Archive for the 'Opinion' Category

August 23rd, 2007

On the meaning of “It’s a nice day”

If you were to ask most Parisians what the weather has been like this summer, they’d say it’s been awful. Not me—I’ve found July and August to be delightful: mostly cool and overcast. It’s raining as I type this, and I concede that the rain has been a bit more frequent than I’d prefer. But on the whole, I’m very happy with the weather. A day without much sun is a nice day in my book; hot, bright, cloudless days are in fact my least favorite of all. So if you tell me it’s a nice day because it’s sunny, and I reply along the lines of “Sure, if you like that sort of thing,” don’t think I’m making a joke.

I’ve said from time to time that I like sunshine well enough, as long as I can enjoy it from the comfort of a cool, shady room. I like the look of sunshine; I just don’t like being out in it. People seem to think this is an extremely odd preference, and when I mentioned this a few weeks ago in my Interesting Thing of the Day article on Paris Plages, one reader worried that I might get so little sunlight that I was in danger of suffering a Vitamin D deficit! I assure you that I’m not a troll or a vampire, and I do spend plenty of time outdoors during the day. However…

  • I don’t like the heat. I was a bit concerned that we might arrive in France in the middle of another heat wave, like the deadly one here a few years ago. Notwithstanding the fact that I often go on vacations to warm places, I just don’t deal well with heat, and I particularly dislike being drenched in sweat. It was a relief to find that summer has been cool here, especially since air conditioning is uncommon in France.

  • I don’t like bright light. Maybe my eyes are overly sensitive to light, I don’t know. But even on a cloudy day I seem to end up squinting a lot, or else wearing sunglasses. It’s a bother.

  • I don’t like getting sunburned. I burn fairly easily, and as I remarked in my Truffles for Breakfast post Sun, sand, Seine, I had a rather severe sunburn when I was in high school, which has made me extra cautious ever since. Applying sunscreen is a pain, especially since my limbs are hairy, and it’s not something I care to do multiple times every day. On the other hand, if I keep covered up with clothing, that just makes me hotter. A better solution, for me, is not to be in the sun in the first place.

  • I like clouds. I’m happy to see blue sky, but equally happy to see big fluffy clouds filling it up. And even a completely overcast sky is perfectly OK.

  • I actually like the nighttime better. I’ve always been a night owl—stay up late, get up late. I’m happy that way. I don’t think I could ever become completely nocturnal; that would just make life way too inconvenient. But I almost always prefer to be out at night rather than during the day.

Rain is another matter. During the first six months or so that I was living in Vancouver (this would have been late 1998, early 1999), it rained at least a little bit almost every single day. I have to say, that was kind of depressing. It’s not that I mind being wet as such, but dealing with the extra apparatus (umbrella, raincoat, whatever) to keep my clothes and belongings dry is an inconvenience. (On the other hand, I’m quite fond of fog—always have been.)

Likewise, cool is great and chilly is fine, but severely cold is unpleasant. I do enjoy spending a week or two every year in the snow, but frostbite isn’t really preferable to sunburn, and once again, I don’t like all the extra layers and gear required to keep oneself warm when it’s extremely cold outside.

Context, however, does make a difference. For example, back in 1993–1994 I was living in Pittsburgh. That winter was especially brutal, and I remember reading at the time that Pittsburgh was the nation’s least sunny city, with an average of only 59 days of sunshine per year. Even for me, that was too much; weather was an important factor in deciding to move from there to San Diego, rather than to Buffalo, which had been the other leading contender. But then, other things about my situation in Pittsburgh were less than satisfactory, and in different circumstances I might have been more content with the weather there. As for San Diego, it was pretty sunny, but at least it wasn’t too hot—and, happily, there was plenty of fog too.

Surely I can’t be the only one who thinks about the weather this way, can I? There must be other people who don’t equate “hot and sunny” with “nice.” Don’t be embarrassed to say so. You’re entitled to your meteorological preferences.

In any case, yes, it’s a nice day here in Paris: gray and chilly, just the way I like it.

July 22nd, 2007

Striking a Nerve

Since I announced that we’d moved to France (both on this blog and on Interesting Thing of the Day), I’ve received lots and lots of feedback—some in comments, but most by email. The vast majority of people who have written have been enthusiastic that we’re doing something we really want to do; more than a few people have said they would love to do something similar.

But today, I got two messages, from two different senders (neither of them known to me), along the same lines:

Message 1:

Enjoy France, That is just enough information for me to remove you from my homepage. I do not have any love for France.

Message 2:

I liked this better before I learned you had bailed the good old U.S. of A. and fled to subversive France.

I would like to be understanding, sympathetic, conciliatory. But…seriously? You honestly mean to say that you liked me, or at least my writing, until you found out that I’m living in France—and that alone is a complete deal-breaker? Really? Every single person who steps within the borders of France, for any reason, is anathema to you? It boggles my mind.

I can only guess what’s prompting these comments. My supposition is that they’re from people who are unhappy about France’s military nonparticipation in the Middle East conflicts. People who, in protest, (still) eat Freedom Fries. I don’t know this to be the case, but it seems likely.

If my guess is correct, and if that’s the only rationale behind these comments, then I feel even sadder about the quality of education in the United States than I did before, because clearly some basic facts about France haven’t gotten through. Politically speaking, France is considerably more conservative, on the whole, than the U.S.—and it just elected a very conservative president who’s a big fan of George W. Bush. There’s also much more popular support for the military here than in the States. (On the other hand, there’s also (at least here in Paris) vastly more acceptance of people with other cultural backgrounds, especially people from Muslim countries.)

Those important facts aside, the whole notion of saying that because a country’s political leaders made certain decisions, the whole country is bad (or good) is incomprehensible to me. The United States has millions of patriotic, flag-waving Democrats who have disagreed with pretty much everything Bush has done but still love their country, and France, too, has plenty of citizens whose views on war differ from those of their leaders. How anyone can paint an entire country—tens or hundreds of millions of people—with the same brush is beyond me.

So, for the record, my moving to France has nothing whatsoever to do with my political views about either country. Good bread is good bread, regardless of who you do or don’t want to shoot.

February 28th, 2007

Bandwagon Undo and Redo

So you know that whole Bandwagon launch thing that was supposed to happen last week? Well, funny story. The newly launched service lasted all of a couple of days before it was taken offline; it’s now being completely retooled for yet another grand opening in April.

As near as I can determine, what happened was approximately this: A surprisingly large number of people signed up right away for the all-the-iTunes-you-can-back-up-online service at $69 per year. But most of those people had far greater iTunes storage needs than even the company’s most generous estimates. The Bandwagon folks did the math and discovered that they couldn’t possibly afford all the necessary storage space, CPU power, and bandwidth—they’d actually be losing money on the service. So they stopped accepting new subscribers, told the existing subscribers that they’d be getting their money refunded, and announced that a very different version of Bandwagon will go online in a couple of months. The early adopters, having already received a refund, will also get a free year’s worth of service on the new system for their troubles.

So what is this new and improved Bandwagon? You’ll still be backing up your iTunes stuff online. But now, instead of storing it on Bandwagon’s servers, you’ll be storing it on Amazon’s S3 (Simple Storage Service), which is some of the cheapest online storage you can get. You’ll pay directly for the storage space, and you’ll pay Bandwagon either $24 or $36 per year for, apparently, the use of their application. (At the higher price you also get syncing between two Macs, though I’m unsure of the details at this point.) Once again, Bandwagon is offering a discount (half off) for people who sign up before the official launch; you can read about that on the Bandwagon site. And once again, they’re offering an incentive to bloggers, but this time they’re looking for help with beta testing more than publicity, and those who provide helpful bug reports will get a six-month subscription free.

Now, I’ve been hoping for some time that some Mac backup app would directly support S3, so that’s cool. But the fact that it’s limited to iTunes content is a big minus. Also, and I’ve told the Bandwagon folks this more than once, their new pricing structure is a bad idea. They’re effectively asking you to rent their software. Since you’re no longer backing up to their servers, you’re not paying them for a service as such. I can’t comprehend why they don’t do what every other software company does and simply sell licenses to their software. They could charge much more than $36, and even come out with paid upgrades every year or two, so they’d be making more money. But their customers wouldn’t have to feel like they’re renting software by the month, and they wouldn’t have to make recurring payments to both Bandwagon and S3.

There’s another issue, too: S3 in its current form is still pretty much for geeks. Signing up for, and configuring, and account is somewhat complex. And it’s an extra step (or several) that each Bandwagon user must now go through. Bandwagon says they’ll also support other varieties of online storage in the future, but details are sketchy at the moment.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a less competent product launch, and I’ve seen some doozies. When you’re launching a backup service, you want to instill confidence in your customers, including confidence that you’ve done your homework and have a solid business plan. Launching, unlaunching, retooling, and relaunching doesn’t give me warm fuzzies. The pricing is weird and unfortunate. And the service is unnecessarily limited. But perhaps that’ll all change—maybe several times—before the next launch.

February 28th, 2007

Space Pens with Purple Ink: A Sad Tale

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for Interesting Thing of the Day about Fisher Space Pens, those wonders of modern technology that can write upside-down, in zero gravity, in a vacuum, or underwater. I mentioned my happy discovery that Space Pen refills were available in purple, my favorite color. A few months later, Fisher sent me a prototype of a new pen model for testing, including a purple refill. And I was cautiously optimistic that I’d discovered the ultimate pen for my needs.

I was reminded of all this when writing my article about Non-Newtonian Fluids, because the thixotropic ink in Space Pens happens to be such a fluid. And I thought it was high time I posted a follow-up about my purple-ink Space Pen experience, because it turned out to be an unhappy one.

Whatever else you can say about Space Pens, I discovered that those with purple ink have one huge and unforgivable flaw: the ink isn’t waterproof. Sure, you can write on greasy paper in a snowstorm, but if you later try to read what you wrote, you might have problems.

To illustrate, I took an index card and wrote on it in both black and purple Space Pen ink, and then dunked it in room-temperature water for 30 seconds. Only the lower half of the writing was submerged, and I think you can see pretty clearly what happened (click the photos for larger versions):


The black ink bled a bit, but the purple bled a lot. I actually discovered this when a piece of paper in my pocket, inscribed with the purple ink, got a bit damp from sweat. And it turns out that it’s just as bad as I feared.

But wait: aren’t you supposed to be able to write underwater with these pens? I tried that too, and the results were interesting:


As you can see, the purple again runs much more than the black. A half hour later, the purple ink had faded to a very light, almost illegible hue, while the black (though very slightly runny) was still nice and dark.

So now, if I want the Space Pen benefits, I have to choose which trade-off I prefer: ink color or smeariness. Ack. I don’t know whether the same problem affects the other colors of Space Pen ink (there are quite a few), but I do know that in at least this respect, the pens don’t live up to their advertising.

On a cheerier and somewhat related note, have a look at 8 YouTube Videos Featuring Non-Newtonian Fluid Experiments at SenseList, none of which involves Space Pens.