Sunday, July 31, 2011

Enough cash to buy the USA

When I was working with IBM Australia back in Sydney during the period 1957-1961, I remember being most impressed by an anecdote designed to reveal the fabulous prosperity of my US employer. Somebody told me that IBM was so wealthy that the corporation could simply pay cash for such-and-such a South American nation… in the "banana republic" category, if I remember rightly. At the time, I wouldn't have been capable of deciding whether or not this was rubbish talk, so I simply believed what I was told, and got on (proudly, no doubt) with my computer programming tasks.

These days, thanks to Internet, we're more cautious about tales of this kind, since people are more and more capable of verifying the degree of truth in what is being stated. We're no longer obliged to survive in the kind of informational vacuum that shrouded the planet up until recently… except, of course, if your antiquated beliefs, your inbuilt mental structure and your cultural conditioning force you (with or without Internet) to do so.

Today, we're told (and it's no doubt true) that the Apple corporation disposes of cash liquidities of 76 billion dollars, whereas those of the entity known as the USA amount to 73 billion dollars. The latter sum represents what the USA can actually spend before they hit their official national debt limit of well over 14 billion dollars, illustrated here:

It's said that, if the current US debt were to be materialized in 100-dollar banknotes, the stack of greenbacks would cover a football field up to the height of the left arm of the Statue of Liberty. This explains why a dynamic corporation such as Apple would never—in spite of having enough ready cash to do so—invest in such an unpromising financial affair as God's Own Country.

Our GP on overseas disaster mission

In my previous post [display], I mentioned our good fortune in having a resident GP, Xavier Limouzin, with many qualities, including that of being an officer and active member of the Sapeurs-Pompiers (fire brigade) of Pont-en-Royans. Here's a photo of Dr Limouzin in Haiti after last year's earthquake:

[Click for an enlarged view]

And here he is (on the right), with comrades, working at night alongside the rubble in Haiti:

With that kind of professional experience, Dr Limouzin was perfectly at ease in dealing with the trivial case of an old-timer at Gamone who happened to get pinned to the ground by a branch of a walnut tree.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fool who thought he was a lumberjack

If this photo shocks my readers, then I ask you to believe that this silly accident certainly shocked me too. But I've now overcome the trauma.

My local doctor, Xavier Limouzin, is not only an excellent general practitioner and a cultivated gentleman—who is passionate, in the little spare time he has, about exotic motor cycles and rose-growing—but he's also a senior officer in the local fire brigade, and clearly a competent photographer. (That's not Limouzin in the photo, since he was actually taking the photo… at my request.) The accident occurred a month ago [see my blog post], but it was only yesterday that I dropped in for the first time for a medical visit, primarily for my three-monthly renewal of pills. I've more-or-less got back to normal, but Limouzin has prescribed both an ultrasound image and an MRI of my left knee, which might not be recovering (?) ideally. Personally, I'm reassured that everything's fine, but I've got into the habit of following strictly the orders of Xavier Limouzin (who detected my prostate problem several years ago). I wouldn't wish to be accused of publicizing the talents of a GP (which would be illegal in France), but I've often said to myself that one of the many basic reasons why I'm not particularly interested in moving to a more civilized corner of France is that my personal medical context in the vicinity of Pont-en-Royans is splendid. And Gamone—need I add?—is a magnificent place to live, in spite of its dangers.

Concerning the photo, I should explain that the victim is totally conscious and suffering no pain whatsoever. If he's lying on his back, in his underclothes, with his arms outstretched, that's because Xavier Limouzin ordered me to get into this position. And if the victim is wearing an oxygen mask, and receiving serum in his right arm, that's because Xavier Limouzin didn't want to take any risks concerning the possible nature of my wounds. I tried to tell the GP that I was perfectly capable of getting up onto my legs and walking away from the scene, but he preferred wisely to ignore my words. So I assumed completely my state as a wounded fellow who had imagined himself stupidly, for a few dramatic instants, as an alpine lumberjack capable of using a chainsaw to cut up giant logs on the slopes of the Vercors.

I must relate a trivial anecdote that would be amusing were it not perfectly serious and reassuring. In the confusion of the first few minutes when the local firemen's ambulance was racing up to Gamone, with its siren blaring, phone messages were exchanged concerning the exact setting in which I was located. Naturally, the first thought that flashes into the minds of alpine emergency crews in a place such as Choranche is the possibility that the victim might be located in an inaccessible zone, necessitating the intervention of a helicopter. I had actually written a blog post on this theme, entitled Helicopter territory [display], just a week before my accident. Well, it appears that the nature and the geographical circumstances of my predicament had been somewhat overstated by the excellent men and women (the group included two female fire officers) who were taking care of me. In any case, at the same moment that I allowed myself (I had no choice) to be handled like a gravely-injured blob of meat, and placed delicately in a rigid cradle on a stretcher, and carried up to the house, I glimpsed the famous red and yellow helicopter hovering above Gamone. I also heard one of the firemen yelling out, in embarrassed annoyance: "Hey, somebody forgot to phone the helico to say we don't need them." To be perfectly honest, I was almost disappointed to realize that I wouldn't be leaving Gamone in an aerial fashion. But I remained constantly relieved, above all (during the long slow journey to the hospital in Romans), that I wouldn't be leaving Gamone in a plastic bag. Once in the care of the excellent medical staff at Romans (where I spent the entire afternoon in my underwear), I realized that I was traumatized above all by the image of the rolling log, and I kept repeating to myself, in an audible voice: "William, oublie l'arbre !" (forget the tree trunk). During the fortnight that followed my accident, I took advantage of the terrible series of accidents in the Tour de France to convince myself that we're all constantly on the verge of being killed in one way or another. And I chased away all my dark thoughts and images by realizing that it's a wonderful privilege to live alongside individuals such as the neighbors who heard my cries for help, and the fine emergency personnel of Pont-en-Royans, guided by Xavier Limouzin. But a helicopter trip would have been nice...

PS: Perspicacious blog readers will have understood that my decision to publish this unpleasant photo is largely therapeutic.

Smart boss

At the start of a recent Dilbert strip, I was surprised, indeed intrigued, to find the Pointy-Haired Boss referring to the sophisticated phenomenon of telomeres, which are the repetitive DNA sequences found at both ends of our chromosomes. After all, it was only in 2009 that the Australian-born biologist Elizabeth Blackburn was awarded (along with two colleagues) the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the way in which telomeres "protect" a chromosome whenever it replicates.

The boss's allusion to "short telomeres" evokes an hypothesis that has become widespread (although not yet fully confirmed) at the level of afflictions such as cancer and aging. The general idea is that a fragment at the extremity of a telomere is "sacrificed" during cell replication, and this insignificant destruction means that relatively important fragments further down the line will not be damaged, as they would be if the protective telomere "cap" were not present. In a healthy individual, this partial destruction of one end of the telomere is harmless, since it can rebuild itself later on. On the other hand, if an individual's telomeres have been reduced to an abnormally short length, then that person is a likely candidate—according to the above-mentioned hypothesis—for cancer and senescence.

I was surprised by the boss's knowledge of modern genetics. I didn't know that a narrow-minded man of his kind would have heard of telemeres. Maybe, if I had the habit of reading popular-science magazines, or stuff about health, I would have realized that telomeres have indeed become a household word. Incidentally, in the remaining frames of the Dilbert strip, the boss informs the job candidate that short telomeres are a sign that the individual in question values work above physical well-being.

[Click the image to access an article that the boss may have read.]

Another thing that intrigues me in this affair is the question of how an ordinary individual might learn that his telomeres are abnormally short. I've had my Y-chromosomes analyzed in a genealogical context [see description], but that trivial operation taught me nothing whatsoever concerning the length of my telomeres. Maybe individuals who have had their DNA examined in a wider medical context end up acquiring information about the length of their telomeres. In any case, I intend to carry on reading Dilbert comics in the hope of broadening my awareness of the marvels of modern medicine.

Friday, July 29, 2011


I've always been intrigued by manifestations of an everyday concept that can only be called relativity… although it has nothing to do with Einstein. I'm talking of the fact that an individual X might consider such-and-such a thing as important, whereas an individual Y might consider the same thing as trivial. That's to say, the thing is, or is not, important/trivial depending on the identity of its respective viewers. And that's why I suggest (rightly or wrongly, at a language level) that it's a case of relativity.

Ever since the inception of my Antipodes blog in December 2006 [display], its spirit has evolved constantly around the concept of an upside-down world in which certain folk seem to be walking on their heads… when viewed, that is, by folk on the other side of our conceptual planet.

I'm amazed whenever the ordinary universe reveals itself (above all, in the domain of quantum physics and cosmology) as extraordinary. Inversely, I'm amused when I see that dull phenomena (such as tourism in my native land) can be interpreted by their beholders as objects of planetary contemplation. I ask myself constantly: Why can't we all agree about what's important (and what's trivial), what's amazing (and what's run-of-the-mill), what's beautiful (and what's dull), what's precious (and what's cheap), etc.

Today, I'm convinced that this theme of everyday relativity is all-important, because it determines whether or not we're talking on the same wavelength, or even talking about the same issues. Back in 2006 in Sydney, I shall never forget the experience of describing with enthusiasm, to my uncle Peter and his wife Nancy Walker, the reasons why it was so fundamentally important for me to make this pilgrimage from France, back to Australia, to visit our ancestral Braidwood. After listening to my profound explanations, Peter said to me: "William, you must realize that nobody gives a screw about all that you've just been saying." I remember, above all, the term "screw", an euphemism for "fuck" (since Peter never used bad language). He was right, in his tiny narrow-minded way. But, in most ways, Peter was utterly wrong, for he had sadly misjudged (underestimated) what makes the world go round. In a nutshell: Our constant challenge of evaluating what went wrong in the past, and trying to improve things for the future. That, my dear ignorant uncle Peter, is what people have been giving countless literal fucks about for the last few billion years.

Sadly, I never saw Braidwood, because there was simply nobody to take me there. For me, this was a gigantic disappointment... which accounts for much of the distaste I now express for that silly sunburnt country and its people that I used to love.

This relativity theme is so huge that I've lost steam (in criticizing my uncle) before I even got started. I'll get back to it in later blog posts...

I've been talking on about anything and everything for years, in this Antipodes blog, designed to evoke interesting responses from those around me, particularly my genetic relatives. Well, in all that time, I continue to find it utterly amazing that this blog has never recorded a single instance of a significant reaction from any individuals in that "genetic relatives" category. It's as if they all signed off as soon as they saw the first words of Antipodes. In fact, I don't give a screw.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why do we like the things we like?

The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom is interested in big fundamental questions of an aesthetic or moral kind, such as: Why do we like certain things, but dislike others? Why do we consider that one thing is right, whereas another is wrong? In this entertaining 16-minute video, Bloom provides us with fascinating and often amusing cases of human likes and dislikes.

In the great debate of nature v. nurture, I'm pleased to discover that Paul Bloom is an opponent—like Steven Pinker—of the infamous "blank slate" theory [display]. He says: "A growing body of evidence suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life."

Aussie meal

These are salt-water crocodiles in the Northern Territory.

The little fellow is about 2.5 meters in length. As for the big reptile, the photographer Lyn Minchin and her friends in a boat decided that it would be unwise to wait around until they could witness the beast's full length, which appeared to exceed that of their 5-meter boat. Clearly, the big crocodile was hungry, and he decided to chew into the nearest food available: one of his mates.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Talk about winning, not disappearing

This man is our main hope of defeating Sarkozy and bringing the French nation back onto a road towards the republican goal of liberté, égalité et fraternité. But the fellow's already evoking (in the Italian press) the eventuality of the Socialists being defeated.

François Hollande must pay attention to his language, and start acting and talking exclusively in a positive style!

Is this guy crazy?

It's not unlikely that the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik is in fact "crazy"—as his lawyer Geir Lippestad is starting to suggest—and that "he lives in a bubble" where he depends upon pharmaceutical products in order "to be strong, to be efficient, to be awake". OK, fine (yawn). Let's suppose, then, that he's a lethally dangerous former citizen of a finely civilized Scandinavian society. The next question is: What should be done with this creature?

As I stated clearly in a previous post [display], he must be examined profoundly, clinically, above all, for his case and condition might alert us to future risks. The concept of punishment is anathema… but Breivik must be sentenced to silence. Society neither wishes nor needs to listen to a syllable of anything that this nauseating blond Viking might vomit.

The rest of the civilized world will be awaiting Norway's honest analysis of what might have gone wrong in their harboring such an individual—apparently unknowingly—in their midst. Maybe we're all potential lunatics capable of destroying everything that's precious. Personally, I've never been anguished nor even intrigued by such an idea, which I look upon as totally false, indeed ridiculous. Whenever I touch the tender head of one of my dear dogs, Sophia or Fitzroy, I'm profoundly aware that they are precious but fragile treasures, who must never be harmed, who must be caressed forever, and that the potential violence of my giant human paws must be controlled, and intelligently restrained. My dogs are not mad animals, fit to be killed by a madman... and neither am I. If Breivik's sick brain thinks otherwise, then researchers in psychology and neurophysiology must try to determine what has happened. What was it that apparently transformed this Norwegian citizen into a monster?


When I was a 14-year-old kid hanging around in the rough competitive-cycling environment of my native Grafton and Coffs Harbour, the very idea of a cultivated gentleman cyclist such as Cadel Evans would have been unthinkable. Inversely, I eavesdropped on many uncouth conversations about sex. Retrospectively, I believe—although I can't vouch for it—that I had already, at that time, acquired sufficient algebraic knowledge and sexual self-awareness to appreciate a remarkable law of the dynamics of male nature: The angle of the dangle is proportional to the heat of the meat. That's to say, a cold penis will hang limply and vertically (angle zero), whereas a warmed-up hunk of meat will rise magically to a right angle, or even greater. What I didn't understand clearly at that time was that the warming-up process was a largely-cerebral affair, which only needed to be triggered by the vision of a nymph, a young angel, an ethereal creature with a seductive look… accompanied generally by a luscious mouth, attractive breasts and an enticing backside. In those days, people used to talk a lot about love, even divinely-consecrated eternal love… but I had to wait a long while before I started to hear intelligent talk—from brilliant happily-married intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker—about our inbuilt animal sex drives.

Concerning my former politico-economic hero Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I must admit that a cloud of disbelief engulfed me when I witnessed the female object that apparently heated his meat. I'm not talking of the complex human being named Nafissatou Diallo, herself, but merely of her image as a sexual challenge: an object capable of augmenting Strauss-Kahn's angle of the dangle.

Once upon a time, I revered the ethereal beauty and brilliance of Anne Sinclair, who appeared to me (that's to say, to my concupiscent regard) as the epitome of the French female. At that time, I didn't yet know that she was filthy rich, attached to the USA, and capable of falling totally in love with, and protecting, a powerful male. Today, I still admire Anne, of course, but she doesn't come through quite as angelically untainted as she used to. More precisely, I can't help wondering whether she might have been duped by the indubitable promises of DSK. Even more precisely, it would be good if Anne were to tell us simply (former admirers of the journalist and partisans of DSK) how she looks upon, globally, this whole "heat of the meat" subject.

Let me turn to another distortion: Rupert Murdoch.

[Click the image for an amusing Onion satire on Rupert's distortions of reality.]

I've always loved the Simpsons, who remain for me the perfect illustration of nasty life in God's Own Country. Apparently, there are evil-minded observers who would wish to see similarities between Rupert and the venerable Grandpa Simpson.

Personally, I'm profoundly attached to the past, particularly through my genealogical pursuits. On the other hand, I've always been terrified by the horrible eventuality of becoming, as my age advances, what my Aussie mates in Grafton would have labeled an SOB [silly old bugger]. For the moment, I'm sufficiently lucid, I believe, to know what I'm doing, especially in the domain of autobiographical writing, which forces me to be alert and perspicacious. But I'm terrified at times by the looming apparitions, around me, of certain former friends who seem to be transforming themselves inevitably—cerebrally, no doubt, but not knowingly, I'm afraid—into SOBs of the saddest ranting Rupert kind.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sad London bye bye bye

Lovely mysterious Amy Winehouse, you told us you were trouble. But how come you couldn't get past 27 years?

Tour nostalgia

This afternoon, as I watched (on TV) the final ceremonial stage of the fabulous Tour de France parade on the Champs Elysées, I thought back to 1981 when I met up with Phil Anderson, who was the first Australian to wear the famous yellow jersey. At that time, I had the privilege of interviewing Phil and his mother Pamela, and my article was published in the Australian magazine People.

"When I ride the next Tour de France," Phil told me, "I plan to be the winner." This would not be the case. And Australia would have to wait three decades until victory, this afternoon.

Today, it would be good if my native land (Australia) could share with my adoptive land (France) the fabulous impact of this mythical sporting event, which is in fact a planetary cultural happening. For us, living in France, it's by far the greatest celebration of the summer season. It's a cycling championship, of course, but it's also, and above all, an active real-time celebration of the many marvels of a mystical Mediterranean (middle of the world) nation: France.

Cadel Evans is a quiet but great Australian sporting hero, who has always been in total control of his wonderful career.

Specimen to be analyzed

I used to be amused by the following sick joke. A Californian couple, retired tourists, are visiting an Eskimo settlement in Greenland. They strike up a conversation with an Inuit woman.

INUIT: Our son works in a Californian university.

CALIFORNIAN: Really! What's he studying?

INUIT: He's being studied.

If ever there were a Nordic guy who deserves to be sent to a university, to be studied, in California or elsewhere, it's the 32-year-old Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik.

This young Homo sapiens male individual is a healthy living specimen, amazingly preserved (maybe due to the cold remoteness of Norway), of everything that went wrong in the world during the 20th century. This unexpected creature merits in-depth examination by specialists in psychology, neurology, genetics, etc. In a way, this ugly but God-given Oslo specimen is precious, in that it might provide researchers attached to civilized European society with insights into mysteries surrounding the birth and proliferation of Nazism. Humanistic science must step in.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Red and black

The city of Grenoble (half an hour away from where I live) was the birthplace of the French novelist Stendhal [1783-1842], whose most celebrated title was The Red and the Black. And red and black were the colors, during this Tour de France, of the jersey of Cadel Evans.

After this afternoon's time trial at Grenoble, Cadel changed his colors from red and black to yellow. Normally, tomorrow on the Champs Elysées in Paris, Cadel Evans will be the first Australian cyclist to win the Tour de France.

When I was a teenager in Grafton, I would hear about this fabulous race through French cycling magazines that my uncle Charles Walker used to receive, in his capacity as the president of the Coffs Harbour cycling club. Not yet capable of reading French, I nevertheless admired the photos of champions named Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Raphaël Géminiani… Much later, on 8 July 1963, I happened to be hitchhiking through Grenoble when the 15th stage of the Tour de France arrived there, won by the Spaniard Federico Bahamontes.

Watching the time trial on TV this afternoon, and seeing Evans obtain the yellow jersey, I had the impression that I was witnessing a momentous event in Australian cycling history.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The queen and I agree

It's not often that I share the tastes of Elizabeth II in the domain of beauty, art, fashion and that kind of stuff. I've never liked her hats, for example, and it's quite likely that she doesn't like mine. Today, however, we both seem to agree that the Buckingham Palace presentation of Kate Middleton's wedding gown is pretty awful, indeed spooky.

"Horrid, isn't it?" said the 85-year-old queen to her 29-year-old granddaughter-in-law, pointing at the funereal headless thing with a ghostly halo. "Horrid and dreadful!"

My immediate impression: It looks like an exhibit in a crime museum.

Robot bird

Many people have considered, for a long time (at least since the invention of the wheel, say), that engineers should not go out of their way to imitate Nature, since the hit-and-miss processes of evolution do not necessarily result in exemplary designs. The following amusing demonstration proves, however, that engineers can in fact—if they set their minds to it—create an impressive bionic artifact.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pain in the arse

To stigmatize an annoyance that's too fuzzy to be pinned down, colloquial English has retained a marvelous but illogical expression: a pain in the arse. In France today, our notorious pain in the arse of French politics is a pale frail bony female named Tristane Banon.

This excruciating disturbance encompasses her French lawyer, David Koubbi. This pair of tiny-brainers has dared to take on very big protagonists, in a flamboyant style, since the flashy young French lawyer has even associated his venom with that of the mad Manhattan lawyer Kenneth Thompson defending Nafissatou Diallo.

It's clear that all these silly actors will be swept away mercilessly, sooner or later, by the forces of objective history, intelligence and vicious politics. Fleeting clowns, they're attempting absurdly to get their acts accepted by Posterity (with a capital P like Pain in the arse) before the curtain falls on their mediocrity and lack of facts.

Fitzroy socializing

I don't have any photos, because it all happened unexpectedly. Towards the end of Monday afternoon, my new Gamone neighbors phoned to inform me that they were about to throw a house-warming party, and that I was invited. Realizing that I had less than an hour to get shaved, showered and spruced up for a social evening (local etiquette), I darted away to St-Jean-en-Royans to purchase a couple of bottles of wine. Returning to Gamone at about 7 o'clock, I had a single thought in mind: lock up Fitzroy in the kitchen, along with Sophia, so that the dogs wouldn't follow me up to my neighbors' party. But Fitzroy was nowhere in sight. So, I set off on foot, with my bottles of wine. On the way up to the lovely new home of Jackie and Marie, Fitzroy was there to greet me. He had already sensed that a party was underway, and he got up there early, without waiting to be invited along by me or anybody else.

Well, to cut a long story short, it was a wonderful evening, both for Fitzroy and for me. My dog was socially faultless. And he even had an opportunity (a must for every French dog) of tasting bones of frogs' legs. I drank glass after glass of rosé wine, and talked on with guests from Louisiana. The former owner, my friend Bob, was present, along with his companion Kiki. Towards the end of this marvelous evening, we all sat around a log fire, looking out over the Cournouze. Then I strolled back home with Fitzroy… who had behaved excellently, won many friends, and succeeded brilliantly in his social coming-out.

Asleep in the kitchen, Sophia was totally unimpressed, indeed uninterested, by our descriptions of this splendid evening of frogs' legs, rosé wine and a log fire. It's a fact: Sophia has never been a socialite.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Comfortable dog bed beneath the foliage

Inside the house, whenever Sophia leaves her big wicker basket empty, Fitzroy has the habit of hopping into it, and often falling asleep. Fortunately, Sophia seems to find it perfectly normal that her basket should be borrowed, from time to time, in this way. As I've often said, she's imbued with a profound Christian spirit of charity. Outside, Fitzroy has always had a fine kennel, but he prefers to sleep out in the open, on a thick wad of straw in front of the wall of the house. This afternoon, for the first time ever, I was amused to discover that Sophia had borrowed Fitzroy's bed for a short nap.

It certainly looks like an attractive place to rest on a summer afternoon. The straw is surrounded by lavender, in full bloom. The shrub on the right is a white-flowering wisteria, whose foliage is sufficiently thick, at this time of the year, to act as a canopy capable of protecting the dog from rain. The plant on the left is a wild dog rose (Rosa canina, called églantier in French), which produces pale pink flowers.

I was wondering why the name of this wild rose (apparently the ancestor of cultivated roses) evokes dogs. In ancient times, people believed that the root of this plant could cure a person who had contracted rabies, after being bitten by an afflicted dog. I'm always amazed when I hear tales like that. I try to imagine the scenario: A gravely sick individual, on a stretcher, is carted along to an apothecary who—for reasons that are hard to fathom—gives the patient a concoction containing the ground-up roots of a wild rose bush. How and why did apothecaries decide that such a preparation might play a positive role in healing such a serious affliction as rabies? More to the point: Did the concoction actually produce positive results?

Maybe, an ancient apothecary happened to notice, like me, that his dogs liked to lie around outside on a bed of straw surrounded by lavender, in the shade of Wisteria and wild rose bushes. So, when one of his dogs went mad and bit people, the apothecary might have asked himself: "Before that animal went mad, what were the plants and flowers associated with its normal state of harmonious well-being?" And maybe the apothecary imagined that these same plants and flowers might play a role in restoring the health of victims of rabies.

Bachmann and Palin

In God's Own Country, are female Republican celebrities really as disastrous as Bill Maher makes them out to be? I guess so.

Talking about American women (which I wasn't really), the great Richard Dawkins made a lot of bad friends recently when he published this little satirical bombshell:

Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself "Skepchick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so...
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

US feminists, skeptics and atheists found it hard to believe that the celebrated English professor would dare to make fun of their outspoken sister Rebecca Watson [click the photo to access her Wikipedia description], who was forced to decline a brutal middle-of-the-night invitation of a fellow she encountered in a hotel elevator. Rebecca attempted to transform her terse refusal into a feminist cry—Don’t do it, guys!—that might have shaken the male world. Were it not for Dawkins, Rebecca's sordid affair might have fizzled out into much-ado-about-nothing.

A year or so ago, intrigued by this weird woman who seemed to have charmed certain US intellectual circles whose ideas I respected, I decided to follow her personal videos. One day, she offered us a home-made thing that consisted solely of a dense self-analysis of the lady's own facial features. This narcissism nauseated me, and I promptly ceased to follow her superficial stuff.

I'm aware that I shouldn't dare to talk about US females such as those whose names appear in the present blog post, because my comments are devoid of any kind of reliable personal knowledge or experience. The truth of the matter, for me, is that such women are Martians.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

State of things

It's hard to single out the nonfiction book that marked me most when I was a young man. Objectively, I would probably have to say it was History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, since I discovered Russell's rambling and sketchy compendium in Paris in 1962 and, up until today, it has remained one of my bedside books.

Before then, a science book that made a huge and lasting impression upon me was The Nature of the Physical World by the English astronomer Arthur Eddington, written in 1928. He was a Quaker (which might have aroused my suspicions), but Eddington was also, after all, one of the first and finest interpreters of the newfangled theories of Albert Einstein. So, I was most impressed by his excellent style of science writing.

What I liked most about Eddington's views on the cosmological state of things was the fact that he left a tiny window open for spiritual beliefs and religious faith. I remember saying to myself, as it were: "OK, Eddington's explanations on the nature of the Cosmos are fine for the moment, even though they're obviously inadequate. But there's a good chance, hopefully, that we'll get around to finding God, one of these days, in the interstices." In fact, I was both a naive and lazy thinker.

In a nutshell, that's truly what I believed for years, for decades… even during the time that I fell in love, upon my arrival at Gamone, with the fabulous tale of Master Bruno, founder of the Chartreux monastic order. But the truth of the matter is that we're no longer in the same peaceful ballpark as Bruno and company. In the course of the few decades that separate me from my reading of the charming Quaker Eddington, Science has started to come apart at the seams, while Religion has been eternally rubbished.

We're awaiting news, not from a religiously-inspired science-writer, and even less from the Holy Spirit, but from the Large Hadron Collider, which talks to us in terms of String Theory. But will we necessarily understand the sacred Word of the Collider? Probably not, at least neither exactly nor explicitly, because it's all a matter of ethereal mathematics, which is akin to a mixture of abstract art and poetry. But it's infinitely better than the supposed Word of God, horribly fuzzy and irrevocably has-been.

The following video is a talk on cosmology by an amazing US intellectual, Lawrence Krauss. It lasts an hour, but I strongly urge you to get settled comfortably in front of your computer to watch it from the beginning to the end.

Gamone lies within Natura 2000

This morning, I received an official letter from a fellow-citizen reminding me that my property at Gamone is located within one of the ecological zones defined in the context of a European chart, Natura 2000.

The following map indicates, in dark green, all the Natura 2000 zones (26 in all) in the Rhône-Alpes region, which includes many prestigious landscapes and extraordinary sites.

[Click to enlarge]

Our tiny local zone, in the middle of the map, has an exotic official label: Prairies of wild orchids, tufa deposits and Gorges of the Bourne. Here is the exact location of the zone that includes Gamone:

[Click to enlarge]

It's funny to learn that you're living in the middle of some kind of ecological museum. Normally, after next week's meeting in the municipal hall at Choranche, I'll know more about the down-to-earth implications of this affair. In any case, I'm such a profound admirer of my magnificent adoptive abode that I could hardly love and respect it any more than I do already. I even get around to thinking that the situation might be reversed. Maybe this wild and glorious land should have a little bit more respect for an awkward but intrepid old Antipodean such as me, living dangerously at times, who will never conquer its challenges, master its mysteries, nor fully behold its beauty.

Insulting religion

When he criticizes religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), this 61-year-old English comedian, Pat Condell, expresses himself in a beautifully clear and persuasive manner:

He's definitely a healthy and explicit no-bullshit artist (you can Google his credentials, which include six years working as a logger in Canada), described by Richard Dawkins in the following terms: "Pat Condell is unique. Nobody can match his extraordinary blend of suavity and savagery. With his articulate intelligence he runs rings around the religious wingnuts that are the targets of his merciless humour. Thank goodness he is on our side."

Friday, July 15, 2011

Perrier commercial

This outstanding video is being shown regularly on French TV:

What's more, Perrier is an outstanding drink.

Circus of Choranche, Bastille Day

One of my greatest pleasures consists of simply gazing out over the circus of Choranche from a first-floor window of my house at Gamone. Whenever I detect some special magic in the view, I take a photo. This one, for example, is a Bastille Day symphony of clouds rising over the eastern horizon:

This morning, down in front of the house, Fitzroy detected the presence of an alien visitor:

The blue balloon and its attached card had been sent into the air by a girl named Clémence, on the eve of Bastille Day, from an agricultural village up near Lyon. I mailed the card back to her, as requested, so that her village would have a record of this flight of one of its balloons. I imagined myself as Neil Armstrong on 20 July 1969, radioing back to Earth: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Religious breakthrough in Austria

Here's a photo of what appears to be an ordinary Austrian driver's license, issued to a young guy named Niko Alm:

When inspected closely, Niko's identity photo reveals a puzzling detail. On his head, he seems to be wearing some kind of curious helmet. In fact, it's a round-bottomed metal strainer of the kind used to extract spaghetti from the water in which it was cooked.

At this stage, you might be asking (I hope): How come that Austrian guy named Niko Alm has decided to give the authorities, for his driver's license, an identity portrait in which he's wearing an upside-down pasta strainer as if it were a hat? Now, that's an excellent question, and I'm glad you asked it. So, let me answer it.

Anybody who's ever tried to get a driver's license in Austria knows that the authorities are generally furious whenever they receive an identity photo in which the candidate is wearing any kind of hat. For example, if Princess Beatrice were to imagine that she could use this lovely portrait for her Austrian driver's license, then she would be in for a nasty surprise.

In Austrian law, there's only one possible loophole that allows you to use a photo in which you're wearing a hat. You have to make it clear that the thing you're wearing on your head is a religious headdress… like a Jewish hat, say, or a Sikh turban. And that is the ingenious method that enabled Niko Alm to use a portrait in which his head is adorned by a pasta strainer.

You might recall that, in a recent blog post, I evoked the existence of a spiritual entity known as the Flying Spaghetti Monster [display], who was responsible for the creation of the Cosmos and all the creatures in it, such as you and me.

The vast congregation of decent God-fearing folk who believe in this explanation of Creation are known as Pastafarians… and you can use Google to find out all about their fascinating theology, dogma, etc. Well, the Austrian driver Niko Alm wrote a letter to the authorities stating that his adherence to the Pastafarian religion made it obligatory for him to wear a pasta strainer on his head at all times. The authorities promptly got him examined by psychiatrists, to see if he was totally crazy. This was not the case. So, the authorities had no other choice but to allow Niko to be photographed while wearing his Pastafarian religious headdress.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bastille Day 2011

I've decided spontaneously to replace my angry blog post about Rupert by an evocation of France's annual celebration. I've nevertheless left the earlier copy of a petition appeal [display].

France is shocked today by the death of five soldiers in Afghanistan.

BREAKING NEWS (July 14): An amusing surprise, this morning, was the performance of a Haka by French soldiers from the Pacific zone.

Does this mean that this ritual war dance originated from a broader cultural background than that of the Māoris of New Zealand?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Carbon calamity

Folk Down Under imagine naively, stupidly, that (1) global warming doesn't really exist, and that (2) they're making astronomical efforts to thwart this phantom. Do I need to add my opinion that my compatriots are truly, in general, a bunch of dumb losers? I've often talked about Australia's inability to construct a decent infrastructure. The nation is inescapably lethargic (like me in front of a chessboard), with no will whatsoever to win its political and environmental survival.

Click the image to access a New Scientist article on our wide brown bullshit, which will slowly but surely lead to the downfall of Australia as a serious world partner on environmental issues.

Stop this ugly Aussie!

To David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt:
The outrageous hacking incidents revealed after years of News Corporation denials and cover ups show that the Murdochs aren't fit and proper people to run a major UK broadcaster. We call on you to stop the deal and ensure that regulators fully assess—on the basis of the public inquiries—whether the Murdochs are fit and proper people to run a broadcaster.

Sign the petition!

Dear friends, Hacking murdered children's phones, paying off police, destroying evidence of crimes, threatening politicians -- MPs are saying the Murdoch empire has "entered the criminal underworld". But Murdoch is still calling the shots and could still get the BSkyB prize. Yesterday, he pulled a cunning manoeuvre at the last hurdle, meaning regulators will review the deal solely on plurality, not the outrageous immorality of his company's practices. But British law says media owners must be "fit and proper" to be trusted with broadcast licenses. If we demand that now, we can influence the debate tomorrow in Parliament and kill the deal once and for all. People power has brought this deal to its knees -- our 160,000 letters last week were critical in getting the deal referred to the Competition Commission. But we cannot stop now: the hacking scandal is our best chance in a generation to end Murdoch's reign of fear and smear over our democracy. Let's make sure Cameron and Hunt immediately ensure the BSkyB deal is assessed on whether Murdoch is "fit and proper" to be given half our country's commercial media. Click to sign the urgent petition and forward this email to everyone -- we have just 24 hours until the Parliamentary debate.
Murdoch's media has corrupted our society, our politics and our police. From the News of the World to the Sun to the Sunday Times, his staff have listened in to grieving widows of soldiers who died in Iraq, a war that Murdoch's global media empire promoted. They stole a sitting Prime Minister's bank information and his family's medical records, and hacked into the phones, computers and homes of thousands of people. They paid the police for information, and got the first hacking investigation stopped after meeting senior officers. And James Murdoch approved cheques to hush up victims who threatened action -- a criminal obstruction of justice. As the Murdoch empire's vile dealings have been uncovered, he has fought back to try to save his lucrative BSkyB TV deal. First, he pulled the News of the World. Then, yesterday, he surprised Jeremy Hunt at the last minute by withdrawing his proposed undertakings for Sky News, forcing Hunt to refer the deal to the Competition Commission and buying time for the political temperature to cool to ensure the deal he so badly wants is judged only on market share, not his companies' criminality. So far the Murdochs have been protected by fear. They run smear campaigns against their enemies, threatening the career of any politician who challenges them. But the fear is melting away, and for the first time our politicians could take steps to stop him, by ruling Murdoch unfit to own our media and forcing him to give up control of his empire in the UK. Tomorrow Parliament could make this move -- it's a breathtaking chance to improve British media and democracy in one fell swoop -- let's bring a massive outcry to achieve it:

It won't be easy. When the hacking scandal broke in earnest a few months ago, David Cameron spent much of his Christmas week socializing with Murdoch executives. Murdoch's mafia power extends deep into our government. But together we have already pushed this deal to the limit -- now let's bury it. But if we act fast now, the government and regulators will have to subject this deal to the fullest public interest tests - which it simply cannot pass. With hope, Alex, Sam, Ricken, Alice, Amy, Brianna, Laura and the rest of the Avaaz team

Fitzroy is one year old

This afternoon, at the agricultural cooperative in Saint-Jean-en-Royans, I bought a huge buffalo-hide "bone" as a first birthday present for Fitzroy. As for Sophia, who'll be turning 13 in a fortnight, she's not particularly keen on foodstuffs that are merely chewed. She prefers the stuff you swallow, that fills your belly.

I was hoping to get a photo of Fitzroy fiddling around with his buffalo-hide trophy. But, during the minute or so it took me to go upstairs and fetch my Nikon, Fitzroy had dashed off down to the creek and no doubt buried his "bone" in a safe place. He's a down-to-earth dog, definitely not the kind of creature who likes to get involved in ceremonial photos. The look on Sophia's face, combined with the lovely expression of complicity between the two dogs, gives the impression that they both thought that hiding the object was a smart thing to do.

Aussie psychologist creates monsters

This is really weird stuff. And so it should be, because the Queensland psychologist Matthew Thomson has hit upon a way of transforming portraits of ordinary individuals into fleeting images of monsters.

Should we be surprised by the fact that this bright young Fullbright scholar happens to be an expert in criminal fingerprinting, who'll soon be comparing notes with the Los Angeles police and the FBI? No comment… except to suggest that it might have been nicer if Matthew's monsters had sprung into existence, say, in the course of an artistic career devoted to the production of ghost movies for Aussie kids. But psychologists are psychologists, and they need to earn their living in the most propitious manner.

Let's look at the monsters. You might click around in such a way as to fill up your entire screen with the following video. Then you should watch it at least twice.

• The first time, keep your eyes on the cross in the middle of the screen, and try to recollect your impressions of the kind of unrecognizable faces that are fleeting past you on both sides of the cross. You'll probably feel that these fleeting images are monstrous.

• The second time, verify calmly the look of the various portraits on the left and right of the cross. You'll be astonished to discover that they weren't really monsters at all…

Matthew's diabolical secret? The eyes have it. From one portrait to the next, the eyes remain exactly in the same position on your computer screen. And this is what gives the impression that the faces are being expanded, distended, stretched, compressed and distorted grotesquely around those lovely fixed eyes.

In real life, I have no reasons to believe that Matthew's not a nice guy. But I can't help imagining him as a distorted monster in a Queensland police uniform on a motor bike. In a nightmare, I see the Fullbright scholar pulling me over to the edge of a Gold Coast highway and informing me that I don't look like a normal law-abiding citizen.

EMPTY AFTERTHOUGHT: Jeez, it would be fucking lovely if Australian scholarship, particularly in a domain such as psychology, could move away forever from prisons and police, and our historical heritage as an end-of-the-boat-ride dump for the poor bastards who prevented English aristocracy from living perpetually in a land of fairytale princes and princesses. In the 18th and 19th centuries, long before the psychologist Matthew, vicious Poms had already invented the vision of ordinary folk as monsters.

Sydney stables

This blog post is intended primarily for members of my family out in Australia. I've just been informed by my cousin Margaret (daughter of the World War I hero "King" Pickering) that her son Gregory, a prominent horse trainer, now has a website.

Ah, I imagine the great pleasure that certain relatives (my grandparents in Grafton, for example, not to mention my father) would have surely experienced if they had known that a member of our clan was training racehorses out at Warwick Farm.

Margaret has been assisting me constantly (along with other members of the Pickering family) in my research for They Sought the Last of Lands [display].

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Background culture

Obviously, you can only perform a certain activity correctly, or appreciate something you hear or read about, if you possess a minimum of awareness of the subject in question. I call this background culture, and I think it's a tremendously important phenomenon in our modern world. In many cases, if an adult didn't happen to pick up this background culture when she was a kid, then she'll probably never get around to acquiring it. This is particularly true, as we all know, in the case of foreign languages. Consider twin boys born to an Australian couple settled out in the bush. If one child were to be whisked away to Japanese foster parents in Tokyo, then the kid would surely grow up like a typical Japanese teenager, speaking faultless Japanese… and incapable of communicating fluently with his sibling who remained down in the Australian bush. Now, when I talk that way, readers might imagine that I'm defending the theory of the blank slate, which Steven Pinker spent an entire book in demolishing.

I might seem to be saying that a bush baby in Australia (like me, if you insist on making things personal) is born more-or-less "empty-headed", and that you only have to drop him off in a place such as Tokyo, and let nurture get to work, if you want your kid to evolve, say, into a sophisticated citizen of the Land of the Rising Sun… who might later decide to return to his birthplace Down Under and amaze all the locals, with the help of his twin brother, by setting up a genuine sushi restaurant.

Well, this impression is partly right, and partly wrong. All the Japanese stuff is perfectly correct. What's totally wrong is the suggestion that the Aussie bush twins were born more-or-less "empty-headed". On the contrary, the twins were born with an all-important stock of genes, of all kinds, inherited from their Australian parents. And, if the Japanese-speaking sibling who grew up in Tokyo turned out to be smart enough to imagine the idea of returning to Australia and setting up a sushi restaurant with his English-speaking brother, then we can surely conclude that they two fellows were equipped, right from the start, with an excellent set of genes tuned to imagination and business creativity.

In my personal case, the fact that I never heard people speaking French until I was 21 years old means that I missed out on the nurture deal as far as my accent is concerned. That's to say, I'll always speak French with a foreign accent. On the other hand, I can communicate correctly with French people on all kinds of subjects, which suggests that I arrived on the scene here in France with a set of genes enabling me to learn how to translate efficiently from one language into another… which was the same set of genes that allowed me to work professionally in computer programming.

These days, I'm constantly amused to realize that much of my background culture, enabling me to appreciate various intellectual challenges, was of an accidental acquired kind, rather than primarily genetic. Out in Australia during the five-year period between my leaving school (1957) and my departure for Europe (1961), I had the chance of picking up cultural baggage in science that is still "fueling" me today. Let me give you an example of what I'm trying to say, in an unexpected domain: games. If there's a human activity in which I have no skills whatsoever, and even less in the way of enthusiasm, it's surely the field of games. I'm quite incapable of conjuring up any kind of competitive spirit, or will to win. I'm simply lousy at playing games. Besides, I hardly ever do so. I've never played cards, or bridge, or video games. Scrabble and crossword puzzles, like chess, bore me greatly. I seem to be lacking the genes that push other individuals to play with a will to win. And this apathy extends to all kinds of games, from competitive sports through to business. I'm not exactly a loser; I'm simply a lethargic non-player, with no deep desire to win anything whatsoever.

Now, this is funny, because my son François seems to be quite the opposite. He has recuperated genes that make him a skilled competitor in quite a few domains, including billiards. I don't know where he obtained these genes, but it's surely through his mother, whose family background includes at least a couple of solid known cases of entrepreneurial success… which are lacking in my family environment (with the possible exception of my paternal grandfather's small automobile business). There are no outstanding merchants among my recent ancestors. Meanwhile, the only successful sportsman—my uncle John Walker, the track cyclist—had so little will to win that a Grafton journalist once said that he had to be "psyched up" (by encouragement from his brothers) to have any chance of winning… and I knew my late uncle well enough to understand that this was surely the case.

Now, why am I painting this utterly dismal image of myself in the games arena? Well, there's method in my madness, which I shall now attempt to explain. In a nutshell, it's a matter of a fortuitous encounter with a fundamental element of scientific culture, when I was a young man working with IBM in Sydney.

I've already evoked John von Neumann in my blog article of Christmas Day 2006 entitled The meaning of life [display]. He's the fellow who invented the idea of programs stored in the memory of a computer. He also put forward a theory of replicators (which he referred to as self-reproducing automata), and we now know that the spiral helix mechanism of the DNA molecule is indeed such a replicator, at the origin of all life on the planet Earth.

Well, von Neumann had yet another claim to fame. With Oskar Morgenstern [1902-1977], he was the coauthor of a pioneering book, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior… a copy of which happened to be hanging around in the offices of IBM Australia, in North Sydney, when the company hired me as a computer programmer in 1957. At the time, I was amazed to learn that what I looked upon as a relatively superficial activity, playing games, could become the object of mathematical theories. In any case, while I continued to have little enthusiasm for games themselves, I was enthralled by the theories that had been invented to explain them.

Now, things might have stayed like that for me, permanently, were it not for the ingenious insights of an English evolutionary biologist and geneticist, John Mayard Smith, who decided to apply games theory to the biggest game of all—the greatest show on earth, as Richard Dawkins put it—namely, evolution. Unfortunately, it would be beyond the possibilities of my blog to tackle the precise ways in which, say, a college student on a date might be exploiting a strategy (unconsciously, in most cases) akin to a poker player. Dawkins introduces this gigantic theme, in a typically brilliant fashion, near the beginning of The Selfish Gene.

To be quite honest, I must point out that it can become mentally tiresome to follow the mathematical mechanisms of a games-theory interpretation of activities in the domains of courting, love and marriage, and rearing children. As I said at the beginning, it helps a lot if you happen to possess a minimum of background culture in the theory of games.