Monday, September 30, 2013

Amazing science

There's a new atheist kid on the YouTube block: Jaclyn Glenn.

Here's her profile:
Jaclyn Glenn was born March 25, 1988, and lives in Florida, US. She is currently going to medical school and uploads regularly. It is believed that she was married in 2010, but her current relationship status is unknown. Her success on youtube is with the channel "JaclynGlenn", where she discusses topics such as religion, atheism, animal rights, politics, masturbation, and many other issues in a serious yet comical fashion. She has recently admitted to being an atheist and skeptic, but does not have an abrasive personality like many other atheist vloggers on the site.
In that final sentence, the term "vloggers" designates video bloggers: that's to say, individuals who submit regular blog posts in video form. Jaclyn Glenn's video creations can be found here. Countless Americans will be shocked by her following moving version of a sacred anthem:

Needless to say, Richard Dawkins was an instant fan of Jaclyn.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Baby donkey at Gamone

The day before yesterday, as I was about to set out on my usual early-morning stroll with Fitzroy, I was alarmed by a strident donkey bray from one of my neighbor's animals. Rushing up the hill, I witnessed the presence of a baby alongside the black female named Alice. The new-born donkey was struggling to get up onto its legs. No sooner had it done so than it toppled over and slid a few meters down the hillside. Reaching the Ageron home, I rang the doorbell frantically and yelled out to Jackie. Fafa appeared at the window, and I explained that a baby donkey had just been born. Within a few minutes, we were all down alongside the mother and her baby, who appeared to be in perfect shape.

Jackie announced that it was a female, whereupon Fafa proclaimed that it would be called Victoria. We looked on for half-an-hour to make sure that the baby Victoria had found her mother's teats. Jackie then picked up the baby and carried her down to the donkey shed, built on relatively flat ground.

Click to enlarge

Throughout the day, both Jackie and I wandered back to the shed frequently to admire the mother and her baby. Jackie was enraptured by the beauty of the young animal, and caressed it as if it were his own baby. All of a sudden, he yelled out:

"Victoria has balls!"

We laughed a lot. I advised Jackie to get his eyesight tested. In any case, as the old French saying goes: "If my aunt had balls, she'd be my uncle." From that moment on, the glorious baby donkey had a new name: Victor.

I'm a Saint Sylvester baby

My son François Skyvington was conceived (so it appears) at the height of the summer of 1968 in a magnificent corner of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, in the vicinity of Sommières: the village of Lawrence Durrell [display]. Then he was born in Brittany on 30 May 1979, at the time that NASA was making final preparations to send astronauts to the Moon. I once took the liberty of referring to my son as a "Breton moon child" [display], but he may not have appreciated my poetic touch.

Let's talk about my own date of birth. How come that I happened to be born on 24 September? I've written already—in my ongoing memoir entitled Warm Days Down Under—about this momentous event.
My mother’s eldest brother, Eric Walker, liked to point out in his typical loudspoken manner that my parents had conceived me under Bawden’s Bridge, on the Glen Innes Road to the west of Grafton, about twenty kilometers beyond the Walker home at Waterview. He never described the precise circumstances in which he had acquired that trivial piece of knowledge, but I imagine him lurking behind a tree and watching the lovemaking from a distance. Be that as it may, I could never understand why he seemed to take pleasure in shouting out this information every now and again, with a self-satisfied smirk, as if it were a scoop that he had obtained with difficulty. I can imagine a scenario in which Eric (a 29-year-old bachelor nicknamed “Farmer”) had accompanied his 21-year-old sister Kath (my future mother) and her 22-year-old boyfriend Bill Skyvington (my future father) on an excursion to Bawden’s Bridge. Counting nine months backwards from my date of birth, I deduce that the excursion must have taken place around Christmas 1939. Maybe the trip to Bawden’s Bridge was a family outing on the warm afternoon following the traditional midday Christmas dinner of spiced roast chicken, potatoes, pumpkin, steamed pudding and bottled lager. It is perfectly plausible that my future parents, inspired by the balmy atmosphere on the banks of the splendid Orara River, decided to find a secluded shady spot under the lofty span of the bridge where they could make love. Did they realize that Kath’s big brother Eric was spying on them? I shall never know. In any case, Eric was probably not accustomed to seeing live demonstrations of human sexual activities in the environment of the dairy farm at Waterview, and this chance happening starring his young sister must have impressed him greatly.

If anybody were to ask me what I thought of my parents’ choice of Bawden’s Bridge as a place to conceive me, I would say that it was a fine decision. But they surely did no explicit choosing. The sultry atmosphere and their passion took charge of the affair.

An article in this morning's French press [display] has shed light upon the logic of my date of birth.

Needless to say, I'm delighted to learn that serious researchers are still investigating this question. Here's my translation of the opening lines of this article:
During the final fortnight of September, maternity clinics record a boom of births when compared to the rest of the year. These babies were conceived during the night of New Year's Eve. Specialists in demography speak of the Saint Sylvester syndrome. Every year, starting on 23 September and extending over two weeks, maternity clinics record a daily exceedance of 300 to 500 births with respect to the rest of the calendar.
Laurent Toulemon, researcher at the French government INED institution [Institut National des Etudes Démographiques], explains this phenomenon as follows:
The period between Christmas and the New Year is both a moment of euphoria for couples in love and a period of intense cultural festivity. Consequently, contraceptive behavior is at a low ebb. Obviously, we have no way of knowing to what extent a fecundity during this period was, or was not, accidental. But many parents confirm that they did in fact hope to create a baby during this period.
In other words, this high-level French research suggests that the pregnancy of my dear mother Kathleen Walker [1918-2003] was surely more than a vulgar accident. So, I'm happy to consider myself as a greatly-desired first offspring. WTF! On the other hand, I'm obliged to admit that Mum and Dad didn't actually get married until a month later, on Australia Day, 26 January 1940. Was the choice of that date an exceptional demonstration of patriotism, or did it rather reflect the initial absence of Kath's menstruation? I like to think it's a bit of both.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Country lanes

Here in the Old World, the rural landscape has naturally inherited a vast assortment of ancient and less ancient man-made features. This is particularly true in the case of thoroughfares. In south-west England, for example, I've always had the impression that the main roads between big towns are often simply macadamized transformations of the old pathways used by horse-drawn vehicles. Passengers on the upper level of double-decker buses hurtling along such country roads are anguished by the experience of brushing up against overhanging branches of trees. On my few occasions of moving around in such settings in Britain, I've often had feelings of claustrophobia, and wondered what would happen if a driver were to find he had a flat tyre on a narrow road of this kind. The truth of the matter, I think, is that well-heeled Brits in this part of the world drive expensive vehicles that simply don't break down... As for the rest of humanity, they're no doubt smelly creatures from the mainland continent. So, as Shakespeare hinted, all's well that ends well.

Here in France, fortunately, narrow major roads of that British kind do not exist, since the state has systematically intervened to make sure that the public administration can knock down old buildings and acquire the necessary land surface to create thoroughfares of a decent width. And users of our rural roads include, of course, not merely local residents, tradesmen and tourists, but agricultural workers as well.

In the middle of summer, the mayor of Choranche (an agriculturalist) decided to set up an official enquiry into the idea of selling off some of the ancient public paths in Choranche. In the context of the enquiry, which culminated in a public meeting last Monday evening, residents of the commune (a hundred or so individuals) were surprised to discover that there had never been many significant requests to privatize parts of our public domain, apart from a few flagrant cases of tiny sections of paths that happened to pass uncomfortably close (for certain residents) to their houses... for the obvious reason that, once upon a time, householders were more than happy to have a track from their front door to the village.

In fact, the only noteworthy case of a lengthy segment of a public lane crossing a large area of privately-owned land concerns land owned by... the mayor himself! Insofar as it's thinkable that the mayor may have taken advantage of his elected role to tackle a purely personal problem (I hasten to point out that I totally refrain from expressing publicly my personal opinion on this matter), we might well be heading towards a situation in which the conclusions of the ongoing enquiry will be simply nullified by an administrative tribunal invoked by citizens who feel that the mayor has gone too far.

Aware that this official enquiry had been set up, I hastened to write a document aimed at protecting and indeed enhancing the public nature of the marvelous path that runs along the crest of the hill up behind Gamone. Known in olden times as Greenery Lane (le chemin du Vert), this ancient path—whose geographical contours remain perfectly detectable—was a segment of the principal itinerary between Pont-en-Royans and Presles. It came as no surprise to the mayor of Choranche to see me submit to the enquiry a document concerning Greenery Lane, because he knows that I've been trying for years to promote the idea of removing weeds from this track, setting up pathway signs, and encouraging hikers to discover this fabulous itinerary. Click here to download a PDF copy (with photos) of my 22-page French-language paper on Greenery Lane.

In fact, since I have to climb up the steep hill behind my house (donkey territory) to reach Greenery Lane, I don't wander up there very often. Over the last 20 years, my preferred pathway for almost daily walks—once with my dear departed Sophia, now with Fitzroy—is Gamone Lane, which is the non-macadamized extension, further up the slopes in the direction of Presles, of the roadway that leads up to my house and the neighboring Ageron property.

A fortnight ago, when I was wandering exceptionally up along Greenery Lane, I discovered an excellent viewpoint down onto my everyday Gamone Lane (the pathway crossing the slopes).

These ancient rural lanes are patrimonial treasures, which must continue to belong to all of us, both residents and visitors. The idea of privatizing and selling them off is utter heresy. Fortunately, there are now so many informed and patrimonially-sensitive citizens dwelling in this part of the world that the mayor's crazy intentions are surely doomed to fail.

There will be municipal elections in France early next year. Some of us who've attempted to do the electoral arithmetic for Choranche conclude sadly that the commune has a sufficient quantity of conservative old-timers to guarantee the reelection of the present mayor. Fair enough. Enlightened citizens—most often "foreigners" whose ancestors were born in faraway places beyond the tiny confines of Choranche—will continue to oppose any stupid attempt to sell off our country lanes.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Marching in step

In French, the expression "noise of boots" (le bruit des bottes) evokes an obsession of Fascist dictators: the desire to transform their people into robots that march in step.

This theme of marching robots is developed in an Orwellian setting in Apple's celebrated 1984 video.

In the following fascinating video, we see a couple of dozen metronomes that start out by beating time in a totally chaotic manner. Then, they seem to get around to obeying an invisible Big Brother, and end up in unison. It appears to be mysterious, vaguely frightening... but there's an elementary scientific explanation for what has happened.

In a quite different domain, the trailer for the movie on Julian Assange is now available.

Benedict Cumberbatch's attempts at reproducing an Australian accent are quite amusing, but reasonably plausible. Meanwhile, there's an interesting interview of the real Assange:

Concerning the tribulations of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, this morning's Dilbert strip offers us an explicit allusion.

Dilbert's mum is a hilarious character. The government files "stolen" by Dilbert were in fact simply company databases generated by Dilbert's employer, which had then been ripped off stealthily by the government. So, Dilbert wasn't really stealing anything at all; he was merely recuperating data that had been created initially by his employer. To understand this setting, you need to consult the Dilbert daily strips over the last week.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fit to be worn by an Aussie PM

This morning, I was browsing around on the Internet, looking for stores that sell long winter underwear... which is the ideal solution for keeping warm whenever I'm wandering around outside in the snow. I took a look at the website of the French textile company named 3 Suisses.

Now I can already hear some of my readers complaining: "William is such a staunch Francophile that he's trying to pull the wool (or synthetic textile) over our eyes by suggesting that the 3 Suisses company is French. But we know enough French to realize that this company, in view of its name, is obviously Swiss." I'm sorry to disappoint such bright readers, but the explanations I'm about to reveal might enable them to succeed in a future French trivia quiz. In 1932, Monsieur Toulemonde set up the offices of his company in Roubaix, in the north of France. Opposite his office building, there was a bistrot run by a Monsieur Suis, who had 3 daughters. Customers got around to referring to the bistrot as chez les 3 Suisses. And that name rubbed off onto the textile company on the other side of the road.

After World War II, the annual 3 Suisses catalogue became required reading for families throughout France. And, as early as 1998, the 3 Suisses company glided effortlessly into the Internet era... almost as if they had been waiting for it to happen.

These days, when Internet users are reading the French news, they often find images of scantily-clad females, wearing 3 Suisses garments, floating across the top of the screen. And I know from experience that, whenever I've been tempted to take a closer glimpse at such a creature, I've been bombarded constantly, for days afterwards, by all kinds of 3 Suisses ads for female clothes... which are generally of a quite pleasant nature.

This morning, though, I was hit in the eye by the following 3 Suisses publicity:

I peered at the name beneath the photo on the left, and said to myself that this was no doubt a joke. Somebody had surely created this hoax name and image on the 3 Suisses website. No genuine manufacturer would dare to call his company "Aussie Bum". Maybe the site had been hacked by a gay guy from Down Under who was still under the spell of Mr Rabbit's budgie smuggling.

Well, it seems I was wrong. The company in question really exists, and you can click here to view their range of big-bulge products.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Reached the roof

In November 2012, I started to purchase pipe elements for the erection of a chimney system for a future wood stove. Prior to that date, I had devoted days of effort to a tedious and horribly dusty operation that consisted of making a wide hole in the 20cm-thick slab of reinforced concrete between the ground level and the upper floor of my house. Finally, last January, I decided upon the stove model that I preferred (a French-manufactured Invicta Bradford), as indicated in a blog post entitled Installation of my wood stove [display]. Since then, I've carried on purchasing and installing all the required elements of galvanized steel tubing (Poujoulat), according to the following schema:

Click to enlarge

This afternoon, Serge Bellier and I carried out the ultimate operation, which consisted of placing a chimney on top of the roof, linking together the final elements of tubing, and firmly attaching the external chimney to the rafters of the house. Everything fell into place perfectly, and we didn't even have to cut through any rafters, or slice into any roof tiles. Here's a photo of Serge alongside the new chimney:

Serge was happy to discover that the chimney, now fixed firmly in place, turned out to be perfectly vertical.

 Retrospectively, I realize that there were several stages in the chimney construction process at which I might have possibly run into nasty obstacles of an almost insurmountable kind. Fortunately, in every case, I managed to avoid such traps, often through sheer luck. In other words, the entire installation process has been carried out in a very smooth fashion. Besides, the stove itself (from Bricomarché) and all the items involved in the erection of the chimney (from Castorama) were purchased for a global cost that is a mere fraction of what I would have paid if I had called upon a professional stove vendor and chimney installer.

At this stage, all that remains to be done is to order some extra-dry firewood (to be delivered in November). Then I'll simply wait for the start of the cold season.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Australia, your chicken is ready!

Over the last 24 hours, French media have been having a field day writing what little they know about the mysterious "mad monk" who has just become Australia's new leader. French journalists all appear to be inspired by the same source material: a rather blunt French-language blog post written by a certain Charlotte Chabas and published by Le Monde [display].

A week ago, French TV viewers were shocked by an evening show revealing the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef. After all the hype generated by Tourism Australia's "best jobs in the world" stunts, the marketing seams are starting to show, and people in France are surely becoming aware that the legendary dream world that is supposed to exist Down Under could well be somewhat mythical.

The last time I was out in Australia (already seven years ago), I looked around for serious books concerning the state of the nation, and prospects for the future. Disappointed at finding nothing of interest in this domain, I was reminded of the words of my friend Geoff Brindley: "There is no writing culture in Australia." In bookshops, the shelves marked Australia or Australiana are packed with photographic albums of indigenous fauna and flora, tourist guides and cooking books. Even today, when I ask Amazon to display their books on Australia, there is simply no category of books dealing with contemporary Australian society, politics, economics, future challenges, etc.

In fact, the case of Australia has been handled expertly and thoroughly by the US scholar Jared Diamond. In his celebrated Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), he spoke at length about the alleged "backwardness" of Australia's Aborigines, with the intention of proving that we would be mistaken to imagine the existence of any "supposed deficiencies of the Aborigines themselves".

Today, I find that this 15-year-old book (which earned its author a Pulitzer Prize) has an annoying old-fashioned tone, as if the author didn't take time, before starting to write his book, to catch up on recent findings concerning the genetics of human populations. Sure, his end-of-book notes on further reading mention the great Italian pioneer Luca Cavalli-Sforza, but nowhere in Diamond's chapter on the Aborigines is there any mention of genetics and DNA studies. Worse, when evoking divergences between Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans, Diamond refers to blood groups and the appearance of their hair, with never the slightest allusion to their respective genetic data.

Tasmanian Aborigines provide us with an extreme case of geographical isolation. When Bass Strait was flooded, some 10,000 years ago, Tasmania was probably populated by no more than a few thousand Aboriginal hunter-gatherers. By the time their descendants were discovered by 17th-century European navigators, Tasmanians had become the most technologically primitive people ever encountered on the planet Earth. Now, it's fair enough to blame the terrible solitude of Tasmanians for the absence of the elementary culture of making fire, boomerangs, stone axes with wooden handles, etc. But the author might have drawn attention to another obvious aspect of Tasmania's isolation and small population. After centuries of consanguinity, their gene pool was surely reduced to a minimalist state leaving few cerebral resources for creativity. While avoiding all references to genes, and bending over backwards to avoid being accused of racism, Jared Diamond nevertheless falls into the trap of comparing the respective "smartness" of Aborigines with a notorious pair of ill-fated explorers. "Robert Burke and William Wills were smart enough to write, but not smart enough to survive in Australian desert regions where Aborigines were living."

A more recent and (to my mind) more convincing book by Diamond, Collapse (2005), tackles the fascinating question of why certain human societies suddenly disappear.

The author's presentations of the historical tragedies of the Pitcairn Islands and Easter Island are particularly brilliant. But I was impressed aboved all by his chapter 13, whose title incorporates a disturbing pair of inverted commas: "Mining" Australia. In fact, the explanations in this chapter lead us back inevitably and directly to the starting point of the present blog post: yesterday's coming to power of the "mad monk" (who once said that the notion of climate change brought about through human activities is "absolute crap"), and an environmental disaster such as the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef. Let me quote Diamond's opening paragraph, which examines Australia's likely destiny:
Mining in the literal sense—that is, the mining of coal, iron, and so on—is a key to Australia's economy today, providing the largest share of its export earnings. In a metaphorical sense, however, mining is also a key to Australia's environmental history and to its current predicament. That's because the essence of mining is to exploit resources that do not renew themselves with time, and hence to deplete those resources. Since gold in the ground doesn't breed more gold [...], miners extract gold from a gold lode as rapidly as is economically feasible, until the lode is exhausted. Mining minerals may thus be contrasted with exploiting renewable resources—such as forests, fish, and topsoil—that do regenerate themselves by biological reproduction or by soil formation. Renewable resources can be exploited indefinitely, provided that one removes them at a rate less than the rate at which they regenerate. If however one exploits forests, fish, or topsoil at rates exceeding their renewal rates, they too will eventually be depleted to extinction, like the gold in a gold mine.
Then the author sketches the theme of his chapter on Australia in a single chilling sentence, where the inverted commas around "mining" indicate that he's using this term in its metaphorical sense:
Australia has been and still is "mining" its renewable resources as if they were mined minerals.
Diamond pulls no punches in describing the exceptionally fragile nature of the harsh "sunburnt country" that many of us came to love.

Up until reading Diamond's detailed descriptions of the low nutrient levels of Australian soils, I had always imagined naively that our agriculture was surely no less "lucky" than the many other aspects of Down Under in which Australians take pride. But this is not at all the case. We now know that the infertility and salinity of soils in Australia make them unsuitable for nearly all forms of agriculture and grazing. Then there's the terrible question of unpredictable rainfall due to the notorious ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation). I believe that every concerned Australian should make a point of studying Diamond's spine-chilling chapter 13 of Collapse.

Meanwhile, I was thrilled to see a victory photo of Mr Rabbit and his lovely women.

Verily I say unto you that they're as beautiful as a page from a fairy tale.

PS I should explain to readers who've never been to Australia that the title of this blog post is an advertising slogan that was used by the Red Rooster fast-food people.

I'm trying to figure out why that photo of Tony Abbott on the beach reminded me immediately of a red cock, about to crow...

Getting ready for the cold season

As I said in a recent blog post [display], I've just built a new version of the small website for the Châtelus camping site of my friends Daniel Berger and his wife Michèle. A few days ago, Tineke Bot translated the text of the website into Dutch, which means that the website [display] is now in French, English and Dutch. Daniel was so happy with my work on the website that he insisted upon doing something in return... although I tried to make it clear that I certainly don't create website stuff on local themes with the intention of receiving any kind of payment. Daniel told me he owned a mini digger (which had played a necessary role in the creation of his camping site on the slopes of Châtelus), and he suggested that there was surely some kind of job to be done at Gamone with the help of such a great little device. I replied that it would indeed be good if the track behind my house could be modified a little so that surface water coming down from the slopes would not tend to leak into my stone cellar. Daniel understood immediately the exact nature of the task to be carried out. A few days later, after working late at night on my computer, I happened to sleep until the middle of the following morning. When I awoke, I discovered with surprise that Daniel had arrived early in the morning, with his mini digger, and completed the job.

Last night, there was a heavy storm at Choranche, and I was happy to find that Daniel's remodeled angle of the track has succeeded in bringing surface water directly down onto the macadam road, so that there's no longer any trace of moisture getting into the house.

The day before yesterday, I drove to Valence to pick up the final two sections of tubing for the chimney of my new wood stove. Consequently, Serge will be helping me to install the rooftop chimney in the next few days (preferably at a moment when we're sure that there's no rainstorm on the horizon, because we have to cut a hole in the roof).

Meanwhile, my neighbor Gérard has delivered my annual order of top-quality firewood.

This new wood supplements a big stack of dry wood (not visible in the photo) left over from last winter. And it's quite likely that I'll purchase a small additional quantity of extra-dry wood, for the new stove, from the high-tech Barraquand factory in the nearby village of St-Laurent-en-Royans. I now need a convenient roofed zone, alongside the house, to store all this wood. So, that implies another quite big construction project, to be carried out as rapidly as possible. Here are the six basic posts, ready to be set up in concrete-filled holes.

It's timber that I purchased about 15 years ago, when I was thinking vaguely of erecting a more elegant shed for my donkey Moshé. I've bolted a steel base onto each post, and painted the wood with a nasty-smelling but highly effective protective product.

Over the last couple of days, I've already got my concrete mixer back into action and erected two posts. (When the rain stops, I'll take photos.) The future construction will occupy an area 5 metres wide and 2 metres deep, with a sloping tiled roof (in the style of my carport), located to the left of Fitzroy's kennel (just behind the pair of old brown wooden doors in the above photo of the wood pile), on a flat site that has been built up, over the years, by landfill.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Dessert for a dog

At this time of the year, Fitzroy is constantly moving around in a world of weeds, prickles and thorns... and I have to verify regularly that there's no nasty stuff caught up in the hair around his ears. Happily, my dog is not at all annoyed whenever I drag away dozens of lumps of hair and prickles. On the contrary, he seems to enjoy my taking care of him.

Recently, I've often seen him edging cautiously into thorny blackberry bushes in order to eat the sweet fruit. This morning, finding some expired-date cream in my refrigerator, I decided to prepare a little treat for Fitzroy.

He seemed to sense immediately that the dessert was for him.

Whenever Fitzroy finds himself face-to-face with a tasty dish, he becomes quite solemn, and the outside world ceases to exist. He seems to hesitate for a moment. I have the impression that he's cogitating upon a fundamental dog-question: Should I devour this stuff immediately, or should I bury it for later on? (Maybe my analysis is mistaken.)

Once the actual eating operations get under way, no time is lost.

I'm always amused by the way in which Fitzroy makes sure that not a molecule of his fabulous food is wasted. And the ultimate act consists of using his tongue to wipe all around his mouth. The pleasure expressed by Fitzroy is so explicit and catching that I almost imagine that I myself did the eating.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Bachar al-Assad must leave the scene

The writing is on the wall. France has spoken definitively through our prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. The criminal Bachar al-Assad must fuck off.

When France talks like that, the world must listen. In the face of such explicit French determination, it is no longer thinkable that the Syrian dictator can possibly survive for long. It will be good riddance to an atrocious modern-day Hitler, who has cruelly exterminated thousands of his fellow Syrians. The dictator's game is virtually over. The disposal task remains to be performed as rapidly as possible. France can do that.