Sunday, October 30, 2011

Windy wedding in Arizona

This short video shows memorable moments of an Arizona wedding:

As you see in the video, it had been been planned that, during the ceremony, the bride and groom would take up two jars of sand and mix their contents together in a third container, thereby symbolizing the eternal fusion of two souls in the holy union of wedlock.

Jeez, that lovely symbolic message sure came through loud and clear. In any case, I would like to imagine that the newlyweds will live together in calm harmony for ever and ever. But I have my doubts...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ancestral Gauls

Here's an amusing trivia question, to test your knowledge of history.

This tomb is located in an abbey in Farnborough (famous for its air show) on the southern coast of England, but the man in the tomb was a foreigner. In his native land, in the middle of the 19th century, this man had the exceptional honor of being, not only the first elected president of that nation, but also its last reigning monarch. Who was this illustrious foreigner? And what was the land in which this man had been both a president and a monarch?

The man in question was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte [1808-1873], the nephew of France's first emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte [1769-1821]. In 1848, Louis-Napoléon took advantage of the family name to get himself elected as president of France's Second Republic. Then, in 1851, he initiated a coup d'état that enabled him to become the emperor of France, referred to as Napoleon III. Finally, in 1870, his armies were defeated by the Prussians, and France's Second Empire ceased to exist. Here's an etching of a dramatic encounter, after their final battle, of the defeated Frenchman and the victorious Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck.

The last emperor of France was forced to flee to England, and he died in Kent. Some 15 years later, the emperor's remains were transferred to the Catholic abbey in Hampshire… and it's not at all certain that the English are prepared to hand them over to France.

I've brought up the subject of this much-disparaged French ruler because I want to evoke the legendary ancestors of the French, referred to collectively as the Gauls. In 52 BCE, their celebrated leader Vercingétorix was forced to surrender to Julius Caesar after the defeat of the Gauls on the battlefield of Alesia, near Dijon in Burgundy.

Much of the enduring folklore concerning the Gauls was created during the reign of Napoleon III. In particular, the emperor arranged for a statue of Vercingétorix to be set up at Alesia.

It's quite funny to compare this statue with the various portraits of Napoleon III. There's little doubt that the facial features of the French emperor, with his imposing mustache, were used as a model for the chieftain of the ancient Gauls.

This image of Vercingétorix gave rise, in turn, to the appearance of our comic-book hero Astérix. At present, there's a major exhibition in Paris concerning the Gauls, and specialists concerning this ancestral people consider that they probably didn't look anything like what France's 19th-century artists have led us to believe.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Paris a century ago

A French photographer, Eugène Atget [1857-1927], produced a large series of fantastic photos of the working people of Paris around 1898. One of the best-known is the organ grinder and a young female singer:

The following fellow is selling stationery (sheets of paper and envelopes) to passers-by who intend to write letters:

The next photo presents an unusual professional activity. The fellow with rolled-up trousers, working alongside the Seine, earned his living by washing the dogs of passers-by.

The next photo represents a profession that still existed in Paris when I arrived here in 1962. Parisians of the generation before mine would have immediately recognized this corpulent fellow, through his hat and smock, as a member of the ancient corporation—created under the king of France known as Saint Louis [1214-1270]—called the Forts des Halles: literally, the strongmen of the markets.

Their task consisted of transporting manually all the meat and vegetables sold within the vast Paris markets, the Halles, referred to by Emile Zola as the "stomach of Paris".

In the next photo, the fellow on the left is selling articles that were familiar to my brother and me when we were kids out in rural Australia:

I'm talking of plaited braids of horsehair that were attached to the end of whips, to make them crack with a sharp loud noise. (Making these so-called whip crackers, and then using them effectively, were skills that both Don and I had acquired.) The customer in a top hat was probably a coach driver.

The following photo by Atget, taken in 1898, shows the St-Michel bridge, which links the Latin Quarter to the Ile de la Cité:

Here's a most unromantic modern view of the same site:

Incidentally, Eugène Atget photographed the Paris that is present in the opening pages of the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke [1875-1926]. That's why I borrowed some of Atget's photos to illustrate my movie script based upon Rilke's novel.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Defeating dust

It took me a long time to realize that certain tools and devices can be very good for one kind of task, but totally inappropriate for an apparently similar task. Here's an excellent example:

For somebody like myself who consumes a lot of walnuts (grown here at Gamone), that high-tech hammer is perfect for cracking them open. But the hammer's nylon head is incapable of driving in a nail.

In the domain of vacuum cleaners, I purchased this powerful professional model many years ago, and imagined that it would be ideal for the house at Gamone:

It doesn't use bags, and it's perfect for dog hairs, wood shavings, spider webs, etc. Apparently it can even suck up liquids, but I've never used it for that. When you stick the nozzle in a fireplace, it sucks up the ashes in an instant, and appears to be the perfect solution for this regular winter task. But that's where I made a huge blunder, which I didn't actually detect for years. Let me explain...

Air carrying solid stuff is sucked into the device through the nozzle and tube, then this air passes through a thick cloth filter (which can be washed) and exits from the metal cylinder through a large opening in the rear. This simple operating principle means that the device sucks with great force, and is easy to clean. However I was dismayed to see that furniture in my living room was constantly covered in a film of reddish dust. For a long time, I imagined that this was surely the result of convection currents emerging from my open fireplace. Alas, the true cause of this dust was in fact my vacuum cleaner. I made this discovery on a sunny spring morning when I was using the device to remove ashes from the fireplace. All of a sudden, the rays of sunshine streaming into my living room revealed that a cloud of dust was emerging from the open hole in the back of the vacuum cleaner. This dust was so fine that I wouldn't have normally noticed it on a typically overcast wintry morning. But, on this sunny morning, the cloud of dust was clearly visible, and I suddenly realized that I was using a vacuum cleaner with a peculiar property. Not only did it suck up large volumes of ashes and bits of charcoal, but it deposited in return a fine layer of dust over everything in its vicinity. This was not a fault in the design of the device. It's simply not a vacuum cleaner designed for dusty stuff. So, I promptly banned this device from my living room, and moved it to my workshop in a far wing of the house, where it's great for wood shavings and such things. Then I replaced it by a special-purpose device that's designed precisely for sucking up ashes from a fireplace.

This new device works wonderfully well. I've always had a top-quality Miele vacuum cleaner of the domestic kind for the bedrooms. Realizing that I'm inclined to hesitate before carting the Miele machine up or down the stairs, I decided, a few days ago, to purchase a new Electrolux vacuum cleaner that I'll keep upstairs, above all for my books, papers and electronic devices such as the computers.

Incidentally, the French company that manufactures the device for sucking up ashes proposes an ingenious system for blowing warm air into damp shoes. I've always been fascinated by their publicity pictures.

Installed in a corner of the kitchen or living room, this would be a wonderful conversation piece. It's the first thing a visitor, entering the house, would notice. For young children, you could make up marvelous fairy stories about the way in which, on the stroke of midnight, the system gets up on its legs and actually strolls around the house all night. At dawn, like a well-behaved Cinderella, it returns to its right place.

Pioneer in artificial intelligence

John McCarthy, 84, died in his sleep last Sunday evening.

Computer programmers of my generation who became interested in artificial intelligence (an expression coined by McCarthy in 1955) usually tackled the rudiments of the LISP language (developed by McCarthy) by means of this slim blue book:

John McCarthy was one of the experts whom I interviewed for my 52-minute TV documentary on artificial intelligence that was broadcast in France on 25 June 1972.

This documentary is housed in the archives of the French Institut national de l'audiovisuel. Click the banner to access the website page describing the documentary.

During the shooting of the documentary, I visited SAIL [Stanford AI Laboratory] out in the hills of Palo Alto, where McCarthy and his team were working on the creation of robot arms, seen in the background of the following photo:

I recall that their most advanced arm was being taught how to build a brick wall. It used a video camera to obtain feedback on the state of advancement of the wall, and to verify that none of its bricks had been wrongly placed. In a corner of the laboratory, the robot arm, its camera and the bricks were enclosed in a kind of plexiglass greenhouse, while the computers were located on the outside. McCarthy told me that testing a robot arm could be a dangerous activity. Program bugs were capable of causing the arm to pick up bricks and start throwing them at the programmers and their computers.

At that time, McCarthy and his colleagues were developing one of the world's first autonomous robotic vehicles. It looked like a kid's cart. Visitors arriving by car at SAIL would often be surprised to find themselves sharing the road with this slow-moving vehicle, which spent its time learning how to wander around on its own through the grounds of the laboratory without running off the road.

Language example

Often, when I notice that such-and-such an old blog post in the archives of Antipodes seems to receive numerous visits, I'm tempted to explore the reasons for its apparent popularity. For example, over three years ago, I wrote a rambling article entitled Professional bias [display], and I now discover that it is accessed quite frequently. Here's why:

[Click to enlarge slightly]

Click here to visit the website in question. is an online encyclopedia, thesaurus and dictionary. Click here to visit a Wikipedia description of this service.

Marvel of nature

This morning, while accompanying Sophia up the hill for her matinal pee, I came upon this splendid empty chrysalis, which is so light that the breeze blew it onto the road.

It's amazing to think that a splendid butterfly or moth emerged recently from this exoskeleton, and has probably already got together with a mate of its species in order to start another life cycle.

Most human observers would be enraptured by a piece of handmade jewelry imitating this shell. (The term chrysalis comes from the Greek/Latin for "gold".) I find that the real chrysalis is infinitely more mysterious, beautiful and precious than any artifact.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lessons from Apple

I haven't yet got around to ordering an English-language copy of the biography of Steve Jobs… not even in a digital version for my iPad. Obviously, it's not that the subject fails to interest me. On the contrary, I've always been an impassioned fan, not so much of the man in question, but of the spirit and style of the computer company he founded with Steve Wozniak on April Fool's Day, 1976. But I end up feeling that I've no doubt heard almost everything that could possibly be written about Jobs.

In China, the Jobs biography is selling like hot cakes. That doesn't surprise me. It would be good, I think, if industry-oriented universities in countries such as France were to pose the question: Is there an Apple business model for success in futuristic high-tech computing? The answer is certainly yes… but the model would need to be refined and adjusted to the local environment. The efforts involved would surely be worthwhile. I can imagine future doctoral business classes and challenges on the themes of the successes of Apple Computer.

Thanks, Muammar, for the blog traffic

On 20 October 2011, I wrote a blog post entitled Stopped by an airplane [display] concerning the death of Muammar Gaddafi. As the title suggests, I was fascinated by the fact that an awesome French jet fighter had apparently appeared in the sky and inflicted a minimum of damage upon a suspicious convoy of vehicles that was moving away from Sirte: just enough damage to let them know that it would be a good idea, from a survival point of view, to halt. The Mirage 2000 airplane may have killed people in the leading vehicle, but it certainly didn't harm Gaddafi himself.

The world will probably never know the exact circumstances in which the Libyan dictator, forced to flee from the doomed convoy, was quickly captured and assassinated. Frankly, I believe that the world at large is not likely to lose sleep in an absurd quest for the missing facts. Everybody's happy to realize that the masquerade has been ended by the death of the mad clown. The Libyans themselves didn't even ask for an autopsy of Gaddafi's dead body. Instead, they put it on show for the general public, in a cold chamber designed for storing onions, and they only brought the curtain down when the corpse started to effuse nauseous odors. Then they buried it, this morning, at a secret spot. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

In the initial version of my rapidly-written blog post, I had inserted one of the photos of a blood-smeared Gaddafi, somewhere between life and death, that had been circulating all day in the French media.

This image irritated me, in that I had the impression (false) that Gaddafi's head was posed against the right knee of the guy behind him. I simply couldn't understand why this fellow in the background might be straddling Gaddafi, as it were. Later on, I realized that the white blood-stained fabric on the left of the photo was not at all a trouser leg of the guy in the background. It was a corner of some kind of mattress upon which Gaddafi had been placed.

A little later, by which time it was known that Gaddafi was dead, I came upon a startling photo in the French press that showed the upper half of his half-naked blood-stained corpse laid out on a bed mattress.

In my blog post, I immediately substituted this new image for the old one. As usual, in the typical spirit of a small-time private blogger such as myself, I didn't worry too much about indicating the precise origins and ownership of the image that I had borrowed for my blog post. That's to say, I've ceased to imagine (if ever I did) the likelihood of a major press group attacking me and claiming: "William, in your Antipodes blog, you stole one of our images without acknowledging its source." Frankly, if ever this were to happen (unlikely), I would bow down instantly, remove the offending image, and accept the consequences for my Antipodes blog. To my naive blogger's mind, it's a question of practicality rather than morality.

Today, thanks to the image of Gaddafi's corpse, I'm amused to discover that hordes of internauts are being directed to the Antipodes blog. Thanks a lot, Muammar.

POST SCRIPTUM: I'm astonished, almost alarmed, by the fact that so many blog visitors are dropping in on my Antipodes because they've used the keywords "gaddafi corpse". The current cadaver-induced success of my blog has a lot to do with the fact that I've been respecting the standard English spelling "Gaddafi". Internauts find me easily. This has been a constant incitation ever since my starting to blog about Gaddafi, since spellings of the dead dictator's name are prolific.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Spaghetti dogs

My daughter Emmanuelle—who seems to imagine (rightly so) that her father is snowed down under tons of surplus stuff—is always delighted to hear that I've had the courage and determination to get rid of some of my junk. In particular, whenever she drops in at Gamone, she makes a point of examining the contents of my refrigerator, deep freezer and larder for products that have gone beyond their use-by date. This morning, I was surprised to discover that Manya had apparently failed to detect the presence, in one of my kitchen cupboards, of a dusty packet of spaghetti dating from so long ago that I'm almost ashamed to indicate the date.

Come on, William. Don't be ashamed. What's a dusty 4-year-old packet of spaghetti between you and your understanding readers?

The stuff was probably still quite good. In any case, I put it in boiling water for ten minutes, with salt and appropriate herbs, and served it up to my dogs… who've never been too concerned about human inventions such as use-by dates.

In fact, the dogs eat precooked canine pasta regularly, and they gulped down the spaghetti with enthusiasm. Sophia, of course, has always functioned with food in the style of a vacuum cleaner. She hoovers up her fodder as if it were stuff to be cleared away and cleaned up as rapidly and completely as possible. On the other hand, I was interested to observe Fitzroy trying to invent efficient ways and means of dealing with all those slippery white worms. Finally, like an imaginative and amused child, I think he mastered the suck approach.

Holy spirited driver

My mother used to tell us an amusing anecdote about a car excursion from South Grafton to the beach at Yamba. Her oldest brother, Eric Walker, was at the wheel, while their mother (whom my siblings and I always referred to as Grandma) was seated in the rear. Suddenly, on a narrow stretch of the highway running alongside the Clarence River, they were overtaken in a dangerous manner by a speeding vehicle. They noticed immediately that it was the black sedan owned by the Roman Catholic church of South Grafton. The driver, alone in the vehicle, was the local parish priest, Father O'Meara. Eric was so startled that he started to curse the priest, whereupon Grandma came to the defense of the speeding ecclesiastic.

GRANDMA: He has probably received a phone call asking him to rush to the bedside of a dying parishioner.

ERIC: Like bloody hell. He's speeding to get to the pub in Maclean in time for a beer before closing time.

I thought of that anecdote when I read an amazing article in today's Australian media. A few days ago, the local priest from South Grafton, Father Peter Jones, was stopped by police for driving dangerously on the road from South Grafton to Yamba, in the vicinity of Maclean. Alarmed drivers had phoned the police when they saw the priest's white Toyota zigzagging from one side of the road to the other.

[Click the photo of Father Jones to access a newspaper article]

When a police officer attempted to use a hand-held breathalyzer to determine the priest's blood-alcohol state, his intoxication was so high that the machine was incapable of supplying a result. So the offender was taken to the police station in Maclean, where a more sturdy apparatus gave a reading of 0.341. Not only was this result some seven times the legal limit, but the drunken priest supplied one of the highest blood-alcohol readings ever recorded in the history of the New South Wales police. A specialist explained that guzzling down beer alone would not be able to produce such a high reading. So, the priest had surely been imbibing a large quantity of far more potent spirits. Thank God that nobody struck a match near the good man, for they might have all been consumed in a ball of fire.

My grandmother would have said that, in such a state of inebriation, the priest was surely being protected from an accident by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Autumn dogs

The weather at Gamone has been mild, and the dogs have been lounging around lazily in the sun.

They get on wonderfully well together. This afternoon, a local hunter, Daniel Berger, strolled past the house, with one of his hounds on a leash. When I went out to say hello to him, my dogs accompanied me. Suddenly, Fitzroy decided that he didn't like the look of the poor docile hound, so he sprang on him. The surprise attack wasn't particularly vicious, and only lasted for half a second. I was amused in that it was the first time ever that I've seen Fitzroy lose his temper.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Thinking of Françoise

At the rare times of the year when it contains water, Gamone Creek flows down past my place and through a corner of the park of André Repellin and Madeleine. There, in a rocky corner, Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier have placed their steel montage that evokes the memory of the Repellin's unique daughter: our friend Françoise.

She was indeed a transparent young woman, whose purity and willpower had a mineral but steely luster. Today, I find it perfectly appropriate to remember my neighbor as an angular friend who—in spite of her relative youth—maintained a rigorous old-fashioned style of relationship with me (as with most people, I would imagine). Every January, she would walk up here with her dog to offer me New Year gifts of biscuits and jam. It was unthinkable that Françoise might address me otherwise than by a quiet and polite vous, never by my first name or by the pronoun tu. Then she would wander across to the slopes on the other side of the creek, and scramble excitedly and noisily through the grass, for half an hour or so, with her beloved dog Briska.

Shortly before her death (if I understand correctly), Françoise had indicated explicitly that she wished to be remembered in this splendid nook of Gamone Creek. That is the case.

POST SCRIPTUM: The cocker spaniel Briska has always been a most excitable dog. Whenever Madeleine strolls up here to Gamone, my Fitzroy is delighted to receive a visit from Briska, whose hysterical barking antics are so much more fun than the staid behavior of Fitzroy's usual companions—Sophia, Moshé and Fanette—who must be seriously provoked before they'll join in a joust. Fitzroy hardly needs to raise a paw to get Briska started. Then he gallops gaily alongside his female visitor, admiring her noisy and spectacular lunacy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pictures of a new kind

I first got involved in photography at about the age of 11, using a Kodak Box Brownie.

Almost immediately, I got around to developing my films and producing black-and-white prints. I remember that some of my earliest photos were of Tiger Moth and Chipmunk aircraft, on the ground, at the South Grafton aerodrome. It's possible that one of my most successful shots still survives in a family photo album out in Australia: a rear view of my kid sister Susan, with the sun illuminating her blonde hair. At one stage, I experimented with manual tinting, which is an operation that will surely go down in the history of photography as a marvelous bad idea.

Over the years, camera technology has advanced at a fabulous rhythm. Back in the '70s, I was offered a Nikon camera to produce a publicity project (about Jalatte safety footware for workers), and I've remained a Nikon adept ever since then. The most recent brutal shock consisted of replacing my splendid analog equipment by a digital device: a Nikon D70s, which soon became my faithful companion… and still is.

Today, we learn that a revolutionary US camera named Lytro is about to arrive on the market. Accustomed to myriad tiny buttons on every available surface of our familiar photographic instruments of the Nikon kind, we are startled by the external austerity of this newcomer, which resembles a security camera in a supermarket.

[Click the photo to access the Lytro website]

The general idea is that the photographer should simply shoot, while relegating to future viewers the tasks of focussing, zooming and clipping. What an astounding idea! Here's a specimen:

You simply click to adjust the image. Clearly, this is advanced Internet photography in its purest form.

What science is saying

These days, the general public is being offered countless presentations of scientific conclusions concerning the origins of human beings. The tone of some of these presentations is so clear, and their contents are so striking, that most people should grasp what is being said, and be impressed by the scope and depth of such explanations. I would imagine that most young people react seriously to such presentations, whereas many adults probably find ways of shielding themselves from the impact of revolutionary facts capable of disturbing them.

Near the start of The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins presents readers with a spectacular thought experiment: that's to say, a virtual project carried out, not in a laboratory, but in your imagination. You're asked to stack up portraits of your father, your father's father, your father's father's father, and so on: that's to say, all your paternal male ancestors. The huge stack of images—extending backwards in time—might be laid out on bookshelves, enabling you to browse through them in an orderly fashion to examine the portrait of any specific male ancestor.

If you browsed back to the portrait of your 4,000-greats-grandfather, you would discover a bearded dark-skinned fellow not unlike men you might see today, say, in a Moroccan village. If you browsed back much further, to the portrait of your 50,000-greats-grandfather, you would come upon an individual who looks like the proverbial caveman. Dawkins then asks you to browse all the way back to your 185-million-greats-grandfather. What might he look like? With the help of brilliant illustrations from Dave McKean, Dawkins supplies an answer, which might shock certain readers:

This portrait of a grandpappy is far removed from the typical paintings of distinguished oldtimers in the portrait galleries of aristocratic families. The ancestor who most impressed me was our long-snouted 45-million-greats-grandfather, shown here having a snack:

To appreciate these ancestral illustrations and explanations, you really must get a copy of this splendid Dawkins book, which is packed with all kinds of fascinating tales (including myths) and science stuff.

A few evenings ago, on the Arte TV channel, I watched an interesting documentary on population genetics. Viewers were introduced to the fabulous possibilities of examining DNA specimens to determine the genealogy of various ethnic communities. Personally, I prefer to acquire my knowledge of population genetics and large-scale genealogy through reading books, articles and Internet stuff rather than depending on TV. I would imagine however that this documentary must have been an eye-opener for viewers who were unaware of state-of-the-art findings and thinking in this complex domain.

The subject was tackled in a controversial style (rightly, I believe) by insisting on the fact that the old-fashioned concept of human races is totally rejected by modern research. All human beings who exist today on the planet Earth are the biological descendants of a small group of Africans who were probably similar to the community known today as South African Bushmen. In a sense, therefore, we are all Africans! This poetic declaration charmed 80-year-old Desmond Tutu.

Certain facts are likely to amaze white-skinned Europeans and citizens of the New World, and maybe make us more humble. For example, there is no doubt whatsoever that our prehistoric ancestors were black-skinned, and that our present whiteness is a freakish new-fangled affair brought on by the physiological fact that fairer ex-Africans survived better in cold climates. So, alongside "black is beautiful", we might proclaim that "negro is normal", whereas "white is weird".

These days, research in population genetics is advancing so rapidly that certain major breakthroughs have occurred in the short time since the French TV documentary was completed. For example, there have been amazing revelations concerning the early date at which the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines left Africa. In the 1920s, a lock of hair was taken from an anonymous young Aboriginal male near Kalgoorlie. Well, this DNA specimen was sufficient to enable, recently, an analysis of the subject's genome. And it became obvious that the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines had in fact left Africa at least some 50 millennia ago: that's to say, well before the exodus that gave rise to communities of Homo sapiens in Asia and Europe.

A tribal elder described this DNA-based breakthrough as "just a white-fella story", and said he would continue to believe in the tribe's mythical creation legends.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stopped by an airplane

Details of events culminating in the death of Muammar Gaddafi have fluctuated throughout the day. It appears that the small convoy in which he attempted to flee from his home town of Sirte was stopped by a French Mirage 2000 fighter.

Here are the charred remains of Gaddafi's final convoy, photographed later on in the day:

Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, Gaddafi had emerged from his damaged vehicle and raced across the sands to seek protection in a drainpipe running under the road.

That's where rebel fighters found him. Apparently Gaddafi was wounded but still alive… but not for long, for there were too many revengeful onlookers in the vicinity of the captured dictator.

Nearly 23 years ago, in the skies over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, another aircraft had been a terrible symbol in the tyrant's career.

A Libyan terrorist bomb that exploded aboard Pan Am Flight 103 killed 270 innocent victims.

Now that Gaddafi has gone, there is no doubt that the Mediterranean world will be a slightly better place, maybe even a vastly better place. Throughout the evening, I've been impressed by the countless images of happy Libyan faces displayed in the media.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Amazing demo

This Israeli demo is so weird that it looks like a magician's trick:

And so it should. That's normal whenever quantum physics appears on the scene. If a quantum phenomenon doesn't look like magic, then it hasn't worked correctly… or maybe you haven't grasped what's happening. Quantum physics presents us with an upside-down world in which nothing is "ordinary" in a common-sense way, everything is totally weird…

Once upon a time in Vienna

To people who have read and admired Edmund de Waal's family-history document, The Hare with Amber Eyes, my recent blog post entitled Potter's heritage [display] probably appeared lopsided, since I spoke almost exclusively of Charles Ephrussi, the prominent Parisian dilettante. Meanwhile, I said nothing about his uncle Ignace von Ephrussi in Vienna, who built the vast banking headquarters on the Ringstrasse known as the Palais Ephrussi.

Nor did I mention Ignace's son Viktor, the head of the family on Kristallnacht—November 9–10, 1938—when Nazi thugs terminated forever the power and glory of the Ephrussi dynasty in Austria.

Charles had given his netsuke collection to his cousin Viktor as a wedding gift in 1899. Edmund de Waal's book reveals the amazing way in which these precious objects survived the aftermath of Kristallnacht.

My short blog post was by no means an in-depth review of this splendid book. I merely wished to evoke in a few words the two personages who impressed me most: the Parisian Ephrussi who actually collected the netsuke, and the potter/author who is currently protecting them.

Among the other wealthy Viennese Jews who lost almost everything after Kristallnacht, I might mention the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [see my previous post, entitled Dawkins gives Miss Anscombe a role], who happened to be a friend of the Ephrussis.

I was greatly interested by an earlier minor theme of The Hare with Amber Eyes. I'm referring to the five-year epistolary relationship that existed between the author's Viennese grandmother Elisabeth Ephrussi [1899-1991] and the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke [1875-1926]. Elisabeth was almost a contemporary of another of Rilke's young Jewish female friends of a literary disposition, Claire Goll [1890-1977], whom I was privileged to meet in Paris not long before her death.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dawkins gives Miss Anscombe a role

I've just started to read with enthusiasm the latest book by Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality, which might be described as a science-oriented picture book for youngsters from 8 to 80. I was amused to discover that the excellent graphic work by Dave McKean depicts a casual conversation between two individuals whom I mentioned six months ago in my blog post entitled Voices from Vienna [display]. I'm referring to the Vienna-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951] and his English disciple Elizabeth Anscombe [1919-2001], who was both a professor of philosophy at Cambridge and a devout Roman Catholic. As I mentioned in that blog post, I had an unexpected opportunity of meeting up with Anscombe in Brittany, at the home of Christine's parents. Members of the Mafart family, including Christine, had frequent contacts with a Dominican priory in Staffordshire known as Spode House, which had also become a regular retreat for the Anscombes.

Here's the drawing of Elizabeth Anscombe and Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Wittgenstein was intrigued by the fact that people had once believed, unanimously, that the Sun went round the Earth. He wondered why this belief was so universal. Anscombe replies—with a massive dose of common sense—that people no doubt found that it looked as if the sun went round the Earth. Wittgenstein hits back with an interesting rhetorical question: "What would it have looked like if it had looked as if the Earth turned on its axis?" In other words, what kinds of visual impressions would have been needed to make people believe spontaneously in a heliocentric theory?

We can find plausible answers in the ordinary experience of air travel. When a plane hits turbulence, passengers never have the impression that it's the Earth and its atmosphere that are being jolted up and down. They're convinced intuitively that the aircraft, which had appeared to be calm and motionless just a minute earlier, is now being shaken by disturbing forces. So, that suggests an answer to Wittgenstein's question. If only the planet Earth were to run into zones of turbulence every now and again, humans would have surely been more ready to feel that their planet was indeed turning on its axis and moving around the Sun.

Air travel provides another striking experience of rapid movement. When an aircraft, preparing to land, plunges down obliquely through wispy layers of cloud, passengers are suddenly made aware of the great speed at which they are moving. Ideally, we might imagine vast rings of dust, orbiting the Sun at roughly the same distance as the Earth, with trajectories that intersect at right angles with ours. Periodically, Earth-dwellers would notice that we were about to run into such a dust ring, since it would be visible in the sky above us. Then, as we whizzed past the dust in a kind of near-miss encounter (hopefully surviving), we might well observe a parallax phenomenon—involving the alignment of the Sun, the dust ring and our planet—suggesting that we are indeed moving around the Sun.

It's preferable, though, to judge such affairs using the methods of scientific reasoning. If Karl Popper had been eavesdropping on the conversation between Ludwig and Miss Anscombe, he might have suggested wisely that they should abandon their jobs in the philosophy department and enroll humbly as science undergraduates…

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Potter's heritage

Friends and family members know that I've been an adept, for ages, of genealogy. This fascination blends in with my passion for genetics. Recent Skyvington and Walker ancestors were humble folk, nothing to do with our fabulous Skywalker namesake.

Over the last week or so, I've been fascinated by a genealogical book with a strange title: The Hare with Amber Eyes. And in this family history, unlike my own, all the ancestors are extraordinary individuals.

It's the family history of a young English potter, Edmund de Waal.

He's a descendant of the famous Ephrussi family: Russo-Austrian Jews who made their fortune on the international wheat market. The central personage of Edmund's book is Charles Ephrussi [1849-1905], who spent his life in Paris. I've assembled the following fragment of a family tree showing the relationship between the potter/author and his celebrated ancestral relative:

Using the family's immense wealth, Charles Ephrussi collected works of art, and became a benefactor of French painters. At that epoch, boater-hatted oarsmen and associated revelers would gather together on the banks of the Seine and the Marne to eat, drink, dance and talk about business of all kinds. The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [1841-1919] evokes this lifestyle.

Charles Ephrussi appears in the background, wearing a ridiculous black top hat: surely some kind of humoristic and symbolic artistic license on the part of the painter.

And where does the lovely hare with amber eyes enter this story?

It's a specimen of a 19th-century Japanese form of sculpture called netsuke. In the beginning, these tiny pieces of sculpture were designed to be used like sliding beads, to fasten the ends of cords around robes such as kimonos. But they soon became precious and priceless collectors' items. And the ivory hare belonged to Charles Ephrussi's collection of a few hundred netsuke items, finally inherited by the English potter, author of this family-history book.

This delightful book, sent to me by my ex-wife as a birthday gift, has been written by an English potter, disciple of the great Bernard Leach [1887-1979]. Behind Christine's invitation to read the marvelous book by Edmund de Waal, I sensed constantly, in a vague way, the spirit of two exceptional individuals who were present in the lives of Christine and me: the potter Maurice Crignon and the editor/benefactor Albert Richard. At times, curiously, knowing full well that there were no wealthy Ephrussi people among my humble Skywalker ancestors, I had the impression that I had received nevertheless, in a way, the same kind of human heritage as Edmund de Waal.