Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sarkozy insists upon results in London

Nicolas Sarkozy has made it perfectly clear that, if the outcome of London's G20 summit is not acceptable, he will simply get up and leave. "The crisis is too serious to permit having a summit meeting for nothing." Sarkozy is insisting, above all, on the installation of regulatory procedures in the international financial domain. This desire for regulations is shared by the German chancellor Angela Merkel, and also by the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, who declared: "One of the goals, accepted at Washington, is that no institution or major financial entity should remain beyond control and supervision. That is what I hope to see confirmed and consolidated in London."

Furthermore, as France's minister of Finance Christine Lagarde has pointed out, the French president is adamant that tax havens throughout the world must be eradicated. The latest rumors, expressed on French TV this evening, are optimistic, in the sense that Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown has echoed Sarkozy's belief that tax havens should cease to exist in the modern world. The big question, of course, is whether Barack Obama will be prepared to acknowledge the priority of these European themes.

In France, current events have caught up with the G20 syndrome. It was revealed today that several large French corporations appear to have been using a bank in Liechtenstein to whitewash money that should have normally been declared in France as taxable profits. In this context, news broadcasts in France today evoked the whistleblower, Heinrich Kieber, who was responsible for unleashing a planetary affair by revealing the identity of tax fraudsters in the above-mentioned bank. For the last twelve months, there has been a persistent rumor, aired once again today on French TV, that this wealthy gentleman—formerly a skilled data-processing professional—has ended up in a luxury hideout, under an assumed identity, down in a big sunburned country in the Southern Hemisphere.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Our daily bread

For many months now, I've got into the habit of using constantly the same fixed menu for my bread machine.

The local supermarket sells an ideal whole-grain flour, produced by the Francine company, which also sells the yeast. The recipe is simple: just under a third of a liter of water, a heaped teaspoon of salt, half a kilogram of flour and a packet of yeast. As soon as the machine has been mixing these ingredients for a few minutes, I drop in a plate of walnuts. About three and a half hours later, here's the result:

I find it tastier and better textured than any bread I could buy in a local bakery. It keeps well, too, wrapped in a dish towel in the refrigerator.

My dog Sophia joins me when I'm kneeling down on the floor and using a hammer to crack open the walnuts on a thick wooden chopping block that I bought in Bangkok long ago. She's entitled to every fifth or sixth walnut. During the final thirty minutes, when the bread is baking, a fantastic aroma invades the house. Later, Sophia dashes up to me, in the kitchen, whenever she happens to see me about to cut a thick slice of bread. Needless to say, she's entitled to a chunk from time to time.

POST SCRIPTUM (after tasting, this morning): The abundance of walnuts at Gamone causes me to exaggerate at times. To make my product a little less like cake, it might be good if there were a bit more basic bread with my baked walnuts.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Donkeys and dog dishes

Shortly before the death of my billy-goat Gavroche (from causes that still remain a mystery), I had bought him a big bag of goat food. A fortnight ago, I decided to see whether the donkeys might appreciate this factory food in the same way that my dear departed Gavroche did. Well, they certainly do.

Often, when it's fine weather and the donkeys glimpse me walking around outside, they stand waiting for me on the edge of the lawn, just beyond the electrified ribbon (in which I often turn off the current for weeks on end, because the presence of the white ribbon is sufficiently dissuasive). And, if they don't soon see me moving to the place where the food is stored, and coming back out with their silver dog dishes piled high with green pellets, they start to bellow... in a way that only donkeys can bellow. But it's not as if they're starving, because the slopes of Gamone are starting to get covered in luscious grass.

Normally, I'm wary of taking food that was intended for one animal and feeding it to another, but I don't think there's any problem in this case, since sheep, goats, horses and donkeys must surely eat the same basic stuff. I made a huge blunder of this kind, many years ago, when I fed caged rabbits with green pellets intended for horses. All four rabbits were dead the following day. If I understand correctly, the horse pellets contain small quantities of minerals that are great for horses, but apparently mortal for rabbits. When I told this story to an employee of an agricultural supplies store, he said: "Ah, Sir, our life in the agricultural business would indeed be so much easier if we could sell some kind of standard food to be eaten by all farmyard animals." As they say in French, that situation will surely come about, one of these days in the not too far-distant future... when hens have developed teeth. Meanwhile, I can vouch for the fact that donkeys are eating goat food from dog dishes.

Dédé back on the road

A few days ago, I was happily surprised to find that my neighbor Dédé had strolled up to Gamone on foot, like at old times.

With his knee problems, it's not an easy excursion, but the fact that he has got back into the walking act is good news. I suspect, too, that Dédé appreciates the possibility of being able to chat with somebody other than his dear Madeleine. I'm not suggesting that Madeleine is not an excellent conversationalist. On the contrary, I think it's her favorite activity, and she's a prolific talker. When Madeleine and I start chatting together, for example, it soon becomes quite difficult for one or other of us to get a word in edgewise, as the saying goes. But I would imagine that Dédé likes to have a change of voice from time to time.

Four new blogs

For several reasons (both communicational and technical), I've decided to attach blogs to four of my existing websites. These new blogs have the following banners, which I've placed in the right-hand column of the present blog. In fact, all my blogs and websites are linked together in such a way that it's easy to move from one to another.












































These are not diary-type blogs, like Antipodes, but rather forums for discussion. In the context of my family-history research, the first two blogs will of course be associated with my genealogical writing. As for the two blogs in French, Choranche is the commune where my Gamone property is located, and Pont-en-Royans is the neighboring village. Concerning these two places, I have been doing extensive local-history research.

In the case of any of these four blogs, I would hope that other individuals might join me as so-called team members, meaning that they can post their own articles in an autonomous fashion. People wishing to accept this proposal should contact me by email.

Steelnut desks for computer users

Click the image on the left to see a larger version of the Steelnut ad.

I'm proud of my iDesk line of Steelnut furniture, "designed and manufactured by skilled Dauphiné craftsmen".

The small iDesk shown in the poster is my recently-designed Blogger model (of which I took delivery only this morning). At Gamone, my main iMac sits on a much bigger iDesk: the original Webmaster model. I also designed a lightweight iDesk that I refer to as the Browser model, which I use as a bedside table.

Steelnut furniture is supplied in an unfinished form. That is, the steel tubes are fresh out of the workshop, and need to be treated with some kind of metal product, while the walnut slabs should be polished with wax. Steelnut products are made to order, and prices are very reasonable. Once an order is placed with the craftsmen, an iDesk is manufactured within about a week.

You will have guessed that Steelnut is a figment of my imagination. Its products exist only in my house at Gamone. But I'm convinced that many computer users might be interested in this low-cost approach to heavy desks and tables of a rugged and rigid nature.

POST SCRIPTUM: Webmaster iDesk in a working environment:

Friday, March 27, 2009

Miraculous viruses

An ordinary Christian believes in God. But the thing that characterizes a true Man of God is his belief in miracles.

The bishop of Orléans, André Fort, is such a believer. Defending the theories of His Fallible Holiness Benny XVI, Andy the Strongman (the French adjective fort means "strong") has just announced that AIDS viruses have the miraculous capability of passing through the latex material out of which condoms are made. Now, I don't know where Andy obtained his facts. There must be some kind of an ecclesiastic laboratory in Orléans in which dynamic viruses can be observed bursting through condoms with the same divine energy as Joan of Arc breaking through the walls of the besieged city on 8 May 1492.

In the eyes of the enlightened bishop, condoms are holey... not to be confused with holy. If a man were dying of thirst after spending 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, he couldn't even use a condom to collect morning dew to drink. If you jumped into the ocean from a sinking ship, you couldn't even blow up a condom and use it as an inflated raft, because it would fizzle flat like the tube of a bike that has just run over a nail. A lady caught in foul weather while returning on foot from her hairdresser couldn't even drag a condom down over her perm to protect it from the rain, because the droplets would get through the latex skin like a horde of uncouth viruses breaking through the windows of a jewelry boutique. The Church has known all along that AIDS viruses have the same magical powers as the precious solidified blood that you find in tiny glass vials in Mediterranean churches. The faithful only have to conjure up the divine image in their minds, and the blood liquefies like a gelato in the sun of Naples.

If Benny and Andy were nice guys, prepared to assist uninformed fornicators, they would reveal holy secrets making it possible to waterproof condoms by the use of prayer, or maybe transform sperm into harmless holy water, or a miraculous trick of that kind. Another solution: Condom users in Africa and elsewhere could stock up with the prestige Driza-Bone ® product from Down Under... used by the Drover in the Australia movie. It's high-priced protection, sure, but 100% safe. And, as Nicole puts it, women like the rough outback feel.

BREAKING NEWS: You might recall the hilarious Monty Python sketch of scenes from a Ministry of Silly Walks [display]. These days, I have the impression that Catholic prelates throughout the world have been participating in a Mission of Silly Statements. André Vingt-Trois started the ball rolling. He's the archbishop of Paris whose attitude towards medical research was mentioned in my article of 26 November 2007 entitled Red can be wrong [display].

[An archbishop's colorful head and shoulders can look like a condom.]

A few weeks ago, on Women's Day (March 8), this Andy 23 was awarded the Macho of the year prize for his amazing declaration of 6 November 2008 on Radio Notre-Dame : "The most difficult thing is finding trained women. It's more than just wearing a skirt. It's a matter of having something in their heads." Then, in January of this year, the pope canceled the excommunications affecting a band of antiquated bishops, one of whom immediately aired alarming and unlawful revisionist views of the Shoah. A few days ago, Benny 16 gave us his unforgettable opinion on condoms, and he was backed up, first, by Di Falco then, yesterday, by Andy of Orléans.

Well, during the few hours since I ended the above article, another major ecclesiastic has jumped on the Silly Statements bandwagon, Brazil's Dadeus Grings, who claimed publicly that the major victims of Hitler's death camps were not Jews. Here are the words of our joyous Daddy Gringo: "The Jews talk about six million people killed. But how many Catholics were victims of the Holocaust? They were 22 million in all.''

I believe, seriously, that all these silly statements form the lyrics of a pathetic swan song from men who realize, maybe only subconsciously for the moment, that their old-fashioned system of Christian faith is doomed in the forthcoming future, for it has been overtaken by information, knowledge and scientific wisdom. Their declarations are fragments of a funeral dirge.

Irish songs

The title I chose for my maternal genealogy notes is A Little Bit of Irish. This is in fact the title of a sentimental Irish song that I used to hear on the radio when I was a kid. It was the theme song of a weekly concert, aired of a Sunday evening on the ABC station 2NR, by the Irish tenor Patrick O'Hagan. He's the father of the singer Johnny Logan, nicknamed Mr Eurovision because of his multiple awards, for Ireland, in this famous annual European song contest.

I haven't succeeded in finding a video of Patrick O'Hagan himself singing A Little Bit of Irish [for the moment, I'm awaiting an audio CD I ordered], but here's a version by another singer:



Here we have Patrick O'Hagan (who lived in Australia) singing The Wild Colonial Boy. You can see the same kind of wind-up gramophone we had at Waterview, to listen to 78 vinyl records.



For fuzzy nostalgic reasons, I still adore this corny bushranger ballad. I often sit down at the piano and burst into a rendition of the song for my dog Sophia... who doesn't, unfortunately, seem to be particularly fond of Irish songs. Or would it be my singing that my dog dislikes?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What happened next?

We human beings are naturally inquisitive, even when we're not directly concerned by the events we're observing. Haven't you ever come upon some kind of a quarrel, in public, and waited around until you saw the outcome, even though you didn't know the individuals involved in the conflict, and had no idea what it was all about? There are cases in which it's terribly frustrating to discover the premises of an interesting situation, without being able to stick around long enough to find out what happened next. I've often felt that our all-too-brief human existence on the planet Earth is exactly like that. Theoretically, the general situation is intriguing, indeed more than enough to arouse the curiosity of a common mortal. But most of us will almost certainly be obliged to abandon our earthly existence without ever having an opportunity of discovering what it's all about, and what happens next.

Look, for example, at the following photo:

I believe the photo was taken in England, no doubt around the middle of last century (judging from the automobile in the background). But the only piece of solid information I have, concerning the subject of the photo, is a brief caption:

Testing the world's first rocket-propelled bicycle.

The fellow holding the handle bars seems to be about to straddle his machine, whereas the guy kneeling down behind the bike looks as if he's fiddling around with wires, or maybe lighting a match. Really, I'm as frustrated as hell. I would love to know what happened next.

Room with a view

On certain occasions, in unexpected situations, Google's street-view gadget (mentioned in my previous post) is capable of rising to photographic greatness. Admire, for instance, this splendid image:

For Google, it's an unorthodox "street": the motor vehicle roadway on the upper level of the famous old steel bridge over the Clarence River at Grafton. When I was a kid, I surely rode my bike a thousand times past this quaint little room with a great view out over the Big River... as it was called when first discovered (by an escaped convict). The photo shows us the rusty toothed wheels and giant beam that used to raise a central span of the double-decker bridge (for trains as well as vehicles), enabling ships to get through. And the little room in the sky housed the electric switches to set the mechanism in action.

Children often dream of spending leisure time in a tiny house built up in the branches of a big tree. As I look nostalgically at this little control room (which has lost its electro-mechanical soul, for the span has long been condemned to immobility), I realize that I no doubt dreamt, once upon a time, of opening its door—stealthily, in the early hours of the morning, when the sun was coming up over the Pacific Ocean, and transforming the Clarence into a vast silver lake—and stepping into this tiny mysterious attic, like a cell in the tower of a medieval castle. I'm sure it would have been a remote and exciting place, far removed from urban neighbors, in which to meditate upon existence. For a child, it would have been a good address. For Google Maps, this little room with a view is located, so it says, in Craig Street.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Street view

Over the last couple of days, I've started work on another chapter of my maternal genealogy, concerning ancestors from Ireland. In fact, they were basically Scottish Protestants who had formed so-called "plantations" in Ulster, in order to propagate the English language and import the Protestant faith into Catholic Ireland. I'm not surprised that such transplanted folk found it an attractive idea, in the middle of the 19th century, to abandon their adopted land in Northern Ireland and move out to New South Wales. Meanwhile, during the century and a half since then, Ulster hasn't yet got over the cultural turmoil created by these British squatters who once decided to settle in the Gaelic isle.

Here's a photo of my aged great-grandfather Isaac Kennedy in my native town of South Grafton:

He was born in a plantation context in County Fermanagh in 1844, and arrived in New South Wales in 1866. This photo would have been taken in the early 1930s, not long before Isaac's death at the age of 90.

Isaac's massive gold signet ring was inherited by his grandson, my uncle Isaac Kennedy Walker. Today, my uncle—whom we've always nicknamed Bargy—lives in Coffs Harbour, where he turned 93 last January. Aware of my fondness for family history, Bargy recently passed this ring on to me.

Yesterday, while looking at the above photo of Isaac Kennedy, I started wondering where exactly in South Grafton it might have been taken. So, last night, I phoned Bargy and asked him where his grandfather used to live. Bargy's reply: "Somewhere in Spring Street." This morning, I opened Google Maps, displayed Spring Street in South Grafton, and turned on the street-view device. I imagined that, in the secluded neighborhood of Spring Street, the old Kennedy house might still exist, along with its original fence. I said to myself that there couldn't be too many old properties with a quaint white fence like that, whose palings slope up to the fence posts. Sure enough, I soon came upon an image of an old house with a fence of that kind.

I enlarged a section of the fence, and filtered it with Photoshop to examine closely the palings.

There's no doubt in my mind that this is Isaac's front fence. Besides, Google Maps indicates street numbering. So, this tool has enabled me to learn that my ancestor, a solitary widower, spent the final years of his life in a nice-looking old house at 46 Spring Street, South Grafton.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Familiar visitor

Look who raced madly into the yard at Gamone this afternoon for a lightning get-together with his old sparring partner Sophia.

It was several months since we had last seen the familiar black silhouette of Pif... who turned up unexpectedly with an older mate.

The little puppy has turned into a powerful lanky dog, with all his extrovert enthusiasm for life and action perfectly intact. To greet me, Pif galloped past me with the speed of a greyhound, barking excitedly. He didn't stop for a pat, or even slow down long enough to let me take a few good photos. I had the impression that Pif seemed to be saying to Sophia and me:

"During the time since those distant days when I used to turn up here for Sophia's daily lessons in dog-fighting, I've been doing a lot of traveling, both in France and in Spain. I've been in high-speed trains, and I even did a trip in an international jet airliner. And, of course, I had an opportunity of visiting our glorious capital, Paris... which was a splendid adventure for a rural creature like me. [I could tell from Pif's new language that something has changed in him, that he has indeed become an experienced and worldly animal.] In any case, you must realize that I'm now a very busy dog, leading a rich urban life and meeting up with all kinds of individuals... if you see what I mean."

Five minutes later, Pif grabbed his old tweaking plastic bone between his teeth (I had been keeping it here for him) and the two canine tourists raced off furiously back up towards Pif's old home, where his mistress Alison was waiting in an automobile.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On God's wavelength

The man in white often gets things wrong. Talk about less than perfect infallibility, the descendant of Saint Peter screws up, in one way or another, whenever he tries to step into the modern here-and-now world of ordinary folk like you and me and a few billion other specimens of the animal named Homo sapiens... created incidentally, not by God (as Benny believes), but by Darwinian evolution.

While preparing for his forthcoming excursion to Africa, I imagine that the pope has been able to take advantage of scores of wise experts who know everything that could possibly be known about this continent, its inhabitants, their problems and their challenges. Among other things, Benedict XVI must have surely listened to terrible tales concerning the ravages of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), culminating in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Concerning this hellish affliction, rampant in Africa, what does the Holy Father conclude? In the plane heading to Cameroon, Benny told journalists today that he considers that the distribution of condoms is not a feasible problem-solving approach. "On the contrary, it aggravates the problem."

Maybe, in the depths of his saintly soul, the pope feels that, if this pandemic finally wipes out hordes of sinful fornicators, that will automatically increase the percentage of good God-fearing spouse-respecting Catholics left alive on Earth. Is that Christian logic?

BREAKING NEWS: People from every walk of life in France are unanimous in condemning the pope's silly words about condoms. With a rare exception...

The bishop of Gap, Jean-Michel Di Falco, has had a busy day. I have the impression that he's one of the rare churchmen in France who's prepared to stand up and say something nice about the pope's astounding assertion. For a decade, the telegenic prelate was the official spokesman for French bishops (a heartthrob for pious middle-aged Catholic women, in the style of Father Ralph de Bricassart of the Thornbirds movie) before becoming a bishop himself. Today, he has been swept up by the French media. On TV, he made a feeble attempt to defend Benny Bonkers by a far-fetched argument. Di Falco claims that, in Africa, many men have the habit of sharing the same condom. So, the pope was perfectly right in saying that condoms spread the Aids pandemic. For dreaming up this ingenious explanation of the sense of the pope's declaration, Di Falco deserves to receive some kind of prize for imaginative thinking in the service of his chief, maybe a cardinal's job...

TRIVIA: I was amused to learn that Di Falco studied for the priesthood just up the road from Choranche, in the neighboring village of Rencurel. The seminary for so-called "tardy vocations" no longer exists, but the old building itself changed its vocation tardily, being transformed into a guest house.

This guest house was used a few years ago as the headquarters in the Vercors for the making of the film The Girl from Paris, with Michel Serrault and Mathilde Seigner.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Suppressing a right might be wrong

In an attempt to eliminate the illegal downloading of multimedia products, French minister Christine Albanel is introducing a law that might make it possible to punish a culprit by depriving him/her of the right to use the Internet. That eye-for-an-eye vision of justice brings to mind the suggestion, not so long ago, that delinquents who burn automobiles shouldn't be allowed to obtain a driver's license.

Now, Europeans have the privilege of being protected by a Charter of Fundamental Rights.

[Click the banner to visit a website concerning this charter.]

Here's Article 11 of this charter, concerning the freedom of expression and information:

In the case of a delinquent condemned, say, for vandalizing mailboxes, would it be possible in France to prohibit him from sending or receiving letters? If a man were caught urinating into a river that supplied water to a township, would it be possible to prohibit him from drinking tap water? As Marie-Antoinette might exclaim: "The fellow's unable to drink tap water? Then let him quench his thirst with champagne!"

BREAKING NEWS: The above-mentioned law, aiming to protect the rights of multimedia creators, entails the constitution of a so-called supreme authority in this domain, to be known by an ugly acronym: Hadopi. Members of the parliamentary opposition criticized, for diverse more or less sound reasons, the existence of such a body. Reacting to this perfectly normal criticism, Christine Albanel made an astonishing declaration: "It's particularly ridiculous to use a nasty caricature, which presents that body, composed of magistrates, as a kind of branch of the Gestapo." Opposition parliamentarians were flabbergasted. There's one thing that serious individuals never do in France, particularly when they happen to be elected representatives of the people. People never make superficial allusions to things that characterized the terrible Nazi epoch. You never compare anybody, today, to Hitler or his henchmen. And you never say that a respectable organization brings to mind the SS or the Gestapo. Back in the boisterous environment of May 1968, it's true that the intense animosity between demonstrators and riot police was expressed in the following poster, which plastered the walls of Paris:

But today, in serious circles, people don't usually evoke the Gestapo in a light-hearted fashion. No French parliamentarian in his right mind would ever liken an organization, of which Nicolas Sarkozy is a member, to a branch of the Gestapo.

The pen of this intelligent and sympathetic woman, who happens to be a ministerial successor to the great André Malraux, was austerely elegant and moving when she wrote the words of Jacques Chirac's speech in 1995, recognizing France's responsibility in the deportation of the Jews. A year later, once again, she worked splendidly as a speechwriter for Chirac when he pronounced a homage to François Mitterrand. Today, stupidly and uncharacteristically, Christine Albanel has put her foot in her mouth. And I believe that the best thing she could possibly do would be to apologize.

Abundant water

The winter that's drawing to an end hasn't been particularly cold, but it was dominated by several big snowfalls. Today, it's wonderful to see the sunny weather returning to Gamone. For the moment, my spring continues to overflow at a furious rate.

It's a great pity to see all this water being wasted. Ah, if only I could channel it magically out to my sunburnt country. Several years ago, I had imagined the idea of erecting a stone fountain alongside my house. For half the year, though, the spring goes dry, and a stone fountain without water is like a pub with no beer. Sophia appreciates this chilly water, just after it emerges from the earth around the spring.

Most of this abundant water runs into Gamone Creek, a hundred meters down from the spring.

This creek is a joy for my dog. For me too, the soft sound of the water cascading over the limestone rocks is like a lullaby.

When the weather's warm, like today, Sophia is capable of stepping into the creek for a minute or so, to cool off. But it's never more than a minimalist immersion.

Sophia has never been been enthusiastic about getting wet... apart from the special case of rolling around in the snow (influenced, no doubt, by her Labrador genes).

Like me, Sophia is happy to observe the peaceful landscape. What's the sense in running around excitedly? On the other hand, there's a curious ritual activity that she performs every time we wander up near the spring. This consists of rolling on the grass at a certain place, always at exactly the same spot.

Maybe the earth at that spot retains the remote scent of an exotic animal such as a wild boar or a roe deer. Be that as it may, Sophia's favorite place is her basket, in front of the house.

My dear dog will be turning eleven this summer. I'm delighted to see that she appears to be in fine form.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Antrim assassinations

Last night, two British soldiers were assassinated at the Massereene army base in Antrim, a few dozen kilometers north-west of Belfast. This village, in a county of the same name, has been associated for almost four centuries with the Skeffington family from Leicestershire. The present holder of the Massereene viscountcy is 68-year-old John Skeffington. His father, John Skeffington [1914-1992], the 13th Viscount Massereene, was Deputy Lieutenant for County Antrim.

Back in 1981, Lord Massereene helped me personally get started in my Skeffington genealogical research, whose results are now available at


In 1922, Massereene's castle at Antrim was set on fire by members of the Irish Republican Army, resulting in the destruction of many ancient Skeffington archives.

In pointing out that the army barracks carry the same name as the viscountcy, and that the former viscount was already the target of a terrorist attack in this same village, I do not however intend to suggest that these associations might have any bearing whatsoever on the reasons behind yesterday's assassinations.

A dissident republican group known as the Real IRA has claimed responsibility for the assassinations. A British government specialist in counter-terrorism said that Antrim might have been chosen simply because it was a "soft target": that's to say, an engineering base with minimal protection. Whatever the explanation, let us hope that this stupid act is not going to rekindle the fires of hatred and terror that burned for far too long already in Ulster.

Two sisters in Paris

Long ago in Paris, I got to know two sisters. Well, I always believed they were sisters, because there was a family look about them, and they were never far away from one another. I used to see them often, whenever I happened to cross the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, and I was attached to both of them, but in quite different ways. In spite of their being sisters, of roughly the same age, they were not at all identical individuals. One was a scientist; the other, an artist.


Normally, this distinction between the two sisters should have been clear-cut and fixed, but it wasn't. At times, I had the strange impression that the scientist was in fact more of an artist than her sister, and inversely. But I never saw them as twins, because they remained distinct women, with contrasting personalities and behaviors. Maybe "complementary" would be a better adjective than "contrasting", because one seemed to possess what was lacking in the other, and vice versa. In any case, they were splendid sisters, each in her specific style, and I was happy to be their friend.

à la mémoire de Dominique

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lower snow line

Here's another photo of the Cournouze, taken today:

If you compare this image with the one displayed in my recent article entitled Sisyphus road act [display], you'll notice that the snow line at Châtelus—the lowest level at which snow has fallen—has descended over a vertical distance of a couple of hundred meters. What this meant at Gamone is that, when I drove out yesterday to buy a bag of food for Sophia (fearing that we might be cut off from civilization for a few days), the road was covered in snow for the first hundred meters, and then it was suddenly as dry as a bone. In other words, the snow line actually passed midway through my property. You can get a feeling for the situation from the following photo of Mount Baret, taken this afternoon from my bedroom window:

Although the sun has been warming us well since eight o'clock this morning, the rocky bald summit of the mountain is still flecked with patches of snow, whereas the slopes of Gamone are now fairly free of snow... except for that curious patch that remains on the lawn just outside my bedroom.

You may have noticed, in the previous paragraph, that I indicated the precise time at which the sun rose this morning. That's because, for this final fortnight of winter, the sun behaves in a funny fashion at Gamone. The following photo shows you what happens:

First of all, I hasten to point out that the "sun" in this image is in fact a fake yellow Photoshop blob... because I don't wish to melt the electronic innards of my Nikon by trying to take photos of the real sun. Besides, you will have guessed that there's no way in the world that the real sun could ever get down to a cozy little spot in the sky between the top of the Cournouze and the cloud bank in the background. [The great English seascape painter J M W Turner once tried to get away with a lunar situation of that kind in his Fishermen at sea.]

During the long winter months, the sun rises behind the Cournouze, and I don't see it until late in the morning. Then, all of a sudden, as the location of the sun's initial appearance moves towards the left (the north), I'm woken up by an unusually early but short-lived beam of light as the sun pokes its nose above the horizon to the left of the Cournouze. At the present period of the year, the sun rises early, at around eight o'clock, then it is "eclipsed" for a while by a corner of the Cournouze before reappearing and moving freely towards its winter zenith in the sky. So, you might say that, within a span of a couple of hours, I'm treated to two successive sunrises. That, of course, is simply yet another of the many simple charms of my home in the mountains.

Goldilocks zones

I remember vaguely seeing a movie that contained a dialogue along the following lines:

QUESTIONER: What made you want to leave England?
ENGLISHMAN: Too bloody cold.
QUESTIONER: Today, why don't you want to stay in Australia?
ENGLISHMAN: Too bloody hot.

That sums up things nicely. What we're all searching for, of course, is a place that's just right.

When I was a child, I was particularly fond of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. For those of you who've forgotten this marvelous tale, here's a version I found on the web:

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in. At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl. "This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. "This porridge is too cold," she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. "Ah, this porridge is just right," she said happily, and ate it all up. After she had eaten the bear's breakfast, Goldilocks was feeling a little tired. So, she walked into the living room where she saw three chairs. Goldilocks sat in the first chair to rest her feet. "This chair is too big!" she exclaimed. So she sat in the second chair. "This chair is too big, too!" she whined. So she tried the last and smallest chair. "Ah, this chair is just right," she sighed. But just as she settled down into the chair to rest, it broke into pieces! Goldilocks was very tired by this time, so she went upstairs to the bedroom. She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard. Then she lay in the second bed, but it was too soft. Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right. Goldilocks fell asleep. While she was sleeping, the three bears came home. "Someone's been eating my porridge," growled the Papa bear. "Someone's been eating my porridge," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!" cried the Baby bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair," growled the Papa bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair and they've broken it all to pieces," cried the Baby bear. They decided to look around some more, and went upstairs to the bedroom. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed," growled Papa bear. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed too," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed and she's still there!" exclaimed Baby bear. At that moment, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed: "Help!" Then she jumped up and left the room. Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door and raced away into the forest. She never returned to the home of the three bears.

What I liked about this tale, I think, was the idea that a solid little single-son family unit could be existing harmoniously in the middle of the woods, in an isolated and independent environment. All the elements of their domestic environment had been adjusted optimally to cater for the respective sizes of the father, the mother and the son. And, when a lovely little blond girl happened to stray into this home, and evaluate its contents, she found—not surprisingly, I was tempted to imagine—that the mini-universe of the son (including his bed) was "just right".

For a long time, researchers in cosmology have been using the term Goldilocks as a metaphorical adjective to designate any remote world that might be just right for some form of life. We lucky Earthlings live in such a Goldilocks corner of the Cosmos. Maybe, elsewhere among the stars and black holes, there are other Goldilocks zones...

The NASA has just launched its Kepler satellite, designed to spend the next few years searching for Goldilocks zones inside the Milky Way.

Now, I don't wish to be a devil's advocate in any way whatsoever, because the idea of finding new forms of life appears to me as one of the most exciting human challenges that could possibly exist. But the Goldilocks metaphor disturbs me a little, for two reasons:

— We cannot exclude the possibility that the satellite might discover unfriendly places inhabited by ferocious giant Papa bears and wicked Mama bears.

— The harshest part of the children's story is that Goldilocks, having found an environment that was "just right", did not however decide to stay there. For bizarre reasons, she raced away in terror. In other words, in this otherwise delightful tale, there was no happy ending...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sisyphus road act

Long ago, shortly after my arrival at Gamone, I learned that it can be a mistake to imagine that the weather at Choranche, at a particular moment, indicates the climatic conditions I might expect to discover five minutes later on, further up or down the road, if I were to decide to leave on an automobile excursion. For example, this photo I took today reveals that everything's fine as long as you stay on the lower slopes of the Cournouze:

After reaching the church of Châtelus, though, you would suddenly find yourself driving through snow.

Yesterday, late in the afternoon, I set off for Valence. A few hundred meters down from Gamone, I was called upon to do a Sisyphus road act. Maybe certain particularly bright blog readers have guessed what that means. I simply stopped my old Citroën on the slopes, got out and carried a big rock up to a place alongside the road where it would do no harm. Whenever the temperature climbs a few degrees after a cold period, rocks thaw and can roll onto roads.

In the environment of Greek gods and goddesses, Sisyphus (depicted in the above painting by Titian) was in fact a mere mortal, but he seemed to have special high-quality links with divine beings... much like the kind of exceptional relationship that exists these days between a humble sinner such as the pope and the Holy Trinity, if you see what I mean. At an earthly level, Sisyphus was renowned for having built the city of Corinth, on the northern coast of the Peloponnese. Alas, his cherished city was conquered by Theseus... the famous Athenian whom I mention briefly in my website that allows you to stroll virtually though the labyrinth of Lucca [access]. During the conflict, Sisyphus was killed and he went directly to Hell, where he was assigned the task of moving a big boulder up to the top of a mountain, and then letting it roll down again.

Insofar as Sisyphus is condemned to repeat this task endlessly, the French writer Albert Camus seized upon this assignment as an ideal symbol of existentialist absurdity. The book by Camus on the theme of Sisyphus played a primordial role in bringing me to France.

Now, getting back to the rock I moved off the road this morning, there was a tiny but interesting consequence. At exactly the moment I got out of my car and walked towards the rock, a four-wheel-drive truck halted alongside me. It was driven by a young guy named Frédéric, who has disliked me intensely ever since I arrived in his native commune of Choranche. This animosity was brought about by a trivial incident. Every winter, ever since he was a young teenager, Frédéric has been driving the family's tractor with a snow plow, to clear the roads of Choranche after heavy snowfalls. Well, during my first winter at Gamone, Frédéric dragged his snow plow across my lawn and tore up inadvertently a drain that I had spent a day or so installing. I was furious, and I complained about this accident in a letter to the mayor. To cut a long story short, Frédéric has never talked to me since then... up until this morning, when he came upon me doing my Sisyphus act. Maybe Frédéric never imagined that an urban gentleman such as me would be capable of performing such an altruistic act as stopping my automobile in order to remove a rock on the other side of the road: that's to say, a rock he might have hit. Whatever the explanation, Frédéric smiled at me in a friendly fashion, for the first time in fifteen years, and thanked me for removing the rock.

In his evaluation of the arduous task of Sisyphus, Camus may have gone a little too far. My personal experience suggests—as I've just indicated— that rolling a rock is not necessarily a totally absurd operation.

By the way, the personal autobiography on which I've been working lately, entitled Digital Me, opens with the following extract:

At that subtle moment when a man glances back over his life, Sisyphus, returning towards his rock, contemplates the series of unrelated actions that has become his fate, created by him, combined in his memory’s eye and soon to be sealed by his death. Convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see, who knows that the night has no end, he is therefore advancing still. The rock is still rolling. I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! We always return to our burden. But Sisyphus teaches a higher fidelity, which negates gods and raises rocks. He, too, considers that all is well. This universe, henceforth without a master, appears to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, forms in itself a world. The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.
— Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.