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November 15, 2007

I Guess I Picked the Wrong Week to Start Renting Cars

I'm in the midst of a West Coast trip -- three days in the Bay Area and then a long weekend in Seattle.

I arrived at SFO Monday afternoon, picked up my rental car, and drove to my hotel in Emeryville, where we were doing motion capture work. About 90 minutes after checking in, I walked downstairs to head out, only to find that my car had been broken into (via a smashed side window) to get at the GPS system inside. A trip to the airport rental car facility and a few filled-out forms later, I had a new car.

Last night I arrived at SEA, picked up my rental car, and drove to my girlfriend's gym to meet her there for dinner. I had been on the road less than 10 minutes when, stopped in traffic, I was rear-ended. I got out of the car expecting the driver to apologize -- though you're never supposed to admit guilt in an accident, when you rear-end someone, it's always your fault, so no sense holding back the apology. Instead, I got, "You stopped and made me hit you! Why did you stop like that?" Right. My car wasn't damaged much, but his front end was well-crumpled. A police officer showed up quite quickly and efficiently, took stock of the vehicles, wrote up a report, and then, as he gave copies to us both, explained to the other driver that he'd be receiving a ticket for the collision.

As best as I can recall, I haven't had a car broken into since the early 1990s, and I haven't been in an accident since 1998. Both those streaks ended in the span of about two days. To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges, I guess I picked the wrong week to start renting cars.

November 12, 2007

Ode to a Gaufre

Two guest blog entries in little more than a week -- this is great!

Ode to a Gaufre

A guest blog by Missy

Souvenir shops are everywhere. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower can be purchased in many sizes, made from just about any material you can find. I have a small metal on sitting on my desk at work from the first trip. A trip to Paris also requires a stop at Ladurée for macarons to bring home, a visit to La Maison du Chocolat, and a cosmetic/perfume purchase or two.

But my mostest favoritest place to souvenir shop is at the grocery store. You can find all sorts of interesting goodies that can't be found at home (although with the array of ethnic markets, this is much less true nowadays) and even for stuff you can find here... just the fact that it comes from somewhere else, and the label is in a foreign language makes it more interesting. Jars of romescu sauce from Spain, Ajvar from Croatia, olive paste from Rome, Lizano sauce from Costa Rica, grapefruit jam from Germany... the list goes on. Even a normal spice bottle seems special when it says cannelle instead of cinnamon.

Being the mother of teenage boys, grocery stores have been a lifesaver for me when it comes to bringing them gifts. T-shirts start to get old, and what teenage boy wants a mini Eiffel Tower? Being teenage boys, they like to eat... and the grocery store has never failed me when it comes to finding something fun. I've brought them back tiny cans of coke from Korea and the Netherlands, a Russian brand of ramen noodles from Vladivostok, spaghetti-flavored potato chips, gingerbread cookies, Kinder candy, you name it.

But in the eyes of my children, there is nothing quite like Gaufres de Liège.

Gaufres de Liège

Gaufres de Liège.

Gaufres de Liège, also known as sugar waffles, have the look of a Belgian waffle, but a taste more akin to that of a glazed donut. My family first discovered gaufres several years ago after my mom (their grandma) came back from a trip to Belgium. She'd brought back a box of 24, and they didn't last long at all. I subsequently had several trips within the next year or so to Belgium and France, and I always managed to bring some home. Then I started traveling elsewhere in the world, and honestly, I forgot all about them.

Fast forward to a week and a half ago, when we were driving back to Paris from Giverny. We stopped at a huge shopping complex to go check out the Carrefour store, which is like a cross between Super Target and Costco. As we were walking up and down the aisles, I saw them. I may have shrieked. Then I started pulling packs from the shelves. I would have just bought an entire case of them, but I already had two full suitcases (I'll definitely be taking a different packing approach next time). I ended up with two packs for each of them (with seven waffles per pack), and then one more pack of the chocolate-covered ones to share. Frank wasn't entirely convinced that these were worth the excitement I was exuding, but he threw another pack of the chocolate-covered ones in the cart anyway, just to see.

Frank opened his pack in the car. "I'll just try one... then I'll take the rest home." (Yeah, right... they were long gone before we left Paris.)

Even having watched Frank devour his, I started having doubts on the flight home. I had bought wine for my parents, cosmetics for my sister, and some chocolates and macarons to share at work, but all I'd got the kids was waffles. Would they remember them? Would they still like them? Was I a bad mother for having spent a week in Paris and coming home with only $8 worth of snacks as a gift?

I got my answer on Thursday after picking them up from their dad's. I'd left the packages on the coffee table, and very shortly after they got in the house, I heard two loud yeaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh's, and the ripping of plastic. In the last 48 hours, they completely decimated the package of chocolate-covered ones, and are each over halfway through one of their packages of the plain ones.

They remembered, they're happy, and right now... I'm the coolest mom in the universe. Yay me.

I seriously considered stopping by a local supermarket later during our week in Paris to buy more Gaufres, but then realized that if I did so, I'd simply take them home and eat them, and not necessarily with much help. And it's not as if the Belgians are known for their health food. So I resisted the temptation... this time.

November 10, 2007

Pictures from Giverny

While in Paris, we rented a car for a day trip to Claude Monet's home and gardens at Giverny.

Giverny Flower

A flower.

Water Lily Pond

The water lily pond.

Japanese Bridge at Giverny

The Japanese bridge. Monet's house and gardens fell into disrepair after his death and had to be restored based on records and -- naturally -- his pictures.

Giverny Bee

A bee.

Monet's House

Monet's house. The picture doesn't do justice to how beautiful this view was in person.

It was the last day of the year that the gardens were open for viewing. Being so late in the year, a recent frost had killed many of the flowers. Despite this, it was still spectacularly beautiful, and made us want to go back to see the gardens in the spring, in full bloom. I can't recommend a visit highly enough -- even if you're occasionally art appreciation-challenged as I am.

November 04, 2007

Lunch at L'Arpège

When we were preparing for our trip to Paris, I realized that this would be a great opportunity to knock off one of my 100 things to do in life (actually, it's up to 129 now, with 31 done, 98 to go), which was to dine at a Michelin three-star restaurant. (I considered making a trip to The French Laundry during a vacation in Sonoma Valley last year, but let it go.) Missy is far more tuned into good food than I am -- not only is she an excellent cook, but she can identify all sorts of ingredients in dishes she's served, and she can remember entire multi-course meals. So I left it to her to choose the restaurant, and she chose l'Arpège, Alain Passard's three-star destination in the seventh arrondissement.

During the meal, I realized I wouldn't be able to do it justice here, so asked Missy if she'd write a guest blog entry for me. She kindly agreed, and the results are below.

L'Arpège

A guest blog by Missy

When Frank brought up the idea that we should try a Michelin three-star restaurant on our trip to Paris, I was both ecstatic and terrified. I am a budget traveler. Having friends in several international cities has afforded me the the opportunity and local insight to have some of the best meals that €50-60 can buy... but for me, a €60 dinner is a huge extravagance, which is countered by several days living on €3 sandwiches, crepes, and fruit from the market. The idea that one meal could cost what I would normally budget for an entire week's vacation spending was more than a little intimidating... even if I wasn't the one paying for it.

It's something that he'd always wanted to do, and if you're going to do it, what better place that Paris? First, I thought he was kidding. Then a slight wave of panic set in. Do I have nice enough clothes? Will I pick up the wrong fork? And most importantly, would my slightly-less-refined-than-the-average-Pigalle-whore-palate be able to appreciate the subtleties of three-star cooking enough to make it worth the cost?

I found myself getting dressed for lunch at l'Arpège. I was intimidated, but very much anticipating the experience.

We started with a glass of champagne. A very large slab of salty butter (from Breton) was placed in the middle of our table, and I wondered why anyone would need that much butter. Then started what we came to call "the bread game". Throughout the meal, the moment either one of us picked up our crusty slice of house-made bread to butter it... it was replaced with another. I tried just pulling a small piece of the bread off and leaving most of the slice on the plate, but that didn't work well either. They just left a smaller piece... but another piece nonetheless. And despite my first thoughts… we made it through most of the butter.

At the end of the meal, the bread game gave way to the cookie game. We were presented a tray of different cookies, and thinking it would be rude not to finish, I made Frank eat one of my cookies since I was full. Less than a minute later... it was whisked away and another left in its place "just in case" we wanted more.

The bread game is just part of the service that makes a three-star restaurant. The service is exquisite. They manage to anticipate every need (even the needs we didn't yet realize we had) without being intrusive. There are approximately 20 tables on the main floor, and there were at least 12 members of the waitstaff buzzing in the dining room at any given moment, and I'm pretty sure we were served something by nearly every one of them.

But, oh the food. Every single bite of every dish was magical. We both ordered the prix fixe lunch menu. But before our food arrived, we were offered an amuse bouche, then the larger mise en bouche.

Looking back, I don't think that we could have made a better choice in restaurants. Despite being an avowed meat-a-saurus, I really love vegetables... which just so happen to be the main focus at l'Arpège. All the vegetables served at l'Arpège are grown organically in Chef Alain Passard's garden outside of Paris. They are shipped in fresh every morning by high-speed train. Once in the kitchen, the things he does with vegetables are nothing short of amazing. My favorite course was the celeriac (celery root) tagliatelle with a light herb sauce. It wasn't pasta made with celeriac... it was made from celeriac. Perfectly formed pasta shaved from a lumpy root. Simply amazing. And who'd have thought you could put green tomatoes in dessert, or put artichoke in a cookie? I think I heard Frank say "this is the best I've ever had" during almost every course.

In the end, my intimidation was unfounded. I was dressed much nicer than the rapper dude and his music industry entourage at the table across the room. They changed flatware with each course, so I only had one fork to choose from at any given moment, and my palate appreciated every magical bite of that meal.

But the very best part of the experience was when Chef Passard came out into the dining room to have his lunch. He graciously signed a copy of the menu for us, which will soon be framed and hanging somewhere in Frank's house, and we were able to thank him personally for the wonderful meal. Ok, actually... Frank thanked him personally while I was petting the rapper dude's cute little dog.

So I shall send my compliments to the chef via this blog entry, and say merci beaucoup à mon beau copain for treating me to such an amazing meal and an unbelievably lovely week in Paris.

The entire content of the Frank and Missy lunch at l'Arpège (mind you, these all sound better in French, and they taste much much better than they sound):

Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve champagne.

2002 Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru (Pinot Noir).

Housemade bread with salted Breton butter (a lot of it).

Amuse bouche – a fried parsnip "cup" with a thin slice of a carrot, then topped with a tiny perfect beet square.

Mise en bouche – poached egg flavored with maple syrup and cider vinegar.

Course 1 – creamed rutabaga soup with whipped salted cream.

Course 2 – roasted beet with chocolate sauce and sea salt.

Course 3 – sautéed spinach, carrot puree, and lime chutney.

Course 4 – celery root tagliatelle with mustard and herb sauce.

Course 5 – assorted roasted baby vegetables.

Course 6 – pan-roasted scallops (Frank); roast duck (Missy).

Cheese course – this wasn't included in the prix fixe menu, but they rolled a cart over with at least 20 fantastic looking varieties of cheese, and we couldn't say no. We let the waiter pick, and it was goooood.

Course 7 – green tomato mille feuille with lemongrass ice cream.

Course 8 – A plate of cookies including green tomato and artichoke macarons.

Coffee (Frank); mint tea (Missy).

I have very little to add to this -- just a few notes here and there.

The service was the best I've ever had in a restaurant, and I've had some good service over the years. It wasn't just the bread game that Missy describes, or the fact that they somehow managed to refill my wine and sparkling water without me noticing. When our primary server introduced herself, I spoke in French at first, but asked if she could speak in English. She claimed that my French was far better than her English, but said she would give it a try, and then proceeded to speak perfectly fluent English. But what truly impressed me was that she adapted perfectly to us both. Missy speaks a smattering of French, and I'm at something like the second-year or early third-year college level, and our server seemed to know exactly when to speak in French to each of us, and when to revert to English because the wording would be too complex.

In terms of the things I thought were the best of their type I'd ever had, to be specific, there was the champagne (which, thankfully, I've found an online source of by the bottle or case since our meal), the butter, the beet, the duck, and the mille feuille. Oh, and one of the cheeses we were served was the best I've ever had. Missy will almost certainly remember the name; I don't, only that it was a hard cheese, perfectly salty, sliced at our table from the largest cheese round I've ever seen.

Coincidentally, over lunch, Missy and I had been talking about the issue of introducing oneself to celebrities in restaurants -- would we do so? The conclusion was that it's a tricky thing, because you don't want to intrude on someone's private life. When Chef Passard came out to have his own lunch, taking a corner table, we weren't sure at first that it was him we were seeing. As we were getting ready to leave, I spoke to our server in French, in a low voice:

Me: Is that gentleman over there the chef?

Server: Yes, it is.

Me: I wouldn't want to disturb him, but would you tell him that we found the meal to be extraordinary?

Server: I will do so, but you would not disturb him at all.

Me: You are sure?

Server: Oh, yes.

So I didn't feel bad in walking over, pardoning the intrusion, and thanking Chef Passard for the extraordinary cuisine. He was gracious and accepted the compliment with pleasure.

I can't recommend l'Arpège highly enough. It's expensive, to be sure -- on a per-person basis, with the weak dollar, it cost about three times as much as I had ever paid for a meal before -- but you owe it to yourself to have an experience like that at least once in life.

Finally, thanks to Missy for writing such a great guest blog entry, and especially for being such a stylish companion at lunch.

November 02, 2007

Pictures from Paris

A few pictures from one of my favorite cities...

Rue de la Huchette at Night

The street on which we're staying, the always-lively rue de la Huchette, as seen through the plastic sheets keeping in the warm air for our cafe seats at a restaurant just a few steps from our apartment.

Rainy Day in Paris

A rainy day as seen at the intersection of rue de la Pépinière and boulevard Haussman.

The Seine at Night

The Seine at night, looking towards the Eiffel Tower.

Parisian Sidewalk

A sidewalk along boulevard de la Tour Maubourg.

Rue Saint-Dominique

The Eiffel Tower as seen from rue Saint-Dominique.

Flowers on Rue Cler

The display in front of a flower shop on rue Cler.

November 01, 2007

Paris Is Paris

As noted, my girlfriend and I spent a quick day and a half in Barcelona last weekend before moving on to Paris. I didn't have much time there, but from what little I saw of Barcelona, the food was great and the weather was practically perfect. That said, we had issues there. The dinner venue had to be changed at the last minute -- our host told us that the original restaurant had bumped us in favor of a larger party. We didn't drink all that much, but the rich food and wine hit Missy like a ton of bricks the next morning, poor thing. And then while I was off walking La Rambla, she spent an unexpectedly long two hours on buses to have only five minutes with an old friend.

From the moment we arrived in Paris, though, everything has been right. Sunday evening, our taxi driver warned us that the trip in from Orly might take as long as an hour and a half, but we made it in 20 minutes. Monday, we spent all afternoon walking in the rain and loved every moment of it. We stopped for hot chocolate at Angelina and it was the best I'd ever had. Tuesday, we had dinner at the home of my friends Jean and Martine and the food and the welcome were both extraordinary. Wednesday, we drove out to Claude Monet's home in Giverny and were blessed with the best weather we could have possibly hoped for so late in the season. Today, we had lunch with Jean and Martine at Les Ombres, where the setting and the meal were both tremendous -- Jean was predicting it would soon have its first Michelin star.

I can't explain why everything is going so smoothly in Paris. It probably has something to do with the fact that I have extraordinarily kind friends here, so we're not alone. It probably has something to do with the fact that my French is getting better and better, so I feel more comfortable. But in the end, I can't fully explain it. I guess it's just that Paris is Paris.

The Best Hot Chocolate in the World?

Monday, we were walking down the rue de Rivoli when we came upon Angelina. "This place," said Missy, "has the best hot chocolate in the universe." Solely in the interest of blogging material, in we went.

Angelina has a stunning array of pastries, and a more-than-serviceable lunch and dinner menu, but what they're famous for is their hot chocolate, especially their signature drink: un chocolat à l'ancienne dit "L'africain". When you order it, you're given a small pot of the chocolate, a cup, a spoon, and a bit of crème chantilly on the side.

The chocolate isn't overly hot -- I'd call it warm at best. But it's the thickest hot chocolate I've ever seen. It's the thickest hot chocolate I can imagine. Seriously, it's as if the restaurant takes blocks of chocolate, melts them down, and cuts the result with just enough cream to keep it liquid as it's being served. It's probably the most decadent thing I've ever had. The pot contains enough chocolate for two cups each for two people, and after my two, with the obligatory dollops of crème chantilly, I was actually feeling a bit light-headed -- it was probably the most sugar I've had at a single sitting in years.

So was it the best hot chocolate in the world? As with the sandwich at Viena, I can't say. But it was the best hot chocolate I've ever had, and I can't begin to think of what would take second place.

I didn't take any pictures inside, but here's the front of the restaurant:

Angelina

Of course, I need pictures of the actual chocolate serving, so we're going back later this week -- once again, solely in the interest of blogging.

You can try this hot chocolate for yourself at:

Angelina
226, rue de Rivoli
75001 Paris
Tel: 01 42 96 47 10

October 31, 2007

Eating "The Best Sandwich in the World"

After a quick day and a half in Barcelona over the weekend, I'm now in Paris and starting to catch up on my trip blogging.

Last week, I blogged about the Barcelona restaurant Viena, where New York Times food critic Mark Bittman had eaten what he called "the best sandwich in the world". While there, I had to try it, so I made a trip to La Rambla to visit Viena for a flauta d'ibéric d.o. jabugo.

Viena

So how was it? It wasn't the best sandwich I've ever had -- but it was very good. What was impressive was how simple it was: a bread roll that was nearly perfect, with a crunchy, almost crackling shell and soft interior; crushed tomatoes; possibly a bit of olive oil (or oil in which the tomatoes might have been packed); and of course, the salt-cured Iberian pork, sliced as thinly as possible. Highly recommended (even if I still prefer the sandwich I had at Barndiva last year).

As you might expect, Viena is making the most of their glowing review:

Viena Quotes Bittman

October 26, 2007

Off to Barcelona and Paris

I'm off for a week's vacation in Europe -- a quick 36 hours in Barcelona, then a week in Paris. For those of you in the Southeast, from which I departed today, enjoy the much-needed rain (it was deluge-like all day).

I'll report back here on the sandwiches and foie gras in Barcelona, and on the fireplaces and home-cooked meals in Paris.

October 21, 2007

The Best Sandwich in the World?

A week from today, I'll be in Barcelona with my girlfriend -- a quick 36-hour stop on our way to a week in Paris.

A few days ago, I was skimming through an episode of Mark Bittman's series The Best Recipes in the World (after his book of the same name) and noticed he headed for Barcelona. He visted a restaurant on La Rambla called Café Viena, where he ordered a flauta d'ibéric d.o. jabugo -- a salt-cured ham sandwich that he pronounced the best in the world. Not the best ham sandwich, but the best sandwich, period. Here it is in its porcine glory from his review in The New York Times:

The Best Sandwich in the World?
I'm not qualified to say whether it's the best sandwich in the world. No one is, including Bittman. But I'll report back if it's the best sandwich I've ever had. It will have tough competition: last year, I had a barbecue short rib sandwich at Barndiva in Healdsburg, CA that I immediately pronounced the best sandwich of my life. We'll see.

June 07, 2007

Flying Is Hell These Days

Duncan and I are flying home from our brief vacation today, and while the vacation itself was great -- mountain biking in Whistler, catching up with old friends in Vancouver and Seattle, seeing The Police in concert -- the flights on both ends have been wretched.

Our plan last Saturday was to fly into Seattle, rent a car there, drive up to Vancouver for dinner, then drive up to Whistler and check into our hotel. We arrived in Chicago to find that our flight to Seattle had been cancelled, and that there were no seats on the next available flight. The best United could do was to get us into Seattle five hours late. By that time, it would have been 5:30 PM, and we would have faced five to six hours of driving plus a dinner break. So, I suggested, why not just fly us into Vancouver instead? There was an earlier flight with seats available, and by not driving from Seattle to Vancouver, we'd end up just about even. They agreed, but it meant (for rental car purposes) that we had to fly out of Vancouver on the way back as well. So be it. My one concern was our bags, but the Red Carpet Club agent assured me that there was plenty of time for the baggage people to change their destination and get them to the right plane. Fine.

Of course, we arrived in Vancouver without bags. The baggage agent assured me that the bags would either be on the next flight to Vancouver, or were on their way to Seattle, and that either way, they'd be delivered to us in the middle of the night. Fine.

Of course, our bags didn't show up during the night. This led to multiple phone calls to United's baggage service line. Unlike the elite flier phone lines, the baggage service call center is located in India, staffed by people who read from apologetic, supplicating scripts, but who are empowered to do exactly nothing. They told me that at least one or two of our bags, and possibly all three, would be delivered that afternoon. Fine.

Of course, our bags didn't show up that afternoon, and anyway, we didn't want to miss our day of mountain biking, so we went ahead and purchased clothing for the day (for which, theoretically, United will partially reimburse us). Our bags showed up in the middle of the following night, almost 36 hours late, and just a few hours before we had to leave.

Today we're flying back home. It has been a long day already -- we didn't get out of the parking lot after The Police concert until after 11:00 PM. With a 6:20 AM departure, and a two-and-a-half or three-hour drive, it didn't make sense to stay in a hotel, so we had dinner along the way, pulled into a rest stop for a bit, and arrived at the airport just after 4:00 AM. The flight to Chicago was fine, but we arrived to discover that for the second time on the same trip, our connecting flight had been cancelled. High winds are causing problems all throughout the East, leading to hundreds of cancellations. We're on standby for a flight at 4:30 PM; if we don't make it onto that, we'll be placed on standby for a flight at 6:00 PM; and if we don't make it onto that, we'll be placed on standby for a 9:00 PM flight. If we don't make it onto that, we're stuck here for the night, with no bags -- they're going onto Raleigh-Durham with or without us. And no hotel voucher, either, since it isn't the airline's fault. And if we have to fly back tomorrow, we won't be flying together -- there weren't two seats available on the same flight until tomorrow night.

Flying really is hell these days. The scary part is that I'm experienced, have been through this sort of thing, have an idea of what to expect, and have elite status with multiple airlines. How rough is this on the average traveler?

June 04, 2007

Whistler Mountain Bike Park

Our time in Whistler is over, and we're now in Seattle. A few photos from our time there:

Bike Park, Here We Come

The Whistler Mountain Bike Park as seen from our room in the Sundial Boutique Hotel.

Duncan

Duncan taking a break on the mountain.

Whistler Mountain Bike Park

Whistler Mountain Bike Park.

On the mountain, Duncan fell more often, but far more gracefully -- he'd jump off his bike in mid-fall and generally land on his feet, and walked away essentially bruise-free. Me? I went down twice, but each time I went down hard. The first time I fell, I tumbled, and when I righted myself, I saw two long cuts running down my left thigh. They weren't bad, but blood was beginning to run from them. I looked at the cuts for a moment and thought, "Cool!"

As we were gearing up at the rental store in the morning, I remember wondering if I really needed all the protective gear -- the helmet was a given, but forearm-elbow pads and shin-knee pads? Later in the day, I wondered, "What would have happened if I hadn't worn the gear?" Let's say it wouldn't have been pretty and leave it at that.

June 01, 2007

Off to the Pacific Northwest

Tomorrow morning, my son Duncan and I are off to the Pacific Northwest. We're going to spend two nights in Whistler so that we can go mountain biking on Whistler Mountain (something I've wanted to do for years now). Then it's three nights in Seattle, where we're going to visit friends, bike the Burke Gilman Trail, do some sightseeing, and then see The Police in concert at Key Arena. Bon week-end!

May 29, 2007

Doune Castle

One thing I didn't have the opportunity to do in Scotland was to visit a castle. It was something I wanted to do, but there was so much to do that it just sort of slipped away. A few weeks after my return, I received a message from my host Richard Harris:

We went down this weekend to see our local castle -- Doune Castle.

It's a lovely Roman -> 14th century building but, as we walked up to it, it did seem strangely familiar. I couldn't however place it until we got inside and, at the ticket desk, discovered that they were passing out pairs of coconut shells to any visitor who wanted them.

And many did -- the courtyard echoed to lines of Swedes and Germans all solemnly clip-clopping their way around the walls and towers of the old place. Yep -- it was where Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed... Pity I hadn't realised that before you came over!

Doune Castle is in Stirling, which is on the route from Richard's town of Balquhidder down to Edinburgh. I hadn't known the story that when permission to film at various castles was revoked at the last minute, the Holy Grail producers decided to film Doune Castle from a variety of angles, so that it served as most of the castles in the film.

April 30, 2007

Rob Roy

While I was in Scotland, my hosts, Richard and Gill, and I watched Rob Roy, all of us for the first time, though they live only a mile or so from Rob Roy's grave in the churchyard in the village of Balquhidder.

Rob Roy
Their opinion of it was that it wasn't at all historically accurate, but that it nonetheless did a good job of portraying the kind of man they thought Rob Roy to be, and the times he lived in. They also felt it was far better than that other film of Scotland, Braveheart. When I asked why, they talked about how Braveheart perpetuated every cliché about the Scots. The next night, neighbors of theirs visited for dinner -- people who live in a house built on the site of a house once owned by Rob Roy himself. When they heard what we had watched the night before, the husband said, "Good film, that. Much better than Braveheart." Apparently that's a sentiment of Scots, of Highlanders, or perhaps just of the residents of Balquhidder.

I had visited Rob Roy's grave earlier in the week, but having seen the movie, I stopped by it once again during a hike the last morning of my stay. It was early and there was no one out -- Balquhidder is a sleepy village at the best of times, doubly so before breakfast.

Robert Roy MacGregor

I stood in front of his grave and said aloud, "If you were half the man I saw in that movie, I salute you," then did so. It seemed the right thing to do.

While doing research for this entry, I found a poem by William Wordsworth, "Rob Roy's Grave", which I hadn't known of before. The poem opens with these lines:

A FAMOUS man is Robin Hood,
The English ballad-singer's joy!
And Scotland has a thief as good,
An outlaw of as daring mood;
She has her brave ROB ROY!
Then clear the weeds from off his Grave,
And let us chant a passing stave,
In honour of that Hero brave!

April 23, 2007

Impressions of Scotland

I'm near the end of my fifth day in the Scottish Highlands. I can tell already I'll miss being here when I'm gone.

Everyone I've met -- not just my wonderful hosts, Richard and Gill, but their friends and acquaintances as well -- has been kind and gracious. If all Scotland is this welcoming, it's even more extraordinary than I know.

Scottish Pasture

I can't get over how completely, how inescapably, how finally green it is here. It's greener than the Puget Sound area of Washington, or the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, and those are green places to be sure. I mentioned to Richard and Gill the apocryphal story about Eskimos having 23 (or 42, or more) words for snow, and said that perhaps Scots should have 23 words for different shades of green.

Loch Voil

The loch beside which Richard and Gill live, Loch Voil, is small but utterly fits with my vision of a Scottish loch -- narrow (less than 500 meters at its widest) and long (about 6 kilometers), steep hills on either side, with just enough room for small sheep farms along the slopes.

The roads here remind me of those in the Dordogne: narrow and twisting, and people drive them fast. They're great fun when in Richard's BMW station wagon or Gill's Golf, but I wouldn't want to think about driving a lumbering SUV, much less a tractor-trailer along them -- and yet the roads are packed with such vehicles.

The food here is good, even very good. Richard and Gill's favorite pub down the road, The Munro Inn -- equipped with free computers, a library, and HDTV -- does a good steak sandwich and chips, I have to say. In Killin, at The Falls of Dochart Inn, I had an outstanding meal of oatmeal-crusted salmon in Drambuie sauce, with sticky toffee pudding for dessert. (If only they had let us take our food in the pub area, with the fireplace roaring behind us, rather than in the less-atmospheric dining room -- but that's picking nits.)

I can't imagine a better introduction to a place than to be welcomed by natives who warmly open their doors to a visitor, introducing him to their friends and neighbors, showing off their country to him with pride, and patiently answering his every question, no matter how inane it might sound. I'm incredibly fortunate to have this time here.

April 18, 2007

Off to Scotland

I'm off to Scotland for a week's stay with my friend Richard Harris, who recently purchased a home on the shores of Loch Voil, in the village of Balquhidder, about an hour north of Edinburgh. Our plan is to use our time together to brainstorm, hike in the surrounding hills, and drink great Scottish beer -- if I'm lucky, in about equal proportions.

April 12, 2007

Life Is Still Good

Waking up to the first day of a short break with my brother and sister-in-law in Austin.

Coffee and a cranberry orange scone for breakfast at Starbucks.

On a picture-perfect springtime-in-Austin day, lunch at Chuy's Hula Hut on the banks of Lake Austin -- grilled salmon tacos and a Corona Light.

Working out with my brother at Life Time Fitness -- my first look at a branch of my new gym, opening at home next month.

A dinner of smoked chipotle salmon, artichoke-feta-lemon fritters, and steamed asparagus, all picked up at the Whole Foods landmark store earlier in the day.

Dessert at Amy's, my favorite mix-in ice cream anywhere -- malted vanilla with Nutter Butters and Reese's cups for me.

Watching Casino Royale in high definition.

That's two amazingly good days in the last week -- and the days in between weren't bad.

Life is still good.

In the end, I think maybe it always is.

April 08, 2007

Life Is Good

An exit row seat with the middle seat empty on my flight from Chicago to Seattle.

A room at the new Silver Cloud Inn across from Safeco Field, upscale and a great bargain.

A beer and calamari strips while watching the end of The Masters at Pyramid Alehouse across the street.

A coffee at the original Starbucks.

Walking in off the street without reservations and nabbing a window table at Etta's Seafood, on Easter Sunday, no less.

Seared rare albacore tuna with sesame noodle cake for dinner.

Life is indeed good.

RDU-SEA-SFO-AUS-RDU

I'm off this morning for two days of meetings in Seattle, a day of meetings in San Francisco, and then four days with my brother and sister-in-law in Austin. A bit whirlwind, but I'm looking forward to all of it.

April 05, 2007

The Kora of Mount Kailash

When I wrote this entry about seeing The Police in concert this summer, I wrote that I had 119 goals in life, with 26 down, leaving 93 to go. Make that 122 goals, 26 down, and 96 to go -- I forgot visiting Nepal, visiting Tibet, and making the kora around Mount Kailash.

Mount Kailash is a holy site for multiple religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Bön. All these religions hold that circumambulating (circling on foot) Kailash, known as the kora, has special significance. Buddhists believe that making one kora washes away the sins of a lifetime. (They also believe that 108 kora confer instant nirvana.)

The summit of Kailash is 6,638 meters. The various religions that revere Kailash believe that to climb to its peak would be sacreligious, and it's not clear whether this has ever been done. The highest point of the kora is a pass at 5,630 meters. There is an inner kora that leads to a special pilgrimage site at 6,096 meters, Serdung Chuksum, the Cave of the Thirteen Golden Chortens. By tradition, this inner kora cannot be attempted unless one has made 13 kora (also known as the outer kora).

Luckily for those of us with busy schedules, there's a Buddhist Monopoly "get out of jail free" card. Every 12 years, during the Year of the Horse, one outer kora counts for 13, so one trip around Kailash and you get to attempt the inner kora. (There's an excerpt from a good National Geographic Adventure article on the topic here.)

According to the Chinese astrological calendar, the next Year of the Horse runs 31 January 2014 to 18 February 2015. I don't know if I'll be capable of attempting the inner kora -- even the outer kora is said to be extremely difficult. But if one were planning on going, going during the Year of the Horse would at least give the option of attempting the inner kora -- and how many people in the world can say they've been to Serdung Chuksum?

The obvious question in all this is "why?" I've long considered myself agnostic, though truth be told, I'm closer to atheism than agnosticism. If I don't believe in Buddhism, or nirvana, why make the kora? The answer for me is that I can appreciate the symbolism of a religion without accepting its core beliefs. It's why I ritually cleanse myself before entering a Shinto shrine in Japan (link here, scroll to the bottom of the page). And while I may not believe in the supernatural aspects of any religion, I have particular respect for Buddhism as a philosophy. One doesn't have to be mystical to see the principle of karma at work every single day.

So I'll go to Tibet, make the journey to Kailash, and attempt the outer kora. If I make it, I may go on to try the inner kora. And while I won't literally believe that the sins of my lifetime are being washed away, I'll appreciate the symbolism of it all. I'll admire the faithful who make the kora without North Face jackets, without Vasque boots, without LaraBars or Jetboils or Katadyns. I'll be amazed by the faithful who make the entire journey prostrate, crawling their way around their holiest peak. And I'll come back a different person.

In what way I'll come back different, I have no idea.

May 28, 2006

"Only Once?"

In the café of the Great Court of the British Museum, London, earlier this week:

Me: My friend Richard Boyd says that you can fall in love once a day on the Tube.

Richard Harris: Only once?

Fortress America

Fortress America

The US Embassy, Grosvenor Square, London.

Whatever the justification for this, as an American, it's embarrassing.

May 26, 2006

YO! Sushi

YO! Sushi is a British chain of hipster sushi-on-a-conveyor-belt (kaiten) restaurants. The decor was cool, the music good, the sushi tasty, the prices reasonable, and how could I resist still and sparkling water taps at each table?

YO! Sushi 2

I miss it already.

The Great Court

Two views of the Great Court at the British Museum:

The Great Court 4

The Great Court 5

My friend Richard Harris took me here for coffee and cakes in the cafe beneath the roof. It's spectacular -- a truly wonderful public space. More on the Great Court here; all my pictures of it here.

May 25, 2006

Surrey

Surrey

A village in Surrey, as seen from seat 34A, AA 174, RDU-LGW.

May 23, 2006

Off to London

I'm off to London this afternoon, to speak at Apply Serious Games 2006. I'll be giving a talk Thursday morning and then sitting on a panel that afternoon.

May 13, 2006

Whole Foods' Landmark Store

Yesterday my brother Eric and sister-in-law Karin took me to visit Whole Foods Market's new landmark store in downtown Austin. It didn't disappoint. According to Whole Foods' Website, the landmark store is their largest at 80,000 square feet, compared to an average store size of 32,000 square feet. The ready-to-eat section is staggering -- made-to-order sandwiches, made-fresh noodle and rice bowls, pizza, hot dishes, smoothies, gelato, desserts -- and that's not counting a separate seafood bar where customers can dine on freshly grilled salmon and halibut burgers. Walk-through refrigerated beer section? Check. There are two levels of below-ground parking, with grocery cart-capable moving walkways. Suddenly my Whole Foods Market at home feels horribly inadequate.

Whole Foods 1

The front of the store.

Whole Foods 2

One of two outdoor dining areas -- the other is on the roof.

Whole Foods 3

Eric: "Did you see the Doom-slash-Half-Life 2 scene back there?"

Whole Foods 4

The amazing candy counter -- complete with selections from Fran's Chocolates of Seattle.

Whole Foods 5

The most tantalizing display of gelato I've ever seen, including while in Italy. Top-center-right, with chile peppers stuck in it, is chocolate chipotle -- wow.

If you're ever in Austin, I highly recommend a visit. If shopping is increasingly entertainment, this is the cutting edge of the trend when it comes to groceries.

May 12, 2006

Chuy's

Chuy's is an Austin tradition for Mexican food -- it's hip and funky and fun. It wasn't the best Mexican food I've ever had, not even close -- that honor would belong to Border Grill -- but the atmosphere made for a great time.

Chuy's

The entrance.

Chuy's Hubcaps

Hubcaps on the ceiling.

Mount Rainier

I'm just now starting to catch up with my blogging. I'm with family in Austin at the moment, having visited Louisville, Seattle, San Jose, and Los Angeles so far on this trip. The nicest moment in the air was seeing Mount Rainier -- not guaranteed on every flight into Seattle, but it's nice when it happens, especially when flying so close you feel like you can reach out and touch it (not this time).

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier, as seen from seat 7A, UA 343, ORD-SEA.

April 20, 2006

TOWER23

I've been meaning to blog about this hotel since I stayed there last November... but better five and a half months late than never. The TOWER23 hotel isn't the most luxurious hotel at which I've ever stayed (though it's in the top five), but it's without a doubt the hippest.

The TOWER23 hotel is an anomaly, an ultramodern hotel set in a bit of a funky beach town (the Pacific Beach area of San Diego). There's nothing nearby that's like it -- accomodations in the area range from mid-range condominiums to dilapidated cottages set on a pier. But the setting doesn't detract from the TOWER23, and in fact seems to bring it into sharper relief.

I had an oceanfront room, a "Surf Pad," which was delightful. The bathroom was stylish, the shower large and equipped with a rain-style head. The bed was one of the two or three most comfortable I've ever slept on. The flat panel TV was good, and I used the Xbox to play DVDs that I had brought with me (you can borrow movies from the front desk, or there's a Blockbuster next door). The room had both wired and wireless connections to the hotel's free Internet service.

But the star of the room was the view -- a third-story, top-floor view of the boardwalk, the beach, and the ocean. Sunsets were absolutely spectacular.

The TOWER23 has its own oceanview restaurant, JRDN. I had excellent sushi rolls there on two occasions, and the breakfasts were some of the best I've had in the last few years, and reasonably priced. At night, JRDN becomes a popular club -- be prepared to get your Banana Republic on.

The hotel has a second-floor deck with comfortable seating and a fire pit, the modern style with flames dancing over sand. I spent some pleasant evenings there drinking cocktails brought up from the club below.

I wouldn't recommend the TOWER23 for people who want a very quiet hotel. Although the rooms are soundproofed quite well, once JRDN becomes a club at night, it becomes fairly loud, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. This wasn't an issue for me, but I can see some people having problems with it. Nor would I recommend the hotel for people with small children -- the beach is really the only place for them to run around, as there's no pool or playspace of any kind -- it's just not that kind of hotel.

To San Diego visitors looking for a beachfront hotel, a trendy place to stay, or a hotel where one can party into the wee hours, I can't recommend the TOWER23 highly enough. It's less expensive than many of the dull mega-hotels in the city (especially if reserved along with flights on Orbitz), but with better rooms and polite, boutique-style service.

TOWER23

TOWER23.

TOWER23 from the Beach

The hotel as seen from the beach below.

Balcony View

The view from the balcony of a "Surf Pad" room.

April 17, 2006

"The Flying World Chortles at You, Man in 9F"

From Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column, today's travel note of the week:

Continental Flight 1503, LAX to Newark, Sunday afternoon:

Flight attendant, passing trays of dinner in coach, says to man in 9F: "Dinner, sir? It's pizza.''

Man in 9F: "What else do you have?''

The flying world chortles at you, Man in 9F.

I'm chortling right along with Peter. When a meal is served on a flight, and the flight attendant tells you it's pizza, you don't question it -- you thank the Airline Meal Gods. Then, depending on how bad your luck has been with airline meals of late, you promise anything from a small sacrifice in the gods' honor to devoting the rest of your life to serving them.

March 19, 2006

The Outer Bay

I spent this morning at my favorite aquarium in the world, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It was my first time there in years, and once inside, I went straight for my favorite spot, the Outer Bay exhibit -- home to an acrylic window that's 54 feet wide by 15 feet tall, 13 inches thick, weighing 78,000 pounds, holding back 1.2 million gallons of seawater.

The Outer Bay

The Outer Bay exhibit.

Standing directly in front of the window, it encompasses one's entire field of vision, which makes the experience incredibly immersive. I plan on learning to scuba dive, but this is as close as I imagine I'll ever get to being in the open ocean, watching schools of yellowfin and bluefin tuna swim by.

March 17, 2006

Off to California Tomorrow

Tomorrow morning, I'm off to California for a week at the Serious Games Summit and the Game Developers Conference. I'll be blogging both as much as I can, so if you're interested, stay tuned here.

It's going to be a busy week -- between the two conferences during the day and catching up with friends over breakfasts and dinners, nearly all my time is spoken for while I'm there. I know I'll come home tired and needing some down time, but happy and enlightened.

Speaking at Apply Serious Games 2006

I'll be speaking at the Apply Serious Games 2006 conference in London this May. The conference runs 25-26 May; my talk will be on the first day:

Abstract Title: Game Engine-Based Instruction: A Nuclear Submarine Security Case Study

This presentation is an in-depth look at a serious game project from conception to shipment, a force protection and anti-terrorism training tool developed for the Submarine On-Board Training (SOBT) group within the US Naval Submarine School (NAVSUBSCOL).

SOBT had previously developed a video-based trainer consisting of a series of simple branching scenarios. As is typical of video-based trainers, modifications after the fact to reflect changing conditions (e.g., changing doctrine) were difficult. The solution was a simulation-based engine using a role playing game (RPG)-style user interface, with editable XML-based scenario definition files. In the first phase of the project, the project team replicated the 17 scenarios of the original video-based product; in the second phase, the team extended these scenarios from the exterior of the submarine to include 5 new scenarios taking place within a detailed model of the submarine interior.

This presentation will include experiences and lessons learned, both business and development, and from the perspectives of both the developer and the customer.

It should be a fun conference, and it has been far too long since I've been in London. Actually, I just went to look it up and I haven't stayed in London (I'm not counting connecting through Heathrow) since May 1998 -- that will be eight years by the time of my trip. It's funny -- I've been to Paris many times since then, and to Tokyo too many times to count (it's over 10), but somehow London fell off the radar. It will be good to get back.

March 14, 2006

How to Get Exit Row Seating

Via InFlightHQ, a column on Microsoft's Small Business Center on getting the best seat on a plane:

The best seats on the plane are sometimes not in first class. Talk to the most frequent business travelers, and they'll probably agree. The ideal seat is usually in the exit row of economy class. Frequent business travelers dream of having that row, which often boasts more legroom than a first-class or business-class seat, all to themselves. It's also child-free, so they can get their work done in peace and quiet. And what if they don't get it? The bulkhead seat in economy class (that's the one just before the line separating economy from first) is a choice assignment. Beyond that, experienced air travelers normally opt for the front section of economy class (there's less engine noise) or they use their frequent flier miles to score an upgrade into the next class of service.

Tip: As you can imagine, these coveted seats go quickly. They are blocked off for frequent fliers and often, they aren't released until a few hours before the flight is scheduled to depart. It's best to reserve a seat in economy class, arrive at the airport early, and then ask a ticket agent if there's any availability in an exit row.

The author is right; exit row seats are often (though not always) the best seats on the aircraft. But his tips for grabbing those seats are incomplete at best. On most US airlines, you'll have to be lucky to get exit row seating at the airport these days, no matter how early you get there. So how to get it?

If you have elite status with an airline, it's easy. Most (if not all) US airlines allow their elite travelers to reserve exit row seating at any time prior to 24 hours before departure. You don't need super-elite status; any will do. So focus enough of your flying to get at least the lowest level of elite status with one airline -- preferably the airline most convenient to your travel needs.

If you can't do that, or if you have to fly on another airline, here's the secret: most (if not all) US airlines allow Web check-in, and treat it just as if you were checking in at the airport -- in other words, those exit row seats that were formerly unavailable except to elite travelers become available to anyone who meets the safety criteria. And most US airlines allow Web check-in beginning 24 hours prior to departure of the first flight of your trip. So set a reminder for yourself 24 hours prior to departure. When that reminder sounds, go to the airline's Website and check in. You should be able to grab an exit row seat then -- it's your best shot.

Note that these rules change for some non-US airlines. As of this writing, Air Canada, for example, works exactly as described above, while Air France only allows exit row seat assignment at the airport, so it's a matter of getting there as early as you can tolerate to have the best chance at a good seat. Check with your airline well before traveling to determine the rules.

February 25, 2006

In My Native State

I'm in the state of my birth for a quick weekend with friends.

Back in the Bay Area

UA 217, IAD-SFO, over San Francisco Bay.

FSM

An innocuous car ahead of me in traffic... but check out the badge on the back.

FSM Close-Up

It's the Flying Spaghetti Monster! Now I know I'm in California again. I see the occasional Darwin badge in North Carolina, but if Pastafarians live there, they don't advertise themselves -- but there are lots of pro-Bush bumper stickers. Now that I think about it, I didn't notice a single pro-Bush bumper sticker while driving yesterday. So far in the Bay Area, it's Pastafarians 1, Bush 0.

February 24, 2006

Off to California

I'm off to California this morning for a quick weekend with friends. I spent a long weekend in San Diego last fall, but this will be my first time in the Bay Area since October 2003 -- it's hard to believe it has been that long. My time is completely spoken for at this point, but thankfully, I'm headed out again next month for the Game Developers Conference, and so will have many more opportunities to catch up with friends.

December 30, 2005

Prairie Postmodernism

I had too short a visit to really appreciate it, but I did get to see the newest Smithsonian museum on my trip to Washington this week:

National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC.

It's hard to get a feel of it from this photograph, but in person, it struck me as something like a collaboration between Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry -- an architectural Prairie Postmodernism.

(More information about the design of the museum can be found here and here.)

December 29, 2005

SpaceShipOne

From a very brief trip to Washington, DC, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, now hanging in the entryway of the National Air and Space Museum:

SpaceShipOne

SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed, piloted vehicle to reach space.

What impressed me was how quickly SpaceShipOne made the trip to the Smithsonian. It was just October of last year that it won the Ansari X Prize, and already it's on display.

I'll never get tired of that moment when I first walk into the Air and Space Museum. In that first room, the Milestones of Flight gallery, are the Wright 1903 Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1, Friendship 7, the Apollo 11 Command Module, the Breitling Orbiter 3 Gondola... it's always wondrous to me that so many world-famous aircraft and spacecraft are on display in a single room.

December 02, 2005

The Worst Bump Ever

I've spent too much of my life in airplanes, I think. I was an American Airlines Executive Platinum member for some years, which meant that I was flying at least 100,000 actual air miles per year, and I have plenty of miles on a variety of other frequent flier programs. But in all my years, I've never been involuntarily bumped from a flight. When volunteers were needed, they were always to be found -- including me once or twice when the deal looked good enough. So I've never witnessed someone being denied a seat for which they paid cold hard cash. It would seem that when it happens, it can be a very, very bad thing. This is from a column by Joe Brancatelli in USA Today:

Last Christmas Day, a business traveler and his 13-year-old daughter were involved in an overbooking situation with Continental Airlines on a flight between its Newark hub and Colorado. The traveler, Thatcher A. Stone, planned a one-week ski holiday, an especially important event because Stone is divorced, his daughter lives with her mother and his time with his daughter is limited.

According to Stone, he and his daughter checked in, checked their bags and proceeded to the boarding gate. At that point, Continental said there were no seats for them. The airline's only alternative was flights that would have gotten Stone and his daughter to Colorado just a day before they were scheduled to return. Stone refused.

Continental refunded Stone's $2,000 in tickets, but refused to retrieve the checked luggage, which was packed with winter clothes and skiing gear. In fact, it took three days for Stone to get the luggage back, essentially destroying any chance for a holiday skiing trip with his daughter.

Stone was furious with Continental's treatment. He also vowed to get compensation. But Stone is no average flyer. He's a lawyer. An aviation lawyer, in fact. An aviation lawyer who's also a lecturer at the University of Virginia. Stone's course this semester: Airline Industry and Aviation Law.

The small-claims case was a slam dunk, especially since Continental was represented by a customer-service manager. Manhattan Civil Court Judge Diane Lebedeff awarded Stone $3,110, including $1,360 for his non-refundable, prepaid expenses at the Colorado resort; $1,000 for "inconvenience damages;" and $750 for the loss of the use of the contents of the luggage.

The worst part of this story is where Continental refuses to take his bags off the aircraft. In Stone's position, I would have protested being bumped -- politely at first, then less so as time wore on. But at some point, were I convinced that I wasn't going to be allowed on the plane, I would have resigned myself and asked for my bags. I can only imagine my reaction if they refused. I would have demanded to speak with Continental's station manager. If this person, knowing my situation, flat out refused to take off my bags, therefore ruining my chance for any kind of skiing vacation with my daughter, I would have hit the roof. What kind of person would do that -- refuse to hold a plane just long enough to get bags off knowing that doing so was going to absolutely ruin the vacation of a parent and child who had already had their plans completely disrupted?

December 01, 2005

Portraiture in the Place du Tertre

On a very cold and intermittently rainy day last week, Kelsey and I made our way to Montmartre, taking the funicular up to the Sacré-Coeur. From there, we made the tourist trek a couple of blocks north and slightly down to the Place du Tertre, where artists compete to draw or paint one's portrait. We were cold, and wet, so decided just to walk around a bit and then go on our way -- and then Kelsey found an artist whose work she liked and decided she wanted to sit for a drawing after all. It took about 30 minutes, I think, and for the first 20 or so, I was quite skeptical -- until the drawing suddenly came together, like beating the ingredients for mayonnaise endlessly until it suddenly "takes". The artist was sweet, the portrait turned out beautifully, and Kelsey was delighted.

Portraiture in Montmartre 1

Kelsey having her portrait drawn in the Place du Tertre.

Portraiture in Montmartre 2

The portrait about 5 or 10 minutes from being completed.

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.

October 31, 2005

My Presentation

My panel was highly interactive, consisting mostly of questions and answers between the moderator (Jerry Heneghan of Virtual Heroes) and the panelists (Elaine Raybourn of Sandia National Laboratory, Jeff Taekman of Duke, Priscilla Elfrey of NASA, and me). As a result, I didn't give a single contiguous talk on assessment per se. But if I string together my comments, they would look something like this:

3Dsolve's flagship project, which we finalized this summer, was a project for the US Army Signal Center and School at Fort Gordon, GA. It was 110 hours of simulation-based task training for the 25B10 MOS, Information Systems Operator/Analyst. We've now started work on the follow-on to that, which is 120 hours of instruction for the 25B30-level MOS.

A widely-quoted statistic is that we retain approximately 5 percent of what we hear in a lecture, but retain approximately 75 percent of what we learn through hands-on training. At a 30,000-foot view, our goal is get as close to that 75 percent figure as possible with virtual hands-on training. In that light, assessment for us can be viewed as, "How close to 75 percent are we getting on a per-student basis?"

It's important to keep in mind the distinction between assessment and validation, which are separate concepts, but unfortuately sometimes used interchangably in discussions. Assessment is the process of evaluating the performance of an individual student. Did he/she learn the material? Did he/she achieve the learning objectives? Validation is the process of evaluating the courseware as a whole. Is it valid? Was it properly designed given the learning objectives?

Our task training software for the Signal School uses what is known as the FAPV model: Familiarize, Acquire, Practice, and Validate (this is an unfortunate misuse of the term validate, but then we didn't invent the model). In Familiarize mode, students can explore freely to discover the environment for themselves. In Acquire mode, we guide them through a particular lesson, telling them exactly what to do for each step of the process. In Practice mode, students navigate and interact on their own, but can receive hints from the software as needed. In Validate mode, we provide no hints whatsoever, and the student is expected to be able to execute all lesson steps without assistance.

In both Practice and Validate modes, we track virtually every action taken by the student: Where did he/she go? What did he/she look at? When did he/she take a given action? What did he/she click on and in what sequence? All this data is used for assessment purposes.

We use a documented XML-based format that we developed to define our lessons. A typical lesson might consist of 30-60 individual steps. The student is expected to navigate through the environment as required and perform the steps, which may be linear, non-linear, or a combination of both, depending on the particular lesson. A "happy path" defines the nominal sequence of actions (or sequences for non-linear content) that equate to a correct traversal of the lesson content. We use this same XML-based content not only to guide the student through the lesson in Acquire mode, but to evaluate the student's performance in Practice and Validate modes -- by comparing the student's actions to the nominal happy path.

We provide assessment results both to students directly within the courseware itself, as soon as they work through a given lesson, and to the instructors by uploading results to the Army's Learning Management System (LMS). What we have found is that the process as a whole, and notably the assessment data, changes the role of the instructor. Instead of leading classes through "death by PowerPoint" (as they put it), instructors become coaches, able to spend their time with the students who need their help the most, when they need it.

To use an analogy, I like to think of our approach as precision guided munitions for learning. By focusing instructors' time where it is needed the most, simulation-based learning with integrated, real-time assessment dramatically increases instructor effectiveness.

From an article on precision guided munitions (not included in my talk):

In the fall of 1944, only seven per cent of all bombs dropped by the Eighth Air Force hit within 1,000 feet of their aim point; even a 'precision' weapon such as a fighter-bomber in a 40 degree dive releasing a bomb at 7,000 feet could have a circular error (CEP) of as much as 1,000 feet. It took 108 B-17 bombers, crewed by 1,080 airmen, dropping 648 bombs to guarantee a 96 per cent chance of getting just two hits inside a 400 x 500 feet German power-generation plant; in contrast, in the Gulf War, a single strike aircraft with one or two crewmen, dropping two laser-guided bombs, could achieve the same results with essentially a 100 per cent expectation of hitting the target, short of a material failure of the bombs themselves.

Chris Chambers Presentation

This presentation is my favorite of the day so far. It was by Christopher Chambers, Deputy Director, Office of Economic & Manpower Analysis, Army Game Project. Chris is based at West Point and is leading an effort to create a standardized platform for all sorts of Army training. The level of thought that he has put into this so far is, at first glance, extremely impressive.

America's Army: Morphing the Game to Training and Mission Rehearsal Applications

Training and first-person gameplay are related

University of Rochester study found that

  • Visual acuity was significantly higher among FPS game players than non-gamers
  • Visual acuity effects could be 'trained' in 10 hours of gaming
Army Research Institute study found that FPS games are...
  • "Best for learning procedures and recalling experential details"
  • Procedural information is retained at up to 12 percent higher rates than factual information (i.e., written or oral)
  • "Instructional objectives should be integrated into game storylines"

First-person games differ greatly from traditional training simulations

  1. Games are "playable" -- i.e., live entities, in multiplayer teams
  2. Entertainment-focused, not engineering -- fun matters
  3. Can extend the training day if the game is engaging
  4. Focus on mass market -- household computers, Internet
  5. Common devices and conventions mean low barriers to learning
  6. People-focused, not equipment-focused
  7. No need for large facilities and staffs
  8. Access to huge pools of participants -- test, play, experiment
  9. Incorporate realism as needed, but not a slave to it

Soldier indoctrination and training could benefit from a common experience across a continuous lifecycle

  1. Find (USAAC)
  2. Recall (USAREC)
  3. Basic training (TRADOC)
  4. Unit training (FORSCOM)
Common platform breeds familiarity, increases training effects sooner

Game design matters

Persistent characters and attributes

  • Game should track progress
  • Data collection should improve experience in the next round

Low barriers to entry

  • Train the task, not the game skill
  • Use common, familiar game platforms and commands
  • Leverage generational habits to improve training

Replayability

  • Infinite would be best -> live entities
  • More replayability is better -> AI entities
  • Randomness -- spawnsteam structures, terrain, mission time, objectives
Game engine is paramount

Game engine determines usability for training

  • Geo-specific terrain?
  • Destructible environments?
  • Dynamic lighting?
  • Randomness?
  • Polygon counts and frame rates?
  • Interoperability?
Engage the soldier
  • Fun <-> realism
  • Fantasy games <-> public games <-> game-based training products <-> flight simulations
Fun/realism tradeoff affects training

Factual learning needs imply more realism in games

  • Experiential learning imply an engaging design
  • Compressing time, varying mission attributes, and focused tasks increase fun
Collecting data for AARs

Game data fields are easily captured that support training and education feedback

Raw data

  • Number of attempts before correct action
  • Number of misses
  • Time to accomplish tasks

Game state data

  • To replay / replicate key actions to facilitate AARs

Synthetic data

  • Downstream effects of performance
  • Dynamic content delivery based on player data and preferences
  • Human virtual dynamics based on analysis of gameplay actions or inactions (fatigue, stress, skill degradation)

America's Army is a plaform for communication, by virtue of its design

America's Army (public application)

  • Engaging virtual schoolhouse
  • Focuses on the soldier as a member of a team rather than teams composed of soldiers
  • Designed to render high-fidelity, first-person environments and interactions within a multiplayer team setting

Not just a game

  • Localization
  • Console games
  • Wireless games
  • License program
  • Training
  • Mission rehearsal
  • RDT&E and prototyping
  • Education
  • Middleware and database

America's Army platform

  • Technologies (AAR, SOAR AI, DIS/HLA, DVHT)
  • America's Army content library (over 15,000 catalogued assets)
  • America's Army custom code base
  • Unreal SDK 2.5/3.0
  • Data transfer layer (client-server architecture, STS (Statistics Tracking System))

Speaking at the Serious Games Summit

I'm at the Serious Games Summit in Arlington, VA today and tomorrow. I'll be speaking on a panel later this morning titled, Assessment for Interactive Training Applications:

The realm of Serious Games is currently challenged by the need to establish metrics which show the efficacy of interactive technology as a viable learning medium.

Most games based learning solutions capture state data, flag met or unmet performance criteria and "dump" this data at the end of an experiential learning session. More sophisticated solutions provide a robust After Action Reviews (AARs) that include the capture of time-stamped voice and video packets and chart the captured data graphically. Other solutions provide the means for spectators to provide instructor and peer feedback in real-time. During this panel the participants will explore common assessment requirements across several disciplines.

This panel will explore how assessment is being used in games based learning solutions for:

    New York City Firefighters (HAZMAT-HOTZONE)
  • Engineering and Science undergraduates
  • Medical School Students (surgical team coordination)
  • Cross Cultural Communications (America's Army)
Intended Audience and Prerequisites

Educators, scientists, researchers, instructional designers and game developers will benefit from this frank and open discussion of assessment methodologies being employed in several state-of-the art experiential learning games across several disciplines. Prerequisite knowledge is not necessary for understanding the content of this session.

What is the idea takeaway from this presentation?

Attendees will learn:

  • What types of state data are usually captured during the conduct of games based learning scenarios
  • What constitues an After Action Review (AAR) for learning games
  • How students are tracked and performance is base-lined in Learning Management Systems
  • What needs have been uncovered by currently fielded applications
  • Where we are headed from here
This is my first year at the summit, and so far, there's a great deal of energy here.

April 10, 2005

How Long to Be Robbed in Naples?

In the April 2005 issue of National Geographic Traveler (unavailable online, even with a subscription -- Geographic doesn't get it) is an article on petty crime around the world, "Thieves Among Us". It recounts an interesting experiment conducted in Naples:

Last summer, [Bob Arno and Bambi Vincent, a Las Vegas-based husband-and-wife team who have tracked petty crime worldwide] set up an experiment to determine how long it would take for a Rolex watch to be stolen in Naples's crime-plagued Spanish Quarter. Arno wasn't out on the street long when he heard a whistle -- a signal from a "spotter" to his cohorts. Soon after, one of them whizzed by on a Vespa, evaluating the goods on Arno's wrist (the real thing can fetch $3,500 on the black market). Moments later, several scooters cornered Arno and the bandits made off with the watch. Total lapsed time: four minutes. The gang miscalculated, however, as the Rolex was fake. "It's about as stupid as you can get walking around with a Rolex in the Quartiere Spagnolo," he says.

April 02, 2005

My Favorite Restaurant in Paris

This is a snagged picture (because it would be awful to whip out one's PowerShot SD300 in a place like this) of Le Coupe-Chou, my favorite restaurant in Paris:

Le Coupe-Chou

Le Coupe-Chou ("the cut cabbage") is on a narrow street near the Sorbonne. It's in a building that dates (at least parts of it do) to the 1600s. Entering it feels a bit like walking into a cave. I was there in the evening, and when it's dark, much of the light comes from candles and the fireplace. I sat at the table next to the fireplace in the photograph above (thanks to my friend Christophe, who made the reservations for me, given that my French wasn't quite good enough a couple of months ago).

The service at Le Coupe-Chou is what I think of as traditionally Parisian: polite yet not chatty, unobtrusive yet efficient, and measured in time. The food was wonderful. And the prices are quite reasonable: the restaurant offers prix fixe menus at €24 and €32 (the latter including dessert).

Le Coupe-Chou can be found at:

Le Coupe-Chou
9 rue de Lanneau
75005 Paris
Tel: 01 46 33 68 69
Highly recommended.

January 07, 2005

Off to Colorado

I'm off to Colorado for the next few days. I have partner meetings in Boulder next week, and I'm heading out early with my oldest son Duncan (he's 17) for a weekend of skiing (me) and snowboarding (him) in Aspen.

It has been four years since I've skied, so I'm hoping the neuromechanics are similar to bicycle riding -- that once you learn, you never forget. Otherwise, I'm in trouble.

June 04, 2004

Abbott's Lobster in the Rough

We had a great dinner last night at Abbott's Lobster in the Rough in Noank. It's a downscale, self-service restaurant right on the water, apparently famous for the quality of the food, and available only from late spring through early fall.

Everyone on the team had 1.75-pound lobsters, but when we saw an 11-pound lobster on the menu (for $109.00), we couldn't resist asking to see it. The staff was kind enough to let us walk around back and bring it out. I'm sorry we didn't have a camera with us -- it was a monster! When I saw it, my first thought was, "I wouldn't want to run into that thing in the open ocean." Think claws large enough to snap off multiple fingers at a time.

March 12, 2004

My Day in Vancouver (Pictures)

The team at Ludicorp hard at work.

Caterina Fake, Satan (AKA Dos Pesos), and Stewart Butterfield.

The former QDesign offices in Vancouver. My office window was on the second floor, to the left.

Public art near False Creek.

Being a board member of Ludicorp, the company building Flickr, the coolest photo site in the world (though it's much more than that), and seeing all the great pictures there, I really wish I had a better eye for photography.

My Day in Vancouver (Words)

Walking back from lunch at Urban Fare today, I was talking with Caterina Fake about blogging and how one's attitudes toward it change. When I started my blog, for each entry, I used the test, "Would someone who doesn't know me find this interesting?" Later on, without even realizing it, I stopped using the test and started posting simply based on what was interesting to me. Caterina and I also talked about the line between personal and private issues. Neither of us is the type to talk about close personal issues on our blog, but I find my attitude toward this changing as well. When I wrote yesterday, "I have been dealing with an unexpected and very difficult personal situation," it was a tough decision as to whether to include that in my entry. Caterina and I agreed that it would be nice to have a Live Journal-type blog, in which one could selectively decide whether posts are public or restricted. I wrote about this in December 2002:

Each of us has a unique vision of selective privacy. Some bloggers post intimate details of their lives, while others are careful never to discuss their personal issues. Some bloggers proclaim their identity loudly, while others remain in the shadows of anonymity. This is as it should be; we are individuals with our own preferences.

To implement our personal versions of selective privacy, we need the ability to create and modify privacy rings -- sets of people and the access we grant to them. Using off-the-shelf blogging tools, it's difficult to set up a blog so that the level of detail presented varies with the reader's identity. One person I know deals with this by running two completely separate Movable Type-based blogs: one public where he alone posts, and another completely private where anyone in his discussion group can post. Not only is this a time-intensive solution for the owner of the blogs, it means his discussion group must now track two URLs instead of one. What happens if he wants additional levels of privacy? Must he create yet more blogs? That's what current tools allow, but there must be a better way.

Lacking privacy rings, the choice is stark: write for anyone in the world, for all time (given the Internet Archive and other archiving services), or don't write at all. It's not always an easy choice.

I say all this because I faced a decision today about how much to discuss of my day in Vancouver -- not visiting with the great people at Ludicorp, which I'll write about separately, but my emotional reaction to being back here. I wrote a longer version of this blog entry which was a more personal account, but decided in the end that it was simply too personal for my own taste and edited it appropriately.

I spent a year and a half working at QDesign in Yaletown, a trendy downtown neighborhood which is, among other things, Vancouver's center for high-tech startups. I hadn't been in Yaletown in a year, and hadn't walked its streets in longer than that. I had almost forgotten how wonderful a neighborhood this is. There are art galleries on every block, restaurants too numerous to remember them all, and False Creek is just blocks away. It was a spectacular day today, warm and cloudless, giving the lie to the common belief that it never stops raining during a Pacific Northwest winter.

On our way to grab coffee this morning, a group of Ludicorpers and I walked past a pair of policemen handcuffing a suspect. "You know," I said to everyone, "I worked in Vancouver for a year and a half, and that's the first time I've ever seen a pair of handcuffs being used." Stewart and Caterina had the same reaction.

Over coffee, Caterina asked me how I would compare Seattle and Vancouver. I said that Vancouver was cleaner, had a better downtown park (Stanley Park), and had fewer traffic jams, not only because the geography here has less of a funneling effect, but also because Vancouver hasn't made the mistake of believing that new freeways reduce traffic congestion. For Seattle's part, I said that for historical reasons, Seattle has more of a Japanese-influenced culture, whereas Vancouver's is more Chinese, and I prefer Japan to China. I suppose I'd add to that the fact that Seattle has more and better shopping malls (if you're into that sort of thing), though Vancouver's downtown shopping district probably matches Seattle's.

Stewart had a great quote, which he attributed to someone whose name I can't remember: "Canada is a better country; America is a greater country." As much as I'd rather avoid paraphrasing a member of the Bush family, it has to be said: Canada is a kinder, gentler place. But I think it's true that it's easier to do great things in America.

July 09, 2003

In Vancouver

I've been in Seattle and Vancouver the past week, enjoying the outrageously perfect weather and keeping my laptop shut for the most part. I was too busy before leaving to prepare any non-time-sensitive blog entries for use during my trip, hence the lack of new postings. I'll try to rectify that in the next few days -- certainly by Monday of next week.

July 02, 2003

Going to Vancouver!

Speaking of Vancouver, I'm off to that part of the world later today, for a much-needed break. I'll be blogging from Vancouver, and later from Seattle, through 16 July.

Today's forecasts:

  • Raleigh, NC: High 84, humidity 100 percent
  • Seattle, WA: High 68, humidity 64 percent
  • Vancouver, BC: High 67, humidity 68 percent
Yeah, baby!

PS -- If the US invades another country while I'm gone, would someone send me an e-mail to let me know? Thanks.

June 04, 2003

Meeting Vibhav Upadhyay

This morning I had the pleasure of meeting Vibhav Upadhyay, chairperson of India Center:

The India Center was created with the vision of injecting a new vitality into Indo-Japanese relations. It aims to be a catalyst, applying its unique methodology to the creation of a special relationship between these two great nations that will grow organically, setting off a chain reaction of activities that promote growing understanding interaction and interdependence.
Vibhav is high-energy, passionate about helping India move forward in the world, and works tirelessly to improve relations between India and Japan.

2003-06-05-04.jpg

It was extremely interesting to hear Vibhav's perspective on India and its place in the modern world. If all goes well, I may finally be visiting India soon...

May 02, 2003

Submarine Evolution

In Groton, Connecticut yesterday, I visited the Submarine Force Library and Museum. Unfortunately, the USS Nautilus was closed for repairs, but the museum was open and made for an interesting visit.

2003-05-02-01.jpg

The picture above is of the entrance to the museum. The inner ring depicts the circumference of the pressure hull of the USS Holland, built in 1898 and commissioned as the first US Navy submarine in 1900. The outer ring depicts the circumference of the pressure hull of a modern Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine.

May 01, 2003

Mystic Pizza

I'm in Connecticut for a meeting today in Groton. My colleague and fellow traveler Tim Murray found a great deal on a hotel in nearby Mystic, so that's where we're staying.

Of course, if we were going to be in Mystic, we had to eat at Mystic Pizza:

2003-05-01-01.jpg

Mystic Pizza is a real place that existed before the movie of the same name. As the story goes, the screenwriter saw it while summering in the area and decided to base her story there.

In the movie, without revealing too much, the pizza is hailed as superb, its secret sauce recipe being the key to its flavor. How is the real thing? Not bad, but not the best pizza I've ever tasted. Still, it was fun, and I'm glad we went. We shared a small pizza and then headed down the street to the S&P Oyster Company, where, as promised by the bartender, we had orders of the best oysters I've ever tasted.

March 05, 2003

Trip Report (Short Form)

Metadata. Collaboration. Distributed systems.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

March 04, 2003

Silicon Valley is Dead -- Long Live Silicon Valley

Having done two long stints in Silicon Valley over the years, but having left just before the bubble burst, it has been interesting to return on an irregular basis and watch its post-bubble evolution.

It's easy to look at the Valley and conclude that, compared to its former self, it's now a ghost town. Millions of square feet of office space sit empty. Once-popular restaurants have closed, while others are scraping by on a fraction of their former traffic. Good people with solid resumes are going six, twelve, even eighteen months without finding a steady job. Even some of the venture capitalists say, "You don't want to take money from us now." It's sad in any case, and even a bit shocking if you haven't been immersed in it.

But there is another Silicon Valley rising from the ashes -- a new generation of companies starting and growing up, born out of bad times. These companies are the seedlings poking through the ashes of a devastating fire. When the fire is a memory, they'll be the tallest trees in the new forest.

Generalizations are difficult and dangerous, but with that said...

These new companies are used to doing more with less. Everything is done on the cheap. Everything is optional, even office space. They're not trying to attract eyeballs that might be monetizable someday; they're building services which will attract revenue now. Sponsor-based revenue models are out: if the end-users themselves won't pay for a service, they won't build it. They're avoiding venture capital as long as possible; every day they put it off means more control, more equity, and most of all more freedom. And they're working. They're making money.

Heard from an entrepreneur friend yesterday: "This is the best possible time to be starting a company in the Valley."

So Silicon Valley is dead. Long live Silicon Valley.

March 03, 2003

Joi Ito's New New Party

For his last party, Joi Ito had perhaps 30 or 40 people in attendance. This time the number grew to 140-150, and was held at Zibibbo in Palo Alto. It was a wonderful event. I wish the mingling cocktail party segment had lasted even longer -- there were scores of people I didn't get the chance to meet. I didn't meet Ben and Mena. I stood next to Justin, but he seemed preoccupied and I didn't have the heart to interrupt him. I didn't meet Evan, or Doc, or, or... but I was able to catch up with some old friends and make some new ones.

Above are Barak Berkowitz and Michael Morrissey. Barak is... um... he's working with Joi on some interesting things. How does that sound? Michael is an ex-colleague of mine from my Be days. He's now at Danger, which has a strong Be contingent. (Be takes over Danger and PalmSource... Jean-Louis' secret plan for dominating mobile wireless becomes clear at last.)

Speaking of Be, here's the ex-Be crowd at the party. From left to right, me, Michael Morrissey, Andrew Kimpton, and Hiroshi Lockheimer. Andrew worked for me as an evangelist before moving into full-time engineering; he's now leading development at BIAS. Hiroshi was either an engineer who kept getting sucked into product and sales management for Japan, or a product and sales manager for Japan who kept getting sucked into engineering. I'm not sure which. He's now at Good. Hiroshi is the official owner of the most embarrassing story about me from the last five years, so I keep a close watch on him. (Thanks to Michael's lovely wife Jennifer for taking the photo.)

Cory Doctorow is angry. Well, actually, no. (He's Canadian. Canadians never get angry -- just very disappointed in the rest of us.) He just looked that way in this photograph. I have a good Cory story ("Hey! I made a funny!" -- F. Leghorn) that I'll use in a future post.

Here I am talking with Lisa Rein, with whom I spent far too little time, to my regret, and Reid Hoffman. In one minute of conversation, I thought Lisa seemed cool. I'm sure she seems even cooler after two minutes. Reid is still in stealth mode. Presumably he'll come out soon, check for his shadow, and let us all know whether we're going to be using PayPal for the next 20 years. (Thanks to Kazuya Minami for the photograph.)

Ellen Levy's hands were cold. But Ellen was great! Sincerely, Ellen, if I meet many more VCs like you, I'm going to have to revise upward my opinion of the VC community.

Reid Hoffman and Marc Canter. Nope, sorry, Reid's still in stealth mode. Check again later. As for Marc, I'm trying to construct a grammatically and factually correct English sentence containing the phrases "Marc Canter" and "stealth mode," but it just won't come out. I'll keep working on it.

Joi and Dave Winer. Dave and I had an interesting discussion about privacy for weblogs. I think I can summarize his position as being that people don't really care about it. I know I can summarize my position as being that they do. We agreed to disagree.

Robert Scoble showing off his new baby. I want a tablet like this with a RIM-style keyboard -- say, about one-third to one-half up the device from the bottom, with half the keyboard on each side of the screen.

Thanks, Joi, for hosting such a great party. You were right: it was worth flying out for.

March 02, 2003

Triggering Metal Detectors

Last night was the first time I've flown in two and a half months. My watch, belt buckle, and shoes all set off the metal detector, so I received the personal attention of a now-federalized airport security worker. Now, I should have been smart and put my watch in my jacket pocket when it went through the x-ray machine -- but my belt buckle and my shoes? I can't think of a belt buckle not made of metal, and my shoes were Rockports, which I didn't think would have any metal reinforcing strips. So...

How about a branding program for non-detector triggering clothing and accessories? Some sort of clothing industry council could work on it with the Department of Homeland Security. "FlyReady," maybe, or "WalkOn." There would be a logo associated with it. Clothing and accessories bearing the logo would be certified to have been tested using DHS metal detection equipment and found not to set it off. Shoes could use highly durable plastics as reinforcement. Belt buckles, cuff links, and other jewelry could be made of carbon fiber (which would be cool in its own right). Watches? I don't know. Will the metal in a watch battery inevitably trigger a detector? It may be a lost cause... but we can just get used to taking off our watches, I suppose.

The clothing and accessory industries should be all over this -- it's a chance to sell replacement merchandise to people with disposable income. As for DHS, from their standpoint, it would be a great way to show their concern for the convenience of the traveling public.

In Silicon Valley

I'm now in California (where I was born, incidentally -- San Antonio Community Hospital, Upland), partly for Joi Ito's party tonight and partly for meetings with Joi and some other folks over the next few days. I'm going to be catching up with many friends, and hopefully making some new ones tonight. It should be fun.