Friday, October 30, 2009

Jacques Chirac to stand trial

For the first time ever in the history of the Fifth French Republic, a former president will be put on trial. It's alleged that, when he was the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac used public funds to pay the salaries of 21 alleged municipal employees who were in fact his political agents.

Shortly after learning that Chirac would be brought to trial, former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal provided a surprising demonstration of the unusual state of current political feelings in France by saying publicly on radio that Chirac should be left in peace. One has the impression that the regal behavior of Nicolas Sarkozy—including above all his recent legal pursuit of Chirac's former prime minister Dominique de Villepin—is causing a lot of people to look back upon Chirac's presidency with fond nostalgia.

On 30 December 1941 in Ottawa, Winston Churchill evoked defeatist French generals who had expressed their belief that, within three weeks, England would have her neck wrung, by the Nazis, like a chicken. He pronounced simple words that drew applause from members of the Canadian parliament: "Some chicken, some neck."

In the context of the Clearstream affair, Sarkozy recently blurted out that the individual who tried to smear him through falsified computer listings would be "hung up on a butcher's hook".

Seeing the popularity of Dominique de Villepin, who's starting to look like a presidential candidate for 2012, I'm tempted to paraphrase Churchill: "Some carcass, some cut of meat."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Two birthdays

Today's Google banner in France celebrates the 50th birthday of the comic-strip characters Astérix and Obélix, who appeared for the first time in an issue of the Pilote magazine dated 29 October 1959.

René Goscinny [1926-1977] created the humorous scenarios while Albert Uderzo [born in 1927] did the drawings.

We also celebrate today the 40th anniversary of the first message sent from one computer to another through a primitive network, which finally blossomed into the Internet. At the University of California in Los Angeles, on 29 October 1969, professor Leonard Kleinrock and a student programmer, Charley Kline, attempted to login to a remote computer located at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park. For this to happen, the second computer needed to receive the five letters LOGIN from the first computer, but the system crashed after the reception of only the first two letters. So, the world's first net message turned out to be LO. Here's the story, told by Kleinrock himself:

I'm often surprised to think that, when I visited the USA in the early '70s to shoot documentaries about so-called artificial intelligence for French TV, I imagined that we were already living in a fascinating computer world. In fact, the big surprises—personal computers and the Internet—were still quite far away in the future. I realize now that the computing context I discovered and filmed—characterized by PDP hardware, LISP software and often overblown evaluations of accomplishments and promises—was relatively primitive compared with today's world.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Two sides of the coin

With a mixture of amusement and melancholy, I've become aware that my Australian ancestors had indirect links of an anecdotal nature, on both the maternal and paternal sides, to the cotton mills of Preston in Lancashire. But we're talking about the opposite sides of a coin.

My Irish ancestors named O'Keefe and Dixon left their birthplace in County Clare, moved to the Preston region in Lancashire and worked in the mills in order to earn enough money to travel out to Australia. My future great-grandmother Mary O'Keefe was born in the industrial suburb of Preston named Walton-le-Dale on 26 May 1859 (which makes her, incidentally, my only known English-born ancestor on the maternal side).

I jump now to the case of my paternal grandmother's lovely young sister, Irene Marguerite Pickering, born out on a sheep property in New South Wales in 1900.

In 1924, 24-year-old Rita (as she was called) went on a trip to England, where she stayed with her uncle John Pickering, who was the chief librarian in the law courts of the Inner Temple in London. John and his wife Clara lived with their two daughters in an ancient mansion named Cedar House in Datchet, not far from Windsor Castle.

Here's a photo, taken at Cedar House in July 1924, of Rita surrounded by her uncle, aunt and cousins:

I can start, now, to present Rita's remote link to the Lancashire cotton mills. In the above photo, there's a clergyman. His name is John Russell Napier, and he was the 65-year-old vicar of the nearby parish church of Old Windsor. He had been invited along to the Pickering cottage, on this sunny summer afternoon, to make plans for Rita's forthcoming marriage to a 29-year-old Danish businessman named Paul Marvig (no doubt the person who took the above photo, and the owner of the automobile). For reasons that I ignore, Rita's marriage would be taking place, on 30 July 1924, not in John Napier's own church, but in the parish church of the Pickering's village, Datchet. In fact, the two churches, both in the vicinity of the Conqueror's thousand-year-old fortress at Windsor, are only a stone's throw apart.

On that same 1924 afternoon, we see here John Napier standing alongside 73-year-old John Pickering in front of the main entrance into Cedar House. Now, this reverend gentleman was in fact quite a famous personality... in the world of cricket (as I shall explain in a moment). First of all, let me say that he was born in Preston, Lancashire: the same place where my great-grandmother was born. John Napier was born there on 5 January 1859, that's to say less than five months before the birth of Mary O'Keefe. But the comparison stops there. Mary's parents worked at machines in the mills. John's parents, on the other hand, had designed and owned those very machines. He was the son of a wealthy industrialist, Richard Clay Napier, partner in the firm of Napier & Goodier, Lancashire cotton spinners.

Unlike the baby Mary O'Keefe, the baby John Napier was not destined to board a sailing ship for the Antipodes. Instead, he stayed in England, went up to Trinity College in Cambridge, and soon became an adept of theology and cricket. Playing for Lancashire in 1888, he was described by Australian opponents as the best fast bowler they had met in England.

The most frustrating aspect of all these genealogical reconstructions, retrospectively, is the idea—if not a fact—that the individuals of whom I'm speaking probably weren't aware of the information that I possess today. To take the most striking example, I'm not at all certain that John Pickering himself, residing as it were in the shadow of Windsor Castle, could have known that he was a descendant of William the Conqueror. After all, with the gigantic assistance of the Internet, it was only a couple of months ago that I made this discovery.

Finally, there's the more recent Australian context. As a child, I had the privilege of meeting up with Irene Pickering, who struck me as an alert, open-minded and sophisticated individual (where my use of "sophisticated" means both wise and worldly). I like to imagine that great-aunt Rita Marvig (née Pickering) might have run into my great-grandmother Mary Walker (née O'Keefe) one day, in Grafton, and said to her: "Mary, the vicar who married me in England back in 1924 was born in exactly the same town and the same year as you." There's just one hitch in this make-believe but perfectly plausible scenario. Mary O'Keefe died in 1933, whereas my parents didn't meet up until around 1940... whereupon I was procreated in a sunny haze of passion under Bawden's Bridge (so I'm told), on the outskirts of South Grafton.

The basic problem, as I see it now, retrospectively, is that our ancestors devoted so much energy to making love and procreating—Thank God! as Richard Dawkins might think but never say—that they simply didn't have much time left over to write down information and impressions that would be precious for posterity. Who would blame them? If I had to choose between taking out my pencil to draw the family tree, or rather to cuddle in a corner, I would never have hesitated. Consequently, reconstructions such as mine, today, run the risk of being incomplete and/or faulty: that's to say, screwed up.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Aggressive Apple ads

I would imagine that Microsoft has had enough time and experience by now to get its act together at an operating systems level, in which case Windows 7 should normally be one of the finest and friendliest PC products that could possibly exist. Maybe we'll even discover that it has a nicer look and feel than Leopard and Snow Leopard on the Mac. Who knows? Computing is such an awesome domain that anything could happen. In any case, it will be interesting for certain Mac users (maybe including myself), in the near future, to take a look at Windows 7 in a Boot Camp environment on an iMac, to see if it's a good solution for certain kinds of work. For example, I still dream about being able to use a powerful word processor such as Adobe FrameMaker— which no longer exists on the Mac—for my writing, particularly in the genealogical domain.

Meanwhile, Apple has reacted to the arrival of Windows 7 by an aggressive publicity campaign intended to tell PC users that, instead of upgrading to Windows 7, they should purchase a Mac. Click here to see their latest set of ads.

If Apple has gone vicious (to the extent of frankly aiming to ridicule Microsoft), this is no doubt because everybody realizes that Windows 7 could in fact turn out to be a great operating system. So, Apple is in a now or never situation. In any case, it will be interesting to see if there's a massive move to Macs.

In this eternal PC/Mac conflict (where, thankfully, no soldiers or civilians appear to be getting killed), there's a gigantic gorilla in the living room, which people often refrain from mentioning, as if the beast were not really there. Delegates from both camps talk endlessly about the intrinsic merits of their system, and the weaknesses of the opposition. But the BIG reason why an individual hesitates before moving, say, from a PC to a Mac is the obvious fact that he/she has purchased a lot of software tools, and that it would be painful to have to replace all that stuff.

If you're a home-owner thinking about moving, say, from Choranche to Bergues, you can normally sell your old place at Choranche and look around for equivalent accommodation in the charming countryside in the vicinity of Bergues, or maybe (for adepts of nightlife) within the exciting township itself.

Sadly, in the case of moving from a PC to a Mac, there's no obvious way of selling your old software and using the financial resources to purchase new Mac stuff. It's a variation on that old story—which I've been telling in one way or another for the last four decades—about the specificity of information: the fact that you can give it away to friends, but you still keep it. In harsh economic terms, there's no way in the world that you can sell old software to buy new stuff. It's not even a biblical matter of putting new wine into old bottles. The simple fact is that the old software is obsolete: antiquated worthless shit. In the world of information and computers, before people can move readily from A to B, a revised science of economics needs to emerge.

Actually Asian?

I was born in Australia in 1940, in the country town, Grafton, that will be celebrating its 75th Jacaranda Festival from October 30 to November 8. My great-great-great-grandparents from Tipperary—the convict Patrick Hickey [1782-1858] and his wife Elizabeth Brerton [1784-1850]—had reached New South Wales a century earlier, respectively, in 1829 and 1837. So, my ancestors—like those of countless Australian compatriots—have been Down Under for quite some time. But there's a question that has often bothered me: Are we Australians actually Asian? Genetically, older generations of Australians such as my ancestors had few marriage links with folk from the traditional lands of Asia... although this situation has evolved, to a certain extent, these days. So, I would be incapable of saying whether Australians remain merely superficially Asian, because of the geographical location of our continent, or whether our nation has indeed started to be an integral element of modern Asia.

Meanwhile, for the last 42 years, a ten-member organization named ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] has existed.

They even have a corny anthem:

As you can see, Australia is not included in ASEAN, whereas most of our closest neighbors are members. So, I've often felt that we have there a credible answer to my earlier question: Are we Australians actually Asian? The answer would seem to be no.

Now, ASEAN had a summit meeting last week in the delightful Thai resort of Hua Hin, and Australia was invited along as an observer.

Prime minister Kevin Rudd even had an opportunity of pleading for the opportunity of teaming up with ASEAN nations in the establishment of a so-called Asia-Pacific Community. But he added a curious proviso. He wants to bring along a mate: the United States of America! Rudd's suggestion reminds me of my recent invitation to become a naturalized citizen of the French Republic. Reacting in the spirit of our Australian prime minister, I might have told the French authorities: "That idea of my becoming French is fine with me, but I would like you to also naturalize all my relatives out in Australia." I'm sure the French would have been intrigued and annoyed by such a proviso. And I can't even be certain that my Australian relatives would have appreciated this idea.

Bird house at Gamone

At this time of the year, little birds start dropping in at Gamone. Their lovely French name, mésanges, is pronounced in the same way as the expression meaning "my angels". In English, unfortunately, they're called blue tits, which evokes—in my crude Aussie imagination—the predicament of a topless female who has been standing out in the icy cold. Since I rarely get close enough to such birds to take photos of them, I'm obliged to use images of blue tits that I found on the net:

Yesterday afternoon, the weather at Gamone was splendid. When my ex-neighbor Bob called in to pick up his mail, he was intrigued to find me crouched on the lawn, surrounded by power tools, building a bird house. I explained to him that these tiny birds make a great effort in flying over considerable distances to reach Gamone. So, it's normal that I should go to a little trouble to make their stay here as comfortable as possible. (I got the impression that Bob thought I had been drinking.) Here's the result, installed firmly on top of my rose pergola:

The central element of the bird house is a wooden drawer that was probably part of an ancient agricultural device at Gamone. The roof uses ancient tiles from the old police station at Grenoble, which were purchased long ago by Marcel Gauthier for the house at Gamone.

Notice that the rose bushes I planted recently have reached the top of the pergola... which still needs to be reinforced by cross bars at each of the four corners. As Bob said, when he found me building a bird house: "It would appear, William, that you've run out of things to do at Gamone." I hardly need to say that this is not the case.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Fence that almost existed

Back in August 2008, in an article entitled Homo faber [display], I spoke about electric fences whose stakes are steel rods surmounted by white nylon insulators referred to as pigs' tails. I pointed out that, once such a stake is hammered into the earth, it's hard to remove it, and I evoked the necessity of some kind of stake removal tool. In fact, I've got used to performing this task by means of an outstretched heavy-weight wire-cutter posed upon a rock.

Electric fences (apparently invented in New Zealand) are ideal for the donkeys, because the animals are smart enough to understand that it's preferable to avoid getting stung by the 10-thousand-volt impulses. At this time of the year, before feeding the donkeys with sliced apples (after eliminating any wasps), I always turn off the charger:

If I forget to turn it back on, the donkeys are smart enough to realize pretty quickly that there's no electricity in the ribbon. At that point, of course, they're capable of strolling to the wrong side of the fence.

A few months ago, a Choranche neighbor informed me that he intended to run a few horses on the slopes on the far side of Gamone Creek, which still belong to the old fellow, Marcel Gauthier, who sold me my property. I advised my neighbor to adopt my fencing solution of steel stakes, but he wasn't particularly impressed by the idea. Subsequently, my neighbor and his son spent a few days installing a large number of wooden fence-posts around their future horse paddock. After all, when you've got a sturdy son who can use a chain-saw to cut down saplings and trim them into fence-posts, and a tractor to transport the posts, why spend money on steel stakes?

At the time, I was surprised by this project of a horse paddock. Although I didn't say so to my neighbor, I have a fairly good knowledge of the attitudes and behavior of Marcel Gauthier, and I found it hard to believe that he would allow somebody like my neighbor to install an electric fence and run horses on his land.

The weeks rolled by, and I noticed that there were still no horses on the slopes opposite my house. So, I thought there must be some kind of a hitch. This afternoon, for the first time in ages, I strolled up the slopes with Sophia, and I was amazed to discover that all the fence-posts had disappeared into thin air, leaving no traces. I conclude therefore that Marcel must have vetoed my neighbor's project. Fair enough. But why did my neighbor go to the trouble of removing all the fence-posts that he had installed so laboriously? And when and how did he carry out this huge post-removal task? Concerning the latter questions, I imagine that he knocked over each post with his tractor, probably when I was in Brittany for a week. And why didn't he simply leave the posts there? I have an idea concerning this question. The saplings that the son cut down to produce these posts were growing, I think, on that patch of land belonging to Marcel. Consequently, I would imagine that my neighbor suddenly realized that Marcel, having refused the idea of allowing my neighbor to go ahead with his horse project, might be furious if ever he were to discover that some of his saplings had been cut down and used as fence-posts. So, it was no doubt preferable to remove the evidence.

I'm one of the few individuals in Choranche who has never been in any kind of conflict with Marcel, no doubt because I purchased my Gamone property from him. In any case, I'm amazed that a farmer such as my neighbor, a native of Choranche who should know everything that can be possibly known about this commune and its land-owners, would have imagined for an instant that he could simply cut down saplings, erect a fence and run horses on Marcel's land. Normally, no intelligent person who was vaguely familiar with Marcel could ever believe seriously in the feasibility of such a project. So, I don't know what went wrong with my neighbor's faculties of judgment.

Miraculous babies

There's a lot of stuff on the Internet about the mind-boggling American baby named Brooke Greenberg, 16 years old, who's not growing up:

Not to be outdone in the domain of miraculous babies, Russia has something even more amazing. In Dagestan, a nine-months-old miracle baby has a divine affliction... which is not so much an affliction as a revelation of the grace of God. Every now and again, mysterious dark forms start to appear on the child's leg. It soon becomes clear that they are in fact verses from the Koran. Here's an objective video résumé of this miraculous phenomenon:

We've known for a long time that babies play a central role in religion. Why not? Faced with these tiny creatures made by God, we must be humble. After all, many of our most illustrious men and women, including several great geniuses, were once babies. Indeed, as Jesus pointed out in Luke 18:17, the more you act and think like a baby, the greater your chances of attaining Heaven: Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.

I wonder if somebody could build an interface to branch the kid's leg directly to the Internet, so that concerned believers throughout the world could read the messages regularly... maybe with simultaneous Google translations for those, like me, who can't read the holy text in its original language. And I wonder too what my intellectual hero Richard Dawkins, impassioned by the wonders of life in the Cosmos, will have to say about this Koranic kid.

Sarko's son not in airship

A few days ago, there was consternation in Paris because of rumors that the president's son might be aloft, all on his own, in a giant airship named the Bling Blimp soaring over the continuation of the Champs Elysées to the west of the capital.

When the airship came back down to earth, everybody was immensely relieved to discover that the youth was not inside. Apparently he had been hiding all along in a luxury penthouse at an unknown address somewhere in Neuilly. In a TV declaration on Friday night, Filius rejected suggestions that this happening might have been a presidential reality show orchestrated by Pater. Doubts subsist however, fueled by the lad's fuzzy reply to a journalist's question about the hypothesis of a conspiracy involving the father and the son: "If your question is whether I talked with the president, the answer is no. If your question is whether I talked with my father, the answer is yes."

We've always imagined that the chief was unique, but he's visualized here as a duality. And, since the son is said to be a clone, that gives rise to a trinity. Clearly, this affair is getting out of hand. Maybe the whole thing was a religious hoax of a new kind, designed to replace alleged apparitions of the Virgin (which have gone out of fashion)...

Friday, October 23, 2009

New bed companion

After spending an evening warming my toes in front of the fireplace, I can now jump into bed with an exciting new companion.

The Kindle is the electronic device proposed by Amazon. I've started to read Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. It's certainly an elegant solution for reading in bed, since the device is so light that you hardly notice it.

By coincidence, on the same day the Kindle arrived (directly from the USA, with an American power plug necessitating a European adapter), the Barnes & Noble company announced their Nook reader, which has the advantage of displaying color.

I'm aware that this new field will no doubt evolve rapidly. In deciding to purchase a Kindle, I want to get a feel for the subject, to know what it's all about. In particular, I want to learn how to transform my personal writing into an e-readable format. I was thrilled to discover that certain software tools make it easy to transform PDF files into a format that allows them to be displayed on the Kindle. So, I've started to play around with a free Macintosh tool named Calibre with the intention of producing a Kindle version of my novel All the Earth is Mine.

Waiting for water

Every afternoon last week, I was up at my spring installing the new overflow pipe... with an iPhone in my coat pocket in case I needed to phone somebody to inform them of an accident. Here are the elements of the installation at the level of the ceramic-lined outlet hole in the ancient stone receptacle at the lower end of the pool.

For the moment, there's very little water in the catchment area that I've been calling a "pool". Think of it rather as a virtual pool. But there has been a lot of rain on the surrounding slopes over the last few days, and the spring will surely come back to life in the near future. Meanwhile, here's the big ugly tube (temporary installation) that will normally lead the water down towards the house.

I wander up there several times a day, with Sophia, to see if any water has arrived. For the moment, there's no more than a trickle emerging from the lower extremity of the tube. For my work to be a success, there are two requirements:

1. Water has to flow abundantly from the red tube.

2. There must be practically no overflow from this steel gutter that crosses the road at the level of the spring:

So, I'm waiting for the water. If all goes well, I'll finally call upon a guy with a mini-excavator to dig a trench on the edge of the road down to the house, and I'll install a line of PVC tubes.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Warming my toes with Darwin & Dawkins

When Badger suggests, in a comment to my First fire article [display], that I might be curling up my toes in front of the fireplace instead of pursuing Antipodes, he has hit the proverbial nail on its head. I have indeed got into the pleasant habit, over the last week, of sitting in front of the fire of an evening and soaking in slowly—as if I were appreciating a fine wine—the powerful words of the Richard Dawkins book that I evoked recently in the article entitled Latest Dawkins book [display]. I found it hard to imagine a priori that Dawkins still had room to produce yet another book on his usual themes of Darwinism and genes, but all I can say is that the master has succeeded brilliantly, surprising me in ways that I would never have imagined.

Insofar as this book simply aims to supply readers with the actual evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution, Dawkins has written it in an almost colloquial style. Here's a humorous specimen: One Australian river turtle, indeed, gets the majority of its oxygen by breathing (as an Australian would not hesitate to say) through its arse.

There's a hell of a lot of good basic stuff about fossils and the way in which they're dated by radioactive "clocks". I don't know whether or not God exists, but the Devil surely does... otherwise I can think of no other reason to explain why Ardi waited up until the Dawkins book had just rolled off the press before making her coming-out. In a way, it's no sweat, because (a) it's easy to fit Ardi into the context presented by Dawkins; (b) it's nice for us lowly disciples to have an opportunity of feeling, if only for a short while, that we possess more information than the master; and (c) we'll be looking forward to a forthcoming book in which Dawkins will give us his reactions to Ardi.

To my mind, the best-written section of this book deals with embryology, and a quasi-magical phenomenon known as epigenesis, which concerns the processes enabling a single cell to "evolve" (nothing whatsoever to do with Darwinian evolution) into a living organism. We know that the single cell soon splits exponentially into countless essentially identical cells. But how do all these cells get their act together in such a way as to coalesce into a creature such as a dog or a human, or a rose bush? If we liken the end product (the creature or the plant) to a symphony performed buy an orchestra, and the cells to a vast set of musicians belonging to the orchestra, where's the conductor who makes sure that every performer is playing the required notes in a perfect manner? For that matter, where's the score? To approach such questions, Dawkins resorts to the fabulous metaphor of flocks of starlings in an aerial ballet:

The amazing conclusion is that each cell in the evolving organism, like each starling in the flock, is in fact doing its own thing. There is neither an explicit score, nor a unique conductor. This idea is hard to grasp. Computer programmers are accustomed to working in the domain of object-oriented programming, where you program a single relatively-simple object equipped with its own methods, whereupon you can instantiate that object as many times as you like, with differing parameters. This computer-based version of cloning provides a good paradigm of the starling phenomenon, or the process that enables ants to build vast and complex subterranean cities. And this is what biological epigenesis is all about.

Everybody knows that DNA can be likened to a string. But living tissues are highly-convoluted three-dimensional structures. So, in embryology, how do simple strings get folded into all the wonderful shapes of living creatures and plants? To tackle this question, Dawkins calls upon the metaphor of paper-folding, known as origami, of which there are many fascinating demonstrations on YouTube [click here for an origami rose].

The only negative element in this great new Dawkins book is his insertion of a four-page transcription of a TV interview between Dawkins and a female named Peggy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. In the context of so much scientific poetry and wisdom, her presence is like a hair in the soup. Read the book, to see if you agree/disagree with me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

First fire

In my tiny world, it's a momentous evening. I've just lit up the first fire in the chimney to herald in the approaching cold season. Sophia's eyes have turned green, miraculously or, rather, photographically. It will be the final winter of my 60s. Next year, I'll be an old man in his 70s. Let me be truthful: an older man... like every other man, for that matter, who has ever spent an instant in the Cosmos. So, there's nothing special about me.

On cool momentous evenings like this, I hardly need to point out that I'm an inveterate Internet user. And I find myself in contact with various layers of communicators. There are those—like close members of my family, my adolescent friend Bruce Hudson in Australia, or more recent friends such as Natacha and Corina, just to name a few—who appear to be tuned in regularly to what I write in my Antipodes blog, be it serious or silly, or somewhere in between. That's normal, because this blog is intended, first and foremost, as a vector of personal communication. Let's not forget that I only started it, in 2007, because an Aussie bushwhacker ISP [Internet service provider] named Big Pond refused to deliver emails to my dear aunt Nancy in Sydney, alleging that anything coming out of France was probably evil. Then there are other layers of communication, less personal, more global, even universal...

In the context of my Internet contacts, there's a breakdown between global matters and things that concern only me. For example, when my aunt evokes the question of whether or not there's a dot between lucky and pierre in their curious email address [a problem that I haven't yet solved], that's strictly in the personal domain. But, when I write about President Obama getting a big prize, and Prince Jean getting a big job, we're obviously in a bigger communications domain.

I'm often amazed and amused by the apparent speed at which things move forwards (a fuzzy concept, I admit) in these two domains... in parallel, as it were. I often have the spooky impression that my blog is in fact advancing with giant's steps whereas the rest of the Obama/Sarkozy universe, as reflected in the media news, is almost stationary... like those expert track cyclists who can stand still for long minutes, in a balancing act, on a curved timber surface, before dashing forth in a startling burst of energy. Normally, one would consider that, at every instant, there should be a million more things happening in the outside world than in my private universe. But I'm rarely struck by overpowering evidence to this effect. On the contrary...

Often, I feel that all my personal energy references revert to bikes, just as all my personal literary references revert to Rainer Maria Rilke, and my song references to Jacques Brel. The Internet gives me the impression that I'm still evolving, but the first fire of winter reminds me that I've never really gone beyond bikes, Brigge, Brel and all that ancient stuff, with a little bit of computing thrown in as spices.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Up in the sky

Over the last few days, when I've been working up at the spring on the slopes above Gamone, my dog Sophia (who usually has the habit of accompanying me everywhere) has preferred to remain at the house. That's because she's wary of getting chased or kicked by the cantankerous donkeys. And, at the end of my work, Sophia is waiting for me down at the house.

I have the impression that she's intrigued to catch sight of me at the top of the embankment, almost up in the sky. Here at Gamone, there's an amazing assortment of levels of all kinds, including even five or six distinct levels inside the house. I often wonder whether Sophia's mind is capable of modeling the environment geometrically, enabling her to deduce the path between two points. I don't think so. I have the impression that she locates me, in these multi-level contexts, by a trial-and-error approach based upon the intensity and direction of my smell. On the other hand, nothing proves that Sophia's not an absolute wizard at geometric model-making. Maybe she's continually saying to herself: "What a terrible pity that poor William has to rely solely upon geometric modeling, without ever being able to use smell to find me."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Spring-water questions and answers

Tackling problems concerning a spring is fascinating, because you're faced with challenges of a primordial earthly kind, like those that ancient settlers had to deal with. Over the last few days, working at times in the style of a backyard archaeologist, I've even discovered elements of the ancient solution to the spring-water challenge at Gamone, along with subsequent modifications that can be described retrospectively as a blunder. My spring, 50 meters up on the slopes behind my house, can be represented as follows:

The red object is a closed cemented-stone receptacle that takes in spring water through a hole on the left, and lets it flow out, down towards the house, through a flexible rubber tube on the right. The presence of this compartment ensures that the water will be relatively clean, that's to say, free of mud and floating vegetation (since there's an iron lid at the top of the receptacle). Besides, the right-hand wall of this receptacle enables the rubber outlet tube to be held firmly in place, and sealed to prevent leakage.

Down at the house, during the eight or nine months of the year when there's water in the spring, I simply leave a hose running non-stop, watering the lawn, garden, vegetation and fruit trees. On the other hand, since my house is linked to the municipal water supply, I don't use the spring water for domestic purposes... apart from occasional tasks such as washing the car, mixing concrete, etc.

There is, however, a hitch. When the level of water in the pool is relatively high (as in the above diagram), there's a major overflow from the embankment below the spring. The quantity of leaking water is such that it's like a second hose emerging from the base of the spring. Up until now, I've never understood why this overflow occurs, nor where exactly the water is leaking. Since the surface of the pool never rises to the top of the receptacle, it's not an overflow in the normal sense of the word. It's rather a massive leakage from somewhere inside the pool. But it's definitely not seepage from the bottom of the pool, because there are long periods during which water continues to flow abundantly from the hose at the house, whereas the leakage at the base of the spring has stopped. Pierre Faure, the municipal employee, concluded therefore that the seepage probably occurs through cracks and crevasses around the upper edges of the pool. In other words, the water level in the pool has to attain a certain minimum height before the seepage starts.

Other rural friends have suggested that maybe the diameter of my outlet tube is too small. To me, that never sounded like a plausible explanation. After all, I imagine that the flow from this rubber tube was perfect for the former proprietor of Gamone who had installed it, before the arrival of the municipal water supply, in order to bring spring water into the house by means of a single tap in the kitchen... which still existed when I first discovered the dilapidated house in 1994.

I ended up considering that, since I was unable to explain the origin of the leakage at the base of the spring, I would have to "live with" this fault. Consequently, I imagined a makeshift solution that would consist of "capturing" the leakage in some kind of a drain, and bringing the water down to the house by means of a second hose.

Yesterday afternoon, by a mixture of logic, chance and some digging in the mud, I finally solved the mystery. I discovered that there's a much bigger outlet hole, concealed (but not plugged) by the earth wall, further up towards the top of the receptacle, as shown here:

This is almost certainly where the leakage occurs, allowing a large volume of water to flow down a subterranean path to the base of the earth embankment, where it emerges and flows onto the road.

Now, the obvious next question is: Why does this big hole exist in the upper wall of the receptacle? In fact, it was the initial outlet, no doubt installed by the monks who made wine here before the French Revolution. This hole was the start of the ceramic pipe system that used to run down the slopes to the house. Here's a fragment of one of these pipes, partly clogged up with a calcareous deposit:

Much later, when the level in the pool was low, a farmer must have decided to replace the ceramic pipes by a narrow rubber tube. And the lazy fellow didn't even go to the trouble of blocking up the initial outlet. For me, this is fortunate, because I now intend to abandon the rubber tube (which is regularly blocked up with mud and weeds) and bring the ceramic-lined outlet back into use.

Now, my explanations must sound simple and boring. What you have to understand is that the real context in which I've been tackling this problem is both messy and muddy. Let me show you some photos.

That's the receptacle, with the lid raised. The next photo gives you an idea of the pool, surrounded by vegetation, to the left of the receptacle:

I've been using the green hoe to take out some of the accumulated mud, which I intend to use as natural fertilizer for my rose bushes. And here's the outside wall of the spring, where you can just make out a crowbar (beneath the power tool) stuck into the ceramic-lined outlet that I had just unearthed:

Why is this an important preoccupation for me? Two reasons. First, if I don't succeed in halting the leakage from my spring, it could bring about a landslide on the lower slopes. Second, as soon as I succeed in mastering the flow from the spring, I want to store the water in an artificial dam, below my house, and use it to irrigate my rose garden.

Don't tell Mum...

... that Dad hopes to get me a fabulous job. She thinks I'm a struggling student trying to plan my future in an egalitarian republic.

Members of the French political and business world are upset. They're astounded that the 23-year-old son of the French president is being offered a professional position on a silver plate: chief of the organization that governs the great economic zone of La Défense, on the western outskirts of Paris.

Yesterday it was bling-bling: a mere fantasy. Today it looks more like nepotism, which is generally viewed by genuine republicans as a fault.

Meanwhile, there's a new French Twitter game known as Jean Sarkozy partout (Jean Sarkozy everywhere), which consists of imagining our favorite father's son in all kinds of novel situations. If I were an adept (which I'm not, since the brevity of Twitter is definitely not my style), here's a possible contribution: Jean Sarkozy wants to acquire the Vatican as a future retirement village for his dad and step-mum. Or another: Spielberg signs up Sarkozy Junior for an avant-garde version of the Prodigal Son. Music: the star's step-mother. Promotion: his father.

POST SCRIPTUM THOUGHT: Just as the Nobel for Peace was awarded to President Barack for the future wars he's going to end, I reckon that our Prince Jean, Dauphin de la Défense, should have received the Nobel in Economics for all the marvels he'll surely be introducing, as soon as possible, into the heart of French industry and business. The two men are brimming over with potential.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Age of Aquarius

If ever you were thinking about the idea of maybe trying to win a Nobel prize, my advice is to forget about stuff such as science and literature. Aim at peace. It offers you by far the biggest potential ROI [return on investment]. Start out by searching through the numerous nice websites that sell Saturday-evening hippie gear of the soft peace-and-love kind. It's not at all expensive. For a few dozen dollars, you can look as Woodstock as Hendrix. Naturally, the costs of the operation are likely to climb considerably if you insist upon smoking the genuine kind of stuff that caused a dense cloud to hang over the '60s... but there are so many laws against lighting up anything at all, these days, that you're probably better off cheating at this level. You might think about chewing on an unlit pipe, or maybe a stick of liquorice root candy... but you run the risk of not appearing to be authentic. In any case, smile non-stop like a born-again Christian, hug everybody you meet, and don't stop talking about peace and love. After that, the important thing is to get elected to some kind of prominent job, where onlookers will have opportunities of admiring you and your colorful clothes. Then, just wait around politely and peacefully until something happens... like the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. You'll get the prize you deserve.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Big feet

You may have thought, like me, that our female ancestor Ardi [display] had particularly big feet. With feet like that, if ever Ardi had got involved in kickboxing, she would have been capable of flooring and throttling her opponent, using her opposable big toes, in a single swift action. But Ardi's feet were as dainty as a fairy's alongside the huge dinosaur footprints that have just been found in France, at a place named Plagne.

Now, the aspect of this discovery that really spooks me is the fact that these big savage beasts inhabited a quite built-up region, just alongside Geneva, and not far away from several highly-populated French cities, not to mention Gamone (current human population of 1).

To me, it's totally incredible that the presence of these giant creatures should have gone unnoticed all this time, up until this week.

Surely, in a God-fearing territory such as Switzerland, capable of trapping the dangerous predator Polanski, there were alert citizens who would have detected the presence of these terrible reptiles. In the pure Alpine air, I would imagine that, when an animal of that size farts, the pestilential smell would be noticeable within a vast perimeter... not to mention the accompanying blast of hot air, the trembling ground, and the thunderous blood-curdling boom. So, why weren't the police and army informed, much earlier on, along with local hunters (generally armed with crossbows, like the courageous William Tell)? And what have the Creationists been doing, all this time? In normal circumstances, they're pretty good on dinosaur stuff. In the case of the present findings, though, it looks as if the local Creationists have been sitting around lazily on their pious asses, oblivious of the dangers, or maybe deliberately ignoring them while they reread Genesis for the umpteenth time?

Monday, October 5, 2009

If I were the president of Australia

Readers will realize immediately that the substance of this blog article is no doubt meaningless, for the obvious reason that there is no such thing as a president of Australia, since the country is neither a republic in the French sense nor a union of states like the USA. But allow me to continue my meaningless daydream...

I would set out to convince my compatriots (that's to say, my electors) that the nation's future must be 100% nuclear, in practically all domains (except the production of weapons): mining, processing, energy production and the safe disposal of nuclear waste. I would immediately seek to obtain the people's consensus on two essential questions:

• General democratic acceptance, through a referendum, of the overall project: a 100% nuclear future for Australia.

• The immediate nationalization of every aspect of this future industry. Existing uranium mining sites would be simply repossessed in the name of the Australian Republic, with nominal (minimal) compensation paid to shareholders.

In other words, no greedy capitalists would ever become excessively rich through this project, since all revenues would be poured back into the country, to develop its dilapidated civil infrastructure and defense system. The entire nuclear domain would be declared—through an article attached to the Constitution of the Republic of Australia—as "out of bounds" to foreign investors and run-of-the-mill capitalists.

The first step in this giant project would consist of Australia establishing an in-depth partnership with her sister republic, France, aimed at acquiring (basically for free, or almost) all the existing French Areva know-how in domains such as nuclear engineering and the disposal of nuclear wastes... as it is being performed today at La Hague in Normandy. France would assist Australia in the construction of reactors for the production of electricity, and in the total changeover of Australia's navy to nuclear propulsion. Together, the two nations would become world pioneers in every imaginable aspect of the waste-disposal problem, including security in particular. Their research center and processing installations concerning this activity would be set up in the Northern Territory of Australia, in a geologically stable zone.

In the immediate future, Australia and France would establish an indefinite moratorium on sales of uranium to certain undesirable customers throughout the world. Meanwhile, Australia would authorize France to install various military bases on Australian territory. This latter tactic would reflect the fact that Australia, through its grand nuclear project, might become a desirable piece of cake for ruthless neighbors. Naturally, the in-depth partnership with France would bring about a huge geopolitical shift at the level of Australia's traditional links with English-speaking nations, while drawing Australia closer to the operational heart of Europe.

Seriously, I believe that a handful of imaginative and courageous Australian political figures (whom I don't need to name) would not be totally shocked by my daydreaming. On the contrary...

Atheism in my modern world

Fortunately, most of us are intellectually capable of changing our opinions over time... except, maybe, for politicians who look upon changed opinions as a sign of weakness. The other day, I laughed when I observed Christine's marvelous dog Gamone waiting until our dirty plates were stacked nicely in the dishwasher before she moved in to lick them... much like polite humans wait until everybody is seated and served before tackling their food. Christine pointed out that she was horrified the first time she saw me inviting my dog Sophia to lick clean our plates, as if the dog's saliva were poisonous, infectious. I used to think in that silly way, but nowadays I know that the only way of being infected is to get bitten by an animal with rabies. As for the rest, the dog's saliva contains no harmful bacteria that won't disappear in the dishwasher. Inversely, I'm constantly afraid that my dog might bite into a rodent that has just eaten poison. That's why I prefer to catch mice alive, in the following excellent trap, which I've been using for years:

Whenever I find a mouse snared in the wire-netting cage, I accord him a fighting chance of survival—in a kind of Dalai Lama spirit—by taking the trap and its contents down the road and opening the cage in the presence of Sophia. I look upon what ensues as a kind of physical-alertness exercise for my dog, a little like those books of elementary problems, based upon letters and numbers, that are a popular pastime for elderly folk who prefer this mental stimulus rather than, say, writing blogs. Sophia seems to use her olfactive capacities, rather than her eyesight, to locate the fleeing rodent in the grass. And she soon pounces upon the mouse, generally crushing it beneath her heavy paws... whereupon I take the dead mouse by the tail and hoist it to eternity in the creek bed.

Now what does this have to do with atheism in the modern world? Well, in the same way that Christine has ceased to be disgusted by canine saliva, I've ceased to be anguished by atheism. With the wisdom of my many years spent in France, including in particular the time I've been living alone here at Gamone as a kind of areligious hermit, I've become totally enthralled by atheism... or, rather, by its positive dimension: my profound love of life and scientific knowledge, culminating in a total fascination for all living entities such as dogs, roses and even bacteria (although I haven't got around to domesticating any of the latter, and keeping them as pets). Admittedly, observers might claim that I don't seem to have got up to an acceptable cruising speed as far as admiring and loving my fellow human beings is concerned. But give me time. For the moment, there are attenuating circumstances: I've been watching too many films about the world wars, Hitler, Stalin and company. One day, if I continue my Dalai Lama-like ascension, I'm sure I'll end up accepting humans to the same extent as all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small... such as mice, weeds and viruses. [Don't take me too seriously. Towards the end of that last sentence, I was just joking. But I must be careful. How shall I ever find myself a wife if I start to fall into the trap of using misanthropic language? OK, I heard somebody say that it's already too late. Be that as it may, I should nevertheless take care of my language.]

The truth of the matter is that I had the privilege of growing up in a unique cultural environment—that of Grafton, New South Wales, Australia—which was an excellent breeding ground for future atheists. You see, the municipality was composed, about fifty-fifty, of Catholics and Protestants. Better still, my mother was Catholic whereas my father was Anglican. So, you might say that I had it in my genes to cease believing in God. [No, that last sentence is not really sound genetic talk.] In any case, I was strongly inclined to believe, from an early age, that it was absurd to imagine the peaceful coexistence of a Catholic god and a Protestant god, and this surely meant that both parties were misguided.

As a kid, I must have ridden my bike past this impressive edifice many hundreds of times. It was Saint Patrick's in South Grafton, the official church of my own mother, Kathleen Walker. But neither she nor any other member of my maternal family ever invited me to set foot in that newly-constructed building. I grew up looking upon that church as forbidden territory. As the nun's told my aunt Nancy, my mother was a mortal sinner, since she had married a Protestant. So, I was the offspring of a woman who had sinned, and her iniquity had no doubt rubbed off onto me from the earliest instants of my procreation.

Insofar as I was comfortably accepted into the refined gentlemanly circles of the Anglicans in Grafton, my personal experiences were insipid compared with the delightful tales told by the Irish comedian Dave Allen:

Today, there's a splendid website that deals with both the wonders of atheistic evolution and the stupidity of conventional religions.

Since the publication of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins has become an anti-religious militant. I have the impression that his stance was motivated, less by the traditional conflicts in the British Isles between Catholicism and Protestantism, than by the upsurge of ultra-conservative Judaism and radical Islam. Then, the shock of 9/11 was another terrible indictment of fanatic religion culminating in hatred and horror. The following video is quite long, and some of the images are hard to watch. But they are a striking demonstration of the consequences of madness caused by the God delusion.

Apple influence

Recently, I suggested that I had been hit on the head by an apple, which was my way of introducing a possible link, in my personal genealogy, to Isaac Newton [display].

My compatriots appear to have been hit on the head by this fruit for different reasons. First, a fellow came up recently with a new name for a variety of Vegemite, the yeast-based edible mud that has always been consumed ritually, spread on bread, by generations of Australians. This new logo didn't last for long. After a few days, it was howled down violently by Vegemite aficionados all over the planet. This is understandable. It would be unwise to eat this stuff while using a high-tech iDevice. If ever a drop of muck reached the inner electronics, the gadget would surely be corroded irreparably. (That danger reminds me of the Comic Book Guy in the Simpsons who complains regularly to the after-sales people because his DVD reader is full of mayonnaise droppings... or something like that.)

The Aussie branch of Woolworths has just invented a new stylized W image, which reminds us of a familiar logo that usually appears these days with a silvery hue. Now, if ever Woolworths started to use this new logo in their marketing of consumer-electronics products such as PCs and portable media players, it doesn't take much visual thinking to imagine that certain customers might suppose they were purchasing stuff that had something to do with my favorite computing company.

Latest Dawkins book

This year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. And it so happens that the world has just been introduced to Ardi, our most ancient identified ancestor with most of her bones available for inspection. So, the time is perfect for another book by Richard Dawkins, presenting the evidence for evolution.

It's utterly amazing that countless Americans, today, still consider stupidly that evolution is a mere theory, in which they refuse to believe. That's to say, they ignore that evolution has become an established element of contemporary science.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Collection of papers on Ardi

Science is a journal published by the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science], founded in 1848, which describes itself as "an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association". The stated mission of the AAAS is to "advance science, engineering and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people".

This journal has assembled a splendid collection of papers concerning the creature Ardipithecus ramidus, and this collection can be downloaded in PDF form. All you need to do is to register (free) at their website, which can be accessed by clicking the above banners. I've downloaded all their 15 files, and I find them relatively easy to read and totally fascinating.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Loose language

I've already evoked the brilliant books of the Canadian-American psychologist Steven Pinker. He's best tackled, I believe, by The Language Instinct (1994), which explains simply—as its title suggests—that we humans have an instinctive relationship (as if anybody ever doubted it) with the gift of the gab.

From a Pinkerian point of view, my blog title, Loose language, is abominable, since human language is a constantly-evolving process that should never be described as "loose". Lame, lost or lousy, maybe... but never loose, since it remains a mysterious archaic art that experienced human practitioners are constantly perfecting.

This afternoon, I was momentarily surprised to see an exhortation on the cover of a popular French science magazine: Mangez sain. Translated literally into English, that reads: Eat healthy. In grammatical terms, the adjective "healthy" has been placed into a slot that normally receives an adverb such as "healthily". Now, is this a problem that should upset me? No, not at all.

I was vaccinated by the publicity of my favorite computer company:

Apple wasn't suggesting that we should think differently in the same way that you might ask somebody to reply rapidly, to talk calmly or to argue intelligently. The "think different" exhortation simply urged viewers to adjust their thinking to a different context: that of Apple products. That's to say, it was shorthand for: Do your thinking in a different context. So, no major grammatical crime was committed.

The most striking Pinker book, to my mind, is How the Mind Works, which is guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of old-fashioned adepts of Freud. Pinker adopts a totally "mechanistic" explanation of the human mind... where my adjective in inverted commas designates everything that has been happening in computer science and brain research over the last half-century. In a nutshell, everybody knows by now that humans are magnificent machines, neither more nor less. So, why carry on talking as if there were mysterious ghosts in the machines?

As for Freud, he has been thrown out wordlessly and unceremoniously with the slops. Maybe it would have been nicer, more polite, if Pinker had pronounced a wordy eulogy concerning this well-minded Viennese quack doctor who fascinated the Western intellectual world for a century or so... and still does. History has its charms. But time wasted in talking about what we now know to be obsolete nonsense would be better devoted to catching up with the fabulous realities of contemporary science.