Monday, February 8, 2016

Year of the Monkey

I feel reassured (God knows why) by the fact that Chinese astrologers consider that we're moving into the year of the Monkey. Better still (although I'm not sure what it means), the year of the Fire Monkey.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Hydrangeas in Brittany

I've already written briefly [here] about the glorious hydrangea-covered seaside slopes in Brittany.  Here's a photo of the German horticulturalist Bernhard Meyer about to set off from Brittany in his truck loaded with freshly-cut hydrangeas:

My sister Anne Skyvington, who admired these colorful fields when she visited us last year, has pointed out that the differing colors (blue, pink, mauve, etc) depend upon specific chemical elements that each hydrangea plant finds in the surrounding soil.

Click here to visit the website (available in English) of a colorful nursery in another corner of Brittany.

The degree of acidity of the soil influences the colors of many hydrangea varieties.

• In a strictly neutral soil (pH 7), varieties of plants that are naturally reddish will produce either pink or crimson flowers, whereas bluish varieties will turn mauve.

• Varieties of plants that are naturally bluish will express themselves most vividly in a slightly acidic soil (pH between 4.5 and 6.5).

Apparently changing the colors is easier said than done, and gardeners might need to experiment, and maybe use a dose of chemicals containing aluminium.

To be honest, I must admit that I failed dismally in my early attempts to introduce hydrangeas in the alkaline limestone soils of Gamone (pH often greater than 8.5). As everybody knows, if Brittany is indeed Brittany, it's for sound scientific reasons.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Google self-driving car

What a fabulous idea: Google's plans to develop and test a small driverless car.

Click to enlarge

For the moment, Google has been testing its prototype at Mountain View (California) where the company's headquarters are located, and also at Austin (Texas). Further testing will be carried out soon in the rainy weather of Kirkland (Washington). Apparently there are "active discussions" between British authorities and Google in a the hope of starting trials of driverless cars in the UK.

As far as the current results of Google's testing are concerned, I would imagine that most of the data remains a protected secret, because the company is tackling a fabulous money-making challenge, and they're not going to let the cat out of the bag.

One of the most friendly aspects of these future cars is the obvious fact that they run purely on electricity. So, the sooner they dominate our highways, the sooner they'll enable us to abandon the gluttony of fossil fuels.

Another fabulous possibility will be the probable reduction of road deaths through the elimination of human errors and stupidity. In this domain, it's inevitable that many people will inevitably be anguished, at the beginning, by the idea of placing their personal safety in the hands of robotic devices. Funnily enough, many of these fearful passengers would not hesitate before stepping into a conventional vehicle whose driver has just downed a few glasses of alcohol.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Cartooning for Peace

Nicolas Vadot, 44, is British, French and Australian. This fine specimen is a contribution to Cartooning for Peace.

American Gothic

To the same extent as The Scream [click here], this painting by Grant Wood [1891-1940] has become a famous icon. Its simple title is perfect: American Gothic.

Among the countless parodies that this painting has motivated, here's an excellent specimen:

Concerning the original painting, critics used to say that the female was too young to be the wife of the grim Iowa farmer, so they decided that she was the old fellow's daughter. In the parody, the youthful Iowa star Hillary Clinton is standing alongside her silver-haired parent Bill.

Don't shoot the messenger

Forcing Julian Assange to stay cloistered in an embassy
is a barbarian act, perpetrated by God's Own Barbarians.

Personally, as a naturalized Australian in France, I am shocked to realize that the French president François Hollande refused my compatriot's request to be welcomed as a "refugee" (approximate term) in France. That refusal broadened my awareness of the genuine nature and character of our head of state.

Slave labor Down Under

In Australian speech, the word "backpacker" designates a foreign tourist, generally young, whose only luggage is a sack with shoulder straps carried on the back.

Backpackers come from countries all over the globe. An article on this subject in the French journal Le Monde speaks of more than 23,000 French backpackers.

Well, starting in July, backpackers will be taxed: a gigantic 32.5 % of their earnings! Faced with this blatant case of highway robbery, the volume of backpackers Down Under is likely to dwindle. Indeed, fewer young tourists will wish to spend time in a harsh land in the Antipodes that seems to consider them as potential slaves, particularly in various agricultural sectors, which employ 40,000 backpackers every year.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

New rules for spelling in French

As a foreigner who has been speaking and writing French for many years, I've encountered two quite different kinds of problems. On the one hand, my accent hasn't evolved very much. Consequently, French people are immediately aware that I didn't grow up as a French speaker, but they're generally incapable of identifying my native language or my land of birth. On the other hand, although I'm still capable of making grammatical mistakes, my behavior in that domain is often much better than that of native French people.

At present, there's a lot of buzz about major changes to French spelling, particularly at the level of circumflex accents, as shown here


Up until now, the dot over the letter i has been replaced by a circumflex. But maybe this accent should be removed from now on. I wouldn't be surprised if many foreign observers, seeing this buzz, were to imagine that the task of writing correct French is about to change considerably... for the better, or for the worse.

Now, without going into details (which would be sure to bore those of my Antipodes readers who are not necessarily familiar with French), let me simply point out that this whole affair is little more than buzz. So, carry on with your familiar handling of French spelling, as if nothing whatsoever is about to change!

Prison islands for Australia

Protesters have been gathering in Australian cities to oppose cruel government plans to deport 267 refugees, including 72 children, to offshore detention in a prison island.

Australia has installed such detention centres in two foreign lands. One is located in the republic of Nauru: a remote and desolate phosphate island in the Pacific Ocean.

In this hot climate, people and their children have to live in tents, in a place where there is so little to do that many inmates tend to develop psychiatric problems.

Everybody knows that white Australia started as a penal colony for Britain, towards the end of the 18th century. Unfortunately, as a modern society, we seem to have retained certain aspects of what might be termed our "penal mentality".

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Absence of birdsong: Silent Spring

The American writer Rachel Carson [1907-1964] published her masterpiece Silent Spring in 1962, describing the nasty effects of pesticides on the environment. The sense of the book's title is that birds, poisoned by pesticides in spring, had ceased to sing.

Soon after starting to work for Pierre Schaeffer at the Service de la Recherche de l'ORTF in Paris, I had the privilege and thrill of attending the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm (Sweden), from June 5–16 in 1972, which was the first major international event devoted to environmental challenges. I discovered that Rachel Carson's book had become a bible in this domain.

Last night, on French TV, I watched a fascinating and highly disturbing show concerning the present-day dangers brought about by pesticides in France. I realized with horror that the situation was indeed far worse today than when Rachel Carson first evoked the "absence of birdsong", over half a century ago. The following map (created by the TV people themselves) provides us with a good idea of the intake of pesticides in the various French départements :

It's sad to realize that the worst-hit zones are the celebrated wine regions, such as the Bordeaux area in the south-west. As for my Isère department, it's marked as light orange, which is not too atrocious. Here's a table (in French) indicating the toxic shit that hits our dear Isère:

Click to enlarge

Click here to watch a lengthy replay of the French TV show.

BREAKING NEWS: Today (Thursday, 4 Feb 2016), the French minister Ségolène Royal has reacted briefly but clearly and courageously to the alarming news evening on pesticides in France.

She started by revealing that she had often been in arguments with agrochemistry multinationals. "I ran into problems when combating the aerial spreading of pesticides. It was quite difficult." After mentioning her ban upon the Monsanto product Round-Up, described as a "very violent" pesticide, she concluded: "The lobby of the production of pesticides is very powerful in France." She then invited people on the land to reduce their use of pesticides "in their own interests, when we see the number of cancers among farmers who use pesticides." Then she concluded on a positive note: "We are now aware of the existence of substitution products in the case of dangerous pesticides. France could become the first nation for the production and consumption of substitution products that do no harm to public health."

Are Dutch policemen as smart as they think they are?

I've watched with amusement a small video that shows a few smart Dutch policemen using a trained eagle to attack and destroy a drone. If I understand correctly, no eagle has yet had its head chopped off by a drone propellor.

The policemen surely know what they're doing. But I think they're encouraging a deadly arms race. The next thing we know, smart drone engineers will invent some kind of eagle-killer device. Truly, this is not what I think of as the march of science and technology.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Happy birthday, Mr President

Last night, I spent the evening watching two excellent TV programs about American women who used to be weighed down by their famous husbands. The first one was Grace Kelly [1929-1982], who slipped into the real-life role of a fairy-tale princess which imprisoned her for life... up until a fatal car accident.

The second American lady was Jackie Kennedy [1929-1994], whose husband consumed sexual partners in the same way that an ordinary American might eat donuts, regardless of whether he's really hungry.

I suppose that Jackie may have been a little annoyed when she heard Marilyn Monroe warbling a sexy birthday song to her husband, in front of all America.

Here in France, my own birthday wishes to our 90-year-old ex-president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing are short and simple. Since Giscard has been around now for quite some time, his birthday provides me with a pretext to include his delightful farewell video (over 34 years old) in my blog:

I guess he imagined that all of France
would be weeping tears of blood...
Everybody roared laughing!

Mortal snow fun at night

In the upper left-hand section of that photo, you might notice that the concrete pylons of the ski lifts are surrounded by protective rubber mattresses, in case a skier happens to bump into them.

In the middle of the night, at the Deux Alpes station, three employees were celebrating the end of a happy day for the restaurant Le P'tit Polyte, which had just been praised in the Guide Michelin 2016. Maybe fueled by alcohol, they had decided to detach a protective rubber mattress and use it as a sled on the steep slopes. Alas, in the dark, they crashed into a tree.

The following photo shows how the body of one of the joyous trio was brought down into the valley.

Normally, sledding in the Alps is by no means a dangerous pastime, provided you've got good brakes.

Click to enlarge

Monday, February 1, 2016

British scientists get the green light for human gene editing

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in Britain—often referred to as the "fertility regulator"—has just given scientists a go-ahead to genetically modify human embryos. Research of a purely experimental nature will be carried out at the Francis Crick Institute in London. Scientists will nevertheless be prevented from implanting such modified embryos into women.

Experiments will be carried out in the first seven days after fertilisation, using the developed structure of the fertilized egg called a blastocyst, composed of several hundred cells.

The concept of gene editing came into existence through an experimental method known as clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats, abbreviated as CRISPR, and pronounced as "crisper". It is generally referred to as the CRISPR/Cas system, where Cas is the name of a protein. The following short video provides us with a summary of this fundamental and all-important methodology in genetics.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Omo, a delightful white giraffe

Here's a fascinating photo of Omo, a white giraffe, from Paul Allen (philanthropist, investor, entrepreneur, author, Seahawks & Blazers team owner, guitarist, neuroscience supporter, space pioneer and Microsoft co-founder):

Hard to believe that this vessel can't be tugged

I know nothing about the task of attaching a cable to an abandoned ghost ship, the Modern Express, and then tugging it to a desired location. But I hardly imagined that it might be rocket science...

The vessel has been drifting around now for six days and nights in the Gulf of Gascony, and we're told that the weather has been too rough to grab hold of the stricken ship. There's a vague possibility, if the weather calms down, that a cable can still be attached to the Modern Express, enabling it to be towed away. If this is not the case, observers believe that the vessel is likely to run aground on a sandy French beach between Monday evening and the following day.

We're told that there'll be no oil spill, since the vessel is carrying a huge stock of timber (which surely shifted during the rough weather, causing the vessel to lean over) and merely 300 tons of fuel. Local people seem to be awaiting stoically, almost calmly, the impending shipwreck. And I keep on wondering what's going to happen to all that splendid timber, as soon as it floats ashore...

BREAKING NEWS [Monday 1 Feb 2016 14h30] The crew of a Spanish tugboat named Centaurus has succeeded in fixing a cable aboard the Modern Express, which is now being towed successfully in a westerly direction towards Spain at a speed of over 5 km/h.

Click to enlarge

English Channel seen from space

Here's a photo of the English Channel, looking towards the east, viewed from above the tip of Brittany. The image was obtained by the first official British astronaut, Tim Peake, aboard the International Space Station, orbiting the Earth at an average altitude of 350 km.

Click to enlarge

Here are some helpful geographical labels:

I'm not good at identifying landmarks in photos taken from space, but I would imagine that the big dot at the bottom of the photo, above the "o" in Astro, is lighting from the city of Brest. Above it, one of the dimmer dots on the coastline would indicate the city of Saint-Brieuc.

During my recent convalescence with my son François at Plouha (Côtes d'Armor), I was constantly intrigued by our splendid vision of the English Channel, whose waters lapped the base of the granite cliffs just a few hundred metres in front of the house. We were charmed by the presence of all kinds of small vessels: mainly pleasure yachts and fishing boats. But I often wondered why we never caught a glimpse of giant cargo ships and tankers moving along the busy lanes of the Channel. François showed me how to use my powerful binoculars to get a glimpse of an exotic place near the horizon known as the Roches-Douvres Lighthouse.

Inevitably, since this name means "Dover Rocks", I immediately asked my son a naive question: "Is that old lighthouse located in the vicinity of the English town of Dover?" François said no, not at all. So, I never understood (and still don't) why the name of this shelf of rocks, off the coasts of Brittany and Normandy (between the islands of Bréhat and Guernsey), should evoke the distant town of Dover. In the following map, the lower tip of the red blob indicates the location of the Roches-Douvres Lighthouse, whereas a green star marks my viewpoint at Plouha in Brittany.

Click to enlarge

This map of the English Channel makes it clear that, from my son's house in Plouha, I was unlikely to catch sight (even with powerful binoculars) of the stream of great vessels moving along the wide sea-lanes between France and England.

The fist-shaped peninsula of Cotentin, jutting out from Normandy, includes a pointed finger that seems to be saying "piss off" to any ship's captain moving too close to the French coastline. Fortunately, no courageous Allied commander was led astray by this warning on D-Day, 1944, when the outstretched hand formed rather a sign of V for Victory.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Earth collided with another planet, Theia, creating the Moon

About 100 million years after the creation of our planet, a collision occurred between the Earth and a baby planet, Theia, The smaller planet disappeared inside the Earth, but fragments of the amalgam flew off into space, where they coagulated into a new body: the Moon.

A recent study carried out by researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) has revealed that the collision was strictly head-on, which explains why the chemical composition of Moon rocks is quite similar to that of Earth rocks. If Theia and Earth had collided obtusely, then much of the Moon would have been composed mainly of Theia, meaning that the chemical compositions of the Moon and the Earth would have been significantly different.

Dragon robbers in France are thrown into jail

Four people accused of stealing a young specimen of the Indonesian Komodo Dragon have been thrown into jail, to await their trial.

The accused robbers found their innocent victim in a well-known reptile park in Pierrelatte (Drôme). It appears that their sole motivation for stealing the young lizard was their eagerness to keep the reptile as a pet. However the dumb buggers had no idea of how to look after a Komodo Dragon, and they locked him up in a cellar where he soon died.

There are countless sad tragedies of this kind, which reveal that idiotic specimens of Homo sapiens ignore the elementary nature and needs of certain exotic cousins from the animal world.

To my mind, there's an obvious golden rule:
If you don't understand the animal, don't touch it !