Friday, February 26, 2010

Building for the birds

When the sun is shining at Gamone, I love to work outside at manual tasks. Think of it, in musical terms, as a counterpoint melody with respect to the hours I spend in front of my computer. My everyday Gamone fugue is 50 percent intellectual, 50 percent manual.

Judging from the quantity of tools, this job looks like a big project.

By chance, I received a visit from one of the fellows who recently restored a corner of the roof of my house. When he saw my sturdy style of construction of a nest box for mésanges (great tits), he burst out laughing. "There's no way in the world that the birds are going to kick that box apart... not even if they turn out to be ostrich eggs." I explained that I was simply following construction principles that I had discovered on the web. I agree: I've probably used twice as many screws as are really necessary. On the other, it's not the thigh muscles of the baby tits that worry me, but rather the combined effects of rain, wind and sun. I can't even paint the nest box, because wild birds don't like painted surfaces. In any case, here's the finished object:

The diameter of the entrance, 30 mm, corresponds theoretically to giant tits. I'm proud of the genuine slate roof (half of a single slate tile purchased at Castorama for 4 euros), which I've glued to a hinged plywood lid. This roof can be opened for annual cleaning. The interior "balcony" will be used by the parents as a convenient platform when entering or exiting the nest box. As for the nest itself, to be built by the birds, it will be located down in the depths of my box. The final object is quite heavy (because of the slate), and shouldn't normally be blown apart by the first tempest at Gamone.

I've anchored it firmly against a stout vertical branch of one of my linden trees. In April, by which time the box will have merged into the setting, the moment of truth will arrive. Will Monsieur et Madame Mésange decide to move in and procreate in my nest box? We'll see...


French drivers have grown accustomed to the ubiquitous presence of automatic radar devices that catch speeders.

Road-users have reacted by perfecting ways and means of not getting caught by such machines. The most obvious method consists of simply slowing down at the approach of the device... and then speeding up again as soon as it's behind you. When I say "behind you", I should add that some devices, placed on the far side of the road, are designed to flash speeders from behind... which makes it possible to catch motor-cyclists (whose unique number-plate is located at the rear). The latest evolution imagined by the authorities consists of a pair of devices capable of calculating the average speed of a driver over a distance of several dozen kilometers. Meanwhile, some road-users in France are installing illegal hi-tech instruments that start beeping as soon as the presence of a nearby radar device is detected.

This cat-and-mouse process reminds me of a situation in nature that is presented in detail by Richard Dawkins on pages 382-390 of The Greatest Show on Earth. He speaks metaphorically of "arms races" between species that have an unfriendly attitude to one another, such as predators and prey, or parasites and hosts. Each evolutionary improvement to one creature provokes a counteractive improvement on the opposite side. The combined developments produce a spiraling effect as in the context of man-made weapons and defense systems.

We've just heard about a new French law that will make it obligatory to install a smoke detector in every home. This is weird, because I believe that people still have the right to smoke in private homes. With smoke detectors installed, young people in the following situation—a much-maligned poster imagined recently by the association Droits des non fumeurs (rights of non-smokers)—would bring about the arrival of the fire brigade.

Indeed, the world is becoming such a complex place, for ordinary folk like you and me, that we'll soon be needing clear labels à la Magritte in order to distinguish between old-fashioned good and evil.

Here at Gamone, if there were a smoke detector in my living-room, it would be ringing alarm bells and flashing its red lights every winter evening when I light up a log fire. And this would upset, not only me (in front of my beloved TV), but Sophia too... who would be instantly convinced that the terrifying dinosaurs and mammoths of Choranche are attacking us once again.

The device I would dearly love to purchase, if ever I could find one, is a bullshit detector. I would install it on my desk, just alongside the Macintosh, so that it could be beamed down permanently upon everything that comes up on the screen. Naturally, I would probably get a little upset whenever the device started to beep at some of my own stuff, but you can't have it both ways.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Grass dog

I end up thinking that my dog Sophia likes to plant her backside in the scope of my Nikon. Maybe (a more objective observation) my Nikon simply follows Sophia. Be that as it may, Sophia has always been my photographic star. Here, she's showing off the winter grass at Gamone.

In this photo, you get a glimpse of Bob's house, a hundred meters or so up along Gamone Creek.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

US vision of the future

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, President George W Bush instigated a process aimed at overhauling the US intelligence system. In 2004, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act created the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who took over some of the government and intelligence functions that had previously been handled by the time-honored CIA. As of a month ago, the DNI is Dennis Blair, appointed by Barack Obama.

I was gladly surprised to discover that we can obtain, for free, a 120-page document entitled Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, presenting the profound thoughts of this office concerning the future of our world. Just click this image and follow instructions:

Before starting to read this fascinating report, make sure you've understood the significance of the acronym BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India and China], which reappears constantly.

The report is good reading in that it highlights the fragility of US thinking. We've always known that the giant has feet of clay. But it's alarming to discover that maybe his brain, too—his so-called "intelligence"—is made out of porcelain.

In the vulgar verbiage of the authors of this futuristic fairy story, Europeans will be "losing clout" in 2025. I feel like giving a sharp clout on the snout of the dumb Yank who wrote such rubbish. The notorious CIA (which reports henceforth to the DNI) has made so many blunders, however, that we might expect a certain amount of US intelligence drivel for some time to come. It's not tomorrow that we'll be removing the inverted commas from "US intelligence". But I insist upon the fact that this nice bedtime reading can be freely downloaded. It won't even cost you what it's worth: peanuts.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Forgotten mountain

I've been meaning for ages to correct an injustice. I've put up pictures on my blog of all the imaginable mountains and cliffs that surround me at Gamone. But I'm not sure I've ever included a full photo of the great bald peak up behind my house, to the west.

The reason for this negligence is that I have to move at least several hundred meters away from my house, to the east, in order to get a good view of this mountain, named Les Trois-Châteaux (the three castles). My stray sheep have been living on the lower slopes of this mountain for over three years. There are a few wild mountain goats up there, too.

On the righthand side of the photo, you can glimpse a corner of my house sticking out behind a low hill in the foreground. The road to my house runs up alongside Gamone Creek, which flows in the hollow between that low hill and my property.

This mountain is located entirely on the territory of the commune of Choranche. On its lower slopes to the left, a much lower mass of rock, located on the territory of Pont-en-Royans, bears the same name, indicating that three ancient castles down on the nearby plains could be observed from these vantage points.

Not only have I never climbed up onto this mountain, but I've never seen or even heard of anybody doing so. The rock appears to be rather flaky and crumbly, making it a relatively dangerous place for casual visitors. On the other hand, I've spent a lot of time sliding around on its lower slopes (in the adjacent valley that belongs to my neighbor Gérard Magnat) trying to catch up with my stray sheep... who no longer consider me—if ever they did so—as their good shepherd.

Visited by an ancestral spirit

In yesterday's article entitled Seafarers [display], I introduced readers to my CF-haplogroup ancestor named Dreamtimer, who lived in southwest Asia with his wife and family during the Old Stone Age. As I explained, besides being my ancestor, Dreamtimer was also an ancestor of today's Aborigines in Australia. Well, during the early hours of the morning, I was awoken by weird noises, like musique concrète. It was a mysterious mix of Indian tablas and sitars, Balinese bamboo xylophones and Buddhist gongs. And above the throbbing percussion, I could detect clearly the eerie drones of a didgeridoo. My dog Sophia was awoken by the clammer, and she started to bark furiously, as she always does whenever our sleep is interrupted in the middle of the night by frightening sounds such as the shrieks of dinosaurs up on the slopes of Choranche, or the grunts of mammoths down in the valley of the Bourne. Then a voice boomed out: "Billy..."

I knew immediately who it must be, because there are only three individuals who call me Billy. The first is Natacha, who would never dream of waking me up in the night in a cacophony of xylophones and didgeridoos. The second is my 94-year-old uncle Isaac Kennedy Walker, who's prevented from contacting me through his deafness. And the third, of course, was... my tribal ancestor Dreamtimer.

"First of all, Billy, I just want to tell you that I'm furious about you showing everybody that picture of my descendant Mungo Man. Your Aborigine cousins have known for ages that this is not correct. So, why did you do such a thing?"

I tried to tell Dreamtimer that it was simply a photo I had found on the web, but it was pointless trying to defend myself. How do you talk about Internet stuff with a guy who's been dead for 60 thousand years?

"Billy, if I decided to drop in on you this evening, it's not because of Mungo Man. It's because of that fucking Russki couple, who have offended us immensely. Billy, go grab a few boomerangs and run across to Canada right now. And strike 'em dead!"

I had no idea what my ancestor Dreamtimer could possibly be talking about. I was about to tell him that I didn't have any boomerangs with me at Gamone, and that it was out of the question for me to go walkabout to an overseas place such as Canada. Meanwhile, Dreamtimer had faded back into his never-never land. Before taking leave of me, he had switched on my TV. In an instant, the images from Vancouver informed me of the cause of Dreamtimer's furious visit.

If ridicule could kill, then the corpses of Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalinon, attired in their crazy "Aboriginal" costumes, would have been spread out on the ice. The next time that Dreamtimer calls me, I'll have to tell him however that I can't strike down the Russian skaters, no matter how greatly they've offended him. After all, the Russians are my genetic cousins. We're all one big Earth family.

Mythical beasts, tough sex

This amazing sex video appeared on the excellent Pharyngula blog by the US atheistic biologist PZ Myers [access]:

This National Geographic video provides us with new insight into the difficulties of being a hyena. Among humans, these animals have acquired a particularly negative reputation, which they surely do not deserve. They're depicted as cruel, treacherous, greedy, "piggish", laughing devilishly and obsessed with kinky sex. Even in Africa, where people should know better, hyenas were thought of as the steeds on which sorcerers and witches traveled around. It's true, however, that it might not be a great idea to bring home a pair of hyena pups with a view to bringing them up as pets. Now, I wouldn't be surprised if a reader were to inform me that my judgment on this question of household hyenas is wrong. In any case, the criterion of evaluating wild animals by their potential as pets is ridiculous.

Socialist overseer of the nation's spending

Didier Migaud, a 57-year-old Socialist, has just been appointed to the prestigious position of first president of the Cour des comptes ("court of accounts"), which is the national institution that examines constantly the spending habits of the République.

Migaud is a local politician: a député (member of parliament) for an electorate regrouping the southern part of Grenoble and the Oisans mountain range. It's not bad at all that Nicolas Sarkozy has called upon a political opponent to fill this important position, previously occupied by the Gaullist Philippe Séguin who died last month.

I like the cluttered look of Migaud's desk. How could anybody seriously claim to be a competent bookkeeper (or even a blogger, for that matter) without a good bit of clutter around him? The Linux penguin sitting on a bookshelf is a positive sign, too. Anybody who appreciates Socialism, Grenoble and Linux can't possibly be a fool.

North-west corner of my house

I'm trying to get a feeling for the newly-acquired visual aspect of the north-west corner of my house, so that I'll know how to best handle the various operations that will be facing me as soon as the warm weather arrives. Here's a rough sketch of the basic ideas I have in mind:

That's to say, I would build a carport, 3 meters wide and 6 meters long. The roof of this carport would join up with a new roof over the small stone structure (a former pigpen) that juts out from the façade on the left. The empty inside space at the far end of the carport would be used to store my firewood, and a staircase would lead down from there into the main house.

To take the following photo, which looks down onto the start of the new ramp, I climbed up the slopes behind the house:

Here's a side view of the old pigpen as it exists today:

And here's a view of the place under the present roof that I'll be using to store my firewood:

The total surface of the new ramp is quite large, and only the upper half of that area will be used for the carport. The total area of the ramp will be covered in pale gravel.

Finally, here's an unexpected feature of this corner of the house: an intriguing hole into the hill!

In fact, it's the entrance of a horizontal tunnel, about 20 meters long, which ends abruptly in a vertical wall of earth. It appears to be an ancient construction, and I've never found any obvious traces of the place where all the excavated earth might have been placed. Most people who try to imagine the reason why this tunnel was dug evoke the idea of a farmer (winegrower?) hoping to find water. But that idea doesn't add up, because there has always been an ample supply of spring water a hundred yards further up the road. Besides, at the place where the tunnel has been dug, there are no visible indications whatsoever suggesting the presence of subterranean water. The interior of the tunnel is perfectly tidy, and devoid of vegetation, as if it were dug quite recently. I prefer to imagine that the tunnel was dug as a hiding-place for wine-making tools and equipment, or maybe for stocks of wine in small casks or bottles. When would the owner of Gamone have wanted to hide such stuff? And from whom? I believe that a plausible answer is provided by events that took place long ago at Choranche. One of the rare books mentioning the history of Choranche, written by the Abbé Jean Morin, states that Carthusian monks acquired their first vineyard in this commune in the year 1381. Then, in the 16th century, the Royans region was the scene of bloody conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Here is my translation of a paragraph from the book by Abbé Morin:

At the end of the wars of religion, in 1593, a former prior of our Chartreux monastery wrote that "the grapevines of Choranche have been cut down and ruined, and the cellars demolished, by the adepts of the reformed religion who lodged their garrison here".

I have always imagined—without being able to prove my beliefs in this domain—that the wine cellar at the heart of my house was built during that century of the so-called Wars of Religion, because it resembles a similar construction of that epoch that still exists today in the ruins of the Carthusian monastery at Bouvantes. So, I believe that the mysterious hole behind my house could have been a hiding-place for the possessions of the vineyard, which was dug rapidly at some time during the devastating Protestant raids of the 16th century.

Monday, February 22, 2010


In my article of 2 December 2007 entitled Reenactments [display], I mentioned a Norwegian adventurer named Thor Heyerdahl [1914-2002], who was a hero for young people of my generation.

Click the photo to see original footage of the balsa-wood raft Kon-Tiki on its 1947 voyage from South America to Polynesia. Heyerdahl and his companions were trying to demonstrate that the Pacific islands could have been colonized by seafarers who drifted westwards from the American continent.

Today, we're practically certain that Heyerdahl's theory was wrong. Recent linguistic research suggests that ancestors of the future Polynesians probably sailed from the island of Formosa (present-day Taiwan) around 3,000 BC. As indicated in the following diagram (with French captions), these seafarers ended up settling in such scattered islands as the Philippines, Fiji, Madagascar, Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island.

[Click the above diagram to obtain a more readable version.]

Many millennia before these long voyages across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, intrepid dark-skinned seafarers from Asia had reached the Australian continent. These ancestors of Australia's Aborigines made this voyage well before the time of the Homo sapiens sapiens individuals whose remains were found in 1969 and 1974: Mungo Man [see photo] and Mungo Woman, who lived out in western New South Wales, not far from Mildura, probably some 40,000 years ago.

Besides the various tests aimed at dating these bone fragments and the geological context in which they were found, DNA testing of modern Aborigines confirms beyond doubt the "out of Africa" origins of this indigenous people. Haplogroup C4 is the most common Y-chromosome result among indigenous Australians, and it has not been found outside of that continent. For an R-haplogroup individual such as myself, this means that the latest common ancestor of today's Aborigines and me lived in southwest Asia around 60,000 years ago. Genetically, his haplogroup is known as CF, but not the slightest trace of such a human being has ever been found yet.

Incidentally, if there are any Aborigines reading the Antipodes blog, I take this opportunity of letting them know that I've got into the habit of referring to my Old Stone Age CF-haplogroup ancestor by a tender nickname: Dreamtimer. It goes without saying that, if anybody were to find traces of him, I wouldn't be personally offended in any way whatsoever if present-day Aborigines were to take photos of old Dreamtimer (they don't need to ask my permission), or if his remains were to be put on display in a museum.

At the time of these epic voyages, there were land links between Asia and Australia that have since been submerged, but the seafarers were no doubt obliged to sail across an expanse of at least a hundred kilometers. Consequently, the ancestors of the Aborigines have been considered, up until now, as the greatest navigators of prehistory.

A month ago, the seafaring supremacy of the sons and daughter of Dreamtimer was subjected to a rude shock, of Titanic proportions, when a report from the the American School of Classical Studies in Athens was made public. Apparently, archaeologists have found the following prehistoric stone implements on the island of Crete:

[Click the image to access the original story in the New York Times.]

They're at least 130,000 years old. At that time, there were no land links inside the Mediterranean. Consequently, prehuman seafarers must have been able to leave the European mainland and sail to the distant island of Crete.

This new discovery pleases me immensely, because I like to think that there were ancient mariners in the Mediterranean at that early date. It's hardly surprising that this great sea, in the middle of planet Terra, went on to acquire a reputation as the home of illustrious navigators such as Ulysses. Obviously, Ulysses and our Antipodean Dreamtimer were distant "genetic cousins" of these Cretan sailors... who might have been smart Neanderthals. (Naturally, we cannot exclude the possibility that they might have been dumb Neanderthals who fell asleep in the branches of a tree that got struck by lightning and then washed out to sea. By the time they realized what had happened to them, they found themselves on a delightful beach in Crete.) It's imaginable that the sailing skills of the archaic Aborigines, which enabled them to reach Australia, were inherited indirectly from these prehuman Cretan seafarers. Maybe these skills were assimilated, much later on, by navigators from Phocea in Asia Minor, enabling them to colonize Marseille. Then a fellow named Pytheas, from that same city, used similar skills to go on a sea excursion up to England, around 325 BC, where he visited Stonehenge as a tourist. As for myself, I'm sure that all these illustrious ancestors and archaic prehuman relatives would have been proud of me when I worked for a month or so, back in 1963—in the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea—at the helm of a Greek tramp steamer, the Persian Cyrus.

Donkey dinner

When I found a few apples lying in the grass, preserved by the snow, I cut them up and put them on top of the donkeys' daily dose of oats.

I was a little surprised to find that the animals promptly pushed aside the apple fragments so that they could get stuck into the oats.

I had always imagined that the donkeys are immensely fond of apples. Well, they are, I'm sure... but it seems that they're fonder still of oats.

Five minutes later, when I returned to pick up the dishes, both the oats and the apples had disappeared. Maybe it's like children having a meal in such-and-such a celebrated junk-food restaurant. I would imagine that, spontaneously, a normal kid would tackle the hamburger and French fries first, and then move on to the sundae.

The donkeys were standing still at the same spot, above the empty dishes, digesting their dinner.

Judging from the respective positions of their ears, old gray-faced Mandrin is waiting for me to say something (or maybe he's intrigued by the buzz of my Nikon adjusting its focus), whereas young beige-faced Moshé is more interested in keeping an auditive "outlook" on what might be happening behind him: in particular, the presence of Sophia... who learned long ago that it's not wise for a dog to spend too much time behind the powerful rear legs of a donkey.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sea change

Up until the age of sixteen, I was an adolescent in a dull Australian place named Grafton, where the Good Lord surely intended that nothing unusual should ever happen, not even my birth. In my time, this magnificent landscape had sadly lost its pioneering soul before losing forever its spirit of social evolution and economic development. Today, Grafton is a charming empty carcass, whose sole awareness is the fact that it's a boring old town, with nothing to say nor even hide.

Downstream, at the estuary of the Clarence River, our outlet on the Pacific Ocean was named Yamba. In 1954, surrounded by school friends, I found it an enthralling place.

My most moving recollection of Yamba dates from the summer of 1957. I had returned to Grafton after a year at the University of Sydney, and my parents had decided kindly to take me on an excursion down to Yamba... which I had not visited for quite some time. I remember, as if it were yesterday, that my father Bill Skyvington had parked his LandRover while Kath was buying food down in the new shopping area of Yamba. I was exploding internally with the urge to tell my father that, during my first year in Sydney, I had just encountered a fabulous corpus of knowledge about the nature of the world. I can even recall the slim volume of relativity physics that had engendered my enthusiasm. In a backstreet of Yamba, on that sunny afternoon, I tried naively to transmit an iota of my enthusiasm to my father. He looked at me as if I were a Martian, and informed me abruptly that he had no time for such nonsense... which was vastly less urgent, in his mind, than the question of earning one's living by grazing and slaughtering beef cattle (my father's business). By the time my mother returned from her shopping, I had lost forever all possible intellectual intimacy with my paternal progenitor. In an instant of incomprehension between a father and his son, on that sunny Yamba afternoon, I moved forever away from my ancestral ignorance... into enlightenment.

In my mind, Yamba remained nevertheless a seaside sanctuary, which my children were able to encounter briefly with joy during their teens.

Today, I learn sadly from the Australian media that something seems to have gone wrong at Yamba [display]. Is it just Yamba, I ask innocently, or Australia at large?

Dame République, expecting

Shortly after the French Revolution, a girl named Marianno was the heroine of a revolutionary song in the Occitanian language. The song became popular in October 1792, just after the creation of the French Republic, which adopted Marianne as its allegorical incarnation. She is always represented wearing a pointed bonnet, designated as Phrygian (a legendary people of Asia Minor). After the July Revolution of 1830, the painter Eugène Delacroix showed a bare-breasted Marianne on the barricades, with a tricolor held high, leading the people to liberty.

Since then, there have been countless pictorial and sculptural depictions of Marianne. Whereas the Church has been symbolized by the Virgin Mary, and French royalty by Joan of Arc, Marianne has become the official female symbol of the République. Busts of Marianne adorn town halls, administrative offices and schools from one end of France to the other.

Since the Libération of 1944, among the females who have been chosen as models for Marianne, we find Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Laetitia Casta.

Over the last few days, French people have been somewhat surprised to discover Marianne appearing in advertisements for Sarkozy's future state loan:

OK, it's nice to know that France is investing in her future. And we can understand that the République is expecting... massive financial investments. But who in fact got her pregnant? It's rather disturbing to learn that this should happen to a fine young woman whose moral behavior has always been beyond reproach. Most people weren't even aware that she was "frequenting" (as they say in rural France, meaning to go out frequently with a specific male friend). Many folk would be furious to learn that the future father is randy Sarko himself, for example. Maybe one of the old fellows: Giscard, or Chirac...

The most eloquent criticism came from an indignant feminist blogger named Emelire: "The hand of the State should stay away from my uterus, particularly if it's trying to grab some cash!"

Friday, February 19, 2010

European solar-energy project

Last night, on French TV, I saw an amazing reportage concerning a revolutionary project aimed at capturing solar energy through panels attached to a geostationary satellite and then transmitting the energy to Earth by means of an infrared laser beam. Today, I've been trying to obtain more detailed information about this project, described as European, but the web doesn't seem to have anything much to offer in this domain. As soon as I started searching for information, I had the impression that the only people on the planet who are pursuing this research are the Japanese. Maybe the European researchers are deliberately keeping a low public profile because of the complexity of the project, and the fact that it's still at a very early stage of development, since it wouldn't become operational before another decade. Or did I simply imagine that it was a European project?

No, it wasn't an illusion. The project is being carried out well and truly by the European company Astrium, the space subsidiary of EADS (the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company). Click the banner to find out a little bit more about this company.

The TV reportage evoked a question that springs into everybody's mind. Would it be catastrophic if the laser beam were to be slightly displaced so that, instead of reaching its correct target on the ground, it hit a house or a school. Would it fry everything in a split second? Apparently not. The fellow being interviewed treated this as a silly question. The future system will be as harmless as a phone connection, in spite of the fact that it's channeling the energy of the Sun.

In any case, even if it's too early to obtain a significant quantity of serious information concerning this project, it's not too early to meditate upon the idea of a potentially unlimited source of perfectly clean energy. Or am I still dreaming?

POST SCRIPTUM: Although it's not directly related to what I've just been talking about, you might like to listen to Bill Gates presenting his thoughts on energy. Personally, I prefer to hear him rambling on in this field rather than evoking his ugly software products...

"InDNA" Jones in Egypt

In former times, the hero of this tale would have been Tutankhamun himself, of course.

These days, one has the impression that a more powerful Egyptian chief than the New Kingdom pharaoh has arisen, and is stealing the archaeological limelight at times.

The name of the all-powerful boss of Egyptian antiquities is Zahi Hawass. He's the man who's presently blocking (for reasons I fail to grasp) an examination of the interior of the Great Pyramid of Giza that might confirm the extraordinary construction theory put forward by the French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin. On this subject, see my article of 27 November 2008 entitled How did they do it? [display]

Hawass has the look and style (and the hat, too) of the movie archaeologist Indiana Jones. As of a fortnight ago, I think that Hawass deserves a nickname: "InDNA". He revealed, in a press conference, that genetic tests indicate that Tutankhamun was the fruit of an incestuous affair between Akhenaten and his sister. The name of this lady is unknown, but we might suppose that young Tut simply called her Mummy [shameful pun].

Today, everybody knows that it's not a good idea for brothers and sisters to procreate, because human chromosomes can get horribly screwed up in situations of that kind. For example, it appears that Tutankhamun, who died at the age of 19, suffered from malaria, a cleft lip and an inherited bone disease that caused him to have a club foot. As if that weren't enough, he was represented in paintings as an androgynous creature. Of course, you don't notice any of these genetic flaws when you admire the dead pharaoh through his funeral mask and mummy swaddling. But you can't hide anything from DNA tests.

Lenten abstinence Down Under

I would have found it more appropriate if the Australian PM had given up his Mad Minister for Lent... but he at least decided to give up Garrett's botched roof-insulation project.

As for the Mad Monk, he has told us publicly that he's giving up screwing the missus for Lent.

The senate has given up its dignity by allowing Scientologists to record their whingeing officially in Hansard.

Meanwhile, Australia has its first saint. Even if there's no more than a faint chance that Mary MacKillop might be able to bring about miracles, I hope she won't give up trying, because I often feel that Australia needs her divine assistance.

Prima rosa

Yesterday, the snow had completely disappeared, and the sun was shining over Choranche. I wandered up the slopes, with Sophia, to take advantage of the glorious weather. Everywhere, small rocks, detached by the thaw, had rolled onto the road. I ran into Pierrot, the municipal employee, who was busy removing these rocks. At the level of Bob's house (which he would like to sell this summer), I took this photo of all that remains of the fireplace of the ancient stone farmhouse (a twin of my place), which the Nazis had burned down in July 1944.

For weeks, I've got into the habit of stretching myself out in front of my fireplace... watching TV and warming my toes, which are great pastimes on winter evenings, when the world outside is white and chilly. Looking at the decaying red bricks, some of which are charred black around the edges, I imagined that generations of farming families had probably huddled there on cold evenings, after eating their vegetable soup accompanied by a hunk of coarse bread and a glass of the nasty brew they called wine (which had replaced the noble wine that had been eliminated from Choranche by the phylloxera pest around 1860).

During the night, light rain started to fall, and the muddy ground around Gamone now squelches as if I were wearing rubber boots and walking on seaweeds.

Looking back on the last few months, I realize how fortunate I was to have had the roof restored and the ramp laid during a couple of short sunny breaks. In fact, there could be nothing better for the ramp than the treatment of snow and rain to which it has been subjected, which is compacting it ideally. No vehicle will touch the ramp, of course, before it has dried out and been covered in gravel.

This morning, from my bedroom window, I discovered with joy a tiny splash of yellow. In spite of the rain, I rushed outside with my Nikon (protected by an umbrella) to take the following photo:

The first primrose of 2010 at Gamone! Spring is just around the corner.

Basques are not as bizarre as all that

When I first arrived in France, I was amused to find people advising me, apparently in a serious manner, that the best way by far to learn French was in bed. And that's how I soon became a serious language student. For a long time, in this spirit, I've had a theory that the ideal way in which to acquire a certain understanding, not only of a foreign language, but of peoples and even regions, is through a female friend who's associated with the language, land or region in question. In any case, that's the way the cookie has always crumbled for me personally. Inversely, I've often thought that one of the explanations (cause or rather an effect?) of my aloofness concerning both my native land and the USA, for example, is the sad fact that I've never, at any moment, been involved in a passionate relationship with an Australian or an American. [This is not a distressed call for help!]


The ancient Basque Country covers a tiny corner of Spain and an even tinier corner of south-west France, in the vicinity of the Bay of Biscay. I've never had an opportunity of visiting this region. On the other hand, I had a Basque girlfriend in Paris for several years and, through her, I've always felt a kind of solidarity (no doubt superficial) with the Basque region and culture. Besides, as soon as she started to talk about her last visit to her relatives in the vicinity of Biarritz, she would abandon her usual lighthearted conversational style and adopt an almost solemn tone, as if to inform me that there should be no joking about her beloved region. It would have been unthinkable for me to make a remark of any kind concerning notorious events that were mentioned regularly by the media: the activities in Spain and France of partisans of the creation of an autonomous Basque nation.

Many Australians have heard of Basque beaches where surfing competitions take place. The sport that is most readily associated with this people is Basque pelota, derived from the quaint old game of "royal tennis".

Over recent decades, many curious legends have been circulating on the subject of the Basque people, who are often considered as a unique biological family, who might even be direct descendants of Cro-Magnon man. These legends probably came into existence initially because of the mysterious Basque language, which is indeed unique. It does not belong to the vast group of so-called Indo-European languages, and it appears to be unrelated to any other language in the world. Then, when blood tests appeared on the scene, it was found that 20 percent of Basques are Rh negative, as compared to only 15 percent among the English, and 3 percent among the Chinese. Even the great pioneer of population genetics Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza still looks upon this fact as evidence in favor of the Cro-Magnon hypothesis.

DNA testing then stepped into this arena, and it has clarified our ideas, and even changed them in many ways. Two days ago, a major article on the Basque question was published online [display]. It reveals that "a genome-wide survey does not show the genetic distinctiveness of Basques", who cannot be considered a genetic outsider. The authors of the article conclude that "interpretations on their origin may have to be revised". Now, I'm not sure that my former girlfriend would be happy to learn that there's nothing special about the Basques.

Much current research into the origins of Europeans concerns the famous R1b1b2 haplogroup, which is widespread throughout Europe. [I myself belong to the R1b1b2a1b5 subgroup, designated since the end of 2008 as the R-L21 family, with our own website.] Now, it has been known for quite a while that most Basques belong to this R1b1b2 haplogroup. The big question facing population geneticists has been this: What were the relative contributions to modern European populations of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers from the Middle East? In other words, were our ancestors basically Old Stone Age hunter-gatherers who finally transformed their way of life when they heard about the possibility of becoming farmers? Or were our ancestors New Stone Age farmers who migrated to Europe, maybe only 10,000 years ago, from their Middle Eastern lands of origin? The answer seems to be that there was an equivalent dosage of both these origins. But in all cases, Y-chromosome research indicates that the origin of the Basques was no different to that of other Europeans.

So, how do specialists explain the Rh negative phenomenon? Well, it now appears that blood groups are not a trustworthy standard in population genetics, since they can be influenced, over the centuries, by the spread of diseases. And how do linguists explain the strange Basque language? For the moment, they can't...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A thousand and one hamburgers

In France, a fast-food chain has just announced that their burgers are composed of beef slaughtered according to Muslim rites, and that the bacon has been replaced by smoked turkey.

Funnily enough, within the context of this enterprise whose name is an English word, nobody seems to have drawn attention to the fact that the first three letters in the term hamburger designate, for Semites of both creeds, a detestable foodstuff. At a time when all our attention might be directed towards steering kids away from nasty food and obesity, it's deplorable that religion has once again reared its distasteful head. Decidedly, even in France, society is having trouble emerging from the Middle Ages.

Awesome Amy America

I remember a short Manhattan holiday of my son and me, long ago. I had a vague wish to show my son America. In our dull hotel room, we watched TV footage about a guy who had just shot down a whole bunch of innocent folk. The journalists were interviewing former friends and associates of the killer, who were unanimous about his character: "He was a really nice friendly guy. We can't imagine what caused him to commit this massacre."

I've noticed that, whenever things gets screwed up in God's Own Country, they tend to conclude that the Normal Order of American Happenings has been interfered with, no doubt through the actions of the Devil. Then they make a feeble attempt to delve into the past... and they're capable of finding all kinds of skeletons in the closets. But they rapidly rearrange them, in an attempt to make the past fit the present.

Interesting interrogation: Is it still possible to admire America?

Three sources of inspiration

It's not surprising that my blog reflections are inspired by three principal sources: (1) My Australian homeland (2) My adoptive France (3) My longtime US role model.

Concerning source 1, I have less and less to say these days, because my compatriots no longer inspire me. On the contrary, they sadden and alarm me, and I no longer "feel Australian" in any other than a genealogical sense. As for source 3, Obama has deceived almost everybody... but what the hell. I've never succeeded in taking seriously this powerful but light-headed nation with God on its side. So, I'm left with source 3: France. That's great, because I live there, and I have an immense and unfathomable love and respect for France! For me, France has always been the center of the universe. Today, I'm more convinced than ever that this is the case, because contemporary France (in spite of its leaders) is a synonym of ancient wisdom.

I can't decide which of the monkeys should represent each land. All three beasts are beautiful, so I prefer not to choose between them. In fact, ideally, my mythical France would attempt—at one and the same time—to speak no evil, see no evil and hear no evil. As I said, my France is a glorious myth.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Second circus thoughts

I'm profoundly encouraged by readers who advise me not to simply abandon Antipodes, like an uncouth man who decides abruptly to walk out on his family. You know the charming anecdotes: Darling, I must go out and buy a box of matches... and the bastard disappears for a quarter of a century! There have been phone calls, too, including one from my ex-wife, who almost threatened to leave me if I abandoned my blog. (I'm joking. Divorced on 22 November 1977, we live conveniently in opposite corners of France.) What my dearest Christine actually said was that Antipodes has always served a useful purpose in informing friends and family members of what's happening at Gamone. And it would be silly to ignore that down-to-earth role of my blog. Besides, I prefer to write blog articles rather than send out emails or make phone calls. Curiously, in spite of being the proud owner of an iPhone, I've become relatively "anti-telephone" over the years. And, while I vaunt superficially the merits of Twitter, Google Wave, Google Buzz, etc, I'm aware of the limited scope and depth of these new-fangled vectors of communication.

As for Facebook, I must admit that I would be most happy if this so-called social networking system were to leave me alone. (To be truthful, it doesn't bother me too much.) Its ridiculous symmetry of the "Me Tarzan, you Jane, us all friends in the jungle" kind dismays me immensely. At least, in a blog, you can speak out your mind without fearing that such-and-such a sexy Jane in the jungle is going to scream out that she no longer wishes to be your friend, and walk out on you.

But I do seriously believe that Antipodes might not necessarily be the ideal platform upon which to attempt to deal with many of the most profound themes that inspire me... which are better left to my ongoing autobiographical typescript entitled Digital Me. For example, a recent straw that almost broke the Eskimo's back was a naive comment suggesting that I might be "pulling the legs" of my readers when I evoke certain marvels of modern science and technology. It's very hard to react intelligently to this kind of feedback, because it undermines the very essence of a blog, which is the possibility of expressing one's convictions and passions, while hoping that readers are sufficiently well-informed to know, at least roughly, what you're talking about (which apparently wasn't the case in the Eskimo domain). But I had committed exactly the same kind of indelicacy, as a comment-sender, in suggesting that a respected blogger friend might not have the right to talk of such-and-such a celebrity as a scarecrow. Antipodes is quits.

Maybe I should concentrate more upon my basic blog articles, rather than letting myself get carried away by comments. But, isn't that a way of saying that I'm an asymmetrical and antisocial blogger? That might be the price I must pay (willingly) in order to create the necessary operational context for the useful pursuit of Antipodes.

We bloggers are minor circus clowns, but the blog must go on...