Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fignon has crossed the finishing line

A month or so ago, I was thrilled, as usual, by the brilliant analyses of Laurent Fignon in his role as a TV journalist covering the Tour de France. He knew what he was talking about, for he had won the great race twice, in 1983 and 1984. Today, I'm stunned to hear that cancer has taken him away. Death is a weird phenomenon when it strikes a great sporting hero. Not so long ago, his body was a biological engine of perfection. Today, it's an empty shell. But the world remains filled with memory waves that evoke the dead champion.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

My boomerangs keep coming back

Australia is a big country, and all kinds of things can go wrong.

My problem, on the contrary, is that my boomerangs keep coming back. I can hear fellow Aussies saying: "That's the whole idea, you silly bugger!" Maybe, but the boomerangs I'm talking about are my emails, sent from France to Australia. Often, some of my emails get bounced by the Antipodes for mysterious reasons (or rather, for no apparent reason whatsoever), and they're sent all the way back here to Gamone, unread by the Australians for whom they were intended.

I first ran into this problem back in 2006, when I was making plans for a visit to Australia. Suddenly, I was alarmed to discover that my emails to my aunt Nancy in Sydney were being rejected by her ISP [Internet service provider] called Big Pond. Fortunately, I had other email contacts with Australia, not to mention the telephone. So, this curious behavior of my aunt's email account didn't cause any serious problems.

Towards the end of that year, however this communication obstacle still existed, which meant that I could no longer send emails at all to my aunt. At my end of the line, I couldn't do anything to correct this anomaly. Big Pond, out in Australia, persisted in believing that I was a spammer, intent upon annoying innocent Aussies such as my aunt. Naturally, I suggested to my aunt that she should simply explain to Big Pond that her nephew in France was not a delinquent spammer. Or, if this failed, she should simply change ISPs. Unfortunately, from a problem-solving viewpoint, giving that sort of advice to my aunt was no more effective than reciting prayers to the Great Internet God.

In those circumstances, I decided to create this blog, which would enable the news from Gamone to get through to my Australian relatives impeccably, in rain, hail or snow. Meanwhile, I discovered that the email account of my sister Susan often behaved in rejection mode.

Today, almost four years later, the problem still exists. If anything, it has worsened. Over the last few days, emails to my cousin Mitchell and my schoolmate Ron have bounced, on totally different servers. I'm starting to think that this rejection of French email by Australian servers is becoming viral…

The funny thing is that this situation doesn't appear to worry people unduly in Australia. My sister Anne informed our friend Ron that the problem existed, but she prefaced my forwarded email with a rhetorical question: Conspiracy theory...? As for Ron, he assured us that it was probably just a matter of his mail box overflowing.

The writing however is clearly on the wall, even if Aussies don't understand it. Terse messages attached to my various emails that have been bounced by Australian ISPs always contain a three-letter acronym: RBL. This is short for Realtime Blackhole List: a list of IP addresses whose owners supposedly fail to stop the proliferation of spam. Really, the term "blackhole" is most appropriate and eloquent, although "Bermuda Triangle" would have been just as good.

Whenever the letters RBL are associated with the refusal to deliver an email, there's no point in talking about William's conspiracy theory, or overflowing mailboxes. These letters merely mean that a brain-damaged Aussie ISP has asked a big faceless firm (either Japanese or American in the cases I've examined) to filter out spammers. And for those firms—Do their employees understand French, enabling them to recognize spam?—almost everything that comes out of France seems to be classified as spam… even when it's sent by the state-owned telecom organization, Orange.

Part of the "blackhole" problem is that Australians are not particularly inclined to complain spontaneously about emails that they haven't received! They imagine that it's my problem, not theirs. (On the other hand, they would certainly be annoyed if their own emails failed to reach me in France… which has surely never been the case.) Besides, when Anne informs Mitchell or Ron that this "blackhole" problem has arisen, she also forwards them a copy of my bounced email. Consequently, it's as if there had never been any problem! So, they're not particularly motivated to do anything at their end of the line… especially if they're influenced by Anne's suggestion that this might be a simple case of paranoia, or by the theme of an overflowing mailbox.

OK, let me now point out a rather obvious way in which this idiotic "blackhole" situation could be causing enormous damage to Australia. First, read the following excellent article, entitled Carrying the torch, concerning the dearth of expected touristic business in the wake of the Olympic Games:

You can probably guess where I'm heading. Over the last four years, my main email contacts in Australia have concerned about ten individuals. And, of them, four have been corrupted by the "blackhole" thing. I remember thinking, at the time of the rugby world cup in France: What would happen if a French tour operator was unable to warn an Australian customer that there were modifications to their booking? Today, it's a fact that countless people plan their vacations through the Internet. Imagine potential French tourists who start sending emails to Australia in the hope of obtaining touristic information, only to find that their requests bounce because of the "blackhole" bug. At a rough guess, I would say that, over the last few years, tens of thousands of touristic requests emailed from France to Australia have probably disappeared forever in this absurd manner. So, it's time that Australians got their act together and made sure that this idiotic "blackhole" obstacle is eradicated. But this probably won't happen. After all, it's Down Under...

BREAKING NEWS: Following my complaint to Trend Micro for "blackholing" an email I sent to my friend Ron in Australia a few days ago [see my comment addressed to Bruce], I received a reply from a member of their Spam Investigations Team. Concerning my current IP, this lady says:

[…] we have seen recent spam activity from it. The first time we saw spam in this IP was in May 2007.

In May 2007, my ISP was Free. I changed to my present ISP, Orange, over a year ago. The Trend Micro reply continues:

Please investigate your network for spamming activity and then fix the issues. When you have done this, contact us again and provide the following information:

1. What caused the problem that allowed spam to come from this machine/server?
2. What did you do to fix the problem?
3. What are you doing to prevent it from happening again?

We need this information to make sure that the problem has been resolved prior to removing the IP.

It's a delightful example of a question of the variety: "Have you stopped beating your wife?" In any case, I don't intend to pursue this ridiculous and time-wasting subject. It's high time for Aussie ISPs and their clients to assume their responsibilities. These ISPs should explain to their clients, first and foremost, why they've relegated the task of spam detection and filtering to a foreign firm based in Tokyo. Is this task beyond the technical expertise of Australian engineers?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

British tribes

I've just been reading these two books, which tackle a fascinating subject: the genetic origins of the peoples of the British Isles.

Written by English authors—Stephen Oppenheimer and Bryan Sykes—both books were published in 2006. Curiously, each of the two authors gives the impression that he ignores the work of the other… even though they are both associated with the University of Oxford. They use both maternal (mitochondrial DNA) and paternal (Y-chromosome) data to reach their conclusions, which are rather similar. Basically, the people of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Ireland are the descendants of settlers from the Iberian Peninsula (today's Spain and Portugal) who migrated up to the British Isles at the end of the Ice Age, some 15 millennia ago. In other words, our most ancient ancestors were the indigenous Cro-Magnons, rather than relatively recent colonists from the east. Among other things, this means that our indigenous European ancestors evolved spontaneously from being hunters and food-gatherers into the state of graziers and farmers. They were not simply replaced by eastern invaders who brought this know-how with them. As for legendary cultural phenomena such as the Celticism of the Gaelic-speaking lands, and the alleged Anglo-Saxon roots of the English, these must be thought of, genetically, as relatively-recent minor modifications, imported into the British Isles from the European continent, and limited largely to language.

I regret that both authors have resorted to nicknames for the various mtDNA and Y-chromosome haplogroups at the base of their vast research. For example, my personal DNA testing has placed me in a precise paternal haplogroup designated as R1b1b2a1b5. For Oppenheimer, on the other hand, I'm a member of the Ruisko tribe, which Sykes prefers to label the Oisin tribe. For serious adepts of DNA testing, the official haplogroup terminology is both necessary and sufficient, and the silly nicknames introduced by Oppenheimer and Sykes serve no useful purpose.

The existence of interesting in-depth studies such as those of Oppenheimer and Sykes evokes a common criticism that is often raised by people who are wary of the validity of all kinds of genealogical research, be it strictly personal (as when I explain with pride that my Skyvington patriarch in England came over with William the Conqueror, or that I've established another ancestral line running back up to this same Norman invader) or applied to the peoples of vast regions such as the British Isles. To get the gist of this criticism, look at the following pedigree chart (so-called because all the T-shaped signs can be imagined as goose tracks), in which my paternal ancestors are designated by blue dots, and my maternal ancestors by pink dots:

Now, it's all very well to determine the paternal tribe of the most ancient blue dot in our pedigree, and the maternal tribe of the earliest pink dot. But what about the respective tribes of the "infinite" (well, almost) horde of ancestors who aren't even apparent in my pedigree, let alone designated by any kind of dot? Surely, it's a grotesque over-simplification to allege that I belong to the Ruisko/Oisin tribe merely because of the blue dots in my pedigree. For example, let's imagine that one of my female ancestors happened to be a daughter of Boadicea, or that another had married Attila the Hun. Wouldn't perfectly-plausible family-history events such as these put a few gigantic flies in the ointment associated with the tidy little system of blue and pink dots? To put things in a more recent context, if I were suddenly to discover that one of my ancestors was a hitherto-unidentified offspring of Jack the Ripper, then my personal genetic package would owe no less to Jack and his clan than to any other distinguished tribe of Prehistory or Antiquity, and my inherited characteristics would certainly be more closely linked to those of the Ripper than to those of the Conqueror. Now, every serious researcher in genealogy should be perfectly aware of this common-sense situation. We describe the rare ancestral lines that we've been able to unearth, whereas we have nothing whatsoever to say (at least for the moment) about the vast network of untraced lines up into the mysterious past.

Getting back to the kind of research conducted by Oppenheimer and Sykes, isn't it a huge weakness to draw conclusions based merely upon the Y-chromosome and mtDNA profiles of present-day residents of the British Isles? If they had tested, say, a (fictive) London chap named George Skyvington and found that he (like me) was a descendant of the Ruisko/Oisin tribe, wouldn't they be drawing hasty and unsound conclusions by ignoring, as it were, that George might have had lots of other ancestors from quite remote tribes: Eskimos, American Red Indians, Chinese, Pacific Islanders, Tasmanian Aborigines, etc? Doesn't the absence of such perfectly-real ancestors cast a dark cloud of incompleteness or imperfection upon the global outcome of the research carried out by Oppenheimer and Sykes?

No, not at all. Don't forget that these researchers have been performing DNA tests upon large groups of people living in the British Isles. Consequently, if indeed our George Skyvington had ancestors belonging to "tribes" such as Eskimos, American Red Indians, etc, then it's possible that the existence of these ancestors will show up in the Y-chromosome and mtDNA data obtained from some of George's "genetic cousins"… about whom he probably knows nothing (and never will). Statistically, if the tested population is large enough (a criterion that can be determined mathematically), everything should come out in the wash, as it were. George's Eskimo and Red Indian ancestors won't be totally forgotten. They'll merely be associated with other tested individuals. And George won't even be tempted to complain about "his" ancestors being associated with total strangers, because he simply won't know that this has happened. Maybe George might even look at research results and say to himself: "My God, to think that, here in my native England, I'm living alongside descendants of Eskimos, American Red Indians, Chinese, Pacific Islanders, Tasmanian Aborigines, etc!"

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gamone apple pie

To make this insanely-great apple pie, you need to have an apple tree. It doesn't have to be the finest apple tree in the Newtonian universe. An ordinary one, such as this apple tree at Gamone, will be quite sufficient.

Here at Gamone, the fruit never get a chance of attaining perfect ripeness, because wasps and other insects are intent upon gorging themselves. I generally have to cut away the part of each apple that has been attacked. Sometimes I wonder if the insect presence hasn't permeated faintly even the unblemished part of each apple, giving it an undefinable exotic savor. If that were indeed the case, then the recipe for Gamone apple pie becomes slightly more complicated, since you would need to find an apple tree whose fruit have been attacked by wasps and other unidentified insects of the varieties found in the Vercors. But let's not make things difficult. If you have a problem finding the right apples, the best solution is to drop in here at Gamone, where you can collect a bagful. The other ingredients are sultanas, poppy seeds, desiccated cocoanut, ground cinnamon and sugar. And they are laid out on simple home-made pastry.

The ideal place to make this apple pie is in France, because you can then devour a generous slice of it with a big blob of the inimitable thick cream from Isigny in Normandy.

Novel shipping to iBooks tomorrow

Normally, the Smashwords aggregator will be shipping my novel All the Earth is Mine to iBooks tomorrow, and it'll take a week for it to appear in Apple's catalog. So, it should be displayed around the first weekend of September.

Since I live in France, where I don't have access to the US iBooks catalog, I would be happy if an American friend were to let me know if and when my novel is listed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Final testing phase

For the final phase of testing the new kennel, I filled it with straw.

At one stage, Sophia burrowed into the straw and dozed there for ten minutes. We're convinced that it's fit for Fitzroy.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Hey, this photo suggests that part of Julia Gillard's house uses the same kind of carpentry materials and technique—knotty pine slabs and nails—as the interior of the dog kennel I've been building during the final days of the electoral campaign.

It's a trivial but homely observation. In any case, it makes me even prouder still to be an Aussie!

Dilapidated Aussie infrastructure

With the election over, and an era of political instability lying ahead, let me get back to my regular observations about the rickety infrastructure of a nation with enough mineral wealth in its subsoil to be able to pay cash for the entire French Riviera (if ever it were for sale).

In an electoral cartoon by Bill Leak in The Australian, an amusing background detail caught my attention.

That structure is not much better than my donkey's dilapidated shelter, shown in my previous post. On the left of the fragment, there's a sign marked Polling Booths. A big panel on the right bears the government's arms. The small text is blurry, but clear enough to be read:

A Nation-Building Project
Economic Stimulus Plan

So, the ramshackle shed is in fact an official government building. The cartoonist seems to taking a stab at the way in which Australia's "nation-building" funding has often produced pitiful results. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that Australia would be wiser to look into the idea of buying pieces of the French Riviera. Normally, well-built polling booths would be an excellent idea. And, if indeed such solid booths existed, it would be even better still if citizens were able to use them to vote for potential statesmen and stateswomen, rather than for political lightweights such as Abbott and Gillard.

Dog and donkey stuff

In my recent article entitled Construction of a kennel [display], I explained that I've started to build a kennel for Sophia's future companion Fitzroy, who'll be moving into Gamone next month. Here's another photo of my ongoing work:

That's in fact the base of the kennel. I've fixed a bit of roofing metal there so that the fragile pine wood won't be in direct contact with the damp earth, thereby reducing the risk of it rotting.

Yesterday, I shifted my operations up to Moshé's old shelter, on the slopes, a hundred meters south of the house.

This was one of my first constructions at Gamone, back in 1994, and it's starting to become rather ramshackle. However there are still a few solidly-placed poles, so I'll try to patch up this shelter, as far as possible, before the arrival of Moshé's future friend Fanette.

Moshé has always appreciated this shady spot during the warm season (and old Mandrin, too). In any case, Moshé and Fanette will be able to use the sheep shed, which is in good shape, down alongside the creek. While nosing around in the vicinity of the old shelter, I came upon a baby green whip snake (aggressive but harmless).

Since August is their breeding season, this fellow was probably just a week or so old. His gray body was as thick as a pencil, about 25 cm long, and his head was crowned by a bright yellow and black mosaic. He didn't seem to like being disturbed, and snapped viciously at a stick when I tried to coax him outside the cement block, for a better photo. I could imagine the poor little bugger grumbling to itself: "Jeez, I've only been on Earth for a few days, and already there's a big rough guy poking a bloody stick in my face." So, I left him alone. Meanwhile, here's an image of Moshé (far too fat), near his derelict shelter, acting like a silly rock 'n' roll donkey:

A panel forming the rear wall of the shelter had become detached, so I dragged it out into the open, sliced up the boards, stacked them on my Honda petrol-powered "wheelbarrow" (with rubber treads) and brought them back down to the house.

These planks were rapidly integrated into my kennel construction. Although the roof is not yet fixed solidly in place, the kennel is starting to look like a genuine abode for a dog.

Stuffed between the inner walls and the external planks, there's a layer of thermal insulation material.

Once again, Sophia did a rapid site test, and indicated her approval.

Incidentally, please admire Sophia's new line, since I've started giving her exactly the right daily ration of food, with never a surplus gram.

DOG WORSHIP: Talking about dogs, a funny thing happened to me on my way to the blog this morning. I dropped in, as I often do, on the Pharyngula blog [display], which provided me with an unexpected opportunity of listening to a charming but most unusual Christian song of joy. Not exactly a hymn. More like a nursery rhyme for brainwashed kids in a hospital run by a born-again sect. While forcing myself to listen assiduously to this stuff, right through to the end, I was beset by weird urges, of a kind that had never before overcome me. I'm most embarrassed and ashamed to describe my uncouth compulsions. I wanted desperately to raise a leg and piss all over the singer. Worse, I imagined that I was circling the guitarist, while sniffing the ground all around him, with my arse at the level of his instrument. In an ugly nightmare, I was arching my backside, and I finally dropped a few massive smelly turds into the hole in his guitar, which somewhat dampened his ode of joy. Since I'm not normally scatological, I don't know what came over me. In any case, listen to this delightful song, and see if it produces weird reactions in you too.

Did you succeed in surviving to the end of the song?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Future bikes

Back in the distant past when I used to ride my red racing bike to Brittany in summer, I would cover the distance of some 500 kilometers in two days. This meant that I would average about 25 km/hour, and simply stay on the bike for a total of ten hours a day. I would stay overnight in a hotel. I carried almost nothing with me on the bike, apart from a bit of food. So, this excursion was only possible when I could join up with Christine in Brittany, where I could wash my sweaty clothes and find replacement clothes for wandering around the Rufflet property for a few days before heading back to Paris.

The only danger, in the context of this excursion, would have been rain… but I don't recall ever encountering this problem. In those days, there was a set of pleasant country roads between Paris and St-Brieuc… but they seem to have disappeared mysteriously since then. I don't have the facts on hand, and I don't claim to understand what exactly has happened, but the roads between Paris and Brittany appear to have become packed with speeding automobiles, which would make such an excursion unthinkable today.

I remember that the most difficult part of the excursion was getting back onto the bike on the second morning. It's amazing that such a machine can bring about a sore bum in such a stealthy but total fashion. You don't feel the soreness creeping up on you during the first day. It's a binary phenomenon, which simply switches on overnight. And the funny thing is that, on the second morning, the soreness quickly disappears. I don't know whether researchers have written doctoral theses on this subject, but it's really quite intriguing.

These memories reoccurred to me when I came upon this photo of a so-called recumbent bicycle, designed in Japan:

[Click the photo to see other images.]

Maybe this is the ultimate solution to the sore-bum problem that besets casual cyclists. But I can't help wondering what the rider's abdominal region would feel like after a day on such a machine. Is there a risk of falling asleep when gliding freely down the slopes? Besides, I have a gut feeling (no pun intended) that a cyclist can only use his legs efficiently if he's in a seated position on his bicycle. But I'm prepared to agree that this feeling could well be false.

Unfortunately, since the beginning of my rural life at Gamone, I've never really got involved in cycling. The basic problem, here, is that there are simply too many slopes.

ADDENDUM: I've just come upon an intriguing article entitled Apple Patents the iBike [display], suggesting that "our favorite Cupertino company could be getting into the bike business — the smart bike business".

Down blunder

When I was young, the first blunder indicating that something might be rotten in my native land was the Orr case, in 1955. In an atmosphere evoking the trial of Socrates for moral misconduct, a professor of philosophy in Tasmania, Sydney Sparkes Orr [1914-1966], was castigated on the grounds that he had been involved in an intimate relationship with one of his female students, named Susan Kemp. At that time, I was convinced that a professorship of philosophy was surely the most noble calling that could possibly be imagined in Tasmania or the civilized world at large, and that such an academic incumbent should certainly have the right, in certain circumstances, to screw his permissive libertarian students. Retrospectively, I don't deny that I probably imagined myself already as a future teacher of philosophy, in exciting Tasmania, initiating a harem of splendid young virgins (all of whom were taking notes conscientiously) into the subtle sins of sex. Alas, I never made it to Tasmania…

Starting in 1980, my compatriots have perpetrated a vastly greater blunder: the case of Azaria Chamberlain.

For ages, it was called Ayer's Rock. Then somebody in a government administration, bowing down to the sentiments of the survivors of an indigenous people that had once been slaughtered, said it should be known henceforth as Uluru. Why not? For me (who's never set foot there), it's Dingo Rock.

The amazing details of the many ways in which Anglo-Saxon fuckwits screwed up this investigation and legal case can be found on the web. To my mind, it is a harsh indictment of almost everything about naive and uninformed Australian attitudes towards crime, law, guilt and innocence. The notorious legal pursuit of Azaria's mother, Lindy Chamberlain, was a case study of Down Under ignorance, stupidity and injustice.

Today, those of us Australians who respect historical evidence and arguments must visit the following excellent website, and read Lindy Chamberlain's 30th anniversary "letter to open-minded Australians":

I ask the following rhetorical question: Are we Australians in fact sufficiently open-minded to hear Cindy Chamberlain's plea for justice?

No, globally, many things make me fear that we Aussies are still too astronomically stupid…

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Electronic versions of my novel

I seem to be moving towards the completion of the adventure of having my novel All the Earth is Mine published as an electronic book. I first tackled this question on June 2 by placing the following request in the Apple discussions forum concerning the Pages word-processing software tool:

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

Even though the two elements of my naive request (Pages and iPad) were located in pure Apple territory, the few replies were wishy-washy, as if nobody knew exactly how to advise me. Most likely, there were people who did in fact know the Pages/iBooks situation perfectly well, but they refrained deliberately from trying to guide me. In any case, I had the impression (and still do) that I was setting foot in a constantly-emerging domain, where little is hard and fast yet.

Since iBooks use the open ePub format, I started to examine its technical specifications, and investigate the tools and resources that might enable me to implement an iPad version of my novel. At that stage (middle of June), I didn't yet own an iPad, but I downloaded a free tool named Adobe Digital Editions that lets you read ePub documents on your everyday computer.

For a few days, I experimented with the idea of using the iPad as a platform for genealogical documents such as They Sought the Last of Lands, but I soon discovered that things get messy when you try to display densely-structured genealogical documents on anything other than a nice big computer screen, so I abandoned that idea.

On the other hand, I soon created an acceptable ePub version of All the Earth is Mine running on the above-mentioned Adobe emulator. Mastering the ePub format turned out to be much easier than what I might have imagined. Still, this experimenting didn't bring me any closer to the underlying pragmatic question of how I might get my novel accepted by Apple as a genuine iBooks publication.

A breakthrough took place when I struck up a relationship with a much talked-about Californian aggregator (intermediary between authors and the various eBook platforms) named Smashwords, run by a friendly and helpful guy named Mark Coker. I decided to collaborate with this firm. Now, there are three basic facts that a Smashwords author needs to know:

1 — An author doesn't pay Smashwords explicitly, but the company takes a cut of actual book sales.

2 — Smashwords uses a robotic converter tool named Meatgrinder, which produces output in several formats, for Apple's iPad, Amazon's Kindle, etc.

3 — The input supplied to Smashwords by a would-be author must be presented in the form of a technically-impeccable Microsoft Word file.

At the start of of my relationship with Smashwords, the third point almost floored me. Really, for an author like me who masters the ePub format (not to mention many elegant word-processing systems), must I really get back to using that archaic gas plant called Word? I was a hair's breadth away from telling Smashwords that I thought they were joking, and that I would look for a more sophisticated aggregator. But, since I didn't wish to be thought of as snobbish or bigoted, I went along with Mark Coker's suggestion of shelling out a hundred bucks to obtain a nice new copy of Word. [That was the first time in my life I've ever paid a cent to Microsoft. Several decades ago, when I used to do freelance journalistic assignments, it was rather the marketing folk of Microsoft who invited me on a helicopter ride to a luncheon in a fabulous castle in the Parisian region. But times have changed.]

Today, I understand that, if Smashwords demands an impeccable Word document as their launch platform for publishing, it's for two reasons:

1 — Word is indeed a high-quality word-processing tool, used universally, and

2 — Smashwords produces several different electronic varieties of each book they process, which means that they require a firm starting-point.

As of today, I can read a Smashwords version of the novel on my iPad:

A Smashwords version of the novel looks fine on my Amazon Kindle:

Apparently, there's another version that works on the Sony device. So, as an author, I can't complain about the ubiquity of the Smashwords approach towards electronic publishing. Let's see, now, what happens from a marketing and sales viewpoint…

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Construction of a kennel

In my article of 9 August 2010 entitled Sophia's future companion at Gamone [display], I presented Fitzroy and his family. Although he won't be arriving at Gamone before the middle of September, I've already started to build him a kennel, because I want him to feel at home as soon as he moves in. I've designed the future kennel for an adult dog, even though Fitzroy is still, of course, a tiny pup. As a basis for the dimensions, I've used Sophia's big wicker basket.

As you can see in this photo, the interior walls will be pine panels (as used for cladding), while the exterior of the cubic frame will be covered in rough slabs of Douglas-fir. The space between the two walls will be stuffed with glass wool, since Fitzroy will be spending his winter nights out in the kennel. The flat roof (removable for cleaning, but sufficiently heavy to stay in place in strong winds) will be of ridged metal.

Sophia is testing the entrance for size. The kennel might appear to be rather tall, but you mustn't forget that the floor will be padded with a thick layer of straw. When it's raining or snowing outside, a Border Collie likes to dry itself by rolling in straw, and this is how it keeps its fur clean and glossy.

In a setting such as Gamone, constructing a kennel is a pleasant summer activity. It's not so much the actual woodwork that gives me pleasure (although I do indeed like to fiddle around with saws, hammers and nails), but rather the idea of building a sturdy home for a future friend.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Gift idea for a president

In May 2012, France will be holding its five-yearly presidential election. For the moment, we don't know whether or not Nicolas Sarkozy will be a candidate. In any case, I think it would be nice if people were to start thinking about the kind of gift we could offer the president to celebrate the end of his first five years in office. In fact, if I've brought this subject up today, it's because I've just had a good idea for a great gift, which wouldn't even be all that expensive, if we were all to chip in.

A month before the election, on 10 April 2012, the world will be commemorating the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, just four days into her maiden voyage, after she hit an iceberg.

I've just heard that a British cruise ship, the Balmoral, will be leaving Southampton on 8 April 2012 with the aim of following the itinerary of the Titanic, all the way to New York. The vessel will be carrying living descendants of victims and survivors of the disaster, and it will be halting for a while at the very spot where the great ship went down.

Now, Nicolas Sarkozy has always expressed his admiration for the New World, and even takes pleasure (so it's said) in being designated as "Sarko, the American". The Balmoral will be dropping in at Cherbourg (France) before setting out across the Atlantic. And this will be happening just a month before the end of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency. I simply suggest that we all get together and raise enough cash to offer Sarko a ticket on this voyage. If all goes well, and there are no mishaps during the trip (one never knows…), he would have ample time to get back to France before the election. In that case, the very idea of his having survived a reenactment (as it were) of the voyage of the Titanic would have a precious impact upon the president's future image and heritage.

Cheese production in Australia

As a fortunate Australian (from a cheese viewpoint) now settled in France, and living just a dozen or so kilometers from the prestigious cheese center of Saint-Marcellin, I feel it my moral duty to air the following video:

This campaign is being promoted by the following fine organization:

Sarkozy wounded by a word

In a recent issue of his Marianne weekly, the distinguished journalist Jean-François Kahn chose a very strong word to designate Nicolas Sarkozy. He referred to him as the "voyou de la République".

[Click the image to access the article, in French.]

This time-honored colloquial term is derived from the Latin via (street, road). A voyou is a hoodlum who hangs about on the streets, often a loutish delinquent.

[TRIVIAL ANECDOTE: In my French family, this word evokes a harmless verbal encounter, long ago, between my charming mother-in-law and me, at a time when my French was not very subtle. Feeling that her questions pried mildly into my personal existence, I reacted with a smile: "Madame, je ne suis pas un voyou."]

Kahn's harsh words concerning the president are motivated above all by Sarkozy's treatment of recent urban unrest in the nearby city of Grenoble. The police shot and killed a young bandit who had just returned from an armed attack of a casino in the region. Companions of the deceased bandit then assaulted police forces and behaved riotously for several days and nights. Apparently judging that the rioters belonged to families with origins in the Maghreb (prior to becoming naturalized French citizens), the president dared to evoke the notion that offenders of this kind might be deprived of their French nationality. Now, you don't need to be a expert in French and international law to realize that this idea goes against the grain of certain fundamental republican principles: above all, the legal equality of all French citizens, regardless of their origins. It goes without saying that any attempt to change this principle in France would immediately bring to mind the ugly epoch of Pétain and Laval, when the authorities made a distinction between "pure" French people and those with foreign origins…

In Sarkozy's reactions to the violence in Grenoble, he gave the impression that the killing of a French police officer is "worse", from a legal viewpoint, than, say, the murder of an old lady. If the first killer happened to be of Maghrebi origins, he could be condemned to a stateless existence, whereas the murder of the old lady would remain French. In his anger, Sarkozy even evoked the curious idea that parents could be punished for the delinquency of their offspring.

A few years ago, this same weekly, Marianne, contested strongly the idea that Sarkozy might be compared with George W Bush, as a dogmatic and sectarian ideologist. On the contrary, Sarkozy was designated as follows: "He is a pragmatic and talented Bonapartiste (the best candidate put forward by the Right for ages). He is capable, if he thinks it's in his personal interests, of stigmatizing the 'big bosses' or criticizing capitalism. However, the giant proportions of his swollen ego, the amplification of his self-adoration, and the force of his almost unlimited quest for power and control are close to madness. And they represent a threat for our conception of democracy and the republic."

The present article by Jean-François Kahn gives the impression that Sarkozy will be judged severely for his excessive reactions in the aftermath of the Grenoble rioting. It's important to understand that Kahn states unequivocally that the president is certainly neither a Pétainiste, a racist, a xenophobe nor a Fascist. No, he's simply an urban delinquent, a voyou. Here are Kahn's conclusions concerning Sarkozy, which I've translated freely into English:

"No ideological or ethical constraint ever reins him in. No transcendental principle or moral imperative ever affects him. No Freudian super-ego ever stops him in his tracks. To conquer and to stay in power, he is capable of anything. Absolutely anything at all… in the style of a suburban gangster. In fact, equipped with the talent that such a mentality requires, and the necessary sense of taking risks, Nicolas Sarkozy is a voyou. He is a suburban gang-leader, whose suburb happens to be Neuilly. [Neuilly is an elegant residential neighborhood on the Western outskirts of Paris.] Seen in this light, it is typical of Sarkozy to 'declare war', in all kinds of situations, against rival gangs!"

It was quite unusual that an August issue of a political weekly should have created such a stir, when most French people are away on holidays. I don't have the impression that things will quieten down soon for the president. Henceforth, in evaluating Sarkozy, there'll be two time references: before and after Grenoble 2010.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Daughter dated a Beatle

While writing my post about symbolic destruction, and searching through my personal archives for Beatles data, I came upon this old photo showing my daughter Emmanuelle surrounded by the Fabulous Four:

In our family, for reasons that should be obvious, we rarely talk about this fleeting romantic episode. The individuals involved have now grown older, and created new lives. To call a spade a spade, it's up to Emmanuelle alone (or maybe Ringo), to reveal—if they so desire—the exact circumstances in which this apparently tender relationship once sprang into existence.

In any case, as a father, I consider that it's none of my business to delve into the possible relationships that may or may not have existed between my children and various celebrities.

Americans fond of symbolic destruction

Personally, the only act of "symbolic destruction" in which I've ever participated was the elimination by flames of the previous owner's rubbish at Gamone in February 1991.

This operation was conducted expertly, in an ambiance of joy, by my son François and his friends Philippe and Boubeker.

A primordial association exists between burning and purification or cleansing. On the other hand, I draw the line at religious sacrifice, which I've always looked upon as one of the most barbaric and psychopathic concepts that the mixed-up mind of Man has ever concocted.

In certain contexts of delusion, the destruction of an old order is seen as a sacrifice to the new order. That was the spirit in which the Nazis burned books:

Yesterday, on French TV, I watched an excellent documentary on John Lennon, who has been thrust momentarily into the news because his killer's sixth attempt at parole has just been postponed until September.

Everybody's familiar with the scenes of mass hysteria that occurred in many places throughout the world when the Beatles were at the height of their fame. But we should not forget other frightening scenes of hysteria, in the USA, following Lennon's amusingly blasphemous remark about their being more popular than Jesus Christ. Hordes of American adults and children scrambled to burn everything they could find concerning the Beatles.

I've just come across a US invitation to burn a flag next September 12.

This is said to be a protest against the American Right's exploitation of racial prejudice for political gain, and the proposed flag-burnings will coincide with the annual Tea Party festivities. If you're motivated, please be careful. For God's sake, don't burn the wrong flag! To help you adjust your sights, here's the flag you're being asked to destroy:

The organizers of Burn the Confederate Flag Day suggest that participants might throw parties, dress up as clowns, and film everything for the web.

Ah, dear mad America. You ain't never learned nothin', and you probably never will. You've got burning in your brain, destruction in your DNA, a deadly amalgam of God and guns in your genes.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Roadside objects

I stumbled upon this intriguing photo on the web, in the context of the wonderful site of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science [access]:

It's a fabulous photo… with or without explanations. At first sight, the plastic bags look like rubbish, but that's the fault of our Western regard. They're certainly not rubbish. Indeed, the bag on the right would appear to contain a human being… maybe an adult female. As for the other bags, maybe they're personal belongings (associated within the hypothetical individual on the right), rather than trash (as western observers might imagine). In any case, it's a pretty trashy roadside photo, to say the least.

Is it thinkable that human beings might be mistaken for roadside objects, for trash? Yes, alas. That's why we must remain, not only vigilant, but active combatants (with possible loss of life) in the constant ongoing fight against the Taliban disease in Afghanistan.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Digging my way out

This is the northern end of the stone cellar at Gamone (the place where wine used to be produced):

Because of the massive tufa arch at the top, I imagined for a long time that this had been a northern doorway into the cellar (which had a similar alcove at the south, along with a big opening at the east into my house), and that it had been blocked up by earth in circumstances and at a time that remained unknown. I now know that this impression was false. The earth that obstructs this "doorway" has been there since the beginnings of time. Seen up close, it looks like this:

It's a dense structure of small stones and dry clay, with no signs of vegetation. Unlike the surface ground around my house, within this conglomerate, there can be no presence whatsoever of shards of roof tiles or fragments of tufa (otherwise my "theory" about this soil would be wrong). Indeed, it's quite moving (and tiring, too), at the level of the ground floor of my house, to be hacking into earth that has probably been there untouched since the end of the Miocene (5 million years ago), by which time the French Prealps had arisen, irregularly, and folded into the kind of wavy surface structures that we observe today. [If anybody wishes to challenge my geological explanations, I would be happy to hear their arguments.] That means that the stone walls of the cellar have in fact been built up against the original earth embankment, using it as a natural formwork.

The pick and shovel in the first photo indicate that I've recently started to dig my way up out of the cellar. In a nutshell, I wish to replace part of that archaic earth by a staircase, so that I can climb down into my house from the place where I park my car and store my firewood. I prefer to handle this task manually, at a snail's pace, rather than calling upon somebody with a mechanical shovel, because the ancient stone structures must not be harmed or weakened.

ADDENDUM: On rereading the above post, I realize that I've introduced a puzzle, and then failed to examine it. Why would the builders of this cellar have placed a "doorway" up against an embankment of solid earth? I see two possible answers.

(1) Maybe it was intended to be, not a doorway, but a simple alcove.

(2) Maybe it was indeed a future doorway, and the builders intended to do exactly what I'm starting to do today: remove the earth. But they simply never got around to finishing this task.

The first answer strikes me as strange, because I fail to see the possible purpose of such a massive alcove, backed up by bare earth (which extended further up beyond the level where we now see the daylight).

The second answer seems to be more plausible. But, in that case, why didn't they finish the job? Well, maybe they were prevented by harsh circumstances, of one kind or another, from finishing the doorway. In the history of the Choranche vineyards, there are two significant dates. 1593 marked the end of the Wars of Religion, during which Protestant invaders had totally destroyed the vineyards. 1789 was, of course, the date of the French Revolution, which put a permanent end to the time-honored role of the Church in the local wine industry. So, the wine cellar at Gamone was probably started at some time between these two dates. In the middle of this period, in 1709, the vineyards were destroyed by an exceptionally harsh winter. So, between the Protestant attacks, the harsh weather and the final death-blow of 1789, we can choose between calamitous events that could well have prevented the completion of the doorway. I would imagine, above all, that the winemakers became accustomed to a cellar with a single doorway (the one I use today), and the idea of completing the northern doorway, by removing all that earth, probably became less and less urgent.

Smoke gets in your Moscow

This splendid video, shot on a photographic camera by a certain Vitaliy Mendeleev, provides an aesthetic, almost romantic, vision of smoky Moscow.

It's well to remember that, on the spot, things are not exactly quite so nice. It's anguishing to hear that the fires have apparently touched the Chernobyl zone. Meanwhile, funeral services in the Russian capital are overloaded by the quantity of deaths due to the pollution.

ADDENDUM: A news item on French radio indicates that Russia, the third-largest wheat producer in the world (after China and the European Union), has lost a quarter of its cereal crops as a result of this year's heat wave. This information was provided by the president himself, Dmitry Medvedev.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Most boring day of the year

For the second year, the French web daily Rue89 has launched the concept of the Most Boring Day of the Year. It falls in the first fortnight of August, when many French people are on summer holidays, and the flow of interesting news events drops almost to zero. The exact date varies slightly each year, for technical reasons. This year, it happens to fall on August 11: today. And, since the early hours of the morning, observers have been astounded to discover that today is indeed an exceptionally boring day in France.

This morning, the media dullness got off to a good start with a perfectly boring video showing the French president Nicolas Sarkozy riding his bike down on the Rivera, and halting briefly to savor a dish of frittered courgettes (zucchini) at a roadside tavern… where a TV crew just happened to be ready to shoot the event.

The instigators of the Most Boring Day of the Year phenomenon were thrilled to find that their media colleagues on the other side of the English Channel apparently shared their enthusiasm for dull news by publishing a perfectly boring front-page story with a photo of the unshaven president and his wife.

For the moment, everything's going fine in France. All the news stories of the day (which I don't intend to summarize) have turned out to be incredibly boring. With a bit of chance, unless a major catastrophe occurs in the next few hours, the day will be a total success.

Naturally, I've been wondering whether this special day could be celebrated simultaneously, in the same exciting fashion, in the Antipodes. A rapid perusal of today's Australian press reassures me that it was a remarkably dull day Down Under. A splendid example was a story about a football player who got mixed up in drug abuse. A dull 30-second video trailer on this subject is said to be "sending shockwaves across the country". Another great front-page news item reveals that a white van hit a woman in Melbourne, injuring her seriously, but failed to stop. Then we were invited to enjoy another boring item of news: a fine specimen of Australian reporting about hugely wealthy individuals and their pricey possessions. We have here, on the front page of today's web edition of The Australian, a photo (accompanied by an article) of a flamboyant 10-bedroom house near Brisbane that can be purchased for just over 8 million dollars:

Now, the trouble with labeling a particular date "the most boring day of the year" is that the day in question immediately becomes interesting, precisely because it's claimed to be exceptionally boring. In the case of the lucky individual who saw that photo and immediately grabbed his checkbook to purchase that house, the 11 August 2010 will surely go down in his personal history as a tremendously significant date. And I would not be surprised if he were to get around to inviting all his friends along to the house for a poolside barbecue, every 11th August, to celebrate this most happy event.