Sunday, 29 February 2004

You know you're bored when: you spend 10 minutes watching the little bits of crap on the surface of your eyes float across your field of vision. That was my story this morning. It was so bad that I came into work to check email and grab some music I borrowed from Erwan, and trawl the web for some points of interest. I got mail from Clio, to go with the mail from Estelle a few weeks ago, both saying to give them a call and catch up, something I really should do. They were the two French girls who were staying with Ian last year during a six month stay in Australia. Philippe also called, and I was about to go around and pick up a key to (his/the/my) apartment, but just as I was leaving it started snowing, heavily enough to make walking through it unappealing.

Last night I went with a bunch of folks (specifically, Franck, Damien, Benoit, Clémentine, and Marc) from work to a pizza place for dinner. 4 of us managed to get through the whole of our pizza and thus earn the reward of a free Carambar. It was very exciting. The others talked very rapidly, and I could tell that they were talking about film, but I couldn't join in, which was incredibly frustrating.

The snow has stopped...

Thursday, 26 February 2004

I saw Cold Mountain in another of these small French cinemas, with less about 60 seats or so and a screen less than a quarter the size of the smallest at Indooroopilly, which is still disconcerting for me, especially since I would have thought that Cold Mountain would be a pretty big release. Anyway, I got over it pretty quickly, and basically enjoyed the film. Its a really pretty film, particularly shots of the valley, both in summer and winter. Its epic also in its scope, but does not feel too long despite running two and half hours. Miramax has been trumpeting it for Oscars, and they probably have a reasonable case for nominations for cinematography, adapted screenplay and perhaps for Renee Zellweger, who puts in a good supporting turn as the rough-edged Ruby Thewes. However, Nicole Kidman have both done much better work, and I felt their accents were sometime uneven, with Nicole in particular slipping back to 'Strine from time to time. Philip Seymour Hoffman is, as he often is, very good as a minister with flexible morals. As for the plot, its fairly predictable at times, but that doesn't matter, and it shies away from the really happy Hollywood ending, as I imagine would have been dictated by the book, although it still winds up a little too cotton-candy for my tastes, with a number of people being shot but surviving. Actually, in general, the marksmen of this film are very accurate, but seem to be equipped with weapons incapable of killing people - almost every significant character barring Kidman's is shot and survives, and one of them twice.
I have broken the ordering of entries with respect to time of actual events, it seems. In the past I have gone back and changed the time-stamps on the tardy entries to maintain it, but I think now that I won't in future. Put this down to making it easier for someone to read my latest posts, or to the idea that a late posting reflects in the writing the passing of intervening time, or to laziness. I suspect all apply to lesser or greater extents.
On Monday night I went with Jacques and his fiancé Sophie to see Cold Mountain. Despite geographical synchronisation issues stemming from the surplus of university restaurants on campus, we arrived early and went for a drink at a place I'd walked past previously. Jacques speaks fairly broken English, but is very willing and will learn very quickly. Sophie speaks better English, but was shy of exercising it, and as a result I tended to speak in French with Sophie and in English with Jacques.

This is something I have noticed in France. The statement that I have heard is "people in France don't speak very good English", which is a self-propagating half-truth. In my experience, people are able to speak English fairly well, given the difficulty of it, and the only problem is that many choose not to, for fear that they won't be understood. Jacques, and perhaps Philippe, are the only people I've met since arriving who seem to realise that speaking English badly but often is the shortest path to speaking it well. (Caveat: Those who choose not to speak English because they want to preserve French are a different case, and significantly more justified, I think).

Anyway, we talked about film afterwards, and they posed the obvious question of "What kind of films do you like?". Obvious though it may be, I had and still have no answer for it. "Good films"? As Roger Ebert says, its not what a movie is about, its how it is about it that counts. I think this becomes more and more apparent as one digs further into cinema.
I went to try and sign off on an apartment this morning, but, as the saying goes, "Like the ski resort full of husbands looking for girls and girls looking for husbands, the situation is not as symmetrical as it seems." So while I am a tenant in need of an apartment, and the notaire has an apartment in need of a tenant, the mutual need is overwhelmed by the fact that the world is populated entirely by evil sadists who enjoy nothing more than tormenting tenants and potential tenants. That I understood what this one was saying only in general terms and not in the requisite detail was only more tantalising, I suspect.

Anyway, I came away with a lighter cheque book, a list of documents to be furnished, and an appointment for next week. My saving grace was that the departing tenant, Philippe, speaks excellent English, and was very helpful in giving me some more of the details afterwards.

Once I got back to work, Jacques also helped by telling me where I might obtain some of the requisite paperwork. Since this is France, there is of course a complex list of dependencies between it all, but I think it has some weak links, and shall endeavour to attack them tomorrow.

Wednesday, 25 February 2004

The current tenant of my prospective apartment called this afternoon, and I'm going tomorrow morning for a meeting with him and the agent.

Tuesday, 24 February 2004

Weekend report incoming...

On Saturday, once again, I stayed in my room, read my book, and generally did bugger-all. The only change from previous comparable activities was that I actually managed to sleep in, despite cold feet again. I think the heater in my room must be stuffed - the kitchen and bathroom are both warmer, and don't even have their heaters at full power. Saturday night I went into town for dinner and a movie with Didier and Isabelle. The preferred créperie was mysteriously closed, but we found another (they are everywhere, after all). It was my first taste of proper crepes, and was a little underwhelming, to be honest, but naturally I didn't say so. The movie, Blue Planet, is reviewed in another post, but was OK but not great.

On Sunday afternoon, after I had done my French homework (its weird having homework again - its been a long time), Didier and I drove out to St Lunaire, near Dinard, and went for a walk on the beach. There is an 11m difference there between low and high tides, so because it was low tide we were able to walk out to the offshore islands that would at high tide be well-and truly inaccessible. The wind was blowing a gale, which made it pretty cold, but there was plenty to see, including the oyster and mussell farms, ruins of old battlements, and all the people in slicks out looking for shellfish. Afterwards we drove around a bit, and had another walk at Dinard.
Continuing the reviews, on Saturday I saw La Planète Bleue. My research, before and after seeing the film, indicates that it is a French language movie adaptation of a BBC-made, David-Attenborough-voiced, 8-episode series originally called The Blue Planet. I think, in fact, that I may even have seen a little of the series on TV in Australia, many moons ago. One wway or another, I think knowing this had a significant effect on my enjoyment of the film. It was certainly nice, with lots of lovely slow-motion footage of sea-creatures both familiar (dolphins, sharks, orcas, penguins), and less familiar (deep-sea things that look like bad 80s computer graphics demos). It may have just been that I didn't really understand the French voice-over, or it may have been that I knew I was missing the full story, but the structure of the film felt to me like it had been chopped together. Just when I was getting into the orcas, they went away, and there were parts of the penguin story that went untold, I thought. I also missed David Attenborough's voice. Crusty and old though it is these days, its just not a BBC nature documentary without it. Still, as eye candy goes, not a bad film.
A while ago I finished Foundation, Isaac Asimov's classic, and renegged on my East-of-Eden promise of reviewing what I read. Anyway, it was really good. Asimov's broad grasp of science is matched by its judicious application, and he makes wonderful use of breaks to establish long-running trends in the story. Its interesting that, despite the claims of psychohistory to be largely independent of the actions of individuals, the key parts of the story discuss the contributions of individuals to resolve the various "Seldon crises". Of course, this is put in the context of a sort of "cometh the hour, cometh the man" concept, which is apparent in the sense of psychohistory and in the reading of the book. The scale of the book, for something presented in less than 300 pages, is awesome - establishing characters, but also discussing larger issues like the use of technology, religion and trade in imperialism and government. I've now started (more accurately, almost finished) "Revelation Space", by Alistair Reynolds, but the various sequels to Foundation are at the top of my list of coming attractions.

Friday, 20 February 2004

I did some more missionary work with people in the team here this morning, by way of trying to work out shared understandings for some definitions of terms that had been causing some problems. I hadn't expected much, but the majority seemed convinced by my definitions, and I think now better understand where I am coming from, at least.

As if one win wasn't enough, I went to look at an apartment, thanks to some help from someone to whom I now owe an even bigger debt of gratitude (did I say that already?). Anyway, the apartment is perfect for me, I think, and it looks probably I can get it, too. A meeting next work will probably decide that. I look forward to going back to the real estate agency that fleeced me last week and telling them I found something without them. They won't give my wool back though, I wouldn't think.
I seem to have accumulated 15 different blogs that I'm now following, using the Bloglines aggregator service. I don't know how I've accumulated so many so fast, particularly that they're all (except perhaps Dilbert and the Mac retrospective ones) related to my field of work. I'm finding that its really useful for the information that flies between the thresholds of community news and academic publications.
The couple at the other end of the corridor at the residence have a nasty habit of cooking fish. Now, I have nothing against the animal per se, but it stinks to high heaven when they cook it, and they leave the scales all over the sink, and they're a real pain to clean up because they're transparent. I've had to fish them out (awful pun, unintended) 3 times now, and it just plain sucks.

Wednesday, 18 February 2004

I have two quotes of the day, but the first was found yesterday, so it can count for yesterday's quote of the day. This one, from the recently-resurrected filthy critic, in describing the performance of an actress:

She's got the range of a leafblower, either pumping out hot air or sucking.

The second comes, reportedly, from Andrew Hume, by way of Jon Udell and Tom Christiansen, and has more in common with one that I used to like from Terrence "Antlr" Parr (4 links in the one sentence - a new personal best)

Programs that write programs are the happiest programs in the world.

There probably needs to be an addition, that programs that don't need to because they have reflection are just altogether too wrapped up in themselves. Hmm, there's a more succinct expression for that pun somewhere, and I shall dedicate some hours of the next 24 to try to find it...

I note in hindsight that this blog is getting more "bloggy" every day, with an increasing of quotes, references and cross-postings.

Tuesday, 17 February 2004

OK, in another post I think I claimed that culture shock was not a factor in my considering quitting. That's not true. It is, in that the inability to function as an individual within a society is so very important. Every time I speak to someone I ask them to repeat 3 out of 4 statements. If I know them, its just annoying, but if I don't, I get that "you're a moron" look, and they say the same thing over again, often faster. I can't tell you how frustrating that is, because I know that its my fault, not theirs. The phrases they teach you in French class are fine if you're buying scarves or paintbrushes, but when you need to engage in dialogue it breaks down after about 3 sentences - Query, response, clarification, gibberish.

OK, so lets imagine this changes after I learn enough French. Trouble is, I figure that's months away, and is it really worth putting up with 4 months worth of non-existence when I could be doing better research at a better university with people I can really engage with, and at a fraction of the pain? What am I gaining by staying here? That's not rhetorical, I really want to know, because I have no answers. Someone email me, please.

In other news, my feet hurt, because my boots give me blisters. I went to go swimming this morning and got turned away because I only had shorts, which I really should have expected. Foolishly, I walked back towards town for 20 minutes before catching a bus, making my blisters worse. And I'm at work at 7pm again, because I have nothing to go home to, except a dirty kitchen that stinks from the couple who fry everything they cook, and a textbook that's more greek than English, but still the most legible reading material I have. This afternoon I looked at prices of flights. I can't believe it only took me 4 weeks.
Another new person started at French classes today, a Canadian girl called Liz. She was taller than me, which is notable because, being 6'3", that doesn't happen to me very often. I am enjoying the classes, but when I leave the building, the classroom French becomes real French, and it all becomes difficult again. The written form, reading and writing, is getting easier, since

  • there is time to parse & process the sentence,

  • it is a persistent form - I can read it over, or re-edit it

  • there is no need for the additional translation of sounds into words.

However, for normal conversation, i.e. the oral form, involving speaking and listening, it is more difficult.

  • The form is non-persistent, i.e. heard words fade, and words already spoken cannot be re-edited. This can be addressed by, in the latter case, stuttering, and, in the former case, asking the person to repeat the statement. However, this is not much fun.

  • There is generally an imperative to respond to someone within a reasonable time limit. This can be addressed using techniques from above, but its still difficult.

  • It is a two stage process - first the sounds are translated into a French phrase, then the phrase is translated into meaning, often (at my stage of learning) via English words.

Well, there's the academic version, anyway. Of course, the big catch is that the spoken form is far more important, since it is the most common form, and since it does not have the written form's facility for instrumentation (word processor, third-party editing).
Do-over. Mulligan. Whatever you call it, I want one for the day where I decided (and I use the term loosely) that I would just go to France and do a PhD. I'm jack of this, and ready to come home. In an email I sent to my Mum I said it was for work reasons, not for lifestyle reasons, but that's crap. I can only be miserable for so long. I'm the sort of person whose inner monologue is too active to tolerate depression for very long, and I spent much of Sunday torturing myself. This was after spending Saturday getting fleeced by local retailers, in particular a real estate agent who took me for more than half the contents of my wallet. I am slow in comprehending and quick with my wallet, and its a poisonous duet when you don't speak the language. A couple of bright spots - going to see a swimming meet last night, and my french lessons again today - have done little to dry my very dampened enthusiasm for continuing here.

Saturday, 14 February 2004

I am currently trying to maintain the conviction that any person who transplants themself as totally as I have feels the urge to pack it in and return to something more familiar, and has a greater than normal ability to find fault with the new surroundings. For this reason, I refuse to allow myself to be swayed in my resolve on solely on the basis of lifestyle things - dealing with bureaucracy, living arrangements, and so on. However, I think I may need to reserve the right to assess very critically factors like the academic merits of being here, that is, whether I am at a disadvantage by being here relative to being back home, in terms of access to people and resources that help me write a better thesis. I should stress, in the event that some context-aware person reads this, that such a disadvantage is not a reflection on the quality of the surroundings, so much as a mismatch between the surroundings and the surrounded. I am beginning to wonder.

Friday, 13 February 2004

I went shopping last night and bought Weetabix, on the premise that their name sounds like Weet-bix, and they were the only thing in the place that looked anything like Weet-Bix (and don't get me started about water crackers). Well, they're not quite Weet-Bix, but they're a cut above Vita-Brits and this morning was the first time since I arrived that felt like a proper breakfast. I know its not true, but old habits die hard.
Hmm, that could have gone better. The impedance mismatch between my research inertia and research inertia at the lab is difficult to get around. I still haven't got it clear in my mind what the question is that we are answering with the piece of work I have been asked to look at. I keep asking, but perhaps the combination of the language barrier and the fact that everyone else has been working at it for so long, have combined to leave me still wondering. I really think that a clear identification of the question will shape a far better answer, and add more to the work.

At some point I might have to accept the mismatch, and pursue my own ideas, although its not as good a situation. He sees farthest who stands on the shoulders of others (with apologies to Newton), and if the others are nearby it's considerably easier on the hamstrings.

Wednesday, 11 February 2004

I feel so helpless here sometimes. The project assistant has twice now brought to my attention advertisements for appartments for rent, but I have been too afraid of using the telephone to call. This afternoon she called for me, which I'm sure just perpetuates my problem, but its just too difficult. Everyone in the lab speaks English, and I don't really speak to anyone at the residence, so I don't get much opportunity to practice my French outside of my classes.

In related news, I am enjoying my French classes. I had forgotten the joy of learning about the structures of languages, and the rules and exceptions that either govern them or aid in one's understanding of them. Today we covered French pronouns of various flavours. They seem more complicated than their English counterparts but, like so many things, there are rules that help to narrow the ocean of things to cover. I think its a very important point, and relevant to my field of study, that many of these "rules" are not so much rules as guidelines, with exceptions and caveats. I think the ontology people understand this a little better than the object modelling people.
I didn't give an acount of my weekend, but there isn't much to tell. On Saturday I spent an age trying to find the laundry at the residence and, having eventually found it, made a small dent into my accumulation of dirty washing. I also went shopping and actually cooked something, albeit only pasta, for the first time since arriving. I also got a first glimpse of French television. On both Saturday and Sunday I read voraciously, so much so that I finished East of Eden, having only been 100 pages in beforehand. It was a beautiful weekend, from what I saw out my windows.

Monday, 9 February 2004

I suppose I should post a small review of the books I read. My most recent conquest was East Of Eden, by John Steinbeck. I picked it from the small selection of English Language books available for a number of reasons, one of which was the name recognition associated with the author, but the most significant of which was that it was the thickest one on the shelves. This in no way increased its longevity, in that I completed it within a week. Indeed, perhaps 70% of it I read on Saturday. It is a sprawling story, covering roughly two generations of a number of families as they grow during the late 1880s and early 1900s in a changing America. The book is perhaps better characterised as an assemblage of archetypical characters and their interactions, than as a single linear story, although the characters are bound together by a theme. The characters are, in general, beautifully written: I particularly enjoyed those of Samuel Hamilton and his wife, and of Cal Trask, but most are recognisable. The exceptions, perhaps, are Steinbeck's "evil" characters, who I feel lack the necessary balance, despite the author's attempts to promote their inner conflict at various points. Perhaps some of the best sections of the book are those where Steinbeck grants himself the freedom to wax more philosophical about the nature of humanity, typically during the preface to the book's chapters. It is probably in these sections, free of the narrative imperative, where his prose wanders most widely, and most satisfyingly.
I've decided that my previous strategy of listing in the right hand column the books I am currently reading did not fit my lifestyle. Once again this weekend I polished off a book, without much opportunity to put it into the column. Henceforth the column will show my recent reading history, I think perhaps the last 10 books that I've read. I'll pad it out initially with some that I read last year, when my rate of consumption was much less. By way of indicating this, the first 7 of the books in the list (admittedly including Foundation, which I am about to start, and the dictionary, which is more of a reference), have been read since Christmas, whereas the last 3 were read over a period of 8 months or so.

Friday, 6 February 2004

Since its been two days since my last entry, I suppose I should really contribute something, although I'm not sure that there's anything worth mentioning. We had a talk yesterday from a Microsoft guy about .NET, which was not uninteresting, although I always rile a little bit about technical evangelism from MS. Actually, the guy is an Australian, though he's not based there any more, and we had a chat before the talk about some people we both knew.

Other than that, my French lessons are going well - I seem to have caught up on the imparfait and passé composé stuff that others had learnt last week or something. My vocabulary still needs work though. I may try to spend some time at my desk learning this weekend. I also need to make more an effort to speak French with people, since most of my conversations at work (and hence most of my conversations) are in English. There's a bit of a balance between my wanting to practice my French and everyone else wanting to practice their English.

Thursday, 5 February 2004

Gave a talk this afternoon to my group on the work I had been doing in Australia before I left. One of the academics who helped organise my coming here also came up from Nantes to attend, and he, my supervisor and I had a good discussion about the general space, in both political and academic terms, after the talk. In all, it ran for an hour and a half, which was much more than I had anticipated, but the discussion was good. I had been a bit apprehensive about the talk, since much of what I was saying is a little at odds with the way of doing things here. Still, I am a little more relaxed about it now, and see some complementarity between the two.

Tuesday, 3 February 2004

Well, I fled halfway around the world, executing a deft handball to a man in space, but they still found me (OK, so I'm mixing my metaphors pretty wildly there). It seems that, while they can be born, standards never die. The report I wrote on my last day of work has come in for some commentary, and the request has found me. As such, I will spend this morning trying to perform the necessary life-preserving functions needed to keep the damn thing ticking. Of course, in many ways the disease is terminal anyway, since if there isn't an implementation available soon, the thing will die at the Business Committee anyway. We may be done with the past, but the past, my friend, is not done with us.
This morning I moved rooms at INSA, my previous one having expired and not been available for longer. The lady at the counter was a little disappointed, indicating that I was supposed to have moved the day before, but all my mail said Monday, so I could offer little by way of an outlet for her. Anyway, I guess I'll find out tonight whether the common room in my new corridor (same building) is any less of a sty than that of my last.

In the afternoon I had my first French lesson, in town, with a group of about 5 girls, 3 japanese and 2 German, I think. In some ways (pronunciation, comfort with the present tense) I am ahead of them, but in others (vocabulary, past tense), perhaps behind. I will buy the text tomorrow, and endeavour to remedy the latter, as soon as possible. I suspect I will have to accelerate my own studies at some point, since they were very slow coming to grips with the difference between 'u' and 'ou', which seems to me very obvious.

After my French lesson, I met with my advisor and another student. Its the first meeting in which we've really discussed things, and I was a little worried, since I have some pretty grave concerns about the directions in which he was looking, but it was not too bad a dynamic, and there seems to be room for lively discussion, which is important after what I was used to in my previous role in Australia.

Monday, 2 February 2004

I'm beginning to sense that the usual weekend activity for a resident of Rennes is to leave Rennes.

On Saturday morning I went chasing books, and found some, at the Libraire Forum Privat, a big shop right in the middle of town. I bought 3, out of a selection of 5 or 6 that tempted me. My lack of social contact is rekindling my enjoyment of reading, and in turn increasing my ability to read for long periods, which had diminished of late from either lack of practice or perhaps the influence of too many Hollywood films. Anyway, I engaged it on Saturday afternoon, polishing off Vernon God Little, the Booker Prize winner by the guy born in Australia. Pretty good, too, much in the same vein as Chuck Palahniuk, but a little darker and closer to the bone perhaps.

I had planned to go to St Malo on Sunday morning, but when my alarm went, the devil on my left shoulder frowned and intimidated the angel on my right, and I slept too long to catch the 9am train. Still, I took my time, and was lucky to catch another at midday. St Malo is very pretty, by the sea and guarded by its city walls, and I spent a couple of hours just walking around the beach, the streets, and onto the little fortified island (well, almost and island) just beyond the walls. So warm and pleasant was it, in fact, that there were actually people windsurfing and even surfing in the small waves on the beach, both of which impressed me for French January.

Having forgotten to bring a book, I bought a copy of The Economist and caught up on world affairs on the train rides to and from, and in a park when my feet needed a brief rest. I didn't end up staying for very long, only until 5 or so, getting home in good time to pack up my room for the morning's translocation.