There is a lot I would like to write about the recent news from Ireland
But frankly, I can’t be arsed and it would be nothing you couldn’t read elsewhere anyway.

So to keep it short and bitter, I’ll just say that, as a fierce Euro-hopeful, I’m doubly disappointed by this result. Not only because it drags the once promising European process further into the ditch where it’s been for the past couple years, but also that Ireland, of all countries, had to be the one responsible for doing so.

If by now you haven’t heard a thousands times how Ireland virtually owes a huge share of its current miracle economic success to the very European solidarity process they have just bailed out on, then you must have been sleeping for the past 20 years.

It’s bad enough seeing people and countries act as selfish me-first teenagers, but when said country was until not so long a clear beneficiary of such solidarity and decides to leave as soon as they are finally asked to pitch in… That’s both infuriating and slightly dispiriting about people.

After spending most of January and February in a sleep-deprived haze, working on half a dozen different scientific endeavours (to somewhat positive results, according to my advisor, so my liver shall not have died a painful caffeine-overdose death in vain after all), H’s stay gave me a chance to take a salutary two-week break before diving in again for the grand finale (24 days and I am a free man again).

Hammock In between miscellaneous artsy touristy stuff and random Parisian strolls, we eloped to Barcelona for a 3-day weekend. Considering how packed our schedule was already, it seemed we could have done without an extra travel: but honestly, after my 2 month anachoretic stint, it took very little to get me booking a flight and a room in that gorgeous boutique hotel S. had been telling me about.

No regrets whatsoever.

Unlike Paris’ usual February semi-freezing drizzle, Barcelona was a mild upper-teens (evening included), sunny most of the time, and still serving cava around every corner of the city. We started our first day by kicking it in park Güell, taking after Gaudi’s famous dragon by sitting in the sun until we had forgotten the mere meaning of Winter.

Park Güell Actually, we didn’t exactly start with the park, since we first dropped our luggage at the hotel, which lovingly had our room ready upon arrival in the morning: it took massive efforts of will not to just throw away all plans of outdoorsy activities to spend the entire stay between the room’s cozy bed and adjacent lounge room’s hammock… If I had any lingering hesitation about picking this over some standard high-rise hotel with swimming pool on top and fat midwest families crowding the lobby, they all about disappeared when the super-friendly staff showed us to the 24-hour free organic buffet. I know, I’m gushing (and sound like I’d be on the hotel’s payroll), but that place really made our weekend twice the fun (and it was pretty damn awesome already).

Casa Camper Miraculously we managed to extract ourselves from our room often enough to show H. a couple of the numerous architectural wonders that seem to make half the city: some Gaudi, of course, but also a couple more recent designs among my personal faves. Staying 2 minutes away from Plaça de Catalunya in Raval, we were within walking distance from both Barrio Gotico’s historical strolls and Passeig de Gracia’s tapas bars and clubbing.

On Saturday, we took a day trip to Figueres, where Dali’s humongous legacy kept us busy and amazed for the entire afternoon. Followed by dinner with my mum and her companion, who had come to meet us halfway.

By the way, on the matter of day trips and trains: may I use the occasion to emphasise how important it is to really check the destination of your train before you get on it. And definitely before it arrives to its terminus, 5 minutes later, in the opposite direction to where you intended to go. You may feel smug for flawlessly understanding the directions half-mumbled by the stationmaster: it won’t help all that much when it turns out your train is 5 minutes late on its schedule (seriously: Europe. What was I thinking?) and therefore the train coming up to your platform just on time is not actually your train. On a related matter, language was a much more frustrating experience than expected: while understanding everything came as natural as rain, trying to express myself often resulted in some comical mix of Japanese and Castillan, whence I had to dig another two or three attempts before coming up with the proper Catalan version. Still all there, just buried really, really deep under all those new weird sounds I’ve learnt since the last time I lived here. Priceless moments: H falling over laughing, each time I’d let slip an “ehh-tto” while looking for words in my discussions with local speakers.

Casa Batlló Anyway, after some late-night clubbing and some trendy electro beats at a nearby bleep factory (other priceless moment: realising I had not the faintest idea how to order the ‘cassis soda‘ H. had asked for, neither in Spanish nor, for that matter, in English), we capped the weekend by more lounging, more strolling and a last art excursion to see some Picasso. Although Barcelona’s Picasso collection is dwarfed by Madrid’s and doesn’t feature his most seminal pieces (it’s essentially centered around his early periods), I personally like its more subtle, slightly old-fashioned, figurative paintings (my favourite? Two nudes and a cat, a small sketch you’ll have to go check for yourself since I cannot seem to find it anywhere online). Also his fascinating obsession with Velázquez and a roomful of deconstructed Meninas

Less than 4 hours after our last drink at a Barcelonian sidewalk café, we were back in Paris. Special shootouts to the security troll at Barcelona airport’s security checkpoint, who unceremoniously trashed the two mini-bottles of cava H. had just bought at the airport’s own souvenir shop. The very same unopened, hermetically sealed bottles they were selling 3 feet after the checkpoint. I swear: I will smack in the face the next person who comes to me yapping about the need for more inane security measures at airports and how removing shoes or throwing away shampoo bottles makes it so much safer.

After that little episode, I could only agree with S. that private flights are the way to go. Well: that and her invitation for an overnight party excursion to Milan in her friend’s plane on a Tuesday evening. Back just in time to pick up some fresh bred and H’s breakfast on the way home the following morning. When exactly did I switch lifestyles from mad-scientist to jet-setter and what happened to that guy last seen sitting at 5am in the middle of his living room amidst 300 scattered pages of science articles, mumbling math equations in a rather demented tone?

Feeding birds in Rodin’s garden, bathing in light and learning a
couple fascinating things about gothic architecture in the Sainte
Chapelle, taking the perennial walk through Montmartre before heading
out for authentic swiss fondue with family and friends.

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My friend Scott (he of the once-a-year updated blog), once coined a term to describe that all-too-common affliction of the garden-variety blogger: the way one single little item will clog your entire production line and delay infinitely the publication of your next post. He called it weblocked, which is as good a term as any other. And guess what: it happens a lot around these parts. It goes a long way toward those long stretches of blog silence, where the more I wait, the harder it seems to find an angle to break back in.

So in the spirit of clearing my current bloggage (and also because I really don’t have the time), allow me yet another life update potpourri entry, hopefully the last one in a while.

Paris hasn’t changed over the Summer. Still mostly cold and grey on an average day. Still offering a wide variety of options to liquor oneself up. Which sorta makes up for the previous part. Also has free bikes, which is way cool.

Vélib’ is easily the best thing to happen to Paris in a long while. Dirt cheap, ubiquitous, self-service, bike stations now cover every inch of Parisian sidewalk. Which means I rarely, if ever, step into the subway or bus anymore (rainy days aside). Biking amidst Parisian notoriously psychotic car drivers is not as fear-inducing as I thought it woud be, although it requires staying alert and attentive to your surroundings at all times. Unless, that is, you are drunk, riding full speed at two on a bike, down the Montagne Sainte Geneviève (that hill atop of which sits the Pantheon) on to the next bar. But we know of no people who would do such a mindblowingly stupid thing.

Of course, this being France and perfection being neither human nor French, this wonderful system has its downsides, one of which is the many bureaucratic hoops and near-month-long wait, one has to go through in order to receive their one-year subscription card. Still waiting for mine (and living off weekly passes in the meantime).

Winterish temperatures have also finally arrived. Which had for first consequence to keep me in bed the best of last week, waiting for my usual seasonal bout of flu to pass. But now that my tissue consumption has gotten back under the metric-tonne-a-day, I have finally come to give some limited appreciation to the cold albeit rather sunny outdoors. I don’t know if it’s me growing soft or cough syrup acting up, but I swear: breathing in the fresh crisp air on a cold Parisian night nearly makes me feel all mushy inside these days. I have turned on the heater at home nonetheless.

Shortly before I started hacking my lungs out, I did manage to attend a couple miscellaneous social affairs and cool art-related thingies. In particular, I had a really good time during the yearly Nuit Blanche celebration, spent in the north of Paris where a friend was showing her paintings. I do suspect spending the night outside discussing contemporary artists’ sexuality in relation to their art, with only a light jacket and some whisky to fight off the cold, might not be completely unrelated to aforementioned health problems.

Somewhere amidst the 20-points list of excuses for my being remiss from this blog all this time, is my official decision to sign up for JLPT 2-kyuu this year. What can I say: I like pain. The test takes place at the beginning of December. By even the most optimistic estimates, I will fail by a long shot, but I figured paying the 60 euros signup fee was the best way to kick my ass into some hardcore Japanese studying for the next two months.

Of course, being a geek first and foremost, I immediately concluded that 10% of my precious 50 days of revision would be much better spent on coding a nifty Japanese drill application. Also, because I am a geek 2.0, this application is on Facebook. But I swear it doesn’t suck (at least not as much as all those vampire/pirate/ninja bollocks). Trust me, if you are studying for JLPT, or even if you are just learning Japanese for fun (mind-boggling as the concept might be), this app is all you’ve ever dreamt off.

And now that I’m done selling it, I guess it is time for me to go back to using it.

I promise I’ll try to post more frequent, if succinct, updates for the near future.

… for me at least.

These are times of project wrap-ups, end-of-stay work presentations, last drinks with friends and last cozy nights with more-than-friends. I have practically shaved my head and started packing my luggage. Next weekend I fly off to Bangkok for a couple days: not so much for relaxation as for a very necessary transitional break before resuming six months of intensive studying in Paris. Vacation time is over. Not that it was exactly vacation to begin with, but what’s ahead is sure to make this ending Summer feel like a slice of paradise in comparison.

Actually, I am not dreading return as much as I thought I would. I know those six months aren’t gonna be much fun, but the mere fact that they have a specific timeframe and the knowledge that I’ll be done at the end of March, helps make it all feel like a sort of extended vacation to Paris. And Paris is much more enjoyable if you feel you are visiting than if you actually live there. Parisian life is a different form of fun that only appeals to me, given the certainty that it won’t last: fancy dinners out, cozy wine-sipping evenings at home, opera season, art exhibits, cocktail party crashing, overwhelmingly beautiful architecture on every corner, drunken bar-counter philosophical debates… All so typically Parisian, overly sophisticated fun… that after a while makes you yearn for simpler, more natural ways of having a good time. Which is when I will be about done with my current academic pursuits and will gladly move onto another period of my life, presumably far from Paris, without regret or bitterness. So, timing is perfect, it appears.

Plans for next year are still deliberately very vague. Much less definite as they were at the beginning of this Summer. I no longer know whether a Ph.D. is the necessary path to what I later want to achieve, in fact, maybe university research altogether, isn’t. Or perhaps it is my field of research that needs revising. Throw in a couple very tempting offers, brought over to me lately, that I would be a fool not to at least consider…

Part of my Summer here was coloured by the fact that college friends I hadn’t seen much in ages, now work and live in Tokyo. Hanging out with them coincidentally reminded me of an essential conclusion of those years, that I might have lost sight of otherwise: The fact you have the abilities to do something doesn’t mean you should, and definitely doesn’t mean it will make you happier. Back then, I once did the mistake of picking what most people seemed to hold as a universally enviable life/career path, only to quickly realize that most people’s idea of happiness in life probably didn’t match mine and therefore neither did their conception of how to achieve it.

Despite my tummy’s strong disapproval of last night’s excesses, I shall soon be heading north for a [supposedly] relaxing week-end in the land of plentiful, cheap, yummy Indian food (been craving a real tikka massala for months now).

See ya on the other side.

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I promised (a long time ago) we’d talk about the other strong contender in the upcoming French presidential elections: Ségolène Royal, so here we go.

A couple years ago, when Angela Merkel was on the verge of becoming the first female Chancellor of Germany, I remember reading an article from a German magazine (der Spiegel I think it was) candidly asking if one could not consider voting for her specifically on account of her gender. The gist of their argument was that, electing a woman to such an office was in itself a considerable social advance, possibly overshadowing any measure either candidate could ever enact once elected.

It is a bit of a provocative argument, but still worth considering. Especially if you have your doubts about the effective influence of this election’s outcome on important matters of economic or international policies.

However, the comparison between both women ends there. They are from slightly opposite sides of the political board and, under their common gender, are perceived very differently by partisans and opponents alike. Angela Merkel, while I am not well-versed enough in German politics to give an extensive appraisal of her skills, is a very capable, respected politician. There is not the slightest suspicion that she may ever have relied on her gender as a prop to get by, quite the opposite: I remember reading people emphasizing her “butchy” manners (equally unnerving, as chauvinist clichés go, but at least not in the way you may expect).

The problem with the current French presidential race is that it has become extremely hard to tell whether one’s impression of a candidate is somehow attuned with reality and verifiable facts or just the result of widespread journalistic bias. Of course, this is a problem everywhere: Fox TV and other Murdoch-style news outlets do a much worse job at imitating journalistic integrity than most French media. In France, the bias is usually more subtle: few media (outside of those ostensibly labeled as following one party or the other) will directly slander their political opponents. It is more of a meticulous, careful selection of the news they report on and the tone they adopt, so as to finally envelop each politician in a caricatural persona that fits a specific political intent.

I do realize I just described the way politics and media work everywhere in the world, the thing is: the ratio of perceived versus actual personal and political traits here is simultaneously very high and rarely acknowledged by most people, it seems.

This is true of all candidates and works in either direction: I previously mentioned how Ms. Royal’s opponent, Mr. Sarkozy, is hyperbolically depicted by his opponents as some neo-fascistic brute, which is simply inaccurate: for all his sitting on the conservative right side of France’s political board, he objectively ranks left of both Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair on major issues and policies, yet any topical discussion with your average Frenchman will invariably veer into Godwin territories (unless your interlocutor is pro-Sarkozy, in which case he will hail the man as a savior of all things righteous and law-abiding in a society crumbling under the weight of rampant youth crime and illegal immigration). I dislike the man and his knack for populist securitarian rhetoric, as much as the next freedom-loving fool, but he is no Benito Mussolini, not even a Georges W. Bush.

But back to Ségolène.

What do I think of her?

When I hear Ms. Ségolène Royal talk of her projects, when I read her interviews, watch her answer questions or simply humor journalists with unsubstantial banter, all I see is one incredibly unseasoned, incompetent, borderline-stupid politician with the stuck-up delivery of a grade-school teacher and the mien that goes with (you really expect her to slap you on the wrist with a ruler at any moment). I see shameless use of her image as a maternal figure, I see a candidate who has suddenly emerged to the forefront 10 months ago and won her party’s primaries, not on a solid program, but because her pleasant looks, relative political freshness and high poll ratings, made her at the time the most serious contender to beat Nicolas Sarkozy.

In a word, I see practically every single misogynist stereotypes about women in politics made flesh.

Now you understand why I might be questioning my own perception through the French media. This is all depressing and ever so slightly suspicious. But unfortunately I still think this is not all made-up impressions and journalistic bias: she is that incompetent.

Sacre de Sarkozy

Guess what this year is?

Why, you’re right my friend, this year is French Presidential Election Year !

In May of this year, to be exact, the French will vote to elect a new Président de la République.

Under France’s current constitution, the president controls the executive branch and has power over foreign and domestic policies. Unlike the US, however, he can (and often did, over the past 20 years) end up with a government from the opposite party, as the National Assembly has the power to vote the Prime Minister (and his ministers) out. The President can decide at any moment to dissolve the Assembly and call for a new election (which he traditionally does as soon as he is elected, I think, unless such an election is already scheduled).

Thus you have a Janken-like circular structure of power, where the President still holds an advantage, being the only immovable piece of the game (5-year mandate and a pretty good immunity from prosecution, as Mr. Jacques Chirac will tell you). At all times, and regardless of the Assembly’s majority, it is customary for the President to keep his role of representation abroad, along with final say in matters of foreign policy (not unlike the POTUS). Domestic policies are his, only so long as his party holds the majority at the Assembly.

Anyway, enough with the boring talk about French political institutions. On to the only thing we may care about: Who will it be?

The answer, with a fairly high rate of certainty: either Nicolas Sarkozy (“Sarko” to his fans and enemies alike) or Ségolène Royal (“Ségo”, to same).

As you may have noticed, pictures are back in full force on this blog. This rebirth is due to my finally caving in to the trend and buying one of these fancy new cellphone things. One of those that come with a color LCD and, gasp, a camera.

I was until now quite happy using my antiquated prepaid cellphone (about 50×100 pixels of monochrome goodness and such cutting edge features as “call”, “send SMS” and even “address book”), until I started gathering last year’s pictures, for my yearly New Year’s Card project, and realized I had close to none. Even though I own a reasonably nice and compact digicam, and use it sometimes when I feel artistically inclined, it just isn’t the same as a camera-phone…

I was never a big fan of cameras, especially in group settings. Actually I suspect the “let’s take a souvenir photo” bug is mostly a female thing, and tends to grow hundredfold with motherhood. But going over all the drunken (and less drunken) pics I took during my stay in Tokyo, with my trusty keitai, I realized how much I liked having those around. To me, they are nothing like the sort of pictures you take with a “real” camera. Cameraphone pics, for one, are lower quality (especially mine, since I purposely downsample them in order to use less bandwidth when sending them over email), which means you treat them differently: being lo-fi, badly lit or with a strong visible grain is expected and nearly part of the journalistic charm of the medium. The other aspect I noticed with myself and friends while in Japan, was the psychological difference: people usually do not react to a phone the way they do to a camera. Phones are slightly less intrusive and more easily allow you to take pictures without breaking the flow of social interactions; with a camera-phone, even usually camera-shy people tend to be more exuberant and less self-conscious. It is possible that Japanese society is special in that respect, considering how ubiquitous camera-phones have become there, but I reckon things will be moving in a similar direction everywhere…

Anyway, from now on, you can expect a fairly regular influx of live views from my life in Paris. Incidentally, this will help me fill my quota of diary-esque entries on this blog, without having to resort much to boring “did this, did that” text entries. I liked the balance I had found with the older keitai log format, with tons of pointless but short photographic entries on one side, longer verbose rants on the other.

For now, enjoy the pretty random pics of drunken friends and Parisian locales.

Picture amphi_mog.jpg Just so you don’t think for a moment that I am out there having fun when I leave this blog unattended for weeks on end…

Note that this snapshot entirely fails to convey the real Soviet-era ambiance of my 8am-1pm weekly Tuesday lecture: attended by twelve hardcore students huddled in a 300-seat auditorium, fighting sleep and hypothermia, with the dreary droning of a disinterested lecturer as background lullaby.

Can I get a Hell Yeah for advanced graph theory?!?

Hell… zzz