Friday, August 31, 2012

Opening chapter of Skeffington study

I've more-or-less terminated the opening chapter of my Skeffington One-Name Study, entitled Elusive patriarch [download], dealing with the half-century that followed the Norman Conquest in Leicestershire, in the vicinity of the village of Skeffington.

As the title of this opening chapter suggests, I haven't been able to track down and identify the patriarch of the Skeffington family in England. So, you might say that the hero of my document is totally absent. On the other hand, as I've often suggested, the widespread adoption of genealogical genetics (Y-chromosome profiles) could well add totally new dimensions to this quest. For the moment, I seem to have no potential relatives whatsoever in the Y-chromosome database, so the current score of my Skeffington matching is a huge zero. In fact, the match hasn't even got under way yet, since I'm still the sole player on the field. My chapter 1 might become interesting in the future, for certain small groups of readers, when the techniques of genealogical genetics have become commonplace.

This seat's taken

The Mormon dimwit Mitt Romney invited Clint Eastwood to ramble on incoherently at the Republic convention. The actor decided to speak to an empty chair, as if it were occupied by Barack Obama.

Obama replied to Eastwood and Romney by means of a marvelous three-word tweet and photo:

It's an excellent example of the effectiveness of imaginative tweeting. The power of such a message, today, is equivalent to what would have been obtained in the old days (before the Internet) by a vast and costly billboard campaign.

Unusual evening photo

Over a week ago, at around 7 o'clock on the evening of 22 August 2012, I took this photo of the Bourne valley, looking eastwards:

[Click to enlarge]

At first sight, it looks as if the Sun were rising. But, at that time of the day, the Sun was actually setting in the west: that's to say, in the opposite direction, behind the photographer's back, beyond the slopes behind Gamone, on the low horizon beyond Pont-en-Royans. So, what's the origin of that pink hue in the clouds above the cliffs of Chalimont? Unfortunately, I didn't pursue that investigation on the evening in question. (My attention was probably attracted by the TV news. Besides, I didn't even know yet whether my Nikon had recorded an interesting image.) I would imagine, though, that the clouds were reflecting light from a first-quarter Moon, low in the sky behind the Cournouze.

I now recall that, a couple of days later on, I had received a most unusual phone call from my neighbor Madeleine, at around 11 o'clock in the evening. She had been woken up by the barking of her dog. Looking outside behind her house, she had the impression that there was a glow in the air, like the light from a halted automobile. She asked me whether there was a full Moon that evening, and I said no. To remove her fears that there might be an intruder in the vicinity, I actually jumped into my car and did a rapid trip down to Madeleine's house and back.

When I phoned back to say that everything was pitch black and calm around her house, Madeleine told me she was sure she had heard voices at the same time that she noticed the glow. I explained to her that I had noticed lately that voices from her nephew's house can travel down along Gamone Creek in a remarkably clear fashion. On that very day, I had been cutting weeds, well below my house, when I was convinced that I was hearing the voices of people who had just stopped at Gamone. When I scrambled back up to the house, I realized that it was simply Jackie chatting with his donkeys, a hundred meters up the road.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Darwin nomination

You've probably heard of the prestigious Darwin Awards:
In the spirit of Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives. Darwin Award winners eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species' chances of long-term survival.
So, the winner of a Darwin Award [click here to visit their website] is necessarily a dead idiot whose disappearance inspires us in the sense that we would like to see more individuals of his kind removed forever from our gene pool. The award winner is the posthumous symbol of a branch of humanity for whom our dearest and deepest (unspoken) wishes would be extinction.

I've just found my personal candidate for the forthcoming award. I'm happy to present this silly dead bugger to my readers. First, you need a few elements of US backwoods culture, straight from Monsanto. You see, folk in that part of the world have met up, for ages, with a legendary apelike creature known as Bigfoot, whose rare sightings are awesome. The following image of Bigfoot proves that he exists.

But, even in Monsanto, lots of folk refuse to believe in Bigfoot. So, they need a little nudge, otherwise belief in Bigfoot might subside, which would be a state calamity. A bit of military gear does the trick.

This outfit is known as a Ghillie suit, used as close-combat camouflage, and you can buy one through the Internet.

A certain Randy Lee Tenley, 44, of Kalispell, Montana was apparently alarmed by the recent drop in Bigfoot sightings. He decided that the most efficient promotional act would consist of buying a Ghillie outfit and wandering around on a local highway, in the hope of arousing talk about the legendary creatures. Sadly, the silly bugger got run over, Ghillie suit and all, by a passing driver. RIP, Randy. I hope and pray that you'll get a Darwin Award. You deserve it. There should be more deaths like yours.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Breton moon child on moped

My son François Skyvington has just terminated a whole year of shooting a TV travelogue series, which will soon be broadcast regularly by the Franco-German chain Arte. The shows will start in a week's time, on 3 September 2012, at 18h30 (Monday to Friday). Breton media have just started to roll the publicity ball, with an interview in the prestigious Ouest France daily (incidentally, one of the finest newspapers and media organizations in France).

For French-language readers, here's the start of the article:

[Click to enlarge]

As I see things, my son's burgeoning TV career is a logical outcome of his extraordinary gift for immediate introspection into what makes individual people tick. In my personal case, any such genetic inheritance failed to make itself manifest (I'm totally incapable of evaluating people, places and situations), but I'm convinced that we can identify the ancestors of François who gave him such genes. I'm thinking, of course, of his grandfather Jacques Mafart [1916-2011] and his grandmother Kathleen Walker [1918-2003], who both expressed, differently but amazingly, this exceptional talent. In talking like this, I'm aware that maybe I might be seeking sillily the proverbial origins of the smile of the latest baby in the sepia images of ancestors. But I persist in believing that the exceptional skills of François as an introspective TV interviewer ring a bell in my memories, and that the genealogical associations that I'm evoking enable us (me, in any case) to better appreciate his talents.

POST SCRIPTUM: The French expression "doux dingue" might be translated as "mild eccentric" or "gentle crackpot". Normally, an individual described as a "doux dingue" of something or other would be thought of as a fanatic, who eats and sleeps with the objects of his obsessive adoration. In fact, the relationship between my son and mopeds is not at all of this all-embracing nature. He likes mopeds, I think, in much the same way that I used to like bikes or, more recently, donkeys. But don't expect François to seek election as the president of the French National Society of Moped Lovers (if such an association exists). He simply hit upon an interesting item of sociological data: namely, the fact that, for an entire generation of French youths, starting in the 1980s, the moped was a synonym of liberty, enabling them to escape momentarily and simply from the family cocoon. Then François combined this observation with the obvious fact that this "escape" of the moped rider is strictly slow speed, enabling him to count the roadside daisies on rural roads and, above all, enter into immediate contact with people encountered along the way. So, in my son's mind (if I can speak for him), there emerged this concept of an exceptionally user-friendly old-fashioned vector for personal transport. I wasn't particularly surprised, therefore, when François phoned me excitedly during their shooting in the Cévennes to tell me that he had just met up with a fabulous book, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, written in 1879 by a certain Robert Louis Stevenson [1850-1894].

And nobody, of course, would ever dare to refer to the Scottish author of Treasure Island as a gentle crackpot.

New woman taking care of French president

It's hard to keep up with all the president's women. The Tweeter presence of their most prominent member, Valérie Trierweiler, was notorious. I have no idea of the name and identity of this latest individual, but she certainly seems to be in intimate contact with François Hollande, brushing dust off his elegant suit (with its Légion d'Honneur button) before the start of a new presidential work-day.

Apparently this attractive young blonde lady is English, in spite of her French-sounding title: Madame Tussaud.

The Eagle has landed

On 21 July 1969, in front of our black-and-white TV set in the living room of 16 rue Rambuteau in Paris, it was almost as if I were there on the surface of the Moon, alongside Neil Armstrong.

Christine and I watched the incredible events unfolding in real time on our fuzzy TV screen. In an adjacent bedroom, our two-and-a-half-year-old Emmanuelle was no doubt far more fascinated by the presence of her two-months-old brother François. I've always looked upon François and Emmanuelle, in a way, as Children of the Moon.

That was surely one of the USA's greatest hours.

And yesterday, one of the USA's greatest quiet heroes went back to the Moon, forever.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Out on the slopes opposite Gamone

For the last few days, I had been intrigued by a golden-hued patch of vegetation located on the slopes opposite Gamone, not far from the vestiges of a winegrower's stone cabin (circled in green).

[Click to see enlarged versions of these photos]

I got dressed up for some outdoor scrambling over the slopes (overalls and solid boots), grabbed my stout chestnut stick and set off up the road with Fitzroy (who soon wandered off on his own into the woods). I discovered rapidly that the golden color was due to dead ferns, parched by the heat.

Here's a view of my house, looking down into Gamone Valley from the spot where the golden ferns are located.

I wandered up to the ruins of the winegrower's cabin.

In its original state, the southern façade of the cabin extended to the spot in the next photo, on the right-hand edge, where you see a cluster of white flowers.

In the background of the above photo, beneath the invading vegetation, you get a glimpse of the rear wall of the cabin, erected against the embankment. Here's a closeup view of that wall, from inside the cabin:

 An edifice of this kind, composed of blocks of limestone, dates surely from the time of the monks.

The French nation seized ecclesiastic properties after the Revolution. Vineyards in the vicinity of Gamone were sold by auction during the period from 1791 to 1793.

As you can see from the starting prices (957 pounds for the property that used to belong to the church at Presles, then 2992 pounds for the pair of properties belonging to a chapel in the church of Pont-en-Royans), the authorities were not giving away these highly-reputed vineyards for next to nothing. They would have been acquired by relatively well-off local citizens. New owners of the Choranche vineyards would have no doubt lived in prosperity for over half a century, up until the scourge of phylloxera destroyed the vineyards entirely. After that, the cabins would have been knocked down, slowly but surely, by wind and snow. Maybe this marked fragment of a broken roof tile might enable me to date the construction of this particular cabin:

A few meters below the ruins of the cabin, I came upon another group of stone blocks that look as if they surrounded a well or maybe the winegrower's outdoor cooking zone.

A finely-cut slab of thick flat stone is lying in the earth. For the moment, I don't understand its role in the structure. Would it have been an element of some kind of a work device used by the winegrower?

I gazed across at the valley of the Bourne, below my house, and tried to imagine a time when this area was covered in grapevines, with scores of workers moving around on the slopes.

On the way back down to the house, I broke off a small branch of pine needles, to bring home.

These pines are just a few hundred meters up from my house, but they are growing at a slightly higher altitude than at Gamone, where I have no such trees. These pine needles were a souvenir of my brief excursion into a remote mountain territory... which I admire daily from my bedroom window.

Good books

Britain's New Scientist weekly has just put out a selection of 25 popular science books that "have changed the world" [here].

I would have been a little worried if this list of books had included many works that I did not know. On the contrary, I was thrilled to discover that I had read 15 of their suggested titles, while most of the remaining titles rang a bell (in the sense that I had heard of them, and had a good idea of their themes). The only one of the 25 books that was a total newcomer to me was The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (1985). Here are those that I've read:

•  A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)

•  Brighter Than a Thousand Suns by Robert Jungk (1956)

•  Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter (1979)

•  Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (1997)

•  On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

•  The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski (1973)

•  The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg (1977)

•  The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker (1994)

•  The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)

•  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)

•  The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

•  The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose (1989)

•  The Mysterious Universe by James Jeans (1930)

•  The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris (1967)

•  What is Life? By Erwin Schrödinger (1944)

At the top of this list, the "big three" for me would be Dawkins, Watson and Pinker. I would have included a title by David Deutsch... but it's a fact that he remains a bit too recent to have changed the world yet. Maybe "will change the world". The same could be said of Lawrence Krauss.

Perfectionist punishment

The US Anti-Doping Agency's decision to erase the career of Lance Armstrong is a blatant case of perfectionism. I'm using this term in a pejorative sense, designating a Kafkaesque situation in which holier-than-thou bureaucrats have gone to absurdly extreme lengths in the hope of installing their lily-white conceptions of what professional cycling should be all about.

Lance Armstrong, August 20, 2009 – photo Stefan Wermuth, Reuters

In punishing an outstanding sportsman for alleged faults committed long ago (if indeed they were truly committed), USADA is harming gravely the sport of cycling in general and the Tour de France in particular. For countless admirers in the USA and Europe, Armstrong will remain a hero because of the amazing story of his combat against cancer, and the way in which he happened to pick up no less than 7 yellow jerseys in the wake of that combat. The world of professional cycling has been making enormous efforts to wipe out the use of illicit pharmaceutical products and doping strategies. And the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) will be shooting itself in the foot if it accepts the conclusions (as it is more-or-less obliged to do) of the US anti-doping organization. Hoping to clean up cycling by punishing Armstrong retrospectively is an idiotic case of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The day started nicely

This morning, things started out quite well for me. After being woken up by the dull thuds of one of my donkeys (the young female) rummaging around in my pumpkin patch, I was relieved to discover that Fanette had in fact behaved quite daintily, in the sense that she'd simply gobbled up a few carrot and turnip plants, but hadn't crushed any of my pumpkins. Here are some dismal photos of the pumpkin patch in the heat of day:

The pumpkin plants were in mourning. The right adjective is "droopy".

In the midst of that stultifying droopiness, that pumpkin is probably ripe. Besides, how do you know whether a pumpkin's ripe or not?

Happily, a few hours later on, in the cool of the evening, the plants emerged from the doldrums, and all the stalks and leaves returned to their normal erect state, as if they'd always looked like that.

Naturally, a sprinkling of water made them perk up even more, as the cool evening set in. Incidentally, I'm convinced that professional photographers working for gardening magazines must operate either very early in the morning or during the evening (maybe with artificial lighting). Their editors would never accept the spectacle (authentic, nevertheless) of midday vegetal droopiness.

OK. Let me get back to my subject. I was happy, this morning, because I finally found a way of solving (I think) a challenge that has pursued me ever since I started to write this blog, back in December 2006. I'm talking of the possibility of consulting easily and meaningfully the archives of my Antipodes blog. The more I write, the more I feel that many of my past thoughts and feelings have become submerged, unfortunately, in the historical bulk of the blog. For a time, I played (unfruitfully) with the idea of a potential software tool that might facilitate access to the Antipodes archives. Theoretically, the search box up in the top left corner of the Antipodes page lets you find almost anything and everything. But readers don't necessarily know what search arguments they should enter.

In any case, the new approach I've decided to adopt is based upon the Blogger phenomenon of so-called static pages. I've started to build one such page, labeled Gamone, which you can find in the right-hand side bar. For the moment, apart from the concept itself, don't expect too much. The creation of these pages will take a lot of work, and I'm just beginning...

Well, everything was fine until I sat down in front of my faithful Mac and took a look at the major news events of the morning. And that's when the Holy Shit struck the fan. Prince Harry's bum!

For those who preferred a front view, carrot-haired Harry was obliging.

Stone the crows, I say. Enough is fucking enough. It's high time to get rid of that royal bunch of dimwits. But do whatever you please, my dear British brothers. I can understand perfectly well that your grand theoreticians have studied in depth all these questions based upon data concerning the Royals, the Games, the Pound Sterling, etc. And, even if Harry were to get involved in porn videos, the analyses of n° 10 Downing Street would continue to take everything in their stride. That's what made Britain great. But shit: Internet images of Prince Harry's bum?

Later on in the day, I was annoyed to discover that some kind of bug was infesting the Antipodes blog. Both inside the blog itself, and in associated files, every occurrence of the term "English" was accompanied by a tiny piece of software spam shit.

I lost little time in tracking down the cause of this annoyance: a nasty piece of nonsense known as Text Enhance, which invades your personal working domain and attaches little pieces of shitty publicity. When I started to complain about this state of affairs, I was amazed to receive an e-mail from the perpetrators of this shit, who directed me to a website telling me how to get rid of their nasty stuff. As I see things, I would suggest, it it were possible, that the perpetrators of Text Enhance might stuff themselves up Harry's princely bum. And we might all live happily ever after.

Yes, the day started nicely. And it ended nicely too, in wisdom. I've learned that we're really living in a crazy place. But, for an atheist such as me, adjusted to Sisyphian joy, what the fucking hell!

Monday, August 20, 2012

A little knowledge

The original statement by Alexander Pope [1688-1744] spoke of learning: A little learning is a dangerous thing. Since then, we've usually heard people telling us that it's a little knowledge that can be considered dangerous. This warning is trivially true in cases where you can choose (at least theoretically, if not in practice) between the two extremes: a little knowledge, or a lot of knowledge. A child might have just discovered that striking a match produces a pretty flame. And that knowledge is indeed dangerous as long as the child is unaware that such a flame can give rise to a catastrophe. When humanity first discovered fire (probably after a lightning strike), maybe a doomsayer in the tribe warned: "My brothers and sisters, this discovery is surely a malediction. We must forget about it forever."

The primeval case of "a little knowledge" was, of course, the legend of a tree in Eden—no doubt a fig tree, but presented in translation as an apple tree—whose fruit were forbidden.

It is ridiculous, however, to condemn systematically "a little knowledge" as a dangerous possession. In domains in which we know next to nothing, the concept of "a little knowledge" can often be thought of as speculation, and this is the basis of scientific discovery and research. We content ourselves with speculative theories on reality up until such time as they are shown to be false, when we replace them by alternative theories. That, after all, was the spirit of the quest for the Higgs boson.

Satyendra Nath Bose, after whom the particle was named,
and Peter Higgs, who imagined a very peculiar boson

For decades, physicists had so little knowledge concerning this particle that they weren't even sure it existed!

In my personal family-history research, I've run into a kind of "Higgs boson". I'm referring to the first male in England (presumably a colonist from Normandy) whose descendants would be the future Skeffington family (which would give rise to folk named Skevington, Skivington, Skyvington, etc). My knowledge of this individual is almost non-existent. But he surely existed, at some time and in some place, probably Leicestershire. So, I find myself making speculations about his identity. Inevitably, I run into fellow-researchers who say: "You have no firm proofs for what you're suggesting." That's to say, these rigid observers (accustomed to requesting an individual's birth certificate before accepting his existence) are trying to persuade me that I don't have the right to speculate. Their criticism is not only counterproductive; it's unscientific. So, I ignore it.

Finally, there's a ubiquitous domain in which we have very little knowledge, to say the least. I'm referring to religion, and the belief in God. Here again, I don't consider that there's any "danger" in talking about God, even though we possess so little direct knowledge concerning His alleged existence. But the same rules of the game must be applied in the case of those who say that God does not exist. In that respect, the best example of all concerns the marvelous subject of miracles. In The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins devotes his entire final chapter to this question. In particular, in a section entitled A good way to think about miracles, he presents the clever method proposed by the Scottish philosopher David Hume [1711-1776].

Hume said:
No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.
Consider, for example, the case of 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous who, on 11 February 1858 in Lourdes (south-west France), experienced the first of a series of alleged visions of the Virgin Mary.

Applying Hume's criterion, we reason as follows:

— Clearly, the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes was a miracle.

— We are told by her adulators that it would have been unthinkable for Bernadette Soubirous to have invented a false story about her encounters with a vision of the Virgin Mary. Let us nevertheless imagine, for a moment, the totally shocking hypothesis that the saintly child might have lied.

— Now, which of the two above-mentioned extraordinary happenings would be the more astounding: the Virgin Mary's presence at Lourdes, or Bernadette's hypothetical lies?

— Clearly, there is nothing particularly "miraculous" in the idea that a simple-minded peasant girl might resort to inventing false stories. Consequently, Hume's criterion suggests that we should not accept the miracle of Lourdes.

Notice, in particular, that our use of Hume's criterion to cast doubt upon the veracity of the miracle of Lourdes does not call upon us to actually prove that Bernadette was a liar. It suffices to notice that the hypothesis of Bernadette's lying, no matter how unlikely such an idea might appear to those who knew the girl well, was less extraordinary than the utterly miraculous idea of the Virgin Mary making a personal appearance at Lourdes. So, if an adulator of the Virgin Mary and Bernadette Soubirous were to complain that we've rejected the idea of a miracle without even attempting to prove that the peasant girl had indeed invented her stories, that would simply mean that the detractor has not understood, yet alone accepted, Hume's reasoning. In the context of the life and death of Jesus, too, alleged miracles can be debunked by means of Hume's metaphorical "razor" without the necessity of our having to prove anything whatsoever.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Hot dog

In our corner of France, this afternoon, it was exceptionally hot. Personally, the heat doesn't affect me greatly, but I nevertheless stay inside the house, where the temperature is cool. On the other hand, I noticed that Fitzroy was trying to escape from the heat, first by burrowing down into his favorite dust bowl alongside the house, and then by moving to a far corner of the cellar. So, I decided to set him up comfortably on a cushion beneath an electric fan.

He slept in that position for an hour or so (which suggests that he probably hadn't slept well during the previous hot night). Later on in the afternoon, I invited him to go out for a walk, but no sooner had I opened the door than we were hit by a gust of hot air. So we rushed back into the house again.

It's evening now, and everything has returned to normal. Fitzroy is dozing at my feet, beneath the computer.

There are journalists who claim that France might indeed be tasting, for the very first time, the effects of global warming... but no scientific statement has yet been made in this sense. On the other hand, there appears to be an intense nationwide effort by health services aimed at ensuring that seniors don't get knocked out by the heat. When I witness all this agitation here in France—for a few days with temperatures in the zone of 38 to 40 degrees—I often wonder retrospectively how this kind of problem was solved in my native Australia. Maybe it simply wasn't... Would anybody in our state government have bothered to look at the statistics of mortality in periods of extreme heat, to see whether the victims included an unusually large proportion of old people? Are statistics of this kind actually established today in Australia?

Australian expatriates in London

When I was a science student at Sydney University in the '50s, the future celebrated author Robert Hughes [1938-2012] was studying architecture. The following photo shows Hughes more or less as I remember him, physically, in those days.

Admired as an outspoken dashing dandy on the campus, he was known above all for his comic strip in the university weekly Honi Soit. The main character was a student, like Hughes, attired in a duffel coat and shoes with thick crepe soles (the winter fashion at that time). I forget the theme of Hughes's comic strips, but it was no doubt related to the major enemy of university activists at that time: the much-maligned apathy of their fellow students. The greatest insult an intellectual could hurl at other people was to describe them as zombies overcome by apathy, unconcerned by politics, society, art, sex, etc. I've often wondered if these comic strips have survived in the university archives.

It was hard to imagine that Bob might have evolved into the excruciated spectacle of Bill Leak's astounding portrait:

Robert Hughes — Nothing if not critical 2001
by Bill Leak [1956- ], National Portrait Gallery

In the wake of Hughes's death on 6 August 2012, the media have often evoked the theme of celebrated Australian expatriates in London. Besides Hughes, four inevitable names appear:

Left to right: Rolf Harris (82), Barry Humphries (78), Germaine Greer (73) and Clive James (72).

Today, I believe that Australia has a champion expatriate in London:

The audacious style in which Julian Assange addressed Britain, Sweden and the US from a pulpit above the heads of the bored bobbies—waiting like vultures on the off-chance that he might fall down into their claws—was most spectacular.

I'm trying to imagine an escape scenario that would involve Julian's getting picked up from the London rooftops by a helicopter, before being let down in a nearby London park where a waiting automobile would take him down to the East London docks, where he would board secretly a ship leaving for Ecuador....

Recent comments are back

I finally found a widget that works for recent comments (in the right-hand sidebar). I should have found it ages ago, but I'm lazy.

Besides, as you see, I'm fed up with the grassy background. For the moment, I prefer this "wide brown land" look. Maybe it's the scorching heat in France that has altered my outlook.

Since writing that last paragraph, I've changed the brown background to a subtle greenish hue... which probably corresponds to what the French designate poetically as "goose shit".

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My dog is an esthete

There's no doubt that Fitzroy is a superior dog... quite apart from the trivial observation that he seems to have accepted me as his master.

Click to enlarge, then hit ESCAPE to return to the blog

His tail may be a bundle of prickly burrs, but Fitzroy's heart is soft and sweet, and his mind is as pure as icy water in the torrents of Risoul in the Hautes-Alpes département, up where he was born on 10 July 2010. He is lovable and constantly (urgently) in need of caresses. And furthermore, he has taste. Artistic taste. In a nutshell, Fitzroy is an esthete. Indeed, a connoisseur.

Fitzroy's specialty is driftwood. Now, this might sound funny in the case of a dog (and his master) who are settled in the mountains, hundreds of kilometers away from the seashore. But bits of wood don't need an ocean to drift. Just ask Fitzroy. He would tell you that beautiful bits of wood can drift on mountain streams, on ice and snow, maybe even (who knows?) in the air. In any case, telling us mountain-dwellers that we don't have driftwood would be like telling our new president François Hollande that he doesn't have Nicolas Sarkozy. Like, it's everywhere, ubiquitous. But Fitzroy selects only the finest specimens.

My dog would surely refer to such items as nocturnal objects, reflecting the fact that he collects them in the early hours of the morning, just before the sun rises. Like fairies gathering dewdrops. Every object collected by Fitzroy has a story, which only my dog could tell. Each story elucidates the context in which that object acquired its form, its colors, its character, or—as Fitzroy might say (I try to avoid putting words into his mouth)—its soul.

In the case of my dear departed Sophia, I always apprehended the day when she would suddenly shun food, for I knew that this repulsion would announce her end... as it did. Concerning Fitzroy, I would certainly be gravely worried about his state of health (both bodily and mental) if ever he dragged home an ugly item, devoid of magic charm, such as a hunk of plywood or plastic.

Seriously, the idea that my canine companion Fitzroy seems to express esthetic judgment is, to my mind, quite fabulous. It would be interesting to see how distinguished evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins and P Z Myers might evaluate and possibly explain my claim. In a nutshell (forgive me my constant usage of this metaphor, due to my preoccupations as a walnut farmer):

What might have been the evolutionary advantage
of being a driftwood esthete?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

French Catholic steps into the political arena

One would have imagined that the Church in France has had time enough to realize that politics should be left to the elected representatives of the citizens of the French Republic. Gone are the dark days when old-fashioned priests in black cassocks imagined that the nation might be guided, if not governed, by dogmatic voices from the pulpits of "the Oldest Daughter of the Roman Church". Apparently the message has not yet got through to a dull cardinal in Paris, André 23.

He has proposed a prayer, intended to be professed by priests throughout France, stating that "children and young people must cease to be objects of the desires and conflicts of adults, so that they can take full advantage of the love of a father and a mother". Behind the euphemistic language, which beats around the bush, the cardinal is revealing his homophobic nature, opposed to granting same-sex couples the right to marry and bring up children.

Ecclesiastic behavior of this backward kind is outrageous in the French Republic of 2012. But I wouldn't imagine that André 23 has many followers who might listen to his words, take him seriously, and pray along with him.

You may recall that I quoted already this dumb cardinal back on 4 January 2009 [display]:

André XXIII  seems to have the habit of wasting precious opportunities (as they say in French) of keeping his silly mouth shut.

What, no rock 'n' roll in the caves?

Svante Pääbo, 57, is a Swedish geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

In my blog post of 26 December 2010 entitled Prehistoric encounters [display], I mentioned the existence in Siberia, 30 millennia ago, of humanoid creatures—on an evolutionary par with Neanderthals—known as Denisovans. It was Pääbo's team that revealed the existence of these people, in March 2010, using mtDNA [mitochondrial DNA] that was lurking in a single Denisovan finger bone.

Two months later, Pääbo's team published a draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome. Noticing that a certain quantity of DNA is common to both Neanderthals and modern humans whose ancestors had moved beyond Africa, Pääbo's team announced that it was likely that a certain degree of sexual promiscuity had characterized relationships between Neanderthals and humans in the course of their many millennia together, side by side, on the planet Earth.

                          — photo Jochen Tack/Alamy

That idea doesn't surprise me at all. On the contrary. I can well imagine a randy Cro-Magnon gentleman running into a horny Neanderthal lady, on his way home from the hunt at the end of a wintry afternoon, and paraphrasing in his imagination the well-known Canada Dry words: "It looks like whisky, smells like whisky, and tastes like whisky."

I imagine myself in the Cro-Magnon's place, on the horns of a dilemma. Regardless of the respective species (or races, or whatever) of the Neanderthal wench and me, I would have surely decided, there and then, that a little bit of Guinness would be good for me... and for her, too, no doubt.

Now, I learn today from The Guardian [access] that certain sourpuss scientists are abandoning this delightful idea of intertribal rock 'n' roll. They suggest that the DNA stuff shared by Neanderthals and us humans was surely a remnant of code that existed already in our most recent common ancestor, half a million years ago, before we had differentiated into Neanderthals and humans. Their reasoning is perfectly plausible, but it strikes me as somewhat puritanical. I far prefer the friendly idea of a whole lotta prehistoric shakin' goin' on.