Monday, May 31, 2010

Doing things on a computer

Using my iMac to communicate through blogs is an interesting activity. In associated domains, I'm fond of Twitter, but I see it as subservient to blogging, or simply as a convenient means of pointing to exceptional things on the web. On the other hand, I get bored by Tweeters such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb (the Black Swan guy) who stretch over backwards in attempts to impress us with 140-character aphorisms. As for Facebook, I find it totally uninteresting, if not vulgar.

I've become accustomed to using my iMac in two or three other ways. Above all, I devote a lot of energy to writing, using the excellent Pages tool from Apple. I've also built various websites, mainly for fun. A typical example is this short presentation of the medieval hermit Bruno [1030-1101] who inspired the foundation of the order of Chartreux monks:

The following archaic example is an online sales demo that I produced for a competition. I rarely show it to anybody these days, because it incorporates unpleasant audio clicks, which I put in deliberately (a decade ago, I thought that was smart). I've lost the source code, otherwise I would eliminate these annoying sounds:

To build these websites, I've been using a tool named Flash, now marketed by Adobe. Long ago, before getting carried away by Flash, I used to create conventional HTML websites by means of a dull tool named Dreamweaver, also marketed now by Adobe. Here's a satirical example, designed in pure HTML, which dates from 2003:

Today, alas, a big problem has arisen concerning Flash: Steve Jobs doesn't like it, and he prohibits it on both the iPhone and the iPad!

Click the above photo to access an article entitled Thoughts on Flash in which the CEO of Apple makes it clear why there won't be any Flash stuff turning up on their iPad device.

Let's suppose that, contrary to my article of February 2010 entitled Second look at iPad weaknesses [display], I were to become concerned by, or even interested in, this new device… primarily because of its potential in the domain of electronic books. If this shift in attitude were to occur (as I think it will), then what should I do about my longstanding commitment to Flash? The answer to that question reflects the fact that "longstanding commitments" simply don't exist in the computing domain, where things are evolving constantly, and we have to accept all kinds of changes, including those that look at first like disturbances. So, obviously, I should abandon Flash… But what should I put in its place?

Steve Jobs provides us with a serious answer, maybe the only serious answer: HTML5, that's to say, the upgraded variety of HTML that the World Wide Web Consortium is currently examining. Apparently, there are significant parts of this future standard that are already operational, as long as you build your sites by means of a "good editor" (such as the latest version of Dreamweaver), and read them with a "good browser" (such as Safari). And of course, any vague feeling you might have that the computing world is becoming more-and-more Apple-dominated is just pure coincidence…

But that's not all. I wrote my first computer programs in 1958, when I was working with IBM in Sydney. Today, I'm still fascinated by computer programming, but purely as a hobbyist. If this new beast known as the iPad is here to stay (as would appear to be the case, at least for a while), then I've decided that it might be a good idea to learn how to write programs for it. In that way, I would surely feel less frustrated about abandoning Flash, whose scripting was a kind of Canada Dry ersatz for real programming.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


This corner of my house was the place where the farmer kept pigs.

The big door on the right provides access to a kind of prison cell, about two meters wide and two meters deep: large enough to house a hog, a sow and their offspring. The trap door on the left opens inwards, enabling the farmer to feed the pigs. On warm days, this corner of the building must have had a powerful smell.

The earth in the corner below the trap door is unusually fine, almost sandy, for reasons I don't know. Maybe former Gamone dogs used it as a cool dusty place to drowse. I've noticed that my Sophia is vaguely interested in this soft earth, and the presence of an oval depression suggests that she probably takes a nap there from time to time. Well, this morning, I was intrigued to see Sophia using her snout energetically to eject three ceramic fragments from the depression. She even walked away with one fragment clenched between her teeth. Was it possible that these old fragments might still retain odorous molecules that my dog was keen to "taste"? I promptly washed the fragments, and tried to imagine their origin.

It had been a fine earthenware bowl, no doubt created on a potter's wheel. But much of the glaze coating on the inside has been chipped away, suggesting that it had been produced by an inexpert craftsman, who hadn't fired the object correctly, maybe in a primitive kiln. I glued the fragments together.

It looked like an ancient soup bowl.

Even with so much of it missing, the old bowl retains its elegant form.

I imagine a farmer, once upon a time, sitting here at Gamone, gazing out towards the Cournouze and scooping up his meager vegetable soup from this lovely old bowl.

Although I've always known that my dog was unusually intelligent, this is the first time she has displayed a taste for archaeology.

Franco-British leave

When somebody disappears abruptly, we say in English that he has "taken French leave". In a similar situation, the French would say that he has "left in an English manner". (There's another amusing example of Franco-British passing the buck. The contraceptive device known in Britain as a "French letter" is designated by the French as an "English overcoat".) So, I'll split the difference and say that my family of mésanges (common tits) has taken Franco-British leave of Gamone.

I had imagined confusedly that the parents, on the eve of their departure for Africa (or wherever they plan to spend summer), would drop in on me for a moment to show me the babies, bid me au revoir (see you next winter), and maybe even thank me for my hospitality. But no, they simply packed up their stuff (maybe during the early hours of the morning) and disappeared, without a chirp. Maybe the family of mésanges will return here next winter, with scores of others, but I'm not sure I'll recognize them. I've never been good at remembering faces. Besides, they'll all have a suntanned look after spending the summer months outdoors in a place like Africa or Arabia.

Restaurant facelift at Pont-en-Royans

The restaurant and bar known as Le Picard at Pont-en-Royans are composed of two former cafés, which were united a few years ago by the present owner, my friend Jean-Noël Soulié. Attempting to sell his establishment, he has just given the combined façades a new coat of paint, to make them look a little more uniform.

I wondered why Jean-Noël didn't take advantage of this repainting to create a spectacular vision: for example, the name LE PICARD plastered across the entire combined façade. Well, I've just learned that this whole repainting operation was carried out under the strict control of French state authorities who dictated exactly the colors, dimensions and forms that were to be employed. The outcome, in any case, is high-class. It'll be interesting to see what kind of potential buyers might be attracted by this exceptional but high-cost affair. An obvious restraint must be respected. The future purchaser will need to step into the shoes of a fellow who actually played rugby in the local team. But, whenever we start talking about such-and-such an individual who cannot possibly be replaced, facts and imagination inevitably replace him overnight.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

In memory of my grandmother

Upon the death of his wife in 1964, my grandfather Ernest Skyvington reacted in the style of a prosperous businessman and dutiful Anglican citizen (who played chess regularly with the dean of the cathedral) by sponsoring the installation of a magnificent stained-glass memorial window in Grafton's Christchurch Cathedral… which is by far the finest of the rare Skyvington evocations in my birthplace.

At my humble level, I find myself celebrating differently the memory of my grandmother Kathleen Pickering [1889-1964] by researching and writing about her ancestry. I have just produced a new downloadable version of chapter 7 [download PDF file] of my monograph entitled They Sought the Last of Lands.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Awkward doorways

I've always been intrigued by this series of three doorways that give out directly onto the main road entering Pont-en-Royans from the Drôme.

A passerby has the impression that it's a long while since anybody ever opened any of these doorways. In the case of the one on the right, severely attacked by humidity, its days of being opened are surely a thing of the past. I refer to them as "awkward" because the proprietor of a doorway, prior to opening it, would need to ask the gendarmes to halt the traffic on the road. And I don't think these busy officers would be happy to intervene in that way for any significant length of time.

The proprietor of the middle doorway (and the space behind and above it) is none other than my neighbor Dédé Repellin, whose photo appeared at the top of my recent article entitled Down by the riverside [display]. A few weeks ago, Dédé told me the full story of his curious doorway. To appreciate the details, you need to know that, at the rear of this building with the road-level doorways, there's a prominent and ancient street: the rue du Merle (Blackbird Street), which lies two or three stories higher than the doorways and the road. Dédé purchased this place long ago, and he used the upper space (not shown in these photos), giving out onto Blackbird Street, as his workshop, enabling him to look after his trade vehicle. In the space above his doorway, to the right of the wooden ladder, you can see a curious box structure, composed of concrete bricks and apparently fixed to the far wall. Well, this was in fact a cavity that Dédé built so that he could drive his vehicle into the workshop, up at the Blackbird Street level, and then crawl down underneath it, inside this concrete box, to change the sump oil. Fair enough. He could still do that, if he wanted to… but Dédé's personal garage at Choranche offers him, today, a more comfortable environment in which to replace his sump oil.

The most amusing part of the story concerns the stuff to be found today behind Dédé's road-level doorway. Apparently, long ago, he bought a secondhand metal lathe, weighing a ton, and installed it in the space behind that door. It's still there, and Dédé would be thrilled to be able to make use of this precious equipment. But this is unthinkable as long as he's faced with the problem of opening and closing that doorway. So, the ideal solution would consist of extracting the metal lathe from that place and reinstalling it up at the Repellin home in Choranche (just down from my place at Gamone). But this transfer would be a major undertaking, requiring that the road be blocked for a period of at least a few hours, so that a mobile crane could be brought in to grab the lathe and lift it onto a truck. Dédé has concluded that a such a project is far too complicated to be imagined. Consequently, his precious metal lathe is likely to remain forever imprisoned behind the old brown door.

Incidentally, this story suggests that vague dreams may have been unfolding in Dédé's mind, a few days ago [see my earlier blog], while he watched the movements of the giant mobile elevator work platform…

My daughter is a serial traveler

Emmanuelle phoned me up this morning, from the airport in Paris, to inform me that she and her friend were about to leave for an excursion to New York. I reacted by pointing out that she hadn't even told me anything yet about her trip to Moscow and Saint-Petersburg last week. She said laughingly that she had not had time to tell me anything about Russia because she had been so busy preparing her trip to the USA.

I was reminded of a short excursion to Manhattan with my son François, many years ago. Our very first taste of the amusements of America was provided by our young black cab-driver. Just after leaving Kennedy airport, he told us he had to drop in at a gasoline station. Having drawn his vehicle up alongside a gas pump, he got out of his cab, only to realize that the cap of his gas tank was on the far side with respect to the pump. So, he got back in and mumbled something about having to reposition his cab so that the cap of his gas tank was right next to the pump. My son and I watched with amazement as he made a series of back-and-forth movements which finally turned his vehicle in the opposite direction, but brought it in a half-circle to the other side of the pump… where the cap of his gas tank was still, of course, on the far side of the cab. The fellow simply couldn't understand what was happening. Starting off a new attempt to get his vehicle located at the right place, he looked across his shoulder at François and me, and said with a shy grin: "Jeez, I just gotta force myself to use my brain a bit better to solve this problem." On this third attempt, he did in fact succeed.

Once settled into the sleazy little hotel room we had booked, we went out walking in cold, wet Manhattan. Within five minutes, as a result of standing too close to the gutter at a street intersection, we were swamped with muddy water, and had to return to the hotel to clean ourselves.

That afternoon, there had been a gruesome murder affair in New Jersey. A young Hispanic guy had shot an entire family. My son and I were amazed by the non-stop TV interviews with various friends and colleagues of the murderer. They all seemed to be saying much the same thing: "Carlos is such a nice friendly guy. Everybody loves him. You know, he's the sort of fellow who wouldn't normally hurt a fly. It's hard to know what to say, because—believe me—Carlos is really a great guy." Clearly, there was something wrong. Carlos might not hurt flies. In certain circumstances, though, he seemed to be capable of hurting humans. But it was as if nobody were prepared to believe that their nice friend Carlos had just used a rifle to mow down three members of a family.

I forgot to remind my daughter, on the phone, that she might look into the idea of climbing up inside the Statue of Liberty, as my son and I once did. But I suspect that Emmanuelle will be able to imagine exotic projects of that kind without the advice of her father. As soon as she gets back to France, I intend to ask her if she heard any news about Carlos during her stay in Manhattan. It would certainly be a pity if such a nice guy were still in jail.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Down by the riverside

It takes a special attraction to bring my neighbor Dédé Repellin down to Pont-en-Royans, and get him leaning over the stone parapet and staring down into the Bourne like a run-of-the-mill tourist.

Here's the special attraction:

This huge mobile elevator work platform enabled a couple of workers to install a plastic tarpaulin trough along the stone wall. Repair work will soon start on this section of the wall, and the purpose of the trough is to catch fragments of old stone and mortar instead of letting them drop down onto the vegetation on the banks of the Bourne. In other words, the future stone craftsmen will be able to work cleanly (no doubt from cables hung down over the parapet) without making a mess of the surroundings. Incidentally, the installation of the tarpaulins demonstrates the extent to which environmental issues are handled seriously these days. Not so long ago, workers would have simply let their rubbish fall down into the river.

Specialists in the domain of mobile work platforms (which is not my case) will recognize immediately that the device is not being used here in an orthodox fashion. The telescopic boom is designed to take the platform up in the air to a maximum height of some fifty meters, whereas it's being used here to attain a "negative height" (expression employed by the operator) whose maximum value is merely ten meters.

The French truck-driver operates the platform. The two fellows installing the tarpaulin were Portuguese and Polish, and they didn't appear to speak a word of French.

This stretch of the Bourne appears to be turbulent, but the volume and behavior of the water vary constantly, depending on the recent meteorological conditions up on the Vercors plateau. For the last few days, there has been no rain here, and this is a view of the Bourne this afternoon, taken at approximately the same spot:

Behind the big square rocks in the foreground, the waterfalls have disappeared. So, what is actually happening here as far as the river is concerned? To answer that question, we need to move upstream some fifty meters, to a point just above the patch of white frothy water in the upper right-hand corner of the previous photo. Here's what we find:

As you can see, somebody has built a small primitive dam here. The river is channeled into what looks like a tiny cavern, where it promptly overflows, as shown here:

Normally, the stream of water created by the dam should flow along the channel cut into the cliff, which you can see distinctly in the above photo. The problem is that a big chunk of the stonework has fallen out of this channel, creating a big hole that allows all the water to escape… whence the white frothy stream.

Exceptionally, the other day, when I was taking photos of the mobile platform, there was a huge volume of water in the Bourne. Consequently, some of the water leaving the dam actually got past the hole at the start of the channel. Then, however, it encountered a section of the rock channel where a dozen meters of the stone wall have disappeared, as seen here:

The waterfalls that I photographed the other day were caused by water spilling through this big break in the old channel.

Now, what was the intended purpose of the dam and the stone channel? A century ago, a local engineer built this system in order to canalize part of the flow of the Bourne into a narrow tunnel through the rock. At the point where this falling water rejoined the Bourne, a hundred meters downstream, it drove a turbine to generate electricity for the village of Pont-en-Royans. In the following photo, you can see the rusty remains of the equipment used to regulate the volume of water about to enter the tunnel.

But, because of the damaged channel, no water has entered this tunnel for half a century.

Today, down below the famous dwellings attached to the cliff face, visitors to Pont-en-Royans probably wonder why the ugly red-brick structure in the middle of the following photo is left standing.

This building, located at the exit of the tunnel, housed the turbine and other equipment for the generation and distribution of electricity. As far as I know, it's still full of archaic hardware. Meanwhile, it remains an element of the riverside landscape of Pont-en-Royans, protected automatically by the French national heritage authorities. So, even though the structure is unattractive and has been useless for ages, it's likely to be around for a long time to come.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Miracle of Cana

Rowan Atkinson is good in the role of an Anglican parson.

This sketch is quite brilliant in that it highlights the role of Jesus (if indeed he existed) as a showman performing demonstrations of magic.

BREAKING NEWS: An article in today's The Australian, entitled Catholics reach back to church tradition, indicates that a new English-language version of the Roman Missal corrects the revolutionary colloquial style introduced after Vatican II. The article contains a delightful misprint: "… the new translation was in accord with the Church's 1963 text Constitution on the Scared Liturgy." I imagine liturgy that's frightened to hell because it's so audacious. Seriously, this is yet another case of Ratzinger's desire to move backwards. In any case, I prefer the liturgical style of the Reverend Rowan Atkinson.

Birds have moved in

In my article of 26 February 2010 entitled Building for the birds [display], I described my construction of a nesting box for mésanges (common tits).

A couple of weeks ago, when my ex-neighbor Bob caught sight of this object attached to a thick branch of one of my linden trees, he immediately started to make fun of it, claiming that no self-respecting bird would ever decide to build a nest in such an artificial contraption. Bob was particularly troubled by the small interior balcony, saying that the parents would be afraid that their babies would climb through the hole and fall to their death. I tried to convince him that experts point out that this kind of balcony is a luxury that is greatly appreciated by the birds when they enter or leave the box. Apparently it gives them a place to rest for a second or so while they're summing up the situation and deciding what to do next.

Over the last couple of days, I've noticed that a male mésange has been flitting around the box in a regular pattern, as if he were standing guard over it. He can be seen in the background of the above photo. This afternoon, I finally discovered that he was periodically entering and leaving the box.

In the above photo, he is clinging to the edge of the circular hole and taking a rapid look inside to make sure that everything's OK. (The green haze in these photos is caused by out-of-focus leaves on branches moving in the breeze.) I imagine that, down at the bottom of the box, his female companion is already nesting.

Bob was finally interested to see that a couple of birds have accepted this abode. I explained to him that I had deliberately installed the box at a certain distance from the branch in order to prevent small rodents from trying to enter the bird house and eat the eggs.

Raped by a parrot

This amusing video shows Stephen Fry and the zoologist Mark Carwardine in an encounter with a fat flightless parrot called a kakapo, which is almost extinct.

Travel warning. Don't be foolish enough to try to smuggle a copy of this porn video into Australia. These images were shot in New Zealand, which (as everybody knows by now) is a depraved land as far as fornication with animals is concerned. We don't know if the parrot had attained the legal age limit for consensual sex. In any case, this sort of behavior in an outdoor setting, where innocent children could pass by, is quite indecent. Your electronic equipment is likely to be seized by Australian customs officers, and you could be sent to a convict colony on Norfolk Island while their investigations are under way.

Lego life

Back at the time I became interested in so-called artificial intelligence, and started work on my book entitled Machina Sapiens, I did not imagine that the most direct link between computing concepts (such as programming) and human beings would be established, not through attempting to simulate what we think of as intelligence, but rather by synthesizing life itself. Craig Venter has just made a gigantic breakthrough in this domain.

Obviously, this activity is Promethean. Man is starting to play with the fire of the gods, and nobody knows where this work will lead. But it's unthinkable that it could be halted.

Cycling tragedy

I'm applying the word "tragedy" to the personal case of Floyd Landis. After getting over the initial shock of his turnabout, I'm left with a puzzling query: What has caused Landis to make his confession, nearly four years after his personal eviction from the Tour? Although I don't claim to have any firm answers to this question, I believe that we're confronted with an individual who's probably in a dark state of both anguish and anger.

I've heard (without being able to verify such things) that Landis has lost his fortune, his home and his family while trying to prove that he was unjustly deprived of his Tour title. Meanwhile, last year, he saw the organizers of the Tour de France invite his old teammate Lance Armstrong back into the legendary race. Not only is Armstrong present as a welcome guest, but he's surrounded by an aura of veneration through his sporting determination and longevity, and through his work in the domain of cancer care. To say the least, Landis is surely bitter, and an observer might well imagine that yesterday's sensational turnabout was inspired by rage and revenge.

Up until the last moment, the organizers of the Tour de France will retain the right to exclude certain riders, or even an entire team, from the event that starts on 3 July 2010. Decisions at that level will surely represent the moment of verity of this whole affair, because the organizers probably have a pretty good idea, by now, of where the truth lies… and where the future interests of the Tour de France lie. If the Tour organizers say it's OK for Armstrong to participate, then the Texan will be permanently vindicated, and Landis will be cast more deeply than ever into outer darkness.

Maybe, though, I should not have included the word "permanently" in that last sentence. The evolution of technical knowledge and experience about doping and relevant testing is advancing in ways that remind me (metaphorically) of the progress of DNA tests in forensic medicine. If physiologists have the impression that certain situations still remain suspicious, they'll certainly retain the urine and blood samples while science and technology strive to catch up with the breakaway bunch.

For Armstrong, yesterday was an eventful day, in more ways than one:

The latest news is that he didn't break any bones in this crash in California.

This morning, I came upon a interesting American viewpoint on the Landis revelations: an article by Michael Rosenberg entitled Latest accusation makes it hard not to believe Lance Armstrong doped up [display]. The journalist concludes: The American people seem to believe Lance Armstrong is a cancer-fighting activist instead of another athlete who used performance-enhancing drugs. But you know what? He might be both.

Talking about invisible things

Nowadays, my children Emmanuelle and François do a lot of traveling, often for professional reasons. I think back with nostalgia to the days in 1978 when I suggested that they might accompany me on an excursion to England and Scotland when I was working on my future tourist guide. One of the highlights of our trip was a car journey alongside Loch Ness. Naturally, the children quizzed me at length for precise information concerning the monster. My 9-year-old son digested all these explanations in silence, obviously trying to form his own personal analysis of the affair. When his words emerged, they were a splendid summary of subtle psychology, bordering on existentialist philosophy.

FRANCOIS: "Papa, suppose the monster exists, hidden in the depths of Loch Ness. Do you think he worries a lot about whether or not we tourists exist?"

WILLIAM: "No, I don't suppose so."

FRANCOIS: "Well, if the monster isn't worrying a lot about whether or not we tourists exist, then why should all of us be wasting our time talking about whether or not the monster exists?"

I seem to recall that this line of thought corresponds to an argument in one of the appendices of the wonderful novel by Rebecca Goldstein, which I described recently in an article entitled God travels incognito [display]. In blunt negative terms: If God doesn't give a damn about us, then why care about Him? My son's question reminds me, above all, of the ad on the atheist bus:

Normally, we humans are on firm grounds when we talk about "things" that we can actually see, like our homes and our neighborhoods, our families and friends, etc. Past memories (like the story I've just told) are almost in that visible category, because we're absolutely convinced that we did in fact see the people and places we describe, once upon a time. On the other hand, there's a big category of "things" that we talk about regularly, without ever having seen them… like the Loch Ness monster. The "things" I'm thinking of are… thoughts in the minds of other people. This is an intriguing branch of contemporary psychology designated by an unusual but nevertheless precise expression: the theory of mind. Here's a tiny video masterpiece that sums up this subject very nicely:

Robert Seyfarth has done a wonderful didactic job in presenting these sophisticated notions so tersely. Recently, by chance, I've noticed quite a few references to this kind of intellectual inquiry, which seems to be currently fashionable. Somebody pointed out that, in the narrations of an "ordinary" novelist such as Jane Austen (it goes without saying that she's in no way "ordinary"), the convoluted descriptions of what is said to be going on in the minds of her characters are extraordinarily complex. Indeed, on the reader's part, it takes a high degree of intelligence and concentration to be able to keep track of what's happening.

In French, a delightful little expression designates all this invisible stuff that is so vital in human relationships. It's referred to as the non-dit: the things that are "not said". Maybe the title of this article should be Talking (and NOT talking) about invisible things.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Optical illusion

This amazing little video was produced by pointing a camera at a real-world scene composed of four tracks that guide the movements of rolling marbles:

As soon as the table is turned around, providing you with a view of the scene from the opposite side, you can immediately see the tricks behind the illusion. The tracks simply slope downward towards their intersection, and they're designed in such a way that, when viewed from a certain angle, they seem to slope upward. The creator of this excellent illusion is Koukichi Sugihara of the Meiji Institute for the Advanced Study of Mathematical Sciences, Japan.

Vercors bike business created by English couple

In the charming village of St-Jean-en-Vercors, Roger and Teresa have created a high-quality gite, called Vélo Vercors, for cycling enthusiasts who would like to ride through the magical landscapes of the Vercors.

[Click the photo to access their website.]

The Vercors is a fabulous place, which should ideally be visited in a leisurely style. What better solution than a bike?

Be wary of Aussie customs

I found this cute image on the web:

It seems to have something to do with customs (the second dog has apparently detected something smelly), but the connection is fuzzy… much like Aussie customs.

Over three years ago, I wrote an article entitled Rambo caught with his pants down [display] on the subject of zealous customs officers in Australia. I still laugh whenever I think of my friend Geoff getting all his precious cans and jars of foie-gras confiscated. "Jeez mate, you don't realize what you're doing: the possible harm you could have caused. French shit like that could kill our local farmers and poison the Australian food and agriculture industries."

Back in 2006, when I last visited my native land, I took my MacBook with me, which enabled me to remain in contact with my French family through emails. (I didn't start my Antipodes blog until a few months later.) Today, in the unlikely event of my deciding to revisit Australia, I would be wary of entering the country with my portable computer, because the nation seems to have gone all wowserish in a "Big Brother" fascist fashion. The customs people would be capable of finding undesirable stuff on my hard disk: I don't know what (since I don't collect child porn), but I wouldn't trust them. Maybe they would find rude references to Stephen Conroy, or shit of that kind. In other words, they could easily decide to "do a Goossens" on me.

Click the banner to read an article on this subject in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald. Prying into a visitor's computer is a shocking example of the abuse of civil liberties, which I find intolerable. Every nation ends up with the kind of society it deserves. But I wouldn't wish to live in such a degenerate society.

Bitter champagne

On the eve of the Tour de France in 2006, there was a vast dope-oriented cleanup. The organizers published a short list of undesirable riders: the Italian Ivan Basso, the Spaniards Francesco Mancebo and Oscar Sevilla, and the German Jan Ullrich. Finally, the Tour was won by an American, Floyd Landis, who seemed to be as clean as they come. Wasn't he brought up in a pious Mennonite environment in a rural village named Farmersville in Pennsylvania?

The champagne had a bitter aftertaste. Tests revealed that Landis had been doped with EPO, and he was stripped of his victory in the Tour.

A report in The Wall Street Journal has just revealed that Landis has finally admitted that he used dope. He also made accusations concerning former teammates Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie. This long-overdue mea culpa is surely going to stir up a lot of shit during the weeks leading up to the forthcoming Tour de France.

People interested in the case of Armstrong should consult a lengthy in-depth interview (that dates from 2009) with the Australian EPO specialist Michael Ashenden, who gives me the impression that he knows what he's talking about. [Click the photo to access this interview.]

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Kitsch roundabout

In my recent post entitled France can be disfigured [display], I evoked the subject of decorated traffic roundabouts. This gangrene has just infected the neighboring village of St-Laurent-en-Royans.

In the mind of the "artist", this ridiculous Disneyland monstrosity (located alongside a dull low-budget housing zone) is intended, no doubt, to evoke a nearby masterpiece: the ancient Chartreux Bridge.

This splendid bridge was built over the Cholet by the monks of the Carthusian monastery of the Val Sainte-Marie in Bouvantes, to facilitate their journeys to and from the vineyards of Choranche.

René Magritte's celebrated painting of a pipe bears an intriguing caption: This is NOT a pipe. Maybe we should erect a sign on the ugly kitsch roundabout at St-Laurent-en-Royans stating: This is NOT a Chartreux bridge.

There might be a more conclusive solution. My old Young friend Bruce Hudson [sort out the sense of that enigmatic designation], who picks up all sorts of comical stuff from the Web, sent me this lovely image:

My archaic Citroën is not intended to run forever… well almost. Although it's a perfectly usable vehicle (the proof: I use it all the time), its current resale value is zero, and I'll inevitably have to get around to replacing it one of these days… once I've erected a car shelter on the recently-constructed ramp [display]. Wouldn't it be a lovely departing gesture if my old automobile, impregnated with the historic aura of a former Choranche vineyard (through being left outside at Gamone in rain, hail and snow), were to end its life by making a tiny symbolic act of an anti-Disneyland nature…

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jazz at Presles

On the rare occasions that I encounter a hitchhiker on the road below my house, I feel obliged to halt and see if I can be of help, particularly if it's a moment, like this afternoon, when there aren't too many vehicles in the vicinity. The young lady named Nina, from Katoomba (Blue Mountains, Australia), was more than happy to share the front seat with Sophia. She had made a booking to spend a few days up at Presles, with intentions of maybe doing a bit of rock climbing.

Nina had found the best address in the world, chez Ezio.

My wonderful friend Ezio is transforming his place, in an idyllic mountain setting, into a celebrated temple of modern jazz.

It's just twenty minutes up the road from Gamone. Yet I've never got around to attending Ezio's concerts… through laziness, Internet addiction, and my perfectly-understandable wintry-evening habit of snuggling into a cozy fireplace spot and watching TV.

I promised Ezio that I'll abandon these apathetic habits for a concert at Presles next Friday evening… and maybe even a long weekend of jazz. What a wonderful cultural environment, here in the wilderness!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Mysterious visitor

Last November, acting on advice from the Blogger guru Chuck [display], I installed a flag counter at the end of the Antipodes blog. This amusing gadget has revealed, for example, that I appear to be receiving more and more visits, proportionally, from US readers (over a third, which pleases me greatly).

This morning, the flag counter looked like this:

Here, the Union Jack simply indicates that another British visitor dropped in this morning. It's the information on the right that puzzles me: the presence of a visitor, on Saturday, whose flag was unknown! I've been trying to imagine the possible origin of this mysterious visitor. The most likely explanation is that he/she belongs to one of the lesser known autonomous territories [display Wikipedia list] whose flags have not yet become familiar. Another plausible possibility is that my blog was visited by a citizen of a so-called micronation [display Wikipedia article] such as the celebrated Province of Bumbunga in South Australia, founded in the 1970s by a mad Englishman.

Finally, there are more exotic possibilities. I've been wondering whether Saturday's visitor might have been, say, a Martian, or even an envoy of the Holy Ghost, beamed in on a divine laser, with his unknown flag floating in the photon breeze.

The most frustrating aspect of this mysterious visit to Antipodes is the shocking fact that the rude bugger didn't even leave us a comment.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Barriers to my zeal

Readers of the Antipodes blog will have noticed that my enthusiasm for the ideas of Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins is such that I have a tendency towards evangelism: a constant wish to spread the Good Word. Well, at times, I've run into problems. Recently, in the course of an impromptu lunch-table conversation with Natacha and Alain, I drifted unthinkingly into a spontaneous presentation of the basic facts of Darwinian evolution. I chose an unlikely creature as the hero of my demonstration: the parasitic tick that attaches itself to mammals such as dogs and humans, and sucks blood.

A friend once told me about tick behavior. Since then, I've remained fascinated by the strange lifestyle of this creature, whose destiny appears to be invested in the tick equivalent of a perpetual grand lottery of a Zen Buddhist variety. More precisely, a young tick has a one-track mind, and that track leads to the tip of a branch of weed where the creature sets up its residence. There, it hangs upside-down, motionless, day and night, with its outstretched claws facing the heavens, like a religious hermit in a trance, waiting for a godsend: namely, the chance arrival of a warm-blooded mammal to which it can immediately attach itself, to suck blood. If such an animal arrives on the scene, then the tick can survive, indeed thrive. If not, it dies. Now, from a Darwinian point of view, that sounds like a good story. But Natacha (whom I had imagined naively as a Darwinian) turned out to be reluctant to allow me to pursue joyfully my storyteller's role.

NATACHA: "William, have you ever actually been in close contact with a tick, in the kind of situation you're describing?"

WILLIAM: "Well, not exactly, because the ticks are out there in the open fields, perched on their weed stems, waiting for a beast to pass by. But we can't necessarily see them."

NATACHA: "You seem to be describing a horde of goblins…"

The bottom fell out of my didactic presentation of a tick-oriented Darwinian case study. It never took off. The ticks are still waiting there, patiently…

Later, I was under the charm of the Dawkins presentation of dam-building beavers, which constitute a spectacular case study in The Extended Phenotype (which the author seems to think of as his major scientific publication). Basically, the general idea is that a beaver's genes result in the existence of dams in exactly the same way that my friend's genes, say, produced her blue eyes. There's an obvious difference, one might object. The blue eyes are actually an intimate part of my friend, whereas nobody would seriously suggest that the gigantic log constructions are bodily appendages of their beaver builders. Dawkins astounds us by saying no, there's no essential difference. The beaver's determination to build dams and my friend's blue eyes can both be considered as phenotypes of the individual's genetic heritage. The fact that the color of my friend's eyes is inside (her body), as it were, while the presence of the beavers' dam is outside (their bodies), changes nothing. The blueness and the "damness" are perfectly comparable consequences of the phenotypical effects of genes.

Well, in much the same way that I had wished to transmit my Darwinian enthusiasm to Natacha, I found myself obsessed by the challenge of telling my son François about the wonders of beaver dam-builders, as explained by Dawkins.

WILLIAM: "François, imagine a young beaver who gives the impression that he's about to decide what he's going to do with his life. Is it imaginable that he might be in a position to choose between a traditional dam-building existence and some other lifestyle that has nothing to do with building dams?"

Retrospectively, I realize that the wording of my rhetorical question was silly, falsely naive, indeed awkward and wrong to the point of offering my son an invitation to produce the following delightful scenario, entitled The Emancipated Adolescent Beaver, which annihilated instantly my zealous didactic pretensions:

FRANCOIS: "Yeah, man, I'm a young beaver, and I decided I don't have no time for all that old shit from my parents about buildin' dams. They been doin' it for ages, but it don't get them nowhere. Ain't no sense in it, believe me. They been doin' that out in the wild country. Me, I moved into the city. Shit, man, on a Saturday night, do you see me tellin' the brothers and sisters that I ain't gonna stay with them, coz I got a mother-fucken dam to build? Fuck that, man. I'm an emancipated beaver…"

Obviously, I'm in need of better Darwinian/Dawkinsian examples.