Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pursuing my family-history writing

If my blogging has dropped to zero over the last few days, it's because I've been preoccupied with my work on the monograph entitled They Sought the Last of Lands.

I've finally started to set down on paper (electronic paper, if you prefer) the story of my Skyvington ancestors. To see the first dozen pages, click the photo of my grandfather and then request the downloading of chapter 4.

It's not a particularly exciting story, because those of my Skyvington ancestors whom I've succeeded in identifying led rather dull lives. But don't we all? Especially those of us who've spent most of their time in a rural setting (like me at present), watching the birds fly and the tomatoes grow.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Something tells me that this US movie mess is likely to be a gigantic success in Australia this summer.

The final scene in the trailer—where the monster snaps up a bikini-clad bungee-jumper—is superb. It reminded me of fly-fishing for trout here on the Bourne.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Jupiter scared me

It's all very well to be offered a fabulous early-evening spectacle of Jupiter above the clifftops to the east of Choranche, especially on my 70th birthday, but I wasn't warned, and it gave me a shock last night.

You see, it doesn't twinkle. (Of course, it doesn't, since it's a planet, not a fiery star.) All on its own in the semi-darkness, just above the horizon in the direction of the French Alps, the fixed light in the sky was eerie. I was alarmed that workers might have started to erect a skyscraper on the Vercors plateau. Or was it maybe a gigantic laser device designed to spy on Sophia, Fitzroy, Moshé and me? That seemed to be unlikely, because none of us has run into any trouble with espionage authorities… except maybe Fitzroy, who's a newcomer in the family, and about whom I know little. Was it an intervention of Silvio Berlusconi? No, that fool wouldn't have enough men to install a big lightbulb up there. I concluded that the most likely explanation was the presence of a hovering flying saucer. This reassured me somewhat, but I remained a little spooked.

This evening, I'm unlikely to be disturbed. As of yesterday, I've become older and wiser. Not only do I now know that it's merely the planet Jupiter, but there are so many clouds on the horizon (as is often the case at Gamone) that I'm unlikely to see anything whatsoever.

Crocodile Douglas

My son François Skyvington has just pointed me to a French TV trailer concerning his recent moped excursion in Western Australia.

[Click the image to see the trailer.]

The documentary includes a sequence with the crocodile expert Malcolm Douglas, who died a few days ago in a freak accident when his four-wheel-drive vehicle crushed him against a tree on his farm property near Broome.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Beware of aerial cows

One of the subtle advantages of being born an Anglo-Saxon (as the French call us) is that, while you're growing up, a lot of precious nonsense is thrust upon you, capable of sustaining you throughout life.

Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon,
The little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
An audacious American flight pioneer (maybe of non-British descent) was apparently deprived of this cultural background, which left him ill-prepared for an ordinary calamity.

This "latest US news" illustration from Le Petit Journal is an offering from the online Gallica service.

Not a soul in sight

I was a naive lad of 17, enrolled as a science student at the University of Sydney, when I stumbled upon a book that would influence me greatly, at an intellectual level, for the rest of my life: Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.

At that time, it was totally weird that scientists might dare compare animals (such as Homo Sapiens) and vulgar machines (such as computers). An anecdote in this famous book made an immediate and lasting impression upon me. Since Wiener's words now constitute a marvelous page in the history of science, I prefer to quote them in full, rather than trying to summarize his lucid language.

Now, suppose that I pick up a lead pencil. To do this, I have to move certain muscles. However, for all of us but a few expert anatomists, we do not know what these muscles are; and even among the anatomists, there are few, if any, who can perform the act by a conscious willing in succession of the contraction of each muscle concerned. On the contrary, what we will is to pick the pencil up. Once we have determined on this, our motion proceeds in such a way that we may say roughly that the amount by which the pencil is not yet picked up is decreased at each stage. This part of the action is not in full consciousness.

Wiener continues:

To perform an action in such a manner, there must be a report to the nervous system, conscious or unconscious, of the amount by which we have failed to pick up the pencil at each instant. If we have our eye on the pencil, this report may be visual, at least in part, but it is more generally kinesthetic, or, to use a term now in vogue, proprioceptive. If the proprioceptive sensations are wanting and we do not replace them by a visual or other substitute, we are unable to perform the act of picking up the pencil, and find ourselves in a state of what is known as ataxia. An ataxia of this type is familiar in the form of syphilis of the central nervous system known as tabes dorsalis, where the kinesthetic sense conveyed by the spinal nerves is more or less destroyed.

Wiener then starts to talk of a typically handicapped patient as if he/she were simply a sick machine:

However, an excessive feedback is likely to be as serious a handicap to organized activity as a defective feedback.

He even evokes an engineering error that could possibly affect human beings:

Is there any pathological condition in which the patient, in trying to perform some voluntary act like picking up a pencil, overshoots the mark, and goes into an uncontrollable oscillation?

Wiener's medical associate Arturo Rosenbleuth informs him that there is indeed a well-known condition, known as purpose tremor, associated with injury to the cerebellum.

For many years, I was persuaded that the inevitable outcome of Wiener's so-called cybernetics would be demonstrations that humans were some kind of complex machine… and that researchers might finally get around to designing computerized machines capable of behaving with so-called artificial intelligence, as if they were humans.

In another domain, I've just been reading about a pathological condition in humans that seems to demonstrate a profound truth about our existence. Click on the following Seed magazine banner to read this short article, written by David Weisman:

It's really weird (for want of a better word) that our two cerebral hemispheres function like a pair of complementary but quite different machines. Together, they provide their owner with the mysterious illusion of an entity that he/she refers to as "me". What's spooky in Weisman's story is the fact that this "me" feeling (I was going to call it "me-ness", but this neologism looks crazy) can gaily shunt out an entire cerebral hemisphere, as if it were an undesirable—or, in any case, unrecognizable—alien.

Ever since reading the books of Richard Dawkins, accompanied by Susan Blackmore's truly earth-shaking The Meme Machine, I've started to imagine that this "me" is indeed a marvelous and terribly complex illusion... but a pure illusion, all the same.

ADDENDUM: I'm reminded of a trivial but charming personal anecdote. Long ago, when I was capable of getting erotically involved with Irish nymphs (the closest I ever got to the land of my maternal ancestors), I happened to ask the young lady alongside me to tell me how her compatriots used colloquial language in love-making. If I had become interested in this mundane question, it was because I had already noticed that some of my own Franco-Australian language appeared to arouse her in only one way. It made her laugh with derision! (The term "panties", for example, made her burst out laughing, as if I were thinking of her as my baby doll... and it had to be promptly replaced by the ugly "knickers".) In this highly-charged linguistic atmosphere, I touched the most intimate portion of her anatomy and asked naively: "Back in Ireland, how do you refer to this part of your body?" Her delightful reply was infinitely more revealing than a treatise on Gaelic: "That's me."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Better than the Bible

If you're interested in religions based upon the Hebrew Bible—Judaism, Christianity or Islam—then you should buy these two splendid books. They reveal essentials facts, based largely upon archaeology, concerning likely circumstances in which the stories of the Bible were conceived and set down in writing.

Both books have been written by the same scholars: an Israeli, Israel Finkelstein, and an American, Neil Asher Silberman. And they're "better than the Bible" (a sentiment that brings to mind John Lennon concerning the relative popularity of the Beatles with respect to Jesus Christ) in the sense that Finkelstein and Silberman don't beat around the burning bush. You don't have to worry about the authenticity of their explanations. They go straight to the facts, and demonstrate that the Biblical stories cannot possibly be descriptions of historical realities.

Today, few serious scholars persist in imagining that the stories of the Hebrew Bible describe real historical events. And there's no authentic factual evidence whatsoever (apart from the words of the Bible) enabling us to consider that real individuals such as Moses, David and Solomon, etc, actually existed once upon a time. Does this mean that everything in the Bible is make-believe? Not exactly, because the inspiration for most of the Biblical stories was surely derived from various real events and iconic personages. So, we have no right to say that everything's pure fiction. But neither does anybody have the right to claim that the books of the Bible relate authentic history.

Over the last week, I was reminded of the work of Finkelstein and Silberman because of a silly front-page "news" article that has been appearing throughout the world. I'm talking of an inspired American Christian guy (I prefer to leave him anonymous, to refrain from adding to his publicity) who claims to have discovered a way in which the waters of the Red Sea might have parted in order to enable Moses and his Hebrew brethren to escape from their Egyptian pursuers. I'm tempted to say to this brain-damaged guy: "For Christ's sake, what's the problem? Everybody knows it was God who separated the waters. Why the fuck do you need to demonstrate things scientifically?" In fact, this affair falls into place once you realize there's nothing whatsoever to be proven, for the simple reason that the Red Sea story is pure magic make-believe. If it didn't happen, then why go to the trouble of trying to explain technically how it might have happened?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Deadly palm oil

In certain domains, the environmental and well-being awareness of my Australian compatriots is far in advance of the French situation. It's only recently that stickers announcing the absence of palm oil have started to appear, here in France, on certain packets of sliced bread.

In Australia, on the other hand, a dynamic consumer movement opposing the palm-oil industry has existed for quite some time.

The product is potentially "deadly" both for human beings with cholesterol problems, and for the jungle creatures (such as orangutans) affected by deforestation followed by palm plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

To be perfectly coherent in the environmental combat against palm oil, we should even abandon a splendid old French product: traditional Marseille soap. Now I have a friend down there, in Marseille, who won't be too happy when she hears me saying that. In fact, Natacha recently gave me a stock of this fine soap that's large enough to keep me clean for years to come.

Best and worst places in Europe

The British organization named defines itself as "a free, impartial online and telephone comparison and switching service that helps you to compare prices on a range of products and services including gas and electricity, heating cover, home phone, communications, insurance and personal finance products".

They've just produced a report, based upon their so-called uSwitch Quality of Life Index, which concludes that "the UK and Ireland are the worst places to live in Europe, while France and Spain are the best".

I succeeded in living in London for a few months, back in 1962-1963, whereas I've never set foot in Ireland. As for Spain, I once hitchhiked there long ago, and I have great memories of the warm atmosphere. In any case, the results of the uSwitch study don't surprise me greatly.

Gamone friends

Sophia is getting along fine with her new friend Fitzroy. The marvelous little Border Collie pup has the privilege of being able to do crash courses in canine behavior—often of a violent nature—with the wise old mistress, who knows every trick of the trade.

Naturally, Sophia often seems to wonder what it is that drives Fitzroy to run around crazily all the time, instead of sitting calmly on his backside and meditating.

Meanwhile, Fitzroy uses his little snout and sharp teeth to pick up, and maybe tear apart, anything he finds, such as this lavender bouquet.

Leaves (in no shortage at Gamone) are interesting light-weight acquisitions.

My ex-neighbor Bob is impressed by the apparent happiness of Fitzroy. As my former rugby-player friend puts it: "Clearly, that dog's not traumatized by his arrival at Gamone!"

As for me, now accustomed to spending long moments of joy in the sunshine, cuddling the woolly pup and stroking his belly, I'm constantly overcome by what I call the Fitzroy stare.

He could be asking me what it's all about, or whether I'm in control of the situation. He might be curious about my background, and my credentials for looking after dogs. He might be saying to himself: "What a splendid male specimen!" (Me, that is, not the dog.) Or rather: "Jeez, what a dumb-looking master!" In fact, Fitzroy's stare is probably no more than a visible indication of his simple desire to exist calmly and confidently, without wondering about anything in particular. Often, as I approach my 70th birthday (the day after tomorrow), I've said to myself that it would have been great to be born a dog. In fact, though, I don't regret anything.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rabbit logic

I was intrigued to stumble upon this video of a self-sufficient US rabbi whose name, Lapin, is French for rabbit. He was being interviewed by a celebrated US TV idiot named Glenn Beck (about whom I have no desire to say anything whatsoever).

The Rabbit's logic is so outlandish that I can't resist the temptation to mention it, without daring to try to analyze it. He has declared that American atheists are parasites! (Let us not be waylaid by the disturbing fact that this ugly word evokes automatically the horrendous Nazi language that was used, once upon a time, to designate Jews.) And why does the skull-capped Rabbit consider that American atheists are parasites? "They're doing nothing to add energy into the system."

Let me offer Rabbi Rabbit the following energy-inspired video sequence, by the great French stand-up comic Pierre Desproges. It's a parody of the famous Duracell publicity, which featured a tireless little pink rabbit who remains active long after all the competitive batteries have worn out their steam and ceased to function.

Rabbi Rabbit's thought processes are truly disturbing… including his opening lines about having a certain number of fine atheistic friends with whom it's nice to have a beer. What the fuck is he trying to achieve in branding atheists as parasites? What alarms me most is that Rabbi Rabbit is no doubt a prolific breeder. I hope we're not going to be infested by inspired "thinkers" of this crappy kind…

Two and a half minutes of Scarlatti

Monday morning offering from Gallica. A fragment of the Fugue in F minor of the Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti [1660-1725] is played on the harpsichord by the Belgian performer Aimée Van de Wiele [1907-1991].

To listen to the old gramophone recording, click the image of Scarlatti, then click the arrow at the top of the page.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Novel shipped to iBooks

For reasons unknown, my previous post about the shipping of the electronic version of my novel All the Earth is Mine [display] was premature. Finally, Smashwords has confirmed that they shipped it off yesterday to Apple. So, once again, I repeat my request to US readers to let me know, in a week or so's time, whether they can find my book in their iBooks catalog (which remains invisible for an individual such as me, residing here in France). If senders include an email address, I'll be pleased to forward them a PDF version of my novel.

Ratzinger is an enemy of education

Watching this amateur video of Richard Dawkins standing up in a London crowd and speaking out against the pope, I was immediately reminded of the great Bertrand Russell, back in the Cold War days, addressing the throngs at Trafalgar Square on the dangers of nuclear weapons.

A major scientist such as Russell or Dawkins, speaking his mind publicly and brilliantly on fundamental issues, demonstrates a marvelous British tradition of outdoor oratory. It's the Speaker's Corner at Hyde Park, but with beautifully simple and powerful words worthy of Winston Churchill in wartime London. In decades to come, I'm sure that people will be using the Internet (or whatever system has replaced it) to hear and admire the Dawkins anti-papist speech of Saturday, September 18, 2010.

Laptops to lead Aussie kids "out of poverty"

I was surprised by a recent article in the Australian press with a shock title: "Looking to laptops to lead Doomadgee children out of poverty". A photo showed a group of kids, mostly Aboriginal, holding up their machines for a corny staged shot.

There were several reasons for my surprise:

• It shocks me to see a newspaper headline stating explicitly that certain Aussie kids are apparently living in poverty. That's a strong word, which outside observers don't generally associate with citizens of Australia.

• The notion that laptops might be capable of "leading children out of poverty" is outlandish, and hard to believe.

• I'm familiar with the project entitled One Laptop Per Child, conceived by the US computing academic and visionary Nicholas Negroponte. I wrote a blog article on this subject, entitled Fabulous educational project [display], back in October 2007. I had always imagined that the children to be assisted by Negroponte's wonderful mission belonged to so-called developing nations. It's an almost unpleasant surprise to find scores of Australian children, throughout the land, included in the bunch of recipients of these low-cost laptops.

Readers should visit the website of the excellent Australian organization handling this project. You'll be able to reach your own conclusions concerning this project in Australia… and I'm aware that you won't necessarily react negatively, as I have done. I'm not suggesting for a moment that there's anything wrong with this plan to hand out cheap laptops to kids in Australia. I'm merely pointing out that it's a charitable enterprise, initially designed for Third-World inhabitants, and that it's weird to see my native land falling back upon international US-inspired charity in order to solve internal educational problems.

The spirit of such an initiative is surely the celebrated Chinese proverb: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." What shocks me, I guess, is that it's not directly the Australian ministry in charge of education—assisted, maybe, by philanthropists and industry—who's teaching these under-privileged kids to "fish" with computers (and the Internet).

ADDENDUM: In my initial post on this subject, I suggested that, in Third-World villages in places such as Africa, electrical power for the laptops could be generated by cyclists. I'm happy to see that there's now a device on the market to meet this challenge.

Admittedly, if poverty has reached the point at which, due to malnutrition, it's impossible to find a sturdy cyclist, then we're stuck with a real problem. I must talk with Lance Armstrong, one of these days, to see if he has any worthwhile ideas on this question...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

British expert on Catholic crimes

In the context of the pope and priestly pedophilia, the brilliant British barrister Geoffrey Robertson knows what he's talking about, and he talks well.

In this Al Jazeera interview, he sums up the situation excellently.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The artist as a young man

Lovers of religious art might marvel at the sensitivity and tenderness behind this flowery "Mary and child". The Virgin appears to be depicted as a gypsy woman. From a physical viewpoint, she's the kind of female who might be put aboard an airliner bound for Romania if Sarkozy's police were to find her hanging around in France today.

The artist who painted the gypsy Virgin and her child is mentioned in the novel Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut. The narrator, named Rudy Waltz, is talking of his father Otto, enrolled in a painting school.
… a professor handed him back his portfolio, saying that his work was ludicrous. And there was another young man in rags there, and he, too, had his portfolio returned with scorn.

His name was Adolf Hitler. He was a native Austrian. He had come from Linz.

And Father was so mad at the professor that he got his revenge there and then. He asked to see some of Hitler's work, with the professor looking on. He picked a picture at random, and he said it was a brilliant piece of work, and he bought it from Hitler for more cash on the spot than the professor, probably, could earn in a month or more.

Only an hour before, Hitler had sold his overcoat so that he could get a little something to eat, even though winter was coming on. So there is a chance that, if it weren't for my father, Hitler might have died of pneumonia or malnutrition in 1910.
The subject of the painting purchased by Otto Waltz was the Minorite Church in Vienna. I believe that Hitler's painting of this place exists in reality (maybe in the hands of a private collector), but I can't find a copy of it on the web. Meanwhile, people tend to forget that Hitler was a painter of religious subjects, just as they tend to forget his love for children.

I can't imagine why Joseph Ratzinger has tried to give the impression that Hitler didn't even believe in God, that he was an evil atheist.

Well yes, I can in fact imagine why the pope has talked this way. He's playing his role as the descendant of Saint Peter, the great fisherman. In fishing terms, Ratzi's allusions to atheism and secularism might be thought of as bait, designed to catch his critics. He knows that we'll all get caught by starting to waste our time (as I've been doing) producing evidence to prove that Hitler and the Nazis were not at all atheists. And while everybody's talking about atheism and secularism, they won't be talking about the sexual abuse of minors. Well played, Ratzi! But we haven't really been duped.

Mysterious scoreboard

The French online digital library called Gallica gave us this puzzle.

QUESTION: This certainly looks like some kind of a scoreboard. But what's the game?

ANSWER: In 1912, this scoreboard was erected in an open field at Versailles, alongside a big muddy puddle. An automobile, backed up against the scoreboard, would be driven off in a roar, whereupon the mud that splashed up onto the scoreboard would measure the quality—or rather, the lack of efficiency—of the car's rear mudguards.

Ratzinger invents an atheistic Hitler

Yesterday, in his Edinburgh speech, Benedict XVI referred to the "Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews". He urged the British to "reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century", and he encouraged "respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate".

Ratzi needs to reread his Hitler, and browse through a few old Nazi photo albums.

"We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out."
— Adolf Hitler, speech in Berlin, 24 October 1933 [Norman Baynes, The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939, vol 1 of 2, Oxford University Press, 1942]

In fact, the pope's allusions to "atheist extremism" and "aggressive forms of secularism" are a lukewarm attempt to draw people's attention away from the elephant in the drawing room: priestly pedophilia.

Here's a simple hymn of joy by Tim Minchin:

Consider yourself blessed for being able to listen to this Pope Song, for it might not stay around for long, free of charge, on the Internet.

ADDENDUM: There's a long list of relevant Hitler quotes on the Pharyngula blog [display] and an anthology of Nazi church-oriented photos with captions on another website [display].

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

From Bruno to Grafton

By the time I finish writing this article, I should have put a minimum of meaning into that curious title: From Bruno to Grafton. It's a complicated story, spread over nine centuries, and I'm not sure I'll succeed in relating it succinctly. Let me start at the end: a Google image of a dull red-brick building in my Australian birthplace, Grafton.

It's the local ambulance station. As a boy of eleven, I used to ride my bicycle past this building of a Monday evening, for the weekly get-together of the Wolf Cubs, which took place in a hall just behind the ambulance station.

The symbol on the façade of the red-brick building is a Maltese cross. Indeed, many ambulance services in my native land have been created by a 19th-century British-based charity organization, of an Anglican flavor, known as St John Ambulance.

Now, how and where does Saint John fit into this picture?

Before attempting to answer that question, let me jump back to the starting point in my title: a medieval scholar named Bruno, whose life and actions inspired the foundation of the order of Chartreux monks. [Click the image to access my presentation of this man.] In 1084, Bruno arrived in the Cartusia mountains (not far from where I live), ostensibly to set up a secluded hermitage with a handful of Christian companions. The official tale is that this middle-aged German-born scholar moved abruptly, for spiritual reasons, from his comfortable ecclesiastic quarters in Reims to the wilderness of Cartusia. This account raises certain credibility problems. Personally, I've never believed that story… which necessitates furthermore a miraculous event: a dream in which the geographical location of Cartusia is made manifest. So, what were the authentic reasons for Bruno's arrival in this part of the world? The answer is linked, I believe, to an extraordinary project imagined by one of Bruno's former students, Pope Urban II. That project consisted of organizing a gigantic military expedition aimed at chasing the Muslims out of the Holy City of Jerusalem. The First Crusade...

I've always imagined that the pope had sent Bruno to Cartusia on a geological mission, to negotiate the extraction of iron ore for the manufacture of crusader weapons… but that hypothesis is too complex to be developed here in my blog. Meanwhile, I tend to think of Bruno (perhaps unfairly) as the individual whose teachings apparently motivated the minds of the men who invented the crusades.

This subject of the crusades brings me back to the question of St John and the Maltese cross. Early in the 11th century, a hospital for sick pilgrims was founded in the vicinity of the site of the Holy Sepulcher. It was named in honor of John the Baptist. After the First Crusade of Pope Urban II had transformed the narrow streets of Jerusalem into rivers of blood, this hospital became recognized as the headquarters of an "armed force" of a new monastic kind, known as the Knights Hospitaller, or the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

The order soon became a prosperous institution, with branches—referred to as commanderies—in many corners of the world. In a couple of my recent blog posts, I mentioned the neighborhood of Arles called Trinquetaille. Well, from 1160 on, most of the vast Camargue delta between the Rhône and the small western arm of the river called the Petit Rhône belonged to the Hospitallers commandery of Trinquetaille.

Finally, when the crusaders were forced to leave the Holy Land, the Hospitallers moved the headquarters of their organization to the Mediterranean islands of Rhodes and then Malta… which explains why their symbol has been designated since then as a Maltese cross. Another great organization of a similar kind had come into existence in 1118: the Knights Templar. But, whereas the latter order was disbanded in dramatic circumstances a couple of centuries later, the Knights of Malta have never totally ceased to exist, in one way or another, and their prosperity endured for many centuries. In the neighboring village of Pont-en-Royans, for example, the ancient priory that once belonged to the monks of St Anthony was in fact a possession of the Hospitallers when it was confiscated by the French Revolution.

As for the English branch of the Hospitallers, and its ambulance systems, that's a relatively recent affair, dating from the 19th century. But it's nevertheless a living remnant of the great French chivalric order that came into being at a time when most natives of the British Isles were preoccupied by a more down-to-earth problem: the arrival on their shores of a certain William, Duke of Normandy.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In the footsteps of Van Gogh

While strolling recently in Arles with Christine, I didn't realize to what extent we happened to be walking in the footsteps—as it were—of Vincent van Gogh. It's only today, in front of my computer, that I discover retrospectively various associations of this kind.

This photo shows the majestic stone portal of the Hôtel-Dieu, with a poster indicating its new name: Espace Van Gogh. In France, the former expression (literally, God's hostel) designates ancient hospitals, often alongside a cathedral, in various great cities such as Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes and Angers.

In Arles, on Christmas Day 1888, Van Gogh used a razor to slash an ear lobe. Several months later, observing the painter's abnormal mental state, people in Arles signed a petition to have him interned at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. The other day, I took a couple of photos of the hospital courtyard, covered in flowers.

Van Gogh did a painting of this same courtyard.

Two other Van Gogh paintings present the bridge at Trinquetaille.

This is the bridge that Christine's grandfather Paul Marteau would have crossed regularly, as a youth, when walking back and forth between his native Trinquetaille and the main city of Arles. It was destroyed by Allied bombers in August 1944. When Christine and I were strolling between Trinquetaille and Arles the other day, we were using a bridge that was built in 1951 to replace the old one.

At the seaside in Brittany, 83 years ago

The excellent Gallica service provides a copy of this delightful illustration that accompanied an article entitled "Punishment for flirts" in the newspaper Le Petit Journal illustré of 11 September 1927:

At a seaside resort in Brittany, a few female visitors had got into the habit of strolling back to their residence while still attired in their bathing outfits. The local women, wearing their traditional costumes (including bonnets, flowing skirts and clogs), decided to flagellate the bathers with bunches of stinging nettles and thorny blackberry branches. The crime of the bare-legged bathers, for which they were being chastised, had consisted of attracting the lusty gazes of the husbands of the Breton women.

Hard to watch (continued)

This Irishman, John May, is a lunatic, but his accent is cute.

I don't know what he might have said after the first minute or so, because his words were starting to give me nausea, and I had to terminate the video.

This is the visible part of a dull little iceberg described in the Pharyngula blog [display]. It would appear that the hard-working godless Minnesota biologist PZ Myers has played a significant role in dissuading the Irish pollie Conor Lenihan from attending a book launch of John May's latest anti-Darwinian tripe.

If so, then this suggests that bloggers such as Myers (whom I read regularly) are not necessarily crying out futilely in the wilderness.