Showing posts with label French technology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label French technology. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Railway of shame

People in France have known for decades that the French national railway system—called the SNCF—was implicated explicitly in the ignominious transportation of Jews from France to the Nazi death camps in Poland.

Today, the president of the SNCF, Guillaume Pepy, admitted publicly that his corporation had been "a cog in the Nazi extermination machine". He was speaking from the old station of Bobigny, on the outskirts of Paris, from which some 25,000 individuals were freighted away to the camps.

The SNCF has decided to donate its Bobigny real estate, including the old building, to the local municipality, to be transformed into some kind of Shoah memorial.

The Bobigny station lies just two kilometers away from the notorious transit camp of Drancy, where inmates tried desperately to lead an everyday existence while awaiting their deportation to places named Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, etc.




At the same that we recall the shameful behavior of SNCF authorities who once condoned the evil exploitation of their railroad resources, we must not forget that countless SNCF technical employees played a vital role in the Résistance through their sabotage operations.

French media have drawn attention to what might be construed as an insidious purpose behind this sudden SNCF apology. The company is making bids for gigantic railroad contracts in California and Florida, and US Jewish lobbies have expressed their opposition to hiring a company with Jewish blood on its hands. The SNCF president tackled such criticism by stating that the decision to transform the Bobigny station into a memorial was "not dictated by circumstances", but by his "convictions". We'll see how people in the USA react to all this.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Where can I plug it in?

TV news from the hugely popular automobile show in Paris confirms that the electric car is about to become an everyday reality in France.

Click the image of the Citroën C-Zero to access their cool little marketing video.

In fact, several modes of private transport are being affected by the electric revolution.

Clearly, this revolution can only take place if, beforehand, a vast infrastructure project covers the land in "electricity power plugs" (recharger stations). Having witnessed the superb and rapid achievements of French industry in the creation of national networks of other kinds (rail, roads, electricity, telecom, etc), I have every reason to believe that electric cars are truly just around the corner.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Weaving machines

When my ex-wife and I were residing for a while in Brussels in 1966, where our daughter was born, we were able to admire splendid specimens of modern silk cloths produced on a hand-loom by a local craftswoman as a gift for the Belgian royal family. In the hand-weaving domain, it is commonly thought that this archaic activity (which cannot, of course, compete with the industrial production of textiles) merits the exclusive use of noble materials such as silk or hand-spun wool and flax. What I mean to say is that it's silly going to all the trouble of using a hand-loom if you're simply going to weave factory wool or cotton.

The genius who introduced punched-card digital technology into the textile industry was the inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard [1752-1834] from Lyon. Later, his automatic card-reader inspired the Englishman Charles Babbage [1791-1871] who is generally looked upon as the inventor of the computer.

Prior to Jacquard, another brilliant Frenchman had been deeply involved in the early days of the textile industry: Jacques Vaucanson, one of Grenoble's most famous sons (along with Stendhal). It might be said that, without the basic mechanism invented by Vaucanson, Jacquard would not have been able to devise his punched-card apparatus.

Well, much of Vaucanson's experimentation was carried on in La Sône, in that same nearby village from which I recently looked out over ancient woods towards the Vercors... as I explained in my recent article entitled An old map talked to me of trees [display].

Before getting involved in the design of weaving machines, Vaucanson had become famous as a creator of automats, the most spectacular of which was a mechanical duck that bent over to eat food, and then went on to drop a nice little turd. Unfortunately, no traces of Vaucanson's automats (including, beside the duck, a flute-player and a drummer) have survived, but there are ample historical accounts of his achievements.

In my humble personal life, I cannot insist sufficiently upon the profound inspiration provided by these two great French inventors: Vaucanson and Jacquard.

Many years ago, when I was working with French Television and became involved in artificial intelligence (theme of a series of five documentaries that I shot mainly in the USA), a kind colleague gave me this book. At that time, knowing next to nothing about the illustrious creator of automats, I could never have imagined that I would soon be working in a hi-tech computing laboratory, Delphia, in Vaucanson's native city, and that I would end up living not far away from the beautiful castle at La Sône in which he resided, as a guest of the Jubié family, while carrying out the fine tuning of his machine. Today, the privately-owned castle is a patrimonial jewel in the Dauphiné.

These days, all that I've found of the premises of Vaucanson's silk-weaving factory at La Sône is a grim fresco of unknown vintage:

You might say that Vaucanson ushered in the industrial age when he invented his machine for weaving silk. And the inevitable next step consisted of generations of workers who entered that doorway, every morning, under the terrible effigy of a lion with its paws enchained in metal loops. Not exactly an ideal symbol to encourage pride and productivity.

A lot has changed since then. It's highly likely that factory managers no longer think of their workers as enchained lions. Be that as it may, I'm happy to see that the economic worker-lions of our modern society are henceforth hunting as an intelligent pack. They've smelt blood, and their political appetite is huge, as you might imagine.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's a small spy world

In 1964 and 1965, I worked as an assistant English teacher at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV in the heart of the Latin Quarter in Paris. Then Christine and I were married in May 1965, and I had to think about earning my living. Through a friend of friends, I found myself working as a French/English translator for an electronics company named CSF, which stood for Compagnie générale de télégraphie Sans Fil, which can be translated literally as General Company for Telegraphy Without Wires. The company was founded in 1918, whence its old-fashioned name. For me, it was quite a boring job, because I had to translate highly technical stuff that I didn't necessarily understand.

The CSF had built the Cyrano radar system installed in the nose of Mirage jet fighters from Dassault, and most of my work consisted of translating the user manuals for this military stuff. Funnily enough, I learned that Australia happened to be a client for these early Mirage/Cyrano systems, but I never had any contacts with compatriots during the four dull months I spent at CSF. I remember meeting up with CSF engineers who were associated with a man named Henri de France [1911-1986] who had invented the Sécam TV standard. The CSF had also invented an early version of an audiovisual jukebox that displayed a video at the same time as the song, but it was a commercial flop. During my brief stay at CSF, maybe the most amusing job I had consisted of translating a speech to be made in England by the big boss, Maurice Ponte [1902-1983], who was a celebrated personage in French electronics history. His speech included words of apology for all the faults in his English. This seemed silly to me, because normally there wouldn't be any English errors at all in my translation.

Retrospectively, I'm not surprised by the idea that French companies such as CSF interested the Soviet Union back in 1965, because the Communists wanted to become independent in all the high-tech domains, and they imagined they could achieve this goal by stealing and copying Western inventions. Inversely, companies such as Thomson-Brandt and CSF—which would merge, a few years later, to form Thomson-CSF—looked upon the Soviet Union as a possible customer in the field of domestic electronics. So, it was normal that professional people on both sides of the Iron Curtain should become acquainted.

According to what I learned from a French TV documentary last night, I may well have been a colleague of this engineer, Jacques Prévost, back in 1965. But I have no recollection of ever running into him at CSF.

At that time, there was a sleazy Russian "diplomat" named Vladimir Vetrov stationed in Paris, and he became acquainted professionally with Prévost. Vetrov, an alcoholic, smashed up an embassy vehicle while driving in a drunken state. Normally, this accident would have put an end to Vetrov's diplomatic career. Well, in circumstances that remain fuzzy, Vetrov asked Prévost if he would be kind enough to get the automobile repaired, discreetly and rapidly. Prévost—who had never, at any moment, been an adept of any kind of espionage, neither industrial nor military—obliged, and thereby won a Russian friend for life.

To cut a long story short, years later, Vetrov—who had never forgotten the kindness of his engineer friend in Paris—started inundating spontaneously the Thomson-CSF representative in Moscow, Xavier Ameil, with tons of top-secret documents. Exceptionally, the Russian traitor asked for nothing in return. Vetrov had grown to hate his native land, and he had only one desire: to cripple the Soviet Union by giving away as many of their confidential documents as possible.

Not long after the documents started to arrive, the French secret service let the Thomson-CSF employee get back to his ordinary work, enabling French specialists to step in to take delivery of the huge quantity of documents that Vetrov was still supplying. They invented an English code-name for the Russian traitor: Farewell. Soon after, François Mitterrand kicked out 43 Soviet "diplomats", and Ronald Reagan was informed of all the precious stuff that had arrived in France. The rest—the crumbling of the Soviet Union and Communism—is world history...

Concerning the intelligence that played a fundamental role in the fall of the Soviet Union, the CIA has little to brag about today, since almost everything was handed to them on a brass plate.

Click their website banner to see a brief article on the Farewell affair.

The moral of this story is that, unlike the incredibly complex tales invented by espionage authors such as John Le Carré, a huge real-life affair resulting in the divulgation of top-secret files can be triggered by trivial events. Such an affair can start from almost nothing: a drunken driver, disgruntled about how his native land is behaving, who gets his automobile repaired by a foreign friend. And yet it can blow up into something big enough to overturn an empire and an ideology.

You remember the fable about the runaway slave Androcles who removed a thorn from a lion's paw. Later, he came face-to-face with that same lion in a Roman arena, whereupon the lion rewarded the kindness of Androcles by refusing to eat him. And they left the arena as liberated friends, to the applause of the Roman onlookers.

So, if ever, late at night, you come upon a drunken foreigner who has just rammed his vehicle into a lamp post, be kind to him. Call a pickup truck to tow the damaged automobile to a garage, and take the guy back home to your place to let him sleep off his drunkenness on your couch. You never know: your name could go down in history as the unwitting instigator of an earth-shaking revolution.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bionic heart will soon start throbbing

The old-fashioned American gesture of holding a hat over one's heart is hilarious, like the opening of some kind of Stetson song-and-dance routine in a musical comedy.

To my mind, it's ridiculous. It doesn't correspond to any reality, not even symbolically. On the other hand, I can imagine a society in which a male, swearing an oath of allegiance in the name of his biological forefathers and offspring, would be expected to place his hat over his genitals. But the ideal symbolic place for a hat, in such a ritual, would be up above his brain, in its normal position, sitting on top of his skull. As far as solemn oaths are concerned, that's where all the action takes place, rather than in your gut or your genitals or even your heart. Many common folk still seem to respect the medieval belief that the heart is the origin of human sentiments, whereas the brain is merely a cold calculating organ. But it's time to abandon antiquated symbolism such as hats held over hearts, which is just as silly as astrology, superstition and religious ritual. I'm not suggesting that laws should be passed to prohibit such behavior. I'm merely saying that antiquated antics of this kind should be interpreted by intelligent observers as external signs of relative stupidity, like fumbling with rosary beads, or making a sign of the cross on your breast.

The heart is in fact a rather simple pumping gadget, of a vastly lower order than the brain. These days, in a surgical environment, the usual work of the heart can be taken over by a machine that looks like this:

Needless to say, neurosurgeons have no equivalent machine to replace the patient's brain during an operation. On the other hand, the problem with a typical heart-lung machine is that a patient can't expect to move along the hospital corridors with the apparatus trailing along behind him. Before leaving the operating theater, a patient has to get back to using his own patched-up heart, or maybe a donor's revived organ. Obviously, what we need is an artificial heart that a patient can "wear" in his chest in much the same way that you might walk around carrying a portable computer in a bag thrown over your shoulder.

The design, production and installation of such an artificial heart has been the constant challenge of the 75-year-old French cardiologist Alain Carpentier, who founded a company with the aim of developing such a prosthesis. [Click the photo to see the Wiki article about this celebrated international medical figure.]

Today, Carpentier's invention has reached the stage of an operational prototype that has been tested successfully in animals:

Often, we hear people say despondently that, if only their leaders were to invest as much money in medical research as they invest in aeronautics, space and defense, then citizens would lead far better lives. Well, Alain Carpentier's artificial heart is based, to a large extent, upon fallout from the domains I've just mentioned. Fifteen years ago, the professor struck up a partnership with Jean-Luc Lagardère, chairman (now deceased) of a vast industrial group that had evolved from the renowned French high-tech corporation named Matra, which manufactured a wide range of electronic products that included missiles and minicomputers. Professor Carpentier is a distinguished medical researcher, who was awarded the Albert Lasker prize in 2007 for his research on heart valves, which resulted in products made out of chemically-treated pig tissues.

When the latest white-skinned model of the artificial heart is placed upside-down on a table, so that its tubes are hidden, it looks a little like a freshly-prepared chicken ready to be roasted. Some chicken!

Clinical testing of the device on human patients will start in 2011, and it should normally be ready for real transplants by 2013.

If we telescope together the last three-quarters of a century in such a way that the US president behind Hiroshima and Nagasaki were able to become a patient of Professor Carpentier, we create the setting for a fascinating philosophical question. Let's suppose that Harry Truman were to be fitted with an artificial heart. Would it still be appropriate for him to place his Stetson over the electronic device whenever he listened solemnly to the Star-Spangled Banner?