Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Ho Ho Home for the Holidays

Sullen Family Members: The Gift that
Keeps on Giving, All Year Long
It's two days until Christmas (J-1 as they say here in France).  Shortly, le Père Noel glissera dans la cheminée.  It's our second Christmas in Paris, and far, far from family back home.  

Read this morning on social media about a woman who has taken, over the past four years, to creating shall we say, "offbeat" holiday cards.  The back-story for "Bridget" - an apparently single woman approaching 30 - was dropped from her parents' annual Christmas cards, a decision that did not sit well with the woman:
Bridget is the youngest of five children. As her older siblings grew up and got married, they departed their parents annual cards and began sending out their own. Eventually, it was just Mom, Dad and Bridget. When Bridget's mom decided that it was awkward to have their one single adult child in their card, Bridget was left on her own. 
The cards feature photos of  "Bridget" in what (to me) appear to be increasingly sad, desperate poses.  Sitting at a table surrounded by cats, slumped over apparently drunk in a park, in a pool with the top half of a department store dummy.  And all surrounded either by empty cans of cheap beer, or swilling a full bottle of wine.  One features an expletive-laced holiday "wish" for her family.

The blog, Twitter, and Facebook-spheres are singing the praises of the hilarious, ironic, and brilliant response.

I'm not so sure.

If one reads the comments of "Bridget," she apparently was upset that, after all of her siblings got married one by one and had their own family cards, her parents decided it was a bit, well, awkward to have a Christmas card with them and their decidedly adult daughter.  This seems to have offended "Bridget."

I dunno - "Bridget" is younger than I am, but not a whole generation younger.  My own family never went in for posing in September at Sears to make family cards, but some friends' families did.  And they stopped featuring the kids when the "children" were in the early to middle teen years.  At the latest.  

Rather than finding it funny, I guess I find it a little creepy that a 30 year old woman thinks it appropriate to be in the Christmas card with "mom and dad" as if she were 8.  And she is also apparently angry at her siblings for having the audacity to grow up, move out, and get married.  (Really, what other explanation is there for lashing out at their "f*cking perfect families" and complaining that she was "kicked out" of the pictures?)

I don't think she's funny.  I don't think she's clever.  Or awesome,  Or brilliant.  All words used in the comments on various news aggregators carrying the story.

She's an entitled, petulant woman trapped in a bizarre Peter Pan fantasy of her own creation.

"Look at me!  I'm 30 and angry that my daddy won't let me be in his Christmas cards.  Oh, and I celebrate the holidays getting drunk in the woods on cheap, domestic beer." (I'm guessing: Rolling Rock).

I suspect she is not likely to challenge Dave Barry.

Thinking about it, how is a chick like this available?  Pushing 30, living at home, spoiled, petulant, needy, with serious "daddy" issues, and possibly budding alcoholism. She has "cat lady" written all over.

Any guy not rushing to sign up for that has mis-placed standards.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Le "Re-Gifting" Arrive en France

Christmas is coming in three days - hope you've got your shopping done.  Over the week-end, the stores here in Paris were jammed with people trying to make last-minute purchases, including on Sunday.  For anyone unfamiliar with the pace of life in France, this is highly unusual.  All but certain "essential" shops (e.g., restaurants, one pharmacy per quartier, the neighbourhood boulangerie - life in France without fresh-baked bread is not life) must close on Sundays, save for a handful of "ouvertures exceptionnelles".  

The final Sunday before Christmas is one of les exceptions. 

Reading today in the paper, another US tradition has landed here in France.  "Regifting," which is to say, the practice of taking a gift you don't really like, re-wrapping it, and then presenting it to someone else.  The practice became famous in the States thanks to the "Seinfeld" television programme, but it's now becoming quite the thing in Paris as well.

According to a recent sondage, nearly one third of respondents answered that they were so disappointed by a present received, the item was re-gifted.  And one in six were immediately re-sold on the internet.

The Anglicism "le re-gifting" was actually used, with a parenthetic explanation <<ils iront même jusqu'à les "offrir" à un proche.>> 

The article is quite helpful beyond the laugh.  Titled "Les Cadeaux A Ne Pas Faire" (The gifts not to give), advice is presented on the top "bad gifts," helpfully broken down for him and for her.

For the gentlemen, do not wrap for your wife/girlfriend 

  1. Les équipements de bricolage (tools and equipment for home repair) - cited by 23% of French women as terrible, unwanted gifts
  2. Les appareils électroménagers (small household electrics, like a vacuum cleaner) 15%
  3. Chaussettes (socks) 9%

And for the ladies, your husband/boyfriend does not want

  1. Chaussettes (13%)
  2. Cosmétiques (9%)
  3. Equipements pour la cuisine (kitchen appliances) 6%
It looks like there is some commonality in the battle of the sexes.  Neither women nor men wants socks as a present, and both do not appreciate items for the kitchen.  

I guess this latter explains why French people eat out in restaurants so frequently.

Bon Noel à tous!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Homer Simpson Turns 25

Yesterday (17 December) marked the 25th anniversary of the television show "The Simpsons," which debuted on the Fox network on 17.12.1989.

25 years is a long time.  It's about 60 per cent of my life thus far (I was home from college on my freshman-year Christmas break).  Of course, the actual Simpsons had premiered a couple of years earlier as a short on "The Tracy Ulman Show," but the yellow family of five got their permanent spot a bit later.

I'm a big fan of the show, and I am not the least bit embarrassed to admit that virtually every day, I use a quote, a metaphor, or an allusion to it.

Longevity is one of the big advantages to having an animated cast - Bart Simpson was 10 in 1989, he remains 10, even if the gap between his age and that of the woman (!) who voices his character grows wider each year.

To put things into perspective, the top rated shows of the 1989-1990 season included "The Cosby Show," "Roseanne," "Cheers," "The Golden Girls."  and "The Wonder Years."  The last of these was a drama set in 1968 about a young teen, played by Fred Savage.  I later had Savage as a college student in one of the sections I led as graduate student at Stanford.  Savage is on the edge of middle-age now, the love interest of the show was portrayed by Danica McKellar who for a while became a mathematician and has a proof named for her.

The era portrayed in "The Wonder Years" was only 20 years prior to when the show itself was on the air - five years less than the gap between the launch of "The Simpsons" and today.

Put another way, if one were to look at the shows that were in the top ratings 25 years before Homer and his family appeared - 1964 - they include "Bonanza," "Gomer Pyle, USMC," "The Andy Griffith Show," and "The Red Skelton Hour."

In the arc of history, the Simpsons contains jokes about George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama.  There are references to Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Lollapalooza, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift.  In my own life, it's been on for college, graduate school, my first real job, my marriage, the birth of my first son, moves from California to New Jersey to Paris, and my own son becoming old enough to tune in to watch.

Time magazine in 2000 voted "The Simpsons" as the best show of the millenium.

Call Mr Plow, that's my name.  That name again is Mr Plow.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Lecture... Aléatoire

Is This Trip Really Necessary?

It's been a crazy couple of days, and I've a lot on my mind, so....now for something completely different (and un-focused).  

Imprimus Number One:  Ugly Sweater Day in the US

The local Vingt Minutes reported yesterday that Friday was "La journée du pull Noel moche " (the day of ugly Christmas sweaters) back home in the U.S.  I've been gone from the States for a couple of years, but this "holiday" was not celebrated during my four decades of life there.  I remember getting more than one ugly sweater for a Christmas/birthday present, but never coming to work with one on in the hopes of capturing a prize.  Is this a potential rival for "Festivus?"

Nothing Says "Merry Christmas" Better than
a Santa-Hat-WearingDinosaur

Imprimus Number Two:  Fun with Politically-Charged Language

Read in the Direct Matin this morning that General Mills has declared a truce in the war with France.  Yes; a spokesman for the General indicated that, starting January 1st, the detente between his soldiers and an imagined French enemy will allow the return to US shores of "French Toast Crunch" cereal.  Apparently, French Toast Crunch was introduced in 1995, but later became "Cinnamon Toast Crunch" in 2006 because the French government did not support the US war in Iraq.  Whether this cease fire also applies to the Navy remains unknown, as Captain Crunch could not be reached for comment.

Imprimus Number Three:  Australians Have Crabs.  Lots of Them

Setting to the side the truly terrible news coming from down under, and in keeping with the spirit of the season, today and tomorrow, beaches in Australia's Christmas Island will be teeming with small, red crabs.  The little, land-dwelling crustaceans once a year flock to the sea to cast their eggs into the surf.  They are a bit late this year, as apparently, the heat and unusually strong drought conditions in the area have kept the crabs waiting.  According to an article in the English journal Nature, the crabs are incredibly sensitive to weather conditions, and will only come to lay their eggs if more than 22 mm of rain have fallen.  Thanks to new El Nino conditions, the time has come.  My son has a set of BBC videos called "Blue Planet" in which this incredible visual drama is played out.  

Imprimus Number Four:  "Living Privilege"

Anyone following the bellum omnia contra heteronormative, cisgendered, white male privileged should avert his eyes from Jezebel for an hour and tune into the second season of the English television programme "In the Flesh."  Here in France, it was announced that the local cable network OCS+ will pick up the show, which focuses on the struggles of the living-challenged for equality and inclusion in a biased, oppressive society of living privilege.  I am a fan of the zombie genre (living in Paris and being cut off from "The Walking Dead" is one thing I really, truly miss about the States), but I am not sure.  It's a novel idea, the potential social struggles of the undead.  But I fear this may be just another potential disaffected group for the Democratic party to try to cobble into its wobbly coalition of the aggrieved.  

And besides, the dead already vote in huge numbers for the Democrats.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Steering AWAY from a False Equivalency

The Popular Press Get the Wrong End of the Stick.

When I think of Australia, my age and space belie me.  Huge cans of Foster's beer.  Crocodile Dundee.  Dingoes eating babies.  Terrible Outback Steakhouse adverts.  

Yes; I know that that last one is not really Australian.

Today, the news out of Sydney is horrible.  An Iranian refugee, admitted to Australia in 1996 seeking asylum, took multiple hostages in a crowded Lindt cafe, holding them captive for several hours before finally killing two of them and himself being killed when police raided the store.

All this, a week before Christmas.

Australia, like many western countries, is currently doing a great deal of soul-searching about just how many and what sort of refugees to grant asylum to.  I live in France, and the EU is similarly beseiged by asylum-seekers.  Thousands are currently in a camp in Pas-de-Calais in the north of France; they don't want to stay in France, preferring the far more generous welfare benefits afforded in the United Kingdom, just a few dozen kilometres to the north.  The UK is not a full signatory to the Schengen agreement, and thus the refugees are not entitled to free entry from continental Europe.

The bloodshed is tragic here - two people are dead, after all, plus the terrorist himself.  The killer, a self-styled "cleric" and "sheikh" was named Man Haron Monis, and according to reports, was well-known to Australian police for a series of offences, including accusations of accessory to murder, sexual assault, and of sending malicious and threatening letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

In short, he's not exactly a sympathetic figure.

But aside from the feelings of disgust I feel about the senseless loss of life, I am truly puzzled by the reaction I am seeing in various quarters, including social media and the New York Times.  To wit, there is a significant set of stories about the "right reaction to terrorism" being displayed by Australia's citizenry.  The "IWillRideWithYou" hymnal.

According to news reports, during the stand-off, trending news lionised an apocryphal incident that took place on a Sydney public bus, wherein, an apparently Islamic woman, apparently out of fear of a backlash, removed her hijab - the scarf many Moslem women wear for religious purposes of modesty to cover their hair.  A fellow traveller assured the woman that she should replace her scarf, promising to ride along and protect her.

The indicent quickly became a meme, popularised in part by a professional writer and semi-professional activist called Tessa Kum. Kum blogs and 'tweets' frequently about the evils of the world - typically men, and specifically, white men.  White men are guilty of sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and a host of other modern sins.  

A quick look through her blog finds not a single mention of mention of the crimes committed by Islamic fundamentalists, let alone a condemnation.  I might have missed them, as she is quite prolific in churning out 10,000 word screeds.

Now, I stiuplate that all of the above - racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia - are all bad things.  They are to be condemned.  Blaming Moslems en masse for the horrific actions of an evil man is wrong.  Women on buses should not be the targets of threats or intimidation because of a terrorist act by someone whom they share no connection other than being co-religionists.  And it's great that non-Moslem Australians are willing to stand up for "the other."

But in this instance, are people like Kum not taking the wrong end of the stick?

Thus far, I have not seen a single report of a Moslem or a person of middle eastern origin who has been the victim of violence following this attack.  I've seen no news stories about a refugee beaten or a mosque burned.

The victims in Sydney are not Moslems.

They are two people named Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson.  They were not insulted or ridiculed in tweets (the apparent crime claimed by Kum and others).  They were shot and killed.  By Man Haron Monis.

They won't be harrassed by tweets, or badgered on Sydney buses.  They won't be coming home at all.

The victims are the dozens of people who were terrorised for hours by a gunman, welcomed to Australia as an asylum seeker.  They include a couple of pregnant women.  They include a Sydney policeman, hit in the face with shotgun pellets.

The REAL Victims in Sydney.
Will You "Ride with Them?"

The story in Sydney is not about the possibility of a "backlash" - whether real or imagined.  It is about the killing of two people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The western world has truly lost its mind when the prime fear becomes whether a particular group will be the victim of some mean tweets or social media posts.

Blogger Mark Steyn hit the nail squarely on the head in writing:
Sorry, but that doesn’t “restore my faith in humanity”. In fact, it makes me think humanity, or at any rate civilization, is doomed. The mythical “backlash” against Muslims is such a dreary staple of these stories that I might as well just rerun my shtick from a dozen or so backlashes back:
Stage Four: The backlash that never happens. Because apparently the really bad thing about actual dead Jews is that it might lead to dead non-Jews: “French Muslims Fear Backlash After Shooting.” Likewise, after Major Hasan’s mountain of dead infidels, “Shooting Raises Fears For Muslims In US Army.” Likewise, after the London Tube slaughter, “British Muslims Fear Repercussions After Tomorrow’s Train Bombing.” Oh, no, wait, that’s a parody, though it’s hard to tell.
Indeed. Usually the Muslims-fear-backlash crowd at least waits till the terrorist atrocity is over. In this case the desiccated multiculti saps launched the #I’llRideWithYou campaign even as the siege was still ongoing – while Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson were still alive. Muslims are not the victims here. Ms Dawson and Mr Johnson are the victims. And yet the urge to usher Muslims into the victim chair and massage their tender sensibilities is now so reflexive the narcissists on Twitter don’t even have the good taste to wait till the siege is over and the corpse count is known. Far from a restoration of faith in humanity, it’s a glimpse of how advanced the sickness is.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is asking the the question polite people dare not ask:  WHY WAS THIS GUY NOT ON ANY OF THE APPROPRIATE LISTS:
How can someone who has had such a long and chequered history not be on the appropriate watch lists and how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community?

I would add, "why was he still in Australia to begin with?"

At some point, the people who lead our nations need to stop asking what is "good and fair" for refugees and others seeking to enter, and start asking what is right and fair for those already here.

There are many who believe that what will be remembered from Sydney will be #IWillRideWithYou as a reaction to an imagined backlash.

I hope it will be about two innocent people who were killed in part because our leaders forgot that their primary responsibility is to serve and protect their people from killers like this.

I hope we will remember Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson, not Tessa Kum.

Monday, 15 December 2014

A Numerate Nation

God Doesn't Bother with Closed-Form Calculus;
He Integrates Empirically.
It's been a quite busy autumn here in Paris; several business trips and other activities have more or less eaten up the calendar.  Work has a tendancy to become a real inconvenience

I just noticed that I'm seriously behind in my writing.  Perhaps even negligently derelict.  My last post was exactly two months ago, and about the baseball World Series (won by the San Francisco Giants, as it were).

Apologies for that.

Anyhow, on the way in to work, the local newspaper this week celebrated the official adoption in December, 1799 of the metric system by the revolutionary French regime.  Prior to the radical overthrow of the ancien régime, the French system of weights and measures was a mish-mash of units not unlike those of the United Kingdom, and familar today to Americans.  With the overthrow of the Bourban monarchy, of course, units like the livre du roi had to go.

The introduction was not a great success, and just 12 short years later, Napoleon Bonaparte instituted his own system which was something of a hybrid.

How Much Is that in Inches?

One of the great things I find of living in France is that education strongly focuses on mathematics, and there is a real appreciation.  Numbers have real significance, and history is rife with records, measurements, and figures.  

This is not surprising, given the huge role that the French have played over the centuries in mathematics.  Names familiar to anyone who has studied algebra, or calculus, or real analysis include Cauchy, La Place, La Grange, L'Hopital, and Galois.  No student of probability and statistics is unaware of Buffon's needle.  Fourier, Poincaré Pascal are giants.  And of course, Renee Descartes, also claimed by philosophy.

Back when I was a grad student, Stanford had only recently done away with the requirement that PhD students demonstrate a reading knowledge of French.  Many of the seminal texts, especially in set and number theory, are in French.

The metric system itself was, oddly enough, created by an Englishman.  

It was not entirely a success, as the Jacobins also hoped to extend the concept of decimilisation from length, weight, and temperature to time.  The concept of the metric day - 10 decimal hours, each comprising 100 decimal minutes of 100 decimal seconds - was introduced.  The effect was that a decimal 'hour' was equivalent to two customary hours, plus 24 customary minutes.  Moreover, the traditional 12 months were replaced (the Jacobins were none to happy with the Church, and thus the Gregorian calendar was out as well) with revolution-inspired names, and each had 30 days.

The problems of such a system are obvious, and it was abandoned rather quickly.  At one point, the Palais des Tuileries had clocks displaying time in both the traditional and metric systems.  It, too, has disappeared, destroyed by fire in the middle 19th century.

French Decimal Clock with Traditional Hours for "Conversion"

Napoleon came to power shortly after, and these experiments were largely abandoned.  But the metric system has lived on, and spread.  To virtually every country on earth, save for the US.