Monday, February 28, 2011

I've dropped my flag counter

It was amusing to see the number of nations whose citizens apparently visited my blog. At the end, the count had reached 171 countries. But I've never been particularly confident in the authenticity of all these visits, and I have the suspicion that certain visitors were dropping in merely to search for new flags to add to their personal collections. I've never bothered to look into how they actually go about this quest from a practical viewpoint, but I'm convinced that this business exists. So, I decided to drop my flag counter. In its place, I've reinstalled a simple site meter… just to be able to check, from time to time, that Antipodes still has readers.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hose running

No, I'm not talking of running hoses, such as when you forget to turn a tap off in the garden. Hose running is a totally different affair. It's an outdoor occupation, a game… or indeed a sport. It's a straightforward activity, which consists essentially of grabbing a length of hose and running as fast as possible, and often in circles, while taking care not to let go of the piece of hose, or have it knocked out of your grip by an encounter with an obstacle. My dog Fitzroy (seen here from an upstairs window, in the middle of his untidy little universe of sticks and twigs) has become a top-class performer in this sport.

Sophia, on the contrary, has never been tempted to get involved in this sport. She looks upon hose running with disdain, considering that a dog has to be rather empty-headed to get a kick out of such a silly activity.

In fact, Sophia has never even bothered to take the first step for a future hose runner: acquiring the basic equipment, which consists of finding a hose and biting off an appropriate length for hose running. Fitzroy performed this task ages ago, not long after his arrival at Gamone, which means that he has now acquired some three or four months of solid experience in this sport.

Fitzroy is becoming competent in another occupation: pool construction. Maybe I should speak rather of making puddles.

The trick, here, is to do your digging at a spot where you've detected the presence of water. Fitzroy, who has always been particularly observant, noticed that there's a link in the hoses from the spring that allows a tiny quantity of water to escape. So, he calculated the ideal location of the excavation operations, which were carried out in the early hours of the morning. And the puddle was full a few hours later.

I now believe that Fitzroy's deep attachment to humans is permanently wired-in to the synapses between the neurons in his brain. Besides, I'm convinced that this wiring-in got under way right from the first instants of his encounter with Christine, who nursed him tenderly in her lap during a lengthy car trip from his birthplace in Risoul up through the Alps to Gamone. These days, of an evening, Fitzroy likes nothing better than to crawl up onto my knees when I'm seated in front of the fireplace, watching TV. The presence of the little woolly dog on my knees is warm and cuddly, and it's marvelous to see him fall asleep almost instantly, apparently in a state of serenity. But, with the weather about to warm up, it would be unwise of me to encourage this habit, because of the possible presence in Fitzroy's fur of ticks and fleas, both of which can cause terrible afflictions in humans. So, sadly, I'll have to draw a line that limits our cuddly proximity. There's another risk in these fireside sessions with Fitzroy half-asleep on my knees. Periodically, he decides to adjust his position, and this can result in his lashing out drowsily with his paws to get a grip on the surroundings, which can be my face and neck. So, I really must cease behaving like one of Fitzroy's favorite dogs, and leave that role solely to Sophia.

BREAKING NEWS: Even an experienced hose runner can encounter problems when new sporting equipment is being tested on inappropriate grounds.

In fact, when I first dashed for my camera, the hose was wound several times around the tree. In the time it took me to get my camera ready, Fitzroy had already started to solve the problem. And half a minute later, the hose was completely free. But Fitzroy has apparently sensed that something's wrong with this king-sized equipment because, for the moment, he has abandoned the hose on the lawn.

More precisely, although he's completely soaked by the light rain that has been falling all day (resulting in insufficient light for me to take acceptable photos), Fitzroy seems to be deciding what to do next.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Belief in an afterlife is a substitute for wisdom

I've just been watching an interesting video of a debate on a Jewish TV network on the subject of an alleged afterlife. The celebrated atheists Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris converse with two US rabbis, David Wolpe and Bradley Artson Shavit.

[Click the portraits to access the video.]

Not surprisingly, within the group of four, the star was Hitchens. He really is a brilliant thinker and speaker. As for the rabbis, they come across as friendly guys, and far removed from familiar caricatures of crazed and biased religious fanatics. But their superficial friendliness doesn't make them one iota more credible at the level of their beliefs.

I've always felt that the historical and cultural foundations of Judaism (which have always interested me enormously, and still do) are so rich and dense that it must be difficult—well nigh impossible—to ditch them overboard, even in the name of common sense and/or science. For a goy (such as me), on the other hand, brought up in a typical Christian environment, it's much easier to rid oneself of all religious beliefs, mainly because many of the fairy-tale tenets of Christian theology (virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, Heaven and Hell, etc) are frankly ridiculous, and much of Christian ecclesiastic history (handling heretics, conflicts with non-Christians, crusades against infidels, immorality of the clergy, pomp and vanity of the Catholic church, conflicts between different branches of Christianity, sects, etc) is quite nasty, and best forgotten. A Jew who turns to atheism might say to himself: "Am I committing an irreparable error is abandoning my great family?" A Christian, devoid of nostalgia, is likely to exclaim: "Thank God I've been able to move away, at last, from that ugly mindless herd!"

Ideal bread recipe

People who make their own bread at home often find that it's not easy to create a standard product, whose quality never varies. Some people find that the inevitable variations from one session to another are actually part of the fun, and they deliberately experiment all the time. As far as my personal activities in this domain are concerned, after screwing up completely a recent bread-baking session [display], I have the impression that yesterday's trial session has enabled me finally to hit upon an ideal recipe. And, exceptionally, it doesn't even include my usual walnuts… which is a sin of omission, here at Gamone, that might be considered a bread-making equivalent of blasphemy. Here's what my ideal loaf looks like (after having been tasted abundantly by me, Sophia and Fitzroy):

I'm noting down the recipe here so that I'll be able to come back to it, if need be.

— Pour a third of a liter of cold water into the bowl of the bread machine.

— Add a teaspoon of salt.

— Add a tablespoon of olive oil.

— Add a tablespoon of poppy seeds.

— Add 450 g of white flour.

— Add 300 g of whole-wheat flour.

— Add a packet of yeast.

Select the program for whole-wheat bread, which takes about 4 hours (starting with a warm-up period of half-an-hour).

For the moment, the upper crust of the baked loaf tends to be lumpy, and the lumps often become detached when the loaf is sliced. Maybe there's a way of getting this surface to be more regular.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

I think, therefore I am… misguided

I've just started to reread a book by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, published in 2002.

It's an exceptional book, like all of Pinker's published works, dealing with the time-honored debate between nature and nurture. That's to say: Is the character of a human being determined by his inherited genes, or are we forged essentially by our childhood environment and upbringing? The title of Pinker's book is The Blank Slate. Maybe I should explain to young readers of this blog that, once upon a time, when the Earth was young (before the invention of the iPad), and writing paper was still a relatively expensive commodity, school children used to carry out their class exercises in subjects such as arithmetic and spelling by means of a reusable writing tablet composed of a flat and thin rectangular slab of dark stone, known as a slate.

As Pinker points out, the metaphor of a blank slate is usually attributed to the British philosopher John Locke. The expression itself seems to be a variation on the medieval Latin tabula rasa [scraped tablet]. These days, in everyday French, people use the expression "table rase" to designate the notion of starting from scratch. In monasteries, the tabula was a notice board on which daily chores were associated explicitly with the various monks. So, a tabula rasa was a notice board that was momentarily empty.

In view of its title, Pinker's book on the nature/nurture debate seems to be begging the question, since the blank slate metaphor represents the nurture viewpoint that a baby's brain is relatively empty before being metamorphosed by the acquisition of experiences from the surrounding environment, including above all the people around him, which form his personality, character, intelligence and all the rest. On the contrary, Pinker's book defends the nature viewpoint, in the sense that he considers that human babies are born with a lot of their future intellectual resources already "wired in". In other words, he argues against the theme expressed by his title. At first sight, this is a little confusing for the reader. It's as if the author of a book in support of atheism (such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, for example) were to have chosen whimsically a religiously-oriented metaphorical title such as, say, The Great Ship of God, before going on to liken it to the Titanic.

Pinker introduces several other celebrated metaphors, always in a negative sense. That's to say, he carefully explains these metaphors, and then spends the rest of his book demolishing them.

One of Pinker's earliest targets is dear old René Descartes. Throughout the western world, everybody loves him, because he told us that a human being is a very special hunk of meat equipped with a mysterious thing called a mind. That's to say, a human being is a tandem affair. On the one hand, each individual has a body. And at the same time, he has a mind, which might be thought of as "driving" the body, in much the same way that a person drives an automobile. Now, that's an idea that cannot fail to flatter us, because it's a bit of a bore being stuck with the vulgar hardware, the meat, devoid of an explicit and essentially autonomous self, a mind, indeed a soul. Descartes describes differences between the two collaborators, which might be likened respectively to a nice fresh apple and a hard billiard ball.

I'm not suggesting that Descartes liked apples or played billiards. These objects are merely proposed as a convenient way of looking at Cartesian dualism. Descartes distinguished the two entities by means of a criterion of partial destruction. An individual can lose a part of his body—an arm or a leg, say—just as easily as you take a slice out of an apple. On the other hand, it's practically impossible to cut a billiard ball into slices. Today, nobody likens the human mind to an indestructible billiard ball, because we've heard so much about schizophrenia and so-called split personalities. There are even spectacular cases of patients whose cerebral hemispheres function separately.

A new metaphor for the Cartesian mind was invented by the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who referred to it as the ghost in the machine, which seems to be a modernized variation on the ancient "deus ex machina" theme.

During the 18th century, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau invoked the theme of a wise and pristine creature, untouched by the vices of civilization, whom he designated as the noble savage, whose slates had seen no evil, heard no evil, and spoken no evil. And explorers in the Pacific often imagined that they had come upon such human tribes. But they were inevitably disillusioned before long.

Against the backdrop that I've just sketched, Pinker's task in The Blank Slate is frankly revolutionary, for he attempts to present conclusions—those of the computational theory of the mind—that are often totally astounding. Here's a typically-succinct paragraph in which Pinker employs a wonderful but little-used concept, consilience, which my Macintosh dictionary defines as "an agreement between the approaches to a topic of different academic subjects, especially science and the humanities".

History and culture, then, can be grounded in psychology, which can be grounded in computation, neuroscience, genetics and evolution. But this kind of talk sets off alarms in the minds of many nonscientists. They fear that consilience is a smokescreen for a hostile takeover of the humanities, arts and social sciences by philistines in white coats. The richness of their subject matter would be dumbed down into a generic palaver about neurons, genes and evolutionary urges. This scenario is often called reductionism, and I will conclude the chapter by showing why consilience does not call for it.

I agree entirely with Pinker's precise summary of the situation. On countless occasions, when I've attempted to defend a purely scientific worldview in various human domains, I've encountered immediate accusations of reductionism… often disguised in polite phrases such as "Science can't explain everything" or "You're forgetting the spiritual dimension of our existence". And when I try to affirm that science should be able to explain everything, or that an expression such as "the spiritual dimension of our existence" is fuzzy to the point of being meaningless, many people assume immediately that I'm a dull-witted crackpot with no sensitivity for humanism and culture. Worse, they see me as a misanthrope who has deliberately turned himself away from the real pulsating world of people.

Pinker was courageous to tackle the gigantic challenge of demolishing beliefs in a blank slate, which he designates as "the modern denial of human nature". For me, it's a joy and an easy task to follow Pinker's presentation of the current situation… but that's merely because I agreed entirely with his outlook even before my first encounter with his book. On the other hand, I don't know to what extent a firm believer in the blank-slate concept would be swayed by such a densely-written book. And I fear that even my humble blog post is likely to appear to certain readers as confused mumbo-jumbo.

Play your didgeridoo, Blue

An unexpected advantage of owning an old automobile is that it often needs to be repaired, or at least undergo its obligatory annual checkup, and this means that the owner is forced to wander around for an hour or so in various dull urban environments where he wouldn't normally set foot. Consequently, one often makes interesting discoveries.

Yesterday afternoon, at St-Marcellin (home town of the famous cheese), I wandered down an unfamiliar lane in order to visit a big nondescript warehouse that is totally specialized in the sale of cheap and nasty goods made in Asia. If I understand correctly, the lady behind this enterprise had been an enthusiastic tourist in lands such as Indonesia. One day, she decided to pay cash for a container of assorted merchandise that would be delivered to St-Marcellin. That must have been several years ago. Since then, has she purchased further containers full of this stuff, or is she still trying to find buyers for the initial delivery? I really don't know… but I find it hard to believe that many of the sturdy local folk would be tempted to track down this out-of-the-way warehouse and buy goods there. But I may be wrong. After all, I've never been inside the homes of many citizens of St-Marcellin. Maybe, if we were to conduct a rigorous survey, we would discover that there's an amazingly large proportion of Asian junk decorating the local living rooms.

Be that as it may, the part of the warehouse that fascinated me most of all was a tiny corner holding an upright pile of objects that appeared to be Australian didgeridoos… which normally look like this:

Now, the didgeridoos on sale in the warehouse at St-Marcellin didn't really look much like that. First, they were almost perfectly cylindrical, from one end to the other, rather than tapered. Next, when I picked up one of them, I found that it was quite light: not at all what you would expect in the case of a hollowed-out eucalyptus sapling some 2 meters in length. Then, the decoration had a glossy plastic look, as if it were composed of sheets of industrially-printed fake-Aboriginal graphic designs that had been glued onto the surface of the cylinder. Finally, the price of these objects was more-or-less standard, no matter what the size and decoration: a couple of dozen euros. It was then that I noticed, on a price tag, that these didgeridoos were in fact made out of bamboo and manufactured in Indonesia. As the lady at the sales counter put it, they were purely decorative didgeridoos. Instantly, I started to wonder whether there were many families in the St-Marcellin area that boasted the presence, hanging on a wall, of a fake decorative didgeridoo.

An unexpected advantage of not having many local friends (in my case, not a single individual living in St-Marcellin) is the negligible likelihood of receiving this kind of object as a gift from a kind-hearted person thinking that it would bring me warm memories of my distant land of birth. Today, of course, if such a calamity were to hit me, I could always hand the object over to my dog Fitzroy. All I would need to do, then, is to leave the chewed remnants of the instrument on the kennel roof, and inform my kind-hearted friend that a slight but unfortunate accident had occurred when I was teaching Fitzroy to play the didgeridoo…

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Excellent dog food

I don't intend to display any photos, and I ask you to keep this sad story to yourselves. Initially, I hadn't even intended to mention it in my blog… but I decided that doing so might have a therapeutic effect, a kind of cathartic release.

If you say I'm absent-minded, that doesn't offend me at all. I've always known that I tend to get lost in my thoughts. Even at school in Grafton, my mates must have had some sound reason, based upon observations, to give me my nickname: the Professor.

Besides, over the last 24 hours, I've been tremendously pleased to have received technical help concerning my ongoing Macintosh software project [display] from a friendly senior Google guy, and it's starting to look like the real thing. Consequently, I tend to be constantly thinking about computer-programming questions, rather than practical matters in my everyday existence. And I've always been fond of that kind of situation, where I can "float above" real-life problems, deceptions and anguishes.

Here are the blunt facts concerning an unfortunate incident. This morning, I decided to bake some bread. For the first time ever (I don't know why), I put the poppy seeds and olive oil in the bowl of the bread machine before inserting the usual 50/50 mixture of white flour and whole-wheat flour, followed by walnuts. Did this minor change in my habits play a role in upsetting me? Be that as it may, I then turned on the machine, in an unthinking zombie-like fashion (Oh horror of horrors!), without adding the yeast!

It wasn't until several hours later, when the "bread" was baked, that I discovered my error. As I said in the blog title, the end-result is an interesting new variety of tasty and nutritious dog food.

BREAKING NEWS: The situation is significantly better than what I might have led you to believe in the above account. Not only dogs, but donkeys too, appreciate the nutty flavor of this dense damp foodstuff. I must make a point of remembering the recipe. Meanwhile, I have no reason to believe that forgetting the yeast should necessarily be interpreted as a symptom of Alzheimer's disease. Admittedly, my personal point of view on this question is neither sufficient nor highly significant. Even after leaving the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan usually felt that he was in perfect shape…

Favorite road sign

All too often, rural road signs make no attempt to be friendly. They order you to slow down, or turn in a certain direction, or stop… and that's all there is about it. They expect you to obey, but they offer absolutely nothing in return. On the contrary, a friendly stop sign might say: Dear driver, if you were to halt here for just a few seconds, there's a chance that you'll receive the visit of a charming hostess, who'll give you a bunch of flowers. Even those nasty radar cameras on main roads could be made vastly more friendly. For example: If you slow down to less than 90 km/hour, that will enable us to take a nice photo of your vehicle so that you can be enrolled in our next road-safety lottery, where you could win the privilege of a 24-hour speeding pass. But the authorities never have enough imagination to invent such friendly offers. So, it came as a pleasant surprise to discover this poetic sign:

It seems to be saying: Dear driver, you're in for a huge surprise, which lies just around the next corner. If you don't want to miss it, then maybe you should slow down a bit. As for the exact nature of this surprise, it's so amazing that words fail us. We simply don't know how to describe it!

As soon as I saw this sign, my mind started trying to guess what I was about to witness. Maybe the Mediterranean had finally gouged out a channel all the way up to the Vercors, and I was about to find myself alongside a beach, with Parisian tourists lounging on the warm golden sand, and a fellow riding around on a tricycle, selling ice cream. Maybe, on the contrary, I was being warned about the scene of a horrible accident in which a shepherd and his entire flock of sheep had been knocked over and flattened by a huge truck, leaving pieces of red meat and tufts of blood-soaked wool strewn all over the macadam. Could it be some kind of roadside nudist colony, with naked nymphs scrambling all over the roadway, pursued by Alpine beasts with horns? Was the road simply blocked by the fall of a high-speed train, which had strayed off the track between Lyon and Marseille? Within the space of a second or so, all these dramatic scenarios, and others, flowed through my mind.

When I parked my old Citroën by the roadside in order to get a closeup view of the exclamatory phenomenon, I was somewhat disappointed. It was a fizzer… as we Aussie kids used to say, designating double-bungers (a variety of fireworks) that hiss and smoke but fail to explode correctly. It was simply a bend in the road that was slightly too narrow for more than a single vehicle at a time.

In fact, this pair of warning signs, found on the site just after the exclamation mark, are largely sufficient to draw attention to the danger. They're considerably duller and less exciting, though, than the exclamation mark. So, all in all, I didn't mind about being swindled, as it were. For a few brief instants, I was invited to dream. And, in our mundane existence, opportunities like that are precious, and deserve to be appreciated in a state of joyous expectation, in an existentialist frame of mind.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Vision of the Alice

Click the following remarkable image (copy of a photo by Chris Crerar) to access a fine article in The Australian entitled Destroyed in Alice written by Nicolas Rothwell.

The article describes an aspect of the celebrated town in central Australia in terms that don't exactly correspond to the usual merry tone of Down Under tourist authorities. Personally, I've never had an opportunity of setting foot in this territory, so I merely imagine what media folk tell us.

Recently, on French TV, there was an excellent presentation of the background of the settlement, linked to the fabulous technological adventure of the erection of an overland telegraph line across Australia. For reasons I didn't learn, the lady who acted as a well-informed guide throughout this interesting historical documentary spoke perfect French.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday mystery

This week, the excellent online Gallica department of the national French library asks us to try to identify the designer of the aeronautical system seen here:

I would guess that the inventor might not have made the same mark upon aviation history as, say, Louis Blériot, Roland Garros or Jean Mermoz. Today, of course, certain professional cyclists could draw upon the powerful resources of newly-invented varieties of aviation fuel (more or less fit for human consumption) to get such a device into the air. Some riders, borne by such magic wings, would even be capable of getting their machines rapidly up to the summits of Alpine slopes.

My favorite image from the early history of aviation shows Icarus taking off cautiously, under the worried gaze of his dad Daedalus.

This work in oil by Charles Paul Landon [1760-1826], painted a decade after the French Revolution, hangs today in a provincial gallery in Alençon (Normandy). It might be a depiction of my father teaching me how to swim by throwing me into Deep Creek, out in the bush… except that we didn't have wings, and we weren't stark naked.

ANSWER: In 1921, this so-called aviette contraption—designed by a certain Gabriel Poulain—was able to cover a distance of 12 meters at an average altitude of just over a meter. Even if his experimental aircraft had crashed, the courageous pilot would not have been gravely injured. So, we can understand retrospectively why he saw no point in wearing any kind of safety helmet.

World record: 249 days without a government

In the modern world of unexpected political revolutions, our Belgian neighbors have set a world record by perpetrating what is now referred to as the Révolution Moules-frites.

This expression alludes, of course, to Belgium's traditional dish of mussels and French fries. Having lived for a while in Brussels (where our daughter was born), I can vouch for the fact that this delicacy—generally washed down with beer—is excellent energy-filled nourishment for revolutionary combatants.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fedex employees would appear to be nitwits

This delightful Fedex publicity video paints a deplorable picture of the intellect and imagination of their employees, even though they come across as remarkably honest guys, on whom you can depend.

The guy needs to be woken up. By way of a tip, the lady might have thrown a coconut to (or rather at) him.

Direct contact through Twitter

For an ordinary citizen such as me, it's amusing and reassuring (as I've already said on my blog) to be able to get in contact, almost in real time, with a major political leader in France. Admittedly, since I'm a great admirer of the Socialist personality in question, Jean-Marc Ayrault, my remarks have a mild flavor of flattery. But I think he appreciates the positive reactions of his followers. And furthermore, his Internet presence has been constantly impeccable for ages.

Half an hour ago, Jean-Marc Ayrault was being interviewed on national TV about the scandalous conduct of Sarkozy's minister of foreign affairs, Michèle Alliot-Marie, concerning her recent private connections with members of the ousted ruling clan in Tunisia. Ayrault, chief of the opposition group in the French parliament, is spearheading a campaign to have her removed from the French government.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Village medicine

An inevitable consequence of my growing old while persevering in my solitary existence in the relatively harsh environment of Gamone is that, from time to time, I make an abrupt bodily movement that results in my waking up the next morning with unexpected aches. This happens so often that it hasn't worried me greatly up until now, because afflictions of this kind hang around for a couple of days, and then they disappear just as rapidly as they arose. But the sudden pain in my left knee that hit me last week was particularly vicious, since it made it difficult for me to walk correctly and even to drive the car (which, incidentally, is the worst menace of all for me, since I'm obliged to drive a dozen or so kilometers to buy my supplies). This time, I had the impression that my affliction resulted surely from the fact that I had been scrambling around a little too much, over the last few days, up on the steep embankments above the house, in the vicinity of the patched-up hole in the fence where the horses had escaped.

On Friday, I drove down to Pont-en-Royans to post a letter. A friend living opposite the post office noticed that I was limping, and he rushed across to ask me what was wrong. For want of a better explanation, and instead of describing how I might have stumbled on a rock up behind my house at Gamone, I told him (without being at all convinced that this was the truth) that it was an unexpected attack of arthritis. I thought that this would satisfy his curiosity, since I'm old enough to suffer from this standard ailment… and it's even possible that I do, already. Instead of that, he was eager to tell me all about his miracle cure for all kinds of aches in the joints, particularly the knees. It was a gel named Geldolor. He told me I could find it at the local pharmacy (we happened to be standing just outside the door), and that it was both inexpensive and amazingly effective. So, I assured him that I would buy this product just as soon as I had posted my letter.

Inside the pharmacy, I told the young female pharmacist that a kind friend had given me the name of a wonderful ointment that would almost certainly relieve me of an annoying pain in my left knee. When I told her the name of the product, she said that the pharmacy didn't stock it, but they could have a tube delivered for the following morning.

PHARMACIST: You don't need to tell me the name of your kind friend, because there's only one individual in Pont-en-Royans who would recommend this phytochemical product for the treatment of knee pains.

I was trapped! In a flash, I grasped what had happened. William—who raves on regularly, on his blog, about the stupidity of homeopathy, astrology and other forms of quackery—had been caught out by a friend. Here I was ordering a magic plant-based thing in the hope of healing my sore knee joints. And even the pharmacist considered me now as the kind of guy who would believe anything. I'm sure she must be thinking that I'm a naive Anglo-Saxon sucker. And she probably imagines, to top it all off, that I go along to mass in the village church of a Sunday morning, and that I no doubt think the universe was created in a week, a few thousand years ago.

WILLIAM: Maybe, in place of the Geldolor, you could propose some kind of regular pharmaceutical product. After all, I've simply got a sore knee.

PHARMACIST: No, I wouldn't do that. If your friend has advised you to try the plant-based product, then you should do so.

I was well and truly trapped. The pharmacist saw me no doubt as the kind of guy for whom my friendship with the fellow across the street, and my respect for his judgment and wisdom, were surely far more important to me than modern medicine, science, technology or even truth.

The next morning, I picked up the product. When I returned home, I discovered that driving my car to the pharmacy had aggravated the pain in my knee. So, the circumstances were ideal for testing the product. It smelled good. I learned from the packet that the two active ingredients in the ointment were red pepper and an African plant known as Devil's Claw, containing alleged anti-inflammatory agents named harpagoside and beta-sitosterol. Half-an-hour later, the pain was just as intense as ever, so I swallowed a paracetamol tablet washed down by a cup of tea. Within five minutes, the pain had eased. But was this due to Geldolor or the paracetamol?

Over the weekend, I repeated the treatment a few more times, while saying to myself that I would go along to my doctor on Monday morning. Meanwhile, I made the mistake of not washing and drying my hands sufficiently after handling the red-pepper product, which gave rise suddenly to a horrible pain in my eyes… rapidly chased away by flushing with warm water.

When I crawled out of bed early on Monday morning, with the intention of visiting the doctor, the first thing I noticed was that the pain in my knee had disappeared. Now, don't expect me to conclude that this was due to the Geldolor. As I said at the beginning of this post, my aches and pains are always fleeting. They come and go, and I've learned to live with them. I cannot, of course, exclude the possibility that the charming young pharmacist had been so moved by my tale of suffering that she had visited the local church, at the end of her working day, and prayed for my rapid recovery. In that case, I would have to thank the fellow on the other side of the road for sending me to this pharmacy (which is not where I usually go for my prescription medicine), along with the girl herself, and—last but not least—Jesus and the Holy Ghost. Be that as it may, I felt that there was no longer any point in dropping in on my GP.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Darwin Day

In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote timidly:

Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.

As Richard Dawkins points out in A Devil's Chaplain, Darwin's monumental understatement is on a par with the famous words of James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, on the potential of their discovery of the structure of DNA:

This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest. […] It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

Great scientists rarely shout. They rarely need to.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Christic insanity in America

That's a new word I've just invented (in fact, a borrowing from French). The adjective Christic (distinct from Christian, but clearly inspired by the same personage) simply means "related to Christ". Here's a Christic explanation of the creation of the US Constitution in 1787:

Painted by a certain Jon McNaughton [website], this allegory strikes me as the pure expression of a grave form of Christic insanity that may (or may not… I don't know) be endemic in parts of the USA. To call a spade a spade, I believe that people who need or admire such an image, not to mention the individuals who actually produce and market such shit, are suffering from some kind of brain damage.

Stubborn mummies

Normally, a self-respecting mummy is expected to migrate promptly to the afterlife, particularly when it has ample on-board supplies and more than enough ready cash to buy a coffee or a beer along the way.

Last night on French TV, I witnessed the presence of two distinguished mummies—one in Egypt, as is normal, and the other here in France—who seem to be somewhat stubborn about leaving the scene and allowing another pharaoh to rule over their old territory and people. The first mummy, of course, was Hosni Mubarak, who used his entire farewell oration to inform us that he ain't goin' nowhere in the near future. Earlier on in the day, I had heard snippets of information about the massive wealth that this fellow has amassed and stored away for his family and himself in various corners of the planet. Frankly, whichever way I look at the Egyptian situation, I reckon that this Hosni guy is living dangerously, and I would be most surprised if he ever has a chance of spending his ill-gotten gains in various nice vacation spots around the globe. Maybe, to mention an obvious idea for a voyage, he might end up floating quietly down the Nile… but it's not sure that the circumstances of such a trip would correspond to Hosni's hopes.

Closer to home, our local mummy is Nicolas Sarkozy… but he won't actually be wrapped up and set on his voyage to the afterlife until next year. For the moment, he's in a kind of zombie state, shocked by the massive backlash of citizens the majority of whom appear to consider that the president hasn't delivered the goods he promised, and that his time is up. Yesterday evening, he organized a fake talk show in which he replied to questions from a carefully-selected panel of citizens. I only watched this show for a few minutes, as I thought it would be particularly boring. I'm told it was. Although the cotton wrappings are on the wall, Sarko carries on stubbornly pretending that he's still in the land of the living. Pharaoh enough… presidents never like to go out with a whimper.

BREAKING NEWS: Less than an hour ago, the Egyptian mummy has finally realized (mummies don't think rapidly) that his people would like him to fuck off… and that's what he's doing. Needless to say, the fatigued crowds are erupting in joy.

Meanwhile, here in France, nothing of a similar nature appears to be happening in the case of Sarkophagus.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Many years ago, back in Paris, one of my former employers told his assembled staff: "The challenge of becoming rich involves two aspects. On the one hand, you have to earn as much money as possible. On the other hand, you must spend as little as possible."

I've often thought that our health situation is similar. On the one hand, you must have access to top-quality medical services… including, above all, an excellent GP (general practitioner). On the other hand, you have to avoid running into health problems. Elementary, my dear Watson. (Apparently Sherlock Holmes never pronounced this apocryphal phrase in any of the sixty detective novels written by Arthur Conan Doyle.) I consider myself fortunate in the sense that, in my personal case, both these conditions appear to prevail.

I drop in at the GP's rooms in Pont-en-Royans once every three months for a renewal of the prescription for three or four pills that I've been taking over the last six years. The ritual is always the same. The GP tries to imagine what kind of medical tests he might be able to impose upon me, through his specialist colleagues in the nearby cities of Valence and Romans. Since my prostate has been removed, and since I perform regular checks for colon cancer, I've become a relatively dull candidate for tests… but I'm sure my GP will think of something one of these days.

A long time ago, he informed me that my cervical vertebra resembled worn-out parts in an aging automobile, and that this could well bring about fits of vestibular giddiness. Back at the time the GP said that, I didn't really believe his diagnosis. On the one hand, I never have a stiff or painful neck (in spite of sitting upright in front of a computer screen for hours on end, seated on a hard wooden chair). On the other hand, if I felt giddy at times, particularly when I looked skywards, I imagined this as the first symptoms of some terrible form of cerebral decay. Maybe I had inherited it from my ancestor Charles Walker, innkeeper on the Braidwood goldfields, who used to drink too much of a beverage invented by a Scotsman named Johnnie Walker who, I believe, was his brother. If Charles had died in 1860 of delirium tremens, and if his great-great-grandson felt giddy from time to time when he was wandering around on the slopes with his dogs at Choranche, it's clear that this had nothing to do with neck bones; it was the inherited fault of bad neurons.

Reluctantly, however, I was obliged to admit to my GP that, one morning a month or so ago, I woke up with both a sore neck and a bit of giddiness. Later on in the morning, just to see whether or not it might work, I performed energetic exercises with my arms, neck and shoulders. By midday, both the pain in the neck and the giddiness had totally disappeared. So, that certainly proved something… and my GP agreed! I did have the impression, however, that he looked at me with a puzzled expression when I was telling him this story, as if I might indeed have decaying whisky-soaked neurons in my inner brain.

The GP's test for blood pressure always follows a similar ritual. Lying on my back, I tend to forget that he's busy trying to determine my blood pressure, and I carry on talking, in anything but a relaxed state. He frowns because his reading is lower than expected. At that stage, he always asks me the same question: "Do you check your blood pressure regularly at home?" And I always tell him that I wouldn't have the faintest idea about how to perform such an operation. By that time, I'm standing up, and my body is no longer tense. And, in this position, the GP's new reading of my blood pressure reverts to its normal value, which seems to please him greatly.

After that incident, the GP sets his computer in action, so that it prints out a new copy of my regular prescription. He functions in multi-processing mode by simultaneously recording my payment, signing my prescription and talking on the phone with his wife. Besides, this red-blooded lady's man seems to be amused when I say that this kind of aptitude is generally strictly feminine.

At that point in my visit to the GP, the serious part of our encounter can get under way. I'm talking of our regular conversations about books, science, the Internet, etc. The other day, the GP set the ball rolling.

GP: "I bought the two Dawkins books you mentioned, and found them highly interesting."

Knowing nothing of the quality of French translations of books by Richard Dawkins, I had nevertheless recommended that he might read The God Delusion and The Greatest Show on Earth. Parts of the first book, on atheism, had apparently impressed my GP greatly. In particular, he liked the explanations about the plasticity of the minds of tender children, who can be made to believe anything they're told. Meanwhile, the overall American situation was news to him.

GP: "I was amazed to learn that declaring oneself an atheist in the USA prevents you from being considered as a decent citizen, capable of becoming an elected politician."

William: "At least it's not like that in France."

GP: "It's the opposite here. Politicians like to make themselves out to be free-thinking Republicans, liberated with respect to religious bias. But, as soon as one of their leaders dies, they all flock along to the cathedral of Notre-Dame to pray for the soul of their dead companion."

Talking of believers and non-believers, an interesting Harris poll has just been conducted here in France, where we imagine that the faithful continue to flock to Sunday Mass, albeit in dwindling numbers.

Roughly a third of the population say they're believers, and a third, atheists. The remaining third is characterized by the fact that they simply don't know whether or not God exists. Among them, most people feel that this question is interesting, whereas others say it's not. Those results are unsurprising. What amused me greatly, on the other hand, is the fact that a third of the religious folk who said they were Catholics went on to reveal that they nevertheless don't really believe in the existence of God. Now, I like that approach! That's the kind of Catholic I myself might be, if I set my mind to it. Besides God, the Devil and the Holy Ghost, though, I would also refuse to believe in popes, saints, miracles, priests and all the rest of the ugly rubbish, including relics.

Monday, February 7, 2011

My first Mac application

For every new computer platform, programming environment and language that a prospective software developer encounters, this is the time-honored first step:

It doesn't look like much of a world-shaking achievement. However programmers know that, once you've mastered the famous Hello World exercise, the rest is relatively easy. Only dimensions and details change...

My plans have evolved considerably over the last few days. I first became interested in the Apple development environment last year, when I purchased an iPad. Floating around in my mind was the idea of developing a blog reader for Antipodes. Google (owner of the Blogger system) makes available a so-called API (application programming interface) enabling software developers to access directly the actual blog files.

My future software device (whose name I prefer to keep secret for the moment) will make it easy to consult the archives of my blog, containing over 1700 posts. Well, over the last few days, I've decided that it would be a better idea to produce, not an iPad application, but an ordinary Macintosh tool, which could maybe enable users to print out parts of my blog in some kind of book format. Later on, once the basic Macintosh software is fully operational, I could look into the idea of creating an iPad version.

Initially, I intend to develop this tool specifically for my Antipodes blog. But I would soon propose a tailor-made version, for a low price, to any blog owner working with Blogger. This would enable bloggers to send copies of the tool to all their friends with Macs. Meanwhile, if bloggers wish to show their writings to friends and relatives without computers (I believe that such people still exist), they can use the printed-paper solution.

ADDENDUM: Having described my intentions concerning the development of a Mac-based blog reader, I hasten to add that I'm perfectly aware that many bloggers and their readers might find my project ludicrous, in that they see the blog phenomenon as totally ephemeral, on a par with Twitter, and hardly worthy of an archival dimension. I certainly don't see things in this superficial light. On the contrary, I believe that a blog is a serious and interesting autobiographical document, capable of charting the blogger's personal evolution over a period of months and years, at a psychological as well as a practical everyday level. It can function as a timeline of events.

Old friend in Brittany

Christine phoned early this morning to inform me that her father, aged 94, had finally slipped away peacefully yesterday evening. In the context of a large family, characterized by diversity along with a strong current of coherency, Jacques had become a patriarch in a similar fashion to his own father (whom I had known well). I believe that Jacques and I knew each other in depth. Christine has told me that her father, during his long journey into old age, often asked her for news about me. It will indeed be weird for me to imagine Christine's corner of Brittany without Jacques Mafart.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Horse lessons terminated

Yesterday, I told my Welsh friend Will—seen in the following photo at Gamone with his pair of splendid friends—that it was time for me to terminate my horse lessons, which I mentioned briefly in my article entitled Learning a thing or two about horses [display].

Two aspects of the situation had gotten out of control. On the one hand, unlike donkeys, these great beasts need a constant supply of fine hay in winter, and it goes without saying that I'm not in a position to obtain such a supply. Two or three local farmers have been prepared to sell me a bale of hay from time to time, but it's generally hay that they themselves have purchased from other farmers with rich pastures in relatively remote localities. Besides, that goes to explain why there's no longer much serious agricultural activity in the vicinity of Choranche. In our commune, there's only one remaining dairy-farming family: our mayor Bernard Bourne and his son Frédéric.

The second problem is a consequence of the first one, but more annoying. When the horses decide that they're not getting enough good fodder, they take action. The day before yesterday, towards the end of the afternoon, the black horse found a weak corner in the barbed-wire fence at the top of my property, and it succeeded in bursting through. When I saw it wandering around up on top of the ridge above my house, I immediately scrambled up there and cut away the dangling barbed wire, so that the animal would not injure itself if I managed to coax it back down the slopes. By that time, the piebald horse had discovered the hole, and it promptly climbed up to its mate. Night started to set in, and it was no longer possible to intervene in any way whatsoever. So I decided to postpone operations until the following morning. Besides, since there wasn't much that could be done at this point, I decided that there was no point in phoning Will, to tell him what had happened.

At 5 o'clock the next morning (yesterday), the barking of the dogs woke me, and I discovered that the two horses and the two donkeys were wandering around in the yard in front of my house. Once again, I decided that nothing could be done until daylight. Two hours later, when I went outside to evaluate the situation, all four animals had disappeared. I jumped into my car and started searching everywhere, but there was no sign of them. Around 8 o'clock, I finally got through to Will, and described the situation. He and Sylvie arrived down at Gamone a little later, and we decided to climb up to the top of the ridge to see if the animals were hanging around on the land of my neighbor Gérard Magnat. They weren't in sight. Suddenly, we glimpsed the donkeys running up from the main road, pursued by a yellow van, along the winding track that leads to Gérard's house. Will only half-believed me when I discouraged him from scrambling down in a straight line towards the house. Although it seems to be close at hand, there's a messy creek with steep banks, which can only be crossed easily by sheep (as I've known too well for several years). So, we started back down towards my house, with a view to going down the road to access Gérard's place. Within half an hour, Will had met up with his horses, on the outskirts of Pont-en-Royans, and I was able to lead my donkeys calmly back to Gamone.

Trying to grasp what had taken place during the dark hours of the night, I told Will that the donkeys, when they escape from their paddock (as has often happened), are capable of hanging around the house for hours or even days on end. Why was it that the horses ventured rapidly onto the busy road down below Gamone, in the hours before dawn, and followed it blindly towards Pont-en-Royans? Here, Will gave me another lesson on horse psychology, which might be summed up in this famous logo for Johnnie Walker whisky:

Once a horse has moved stealthily (or almost) out of its usual yard, and found freedom in the wide, wide world, it's sole desire is to keep on walking, up until it runs into a gate or some kind of barrier. Well, between Gamone and Pont-en-Royans, there are no gates, and the only barriers are a few fences around the yards of private properties.

This escapade of the two horses, accompanied by my donkeys, was an extremely dangerous excursion, which could have brought about a road accident. Obviously, I cannot tolerate this kind of risk. So, I told Will that it would be preferable if he took his horses up to Presles. And that is what he did, immediately after. As for me, I'm a little wiser about horses than I was before. Meanwhile, I've asked folk who know me (my daughter, above all) to give me a sharp kick if I were to evoke, ever again, the idea of inviting horses to Gamone as guests.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Catholics stumped by human body

I've often felt that, for Catholics, the human body—alive or dead—is a huge problem: indeed a puzzling obstacle that sends them into a state of confusion, frenzy, panic, anguish… They proclaim and like to think that their religious preoccupations are of a profoundly spiritual, highly abstract, nature. Look at theological concepts such as the Trinity, for example, or the Immaculate Conception. But, when all is said and done, their constant stumbling block is the hunk of meat in which our alleged soul resides. Catholics don't know how to react whenever they realize that these hunks of meat have sexual desires, particularly if it's just for fun, without the honorable intention of giving rise to a tiny hunk of new meat known as a baby. On the other hand, this kind of situation has often been condoned when one of the two hunks of meat is wearing a priest's collar, while the other is young and tender.

As a child, I received a minimum of religious instruction of a Protestant (Anglican) kind. Unlike Catholics, these folk weren't obsessed by holy blood such as the drops that ooze from the wounds inflicted by a crown of thorns, or the sacred red heart that pumps this precious liquid through the hunk of meat.

I always looked upon these Catholic obsessions as somewhat yucky, like a polite religious variation on vomit or excrement. I guess I simply didn't like to be reminded that I was basically a more-or-less disgusting hunk of meat, capable of getting transformed into minced steak in a head-on automobile collision, of being roasted to a chocolate color in an air crash, of turning blue and swelling if immersed under water for a few hours, or of creating a puddle of viscous red liquid if somebody decided to plunge a knife into my precious live meat.

Catholic obsessions with the human body can become frankly sick when the meat has lost its usual energy and warmth, and been transformed into a cold corpse. In an article on Catholic diocesan archives written by a friend in Marseille, we learn that their classification system starts with an unexpected category: relics! They precede matters such as nuns, monks, hospitals, prisons, schools and even papal encyclicals. You know what they mean by relics: tiny glass flasks of solid blood that liquefy on certain occasions, ugly brownish bones that look like something the dog discovered in a trash can, polished skulls, tufts of hair, and all kinds of mummified odds and ends. It's weird that ecclesiastic authorities should still be concerned about all this archaic biological junk, as if it retained some kind of metaphysical significance.

A forensic surgeon would surely be fascinated by a nice collection of such stuff, such as you find in the treasure troves of certain cathedrals. He would start to see DNA charts flashing before his eyes, and he would praise the Church for preserving such nice specimens. But he would be furious if such-and-such a relic labeled "Saint Somebody, holy martyr" turned out to be rather a charred fragment of a dog or a cat.

Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict XVI is acutely aware of the contemporary meat situation, viewed from many different angles. And he never stops fighting to impose his beliefs.

Before Ratzi landed the big job (that's to say, back at the time he was simply a more-or-less honest citizen of Rome, spending time on grave matters such as pedophilia affairs), he used to carry a card stating that, in the case of his death, his bodily organs were to be made available for transplants. It appears that he saw this idea as "an act of love". Well, an interesting article reveals today that this is no longer the case [access article]. The potential act of love has been aborted, before it even started. The Vatican has made it known that Benny doesn't have the right to dispose of his dead meat as he sees fit.

Vatican authorities point out that, after the death of a pope, his body belongs to the Church as a whole, and must be buried intact. The article concludes with a glorious specimen of twisted thinking, of a Byzantine kind: If papal organs were donated, and the pope then happened to be made a saint, his transplanted organs—located in alien living bodies—would become relics! And that, of course, would create an awesome ecclesiastic meat problem. It would be akin to grinding up rare venison to make fast-food burgers.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cyclone Yasi about to reach Townsville

In Queensland (Australia), its 10.30 on Wednesday evening. On my computer screen here in France, I'm watching the live display from a webcam located in a central-city flat in the city of Townsville. It's one of a series of webcams whose addresses are indicated on the website of The Australian. And I'm apparently sharing this live display with some 11 000 other online viewers.

[Click the image to access the actual webcam display.]

From time to time, in the foreground, I can see the branches of palm trees starting to sway a little in the approaching winds. But everything, for the moment, appears to be deceptively calm.

BREAKING NEWS: It's 11.30 in Queensland. My post was premature, and my remarks about webcams have become totally useless, because every available webcam appears to have got knocked out as soon as the winds arrived, no doubt through power outage, combined with the impossibility of using, say, an iPhone in the darkness. So, I haven't yet figured out whether there's any good means of following what's happening at a visual level. Meanwhile, I was impressed by this photo of kids bedding down for the night on the bare floor of an old cellar:

It's like a third-world war-time image.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Famous book for sale

The problem, if I don't manage to sell this book—which I bought out in Australia in 1961, shortly before leaving for Europe—is that I might end up tearing it apart in a fit of rage… which would be a pity, in a way. You see, I'm convinced that there are many people, out there in the wide world, who would love to own an old copy of the English translation of this celebrated essay by the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I myself, at the age of 20, was convinced a priori that this would surely be one of the greatest works of scientific literature I had ever met up with, because of the planetary reputation of this paleontologist who had attempted to blend together Darwin's theory of evolution and a belief in the existence of a divine creator. But then I made an attempt to actually read the book, and I was rather discouraged. In fact, huge sections of The Phenomenon of Man are no more than strings of words (including weird French neologisms such as hominisation) thrown together in an unexpected manner, forming heaps of unintelligible garbage. Interspersed with all this muck, there are small sections of technical stuff about various hominoid fossils, designed to trick you into imagining that the entire thing is a work of science. Appalling…

In France, during the first half of the 20th century, the prestige of Abbé Breuil [1877-1961] had accustomed people to imagining that a good dose of Catholic faith was a fine attribute for researchers in paleontology. Soon after meeting up with my future wife, I was intrigued to learn that Christine's maternal grandmother—an intelligent and artistic woman from Provence, whom I admired immensely—was a profound disciple of Teilhard de Chardin. But that merely proves something we knew already: that the Holy Spirit works in devious ways…

Today, with the Internet, Teilhard de Chardin would never have been able to get away with the production of such a mess. In any case, prospective readers would have learned already, in 1953, that Teilhard de Chardin had been one of the "experts" duped by the biggest science hoax ever: the discovery in England of the so-called Piltdown Man. Apparently the Jesuit priest had been tricked into believing that a filed-down canine tooth, found at the Piltdown site, was a genuine attribute of the creature. Today, not even a school student in biology, equipped with a microscope and a minimum of instruction, would be pardoned for making such a gigantic blunder. Incidentally, another alleged expert in paleontology who fell for the Piltdown hoax was my compatriot Grafton Elliot Smith, whom I presented recently in an article entitled Prehistoric encounters [display].

I've been rereading A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins, a collection of essays published in 2003.

One of his reviews celebrates the literary style of the British Nobel laureate in medicine Peter Medawar, who penned a vitriolic attack of the notorious book of Teilhard de Chardin. Medawar's short critique, which is brilliant stuff, can be downloaded from the web. Click the portrait to access it.

Getting back to Teilhard, a thing that annoys me greatly is the condescending way in which he set out to tell his readers what had happened "since the days of Darwin and Lamarck", as if these two men were to be grouped together, and then discarded as out-of-date. At another spot, he speaks of "the heroic times of Lamarck and Darwin". Today, on the contrary, the work of Darwin is more alive than ever. What is totally archaic, on the other hand, is the tasteless and indigestible soup of the Jesuit priest who once tried [if I may mix metaphors] to pull the paleontological wool over our eyes.

My copy of the book should not be particularly expensive. That will depend, of course, on the volume of demands.

Good heavens, the heavens are changing!

As soon as I glimpsed the postage stamp on the missive from Ron Willard, I sensed that my agent in the Antipodes—who has links with Asian communities, no doubt in China itself—was contacting me to inform me of some kind of Major Happening in that distant corner of the planet. Sure enough, as soon as I opened the envelope (cautiously, as always, to verify that there were no hidden microphones or deadly traps), the facts leaped out at me: 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit !

And Ron, with his typical inventiveness, had disguised this information cunningly in the form of a Happy New Year card.

Purists might complain that the beast illustrated here is a hare, not a rabbit. But that's neither hare nor there. Apparently, within the category of rabbits, Chinese astrologers include, not only hares, but cats. (That's a bit disturbing for somebody like me who has got into the habit of eating out in Asian restaurants.) Dogs, though, are out, since they have their own category… like rats, oxen, tigers, dragons, snakes, horses, sheep (and goats), monkeys, roosters and pigs. I haven't checked yet, but I would imagine that the dragons category would surely incorporate other everyday beasts such as unicorns (unless they're housed with horses), griffons (maybe with tigers), Loch Ness monsters, etc.

It's sad to see that certain uncouth heathens (probably atheists) detract from the solemnity of our sacred Year of the Rabbit by raising out-of-place questions such as whether or not it's correct for a girl to wear a bit of furry stuff on certain parts of her anatomy.

At least, I think that's what disturbing them, judging from the fluffy white tails in the above photo… but I'm not sure I see what they're getting at.

Here in the Western World, we're faced with a much greater astrological disaster. Eminent specialists have just revealed that the entire system is totally screwed-up, because somebody got the dates wrong, or didn't know how to count, or something like that.

Instead of a dozen signs of the Zodiac, it appears that everybody has to shift over a bit to allow in a 13th fellow, named Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer, who operates in a busy pre-Christmas time slot from November 29 to December 17. And, talking of a serpent-bearer, I reckon there must be some subtle connection with the protester guy alongside the bunny girls in the above photo.

Personally, I'm infuriated, because I was born a Libra, I've lived my entire life as a pure Libra… and these idiots are now trying to tell me that I'm in fact a Virgo! Shit, what utter rubbish. If ever I had been a Virgo, even just a teeny-weeny bit of a Virgo, I would have been the first person in the world to realize it. You don't just change overnight from Libra to Virgo like catching the flu, or getting a sudden attack of rheumatism. I mean, if this had really happened, I would have felt it coming over me… and maybe tried to do something about it.

Don't quote me on this, but I have a vague suspicion that this whole affair has something to do with the arrival of Obama at the White House. Or maybe it's an atheist conspiracy. One thing is certain. When Sarah Palin gets elected, she'll make sure that people throughout the world get back to their senses. I'm convinced she'll restore good old-fashioned astrology.

Flood today, cyclone tomorrow

Yesterday, there may have been a bushfire. And the day before that, people were suffering from a drought. That's a huge price that residents of Queensland have to pay for the pleasure of being able to stroll around in T-shirts, shorts and thongs all year round, and never having to scrape ice off the car's windshield on a wintry morning.

[Click the image to display a set of awesome Australian cyclone photos.]

Human nature is such, I believe, that people happen to congregate in such-and-such a place when everything's wonderful, and that initial joyful contact instills in their minds an exclusively positive attitude towards the place in question, to such an extent that nothing—not even the presence of snakes, spiders, crocodiles, sharks, etc—could ever change their convictions. Personally, that's what happened to me, long ago, when I met up with the great city of Paris. More recently, my first encounter with the mountain ranges where I'm now settled was similarly positive, indeed breathtaking. Those initial moments warped my mind, and prevented me (maybe for the rest of my life) from ever thinking calmly and objectively about my adoptive mountain ranges (the Chartreuse and the Vercors).

On a glorious summer's day, as I gazed at the magnificent landscape and monastic buildings of the Grande Chartreuse, I remember exclaiming to another visitor: "Those monks are likely to be disappointed when they finally get to heaven, because it can't possibly be as beautiful as it is here." Later on, I would discover those same landscapes in the terribly harsh conditions of a Carthusian winter.

Getting back to Australia (which has concerned me primarily, for ages, in a family-history perspective), I'm convinced that the accumulation of meteorological disasters in my native land has no doubt accounted for the destruction of vast volumes of family archives. When I was a teenager, my most precious possession was a big scrapbook containing all the press cuttings describing the cycling achievements of my uncle Johnnie "Cyclone" Walker.

One day, I lent the scrapbook to a friend who was also interested in cycling… then a flood came, and the precious document was destroyed. When people are struggling to survive, they are preoccupied by the immediate future. In such situations, the first things that threatened folk sacrifice—inevitably but sadly—are their traces, if not their memories, of the past.