accompaniment for their so-called water-boy video:

Today, Evian offers us a spectacular demonstration of baby rollers:

You can find several Internet articles and videos that reveal the secrets of how the movie was made.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Silence can be golden

It's only recently that I've fully grasped the fact that there are times, particularly in a media context, when it's preferable to say nothing whatsoever about certain subjects.

The bicentennial of Darwin's birth strengthened this attitude in my mind. I've always found it outrageous that numbskulls should dare to compare the preposterous fantasy of creationism, not to mention the fable of Genesis, with the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, whenever a serious scientist gets dragged into a public argument with Genesis believers and creationists (basically the same kind of people), the supernaturalists receive extra publicity, even though they might be thrashed intellectually. And the fact that they're placed in the limelight is likely to make these silly folk more sure of themselves, and more outspoken, than if they were to be simply ignored. So, there's a strong case for refraining from ever paying attention to them in any way whatsoever.

The same thing can be said about journalists who turn their projectors towards perpetrators of the ridiculous Moon Hoax, according to which NASA's Apollo missions were mere Hollywood productions.

In general, I think it's always worthwhile, at least in the beginning, to allow conspiracy theorists of all kinds to air their views, because we can often learn from them in various unexpected ways. But, as soon as it becomes clear that such-and-such a theory is no more than hot air, its proponents should normally be ignored. The problem is that, the more an observer is convinced that he can easily debunk the allegations of a mindless conspiracy theorist, the more the intended debunking runs the risk of being transformed into nice publicity for the silly ideas.

Awaiting the plague

The current swine-flu situation provides an opportunity of experiencing the kind of anguish that must have pervaded societies in the olden days, before the advent of modern medicine. Here in France, though, things appear to be under control, and there are no advance signs of panic. Normally, the health authorities have ordered more than enough shots of vaccine for everybody, and the forces of the nation are getting ready to act.

If the worst comes to the worst, and there are doubts about whether the vaccine is capable of saving us from death, then our spiritual leaders will surely guide us in prayer... which is not a bad tool in times of calamity. Personally, though, ever since Louis Pasteur, I have had more faith in vaccines than in divinities. Logically, since God acts in mysterious ways, the best all-round approach would consist of beseeching Him in our prayers to bring about the creation of an efficient vaccine. In that way, if all goes well, not only will we all be saved, but people of all outlooks will be reassured concerning the essential forces that gave rise to this successful outcome.

BREAKING NEWS: Click the BBC NEWS banner to access a comprehensive article, dated 21 July 2009, entitled World response to swine flu crisis, which indicates what is happening in each corner of the planet.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Pergola in place

My pergola is upright, painted dark green, and the six rose bushes have been planted. One of these days, I'll place small diagonal struts at each of the upper corners of the frame, to make it perfectly rigid.

Between the central arch of the pergola and the walnut trees in the background, you can just distinguish the form of a plum tree, which is covered at present in tiny but tasty fruit.

My next major task will consist of installing wooden borders around all the eight flower beds.

On the left-hand side of the above photo, to the left of the steps, you can see that my bay laurel tree—which I had recently cut back to a few bare stumps—is once again covered in thick foliage. There's no doubt about it, certain kinds of vegetation like to be pruned and cleaned up.

In a corner of the garden, an old stone trough (which can no longer hold water) is filled with sage plants, grown from shoots that Tineke gave me, not long ago.

In the lower left-hand corner of the above photo, a lizard has crept into the picture. His skin is the same color as the dry moss on the wall. Here he is in closeup:

I admire their ability to move over vertical surfaces, more smoothly and rapidly than the most expert human rock-climbers. I've always thought that these tiny animals belong here, truly, alongside the cliffs of Choranche. They make me feel humble, like a mere recent visitor.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Memorial window

We might soon have to start thinking about a lovely memorial window that would be installed in the great pagan temple of French politics. [Click the image to display the logo of the French Socialist party, which inspired the design of my memorial window.] Following the latest bout between the stern school-mistress Martine Aubry and a boisterous Spanish-born pupil named Manuel Valls, I fear that we're facing a bloody showdown, and that this imminent day of reckoning is likely to leave no survivors. The only remaining question (to paraphrase the poet T S Eliot) is: Will it all end with a bang or a whimper? In any case, the window would be placed above a vast graveyard... of elephants.

ADDENDUM: I hesitated for a moment, yesterday, before talking about the French Socialistes as if their party were moribund, because I thought I might be exaggerating.

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has expressed himself on this question in harsh explicit terms. "I've rarely seen politicians spending so much energy on self-destruction. Is the Parti Socialiste going to die? No, it's dead already. But practically nobody dares to say so. It's like the cyclist in the Alfred Jarry novel who carries on pedaling even though he's dead. Or the knight in the Italo Calvino novel whose suit of armor was empty, for he'd been killed." As for the party secretary Martine Aubry, BHL (as he's often called) said: "She's surely a fine person who has become the guardian of a house of the dead, and she can do nothing about it." BHL says that the present party, described as "a big sick body", should be "dissolved".

Doors are either open or closed

This little book—written by a local priest, Joseph Parsus (aged 84 today)—provides a detailed history of the Résistance in the vicinity of the village of Malleval, in the valley of the Isère to the south-west of Grenoble. Among other things, it describes tragic events at Choranche towards the end of July 1944, when German troops moved down from Presles to Pont-en-Royans. Their rule of thumb was simplistic. If the front door of a house were open, the house and its occupants didn't interest them. On the other hand, if the door were closed, then the occupants clearly had something to hide, so the house was promptly set on fire.

At the start of the 19th century, there were two houses on the banks of Gamone Creek. Notarial documents of that period, in the departmental archives at Grenoble, use the ancient Gallo-Roman term mas (derived from the Latin verb manere, to reside, as in mansion) to designate both houses. On that fateful day when the Nazis swept down alongside Gamone Creek, the door of the house up the road was closed. Here's a photo, taken today, of the remains of a kitchen wall:

Concerning the house that I own today, its front door had been left open. And, thanks to that trivial criterion, I'm able to live here today, in the ancient stone house, in the company of my dog.

Talking of my dog (which I do constantly), I'm obliged to admit that Sophia has a distinctly storm-trooper attitude towards lizards. Normally, she's totally uninterested in the colony of lovely little lizards that inhabit the stone wall in front of the house. But, if ever a tiny reptile happens to hide innocently behind her wicker basket, Sophia changes instantly into search-and-destroy mode. She stands there tensely, wagging her tail and barking, hoping that her would-be enemy is going to come out of hiding, so she can pounce upon the harmless little beast. Often, in this situation, I intervene by raising the back of the basket a little, enabling the lizard to scamper away into the grass or stones, where Sophia immediately loses its trail.

I often reflect upon the likely relationship, once upon a time, between wolves and dinosaurs. OK, specialists are going to tell me that they never existed on the planet Earth at the same time. But I prefer to imagine that they did. It's possible that wild wolves were in fact quite fond of dinosaurs... as friends, that is, not merely as meat. But woe betide any dumb dinosaur that tried to hide behind a tree...

Business as usual

Australian media can't, of course, be expected to change their ads as a consequence of current events. And it would be spooky to read that 79,998 hotels are henceforth available. Maybe the presence of this ad, alongside the Jakarta account, is intended as a positive statement. The world business show must go on.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Angelus at Châtelus

On the slopes of the Cournouze (see the above image in the Antipodes header), on the other side of the Bourne, there's a tiny white blob... which looks like this when photographed with a telephoto lens:

It's the center of the commune of Châtelus: a name that evokes the castellum (fortified residence) of a certain Lucius, maybe a Roman settler. The earliest surviving trace of the name of the commune was the term Castelucii in a document of the year 1100. The left-hand structure is the church of Saint Martin, which lies alongside the municipal building. Apart from that, there's little else in the village of Châtelus. The hundred or so residents of the commune are scattered over isolated properties.

Throughout the countless municipalities of France, there is usually a strict separation—both symbolic and material—between the architectural structures of the Catholic Church and those of the French Republic. At Châtelus, on the contrary, the church and the mayor's offices share a common wall, which suggests that they've always been good neighbors.

The municipal elections took place well over a year ago, but my neighbor Madeleine still speaks of Gilles Rey as the "new mayor" of Châtelus. One of the republican mayor's first operations was to repair the bells of the church.

The bells of Châtelus now ring out the Angelus at three moments of the day: 7.45 in the morning, noon and 7 o'clock in the evening. The chimes reach Gamone almost as clearly as if I were located in Châtelus.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Global view

At the G8 summit meeting in L'Aquila, the world's leaders generally looked upwards, hoping for better days. Exceptionally, to obtain a global view of the situation, they looked downwards.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dance in France

Two days ago, I was intrigued by a request from a friendly Australian fellow who would like to use an image from my article of 24 June 2007 entitled My old passports [display].

Why not? If I understand correctly, he's launching a Franco-Australian commercial venture, and it appears that this image would make a good background for his business card. I'm happy to think that my ancient passport can be recycled in this way.

To my mind, by way of a comparison, bequeathing old passport images to an Aussie entrepreneur is far more fun than donating body organs... particularly since the fellow in question has already sent me lovely photos of his wife and himself, their son and his French fiancée, and he has promised to send me his future visiting card. Truly, you can't expect to get such feedback when you bequeath a liver or some such meaty thing. Besides, I admire the imagination of a guy who's thought of a way of taking advantage of the passport stamps of a complete stranger such as me, who isn't even a spectacular globetrotter!

In fact, since I've hung on to all my old documents, I can now offer pages of antiquated passport stamps for people who might need business cards for activities in, say, Greece or Israel, not to mention Sweden, the UK and even the Kuwaiti petrol port of Mina Al Ahmadi.

Talking of passports, I have an appointment next Wednesday at the town hall of St-Marcellin (the famous cheese town) to obtain my first French passport, described as biometric... which means that the portrait and finger prints will be digitized. While awaiting next week's appointment, I've sent off an email to the French prime minister requesting the right to include my genealogical DNA data in my future French passport. To my mind, this perfectly public data would be so much more appropriate than a simple trivial mention of the color of my eyes... which, incidentally, I've never fathomed.

Meanwhile, the official website of the French ministry of Foreign Affairs has decided to inform visitors that they can henceforth dance in France in an old-fashioned manner, in riverside establishments known as ginguettes.

[Click the image to visit the French government website, to see what it's all about.]

If ever you were visiting France, and you wanted to dance by the riverside, and you needed some kind of convincing visual document to gain entrance, just drop me a line, and I'll send you images of one of my old passport pages. Normally, it should suffice to tell the guy at the gate of the guinguette that you're a compatriot and a friend of William.

Stendhal revisited

The title of the major work of Grenoble's great novelist Stendhal [1783-1842] was Le Rouge et le noir [Red and Black]. We saw today a fabulous cover-image:

Winning or losing

Cycling is a subtle sport. There has always been only one way of winning: a brilliant performance, combining power and speed, strategy and imagination, along with some help from your friends and a bit of luck. A rider who wins is often the kind of competitor described in French as an attaquant (attacker). But, in cycling, there are two ways of losing: either you do little and don't make progress, or you run into big problems and descend in the results. Once again, the Australian Cadel Evans is settling in to his familiar status quo category, whereas the Russian Denis Menchov has spent the first week of the current Tour moving backwards in a spectacular manner.

So far, Lance Armstrong has impressed us greatly, whereas his team mate (?) Alberto Contador has played a waiting game. A French website says that the Astana team is sitting on a volcano... which might well go into eruption this afternoon, when the riders encounter the first mountain stage.

Once again, it's a huge pleasure to watch the world's third-greatest sporting event (after the Olympic Games and soccer's World Cup) on TV. Commentators on the France 2 channel like to make a subtle verbal distinction between the Tour de France and the Tour de la France. The first expression designates, of course, the cycling race. The second refers to the fabulous helicopter images of French landscapes, villages, castles, etc... not to mention the hordes of spectators lining the roads. It is a popular event, in the etymological sense of this Latin adjective, meaning "of/for the people". But it provides us, above all, with a bird's-eye vision of the beauty of France.

Observing these magnificent visions of the landscape and heritage in France, I'm not all that surprised when I hear that the French are considered (in a well-known poll) as the world's worst tourists. They never stop grumbling. They're perpetually disappointed, unhappy. Wherever they go, they'll always be tempted, inevitably, to compare what they encounter with their homeland.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Outdoor update

At this time of the year, I'm delighted to devote my days to a mixture of three quite different activities: (1) outdoor tasks, such as erecting my rose pergola; (2) computer-based work, such as finishing the French version of my Rilke movie script and pursuing my genealogical research; and (3) watching the Tour de France on TV.

Concerning the future pergola, I'm aware that I'm not exactly breaking any construction-speed records. But I like to savor this kind of job. One of the three basic U-shaped structures is now solidly fixed in the earth by concrete... but I prefer, for the moment, to leave the supporting posts and struts in place. The next step will consist of erecting a similar structure (which is already bolted together, and waiting to be raised) on the left-hand side of the photo. Yesterday afternoon, at about the time that the cyclists were approaching the finishing line, I decided to start digging a pair of holes at places that seemed to be more or less correct. That's to say, instead of measuring things, I took the liberty of using visual guesswork. Well, this morning, when I took a closer look at yesterday's holes, and measured their locations carefully, I was alarmed to discover that visual guesswork of this kind simply doesn't work for me. I was ashamed to discover that my holes were about 25 cm to the right of their correct locations! No great problem: I simply enlarged the holes so that the posts would be positioned correctly.

I was truly amazed, retrospectively, that my visual guesswork could be so hugely off the mark. To be honest, I don't think it's age catching up with my perceptive faculties. I believe that, as far as spatial contexts are concerned, I've always been out of my depth (a nice metaphor). When my son, who's an excellent billiards player, tells me that he's capable of conceptualizing a spatial context in such a way that he knows exactly how and where to hit the ball, I'm most impressed. Maybe it was a waste of resources for God to put me in a three-dimensional world. He could just as well have created me in a flat two-dimensional world, and I probably wouldn't have felt I was missing out on anything. Besides, I wouldn't have ever been anguished by vertigo.

A few years ago, when I planted a little plum tree beneath my bedroom window, I wasn't certain that it would ever grow and bear fruit. Well, this morning, I noticed with joy that the miracle has happened.

Further to the south, the pair of fig trees that Natacha and Alain gave me are thriving, and there might even be a few tiny fruit by the end of summer.

Last night's TV news praised a town in Alsace that has decided to prohibit chemical insecticides and weedkillers, to avoid polluting the groundwater. The municipality in question has decided to promote the novel idea that weeds, to a certain extent, are beautiful. Citizens are being told that it's silly to live in a universe of cropped lawns and smooth green parks and prairies. A few weeds and wildflowers never hurt anybody. On the contrary. It goes without saying that, here at Gamone, I've always been in favor of that kind of thinking.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Snippets and stutters

My title is a fanciful allusion to the two basic entities used in the fascinating domain of family-history research based upon DNA, which has interested me now for several months. There are so many novel concepts and bits of necessary know-how in this field that I've started to set them down in the form of a text, which might one day be of use to other newcomers.

The first thing you discover about this exciting new genealogical tool is that there are two quite different approaches:

-- A female can have her DNA tested to learn about her matriarchal line: that's to say, her mother, her mother's mother, the mother of her mother's mother, and so on. This testing uses mitochondrial DNA, designated in short as mtDNA.

-- A male can have his mtDNA tested in exactly the same way, and the results will be identical to those of his sisters. A male can also have his Y-chromosome tested, to learn about his father, his father's father, the father of his father's father, and so on.

Since a female researcher doesn't have Y-chromosomes, she can't be tested in this second way. But that's not a problem as long as she can call upon either her father, a brother or some other male relative on her paternal side to obtain such Y-chromosome information.

For the moment, personally, I've been tested only at this second level. The results are directly linked to the ancient origins of the Skyvington surname, which is currently being documented.

Let me explain rapidly the sense of my blog title:

-- In a strand of DNA, in a so-called junk region of the molecule (lying outside the coded sections that determine our nature), it can happen that a single letter is suddenly and mysteriously misspelled. For example, a meaningless "word" that has been spelled CAT since time immemorial suddenly reappears, in the DNA of an offspring, with a spelling error: say CGT. An error of this kind is called a single-nucleotide polymorphism [SNP, pronounced snip]. Now, this kind of mutation is extremely rare, but once such a mispelling occurs, the error is reproduced forever after. Some 16 to 18 millennia ago, there was a famous Y-chromosome snip referred to as M343, and one of the fellows with this trivial spelling error in his junk DNA happened to become the great-granddaddy of all of us western Europeans. So, if you find this M343 snip in your DNA, you can be fairly sure that some of your paternal ancestors once spent some time in western Europe.

-- In a strand of DNA, something akin to stuttering takes place when a tiny fragment is repeated several times, for no apparent reason. In a certain individual, a specific instance of such stuttering might involve, say, 14 repetitions, whereas another person might have a count of 13 or maybe 15. This stuttering is called short tandem repeats [STR, pronounced by naming separately each of the three letters: ess-tee-ahr]. Whenever the number of repeats is augmented (suddenly and mysteriously, as for snips, but far more often), the new value is reproduced in descendants of the mutated individual.

Let's leave things there for the moment, because I don't necessarily intend that Antipodes should be transformed into a series of biology lessons. But I'll return rapidly to these subjects, because I've been learning a lot of interesting things, over the last few days, about my paternal snippets and stutters.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Vegetal rock

My Antipodes blog contains so many references to rocks that I must pardon readers who might feel that the author has rocks in his head. Let us admit, in a scientific spirit, that it's a debatable point...

The precise geological name of the rocks that concern me today is calcareous tufa. Here's a specimen from a low wall at Gamone:

Once you scrape away the moss, it's pure calcium carbonate, of the kind that once blocked the ancient ceramic water pipes at Gamone:

Tufa rock forms rapidly in places where highly-calcareous water emerges into the open air and meets up with mossy vegetation, which enters into the production of the rock. That's why I refer to this tufa as vegetal rock. It's a soft substance, easily cut with a saw, which was often used in the construction of houses. Here's an example from the corner of my house at Gamone:

In this photo, you can see fragments of Gamone bluestone (ancient hard rock) interspersed among the blocks of tufa.

The calcareous tufa at Gamone came surely from the domain of the Carthusian monks at Val-Sainte-Marie, Bouvante (Drôme), known for such deposits. But the most famous source of calcareous tufa in the region happens to lie to the north, in Isère, at an equal distance from Choranche. I'm talking of the ancient village of La Sône, which I mentioned in recent blog articles entitled An old map talked to me of trees [display] and Weaving machines [display].

The name of the village, La Sône, comes from its Latin reference: aqua sonus, the sound of water. What a splendid name for a village! Here's an image of the place where that archaic sound was first heard:

Since time immemorial, water filled with 315 mg/liter of limestone (compared to 10 to 50 mg/liter for ordinary mineral water) has been tumbling into the Isère at La Sône, at the following magnificent spot:

And that's what the phenomenon of calcareous tufa is all about. Here's a close-up view of the formation of this vegetal rock:

Today, at La Sône, visitors can admire splendid gardens at the base of these water-falls. Before the calcareous waters disappear into the Isère, they are collected in a series of beautiful ponds.

It would appear that the vegetation and the frogs have had time to get adjusted to the high degree of calcium carbonate.

Needless to say, the hand of humans is omnipresent in these gardens, as it should be, just alongside the place where the hands of weavers once produced a century of silk.

The garden's attractions include weird hand-made inventions that use the falling waters to produce ethereal sounds.

Bamboo-lovers like me are equally enchanted. La Sône is a magic place!