Thursday, January 29, 2009


"And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited." [Leviticus 16:22]

When there's trouble in Sarkozia, Nicolas needs a scapegoat. On 12 January, during the president's visit to the Norman town of Saint-Lô, there was trouble in the form of rowdy demonstrations.

Not to be outdone by Dubya, Sarko even succeeded in collecting a couple of old shoes.

Logically, according to Sarkozian mathematics, somebody would have to pay. This morning, the right man in the right place was found: the republican prefect in that corner of Normandy, Jean Charbonniaud. The nice thing in this kind of situation is that the poor chap didn't actually get sacked. That would be unthinkable in the case of such a distinguished servant of the French Republic. No, he got suddenly transferred to a new job, as a member of a prestigious state committee somewhere in the backwoods of Paris: a republican version of Purgatory... or Coventry, as they say in England.

A Norman politician considered that the prefect had been discarded by the president like a used Kleenex. The Centrist leader François Bayrou described Sarkozy's manner of getting rid of the prefect as the "prerogative of a prince". In my opinion, this kind of Sarkozian act is on a par with shooting a messenger who brings bad news.

BREAKING NEWS: A second scapegoat has been designated for this trivial affair. Philippe Bourgade, director of public security in the Manche department, has received a new appointment.

People throughout France have criticized Sarkozy's decision to blame these two civil servants for not taking adequate steps to prevent the president from encountering the protesters at St-Lô. Meanwhile, the distinguished journalist Alain Duhamel has put out a book that compares Sarko with a certain Corsican soldier, prompting the magazine Le Point to design its cover on this theme.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Something in common

Let me mention three interesting things:

-- a website with the photos of François Skyvington,
-- the virtual version of the Vendée Globe yacht race,
-- and the animated film Waltz with Bashir.

Although these three things are totally different, they have something in common. Before I indicate this common aspect (which you may have already guessed), let me recall the nature of each of these three things.

Click this photo [which also appears as a link in the right-hand column of this blog] to visit the website that I built for my son's photos.

Click the above graphic to see my article of 19 November 2008 entitled Virtual yacht race. While a quarter of a million players have been participating in the virtual regatta, it's not possible, unfortunately, for a spectator to simply watch what's happening. In fact, the virtual yachts change their respective positions so slowly on the screen that nothing whatsoever seems to be happening. For the moment, as I move north towards the Equator, on the final leg of the race, my position is 5730. It would be fine if I were to reach Sables d'Olonne among the first 5000 virtual vessels...

Click the above graphic to visit the website dedicated to the outstanding Israeli movie Waltz with Bashir. I saw the movie in Valence a few days ago, and I was very greatly impressed with it. In fact, I would call it both a powerful statement on the absurdity of warfare and a masterpiece of animated video.

Now, what's common between these three totally different entities (a humble website, a fantastic real-time Internet game, and finally an award-winning movie)? Well, all three have been created using the same software tool: Flash.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Australian gnome at Gamone

In my recent article entitled Wanderlust [display], I pointed out that the first recorded case of a traveling gnome prank occurred in Sydney in 1986. I happened to be working at the Curtin University in Perth at that date, waiting for the America's Cup season to start, and I remember hearing of that strange gnome affair on the other side of the continent. Last night, I received an email from a woman who runs a blog about gnomes, entitled Gnutty for Gnomes [display]. She asked me the origin of the anecdote about the gnome Bilbo. Well, it's mentioned explicitly in a Wikipedia page on gnome pranks [display].

In July 1986, my son François had joined me in Fremantle. At the Bastille Day ball in Perth, he met up with a Franco-Australian girl name Francine, and they became instant friends. The following year, I returned to Paris. For my birthday in 1987, Francine and François sent me a tiny Australian gnome named Rupert. Seven years later, the gnome moved down here to Gamone with me, where he spends a lot of time climbing around on rocks and searching for mushrooms.

Rupert is so small that, whenever he's out on the lawn, Sophia has to be careful not to walk on him.

In fact, it's reassuring to know that Sophia is there to protect him if ever Rupert were to be attacked by the many elves and leprechauns that inhabit the mysterious Vercors mountains. Meanwhile, I often wonder if Rupert might suddenly decide to fly off, one of these days, on a tourist trip to his native Antipodes.

Inside that bag

The primeval Macintosh computer was taken out of its bag exactly 25 years ago.

The following video shows us the historic moment when this happened:

That instant was the start, not only of the Mac era, but of the ascension of Steve Jobs into the role of a superstar. I'm convinced that the gasps of awe and the applause, on 24 January 1984, were for the machine, more than for its maker. In any case, it was the Macintosh itself that started the myth of Steve Jobs when it referred to him as "a man who's been like a father to me".

At almost the same moment, there was a grand unveiling of the new machine in a cabaret on the Champs-Elysées... to which I was invited, accompanied by my 17-year-old daughter. Shortly afterwards, the French Apple company provided me with my first machine, and I was able to bring out my book a few months later.

Today, I'm amused to discover that Google Books with the argument "william skyvington" provides a reference to my book. It's a 1986 issue of the periodical of the Apple University Consortium called Wheels for the Mind (which still exists today).

The reference to my book is brief but firm:

The machine that Steve Jobs pulled out of a bag a quarter of a century ago has accompanied me non-stop ever since then, day in, day out, in evolving versions. And that state of affairs has nothing whatsoever to do with my being, or not being, a fan of the man in a black turtle-neck sweater. It's simply a matter of my having encountered the most friendly computer that has ever existed.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


It appears that ceramic garden gnomes were invented in Germany in the middle of the 19th century. But it was in my native land, Australia, that an amazing gnome event first occurred, in 1986. A woman in the eastern suburbs of Sydney woke up one morning to discover that her garden gnome Bilbo had disappeared, leaving a note: "Dear Mum: I couldn't stand the solitude any longer. I've gone off to see the world. Don't be worried. I'll be back soon. Love and kisses, Bilbo." During the months that followed, in her mail, the lady received photos of her gnome in various well-known European settings: in front of Big Ben, alongside the Eiffel Tower, in a Venetian gondola, etc. And scribbled words of affection on the back of each photo assured his mum in Sydney that he was having the time of his life.

Finally, one night, Bilbo reappeared unobtrusively in his native Sydney garden. His wanderlust was fulfilled, and his mum found him posed calmly among the flowers as if nothing had ever happened. But his gnome's heart was in fact full of contentment and pride in his exploit.

We learn today that this same kind of wanderlust has struck in an unlikely place: Easter Island.

The French press has just revealed that one of the 980 giant statues—referred to as moai—has expressed the desire to travel to Paris "to emit spiritual energy that will change the conscience of humanity". Thanks to the Louis Vuitton group, the maoi's wish will be granted. Next year, a giant statue will be brought from Easter Island to the City of Lights, and it will be posed for a fortnight in the Tuileries gardens.

In my opinion, that's an excellent address for a maoi on a short trip to Paris. It will reside between the obelisk of the Place de la Concorde and the glass pyramid of the Louvre. On the other hand, unlike its homeland, there won't be a view of the vast ocean.

That particular site was chosen by two members of the island's Rapanui community, who came to Paris especially for that purpose. One of them told us what to expect from the maoi's presence: "It will metamorphose the conscience of the materialistic world into a more humanistic conscience." In my humble opinion, in this time of economic crisis and fear about global warming, that's exactly what we need, in France and elsewhere. The Easter Island fellow added: "The maoi is not a mere hunk of stone. It's a link. They show the world that, in attacking Nature, Man destroys himself. The story of Easter Island is the history of Humanity."

Do you know what I think? I reckon that the super bright guy from Hawai, young Barack, might be pulling the strings behind this unexpected and extraordinary scheme for transferring some Pacific wisdom to the Old World. Besides, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the halt in Paris were just a stopover on the way to the White House...

Friday, January 23, 2009


Concerning the handling of convicts, Australia is no doubt one of the most experienced nations in the world, because that's a fundamental dimension of the cultural heritage of those of us who are proud to descend from 19th-century British and Irish immigrants.

In each case, the offender's personal path could move through three successive phases:

-- Initially, he was condemned in his native Old World for a crime that may or may not have been particularly wicked, and he got transported to the Antipodes as a convict.

-- Little by little, in the land that would later be called Australia, his status evolved into that of an ex-convict, and he acquired a certain degree of liberty. During this phase, the ex-convict was assigned to, and placed under the responsibility of, an honorable citizen—normally a landowner needing employees to develop his property—designated as an overseer.

-- Finally, if all went well, he became a totally free and enterprising citizen of the vast new country into which he had been thrown... more or less by accident.

The coveted document that started the ball rolling along the path from hard labor to liberty was the so-called ticket of leave. My Irish great-great-great-grandfather Patrick Hickey [1786-1858] was transported from Tipperary to Botany Bay in 1828 for cattle stealing. Assigned to a prosperous English pioneer in Braidwood named John Coghill, he was awarded this ticket of leave in 1837:

Even after the arrival of his wife and children, my ancestor was incapable of leading an honest life, and he was condemned for stealing and transported to the notorious hell-on-earth island of Norfolk. In 1846, a broken 60-year-old convict, Patrick Hickey had the rare privilege of receiving a second ticket of leave:

[Click on the images to display larger versions of the documents.
Click here to access my genealogical website.]

Now, why did I decide to start talking about convicts and their assimilation—not always easy—into free society? Well, thanks to a former US president, George W Bush, aided and abetted by a pair of acolytes, Tony Bush and John Howard, a terrible detainment camp was created at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Last Wednesday, on his first day as US president, Barack Obama announced that this camp would be shut down within a year. The problem that now exists is: What can be done with the former convicts?

I think it would be a great idea to give tickets of leave to some of these men and assign them, as it were (Down Under convict concept), to Bush, Blair and Howard, who would look after them personally on a daily basis, making sure they are adequately housed, clothed (in something more fashionable and less conspicuous than orange jumpsuits), fed, educated, entertained, etc. Our former leaders would be charged with the moral responsibility of catering for their new friends (employees?) in every possible way, so that latter can appreciate all the subtle aspects of life in a free society.

There are quite a few other excellent candidates for this exciting role as moral overseers of former Guantanamo inmates. I'm thinking in particular of some of those filthy rich financial tycoons who have dragged the world into a state of economic mess. Each condemned banker or crooked businessman should be assigned, automatically, at least two or three Guantanamo individuals, with the obligation to take care of them personally.

My suggestion, I feel, is utterly ingenious. I hope that somebody can get my ideas up to Obama as rapidly as possible.

Losing my legends

It's quite a while since my various charming childhood legends started to disintegrate, leaving me to get hit in the face by the harsh facts of our earthly existence. With time, the traumas are slowly receding, and you might say that I'm starting to face brutal reality with stoicism.

First, there was the affair of the Tooth Fairy. Throughout my early childhood, I had always looked upon this creature as a lovely little girl sporting wings, who would regularly jump into my bed in the middle of the night and look around for stray teeth, which could be traded in for money. When I found myself obliged to hand over this entire dimension of my bodily existence to a nasty guy called a dentist, who would attack my tender mouth with metallic instruments of torture, I was profoundly shocked.

Next, there was the traumatic disappearance of Santa Claus, which stunned me terribly, as for countless other children throughout the Cosmos. The details of this affair were so painful that I prefer not to repeat them here. Having said this, I believe that the situation was even more distressing for Aussie kids who once believed in the notorious Xmas Kangaroo, which their dad had to beat in a boxing match before they got their gifts...

To be perfectly truthful, the end of legends concerning the birth of babies probably disturbed me to a lesser extent, because I was a shrewd observer. I realized that something funny was happening whenever I saw familiar women in South Grafton becoming weirdly fat-bellied, then reappearing with their normal look... but wheeling a baby in a pram. I had a bit of trouble figuring out how a father might insert a baby seed into the belly of a future mother, but I didn't lose much time imagining how it might be done... although the exact details of the operation remained somewhat fuzzy up until the time I started to become interested, then intrigued (and later infatuated), by those exotic creatures known as girls.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, this afternoon, I lost yet another legend, and I'm still reeling from the shock. In a back room of my house at Gamone, I've detected the presence of a mysterious rodent who has gnawed a few holes in the plaster walls, leaving little piles of gravel. When I described the situation to an employee at the rural supplies store in Saint-Marcellin, he told me that my intruder was almost certainly a rat. So I purchased an old-fashioned rat trap. Now, here comes the end-of-a-legend part of my simple story:

Me: Excuse me for asking a naive question. What's the best bait to put on the trap? A hunk of cheese?

He roared out laughing, along with a farmer buying boots.

Employee: You'll never catch a rat, nor even a mouse, with a hunk of cheese. That tale is for children's storybooks! Cheese? Rats won't touch the stuff. But they love dry fruit such as walnuts...

So, there you have it, the amazing stark truth: Rats and mice don't really like cheese; they prefer Gamone walnuts! I'll keep readers informed of my trapping operations...

Visiting Madagascar on a mobylette

Let me explain, for readers who might not know, that a mobylette is a hugely popular moped (lightweight motorbike) made by the French manufacturer Motobecane. A few decades ago, for countless French teens, particularly in suburban and rural environments, this vehicle was a symbol of emancipation: an initial step towards adult liberty. My son François Skyvington created a book on this theme, presented in a French-language website [display].

In my article of 30 May 2008 entitled Birthday of Moped Man [display], I mentioned that François was working on a documentary film concerning a mobylette excursion to Madagascar. Well, this 52-minute film will be shown on the French channel Voyages at the following dates [Paris time]:

-- Saturday evening, 24 January 2009, 8.40 pm
-- Sunday afternoon, 25 January 2009, 12.50 pm
-- Monday evening, 26 January 2009, midnight
-- Saturday morning, 31 January 2009, 10.30 am

In the latest Télérama weekly, there's a fine review of the film:

Le Monde selon ma mobylette [The World from my Mobylette] by the journalist-photographer-moviemaker François Skyvington is all about roaming through Madagascar at 35 kilometers an hour. In the lazy rhythm of the national route 7, which crosses the island from one end to the other, the rambler takes his time, while sharing with us his conception of the expedition. One can understand why TV channels are attracted to this style of reporting, which is now recurrent. Viewers can easily identify themselves with the journalist-presenter, often more like a tourist than an investigator, who provides them with access to an exotic universe. Obviously, the constant presence of this personage tends to obscure the frontier between a genuine reportage and a simple vacation video, since he stirs up intense admiration for the marvels of the country he is crossing. François Skyvington avoids tactfully all errors of this kind. Admittedly, as soon as he straddles his mobylette, he is filmed from every possible angle, but he also knows how to disappear behind the camera as soon as we have opportunities of observing Madagascan folk. The documentary is composed of short sequences on subjects such as a factory that produces soccer tables, and a sapphire-mining rush that gave rise to population changes. The resulting film does not claim to be a complete and divergent portrait of Madagascar, but it is hard to avoid being carried away by the specific rhythm of this journey.

This review was written in French by Thomas Richet, and I've translated it into English.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Modern gladiator

Yesterday evening, I watched a fascinating TV documentary about the early history of the Roman city of Lutetia, known since the 4th century as Paris. The arena still exists, in a quiet corner of greenery in the heart of the Latin Quarter.

In the heyday of Lutetia, this arena was used constantly for combats between gladiators and wild animals. Today, the outlines of the antechambers and cages are clearly visible. Among the gladiators, there was a brave and agile fellow known as a retiarius who fought with nothing more than a net and a trident. He had no shield and his only armor was a fragment of metal or leather protecting the upper part of his arm that held his three-pronged weapon.

This morning, I was intrigued to hear of the presentation of a Japanese robot, designed to protect industrial premises, which is capable of behaving a little like a retiarius. The following photo shows the robot confronted by a man who's playing the role of an intruder, and hurling a net at him:

When the robot detects the presence of a human intruder, it phones its master to let him know that it may have run into a bad guy. If the robot's master tells it to attack, the robot throws its net over the intruder, entangling him. From that point on, I'm not quite sure of what might happen next. The Japanese manufacturer has refrained from providing information concerning the device's endgame, but I would imagine that traditions are respected, and that the robot is armed with a concealed trident.

Getting the words right

It's amusing that Barack Obama decided to proclaim his oath of allegiance a second time, after the judge screwed it up the first time. And it's interesting to discover that there's no Bible in this repeat event.

Christians might say that God, through His extraordinary communication capabilities, was surely capable of untangling the initial screwed-up message, so there was no point in invoking Him the second time round. It's more likely, I think, that the absence of a Bible proves that, during the screwed-up swearing-in, the Bible was merely part of the decor, rather than an essential element in the act. In my view, this is fair enough, because the role of the book appears to be a rather symbolic do-it-yourself thing in the swearing-in ritual. Each president-to-be seems to have the right to bring along the particular version of the book that pleases him. What would happen, I wonder, if a Jew were to be elected president? Would he be able to bring along a Hebrew edition of the Torah, without any New Testament whatsoever?

On the other hand, this repeat performance of Obama's swearing-in underlines a highly significant aspect of the procedure: namely, the fundamental importance of the exact words pronounced by the future president in his oath. As everybody knows, these words are extracted from the US constitution, and nobody has the right to play around with them, inventing even a trivially modified form of the oath. I found it amusing that the words were screwed up the chief justice John Roberts, nominated in 2005 by a president who became the laughingstock of the planet because of his habit of screwing up words. It was almost as if Roberts had staged deliberately this embarrassing incident as a departure gift to Dubya, to make him feel less alone.

The fundamental nature and all-importance of human language is the subject of The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker, which I've been reading slowly over the last week or so.

It's a truly remarkable study of the subtleties of language. I find it a sobering book in that I simply never realized, up until now, the amazing complexity of English verbs, even though I tended to imagine naively that I surely understand, more or less, what they're all about. Often, when words are poorly arranged in a sentence, a native English speaker realizes that something's wrong, but we don't necessarily know why it sounds wrong, and how to fix it. We laugh when we hear of this sign in a bar in Norway: "Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar." But George W Bush spoke that kind of English regularly: "I remember meeting a mother of a child who was abducted by the North Koreans right here in the Oval Office." Talking of Bushspeak, Pinker mentions the former president in The Stuff of Thought: "In 2006 George W Bush signed into law the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which increased the fines for indecent language tenfold and threatened repeat offenders with the loss of their license." Isn't it touching that somebody as badly-spoken as Dubya would be offended by indecent language!

I started this post by talking about Obama's swearing-in. Well, on the theme of swearing and oaths, Pinker's book happens to include one of the most colorful chapters you could ever imagine. The chapter title: The seven words you can't say on television. The great Woody Allen once explained his way of telling somebody to leave: "I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words." Now, inspired by Woody's words, I really can't end these rambling reflexions about screwed-up words without a few nice words of farewell to the departing president, who impressed countless observers in such a special way: "Be fruitful and multiply, Sir, and enjoy your retirement."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Mission accomplished

Here's the bottom line, in a few approximate figures:

-- Deaths of US soldiers in Iraq = around 4,226

-- Unemployment in the USA = around 7 %

-- Disapproval rating in God's Own Country = around 67 %

In his most recent speeches, Bush has been striving to persuade people to retain a favorable impression of his eight years of havoc as the big boss of the USA.

When I try to imagine the aspect of George W Bush that annoys me most, I revert automatically to my love of science and my personal bias towards scientific logic. Students of my generation worshipped naively a process known as induction, which was a sophisticated scientific variation on the theme of generalization. We were led to believe that scientific laws arise almost spontaneously, whenever we happen to encounter the same kinds of events reoccurring in a similar fashion... such as the Sun rising every morning, and setting every evening. The general idea of induction is that, after following the Sun's movements for a certain number of days, you'll be led inexorably, almost automatically, towards a sound theory of the movement of our planet within the Solar System. Now, I don't know whether or not Bush has ever heard of induction, or whether his brain would be capable of analyzing such a philosophical concept. For argument's sake, let's imagine Bush for a moment as a turkey being fattened for Thanksgiving Day. Using induction (which, I repeat, is a false theory), George W Turkey would have included that God and Man are great benefactors of turkeys, which gravitate in perpetual Freedom (a term that Dubya loves, without necessarily knowing what it means) in a God-Given Cosmos of Turkey Lovers... Then, as the Thanksgiving Day axe was about to descend upon its neck, the presidential turkey would make a speech: "Knowing what I knowed, I did my best, and I trust that posterity will love me." Axe, slash, blood, feathers, crash... like a stratospheric goose in a jet engine over Manhattan. It's not impossible that Dubya will land safely and calmly. Americans, to my mind, are basically forgetful, often simply stupid (when they vote, for example). We'll see...

When Isaac Newton got hit on the head by an apple, he suddenly imagined (so the lovely legend goes) that an ubiquitous force was forever attempting to drag, not only apples, but everything in the Cosmos back towards our humble planet... and vice versa. I try to imagine George W Bush, in the place of Isaac Newton, getting hit on the head by an apple at his ranch in Texas. I see him exclaiming to his admiring wife: "Laura, with the help of God, I've given these apples their freedom! They're falling henceforth on my dull brain!" But we wouldn't have got a theory of the universe...

The following photo was taken in front of 10 Downing Street on 3 January 2009, after an anti-Israel demonstration:

As you can see, they're not apples. An observer might say that Bush is no longer connected directly with current events in Gaza. But the Old World seems to have retained already the image of a down-to-earth object, a male shoe, by which to remember the outgoing president. And this striking symbol is becoming a universal expression of opposition. But I'm exaggerating a little. While the missiles in question can certainly be described as down-to-earth, they weren't really striking. Dubya ducked. Neither an apple nor a shoe ever hit his brainless head.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dog takes us for a ride

I'm always impressed by a dog that's smart enough to play tricks on the supposedly superior beings who think of themselves as the animal's masters. As of this afternoon, I realize that my neighbors' Briska belongs to that canine category.

In fact, I often suspect that most, if not all, dogs might belong to this smart category. The great US writer Kurt Vonnegut [1922-2007] published a collection of short stories under the title Welcome to the Monkey House. His book includes a tiny masterpiece entitled Tom Edison's Shaggy Dog, no more than seven pages long. The gist of this delightful tale: Thomas Edison [1847-1931], the celebrated inventor of the light bulb, happened to concoct a so-called intelligence analyzer capable of indicating what we would now call the IQ of the individual hooked up to the machine. Well, when Edison tried out the device on his dog, he was astounded to obtain a genius-level reading. Edison's dog, on the other hand, was furious to realize that its master was henceforth capable of revealing the Great Secret: namely, that dogs have always been vastly superior to humans from an intelligence viewpoint. The canine race preferred to keep a low profile, indefinitely, enabling them to be housed gratis, fed for free and admired by humans. In return, they were expected to give merely a minimum of Christian canine love: mainly effortless sloppy licks and tail wagging. From a dog's viewpoint, this continued to be a truly superb system! To avoid letting the cat out of the bag (wrong metaphor), Edison's dog struck up a bargain with its master. If the inventor were to keep quiet about canine intelligence, and destroy his diabolical contraption, then the dog was prepared to offer Thomas Edison the perfect formula for the filament of an incandescent electric bulb...

Let me get back to Briska. This afternoon, in front of my house, Madeleine was crying out: "William, Briska's caught in a trap. Phone Dédé and tell him to drive up here immediately."

I did as ordered, then rushed downstairs, donned boots and a jacket and raced up to the place, a couple of hundred meters above my house, where I could hear Briska barking furiously. Madeleine raced after me. I soon ascertained that the barking came from a spot on the muddy banks of Gamone Creek, at about the level of Bob's place.

Me: "Madeleine, Briska's barking doesn't sound as if she's in pain."

Madeleine: "Don't be silly, William. She's in pain! I can recognize her barking. She's surely caught in a fox trap. Maybe gored by a wild boar. When you find her, be careful. She's probably out of her mind, and she's likely to bite you."

I lost no time in racing up the creek bed and sighting Briska, several meters up on the banks. She was still barking, and darting back and forth, as if she were restrained, unable to come down. By this time, Dédé had arrived on the scene with his vehicle. Meanwhile, not wishing to be bitten by a delerious dog in agony, I did my best to push Madeleine up the muddy embankment, so that she might encounter the animal. Both of us struggled to catch hold of branches and pull ourselves upwards. Dédé, down in the creek bed, could see Briska moving to the right, then to the left, then back again, while continuing to bark furiously.

I might add (because I believe that this observation is significant) that I was intrigued to notice that my dear dog Sophia gave no signs whatsoever of understanding what the hell all this fuss was about. Sophia is a little like General Motors in the USA. When she coughs, this indicates that all Gamone might be catching a cold. But when Sophia behaves soporifically, it's highly likely that everything's perfectly fine at Gamone, that there are no murderous bandits in the vicinity and, concerning the problem confronting us, no dogs in pain.

Dédé (who remained down in the creek, where it was impossible to see what was happening, since he has trouble walking, let alone climbing creek banks): "Briska's almost certainly caught up by a wire or cable. She can't come down."

Madeleine (in living-room attire, including woolen gloves, and no longer accustomed to crawling up muddy creek banks in the middle of January): "I've got hold of her collar, but she refuses to descend. The poor dog seems to be wounded. She's terrified of the height of the embankment."

While doing my best to hold Madeleine in place—by poking my fingers, as it were, up her backside (I insist upon the "as it were")—so that she wouldn't roll back down into the creek, I was starting to become wary. It was more and more obvious to me (but not yet to Madeleine or Dédé) that their dog was not caught in a trap, was not attached by anything whatsoever, was not wounded in any way, was not in pain, was not afraid of heights, was not barking in anguish, etc. In other words, there was nothing whatsoever wrong with Briska. She had merely been having fun at that particular spot on the banks of Gamone Creek (which was running with a foot or so of water), and wanted to let us all know. Briska was thinking no doubt, in typical dog thought, that we might like to join in the fun. She had been inviting us to a rave party, as it were.

As soon as I got within reach of the dog, who was now held firmly by Madeleine (sprawled out face down on the muddy slopes), I gave her a big push on the arse (Briska, not Madeleine), which sent her rolling down towards Dédé, who immediately put her on a lead. Meanwhile, Madeleine's hand was covered in blood. We had imagined that it was the blood of our poor wounded Briska. In fact, Madeleine had cut herself slightly on a broken branch above Gamone Creek.

For the moment, the global situation is a little like that of the Airbus in the Hudson River. Nobody has located Briska's black boxes, capable of informing us what the hell all that bloody barking was about. All I can affirm is that it was a false alert, brilliantly executed by Briska... who must be erupting into dog-laughter at the moment I speak to you. (I don't know whether our dog is linked to the Internet, otherwise I would simply suggest that you look her up directly.)

I don't wish to influence the specialists who'll be called upon to examine the data of this afternoon's incident: Françoise Repellin, above all, daughter of Dédé and Madeleine. My gut feeling is that Briska was thrilled to have discovered, on the banks of Gamone Creek, a tiny smelly Garden of Eden where the roe deer come down to lie. Maybe there was even the delicious aroma of a decaying foetus, or something nice like that. And Briska decided to remain obstinately fixed in this marvelous site of discovery, like a successful archaeologist standing guard over his treasures. Meanwhile, Briska barked gladly, proudly, non-stop, like hell, for all the Gamone valley to know, like a dog in agony. Nothing could move Briska from that paradise... until I gave her a shove in the arse.

This evening, more than ever before, I love and admire that delightful dog Briska, poorly educated and unaccustomed to obeying orders from any human master or mistress (including Françoise), but more playful and smarter by far than oldies like Madeleine, Dédé and me. Let's face it: Dogs were made to be movie stars. Briska [to whom this blog post is dedicated], you're a cunning canine artist!

ADDENDUM: My neighbor Gérard Magnat, who's an experienced hunter, gave me a firm opinion on this incident. He concludes that Briska had come upon a wild boar drowsing on the creek bank. Apparently a boar isn't particularly impressed by a barking dog, even at close quarters. Roe deers, on the other hand, are terrified by dogs. The boar is sufficiently powerful to rip open the belly of a dog with a single upward thrust of its tusks. Gérard tells me that a boar is capable of carrying on its snoozing when surrounded by several barking hounds. But the boar will run like hell as soon as it sniffs the presence of a human being. Don't ask me why it finds us more fearful than dogs. So, according to Gérard, the boar was probably still snoozing calmly, and Briska was still barking furiously, right up until the moment I set foot in Gamone Creek. With all the barking, I would have been incapable of hearing a beast fleeing through the branches. It's a fact that Briska toned down her barking as Madeleine and I edged nearer. In fact, Briska was no doubt disappointed to find that we didn't appear on the scene like Saint George or Zorro, and rush into a mortal combat against the black dragon she had discovered.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Nice nicknames

Ever since I saw this amazing photo of Prince Henry of Wales wearing a Nazi insignia, I've been convinced that this lad has a detached screw floating around in his royal gray matter.

Yesterday, I saw his amateur video in which he designates comrades as "Paki" (slang for Pakistani) and "raghead" (slang for Arab). In the following version of the video of Mr Wales (as his military comrades call him), the subtitles are helpful, since Harry often mumbles and swears, and his instructions to comrades are delivered with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

Today, we hear that Prince Charles and his sons use regularly the nickname "Sooty" for a dark-skinned polo-player of Indian origins.

Since Prince Harry seems to be fond of nicknames based upon facial features, I think it's high time we gave him one: a nice little nickname that sticks, evoking what Harry sees when he looks in a mirror.

I've often pointed out that Australians are misled when they imagine that their colloquial language is particularly rich and colorful. There is little in everyday Australian language that gets anywhere near the vast splendors and subtleties of colloquial French, regional dialects throughout France and argot (slang). Just look at the huge success of the Dany Boon movie Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, inspired by the colloquial language of the Picardie region. In the domain of Australian nicknames, however, there's a peculiarity that's so silly that it's hilarious. I'm referring to the common habit of using the nickname "Blue" for a guy with red hair. That's all we need for Prince Harry (who lived for a while in Australia). So, I nickname him solemnly, from now on, Blue... or Bluey for close friends.

Stone disk at Gamone

[This is a rewritten version of an article posted yesterday. The initial version of this article contained factual errors, which I've corrected.]

After purchasing my Gamone property, almost fifteen years ago (notarial document signed on 26 January, Australia Day, 1994), I discovered, among my newfound possessions, a stone disk.

The diameter of this heavy object is 76 cm and its thickness is 10 cm. The hole in the center, for the axle, is a square of width 4 cm. A decade ago, I was honored by the visit of the former Choranche postman, born here in my house at Gamone, Gustave Rey [1910-2001]. He used to ride a bicycle to deliver mail all around, and up as far as Presles. An unbelievable, heroic character! He gave me precious information that enabled me to write a lengthy article about the old vineyards of Choranche that has earned me my local reputation (which I owe entirely to Gustave) of being an authority about the ancient wine industry in Choranche.

Gustave laughed when he saw the stone disk leaning up against a linden tree. "We transformed this huge slab of stone into an outdoor coffee table. It weighs a ton. Then, one day, the wooden support suddenly broke. The stone fell on a guest and broke his leg." Having had a leg broken, myself, on the slopes of Gamone, I was attached to this story. It made me feel that our respective fractures represent some kind of common Gamonian destiny. The only thing that worries me at times, in this region where rocks are constantly falling from the mountain slopes, is that, one day, a huge hunk of stone might crush me entirely... but I don't really believe in the likelihood of such a calamity.

Meanwhile, my stone disk has remained posed against the giant linden tree, accompanied by an assortment of ancient blocks of limestone, at the entry into Gamone. The question remains: What was purpose of this disk? I imagined that it might be a millstone, used to transform cereals into flour, or maybe to press walnuts to extract their oil.

Not far from Gamone, at a mountain site named Ecouges, archaeologists have been working on the ruins of an ancient Chartreux monastery dating from the early 12th century.

Natacha took these photos of the site in the summer of 2005.

I learned with interest yesterday that, in the context of the exploration of these monastic ruins, archaeologists had discovered a major 12th-century quarry for the manufacture of millstones. So, I sent off a photo of my stone disk to Alain Belmont, the history professor at the university in Grenoble who's in charge of explorations at the Ecouges site. He replied immediately that, judging from the photo, my disk looked more like a grindstone, used for sharpening cutting tools, than a millstone. In fact, I should have realized this, right from the start, because I've seen sufficiently many old grindstones and millstones in the region to recognize the difference. Millstones are installed in a horizontal position, above a concave stone that holds the product that is being ground. And a considerable amount of energy is required, often from a stream, to turn the millstone. A grindstone, on the other hand, is set up vertically in a stout wooden frame, and it is turned by hand. My grindstone was probably used to sharpen tools such as this vineyard implement that I found at Gamone:

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Ticket to Hell

This frightening photo shows my literary and intellectual hero, the Oxford professor and writer Richard Dawkins, standing alongside an old-fashioned London double-decker bus bearing an abominable message: There's probably no god.

Mindless souls who are sufficiently dauntless to ride on this red bus know full well the only possible destination for such a diabolical excursion. It ain't Piccadilly Circus and Buckingham Palace and all that old nonsense, if you see what I mean. The terminus is for all Eternity... no way whatsoever of getting off the bus and taking a taxi back to the departure point.

Now, those obscure shrouded theological threats should normally frighten shit out of every congregation. But the old tricks no longer work... except, for the moment, in my native Australia (as intellectually dull and intolerantly alert as usual), where the bus concept is banned.

I invite you to Google "atheist bus" to find out all you need to know, and more, about this devilish project. Meanwhile, use Amazon to meet up with the books of our favorite atheist. Reading the beautiful words of Dawkins brings about the same joy, in a sense, as winning the lottery, encountering one's true love, raising a splendid family and living happily ever after. The only difference is that, in the red bus view, there ain't any old white-bearded gentleman named God looking down on events. As a matter of fact, it's remarkably nice and easy, during our brief span on the planet Earth, to be an atheist.


Ever since Apple announced that our hero Steve Jobs wouldn't be delivering the keynote address at the recent Apple Expo, and that this would be the company's final presence at this trade show, I have the impression that everybody is talking about this insanely geniustic guy, and that the entire business world is in a state of fever.

Or is it just me?

Cool spell

There's no doubt about it. The weather has been very cool throughout France over the last few days.

In the capital, to my mind, a man would have to be totally crazy to sit around with a bare bum in the mist and snow. But Paris, as we all know, is full of crazy folk...

I became aware that the global situation in France was particularly catastrophic when Natacha phoned me up, a few days ago, to say that she couldn't even go to work, alongside the splendid ecclesiastic citadel of the Bonne Mère, because Marseille was covered in snow.

I've been watching the slopes of Gamone from my bedroom window, wondering how long it might take for the snow to disappear.

My donkeys Moshé and Mandrin, protected by thick layers of fat and fur, have not been particularly troubled by the current conditions. The last few millennia of evolution have resulted in their using their front legs to claw at the icy snow and get through to grass. As for my beloved billy-goat Gavroche, he dines delicately in an Epicurean manner on weeds whose tiny heads emerge from the blanket of snow.

Meanwhile, from my bedroom window, I look down upon the rough stone wall built by François and me, and I watch the big blobs of snow melting, and losing their grip.

Of a morning, there's a marvelous moment when the sun's rays creep out from behind my magic mountain, the Cournouze, and impact the frozen landscape, transforming it into a blinding white mirror. At that instant, the grand old Sun seems to admonish the steamy slopes of Gamone: "Get thee back to Siberia where you belong!"

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Apple deception

I've been using Apple products since 1981. In general, I've always looked forward to product updates, because Apple's new hardware and software are inevitably better, often in subtle ways, than what existed beforehand. Well, for the first time ever, I've experienced a reversal of this situation.

For the last couple of years, I've been using an excellent Macintosh word-processing tool named Pages, designed and sold by Apple. At the Apple Expo that has just taken place in California (which will go down in history as the last one at which the Apple company participated directly), many observers were shocked to discover that there were few announcements of new products from Apple. Personally, I was nevertheless happy to learn that an update to Pages had appeared. Last night, I downloaded a trial version of the latest version of this word processor and started to play around with it. I had imagined that, after testing the updated product to make sure that everything worked as indicated, I would purchase it immediately. Well, surprisingly, this is not going to be the case. There is nothing whatsoever in the new version of Pages to justify my paying 79 euros.

The most disappointing thing of all is a new Apple-hosted website service called The basic idea is that, if an author uploads his Pages files to this website, then his friends can view his writing, make comments about it, and keep copies of the files. On the surface, this sounded like a great idea for both my genealogical documents and my ongoing autobiography. The nasty truth of the matter is that the proposed service is incredibly slow. Besides, it doesn't really solve any problems that I haven't solved already by means of the nice technique of PDF files. On the other hand, there are new gadgets for Pages users who want to create cute newsletters with illustrations and gimmicky layout. Meanwhile, the glaring weaknesses of Pages still persist: namely, the impossibility of creating indexes and cross references to figures.