France – what an American will find surprising (or what I did, anyway)

October 4, 2014
  • Hotel rooms do not have clocks
  • Grapes have seeds
  • Bus drivers give change
  • Bathrooms cost money. Expect to pay 40-60 centimes per visit.  In the train stations, they are particularly well hidden. The one in Gare de Lyon is run by a company called “2theloo” which offers coupons for their other products. Yep, they’ve privatized the privy.
  • Bathrooms are clean and free of graffiti.  The exceptions are rare public bathrooms where you don’t pay. So it’s worth keeping monnaie (change) in your pocket for the high-class experience.
  • Fast freeways cost money. You’ll learn to appreciate the political struggle Eisenhower went through to build the Interstate highway system in the US.  In France, the roads lettered “A<#>” (e.g. A8) will be “péage” (toll) roads.  The D roads let you travel between 50 and 70 km/h typically (about 43 mph max), and traffic circles will be plentiful. But if you want US highway speeds (up to 130 km/h = 81mph) you’ll need to go on the more expensive roads.

    And, expensive they are.  Between gas prices (about $7.70/gallon) and the tolls (from Aix-en-Provence to Nice was about $22*) you’ll probably find the TGV (Train Grand Vitesse) to be cheaper, faster, and more pleasant for long distances.  The TGV train I was on between Paris and Avignon averaged 290-300 km/h, which is around 180 mph (There was a speedometer in the front of the car).**

    The non-toll roads offer a more relaxed and close-up experience. Better sight-seeing.

  • Fast freeways are clean and free of graffiti.  They claim video surveillance, but whatever, it works.
  • Freeway clover leafs do not exist. If you miss your exit, you are screwed. Turning around to go back means exiting the toll road, figuring out how the hell to get to the entrance you want, and paying the toll again to go back. Yep, you have to pay for the part of the road you didn’t want to be on in the first place. And those exits can be far apart.  Try doing this at night, it’s loads of fun.  GPS navigation is the best solution. Hint: google maps will remember a route when it’s disconnected from the internet, but it won’t search for a new one. The tourist info offices offer free Wi-Fi so you can search for new routes.

    It’s a good reason to prefer the non-toll roads, which have frequent traffic circles.  Those at least make it easy to correct if you mess up.

  • Drive with both feet. Automatic transmission is rare, and French drivers love to honk, so take a deep breath and don’t get flustered. Think of the honking as their way of expressing affection.
  • Think in a spiral. It’s the escargot. Navigation on French roads can be downright bizarre, especially near big cities.  For example, the entrance to Avignon is this giant one-way figure-8, that does NOT meet in the middle, with directional signs that are not at all helpful. Once I sat down with a map and studied the layout, I was able to get where I was going, but not (reliably) before that.  There’s a place where you look across and say “All I want to do is go up there and turn left!” but instead you have to go underneath an overpass and loop around, so you can turn right instead. Weird.

    Partially, this can be explained by the superimposition of modern driving onto medieval road maps, but my opinion is that there is a also general failure of French city planners to eliminate pointless complexity.

    Between big cities isn’t so bad, and the traffic circles are surprisingly easy to navigate once you get used to them.  Which doesn’t take any of the fun out of dodging huge delivery trucks as they share the dinky European roads with you. Fortunately, you generally have the right of way once you’re in the circle, which was not the case in the past.

  • There are probably a few I left out, so there may be updates …

* http://www.xe.com/ has an app for smart phones that will do currency conversions, or you can do them on the website

An easy way to think of speeds is that 80km/h is about 50 mph, so 40k/h is 25m/h, and so on. But there’s no requirement to do the conversion while driving, since they use the same units for everything.

** http://www.raileurope.com for the TGV bookings, or http://www.idtgv.com/ for the bigger routes. Booking in advance saves money. It’s worth going comfort class.

France, 2014 – language and vegetarian food

October 2, 2014

When I was in seventh grade, I began studying French, in room 55 of our “Junior High” (now called “middle school”) Last month, shortly after turning 55, I traveled to Europe for the first time. The only country I visited this time was France … but I’m hoping to go back next year! I visited Paris, the Loire Valley, Avignon, Arles, and Nice.

I speak enough French (badly) to get by, but in many places people were willing to speak English. One notable exception was employees the Paris metro. Not that I blame them – that’s got to be a tough job. I found people to be generally friendly and helpful, even in Paris, which has a reputation for being the opposite. The ones who speak English are generally eager to practice, if you make it clear you will be polite and friendly. I always would start out in French and often wind up with a mixture of the two languages. Unless I heard them conversing in native-sounding English.

Many people have said that the initial “bonjour” is important. Meaning, always greet the person before you start asking questions. It’s the French way. Probably a good idea, though sometimes it was not effective, and sometimes it was not necessary. Mostly, if you’re polite and friendly, people will be polite and friendly back. It’s pretty universal.

You’ll also find lots of multilingual tourists, and trading tips with them is a great way to hear good stories and find cool places to visit.

I took several thousand photos, some of which you can see from the photo feed that should be adjacent to this blog.

Hopefully some of the images and insights I will present on my blog will help future travelers, as I enjoy the memories of a challenging but fulfilling trip.

As a vegetarian, I was hearing horror stories, and was very worried about finding anything to eat. It turns out these fears were unfounded. I would not attempt to be purely vegan, however. I am sure it would be possible, but it would be a lot of work. The question is: would you rather be scrapping with weird logistics, or seeing the country?

Boulangeries are a place to start. Baguettes are plentiful and easy to find, and I found them handy to stash in my pack for a day trip, along with a few apples. Most of the boulangeries would also sell sandwiches, the vegetarian ones generally with chevre (goat cheese). I found myself a few times eating chevre, even though I do not eat cheese here in the U.S. My general sense is that it’s better quality than typical American cheese.

Indian restaurants are plentiful. There was at least one in every city I visited. Mediterranean food is also abundant. Though in some places you have to search for the ones that serve “Fallafel,”  the ones I found were superb. (e.g. L’As du Fallafel in Paris) There are also a lot of Asian restaurants, of various (purported) nationalities – Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, &c,) and they could always come up with wok-fried vegetables and rice. Tofu, however, was scarce.

AND … in some places, there were the daring innovators who bucked the trend of the French foule (crowd) smoking everywhere in their brasseries, to serve up “Biologique” (organic) genuinely vegan offerings.  I plan to cover a few of those in subsequent posts. Serving from the passion of heartfelt belief, these were some of the best restaurants ever.

If you see a green AB, that’s probably a symbol for the French “organic” produce. It stands for Agriculture Biologique. (the green symbol gives the B two leaves that look like rabbit ears) There is also a growing “Fair Trade” (commerce équitable) movement .

agriculture biologique symbol

And I should mention a few sites:

  • http://www.happycow.net/ – Some valuable information, but these listings are often out of date.  Be sure to verify before counting on them.
  • http://www.tripadvisor.com/ – the listings of vegetarian places wasn’t too helpful, but searches for Asian, Mediterranean, Italian, &c. were.
  • https://www.evernote.com – this site lets you keep notes that will be available via web or smart phone. I found the pages difficult to edit via phone, but entering them via the web and then accessing via phone turned out to be quite useful.  One thing I uploaded was a copy of my passport, a nice thing to know you have in case it gets lost. Also a good place for the phone numbers on the back of your credit cards.

Now I’m on their List, for sure!

August 7, 2014

Last night I went to see NSA representative Anne Neuberger at the Long Now Foundation seminar in San Francisco, with my friend Joey Tuttle.

It’s clear that Anne was carefully chosen as a spokesperson for the NSA. As much as I believe in her proclaimed personal desire to reach out to the public, the public relations choreography was Disneyesque in proportions. She began by explaining how much she valued freedom and privacy, as a first generation American whose relatives had known the oppressive regimes of Soviet satellites and Nazi Germany, but that other relatives had been on a plane that was hijacked by terrorists, an episode which they miraculously survived. Hence illustrating her understanding of the need to balance security with privacy. Which is nice to hear, about this one individual.

She also waxed maudlin when talking of those who “died in silence” protecting our country. OK, I get it. The work can be thankless and dangerous, and necessary even.

But that still doesn’t address the burning questions of the day, particularly revelations from Snowden which proved that James Clapper had committed perjury, a felony for which he has experienced no serious consequences. And that the NSA persists in engaging in dubious practices that continue still to compromise the privacy and security of millions of innocent Americans. And it doesn’t let the government off the hook for so vengefully pursuing heroic whistleblowers who have laid their lives on the line to defend the American principles of liberty and freedom.

By ‘compromised security,’ I refer to the fact that the NSA has intentionally weakened encryption standards, and given themselves back doors into the computers and devices of innocent Americans. Back doors which could potentially be discovered and exploited by malevolent individuals other than the NSA, if not voyeurs at the NSA itself.

When this question came up, Anne gave a non-answer, saying she was not at liberty to discuss specific programs.

For me, the best moment was when she was attempting to defend ‘transparency,’ and advised us that we could simply use a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request if we wanted to know something. The remark was greeted with a long and well-deserved round of laughter from the whole audience.

As an employee of Thomson-Reuters, the first I heard of Wikileaks was when I received an email from Tom Glocer, who was then a higher-up at Reuters, explaining that now we knew what had happened to the Reuters reporter who had disappeared in Iraq. That would be, my co-worker. The FOIA request had languished unanswered for many months by the Obama administration, as many such FOIA requests do. Had it not been for the heroism of Bradley Manning, we might never have known the answer.

I concluded after watching that disturbing footage, as most people would, that it had been withheld, NOT in order to protect national security, but because it was an embarrassment to the administration that innocent civilians were being slaughtered in such a cavalier manner.

In summary, thanks to Anne for showing up, but this is a tiny dewdrop in a very large bucket. It’s true that we need security (which includes not making so many enemies abroad) and that it needs to be balanced with the need for liberties. And I approve of her idea of finding ways in which these goals can be in harmony.

But to suggest that we’re even close to a healthy balance right now is ludicrous.

While I would very much like to see open dialogue between the NSA and the people, I’m not holding my breath that anything short of embarrassing whistleblower recommendations will yield any results.

As for the general population, they’ll probably either forget about the issue of trust when the news cycle switches to the latest on Miley Cyrus, or continue to wallow in conspiracy theories about chemtrails and Area 51 as they would in any case.

here are a couple of links on the presentation:

http://longnow.org/seminars/02014/aug/06/inside-nsa/

http://blog.longnow.org/02014/07/30/anne-neuberger-seminar-primer/

Heartbleed

April 12, 2014

The heartbleed exploit has been getting a lot of press, but so far it’s only theoretical. The white hats who have tried haven’t yet succeeded in exploiting it.

Correction – according to this link, it has now been successfully exploited.

http://blog.cloudflare.com/the-results-of-the-cloudflare-challenge

Here’s an explanation of heartbleed, courtesy of XKCD:

http://xkcd.com/1354/

 

By all means, do change your password once you know the website in question has fixed the exploit, if they had it.  (Banks for example, typically don’t use openssl, meaning they weren’t vulnerable in the first place)

Use a different password for each account. Use keepass to keep track of your passwords. http://keepass.info/

 

But what about … if you use Amazon in a coffeeshop it’s child’s play for someone to hijack your session and see the last four digits of your credit card. Which are the digits that Apple uses to confirm a remote wipeout of your computer and iPhone. All gone. Not just theoretical (although the attack vector in the below case was slightly different)

http://www.wired.com/2012/08/apple-amazon-mat-honan-hacking/

a good layperson article on session hijacking:

http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/magazine/2005.01.sessionhijacking.aspx

If you don’t see https:// in your browser bar, and you’re on a public network, assume that anyone can see what you’re transmitting and receiving on the network. Generally, password entry pages are protected with https:// but subsequent pages may or may not be. This has been an enormous problem with Yahoo mail. There seem to be a number of automated exploit scripts out there that will spam all of your connections on your behalf.  They have switched to using https:// for their mail, after several years of leaving this gaping hole open, but I’m still suspicious of their attitude about security.

Never use Amazon in a coffeeshop.

Gmail is cool.  Facebook CAN be set up to use a secure connection. I can’t find it in the settings anymore, so maybe they’ve made it the default. Anything from Yahoo is bound to be a huge security hole (e.g. Yahoo new, Flickr), though they are getting better. So avoid using Yahoo on a public network, or at least log out before you leave.

 

 

Links for Getting Published

March 31, 2014

For anyone who is serious about getting published via traditional means or self-publishing, here are the links I recommend.  If you think you might want to try this in the future, check these out now.

 

Traditional Publishing

Our story thus far : unless you are a wildly successful author, submitting an unsolicited manuscript directly to a publisher will get you nowhere. What you want to do is submit a query letter to an agent, who will then represent you to publishers.

That means figuring out (a) how to write a good query and (b) knowing who all the good agents are. The below sites should help get you started:

http://agentquery.com - Lots of good information and explanations on this site.  You’ll want to read all of the articles at the upper left under the caption WRITERS. Any agents worth contacting are going to be listed on this site, and you can search by genre, &c. A good starting place to understand the basics of the publishing industry.

http://pred-ed.com/  - Preditors and Editors lists all kinds of entities related to publishing, with some information on each one. Including “Recommended” or “Not Recommended,” indications worth noting.  They have more advice on sending queries.

http://evileditor.blogspot.com/ - Both amusing and informative, this site will teach you what to strive for in writing a query. (also, what NOT to strive for). I would even say that it’s a good study in what works or doesn’t in concept for writing a book.  Did I mention that it’s often hilarious?

https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/  When you get REALLY serious, I’ve heard this site is worth the $25/month subscription.

http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/ – if you’re looking for a good way to procrastinate, these are also hilarious. The goal is to write the worst possible opening line to a story. If you find your own opening line as one of the winners, you may wish to consider some revisions.

 

Major Publishers

The following are the five biggest publishers in the U.S.  The top one on the list (Penguin/Random House) is bigger than the next four combined.

  1. Penguin/Random House (We think they should have called themselves Random Penguin)
  2. Harper Collins
  3. Simon & Schuster
  4. Hachette
  5. MacMillan

 

Self-Publishing

If you would rather “self-publish” than go the corporate route, please be sure you understand the difference between a Vanity Publisher (who will rip you off) and a legitimate Self-Publishing house. Articles discussing these differences can be found here and here

Legitimate Self-Publishing companies include:

http://www.lulu.com/

https://www.createspace.com/ (note: if you finish writing 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month, you’ll get a couple of free proof copies from them)

Legitimate E-Publishers include

http://www.smashwords.com/

http://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/

Self-publishing is fun if you want to have something in your hands right away and share it with friends, but if you’re aiming for wide distribution, you’ll have a lot of extra stuff to do that traditional publishers take care of for you. (e.g. hiring an editor, and cover designer; handling distribution and marketing).

 

 

 

 

NOTES: Character is King

March 2, 2014

These are my notes from the San Francisco Writer’s conference, 2014

The Lecture “Character is King” by Dave Corbett.  Saturday 2014-02-15. The handout is here:

http://sfwriters.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/CHARACTER-IS-KING-David-Corbett.pdf

The 5 aspects he lists are

  1. desire
  2. layers of adaptation
  3. vulnerability
  4. secrets
  5. contradictions

He draws out the list in the above PDF in several different ways.

1. Desire

I missed the 1st section, so starting on #2:

 

2. Layers of Adaptation

  1. pathological – hallucinations; eg. the movie “Repulsion” by the director of Chinatown (i.e. Roman Polanski)
  2. immature – e.g. blanche dubois from “streetcar named desire.” She is living in a fantasy.
  3. denial – acting like it isn’t happening
  4. mature – humor, altruism

3. Vulnerability

  • Pursuing an objective [masculine] – e.g. Blanche pursuing being able to stay with Stella
  • listening [feminine]

somebody wounded elicits the reader’s sympathy

type of wound:

  • existential – physical illness or literal wound
  • situation – alone in a strange town
  • moral – they’ve done something everyone will judge them for

side note ‘dramatic irony’ seems to be the voice of the time (meaning: the reader knows something the main character doesn’t).

4. Secrets

“Swing for the fences”

a secret can be small, with a big cover-up

 

5. Contradictions 

work if one can find the connection between them in the character

 

…?

 

  1. Problem
  2. insight
  3. decision based on insight

 

(I guess this is what you would call character development!)

 

 

I’m excited that you’re reading this

October 10, 2013

Blame corporate buzzspeak for this if you like, but the term ‘excited’ merits its own policy in my life.  ‘excited’ and ‘leverage:’ when I reach either, I stop reading. 

If one doesn’t stop, one usually proceeds to some of the driest, most insufferably boring content conceivable.  “I’m excited to announce that…” followed by dull and irrelevant mountains of verbiage next to which drying paint is a thrilling action-adventure movie.

We most commonly receive such missives from our higher management. Some workshop on inspiring the unwashed! pounded this advice into their little brains: “No matter what the announcement, employ the word ‘excited.'” We now must focus on leveraging every day and every way the beneficial possibilities for reaching out to consolidate on our best strategy… how they go on like this baffles me. Nothing untrue, nothing useful.

Which has given me long hours puzzling “What is it they find so exciting about these tedious details? How could they find ‘excitement’ in such commonplace nonsense?”

Until I saw scientists reacting to discoveries on mars.  “We have found rocks!!” It made them so excited! So worked up! And me too, honestly.  I love good science, and the fact that they can discover meaningful things about geology so far away has a certain thrill to it.

Commonplace things become exciting when they’re on mars. 

Which is when it hit me: It’s because they’re from another planet.

I mean, our upper level of management who send us these mysterious messages. We’re being guided by aliens.

It explains many things.

 

peace!

October 1, 2013

peace!

Nevada nuclear test site, Easter 1992

through the fence, cross-country

October 1, 2013

through the fence, cross-country

Mercury, Nevada, Easter 1992

capture the flag

October 1, 2013

capture the flag

Mercury, Nevada, Easter 1992


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