Saturday, December 31, 2011

Awaiting a weighty book

At the end of my blog post of 16 July 2011 entitled State of things [display], I suggested that readers might sit down quietly for an hour to watch a splendid talk by an outstanding American theoretical physicist, 57-year-old Lawrence Krauss.

I've just been pleasantly surprised to learn—in a note from Krauss himself, published yesterday [display]—that this talk actually took place some two years ago, at the instigation of Richard Dawkins and Robin Elisabeth Cornwell [Executive Director of the US branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science]. Later, the Foundation decided to post the talk video to YouTube… and it went on to log over a million views. This doesn't surprise me at all, since the subject is awesome.

Not surprisingly, friends of Krauss soon got around to convincing him that he should write a book on this fascinating subject of the way in which "nothingness" transforms itself constantly (with no help from any gods, just pure science) into "somethingness". When you think about it, it's a bloody good pretext for a book, to say the least: the sort of stuff that the Holy Bible would refer to as "good news". (I'm joking, of course. The authors of the poor old Bible wouldn't know what the fuck we were talking about.)

This momentous book will be coming out on 10 January 2012. Meanwhile, you can download (from the above Foundation link) the text of a splendid Afterword written by Dawkins for the imminent Krauss book. Inspired by the famous biblical words "Jesus wept" [John 11-35], I feel like summarizing the situation: Dawkins wondered. Wondered in awe at the words of a fellow scientist… without claiming that he (or many of us, for that matter) might be capable of following all the mathematics and physics that culminate in such mind-boggling conclusions. In any case, the words of the science poet Dawkins (who speaks from my level) are beautifully inspiring. And I'm awaiting eagerly the weighty words of Krauss.

Two for my cup of tea

I'm convinced that I've found the finest possible teapot [display] and my favorite jasmine tea [display].

On the other hand, I still hesitate concerning the ideal cup. My choice has been narrowed down to two quite different models. The white porcelain bowl on the right (a gift from my daughter) is a sacred chalice that seems to add a spiritual dimension (whatever that might mean) to the simple act of drinking a cup of tea. Whenever I drink tea from this delicate bowl (like a pyramid poised upside-down on its tip), I have a funny feeling that I should also be praying, meditating or listening to monastic chants emerging from a temple.

A more down-to-earth solution, when I'm working in front of my computer screen, is one of the delightful glazed stoneware cups I bought down in Moustiers. I've always agreed with the opinion of an aged Payne neighbor in my childhood Waterview, who amused my mother (unaccustomed to the expression of such refined sentiments) by saying: "I always feel the tea tastes so much nicer in a fine cup." The elegant forms and beautiful hues of the Provençal pottery certainly add something to the commonplace experience of consuming tea. But it's primarily a simple matter that I would designate as drinking comfort.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Baby mammoth

Last night on French TV, I watched a fascinating 95-minute documentary about the discovery in Siberia, in 2007, of an intact carcass of a baby woolly mammoth named Lyuba, who died at the age of a month or two—probably by drowning or being suffocated by mud— some 40,000 years ago.

The video I saw was a compilation of documentary fragments from several sources, but it tells the story of Lyuba in a complete and constantly interesting fashion. As far as I can tell, it was a French-language version of a product made by National Geographic whose title is Waking the Baby Mammoth. In any case, this afternoon, I was able to order a copy of the French version from Amazon.

Some viewers might be shocked by a cute gimmick of a Disney kind exploited haphazardly throughout the documentary. A highly-realistic virtual representation of little Lyuba is seen scampering around, from time to time, in the real world context of modern scientists who have been examining the unique carcass. Personally, I was never annoyed by these brilliantly-created excursions into fantasy, which seemed to reflect dreamlike visions that might indeed have been present in the minds of the scientists. At times, though, it was weird in the sense that the lovely little beast seemed to be invited along to participate in her own autopsy.

I appreciated greatly the performance of the US paleontologist Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan, who appeared to have a deep philosophical empathy both with the scientific phenomenon of mammoths and with the traditions of the Nenets herders who survive today in the icy Arctic world that was once the lush domain of Lyuba and her kin.

Exceptional entry into Pont-en-Royans

When Fitzroy became a family member at Gamone, a year or so ago, I was obliged to abandon my pleasant old habit of strolling down to Pont-en-Royans on foot, because looking after two dogs would not be easy, particularly on the stretch of road that runs alongside the Bourne, where's there's nothing you could call a pedestrian pavement. Here's a Google Street View presentation of the main road into Pont, a hundred meters after the Rouillard Bridge over the Bourne (midway between Gamone and Pont), which runs down the valley to the right of the road:

Pont is located not far beyond the bend at the far end of the main road with the white lines. In the vicinity of the point from which the photo was taken, if I were walking to Pont, I would be using a track through the woods up to the left, at the level of the tree line. Notice the knob up on the crest of the mountain to the right, the Trois Châteaux. You could see this knob clearly in the second photo in my recent blog post entitled Virgin Mary of Pont-en-Royans [display]. That's the ruins of the medieval watchtower enabling a few guardsmen to look out over three feudal castles located further down in the valley, to make sure that no assailants were moving towards any one of these castles.

The above photo contains another interesting detail. Notice the existence of the narrow road, with no signs whatsoever, that runs off to the left, and up the slopes, towards the woods. Let me ask you a trivial question. If you were a motorist, heading towards Pont-en-Royans (a few hundred meters down the road), is there anything that might tempt you to leave the main highway and drive up along that unmarked narrow road? Well, of course, there's always the possibility of an urgent need to relieve oneself in a natural setting. Apart from that, I shall explain in a moment that there's another theoretical reason, apparently, for setting off on a wild goose chase along a narrow wooded mountain lane. It's called GPS: the Global Positioning System. And this fabulous system can lead you into big trouble...

The pedestrian track joins up with that narrow road, a little further on, and you soon reach an entry into an ancient neighborhood of the village of Pont-en-Royans called Villeneuve (literally, "new town"). Here's the first house up there in the Villeneuve neighborhood:

Although the portal itself has disappeared, you can still see its traces to the left and the right of the road.

This tiny neighborhood came into existence in the 17th century. The year 1674 is engraved in the stone window frame of one of the houses:

Residents of the three or four dwellings at Villeneuve can drive up here along the narrow road that you saw in my first photo. The owner of this red vehicle has then turned his car around and backed into this convenient parking spot, at the top of the stone stairs that run down to the Picard Bridge.

Last summer, an English tourist was driving down towards Pont-en-Royans. When he reached the place shown in my first photo, he seemed to receive curious advice from his GPS device, which told him to turn to the left. He interpreted this as meaning that he should head off up the hill along that narrow road leading to the Villeneuve neighborhood. At that time, when he drove through the narrow portal and past the house with the date 1674, there was no big block of stone at the spot where the red car is now parked, since the handful of local residents all knew that the road stopped there. However the English tourist didn't know this. And, since his GPS device reassured him that Pont-en-Royans was just a hundred meters down the hill, he kept on driving. When he started to bump down over these stone steps, the tourist must have felt that the road was extraordinarily narrow and in pretty bad shape:

But his GPS kept on telling him that the Picard Bridge and the entry into Pont-en-Royans were less than 50 meters away. Besides, it would have been particularly difficult to back up over those steep stone steps. So he kept on driving. Halfway down, he must have been an expert driver, and taken great pains, to get through this narrow passage:

After that ultimate difficulty, the tourist's downhill drive ended here, at the bottom of the Villeneuve stairway.

His automobile and his faithful GPS system had at last brought him to the village of Pont-en-Royans... or almost. Unfortunately, there was no way in the world that he could drive his car through the narrow opening at the level of the two final steps. So, his car got firmly wedged in between the stone walls. And he had a unique opportunity (for a tourist at the wheel of his automobile) of viewing the terrasse of the Picard bistrot from an unusual place and angle.

The only way of extracting the tourist consisted of calling upon a local guy with a backhoe loader to knock down the stone wall to the right, and nudge the car onto the road.


As you can see, the wall has now been repaired. I believe that a local newspaper has a photo of the trapped automobile at the foot of the staircase. Later on, if I can obtain a copy, I'll add it to this blog post. Meanwhile, I'm told that the English tourist was furious to discover how hard it was to drive down a quite ordinary road whose existence was indicated explicitly by his faultless GPS device. Back in the UK, where roads and road signs are impeccable, it would be unthinkable to get into such an annoying predicament. Bloody Frog highway authorities!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Google-based review of major events in 2011

For me personally, this short video has the merit of evoking one of the ways in which I find out what's happening out in the wide world.

But I have to admit that I'm not a typical Google user, otherwise I would have discovered—all on my own and months ago—the following specimen of US youth:

Apparently, throughout the world, more Google users looked up pea-brained Rebecca Black and her stupid ditty than any other individual, happening or phenomenon on the planet Earth. As they say in the classics, it makes you think.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Silent night, holy fight

In Jerusalem, fights have been erupting for ages between different Christian denominations inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This Christmas, the fighting broke out in a different but equally distinguished place: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. And the belligerents were Greek Orthodox and Armenian clergymen. Parts of this video remind me of ice hockey games that have been transformed into brawls. 

Let there be peace on Earth...

Praise be to magic Cheeta

My title is meant to evoke the refrain of the delightful Tim Minchin song that I presented a few days ago [display].

A crazy story about the death of a chimpanzee has been taken up by media throughout the world. According to this story, the animal that has just died in a Florida primate sanctuary was the famous Cheeta, who was present in many of the Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weismuller. That's to say, the deceased animal would have been 80 years old… which would have made it some 25 years older than the normal life span of a captive chimpanzee.

This story should be taken with a grain of salt, because quite a few different chimpanzees were employed for the role of Cheeta. They are listed in the Wikipedia article on Tarzan and Cheeta [access]. For the story of another chimpanzee that was alleged to have been the real Cheeta, read an article by R D Rosen, Lie of the Jungle: the Truth about Cheeta the Chimpanzee, which appeared in the Washington Post in December 2008 [access].

This affair illustrates the amazing gullibility of countless media organizations. They all seem to have relied on a single source for this story: the lady in charge of chimpanzees at the Florida sanctuary. She appears to have claimed, incidentally, that the deceased chimpanzee could be "soothed by Christian music".

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Virgin Mary of Pont-en-Royans

In my quest concerning the drawing of the thatched house in Blackbird Street, I had imagined that it might be a good idea to obtain a bird's-eye view of the houses that appear (I believe) in the background. So, I set off on a lonely morning excursion along the slopes of Mont Barret on sunny Christmas Sunday morning. A friend from Blackbird Street, strolling around with his dog, directed me towards the Virgin of Pont-en-Royans. After a rough climb along a track through unkempt shrubs, I finally found myself at the lady's feet.

I was thrilled to meet up with an effigy of the lady and her son on the very anniversary of the birth of the latter. This was surely my closest contact ever, and maybe forever, with the solitude of heavenly bliss. Taking advantage of this extraordinary moment, I took this photo of the nearby mountain that separates Choranche and Pont-en-Royans.

As attested in the Napoleonic Cadastre, this mountain, on the territory of Choranche, is called Trois Châteaux (three castles) because an observer, from this exceptional viewpoint, could clearly distinguish three medieval castles in the valley: Flandaines, La Bâtie and Rochechinard. Today, the first two have almost totally disappeared from the surface of the planet Earth, whereas vestiges of the third castle exist splendidly, as I explained recently [display].

When I started down the slopes from the Virgin Mary of Pont-de-Royans, I had the impression that our encounter had not proved anything much at all concerning my primary preoccupation: the identification of the thatched house of Blackbird Street. But nobody (and, least of all, a lusty heathen such as me) should ever begrudge a passing encounter with a replica of the Holy Virgin.

Dorset censuses

Since much of my 19th-century Skivington genealogy was located in Dorset, I finally decided to purchase a set of CDs with the contents of the UK censuses for 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871.

I believe that purchasing these CDs—expertly produced by a small private company—is a less expensive and far more user-friendly solution than subscribing to one of the companies that provides you with access to censuses through the Internet. But I've reached this conclusion primarily because my 19th-century preoccupations are focussed essentially upon the single county of Dorset.

The researcher still has to spend a lot of time and effort in locating relevant individuals. In the case of my ancestral relatives named Legg, I've more or less given up researching, because there were hordes of them in Dorset at that time. Maybe, if I were courageous, I would decide to get further involved in research concerning these Legg folk, with the help of big family-history websites that we used to refer to as "message boards"... which I tend to avoid these days. But I've discovered that my great-great-great-grandmother Eliza Legg, when she married Charles Skivington, had two out-of-wedlock sons of which Charles wasn't the father. And I'm wary of the inevitable rock 'n' roll that would accompany an incursion into Eliza's family background. So I'm inclined to let sleeping Dorset rockers lie.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Thatched house in Blackbird Street

In the village of Pont-en-Royans, Blackbird Street (la rue du Merle) rises from the end of the Picard Bridge, just opposite the famous hanging houses above the River Bourne, and curves around the lower slopes of Mount Barret for a couple of hundred meters before descending to meet up with the main road to Sainte-Eulalie. Here's a view of the hanging houses seen from Blackbird Street:

In the lower center of the photo, you can see a fragment of the above-mentioned road that runs from Pont-en-Royans to Sainte-Eulalie, a couple of kilometers to the south. In the background, you can glimpse the stone arch of the Picard Bridge, high above the Bourne. On the opposite bank of the Bourne, you have the multi-colored façades of the hanging houses. Finally, at the spot where the photographer was located, in the lower right-hand corner of the photo, you can see the edge of Blackbird Street, with a stone parapet.

Let's move to the other side of the Bourne. Here we view the Blackbird Street neighborhood from the vicinity of the hanging houses:

A couple of vehicles are driving along the road to Sainte-Eulalie. The first vehicle is about to pass in front of the three "awkward doorways" mentioned in my blog post of 23 May 2010 [display]. Above the middle doorway, the narrow building with a relatively bright red (new) roof was the garage of my late neighbor Dédé Repellin. The level of Blackbird Street corresponds to the base of the houses in the background.

You can associate the two scenes by means of a building that appears in both photos. In the first photo, it's the building in the forefront (half-hidden by a dilapidated shed), on Blackbird Street, with snow on the roof and a tall cream-colored chimney. In the second photo, the snow has disappeared, but this same building, a little to the right of Dédé's garage, is distinguished by its slanting roof, and a small balcony high above the road. Further along to the right, a massive concrete base and pillars support the dilapidated shed (seen in the first photo).

Now, if I've tried to describe the layout of this neighborhood, it's because I would like to share with you, if possible, my attempts at identifying a mysterious unsigned drawing, dated March 1870, which my ex-wife Christine discovered recently in her collections of antiquarian artwork. We come upon a big house with a thatched roof.

All the familiar old engravings of Pont-en-Royans show houses with tiled roofs. And the famous Picard Bridge appears inevitably in all such images. Consequently, Christine (who's quite familiar with Pont-en-Royans and its pictorial representations) was disinclined to imagine the house with a thatched roof as an element of 19th-century Pont-en-Royans. Nevertheless, in the background, there are buildings that look like our hanging houses, as well as a mountain. So, Christine decided to send me a copy of the drawing, to ask for my opinion. And, over the last week, I've been carrying out an investigation of the affair.

Today, my conclusions are firm. This was almost certainly a building located not far from the Picard Bridge, between Blackbird Street (on the right-hand edge of the drawing) and the Bourne. The house was no doubt eliminated, to a large extent, to make way for the new road from Pont-en-Royans to Sainte-Eulalie. But it's possible that vestiges of the building have survived in the vicinity of Dédé's garage and the house with the slanted roof.

Let me start out by explaining the reasons why I've reached these conclusions. Here's an enlargment of the buildings in the background, to the left of the thatched house:

When I showed the drawing to Paulette Ageron (the 84-year-old sister of my neighbor Madeleine), she was adamant that the block of three buildings to the far-left is the place where she was born. These buildings on the Place de la Halle (market square) were destroyed by Nazi bombs in 1944, but old-timers remember them well… no doubt because of the bombing. And Paulette needed no prompting to assure me that she recognized the place where she was born, on 27 April 1927, in her parents' second-floor residence in a house whose first-floor occupants were Monsieur and Madame Guillot. Let us leave aside this leftmost block, and turn our attention to the remaining 5 buildings. Here's what we find there today:

Although the buildings, their façades and even their heights have evolved considerably during the century and a half since the drawing was made, little imagination is required in order to associate significant elements in the two images.

A vital element in the elucidation of this puzzle was the Napoleonic Cadastre of Pont-en-Royans dated 15 March 1823. Significant fragments of this precious document are still accessible in the town hall of Pont-en-Royans, where the friendly employees Colette and Chantal allowed me to take photos. Here's a fuzzy map of Blackbird Street (photographed on a dull morning, without lighting, on the floor of the town hall):

In the drawing of the thatched house, the woman with a child is seated on an empty grassy slope. I would imagine that this is the allotment #130 in the Napoleonic Cadastre, stretching all the way down to the Bourne, and that the thatched house lies on the allotment #123. But my reasoning might be faulty. Maybe the house was located on the allotment #127, much closer to the Picard Bridge, in which case the grassy patch would have been the allotment #125.

To conclude, here's a well-known illustration of that area at the beginning of Blackbird Street:

To my way of reckoning, the artist who made this delightful illustration of the local blacksmith, at the start of Blackbird Street, must have been located with his back towards the thatched house. For the moment, I have no information whatsoever concerning the date and origin of this artwork. My investigations are not yet terminated...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas dogs

For many years, I've been cynically amused by all the talk about the sense of Christmas. Back in the days when I used to celebrate this festive season in one way or another, notably in Brittany in the context of my ex-wife, I was impressed primarily by the immediate family scene. In Christine's ancestral context, this scene—of a theatrical kind on special occasions such as Christmas—was both qualitatively and quantitatively rich in a way that impressed a naive Antipodean such as myself, projected into this new world by my love for Christine Mafart and our decision to marry and have children.

I was conscious of the inevitable backdrop against which our ephemeral celebrations were taking place, and I was often saddened by the idea that it would have been unthinkable for me to ever seek to evoke that backdrop with my wife, who didn't appear to be sensitive (so I thought, rightly or wrongly) to this behind-the-scenes situation. She was always too busy making sure that her parents and siblings were all getting organized for Christmas in an optimal fashion… almost as if it were a military operation that had to be timed and executed ideally. And I might be assigned the unlikely task of opening oysters. (I say "unlikely" in the sense that, during my entire adolescence not far from the Pacific Ocean and the fabulous oyster fields of Wooli, nobody had ever thought it fit to teach me this art.) Needless to say, the Mafart home in Saint-Brieuc at Christmas wasn't exactly the kind of situation in which somebody might suggest romantically: "Hey, why don't we all go down to the beach and light up a barbecue." Things weren't like that.

The absence of three background elements disturbed me constantly. First, there was the harsh outside world, excluded magically from our Christmas celebrations. Second, there was no place in our family festivities for the city of St-Brieuc, the seaside environment and fabulous Brittany. Third, in this merry midst, my personal psychology, with its preoccupations and ambitions, was an empty cocoon.

Today, those events and personal sentiments are far away in my past. And I find myself celebrating Christmas alone with my dogs.

They're warm, well fed and playful. And I believe they're happy. Unfortunately, they know next to nothing about the birth of Jesus. Me neither, for that matter. And the only wise man Sophia and Fitzroy have ever encountered is, of course, me. But they don't appear to be missing out on too much.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Praise be to multifaceted Jesus

This hilarious song of praise to Jesus by the Australian comedian Tim Minchin was supposed to be included in a show on ITV in the UK this evening, but it was censored at the last minute.

As somebody pointed out astutely, this censorship operation is neither here nor there, because the song and the censorship will be talked about by many observers (exactly as I'm doing now), and hordes of viewers will be drawn to the YouTube presentation. So, we might conclude: Praise be to Magic, Woody Allen, zombie, Superman, Komodo dragon, telepathic, vampire, quantum, Hovercraft, Minchin, censored, YouTube Jesus!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Higgs hunt

In the olden days in Australia (that's to say, when I was a kid), a simple gambling game called Two-up consisted of placing bets on throws of a pair of pennies. Obviously, there were three possible outcomes:

1. Two heads:

2. Two tails:

3. One of each:

Now, let me ask you a simple question: What is the probability of the last-mentioned outcome (one coin landing tails, and the other heads)?

Did I hear you say one-out-of-three? That answer would be wrong. The right answer, of course, is one-out-of-two. In mathematical jargon, the probability of a mixed heads-and-tails outcome is 0.5.

That banal Aussie Two-up demo was a prelude to one of my favorite science stories. Once upon a time, during a lecture in a university of present-day Bangladesh, the Calcutta-born mathematician and physicist Satyendra Nath Bose happened to make the above-mentioned mistake. Unbelievably, in front of his surprised students, Bose exploited unwittingly the erroneous one-out-of-three probability in order to provide a convincing explanation of a certain experiment in the domain of quantum statistics.

In a nutshell, quantum happenings and explanations are so weird that you can even obtain the right answers by using what might appear to be crazy reasoning... as long as everything remains mathematically immaculate. We might say retrospectively that, not only was there method in the temporary madness of Bose, but superb madness in his very method. In any case, Bose's initially mixed-up meanderings gave rise (I'm cutting a long story ultra-short) to what has since become known as Bose-Einstein statistics. This extraordinary Bengali mathematician and physicist (who needed Albert Einstein's personal recommendation in order to get a university job, since he didn't have a doctorate) finally obtained cosmic recognition through the naming, in his honor, of a subatomic particle: the boson. What a lovely story!

Let's jump forward to more recent times. Peter Higgs is an 82-year-old English theoretical physicist. Long ago, he happened to be enrolled in a secondary school near Bristol: Cotham Grammar School. The list of distinguished alumni of this quite ordinary establishment is astonishing. One of them was the Nobel laureate Paul Dirac. That list now includes the name of Peter Higgs (represented here in a portrait by Ken Currie, 2010):

His surname qualifies a fabulous elementary particle that has become the Golden Graal of contemporary physics: the Higgs boson. These days, most cosmologists believe that this theoretical entity should in fact exist, and that's why the international Cern research institute has built a gigantic machine, located on the Franco-Swiss border, that will hopefully demonstrate that the Higgs boson is a tangible reality. (Maybe "tangible" is not an ideal adjective, since it's not as if you might slice a Higgs boson in two with the help of a Swiss Army knife, or run into such a particle while strolling around in the streets of Geneva.)

The funny thing about this affair, to my mind, is that everybody carries on talking about the Higgs boson as a particle, as if it were a tiny bit of matter. That's a little like referring to light as photons. While this usage is perfectly correct from a quantum theory viewpoint, you wouldn't normally ask somebody to turn on the light by saying "Please beam us a stream of photons". It's a fact that the existence of the Higgs boson will indeed be demonstrated one of these days, we hope, by a collision of particles that might be imagined like this:

At a press conference this week, Cern representatives revealed that the mass of this particle appears to be about 125 gigaelectronvolts, and that its existence will probably be revealed with certainty as early as next year. To understand why the capture of this elusive particle would be so prized by cosmologists, it's preferable to think of the Higgs boson, not as a tiny bit of matter (so small and ephemeral that we cannot possibly comprehend it), but rather as a field. As is the case for photons, quantum theory enables us to switch freely from a particle-oriented to a field-oriented interpretation of bosons. You can look at bosons from either way, whichever happens to suit you. We're intuitively familiar with everyday fields such as magnetism (or rather electromagnetism) and gravity. Higgs bosons, viewed as a field, are extraordinary (Can any entity in the Cosmos be thought of as ordinary?) since this field pervades, totally but invisibly, all the interstices of the Cosmos.

The Higgs field is crying out to be revealed—almost certainly through a corpuscular experiment at the Cern—for the simple reason (Can any explanation in the Cosmos be thought of as simple?) that the presence of this field would be a gigantic step towards our "understanding" (Can anything at all in the Cosmos be truly understood?) of a totally mind-boggling notion: namely, the creation of being from nothingness.

At the end of that last paragraph, I borrowed the title of a famous book by Jean-Paul Sartre. But I have to add that this illustrious French philosopher would have been sadly incapable, in spite of his alleged brilliance as a thinker, of appreciating even the present modest blog post, because philosophers of Sartre's kind never imagined for an instant, strangely, that science might have anything to do with explaining the realities of the Cosmos and of our human existence. And so they never bothered to learn mathematics and physics, just as they weren't particularly intrigued by biology, DNA, genetics, computers and all the rest.

POST SCRIPTUM: Not surprisingly (But isn't everything in the Cosmos both surprising and unsurprising, simultaneously?), bosons and quarks are not far removed from snarks and boojums, as presented in the celebrated nonsense poem—an "agony in eights fits"— by Lewis Carroll. The title of my blog post, Higgs hunt, evokes mildly this association. I hope that readers will have appreciated my avoidance of an utterly ridiculous expression (the God particle) that mindless media folk have often used to designate the Higgs boson. I would have gladly taken a timid step in that silly direction, however, by referring to the Higgs boson as the Godot particle… since everybody is surely waiting for it.

A horseman has ridden away

"And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, 'Come!' And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come!' And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and its rider had a balance in his hand; … When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, 'Come!' And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given great power over a fourth of the earth; to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth."         — Book of Revelation [6:1–8]

A week or so ago, I was moved by a brilliant article in Vanity Fair [display] in which Christopher Hitchens, ravaged by cancer and radiation treatment, analyzed cynically a proverbial declaration by Friedrich Nietzsche: "Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger."

Here, we see Richard Dawkins on the left and pale shaven-headed Hitchens on the right. I'm awaiting the arrival of a paper copy of the special Christmas issue of New Statesman that I mentioned in my recent blog post entitled Dawkins to edit New Statesman [display]. Meanwhile, a few extracts have appeared online [display].

While Hitchens attained fame as a writer in professional US circles, I persist in imagining him as the epitome of a highly-cultivated and brilliant English wordsmith.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Quiet corners of boyhood memories

In general, whenever I happen to poke my nose (out of curiosity) into the current affairs of what used to be my native city and region (Grafton on the Clarence River), I despair sadly of finding any kind of positive evolution in the mentalities of my native folk. I have no reason to believe, though, that it's a specific regional problem. It's a national affair, which concerns the entire island continent. That's to say, I believe that the citizens of my birthplace are behaving perfectly as typical Aussies…

For the moment, the quiet corner of my boyhood memories that concerns me is an intersection of the Pacific Highway in Ulmarra, where I used to ride by on my bike when training with the local cyclists.

It's a typically dull spot, to say the least (nothing to do with the alleged tropical splendors of the Antipodes), on the corner of Coldstream Street in the village of Ulmarra. But this intersection is the theme of a militant article in our local newspaper, the Daily Examiner, which evokes the imminent removal of an "eyesore" at this intersection [access article]. Would the brave journalist be talking of the ugly pile of signs on this corner? Or maybe of the electricity power lines that disfigure this spot, like countless others throughout Australia? No, the "eyesore" that has provoked the wrath of the journalist of the Daily Examiner is that poor old white weatherboard house in the background. A foreign observer such as myself might imagine that this simple archaic dwelling could be transformed, with insignificant financial investments and a lot of imaginative landscaping, into something old and beautiful. But Aussies don't think that way. The journalist is proud to announce that the authorities have approved a grant of $15,000 for the demolition of this house, to "ready the lot for a possible future sale".

In this way, slowly but surely, cultural and administrative erosion is eradicating forever the lovely old Australia of my boyhood. The archaic pale ghost of the house in Ulmarra will have soon disappeared, to be replaced by an imposing concrete monstrosity. But we can be confident that the shithouse collection of road signs on the corner of Coldstream Street will remain in place, along with the electricity lines, for a long time. That's Down Under...

New family-history folk

We computer-oriented genealogical researchers tend to imagine that the main action started and stopped with the Mormons, when these devoted investigators decided to record scrupulously for posterity (more precisely, in the perspective of posthumous baptisms) all the BDM details (births, deaths and marriages) concerning our forebears.

Recently, I was pleasantly astonished to receive an email from a representative member of a new organization named Mocavo, informing me that they were stepping into the genealogical business. For the moment, I'm greatly impressed by the way in which these professionals have targeted rapidly and effectively my personal stuff.


Mocavo is particularly active on Twitter. You might follow their UK community director Casey Hopkins at @caseyhopkins

I'll append information to my blog as I learn more about the approach and methods of this new organization.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Enough to turn an aging gentleman off women forever

I warn you. This is an incredibly nasty video:

Survivors might cry out for help. I would dearly love to direct fellow males to interesting images, for a minimum of erotic appeasement. Alas, I seem to have mislaid my book of web addresses.

Monday, December 12, 2011

When Britain was great

After David Cameron's astonishing behavior at last week's summit in Brussels, the UK is henceforth wandering around on the fringe of the EU, and it's not at all clear whether the nation will indeed stay in or rather get out. Maybe get kicked out. See this article.

Once upon a time, Britain had an empire. In down-to-earth real-estate terms, it was no doubt the most vast empire that had ever existed, since it covered a quarter of the land surface of the planet Earth. When I was a child out in my native Australia, we used to persist in celebrating this majestic empire, even though it had been growing faded and starting to crack at the seams, particularly since the defection of India in 1947.

The English—who adore misty fairy tales—were told that the following photo showed King George V and Queen Mary leaving Buckingham Palace for India, a century ago.

On 12 December 1911, there was a so-called durbar in Delhi: that's to say, a fabulous ceremonial parade, involving Indian princes and maharajahs, through the streets of the imperial city. The English monarch and his wife had arrived there, to pursue the celebration of their coronation, which had taken place on 22 June 2011 at Westminster Abbey in London. Back in those days, the English had a right to take themselves very seriously. And they did, indeed.

I found the above image this afternoon on the Gallica website, which is an emanation of the French national library. I was amused by a French-language comment, in modern slang, concerning this old photographic reminder of British greatness. To express his feelings towards George V, a young French viewer of the above image said: "Il se la pète grave." Impossible to translate in a word-for-word fashion. (My daughter Emmanuelle would be able to help me, but she phoned me this morning to say that she was leaving to interview somebody in the USA.) The French verb péter means "to fart" and the adverb grave means "ultra-seriously". The bizarre but delightful construction "se la péter grave" means that somebody appears to be taking himself extravagantly in a pompously serious fashion.

Hey, wasn't that what the Victorian/Georgian Poms and their British Empire were all about? Besides, my native land, Australia, has not yet fully emerged from that antiquated dream and the obsolete ideals of a long-abandoned "empire"…

Electric Queensland

We've heard it said that folk up in Queensland are afraid of nothing. (I say "up in Queensland" in the sense that I still imagine myself in my native town of Grafton in New South Wales.) Last January, I referred to the dauntless nature of Queenslanders in blog posts about the gigantic floods that struck the south-east corner of their state.

Today, I want to present an amazing short video that shows boats out on the calm waters of a place called Mooloolaba, just a hundred kilometers to the north of Brisbane. The sky is full of black clouds, and you can hear claps of thunder. Clearly, the fury of a  storm is about to hit the place… and an observer might wonder why people are still out on boats. A non-Queenslander might even say they're crazy. Watch the video to see what happened next.

[Click to watch the YouTube display of the video, which is slightly larger than my embedded blog version. The cries of scared children add an alarming dimension to the situation. What the hell were kids doing out in the middle of an approaching electrical storm such as this?]
A young woman was seated on an esky (plastic container for keeping beer chilled) on the deck on a 15-meter cruiser that can be seen, in the video, receiving the impact of a bolt of lightning. Although the intrepid lady was knocked out by the lightning, she survived miraculously, and has now described her experience to the local media. I already said that they breed 'em tough in Queensland. Apparently they also breed 'em shockproof, in an electrical sense.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dawkins to edit New Statesman

To take charge of the special Christmas issue of a great British weekly, New Statseman, what better idea than to call upon the world's most celebrated atheistic scientist, Richard Dawkins. As a talented writer with a lot of distinguished friends, the former Oxford professor is certainly an ideal man for such a task. I'm convinced that he'll instill in the minds of readers a totally rejuvenated spirit of Christmas, which will surely be no worse than the old one, and probably a lot better.

This special issue, which will be coming out next week, is sure to become a collector's item. I've ordered a single issue directly from the New Statseman website [access]. It's preferable to wait until next week before doing so, otherwise the subscription department is likely to send you this week's issue.

POST SCRIPTUM:  The new version of the Blogger editor seems to be half-broken. It has been awfully clunky for weeks, and I have a hard job in posting things correctly. It's weird to discover that my present Macintosh setup, with all the latest bells and whistles installed, is far less user-friendly than it was six months ago, not only as far as my blog is concerned, but even for such an everyday operation as scrolling manually through a file. Bizarre...

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Light for Lotus

This evening, a simple sad candle is burning alongside my fireplace. And its pale light fills my mind with precious memories... of a dear dog.

I'm thinking of the splendid chocolate-colored Brach hound Lotus, who left us today. She was my friend, who manifested her affection whenever I visited Tineke and Serge. I shared constantly with Lotus the sweet tragedy of her existence in the midst of a paradise with all the magnificent scents of Choranche flowers and the aroma of wild Vercors beasts. Many times, Lotus would have loved to escape from her home domain in order to hunt all kinds of magic phantoms on the archaic slopes of the Bourne, where mammoths once roamed. Unfortunately, at a practical level, this was unthinkable. If Lotus had been allowed to roam around in total liberty in the Cirque de Choranche, it's almost certain that Tineke and Serge would have never seen her again, because she had the genes of a hunting hound, and there were no limits to where these genes might have led Lotus. So, a modus vivendi had to be established pragmatically. Lotus was more-or-less free to follow her nose around the splendid domain, with its countless specimens of vegetation. But, to keep her at home, limits had to be imposed gently upon Lotus, by means of walls or a light leash. The dog found this quite acceptable. She was an overjoyed inmate of Rochemuse, always resplendent, friendly and visibly happy. Lotus realized that she was in wonderful hands. Competent and loving hands. The hands of an artist, Tineke. Those of a master craftsman, Serge.

As of today, Lotus is liberated! In pursuit of the olfactive messages received by her soft sensitive snout, she can bound towards the stars...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Darwin documentary

Yesterday evening on TV, like millions of viewers, I could have watched the election of Miss France. Instead, I was attracted by an Australian-produced documentary fiction on the Arte channel: Darwin's Lost Paradise, written and directed by Hannes Schuler and Katharina von Flotow for Chapman Pictures of Petersham (Sydney).

This movie, which came out in 2009, describes the four-year voyage of Charles Darwin on the small 240-ton brig Beagle, under the command of Robert FitzRoy. Technically and pedagogically, the movie is perfect, and I agree entirely with this review in Télérama:

The French journalist Emmanuelle Skyvington criticizes the dramatic style of this otherwise splendid production: "The fictional parts, cruelly lacking in force, are limited to illustrations of what was seen by Darwin (mute from the beginning to the end of the movie) and the specimens he encountered." I would go further than my daughter and claim that most 19th-century fictional documentaries produced by Germany, Britain, the USA and Australia are inevitably technically audacious but absolutely lousy from the point of view of casting, acting and dramatic content. That's to say, in a nutshell, they're rarely realistic. For some strange reason that I've never understood, only the French seem to excel in producing extraordinary 19th-century movie stuff, with actors that behave like real human beings. Recently, for example, I've seen some marvelous presentations of short stories by Guy de Maupassant, often in rural settings.

In the special case of the Darwin movie, the problem is that the director and writer are so respectful of their hero, Darwin, that they're simply afraid to transform him into a real person. So, he remains perpetually insipid, like the motionless subject of an oil portrait. The unfortunate fellow doesn't even have the right to make facial expressions, or express himself in any visible way whatsoever. So, he's utterly devoid of emotions. We're told that he was extremely seasick at the beginning of the voyage, but it would have been unthinkable for the German creative team to show our hero with a green face (not that I particularly wanted to see such an image) feeding the fishes over the side of the Beagle. All Darwin's allowed to do, from one end of the movie to the other, is to admire nature, collect specimens, stroll around a little, attend church services aboard the ship, and write. I was reminded of the old-fashioned images of Catholic saints, who are expected to appear as perfect creatures in an artificial world. Ah, my poor Saint Darwin!

Finally, the English title of this movie annoys me greatly. Darwin never lost any kind of paradise. On the contrary, he revealed to us the magic mysteries and beauties of science. And his ingenious explanations concerning the marvels of the living world made it clear to us that we inhabit a glorious world where there are no gods.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ancestors are daggy

I learned that excellent adjective quite recently, from a young cousin in Australia. Something is said to be daggy when it exhibits an indigestible mixture of several negative or frankly nasty features. It's generally scruffy, dirty, broken, something that would best be discarded as rubbish. Although I like the fresh Down Under twang of this word (like bogan, an equally pejorative epithet), it goes without saying that the title of this blog post is not intended to cast aspersions of any kind upon the fine folk who were my forebears. No, I've decided to invent (facetiously) a totally new meaning of the adjective "daggy"...

Let me explain. The only serious way of understanding the phenomenon of ancestors is to represent them by means of illustrations of the kind that mathematicians refer to as DAGs: directed acyclic graphs. Unless you do this, you're liable to remain forever confused by the sheer quantitative proportions of the vast hordes of procreators who have been responsible, ever since life has existed on the planet Earth, for copulating, conscientiously and copiously, in ways that have led to your present existence.

Genealogists have often used tree diagrams to represent ancestors, and half the community feel that the roots should be down at the bottom and the leaves at the top, whereas the other half find that it would be preferable if such diagrams could reveal their content in a chronological top-to-bottom direction. Obviously, the best way of ending this dispute is to lay your family-history charts out in a horizontal fashion, because nobody would ever dream of putting old folk to the right and living individuals to the left.

In fact, the ancestral scene has always been a jungle, rather than a tidy forest. And the only aspect of the situation of which we can be relatively certain is that there are far more human beings on the planet today than when all the diligent copulating got off to a start, long ago.

Some folk have the pleasure of emerging from ancestral contexts in which so much irregular screwing of all kinds was taking place constantly that it can become quite a difficult task to distinguish between the various roots and leaves, and to determine where certain rooting leaves off, while elsewhere certain leaves take root… if you see what I mean. [If I weren't sure that you've heard it already, I would throw in here the joke about the rare Tasmanian marsupial that eats, roots, shoots and leaves.] I warned you that the situation is daggy.

Here's a typical example of a graph of the directed acyclic kind:

Clearly, it's a graph, since the diagram is composed of labeled vertices (nodes) linked by lines. It's a directed graph because all the lines carry arrow heads to indicate their respective directions. And it's acyclic, above all, in the sense that, no matter where you start, you'll never find yourself going around in circles. To put it bluntly, there's no way in the world that a young lady might give birth to a child who turns out to be the girl's father. Not even in the Holy Bible, where supernatural birth is a common phenomenon, would you find such a far-fetched tale as that (unless it has escaped me). Now, this kind of DAG provides an elegant way of indicating how humans might procreate. Admittedly, at times, the relationships are not particularly Christian. But who cares?

— Fred and Kate gave birth to a son, John.

— Kate appealed to a different father, Ken, to produce a daughter, Alice.

— These naughty kids, John and Alice, promptly got together to give birth to Bill… who probably ran into various terrible health problems later on.

— Meanwhile, Alice was seduced by John's dad, Fred, who bore her a son, Tom.

— Alice, a spirited young woman, also had a daughter, Mary, whose father is unknown.

As I said, the overall situation is mathematically "daggy" in the sense that no unthinkable acts have ever taken place. There are no vicious circles. No closed loops. No offspring has ever ended up becoming the genitor of his or her own father or mother. So, the overall situation is perfectly human, all too human.

Many observers who see how genealogical researchers behave are inclined to cry out in disbelief that their activities are crazy. For example, I'm proud of the fact that I can document—more or less clearly and plausibly—the 29 generations that take me back to William the Conqueror. [My "pride", of course, is perfectly irrational and superficial, on a par with saying that I'm proud to be Australian, say, simply because my ancestors happened to be led to that land, for various random reasons.] Certain observers are shocked by my evocation of the Conqueror, and they hit out with bad arithmetic: "William, your alleged royal ancestor is merely one of N individuals who played a role in your procreation, and the value of N is approximately 2 to the power 29, that's to say 536 870 912." The problem, here, is that this number no doubt exceeds the total number of inhabitants who were looking around for a bit of procreative Franco-British rock 'n' roll back at the time of the Conqueror. So, there's something basically wrong with the use of binary trees when calculating the volume of your ancestors. What's wrong, as I've been saying, is that you have to use DAGs, not binary trees, to represent your ancestral jungle.

Other observers throw up their hands in despair and say: "It's impossible to explain the situation. Back at that time, clearly, everybody was related to everybody else." In France, for example, people like to claim that every living French citizen is a descendant of Charlemagne… which is ridiculous. For all we know (and we shall never know such things, of course), my global circle of forebears at the time of the Conqueror may have been limited to little more than a handful of rural villages in Normandy. I hasten to add that, in making such a suggestion, I'm forgetting, of course, that ancestors in all kinds of remote places no doubt got into the act of procreating me, further down the line. There were lots of Irish copulators, for example, and I have no reason to believe that they were necessarily hanging around in Normandy at the time of the Conqueror. But, if we were to know the numbers, the entire team, maybe scattered throughout several regions of the planet, might have been relatively modest. In any case, it's absurd to imagine that a host of medieval folk—more than the current population of the USA—were copulating furiously, day and night, in a sense that would ultimately lead to my peephole opening on a September day in 1940. My crowd of ancestors must not be likened to the armies of Joshua at Jericho, or the host of angels on Judgment Day.

Let me finish with an anecdote. I was pleased, a few weeks ago, to have made contact with a prominent American scientist named Skevington, and I immediately tried to persuade him to obtain his Y-chromosome data, to see whether we might be related. I was amused by his immediate reaction. He evoked the notorious but very real phenomenon of so-called non-paternity events: that's to say, cases where a child's genuine father is not the guy whose name appears in the records. Often, we hear amazing figures concerning the proportion of male babies who grow up (and maybe spend their lives) without ever becoming aware of the true identity of their biological father. Now, while it's probably high, the figure is not as high as it's often made out to be. For example, it's silly to suggest that 10% of English-speaking males have a mistaken idea of the identity of their fathers.

Click the banner to access a scientific article on this question entitled Founders, Drift and Infidelity: The Relationship between Y Chromosome Diversity and Patrilineal Surnames by Turi King and Mark Jobling.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

At times, it helps if you're blonde

It goes without saying that, for young American women, there's no stigma attached to being blonde. Here's a delightful specimen, whom I believe I've presented already, several years ago:

The color of a woman's hair is of no significance whatsoever. But, in certain cases, it helps...

Paris tea business

These people certainly know how to market tea through the Internet.

Along with the four packets I ordered, they've sent me three samples of related products. The post-free delivery was rapid, and they included two attractive catalogues.

They have an excellent website. I notice that their orders are processed in a dull warehouse in a small street in the neighborhood where my daughter lives.

As for their headquarters, it's a typical wholesale boutique in the Marais neighborhood, not far from the place where I lived for some twenty years. So, the business is almost certainly run by a well-established Franco-Chinese family. In any case, they've got their act together perfectly.