Friday, November 21, 2014

Alarms

In my house at Gamone, I’ve just assembled and installed two alarm panels like this:


The alarm on the left is a smoke detector, while that on the right detects lethal carbon monoxide gas. They both run on batteries.

I’ve installed one panel in the staircase, in the vicinity of my ground-floor wood-burning stove. The other panel is installed on a wall in the kitchen. These detectors are not expensive, and they’re easy to install. So, I’ll probably get around to installing other identical panels throughout the house.

My son François told me that he inadvertently tested his CO detector when cleaning the interior of the chimney pipe that evacuates smoke from his wood-burning stove. There were two 90-degree bends in his piping (which have since been eliminated thanks to a single vertical pipe from ground level to the roof), and it would appear that CO had collected between these bends. Consequently, as soon as François started to brush away the soot that had gathered in these bends, the CO floated down into his living room and set off the alarm.

François and I both felt that it would be reassuring if we were able to test our smoke detectors… without setting fire to our houses. At lunchtime today, I succeeded in doing just that, thanks to half-a-dozen barbecue sausages from my deep freezer. I cooked them on a flat iron pan of the kind used for making pancakes, heated by my gas range. Naturally, as the temperature rose, and the sausages sizzled, a bit of smoke escaped from the pan. Suddenly there was a piercing whistle, but I had no idea of its origin. Since I was also using an induction plate to cook vegetables to accompany the sausages, I had the crazy idea that the molecules in the induction system might be “resonating”  weirdly and catastrophically… and I half-expected something to explode. The whistle continued to shriek. Finally, I noticed that the smoke detector was also flashing a red lamp… and I realized what had happened. So, I rushed to the kitchen door and opened it to let out the smoke, which ended the whistle shrieks.

It was a successful and convincing test. Besides, I had the impression that the sausages and vegetables—which I ate on an outside coffee table, in the autumn sunshine, sharing tidbits with my dog Fitzroy (who had been just as disturbed by the alarm as I was)—tasted better than ever.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Morning mists and an autumn chill in the air

In French, the word for mists is brume. So, the new calendar that was invented in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789 invented the lovely term Brumaire to designate the autumn month extending from the middle of October to the middle of November.


This morning, my surveillance camera was awoken by the first rays of light streaming down through the mists.


A few seconds later, the romantic charm of the misty morning was shattered by the arrival of an unexpected vehicle, which made such a noise that my dog Fitzroy seemed to fear that we were being attacked by an army tank.


What the hell was that? I suddenly remembered that my neighbor had told me that they were planning on starting the construction, this November, of an outdoor swimming pool! Why not? At a lifestyle level, nothing could be more pleasant than lounging in the sunshine of Choranche on the edge of a pool of clear Alpine water, while a barbecue on the lawn exudes a mouth-watering aroma of grilled sausages. Chilled beer? Or would you maybe prefer a glass of icy Sauvignon?

We often tend to forget that Choranche is just a stone’s throw to the north of Provence. From a sunshine viewpoint, however, you need to be a champion stone-thrower to cover the distance.

Selfies of an unexpected kind

Just as I decided long ago to have nothing whatsoever to do with the childish but pernicious Facebook phenomenon, I’ve always been determined to avoid the temptation to start publishing so-called selfie portraits in this blog. I hasten to add—lest I be considered as more egocentric than I really am—that humanity is unlikely to suffer greatly from my absence on the terrain of Facebook and selfies.

Yesterday afternoon, the weather at Gamone was a little less wet than usual, so I decided to climb up onto the tiled roof of my carport in order to continue work on the triangular section of red-pine boarding (a tough hardwood called Mélèze in French) that closes the empty opening above the carport roof. This is the place where I recently installed a powerful LED lamp and a camera.


Well, having finished my work up on the roof, I wandered back to my faithful computer to see if I had received any e-mail. Surprise! My surveillance camera had sent me a bunch of e-mails with photos of an unidentified old guy who’d apparently been hovering around in stealthy circumstances on top of the carport roof.






Do they count as selfies? Maybe we should refer to these photos as stealthies.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Survival of the fittest

There's no doubt in my mind that Richard Dawkins will survive, for he's surely one of the fittest thinkers on our planet Earth.


The poor man (no doubt a millionaire) is constantly under attack. The latest case of mild anti-Dawkins impertinence comes from an unexpected critic: the great US biologist Edward Osborne Wilson, who’s a world authority on ants, and “the father of sociobiology” (the investigation of animals who live in a societal context).


During a recent BBC interview, Wilson was asked to comment upon differences between his views of natural selection and those of Dawkins. The 85-year-old Harvard professor replied:
“There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and there never has been, because he’s a journalist, and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found and the arguments I’ve had have actually been with scientists doing research.”
Now, lots of people would be thrilled to be described as a journalist by a distinguished scientist such as Wilson, who has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for general non-fiction. If Wilson were to declare publicly that William Skyvington is a journalist, I would be awfully proud, and I would promptly start to inundate many of the world’s great newspapers with freelance articles… about my dog Fitzroy, for example. But I suspect that the former Oxford professor Richard Dawkins is not necessarily happy to be labeled as a mere journalist by an old fellow born in Alabama.

In fact, a couple of years ago, Dawkins sacrificed all chances of remaining a good buddy of the Harvard man when his review of Wilson’s latest book culminated in the following advice:
“… this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force. And sincere regret.”
Is the Wilson/Dawkins dispute merely a storm in an academic teacup between two strong egos? Not at all. Their conflict, very real and profound, concerns one of the most fundamental aspects of evolutionary theory. In a nutshell: When genetic mutations affect the “fitness” (survival potential) of members of a set of living creatures, how do we identify the beneficiaries (either positive, negative or neutral) of the newly-created situation?


At the risk of putting my neck on the block, I would say that, over the century and a half since the publication of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin,  there have been three kinds of reactions to this question.

1. The nicest and most convenient answer is designated globally as adaptationism. The gist of this explanation is that mutations tend to modify all living creatures in such a way that future generations of their descendants will be better adapted to handling the challenges of their daily existence. In our “best of all possible worlds”, mutations enable giraffes to grow longer necks so that they’ll be able to reach tasty leaves on tall trees. These days, few folk (apart from religious crackpots of various flavors) would be content with this adaptationist answer… which doesn’t even take into account the ugly realities (see Dawkins for ample explanations) of giraffe necks.


2. Most observers have imagined, often on the basis of common sense, that evolution’s famous fitness to survive is to be applied to such-and-such a category of animals… where the term “category” usually means a family or a species. For example, mutations that camouflaged grubs with respect to their background (reducing their role as bird fodder) were “aimed” (insofar as evolution might be thought of as aiming at anything at all) at making life safer for grubs in general. These days, whenever evolutionary explanations of this kind are evoked, the keyword is “group”, since fitness for survival is thought of as affecting such-and-such a group to which the mutated specimens belong. And this remains the level at which E O Wilson seeks to interpret evolutionary theory.


3. Starting with the celebrated publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976, Richard Dawkins upset the apple cart by proclaiming that the primary beneficiaries of evolutionary mutations are not at all the bulky creatures (organisms) that we run into in the everyday world, but rather the tiny almost-abstract entities known as genes. Many would-be readers were put off by the book’s title. What on earth was this selfish little Homunculus, designated as a gene? Was Dawkins suggesting that this nasty invisible microbe, intent upon getting its way on the planet Earth, might be a scientific model for our human societies? What an ugly idea! But worse still, the explanations of Dawkins called upon a nice but often nasty concept: kinship.


In other words, not only are the Dawkins genes selfish, but they spend their time trying to keep things in the family, in notorious Sicilian traditions. [I'm joking, of course.]

Now, all I’ve just said is more or less true, and it’s easy to see that a conflict might have arisen between Wilson and Dawkins. The former prefers to imagine that genetic mutations make his ants and bees happier, whereas the latter asserts that egocentric genes don’t really give a sentimental shit about worldly entities (organisms) such as birds and bees; all they’re concerned about is their fellow-strings of DNA, devoid of souls, sentiments and subtle intentions.

The scientific arena is so terribly arid that it’s a godsend that two famous pugilists should arrive on the empty scene, and start slugging stupidly at one another. But Wilson versus Dawkins is a bad match. An unfair fight. It's not a question of age, but of acuity.

Now, to celebrate the victory of a fight that never really took place: If ever you weren’t familiar with Richard Dawkins, I suggest that you listen to our intellectual hero for a moment (28 minutes).

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Artistic dog

My dog Fitzroy continues to demonstrate his tastes in sculptural forms. These days, I have a large stock of high-quality firewood in the shelter alongside the house, and this includes a big pile of wood chips. Well, yesterday, I was surprised to see Fitzroy pounce onto the top of this pile of wood chips, and start burrowing with his muzzle. I imagined that he’d spotted a mouse. However, as he moved away from the firewood shelter, Fitzroy held no mouse in his jaws. There was merely an unusually-shaped piece of wood, which I promptly photographed.


As you can see, it’s a fragment of beech wood comprising an old knot. I would imagine that Fitzroy was attracted by the delightful combination of shapes, hues and textures. As I said, my dog has a highly-developed artistic taste. And we can use the word “taste” quite literally. We humans admire beautiful objects by merely looking at them. But Fitzroy goes one step further, and sets about finding what they taste like.


In any case, I’m convinced that my dog is talented in the world of forms and colors. If only my neighbor Tineke Bot were to decide to organize sculpture classes, I would immediately enrol Fitzroy.

I often meet up with references to Fitzroy’s birthplace, Risoul, in the French Alps. The other day, it was mentioned as one of the less expensive ski stations in France.


I like to think that Fitzroy's artistic sensitivity stems from the fact that he was born in such a magnificent place... but I realize that this is not good thinking. Here are photos I took of Fitzroy with his mother and family members at Risoul, just over four years ago:

Click to enlarge

I’ve put a circle around Fitzroy, in the background, with his head leaning against the stone step.



The two pups had been stalking that poor hen, strolling quietly just behind it, following it in every direction, and driving the hen crazy. Finally the mother of the dogs intervened, enabling the hen to escape.

Here is my very first vision of Fitzroy staring straight into my eyes.


Since then, he’s been doing that constantly, many times every day, for the last four years. For me, that penetrating gaze is the symbol of Fitzroy’s presence in my life.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Shortest distance between two points

Don’t ask me why I adore this image:


My joy is strictly Platonic. The old Greek fuddy-duddy tried to persuade us that Heaven is full of ideal forms: of dogs, cats, good guys, bad women, mathematical triangles, tables, chairs, whatever… And the vulgar objects that we encounter here on Earth are pale copies of these ethereal forms. Well, the above image indicates that something went wrong on Plato’s way to the theatre. His ideal straight line got screwed up. It ran into a bug. And that bug happened to be a fragment of green DNA-based life. Piss off, Plato…

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Might I have Viking blood?

It's hard to imagine that a quiet and well-behaved old-timer like me might evoke the possibility of his Viking ancestry. Besides, I can’t really vouch for the authenticity of this nice old family portrait—of an ancient ancestor named Sven, on a beach outing with his mates—that was handed down to me by relatives in the Old Country.


Vikings were intrepid adventurers, who were afraid of nothing and nobody… which is not exactly my personal case. Some of them were seafarers who finally settled on the continental shores of the English Channel (like my son François, who is considerably more Viking than I am). On the other hand, the idea of a Viking living in a place like Choranche would be a bit like Nicolas Sarkozy moving into a monastery, and Carla entering a nunnery. (The ex-president has screwed up his return to politics in such a way that my image is maybe not as crazy as it might appear.)

Genealogical research is often similar to science in that we imagine such-and-such a scenario, and then persevere in believing that our speculations might be valid. That’s to say, we only abandon our scenario when we discover that something in our speculations simply doesn’t add up… whereupon we drop it all immediately, like a proverbial load of shit. And there aren’t even any sentimental thanks for the memories. Scientific research is a harsh business. No matter how much poetry was conveyed by the lovely old concept of an omnipresent ubiquitous ether permeating all the infinitesimal interstices of the universe, this theory was trashed instantly and forever as soon as the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, designed to record the existence of ether-drift, returned negative results. In genealogy, of course, we’re light years away from experimental physics, but family-history research and scientific research both necessitate the invention of imaginative yet plausible speculations. And such speculations are “born to die” in the sense that they must be discarded as soon as they no longer correspond to known facts. So, we advance through generations of better and better speculations, while burning all our poorly-built bridges behind us.

For the moment, therefore, I persist in speculating that our Skeffington patriarch in Leicestershire had come across the English Channel from Normandy in the wake of Duke William’s invasion.

Click the YouTube icon to watch a better presentation

I’ve investigated several theories in an attempt to ascertain the surname of this fellow’s family back in Normandy, but I’ve never been able to obtain any firm facts. Let me invent a plausible name for this Norman ancestor: Sven de Cotentin. I would imagine that Sven lived with his wife and children in the vicinity, say, of the modern town of Coutances. They probably led a simple but quite comfortable rural existence in Normandy, enabling Sven and his family to become candidates for settlement in the captured land on the other side of the English Channel.

I’ve always been intrigued by two obvious questions:

1 — When Sven left for England, did he leave any relatives back in Normandy?

2 — Back in Normandy, what was Sven’s family-history background?

As far as the first question is concerned, we might imagine that Sven had brothers or cousins (on his paternal side) who had not wished to move across to England, because they were happy with their life in Normandy. Going one step further, we might find that descendants of these folk exist today in France, maybe still in Normandy. If this were the case, then we can imagine that these people might decide to carry out DNA tests, in which case our Y-chromosomes would match. Alas, in the online Y-chromosome database, I've never yet come upon a living Frenchman whose data looks anything like mine. For this and other reasons, I tend to believe that the probable answer to that first question is negative. If Sven were sufficiently motivated to move across to England, then his male relatives would have surely been equally enthusiastic about this project… unless, of course, they owned valuable properties in Normandy.

Concerning the second question, it’s perfectly possible that Sven’s ancestors were Vikings (like the ancestors of Duke William himself) who had arrived in the Cotentin region during the 9th century, and decided to settle down there. As for their wives, they may well have been local Gallic girls. This speculation leads us to imagine that Sven’s Viking ancestor might have left male relatives back in Scandinavia, and that descendants of these folk might exist today in a land such as Sweden, Norway or Denmark.

Two days ago, I performed one of my regular searches in the Y-chromosome database. As of a couple of months ago, I’ve had a single match, with the Englishman Hugh Courtenay, an oddly-named grandson of my rogue great-grandfather William Skyvington [1868-1959], described here. Well, the name of a new match has just appeared in this Y-chromosome database. Here’s my current summary:

Click to enlarge

The Swedish lady who recently submitted this data—on behalf of her husband’s maternal uncle named Sven-Erik Johansson—has promised to send me the complete set of 67 marker values as soon as they’re available. Incidentally, the earliest known ancestor of Sven-Erik Johansson was a certain Sven Nilsson Durmin [1709-1780]. I'm awaiting explanations from the lady concerning the apparent change in surname.

For the moment, as you can see, my match with Sven-Erik Johansson is based upon a subset of 30 markers, and the so-called “genetic distance” (the difference between our respective values) is 2, which is the same as my distance from the Courtenay values (for 37 markers). Obviously, my excitement is premature, since the Johansson/Skyvington genetic distance might explode beyond acceptable bounds when we obtain the remaining 37 values. But I take advantage of this delay in order to revel in the idea (maybe only momentarily) that I might at last be sailing in the wake of our Viking…

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Big picture

If this tiny video doesn’t blow your mind out, then nothing will:


I like to think that all this is happening just alongside our friendly neighborhood. So, we’re looking in over the back-yard fence, as it were, and wondering what the Joneses might be up to. Well, it so happens that they might well be stirring up shit. But jeez, they’ve been doing that for ages, ever since we moved in. We should have known all along that it wouldn’t be easy, trying to win friends and influence people in that kind of vicious environment. Frankly, I dunno what to do. In any case, I’ve supplied the exact name of the intruder: Laniakea. Maybe somebody might report them to neighborhood watch.

Infinitesimally slow changes

Four sisters. Forty years. This simple and beautiful pictorial story started in 1975 with a delightful image.

— photo by Nicholas Nixon, annotated by William Skyvington

The original photo was taken in Connecticut by Nicholas Nixon, who happened to be the husband of the young woman named Bebe Brown. Afterwards—year in, year out, for 40 years—Nicholas called upon his wife and her sisters for the creation of an updated portrait. Click here to see the result, published by the New York Times.

I’m reminded of a fascinating theme for reflection, inspired by Richard Dawkins, concerning the impossibility of ascertaining the moment at which one kind of being is transformed into another kind of being, one species into another, one fossil into another. Was there a year in which the lovely Brown sisters ceased to be “girls”, changing into “young women”, followed by later years in which they became “women”, then “middle-aged women” ? No, it would be pointless, if not stupid, to seek such punctual moments. Everything happened gradually.

We are often tempted to imagine that life is punctuated by so-called events, when the present leaps instantly towards the future. In fact, time never “leaps”. It simply nudges imperceptibly forwards… as in the case of the Brown sisters.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Jesus update

Throughout my life, attitudes towards the Jesus phenomenon have been evolving constantly.


As a child, I was led to believe that Jesus was an utterly magical guy in the sky who could perform miracles, answer our prayers, and channel us off (later on, after our death) to Heaven or Hell. As a normally-indoctrinated child, I absorbed all that shit and believed it (more or less). You don’t fuck around with such a powerful personage. Today, retrospectively, I would be inclined to say that I probably never really believed an iota of all this nonsense… but I was neither smart nor courageous enough to admit so, at the time. So, like everybody else in town, I carried on playing stupidly and superficially the Jesus game.

My first shock, at the age of 15, was an English translation of a book by the Breton author Ernest Renan [1823-1892], Life of Jesus, first published in French in 1863. Renan dared to consider Jesus as a human male, albeit an extraordinary personage, and his book was immensely popular throughout the western world.


I remember being greatly impressed by the revelations and tone of the Renan book. The English translation of 1897 by William Hutchison can be downloaded freely from the web. I decided to reread it, for the first time in well over half a century, to find out to what extent the document might still interest and impress me today. Alas, as often happens in such situations, the respective ways of Renan and me have parted to such an extent that I found the book boring and irritating, particularly when the author was trying to convince his readers that Christianity was a fresh and pleasant alternative to Judaism, “which first affirmed the theory of absolutism in religion, and laid down the principle that every reformer turning men away from the true faith, even if he bring miracles to support his doctrine, must be stoned without trial”. Not surprisingly, at the other end of the monotheistic spectrum, Renan detested “the evil spirit of Islamism”, and evoked “something sordid and repulsive which Islamism bears everywhere with it”.

                                                                         — cartoon by Leunig

Many pious Christians were shocked by Renan’s cavalier attitude towards the cherished phenomena of supernatural healing operations and miracles of all kinds. I was amused by Renan’s allusion to the pharmaceutical power of a “gentle and beautiful woman”.


Many years ago, I recall vividly that I was cured miraculously of a painful infection of the ear by the unexpected visit of one of my wife’s girlfriends. On the subject of Christian miracles, I like to think that Ernest Renan would have appreciated this sermon by the Reverend Rowan Atkinson.


More seriously, in the late 1990s, my attitude towards the Jesus phenomenon was determined largely by my contacts with Israel, Jewish history and the Hebrew language. My novel All the Earth is Mine remains a personal memento of those brief but fascinating encounters.


More recently, I was intrigued by findings associated with the Talpiot tomb on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and the convictions of the Canadian film-maker Simcha Jacobovici, seen here alongside the tombstone of the Roman soldier Pantera, alleged to be the biological father of Jesus.


Then, in 2012, there was the fascinating affair of a papyrus fragment that seems to refer to the alleged wife of Jesus.


All in all, I had ended up believing that an incredible fellow named Jesus had indeed made a name for himself, even though we know next to nothing about his authentic achievements. He may indeed have been crucified in Jerusalem, and the disappearance of his corpse would have been a major factor in his posthumous rise to religious stardom.

Recently, my attitude towards the Jesus phenomenon has made another giant leap forward. In a nutshell, I’m starting to wonder whether this celebrated personage ever existed at all. In other words, he may well have been a character of fiction, composed over a long period of time by a vast but vague community of tale-tellers, authors and editors. Without going into details, I might say that I’ve been greatly impressed by explanations provided by a young US scholar named Richard Carrier, who is a leading proponent of the Christ myth theory.


When all is said and done, there is no great difference, in fact, between the case of a real historical individual named Jesus about whom we know almost nothing, and an equivalent personage of a totally fictional nature. In both cases, it is quite ridiculous to imagine the individual in question as having supernatural powers enabling him to be thought of as the son of a mysterious god.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Plant more trees, build more toilets

Environmental activists draw attention to the mortal sin (to borrow a good old Roman Catholic concept) of destroying rain forests as in the Amazon and Tasmania. In urban areas too, the following eloquent photo (found on the web) suggests that the tree situation can be crucial.


I only learned recently (through YouTube videos) that, for women, the practical difficulty—if not impossibility—of peeing while standing up is a blatant gender injustice. I didn’t realize that, in everyday places such as highway rest areas, where a male can simply take out his trouser snake and relieve himself immediately, a female might find herself obliged to join in a queue like the dogs in the above photo.

After having joked for ages about Australian tourists who complain bitterly that there’s a dearth of nice clean public toilets in France, I’m obliged to admit that it’s true. A people-oriented government (if such an entity were to exist) should be able to solve this everyday problem inexpensively, effortlessly, rapidly and esthetically. I might have added another adverb: generously… in the sense that nobody should be expected to pay for the simple “privilege” of being able to urinate or defecate freely. Would this goal be excessively utopian in an evolved land such as France?

OK, if you insist: I’m prepared to look into the idea of starting a political movement in France aimed at instigating this noble social goal.

Friday, September 5, 2014

French-fried potatoes

In the USA, they’re known as French fries. In Australia, we call them chips (not to be confused with the thin dried potato crisps sold in cellophane packets). In France, they’re frites.

— photo (found on the web) by Rainer Zenz

I recently purchased an Actifry appliance, from the French Seb company, which makes it easy to cook frites with a minimum volume of oil: roughly a big spoonful.


I buy big fat potatoes of a kind that are specially recommended for frites (as distinct from potatoes that are ideal for baking or steaming).


Then there’s the question of peeling. I’ve found that the red device shown in the photo (apparently designed for peeling tomatoes) is ideal. Its double-edged blade swivels slightly, and glides smoothly over bumps in potatoes. In France, this kind of peeling tool is inevitably referred to by the trademark of its inventor in 1929: L’Économe, which evokes thrift and the waste of over-thick potato peels.

Next, there’s the task of transforming spuds (as we used to call them in Australia when I was a kid) into future frites. This involves the use of a device that is generally designated in US English as a French fry cutter. A few weeks ago, I was seduced by the following elegant little fry-cutter device from Amazon:


For an outlay of 27 euros, I bought their device... then tried to use it.


Amazon marketing had blatantly screwed me. Their kind of fry-cutter gadget might be fine if French fries happened to be made out of soft cheese, or boiled eggs, or ripe pears. But real potatoes cause this flimsy device to explode in mid-air… and the Amazon people surely know this perfectly well. You then have to use a pointed knife to extract the potato fragments mixed up inside the disjointed metallic structure. What an ugly Amazon mess! Yet they continue to sell such shit. Really, I’ve decided that I must get around to ceasing to buy stuff from this unfriendly corporation…

Fortunately, a local second-hand shop provided me with an ideal professional solution, for 3 or 4 times the money I had wasted at Amazon. In any case, from a size/weight viewpoint, when compared with the ridiculous Amazon toy, I certainly got more for my money.


Above all, this professional fry cutter really works!


Conclusions: I’ve solved a problem, while discovering (with displeasure) that I had been hoodwinked by Amazon into believing that their flimsy toy can cut up real-world potatoes for French fries.