Sunday, September 30, 2012

Political space capsule

I'm utterly shocked by the apparent absence of Australian diplomatic intervention in the case of Julian Assange, condemned to survive for the moment in a "space capsule": the London embassy of Ecuador.

Many years ago, when I had already lived in Paris for a long time (I arrived there in 1962), I used to say jokingly to Aussie friends and relatives (modernized summary):
If ever we Australian expatriates were to find ourselves in a nasty situation, I don't have the impression that our motherland would ever dream about sending in helicopters to exfiltrate us.
At the time (I'm talking about the 1960s), there was a rumor about the fact that our embassies and consulates were fed up with the task of repatriating mindless Aussie tourists who had run run out of money or run into problems of one kind or another. At that same time, I happened to be greatly impressed by the fact that French nationality seemed to be a precious acquisition, which guaranteed the holder against all kinds of unexpected happenings. The French seemed to think that a citizen remained essentially French no matter where he happened to be located on the surface of the planet. Australian authorities, meanwhile, seemed to act as if a passport-holder became "less Australian" as soon as he left the country.

Today, I'm convinced that Australia doesn't care an iota about citizens residing in Europe. For example, the Paris embassy probably has no official idea of my existence or whereabouts, and is probably unconcerned by this ignorance.

It's a hopeless situation. As I often say, Australia needs a revolution. Meanwhile, citizens will carry on looking moronically at media stuff about Gina Rinehart, the top-ten most expensive residences in East Sydney, the local football, the case of Julia Gillard and her father, etc... A perfect formula for eternal political stupidity.

BREAKING NEWS: The story of Pippi Bean (nothing to do with Julian Assange) provides another revealing illustration of the ineffective behavior of Australian consular services when faced with the case of an Australian citizen in distress in a hostile land. Click here to access an article on this affair.

My neighbor's donkeys

A few days ago, a bit of half-hearted barking by Fitzroy informed me that something slightly irregular was happening at Gamone. When I rushed downstairs, I discovered that we had received the visit, for the first time ever, of my neighbor's five donkeys. Fitzroy's barking only appeared, of course, to be half-hearted. The truth of the matter was that my dog was in total control of the situation. I would imagine that, in Fitzroy's mind, this meant that the donkeys were grazing contentedly, and gave no signs of attempting to enter my house. So, in a canine sense, all was more-or-less in order. During the minute or so that it took me to race back upstairs to phone my neighbor, the donkeys had moved down the road. By the time that Jackie appeared on the scene, his animals had discovered the nice patch of green fodder alongside Madeleine's place. Jackie borrowed a rope from his aunt and had no trouble leading the matriarchal donkey, followed by the others, back up to my place... where my own donkeys, Moshé and Fanette, looked down with curiosity upon all the movement.

[Click to enlarge]

With so many donkeys now present at Gamone (count me, if you so insist, in their numbers), I've often suggested to Jackie that we should set up some kind of a business. If and when my son François finds time to visit me one of these days, now that his huge TV series of moped shows is finished (the production, but not the airing), I'll ask him for advice in the spirit of the story of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson [1850-1894], author of Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, evoked in one of my son's excellent travelogues [display].

Otherwise, Jackie and I might look into the idea of bringing our donkeys up to a cabaret level, like the smart donkeys of Emilienne d'Alençon [1869-1946], who performed at the Casino de Paris.

Besides presenting her donkeys, Emilienne was quite a talented young lady, generally described in French as a courtisane. This term (for which I can find no good English equivalent) designated an attractive female who had succeeded in imagining elegant ways of marketing her charms in the context of distinguished and wealthy admirers such as the Duke of Crussol d'Uzès, King Léopold II of Belgium and the jockey Percy Woodland. Even an aging donkey such as me could surely be infatuated by the splendor of such a trainer.

Of a sexually ecumenical disposition, Emilienne got on well with the famous model of Toulouse-Lautrec known as La Goulue [1866-1929].

Emilienne also got involved with a British lesbian poetess who called herself Renée Vivien [1877-1909] and wrote in French.

Nicknamed Sappho 1900, Renée died in a suicidal atmosphere at the tender age of 32, in the purest of depressive romantic traditions.

Talking about smart donkeys (as we once were), I happen to possess a remarkable but little-known bible on donkey wisdom (a precious gift from Christine) written by Victor Hugo.

Naturally, before making plans about their future education, prior to some kind of music-hall show, I asked my donkeys for their opinion on this project. Moshé seemed to like the idea, but Fanette reacted surprisingly (she's a young female) in a strictly negative manner.

I've told my neighbor that I would be happy to go ahead with some kind of a project aimed at bringing our donkeys up to a music-hall level.

We both agree however (at the risk of appearing as old-fashioned male sexists) that it would be unwise for the donkeys and us to get involved in any kind of fragile business context with romantic lesbian dancers and suicidal female poets, no matter how enticing they might appear.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

François Skyvington's moped road movie

Viewers in France and Germany have been reaching my Antipodes blog after Googling with the search argument "François Skyvington".

Residents of France and Germany can see replays of recent programs of the series entitled Détour(s) de mob (in German: Ein Moped auf Reisen) for a week after the broadcast date. People in Australia (François and his sister Emmanuelle are Franco-Australians) cannot unfortunately view the series. I have therefore not thought it worthwhile to carry on making blog posts about each program.

Monday, September 24, 2012

So where the bloody hell are you?

Maybe some of my readers don't know this notorious punchline from an Australia Tourism video of 5 years ago:

In Sydney yesterday, certain tourists were given an exceptional opportunity of using their mobile phones to tell worried friends where the bloody hell they happened to be located.

"Apparently we're somewhere between Darling Harbour and Chinatown. We were doing a sightseeing tour in the monorail. Then the bloody thing stopped, and we've been stranded in mid-air for an hour now. Down in the street, we can see firetrucks and rescue workers in hard hats who seem to be getting ready to use a huge mobile crane to reach us. I don't expect we'll be back on earth for a while yet. So, there's no need to hurry about throwing another few prawns on the barbie."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Preparing winter wood

Yesterday afternoon, my supplier of firewood—my neighbor Gérard Magnat—dumped a huge pile of wood alongside the house. Since rain has been forecast during the coming week, I promptly covered the pile of wood with a tarpaulin.

My job now—which will take me a couple of days—is to transfer all this wood into neat stacks under a corner of the roof of the house.

As I explained in a blog post a couple of years ago [display], the wood can be moved more-or-less effortlessly with the help of a hand truck.

As for the wood itself, it's a mixture of oak and European Beech. Many of the pieces of oak are irregularly shaped, and very beautiful.

I'm aware that it's a privilege to be able to burn such nice old wood to keep oneself warm.

Talking about wood, I've got a couple of pine kitchen chairs that I brought back from Western Australian some 25 years ago. Years ago, my dog Sophia discovered that it was a pleasant experience to chew away at the rungs of these chairs. And I now find that Fitzroy, too, likes to gnaw at this Australian wood.

Often, I find a sprinkling of splinters on the floor beneath the chair. Inevitably, Fitzroy is likely to bite right through one of the rungs. I hope it's the pure wood that tastes good, rather than the varnish or a chemical product applied to the wood. But dogs are not accustomed to informing us why they've acquired a taste for such-and-such a thing. Why is it, for example, that Fitzroy likes to lap up traces of wetness in the shower, even when he has access to his bowl of fresh water?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Identity keys in the genealogical domain

A new kind of personal identity key has come into existence over the last few years. I refer to it as your Y-key, pronounced to rhyme with "crikey". It's a unique identifier that is used in DNA testing in the genealogical domain. A Y-key points to an individual's set of Y-chromosome marker values stored in a global database.

For the moment, since few individuals have bothered to obtain their Y-chromosome marker values, the keys are quite short. For example, my own Y-key is a short string of five alphanumeric characters: RJ6XS. Click here to access the database, created by the Family Tree DNA company. For the moment, it's the only Y-chromosome database of which I'm aware. Anybody who knows that my Y-key is RJ6XS can rapidly access my set of 67 marker values.

Once Y-keys became a commonplace phenomenon, messages of the following kind could be used in genealogical contexts:

My Y-key is RJ6XS.

Can anybody tell me if a Y-key exists for Winston Churchill?

Please send me your mother's Y-key.

The latter example raises an obvious question: What is the sense of a Y-key in the case of a female individual? Well, it's simply the Y-key of her father or her brothers.

In years to come, I would imagine that Y-keys will become as commonplace as social security numbers. But they will only ever concern a small minority of people: namely, those who are interested in genealogy.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Cory who?

The situation is unfair. Why is it that such-and-such a totally-unknown moronic compatriot from Down Under makes world headlines every so often? Meanwhile, we others have to work hard and constantly to air our narrow set of weird beliefs, our absurdities and our ignorance.

A couple of years ago, the Internet world discovered an amazing Aussie senator, Steve Fielding, who greatly impressed a visiting biologist, Richard Dawkins. Enjoy this video masterpiece:

After Steve Fielding and Cory Bernardi (who has novel ideas on the likely sexual tastes of gays and other mammals), I wonder who's the next idiot to acquire front-page notoriety. Personally, I would be more than happy to get interviewed by Australian TV on the interesting question of the sex life of Jesus and his wife. I have no facts whatsoever on this subject, of course, but I have a lot of fabulous and entertaining ideas, which I would love to share with the world at large. And I would make a point of getting drunk before the TV people arrived here to interview me and my dog.

Mitt's bit about 47 per cent

Click here to watch the US comic Jon Stewart unwinding excitedly when he demolishes Mitt Romney. It's not only great entertainment; it's above all an amazing political evaluation of the nitwit's words. The funniest thing of all for me, who's not accustomed to seeing either Romney or Stewart, is that they're vaguely similar in physical appearance, and they both spend their time making shocking declarations. But those of Stewart make sense...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Freedom to offend my neighbor's gods

Click here to access an excellent article by Sam Harris entitled On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God.

There's an old saying: Give him an inch and he'll take a mile. It's a warning: Never make concessions to aggressive bullies, because they'll see that as a sign of weakness, then they'll come back asking for more. This is particularly true in the case of Islamic maniacs. If we were to bow down obsequiously to their demands that we "respect" their so-called prophet, they would come back asking us to take our hats and shoes off, or kneel down, whenever his name is pronounced. And finally, they would demand that we worship him just as they do.

There's no place for the gutless. Bullying from loony Islamic fanatics must be halted totally and immediately, by all possible means.

Antipodean voyage 1925

A week ago, I published a short post entitled Images that stimulate our imagination [display]. Well, friends at Gallica tweeted me a thank-you, along with a link to a gift.

The "little souvenir from Australia" was a set of snapshots from an album dated 1925 housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Click here to visit the original website. I've cleaned up and slightly rearranged some of the images, which I shall now present.

On 27 March 1925, a young woman and her parents left Europe on the maiden voyage to the Antipodes of the SS Cathay, built in Glasgow, belonging to the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, better known as P&O.

Launched five months earlier, on 31 October 1924, the Cathay was designed to carry some 200 first-class and 100 second-class passengers. In the illustration, no smoke is emerging from the second funnel. There's a good reason for this. That second funnel was a dummy, placed there for purely esthetic reasons.

In Sydney, in 1925, St Andrew's Anglican cathedral and the Town Hall looked much like they do today:

[Click to enlarge]

Circular Quay was a tram terminus.

The trio stayed at the Hampton Court Hotel near Kings Cross.

Recently, this building—which I remember well from my Sydney days—looked like this:

In 1925, Elizabeth Bay and Rose Bay were charming places, as they still are.

The tourists seem to have been attracted to the golf club in Rose Bay.

I've cheated a little by merging two photos together in order to obtain this interesting image of a shark tower at Coogee beach:

On the north shore of the harbor (not yet girded by Sydney's famous bridge), Neutral Bay and the Spit Bridge haven't changed greatly over the years.

There are many other images in the album, including photos from New Zealand.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jesus evokes his wife

When I heard that the US novelist Dan Brown had suggested, in The Da Vinci Code, that Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene, I was totally uninterested. Besides, I struggled through no more than half-a-dozen pages of that atrocious best-seller before I was utterly bored... by the author's crime-novel style and his make-believe content.

That's definitely not my kettle of fish. On the other hand, I studied eagerly a French book by Marie-France Etchegoin and Frédéric Lenoir whose sole purpose consisted of analyzing and demolishing all the nasty mumbo-jumbo served up in Brown's silly novel.

The only reason I started out by mentioning Dan Brown's novel is to point out emphatically that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject of the present blog post.

Today in Rome, the Harvard historian Karen King revealed the existence of a small fragment of papyrus with eight lines of text written in 4th-century Coptic (the language of Egypt).

photo Evan McGlinn for The New York Times              

This papyrus fragment contains words that are linked in a way that has never occurred before in any ancient text concerning Jesus.

The fourth line reads:
Jesus said to them, "My wife..."
Then the fifth line reads:
she will be able to be my disciple
Already, the words on this piece of papyrus are being referred to as The Gospel of Jesus's Wife. As such, they will be associated with the amazing documents known as the Nag Hammadi library, which I mentioned in my blog posts of April 2007 entitled Sharing life together [display] and Gnostic discoveries [display]. These so-called codices (bound books) were discovered in December 1945, protected by a sealed jar and buried in the sand at the foot of the cliffs of Jabal al-Tarif, alongside the Nile in Upper Egypt.

Cliffs of Jabal al-Tarif in Egypt, near Nag Hammadi.

By chance, this afternoon, shortly before stumbling upon this news of the newly-revealed papyrus, I had been thinking about writing a blog post on one of the most extraordinary documents in the Nag Hammadi library: the Gospel of Thomas. I'll do that later on... Meanwhile, I imagine the huge impact of today's news—the possibility of a female disciple of Jesus—upon the established church of Rome, which has never accepted the idea that a woman might become a priest.

Retweeted by Dawkins

This morning, I was pleased to learn that Richard Dawkins had retweeted (to his almost half-a-million followers) my latest message.

Consequently, if ever Mitt Romney were to become the US president (Heaven forbid!), my chances of obtaining a Green Card have just been annihilated. Happily however, after my death, the Mormons will surely baptize me, and I'll be able to toil in God's Own Country for the rest of Eternity.

Maybe there are non-Mormon readers who won't understand what the hell I was talking about. After all, outside the USA in general, and Utah in particular, not everybody has heard of the angel Moroni who led the prophet Joseph Smith to a hillside where he was able to dig up gold plates containing the words of the Book of Mormon.

It's a delightfully amazing tale. What a pity that you have to be a credulous idiot to believe a single word of it.

There's an anecdote that has amused me ever since I heard it for the first time a couple of decades ago. The Holy City of Jerusalem has always been the home of adepts of every imaginable variety of monotheism. Indeed, if the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten and Nefertiti were to reappear in the Middle East today, the Israeli authorities would surely authorize them to set up some kind of temple in Jerusalem where they could worship their sun god.

The only notable exception to this spirit of tolerance in recent times concerned the Mormons, who had purchased land on Mount Scopus. After bitter discussions that dragged on for ages, the Israeli authorities only allowed the Mormons to erect their outpost of the Brigham Young University after they had signed a declaration confirming that they would refrain from all missionary activities in Jerusalem. These days, though, Bibi Netanyahu and Mitt Romney are old buddies.


Several years ago, in the context of my document on maternal genealogy entitled A Little Bit of Irish [access], I tackled briefly (in the final four pages of chapter 2) the idea that my great-great-grandfather Charles Walker [1807-1860] might have been Scottish rather than Irish. In my analysis of the evidence, I made use of a principle employed in historical research concerning the stories of Jesus. At the time of writing about my Braidwood ancestor, I had forgotten where I had heard of this principle, which I evoked in a rather fuzzy manner. Well today, quite by chance, I discovered both the name of the principle and a good description of its origins and use.

Invented by the prolific American historian Will Durant [1885–1981], the principle has an amusing name: the criterion of embarrassment. Faced with a questionable item of alleged historical data, we should ask the question:
"Can we consider this item of data as somewhat embarrassing for the people who were writing the history in question?"
If so, then the item has a good chance of being valid, because historians wouldn't have retained data that was, not only embarrassing, but false. Put differently: Historians are only tempted to falsify the alleged facts that they are describing when the outcome of this falsification is likely to be positive; and embarrassing facts cannot normally produce a positive outcome.

In the case of my Braidwood ancestor, the idea that he might have been a Protestant Scotsman was indeed embarrassing for Walker descendants, since most of them had become members of Irish Catholic communities in Australia. And the situation was particularly embarrassing when we realize that 32-year-old Charles Walker might have lied blatantly about his background with the sole aim of being authorized to marry a girl who infatuated him: the 17-year-old daughter of an Irish convict. Consequently, the speculation that Charles might have been brought up as a Scottish Protestant was so outlandish that this rumor should normally have been squashed forever as soon as it first appeared.

Eliminating the rumor should have been a simple matter. It would have been sufficient to produce documentary evidence of Charles's birth, supposedly in Cork, along with other basic evidence linking him to Ireland. But no such documents have ever been brought to light. Although Charles Walker was employed on an English vessel, the Caroline (the ship that had taken the Henty brothers and their merino sheep to Western Australia), and in spite of his reputation as a respectable and prosperous citizen and a friend of certain distinguished English landowners in the Braidwood region (such as Captain John Coghill and Dr David Reid), we know less about Charles Walker's background in the Old World than for any other of my many Australian ancestors.

Funnily enough, the rest of the speculation, today, is not at all embarrassing for a descendant such as myself. Back in 1980, I was informed that one of Charles Walker's grandsons used to tell an amazing story about his Braidwood grandfather.

The storyteller, John Albert Walker, claimed that his grandfather Charles who had come out to New South Wales on a ship in 1833 was in fact a young brother of Johnnie Walker [1805-1857] of Kilmarnock, the inventor of whisky.

I've tried to research this speculation, but have been incapable of either confirming or disproving the question.

In recent years, the criterion of embarrassment has been used above all in investigations concerning the so-called historical Jesus: that's to say, the real man behind all the evangelical fantasy upon which the future religion of Christianity would be based. Prominent adepts of the criterion of embarrassment are to be found among the 150 or so scholars who belong to an amazing organization known as the Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 in Oregon. They operate in a most democratic manner, voting by means of colored beads in order to express a consensus view on whether Jesus might or might not have made such and such a statement. Beads are of 4 colors: red, pink, gray and black.

Click here to examine some of their conclusions, many of which would horrify the pope.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Discovery of a cousin

In a blog post of 7 February 2012 [display], I referred rather rudely to certain individuals in our family tree as "ring-ins", which is an Aussie slang term for an offspring born "out of wedlock" (as the old-fashioned expression puts it). At the risk of offending descendants of such individuals, all I really wanted to do was to draw attention to the fact that, in the case of their male descendants, it's obvious that our Y-chromosome data could not possibly match.

In that blog post, I mentioned the case of a member of the family named Atwell Skivington [1850-1941]. Well, I've just been contacted by a 5th-cousin named Chris Lamble, who lives on the outskirts of London. In the following chart, the left-hand line leads down to my grandfather Ernest Skyvington, whereas the names on the right-hand side lead to the grandparents of Chris.

As you can see, Chris is the great-great-grandson of Atwell Skivington from Iwerne Courtney (Dorset). Chris confirms that Atwell was an illegitimate son of Elizabeth Skivington, and he indicates the identity of his father, named Isaac Atwell (who died at the age of 31).

Up until now, the oldest family photo that I had was a portrait of my great-grandfather William Skyvington (taken in about 1894).

Thanks to Chris, we now have this excellent portrait of Atwell Skivington (taken in about 1920), who belonged to the generation of my great-great-grandfather Frank Skivington [1845-1916].

Between my ancestor William and his father's cousin Atwell, I find that there's a certain physical resemblance. But maybe it's simply because of the mustaches.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Young Australians 2012

In France yesterday, a similarly illegal protest march took place in Paris. We learn today that an official inquiry will take place, to identify the ringleaders. An organizer of an illegal happening of this kind can be jailed for six months and fined 7,500 euros. To perform their inquiry, French police have the identities of 152 protesters, and they will be using street video images and messages that appeared on the Internet.

The exceptional resolution of the French ministry of the Interior is reassuring. I have the impression that a similar procedure is to be adopted in Australia. The following excerpt from The Sydney Morning Herald confirms that the disturbances in Sydney are being taken most seriously:
The chain of text messages that led to the riot in Sydney's central business district on Saturday leaving 23 people injured, including six police officers, was being traced by detectives last night. More arrests were expected in addition to those of the six men already charged, after about 400 protesters tried to storm the US consulate in Sydney and became involved in running battles with police around Hyde Park, St James railway station and William Street. [...] The public order and riot squad was on standby last night to quell any further outbreaks of violence, and an investigative team, Strike Force McAlister, was formed to track down ringleaders.

Australian child 2012

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Big robotic hounds

In my blog post of 8 September 2012 entitled Robotic runner [display], we saw a legged robot named Cheetah breaking a speed record on a laboratory treadmill.

The same DARPA organization [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] proposes the following spectacular video which presents field testing of their Legged Squad Support System (LS3).

I'm frankly terrified by the idea of such big robotic hounds roaming around out in the wilds. We must realize that DARPA isn't designing these metallic creatures as toys. This is pure military research. They say that the big beasts might be used as pack animals, to carry stuff that would normally be borne by human soldiers. But a robot that can transport military gear can also carry a machine gun. They could be trained to operate in a hunt-and-kill style, while being commanded at close range by vocal orders.

We've had glimpses recently of the terrifying efficiency of unmanned drones. Just imagine what a military confrontation might look like if the attacker were to deploy a mixture of airborne drones and legged ground robots. I have the impression that we're hurtling into a crazy science-fiction universe, in which battles will be fought by 5-star game-playing generals located far from the killing grounds, maybe in luxurious bunkers.

Images that stimulate our imagination

People in charge of the excellent Gallica website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France [access] send us constantly all kinds of fascinating images, which I receive through their Twitter messages. Here's a typical specimen, which reached me just a few minutes ago.

The nice thing about such Gallica images is that, in general, they're rarely accompanied by any kind of possibly boring explanations: neither a description of the subject, nor the date and place of the image. So, our imagination is free to wander.

I look upon these Gallica images as a kind of antidote to an excessive consumption of Google. As everybody knows, Google seeks (particularly through Wikipedia) to tell us everything that can possibly be known about anything whatsoever. That's great, of course. I would be totally lost, today, without the miraculous assistance of Google and Wikipedia. But it's good, at times, to know almost nothing about such-and-such a Gallica image. And to be reassured that there's probably no way in the world that you could ever acquire much more factual data concerning the image in question. Consequently, you're obliged to invent your own data...

Maybe there are readers of my Antipodes blog who might be able to tell us what this fellow is doing. And when, where and why...

Personally, I have the impression that this well-dressed guy is an employee of an international company that sells livestock through the Internet. Clearly, he's delivering this beast (Is it a camel or a dromedary?) to one of their customers, maybe in Marseille.