Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Family-history detective work

A few days ago, an unknown person wanted to leave a short comment on one of my family-history articles written in 2009 : “What a great piece of detective work”.  I had almost forgotten that piece of research work, which started with the following photo of my Irish-born great-grandfather Isaac Kennedy [1844-1934] in South Grafton:

In a nutshell, my "detective work" consisted solely of phoning up an uncle in Australia to obtain the name of Isaac's street in South Grafton, and then searching through Google Street View to see if there was a house with a fence of that kind. I soon found the right house:

46 Spring Street, South Grafton

Today, it would be impossible to conduct this research, since all the residents of Spring Street have recently (?) removed their front fences in order to allow the entry of heavy equipment to elevate the houses out of flood danger.

Click here to access my original article.

Our suddenly-popular president

For a current president, there's no better way of gaining popularity than to announce that you'll be abandoning the job. That leaves the way open to both friends and enemies to say publicly that you were a nice fellow.

I wonder what would happen if he were to suddenly say: "Now that I see that more people admire me, I think I should change my mind and envisage a second term." If ever François Hollande were to adopt this approach, I think he should be careful. I'm not very experienced in the domain of presidential counseling.

I'm pleased to see that Bernard Cazeneuve has accepted the nice task of guiding both the nation and her chief to the end of an era. He's a courageous gentleman. Above all, he has been a faultless head cop, and he'll surely go down in modern French history for that. As for the outgoing president, I'm not convinced that history will store away a good image of his passage.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ancestry company’s DNA conclusions “mostly total bollocks”

                                            Graham Roumieu for BuzzFeed News

I was pleased to hear the British geneticist Adam Rutherford saying that the conclusions of the BritainsDNA company are “eloquent, but mostly total bollocks”. Click here to read an amusing article in BuzzFeed by Tom Chivers that pulls no punches on this subject.

It so happens that my limited use of Y-chromosomal testing carried out by a US company was highly successful in the sense that it enabled me to prove that my paternal great-grandfather William Skyvington [1868-1959] was a scoundrel, indeed a crazy nincompoop. Click here to visit a page on this so-called Courtenay Affair. I've handled the facts in detail in my book They Sought the Last of Lands, Gamone Press (Choranche), which can be purchased through Amazon. Published in 2014, its number is ISBN 978-2-919427-02-4.

My personal Y-chromosome data is displayed publicly on the ysearch website. Curiously, apart from the Courtenay Affair, I’ve never obtained the slightest match with a so-called “genetic cousin”. This seems to suggest that we Skyvington folk are rather rare birds.


As a young man encountering mathematics, science and philosophy at the University of Sydney, I was fascinated by a book by Arthur Eddington [1882-1944] : The Nature of the Physical World.

In this breath-taking book, published in 1928, Eddington introduced the concept of mind-stuff.

The mind-stuff of the world is, of course, something more general than our individual conscious minds.... The mind-stuff is not spread in space and time; these are part of the cyclic scheme ultimately derived out of it.... It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that all knowledge of our environment from which the world of physics is constructed, has entered in the form of messages transmitted along the nerves to the seat of consciousness.... Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature.... It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference.

Thanks to Eddington, I acquired my fundamental awareness of science-based philosophy at the age of 15. Apart from my later passion for quantum theory, biology and computer science, my thinking has not changed greatly since then. These days, I find it more and more difficult to communicate meaningfully and profoundly with people who are not on this wavelength.

More Leonard Cohen... for eternity

                                                                       DIEGO TUSON/AFP

Click here for Suzanne,
Bird on the Wire and

WARNING: If you don't read French, then so much the better...
because the text in Le Monde contains some utter nonsense. Ignore it!

Damages of death

The following blog post is dedicated to friends who have suffered—recently or less recently—from the death of loved ones. Unfortunately I'm aware of an unavoidable problem in my reasoning. The basic idea that our human brains were never designed to handle philosophical and/or scientific thinking is best understood by those who've read a science book such as The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins. If you've never encountered such a book, then my elementary reasoning might fail to convince you.
It is pointless to think of a deceased individual as “damaged”. He/she has simply disappeared. My use of the word “damages” refers to those who are left behind: relatives and friends of the deceased. Often they will have called upon subterfuges to weaken the blow of the death of their loved one. But this “solution” might not work successfully in the immediate future, if ever. In the past, religions provided the best subterfuges. But, with the disappearance of profound religiosity in society, this subterfuge is losing its force, if not totally disappearing.

To bear the unbearable, I know of only one powerful subterfuge, which has been dominating my personal existence for several years. I adopted it when I became totally atheistic. That was after my encountering, above all, the writings of Richard Dawkins. My subterfuge is quite simple. It consists of admitting that we humans are indeed terribly weak creatures. Our brains were created long ago, at a time when the only ambitions of primitive Homo sapiens were to survive and procreate. This involved tasks such as hunting for food, combating many enemies (including other humans), and recovering from sickness. But the cerebral mechanisms of that archaic creature were hardly designed to grasp challenges that would finally culminate in logic, reason, philosophy and science. The highest level we’ve ever attained consists of realizing in a fuzzy fashion that we’ll never move close to anything like a greater understanding of our existence. So, the best conclusion is to give up searching. Our quest is doomed, and all attempts to pursue this quest will inevitably hurt us. We must simply learn to abandon all such desires.

In The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, people for centuries have shunned the terrible inscription at the entrance into Hall:

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

The Barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix

My personal reaction is totally the opposite. We must indeed abandon all hope for, in doing so, we free ourselves of the pain of trying to understand things that we were simply never built to understand! Consequently, instead of descending into sadness, we can spend the rest of our existence doing only the things we were designed to do, and thinking things that we are capable of thinking.

There is a corollary to my formula for happiness. The consequences of following the river Styx to Hell are not only abominable; they’re also clearly absurd, and therefore impossible. I don’t know where the Homo sapiens invention is located in the panoply of possible creations, but I have the impression that it’s not too far up the ladder. Today, we’ve almost attained a point of implosion… which makes me feel that the end is near. Up until now, the animal world seemed to have advanced in several splurges, none of which ever got anywhere near lasting for a lengthy period. Dinosaurs were probably the greatest happening on Earth… but they were wiped out long before they might have started (?) to to build science laboratories and write books. And it’s most likely that Homo sapiens will do little better than the poor old dinosaurs. So, I can’t possibly imagine how or why the processes of Nature might get involved in building creatures that end up constructing real-life creations of the kind of medieval rubbish described by Dante. If they had the skills to tackle creations of that kind, they would surely be far more interested in building spaceships…

There is another corollary to my formula for happiness. I might describe it as “mind-boggling”… but that would be wrong, because this corollary is so simple and obvious that it doesn’t boggle my little mind in any sense whatsoever. Here’s my second corollary: Everything that makes up the universe as we imagine it (fuzzily) today has been here forever, and will continue to exist forever. Not only is it difficult to imagine that what we call “time” (an invention of Homo sapiens) might have a beginning and an end; it’s totally absurd. So, we should abandon such silly ideas, in the same way that we abandon Dante’s “hope”. That leaves us with the bare necessities of a Good Life freed from archaic rubbish of the kind that fascinated earlier specimens of our race… and faced solely with the pursuit of human happiness and goodness.

If you wanted a model for our existence, and you were prepared to accept a fictional one, I would highly recommend the Sermon on the Mount, which is surely some of the finest literature ever written.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Xmas gift for me

Here’s an excellent suggestion. Since this French issue of Blake & Mortimer volume 24 is a comic book, I’m sure my momentarily degraded eyesight wouldn’t be a problem.

Some observers claim that the hero of this tale is an archaic writer named Shakespeare. That can’t be true, of course, because we all know he didn’t even exist.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Google software improves its own translation process

                                                                           [photo Manuel Burgos/Getty]

Click here to read a New Scientist article about an improved approach to automatic translation... invented spontaneously by the AI system itself [artificial intelligence] that had been handling this activity. That’s a fascinating idea. An AI designs its own approach enabling it to do a better job.

Website names don't attract visitors

People imagine that it's a good idea to give a new website a name that's likely to attract visitors. In fact, search engines don't gravitate towards such-and-such a website because of its name. They do so because of complex algorithms that remain trade secrets.

In the old world, before the Internet,  the founders of a new company usually adopted a name for subtle reasons. That's to say, they didn't simply choose a name at random. Let's look at a few examples.

• A celebrated case of a name with no obvious meaning whatsoever is Kodak. It came to be associated onomatopoeically with the sound "click clack" made by the shutter of an old camera. But that wasn't the reason for choosing that name.

• In France, the communications agency named Australia has never had anything whatsoever to do with my land of birth. That kind of situation is quite rare.

• Talking about Australia, a celebrated hat-manufacturer chose a delightful name for his product: Akubra. As far as I know, this name has no known meaning whatsoever.

• In the Internet world, the name Facebook was chosen because the founder was thinking of yearly school albums. But the company's present preoccupations extend well beyond that small world.

• The celebrated IBM name was chosen back in the old days when it designated "International Business Machines".

• The well-known IKEA name has its origins in the Nazi era. The store was created in 1943 by a Swedish Nazi sympathizer, Ingvar Kamprad. The last two letters stand for the farm where he grew up, Elmtaryd, and the town where the farm was located, Agunnaryd.

• What about Google? I was persuaded that it was a pure nonsense word. Not at all. It's a mathematical term that designates a very big number : 1 followed by a hundred zeros.

• And Amazon? Founder Jeff Bezos wanted a word that started with an "a", so that it would appear at the top.  Besides, since the river of that name was the longest in the world, he hoped that his new company would also become one of the biggest.

• The term Skype was surely nonsensical. Not at all. It once meant "Sky-peer-to-peer".

In other words, it's quite difficult to find a successful name that means strictly nothing at all.

Well, here's an item of personal news. I intend to keep Antipodes for what it is: an essentially English-language blog of my personal jottings. On the other hand, I'm thinking of starting a new blog for French-language jottings of a similar kind. You'll see it shortly. I promise you that its crazy name has absolutely no meaning whatsoever!

Base jumps can go wrong

Tineke Bot sent me a photo of land at Châtelus, taken from their house in Choranche.

                                                                         [photo by Tineke Bot]

Click the photo to enlarge it slightly.

A base jumper had taken off from the cliff above Rochemuse : Tineke's property, located behind the photographer. He was blown onto the top of a tree in Châtelus. A rescue helicopter arrived on the spot. It was a complicated and risky affair, and it took many people several hours. The fellow's life was at stake, as he could have slipped to his death at any instant. Happily, the base-jumper finally managed to get down safely out of the tree by his own means. All's well that ends well.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Plantu says goodbye

What exactly is that white object that the president is waving?
Is it a handkerchief... or maybe some kind of female garment?
The barrister's past-tense words are hard to understand:
"You know, he was a good fellow."
Good for whom?

Sewage power to handle drinkable water

A city in Denmark will be the first place in the world to use domestic wastewater and sewage to handle their system of drinkable water. Now, don’t get me wrong. Danes are not going to be asked to consume technologically-improved shit! The dirty muck is to be used solely to create electrical energy to drive the machinery that pumps pure crystalline-clear water into Danish homes in the city of Marselisborg.

Energy generator (photo from Aarhus Water)

Comparable approaches to electricity generation could be imagined to drive desalinization factories. The principal source of power and energy is, not human sewage, but rather... human imagination.

Looking for something to do in Paris?

Drawings in every imaginable state
by Plantu

Meditating and thinking for quite some time

In the Marais of Paris, I used to eat often in a small couscous restaurant in the Rue des Archives, just up from the BHV department store. An entire wall was occupied by a marvelous comic-strip painting that presented years in the life of an old desert-dweller who did nothing other than meditate. In the beginning, as he started his meditation, the desert was totally bare. Then a few people started to appear in the vicinity… but they did not obstruct the fellow’s intense meditation. Soon, there were nomadic camps around him, but he paid no attention. Neither did they. LIttle by little, the perpetual meditator was surrounded by villages, which were transformed into huge cities. The meditator, as usual, did not notice these changes. Finally, the cities started to crumble, and turn back into dust. The desert recovered its original forms… and the meditator finally stopped meditating, stood up, and greeted us with a smile and a summary of events: “That was one of the richest meditation sessions I’ve ever experienced.

In the city of Yehud near Tel-Aviv in Israel, archeologists recently unearthed a Bronze Age sculpture of a little seated man. Deeply engaged in meditation, he has one hand holding his head in the pose of the Thinker of Rodin.

                                                              [photo Menahem Kahana / AFP]

Those three mythical individuals—the Meditator in the Marais, the Penseur of Rodin and the Thinker of Yehud—symbolize my existence at Gamone. True enough, I've been that way for quite some time.

New chemical elements

 Dmitri Mendeleev [1834-1907]

While the world at large is preoccupied by ridiculous or uninteresting themes, I’m impressed to find that the Inorganic Chemistry Division of the IUPAC inserted officially, yesterday, four new elements into Mendeleev’s table:

          • Nihonium and symbol Nh, for the element 113,
          • Moscovium and symbol Mc, for the element 115,
          • Tennessine and symbol Ts, for the element 117, and
          • Oganesson and symbol Og, for the element 118.

When I started my studies of chemistry at Grafton High School in 1952, this table terminated down in the vicinity of neptunium, symbol Np, whose atomic number was 93. Named after the planet Neptune, it came just after uranium, symbol U, number 92, named after Uranus.

A lot of radioactive water has flowed under the bridges of inorganic chemistry since then.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Humans are fascinated by outlandish crimes committed by celebrities

My friend Jean Sendy [1910-1978] said that society’s most murderous criminals were in fact interesting specimens who had harmed no more than the victims they happened to assassinate, while fascinating most observers. So, instead of being condemned to death, such criminals should be treated with respect. Sendy suggested that bicycle thieves, on the other hand, annoy so many citizens constantly that they deserve to be shot at dawn.

The attempted assassination of Arthur Rimbaud, 18, by his lover Paul Verlaine, 29, in Brussels in July 1873, has always fascinated enthusiasts of out-of-the-way crimes. Rimbaud had been upset by Verlaine’s intention of returning to his heterosexual marriage, and they got into a violent squabble. Verlaine fired two shots, one of which wounded the young poet in the wrist. Verlaine was arrested, and went to jail for 555 days.

The arm of the crime was a commonplace six-bullet revolver of the Lefaucheux brand. Its current owner put the old weapon up for sale, expecting some 55,000 euros. The dull revolver was auctioned off today at Christie's in Paris for eight times that amount: 434,500 euros.

Stuffed friends

My friend M drives me into town regularly for shopping. Today I had a few extra tasks: ordering reading glasses and buying lamps and an electric kettle for the bathroom. Here’s the third item, which will enable me to make tea of an evening without having to go down to the kitchen.

The splash-resistant bathroom lamps are particularly elegant. My future glasses, too, will be perfect for work at the computer, and I’ll keep my old ones as a backup.

An unexpected high point of our excursion was a drive through a nearby village whose name evokes a world-famous local cheese. I said to M : “I remember the time when the owner of that upper-level flat used to have the windows filled with an assortment of stuffed animals that could be seen by people down in the street. The beasts were of several kinds and the flat-owner changed them often, as if she wanted to impress passers-by.

As usual, I didn’t have an opportunity of telling M anything whatsoever about local folk, because she seems to know everybody. So, I listened to M’s delightful explanations : “Yes, I remember the lady’s amusing assortment of stuffed animals, which were positioned in her three windows in such a way that they were clearly visible from the street. The local council ordered the lady to remove them, and they gave her those pots of geraniums that you see today.” William : “Why did the council want to remove the lady’s charming zoo ?” M, who knows about everything that happens in our delightful corner of the civilized world : “I’ve only heard this on hearsay from a local fellow, but it’s surely true. For many years, the owner has been working from her flat as a prostitute. Well, she used her stuffed animals as coded publicity and technical information for clients. I don’t know the details of her code, but it's familiar to customers in that domain. The lion indicated that prospective clients should stay away, because she was busy, and didn’t want to be interrupted. Then the long neck of stuffed giraffe meant that the lady was prepared to receive an eager client…

Never, in my wildest imagination, would I have looked upon that menagery of stuffed beasts as sentinels for horny locals looking forward to stuffing the lady. For all I know, her potted plants might be used today to convey comparable coded messages.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Chernobyl enclosed in a French sarcophagus

Chernobyl saw the inauguration today of a big sarcophagus that hides the notorious reactor destroyed in 1986.

Designed and built by the French companies Bouygues and Vinci, the sarcophagus was mainly financed by European nations and the BERD : Banque européenne pour la reconstruction et le développement.

Will computers and the Internet improve people?

When specialized stores for art supplies sprang up in cities throughout the world, optimistic thinkers might have imagined that hordes of new Michelangelos would soon be appearing on suburban streets. But that was as silly as thinking that the existence of cheap typewriters would have given rise to many new Shakespeares.

A few years ago, I imagined naively that the presence of powerful computers and rich Internet facilities would improve society. Over the last decade or so, these devices have become as popular as TV, and people had the impression that this technology was enabling them to become smarter and indeed happier. Like would-be novelists, they could write anything that interested them, and show it instantly to readers. Alas, they failed to realize that they still had nothing much to say. Today, I’m starting to have my doubts. I feel at times that more and more ordinary people will move away from alleged “tools of the mind” and simply become run-of-the-mill users of gadgets for dummies.

A close-to-home affair convinced me that computers and the Internet would encounter problems when trying to get accepted in popular contexts. A friend told me she was looking into the problem of getting her domestic Internet installation improved. When she called upon a local specialist to look into the situation, she was shocked to find that he expected to be paid the same tarif as a local doctor called in to take care of a child with a cough. The lady found it outrageous that a computer fellow might imagine that he was dealing with more serious problems than the sickness of a child. In fact, her two sons were doctors, so she asked one of them to “fix up” her computer system… which he promptly did. In this way, her expenses were reduced to a minimum.

As far as I know, her computer is still working well… which proves that a good general practitioner can cure almost anything. Computers must never be thought of as more complicated than sick children.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Democracy seems to have the hiccups

A few days ago, the former Ecology candidate Jill Stein claimed that votes should be recounted in three states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. To obtain the necessary funds, she awaits the outcome of a national subscription appeal.

Far away, in the UK, former PMs Tony Blair and John Major are looking into the possibility of a second Brexit referendum, which is still vaguely thinkable.

Are such projects a mere expression of wishful thinking ? Or is the possibility of life after democratic death a real possibility?

Who’ll be the major icon of 20th-century "socialistas" revolutionaries?

 [photo d’Alberto Korda]

[photo Prensa Latina / Reuters]

Friday, November 25, 2016

New verb in a French website : “binge watcher”

If I understand correctly the title, there are three good reasons why you should binge-watch the Netflix series of the Gilmore Girls. I hope you understand what I’ve just said. Now, I’ll make an effort to teach you the pronunciation of the French verb “binge watcher”.

binge is pronounced like barn-jeuh

watcher is pronounced like wot-chay

The only information you’ll have to discover for yourselves is the actual meaning of this exotic French verb.

Serious examination of the English slang “binge”

The word “binge” (rhyming with “hinge”) probably comes from a 19th-century Lincolnshire dialect term meaning “to soak”. Example: Water that splashed onto the table was binged by means of a sponge. A heavy drinker might be thought of as soaking up alcohol. So, she/he might be described as a binge drinker. More recently, instead of being applied to alcohol consumption, the slang term “binge” has been applied to watching videos of a soap-opera variety. In other words, the verb “binge” now designates excessive indulgence in anything whatsoever. And last but not least: It has acquired linguistic honors by being moved into French, as if it were an ordinary verb of the category ending in -er, like "donner".

Alpha Jetman – Human Flight And Beyond

Skip the ad, then click on the YouTube icon

Extraordinary video. The Patrol of France and the three Jetmen—Yves Rossy, Vincent Reffet and Fred Fugen–fly together in an amazing aerial choreography.

Nice survival

Today, in the USA, is known as Black Friday. But I see that the Big Red Fellow is still alive and kicking. The dumb bastard is fitter than I'd imagined. But his time in office won't necessarily last long. I hope he's enjoying his existence, be it short or long.

I wish him all that jumps into the minds of good American Christians: health, wealth and prosperity. As for the rest, I have nothing to say.


Geneviève Delaisi de Parseval, a French psychanalyst, has written an amusing article (here) on the curious role of distinctive colors in certain political contexts. For example, the abominable American Donald Trump seems to be linked to red, whereas our gentle Frenchman François Fillon is often accompanied by blue. Are such associations (if indeed they are true) purely arbitrary? Or do they convey some kind of hidden meaning?

Bearing the unbearable

The verb “to bear” involves a minimum of understanding and acceptance. If a happening that concerns us is so removed from our normal existence that we cannot understand it, let along accept it, then it might be said that are faced with an absurd challenge: that of bearing the unbearable. In such circumstances, something has to break… often in the mind of the victim.

The common cause of this nasty situation is death. Animals—human animals in particular—have never understood death, and never will... particularly when it hits loved ones: a husband, a wife, a close and intimate friend, parents or, above all, innocent children. In such cases, the mind “explodes”, as it were.

In former times, individuals who were suffering from an unbearable happening might have sought comfort in religion or traditional social circles. Even the danse macabre was, in a way, a “solution” for bearing the unbearable.

But remedies of that kind have disappeared to a large extent. These days, strangely enough, the Internet can become an outlet for such an explosion of the mind. It serves as a hitherto unknown means of naming the unnameable.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

How did giraffes come to have long necks?

I’m always thrilled whenever I rediscover by chance a typical Richard Dawkins gem like this one.

A nice old-fashioned answer is that God, knowing that He had cunningly placed the most tasty leaves at the top of tall trees, designed giraffes with extra long necks so that they would have no trouble in reaching this good food.

A less religious answer is that, over a certain period of time, Nature caused the necks of giraffes to grow longer and longer, because Nature was smart enough to realize that hungry giraffes would be needing bigger necks to attain leaves that were moving higher and higher.

Well, that god-free answer is closer to the truth, but we still need to improve the wording. We merely have to introduce a pair of freak events. So, let’s go. At a certain point in time, most giraffes had medium-sized necks, whereas a minority of freaky giraffes were born with slightly longer necks. At about the same time, during a few freak seasons, leaves happened to grow so high that all normal giraffes with shorter necks couldn’t reach them. These poor animals gradually died of starvation. Only the freaky longer-necked giraffes survived and bred children who, like their parents, had long necks. Longer necks had started out as just a random happening… but they soon became a matter of life or death.