Saturday, June 27, 2009

Death at the Eiffel Tower

(Updated) Yesterday a 17-year-old French high-school student, who had just taken her “bac” exams, jumped from the second platform of the Eiffel Tower and fell onto the roof of the restaurant on the first platform, fifteen stories below. Needless to say, she was killed—which was her objective (she left a note for friends explaining her feelings). She somehow managed to get past all the security barriers (and there are tons of those on the Eiffel Tower), paused on a girder, and then jumped. Initial reports that she had been a Brazilian tourist were in error.

It didn't receive much press, probably because there are more newsworthy events to worry about, and because there's always the possibility that press coverage might encourage other people who are thinking about suicide.

The weird thing is that she hit the top of the restaurant with a loud crash, everyone was startled and looked around until they realized what had happened … and then they resumed their meals. But I guess it's really not that weird—what else are they supposed to do? Most of them are tourists who may never see the Eiffel Tower again, anyway, so why perturb the trip uselessly? They couldn't do anything to help her. It does give them an interesting trip story to tell, however. It sounds a bit callous, but there aren't really any other practical or useful options.

Although it isn't widely publicized, people jump from the Eiffel Tower regularly. Hundreds have killed themselves that way since it was built. Today, and indeed for many years now, the security systems have been more than adequate to prevent anyone from falling by accident … but there's simply no way to completely prevent a human being from jumping deliberately to commit suicide. Where there's a will, there's a way. And human beings can be very clever, especially when they are desperate.

Most jumpers forget that the tower is tapered, being wider at the base than at the top, and as a result, they hit the structure of the tower on the way down, sometimes being partially diced and sliced in the process. A few have survived. A pregnant woman who wanted to end her days got her foot caught in the girders just after jumping and survived, dangling in midair until she could be rescued. Another woman fell onto the roof of a taxi, bounced, and survived. But in general there are no survivors.

The Eiffel Tower surely has a certain romantic appeal for suicides. Why jump off a nondescript building in an anonymous business district (which is pretty easy to do), when you can jump off the world's most recognized national monument? Some people propose marriage on the Eiffel Tower, and others end their lives there (fortunately the former are many times more common than the latter, even if you don't include Tom Cruise). People who don't want the celebrity of an Eiffel-Tower demise often choose to throw themselves in front of subway trains instead, but that's another story for another day.

Another spot that has been popular in the past for suicides is Notre-Dame Cathedral. It has far fewer areas that are open to the outside, though, and so it has been much easier to secure. As far as I know, nobody has succeeded in jumping from Notre-Dame in several years (but I'm sure it will happen again).

I like paving

I've been fascinated by construction and allied domains since I was little, and so naturally I was keenly interested when the city decided to repave the street in front of my apartment building.

The street is a small side street connecting to a considerably larger street (by Parisian standards). Surprisingly, this small street was paved with thick concrete. Over many years (I don't know how old the existing paving was), it had deteriorated greatly, and finally the city decided to replace it.

Streets in Paris are a bit different than they might be in the average young city in the U.S. In the city where I grew up, in the Great American Southwest, city streets were paved with asphalt, and the sidewalks were concrete, as was the curbing (the latter being cast in place by a special curbing machine). Here in Paris, the city streets are paved in a variety of ways (one of which is with asphalt), the sidewalks are also asphalt, and the curbs are carved granite blocks mortared together.

At first the construction crews appeared with a backhoe equipped with a jackhammer attachment, and they hammered regular holes into the concrete. Then they put a bucket on the backhoe and broke up and discarded the concrete, which was a surprising eight inches thick or so. They graded and compacted the dirt beneath, then they poured a new layer of concrete, of equivalent thickness, and after letting that set for a few days, they paved over it with about two inches of asphalt.

For the sidewalks, they tore up the existing asphalt (which had no base course beneath it, and was about two inches thick), compacted and smoothed the dirt, then laid new asphalt down. The curbing, which was made up of hefty granite blocks cut to fit, about a yard (one meter) long and almost a foot high, was pulled apart and then reset with new mortar and careful alignment and finishing. After it was all done, with the paving rolled smooth, new stripes were put on, made of plastic melted onto the asphalt with a blowtorch.

All in all, it wasn't too surprising, but the concrete beneath the asphalt was a surprise, as I wouldn't think that the local traffic over this tiny street would justify eight inches of concrete beneath the asphalt. Maybe it allowed a thinner coating of asphalt, and maybe the asphalt was more expensive? I don't know. I don't recall seeing concrete pours for such streets in the U.S., though, at least not where I lived. The new street should last a mighty long time, in any case.

The curbing raised questions in my mind. I asked some acquaintances of mine about it. They pointed out that granite blocks are highly recyclable, compared to continuous concrete pours. I think the continuous concrete looks nicer, but they did have a point.

This is just the way it's done in Paris. Other French cities might have somewhat different techniques (I don't travel enough to remember how other cities do it).

Asphalt isn't always used for street paving. There are still a lot of streets around that are paved with cobblestones. In some parts of the city, the streets are paved with white marble cobblestones, which must cost a bundle. Some sidewalks are paved with granite blocks, too, instead of asphalt. It looks nice, although vehicles sometimes drive over the (relatively thin) granite blocks on the sidewalk and crack them (maintenance vehicles and things like that). The famous Champs-Elysées is paved with granite cobblestones for the street, and rectangular granite blocks for the sidewalks and curbing. I've posted a picture with this blog entry that shows an example of (recent) all-granite paving, in a pedestrian section of the rue Montmartre.

Still other streets are cobblestones paved over with asphalt. This may be a vestige of May 1968, when the state paved over some cobblestone streets in order to keep students from prying up the stones and throwing them.

My contacts say that cobblestones have the same advantage as granite blocks for curbing, in that they can be dug up and then replaced when maintenance is necessary. Often the cobblestones appear to be simply (but snugly) set in sand, and there is no base course beneath them. They look nice, but they are noisy to drive over, and positively unnerving when you ride over them on a bicycle.

In my Paris gallery on my Web site, you can see a photo of cobblestone paving being set. It's labor-intensive and requires skilled workers, but it's very aesthetic.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fast trains

While browsing through YouTube, I came across this video of yet another rail speed record being set by the French TGV train. This record, already set two years ago, was 574.8 km/h, which is 357.2 mph. For comparison, this is about twice the take-off speed of a Boeing 747 airliner, and about 20% faster than the speed at which it climbs to cruise altitude.

While France is known mainly for wine, cheese, and other “artsy” things, it also happens to be a world leader in rail technology, and it has been for decades. The TGV is a great example of what can be done with “ordinary” steel wheels on rails. And this is not theoretical stuff: TGV trains speed all over France and nearby countries every day. In fact, for trips of less than about 1000 km (600 miles), TGVs are much more practical than airplanes.

I've been on TGVs on multiple occasions. They are a pleasure to ride in. The ride is so smooth that you cannot tell that you're moving at speeds under 80 mph unless you look out the window. At full speed it's still smoother and quieter than a luxury car, and the only time you realize that you're moving at hundreds of miles per hour is when the train enters a turn—then you get tossed to one side if you happen to be standing in the aisle (I learned the hard way to always have my hand on a seat when walking up or down the aisles in the train). If you look out the window, look away, and then look back again, the scenery has completely changed! If you happen to be riding alongside a freeway (as is often the case on some TGV routes), you find yourself watching Porsches moving backwards at 100+ mph.

Not only that, but TGVs go from city center to city center. No need for a car, or a shuttle, or a two-hour commute to or from an airport. You start the trip downtown, and you end it downtown. And there's no two-hour wait to board. I've boarded TGVs just seconds before their departure times (they always leave on time), and by the time I got from the door to my seat (with the door automatically hissing shut behind me), the train had already accelerated to some 40 mph on its way out of the station. A few minutes later, it was rolling along at 200 mph.

If you come to visit different parts of France, consider taking the TGV from one city to another, as it's much nicer than flying. It's very convenient for going between London and Paris, too, as well as between several other cities (Brussels and Paris, etc.). You can even get from Paris to the Mediterranean in under three hours (it would take at leave 4 hours by plane, door to door).

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cool and rainy days, and the Fête de la Musique

It's a bit rainy and cool today, which is just fine with me. I'm not a big fan of rain, but occasional rain is fine, and if it keeps the temperature down, I'm all for it, as long as I don't have to be out and about (which I don't at the moment).

On the way home a few days ago, I took a nice picture of the Eiffel Tower, from a spot that I won't name (if you want to find it, you'll have to come to Paris and look for it, heh-heh), and from which I've taken pictures before. The photo itself was nice enough, but once home, I opened up my crusty old copy of Photoshop and went to work on it.

I'm quite good at Photoshop. I still use version 5, for various reasons. The newest version is more than twice as expensive as my version was, since a lack of competition allows Adobe to gouge customers on pricing. It also installs a rootkit, which my older version does not. And it has no features that I want; I have all I need in the older version. Plus I'm broke … although that's a minor consideration in comparison to the others. Anyway, I manage to do various interesting things with it, well beyond what the average angry young male manages (newbies usually apply one or two filters and call the result art), since I have many years of experience with Photoshop now.

So I decided to create an impressionist painting from my picture. By applying a variety of top-secret effects and filters (some of which I originally purchased separately) to my image in classified order, I managed to come up with something that I like to characterize as being half the style of LeRoy Neiman, and half the style of Monet. It looks pretty nice as wallpaper (you can find it in the wallpaper section of my Web site). I had actually done the same thing more than a decade ago, but I lost the original, and this one looks a bit better.

I ended up on the tiny rue Fresnel (yes, named after the same French scientist who developed the Fresnel lens), which, despite its small width and length, has three buildings on it with truly gigantic entrance archways. One of these has been undergoing renovation for the longest time, the others are undisturbed. The glassed-in archway in the building on the left in my photo is actually the rear of the Iranian embassy (which is in the nearby avenue d'Iéna—Paris has embassies on practically every street corner).

From the rue Fresnel, it was just a quick hop over to the Trocadéro gardens, and the jinxed CinéAqua aquarium, which looked practically deserted, as usual. They've added a cinema and restaurant, and lowered the price to “only” €19.50 (still nearly twice the cost of the nearby Eiffel Tower), but it still looked deserted. I would have gone in to see what the aquarium is like … but I wasn't keen on shelling out €19.50 just for that, either. I mean, the cool Sea Life aquarium at the Val d'Europe shopping center near Disneyland is way cheaper, and kids love it (they can actually feed the fish, if they want).

Anyway … let's see … on Sunday, it'll be time for the annual Fête de la Musique, which is held on the summer solstice. The sun sets at about 10 PM local time on the solstice, so it's light outside until midnight, and this encourages people to get out and listen to music. It's actually an excuse for every talent-free amateur band in the city to set up amplifiers on the sidewalks and blast away with ear-itating music for hours, but people seem to like it, as it affords opportunities to socialize and consume alcohol. I'm kind of neutral to it, and I don't plan to go out and look at it (I'm sure I'll be able to hear it—even the nearby hospital has live music on this occasion each year).

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hamburgers and heat

The temperature today got up to 35° C (that's 95° F), making today's high in Paris hotter than the expected high for today in Las Vegas. The normal daily high for June in Paris is 21.6° C (71° F), so today was 24° F hotter than normal. It's strange that practically nobody seems to find this worrisome. The humidity is high, too, and as usual for the summer months in Paris, there's practically no air movement.

I've turned on my tiny air conditioner, but it struggles. It's old and doesn't work very well any more. I cannot concentrate or sleep at 35° C, so I have no choice but to use the A/C. I remember the days when air conditioning wasn't really necessary in Paris, but the temperatures have been rising for 15 years now.

Anyway. I went out to wash clothes at the laundromat today. That took about 90 minutes, and I returned home drenched in sweat. I'm low on cash but I had enough to buy milk and some frozen hamburgers.

Speaking of hamburgers … although it doesn't seem to be common knowledge, France is very good at producing frozen foods. One tends to think of the country as a place where every meal is lovingly prepared from fresh ingredients by natives who toil in the kitchen for several hours a day, but that kind of situation is mostly the stuff of Hollywood stereotypes today, as few people have the time to dedicate to preparing food from scratch each day—especially in Paris.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. There's a very large chain of markets in France, called Picard, that specializes in frozen foods exclusively. Their stores contain nothing but lines of freezer cases, containing a bewildering variety of frozen meals of all types. These frozen meals are not cheap, but you get what you pay for. They are very tasty and easy to prepare, and Picard and its competitors are very popular in consequence.

For example, you can get a meal of butter chicken and riz pilaf for one person for €3.80. The chicken is marinated with Tandoori spices and cooked in butter, with a tomato and yogurt sauce. Mmm! Nuke it for six minutes in the microwave and it's ready.

Unfortunately, this is more than I can afford, but it's nice to know that it can be had. If you don't have time to cook, you can have great stuff in a few minutes this way.

The frozen hamburgers I bought aren't half bad, either. They are made by a French company that specializes in beef products, but they've branched out into other kinds of frozen prepared foods. The hamburgers are actually cheeseburgers, made with good quality meat and very good French ketchup and cheese. They are somewhat better than the stuff you get at fast-food restaurants like McDonald's or Quick, and they cost about the same. I blast two of them in the microwave and eat them with a glass of freezing cold, microfiltered, whole milk (my favorite beverage). On hot days like this I drink a lot of milk and water. I let the faucet run for a while for drinking water, because water in the (lead) pipes in my building tastes bad, but once you get water from the municipal water supply it's very nice and very cold.

Friday, June 12, 2009

My little broken bowl

I broke my bowl today. It was a little ceramic white bowl with a blue strip that I bought from IKEA when I first moved to Paris. It was part of the “Start Box” that they sold at the time, which contained all you might need for a kitchen in terms of cups and dishes and kitchen utensils. It slipped out of my hand as I attempted to wash it in the frigid water from the kitchen sink (I don't have hot water in the kitchen), and hit the porcelain sink and cracked into several pieces. It made me sad. I don't even have a picture of it. Always take pictures of your cups and bowls before it's too late!

I am somewhat a creature of habit when it comes to things that are too trivial to merit contemplation. I had the same cheap plastic cup for many years (also from IKEA), but it finally fell and broke, as everything ultimately does if you keep it long enough. I replaced that with two Pyrex® cups (Pyrex is still made with real borosilicate glass here in Europe, whereas it is made more cheaply in the U.S.). I've been using the same two forks and spoons and butter knives for comparable amounts of time. As long as something can be washed and is sturdy, I'll keep it indefinitely. I do regularly replace my toothbrush, though (and as a result, I develop no sentimental attachment to it).

I'll have to buy another bowl, when I have some extra money.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Spider + man

The millions of people who have faithfully and frequently read my Paris blog know that I have a tacit memorandum of understanding with a spider (or spiders) residing in a designated compound behind the bathtub. This understanding essentially provides that I won't bother the spider if the spider does not bother me. As long as she remains within her compound, all is well.

Unfortunately, I was rather surprised today while taking a shower to see that Miss Spider had crossed the demarcation line. She appeared to be working on some sort of new, forbidden structure outside the compound, near the bathroom door. Unfortunately, this violated our agreement, and I was compelled to take action—with heavy heart, to be sure. I launched a chemical attack with a spray bottle of window cleaner containing alcohol. Miss Spider immediately grabbed her safety escape line and slipped down to the ground, then attempted to make a run for it back into her under-tub lair. She wasn't quick enough to avoid a few additional salvos of death from above, and while she managed a retreat under the bathtub (this is a cast iron, enameled bathtub, by the way), my later reconnaissance revealed that she had expired, clutching a piece of cardboard.

I wasn't happy about this, but I had little choice: had I not terminated her excursion, she might have become ever more bold, and the idea of a spider more than an inch across scampering around my room at night made me uncomfortable. Spiders are supposed to stay in places where I never go, like inaccessible corners. There they are welcome to set up their webs and catch all the insects they can eat. Spiders and I work well together as long as we respect our territorial boundaries, and their insect-control services are most welcome. It's sad to see one of them go. I don't know how many others remain in the compound.

It would be nice, though, if some of them would take a tour through the kitchen and pick up some other pesky bugs. I've seen more than one silverfish zooming around in the kitchen (at least I think there's more than one), and it seems to me that these little wingless insects would make a tasty meal for a hungry spider. Unlike spiders, silverfish are quite a nuisance, because they like to eat sugar and starch, and thus are sorely tempted by papers, books, and kitchens. They are harmless, but their interests conflict with mine, as the Godfather would say. Spiders are not great consumers of silverfish, but they've been known to partake of them, and certainly they're welcome to do so where I live.

Hopefully a new spider will take up the duties of Miss Spider, this time without stepping outside her compound (except maybe to the kitchen annex, although I admit that requires either climbing to great heights or making a substantial trek through the main room). In the meantime I'm going to have to find something that specifically targets silverfish. No other bugs cause trouble, except the occasional mosquito from outside. Once in a while I see a fly, but I suspect that Miss Spider sees flies a lot more than I do, especially on her dinner table.

Movies, photography, city tours, and the weather

In the commentary for the excellent film Ronin on DVD, director John Frankenheimer talks about the ambient light in Paris during the film's principal photography. He says (I'm paraphrasing) that he had always that thought French directors had some sort of trick for getting perfectly diffuse, bright, natural-looking light in their films shot in Paris, but when he actually shot in Paris himself, he discovered that such light often occurs naturally.

The light he's talking about is still common today, and it's hardly unique to Paris, but in Paris there are many nice things to look at and appreciate when light of this type is available. It's essentially just due to very even, thin overcasts that diffuse sunlight into an almost perfectly uniform white sky, without substantially reducing the intensity of the light. So you get a very bright, shadowless, perfectly even illumination that can be ideal for some types of photography. You may not need any artificial light at all. If you just want to light your scenes in a utilitarian, effective, and inconspicious way (as Frankenheimer would have wanted for Ronin), this sort of weather is ideal.

I like this kind of weather, too, because I don't always need sunglasses (although it can often be so bright that I wear them anyway), and there's very little unpleasant glare, since there's no direct sunlight to bounce into your eyes. It also tends to spell cool weather, which I prefer over hot weather. As for photography, sometimes it's nice (when you don't want the lighting to be noticeable), sometimes not (when you want light to be obvious, as during “magic hour”). The one drawback to this kind of overcast, diffuse light is that the brilliantly white sky tends to fool automatic exposure systems on cameras, causing everything else in an image to be reduced to a dark silhouette. Often you have to compensate for this exposure error manually.

The main thing that is nice about Paris weather, compared to the desert hellhole in which I was born and raised, is that it is highly variable without being extreme. Some days it's sunny, other days it's overcast. Sometimes it rains, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's chilly, sometimes it's warm (I prefer chilly). In my original hometown, every single day of the year (with a handful of exceptions) was sunny, hot, and cloudless. That kind of invariable weather has some practical advantages, but it gets really old after a while, and when the heat is oppressive it becomes positively stressful.

Anyway, I walked around recently on one of these John-Frankenheimer days, still wearing sunglasses because the overcast was extremely thin, and I thought of his comments again. It also made me think of many video games, in which there's a kind of magic, all-around light without shadows that clearly illuminates everything; some of the games I like (The Sims, Second Life) are like this.

While walking around, I saw a bicycle tour riding on the sidewalk, which isn't strictly legal. It's usually tolerated because being on the sidewalk avoids vehicular traffic, but when you have a dozen or more people on bicycles riding on the sidewalk simultaneously, it's a substantial hazard to pedestrians. I have to wonder why the tour leader chose to do this, as it's not very safe.

Just a short time after that, I saw another tour (by the same company) on Segways, near the Invalides. Segways are legally considered pedestrians, unlike bicycles. The irony is that sometimes the tours have people riding bicycles on the sidewalks, and sometimes they have people riding Segways on the street. Oh, well … no accidents thus far, as far as I know.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Major Media Events

A few days ago, the President (of France) and other celebrities attended a service for the people who were lost on Air France Flight 447, at Notre-Dame. I was fortunately away from the area at the time.

This weekend, apparently the President (of the United States) and his family are visiting Paris on the taxpayer's dime. Every time a U.S. president visits Paris, the entire city (almost) must come to a standstill, and the locals must suffer as everything is closed off and sealed off and forbidden so that the President can visit the city as if it were a wax museum. I wish U.S. presidents would just stay home, as their visits elsewhere involve massive hardships for the locals and wide curtailments of civil liberties. The people in Washington are presumably used to this, but I don't see why the rest of the world must suffer.

So I guess the President and his kin got a nice look at Paris—as a ghost town. Why he couldn't bring his family here before becoming President, at his own expense, is a bit of a mystery to me; I'm sure this visit probably cost several tens of millions of dollars. And of course he and his family will have absolutely zero interaction with real Parisians, since only a few Yankee-White VIPs will be allowed to get within a football-field-length of them. I guess they went to a restaurant in the Seventh, too—I pity the other people who dined there (if any!) at the same time, since that entire section of the city was probably sealed off by men in black on Hummers with miniguns.

In general, I don't like it when celebrities or VIPs visit Paris, as they are too much of a disruption to city life. And the President of the United States is treated more like a deity than an elected official, with extremes of security that say much about the depths of paranoia that apparently grip government officials when they don't often have reality checks to reset their perspective. It's interesting to note that the President of the United States gets far more security than the President of France. Perhaps that's a tacit acknowledgement of the relative importance of the two officials … or perhaps it's just hype and star worship.

Anyway, I missed it all, thankfully. I've spent this slightly rainy weekend playing chess, flying, and wandering about in Second Life, amongst other things (all things that cost nothing and can be done seated in front of a PC). I've become vaguely aware of some sort of tennis event taking place a few miles from here, on the west side of town, but I've mostly ignored that, too.

There are many things I like about Paris, but Major Media Events™ are not among them. The latter is part of the price you pay for living in the world's most glamorous city.

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