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What I want July 22, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in computers, France, life, Marseille.
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Well, it is basically my birthday (whooo!). I can’t complain. Hell, check out the view from where I’m living in the South of France right now:


I’ve managed to get started on all but two projects I wanted to tackle this summer (re-do my class for the fall and a GUI tool to allow me to ask quick and dirty questions of a Monte Carlo file).

I can’t complain.

And yet… there is a certain feeling of malaise settling in. At first I thought it was the constant heat. But I’m basically on the beach. Can’t be it. Perhaps it is eating too much rich French food? Maybe it is the economic crisis.

Finally figured out what it is – my current cell phone is almost two years old! I feel better already!

When I return to the USA it will be time to buy a new one. Unfortunately, I have a few basic requirements. One I’d really like to go for this time is that it run both Adobe Flash/Air and Microsoft’s Silverlight. The later because that is a geek version of Flash – one I can actually write code in. Initially I thought that killed the iPhone, but it turns out not to be the case – the open source version can be run there as long as you drop half the features which violate the iPhone’s service agreement (which is also the reason that Flash isn’t on the phone – this isn’t technical, it is business). Unfortunately, I have to own an Apple to do any development work and pay some developer fee and I can’t just post my app on a web page – I have to go through the Apple censors. So that puts a significant dent in my enthusiasm. On the other hand the iPhone has the best interface of any phone I’ve seen – though I really really like my current keyboard for replying to email.

It would also be nice if I could play subscription music on my phone, but that isn’t a 100% must (I currently carry around 120 gigs of music, video/audio podcasts, etc. on a big Zune). The phone needs to have all the usual stuff to – PDF reader for those arxiv papers, web browser, 3G, SMS, and MMS.

Android looks very interesting – though I’m waiting to see a Flash/Silverlight port. At least there is no company blocking the port in that case, so perhaps it will happen? I hear Microsoft is preparing a new phone as well. The Pre sounds nice, but I can’t tell how much traction it is going to get.

I might have to wait a year. All of a sudden I don’t feel so happy anymore…


Bastille Day July 15, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in Fireworks, France, Marseille.
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Marseille did a lot better than last year. Actually, it was a whole day, starting with a parade (including impossible-to-photograph-because-they-were-moving-so-fast-fighter-jets) to the fireworks at the end.


Also, the pulled up a anti-submarine boat from their civil defense force. It was parked right outside my window:


What was even cooler is they allowed tours. So I got on board and stole all the high-tech French secrets I could for the homeland. Actually, not. But I did get to see the boat. And I got a bunch of pictures from the outside:

Pictures were allowed – but not very many people took the pictures. And, funnily enough, I didn’t feel comfortable taking them. I know, odd for me. The technology inside was a mis-mash of stuff that looks like it was straight out of the old NASA control rooms (you should have seen the radar scopes) and modern PC’s (well, running Windows 2000). In the operations center, where they collect all the radar information (and they have a lot) I expected the controls to be fairly uniform. You know – to reduce mistakes when under pressure. But that wasn’t the case. The equipment was festooned with small switches and controls – if you weren’t looking I don’t see how you could have felt your way to the right switch. Fascinating stuff, none-the-less.

And the night was topped off by, of course, fireworks. These were not as big as the ones I saw last year (more bang, less light?). But still they had some pretty spectacular ones. My favorite were these arcing ones shot from water level that got closer and closer together. The picture below is a static one, so it doesn’t give the full effect (the sound was important part of it too).


I’ve uploaded a mess of pictures for anyone that wants to look. It was one hot hot hot day. I spent the middle half of it working from home, but when the sun started coming in the window I had to give up!

UPDATE: Forgot a link to pictures!

Those Crazy French February 28, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in France, politics.

Ok. We are used to politicians saying crazy things. Science, however, is rarely a direct target of a high level politician – like a president. Not so in France. Sarkozy recently gave a speech about science. He pissed off a few scientists (to put it mildly). Someone right away posted a YouTube parody of the speech, which I’ve linked below. It is like a French version of the Daily show:

What is amazing is he seems to imply the most scientists at the various national labs just show up because they get a pay check. Having worked for a year at CPPM, one of their national labs, I find this statement incredible. Of course, the French national scientists didn’t use the word “incroyable”!! His specific remedy reminds me of the mantra during the Bush years: evaluation evaluation evaluation. So… how do do you evaluate researchers? According to Sarkozy we really don’t have a way.

Riiiight… isn’t that what peer review is all about? Oh wait, he does address that. What a cushy job, he says, we all evaluate each other and give each other passing grades, and kick back and suck down a Pastis. I’d like to see him go through a habilitation! Or perhaps the jury for getting a position in CNRS (the main funding agency for national research laboratories in France). And he quickly dismisses the fact that France has its share of Nobel prizes. If that isn’t external evaluation, I don’t know what is!!

But I do like the way the scientists decided to try to protest this. According to the Nature science blog (and I hear the same thing from friends of mine):

Meanwhile “Let’s save research,” a grassroots organization of French researchers, called 1 Feb for researchers to protest Sarkozy’s assertions about French scientists not being productive, by inundating the Elysée president palace with mailed copies of their most recent articles to “improve his understanding of French scientific productivity.”

The beauty behind this act is that by law the French post must transport any letter mailed to the President for free! I hope Sarkozy reconsiders or at least gets some scientists to advise him soon! A few months ago I would have just shook my head and thought “another country has to suffer”… but I’d like to think it is a new day here in the USA.

Another thing to watch in that video – notice how he gives the speech. Someone who gave regular speeches like that would never get elected in the USA (“because the lights are on!?”)! Thanks to my friend Laurent who pointed me to the YouTube video and Nature blog entry.

The Societe General Trading Scandal October 19, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in France, life.

Given the current mess of the financial markets, I wonder if anyone remembers Societe General from much earlier this year? It is a big French bank, with branches open all over in France. It was all over Marseille, for example, where I was all of last year. Remember that rouge trader who opened up 50 billion euros of unauthorized trades (Jerome Kerviel)? Living there at the time I definitely do. It was very much the topic of conversation at the lunch table (and probably bars, had I understood French better).

I managed to sqeeze in reading the current issue of the New Yorker today. It has a fascinating article on exactly this – but it was more told from Jerome’s point of view. What I’d not appreciated was that while that 50 billion was a bet gone wrong, he’d had many positions that had gained him huge amounts of money. His first big bet – betting that the subprime problem would affect things more than US government officials and everyone else was claiming they would. He made that bet late 2007! Guy had some foresight!

The funny thing is that when I say “gained him huge amounts of money” I’m not really being correct. It was the bank that got the money. The only way he extracted stuff from his successes was through bonuses. And being a mid-level employee those weren’t very big. So there is a big mystery around what motivated him to do it. He had to go to extraordinary lengths in order to accomplish this – because of the way his job performance was monitored he basically had to cover all of his positions every single day – so it must have added a huge amount of stress to his life.

When the scandal first broke most people were amazed that any single trader could actually have done this without their supervisor’s knowledge. Sure enough, his supervisor was fired and later said “I am not qualified to run a trading desk. I can build complex financial instruments – but run a trading desk? No.” And given the number of interactions Jerome had with SG’s trading compliance staff over trades the computer flagged as suspicious…

The article is fascinating. If you have a chance, I’d definitely recommend reading it. He almost made the bank go under – one of the biggest in France – and yet he seems refreshingly innocent. Though, clearly he is not.

Baby Magazines are a Little Different in France May 27, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in France, life.
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IMG_2233Our nounou gets lots of baby magazines – occupational spam, I guess. She gives us an assortment. This one has a whole article on how to have sex when you are pregnant. With rather explicit cartoons (the least of the NSFW I uploaded here).

Excess April 29, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in France, life, travel.
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IMG_1557A few weeks ago my Dad visited me here in Marseille and we took a trip along the coast to Nice. We went the slow road – a long the coast – right a long the coast. At one point we got caught in the traffic jam that is St. Tropez. St. Tropez is a playground – made famous by Brigitte Bardot.

The harbor was packed with boats that were… well excessive. Most of them were large motor boats, but there were plenty of sailboats.

However — it was cool to see that it was a sailboat that took the “excess” grand slam gold metal title. That is the picture you see here. The thing is completely computer controlled too. In fair weather I wonder if you could sail it with one person? We also joked that it probably made sail “snapping” and luffing sounds so the captain could hear what was going on — being so far away from the actual sail!

And how deep does the keel go!?!?

I’ve got a few other excessive pictures, including a panorama that shows exactly how out of hand it was in that small port.

The French Medical System March 21, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in France.

IMG_1421Of the various sites in France, one I was hoping not to see was the French medical system. Sadly, over the last two weeks we’ve gotten to know it better than I would have liked.

First, we managed to give Julia something called nursemaid’s elbow. The solution is quick and instant and requires no drugs, but does need someone who knows what they are doing to snap everything back into shape. This required a trip to the local hospital. Quick and fairly efficient. Emergency room – we were in and out in about 2 hours and that included about 20 minutes face-to-face time with a doctor. The amazing thing about it: they never checked our ID’s. They took down all the information, but never verified that we were who we said we were! And we got the bill last week. Unlike the USA – they send only one bill. In the USA for an emergency room visit I remember getting three or more bills. Guess what the total was? About 34 euros! Even with the exchange rate as crappy as it is now I’m pretty sure it costs more than that to register at an emergency room in the USA!

The second one encounter has been worse. Paula’s mom managed to break her ankle while site seeing and then had an adverse reaction to one of the drugs she was given (“we see this twice a year!” – at least, we think that is the proper translation). Course of treatment? 8 days, in the hospital too. It gets worse – she is totally fine. You’d never guess she was sick. That is “worse” (well, not really) because she is totally bored out of her skull. The doctor has been so apologetic (“I know this isn’t why people come to France…”). We are all going over on Sunday to have a picnic at the hospital. 🙂

But check this out. Paula’s mom has Canadian insurance with a rider for foreign travel. When they were called and the problem was explained to them, they said – oh, give us the phone number of the hospital. We’ll take care of everything – even if you have to be flown back under medical care. Wow!

I’m not medical expert, obviously, but the care as been great as far as we can tell. But there is one difference. In the US – at least around Seattle – there is some stiff hospital competition. Perhaps one by-product of that is the millions of dollars that are spent on renovations. The interiors of the two hospitals I’ve been in in Seattle are like high end 4-star hotels. The hospitals here are like the insides of 1970 physics buildings: functional cinder block.

On the other hand, Paula’s mom, who likes good food, claims the food in the hospital is good!! So French! 🙂

Can’t Speak The Language: Marketing Calls! March 18, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in France, life.

I great way to get rid of marketing calls: “Sorry, I only barely speak French!” And then the next words out of their mouth are “Oh, I only speak French – can someone else contact you next time?”. The conversation is over in 30 seconds. I’m going to have to try it in French when I’m back in the USA!

Not in the USA! February 6, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in France, politics, Pop Culture.
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These two got married last Saturday morning. This would never happen in the USA – and if it did – the guy would never be taken seriously again. Or at least, he would be subject to a continuous swift-boating operation by the opposition.

The woman is Carla Bruni. The guy is Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarko is the current president of France. Under normal circumstances that isn’t the same as being the president of the USA: the prime minister of France does most of the day-to-day heavy lifting in the government. However, Sarko is a “go-to” guy. He is one of those “there is a problem. I’ll solve it right now.”

Along those lines, he got divorced in October. I suppose he had a problem. On Saturday morning, he fixed it. BTW, Carla looks almost identical to his former wife, Cecila, just about 10 or 15 years younger.

Can you imagine if this happened in the USA? Is this guy fit to run our country if he can’t keep his marriage intact? He got married so quickly – was there something going on behind Cecila’s back? How awful! Must impeach him now (I’ve not seen any hints in papers that that is the case – but that may have to do with my poor french…).

That isn’t to say that many French wonder about the swiftness of the romance and you can imagine the difficulty in protocol when a state visit occurs and you bring your girl friend along.

I wonder if a single guy could ever make it to the presidency of the USA in modern times? How about a widower?

Timing is Everything January 21, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in France, life, travel.


After spending a month in the States visiting family, working at Fermilab, attending conferences (well, my wife, at least), we will arrive back in France on the 24th.

What better way to re-integrate ourselves into France than to be at the wrong end of a strike! Yes, our timing is impeccable. The SNCF is on strike again in the continuing battle between Sarkosy, the French president, and workers over benefits, working hours, etc.

The last time I was returning from the Unexpected conference I also got caught. That wasn’t too bad — I did make it back in the end, just late. But I was on my own. This time it will be the two of us, a boat load of luggage and Julia. Wish us luck!