Our Week in Paris

Last month, Christine and I spent a couple of weeks in Paris. The first half of the trip was Paris-proper, while the second (which you’ll see in the next blog post) was out in the suburbs of Paris Disneyland.

In Paris-proper, we did a lot of the “standard” tourist stuff. We visited (what we could see of the burnt husk of) Notre Dame, the Eiffel tower, Catacombs, Arc de Triomphe, and Moulin Rouge. Some were good, some were terrible. (Spoiler alert: Moulin Rouge was terrible.)

Recently Christine has gotten hooked on “Airbnb Experiences.” Those are activity listings on the Airbnb site — touristy things, but not usually the “big” things. They’re smaller activities with a more local flair.

For example, we took a class at the kitchen of Les Secrets Gourmands De Noémie and learned how to make my favorite tiny-hamburger cookies, macarons. (Don’t confuse them with the terrible coconut travesty of macaroons.) This was fantastic! I’ve often thought of making macarons at home, but have been scared away. Various aspects of the technique have scared me off. But getting hands-on instruction from an expert, IN PARIS no less, helped me realize that it’s a bit of work, but ultimately no big deal. We made a couple dozen macarons and ate them throughout the rest of the trip. Delicious! I will definitely be making more soon!

Finalizing the Pistachio

Because Christine and I are such big fans of cheese, she signed us up for a cheese tasting class with the certified cheese monger Le Cheese Geek, a.k.a. Fabrice. Due to Yellow Vest riots and police activity, many of the metro stops were closed. Closed streets with police vans and bulldozers zooming down them made it feel like an impending apocalypse. We were late to class because we had to route around the metro closures, but it was a wonderful experience despite our tardiness. Class was held at a fromagerie, before it opened for the day, in the cool cellar. Fabrice really knew his stuff, and even recommended a cheese shop here in Portland that he’d recently visited. We had little tasting books and went through a number of exercises. For instance, we started with a block of cheese that we had to describe to someone in the other room — who couldn’t see it, but had to draw what we described. That led to a conversation on looks, terminology, and history. For example, some of the rind coloring was made with ash and used as a brandmark to distinguish different cheese-makers in the same region. We then proceeded to smells, tastes, and geography. Overall, we tasted about 10 different cheeses — with some variation, such as the same cheese at two different ages or the same cheese handmade versus mass-produced. Each was paired with a perfectly matching beverage and small snack, such as red/white wine, grape soda, fruit, and chocolate. I can’t say I’m an expert at cheese now, but at least I have a little more knowledge and ability to say why I like a cheese, and not just “I like this one.”

This is not us or our class session, but a representative sample photo taken from the Cheese Geek website. We forgot to take photos!

Another event that Christine signed us up for was a night out at a “secret jazz club.” It turned out to be not-so-secret: it was the lounge and bar of a fancy hotel. There was quite a lot of history to the hotel, and we got a tour with the backstory. It was definitely not someplace we would have stumbled into ourselves, but still a great evening out. It was one of the few places in France that we were able to get an American dry vodka martini without having to explain how to make it. (In France, the Martini is a pre-mixed drink that comes in red and white variants.)

One afternoon, we were in the area and thought we’d check out the French fashion at Galleries Lafayette. This is sort of like a fancy department store in a historic building, but each designer has a little booth or area, like a fleamarket. Most everyone had their floral-print summer stuff out. Yawn. But we did see some great unique looks. Alexander McQueen had a few wonderful dresses with plenty of laced eyelets and straps holding things together. Miu Miu also had some good goth/punk looks. Le Tanneur had some magnificently understated leather reporter bags. Ultimately, we ended up with a few things from Diesel — I, a belt, and Christine, a long skirt and pants with an abundance of zippers. Unexpectedly, Galleries Lafayette had a suspended rainbow bounce house, but we didn’t have the nerve to try or the patience to wait in line.

Now. The part where I throw shade. I had high hopes for the Moulin Rouge. We had expensive tickets that included dinner with the show. The early dinner seating was supposed to guarantee good seats. But we got screwed on multiple fronts. The vegetarian menu was the same price as the meat-eaters menu, but at a far lower quality bar with much less food. I ate the most expensive carrot I’ve ever tasted. It was kind of bland. Based on the quantity of couscous on the plate, I think I could have calculated how many euros each pearl cost. Because the menu was prix fixe, we were stuck with a tablespoon of lemon sherbet alongside finely minced fruit salad, as we looked over at the rest of the table dining on large portions of chocolate mousse and cake, who paid the same price we did.

We effectively had front-row seats at a long dining table. There were two different stage configurations. The pre-show setup was a good view for me, but Christine had her back to the stage. After the preshow, Christine left and went to the bathroom, at which point the stage expanded outward alongside, and flush with, the table. Because it boxed in her seat, she had to climb up on the stage to return to her seat. So technically, she was on stage at the Moulin Rouge. When the show started, we both had a shoulder to the stage and could crane our necks to see lots of legs and feet, but didn’t have a great view of the overall dance numbers. It wasn’t a great experience. If we’d had cheaper seats, we would have had a better view. So if you’d like to go to a show there, skip the vegetarian meal — in fact, skip the meal altogether. Have a nice dinner out somewhere, then go to the show.

Overall, despite the failure of the red windmill, it was a great first part of the trip. The second part — Disney — was spectacular. I’ll write about that soon.

Dietary Virtues

I am trying to be more mindful of what I eat. I used to say “I’m about 40% vegetarian,” but had no way to back that up. It was a wild guess about how many meals I ate that were vegetarian vs. carnivore and, honestly, was probably a little high. Since meeting Christine, I’ve learned more about the meat industry. I don’t think I can ever be “100% vegetarian.” It’s just not in me. But I can certainly make more informed decisions about what I’m eating and where it’s sourced. I can start thinking of meat as a special treat, and not just an everyday default. But the first step in bettering yourself is knowing where you’re starting from. Just what percent of my meals actually are vegetarian?

But the first step in bettering yourself is knowing where you’re starting from.

Benjamin Franklin came up with a list of 13 virtues, to improve his character, and a method of tracking them. Being a printer (among other things), he custom printed sheets of paper with a grid page for the week. The days of the week go across the top. The virtues — things like Temperance, Frugality, Sincerity, Tranquility — go down the side. On any given week, he’d primarily focus on one virtue, listed at the top of the page, leaving the rest to chance — or habit. Reports are a little scattered about whether he marked successes, failures, or both. What I do know is that at the end of the day, he’d review what he did and how he behaved. He’d use that to mark the grid and reflect on how he could improve.

I used to be a big 3×5 card “hipster PDA” person. With the exception of the grocery shopping list, I’ve departed from a rigid hipster PDA methodology, but I do carry around and use a Field Notes notebook for random notes and scribbles. I thought I could maybe design a grid on a single index card that I can keep in the front of my notebook, to mark off my meal choices as I go through the week.

This will give me a baseline of how much (and what kind of) meat I eat throughout the week. With that visibility, I hope to be more mindful of my consumption. For each meal, I’ll put a dot in corresponding grid cell(s).

In addition to food, I’ve also added booze to the grid. I should probably cut back on that, too. Or at least track it and decide from there. Plus, there’s a small space at the bottom, if I discover I’ve forgotten something.

Tracking dietary virtues

So my hope is that I’ll stick with this a few weeks, then be able to report back here how I’m doing and whether/how I’d like to course-correct my dietary actions. Stay tuned!

Weaning Myself off Facebook

This is about me. This isn’t a judgement on you.

Hi, friends. Many of you already know that I don’t do new years resolutions. I don’t want to make an arbitrary decision on a specific annual calendar day to grandly proclaim that I’m going to change something huge. I like to be more mindful of my life and make small decisions throughout the year to course-correct my life into something more positive.

A few years ago, I tried to give up Facebook entirely. “Good bye, my Facebook friends, foooorrrrrr evaaaaaaaar!” [long pause] “Hey, what’s up? Check out this cute kitten video.” I failed. It was too big a proclamation. Too big a change.

I deleted Facebook Messenger from my phone a while back, and although I generally don’t miss it, the little red numbers in the app telling me I have messages (and the prompt to install Messenger when I click on them) is a dark pattern that’s really annoying. I’m annoyed by the news articles, the avalanche of what’s terrible in the world, the epidemic propagation of fake news links, the company flagrantly disregarding privacy. Deleting Messenger was a small step in the right direction.

My trust in Facebook is at an all-time low. Their entire business model is based around surveillance capitalism. Whether it’s selling data overseas, leaving fake reviews for their latest panopticon, preying on children with in-app purchases, or sitting on their hands during Russian election tampering, they’re happily making a profit and not giving a fuck about anyone but the shareholders. I’m not a shareholder, or even a customer. I and my history of activities are product that’s bought, sold, and traded.

So I’m taking another small step. I’m deleting the Facebook app from my phone. Thankfully, I don’t have a Samsung with an undeletable Facebook. I can delete it, just as I did with Messenger. I won’t be totally cut off. This is not another failed “goodbye my Facebook friends, foreeeeevvvvaaaaar!” I’ll still have access via web browser — just as I do with Messenger now. I’ll eventually see party invites and other important news. I just won’t be checking it on the bus. On the toilet. During tea breaks. While waiting for food at the carts. The hope is that it will be out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

I still have plenty of other social network options:

Mastodon is a decentralized Twitter. Think of it as a parallel to email. Maybe your email account is with Gmail. Your friend uses Hotmail. Your mom is still on AOL. Your employer runs their own email server. Mastodon is like that: no one company owns it. If you’d like to get a start, sign up at Mastodon.Cloud and look me up at @BrianEnigma@xoxo.zone. You can read a good getting-started intro at “How Does Mastodon Work?

Twitter still exists. They’re not yet as terrible as Facebook. Find me @BrianEnigma.

Instagram is technically owned by Facebook and hasn’t yet become a cesspool. You can find me there as BrianEnigma. My Instagram still cross-posts to Mastodon, Twitter, and Facebook.

My blogs are https://netninja.com (for tech projects) and https://blog.brianenigma.com (for personal projects).

My email and phone number are both out there, but I won’t be posting them here. Ask me if you don’t have one or the other.

And social networks aside, I really need to be spending more time reading novels and technical publications and working on projects and less time farting around Facebook. It’s been great, but I need to take a few steps back.

Thanks for listening and understanding.

The Portland Scooter Infiltration

Portland is such a great transportation city. We have a lightrail system that’s been around since the 70s. We have a great fleet of buses and some streetcars. We have all of these connected to Open Data pipes that allow third parties to innovate with transit trackers. We have smartphone apps and not-quite-Oyster cards that let you hop on any of these without thinking too hard about exact change. We used to have the best bike infrastructure in the US — until Austin beat us out. Sure, it doesn’t match, say, Amsterdam, but it’s pretty darn good for a US city. And we have a healthy and skeptical fear of Bay Area scooters.

The scooters started in San Francisco, but they’re now banned there. They’re “disruptive technology” in the same way that Uber was. They swept in without regard to local laws or even common courtesy. Find a scooter wherever, using GPS on your smartphone, rent it, then drop it off wherever. In this case “wherever” tended to be in the middle of the sidewalk, in the middle of the bike lane, in front of a shop door, and generally places that are not only an annoyance and tripping-hazard, but actively bad for anyone with a disability. They lock when nobody’s actively renting them, but they’re scooters. They’re lightweight. You can pick them up. So they scream annoyingly if you try to move them. Local residents of SF got annoyed at tech-bros leaving their toys on the sidewalk to trip on and started doing things like throwing them in dumpsters, throwing them in pools and fountains, throwing them from atop buildings, and even lighting them on fire. See also the Instagram account chronicling the scooter vandalism.

So Portland, rightfully, is taking things slowly. And the scooter companies are — surprisingly — playing along and not just pulling an above-the-law Uber entitlement. They’ve been working on a pilot program that just kicked off today with Bird and Skip. Portland is taking a pretty sizable chunk of tax from these companies — 25¢ from each ride, with the rides costing a baseline $1 + 15¢/minute — and investing that into the infrastructure that bicycles and scooters share. This seems like a win for everyone.

I work at the south end of downtown — near Portland State University. One of my favorite restaurants is at the north end of downtown — Mi Mero Mole. It’s a bit far to go on a lunch hour, unless you perfectly time the Max trains. Since this was the first day of eScooters, and since there were a ton of them downtown, I enlisted a coworker and figured we should give them a try.

The [initial] signup was simple. Download the Bird app, set your name, verify your email, and optionally add a picture. You then link a payment source — credit card or Apple Pay. There’s a short slideshow that teaches you how to check out a scooter and reminds you of the appropriate local laws. Getting a scooter is easy. Find one in the app, walk to it, and scan the barcode. The laws are fairly straightforward. It’s like a bike. Use bike lanes when available. Don’t use the sidewalk. Wear a helmet. I think the helmet part is going to be the most contentious part of it all. Technically, adults on a bike don’t need a helmet here, but they are required on a scooter. I was fortunate because I biked into work today and happened to have my helmet with me. There will be many times where I will want to take a scooter spontaneously and will not have thought to bring a helmet. Tourists visiting town will likely not have their own helmets. Bird offers up “free” helmets (with $2 in shipping), which will allow me to keep a spare one at work, but I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity to innovate in the “oops, I didn’t think to bring a helmet with me today” space.

So my buddy and I go out to grab a pair of scooters at lunch. We found a pair of them two blocks away.

Were they on their side on purpose? Did someone get agro and kick them over? Was it the wind? I guess we’ll never know. So we scan the barcode and then…

Oh, hey, it’s app signup phase two! You’re out in the field, ready to go where you need to go, with a tiny smartphone in hand. What better time to present pages and pages and pages of small-print EULA? Literally one of the longest EULAs I’ve seen, with no way to save it, and as far as I can tell now, no way to get back to it. At the bottom were a number of checkboxes you had to tick to agree to company terms and local laws (you’re over 18, you wear a helmet, you park responsibly). Whew. Done with that.

AND THEN. Hey, let’s scan your driver’s license. Wait, what? Snap a photo of my drivers license? I wasn’t expecting that, but I guess I can understand from a liability perspective. It would have been nice to know about this up front, so that this was less of a shock. So that I was more prepared. Let’s scan the barcode on the back, too. Well, okay. I’ve already scanned that myself, eons ago, and know there’s not much hidden in there. Still, it felt — if not quite bait-and-switch — a little weird and awkward, to have this extra sign-up step sprung on me at the time of the first rental, when I’m standing at the scooter with my phone in hand, and not before, when I was comfortably in the office, creating my account, uploading my photo, and looking at the map.

The ride itself was smooth. Those are fun, zippy little vehicles. I had some cognitive issues for the first several blocks. I have an e-bike with the primary (rear) brake as a lever on the right, and a little “turbo boost” switch on the left to help get up to speed after being stopped at a red light. The scooter is exactly the same, but mirror image. I kept grabbing for a nonexistent brake with the wrong hand. It was like being a stick-shift driver in an automatic car. You find your hand reaching for a control that isn’t there — which isn’t so bad for the gear shift, but a little more dangerous with the brake.

At several points both during and after each rides, we ended up as unpaid spokespeople for Bird. These scooters are so new that today was their first day, so people had all sorts of questions about how the system worked. We ended up getting to the restaurant for about $3 each (due to traffic and route choice) and back to the office for about $1.50 (we zipped down Broadway).

Overall, I have to say that it was zippy and fun. It is certainly more cost-effective to keep on the bus or Max, and spontaneity can be hampered by the helmet requirement. But it’s more fun and quick to take the scooter. The bike has its own tradeoffs. I always feel a little nervous about locking up my $1800 eBike in Old Town Chinatown after dark as I hop into the barcade. I’d have zero second thoughts about leaving someone else’s scooter in lock-mode next to those same bike racks. That’s somebody else’s problem.

But overall, I hope these scooters take off and establish a cooperative, symbiotic relationship with the city. I’d hate to see them turn into bay-area above-the-law a-holes. I’d hate to see locals lighting them on fire and throwing them off bridges into the river. I’d love to see them take hold and establish themselves as yet another transportation option. And I’m genuinely excited that they can help pay for even more amazing infrastructure.

The New Polaroid

For a few months, I’ve been kicking around a few ideas related to printing photos. I feel like I’m at the point where I would love to have some physical copies of photos I take on my phone. I’ve dabbled with printing services — from printing on glass to metal to paper. But there always seems to be some hurdle — no matter how small — to entry. There are some fancy and expensive solutions out there, but what do you do?

A cheap Polaroid printer caught my eye.

I must be up-front about these facts:

  1. The color reproduction is terrible.
  2. The resolution is terrible.
  3. It fits in your pocket.
  4. It’s battery powered, and rechargeable via USB.
  5. It wirelessly prints via Bluetooth from your phone.
  6. Prints are about 40¢ each.
  7. …but they’re also stickers.
  8. And to be honest, it feels really cheaply made.

So, let me reiterate: it’s a terrible printer. But then, a Polaroid instant camera produces terrible prints. So it somehow works out. But with all of the above caveats out of the way:

IT IS SOOOOOOOO FUN!

Seriously. You continue to take photos the way you always do: with your cellphone’s camera. But then you can turn any random event into something a little more permanent, a little more lasting — something you can glimpse as you glance at your magnetic whiteboard or refrigerator. Oh — did I mention that the prints are also stickers? So here’s a random selection from my magnetic whiteboard at work:

(In the future: more of the promised adventures of Disneyland and Harry Potter World.) But for now, the fact that you can just take a random picture at a bar and print it out there, no matter how terrible the rendition, is pretty freakin’ cool. You always have the full-res on the phone. (And uploaded to Instagram and Facebook, if that’s your kink.) But honestly, when it comes to thoughts and emotions and memories, FM radio has taught me that if I really love a song, a cassette tape recorded off the air, with the DJ gabbing at one end and the first split-second of a mattress commercial at the other, is perfectly fine on my emotional mix-tape of beloved songs. I don’t need full high-definition 600DPI, wide color gamut to give me happy memories of the pub with friends.

First Post!

I have been blogging in some form or other since 2001. It all started on LiveJournal. The blog back then was what you’d expecct from a 20-something goth kid in a MySpace-dominated, pre-Facebook, world. The party last night was epic. Check out this neat link. I’ve been listing to this album on repeat for hours. Let me tell you all about the drama with this group of people. It was entirely rambling and unfocused.

Around 2007, I migrated to my own host. Netninja hosted mostly hackery things, but not much personal. The blog kind of took focus and the hacker material dropped into the background. At some point in the past 5-ish years, and since I started using Twitter, I decided to focus strictly on blogging about projects I’m working on. Document the process. Share the source code and files. My outlet for that personal stuff that had been clogging up my blog became Twitter. Twitter is satifying in some respects, but has some built-in constraints, given the (then) 140 character limit. While it’s fun to push yourself to work within those constraints, I feel like I need a bit more room to stretch out.

I feel that the future of Facebook and Twitter is in question, given privacy, Russia, overbearing advertising, and 3rd party client limitations. Posts to Netninja already cross-post to Twitter and Facebook, and my plan is to keep that as a project diary, but there’s no reason not to set up a new place to host personal stuff. So why not stretch out into a new personal blog?

This will be a transitional experiment. I have no idea how much I’ll write on here versus Twitter, but I am going to give it a try. At the moment, I’m writing this at 30,000 feet, on my way to Disneyland. I expect the theme park to be the first set of posts you’ll see on this blog. The captain has turned off the seatbelt light. I’m free to stretch out and move around the cabin.

But for now, I have a cheese platter in front of me to photograph and enjoy.