Tuesday, 17 December 2013

"C'est Le Retour du Roi" (Return of the King?)

The King is Back in Paris
After 16 years, the King has been restored in Paris.  No; not the Bourbons.  THE King.  The Burger King. In a headline story this morning in one of our local papers, it is being reported that the fast food chain has opened a new restaurant in the Gare Saint-Lazere Monday.  Burger King closed all of its French outlets in 1997 due to poor sales, but has in the past couple of years, returned in places such as the airport in Marseille, and most recently, an "aire" (rest stop) on the autoroute near Reims.

Well, the King has now come back to the capital.

Data provided by the local franchiser indicate that there has been an "explosion" or burger sales, with the average French person consuming 14 fast-food burgers in 2012.  No word on whether that "explosion" has been followed by others...

It must be tough being Burger King, however.  The article explains that the top offering for BK is its "le fameux 'Whopper'" - described as l'equivalent du Big Mac.

Defined, literally, by the competition.

The somewhat creepy "King" has been updated for the more sophisticated, Romantic French palate.  A sample of the made-over King is shown below.

The Burger King, Adapted to French Sensibilities
No word yet from authorities on whether it's merely a coincidence that the return of Burger King matched the recently revealed scandal of improper horse meat being introduced into the French food chain.

Details are still evolving.

Bowls, Bowls Everywhere

We've reached (and passed) the Ides of December.  Christmas is just a bit more than a week away, and right upon its heels, the new year.  That can only mean, of course, that the college football "bowl season" is upon us.

I'm not any sort of football fan, and did not really watch any of the games when I lived in the US, so I reckon that there is close to zero probability that I will watch any of them now that I live in France.  Nevertheless, looking this morning at ESPN's web site, I was amazed by just how many of these bowls there are.

For example, there is now a "Pinstripe Bowl," to be played of course, in the front lobby of one of New York's white shoe law firms.  No; that's not true.  I think it is played in Yankee Stadium.  The game features Rutgers (a team that had a 6-6 record in a mediocre conference) and Notre Dame.  Not sure how the Irish fell to this level.

There is a "San Diego Credit Union" bowl - I guess it survived the subprime crash, unfortunately. Two traditional powers - Utah State and Northern Illinois - face off in that one.  An attempt by the Franklin-American Mortgage Bowl to cut it into tranches and sell as AAA+ debt instruments failed, apparently.  Maybe because the Heart of Dallas Bowl Presented by PlainsCapital Bank funding was not approved?

Two perfectly named bowls - the "Northrup-Grumman Military Bowl" and the "Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl" - will occur at year's end.  Real truth in packaging.  I wonder if there will be a trunk sale in the parking lots, featuring nervous, sweaty guys wearing Ray-Bans selling "merchandise" out of the back of nondescript, Ford econoline vans?

My personal favourite, though, is the "Fight Hunger Bowl," which is to be played in San Francisco.  I suggest that there exist natural synergies here - why not merge the Fight Hunger Bowl with the Beef O'Brady's Bowl?  Perhaps the whole thing could be supplemented by the "Famous Idaho Potato Bowl?"

And of course, waiting in the wings are the Chic Fil A Bowl, the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (my wife would love that one), the Outback Bowl, and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Crystal Ship

Odd news story of the day - a councilor here in Paris has sent a recommendation up to the city council to nominate a street in ville de lumière after the late Doors front-man, Jim Morrison.  Morrison's life ended famously in Paris's Marais district nearly a half-century ago.

Jerome Dubus, representing the gentrifying 17th Arrondisement proclaimed "c’est étonnant...qu’aucun lieu dans la capitale ne porte encore le nom Morrison, étant donné son lien particulier avec Paris" (astonished that there is no place in Paris carrying Morrison's name, which has such a particular tie with the city.)

Strangest of all, Dubus is a member of the UMP, the conservative party of France.  One does not typically associate Jim Morrison, or the Doors, or rock music, for that matter, with the political right.  In 2012, his party nominated him to be the national party lead for economic growth and freedoms.

I guess the Doors did sell a lot of records.

The socialist mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe responded that the the idea is a good one, via his cultural spokesman Bruno Julliard.  Some of his socialist peers are less enthused, sniffing that streets and other public places take a long time, and perhaps Morrison's name would be better associated with a building - a music conservatory, perhaps.

So a battle may be shaping up, where the conservative party is pushing to name a street after Jim Morrison, against a left-wing opposition.  Morrison's father was an Admiral in the US Navy, of course.  Hmm.

Morrison died in July 1971, and is buried in the famous cimetière du Père-Lachaise.   

Friday, 13 December 2013

Les Villes en Equation: The World According to Zipf

Read a short article this morning in the RER on the way to work (aside: yesterday there was a rail strike here in France, affecting hundreds of thousands if travellers.  The timing could hardly be worse, as residents here in Ile de France are being asked to take measures to curb emissions in an effort to reduce a string of days of pollution deemed "Très élevé"; the strike forced many to take to their cars) which touched upon several of my own peculiar curiosities.  Mathematics, language, and geography.

There is a not terribly widely known model paradigm known as Zipf's law, named for a mid-20th century linguist, in which elements of a finite or countably infinite set  can be rank-ordered, with the frequencies inversely proportional to the item's rank.

Put simply, the first item in the list will appear with a frequency that is twice that of the second; the third most common will appear approximately 1/3 as frequently, etc.

In mathematical terms, this is written as:

f(k;s,N)=\frac{1/k^s}{\sum_{n=1}^N (1/n^s)}.

where N is the total number of elements in the set; k is the rank of the item in the set (1...N), and s is the power parameter for the series.

George Zipf, for whom the distribution (and law) is named observed that, empirically in language, the most frequently used word will appear approximately twice as often as the second, three times as frequently as the third, etc.  Zipf applied his thinking to the famous Brown corpus of English from a study of American texts conducted by Brown University, and discovered that the most common word in the texts ('the') appeared about 70,000 times in American literature surveyed.  The second most common ("of") appeared about 36,000 times; the third ("and") was used in 28,000 cases.  1.00, 0.51, 0.40.  Not a perfect fit, but close.

In the article, it is pointed out that, ranking the most populous US cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia) one sees an approximately Zipf-ian distribution.

The populations (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) are

8.4MM, 3.9MM, 2.7MM, 2.2MM, 1.5MM

The ratios:

1.00, 0.46, 0.32, 0.25, 0.18

Very close to 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, and 1/5.

Since Zipf also studied the patterns of use of Chinese, I thought it might be interesting to examine if Zipf's law applies in that giant country.

According to the CIA Fact Book, the most populous cities in China are Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.

Populations:  22MM, 19MM, 11MM, 11MM, 10MM.

The distribution here seems to fail, with three observations.  First, Chinese census data define 'cities' somewhat differently, tracking "built-up areas," "urban areas," etc., so comparisons may be a bit off.  Second, whilst I knew that China had some big cities (the country is more than a billion and a half people), these are massive cities.  New York would be about eighth.  China has cities that would be the third largest state in the US.  Third, I am shocked to see Shenzhen as the fifth largest city in China.  I visited Shenzhen in 1989, and there was not much there besides a few glass apartments that catered to business travelers who came and went from Hongkong, just across the Shumchun river.  It has added I would suspect nine million residents in 25 years.

All in all, not Moore's law, but still quite something.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Le "Selfie" de la Discorde

La chef du gouvernement danois propose à Barack Obama et à David Cameron, qui vient de les rejoindre, de poser ensemble sur une même photo. Le président américain l'aide à maintenir son téléphone portable.
Hey - Don't Forget to Tag Me
Revenu à sa place, Barack Obama échange quelques plaisanteries avec la premier ministre danoise. Le visage sombre de Michelle Obama sur cette photo a suscité de nombreux commentaires de la presse people. ««Elle n'était ni figée, ni contrariée, assure un photographe de l'AFP qui assistait à la scène. Cet air sérieux n'est que le pur fruit du hasard».
Don't Make Me Separate You Two

The tech age is truly a thing of beauty.  Smart phones.  The internet (thanks Al Gore).  The 24-hours news cycle.   All of this is no doubt a boon to guys like Jay Leno - if not to say Jon Stewart.

Still, who could resist the recent furore over the "selfie" snapped by US President Barack Obama.

The president was in Soweto in South Africa to attend the homage to the late South African President and anti-apartheid warrior Nelson Mandela.

President Obama has come under somewhat mild fire for his less than reverent behaviour, including not a small amount of speculation as to the fallout it may have had on his wife Michelle.  Michelle has at times been described in less than flattering terms in the soft press, including a book released about this same time last year.  A sort of political Upstairs Downstairs in which the First Lady was portrayed as somewhat controlling, petty, and jealous.

Here in France, the whole thing is being described in the press as "Le Selfie de la Discorde."  One need not be a French scholar to reckon out the meaning.  In one article, the president's insouciant behaviour is compared to "le regard renfrogné de sa femme." (The sullen look of his wife).  

To me, the most interesting thing of the whole affair is the French adoption of the term "selfie."  Unlike English, French nouns are masculin or féminin. Anyone who struggled through school-boy French remembers the tribulations of sorting the two.  Who hasn't written an essay, pausing to recall if it's les liaisons dangereux  or les liaisons dangereuses?

For certain neologisms, like "selfie," there actually is an Académie française, established centuries ago by Cardinal Richelieu, whose job it is to rule whether the new word is to be (m) or (f).  

In this case, "le selfie" is the ruling.  

Not sure how "twerk" has come down, though.  

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Microsoft: A Rose by any Other Name

Ah, yes.  What would modern life be without Microsoft and its wonderful products?  Nothing says innovation, or smooth transition, or well-conceived features like the software behemoth of suburban Seattle.

Well, not quite.

Stories of glitch-filled "upgrades" are by now legend.  In my opinion, the "Windows" operating platform probably reached its peak 15 years or so ago with Win NT.  It was somewhat Spartan, with limited time-saving "short-cuts" or cute, useless features such as an animated dog to help you find topics.

But it was relatively bug-free and, for its time, fast.  By contrast, MS Word had its high-water mark round about 1989.

I'm convinced that with each release, Microsoft's products become a little bit worse in every way.  Features we liked are removed.  Options that we could fine-tune are now gone, replaced by "Wizards" that don't quite do what we really need.  Menu-driven actions are replaced with impenetrable icons that one must be an Egyptologist to reckon out.

Yesterday, my company more or less pushed me to "upgrade" my office computer to Windows 2010 (I know; it's three-years obsolescent technology if labelling is to be believed.)  I had resisted previous changes, but this time, the warning was somewhat stern.

So, I held my nose, clicked all the various "I read and acknowledge" ass-covering tick boxes, and followed the instructions.

Guess what happened next?

The GUI is, as predicted, unrecognisable, and of course, terrible.  MS, God bless them, wiped several programmes I like (Google Chrome - gone and replaced by the hideous "Internet Explorer.")  It's fairly easy to undo this dubious mischief.

But then, this AM, I opened my Outlook mail, and.... my entire archive of read mail...gone.  Approximately five years of correspondences, idiotically erased.  A bit of research quickly detected the cause.  When migrating read mail from the server to my local computer (a necessary task, as server space is restricted), the mails (and attachments) are placed into a .PST file for storage.

The geniuses at Microsoft - for no apparent reason - have with the newer release changed the hierarchy.  Previously, the user .PST file was stored in the C:\Documents and Settings\USERID folder.

With the new release, this critical file is now placed in a folder called C:\Users\USERID\App Data folder.

The critical problem is the root directory - one is C:\Documents and Settings, and one is C:\Users.

When the new version of Windows installed itself, it simply removed the prior structure root and branch.  Thus, all user-specified data for Outlook is gone.  Sig file.  Mail archive.  Contacts.


For no reason whatsoever.


I now face the task of trying to recover from this criminal stupidity.

Thanks, guys.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Les Casques Bleus et Verts

Les présidents français et malien, François Hollande et Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, le 1er octobre 2013 à l'Elysée (AFP, Eric Feferberg)
Francois Hollande Meets with Mali's
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita

As the French government debate and wring their hands about what to do in sub-Saharan Africa - the appalling killing in the Central African Republic, the civil war in Mali, the destabilisation of the Ivory Coast - the cynic in me got to see the foolishness of the UN in full bloom.

As fate would have it, this weekend leaders of the various countries of the region came to France for the august-named "Sommet de l'Eysée pour La Paix et  la Sécurité en Afrique" (Summit for Peace and Security in Africa) to discuss peace, development, climate issues (!!!), and the like.  The timing coincided with plans to deal with the emerging human horrors.

I live in Paris on the same block as both the Palais de l'Elysée and the ultra-luxe Hotel le Bristol.  For good measure, the UK, US, and Japanese embassies sit a bit further down the street, and just beyond, Hermes and Cartier boutiques.  Le Bristol hosted several potentates and presidents of these nations.

As I was heading off Saturday to pick up our Christmas tree, a motorcade of vehicles was idling outside the hotel, surrounded by police in vans, cars, and on motorcycles.  Each of the various large, black sedans had a sticker indicating whom it awaited.  Among the nations, Tchad (Chad), Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and Togo.  Not fewer than three vehicles for each idled in the street.

Aside from the obvious irony about a summit dealing with 'climate change' being facilitated with a motor pool of heavy, polluting cars which sat for at least twenty or thirty minutes idling, waiting to drive the attendees not 500 metres down the street (the walk from Le Bristol to the Palais de l'Elysée is not more than five minutes), I was struck by just the surreal, grotesque dissonance before me.

A room at the Hotel le Bristol is not less than $1000 per night.  Rooms can easily top $5000 per night.

Each of these nations - Togo, Ivory Coast, and Chad - commanded multiple rooms, I suspect.

The per capita, PPP-adjusted GDP per capita of the three nations is $1900, $1000, and $1600 respectively.

So, each of these individuals spent the equivalent of an entire year's wealth for one of his population for a single night's accommodation.

In a nut-shell, this is my largest complaint about the current state of "diplomacy."  It's manifestly ridiculous - perhaps offensive - that allegedly democratic institutions (the president of Mali pictured above was ostensibly elected to power in his nation) lavish truly wasteful luxury on their leaders in such a manner.  In the US, as the government has repeatedly teetered at the brink of bankruptcy, it's now become famous the travels of the president for his personal vacations as well as for "official" business.

The French revolution was in no small part precipitated because the common man desires leaders, not rulers.  We are citizens and not subjects.

Les Casques Bleus

Living in a foreign land (in this case, France) can provide one a glimpse into the way others see the world and the events occurring in it.  For example, over the summer, as the US President painted himself into a corner in an ill-advised stance on red lines and Syria, it was to say the least ironic as the one ally Mr Obama found among the Western powers was the erstwhile socialist president of France, Francois Hollande.  The French people were somewhat less enthusiastic about the affair - there was a series of "manifestations" and rebukes to M Hollande, and ultimately, when a back-door was discovered, the two were able to escape any serious damage - either real or political.  At least for the time being.

Fast forward to December, and the events that are unfolding in the Central African Republic.  Apparently, much like Rwanda a couple of decades ago, militias are committing atrocities - killing civilians, chopping off limbs, emptying villages.

The French government has decided to send 1600 or so soldiers to the region - these are countries that in the past were French-controlled, so there is a bit of guilt mixed with some nostalgia, I suppose - to help to end the violence.  The opposition is lining up, with questions about "n'est-elle plus qu'une simple compagnie de CRS de l'Oncle Sam?" (is this more than a simple clean up job for Uncle Sam?) and implications that the whole thing is a "blanc-seing de l'ONU" (UN whitewashing)

For once, it's someone besides the US playing world cop.