Friday, January 30, 2009

Score = zero

Well, the massive strike of Thursday is history now, and just about everyone has already forgotten about it. Looks like it wasn't nearly the megaevent that it was supposed to be. The country did not come to a standstill, and the trains still ran (albeit more slowly than usual in some cases). There was indeed a tremendous demonstration in Paris, but that was about it, and the government pretty much ignored the demonstrators.

With my luck running as it usually does, I had to walk through the tail end of this demonstration near the Opera after school. Lots of people had been brought in from the 'burbs and from the provinces in buses, mostly rabid union members who love to be in every demonstration, as far as I can tell. They seemed to be having a good old time, oblivious to the disruptions they were causing in the city and the futility of their actions.

It's still not clear what they were demanding. It probably doesn't matter. I think it was along the lines of more money, fewer working hours, more jobs, lower taxes, and the like. They might as well have demanded that golden toilet seats fall from the sky. But they were able to ditch a day of work, at least.

Around the Opera (the old Opéra Garnier), there were riot police (the CRS, part of the regular municipal police force) blocking the major avenues leading away from the Opera so that the demonstrators wouldn't get any ideas. The police wore their usually attired of body armor, shields, and mental screen barricades mounted on their trucks. Demonstrations rarely get out of hand in Paris, but the police remain prudently ready for anything, as once in a while angry young males at the bottom of the bell curve will start a disturbance. This crowd was tame, though. Most people seemed to be more interesting in laughing, chatting, and smoking cigarettes than in crashing through any barricades.

Of course, it took a long time to get past all this. Demonstrations always seem to happen right between me and the places I want to go. I had to cross this one twice as a result. The Métro was running, but too poorly to be worth using, so I just walked the entire way. The night was clear and chilly and I needed the exercise, although I could have done without the aggravation.

On the way home, seeing the clear sky, I looked for stars. That's usually a waste of time in a big city like Paris, and this night was no exception. I could see the Moon and a very brilliant Venus. All of the other lights that looked like stars turned out to be aircraft. Sometimes the roof of a building is darker than the sky in Paris, thanks to the frequent clouds and mistiness of the sky above the city and the brilliant lights on the ground below. The city itself is very pretty at night.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

To the barricades … again.

(My last post here was intended for my flight blog; sorry about that. I've deleted it. —AA)

Today is an important media day because much of France is going on strike. People in France go on strike all the time, of course, because that's how they force progress (or, more often, that's how they prevent it). Hundreds of years ago, the French demonstrated in the streets because that's all they could do against the royals, and today, they seem to still prefer that inefficient way of working the popular will, even though the country is nominally a democracy with elected leaders. Old habits die hard.

So lots of organizations are going on strike today. In France, it's mostly government organizations that go on strike, whereas the private sector is less often affected (it helps that just about every large corporation is partly owned and operated by the government, anyway). That's just the opposite of the United States, where strikes usually affect private industry. And in France, the only strikes that really make a different are transportation strikes, and they are extremely common in consequence. Transportation workers—especially the national railways and the Paris public transit system—will almost literally strike to protest a rainy day, even though they have more privileges than anyone else in the country. Given an inch, they choose to take a mile (or should I say that given a centimeter, they choose to take a kilometer?).

This means that it will be extremely difficult for people in the Paris metropolitan area to get to work today, since many live in the suburbs and commute into the city (a small minority do the opposite). I'm lucky, because I can walk to school, but many of my students cannot, so it remains to be seen if anyone will show up for class.

The exact reason for the strike is … well … actually, I'm not sure, and nobody else seems to be sure, either. Everyone wants to “protest,” and get a day off from work (at least for those participating in demonstrations—the day will be hellish for those who have to go into work). They want more money, more job security, fewer layoffs, the usual stuff, although the precise goals are a bit fuzzy. Most strikes don't accomplish anything except perhaps to maintain the status quo, and that's how I expect this one to turn out.

There was a strike some weeks ago by people working in television who were protesting the elimination of advertising from taxpayer-supported public networks (pictured in this post). As I recall, these same people protested the introduction of advertising many years ago. What they really protest is change. Everyone jealously guards his perks and his measly salary and lives in fear of any change at all in the society. The Economist said once in an article that France is among the most resistant to change of all societies in Europe, and I believe it.

Meanwhile, I'm so poorly paid that I'm considerably below the radar when it comes to things like this. Essentially everyone makes more than I do, and has better benefits and privileges. This being so, it's hard for me to relate. Others manage to pay their rent timely each month, whereas for me that is an ambitious goal and a constant source of stress (among many others). I see government workers who get $100,000 a year for driving a train and retire with full pensions at age 50, and I wonder. The country runs at two speeds: one for the good old boys and bourgeoisie with French last names, well-placed friends, and diplomas from a handful of crusty old elite schools with more reputation than substance; and another for the rest of the population.

Some people ask why I stay in France when I seem so cynical. I stay because I love Paris. If you've ever lived in Paris, you understand what I mean. But no matter where I live, I always see problems that can be solved and things that can be improved, and I'm always surprised to see that nobody does either.

Oh well. I've spent the past 24 hours laboring to get my e-mail and Web site running again, using borrowed equipment that is literally held together by pieces of tape, as I don't have the means to do any better than that. In times past I was paid to fiddle with computers, and when your only job is to build and configure computers (as opposed to actually using them for anything productive), it's a pleasant-enough way to make money. But when you have no funds and no time and you must depend on computers to do real work, wasting hours and days and weeks slapping together bits of hardware and struggling to configure and install software gets old really, really fast. I just hope everything continues to run now for a while (like decades), because I have no resources left.

I almost stopped at a Häagen-Dazs a few days ago on the Champs for some ice cream. When I saw that three little scoops cost $10, though, I passed. That would be an hour and a half of wages just for some ice cream.

That hideous Ferris wheel on the place de la Concorde has been taken down, which lifts my spirits a bit. And the city has turned off the blatantly energy-wasteful blue lighting that it had on the Eiffel Tower last year (see my photo), and has turned on the regular lighting, which looks a zillion times better.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A modest attempt at catching up

Well, if I can just relax for a moment … what can I relate about this long period during which I've been unable to post significantly to my blog (roughly since the start of December)?

Some days ago I walked to school after one of many problems on the Métro prevented my line from taking me where I wanted to go (worse yet, the station where I'd normally change was closed—it's just one thing after another these days). Anyway, I can actually say that, yes, as a matter of fact, I did walk through several miles of snow and ice before sunrise just to get to school! And I have a picture of the Eiffel Tower at sunrise to prove it (although you can't clearly see all the snow and ice nearby).

Until a few days ago, the weather in Paris was unusually chilly, below freezing almost continuously—whereas normal weather would be just above freezing during the day and only occasional dips below during the night. It had also snowed lightly at the beginning of the cold snap, so there was snow on the ground, which later turned to frozen slush and then to hard, slippery ice. Not fun to walk on, as I trudged to school in a fat parka and fleece jacket that kind friends had given me. It took a long time to pick my way over the ice, and I was late for my first class.

As I write these words (long after the events in question), it has warmed up to the middle 40s (Fahrenheit), and it has been raining for several days. So tomorrow I'll be walking in the rain instead of through snow and ice. I don't like walking in the rain, but it's safer than sliding over ice.

Oh, and I checked out the Christmas decorations at the big department stores (the grands magasins) some weeks ago, but thanks to the many crises I've already described in other posts, I haven't had time to post any pictures. The decorations for Printemps were lame this year; they must be on a tight budget. But the decorations for the Galeries Lafayette were bright and colorful. Both stores followed their standing traditions of decorating store windows with animated displays for children. And the stores were very, very crowded; at least someone seems to have money in Paris these days.

Indeed, you see little indication of any economic crisis on the streets of Paris. Maybe there are enough rich people here to mask it, or perhaps it just isn't as bad here, although my bank lost $1 billion to a certain Ponzi-scheme fraudster recently (I'll remind my banker of that the next time she alludes to me being any kind of credit risk myself).

Christmas decorations are still on the Champs, and that hideous Ferris wheel is still on the place de la Concorde, and the free ice rinks in front of places like City Hall and Montparnasse are still open (at least until February, I think). They've hardly had to refrigerate the ice lately, since it has been below freezing, but it's warm again now.

I know this is boring, but …

… since it has been occupying all of my time, I haven't had much opportunity to stroll around Paris, except to and from the computer warehouse store.

The problems I've been having with the Internet seem to have passed, after months of malfunction—at least I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I finally connected with someone who sounded like a real technician at France Télécom, during banking hours, and after making it clear to him that I was not a standard dolt and that we could skip all the cookbook questions (“Is the PC plugged in?” “Do you see the Web page in front of you?” and so on), we spent considerable time discussing the problem and my test results. He managed to convince me that it might be the router on my side, even though this didn't seem entirely congruent with the symptoms I had seen. It was certainly a possibility, but I considered it remote, since things like routers tend to be pretty simple and should run indefinitely without a problem, and they aren't the sorts of devices where you picture packets being dropped or delayed under normal conditions. Nevertheless, since the line checked out squeaky clean (7900 kbps, only 100 kbps from the theoretical limit), and there weren't too many other options short of asking FT to trace everything on their end, I agreed to replace the router.

Several hours and three days' salary later, I had the router, modem, and hub replaced (I wanted to make sure I excluded absolutely everything at my end). Miraculously … it worked. Download speeds up to 7400 kbps and uploads at nearly 1 mbps. It has been working for several days now, so I am optimistic that the problem is solved. It looks like it wasn't upstream of the DSLAM after all. I just wish I had been able to find a real technician at FT sooner to troubleshoot the problem.

But that was hardly the end of the crises. The Internet problem was my first holiday surprise. The next problem, right after New Year's Day, was the total failure of the desktop machine I've been using. More trips to the computer store, made possible by the kindness of others who were able to buy and loan components to me in order to cobble something together. After several days of work, I got something up and running, although it will be weeks before it matches what came before (installing software is a nightmare).

Oh, and the screen for the Web server failed, too. No replacement for that as yet, but it looks like I might be able to share the remaining monitor for that purpose, for reasons that I'll spare you here.

Then, yesterday, the Web server failed—my fourth holiday surprise, I guess. It looks like a bad disk, but I'm not sure yet. It might be a bad motherboard. We shall see. Looks like I'll be depending on the kindness of others again. In the meantime, I have no Web site and my standard e-mail address ( isn't working.

So I've spent every single day off I had over the holidays resolving one crisis after another, and there are plenty of other unresolved problems. And I don't get paid for days off to begin with (I only had them off because I didn't have any classes).

Anyway, I'll try to post something more Parisian as soon as possible, now that the Internet connection seems stable. Although I don't think anyone reads this blog.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

More computer trouble

Yesterday my network problems seemed to ease up after I spent three days' salary on a router, modem, and cables, at the suggestion of France Télécom (I finally got someone who sounded at least vaguely familiar with computers on the telephone).

Then, this morning, my Web server failed solid. So I have no Web site or e-mail at the moment. So I'm still in no position to post anything worthwhile to my blogs (which are inaccessible now, anyway, unless someone types the URL directly).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Computer problems

Due to problems with my Internet connection that have made it unusable about 90% of the time since the start of December, plus a total failure of the desktop computer I was using last weekend, I'm not able to post much of anything right now. If and when I can get both a working computer and a working Internet connection, I'll try to post more.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Day

Out of curiosity , I tried uploading a picture to my blog. It uploaded in a fraction of a second. I had wondered about this because, while incompetent, bumbling France Télécom has pretty much destroyed my download speed, my upload speed hasn't changed. So it turns out that I can upload a large picture very quickly, even though it takes an hour to display a Web page. But enough of that. I must … not … digress—grrr!

Anyway, today was New Year's Day, which always seems to follow right on the tail of New Year's Eve. Anyway, it was amazingly quiet. Paris is a noisy city, and I'm near a noisy street, but I heard essentially no traffic noise at all for hours at a time. And the local news says that New Year's Eve was relatively quiet, too (in terms of criminal disturbances). Maybe the suburban dregs were too drunk to jump the turnstiles to come into town.

My Internet connection has been blazing away today at as much as seven percent of its normal speed. Most of the time, however, it was still down at less than one percent.

Anyway, the picture I've uploaded dates from ages and ages ago. Before Christmas, there was that Christmas village that I told you about on the Champs, as you may recall (assuming that you've been to my blog before, which is incredibly optimistic, I know). One of the stands they had was making hot dogs and tartiflette. The former was like an American hot dog, except that it contained a generous portion of real sausage, instead of the cylindrical, synthetic melamine-laced product that American hot-dog makers import from mile-long fabrication plants in the boundless industrial suburbs of Shanghai. Tartiflette is a sort of mish-mash of sliced potatoes, Reblochon cheese (the round disks in the photo—they are mixed in with the rest before it is served), ham, and some other stuff. It doesn't look very healthy but it tastes really good, especially for someone like me who normally eats mostly pound cake and peanut-butter sandwiches.

Whenever I passed this stand, it made me hungry. It had these enormous pans in which the hot dogs and tartiflette were prepared, complete with enormous wooden handles and enormous wooden spoons. On one occasion, I bought a hot dog, which was very good, albeit rather messy. On other occasion, I bought a ham tartiflette, which is served in a plastic box with a fork, and it was very good also. Unfortunately, they were expensive, so I couldn't eat them every day (the hot dog was $8 and the tartiflette was $10, which is an hour's salary for me).

Very shortly after Christmas, this village evaporated. The chalets were boarded up and gone in no time. Usually these villages stick around for a while trying to sell as many remaining vegetable-oil candles and carved wooden letters of the alphabet as they can before closing up shop, but not this one. Unfortunately, the giant ferris wheel is still there.

New Year's Eve

My Internet connection is running at a breakneck 5% of normal speed, so I suppose I should take advantage of it before it goes back to 0.8% of normal speed. That's why I'm in such a euphoric mood.

Last night was New Year's Eve. In Paris, lots of restaurants and night clubs set up special “reveillons,” or New Year's parties, and add either one or two zeroes to the normal price of admission. Some people get all dressed up and go to these to engage in small talk and consume drugs, primarily ethanol, into the wee hours of the morning.

Additionally, it is traditional on the Champs-Élysées avenue for large crowds to gather around midnight to bring in the new year with a heavy dose of ethanol. Holidays in general in France are primarily pretexts to consuming ethyl alcohol in large quantities, but New Year's Eve is particularly notorious for this.

It is also the tradition to explode cigar-sized firecrackers in the streets, and see how many people one can make partially deaf in the process. The real fun-loving kids put the firecrackers in glass bottles, so that they can blind people as well as make them deaf. And it's extra amusing in the Métro, where people can't run away and the hard surfaces of the corridors conduct the ear-damaging noise for long distances. I haven't heard any firecrackers this year, though. Maybe someone outlawed it, or maybe I'm just in a lucky part of town.

Needless to say, I don't go out on New Year's Eve. I went out earlier to buy groceries to tide me over the holiday, but then I returned home and locked the doors, as usual. I leave the drugs, noise, expense, and crowds to others. I know a lot of other people in Paris who also do this, so I'm hardly alone.

I noticed the presence of regular city police, riot police, and gendarmes (kind of like highway patrol) in the city while getting my groceries. In recent years, scum from the suburbs has taken to riding into the city on public transportation on special occasions and weekends to conduct gang fights right in the city itself (particularly on the Champs and in a few other locations), and of course New Year's Eve is a special pilgrimage for them. The police maintain a conspicuous presence to help discourage the angry young males from manifesting their stupidity, especially after these latter individuals have consumed a few liters of beverages laced with ethanol, one of their staple foods. This, too, I prefer to avoid.

The flip side is that January 1 is usually very quiet. The angry young males and other revelers are still in ethanol-induced GCS 3 comas at least until noon, and nobody is working, so everything is peaceful. Even as I write this, at 4:00 AM local time, things are very quiet (I live in a neighborhood with lots of retirees, diplomats, and other “good people,” meaning middle bourgeoisie). That's probably why my Internet connection improved slightly: all the movie pirates have stopped their downloads temporarily.

This is the ninth day of unpaid “vacation” I've wasted because of a malfunctioning Internet connection.