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.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Dogs can use mathematical algorithms

I’ve always suspected that Fitzroy might be a mathematician or some kind of a computing wizard… who doesn’t necessarily go out of his way to boast about his talents.


A fascinating article on the theory of so-called shepherding has just appeared in the Interface journal of Britain’s Royal Society.

Click to enlarge

Researchers succeeded in building a model that simulates correctly the way in which a dog herds up sheep. Click here to access the article. To understand the article, which is quite readable, you need to replace the term “shepherd” by “dog”, and the term “agent” by “sheep”.

Most of us (at least in Australia and the UK) have seen demonstrations of smart dogs herding sheep. Here at Gamone, in the past, I’ve tried to herd a dozen or so sheep with the help of my two children, but without a smart dog. It turns out to be difficult, if not impossible, for the simple reason that humans can’t possibly run after stray sheep at the speed of a dog. But what exactly takes place in a dog’s brain when it succeeds in moving a flock of sheep from one place to another?

A basic assumption made by the researchers is that a stray sheep, located beyond the main outside perimeter of the flock, sees the dog as a would-be predator, and it “escapes” from this “predator” by moving back into the midst of the flock. In the model imagined by the researchers, a dog is thought of as engaging, at any particular moment, in one or other of two operations:

— A collecting operation takes place when the dog rushes out beyond the perimeter of the flock to round up the sheep that has strayed the furthest distance from the flock.

— A driving operation takes place whenever there is momentarily no immediate need for collecting, enabling the dog to get behind the flock and drive it towards the destination, which we can call the pen.

The following graph shows the way in which phases of collecting and driving take place, one after the other, until the flock has assembled, as desired by the dog, down in the lowest left-hand corner.


Now, once the theoretical model was created, the researchers were able to validate it by calling upon a genuine sheep dog and a flock of genuine sheep, down in Australia. The dog they chose for the experiment was an Australian Kelpie, which has the extraordinary habit of jumping up onto the backs of the sheep in order to obtain a bird’s-eye view of the global situation, so that it can locate the most distant stray sheep. The following excellent photo (by Martin Pot) illustrates this behavior:


In fact, the algorithm used by the dog to carry out its herding assignment is relatively simple, and it should be an easy matter to create a robot capable of performing this task. I can hear Fitzroy laughing. Like me, he’s trying to imagine a robot capable of racing through the weeds on the slopes of Gamone, jumping over fallen tree trunks, and biting the hind legs of recalcitrant ewes to get them moving in the right direction…

POST SCRIPTUM
I'm amused by the idea of an Australian Kelpie strutting across the backs of the sheep as if they were a nice soft pathway. I'm wondering whether the dog developed this technique on its own (unlikely in my opinion) or whether the grazier trained the dog to do so. I'm reminded of the experimental situation known as the monkey & bananas problem, which used to be a favorite with artificial-intelligence theorists. If you were to put a hungry monkey in a room where a bunch of bananas was hanging, but just out of reach, would the monkey be smart enough to drag a box-like object beneath the bananas so that he could climb up and attain the bananas? I introduced a variant in which there were two monkeys. Would one of them be smart enough to climb up onto the back of the other monkey in order to be able to reach the bananas? I believe that the answer to these questions is no... unless you train the monkeys to behave like the Kelpie.

Monday, August 25, 2014

My second family-history book

This morning, the postwoman brought me a first copy (from the printer in the UK) of They Sought the Last of Lands, which can be thought of as a companion volume to A Little Bit of Irish.

Click to enlarge

I’m more than satisfied with the result.

Liberation of Paris, 25 August 1944

Exactly 70 years ago, on 25 August 1944, General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque arrived in Paris at the head of tanks of his celebrated armored division known as the 2nd DB. Dietrich von Choltitz, the German military governor of Paris, received a furious phone call from Hitler, who screamed out "Brennt Paris?" Is Paris burning? No, the city was not burning, thanks in part to the tergiversations of von Choltitz, who finally signed a capitulation document at the Hôtel Meurice.

Paris was liberated!

Before the end of the day, Charles de Gaulle had arrived at the Hôtel de Ville, where he delivered a short declaration that would go down in French history as one of the nation's greatest moments.




POST SCRIPTUM
The liberation of Paris in August 1944 was a considerably more complicated affair than what we might imagine today in viewing these videos. There was much bloodshed and injustice. Many self-proclaimed résistants were in fact recent Nazi collaborators. One detail needs to be clarified. The Nazi von Choltitz (who had annihilated many cities in a "scorched earth" style) must never be thought of as a hero whose deep respect for Paris saved the city from destruction. Bullshit! If von Choltitz refrained from destroying Paris, this was surely because he realized that the tide was turning, and that there was no sense in committing a crime that would have culminated inevitably and rapidly in his capture and execution. In other words, the ugly Nazi bugger "saved" Paris with a view to saving his own evil skin.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

First photo of a human being

In our modern world of cheap senseless selfies and trashy paparazzi images, it’s nice to be able to look back at the first fellow who happened to get stuck on the wrong side of a photographer’s lens.

Click to enlarge slightly.

This image was taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838 or 1839 in the Boulevard du Temple, Paris.

Thank God (for posterity) that nothing proves that the subject might or might not have been taking a leak with one leg raised upon a fountain, in the doggy style of our distinguished Aussie PM Tony Abbott.


Thank God, too, that the nasty Photoshop product had not yet been invented.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Farewell to family history

It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and I’ve just finished uploading the files of They Sought the Last of Lands to the IngramSpark platform in England. Here’s the cover, which I created this evening:

Click to enlarge

There don’t seem to be any technical errors in my files (which are automatically verified by the IngramSpark robot as soon as they’ve been uploaded), so the book should be published very soon. Finally, with the index, it’s 384 pages long, whereas A Little Bit of Irish was only 266 pages long.

As of tomorrow, I’ll be packing up all my family-history archives and storing them away. It’s a funny feeling to think that this lengthy adventure is now terminated… except, of course, for my Skeffington One-Name Study, which will be not be a personal family-history document in the same sense as the first two books, but rather a kind of historical monograph.

In fact this Skeffington book is no longer the exciting challenge that it appeared to be when I first started looking into genealogy, many years ago. To be perfectly honest, I’m not particularly motivated by this Skeffington project, because I know already that this future book is unlikely to satisfy lots of people throughout the world who received the Skeffington surname in circumstances that I’m not capable of explaining. The only reason why I intend to continue this one-name study is that I now possess such a complete collection of documents on ancient Skeffington history that it would be a pity not to take advantage of them.

Above all, I continue to hope that a certain number of male individuals with our surname will end up providing Y-chromosome data, which remains the only sound method for discovering who’s who… as we’ve just seen in the context of the Courtenay Affair.