Thursday, December 31, 2015

Antipodes blog: French woman of the year 2015

Emmanuelle Charpentier, born in 1968, is a French microbiologist, geneticist and biochemist.

Emmanuelle started her studies at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, then she acquired her doctorate at the Pasteur Institute. She worked for five years as a researcher in several US universities and hospitals, then pursued her activities in Europe, in Vienna, Sweden and Germany. Earlier this year, she accepted a post as director of the new Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.

This 47-year-old lady is best known in the scientific world for her role in deciphering the molecular mechanisms of the bacterial CRISPR-Cas9 immune system, and her methods are now used as a tool for editing the DNA sequences of plants and animals.

She has just been named as one of ten winners of the prestigious Leibniz Prize in Germany. Included too by Time magazine in the list of the 100 most influential people in the world, Emmanuelle Charpentier will not be surprised or offended (I hope) if I name her in my humble Antipodes blog as French woman of the year 2015.

Philipino church should rent this fellow out, to earn money for the poor

Click here to see a spectacular priest who has the makings of what might be designated as an ecclesiastical sandwich board. The Church might look into the possibility of getting him canonized (in the future, of course, after he leaves his earthly skating rink) as Saint Hoverboard. Maybe his miracles can't cure cancer, but I'm convinced they can patch up broken bones.

Rétrospective 2015

Presentation by French TV of the year 2015 that was. Between the atrocities of Charlie and those of the Bataclan, it was indeed a grim year for France. But the nation and the French people have survived magnificently, stronger than ever. And that's what makes me so happy and proud to be here, a naturalized French citizen in France.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My children's ancestors, the Gauls

French school-children have always heard the expression "our ancestors, the Gauls"... without knowing too much about that civilization, wiped out by Julius Caesar in 52 BC. Everybody is aware of the existence of a prestigious Gallic leader named Vercingétorix, who led the Gallic tribes in their final disastrous battle against the Romans, in Alésia.

We're all aware that this courageous warrior, when he realized that he had been defeated, threw his arms at the feet of Caesar.

But most people's ideas about the Gallic society are vague, because much of their history seems to have disappeared. And many of our ideas about the Gauls are derived from the Astérix comic-books.

So, last night's excellent animation film on the defeat of the Gauls filled in a lot of holes.

In particular, I was greatly impressed by the technological imagination and inventiveness of the creators of this astounding animation film. It's understandable that the team members who performed this amazing work are not going to reveal all the production secrets they've invented and tested, because they'll be using them now to make similar movies, and earn tons of Caesar's coins.

End of our Gallipoli centenary year

This year, my native land celebrated the centenary of the fateful Australian landing at Gallipoli (in modern Turkey) that started on 25 April 1915. Over 8 thousand Australians died there. In Australia and New Zealand, we have always thought of this disastrous battle as our initial military engagement.

Click here to listen to Lemmy Kilmister, of the Motörhead rock group, who died yesterday, singing about young soldiers in that horrible war.

Few folk are interested in science

The US writer-director Matthew Chapman is the co-founder and president of, an organization trying to get the American presidential candidates to hold a debate on science. He has just published an interesting blogpost on this theme through the Huffington Post.

In the USA, presidential candidates have brought up many important kinds of current-affairs subjects, but they never attempt to talk about science, and rarely about technology. Few Americans appear to be convinced that science and technology will have a greater impact upon future society than most traditional political themes. Recently, the Paris conference COP21 on global warming put certain branches of science and technology in the limelight, but world leaders still do not talk regularly about such subjects.

In France, the situation is similar. I wrote a blog post recently [here] about a distinguished French thinker who believes that mathematics is not being considered with the attention it deserves. Science in general receives no more popular attention, here in France, than mathematics. I must admit however that the state-owned TV channels in France often provide us with excellent shows concerning, or based upon, science/technology methods. This was the case last night, when we were offered an amazing animated movie concerning the final years of the Gauls, before their definitive annihilation by the forces of Rome.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

An Oxford lady named Sarah Outen

In the website of Richard Dawkins, there's a charming presentation of a smart and adventurous young Oxford lady, a graduate in biology, named Sarah Outen [click here].

In July 2009, while rowing across the Indian Ocean, she sent Dawkins an email, indicating that she liked to listen (when her solar-powered batteries were operational) to the professor and his wife reading The God Delusion. Dawkins thanked her with a poem:
I’ve received a splendid email
From a most courageous female.
Battling onward to Mauritius,
Lone among the flying fishes,
Albatrosses, giant whales,
Turning turtle in the gales.
To hell with Health and Safety rules,
She’s in tune with tuna schools.
She’ll dance, while others dance in bars,
With pilot fish and Pilot Stars.
I have not the faintest notion
How to brave the Indian Ocean
In anything that keeps afloat,
Let alone a rowing boat.
But Sarah takes it in her stride,
And going with her, for the ride,
A book, or audio CD
Read by Lalla and by me.
To speed her trip to its conclusion
We’re reading her The God Delusion!

All godly tripe and tosh she’s doubtin’
So raise your glass to Sarah Outen.
I find these communications between Oxfordians most pleasant and stylish.

French president's determined attempt to legislate on the possible annulation of citizenship for terrorists

In a recent blog post [here], I expressed my shock at finding out that François Hollande imagines seriously that terrorists with dual nationality should be deprived of their French citizenship. This idea seems to go against the grain of the nation's sacred motto:

Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

But on second thoughts, the president's unexpected suggestion is nowhere near as bat-shit crazy as I first imagined. In a nutshell, it's surely Hollande's intricate plan to achieve three goals simultaneously:

1 — Make it clear to everybody (including terrorists) that France's Left will go to all imaginable ends to destroy our enemies, including methods that were recently unthinkable.

2 — Invent a trick to annihilate the Extreme Right of Marine Le Pen.

3 — Use that same trick to enable François Hollande to return to power.

When Hollande and his prime minister Manuel Vals first announced the déchéance theme (removal of citizenship), most people were caught unawares, because we weren't quite sure what it was all about. We now realize that this kind of action has already been used, on rare occasions, in French history... with no lasting negative effect upon the moral principles of the nation. We shall see exactly what the president has to say in the context of his televised New Year's speech. The chances are, I think, that he'll throw in a powerful formula, to justify his idea of déchéance :

« A situation exceptionnelle, mesures exceptionnelles »
(when faced with an exceptional situation, adopt an exceptional solution)

Why not? We all recall the terrible terrorists acts of last November, which shocked everybody immensely and meant that nothing would ever be quite the same again. We saw European citizens, some of whom were born in France, taking out weapons to kill young French citizens. And there are no limits to what we must do to combat this exceptional kind of evil.

Back to the future shopping hoverboard

Here's exactly what I need to do my shopping:

It appears to be safer than a cute two-wheeled gadget that caused a pile of accidents over the Christmas season, when it was given as a gift [see here]. This powerful vehicle is the ArcaBoard, presented here.

From an esthetic viewpoint, the device could be improved to look more like a curved surfing toy than a floating tombstone. I'll publish an appraisal as soon as I return from my first shopping excursion.

Well preserved

In the German town of Schöppingen, near the Dutch border, three fellows used explosives to tear apart a metallic distributor of preservatives, in the hope of stealing money. After lighting the mesh, they dashed into their nearby vehicle, to protect themselves from the blast. But they left a door open, and one of the fellows was hit on the head by a fragment of metal. Instead of picking up 14 euros in small coins (the total contents of the distributor), they rushed to a nearby hospital, where they told the staff that their mate had fallen down the stairs. The poor fellow died soon after... and the police discovered the scene of their tragic operation.

The victim surely deserves a Darwin Award for this courageous method of ensuring that society would be well preserved from his procreation of a stupid offspring.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Even on the Internet, today’s Christmas messages are not always as stupid as some of yesterday’s

Look at the absurdly ugly drawing, and the utterly idiotic text:
A hearty Christmas greeting

Four jovial frogs a-skating would go
They had asked their mamma
But she'd sternly said no
And they all came to grief in a beautiful row
There’s a sweet Christmas moral for one not too slow
Must go!
The individuals who created such rubbish, not to mention the folk who sent and received such brain-damaged messages, must have been sick in an old-fashioned sense.

Are humans truly smarter today than they were yesterday? I'm an optimistic humanist, and I usually think so...

Devastated Ramadi, formerly a Daech stronghold, is liberated

The Iraqi army has just announced that Ramadi, occupied since May by Daech, has been totally liberated.

This is a major news item. The town is a couple of hours by road to the west of Baghdad. Apparently the operations were conducted solely by Iraqi forces, with no participation of Shiite militia. At the latest news, no more civilians are being used as protective shields by fleeing Daech forces, but there are risks of booby traps inside the deserted city.

Here's a map that I found in the Libération website:

Click to enlarge slightly

Daech remains present throughout a big borderline zone between Syria and Iraq, but it's dwindling fast, and their end is surely near (I hope). I would suspect that the next Iraqi mission is to reconquer Mossoul.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Magic of mathematics

I've always been thrilled and amazed by the extent to which my ex-wife Christine continues to offer me various books that give me deep joy... even though I suspect that most of these books would not appeal to Christine herself. Her Christmas gift was a little masterpiece in this domain: Eloge des mathématiques by Alain Badiou.

The 78-year-old author is a renowned professor at the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris.

In his tiny book, Badiou explains that mathematics have declined in popularity and esteem in France since the 1960s (shortly after my arrival in France), when philosophy seemed to replace both science in general and mathematics in particular as the most fashionable subject to tackle at university. Personally, I've always had the same impression. French society was no longer fascinated by mathematicians.

Badiou quotes a vulgar statement apparently made by the fashionable philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre :
"La science, c'est trou de balle. La morale, c'est peau de balle."  
It's hard to translate. Maybe: "Science is an arsehole study, whereas the pursuit of moral philosophy has balls."

In any case, Badiou makes a wonderful case for the praise of mathematics, which he associates with claims to almost magical achievement at several levels of truth. Mathematics proposes a coded language for all humans, but the discipline of mathematics remains unattached to any particular human language. The existence of mathematics made it possible for science to become a universal human preoccupation. Badiou goes much further than the mere domain of science. He considers that the arrival of mathematics in society made it possible to create principles of a political nature, and he even suggests that the presence of mathematics enabled humans to envisage new social relationships that gave rise to the future theme of courtly love.

Personally, I would love to think that literary intellectuals, politicians and creative artists, not to forget business and industrial leaders, are likely to be so charmed by the arguments of Badiou that French citizens will surely get around to electing a mathematician as the next president. But I wouldn't bet on it...

Friday, December 25, 2015

Family visits to Gamone

Little by little, members of my Australian family have got around to visiting Gamone.

This was my sister Susan Skyvington, who dropped in for lunch with a Belgian lady friend on 17 May 2015. A month or so later, I slipped down the stairs inside my house... and entered a lengthy period of convalescence, which I spent mainly in Brittany with Christine and our son François.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Worse than a crime, the removal of an individual's nationality is a moral fault

What's gone crazy in the mind of our president, who's normally so calm and intelligent? The idea of introducing a constitutional change that would enable France to deprive a citizen of his/her French nationality, as a punishment for terrorism, simply doesn't add up.

This idea is almost as abject as reintroducing the guillotine. In any case, I imagine that the nation, as a whole, will reject this absurdity.

Terminology: The French term déchéance might be transcribed into English as the downfall (of a person's official nationality). Does François Hollande imagine that, once France has officially deprived a terrorist of his/her French nationality, we'll be able to "export" that downfallen individual to another nation ?

Libération suggests that this decision represents the downfall of the president's credibility. I'm afraid I agree.

Holy Savior Christmas Prize

In my recent blog post here entitled These people give me goose pimples, I was unkind, because the poor fellow I spoke about was actually killed, while playing a Father Christmas role, when he fell off an ancient stone edifice in Douai (France). This time, I intend to express myself charitably in a Christian spirit.

Accidents happen at all times of the year, but I would like to draw attention to those that happen during the Christmas season, and in what would appear to be a Christmas spirit. I'm thinking in particular of grave accidents that nevertheless avoid a mortal end, maybe because of a last-minute role played by a guardian angel or even thanks to the Holy Savior in person. I believe that a fortunate individual in this situation should be rewarded by a prize, to be known as the Holy Savior Christmas Prize.

In the Norman city of Caen, the town hall is located on a square called Holy Savior Place... which has inspired this seasonal blog post, of a most Christian motivation. On this square, the local municipality had installed their Christmas tree... composed of synthetic materials that I would have preferred not to mention.

For reasons that only the Holy Spirit understands, a 21-year-old local lad decided, during the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, to climb to the top of this giant artificial tree, to a height of about ten metres. Needless to say, the synthetic branches were not designed to support the weight of a sturdy youth, and the lad was gravely injured when he fell to the ground, alongside the Old Holy Savior church. Apparently he survived nevertheless. And that's why I would like to suggest that he be the recipient of an award. Maybe, to reduce the risks of injuries, this small Holy Savior Christmas Prize could be made out of colorful synthetic substances such as foam rubber and felt.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Is genealogy all about genes?

That's not meant to be a trick question, but it is surely a tricky question. And I'm not at all certain that I can indeed reply correctly and intelligently. Both the ancient term "genealogy" (study of generations of ancestors) and the relatively modern biological word "gene" (one of the many molecular elements of an individual's DNA) are inspired by the same root: γενεά ‎(geneá, "generation, descent"). So, the obvious answer to my question is yes: the study of genealogy is surely concerned by some kind of an examination of an individual's DNA. Having made that point, I'm obliged to say that, for the moment, the concrete associations between conventional family-history preoccupations and modern genetic methods are not at all obvious.

It's well known that many everyday family-history enthusiasts are tempted to pay fees to US laboratories specializing in genetic enhancements to everyday genealogy, usually of a complex nature. I made this decision several years ago, without fully understanding the exact advantages that I might (or might not) acquire. I can now say that I derived few avantages of the kind I was expecting, and nothing proves to my mind that the alleged missions of such companies are as sound as they make themselves out to be. On the other hand, an unexpected family-history event enabled me to discover that this kind of enhancement of ordinary family-history research can give rise to a startling result. I'm talking of the extraordinary Courtenay affair concerning the chance discovery of my paternal great-grandfather.

On page 48 of The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins, there's a precise and brilliant explanation of "a telling difference between gene trees and people trees". Here, for example, is a "people tree" of my own childhood family in Australia:

That's me on the middle left, then my brother followed by our three sisters. Now, the questions introduced by Dawkins could be put as follows: In the case of a specific gene that's responsible for such-and-such an aspect of the character of a particular child, did that child inherit that gene from our father or from our mother, and was it the same gene that was inherited (from the same parent) by the other four siblings?

The answers to those two questions astonished me greatly when I first encountered them, and I'm sure that many people might be surprised, for they prove beyond any doubt whatsoever that siblings in a sole "people tree" do not necessarily acquire their specific character traits from the same "gene trees". To put it bluntly, brothers and sisters do not necessarily share identical character traits. Let us imagine, for example, my brother's genes that played a role in making him behave character-wise in a particular fashion. It is perfectly thinkable that none of Don's siblings had inherited comparable genes. Don's gene might have come, for example, from the father of Enid Kathleen Walker, whereas my corresponding version of this gene might have come, say, from the mother of King Mepham Skyvington.

This appears to me as a highly significant and fundamental law of inheritance, which should not be ignored.

Monday, December 21, 2015

For the moment, the general public knows next to nothing about this affair

Normally, a blogger has better things to do than to write a post (as I am doing) stating that, for the moment, the general public knows next to nothing about such-and-such an affair.

What we do know is that a French organization named the Haute Autorité pour la transparence de la vie publique (Senior body examining transparency in the public domain) has requested enquiries concerning Marine Le Pen and her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. It would appear that this body has stated that there exists a "serious doubt concerning the completeness, exactitude and good faith of their declarations" (statement translated approximately from French into English by the blogger William Skyvington).

I repeat though that, for the moment, we know nothing more on this subject. Besides, if indeed this lack of knowledge were to persist for more than a day or so, I promise to remove the present blog post. But first, let's see if we can obtain more information...

Easter Island imagines its independence

World-famous Easter Island was annexed by Chili in 1888. One might imagine that the Polynesian inhabitants, known as Rapa Nui, might be happy to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their Chilean citizenship. On the contrary, these people would like to acquire their independence from their distant "owners" on the other side of the Pacific.

In fact, the islanders simply wish to recover their ancestral territories, home of the famous ancient statues known as moaïs.

This blog post was inspired by an article in Ouest-France by Léonie Place and Sylvain Clément. The blogger William Skyvington has taken the liberty of borrowing certain photos, created by these journalists, that are contained in the article in Ouest-France. Here is a link to the article:!preferred/1/package/651/pub/652/page/4

The blogger William Skyvington thanks Ouest-France and the above-mentioned journalists for having borrowed their work.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

What indeed was happening here?

Try this link to a French media website that has picked up some kind of a US crime story:

Crime stories and news reporting in the USA appear to be too complicated for me. Maybe I'm not very bright at this level. So, please let me know if you can figure out what indeed was happening there.

And here, if you're still interested, is another mystery TV interview from the USA:

Final days of the terrorist Abaaoud

Today, there's a short but superb article in the French newspaper Le Parisien describing the final few days of the terrorist Abdelhamid Abaaoud, hiding like a running bushranger on the northern outskirts of Paris before being disintegrated by guns of French police in the ancient suburban city of Saint-Denis. This is the first time that we have a chance of understanding how in fact the police found the evil fellow and finally destroyed him.

Recall the dates of events. The terrorist atrocities took place in Paris on Friday, 13 November 2015. By the end of the weekend, French police were convinced that the ring-leader was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, but they feared that he had probably fled already from France, just as stealthily as he had arrived.

No, he was still well and truly located in France, hiding in scrub in the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers. That dull zone would be the terrorist's rough hideout for his final nights of earthly existence. On Monday, 16 November, a witness became aware of the terrorist's hiding-place, and told the police. The next day, on Tuesday afternoon, 17 November, the police had installed a camera in the area. Just after 8 o'clock in the evening, a young woman arrived at the spot, and started to use her phone. Police recognized instantly the angular profile of Abaaoud's cousin Hasna Aït Boulahcen. During the next five minutes, two men emerged from the bushes, one of whom was clearly Abdelhamid Abaaoud himself: the most wanted man in France.

The police received orders from their headquarters to follow the trio stealthily, without daring to intercept them. Clearly, Abaaoud was wearing a thick vest that surely contained explosives. So, the detectives stood by calmly while the fugitives hailed a taxi, to take them to the nearby suburb of Saint-Denis. There, the trio found their way, at 22 h 14, to the door of a sordid squat.

The rest is known history. For hours, during their last night on earth, the three terrorists were smothered constantly in a hail of police ammunition, and blown to bits. One wonders if they ever realized what had hit them. The next day, disfigured dust-covered bodily remnants of the terrorists could only be identified by means of their DNA.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

No, we are no longer living together

In breakup photos, former partners can sometimes adopt the facial attitudes of great screen actors. Here, the viewer hardly needs to be informed about the vile thoughts that might be fleeting through the minds of Nicolas Sarkozy and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. The actors' expressions are more powerful than words.

The lady (often referred to by her initials as NKM) has told us that she learned through an AFP (Agence France Presse) message that the boss had removed her from the direction of the Républicains, where she was replaced by Laurent Wauquiez (who won the recent election in our local Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region).

Now, a survey has just informed us that two out of three French people consider that Sarko screwed things up when he decided rapidly to kick out NKM. It's quite possible that the offended lady might end up replacing Sarko as the right-wind presidential candidate in 2017. It's a little too early to say so... but not too early to imagine this possibility.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Mother Teresa never told us she specialized in neurology

Talented people shouldn't keep quiet about their extraordinary medical skills, which could save lives. Why didn't Mother Teresa, glorified for taking care of sufferers in Calcutta, ever tell us she could intervene successfully in the case of a man with cancerous tumors in his brain ?

The lady was beatified (?) in 2003. And she will be canonized (?) in Rome on September 4 next year. Meanwhile, countless innocent folk have succumbed to brain tumors in spite of the alleged knowledge of the humble lady named Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, who's only starting to be applauded as a great cancer specialist (?) now that she's dead.

Why do otherwise intelligent human beings persist in inventing impossible legends, and then disseminating them as if they were true?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Watching the sky

I spent a most pleasant hour or so this afternoon watching a web news presentation of the launching by the European Space Agency of a pair of Galileo navigation satellites. Everything went over perfectly, and the live webcast was both simple (none of the typical American jazz) and perfectly clear.

I had the impression that we were tuned in to a very private low-key affair, in the style of a televised sporting match.

Their graphic presentations were highly understandable, even for people (like me) who are unaccustomed to such French-language space-technology shows. Incidentally, it was an excellent companion show to the climate-change broadcasts last week.

Finally, we saw a group of skilled technologists and colleagues who watched enthusiastically the marvelous moment when the two satellites sent back messages confirming that they had been placed in perfect orbits, and were now fully operational.

It's fabulous, all this recent news about France being a winner (in the context of Europe, of course, as far as these satellites are concerned).

Same eyes, nose and mouth as our cousin ?

Don't take me seriously. I'm joking, while cynically evoking suggestions that might be made harmlessly by members of my family. Some people place a lot of emphasis upon the presence of comparable physical traits that I'm generally incapable, personally, of detecting to any recognizable extent whatsoever. A late aunt was even convinced that the sinuous form of certain hands in our family (her own hands in particular) was a clear proof that we descended from the Vikings. Although I never dared to tell her so, I found that belief utter hogwash.

Bodily and indeed psychological resemblances do in fact flow down from parents to their biological offspring, and are often displayed most strikingly in sporting achievements. But an observer needs to be wary of drawing conclusions. Two complementary questions spring into mind as soon as a researcher becomes interested in his/her genealogical origins:

• When we've assembled more-or-less factual data concerning interesting characteristics of one of our eight great-grandparents (who are often the most ancient ancestors about whom we've obtained relatively in-depth information), can we then assume that some living members of the researcher's present-day generations might be likely to express those same ancestral characteristics?

• Inversely, when we've found exceptional physical or psychological characteristics in a particular living member of the researcher's present-day generations, is it thinkable that our family-history research might enable us to identify a particular great-grandparent who could be looked upon as the biological source of those characteristics?

Questions of this kind arise, of course, when a family-history researcher happens to run into various disturbing ancestors. In my maternal-oriented book A Little Bit of Irish, I ran into ancestors in the bushranger domain, and I was tempted to wonder whether some of that behavior might have "rubbed off" onto members of recent generations. In the accompanying paternal-oriented book, They Sought the Last of Lands, I was particularly troubled by the crazy case of my English great-grandfather William Skyvington [1868-1959], and I couldn't help but wonder if I might have inherited a dangerous dose of his nutty fruitcake genes.

Let me drag into the picture my most-admired source of scientific wisdom: Richard Dawkins.

I would like to evoke his literary masterpiece of 2004, The Ancestor's Tale, which might be described as a time-reversed variation of The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678).

Richard Dawkins is not at all the sort of person who makes a point of rambling on (like me) about his personal ancestors. It's not for want of expert knowledge about genealogical research that Dawkins remains underspoken about his ancestors; it's surely because he realizes (as I'm certain to realize sooner or later, if I become a little wiser) that we're likely to make silly blunders as soon as we dare to describe our personal ancestors as if we knew all about them. Here's how Dawkins speaks politely about his recent ancestors:
I remember my four grandparents clearly, but of my eight great-grandparents I know a handful of fragmentary anecdotes. One great-grandfather habitually sang a certain nonsense rhyme (which I can sing), but only while lacing his boots. Another was greedy for cream, and would knock the chess board over when losing. A third was a country doctor. That is about my limit. How have eight entire lives been so reduced? How, when the chain of informants connecting us back to the eyewitness seems so short, and human conversation so rich, could all those thousands of personal details that made up the lifetimes of eight human individuals be so fast forgotten?
Dawkins talks a little of a group of distinguished human beings: our Tasmanians. I referred to these exceptional people, who played a rather special role in the history of human beings, in an earlier blog post:

I strongly recommend this Dawkins tale to readers who would be interested in discovering the great writer in a pleasant readable context that is relatively free of difficult scientific technicalities, while steering totally clear of religious themes.

French lady Christine Lagarde up for trial

French celebrity Christine Lagarde is to be brought to trial for the possible role she appears to have played in enabling the payment of huge indemnities to the French business man Bernard Tapie.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Charles Darwin [1809-1882] "relatively little known in France"

In view of my total enthusiasm for the work in evolutionary biology of my hero Richard Dawkins, it's surprising that I should be equally enthusiastic about living in France, where Charles Darwin [1809-1882], founder of the theory of evolution, is designated, rightly or wrongly, as "relatively little known". I prefer to think it's a journalistic slip of the pen. In any case, there's a presentation at the Cité des Sciences in Paris, until the end of July 2016,  of this illustrious Englishman Darwin and his research work.

Prize-winning architect's houses in France

Once upon a time, in France (and probably elsewhere throughout the world), a so-called "architect's house" was nice to admire, like a specimen in a museum, but hardly the kind of construction that ordinary folk might look upon as a place to live in. These days however, I'm convinced that attitudes are evolving rapidly, and that more and more individuals, intending to have a new house designed and built for themselves, believe that it's a good idea to call upon the imagination and skills of exceptional architects.

This blog post reflects information from the Figaro magazine on four exceptional private-home projects designed in several corners of France: Brittany, Auvergne, Normandy and Nantes.

This small dwelling (69 cubic metres) in the Breton département of Morbihan was described as a "destructured cube":

It includes a nice little trick. Individual bedrooms are created in the form of autonomous wooden boxes, which can be rapidly rolled from one spot in the dwelling to another... including the external patio.

This house in Auvergne (looking out onto ancient volcano peaks) is a mathematical theorem in pure elegant simplicity:

The third winning house, in Normandy, is a simple wooden box for living:

The final house, in Nantes, offers occupants the chance (if they wish to do so) of showing off its central lit-up swimming pool to people outside:

Visit the article to obtain the names of the architects:

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Aussie pig cries

I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that linguists, when expected to indicate in words the noises made by various animals, seem to be incapable of getting their act together. Here, for example, is the start of a multi-language list established in French for the curious ways in which various languages designate the noises made by pigs:
Cochon (grogner)
In several languages (English, French, Spanish and Italian), we seem to encounter the familiar oi diphthong, from Ancient Greek.

Hoi polloi (Ancient Greekοἱ πολλοίhoi polloi, "the many") is an expression from Greek that means the many or, in the strictest sense, the majority

These days, we've all heard that cultivated youths from Cronulla and other Australian places have got into the habit of using this diphthong in their war cries.

Ozzy ozzy ozzy, oi oi oi.

Are they in fact suggesting that they might be the majority? I don't think so. I've always imagined immediately, whenever our youths pronounce these words, that they're in fact celebrating their relationship with pigs. That sounds to me like a good explanation.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Lessons in diplomacy gleaned from a brilliant French politician and a French journalist

I've often been intrigued, over the years, by the gigantic differences between typical political skills here in France and the corresponding situation back in my native Australia. Indeed, it's a vast question, which I've never been able to understand. In a nutshell, the majority of professional politicians here in France (those who regularly get elected, for years on end) are inevitably brilliant and highly competent, particularly in their speeches and media interviews. Even an individual whose political views might offend you personally is often capable of expressing himself or herself so skillfully, with a maximum of personal charm, that it's often hard to figure out why he/she displeases you to such an extent from a political viewpoint.

In Australia, on the other hand, I've always found that most well-known political leaders (for example John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott) appear to be totally incapable of expressing themselves clearly and intelligently. In the case of Abbott, I even ended up imagining from time to time (for example, in the case of his notorious shirtfront threat to Vladimir Putin) that we were faced with an appalling kind of village idiot...

Now, let me drop that Aussie situation, because I truly don't understand why the political scene in my native hand has become degraded to such an extent (like many other aspects of Down Under existence). Let me return to a land that I know, understand and appreciate much better: France. And let me talk, not of brilliant French politicians in general, but of one individual who has been in the limelight for the last few weeks: our Minister of External Affairs Laurent Fabius.

Towards the end of COP21 discussions, various non-governmental organizations dared to designate certain United Nations sessions influenced by Fabius and his team as a "diplomatic ehef d'oeuvre" (masterpiece in diplomacy).

Laurent Fabius alongside the chief French negotiator, Laurence Tubiana, Saturday 12 December 2015, at Bourget 

Now, a French journalist at Le Monde, Marie-Adélaïde Scigacz, has analyzed the general behavior of Fabius at COP21 and attempted to extract four major lessons in successful diplomacy.

What I've done here, in my blog post, is to translate roughly the headings of the four lessons... but I haven't had time enough, or been able, to attempt to translate the actual French text for each of these four lessons. I leave that up to the directors of political science classes in Australia, who should contact directly the excellent journalist Marie-Adélaïde Scigacz (to whom I apologize for my lazy approach).

Lesson n°1 : Neutralize trolls by giving them jobs with responsabilities.

L'Arabie saoudite et le Venezuela ne sont pas arrivés à Paris avec les meilleures intentions. Et pour cause, le chef de la délégation saoudienne était le ministre du Pétrole, chargé de s'assurer que l'accord sur le climat n'empêcherait pas le royaume de vivre de son or noir. Et le second, rechignant jusqu'au bout à communiquer ses engagements en matière de réductions de gaz à effet de serre, a milité d'arrache pied pour faire retirer un alinéa sur la tarification du carbone. Comment Laurent Fabius a-t-il "neutralisé les emmerdeurs", pour reprendre le terme employé par Libération ? "En les nommant facilitateurs dans les négociations : la Pologne et l’Arabie saoudite sur la riposte, le Venezuela sur le préambule de l’accord", détaille le quotidien. Composé pour moitié de pays en développement, les facilitateurs ont animé les débats les plus durs, lorsqu'un blocage apparaissait sur un point. Quitte à les choisir parmi les représentants de pays pétroliers ou charbonniers. Pour justifier cette technique bien connue des instituteurs, un proche collaborateur du ministre des Affaires étrangères, cité par Reuters, relevait que "[la négociation], c'est aussi beaucoup de psychologie". En quittant Le Bourget, la négociatrice vénézuélienne, Claudia Salerno, déclarait : "Le monde devrait remercier [Laurent Fabius] pour [son] travail acharné et [sa] patience." Et d'annoncer la publication des engagements vénézuéliens.

Lesson n°2 : Make friends with key actors.

Une semaine avant l'ouverture de la COP21, Laurent Fabius était en Afrique du Sud. A Pretoria, où il a rencontré le président Jacob Zuma, il a rappelé à juste titre le poids de cet "acteur majeur" des négociations climatiques. Fer de lance de l'économie africaine, gros producteurs et exportateur de charbon – une énergie fossile très polluante –, le pays est également le porte-parole du "G77 + Chine", un groupe qui fédère 134 Etats en développement, dont l'Inde, le Brésil et la Chine, comme son nom l'indique. Bref, Afrique du Sud = interlocuteur à chouchouter. Attentive aux représentants sud-africains pendant les réunions ministérielles préparatoires à la COP, la délégation française leur a aussi adressé un clin d'œil appuyé pendant ces négociations de Paris, grâce au choix d'un mot : "indaba". Le terme, qui vient du zoulou, désigne une réunion en petit comité, soit les chefs négociateurs et deux membres de leur équipe, explique Le Monde (article payant).  Pourquoi cette expression, utilisée pour la première fois à la COP17 de Durban, en Afrique du Sud, en 2011, a-t-elle été préféré à un vocable plus conventionnel (au hasard, par "réunion en petit comité", par exemple ) ? Justement, pour rendre hommage au travail effectué à Durban, explique Le Monde. Il y avait été décidé d'aboutir à un accord sur le climat d'ici 2015, soit un premier pas vers la COP21. Un geste en apparence anecdotique, mais qui en dit long sur l'attention portée par les diplomates français aux acteurs-clés.

Lesson n°3 : Create advantageous alliances.

Les négociations sur le climat sont inévitablement marquées par les divergences entre pays riches – souvent des pollueurs historiques, moins impactés par les effets du réchauffement climatique et excédés à l'idée de devoir régler la facture – et pays pauvres – très touchés, bien que moins responsables et désireux de se développer enfin, quitte à puiser dans leurs ressources en énergie fossile. Le défi consistait donc à former une alliance composée d'Etats issus de ces deux catégories, en leur trouvant des intérêts communs. Ainsi est née la "High Ambition Coalition" (en français, "la coalition des ambitieux"). Cette alliance, qui représente plus de 100 pays sur les 195 présents à la COP21 (dont l'Union européenne dans son ensemble, mais aussi les Etats-Unis ou les îles Marshall), s'est formée dans le secret ces six derniers mois, explique The Guardian (en anglais), "autour de verres informels, en marge du sommet climatique à Paris, en juillet", à l'initiative du ministre des îles Marshall, Tony de Brum. Maintenue secrète pendant tout le début du sommet, cette super-coalition a attendu le huitième jour de COP21 pour prendre la parole, défendant un accord ambitieux, avant d'envoyer ses membres tenter de convaincre les Etats récalcitrants, désormais en minorité. Un coup d'éclat payant.

Lesson n°4 : At the last minute, close the mouths of the undecided.

A la fin des négociations, samedi 12 décembre, le texte – un accord de compromis, aux objectifs peu contraignants – convient globalement aux quelque 10 000 représentants des 195 pays. A l'exception du Nicaragua, qui estime que l'accord ne protège pas suffisamment les pays les plus vulnérables. "Profitant d'un retard technique, le Nicaragua a annoncé qu'il voulait s'exprimer, faisant craindre un nouveau retard, voire même un échec du processus. Et ce, le dernier jour", a expliqué le Financial Times (article payant, en anglais). Alors que l'Inde, la Chine, les Etats-Unis ou encore l'Europe et les pays pétroliers étaient parvenus à s'entendre, pas question pour Laurent Fabius de prendre le risque de voir la main levée du Nicaragua faire capoter l'accord. Il a "interrompu sa conversation avec la délégation nicaraguayenne, est monté sur scène et, s'exprimant le plus vite possible, a déclaré : 'L'accord de Paris est accepté !'", raconte le quotidien britannique.

These people give me goose pimples

There are certainly huge crowds of excited onlookers (including many kids) who get a kick out of standing around in a crowd on a dark wintry evening and watching a team of human goblins using ropes to descend from the top of an ancient stone tower.

Personally, that kind of entertainment gives me goose pimples... and it's not only because of the cold. To my mind, this kind of show is totally lacking in drama and poetry. The human insects swing around like pendulums on boring trajectories. The only goal for the blob of soft flesh with gesticulating arms and legs is to reach the end of the planned act without falling to the ground and breaking a neck. Big deal!

Yesterday, a 24-year-old local fellow who was rehearsing for their Christmas show at the famous belfry in Douai did in fact fall to the ground, over a distance of 20 meters, and kill himself. Admittedly, that kind of catastrophe is very rare in this domain, where the participants are highly-trained experts who don't usually take silly risks.

Maybe it's a mistake for me to get goose pimples, just as it was a mistake for our would-be Santa Claus to fall off the chimney before delivering his Christmas presents.

Nothing better than a pair of socks for a Christmas gift

The article doesn't make it clear, but I have the impression we're talking about socks for a gentleman, rather than a lady. And you want to take the piss out of him, OK?

If you're running away from the cops, it's unwise to jump into a swamp full of alligators

I would have imagined that, in the Everglades of Florida, most people were aware of that golden rule.

A local TV journalist concluded that 22-year-old Matthew Riggins, who dived into the swamp but never emerged from the waters, was clearly "at the wrong place, at the wrong time".  Yes, that sounds like an honest conclusion. Would the poor fellow be eligible for a Darwin Award?

Law-enforcement officers of this swamp area known as Barefoot Bay (apparently the reptiles don't like boots) captured the alligator and cut his belly apart. But Matthew Riggins was in a pretty bad state by then. To be honest, these swamp creatures (I'm talking of alligators, not humans swimming from the law) don't really cause a lot of damage: no more than 22 deaths since 1948. That's an average of one human swimmer every three years. So, the animals are not really what we might refer to as a Big Danger.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Extreme right-wing is a flop in France

Like countless French people, I would have been immensely sad if the extreme right-wing Front National had succeeded in taking advantage of the terrorist turmoil in France. On the contrary, the extremists have not won a single region... and so much the better.

I was thrilled to see that, in Brittany, the Socialist defence chief Jean-Yves Le Drian has won a huge victory. In my Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes corner of the world (which includes quite a few big cities), we lost to the ordinary right-wing, but that's neither here nor there.

I feel wonderfully relieved, particularly after the splendid achievements of the Socialists in the climate-change arena. So, I'll go to bed early and dream sweet dreams.

Here's an image of Marine Le Pen that pleases me greatly (I'm not sure why):

She looks like a punch-drunk wrestler in the ropes.

Regardless of the outcome, I'm proud to have voted

The region in which I live is now known as Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, and today's election is a so-called triangular, involving three candidates.

Needless to say (for those who know me), I was happy to vote for the political party that gave us yesterday's marvelous climate-change hopes for the future, not to mention their determination to hunt down and destroy the Daech terrorists.

Son of a Syrian refugee at Calais

On a nondescript concrete embankment at Calais (France), the street artist Banksy has presented an image of the offspring of a refugee, who carries a small computer.

It's Steve Jobs, who never spoke much about his biological father from Syria.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Paris climate agreement reached

This is a huge success for France and for our major French politicians François Hollande and Laurent Fabius. Above all, it is a gigantic success for our children and for the human offspring of all nations. Last but not least, it is a wonderful success for a hunk of matter floating around in the universe: the lovely old planet Earth, and its inhabitants of all species.

Urban homestead in the USA

Americans tend to tell us so many nasty stories about everyday problems in their immense land (not to mention stories of the candidate Trump) that I was terribly thrilled to read this wonderful story in a French website about a fantastic urban homestead in California. You can find English-language explanations and photos by looking up the name of the head of the family, Jules Dervaes, who lives in Pasadena with his three offspring.

On the other hand, I don't know to what extent mysterious forces such as God (after all, we're in California) might be playing a role in this amazing Garden of Eden. I'll leave you to judge...

My simple word of thanks to fellow-citizens

As the festive season approaches, and lots of families in France are installing their Christmas trees and buying presents for their children and family friends (if they're wealthy enough to do so), I would like to convey a simple and sincere word of thanks (even though they don't necessarily read my Antipodes blog) to the men and woman who will be spending their days and nights aboard the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, preparing if not actually manning the aircraft full of bombs for Daech.

Once upon a time, the families of French military folk were constantly worried that their offspring might take dangerous risks and run into trouble in such-and-such a foreign country, far from home. These days, such operational service men and woman are often worried that their families back home might be faced with terrorists risks and troubles. And this kind of thinking enhances their military spirit.

At the end of one path, at the start of another

The undeniable star of COP21 was Laurent Fabius (seen here between the French president François Hollande and the UN chief Ban Ki-Moon), who pronounced those honest words about the end of one path (an enormous path, needless to say) and the start of another.

His major announcement arrived at three minutes after midday:

"We've attained a project of agreement that is ambitious and well-balanced. The increase in temperature must be contained well below 2°C, and we must strive to maintain it at 1.5°C, which will enable us to reduce significantly the risks and impact of global warming."

Fabius concluded his short speech: "This COP21 is a turning point in history." He stood up with his hand on his heart, while the audience broke out in enormous applause.