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June 17, 2012

Amsterdam in three museums

I love Amsterdam so much. I know the residents have their complaints — including that tourists love it too much — but it is such a physically beautiful city, and so full of life. So, I’m very happy to have 2 days here between jobs.

Over the past 1.5 days, I have done nothing but walk, so long as you include walking through museums as walking.

My first walk brought me to the Van Gogh museum first, but on a Saturday afternoon the line stretched down the block, so I went to the Rijksmuseum instead. This is, of course, the grand museum of Amsterdam, but it has reduced and concentrated its exhibitions while it undergoes what feels like 30 years of renovation. Your €14 gets you into about a dozen rooms of works by Dutch masters. Despite the intensity of the art, and the fact that I generally get tired after about a dozen rooms in a museum, it felt a bit small.

Still, there are many stunners there. I am a sucker for Rembrandt, so I was happy. In fact, I’ve found that I’m gotten more and more awestruck by painting as I’ve gotten older. I think that’s due in part to my not feeling shallow for being moved by technique. I used to think that admiring a painter’s technique is like admiring a violinist because she plays real fast. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations awakened me to Bach (re-awakened me, perhaps) which I grew to love both for Bach’s moving outside of the form to express himself and for Gould’s ability to do the same because of his unbelievable virtuosity. These notes, so difficult to conceive together, so impossible to play that way! I’ve come to think that technique is not a trick played on art. (Open Source Goldberg Variations here.)

And Rembrandt’s technique is so stunning. I am one of those guys who peers up close and then steps back and then steps forward again. (Yes, I try to stay out of people’s way.) I like to see how it looked to the artist and how the artist had to imagine how it would look to the viewer. I spent a good amount of time in the Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s portrait of Maria Trip admiring how he painted the lace and the dozens of pearls. He does pearls so well! But then I’d step back to see that slightly uncomfortable face. Is she someone who struggles with trying to look natural, or does she just not have a lot of naturalness to express? And then: How the hell did he paint that?

I was surprised to find myself spending a long time in front of the Wedding portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix von der Laen. It’s by Frans Hals, an artist I usually don’t respond to. But I was pretty much overcome by it. The newlyweds are relaxing in front of some treees and bushes, with the formal building and fountain in the distance. She’s got her arm on his shoulder and he’s leaning back with one hand in his shirt (symbolizing fidelity, the notes say). They are so clearly in love, yet still two distinct people. And of the two, she’s got the clearest view of the situation — and the situation is going to be full of happy mischief.

(Thank you, Rijksmuseum, for posting the paintings online.)

I then went to Rembrandt’s House. I was there with my family 10-15 years ago when it was undergoing renovation, and I was a little disappointed in how it came out. The first time I was there, in the 1970s, I remember having a strong sense of the size of the house. The renovation removes the sense of the house’s original boundaries, although the stairs remain damn narrow. For 10€ you can see the reconstructed kitchen (which is interesting in a diorama sort of way), demonstrations of how he printed etchings and how he mixed paint, lots of contemporary paintings, and a room full of his exquisite, tiny etchings.

This morning I went back to the Van Gogh museum. It opens at 10am on Sundays, and by 10:30am there was already a short line. The entrance fee is 14€. I have to say that I was a little disappointed, although it was still well worth the visit. Most of the iconic Van Gogh’s are in other collections, although you’ll certainly find some here. I’d guess that about half of the pictures are not by Van Gogh; some provide interesting context (the precursors section was helpful) and some are in special exhibits that don’t have too much to do with Van Gogh; the current exhibit is on the Symbolists, which the museum interprets quite broadly.

There are some very early drawings and paintings where you see Van Gogh mastering technique the way a future master would. And I enjoyed as well the Parisian paintings, from before Van Gogh left for Arles. There’s a painting that is composed like a Dutch landscape, except the earth-based portion is of Paris rendered almost like the undergrowth he was painting towards the end of his sanity.

There are fewer in the familiar Starry Night style where you wonder what the hell drug he was on, but that’s ok with me since I tend to prefer the ones where the brushstroke reveal more about the subject than about Van Gogh’s subjective state. And there are some gorgeous ones. As seems especially the case with Van Gogh, the reproductions can utterly suppress the beauty of the originals, so I was startled to see how rich the sky is in The Yellow House. It gives such a sense of a small yellow building sitting in an infinitely deep universe. (My idiosyncratic reaction was: Heidegger was right, at least for this painting: Earth and world, gods and mortals, all at their intersection.) (Thank you. Van Gogh Museum, for not only posting your paintings, but letting us zoom in on them.)

Some of the non-Van Gogh works are also pretty great. I loved a Monet vista of Monaco from a turn in the road, and a hilarious Mondrian sun-over-the-sea painting that the legend says he intended not to be ridiculous but to capture some Theosophical truth.

Anyway, it was well worth going to. But do try to find a time when it isn’t jam-packed; it was often hard to get to see the paintings instead of the backs of the heads of other visitors.

Damn tourists!

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June 13, 2012

My inner voice

As I have mentioned before, I have what I think is particularly strong inner narrator, especially when I’m alone. I’ve always attributed this to my proclivities towards writing, since my narrator drafts and often redrafts descriptions of what I’m experiencing. It’s either that or I’m a little schizo. Or both.

I am today at the beginning of a three week trip, during which I will be spending a fair bit of time alone. My inner narrator has already kicked in, and here’s the thing: It’s now Mike and Tom Eat Snacks.

I have to say it’s a little disconcerting having two of them. Not for me it isn’t. But it is for me. I’ll tell you exactly why: It’s because your inner Mike and Tom include an internalized Mike and Tom, so you have a little fractal regression thing going on that’s got to be a little upsetting. Yes, that’s true; it’s because I’m a people person. Whereas I’m just a person person. Exactly right.

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April 25, 2012

A pleasant experience with the TSA

They say the way to succeed as a blogger is to use shocking headlines. Now you have mine.

And it’s true. This morning at the Seattle airport, I had a very pleasant experience going through Securty, and no, I am not referring to an especially loving pat-down. Because I am a Special Person, I got to go through the new TSA Pre screening…”pre” as in “pre-check.” (BTW, does the “pre-” really add anything in the word “pre-approved”?) They put you onto an extra-specially short line — you get pulled out of the First Class line to go on a yet-shorter line. There they tell you to keep your belt and shoes on, keep your laptop in your bag, leave the change in your pocket, and please feel free to keep your spring jacket on. They do want the cellphone to come out of your pocket. And then they put you through a plain old scanner that doesn’t take nude pictures of you and post them on the Internet on a Tranny Grannies page (a long story).

I was able to register for the TSA Pre program because I’d already gone through a pretty extensive screening to become part of the Global Entry program. The Global Entry program lets me go through Customs at some airports by sticking my head into a vending machine. I signed up for that program after getting a security clearance from the feds. If you are part of Global Entry, registering for the TSA Pre program just takes a quick trip to the Web. If you’re not, there’s some other process.

So, for Special People like me, the TSA Pre program is great. But it’s hardly a scalable solution. And, yes, I do feel like a traitor to species when I go on that specially short line. Still: It’s a specially short line! I’m only human!

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February 1, 2012

High-res St. Petersburg

Here’s a beautiful high-res view of St. Petersburg.

A couple of hints: Click on the “stop” button at the bottom to stop it from auto-rotating. And you may find that your keyboard’s arrow keys make the image easier to control.

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November 9, 2011

You Barcelona Birds

You Barcelona birds don’t know how good you have it.
You give your city two stars
because once a tourist left you a crust that had some mustard on it —
Don’t eat the yellow bread, is that so hard to remember? —
and last February a pigeon bullied you aside.
You ought to come to my city some February.
Is there even a word in Spanish for slush?
Yeah, Boston would grow you a pair,
and then would shrivel them up until they make a high-pitched ting.
How you like them tiny frozen apples?
So why don’t you go back to TripAdvisor and fix your ratings
even if you have to make up a new login.
Try “A_Little_Perspective23”
or “WuzWrongDaFirstTime.”
Stoopid Barcelona birds.

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November 8, 2011

How to tell that you’re at a European industry conference

I’m at the Gartner conference in Barcelona, giving a talk sponsored by Telefonica. And there is no doubt I’m not at an American industry event:

  • Wine at lunch.

  • Snacks at the break have multiple parts, none of which are chocolate, caramel, or creamy nougat.

  • They expect you to have a favorite “football” team.

  • The corporate dinner at an opera house begins with a tour of a stage set that consists of a giant statue of a woman’s hindquarters with her anatomically-correct vagina lit up in red.

  • If you translate “euros” as “dollars,” everything is quite reasonably priced!

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November 2, 2011

The hotel with no metadata

I’m staying at a “boutique” hotel in NYC that is so trendy that it has not only dressed its beautiful young staff in black, it has removed as much metadata as it can. There’s no sign outside. There are no pointers to the elevators on the room floors. The hotel floors in the elevator are poorly designated, so that two in our party ended up on a service floor, wandering looking for a way back into the public space of the hotel. The common areas are so underlit that I had to find a precious lamp to stand next to so that the person I was waiting for could find me. The room keycards are white and unmarked, without any indication therefore of which end goes in the lock.

Skipping metadata has always been a sign of mastery or in-ness. It’s like playing a fretless guitar. But hotels are for strangers and first-timers. I need me my metadata!


BTW, I think the hotel’s name is the Hudson, but it’s really not easy to tell.

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March 23, 2011

Yet another reason to hate your mobile provider

4. [NOTE: (These notes are in reverse chronological order. I have numbered them for your reading convenience.)I unlocked my Blackberry by calling Verizon support. I bought an Orange SIM card in a cigarette store in the Old City of Jerusalem for $10, plus $9 of calling time that times out in a week. So, I now have a working phone. It does not come with a data plan, however.]

3. [NOTE added minutes after the note right below this one: I’m on the phone with Verizon. It is indeed $20.48 per MEGABYTE. But wait…I am now talking with a tech support person who assures me that attachments don’t count unless you actually download them. Well, that’s something. She, however, is also telling me that the first two reps I talked with are wrong; in fact (says the tech support person), Verizon’s international plan gives you 70MB per month for $100, and every megabyte after that is $20.48. That’s still piracy, but the broadsword goes into you slightly more slowly.]

2. [Note added minutes later: Some other knowledgeable people tell me that Verizon must mean $20/gigabyte, not per megabyte. So, this may have been a mistake by the the service rep. I would happily take the blame for any misunderstanding, except that I confirmed that the rep said “megabyte” by inquiring, “PER MEGABYTE? PER MEGABYTE? ARE YOU FREAKING CRAZY!!!!!!!!!!,” to which he replied in the affirmative to the first two of the three questions.]

1. I’m going overseas tonight for a week. In the past, I’d call Verizon and have them switch service from my Droid to my previous phone, which was a Blackberry with “world phone” service. For $2/day, I’d get unlimited data access, so I could check my email and perhaps check the news on the Web now and then. (Believe me, on a Blackberry you don’t want to do a lot of heavy Web browsing.)

Today when I tried to make the switch, Verizon informed me that they have changed the plan, entirely for the benefit of their customers of course. So, now it’s $20 per megabyte. Holy crap! What kind of unearthly profit margin is that?

My knowledgeable friends tell me that that I should figure 50-100 emails per megabyte (although that number is conservative). So, no email for me. That’s what happens when the “free” market is so pwned that it laughs in the face of competition.

And these are the folks we’ve handed our Internet to? Great. Freaking great.

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November 27, 2010

Rio’s violence bloggified

Debora Baldelli has a thought-provoking post at Global Voices about the reaction in social media to the recent violence in Rio de Janeiro.

My interest was initially piqued because I was in Rio a few weeks ago for a library conference, and found the city fascinating, regretting that I had given myself only one meagre afternoon free. The beaches were empty, and the tourist industry was just groggily waking itself up. Above the eerily unused festive booths, the poor look down, quite literally, from favelas wrapping the bases of the sudden peaks emblematic of the city. The mountains then continue up in inhuman, humbling, vertical lines.

Some cities a casual visitor for a day can fool himself into thinking he understands. Not Rio.

So, I was very interested to read Debora’s round-up of what the local social media had to say about the police reaction to a wave of violence in the city. For example:

The need to know what is true or false, and which areas were or were not being attacked, made @casodepolicia launch two hashtags #everdade (#truth) and #eboato (#rumor), through which information revealed on the web was verified in real time. The tweet reached 10,000 followers on the fifth day of the terror in the city.

Debora is positive about the overall contribution of social media:

… a good portion of the violence reported after this series of attacks was already common before. The sounds of shooting are not exactly anything new in Rio de Janeiro. What is different this time, however, is that everything is happening at the same time, and everything is being spoken of, reported and investigated as part of the same giant problem. The population of the city is being tempted to speak out and be heard (whether through the Disque Denúncia [hotline] or whether on Twitter), and being taken seriously by the authorities. When a person reports via tweet, sees their report being investigated, and hears of police action, this not only stimulates the participation of residents but also gives credibility to the police. Everybody wins.

Of course, the voices being heard in the social media do not come from the favelas, as least in Debora’s report. Matters will be different yet again when we can hear those voices, instead of just feeling their gaze.

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October 19, 2010

In Rio

I’m giving two talks and participating in a panel discussion tomorrow at the national meeting of Brazilian university librarians in Rio. It was a long flight here, and I slept very badly on the plane, but it is still hard to complain about being given a free afternoon to wander around Rio.

I spent about 5 hours walking and only saw the beaches (Ipanema, not Copacabana … even the names have incredible resonance) and the Centro. I didn’t take the tram up to Christ the Redeemer on the grounds that I’d rather see the city from the ground than from the air. I didn’t take a favela tour, on the grounds that I didn’t have time and there’s something freaky about middle class Americans wandering through Brazilian poor neighborhoods, although it would have been fascinating. I spent most of my time lost.

So, what are my conclusions? Five hours is not enough to even fool myself into thinking I have seen Rio. My second conclusion is that Rio is clearly a very very interesting place. Not as resort-y as I’d thought (which is fine with me since I’m not a beach sort of guy) and full of life. Plus, everyone I’ve met, including the people I asked directions of, has been friendly and helpful. Sunny, one might say. Of course, the margin of error on my little incidental poll is about 45%. Still, you get a sense, a provisional sense.

I would like to come back for longer, if only because it’d be pretty much impossible to come back for any shorter. But mainly, I find the place fascinating. Not to mention that I am a Brazil fan.

Now for the ritualistic re-writing of the main talk I’m giving, even though I have worked hard on it and thought I had a final draft. Ah, neurosis! What work can’t it undo?

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