France in a time of unrest

Palais de Justice, Rouen

We’ve been in France for about a week on a long-delayed trip. We’ve seen a lot of things (my Flickr album is a pretty good way to follow along). And we’ve arrived at an interesting time.

I’ve been asked a few times how we’re doing in France with the ongoing rioting over the death of Nahel M, a teenager of Algerian-Moroccan descent who was shot and killed by French police during a traffic stop on Tuesday night. (See the New York Times for details.)

The short answer until last night was: we are mostly insulated, thanks to distance from the riot locations (which in Paris were mostly in the suburb where he was shot, and in other cities have tended to be closer to official buildings than the places we’ve stayed). That distance is mostly a gift of privilege: we are tourists who can afford to stay in tourist places.

Last night coming home from dinner we saw Black and Brown teenagers running a few blocks from where we were, and then saw a few white teenagers run past us and up our street. At night we heard voices and at one point some breaking glass—but more like a bottle than a window. Unsettling, but not endangering.

I don’t understand French society well enough to know what I think about what’s happening here, but I’m profoundly saddened by the violence and the polarization, and by the abrupt ending to a human life. And, not going to lie, Bono’s infamous line from “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you” has been going through my head. One of the most uncomfortable and confrontational lines in pop music, it kind of encapsulates privilege and the insulating power that it has in times like these.

But we’re ok. In a way that few here can afford to be.

The mystery of the giant Florentine skeleton, solved

When we traveled in Italy this summer, I was struck by a weird artifact in Apple Maps while we were planning a stroll around Florence one morning. It looked like a giant skeleton. I tweeted about it and then forgot about it:

Well, it turns out that it was, in fact, a Thing. And Apple was lucky enough to catch it in their 3D model.

The 2017 ‘Ytalia’ Art Exhibition at the Forte di Belvedere included a massive sculpture called “Calamita Cosmica” by the artist Gino di Dominicis. There were a couple of good contemporary writeups and other photos by bloggers including Aidan Doyle and Sue Jane.

Amazingly, it looks like the skeleton artwork is quite old; Dominicis passed away back in 1998, but his art is still touring the globe.

Battery Park Book Exchange

Lisa and I got a rare night without the kids last night. We made the most of it, with dinner at Cúrate, but not before stopping into the Battery Park Book Exchange for a “best of both worlds” visit: Lisa got a glass of champagne and a board with cheese and bread, and I got to explore and find books.

My finds: Everyone but Thee and Me, an Ogden Nash collection still in its original jacket (albeit in third printing); Walter M. Merrill’s biography of William Lloyd Garrison, Against Wind and Tide; and Tidewater Tales, which I had passed up before and am still a little hesitant about. I’ll guess that ultimately the stories about original Virginia family settlements will outnumber the ones that are irrevocably tainted with the original sin of race and slavery, but I will probably be wrong.


I love my Bluetooth headset—a Bowers and Wilkins P5, comfortable over the ears and great sound without “noise canceling” trickery—but I sure wish I’d remember to charge it before climbing into an airplane.

Fortunately JetBlue has under the seat power. So I’m sitting at 38,000 feet, about ninety minutes to Las Vegas, listening to Delvon Lamarr and Daniel Bachman and wondering, why can’t I sleep after getting up at 3:30 this morning for a 6am flight? And answering, probably the two cups of coffee I’ve had before and after boarding.

Flights are productive for me. Not work necessarily; this flight is loaded with staff from every security company in the Boston area, so it’s not the time I want to work on a roadmap deck. But it’s a great time to write. Another eight pages competed before my brain switched off. JetBlue is also winning at inflight Wi-Fi today. All sorts of wireless in this future world of ours. Except, of course, the USB cable running from headphones to the power brick that’s plugged in under my left knee.

Driving past Arrowhead

I’ve sometimes posted (in the past thirteen years or so of this blog) about my experiences wandering around the Berkshires while out at Tanglewood—the Hancock Shaker Village, Lenox—though during my blog dark period there were several escapades (to Naumkeag and The Mount) that went unrecorded. But what I didn’t appreciate, even after coming out here for so many years, was the degree to which you can literally stumble over fascinating corners everywhere you go out here.

Last night, for instance: I took a shortcut to dinner that led through clusters of houses separated by trees and fields. Looking up, I saw a big sign on the left: “Herman Melville’s Arrowhead.” I’m going to have to find the time to go by and get a tour of the place where Moby-Dick was completed.

King’s Weigh House

During our vacation week in London, we walked by the church above probably half a dozen times. I was struck by the structure—the polychrome, the oval chapel—and by the odd coincidence of the church’s presence on Binney Street, which was the address of our first apartment when we moved to Cambridge, Mass.

I finally got around to looking up the church, intrigued by its odd name. The King’s Weigh House church was indeed built over the site of the King’s weigh house, but that was in Little Eastcheap rather than its current Mayfair site. (The original site first held St. Andrew Hubbard church, which was destroyed by the Great Fire of London, then replaced by a weigh house that became a chapel for dissenters in 1695 before moving up the street.)

The congregation was forced to move when the Metropolitan Railway purchased the land on Eastcheap, but the Duke of Westminster donated the current site. The new building was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect responsible for the London Natural History Museum, a handful of buildings at Oxford, and, amusingly, Strangeways Prison.

Oh, and Binney Street? Turns out it’s named for English Congregationalist preacher Thomas Binney, explaining its reuse for a street in Congregationalist Cambridge. (Oh, and our apartment in the complex formerly called Worthington Place turns out to have been in a National Historic District!)

Lights back on

I had a busy summer. It’s been quite a while since there’s been a month with no posts on the blog, but alas, here we are.

What was happening? Well, we went to Asheville after school let out and took the kids to the Biltmore Estate, as well as teaching The Girl how to drive a Gator. (That’s the kids with a haybale on my uncle’s field.)

I went to Tanglewood and sang Mahler’s 2nd Symphony for my third time with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, this time under the baton of BSO conductor Andris Nelsons. (It was cool.) I also got to watch a performance of music by Schubert in Ozawa Hall with Emanuel Ax and Peter Serkin accompanying the Tanglewood voice fellows, on a perfect moonlit night.

I took The Girl to hear Chris Colfer read from his latest YA novel.

I made my annual Vegas trip to attend Black Hat, where in addition to all the normal conference stuff I finally visited the Neon Museum, one late night when it was still 95° outside.

I also got to see infosec luminary Jack Daniel memorialized as a tiki god. (Really.)

We took the kids on a ferry ride to Spectacle Island, where they got to see Boston from the harbor…

And we finished the summer with a family trip to Williamsburg, where the kids got to see another side of Colonial American history.

There were many other things that happened, of course, but I’m not ready to talk about Charlottesville just yet.

How Americans implement a class system

After years of flying for work, I have to things that I’ve never had before: pre-check clearance and status on an airline. That means I’m suddenly on the other side of a divide that casual travelers see, but often don’t understand. 

What do these things get you? Not much individually in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but put them together and you get:

  • To go through security without having to undress, or unpack, or wait in line behind someone who has no idea how it all works and takes three times as long, and therefore:
  • To clear security feeling civilized and without sweating through one’s shirt
  • To have a lottery ticket that gives you a shot at a seat in first class
  • To board early and therefore never have to worry if there’ll be room for your bag

That’s a whole different travel experience. And yet I’m conscious that it’s more like flying twenty years ago than anything else (though of course we ran out of overhead storage then too).

But it casts the annoyances of travel in a new light. The security theater is clearly not optional, unless you trade your money and privacy to avoid it. (The questionnaire for Global Entry isn’t arduous, but it gives the government a lot more information about your travel than it would otherwise have.) And the undignified conditions of flying in coach are unavoidable, unless you grit your teeth and stick with a terrible carrier long enough to earn your way past some of them. 

You don’t have to be born to class in America. You just have to trade a tiny amount of your birthright of freedom and choice to acquire it. 

Traveling, day whatever it is

Early in a trip, when I’m traveling away from home, the sleep madness awakens me early and I’m madly productive and I think grand thoughts. 

The best thing that happened today, after delivering my talk, was this lunch:

From left to right, that’s olives and fava beans, a lovely Tempranillo, bread, fried fish, and fried eggplant sticks. Not pictured: anchovy concoction that I gobbled down. 

After that, I got to talk UX with the understatedly funny Victoria from Seoul, and then: 

  • Taxi to airport
  • Mercifully brief flight
  • Almost as long train ride
  • Two Underground trains
  • Ten minute walk to my hotel

I’ve decided that my chief error was in not sleeping well last night. At the moment I feel ready to sleep for a week, but I have to be up in three hours to shower before the next taxi and the next flight. 

Looking forward to being home. 

Real Alcázar de Sevilla


I had a rare opportunity this morning to play tourist in the center of the old city of Seville, and I took it, visiting the Cathedral, its attached bell tower (and former minaret) the Giralda, and the Reales Alcázares de Sevilla. Like the Giralda, the Alcázar has roots in the Moorish Muslim past of Seville, and it’s unlike any place I’ve visited before, with rooms visible from other rooms in a twisting, labyrinthine layout.

I took a lot of photos and will post more soon.

Travel day: London to Seville

The unspeakable luxury of a sit down dinner last night. The even more unspeakable luxury of awakening at a reasonable hour this morning. 

A gray and lukewarm day today, at least by Massachusetts standards. I relearn the importance of taking trains where possible, after an hour long cab ride at London rates out to Gatwick. 

The bar in the terminal has lunch and American microbrews. I fly British Airways; the language is a shock when I land. 

But the cab from Seville Airport is fixed rate to the city center and the cab driver plays “All Blues.” And the hotel restaurant makes a mean Negroni, which comes with a dish of complementary olives. 

I think I’ll survive this trip. Though it is, once again, making me regret my decision to only study dead languages in high school and college

Good travel planning

Here’s what I had queued up in my Fresh Cuts playlist for this trip:

  • De la Soul “And the Anonymous Nobody”
  • Donnie McCaslin, “Beyond Now”
  • Hoops, “Hoops EP”
  • Jungle Brothers, “Done By the Forces of Nature”
  • Mark Hollis, “Mark Hollis”
  • Sting, “57th and 9th”
  • A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”
  • XTC, “Nonsuch”

You’d almost think I was planning ahead. 

Travel day again

Another Monday, another international flight. Itineraries are getting harder to construct the more I do this. This time I have an overnight stay in London en route to Seville. 

I’ve never been to Spain. I hope it lives up to the billing. I don’t think I’ll have the same reaction Sylvia Plath apparently did. For one thing, I won’t be going to any  bullfights, though an open source conference might amount to the same thing.