Monday, January 31, 2011

False family-history hopes

I find Australian friends on a few family-history blogs getting excited about DNA testing. Meanwhile, the great American science scholar and writer Carl Zimmer has just tweeted:

If I ever get a DNA ancestry test, I want @razibkhan to help me figure out what it all means:

If you take a look at Razib Khan's lengthy and complex analysis of his personal DNA results from 23andMe, you'll realize immediately that Carl Zimmer was being ironic in a friendly fashion. Often, naive newcomers to genealogical testing are awestruck by what the testing firms offer them. Certain testing firms lure their customers on by letting them believe that they're likely to come upon all kinds of cousins in the published databases. It goes without saying (as a little serious in-depth study of the subject, not to mention some basic arithmetic, would rapidly reveal) that these claims are surely exaggerated, to say the least.

All the inherited characteristics that make an individual what he or she is, today, come from a set of ancestors who were present on the planet Earth at various times over, say, the last couple of thousand years. That's already a lengthy time frame, and few of us have serious chances of finding out anything whatsoever concerning individual ancestors who lived, say, at the time of the Roman Empire. Not even kings and queens can obtain that kind of data! Moreover, you've been influenced genetically, during these two millennia, by a staggeringly vast horde of direct individual ancestors. (Do the arithmetic: 2 to the power of G, where G is the generation that interests you. Admittedly, there are countless repeated individuals in this crowd.) Consequently, the genetic input of any particular individual in this horde is like a drop of water in a wide and deep river.

In the domain of Y-chromosome or mtDNA haplogroups, the frame of reference extends back in an awesome exponential fashion over tens of thousands of years, giving rise to an ocean of population demography in which the very notion of your particular ancestors ceases to have any meaning whatsoever. And the particular individuals who provided you with the molecules that you might send off to get analyzed today were like a tiny line of bubbles rising to the surface of this vast ocean.

At a down-to-earth level, I've often said that DNA testing can possibly provide genuine assistance in the domain of genealogical research. In my personal case, for example, if ever I came across published Y-chromosome markers whose values matched mine, and if the individual in question happened to have an appreciable amount of traditional genealogical data about his background, then I might be able to learn more about my male ancestors named Skivington, Skevington or Skeffington. But those are two big "ifs". My results include values for 67 markers. Here's what I'm offered, today, when I look for matches:

Restricting my matching search to a maximum of little more than a third of my 67 tested markers, I find four individuals whose values are vaguely close to mine, with a difference (a so-called "genetic distance") of 3. Insofar as the values of a typical marker mutate extremely slowly (let's say, once every few centuries or so), it's most unlikely that any of those tested individuals named Walsh, Gifford, Davis and McGrath shared an even remote paternal ancestor with me since the end of prehistoric times. Consequently, it would be a pointless waste of time for me to attempt to contact such individuals in the hope of our sharing common family-history information.

So, you might say that my investment in Y-chromosome testing with FamilyTreeDNA was a little like buying a lottery ticket. And I haven't got anywhere near winning a prize yet.

ADDENDUM: Often, I imagine scenarios involving a near-perfect match between my 67 markers and those of another male, somewhere on the planet. The ideal scenario would involve an auburn-haired Frenchman named, say, Jacques Beaumont, living today in Normandy, who would go on to tell me, once we got into contact, that his family had a distant ancestor who went to England at the time of William the Conqueror. I would then be in a position to assume that the ancestor in question was no doubt the fellow who settled down in the Saxon village of Sceaftinga-tûn in the county that became known as Leicestershire. But there are countless other less perfect scenarios (where my use of the adjective "perfect" is deliberately tongue-in-cheekish). For example, once we move back to the 17th century, I no longer have any reasons to believe naively that all my direct male ancestors were indeed bona fide Skivington husbands. When I was an adolescent, the Aussie slang expression "ring-in" designated a substitute, somebody brought into a family context, often on false pretences. (I don't know the origins of this expression.) If, in a family, one of the offspring behaved quite differently to the other siblings, the child might be labeled a ring-in, indicating that the true identity of his/her father was not entirely guaranteed. So, it's quite possible that one of my ancestors was a non-Skivington ring-in who had succeeded in jumping into bed with the current Mrs Skivington and procreating the ancestral line that finally produced me. And we might imagine that this ring-in had a brother who was a seaman working on an old sailing-ship that once ventured out, say, to Batavia (modern Jakarta). While the vessel was picking up spices, the seaman might have picked up a young local lady and got her pregnant. If that were the case, then we could well expect that an Indonesian gentleman, today, has exactly the same Y-chromosome markers as I do. Moreover, there are 16th-century males in Turvey (Bedfordshire) referred to as Robert husbandman Skevington and George husband Skevington. Funnily enough, the term "husbandman" doesn't necessarily designate the chap who was legally married to Mrs Skevington. Etymologically, a husband was a fellow who tilled the soil. So the above-mentioned Robert and George might have been plowmen who worked as agricultural laborers on the Skevington estates in Turvey. In that case, genealogically, they would be ring-ins. So, anything's possible… even with perfectly matching Y-chromosome marker values. To borrow the title of a funny French movie, it would have been nice if the existence of our ancestors had always been like a long and tranquil river.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Joint statement on Egypt from three European leaders

French president Nicolas Sarkozy, German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron have issued a joint statement on the situation in Egypt:

We are deeply concerned about the events that we are witnessing in Egypt. We recognize the moderating role President Mubarak has played over many years in the Middle East. We now urge him to show the same moderation in addressing the current situation in Egypt.

We call on President Mubarak to avoid at all costs the use of violence against unarmed civilians, and on the demonstrators to exercise their rights peacefully.

It is essential that the further political, economic and social reforms President Mubarak has promised are implemented fully and quickly and meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.
There must be full respect for human rights and democratic freedoms, including freedom of expression and communication, including use of telephones and the internet, and the right of peaceful assembly.

The Egyptian people have legitimate grievances and a longing for a just and better future. We urge President Mubarak to embark on a process of transformation which should be reflected in a broad-based government and in free and fair elections.

Meanwhile, ten minutes ago, a tweet from Al Jazeera producer Evan Hill informed us that their service has just been shut down in Egypt. This is disappointing news, because they've been doing a fine job.

In France, we nevertheless have a terse but excellent real-time blog from Le Monde.

Its messages are accompanied by an intriguing short sound intended to represent the noise of a ticker-tape machine.

BREAKING NEWS [Sunday morning 10.30 France]: Contrary to Evan Hill's tweet, Al Jazeera is still getting through to us.

[Sunday 14.07 France]: No, the end of Al Jazeera live coverage from Cairo has been confirmed by their on-the-spot journalist Evan Hill in an audio message. They've packed up their stuff and moved to a secret location.

Bird magic

The gist of an article in the latest issue of Wired Science is so utterly amazing that it's hard to imagine that the phenomenon in question could take place as described… in the everyday world of birds.

The starting point is a familiar question: How does a tiny bird such as the European robin find its way down to Africa?

The basic answer—as we've known for several decades—is that the bird is capable of detecting the direction of the Earth's magnetic field lines. More precisely, a bird's eye contains optical cells that react to the local magnetic field in such a way as to provide the tiny creature with a kind of black-and-white picture of the field lines, which it uses as a map or, rather, as a compass. OK, fair enough. In "explaining" things in that fashion, we're merely using ordinary words to describe our observations in a common-sense style. To put it even more succinctly, the robin can apparently "see" the imaginary lines that represent the geomagnetic field. But the big question that remains unanswered is: How can a bird's eye actually "see" a magnetic field line? Well, we humans can see the direction of light rays entering a room, say, through a partly-opened window. So, maybe birds detect the direction of geomagnetic "rays" in much the same way that we react to the presence of light. OK, but how do they actually do this?

It's a recently-proposed answer to that question that takes us into a magical domain of physics that was designated by Albert Einstein (who discovered this phenomenon) as "spooky action at a distance". Today, this mysterious phenomenon, which defies common sense, is known as quantum entanglement. It's such a weird affair that it can't really be apprehended directly… unless you happen to be a European robin bound for Africa. For humans, the only way of coming to grips with this concept is through advanced mathematics. But let me nevertheless propose a kind of fuzzy analogy of the situation. This analogy is in no way rigorous, nor even correct (in fact, it's totally wrong and absurd), but it has the merit of highlighting the weirdness of entanglement.

Suppose you own a pair of twin cats, which are hungry, as indicated by their constant meowing. So, they're waiting for you to feed them.

But they happen to be shut up in adjacent rooms of your house. Now, you're in one room, with one of the cats, but you know that the second cat is located in the adjacent room, because you can hear the meows of both animals. You give the first animal a bowl of cat food, which it gulps down immediately. Now, I should have pointed out that the two cats in my example are not only twins; they're also quantum entangled… whatever that might mean. So, when you open the door in order to step into the adjacent room in order to feed the second cat, you discover with amazement (unless, of course, you've become blasé about quantum phenomena) that the second cat is no longer meowing. What's more, you find that this second cat has apparently had its hunger satisfied by the food you just gave to the first cat! I warned you: quantum entanglement is crazy stuff… so there's no point in trying to "grasp" what might be happening.

Let's get back to the robin's eye, which contains a protein named cryptochrome. In a typical molecule of cryptochrome, pairs of electrons exist in a state of quantum entanglement. When a photon of light hits a pair of entangled electrons in a cryptochrome molecule, the photon's energy affects both particles simultaneously, but one of the entangled electrons gets knocked a tiny distance away from its initial position. In this new position of the second electron, the geomagnetic field line is oriented in a slightly different way to what it is in the case of the first electron. And the bird's eye uses this infinitesimal difference—along with data of the same kind from countless neighboring pairs of entangled electrons being hit similarly by photons—to build up its map of the Earth's magnetic field. Straightforward, no?

Now, if there's anything that's not quite clear in my explanations, please let me know, and I'll do my best to enlighten you. But try to make your questions as precise as possible. Use mathematics, if you like...

Hey. Whatever happened to that lovely little European robin that alighted here just a moment ago? Jeez, I fear it has got eaten (simultaneously) by my pair of entangled cats!


[of an intentionally lighthearted nature, unlike most of what I've just been saying]

QUESTION (to make sure you've been following me): What's the difference between a European robin?

You ask me: Between a European robin... and what? I'm sorry, there's no "and what" at the end of my question, which I'll repeat once again: What's the difference between a European robin?

ANSWER: There is, in fact, no difference whatsoever between a European robin. It has two legs, which are of exactly the same length. Particularly the left leg.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

New structure for leaked information

A new structure named OpenLeaks—with a similar vocation to that of WikiLeaks—is about to go into action. Its creator, German-born Daniel Domscheit-Berg, used to be the right-hand man of Julian Assange, but their ways have parted, apparently for both personal and strategic reasons.

The following little amateur video provides a few basic explanations of the future OpenLeaks approach, in which a clear separation will be made between input information received by the organization, and the processed information that they finally disseminate.

A rudimentary form of their website exists already, but the organization is not really operational yet.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A revolution is taking place in Egypt

NOTE: The following blog post extends in real time over a period of 4 hours. When I started to jot down my impressions, I didn't intend that this should be the case, but events in Egypt just kept on evolving.

At the present moment, it's 3 o'clock in the afternoon in France, and I'm watching (on my computer screen) an amazing Al Jazeera English-language live stream. The following screen shot shows protesters throwing rocks at an armored vehicle and forcing it to retreat.

[Click the image to link to the Al Jazeera live stream]

Video sequences shot in real time show blood dripping onto the macadam from wounded protesters, while others faint from the effects of tear gas and have to be carried away by comrades. The words of Al Jazeera journalists are solemn, almost calm, but dramatic and profound. We are watching historic images. Whatever happens by the end of the day, Egypt will never be the same again. In the vicinity of the 6th October Bridge in central Cairo, there is absolute chaos.

A journalist said: Some revolutions are leaderless. This one is being fueled by pure people power. The momentum is now with the protesters. The revolution certainly appears to be taking place…

In Suez, armored vehicles seem to be veering madly through the crowds. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has brought in live comments from Tunisians, who are terribly proud to see that their revolution is being imported into the neighboring nation.

The Al Jazeera news coverage is being carried out in a marvelously professional and informative style. Since early this morning, we've been hearing that the Egyptian authorities have blocked the Internet. An amazing aspect of the present coverage is the fact that the live streaming from Al Jazeera nevertheless gets through perfectly, enabling us to see it by means of a web browser. It's as if dictators can no longer succeed in blocking the flow of information by means of their antiquated tricks. I find this observation terribly reassuring.

BREAKING NEWS: We've just been watching amazing images of rioters ceasing their actions for brief evening prayers. At the same time, the police stopped firing their tear gas. In 20 minutes, it will be 6 o'clock at Cairo, and an official curfew has been set. Will it be respected by the protesters? That is the big question...

Here's a Cairo image at 5 minutes away from curfew:

State police entered the building 10 minutes ago, but the cameras are still functioning. Meanwhile, Egyptian state media have just announced that Mubarak has ordered the army onto the streets, to help imposing the curfew.

The curfew started a minute ago, and the rioters are still on the streets. Rioters have set fire to a big truck on the 6th October Bridge that carries either police or troops, and they're trying to rock it over so that it falls into the Nile. A rioter is on top of the vehicle, dancing. It's totally surrealistic!

Al Jazeera is doing a fabulous job. Normally, Mubarak plans to speak to the nation in a short time. What will he announce?

We've just seen videos from Alexandria. Meanwhile, the troop carrier on the bridge in Cairo is on flames, and the rioters are still trying to topple it over into the Nile.

It's 5 minutes away from 7 o'clock in Egypt, and Mubarak has not yet appeared to speak to his people. Meanwhile, the headquarters of his political party in Cairo are in flames, and we can hear the explosions of heavy ammunition.

Observers are alarmed by the proximity of Egypt's great museum. The final evening prayers have just ended. The city is engulfed in black smoke, and there are no longer any signs of police.

Hillary Clinton, head of the US Department of State, has just intervened in real time, urging the Egyptian government and the protesters to calm down. It's now 7.15 pm in Egypt, and the army has just arrived calmly in Alexandria, where they were greeted favorably by onlookers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Greek rissoles back in Sydney

When I was a young man in Sydney in the late '50s and early '60s (working with IBM), I often used to eat in a nondescript but charming restaurant called The Greeks, on the first floor of an old building not far from Central Station. Most of the clients were of Greek origins, along with a good smattering of young workers and university students. The atmosphere was unsophisticated and friendly, and the food was simple and excellent. Besides, it wasn't expensive. I always ordered the same dish: rissoles. They were unlike any of the beef rissoles I had ever tasted before then. Since then, I've never forgotten those delicious evening meals at The Greeks in Sydney, and I've often wondered what made their rissoles taste so special, so exotic.

Half a century later, thanks to the Internet, I've finally found several convincing answers to that question. First, I must point out that I'm no longer certain that the meat in those marvelous rissoles was in fact beef. It's quite possible that it was ground lamb, which would have been perfectly feasible in Australia (and in Greece, for that matter). Recently, I thought about testing that speculation, but I was discouraged by the question of purchasing ground lamb at my local supermarket. Most of the time, their mincing machines handle beef. So, if you want some ground lamb, you first have to choose a boneless cut of lamb, which is quite expensive here in France, and then you have to purchase an equivalent quantity of beef to be ground, to "clean" the mincing machine by removing the lamb. That procedure irritated me. So, I decided to postpone my test of lamb.

I believe that the mysterious ingredients that made the Greek rissoles so delicious were simply onions, garlic, thyme, corn starch (to "glue" everything together), olive oil and… chopped Greek olives.

Using low-fat ground beef, I prepared such a mixture in my superb red Magimix food processor (chosen for me by my daughter), dumped it onto a wooden cutting board and sliced it up into square rissoles, each of which I sprinkled with breadcrumbs. I decided—rightly or wrongly, I can't say—to allow the rissoles to settle for a few days in the freezer before taking them out, letting them thaw and then cooking them slowly on my Cuisinart grill.

The result, served up with fried tomatoes and onions, leaves no doubts in my mind. I've rediscovered the exotic flavor of the Greek rissoles of my youth in Sydney.

The simple lesson I've learnt through this interesting cooking experiment is that you can add quite a few ingredients to pure ground beef in order to obtain a tasty dish. I guess I could have found this out years ago, but I'd never bothered to use a food processor to test such ideas. Thinking back to The Greeks, I'm wondering what kind of device they used in their kitchen instead of an electric food processor. Maybe an old-fashioned meat grinder.

Meanwhile, in the ground beef domain, I've been amazed by a current news story on US gastronomy. It would appear that people over there are accustomed to devouring strange fodder hidden behind dubious names. A well-known fast-food chain proposes a Mexican delicacy for tacos: a "meat filling" composed of "seasoned ground beef". [I won't mention the identity of this company, because there's apparently a trial in progress, and I have no right to seek to influence its outcome by suggesting that the restaurants have done anything wrong.] Well, somebody on the Internet has supplied a list of all the stuff in their "seasoned ground beef". It's edifying gastronomical reading. First and foremost, there's less than 35 percent beef. As for the other 65 percent of the meat-like mixture, here's a list of their ingredients:

— water
— isolated oat product
— salt
— chili pepper
— onion powder
— tomato powder
— oats (wheat)
— soy lecithin
— sugar
— spices
— maltodextrin
— soybean oil (anti-dusting agent)
— garlic powder
— autolyzed yeast extract
— citric acid
— caramel color
— cocoa powder (processed with alkali)
— silicon dioxide (anti-caking agent)
— yeast
— corn starch (
sodium phosphate
— less than 2% of beef broth
— potassium phosphate
— potassium lactate
— natural flavors (including smoke)

Now, that list rings a bell, in the sense that I too used dried aromatic spices and a bit of corn starch (unmodified). Is it possible that the above list might have been the true recipe of the delicious rissoles that I used to eat at The Greeks in Sydney? Be that as it may, I prefer to stick to my olive-based discovery. And, to my US friends, let me say: Bon appétit !

POST SCRIPTUM: I'm annoyed because I'm incapable of recalling what they served up at The Greeks to accompany their rissoles. It was something simple and tasty. Mashed potatoes? Some other kind of vegetables? Spaghetti? Rice? If anyone can help me...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Centenary of a computing giant

These days, we hear a lot about the achievements of Apple. I'm unlikely to complain about that, of course, because I've always been totally addicted to the products of Cupertino, from back at the time I wrote my first book about the Mac, in 1984, and even before then, at the pioneering epoch of the Apple II computer.

In the midst of all the talk about the marvelous creations of Steve Jobs, we must never forget, however, that the Big Daddy of computing has always remained a celebrated US corporation that made a name for itself by selling so-called "business machines" on an international scale.

In 2011, the company will be turning 100, which means that it was born in the same year as Tennessee Williams, Ronald Reagan and France's Georges Pompidou. I joined IBM in Sydney towards the end of 1957, and worked as a computer programmer using the Fortran language on a vacuum-tube machine called the IBM 650, whose central memory was housed on a revolving magnetically-coated drum.

The new IBM website designed to celebrate the centenary includes an interesting video on the second-generation transistorized computer that came next: the IBM 1401, seen here in an old marketing photo:

This was the machine I was programming (in a macro-assembler language called Autocoder) at the time I arrived in Paris, in 1962, and started to work at the European headquarters of IBM. Click the above photo to see the video concerning this machine, which shows various former IBMers of my generation.

These days, IBM has embarked upon a colossal computer challenge in the domain of artificial intelligence. Known as Watson (the name of the founder of IBM), this project aims to get a computer to perform better than human beings in the American TV game called Jeopardy! The system, based upon so-called massively-parallel probabilistic evidence-based architecture, incorporates a vast array of big boxes that have much the same external aspect as the units of an archaic IBM 1401… but you can be sure they do more things!

Click the photo to visit IBM's website on their fabulous Watson project.

AFTERTHOUGHT: It's good, in a way, that IBM has been somewhat out of the limelight for many years, compared to companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Google. That has enabled IBM to move ahead quietly and constantly in a field such as artificial intelligence without too much media interference. But this situation is likely to change in a spectacular fashion as soon as Watson starts to bare its teeth… which is exactly what's happening at this very moment. Personally, I would not hesitate for a moment in declaring that a project such as Watson represents one of the greatest human challenges of all time: the invention of a deus ex machina that seems to be approaching the spirit of the famous IBM slogan.

I used to dream about that challenge back in the early '70s, when I was making a series of documentaries on this subject in the USA, for French TV, and writing my book on artificial intelligence.

And I still do, today, more than ever… particularly since scholars such as and Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker have convinced me that we human beings are "merely" a special kind of machine, imbued with a strange property (not yet understood, of course) referred to as consciousness.

ANECDOTE: You might wonder why software engineers at Google and elsewhere have been scanning vast libraries of books of all kinds, and making them freely available to researchers. Are the corporations and engineers doing this because they want to offer more and more reading material, philanthropically, to old-timers such as you and me? Don't be naive! They're building those vast digital libraries for readers of a new kind: future generations of intelligent computers.

BREAKING NEWS: Stephen Wolfram, in his blog [display], seems to believe that IBM's Watson will win the forthcoming Jeopardy TV event. Moreover, he is encouraging IBM… even though their Watson is a competitor of his own approach: the so-called Wolfram-Alpha system.

Spartan logo

Some observers looked upon this logo (before it was animated) as one of the most ingenious graphic inventions ever invented. Apparently, some viewers fail to notice the head of a Spartan warrior.

Spartan Golf from Daniel Johnson on Vimeo.

The Flash animation is great, but maybe superfluous.

I don't know whether the logo is still up for sale, and what price the creators are asking. I'm amazed that no wealthy investor has got around to setting up a new golf club named Spartan, with a view to using this fine logo.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Railway of shame

People in France have known for decades that the French national railway system—called the SNCF—was implicated explicitly in the ignominious transportation of Jews from France to the Nazi death camps in Poland.

Today, the president of the SNCF, Guillaume Pepy, admitted publicly that his corporation had been "a cog in the Nazi extermination machine". He was speaking from the old station of Bobigny, on the outskirts of Paris, from which some 25,000 individuals were freighted away to the camps.

The SNCF has decided to donate its Bobigny real estate, including the old building, to the local municipality, to be transformed into some kind of Shoah memorial.

The Bobigny station lies just two kilometers away from the notorious transit camp of Drancy, where inmates tried desperately to lead an everyday existence while awaiting their deportation to places named Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, etc.

At the same that we recall the shameful behavior of SNCF authorities who once condoned the evil exploitation of their railroad resources, we must not forget that countless SNCF technical employees played a vital role in the Résistance through their sabotage operations.

French media have drawn attention to what might be construed as an insidious purpose behind this sudden SNCF apology. The company is making bids for gigantic railroad contracts in California and Florida, and US Jewish lobbies have expressed their opposition to hiring a company with Jewish blood on its hands. The SNCF president tackled such criticism by stating that the decision to transform the Bobigny station into a memorial was "not dictated by circumstances", but by his "convictions". We'll see how people in the USA react to all this.

Hilarious prank in Belgium

To appreciate this video (spoken in Flemish with excellent English subtitles), you'll need a few preliminary explanations. Four young fellows have decided to play an ingenious prank on a Belgian phone company named Mobistar, notorious for the poor quality of its call centers. The fellows rented an office container: that's to say, a fully-equipped mobile office that looks, from the outside, exactly like a shipping container. They painted their phone number on the outside of the container, and then got themselves delivered on the back of a truck to the suburban headquarters of Mobistar, where the container was placed in the middle of the road in such a way that it prevented Mobistar employees from getting into the parking lot. Then the four fellows waited. Meanwhile, friends in front of the Mobistar building filmed the huge traffic jam caused by the container.

Inside the office container, the phone soon started to ring. It was Mathieu, the Mobistar security officer, who imagined naively that he was in phone contact with the offices of a container company called Buro-Containers. Mathieu, of course, wanted the container company to come along immediately and remove their container from the Mobistar premises. But poor Mathieu receives robotic and moronic reactions of the same kind as those of the Mobistar call center.

Acquiring land and a brand

I have a short family-history article appearing in the forthcoming newsletter of the Clarence River Historical Society [website], located in Grafton (New South Wales), my birthplace in Australia. In this article, I mention my father's branding iron (which I now have with me here in France). As a former employee at the Ford dealership in Grafton, my father chose V8 as his registered stock brand.

Click the photo to download a copy of my article.

Free settlers in the Antipodes

Australia Day is an appropriate moment to commemorate my ancestral relative Thomas Rose [1749-1833] from Dorset. Aboard the Bellona, Thomas and his wife Jane Topp [1757-1827] were the first free settlers to arrive in New South Wales, on 15 January 1793. While not a direct ancestor of mine, Thomas was a close cousin of my ancestor Elizabeth Rose [1728-1774]. The Rose family came from the village of Sturminster Newton in Dorset. The following map indicates the location of this village with respect to Blandford Forum, the main town in this part of Dorset:

The following chart presents the family context of Thomas Rose:

Thomas's parents were married at Sturminster Newton. The four offspring were born and/or christened there, and Thomas and Jane were also married there. Here is the church of St Mary's at Sturminster Newton:

Let me turn now to my direct Skivington and Rose ancestors:

Elizabeth Rose, my 6-times-great-grandmother, was the eldest child in the Rose family.

Her father William Rose was christened in Sturminster Newton. Later, he moved to the nearby village of Okeford Fitzpaine where he married Repentance Ridout [1708-1774], and where their four offspring were christened. In the map near the top of this article, other neighboring villages associated with my Skivington ancestors are highlighted: Belchalwell, Shillingstone and Iwerne Courtney.

Comparing the two Rose charts, I would imagine that the respective grandfathers of the Antipodean settler Thomas Rose and my ancestor Elizabeth Rose—that's to say, the elder Christopher Rose and James Rose—were brothers in Sturminster Newton. In one branch of the family, an audacious grandson, Thomas, decided to leave for Australia in 1793. In the other branch, a granddaughter, Elizabeth, stayed in Dorset and married a local fellow named Charles Skivington [1728-1778].

Over a century later, one of their descendants—my grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985]—would venture out to Australia. After becoming interested in genealogy, I discovered (through the Internet) that we Skyvingtons had an 18th-century ancestor named Elizabeth Rose. More recently, I heard about Elizabeth's second cousin Thomas during an excursion to Blandford Forum in August 2007, described in my article entitled Dorset ancestral anecdotes [display].

The name Sturminster means "monastic church (minster) on the River Stour", while Newton means "new town". There's a beautiful old stone bridge over the Stour at this place.

An ancient sign on the bridge warns that vandals found "injuring" the bridge might be transported.

So, out in New South Wales, Thomas Rose could have run into former adolescent friends from Sturminster Newton who had traveled there in rather different circumstances to those of the free settlers.

Today, I'm tempted to compare the quiet and beautiful environment of England's West Country with the somewhat dramatic lifestyle in Australia… expressed famously by Dorothea Mackellar [1885-1968].

She was a romantically-minded lass… but I haven't always shared her enthusiasm for the Down Under landscapes, climate and meteorology.

I often wonder which of the Rose cousins got "the better deal": those who left for the exotic Antipodes, like Thomas, or those who stayed in the traditional Old World, like Elizabeth. My personal reaction to that interesting question is betrayed by my current address…

There's another intriguing anecdote, in a quite different context, concerning my discovery of ancestors named Rose. In Israel, in 1989, I visited the splendid Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in the Holy City, near the Knesset, funded by a US philanthropist.

After this memorable visit, I had imagined that Rose was surely a Jewish surname. I discovered much later that the full name of the famous showman Billy Rose [1899-1966] was in fact William Rosenberg. Meanwhile, I had started to write my Israeli novel, which would finally become All the Earth is Mine (published as an iBook).

The hero of my novel is an Australian-born engineer, resembling myself in certain ways. Since he was Jewish (which is not my case), and since his professional and human destiny would coincide with that of the modern state of Israel, I thought of the above-mentioned Jerusalem benefactor and decided to name my hero Jacob Rose. He would arrive in the Holy Land and perform various engineering miracles there. So, I liked the expression "Jacob Rose in Israel", which evoked the Biblical-sounding declaration: "Jacob arose in Israel". Later, having completed my tale of Jacob Rose, I was surprised to learn that I actually had ancestors named Rose. But all this is purely anecdotal and coincidental, and I'm not suggesting that my fictional character has anything in common with my English Rose ancestors.

Today, I'm thrilled and proud, of course, to realize that a member of my ancestral Dorset family named Rose was the first free settler in the land that would become Australia. I was equally enthusiastic about having my fictional Australian alter-ego named Jacob Rose settle in Israel. Between genealogical facts and imaginative fiction, the differences are of little significance. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose (Gertude Stein). And by any other name would smell as sweet (William Shakespeare). That's how I see this celebration of our past and present: Australia Day.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hail Mary, full of grave accusations

Now that all the saintly celebrations have ended, and the papal partying has subsided in Sydney and the suburbs, I think it's time to draw attention to an amazing aspect of the case of our sunburnt made-in-Down-Under Southern Cross saint Mary MacKillop [1842-1909].

I don't know whether or not Benedict XVI did this intentionally, but our illustrious Aussie Saint Mary might be thought of as the patron saint of Catholic sex-crime victims. To obtain the details of her celebrated actions in this domain, click the above image.

Once you're in contact with the highly-documented but low-profile website named Broken Rites Australia, search around for the story, say, of a nice Aussie priest named Rex Brown. In fact, Father Rex is one of many, far too many. Click around in the What's new domain of Broken Rites. It's enlightening but frightening…

Korean fireworks

Curiously, I haven't noticed much in the media about a spectacular and successful operation that has just been carried out by South Korea against Somalian pirates. A week ago, the 11,500-tonne Samho Jewelry was transporting chemicals from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka when it was hijacked between Oman and India. Aboard, the hostages consisted of 8 South Koreans, 2 Indonesians and 11 Burmese.

Over the last week, the South Korean destroyer Choi Young has been stalking the stolen vessel, 24 hours a day, and disturbing the 13 pirates aboard by flying periodically a helicopter over their heads.

Finally, South Korean commandos from the destroyer moved in rapidly and boarded the Samho Jewelry, as seen in this amazing photo:

They killed 8 Somalian pirates, captured 5, and liberated the crew.

By chance, an expert report about piracy on the high seas was being presented this morning to the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon by one of our favorite and most brilliant French Socialist statesmen, Jack Lang, who's an experienced producer of all kinds of theatrical events. OK, Jack, tell us: This perfect timing cannot possibly be coincidental. How did you organize things so that the performance took place exactly at the right moment, and with the right results?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Limelight, lucre and lust

I'm thinking of a weird winter that started 48 years ago, in December 1962, in London. I was 22 years old, and a confirmed computer programmer who had just spent seven wonderful months working in the heart of Paris, a few hundred meters away from the Elysées Palace in which Charles de Gaulle had been cogitating upon the Algerian problem. As a well-paid employee of the European headquarters of IBM, I had ended up imagining that I wasn't learning much French (because everybody at IBM spoke English), and I thought it might be fun to spend some time in the UK.

That harsh winter of 1962/1963 was a meteorological shocker, but it soon merged into a shocking spring, symbolized by the famous photo of the notorious call-girl Christine Keeler astride a contemporary chair. That was the sexy espionage season of the Profumo Affair.

This evening, I watched a TV documentary about the rich sex life of John Kennedy [1917-1963]. If I understand correctly, his treatment for Addison's Disease involved the absorption of pharmaceutical products that made him as randy as a billy goat. JFK appears to have been obsessed with screwing any cute cunt that appeared upon the presidential horizon, irrespective of the political affiliations of the possessor of the tempting vagina in question. The most famous Kennedy female was, of course, Marilyn Monroe… whose death remains most mysterious.

Before Marilyn, there were spectacular Kennedy conquests named Mariella Novotny, Suzy Chang and, above all, the posh German prostitute Ellen Rometsch, who appears to have opened willingly her thighs for diplomatic intrusions from both the East and the West.

Today, it's ludicrous to discover that remnants of the Kennedy clan have succeeded in blocking the broadcasting of a TV mini-series called The Kennedys.

Admittedly, it's a page that's hard to turn in modern US history (like many others). A heavy page weighed down by filthy American limelight, lucre and lust.