Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Brilliant French lady becomes IMF chief

This afternoon, Christine Lagarde was still in Paris, working at her everyday job as minister of Finance in the government of François Fillon. When a French TV news phoned her concerning the imminent announcement of her appointment as head of the International Monetary Fund [IMF], Lagarde replied with typical elegance that she was hoping that the announcement would be made in time for the evening TV news, so that she would be able to share her limelight with another splendid French woman: the Socialist chief Martine Aubry, who had indicated today that she would be a French presidential candidate. Lagarde's behavior was exemplary in a gentlewomen's spirit, in that Aubry is an opponent of Nicolas Sarkozy, who could be considered (up until today) as Lagarde's superior.

[Click the photo to access an Al-Jazeera video announcing Lagarde's appointment.]

I was surprised and disappointed to learn that my native country, Australia, had backed the Mexican candidate Agustin Carstens for this job. At a moment when the eyes of the world are turned towards the financial problems of Greece, in the context of the European Union, I believe that Australia's choice reflects the political naiveté and lack of economic vision of prime minister Julia Gillard and her advisors.

Tragic sense of life

As a young man in Paris, I was impressed by this book by a great Spanish writer, which I used to read in an elegant English translation. The small volume is still present in my bookshelves. These days, however, I rarely reopen this category of old-fashioned stuff.

Initially, the title alone had seduced me: Del sentimiento trágico de la vida. Then I admired the art and skill with which Miguel de Unamuno—a resolute aficionado of Don Quixote—could juggle with reverential references to Jesus Christ, Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Ávila without ever telling us explicitly whether he did or did not believe in the god of Christians. Today, of course, it would be unthinkable for a popular philosopher to remain so wishy-washy, no matter how noble his prose. Unamuno signed his masterpiece in 1912, before the madness of the Great War. He died a quarter-of-a-century later, in 1936, a broken-hearted witness of events, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, after a violent public confrontation with the Falangist general José Millán Astray concerning the terrible oath "¡Viva la Muerte!".

In a different context, at a later point in time, Unamuno might have evolved into an Albert Camus. Instead, he remained an elusive Basque observer of a world that had become too complex, too chaotic and too terrible for him to understand. Nevertheless, he stood up firmly and courageously, like a matador awaiting the charge of the black toro. Finally, though, a las cinco de la tarde, the blood stains on the sand of the arena of History were those of Unamuno's Romantic "philosophy". Six months before Unamuno's death in Salamanca, the 38-year-old poet Federico García Lorca had been shot stupidly, on 19 August 1936. Yes indeed, in those days, life had assumed a tragic sense.

Monday, June 27, 2011

So embarrassed

Back at the time I took my daughter and son out to my birthplace for the first time, they were greatly amused by a conversation they had overheard between giggling Australian schoolgirls. After relating a trivial anecdote that terminated in an innocuous remark from her boyfriend (I forget the details of what they might have been talking about), the story-teller exclaimed to her impassioned listeners, in a peculiar drawn-out Aussie accent: "I was so embarrassed!" For years afterwards, whenever my daughter alluded to amusing personal relationships in Australia, she would punctuate her stories with that exclamation, pronounced appropriately: "I was so embarrassed!"

Well, that's what I felt like saying when I saw this demonstration of an Aussie TV talk-show host, Karl Stevanovic, who made a failed attempt to tell an insipid joke to the Dalai Lama. Somebody found a delightful adjective to describe this TV guy: goofy. I know nothing about Karl's culture and credentials, but his behavior in front of the Dalai Lama was stupid, indeed vulgar. It's tactless to tell a silly joke in the presence of, and about, a distinguished visitor from a different social community, particularly when that joke uses Down Under vernacular.

The supposedly hilarious theme of the joke (which to me, a native speaker of Australian English, isn't the least bit funny) is the idea of the Dalai Lama saying to a pizza man: "Make me one with everything." Already, in a genuine pizza context (with which the Dalai Lama may or may not be familiar), this vague "with everything" request would be stupid. Pizzas come in countless varieties. In Australia, you can even find so-called gourmet pizzas with kangaroo and crocodile meat. The uninspired creator of the silly joke was thinking rather of a takeout (takeaway) hamburger or meat pie situation in which the purchaser can request extra sauces or vegetables such as fried onions or mashed potatoes. In that narrow context, the "with everything" request might be meaningful, indicating that all the extras are to be included. Years ago, I got into the habit of making that kind of request in the Rue des Rosiers in Paris, where I used to buy Israeli-style falafels.

From a religious viewpoint, it's not at all certain that the Dalai Lama would ever imagine the idea of praying to a divinity and including a naive request: "Make me one with everything." To my mind, that doesn't sound like Dalai Lama talk, more like Aussie media talk.

If I'd been in the position of the goofy TV guy, and felt an urgent need to tell the Dalai Lama an Aussie joke, I would have chosen my pie story.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when Australia had a huge intake of immigrant laborers for massive civil-engineering projects, many of these so-called "New Australians" spoke little English. In the case of Luigi, from Sicily, his English was so poor that he was ill-at-ease about entering a shop to buy something to eat. Fortunately, his compatriot Aldo was able to help Luigi by teaching him how to say "apple pie".

[Part of the funniness of this joke, when told aloud in an Aussie pub setting, stems from Luigi's awkward pronunciation of this expression: "ah-pull pah-ee".]

In the beginning, Luigi was thrilled to be able to step into shops and ask for an "ah-pull pah-ee". But soon he was fed up with dining exclusively, for days on end, on apple pies. So, he asked Aldo to teach him another expression. Aldo told him how to say "meat pie"… which Luigi pronounced quaintly as "mit pah-ee". So, Luigi stepped confidently into a shop in the hope of obtaining a meat pie. But the reactions of the shop lady were unexpected…

[This is the part of my joke that links up with the incident concerning the goofy guy's joke. In the case of my joke, I would have to explain to the Dalai Lama a trivial Aussie habit. Some people eat their meat pies daubed with tomato ketchup, whereas others prefer their pies without this sauce. So the person selling a meat pie would ask the client to indicate his/her preference. Now, this was such a familiar aspect of the Australian meat pie situation that the sales person would often simply ask: "With or without?"]

SHOP LADY: "With or without, love?"

LUIGI (not understanding the lady's question): "Mit pah-ee."

SHOP LADY: "Yeah, I understood you, love. But with or without?"

LUIGI (totally baffled, repeats his request): "Mit pah-ee."

SHOP LADY (annoyed): "Jeez, would you mind telling me, with or without?"

LUIGI: "Ah-pull pah-ee".

I authorize Karl Stevanovic, if he so desires, to try out my pie joke on the pope, when he next visits Australia.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Smoked donkeys

This morning, I started to burn some of the dead wood that has been lying around for ages down in the donkeys' paddock.

An hour later, I was surprised to find the donkeys standing out in the sun alongside the smoldering wood, with smoke often wafting over them. I think I know what's happening. The smoke from the dry walnut wood is not particularly acrid: neither for me nor, I suspect, for the donkeys. But it seems to keep flies and other insects away from the donkeys. The proof: they're not even wagging their tails, as they normally do, constantly, to brush away flies and insects. OK, it's surely not an ideal solution, but the donkeys appear to find it efficient, at least for a while.

Sudden surge in readership

A counter located in the right-hand column informs me that my Antipodes blog usually receives about a hundred visits a day. On Friday evening, I happened to notice that this counter had started to surge abruptly, in an exceptional fashion. Yesterday (Saturday), the counter continued to indicate an unusually high volume of visits, so I started to investigate what might be happening. My immediate reaction was that it might have something to do with my blog post entitled Hacking [display]. Maybe certain Internet authorities had decided that I might be mixed up with groups of hackers, and they had broadcast some kind of directive asking their investigators to follow me. Maybe it was Badger who had ordered his international matrix of groupies to invade my blog. Maybe the Aussie minister of communications was using his hounds to find evidence of unAustralian thoughts in my blog, enabling him to put me on his blacklist (if ever I weren't there already)...

In fact, I soon discovered that the surge in Antipodes readership had been brought about by my short blog post about a tribe of natives in Papua New Guinea who had been filmed during their first encounter ever with pale-skinned visitors from the outside world [display]. Basically, this story—which I had picked up in a French news website—was an excellent candidate for Antipodes, since the fabulous theme was universal, while the background information existed apparently only in French. Yesterday, observing that my readership was still mounting (up to over 1500 by the end of the day), I struggled to correct factual errors that had existed in the French source, while rapidly supplying my readers with summaries of two basic French-language documents concerning this affair. Meanwhile, there was a lot of discussion on the Internet (which I had helped to provoke) about whether this "first encounter" had been a genuine event or rather a fake happening staged for the production of a spectacular video.

During my investigations, I was alarmed to discover that, back in 1997, a prominent critic of the video had been convicted of slander. Although I didn't know the circumstances in which such a trial had taken place, I decided immediately that I should abandon this subject on my blog, while backtracking concerning any suggestion that the video might not have recorded a genuine event. I realize that my reaction surprised certain readers, but that's simply because they're not familiar with the French legal system. Unfortunately, here in France, we do not have total freedom of speech of the kind that exists, say, in the USA. Consequently, if a distinguished anthropologist were to deny, say, that any unknown stone-age tribes remain hidden in the jungle, then he could be attacked for slander by somebody who declared that such tribes did exist. Now, that is the kind of legal battle that's lost in advance by the deniers, because it's logically impossible to produce evidence proving that such-and-such an alleged entity does not exist. We're in the domain of Bertrand Russell's famous celestial teapot that has been orbiting the planet Earth for ages.

If somebody were to claim rashly that this artificial satellite is a figment of the imagination, which does not exist, how he could he possibly prove his negative belief? Teapot believers would simply point out that the non-believer had never been at the right observation point at the right time, otherwise he could not have avoided seeing the teapot gliding along its itinerary through the heavens. These days, atheists have imagined a kind of divine variation on Russell's teapot theme: the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

If I were to declare that this creature does not exist, and that anybody who believes in it is surely crazy, then members of the Congregation of the Flying Spaghetti Monster might decide to take me to court for slander. I would explain to the judge: "How do you expect me to prove that this creature doesn't exist? That's a logically-impossible task." And the judge might reply: "My poor fellow, you've misunderstood the sense of this trial. We don't expect you to prove that the creature doesn't exist. Besides, the plaintiffs know that no such proof could be forthcoming, for the simple reason that they're absolutely convinced that the creature does exist. But I would like to see you condemned nevertheless, because your harsh denials have gravely offended and distressed the innocent members of the Congregation of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, by implying that they lack intellectual discernment."

Normally, caricatural situations of that kind don't arise in our everyday existence. But there have been exceptions. And, when such a situation arises, there's no sense in trying to defend yourself, or even argue, because your opponents simply don't believe fully in logic. Personally, in such a predicament, I find it advisable to shut my mouth and get the fuck out of the place.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Curious seventh singer

Some of my readers are likely to wonder whether I found this story by hanging around sleazily on websites about Japanese adolescents. In fact, it was a tweet from the British New Scientist magazine that provided me with the initial link, since the technological feat in question is quite astonishing, along with its artistic and cultural repercussions.

That's a photo of the seven members of a Japanese girls' band named AKB48. In the middle, you have the lead singer, named ‪Eguchi Aimi‬, whose harmonious facial features can be admired in this portrait:

For a while, the group was composed of only six girls. Then they were joined by Eguchi Aimi, and one of the first performances of the enlarged group was a video ad for candy, seen here:

Fans of the AKB48 group were recently flabbergasted to learn that the charming lead singer ‪Eguchi Aimi‬ is in fact, not a real human being, but rather a synthesized screen-only creation. In other words, a virtual singer. But the most amazing thing of all is the way in which this artificial singer was assembled. The design team "borrowed" features from each of the real singers, and then scrambled them all together to give birth to ‪Eguchi Aimi‬. For example, the eyes of Eguchi (on the left) come from the real-life young lady on the right:
Eguchi's sensuous mouth has been taken from another member of the group:

Her nose comes from yet another genuine singer:

Here's a fascinating video that provides you with a taste of ‪Eguchi Aimi‬'s talents as a performer, while showing you briefly how she was put together:


In any case, she's an attractive girl, she sings quite well (using God only knows whose voice), and she's certainly a natural seventh member of the group. If Eguchi Aimi didn't exist, it would surely be a good idea to invent her…

CORRECTION: Since writing this blog post, I've discovered that AKB48 is not simply a small girls' band, as I mistakenly imagined, but an entire cabaret company of some 60 performers, with their own theater in Tokyo. The Japanese are so well-behaved that no Japanese cabaret audience would ever dream of standing up and crying out for a live on-stage appearance of Eguchi Aimi. Fortunately...

Is seeing believing?

Let's see if you can successfully guess the nature of an individual by simply examining a portrait.

Don't click this photo yet. Wait until I've provided a few trivial explanations. I'll let you know when you should click the photo. This woman's name is Aude Oliva. Try to guess what sort of a person she is. For example, what sort of work might Aude do to earn her living?

Now, look closely at the following picture:

As you can see, Aude Oliva actually created this artwork. (Don't jump to the conclusion, though, that Aude is simply a talented graphic artist with Photoshop experience.) Most viewers will agree, I would imagine, that it seems to be a portrait of Albert Einstein. OK? Now, leave this Einstein photo sitting on your computer screen, get up from your chair, and move back about a meter from your computer screen. Does the portrait still appear to be that of Einstein?

If you click on the portrait of Aude Oliva, you'll find her professional titles: Associate Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a Principal Investigator in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And you'll be able to find details about the spectacular so-called hybrid images that she creates.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wild goats

I dedicate this blog post to the dear memory of my lovable Gavroche, who was immensely smart, anything but wild (he seemed to imagine himself as a male donkey), and whom I miss greatly.

It's probably your smell, Gavroche, that I miss most, because it defined you so beautifully. You were that smell. That smell was you. Who else on Earth would have accepted it, let alone wanted that terrible but wonderful smell? I trust that readers of Antipodes will not be tempted to misunderstand vulgarly my deep sentiments and words when I say that you taught me so much about sexuality, dear Gavroche, in that I soon concluded that it had been terribly cruel of me to bring you to Gamone without also inviting along a female companion of your species. But neighbors warned me that you were such a prolific little sex machine that Gamone would soon be peopled by a horde of your offspring… and I didn't have the courage to face such a demographic challenge (which may or may not have been realistic). So I condemned you to enduring a solitary frustrated existence… which never seemed to attenuate your natural behavior of masturbating grotesquely (sperm jets directed into your own face) and attempting vainly to screw sheep, donkeys and even Sophia. Retrospectively, I'm sure that I should have tried to organize for you a more decent sex life, but I still don't know how. Frankly, Gavroche, at times, your libido astounded and almost frightened me. You were the Primeval Prick.

Today, dear Gavroche, you are dust… but this doesn't stop me from admiring and loving you. I would even say that your dustiness makes me admire and love you more than ever… because I see you as an eternal cosmic goat. The stars above Gamone trace the cosmological form of a galaxy named Gavroche. And I worship you, dear goat.

Today, though, I wish to talk of other goats: your remote cousins. More precisely, specimens of Capra ibex. Here's a fabulous photo of a Slovenian female specimen:

And here's a male—bouquetin in French—in the Vercors:

I'm told that, in the vicinity of Gamone, there's a colony of a few dozen specimens of this ancient animal. Apparently, they live on the summits of the two mountains that I spoke of in a recent blog post: the Baret and the Trois Châteaux.

I took this photo from a spot on the famous chemin du Vert (green path) that runs along the crest above my house at Gamone. This is the ancient public path that the mayor of Choranche is talking about privatizing. In remembrance of Gavroche and his archaic Ibex cousins, I shall do everything that's imaginable (which probably won't amount to much, because everybody agrees with this thinking) to maintain this path as a part of our cultural heritage, since it would appear to be an ideal itinerary for spying upon our wild goats. I must admit that I haven't yet armed myself with a pair of powerful binoculars and set out to investigate this lovely idea, just above my head.

Meanwhile, Gavroche, dear goat of Gamone: Requiescat in pace.

Human contacts

This is an amazing and beautiful video of initial contacts, back in 1976, between Papua New Guinea natives and a white-skinned visitor.

We dream about meeting up with Martians. Meanwhile, some of our close cousins have met up with Martians who were simply… us!

CORRECTION: Sorry to disappoint my readers! This charming video is in fact a fake, which has nothing to do with Papua New Guinea. The white man you see in the video is a Belgian moviemaker, Jean-Pierre Dutilleux. The "Papua New Guinea natives" were in fact members of the Toulambi tribe of indigenous Amazonian "Indians" (what a silly word for people in South America). This fake "first encounter" between the natives and a white-skinned visitor was filmed around 1999. Before then, these excellent actors had played similar fake roles for at least three ethnologists: Jadran Mimica (in 1979), Pierre Lemonnier (in 1985) and Pascale Bonnemère (in 1987). Maybe, with the help of an imaginative film director such as Baz Luhrmann, this document might inspire acting careers among my Aboriginal cousins down in Australia. The only sad thing about this otherwise joyous document is that the Toulambis lived in a malaria-stricken zone of the Amazon jungle, and that Jean-Pierre Dutilleux might have been acting in a more humane fashion if he had paid his actors (most of whom have since died) with massive supplies of quinine tablets.

SECOND CORRECTION [Saturday, June 25, 2011] : I must apologize for an error in my interpretation of the French-language source of this story. The Toulambi tribe does in fact inhabit Papua New Guinea (not the Amazon, as I wrongly stated). But this error has no bearing on the fact that anthropologists have been shocked by this video, in which the Toulambis appear to be acting. I have heard, too, that they were in fact supplied with certain pharmaceutical products in payment for their acting. I should add that most of the individuals participating directly in the controversy stirred up in France by this video are anthropologists, with in-depth knowledge of Papua New Guinea, its peoples and its problems. As for me, I am not an anthropologist and I have never visited Papua New Guinea. So, I do not intend to pursue the question of this controversial video any further.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Back in the days when I was working in the professional software domain, the term "hacking" was employed regularly in a perfectly respectable context. This metaphor evoked an axe.

Anybody who has tried to remove shrubbery, say, by hacking away at it by means of a small axe such as this knows that it can be a messy and strenuous operation, particularly if you're intent upon getting rid of the roots. In the software domain, the term "hacking" designates a trial-and-error approach to a fuzzy problem or challenge.

One of my earliest hacking tasks was carried out back in the early '80s for the French company that was starting to market Apple computers. I was given an Apple II floppy disk containing a demonstration of Microsoft's Multiplan spreadsheet application, and my task consisted of trying to transform it, as far as possible, into a French-language version. I was not provided with any explicit technical information concerning the way in which this demo disk might have been created, and how its data was structured. So, I had to work out from scratch what it was all about, and invent ways of substituting French terms for the English. It was as if I were a Sherlock Holmes investigating a crime committed in England, with the ultimate responsibility of telling French authorities what had apparently happened.

A hacking context is quite different to the standard environment in which professionals develop software. Compared with hackers, the latter folk are armed with chainsaws, which are designed to slice effortlessly through every obstacle they encounter. The gist of what I'm trying to say is that, once upon a time, the term "hacker" was used to designate a particularly bright and imaginative computer-language expert. Today, this is surely still true in the case of an exceptionally gifted guy such as Julian Assange.

And what about the individuals who operate clandestinely in the context of mysterious associations such as Anonymous and Lulzsec (which are said to be collaborating)?

Are they too exceptional individuals… in spite of their being branded as irresponsible delinquents? Personally, I have every reason to believe that they are indeed smart folk, who are perfectly aware of what they're doing, and why they're doing it. I don't believe that they're simply a bunch of dumb assholes intent upon stirring up shit. As Shakespeare put it, there's method in their madness. They're not merely breaking rules for the fun of it. They're attempting to invent new rules for societies that have discovered the immense power of computers and communication networks. For the moment, though, they are generally misunderstood by their elders, who are often still surviving in an era of antediluvian moral principles and political thinking.

Click the following photo to access an informative interview aired by ZDF Mediathek concerning the birth of political awareness back in Assange's adventurous hacking days:

Helicopter territory

All morning, a red and yellow helicopter has been hovering spasmodically in the vicinity of the Tina Dalle cliffs, above Choranche, which are a popular site for novice climbers.

Finally, I grabbed my camera and drove up there, to see what might be happening. Reaching Presles, I found the helicopter parked in an open field, while its uniformed occupants were seated out on the grass, engaged in serious discussions, with lots of gesticulations. They appear to be carrying out training exercises for pilots. Then they jumped in and took off towards the south, no doubt to refuel, since they reappeared in the skies of Choranche and Presles some ten minutes later.

Although the landscape was hazy, I took advantage of my excursion to take a few photos.

Seen from up there, my familiar and fabulous Cournouze [see the red-sunlit splash image at the top of this Antipodes blog] looks like a mediocre hunk of rock on top of a wooded cone.

All the topological details that are so familiar when seen my house at Gamone are reduced to tiny blobs, not easy to identify.

This sign, halfway down the slopes, designates crossroads where all the surrounding directions ("toutes aures") are visible.

On one side of this spot, the road between Choranche and Presles forms a hairpin bend.

The plateau of Presles is still far above us.

From this place, you have a splendid view of two mountains that are my close neighbors down in the valley. In the narrow gap between the Baret (left) and the Trois-Châteaux (right), just a few hundred meters away from Gamone, the Bourne flows down from Choranche to Pont-en-Royans. And the road, too, goes through that gap.

CORRECTION: The mayor of Choranche, Bernard Bourne, dropped in at Gamone yesterday afternoon to ask for my opinion concerning an ancient public pathway up on the crest above my house. He wanted to know, in particular, if I would be happy if the municipality were to privatize that old pathway (apparently this is a feasible operation), giving me half of the privatized surface above my property, and attributing the other half to my neighbor Gérard Magnat. In a forthcoming blog post, I'll explain why I prefer by far (not surprisingly) that this wonderful pathway remains part of the public heritage of Choranche.

Towards the end of my friendly discussion with Bernard, I happened to mention the noisy helicopter that had been hovering for hours, throughout the morning, around the magnificent Tina Dalle site. In his capacity as mayor, Bernard was able to tell me exactly what it was all about. The evening before yesterday, residents of that cliff-side zone of Presles had noticed an apparently-abandoned vehicle, and informed the gendarmes, who promptly called in the red-and-yellow mountain-security helicopter. They discovered the body of a 56-year-old guy at the bottom of the cliffs, on the territory of Choranche (vertical cliffs often serve as municipal boundaries), and the gendarmes soon concluded that they were faced with a suicide case. [Weirdly, this happened at almost the same time that other gendarmes and another helicopter crew were discovering the remains of a murdered 17-year-old jogger in the Ardèche town of Tournon, opposite the famous vineyards of Tain-l'Hermitage, less than an hour's drive from here.] Yesterday, above the vertiginous Tina Dalle boundary between Presles and Choranche, the helicopter was no doubt searching for evidential items that might have been discarded by the fellow or torn from his clothes during his rocky descent to death.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Are certain babies born to be criminals?

I was interested to come across an article in the New York Times [display] entitled Genetic Basis for Crime: A New Look, related to a US conference in Arlington that is opening this morning with a forum on "creating databases for information about DNA and new genetic markers that forensic scientists are discovering".

For many decades, we've all known that, when talking about the fuzzy but touchy subject of crime, it has been politically incorrect to evoke an alleged role of genes. Besides, we're more convinced than ever that, today, the only admissible direct answer to the question in my title—Are certain babies born to be criminals?—is no. But much has been evolving recently concerning our appreciation and evaluation of the undeniable influences of people's genes concerning their future behavior in society. And my question needs to be answered in a far more subtle manner than by a simple yes or no. As soon as I started to read the NYTimes article, I said to myself that the journalist surely couldn't carry on discussing a "new look" at arguments about a genetic basis for crime without mentioning the work of Steven Pinker, as evoked in my blog post of 24 February 2011 entitled I think, therefore I am… misguided [display].

Not surprisingly, the journalist soon got around to quoting Pinker, and even mentioned his latest book—The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence has Declined—which is already announced by Amazon and receiving advanced comments… even though it won't be published until next October!

In The Blank Slate, Pinker started out by evoking the most outspoken observer of Man's propensity to violence: the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Here is the text of Hobbes's "life of man" statement, which so alarmed his fellow citizens that the great thinker's brutal analysis was basically ignored for some three centuries… up until recent times.

Hereby it is manifest that, during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

To handle the state of Wild West lawlessness that he depicted as the normal destiny of humans in their natural state, Hobbes suggested that society might install a monstrous all-powerful sheriff, the Leviathan, inspired by ancient Judaic mythology.

But this "solution" was both unpleasant and unconvincing. So, ever since that catastrophic vision of humanity penned by Hobbes, countless critics have been trying to prove, simply, that he was totally wrong.

A few decades ago, many Americans tried to believe that even the worst criminals could be coaxed back into the folds of society by a process designated as rehabilitation. In 1970, a young Texan law professor and former US attorney-general, Ramsey Clark, with an unbounded belief in peace, wrote a book entitled Crime in America in which he sought to promote this wishful thinking.

Here are excerpts from Ramsey Clark on the rehabilitation theme:
Rehabilitation must be the goal of modern corrections. Every other consideration should be subordinate to it. To rehabilitate is to give health, freedom from drugs and alcohol, to provide education, vocational training, understanding and the ability to contribute to society. […]

Rehabilitated, an individual will not have the capacity—cannot bring himself—to injure another or take or destroy property. […]

The end sought by rehabilitation is a stable individual returned to community life, capable of constructive participation and incapable of crime. From the very beginning, the direction of the correctional process must be back toward the community. It is in the community that crime will be committed or a useful life lived.
Today, individuals such as Pinker, convinced that genes influence greatly an individual's propensity to commit crimes, are starting to debunk the "moralistic fallacy" (as he puts it) of rehabilitation. The challenge they face consists of explaining to concerned citizens that emphasizing the primeval causal role of genes in criminality is not at all equivalent to imagining the existence of a single binary-valued "crime gene", which is either turned on in the case of wrongdoers, or off in the case of decent citizens. That is not at all what is meant by a genetic dimension to criminality. It's far more subtle and complex than that. Besides, individuals are not generally condemned to a life of crime by the mere presence of "risky genes". Such a presence would simply indicate that there is probably an accrued risk that such individuals would fall into crime more readily than those who have no such genes. Genes, even when present, can be flipped on and off by environmental factors, and that is what gives us hope as far as combating violence and crime is concerned.

Today, as the article on the Arlington conference points out, the tide is turning in the sense that biology and genetics are no longer dirty words in the arena of research on violence and crime. But it would be naive to imagine that the ideas of an evolutionary psychologist such as Pinker are about to be welcomed wholeheartedly by the entire criminological establishment. In any case, the Hobbesian vision of humanity was surely closer to reality than the "blank slate" thinking of idealists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ramsey Clark.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Prehistoric cave paintings

It's reassuring to know that the extraordinary Chauvet site of prehistoric cave paintings, in the nearby Ardèche département, will be protected permanently from noxious tourism.

I've just been reading news reports in the French media concerning work in progress aimed at creating, for visitors, an artificial copy of the cave and its marvelous paintings.

The cave is located not far from the splendid Berty rose gardens in Largentière, where I purchased the six old rose bushes that grow on my pergola. So, I like to imagine that my roses came into existence in that same landscape where artists, 30 millennia ago, created amazing images of the beasts of their epoch.

The idea of preventing people from visiting the real cave means that this site will only ever be revealed to us in a kind of virtual sense, as if it were a modern computerized artifact. There is already a website that offers an elementary virtual visit.

I was amused to discover that the topographic map for the virtual visit is signed by Guy Perazio: a young surveyor who has his offices down in Pont-en-Royans. This suggests that Guy was one of the privileged few who've been allowed into the site. When I next run into him in the village, I'll ask him for his impressions. I notice too that the distinguished Australian rock-art specialist George Chaloupka has visited the site and commented upon this exceptional experience.

Atheism in Australia

Here's some sound advice concerning the forthcoming census in Australia:
Through their numbers and their well-organized stance, Australian atheists are making a fine name for themselves on the international scene. Needless to say, that situation makes me happy.

Happiness is a great science book

In the humble and peaceful existence that I lead at Gamone, it's a fact that one of my greatest pleasures consists of having the privilege of getting stuck into various exceptional books. Some of them have become regular companions, which I've reread several times over. For example: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, and The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch. Over the last decade, various new book-reading elements have been falling into place, making it easier for a science aficionado such as me to get deeply involved in this activity. I'm thinking primarily of the Internet, which enables us to learn of interesting new publications, and to obtain in-depth background information concerning, not only the authors and their books, but also—and above all—the scientific domains to which the books refer. This is particularly true of the various life sciences that interest me—biology, genetics, psychology, human paleontology—but it is also the case for websites about physics and cosmology. All that you then need is time and solitude to carry out your reading. This is ideally the case for me at Gamone, where my only annoying distractions are the present blog (which nevertheless has a few meaningful justifications) and a little too much TV (generally high-quality) at times.

I'm perfectly aware that this kind of totally-introspective almost "absolutist" lifestyle is not helping me to become a well-behaved member of any kind of "society", be it my daily real-life environment at Choranche, or the less-tangible community of individuals with whom I enter in contact through the telephone and the Internet. But I don't look upon my personality, character and behavioral faults as things that need to be modified or "improved". I'm too old for that, and I'm really irreparably obsessed and dominated by my passion for a scientific understanding of my existence.

Today, happiness is not simply a great science book. It's rather a monumental document: The Hidden Reality, the third element of Brian Greene's trilogy that started with The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.

I've just received it, hot off the press, and I'm taking my time to get stuck into it. I'm like my dog Fitzroy sniffing around a new food delicacy, posing it on the lawn, and trying to figure out the best angle of attack.

The subject of Greene's new book is really powerful stuff: the fascinating mind-boggling mysteries of parallel universes, or so-called multiverses, whose "existence" is strongly suggested these days by quantum mathematics and string theory (Greene's ongoing preoccupation).

I've always looked upon the respective domains of Richard Dawkins and Brian Greene as perfectly complementary quests. Dawkins is telling us what has been happening for a while on this precious little green and blue bubble named Earth, whereas Greene is concerned by a much bigger picture: the Cosmos. If I may push my favorite metaphor to its dizzy limits, the Earth and the Cosmos appear to me as Antipodean partners. For as long as we remain preoccupied by our familiar home planet, even to the extent of examining the unbelievably small and strange entities known as viruses, the Cosmos is a weird otherworldly phenomenon where common sense appears to be walking on its head. But, as soon as we turn to the Cosmos, it's suddenly the gene-based world of Dawkins that seems to be unimaginable, walking on its head, since it contains that extraordinary "thing" called consciousness. Dawkins and Greene are two sides of a single coin. Today, what is utterly amazing is that, through a certain number of great books, we can take hold of that coin and turn it over between our fingers.

Amazing and frightening virus world

I've just finished reading this splendid 100-page specimen of science writing from the US academic Carl Zimmer, who writes regularly in the New York Times and Scientific American.

Not so long ago, I would never have imagined myself buying a book on viruses, or even being capable of reading such a book, since I've never done any formal studies in biology, let alone human viral pathologies. But this subject has been constantly in the news for many years, and I consider it worthwhile to make an effort to understand what it's all about. In any case, Zimmer's immense talents as a writer (he lectures on science writing at Yale) enable the layman to read his fascinating virus tales as if they were stories in a popular magazine. So, I strongly recommend this little book to people who are interested in topics such as infamous everyday viruses (common cold, influenza), horrors from history (smallpox), current challenges (HIV, West Nile virus, Ebola) and the astonishing case of bacteria-eating viruses (phages).

One of the mysterious themes handled brilliantly by Zimmer is summed up in a simple question: Is a virus a true living thing—like animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, etc? Normally, we would imagine that the answer is no, since the defining aspect of a virus is that it can only "be fruitful and multiply" when it has teamed up with a living host. But, insofar as a virus carries around a specific cargo of exotic genes (quite unlike those of humans), we would be narrowing down absurdly the scope of viral studies if they were to be regarded essentially as lifeless piles of chemical substances. They are better looked upon as "almost-living" entities, which often have terrifying surprises up their sleeves. Some dog-owners say, of their dear pet: "The only thing he lacks is the power of speech." In the case of viruses, the only thing that prevents them from being looked upon as "true" living creatures is their inability to reproduce themselves autonomously in an ordinary DNA style.

Incidentally, one of Zimmer's chapters has a particularly ominous title: Predicting the next plague.

VIDEO: For obvious reasons, viruses in humans have a bad reputation. But this is a narrow vision of the relationships that exist between humans and these mysterious microscopic entities, who have provided us with certain vital genes. Zimmer talks here about archaic life-sustaining viruses in humans:

Never realized I was so pretty

I learned that it was Father's Day when my daughter phoned me this morning. Then Google's banner confirmed that this was the case:

A little later on, I discovered that Google has made an amazing announcement, at the level of their image search device.

You can actually initiate a search by dropping an image into the search box. I tested this new gadget with one of my avatars:

Sure enough, it had no trouble in locating half-a-dozen places on the web where I've used this avatar. Then I noticed that Google dares to propose a set of similar faces to mine:

[Click to enlarge]

God only knows how they obtained this assortment of male and female faces. In any case, I'm rather flattered to learn that Google finds me as pretty as those doll-faced females with pouting lips!

Meanwhile, I tried another tiny self-portrait that I also use as an avatar. Once again, Google found a few web references where this image appears. But the set of similar faces was much less flattering, and contained mug shots of a few criminals. And, funnily enough, Google didn't seem to want to link my two different portraits.

This is an amazing tool when you happen to have an image that you wish to identify. For example, I recently saved this image of a stray sheep, but I had lost the link to the story behind the photo:

Initially, Google was led astray by the red rug, and couldn't quite make out what the image represented. I gave it a one-word hint: "sheep". And Google immediately located the news article in question. Very spectacular!

Down under danger

Up until today, I had never heard of this maritime creature, the cone snail. Maybe I resided too far below the tropical zone (in northern New South Wales) to meet up with this fellow.

This video surprises me. Are they exaggerating in suggesting that you might encounter such a nasty creature while paddling around in shallow rock pools on the edge of the water? When I was a kid at the beach (mainly at Yamba or Woolgoolga), nobody ever warned me about the possible dangers of picking up pretty seashells. The only notorious enemy that frightened everybody was the shark. I never saw too many sharks, but I often got stung by creatures we referred to as jellyfish.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Rose that glows gold

I've owned a Blue Ray machine for almost a year, but I hadn't got around to turning it on, in spite of the ten or so DVDs I'd purchased during my visits to the Fnac store in Valence. I'm rarely in a receptive mood for sitting down and watching video stuff. But this was a special evening, in that I'd invited along my marvelous Choranche friends Tineke Bot and her husband Serge Bellier for a dinner of spare ribs (soy sauce and red beans) followed by a screening of Avatar. Normally, I don't cut the flowers in my rose garden, but this was a special event, so I sacrificed a magnificent Gold Glow specimen.

[Click to enlarge]

The following morning, I was overjoyed to receive a phone call from François Skyvington informing me that he has received promises of a wonderful TV career in prime time on a national channel. Details will emerge, as usual, at the desired rhythm of my son.

It was also a fine day to say that "enough's enough" to certain would-be international Internet friends whose pretentious dullness was starting to bore me. They may not have understood what I was trying to say (they certainly don't), but I feel liberated.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Honey tree at Gamone

One of the linden trees at Gamone blooms about a fortnight later than the others, no doubt because it's a different variety.

Flowers started to appear abundantly a few days ago.

Yesterday, I noticed that a swarm of bees had discovered the tree.

They probably come from hives that a local beekeeper installed, a year or so ago, on the other side of the hill in front of Gamone. As you might guess from reading my recent blog post entitled Basic beverages [display], I've always been so fond of fine tea and coffee that I rarely get around to brewing tisanes, which means that I don't call upon the huge potential supply of flowers from my linden trees. So, I'm happy that the bees take advantage of these flowers.