Monday, December 06, 2010

Innotech 2010: a new batch of entrepreneurs

I typically go to Innotech just for the Beta Summit, a showcase of Austin technology startups. (That, and because I've been getting free passes for 3 years in a row, and for their happy hours, receptions, and networking.) A few select startups present their products and -- what's even more interesting -- their business models, in 10-minute talks. I've blogged about previous Innotechs here.<./p>

This year the startups were:

Recycle Match. Their goal is to make landfills obsolete. Companies are wasting resourcces to dispose of the garbage they generate in their manufacturing process, but one company's trash is another company's treasure. Many millions' worth of recyclable materials in landfills, while they could be sold to companies that could use them. Recyclables market in the US is huge, but it's offline and very inefficient. Recycle Match connects companies to let them offload their recyclable materials onto each other. Recycle Match charges companies $10 a ton to make a match; whereas landfills charge much more to dump stuff in landfills.

Ricochet Labs is a company that publishes a location-based trivia game QRank. It has rapidly taken off among Austin's Twitter community. They are saying that they are building service architecture for QRank, and looking at "verticals such as for-profit education" -- I have only a vague idea what that means. Would an average iPhone user like some education mixed in with his or her trivia game? Now that's an idea. Even better, let them get a degree from an online university solely via trivia games! (Just kidding.) QRank is also adding content channels, such as sports or movie channel, and location-based offers and redemptions. They are adding more platforms -- Android and Blackberry.

Matt Curtin from Social Smack Chad Farrell from Recycle Match
Matt Curtin from Social Smack Chad Farrell from Recycle Match
Hurricane Party is a free iPhone app that lets people get together. What? Evite, Meetup, Eventbrite, or Facebook events aren't enough? We need yet another application for creating events? Maybe we do. Hurricane Party's cofounder Eric Katerman is a self-admitted prorastinator. He doesn't plan his free time before the last minute. When he got an urge to hang out with his friends, he used to set a Facebook status asking if anyone wants to get together, but got few responses, and even fewer timely ones. That's where Hurricane Party comes in, he says. To get together with friends, he creates a "hurricane", and invites people. Hurricane Party is great for creating spontaneous events with friends, that take place within a very short time window. Invites are sent via text messages. In this it differs from Evite, Facebook events, or other event planning applications. You can create an event as far as 12 hours in advance, and easily move it to another location. Who are your "friends" on Hurricane Party? It's a subset (I didn't understand if it was an intersection or a union) of your Facebook friends and people in your contact book. Everyone logs into Hurricane Party through Facebook. You can also group your friends into groups, such as Yoga or Sushi, to make it easier to invite the right groups of people to a "hurricane". Hurricane Party also offers location-based specials. A group of friends getting together at a particular venue may get a big discount, e.g. half-price domestic beer. While this sounds a lot like Groupon, HP claims to solves problems that Groupon has. Most Groupon customers redeem their coupons during the time whe then business is at its busiest (Thursday-Saturday nights), and most of its users are established customers at a venue they where they redeem Groupon, not new ones. So Hurricane Party also helps businesses grow traffic, since not everyone who has been invited has already been to this venue. Hurricane Party plans to have a big launch at the next SXSW.
Rodney Gibbs from Ricochet Labs Eric Katerman from Hurricane Party
Rodney Gibbs from Ricochet Labs Eric Katerman from Hurricane Party
Workstreamer lets people keep track of companies. Marketing departments are interested in keeping track of competition, vendors of their customers. Historically people did that through Google. But, as the presenter Ray Renteria demonstrated, if you search for, e.g. Target, you'll get lots of irrelevant results. A savvy person might create a Google Alert. But you don't want to keep track of things "at an atomic level", he says, because you probably follow more than one company. Workstreamer pulls in tens of thousands of streams of information. It determines what is business and non-business related, and delivers those results to you via its website and an AIR desktop application. So you get filtered, relevant news, as well as what people are saying about a particular company on social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. Workstreamer is free, but as a premium feature it's planning to offer technology that will "plug into other contexts", such as email, and into other platforms as well. Another paid feature in the works is a repository of structured data about businesses. It will let you find out, for example, which companies bought other companies, or which ones recently went bankrupt.
Ray Renteria from WorkStreamer Jason Cohen speaks about entrepreneurial lessons learned from Smart Bear Software
Ray Renteria from WorkStreamer Jason Cohen speaks about entrepreneurial lessons learned from Smart Bear Software
In a separate session on entrepreneurship, Jason Cohen gave a talk "From Geek to Entrepreneur: Sifting Through The Bull5h1t". The gist of his advice for techies who want to start their own companies was this: take all the established entrepreneurial wisdom with the grain of salt. Advice exists in context. Rules -- from how often you should blog about your company, to how hard you should work, to whether you need salespeople, to whether it's better to be bootstrapped or funded -- are dependent on the nature of your business, and exist solely in context. Since rules are meant to be broken, pick the rules that are fun to you! In his speech, Jason Cohen illustrated how he broke each established rule, and still built a successful software company, Smart Bear Software. For example, entrepreneurs are often advised to blog once a day, keep blog posts short, and use simple words. Cohen instead reduced the frequency of his blogging to once a week, and wrote 1500 word-long posts -- and his company's blog started getting many more visitors. It also depends on whether you are building your business to become rich, or would you rather be a king of your domain (read more on Rich vs. King distinction), whether it serves business-to-business or business-to-consumer market market, whether it's a lifestyle or a growth business. And maybe you don't need an experienced salesperson, if, by picking a right acronym and motto for the company's name, you make viral marketing work for you:? Viral marketing: STDS - our invoices flare up every year Several more slides from this presentation that talk about Rich vs. King model and other dimensions that characterize startups, can be found in in my photo gallery.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

My NaNoWri3Years

... and just like that, I realized I am writing the final scene of my first novel. Not NaNoWriMo -- I've been working on this one for three years. I didn't expect this scene to be final, but it seems fitting to end the novel here, and leave the rest to the reader's imagination. Well, at least in Draft Zero -- it's subject to change in subsequent drafts. Yes, I said Draft Zero, because it does not deserve the title of first draft yet. That's even taking into account that, as they say, the first draft should look like it was hastily translated from Icelandic by a non-native speaker. No, my Draft Zero is nowhere near as polished as that.

It needs:

-- a few more characters. At the very least it needs me to decide what happened to some secondary characters that made brief appearances and left plot threads dangling. Those characters need to be rounded up and brought back into the plot;

-- figuring out which parts of the story need to happen before other parts; in other words, a consistent timeline;

-- a firmer grasp of physics (it's a science fiction novel);

-- a decision on whether it should have just one point of view, or if the two protagonists each need their own POV. I am leaning towards the latter, because if everything is shown from the POV of Protagonist 1, readers won't have a way to find out what happened to Protagonist 2 (except by P2 giving an infodump to P1, and we know desirable infodumps are);

-- last but not least, it needs character development. More vivid descriptions of places would be nifty too.

Oh, it also needs names for characters and places -- time to stop designating the characters as X and Y. And a title.

If I'm lucky, it will take me another year to get to Draft One, at which point I might start taking it to critique groups. But now I'm actually tempted to put this aside and write a new novel, which has been marinating inside me for months now. It started out as a short story, and grew into a novella, and then I realized that to do proper justice to those ideas, I need to make it a novel. But on an average day, I only have time to work on one or the other. There's no way I would have time for both. So I think I'll have to do revisions of this novel, and let the next one wait a year.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Paris: street music and fashion

Street music night in Paris looked promising -- at least in posters that were plastered all over town. They promised "a night when Paris won't sleep" because live bands will be playing in the open air all through the night. Public transportation was supposed to be running throughout the night, too.

When we tried to find out which exactly busses and metro trains will be running, the picture turned out to be far less rosy. In the part of town where we lived, no overnight bus or train traffic was scheduled. Ordinary Metro trains stop running around 1 a.m. That's still not too bad, allows you to take in some of the nightlife. Now, how to find out where, when, and what bands will be playing? Tricky. My mom, who among all of us was the only one armed with knowledge of French, tried to find out on the internet. Turned out, most scheduled bands stopped playing around 11 p.m. After that, there were only "spontaneous" concerts on street corners. It wasn't clear where or when they were supposed to be happening. Even their approximate locations weren't indicated. So we set out on a lark to search for any bands that may be playing.

We got off the Metro at a certain popular nightlife area, only to find out that there wasn't any street music there as far as we could see (it was a long shot anyway). Instead, the streets were full of aggressive-looking teenagers. Those with cars burned rubber on the road; those without hung out on the street, making comments at the passersby. Even without knowing French, you could tell the comments were not exactly friendly.

There was only half an hour left until the last train home. Worse -- walking back to the Metro station, we managed to miss the station we came out of. It took some searching, and two helpful French girls who explained, in a broken but passable English, where the metro station was. So we made it to the train in time. There was a twenty-something girl on the platform that started talking to us; she was from New York, but originally from Italy... I think. She was studying in Paris. Maybe. It's all a blur now. She said that she actually saw some live bands playing that night, but in a completely different part of town, somewhere near Notre Dame. She also said that earlier that night some metro station were closed and evacuated, because somebody set off gas in them; fortunately, we were nowhere near the incident.

So we got home, and it was getting close to 2 a.m. In our quiet, out-of-the-way neighborhood, all restaurants and bars were closed, but surprisingly, one little bar was still open. There was even a live band playing, but it was already wrapping up when we got there. The bar was tiny, and it only had outdoor seating. The bar owner, who was also working as a waiter, brought us drinks and stopped by to talk with us. It was like an archetype of all neighborhood bars. So the night wasn't a total loss.

Accordion player on a Metro train A puppeteer on a Metro train
Accordion player on a Metro train. A puppeteer on a Metro train.

Live music in Paris, however, can be obtained without looking far and wide -- in fact, it can and will be shoved down your throat precisely at the moments when you don't want it. I'm talking about performers on Metro trains. The trains are usually quiet, with everyone minding their own business, so it's quite jarring when the silence is suddenly interrupted by loud blaring of a 70s pop hit. At first you can't even understand where it's coming from. Is it someone's phone? Then you realize it's actually a guy standing near the door with a portable drum machine, singing into a microphone. Meanwhile his accomplice, a woman, is walking down the train and collecting donations. Perhaps these "performers" expect that people will give them money just to make them go away. I can't imagine how anyone would see this as anything but annoyance.

The performers usually get off at the next stop. I wonder if they are actually violating some law by imposing their "art" on the captive audience, and they want to get the heck out before police cracks down on them?

One time, though, I saw non-annoying metro artist. He hung a curtain between two vertical handrails and performed a short puppet show. That was kind of cute. (Sorry that the picture is so poor -- from where I was sitting, I could not photograph around that handrail in the middle. :-))

A guy in shorts and jacket A guy in shorts and jacket in a cafe

So much about music on the streets of Paris -- now a little about fashion. The boldest fashions I've seen in Paris were worn, oddly enough, not by women but by men. I'm speaking, in particular, of this odd style of combining a jacket with short shorts, often worn with low-cut or no socks.

The first time I saw a guy dressed like that, I thought he was in a costume, but later I saw more and more guys in similar outfits. I dare say it works about as well as a mullet: business on top, party at the bottom. But what do you know -- in a year or two, the streets of U.S. metropolises might be full of hipsters sporting a similar look.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Medieval oddities, and other minor points of interest in Paris

Museum of the Middle Ages. Lots of medieval arts and crafts -- paintings, tapestries, sculptures, religious objects such as reliquaries or incense holders; jewelry, housewares. I remember a tapestry that portrayed a robbery (at least as far as an eye untrained in art and medieval history could guess) -- you have to wonder if back in the day this was a substitute of crime scene photography. Did the maker of the tapestry present it as evidence in court?

Some tapestries from the Middle Ages were hyper-realistic. Look at the monkey (?) at the bottom of this hunting scene -- is it really doing what I think it's doing? And why was it so important to put that in the picture?

Outside of the Museum of the Middle Ages there is a huge pit with uncovered ruins of Roman baths. The whole area is fenced off, and I'm not sure if it is ever open; if there was a door inside of the museum to get to the excavated area, we couldn't find it.

Ruins of Roman baths at the Museum of Middle Ages

Cluny museum. Paintings, lots of paintings -- mostly impressionists and expressionists. Or maybe it was just one special exhibit we visited. Could not spend much time in the museum, as we arrived 1 hour before closing. Turns out that was cutting it very close: we were among the last few people to were admitted. So, there was plenty of Van Gogh and Gauguin, and... well, that's where my familiarity with painters of that era ends, so I can't list other undoubtedly famous names.

Trash in a tomb in Pere Lachaise cemetery

Pere Lachaise cemetery, where many famous people are buried (including Jim Morison). It's a quiet little city-in-the-city with its own streets and alleys. Famous or not, some tombs seem to be abandoned, judging by how trashed they are. It's spooky to be there near closing time: a sign says the cemetery closes at 6, but there are no guard around to usher the stragglers out. Will they lock the gate leaving the slowpokes inside until morning? That's what you wonder as you rush this way and that trying to find the exit, or look for any signs of other people heading towards exits. (Spoiler: we got out! The exit wasn't really locked. No luck in getting to spend a night stretched out on Jim Morison's grave.

More pictures from my trip are in my photo gallery.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Louvre of the Rings

Louvre is gigantic. Finding Mona Lisa would be like a needle in a haystack, but the helpful signs everywhere assure you won't be lost in making your way to it. All throughout the museum there are arrows pointing you towards the halls where Mona Lisa, Venus of Milo, and other legendary art treasures are displayed. I'm not sure, though, if they are worth seeing for anything other than the sense of irony. You brave the crowds surrounding those famous exhibits, only to check a mental checkmark: yes, Mona Lisa really looks just like in the pictures. Not that you could see anything details by peering at it above the sea of heads. Heck, it's not like you could see anything new if you stared at it up close. And still, a visit to Louvre would feel incomplete without it, wouldn't it?

Glowing inscriptions on the walls of medieval Louvre Glowing inscriptions on the walls of medieval Louvre

But there is more interesting stuff to see at Louvre. Most notably, its basement. Segments of medieval walls of a castle that Louvre once was are displayed here. Walking a circular tunnel (it may be a tunnel between the outer and an inner walls of the castle, but I'm not sure) you can look at roped-off niches and caves, and wonder what their purpose one was -- or did they form as the wall decayed? You can come up close and take a peek into deep wells that plunge into underground depths. Such perfect places for The Eldritch Ones to crawl out of the depths of the Earth. This glowing, cursive lettering above the well -- is it an invocation? :-)

These glowing strings of words were everywhere in the tunnels. On curving walls, they resembled the Dark Speech inscription on Sauron's Ring. :-) I don't know much French, but judging from the few words I could make out, they did not present facts about the medieval Louvre; rather, they were poetic musings about history, or something of that nature.

Some of the museum halls have white, spare walls not to draw attention away from the classical statues housed in them; others have preserved the gaudy splendor of a royal palace back from the days when Louvre was one. Some painting collections are displayed in huge halls on walls that already have every square centimeter of them painted or gilded. The paintings hanging on them are probably as big as my entire living room wall; but they don't look that huge, because they are hanging high on the wall, right underneath a vaulted ceiling (which too is painted with uncountable frescoes, and decorated with gilded ornaments). It's so ridiculously over-the-top -- your mind boggles at the excess kings lived in.

More pictures from my trip to Paris are in my photo gallery.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Paris tour continues: Monmartre

If Monmartre is supposed to be a place of art and spirituality (not to mention adult entertainment), you wouldn't know that as you get off the Metro and make your way towards the hill on which Monmartre is located.

The carnival atmosphere that surrounds all tourist attractions is especially heavy at the Sacre Coeur basilica. There are even carnival rides at the bottom of the stairs leading to the basilica. The stairs are crowded with street performers, dancers, jugglers, magicians, bands. The assault of amplified sounds from several competing bands should make it hell for anyone who dares to linger, yet masses of people camp out and have picnics right there on the stairs.

The worldly cheesiness is cut off abruptly once you enter the Sacre Coeur basilica itself. It was quiet inside except for the mass that was taking place, and it has strict standards for dress code and behavior.

Crowds on the stairs of the Sacre Coeur basilica Brass brewing device in the courtyard of St. Peter's church
Stairs of the Sacre Coeur basilica Brass brewing device in the courtyard of St. Peter's church

Another church on Monmartre hill, Church of Saint Peter of Montmartre, looked closed, or at least very quiet. Even so, a gleaming brass device, every steampunk costumer's dream prop, was brewing hot liquids to be sold and consumed right there in the church yard. Beside tea and coffee, they had hot wine. And didn't it taste good on a chilly June afternoon! Have to wonder if this was how the church was using up leftover sacramental wine. :-)

The "artistic" part of Monmartre is just as heavily and cheesily commercial. The Tertre square is supposed to be famous for artists hanging out and painting, but all I saw were outdoor seating areas for the restaurants surrounding the square. Can't say I saw many artists working there. But knick-knack vendors were ubiquitous. Only these weren't selling Eiffel Tower replicas as much as art posters.

Place du Tertre

Those are just the "spiritual" and "artistic" parts of Monmartre. Then there is the red-light district with the famous Moulin Rouge, adult shops and strip clubs. Some of them have explicit titles (in English, even) -- this isn't a place you would want to bring your children for a stroll.

(This reminds me -- earlier this summer, in Lithuania, I heard a song in a grocery store that had "shit" in the lyrics. Such as song would have never been played in a family-friendly store in the US, where grocery store music is the very definition of pabulum -- nothing that's played here is less than two decades old, or touched by even a faintest shade of controversy. American parents would be up-in-arms about kids hearing curse words in a song. Here, the argument "kids have heard everything" won't fly. I have to wonder if Lithuanian parents have become so jaded, or if it's still not common to complain to an establishment when your sensibilities are offended. And what kind of store would want to plant such derogatory perception of its goods in a customer's subconscious? :-))

It was at the end of the red light district that we found one of very few, rare Starbucks in Paris. Is that a dumb American thing, to want to go to Starbucks in Paris, of all places? Wouldn't you rather rub shoulders with berette-wearing, chain-smoking bohemians in authentic Parisian coffeeshops? :-) But Starbucks might be the only place in Paris to provide a convenience item I missed: a venti-size paper cup. Suppose you drink huge amounts of herbal tea every day, like I do. And you like to take it with you on a walk. You won't get a carryout paper cup, at least not that size, at most Paris coffeeshops. Also, hotels here don't provide you with a way to brew a decent amount of tea. The cups that come with your room are 4 ounces in size -- that's nowhere near enough for me to quench a thirst. :-) Solution -- get a Starbucks 20 ounce cup and reuse it as a brewing container. Though made of paper, those cups are sturdy enough to last a few brewings.

Rue Foyatier in Monmartre A downhill street in Monmartre
Rue Foyatier in Monmartre -- a street that's all stairs A downhill street in Monmartre

Back to Monmartre -- as much as it's crowded with vendors of touristy junk, it's still worth a visit. It's a beautiful place with narrow, hilly, curving, cobblestone-paved streets -- a quintessential old, romantic European city quarter.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A rushed tour of Paris famous tourist points

Somewhat adventurously, we went to Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe the same evening, and both visits involved climbing a lot of stairs. A LOT of stairs.

You cross an event horizon bound by four legs of iron lace, and suddenly you no longer see the building that just a moment ago was the tallest thing visible: you are looking at it from below. But this eye of the singularity, the courtyard underneath the Eiffel Tower, is bubbling with mundane activity. There are food and beverage stands and knick-knack shops. The crowd is thick with vendors carrying chains with dozens of miniature Eiffel Towers strung on them. Those vendors are probably illegal, because when police arrives, they scatter like bugs.

Eiffel Tower knick-knack vendors

Miniature models of Eiffel Tower are also sold at other famous tourist points, such as Arc de Triomphe and Sacre Coeur Basilica at Monmartre. But I never saw anyone sell models of those other objects -- maybe they are not considered as recognizeable.

Crossing into the Eiffel Tower courtyard you immediately see lines at the elevators. Those lines are long. Hours-long. However, observation decks in Eiffel Tower are accessible by stairs. The decks are at Level 1 and Level 2 of the base, which corresponds to 23rd and 46th floors of an ordinary building. The stairs don't go the top: for that, you'd have to take an elevator. Given the lines at the elevators, and our plans to visit Arc de Triomphe the same evening, we chose the stairs. Walking 46 floors to Level 2 was... something else. But we survived.

One of the legs of Eiffel Tower from below A rotating light beam from the Eiffel Tower in the dark
One of the legs of Eiffel Tower from below. A rotating light beam from the Eiffel Tower in the dark, as seen from Arc de Triomphe.

While all cities look pretty much the same from above, there are plenty of aids to identify the objects you see. Every 20-30 meters around the perimeter of the observation deck there are binoculars for your viewing pleasure, and a plaque that explains what are the most prominent objects in sight. Still, it inevitably turns out that some flashy palace that draws your attention is only of minor significance; whereas the most famous objects are so thoroughly lost in the chaos of geometric shapes that you have to look long and hard to find them.

Immediately after Eiffel Tower we went to Arc de Triomphe. We got there at twilight, and climbed 247 steps to the top. I don't know what floor of a typical building it compares to, but it's pretty high. We could not put it off for another day, because we already tried to visit Arc de Triomphe twice, and failed. The first time we underestimated just how long it takes to get from any place to any other place in Paris by Metro. Staying near the Southern edge of Paris, it took at least half an hour to get anywhere "interesting". Most points of interest were 2-3 Metro rides away, taking as much as an hour to get to.

Charles de Gaulle day ceremony at Arc de Triomphe

The second time we arrived at Arc de Triomphe only to find it closed for the Charles de Gaulle day (June 18th) ceremony. The ceremony took place under the Arc itself, and involved a bunch of VIPs. Rumors said France's president Sarkozy was there. We stood too far from the Arc to make out any faces. The Arc is surrounded by a traffic circle, and is reachable only by underground passageways. The police had blocked off those passageways. They had not, however, redirected the traffic away from the traffic circle. That was odd. What's to keep a terrorist from a drive-by bombing?

French guys watch Charles de Gaulle day ceremony at Arc de Triomphe

A crowd had gathered on the outer side of the traffic circle to watch ant-sized dignitaries go through the ceremony (which involved speeches and not much else). A bunch of friendly 20-something French guys were passing around a flask with, I guess, hard liquor. We asked them what kind of holiday was Charles de Gaulle day, and they were eager to explain, but their English wasn't good enough for that. A convoluted, halting explanation involved World War II and England, and Charles de Gaulle doing something special. Later I found this article from The Guardian about the significance of that day; it also says Sarkozy was in the UK on June 18th of 2010, so he could not have been at the Arc de Triomphe.

More pictures from my trip to Paris are in my photo gallery.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fast food in Paris: an oxymoron

One might say only a dumb American would go to Paris and eat fast food, but sometimes you have no choice. For example, you might have underestimated how long it takes to get from one place to another, and you really want to get into the Arc de Triomphe before it closes for the night, and realize there's not enough time for a leisurely dinner. So, you find yourself on Champs Elysees (a street that ends at Arc de Triomphe), looking for a fast food restaurant. There's a McDonald's. But you think you should stay true to the local flavor. You see a chain called Quick, that sells sandwiches and salads. You don't have them in the U.S., so it will count as local flavor.

Bad decision. Quick turned out to be anything but. There are 3-4 people working at the counter, and the lines are 2-3 people deep. At any U.S. fast food place you'd be able to order and probably get your order in 5 minutes. Here you notice that in 10 minutes they've served just one customer in your line. Now there's still another customer ahead of you, a young woman. She proceeds to chat with the guy behind the counter for maybe 5 minutes. It doesn't look like flirty banter, or old friends catching up. Their facial expressions are intense and businesslike. What could they be talking about? Is she questioning him about the place of origin of the meat Quick uses, how ethically the animals are treated, or if the farmers were paid a fair wage? Without knowing French, you'll never know. But yes, it takes another 10 minutes until she is finally served. No, this isn't an exceptionally slow line. The situation is the same at other lines. And it's not because the employees are sluggish. They seem to be busy and moving around at all times, just like at any U.S. fast food place. So there are no outward clues for slowness. But you start thinking that maybe you should have tried to go to a restaurant with waiter service -- the result might have been the same.

And the restrooms might have been nicer too. The ones at Quick were dirty. There were shreds of toilet paper all over the floor, and no toilet paper in some stalls. Not only that, you had to pay to enter women's restroom (only 20 euro cents, but still). But men's restroom was free! Go figure.

We ate in time to make it to Arc de Triomphe, but we were cutting it close. So much for "quick" food. Maybe we should have gone to McDonald's, assuming McDonald's is able to maintain consistent customer service standards across different countries, even in high pedestrian traffic places.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Mandatory post about food in Paris

Back to "what I did on my summer vacation" series. It would be unthinkable to go to Paris and not try the food, but being on a tight budget, we got to taste very little of French cuisine. We lived mostly on my mom's cooking, which is not any worse than in a typical Parisian cafe or bistro, if the two we sampled were any indication. That's not to say they were bad, it's just that my mom is an excellent cook. :-) In both places we tried, the food was good, just not extraordinary. One thing that stood out was the popularity of mussels, served with fries. I saw this combination at several restaurants, just peering into the window to see what the people were eating inside. Mussels are yummy but not filling, and even a huge pile of them isn't very much once you throw away the shells. So a side dish is necessary, but I didn't expect fries to be served with such a... noble food. I always thought of mussels in the context of paella or risotto.

Croissants, another mandatory thing to try in Paris, are also not that different from the ones in Austin. I am, however, not an expert on any kind of flaky dough pastries, because they are too calorific to eat often. So all those cosy little boulangeries and pattiseries (bakeries that bake bread, and those that specialize only in pastries) on every corner got little more from me than wistful sighs. But French people, they love their bread. The city streets after work are full of people with fresh baguettes sticking out of their bags.

They also like rabbit meat, it seems. Every butcher shop has whole, skinless rabbits on display. The first time you see those little monsters, staring with their sightless eyes at the ceiling, it may give you a pause. Nor can you immediately tell what it is. So Ray did a little skit where he loudly wondered, in an exaggerated Texas accent, whether this was a possum. The shopkeepers successfully ignored him.

A whole rabbit without skin in a Paris butcher shop Tagine and vegetable stew
A possum.... uh, a rabbit in a Paris butcher shop. Tagine (or tajine) (left) and vegetable stew at a Moroccan restaurant.

In addition to two French cafes, we also went to a Moroccan restaurant in the Latin Quarter to eat some yummy tagine. By the way, Moroccan cuisine is so common here that you can easily conclude it is to French as Mex is to Tex. Many mainstream restaurants have Moroccan dishes on the menu. Years ago, when I made a superficial attempt to study French, there was a dialogue in my textbook where two friends went to a restaurant and ordered couscous. I was surprised -- is couscous so popular over there that it made its way into textbooks? The answer turns out to be yes.

Next: French fast food -- an adventure unto itself.

More pictures from my trip to Paris are in my photo gallery.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

First All Girl Hack Night

My post on the first All Girl Hack Night meetup is now on . On 9/28/2010 female programmers of Austin got together to socialize and work on their code projects.

Rekha Gupta (center) and other female developers

More pictures from the meetup can be found in my photo gallery.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

William Gibson, a naturalist with a science fiction toolkit

On September 15, 2010, William Gibson gave a reading from his new novel "Zero History" at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Austin. The reading was followed by Q&A and a signing. I attended a similar reading and signing when he was in Austin in 2008, promoting his earlier novel "Spook Country". This year I could clearly see what some critic meant by calling Gibson an unappreciated humorist. A big part of his speech and answers consisted of quotable one-liners. Here are some pearls of his wit.

Austin was not so much Ground Zero in cyberpunk, as it was Patient Zero in cyberpunk. The first reading from "Neuromancer" by Gibson was given here, to about 5 people, at ArmadilloCon.

In the 20th century I was a futurist, but in the 21st century I'm some kind of naturalist with a science fiction toolkit.

It doesn't surprise me that 21sth century is not what I thought it might be, because that's what happens when you get to the real future from the real past. The real future has no capital F. Europeans have been hip to this forever, and they used to laugh at us. [But now we're starting to realize it too].

William Gibson at Barnes and Noble

Somebody in the audience asked him if the similarity between the names of Case in "Neuromancer", and Cayce in "Pattern Recognition" was an accident. Gibson replied that Case in "Neuromancer" is named after Case knife company, that made a very iconic kind of knife. They were so ubiquitous that Case knife became synonymous with pocket knife. And they have a beautiful logo. When Gibson was thinking what to name the guy, he saw that logo, and the name suggested itself to him.

With Cayce Pollard from "Pattern Recognition", he doesn't know where exactly he got that first name. "So there is no symbolic meaning, but you can find one," Gibson added.

Another question from the audience was about antagonists in his books. Gibson replied:

As a grown-up, I didn't believe in villainy the same way I might have done when I was younger, and the way our pop culture encourages us to. [...] The real antagonist in all my work is the way the world is. And the way it undoes the good guys AND the bad guys.

Question: why doesn't he write more short stories?

Most very good science fiction stories have as many ideas as most good SF novels. And I'm not a guy who has a lot of ideas. If I wrote short stories now, I would use up my limited narrative ideas.

Question: is he a pessimist or an optimist?

To answer this question, Gibson reminds us that in the years of the Cold War, when he grew up, people were conditioned to think that world was going to end very soon. Thus, he says, he thought he was being optimistic to write a novel set in 2035, in which there still were people.

Here is a link to my post on William Gibson's appearance in Austin in 2008, where he talks much more extensively about cyberpunk, literature, future, and such.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010: non-native English speaker, an American author

I made a good effort to read Ilona Andrews' "Magic Bites", but this kind of urban fantasy is not to my taste. Yet I was intrigued by her as a non-native English speaker who is also a published author in English. I'm trying to follow the same path, and there aren't many role models in it. Ilona Andrews (for the sake of accuracy I'll add that this name is actually a pseudonym for a writing team consisting of her and her husband, who is a native English speaker) was only the second such person I met. The first was Sara Hoyt, who I met at the World Fantasy Convention in 2007. I blogged about it here.

Her biographical details resonated with me because of certain parallels. Like me, she grew up in the socialist block and immigrated the US as an adult. She came to US on a scholarship to a private school (it wasn't clear to me whether that was college or high school); I came here to go to graduate school. She said she knew very little English at first. I found that a bit strange, because any foreigner who comes to US for schooling is required to pass TOEFL, Test of English as a Second Language, to be admitted. The first time she used an English word was in the airport when she arrived to the US. A guy was blocking the walkway with his luggage. She waited for him to move, but he didn't. So she said "excuse me", and he moved. That was a defining moment in her life -- she used a word in a foreign language, and someone understood and responded. She felt like she was accepted into this other society.

(I guess it's remarkable that it happened so soon for her. Many immigrants take much longer to get to this point. But this incident has no more than symbolic value, and for some people, symbolic value is enough.)

Anne Sowards, Ilona and Gordon Andrews

Anne Sowards, Ilona and Gordon Andrews at Ilona Andrews interview at ArmadilloCon 2010.

When she first went to a bookstore in the US, she was stunned at the colorful book covers. In the USSR there was not only no western science fiction books sold (because they didn't pass censorship), but whatever books were sold, had dark, gloomy covers.

Oh, and in her high school days, she was required to do agricultural manual work. I had to do that myself back in the day. In the countries of the socialist block, all high school and college students had to spend 1-2 months of summer doing agricultural labor, such as harvesting the crops or weeding the fields. The only way to get out of it was to get a doctor to certify that a medical condition made you unsuitable for such labor. We were paid very little for it. 2 months of work in the late 80s was barely enough to buy me a few cups of coffee (since coffee prices went up astronomically). It's strange that decades later in the US I ran into someone who went through the same experience!

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 are in my photo gallery.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010: Time travel meanders

Some discussion panels go disappointingly off-topic, turning into a free-form chat between the panelists that has nothing to do with the stated purpose of the discussion. Such was the "What do you bring on your time travel" panel. Based on the title, I was hoping for some fun brainstorming on what necessities you should bring with you to increase the odds of your survival in the past or the future. But it was nothing like that. Instead the panelists spend a good chunk of time debating whether they would want to know the date of their death. Then some of them turned it into "how things were better in their youth" gripe session. One panelist, who I already knew was conservative, criticized women's liberation for enabling girls to be as foul-mouthed and crude as boys. According to him, it's not progress if it makes it acceptable for women to engage in the worst behaviors of men. Gotta love the ole' double standard! Boys will be boys, but women are supposed to uphold civilized behavior. Blech.

To be fair, he also told entertaining stories about his Italian childhood, to illustrate how some of a modern person's basic cultural assumptions wouldn't hold up even as little as half a century back. In his mother's day in Italy, you were not supposed to chat with store clerks. If a clerk behind the counter tried to make small talk with his (the panelist's) mother (even here in the US?), the mother would grab her purse and hold it tight, because she assumed the only reason the clerk would do that would be to distract her and pick her pocket. This was a typical example of the attitude of the middle class towards the working class in Europe, he said. "People like my mother and her class is what makes lower classes want to be communists."

(As the reader may notice, I'm not naming any names. While I know that some people I'm referring to will find this blog post anyway, I still don't want search engines to link certain names with the critical stuff I'm saying here.)

At some point a guy from the audience tried to bring the panelists back on topic. He said that even if you brought all the right clothes and money, you wouldn't last an hour before people figured out you were alien. Well then, I guess, case closed? There is nothing, really, you can bring on your time travel to make it go smoother? I guess the obvious things, like antibiotics (if you are traveling to the past), or a wilderness survival kit if you happen to drop into the paleo era, were too trivial to talk about.

This illustrates why there is a disadvantage of having the same panelists at every convention -- many of them don't seem to think they should prepare for discussions, or stick to a discussion plan (and how would they if the moderator doesn't bother to create one?). Some of those "veterans" act like they think the audience has come just to hear them shoot the breeze. New people would be more likely to prepare to speak on the topic.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 are in my photo gallery.

Friday, September 10, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010: religion in worldbuilding

Official synopsis: "Religion plays a part in worldbuilding, but if you just lift aspects of current religions, they may not fit well into the world you are creating. How can religion be added without making it a caricature?"

I thought this synopsis contained a nugget of unintended irony. Why would it be difficult to include it in your SF or fantasy world without making it a caricature? Could it have to do with absurdity of most religious beliefs? Unless your religion is so vague that it limits itself to a largely indifferent, hands-off Creator, it can be characterized by Heinlein's famous quote: "one man's theology is another man's belly laugh". Ironically, your readers might think that a supernatural being you created is ridiculous, but the one they believe in is not, though they differ only in details.

Mikal Trimm, Matt Cardin, and Matthew Bey

Mikal Trimm, Matt Cardin, and Matthew Bey on Religion in Worldbuilding panel.

Somebody in the audience held Frank Herbert's "Dune" as an example of a SF novel in which religion is done very well. Fair enough -- I don't remember it being ridiculous. Somebody else mentioned an Arthur C. Clarke's story that incorporates religion very well. In that story, missionaries go to a distant corner of the galaxy to preach their religion, and reach a star system where all life went extinct thousands of years ago when the star went supernova. Turns out, that was the Star of Bethlehem. I think the story makes a good point, but it avoids making a religion look like a caricature at the cost of making it look ironic, arbitrary and cruel -- just like in real life. So that was probably not the point the panelists were trying to make.

I was disappointed how one or two people in the audience perpetuated the myth that the "New Atheists" are just as fundamentalist as religious fundamentalists. But it wasn't the right place to get into that debate. However, I had a chance to pitch my Science and Religion in Fiction book club to the audience (well, it's not mine, it's part of Center For Inquiry, but I'm the organizer), and I got a few people interested. Whether any of them will ever make an appearance at our meetings, is anybody's guess. (Mine is "no". :-))

More on the similar topic: my blog post on Creating a Believable Religious Society: an ArmadilloCon 2004 panel .

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 are in my photo gallery.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010: What You Should Have Read This Year

In this traditional ArmadilloCon session, panelists recommend recently published science fiction and fantasy titles to the audience. The people entrusted with this honor are usually ones whose work or hobbies cause them to read lots of new genre fiction. This year, the team of "pundits" is Anne Sowards (ArmadilloCon 32 editor guest), Lawrence Person (a once-and-future editor of fanzine "Nova Express"), Willie Siros (an Austin bookseller), and Thomas Martin Wagner (a SF/F reviewer).

Anne Sowards describes herself as an editor who, in her own words, only edits "fun books", such as Jim Butcher and Ilona Andrews. She doesn't do award-winning books, and she likes it that way. Here is what she recommends:

Patricia Briggs "Wolfsbane", a sequel to "Masques";

Jim Butcher "Changes";

Caitlin Kiernan "Red Tree", a very dark fantasy nominated for World Fantasy award this year;

K. A. Stewart "The Devil Is In The Details", a Jim Butcher-like urban fantasy.

Martin Wagner's recommendations

Kay Kenyon "The Entire and the Rose", a 4-volume series about a pocket universe that uses our own universe for fuel. Martin says Kenyon writes humanist science fiction.

Kit Reed "Enclave", a book about a bunch of spoiled rich kids, whose parents were hoodwinked into sending kids to a school on a remote island. It's a "Lord of the Flies" type of situation, says Martin. He adds that Kit Reed is a New Wave author that has been off of everyone's radar until now.

Willie Siros recommendations Novels

Kage Baker, The Bird of the River (Tor)

Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail (Orbit US)

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Orbit US)

Steven Brust, Iorich (Tor)

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn (Baen)

C. J. Cherryh, Deceiver (DAW)

Suzanne Colins, Mockingjay (Scolastic Press)

Greg Egan, Zendegi (Gollanz; Night Shade Books)

Jasper Fforde, Shades of Gray (Hodder & Stoughton; Viking)

Michael Flynn, Up Jim River (Tor)

William Gibson, Zero History (Putnam)

Joe Haldeman, Starbound (Ace)

Peter F. Hamilton, The Evolutionary Void (Ballantine Del Rey)

Joe Hill, Horns (Gollancz; Morrow)

Robin Hobb, Dragon Haven (HarperVoyager)

Robin Hobb, Dragon Keeper (Eos)

Alexander Jablokov, Brain Thief (Tor)

N. K. Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms (Orbit US)

Diana Wynne Jones, Enchanted Glass (HarperCollins UK, HarperCollins / Greenwillow)

Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven (Penguin Canada; Roc)

Ken MacLeod, The Restoration Game (Orbit)

Jack McDevitt, Echo (Ace)

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House (Pyr)

Robin McKinley, Pegasus (Putnam)

China Mieville, Kraken (Macmillan UK)

Elizabeth Moon, Oath of Fealty (Orbit; Ballantine Del Rey)

Christopher Moore, Bite Me (Morrow)

Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death (DAW)

Daniel Pinkwater, Adventuers of a Cat-Whiskered Girl (Houghton Mifflin)

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight (Doubleday UK; HarperCollins US)

Cherie Priest, Dreadnought (Tor)

Alastair Reynolds, Terminal World (Gollancz)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Gallileo's Dream (Ballantine Spectra)

Michael Shea, The Extra (Tor)

Lucius Shepard, The Taborin Scale (Subterranean Press)

Sharon Shinn, Troubled Waters (Ace)

Dan Simmons, Black Hills (Little Brown / Reagan Arthur Books)

Peter Straub, A Dark Matter (Doubleday)

Charles Stross, The Fuller Memorandum (Ace)

Charles Stross, The Trade Of Queens (Tor)

Scott Westerfeld, Behemoth (Simon Pulse)

Connie Willis, Blackout (Ballantine Spectra)

Connie Willis, All Clear (Ballantine Spectra)

David Wingrove, Son of Heaven (Atlantic Books UK / Corvus)

Gene Wolfe, The Sorcerer's House (Tor)

Jane Yolen & Midori Snyder, Except the Queen (Roc)

Collections and Anthologies

Poul Anderson, Young Flandry (Baen, collection)

Poul Anderson, Captain Flandry: Defender of the Terran Empire (Baen, collection)

Poul Anderson, Sir Dominic Flandry: The Last Knight of Terra (Baen, collection)

Peter S. Beagle, Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter Beagle (Subterranean Press, collection)

Kevin Brockmeier, ed., Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy, Vol 3 (Underland Press, anthology)

Terry Dowling, Amberjack: Tales of Fear and Wonder (Subterranean Press, collection)

Karen Joy Fowler, What I Didn't See And Other Stories (Small Beer Press, collection)

Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio, eds., Stories (Headline Review; William Morrow, anthology)

Nick Gevers, ed., The Book of Dreams (Subterranean Press, anthology)

Joe R. Lansdale, Flaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the Seal (Tachyon Publications, collection)

Fritz Leiber, Selected Stories (Night Shade Books, collection)

George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds., Songs of Love and death (Simon & Shuster / Gallery, anthology)

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Best Of Kim Stanley Robinson (Night Shade Books, collection)

Theodore Sturgeon, Case and the Dreamer: The Complete Sturgeon: V XIII (North Atlantic, collection)

Ann Vandermeer & Jeff Vandermeer, eds., Steampunk Reloaded (Tachyon Publications, anthology)

Walter John Williams, The Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, collection)

Thomas Martin Wagner, Willie Siros, Lawrence Person, and Anne Sowards on the What You Should Have Read This Year panel

Thomas Martin Wagner, Willie Siros, Lawrence Person, and Anne Sowards on the What You Should Have Read This Year panel.

Books recommended by more than one person

China Mieville "Kraken". Recommended by Martin Wagner and Willie Siros. Martin says it's the most accessible of China Mieville's books, pure pop-corn entertainment. The end of the world takes place in London, and there are squid worshippers. Mieville's earlier books, like "City in the City" (that was on last year's recommended list) is a literary novel, but "Kraken" has explosions. Willie Siros adds that "Kraken" is not as angry as Mieville's first novels. In this book he has settled down and matured.

Guy Gavriel Kay "Under Heaven". Recommended by Martin Wagner and Willie Siros.

Connie Willis "Blackout" and its sequel "All Clear" -- a time-travel story set during the blitz in London. Historicians travel to London during World War II to see how London coped with bombings, but then they get stuck in there, and also worry if they changed direction of history. Recommended by Martin Wagner and Willie Siros.

Gene Wolfe "The sorcerer's house" -- a Gene Wolfe Cthulhu mythos book. Recommended by Lawrence Person and Willie Siros.

Several panelists also discussed "Ariel" by Steve Boyett, a postapocalyptic fantasy, in which magic happens. Electricity stops working, and a dragon rises into the sky. "There is a unicorn in it, but it's gritty and edgy. It won't emasculate you if you read it," promised Lawrence. Last year, two decades since "Ariel", its sequel came out, titled "Elegy Beach". In it a boy uses magic in a programmatic way. "Also has totally bad-ass swordplay," Lawrence added.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 are in my photo gallery.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010 toastmaster speech: Google's secret deal with SFWA

In her Armadillocon toastmaster speech, Nancy Kress said Google is trying to strike a hush-hush deal to publish SFWA members. Not their books, but the members themselves. They'll use replicator invented by Bruce Sterling, that prints 3-dimensional shapes.

The first person Google wanted to "publish" was Ray Bradbury, if only he could be torn away from watching a certain video. (I think she's talking about the recent, viral "<Expletive> me, Ray Bradbury".) But then Google decided he's not a good candidate, because the materials required to replicate Ray Bradbury would be too stylish, rich and expensive.

Instead, Google decided to replicate the whole "Analog mafia". That didn't go well either, because the Analog mafia said they didn't want to be printed. Being hard science fiction writers, they fear that due to quantum effects, their replicas won't be accurate or fully functional.

Fan guest Elspeth Bloodgood interjected that Google should replicate Harlan Ellison, because he's not fully functional anyway.

In between getting "phone calls" from Google with further details on the deal, Nancy Kress introduced ArmadilloCon guests, bringing up each guest's funny or remarkable biographical details. For example, Kress said Rachel Caine is more dedicated to deadlines than anyone else she knows. Rachel once typed the whole weekend with a compound fracture in her arm, before a surgeon had a chance to set it, just to meet a deadline.

Nancy Kress holds up famous boxer shorts

Then Nancy Kress held up a pair of big, stripy boxer shorts with a lipstick print on it. She said it was one prominent editor's (name withheld) underwear, and it will be auctioned off for charity. She speculated that the lipstick print was Pat Cadigan's, and also reminisced about Armadillocons of yore when Pat Cadigan ran a charity auction with a bullwhip. She stood in the hallway, cracking her whip to get people to get into the auction room -- and it worked. They raised the amount of money they were aiming for.

Each guest may have introduced himself or herself -- if they did, I draw a blank on anything they may have said, except for Michael Bishop. Bishop said he was disconcerted that he was named steampunk literary guest of honor, because he hasn't written any steampunk. The con committee must have thought that his birthday fell in the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 and writers' workshop are in my photo gallery.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010: writers' workshop, and sandwiches that cost their weight in gold

Writers' workshop went as usual, which is to say, not bad. I workshopped the same story as in the ApolloCon workshop. I didn't have time to finish a new one, because the deadlines for the two workshops were so close. I had only 3 days to fix my story before submitting it to the ArmadilloCon workshop. The comments I got on my story at ArmadilloCon were different than the ones I got at ApolloCon. So my fixes might have worked, at least the ones that concerned point of view and character motivation. But some of the comments, addressing deep, structural flaws of the story, remained.

ArmadilloCon is in a different hotel this time than before. As before, the only two options for writers' workshop lunch were (1) buy food catered by the hotel, or (2) bring your own. Hotel-provided lunch cost... wait for it... $34.34. That's for a sandwich, cookie, and coke. No, the sandwich was not made with caviar. Naturally, many people, including me, opted to bring their own lunches.

Our previous hotel allowed people who brought sack lunches to eat in the workshop room with the rest of the group. The new hotel does not allow it. People who brought their food were told to leave the hotel, and walk far, far away from the hotel grounds to consume the food.

But here's the dilemma. The whole point of group lunch was that students get to hang out with the teachers (professional writers and editors who critique students' work), and talk about writing. This wouldn't work if those students who brought food went outside, and those with catered lunches staid inside. So, in each critique group (there were nine of them, 5-6 students each), if even one person brought sack lunch, the whole group had to go outside. Ergo, after spending $34 you still had to go out into 100-degree Texas heat and eat stuff you could buy for $5 from a sandwich shop nearby.

Fortunately, there was another option, to go into somebody's hotel room to eat. The hotel allows you to eat your own food in hotel rooms, just not in public spaces. My group went into one of our students' hotel room (she was from Houston, thus she was staying in the hotel). At least we didn't have to roast alive while eating.

But other than that, the workshop was pretty good. A big thank you goes out to its organizer, Stina Leich. She made the best out of ridiculous circumstances the hotel put us in.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 and writers' workshop are in my photo gallery.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Paris, panhandling, and languages

This is another in my intermittent series of "what I did on my summer vacation" posts.

Everybody we ran into in Paris, at least most service personnel, spoke passable English. The one and only time we hit a language barrier was at a cafe, where the waitress didn't speak English except for "drink". The real barrier, though, lay in the completely illegible, hand-scrawled menu. We had to hunt around the cafe to find a printed copy.

It's been seven years since I studied French, and even then I didn't get past beginner's level (I did it not out of interest, but for a very specific reason that soon turned out to be invalid. So I wasn't too motivated.) Still, I was surprised how easy it was to understand signs in French. And while I could not make out heads or tails of spoken French, there were two instances when I understood what was said. One time Ray and I were walking down the street late at night, and we passed a young woman and man on the sidewalk. The woman was opening a cardboard box. She pulled out a pair of shiny, high-heeled shoes and exclaimed: "les chaussures!" We didn't understand if she was opening a present, or if she found a box of glamorous, brand-new shoes right there in the middle of the street.

Another time we went into a Japanese restaurant. A few seconds later restaurant manager or owner yelled at the hostess: "ferme la porte!" I felt bad about not closing the door myself, but I could swear it was already open when we came in, so I thought it was supposed to be like that.

For some reason, languages determine who panhandlers approach. They -- usually women dressed in gypsy-style clothes -- come up to you and ask: do you speak English? If you say yes, they'll unleash some kind of sob story about needing money. But if you say "no", they'll leave you alone. They will still leave you alone if it's clear you're lying -- e.g. if you add "not with the likes of you". Nor do they ask you if you speak French, German, Spanish, or any other language. It's like some kind of binary-valued ritual that either triggers a signal "proceed" or not.

Another trick panhandlers do to get your attention is more sophisticated. One time my mom, Ray and I were walking down the street; a gypsy passed us (and I'm using the term gypsy loosely -- she was a dark olive-skinned woman in loose, long, colorful clothes, but her nationality could have been anything), but a few steps later, she bent down, picked up something, and called to us. We turned around. I don't remember what exactly she said, or in what language -- probably not English, more like a language of gestures -- showing us a ring she had just "picked up" from the pavement. From a distance it looked like a golden ring. She asked if it was ours. We shook our heads and walked on. It was clearly a scam, but I was intrigued how it would unfold. I didn't go back to find out, of course. But for a while we speculated what she would have done if one us had claimed the ring. Since the purpose of any scam is to extract money from your "mark", how would you convince the mark to part with his/her money by giving him/her a free, albeit worthless, ring? Or was it just a test of the mark's gullibility and greed? Or was there a gang waiting somewhere in the wings, who would come and beat us up if she claimed we stole the ring from her? Though we weren't in a bad part of town (quite the opposite, on a well-traveled route from Notre Dame to Louvre), there was very little pedestrian traffic on it; in fact, there was not another person in sight. But if somebody wanted to mug a tourist, would they first need to distract them with a scam?

Ah, the mysterious ways of lowlifes.

The strangest instance of panhandling I saw were women in Muslim garb sitting in the middle of the sidewalk with their little cups of change. They didn't look like gypsies. Rather their long clothes were of one solid color, and their heads covered by hijabs. They knelt in prayerful poses on the sidewalk of Champs Elysees -- not along the wall, as customary for beggars, but right in the middle of crowds walking to their nightlife and shopping destinations. They were holding signs saying they were Bosnian refugees. Whether they really were is anybody's guess, but despite being completely still, they looked a bit too theatric to be genuine.

Finally, while we're on the topic of languages, here is a little bit of Frenglish. It was a menu in a cafe. Unlike the one I mentioned earler, this one at least had an English version of the menu. It looked as though it had been run through a Google translator. :-) Click on the image for a bigger version.

A Frenglish menu in a Paris cafe

More pictures from my trip to Paris are in my photo gallery.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A bug in Google Spreadsheets?

A couple of days ago I tweeted my exasperation with Google Spreadsheets. @ronaldho kindly replied to my tweet, asking for clarification. Here is what's happening.

At first Firefox, and then Chrome have been resizing my Google Spreadsheets fonts. Suppose the text in my spreadsheets was originally 10 points. That's a nice size font I can easily read. Then one day, all of a sudden, the browser shrinks the font. It still shows it as 10 pt, but realistically it now looks like 8 pt. That's a bit too small for me. I didn't do anything to cause this. The browser did it not in response to any of my action (intentional or not), but out of the blue. That's right, the browser window with the spreadsheet was just sitting there, untouched, and suddenly the text shrank.

So I select all the text in the spreadsheet and increase it to 12 points. For a while, all is well. Then, a few days later, the browser shrinks the text again! So now 12 points look like 8!

I increase to 14 points. The story continues. It got to where 18-point font started looking like 8.

I was hoping that this was just a Firefox misfeature, so I switched to Google Chrome. At first, the fonts in Google Chrome appeared their correct sizes. Then, after just 2 days of usage, 12-point font shrank a couple of sizes. So, unfortunately, Chrome does it too. This must be a bug in Google Spreadsheets, not in any browser.

(All the fonts in my other Google docs appear correctly, by the way. This bug affects just spreadsheets.)

If this keeps happening, I won't be able to work with Google Spreadsheets anymore. The font sizes don't go higher than 24. When 24-point font starts looking like 6 points, then what? I'll have to drop Google Spreadsheets. That's a shame, because I have lots of useful data there. I gather data for my own life-logging experiments, which I plan to use to test applications I'm writing. (Hence the data mining I was referring to in my tweet, @ronaldho. It has nothing to do with Google Spreadsheets themselves.)

If there is a way to stop Google Spreadsheets from doing this, I would appreciate the tips.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Paris public bathrooms: not for libertarians

One thing I'm sure every tourist appreciates in a big city are public bathrooms. Paris "can haz" them, and they are even free. Truthfully, the one and only time I really wanted to use one, there was an ungodly line -- so long it was more worthwhile to find a restaurant, buy something to eat, and use their restroom. But that was in a tourist-heavy part of Paris. In the neighborhood where we lived, public toilets stood free, available, and welcoming. That is, if this cryptic sign can be said to be welcoming:

A free, automated public bathroom on a Paris street A sign on a free public bathroom on a Paris street

As you see, English language instructions say "A recorded message can be activated by pushing the button [...]" Message, huh? What kind of messages would I want to entertain me in a bathroom? Quick news? Horoscopes? A crash course in conversational French?

As one can guess from French and Spanish language directions, the mysterious "message" is just instructions on how to use the toilet. And you don't even have to activate them -- they turn themselves on, and there is no escaping them. I didn't go to one of those bathrooms, but Ray did, and throughout his visit the facility talked to him in a concerned female voice of a French nanny state.

I'm saying this tongue-in-cheek of course, but libertarians might want to avoid these facilities. ;-) The bathroom knows better than you what you should do inside, and in what order. Everything is automated. The toilet flushes itself. The soap dispenser automatically deposits a pre-measured dollop of soap on your hands. Then the water faucet turns on, runs for a predetermined number of seconds, and shuts off. Then the hand dryer starts, also to shut off after a certain number of seconds. If you need more soap or water, too bad: you won't get it until the whole cycle is over. Then you can restart it. But there are no manual overrides to let you return to a previous step, to skip a step, or to use more or less soap or water than you are allotted.

It can be annoying if your bathroom "use case" is one the designers haven't thought of -- for example if you, like Ray, go into the bathroom to wipe dog poop off your shoe. Not only he had to wait through several soap-wash-dry cycles to clean off his shoes, but all the while the bathroom was talking to him in a stern voice -- apparently scolding him for not using the facility the right way.

More pictures from my trip to Paris are in my photo gallery.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The last ApolloCon 2010 roundup

"Sex, the Young Adult, and the YA novel". Unlike some other panels on sex in science fiction or fantasy that had been known to turn rowdy and funny, this was a rather tame, academic discussion of Young Adult fiction in general. Like 80% of panels, it either didn't have enough material to stay on topic, or the panelists lacked interest for the same. "Twilight" was only referred to as "the series that shall not be named".

Amy Sisson shared this: one of her students thought C. S. Lewis' Narnia books were written for entertainment only, but Harry Potter was written to teach lessons about the world.

Melanie Miller Fletcher, Lee Thomas, K. Hutson Price, Amy Sisson and Rosemary Clement-Moore

Melanie Miller Fletcher, Lee Thomas, K. Hutson Price, Amy Sisson and Rosemary Clement-Moore

"Marked for life: Body Mods in Spec Fic". Like so many other panels, it did not analyze speculative fiction so much as discuss low-hanging fruit such as tramp stamps. The only attempt to extrapolate into the future was a mention of LED tattoos. Also, somebody remembered reading that somebody is developing an ink in small microcapsules that is extremely sensitive to certain wavelengths of light, so those tattoos will be easy to remove. Gabrielle Faust said there's watch being developed that can be implanted in the wrist: the skin would scar around the wrist, and the digits would be visible under the skin. Personally, I would like to know, who are people that still wear wristwatches? With cellphones and all of our gadgets telling time, isn't wristwatch going the way of horse-drawn carriage?

A little more interesting was the idea that more and more people will proudly display their medical devices as body mods. One of the panelists' son has a shunt in his brain, directed into his leg, because his brain doesn't drain properly. The boy thinks it's cool, because it's a body mod.

Gabrielle Faust, Lawrence Person, Amy Sisson, and Cathey Osborne

Gabrielle Faust, Lawrence Person, Amy Sisson, and Cathey Osborne

"Science Fiction Civil Rights Scorecard". Unfortunately, nothing was said on this panel that I had not already heard. Most of the discussion time was spent on lamenting how "brown" characters become white on book covers, or in movie and TV show adaptations. Lee Thomas also pointed out that some writers are so uncomfortable writing about gay characters, that they make them indistinguishable from straight.

"Through a Lens Darkly: Why are so many current Spec Fic movies so darn dark and depressing?". Stina has said more on this panel in her blog (, but I'll add a couple more points that caught my attention.

Lou Antonelli says that the grim future, promised so many times, hasn't come true so far; for example, Japan, a country that was nuked twice in world War 2, came back stronger than ever, and enjoys a higher standard of living than the West. So Antonelli wonders if dystopia trend merely reflects Western concern about the decline of Western civilization. (Stina says "yes".)

David B. Carr thinks post-apocalyptic novels or movies appeal to people mainly because everybody secretly identifies with the survivors. In most of those scenarios only a few selected people survive, and fans of such movies may be unconsciously thinking that (a) that most of the humanity should die, and (b) they would be among the chosen few who would survive. That's not have a very generous opinion of the fans of this genre, but there may be a grain of truth in it.

Bennie Grezlik, David B. Carren, Lou Antonelli, Lawrence Person and Stina Leicht

Bennie Grezlik, David B. Carren, Lou Antonelli, Lawrence Person and Stina Leicht

Pictures from ApolloCon 2010 are in my photo gallery.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

ApolloCon 2010: my general con-going quandary

ApolloCon, more than other science fiction cons, stands out for its gourmet-oriented activities. On Friday night there was a wine tasting with 3 white wines and 3 red wines. The hostess Kim Kofmel had us go through the entire ritual of noting the wine's color, smell, swishing in in the glass than in one's mouth, etc. I can't say that it helped me to distinguish more subtle characteristics than "dry" and "sweet", but that's just me. Other participants had no problem detecting oaky notes, various fruits and berries, or whatever it is one's supposed to detect in a wine. Or maybe they just let their imaginations loose.

There were also Scotch tastings, but sign-up sheets for those fill up really quickly; I wasn't fast enough to sign up. And there was a cheese tasting, which I went to; but I was full from lunch, and the cheeses were a rather basic kind. It was like a cheese primer for those who have eaten Velveeta their whole lives and needed to be made aware of brie, gouda, or fresh mozarella

A fun, well-planned, though not-quite-true-to-its-spirit concept was Corner Con -- a room party taking on a format of a mini-convention. A con within a con, if you will. Last year it was a spontaneous group of people hanging out in the corner of the hallway, and this year they had their own room. It had a mini-art show, a mini-writers' workshop, a mini dealers' room, and a few other convention attributes -- at least formally, if not in spirit. It wasn't really any different from any ole' room party, but I still appreciate the effort. And it had cooler decorations than most room parties.

Corner Con dealers' room

Corner Con "dealers' room" -- an arrangement of figurines on a side table.

Programming was thin on the ground this year. Thin for me, in any case, though I'm sure many people enjoyed debating such topics like futuristic drinks, skulls as a fashion accessory, herbs in fantasy, angels, or hurricane preparedness. I like something more idea-heavy and abstract, but such panels were few (and I managed to miss one I would have really liked to see).

It's a symptom of a general quandary I've been experiencing lately. I don't hear many new and interesting ideas and observations at conventions anymore. It may be party because I only go to Texas conventions; venturing further from the home state would take too much time and money. So naturally, I see all the same people on panels, and there may be a limited amount of what they have to say. They keep saying the same stuff, so every panel becomes a 101 on the particular topic (whatever the topic of the panel is). Kind of like the above-mentioned cheese tasting. But after a few years of convention-going you may no longer be satisfied with the 101 -- especially when you regularly read more in-depth discussions of those topics on the internet.

Unfortunately, even when there have been new developments in a particular field, panelists don't seem to have anything new to say. Hell, a lot of those times I can think of something to add to the topic, and I'm not even a "pro" like they are!

Thus, I've been thinking lately how should I revise my convention-going strategy. Despite the criticism expressed in this post, I will keep going to them nevertheless, because I write science fiction, and as such, I want to know what people think about this genre. But if panel discussions have become so stale, I will have to think how and where to gain new insights.

That said, I have still collected a few ideas and observations from various panels, which I will enter into my super-secret idea database. :-) No, actually, I will share them here, in my blog -- in the next post.

Pictures from ApolloCon 2010 are in my photo gallery.

Friday, July 16, 2010

ApolloCon 2010: Fan flirting

I noticed ApolloCon Friday night panels have a certain rowdy tendency, if the fabulous "101 Uses For A Paperclip" from 3 years ago was any indication. It could be that a Friday night at a convention is some magic time when parties haven't started yet, and the people who would otherwise be partying go to less-than-seriously themed panels, bringing the atmosphere of mischief with them. This year's panel on flirting, "Con Season is in the Air: when a Young Fan's Mind Turns to Flirtation", confirmed the trend.

Every other SF convention I go to has a discussion on love or relationships (or their darker side, such as stalking) from fannish perspective. But unlike the earlier "Finding Love In Fandom", this was not a panel on romantic advice. This time "flirting" was just a shorthand for sultry stories from late nights at cons. I came away with an impression that I go to a very different types of conventions, as I've never witnessed anything like the situations talked about here.

K. Hutson Price, Kathy Thornton, and Cathey Osbourne

K. Hutson Price, Kathy Thornton, and Cathey Osbourne in the "Con Season is in the Air: when a Young Fan's Mind Turns to Flirtation" panel. Find more pictures from ApolloCon 2010 in my photo gallery.

One panelist told about a party at Soonercon (which, she promised, had stories to beat any other convention stories), where there was a grope box, made out of PVC pipe structure with black tarp placed over it. There were holes cut out in it for people on the outside to grope people who were in the box. At one time, a "lovely young woman of a larger size" got into the box. Unfortunately, she wasn't getting any takers. The panelist felt sorry for the girl, and started asking her male friends to stick their hands into the box. One by one, they refused. An hour later, she found someone who agreed to stick his hand in, only to scream: "there's nobody in there!" Apparently the girl had left long ago. Our compassionate panelist, having missed her exit, was sitting there feeling sorry for the empty box all that time.

Then the panelists attempted to give advice on how to flirt at conventions. Cathey Osbourne suggested an original approach that wouldn't be likely to work anywhere but at a convention.

"Say you are into very specific things, for example, duct tape," she said. "Stand in the hallway and tear a piece of duct tape. It makes a very distinctive noise. See who turns around. That's your marker."

Teddy Harvia and K. Hutson Price

Teddy Harvia and K. Hutson Price in the "Con Season is in the Air: when a Young Fan's Mind Turns to Flirtation" panel. Find more pictures from ApolloCon 2010 in my photo gallery.

Finally, to end the post on a romantic note, here is a story told by Teddy Harvia.

"The best pickup line was used on me at Soonercon," said Teddy Harvia. "I was standing in a group of 8-10 people. An attractive woman looked at my badge, and said "I dreamt your name last night". And then 9 months later we got married."

Pictures from ApolloCon 2010 are in my photo gallery.

Tags: ApolloCon, authors, Cathey Osbourne, conventions, fandom, image, Soonercon, Teddy Harvia, writers

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

ApolloCon 2010: Scientific Advancement vs. Social Stigma

"For as long as there has been science, there has been the bleeding edge -- progress at odds with social norms. Centuries ago, no one believed the earth rotated around the sun. For years, the concept of 'zero' was a religious heresy. Today society balks at the thought of cloning and artificial intelligence. How do we balance our cultural identity and values with our ingrained curiosity and desire for progress?"

Those are rich questions, but most of this panel was spent lamenting that "nobody" is thinking through the ethics of scientific advancement. As an example of ethically dubious bioengineering, Teddy Harvia brought up the cactus people from China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station". Then again, he admits that "authors often write not to be realistic, but to make a statement". He was also shocked by a relationship between the human protagonist and a bug-like creature in "Perdido Street Station".

"I'm not racial," Teddy Harvia said, "but..."

"But you are prejudiced against cockroaches", said Kimberly Frost.

Kimberly Frost, Teddy Harvia, and Alexis Glynn Latner

Kimberly Frost, Teddy Harvia, and Alexis Glynn Latner in the "Scientific Advancement vs. Social Stigma" panel. Find more pictures from ApolloCon 2010 in my photo gallery.

Moderator Kimberly Frost asked: does literature has a role in creating acceptance of the world that science is creating? Unfortunately, this question did not get much traction with the panelists.

It is often not literature but religion that most people expect to help them make sense of scientific and societal changes. In my experience, even in the SF and fantasy fandom many people still don't question the cliche that religion, or, more generally, "spirituality" should provide ethical safeguards for scientific research. So it was encouraging to see that some of the panelists were skeptical of religion's role. Only one panelist, Lou Antonelli, defended Christianity. His observation is that more and more religious people think we shouldn't mess with the planet, because "God gave it to us". That's hopeful news, but I wasn't sure how much I could trust his objectivity, since he said in the same breath that Christians and religious people in general are being mocked in today's "atheistic" environment. Since the purpose of this blog is not politics, I'll just say my view of this is very different.

Some other panelists also disagreed with the notion that Christianity is persecuted in the West. Teddy Harvia pointed out that Christians' claims that "Harry Potter" books attacked religion were wrong, since the books take a completely neutral stance towards religion.

On a marginally related topic, one panelist gave an insightful answer on why many non-Christians don't like when people offer to pray for them. She was in the hospital with her daughter who, like her, was a pagan, and a very nice Catholic chaplain came in and wanted to pray for them. The two of them agreed, but felt the way a Christian would feel if a voodoo priest came in and started waving chicken bones.

Mel. White and Lou Antonelli

Mel. White and Lou Antonelli in the "Scientific Advancement vs. Social Stigma" panel. Find more pictures from ApolloCon 2010 in my photo gallery.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Paris: you can check out, but you can never leave

And I'm not just speaking about nostalgia. I narrowly avoided this literally becoming true.

It may be backward to start my trip report with my last day in Paris, but on my last day I had what in my sheltered life might pass for an adventure.

In Paris, I stayed in an apartment my parents were renting (my dad was there for work). On June 24th they returned to Lithuania, and I headed back to the US. June 24th was also the day French tranportation workers planned to start a strike. The strike was going to reduce public transportation levels to a bare minimum. Charles de Gaulle airport is an hour train ride from my parents' apartment, and it wasn't clear that taxis will be running on the day of the strike, or that they won't be completely packed. Raymon's and my flight was in the morning, so we didn't have a built-in time buffer to figure out a way to get to the airport. Upon my suggestion all of us decided to go to an airport hotel on the eve of the strike, and stay there overnight.

On the 23rd we cleaned the apartment, then waited for the landlord to come and check that it was in order, and return my parents' deposit. By the time all this was done, it was 7 p.m., and we set out to go to the airport. First, we had to take a tram to a RER station (RER is a train system that runs through Paris and its suburbs; one of its lines goes to the airport). Two stops before our destination the tram driver announced he wasn't going any further and everybody had to get off. So we did. We immediately noticed a bunch of National Police in riot gear. Whatever they were here for could not have been good. We walked the rest of the way to the RER station with suitcases in tow; shortly before coming to the Cite Universitaire station, a passerby told us it was blocked. Right before our eyes, a row of National Police vehicles pulled up and lined up along the street.

This was becoming stressful. Leaving Raymon and me to watch the luggage, my mom and dad walked over to the station to find out what was going on. Coming back, they said the station had already reopened and the trains were running. So far, so good. We had no difficulty getting on a train to the airport, except there was an excessive amount of police at the station, and they selectively checked some passengers' bags.

The train was slow, stopping several times in the dark tunnel between stations and sitting there for 5-10 minutes at a time (which didn't improve the mood of a claustrophobic person like me), because there were traffic snarls. Raymon called his sister in the US, asking her to look up any news items on Paris. She found out that there were pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrations earlier that day, so we concluded that those demonstrations resulted in the incident that caused the station to close. That was probably not true, as one of my Facebook friends sent me a French news article saying that Cite Universitaire was closed due to soccer-related violence. Whatever it was, we didn't know it at that time, and were wondering if the strike had started early.

We weren't too far off the mark. Unrelated as it was to the station closure, the strike was indeed going to start early. The drop off in public transportation was starting at 8 p.m. Fortunately, the train engineer did not ditch the train in the dark tunnel to go on strike. :-) It was a good thing I didn't hear those news until we were out of the tunnels and moving at a good speed towards the airport. I don't want to think how I would have felt sitting there in a tunnel with the worst suspicions playing out in my head.

Though our hotel, located directly in the airport, was at least twice as expensive as I would have been comfortable paying, I felt it was worth every penny. I looked into booking a cheaper hotel further from the airport, except that (1) almost all those hotels were full, and (2) we didn't know if we'd be able to get to the airport next morning. For all we knew, hotel shuttles could have gone on strike too. But by the time we got to our hotel, I had never been so glad about grossly overpaying on a purchase.