Thursday, May 31, 2012

Albertine in bloom

During the night after Sophia left us, the Albertine came out in bloom.

[Click to enlarge]

That will be an annual reminder of Sophia's departure for the stars.

Also, yesterday happened to the birthday of both my son François and my Choranche neighbor Serge.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lady Sophia has left us

b 25 July 1998 Beauvoir-en-Royans
d 29 May 2012 St-Jean-en-Royans

During the final weeks and days, I appreciated greatly the wise and kind words of many friends.

Christine, Emmanuelle and François have learned, through the bitter death of Gamone (Sophia's daughter), that the loss of a dog is the disappearance of a precious piece of the Cosmos.

— I thank my Provençal friends Natacha and Alain, who knew Sophia so well, particularly when she accompanied their aging Geoffroy.

Annie, in Australia, has comforted me constantly in the domain of dog drama, just as she has applauded regularly in the domains of dog marvels. I don't know Annie personally, but she sounds like the sort of intelligent and sensitive Australian lady whom I would love to meet.

— My Swedish friends Eric and Marita have sent me marvelous Scandinavian blessings, full of canine understanding and sympathy.

— My Choranche neighbors Madeleine, Tineke and Serge were special friends of Sophia, and they often commented upon her sleek elegance over the last few months. (A few years ago, Sophia tended to put on weight, and I put her on a special diet.)

— My veterinarian (who euthanized Sophia this afternoon at 3 pm) is as cold as ice... but that's fine, indeed necessary. Behind his cool calm, he has a tender heart of gold, and he knows how to console a grief-stricken dog-owner such as me.

— Conversations with my childhood mates Bruce Hudson and Ron Willard have eased my grief.

On the final trip from Gamone to St-Jean-en-Royans, I talked non-stop to Sophia... who may or may not have heard me. (I like to believe that she was lapping up every word.) My declarations were totally unplanned and spontaneous. I even found myself apologizing to Sophia for having suppressed some of her progeny back at the time of the birth of Christine's dog Gamone.

For Sophia, there have always been two magic phrases: "Tu veux manger ?" (Want to eat?) and "Tu veux te promener ?" (Want to go for a walk?). This afternoon, on our journey to the end of the road at the veterinarian's clinic, I repeated ceaselessly to Sophia:

"This evening, Sophia, you're going to walk with the stars."

That's where she is now.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

France, one point

Let me get this out of my system right away, so that I'll feel less guilty this evening. I intend to watch the Eurovision song contest... for as long as I can, courageously, at the risk of getting nauseated. OK, now that I've made my EVCO (Eurovision Coming Out), I feel much better, and I think I can even put forward a few reasons why I intend to watch this kitsch stuff.

First, for anybody with tired neurons (like me, with all the anguish brought about by the ongoing critical state of my dear Sophia), watching the Eurovision song contest is a tremendously relaxing way to spend an evening. Not only are you not obliged to think; you're actually encouraged not to think about anything you see or hear, because it's all happening in a make-believe place called EuroFairyland, and the whole thing has almost nothing to do with the talents of the performers or the musical qualities of their songs.

Second, as a typical French chauvinist, I want to see and hear the stunning creature Anggun, representing the French Republic.

Third, I'm curious about the colorful group of Russian oldies. I'm convinced that, at the end of their performance, they're no doubt capable of disappearing into one another in the style of wooden dolls.

Fourth, for the first time in my life (and maybe the last), I wish to see and sit through a performance by the British gentleman named Engelbert Humperdinck. I've disregarded him impolitely for so long that I must give him all my attention this evening.

Fifth, there are those Irish Jedward twins, who look like they've just stepped out of a pop remake of Star Wars. After all the years I've been devoting to the research of my Irish ancestry (which might well be less ubiquitous than I had once imagined), I owe it to Erin to be brave, and bear stoically the spectacle of these prancing plastic lads.

Finally, above all, we're all aware that Azerbaijan is a nasty dictatorship. And it's unwise, indeed dangerous, to simply disregard dictators. Hopefully, sooner or later, that silly old-fashioned stuff named democracy must end up prevailing in Azerbaijan, inevitably. So, watching the dictator's super-show this evening amounts to keeping an eye on him... and maybe even getting a feeling for the most effective approach towards toppling him.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Marvelous ghosts

I'm fascinated by the craftsmanship of the bright fellows who earn their living writing speeches for leading figures such as heads of state. For the last five years in France, everybody has known that, whenever Nicolas Sarkozy happened to be expressing himself in an exceptionally brilliant style in a speech, he was simply repeating words written for him by Henri Guaino, often referred to as Sarkozy's "plume" (quill).

Henri Guaino

In the case of François Hollande, his excellent speech-writer Aquilino Morelle is the son of a Spanish immigrant who worked on Citroën's assembly line at Nanterre.

 Aquilino Morelle

Once upon a time, a writer who produced words that were then attributed officially to another author or speaker was referred to as a "nègre" (Negro)... but this term, in such a context, is no longer politically correct. In English, we speak of ghostwriters.

Many years ago, just after my marriage, I worked briefly as the ghostwriter for a distinguished French industrial leader, Maurice Ponte, head of the CSF (Compagnie générale de la télégraphie sans fil), later to become Thomson–CSF. He had been called upon to deliver a speech in London, and he asked me to invent a style of English expression that was sufficiently rickety (my adjective, not his) to give his audience the impression that he had indeed written his speech. I even got around to including explicit apologies for Ponte's allegedly less-than-perfect English. Truly, in earning my living like that, I felt like a male prostitute.

Here's an interesting mental experiment. Imagine that you're a ghostwriter and that you've been hired to write a speech for the head of the Australian delegation at the forthcoming Olympic Games in London. At the last minute, the person who was supposed to deliver your carefully-written speech informs you that he has changed his mind, in that he has decided to write his own speech. At the same time, since he doesn't want you to waste your efforts, he puts you in contact with the head of the delegation from Papua New Guinea, because they are prepared to pay you for the use of your speech. Now, would this arrangement work out? Probably not, since the words you propose in the case of one nation can't normally be "put into the mouth" of another quite different nation. In the same way, a political ghostwriter couldn't simply create a brilliant speech and sell it to the highest bidder. Obviously, a ghostwriter has to choose his words in accordance with what he believes his employer would normally say.

It's a funny situation. If a ghostwriter named Fred were hired to write a speech for a great lady of politics named Julia, say, then he has to invent in his imagination, as it were, a kind of ethereal Julia, and he then has to try to think and talk in the style of this virtual creature. Finally, the words of the speech belong, neither to the real Julia, nor to the ghostwriter, but to this imaginary creature in-between. The term "ghostwriter" is therefore well chosen, because the word craftsman is indeed setting down the words of a ghost, who does not really exist.

Ghostwriting has long been recognized as quite a challenge in the ancient domain known as rhetoric, which is the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing. And if ghostwriters were seeking a patron saint, it would surely be the Roman rhetorician Quintilian.

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus [35-100]

He referred to this branch of rhetoric by the Greek term prosopoeia, which suggests that a fictitious "face" (that of the ghost) has been created, and made to speak. Consequently, one might say that the craftsman who writes words for the ghost is practicing the art of prosopography.

Now, let us jump into a domain that doesn't appear, at first sight, to have much to do with the art of ghostwriting. Let us look at history. In a historical text describing the words, actions and presence of a long-dead individual, who exactly is expressing himself? Is it the historical personage, or is it rather the living historian? In fact, it is neither... but rather a ghost that appears between them, between the inferred events of the past, and the present-day discourse that is supposed to describe those events. In other words, the historian is practicing a creative art that is not all that far removed from ghostwriting.

Over the last couple of decades, an entirely new branch of so-called prosopographical history has come into existence in the great English universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Instead of pretending to explain what happened in the past, the prosopographical historian collects every imaginable item of data concerning the past events with which he is concerned, and organizes them in the form of a vast structured database, enabling modern researchers to stick their inquisitive noses into the piles of data—as it were—and make up their own minds about what might or might not have been the case. In other words, it is the database that becomes the ghost, and modern researchers can listen to fragments of the discourse of this ghost in any way they please.

Concerning the history of families named Skeffington (or something of the kind), it is quite possible that a prosopographic approach would be ideal. We dispose of quite a lot of fragments of data concerning events and individuals that appeared on the scene in the wake of the Norman Conquest, then through the Tudor period and beyond, right up to my personal ancestors in Dorset. But the earlier individuals remain ghosts, and we must respect them as such. The most mysterious ghost of all is of course the original patriarch who called himself Skeffington.

Recently, I got led away into imagining, for a moment, that this patriarch might have been a member of the de Verdun family, but that idea is almost certainly false, for the simple reason that people named de Verdun and Skeffington coexisted in parallel for ages.

There is another possible explanation of the identity of the Skeffington patriarch that should not be ignored. Most often, we talk as if the Normans simply killed or chased away all the Saxons and took over their settlements and lands. And that is how Normans came to settle in Sceaftinga tûn: the place of Sceaft. But is it thinkable that the Normans might have spared Sceaft and his people, and allowed them to carry on living in Leicestershire? If that were the case, then my earliest ancestors would indeed have been Saxons, not Normans.

In that spirit, let us listen for a moment to the voices of the Saxon ghosts. That is not difficult, thanks to the excellent database of prosopographic historians from King's College London, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Centre for Computing in the Humanities and the University of Cambridge. Click here.

 If anybody could get the ghost of Sceaft's place to say a few words, then it's surely this prestigious group of experts. When I browsed through their long list of Saxon personalities, looking for my possible patriarch Sceaft, I was in for a huge surprise. He's quite possibly there, but as Sceaf, without the final "t". That doesn't worry me. What's a missing "t" between me and a Saxon ghost! In fact, the database offers me two choices. One is relatively realistic. This Sceaf would have been the father of Cerdic and an ancestor of Æthelwulf. Fair enough. But I prefer by far the other choice in this fabulous database.

Wow, a Saxon Sceaf who was "born in the Ark; father of Beadwig and son of Noah". I'm convinced that's him, the Saxon patriarch I've been searching for!

Prosopography is truly a great approach to digging up possible facts about the past. Back in Grafton, when I was a child, there were many disastrous floods. Ah, if only I had been able to boast at the time to my schoolmates that maybe my most ancient ancestor was born in the Ark... and a son of Noah!

Virtual pilgrimage to my patriarchal village

As I've often said already in this blog, I refer to Skeffington in Leicestershire as my patriarchal village because we have every reason to believe that the earliest male ancestor of our families (who have written their surnames as Skeffington, Skevington, Skevyngton, Skivington, Skyvington, etc) came from that place, shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

I've never set foot in Skeffington. So, this morning, I decided to set out on a virtual pilgrimage to this village. These days, pilgrims no longer need to wear their boots out walking. During their pilgrimages, they don't even need to leave home. In other words, I used Google Maps. I left the city of Leicester at a leisurely pace (from an Internet viewpoint) and set out in an easterly direction along Uppingham Road. The following sign soon informed me that my destination was three-quarters of a mile in front of me.

[Click to enlarge]

Coming upon the following messy set of redundant warnings, I started to wonder whether I was about to meet up with a busy urban environment, with dense traffic all over the place.

In fact, the Skeffington turnoff was so quiet that, at first, I carried on straight past it.

When I backed up to the tidy intersection, I noticed a small sign indicating the direction of Skeffington village.

A little further on, I turned right and soon came upon Skeffington's ancient church, dedicated to Thomas Becket.

In fact, the village is surprisingly small... and it appears to contain neither shops, pubs nor businesses.

Most of the historical data about Skeffington and the Skeffingtons comes from an old book by John Nichols. For years, I've been using a poor-quality photocopy of the 25 Skeffington pages in this book, which I've never been able to find on the Internet. A few days ago, I sent off an e-mail to a distinguished Leicestershire archaeologist asking where I might obtain a good copy of the Nichols pages. Well, this friendly man, named Richard Buckley, reacted by sending me spontaneously an immaculate PDF file of the precious pages. I'm always impressed when I discover that it's possible for a simple researcher such as me to communicate meaningfully with a distinguished scholar such as Richard Buckley.

Yesterday, still on the theme of the village of Skeffington and its inhabitants named Skeffington, I received a copy of another precious book on Leicestershire, published in 1926:

I've already scanned J B Firth's dozen or so pages on Skeffington, and I shall soon make them available through my Skeffington website.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jungle excursion

On the slopes just above my house, the gully where Gamone Creek flows (when there's rain) is, at present, a dark and humid jungle. And that's where Sophia has always gone to do her business. Yesterday morning, I took this photo of her as she was emerging.

[Click to enlarge]

Fitzroy joined me, and we waited for Sophia to wander back up onto the road.

Instead of that, Sophia suddenly decided to stroll resolutely into the depths of the jungle, into a zone that is too steep for me to explore. It was only an hour or so later that she reemerged calmly, down at the corner where the road crosses over the creek. You can imagine that, during that hour, I had visions of my dog having wandered off into oblivion, to a place that I would never locate, meaning that I would never find traces of her. Worse than there, Gamone Creek was running violently in a series of cascades, and I feared that Sophia could get drowned. When she suddenly reappeared, and I led her back up to the house, I was like a disciple on the road to Emmaus.

I rewarded Sophia by subjecting her to a warm bath and a shampoo, to get rid of the muck that has been accumulating on her fur since she entered her disturbing state of food aversion... which continues, unfortunately. All I can say for the moment (as I know that many friends are concerned by her condition) is that Sophia spends most of her time sleeping on the warm kitchen floor, and that she does not appear to be unduly distressed. But she's living dangerously...

Garden flowers are back

I'm pleased to discover that I haven't lost a single rose or peony plant since I planted them in 2009. This year, the Gay Paree is splendid, and doesn't appear to be bothered by its position alongside a giant rose bush and a clump of lavender (neither of which are flowering yet).

The Princess Margaret is thriving, but its huge flowers are weighted down by all the recent wetness. (Please disregard all the vegetation in the aisles between the plots, which I haven't had an opportunity of removing.)

On the opposite side of my garden, the Manou Meilland is a rose reflection of the peonies.

But the most glorious flower of all, at this time of the season, is the Don Quichotte, whose aroma is intense.

A month or so ago, in a quite heavy-handed manner, I cut away all the climbing rose branches protruding from the top of the pergola. Today, they've all sprouted even more abundantly.

It's a bit like a scruffy-haired boy whose mother needs to send him to the barber. Notice, on the left, the first small red blossoms of Albertine, whose stalks are also reddish.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Amazing American shit

It's nice and reassuring for an Antipodean European such as me to realize that we can look in on US weirdies as if we were visiting a sociological zoo, housing endangered species, without being expected to feed any of the inmates, let alone call upon funds to nourish them. Here's video testimony concerning an excellent specimen in the crazy American zoo, the pastor Charles Worseley, who considers that gays and lesbians should be herded together into a camp and left to die off.

Nice nasty stuff, to say the least...

Is the Bible good English literature?

I'm surprised — amused, not irritated—to find Richard Dawkins arguing in favor of the idea that the King James Bible is "a great work of literature", deserving a place in the libraries of UK state schools.

We get a better grasp of Dawkins's motivations (likes and dislikes) through his comments concerning the famous words of Ecclesiastes 1:2 evoking the absurd emptiness and fleeting futility of our human existence: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity." Countless members of my generation in the English-speaking world have been struck by those Biblical words—now replaced, in modern translations, by more down-to-earth terms—but it's not at all certain that we've all understood what the speaker was really saying. In any case, this sentence cannot be looked upon as a sample of fine expression, neither in modern English nor even in old-fashioned words.

First, the all-important word "vanity" means little more these days than excessive and foolish pride in oneself. Admittedly, the expression "in vain" starts to hint at what the unidentifiable speaker (named Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes and, incidentally, not at all a "preacher" in the modern sense of this word) was saying: namely, that our existence is vaporous, a brief gust of wind. Indeed, the Hebrew term הֲבֵל (havel) signifies "a breath". It is not by mere coincidence that this same word appears in Genesis as the name of the first human being to die: Abel, slain by his brother Cain.

The expression "vanity of vanities" is not ordinary English, but we end up understanding what the Bible seems to be saying. In Hebrew, havel havelim (literally "breath of breaths") is a superlative form that might be translated literally as "ultimate vaporousness". In other words, in the context of all that might be thought of as vaporous, Qoheleth evokes a supreme instance, like the terminal value in calculus of a function, expressed as the sum of a series of increasingly-infinitesimal elements, when the number of summations approaches infinity.

In the line of the King James Bible that Dawkins appreciates, the presence of the archaic form "saith" of the verb "to say" is hardly a sign of great English. It's rather obsolete English. Consequently, I can't help wondering whether Dawkins might not be making a donnish attempt to pull our legs when he evokes the alleged literary greatness of the King James Bible.

The explanation, I believe, is more subtle. In the '50s, for the youth named Richard Dawkins, as for me, the "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" declaration was a kind of absurdist slogan, on a par with other attractive existentialist nonsense such as Sartre's "Hell is other people". It conveyed the charming image of frocked but befuddled archbishops (we were Anglicans) who paraded like peacocks, and tried vainly to adjust their faith to science. We liked this kind of language, because we sensed that it was dynamite, and we soon set about investigating its supposed profundity and ramifications.

In the case of Richard Dawkins, the former Anglican lad, a latter-day Qoheleth, metamorphosed into a poet of science, hit upon a fantastic new way of saying that "all is vanity", that we were struck by the fleeting breath of awareness:
The Universe could so easily have remained lifeless and simple -- just physics and chemistry, just the scattered dust of the cosmic explosion that gave birth to time and space. The fact that it did not -- the fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved literally out of nothing -- is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice. And even this is not the end of the matter. Not only did evolution happen: it eventually led to beings capable of comprehending the process, and even of comprehending the process by which they comprehend it.
                                       — The Ancestor's Tale  2005  p 613
Yes, Richard, we must honor the King James Bible. It's an indirect way of honoring your fabulous intellectual path and quest.

Now, were you really serious about promoting the presence of antiquated religious documents in UK school libraries? Or were you joking? And what about Shakespeare?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Turing, that unknown

In a month's time, the computing world will be celebrating the centenary of Alan Turing, who was born in London on 23 June 1912.

Much mystery still surrounds the life and work of this great Englishman, who can truly be considered as the founder of computer science. He designed a marvelous computing device that soon became known as the Turing Machine. It's so powerful and precise that it can perform any calculation whatsoever, no matter how complex, including those that are carried out today by the giant supercomputers used in space engineering, military calculations or meteorological predictions. My book Machina Sapiens, published in 1976, offered French readers (no doubt for the first time ever) a drawing of a Turing Machine, accompanied by demonstrations of how it worked.

But I don't have the impression that anybody went out and actually built such a machine... to handle his office accounting, say. In fact, although a simple Turing Machine can indeed perform any of the computations executed by a modern computer, I have to be truthful and point out that I wouldn't advise anybody to get involved in trying to use a Turing Machine to build a spreadsheet, say, or to carry out some word processing. And I'm even less certain that a Turing Machine would be an efficient tool for tweeting, or sending e-mails, or linking up to Facebook. The problem, you see, is that Turing Machines have to be programmed from scratch, and even the simplest tasks—such as the multiplication of two numbers—would represent a huge programming challenge. What's more, I'm not sure that anybody has ever bothered to actually build an operational Turing Machine. Like the model that illustrated my book, Turing Machines tend to remain on paper, on the pages of textbooks for computer science students.

So, why all the fuss about Alan Turing having invented a machine that is the grand-daddy of all computers, past, present and future? Well, it's a bit like Einstein's E = mC2. This simple equation was the key to understanding that matter can be transformed into energy. But, between understanding the equation and being able to obtain energy from a nuclear reactor, a lot of hard work needs to be carried out. You might say poetically that the Turing Machine defines the "soul" of any imaginable computer in the real world. But, to move from the abstract "soul" to a real "flesh and blood" computer, you have to envisage a huge amount of design, engineering and programming... of both a hardware and a software kind.

Funnily enough, although the Turing Machine can indeed carry out any imaginable task that might be performed by modern computers, it's greatest interest was that it enabled Turing and other logicians to discover that certain tasks could never be carried out by any imaginable computer whatsoever. For example, it is impossible for a computer to determine beforehand, when faced with certain algorithms, that it will indeed be able to reach the intended end of the algorithm and provide an answer. In this way, the Turing Machine appeared on the scene as a mechanical variant of the themes of incompleteness and undecidability elucidated mathematically by Kurt Gödel (seen in the following photo alongside Albert Einstein):

Gödel was still alive in the early '70s when I was visiting the USA in order to organize my future series of TV programs on the subject of men and machines (basically, artificial intelligence and brain research). I spoke on the phone with Gödel for 20 minutes or so, trying vainly to get him to agree to being interviewed for my TV project. But he insisted—no doubt sincerely—that he himself did not consider that his theorems had any significance whatsoever in modern society... that's to say, at the level of ordinary folk who watch TV. Maybe he was right.

Getting back to Turing, his most concrete claim to fame was surely the wizard-level code-breaking operations that he performed for the British government during World War II, at Bletchley Park.

He was a practicing homosexual at a time in the UK when relationships of this kind were branded as criminal. The poor man, suffering no doubt from a form of autism (Asperger Syndrome) that made him socially awkward, was obliged to undergo ignominious chemical castration. In June 1954, a fortnight before his 42nd birthday, Turing was found dead in his laboratory, poisoned by cyanide, and clutching a half-eaten apple.

A British journalist once asked Steve Jobs if the logo of Apple computer was intended as a tribute to Turing. "No, that's not the case," replied Jobs, "but God, we wish it were."

Sophia's stayin' alive

Over the last week, Sophia has been avoiding all meat-based food including, above all, her customary croquettes. She's surviving on raw eggs, fragments of apple and bits of bread.

Last Friday, I described this situation to the veterinarian, who said that my dog's self-imposed diet was indeed unorthodox, but by no means catastrophic.

These days, since the weather has been warm and dry, I've been encouraging Sophia to spend her nights out on the lawn with Fitzroy, instead of on the kitchen floor (her customary bedroom). If she has an urgent need to urinate or defecate, being outside is convenient (rather than barking to wake me up in the middle of the night, to let her out). Well, when I got up yesterday morning, I was surprised to find that Sophia, for the first time ever, had apparently spent the night as a squatter in Fitzroy's kennel.

This unusual behavior alarmed me in that I couldn't help wondering whether Sophia was maybe searching instinctively for a place in which she might doze off into eternal sleep. Twenty minutes later, she emerged from the kennel, did her business up alongside her familiar track, and promptly took off in the wrong direction, sliding down the grassy slopes through the weeds, and ending up in a spot that was too steep for me to access. She continued her descent, guided by Fitzroy, until she reached the road. Then she decided that it would be a good idea to quench her thirst in the creek and to take a bath in a waterhole. I had to go out of my way to persuade her to stroll back up to the house.

Back home, Sophia chose to take a nap in another unusual setting: on a mound of rocky earth at the far end of the ancient cellar behind the house. Normally, she only goes there on exceptionally hot days... which was not the case yesterday. Later on, she decided to spend some time in the most unusual spot of all: a narrow tunnel dug into the hill behind the house, which I've always imagined as an ancient hiding-place back in the days when the prosperous vineyards of Choranche were often attacked by Protestant bandits. When Sophia emerged from the tunnel, I began to wonder whether my dear dog might be the victim of a sudden onslaught of senility. To rule out the possibility that she might wander off down the road in the early hours of the morning, I decided that it would be wise to attach her to Fitzroy's chain alongside the kennel. Meanwhile, I boarded up the entry to the tunnel.

Yesterday evening, I was so enthralled by a TV show that I didn't even realize that it was raining heavily. When I went outside, around midnight, Sophia had left the kennel and was lying down in the wet grass, totally soaked. I rushed the two dogs into the kitchen, put Sophia onto a cotton sheet to dry her out, and turned on the heating. There was a marvelous moment of complicity as Fitzroy started to lick Sophia's wet fur.

This morning, everything seems to have returned to normal... and Fitzroy is still watching over his old aunt. If the two animals appear to be wet, it's because they had just spent 20 minutes on the slopes, in the rain, while Sophia went about her business. With the rain and mud outside, and all the coming and going, the kitchen floor is like a pigpen... but I can't be worried about that. My only aim, in the immediate future, is to take care of Sophia as best I can.

Once again, Sophia downed three raw eggs for breakfast. I remain worried, of course, by the fact that she's unenthusiastic about any other food. Still I'm relieved that she never whimpers, and does not seem to be in pain. Curiously, her nose hasn't been running at all since yesterday... which might (or might not) be a positive sign.

Bee Gees

After endless health problems (some of which were hereditary), Robin Gibb has finally left us, at the age of 62. During the '60s and '70s, Robin's ethereal voice played a major role in the fascination exerted by the three brothers from the Isle of Man... who migrated to Queensland when they were young boys.

Today, only Barry Gibb survives.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Amazing zomby show

Three psychology researchers (including the Queenslander Matthew Thompson) have hit upon one of the most amazing distortion illusions I've ever seen:

While you're gazing at the cross in the middle of the screen, nothing prevents you from taking a brief glimpse at times, to the left or right, just to make sure that the video creators were not cheating.

The viewer's situation reminds me of what a driver might see when he's traveling at night along a narrow mountain road, with his eyes fixed on the road ahead. This was often the case back in 1993, when I resided for three months at St-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, which is separated from the outside world by a treacherous winding trail through dark gorges, between cliffs and ravines.

I can now understand retrospectively why I often imagined, in the darkness, that I was driving along a mountain road inhabited by the medieval ghosts of Saint Bruno and his fellow monks.

Big day in the USA

Between Barack Obama and François Hollande, an introductory exchange of a few words on the theme of US cheeseburgers and French fries might have been interpreted as a lighthearted evocation of the recently-adopted diet of our new French president, who used to be quite a plump little man.

photo pool/AFP — Philippe Wojazer

Ah, if only international diplomacy could be determined solely by smiles!

Apparently Barack Obama told François Hollande that he wasn't obliged to stand out in the "crowd" of G8 members by continuing to wear a necktie. Hollande explained that the necktie was purely for the French media. Are we really as formal as that in old-fashioned France? It's a fact that one of our new ministers, Cécile Duflot (chief of the Greens), was the object of certain criticism when she turned up in jeans, on Thursday, for the first ministerial meeting at the Elysée Palace.

The following White House photo highlights the rapid ascension of François Hollande into the sacrosanct courtyard of the great:

It makes me feel good to see France represented at last, within this assembly, by a fine solid left-wing Frenchman such as François Hollande... as opposed to our recent tiny twitcher, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Socialism is not a dirty word

We've all heard that black is beautiful. It's time now, for the Anglo-Saxon world, to learn that socialism is not a dirty word. Here in France, in a perfectly democratic manner, socialism has become our political credo.

It would be unimaginable that two great defenders of human values such as Barack Obama and François Hollande might not become instant friends, on the same wavelength.

Meanwhile, idiots in my native Antipodes might continue to believe that socialism is the political philosophy behind the welfare state, which encourages so-called bludgers, as opposed to early birds and hard workers who strive mindlessly for decades to amass the tiny nest egg that will take care of their old days. In this perspective, my impression of Aussie "political philosophy" has not changed over the half-century since I left my native land. It's hopelessly dumb!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Comments widget unavailable, replaced by another gadget

For ages, I had a widget in the right-hand column that highlighted recent comments. Recently this widget seemed to break down, and I haven't been able to find any kind of operational version. So, I've replaced it by an amusing widget that highlights the most popular blog posts. It's not obvious why people visit those particular blog posts rather than others.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Day of socialist symbols

I was thrilled by yesterday's presidential happenings. To start the ball rolling at the Elysée Palace, viewers saw Nicolas Sarkozy wearing high heels like those on cowboy boots, producing the impression that he was as tall as his wife Carla Bruni, not to mention the new president. Since Sarkozy always walks with the gait of a roughrider who has just picked himself up after being thrown off a rodeo buckjumper, the global effect was comical.

After the inaugural ceremony, François Hollande was driven up the Champs-Elysées in an open-top Citroën described as hybrid (running simultaneously on conventional fuel and electricity). For the rain gods hovering over the City of Light, this was too good an opportunity to miss. Viewers had excellent closeup views of the wetness extending over the head and shoulders of the newly-elected president. When he got out of his Citroën to "reanimate" the flame above the tomb of the Unknown Warrior under the Arc de Triomphe (technically, it's simply a matter of opening a gas valve to multiply the volume of the flame), Hollande was clearly soaked.

The electoral slogan of François Hollande was "Change is for now". Yesterday, back at the presidential palace, change #1 concerned Hollande's soaked clothes. When he reappeared at a small lunch table in the company of former Socialist prime ministers (Pierre Mauroy, Edith CressonLaurent Fabius and Lionel Jospin), Hollande was dry as a bone.

The first of three major afternoon rendezvous, all highly symbolic, was a wreath-laying ceremony at the foot of the statue of Jules Ferry in the Tuileries park between the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre.

Jules Ferry [1832-1893]

All French children are told that Ferry was the man who invented the republican concept of free and obligatory schooling. Since Hollande has insisted constantly that French youth and education are pillars of his political aspirations, his oration at this place had a high symbolic value. And the rain gods were kind to the mob of school kids who were there to greet the new president.

The second rendezvous, in the Latin Quarter, concerned the great Marie Curie, who might be thought of as the instigator of France's future prowess in the domain of nuclear engineering.

Marie Curie [1867-1934]

At this point in space and time, while Hollande was wandering around alongside the medical research institute, the rain and hail gods decided to get back into action... while crowds of joyous technicians looked down upon the scene from the dry shelter of their laboratories. Change #2, at the town hall in Paris: once again, it was a matter of changing Hollande's soaked clothes.

A marvelous complicity existed between the new president and the Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë, not to mention the crowd of guests invited along to a reception in the vast hall of the Hôtel de Ville. It might be said that delivering an oration in the heart of Paris, inspired by the history of the great city, is an easy task, because there are so many colorful and dramatics themes that can be introduced. It was also an emotional operation. I had the impression that many onlookers were rubbing tears out of their reddened eyes. Me too, for that matter.

François Hollande had already set out towards Germany in a presidential jet when the storm gods intervened once again. The plane was struck by lightning. So, change #3 involved returning to the military airfield on the outskirts of Paris and changing planes.

For François Hollande, if not for France, what a great day of change!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Saving Sophia

Over the last week or so, my lovely 13-year-old dog Sophia has been affected by alarming health problems, and I'm trying desperately to save her.

For ages, she has has been afflicted with a "running nose": that's to say, a daily effusion of greenish mucus from her nostrils, which has never seemed to worry Sophia and which I simply wipe away with absorbent paper. The veterinarian has explained to me that this mucus is no doubt an external symptom of some kind of serious internal problem. Unfortunately, this superficial symptom doesn't indicate automatically any kind of effective medication. And it's a fact that none of the several products suggested by the veterinarian have succeeded in stopping the mucus effusion.

A week or so ago, things became more dramatic when Sophia started to lose her appetite. The veterinarian put her on cortisone tablets, and this seemed to produce a positive reaction. Since yesterday, though, Sophia has refused all food, no matter what appetizing products I've offered her. Worse still, she refuses to eat additional cortisone tablets. So, this evening, I'm terribly anguished...

It's all very well to say that she's an old dog, and that her time is up. Fair enough. But I'll be devastated if and when she goes. Sophia is Gamone, and Gamone is Sophia.

Monday, May 14, 2012


When I was a schoolboy, we were expected to learn an assortment of curious old units of weights and measures. One of the strangest of these obsolete specimens—which came down to Australians as part of our British heritage—was the furlong: a distance of 1/8 of a mile, 220 yards. Initially, the furlong was a medieval term associated with the use of bullocks to plow a field.

The Anglo-Saxon legend is "God Spede ye Plough and send us Korne enow": an invocation to the plow to perform its function efficiently, so as to yield enough corn.

At Waterview in South Grafton, my Walker uncles used a pair of draft horses to plow their land. And their grandfather Charles Walker [1851-1918] was a so-called teamster, in charge of a bullock team that transported timber.

As the original expression "furrow long" suggests, a furlong was the length of a furrow in a plowed field. A wit suggested that, to please nostalgic rural Brits, automobile speeds might be indicated today in furlongs per fortnight. In my native land, the term "furlong" survived in the domain of horse racing, but Australia finally changed to metric distances in 1972.

Over the last week or so, I've been brought back in contact with ancient English units of measure through my work on Skeffington genealogy. Now that I've completed my book whose title is They Sought the Last of Lands [access], I've moved back to the challenge of assembling a greatly-revised version of a document whose new title is Skeffington One-Name Study [access].

It will start with the Norman Conquest and attempt to describe how the patriarchal family from Leicestershire flowed out into several corners of the British Isles, including (in the case of my recent ancestors) Dorset.

Details of the original manor in the settlement of Sceaftinga tûn are available through the Domesday Book, which can now be viewed freely on the web [access]. The settlement is described here on line #6:

The settlement referred to in Domesday (1086) as Sciftitone belonged entirely to King William. It included 12 carucates of plowed land (1440 acres, or some 583 hectares), a mill and 6 square furlongs (24 hectares) of woodland.

I now realize that, before being able to write correctly about the ancient origins of the Skeffington family, I'll need to broaden my technical knowledge, not only of land measures, but of feudalism in general and the old manorial system.

Talking about plowed land, I took this photo today of my neighbor's cousin, who brought his tractor across from Châtelus and spent an hour or so preparing the earth at Gamone for Jackie's vegetable garden.

Thinking back to my childhood in Australia—and my lessons about archaic furlongs, rods, carucates and so forth—I now realize that we were no doubt closer in spirit to the Anglo-Saxon fellow in the drawing at the top of this blog post than to the modern mechanized neighbor in the above photo. Hey, that's a great revelation: I grew up in medieval surroundings!