Sadako

Crane Origami
"I will write peace on your wings
and you will fly all over the world"
"Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs it would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them? "
Leo Szilard,
father of the US atomic bomb.

I was chatting the other day with a US friend about the trip I had in New-York a few months ago. As it happens often when you chat, our conversation turned, from , the movie by Woody Allen at the time, to the and atomic bombs. I was very surprised when he genuinely said that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were "good things" because they actually "saved lives".

ImageAlthough I know it is the way the whole story is usually told and taught in the USA, I wondered how a smart and articulate guy could seriously think that killing more than 200,000 civilians "actually saved lives". The whole bloody fighting in the Pacific killed about 40,000 US soldiers 'only'... When the US President Harry S. Truman ordered to drop Little Boy on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, then Fat Man over Nagasaki three days later, the point was certainly not about saving lives then, but saving lives of US soldiers, at the expense of much more lives of foreign civilians.

Little Boy and Fat Man had killed about 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki by the end of 1945, of which about half within the first days after the bombings. Several ten thousands more people died from radiation-induced diseases in the following years. In both cities, the overwhelming majority of casualties were civilians. These are to date the only nuclear bombings in history. Yet, as the historian and Pulitzer prize winner Gary Wills wrote once: "Only the winners decide what were war crimes".

Sadako Sasaki lived in Hiroshima. She was two year-old when the first nuclear bomb was dropped on her city. Although she lived close to ground zero, she was not harmed. Nine years later, she was a healthy 11 year-old girl practicing running. After the end of a race, she fainted, was hospitalised and diagnosed radiation-induced leukaemia.

ImageThere's a legend in Japan, the country of origami. It says that if you can fold a thousand , the Gods will make your first wish become true. Sadako decided she would fold one thousand origami and wish to be cured. She folded 654 cranes before she died, in October, 1955. Yet, she was buried with one thousand paper cranes, because her classmates had finished her uncompleted vow.

After her death, her friends and schoolmates raised funds to build a memorial to her and all of the children who had died from the effects of the atomic bomb. In 1958, a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. At its base a plaque reads: "This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world." Every year, on August 6, the statue is decorated with thousands of paper cranes sent by children from all over the world.

Klaus Nomi

Klaus Nomi

Klaus Nomi started being famous in the late seventies when he performed with David Bowie in New-York. Quite unusually, the German countertenor was involved in underground and pop music, and in opera as well.

He was not only famous because of his exceptionally wide tessitura, but also because of his elfin look and usual appearances on stage as a black and white alien. Yet his career was short: he was one of the first celebrities to die from AIDS.

In November, 1982, before his home crowd in Munich, Klaus Nomi performed The Cold Song from King Arthur by Henry Purcell. Although the audience did not know, he was already seriously ill at the time, which appears obvious on the movie below. He died a few months later, aged 39 only.


Klaus Nomi - The Cold Song

What power art thou, who from below
Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow
See'st thou not how stiff and wondrous old
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I can scarcely move or draw my breath
Let me, let me freeze again to death.

The lyrics to this old aria appear strangely prophetic when you watch at it now, the last two lines especially... Knowing what a difficult time Klaus Nomi was having then, just adds to its intensity and frightening beauty.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Johannes Vermeer: Girl With a Pearl Earring
Johannes VermeerGirl With a Pearl Earring
[Het meisje met de parel] ca. 1665
Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 40 cm
Royal Cabinet of Paintings, Mauritshuis – The Hague
It is a unique, fleeting vision. Just after we called her perhaps, a young girl with wide brown eyes turns her head to us. Her lips are slightly open, as if she was about to answer. She has not stopped walking though. In a second, she will turn her back to us again. She is kind, but she is not naive, and we are not part of her life.

Her delicate features appear a little blurred in the light. Brightness envelops her before the dark background, but it does not show the details of her face. Her features are regular, time has not yet marked them. She is new, fresh and radiant. Vulnerable also, probably.

A pearl earring hangs from her left earlobe, above the white collar of her ochre jacket, and reflects the light that comes from the left side. She wears an exotic turban unlike anyone ever wore in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The blue and yellow pieces of cloth – blue as the sky, yellow as the sun – play with the light also: droplets of yellow are scattered over the blue, there are little blue strokes all over the yellow.

Why does the young woman wear such a strange turban? and why a pearl earring? Who is she? Where does she go? What does she think, as she has a glance at us over her shoulder? Are her enigmatic half-smile and wide eyes innocent or seductive? Many have wondered; no one knows.

Named after Johannes Vermeer's masterpiece, Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring imaginatively recreated the life of its subject and fictionalised the circumstances under which the painting was created: Griet, a young peasant maid working in the house of Vermeer in Delft, becomes his assistant and model.

A camera obscura
A camera obscura

I read the book several months ago, and watched again today the movie that has been taken from it by the British director Peter Webber, starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.

Not only it is a novel, then a movie, about the process of creation, that gather fascinating information about Vermeer's painting techniques, such as what pigments he used and how he made them, what were the stages of his canvases' making, and how he would probably use the camera obscura, a precursor of the modern photographic camera.

Johannes Vermeer: View of Delft
Johannes VermeerView of Delft ca. 1660-61
Oil on canvas, 98.5 x 117.5 cm
Royal Cabinet of Paintings, Mauritshuis, The Hague

Also, both the novel and the movie are a sensitive description of feelings that arise and progressively increase in the painter and the servant.

Although they are supposed to be totally different, due to their respective education, religion and social position, Johannes Vermeer and Griet progressively realize they have similar perspective about the world, life, and beauty. While Vermeer's stubborn wife is artblind, Griet can see that clouds are not really white, but yellow, blue and grey.

I loved this slow build up of emotions and sensuality, with few words and many looks exchanged in the movie, on Alexandre Desplat's beautiful soundtrack inside a decor like Vermeer compositions throughout.

Ipanema

Ipanema Beach
Ipanema Beach – Rio de Janeiro, April 2007

The World Congress of Nephrology was taking place in Rio de Janeiro and I was there!

For several months, I had waited to go to this dreamy city, and hoped I could visit it a little between sessions. I certainly was there for working, yet not every communication in a convention is interesting: you usually go from one session to another then, and listen to the talks about topics you're interested in only. Hopefullythen, there are a few gaps in your schedule, when there is really nothing on the programme you feel worth attending. You may then leave the convention centre for one hour or two without guilt, and visit the place.

In Rio de Janeiro, it was not possible though, because the Convention Centre was located in an almost deserted neighbourhood, far away from the city centre, beaches, stores, everything.

Sugar Loaf
Rio de Janeiro's Sugar Loaf – April 2007
Pic taken from a boat on Guanabara Bay

On the last day then, I decided not to go to the congress at all. Instead of taking a bus at 7:00 again, I remained downtown and played the perfect tourist: I took the cable-car to the Sugar Loaf, went round the Botanical Garden, strolled around in Old Rio streets, went on a two-hour cruise on Guanabara bay, had a swim in the ocean at Ipanema beach, and on the evening, at Ipanema also, I went to the Vinícius Piano Bar, a famous Bossa-Nova club in Vinícius de Moraes street.


Toni Barreto sings Garota de Ipanema
by Tom Jobim & Vinícius de Moraes
There were about 50 people in the club only, and it was packed. Locals mainly, which was of good omen for the music to come. The Vinícius Piano Bar is in the same street as a restaurant called A garota de Ipanema — what the famous song Girl from Ipanema is called in the original Brazilian version.

The place is where Vinícius de Moraes, Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim and João Gilberto, in the early sixties, used to ogle a beautiful girl called Heloisa Pinheiro, on her way to the very same Ipanema Beach where I was swimming a few hours earlier. A new song was born, and a new musical genre, Bossa-Nova.

Drinking caipirinhas and eating a very good meal of which I forgot the name, I listened to a talented singer called Toni Barreto, who accompanied himself on the guitar while singing compositions of his own and Bossa-Nova standards such as Águas De Março, Água De Beber... and Garota de Ipanema, of course.

Eclipse

There was a lunar eclipse last night, you could see in Europe and Africa essentially. From about 9:30 pm onwards, the moon progressively took an unusual coppery colour, when every first light and sunset in the world focused on its surface.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon enters the Earth's shadow. One would think it looks darker, more greyish than usual. Yet, on the contrary, it turns red, because the atmosphere of the Earth of the Sun, and changes its colour.

The partial eclipse reached its peak shortly before midnight. Then the moon progressively returned to its usual paleness. It was time for me to go to bed, and read poetry by Charles Baudelaire again.

-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-

Tristesses de la lune
(Charles Baudelaire)

Tristesses de la lune

Ce soir, la lune rêve avec plus de paresse ;
Ainsi qu'une beauté, sur de nombreux coussins,
Qui d'une main distraite et légère caresse
Avant de s'endormir le contour de ses seins,

Sur le dos satiné des molles avalanches,
Mourante, elle se livre aux longues pâmoisons,
Et promène ses yeux sur les visions blanches
Qui montent dans l'azur comme des floraisons.

Quand parfois sur ce globe, en sa langueur oisive,
Elle laisse filer une larme furtive,
Un poète pieux, ennemi du sommeil,

Dans le creux de sa main prend cette larme pâle,
Aux reflets irisés comme un fragment d'opale,
Et la met dans son coeur loin des yeux du soleil.

Charles Baudelaire

Sorrow of the Moon

More drowsy dreams the moon tonight. She rests
Like a proud beauty on heaped cushions pressing,
With light and absent-minded touch caressing,
Before she sleeps, the contour of her breasts.

On satin-shimmering, downy avalanches
She dies from swoon to swoon in languid change,
And lets her eyes on snowy visions range
That in the azure rise like flowering branches.

When sometimes to this earth her languor calm
Lets streak a stealthy tear, a pious poet,
The enemy of sleep, in his cupped palm,

Takes this pale tear, of liquid opal spun
With rainbow lights, deep in his heart to stow it
Far from the staring eyeballs of the Sun.

Transl. Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

Sometimes One Must Jump In

Saint-Alexis-des-Monts, Québec — July 2005
Saint-Alexis-des-Monts, Québec — July 2005

Sometimes one must jump in

When you do that

You might wind up over your head

Or perhaps

You will float downstream

Worrying if there are rocks below

But when one stands

On riverside for too long

Then one is thinking too much

La Bise

Kissing Customs Regional Distribution in France
Kissing Customs Regional Distribution in France
More than one year ago, I wrote a in France, almost a national sport here. Yet it is way more interesting to know of La Bise (to be pronounced 'beez'), these quick kisses the French are used to exchanging all the time.

Careful here though: you'd better not mix up a French Kiss and a Bise. I am pretty sure you don't need an explanation about what a French kiss is, do you? Let's focus on the bise then.

Although a word in the singular, la bise refers to a couple of pecks on the checks given and received when you say hello or good bye. Men in France usually shake hands and don't kiss other men but close relatives such as father and son, or brothers. Women usually don't shake hands of other women they know. They kiss each other. Between a man and a woman, la bise is also the usual way to greet, as soon as you know the other one reasonably well. Male and female friends exchange la bise to say hello and good bye. At work, male and female colleagues will practice la bise also.

There is no standard French pattern for the number of kisses kissed in a bise. Some regions go for only one, others for three or four. Parisians once used to give four pecks, alternately put on each cheek, but modern speedy life did a lot of damage there also: it is usually made of two pecks only now. For your information, and because a scientific article such as the present one should supply detailed and accurate information to the reader, the map above displays French kissing habits among French regions. I found it somewhere on the web, but since there were a couple of errors, I amended it so that it depicts the state of the art in 2008 — isn't it mere professionalism?

Briefly said then, there is nothing suggestive in la bise, but socialization and friendship. Granted, friendship between a man an a woman is usually enlivened with just a , a flake of titillation. However, such a kiss is not at all intimate. It does not even matter if it is an air kiss, that doesn’t touch skin, or if it does.

In fact, being a Frenchman, I consider a bise as much less intimate than a hug. Just think about it: pressing your body against someone else's body... even when, say, you're a heterosexual man and the other person is male also? How weird.

I - Don't - Like - Spam!

When I opened my email box the other morning, there were a couple of job-related mails... and 37 spams! Granted, the latter got filtered by my spam firewall, but I waited for an important mail then, and was afraid of missing it, if it was considered a spam by mistake. Therefore, I explored the spam folder also. You know what? I don't like spam!

The word SPAM was coined in July, 1937 when Hormel foods, a company that processed a meat product called Hormel Spiced Ham, decided to change this name to a more memorable one. The precise meaning of the acronym is disputed though: SPAM may be the contraction of either Shoulder of Pork and hAM, Spiced Pork and hAM, or simply SPiced hAM — although malicious gossip would say it should rather be Specially Processed Artificial Meat or Spare Parts Already Minced.

During the WWII and following years, SPAM was among a few products excluded from food rationing in the United Kingdom, and the British grew heartily tired of it.

Several years later, the broadcast a sketch that parodied an advert for the canned meat: in a restaurant, a couple tries to order a breakfast. The lady (Graham Chapman in drag) dislikes spam, but every dish in the menu contains spam (egg and spam; egg, bacon and spam; egg, bacon, sausage and spam; etc.). A group of Vikings seated at a table starts chanting "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM..." and progressively jams every other talk in the restaurant, while John Cleese gets picked up by the police for Hungarian-accent-induced obscene words.

Monty Python: SPAM (1970)
This hilarious sketch became highly famous, as well as the Vikings' song. That's why, several years later, the phenomenon of marketers drowning out discourse by flooding email boxes with junk advertising messages was named spamming, recounting the repetitive and unwanted presence of SPAM in the sketch by the Monty Python.

Codex Seraphinianus

Codex Seraphinianus
Codex Seraphinianus (Click to enlarge)
The book opposite is called Codex Seraphinianus, after Luigi Serafini, an Italian architect and graphic designer, who wrote and illuminated it in the 1970s. It is an encyclopedia guide that depicts and explains a totally fantastic world, where lovers transform into crocodiles and rainbows can be bow tied.
One page of the Codex (trees)
The Codex is well structured, as any encyclopedia would be. It is divided into eleven chapters with many brightly coloured illustrations. The first chapter deals with the flora of the alien world, the second one with its fauna, and so on.
As a whole, it is a coherent, constantly creative work. Writing is present throughout the book, in the paragraphs, tables of contents, captions of pictures. Only... you cannot read one word, because Serafini used a fluid cursive writing he has invented and nobody has been able to decipher.
We don't know in fact if the pretty curly squiggle we see all over the book is actually a writing, or... just squiggle. We only know that the number system in which page numbers are written does have a meaning: it has been cracked as being  base-21.
The Codex's Rosetta Stone
Every chapter of the Codex Seraphinianus is amazing but I love the eighth one especially. It depicts the history of the alien writing system used in the book, with the help of a Rosetta Stone... that is of little help because the languages displayed on the stone are not languages that we know, but a mysterious glyph language... and the 'usual' Codex language!
While I was skimming through the plates the other day, I felt as if I was going through a museum dedicated to some unknown civilisation.
Also, I was like a kid who cannot read yet: I had to rely on the pictures to understand the rules of such a foreign world and imagine what the text might tell. It made me think that babies may well feel about the same when they discover the incomprehensible world they have been suddenly thrown into.

I Love Paris

Paris, rue de Sèvres — May 2006.
Paris, rue de Sèvres — May 2006.

I live in Paris. Paris is the capital of France. Twenty centuries ago, when France was called Gaul, Paris was called Lutetia. Gaulish people living in Lutetia were called the Parisii Tribe, hence the name later given to the city.

Like a lot of cities, Paris has been built on the banks of a river, and on a couple of small islands between the banks. This river is called the Seine river. It is my river, with gorgeous views and marvelous light. The left bank (la rive gauche) is where I live now, and will always rather have a stroll. The right bank (la rive droite) is where I work, and lived for long time in the past. I have a lot of memories in both areas.

I don't know every street in Paris for sure, but always know approximately where they are. I could hardly get lost in Paris, even on purpose. When I take the metro, I always know what direction I should take. I can explain to a taxi driver the way I want him to go. I know where the train stations are. I know the buses routes reasonably well. Also, I have a lot of landmarks here. A café, a monument, a park, a church... Paris is the place where I belong.

I love to stroll in my city. At random often. Sometimes, I take the metro or the first bus that stops where I happen to be, and get out of it later as the mood takes me. At other times on the contrary, I follow a well-prepared itinerary. At other times again I walk with constraints, such as "take the 1st street on the left, then the 2nd on the right, then the 3rd on the left, and so on" or any other silly rule I imagine on the moment.

It may sound crazy, but it is efficient: when you do this, you cannot but have another sight of places you think you know well. You discover small streets, tiny places or public gardens. You walk this usual street in the opposite direction, and it looks different. You reach by chance a place where you have not been for years. You remember friends who would live in this street long time ago, or see again the café where you once awaited that ravishing brunette who never came to the date.

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The Magic Flute
by W. A. Mozart


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Les Essais
by Michel de Montaigne