Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fitzroy locomotive

Once or twice a day, as usual, Fitzroy lets off steam by means of a short but intense session of hose running.

I tried to “freeze” him with my Nikon as he dashed alongside me like a locomotive.

Most of my images were total failures. Finally, though, they’re the images I most prefer, because their fuzziness conveys the spectacular motion of my dog.

It’s important to understand that Fitzroy’s hose-running field is studded with various random obstacles, which must be avoided by the dog. On the other hand, no points are lost if the hose grazes such obstacles, or even knocks them over.

Often, Fitzroy has no more than a thousandth of a second to determine the ideal itinerary.

I hope that Christine will enjoy this blog post. She has a beautiful dog named Nushka, of the same elegant Border Collie race as Fitzroy (but no doubt considerably purer).

In the grounds of a Breton castle, a day or so ago, Nushka (on a leash) made an abrupt and energetic movement that caused Christine to fall flat onto the ground, severely injuring her left wrist. She tells me that she has received exemplary treatment from medical professionals in Brittany, whose standards of friendly excellence merit praise. So, she's quietly recovering in her lovely Breton home.

It’s funny to recollect that Christine and I, back in Paris many years ago, were the least “doggy” individuals you could possibly imagine. Today, both of us are the proud owners of magnificent canine locomotives…

Luxurious breakfast

In my blog post of November 2010 entitled Master mushroom chef [display], I spoke of Coprinus comatus mushrooms, which are one of my favorite breakfast dishes. For the last few days, I’ve been feeding the donkeys and hens up at Jackie’s place, and these mushrooms flourish on his lawn. The tastiest specimens are the small mushrooms that have made their appearance during the last 24 hours.

Their preparation is simple. I simply put them in a non-stick frying pan with butter for a few minutes.

A good part of the pleasure of such exquisite food comes from the fact that my mushrooms were taken out of the ground just 20 minutes before being eaten. These days, that’s pure gastronomical luxury.

PS Jackie once told me that he has never been tempted to eat such mushrooms… and I replied that I agreed entirely with his wariness.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Choranche pathways

In my blog post of 18 September 2013 entitled Country lanes [display], I indicated that the mayor of Choranche and his municipal councillors may have stirred up a hornet’s nest when they decided to open a public enquiry into the possibility of transferring the ownership of various public pathways into private hands… and, particularly, into the hands of the mayor himself (a cattle farmer) and some of his close councillors. Well, the "poor fellow" hit the jackpot! And everything is blowing up in his face… to the amusement of rural newcomers such as myself.

As I suggested in the above-mentioned blog post, I’m not experienced in grassroots political activism, and I’m simply too old to get involved in such stuff. Besides, it’s difficult for me to tolerate people whom I look upon as fools. My personality is not exactly that of a diplomat, and I soon get hot under the collar when I find myself in opposition with the opinions of other people. Let’s say that the Creator never intended that a lowly earthling such as me should get involved in any kind of politics. (In fact, God once suggested that I might be better off getting involved in the priesthood, until I told him to kindly fuck off, and allow me to make up my own mind about what I should do with my life.)

Let me get back (before being drawn into the higher realms of theology) to what I was about to say: namely, that I’m not in fact one of the revolutionary host who have been marching past our village hall with pitchforks in their hands, ready to storm the Bastille if ever our mayor refused to liberate the pathways of Choranche. But I approve wholeheartedly of all that they’re doing, with great skill and determination, and I’m lending a constant hand in the backdrops. In other words, I’m just as liable as any of them to be guillotined by the authorities, or maybe assassinated by furious peasants.

This afternoon,  down at the Rouillard Bridge, in glorious weather, I met up with six friendly fellow citizens of Choranche: Aimée and Bernard Duret (owners of a lovely guesthouse in the village), Henri-Jacques Sentis (former mayor of Choranche), Georges Marbach (internationally-renowned speleologist) and my close friends Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier. Our mission was to explore Greenery Lane: the pathway that was the subject of a document that has received enthusiastic reactions at all levels, from the community of municipalities alongside the Bourne, right up to the Vercors Regional Park. You see, although I quickly lose control of the situation when I try to speak with others, I remain a perfectly competent writer (often with the help of Christine and Emmanuelle), capable of winning friends and influencing people. And my simple paper on Greenery Lane (for which no personal credit is due) apparently rang a bell in the minds of many folk.

This afternoon’s mission was a total success. Not only did my friends discover all kinds of visual hints (under the expert guidance of Henri-Jacques) enabling them to detect the existence of the ancient weed-covered pathway as it winds up the slopes, but they started to clean it up, cutting away piles of branches and throwing boulders out of the way.

At one point, we ran into a couple of strands of barbed wire, blocking the pathway, dating from the time when my neighbor Gérard Magnat had cattle. Earlier in the day, I had phoned Gérard, who confirmed that we were free to cut through this barbed wire. So, in front of a bank of cameras (well, let’s say, at least one smartphone), I took a pair of wire-cutters out of my bag and cut through the barbed wire, saying: “I declare officially that Greenery Lane has been reopened.” The crowds cheered, and my donkey Moshé brayed. Champagne flowed… at least in our minds. It was a lovely afternoon. And Greenery Lane will soon become a magnificent pathway for romantic wanderers.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Photos of World War I

As soon as the Great War broke out, the French psychiatrist Frantz Adam [1886-1986] was enlisted as a medical officer in a French infantry regiment. Throughout the years that followed, he was present at major events on the Western Front: Vosges (1915), Somme and Verdun (1916), Chemin des Dames (1917)...

Besides his professional activities, Frantz Adam got into the habit of taking photos of all kinds of situations, both grim and pleasant, in the context of the Western Front. A few years ago, his descendant Arnaud Bouteloup inherited 600 photos taken by his great-uncle, and many of these images have been cleaned up and recently published in a French-language book entitled Ce que j'ai vu de la Grande Guerre (What I Saw of the Great War).

Click here to visit an AFP webpage on Frantz Adam with a few specimens of his photos. An image that caught my attention shows a group of eight Australian soldiers relaxing on a Belgian river bank in May 1918.

Click to enlarge

Anecdote: At the time the above photo was taken, my ancestral relative Francis Pickering [1897-1945] from the Quirindi district (NSW) was surely not too far away. His greatest military deeds were performed in the autumn of 1918 at Joncourt, to the east of Amiens, midway between Cambrai (to the north) and Saint-Quentin (to the south).

Nicknamed "the King" (because of his athletic prowess), Francis Pickering was awarded the Military Medal in 1919 "for bravery in the field". When my grandmother Kathleen Pickering gave birth to a son in October 1917, she chose the nickname of her young brother as the given name of her baby... and my poor father carried the burden of this embarrassing given name throughout his entire life. Worse still, his second given name was an ancestral surname, Mepham. So, my father's full name—King Mepham Skyvington—sounded as if he were the monarch of an ancient Anglo-Saxon province.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

France is more backward than you think

People tend to think that France is a modern nation (well, some people, at least) and that Paris is a great city in constant evolution. I myself spread this legend through my blog post of August 2011 entitled Redevelopment of Paris riverbanks [display], which seemed to suggest that "imagination is in power" (an antiquated slogan of the ferocious rioters of May 1968).

Thankfully, my favorite French website, Gallica (emanation of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, click here to access), has readjusted the understandable enthusiasm of an Antipodean expatriate such as myself. The following photo proves that, a mere century ago, archaic Gauls were still rolling into the City of Light with their primitive horse-drawn wagons.

When you see that photo of the wagon bumping across the primitive cobblestones of Paris, it's amazing to think that the luxurious 2-horsepower Citroën—the gem of the French art of automobile construction—was just half-a-century down the road.

With the cold season at Gamone just around the corner, I'm trying to make up my mind whether I should maybe invest in a Gallic wagon. Apparently the wooden wheels work wonderfully well on the icy macadam. And, even if I were to get stuck in the snow on my way back home from the supermarket, I could always camp down overnight in the straw in the wagon, with Fitzroy to keep me warm.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Great images on French website

The French website of Le Nouvel Observateur offers us regularly various collections of great images. I would imagine that this stuff should be accessible throughout the world. So, I'm including links to two specimens:
  • In this collection of kitsch record covers [access], it's amusing to notice the presence of a few dumb-looking Jesus followers wearing glasses or woollen pullovers. It makes me wonder whether maybe Jesus himself might have been a kind of dumb-looking American guy with eye problems and kitsch tastes in clothing.
  • The second collection presents photos from the night life of Cardiff in Wales [access]. Strictly nothing to do with Jesus.

Simplified story of our origins

Creationists and folk who believe in the truth of Genesis are trying constantly to invent arguments designed to reveal that Darwinian evolution cannot be true, and that God therefore exists. A few years ago, two of these fellows created a photo montage of an imaginary animal called a crocoduck.

They argued that, if evolution were a valid theory, then this kind of transitional animal—midway between a crocodile and a duck—should have existed at some time in the past. Insofar as nobody had ever found traces of such a beast, the fellows who imagined it concluded that evolution was false, and that God had created all living creatures. But their operation completely backfired when scientists actually found traces, in 2009, of an authentic reptile with a duck-like bill: the Anatosuchus minor.

A few days ago, paleontologists announced the existence of an extraordinary hominid skull, 1.8 million years old, uncovered in Georgia at a place named Dmanisi.

Here's an artist's impression of the physical appearance of this creature.

In a more subtle way than in the case of the crocoduck, this splendid Homo specimen—designated by scientists as "the world's first completely preserved adult hominid skull"—is an apparently hybrid fossil, in the sense that it combines features that have been associated, up until now, with what were thought to be separate hominid species. This means that paleontologists will probably get around to simplifying their categories, by considering that all the alleged hominid families are merely variants of a single species, Homo erectus, which originated in Africa.

Homo Erectus couple.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

My English story is finally finished

A week ago, I announced [display] that my maternal family-history document was completed. Today, I'm happy to announce that the complementary dimension of my genealogical challenge has been completed. That's to say, I've finally finished a full version of my paternal family-history story, entitled They Sought the Last of Lands. It's 276 pages long, and can be downloaded from this address:

In my title, the expression "last of lands" (with might be thought of as an exaggeration) has been borrowed from a great Australian poet.
They call her a young country, but they lie:

She is the last of lands, the emptiest,

A woman beyond her change of life, a breast

Still tender but within the womb is dry.
Without songs, architecture, history:

The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,

Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,

The river of her immense stupidity
Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.

In them at last the ultimate men arrive

Whose boast is not: ‘we live’ but ‘we survive’,

A type who will inhabit the dying earth.
                                     — A D Hope, Australia

My paternal ancestors sailed from the Old World to the Antipodes because they had romantic dreams of a young continent where they would be able to lead a happy, healthy and prosperous rural existence... including, among other things (for my grandfather Ernest Skyvington), the possibility of riding horses: an upper-class privilege in England. In modern terms, it might be said literally that my ancestors were thinking of a fabulous sea change. And so they were.

Created in a similar style to my maternal genealogy, A Little Bit of Irish, this second document reflects a new kind of family-history research and presentation, based largely upon the resources made available through the Internet.

To my mind, it's sad that too many people imagine that the genealogy/Internet tandem must necessarily give rise to antiseptic documents that look more like pages out of a phone directory than something you might wish to read, like a novel. The key to producing a readable family-history document consists, I believe, in unearthing and then transcribing poignant anecdotes that place the story in a human-all-too-human context. So, one of the heroes of the tale of my father's forebears was the Bournemouth milkman who sired so many Skyvingtons (from several mothers, but all perfectly legitimate) that he placed our surname indelibly in Northern America. And another hero was the Pickering brother who stayed at home in London (leaving the discovery of the New World up to his two elder brothers) and then created an amazing double-life inspired by his passion for ancient ancestors.

A family historian is so intimately linked to his stories that he cannot evaluate objectively the quality of his writing. For me, as far as They Sought the Last of Lands is concerned, I like to imagine myself drinking Billy Tea and talking to a kangaroo.

Our Aussie beast would surely understand everything.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Aroma of hot sand

The great Edith Piaf sung the praise of her lover, member of the French Foreign Legion, whose body exuded the aroma of hot sand.

Thousands of kilometers away, when I was a child in the Antipodes, I recall a fabulous communications experiment aimed at training kangaroos to deliver mail (in their pouches) to remote Outback residents. Everything worked fine except for a single devastating obstacle. At that time, Aussies were such lazy uneducated buggers that the kangaroos were incapable of deciphering their handwritten addresses.

Today, things have changed. We learn [here] that a Sydney firm is using drones to deliver textbooks to students.

I reckon that those fabulous Sydney drones, swerving astutely to avoid hitting the pylons of the Harbour Bridge, would surely be capable of honing in on the hot-sand aroma of Piaf's sexy warrior.

Collision with a cloud

I didn't hear the noise of the impact, but my photo proves that the catastrophe did in fact occur... this afternoon, at an undetermined moment.

A low-flying cloud apparently hit the hill just opposite Gamone, and then subsided into the Cirque de Choranche, where it is henceforth firmly entrenched. The cloud has descended upon a rural pathway, blocking it completely. The mayor has called upon emergency services, equipped with helicopters, to see if they can dislodge the cloud, which threatens citizens of the commune with its terrifying vaporousness.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Door in my cellar

My stone cellar finally has a stout wooden door at its southern end.

One of these days, I'll build a staircase up to the ground level, where my lawnmower is parked. But there's no urgency. The immediate purpose of this doorway is to keep out the winter cold. A craftsman in Pont-en-Royans built me this tailor-made door for a quite reasonable price, and he installed it firmly in the opening by means of long screws sunk into the stone. But it's up to me now to use concrete to seal the gaps between the wooden frame and the stone wall of the cellar. As you can see from the following photo, these gaps are quite irregular in width and form:

That photo also reveals that the oval form of the stone at the top of the opening is totally asymmetrical, meaning that the door, too, has to correspond to this asymmetrical shape. That's Gamone! Everything here is out of alignment... as if the fact that the property is located on mountain slopes meant that the builders were no longer capable of getting anything straight. But I've come to take asymmetry for granted. I think of it as the normal state of affairs. I would surely be terribly anguished to live in a house where all the flat surfaces were perfectly horizontal, all the walls were perfectly vertical, and all the angles were right angles. Happily, Gamone is considerably more topsy-turvy.

Friday, October 11, 2013

My Irish story is finally finished

I've finally completed a full version of my maternal family-history story, entitled A Little Bit of Irish. It's 242 pages long, and can be downloaded from the following address:

I've borrowed my title from an embarrassingly sentimental old song (containing the expression "God made Ireland") that was used as a theme by the Irish tenor Patrick O'Hagan (father of Australian-born Johnny Logan, of Eurovision fame). Please don't feel obliged to listen to this recent version right through to the end:

My document presents 4 or 5 generations of ancestors who were all—to a greater or lesser extent—rural pioneers in New South Wales, first in Braidwood then up on the Clarence River (where I was born in 1940).

An interesting outcome of my family-history research (in chapter 3) is my "discovery" and identification of a hitherto little-known Braidwood bushranger: Billy Hickey [1818-1901], the big brother of my great-great-grandmother Ann Hickey [1822-1898]. Billy had been a mate and short-term accomplice of the notorious Clarke brothers.

John Clarke (with gunshot wounds in his right shoulder) and Tommy Clarke were the last Australian bushrangers to be hanged, on 25 June 1867. Fortunately, Billy Hickey gave up crime before the age of 30, for reasons that remain a mystery. Then he married, settled down as a farmer and raised a family of 7 kids. Billy's farm was located in the Irish Corner settlement on the outskirts of Braidwood, in the vicinity of the Farmers' Home tavern run by my great-great-grandfather Charles Walker [1807-1860].

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Robot update

The Atlas robot, being developed by Boston Dynamics, measures 1m88, weighs 150 kilos and can use its stereoscopic vision to move around on rough and uneven surfaces. It can withstand shocks from a pendulum weighing 20 kilos, and balance on one leg.

Although US military funding is being used to develop the Atlas robot, we are assured that the machine will not be put into service as an infantry unit. That sounds reasonable, in that the machine would be highly vulnerable to the simplest gun/grenade attack. On the other hand, a robot such as this would be an extraordinary device in the context, say, of a catastrophe such as that of Fukushima.

Here's the four-legged Wildcat robot, also being developed by Boston Dynamics, which is a descendant of the Cheetah sprinter that I presented in an earlier blog post [display].

It's a pity that its "head" appears to be where its "buttocks" should be located, and vice versa. What impresses me most of all is Wildcat's ability to either bound or gallop. In any case, I'm convinced that Wildcat would be a fabulous friend for my dog Fitzroy, on the slopes of Gamone.

Disgrace to the human species

This video, dating from 2009, is one of the finest, shortest and most precise statements made by Richard Dawkins on the subject of creationist madness, seen simply as a refusal to listen to anything that contradicts their so-called "scripture".

It's often interesting to see a photo of an individual—such as Kurt Wise—who has made statements that sound like insanity.

Creationist Kurt Wise

I'm not suggesting that there's any kind of correlation between an individual's physical appearance and his crazy thinking. It's simply a matter of giving oneself an opportunity of trying to imagine the communication experience of hearing such a person say such things. Here's how Dawkins once spoke of Wise:
Kurt Wise doesn’t need the challenge; he volunteers that, even if all the evidence in the universe flatly contradicted Scripture, and even if he had reached the point of admitting this to himself, he would still take his stand on Scripture and deny the evidence. This leaves me, as a scientist, speechless... We have it on the authority of a man who may well be creationism’s most highly qualified and most intelligent scientist that no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, no matter how all-embracing, no matter how devastatingly convincing, can ever make any difference.
The final assertion of Dawkins in the video—about creationist stubbornness being "a disgrace to the human species"—is blunt but invigorating... and terribly credible.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pheasant in my rose garden

From my bathroom window, I glimpsed a pheasant in my rose garden.

I rushed downstairs with my camera, hoping to get closer to the bird. I had just enough time to obtain a poorly-focused closeup shot before Fitzroy scented the pheasant's presence, and chased him away.

In flight, a pheasant makes a strange sound, almost as if it had a motor. I can't imagine what kind of satisfaction a hunter obtains by firing at such a disoriented and defenseless creature.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Russian leader beneath my former windows

For most of my time in Paris, I lived in a second-floor apartment at 23 rue Rambuteau, between the Centre Pompidou and the Marais quarter. At the back end of the apartment, the bedroom windows looked down onto a narrow street, rue Geoffroy-l'Angevin, which was said to date from the 13th century.

On the opposite façade, a sign indicated the presence of a merchant who stocked bread, wine and cheese. Neighbors told me that small warehouses of that kind—referred to as "BOF" merchants (beurre, œuf, fromage)—came into existence during the Nazi Occupation, to deal in black-market foodstuffs (avoiding the rationing system), and that their owners soon became rich.

Recently, I was intrigued by an enigmatic Femen tweet saying that the Russian president Vladimir Putin had been sighted in the rue Geoffroy-l'Angevin. Over the last few years, we've grown accustomed to images of Putin as a rugged outdoor macho, often stripped above the waist to exhibit his pectorals. I've always thought he looks more authentic (more authentically evil) in his old KGB uniform.

I finally discovered the sense of the Femen tweet about Putin in the rue Geoffroy-l'Angevin. An anonymous street artist had apparently created a colorful stenciled variation on the theme of a lese-majesty painting that presents the Russian president as a transvestite in female lingerie.

The original portrait of Putin and his prime minister Dmitry Medvedev disguised as females was created recently by the Russian artist Konstantin Altunin.

Not surprisingly, Altunin was obliged to run for his life and flee from Russia to avoid receiving an art lesson from Putin's henchmen.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Animals in space

For this poor little frog, the journey to space and back didn't last more than a few seconds, and I would imagine that his return to Earth (without a parachute) was hectic, if not tragic.

Click to enlarge

During his all-too-short excursion, I would imagine however that he must have had a fabulous view of the rocket (what a pity, though, that he was on the outside looking in, rather than the other way round), and he was surely saying to himself constantly: "So far, so good."

The first space martyr was the Soviet dog Laïka, who died a few hours after leaving Earth on 3 November 1957 in a Sputnik vessel.

In fact, three animals—a sheep, a duck and a rooster—had already participated in the first balloon flight in history, 230 years ago.

The birds appear to be enjoying themselves. Here's a translation of the caption:
 Aerostatic experiment carried out at Versailles on 19 September 1783 in the presence of Their Majesties and of the Royal Family by Monsieur de Montgolfier with a balloon of a height of 52 feet and a diameter of 41 feet. This superb device, bearing the King's signature on a blue background, weighed 900 pounds. The balloon's ascent was accompanied by applause from all the spectators. Then it came back down at the Marechal Carrefour in the Vaucresson woods.
Click here to access a web page describing this momentous event.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mysterious objects at Gamone

Up until today, my collection of mysterious objects at Gamone has included as star exhibits the following specimens (all of which have been presented on my Antipodes blog, which seeks constantly to stay abreast of avant-garde technology):

[Click to enlarge]

The red machine peels apples (the fruity kind, not the Cupertino models), the spiral prong enables you to roast unpeeled apples over an open fire, and the device at the bottom helps you to blend butter and flour when you're about to prepare an apple pie.

Well, this new mysterious object (purchased this morning in St-Marcellin) has nothing to do with apples... but rather with other Gamone fruit. My new mysterious object is not particularly photogenic, since its principal organ is composed of elliptically-shaped wires, and it's not easy to take a photo of an empty oval space. I warned you: This object is elusive! The following vague photo suggests that it's a kind of wire-framed rugby ball attached to a long stick... which is almost what it is, in fact.

My scientific/literary hero Richard Dawkins indicated recently (I forget where) that he didn't like the idea of swimming in rivers where nasty fluvial creatures (that's an elegant synonym for carnivorous fish) might bite his balls off. Imagine, for a moment, a momentous scenario in the underwater kingdom. A mother fish returns home with a fabulous gastronomical feast for her baby descendants in the wondrous chain of procreation: Dawkins's balls! Then there's that nasty business in Dawkins's autobiography about a schoolmaster who, in the words of the author, "pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts".

While I hardly imagine that my favorite writer reads Antipodes, I would not wish to evoke dramatic memories. I hesitate therefore before revealing that the mysterious object I purchased this morning is a nut grabber. To be clear, that's the French name. In English, I should specify that it's a walnut grabber... but, as the bishop said to the actress, nuts are nuts. Now, if ever Richard Dawkins were reading this blog post, I would suggest that he shut his eyes while I publish this closeup image of the metallic rugby ball (Dawkins, if I understand correctly, is not of a South African sporting nature) that grabs nuts that happen to be lying around indolently on the ground, as if they'd never heard of Saturday night fever.

In fact, my new toy is an old man's device that enables you to pick up walnuts without bending over. I don't know about you, dear reader, but I'm old enough to appreciate such inventions. But don't get wrong: I've never been particularly accustomed to bending over—neither forwards nor backwards—during my long and fulfilled existence in the domains of science, philosophy, technology, sex and walnuts.

As you will have gathered, there was no prize for guessing the identity of my newly-acquired mysterious object... but I offer you, as a gift for participants, a delightful everyday image—which you can share with my dog Fitzroy (a nutty connoisseur)—of a basket of Gamone walnuts.