Wednesday, March 31, 2010

No black holes yet

The world has learned that the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] was revved up to cruising speed yesterday.

My home in France is not far away from the Franco-Swiss border where the subterranean device of the European Organization for Nuclear Research [CERN] is located. If ever the physicists happened to start creating tiny black holes, it's not unthinkable that some of them might stream through the ground and finally burst out into the air through the limestone cliffs of Choranche. And, if they emerged here, these black holes would surely start to gobble up various elements of the landscape, with greater or lesser effects, depending on the volume of the disappearances. If a black hole from the suburbs of Geneva were to hit one of my donkeys, say, then it's likely that the disturbance would only be noticed by me, the remaining donkey and, of course, my dog Sophia... who would no doubt smell the nasty odor of an approaching black hole, and start barking. On the other hand, if a black hole were to take out the entire Cournouze mountain, then this modification of the landscape would surely be noticed by many observers (including me, the inhabitants of Choranche and Châtelus, and countless skiers from the Drôme, driving past on their way up to Villard-de-Lans.

There's a down-to-earth question that puzzles me constantly. What would it feel like if you stepped inadvertently, while out walking, on a microscopic black hole that had just fallen onto the ground after being catapulted here from the CERN? Would you suddenly see your foot disappear mysteriously into thin air? Would you have time to jump aside before losing an entire leg? Would this kind of amputation be painful? I imagine naively that this would be a particularly "clean" kind of surgery, since any excess blood or dangling flesh would no doubt disappear into the hole, leaving the patient/victim with a nice smooth germ-free wound, which would no doubt be heal rapidly.

Enough silly joking about black holes. Let me be serious. The BBC website has produced a few excellent pages that explain the basic principles of the LHC. The stuff concerning the computing aspect of this affair, based upon a gigantic system called the Grid, is amazing. Everything about the LHC is fabulous, and I'm tremendously proud that Europe can get involved in this kind of research.

Recently, I was just as enthusiastic about this whole field of scientific investigation as I am today about genetics. In particular, I've admired the two books of Brian Greene about strings.

It's fascinating to try to compare research work and challenges in two different domains such as genetics and physics ("compare" is an inadequate word). The fields in which Richard Dawkins writes so brilliantly are in fact relatively down-to-earth, almost commonsensical, compared with the LHC universe. Even though there are still countless fuckwits who do their silly best to declare that Dawkins is wrong about almost everything, the truth of the matter is that he's operating in a scientific domain whose concepts and laws are fairly well specified by now. That explains why Dawkins can now amuse himself (as I'm sure he does) by fighting verbal battles with adepts of religion, creationism and quackery in general. I'm not suggesting that he doesn't have any more serious scientific work to do. No, I'm trying to say that, since he's standing on such firm ground, he can afford to take time off from scientific challenges in order to tackle the social and human tasks that consist of educating his fellow human beings.

In the world of physics, on the other hand, the great researchers are not yet in a comfortable position enabling them to get involved in comprehensible discussions with the general public. When geneticists set out to unravel the human genome, they had a clear idea of what they were looking for, and what they would eventually find. But there is no such clarity in the case of the LHC. There's even a distinguished Israeli physicist named Eliyahu Comay who's convinced that the CERN researchers won't find anything at all by means of the LHC: neither the Higgs Boson nor strings. And why not? Simply because such entities, according to Comay, cannot possibly exist! Any dumb nincompoop can enunciate his fuzzy personal reasons for dating the start of the universe, or the age of dinosaurs, or for demonstrating the existence or nonexistence of God. But it's a different kettle of fish when you decide to talk about the Higgs Boson and strings. Even Pope Benedict XVI wouldn't normally be expected to state his profound opinion on such matters. We know beforehand that, no matter what the people at CERN find out about the universe through the LHC, the facts and their conclusions will remain totally incomprehensible for the vast majority of observers.

In fact, that's what's nice about scientific domains that are based upon extraordinary concepts and advanced mathematics. These obstacles filter out the fuckwits. Inversely, the problem at the level of Darwin, Dawkins and DNA (just to name these three pillars) is that everything's so beautifully simple, immediately obvious and totally proven... except to loud-mouthed peanut-brained fuckwits.

Young plum tree

Maybe it wasn't a bright idea to plant a small plum tree beneath the canopy of one of my giant linden trees.

Nevertheless, it appears to be happy there, as it has just burst out in white blossoms. Maybe, in the near future, it might even yield a symbolic handful of tiny plums.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Law, not the Lord, will decide

Computer atheists refer kindly to the pope as Benny Hex, since 16-based counting is designated as hexadecimal. More rapidly than expected, our red-robed hero is losing all his aura... if ever he had any. He's coming through loud and clear as a slimy little Catholic creep.

I used to be surprised (delighted, in fact) when my Catholic friend Natacha dared to refer to ultra-pious old ladies as "holy font frogs".

The pope is that kind of creature. But he might not hop around for long, for there are all kinds of laws condemning individuals who aid and abet sex criminals. The pope imagines that it's the Lord—through the Vatican—who arbitrates all things. He's grossly misled. The ordinary law of civilized nations determines what's right and what's wrong, particularly in the case of known individuals who have raped children. Benny Hex needs to update his antiquated catechism.


When my ex-neighbor Bob dropped by to collect his mail, I told him I'd decided to build a holy altar out of wood... to celebrate atheism. I'm not sure he understood what I was saying... but What the hell.

Bob asked me who had actually built this box... as if I might have called upon craftsmen. No, I did it all alone in a time frame of 24 hours. Admire the nice heavy amovible lid, which is not likely to be blown off by tempests and deposited down in Gamone Creek.

Does my hi-tech gravel box fit into the Gamone environment?

I think so. Dédé and Madeleine drove up this morning, and they approve of my initiative. It'll be a nice place to sit down and admire our magnificent valley. Dédé even drew my attention to the fact (with which I agree entirely) that I should have a second box for sand. Meanwhile, my son François told me on the phone that, in one of the exotic lands he visited recently (for his TV work), there were piles of gravel in front of every residence. I find this perfectly normal. A friend told me this long ago. A home isn't a home unless it has a pile of gravel/sand in the front yard. That's life.

The big question is: What do I intend to do with all the gravel that I intend to deposit in my gravel box? Good question...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dawkins says Ratzinger is "the perfect pope"

[Click the image to access the Dawkins article]

In The Washington Post, this is splendid "strident" Dawkins (he hates that adjective), at his anti-papistical best. I love the final paragraph:

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice - the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution - while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

Dawkins is an outspoken Englishman of the finest kind. A nice but weird association has sprung into his mind. When Dawkins is confronted by nasty foes (such as Ratzinger, the "leering old villain in a frock"), he speaks in the intense poetic style of Winston Churchill during the Blitz.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Religion leads us astray from human realities

It's nice to find CNN airing the profound thoughts of the writer Sam Harris, the author of the New York Times bestsellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.

This clearly-spoken 42-year-old US intellectual is a brilliant and popular advocate of secular thinking.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cameo portrait of Dawkins

Tom Chivers, the editor of "strategic events" at the Telegraph, has penned an excellent short piece about Richard Dawkins, and the present ire of the great scientist concerning the hosting of this year's Templeton Prize by the US National Academy of Sciences. The title of the perspicacious article by Chivers says it all: Richard Dawkins is more than a 'militant atheist': he's a magnificent writer who changed my life.

I agree with Chivers that it's a little sad to see a great scientist and writer such as Dawkins bogged down at times in the murky domain of religion, where much of his energy and brilliance is squandered in casting pearls before intellectually-mediocre swine (such as Creationists who claim that the world is only a few thousand years old).

To my mind, it's far from obvious that Telegraph readers are the sort of folk who might be capable of digesting Dawkins, and willing to do so. So, I say: "Bravo, Tom!"


Let me preface this article by saying that I think we have here an excellent candidate for the next Ig Nobel Prize [explanations].

Two brothers—one a marketing and economics professor at Cornell University, and the other a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College—decided to examine 52 famous paintings of the Last Supper with a view to determining whether the size of food helpings has evolved over the last millennium. Well, the answer would appear to be an emphatic giant-sized yes. And they suggest that this might explain why many people today (at least in the USA) are gulping down bigger portions of food, served up on bigger plates. In other words, this study of religious art has provided them with God-given evidence for the dawning of the Age of Obesity.

The study, to be published in the next issue of the International Journal of Obesity, indicates that, over the last ten centuries, the size of food helpings in Last Supper paintings has increased by 66 percent. Not surprisingly, the diameter of Last Supper plates has increased to exactly the same extent. Curiously, the size of the hunk of bread accompanying the meal seems to have increased by merely 23 percent... which no doubt gives weight to the Biblical saying about man not living by bread alone.

To my mind, this study offers some great ideas that could be exploited by the marketing people in good Christian fast-food restaurants. In bars and pubs, there are so-called "happy hours" when the price of drinks drops considerably. In restaurants of the kind I've just evoked, there could be "multiplication hours" during which lucky customers would receive extra helpings of fish and bread, and "Cana hours" during which the Coke cups of a happy few would be refilled, free of charge, with Californian wine.

I'm proud to think that, in spite of my excessive age and atheism, I can still come up with a few great ideas for America.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sticks and stones

When I was a kid at school, we had the habit of reacting to verbal insults by means of the following ditty:

Stick and stones can break my bones
But words can never hurt me

This lilting incantation was quite effective in the case of the supreme insult in Graftonian scholastic circles, which consisted of having one's face described by a poetic urchin as resembling "a sucked mango seed".

In France, I had got into the habit of thinking that most people are mature enough to consider that mere words are rarely lethal, and that we shouldn't normally be disturbed by apparent insults of a purely verbal nature. Recently, however, there have been several spectacular incidents suggesting that certain individuals believe that words can hurt them no less than sticks and stones.

Back in January, the Socialist boss of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Georges Frêche, was speaking of a fellow-Socialist, former prime minister Laurent Fabius. "For me , it would be a problem to vote for that guy in Normandy. His face isn't Catholic." For ages, the expression about such-and-such a thing being "not Catholic" has been used in everyday French as a trivial synonym—devoid of religious connotations—for "irregular" or "unorthdox". Now, Frêche is a big-mouthed bumpkin with hordes of friends down in his Mediterranean region. They admire him (in spite of his frequent verbal faux pas) because of his huge local achievements of a political nature. Everybody realized, of course, that his derogatory remarks concerning Fabius were nothing more than a quip of the kind: "I wouldn't buy a used car from that guy." The problem, though, is that Fabius is a Jew, and the idea of his not having a "Catholic look" sounded immediately like a racist remark, based upon his physical appearance. Consequently, in the context of the forthcoming regional elections, the Socialist party officially "disowned" Frêche... which did not prevent him from obtaining a huge electoral victory.

Everything would have been so much simpler if party authorities, instead of outlawing Frêche, had simply said to him: "Georges, why don't you control your language? At times, you give us the impression that you're a silly old bugger. And this is a pity, because we know it's not true." Ah, if only serious politicians could talk among themselves, from time to time, in such a cool style...

The next storm in a verbal teacup occurred on TV, on March 6, when a brilliant but pugnacious journalist, Eric Zemmour, declared: "French people with an immigrant background are stopped more often than other citizens for police checks because most drug dealers are Blacks and Arabs." The journalist was immediately accused of racism, and there are rumors that he might be sacked by his employer, the Figaro group. Furthermore, Zemmour dared to suggest that the TV celebrity who had interviewed him on TV, Thierry Ardisson, had contributed deliberately to the creation of a troubled atmosphere in the studio... and now Ardisson is attacking Zemmour for slander. A respected TV personality, Rachid Arhab, referred to himself when he stated: "A person can be Arab without being a drug dealer." From a logical viewpoint, this truism was a totally irrelevant comment.

Meanwhile, a distinguished judge, Philippe Bilger, attempted to calm things down by pointing out publicly that an observer only has to attend court trials against drug dealers to learn that Zemmour's remark was perfectly factual. Once again, it's a pity that the simple juxtaposition of the words "Blacks", "Arabs", "police checks" and "drug dealers" is enough to send everybody into a state of illogical frenzy.

A third case of words with the apparent damaging power of sticks and stones has arisen since the second round of the regional elections. Observers have been trying to analyze, among other things, the unexpected success of the extreme Rightists led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. Last year, Nicolas Sarkozy called upon a minister named Eric Besson to investigate a curious subject: the so-called "national identity" of the French. Primarily, this operation consisted of defining what it means to be an authentic French citizen. Inversely, it put the spotlight upon immigrants and minorities who were stigmatized indirectly as being un-French... and this fallout played into the hands of Le Pen and his xenophobic followers. Conclusion: It was Besson—who happened to be a recent defector from the Socialist party (in other words, a kind of traitor)—whose preoccupation with national identity had created the necessary conditions for Le Pen's high electoral score.

A few days ago, a brilliant but vitriolic radio journalist, Stéphane Guillon, painted a harsh portrait of Eric Besson, designating him as "unpleasant", a "Mata Hari" of politics, with "weasel eyes and a receding chin, a true portrait of Iago" (the sinister villain in Shakespeare's Othello). Not unexpectedly, Besson didn't like to hear himself described in such terms on France's state-owned radio, and he swore vengeance upon Guillon. Now, this was probably a silly move, because there's a time-honored tradition in France of granting total liberty to humorists to produce harsh caricatures... through images, comedy sketches and, of course, plain words. That's to say, the anger of Besson is likely to backfire on him, and land him in trouble.

At the present moment, I don't know whether or not Eric Zemmour and/or Stéphane Guillon are going to be punished for their strong words. I don't think so, and I certainly hope not. In any case, it's reassuring to see that percussive words, in France, can apparently have as great an impact as punching a guy in the face, or breaking his bones with sticks and stones.

Life after snow

All good things come to an end. Sooner or later, a dog has to admit that the snow has disappeared at last from Gamone.

The problem, in such abnormal conditions, is deciding where to roll on your back. Although it's not as good as the real white stuff, a thick bed of soft dry grass is an acceptable substitute.

In her usual style, Sophia was using her hind legs as ski poles, to slide downwards. As she slid towards the edge of the grass, I yelled out to draw attention to the risk of toppling down the steep embankment. Sophia jumped up onto her four paws and looked at me with a dazed and puzzled expression. She seemed to be rather proud of having found a good ersatz for snow, and she wondered what the hell I was yelling about. Since it had been no more than a mild danger (maybe even a totally imaginary danger in my mind), I made no attempt to explain things to Sophia. I must be careful, though, because I don't want my dog to think I cry wolf.

Monday, March 22, 2010

First rural residence

Not long after our return from Sydney in 1968, Christine and I decided to rent a small house out in the country, in a commune named Houdan, 43 km west of Versailles. This morning, I was thrilled to discover that the neighborhood in which we lived, named Mocsouris, can be seen through Google Maps. Here's the setting as you leave Houdan on the road towards Gambais:

[Click to enlarge.]

This is a view from the street of the actual house that we rented:

I remember above all that it was a terribly chilly house. The water in our radiators was heated by a coal-fueled stove, which I had to stoke up every evening, and the thermal efficiency of this archaic system was not far above zero.

I traveled daily to my work in Paris by train. After six months or so of this rural existence, we decided to get back to civilization. So, we bought an old flat right in the middle of Paris, in the rue Rambuteau. But I retain fond memories of that brief stay out in the country, near the main highway between Paris and Brittany.

Postmodernist presentation of transmedia

Insofar as the following impressive video presentation of the fascinating transmedia concept is in French, you might be tempted to imagine that you would understand it better if you happened to understand French. In fact, that's an illusion. The ideal way of appreciating this tiny didactic and artistic masterpiece is to open wide your mind and let the messages flow in, in their primeval impactive globality (if you see what I mean), as a pure transmedia phenomenon.

Clearer now? Did you like the fleeting image of a tweet in the sky?

PS Seriously, this is the work of a talented French media production company called Les Raconteurs (storytellers).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dodgy Oz journalism

A fine article by Jason Ball on the website of the Young Australian Skeptics examines blatant cases of inaccurate Australian journalism concerning the recent Atheist Convention in Melbourne.

[Click the banner to access the article]

Those Oz journalists were really dumb to imagine for an instant that Dawkins might have been been referring to the present incumbent of the Vatican as "Pope Nazi".

An excellent evocation of the stubborn refusal of Pius XII to condemn the Shoah was provided in the film by Costa-Gavras entitled Amen.

The idea that this gutless pope might be venerated as a Roman Catholic saint is disgusting. Moreover this crazy project reveals yet another aspect of the twisted character of Ratzinger.

Friday, March 19, 2010

God save Oz

In viewing some of the dull videos associated with the recent Atheist Convention in Melbourne, I was struck by the fact that certain debaters, opposed to Richard Dawkins, punctuated their sad and silly remarks by phrases such as "here in Australia"... as if there might be two world orders: one for Aussies, and another for ungodly wogs (outsiders). For me, the notion that Australians or New Zealanders or seven-day bike-riders might have some special connection to the Almighty is so weird that I can say no more... apart from mentioning the fact that apparently serious compatriots would appear to evoke such illogical conjectures.

I fear that media coverage of the recent event didn't result in a positive image of Australia. Tourist authorities say that they'll only have to publicize messages from friends of Australia, and that everything will be bananas. We love a dollar-burnt country... but we Australians need to stop believing that we can simply turn on our nationality like a tap. Our only birthrights are those that a precious few of our ancestors acquired through a lifetime of determination and hard work.

My compatriots persist in seeing things as "ordinary", whereas things in our modern universe are antipodean: extraordinary, upside-down, unbelievable, unimaginable.


The last member of the indigenous family of Tasmanians was a lovely lady named Truganina (attired here in silly Victorian clothes).

This 64-year-old Queen of the Tasmanian Aborigines (as she has often been designated) died in Hobart on 8 May 1876. On her deathbed, she pleaded to be buried in the mountains where her tribe had wandered for millennia. Instead, her remains were mounted as a specimen and placed in a glass box in a Hobart museum.

Since then, I don't know whether the DNA of Truganina has been preserved. I hope so, because her people were fabulous Southern Hemisphere pioneers whom we might encounter and celebrate, today, through their genome. We would be thrilled to know how and when they arrived in Tasmania, and what they did there...

Well, it seems that (as they say in French) there's bread on the breadboard, waiting to be tasted, eaten, appreciated. For the moment, the essential data is filtering slowly and unsatisfactorily... but it would appear that a horde of ancient artifacts has been unearthed [display] at a place named Brighton, near Hobart, during roadwork operations.

In my recent article entitled Seafarers [display], I evoked the existence of my archaic compatriots Mungo Man and Mungo Woman, born (like me, but a little earlier on) in New South Wales. Well the Brighton findings would appear to date from that epoch. So, we can look forward to learning, little by little, how Truganina's ancestors spent their time on the planet Earth.

I like to think that the spirit of Queen Truganina would be happy to know that her pale-skinned cousins from the "New World" (of Asia, Europe, America, etc) have finally got around, through perseverance, to tapping into—be it ever so little—her archaic Dreamtime.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Devil doing his job

This CNN conversation with the Vatican's exorcist is truly a masterpiece of surrealism, like a live interview of Saint John on the island of Patmos while he's busy writing the Apocalypse.

When the 85-year-old priest speaks of the devil, he's not using metaphorical language. No, for Father Gabriele Amorth, the devil is a real creature of a flesh-and-blood kind, a little like Osama bin Laden. That's to say, you don't necessarily run into him when you're walking down the main street, but you're totally convinced that he exists somewhere, at this moment, on the face of the planet Earth.

If I were unkind and fiercely anticlerical (which I probably am, in fact), I would say that this dear old fellow is a basket case. He suffers from some kind of mental affliction. And what can be said about the obsequious asshole who's interviewing the archaic loony?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

France can be disfigured

I imagine naively that the natural resources and cultural antiquity of our douce (gentle) France are such that it's more difficult to disfigure the landscape than in a savage place such as my native land, where unabated primeval greed and dollars would seem to dominate all other considerations, including politics. In fact, even such a magnificent land as France can nevertheless be disfigured... once an outstanding asshole sets his mind upon such a task. Last night, on TV, I observed the nasty fallout of such an asshole. His specialty consists of earning a living by creating kitsch decorated roundabouts at the entry of French towns.

I don't wish to say anything more about this obnoxious personage, because I have no wish to publicize his idiotically horrible but lucrative operations. Sadly, elected representatives of small towns in France can no doubt be influenced easily by smart talkers of the kind of our roundabout decorator/polluter... who thinks of himself as an artist.

There's a gigantic problem in France (and elsewhere on the globe, no doubt) concerning industrial wastelands. Particularly when they're abandoned anonymously in a polluted state. It must be terribly frustrating for the mayor of a small rural community to have to deal with such a giant festering carbuncle in his commune. In rare cases, as in the mining regions of northern France, industrial wastelands might even be transformed—by osmosis and metamorphose—into touristic sites... but we shouldn't bank too much upon the promises of miracles of that nature. In general, abandoned and polluted industrial sites are dirty, and their cleaning up necessitates astronomical sums.

The excellent TV evening left me with a vague but distinctly positive feeling that France has surely woken up to this kind of dirty situation. Even while driving around ridiculous rural roundabouts, I have faith in the overall social intelligence of the French République.

Monday, March 15, 2010

There is indeed evil

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil...

It might work for monkeys... but there's no way in the world that this approach can be adopted by those who see themselves as followers of Jesus, men of God. The church of Rome is crumbling, not because it has been attacked by infidels, but through its own internal forces of decay and destruction. And Captain Ratzinger will probably (hopefully) go down with his rotting ship.

Click the photo of Benedict XVI to discover a scathing article by Christopher Hitchens entitled The Great Catholic Cover-Up. His subtitle is eloquent: The pope's entire career has the stench of evil about it.

Singular happenings

In my novel entitled All the Earth is Mine, the young mining engineer Jacob Rose has to transport equipment (including a small helicopter) and a handful of colleagues from Western Australia to Israel. So, he decides to use company funds to purchase

[...] a splendid sixty-foot deep-sea trawler, built five years ago at the Fremantle dockyards for an over-optimistic shrimp merchant who went bankrupt because he operated systematically in the wrong waters. Named Black Swan, this vessel was in perfect shape, since her owner had never been fortunate enough to have an opportunity of subjecting the trawler to the wear and tear of harsh seasons of shrimping. Jake, of course, was not interested in catching seafood. He intended to travel to Israel in this vessel, and to use it there both as a floating home and as a supply ship for his forthcoming operations. Prior to purchasing the trawler, Jake asked the owner to move the vessel to the Fremantle dockyards so that it could be inspected with a view to being fitted out with living quarters for six people. Jake also wanted to install a steel deck over the hold where nets full of shrimp were meant to be dragged into the vessel, enabling him to envisage folding the blades of his Ecureuil, hoisting the helicopter aboard and tying it down securely, under tarpaulins, for the trip to Israel. There would also be room underneath the tail section of the helicopter to stack a small Zodiac on the deck. In this way, the Black Swan would be an ideal mother ship for future operations at Caesarea. Fortunately, it would be possible to have these transformations carried out in a remarkably short period of time, meaning that Jake would be able to envisage their departure within about two months.

Here's my vision of Jake's converted trawler after its transformations in the Fremantle dockyards:

It wasn't particularly original of me to imagine the name Black Swan for Jake's trawler, since this creature is the celebrated symbol of Western Australia.

When I was a child, I remember hearing that the black species of Cygnus was found only in Australia, but this information didn't impress me greatly, for two obvious reasons: (1) I had never seen animals in any other natural environment beyond Australia, and (2) there are so many strange creatures in Australia that we have become blasé concerning adjectives such as "exotic" and "unique".

Recently, our famous bird acquired a new symbolic status through a best-seller entitled The Black Swan by the Lebanese intellectual Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He considers that certain unexpected happenings, of a spectacular nature, can be designated as Black Swan events [BSE]. They are defined by three characteristic features:
(1) BSE are totally unexpected.
(2) BSE give rise to profound effects with vast consequences.
(3) Such events can indeed be explained... but only retrospectively.

We can see why Taleb refers to black swans. In earlier centuries, it was thought that black swans simply did not exist. Then, in 1697, a Dutch navigator discovered that such birds did in fact exist in Western Australia. Consequently, the notion of a black swan came to designate something that went through these two phases, from total disbelief to astonished belief, followed by an a posteriori process of rationalization.

The culmination of my novel (which was completed several years before the publication of Taleb's book) is the transformation of Israel into a giant vessel that sails around the world. Funnily enough, this is a splendid example of a BSE! More realistic examples of BSEs, proposed by Taleb, are the Great War, personal computers and the Internet.

A fortnight ago, an interesting article entitled America, the fragile empire appeared in the Los Angeles Times [display]. Written by a Harvard historian, Niall Ferguson, the article had an even more eye-catching subtitle: Here today, gone tomorrow -- could the United States fall that fast? The gist of this short article is that the USA is a relatively fragile entity, which is capable of disintegrating unexpectedly and rapidly. In a nutshell, Niall Ferguson imagines that the fall of America could take the form of a Black Swan event.

Here's an excellent video in which TV host Harry Kreisler talks at length with Niall Ferguson about his book entitled The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World:

I must admit that I know little about the reputation of Ferguson among his peers, but I find that his style and assertions are startling, to say the least. But isn't that the very essence of a BSE?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Voting in France

This afternoon, for the first time ever, I voted in a French election. The voting booth was located in the municipal hall of the village.

Apart from the man and woman in charge of the voting, I encountered two other citizens. But that's not surprising, because there are only a hundred or so residents in the commune of Choranche. In other words, from a percentage viewpoint, my vote is likely to have a non-trivial impact upon the political landscape of Choranche. In this photo, I'm actually casting my vote:

The seemingly disgusted expression on my face gives the impression that I've just picked up a smelly dog turd in a Kleenex, and I'm putting it in a trash can. In fact, that's simply the way I look when I'm serious.

Cosmic cheesiness

David Pogue (with over 1.3 million Twitter followers) has pointed us to this masterpiece, billed by many as the most cheesy video of all time:

Carl Lewis is no doubt in the process of losing his record to the Trololo Man, whose moving performance can be appreciated here thanks to English subtitles:

There's a rumor that this great Russian musical artist will be setting out soon on a gigantic world tour.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

La montagne - Jean Ferrat

Gazing up at the Cournouze mountain, above the villages of Choranche and Châtelus, I'm often reminded of this song by Jean Ferrat:

During the '60s and '70s, when I was living in Paris, there were three renowned poet-singers: Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré. Alongside that prestigious trio, Jean Ferrat could be thought of as the Fourth Musketeer. The TV host Michel Drucker, learning of Ferrat's death today, referred to him as the Last of the Mohicans.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Enemies of the Internet

[Click the banner to access their website.]

The highly-reputed French association named Reporters Without Borders describes itself as follows:

Reporters Without Borders is present in all five continents through its national branches (in Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland), its offices in New York, Tokyo and Washington, and the more than 120 correspondents it has in other countries. The organisation also works closely with local and regional press freedom groups that are members of the Reporters Without Borders Network, in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Burma, Colombia, Democratic Congo, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Peru, Romania, Russia, Somalia, the United States and Tunisia.

Reporters Without Borders is registered in France as a non-profit organisation and has consultant status at the United Nations.

In 2005, the organisation won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Today, March 12, happens to be their World Day Against Cyber Censorship.

[Click the poster to access their description of this event.]

The association has just published a report entitled Enemies of the Internet. Here's a paragraph that mentions Australia:

Among the countries “under surveillance” are several democracies: Australia, because of the upcoming implementation of a highly developed Internet filtering system, and South Korea, where draconian laws are creating too many specific restrictions on Web users by challenging their anonymity and promoting self-censorship.

Browsing through the complete report (available on their website), we're obliged to admit that Australia is not exactly in nice company: Saudi Arabia, Burma, China, North Korea, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

BREAKING NEWS: The story about so-called "enemies of the Internet" has been reproduced widely in the French press, accompanied by the following map:


Early in the 20th century, when the general public started to hear about statistical thermodynamics, science writers became interested in finding striking metaphors for impossible happenings. They were motivated in particular by the need to say just how unlikely it would be for a glass of water, on the kitchen table, to suddenly freeze... in spite of the theoretical possibility that this could happen.

In 1913, the French mathematician and politician Emile Borel proposed the metaphor of a million monkeys typing for a year and producing by chance a copy of all the books in the world's greatest libraries. Recently, wags have observed that you only have to examine the blog phenomenon to discover that humanity can't expect too much from millions of naked apes armed with keyboards.

In The Blind Watchmaker [pages 47-52], Richard Dawkins proposed a variation of the monkeys-and-typewriters metaphor in which the goal consists of producing a single line of Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel. If you use an algorithm that examines periodically the monkeys' output and retains, as a new point of departure, only the line whose letters are closest to those of the target, then the goal is reached quite rapidly. But I always thought it a pity that Dawkins should introduce this twisted version of the metaphor, because it might cause adepts of so-called "intelligent design" to imagine—for a misguided instant—that Dawkins is suggesting that evolution operates with a target "in mind"... which, of course, is nonsense.

In The God Delusion [page 113], Dawkins introduced a new metaphor to illustrate quasi-impossibility: that of the Ultimate Boeing 747, borrowed from the English astronomer Fred Hoyle [1915-2001].

[Click the photo to see a Dawkins video that mentions the Boeing metaphor.]

The basic image is that of a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, which just happens to blow together various bits and pieces in such a way as to build a Boeing 747. People who believe erroneously that evolution is a theory of chance and random constructions consider that this metaphor illustrates the absurdity of imagining that a living animal could be the outcome of the random shuffling of its components. In fact, they're spot on. That would indeed be a stupid way of looking at Creation of any kind, with or without a capital C. Fortunately, Darwin's theory of evolution never calls upon processes of that absurd kind. On the other hand, Dawkins points out that something like the Ultimate Boeing 747 process would have been required—at some eternal instant in the Dreamtime (that precision comes from me, not Dawkins)—in order to create the kind of mysterious entity known as God.

[Click the photo to see the encounter.]

A week ago, in a funereal setting in Melbourne, Dawkins was interviewed by a local journalist named Robyn Williams... who seems to have a sound reputation in Australia. I make that last point because I was rather horrified by the stupid way in which this fellow tried to get the ball rolling. He had invented his own silly and fuzzy little metaphor for impossibility: something to do with the chance that all the people in the audience might find their correctly-numbered seats, by pure chance, if they were to sit down in a random fashion. A lesser man than Dawkins might have asked: "What the fuck does that have to do with Darwin's theory of evolution?" But Dawkins is, of course, an unruffled gentleman... and he put Robyn Williams back on course in a polite and even pedagogical manner. It was a truly beautiful example of the Dawkins style.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Associative thinking

Most serious individuals concentrate upon one thing at a time. I'm not suggesting that they have what might be called "one-track minds". I'm merely saying that, when they decide to talk about X, they deliberately leave Y locked up in the wardrobe... which makes for nice easy-to-follow conversation. As for me, I'm not like that. Whenever I'm talking about X, I find myself searching constantly for associated pretexts that might enable me to liberate Y from the wardrobe. This makes me an impossible conversationalist, because my listeners find it hard to pin down what I'm talking about. In polite terms, one might say that I practice associative thinking.

Over the last few days (since the death of my uncle Ken Walker), I've been browsing through old family photos.

The bikes leaning against the fence of the Walker home in Waterview (South Grafton) are Malvern Star track machines, manufactured down in Melbourne. And, in the late '30s, one of the most famous members of the Malvern Star team in Australia was the French champion Charles Rampelberg.

This postcard was pasted in my childhood bible: "Cyclone" Johnny Walker's big brown-paper scrapbook of press cuttings. A native of northern France, Rampelberg was racing out in Australia when World War II erupted. His name appears in records of the six-day races at Sydney in 1938 and 1941. Seriously injured in a fall when his head struck a wing-nut of his front wheel, Rampelberg was obliged to end his cycling career. Unable to envisage a return to his war-stricken homeland, he decided to get into business in Australia as a delicatessen. Later, having made a fortune through this activity, Charles returned to Paris and worked as a marketing representative for his brother Emile Rampelberg, who was renowned as a graphic designer in the textile field, with family links to the great house of Boussac from northern France.

Prior to his career in Australia, Charles Rampelberg had won a bronze medal in the kilometer time trial at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Back in France, this celebrated track cyclist had surely raced at times (although I've found no records that substantiate this speculation) in an indoor cycling stadium in Paris known as the Vélodrome d'hiver (winter velodrome), located near the Eiffel Tower. I've attended fabulous six-day track-cycling events in both Paris Bercy and Grenoble. The following photo (unidentified) gives you an idea of the hallucinating atmosphere of such places.

Today, we have no authentic images of the Paris velodrome, known familiarly as the Vel d'Hiv.

It was located not far from the spot where Australia's embassy now stands. In fact, while the champion cyclist Rampelberg was recovering from head wounds out in the Antipodes, and setting up his delicatessen business, horrific events were taking place back in the cycling stadium in Paris. On 16-17 July 1942, this place was the focal point of a horrendous roundup of Parisian Jews, destined for extermination in the Nazi camps of Poland. And the most amazing aspect of this terrible affair was that it was carried out, not by German Nazis, but by Frenchmen!

On TV last Tuesday evening, there was much talk about this terrible site and this ignominious event, known now in French, for all Eternity, as the rafle du Vel' d'Hiv (roundup of the winter velodrome). This page of modern French history is darker, even, than the notorious Armistice signed by a fuddy-duddy Philippe Pétain. One of the frightening items of fallout concerning this disgusting affair is the fact that one of its prominent French instigators, René Bousquet, remained a personal friend of François Mitterrand.

These days, countless Francophiles such as myself have been striving to fathom these events. In a sense, we've succeeded, as demonstrated by the immense pride with which I shout out on the rooftops my unbounded admiration and love for the fabulous Fifth Republic of Charles de Gaulle. But don't think of us as dupes. We know that there were dark days... which will continue to take a lot of explaining. That's what I mean by associative thinking.

Scandinavian nuts and bolts

A recent article by Florence Williams in Slate [display] reveals apparent differences between Danish and Swedish males concerning the respective volumes of their genital resources.

Should the world at large be fascinated by this Swedish victory in the Prick and Balls Olympic event? The answer is no doubt yes. If things can shrivel up to such an extent between two neighboring nations, then we should try to understand what has happened... because the same sort of thing might just be happening in our own backyard, maybe even between neighbors with differing lifestyles. There's no smoke without a fire. So, there must be some set of underlying reasons why Swedes would appear to be getting it up better than Danes. It can't be the ambient climate, because it's much of a muchness. And it would be hard to imagine that cultural and lifestyle factors might account for this difference. There's no way in the world that you'll convince me that reading the delightful tales of Hans Christian Andersen, and eating Danish pastry, might have stealthily diminished the size of my John Thomas... and that the only way of getting things back to normal would consist of a strenuous acquaintance with the plays of August Swinberg and the films of Ingmar Bergman, combined with a massive daily intake of crisp bread and fermented fish, consumed in an Ikea environment.

Seriously: What exactly is it that might have influenced the respective qualities of the procreative devices of Danes and Swedes? That's an interesting question, but we don't yet know the answer. As they say in the classics, there will surely be a next episode...

Monday, March 8, 2010

More snow

On Saturday, the annual lunch for senior citizens of Choranche and Châtelus took place up in the restaurant at the entrance to the famous limestone caves of Choranche.

There you see some of my neighbors. The fellow on the left is Gilles Rey, mayor of Châtelus. Then there's my neighbor Madeleine. The woman in red is Bernadette Huillier, alongside her husband André, whose property is located on the opposite side of the Bourne with respect to my place. Finally, at the end of the table, there's Georges Belle, who resides in the old dilapidated building that was once the residence of the Chartreux monks who made wine at Choranche.

This man in a red pullover is Bernard Bourne, a farmer: the mayor of Choranche. The woman is Monique Rancoud-Guilhon, whose late father was once the mayor of Choranche. These are the two oldest families in Choranche. Their Bourne and Rancoud-Guilhon ancestors have lived here since before the French Revolution. Every time I see Monique, she asks me to send her all the most recent printed results of my research into the history of the commune. As for Bernard, when he saw me taking these photos, he asked me to send a few of them to the local newspaper... which I did, this morning. The journalist at Pont-en-Royans was happy, because I'd done his work for him.

After this lunch, snow started to fall again. It continued throughout the night. Early Sunday morning, the donkeys managed to burst through the damp electric fence, and I found them knocking on my kitchen door. I gave them a generous supply of oats. Besides, the snow was so powdery that the donkeys had no trouble brushing it aside and devouring the grass on my lawn. Then they took advantage of their relative freedom (since I couldn't patch up the fence in such conditions) and wandered all around the property... which meant that I had to install rapidly a barrier to prevent them from going down into my future rose and peony garden.

The next thing I knew, they had discovered the seeds for wild birds, just below my bedroom window. I was surprised to see that, within reasonable limits, the presence of the donkeys didn't deter the finches and tits from dropping in to get seeds. Later, I noticed that the three suspended balls of fat had disappeared. By that time, the donkeys had strolled down to the former sheep shed, to settle in for the night. And this morning, I was finally able to get them back into their paddock and fix up the electric fence. So, everything is back in order.