Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How have I been able to walk, drive and climb stairs?

Two months ago, my left leg was pinned to the ground by a branch of a felled walnut tree that I was cutting up with a chainsaw. A few weeks ago, I included in my blog a photo taken by my doctor [display]. I seem to have recovered well and rapidly. However, a month ago, during my first and only medical consultation since the accident, my general practitioner Xavier Limouzin decided that I should obtain further images of my knee (ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging) to make sure that everything was OK. A few weeks ago, the ultrasound image confirmed what the initial X-ray photos had suggested: namely, that there was no fracture anywhere and no thrombosis. Well, this morning, at the hospital in Romans, I was most surprised to learn what MR images revealed.

I've just taken this photo of my legs. I'm still attired as I was for the MRI session: shorts and sandals. Well, although these two rather ordinary knees appear to be fairly similar, there's a big difference. The left knee has in fact been fractured, without my realizing it, for the last two months. (I'll be interested to learn why the X-rays didn't reveal this fracture.) To demonstrate what he was telling me, the friendly specialist at Romans clasped my left kneecap between his fingers and said: "I'm squeezing my fingers at the place where your knee was broken. That's probably painful. No?" I had to tell him that I didn't feel a thing. Maybe I'm becoming an insensitive zombie. I asked him what I should do, to stimulate the healing process. He replied: "Lots of rest. No hard work. Keep off your knees. There's nothing better than long hours stretched out on a sofa watching TV."

While at the hospital, I thought that I might return the brand-new blue splint they had given me on the day of my accident. It's much the same form as the leg-protection worn by cricketers. I only wore this splice on the first night, then never again. So, I imagined that I would be acting as a good citizen in returning it to the hospital. Since the MRI unit is located just alongside the emergency ward, I walked in through the landing where ambulances pull up, and promptly found myself in exactly the same hall where I had waited for treatment two months ago. The staff were handling a fellow whom local firemen had just wheeled in on a trolley, parked just alongside me. It took me a few minutes to realize that the middle-aged fellow, wrapped in a white sheet from which his head and bare feet protruded, and lying limply on his left side, was in fact dead. I was fascinated to realize (for the first time in my life) that the behavior, speech and attitudes of professional people dealing with a corpse are quite unlike situations in which the patient is still alive. Several tiny details (such as the fact, for example, that nobody seemed to be concerned that the fellow's face was pressed hard against the metallic edge of the trolley) sent out messages indicating that the patient was no longer alive. Meanwhile, a secretary informed me that I could hang on to my splint, since they did not seek to recuperate such items. I was happy to jump into my car and drive home.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Jesus walked on the waters of Irene

I can't help loving Americans. [And I promise not to use a single swear-word in this blog post.] They're innocent childlike observers of the calamities of the universe, and they're especially skilled in Biblical stories concerning the Deluge. Jesus Christ is constantly just around the corner. Often, a delightful word seems to describe adequately the attitudes of certain descendants of the Founding Fathers: dumbfounded.

The journalist Jojo deserves deserves some kind of prize for perseverance. He should be sent off immediately to a front-line war zone in Libya. I have a gut feeling that Jojo would rapidly unearth Gaddafi, because Jojo wouldn't be deterred by side-effects and noise. Outstanding US media professionals like Jojo tend to talk well in front of a microphone, but we may not necessarily learn much from what they're saying.
Back to the studio for further last-minute news…

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Diligent Socialist

To be perfectly honest, I haven't yet actually paid my fees to become a genuine member of the Parti Socialiste, but this will no doubt happen one of these days. Meanwhile, I follow with enthusiasm their activities. Here's a portrait of my preferred presidential candidate, François Hollande.

Intent upon behaving in a politically-correct manner, I invite my readers to click the portrait of my candidate, enabling them to hear and appreciate our party's new hymn, entitled Il est temps (It's time). I'm sorry that I don't seem to be able to offer you a more attractive video version of this rousing anthem, with dancing Socialist girls and guys and all that kind of nice stuff. Meanwhile, I trust that everybody realizes—if ever there were any doubts on this question—that I'm a normal diligent Socialist.

BREAKING NEWS: The Socialist "summer university" has just ended at La Rochelle, on the French Atlantic coast.

As the curtain came down on their convention, the candidates for the forthcoming presidential primary clapped their hands and sung with joy... in unison, of course. Ah, what a pity I wasn't there!

That's what great about being a Socialist in France. It's almost as much fun as being a Boy Scout or a Girl Guide, or a merry member of a Catholic youth movement.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Empty station and an old song

Once upon a time, when I dropped in to Grand Central Station to see what it looked like, I recall that it wasn't quite as empty as today.

When I was a kid in South Grafton, I heard the Weavers' version of Goodnight Irene on the radio, and I used to thump out my personal rendition on my grandmother's piano. This evening—a strange Saturday night in New York—imagine Johnny Cash singing this nice old song in the emptiness of the Manhattan subway.

To be quite honest, I'm starting to get a bit bored by all this talk about the US tornado. I can't help wondering whether it might not be a bit of overkill. We'll see…

BREAKING NEWS: This frightening video reveals the fury of Hurricane Irene as it hit the shores of North Carolina:

Further up the seaboard, ordinary citizens and businesses made preparations for the arrival of the hurricane.

Photographers attempted vainly to obtain images of the hurricane.

Meanwhile, countless hundreds of thousands of Americans prayed...

Ultimate science book

In my recent blog post entitled Wonders of the world [display], I evoked the 58-year-old Israeli-born Oxford scientist David Deutsch.

Deutsch has presented several excellent TED talks, which can be found by means of the Google argument "david deutsch ted". Well, his latest book, The Beginning of Infinity, has just been published.

The first book from Deutsch since 1997, it's a precious event. I only received my copy a few days ago, and I've started to read it slowly, savoring each page, seated under a giant linden tree, looking out over the sunny valley, with my dogs lounging on the grass alongside my deck chair. While weighing my words, but without having had enough time to step back and reflect upon this claim, I'm already starting to wonder whether Deutsch might have possibly written the ultimate science book… at least up until somebody produces a challenger.

Deutsch—whose specialty is the quantum theory of computing—has a dazzling capacity to look out upon the world, detect the presence of a small number of fundamental principles, and then employ these principles to explain to us what our existence is all about. The verb "explain" is basic in Deutsch's approach. Besides, the subtitle of this masterpiece is Explanations that Transform the World.

The themes of The Fabric of Reality remain intact. The essential approach is still based upon the four celebrated strands represented by Karl Popper, Hugh Everett, Alan Turing and Richard Dawkins. Deutsch still hits back constantly, fiercely and profoundly at the infamous words of Stephen Hawking (1995 interview): "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies." And Deutsch's readers are certainly not invited, in the bibliographies of the two books, to read anything from Hawking. Incidentally, I agree entirely. The otherwise brilliant theoretical scientist Stephen Hawking has never been what I think of as a significant general-science author. In Deutsch's latest book, the Hawkings statement is referred to as the Principle of Mediocrity: There is nothing significant about humans.

Deutsch evokes the so-called Spaceship Earth phenomenon, which is a reflection of popular current ecological and environmental thinking and actions: The biosphere is a limited life-support system for humans. When confronted simultaneously with Hawking's "chemical scum" allusion ("We're less than nothing") and the Spaceship Earth metaphor ("The planet Earth is the only way out"), what the hell can we do? With our trash boarding passes, should we nevertheless try to scramble aboard the Spaceship Earth?

Hold on a moment. There's a reassuring surprise. David Deutsch explains that these two syndromes—"chemical scum" and "Spaceship Earth"—are both demonstrably false. Instead of trying to navigate between the Scylla of scum and the Charybdis of the Earth's limited resources, Deutsch's book offers us—as it were—an extraordinarily positive way out of this enigma. There's a new kid on the street: knowledge. Through knowledge, we are anything but scum, for we humans can indeed imagine the universe, almost as if we had created it. And through this same knowledge, we do not have to depend exclusively upon the poor little planet Earth, for we can think our way to the stars. In a nutshell: knowledge is the beginning of infinity.

Needless to say, in my humble blog, I can only scratch the surface of Deutsch's exciting and beautifully-written book. For the moment, I find it too early to say whether or not this is indeed the ultimate science book. Let's say that I've short-listed it as a most likely candidate.

POST SCRIPTUM: In a recent blog post entitled Happiness is a great science book [display], I evoked the latest book by Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality, in which the famous string theoretician embraced massively the multiverse theme, so dear to Deutsch. In fact, I was a little overwhelmed by the highly speculative nature of Greene's otherwise excellent book. Without claiming to understand the subject at a mathematical level, I have the impression that all the string-theory stuff remains, for the moment, totally hypothetical… and that it might not even be good science in the Popperian sense. In any case, I was intrigued to discover that Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity makes no mention whatsoever of strings. On the other hand, Deutsch's remarkably short bibliography includes Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine (certainly one of the most mind-boggling books I've ever read), the fabulous Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees, and a couple of well-known books by Douglas Hofstadter, not to mention Plato's Euthyphro and the Funeral Oration of Pericles. When I look upon this exotic bibliography, I have the nice impression that I'm browsing through the required credentials for becoming a member of a highly-exclusive club: the David Deutsch Society.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lovers lanes for an ex-husband

This true story, in yesterday's French press, is sad but strangely beautiful. Late on Monday evening in the city of Albi (south-west France), police came upon a 67-year-old man perched on a stool by the roadside, busily unscrewing a sign bearing the name of a nearby locality. When they got around to inspecting the fellow's house, the police found a room in which a hundred or so local road signs were neatly stacked.

The man told the police that, since his recent divorce, which had been a particularly painful event in his life, he had been vainly attempting to recover the romantic sensations of his married days by collecting all the road signs indicating places associated with that happy epoch of his life. And, whenever he came upon a signpost indicating such a place, he had got into the habit of unscrewing it and taking it back to his house as a souvenir of those happy days. Since his married life had been full of joyful events (at least from the husband's viewpoint), his collection of signs had become quite large.

The police informed the fellow that he would be charged with unlawfully removing public property, then they let him return home. Before the trial, he'll be receiving a summons to spend a few hours with a court-appointed psychiatrist. Indeed, the police suspect that the poor fellow is crazily in love (literally)… with his ex-wife, or with road signs, or maybe with both.

Elephants no longer "grand"

In my recent blog post entitled This Texan is a raving loony [display], I said I look upon Rick Perry as an idiot. Richard Dawkins has just reacted publicly to Perry's description of evolutionary science as "a theory that's out there" which has "got some gaps in it". The Dawkins response appeared on Tuesday in On Faith, the Washington Post's forum for news and opinion on religion and politics [display].

Dawkins starts out by declaring that the GOP nickname has become "ridiculous", because the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt can no longer be looked upon as "grand". Then, in a single devastating sentence, he explains the behavior of Republican voters:

Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.

I ended my above-mentioned blog post with a rhetorical question that has often intrigued me:

How is it possible that a great nation such as the USA, with its vast resources in the domain of scientific knowledge, can give birth to, and encourage the ascension of, a shitty gutter-level specimen of shallow stupidity such as Perry, who doesn't even know what's happening in his home-state schools?

Dawkins (whose writing style is more refined than mine) seems to be puzzled by this same kind of question:

The population of the United States is more than 300 million and it includes some of the best and brightest that the human species has to offer, probably more so than any other country in the world. There is surely something wrong with a system for choosing a leader when, given a pool of such talent and a process that occupies more than a year and consumes billions of dollars, what rises to the top of the heap is George W Bush. Or when the likes of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can be mentioned as even remote possibilities.

It's interesting to note that Dawkins blames this situation on the Republican "system for choosing a leader". I wonder what kind of alternative system of choice would get the Republicans more credible (less stupid) leaders.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wonders of the world

Humans have always liked to draw up lists of the most marvelous things in the world. In Hellenistic times, a famous list of this kind contained seven items, including public gardens (Babylon), a lighthouse (Rhodes) and a tomb (Halicarnassus).

From this assortment of world wonders, the only one that still exists is the pyramid of Giza.

Meanwhile, even this marvel has recently been depleted of much of its mystery thanks to the ingenious findings of an amateur archaeologist, the French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin, presented in my article entitled How did they do it? [display].

Periodically, people get excited about drawing up new lists of the world's wonders, often using Internet polls, but the outcome is generally of little interest, if not biased. For example, one such list, proposed by a Californian fellow named Matt Rosenberg, includes space exploration (which is a rather fuzzy wonder), the engineering phenomenon of telecom and the Internet (even fuzzier still), the tunnel under the sea between France and the UK, and the modern state of Israel (whose creation is said to be "nothing short of a miracle"). And I wouldn't be surprised if my Australian compatriots, asked to draw up a revised list of world wonders, were to include instinctively the Sydney Harbour Bridge and their opera house.

At the start of his 1997 masterpiece entitled The Fabric of Reality, which I presented briefly in a blog post of 2007 [display], the Oxfordian physicist David Deutsch included a dedication:
Dedicated to the memory of Karl Popper, Hugh Everett and Alan Turing, and to Richard Dawkins. This book takes their ideas seriously.
Richard Dawkins, alive and well, needs no introduction, at least not in my Antipodes blog, which celebrates constantly the insights and writings of this great Oxfordian intellectual. Concerning the other three, most people know that Karl Popper [1902-1994] was a Vienna-born philosopher, mentioned in my recent article entitled Voices from Vienna [display]. And Alan Turing [1912-1954] was, of course, the English mathematician who worked in the bunkers of Bletchley Park (Buckinghamshire) during the war years, designing primitive "computers" to crack Nazi codes.

But who's the third guy, Hugh Everett? Well, he died in 1982, at the age of 51. Today, his 48-year-old son Mark—singer, writer and performer with the band Eels—is no doubt better known than his father.

[Click the image for an article on Hugh Everett]

If Deutsch mentioned Everett Senior in his dedication, it's because this man introduced into science one of the weirdest ideas that a human brain has ever imagined, if not the weirdest idea: the existence of a multiverse. That's to say, the everyday universe to which we've grown accustomed could well be just one of very many coexisting universes.

Getting back to wonders of the world, I agree totally with David Deutsch that they number four, and that they can be represented respectively by the four individuals mentioned in his terse dedication. We are speaking here neither of natural marvels (such as the Great Barrier Reef) nor of spectacular worldly constructions (such as the Taj Mahal). Deutsch has indicated four stupendous intellectual creations, built by identifiable humans, which surpass infinitely the splendors of pyramids, palaces, temples, tombs, skyscrapers, etc. They are wonders of the world in the sense that (a) we might well wonder how humble human beings have acquired the wisdom to create such knowledge structures, and (b) the nature and consequences of these wonders leave us spellbound, as if we were gazing in awe upon the divine faces of angels. Except for Philistine observers who don't give a screw about anything, these four intellectual wonders of the world designated by Deutsch demand respect and admiration. To put it bluntly, we would seem (for the moment) to have no more profound sources of wonderment in the Cosmos.

And what in fact are they, these four Deutschian wonders of the world? Well, reduced to simple words, they don't necessarily sound all that marvelous and mind-boggling alongside the gardens of Babylon or even the dull foyer of the Sydney Opera House (which shocked me because of its charmless mediocrity, light years away from the splendor of the illustrious opera houses of Paris, Vienna and Venice, just to name a few, when my friend Ron Willard kindly invited me there in 2006).

• Let's start with the intellectual theme represented by Karl Popper. In a nutshell, this is the extraordinary observation that humble human scientists on our tiny planet Earth can in fact find explanations concerning the Cosmos. Before Popper, science was conceived as an affair of diligent workers in dull laboratories, analyzing the data revealed by Nature. Today, thanks to Popper, we realize that the great scientists have been starry-eyed creators, artists, poets, visionaries, quantum monks and madmen, who have nothing in common with docile laboratory employees. God was not a chartered accountant, a bank manager…

• Deutsch's second wonder of the world is the multiverse thing, which I've mentioned. Here, of course, from an understanding viewpoint, it's every man for himself. Personally, I had the good fortune of growing up in contact with 20th-century physics, so I've always had a vague idea of what was happening in domains labeled relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, etc. Frankly, I don't know to what extent the multiverse discourse might be fuzzily comprehensible, if at all, by a total novice in physics. In talking like that, I realize that I might be accused of intellectual elitism, but I can see no way of "sweetening" the hard facts of scientific knowledge.

• The third wonder of the world is closer to home: computing, symbolized by Alan Turing, the pioneer thinker on artificial intelligence. Now, if you happen to think that computing is basically a matter of shit stuff such as Microsoft Window and Facebook, then you're unlikely to understand immediately why the concept of digital computing (defined precisely through the metaphorical Turing Machine, described in my Machina Sapiens) might be imagined as a wonder of the world. Today, computer programming is synonymous with DNA coding. We now know that everything, including what we once thought of as our cherished "minds", is digital.

• Finally, the fourth and final wonder of the world is life, animal evolution, represented by dear old Charles Darwin and his living guardian angel Richard Dawkins. In a way, life is perhaps the easiest marvel to access, in the sense that few mysteries remain, apart from (a) how exactly it started, and (b) how it produced the strange epiphenomenon of consciousness… without which I wouldn't be here today, writing this blog post.

Things were hugely simpler back in the days when humanity could marvel at lighthouses, gardens, tombs, temples…

Monday, August 22, 2011

Contempt of court

No sooner had Nafissatou Diallo left the office of Manhattan District attorney Cyrus Vance, who revealed that he intended to dismiss charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, than the alleged victim's attorney Kenneth Thompson made a public speech:

"Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has denied the right of a woman to get justice in a rape case. He has not only turned his back on this innocent victim. But he has also turned his back on the forensic, medical and other physical evidence in this case."

In the USA, this kind of behavior on the part of a lawyer is tolerated. Admittedly, the alleged victim is a black woman, defended by a black lawyer, in a nation that still suffers from racial tensions, in spite of the presence of a black president. Terrible background visions of the slave trade are present eternally in the conscience of modern Americans.

Here in France, I would imagine (although I'm unskilled in law) that the outspoken behavior of a Kenneth Thomson would be stigmatized as an understandable but blatant case of contempt of court... which is, of course, a crime. Thomson's job should normally consist of defending his client, not of criticizing the laws of the land and the ways in which they are administered. He comes through as a hot-under-the-collar guy of a provocative nature who's prepared to try anything at all. Contemptible!

Dog days

Over the last few days, our region of south-east France has been beset by a heatwave. By the standards of my native Australia, it's probably not a particularly drastic heatwave. I just walked around to the back of the house, where there's a thermometer attached to a shaded wall, and it reads 36°. The Ancient Romans called this period of the year the "Dog Days", because the bright star Sirius (nicknamed the "Dog Star"), in the constellation of Canis Major, used to rise at the same time as the Sun. In French, a heatwave is referred to by the term canicule ("little dog"). And in English, we have Noel Coward.

My local doctor, Xavier Limouzin, advised me recently to consult a dermatologist in nearby Romans, and the lady told me, in a roundabout way, that I was behaving like an Englishman. Well, she didn't exactly say that. She informed me, most emphatically, that a fair-skinned individual such as me must never ever go out in the sun without a hat, otherwise I'm a likely candidate for skin cancer. So, I promptly bought myself two elegant Italian straw hats, and I've installed metal hat hooks on the kitchen wall alongside the door, so that I'm reminded to put on a hat whenever I step out of the house.

[Click to enlarge]

In fact, these hats are part of a general "survival campaign" that I instigated spontaneously at the time of my recent clash with the trunk of a walnut tree on the slopes of Gamone. Besides hats, a fundamental element of this campaign is optimal footwear, to replace such unsuitable things as thongs, sandals, boat shoes and old boots with lots of holes but no laces.

[Click to enlarge]

Those on the right are solid work boots, sold in the local rural hardware shops, for gardening and other outdoor operations. Those on the left (which I haven't even worn yet, since I bought them through the Internet and they only arrived here a couple of days ago) are specimens of the finest German-manufactured alpine boots that exist, and I plan to use them for hiking only.

By far the most annoying aspect of my new survival campaign is the iPhone, for the simple reason that nobody ever phones me through this device. So, I have to force myself to remember to carry it with me whenever I leave the house. I've hit upon the solution of these belt pouches, since I almost always wear a belt.

[Click to enlarge]

Now, getting back to the heatwave, let me say that my dogs don't seem to be bothered by the high temperatures, since there's a lot of shade under the linden trees, and there's invariably a slight breeze at Gamone.

[Click to enlarge]

Recently, I asked my neighbor René Uzel to use his mini-excavator to cut a wide path down from the house to the lower field of Gamone (in the direction of the Cournouze mountain).

[Click to enlarge]

For the moment, it's simply a dirt ramp, which terminates at the base of an apple tree. Later on, I'll think about whether I should install stone steps.

Naturally, in this heatwave weather, the doors of the house are often open, to let the breeze in. And, silently like a breeze, Fitzroy also likes to step inside and take a look around, even if this means climbing up my old wooden staircase.

Well, yesterday afternoon, whenever Fitzroy dropped in alongside my desk, I was intrigued to discover that he was engulfed in a warm soapy aura of fruity fragrance, as if he had just stepped out of the shower. In a way, that was exactly what had taken place. Down on the lawn, I discovered the chewed remnants of a plastic bottle that had once contained almond milk shampoo. I had let it drop on the floor of my shower, and had forgotten to pick it up and stick it on a ledge.

[Click to enlarge]

I don't know how exactly Fitzroy had dealt with the contents. Did he actually drink the shampoo? Or did he simply spill it on the grass and then roll in it? In any case, he sure smelt nice. His presence alongside my desk, on a hot afternoon, was refreshing.

POSTSCRIPT: On rereading this post, I'm amused to see that I purchased two hats, two pairs of boots, and two phone pouches. There's surely a reason why I've done things doubly...

Libyan liberation gift

If the following story (from the BBC) is true, it's wonderful.

This morning, freedom fighters storming into Tripoli made sure that the people of the city had Internet access. Besides, having taken over two state-controlled mobile phone companies, they gave every subscriber a credit of 50 Libyan dinars (roughly 30 euros).

People now consider that the possibility of communicating freely and efficiently has become a basic human right.

One day soon, instead of scattering pamphlets from airplanes flying over besieged territories, drones will drop mobile phones.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Operation Hotel Maid

The term "Mermaid" is used as a nickname for Tripoli. So, the offensive launched by Libyan freedom fighters last Saturday evening, aimed at moving into Tripoli, was designated as Operation Mermaid. Well, this evening, we have the impression that the next couple of days will be highly significant—in totally different ways, of course—both for Muammar al-Gaddafi and for Nafissatou Diallo.

One of my earliest blog posts on the DSK affair was entitled In the DSK drama, I smell a rat [display]. I got my metaphors wrong. What I really meant to say was that something was fishy.

About to surface...

BREAKING NEWS: Here in France, it's not yet 7 pm on Sunday evening, August 21, 2011. Various French media websites are talking already (prematurely?) about what Dominique Strauss-Kahn is likely to be doing within the next 24 hours. Meanwhile, the website of Le Parisien has just announced that Gaddafi has probably abandoned Tripoli, and that his spokesman Moussa Ibrahami has requested a ceasefire.

More arrows

My recent blog post entitled My paper on symbolic arrows [display] invited readers to download a paper in which I outlined my motivations as a collector of symbolic arrows.

New specimens come to light constantly. I found this fellow on the wall of my living room, in a corner of the document described in my recent blog post entitled Painted-canvas scroll from Mumbai [display]:

[Click to enlarge]

I call him DecaMan, and I reckon that he would be a great subject for comic books (if they still exist) and animation movies. To use his bow and arrow in a masterly fashion, DecaMan takes advantage of 10 autonomous heads and 10 pairs of arms and hands. Besides, DecaMan seems to be transported by a giant fishtailed dachshund. And there's a blue dog's head emerging from the top of DecaMan's normal set of human heads. A powerful well-armed fellow, indeed. I'm amused by the astounded expression of the little guy with a bow and arrow on the right-hand edge of the image. He seems to be saying, in terror: "What the fuck is that?"

And here's a simple but expert use of a pair of symbolic arrows on the cover of a book coauthored by the same man, Andy Thomson, whom I mentioned in my recent blog post entitled Eye of God [display].

Notice the arrow-heads formed beneath the outstretched arms of the lovely girl, whose slender booted legs evoke a pair of arrow shafts. [William: Stop!] I congratulate the graphic artist who produced this beautifully-eloquent sexy cover. I haven't read the book itself, but it's described as an ideal gift from concerned parents to a bipolar teenager.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The end is near… and it will be catastrophic

This dire prediction concerns the imminent end of the reign of madness of Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya.

The warning comes from a man who surely knows what he's talking about: Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council based in Benghazi.

Observers throughout the world are poised in anguish, waiting to see how the mad dog might react once he's truly cornered by his conquerors. It would be so nice if he were to go out with a whimper, but this is unlikely. Gaddafi has always displayed a scorched-earth mentality.

Ah, to be a glorious banker!

I was overcome emotionally by these spontaneous expressions of deep love towards Tan Sri Teh, the 81-year-old founder of a private bank in Malaysia, celebrating the bank's 45th birthday. The cherished old man, who is escorted into the arena in the style of a Roman emperor on a chariot, is described in an anthem as a "living legend" and a champion. This video is rather long (7.5 minutes), but I advise you to persevere to the end, to capture the mounting enthusiasm of the host of well-wishers.

Wicked European journalists described this charming gentleman and the glitzy happening as "megalomaniac" and "kitschissimo".

Thursday, August 18, 2011

This Texan is a raving loony

Rick Perry (who could well become the next US president) is an appallingly dumb guy, with a big mouth and a tiny intellect, who knows fuck-all about science.

We knew that already. What we didn't know, until this morning, is that this idiot has an amazingly fuzzy conception of what is currently being taught to school kids in his home state. In New Hampshire, a little boy asked Perry what he thought of evolution. Here's Perry's reaction: "It's a theory that's out there. It's got some gaps in it. In Texas, we teach both Creationism and evolution." Well, just about everything in Perry's reply happens to be disastrously off the mark—that's to say, wrong—in a way that blows up in his silly face.

• The first two sentences—about evolution being a theory with gaps in it—are so ridiculous that we need not waste time in demolishing them.

• Things become fascinating, on the other hand, when Perry asserts—off the top of his silly head—that Creationism is being taught in Texas. Everybody knows that, in educational environments, fundamentalist Creationism of the primitive Genesis kind went out of fashion long ago. It was replaced by a pseudo-scientific thing known as Intelligent Design. Genuine scientists repeat that Intelligent Design is nothing more than Creationism served up deceptively in a new sauce… and Perry's words to the schoolboy add weight to this accusation.

• Perry is totally wrong, however, when he attempts to make the boy believe that Texan schools propose textbooks that present an alternative to evolution, no matter whether it's called Creationism or Intelligent Design. The only teaching materials authorized in Texan schools today are based exclusively upon evolution.

How is it possible that a great nation such as the USA, with its vast resources in the domain of scientific knowledge, can give birth to, and encourage the ascension of, a shitty gutter-level specimen of shallow stupidity such as Perry, who doesn't even know what's happening in his home-state schools?

Eye of God

If God were a cyclopean creature, then his huge eye might look like this:

This artificially-colored NASA image of the Helix nebula combines photos taken from both the Hubble telescope and an observatory in Arizona. No sooner was it published by the NASA in 2003 than imaginative viewers labeled it the "Eye of God". What's more, certain believers claimed that the intense contemplation of this image could indeed give rise to miracles. So, with a bit of chance, the present blog post might cause the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk and—who knows?—the dead to rise! [Please send me feedback.]

Andy Thomson is a practicing psychiatrist in Virginia. With the help of a medical writer, Clare Aukofer, he has just brought out a "concise guide to the science of faith" entitled Why We Believe in God(s), which is less than a centimeter thick (144 pages, readable in an hour). And they've put a copy of the "Eye of God" on the cover. Besides, there's an enthusiastic foreward by an Englishman named Richard Dawkins. Clearly, these two fellows are on the same wavelength. Furthermore, they both write brilliantly.

It's amazing that so many novel ideas can be packed into such a small book, and expressed so convincingly. Thomson's basic thesis is that, since the dawn of humanity, gods have been made-made entities. Like music and, more recently, fast food. And it's often far from easy for ordinary humans to turn their back on their gods… just as it's hard, for many individuals, to resist the temptation of gorging oneself on hamburgers and sweets.

In this delightful little book, I was happy to discover Andy Thomson's constant evocations of the great Charles Darwin. Towards the end of his book, Thomson introduces the fascinating subject of mirror neurons, which have become a preoccupation of my old Australian friend Michael Arbib, a distinguished professor at the University of Southern California. I was most interested in Thomson's descriptions of fabulous neurochemical products—serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline, oxytocin and the endorphins—which seem to play a far more significant role in religious experiences than any of the alleged holy texts. Indeed, one has the impression that, accompanied by the appropriate neurochemical cocktail, even a phone directory could appear to be a sacred text of profound spirituality.

Let's suppose that you're the sort of run-of-the-mill believer who has grown up considering that God created the Cosmos and Mankind. And all you need to know now is: Who created God? If you happen to be in that kind of situation, then this is the book you need!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Working alone

At Gamone, every outside task that I'm called upon to perform must be done on my own. For example, I decided to move this old roof beam, which had been an acceptable rustic bench, up until it started to rot.

[Click to enlarge slightly]

If there were somebody here to help me, we would have picked up this rafter and carried it a few dozen meters to the place where I wanted to discard it. On my own, though, I had to be more imaginative. So, I used a pair of rollers, which made the task simple and effortless.

This is the spirit of my American hero Henry David Thoreau in his humble cabin (constructed by himself) in the woods of Massachusetts, alongside the lake Walden, whom I've already mentioned in this blog [display]. But don't get me wrong. I don't advocate living on one's own and being obliged to invent creative solutions to daily down-to-earth problems as an ideal lifestyle.

In the photo, notice the presence of an admirer of my ingeniousness.

French cat on the booze

This photo (tidied up slightly with Photoshop), from the archives of the French national library, is a hundred years old.

[Click to enlarge slightly]

Alcoholism has been a problem in France for a long time. In a pathetic case such as this, I would say that the cat's owners (if indeed it is owned by anyone at all) are just as much to blame as the cat, if not more. When you acquire a cat or a dog, the least thing is that you instill sound moral principles in the animal, and keep it away from hard liquor.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Religions are thriving… and so is atheism

For me, ever since my first stay at Tinos in August 1964 [see my French-language web page], I've always recalled today's Christian feast day through its name in Demotic Greek. They simply refer to this hallowed day as the 15th August (phonetically, to thekapende ahvgusto), as if no fitting words could be found to refer to the marvels that once took place at this date. Indeed, this feast day celebrates a totally crazy alleged happening. The mother of Jesus suddenly drifted up into the clouds, like a hot-air balloon, and disappeared forever. The terms used in English to designate this event are somewhat comical. The Roman church uses the word Assumption, as if believers are expected to assume that things happened as described. The Orthodox church uses the word Dormition, which sounds like an official term for "lights out" in a school dormitory.

Apparently, at Lourdes this morning, 30,000 pilgrims attended a mass celebrated conjointly by 200 priests. Last Saturday, at that same place, the theatrical director Robert Hossein staged a holy play, A Woman Named Mary, for an audience of 25,000.

In another corner of south-west France, the Dalai Lama has arrived in Toulouse for a three-day visit, and thousands of people have booked seats at his seminars on "the stages of meditation" and "the art of happiness".

In the USA, religion has been getting a lot of publicity these days through a disturbing clone of George W Bush: the Republican governor of Texas Rick Perry.

He's the loony who once isued an official proclamation summoning the citizens of his drought-ridden state to pray for rain. More recently, this same nincompoop—who could theoretically become the next US president—organized a prayer day intended to shepherd the American nation out of its financial crisis.

Islam, when it seeks to right wrongs, resorts to harsher methods than prayer. In the charming Provençal town of Miramas (which I visited, a year ago, with Christine), a devout Muslim wasn't happy with a 17-year-old member of his family who was not respecting the fast of Ramadan. So, the young fellow was thrashed and then tied up… until his screaming caused neighbors to call the police and fire brigade.

Now, the funny thing is that, behind these various religious manifestations, it's hard to imagine the presence and guiding force of a single god. On the surface, it would seem that every religious body on the planet must surely believe in the existence of its own unique god. And clearly, this situation is ridiculous.

The truth is considerably simpler: there are no gods whatsoever, not a single fucking god anywhere in the Cosmos! In other words, all the above-mentioned folk (to whom we must add Jews, Mormons, Pastafarians, etc) believe in magic stuff and fairytale things that simply do not exist. Today, every lucidly intelligent individual knows perfectly well that all religions are total bullshit!

Now, if you've got a spare moment, and you want to see what a hundred renowned intellectuals (from all walks of life) think about religions, I invite you to watch these two amazing and inspiring videos from the Richard Dawkins Foundation:

50 famous academics and scientists talk about god

another 50 renowned academics speaking about god

And here's a third collection of reactions:

similar video, from Canada, with lots of ordinary folk

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dog loves books

I like to be surrounded by all kinds of books, so that I can pick them up at random whenever I feel like reading something different. And I've always found that one of the most convenient places to store the books that surround me is on the bedroom floor. Well, my dog Fitzroy seems to share my tastes at this level.

Sophia's joints have become a little too old for climbing up the stairs to my bedroom, but Fitzroy seems to like this place, and he dashes up here whenever the doors are open. He's capable of taking a nap there in the middle of my books, without ever bumping into any of them. But, after a while, he feels that it's time for action. So, he'll suddenly jump up onto my knees, occupying all the available space between me and my computer. When this happens, my only solution is to lead him downstairs, where he's happy to romp around with Sophia on the lawn in front of the house. Then I close the doors, and get back up to my computer.

Gamone fish recipe

This recipe for cooking a fish is extremely simple, but you need to have a garden with herbs. The fish in question happens to be a common sea-bass, which I bought at the local supermarket.

The general idea is that you stuff and surround the fish with everything you can find in your herb garden: thyme, rosemary, chives, sage, fresh bay leaves, etc. Above it all, sprinkle a lot of freshly-ground pepper, dried oregano leaves and a bit of olive oil. Then you simply roast it slowly in a mildly-hot oven (180°), until it looks right. Once it was cooked, I removed the charred herbs and served up the fish with Ebly wheat rice, covered in parsley.

This simple style of cooking reminds me of memorable fish dinners, long ago, in outdoor restaurants on the Greek island of Tinos.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Redevelopment of Paris riverbanks

The 61-year-old Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, seems to be succeeding in persuading citizens of the City of Light (so-called, primarily, because of the intellectual force of the Enlightenment), including elected city councilors, to accept and encourage a vast project aimed at redeveloping 15 hectares of the Seine riverbanks.

He is the man behind the rent-a-bike project named Vélib.

Delanoë is also the man behind the summer transformation of the banks of the Seine into an urban "beach": the Paris Plages operation.

Let us examine the Paris/Seine riverbanks redevelopment project. The Seine flows from the east to the west through Paris.

In this map, you can see the two islands that constitute the heart of Paris. The bigger one is the Ile de la Cité (with the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris), and the smaller one is the Ile St-Louis. The Arc de Triomphe is indicated by the blue dot in the upper left-hand corner, the Louvre is located in the middle of the map, whereas the Eiffel Tower is located in the lower left-hand zone of the map at the place labeled Champ de Mars. With respect to the direction of the river, the upper part of the map designates the Right Bank region of the city, and the lower part, the Left Bank. The riverbanks redevelopment project concerns 9 sites, 4 of which (in green) are located on the Right Bank, and 5 (in red) on the Left Bank.

A basic goal of the redevelopment project consists of reducing the presence of automobiles inside Paris, and transforming this precious Seine waterfront territory (Unesco World Heritage site) into an attractive environment to be appreciated by pedestrians and cyclists. On 4.5 hectares (30% of the global area of the project), automobile presence will in fact be reduced to zero, while the flow of automobiles will be channeled and controlled stringently in the remaining zones covered by the project. Needless to say, various professional bodies in Paris are already starting to complain about problems likely to be encountered when trying to use a private motor vehicle in the city.

The project will not be terribly costly: a basic investment of 35 million euros followed by yearly operational costs of some 5 millions euros. By comparison, the budget of the Barangaroo development project in Sydney, covering an area that's 50% greater, is 6 billion Australian dollars, which is over a hundred times the cost of the Paris riverbanks redevelopment project. Admittedly, no skyscrapers will be built in the middle of Paris!

The Paris municipality launched the project a year ago, in July 2010, and this was followed by an intensive four-month period of public presentations, debates and workshops. In-depth studies were carried out during the first half of 2011, and a vast public inquiry into the project is under way at present. Actual work on the project will be carried out during the first half of 2012, during which time Paris will inevitably be transformed into a vast construction site. And the new facilities will be opened up to the general public in the course of the second half of next year. So, if you happened to be visiting London for the Olympic Games, you might even be able to drop across the Channel to take a peek at the new face of Paris/Seine. (Clearly, I'm an optimist.)

Retrospectively, we can say that the riverbanks of Paris were largely sacrificed to the goddess Automobile during the presidency of Georges Pompidou, from June 1969 to April 1974. This gentleman from Auvergne—a former Rothschild banker—used to get around in a Porsche. I remember running into him in 1969, out in the village of Houdan, to the west of Paris, where Christine and I had rented a farmhouse. Pompidou, who had a property in nearby Orvilliers, was buying his weekend stock of cigarettes.

At that time, the French people in general were enchanted by automobiles, and they liked the idea of driving into the heart of Paris along a two-lane riverside highway.

It wasn't until much later, when environmental issues came to the forefront, that people started to think that maybe there were better things to do with a lovely river such as the Seine, on its way through a magnificent city such as Paris, than to cover its banks in macadam and transform them into an urban autoroute.

But the damage had been done. So, today, it's a matter of seeing whether it can be undone.

Since it's not yet easy to obtain English-language information concerning the Paris/Seine riverbanks redevelopment project, I thought it might be worthwhile if I were to devote the rest of this blog post to a kind of virtual visit of what we might discover in Paris in a year or so's time. So, let's imagine that we've come from Normandy or Brittany, and that we're driving into Paris from the west, along Pompidou's right-bank highway. I propose that we stick to the Right Bank, and that we visit the four sites numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the above map of Paris. Then we'll leave the Right Bank, cross over the eastern tip of the Ile St-Louis and drive back along the Left Bank, visiting the sites numbered 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. So, let's go! Incidentally, all the architects' images that you are about to see can be enlarged by clicking.

We're traveling on the Right Bank to the east, in the same direction as the white automobile. So, this first image points back to where we came from. We've already driven past the Eiffel Tower, located on the Left Bank, which can be seen in the background on the other side of the Seine. As of next year, if we stop here [site n° 1 on the map], we'll have access to several great museums, including the new modern-art space that will be opened in the Palais de Tokyo. The pedestrian Debilly Footbridge, built over a century ago, enables us to walk across to the Left Bank.

On the Left Bank, we can visit the recently-inaugurated museum of the Quai Branly, dear to the heart of former French president Jacques Chirac, concerning the civilizations of Africa, Asia and Oceania (including our Australian Aborigines). But let us return to the Right Bank and continue our journey towards the center of Paris.

Here [site n° 2 on the map], we are within walking distance of the world's most illustrious museum: the Louvre. But we only have to stroll across the Seine to meeet up with the Orsay Museum of painting and sculpture from the period 1848-1914. Let us continue eastwards.

At the level of the Paris city hall, the Hôtel de Ville [site n° 3 on the map], we encounter a couple of joyful barges, the first of which is designed for kids, while the second is a floating bistrot.

We move towards the final Right Bank redevelopment zone, which is in fact a riverboat station, named Célestins [site n° 4 on the map].

At that point, we cross over the Seine to the Left Bank, and head back in a westerly direction.

At the level of the Orsay Museum [site n° 5 on the map], we encounter what might be thought of as the spiritual center of the Paris/Seine riverbanks redevelopment project. Materially, it is a giant aerial staircase descending towards the sacred river. The architects label it a place of meditation… whereas the wary mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, has the pragmatic courage to admit that we still do not know if such a fabulous structure can indeed be built! Let's hope that solutions will be found, enabling us to visit this magic place of an evening.

Back at the level of the Concorde [site n° 6 on the map], but remaining on the Left Bank, we encounter a magic archipelago of floating islands.

Next, there's the illustrious Alexandre III Bridge linking the Place de la Concorde to the French parliament building [site n° 7 on the map].

Moving towards the Eiffel Tower, we meet up with a hitherto undistinguished place where barges deposited gravel, known quaintly as Big Stone [site n° 8 on the map].

Then we move into the Left Bank territory of the Pont d'Alma [site n° 9 on the map].

I hardly need to point out that, at the Right Bank extremity of this peaceful bridge, Princess Diana died on August 31, 1997.

Now, what must we think about this virtual journey through Paris/Seine riverbank places that will only become meaningful next year? Well, if I can speak as a former longtime resident of Paris, I would not hesitate in saying that it sounds fabulous… and I heartily congratulate Delanoë on his imagination and courage (because, as you might imagine, there are detractors).

Paris, of course, is priceless, beyond measure. And must be preserved. Bravo Bertrand!