Monday, December 31, 2012

Walnut war

In an article of 2 July 2012 entitled Not the answer [display], I deplored my inability to prevent mysterious Gamone rodents from devouring the totality of my walnut harvest. The culprits are almost certainly dormice (plural of dormouse, loir in French), seen here in a photo that I found on the web.

Otherwise, they might be members of the marten family (martre and fouine in French). I've often discovered the aftermath of their operations, but I've only had fleeting images of the animals themselves, who operate during the night. Well, at the end of the above-mentioned blog post, I vowed that I was determined to acquire some kind of anti-rodent walnut container. I searched at length on the Internet, but could find nothing of a suitable nature. Finally, I had to use my imagination in designing and building the ideal container, which I've just completed.

It's a meter wide, 50 cm in depth and 50 cm in height. The container is based upon a sturdy welded frame of angular steel. Stainless steel wire netting, sufficiently fine to keep out mice, is held in place by bolted strips of wood. The base of thick plywood is posed upon sturdy metal roller wheels. Theoretically, once it's closed by means of its heavy plywood lid, the fauna of Gamone should not be capable of accessing walnuts placed inside this container.

Instead of simply piling my current stock of Gamone walnuts into the new wire-mesh container, I decided to distribute them into several independent white-plastic crates, which will enable air to circulate more freely around the fruit.

Late yesterday afternoon, I went out shopping for these crates... at a moment when most shoppers were buying foodstuffs for their New Year dinners. (To be truthful, I dashed into the supermarket for a box of two dozen excellent Brittany oysters. At this time of the year, I'm reminded inevitably of arriving in St-Brieuc, once upon a time, and helping Jacques Mafart in the ritual opening of dozens of oysters.) No sooner had I stepped into a first self-service hardware store than I found exactly the ideal model of blue plastic crates that I had imagined. Using my tape measure, I was thrilled to discover that four of these big sturdy crates would occupy exactly the space inside my wire-mesh container: 100 cm x 50 cm x 50 cm. Alas, when I reached the pay desk, dragging along my four plastic crates, the young female employee smiled at me and explained: "I'm sorry, sir, but those are new containers that we received this afternoon, to be used by customers to hold their purchases inside the store. But we don't sell such crates." I asked her politely if I might be able to steal these crates. "You're free to try, sir," she replied with a friendly smile, "as long as we don't catch you." I decided that it would be easier to look elsewhere.

In case you were wondering, let me confirm that the construction of this container has necessitated a lot of time and energy. My Gamone walnuts are precious. So, if the anti-rodent container fulfills its purpose, I won't consider that my work has been "overkill". Meanwhile, I might add that the walnut box was built in the midst of my ongoing work site aimed at constructing a carport. Here's a photo of the current state of this project, which is evolving slowly but surely:

Inside the house, I'm pursuing my erection of a chimney system for a cast-iron wood stove, as outlined in my recent blog post entitled Fitzroy's favorite positions [display]. In all my life, I don't think I've ever been more active at a practical do-it-yourself construction level. The underlying reason for my hyperactivity is my firm belief that I shall remain at Gamone for the rest of my life on the planet Earth. In a nutshell, it's unthinkable that I could come upon a better environment in which to meditate upon existence.

The determined gaze of Fitzroy, in his favorite position at the top of the staircase, provides me with a model for meditation about crucial questions, and thinking about the future.

In normal circumstances, I hardly need to insist to persuade my dog to cuddle up against me in one way or another. The ultimate situation is when he finds me seated in front of the fireplace, and scrambles up into my lap. But curiously, when Fitzroy happens to be seated in his favorite position at the top of the staircase, it's difficult to distract his attention in any way whatsoever. His eyes are fixed intently upon an imaginary horizon, as if he were awaiting instructions from the heavens. Only after a minute or so does he appear to break out of his top-of-the-staircase spell, and scramble down the stairs. It's as if he were emerging from a moment of meditation, of verity. As for me, I like to imagine myself at the top of the staircase, and I seek inspiration from Fitzroy. My dog is my god.

AFTERTHOUGHT: I'm wondering whether Fitzroy's fixed regard at the top of the staircase might be an archaic  genetically-acquired behavior associated with the obvious folly of a wolf turning its head when it happened to be seated on the brink of a precipice, observing what's happening down in the valley. Wolves who turned around to communicate with accompanying animals would have been likely to topple off into the abyss. Only the eyes-straight-ahead animals would have survived. I can think of no other explanation. Besides, I've noticed that Fitzroy is fond of squatting on the brink of embankments at Gamone, and gazing straight ahead of himself while waiting for something to happen.

Satellite night views

I'm impressed by this lovely Nasa night view of the planet Earth:

[Click to enlarge]

Questions arise, demanding answers. From right to left (like the Sun):

— Clearly, the New Zealander who was holding a candle has learned that humanity possesses fire. A kind soul might inform him that we've also invented electricity.

— The Australian government should find and punish the fuckwit who turned out all the lights in Tasmania at exactly the moment that Nasa photographers were asking the people of the world to say cheese.

— What's all that luminous agitation in the Nile Delta ? The spirit of the pharaohs ?

— Dark Africa. Basically, the African continent remains dark. Is this some kind of literary arrangement?

— Northern America appears to be sharply divided between illuminated society (to the Atlantic east) and the obscure Far West. California might succeed in throwing light upon this vast dark territory.

Don't forget to blow out your bedside candle before falling asleep.

Wild boar shot at Gamone

Suddenly, yesterday afternoon, I heard hounds barking furiously up beyond my neighbor's house, probably in the muddy bed of Gamone Creek. The frenetic tone of the yelping suggested that the dogs had cornered a wild boar, and that a mortal combat was taking place. Curiously, there were no hunters in sight. For a moment, I thought about wandering up the slopes to see what was happening. I realized immediately that this might be an unwise excursion, because I did not relish the idea that Fitzroy and I might suddenly find ourselves face-to-face with a wild beast, and maybe even in the midst of gunfire. Fortunately, a white utility vehicle soon appeared in the vicinity of the barking, and a couple of armed hunters emerged. A minute later, a single shot rang out across the valley... and the barking stopped. I decided to take a look at the scene. At the level of Jackie's place, I met up with a team of three hunters, one of whom was dragging a dead beast up out of the creek. They informed me immediately (without my asking) that they were not from Choranche, but from the neighboring commune of St-André-en-Royans, on the other side of the northern ridge above Gamone. Their hounds had strayed, as it were, from St-André down into Choranche, where they had come upon this solitary boar. Consequently, the hunters were obliged to kill the beast in order to save their dogs. Overhearing their phone conversations with fellow hunters, I soon gathered that these fellows from St-André didn't really know exactly where they were located. Besides, they seemed to fear that they might run into problems with the Choranche hunters.

I had refrained from bringing along my Nikon, because hunters are not necessarily the kind of folk who like to be photographed. I soon realized that this had been a wise choice, because these particular hunters seemed to be a little disturbed by their chance encounter with a wild boar at this unexpected spot. So, I'm illustrating this blog post with a beautiful photo of a live wild boar, in a typical muddy creek setting, that I found on the web.

                                                                                — Richard Bartz

By the time the slain boar of Gamone had been dragged up onto the road, dozens of other hunters had arrived on the scene, in a convoy of vehicles. The fur of the black beast, which seemed to be sleeping, was spotless. But I was stunned and distraught by the appearance of the pack of four hounds that had participated in the final combat. They were covered in layers of pink blood. And I soon learned that it was blood from the dogs themselves, two of whom had been severely wounded in the encounter with the wild boar. But the hounds gave no signs of suffering. They appeared to be contented, in their ancestral element of wolves pitted against a ferocious prey. For the dogs, a little blood and patches of skin torn apart by the tusks of a wild boar were neither here nor there. My homely Fitzroy (accustomed to watching TV, spread out in my lap in front of the fireplace) was surely impressed by these bloody canine gladiators, chained up at the rear of their master's vehicle. Urban observers (and I count myself in their numbers, even though I inhabit the savage slopes of an Alpine environment) have lost contact with those archaic ages of bloody conflicts, perpetuated these days by the hunters and their hounds.

When I first settled down in Gamone, 20 years ago, I looked upon hunters, naively and stupidly, as uncouth and troublesome neighbors. I have understood, since then, that these men remain the surviving priesthood of obscure archaic forces that we must respect perpetually and maybe seek to control... but never condemn nor abandon.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Bend in the river

Once upon a time, at an unknown date, a lady in a black robe and hat stepped into the River Bourne below Gamone and got her photo taken.

Here's another photo of the same spot, taken in 1926, which shows a segment of the road that leads from Pont-en-Royans (behind the photographer's back) to the village of Choranche:

In the background of the second photo, you get a glimpse of the Cournouze mountain in the upper right-hand corner. You can also see, to the left, a section of the great limestone cliffs above Choranche.

In the middle of both photos (at the level of the house of my neighbor Madeleine Repellin, behind the trees on the left), a kind of small dam—a couple of meters high—crosses the Bourne. It's an ancient structure, perpetually overflowing, that diverts water into the Rouillard mill, midway between Gamone and Pont-en-Royans.

These days, the spot where the lady in black was wetting her toes looks like this:

It's a magnificent place. And Gamone lies a few hundred meters up the slopes to the left.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The end is near

Here in France, it's still only 3 o'clock in the afternoon of the penultimate day. So, everything still exists here, and it's business as usual. But, at the moment I'm writing this blog post, New Zealand is no doubt starting to fade out forever as a civilized community.

And my native Australia should be getting ready to go Down Under. Everywhere, particularly among the enlightened folk in Byron Bay, there's a feeling in the air that the end is near.

The great Jim Morrison once expressed this doomed feeling in a poignant style:

TV reports inform us that French highways are already crammed with vehicles heading to the south-west.

Their destination, of course, is the tiny village of Bugarach, whose mountain allegedly has room for some 30 million survivors.

As I've already pointed out in this blog, I persist in believing that Mayan cosmologists got their computations slightly screwed up, and that the right place to be protected from extermination is in fact the magnificent magic mountain just across from my house at Gamone: the Cournouze.

Consequently, I'll be packing up here this evening and wandering across to Châtelus, on the other side of the Bourne, with Fitzroy and the two donkeys. In the middle of the forthcoming dark night of celestial tribulations, if I can find an operational Internet connection in Châtelus, I'll write a blog post to describe what's happening here. Before publishing it, I intend to do a quick check, of course, to see whether I still have any potential readers throughout the world. Otherwise, there's no point in carrying on my blogging. So, if you hear from me within the next 24 hours, that will be good news both for you and for me. Meanwhile, to all my still-existing readers: Happy Apocalypse!

BREAKING NEWS: Here on the edge of the French Alps, I'm happy to say that my constant belief in the magic survival powers of the great Cournouze mountain seems to have paid off, because the alleged Final Day has dawned and everything's fine, including the weather. On the other hand, the Antipodes worry me greatly. There are rumors on the Internet that every sign of normal humanity in New Zealand has been wiped off the face of the earth, and that only the Hobbit population remains, hidden deep in Middle-earth. As for feedback from Australia, I'm getting no intelligible signals whatsoever from Byron Bay, not even from their flourishing Raelian community. (In an initial version of my remarks here, a regrettable slip of the pen caused me to write "intelligent" rather than "intelligible".) So, I'm forced to conclude sadly that the good old days of whale spotting from the lighthouse, surfing among the sharks and drinking beer in the local pubs are almost certainly a thing of the past. The world will miss you all...

BUGARACH CALLING BYRON: Trying to get through. How many survivors in Byron? Everything normal Bugarach. Extraterrestrial visit this afternoon. Nice fellows.

Byron received extraterrestrial visits? What color? Can we forward you Bugarach extraterrestrials?

Fitzroy's favorite positions

Fitzroy has developed the habit of sitting down at the top of the stairs, with his rump and hind legs on the landing, and his front paws on the first step.

Not only is it a comfortable position, but it allows my dog to meditate upon his next move, which will depend of course upon the next displacement of his master (me). Should Fitzroy scramble down to the ground floor? Or would he do better to remain on the upper floor, based upon the assumption that his master is merely visiting momentarily the second bedroom or the bathroom?

This photo reveals that everything in that vicinity is covered in a thick layer of white dust (which I've decided to ignore for the moment). The origins of that dust can be traced to the shiny metallic column seen behind Fitzroy in the following photo:

It's a tube of galvanized steel, 1.33 m long and 30 cm in diameter, incorporating an interior tube of stainless steel, 18 cm in diameter, which is the initial segment of a chimney for a future wood stove on the ground floor.

Here's a precise schema of the entire system that I'm building:

[Click to enlarge]

On the ground floor, I intend to install a French-manufactured Invicta Sedan 10 cast-iron wood stove (which I don't intend to purchase until the chimney system is completed):

The stove (poêle in French) will be placed on a step between the kitchen and the living room. For the passage of the stovepipe, 15 cm in diameter (shown in brown in my schema), I had to hack a hole in the massive slab of reinforced concrete (dalle in French), 20 cm thick, between the ground and the upper floor. Here's a poor-quality photo (looking up at the ground-floor ceiling) that shows the present state of the completed hole:

The verb "hack" is quite appropriate, as I was obliged to work blindly with an assortment of diamond disc grinders, drills, chisels and hammers. And that explains the presence in the house of all the white dust. When I say that I worked "blindly", what I mean is that I didn't know with certainty, in the beginning, how to avoid damaging any vital beams in the slab (such as the one on the right, with a red line traced on it). In other words, I was obliged to perform my hacking solely in the region occupied by hollow-core concrete planks (with the typical grainy texture that you can see in the above photo). The initial problem, of course, was that the layout of the beams and planks was concealed behind a layer of plaster, which I first had to chip away. Naturally, once the stove is correctly installed, I'll be able to tidy up the rough edges of my hacking... but it's too early to worry about such trivial aspects of my construction project.

In the schema, you can see that I've been obliged to introduce a twist in the chimney tubes at the level of the first floor, just before it ascends into the attic (grenier in French). That's because I encountered an unexpected obstacle when I pierced the suspended ceiling (faux plafond in French) above the first floor: a huge reinforced concrete beam, whose vital role consists of helping to hold in place the ancient stone walls of the house.

The tube seen in the above photos with Fitzroy is therefore the first of a series of 8 or 9 elements leading up to the final object in the system: an external roof chimney. I've already ordered this object from the same excellent French manufacturer who makes all the stovepipes and tubes: Poujoulat. Taking into account the inevitable delays due to tomorrow's Mayan end-of-the-world and the Christmas festivities, I would predict that my future wood stove should become operational at around the height of winter, some time in February. Up until then, I can rely, of course, on the good old open fireplace in the living room, whose major weakness is that it tends to warm only those parts of the body that are facing the flames, leaving you constantly with a chilly backside.

Talking of the fireplace, Fitzroy has developed another habit, which consists of waiting until I've lit up the fire and settled down in front of the flames with a good book, or to watch TV. Then, without asking for my opinion on the matter, Fitzroy scrambles up onto my knees and snuggles in for a warm snooze. If I try to push him back down onto the floor, my dog uses all the force of his powerful legs and claws to hang on tightly. So, I usually don't insist any further, preferring to take pleasure in Fitzroy's warm somnolent presence. He nevertheless becomes heavy after a while, and I have to guide carefully the mass of my sleeping dog back down onto the floor, where he sits upright, still half-asleep, with his head and paws supported by my knees and the tip of his backside poised on the floor. Finally, he wakes up completely, gets the message, and finds a new position outstretched on the floor. (Unfortunately, I can't supply readers with images of the delightful operations that I'm describing.)

Observers might say that I'm an excessively permissive master.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Beware of flooding

Imagine a millionaire, with a constant urge to make more millions. At a religious level, let's suppose that our millionaire happens to be a young-Earth creationist. They're the crazy folk—like our Aussie nitwit politician Steve Fielding, evoked here—who believe that God spent a busy week making the world, before being overcome by a psychopathic desire to destroy the results of his week of toil by means of a huge flood, designed to exterminate mankind. Finally, let's suppose that our rich creationist is Dutch. That's to say, he resides in a land that could rapidly be flooded dramatically if ever sea levels were to rise as a consequence of global warming... or because of an act of God in another homicidal mood. If the fellow whom I've asked you to imagine were to actually exist today, in flesh and blood, what would he be doing? The answer is obvious. He would be building an ark.

That's exactly what Johan Huibers has been doing over the last couple of decades. Construction of the huge vessel has been completed, and it was officially launched a few days ago. And Johan is henceforth awaiting, with confidence, the Apocalypse: first, the Mayan business, then maybe, with a bit of luck, a tidal wave or two. In any case, even creationists never know the surprises that God's got up his sleeve...

The replica uses measurements obtained from the Bible, but the builder has taken the liberty of incorporating various features that God and Noah overlooked. For example, the Dutch ark can welcome up to 1500 visitors at a time, and these Biblical tourists have access to a big restaurant and a movie theater. As far as non-human animals are concerned, they're mostly sculptures.

The Gallica website recently displayed here a small series of beautiful medieval images of the Biblical ark. As soon as we analyze these images, however, it becomes clear that artists in those days (the Middle Ages) must have had a terribly fuzzy conception of reality. Consider, for example, this presentation of the construction of the vessel:

It looks as if they're putting the finishing touches to a carnival float representing a big walnut. There's no way in the world that this thing they're building might sail upon the flood waters with a gigantic cargo of specimens of all of God's creatures. But my negative remarks are unkind, and they merely reveal my lack of faith. The following image proves that Noah's adventure got off to a delightful start:

I wonder what role the lady in red will be playing during the voyage. Would this be Lady Noah? Her clothes are not quite right for work as a deckhand, feeding the animals and shoveling out their dung. The following image is meant to show us how everybody has been housed aboard the vessel:

Here's another depiction of the ship's quarters:

The respective sizes of the various creatures have been handled by the artist in a very loose fashion, as if he wasn't greatly worried about reality. I wonder if he actually noticed that his ducks were bigger than horses, or whether this trivial detail escaped his attention.

Believers (like the crazy Dutchman) would probably tell me that images such as these must be taken merely as symbols, rather than realistic diagrams. Fair enough; nobody in his right mind would ever consider this artwork as realistic. But symbols are a convenient notion for trying to hide the obvious fact: namely, that there can be no plausible reality whatsoever behind the story of Noah.

Finally, the voyage went over well. And the following image suggests that, when they were about to return to dry land, many of the supplies stored down in the lower hull hadn't even been touched.

I would imagine that it had been such a fabulous and exciting trip that none of the passengers had even thought about eating. I hope that visitors aboard the Dutch ark won't behave like that, because Johan Huibers will be needing a constant flow of hungry clients in his big restaurant. Otherwise, no white dove will descend from the heavens to tell him that there's a fortune in cash on the horizon.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Magicians reveal what the world's all about

For several years, I've been fascinated by the popular books of three physicists: Brian Greene, David Deutsch and Lawrence Krauss.

Funnily enough, although the three of them are writing about the same general subject—our state-of-the-art understanding of the nature of the universe—they rarely, if ever, get around to handling the same questions in comparable, if not similar, fashions. Moreover, in their latest books, they hardly even refer to one another's work.

It's easy to understand superficially why Greene, Deutsch and Krauss don't seem to have a lot to say to one another. Greene has been reputed for a long time as an adept of string theory, and there's no reason to imagine that the other two physicists are particularly keen on this theory. Earlier this year, Krauss became widely known through his presentation of an esoteric explanation of how the ultimate "free lunch"—obtaining something from nothingness—is a perfectly plausible phenomenon at a cosmic level.

As for the 59-year-old Oxfordian David Deutsch, he comes through to me as the most philosophical member of the trio. Indeed, he offers us a multiverse view of existence that is totally amazing. As in his first book, The Fabric of Reality, Deutsch pursues in The Beginning of Infinity his quest for a Theory of Everything inspired by the work of a somewhat heteroclite foursome: Karl Popper (epistemology), Hugh Everett (multiverse theory), Alan Turing (computation) and Richard Dawkins (evolution). Indeed, between the Popperian explanations of knowledge, the connotations of quantum theory leading to the existence of multiple universes, the vast theories of classical computing put forward by Turing (which are no doubt sufficient to handle, not only the DNA computer responsible for replication and life, but also the phenomena of neuronal computing) and finally the processes of Darwinian evolution and genetics so brilliantly presented by Dawkins, most observers would agree that we've no doubt covered many of the basic essentials of a scientific outlook on reality. Deutsch himself refers to these four grand dimensions of his global philosophical approach as strands (a word I like, which evokes weaving a fabric).

A few weeks ago, I was excited to learn that Deutsch has been working on a kind of fifth strand, of a subterranean nature, which he calls constructor theory. If you've got 47 minutes of free time, I urge you to click here to listen to Deutsch himself presenting this work. Basically, it's a matter of trying to understand why certain things are possible (even though they may have never actually happened yet) whereas countless other potential events are impossible because certain laws of physics have "blacklisted" them forever. In other words, he has enhanced astronomically the sense of the concept of possibility, to the point of claiming that anything and everything is strictly possible... provided only that we know of no law of physics that forbids such a happening, and therefore renders it impossible. Deutsch draw our attention to the strict binarity of the situation. Between the impossible (ruled out by physics) and the possible, there is no third way out. On the one hand, nothing—not even the most extravagant events—should be branded as theoretically impossible unless we are already aware of a law of physics that forbids such things. On the other hand, everything else should be thought of as theoretically possible.

In his eagerness to point out the counterintuitive nature of this thinking, Deutsch hit upon an amusing easy-to-grasp example, which goes straight to the heart of my Antipodes blog. Most of us agree that people on the other side of the planet Earth are in an upside-down position with respect to us, and vice versa.

That old Epinal image is funny but quite silly, of course, because nobody really believes that Antipodeans get around on their hands, with their Hobbit-like feet stretching towards the heavens. But are we truly ready to admit that the heads of Antipodeans point constantly in the opposite direction to our own heads? If technology were to offer me a magical real-time closeup view of Antipodeans, in strict conformity with our mutual orientations, in the same way that binoculars enable me to observe distant objects through my bedroom window, would I not be somewhat surprised to receive upskirt images of Antipodean ladies whose heads appear to be receding upwards into the sky? My surprise (which would be inevitable, I think) would seem to confirm that, to a certain extent, I've never really believed wholeheartedly that the heads of Antipodeans point in the opposite direction to mine. And David Deutsch considers that this mild form of surprise, or doubt, reflects my persistent quest for a third way out, between the possible and the impossible. My scientific culture persuades me that there is no law of physics that would forbid Antipodeans from getting around in an upside-down position with respect to me. So, I conclude that it's perfectly possible for this to be the case. At the same time, I consider that modern laws of celestial mechanics have quashed forever all remnants of flat-Earth theories, meaning that it's unthinkable that the heads of Antipodeans might point in the same direction as mine. And yet I don't seem to have gone one tiny step further and admitted explicitly, in a tangible concrete sense, that people down on the opposite side of the planet are truly presenting me constantly (if only the Earth were transparent) with an upskirt vision of their environment.

What David Deutsch seems to be saying (in a roundabout fashion) is that we would do well to consider, in an equally tangible and concrete sense, that we exist within a multiverse where the quantum effects admitted by today's laws of physics must be thought of, not only as possible happenings, but as garden-variety aspects of the fabric of everyday reality. And I'm not sure that many of us are prepared, at present, to assimilate profoundly that weird mode of looking at existence. Between archaic fairy tales (often supported by so-called commonsense) and hard state-of-the-art science, we persist in hoping, if not believing, that there must surely be some kind of convenient "third way out".

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Inevitable pranks

Even if society were to decide that pranks should be forbidden, it would be impossible to enforce such a ban. So, one has to learn to live with pranks. And maybe even die...

A trivially-funny fake phone call to Kate Middleton's London hospital from an Australian radio station upset the nurse Jacintha Saldanha to the point of convincing her that life was no longer worth living.

Jeez, this poor woman must have had few profound survival values, reasons for believing in human existence, in Life (with a capital L). The celebrated Darwin Awards honor individuals who have "contributed to human evolution by self-selecting themselves out of the gene pool via death or sterilization due to their own (unnecessarily foolish) actions". I reckon that Jacintha merits this posthumous honor. Her courageous act of self-destruction has possibly cleansed our gene pool a little of future incentives to commit suicide because of the Windsors... who (in my humble opinion) don't really deserve such a silly sacrifice.

Above all, let's not be tempted to castigate the Aussie radio couple of 2Day FM: Mel Greig and Michael Christian.

They're talented professionals, and we must assume that they know what they're doing. If publicity revenues drop as a result of this incident, that must not be a pretext for casting aspersion upon Mel and Michael. It's in no way their fault if a certain dull lady in London couldn't support the weight of a prank, of humor. It goes without saying that I know nothing of Samantha. I'm therefore reduced to evaluating her psychology—dull lady?—uniquely through her stupendously silly act of suicide.

I hope that Mel/Michael will be back on board for the infinitely more oppressive Mayan-inspired events that the planet will be facing in a fortnight: the end of the universe. The radio couple would do well to look upon the Kate Middleton incident as a warmup to communications of all kinds concerning the forthcoming apocalypse. It would be a great idea if a big international channel such as CNN or the BBC were to hire the Mel/Michael team to put out global phone feelers to all kinds of folk (philosophers, pollies, nurses, royals, etc) on 21 December 2012, for feedback on our Final Evening. That would be great entertainment. Only the next day (if it were to come about) might Mel/Michael be sacked retrospectively for failure to have licked Windsor arses.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hanging donkey shed of Gamone

A few days ago, I was woken up by a phone call from my neighbor Jackie, who informed me that the constant rain over the last week or so had finally resulted in a small landslide at the level of his donkey stable. And Jackie's car was blocked, meaning that his wife was unable to get to her teaching job. By the time I had dressed and made myself a cup of strong Ethiopian coffee, René Uzel had arrived on the scene with his mini-excavator.

By the end of the day, René had moved all the fallen rocks and mud to the other side of the road, onto my property. (During the morning, the mayor of Choranche had actually dropped in at my place, to ask for my permission for this operation.)

The donkey shed looked strange in its new setting. Jackie considers that the concrete floor of the shed has held it in place on the rim of the embankment.

[Click to enlarge]

But personally, I wouldn't bet on the shed remaining in that precarious position for too long. Meanwhile, this image of the donkey shed reminds me of the famous hanging houses of Pont-en-Royans, just down the road.

As far as I know, no building has ever slid off the cliff and fallen into the Bourne. In certain cases, it's hard to understand the static forces that hold the outhouses and balconies in place.

Maybe, in the future, the donkey shed at Gamone will still be settled on the brink of the embankment, and tourists will come to Gamone to take photos of the amazing structure.

POST SCRIPTUM: Jackie's donkey shed at Gamone was built about ten years ago by my former neighbor Bob. I often used to ask Bob whether he wasn't afraid that he had placed his construction at a fragile spot, close to the edge of the crumbling embankment. He would reply laughingly that it would take ages before all the stones beneath his shed dropped off. He was forgetting, of course, that the periodic fall of a few stones must be seen as evidence that an invisible aquatic process is in play, and that the inevitable outcome will be that loose stones and gravel, instead of merely dropping off, will start to slide.

In my two photos of the naked embankment, you might be able to make out a horizontal layer of big blocks of stone, halfway down. This is a stratum of the "poor man's stone" named marne in French (marl or mudstone in English), found in many places throughout the land. If you click the following closeup view of the embankment, to enlarge it, you can clearly distinguish the big blocks of marl, with good earth above them, and clay below.

[Click to enlarge]

Far more fragile than genuine limestone, the marl ends up developing fissures, or breaking into pieces, and this fragmentation "guides" trickles of subterranean water down the slopes, where they emerge at one place or another (often changing locations) in the form of "springs". In the present case, the heavy upper layer of waterlogged earth has ended up sliding slowly but surely on the slippery surface of the marl.

Ever since I've been living at Gamone, I find myself explaining constantly (often to local folk who should know better) that the phenomenon above my house that I often refer to loosely as a "spring" is in fact merely an emerging rivulet that has flowed down along the marl layer. Unlike a genuine spring (whose waters come from deep underground), the water obtained from a marl outlet does not flow constantly at all times of the year. For example, for several months of the year, my "spring" at Gamone delivers huge quantities of water (which are then channeled down through surface drains into the nearby creek), but it dries up completely from the start of summer until the middle of autumn. So, you can't count upon a marl outlet as a supply of domestic water.

I should have mentioned that Jackie's donkeys are not at all disturbed by the new situation that has arisen at Gamone, since they now have the possibility of residing in the section of the stable that Jackie had reserved up until now for keeping the supply of hay.

And no intelligent donkey would ever complain about being obliged to reside in a place that's stacked with fresh hay. Normally, there was a wooden barrier intended to prevent the animals from having a constant self-service relationship with the fodder, but four sturdy donkeys form a very good team for breaking down barriers of that kind.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Cheesy welcome to Choranche

I was stunned, a few days ago, to discover an enormous colorful billboard, promoting cheese, that had sprung up beneath my nose, a few hundred meters below my property at Gamone.

Installed within a sturdy wooden frame upon a pair of massive concrete blocks inside a former stone quarry, on the blind corner where the narrow road up to Presles leaves the main road between Pont-en-Royans and Villard-de-Lans, this cheesy billboard, which is both an eyesore and a danger, promotes a relatively recent local cheese named Bleu du Vercors-Sassenage. As far as I know, our commune of Choranche has no obvious role in the promotion of this cheese factory up on the plateau. Cheese-wise, from both a cultural and a milk-production viewpoint, Choranche has always belonged to the world-famous district of St-Marcellin, manufactured from cows' milk produced in some 300 communes of the Isère, Drôme and Savoie departments. The Bleu du Vercors-Sassenage can therefore be looked upon as a new kid on the block, which is hardly about to replace the ancient St-Marcellin product as our most celebrated cheese.

The silliest aspect of this promotional act is the fact that the billboard has been placed on the left-hand side of the road in the middle of an exceptionally dangerous corner (our local roads are obliged to follow ancient pathways whose itineraries are often neither logical nor safe by modern standards), where motorists are obliged to be on the lookout for approaching vehicles that might be drifting across the white lines. Consequently, no reasonable driver has an opportunity of admiring the billboard without risking his life and the lives of other motorists. Indeed, the billboard is only visible over a distance of a few dozen meters. If ever a driver were to devote even a second to examining the contents of the billboard while traveling along this short section of the curve, he/she would be necessarily distracted to the point of becoming a mortal danger for approaching vehicles.

I've actually brought up this road-safety question with a couple of fellow residents, who simply haven't succeeded in becoming aware of the message that the billboard is supposed to transmit. One of these individuals has been attracted primarily—and exclusively, I would say—by the vision of the enormous blocks of concrete on which the billboard has been placed.

Times are hard, economically, and anybody who dares to interfere with economic progress might be seen as a reactionary. So, I've decided to do nothing more than publish the present blog post, to express (for the record) my purely personal disapproval of this cheesy billboard.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Images of women

Tomorrow is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, referred to as White Ribbon Day in some English-speaking countries.

The Nouvel Observateur weekly in France has been carrying out a big operation aimed at highlighting the evil of rape, still rampant in French society. A manifesto entitled I declare that I've been raped has been signed by 343 women.

Certain males (all too many) continue to act like prehistoric cavemen when aroused sexually by the vision of enticing females. The phenomenon of rape persists because the caveman simply clobbers his desired female object on the head (in a psychological sense) with his massive prick. He doesn't bother to examine the reality of the authentic human individual behind the seductive image screen.

Often, I've been fascinated by the huge discrepancy that can exist between our primary impression of such-and-such a woman and her real identity. Once upon a time, I liked to imagine that, behind the image of every mundane wife of a village baker, there's an angel.

In our perception of the image of a woman, an underlying problem is the existence and persistence of stereotypes. We are tempted constantly to judge the book by its cover, and to place it immediately in a convenient librarian's category. I'm aware, alas, that I myself tend to do this constantly...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dumb ways to be xenophobes

In Melbourne (Australia), the transport authorities have commissioned a cute little video that's supposed to encourage train travelers to be more cautious on city platforms.

At one point in the celebrated Gangnam Style video, Psy is singing in Korean on a bus.

In Australia, it can dangerous for foreigners to sing on a bus, particularly when they happen to be singing in a language other than what is thought of as English. In Melbourne, we've just seen the ugly heads of several particularly dumb xenophobes who assaulted a French girl who felt like singing.

The creators of Dumb ways to die were happy because their little video started to go viral. But its fame was nothing compared to the notoriety, in the French media, of the incident involving the Melbourne xenophobes who assaulted the French girl who dared to sing in French in an Australian bus. Today, in France, this story has hit the front pages of Internet media.

The Australian tourist authorities have been striving for years to entice visitors to Down Under. In one fell swoop, the dumb bastards on the bus have probably cancelled a good part of the positive effects of this promotional work, at least as far as potential French visitors are concerned.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Australia discovers fire

I receive daily a free email from the people behind the excellent Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is a distinguished and weighty Internet publication to which I've never, unfortunately, had direct access... so expensive that I no longer even think about it. So, receiving the daily email puts me in the position of a poor urchin who climbs up onto the great gates of the manor every morning and gazes up at the lord's castle.

This morning, the dictionary's random email reminded me of the life of a celebrated Australian musician, Malcolm Williamson [1931-2003]. A Wikipedia page describes this exceptional man.

— original photo © Sefton Samuels / National Portrait Gallery

Williamson's analysis of his Australian identity pleases me immensely. His lengthy experience of professional life in Europe enabled him to know what he was talking about.
We Australians have to offer the world a persona compounded of forcefulness, brashness, a direct warmth of approach, sincerity which is not ashamed, and more of what the Americans call ‘get-up-and-go’ than the Americans themselves possess.
The term "brashness" intrigues me, in that it's almost a synonym of the famous term "arrogance" used systematically by Anglo-Saxons to denigrate the French. And yet nothing could be more different than Australian and French modes of thinking. Williamson hit the nail on the head when he said:
Most of my music is Australian. Not the bush or the deserts but the brashness of the cities. The sort of brashness that makes Australians go through life pushing doors marked pull.
The hackneyed theme of pushing doors marked pull was not original, and I don't know its creator. But it's fine for Aussies. Once upon a time we would have spoken of rebels, but the force of the "doors marked pull" image for Aussies goes further. Maybe the silly buggers have never learned to read, or they've never realized and accepted that certain doors are designed to open in one way only. Maybe they don't like doors of any kind whatsoever. French arrogance consists of saying: No door can resist my Cartesian powers of penetration. Aussie brashness is rather: I'll break down any bloody door that gets in my way.

Be that as it may, Australian researchers at Flinders University have just developed a fabulous gadget: glasses that are capable, so they say, of re-setting the body clock.

In other words, they claim to have conquered, once and for all, the phenomenon of jet lag. Now, let's hope that they've correctly opened the door into this challenging physiological domain.