Thursday, March 31, 2011

Local cyclist has left us

Françoise was the only daughter of my neighbors Madeleine and Dédé. Married to a fellow-teacher in Strasbourg, she would often return to her birthplace for summer vacations, which enabled her to get back in daily contact with one of her favorite activities: riding a bicycle up and down the slopes of the Vercors. I would also glimpse her regularly with her dog Vriska on the grassy slopes on the far side of the creek at Gamone. A year and a half ago, when nobody could have imagined such a sad fate for this lovely and intelligent young woman, Françoise suddenly discovered that she was the victim of a terrible disease. Treated by specialists at Grenoble, my dear neighbor finally failed to recover from a bone marrow transplant. This morning, I was awakened by a phone call from Madeleine: "Françoise, c'est fini."

In many of its other aspects, the 30th March 2011 was a beautiful sunny day, particularly for cyclists. Soon after crossing over the River Isère on my way towards St-Marcellin, I drove alongside a gray-haired cyclist of roughly my age. Curiously, he was walking alongside his bicycle. I slowed down as I passed, and tried to figure out why he was walking. His machine didn't look as if it were punctured or broken in any way obvious way. Was it rather the gentleman who had run out of steam? I thought to myself that he had quite a long walk in front of him, to reach St-Marcellin. I halted at the next intersection, turned around and drove back towards the man and his bicycle, to see whether I could assist him. He explained that the cog on his rear wheel was defective. A few minutes later, the disabled bicycle was in the boot of my Citroën, and I was driving the cyclist towards his home town, St-Marcellin. During the trip, the gentleman made a point of telling me that he was quite astounded that a driver would intervene to help a stranded cyclist. I told him that I myself had once been a keen cyclist. Besides, I knew from experience that the road to St-Marcellin is not exactly fun for somebody on foot. In any case, it did not occur to me that I was acting in an exceptional manner by giving him a lift. I told him how I used to ride for hours, on my own, between Paris and Brittany. I explained that, since my arrival at Choranche, the slopes of the Vercors had unfortunately dampened my enthusiasm for cycling.

A few hours later, back at Gamone, when I noticed the headlights of a car down in the driveway of the Repellin house, I sensed that a sad event might have just taken place at the hospital in St-Marcellin. And I found myself thinking, once again, of bicycles and cyclists.

Pour ma voisine Françoise. RIP

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Successful French imperative

In a world dominated by English, it's rare for a French word to achieve stardom. Funnily enough, it's not even a striking word, merely the 2nd-person imperative of the quite ordinary verb dégager meaning literally "to disengage".

In the above context, placarded in the midst of an anti-Mubarak rally a few weeks ago, this imperative might have been translated into English as Leave! More emphatically, in less-diplomatic language: Fuck off! Personally, I would be incapable of explaining why this particular French word has raised its head and become popular in the context of the on-going Mediterranean upheavals. But local French-speaking folk would surely be able to explain this happening. In any case, maybe, when they've finished exploiting this successful verb in lands such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, we might be allowed to draw it back into its original French context. One never knows. One of these days, it might just be useful.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Great Australian pie

My daughter used to refer to this dish as "steak and Sydney pie".

If I tell you that I'm never again likely to cook another steak and kidney pie of this nature, there's nothing poignant in my declaration. My words simply reflect the fact that this pie incorporates the very last packet of Gamone lambs' kidneys that was stored in my deep freezer, and that I have no intention of getting back into the lamb-grazing business.

Naturally, I could start the preparation of another such pie simply by going along to the local butcher's shop to buy lambs' kidneys. But I probably won't do this, since I prefer to stick to the basic Australian meat pie made out of minced steak. Now, I can hear purists complaining that, in daring to even talk at one and the same time about steak and kidney pie and ordinary meat pies, let alone being rash enough to compare them, I reveal my confused notions of Australia's famous dishes. It's a fact, as I've already pointed out in previous articles, that my dishes prepared here in France, using non-Australian ingredients, cannot possibly pretend to be orthodox. Besides, it's such a long time since I moved away from the kitchens of Waterview and Grafton that I've forgotten all my know-how… if ever I had any. Maybe it would be more honest if I were to abandon all references to Australia, and designate these various dishes as pure creations of Gamone.

Bringing up kids Down Under

During a phone conversation with my aunt who lives in Sydney, she reaffirmed her conviction that Australia, in the eyes of the vast majority of local mothers, is "the best place in the world to bring up kids". Obviously, this is a crazy claim. Even if you were to seek an answer to that dumb question by interviewing hordes of local mothers (?), what could they possibly be expected to know about any other places throughout the planet for bringing up kids beyond the precincts of their own suburb (for example, in the upper-class northern sector of Sydney) where they happened to bring up their own kids?

At one stage, I started to have serious doubts about our bringing up Emmanuelle and François in the heart of Paris, which I tended to compare unfavorably with my childhood environment in South Grafton. Needless to say, I was soon happy to discover that their growing up in the high-powered setting of the great French capital made them more wise and worldly, I believe, than if they had been raised on a farm in South Grafton… where they would have nevertheless learned how to help Christine and me in milking the cows. [Having made that last remark, I realize that my children might well have learned that art—without my knowing it—from their mother's friends in rural Brittany. Maybe, therefore, all was not lost.]

It's true that, out in Australia, there are certain interesting environments in which kids have a chance of becoming wise and worldly. Like the Dunheved Campus of Chifley College, for example. Maybe the following video will be censored sooner or later, but you can always find copies on YouTube by using keywords such as "Casey the punisher" (the fat boy).

Overnight, Casey Haynes has become a hero throughout the world, almost on a par (from a moralistic viewpoint) with Julian Assange. The scrawny weasel who did the bullying (whose body makes an astonishing sound when it hits the concrete) has been the object of rehabilitation endeavors through kind interviews, but it's hard to make him look like anything better than a future sleazy crime boss in Sydney.

But don't get me wrong. I have no opinion on the question of whether Australia might or might not be the best place in the world for bringing up a juvenile asshole such as this obnoxious little bully. Besides, is it correct to suppose that he has, in fact, been "brought up"? As for Casey: The whole wide world admires you!

Friday, March 25, 2011

In front of what?

Friends see that I follow current affairs on the web (including events in my native land). Then they hear me raving on about my blogging, my Internet-assisted genealogical research, my use of word processing for creative writing and, now, my intense involvement with the complex domain of Macintosh and iPad programming. Inevitably, they pop the obvious question: How many hours a day do you spend in front of your computer screen? This question annoys me, because I can see their brains ticking over and getting ready to subtract my answer from 24, obtaining X, enabling them to conclude: This poor guy only lives in the real world for X short hours a day!

Their question is indeed poorly worded. No doubt poorly conceived. A more significant question would be: How many hours a day do you spend in front of your brain, your reflexions, your intelligence, your background, your culture, your identity, your ambitions, your creative activities, your intellectual projects, your passions, your destiny, etc…? And my answer would be something in the vicinity of 17 to 18. In other words, I have little spare time to waste, to be bored.

Back in Paris, when I worked as a technical writer in the high-powered ILOG software company (now a part of IBM), my fellow-workers used to laugh about a cleaning lady who, before dusting down a computer screen, would always say to the user, politely: "Excuse me, give me half a minute to clean your telly." Her use of the term "telly" gave us the impression that she looked upon our group of ILOG software engineers (who often worked late into the evening) as a joyous throng of guys and gals who seemed to be paid to spend hours on end watching mysterious TV shows, in languages that they alone could comprehend. Well, she wasn't really wrong. Except that purists would have pointed out that our screens didn't capture and display the heavenly signals designated as TV, but something a little different, emanating from within our "tellies". We were watching and appreciating shows that we ourselves had just produced. But none of us had the courage (nor the desire, for that matter) to attempt to explain that situation to the cleaning lady.

In a similar sense, I wonder if there's any point in trying to explain to friends, today, that the vast time I seem to spend sitting in front of a computer screen is not simply "time spent sitting in front of a computer screen". It's much more than that. As I suggested earlier on, I'm seated, for much of the time, in front of… myself! Introspection, maybe, or even narcissism. I would speak rather of computer-assisted cogitations or meditation. Much more, in any case, than dumb screen-watching.

To my mind, in terms of wasting time, there are worse things than a computer screen to be seated in front of. For example, the steering wheel of an automobile. Or fellow passengers in public transport (trains, buses, trams, etc). Sitting in front of a TV screen in certain English-speaking societies (which I hardly need to name), or their media in general, can be a most effective way of plowing mindlessly through time. Personally, I would not willingly swap the least amount of computer screen-watching for, say, time spent waiting to be served in a dull restaurant offering poor-quality food. But the deal would be off, of course, if I happened to be dining on a warm evening, say, in Arles with a dear Provençal friend [display]. It's not so much a question of where you're sitting, but rather a matter of the quality of the entity in front of which you're seated!

I don't deny that spending hours in front of a computer screen might, in certain circumstances, be thought of as a waste of time. (But who am I to judge?) Maybe that's why I detest all kinds of games (including bridge evenings with suburban neighbors… who don't exist here, fortunately, at Choranche). On my Macintosh, there has never been anything that looks remotely like a video game. I hate all that fake stuff. On the other hand, it's fact that I can "waste" precious time gazing up at the Cournouze, or down into the eyes of my dogs. As I said, it's not so much where you decide to sit down, but rather what you want to watch. And I would be a liar if I were to suggest that I don't like spending a lot of time watching what gives on the screen of my faithful Macintosh. I hasten to add that I'm also very fond of my splendid TV screen, and vaguely concerned (when it's absolutely necessary, which is rare) by the relatively insipid screens of my iPad and iPhone.

Images of Japan

The celebrated woodblock print of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai [1760-1849] evokes, for many westerners, a tidal wave. Even Mount Fuji, in the distant background, appears to be belittled by the proportions of the swell.

[Click the image to access a diaporama of Hokusai's work.]

But then we distinguish the presence of a boat in the foreground, and probably others further back. And we realize that our viewpoint has been tricked by distance distortion. The wave, while grandiose, is nevertheless quite ordinary… no greater than the so-called breakers that I used to confront regularly, as a child, when I was body-surfing at Yamba in Australia. It is hardly a tidal wave of the kind that hit Japan recently, leaving scenes of devastation.

[Click the image to access an article on this place.]

The tidal wave that hit the seafront at Ofunato perched that boat some 20 meters up in the air, on a sea of debris. Meanwhile, magazines in France and elsewhere have resorted to another striking image to symbolize devastated Japan: that of a young woman clad in a pale orange blanket, holding a shopping bag.

Why has this simple but moving image caught the attention of so many cover designers and graphic artists? I have the impression that a poet could write a book in attempting to answer that question. In a nutshell, the photo places the tender beauty of a fragile creature against a backdrop of savage destruction. And we have the impression that the tangled elements of the destroyed scene belonged to the society of the young woman. A vegetal presence might be that of a pot plant. Vague movements in the background indicate that other individuals are already determined to set the ball rolling once again, even at the height of this moment of great destruction. In the photo, around the young woman protected momentarily by her blanket, all is calm. The calm after the storm. But the anguish in her regard hints that it might be the calm before further storms. We realize that the "storms" in question are in fact those of our everyday existence and survival on the planet Earth.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spring revival

In an earlier life, at an epoch designated communally by archaeologists as BF [BEFORE FITZROY], this excavated textile specimen was no doubt a sock… but my image is of poor quality, since I don't have the necessary photographic equipment to record forensic scenes.

Today, alas, in spite of our unbounded faith in the great annual revival orchestrated by the Creator and His Hordes of Heavenly Angels, there's no way in the world that I'll ever again be able to put a foot into a resuscitated version of that sock, which has clearly gone far too far beyond the Third Day. Be that as it may, I'm determined to make a massive spring effort to restore my Gamone house and property (maybe with the help of historical photos from the present blog) to something like the state they were in back in the BF era.

Talking about my second dear dog, here's a photo of the residence that Fitzroy has set up for himself (with a minimum of help from me) after his spontaneous decision to move out of the magnificent wooden mansion that I had built for him just a little further up the street.

An obvious advantage of this new place (I'm obliged to admit) is the fact that it offers an uninterrupted day-and-night outlook over the valley: that's to say, primarily, the Cornouze. You'll understand that, for an esthete such as Fitzroy, the constant presence of this beautiful view is essential, indeed vital. Dogs do not live by bones alone.

Meanwhile, Fitzroy's sporting interests remain as usual. In that domain, I have to correct remarks I've made in the past about his activities in hose handling [display]. Maybe it's because I'm growing old—or maybe simply because because I'm not a dog—but it takes me time to understand certain things. I had imagined the case of the long hose wound around my young plum tree as a screwed-up session of hose running [display]. It is in fact a totally new sport, named hose curling. It was only this morning, thanks to the persistence of my dog, that I became fully aware of this.

Any old idiot (such as me, now that Fitzroy has made it clear to me) can tell at a glance whether we're observing hose running or rather hose curling, because they're played with quite different lengths of hose. And hose running doesn't require the presence of a tree.

Talking of plum trees and spring revival, you may recall the January anecdote about the horses of Will the Welshman and my donkeys devouring the bark of young trees down in front of the house.

Following the departure of the horses, I modified the position of the electric fence in an almost certainly vain attempt to save these trees. Well, I prayed fervently to my compatriot saint Mary MacKillop [display]. It's still too early to believe in a miracle, but this photo I took this afternoon seems to suggest that the good old sheila might have heard my pleas, and acted upon them. If so, thanks a lot, mate!

Meanwhile, since the sunny weather is, in itself, a mini miracle at Gamone, I decided—as I said earlier on in this blog post—to get stuck into cleaning up Fitzroy's winter mess. Sophia, of course, couldn't give a damn about whether or not the lawn is strewn with sticks. She's even more Zen, more of a lazy existentialist, wise but unworldly, than I am… which is saying a lot, particularly in the domain of spring cleaning. As for Fitzroy, he's clearly shocked by the idea that I might be about to get rid of all his stuff.

To be perfectly honest, for the moment, I've left the tangled twigs lying there. Fitzroy will have a chance of deciding, during the night, whether he should make an effort to redistribute them all over again. As I always say (and I'm sure my two dogs agree with me): Live and let live.

Great new couple on Aussie TV

The Aussie entertainment scene will be soaring to new heights with an exciting concept of prime-time TV: the Bob & Kris Show.

Viewers of all ages are promised a mixture of family fun, nostalgia and in-depth comments concerning the political scene — past, present and future. Above all, past.

FAKERY: I hardly need to explain that the above image results from a crude Photoshop substitution of two famous hair styles. The original (excellent) photo comes from The Daily Telegraph, and I found my copy here. Having been a Bob Hawke admirer for years and a Kristina Keneally detester for an all-too-short term, I must admit that, funnily enough, I prefer my fakery to the genuine photo. Young-minded Bob looks dashing with that short sweeping cut, while Kristina's homely white-haired appearance reflects the obsolescence of her fuzzy political know-how. And in my image, Kristina doesn't stand above Bob.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Frenzy pays

Yes, frenzy might pay. Like crime (at times). But at what price? Almost everybody has come around to agreeing that Nicolas Sarkozy is a crazy guy. You only have to try to watch him for a while, and you soon become burdened by a huge fatigue. Imagine that you were out jogging, and Sarko suddenly came up from behind and passed you, and you decided to follow him. He's so full of infinite energy that he ends up fatiguing you, like the relentless Duracell bunny in the celebrated sketch by the late great French humorist Pierre Desproges.

Over the last couple of days, Sarko devoted his relentless energy to organizing an international wave capable of terminating the bloody madness of Gaddafi. And it looks like Sarko's frenzy is indeed paying. You might think of it as one crazy guy determined to get another.

Even Gaddafi tried to use clinical psychiatric language (which I won't attempt to reproduce here) in trying to explain what might have gone askew in the Mediterranean hemisphere of his old mate's skull… and there may even have been hordes of Mediterranean folk who believed such explanations. Be that as it may, Sarko's frenzy seems—as I just said—to be paying. But at what credibility price?

My primitive old-fashioned Antipodes blog is surely not sophisticated enough—simply not fast enough—to record the speed of Sarko's constantly-evolving agitations. He wriggles nervously his head and shoulders (no anti-dandruff publicity intended) at the speed of lite (a low-power Sarkozian variation on light). Concerning the Libyan affair, for example, I'm almost ashamed to reveal to non-French readers that this whole business of Sarko's anti-Gaddafi stance originated within the context of the diplomatic agitations of a certain romantic but brilliant French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy, bare-chested husband of the actress Arielle Dombasles.

No, I refuse to even try to explain what these contacts might be all about. Not only would my readers fail to grasp anything whatsoever about what I might say, but I too don't really understand what such "people" (as they're called in academic French) have to do with the running of the République. That's the charm of Sarko.

Unbearable tragedy

Having got rid of that lousy pun in my title (a silly way of trying to attenuate my great distress), I hasten to point out that I've truly been projected into a terrible state of sadness by the sudden and unexpected death of the marvelous little bear Knut. His disappearance is totally unthinkable, but we must think just that.

Much will be said in the near and distant future about Knut and his friend Thomas Doerflein… both of whom have now left us. The love story of Knut and Thomas was utterly fabulous. I have rarely been the (remote) spectator of any relationship of a comparable depth and intensity between an allegedly wild beast and a human. But critics will seek to demolish (and rightly so, I feel) the very concept of zoos.

Try to access a serious video account of this amazing relationship, as distinct from the popular publicity stuff about Knut put out by the Berlin Zoo. I've seen such a video on French TV, but I don't know whether it's available on DVD. [Maybe informed readers might comment on this question.] Meanwhile, my message for Knut and Thomas:
We humble observers on the planet Terra cannot fail to sense today that your DNA is being intermingled for Eternity as stardust, and setting out on a fabulous journey through the Cosmos, far from Berlin and the Arctic, into realms where you will belong—at home together—forever.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Military operations have started in Libya

This photo was taken today at the summit meeting in Paris.

Within a few hours, 110 Tomahawk missiles fired from US warships and submarines in the Mediterranean rained down on 20 of Gaddafi's air-defense installations around Tripoli and Misurata, while French fighter aircraft left their bases in metropolitan France and headed towards Libya. The first attacks of Gaddafi's vehicles by French planes took place towards the end of the afternoon.

In the wake of yesterday's vote of the UN Security Council, certain French observers expressed their disappointment concerning the curious abstention of Angela Merkel. On the other hand, she was nevertheless present at Sarkozy's summit in Paris today. Is it thinkable that this woman might have had genuine doubts, yesterday, concerning the absolute necessity of terminating Gaddafi's bloody rampage against his compatriots? It's more than likely that Merkel's decision not to join ranks with her European allies in the UN vote will leave a bitter taste in Franco-German relations.

All that frenzied commotion for a kiss

Many years ago, on a warm Saturday afternoon, I happened to be strolling towards the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville in Paris with a female friend. Reaching the Rue de Rivoli, we discovered that this busy street was the scene of a cavalcade of horn-tooting drivers who were celebrating a wedding. They thought it well to occupy this public volume at the heart of Paris—not only the length and breadth of the street, but the auditive space, too—as if they had a right to usurp it all, momentarily, for their nuptial festivities. I was annoyed by the selfish arrogance of the noisy revelers, but I thought it preferable to refrain from expressing my anger, since they would soon be gone. My friend was less tolerant than me. She turned to me and exclaimed loudly in French, so that everybody around us heard her explicit complaint, which seemed to amuse quite a few eavesdroppers: "Ah, all that frenzied commotion for a kiss!" In fact, she didn't use the word "frenzied", but rather an adjective that might best be translated by "fucking". And she wasn't really evoking a kiss, since she used a vulgar French term that can be translated by "cunt".

I was surprised by my friend's unexpected outburst, and no doubt a little shocked by her sentiments, because I had been so preoccupied by the frenzied commotion that my mind had at no stage been tempted to wander to the image of the bride's vagina. But, when I thought about it… why not? If indeed the young lady's sexual organ could be thought of (even indirectly) as a significant element in the event being celebrated, then it was a fact (I agreed) that her friends were kicking up a huge fuss about it all. To clarify things, I should point out that my friend had always behaved with me, in the sexual domain, in a totally down-to-earth manner. It was something that we both thought of as quite ordinary. In the case of a guy with whom she was prepared to jump into bed, she was hardly the kind of lass who would expect him to be so awed that he would want to go blowing his horn down through the middle of Paris.

I think of that trivial anecdote, today, when I see what's happening in the case of the British prince and his bird. The media have shown us photos of the transparent outfit she was wearing when the prince's lusty gaze first encountered her anatomy. If I understand correctly, that primeval visual encounter gave him a royal erection that has since stretched all the way to Westminster Abbey. And why not? Clearly, the woman was half naked! Great idea for British Cinderellas looking for a Prince Charming!

What the fuck! If that's what the people want, then—as John Lennon put it—let it be. In any case, a royal sex story is about to be rammed down the throats of half the kingdom, not to mention countless millions of the Earth's non-British inhabitants, invited along as dumb observers. From time to time, natural catastrophes and mad dictators bring us back down to earth. They remind us that there's something literally indecent about all that frenzied commotion for a basically sexual affair.

But everybody knows that posh vulgarity has always been a trademark attribute of the so-called Royals.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ten minutes of French TV news

This evening, on French TV, it was wonderful to see crowds of joyful Libyans expressing their gratitude to France for masterminding the UN Security Council resolution designed to halt the barbarity of Gaddafi. Since there were no surprises—merely pride to realize that France had been capable of obtaining this state of affairs, with the help of our friends on the other side of the English Channel—the national TV took no more than 10 minutes to give us the news. Then the journalist turned to the grave events in Japan.

It was one of those rare moments when we felt that the world—viewed, in any case, through French eyes—might indeed be in dire straits, but some kind of basic humanitarian logic seemed to be prevailing. We now have to await tomorrow's meeting in Paris, in the hope of getting an idea of ways in which the Libyan situation might finally be handled.

The day my grandfather woke up in Australia

My grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] once described to me his joy upon arriving in Sydney Harbour on the SS Marathon on Christmas Day 1908, where he was greeted by his London-born seafaring uncle William Mepham and his Australian-born wife Gertrude Driscoll, who lived at Rushcutters Bay.

The next day was important in 20th-century boxing history and, indeed, in world racial history, for Australian boxing enthusiasts would witness a match that had been unthinkable, in the Northern Hemisphere, up until that summer afternoon in Sydney. A black Texan, Jack Johnson [1878-1946], whose parents were former African slaves, would finally seize the world heavyweight championship from a white Canadian, Tommy Burns [1881-1955].

My grandfather, aged 17, spent the 26 December 1908 wandering around Rushcutters Bay, where he was impressed by the crowds who were gathering for the big match. He would tell me much later (with a hint of pride in his modest origins) that he obviously didn't have the necessary cash in his pocket to pay for a seat in the stadium.

Click the above image to see a panoramic photo—which I've only just just discovered—of the entire view of the Rushcutters Bay stadium on that famous afternoon.

Exactly 46 years later, my grandparents would take me to that same Sydney eastern-suburbs neighborhood to watch another great match: the Davis Cup tennis finals, described in my article of 27 December 2007 entitled Over half a century ago [display].

POST SCRIPTUM: A fascinating video summarizes the celebrated Johnson-Burns title fight of 1908 (which I recently heard described on French radio).

There's a terribly significant detail, which may or may not correspond to what we tend to imagine when we hear this story today. Finally, it was not the referee, but rather the Sydney police, in the 14th round, who intervened to halt this one-sided combat, which looked as if it might culminate in a fatal issue. But, before stepping in between the boxers, the police ordered the news filming to be stopped. Today, historians consider that the Sydney police had orders to do everything that they could to avoid the idea that the sporting archives might contain the terrible images of a black man hammering a white boxer to death. As you can see for yourselves in the video, the Sydney police did in fact succeed in this censuring mission.

Who will finally eliminate Gaddafi?

Nobody knows yet exactly how Obama intends to actually participate on the Libyan scene. The UN vote has clearly given the Franco-British coalition the green light for a military intervention in Libya, even though the resolution, worded in diploTalk, had to speak fuzzily of a "no-fly zone" in order to avoid scaring off certain necessary collaborators. To call a spade a spade, this language minimized the risk of a veto from Russia or China. But nobody knows, for the moment, exactly how and when the mad Libyan dictator will actually be wiped off the scene. The operation could be executed clinically, of course, by a single small bomb dropped on a bunker… but that would be an unfortunate way to end this drama. Ideally, the job should be performed on the ground by Libyans: that's to say, by the same citizens whose stolen productivity and resources were used by the dictator to purchase weapons that were then turned upon these innocent folk in a totally uncivilized and barbarian fashion.

The iconic European parliamentarian Daniel Cohn-Bendit (instigator of mai 68 in France) imagines that Gaddafi could either commit suicide, or "be suicided" by his compatriots. But those solutions, too, would be a pity.

Incidentally, Cohn-Bendit has just congratulated Nicolas Sarkozy on his handling of the Libyan affair.

The only decent way of dealing with Gaddafi is to lock him up and then judge him for crimes against humanity.

To my way of thinking, while preparing his defense, the ex-dictator might even be allowed to reside in a simple well-guarded tent.

BREAKING NEWS [Friday 15.45 France]: The rebel chief Khalifa Heftir has suggested that, if Gaddafi's ceasefire offer is genuine, then he should give himself up into the hands of Libyan rebels, rather than await his arrest by foreigners. Will the mad dictator be moved by that gentlemanly idea from one of his beloved compatriots? A French military blog has indicated that the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle will be leaving on Monday for Libya. Meanwhile, Italy seems to be edging towards the Franco-British coalition by evoking the likelihood of allowing her military bases to be used. Italy has also decided to close her embassy in Tripoli.

Tomorrow morning [Saturday], Sarkozy has convened a tripartite meeting in Paris, on the question of Libya, with David Cameron, probably Ban Ki-moon, and various European partners and representatives of the Arab League and the African Union. A question remains: Will anybody from the US be present in Paris?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

UN resolution passes

The French foreign minister Alain Juppé was present in New York to support the UN Security Council's resolution designed to end Gaddafi's barbarity.

As planned, French and British aircraft are no doubt getting ready to take off in a vast protection operation aimed at implementing this resolution.

The mad dictator has threatened to react to the imposed protection operations by attacking both military and civilian targets in the Mediterranean. This is equivalent to declaring openly that he intends to get back to employing his old terrorist techniques. That kind of talk, these days, has become totally unacceptable, to say the least.

POST SCRIPTUM: Many French observers of the UN vote were shocked to see our European "partner" Germany abstaining. Incidentally, as an Australian, I would be thrilled if Mother Gillard were to authorize at least a single symbolic Australian fighter jet to fly over the Gaddafi stronghold, maybe to take a few photos, but I don't suspect she has enough imagination and courage for that. Meanwhile, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Poland have pledged their forthcoming air support in the skies of Libya. And [breaking news, a minute ago], Qatar has also announced that it will be participating.

BREAKING NEWS: The French air-defense frigate Forbin, which first went into service last year, has just arrived off the coast of Libya.

Its radar and combat system can detect and track enemy aircraft within a range of 400 km. Its ground-to-air Aster missiles can destroy multiple targets at a distance of up to 100 km. Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle remains berthed at Toulon.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

When the drummer drops the beat

I belong to a generation of jazz enthusiasts for whom a revolution took place when the Dave Brubeck Quartet produced their 1959 Time Out album. At that time, I went along to a Brubeck concert at the Stadium in Rushcutters Bay. Mesmerized by their complex rhythms, accentuated by the fabulous ethereal saxophone of Paul Desmond and the punchy bass strumming of Eugene Wright, I watched in amazement as their drummer Joe Morello drew a large white handkerchief from his coat pocket, in the middle of a piece, to wipe his sweating brow. Without losing a beat, he used the handkerchief as a drumstick for a second or so, nonchalantly, to the applause of the crowd. OK, it was a rehearsed gesture, but you needed to be Joe Morello to pull it off convincingly.

My description of that magic evening marked my first-ever momentary incursion into the world of creative writing, for the Honi Soit weekly of Sydney University. For the moment, I can't put my hand on that totally uninteresting document, but I promise to reproduce it here on my blog as soon as I find it. I've noticed, too, that there are web videos of this celebrated Brubeck excursion to the Antipodes.

We learn today that the maestro Morello has finally dropped the beat.

OK, Joe, take five...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chicken pie

I consider this dish as a simple variation on the theme of meat pies, since it's inspired remotely by my adolescent gastronomical memories from Australia.

As you see, contrary to what I said recently in a comment to my reader Annie, jokingly, I do in fact keep stocks of canned peas… which are just right for this quick-good-food preparation.

The recipe is elementary. Throw a few bits of white chicken flesh into a small quantity of boiling water. After a few minutes, hang on to the greasy liquid while using a knife and fork to transform the cooked meat into shreds. Make an ordinary white sauce with melted butter, flour and cream. Take it momentarily off the heat source. Use the above-mentioned liquid to enlarge the volume of sauce, while placing the mixture back onto a lowered heat source and stirring continuously. Add the shredded chicken, followed by salt, pepper and Provençal herbs. Use this mixture to fill a traditional puff-pastry pie (with chimney). The surface, painted with egg and milk, was sprinkled with sesame seeds.

If ever you felt like serving up this dish with leeks or peas (maybe in an ambiance of authentic Breton music from Princess Nolwenn), make an effort to get the spelling right. Avoid the presence of pie-loving dogs.

Steve Irwin clone in Holland

A delightful detail in this story is the hero's name, Freek Vonk, which sounds great in English. Besides, this is the first time in my life that I've ever understood immediately a media heading written in Dutch (by four vowel substitutions): Steve Irwin is dood, lang leve Freek Vonk.

This Dutch guy—whose enthusiasm for reptiles and biting creatures is infectious—is in fact a serious biologist at the University of Leiden, and he hunts snakes to milk their venom, which he then uses in his research. You can find out all about him through his websites, here and here, which provided illustrations for the present blog post. Not surprisingly, Freek seems to spend a lot of time doing field work out in Australia.

His Irwin antics emerge in the following otherwise serious video:

Apparently, the proteins used by snakes to capture their prey are of great interest to researchers in genetics. A good introduction to this subject is provided here by the US scientist and writer Carl Zimmer.

POST SCRIPTUM: I'm happy to see that my Antipodes blog, as a consequence of the automatic Twitter announcement of the present post, is getting quite a few visits from the Netherlands. In watching Freek's video once again, with joy, I was suddenly reminded of a tone of voice that I had forgotten for half a century. In Sydney, when I was an adolescent (working as a computer programmer for IBM), there used to be a hardware store in George Street, not far from the town hall, called Knock & Kirby. They employed a wonderful English-born hawker who officiated in a sidewalk stand before his being transformed by his voice and talents into a TV celebrity. I forget his name, but I'll never forget his vocal marketing style. He sold vegetable-slicing gadgets in much the same way that Freek Vonk is now selling snakes. In fact, like yesterday's snake-oil charmers, exceptional individuals of this caliber succeed in using their voice to sell excitement and joy to us intrigued listeners. And what's wrong with that?

In the case of Freek Vonk, of course, there are three additional factors of a weighty nature. First, the guy is exceptionally bright and dynamic. You don't work at a doctorate at Leiden unless you know what you're talking about. Second, he's no ivory-tower academic, in that (like Steve Irwin) he knows how to communicate with us ordinary folk in the outside world, and expresses a desire to do so. And third, he seems to have mastered a spectacular real-time art of dancing out of the way of mortal bites from his friends. While touching wood, I wish him well. For Chrissake, man, don't go all the way by doing us an Irwin…

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Extraordinary virus

In Israel, they breed 'em tough and smart. Alongside a hardy Sabra (Hebrew name of the Prickly Pear, used to designate Jews born in Israeli territory), even our legendary Queenslanders [display] can look like delicate choirboys. Take this fellow, for example:

His name is Gabi Ashkenazi, 57 years old, and he grew up in the agricultural settlement (moshav) of Hagor, on the inland edge of the Biblical plain of Sharon which extends from Tel Aviv up to Haifa, not far from Netanya. Since 2007, and up until a fortnight ago, Ashkenazi was the chief of Tsahal (Israel's defense forces).

When I dare to suggest that such a man is tough, I don't mean in a ruthless sense, like the disappearing dictators of the Mediterranean. Like many of Israel's great leaders, he has the mental toughness of a determined survivor. Ashkenazi appears to be endowed with intelligence and imagination, as well. And exceptional computer know-how.

It was only last summer, in July 2010, that the world first heard of a Windows computer worm called Stuxnet (which happens to be a meaningless name). Surprisingly, it didn't get into action in many countries. A month later, a few thousand cases had been detected in India, the USA and Australia, and twice that volume in Indonesia. But one victim, Iran, had affliction figures that were already measured in tens of thousands. Clearly, the worm was equipped with some kind of road map that encouraged it to attack Persia, above all.

And what did this software worm actually do? That's where the story becomes utterly amazing. Most folk imagine that computers linked to the Internet are used primarily to broadcast subtle and profound messages to the universe: Hey, you, gonna be my friend? But they can do much more than that. Many computers drive machines. So, if you can exploit the Internet to inject a worm into such computers, you can easily screw up the machines they're supposed to control. You only have to get a machine to operate, say, on fluctuating voltages, and it soon starts to cough and hiccup, and finally do certain crazy things. Sooner or later, because of such a worm (inside an Iranian factory, for example), everything can be forced to shut down. Well, I can't say much more about such technology, because I'm not smart enough to understand it. But it impresses me. There's nothing nicer than the idea of a worm in the works of an otherwise clever but obnoxious device.

Positive thinking

Whenever I think back to the pompous emptiness of the Anglican church environment in my native town of Grafton, a sad anecdote jumps into my mind. I've already alluded in this blog to a ridiculous book I was offered when I was about 13 years old: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.

The man who gave me this book was a prominent Anglican clergyman, the Reverend Arthur Edward Warr, dean of the Anglican cathedral of Christ Church.

I can hear parishioners saying: "Well, that was nice of him, wasn't it!" My contention, retrospectively, is that it wasn't nice of him at all. In suggesting that I should read a best seller penned by an American snake-oil evangelist, published in 1952, Dean Warr (who knew me well, since I was a server in his church) was deliberately shirking his spiritual responsibilities as our pastor. He was acting lazily, saying to me (as it were): "I don't know what to say about Christianity to a local boy who appears to be more interested in science than in other pursuits. So, why don't you take a look at this."

The gist of the Peale book might be summed up tersely as follows: Ideally, Christian believers should be happy individuals, with an optimistic outlook on their personal existence. [Recall that, timewise, we were just a decade after Auschwitz and Hiroshima.] Now, the best way to become a contented and optimistic individual is to force yourself, through personal discipline, into "thinking positively" about every aspect of your life and your expectations. To put it bluntly, you should delude yourself by deliberately avoiding to recollect or cogitate upon anything of a harsh (negative) nature.

You don't have to be a profound thinker to realize that advice of that kind does not really belong to the traditional domains of science, philosophy or religion. It's what you might categorize as popular psychology, on a par with self-hypnosis. These days, many young people might even interpret this advice as a justification for the consumption of various kinds of "instant happiness drugs", from music, alcohol and hedonistic sex through to hard chemicals. Others, of a more introspective nature, might see it as an incitation to adopt Buddhism. Peale himself probably intended his "theology" as a good reason for dropping in on, and maybe donating cash to, the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.

Since settling down in France, I'm annoyed most of all about this Yankee preacher and pop psychologist named Peale [May his soul rest in peace!] because I now know that he stole all his clunky theories from a notorious Frenchman: the pharmacist and quack therapist Émile Coué, generally considered today as the founder of a school of so-called autosuggestion. Everybody in France is accustomed to hearing of the celebrated "Coué method" of solving problems: Abracadabra! Simply force yourself to imagine that the problem no longer exists!

Must we therefore imagine that a worldly and cultivated American named Norman Vincent Peale, in the course of his peregrinations in the Old World, would have met up with the ideas of Coué, in French, and set about translating and expounding them into English? Don't be silly. A Yankee bumpkin like Peale wouldn't have known enough about Europe to protect his ass. It was Coué who got invited to the USA, where he was received personally by the president Calvin Coolidge. He presented his theories to enthusiastic crowds in New York and elsewhere… and it's quite possible that Peale heard summarily about his future spiritual guide, not in a lecture theater, but on radio or through newspaper cuttings.

In any case, today, I've lost interest (if ever I had any) in mesmerizing myself into believing in the remedies of the original inventor Coué, and certainly not in the Christian snake-oil variations of his Yankee imitator Peale. As for the clergyman Warr of my youth: Dear Dean, you might have been a little bit more inspired, as a spiritual mentor, back in Grafton in the '50s.

Hands up, or you'll die!

This news photo of a child being examined for radioactivity in the vicinity of Fukushima is poignant.

The child is too young to understand what it's all about, but the troubled expression on his face (his brow appears to be wrinkled) and the docility with which he is standing with his legs apart and holding his hands outstretched in the air indicate that he realizes that it's a no-joking situation. His big sister (?) in the background appears to be leaning forward as if to understand clearly what is being asked of her.

If all goes well, and these kids grow up to become normal young Japanese citizens—or, better still, future citizens of a new and more intelligent planet—their parents and teachers will tell them about 20th-century ancestors upon whom the night once descended.

And the adolescents will react: "Yes, we remember that terrible night… when we were kids."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Beautiful people of Brittany

Hordes of tourists visit France constantly. Many spend their time in places such as Paris, the Loire Valley and Provence. Some people, generally with kids, consider that the term "France" designates little more than a touristic package including the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, the Champs Elysées and Disneyland, with remote exotic sites such as the Mont St-Michel thrown in for the adventurous. Certain visitors (probably not many) imagine that France is surely a romantic wonderland where determined explorers can find medieval knights in armor, incredibly beautiful long-haired princesses and Druidic magicians: a bit like corners of the British Isles, once upon a time, with the advantages (for visitors) of good weather and decent food.

My advice to visitors in this third category is to head directly to Brittany. In this north-western region of the territory controlled by the French Republic, a lot of excitement has been stirred up as a result of the recent discovery of a beautiful Celtic maiden known as Princess Nolwenn. It is said that she grew up in the dark woods of central Brittany, where she was raised by fairies, who fed her on berries and nectar. The beauty of her voice is said to calm ferocious beasts such as dragons and bunyips (which originated in Brittany before swimming to the Antipodes). Up until recently, Nolwenn spoke only a primitive form of a Gaelic dialect, but she's now getting along remarkably well in French. Here's a sample of Nolwenn chanting a French version of one of her childhood poems. The glorious princess is surrounded by her beautiful people from the Breton forests, some of whom are preparing peasant pie:

Breton nuns and priests are currently attempting—thank God—to persuade Princess Nolwenn to abandon her ancestral pagan beliefs and to accept Sarko's Savior.

POST SCRIPTUM: Over the last few weeks, I've noticed that videos picked up from YouTube (such as the above one) are proposed with iframe tags, which make it possible to use a simplified reference to the video source. I trust that the various browsers employed by readers of the Antipodes blog are all capable of recognizing these tags correctly, and that the videos in question get displayed optimally. A blog author often fails to realize whether something like this is, or isn't, the case.

Fitzroy art collector

I haven't had the courage to fill in Fitzroy's water hole yet, because he seems to like to take a sip there from time to time.

Judging from the muddy appearance, it's surely a more exotic beverage than the clean spring water that I offer Fitzroy in a glass bowl. There is now a network of half-a-dozen similar holes in the vicinity, and this means that I have to pay attention when I'm walking around there. For example, when I was gazing into my Nikon to take the following photo, I put one foot in this puddle and fell backwards onto my bottom.

These are typical specimens of the artistic objects that Fitzroy collects in the early hours of the morning and lays out all over the lawn. The pieces I picked up and placed on the table have forms that I too, like Fitzroy, found attractive. But they're a small proportion of his total collection in front of the house. Although he has access to a huge pile of sawn firewood behind the house, Fitzroy always prefers these natural wood forms—often fragments of fallen branches—that he finds on the outskirts of the house. Personally, I would say that he has good taste.

French quiche

This everyday French delicacy is known here as quiche lorraine, and this name is transposed into English (I'm told) as egg and bacon quiche. The term quiche (pronounced keesh) is derived from a German word for cake, and the adjective Lorraine designates a north-eastern region of France that shares a common border with Germany. This foodstuff, generally in the form of individual pies, is now sold in bakeries and pastry shops right throughout France, but the commercial product is rarely as tasty as the homemade dish… because the home chef normally uses generous quantities of superior-quality ingredients.

The recipe is quite simple. The bacon used in France is marketed, not in slices (as in English-speaking countries), but in the form of small cubes about a centimeter thick. They're fried for a few minutes, placed on the pastry, and then covered with a mixture of four eggs beaten with cream. Sprinkle grated emmental on top. I also decided to place chopped parsley and halves of miniature tomatoes on the surface. Cook slowly (about 25 minutes) in an oven at 180 degrees.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Asymmetrical faces

At first sight, you might—or might not—imagine that these are portraits of two sisters, who could well be twins (but surely not identical twins):

In fact, these two reconstructed images are based upon a unique original photo of a single individual whose facial features are rather asymmetrical. To form each image, one half of the woman's face has been copied and then combined with a mirror image of itself.

Click the double-portrait to access the website of the photographer, Julian Wolkenstein, who presents several samples of this technique. It's a pity (I feel) that he doesn't show us the original photos.

In reality, many ordinary-looking human faces turn out to be quite asymmetrical when examined closely.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

La plume de Fitzroy

Everybody who has studied a little bit of French has heard of "la plume de ma tante" (my aunt's pen) which has been lying for countless generations of students "sur la table" (on the table). In fact, the word "plume" designates a feather. So, we must imagine that the aunt is an old-timer who still writes with a goose quill dipped in ink. And that trivial anecdote suggests that the teaching of French in the English-speaking world might be a little antiquated. Maybe it's time that French teachers got around to an example such as "l'ordinateur de ma copine est sur le bureau" (my girlfriend's computer is on the desk).

The word "plumes" designates (among countless other things) ostrich feathers adorning the backsides of female dancers at places such as the Lido and Folies Bergère.

In the second half of the 19th century, the French had the impression that "plumes" of the peacock adorned the backsides of strutting Prussian military commanders.

These days, I'm often under the illusion that my dog Fitzroy has a thick "plume" sprouting from his backside.

When you compare the tails of the two dogs, that of Fitzroy is indeed feathery, to say the least, and he often moves around with his curved tail held high in the air. (This is a behavior also adopted by Christine's dog Gamone, the daughter of Sophia, who is in certain ways a similar kind of friendly animal to Fitzroy). When Fitzroy drops his tail, it looks quite normal, because he's woolly all over in this cold season.

Contrary to what Christine and I might have imagined when we first met up with little Fitzroy as a pup, up in his Alpine abode, he is turning into quite a big animal.

In his head, though, Fitzroy remains a playful young dog, who rarely winds down. For me, it's a fascinating pleasure to have two canine companions of such totally different mentalities and behaviors. In fact, the two dogs seem to complement one another.