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November 29, 2005

Efficiency at CDG

Kelsey and I flew home Sunday, departing out of Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport. What amazed me was how many separate people with whom we had to personally and physically interact to get on our plane:

  1. The person in the check-in line whose job it was to ask us where we were going, take down our passport numbers, and ask us whether we had packed our own bags or not.
  2. The person in the check-in line who searched Kelsey's large bag.
  3. The person who helped the previous person with the search.
  4. The person at the check-in counter who gave us our boarding passes.
  5. The person stationed before the security checkpoint who made sure we had valid boarding passes.
  6. The person who took our bags from us and placed them on the x-ray machine's conveyor belt.
  7. The person who waved us to walk through the metal detector and then patted us down (both of us, despite no obvious sign of the detector going off).
  8. The person who handed us our bags after they went through the metal detector.
  9. The person who checked our boarding passes before allowing us to board a bus to a satellite terminal.
  10. The person in the boarding line at the gate who checked to see that we had boarding passes and passports.
  11. The person in the boarding line who searched my carry-on bag.
  12. The person who helped the previous person with the bag search.
  13. The person at the gate who took our boarding passes and allowed us to walk out to the plane.
  14. The person on the plane who checked our boarding passes to see that they were correct.
That's 14 people who each interacted with us personally and physically. Can that possibly be efficient? Worse, at least one phase of the process (the boarding line bag search) implies a lack of trust in an earlier phase of the process (the security checkpoint x-ray).

November 27, 2005

"Au Départ de la Cité Lumière"

I'm sure the clumsiness of the French in this will embarrass me one day -- possibly quite soon -- but here goes anyway.

Au départ de la cité lumière

Il faut qu'on part
Cette cité magique,
Cette cité lumière,
À la fin d'une semaine extraordinaire.
Tous les bons temps cessent.
Le voyage sera difficile, mais
Ma vie m'attend.

November 26, 2005

Paris' Parting Gift

We leave for home tomorrow morning, but Paris was kind enough to give us a parting gift on our last day here.

Paris in White

Paris in snow, photographed from the Carrousel, looking down toward the Tuileries. The obelisk at Concorde can be seen in the distance, and beyond it, the Arc de Triomphe.

A Welcome Flower

After our sobering walk through the bone collections of les Catacombes, we visited Sainte-Chapelle and then the Musée Rodin. The beauty of both was a welcome change.

Much of the Musée Rodin's collection is set outside in gardens. Though it was a cold late fall day, there were enough flowers in bloom to make it quite beautiful. Kelsey snapped a delightful picture while we were there.

Flower at the Rodin

A flower in bloom at the Musée Rodin.

November 25, 2005

Contemplating Mortality in les Catacombes de Paris

Kelsey and I paid a visit today to les Catacombes de Paris, an underground collection of the bones of countless Parisians. (Official site here. English information here.)

As I understand it, with few exceptions, bodies interred in Parisian cemeteries were dug up after 300 years to make way for new burials. The bones needed to be relocated, and so were deposited neatly in underground spaces already excavated during rock quarrying operations.

The bone collections are located deep below the surface, at the end of a half-mile walk down narrow tunnels, reached via a descent on a cramped set of spiral stairs. The walk there was enjoyable in a spirit of adventure and curiousity. What I wasn't prepared for was my reaction to the actual collections themselves.

Les Catacombes de Paris

I've never felt so confronted by mortality as I did among the bone collections today -- not when I visited my dying father in the hospital; not when I saw the body of my aunt, whom I loved deeply, in her casket; not when I helped at the scene of a fatal accident many years ago.

There's something about the sheer scale of the collections that makes plain the inevitability of death. I find this interesting, because death on a large scale -- from an earthquake, a tsunami, or even genocide -- often makes it more difficult to appreciate the loss. Most of us feel such loss most keenly when we can identify with specific individuals. The catacombs operate differently. An individual corpse can be explained away -- but 10,000 remains? 100,000? A million? Many millions? How can we hope to escape that fate?

I had an inner debate about this. The optimist in me says not to worry, that technology will come through. The realist in me says to look around and acknowledge the inevitability of death.

That inner debate continues, and probably will for many years. But I'm reasonably sure that the ultimate answer involves making the most of the time I have, whether that's another 40 years, another 400 years, or until I get hit by a car during my run on the Paris streets tomorrow morning.

November 24, 2005

Near-Frostbite, But for a Good Cause

The first and second days we were here in Paris, it was quite foggy -- in fact, flying in last Sunday, we could see the Eiffel Tower rising up out of opaque clouds below. We decided to skip seeing it until the weather cleared. Tuesday and Wednesday turned out to be glorious days here -- not a cloud in the sky and quite pleasant in the midday sun. So, Tuesday afternoon, we decided to go to the Eiffel Tower right at sunset.

Of course, the problem with clear winter days is that without the fog to trap the heat, it becomes much colder at night. The sun had almost finished setting when we got to the top. We had already stood in line over a half-hour to get our tickets, and then stood in more lines for the two elevators, so by the time we got to the top, we were already cold -- and then the high-altitude wind hit us. Most people on the observation deck was crowded on the southwest side, sheltered from the wind, and even there it was seriously cold.

In any case, Kelsey and I stayed out there long enough to take a few photographs, using the self-timer and sitting the camera on railings (with the strap tightly in my hand) to get some low-light shots. Here are two of my favorites:

View from the Eiffel Tower 1

A view to the southwest, along the Seine. The road in the center of the picture is Quai de Grenelle closer to the Tower, then becomes Quai André Citroën farther on. The bridge at the far end of the narrow island is the Pont de Grenelle.

View from the Eiffel Tower 2

A view to the northeast. The bridge in the center of the picture is the Pont de l'Alma. The light blue streak of light in the sky is the Tower's spotlight, rotating as the photograph was exposed.

By the time we were done, we were having trouble moving our fingers -- but it was for a good cause.

Le Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation

The Memorial of the Martyrs of the Deportation isn't far from Notre Dame, at the south end of the Île de la Cité. Nevertheless, I hadn't heard of it until Kelsey found it in a guidebook and said she wanted to go.

It's a very somber space, with silence requested (and observed by everyone we encountered). The centerpiece is a long, narrow chamber behind a set of bars. A tomb contains the body of an unknown deportee and is topped with a vase containing flowers. Along the walls of the chamber are rows of lights, each one representing a deportee who died -- something like 200,000 in all.

Le Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation 1

The main chamber, photographed using available light.

If you're in Paris, I recommend it. It's not more than a three- or four-minute walk from Notre Dame.

Crowding Venus

The last time I visited the Louvre, photography was permitted everywhere. I remember quite distinctly finding it impossible to actually see the Mona Lisa on account of the flashes going off nearly continuously, reflecting on the glass in front of it. It was vaguely like trying to observe quantum particles -- one could have one's picture taken in front of it, or one could actually look at it, but not both.

As of this visit, photography is prohibited throughout part of the museum, including the area containing the Mona Lisa. The result is that -- though still crowded -- one can actually look at and enjoy the art.

However, photography -- including the use of flashes -- is still permitted throughout the rest of the Louvre. My favorite thing there is and always has been the Venus de Milo -- it just amazes me to be so close to the most iconic sculpture in human history. But it has become very difficult to have any kind of a joyous experience with it on account of the flash-popping crowd that surrounds it:

Crowding Venus

This is the crush of people trying to get close to the statue so that they can photograph their friends in front of it. Virtually all the people in the crush were obvious tourists, most of them from Asia. I can't blame them for wanting to have their photo taken -- Kelsey and I have done the same at various indoor and outdoor locations around Paris. But the sheer popularity of this work of art, combined with the limited space around it, has caused the photography to degrade or even destroy the experience for everyone else. I presume this is why the Louvre has prohibited photography in part of the museum. Perhaps it's time for them to extend this -- or to set aside photography-free hours when the art can simply be enjoyed for what it is.

Incidentally, the Musée d'Orsay across the river allows photography, but not flash photography. It makes for a much more pleasant viewing experience in the most popular sections (like the fifth floor, about which I'm sure I'll blog later).

November 23, 2005

"Il Est un Comédien Australien"

Last night, Kelsey and I were in a hip brasserie not far from our apartment, the Publicis Drugstore (yes, that's right, see a blog entry on it here, and picture of the building here). I paid for the meal with a credit card and our waiter and I had the following conversation in French:

Waiter: Ah, you have the same last name as someone famous!

Me: I do? Who is that?

Waiter: He's a comedian. He's Australian.

Me: An Australian comedian named Boosman? The exact same name?

Waiter: Yes. He played 007 in the last movie.

Me: 007? An Australian comedian?

Waiter: Yes. I'm sure of it.

Me: Do you mean Pierce Brosnan?

Waiter: Perhaps. It could be.

Me: He played 007 in the last movie. But he's an Irish actor, not an Australian comedian.

Waiter: Really? You're sure? Ah well!

Kelsey doesn't speak French, so as we were walking out, I translated it for her. She couldn't stop laughing as we left the building.

November 22, 2005

Pictures from Paris

For the handful of people who could possibly be interested, I'm posting pictures from my trip to Paris each day in a Flickr set that can be found here. Enjoy.

Air France != Comfort

My daughter Kelsey and I are in Paris, having flown over Saturday night. After years of flying American Airlines, my last trip to Europe with them was so bad -- horrible food, rude flight attendants -- that I decided anything must be better. For this trip, I booked us on Air France, thinking of the pleasant experiences I've had flying them on intra-Europe routes, as recently as earlier this year.

That was a mistake.

Yes, the flight attendants were more courteous. Yes, the food was better (though we had already eaten and so didn't touch our dinner, only breakfast). But in coach, which we were flying, to me, it's all about seat comfort. Now, admittedly, the words "coach" and "comfort" are relatively oxymoronic, but still, there are levels of discomfort. American's coach seats to Europe are, for someone who is 6'2", merely unpleasant. Air France's are tortuous. The seat pitch (distance between rows of seats) was such that my knees were jammed from the moment I sat down. When the person ahead of me reclined fully a few minutes into the flight, the top of his seat back was practically in my face. My only hope was to recline my own seat, which I did, upon which I heard a loud "Ow!" from the German girl behind me, whose knee I had jammed when I did so. After apologies, and some discussion, she asked if I could only recline halfway. And that was how I spent my flight. If Dante were alive today, the seat I was in would have formed its own circle of Hell, no modifications required.

I called Air France, explained the situation, and tried to get exit row seats for the flight back. No luck -- our only hope is to show up at the airport early and try to get exit row seats there. In Kelsey's words, "I don't care how early we have to get up -- we need those seats." So we're catching a 5:30 AM bus (the earliest) to be at the airport at 6:30 AM for a 10:15 AM flight. What fun.

November 12, 2005

"Violent Acts" in Paris?

Ah, just in time for the trip my daughter and I are taking to Paris, this article from the BBC:

Police say they have intercepted e-mails and text messages calling for "violent acts" in [Paris] on Saturday.

The ban prohibits "all meetings likely to start or fuel disorder".

National police chief Michel Gaudin warned the threat of violence in the capital was "not a rumour".

The Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysees avenue were among sites that could be potential targets, he said.

The BBC's David Chazan in the French capital says the police have been highly visible on the streets and in the metro, the city's rail transport system, stopping people and checking identities.

We arrive a week from tomorrow. I'm not concerned to the point of considering changing our plans, because I know how important it must be to the French government to maintain order in the Paris city center, and because so far we're talking about hypothetical acts, not events that have actually occurred. Still, it's worrisome -- not for myself, not at all, but because I'll be responsible for my daughter.

November 11, 2005

My Friend Hélène

This past March, I stayed in a house in a little village called Le Coux, in the Périgord (about two and a half hours east of Bordeaux). The people I was renting from were from New Zealand and they happened to be cleaning up when I arrived. I went out for groceries, came back, and they had finished and said they were headed next door to talk to the 92-year-old neighbor there, Hélène. She didn't speak a word of English, they said.

The next day, thinking about it, I took a box of chocolates I happened to have and walked over to her house. When Hélène (not that I called her that, of course; it was "Madame") answered the door, she had that "Who in the world is this person?" look on her face. I explained in my French (it's perpetually coming along) that I was renting the house next door, that the landlords had told me about her, and that I thought I'd bring her a little gift. She took it with profuse thanks, disappeared, returned with a jar of strawberry preserves she had made, and then invited me over for apéritifs the next day.

When I came around the following day, she had arranged a tray with champagne and snacks. It was just the sweetest thing. We sat and talked for almost an hour. She was the most delightful person -- she truly was. I learned about her family, her departed husband, and a bit of her history. She and her husband had lived in the area most of their lives, and were among the first 20 people to see the original Lascaux cave paintings, when it was a hole in the ground and not a tourist attraction. She spoke emotionally about how awful it was when the German Army moved through the area, and yet how important it was to her that she forgive them for what they had done.

We showed each other pictures of our children (mine are teenagers; her oldest is 60). It was great. She invited me over again the next day, and it was just as fun. Then, the day before I left, we took a walk through her garden. While we were there, her daughter called from Paris and Hélène told her about me. Her daughter asked to speak with me and proceeded to thank me for spending time with her mom, which I thought was gracious and completely unnecessary. She said that if I was ever in Paris, that I should come visit her and her family. As it turned out, I had a long-promised, long-overdue trip with my daughter Kelsey to Paris this Thanksgiving. Invitations were issued and accepted on the spot.

The last day I was there, I stopped by Hélène's house to bring back some books of hers that she had loaned to me. When we had said our goodbyes each day before, we had shook hands. This time, she gave me a hug and said to me that though people rented the house next door all the time, I was the first person who had ever come to see her. I almost had tears in my eyes -- it was just the greatest thing.

While I was there, we agreed to exchange letters. I sent her one, and received a reply just a couple of weeks later. Here's the translated version:

Dear Frank:

Thank you for not forgetting me.

I would like to pass along my compliments to your French teacher. Many of my neighbors don't write as well as you. [Note: a French co-worker heavily edited my letter before I sent it. In other words, I cheated. I'm sure this will come back to bite me.]

I keep of you the memory of a tall, charming man who didn't avoid conversation with a grandmother.

I'm delighted to see the beautiful children you have; I am going to be in Le Vésinet [where her family lives, near Paris] during your visit. [My daughter and son-in-law] will be happy to make your acquaintance and that of your daughter.

At this moment, I'm making cherry preserves and all the gardens are blooming with flowers. Our Périgord is always very beautiful and will be honored to receive you once again.

I embrace you and send you my best memories.

Hélène

My daughter and I leave for France a week from tomorrow, and I have the strong suspicion that when all is said and done, having seen the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and so much of what Paris has to offer, seeing Hélène and her family will be the highlight of the trip.

Triangle Bloggers Bash

This coming Tuesday, 15 November, I'll be at the Triangle Bloggers Bash. It looks to be a cool event. If you're a blogger in the Raleigh-Durham area, I hope to see you there.

November 04, 2005

"Wacko" Strategy Explained

Via the Daily Kos, this is from an article in Salon. It's from a letter sent from a Republican lobbyist and former aide of Representative Tom DeLay to an Indian tribe, describing how to protect the tribe's gambling business:

"The wackos get their information through the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet and telephone trees," Scanlon wrote in the memo, which was read into the public record at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them."
And there it is in black and white.

What I'm curious about is how the "wackos" will respond. How do you react to this if you're the kind of person who watches The 700 Club, listens to Christian radio, reads and responds to Christian direct mail and Websites, and answers the phone when it's your Christian telephone tree calling? Do you get angry? Or do you dismiss it in some way?

November 02, 2005

"The End of Pensions"

This long, detailed article by The New York Times is the best I've seen at explaining the state of defined benefit plans, both private and public, and how we got to be in the position we're in now (in brief, we're screwed, and it's likely to get worse).

The [Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation] is now $23 billion in the red -- a deficit that is expected to grow, significantly, as more companies go under. The balance sheet for the end of September will very likely show a deficit of more than $30 billion. If nothing is done to fix the system, the Congressional Budget Office forecasts, the deficit will mushroom to more than $100 billion within two decades. This liability will almost certainly fall back on the taxpayers, since the alternative to a bailout -- letting the pension agency fail --- would force aging former auto workers and other retirees onto the street.

As bad as that sounds, the problem of state and local government pensions is even worse. Public pensions, which are paid by taxpayers and thus enjoy an implicit form of insurance, are underfunded by a total of at least $300 billion and arguably much more...

According to Barclay's Global Investors, if you use realistic assumptions, the total underfunding in all public plans is on the order of $460 billion. If this figure is even close to true, future taxpayers will be hopelessly in hock to the police, firefighters and teachers of the past.

November 01, 2005

Kiva.org

Via Boing Boing comes word of Kiva.org:

Kiva lets you connect with and loan money to unique small businesses in the developing world.

By choosing a business on our website and then lending money online to that enterprise, you can "sponsor a business" and help the world's working poor make great strides towards economic independence. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive monthly email updates that let you know about the progress being made by the small business you've sponsored. These updates include reports on loan repayment progress, photos of new capital equipment, narratives on business growth and standard of living improvements, and more. As loans are repaid, you will get your original loan money back.

How does the loan process work?
By partnering with existing microfinance organizations and institutions, Kiva finds outstanding entrepreneurs who need loan funding. Our expert in-country staff works with these partner organizations to conduct due diligence on each business, and once approved, post each business' profile on our website. This is where you come in. You can choose loan money online, using your credit card or Paypal, in increments as low as $25 toward the loan needs of a business. With your participation, Kiva gives entrepreneurs access to the capital they need to lift themselves out of poverty.

Looking through Kiva's Website, I thought to myself, "I am so all over this!" Sadly, there's so much interest from would-be lenders that they've temporarily run out of projects to fund. (How ironic is that?) But I'm eagerly awaiting my first chance to loan money to a fishmonger, a medicine vendor, or whatever comes along next. This is going to be a big deal -- like PayPal meets Christian Childrens Fund, minus the guilt.