Saturday, July 31, 2010

Much ado about nothing

In catastrophic dreams, at moments, the entire universe becomes unstuck, turned upside-down. Then, a moment later, everything is back in place, as it has always been. At present, our DNaydreams seem to be a bit like that.

For ages, at a homely level, I've been jumping up and down and shouting about the promises of DNA-testing in the genealogical domain. Well, the truth of the matter is that nothing much at all has happened lately in this domain. Not a single male named Skeffington or Skyvington (or something like that) has responded to my appeals for DNA collaboration. You can't get genealogical blood out of a stone of apathy. So, there we are. I don't even seem to be able to persuade Pickering and Walker relatives to participate in this kind of research. Consequently, the global results are zero. This lack of collaboration doesn't disturb me unduly, in the sense that it doesn't impinge upon my knowledge of the history of my ancestors. At most, it casts a veil upon the quality of my communications with genetic cousins and fellow-researchers.

At a more profound level, it's interesting to learn that a brilliant individual can herald in an amazing new age by having his genome analyzed and published… only to find that this potentially-awesome revelation fizzles out into nothingness. The world feared that Craig Venter, in publishing his personal genome, might be selling his soul to the Devil. Well, the least that might be said is that the Devil is taking his time in pinning down the possible weaknesses of Craig Venter. If indeed it was the Devil who invested in this kind of research, then his ROI (return on investment) would appear to be dismal for the moment. Not enough to call out the troops of the Vatican. Not enough to send Venter to Hell… or even to Heaven, for that matter.

Click the portrait of Venter to access a fascinating English-language interview by Der Spiegel. You'll learn exactly how and why nothing has really happened. In fact, this absence of spectacular fallout is convenient. There are exciting and indeed awesome times when the best thing that could possibly happen is… nothing.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The answer is a lemon

My ex-wife Christine, who reads Antipodes regularly, seems to imagine that I've built up some kind of diabolical hate-system against my native land, Australia, as if obscure psychological urges were forcing me to rage at my motherland in the style of a psychotic offspring intent upon eliminating his/her genitors. This cursory analysis of my relationship with Australia is ridiculous, and Christine should know better than to talk that way. After all, she has had a ringside seat in all my dealings with Australia, she has known for ages that Australia is a shallow nation, and she should also know a little about the nature of my profound Francophile motivations. Now, having said this, I hasten to add that Christine's criticisms will continue to merit my attention, but they won't stop me from saying anything and everything that I wish to say about my land of birth. What have I to gain from being falsely and insipidly polite?

At present, there have been major political upheavals in Australia (about which Christine, like most French people, knows almost nothing). I have the impression that many Australians have the impression that the entire world has the impression that, somehow or other, a handful of mediocre individuals—named Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Keneally, etc—would appear to be exerting a meaningful influence upon the destiny of mankind. I am not of that opinion. To my mind, individuals of the caliber of those I've just mentioned are trivial pawns whose only aptitude consists of trying systematically (as they say in French) to fart higher than their arsehole. They are not statesmen, stateswomen, merely egoistic puppets, with limited power to impress us. Lemons? Why not?

The thing about my native land that irks me most (and Christine is totally incapable of detecting this facet of my concern) is that I'm convinced that little is likely to evolve there. The rich will grow richer, and the poor, poorer. And the apathetic hordes in the middle will remain firmly in place. Politicians will remain just as superficial and ineffectual as they've always been. The infrastructure (roads, railways, defense) will remain just as lousy as it has always been. The Australian environment will continue to degrade disastrously. Culture will remain eternally just as narcissist (admiration of one's belly button) as it has always been.

I would jubilate instantly if ever I saw reasons to believe in a bright future for my motherland. Honestly (forgive me, Christine, and others), I don't. I find it less and less possible to take Australia seriously as a role model for the 21st century.

I should add that many of the negative "waves" behind the present article were propagated by a trivial article in the French press, this evening, about planned investments for a future French airport on the Atlantic coast, near Nantes. The airport won't become a reality before 2017, but all the investment discussions are being conducted seriously, of course, at present. I ask myself rhetorically: What infrastructure investments for the horizon 2017 are being discussed today in my native land?

BREAKING NEWS: A startling article in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled Parties bet they will lose [display] reveals that Australian punters (including some senior party members) are starting to gamble massively on the outcome of the forthcoming election, even if this means betting on the defeat of their own party. They're encouraged by the dominant role of voter-intention polls in the Australian political domain. To my mind, non-stop polling and gambling create a really weird and unhealthy (indeed insane) slant on democracy… but I've become an old-fashioned French citizen.

Do people really eat it?

On the chic website of the French weekly L'Express, I found a curious Marmite video, which I don't really understand. Did the British manufacturer of Marmite actually pay money to produce this publicity, and get it displayed by the French weekly? If so, the company should immediately sack their advertising chief, because there's no way in the world that such a video is going to augment sales of Marmite in France. Maybe it's simply a video creator at L'Express who's having fun. In any case, you don't even need to understand the French language to see that this video is treating Marmite as if it were some kind of exotic English shit (well, it is, isn't it?), which no self-respecting French gourmet would ever touch.

At one stage, the video evokes Australia's Vegemite as "a pale copy" of England's Marmite. Them's fightin' words... but maybe we Australians shouldn't squabble about that way of presenting things. Personally, in any case, I don't give a damn, because I've never swallowed a mouthful of either Marmite or Vegemite. As I indicated in my recent article entitled Staple Aussie food [display], I'm basically a specimen of the peanut-butter category. Adult Down-Under folk don't usually move from one category to another. It's a bit like religion. If you were brought up on Vegemite, you're not going to give in to evangelists who might try to convert you to peanut butter, and vice versa.

As for French people who've never been tempted by peanut butter, golden syrup and treacle, Vegemite, Marmite or any of that stuff, they can only be considered, from an Aussie sandwich viewpoint, as the equivalent of atheists.

POST-SCRIPTUM: On the L'Express website, a commentator has used a splendid French adjective to designate politely his disgust when faced with products such as Marmite and Vegemite. This marvelous old adjective, immonde, has its roots in 13th-century Latin: immundus, the contrary of mundus, "clean". Basically, it means "dirty", very dirty. In the Marmite video itself, the final participant uses the interesting French adjective dégueulasse, made famous by the US actress Jean Seberg in the film Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard.

Only a talented Anglo-French poet could explain all the delicate shades of disgust conveyed by this everyday French adjective.

Warming world

Last winter, at Gamone, snow seemed to be falling almost ceaselessly.

In the context of today's hot weather, that photo of beige Moshé [right] and gray Mandrin [left, no longer alive], taken in March, seems to depict a prehistoric Ice Age. But it would be a stupid mistake to generalize about the state of the planet on the basis of a charming photo of a pair of donkeys in the winter snow.

It would appear that there are still a few educated idiots scattered across the globe who refuse to admit that our tired planet is warming dangerously as a result of the acts of Man… as distinct from those said to be "of God". Well, these naysayers would do well to take a look at a report, just published by two highly-reputed organizations, which confirms all our fears about global warming.

In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a federal agency that has been monitoring constantly the nation's oceanic and atmospheric environment for over two centuries.

In the UK, the Met Office might be thought of as the British equivalent of the NOAA. These two institutions exploit scientific methods that can hardly be contested… except by enlightened fools.

Their report states that the planet has just experienced the warmest decade of the last half-century. Global warming is a reality, says the report, and its presence can be sensed by ordinary individuals in their everyday existence. In other words, regardless of whether they appear to be using good or bad science, the idiots who seek to deny the reality of global warming are dangerous fools, whom we must combat fiercely.

Fast food fibs

There are so many things to worry about in the modern world that I don't know whether there are folk who still wonder why the burgers in ads look so much better than those you actually buy and eat. In any case, the present post is dedicated to such seekers after MacTruth.

In certain exceptional circumstances, I've been coaxed into feeding myself momentarily in fast-food outlets. See, for example, my article of August 2009 entitled Good timing for bad communications [display]. So, I've had rare opportunities of discovering that the relationship between hamburger images in ads and the real stuff is akin, say, to the differences between Julia Gillard on the cover of Australia's time-honored Women's Weekly and less extraordinary photos of the Aussie leader.

I have no information concerning the technical tricks that enabled photographer Grant Matthews to create the above pinup (I'm talking of the portrait on the left), but here's a video showing how they operate with hamburgers:

Don't get me wrong. I'm not likening Julia Gillard to fast food. Besides, you only have to listen to her drawn-out Aussie drawl to realize that she's too slow for that…

Monday, July 26, 2010

Busy days at Gamone

If I haven't blogged much over the last week, it's because I was busy tidying up the house for the arrival of Manya and Hakeem.

I rarely behave in the manner of a conscientious Chartreux monk who keeps his abode spick and span for the simple reason (so he thinks) that God is observing him non-stop. Why should I act that way? I tend to clean up the house only when I'm expecting a visit from somebody who ain't the Almighty. Otherwise, I don't bother too much about unmade beds, dusty floors and furniture, and a backlog of dirty dishes. Whenever I think about housekeeping tasks, I've inevitably got something more urgent to do. Consequently, the countdown to a forthcoming visit is always an exceptionally busy period, during which I clean up the mess.

In these circumstances, last Monday, Henri-Jacques Sentis, the ex-mayor of Choranche, dropped in unexpectedly to ask me if I would be prepared to participate in a documentary movie that was about to be shot at Choranche. Why not? The following afternoon, two members of the movie team turned up at Gamone to talk with me and get a feeling about what I might be able to contribute to their future movie. At that moment, I had no idea whatsoever concerning the intended theme of their future film, nor did I know who—besides myself—would be participating in it.

Late on Thursday afternoon (following a brief and violent rainstorm), the movie crew turned up at Gamone… where I was still preoccupied by last-minute cleaning-up in view of the arrival of my daughter on Friday evening. I discovered that the camera-man was an experienced Moroccan filmmaker named Mohamed Chrif Tribak, who had been invited to the Vercors by a French movie association in order to organize a workshop. And he was calling upon workshop participants (local individuals) to perform the various production tasks.

Most of the interview with me was shot in my living room. But I talked so much about my computers and the Internet that Mohamed suggested that it would be a good idea if they were to create some footage in my upstairs bedroom. Everything worked out fine… except that I still couldn't guess the intended theme of the movie they wanted to make. At one moment, I had the impression that they wanted to create some kind of a cultural document aimed at promoting the lovely idea that, in the Vercors, we're all a bunch of jolly neighbors. Unfortunately, I had already squashed that concept by explaining at length that the Vercors is an abode of solitary "fools on the hill".

On Saturday afternoon, my daughter and her friend (both of whom are media professionals) accompanied me to a viewing of the final result: a short documentary entitled Three Voices of the Vercors. Why three? Well, Mohamed and his crew had in fact shot interviews with seven local individuals, but they concluded that it was preferable to exploit only three. I think everybody agreed that the video is a tiny gem, of an unpretentious kind. In a nutshell, the three of us seemed to be saying, in very different ways, that the Vercors is indeed a haven for loners who are determined to live as such, and to remain that way. Inversely, the Vercors is not exactly an environment for friendly house parties and neighborhood barbecues. Well, we've all known that, all along… but it was nice to see it said so succinctly in the movie.

Funnily enough, the screening of this austere video summary took place in a splendid bucolic atmosphere, at the homestead of lovely Angélique Doucet, who's a goat-cheese producer on the slopes of the Cournouze at Châtelus. At the foot of the magnificent limestone cliffs, the sun was shining, and everybody sat around chatting with one another in such a friendly manner that one might have considered that the three "voices" in the movie were exaggerating when they suggested that this was a harsh land for loners. The truth, I think, is that the Vercors is both: a mixture of soft and hard, sweet and sour, cultural togetherness and solitary extremists. It's not a land that can be described by any single adjective.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Carl Sagan and our human conceit

The Pharyngula blog of PZ Myers led me to this video, based upon a profound text by the US cosmologist Carl Sagan [1934-1996]:

Monday, July 19, 2010

Carmes convent

This convent was founded at Beauvoir-en-Royans in 1343, in the grounds of the magnificent castle of the Dauphin Humbert II [1312-1355], just a few years before all his lands and possessions (the vast territory known since then as the Dauphiné) were donated to the monarchy of France.

In a typical medieval religious spirit, the extravagant 31-year-old feudal lord created this male convent, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Catherine, in the hope—as the Regeste Dauphinois of the erudite local historian Ulysse Chevalier [1841-1923] put it—of "repairing his errors and those of his predecessors". The community, composed of 50 priests belonging to the order of the Brethren of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, was referred to as the Carmes.

A few years ago, the dilapidated property was acquired by the associated municipalities of the Bourne (including Pont-en-Royans and Choranche), and the buildings have been expertly restored and transformed into a museum. On Bastille Day, Natacha and Alain invited me there for lunch. These video sequences, taken by my friends, show me inside the museum and then out in the gardens.

I've added the trivial sound effects, first, in order to hide the rumbling noise of the wind, and second, because I've been fiddling around with the iMovie software tool, learning how to get it to do tricks.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Solar lamps in the garden

On Bastille Day, Natacha and Alain came to visit me at Gamone. Knowing that I'd created a garden, they gave me a set of solar lamps.

These gadgets remind me of the aircraft I mentioned in my recent article entitled Taking to the sky [display]. That's to say, the lamps soak in energy throughout the day, then, as soon as it's dark, they start to emit an eerie blue glow, which continues to the end of the night.

This is my first-ever attempt at putting a movie on YouTube and then displaying it in my blog. Meanwhile, I'm still investigating the video approach of HTML5. For example, if you happen to have the Chrome browser, you can see this movie on my website at But I haven't succeeded yet in getting it to work with other browsers.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mandrin no longer with us

Theoretically, the old donkey Mandrin belonged to my former neighbor Béatrice, the ex-wife of Bob. But Beatrice was more interested in horses than in this aging donkey… which she had received from a lady who loved the animal, but could no longer care for him. So, Mandrin was often left to his own resources, and he spent his time wandering around on the crest up above my house, on the edge of Moshé's paddock. In the beginning, I was reluctant to invite Mandrin into the same paddock as Moshé, because I imagined that the two males might fight with one another. On the contrary, from the moment they found themselves together in the same paddock, the two donkeys got along perfectly well together.

Based upon the Drôme locality in which the two donkeys were born, the lady who had reared Mandrin reckoned that he might even be Moshé's father.

Recently, I noticed that Mandrin was weakening, and I feared that he might be approaching the end of his life. The day before yesterday, while working in the garden, I was alarmed to see Moshé racing madly across the paddock and braying fearfully. A moment later, I discovered Mandrin's dead body in the shed, in a position suggesting that he had simply toppled over and died, with no signs of agitation. In the case of a farmyard animal, it's often difficult to determine the precise cause of death. I imagined immediately that Mandrin might have succombed to the present heat wave. While the high temperatures might have played a role, I believe that Mandrin simply died of old age… although I've never known his exact year of birth.

From that moment on, I was faced immediately with two problems: getting rid of Mandrin's dead body, and taking care of Moshé (suddenly deprived of his constant companion). Solving the first problem involved the rapid creation of a path behind the house, so that a tractor could access the donkey shed on the far edge of my property. Having been informed that the width of my neighbor's tractor is 2.1 meters, I started out by attacking the embankment behind the house with a pick and a hoe to widen the narrow pathway.

Then I used my powerful grinder and my chain saw to demolish rapidly my decrepit hen house, which happened to be located (through an error in judgment, which I made many years ago) right in the middle of the path from my house to the donkey shed. Incidentally, Christine will surely be happy to learn that the obligatory demolition of this Gamone eyesore has followed in the wake of the death of Mandrin.

My friendly and efficient neighbor Gérard Magnat succeeded in extracting rapidly the donkey's body, and dragging it down the road below my house. In the heat of the action (that's a literal description of our collaboration yesterday morning), I told Gérard that I would call in on him in the next day or so, to pay him for his efforts. Gérard: "William, you don't owe me a cent. This operation has not entailed work for which I might expect to be paid. It was simply a neighbor-to-neighbor service." I sensed with gratitude and respect the profound meaning of Gérard's words. The sentiments he expressed were surely a precious manifestation of the moral and social heritage of countless generations of Alpine farmers. As of tomorrow, I shall think up some kind of elementary gesture aimed at thanking him.

Afterwards, I set to work covering the donkey's body with quicklime, thick layers of straw and a plastic tarpaulin. Because of the Bastille Day holiday, the service that removes dead animals won't be turning up here before tomorrow.

While I'm saddened immensely by the departure of the old donkey Mandrin, I like to think that Moshé and I welcomed him here, at Gamone, for the final few years of his existence, which were surely spent in the donkey equivalent of peace and contentment.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Taking to the sky

The aspect of the flight of Solar Impulse that fascinated everybody was its simple two-phase schedule. First, during the day, the solar-powered aircraft would climb to 8,500 meters and then float around at that altitude for twelve hours, in order store a maximum quantity of the sun's energy. Then, as soon as the sun went down, the aircraft would descend to an altitude of 1,500 meters and fly around in the dark for the entire night, until its batteries were flat. To designate this second phase, many French observers borrowed the title of a famous novel by Louis-Ferdinand Céline [1894-1961]: Journey to the End of the Night.

Meanwhile, 50 noisy passengers—described as rabbis and Jewish mystics—took to the sky in Israel with a noble goal: putting an end to the threat of the H1N1 flu virus.

Personally, I would put my money on the solar-powered aircraft rather than the prayer-chanting and shofar-blowing plane-load of kooks.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Staple Aussie food

Emmanuelle, my daughter, has the impression that there exists a characteristic Australian cuisine. I have no idea where she got this strange idea. She often asks me whether, apart from steak and kidney pie, and crumbed lamb cutlets, etc, I can recollect any other typical Aussie dishes. I often tell her that my staple diet, as a lad in South Grafton, was peanut butter sandwiches. A few days ago, for the first time ever since I've been in France, I bought a jar of Nicaraguan peanut butter at the local supermarket.

With my home-made walnut bread and Norman butter, the sandwiches are as good as (probably better than) anything from my childhood.

Meanwhile, if Australian readers were to supply my daughter with the recipes of authentic Australian dishes, I'm sure she would be delighted (since I believe she's putting together some kind of a document in this domain). Following my last visit to Australia, I've attempted to obtain the recipe of traditional meat pies of the so-called "humble pie" variety (this could well be a trademark), but nobody has ever replied to my inquiries.

Exotic visitor

I've seen this glorious butterfly at Gamone in previous years, whenever I've had flowering lavender.

It's a Zebra Swallowtail [Eurytides marcellus]. It flits constantly from one lavender stalk to another, and appears to be uninterested in roses or other flowers.

This specimen has a big gap in his starboard wing, as if a predator took a bite out of him. Maybe he simply had a mid-air collision with another butterfly. In any case, this flaw doesn't seem to have an adverse effect upon his flight.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Fabulous Armstrong

I believe that this is my 1500th Antipodes post.

Many Tour de France cyclists (who provide France with a welcome breath of fresh air after the disastrous soccer events) deserve to be thought of as fabulous. I might have applied this term to Mark Cavendish (what an emotional "bad boy" in tears), to Sylvain Chavanel (the French rider who has just won a second stage, after recuperating from an accident), or to Cadel Evans (whom we're all admiring and inspecting closely). The cyclists of the Tour de France are participating in a unique sporting event. The landscapes and architectural heritage of France, displayed constantly by the helicopter cameras, are equally fabulous.

In this context, Lance Armstrong has just flashed the following moving image on Twitter:

Always, Lance gets to the essential...

BREAKING NEWS: After Sunday's stage, disastrous for Lance (he hit the macadam three times), he sent out a despondent twitter:

When it rains it pours I guess.. Today was not my day needless to say. Quite banged but gonna hang in here and enjoy my last 2 weeks.

In a way, I find it preferable to see him knocked out by sheer bad luck rather than succumbing to a duel with Contador. As for Evans, the French press is talking of a feeling of déjà vu.

Published by an aggregator

A few weeks ago, I'd never even heard of this newfangled word "aggregator". It sounds like a good chemical name for the kind of product that thickens soups and sauces (such as potato starch, which I use constantly). Apparently, modern usage has hit upon this excellent term to designate websites that bring together, for a specific reason, data from a multiplicity of other Internet sources. For example, Apple is using this word to designate a handful of selected websites whose role consists of channeling in all kinds of budding authors who would like to see their work published as iBooks to be read on the iPad. Today, in the case of my novel All the Earth is Mine, I find myself collaborating with such an aggregator… whose name has an American sledgehammer charm:

I wrote the final version of my novel using the sturdy Pages word-processing tool… which doesn't do much, but does it well. (That's the same friendly software I use for my genealogical monographs.) I tried vainly for years years to find an Anglo-American publishing house or literary agency that would deign to read my novel. I still don't understand why these tentatives were doomed to failure (it had nothing to do with the quality of my writing, which nobody ever got around to examining), but I've noticed that there's some kind of a Berlin Wall between the Anglo-American book-publishing world and our homely French maisons d'édition (publishing houses). For example, as recently as yesterday, I was amazed and furious to discover that it's impossible for a French resident such as me to buy Apple iBooks from England or America. Once again, I don't understand why… but it surely has something to do with a book-based cultural conflict between the New World and France. In any case, in the context of such a crazy war, I have no intention of enlisting as a soldier and donning proudly a uniform, as I would surely be mowed down stupidly in the trenches by the first blast of shrapnel.

I finally decided that so-called electronic self-publishing might be the best (indeed, only) approach for getting my novel into print. Last year, for months on end, I tried to urge readers of this blog to download (free) and evaluate a PDF version of my novel. Curiously, that tentative earned me zero feedback… which simply means, I imagine, that readers of Antipodes prefer blogs to novel, which is understandable.

At the beginning of June, I posted the following question in an Apple forum dedicated to the Pages tool:

Please point me to explanations concerning the transformation
of a Pages document (a novel) into ePub format for the iPad.

There were few reactions, and even fewer useful replies. There was even a massive dose of unadulterated twaddle from kind individuals who've made it their personal mission to reply rapidly, summarily and superficially to anything and everything that appears on the forum. [Hi Peter, Chris and Tom.] I had the impression that people who write stuff using Pages don't really intend to get themselves published. On the other hand, I became aware of the existence of a community of talented individuals (mostly women), specialists in page design and typesetting, who use the sophisticated Adobe InDesign product (which I know and adore; it's the page creator's Ferrari). But that's not really my kettle of fish. I have simple novelistic words waiting to get published. I'm not faced with the challenge of designing ads or magazine pages. So, I rapidly put a personal cross on that approach. (Do English-speaking people use that metaphor about putting a cross on something, or am I using Frenglish?)

Meanwhile, I discovered that it was not at all arduous to transform manually my novel into the celebrated Epub format fit for publication by iBooks. (The adverb "manually" doesn't really mean manually. It indicates merely that, instead of calling upon a hypothetically magic conversion tool, I carried out all the nitty-gritty conversion stuff myself, based upon my understanding of the various ePub/iBooks technical specifications, protocols and constraints… which I now master ideally.)

My attempts at creation of an ePub version of my novel were highly positive. The final product exists, and it looks good when viewed either on the Adobe simulator [download] or on a real-life iPad. Besides, I offer Antipodes readers a free copy of Earth.epub. Just give me your email address.

For the moment, I'm awaiting developments in the relationship between me and my aggregator. From an aesthetic design and typesetting point of view, the present state of my novel at Smashwords is frankly catastrophic. The book looks as if it has been typeset by a low-IQ monkey or an "intelligent " robot. Naturally, I've expressed my alarm to SmashWords. And I've volunteered to help out, if necessary. Normally, SmashWords people should know more about ePub and iBooks than I do. But the major question remains: Is SmashWords prepared to correct and beautify their ugly robotic version of my novel before (and if) they propose it to Apple? Let's see what happens…

Staircase finished

My garden staircase at Gamone is finished.

Eight steps in all. Here's a closeup view of the upper half:

There's no way in the world that the crumbly earth on either side of the staircase might be persuaded to align itself magically, in the immediate future, with the stone steps. Only the growth of vegetation can play a slow role (no less magically) in filling in the gaps between the staircase and its immediate surroundings. To initiate the process of stabilizing this soil, I've started to plant herbs and shrubs.

In the two photos of the staircase, don't be misled by the perspective distortion. I assure you that all the eight steps are perfectly horizontal. On the other hand, I've noticed a trivial anomaly that had escaped me. Between the 4th and 5th steps, the small riser (vertical slab) in the middle has its ripples running the wrong way. I might have tried to tell you that I made this mistake deliberately, to create an instance of the concept known in Japanese as wabi-sabi, which is defined by an expert as follows:

From an engineering or design point of view, "wabi" may be interpreted as the imperfect quality of any object, due to inevitable limitations in design and construction/manufacture especially with respect to unpredictable or changing usage conditions; then "sabi" could be interpreted as the aspect of imperfect reliability, or limited mortality of any object, hence the etymological connection with the Japanese word "sabi", to rust.

The French potter Maurice Crignon (a friend of Christine) once explained to me that, in the universe of ceramics, the wabi-sabi is often materialized by an intentional crack in an otherwise perfect pot.

The French movie director/scriptwriter Michel Audiard [1920-1985] said (my translation):

Crackpots are lucky.
The light can get into their skulls.

The Canadian poet/singer Leonard Cohen said much the same thing:

There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

In the garden at Gamone, light gets in through that wrongly-oriented slab in the middle of the staircase.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A universe not made for us

I found this short video on the website of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. The montage is based upon a text by Carl Sagan.

The creator of this YouTube video, who calls himself callumCGLP, describes his fine work as follows:

Excerpts from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. More specifically, from the chapter titled A Universe Not Made For Us. I edited together the audio from the audio-book, and added the video from Stephen Hawking's Into the Universe and Brian Cox's Wonders of the Solar System. The music is Jack's Theme from the Lost soundtrack.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Second thoughts on a skeleton

WARNING: Technical genealogical stuff.

Two months ago, in my article entitled Family-history shock [display], I revealed that I had just stumbled upon a skeleton in the family closet: a Skyvington record on the website of the Old Bailey (London's 19th-century criminal court).

I had the immediate impression that the 26-year-old condemned fraudster, referred to as William Skyvington, was surely the father of young Ernest, my future grandfather whom we called Pop. I explained that it was hard to imagine that Pop would have deliberately concealed such information from us. I preferred another explanation. Ernest's father would have been released from the notorious Newgate prison in the spring of 1899, and his wife Eliza Mepham died of tuberculosis just six months later. Maybe, in this tragic context, Pop's father had decided to build himself a new life, elsewhere in England, while leaving his son in the cozy cocoon of the Mepham family in Islington (northern suburb of London). So we might imagine that, if Pop failed to tell us what had happened to his father, this was simply because he himself was totally unaware of these events.

Over the last few days, in the spirit of my recent article entitled Painted myself into a genealogical corner [display], I have started to tidy up my Skyvington genealogical archives. Among other things, I was determined to unravel the elements of the new identity assumed (in my imagination) by Pop's father. Well, as of yesterday afternoon, I was forced to admit that my reasoning was erroneous. I still have no facts whatsoever concerning the destiny of Pop's father, who was mentioned for the last on his wife's death certificate, where he is described as a commercial traveler. But I've now examined sufficiently the archives to know that our William Skyvington cannot possibly be confused with any of the individuals I had in mind when I suggested that he might have taken on a new identity.

I'm now inclined to consider that I made a mistake in thinking that the William Skyvington condemned at the Old Bailey for fraud was indeed Pop's father. First, there's the age discrepancy. At the date of the Old Bailey trial, in October 1898, our William Skyvington was 29, as attested explicitly by a birth certificate established at Plymouth. So, the 26-year-old man at the Old Bailey was almost certainly another individual, because it's hard to imagine that an age discrepancy of that magnitude would slip through. It's easy to make an arithmetic error of a year, in either direction, but an error of three years is unlikely in administrative circles. Besides, I see that Pop's father is designated on his birth certificate as William Jones Skyvington and, on his marriage certificate, as William Henry Jones Skyvington. If he were the individual condemned at the Old Bailey, then why is there no mention of a second given name?

If the fraudster named William Skyvington were not in fact my great-grandfather, then what was his identity? We need to find a Skyvington male born in 1872. Such an individual exists: a certain Albert William Skyvington, about whom I know little for the moment. He was probably one of the 17 offspring of Oliver Skyvington [1847-1925], the Bournemouth milkman, married three times, whose descendants live today in Canada. This Oliver was indeed raised (along with his brothers John and Atwell) in the Dorset context of my ancestors at Iwerne Courtney, but I've never yet set out to determine their exact links to us. I had imagined that this task would surely be taken up by their New World descendants. Motivated by the Old Bailey anecdote, I now intend to examine these questions…

Sky droppings

The French Libération website has published an amusing story about mysterious stuff that has been falling from the sky onto the village of Saint-Pandelon, down in the south-west corner of France, near Dax. The mysterious substance, rapidly identified as some kind of excrement, has been falling onto automobiles and rooftops, and polluting local parks and gardens. For a moment, some people suggested that this disgusting stuff might have fallen from airliners… in much the same way that human excrement used to be dropped between the rails from trains. Aircraft experts were obliged to point out that this is not the way that WCs function inside a giant pressurized fuselage, where pressing the button alongside the toilets does not create a momentary orifice in the plane's skin. (On the contrary, shit completes the voyage to the aircraft's destination... along with the crew, the passengers and their luggage.) The culprits, above this French village of 750 inhabitants, were flocks of swifts.

I often see the Alpine variety of this bird in the skies of Gamone. People mistake them for swallows, but swifts are much bigger than ordinary farmyard swallows, and more sophisticated from an aeronautical point of view. Unlike swallows, they remain almost permanently in the air, where they feed on insects. Besides, if a swift were to land on the ground, its large wings are so heavy that the bird might not be able to take off again.

I've always been fascinated by the symbol of this perpetually airborne creature. Heavenly clouds end up coming down to the ground in the form of rain, and even the wind makes contact with us when it ruffles our hair. But the only messages sent to the surface of the Earth by swifts are little balls of shit. Next spring, I'm convinced that the parks and gardens of Saint-Pandelon will be graced with exotic wildflowers of an angelic splendor.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Another cover design

Friends have pointed out various small but annoying problems of interpretation (which I hadn't suspected) with the cover projects I presented in my recent post entitled Cover for All the Earth is Mine [display]. Here's another simple idea, based upon a fragment of one of the wonderful paintings of the Holy Land by David Roberts, showing Jerusalem's Turkish minaret known as the Tower of David.

On the iPad, the novel will be displayed in double-page format. So, what you see here is the cover and the title page, side by side.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sacred bread

I hesitate before employing the adjective "sacred", in the case of bread, because its Christian overtones are overpowering. But it's surely the word I need. Bread has always been a vital substance in the most noble sanctuary that has ever existed: the home in which parents strive to feed their children and themselves. There were times and places (such as in early 19th-century Ireland) when bread was replaced by potatoes. There had even been a terrible period during which infected rye bread became the Devil's arm for torturing innocent peasants with the ghastly affliction known as Saint Anthony's Fire, depicted in this fragment of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch [1450-1516]:

This disease was finally conquered by clever monks whose hospitals and abbey were located in a lovely Dauphiné village not far from where I live. Their cure consisted simply of prohibiting the consumption of foul rye bread, and feeding their patients with pork broth.

In France, certain persistent superstitions (which I won't enumerate) remind us that we shouldn't fuck around with bread. After all, there are still hordes of magicians who claim that, with mysterious incantations, they're capable of transforming this archaic foodstuff into human flesh. Maybe I should speak rather of superhuman flesh, or even divine flesh. You know what I'm talking about: all that so-called transubstantiation bullshit, in which many otherwise sane folk claim to believe. In fact, I don't imagine for a second that they're really gobbling down cannibalistically a tasty little bit of Jesus's flesh. Besides, if pious folk all over the world have been consuming the Savior for so long, how come there's still a bit of him left? Is his flesh perpetually regenerated, like the missing tail of a lizard? What utter nonsense… and to think that people say they believe in that hogwash.

Let me get back to the "sacred bread" (inverted commas intended to remove all possible religious ambiguities) that I bake regularly at Gamone. It might or might not be religious, Christian, orthodox, Christ's transubstantiated body, or what the fucking hell… but my Gamone bread's bloody tasty. Just ask Sophia!

It's funny to admit that the initial phase of making Gamone bread consists in fact of my getting down on my hands and knees… but not to pray. I simply have to use a carpenter's hammer and a hunk of local tuff rock to break open a bowl of walnuts.

The recipe and the role of the bread machine are straightforward. Meanwhile, my dear dog is entitled to a few stray walnuts.

This photo is lovely. Sophia has put on white gloves (metaphorically, as it were) to handle that walnut, as if it were a rare delicacy, a treasure… which it is, of course, in Sophia's noble and generous mind (akin to that of an ancient Greek philosopher such as Socrates). At that instant, if my dog were a poet (which she surely is, in a way), she would be contemplating the opening stanzas of an ode to a walnut...

Cover for All the Earth is Mine

I've transformed my novel All the Earth is Mine into the ePub format used on the iPad. For the moment, I'm awaiting the attribution of a French ISBN publisher number. Then I intend to publish my novel, in one way or another, as an electronic book. Now I need help, urgently, in the choice of a cover. Here are five models, but I'm incapable of deciding which one of them (if any) to choose. I would appreciate your reactions.


Model #1

My geopolitical fable envisages the transformation of the modern state of Israel into a floating island, and its voyages to all the four corners of the planet. So, my first idea for a cover was a relevant space photo.


Model #2

I decided to ask my Choranche neighbor Tineke Bot, the celebrated Dutch sculptress, to take a look at my cover challenge. To guide her in what I was seeking, I concocted the following montage à la Chagall:


Model #3

Tineke's first proposition is rather abstract:


Model #4

Her second proposition evokes the turmoil of this gigantic upheaval:


Model #5

Tineke's third proposition puts faces upon my heroes Jake and Rachel:

Please tell me what you think of these five models. Maybe further propositions would be welcome...


I've come to like the low-key atheist slogan that was featured on London buses:

It got many complaints, but nothing like those provoked by the defiant Christian counter-slogan, which sounds like an injunction:

Sadly, the gutless transport authorities in New Zealand have prohibited a similar atheist campaign. So, NZ atheists will have to resort to conventional billboards.

Once upon a time, a Sydney newspaper mastered the poetic art of slogans:

That issue of 8 August 1833 mentioned a vessel, Caroline, carrying 120 female convicts, which had reached Sydney two days earlier, on Tuesday, 6 August 1833.

That's the ship on which my great-great-grandfather Charles Walker [1807-1860] was working as a steward. It's amazing to realize that, not only did such a ship bring people, but it also brought the latest news from Ireland:

Talking about Ireland, I'm still not convinced that my ancestor was really an Irish Catholic. As I've explained elsewhere, at length, I'm still wondering whether he might not have been rather a Scottish Protestant. In this context, I'm awaiting a family tree from a woman in Scotland who's a descendant of Johnnie Walker [1805-1857], the whisky man. But we'll probably never know the whole truth concerning our mysterious Braidwood patriarch.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ultimate luxury

People can rave on as much as they like about dining in posh restaurants, jetting around from one 5-star hotel to the next, playing golf in nice places with Nice People, spending an evening at the opera, etc. I still consider that one of the most sublime luxuries that a human being can relish consists of hanging out your washing on a warm day, and watching it dry in the breeze.

I don't know when exactly it was that the Creator, after a week of intense activity, did his washing. Maybe he got Eve to do the dirty work… starting a time-honored tradition. I'm sure that the first time God's white robes fluttered in a wind whipped up by the Holy Spirit must have been one of the most fulfilling instants of Creation.

I don't know whether the Creator and his work crew wore socks and underpants, but they're best handled a little differently. I mean to say, it's a bit tedious having to peg up every item on the clothes line.

I've got into the habit of using this high-tech device incorporating a big boulder to counteract any excess of zeal on the part of the Holy Spirit.

Naturally, one doesn't simply wait for the clothes to dry. Ideally, you should seek to participate in this process, in the same way that you might participate, say, in a great sports match, or even a religious ceremony. The most sensitive souls can actually feel the clothes absorbing profoundly the energy of the Sun and the wind, and getting dryer and dryer…

POST-SCRIPTUM: Certain individuals have got into the habit of devoting less time to washing clothes than, say, to writing blogs, or other superficial activities. These lucky people have the pleasure of amassing such a big pile of dirty stuff that they can experience the pleasure of two or three successive clothes-washing and clothes-drying sessions. Just ask my daughter… Needless to say, this is not a good approach in prolonged periods of rain, hail, snow or hurricanes. Incidentally, over the last few months, while I've been spending a lot of time outdoors working on my pergola, flower garden and stone staircase, dirty clothes have become a fundamental element of my daily lifestyle. That's to say, as soon as I get out of bed, I don a pair of green overalls (in fact, those that are seen in the center of my first photo) and a pair of boots that are sometimes caked in a film of dry mud. I wouldn't put on such clothes, of course, if I intended to drive into town. On the other hand, clothes of that kind have never prevented me from working at the computer. And the fact that I'm dressed like that means that I can get up from my computer desk, whenever I feel so inclined, and wander outside to start digging up the earth, removing weeds, mixing concrete, slicing up stone slabs with a disc cutter, or what have you. To take advantage of this approach, it's largely a matter of persuading yourself that you feel good and comfortable in dirty clothes, and ready for action. Then, the day that you find yourself stepping into overalls that are freshly washed, with an aroma of lavender, is a little like the start of the Renaissance in 15th-century Italy, or the first day of spring. As my blog title indicates, the general theme of this article is sheer luxury!