Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bodies as billboards

These days, people often paint themselves with their colors.

They use their bodies as a support for the transmission of messages. In this case: "We're supporters of England." An oldtimer such as myself sees this widespread habit as something new. Our generation never did this. We didn't have enough imagination, or maybe we were prudish about the idea of using our bodies for such purposes. The young women of my generation—in Australia and later in Paris—hardly even used facial makeup. The idea of using the human body as a support for imagery is nevertheless ancient.

Five years, a young Ukrainian women, Anna Hutsol, gave body painting a fascinating new twist and revolutionized the impact of corporal messages through her creation of the Femen movement.

Since then, throughout the world, Femen adepts use their bare-breasted torsos as billboards for political statements, generally in the domain of women's rights. Here's a portrait of co-founder Sacha Chevchtchenko, with the Femen logo painted on her breasts:

Femen's initial vocation was radical feminism, including the fight against prostitution. These days, frequent targets of Femen activists include Islamists and dignitaries of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Recently, a courageous Femen-inspired action was carried out by 19-year-old Amina in Tunisia, whose naked breasts carried the message: "My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone's honor."

Yesterday, the French branch of Femen complained in a tweet about the removal of the following provocative photo from their Facebook page:

Insofar as Femen bases its actions upon representations of semi-naked women, a thin line can separate some of their happenings from pure esthetics and spectacular eroticism. This is the case, I feel, concerning the above image.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Now we know how he did it

I think that one miracle in particular has become more famous than all the others, for the simple reason that almost everybody has tried to perform it, at one time or another... and nobody has ever succeeded unquestionably in repeating the accomplishment of Jesus. I'm referring, of course, to the marvelous story about Jesus walking on the surface of the waters of the Sea of Galilee.

It was now late and the boat was already well out on the water, while he was alone on the land. Somewhere between three and six in the morning, seeing them labouring at the oars against a head wind, he came towards them, walking on the lake. He was going to pass by them; but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But at once he spoke to them: 'Take heart! It is I; do not be afraid.'
— Mark 6:47-50
According to Matthew 14:28, Peter decided spontaneously to have a go at this feat, and it seemed to work for a few seconds. But his faith collapsed almost instantly, and he started to sink into the water.

Recently, a small team of determined athletes, equipped with special water-repellent running shoes (of a brand that I'm not allowed to name here, because of my sporting sponsors), succeeded brilliantly in racing some 20 meters across the surface of a lake.

But these courageous fellows haven't yet deciphered the great Jesus secret that consists of having sufficient pure faith in God to believe totally that He will hold the walker's body above the surface at all times, making it possible to stroll peacefully and fearlessly across the water.

There was a gigantic breakthrough recently when marine archaeologists discovered a massive ancient stone structure under the surface of the Sea of Galilee. Click here to see this fascinating story. A diagram from Shmuel Marco makes it clear at last, after two millennia of mystification, exactly how Jesus was able to carry out his trick.

At that time, the depth of the Sea of Galilee was slightly less than it is today, which meant that the tip of this huge but hidden stone "iceberg" lay just below the surface. So, Jesus—who had no doubt practiced this feat tirelessly, to get it right for the day of his celebrated demonstration—simply paddled around on a small more-or-less flat zone at the tip of the structure, creating the illusion that he was walking on the water.

Archaeologists say that they can't explain who might have built this underwater mound. Nor why and when it was erected. I'm surprised by the archaeologists' lack of imagination. To my mind, it's clear that Jesus himself had collected funds enabling him to employ a team of stonemasons to build this structure, for the sole purpose of performing his spectacular miracle. In nearby Egypt, various pharaohs had found the means of erecting far greater masses of stone, the pyramids, in order to promote their theories of an afterlife. Since miracles play such a fundamental role in Christianity, I find it perfectly plausible, indeed normal, that Jesus might have gone to the trouble of building his own relatively small tumulus. Besides, since it was underwater, it didn't have to be as fancy as the Egyptian models, because the whole idea was that nobody should see it.

The only authentic miracle in this rather shabby tale is the fact that, as far as we know, no fishing boats ever ran aground on this big pile of rocks.

Quest for new worlds

It's never too early to start looking around for new worlds that might be colonized, one day, by our human descendants. Incidentally, it's becoming more and more likely that many of these descendants, in the not-too-far-distant future, will be quite different creatures to us, since their genomes will no doubt contain various synthetic genes inherited from top-class intelligent robots. There's no sound reason—other than old-fashioned nostalgia—for hanging around here longer than necessary on the charming planet Earth, with its depleted resources and damaged ecosystems. Adventurous human societies should be able to take advantage of their Earth-based history and experience in order to go about things in a better fashion at other spots in the universe.

We first have to find new worlds, and then our descendants will have to invent some way of reaching them. Theoretically, neither of these two challenges would appear to be insurmountable... though I don't have the least idea of what the solutions might look like. When our descendants get around to finding solutions to the above-mentioned challenges, they'll surely be amazed to think that we old-timers of the start of the 21st century were incapable of envisaging such answers.

Astronomers in search of new worlds evoke the celebrated children's story of Goldilocks and the three bears, by the English romantic poet Robert Southey [1774-1843].

The Goldilocks metaphor is a little like the Down Under joke at the end of one of my recent blog posts [display]. In the empty house of the three bears, in the middle of the woods, the little girl comes upon three bowls of porridge, apparently ready to be eaten. Feeling hungry, she tastes the porridge in Father Bear's big bowl, but it's too hot. Then she tries the porridge in Mother Bear's bowl, but it's too cold. Finally, in Baby Bear's little bowl, Goldilocks finds that the temperature of the porridge is "just right", so she gulps it all down. In the case of planets orbiting around a star, there is sometimes an orbital zone whose temperature, like that of the planet Earth, is apparently "just right" for human existence.

Last week, astronomers were thrilled to announce that NASA's Kepler spacecraft had discovered a pair of so-called exoplanets orbiting within the Goldilocks zone of a star that is henceforth named Kepler 62, located in the constellation Lyra, at a distance of 1,200 light-years from our solar system. Here's an artist's impression of a "sunrise" in the vicinity of one of these planets:

The chief of the Kepler project, William Borucki, claims that this pair of exoplanets is the most favorable site for life that has ever been detected by the Kepler spacecraft since its launch by NASA in March 2009. Click here to visit the Wikipedia page on this project.

Meanwhile, plans are already under way for NASA's next-generation spacecraft designed to look for new worlds. Called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and designed by teams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) headed by George Ricker, the new vessel will be launched in 2017. Here's an artist's impression of the TESS spacecraft:

The hundreds of small exoplanets discovered by Kepler have all been linked to stars whose great distance means that they're faint. TESS, on the other hand, will examine bright stars in a much larger area of the heavens. So, there's a good chance that this new spacecraft will be able to find new worlds for our descendants.

One might imagine a latter-day Columbus setting out towards obscure shorelines. The TESS adventure reminds me rather of future oak forests planted by conscientious landowners who know full well that neither they nor even their immediate offspring will ever sit in the shade of those great trees.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Adding spice to my existence

This looks like a quite ordinary fruit salad, composed of sliced apples, pears, oranges, strawberries and kiwifruit.

The photo doesn't reveal what's special about my fruit salad: the succulent spicy brown syrup in which the fruit fragments are bathing. So, let me explain how I came to develop (almost by chance) this delicious dessert.

My blog post of 26 July 2012 entitled Roast pork "Bangkok-en-Royans" [display] extolled the merits of a seasoning powder produced by a firm in the port of Samut Sakhon (Thailand), a few dozen kilometers south-west of Bangkok. This piece of pork shoulder, prepared this morning using this product, will be left to marinate until tomorrow, when I'll bake it slowly at a relatively low temperature.

A few days ago, when I dropped in at the small shop in Romans where I purchase Asian foodstuffs, I ended up chatting with the lady in charge about the principal ingredients in this powder: cinnamon and anise. I was particularly interested in the exotic fruit known as star anise (badiane in French).

The pharmaceutical industry had found that this everyday Chinese product (also grown in southern NSW) could be used to manufacture the Tamiflu anti-influenza drug. In the context of the swine flu outbreak in 2009, the price of star anise soared astronomically. Happily, since then, researchers have learned how to use bacteria instead of the Illicium verum flowers to produce the anti-influenza drug, and packets of star anise (either as dried flowers or ground into powder) are, once again, quite cheap.

I bought a big packet of ground star anise. At home, I started looking around on the Internet for interesting ways of using this fragrant product... and that's how I came upon the recipe for my fruit salad. Besides, the weather had become exceptionally warm, and the idea of eating fruit with a flavor of pastis liquor attracted me. First, I needed another ingredient: brown cane sugar.

The syrup is made by dissolving a large quantity of sugar in boiling water. (With a sense of guilt, I prefer to employ the fuzzy adjective "large", since we know already that even the smallest quantity of sugar used to make syrup is excessive from a health viewpoint.) To spice up the syrup, I mixed in a teaspoon of star anise, a teaspoon of cinnamon, a teaspoon of cloves, a few drops of vanilla essence and the zest of an orange and a lemon. After the syrup had been bubbling for a few minutes, I poured it onto my fragments of fruit, which tended to cook them slightly. When the mixture had cooled down, I covered the bowl in cellophane, and left the salad in the refrigerator overnight. This salad is delicious with vanilla ice cream.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fitzroy in love

The warm weather has set in, and the grass at Gamone is green. Almost overnight, throughout the region, white blossoms have appeared on the cherry trees. My humble old tree on the corner mound (alongside Sophia's tomb) is doing its best to imitate the splendid young cherry orchards down in the valley, on the rich soil of the banks of the Bourne and the Isère.

It doesn't take much romantic imagination to consider that the warm weather, the green grass and the white cherry blossoms announce that the season of love is starting. That's how Fitzroy feels things. Over the last few evenings, he has been leaving Gamone regularly for short excursions to an unknown place. Yesterday afternoon, when I let him off the chain for a moment, while I was doing odd jobs outside, Fitzroy took advantage of a minute of inattention to disappear... and he hadn't returned to Gamone this morning. I went out in the Kangoo to search for him, in vain.

Martine, the postwoman (who knows everything that's happening in the neighborhood), informed me that she had sighted Fitzroy over on the other side of the Bourne, in Châtelus. I immediately dashed across there in the car. Members of the Huillier family told me that Fitzroy had often been hanging around their houses over the last few days. A young lady said in a whisper, as if it were a secret item of uncertain information: "I have the impression that your dog is in love with my mother-in-law's dog." As for Fitzroy, he was nowhere in sight. My friends told me that my dog's usual habit was to collect his beloved female from the farmhouse and take her for a promenade on the wooded slopes below the Cournouze. I left my phone number and asked them to let me know as soon as Fitzroy returned.

Within an hour, I got a call saying that Fitzroy and his lover had been sighted in the tall green grass beneath a single cherry tree located in the middle of their walnut orchard. When I arrived on the scene, it was truly idyllic. From the road, all you could see were the black tips of the ears of the two dogs protruding from the tall grass, surrounded by a thick canopy of magnificent cherry blossoms. When I called, Fitzroy recognized me instantly, and started to move towards me. But he faltered from time to time, looking back over his right shoulder at his loved one, who remained under the cherry tree. After a little coaxing, the two dogs moved towards the Kangoo, and I was able to attach Fitzroy to a lead. He was still in a state of tender attachment to his female friend, and the two dogs were constantly rubbing up against each other. Fitzroy finally jumped into his wooden pen at the rear of the Kangoo. As soon as I drove off, however, he realized that I intended to take him away from his romantic haven, and he started to express his indignation vocally. Back at Gamone, I was of course obliged to enchain my lovestruck friend... and provide him with sustenance.

I wasn't proud of my intervention. It's not nice to tear apart a burgeoning relationship. Love in the grass under a canopy of cherry blossoms is fine... but what I don't like is the idea of Fitzroy returning by means of the Rouillard Bridge over the Bourne, and the main road up to Gamone. Meanwhile, Fitzroy is catching up on lost sleep. By the time he wakes up, I hope he will have forgotten my unkind act. What he won't forget so easily, of course, is the aroma of his loved one, which surely continues to waft across here in a direct line, like powerful bursts of a laser beam.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bastille blues

In his wonderful book entitled Jerusalem, City of Mirrors (1989), the late Amos Elon [1926-2009] spoke of a mysterious affliction referred to as the Jerusalem syndrome. Affecting American Protestant males, almost exclusively, this torment causes them to take off their clothes, evolve into a state of crazy ecstasy, and preach nonsensical prophecies to passers-by on street corners. After a few days in hospital, victims recover their normal behavior as calm tourists in the Holy City, and they even feel good about their traumatic experience. Psychiatrists explain that victims of this affliction arrive in Jerusalem with a preconceived but totally false vision of the place, which they've always imagined as a gentle and harmonious Holyland: a pastel-hued picture from a children's book.

When such a visitor discovers the stark present-day Jerusalem, and finds it totally unlike his vision, his convictions are shattered traumatically... and his subsequent reactions and behavior express his momentary desire to be born again (naked, of course) into a reassuring but make-believe Christian context.

Here in France, a similar kind of affliction—which I designate as the Bastille blues—affects certain local intellectuals.

Typical signs of this disturbance are a sudden obsession that we might be on the eve of a replay (with variations, naturally) of the French Revolution of 1789. Victims of the affliction start to be hallucinated by visions of rioting, smoke and flames, destruction, bayonets, gunshots, guillotines... but they generally keep their clothes on. In May 1968, the youth of France were totally intoxicated by a severe case of Bastille blues.

Fortunately, the summer holiday season arrived just in same to save the nation from descending into total anarchy. And afterwards, everybody felt so much the better for having let off so much steam... much like a patient emerging from an attack of the Jerusalem syndrome.

A few days ago, I was intrigued to discover that a prominent French journalist, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, was apparently suffering from a massive onslaught of Bastille blues.

In his role as chief of the weekly magazine Le Point, he has written an editorial suggesting that France is bogged down in a pre-revolutionary quagmire.

Click here to access the French article. Not surprisingly,  64-year-old "FOG" (the acronym has become Giesbert's nickname)—born in Washington, and impregnated with Franco-American culture—backed up his claim by evoking the works of the celebrated viscount Alexis de Tocqueville [1805-1859]: in particular, his masterly analysis of the events and climate of 1789, The Old Regime and the Revolution, which describes the French people's appalling erosion of confidence in their monarchy.

Today, it's a fact that the Cahuzac affair [click here to see my recent blog article entitled Champion liars] has had a disastrous effect upon the waning respect of French citizens for their political leaders. Has modern France truly lost hope in its destiny? Is one half of the nation ready to cut the heads off the other half? Have the French become totally pessimistic and cynical? What has gone wrong?

Basic differences between American and French attitudes to economic progress are illustrated by a humorous anecdote concerning the reaction of onlookers towards a prosperous fellow who drives by in a luxury automobile. A typical American might ask himself: "What can I do in order to buy myself a car like that?" A typical Frenchman would complain: "Why doesn't that wealthy weasel drive a worn-out jalopy like the rest of us?" In the above article, FOG evokes the metaphor of François Hollande scooting around on an antiquated Vespa, while some of his acquaintances drive Ferraris. This image of an old-fashioned president, no longer on the same wavelength as progressive citizens, is made explicit in the cover of the current issue of FOG's weekly.

The rhetorical question "Pépère, est-il à la hauteur ?" could be translated as follows: "Can Grandpa still handle things?" Many citizens are starting to consider that the answer to that disturbing question might indeed be negative. But maybe, hopefully, there are plausible remedies that would fall short of a bloody revolution.

BREAKING NEWS: The Bastille blues theme has become quite explicit in the cover of the latest issue of the weekly:

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Remember the 10

Thinking of Bobby Sands. And of his comrades Francis Hughes, Ray McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Mickey Devine. All invited to die, in 1981, by a woman with iron in her soul: Margaret Thatcher.

Thinking of the former Yorkshire miners, too. And of the sacrificed British working class of the 1970s in general.

The Wizard of Oz was probably the first movie I ever saw, and it impressed me immensely.

These days, we've been seeing a lot of the late prime minister on French TV, and I'm somewhat surprised to realize that her bizarre vocal accent and robotic personality nauseate me.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Too big to grasp what's happening

Every time I've watched this celebrated video, I've been struck by the absurd idea that we humans were created, unfortunately, rather too big and clumsy to be able to appreciate all the fascinating action that's going on at the level of molecular biology.

Meanwhile, of course, there are folk who feel, quite rightly, that we've been built far too small to be able to jump easily onto the bandwagon of big-scale intellectual pursuits such as cosmology.

I'm reminded of a Down Under joke. A whingeing Pom is complaining about the heat:

"You can't survive in Australia. Too bloody hot."

An Aussie asks the Pom why he doesn't return to the Old Country. The Pom's reaction:

"You can't survive in England. Too bloody cold."

Spring has sprung... at last

Over the last few days, Gamone has been bathed in sunshine: a pleasant change from being bathed in chilly wetness. Prolonged periods of overcast skies, low temperatures and dampness end up by demoralizing us at a physiological level. Our brains run short of whatever it is that comes from sunshine (vitamin D, I'm told), and we start to slow down. It's as if an audacious Lance Armstrong were to tackle the tortuous slopes of Alpe d'Huez with nothing more in his athlete's body than miserable food and water. Sooner or later, you stop... and the only possible strategy is to wait around until the sunshine returns.

Around the house at Gamone, there are several indubitable signs that the time has come to stop hibernating, and get back into outside action. Here, for example, is one of the more obvious signs:

Once upon a time, I used half an old fuel barrel, screwed onto legs made out of steel bars, to erect a makeshift barbecue, but the heavy contraption was unstable, and it finally rusted away. A few days ago, I was attracted by the relatively low price of a charcoal barbecue at the local Leclerc supermarket. The model on display looked remarkably solid, and it seemed to be a better deal than similar-looking products (but with one less leg) from the German firm Weber. I soon realized that the low price was due to the fact that this barbecue—brand name Rhodes—came as a kit, made in China, which had to be assembled by the purchaser. Maybe I was intrepid, but I liked the sturdy style of the model on display, and I guess I was intrigued to see how a Chinese manufacturer would behave in the build-it-yourself world dominated by Ikea. Well, let me say that I was totally amazed by the high quality of the Chinese presentation, which made it a pleasure to assemble the barbecue on the basis of extremely detailed diagrams of a down-to-earth kind. I had the impression that I was being invited to perform the assembly tasks in an old-fashioned environment of nuts and bolts, solid steel and precise measurements. Fortunately, I went about things by examining closely the big pile of items that were crammed inside the cardboard box from China. And I also took time to analyze every minute detail in their almost-wordless diagrams. Opening a plastic bag full of an undocumented assortment of nuts, bolts, screws and washers, I said to myself that it was highly unlikely that I would discover the intended role of every small item in this pile. On the contrary, when I reached the end of the assembly tasks, I was amazed to find that I had succeeded in identifying every object in the pile (including dozens of metal and fiber washers of differing sizes), and that not one single surplus item remained. All in all, the Chinese approach to the manufacture and presentation of this product was perfectionist. I had the impression that every minor element of the product had been designed by a team of engineers, and manufactured according to millimetric specifications. I found myself in the old-fashioned world of sustainability, where things are made to last. Needless to say, this was a quite unexpected experience.

On a nearby table, I've assembled a trivial demonstration of sustainability of a another kind.

On the left, you have the remnants of plastic Gardena devices that didn't survive the combined assaults of winter and Fitzroy. On the right, you see specimens of metallic items that I've just purchased to replace the cheap plastic junk (which turns out to be expensive when you have to replace it each year). I find it inadmissible that a manufacturer proposes an item such as the plastic nozzle while knowing full well that it will develop cracks if left outside in wintry conditions. And I have the impression that the orange parts of their plastic products have been designed deliberately to attract the teeth of dogs.

Now that the weather is starting to warm up, one of my first tasks will be to finish work on the carport, which needs to be boarded up on the far side.

The remaining firewood that was stacked up in the vicinity of the carport has now been shifted down to a place alongside Fitzroy's kennel.

Between now and next winter, I intend to erect a big wood shed in this zone, so that a truck can simply unload wood right alongside the shed.

Another sign of work about to start is the presence of a big pile of gravel at the entry into the front yard.

Meanwhile, a curious wall of small rocks has appeared on the edge of the huge embankment in front of the house, just to the right of the gravel heap.

So, what's happening... or about to happen? First, let me explain briefly—while refraining from jumping ahead in my story—that I spent a strenuous day raking up all those stones from inside the cellar of my house, and using a wheelbarrow to deposit them at this convenient spot. Now, as far as future Gamone projects are concerned, the following photo provides an answer:

Those pinkish objects are the elements of a future wood oven for baking bread, pizzas, etc. The dozen or so fragments have been molded out of a special refractory cement composed primarily of crushed volcanic rocks mined in the nearby Ardèche département. The oven I've chosen, produced by the Ephrem company in Provence [click here to visit their website] is called the Pizzaiollo... which is a Frenchified (but misspelt) version of the Italian word for a guy who makes pizzas.

Now, where am I going to install my future oven? For a long time, I imagined using a spot outside the southern façade of the house, where I discovered vestiges of an ancient bread oven (since turned to dust) when I first settled down at Gamone, some 20 years ago. But I've often wondered: Would I be prepared to wander outside the house on cold evenings, into the darkness, to fire up an oven to bake a loaf of bread or to cook a pizza? Maybe I would do so for a while, but I would probably drop the habit. No, the ideal solution would consist of placing the wood oven inside the house, where I can access it easily and use it regularly at all times of the year. But that would mean constructing an additional chimney to evacuate the smoke... and I haven't yet terminated the project of installing such a chimney for my wood stove. Well, it was Christine, in the course of a casual phone conversation, who first evoked a possible location: in a corner of the ancient cellar alongside my house. Why not?

It's not easy to take meaningful photos of my cellar at Gamone, because there's little light and you're in an essentially closed space surrounded by stone. Here's my attempt to take a photo of the far wall at the northern (cold) end of the cellar:

The vertical sections of the cellar walls are composed of irregularly-shaped blocks of calcareous stone (no doubt picked up on the slopes in the vicinity of Gamone) held together by lime mortar. Then, starting at a height of about 2 meters, the ceiling of the cellar is composed of finely-cut and precisely-assembled blocks of an exotic mineral substance commonly called tuf calcaire in French. I've only just discovered that the correct technical name of this sedimentary rock, in English, is travertine. [Click here to see the Wikipedia page on this subject.] In a blog post that I wrote back on 2 July 2009 entitled Vegetal rock [display], I referred to this substance (rightly or wrongly) as "calcareous tufa", but I shall make a point, from now on, of calling it travertine.

In the above photo, one has the impression that there's an arched doorway blocked by earth. This remains a basic Gamone mystery, which I have not yet elucidated satisfactorily. For the moment, I'm convinced that the earth blocking that would-be doorway has been there forever. That's to say, the doorway has never been open at any moment of its existence. The earth was there when the doorway was constructed, and it has never been touched since then (except by me, a year or so ago, when I started scratching at that wall of hard earth with the idea of maybe erecting a staircase at that place). Indeed, that earth is part of a layer that was used as formwork (coffrage in French) when that entire far wall was erected... maybe in the vicinity of the year 1600 (judging from similar constructions at the Chartreux monastery in Bouvante). And, if the builders never got around to removing the earth and transforming the alcove into an effective doorway, that was no doubt because their building operations were hindered by obstacles (maybe even religious warfare) and finally abandoned. But I've never succeeded in putting together a clear and convincing explanation of what might have happened. So, we're left with a blocked would-be doorway... which I will surely end up opening, one of these days, by means of a staircase ascending to the outside level, just beneath the arch.

As for the slanted and cemented opening near the summit of the vertical wall, that would appear to be the result of a relatively recent operation carried out by a grazier, rearing animals in the cellar (maybe goats), who wanted to be able to toss hay down into the cellar.

In any case, it's here, in the right-hand (north-eastern) corner of the cellar, that I intend to install the future wood oven, so that I can take advantage of the "hay hole" in the ceiling as a convenient exit for a smoke chimney.

The following maquette provides a rough idea of the form of the future wood oven:

The area covered by the oven is a square of 140 cm x 140 cm, which fits neatly into the corner of the cellar. I hasten to point out that the proportions and layout of this maquette are basically valid, but it's rather fuzzy as far as the external finish of the oven is concerned. For the moment, I can't guarantee that I'll succeed in covering the upper part of the structure with stone bricks (maybe composed of travertine). It's possible that I'll finally resort to a solution of roughcast ocher plaster (crépi in French). And I'm not yet sure of the way in which smoke from the oven will be channeled from a point just above the oven entry to the "hay hole".

Now that spring has sprung at Gamone, I've got "du pain sur la planche" (bread on the breadboard: a French metaphor for problems to be solved, work to be done). That's the way I like life.

Champion liars

For celebrities who happen to be stupendous liars, the prestigious Pinnochio Award—which I'm thinking of organizing—will be a kind of annual Nobel prize.

Several brilliant candidates have already appeared on the scene. Ever since the interview of 17 January 2013 with Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong has been a n° 1 contender for the award.

Between now and the end of the year, however, many things can happen. Many monstrous untruths can be propagated. And it's quite possible that various excellent liars will be making an effort to overtake the Texan... which has become a perfectly feasible task now that Armstrong has stopped absorbing his customary cocktails.

In France, for example, the politician Jérôme Cahuzac provided us with a spectacular performance of blatant lying, not so long ago, when he swore to his comrades, in an eye-to-eye declaration, that he had never had a bank account in a foreign tax haven.

                                       — photo AFP/Jean-Pierre Muller

His claim to the Pinnochio Award must be taken seriously, since this was the first known case of a French minister telling lies to the president himself, then being revealed as a liar and obliged to resign. There are rumors, too, that Cahuzac has amassed vast financial funds, from mysterious donors, enabling him to envisage lobbying operations on a grand scale for the greatly-desired Pinnochio Award.

This morning, we heard of a humble but determined Pinnochio candidate from an unexpected domain: the Jewish religious hierarchy in France.

Gilles Bernheim, the 60-year-old chief rabbi of France, had admitted that his book Quarante méditations juives [Stock, 2011], created with the assistance of a ghostwriter, contained plagiarized excerpts. Prior to resigning, the distinguished rabbi also pointed out that he had falsified his curriculum vitae. Contrary to what has been declared in Who's Who and other places, Bernheim has never obtained an agrégation (high-level French academic distinction) in philosophy. Definitely not nice...

I would be a liar if I did not admit that, personally, I've been wondering whether I myself could maybe be considered as a serious candidate for the much-coveted Pinnochio Award. In that sense, let me start the ball rolling by revealing a well-kept secret. Up until now, I happened to be one of the rare individuals who knew that the French rabbi seen dancing in the following famous video was in fact Gilles Bernheim, disguised by means of a false beard, when he was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris (where he picked up doctorates in molecular biology and cosmology).

I swear to God—cross my heart and hope to die—that the secret I've just revealed is absolutely true and easily provable.

POST SCRIPTUM: In the Jewish folklore arena, I must include this hilarious image, for those who haven't seen it yet elsewhere on the web:

Apparently the passenger in a bag is an ultra-orthodox Jew who is using transparent plastic in an attempt to protect himself, during a flight to the Holy Land, from unspecified obnoxious emanations. Since the gentleman appears to be calm (sleeping?), we might suppose that this interesting method does in fact work. On the other hand, I must point out that I've been unable to find any factual evidence concerning the physical state of this pious passenger when he reached his destination. Was he still alive? Indeed, there's a credible rumor going around that the individual in the plastic bag was already dead when the photo was taken. Other passengers (well and truly alive) were simply taking their deceased relative back to Israel for burial on the slopes across from Jerusalem. It's surprising however (to say the least) that the corpse would have been accepted by the airline as cabin luggage.

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins has dragged out a spectacular video:

When you look at things objectively, compared with all these crazy cries and gesticulations (which might disturb, not only other passengers, but the flight crew), a few tiny lies in a curriculum vitæ or a few borrowed paragraphs in a book are neither here nor there. I can comprehend, in a way, why a distinguished religious leader might find it worthwhile to employ dubious methods in order to enhance his intellectual reputation. But I remain totally totally incapable of understanding what might be going on in the heads of those guys in the airplane.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Australian scholarship

If you're interested in big pricks, a pair of researchers at the Australian National University in Canberra are sure to attract your attention. One of them is Michael Jennions, a biology professor.

                                    — photo Jay Cronan

He and his doctoral student Brian Mautz certainly deserve an Ig Nobel Prize [click here for explanations] for their earth-shattering discovery that heterosexual ladies appear to prefer king-sized male genitalia. Let's listen to the professor presenting their findings.

In the domain of painting, miniatures have always exerted a fascination upon countless art collectors. Maybe the Australian researchers might move beyond their present big-is-beautiful preoccupations and pursue a fascinating and little-known field of investigation: the refined tastes of a female elite who prefer tiny little pricks of an exquisite kind that are best observed under a magnifying glass. Other possible penis-oriented research topics might be gleaned from this excellent song by the Frenchman Pierre Perret:

Pink rock fragments

Accustomed to the usual colors of rocks around Gamone (gray, ochre, whitish and black), I was surprised to discover pink-hued fragments on the slopes, a few days ago, a hundred meters above the house.

Since these fragments were located in the middle of a flat pile of rocks covering a small zone of a few square meters, I first imagined that there might have been a fireplace at this spot. But that is almost certainly a false explanation. For the moment, therefore, this pleasant color remains a mystery.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Injured by a mouse

Over the last few years, I've often discovered that excessive use of my Apple mouse can give rise to a dull pain in the lower corner of my right wrist, which rubs against the surface of the desk while supporting the weight of the hand.

Yesterday, this pain became so annoying that it hindered my work. So, I dropped in at the local pharmacy to see if they might be able to supply a remedy. One of the pharmacists advised me to shop around for an object that I had never heard of: a mouse pad with a cushion to rest the hand. I jumped into my Kangoo and drove to Valence, where I had no problem in finding such a pad, for around 12 euros. The pad I bought is black, but here's an Internet photo of the blue version:

At first, it didn't work well with my Apple mouse, because the flat upper area of the pad seemed to be too short, and I was constantly pushing the mouse off the upper edge. Finally, I found an ideal solution. I simply rotated the pad so that most of it was dangling off the near edge of my desk. Then I used the cushion for my hand while placing the mouse itself on its usual big rectangle of cardboard.

The layout may not look elegant, but it works perfectly, since my wrist no longer touches the desk. Meanwhile, the pad appears to be stuck conveniently to the surface of my desk. I hope it stays that way.