Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Leo Beranek

Leo Beranek died this week at the age of 102.  He was a 20th century icon for anyone interested in acoustics.  He demonstrated an early interest in sound by playing drums in high school and then timpani in the Harvard orchestra.  His PhD advisor was Hunt, who was an early pioneer in acoustics and wrote a book giving a historical overview of acoustics.  After obtaining his PhD, Beranek became an assistant professor at MIT and then wrote his magnum opus "Acoustics" published in 1954.  This book is not to be underestimated even given its age.  It is a masterful exposition of the physics of acoustics.

Beranek left MIT to form Bolt, Beranek and Newman (a.k.a. BB&N).  BB&N started out life as an acoustical consulting firm but due to the "acquisition" of J.C.R. Licklider, they also became a computing company.  BB&N was responsible for a number of very notable achievements in the computing domain including the ARPAnet, the Tenex operating system and graphical computing.  They also were responsible for early research in speech DSP.

I met Beranek in 1993 when I was the general chair of the "Mohonk Audio Workshop".  I came up with the idea of having Beranek give a keynote address since I knew he was getting up there in years.  When I called him to see about his availability, he could only stay for one day since he was consulting.  Keep in mind, he was 78 at the time.  He was very proud to announce that he had been the first chair of the IEEE Audio and Electroacoustics committee (I was the current chair at the time).

When I met him, I was impressed.  Beranek was small, I'd say 5'4" maybe.  But you sensed a physical and intellectual dynamo.  He didn't move like he was 78.  He mentioned he  exercised every morning.  Jim Flanagan was at the meeting and I remember how deferential he was to Beranek.  Beranek was also a nice guy, he was very approachable and was intensely involved in the technical discussions.

Beranek published his last paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America earlier this year.  It was on concert halls.  He was devoted to the science and measurement of halls.  He wanted to know what physical parameters corresponded with the psychoacoustic experience.  He published several books on the topic.

Beranek was an amazing guy when you read about his career.  His critical life point (in my opinion) was when he helped a guy change his flat tire outside of his father's hardware store.  But this was no ordinary guy, this turned out to be the person who wrote the recommendation that got Beranek into the Harvard graduate school.

Leo Beranek's story is one of those quintessential American stories that charts the life of an exceptional mind from Solon OH to Harvard, MIT and beyond.  He lived a full and extraordinarily productive life and I mourn his passing but celebrate his accomplishments.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Vietnam, the draft and me

Visiting Vietnam in person brought to mind a whole stew of complex memories about the Vietnam War.  For males of a certain age, the Vietnam War was a period of uncertainty and dread.  The draft was around the corner, lurking to grab unsuspecting hippies (and their cohorts) and send them to war.

My own history with the draft was fairly mundane.  I registered when I was 18 and then filed for conscientious objector status (CO).  This was routinely denied and then you would be re-categorized appropriately.  If you made it to 1-A, then you were called up for the dreaded physical (as re-told in "Alice's Restaurant").  I would have been classified 1-A had it not been for my student deferment.  If you filed the right form, the university would tell the Selective Service Board you were a valid student and therefore given a 2-S.  But, this was clearly discriminatory.  Most of the middle class were exempt from the horrors of war, at least for four years while the high school graduates who didn't go to college went to die.  In my sophomore year they instituted the lottery, which meant I was assigned a number based on my birthday.  I drew 138 and they didn't intend to go past 100 that year.  I was safe.

But back to Vietnam.  This war grievously wounded the US in ways that are still continuing to this day.  It split the country between left and right and I think one could make the argument that this rupture is still being manifest in modern politics  (although I also believe that what is going on is a counter-revolution to the hippies).  So, what of Vietnam?  What happened?

When you arrive in Vietnam, you see a vibrant capitalist society covered over with this socialist (communist?) veneer.  It's all a lie of course.  The collectivist farms were dissolved during the economic reforms.  Private property was allowed to return.  What's left is a one party state, like China.  Candidates for office must be members of the party and while you must vote, you can do so by proxy (!).  It's not a democracy.  Neither is China.

The population is quite young and most were born after the "American War".  And so, the U.S. is viewed as an ally against their ancient enemy, the Chinese.  You can see foreign investment left and right around Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City).  But there are remainders from the war all around you.

The "Reunification Palace" is what I remember from television: It was the "Presidential Palace" during the war.  And now you can rent it out for weddings.  But it's the "War Remnants Museum" that gets the attention.  This features various pieces of American (and Soviet) military hardware on the outside and an inside devoted to retelling the war experience from the victorious side.  It has been said that "History is written by the victors".  And so, the "War Remnants Museum" gives you that perspective.  I found the raw statistics to be most persuasive: more bomb tonnage than WW II is just stunning (Gen. Curtis LeMay's famous quote about "bombing them into the Stone Age" was displayed).   A decimation of the commanding ranks of the US forces (complete statistics per rank) were given.  Interestingly, they didn't address either the incredible losses by the Vietnamese or the support of the Soviet Union and China.

My overwhelm sense was and is both sadness and waste.  The waste of many lives.    The squandered resources of the US applied to a people who have never been conquered.  But this is looking at the war "in the rear view mirror".  But it appears to me that we still haven't learned lessons about when and when not to interfere.

But then you step out of the museums and into the life of the street, dodging motor-bikes and cars with abandon.   And maybe you'll buy a Banh Mi for $1.50.

Monday, 16 March 2015

In praise of badminton

One distinct advantage of living (however briefly) in the U.K. is the opportunity to get re-acquainted with badminton.  I have a special relationship with badminton: it is the first sport where I realized that I might actually have some aptitude.  Let me set the stage.

In my senior year of high school, we had a badminton unit in P.E.   I was matched up with someone (whose name has slipped into the mists) and we proceeded to beat the entire class in doubles.  This was a revelation.  Never before had I ever shown such aptitude.  My exposure to sports had been to the usual american sports: baseball, flag football and basketball.  My father favored baseball and I was anxious to please him, but frankly I was terrible.  I was (and continue to be!) afraid of a hard hit ball.  I was typically assigned to right field: the sink hole for the inept.  I remember being more interested in the gophers than the progress of the game.

As discussed in a previous post, I'm all about the ball.  And so basketball was one of my favored sports.  I was, once again, not very good.  But at least I could chase the ball and try and inhibit the other players (in this way, I am drawn to soccer).  There were two lightweight leagues "C" and "D".  According to your age, weight and height, you were allowed to play in one or the other league.  And when you got too old, well, unless you qualified for varsity, you were done.  In 10th grade, I qualified for "D"s.  I only tried out because my history teacher, the infamous Ron Jones (of the "Third Wave") mentioned it in class.  And in the subsequent year, I qualified for "C"s.  I should note that there were two strings and leftovers.  And I was in the leftovers.

But badminton was different.  I could sense that this was a sport I could really play.  First, it doesn't require strength.  Second, it's about strategy (like tennis).  Third, it favors a kind of twitchy fast reaction kind of body.  And fourth, being small and lightweight is not a problem, and perhaps even preferred.

And so, by the time I went off to college, I had bought my own racquet.  I took a few classes in college but both the other players and coaches didn't really take it as seriously as I did.  Had there been a team, I would have tried to make it.  But there wasn't, so I let it go.  I also learned about squash as an undergrad and I liked that too.  But I think squash doesn't have as much finesse as badminton.  Badminton is all about guile and changing speed.  Both sports emphasize precision and that is always my emphasis.

So, I didn't play badminton again until I was teaching at Rutgers.  I ventured to the other campus to play but realized it took a good 3 hours out of the middle of my day.  Not a good plan.  So, again it languished.

And now, here it is, many years later and I have found a badminton club.  When I first started to play, I was extremely rusty.  I couldn't hit the bird very reliably and I certainly couldn't figure out where to put it precisely.  Now, it's all coming back.  I can clear the bird to the end of the court.  And this week, all of a sudden, I could drop the bird over the net.  And, my close net play returned --- just like that.  Backhands have always been a problem (in squash too) but that's starting to come back.

I couldn't even remember how to play singles: I knew it was "long and narrow" but that was it.  And once, I only played singles!  But after a single session it started to come back: the long serves, returning to the tee.  It all started to come back.  And I found that I certainly don't have the stamina that I had.  But not playing more than once a week is also responsible.

But why is squash easier to find in the U.S. than badminton?  The answer is simply courts.  Squash courts are special built.  They have to have the "tin" to signal the out of bounds low shot as well as the regulation court.  But badminton requires a flat court.  And given the choice between basketball and badminton (or even volleyball) which sport ends up on the bottom?  You know the answer.

Badminton has a bad reputation in the U.S. as a backyard sport for wimps.  I, for one, would like to erase that categorization and show how diabolical it can be (not to mention, how difficult it is to play properly).  But I don't hold out much hope.   But I have to say, this trip has reinvigorated my love for this game --- I remember why I felt it was the game for me.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

It's all about the ball

I know many people who like to run.  They run for relaxation, they run for weight loss, they run for the sure zen and pleasure of it.  And I don't get it.

I don't like to run -- it's just too painful.  The air scrapes my larynx and I feel nothing but aches and pains coming from my legs.  I've never liked running.  I remember the first time I ran cross-country in a gym class in junior high school.  There were some who just seemed to enjoy it. And others who waited behind the trees and joined the crowd later (no, I wasn't one of them).

But, I have discovered that there is one circumstance where I will run.  In fact, I'll run until I can't move.  There has to be a ball.  I first discovered this in high school when my history teacher, the infamous Ron Jones (of the Third Wave) announced that he was coaching the lightweight basketball team.  The lightweight league used age, weight and height to determine which section was acceptable.  In the first year, I was in the D League.  But Coach Jones had a diabolical method of pruning the possible players: the first few practices were brutal.  I remember the drills and the running.  But, at the end of it all he didn't cut anyone. There were two strings and the leftovers.  And I was in the leftovers.

The first time I discovered I had any athletic ability was my senior year in high school. We played badminton and we (doubles) managed to defeat the entire class.  Finally I had found my sport.  Badminton is incredibly fast and doesn't use strength but rather stamina and stealth.  The fundamental idea is to push the opponent into the corners where they can't return your next shot.  Unfortunately, in this country badminton is viewed as a kind of  backyard game instead of the crafty diabolical speed game that it can be.

When I got to the university, I briefly played handball.  I played it until the day I scraped my fingernails against the side wall.  But I liked the idea that unlike tennis, the ball would return back to you. I then discovered racquetball.  And this led to squash.  I'd heard that squash was a posh game played by ivy leaguers.  Squash and racquetball look the same, but they are not.  The squash ball doesn't bounce very high.  It's not going to come to you, you are going to have to move.  To run. There is the additional complication that the bottom of the front wall (a kill zone in racquetball) is covered by the tin and is out.  And finally, the racquetball racquet is short and easily handled as a kind of wrist extension. The squash racquet is more like a tennis racquet with a long handle.  In squash, you can lob, smash and drop the ball.  It's a game of finesse.  And, you have all the advantages of a walled court: the ball doesn't escape and you can use the walls to sap energy from the ball. Also, unlike racquetball, the ceiling is out of bounds.

Unlike today, I grew up in a world where baseball, basketball and football were the only  sports that boys played. In high school, soccer was introduced but I never played outside of gym class.  Strangely enough, it was in graduate school that I started playing again.  It wasn't quite the way I remembered it, now it was more fun.

Where I live now, soccer is a big deal.  Not only does it have a well developed child soccer system, it also has the adult leagues as well.  I signed up for the "Over 40s" Master's League. My first adventure out on the field was a shock.  I discovered that playing squash did not adequately prepare me for the rigors of a field sprint.  And, I was lost on the field.  It was bigger than I remembered and while running I would lose the sidelines and my field position.  As expected, I had lost any ball handling skill I used to have so I had to start building that up as well.

I have always liked to play midfield, which is the position with the most running and to my mind, the most strategic position.  Because you shift back and forth from offense to defense, you must always be alert for the sudden shift in play. And, for the most part, you also avoid catastrophic mistakes as well since you hope the defense will be behind you when you make an error.  And it happens...

In my second season, I was feeling more secure on the field, and in spite of being the worst player on the team,  my tactical skills were improving and my ball handling was also improving since I was practicing at the  lunch hour as well.  I managed to score my first goal ever --- which I promptly reported to my 80+ year old parents.  I felt like a child again: so proud and yet, so embarrassed by my delight in such a simple thing.

Unfortunately, cardiovascular decline waits for no one.  One loses one beat per minute of "top end" per year.  So, you get slower and slower.  Eventually, it was time for me to move to the Over-50 league.  It's slower and gentler (for the most part) than the Over-40 league. I'm still playing outside midfield.  And I still live for the good pass.

I watch the joggers run by here and there all the while knowing that it just doesn't have any appeal to me.  I don't get it.  Without the ball, I don't run.  It's that simple: it's all about the ball.

Monday, 17 February 2014

A review of "Coders at Work"

Once upon a time, I was proud to call myself a "hacker".  Those were the often bearded long-haired guys who knew every intimate detail of the machine. But then of course the media got a hold of the word and it came to mean a teenage kid trying to crack passwords and steal information --- also known as the "script kiddies".  I suppose that these days the preferred word might be "coders".

So, I saw a reference to the book "Coders at Work" and checked it out.  It is a collection of interviews with noted programmers and edited by Peter Seibel.  Of course, it's impossible to be completely impartial and his preferences leak out over the course of the book.   I should note that I actually know two of the interviewees and have talked to three others.

I thought I'd also use this book to remember some of my history about learning to program and various trials I've had along the way.  Seibel begins with the same question: "How/where did you learn to program?".  How and when depends critically on the interviewee.  For example, the younger members had opportunities that the older ones didn't.

For myself, the first program I ever wrote was in Sunday School.  My mother believed that children should have a religious education even if they never believed, just so they could at least see what others believed.  Strangely enough, in 8th grade some member of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church agreed to teach the class programming.  We were taught ALGOL-60 --- which was  amazing in itself.  Why ALGOL?  Because SRI had a B5500, that's why.  And so I grabbed some equations from my friend Tracy Mallory's father's physics PhD thesis --- something about waveguides I'm fairly certain.  And I coded it up on special coding sheets.  And it ran.  Of course I had no idea if the numbers were right or not.  As Hamming so famously put it: "The purpose
of computing is insight, not numbers".  But it wasn't until I landed in the Hewlett-Packard Microwave Lab that I really started to write programs.  One of my sponsors suggested that I should learn to program.  There was a small room with four noisy ASR-33 teletypes.  The passwords were on the wall. The programming language was BASIC, either on a GE-645 or the Tymshare SDS-940.  I liked the Tymshare system better but was getting bored writing BASIC and was up for a challenge.  So, I started to write a program to use as many of the OS system calls as possible.  I was spending hours and HP's money.  Because I put my name in the code, I was eventually asked to cut it out.  But by then it was too late, I had found the East Meadow machine room of Tymshare and I was hired that summer.

Back to the book: There are various quotes that stood out.  Here's one from the first chapter: Seibel: "Do you like Perl or is it just handy?" Zawinski: "Oh, I despise it.  It's a horrible language.  But it is  installed absolutely everywhere."

Absolutely 100% in agreement.  Using Perl is awful.  It reminds me of the old Lavoris commercial:  "Do you like the taste of Lavoris?  It's awful, but I use it twice a day!".  I only use Perl when I feel awk is just too painful. It doesn't happen that often.  The next interviewee totally disagrees with the Perl hate and professes his love for Perl.  I know there are people like that.  I don't understand it.

Seibel:: "I've noticed that one thing that separates good programmers from bad programmers is that good programmers are more facile at jumping between layers of abstraction..."

That's a critical aspect of programming and I don't know how to teach it. The idea that you can "drill down" to the bug, fix it and then pop back up without understanding most of the code is challenging to many.  Of course, it depends on the bug.  Some are just too entwined.

Seibel: "Is there a key skill programmers must have?"  Zewinski: "Well, curiosity -- taking things apart.  Wanting to know what's going on under the hood."

I disagree.  For me, absolutely, it's all about the machine.  For others who don't have that aspect, no.

Seibel: "Do you have any advice for self-taught programmers?"  Fitzpatrick: "Always try to do something harder... Read Code...  Then I really enjoyed reading code, because whenever I didn't understand some pattern, I was like, "Wait, why the fuck did they do it like this? ... Wow that is really clever..."

Yes, reading code is how I learned the SDS-940 assembler as well as the  PDP-10 assembler.  There's really no substitute for reading code.   I spent most of my latter high school years code at night.  Sussman at MIT once told me that the way to teach a new language was to have students read code and augment it.  I tried this and was impressed how much the students benefited from this approach.

Seibel always asks a question about Knuth's books.  Everyone admits to  at least glancing at them.  Some of the interviewees admit to being not very mathematical (and Knuth's books can get very mathematical) but my impression is that everyone asked the question knows and appreciates them. I got my first volume as a going away present from Tymshare when I went to college (Thanks Norm and Ann!)

Another popular question for Seibel is "What is the worst bug you have ever had to track down"?  For me, the answer is easy: it was the compacting relocating garbage collector in Bravo, the first WYSIWYG editor.  The problem was that it would crash but of course this was the result of a bad pointer.  And when you have a compacting GC, you are moving data around and possibly not updating pointers.  As I recall, it took me two days of concentrated and painstaking work.

Seibel: "Because, like the Spanish Inquisition, no one really expects floating point".

One assumes that the realm of floating point only belongs to the numerical analyst.  In fact, numerical programming haunts everyone when they deal with signals from the real world.  And so I discovered when I wanted to process audio signals.

Seibel: "As a programmer, do you consider yourself a scientist, an engineer, an artist or a craftsman"?

I think this is a matter of self-perception.  These days I view myself as a kind of sloppy engineer.  The advantage of software is that mistakes can often corrected rapidly.  In hardware, it can be horrible --- like the time I reversed a 32 bit bus and had to unwrap all the wires and then rewrap them. (Wire wrapping is why rock and roll was invented, I am sure).

Guy Steele: "I set out to be a pure math major... and then discovered I had no intuition whatsoever for infinite dimensional Banach spaces. That's what did me in."

I regret to say that's what did me in, in a matter of speaking.  In my  case it was Real Analysis.  I realized I just didn't have the insight. It didn't matter that I could do multi-dimensional calculus until the cows moo-ed.  This was different.

Steele: "It's hard to find good code worth reading.  We haven't developed a body of accepted literature..."

I couldn't agree more.  With the emphasis on open source, we (as a community) recognize various programs as being exceptionally well written.  Of course, who makes that decision?

Peter Deutsch: "If you look at programming languages I would make the strong case that programming languages have not improved qualitatively in the last 40 years. There is no programming language in use today that is better than Simula-67"

No comment!

LPD: "The reason I don't program in Lisp anymore: I can't stand the syntax."

This is remarkable.  Peter wrote one of first interpreters of LISP for the PDP-1 (he was in high school).  He wrote his dissertation in LISP (as I did as well).  And now...

LPD: "Well, my description of Perl is something that came out the wrong end of a dog.  I think Larry Wall has a lot of nerve talking about language design --- Perl is an abomination as a language.  But let's not go there."

Tell it!

Ken Thompson: "But I love the teaching: the hard work of the first class, the fun of the second class.  Then the misery of the third."

Amen!  Tell it!

KT: "The PDP-11s a great LISP machine.  The PDP-10's a great LISP machine. There's no need to build a Lisp machine that's not faster."

This was lesson of Symbolics and the lisp machine craze.  The moral of the lesson (I learned this as well) is that Moore's Law waits for no one.  And you can emulate a Lisp machine on stock architecture as faster than custom hardware.  A hard lesson.

KT: "99% of the time something simple and brute-force will work fine."

This is really important.  Often we often tend to grab these real fancy dancy all-singing all-dancing data structures but in fact a simple linked list search will do Just Fine.

Fran Allen: "We have seriously regressed since C developed.  C has destroyed out ability to advance the state of the art in automatic optimization, automatic parallelization, automatic mapping of a HLL to the machine.  This is one of the reasons compilers are ... basically not taught anymore in the colleges and universities."

I disagree.  That's not the issue.  In fact, much of compilers have become boiler plate --- lexical analysis and parsing are both table driven these days.  So, what does that leave us?  Also, the regularization of machine architecture means that the wide variety of machine designs are gone.  So all those fancy algorithms are not required (remember Call by Name?!?).  Also, there are Domain Specific Languages (DSLs) that require compiler construction techniques.

The last interview is with Don Knuth.  And that's an appropriate end to an interesting book --- I'm not sure I learned anything new, but I enjoyed seeing how other programmers approached their art/craft.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Babette's Feast: Creation, Serving and Eating

Of all the movies I have seen (and I have seen quite a number), Babette's Feast resonates most strongly with my internal experience.

While the theme of sacrifice doesn't match my own, the other themes of intense preparation and cooking, as well as sharing your efforts with diners hits a deep chord in me.

Since I first learned to eat, my mother tells me I have been an exceptional eater.  I have no doubt this is true.  For me, the satisfaction from eating can be found along a spectrum: from the truly mundane (as in, "I'm so hungry I must eat (almost anything)") to the transcendent and the intense focus a truly wonderful dish can bring.

Let me address the three themes in the title.

Creation: By this I mean the construction of a particular set of dishes. A meal should be an ensemble of tastes.  And these tastes can only be assembled by considering how the flavors will blend together.  Most meals I serve has this in mind.  What ingredients are fresh right now? Is the meal balanced?  Are all the food groups supplied?  Does the main have a complement?  If not, what can I add that will complement the main?  Additionally, what wine(s) can complement the food?  When a character of the wine matches the dish, it can augment and push the dish into a different realm.

Serving: Cooking is sharing.  I image that anyone who enjoys cooking also enjoys the act of sharing their efforts.  Serving is simply "Here is this meal, which I created for your enjoyment.  Please enjoy!"  And, of course, I  also created it for my own personal enjoyment, but that doesn't give me the same satisfaction.

Eating: As mentioned before, eating can provoke a number of different sensations.  But for me, when eating with friends, I often find my enjoyment multiplied.  In Babette's Feast, it's the combination of  extraordinary food, exceptional wines and deep conversation that creates a truly transcendental experience.  Yes, such meals are few and far between in one's life.  But when they happen, you know it.  You arise the next morning and feel elevated and residually happy.  If all meals were like that no doubt we would feel jaded.  But they are not.  And so, let us celebrate these meals when they happen.

Friday, 12 July 2013

European travel - Summer 2013

When the opportunity presented itself (dropping offspring off in Paris), it seemed like a very obvious thing to do: redeem those frequent flyer miles and check out Paris more than 25 years after our Lune de Miel.  Unfortunately, by the time the program acceptance arrived, it was no longer possible to fly into Paris.  So, we flew into Frankfurt and out of Geneva.

It's always been one of those conundrums (should that be conundra?): How can I have traveled around Europe without ever being in Germany?  No, the Frankfurt airport doesn't count.  Since there was a request that we actually visit Germany, we selected Heidelberg, a city with an extremely old university (1386!) and relatively close to Frankfurt.

It's fascinating to me: Heidelberg is approximately 15 miles from the Rhine River.  And yet, when one crosses into France, the architecture is quite distinct.  Heidelberg has a baroque "old town" with architecture dating back to the 18th century.  The building ornamentation is quite different from France with an emphasis on corners and roof lines.  The river Neckar (a tributary of the Rhine) flows through Heidelberg and certainly serves as a vital connection to other cities - barges continue to ply the waters.  We had some classic German food the first night including a very unusual cheese: it was marinated in the sauerkraut brine.  It was advertised as not being suitable for the unwary but we found it both intense and enjoyable.

From Heidelberg we moved to Strasbourg where our first experience was a pair of delinquent girls who pushed the kid into a pole on the bus and kicked my backpack (resting on the floor) as they ran laughing out the bus.  Jet lag did not help here so I wasn't as swift or observant as I might have been.

Strasbourg rests on the Ill, a rather famous river in gastonomy.  The Michelin *** restaurant Auberge de l'Ill (located some 30 miles south of Strasbourg) features modern Alsatian food.  No, we didn't eat there.  Because I delight in sauerkraut, I am a fan of Alsatian food and cooking.  Braising sauerkraut in wine or beer tempers the flavor and when combined with smoky meats (like ham or bacon), it becomes a sumptuous whole.  The well known Choucroute Garnie is an exemplar of this style of cooking.  It's one of my favorite meals in winter (although I don't do it much).  Classically, it is served with boiled potatoes and rich, spicy mustard.  The recipe in Julia Child (Mastering the Art) is easy to follow and produces excellent results.

From Strasbourg, we took the TGV to Paris.  Of course I have to rave about the TGV: it puts everything in this country to shame.  Built by the government, this train network extends all over France and into Switzerland and Germany.  The ride is fast, smooth and quiet.  And yet, we can't get it done in the Northeast Corridor.  A national shame and disgrace.

Paris has changed.  The availability of travel meant I saw many more races in Paris than 25 years ago.  I would say there are many more Africans and Asians today.  I saw so many Japanese restaurants I wonder what changed?  Have the French discovered sushi?  Was it the influence of French chefs (notably Bocuse and his disciples) that drew the Japanese to France?  Apparently, today one of the big trends is Japanese-French style fusion.

The center of Paris is inundated with tourists.  They were everywhere.  It was only when I ventured out of the inner ring of arrondissement that I felt like the old Paris was returning.  Otherwise, it was packed with both tourists and Parisians.  One interesting trend was the number of American families: We saw many families with children traveling together.  Since we've been dragging the kid with us since he was 9 months old, I can only view this positively.

The senses of Paris are the same: because the buildings are not that high (most places), the light filters down to the street.  The wide boulevards also bring spaciousness.  The smell is mostly the same, particularly in the Metro.  When I lived in Paris, the streets and sidewalks were washed and swept every morning.  This created this earthy smell I still recall.  But now, they seem to have switched to the American model of using street sweepers.  A pity.

To be honest about it, there is a lot less dog poop than there was.  I don't know what changed, but it used to be that you had to keep one eye on the sidewalk because you never knew what was in front of you (interesting side note: why is it that some cities are dog cities and others are cat cities?).   To compensate, there were a lot more bicycles.  Paris has created bicycle lanes and established a lending system (Velib) that is widely used (but also apparently heavily vandalized).  Instead of looking out for merde de chien, you now have to look (both ways!) for speeding bicycles.

Begging seemed to be everywhere.  I remember running into les clochards here and there 25 year ago  but now it was constant.  And interestingly, a fair number of them owned dogs.  I wonder how much of their income was spent on dog food.

What is it about the French and smoking?  Thank goodness smoking is now outlawed in restaurants but when you walk, you are inundated by smokers left and right.  Is it a matter of personal liberty?  It is blatant disregard for health?  Whatever it is, the French continue to smoke and drink.  One out of two ain't bad.

I found the food markets to be much the same.  The same wonderful selection of cheeses, the incredible variety and selection of wines (I saw some wine bottles with prices less than bottled water; would I want to drink it?  Probably not.).  Our local butcher shop was spectacular, with such finds as Guinea Hen.  I bought a rack of lamb (I was told it was the last of the season from the Pyrennes) and the flavor was delicious, even if the cooking time given by the butcher was too long.

I have to say that English is everywhere.  It's the lingua franca between different peoples: it's the one language that the chinese and french can speak.  Even the word "geek" has been imported into French.  I have to admit though, when your brain just can't manage to find the right word in French, it is useful to drop back into English.

As for my French, it did come back to me in fits and starts.  I did manage to conjugate a few verbs into the past and future tenses.  I did manage to remember words that I had forgotten and every once in a while I found my self speaking nearly at full rate.  Speaking another language is always interesting: at first I find myself surrounded by words from Russian (of all things!) and then on occasion I get words in Italian.

The offspring asked an very interesting question: Is Paris just New York with more light?  I think this cuts to the central point: globalization has made Paris much more international and multicultural.  In this sense I must agree.  But Paris has the arts support of the government, something the US does not (and will not) have.  So, I consider the musical arts scene to be more vibrant than New York.   I can not comment on the visual or performing arts.  And, of course, the food culture of France is vastly more developed than in the US.  The US is doing better, but it's still not France.  And while New York can compete with Paris on restaurants, I still think that the Parisians have it beat overall.

From Paris we went (again by TGV) to Lausanne.  Lausanne is close to the Geneva Airport (a direct train goes very frequently) and also home to a well known technical university (EPFL).   It's quite a walking experience since the town is built on a hill.  It starts at the beach on Lake Leman (also known as Lake Geneva) at Ouchy and goes up the hill to the cathedral and beyond.  A train system can be used to move up and down the hill if you wish.

We made a side trip on sunny (but foggy) day up to Les Pleiades via a private cog railway.  You can buy tickets from the National Swiss Railway system that include private railways.  I've always wanted to take a cog railway: the center rail is a rack and the engine provides the pinion gear.  Unfortunately, I couldn't see the drive gear since the body of the engine went nearly all the way to the ground.  Supposedly the top offered fantastic views but with the haze it was all but impossible to see clearly.  And, thanks to a couple going to lunch at restaurant on the "Route Gourmand" (my kind of route!), we actually had instructions about how to follow the trail.  And, thanks to the use of text messaging, we were able to rendezvous with Bart on the geared train.

The following day, we said goodbye to Bart and had to change locations (not a bad thing in retrospect).  We moved to the nearby small village of Cully located in the center of the Lavaux wine district.  The Lavaux vineyards date back to the 13th century and were constructed by monks.  They go straight up the hill from the railroad tracks.  The vines have a southern exposure and it can get quite hot (I know this from personal experience).  We walked nearly the entire extent of the trail (which winds around and through the  vineyards).  The principle grape is Chasselas, which produces a very drinkable white --- the reds don't have much body (or "structure" as the wine folks would say).  When I talked to the wine seller in Paris about Swiss wines he said that the French thought that the prices were too high for what you got.  And I can see that.  But it's still a very nice thing to drink a wine that you know was grown a few miles from you and perhaps even produced next door.

Our B&B was part home, part guests bedrooms and in the bottom floor, a jazz club.  Our hosts asked us if we minded a practice session one night.  I told her that if they didn't practice then I didn't want to listen!  When we came back, I heard them rehearse Duke Ellington's "It don't mean a thing..." ---  including the lyrics in English.

Switzerland is expensive, there's no denying it.  The food was more than we were willing to spend.  A lunchtime stop in the heat for pizza, salad and bottled water was over $40.  But, do keep in mind that includes tax and tip.  This was the one incident where I wished I could have left less than the service compris: the server was surly and lackadaisical. But overall, this was the one exception.

We had a final breakfast overlooking the Alps and then it was train to the airport and the usual "deluxe" experience with US Air/American.  When we arrived at Dulles, we were confronted with a passport control line that I would guesstimate had perhaps 300 or more people in it.  This is a direct contrast with the Passport control at Frankfurt: 2 minutes.  US: 30 minutes.  Welcome back.