Friday, January 29, 2010

Old phoney has finally gone

Over the last couple of decades, it was hard for a former fan such as me to believe that the goddam old guy still actually existed somewhere in flesh and blood, in a remote corner of his native land. For ages, the great US novelist J D Salinger—who happened to have been present as a soldier at Utah Beach in Normandy on D-Day—had become a recluse, who shunned contacts with the outside world.

Like countless adolescent readers throughout the planet, I was convinced that the teenager Holden Caulfield, hero of The Catcher in the Rye, was indeed my alter-ego. Fortunately, though, by the time I got around to reading this ground-breaking work of fiction, I had already left school, so my parents and former teachers escaped the unpleasant ordeal of enduring an obnoxious Caulfield imitator swaggering around and using coarse American slang. But I'm sure that younger school generations of brooding adolescent fans of Salinger filled in for me amply.

I was particularly fond of Salinger's novellas featuring the weird but wonderful siblings of the Glass family: Seymour, Buddy (the narrator), his sister Boo Boo, the twins Walt and Waker, and the two youngest children Zooey (male) and Franny (female).

Last Wednesday, when the old story-teller finally locked for the last time his secret vault of tales, it might have been a great day for Steve Jobs and his iPad, but it was definitely a bad day for Bananafish.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Smear trial

I've already mentioned a messy high-profile court trial in Paris referred to as the Clearstream affair, because of the name of a Luxembourg bank [display]. Nicolas Sarkozy saw himself as the victim of a smear campaign in which Jacques Chirac's former prime minister Dominique de Villepin seemed to have played an evil role.

Sarkozy had even committed the fault, at the start of the trial, of publicly stigmatizing DDV (as Villepin is often called) as "guilty". And he had also threatened to have the culprit hung up (metaphorically, we assume) on a butcher's meat hook. Well, the verdict was announced this morning, and DDV was cleared of all charges. Needless to say, this outcome is a significant moral blow for the president.

Sarkozy reacted by announcing that he did not intend to lodge an appeal. On the surface, that looked like a charitable decision, designed to end the feud and bring about appeasement. In Sarkozy's announcement, however, there's just one tiny mistake of a legal nature, which is quite unexpected in the mouth of a former professional barrister. In this kind of trial, French law simply does not allow the plaintiff (seeking symbolic damages) to lodge an appeal. This blunder, while of no practical significance, is surprising. Is the president flustered? Does he need a holiday break?

BREAKING NEWS: The state prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin has just announced that an appeal (emanating, not from Sarkozy, but from the prosecutor's office) will indeed be lodged. It will be interesting to see whether this extra display of judicial ferocity will have a favorable influence upon Villepin's thinly-disguised plan to be an opponent of Sarkozy in the presidential election of 2012. The former prime minister might end up being cast in a positive underdog role. Having said this, I should point out that the term "underdog" doesn't sound quite right in the case of a distinguished Gaullist gentleman and former French diplomat whose full name is Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin. Son of a senator, Villepin is not in fact a member of the French aristocracy. It was only during the 19th century that this high-sounding name was concocted out of the quite ordinary surnames of paternal and maternal ancestors. But his elegant style as an orator, his noble political principles (concerning, for example, the US invasion of Iraq) and his silvery mane of hair make him out to be a most racy underdog.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

All the way from the Sun

Old-timers of my generation still have a slight moral problem adjusting to Germany. If my parents had told me an unbelievable bedtime story (which they never did, because they weren't that kind of parents), it might have been about Auschwitz. Memories of Hitler still alarm me viscerally, and prevent me from opening up my heart spontaneously to any and all messages that might be designated as Teutonic. Having said that, I must talk of today. It goes without saying that we can now listen—we must listen—to sounds that are infinitely removed ("all the way from the Sun") from the Nazi era. The Scorpions, for example:

The pure Germanic voice (in English!) of their vocalist Klaus Meine is surely that of Goethe, before the Fall. He might be Young Werther. In any case, Klaus Meine and his Scorpions are surely Young Europe. And they're about to set out on a final world tour.

Latest creation

In some twenty minutes, Apple founder Steve Jobs will unveil the company's latest creation, which has been the subject of broad and intense speculations over the last few months. Everything leads us to expect the announcement of a new product midway between an iPhone and a portable Mac.

There are still certain dull journalists and commentators who have not yet grasped the profound sense of the Apple phenomenon. They refer to Apple buzz as "hype", and they imagine that people who get excited about forthcoming new products are mere groupies or Apple addicts. In fact, this excitement stems from an observed fact: Apple products have a habit of being revolutionary.

Back at the beginning of the '80s, as a freelance journalist in Paris, I received an invitation from Jean-Louis Gassée to test a product from his newly-created company, Apple France. It was an Apple II computer. Jean-Louis told me: "William, this machine is going to change your life." Insofar as I was already enraptured by computers of all kinds (having started my professional career as an IBM programmer in Sydney in 1957), I half-believed Jean-Louis. Today, retrospectively, I can believe him totally. Apple products have indeed changed my life.

People are excited about Apple announcements for the simple reason that they suspect that new products, about to be seen, could indeed change their lives in significant ways. We're not necessarily talking about profound changes of the philosophical kind experienced when you read a book by Richard Dawkins, for example. Personally, though, I'm convinced that the two kinds of changes—the Dawkins revolution and the Apple revolution—are not actually as remote from one another as might be imagined. In both contexts, there's the same kind of spirit of change in the air.

Now, let's see what Steve Jobs is about to offer us...

BREAKING NEWS: So much more intimate than a laptop:


I find this whole thing absolutely fabulous. The live media coverage (audio/text only, unfortunately) recalls the arrival of man on the Moon. Magnificent!

"Holding the Internet in your hands,
it's an incredible experience!"

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Little gods

I've been reading a fine book, god is not Great, written by Christopher Hitchens and published some three years ago, at roughly the same time as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Respecting the author's choice, I've reproduced the title with a small g at the beginning. In fact, Hitchens might have used a plural title, gods are not Great, since his explanations of "how religion poisons everything" could be applied equally well to Judaism's Yahveh, Christianity's God or Islam's Allah. No matter which god you happen to have got involved with, the poison is equally ubiquitous and noxious, and the only healthy antidote is atheism. In fact, the latter medicine is not at all nasty, particularly when it's dissolved in a large volume of science, poetry, art and love of all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small (including one's fellow humans).

Hitchens is engaged upon exactly the same battlefield as Dawkins, and he's an equally formidable warrior, but I had the impression that the journalist and the professor are probably not fighting side-by-side in the same battalion. Both men are products of England's great Oxbridge system, and they both write brilliantly. The vast scientific erudition of Dawkins causes him to be seen inevitably as a kind of refined donnish gentleman, never too far away from his cherished ivory tower. Hitchens, on the other hand, comes across as a more worldly chap, who has rubbed up against all sorts of personalities and ordinary people, while never suffering fools gladly (as St Paul put it).

He paints a particularly black portrait of individuals who were notorious for having a dark religious side. This list includes the Biblical personage known as Abraham (of whom Hitchens talks, surprisingly, as if he really existed), John Calvin (described as one of the "really extreme religious totalitarians", and "a sadist and torturer and killer"), Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism), Pope Pius XII (who sent an "evil and fatuous message" to Hitler in 1939), Mother Teresa (whose claims to sainthood would appear to be based upon a false "miracle"), the Dalai Lama (who "tells us that you can visit a prostitute as long as someone else pays her"), the US preacher Billy Graham ("whose record of opportunism and anti-Semitism is in itself a minor national disgrace") and the new pope Joseph Ratzinger ("who recently attracted Catholic youths to a festival by offering a certain 'remission of sin' to those who attended"), etc. The handful of famous figures who emerge unscathed by the wrath of Hitchens (whose Twitter name is hitchbitch) have the allure of atheistic angels or saints, if such creatures could be deemed possible. I was thrilled to discover that the following six members of this elite have always counted among my personal intellectual heroes: Socrates, William of Ockham, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King and Bertrand Russell.

Above all, the literary voice of Christopher Hitchens is, not only invigorating, but indeed cathartic. He's truly a "no bullshit" writer, who generally has firsthand knowledge of the topics he tackles. I find it reassuring to hear that this leftist polemicist (a naturalized American since 2007) has gone to the trouble of actually visiting places such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Anniversary date: January 26

Today is the 70th anniversary of the marriage of my parents, King Mepham Skyvington [1917-1978] and Enid Kathleen Walker [1918-2003]. Their marriage was celebrated on 26 January 1940 (in the middle of the period in Europe known as the phoney war) in the Anglican cathedral of Grafton (New South Wales, Australia). As for me, I was born eight months later, on 24 September 1940.

A quarter of a century ago, my grandfather Ernest William Skyvington [1891-1985] died on this same day, 26 January 1985.

In a more recent domain, today is the 16th anniversary of my purchase of the Gamone property at Choranche. On 26 January 1994, the former owner, Marcel Gauthier, sold me his place through a transaction drawn up by the notary François Guiliani at Saint-Marcellin.

Today is also, of course, the 222nd anniversary of the arrival in Sydney Harbour of the eleven vessels known as the First Fleet, under the command of Arthur Phillip. Aborigines consider that this anniversary marks the sad moment when their ancestral land was taken out of their hands forever by intruders from the other side of the planet Earth.

Let us hope that, one day, new events will replace the present anniversary.

A Republic of Australia with a new flag, a new national day, an appropriate relationship with the indigenous people of the continent, and a renewed spirit of audacity!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Handmade French ovenware

In my article of 7 November 2009 entitled Memorable cassoulet [display], I may have misled readers at the level of the illustration. It wasn't a photo of a cassoulet that I myself had actually prepared, but rather an image that accompanied the cassoulet recipe I had found on the web. If I refrained from showing you a photo of my own cassoulet, at the moment I wrote that blog, this was mainly because my production was stored away in the freezer in three or four Pyrex dishes.

The photo I borrowed was excellent in that it shows clearly the various ingredients: beans in a light tomato sauce, fragments of pork ribs, Toulouse sausages and pieces of duck confit. [Click here for an explanation of the latter product. If, instead of paying a fortune for duck confit in cans, you wish to learn from a US website how to prepare it yourself, then click here.] But that photo was slightly misleading, too, for a reason I shall now explain. The final stage in the preparation of a dish of casssoulet, just prior to its being served, consists of smothering it in bread crumbs and baking it until the sauce starts to bubble up through the crust. In other words, when the dish of cassoulet is placed upon the dining table, it's not particularly photogenic, since you can't really see any of its ingredients, which remain hidden beneath the brown crust of bread crumbs.

There's yet another reason why I preferred to borrow that photo I found on the web. It's almost sacrilegious to present diners with a cassoulet that is not served up in the familiar brown ceramic earthenware dish used traditionally down in Gascony. Here in the Dauphiné, I was totally incapable of finding this kind of cooking dish in supermarkets or crockery shops. It was only yesterday, after having used the web to track down a producer of ovenware, that I finally obtained several beautiful specimens of handmade dishes for cassoulet.

The pottery firm Digoin, located in Burgundy, dates from 1875... but they've never got around to dealing directly with retail customers. Besides, their French website [display] remains rather rudimentary. Here's a presentation of some of their typical earthenware products:

One of their specialties is this splendid old-fashioned vinegar jug:

Finally, I had to order my Digoin cassoulet dishes through a crockery shop in Saint-Marcellin. The amazing thing is that the beautiful handmade cassoulet dishes (each of which comes in its own unique shades of brown) were not particularly expensive: less than ten euros each. I'm amazed and thrilled to discover that ancient manufacturers of this kind still exist in the modern world.

Now, having said all this, I must point out that I'm still not ready to show you a photo of a steaming Digoin dish of Gamone cassoulet. The reason, this time, is that cassoulet is simply not on my personal menu for the next few days, since my refrigerator is stocked with lots of fresh food that I must eat before starting to take stuff out of my freezer. Besides, as you might have gathered, a dish such as cassoulet—combining beans, sausages, pork and duck—is primarily a tasty and tempting source of calories to be consumed (washed down with red Bordeaux) when it's freezing outside. Today, the weather at Gamone is quite mild: not nearly chilly enough for cassoulet.

Latest avian construction

Alongside my bird-house, I've just erected a bird-post, designed to carry three balls of fat and seeds at a height that Sophia cannot attain.

Both the bird-house and the bird-pole are both becoming popular places for mésanges [tits].

Now, if you want to see what my compatriots think of the perfectly normal English term tit, to designate birds of the Paridae family, use Google with the words "Australia tits".

Last night, there was a small New Year ceremony at the town hall of Choranche, which enabled residents to obtain the latest news about the risks of rocks rolling down from Mount Baret. I asked Bernard Pérazio, the locally-elected regional councilor, whether a project for a tunnel beneath the Trois Châteaux promontory above Pont-en-Royans was a purely science-fiction affair. First, he informed me (surprisingly, needless to say) that his only recollection of such a project was a vague line that somebody had once traced on a local map, which he had seen furtively many years ago. In other words, our man in charge of all past, present and future civil-engineering projects in the region was apparently unaware that such a project might be feasible. Nevertheless, he answered me precisely: "William, from a technical viewpoint, the project you evoke is not at all science fiction. But it soon becomes science fiction... from a financial viewpoint." Fair enough. That was better than hearing him say that I didn't know what I was talking about. I ventured a comment concerning the current situation: "Bernard, if we had a short tunnel from the other side of Pont-en-Royans through to Choranche, the current problem due to rocks rolling down from the summit of Baret would not bother anybody." Bernard's instantaneous reaction proves that he's totally obsessed by the threat of falling rocks. "We would soon have rocks rolling down from the Trois Châteaux onto automobiles emerging from your tunnel." I didn't bother trying to get into any further discussion with Bernard, who's obviously in a constant state of anguish A few minutes earlier on, he had admitted, in front of us all: "Whenever my phone rings during the night, I'm always afraid that it's somebody who's about to inform me of yet another rockfall."

At the end of the speeches, we all gut stuck into delicious traditional Epiphany tarts, made with ground almonds. They were accompanied by sparkling white wine [called Clairette] from the town of Die [pronounced dee], down on the edge of the Provençal Drôme region. I was amused to find that Monica, the ex-wife of a former mayor of Choranche, was running around collecting all the crumbs from the Epiphany tarts. "It's for my mésanges. Throughout winter, I have to feed about fifty of them in my garden." I was almost jealous, but I didn't say so. At Gamone, at any one time, I never have more than half-a-dozen mésanges in my garden. The difference, I think, is that Monica's garden lies just alongside the River Bourne, with dense woods on the far side. So, it's an attractive setting for tiny winged visitors... including bats, apparently. Maybe, though, I might look into the idea of baking Epiphany tarts for my bird-house.

Unwitting crusaders

If you're thinking about using a gun to commit a murder, and you need some inspirational words to accompany the deed, you only have to dig around in the Bible and you'll surely find everything you need. The cultivated killer played superbly by Samuel L Jackson in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction had the habit of calling upon the godly exclamations of the prophet Ezekiel (submerged in a sauce of f-words) to preface his executions.

US soldiers in Afghanistan were surprised to learn that mysterious letters and numbers inscribed on the gunsights of their personal combat weapons were in fact references to passages of the Bible.

In the above photo, for example, the reference JN 8:12 guides the soldier to the gospel of John, chapter 8, verse 12, in which Jesus says: "I am the light of the world. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." An observer must imagine, of course, that the light of life is reserved for the guy squeezing the trigger, not for the unfortunate fellow at the other end of the bullet's trajectory. Besides, you get a certain idea of the sense of the biblical quote if you replace the word "light" by "sight" (short for gunsight), and "walk" by "fire". And maybe the final expression, "light of life", should be replaced by "sight of death".

These gunsights, manufactured by a family company named Trijicon [click the logo to visit their website] based in Michigan, were supplied to US, British, Australian and New Zealand troops fighting in Afghanistan. Funnily enough, not even their superiors seemed to be aware (so they say) that these soldiers were unwitting latter-day crusaders, whose arms were protected symbolically by the fighting words of a Christian god.

Journalists are already referring to weapons bearing such references as "Jesus guns". One US official even compared this affair with the trivial but notorious phenomenon I mentioned in my article of 28 December 2009 entitled In God we don't trust [display].

Why can't Americans leave God alone (along with the ungodly) and get on with their business?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Beautiful burqas

Maybe burqas might be nicer if they came in an assortment of different colors, like those delicious French cookies called macaroons, made of egg whites and ground almonds.

Dumb cops

Just in case certain readers of Antipodes have been busy navigating their space ships in remote corners of the galaxy over the last few days, preventing them from keeping up with the latest fantastic news on the planet Earth, here's a summary of a recent hilarious fiasco within the most powerful and advanced nation in the world.

As everybody knows, the great US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been getting ready to pounce upon one of America's most notorious public enemies: Osama bin Laden. Click the FBI seal to access the list of their most wanted fugitives, where bin Laden appears in third position.

Back in the days when an authentic flesh-and-blood bin Laden had the habit of posing in person to get his photo taken, he looked like this. But that was long ago. For years now, like a movie celebrity or a princess chased by paperazzi, he has made a point of avoiding photographers. During this time, he has no doubt aged, and we would like to have an idea of what he looks like today. Consequently, FBI image specialists have exploited high-tech equipment to produce the following plausible portraits of present-day bin Laden... with and without a beard.

Nice work. It's amazing to see the miracles that can be achieved when skilled US specialists use nec plus ultra state-of-the-art electronic devices capable of artificially aging the image of a fugitive who has disappeared from the daily scene. The only problem is that this resuscitated bin Laden appears to have an identical twin, as revealed in the following exhibit:

This bold fellow who dares to usurp the appearance of Osama bin Laden is a Spanish politician, Gaspar Llamazares, the former leader of Spain's United Left communist party and the caucus spokesman in the Spanish parliament. Not surprisingly, he wasn't too happy to find his face on the FBI's latest wanted-dead-or-alive poster. Besides, the Spaniard reacted in a strange unsportsmanlike way to this masterpiece by America's cutting-edge cops: "Bin Laden's safety is not threatened by this, but mine certainly is." Really, how dumb can you get?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Snake oil

I've always suspected that one of the reasons why certain disgruntled customers complain that snake oil doesn't cure all their ills, as it's supposed to do, is that they simply forget to obey the all-important instructions on the label: Shake well before use! Applying a reputable brand of snake oil without having shaken the bottle vigorously for a sufficiently long period of time would be as silly as swallowing a suppository instead of inserting it into an appropriate orifice... or vice versa in the case of an aspirin for a headache. I think it was Confucius, or one of those wise old guys, who put it nicely in his famous dictum about not stuffing pearls up the rear end of swine, or something like that.

I've just heard that, on the final day of January, in the UK, there'll be a massive happening that's as potentially dangerous, for each of the 300 participants, as it would have been to drop in for a cocktail and salted peanuts with Jim Jones at the Peoples Temple in Guyana back in 1978. The event that's planned at 10.23 am on January 30th is a little like a cross between Russian roulette and a nation-wide rave party. Let me give you the ghastly details of what all these crazy folk plan to do. All together, at exactly the same instant, they're going to stage a mass homeopathic overdose session. In other words, they plan to gulp down, deliberately, huge quantities of homeopathic products: enough milligrams to cure a horse of herpes.

And why are they doing this? Well, in a nutshell: simply to let the world know whether or not they can survive this terrible ordeal. Statistically, some of the participants will have indigestion or back aches at the start of the experiment, whereas others are likely to be constipated or maybe suffering from flatulence. Well, believe it or not, they don't even care whether this massive homeopathic treatment will cure them or not. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. Who knows? Maybe there'll be miraculous switch-over cases in which a fellow who hasn't achieved anything whatsoever on the throne for at least a week will suddenly find himself gurgling melodies like the Paris Pétomane. [If ever you've never heard of the latter gentleman, click here to obtain information about him on Wikipedia.] As I said, the daring participants have nothing to win or lose. They're participating altruistically in this operation for science alone, like Louis Pasteur inoculating himself against rabies. [Did he really do that? I'm not sure he did. Maybe I'm confusing him with another hero. But it sounds like a nice idea, whether or not it's a fact.] Through the selfless participation of these 300 brave souls in this operation, future researchers will have access to vital raw data revealing what happens when a group of volunteers receives a massive overdose of homeopathic snake oil. In any case, I suggest that it would be fitting if we onlookers were to accompany them, in this ordeal, with our prayers.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sophia's mother

Whenever I find myself reminiscing seriously with Sophia about personal matters, I take pleasure in reminding my dog that, once upon a time, I was a close friend of her dear mother Laïka. This reddish animal of no obvious race, who belonged to my neighbor's daughter Anne-Sophie, was truly the dearest dog I could have ever imagined. I got to know her well, as a visitor and intermittent well-fed guest at Gamone, long before the birth of Sophia. There's a simple anecdote that I adore. When Anne-Marie got married, I was invited to the civil ceremony on a nice spring morning up in the village of Presles. When I arrived, guests were strolling around on the village square, waiting for the mayoress of Presles to call us in to the tiny town hall. Suddenly, I received a thump in the back, as if I had been hit by a football. It was the paws of my friend Laïka, who had recognized me in the crowd, and wanted to welcome me to her mistress's marriage.

Shortly after Laïka's puppy was born, Anne-Sophie phoned me to announce that they had a dog for me. It was a total surprise for me, but Anne-Sophie was aware of my friendship with Laïka, and she had decided unilaterally that I should receive one of Laïka's puppies.

I chose the name Sophia, not because of Anne-Sophie, but because it has always been—in my mind and in my ears—the sweetest Greek word that exists: wisdom as in philosophy (literally, the love of knowledge).

No sooner had I received my puppy than Anne-Sophie ran into some kind of a personal problem, and she asked me to take care of Laïka for a couple of weeks. So, Sophia's earliest days at Gamone were spent in the reassuring presence of her mother.

Finally, Laïka left us, and my puppy became the unique mistress of Gamone. Later, Sophia herself had a splendid daughter, named Gamone, who lives with Christine in Brittany... where she has received Sophia's old kennel (seen above). So, I've been acquainted with a beautiful dynasty of three females: Laïka, Sophia and Gamone.

Like God, the G-spot doesn't exist

My son François found that this cover of the excellent French weekly Charlie Hebdo, with a drawing by Charb, brings to mind my article entitled Fashion lexicon [display]:

[Click the drawing to visit the French website of Charlie Hebdo.]

Can we talk of anything else?

The latest news from Haïti evokes a third of a million homeless and starving. At the present moment, in our smart little blogs, can we talk of anything else?

Is there anything else to talk about, at this instant in 21st-century time, when countless human sisters and brothers are lingering over there in Haïti, in destitution, pain, hunger and appalling helplessness?

A news item that shocked me greatly mentioned local people using human corpses to build barricades against an unidentified enemy.

I have a terrible feeling that we Westerners are living comfortably through a period comparable to the time when Hitler was burning masses of human bodies just down the road, and refined neighbors carried on talking about nice things to avoid admitting that their delicate nostrils detected the stench, or that their delicate minds detected unspeakable evil.

The only way out of this calamity will consist of taking that entire land under the guardianship of certain wealthy nations. But which countries will in fact be prepared to assume this role? And under the guidance of what authority? Needless to say, these future would-be tutors must not be mere scavengers, gourmands of Caribbean carrion.

Meanwhile, as I said: Can we indeed talk decently of anything else?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Caribbean tragedy

My humble Antipodes blog can do nothing, of course, to alleviate the suffering of the survivors of the Haïti tragedy. Besides, the purpose of such a blog is not to attempt to solve problems of any kind whatsoever, but merely to engage in the apparently futile preoccupation of recording one's fuzzy impressions of what seems to be happening in the Cosmos, both at home and afar. And what has happened in Haïti is a huge tragedy that is making a profound emotional impact—through contemporary communications channels, including the Internet—upon observers throughout the planet. An emotional impact is one thing, though, but we remain frustrated through our incapacity to be anything more than passive observers. TV spectators in many nations, seeing images of aircraft arriving at Port-au-Prince (landing under manual control, since the airport's infrastructure no longer exists), admire surely the decisions of their respective governments to fly in aid and professional helpers. Meanwhile, the situation evokes a single impression: confusion.

It is the inevitable confusion of a nation whose thinking and everyday actions have never been geared to handling predicaments of any human kind, let alone natural catastrophes. It is frightening to learn, on this evening's TV news, that one of the countless buildings destroyed by the earthquake was the central prison, and that all its former inmates are henceforth roaming the stricken countryside. In fact, even before the news about these escapees, nations flying in aid have been obliged to envisage comprehensive security systems to protect their operations and their operators. Already, in news reports, the terrible theme of looting has appeared.

We imagine naively that Man can generally collaborate with Nature, more or less, for the betterment of human society. But the situation becomes terribly tough when the enemy is suddenly both unleashed Nature and criminal Man. For once, global warming brought about by human industry is totally innocent.

Supply store raided

After being informed by Tineke and Serge that their wild birds seem to prefer a straight diet of sunflower seeds (rather than the mixture of many seed varieties sold in supermarkets), I adopted that solution for my bird house.

Inside, there's an ample stock of sunflower seeds, while balls of fat and seeds hang on nails around the perimeter of the structure. For the birds, it has become a popular supply store. Funnily, visitors often tend to wait their turn to enter the store. When a rapid flyover detects the presence of an unidentified bird inside the store, a new visitor often perches in the branches of the little tree seen in the lower lefthand corner of the photo. The store has front and rear doors. So, as soon as a bird leaves from one door, another bird enters through the other door.

Early last night, in the darkness, an unexpected intruder raided the birds' store, consuming two balls of fat and seeds. Fortunately, I was able to identify the raider as she was strolling back towards her warm wicker basket in the kitchen, grasping a third ball in her snout, in anticipation of a late-evening supper.

It remains a mystery whether Sophia actually ate the seeds along with the tasty (unidentified) fat, or whether she spat them out, one by one. In any case, my rose pergola has also become a popular meeting-place for birds. So, that would be an ideal dog-proof place to suspend a new stock of balls.

Lance Armstrong's team

This is an amusing presentation of Lance Armstrong's new RadioShack team:

Lance has just arrived in South Australia to start preparing for the forthcoming Tour Down Under. He's constantly active in the Twitter arena, where his address is lancearmstrong.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Religious no longer a protected class

I've just finished reading a fine book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, written some fifteen years ago by the US philosopher Daniel Dennett. Last year, I had encountered an extract of this work in The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins.

A short article by Dennett, entitled Religious no longer a protected class, has just appeared in The Washington Post [display]. He sums up his theme as follows: "Activities that would be condemned by all if they were not cloaked in the protective mantle of religion are beginning to be subjected to proper scrutiny." Dennett points out the existence of a "double standard that exempts religious activities from almost all standards of accountability", and he insists that it be dismantled immediately. He compares the violence done in the name of religion to "crimes of avarice", and he looks forward to the day when clergy who are "telling pious lies to trusting children" and "making their living off unsupported claims of miracle cures and the efficacy of prayer" might be convicted of fraud.

Dawkins has commented: "What an utterly splendid piece by Dan."

Fashion lexicon

In France, certain mediocre journalists throw around technical terms from the clothing world without going to the trouble of making sure that their language is correct. Concerning garments that have recently been at the heart of lengthy discussions here in France, the following images indicate clearly the difference between a niqab and a burqa:

As you can see, a niqab is a far more revealing robe than a burqa, in that outsiders can actually see the wearer's eyes and distinguish vaguely the shape of her skull. Now, the reason I've brought up this fascinating subject is that I'm intrigued by an enigma that Christians might describe as Byzantine:

If a naked female were to drape herself in a see-through burqa (or niqab, for that matter) and stroll down the Champs-Elysées, should she be hailed as a militant feminist or arrested for indecent exposure?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dawkins interviewed by Riz Khan

There's a nice and intelligent two-part interview of Richard Dawkins by Riz Khan on Al Jazeera English.

I found this splendid graphic on the Dawkins website:

A devil's advocate might point out that the message of the graphic works in both directions. Reading it from right to left, we might imagine an atheistic researcher in molecular biology who's suddenly transmogrified (I like that verb) by the pope's latest homily. He rips off his white lab coat and dashes crazily in the direction of the nearest store that sells Catholic supplies, so he can purchase a brand-new set of Rosary beads. Then he whips out his iPhone with the aim of finding the closest church. He arrives, panting, on the threshold of a lovely old stone edifice, where a priest rushes out magically to welcome him...

Like my blogger friend Badger [display], I still have the heart of a child. I love far-fetched fairy tales... particularly when it's me who invents them.

Irish folk

And here's to you, Mrs Robinson.
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
Woah, woah, woah.
God bless you please, Mrs Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray.
Hey hey hey. Hey hey hey.

BREAKING NEWS: I knew I wouldn't be particularly original in associating the famous song by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel with today's tale of the Irish couple. In Ulster, over the last week, downloads of this song have apparently shot up by a factor of twelve. Other joyful fallout from this affair is the sudden fame of Mrs Robinson's 21-year-old friend Kirk McCambley, who has become a new gay icon in the UK. Gay, this youthful gigolo? No, not at all. The reasons for his fame are a little more subtle. Iris Robinson had become an arch-enemy of the gay community when she declared on the BBC in 2008 that homosexuality was an "abomination", and that she knew of gay men who had been successfully transformed into heteros through medical therapy. Today, the gay community sees poetic justice in the fact that Mrs Robinson has been metaphorically screwed by Pretty Boy Kirk.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Donkeys in the snow

With a thick blanket of snow covering the slopes for the last two days, my donkeys Moshé (right, with a beige head) and Mandrin (left, with a gray head) were no doubt starting to get a bit hungry. But they're perfectly capable of scraping away the snow with their hoofs and then burrowing in with their snouts to find good green grass.

They nevertheless appreciate a bit of hay. Here, they're standing with their hind legs on a sloped embankment, which distorts the shape of their bodies. Seen from behind, they're both about twice as fat as any self-respecting donkey should be... so, I'm not really worried about the possibility of their being undernourished because of the snow.

They're Provençal donkeys, which were used by shepherds during the seasonal migration of their sheep to summer pastures up on the slopes. Judging from their hairy mammoth look, I reckon that the ancestors of these delightful beasts knew a thing or two about wintry conditions.

In this photo, you can make out the dark cross on Moshé's back. When I purchased my six-months-old friend in 1994, the farmer who had bred him told me that my donkey was marked with this cross because he belonged to the same race as the animal that had carried Jesus into the Holy City on Palm Sunday. It's the donkey equivalent—you might say—of the stigmata. So, to respect the noble religious ancestry of my baby beast, I named him Moshé (Hebrew for Moses). Since then, I've discovered that all Provençal donkeys have a dark cross on their back. They form a vast ecclesiastic order, like the White Monks. But I don't know whether all these blessed donkeys have remained pious believers.


When you're talking about shirts and sweaters, the French noun col means collar. For a French bartender drawing beer from a tap, the col is the head that must appear at the top of the glass. For somebody serving wine, the col is the neck of the bottle. For a woman giving birth, the col of her uterus, through which her baby will encounter the world, is the narrow necklike part of her anatomy known in English as the cervix. So, col is a word that reappears in all kinds of contexts.

For people who live in mountainous regions, a col is a gap in the cliffs that can often be used as a pass enabling animals and humans to move from one valley to another. From my house, I can see two such mountain passes. To the north, the Col de Toutes Aures—literally, the "pass in several directions"—is an intersection of four roads on the territory of Choranche, one of which leads up from the vicinity of my house, while another takes you down into the valley at the delightful neighboring village (with a small castle) of St-André-en-Royans. To the east, on the other side of the Bourne, the Col de Mézelier separates the two mountains that I see from my house: the Cournouze and the Baret.

The reason I'm talking about nearby mountain passes is that the mayor of Choranche, Bernard Bourne, dropped in at Gamone a couple of days ago to give me news about the road down to Pont-en-Royans, which remains closed because of threatening rocks up on the slopes of Mount Baret. In particular, he informed me that certain people are contemplating a project for opening up a road that would enable the residents of Choranche and Châtelus to reach the valley through the Col de Mézelier. Now, that idea pleases me, not only for practical reasons, but because of the historical dimension of this itinerary. That was the route that enabled the Chartreux monks to travel to and from their vineyards at Choranche.

Their monastery of Val Sainte-Marie was located a dozen or so kilometers to the south of Choranche, at Bouvante in the Drôme, just beyond St-Jean-en-Royans. In 1543, they purchased a property at the Clos de Salomon (now known by two names: the Chartreux or Choranche-les-Bains), a few hundred meters away from Gamone. Their building is still standing today:

The track between le Val Sainte-Marie and their vineyards at the Clos de Salomon was known, for centuries, as the Path of the Chartreux, and it went over the Mézelier mountain pass. The following diagram indicates the general layout of this area:

In this diagram, I've only indicated the presence of the two most prominent mountains: Baret and the Cournouze. But readers must realize that most of the white area in this diagram (which is not drawn to scale) is a maze of cliffs and steep mountain slopes, with the two rivers flowing down from the right to the left. For the last century or so, a road has existed between Choranche and the region in which the Val Sainte-Marie monastery (now in ruins) was located. An observer, today, finds it difficult to understand why the monks didn't simply skirt Pont-en-Royans, to the left of the Baret, on their way to the Clos de Salomon. We are so accustomed to the modern road that we easily forget that this itinerary was unthinkable at the time of the monks. Arriving from the south, the monks would have had no problem in coaxing their mules across the Vernaison, a little further upstream from where today's road crosses that river. But, from that point, they would have found it impossible to climb up towards the Picard Bridge that leads out of Pont-en-Royans. Instead, they made their way up to the Col de Mézelier. After moving through the pass, it's quite likely that they crossed the shallow waters of the Bourne in the vicinity of the present-day Rouillard Bridge, before continuing their journey eastwards to the Clos de Salomon.

Today, this itinerary is once again "unthinkable", temporarily... because of the danger of rocks in the section of the road that lies between the two bridges over the Bourne. And that's why I'm thrilled by the idea that the Path of the Chartreux, through Mézelier, might be opened up for modern vehicles.

POST-SCRIPTUM: Readers in faraway lands such as the USA and Australia are likely to find the above details quite boring. I ask them to realize that I'm talking of primordial preoccupations for the residents of this secluded valley. So, please forgive me for being parochial.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Snow gauge

My marble-topped café tables make a perfect snow gauge for Gamone.

The thickness of the snow layer, this afternoon, was 30 centimeters.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Making a movie about a poet

For ages, I've imagined the idea of creating a movie adaptation of an enigmatic and beautiful book by Rainer Maria Rilke with a curious title: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. In my article of 19 June 2009 entitled Work in progress [display], I described my project in this domain. Since the end of summer, when I finally got around to completing a French-language movie script, I have imagined naively that I would rapidly encounter individuals who would be delighted to collaborate with me on this project, or to at least encourage me in various ways. Sadly, this has not been the case. Certainly, Christine has helped me greatly with the technical task of producing decent French, but she remains essentially opposed, I believe (for reasons that I can vaguely fathom), to the very idea that Rilke's novel should or could be brought to the screen.

I was reassured to learn that the New Zealand Academy Award winning cinéaste Jane Campion has created a movie about the English poet John Keats [1795-1821].

Here's the trailer:

Jane Campion explained to a journalist: "When I was blocked by such-and-such a situation, I asked my fifteen-year-old daughter Alice for advice. She is sensitive and intelligent, and she's not afraid of expressing her emotions and her sentiments. That spontaneity, that freshness and that naturalness were most useful for me."

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to develop my script on Malte in such a sympathetic environment. And yet I'm persuaded that Rilke and his hero Malte are vastly more interesting personages than Keats, particularly from a cinematographic viewpoint. I remain confident. We'll see...