29 November 2006

Kurt: Cultural Learnings of France for Make Benefit...

One of the great things about taking a language class in a foreign country is that you are in a class with a bunch of other foreigners. In my class, for example, there are people from Peru, Argentina, Canada, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Ethiopia, Albania, as well as one girl who insists that she is from Yugoslavia. I'm not sure if she's just been out of the country since before 2003 or so and hasn't realized that "Yugoslavia" doesn't exist anymore, if she is ultra-nationalist and misses the old union, of if she thinks that "Yugoslavia" will ring more bells than Serbia or Montenegro. In any event, there are a bunch of countries represented and it can lead to some interesting circumstances when we socialize.

Take, for example, the party at the house of the Turkish guy from my phonetics lab. He and his wife, a French woman, are living in a nice little one bedroom on the south side of Paris and decided to have a little get-together Saturday night. It was really nice, the host took the time to hand draw a flag for each country that was represented (USA, Germany, Poland, South Korea, China, Japan, Columbia, Spain, etc...) With all of these countries represented there were some interesting cultural interactions to observe:

1) The deep hesitation of the German guy and girl when being served sushi prepared by the Japanese guy. "Est-ce que c'est cru?" they asked. "Is it raw?" Of course the answer was "Oui." and they politely took a bite and washed it down with French beer. Rather than asking what they thought of the sushi I thought it would be more interesting to ask what they thought of the French beer. I don't think that our novice levels of French were enough to convey what they were feeling, but reading their faces I'm pretty sure that I saw a good amount of disdain.

2) The wife of the host, I suppose that would make here the "hostess", brought around a bottle of liquor in a bag and had everyone taste a bit and guess what it was made of. It was not too strong, maybe 40 proof, and had a really mild, clean flavor. Guesses around the circle ranged from apple to pear to rice. It turned out that it was a rice liquor brought by the Chinese guy, but that didn't quite prepare us for the surprise when she pulled the bottle from the bag. It was curled up in the bottle, but I estimated that if you pulled it out and straightened it it would be about 8 inches long, with the tail. It was some sort of lizard, pickled in the rice liquor, and carefully eviscerated such that all of the flavor of its innards could properly merry with the alcohol. At the realization of what they had just drank, jaws hit the floor and eyes swelled to near saucer size. Needless to say, it added some serious excitement to the party.

3) At one point Esther was talking to a Polish guy and girl, I was sitting next to her and the German guy and girl were on the other side of the circle. Esther told the Poles that her grandparents had been from Poland. Now, it's important to know that Esther has a lingering antipathy toward Poland given the public's compliance with the Nazis in their efforts to round up all of Jews and the direct consequences that that had on her family. So, when Esther answered affirmatively to the question of if she had been to Poland and the girl's immediately following question was whether she had been to Auschwitz, as if it was a theme park, didn't set the conversation of on the right foot. The conversation continued and they learned that the girl was from the same area of Warsaw as Esther's grandmother. The Poles then asked Esther if she spoke any Polish, she said no and they asked why. When she responded that her grandfather had spoken only Yiddish there was a silent understanding and the Poles stopped the conversation.

So, that's life here in Paris. It's great to be able to live in a time of relative peace or, at least, in an area apart from the present conflicts of the world, where I can meet people from different cultures at a soirée rather on the battlefield. It certainly impressed upon me a certain graditude, for me, an American, to sit in a cirlce with Germans, Poles, a Japanese guy, a French Jew; the grandchildren of a catastrophic war sitting in peace, sipping lizard liquor.

Of course, cross-cultural interactions aren't always warm feelings about the present state of the world. I am reminded of an awkward moment when I came in late to a conversation among some other students in my phonetics lab. One was asking another what the weather was like in his home country this time of year. He said warm, around 20 degrees Celsius. I was curious, so I asked where he was from. When the answer came "Iraq," with a knowing smile, I was at a complete loss of what to say. It's not as if I can appropriately apologize for myself, my country, or its actions. I can't say, "I'm so sorry for what's happening, how is your family?" What do I do if the answer comes back, "Half dead." So, I mumbled "Bien." and turned away. Though we're more than sixty years past the last world war, we're still not completely in the light yet.

26 November 2006

The Linux Attempt Pt. III

It works! In fact, this is being written on the old NEC PowerMate, running Ubuntu 6.10, known as "Edgy Eft". The ultimate solution was to buy a 256MB module of PC133, though, due to limitations of the motherboard, only 128MB is recognized at it is running at the speed of PC100. Given that it is impossible to find 128MB modules of PC100 SDRAM, I would say that we are lucky to have anything that works.

But it works! That's what counts. In fact, it works much better and much more reliably than the old, corrupted version of Windows ever worked. So I can check one thing off of my To Do list ("Successfully install Linux on a computer") and move onto bigger and better things.

More importantly for those of you reading this blog, I can get back to writing about interesting, non-technical subjects. So, more to come shortly, I have to do some homework before I go to my French class.


16 November 2006

The Linux Attempt Pt. II

[Caution: Technical post follows, ignore if not interested!]

Well, it turns out the old NEC PowerMate has only 96MB of RAM and that's short of the 128 required to run the Live CD and Installer for Ubuntu. Also, it takes old PC100 RAM which is kind of hard to find. Esther and I went to the "Silicon Valley" of Paris, the street with all of the computer hardware sellers and found a 256MB module of PC100 for 35 euros. It was more expensive than I was hoping, but given how few systems run PC100, it makes sense that it is more expensive per MB. Anyway, got home, snapped it in and ran the MemTest86 that comes with the Ubuntu CD and it started generating all sorts of errors.

So, it's possible that the stick of memory itself is faulty (it was stored loose in a drawer for who knows how long) or that the system can't properly deal with a single module of more than 64 or 128MB. The solution will most likely be taking the whole computer into the store and having them try out a few different memory modules of different sizes and see if it works.

Once the RAM gets sorted out, everything should go relatively smoothly (probably not now that I've said that) though Ubuntu will take up 3GB of our 5GB HDD. Oh well, .odt files typically aren't that big.

14 November 2006

The Linux Attempt

When we moved into the apartment, Esther's dad found an old computer at work that was going to be discarded. We took it to our house, plugged it in and it has kind of worked. It can't connect to the internet, it is mind-bogglingly slow, it randomly crashes, and Windows Explorer doesn't seem to be properly functioning. That said, the hardware seems to be in good condition, it's just the operating system (Windows 2000) that doesn't seem to be doing anything productive.

Thus, it is time for an experiment. Will I be able to put Linux on the computer? Will it work? Will it be stable? As I told Esther, I am 95% sure that it will work better than before, 3% worried that it will be about the same, and 2% afraid that it will be even worse.

I've burned the latest release of the Ubuntu distribution (6.10) onto a CD, rearranged the BIOS to make system bootable from CD-ROM and now I'm waiting for the installer to begin. Let's hope this works...

Esther has a job!

A few months of applying, worrying, and stressing are officially over! Esther has a job!

It's a managerial position with a non-profit, social services organization. She will be in charge of expanding the operations of the group both financially and geographically and will have a team of two working for her. From what Esther has described, it sounds like a good organization. Too often, non-profits either focus on research without action or action without research, leading to unimpressive results. This group is different in that they do everything. Once the researchers (sociologists, psychologists, criminologists, etc...) come up with a good idea, it is immediately enacted in the field. Rather than letting good ideas go to waste (or acting without thought) this organization tries to close both ends of the loop.

Furthermore, rather than trying to address criminal tendencies in youth once they have already been expressed (e.g. a 15 year-old boy is caught spraying graffiti on a wall) they look for parameters that are known to lead to criminality and work with kids between the ages of 6 and 12. This is controversial because it implies that an individual is predestined to a life of crime. Of course this isn't the case, but when you look at 50 different parameters (as this organization does) you can often see trends based on geography, family structure, etc... that make a child a likely candidate. This group then takes the child and puts him/her through an intensive 2-year program, coordinated with the school, family, and police, in the hopes of preventing the child from becoming a criminal in the future. Because the program is so intensive and the organization has only existed for a few years, it takes a narrow and deep approach to juvenile criminality. Rather than meeting with a few hundred kids once a week for a few months, the organization is deeply involved in the lives of a few children every day for two years.

In any event, it sounds like a good opportunity for Esther. It has a fancy title that she can put on her resume, the salary is right, and it seems like it is a good organization working for a good cause. Needless to say, we are both very pleased.

12 November 2006

Our House!

Well, I know that everyone has been waiting for a long time for these but I didn't feel that we had the house properly arranged until now. We had a house warming party last night and that motivated us to get everything arranged and decorated. So, the first are pictures of our empty and clean house and then with a bunch of people there, having a good time.

If notice continuity mistakes in films, you might notice some in the first set of pictures. Some were taken just before the party (at night) and others were taken this afternoon, after cleaning. Hope that doesn't bother you too much.

02 November 2006

A Trip to the Marché aux Puces

marché : market
puces : fleas

I've been to a number of "exotic" places in the world, but there was something about being at the marché aux puces that made me feel more like Indiana Jones than ever before. This, the Parisian flea market which is open only Friday, Saturday and Sunday, gives you the feeling that you could find absolutely anything that you wanted. 18th century coffee table? No problem! Fake Dolce & Gabana belt? Right this way, sir!

The whole place is about a dozen square blocks altogether (3 in one direction, 4 in the other). The perimeter is full of cheap, fashionable clothes, Caribbean guys selling incense and bongs, and roving packs of high school students trying to look tough and buying just about everything that they see. Among all of this I was able to find a used corduroy jacket for only 17 euros. I can now look like a proper French 20-something.

All of this popular culture on the exterior is just a distraction to what you can find in the dusty and convoluted folds of the interior. Think of it as the mold-rind of a round of Camembert; it is the most pungent and apparent to the casual observer, but it obscures the subtlety of the soft interior. Turning off of the crowded exterior streets an entirely different world opens up before you. It is alley after alley of little stalls, each about 15 feet by 15 feet, most only one story tall. Each stall is operated by a different seller who specializes in one sort of antiquity or knick-knack. It's here that you can find a globe from the 17th century, an Art Deco lamp, or an 18th century arm chair. Each stall is constructed to look like a properly arranged (though very crowded) room. There are generally tables, chairs, lamps, etc... all of the same period. If you want an entire Art Deco ensemble for your living room, this is the place to find it.

Furniture sellers make up the majority of the stalls, but there are specialists in other fields as well. One of the more interesting shops was called The Curious Colonialist. The walls were adorned with Native American head dresses and tomahawks, Amazonian alligators, and various statues of presumably African origin. When Yona, my shopping partner, and I walked in, the gentlemen became rather nervous as it was clear they were finalizing the sale of a circa-1850's Winchester rifle. Given the strict laws regarding firearms in France and their reaction to our presence, there was a certain air of extra-legality. This feeling was one that permeated much of the market. It seemed that no matter what you wanted to by, you could find it there, so long as you don't ask too many questions about how the seller came into possession of it. The question and response seems to be, "Is it legal to buy Egyptian antiquities like this? At this price, who cares!"

Of course, there are plenty of other collectibles for sale, from comic books, to miniature cars, to antique cameras. Whatever you prefer to collect, you can undoubtedly add to it with a trip to the marché aux puces. For me it meant a corduroy jacket, for others it might be the monkey skull displayed on wall next to the stuffed and mounted flamingo.