Wednesday, November 29, 2006

new email address

Normally, I try to fill the space this blog accords me with accounts of curious events and incidents that are out of the ordinary. Today, in contrast, I have something rather prosaic to share. My old email account has been disabled. Since this happened a good two years after I left the place that gave me this address in the first place, I have not much reason to complain.

I have all reason to be sad, though. The old address had been with me for so long that I've come to be associate with it. This is all the more true for various commercial and scientific sites that use this address to send me infomation. It was with horrified apprehension that I turned my computer on tonight to set the records straight wherever it was necessary.

To my great surprise and satisfaction, changing email addresses never took more than a few clicks and ten minutes after I started, a handful of airlines, banks and mailing lists knew the new data. Two mass mails were supposed to distribute the information among my friends. For those I missed to add to the mails—a heartfelt sorry goes to you—here you are: Docandreas now lives at gmail. You'll figure out how to make this work. The address-collecting search-bot hopefully won't, and my account will stay clean.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

et vous?

This past week, the Economist ran a series of articles, basically a five-day miniblog, by their Paris correspondent. They're well worth reading except the Friday entry, which effuses American one-sidedness that made my eyes hurt. The Economist is a British publication. Why does it dress up as an American in the worst possible way sometimes? Do yourself a favor and scroll down.

I suggest scrolling all the way to Tuesday to learn about vous and tu, the two ways of addressing your counterpart in a conversation. Basically, tu is for friends and vous is for strangers. To me, it seems very similar to the German system, but what do I really know. I haven't lived in Germany in more than eight years, and I'm increasingly uncomfortable addressing someone in a language other than English.

English is easy. It's always you, and if you're doing science in the Western half of the United States, it's always first name as well. It was always a great honor and equal pleasure to address mighty professors face to face (Hey Dennis, how ya doing?). Hierarchies were flat, and doors were always open. Like I said, it was easy.

Here in France, language and culture add a whole zoo of difficulties. The lab is no different from the US, everyone is first name, and everyone is tu, though I sometimes forget, especially with members of the administrative staff. With everyone else, it's confusing as hell.

Take the Alliance Française for example, a rather informal gathering where the organizers don't tire of reminding us that "on se tutoie ici". We say tu. This is not only difficult for the linguistically Americanized or for recently arrived foreigners with fresh memories of what their teachers told them but also for distinguished retired ladies who grew up in a different world altogether—in a world where tu was reserved for scolding little kids—who now volunteer with much heart at the Alliance. So most of the time, it's vous after all.

Then there is Bernard. He's a teacher in the Monday's conversation circle, and he seems more like a buddy than anybody else standing. (The students sit, of course.) I've been calling him tu from the beginning, head down and through the wall with no regrets. Now I'm reconsidering. Maybe it's really a basic question of respect, as the Economist guy suggests? And if Jacques and Bernardette, the elected king and queen of France, vouvoient each other, should I say vous to Bernard, the avowed royalist? Maybe I'll print the article and ask him.

Friday, November 24, 2006

lutefisk and loonies

Oh what a memorable dinner it was. Let's start with the loonies. They are always there, my boss's two kids, three and five. They have more energy than the synchrotron downriver and bounce around the apartment aimlessly and tirelessly. When I walk through the door, they suddenly find focus and climb up and down me. I get rid of them by throwing them on the sofa in a nice parabolic arch. They don't seem to mind but come back for another toss. Fifteen minutes later I'm exhausted. Water for me, please. Wine would knock me out.

A while later, dinner is ready. This is when lutefisk comes into play. Here's the background. I went to Oslo two weeks ago. My boss likes fish. She asked me to bring something. In Oslo I heard lutefisk mentioned a lot, apparently something that Norwegian gourmets eat during Christmas season. On my last night, I went to a grocery store and happened upon it, an innocent looking fish, virginally white meat, a full four pounds of it, vacuum-sealed for convenience. I bought it and brought it with me. I was oblivious of what I had got.

My ignorance was dispelled yesterday when I read about lutefisk on wikipedia. The dinner suddenly didn't seem like such a good idea. Eating a bit of lutefisk is apparently like vomiting a little. It's just as bad as a lot. This has to do with the way the fish is prepared.

It starts out as cod and is dried. Nothing unusual so far. Fish is dried for preservation in a lot of places. The Norwegians figured out it'd be a good idea to rehydrate the thing and then soak it in sodium hydroxide for two days. It's still considered food at this point. To make it non-toxic, it's washed in water for another six days. I was praying the fish I bought had gone through the washing step.

In its plastic wrap, the fish looked like any self-respecting fish, but it didn't take the half hour cooking too lightly. What came out of the oven was hardly recognizable, a translucent gelatinous mass spreading across the baking tray.

In good agreement with all the malice on wikipedia, the fish tasted very foul indeed. It was as if the animal had swum one too many laps in a hyperthermal pond and then been mashed into goo, from which strong sulfurous odors were now exuding. The challenge was substantial, but all guests braved it and tasted their share, though the host declared it inedible almost upon seeing it. I tried to trick the loonies into eating by claiming this was "que pour les grands" but after one try they would have no more of this nonsense.

Good for us that there were also potatoes and ratatouille and, best of all, ice-cream and cake. There was also no way of avoiding the wine now, excellent as always in this house. As the aftertaste of lutefisk was fading out, we started to arguefy why Norwegian ever came up with lutefisk and why it is considered a delicacy. Does it come down to guilt for Viking aggressions? Are they still doing penance for sins committed centuries ago? And why did I decide to join them? I could have gone over and played with the loonies just so.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

quail and turkey

I was following a seminar this morning where the speaker, a guy from Delaware doing a sabbatical in Grenoble, lucky man, had a few really bizarre slides. To be more precise, it was the same bizarre thing that showed up in several slides, a little animate gif, Elmar Fudd stalking a chicken. This was a scientific talk.

Now it happens frequently that scientists try to be funny. Those who know me can attest to that. So I tried to find the reference to chicken in the protein structure that was presented, and on one slide it even looked like one. I didn't think much about it. I was too busy keeping myself from falling asleep while at the same time trying to come up with something smart to ask at the end, to fool people with well-chosen words.

Before the end came, the speaker pointed out the obvious that would have otherwise remained dark to the audience forever. Elmar was trying to shoot himself a turkey. Happy Thanksgiving!

Funny thing is, I had a Thanksgiving-worthy dinner myself last night, though I was not aware of the coincidence. With the Alliance Française I went to the Hôtel Lesdiguières, a local hospitality and gastronomy school of national renown. Tenue de rigeur exigée. I even had one of the older gentlemen tie a tie around my neck. Maybe one day I'll put the picture up on flickr, as there aren't many of that kind.

We were treated to a banquet, just so. Four hours of potable, edible and, since this is the Alliance Française, sociable delicacies. It started with Kir and hors d'œuvre followed by salty crème brûlée with a hint of foie gras, a true taste of the extraordinary. The real meal kicked off with grilled tuna on creamy/crunchy vegetables. The bird of the night was - not a turkey but a quail. French cuisine comes in tiny but ambrosial dishes. The dessert was divine. A coffee and a shot of Chartreuse, and midnight was gone.

Tomorrow I have what I hope will be another memorable meal - Lutefisk with the loonies. But that's worth its on post. Stay tuned.

Friday, November 17, 2006

know thy enemy

Here is something I wanted to put into the previous post, but it just didn't fit.
It was of course this morning on the radio that I heard about the primary results. But it was on Al-Jazeera English that I read about it.

Al-Jazeera and English, how does that go together? Isn't that the Arabic station that caters to fundamentalists and never fails to show a beheading? I don't know. I get Al-Jazeera TV but I understand nothing and I don't watch it. This might change now because today I discovered the English version on my TV, right next to CNN. Quite fitting actually, as CNN has just started an Arabic outlet. And the fight to shape opinions has entered a new level.

I should also like to point out that I love the spell checking in Firefox 2. No more typos in my blog. The incoherence comes straight from my brain.

madame la presidente

Last night, primaries took place in France where Socialist Party members determined their candidate for the presidential election, about six months away. In a blast-from-the-past kind of event, a former finance and economics minister ran against a former prime minister and a former education minister. And no, the point was not to elect a former president or to take France back to the glory of the 70s.

Over the last half year, the candidates stressed the importance of looking forward, of taking courageous decisions, and of making France fit for the futures. At first glance, this is incongruous with this trio of candidates. At a second glance, with knowledge of the primary results, there might be hope for the Socialists.

A full 60% of the vote fell to Ségolène Royal, the most unorthodox of the candidates. This 53-year-old unmarried mother of four came out of nowhere about a year ago. She wasn't part of the hierarchy, and the party bosses (admiringly called elephants here) first ignored her coming to popularity and then ridiculed her with proudly presented chauvinistic idiocy. Now she has driven her point home. She can connect with voters better than the other two candidates combined.

The problem is that connecting with voters is very different from doing what's right for a country. She must work hard to transition from working for her popularity to working for her country. The next half year will show if there is more substance than show. A show might suffice to round up a pair of elephants, but it won't be enough to win a presidency.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

whaling and deering

I could have extended the previous post a bit, but I thought this one would easily stand on its own. As I said, Oslo is a bit drab. Maybe that's what must be expected in November, but it was not the weather's fault. There was sun, some snow, not too much rain and temperatures right around freezing. Problem is, Oslo doesn't have too much to offer. It's a bit provincial. I visited two good museums and walked around in the pedestrian-friendly center, but with the sun setting before five, evenings were long, and I wasn't intent on spending them in bars with 10-dollar glasses of beer.

I did spend 10 dollars on a glass of beer the first night, but that was in a restaurant. The meal goes down as one of the best ever, right up there with quail at Lugäno in Salt Lake, lamb at Bistro Lyon in Grenoble and, of course, Massimo's magic in Mentana. It started with thin slices of raw whale meat topped with salmon roe and dill sauce, which I ordered because Norway is one of the very few places in the world where one can eat whale. I had heard nothing good about this meat, yet I had to try it. I was absolutely stunned by its strong flavor and incredible tenderness. Next time Greenpeace comes around I'll have to abstain from signing their petitions.

The main course was reindeer filet over Brussels sprouts and cranberries, another incredible delicacy. Unique and strong tasting meat and a perfect combination of the soft sweetness of the sprouts and the tanginess of the berries. My eating slowed down to a crawl because I didn't want it to end. No dessert or coffee to top it off because I didn't want the flavor to leave my palate. Oh, how it was good!

den kasakhstanske blockbusterfilmen

I just got back from Oslo, after a long weekend mixing work and pleasure. All of Monday I spent in a workshop, but the three days prior I explored Norway’s capital city. Middle of November might not be the best time for tourism high up north, but I was lucky. It was not colder than a German would expect this time of the year, and the sun shone. Granted, light lasted for less than eight hours each day, but that was still enough to see Holmenkollen’s bright white structure rising high into the clear sky, take a trip out to Lillehammer, and perambulate through town till my legs got tired.

With tired legs and a setting sun accompanied by dropping mercury, there is only one place to be, a coffee shop. Oslo is full of them. There are chains like Kaffeerösteriet and Deli de Luca, but also countless small unique places. The first afternoon I chose Stockfleth, a hole in the wall in downtown with three small tables and a handful of bar stools. It was warm inside, and there was light. They had coffee and walnut brownies. The day was reborn.

After a while I got bored looking through the window watching people hurrying by, disfigured by heavy coats, scarves and hats. Thick clouds of condensed breath concealed the ethereal faces of too many nordic beauties. I grabbed a free newspaper lying on the counter and flipped through it absentmindedly. Norwegian makes some sense to those speaking English and German (see the title of this post), but it’s not enough to read articles (or follow conversations). I came upon an interview with Borat. The answers were in English.

Starting to read I burst out laughing almost instantaneously. This guy is funny. I had so far kept away from the hype and taken a skeptical approach. What’s the point of ridiculing Kazakhstan, a country whose only claims to fame are a bunch of combattive cyclists and the aging space port Baikonur. Done with the interview, I was still unsure what the point was, except that making fun of something can indeed be hilarious. Maybe I’ll even go see the movie.

The magazine I had grabbed purported to be a treasure chest of nightlife and events suggestions. I didn’t find them. Thus I spend most of the dark hours in my hotel, reading, relaxing and catching up on sleep that had been sadly neglected over the last few weeks. By the time Monday came around, I was fit. And the workshop turned out to be totally worth the trip.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

election aftermath

Today was a day I regretted not living in the US anymore. So much action. I wouldn't have got any work done for all the elated chatting and debating in hallways and, later, coffee shops. It was a day where every hour precipitated news more unbelievable than what had just been told.

Who would have expected Montana, the land of free-range firearm fanatics and devoted Kaczynskis, to elect a Democratic Senator. Who would have expected red-necked Indiana to kick out not just one or two but three Republican Congressmen and replace them with Democrats. And who would have expected Kinky Friedman to be elected Governor of Texas.

Oh, hang on, Kinky didn't win, but the day was quite a wild ride anyway. I had made sure to be home on time for President Bush's press conference, given the circumstances a spectacle not to be missed, and I was not disappointed. The sacking of Donald Rumsfeld, overdue by several years, got the crowd started, and more or less mean questions were directed at a visibly and audibly irritated President who was at times almost yelling his answers.

But in contrast to his usual good/evil, with-us/without-us, my-way-or-the-highway rhetoric he rambled on in reconciliatory tones, sounding eerily balanced. A week after accusing them of wishing disaster over America, he praised Democrats for their patriotism and their dedication to fighting terrorism.

One might think he was offering a hand with a newly found sense of moderation. What's closer to the truth, however, is that he was wildly waving his hands with a newly found sense of desperate isolation. His efforts are in vain, he is surely dead politically. The reason for his demise are not the Democrats who have gained seats in Congress, for they have now responsibility but still no strategy, but all those Republicans who lost seats, for they know who their scourge is. And they will work hard to make sure he doesn't mess it up for them again.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

go vote!

I strongly doubt any of my friends and readers of this blog reads the "Army Times", a weekly that is distributed on US Armed Forces' bases around the world and reflects the mood in said Armed Forces. As it is, treasures can be found in the most unlikely of places. Here is a remarkable article that is very much worth sharing. The "Army Times" editorial demands that "Donald Rumsfeld must go".

While there is general consensus in the civilized world that Donald Rumsfeld's mangling of Iraq has been an abysmal failure, it hasn't been acknowledged in the military or government thus far. An encouraging development, I agree, but more serious steps need to be taken to bring the US back to sanity.

All those who have the opportunity, please go vote this Tuesday, and let public opinion be reflected in the election results.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

blue screen of death

The other day, my office mac got an internal facelift. OSX was upgraded from beta 3 to beta 4 (aka 10.4.8). I was stoked, mostly because I was so fed-up with this ill-working box. Hopeful that the major glitches were finally fixed, I started some serious scientific computing, running at 100% CPU load for several days.

Before I obtained publishable results, my hopes for improvement were dashed when the screen went dark and a nice quatro-lingual notice lit up, telling me with no uncertain terms that the computer thought it had done its job and that resistant was futile. I had seen this screen many times before, and I knew what would come next. This time I was bent on preserving the madness.

restart your mac

I ran down to the lab, grabbed the digicam and sprinted back to my office where the Mac was screaming at me like a deadly injured bear. Its fan was running at full speed at a noise level that would make any P4 Dell laptop turn itself off in embarrassment.

I turned it off in anger, ending suffering for both of us. You might say Macs looks good, and you're cool when you use them. But I'm old-school. I like things to work. And the Mac doesn't.