12 September 2009


I got old, and I noticed the moment when it happened. It's when, all of a sudden, there is a practice which is common among the youth of the day, that you find completely incomprehensible.

Here's what happened:

Reading a NY Times article a few weeks ago about teens and Twitter (by the way, do you all know that I tweet?), they mentioned the case of Kristen Nagy, 18, to illustrate the case of a teen who sends a lot of text messages, but doesn't use Twitter. How much does she text? Let me tell you. She sends 500 text messages per day!


500 texts per day? Over the 16 waking-hours of a day, that's a little more than one text every two minutes. For 16-hours straight! If it takes you 15 seconds to send one text, that's more than two hours spent sending 15-second text messages, not including the time it takes to read the messages you receive.

Trying to understand this, I compared this to my experience. Esther and I have unlimited texting included in our plans to go along with our text-friendly phones. Sometimes, when we get really crazy, we might send 15 texts per day. But 500? That's simply incomprehensible. I can't even imagine why someone would ever want to do that. It's stupid. It doesn't make sense. It makes me a little mad. I just don't understand.

And that's it, now I'm old. Kids are doing something and I, despite all my blogs, Twitter feeds, RSS subscriptions and social networks, simply can't wrap my head around it. Does not compute.

I think it's only going to get worse from here.

14 August 2009

Ravenchase, in the NYT!

The company that I used to work for, Ravenchase Adventures, just had an article published about them in the New York Times. It focuses on the trouble that such a company would have in this economic climate, but has an overall positive tone. I have a certain, extra measure of pride in this because, before I left the company, I was put in touch with the reporter who I in turn put in touch with the company president. It's like I'm almost famous!

My shallow pride aside, it's a really great company and I hope that this brings them some more well-deserved attention!

10 August 2009

Promoting Corporate Excellence

Via kottke, I came across a stack of slides from Netflix on developing a corporate culture, embedded below.

Some highlights:

  • Slides 24-29 on building a strong team. 
  • Slide 33, on the difference between efforts and results.
  • Slides 41-55 on the relationship between employee freedom, business complexity and the percentage of high performance employees in a company.
  • Slides 76-84 on the responsibility of managers to create a context where high performance employees can thrive.
And many others on compensation, an innovative vacation policy, etc... I encourage you to look through them all. In short, I'm impressed. It strikes me as the sort of environment where high performance individuals will thrive in a cohesive and coherent way, leading to great results.

What frustrates me, though, is the outcome of all this incredible performance. After all this work, all this effort, how is the world different? Someone in Minnesota gets a DVD one day earlier than they would have otherwise. While the global energy challenge remains unresolved, while one billion people get by on less than $1 per day, etc...

The real challenge going forward is building a system wherein this level of performance can be sustained while providing benefit where it's most needed. I understand that Grameen Bank has had some success in this respect, but I want to see more.

Of course, I have nothing against Netflix, I wish them nothing but continued success. They're providing the world with an excellent organizational model, let alone a lovely DVD rental service.

Enjoy the slides!

05 August 2009

To Versailles, Finally

Thanks to college friend Adam coming to explore Paris, I finally had an excuse to go see Versailles. Esther and I were thinking about going when I first visited her in 2005, but I had already seen another château and was getting frustrated with the ridiculous displays of wealth.

My impression after having seen the palace and its grounds is that I made a good choice in 2005. It is a pretty incredible on the part of Louis XIV to have responded to social unrest due to the injustices and excesses of his government to build an even bigger, less sustainable palace outside of palace. The guy had already been living at the Louvre, how much more can you want?

Apparently much more. Here's some photographic evidence:

It was, understandably, extremely luxurious, but it left me wondering what the ultra-wealthy are doing these days. There, at Versailles, the floors creaked, there was no impressive technology on display, it was all very traditional. What are the moderns doing with their disposable income?

More than anything, it made me want to go to Las Vegas to see what that example of excess and unsustainability looks and feels like.

Here's the full album:

Versailles with Adam

23 July 2009

Never in America, or, The French and Taxes

As part of the economic stimulus package that the French government has put in place in the wake of the global recession, part of it was the reduction of the VAT (a sales tax, almost) from 19.6% to 5.5% for restaurants.

Naturally, most restaurateurs were ecstatic and went to the trouble of printing up new menus with the "Before" and "After" price. Not bad marketing all things considered, consumers like to know how much they're saving.

One evening while sharing a bottle of wine with a friend at a bar in the Marais called Les Philosophes, however, I noticed something curious. They had indeed printed up new menus, or at least a new front page, but it wasn't what I was expecting. The title read, "Restaurant contre la baisse de la TVA", or, "Restaurant against the lowering of the VAT."

What followed was a full page diatribe (Garamond, 10pt. type) on why they thought the lowering of taxes was a bad idea. I was already a bit too far into the bottle of red to be bothered to read the entire thing, but it really struck me as uniquely French: the government lowers the taxes and the citizens refuse.

Just like home, right?

29 June 2009

New Layout

It's not just your eyes, I just updated the layout of the blog. Everything should be the same, just centered better on your screen which should allow the large pictures to display better on smaller monitors. Let me know what you think!

Le Mans!

So it's been a while since I've been back, but other things have been keeping me too busy to post here. That said, a brief review of an American at Les 24 Heures du Mans:

Le Mans, the city, is like most other provincial French cities, full of little squares and narrow streets:

That said, some things stand out:

Not the least of which being the British. Here they are camping out of the back of a Bentley. How quaint:

Then there is the track itself. It's a world apart from the narrow, Medieval streets of the town. In fact, it would be downright familiar to anyone who's been to a major speedway in the US.

Then, finally, there are the cars. Living in Paris, I've gotten accustomed to thinking that 45mph was fast. That quickly changed once the cars started going by.

Perhaps even more striking than seeing the cars fly by was hearing them. Specifically at Le Mans, you have four classes of cars running against one another at the same time on the same track. And even within those classes there are many variations. In short, the variety of exhaust notes was pretty incredible. The Peugeots that would ultimately win, for example were extremely quiet (for a race car) being turbo diesels.

The Aston Martin LMP1 cars, on the other hand, screamed like Tie Fighters. Literally.

The award for most incredible auto-aural performance, however, goes absolutely hands down to the Corvettes. My God, they shook the Earth when they went by, nothing sounded as amazing as those American V8s.

I may be a Detroit boy at heart, but there was still a certain appreciation for how the Europeans get around.

Rarely do three characters mean so much as they do in RS6.

In short, it was a great time with the friends, I highly recommend it. It is one of the motorsports experiences to be had, hands down.

Alright, that's enough car-obsession for the time being. Those true-fans who want to see more can check it out in the full gallery:

Le Mans 2009

17 June 2009

A New Job!

That's it! I've signed my contract, received my badge and should be getting my email address tomorrow: I've started working at UNESCO!

UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. It's headquartered in Paris and works on those above-mentioned subjects; in general promoting science and education, protecting the environment, and preserving culture.

I am part of the Natrual Sciences Sector, in the Basic and Engineering Sciences Division, and part of the Renewable Energy Programme. My title is "Consultant" which is the do-all, limited-term contract that they give to someone with my level of education and experience. I'll be supporting all aspects of the Programme's work which mainly focuses on using renewable energy technologies to build capacities in developping countries. A big part of it is training the technicians to take care of the systems that we and other organizations install (which fits nicely with the 'Education' part of UNESCO's mandate).

I haven't been working there for very long so I can't give any deep impressions, but so far it's fascinating. I'm meeting a lot of interesting people, I spend my days reading about energy in general and renewable energy in particular (which sounds far more boring than it is for me), and it's now a lot easier to explain what I do when people ask.

All in all, I couldn't be happier with it. To new adventures!

07 June 2009

It's About Time

What, dear reader, is this shockingly sub-par photo a representation of? Indeed, it is a train ticket for the French TGV. You see at the top that it starts at "Paris Mont 1" (that would be the Paris Montparnasse 1 station) and ends in two little words, indicated by the red arrow. What nice words indeed.

Yes boys and girls, it's time. It's been nearly three years that I've been in France and I've not yet made to the mecca of French motorsports events. It is time to rectify this rather serious oversight. Next weekend, two friends and I are off to Le Mans, to enjoy all of the insanity that a 24-hour auto race has to hold.

Thankfully, I'm going with a seasoned veteran who will be able to lead us around. I'm anticipating something like the Daytona 500 crossed with the Paris Metro during rush hour: pure insanity, so it will be good to have a guide. I will take plenty of pictures and, undoubtedly, bring back plenty of stories.

And yes, I do recognize the tension between my passions for renewable energy and for cars which get 6 mpg. It's just the way I is.

21 May 2009

Pictures from the Phone

Living in modern times is nice, my phone can make pictures! Enjoy a view of Paris as the sun sets.

20 May 2009

Hidden Paris Neighborhoods

I've taken to running in the early morning. It allows me to run in the streets without constantly having to stop for old ladies with their shopping carts or having to inhale the exhaust of countless diesels. As such, I've been running without a set destination or path, exploring different neighborhoods. Here is a good example of what I've found (it's Google StreetView, you can drive around and have a look for yourself):

View Larger Map

It's not far from where we live, but I've never seen anything like it in Paris. The stairs to the houses, the gates, the style of the buildings, it all looks like something from Amsterdam or maybe Brooklyn. I'll have to go back to see if there is a plaque somewhere explaining the history of the area.

16 May 2009

Corsica: Impressions

First, a bit of background. Corsica is part of France as much as Hawaii is part of the US. It just happens to be an island and, as such, has a unique culture. Here's a map:

View Larger Map

Given Corsica's strategic location in the Mediterranean, it's been controlled by many different empires and countries. Over the millennia, it has only had a brief period of sovereignty. (For the full rundown, have a look at Wikipedia's History of Corsica.) That said, the people remain very independently minded which is seen in the island's motto, "Often conquered, never subdued." Unfortunately, this independence of mind has given rise to an armed separatist movement which has, at times, resorted to violence.

That said, we found the island and it's inhabitants extremely warm and welcoming, really it was a fantastic place.

People and Language

Like I said above, everyone that we met was absolutely fantastic. Maybe it's because we're tourists and are contributing to the economy, maybe it's because we were there early in the season, but whatever it was, the people were great.

People spontaneously offered us directions and local history. It was a bit like walking through some educational "period town" where people wearing funny clothes tell you, "Blacksmiths were an important part of the 18th century economy..." Except, in this case, they were wearing normal clothes and told us where we could buy food, where we could find the trail, and the history of the town.

The official language is French (of course) and everyone we met spoke it natively. That said, we also heard a lot of Corsican both spoken and on the radio. The language itself is very close to Italian, with its own variations.


We ate really, really well on the trip. In the gîtes, it was a family-style meal, often with meat, pasta, and/or potatoes. Many of the ingredients were local, from the cheese (brucciu is one local favorite, it's somewhere between feta and ricotta, though it's only available in the spring and early summer) to the meat (goat, mutton, and wild boar being particularly popular).

The island is known for its charcuterie, the best of which comes from the aforementioned wild boar. I ate my fair share, rationalizing that it would really be too bad to miss out on this opportunity. We still have quite a bit in our refrigerator waiting to be eaten...

They drink a lot of wine (red, white, and rosé) which is all locally produced. I don't think that I saw a bottle of wine from the continent on a single restaurant menu. They also have surprisingly good beers, especially Pietra, a brown ale made from chestnuts.

The cuisine of the coasts is different from that of the interior, despite the small size of the island. In the mountains, they eat a lot of meat and cheese (including hard sheep and goat varieties) whereas the cuisine of the coasts includes that as well as plenty of seafood. The Mediterranean influences are clear throughout.

One disappointment was the bread, it was just nothing compared to what you get in Paris.

Hiking on the Trail

The trail itself was usually a narrow path cutting through the forests and scrub land that we crossed. It was marked, usually well, with orange stripes of paint.

We had topographical hiking maps with us, but only ever used them for confirmation of the route and estimating distances.

Life in the gîtes was quite nice. Though it wouldn't satisfy your needs if you were looking for a wilderness experience (I don't think anywhere in Western Europe would...), it is a really civilized way to hike. Your food is prepared for you, you have a bed and a shower every night, really it's quite nice. There is even a service that will transfer your bags from one gîte to the next so that you would, conceivably, never need to carry anything more than your lunch and water while hiking. That seems to defeat the purpose a bit, but it's nice to have the option.

It was also an opportunity to meet other hikers. We met a Swedish couple, a French guy (who had never lived in France) and his German friend, and a bunch of other nice people. There was only one somewhat strange, though even he was quite nice.

The Other Tourists

May is still rather early in the Corsican tourist season which, like most areas in France, peaks in July and August. That said, we were far from the only tourists on the island. It seems to be a popular destination for Germans and Swiss, as well as the French. It is especially popular with motorcyclists. Given the endlessly winding mountain roads, nice climate, and beautiful sights, this isn't much of a surprise. At an ice cream parlor in Porto Vecchio, we shared the terrace with 20 members of a German biker club.

The Roads
Narrow and winding, and all two lanes (or less). There's no highway on the island, and most of the major surface streets follow the coasts. Since we were there early in the season, traffic and parking were never a problem, but I can only imagine how bad it would be at the peak. Entering the popular town of Bonifacio, for example, is done by one, narrow road, in and out. According to the guidebook, it's common to have to wait several hours to be able to enter. Thankfully for us, it wasn't the case.

The Car

Having decided to rent a car for the second half of the trip, I got to drive a Renault for the first time. It was a new model, the Modus:

It had a 1.5L common rail diesel with a mere 85hp but 147ft-lbs of toque. For the driving conditions (narrow, winding mountain roads with plenty of corner exits) it was plenty competent to get around. What's better, it's rated at 52mpg and was averaging 47mpg in the mountains. Not bad at all.

Final Conclusions
In the end, it was one of the best pure vacations ever. Certainly it's nicer to visit family in the US, France, or Israel, but for simply discovering a new place, this trip was really wonderful. The combination of the difficult period at the beginning and the more relaxed period at the end was really ideal.

I hope that it won't be too long before we get back to Corsica...

15 May 2009

Corsica: The South by Car

Following up on the previous post about hiking the Mare a Mare Sud, here's the chronology of events for the rest of the trip.

Thursday, May 7
We woke up slowly in the tent, did laundry, and made our way to Porto Vecchio. We saw the sea (thereby officially ending the hike) while we had lunch in the port.

The town is full of interesting old buildings, walls, and gates.

We decided it would be best to rent a car to be able to explore more of the island, as well as to have a place to lock up our stuff (since we were staying in campsites). The first thing we did with the car was to drive to an out of the way beach and lay out in the sun for a while.

The view out to sea was quite impressive:

While on the beach, we chose a restaurant from the guide book and drove out there. It's called Le Passe Temps (The Pass Time, obviously) and was really delicious. Esther had grilled pork and I had a pizza from their wood-fired oven. We were quite lucky because they had only opened for the season that night. It was clearly popular with the locals, the owners were a bit distracted as their friends kept pulling them aside to talk to them.

Friday, May 8
We drove around quite a bit, passing many of the towns that we crossed while hiking and seeing others that we couldn't quite get to. I've traced our route on the map below. Leaving from Porto Vecchio, we saw L'Ospedale, Zonza, Levie, Santa Lucia, Sartène, and finally Bonifacio.

View Drive 1 in a larger map

As one can imagine, there were plenty of wonderful sights. A sampling:

Sartène was particularly impressive with its narrow, convoluted streets and passageways.

We arrived in Bonifacio, our final destination, in the late evening. It is another impressive city as it's built onto the white cliffs that overlook the southern tip of the island.

The geology forms a nearly perfect natural harbor, in which a marina has been built which has become popular with mega-yachts. (Fun fact! The natural harbor of Bonifacio is believed to have been visited by Odysseus during his travels in The Odyssey, given how closely it matches the description.)

The city, like Sartène, also has beautiful, narrow streets, full of intriguing details.

Night fell, we had dinner on the port, and made our way back to the campsite, exhausted once again.

Saturday, May 9
On our last full day in Corsica, we started by walking out to the lighthouse outside of Bonifacio. The view was incredible.

Coming back in, we took a boat tour of the cliffs and the lagoons around Bonifacio.

We continued our explorations, making our way up to the archaeological site of Filitosa. The site has been inhabited for about 7,000 years by various tribes, one of which built many (rather phallic) statues which apparently depicted their enemies. It was impressive to be on such an old site.

Everything was old there, even the big olive tree in the center of these statues is thought to be 1,200 to 2,000 years old.

Finally, for our last dinner in Corsica, we decided to explore the small town of Campomoro. It required driving out on a harrowing road. You may have images of "dangerous road" in your mind; this must be the model. It was a strip of pavement about one and a third lanes wide, with no lane markings, no guardrails, and no shoulders stuck to the side of the cliff. Oncoming traffic (which there was thankfully very little) meant coming to a near stop and narrowly brushing by. To make matters worse, there were often cattle and sheep on the side or in the middle of the road. In short, quite an adventure.

View Untitled in a larger map

The effort however, was well worth the beach and the dinner. The beach was just about perfect and the dinner (at the nice hotel in town) was fantastic. Bonifacio-style eggplants (aubergines à la bonifacienne) may be the best food I've ever tasted.

We said goodbye to the sea and the mountains, and made our way back to the campsite. (Back along the same road, now in the dark.)

Sunday, May 10
We were supposed to get up and leave, but little did we know, Corsica had one last surprise for us.

We had some extra time so we decided to have a coffee up in the old city of Bonifacio. We went to the first, cheapest-looking place that we saw, ordered our coffee and croissants (it's still France, after all), made our way to the back of the cafe and were greeted with the following sight:

We had our coffee and croissants (technically, Esther had a pain au chocolat) overlooking both the sea and the cliffs. A wonderful surprise, and a wonderful end to a fantastic trip.