Friday, August 14, 2009

Technology in Paris, firefighters, and pharmacies

Although the major attractions of Paris mostly depend on history and tradition rather than the cutting edge of technology, the fact that Paris is a major world capital means that it still gets some technological innovations before anyone else on the block (at least in the European neighborhood, and sometimes even in the world).

I saw a tiny example of this while waiting in line at McDonald's on the Champs (the busiest restaurant in France). There was the usual array of flat-panel displays above the counter hawking all sorts of McDonald's stuff, but I noticed that one of the displays in the middle was in three dimensions. Intrigued, I shifted from side to side and confirmed my suspicion: the display was designed like certain novelty postcards, using an old technique for 3-D that consists of having tiny linear lenses on the screen that make only one of two images visible depending on your point of view. When you stand just right, one eye sees a slightly different image from the other eye, making 3-D display possible.

I found this interesting, but the novelty of the effect lasted only for about thirty seconds, which was barely five percent of the time I spent waiting in line. And I don't actually remember what the display was advertising, so it would seem that the 3-D effect did not make the advertising any more effective.

I've seen other minor examples of high-tech here and there. One of the designers in the Avenue Montaigne (where many high-fashion designers have their flagship stores) is using LCD panels to alternately hide and reveal the contents of store windows. Ho-hum. Of course we have our high-tech sanisettes, which are both modern and practical. The City of Paris also spends a lot of money on highly customized vehicles for various purposes. The street and sidewalk cleaning equipment is very modern and carefully chosen for the job. Fire and paramedic trucks, which at first glance look like ordinary vans, are in fact custom-designed for the fire department and contain a great many special features that make them highly adapted to Paris.

In fact, Paris firefighters are world-famous. Their helmets are very distinctive, with a very glossy metallic finish, and a very cool reflective visor that matches the helmet. They aren't designed this way just to look cool, however: the reflective finish and the reflective visor help shield firefighters against radiant heat. Their vehicles are also very specialized, as I've indicated. They have to be, because the tiny streets of Paris won't necessarily accept more conventional equipment. Ladder trucks, for example, are especially compact so that they can fit down smaller streets without too much trouble.

Speaking of ladder trucks … you'd think that they'd be used mainly for fighting fires, and they are certainly used for that. But they have another important use: getting people out of apartments. See, Parisians tend to put a zillion locks on their apartment doors, so much so that even a locksmith may not be able to get into the apartment, much less firefighters. If they get a call about someone possibly ill inside an apartment, they don't just bust the door down. Instead, they pull a ladder truck up to the outside of the building, extend the ladder to the outside window of the apartment, and go in that way. It's easier to get in and it doesn't require chopping a door down.

This sort of thing happens more often than you'd expect. Many Parisians live alone in their small, well-barricaded apartments. French people live a long time, and French old ladies live an especially long time. Sometimes old ladies (or other people) expire silently in their apartments, and only the smell or a long period of inactivity clue anyone in to their deaths. The fire department then comes, enters the apartment through a window, and checks to see if the inhabitant is alive. Often she (or he) isn't. I've seen this happen on many occasions, although I haven't waited to see if the person being checked on was dead or alive.

Speaking of elderly French ladies, I went to a pharmacy not long ago to top off my stock of aspirin, and I was struck once again by the vast number of people filling vast numbers of prescriptions. The woman in front of me looked to be in her early thirties, and yet she had a stack of prescriptions to fill … and she wasn't really an exception to the rule. People of all ages are taking all sorts of medications; the French seem to love medication. Apparently France is one of the world's leading markets for Valium, and standing in line at the pharmacy while each person fills half a dozen prescriptions, I had no trouble believing this. I was tempted to step closer and see exactly what this relatively young woman was buying, but I was too polite to do that. I wonder how many mood-altering medications were on her list.

Finding a pharmacy is a bit of an exercise in itself, at least late at night. Most of the pharmacies in my neighborhood were closed when I went out looking late on this Saturday night. Open pharmacies are easy to find because they nearly all have green neon crosses outside, and if the cross is lit, the pharmacy is open. I searched everywhere, and finally found one pharmacy open, probably the pharmacie de garde. The law requires that one pharmacy in each neighborhood—the pharmacie de garde—remain open all the time, so that there's always a way to get medication (you never know when you might run out of Xanax in the middle of the night). Other pharmacies post the location of the pharmacie de garde on the door when they are closed. I didn't check for a pharmacie de garde, but I spotted a glowing green cross, so I just headed for that. It took forever to get served, thanks to the thousands of prescriptions being filled in front of me.

For people with a very long life expectancy statistically, France sure seems to embrace heavy medication early in life. I doubt that the medication improves the life expectancy, but perhaps they find a lifetime on Prozac less stressful (?).

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