Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Trouble with Physics


Lee Smolin
 I bought myself a book for Christmas called the “Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin. He calls into question the physics research of the last thirty years by taking a layman, like myself, on a tour of the five great unanswered problems in physics (**see below), from its inability so far to unify general relativity and quantum theory, to the need to explain dark matter and dark energy.
In fact he starts by representing the lack of fundamental theoretical breakthroughs in the last thirty years as a failure and goes on to undermine much of the current research in physics by describing it as being based on unsound foundations.  He consequently attracts criticism even "flaming” for his challenging views from certain physicists who, in the direction of their research, are committed to what amounts to the new orthodoxy of String Theory.
Perhaps this extract below concerning supersymmetry will help explain why he is sometimes considered controversial.

"In supersymmetry-theory convention, the superpartners of fermions begin with an “s,” like the selectron, while the superpartners of bosons end in “ino.” .........
First of all a theory cannot be partly supersymmetric. If one particle has a superpartner, they all must. Thus, each quark comes with a bosonic partner, a squark. The photon is partnered with a new fermion, the photino. ..........
Not only are there squarks and sleptons and photinos, there are also sneutrinos to partner the neutrinos, Higgsinos with the Higgs, and gravitinos to go with the gravitons. Two by two, a regular Noah’s ark of particles. Sooner or later, tangled in the web of new snames and naminos, you begin to feel like Sbozo the clown. Or Bozo the clownino, or swhatever."

Within the context of a comprehensive review of recent research, he paints a picture of a large highly cohesive group of earnest string theorists unquestioningly following their leaders and excluding alternative views or fields of research. Whilst doing so they are ignoring the basic requirement of a scientific theory, which is to make predictions that are testable by observation and experiment. (Otherwise it is all just metaphysics - my comment not his!)
Towards the end of the book he comments on the sociological aspects of the organisation of scientific research in physics and finds many elements of the same sort of "groupthink" that has unfortunately been seen in twentieth century politics.  In addition he makes the case that academic recruitment to physics research posts in the USA is structured in such a way that the likelihood of scientific visionary thinkers obtaining a post is extremely limited, whilst those researchers committed to extending the work of more senior scientists in the current orthodoxies are most likely to be appointed or given tenure. He implies that without a change in the support made available to visionary theorists the US physics academy will continue to stagnate in terms of a lack of fundamental and testable theoretical breakthroughs. 
The irony is, as he also points out, that the psychology and sociology of these self sustaining groupthink situations, which undermine performance or lead to disastrous consequences, is well understood, particulary by US academics in other disciplines and even in businesses.

I found it surprisingly soothing over the Christmas and New Year holidays after I had had a wisdom tooth removed and whilst I was surrounded by family chit-chat in French.

Here is Lee in entertain and amaze mode!


**1. Combine general relavity and quantum theory into a single theory that can claim to be the complete theory pf nature.  This is called quantum gravity.
2. Resolve the problems in the foundations of quantum mechanics, either by making sense of the theory as it stands or by inventing a new theory which does makes sense.
3. Determine whether or not the various particles and forces can be unified in a theory that explains them all as manifestations of a single fundamental entity.  The unification of the particles and forces.
4. Explain how the free constants in the standard model of particle physics are chosen in nature.
5. Explain Dark Matter and Dark Energy.  Or if they don't exist determine how and why gravity is modified on large scales.  More generally, explain why the constants of the standard model of cosmology, including the dark energy, have the values they do.  

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Ice Sculptures

The centre of Paris at Christmas is impressively festive.  The elegance of the illuminations in the Place Vendome and the extravagance of the facades of the big stores like Printemps and Lafayette really have to be seen to be appreciated. 
All along the Champs Elysees is a Christmas Market set up in wooden chalets which sells everything that any tourist or Parisian could want to buy on a cold winter's day. 
About halfway along is a large insulated tent, which is cooled to -6 degrees centigrade and in which you can see ice sculptures.   The ice is shipped from Canada because to get such clear ice, the water has to be very low in dissolved gases.  The owner, who obviously enjoyed chatting to the crowds in the queue, explained that they used twenty sculptors from many different countries who work for three weeks to create the show and that on 6th January it was all going to be brutally dismantled as it is everywhere they go.  It was clear that the proportions of some things had been distorted to fit the blocks of ice but overall I was impressed with the results.  I hope that the photos below give a good idea of the show.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

A Christmas Concert

Here in rural France opportunities for attending live concerts are limited, so since autumn 2009 I have been singing in a small choir.  It's always good to try new things but until I started singing I never understood just how hard it is to to make music yourself and to do it well.  Not knowing how to sight read is a significant disadvantage, which means that I spend many hours in front of my computer learning the pieces. Fortunately the Choir Master is computer orientated and he sends out midi files which I can edit and play on Notation Composer, whilst watching the screen or reading the score. 

The choir likes to sing quite sophisticated music from the 15th century onwards, often in latin or modern european languages.  This is much more interesting to perform, and for audiences to listen to, than the popular songs and show tunes that some other local choirs choose to do.  At least I think so!  It is also more difficult, and at times rehearsals have felt like a particularly refined form of torture while I struggled, along with most of the rest of the choir, to get things right.  Even after I have learnt the music well at home, singing with other people frequently makes things go wrong. A different tempo or the lack of a cue for an entry can easily put you off.  I usually find that I don't know the pieces as well as I thought I did!

On Saturday 18th December we gave our first real concert this year in the Church at Teyssieu. The acoustic is wonderful and it really enhanced the performance, but it was absolutely freezing. I was hiding safely out of sight behind the sopranos where the occasional mistake could not be easily localized.  The programme was quite ambitious being a mixture of sacred pieces and traditional, but very old, Christmas songs together with a vocal quartet and solo items.  For the two principal pieces in the concert two violins, a flute, a cello and a keyboard provided the accompaniment.  


Marc-Antoine Charpentier
We had seven weeks to learn the music, and even though some of the choir already knew half of the pieces, it was barely enough.  But we only had about three hours, spread over several days, to rehearse with the string continuo and that proved to be insufficient. In the performance of the Messe de Minuit by Charpentier the choir missed an entry in the Kyrie, after a passage of instrumental music, and ground to a halt.  The saving grace was that the musicians kept playing, so that only the more knowledgeable people in the audience realised we had gone badly wrong.  By the time we came to the second half we were in our stride and gave a good account of that part of the programme, even though we were all frozen and thinking about the vin chaud which was to follow at Netty's house.  For the obligatory encore, the choir refused the suggestion by the Choir Master to attempt the Kyrie again and he opted for Pastores Loquebantur (by Brixi), an easier but still quite impressive piece. 

The people I spoke to afterwards were complimentary about the performance and particularly the quality of the sound that we produced.  All, that is, except for one ex-chorister who said that the second half was better and he was right!  Whilst drinking a vin chaud, which was excellent and very necessary, in Netty's elegant and warm house, I avoided talking to the ex-Choir Mistress who had retired from directing the choir just before I joined.  I am sure she could have been much more critical if she had wanted to!

I have decided to try taking some singing lessons in January in the hope of learning basic technique and some exercises.  As a minimum I need to increase my range at the top, because I am struggling with notes above the stave, and also to improve my breathing.  It would be nice to learn how to get a real tenor quality in my voice but I mustn’t dream.

The word on the grapevine is that we will be doing another concert in June 2011.  I hope we have sufficient rehearsals to do much better next time!  I also hope that we can pick up some more singers, particularly men, because at the moment I am one of two tenors and there is only one bass!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Modern Christmas Newsletter

This year we have decided to move with the times and replace the newsletter with a blog piece.  Maybe I'll get around to Twitter, Linked-in and Facebook next year, maybe not.  (But Second Life is definitely a miss)!  Instead of saving up my thoughts for Christmas, I have been writing about everything and anything since March, so here are a few links (in blue) to some of the stories of this year.

Apart from my bouts of gout, and Christiane's back, we are in good shape, but I had reason to remember the chemotherapy treatment I had nearly twenty years ago when I had a skin cancer diagnosed in June, fortunately it was not a serious one!  Staying with medical matters for the moment, my old Dad has had a pacemaker fitted at 104!  It is quite remarkable that the doctor decided to go ahead with it but it has meant that my sister can continue to look after him at home.  He is still quite good physically but, as you would expect, he is not as alert as he was, even five years ago.

Angelic?
Sometimes!
We went to Brittany for a holiday in June and I took 487 photos, mostly of pink and grey rocks!  We then went straight to the UK and this story for Georgia, about a pink rabbit, was inspired by our visit.  Oscar's story, about a sweet corn monster, was written following a family meal at Celia and Julian's, where we were staying whilst we were replacing the kitchen in the Richmond flat in July.

Our garden, has a heavy, highly alkaline, clay soil over limestone rock, and is at times a constant source of frustration and hard work!  But when things turn out well it's a delight.  Here are some pictures of the Irises and the Grasses which are the most successful features so far.  Everything else is going to get a dose of fertiliser and more water next summer!  There is a lot of wildlife in our garden. We keep the lower part as a meadow, cutting it only once a year, and we love the insects that are abundant there in late summer.  Unfortunately Nora the bat, who appeared one night in our porch has not returned!  Some friends of ours, Don and Jenny, have a house a few kilometres away on very different soil and they grow amazing roses. They sell them as cut flowers to support the charity they run, which funds a Kenyan orphanage and is called New Dawn.  It's named after one of Don's roses. 
  

In May we really enjoyed making Raku ceramics with Annick. I can easily imagine taking it up as a hobby.

The Story Telling Festival is in May. It was the tenth anniversary this year and so the organizers attempted to outdo their usual excellent efforts. Every year they organize a walk with stories at strategic points. The pictures from the walk are panoramas. Follow the links to the flash presentations and say yes if Internet Explorer gets a bit shirty! This text is from France Léa, who was one of the best participants this year. Persevere, it’s worth it! It was an absolute nightmare to translate!


Jean- Marc Derouen en pleine campagne

Ever since my father gave me his Practika SLR camera in 1969 I have been interested in photography. Recently, since photography has become digital, I have been able to combine it with my interest in computing.  High Dynamic Range photography, enables you to produce spectacular, sometimes unreal, results by combining images with different exposures.

This image was assembled from three pictures of a sunset taken in Brittany 

A few weeks ago we went to see Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et des Dieux), which is an excellent film about the seven monks who were murdered in Algeria in 1996. You don't need to be religious to appreciate this film.  Don't miss it!
When writing about it, several connections with this tragic event manifested themselves, leading me to wonder whether someone is trying to tell me something.

I am very interested in politics and I should probably separate the political subjects from the others.  Meanwhile take your pick! If you only read one, then choose this one about a Freudian slip. It contains essential things you should know if you are thinking of coming to France!

Harry and Ginny
This is my favourite!  I re-read "The Deathly Hallows" and I just couldn't put it back on the shelf without thinking about what happened to Harry and his friends afterwards, so I wrote this piece. Harry Potter – What Happened Next?  If you haven't read "the Deathly Hallows" yet don't read this! If you have, and you are a fan, please leave a comment.

(Try putting "charter of rights for house elves" (with the inverted commas), into Google!  There must be a word for a phrase that gives a single result in Google!  It's not quite a GoogleWhack but close!)

And finally is this really a tame crocodile ?

Wishing you all a Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.
John and Christiane



 

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

High Dynamic Range Photography - HDR

When we went to Brittany in June I took 487 images. This large number was mostly because I was doing multiple sequential images of rocky coastal scenes, for converting into panoramas later, but we were staying next to the sea looking westwards and so I also took several sunsets. With the idea of HDR at the back of my mind I did some bracketed shots as well. At least, I would have done if I had ever read the manual on my camera, so I set the camera to aperture priority and pointed it at the area which I wanted correctly exposed. I then held the setting while I recomposed the shot. The camera was handheld at a shutter speed of 1/60th second.
Later, after reading some articles in the photographic press, I wanted to try HDR digital technology for myself. The Amateur Photographer recommended Photomatix Pro, so I downloaded it here http://www.hdrsoft.com/download.html and then looked for some pictures to process. The Brittany seascapes looked promising. Here are the three images that I chose.




They are then loaded from within Photomatix Pro which aligns them, crops them and creates a 32bit image, for you to adjust if you want to, before moving on to tone mapping and creation of the actual output image. The three original images were jpegs with a file size of about 12Mb each. The tone mapped output file is a tiff of 33Mb. (I have reduced the images here to 540 pixels wide using Photoshop Elements, in order to avoid giving Blogger indigestion when I loaded them and so that they fitted better into my adjusted blog column width). You need a minimum of three images to give the correct exposure for the darkest, the lightest and the mid tone areas of the image. Some of the pros use seven exposures but that is not really necessary.

Having never used the software before, I was very impressed with the ease with which I could create a good result, starting from not very well planned images. (Much, much easier than using Mail Merge and Excel to create labels for Christmas cards, but that is another less interesting story). The illustrations here are very compressed and a lot of detail and sharpness has been lost compared to the original files.
The unreal quality, often associated with HDR tone compressed images, is definitely present, but with some adjustments that could be reduced.  It is also possible, using Photomatix Pro, to produce a result by exposure fusion, which leads to a more natural image, but it has less immediate impact when starting from these three original jpegs.
This looks like another package that I will have to buy!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Seven Monks Murdered in Algeria

In 1996 seven French monks were murdered in Algeria by Islamic terrorists. At the time I was doing a French course in London called “Language and Current Affairs” and we were shocked that such a thing could happen. Last week Christiane and I saw the excellent film “Des Hommes et Des Dieux”, which tells the story in a graphic but peaceful way.
The film ends with a reading of the Testament of Father Christian de Chergé, the prior of the monastery. We have briefly met his brother Hubert who lives about half an hour north of here. From time to time he employs some of his considerable charm and politeness to persuade our friends Lisa and Geoff to help with fund raising for the restoration of the village church.  Hubert writes about his reaction to the events at Tibherine in this article.
I wanted to read the Testament again and translate it, however, a quick Google search showed that Vincent-Paul Toccoli http://www.toccoli.org/, a priest who lives in Cannes, had already posted a translation on his blog. The translation he used was done by the Trappist monks of Mount St Bernard Abbey, Leicester, England.

LAST TESTAMENT
Christian de Chergé
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called "the grace of martyrdom," to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different; they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received in Algeria, in the respect of believing Muslims—finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel I learned at my mother's knee, my very first Church.

My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: "Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!" But these people must realize that my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences.

For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything. In this "thank you," which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families—the hundred-fold granted as was promised!

And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this "thank you"—and this —to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.

And may we find each other, happy "good thieves," in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.
I realise now that I have met Vincent-Paul Toccoli ten years ago when he presided over the wedding of some friends of Christiane. It was the first wedding in the new church of St Paul des Nations at Sophia Antipolis. I remarked on his very good English accent and asked him where he had learnt English, “Oxford old boy” was his reply!
It's either a small world or God moves in mysterious ways!

Saturday, 30 October 2010

A Freudian Slip dans le Pays de la Liberté


It’s 5th November next week and I’ve got a big bonfire I could light in the potager! I was thinking of inviting some friends over but to give the occasion a French flavour I really need to think of a French Guy Fawkes. Preferably one that doesn’t put me at risk of being held in “garde à vue” for 48 hours like the poor guy who wrote several emails to Rachida Dati asking for une petite inflation! see this article and this one

I think he really meant to write f*ll*tion and his fingers got side tracked on the keyboard! Just like her mouth did in this interview on 26th September 2010 on Canal+. But there again perhaps not!


All I can say is «c’est vraiment scandaleux d’affronter une belle personnage publique comme ca»!
Anyway she says that she felt threatened and made a complaint.  The result was that the man had his computer confiscated and his apartment searched. He was then held under arrest for 48 hours.

Under the current French rules of arrest or “garde à vue” (soon to be changed because they were found not to conform to european law) when you are arrested you are not allowed to talk to a lawyer and you can be denied the right to telephone anyone if the police consider that it might be detrimental to their enquiry (I know of one case where this was applied to a middle aged white skinned woman who was over the limit when breathalysed). The police take your clothes away and give you a thin one-piece suit. Usually the cells are unheated and foul. It is also normal procedure to carry out an invasive body search. This is officially in case you feel like committing suicide and you may have concealed something in a dark place to help you do so! Unofficially it is clearly part of a process intended to humiliate and diminish your resistance to interrogation. There have also been eye witness reports of violence by the police in a number of cases. On 27th January 2010 the Ministry of the Interior accepted that the number of people held under this regime was 800,000 in 2009. You can be arrested and thrown in jail for minor offences like not carrying your identity card or for committing certain traffic offences. Above all never be rude to the police because that is enough on its own to give him or her a reason to arrest you for “Outrage”. (An offence by which you call into question the honour of a public official in the exercise of his or her functions). The numbers of people held in “garde à vue” have multiplied by a factor of 3 since 2003 because the police have been given targets to achieve. This excellent article by Vincent Duclert (in French) gives all the background.

Rachida Dati knows very well what happens to people put in “garde à vue” because she was appointed Minister of Justice by Nicholas Sarkozy in May 2007. In September 2008, however, she announced that she was pregnant and refused to identify the father. All she would say was that her private life was complicated, her baby girl Zohra was born on 2nd January 2009. In June 2009, after having been elected to the European Parliament and whilst retaining her post as mayor of VIIe arondissement of Paris she resigned her post as Minister of Justice.

As a result of her ill-judged complaint against this misguided but unfortunate man she has ensured that the episode of her Freudian slip of the tongue has been propagated everywhere in France and will almost certainly go round the world. He risks up to six months in prison and a fine of 7,500 euros for the specific offence of “Outrage”.  Le Procureur de la République de Valence, Antoine Paganelli, considers that there is nothing disproportionate about the case and that her function as a member of the European Parliament was at risk of being degraded. Clearly ex-government ministers like her need the full protection of the law in a situation like this!

So if I dressed up the Guy in black clothes with a long dark wig, a suitable hat and forgot about the beard and moustache, I could have a traditional Guy Fawkes even though I would know who it really was this year! I might even let my guests in on the secret too, so long as their sons weren’t gendarmes, like those of my next door neighbour!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

And Finally!

Les Carottes Sont Cuites
With the workers of three refineries voting to return to work, the rubbish beginning to be collected again in Marseille and most of the trains now running, the protests are showing signs of petering out. As one interviewee said charmingly yesterday morning “The carrots are cooked! We don’t want to end up burning the furniture like the English miners”! At Brive-la-Gaillarde, however, just to the north of us in the Corrèze they blockaded the petrol depot in the morning but the blockade was lifted in the afternoon. This morning due to continuing strikes in the ports of Marseille and Le Havre there is no crude oil reaching the refineries, so although they are back at work no refined products can be produced.
Commentators on France Inter yesterday morning were saying that the government might have won the battle but they have lost the fight for public opinion. Next time they should hire Alistair Campbell!
Legal or Legitimate
Yesterday evening on a phone-in programme they had received emails from a large number of correspondents who were trying to reconcile the fact that the Deputies and Senators had voted through a law by a legal and democratic process, but it was being challenged by what they considered to be legitimate protests. The politicians were of course quite clear about it. The right considered that the industrial action and street protests were not legitimate and the left thought that they were. Perhaps the public are finally beginning to realize that you can’t govern a country by mob rule.
Reform Union Finances
If Nicholas Sarkozy really wants a fight, however, he could always take on the unions like Maggie did. In France it would be easy to attack their weak point which is funding, since union membership is only 8% of the workforce on average. I propose that:-

• Businesses should have to submit to a vote of their shareholders any proposal to make payments to Unions. Payments made without this approval should carry the threat of a prison term for the directors involved.
• Unions should be forbidden to receive any money in cash even from their members.
• The government and local authorities should progressively withdraw all funding of Union activities over a period of four years.
• To soften the impact on public opinion, and to give the government something to sell to the public, the government should allow individuals to deduct subscriptions for union membership from their income for tax purposes. You could even run a campaign to the effect that everybody should join a union. Since on previous experience it would be ineffective, it would make no difference.

If I am right the unions would see a catastrophic reduction in their income and capabilities because nobody would think that it was necessary to join and support the unions. After all they have never had to in the past.
I am sure that it would quickly become very obvious that some form of responsible representation in the workplace is necessary but the temporary chaos could be used to pass more laws making individuals responsible for costs if they blockaded somewhere that they did not work for.
Manifestos! What are they?
Well that’s my pro-union proposals for the special case of France. Of course no politician would put it in their manifesto before the 2012 election, but that doesn’t matter here because they never write any manifestos! They might have to say what they really want to do and be expected to deliver on their policy proposals!

Monday, 25 October 2010

France wouldn't be France without protests!

The revolt is still underway here. There is no fuel being refined in the whole of France and a third of petrol stations have run dry but the government has ordered the opening of reserve depots and says that things will slowly improve. Perhaps! Perhaps not! I have to say that the supermarkets in this area of the Lot have not so far run out of fuel and there hasn’t really been any panic buying. The school holidays have now started so there is less traffic and less opportunity for demonstrations.  So far there has been no support from the electricity workers and only half hearted support from the transport workers. In the latest opinion polls 56% of the people approve of the protests, which is down from 69% last week but it isn’t over yet.

I think it will eventually all calm down, but it has become more than a protest over pension reform and is now generally an anti- Sarkozy movement. The way that things have happened here in the past is for the Prime Minister (who is appointed by the President) to resign. That, and withdrawing the proposed legislation, usually satisfies the militants. This time, however, Sarkozy has been fully engaged in all aspects of his policies and their execution from the start and he has not stood back like previous Presidents have done. So if he sacks Francois Fillon, the still popular Prime Minister, there would be no perceived change apart from releasing the latter to stand against Sarkozy as the next presidential candidate! As far as I can understand the French constitution there is no mechanism for dislodging a President so, since Sarkozy is a street fighter and will never resign, we can expect a running battle between now and the elections in 2012.

I have been struck by two things during this episode. Firstly there has been a lack of media management and an absence of government ministers putting their views forward, but then we aren’t hearing much from the Socialists either. Perhaps they are fully aware that they face the same problems if they form the next government and they are keeping their options open!

Secondly there is now a refusal by the protesters to accept that reform is necessary. At the beginning there was a real debate about the fairness of the proposals but now that the movement has gained momentum it has become a demand to withdraw the legislation and nothing less will do. The protesters behave as if the government has a bottomless pit of money, is not subject to international competition or the constraints of credit ratings and can always bail out the country financially. This is in spite of the fact that we regularly hear that there are big holes in the social security budget. I can only assume that they don’t believe what they are told.

Certainly France wouldn’t be France without protests but it is more serious than such an easy way of dismissing these events implies. Personally I think that France is effectively ungovernable because it consistently, stubbornly, forcefully and often successfully resists reform. The result is that it cannot adapt to changing circumstances.

Apart from talking vaguely about investing more in research, neither the Left nor the Right have any answer to the rising economic power of China, India, Brazil and the Far East. In Europe only Germany has good growth prospects because the world is prepared to pay a premium for the best quality goods. This week I bought a new specialized Dell monitor and it was made in China. Since most high tech goods are now  made in China, Germany’s favoured situation may not last for long. When I was in the UK a couple of weeks ago I felt that the enormous cut backs in government spending, whilst necessary, would not help to re-launch the UK economy and I was glad that I was not a young person trying to build a future for myself. Meanwhile France has not even begun to face these issues and is still fighting the battles of the last century.

The best socialist candidate for the 2012 elections is Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Although he is a socialist, since September 2007 he has been the head of the International Monetary Fund. If he stands, and if he is accepted by the party, he will almost certainly win the Presidential election. So far he has neither said that he will stand, nor that he won’t. If I was him I would have to ask myself whether I would want the job of trying to drag a reluctant country kicking and screaming into the harsh realities of the 21st century.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

France in Revolt Again?

Militants against the reforms or the government? - France is excellent at mobilising itself and protesting. Perhaps it comes from its revolutionary past. Today, however, France has become a very conservative country which uses people power to forcefully resist change.
Secondary picketing is still legal in France and any organised group can blockade a petrol depot or a factory with impunity at little personal risk. There is no need to have a strike ballot or a cooling off period, and there is no risk of being sued for the losses sustained by the business if the strike is “unofficial”. In fact there is no concept of the difference between official or unofficial strikes; the only thing that matters is how much support the strike attracts.
France has a recent history of governments backing down in the face of public demonstrations which opposed a proposed reform. This encourages people to believe that it is possible to force a government to withdraw a law even after it has been voted through the Assembly and the Senate.
Against that background one can start to appreciate the power that the militants have to challenge a government in France.
Socialism or social protection? - Social protection is so important that it tends to dominate the political agenda. French people expect a government agency to “accompany” them if they have to find another job and they look to the government to support them when they are in difficulty. Capitalism and competition are viewed with suspicion, as is any large employer. As my next door neighbour said “I run my own business, I am an employer and a landlord. That’s three black marks against me”!
Interventionism for ever? - The problem is that France does not live in a bubble protected from international competition. With a decade of low growth, a mounting level of government debt and ever deepening holes in the public finances, there are limits to how much money the government can continue to spend on protecting industries which can no longer compete in world markets. But even the French right wing still considers that spending public money on supporting failing industries is reasonable and correct.
Are the Unions representative? - The percentage of membership of unions in France at 8% is probably the lowest in Europe, yet the unions have some of the highest numbers of salaried staff and the money has to come from somewhere. Until the law of 10th August 2008 was passed, a law dating from 1884 exempted unions from publishing accounts.
It is suspected that many unions were secretly financed by the employers as a form of insurance in order to provide some leverage over their activities and degree of militancy. In addition, about 400m euros of public money in various forms is given to French unions every year. Overall this is a very unhealthy situation because the unions are not representative of the workforce, their funding is suspect and susceptible to charges of corruption and, because they have such a low proportion of membership in the workplace, the unions have no control over the actions of the employees.
No political will? - So France is a country which resists change, has had a series of governments, which have found it impossible to introduce necessary and unpopular reforms, and whose only answer to “global competition” is protectionism. It has the same problems of low growth and poor competitivity as other western states and its membership of the euro zone means that it cannot devalue its currency to become more competitive. There is no shortage of informed comment and proposals to address these issues but there does not seem to be a political mechanism available to implement them.
What future for the young? - France has a workforce which doesn’t expect to get a full time permanent job until they are 28 years old and which expects to stop working at the age of 58 because they have been made redundant. No wonder the high school students are out there protesting with everyone else! What future can they look forward to and how will they be able to afford to retire at 60 or 62? They must be really scared or thinking of emigrating.
Support the strikers? - In the latest opinion poll 69% of the public support the strikes and protests against raising the retirement age to 62 from 60. French people usually get behind the strikers and rarely criticize them. In this case, however, 52% disapprove of blockading refineries and petrol depots, which puts at risk their freedom of movement and their ability to see their families over the half term holidays.
Why now? - I don’t understand why Sarkozy decided to press ahead with this reform now. Sarkozy’s popularity is at a record low and he has no chance of winning the next presidential election. He could easily have ignored it for two years until the next election and then it will most likely be someone else’s problem.
Oh no not again! - Unfortunately the proposed change in the retirement age is so small that it only plugs about half of the calculated deficit so the whole process will have to be done again in a few years time, so we have more disruption to look forward to. The Socialists have said that they want to link the age of retirement to life expectancy. That sounds worse to me! Perhaps it’s time to start laying in the stocks of food and fuel!

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Crocodiles and Elephants with a Sense of Humour?



I have been close to big Nile crocodiles in Kenya.  Too close.  At one of the Lodges in Samburu National Park they used to feed them next to the lower terrace, and there was only a very low wall separating them from us while they waited for their food to arrive.  For Africans they are terrifying and dangerous creatures but, being a dumb European, on my first safari, I didn’t know any better and I took my camera within a couple of metres of the nearest.   On later trips to East Africa with Liz, my first wife,  I showed them much more respect because I had heard about how fast they can move when they want to, and how they give no warning of when they’re about to attack.  But crocodiles never go far from water and they never walk through the camps in the night like elephants do.  

On every trip we took to Masai Mara an elephant would stroll quietly through the tented camp in the middle of the night at least once.  It was either from curiosity or because they liked to taste the bushes in the camp we don't know.  We were really scared the first time it happened but later we became accustomed to it.  "Oh it's just an elephant! Go back to sleep."  Elephants are really intelligent and I think that they have a sense of humour too.  One female with her youngster used to walk through Governor’s camp at about lunch time every day.  You can imagine the commotion that caused amongst the tourists!  I am sure that she did it because she enjoyed seeing them scurrying away at high speed, scattering in all directions. 


Eleanor with Daphne Sheldrick

 It’s also true that they never forget.  When we were staying at Richard Bonham’s camp in the Chyulu hills he told us about an occasion when he was with David Sheldrick, who was re-visiting Voi in Tsavo, where he had been the Warden of Tsavo East National Park and had helped his wife Daphne raise orphan elephants.  While they were talking the orphan troop appeared with Eleanor at its head.  Richard and David were standing upwind and Eleanor stopped, raised her trunk in the air and picked up David’s scent.  She charged over to him and wrapped her trunk all round him affectionately.  She had not seen him for thirteen years. 
Daphne set up a charity to support her orphanage and you can read about it here.  The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust


I know that crocodiles are also intelligent, they must be to have survived essentially unchanged as a top predator species for about 150 million years since the Jurassic, but apart from their very patient hunting strategies, which I have always thought were hard-wired into their brains, they rarely show it.  They don’t form long lasting pair bonds and are not social animals.  Both males and females take care of their eggs at the nest and carry their young to the water where they disperse, but they do little else.  
A Saltie

When we visited the Kakadu in Northern Territory, Australia for our honeymoon, we were told to be very careful if Salt Water Crocodiles were around.  Salties are the biggest croc species, reaching up to six metres in length and they regularly kill humans, often ignorant unsuspecting tourists.  Our guide on that trip told us not to take water from the same place twice.  He did exactly that on one occasion and on the second visit to the water’s edge, on the following day, a croc lunged out of the water and caught hold of his drinking flask which was hanging round his neck.  He had a narrow escape.
  
So when I saw this video on the news yesterday about a fisherman in Costa Rica who had “befriended” a crocodile I was amazed and found it a difficult to believe my own eyes.




Two Nile Crocs sharing a joke?



Perhaps crocodiles are more intelligent than I give them credit for, and perhaps they are capable of being trained and tamed, but I very much doubt that one will ever be found with a sense of humour! 
Of course you might ask yourself whether we could ever understand their reptilian jokes or put up with the long patient wait for the punch-line!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Grasses


Before we moved to France in 2006 I was inspired by the display of ornamental grasses in Kew Gardens (now sadly partly destroyed by a wide path that they have built through the middle of it)and I wanted to create something similar in our garden but on a smaller scale.   
It is a much more continental climate here than in West London. The summers are hotter and drier, the winters are colder and we are on a high pH clay soil over limestone rock. Fortunately there are many grasses which tolerate these harsh conditions.
After a couple of alterations and additions to the original design I am now quite pleased with the result.  I love the variety of forms and colour as well as the way they move in the breeze. They are at their best at this time of year so here are a few pictures on a couple of slideshows.  You can see them better by clicking on this link to the Picasa web album




...and in vertical format.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Nora Batty

When we came home last night we found a bat in our porch.  I think she is rather cute but others don't agree.  I suppose like the original Nora Batty, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


A Common Pipistrelle bat


I asked the UK Bat Conservation Trust and  Rosalind Buckley thinks it is a Common Pipistrelle bat. 
You can read more about them in this Wikipedia article and there are more pictures on this google images page .

All species of bats are protected against disturbance by law in the UK, even just by using flash photography.  Nora showed no reaction to our presence at all but she had gone by the next morning.

In France legislation dating from 2007 also exists to protect bats (l'arrêté ministériel du 23 avril 2007 relatif à la protection des mammifères selon l'article L.411-1 du Code de l'Environnement) and I probably infringed the law by taking the photograph.  Nineteen species are on the French red list of endangered species and thirteen of those are on the World red list.  
There is no shortage of moths and insects around us so I hope that other conditions are favorable to enable them to breed and flourish here.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

La Rentrée

Throughout the summer politicians in France are on holiday. That has not stopped the government from expelling hundreds of Roumanian gypsies and deporting them back to Bucharest. In fact, to be more accurate, they are leaving “voluntarily” after having received 300 euros per head as a resettlement allowance.

The policy received more coverage after a speech by Sarkozy at Grenoble which emphasized “La Securité” and these two things were linked together by implication. His popularity rose in the opinion polls as a result.

The combination of picking on a minority group and linking it to stronger controls on immigration appeals to many voters in France, particularly those who vote for the Front National. Seeking to overtly appeal to an underlying current of racist opinion is a dangerous political card to play. It has already rebounded once on the UMP earlier in the year when Eric Besson, the Minister for Immigration and National Identity launched a national debate about what it is to be French, opening the door for the National Front to hijack it and gain substantially in the Regional Elections.

The reaction of the Socialists during the summer has been to deliberately say nothing very much because previously, when they reacted strongly, they found that it helped the UMP. Politicians are now back at work and this morning Segolene Royal, who really seems to be attempting a rapprochement with Martine Aubry, was on France Inter. She avoided fully answering a question which was posed about the deportations and security, and turned it into a question about how she would deal with the rising level of delinquency. Again playing on people’s fears and practising negative politics.
 I was disappointed because someone needs to say that blaming minorities for your problems is a slippery slope towards fascism. Stephane Guillon would have been quick to point this out in one of his bitter and often outrageous chroniques, but he was sacked by France Inter in June. http://johnpreedy.blogspot.com/2010/07/thousand-protesters-outside-france.html
 
In addition, whilst blaming minorities when you are in difficulty might gain you a short term political advantage, it does not face the real problems of the country. Of course what people perceive as the real problems and the reality are different things, and depend on your political complexion. The Socialists and the more extreme left are still fighting the battle against exploitation of the workers, and asking for even more social protection, whilst the Right have resorted to stigmatizing small minorities to distract attention from their lack of leadership concerning economic issues.
 Meanwhile Germany has just posted record growth figures for the last quarter.

Sarkozy had the opportunity to set France on a new path towards a more prosperous future. When he was elected I hoped that he would seek to change people’s attitudes concerning the relationship between the Individual and their expectations of the role of State, a sort of French Thatcherite revolution, but he has bottled it in favour of a fuzzy economic policy and a populist appeal to right wing voters. What a disappointment!