Category Archives: Travel

Paris Notes

Eiffel Tower

  • Technologies: One would think that at this late stage of globalization, all developed countries would be at the same technology level. But as in a game of Civ, France is behind America in some areas and ahead in others. For example, Europe has switched over to chip-and-PIN credit cards, forcing Americans with obsolete magstripe cards to buy their Métro tickets from a surly clerk at the ticket booth instead of the vending machines. On the other hand, automatic subway door-opening technology lags behind America, with most lines requiring the rider to pull a latch to open the door when he wants to get off. (I assumed this was an energy conservation measure for the climate-controlled trains, until I noticed that they weren’t actually air-conditioned and the windows were open. Maybe it’s just for the winter, but then why is it that newer lines do have automatic doors?) Finally, Europeans still have yet to figure out that if they mount the shower head on the wall, they can have both hands free when showering.
  • Speaking French: My 1.5 levels of Rosetta Stone turned out not to be so useful; they usually spoke too fast for me to decipher it, and when I tried to speak it they looked at me as if the sounds I made didn’t even resemble human language. (Which is entirely plausible.) There was one place it was very useful, though: the opera. I’ve been spoiled a bit by the Met, which has individual subtitling screens on the back of each seat with a selection of languages. The Opéra Bastille has the more common setup of a single supertitling screen above the stage, in French only. Fortunately, through a combination of my meager French, my dimly-remembered Latin, knowledge of the story, and contextual clues, I was able to figure out a lot of what was going on. Otherwise I would have been very confused at the end of the opera when the female lead starts passionately kissing a severed head. Really.
  • The French health care system: I have a trick for translating technical terms and proper names that don’t appear in normal language dictionaries: go to the English Wikipedia page for the thing you’re trying to translate, then click the link on the side for the target language and use the title of the page it links to. I normally use this to get the standard katakana spellings of Western names for my Japanese homework, but I was also able to use it in France to tell the triage nurse that I had a kidney stone: calcul rénal. I found that French hospitals were not the socialist, dystopian nightmare that I’ve been warned about by Fox News, but calculs are pretty annoying in any country or language. On the other hand, I definitely recommend seeing Versailles while buzzed on painkillers.
  • Stairs: My friend Caroline (who lives in Paris, and whom I saw for the first time in years on Wednesday) related to me one of her rules for sightseeing: if it can be climbed, she has to climb it. I wasn’t quite so thorough, and was content to enjoy the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame cathedral from the ground level. I did, though, climb to the second platform of the Eiffel Tower (the stairs don’t go all the way to the top) and to the dome of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. The latter doesn’t have as many steps as the Eiffel Tower, but they more than made up for it by putting it at the top of a giant hill, then putting the Métro station at the foot of the hill, then burying the train platform itself deep beneath the Earth’s crust at the bottom of a long spiral staircase. Sure, there’s an elevator in the station, but that would be cheating. By Friday night, after I had also traversed a number of the many, many staircases in the Louvre, my legs were informing me that they were not going to climb any more steps, and I was to pick an altitude and stick with it.
  • Art: An anonymous American tourist I overheard in the Louvre expressed it more poetically than I ever could when he said, “These are some awesome-ass pictures, man!” There are too many masterpieces to properly appreciate without weeks to spend in the museum, and so I just wandered the halls slack-jawed with amazement, trying to take in as much as I could before the guards threw me out at closing time. I went to the Louvre on Friday, when it stays open until 9:30 at night, and the evening was a great time to be there: it’s very quiet and peaceful and not at all crowded. I also wanted to see some modern art, but the Palais de Tokyo (which houses the modern and contemporary exhibits) was under renovation: only three rooms were open on the modern side (but admission was free) and only one room on the contemporary side. The former did have some great Picassos on view, and the latter earned its 3€ admission with a fascinating installation called The Tragedy of the Commons, basically a gigantic ant farm with various food and scent stimuli supplied to the ants to direct their trails.
  • Food and drink: Excellent of course, with one exception: the andouillette. On the one hand, it’s just a sausage; on the other hand, it’s made entirely of coarsely ground tripe, and no amount of delicious mustard sauce is sufficient to hide this fact. I did however eat many tasty pork dishes that weren’t derived from the gastrointestinal tract, and never needed to resort to that other French delicacy, the Royale with Cheese.
  • Traveling solo: I picked Paris for my vacation because I expected it to be a good place to visit on my own; this worked out in practice as well as in theory. Some people did ask me if this was a romantic trip, but that’s certainly not the only aspect of the city. Exploring the museums in solitude allows the visitor to set his own pace and focus on his particular interests. And the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés are ideal for taking a table for one and watching the passers-by. Since I was traveling by myself, without a backpack or giant camera, I apparently looked like a local: the hawkers of souvenirs left me alone, but attractive Parisian women would ask me in French for directions. Of course, those women moved on quickly once I revealed my true nature as a tourist, but the disguise was nice while it lasted.
  • Photos: Photoset on Flickr

World of Wordcraft

In a week I’m headed to Paris for a sightseeing trip. When I originally planned the trip, I didn’t know any French beyond what I have picked up in pop culture, which consists of:

  1. Fetchez la vache!

  2. Garçon means “boy”.
  3. You’re a good guy, mon frère. That means “brother” in French. I don’t know why I know that. I took four years of Spanish!

So, it’s clear that I’ll be relying on the ubiquity of English to get around. Nevertheless, it occurred to me that it might be fun to learn a bit of French before I go, so a few weeks ago I got a Rosetta Stone subscription and started working my way through the basic levels.
Something I don’t have a good sense for is just how much study of a language is required before it starts being useful. On the one hand, if I know nothing (as is the case here), learning just a few words has almost no value because almost all sentences I encounter will still be unintelligible. And on the other end of the spectrum, if I’d been studying French for years, there’d be diminishing returns where learning a little extra on the margin wouldn’t affect the quality of my experience any. So the utility as a function of time spent studying must have an S-shape where it starts out nearly flat, takes off at some point, and ultimately levels off again. The important question for this project is how long it takes to get to that first knee in the curve: the point at which I start to understand some of what I hear in the new language. I don’t really know the answer to that, so this is something of an experiment.
It’s interesting to see that Rosetta Stone is basically a video game: the user proceeds through a series of levels, each of which is further subdivided down to the level of individual screens, and on each screen the user needs to click in the right places (or speak the correct sentence) to advance to the next one. At the end of each section the user gets a percentage score based on how many errors they made. You could call it “Language Hero”. At the end of each level there’s a speaking test called a “milestone” which is basically a boss battle. There are even achievements! (The program calls them “stamps”.) It’s a direct application of the Reality is Broken thesis to language learning. (I haven’t actually read that book, so hopefully I’m not misstating it here.)
The only problem is that language learning takes a lot longer than mastering most video games, so that I feel as if I’m playing some game that requires a lot of grinding for each minor advancement. On top of that, it’s an inherently social game in which I’ll get much more out of it if I seek out partners to practice with. Fortunately, I can meet such people through the online component of the course, for which I pay a periodic subscription fee. Wait a minute, all this sounds strangely familiar: Rosetta Stone isn’t just a video game, it’s a MMORPG! And I thought I swore off that whole genre years ago…

New York photos

While waiting for approval of my apartment application on Thursday, I took a walk around Manhattan (mostly downtown) and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on foot. I’ve posted a few photos on Flickr, in my New York City photoset (which also has some recently-uploaded pictures from a trip I took in August 2006).
My route included the length of Wall Street; as the famous line says, it runs from a graveyard to a river:

wall street and broadway east river

I’m considering starting another photography project after I move, similar to Project 365 but with a lighter update schedule (probably one per week) and with New York City as the subject; that way I can document my exploration of the city. (It also gives me a replacement for the out-of-date Project 365 sidebar section; actually the whole sidebar of this page needs some work.)

I’m back (but not really)

Just a post to keep the page alive—I’m back in Berkeley from Thanksgiving (in Vegas) and my high school reunion (in Connecticut), but now I really need to finish my thesis very soon. A couple notes from yesterday:
An easy way to get the full-service treatment from the TSA is try to get through security with an expired driver’s license (even if it only expired three days ago). This also entailed filing some kind of form with my name on it so I’m probably on the watch list now. However, as I learned Thursday, flying on the day it expires is allowed. Now I have to fit in a trip to the DMV, and renewing my license now will ensure that I end up taking a job in some other state, requiring me to do it again in a few months.
I had to make two stops on my way back from Connecticut: my actual connection in Philadelphia, and an “unscheduled fuel stop” in Denver. (I myself sometimes make unscheduled fuel stops in my car, but when the airlines do it I find it somewhat worrisome.) With computer use prohibited during all the takeoffs and landings I had lots of time when I was forced to do something other than work on my thesis, and I took the opportunity to finally read Philip K. Dick’s classic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which as you probably all know was the inspiration for Blade Runner). I liked it, and while it was a short novel with a light prose style, it was extremely rich and coherent thematically. The book is concerned with the nature of the distinction between “real” and “artificial”, and addresses this from many directions at once, with almost every principal element of the plot and the setting illuminating a different aspect. I’m inclined to write a full review, but I don’t have time so I’ll stop here and get back to work.

Been through the desert on a camera with no screen

I’m back from Coachella, where the weather was hot and the music was awesome. I’ll post a full rundown later. In the meantime, the Project 365 photoset has been brought up to date with the last five days of photos. I have a few more Coachella photos to post later as well. (I took many more but the broken screen on my camera was particularly troublesome, and most didn’t come out.)
I’ve been completely away from internet and sources of news for five days; did I miss anything?

March Meeting report: it’s on fire!

As some of you know, I am in Denver for the APS March Meeting. I haven’t been liveblogging since I couldn’t get on the network at the convention center (it doesn’t seem to have the capacity for N thousand physicists with laptops) but I may post a few updates.
Meanwhile, someone has pulled the fire alarm in the hotel. The fire alarm takes the form of a recording that says:

May we have your attention please. This is the building management. An alarm has been activated. The fire department has been notified and is responding. For your safety, the elevators will not operate until the alarm is investigated. Please stand by for further instructions.

…over and over again, with no delay between loops. I might evacuate just out of annoyance.

How’s their frequent-flyer program?

AirTran is my new favorite airline.

Toddler’s temper ousts family from plane
ORLANDO, Fla. – AirTran Airways on Tuesday defended its decision to remove a Massachusetts couple from a flight after their crying 3-year-old daughter refused to take her seat before takeoff.
AirTran officials said they followed Federal Aviation Administration rules that children age 2 and above must have their own seat and be wearing a seat belt upon takeoff.
“The flight was already delayed 15 minutes and in fairness to the other 112 passengers on the plane, the crew made an operational decision to remove the family,” AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver said.

(Via Steinn.) AirTran should publicize this, there is a market for airlines that have low tolerance for obnoxious kids. Bonus reason to fly AirTran: “The father said his family would never fly AirTran again.”

Back east

Ok, so I took an unannounced blogging vacation. I’m now in Connecticut. A couple travel notes:
I shared an airport shuttle with a guy in an MIT baseball cap. He gave directions to the driver in the form “if the light is red, it’s faster to go right; if it’s green, it’s faster to go left”. The driver apparently didn’t have gambits turned on, so this had to be abbreviated to “go right”.
At a Starbucks in Ridgefield, CT I saw a disturbing piece of corporate art: a reproduction of Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks in which the diner had been turned into a Starbucks (and the patrons were noticeably less depressed). I wish I had taken a picture of this since I can’t seem to find one with a Google search.

Kip Hawley is still an idiot

I’m flying to Dallas tomorrow for the Newton’s Birthday holiday, and right now I am packing my quart bag of three-ounce bottles of liquids and gels. This, of course, is because of TSA’s ridiculous rules about carrying liquids on airplanes. Now would be a good time to recall that the supposed terrorist plot that inspired these rules was basically just made up by the British and Pakistani governments to scare people. The case against the main suspect was recently dropped due to lack of evidence. Here’s an article about just how plausible the explosive mechanism is. Here’s the Wikipedia page about the “plot”.
If this was all bogus, why all the silly rules about three ounce bottles of liquid on planes? Maybe the government just likes to see us line up complacently for arbitrary, inconvenient, and humiliating searches in the name of security. It’s not working though—I just end up being really angry by the time I’m through the checkpoint.
Tomorrow I’ll post on what happens when the TSA reads your blog and flags you for the “thorough” search.
[Post title is a reference to this.]

Lessons learned in Dallas

I’ve returned from Thanksgiving in Dallas, where I did the typical turkey-and-family thing. It was not especially eventful, although I did learn a few things:

  • The weather in Dallas in late November is actually really good. It was warm and sunny, while Berkeley is now entering its rainy season.

  • I have a friend who claims Dallas is too far north for good tex-mex food. He is crazy (or at least poorly informed).
  • I am an awful pool player. This isn’t too surprising given that I basically haven’t played in like eight years. I’m finding the game more appealing than I used to, but since none of my local friends play it’s unlikely that I’ll be getting better at it anytime soon.
  • The only downside to a second viewing of Casino Royale is having to see the same trailers for mostly unappealing movies again.
  • “And that’s why you don’t use a one-armed man to teach people lessons!”

Readers are encouraged to share their own findings from the weekend.