Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Covered in snow

Snow hit us massively during the night. Nobody can say we weren't warned. TV weather reports have become amazingly precise.

Yesterday, the visiting goldfinches were basking in the sun on the tiled roof of the bird house. Today, they would need to wear snowshoes.

In the middle of the morning, just after the passage of the municipal snow plow, I ran into my neighbor Jackie walking down the road on his way to Pont-en-Royans.

In fact, I had already discovered why Jackie was unlikely to do much driving, today, on the slopes of Choranche. Early this morning, I was taking my dogs out so that Sophia could "do her business". She only defecates at a fixed place, a hundred meters up above the house, and prefers to be accompanied for the occasion.

Continuing up the road a little, I was alarmed to find Jackie's little white vehicle in the middle of a snow-covered field.

I was relieved to find footprints leading from the stranded vehicle back up to Jackie's house. So I rushed up there to find out what had happened. Jackie told me that he had an appointment this morning with his GP up in Grenoble. Having heard that driving conditions might be difficult, he decided to set out early, at 6 am, in the dark. But, before he had done 50 meters, his journey ended abruptly. The vehicle started to slide on the very first slope, and refused to stay on the road. It continued to slide in a straight line, and that line lead into the field, where the vehicle only stopped sliding because of a conveniently-placed big bump in the grassy ground.

He was lucky in that the rough terrain prevented the vehicle from gathering speed, overturning and sliding into Gamone Creek.

As for me, I simply rule out any attempt whatsoever at using my old automobile whenever Gamone is covered in ice or snow.

New unidentified birds at Gamone

Yesterday, a new group of tiny colorful birds arrived at Gamone. The following poor-quality photo (with my telephoto lens, there's not enough depth of field) gives you an idea of the bird's appearance:

Instead of darting into the bird house and flying out with sunflower seeds in their beaks, like the mésanges [tits], these newcomers simply hang around as a group on the roof of the bird house, and dine calmly on the seeds I placed there.

Meanwhile, on the ground, where I've also spread several kinds of seeds, finches chase each other around, as if there weren't enough seeds to go around. The little creatures give the impression, viewed from my bedroom window, that they're competing aggressively in some kind of rough soccer match.

For the moment, I haven't been able to identify these new visitors.

BREAKING NEWS: Christine just phoned to inform me that these birds are European goldfinches [chardonnerets in French].

French Rafale fighter plane

In my blog post of 1 March 2010 entitled Australia's choice of fighter planes [display], I suggested that, instead of waiting for the US Joint Strike Fighters ordered by former prime minister John Howard, the French Rafale would be an excellent choice.

Dassault Aviation has just announced its first foreign sales contract for this aircraft: 126 planes for India, an affair of some 12 billion dollars.

That kind of economic news is welcome in France at the present moment. One of the key arguments of the Socialist contender for the presidency, François Hollande, is that France needs to reassert rapidly and dynamically her high-tech industrial prowess on the international marketing scene.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rivers never flow uphill

As a youth in my native Grafton, I didn't think of myself as somebody who might be particularly interested in the flow of rivers. That's because I happened to be living alongside the great Clarence River, which I used to see so regularly (usually from afar) that I finished by no longer noticing it. I had grown up in the aftermath of the tragic December 1943 drowning of 13 boys, junior (cub) members of the local troop of Boy Scouts. As a child of ten or so, I had witnessed the damage waged by the waters of the Clarence in a disastrous flood. Later, I rowed in school races (in "fours") in the shadow of the antique double-decker bridge, over which I used to ride my bicycle regularly.

To paraphrase the well-known forest/trees saying, I simply didn't see the river because of the water. Much later, in Paris, I learned that a river has a left bank and a right bank.

The common-sense adjectives "left" and "right" are so much more tangible, for people living alongside a great river, than the theoretical notions of north and south. So, I had passed my childhood in right-bank Waterview (South Grafton) before moving across to our new left-bank residence in Kent Street (Grafton).

Since arriving here at Choranche, on the edge of the French Alps, I've come to appreciate the sense of the adjectives upstream and downstream. The Bourne flows down from Villard-de-Lans.  Choranche is located on the right bank, and Châtelus on the left. And Pont-en-Royans is a little further downstream. It's a bit like seasons. Back in Australia, I hardly knew what they were all about. These days, at Gamone, they determine my daily existence.

There's another realm, of a theoretical kind, in which we must be aware of the direction of flow. I'm referring to the flow of information and scientific knowledge. Just as rivers never flow in an upstream direction, information and knowledge always flow in a unique direction: downwards from X to Y, say, but never upwards from Y to X.

This was one of the great lessons taught by Karl Popper when he demolished the time-honored but absurd notion that an understanding of the laws of the natural universe can be acquired miraculously when knowledge flows spontaneously, indeed magically, from the natural phenomena being examined by a researcher up into the scientist's mind. This mysterious process, referred to as induction, was a part of established science back in my student days. Since Popper, we realize that a new understanding of the ways in which various natural phenomena unfold can arise in the mind of a brilliant scientist. This knowledge then flows down into other human minds, enabling the newly-imagined explanations to be applied to the natural phenomena that inspired the creative scientist, for verification (best possible case) or for rejection (worst-case scenario).

Two centuries ago, in the domain of the evolution of living organisms, a great and ancient "river" of a physiological kind was thought of as capable, from time to time, of flowing uphill.

 Jean-Baptiste Lamarck considered that a living creature could transmit to its offspring various characteristics acquired during the parent's earthly existence. Take the case of a primitive giraffe, many millennia ago, at a time when giraffes still had relatively short necks, since they could find all the leaves they needed quite close to the ground. Let's suppose that a couple of giraffes were having a serious discussion about the idea of having a baby.

Mr Giraffe: There's only one thing that worries me, dear. Due to global warming, there's no longer any grass around. So, we're forced to eat leaves. But there are fewer and fewer leaves at a low level. Soon, to reach the high leaves and survive, giraffes will need to have longer and longer necks.

Mrs Giraffe: My dear husband, I agree with you entirely. But, if our future baby needs an exceptionally long neck to find food, then we must make sure that he's born with such a neck. There are no two ways about it.

Mr Giraffe: OK, but how can we make sure that his neck will be long enough for him to survive?

Mrs Giraffe: We must pray, my dear husband, and implore our Good Giraffe God to perform a miraculous intervention of genetic engineering.

So, that's what they did. And, soon after, biological information from the parched earth flowed up through the tree trunks, past the bare branches at the bottom of the trees, until it reached the level of the luscious greenery. And, from there, this precious information—dealing primarily with the complex procreative question of how to produce giraffe embryos with long necks—was consumed and digested by Mrs Giraffe… who suddenly felt a glowing long-necked warmth in her womb. The miracle was taking place!

We now know that Lamarckism was totally wrong, but it was never, at any stage, a completely crazy belief. Even today, when tourists halt for a moment alongside the lovely old thatched house in Pont-en-Royans [display], and chat with the village blacksmith and his son, they are invariably impressed by their giant strong hands, which have been  photographed in closeup on countless mobile phones.

Blacksmith: My ancestors have been blacksmiths here at Pont-en-Royans for countless generations, and the blacksmiths' sons and daughters have always married the offspring of other blacksmiths in neighboring villages. And the gnarled hands of our kids, today, reveal the traces of all those centuries of hard work at the forge.

Who could possibly doubt the truth of the good man's words? His strong hands have been shaped, over the centuries, by a mysterious process of divinely-ordained genetic engineering that seems to "understand" that future blacksmiths need to inherit the hands, not merely of their forefathers, but of their forefathers' trade! This knowledge has flowed up from the forge to the uterus of every young lady chosen to become the mother of a future blacksmith. It's all a bit like the Nazarene carpenter's wife, who had received knowledge informing her that she would be giving birth to the Lord.

The only flaw in these nice and convincing tales is that knowledge about a future offspring never needs to flow into an embryo, because the zygote formed from the pair of gametes provided by the parents of a future member of the blacksmith dynasty contains all the information that it is required to forge a new human being. And, if the baby blacksmith looks as if he has inherited gnarled hands, that merely means that at least one of his parents had gnarled hands. And that characteristic had nothing to do with their daily occupations. Even if the latest generations of the baby's ancestors had all decided to transform their ancient forges into tourist boutiques, they would still have been born with gnarled hands. Inheritance specifications never flow upwards from a blacksmith's forge to human parents and their babies. They are transmitted, through chromosomes, from parents down to their offspring. Rivers never flow uphill.

This metaphor of information flow applied both to Karl Popper's views on induction and to Lamarck's views on inheritance was developed at length by David Deutsch, of Oxford.

His article Selfish Genes and Information Flow appeared in the collection entitled Richard Dawkins, How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think, Oxford University Press, 2006.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dear old birdman

Something has changed in the eating habits of my winter colony of mésanges [Great Tits]. Up until now, there hasn't been much snow at Gamone, and it hasn't even been really cold yet. So, normally, the tiny birds should be able to move around easily and find food. Instead of that, they've got into the habit of lining up to enter the bird house, for sunflower seeds, or pecking at the suspended cages of fatty stuff.

Their food consumption has increased to such an extent that I decided to purchase a 15 kg bag of seeds.

It's not as if the tiny creatures scoop up mouthfuls of sunflower seeds. On the contrary, a bird picks up a single seed, then it flies up into the linden tree, a fruit tree, or maybe the dense branches of my rose pergola, where it thrashes the seed patiently, for anything up to a minute, in order to remove the husk and get at its tasty interior. A visitor to Gamone might well wonder what has caused my small pear and plum trees to be surrounded by pale husks. As soon as it has finished its seed, the bird darts back immediately to the store to obtain another seed.

I would imagine that there's a good reason for this eating surge. Many of the birds that are visiting Gamone at present were probably born here either last year or the year before, following the installation of my custom-built nesting house.

When I used to watch a couple of birds flitting around to feed and guard their precious progeny, hidden inside the box, I used to say to myself that it was a pity that these native creatures of Gamone would simply disappear in the middle of spring, without my ever actually seeing them. Well, I'm now convinced that I'm seeing and feeding these birds today. And I'm happy to find that they have healthy appetites. As the lady at the agricultural cooperative said to me: "The birds know when they've found a good address."

I decided to purchase a couple of dense cylinders of bird food made in the USA.

The one in the photo is composed of a mixture of dried fruit and crushed earthworms. Sounds delicious.

When I told the lady at the agricultural cooperative about the appetite of my birds, she looked at me with a kind expression, as if she were listening to the innocent complaints of a dear old birdman, and said: "Ah, I'm sure they keep you occupied." And she asked me if I needed help to carry the 15-kg bag of seeds out to my car. I said: "No, I think I can handle it." Then I asked myself in horror: "Jeez, am I really starting to look like a decrepit old birdman, who has nothing better to do than complain about the fact that the birds are eating him out of house and home?"

I guess so. I was wearing a round woollen bonnet pulled down over my forehead, which makes the best of men look stupid. And I've got into the habit of wearing a recently-purchased snow parka, which is ideal at this time of the year, but which has the disadvantage of making me look like a plump aging Eskimo. (And I haven't even got around yet to donning the fabulous black rabbit-fur chapka that I purchased recently, made in Russia or China, which would only makes sense if Gamone were to be hit by freezing temperatures or a snow blizzard.) But I won't squabble about the impressions of people who see me. Yes, I've become an aging birdman from the slopes of the Vercors. In fact, I had got around to thinking of myself essentially as a dogman. Maybe I'm both...

Friday, January 13, 2012

Steven Spielberg of molecular animation

American-born Drew Berry has achieved fame as a creator of amazing animated biological videos in a celebrated scientific environment in Australia: the Walter and Eliza Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. Here's his recent presentation for TED [Technology Entertainment and Design]:

After watching that, I can almost sense the presence inside me of all those marvelously-efficient little molecular factories, working around the clock to churn out new strands of DNA. Thank God I didn't have to finance the construction of these factories, or pay out salaries to the employees. Maybe I should look into the idea of transforming some of their production into something more tangible: automobiles, say, or maybe even crisp new banknotes.

Drew Berry has also collaborated recently on the Biophilia album of the exotic Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk.

It's weird and wonderful that we have to depend now upon the artistry of graphic poets to show us the workings of marvels such as molecules.

POST SCRIPTUM: In the Biophilia video, did you notice the fleeting presence of this strange set of molecules?

Psychology of a novel kind

I hastened to read Thinking, fast and slow by the Israeli-born Daniel Kahneman after coming upon a description of the Princeton professor by Steven Pinker:

Daniel Kahneman is among the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today. He has a gift for uncovering remarkable features of the human mind.

Another enthusiastic reviewer described Kahneman's book as "a big slice of sober pie". Today, having completed a first reading of the book, I'm intrigued by Pinker's appraisal. Admittedly, Kahneman's book often aroused my curiosity, but many parts of it bored and indeed irritated me. In any case, I remain convinced that if any individual deserved to be thought of as "the most important psychologist alive today" (an excessive description whose fuzziness also troubles me), it would surely be Pinker himself rather than Kahneman. But I prefer to avoid unnecessary evaluations of that kind.

The basic theme of Thinking, fast and slow is trivially simple. When humans are thinking—for example, when they're faced with questions or problems—they actually behave at two complementary levels. First, they "think fast", immediately, automatically and instinctively. Then they "think slow", calling explicitly upon reasoning processes. At the start of his explanations, Kahneman (who seems to get a thrill out of of coining new expressions) has introduced a terminological gimmick, which also annoys me. He designates "fast thinking" as System 1, and "slow thinking" as System 2. OK, fair enough. But was it necessary to write an entire book on the basis of this obvious hierarchy, which has been been a constant preoccupation of researchers for ages in fields such as cognitive science, artificial intelligence and brain research?

At times, I had the impression that the subject of Kahneman's book was closer to elementary statistics, decision-making (as in business) and games theory than to psychology. Many of his explanations are based upon personal anecdotes in various professional and academic environments, where Kahneman often seemed to arrive on the scene like Zorro, eager to correct all the mistakes perpetrated by the numbskulls who had been there prior to him. For example, there's a chapter entitled "Regression to the mean" which starts out by explaining that the author had "one of the most satisfying eureka experiences of [his] career while teaching flight instructors in the Israeli Air Force about the psychology of effective training". A seasoned instructor pointed out that praising an exceptionally high-quality flight performance served no useful purpose, because the pilot would inevitably fly much worse the following day. On the other hand, this instructor considered that it was a good idea to scream at a pilot who had flown exceptionally poorly, because he would inevitably improve his performance the following day. Now, on the surface, that situation might appear to have something to do with the question of rewards and punishment in the domain of human psychology. But Kahneman's "eureka experience" consisted of his realizing a very banal fact that has nothing to do with psychology. If a pilot flies exceptionally well one day, then he's likely (for purely statistical reasons) to fly less well the next day. And if a pilot flies exceptionally badly one day, then he's likely (for the same statistical reasons) to fly a little better the next day. So, what else is new? Kahneman is so excited about this personal revelation that he introduces another example, summed up in the following sentence:

Highly intelligent women tend to marry men who are less intelligent than they are.

Is this banal observation a pretext for getting involved in reflections about the reasons that might push a bright girl into wedding a dumb guy? No, there is no reason whatsoever to tackle the question at that level. The elementary theory of probability provides a total explanation of the situation. There are only so many highly intelligent women looking for husbands, whereas there are hordes of numbskulls ready to be chosen. So, it's inevitable, statistically, that most bright girls end up marrying relatively dumb guys.

I was a 17-year-old student back in Australia when I heard about regression analysis (the name of the approach that started out as "regression to the mean") and correlation. Admittedly, Kahneman introduces these cases of regression as counter-examples, which have nothing to do with genuine human psychology, but I find it amazing that a Nobel laureate in economics could get excited today about such everyday stuff.

Something about Kahneman's style makes me consider his book as a specimen of popular psychology of the kind you often meet up with in magazines and training seminars. He reminds me of Edward de Bono and his thinking hats, or Nassim Taleb and his black swans. In any case, one of these days I promise to reread Kahneman's book, to see if I maybe missed out on something during my initial reading.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Virtual house in Pont-en-Royans

I've been pursuing my investigations into the possibility that a thatched house drawn in 1870 might have actually existed in Pont-en-Royans, in the vicinity of Blackbird Street [rue du Merle].

If this were indeed an ancient scene at Pont-en-Royans (as I firmly believe), then the main structure in the foreground would have been located on the lower slopes of Mount Barret, on the left bank of the Bourne, whereas the line of buildings in the background would have been located on the other side of the river, in the center of the village of Pont-en-Royans, on the lower slopes of the mountain (vaguely visible in the background) called Les Trois Châteaux. If we don't actually see the Bourne in the drawing, that's because it was hidden behind lots of trees and vegetation that lie between Blackbird House and the river.

Notice the presence of part of a second building behind the main house:

I shall refer to the main house as Blackbird 1, and to the second building (whose roof appears to be tiled, not thatched) as Blackbird 2. Both structures have ample balconies, supported by hefty wooden beams and diagonal props. This is an architectural feature of the so-called "hanging houses" (maisons suspendues) that have made Pont-en-Royans famous.

Clearly, there was no water beneath the balconies of Blackbird 1. But the balconies of Blackbird 2, as well as those attached to the line of buildings in the background, probably all jutted out over the Bourne, like the balconies and lofts that we find on today's hanging houses.

Residents and shopkeepers have always been preoccupied by the challenge of finding as much usable space as possible (both for living and for storing wares) on the precious real estate in the vicinity of the bridge linking the Vercors mountains to the plains.

To ascertain the likely locations of Blackbird 1 and 2, I was guided above all by the angles of the background buildings in the drawing.

Today, to be able to see the façades and the side walls at that angle, you have to move to an observation point quite close to the Picard Bridge. Finally, when I take account of all relevant factors, I'm convinced that Blackbird 1 was located on allotment #127 of the Napoleonic Cadastre.

Blackbird 2 would have been located on allotment #128, quite close to the edge of the Bourne, and the woman and child were seated on the grassy slopes of allotment #126. The stone wall in the drawing corresponds to the curved path leading down towards the river, which still exists today. Here's a view of the Picard Bridge from an upstream vantage point:

Blackbird Street rises behind the car on the left, at the place where a blacksmith's forge was located for ages, and up until only a few decades ago. (My neighbor Madeleine told me that, from her grocery shop at the other extremity of the Picard Bridge, she looked out over the blacksmith's place for 30 years!)  The pair of buildings, Blackbird 1 and Blackbird 2, would have been located (preceded by a short row of hanging houses on the allotments #102, #103 and #104) within the empty space that I've encircled.

There have been several fine illustrations of the blacksmith's workshop, at the southern extremity of the Picard Bridge.

The following nice illustration in color is no doubt a relatively recent copy of the monochrome engraving:

Notice that the central part of the building forming a portal over Blackbird Street has disappeared by the time the Napoleonic Cadastre was drawn, leaving only a narrow fragment overhanging the Bourne.

Normally we should be able to find representations of the Blackbird Street buildings in other old drawings. That's to say, we need to find drawings done from roughly the spot, in the following photo, where Sophia's tail is located.

Here is such a drawing:

I would say that the building in the upper right-hand corner is probably Blackbird 2. Notice, too, beneath the arch of the bridge, on the left bank of the Bourne, the presence of hanging houses that have long since disappeared. In the following engraving by General Bacler d'Albe [1761-1824], we've moved our vantage point a little further downstream:

In the upper right-hand corner, we're still looking up (I think) at Blackbird 2, with the balcony of a hanging house a little further back. The stone arch in the wall supporting Blackbird 2 can still be seen, in the photo of Sophia's tail, above the fisherman. The following elegant illustration was possibly inspired by the Bacler d'Albe engraving:

Finally, I have to admit that there seem to be no other illustrations in which I can clearly distinguish a house that would appear to be Blackbird 1. In a way, this is a positive conclusion, in that it suggests that my drawing of 1870 might in fact be a unique document.

Here's a montage in which I've tried to place the drawing in a modern photographic context:

My attempt to insert a distorted version of the drawing is rather clumsy (the image would need to be transformed magically into a three-dimensional representation, and then rotated in an anticlockwise sense through a third of a circle), but it gives you a rough idea of the location of the old house.

Monday, January 9, 2012

In the early hours of an Australian morning

Urunga is a small seaside town to the south of Coffs Harbour (Australia), not far from my native Clarence River region, and the Pacific Highway runs through the municipality. Over a year ago, I wrote about that notorious road [display], which is regularly the scene of terrible accidents, often due to the presence of giant lorries on a narrow undulating road that was laid out back in the days when the traffic was sparse and lightweight. As I've often said, it was a great road for bike-riding.

Here's a typical curve in that highway, in the middle of Urunga, looking towards the south:

This is in fact a rear view from the Google vehicle, which was actually moving northwards. But let us carry on as if we were driving to the south. As we move into the bend, we notice a white house on the right-hand side of the road.

As we drive past this house, we catch a glimpse of an automobile parked alongside the front verandah. There's a palm tree in the front garden, but it hasn't yet reached the height of the electricity pole near the edge of the road.

A few meters further along, we have a view of the front lawn and façade of the house, behind a small leafy tropical tree with a delta-shaped bunch of slim trunks.

A few days ago, in the early hours of the morning, a giant B-double truck (full of bananas) had been driving southwards and plunging into this bend. Suddenly, the truck driver found himself face-to-face with a north-bound utility vehicle, which had drifted onto the wrong side of the road. A collision was inevitable. The utility was demolished, and its driver killed. Before the truck came to a halt, it had careened off the road and destroyed half of the white house.

A 14-year-old boy, on holidays, had been sleeping in the front corner bedroom of the house. He died instantly, the innocent victim of a real-world nightmare. And the next day, a local politician was quoted as declaring that, really, it was high time to do something about that notorious Pacific Highway...

Antipodean exploits

The first exploit is simply an unbelievable catch in a game of cricket in New Zealand. The ball was about to touch the ground beyond the official boundary of the playing field, in which case the batsman would have made a substantial score. To avoid such a happening, a fieldsman in the other team leaped into the air at the last moment, and grabbed the ball. Then, during the half a second that he was still in the air, this fellow tossed the ball to a fellow fieldsman who was located well inside the playing field, and this second fieldsman had no trouble in catching the ball. So, theoretically, the batsman was caught out. Here's the video:

The second exploit concerns an Australian girl who went bungee jumping in Zimbabwe, on the edge of the Victoria Falls.

When she was down near the surface of the water, the cord snapped, and she got carried away (her ankles still tied together) by the rapidly-flowing Zambezi River. Miraculously, she survived with no more than a few bruises. Here's the video:

King Fred was a female

Last night, when I started to watch a fictionalized documentary on Frederick the Great, King of Prussia [1712-1786], I had no idea what it was all about… and it took me quite some time to figure out what was happening. The German director Jan Peter had made the curious decision to call upon two female actresses for the role of the celebrated monarch. The aging king is played by Katharina Thalbach.

And Katharina's real-life daughter Anna plays Frederick as a young prince, before the death of his harsh father, Frederick William I.

For the old king to look so much like the prince, I kept on saying to myself that the makeup artists had done a splendid job. And it was only much later, when I read an article on the movie in Télérama, that I learned that the roles had been played by a mother and her daughter. Funnily enough, Jan Peter's weird choice works superbly, maybe because there was indeed a refined feminine dimension in Frederick's character. He was a gifted musician, versed in French culture, who seemed to prefer the company of men.

This excellent film is not only enjoyable; it is quite didactic, providing uninformed viewers (such as me) with a view of that early phase of Hohenzollern royalty in Prussia.

An aspect of the movie that amused me was the way in which Frederick dined regularly with his distinguished French guests Voltaire and La Mettrie. The latter philosopher—whose famous L'Homme Machine (Machine Man) inspired me when I was working on my Machina Sapiens—actually died in Potsdam after stuffing himself with delicious pheasant and truffle pâté.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Uncle Peter

I've always looked upon my maternal aunt Nancy Walker (8 years older than me) as a kind of big sister. So, when she married a Sydney gentleman named Peter Smith in 1954, he too became, for me, a kind of brother-in-law, rather than an uncle. In any case, for well over half-a-century, Peter and Nancy welcomed me constantly into their family environment on countless occasions… even as a house guest at times, as if I could look upon their home as my home. Retrospectively, I believe that I tended to overplay my pseudo-sibling status at times… but Peter and Nancy never suggested overtly for a moment that they might have been a little fed up with my constant presence.

I thought of Peter as a link between two quite different worlds: the city (Sydney) and the bush (Waterview, South Grafton). Nancy and I were both country kids, who met up with the "big smoke" at the end of our adolescence. Peter, on the other hand, was characterized by the relative sophistication that came from being brought up in a prosperous North Shore context. His father owned a butchery business named Leroy. Peter, when I first met up with him, was actually an accomplished butcher… who once gave me a blue-and-white woolen butcher's apron. He had attended a prestigious Sydney Presbyterian school (Scots College). When I first met up with Nancy's future husband in Grafton, he drove around in a superb sports car.

In July 1982, in Bangkok, Emmanuelle, François and I encountered a new facet of the existence of Peter and Nancy. Peter had abandoned the butchery business and moved into marketing with a multinational pharmaceutical corporation, which had promptly sent him on a mission to Thailand. Back in Sydney in 1985, when my children and I disembarked in Australia, we were promptly welcomed by Peter and Nancy. Frontiers between our generations dissolved permanently when I found my uncle and my son, clad in plastic bags to keep themselves dry and warm, participating side-by-side in the City-to-Surf foot race on 17 August 1985.

Last week, after a startlingly rapid decline, Peter left us. And there are no longer any men of his generation in our family.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Cursed existence

Jeanne d'Arc

Jeanne d'Arc. In English, Joan of Arc. Her family surname was d'Arc. And her given name was Jeanne (pronounced jun in French, like fun, so much nicer than Joan). She was born six centuries ago, on 6 January 1412, in Domrémy (Lorraine). As a pious rural maiden, Jeanne d'Arc was horrified by the wounds inflicted upon the brethren of her village by the Anglo-Burgundian forces.

While minding her sheep and spinning wool, Jeanne heard the celestial voice of Saint Michael the Archangel exhorting her to create a rebellion aimed at kicking the English out of France.

It was a long combat, during which Jeanne behaved with the military force of a male. A successful combat. But Jeanne paid with her life.

And the tragedy of Jeanne d'Arc is expressed in a quiet noble style by Leonard Cohen and lovely Julie Christensen.