Archive for July, 2008

My first charcoal sketch

notre dame

I used to tease a colleague in IBM by naming everything we wrote together as “MyFirst…”, the joke being that he was (relatively) new to programming. Well, I am new to charcoal sketching. I have always wondered how come my brother, my mother, and my father are all such gifted artists and I am not.

Still, my wife talked me into spending some time sketching the cathedral, and here is the result. I thought it was a bit rubbish, but she liked it. To be honest, it has started to grow on me. It does convey the stark and imposingly spiky gothic architecture.

While we were drawing, an American woman came up to us and asked to see what we were drawing. “Oh my,” she exclaimed, “how wonderful!” Very encouraging of her, wasn’t it? She conversed with us for a minute or two, and then, while walking away, she said, “What a lovely place to relax a while and learn!” Then she chided her husband into hurrying up because they had other things to see that Sunday afternoon.

I hope the irony of her words dawns on her, because she was right—it is a lovely place to relax. More than this, her parting comment revealed her real opinion of my drawing—it was clearly the work of a novice. So on reflection I must change my opinion. The American was superficial and not very encouraging at all. All the real encouragement that day came from my wife: encouragement to relax, encouragement to draw, and encouragement to appreciate my own work. Thank you Mrs Tenthmaker.

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Over-engineering works on Le Métro

I fell for the trap of buying weekly tickets mid-week—they started on Monday even though I bought them late on Wednesday night—but these cartes oranges were still good value for money.

We were worried they might have been rendered useless when I accidentally put them through a wash cycle, but they still worked! One of them didn’t work consistently, but a member of staff was very sympathetic and issued me as many passes as I wanted to get me through the ticket gates. Since it was the last day, I only asked for four.

How well, I wonder, would Tube tickets work after being laundered? Would the London Underground staff be as helpful if they didn’t? For comparison, please note that I washed my tickets at 30ºC (thank goodness I was feeling eco-friendly!).

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French freecycle

velibvelib’ is a portmanteau of the two French words velo and libre, so a good transliteration would be freecycle. Unlike the US freecycle however, this one is free as in freedom, not free as in beer. French has different words for these concepts, so the confusion doesn’t arise. For just 5€ you can use the bicycles as often as you like for a week, provided each journey is less than 30 minutes. There is a bit of fiddling around choosing a working bike and typing the numbers into the kiosk to take it out, but the basics are quickly learned.

So far, I am pretty impressed with the system. It has only been around for a year and it seems to be well used. It helps, of course, that Paris has lanes especially for buses, taxis, and bikes. Of course it has a few problems.

velib fullFor one, the bike racks fill up at key times. You have a few choices:

  • you can wait for someone to take a bike;
  • you can look up the nearby bike racks at the kiosk; or
  • you can buy a one-day ticket (1€) and swap a bike out.

The obvious solution is the supermarket trolley approach. When the racks are full, it should be possible to stack the bikes (not vertically of course—that would be silly). They don’t tessellate as nicely as supermarket trolleys, but they could line up side-by-side.

velib emptyMore recently we saw the opposite problem: a rack completely devoid of bikes! Neither of these problems has yet done more than delay us a few minutes, though this could be very different when late for an urgent appointment. There are lorries that come by to load up bikes from full racks, and presumably populate the empty ones. I had an idea about paying homeless people to move bikes around, but I have no idea how well that would work.

Another obvious shortfall is that there is no user feedback facility. When I check in a bike, I would like to be able to note whether something is wrong with it. The Parisians have created a convention of turning the saddle around to indicate an unusable bike, but this is not universally understood and doesn’t seem to be noticed by the velib’ administrators. Of course the saddle could be turned to any angle, so treating it as a single bit seems wasteful: it could be turned a little to indicate a usable bike with an irritating defect (like out-of-tune gears), or by greater degrees according to the severity of the defect. Turning it left or right could also carry some information, though I can’t think what. The one defect that can’t be indicated in this convention is when the saddle cannot be adjusted.

If you plan on using these, you may want to consider purchasing a Navigo card, which obviates much of the fiddly kiosk interaction. These passes are mainly for Métro travel and cost 5€ if you live outside France. You should also visit a Monoprix shop to buy a velib’ map. These are very handy for planning your travel and for looking up the nearest station when out and about. I did download a PDF map to my phone but it wouldn’t draw the bike rack symbols properly and it was a very poor quality map to boot.

velib weirdLastly I note that the bikes are used in an unexpected way. Quite often, people just go and sit on the locked bikes, either to chat or to reflect quietly on their own—probably just because they’re comfortable seats waiting to be used.

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Le Métro vs The Tube

My first impressions of the transport system in Paris left me pining for the familiarity and reliability of London’s famous Tube. The Paris Métro and RER trains have more graffiti and less room to sit. Many of the entrances and walkways smell of urine. Quite often one must use the stairs, with no lift or elevator option. Even the buskers aren’t as good, I opined to my wife when we walked past some.

The very next day, we were treated to some cheery and heartening music from what sounded like a small orchestra and choir. This was much better than most of the music I have heard on the London Underground!

The same day, someone got onto the train with us and provided a stereotypically French-sounding accordion accompaniment to our entire journey.

We bought 7 days’ unlimited travel through the whole Métro system, the buses, and much of the RER for around €16 each (starting on a Monday, mind!). The trains are fast and smooth, and they link a lot of Paris very well. The major tourist attractions are helpfully labelled on Métro maps. Twice, someone gave up their seat just so I could sit next to my wife. One person stopped to help me when I had trouble with a machine. Another just shrugged when I unwittingly pushed in front of him in a queue. A member of staff shared my frustration when I spoiled my ticket, and helpfully provided me enough passes to get me through the day.

So I take it all back. I prefer Le Métro, even with its occasional whiff of wee.

addendum

After spending longer in Paris, I realized that it isn’t the Métro that smells bad. In fact, they keep it much cleaner than any underground passages in London. The problem with pee is above ground, and all over Paris. If London is The Great Wen (open sewer), then Paris should be Le Grand Pissoir.

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If it wasn’t for those pesco-vegetarians…

Although I have just found the French word for vegan, I can’t convince myself it is going to be very useful. Just mentioning the word for vegetarian draws the most quizzical expressions. I think it would be better received if I were to say I lived on Mars. It would be less alien to the French psyche than to claim I didn’t eat animals.

I recently decided to try my luck in a place that served sushi. I should not have bothered! The shopkeeper tried to convince me that she had plates of vegetarian sushi, but pointed at sushi with salmon. I called her on this, saying that I could see some salmon.

“Yes,” she told me, “that’s not meat.” Double-take time for me. Eventually I ordered some plain noodles and boiled vegetables, using the chilli sauce on the table to add some flavour.

As I reflected on this at my leisure, I realized who was really to blame. It’s not, as you might think, the beleaguered shopkeepers who have to deal with such unconventional and demanding customers. No. It’s those people. You know the ones. The vegetarians who eat fish. I have no beef with them over their chosen diet, but why did they have to go and pollute a nice simple concept like vegetarianism with eating fish? It’s no wonder the food service industries in the Western world are so confused by the idea.

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It’s just like riding a bike

Today, while contemplating an impending bike ride, my wife expressed concern that she hadn’t ridden a bike in ages: would she still be able to do it? Of course you can guess what phrase sprang unhelpfully to mind.

“Once you learn, you never forget—it’s just like riding a bike.”

To be fair, it served my purpose to highlight that cycling was the archetypal once-learned-never-forgotten activity. That alone served to reassure her. It still set me wondering: what should I have compared it to?

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A vegan Christian?

My last blog post was about me stereotyping other vegans. As if to teach me a lesson, I was stereotyped right back today. Having accepted the hospitality of some Korean Christians, I mentioned that I was a vegan. In a not-wholly-surprising turn of events, there was no vegan option at their lunch. After all, they didn’t know I was coming.

They had plenty of vegetables, but these had all been mixed up with meat to make a sandwich filling, so I ended up eating just bread and water. I didn’t mind at all, though I felt a bit bad for the extremely apologetic Korean lady who explained the situation. I told her it was good preparation for any future prison time I might experience.

Several people asked what the matter was, and the pastor looked visibly shaken to see I was eating such plain food. One very interesting young Korean man asked what my religion was. When I told him I was a Christian, he nearly fell out of his seat. “If you are a Christian, how come you don’t eat meat?”

This mirrors my experiences back in Sheffield. I have attended a number of events hosted by charities, and the refreshments have always included vegetarian and vegan options. When I attend the welcome time before my church service, I invariably end up having just water because everything has eggs, milk or butter. There are a couple of exceptions: I brought a vegan cake once, and someone brought some crisps. Since I was serving the food on that occasion, I didn’t eat any of either. This isn’t a problem—I don’t go to church to eat; however, it does reinforce my opinion that Christians don’t expect anyone else in church to be a vegan.

Perhaps this passage has something to do with it.

On the whole, I don’t think it is the Christians who are the exception here, so much as the charities. I think veganism is still quite rare, and most people just can’t fathom it. Today a homeless man asked me for money to buy food. I was munching on a corncob, and he grimaced at it, saying, “I can’t eat sweetcorn—it just doesn’t taste of anything.” And that was before I told him it was raw. Apparently good vegan food is scorned even by the destitute beggar in this country.

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