Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

Pretty damn quick tour of Paris

Posted by Russell on July 23, 2006 at 3:39 p.m.
Mimi and I spent the day walking around Paris. The city is very, very different from how I remember it, though that isn't much of a surprise. Not only is my memory of Paris warped by the fact that I was six years old when I was here before, but it was also twenty years ago. I think this is honestly the first time I have been able to say, "It's been twenty years since I bla bla bla..." Clearly, Paris has changed a lot since 1986 -- the most important difference being cleanliness. Paris was positively filthy when I was a little kid, and I came away with a stronger memory of the city-wide layer of grime than any of the beautiful artwork of the Louvre. I also remember the stink of the subway (which smelled powerfully of feet and urine) far more vividly than the famous Paris bakeries. Today, Paris is beautiful and (mostly) sweet-smelling.

We had a good time walking about yesterday -- we did the "Left Bank Walk" from Rick Steves' Paris guide. We started at the Pont des Arts, past Voltaire's garden (and smirking statue), and paused for espresso at the famous La Palette Cafe.

Unfortunately, I still seem to be suffering from the lingering effects of my head-cold / chest-cold / bronchitis / pneumonia / plague thing, and I had a miserable four hours of agony as the pressure in my sinuses reached stellar-core levels. It was a bit like having someone pound a nail out of my skull from behind my right eyebrow. After four Tylenol and many hot compresses, something in my head made a bony snapping noise, followed by the much-anticipated squealing noise of air rushing through a very small hole. Mimi dropped the book she was reading and looked worried and slightly ill. Sweet, sweet relief!

We did a quick visit to Notre Dame, had lunch at the Montparnasse train station (Mimi had to buy tickets for her students' trip tomorrow), had coffee at the Louvre, and watched Floyd Landis win the Tour de France.

All in all, a successful day.

Paris in 6 hours

Posted by Russell on July 23, 2006 at 6:03 a.m.
I'm in Paris to visit Mimi for the weekend. We're going to run around and try to see as much of it as we can.

How not to arrive in London

Posted by Russell on July 15, 2006 at 2:22 p.m.
My 70 euro worth of Vodafone minutes was expended in a 3 minute call to Steve, which was the very first call I made with the stupid thing. And I can't use my VoIP box because I don't have WiFi, and in any event, I forgot a UK power adapter, so I can't plug the damn thing in anyway.

I had a super-uber rotten flight. I don't think I'm ever going to fly Ryan Air after this trip. They don't even let you have water without paying 6 euro. And they blair advertisements at you the the whole way. And take collections for asorted Irish charities. And my skull felt like it was being sweezed in a vice, until I got tunnel vision from the pain, and then the sqeezing just turned into general agony. And the guy next to me was a talkative New Zelander who kept making dirty Jew jokes.

Then I got to Luton, and bought the first edible object I found, which turned out to be a tiny tuna sandwich and a bottle of water (there's no potable drinking water at the airport). It was 14 pounds. 14 pounds.

Then Steve gave me wrong directions, and I walked the length and bredth of Hyde Park looking for him. Nice place, but not while running a fever (again). Then I wasted some more time discovering that six out of seven phone booths in the city seem to be broken, and then had to pay 4 pounds for another 3 minute conversation.

The good news is that Steve is putting me up at a special flat for visiting professors (just until Monday). It's right on Hyde Park, next to the Science Museum. It's beautiful, much nicer than Savoy. Private kitchen, laundry, lounge, balcony (overlooking the park), plus squash courts, pool, et cetera. Unfortunately, London is not completely obsessed with "security", so you need a damn key card to do anything in the building, and the stupid security system doesn't work right, and every time I go outside the flat I set off ten different alarms. I press down button on elevator, whooping sirens. I bump into a protruding light fixture, set off screeching claxons. Guards come running with hands on guns, babes cry, small children snicker at me. Et cetera. It's like something out of a movie.

Then I found a pub and ate some fish and chips and three pints of ale, and felt better.

Thoughts on Rome

Posted by Russell on July 12, 2006 at 7:50 p.m.
Today, Mimi and I visited the Pantheon again. It's one of the only surviving original Roman buildings in Rome. As we stood beneath the great dome, I couldn't help but look up and shudder. Of course, the American republic was modeled on Rome's. Walking through the bones of the Roman Empire, my mind keeps drifting to the fate of my own nation.

Rome's sad fate was sealed sometime during its wars with Carthage. When Carthage wad destroyed, the Romans acquired the lands once controlled by Carthage -- Spain, Libya, Morocco, Corsica and Sardinia. Carthage was the center of a trading empire, and so Rome seized a great deal of wealth through the conquest. The spoils of victory had a destabilizing effect on Rome's class system, adding domestic chaos to foreign entanglements. As the Punic Wars dragged on, the military gradually increased in prominence in Roman society. The Roman institution of the dictatorship -- an institution that was much feared, and for good reason -- allowed Julius Cesar to first claim the title of dictator rei gerendae causa, and then dictator perpetuus.

The moment the Senate voted Cesar dictator perpetuus, the Roman republic was dead. If the Senate had refused, and Cesar had destroyed it, perhaps the republic could have been re-formed after Cesar's death. Instead, the republic chose to chain itself to the emperor, and the fate of leadership without accountability is always inevitable decline. That is why republics exist in the first place -- they are a hedge against human vices and vanities.

Turning to the American republic, the huge importance of the military in society throughout the twentieth century is troubling. The domestic unhappiness (not yet chaos) caused by the uneven distribution of America's great expansion of prosperity is troubling. The current executive's efforts to undermine the powers of its coequal branches of government are troubling, especially since these efforts are justified in the name of emergency conditions and extraordinary circumstances.

Whenever George Bush talks about "these troubling times" and the "war on terror," I remember that the Roman republic died so that someone could wield emergency powers, and fate of Rome itself eventually reflected the fate of its republic. During the Dark Ages, Rome was essentially abandoned. Farmers planted fields where the Senate once met.

When I look at the old battered Pantheon, I can't help but hope that someone will always tend to the paint on the US Capitol. I hope that no one ever wanders through Washington D.C., snapping pictures of the awesome bones of a defunct empire. I want Americans to hold their noses and vote, year after year, for a government that belongs to everyone. I want Washington to remain forever a mildly contemptible town where Americans get down to the business of governing, and that it never becomes the seat of a great empire.

Most of all, I hope that our republic is built of stronger stuff than Rome's.

Angels and Demons: A Tour Rome

Posted by Russell on July 12, 2006 at 12:13 p.m.
I haven't read the book, but Mimi has, and thought it would be fun to do a tour of Rome based on Dan Brown's book. It was actually an extremely cool tour. If you want a quick plot summary, the Wikipedia page is pretty good. When I first picked up the book, I couldn't get past the first page -- the bit about the antimatter bomb just made me giggle. Now that I've seen the place the book is about, I might give it a second shot.

We went on Sunday, so the churches we visited were having services. We visited :

Santa Maria del Popolo Church (Piazza del Popolo)

St. Peter's square

Of course everyone knows St. Peter's Basilica. Notice that Bernini designed the piazza as a Keplerian ellipse, which was a not-so-subtle dig at Church dogma. At each focus of the ellipse, the columns line up, allowing you to see out of the square.

Santa Maria della Vittoria Church (Largo di Santa Susanna)


The Pantheon was built more than two thousand years ago to be the personal temple of the Roman emperor. It really does defy description.

Piazza della Minerva

This is the church where Gallileo was tried, and where he was later forced to recant his discoveries.

Piazza Navona

Castel Sant’Angelo and “il Passetto”

I've posted a new gallery of the photos that came out reasonably well.


Posted by Russell on July 12, 2006 at 12:10 p.m.
Oh balls. I'm in Rome, and I have managed to contract my usual six hour fever, followed by sinus infection, bronchitis and mild pneumonia. I wish I could trade in my skull for a better one.

Beautiful Amsterdam

Posted by Russell on July 10, 2006 at 3:53 a.m.
I finally have a spare moment to upload some of the photos I've taken so far. Sadly, Swisscom charges 22 Euro for a day's worth of WiFi access, and then have the temerity to cap your traffic at 400 MB per day. So, I still have another 600 MB worth of photos to upload, but that isn't going to happen all at once, unless I find someplace in Rome that doesn't have idiotic prices and policies. Anyway, I've finally uploaded the gallery for the first leg of my trip.

These photos are from my 7 hour layover in Amsterdam. I took that train into the city and walked around for a few hours, drank some espresso, ate some cookies, and goggled at the city. I was in the city from 6:30 AM to 11:00 AM, so pretty much everyone was asleep.

I encountered a small barge dredging one of the canals, which was actually quite fascinating. The fellow pulled up an assortment of junk, and carefully sorted it in the container he was tugging alongside the barge. I saw him pull up a 1920's era typewriter, which he put into what I assume was the "probably recyclable" pile, a claw-full of ornately decorated cobblestones (not at all like the ones on the adjacent street), and an assortment of maritime garbage, like ropes, chains, broken pulleys, half a boat anchor, and such. Surprisingly, I didn't see any bottles or cans. I guess people usually don't throw their ordinary garbage into the canals, which is nice. While I was standing on the bank, he splashed me a bunch of genuine Amsterdam canal muck. Lucky me!

I'll upload the pictures from Rome soon. Hopefully I can find someplace that doesn't charge an arm, leg and kidney for internet access.

Rome or Bust

Posted by Russell on July 06, 2006 at 5:55 a.m.
Last post before I leave for Rome! See you there, Mimi!

Frequent Flyer Points

Posted by Russell on July 05, 2006 at 6:37 p.m.
Time to cash in those frequent flier points. I'm going to places foreign this summer, in the following order:
  • Amsterdam (for 17 hours)
  • Rome (a week and change)
  • Oxford (for the Culham Plasma Physics Summer School)
  • London for five days
  • Berlin for four days
  • Back to London for four days
This will be great fun. If it doesn't kill me.

Happy 4th, Everyone (really this time)

Posted by Russell on July 04, 2006 at 6:21 a.m.
I agree with Travis agreeing with William Arkin agreeing with Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift. Hamden v. Rumsfeld will be remembered as one stepping stone among many in America's long path to form a more perfect Union. Hamden may be a rat, but then again he may not. The Supreme Court reminds us that this is America. We don't abide kangaroo courts and secret justice.

I'll toast to that. Happy 230th, America.

Happy 4th, Everyone...

Posted by Russell on July 04, 2006 at 5:15 a.m.
Long before the September 11th attacks, Bill Clinton decided that Osama bin Laden was a threat. Last year, George the Second decided he wasn't worth tracking down, and disbanded the CIA effort to apprehend him. How profoundly depressing.


Posted by Russell on July 03, 2006 at 5:37 a.m.
I just finished debugging and assembling my very first audio amplifier. It's a thumping 2.5 Watts of single-channel sound. I built it around the mighty LM380 2.5W Audio Power Amplifier. I also have a preamplifier stage, which turns out to be rather unnecessary for stepping up the line input from (for example) my iPod.

It's powered by a 9-Volt battery that I've squashed inside. Not quite audiophile material, but I want to build a real audiophile-quality amplifier someday, and I figured I ought to start somewhere.