Monday, June 25, 2012

When the Mormons go down

For ages, we family-history researchers have all believed that the Mormons are our friends, and that we can take advantage indefinitely of their fabulous databases in Utah, present on the Internet through the time-honored FamilySearch website.

Personally, I've always been a little dubious of this idyllic scenario. While giving thanks constantly to the Mormons for their free services, I couldn't help wondering: What would happen in the genealogical domain if these crazy idolaters of the god Mormon suddenly decided to turn the tap off? Well, I fear greatly that this is what happened a week or so ago...

For some time, they've been touting the merits of their so-called new interface to the database as a friendly godsend, devoid of errors. What they really mean is that the new interface is designed to render user contacts antiseptic, as it were, with nothing more than the display of pure Mormon-authorized data... as distinct from all the stuff that heathen contributors (such as me, for example) might have dared to submit to Utah.

The outcome, for the moment, is catastrophic. It's as if the Mormon database—the summit of irony—has lost its soul.

Personally, I have complained bitterly on their blog. The latter, incidentally, can only be accessed if you're sufficiently well-informed to think of Googling "IGI": the Mormons' International Genealogical Index. Then you have to click around to find out what might be evolving in this domain.

Meanwhile, the new interface greets family-history researchers in pleasant green tones, with the charming silhouette of a young couple and a pair of kids in the mountains, alongside a lonely but auspicious family tree, as if nothing had ever changed in the universe of the prophet Mormon:

The only problem is that... everything has changed in the interface! You simply can't use it any longer as before, to look around for data of all kinds (true and maybe false) about your ancestors.

I posted a complaint on their blog at
William Skyvington says:
June 21, 2012 at 12:11 am

The impossibility of accessing the old interface is, for me, catastrophic. I’m right in the middle of a one-name study on the Skeffingtons, Skevingtons, etc… and nearly all the essential basic data has suddenly become unavailable.
Then I tried to be constructive:
William Skyvington says:
June 23, 2012 at 5:07 am

The IGI database came into existence because of the religious beliefs of its Mormon creators. And countless genealogical researchers bless them for this immense creation, without which modern family-history investigations would not have become a daily reality. It is time, though, to start evoking the perennial dimensions of this affair. Today, we are all alarmed because the LDS church seems to have suddenly decided (for reasons that are not totally clear) to block access to the celebrated old interface. Would it not be imaginable to ask the Mormons if they might be willing to to donate a copy of their database to a world-heritage fund under the auspices of UNESCO ?
 Finally, I succumbed to despair:
William Skyvington says:
June 25, 2012 at 6:48 am

We lamenters of the demise of the good old Mormon website are all crying in the genealogical wildnerness in the sense that most people, finding that the behavior of FamilySearch has become strangely unfriendly, won’t even know how to find help, seek explanations or complain. The privileged few who are submitting comments to the present blog are sufficiently well-informed to know that they should Google “IGI”. Unless you do that, you’ll never be guided gently by the Mormons to the present blog and its litany of complaints. In other words, the old database is dying, it would appear, not with a bang but a whimper.
Happily, at a purely personal level, all is not quite as bleak as I might have suggested (in my enthusiasm for saving the old Mormon website). A year or so ago, I started to sense the fragility and the awkward presentation of data in the Mormon database. So I decided to start saving everything that was offered. Already, my preoccupation was a comprehensive one-name study of Skeffington (Skevington, Skivington, etc). It was clear to me that the major weakness of the Mormon database was that a researcher could not simply make a common-sense request such as: Please give me a listing, in chronological order, of all your Skeffington records.

Well, to cut a long story short, as soon as I sensed that the Mormons were unlikely to react positively to a request such as mine, I decided to adopt a do-it-yourself approach aimed at the production of such chronological list of records for three groups of folks: the Skeffingtons, the Skevingtons and the Skivingtons. This goal necessitated countless hours of manual processing. Today, those three precious Mormon files exist in my personal archives... and it goes without saying that I am prepared to send them freely to researchers who might be interested in such data.

Amazingly (Does God protect genealogists such as me?), I had just terminated my in-depth analysis of Bedfordshire Skevington data at the same moment, last week, when the old Mormon database went down. So, I'm no longer really concerned about whether or not the Mormons might bring their old interface back into existence, since I know exactly what it contained.

The gist of my conclusions is that normally, if my reasoning is right, and if all our respective female ancestors were righteous Christian women who only slept with their lawful husbands (that's a big "if", I agree), then individuals such as Judd Skevington (in Western Australia) and I should share exactly the same Y-chromosomes as the Tudor lord Sir William Skeffington. In that perspective, we Australians (along wth certain Skevingtons in England) might be thought of as the unique "blood descendants" (to use an old-fashioned expression that I detest, because genetic inheritance has nothing to do with blood) of the Leicestershire Skeffingtons. So, exit the Mormons, and enter DNA.

Behind the masks

Over the last few years, this grinning mask has attained planetary notoriety as a symbol of political protest:

Anonymous at Scientology, Los Angeles (2008) — Vincent Diamante

This iconic disguise has been adopted by members of the Anonymous group of hacktivists, but they were not the inventors of the mask, which had been a key visual element in the 2005 movie V for Vendetta by James McTeigue.

Today, it has become one of the most famous masks of all time, on a par with theater masks of Ancient Greece:

Or the carnival masks of Venice:

The historical personage depicted in the mask is supposed to be the English Catholic would-be terrorist Guy Fawkes [1570-1606].

In the early hours of 5 November 1605, Guy Fawkes and a small group of conspirators, opposed to the Protestant monarch James I, made a foiled attempt to blow up the English Parliament with barrels of gunpowder. We might say that the veritable creator of the iconic mask was the anonymous 17th-century Dutch artist who dashed off this famous drawing of the group of conspirators.

Did the Dutchman actually see any members of the group before drawing their portrait? Probably not, but that's neither here nor there, for the artist had a knack for drawing convincing conspirators: the proof being that his iconic "conspiracy look" is still making front-page news some four-and-a-half centuries later.

The eight conspirators who were captured alive were subjected to some very nasty treatment, to say the least. It started with sessions of torture in the Tower of London. Then they were rapidly tried and condemned. The following drawing shows the so-called hurdles of wattle branches on which the condemned men were finally strapped and drawn by horses to the gallows at Westminster.

One of the executed conspirators (not shown, curiously, in the group portrait) was a Leicestershire knight, Sir Everard Digby [1578-1606]. He was in fact the only one of the conspirators who pleaded guilty. He also had the dubious honor of being hanged for a short period of time. Consequently, when they cut him down, he was still perfectly conscious... and therefore capable of observing in agony the ensuing operations of castration and disembowelment.

Digby (issued from a long line of distinguished males, most of whom were named Everard) came from the village of Tilton, just a few kilometers to the north of our ancestral village of Skeffington. Here's a recent photo of the parish church of Tilton-on-the-Hill (as it is now known) and the old school-house (made from the same stone):

Our ancestor Sir William Skeffington [1460-1535] was married in that church in 1492. And his 20-year-old bride was a village girl, Margaret Digby, daughter of an Everard Digby... who was a predecessor of the Everard Digby involved (over a century later) in the Gunpowder Plot. William, a Catholic—known familiarly as "the Gunner" because of his military predilection for heavy artillery—had seven offspring with Margaret. Then, when she died, William seems to have concluded that Digby women were a good affair, for he married Margaret's cousin Anne Digby, and had another five offspring.

Getting back to the famous mask, I have the impression that no authentic images of Guy Fawkes have survived. On the other hand, we do have an authentic portrait of at least one of the condemned conspirators: Everard Digby.

It's quite possible that this Digby portrait was the only visual document that could be accessed by the anonymous Dutch artist who created the group drawing of the conspirators. I have the impression that Digby's facial features and his vaguely cynical expression are not unlike those of Guy Fawkes in the group drawing. If it were the case that the Digby portrait inspired the Dutch artist, then that would mean that all those modern V for Vendetta masks might be thought of as joyful mementos of a curious Catholic from the tiny Leicestshire village of Tilton who was knighted by King James I on 24 April 1603, and then tried to blow up that same monarch just two and a half years later.

What would Sir William Skeffington "the Gunner" have thought of the behavior of this Digby descendant? We shall never know, of course, because these two Leicestershire knights were separated in time by a century. But I have my own idea on that question.
Remember, remember the 5th of November:
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason that gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Elusive Turing

Today is the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing [1912-1954]. He is represented in Manchester by this park-bench sculpture, which includes the cyanide-laced apple that killed the genius.

Google has celebrated the centenary by creating an ingenious doodle representing a Turing machine, but it takes some time and effort to figure out what it's supposed to do.

In my earlier blog post entitled Turing that unknown [display], I suggested that it's not easy to grasp what exactly Turing achieved. Fortunately, the US computer-science author Charles Petzold has offered us an excellent book, The Annotated Turing, which explains precisely the achievements of Turing.

While it's true that Turing's contribution to the British war effort at Bletchley Park was invaluable, his achievements in code-breaking were not the reason why we consider Turing today as the patriarch of computing. Likewise, while we appreciate Turing's suggestion about considering convincing man/machine conversations as a criterion for so-called artificial intelligence, this too was not really an all-important factor in Turing's claim to fame. So, why is Turing so greatly admired by computer scientists?

Well, his invention of the abstract concept of a so-called Turing machine (like the one in the Google doodle) threw light upon the limitations of algorithmic devices such as computers. More precisely, to use a horrible German term, Turing demonstrated that the Entscheidungsproblem cannot be solved. And what is this exotic beast? You might call it the "mission accomplished" problem. Like George W Bush with his war games, computers will remain forever incapable of determining beforehand whether or not a certain computing challenge can indeed be handled successfully. Turing taught us that the only way of knowing whether or not a computer can handle such-and-such a complex challenge is to set the machine into action and see whether or not it soon halts with a solution.

You might say that Turing proved that the proof of the computer pudding is in the computing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Save Julian

As a fifth-generation Australian, whose ancestors were English or Irish, I'm disgusted to realize that our compatriot Julian Assange has been obliged, following an "Australian declaration of abandonment", to seek political asylum at the embassy of Ecuador in London.

Meanwhile, Australian authorities dare to evoke retrospectively the question of "the possibility of cancelling Mr Assange's passport'', as if a modern nation might have the option of deciding to blacklist one of her citizens and chase him into exile. Shame upon Australia!

The inspirational origins of our international English-speaking community—indeed a former empire and civilization—were largely Judeo-Christian. And one of our symbolic personages was the Wandering Jew, cursed and outcast forever.

                                   — Samuel Hirszenberg (1865-1908)

Alone, torn from his roots, Julian Assange awaits his destiny in a dull ambassadorial building in London, where the otherwise kind people don't speak the same language that kids like Julian and me used to speak Down Under. His isolation is a shame upon Australia.

In France, not so long ago, there was a great man, like Julian, named Emile Zola [1840-1902].

If you shut up truth and bury it underground, it will but grow and gather to itself such explosive power that, the day it bursts through, it will blow up everything in its way.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Dogs in God's city

Dogs, in the context of conventional religions, have often had a hard time. An antiquated version of Revelations, on the very last page of my ugly King James Bible, states:
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.
Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.
For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.
So, in a heavenly context, dogs would be "without" (along with perverts, sorcerers, fornicators, murderers and idolaters)... just like the body of Jesus with respect to his tomb in Jerusalem. [One of my favorite jokes. A pious lady visiting the ornate tomb of the Holy Sepulcher asks her guide, a priest: "Is there anyone inside?" Priest: "Lady, if He's in, then I'm out."]

All this Biblical stuff is most smelly dogshit.

I remain astonished—as I said in my blog post entitled Is the Bible good English literature? [display]—that a great evolutionary zoologist such as Richard Dawkins might seriously appreciate the alleged literary qualities of this kind of antiquated twaddle.

Within Buddhism, of course, the situation for dogs is not much better. If I understand correctly, Buddhists place dogs at the extreme lower end of the spiritual scale (or whatever it might be called). I evoked this horrifying canine disparagement in my blog post entitled Tea for two expats [display].

In God's Own City, Jerusalem, the authorities are fed up with those nice droppings of angels, commonly referred to as dog shit. And they plan to use a genetics database to identify culprits.

Translation: "If you didn't clean it up, then it's you who left the shit."

This means that all dogs in Jerusalem will be required to supply their DNA specifications (a fine idea in the perspective of future yet-undefined biological research). Then a squad of turd inspectors (employment conditions and salaries not yet specified) will spend their working days gathering biological data on the Holy City's latest dog shit. And dog-owners will be fined whenever their animals are found to have defecated on the municipal territory.

I laugh out loud at the image of Israeli turd inspectors sticking their noses inadvertently and unknowingly into UFOs [unidentified fallen objects] such as non-canine excrement (including human shit). Within the category of possible turds, we have no theological right to exclude the possibility of authentic angels' poo (bearing small white wings), or even (God be blessed!) a tiny turd or two from the good old Holy Ghost himself. All these possibilities are based, of course, upon the predictions of high-quality Byzantine science.

Raw fish

Supermarkets of the French Intermarché group have a good reputation for their fish, based upon the fact that their Scapêche subsidiary operates a fleet of 17 fishing boats, employing 220 officers and sailors. Their website [here] describes the vessels, their activities and their ecological fishing principles. Most of the fleet is composed of trawlers: 5 small boats and 8 deep-sea trawlers based in the Breton port of Lorient. Two dragnet vessels harvest fish such as sardines, and they also operate a crab boat. The flower of their fleet is a vessel for longline fishing, the Ile de la Réunion, which operates in Antarctic oceans in the vicinity of the Kerguelen and Crozet islands.

Thanks to the activities of this Intermarché fleet, we can purchase all kinds of excellent fish products in the local stores. At the Intermarché store in St-Jean-en-Royans, the friendly woman in charge of their fish counter knows that I'm an aficionado of fresh fish that can be eaten raw, in the Japanese sushi fashion. Here's a dish of espadon (swordfish) that I prepared yesterday.

The green stuff is ultra-hot wasabi paste, and the rice is sprinkled with sesame seeds and Kikkoman soy sauce. Purists will be shocked to learn that I've put a dab of Indian lime chutney on top of the rice.

The Scapêche fleet also provides us with red tuna (not exactly cheap), which is surely the king of sushi-style products.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Patron saint of French Socialists

Next Sunday, as we wander out of our village churches after the Mass (while shaking hands with Monsieur le curé and expressing admiration for the excellence of his sermon) and stroll to the polling booths for the first round of the parliamentary elections, we Socialists must not fail to remember that our party now has a patron saint.

The feast day of Saint Nafissatou is the 14th May. A legendary tale reveals that, on that day in the year 2011, in a humble inn in the village of Manhattan, the Holy Ghost alighted upon our heroine in the bodily form of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, clad in less than the bare necessities. Were it not for all the shit that followed, we French Socialists would have pleaded with Dominique to be our leader.

History will surely confirm that Strauss-Kahn would have accepted our pleas of allegiance. We would have gone into presidential battle behind Dominique's banner. And it's not unlikely that Christians among us would have evoked the celebrated words of the Singing Nun, the tragic Belgian Jeanine Deckers [1933-1985 suicide with her female lover]... without worrying too much about the fact that the French verb niquer means "to screw" (in the sense that an internationally-renowned master of economics might like to screw prostitutes).

Were it not for Saint Nafi (her familiar name among friends), we would have gone into the recent presidential elections as innocent lambs, not knowing that the malefic forces of Sarko had more than enough data on hand to screw our hero and ourselves. And the whole nasty affair would have blown up in the middle of the electoral activities.