Showing posts with label computing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label computing. Show all posts

Saturday, October 11, 2008


When I worked at Ilog in Gentilly (just outside Paris) and I annoyed my brilliant colleagues with nasty technical questions (mainly about Unix stuff), I would periodically receive a kind but firm RTFM reaction: "William, read the fuckin' manual! " But this kind of blunt advice was relatively rare, for the simple reason that my job consisted precisely of writing most of the company's manuals. In any case, I often felt that it was extremely efficient, in the case of complex computer queries, to question a wizard in an adjoining office—there were many such creatures at Ilog—rather than plowing through tons of documentation. (Incidentally, Ilog shares are being purchased by IBM at this very moment, in the context of an official month-long takeover bid that went into action a few days ago.) Needless to say, as a former professional in this domain, I've always respected and admired good documentation... of which many of the planet's finest specimens have been signed by a Californian company named Apple.

Every now and again, I say to myself that we modern humans should strive constantly to free ourselves from excessive documentation concerning various devices. I'm thinking, not of my Macintosh nor even of my Nikon, but of simple hardware such as my splendid Riviera&Bar bread machine. A month or so ago, I decided audaciously that I was determined henceforth to use my appliance intuitively, without browsing through the instruction booklet. Normally, that should have been easy, because there are only three parameters for which values have to be chosen: the program for the desired kind of bread, the weight and the kind of crust. Well, I noticed that there were up/down arrows on the control panel, and I immediately imagined that these might be used to jump back and forth between the parameters. When the ingredients were ready, and everything seemed to be set up correctly, I pushed the start button... but nothing happened. So, I repeated the set of operations, but to no avail. I concluded that the machine was broken, so I emptied out the ingredients and ended up cooking the bread in my ordinary oven. The next day, I took the bread machine along to the repairs section of the shop where I had purchased it. Three weeks later, they phoned to say that the machine had been fully tested, and that they had not detected the slightest fault. This time, I decided to browse through the instruction booklet while setting up the machine. On the first page, I discovered that the up/down arrows on the control panel made it possible to delay the start of the baking process for any number of hours, which explained why the machine had given me the impression that it wasn't working. This time, of course, I didn't touch these arrows. The machine went into action immediately, and finally gave me one of the best loaves I've ever baked. The moral of this anecdote is that it always pays to read—and maybe even reread—the fuckin' manual.

In a quite different domain, I've decided to finally make an effort to master the nice little Sony camcorder that I purchased last year.

So, I invested two hundred euros in the following Apple product:

It's unthinkable to attempt to manipulate a sophisticated software tool such as Final Cut Express in an intuitive manner. In other words, I'm obliged to study the documentation. The only problem is that the manual is a PDF file 1152 pages long! So, I've spent hours today printing it out on paper. I'm not complaining, though, because Final Cut Express is a truly amazing software tool. The Sony HDR-SR7E camcorder, too, is an awesome piece of technology... and its manual is a "mere" 117 pages long. That's even shorter than the 157-page manual for the LiveType software tool for inserting titles and graphics into a movie, supplied at no extra cost with Final Cut Express.

There's no doubt about the fact that electronic machines in general, and computers in particular, have made our existence vastly more sophisticated and complex. And we're obliged to spend a huge amount of time reading fuckin' manuals.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Vista blues

The first video in Microsoft's new publicity campaign, named Shoe Circus, aimed at popularizing their Vista operating system, is dull and meaningless. Unbelievably bad. Judge for yourself:

On the other hand, I found that one of Apple's recent videos on this theme is charming:

The difference in style and content between the two videos reflects the differences between Vista and Leopard.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Happiness is a friendly computer

We computer enthusiasts are not hard to please. It's easy to make us happy. All we ask for is a friendly computer. That means, of course, a subtle bag of goodies. To start the ball rolling, the machine itself must be sufficiently powerful, reliable and easy to use. No problems at that level; I'm a Mac user. Next, the Internet connection must be fast and stable enough to make you forget that you're even linked to this planetary behemoth.

[If you're interested in following up the origins of the curious terms Behemoth and Leviathan, evoking chimeric Biblical creatures, click the painting by William Blake to access the Wikipedia article on this subject. I hasten to add that, like Bigfoot, these archaic animals are not described in The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins.]

One of the basic challenges in the quest for happiness as a computer user consists of finding the ideal software tools for the kind of work that concerns you. These days, in many everyday computing domains, the competing products are much of a muchness. For example, I've got into the habit of using the Firefox browser rather than Apple's much lauded Safari, but I wouldn't attempt to justify my choice objectively. Once upon a time, I used to think that nothing could be better than the Eudora application for email, whereas I now find that Apple's Mail tool suits me fine. Obviously, this "much of a muchness" aspect breaks down if you're reckless enough to start comparing Ferraris with aging pickup trucks. The differences between, say, the latest Mac OS and a veteran Windows system, or even a Linux thing tied together with bits of string and wire, are not purely a matter of taste and familiarity. There are objective tests for determining whether or not one solution is better (more efficient in a friendly way) than another. Above all, the "much of a muchness" judgment is no longer pertinent when Internet users are obliged to devote money and energy to protecting themselves constantly from spam and viruses, or wondering whether such-and-such a service provider is indeed delivering their emails.

The reason I'm rambling on about such things is that I wish to say a few words about one of the time-honored tools of personal computing: word processors.

Over the years, I've used many different kinds of word processors, including one that I built myself, named Irma (Intelligent Rewriting Tool for Authors), with which I produced the conference proceedings, published in 1980, entitled Videotex in Europe. For me, the most exotic wood processing software of all was surely the LaTeX system, implemented on the Macintosh as a tool named Textures. On a high-resolution laser printer, it produces truly beautiful output, like a finely-printed Bible, but it's diabolically complex. About half the author's energy and imagination are used up in determining what the printed output should look like, and only the other half in what it might contain in the way of words. That's to say, it's an esthete's toy for would-be printers. As for Microsoft Word, described in typical French invective as a "gas factory", I've always hated it. I'm convinced that it would have never become widespread were it not for the early business strategy of encouraging (or at least not discouraging) its unpaid acquisition... like distributing free cigarettes and alcohol to teenagers. One of my favorite word processors, up until it went out of existence on the Macintosh, was FrameMaker, which was a truly friendly and well-documented tool for authors. To replace it, I tried my hand at InDesign, but I've never succeeded in mastering it intuitively. Even such an elementary task as inserting half a page of text into a chapter, and moving an illustration, seem to be unnecessarily complicated, particularly when you're not using the tool on a daily basis.

So, why am I happy today? Well, I've just decided to drop InDesign for my genealogical documents and get back to Apple's nice Pages tool, which is amazingly simple to use.

It might sound trite to say so, but I'm convinced that an author who's well-equipped with friendly word processing resources (including on-line access to good dictionaries) finds it so much easier to be inspired, find ideas, and express them optimally.

Monday, July 28, 2008

New kind of news tool

No sooner had I informed my friend Corina [the cultivated young lady who signs her perspicacious Antipodes comments as cm] that I was contemplating the creation of the French Leaves blog than she told me, by return email, that she was working in a similar domain, with a rather different approach.
[Click the banner to access her new website.]

In examining Corina's approach, I realize that we're all looking for ways of assimilating, organizing and digesting the stream of challenging messages we receive every day through the Internet.

Incidentally, in case you're wondering why there's a bat in the banner, I'll give you a hint. Corina is Romanian. In fact, I would be happy if Corina were to realize that her notorious 15th-century compatriot is no longer the most batty vampire-oriented personage who has ever existed. In chapter 2 of his brilliant book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins describes these delightful animals in such a lovable in-depth way that I've developed an intense admiration for these tiny creatures, who are my constant friends at Gamone.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Back in the days when I was working on the outskirts of Paris for the Ilog software company, my job consisted mainly of writing technical manuals in English. Since most of my colleagues were French, they described their software creations in their mother tongue, and I was often called upon to translate these raw descriptions into basic English, before beefing them up into clear didactic documentation. At that time, I disposed of numerous powerful computing tools, some of which exploited the Unix system [ancestor of Linux]. Today, in fact, my word-processing arsenal is even more powerful, and it has the advantage of sitting on my desktop in my bedroom looking out onto the mountains... so, I can't complain about the speed of technological progress!

During my Ilog years, from 1989 until my departure for the Dauphiné in 1993, I acquired a taste for Unix wizardry. Not only did I use a complicated word-processing tool named LaTeX [designed by Donald Knuth, above all, for professional typesetting of mathematical stuff], but I developed (and documented, of course) my own thing named CatMan, to assist me in translating from French into English.

Exploiting a huge collection of French segments and their English equivalents, and activated by Unix scripts incorporating commands such as sed and awk [which might be familiar to readers who use Linux], my CatMan approach did a lot of the basic translating for me, and provided me with a more-or-less understandable but atrociously disjointed pseudo-English text, which I then had to transform manually into correct English. Observers [including Pierre Haren, the Ilog chief] were never convinced, understandably, that my CatMan gadget was an effective translation tool, because it seemed to produce junk, but I always felt that, in the long run, it saved me time and effort.

This morning, while playing around with the web, I came upon a ridiculous website, allegedly in English, that proposes an explanation of what they call a "seat". Somebody has obviously used a computer to translate French into pseudo-English. To understand this article, you have to undo the translation by replacing "seat" by "siege". It's true that a siège, in French, can be a thing you sit on... but not in a military context. Funnily, the computer was so dumb that it didn't realize that you can obtain a perfectly plausible translation of siège simply by removing the accent. To be more correct, accusations of stupidity should be addressed, not to the computer, but to the people who dared to set up this idiotic website.

According to the Evangelist Matthew [26, 41], "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". A clueless computer once interpreted this as a comment concerning a Biblical tavern, and came out with the following paraphrase: "They serve powerful liquor, but their meat is insipid."

Friday, June 20, 2008

Computer engineer

Superficially, my friend Thierry—resident of a nearby Drôme village—doesn't talk like a computer engineer, and certain observers might consider that he doesn't really look like such an individual... if indeed it might be said that computer engineers have a generic look.

How in fact does Thierry talk? Well, if you happen to have been wading for the last few months in the smelly and swampy meanders of broken-down computing systems of the Microsoft variety, then it's quite likely that Thierry speaks a language in which you'll recognize immediately certain references. Unfortunately, as a Macintosh user, I don't have the fortune of knowing intimately this murky world. So, I don't necessarily understand a lot of what Thierry has to say. But I love to hear him talking endlessly and smilingly about all this shit, which he seems to appreciate in a masterly fashion.

At a professional level, Thierry's undeniable success stems no doubt from the sad fact that all kinds of individuals and firms have encountered huge nasty problems through having invested in Microsoft... in the same way that their predecessors used to sell their business souls to IBM. Thierry has the knack of being able to extract victims, more or less, from their shitty swamps. Consequently, he earns a nice living, and leads a pleasant life as a reputed expert.

For me, it's always amusing to ask Thierry what he thinks about the Macintosh phenomenon. Naturally, he has nothing but sarcasm for the Apple computing universe, in which things don't necessarily and systematically go wrong. Thierry prefers to gravitate in an environment in which computing is an enormously shitty affair. Indeed, if the computing world were like Apple, Thierry would no longer be considered by his prestigious clients (including a nearby commune, for example) as a brilliant savior. Worse still, he might even be out of work.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Autopsy of fake photos

The art of producing fake photos used to be practiced primarily, and more or less expertly, by tyrants such as Joseph Stalin [1879-1953], wishing to remove undesirable individuals from group snapshots.

These days, countless computer users have tried their hand at innocent "Photoshopping", often in a crude fashion, as demonstrated in my fake photo of Marseille's ferry boat scampering around out in the sea as if it were an offshore racer:

On last year's April Fool's Day, my article entitled Stray animal at Gamone [display] wasn't intended to convince anybody that my donkey Moshé really rolled around in the dust at Gamone with a visiting red kangaroo:

Things get a little bit murkier when professional people use Photoshop retouching in a deliberate attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. My article of 23 August 2007 entitled Photoshop surgery [display] indicated a ridiculous case of such an operation:

A much talked-about recent case of falsification was this Chinese image of Tibetan antelopes racing away from a high-speed train:

Observers were amazed that a photographer, Liu Weiqing, could be present at exactly the moment that the train emerged on the viaduct, sending the herd of rare animals hurtling away in fear. Well, he wasn't! It's simply yet another fake photo, obtained by combining the train and the antelopes. The story of how this photo was first acclaimed as a masterpiece, before being revealed as a fake, is utterly fascinating.

Today, I learn [once again from the excellent Scientific American magazine, mentioned in my previous blog article] that there's a clever US specialist named Hany Farid who has developed methods of revealing that such-and-such a photo is fake. I advise you to visit his fine website [display] to see specimens of Farid's art and findings. In his magazine article, Farid offers us this lovely image of Jan Ullrich shaking hands with an attractive female cyclist:

Cautious viewers, discovering this image, might ask semantic questions. First of all: What on earth was this unusual cycling event that brought together Ullrich and a female in a yellow jersey, with long hair and superbly muscular legs? Second: How come the female's helmet appears to be a recolored clone of Ullrich's helmet? Last, but not least: What's that American fire hydrant doing alongside the road? Did Jan Ullrich ever get around to competing in the USA in a mixed male/female event (?) during the brief period in 2003 when he was a member of the Bianchi team? Click the fake photo [or, better still, subscribe to Scientific American] to find answers.

Many observers are anguished when they realize how easy it has become to cheat with photos. Hany Farid's excellent article entitled Digital Image Forensics informs us that the goodies and baddies are at love-all. [Excuse me for borrowing a tennis metaphor... but the final of the French Open is about to start at Roland-Garros.] The image crooks use ingenious techniques to create fake photos, but the cops have a lot of excellent detection tricks up their sleeves.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

New Mac system

The much-awaited new version of the Macintosh operating system, known as Leopard, became available a week ago, but I had to wait for a few days to receive my copy by special delivery from Grenoble to my house at Gamone. I had no problems in installing the new system on both my iMac and my MacBook.

Before upgrading to the new system, I spent a fair amount of time cleaning up my machines and testing them in every imaginable way, and I even added a big chunk of memory to the iMac. A minor surprise of a negative nature is the impossibility of using obsolescent software applications from the era preceding Mac OS X. Often, as the old saying goes, we don't miss something until it's no longer there. For me, in a Macintosh context, the thing that's no longer there is a splendid word processor named FrameMaker. I used this writing tool for years, up until Adobe suddenly decided—for reasons that most Mac aficionados never understood, let alone appreciated—that they no longer wished to support the Mac version of this product. My computer still houses all kinds of FrameMaker fragments, alongside loads of texts that I've translated from their original FrameMaker implementation into either Pages or Indesign. Whenever I wished to read a particular fragment, I could always open it with my version of FrameMaker that ran on the ancient Mac system. Well, since upgrading to Leopard, I'm no longer capable of opening and reading any of these old FrameMaker fragments... and this impossibility frustrates me a little from time to time. What it means is that I can henceforth only extract their essential raw content by means of a text tool such as TextEdit.

Talking about word processing, I'm amazed when I look back at this book, entitled Videotex in Europe, that I co-edited for the European Commission—in liaison with an employee, Carlo Vernimb—back in 1979: that's to say, before the start of the personal computing era. To produce the typescript of this document, I used a word-processing system that I had designed and implemented in Basic on a small IBM computer. Since the machine did not incorporate a display screen, the only way of materializing a man-machine dialogue consisted of using the keyboard and printer. Consequently, my word-processing system—called IRMA [Intelligent Rewriting Machine for Authors]—used extra wide sheets of paper. Communications between the author and the machine appeared on the left-hand side of the paper, and the final document was printed on the right-and side. This was an exceptionally clumsy approach to word processing, but my IRMA enabled me to produce this important document on the subject of videotex [a primitive ancestor of the Internet] for the European Commission. Today, admiring the Leopard system on my Mac, I realize that we've come a long way since then.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Fabulous educational project

This 64-year-old American intellectual and administrator, Nicholas Negroponte, of Greek origins, is a visionary, of the same kind as Apple's Steve Jobs. A former member of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and the kid brother of the "other" Negroponte [John, US Deputy Secretary of State], he is promoting an exciting international project known as One Laptop Per Child, which consists of designing a low-cost basic computer for children in developing nations. [Click here to view an interesting video on this subject.]

The machine, manufactured in Taiwan by Quanta Computer Inc, has a nice Martian look:

Initially planned to have a sales price of a hundred US dollars, the laptop will in fact be marketed at twice that price... which is still remarkably cheap. Up-to-date information on the project can be found at their website:

Not surprisingly, this kind of daring technological and educational project needs to gain momentum before it can be evaluated in meaningful terms. For the moment, only three nations have signed up to acquire machines: Peru, Uruguay and Mongolia. These initial orders amount to a "mere" 200 thousand machines, but it is to be hoped that enthusiasm for the laptop will escalate as soon as the bush telegraph [in default of the Internet] spreads the news that it's a great deal.

Anecdote. When I first heard of the grand project of Nicholas Negroponte [who, incidentally, helped me personally when I was in Boston, in the early '70s, preparing and shooting my TV documentaries on artificial intelligence and the brain], I was intrigued by the presence of a crank handle, making it possible to power up the computer in villages without electricity.

Cyclists are familiar with a device called the home trainer:

I imagined that it would be a great idea, in remote places, to install home trainers along with Negroponte's laptops. If that were done, then the organizers of the Tour de France would have a superb system for punishing cyclists full of illegal pharmaceutical products. Instead of fining them and banning them from pedaling, they could be sentenced to Club Med vacations in exotic villages that are about to discover computing. I reckon that a single sufficiently-doped cyclist, in the course of a few dozen sessions (the equivalent of stages in the Tour de France), could generate enough electricity to initiate an entire community into the joys of computing. And, if there were any power left over, it could be used to warm up an evening meal for the village folk.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mac user

Who is this middle-aged Macintosh user, in a cluttered office, whose personal computing comfort apparently necesitates the simultaneous use of no less than three giant 30-inch high-definition screens? Hint: For over three years, this American has been a member of the board of directors of Apple Computer. Other hints: He recently made a highly successful movie, and the existence of this movie no doubt influenced the folk who award Nobel prizes... because they gave him a shared Peace Prize! It's Al Gore, of course, who happens to be one of the planet's most high-profile Mac enthusiasts.

As the old saying goes (well, more or less): "Tell me what computer you use, and I'll tell you what sort of a person you are." We've evolved a lot since the time when the French Socialist politician Laurent Fabius, asked whether he used a computer, replied: "Yes, I have a Minitel." The Minitel was the primitive little gadget (now obsolete) built by French Telecom, in pre-Internet days, which enabled ordinary citizens to access various databases. Here in France, I'm surprised that journalists don't seem to have got around to producing an in-depth report on the daily down-to-earth personal relationships between prominent politicians and computing... as distinct from the things they pay specialists to do for them. Let me lay my head on the block. I would bet that Sarkozy does not have a personal Macintosh, and that he knows next to nothing about the technicalities of using a computer and the Internet. I don't know why, but he strikes me as that kind of individual.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Explanation of the spinning woman demo

In view of feedback I've received, I feel obliged to make it clear that the demo presented in my offbeat article entitled Right brain versus left brain [display] is merely an amusing and innocuous hoax, which has nothing to do with the viewer's brain. My presentation of the demo and my subsequent comments were deliberately facetious: a big joke! It would have been neither more nor less silly to claim that viewers who see the girl spinning in a clockwise direction have right-wing political beliefs, and vice versa.

Only the final two sentences in my post [where I suggest that interested observers should examine the individual images in this animated GIF, using a graphics tool such as Fireworks] are to be taken seriously. The truth of the matter is that everybody sees exactly the same animation, which does indeed change directions suddenly, before reverting to the initial direction. The demo is ingenious in that the 34 fixed images composing the animation have been designed and drawn in an exceptionally skillful manner. Viewers are intrigued by the fact that, when the woman changes directions, she does so in such a smooth and seamless fashion that we have the impression that this change has taken place—like the perception of beauty—in "the eye of the beholder". This is an illusion. The change has well and truly occurred in the animation, not in our brains. In most of the silhouettes in the animation, various visual features of the woman—including her face, her breasts and her pony-tail hair—provide explicit clues as to the direction in which she is spinning. But I have extracted a unique image, shown here, in which all these visual features are missing:

Here, the viewer is unable to decide between two perfectly plausible possibilities:

— We are facing the silhouette of a woman poised on her left leg and spinning in a clockwise direction.

— The silhouette is a rear view of a woman poised on her right leg and spinning in an anticlockwise direction.

Consequently, when this pivotal image occurs in the animated sequence, the direction of spinning can be either maintained [as is usually the case] or reversed [exceptionally] in a totally seamless fashion. And this is why the woman seems to spin in a clockwise direction for a while, then suddenly change directions, and finally revert to the initial direction.

Some readers might not be familiar with the concept of animated GIFs. Back in the early Internet days, people often included an animated image of this kind in the email contact section of their rudimentary websites, showing a letter being folded, place in an envelope and slipped into a mailbox. Animated GIFs provide a good example of software gadgets—a little out of fashion nowadays—that are relatively laborious to create, but simple to borrow and use.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Two cultures

When I was a young man, a widely-read little book by the British scientist and novelist C P Snow presented a dichotomous vision of contemporary intellectuals. On the one hand, there were those with a scientific education and preoccupations. On the other, there were traditional intellectuals concerned by the humanities (literature, philosophy, history, etc). Snow coined the striking expression "two cultures" to designate this breakdown. He claimed that the existence of this dichotomy constituted a fundamental barrier in the quest for harmonious and universal solutions to society's problems.

Personally, I first became aware of this phenomenon when certain people expressed surprise at the fact that I should wish to study both mathematics and philosophy, simultaneously, at university. Much later, at the research service of the French Broadcasting System, I had the privilege of working with Pierre Schaeffer, a splendid innovator in multidisciplinary thinking. But I still came upon colleagues who found it strange, for example, that a computing professional such as me might be interested in the linguistics of Noam Chomsky. (Today, of course, most people would no longer find this strange, because they know that computers exploit languages such as Basic and Java.)

The planetary success of the personal computer and the Internet has narrowed the gap, I think, between "cultivated folk" (in the old-fashioned sense) and "technical people" (who know how to write programs, for example). Besides, many ordinary individuals know that science—through disciplines such as cosmology, genetics and neurophysiology—has much to say (if not everything) about human beings and the world in which we exist. So, only an exceptionally reactionary observer would cling to the notion of a giant cleavage between science and traditional culture. Even the antiquated separation between science and philosophy has practically disappeared... and old-fashioned religion is slowly paying the price of increased scientific enlightenment. What I'm hinting at, in that last statement, is that it's becoming more and more intellectually difficult to maintain the beliefs of traditional religions.

In the midst of our new "computer culture", I often hear people on TV complaining that addiction to modern machines such as computers and portable phones is having an adverse effect upon a certain aspect of traditional culture: namely, the ability to spell correctly and to write in a grammatically correct fashion. Yesterday, for example, a well-spoken French fellow, employed in some kind of a stock-market job, explained in a TV interview that young people like himself communicate so rapidly and so profusely today, using computers and portable phones, that they tend to disregard such niceties as spelling and well-structured sentences. Now, this might be true as far as text messages and chat forums on the Internet are concerned, but I think we should relativize things before making global generalizations about the alleged negative effects of modern communications systems. In particular, it's ridiculous to suggest that there might be any kind of paucity in spelling and literary expression in the vast domain of what we might refer to as encyclopedic websites, characterized above all [but not exclusively, by any means] by Wikipedia. Here, on the contrary, all the is are dotted, all the ts are crossed, and every comma counts. Everything is rigorous, striving towards informational completeness and perfection. The web, at this level, is not a place for fast facts à la McDonald's.

Maybe the antiquated "two cultures" expression might be resurrected usefully in a modern context. On the one hand, there are the speedy youngsters, using portable phones and chat forums, who don't give a damn about spelling or expression, as long as their many muddy messages get through. On the other hand, there are the countless great web authors who are engaged in the passionate challenge of installing humanity's history and intellectual heritage on the Internet. It is normal that these two "cultures" should coexist, but it would be idiotic to confuse these two totally different preoccupations. One is a culture of immediate facility; the other, a culture of ageless wisdom. And the actors, in each of these two cultures, are not at all the same.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

New role for Big Blue

I was intrigued by this striking French ad that asks: "How can zeros and ones help New York police to arrest criminals?"

An instant later, I was a little surprised to learn that the question was being asked by my former employer, IBM.

I wasn't sufficiently interested in this subject to click on the banner in the hope of receiving an answer to IBM's question. So, I still ignore the way in which zeros and ones can help New York police to arrest criminals. But this ignorance is not likely to prevent me from sleeping soundly at night.

Back in 1957, when I started to work with IBM Australia as a Fortran programmer on a magnificent electronic beast called the IBM 650, the corporation had the habit of recalling in its public relations that punched cards had been used successfully for the first time in the 1890 US census, which could never have been processed correctly and on time were it not for Herman Hollerith's ingenious invention, adopted by IBM in 1928.

For those of us who worked in those pioneering days of computing, our 11th commandment, applied to our precious stocks of punched cards, was: "Do not fold, spindle or mutilate." And we were no doubt the only individuals who knew the meaning of the verb "to spindle" (to poke a hole through paper documents with a metallic spike).

Times have changed a lot since then. Nobody uses punched cards any more, except maybe in a few old Jacquard weaving looms. IBM has ceased to be the master of the computing universe. Today, everybody knows that Microsoft markets software called Windows, Word and Excel, whereas Apple offers a machine named the Macintosh as well as delightful gadgets called the iPod and the iPhone. I wonder how many ordinary people would be capable of naming a single hardware or software product manufactured by IBM.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Earth's possible soul mate

Like countless stargazers on our globe, I'm thrilled and fascinated by the discovery of an Earth-like planet associated with a red dwarf, a mere 20.5 light years away, whose unromantic name is Gliese 581.

The discovery was made by a research team at the Geneva Observatory headed by Stéphane Udry and Michel Mayor. A prominent member of the team, Thierry Forveille, works in nearby Grenoble.

For the moment, our knowledge of the nature of Earth's possible twin is frustratingly sparse. A telescope used by European astronomers in Chile has been able to prove that the planet exists, and that it is half as big again as Earth. Calculations suggest that the mean temperature lies in the comfortable range of zero to 40 degrees Celsius. But no present-day technology is capable of looking directly at the planet.

I'm constantly amazed to realize that so many gigantic scientific and technological breakthroughs have occurred during the 66 years that I've been spending as a visitor aboard the planet Earth. In other words, I like to think of myself as a humble but privileged visitor. After all, I arrived on the planet at just the right time to learn computing, purchase a Macintosh and have fun building websites.

[Click here to see my latest website, which has nothing to do with scientific and technological breakthroughs. I'm merely trying to help a friend sell his storm-damaged restaurant in Pont-en-Royans.]

Monday, April 9, 2007


Maybe I have a distorted way of looking at things but, when I first saw this image, I had the impression that the red-haired angel was handling a roll of toilet paper. When you think about it, that would be a great question for Byzantine theologians: Do angels use toilet paper?

Sometimes, in the middle of a spirited conversation between several people, the talking stops abruptly, for no particular reason, and there's a gap of maybe ten seconds or so of spooky silence, up until somebody takes up the conversation once again. In French, there's a quaint expression to designate such an incident. They say: An angel just passed by.

You might be wondering why I've brought up the subject of angels. I hasten to add that this has nothing to do with Easter Monday or the alleged resurrection of Jesus. On the contrary, I wish to mention a down-to-earth affair: a white paper with a curious title, République 2.0, on the challenges of digital technology in French society.

A few weeks ago, the presidential candidate Ségolène Royal called upon a distinguished Socialist personality, Michel Rocard, to produce a report on this highly topical subject.

And angels in all this? In browsing through the report this afternoon, I was intrigued by the following recommendation, in the section of Rocard's report that deals with technological innovation in France:

Encourage logic of a "business angels" type.

Here, the abstract term "logic", which is highly popular in technocratic French, simply designates a way of doing things. The expression "business angels" appeared as such in Rocard's report, in English, and the inverted commas ("twitch twitch") were no doubt inserted to underline the author's awareness that he had switched momentarily into less than academic French. And what exactly does this recommendation mean, when translated into everyday language?

In case you didn't know, so-called business angels are wealthy individuals who get a kick out of operating as venture capitalists, using their personal cash. They're the sort of individuals who are capable of being so enthralled by the great ideas and ambitions of a talented innovator (who knows how to sell him/herself) that they're prepared to bury him in bags of money (like in a Dilbert cartoon) enabling him/her to set up a business. It goes without saying (but I'll say it all the same) that Michel Rocard is convinced that, in the domain of digital technology, there are many brilliant young French innovators who would be able to achieve marvels if only they had the financial resources enabling them to get into action. Who knows? Maybe he's right...

I've never thought of France as the kind of country where it's easy to start off with a brilliant idea and build it into a business. First, the competition's stiff, in the sense that, in a brilliant country such as France, there are hordes of bright individuals with brilliant ideas. But the real problem is that, in France, the concept known elsewhere as free enterprise turns out to be a terribly expensive affair. As soon as an individual decides to set up a business, to do anything at all (or even nothing in the immediate future), the entrepreneur is hit with a massive volume of charges of all kinds, and it's hard to survive. Either you have to make piles of money rapidly, or else the charges drag you into bankruptcy. That's France.

Years ago, I had a brilliant idea (in the course of a lifetime, this can happen), and I would have loved to be discovered by a business angel hovering in the skies of Paris. I remember writing down a neologism, wearware, on a piece of paper, and trying to explain to friends that it was a matter of designing exotic garments incorporating various kinds of digital devices, maybe coat pockets that flashed messages of a kinky kind with graphic and audio effects. Just imagine it. If only I had been able to develop the brilliant idea of wearware, I would have become filthy rich, and I wouldn't be here today in my modest Alpine abode typing this silly blog message. Retrospectively, I believe it's quite likely that my guardian angel stepped in, fortunately, and saved me from spending my life as a filthy rich developer of wearware.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Blue-eyed backup beasts

From now on, like somebody with a pacemaker, I'm going to have to learn to live with this pair of blue-eyed beasts purring away on my walnut desk behind the iMac screen. They're a pair of identical disk drives, each of which can store some 300 gigabytes of data. I've spent the last day or so studying the complicated Retrospect software and developing scripts to handle my backup automatically every night, starting at 3 o'clock in the morning. Yesterday at midnight, when I set my Retrospect scripts in action for the first time, I realized that the operations would take a long period of time, since everything on my iMac would have to be copied. In fact, the computer churned on all night and all day, up until the end of the afternoon. This lengthy time was exceptional. From now on, Retrospect will only need to copy things that I've modified during the day.

If I were really conscientious, every morning after feeding the dog, I would turn off the blue-eyed beast that had performed backup during the night, and I would take it down to my neighbors' house for safe storage. Then I would bring back its twin to my house and turn it on. In that way, if my house happened to be demolished by a falling helicopter or meteorite, my computer work would not be lost. Dédé and Madeleine have been happy to look after my sheep and donkey at times, but I'm sure they would soon get tired of caring for my metallic beasts on a daily basis. Of course, I could always envisage building a tiny tree-house for my disk drives, down alongside Gamone Creek. But wouldn't I look silly if the tree-house and its contents got struck by lightning, or if a squirrel or a weasel got into the tree-house and started gnawing away at my precious disk drive. For the moment, I'll leave both blue-eyed beasts where they are, hiding more or less safely behind my computer.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Thinking about things

At the age of 18, when I met up with the IBM company in Sydney and started to learn how to be a computer programmer, I was amused and intrigued by their famous motto: THINK.

In fact, it's an ambiguous imperative. On the one hand, thinking is a profound and mysterious human activity. So, the IBM verb sounded in my imagination like the Socratic imperative: Know yourself! [When I encountered IBM, I had just completed a year of Greek philosophy at Sydney University, and I was totally under the charm of the great Socratic adage: The unexamined life is not worth living.] On the other hand, IBM's founder Thomas J Watson no doubt introduced his THINK slogan with more down-to-earth considerations in mind: Think twice before making a business decision. Reflect at length about all the options that are available to you. Master the situation with which you are dealing. Try to be smarter than your business opponents. Etc.

In any case, I preferred the more lofty notion of thinking. Besides, just one step away from IBM's electronic brains, there was talk about a new science named cybernetics invented by Norbert Wiener [1894-1964] and the exciting challenges of a strange discipline known as artificial intelligence. As the great Alan Turing [1912-1954] asked, somewhat rhetorically: Can machines think?

I've started to write an autobiographical account of my adolescent years, culminating in my encounter with computing and my subsequent move to the Old World (rendered easy through my professional experience in programming). Up until now, I had been using the word Antipodes (title of this blog) as the title of my early autobiography. Now, while the antipodean concept is ideal for this blog, I've always realized that it was not quite the right word for my autobiography. In particular, I wanted a title that might evoke the encounter with IBM that changed the course of my life. And the title should also evoke the fact that my adolescence was dominated by constant thoughts, of an inevitably hazy kind, upon the nature of the cosmos. About all things bright and beautiful.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The meaning of life

My title is misleading. A reader might imagine that I'm using the expression in the same style, say, as a distraught individual who cries out to a friend (or a priest or a psychiatrist): “Life has no meaning for me; I’ve decided to commit suicide.” There, it’s a question of “to be or not to be”: that's to say, meaning (or rather lack of meaning) à la Hamlet, à la Albert Camus:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.

I first read those opening words of The Myth of Sisyphus when I was eighteen, out in Australia, and I was so impressed by the French Algerian-born author that I purchased several of his translated works, and even carried these books with me in my suitcases when I came to France in 1962... which was truly a case of bringing coals to Newcastle. Since then, I've totally revised my appreciation of the existentialist Nobel laureate. Like the US physicist Brian Greene [see The Fabric of the Cosmos], I’m no longer on the same wavelength—if ever this were the case—as Albert Camus. I don't, for a moment, consider that the pursuits of scientific research are mere "games" that should be put aside while an individual is deciding artistically (or otherwise) whether or not to blow his brains out. That suggestion, to my mind, is stupid, indeed grotesque. Besides, I'm not—and have never been—in the least bit suicidal. Human life on Earth—like all life in the Cosmos—is such a precious and fragile essence that one should not spill a drop of it.

The meaning of life is a clearcut affair for those who believe in Jesus... or any other divine entity, for that matter. Nonetheless, if a skull is ominously present, holding up the open Bible in this splendid depiction of Bruno in prayer (a curious visual reflection of the monk's own bald skull), this suggests that believers are constantly pursued by the gentle all-pervading presence of death, of human mortality. And this is normal. In extreme cases such as that of the Chartreux monks, whose earthly existence is characterized by a good dose of mortification, it might even be said that the global meaning of a monk’s life is to be found in the expected aftermath of his death.

But I said at the beginning that my title is misleading, since I was not referring to meaning of either the Hamlet/Camus or the Bruno kind. So, we might ask: What’s the meaning of “meaning” in my title? It’s a word whose archaic etymology is linked to the notion of mind. To look for the meaning of X is equivalent to asking: What do we have in mind when we refer to X? More precisely: What do we have in mind when we evoke the notion of living creatures such as plants, animals and Homo Sapiens?

That question found answers of a revolutionary kind in 1859, when Charles Darwin brought out a book with a long-winded title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Living creatures of a successful kind share a dominant feature. [That last sentence contains a hint of a pleonasm. If a creature is living vigorously—thriving, one might say—it is necessarily “of a successful kind”. Creatures that are not successful in life simply die out. Somebody once said that commuters only complain about trains that run late, whereas nobody ever talks about all the trains that run normally on time. On the great railway of life, it’s the opposite. We only meet up with creatures that have managed to get aboard the right train. All the rest disappear during the trip, and never reach their destination.]

As I was about to say, before getting led astray into talking about trains, thriving creatures share a dominant feature: that of being highly successful in the art of procreation. Years ago, when I was working in French TV, I found myself visiting the research laboratory of a French specialist in a bizarre discipline, linked to embryology, known as teratology: the study of monsters. He showed me his vast collection of malformed fetuses and babies, displayed in big jars of formaldehyde lined up on shelves along the walls of his laboratory. A teratologist uses a vocabulary of weird terms to designate the various kinds of monsters. If I remember correctly, “acephalous” indicates that the creature has no brain, and “cyclopean” means that there’s a single eye in the center of the forehead. I was impressed by a curious remark made by the teratologist: “Nature generally ensures that the most extreme kinds of malformations give rise to a creature that cannot survive. Consequently, we don’t normally encounter many striking teratological specimens in the everyday world around us.” Hearing these words, my mind flashed back to a lovely old Anglican hymn that we used to sing in the cathedral at Grafton:

All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
all things wise and wonderful,
the Lord God made them all.

[See a quaint presentation of the words and music at]

I wondered whether the hymn would sound so nice if we changed a line:

all things weird and terrible...

Procreation is essentially a matter of copying genes, which is a process that may or may not be carried out in a two-parent sexual situation. The replicator device at the basis of all life—plants, animals and Homo Sapiens—is the DNA molecule, whose structure was explained by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953.

Shortly before then, a mathematician named John von Neumann, working in the USA, produced operational computer-type models of the replication process, summed up in a famous book that was published posthumously: Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata. For those of us who were meeting up with the phenomenon of computers at that time [I first came in contact with IBM in 1957: the year of von Neumann’s death], the great Hungarian-born mathematician was something of a hero, because it was he who actually invented the fundamental concept of a stored computer program. And he also played a pioneering role in the theory of games... which may or may not have concerned the activities that Camus was designating in the quotation at the start of this post. We all felt that, in programming electronic machines to perform all kinds of tasks, we were exploiting an extraordinary art devised by von Neumann.

Today, if you were to ask me about the meaning of life, I would not hesitate in replying that one thing I have in mind (more than suicide or God or any other boring stuff), when I reflect upon the magic of all living things bright and beautiful (and otherwise), is John von Neumann’s work on self-reproducing automata.