A Scottish Vampire in Paris

Noting the many bestsellers with “Paris” in the title, as well as the overwhelming quantity of romance novels featuring a bare-chested guy in a kilt on the cover, I have arrived at the perfect bestseller:

A Scottish Vampire in Paris

Marie gazed at the shimmering sparkles coursing through the Tour d’Eiffel with its hourly special effects. “Curse that dreadful bagpipe!” she muttered. It wasn’t the volume of it so much as the quality of timbre that got on her nerves. Here it was 23h30 and she had a 6h appointment in the morning.

She found her mind drifting for some reason to the clinic where she had recently seen all the canisters of blood, neatly labeled in rows behind the glass-doors of the refrigerator.

Why did the image trigger pangs of hunger?

 


Angus McShea brushed a tear from his eye, laying down the pipes with their plaid-cloth bag. The old highland reels always moved him this way. Sighing, he assumed his bat form and flew to hang upside-down from the upper ledge of the window. The lights of the Eiffel Tower upside-down reminded him of a giant Y. His ultra-sensitive ears picked up a cry for help.

“Aha!” thought Angus. “A ne’er-do-well is creating some mischief. An ideal target, as nobody is willing to ever investigate when those kind meet an untimely demise.”

Senses alert, he flitted away into the night, descending from his 5eme étage attic roost into the warm illumination of the Paris streets.

He soon found the assailant and prey, a large muscular yet obese man wielding a knife toward a beautiful young lady with dark skin and curly hair. The predator would make a delightful feast, once becoming the prey.

Landing adroitly, he rematerialized into his human form. “Good evening.” His resonant voice vibrated all around.

The two looked over and the woman screamed.

It was at that moment that Angus remembered that he has donned the kilt but not yet the shirt before departing.

Pardon me, miss. Don’t worry or fret. I’m here to save you! To release you from this uncouth burden which you have unduly acquired.” He gestured to the ne’er-do-well.

Buzz off, scum,” growled the malfaiteur. “I don’t need any help from you.” he strode over menacingly, now brandishing two knives at the thin and frail Scotsman before him. “Here, let’s see what you got.” He lunged, slashing.

Two, eh?” Angus cocked his head. In a flash, both of his hands locked round the wrists of the malfaiteur in a steel grip. The scoundrel struggled for several minutes with no result. He could not budge either hand. The grip of the vampire cut into his flesh like cold steel. 

Why you lousy…” the scoundrel head-butted Angus as hard as he could. If felt like bashing his head against a stone sculpture. A nasty red spot spread in the middle of his forehead, and he wavered unsteadily, dropping both knives.

Angus deftly caught the two of them by the handle before they touched down. The bandit hit the ground like a sack of rotten cabbages. Angus studied the two blades briefly before dismissing them with a snort and tossing them into a nearby garbage can. They rattled against the plastic sides of the hollow bin.

Angus strode over to the collapsed villain and lifted him rudely by the armpits, still unconscious. He turned to the would-be victim and grinned. “This might be an opportune moment for you to run away.”

The woman with dark curly hair swooned. “I wish I could, but my legs betray me, for I am so irrevocably drawn to your bare manly chest and your brazen display of courage and strength!”

Angus looked down. “You’re sure it’s not the kilt?”

She shook her head, then hesitated. “Well, maybe the both of them together.”

I warn you, fair lass!” he cried. “You do not want to watch what will happen next! For I am a terrible vampire and about to feast upon this vile ne’er-do-well!”

Oh, but I am so drawn to you, I feel I must embrace the full morally ambiguous dark recesses of your deep subconscious, your demons and anxieties with all the rest!”

Angus shrugged. “Ok.” He tore out a chunk of the blaggard’s neck, causing blood to squirt and gush in all directions, in fact making rather a mess. Angus lapped voraciously.

On second thought,” said the woman, “could you tell me how to reach the nearest métro stop from here? I’m a bit lost.”

Angus pondered, the entire lower half of his face crimson with blood. “the Porte de Villette stop is over that way. Onto the next street and you make a left, I think.”

Got it. Thank you so kindly.” She curtsied. “And thank you for coming to my rescue. How can I ever repay you?”

Angus looked down. “Dinner,” he said, holding up the limp, dripping body.

I see. Well, so very enchanted to meet you! I must be going now!” and she scurried off in the direction Angus had pointed.

No worries!” he called after, but she was gone. He shrugged, and returned to his voracious feeding.

Vegan Paris

There is so much great vegan and vegetarian food in Paris nowadays! It seems to be becoming more popular.

I had the opportunity to visit one of my all time favorite places a few weeks ago: http://vege-saveurs.com/

For starters, I would recommend this book: http://www.gibertjoseph.com/paris-vegetarien-6066523.html (about 5 euros at Gibert Josph)

A few things have changed since 2015; for example, here is a new one near Rue des Martyres http://lapalanchedaulac.fr/ and also, what was formerly Pousse Pousse is now “5 Lorette,” in more or less the same location.

There is even a vegan brasserie, in front of which I saw people smoking. It is France, after all. https://vegoresto.fr/paris/brasserie-lola/

I didn’t go to the one in Paris, but the one in Amsterdam was superb: http://www.maozusa.com/restaurants/locations/paris

Imagine: a middle-eastern restaurant without the frickin’ side of lamb cooking!!

Salut!

the force drinks coffee

Warning! spoilers! Long rambling, meandering…

“Awakens” was one of the better contributions to the franchise, I thought. It was shallow and manipulative, which is what Abrams does well, but didn’t seem to take itself as woodenly serious as some of the recent offerings have. I didn’t find myself objecting to the carefully choreographed emotional manipulation in the way one often does by bad movies.

The franchise formula remains the same. Title against star fields, followed by plot-so-far synopsis receding into the distance, then panning down… same music.

The plucky female heroine and turncoat clone are worthy additions to the cast.

Other than that, the overall shape of the plot was nearly identical to that of the very first one, and seeing this new version brought back memories of seeing it when it came out in 1977.  I want to say “pleasant” memories, but if you think carefully: the graphic massacre, the capture and disturbing torture scenes. Not exactly pleasant, aside from being familiar, which is an odd sensation.

The death star and its destruction which didn’t depart significantly from the first movie in dramatic import, though the effects were obviously much more complex, and there was the predictable inflation of the weapon. Destroying one planet isn’t good enough. We have to destroy multiple planets!  At this rate, by Episode 23 they’ll need to destroy the entire universe, which could be a bit inconvenient. It could evolve into a “hithiker’s guide” cycle in which the universe is destroyed at the end of every episode, then recreated at the beginning of the next one.

The other thing that brought it back, of course was the appearance of genuinely aged characters from the first movie. Seeing Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher work together again was a pleasure. Watching Leia pass the torch to Rey I thought of how the casts of “Les Misèrables” grow up and those who played the girl parts later play the women’s parts  [Only Victor Hugo’s message was much more vital and relevant to the real world, unlike this festival of shameless simplistic escapism we have come to expect from the videographic products of the engines of commerce].

I felt like I was watching the next season of Buffy, complete with the death of a popular character. Except, Whedon would probably not have milked the drama so egregiously… but this is Star Wars, which is all ABOUT the egregious squeezing of blood from every little plot turn!

I was glad he brought in shades of the dark brooding from “the empire strikes back” (the vision of the lightsabre) The effect at the beginning with the ‘frozen’ blaster charge was fun, too.

For the same reasons I think Abrams was the wrong person to direct Star Trek, he was the right person to direct Star Wars. A movie in which things are what they seem and everything is cut and dried into two distinct factions (light and dark) leaving the definitions of each sufficiently vague that anyone can imagine themselves rooting for the side that wins.

It’s a clichéd poetry, but one Abrams knows well and communicates with fluently.

 

 

 

 

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

  • 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

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!

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/

Anne Neuberger Seminar Primer

Heartbleed

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.