Friday, November 14, 2008

Project Beansprout Successful

Our star is born. We're delighted to inform you of the arrival of Tara Shriram Fisler. The baby is well, the mother is recovering, and the father is trying to not get in the way.

For photographs, and for our AFQ (Anticipated Frequent Questions) on various naming issues, please see the Web page (natch).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Stumbling at the Door


I ordered my G1 about a week ago. Google said it would be available on the 10th. There was no mail delivery yesterday; it arrived in the mail today (12th). Good.

I try to connect. It won't connect. After 10 minutes with customer service we discover it's because Google has failed to activate my data plan. Customer service agrees it's pretty dumb to sell a phone that requires a data plan without one. She thinks someone forgot to hit “Save”.

I'm slightly confused because, a day after I placed the order, I got a text message from Google informing me of the plan change. Anyway.

Incidentally, without the data plan working, you cannot use the phone at all. Period.

So, I have the phone in a completely non-functional state.

I ask whether I can connect using my home WiFi. After a few rounds with the rep, it becomes clear she has no idea whatsoever what the question really means; additional questions about this yield increasingly garbled answers.

Along the way, she lets slip that yesterday, apparently no Android phones were working at all. But she reassures me that at least they're all working again today.

I am not reassured.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Happiness is...

...a bike ride in the fall. A slight mist, perfect temperature, glowing trees, and a carpet of leaves. Post-ride, after wiping the water, sand, and organic muck off my bike, I was still left with tires wrapped in the glory of autumn.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The G Stands for Goodbye

Over the past few weeks I've been getting progressively worse connection quality from Google Mail (GMail). Then, as of yesterday morning, about 24 hours ago, it stopped working entirely, giving me a 502 error.

Now, this isn't the first time GMail has gone AWOL. About two years ago, I had GMail disappear for one day, then two, then three...and then it came back for a few hours, then disappeared again for about three more days, for a total of nearly a week. I even wrote to some high-ups I know at Google, but to no avail.

But those were presumably growing pains. This one is a bit harder to take. Especially when the error message says to try again in 30 seconds, but their support site says it's expected to be out until about 6pm Pacific time today—that would be a total of eighteen hours of outage.

Maybe you're stretching a bit too thin, Google.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

From Artless to Artful

Did you have art classes in high school? I did. I learned a lot in them. Not art—our teacher wasn't up to the task of squeezing any productions out of me—but rather my inadequacy at it. Those experiences registered not so much as scars but as shoals, to be avoided as I went off to seek something for which I had a little talent.

Now, I had a similar experience with handwriting. (Before you ask, no, I didn't abandon that altogether, though there were certainly times when I considered it, and in the era of computing I effectively have.) I'm left-handed by nature, and hence wrote naturally with my left hand. But writing left-handed in India was considered unacceptable, so I had to take after-school lessons to learn to write dextrously. The result was that I wrote disastrously, in a scrawl that was so ill-formed it wasn't even bad enough to be considered awful.

But sometime in 9th grade, I tired of the state of affairs. I wasn't quite sure what to do about it—after all, it wasn't for lack of practice, so more of the same wasn't going to help—so on a whim I opened up an encyclopaedia to the entry on calligraphy, and worked through tracing out letter-forms. I hadn't ever used a broad-nibbed pen (and didn't have one, either), so it took me a while before I realized the pattern to where the strokes were thin and thick. But I eventually got the hang of it, to the point of being able to reproduce a passable Textualis blackletter.

Which brings us back to art. I realized this summer that I was similarly tired of my inability to draw just about anything at all. I tend to have lots of pictures in my head, and ever since I've come to understand the visual language of cartooning I've wanted to learn it. (For me, reading my morning funnies is a bit like watching the infielders in a baseball game: periodically, I see something so stunning that I focus entirely on the particular act and forget all about the context of what I'm watching.) I've tried to work through cartooning books, but I tire of messing around with paper and pencil.

The game-changer was, amazingly, a software program. My OQO 1+ came with a copy of Alias (now Adobe) Sketchbook Pro (v. 2.0.1), which I'd never used in the two years I've had the machine. One day I idly started the application, picked the felt-tip marker tool, set it down on the canvas...and saw this:

That's right, the ink spread, as if it were a real pen put to real paper.

Something about that moment was magical. As I explored the application more and found out how much more it simulated the physics of paper-based media, I was hooked. I was in the process of preparing the Web site for PASTE 2008, which I co-chaired, and I was annoyed at the lack of any visual embellishment. Perhaps, I thought, I could fix that myself. So I came up with this, which you can see in context.

Buoyed by this success (by which I mean, I asked a few other PASTE dignitaries what they thought about it, and they gave me stiff-lipped responses to the effect that any visual embellishment is welcome—carefully saying nothing at all about this specific one), I started to design images for use in our new book-let. Now you know whom to blame for all the images in the first version of How to Design Worlds, though I am rather pleased with the cow and the UFO (both also to be found on the cover), and by the graphic accompanying “The Movie Principle” (section 4.4, page 11 in the book).

All this can only lead to hubris—and it has. Our latest victim is another wall of the same room that we painted earlier. We now have a little mountain thing going,

which includes my personal rendition of the Pão de Açúcar:

Somewhere in here is a message for my art teachers, but I'm not sure what. Perhaps just, “Don't worry, you didn't miss much”.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Stopped by the Velour Rope

For maybe the first time in my life I tried to stand in line for a new product release. And I was thoroughly rebuffed.

T-Mobile's Web site has been dreadfully slow all day. Even their usually clued-in and cheerful customer service staff sound frazzled and not entirely together with it. It must be tough to be popular (but, folks, did you ever consider a little extra provisioning?).

But, I have no phone.

I called to find out why I was being charged USD 299 instead of USD 179 for it. I had been given a hint by JJ: it had to be no less than about 18 months since my last phone upgrade. Well, in fact, I've suffered through this awful RAZR for a few years now...

Oh wait. In April 2007, Kathi and I got new phones. I didn't like mine, so I returned it. I was assured this would reset my upgrade clock.

Well, it didn't. That is, their records show that I bought and returned the phone, and they agree that this resets the clock, and they know I'm eligible for the deeper discount...but they can't set the bit in their system. So my agent suggests I wait until October 22, the date it becomes available to the masses, at which point they can give me the appropriate discount.

In practical terms this makes almost no difference, because the phone doesn't ship until October 22 anyway. Plus, their Web site suggests that the data plan you have to buy takes effect immediately—i.e., you pay for the plan without a phone to use it. Clever.

Because I've never actually engaged in technolust before, I was tempted to plonk down the extra USD 120 anyway. I would have, if I felt charitable towards T-Mobile. But I feel especially uncharitable today because I've lost over half an hour to their site design. This is because there's a point at which, before it confirms your order, it asks you to re-confirm your identity by entering either your SSN or your DOB. I didn't notice the “or”, which is in the typical tiny T-Mobile font size, and entered both. The imbicile who implemented the site saw it fit to reject such users. (Why did this cost me half an hour? Because T-Mobile has both my wife's records and mine on the account, and sometimes wants my information and sometimes hers, so I had to run through every combination...and while I was at it, I also tried out every combination with and without the leading zeroes. On a day when their servers were glacial when they weren't timing out.)

Welcome to the big leagues, T-Mobile. Now get your act together.

Monday, September 22, 2008

-ine: Do You See Yonder Cloud...

The English language is rich in adjectives, and some of the most descriptive are those that compare an object (or its attribute) to an animal. I was surprised to see nobody has tried to catalog these terms (or at least not in a way Google can find). So here are the ones that occurred to me:

aquiline (eagle)
bovine (ox or cow)
canine (dog)
caprine (goat)
equine (horse)
feline (cat)
lupine (wolf)
ovine (sheep)
piscine (fish)
porcine (pig)
ursine (bear)

There are surely numerous other animals that have entered the descriptive pantheon (rats, anybody?), but I don't know and can't find terms for them.

Friday, September 12, 2008

On Samba Time

Reading List

  • The Accidental President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Brain Winter
  • Why is This Country Dancing?, John Krich
  • A Death in Brazil, Peter Robb


To name, they say, is to conquer. Few names in recent times have had quite the grip of the McKinsey group's BRIC, the quartet of countries leading the developing world: Brazil, Russia, India, and China. You can argue about the massive differences in status and potential between these countries; you could argue about missing worthies (as Argentinians have, suggesting alternate formulations such as BRAC). But to contend the point is to concede it. And now, on account of being invited to deliver a keynote talk at the Brazilian Programming Languages Conferences (SBLP), I have the chance to see this sibling country up close.


Ipanema is dorsal. Look down that grand sweep of beach, and over at the end stand two enormous, sharp peaks of rock, like a pair of breaching orcas. In photographs, they always look misty and just a little surreal. And that's just how they appear to the human eye, filtered through the distance, the humidity, the spray and, yes, the smog. The two giant fins could be the symbol of a city if it didn't already have so many to offer.

If Ipanema is dorsal, I suppose Copacabana is ventral. No longer the glamorous queen, it ought to have slipped into the role of the dowdy dowager. And, I suppose, some of its oceanfront hotels do. But there is life here—even if it's all cheap and kitchy and blandly uniform, somehow it feels a little more alive, too. It too, is punctuated by its own morro, the totemic Pão de Açúcar. And all these granite giants are simply a small part of what Guanabara Bay has to offer.

What is stunning is not that these beaches are the way they are, but that for so long, they weren't at all. The human obsession with the beach is relatively recent, newer even than the fancy for mountains. But whereas mountains were just dark and treacherous, beaches were...unnecessary? Ocean-going people knew the water already, while landlubbers had already chosen to avoid it. Who, then, had use for stretches of sand, or even the time and leisure to wallow in them? And thus these two had to wait until the 20th century to be “discovered”, though even then, it's a little difficult to understand why they weren't colonized simultaneously. Not that it helped, architecturally: neither appears to have a single redeeming building. But more on that in a bit.

I stay in Copacabana, wary of the clichés. I had actually hoped to be in Santa Teresa through a b&b service called Cama e Café. But repeated emails to them proved to be a highly frustrating experience, and I didn't want to trust my trip to them. Besides, there's something to be said for the anonymity of hotels over forced intimacy. In the end, Copacabana proves to be a perfectly fine base. Both its seediness and its commotion feel real, and I miss the hustle of the center of a large city.

Long before I cast my eyes on any rocks or beaches, however, I have to get into town from the international airport. Rio's Zona Norte is notoriously poor and slum-ridden, and in this the ride resembles nothing so much as a drive through Mumbai, down to the few half-finished houses, small bits of cement and plaster (as much as could be afforded) holding together brick, wood, and whatever other materials were available...and these are the grander accommodations. It's one of the great, great ironies of both Mumbai and Rio that some of the best views are afforded to those who might lose them at any moment by virtue of having their dwellings washed away in a rainstorm. And just as we pass this dwelling—on one of the major highways coming into town—a man runs right across the street, right across three lanes of traffic each way (imagine I-95), and at that instant I know I am closer to India than to the US. I continue to be so stricken by the similarities between the two cities that I wonder if this is some sort of curse of the Portuguese, from Bom (Boa? Boim?) Bahia to the Cidade Maravilhosa.

I also wonder, not for the first time, whether someday all our cities will have to feel like this. But that's another matter.


I am on the metro at around 10am, in the recently-opened Cantagalo station. I have already fulfilled my tourist ambition to give directions (correctly) in every place I visit. In this case I can take no special pride at all: the woman wants to know whether the train will go to the Central station; there is only one line, we're at the end station, and everyone is on one platform. My only accomplishment is processing the Brazilian pronunciation of the terminal -l (yes, the rest of the world has been mis-pronouncing “Brazil” all along, in addition to mis-spelling it).

The platform is full, and filling. Few people look like they're from the beach; most look like workers or other natives. The platform gets fuller and fuller. On the opposite side are several workers, and just past the end of the opposite platform is a stationary train. Everyone is calm.

A few minutes into this, a functionary in a rather more serious-looking uniform (the workers on the other platform were in drab grey; the new one is in a very deep blue, clearly indicative of higher rank and authority) runs down the opposite platform. People are curious but only a few heads follow this motion. Then another. A small stream of people has been steadily heading back upstairs—these must be people on an actual schedule—but everyone else waits as even more people pour in. Everyone is utterly calm, utterly patient. Nobody seems to even ask the officials what's going on.

Finally, one more deep-blue-besuited official descends to the opposite platform, and he says something. Now people are upset. They are shouting, hollering, whistling, shaking heads, and showing a range of emotions. It's fascinating that simply the statement of the obvious releases this reaction, even though having said that the official may actually have hastened these people on their way to their destination.

My metro experience having been thwarted, I decide it's time to try the buses. The buses of Rio are mildly terrifying, and that's when they aren't outright heart-stopping, driving at what appear to be dizzying speeds and without regard for lanes. The system itself appears close to unstructured: there are hundreds of lines without clear markings of routes, stops, or anything else.

Not surprisingly, with a little inspection the system appears to be a wonder. The buses have dispensed with niceties such as route maps for the simple reason every bus says on its front where it's going and via which places. The buses do have numbers, though they're not always easy to find; and, more to the point, they don't really matter. Trying to get to Centro? Just stand where a bunch of other people seem to be standing, flag down a passing bus that says Centro, hop on (carefully, as this sometimes means crossing a lane of traffic), pay at entry (fixed rate no matter how far you're going) and, when you see your destination, press a bell, and hop off. In fact there appear to be numerous bus lines operated by different companies, with varying degrees of comfort (and perhaps safety). Their rates differ, too, but the rates are prominently displayed on the front. By staying away from the buses during rush hour, I've been grinning during and after every trip.

Of course, it doesn't help that as we lurch through town (the speed is a little oversold: what is dizzying is their momentum), I glance out my window and, in a storefront reflection, see the name of my bus company: Verdun. Not a comforting name for a system with a slightly dubious reputation for respect for human life.

Eventually I do use the Metro, and I use it quite a bit. It's clean, well-organized, easy to use, timely, and regular. It has some of the best, most rational signage of any metro I've ever used (though the announcements are spotty and sometimes wrong). The stations range from pleasant to excellent (Cantagalo mimics the Washington DC station structure). Low coverage aside, it does almost everything one could possibly want of a big city metro system. It is almost certainly a far better public transportation, along the same stretches, as the bus system, and will presumably eventually supplant most of it.

But it misses on two counts. For one, the turnstiles have a terrible sense of rhythm: you'd expect to insert your ticket and walk right through, and the half-second gap it forces always breaks my stride. In the nation of samba, this should be considered criminal: as if the metro is in Rio, but not of it.

Which it is. There is something human and visceral about these buses, and every time I speed between Zona Sul and Centro, across the arc of Botafogo beach, looking out over the morros of Guanabara Bay, with the Pão de Açúcar standing sentinel and the Corcovado's Christ statue towering over the scene, my heart races a little. If I lived here, if I did this every single day of my life, I think I would still feel a little bit happier every time I saw this sight.

But then, the metro, too, has its moments. It is late at night, and I am returning to my hotel. I am changing between tracks at Estácio, and we're waiting awhile. Suddenly a tune of haunting beauty floats in over the tannoy. I do not recognize it; I cannot even place it; but it swirls about me, enchants me, and then settles deep inside my bones. I let a train pass, hoping the music will never end.


I don't know how long it takes to get to Centro, or what time it is when I get there. I don't know these things because I'm not wearing a watch. I was told, you see, that to avoid being targeted by muggers, it'd be best to not be wearing any sharp-looking watches. So I left behind my watch; the plan was, once I landed here, I'd wander down to a local store and buy the cheapest thing I could find. But I'd gone a whole day without one, and when I did spot a store with the appropriate quantity of appropriately shoddy timekeepers, I...just kept walking. Somehow, it just seems appropriate in Brazil.

My afternoon in Centro reminds me of nothing so much as another leafy but large and congested, sub-tropical southern hemispheric city located by a fantastic bay: Sydney (minus, of course, the abject poverty of Rio). And just as Sydney is all modern but for a tiny sliver of preserved colony, so with Rio. Nobody standing in the afternoon sun in the Praça Imperial, amidst random statuary of unknown worthies and surrounded by low, white buildings with wrought-iron balconies can help but be transported to Portugal or the Mediterranean. To be sure, the moment passes quickly, but there are other such details dotting the city. My favorite was walking by the southern wall (on the other side from the flyovers) of the Museu Histórico Nacional and looking up to see blue tiles along the rim of the slightly-overhanging roof.

The Museu itself is worth a little while. It is mostly potted history that should be familiar to anyone who did a little reading before their visit. But a few objects stand out, and there are two new areas—a restored room of ceiling frescoes about the laws that have governed Brazil, and a section on native Indian art—that are both worth examining. Far less appealing is a recently created exhibition on health and medicine in Brazil, funded by Lisbon's peculiar Gulbenkian Foundation, whose entries are—unlike the rest of the museum—in Portuguese only. This is less of a pity than it might seem (for what a fascinating topic it is!) as the exhibit itself appears to be low on content and high on uninformative visuals. As for the rest, the historical paintings, busts, and the like are by a series of European nobodies who were smart enough to realize that with their talents, they would die poor and unknown in their native countries but would be feted as French or Italian painters and appointed to the court in Brazil. (It would have been interesting to learn more about episodes such as Projeto Rondon, about a modern variant of which I saw one photograph but learned nothing, and for which there's virtually no information even on-line.)

Brazilian TV is famed for its awfulness. I see nothing to redeem it, and there's certainly much about it that is abysmal in any language. But I do wonder if its reputation is overdone a little, or perhaps it has improved to the point of being only bad, and thereby not compelling enough. All of this, I must add, simply did not prepare me for the moment when I turned over a channel, landed on RAI (the Italian network), and found, dubbed in Italian, a modern Amitabh Bachchan movie.


I want to go for a walk in the evening, and somewhere I read that Rua Visconde de Pirajá is an interesting shopping street. This is just as well, because I'm looking for a bookstore on the street, and figure I could scout it out. But I get there to find a drab, dismal street—worse even than the worst I'd prepared for, which is rows of boutiques and bijouteries—and I'm so depressed I turn around after two blocks. I stop in a store to buy some bread, only to find that a man blocks me and won't budge until the bread is up to his standards (the rolls look fine to me—and prove to be so), and the woman checking out in front of me handles her purse and purchases with the snobbish slowness of one who can't be seen to acknowledge other humans around—and I contrast all this to the essentially Brazilian good cheer of the staff, and remind myself never again to shop where the rich live.

The street, and the store, are in Ipanema. As I've mentioned, Ipanema is where it's at. Well, not really; Ipanema is yesterday's news, and the rich Cariocas have sold and moved on to Leblon and points further west. But they've left in their wake a place of unimaginable ugliness. It reminds me of...well, I can't really remember its name, and that's the point, but the similar area of Mexico City. As Ibero-America got rich in the 50s, 60s and 70s, they built buildings of truly striking blandness that combine to blight the landscape at least as much as the favelas their owners no doubt despise. The names of these buildings—for here, all buildings are named, much as they are in the rest of the developing world—speak of unrequited aspiration; the Edificio Mondrian, for instance, is an ugly brown stone with a brown-tinted glass foyer, conceived by an architect who cannot possibly have known even the very first thing about the Dutchman. These architectural crimes, combined with the fact that it's the only part of town when I ask a question in Portuguese and am responded to in English, means I avoid it entirely for the rest of my stay.

Speaking of aspirations, Kathi and I have been playing an informal game of Curves-spotting. Curves is a women's-only gym that is characterized by cheap locations and blinds and, I believe, a lack of mirrors (on the sound principle that women would be more likely to stay fit if they didn't have to worry about preening men or women, or intrusive eyes). Curves seems to be a class-marker of the solidly middle-class (you can fill in your own pop-sociological reason for why). And there, at the north-western end of Copacabana, I see my first Curves in Brazil.


Returning to the concrete matter of shopping for rolls, the astute reader will notice that I have entered that territory that every traveler outwardly dreads but secretly loves: that of Things That Must be Weighed. (I had thought rolls would be sold in whole units, but they are priced by weight.) This momentarily strikes terror: I gesture to the woman beside the bread tub, she signals to the weighing scale, I try to ask her what code to use, she doesn't understand, I desperately scan the bread sign for a code, find absolutely none, in despair place the bread on the scale, and it magically knows what I've ordered. That's right, there's nothing else around to be weighed. I don't feel too foolish as I grab the sticker it prints.

Walking back, and at several other times, I feel myself gently spritzed by water from above. My first two or three times I worry that it's about to rain, and find it odd that it could do so without a single cloud in sight—the Southern Hemisphere must be a truly strange place. Eventually, I formulate a reasonable hypothesis: this must be from stand-alone air-conditioners mounted on upper floors. It's winter here in Rio, which means it is merely somewhere between warm and hot but not blistering, and I feel sorry for these poor people who had to inhabit the mores of their settlers from temperate European lands.


As I walk around town, I notice several kiosks for chaveiros, and they appear to be key-makers. A quick search confirms this. Chalk this down to the opposite of a faux ami (a bon ami?): the root for the word in Portuguese sounds surprisingly similar to the word for ‘key’ in Tamil. Of course, this may not be coincidental: perhaps the Tamilians had no need to lock anything down until the marauding Portuguese showed up.


As I drink a vitaminas (a fruit drink with milk rather than water, which would make it a sucos) at a roadside stand, a few blocks inland from Copacabana beach, I see something odd. A very fair-skinned woman walks up to the stand, towing a black boy. The woman is just pushing past 30, and is dressed to stand out: black pants and a shiny orange top buttoned tight; the boy is about seven, wears beach bottoms and nothing else. The woman is asking him to pick a drink; she leaves him there for a moment with the menu while she walks around the corner with purpose; while she's away, he fingers some cash (a two or five reais bill, and some coins); she returns; a drink is ordered, but I never hear a word from the boy. I nurse my drink, but I'm really quite done, and his drink is taking a while to make. I walk away.

An hour later, I'm walking to the shopping street, and four blocks from this encounter, I see the woman again. This time she's walking hand-in-hand with a much older man—about 55, heavier, a head mostly full of unruly white hair, comfortable and seemingly prosperous but, if he's filthy rich, hiding it well.

They don't say much, and I don't understand what they're saying.


In the evening, after sunset, I go to Arpoador Beach, the eastern end of Ipanema. It's quieter, calmer, there, and traces of pink paint the western sky. Copacabana is crowded, in part, because of separated “bike” lane that runs between the road and the beach proper; I use scare-quotes because there are relatively few bicycles in it compared to foot traffic, especially runners.

I had heard about the running in Copacabana, but since I'm traveling extra-light, I haven't packed running shoes. But as I come around the corner, I'm seized by the desire to move; so I tighten the straps of my Teva sandals, pick a particularly ugly hotel about a kilometer away as a target, and start to trot. It's tiring, and it feels great. To cool down I walk another kilometer. As I turn around, my legs suddenly start to move involuntarily. Running westward is less fun, because you're immediately beside the chugging traffic, but I feel propelled by forces I don't entirely grasp. I get to and pass my target (the same ugly hotel) without even noticing it, and keep on, and on—I must have a tailwind!—until I realize I'm a few blocks past my hotel, and I could go on forever with this wind...and I stop. There will probably be hell to pay on my kees eventually, but I'll take it.


Rio has numerous “kilo” vegetarian restaurants. Some are purely vegetarian, while others have the odd non-vegetarian dish and are labeled “natural”. They range in quality, but the good ones are outstanding.

My favorite is one called Reino Vegetal. It's nowhere near anything you'd expect: it's neither in the chic Zona Sul, catering to the swelte, nor in the heart of Centro, ministering to executives. Instead, it's deep in the heart of a very old-fashioned commercial area—the kind of place where the streets are still cobbled (and not to be charming), the sidewalks are still high, and some of the signs look like they haven't been painted in decades. I've been here before: not here here, but it's Bangalore's N. R. Road and the old commercial center of very many other third-world cities. It's far from the searching eye of a tourist, executive or yuppie; indeed, it's far from the eye of all but the all-seeing Google (or, in this case, Happy Cow).

As I'm ordering a drink, one of the staff asks me whether I'd like...well, I'm not sure, really. It sounds a bit like the word for ginger, but it's definitely not. It sounds closer to injera, but surely not; nobody would put that in a drink! I decide it must be yet another of the local exotics, so I give her my assent. She's delighted; she repeats this to another person. Am I being had? The staff seem really nice and decent folk; and then, it hits me, she's asked me whether I'm Indian! (Why can they never phrase questions the way they're listed in the language guides?) [Tip for the baffled: Brazilian Portuguese pronounces “di” with a `j', so “India” comes out rather like “Inja”. That's right, I'm an Injun.] She goes out into the dining area and tells one of the diners—who I think is one of the owners—this. And the next time I walk in (how could you not return to such a place?), she immediately greets me with a great big smile and announces, the Indian is back. She's so taken with this that every time she walks past my table she comes by to ask me a question about the food and my enjoyment of it, and rapidly she has exhausted every word and phrase I know. It doesn't deter her one bit.


In the evening, I am on the metro when an elderly, dignified-looking white couple walk in; the woman seems much firmer than the man. A young black woman gets up to offer her seat to him. They thank her; then the older man says something, the younger woman asks something, and suddenly these three have begun a discussion that goes on for several stops. To be able to understand the language!

I do not have to wait long. The next day, an old dame sits by me. She has just squeezed through what have to be the narrowest of turnstiles to board a bus; though in fine shape, she's annoyed by this and tells me about it. I offer the universal roll of the eye in assent. Now she complains about something on the metro. What where they thinking, too, I agree. I'm worried that any moment now she's going to start asking questions, and I'll have to drop the pretense. It turns out she already has, without the intonation, and is awaiting my reply. I stutter out that I don't really understand, and at the same instant we both blurt out, “Descuple!” [I'm sorry.] She finds out I'm from America (no reaction), and that I'm Indian (delight!). Now that she's established I don't speak any Portuguese, we begin talking again, this time with very small words. The “conversation” covers religion, her sister, politics, her hometown of Santa Caterina, and poverty. It's heady stuff, even if I haven't an idea what she's saying. (Well, generally there are only two mainstream opinions on any of these issues, so it's pretty easy to establish which half of the equation she's on, but the bit about religion involves Christianity, her sister, and something about the Buddha, and I'm pretty much lost.)


In general, the people I encounter are everything the stereotypes suggest: warm, friendly, and patient. Yet there is such a species as the impatient Brazilian, and I find its natural habitat: the trains. As a metro train pulls into an end-station, the entire crowd lurches towards the (closed) doors, leaning on them, banging on them, some even trying to pull them apart. Something is afoot, I figure—maybe the doors open too briefly—so I join the throng. Then we are inside, the doors remain open for generously long, and I'm baffled. Next time, same behavior, again I join in, again the same response. So the third time, I stand back and watch.

They are rushing for the seats. They are not merely rushing, they are charging, knocking over one another, scattering in every direction inside from the door like roaches in a bright light. And then, once they're settled, they resume being Brazilian. (There is a similar scene near the beginning of Central Station where, before the train doors open, people pour into the cars through the windows.) If you don't want a seat, there are entire prairies of standing room awaiting your habitation. The one time I'm on a metro car that still has empty seats, two women walk in and proceed to stand at a pole. I am scandalized by their un-Brazilian behavior, until one of them pulls out a Lonely Planet guide.

This love of automated comfort carries over elsewhere. Put a staircase next to an escalator? Why bother? Even as dozens of people are queued up to get onto the escalator, I am stared at for taking the staircase—even in this town of legendarily buff bodies. (Then again, the turnstiles on the buses are so narrow and so firm, abs develop naturally and fitness is essential for using public transport.)


The downside to all this urbanism is that it's simply impossible to see the night sky. I feel sorry for the vast majority of Brazilians, whose only exposure to the constellations must be the ones on their flag. In a few generations they may not even know what those stars on their flag stand for.


One of the great joys of visiting Brazil is surely attending a soccer game, and in Rio, where would one want to watch one more than in Maracanã, that throne of Brazilian football? Of course, the thought of a football game at Maracanã is enough to raise every alarm about safety and security in Rio. Not surprisingly, an entire industry has sprung up where desire meets fear. For a neat sum, a tour guide will pick you up at your hotel, bundle you into a van of other (presumably) equally nervously excited tourists, take you to the stadium (where your ticket has been bought for you), have you all sit together in the stands, and then escort you back out into the safety of the van, to be returned to the hotel.

Does anything sound more awful?

That said, I confess to thinking about this for a while. I am nursing a cold, I am weary from the flight capers, I am...let's admit it, I am a bit nervous. As a compromise, I email a guide named Sergio, who runs such a service, but seems unlike the rest of his species. Sergio isn't available the week I am in town (but, to his great credit, happily answers my email questions). So I am on my own. I don't shave for a day, to try to achieve the characteristic Carioca scruff, and off I go.

Well, it's everything you might imagine. The level of play itself is quite awful; other than a few inspired minutes when Recife Sport puts together a textbook use of space—a display so good even the home fans seemed to admire it—there isn't much to watch on the field. (But as it is Brazilian football, there are a few moments of absolutely dazzling virtuosity.) But one doesn't go to a Brazilian soccer game to watch the play anyway. And I had, through a combination of error and luck, landed bang in the middle of the Flamengo cheering section, with drums right behind me and red flares going off over my head. It is terrifying and exhilarating.

I stand for the hour I'm on the train, on the grounds that I'll be sitting for the next two hours or so. As the fans file in, however, the front row is standing, so the rows behind have to stand, and those further back have to stand on their seats, and so on, until everyone in the entire section is standing. Then we begin clapping and singing—my hands begin to feel bruised, and I realize the game hasn't even begun yet—and we continue thus for the entire duration of the game.

This is Brazil, so of course we don't just stand. At various points everyone begins to jump to the beat in—remember, this is Brazil!—perfect harmony. I am jumping, too, but I feel an odd sensation beneath my feet. So I keep my feet firmly planted to the, uh, seat, and realize—the stadium is vibrating. It is difficult to translate that moment of terror into words; the only possible response to this is to resume jumping with everyone else.

This is so much fun that I go back and do it again later in the week. One of the legendary rivalries in soccer is between the two Rio teams, Flamengo and Fluminense. Having watched Flamengo play (league-leading Grêmio), it seems only fair to also watch Fluminense (play Recife Sport). Sergio—a Flamengo fan, it must be said—has warned me to not expect much from Fluminense. In the event, he was pretty accurate. At any rate, for the benefit of other travelers, I offer the following:

Watching a Game at Maracana

What I most like is that people have a great time entertaining themselves, without needing to be entertained. There is no pre-game show; there are no cheerleaders; there are no clocks or replays (though those may be safety measures). At half-time, a very, very old man bounces a ball off his foot, never letting it touch the ground, as he walks the entire length of the sideline; it is pure virtuosity; but nobody seems to especially notice. Instead, I equip myself with the cornerstones of every healthy meal, namely proteins and carbohydrates (aka, nuts and beer), and do my best to cheer to the insanely catchy Flamengo songs (though the Fluminense ones prove even catchier). Police swarm the place, but uselessly; at one point a group of them moves to investigate a flare-launcher; suddenly Flamengo scores, and the sky overhead turns red, and the police return to obsolescence.


After Rio, I ask nothing of the rest of Brazil. Fortaleza reminds me of nothing quite so much as Cairns, Australia, though the similarity proves somewhat superficial. São Paulo feels like New York, its language a jarring, truncated version of the mellifluous tongue spoken elsewhere. The facade of Boa Viagem in Recife depresses me during the day; even the brand new buildings are built with a pre-aged look. But at night, the beach clear, I emerge from my hotel to see the street-lights reflect off the dazzling white sand, and I find its attraction. There is nobody about, but I walk down closer to the water. Suddenly, I hear a muffled rhythm, and a barely-teen boy goes past, riding bare-back on a white horse.

I haven't earned the right to conclude anything, but I decide that Brazil feels like India about twenty years ahead. The traffic is Indian, but there is no honking; the footpaths are Indian, but there is no spitting. Yet again, I think, this may be what the future will look like for everyone.

But something special has happened here, where two potent, fecund forces—the tropics, and immigration (some of it forced, regrettably) to the New World—have collided. The street names in Rio (Venceslau, Dodsworth, Ulrich), the buildings in Recife (Lundgren, Robert Bruce Harley), and much else speak of great distances traveled for opportunity. On the other hand, in a world that increasingly values services over goods, it must be frustrating to be saddled with a language of one's own. How those forces will balance out will be fascinating to see.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Pie of Speculation

In cycling news, nothing is bigger than Lance's return to pro ranks. People compare it Jordan's return, and gosh, I hope it's different. I enjoyed watching Jordan so much, I entirely lost interest in basketball after he retired—and his second (third) incarnation did nothing to bring me back. Somehow, even though Jordan's competitiveness and fitness were no less legendary, things feel different about Lance. Could it be that cycling is somehow easier than pounding about on a basketball court?

Anyway, the Vanity Fair article that broke the news of his planned return—penned by a Rice professor, no less—has a curious photograph. It is of Lance presenting a cycle and helmet to Bill Clinton, and three things stand out:

  • What is that in line with the top of the handlebar? Is there something in Lance's hand, or is is that a...mirror? On a race-ready, low-spoke-count, team-livery Trek?
  • Is that really a huge cog on the rear cassette? Or could that be a...pie plate? On a race-ready, low-spoke-count, team-livery Trek?
  • And finally, what's that at Bill's right leg? It appears to be some kind of polystyrene stand for the cycle, but photographed at entirely the wrong angle. Or, could it be the oddest of creatures—a pie-plate for the chain ring? What would the Snob make of that?

Anyway, as an Internet commentator, I feel dragged into this Lance affair with a comment of my own. My own conjecture is that what Lance really wants is to finally win a stage atop Ventoux. It'll be interesting to see whether next year's Tour route has a finish atop the Windy One—the ASO is not known for playing ball.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Attending a Game at Maracana

So you're going to be in Brazil, and you want to watch a game at Maracanã. Good for you. You may be frightened stiff by all the talk about Rio's dangers. Well, I did it and I'm alive to tell. It was mildly terrifying before I did it, exhilarating while I was there, and sufficiently staid afterwards that I went back a second time, with the same experience.

If, after reading this, you're still nervous, and attending a game is the most important thing to you, go with a tour. Your hotel definitely has one. Or you could hook up with Sergio, a wonderful guide. I didn't use him myself, and I've never met him; we've only traded email. But he was helpful even though I wasn't a customer, and demonstrated a genuine affection for the game. I got the clear sense that with him, I wouldn't be getting an overly packaged experience. And his rates were lower than the hotel's.

But I hate tours, and wanted to do this not surrounded by a group of other terrified tourists. So what follows is some approximation to step-by-step instructions on how you can do this for yourself.

Two more things to note.

Maracanã isn't the only stadium in Rio. Engenhão is another major (new) stadium with a full slate of games. But it's a bit farther from the subway, and I wasn't as sure about its neighborhood. Nevertheless, I imagine it makes for an equally exciting venue. (And you can get bragging points: “Oh, these days everyone goes to Maracanã, but I...”. You could make it out to be the K2 of Rio stadiums at your pub back home.)

More importantly, I attended two mid-season club games with only one team from Rio. So everything was easy. None of this applies for games whose results matter more, when a famous rivalry (such as Fla-Flu) is involved, when the national team plays, etc.

Okay, let's begin.

You can find a schedule to games on the CBF site. As of this writing, click on “Série A” at the top, and try the links on the left. “Escalas” should give you a schedule, but it may only show the current week. This link gave me a full season schedule, but sometimes the Web page just produces an error. This kind of difficulty may be good preparation. [Note: Sergio's site, linked above, usually contains the game schedule.]

Warning: I made various game plans based on this schedule. I sent email to two Brazilian friends to confirm I'd read everything right, and I had. A week before the games I checked the schedule again, and every game had changed in some way (time, date, ...). So give yourself a little flexibility, and check again closer to the date.

The stadium's name is not Maracaña—it's not in Spanish. It's pronounced “mah-RAH-ka-na”. You may hear the metro announcer pronounce it as “mah-RAH-ka-nu”.

Learn a few key words: today (hoje: ho-ZHAY), tomorrow (amanhã: ah-ma-NYA), yellow (amarela: ama-RAY-la), green (verde: vehr-DJEH), white (branco: br-AHN-cu). Practice the pronounciation a bit: though the written words are very similar to Spanish, they aren't spoken quite the same way. If you're taking my suggestion on tickets, and all this language stuff terrifies you, you could write a note containing the date, names of teams, “arquibancada verde/amarela”, and a number (of tickets), and slide it in the ticket window. This has the advantage that you will almost certainly have no problem at all, and the disadvantage that you will have failed as a traveler. [If you are repelled nevertheless, it may be because you're trying to buy tickets for a future game—even the next day's—and they aren't on sale on the current day.]

Research the team colors. The Wikipedia pages for all the teams I saw gave their home- and away-colors. You would do well to avoid wearing any team colors at all. (Admittedly, the second time I accidentally wore a shirt in partial team colors—one of Fluminense's tricolor—and nobody seemed to notice or care. Still, standard precautions apply.) And from reading those pages, you may also learn a chant or two.

You can usually buy your ticket the evening of the game—various sources recommend getting there two hours ahead. I found it easier to go earlier in the day, to keep my afternoons flexible. The ticket office seems to be open at reasonable hours. (You can also buy the tickets directly from the team's box offices—I located the one for Flamengo on Rua Raul Machado, two blocks west of the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (that's right, it's not in the Flamengo section of town)—but going to buy the ticket is a good dress-rehearsal for getting to the match.)

To get your ticket, take the metro to the Maracanã station. You can't miss the stadium; you really, absolutely cannot. (The only way you could miss it is if visibility were under a hundred yards—if it is, what are you doing at a football game?) When you emerge from the station, take the (can't miss) ramp to the left. This will put you at one of the stadium's main gates. Facing the gate, proceed left along the stadium wall. You'll soon get to the ticket window. There seems to always be a handful of people milling about (including touts, who left well enough alone when I spoke in Portuguese but hassled people who spoke English). Also look for the word Arquibancada above the little teller windows. This is the word for the upper floor of the stadium, and where you want to sit.

Buy your tickets. I asked for Arquibancada Verde, the green stand; one time I was given a ticket for it, another time for the amarela (yellow) section. They're essentially indistinguishable. Those tickets were BRL 30. For more, you can sit in the white or blue sections, where you sit side-on to the field. On the back of your ticket you'll see all the relevant details (stand, date, time, teams) printed, so make sure these are what you wanted.

In terms of time, using the metro, it never took me longer than about an hour to get to or from the stadium, and that's from Cantagalo, currently the end-station of the other line (in western Copacabana). I expect 1h15m is a very safe estimate. I once got there in just about 45 minutes.

There is no real in-stadium pre-game tradition, nor the equivalent of batting-practice. So there's not much to do if you get there early, other than revel in the fact that you're there. Which is something in itself, so you might as well. Be aware that the locals seem to mill about outside the stadium until just before the game, so your “empty” section may end up packed. It may even be that you ended up in the heart of a team's cheering section, with drums behind you and flares going off overhead. This is not a hypothetical.

Why do people mill about outside? In part to meet their friends, etc., but I think mainly because you can't buy alcohol inside the stadium. The only beer is alcohol-free (if you order a beer and are told something that sounds like a disclaimer, that's what they're telling you). So you'll see lots of vendors selling alcohol outside, including on the ramp between the metro and the stadium. Get your fill if you must while you can. I chose to not dull my senses. (And given the dismal quality of Brazilian beer, the non-alcoholic stuff in the stadium was no great loss.)

You may have noticed that your ticket has some slightly bewildering code indicating your actual seat. For the games I went to, they weren't bothering with assigned seating. It meant I was free to roam around the stadium, and indeed I periodically moved between stands to get different views of the stadium, the game, and the cheering sections. If they are checking seating assignments, then I expect you will simply be pointed in the right direction.

You will be searched before you go in—a quick and friendly pat-down. (As you walk up the ramp in the stadium, you'll see guys lifting their shirts. They're showing the police their belts, though you may think this is just beach machismo gone awry.) I believe I saw backpacks get in; they didn't blink at (and certainly didn't inspect) my umbrella. I expect a bottle of water is also fine (they aren't obsessed with stadium concessions like they are in the US), but do leave the heavy artillery at home.

You won't actually find much at the stadium concessions. There's no real food to speak of. I saw some vendors selling what looked like boxed, pre-made hot-dogs; there were various kinds of snacks; and that's about it. On the other hand, it's not very expensive. (Beer was BRL 4, chips and such about BRL 3, a little bag of nuts is BRL 1. So you don't need to carry much cash.) One warning: the nuts (amendoim) contain monosodium glutamate (MSG).

One other tip. If you don't already have one, buy your return metro ticket before the game. (When people get off the metro they're all focused on finding friends, etc., so there are no queues at all to buy tickets.) This will save you a lot of waiting later.

My first game began at 8:30, so I got back to Cantagalo sometime around 11:30pm. It would be false to say that walking the 5-6 blocks back to my hotel (a block off the beach) felt like “the safest thing in the world”, but it did feel very safe. Even the streets immediately around the station, which are a bit dark, are peopled. They're all working-class folk, many of them enjoying what is presumably a post-work drink at the little local bars and snack counters, away from the tourist places. But because they're locals, not tourists, they do know their colors, and may be a bit tired or tipsy. So this is one place where wearing team colors may just cause a bit of trouble.

If you want a team jersey, the official ones cost a pretty penny. You can find cheap ones, but these aren't quality prints, and are presumably not legal. Anyway, if that's what rocks your boat, you can even find them outside the stadium. I approached a vendor and was quoted BRL 30. I laughed, and he immediately dropped it to BRL 20. I tried to talk him into BRL 16 and he wouldn't take it. Okay, that gave me a lower-bound.

Later, I walked around in the street-market in Copacabana and asked some of the guys selling Brazil team shirts for local team shirts. I noticed that asking them somewhat loudly made them immediately say no (so these are illegal!). But if you linger at a store for a few moments a store-keeper will eventually approach you; mention the team you want to him in a low and conspiratorial voice. He'll take you to the back of the store-tent and pull the jersey out of a big, black trash bag full of illicit team jerseys. He too will start with BRL 30-32, so just say “I can get this at the stadium itself for ...!” He'll fold right away. And you're probably still paying way too much for a cheap rip-off. I did.

Monday, August 04, 2008

An Unkempt Zebra

This past weekend I changed the bar tape on my Bike Friday. Last year I switched from a bland black to zebra tape (frequent readers in these parts will be familiar with my affection for things zebra). I rather like Cinelli's cork tape, though the zebra pattern isn't always easy to find. In particular, they make a close variant: instead of black and white, it's black and a sort of dull grey (or gray). I never quite figured out the appeal to the latter. It looks a bit militaristic, but in a sort of new-agey, I'm-not-a-really-intimidating-military kind of way.

Anyway, over the weekend, I peeled off the old tape and attached the gleaming new one. As I was collecting the old tape to trash, I happened to notice a rather odd pattern. Here's a photograph:

The left is how the tape looks in its (mostly) pristine state. The right is how it comes to look after a year of constant wear. The right is also...the spitting image of the black-and-grey tape you'll find in a store.

And I was enlightened.

As my friend Laurie Heller said, it's like buying jeans that've already had abuse pre-heaped on them.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

When it Takes Off, At Least it'll Fly Gracefully

Several sites rave about Norman Foster's new terminal in Beijing airport. One phrase in the description caught my eye, however: the terminal's new “aerodynamic roof”. How's that, again? This phrase proves to be from Foster's own materials, and the phrase “soaring aerodynamic roof” is quoted in news article upon news article without comment.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This Eagle Feeds On Spam

When I got to Brown, I felt a grand opportunity to reclaim my mailbox from spammers. My Rice email address was all over the Internet, and this was in the era before even decent spam filters. So at Brown, I began to hand out unique addresses (using plus-addressing). At last count I had handed out over 202 distinct addresses, until I ran into too many sites that refused plus-addressing (and I stopped worrying so much about email in the first place).

Well, boy, was that a failure.

Over time, only one email address has ever been abused, and that too, only once. By corporations, that is. On the other hand, one group of spammers has made my mailbox hell by treating each of these addresses as distinct and sending me multiple copies of the same thing. Those spammers would, of course, be the most shameless hustlers of the Internet: academics trying to disseminate conference announcements. (I recently tracked down that the worst abusers are the logic programming community. And there seems to have been some innocent or malicious collusion with ETAPS 2006.)

So it was with some surprise that I recently saw spam addressed to a unique address I created all the way back in February 2004. And I was deeply saddened to see that it's the address I gave to my favorite hotel—the Adler—in one of my favorite cities, Zürich. That's right: a quality, discreet hotel in a city that pride itself on its discretion in a country that makes a living of discretion...sends spam!

For shame, Hotel Adler.

Next, my Swiss bank will be generating gaudy low-initial-interest-rate credit-card offers and selling my account information to florists.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Slouching Towards Slackerdom

It's official: Providence is a slacker town.

I'm increasingly of the view that the New York Times chooses content largely for blog-worthiness. How else to explain such a lackadaisical, listless, wandering...oh wait, those are the people the article's about. But the article in question, Towns They Don't Want to Leave, tells you just what you already know—that college towns are havens for hangers-on, some of whom do nothing and others of whom experiment and accomplish—in that special NYT kind of way, which is to spot trends so slowly that everyone's already forgotten about them. And to wrap them up in a top-k listing to give bloggers something to argue.

But, all that's neither here nor there. What (or who) is here is, for instance, a class act as a cheese-maker: according to the Providence Daily Dose, that's Louella Hill, who revolutionized the food sources and products at Brown. The article's central Providence slacker, Megan Hall, is one of the sharpest, liveliest Brown students I've ever had the pleasure of meeting, brimming with great attitude and incadescent energy. It's people like this make Providence a worthy competitor to Davis or Athens, GA. And while I disagree with some of these people about their politics or economics, life would be much, much poorer without them.

(Somewhat disturbing is a mutual friend's claim that the author is a friend of Megan's. A rather relevant fact that ought to have been in the article...if it were in a serious publication, that is.)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Sky's No Limit

For many years now, we've had a silent running battle in the house. Kathi thinks the walls are too white; she finds them institutional, hospital-like. I say they have an “art museum” aesthetic—which is just a sophisticated way of saying, “Yes, they're white, perhaps even too white, but provided we have an easy justification we don't have to do anything about it”.

Well, we've been attacking the walls for some time now, and gradually reducing the whiteness. We've mostly just removed one white wall per room, but even that has made a dramatic difference (indeed the most, as any incremental changes would have diminished marginal value).

Our latest victim folly canvas has been a wall in the guest bedroom upstairs. We contemplated various blandly uncontroversial shades, but knew we were compromising. Ultimately we decided what we really wanted was to paint a sky: a night sky, fading into dawn, dark at the top and brightening as we go down.

This would be a good moment for an interlude pointing out that we have no painting skills whatsoever individually, and perhaps even less between us. We've painted a few walls with a roller, and even those were slightly touch-(up-)and-go affairs. The only reason we even contemplated this sky affair is because it was so outrageously beyond our skill that we were too ignorant to be afraid.

We knew we didn't stand a chance of any realistic sky-like look, so we abstracted. We would paint three bands in three distinct blues; that was easy enough. The problem was merging them. Kathi's Web reading implied that sponges were the way to go. But in a few moments, the paint lady at our fabulous local hardware store Adler's (may they live long and prosper) had convinced us this was a terrible idea.

Did she have an alternate suggestion? No, she didn't. It's always a bad, bad sign when all the staff in the paint department gather around saying, “Hmm, that's intriguing...I have no idea what you should do, but do let us know how it worked out!”, and that's just what they were doing here. But Adler's is a terrific store; the staff also went through several books with us, and finally, on page 128 of Decorative Paint Techniques & Ideas, we found something loosely like what we were looking for: a “graduated color wash”.

The book's suggestion hinges crucially around the use of glaze (indeed, in a 3:1 ratio to paint), applied with a 4" “good quality” paintbrush in long, lateral strokes. We tried a small sample on a piece of cardboard using a cheap, small brush, but we both knew we weren't really interested in how it worked out on cardboard; so we went at the wall.

It was terrible.

The glaze is supposed to slow drying (which it does), but it also streaks the paint. The result was an impressionistic set of lines, but hardly the sky we'd set out for. (To the book's credit, it looked pretty much exactly as the photograph suggested it would.) It wasn't bad, mind, just not a sky at all.

Worse, I'd missed a few patches while painting. Repairing this was painful. Wherever the brush begins applying, it leaves a broad vertical mark; you have to then go further in the same direction to cover up the mark, and then again, all the way to the wall's edge (and get the edging right, again).

Meanwhile, we were running out of paint-glaze mix, so we had to make some more. Since the lower-glaze ratio mixture was less streaky, we didn't add any more glaze, only paint. This produced better patches, but the entire process of applying patches was so frustrating we decided the wall was good enough, and left it to dry. Until we went back to inspect it an hour later, and saw a few more spots...

This time, I took the cheapo brush and tried to apply a little patch. Amazingly, there was no vertical brush mark! I tried another patch. Ditto. And another. And so on. Losing track of our careful markers (top 20% in deep blue, next 30% in middle blue, bottom half in light blue) I sort of just dabbed away wherever I found streaks. Well over an hour later, most of the wall had been painted over, this time in small patches with a small brush and with very little glaze mixed in.

The result:

The wall actually looks better than this photo suggests. From the other end of the room, even we find it a remarkably credible sky. All that random patching, it turns out, was just the ticket! And here's a little detail:

In moderation (and especially with patching), the streakiness of the glaze proves to be just the right thing to create a wispy sky.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dan Quayle's Secret Occupation

In Yahoo's translation service (formerly Alta Vista's Babel Fish), enter


and ask for translation from Portuguese to English. It responds with


Given that this problem does not occur when translating from, say, Spanish to English, it suggests that Babel Fish has a separate vocabulary for each pair of languages, rather than an intermediate semantic representation. This would also explain why the set of X-to-Y pairs is fixed.

Google Translate doesn't suffer from this problem. They allow a free choice of source and target languages. From what I can tell, the superior technology they employ to solve this translation problem is to avoid translating anything at all. (Seriously, whether it's their HTML parser or their core translation routine—I haven't invested time to investigate, and I suspect it's the former to blame—their “translator” routinely returns the input unchanged as output.)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

How to Climb Like a Champ

I have discovered the secret weapon behind Chris Carmichael's success with climbers.

Chris is the coach behind Lance Armstrong's magnificent performances in the mountains of France. Now that we've had two Tours in a row in which other extraordinary climbers have been thrown out for illegal substances, many minds wonder what Lance was on (besides, as his famous Nike ad said, his bike for six hours a day).

Fortunately, for the right sum, Carmichael will tell us. Let's look at his advertisement (Bicycling magazine, July 2008, page 113):

Gives away nothing, does it? Now look at it again.

First, you'll have to ignore the model on the left who has the posture of a squat toad and the expression of someone who has just swallowed one. The one on the right is the one we are all supposed to aspire to be.

Ignore the geological oddity of this place, where each hill seems to be composed of entirely different substances. If the hills you train on don't look like that, well, that also explains why you aren't winning any Tours de France.

Ignore the extraordinary sharpness of the bleached rocks in the middle distance. Why did they use a photograph where rocks, not bicyclists, were in focus? No doubt because the Carmichael-trained cyclists ride so fast, no camera can capture their movement.

Focus, instead, on what's between the “dancing on his pedals” rider's legs. No, no, not like that! Here's the detail:

It's extraordinary. Where you would expect to see the background (of rock and grass in unearthly focus), you see...the fragment of a yellow oval with the letters “MIC” in the upper half, looking exactly the same as Carmichael's logo. And just a bit lower is what appears to be a third wheel for the bicycle, with a tire of clearly different type, hovering in the air, as if ready to drop like landing gear on demand. And if you look further down this montage (not—it is now clear—ever to be confused with a montagne), to the left of Carmichael's corporate logo you'll see a profusion of chains and gears and drivetrains and other instruments of S-and-M. (And the typo in the URL——is just a bit of icing.)

When Lance won at Limoges, he said he rode with “the strength of two men”. Now, for a small fee, you too can have your second man.

Or, maybe it's possible that the secret to Carmichael's success is something else entirely.

It's Photoshop.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dutch Mountain → Kenyan Mountain?

Nicholas Leong has a dream: to turn Kenyans from Eldoret into professional bicyclists. Since they already vaporize marathon runners in their wake, this is a fairly natural next step. To make his point, he's recruited two riders to climb L'Alpe d'Huez and, hopefully, come close to the record time for the climb. It's a quixotic effort of the kind we'll look back on years later and ask, “Duh! Why didn't someone do that sooner?” So, good on you, Nicholas, and good luck, Zakayo and Mwangi. You'll roast my time, that's for sure.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Functional Programming and the ACM Curriculum

In May 2008, ACM SIGPLAN organized a workshop on Undergraduate Programming Language Curricula. One of the outcomes of this workshop was a proposal to put functional programming in the ACM core curriculum. This was Stuart Reges's brainchild, and Matthias Felleisen and I worked with him on it. We were very pleased to accomplish this in a “zero footprint” fashion.

Of course, this has earned a little (but surprisingly little) sniping from the vasty deep that is the Internet. Stuart and I wrote some prose not only explaining how we planned to accomplish the zero-footprint but, even more importantly, why this material belongs there. It should be useful reading for people who are stuck in the old-fashioned trap of “paradigms” (more on that later).

Because I don't know what will happen to this prose when it's incorporated into the final report from the workshop, I'm posting the original version of it here. If you're stuck in a discussion about this change, feel free to refer to this.

NB: This is co-authored with Stuart Reges, and inspired by some text from Larry Snyder, who both seem to have more sense than to have blogs of their own.

Rationale for the Change to the CS2001 Curriculum

The proposed change has the following structure:

Knowledge Unit                       Current Proposed
PF4  Recursion                           5       2
PF5  Event-driven programming            4       2

PL1 Overview of PL 2 0 PL2 Virtual Machines 1 0 PL3 Language Translation 2 0 PL6 Object-oriented programming 10 10 PL7 Functional Programming 0 10 -- -- Total 24 24

The changes have two key design goals:

  1. To make the functional programming unit (FP), currently listed as PL7 in the curriculum, required rather than optional.
  2. To account for this change in a "budget-neutral" way.

First we describe the high-level motivation for this change.

  • Functional programming is not merely about a change in syntax; rather, it forces students to approach problems in a novel way. This increases their mental agility and prepares students for a life of practice in a world where languages continuously grow, morph, and sometimes shift their perspective. This is not just the academic community speaking: this advice comes from influential industrial practitioners including Joel Spolsky, Steve Yegge, Paul Graham, Eric Raymond, and Peter Norvig, who have all written vocally about it.
  • The growth and change of languages, and the influence of functional programming, is not hypothetical. Virtually every significant mainstream language that has been designed, has gained prominence, or has been improved in the past decade, from JavaScript to Ruby to Java to C# to Visual Basic, incorporates notable features that used to be associated with functional programming. Datacenter programming techniques such as MapReduce grow directly out of functional programming. Microsoft has championed the use of functional constructs like closures in the .NET framework as the best way to express database and XML queries. The rise of multicore architectures is imposing new pressures on programmers to avoid the use of shared state whenever possible. Learning functional programming takes students directly to the source, without the overhead and pain of sometimes unwieldy encodings of these ideas.
  • By exposing students to multiple languages before they graduate, we make a strong statement about what they can expect to see in practice. History shows that the dominant programming language changes roughly every seven years, and over two or three of these changes little stays the same other than syntax. Furthermore, modern systems are rarely built in a single language alone; developers find it advantageous, and sometimes necessary, to use a combination of languages of widely different styles. Therefore, exposing students to a variety of styles is an essential part of their education.

Below we discuss the rationale for changes to specific knowledge units.

  • The topics in PF4 (Recursion) and PF5 (Event-driven programming) lend themselves naturally to coverage in both object-oriented and functional programming. Functional programming has traditionally made paradigmatic use of recursion, while the callbacks that guide event-driven programming are a natural fit when discussing closures. Furthermore, by seeing these topics in both contexts, students will be in a better position to compare and contrast their expression in different styles.
  • The topics in PL1 (Overview of programming languages), PL2 (Virtual machines) and PL3 (Language translation) are important topics, but we find it difficult to say much of use within this little time. The result is an enumeration of jargon without any deep study of concepts. Students will be better served by a substantial exposure to a functional language that serves as a contrast to whatever object-oriented language they will also learn. This experience of learning two different languages is more important than a superficial coverage of these other PL topics.
  • One of our major goals is to bring parity between the number of hours devoted to PL6 (Object-oriented programming) and PL7 (Functional programming) by requiring a substantial experience with each approach.

It is worth noting that the proposal is neutral about implementation. Some schools will choose to incorporate functional programming into their introductory sequence. Other schools might include it in an advanced programming course or a discrete structures course. And other schools will fit this into a required programming languages course.


Mitch Wand pointed me to this article by an email veteran bemoaning what has become of the medium. Obviously, I concur.

One annoying type of message that continues to throw me off my game is those brief “okay” and “thank you” messages, especially from staff. I've been getting increasingly good at anticipating these and affixing NNTR or NN2R to my preceding message. Amazingly, both the former and the latter are indexed in Web dictionaries, which makes me wonder why people don't use them more. [That's “No Need To Reply”, natch, not a Myers-Briggs indicator, though it might as well be.]

Anyway, I do, and I encourage you to as well.

Meanwhile, you ask, what do you do? I'm afraid I still send those replies to staff members, because I think it's just basic etiquette (though many a misplaced good intention has been born there...). I'd like to ask them someday whether they'd be offended if I stopped doing this and instead used that old classic from the days of Usenet: TIA (that's “Thanks in Advance”, for you wee ones).

Friday, June 27, 2008

Animal Instinct

After years of dealing with a pair of unpolarized shades with optical inserts, an ugly, ungainly, heavy combination, I finally decided to splurge on a pair of custom Oakleys. For the price of a small principality, they will create prescription lenses—not inserts, lenses!—that fit the frame of your choice. Of course, my optician was taking care of all the easy and technical parts (like the prescription); the awesome burden of designing the actual glasses fell to me. Oakley's site has a bewildering set of models, all poorly differentiated, each of which has umpteen customization options. Yee haw!

“These glasses will make you two miles an hour faster!”, my optician had said. Surely the glasses alone were just the beginning of the gains. The right color scheme, I was sure, would only enhance the effect. So I spent a night at it. What, I thought, spelled a combination of speed and stamina better than a zebra? I already have Cinelli cork zebra bar tape—a tribute to the great zebra train of Mario Cipollini, which represents everything that is ridiculously over-the-top about cycling—and this would be the perfect match.

In the morning, I was pottering around pouring cereal as Kathi came by. “I designed my new shades last night!” She responded encouragingly. “Guess the color scheme!” She gamely tried a few lackadaisical options, then confessed ignorance. I paused for effect. “Zebra!”, I proclaimed. Her reaction was a little too stable. “Want to see it?”, I only half-asked, bouncing off in the direction of the monitor.

“Oh, cute! A cow!”

Now would be a good time to point out that later in the week, she confessed to needing to update her prescription. I'm just sayin', is all.

Anyway, the shades are here. They're terrific. In my mind, a zebra is what they will always be. Though I could have sworn I heard a moo as I was waging war with the wind on Blackstone Boulevard earlier this evening.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Functional Functionary

L.K. Advani is pretty close to my least favorite Indian politician, even after his recent softening. Who would have thought I could find common cause with such a man? And yet, this image, embedded in this article in The Economist, shows him sitting pensively while looming over his left shoulder is...a great big lambda!

It looks a lot closer to the (ugly) Haskell lambda than the (elegant) PLT Scheme lambda. It figures that Advani would have poor taste, and would pick a fundamentalist language.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Major Faux Pas

Life was tougher a hundred years ago, and tougher still in the face of open discrimination. Yet while people like Jackie Robinson are celebrated across the US, an earlier pioneer, Major Taylor, the first black cycling world champion, has been entirely forgotten.

Or would be, if a band of enthusiasts didn't have their way. But this group has kept his memory alive, and just under a month ago crossed a milestone: a statue of Major Taylor now stands outside the public library in Worcester, MA, a city where Taylor lived for much of his active life.

I wasn't there for the statue per se—I find most of these civic monuments uniformly ghastly—but to support Lynn Tolman, who has been the most visible member of this tireless group. They did have two headliners attend the event, Greg Lemond and Edwin Moses, and I figured they might have something interesting to say. In the end, things came out backwards. The statue is quite superb:

Moses was interesting enough, while Lemond continued to embarrass himself and those listening to him. It's one thing for Lemond to declaim about drugs in the sport: he knows something about life in the peloton in a way that the rest of us never will. (It doesn't help that he has become a kind of confidant-in-chief for suspect riders.) But at an event like this—which he knew about well in advance—he not only rambled without continuity or coherence part of the time but, worse, didn't so for the rest. When he wasn't rambling, he was telling us about how terrible a time he had had as a young American in Europe, and somehow linked his own tribulations (immense though they were) to Taylor's (which were unimaginably greater). In the end, one felt pity for Lemond and an even greater sense of Taylor's accomplishment.

So, no photograph of self-promoting celebrities. Here's Tolman during her pleasant and modest address:

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Average Intelligence

We were at the doctor's yesterday, and a counselor sat us down to discuss some numbers. Even as I girded myself for the usual array of bewildering physical units, the counselor told us that the array numbers—which all looked surprisingly close to 1—were all in terms of MoMs: multiple of the median. Unitless: perfect.

Most of the numbers looked just right, but one or two were a bit off, so I asked what we should understand by an entry with a MoM value of close to two. Her response: “Oh, that just means its twice the average”. I tried to clarify the distinction, until it became clear that she simply thought “median” meant “average”.

And we paid for this service.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Why Spam Will Improve English

As spam increasingly relies on misspellings, poor grammar, and poor punctuation to penetrate our defenses (one of today's message headers: “run don't walk to yuor broker” [sic]), the only email that will get through any longer will have to be perfect.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Footprint-Neutral Curricular Change

Last wee we had a SIGPLAN-sponsored workshop on programming languages education. Most of the usual luminaries, and people like me, attended. One of the outcomes—what, in fact, I think may be our most significant outcome—was a suggestion to rearrange some hours in the core ACM curriculum. You can find the details of that proposal here.

If at think this is at all a good idea (and you should), please post a comment to that effect. Yes, it'll take an extra minute of your time because you'll have to log in, which will involve remembering your ACM user ID (which you have long forgotten), but believe me, it'll be worth your time.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Third Time Still a Charm: Guston's Drawings

Inspired by my previous successes following The Economist's art recommendations, I spent a good part of today at the Morgan Library & Museum in NYC for their exhibition of drawings by Philip Guston. I had only loosely heard of Guston as an abstract expressionist, so normally I would never have taken the trouble to attend such an exhibition. But the article was persuasive, and I'm glad it was.

After a career of abstract expressionism (and protesting pop art), Guston underwent a crisis in the mid-1960s. Saying, for instance, “I like old-fashioned things like gravity”, Guston began to paint objects in the world around him. This was not, however, a return from the abstract to the concrete so much as a view of the concrete through eyes of abstraction. Some of his earliest paintings in this phase—just a few black brushstrokes on white paper, really—are stunning, such as 1967's Air or Wave II, which is simply an overlapping cascade running eccentrically down the paper. The books he paints become indistinguishable from skyscrapers, gravitas united with gravity.

Then, in 1970s, he finally cuts loose. A flood of drawings, first of caricatured Klansmen and then of boots and books and cobwebs and cherries and the rest of the trash of existence, give his work both a comic-like absurdity and a weight and feeling of urgency as he rushes to pump out his emotions. Some of his most wonderful, color drawings were executed in the very year of his death.

It would be pat to say Guston balanced the literal and the metaphorical, the abstract and the concrete, with ease—pat, and wrong. Instead he struggled with them, and put his struggles on paper. Thus on the one hand he was able to say,

The visible world, I think, is abstract and mysterious enough... Also there was a desire, a powerful desire though an impossibility, to paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet.

like he painted his books. But he also arrested himself from returning to his earlier phase as an architecture astronaut:

Sometimes when my painting is becoming too artistic, I'll say to myself, ‘What if the shoe salesman asked you to paint a shoe on his window?’

If the salesman had asked, he would have received a cartoon showing the metaphorical weight of the world being fitted to a size 9.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Oops!... I Did It Again

Recently I wrote about my experience running into an art exhibition in New York that I'd learned about thanks to The Economist. Continuing my trend of being a man about town, I've done it again.

I had given myself over a day of free time in London to see Brilliant Women, a collection of portraits of 18th-Century Bluestockings. But I met so many people at Imperial College—and so enjoyed my time there—that I simply never got to the National Portait Gallery. The Imperial folks had also kept me from paying homage at Foyles, so my schedule was looking rather dire. Fortunately I had booked to fly on one of the new late-afternoon flights out of Heathrow (thank you, Open Skies!), so I had a little time in the morning. Foyles opens at 9:30, the NPG at 10:00, and the former is just up Charing Cross from the latter. Still, it was a close-run thing.

The exhibition (which runs for another week, as of this writing) was worth the manic tour of the Piccadilly Line, the second time The Economist's art critic (was it the same one?) has come through for me. The NPG has some of the best captions of art anywhere (well, at least if you read English), and this exhibition was in the same vein. But there were also letters and assorted memorabilia.

Two gems. There is Katherine Read's portrait of Elizabeth Carter, and it is praised as “quite unlike the common run of staring portraits”. And a young Mary Wollstonecraft, just a year or two shy of breaking out into the limelight, is sucking up to Catherine Macaulay in a letter on December 16, 1790:

I respect Mrs Macaulay Graham because she contends for laurels whilst most of her sex only seek for flowers.

If you find yourself in the vinicity, run.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Totally New Concept for Learning Devices

The book.

That's the latest “totally new concept for learning devices” from Nicholas Negroponte.

To be fair, it's not just a book. It's a battery-powered book. That is new indeed, because a regular book won't stop working in broad daylight, but an OLPC XO2 can.

The OLPC Kool-Aid-addled salesmen continue to trot out the fuzzy math concept that developing countries spend USD 20/year per student on textbooks. I've heard this before from their staff and demanded documentation, and none was forthcoming. I'm not asking just for the sake of it; I'm asking because I absolutely, totally refuse believe that number, for more reasons than I can count.

Notice that Negroponte no longer mentions India in his list of developing countries (besides, there's no room for two `I's in his BRIC...), now that the country wisely turfed his snake-oil out.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

One Lesson Per Century

I'm not usually into the +1 thing, and I've been doing the utmost to hold my tongue on One Laptop Per Child, but Ivan Krstić gets it so right that I can't help but ask you to read his post.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

No Shark Jumped; Not Even a Dorsal Fin in Sight

A good way to find out how many of your friends read reddit (or some equivalent site) is to wait for something of yours to appear there. I'm rarely in the limelight, but last week my book PLAI made it to the top-5 of reddit's programming site. The comments are the usual Intenet combination of praise, flames, argument, and randomness. I was tempted to respond to one or two, but decided to preserve my authorial dignity.

I Am Not a Spammer, I Am a Free Man!

Houston is an eccentric city. Its apparent mono-culture actually creates a remarkably strong and flavorful counter-culture, of which there is probably no more delightful manifestation than the Art Car movement.

Two lesser, but even more eccentric, attractions are the Orange Show and Beer Can House. And now, a twofer: the NYT informs us that the former has acquired the latter, melding the city's passion for eccentricity and capitalism. The article contains a key insight about Houston:

Marilyn Oshman, the art patron who founded the Orange Show, said it was no accident Houston played host to such attractions. “One good thing about not having any zoning is you can do stuff,” Ms. Oshman said.

The problem lies in notifying your friends of such events. I sent email to old Houston friends with the title “Orange Show buys Beer Can”, to which one responded:

I deleted this message as spam (but didn't purge) before I noticed that it was from you. I guess "Orange Show buys Beer Can" is more like the title of spam that I get than a typical legitimate message.

When the names of a city's museums trigger spam filters, you know it's doing something right.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Who Needs The Onion When You Have Your Eyes?

During my morning news scan, I came across this headline:

Bernanke to give update on the economy

I did a double-take, because I initially parsed it as:

Bernanke to give up on the economy

(It may be Freudian.)

I mentioned this to a colleague, whose said he too read it the same way.

(It must be Freudian.)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Woman With Qualities

Have you ever had the experience of reading about an art exhibit in, say, the Wall Street Journal or The Economist? If this week something excellent is opening in Basel, next week it's something else in St. Petersburg—oh, and you really must check out this temporary exhibit in the trendiest new district of London.

Who attends these? Are there people who jump out of their couches and say, “You know, darling, we really must pop over to Basel for the weekend; this new ironic statement about post-modernism sounds so droll!”, and then proceed to buy tickets? Or maybe nobody does, and these reports are really just meant to make the readership jealous. Indeed, I think it's all about promoting the brand: you want your reader to think they're part of a group in which everyone else (but them) gets to jet off to Basel at the drop of a hat—and feels good about being part of such an exclusive club.

Well, no more. I have joined the other side. I read the Economist's report on the Frick Collection's special exhibit on Parmigianino's Antea, and knew this was one I would make. I passed on it on multiple trips to the city the past two months, expecting that Kathi and I would see it over spring break. And we did.

Not only was the exhibit worthwhile, but so was the Frick itself, which I have never visited before. It reminded me most of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, one of my very favorite art museums in the world. In most other countries, the Brera would be a national jewel; in Italy, it seems to be a bit of an also-ran to all but the cognoscenti. In the Brera I had the experience walking into just about every room of saying, “Oh, and that's here too?” The Frick was rather like that.

One of the most important things about reviewers—of books, movies, shoes, computers, bicycles, or any other pieces of art—is not whether they're “good” or “bad”; it's about whether you and they are calibrated. If they get every single review “wrong”, that's much more helpful than doing so only half the time. This is much harder to establish with the Economist, whose book reviews are written by an unattributed team, not by a single person. Likewise, having seen and liked the Antea exhibit doesn't help me much with future art exhibits.

But since I'm not often free to jet off to Basel (they're always troubling me with chores around here), it doesn't much matter.