Friday, December 31, 2010

Highway called Pacific

In Australia, the major coastal route between Sydney and Brisbane has always been known as the Pacific Highway. As a youth, I used to ride my bicycle along this highway in the vicinity of Grafton. Maybe, these days, it should be nicknamed the RIP (Rest-in-Pacific) Highway, because the antiquated state of this old road has transformed it into a killing field.

Seated comfortably and safely in front of my computer screen in my bedroom at Gamone, I can call upon the amazing Google Maps tool to give me a realistic idea of what it must feel like to be driving along this so-called "highway" in the vicinity, say, of Tintenbar, near Ballina.

In Australia, people drive, of course (because our dominant forefathers were English), on the left-hand side of the road. The typical section of the road seen in the photo is pleasant enough, but it's a bit frightening to see that there's a single lane on that curved descent, and that the road is only visible for a couple of hundred meters.

Let's imagine that the vehicle you're driving looks like this:

That's what they refer to, in Australia, as a B-double tanker. There are lots of them on Australian roads, and a vehicle of this type can carry some 40,000 liters of fuel.

A few days ago, around noon, a tanker of this kind was hurtling along the highway, heading south, in the vicinity of Tintenbar. Imagine that you're sitting in the passenger's seat as the driver dives into that curved descent shown in the top photo. A witness says he heard the vehicle hitting the guard rail. Within a few seconds, the tanker crossed the road and burst into flames that shot 30 meters into the sky.

Hours later, after the intervention of a hundred fire fighters, fuel was still burning in the vicinity of the accident. Police suspected that the driver had disappeared in the holocaust.

Normally, there's more than enough mineral wealth in Australia to supply the nation with superb modern highways, which would surely reduce the likelihood of spectacular accidents of this kind. But the use of that mineral wealth to build decent roads for the people is a political eventuality that is not likely to arise for some time to come. Waiting for the revolution…

ADDENDUM: No sooner had I written that last word, revolution, than I found it highlighted in an amusing and perspicacious Bill Bleak cartoon [display]. Clearly, I'm not the only Australian observer who imagines that the nation needs to break out, politically, of a system of vicious circles. Recently, here in France, our celebrated minister of the Economy, Christine Lagarde, said that Sarkozy's new government was "totally revolutionary", because of its accent on "solidity and professionalism". She went on to explain, bizarrely, that the principle of a revolution consists of turning through a complete circle of 360°. In the great novel entitled The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi, 11th Prince of Lampedusa [1896-1957], the hero refers to the ongoing Italian "revolution" in the following terms: "If we want things to remain as they've always been, then everything will have to change." Maybe that's not a bad definition for the kind of revolution I have in mind in the context of my native land.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Snow's still here

My daughter Emmanuelle would be arriving by train at Valence at 12.30. At 11 o'clock in the morning, I was still putting snow tires on the Citroën and using the relatively warm water from my spring to melt the ice where the car had been stuck for several days. Finally, I managed to drive slowly down the icy road and get to Valence more-or-less on time.

Back at Gamone, I noticed that my car had ice stalactites attached to the body. My daughter met up with Fitzroy. After lunch, Sylvie and William turned up here, to see how the horses were getting along.

They were accompanied by Fitzroy's sister, mother and grandmother. (With all four black-and-white Collies darting around in the snow, I found it hard to distinguish who was who.) So, within an hour or so of her arrival at Gamone, my daughter had met up with everybody. Also, it was the first time ever that Emmanuelle had seen the property covered in snow.

The dogs were so excited (animated above all by Fitzroy) that they appeared at times to be on the brink of getting involved in a giant brawl. At one stage, Fitzroy and his sister got stuck into one another. There was a marvelous moment when Sophia stepped in and pushed back Fitzroy, as if she were reprimanding him for fighting with his sister.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Winter guests at Gamone

Since Xmas eve, my donkeys are sharing their paddock and their hay with William's two horses. If ever there were any antagonism between the animals, I had planned to put the horses in an independent paddock, with their own hay. But everything seems to be going smoothly. And why not? The donkeys and the horses are like the Denisovans and the Melanesians. They appreciate company.

Prehistoric encounters

Well before my time, the high school in my native town of Grafton (New South Wales, Australia) was associated with two youths who went on to become world-renowned scholars in their respective domains.

In 1875, 18-year-old Havelock Ellis left his native London aboard a ship—captained by his father—bound for New South Wales. In spite of his lack of teaching credentials, he succeeded in convincing a grammar school in Grafton to hire him as a master. Soon after, the school's headmaster died, and Ellis inherited his job, which he managed to keep for a year... up until his incompetency became blatant.

Back in England, he studied medicine, and ended up becoming a world pioneer in a novel domain: sexology. I might point out that, during my time as a student in Grafton, I don't recall ever hearing of this illustrious gentleman. Retrospectively, I can understand why. In Grafton at the time I attended the high school, no teacher would have ever dared to utter a word such as "sexology". Ignorance was bliss, and the expression "carnal knowledge" designated a crime for which one of my friends (a young cyclist, accused of a brief encounter with a consenting under-age girl) got sent to jail. In another incident, a Grafton shopkeeper was imprisoned for practicing the kind of relationship that Havelock Ellis had analyzed in his first celebrated treatise: homosexuality.

As his given name suggests, Grafton Elliot Smith was born in my future native town in 1871, and he went to school there (where his English-born father was the headmaster) up until the age of 12. He studied medicine at the University of Sydney, and was a resident at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He specialized in brain anatomy, and went on to become a distinguished professor of anatomy in the UK. In an unexpected career switch, he turned to prehistoric anthropology, and even wrote a book on the pharaoh Tutankhamun. Unfortunately, the eminent scholar made the mistake of being bamboozled by a "discovery" that turned out to be a notorious hoax.

That affair had a distinctly negative effect upon the reputation of Sir Grafton Elliot Smith. His so-called diffusionist theories on the spread of human culture had also finally gone out of fashion. Before his prestige paled, Smith had influenced a fellow-Australian scholar who would go on to make a gigantic discovery in paleontology.

Raymond Dart was born in Brisbane in 1893, and he studied medicine at the University of Sydney, where he was a resident of Saint Andrew's College. (I happened to spend 1956 at that college.) In much the same way as Grafton Elliot Smith, Raymond Dart started to get interested in paleontology. In 1924, he discovered an extraordinary skull of a three-year-old child at a place named Taung in South Africa. Around its human-like eye sockets, the skull bore beak marks, suggesting that the Taung Child had been devoured by an eagle. This upright-walking creature had lived 2.5 million years ago, but its brain was as small as that of a modern chimpanzee.

Raymond Dart decided that this creature—part simian, part human—deserved a new genus name. Unfortunately, he invented a clumsy term: Australopithecus, which means "southern ape-man". So, the official name of the Taung Child was Australopithecus africanus. Here's an artist's impression of what the distraught parents might have looked like, as they watched in terror their child being borne away on the wings of an eagle:

Trivial anecdote: When I started to work as an assistant English teacher at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris in 1963, I was intrigued to discover that all the students were familiar with the ugly French translation of this stupid generic term, Australopithèque, which sounds as if it has something to do with Australia. So, it was inevitable that I should receive this term, invented by my compatriot Raymond Dart, as a nickname. How's that for a ridiculous situation? It was hard for me to explain that we Australian citizens—already associated with the people that the French often refer to erroneously as "Arborigènes", since they imagine vaguely that the indigenous tribes of Australia once lived in trees (arbres in French)—had no direct links with so-called "southern ape-men" in Africa.

In fact, the research era during which paleontologists contemplated the forms of fossil fragments, while attempting to invent plausible generic and specific categories, has already drawn to a close. Today, the mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) extracted from tiny prehistoric relics provides an amazingly precise means of interpreting mysterious paleontological findings. A splendid example of this new approach is provided by the case of the tooth found in the Siberian cave of Denisova.

Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable to draw any profound conclusions from such an insignificant element. How can we even be certain that it is indeed a human tooth? Well, in fact, it isn't! Analysis of the mtDNA and comparisons with the human and Neanderthal genomes indicate that these so-called Denisovan creatures, who lived in Siberia some 30,000 years ago, were in fact closer to Neanderthals than to the Homo sapiens species.

Both the Neanderthals and the Denisovans had a common ancestor (shown in red) located on a branch that was parallel to that of our human ancestry. But the most extraordinary finding was that these Denisovans (whose known relics were found up in Siberia) apparently did some casual rocking and rolling with the ancestors of present-day Melanesians, in the Antipodes.

God only knows where they held their parties, because it's a long way from Siberia to these Pacific islands to the north-east of Australia. We can be fairly certain, however, that future DNA finds will reveal the addresses of such encounters between humans and Denisovans, no doubt somewhere in Asia.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Dawkins hears Ratzinger

Richard Dawkins must have a slight masochistic foible, otherwise I can't imagine why he would risk spoiling the lovely pagan family festival of the Winter Solstice by straining his ears to hear the pope's annual installment of rubbish. The professor is never better than when he's expressing—through writing or speech—his disgust for that ancient and abominable institution known as the Church. Click the following photo to access a brilliant short piece by Dawkins inspired by the mumblings of Ratzi.

Do-it-yourself Arctic voyages

Innocent frozen French citizens are asking: "Is all that talk about global warming really serious? Aren't we rather experiencing the beginning of a return of the ice ages?" Here, for example, is a current image of the bookstalls alongside the Seine in Paris:

And here's a nice shot of the Pont des Arts, running into the Louvre:

A French humorist once said (more or less): "The Parisians love to go out on excursions into the surrounding countryside. To make life easier for them, let's import the countryside into Paris." You can't deny that it sounds like a Very Good Idea. Thanks to global warming, we're moving rapidly into a situation of that kind. Up until now, only wealthy people such as retired bank managers could afford to go on winter vacations up into the polar regions. These days, as a consequence of global warming, it's the Arctic that's moving down to places such as Paris. And Parisians no longer need to call upon a tourist agency to book an expensive Arctic voyage. They can merely step outside in the bleak air and try to get to their work location, then back home at the end of the day.

Meteorologists are explaining that the cold conditions in Paris and elsewhere are a direct consequence of the accelerated melting of the polar icecap. The term albedo designates the respective proportions of incident sunlight that are either reflected or absorbed at any geographical point. Since the volume of the polar icecap is shrinking, less sunlight gets reflected. Consequently, the sea waters are absorbing increasing quantities of sunlight, which means that they're warming up. The outcome of this polar phenomenon is the creation of high-pressure systems that end up pushing more and more cold polar air down towards lands such as France. And this process is unlikely to wane.

Paris has always had an excellent public-transport system. First, there were charming old buses with an open rear platform to jump on and off, dangerously. Then there was the celebrated métro. These days, there's the excellent self-service bicycle network called Vélib. And soon there'll be tiny electric automobiles in a system to be called Autolib.

In the future, there should be good commercial openings, particularly in the Paris suburbs, for an efficient system of Arctic transport.

I'm presently looking into the idea of moving back up there with my donkeys Moshé and Fanette (and my dogs, of course), in the hope of setting up a small suburban transport system that should normally make me a millionaire in the near future.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Wintry view from behind the house

Normally, I wouldn't think of strolling up behind the house and taking a photo in the direction of the cliffs of Presles. If I did so this afternoon, it was because I happened to be up there taking photos of my donkeys, and I was intrigued by the thick layer of snow remaining on my roof (which proves that my thermal insulation is sound) combined with the relative absence of snow on the slopes beyond Gamone Creek, and the patches of blue sky smiling out from behind the clouds above the plateau of the Coulmes (alongside Presles).

This photo is interesting in that it demonstrates how, in a mountainous region, a field of vision can change abruptly from one spot to another. In the case of this scene, somebody down in front of my house, just a few meters away from where I was standing to take this photo, would fail to see that giant cliff up in the top left-hand corner.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Snow fodder

Winter has hit us earlier than usual in France (the winter solstice only arrives on Tuesday), and we've had exceptionally big snowfalls. At Gamone, I'm reassured to have a good supply of hay for the two donkeys. They only need this fodder, of course, when the snow prevents them from getting at the grass.

I've adopted the convenient solution of storing the hay in dry conditions at a spot (50 meters up beyond the house) that's out-of-bounds for the donkeys. Twice a day, I put a small heap of hay onto a tarpaulin and drag this light load down the road to the donkeys' paddock.

In that way, we waste as little as possible of the precious fodder. Whenever I smell the wonderful aroma of this top-quality hay (which was mowed last spring up on the Vercors plateau near Vassieux), I'm reminded of my childhood days on the farm of my Walker uncles on the outskirts of South Grafton. They used to do their mowing using a pair of draft horses, and the hay was piled up in a single giant heap inside a wooden barn. For hens, the hay stack was a favorite spot for laying eggs. I don't think my uncles were in dire need of winter fodder for their herd of dairy cows, who could generally find enough grass to eat all year round. Maybe it was useful to have this stock of hay in the case of an exceptionally dry spell.

In France, we've inherited a marvelous old recipe from the ancient Gauls: filet mignon of pork roasted slowly on a bed of hay, which adds flavor to the meat. The pork is served up on its steamy wad of hay, accompanied by wild mushrooms, but the hay is not to be eaten.

Moshé and Fanette are now covered in thick fur, like a pair of baby mammoths. They stay out in the open, no matter what the weather's like. There's a shed in which they could be protected from falling snow, rain and sleet, but they never use it.

I intend to construct a small system for holding the hay up off the ground, with a roof. I ordered the four posts of Douglas pine a week or so ago, and they're waiting to be picked up at the sawmill (as soon as the snow disappears, and I can drive into town).

Talking about feeding the animals, I've run into an unexpected hitch. To feed the wild birds, I put sunflower seeds inside the bird house for the tits [mésanges], and I throw other assorted seeds on the ground for the finches [pinsons].

I've been amazed to discover that my dog Fitzroy, who consumes huge quantities of the finest dog foods (pasta and croquettes for pups), likes to round off his meals with bird seeds. He doesn't digest them, since the seeds reappear all over the surface of Fitzroy's turds, which look a little like Oriental pastries covered in sesame seeds.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Julian can go out walking

While still restrained to a certain extent (huge bail and electronic bracelet), Julian Assange will be able to go out walking in the grounds of Ellingham Hall in Bungay (Suffolk). This stately home belongs to the British TV journalist Vaughan Smith, who's a friend and supporter of Assange. Smith is the owner of London's Frontline Club, near Paddington station, whose self-proclaimed mission consists of "championing independent journalism".

Most prisons are not as nice. At present, the grounds are not quite as green, and there's snow on the lawns. In any case, Julian is a special prisoner. A sort of Count of Monte Cristo.

Strictly speaking, he's not a prisoner at all. Not even a clearly-accused suspect of anything less trifling than one-night-stands with groupies that got screwed up... Julian more so than the mindless groupies, who should be able to take better care of themselves.

I was shocked to learn that it was the British, not the Swedes, who had been determined to keep Julian Assange in jail [link]. Were Australian governmental authorities worried about this unexpected behavior on the part of our "motherland"? Well, yes, I have the impression that Kevin Rudd has been trying to do his bit (maybe a rather little bit, as a consequence of his demotion from power) to inject some clarity into this affair. Meanwhile, what is Julia Gillard doing to protect the rights of her limply-accused compatriot? I don't know. Maybe, one of these days, she'll tell us.

FOOTNOTE: Many people have confused the home of Vaughan Smith with another Ellingham Hall located at Chathill up in Northumberland. I myself made this mistake yesterday, for ten minutes or so. This other Ellingham Hall (which, I repeat, has absolutely nothing to do with the place down in Suffolk where Julian Assange is staying) is a luxurious country house located up towards the Scottish border [website], which has become a popular venue for corporate events, weddings and special occasions.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mélanie's song

For old-timers like me, this remains a memorable song:

Melanie shouldn't complain about what YouTube has done to her song.

If the people are buying tears, I'll be rich some day.

Australian citizen in need of protection

Decades ago, before it became fashionable to joke about the paucity of effective contacts between Australian travelers and our diplomatic services, I used to say jokingly that Australian authorities would never dream of flying in helicopters to assist stranded Aussies. Today, this is no longer a silly joke, but a firm fact. Aussie embassies don't give a fuck about Aussie citizens abroad. They seem to say that, if Aussies are so dimwitted as to step outside of the Wide Brown Land, even for a brief excursion, then they deserve everything that might be coming to them in the way of devastating bolts of disaster from the Heavens. "Shit, mate, we told you not to leave. Yet you ventured into WogLand."

Seriously, we must all come together to protect our precious compatriot Julian Assange, whose Satanic enemy is none other than the fucking USA. Brain-damaged Yanks, acting on false pretenses, would be capable of seeking to eliminate Julian for his excellent deeds. It is the duty of all of us (including, above all, his English prison guards) to protect him from gunshots, poisons, spiders and snakes, evil death-wishes, etc.

We don't want to wake up and hear—in a typical American vein—that the founder of Wikileaks has been assassinated in mysterious circumstances…

Hey, I wonder if Mel Gibson might be thinking of Julian.

Beaten by Oprah and the elephant man

Dismayed by the lousy treatment of Julian Assange in the Australian press (a fleeting phenomenon, since the fascinating and sympathetic lord of Wikileaks has since become a well-represented and defended hero in our native land), I made a solemn resolution to cease reading The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald. It was worse than trying to give up smoking (a problem I solved successfully a couple of decades ago). I realized unexpectedly that the Down Under press is a fabulous source of constant entertainment, like the on-stage acts of a delightfully vicious stand-up comedian… providing laughs, groans, frights and ample themes for reflection. Indeed, if the absurdities that enhance the Aussie media did not exist, one would have to invent them. They constitute a certain way of seeing the world around us… or maybe, rather, of not seeing that world. I imagine a curious pair of hi-tech sunglasses that provide their wearers with an Aussie view of existence.

These days, if you were to put on these magic spectacles, your vision would be crowded out by the broad body of a smiling Afro-American female named Oprah Winfrey (whose celebrity would appear to be largely quantitative, since she seems to have no qualitative claims to fame whatsoever... or else they're well concealed). If I understand correctly, this famous hulk of mediocrity is currently parading around in front of subjugated hordes of dumb Aussies on the site of Sydney's old tram depot, now replaced by an empty shell that will be referred to henceforth as the Oprah House. Why the hell is she there, and what's she supposed to be doing? I have no plausible answers to such questions… which maybe shouldn't even be asked. Oprah has simply been dumped there, on the edge of Sydney Harbour, for better or worse, like a load of transported convicts. God will decide what might become of her. Happily, she hasn't got a life sentence. So, with a bit of luck, she might fuck off sooner or later back to YankeeLand, and leave her mindless Aussie hosts to pick up the bill. Shit, I can't figure out what has come over my compatriots. At times—in their adulation of the pope, or their new saint Mary (not to mention their political agitations)—they seem to have gone stark raving lunatic, hysterical like a cut snake.

Fortunately, I'm reassured by the story of the elephant man in Thailand. The gist of the drama is that an Australian visitor in Bangkok refused to buy a bag of bananas for an elephant. Worse, this tourist from Down Under dared to express his thoughts about touristic attractions (in the same silly way that I just dared to talk about Oprah). The Aussie righter-of-wrongs claimed, as a social moralist, that the elephant's owner was using his beast as a pretext for begging.

Fair enough, the Thai elephant man was indeed begging for bananas. But what we don't know is whether the bananas in question were meant to be consumed by the beast (which would be normal) or by his owner (which would indeed imply a situation that might be likened to illegal gains from prostitution). Be that as it may, the Thai elephant owner hit the ugly tourist in the face, which shut him up just as surely as if an elephant had rammed a banana in the Aussie's mouth. I urge you to read the original article, entitled Aussie 'attacked' by Thai elephant guide [display].

In the presence of all this excellent stuff, I'm a little ashamed to think that I might have envisaged, for an instant, the abandon of such rich and delightful sources of fathomless and inconsequential authentic Aussie nonsense as The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Smart kids can win a cancer

Why is it that almost everything in our modern world—the best of all possible worlds, as Voltaire's optimistic Candide once assured us—seems to backfire? A delightful plastic puzzle for kids is composed of numbered squares, which the child is expected to assemble. What could be better in the way of home training for a prospective Einstein?

The only problem is that babies who play around with this particular variety of plastic shit could well pick up a cancer… which would obviously limit considerably their possibility of formulating new interpretations of the much sought-after Theory of Everything. Their cancer-ridden bodies might, of course, be useful for researchers attempting to combat this plague… but that's not exactly what we generally mean when we talk about bringing up intelligently our children to play a role in the modern world of science and technology.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Unexpected cultural links

I've mentioned already—in my articles entitled History of wine at Choranche [display] and Wine of a kind [display]—my interest in the almost-forgotten history of the vineyards of Choranche. My article on this subject (in French) is due to appear in the forthcoming issue of a Vercors historical journal. This activity as a local historian has led to my being invited, this afternoon, to the annual get-together of the Vercors cultural-heritage authorities. The assembly took place in the ancient convent of the Carmelite monks at Beauvoir-en-Royans, inside the domain of Humbert II [1312-1355], the last prince of the Dauphiné.

The proceedings started with a brilliant 20-minute exposé of the history of the Carmelites by my friend Michel Wullschleger, who's a professor of history and geography at the university of Lyon. Once we were all reminded of the historical background of the splendid building in which we were seated, it was time to tackle the true subject of the day: namely, the genesis and spirit of an entity such as the PNRV [Parc naturel et régional du Vercors: Vercors regional nature park], which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather when I heard that the guest speaker—a young academic from the university of Saint-Etienne—was going to explain to us how the origins of the concept of our celebrated regional park were profoundly geared to the ideas of Henry David Thoreau [1817-1862]. For me, retrospectively, it's natural that my adolescent fascination for the magnificent story of Thoreau's Walden Pond—which I used to read, fascinated, in Sydney's Mitchell Library, when I would have been better off brushing up on my mathematics—should have led me to my present solitary existence in the mountainous wilderness of the Vercors.

I was elated that a bright young French historian might give a lecture on such links. He explained that, in former British conquests and colonies (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc), the creation of nature parks usually meant that remnants of indigenous populations were chased away (like Red Indians), so that they wouldn't interfere with environmental issues and tourists (not necessarily in that order of priorities). When I dared suggest that maybe we Australians had created nature parks in which the Aborigines were welcome (to say the least), I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the French speaker mastered all the fine details of the Down Under dossier. He thanked me kindly for bringing up this interesting and pertinent question (about which he knew a lot, following research visits to Australia), then he summarized the Australian Aborigine affair in a brilliant five-minute résumé (typical of French-educated intellectuals, who've been taught to aim at essentials)… and we became instant soul friends. I wondered, for a moment, whether a young Australian academic might be able to summarize in the same style, say, the complex relationship between the French Republic and Corsican autonomists. Meanwhile, I must admit that my neighbors Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier are vastly more "Walden Pond" than me, for the simple reason that they've actually installed several artificial ponds (now vibrant with life, including frogs) on their splendid property, Rochemuse.

Towards the end of the afternoon assembly in the ancient convent, speakers turned to contemporary creative writing about the Vercors. This talk was so stupidly superficial, absurdly urban and artistically empty (from a literary viewpoint) that I got up and left. I had to return to my Vercors wilderness to feed Sophia and Fitzroy.

AFTERTHOUGHTS: Frankly, I'm not at all sure that Thoreau had anything whatsoever to do with the inspiration of nature parks in France. I hardly need to say that, when talking about a return to Nature and such matters, we cannot forget an all-important Geneva-born philosopher named Jean-Jacques Rousseau [1712-1778].

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dressing up

My article of 5 November 2010 entitled Vatican fashions [display] included a few images of the sartorial finery associated with the Vatican these days. Within the ranks of the Church, pedophiliac scandals are continuing as strongly as ever. Yesterday, figures were released concerning an innocent God-fearing nation, Holland, which now has a global tally of nearly 2000 explicit victims. In the sexual crime stakes, Holland is therefore running a close second to Ireland. Naturally, all the recent bad vibes concerning the Church mean that fewer and fewer pious young males dream of becoming cardinals. This has led to a surplus of all kinds of ecclesiastic outfits in the Vatican warehouses. Since the pope needs more and more money to pay off the countless people who are pursuing pedophiliac prelates in various countries throughout the world, he has decided to sell off a lot of the Vatican's excess fashion gear. Here's a very popular item, which is simply a recycled cardinal's robe that has been stitched up along the bottom:

Described in the sales literature as a "TV blanket with sleeves", it's ideal for watching the telly on cold evenings.

Let's move on to another intriguing example of exotic attire (obtained from the French Gallica website). Try to guess why this individual has decked himself out in what looks like a birdsuit:

Believe it or not, this was the uniform of medical doctors operating in the context of the great plague of Marseille in 1720. The long beak, containing aromatic substances, was intended to pierce the pestiferous air and prevent foul vapors from reaching the physician.

Talking of birdsuits, have a look at the exploits of this Russian guy:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Treasonous weasel

The leaked US diplomatic cables reveal that an Aussie senator named Mark Arbib has been supplying a foreign power (the USA) with local intelligence for a long time.

Over the years, in various nations, individuals have been jailed, if not executed, for acts of that kind.

A US citizen named Jonathan Jay Pollard who was caught supplying intelligence to a friendly foreign power, Israel, has been rotting in prison since 1987. I wrote about his case in my article of 30 June 2009 entitled Forgotten US prisoner [display]. Concerning the ridiculously excessive punishment meted out to Pollard, no doubt to "send a message" to all prospective spies, I hope that Barack Obama will soon intervene to free this man… who is now an Israeli citizen. Meanwhile, I trust that the USA would be prepared to give honorary citizenship to their Aussie friend Arbib. Admittedly, Pollard had been passing on vital military information, whereas Arbib's stuff was no doubt more like insipid Facebook chatter, telling the Americans which Aussie pollies were about to screw one of their mates. But treason is treason, no matter what the precise subject matter. And a weasel's a weasel.

Incidentally, there's a language thing that has always intrigued me whenever Arbib's name comes up. He's often described as a "powerbroker", as if this were a recognized and almost honorable profession in my native land, like a police informer, or a pimp. I haven't bothered to look into the question of the training and diplomas that have enabled this smart fellow to accede to such a job. Are the skills of powerbroking taught in universities Down Under? How do candidates apply for this kind of employment? In fact, who exactly (apart from foreign embassies) are the potential employers? And what's the money like?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Dead but they won't lie down

What is there in common between Geneviève de Fontenay (former organizer of the Miss France system) and Laurent Gbagbo (former president of Côte d'Ivoire)?

No, neither of the two answers you propose is correct. Madame de Fontenay is not bald, nor does the West African ex-president get around in the bush wearing a broad-rimmed black-and-white hat. As for your vague suggestion that they might have established some kind of romantic or erotic liaison, I refrain from making any comment whatsoever on the strictly personal aspects of the lives of these two adults. On the other hand, if you had informed me that there was a variety of Ivory Coast potatoes known as the Belle de Gbagbo, I would have been obliged to accept that as a valid answer...

No, their common feature is not so complicated. Each of these two once-important personages has been formally replaced in a clear and democratic fashion, but neither of them is prepared to admit that she/he is dispensable. So, each of them has decided to carry on masquerading as if she/he were still in place. It's funny how certain individuals persist in believing, in spite of massive evidence to the contrary, that nothing should ever—or can ever—be changed in their existence.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Winter images

There's a magic morning moment when the sun is about to creep out from behind the Cournouze, to the right, and strike the frozen landscape with its warm rays.

Meanwhile, the thick blanket of snow on the slopes behind the house indicates that a lot of warming will be needed to make it disappear.

Clearly, the snow will still be present at the end of the day, but the blanket will have been worn much thinner. It's the vegetation, seen at close range, that best reveals the melting power of the solar warming.

Branches that were once drooping under the weight of the snow suddenly spring back into their natural upright stance. Lumps start to appear in the thick layer of snow covering the flower beds, revealing the presence of hidden bushes and clumps of vegetation.

Seen up close, the snow is no longer uniformly smooth and white. It starts to reveal shades of subtle hues and shadows. It now has texture.

But the global aspect of the valley is not going to evolve greatly for many hours to come.

It's a winter morning at Gamone. And winter is never in a hurry to disappear.

Most famous Australian in the world

Poor old John Howard (an Aussie cricketing enthusiast who once found himself heading the nation for far too long) didn't even get more than a fleeting mention in the memoirs of his Texan mate George Bush. Jeez, from a prestige and posterity viewpoint, how much lower can you sink than that?

Google has just stated that "WikiLeaks" is now twice as well known as "Wikipedia".

And the most famous Australian in the world, Julian Assange, has made it onto the cover of Time magazine. The French media are crammed with stories about Assange, WikiLeaks and attempts to censor and capture them in one way or another. Meanwhile, reactions in the two Aussie press organs that I happen to browse through from time to time (The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald) go from dismal down to disgusting… and I'm more determined than ever to cease wasting my time reading the depressing rubbish that comes out of my native land.

The web page named WL Central seems to offer a wide range of the latest relevant articles about this huge planetary affair.

But the best way of keeping up-to-date on the affair is to follow WikiLeaks on Twitter.

The following article provides a good summary of recent happenings:

Getting back to the ugly Aussie prime minister whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I would have imagined that Australia would look back with shame upon the way in which our nation once groveled on the ground in front of the USA, when Howard allowed Bush to keep our compatriot David Hicks locked away for years in the Guantanamo concentration camp. Sadly, the groveling goes on...