Traversing Provence by Foot

In a blog post titled “Pilgrims in Provence,” Matt Goulding realizes his dream of vising Provence, France.

My first dreams of Provence came as a teenager, when I stumbled across a picture of a local market in one of my mom’s glossy magazines. The village was tiny and cobblestoned, dappled with a gentle light so perfect it looked like it had been painted onto the page. Everything in that picture seemed impossibly vivid: the Technicolor tomatoes and eggplants, the farmers with dirt still crusted on their fingers, the cafe on the side of the plaza with the chalkboard menu listing untold treasures du jour.

That picture drove me wild with wanderlust. I wanted to be there to smell those tomatoes, to pepper those farmers with questions, to wander back to a small country house with nothing but a dog-eared journal and an armful of ingredients. I’ve been carrying those images around in my head for the better part of two decades, waiting for the day when I could transpose them on to reality.

All of this sounds warm and fuzzy and ripe for disappointment, but the great majority of Provencal cliches exist primarily because it is exactly that fairy-tale region you imagine it to be. To paraphrase Bourdain, it’s what Martha Stewart sees when she closes her eyes.

Having spent some time in Provence (mostly in Avignon) a few years ago, this description is apt:

Avignon is the kind of town that brings Provence’s virtues into sharp focus: the old part of town, circumscribed by an ancient city wall, is home to leafy avenues, a sprawling central market housing the building blocks for historic feasts, and the types of cafés you’d sacrifice unspeakable things to have in your neighborhood back home.

On navigation:

No, your best friends in this mysterious new world are the maps you procure from the local Tabacs shops (or from excitable outdoorsmen in Avignon) and the colored lines that mark the trails at every turn: red and white for the GR 6, our path for much of our time in the Luberon, red and yellow for the long-distance GRP trail, and so on. It takes a bit of getting used to, but soon you learn that an x means you’re going the wrong way, that a 90-degree angle indicates an imminent turn, and that the absence of any color at all for more than, say, 100 meters means you’ve gone rogue.

A convincing paragraph on why it’s better to travel on foot than by car/bus:

Maybe it’s the rosé talking, but there is something undeniably magical about approaching a town on foot. You are invariably greeted by a host of intense, deeply conflicting emotions: elation (over the fact that you won’t be sleeping under a rock tonight), exhaustion (because you haven’t exercised this much in many years), hunger (because that pack is heavy and bread and cheese and sparkling wine only go so far) and, above all, wonder (at just how beautiful and poetic it can be to watch a town towering on the horizon grow closer and closer until the road between you and it has disappeared entirely).

A wonderful essay. Highly recommend reading the whole thing.

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(hat tip: @legalnomads/@MikeAchim)

 

The Hoodie Phenomenon

Tim Maly, in a thoughtful essay titled “Mark Zuckerberg’s Hoodie,” ponders the role of privacy and social behavior as the hoodie has gone mainstream:

People who know they’re being watched change their behaviour. In a world awash in surveillance devices, hoodies are an element of fashion driven by an architectural condition. They are a response to the constant presence of cameras overhead. People who don’t want to be watched wear them. People who want to be the kind of people who don’t want to be watched wear them. People who want to look like the kind of people who don’t want to be watched wear them.

Through a series of vignettes, Maly brings us from 2005 to present day:

It is January 13, 2013 and Mark Zuckerberg is promising a revolution. He’s on stage, wearing his hoodie. He seems comfortable. His colleague Tom Stocky is trying to help a hypothetical girl find a date. He runs a query and gets a list of men who are friends of friends and single. It’s a veritable cornucopia of potential men. He narrows them down to people in San Francisco. Then down to people in San Francisco who are from India. His hypothetical woman is sure to be pleased.

Just don’t wear that hoodie to a first date, you know?

The Incredible Portland Karaoke Scene

“Here’s the important thing to remember about Portland. No one’s here to get rich. Unlike everywhere else in America. There’s a critical mass here of people here following their passions.”

The quote above is from one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read this month; it is Dan Kois’s story on the karaoke scene in Portland, Oregon. I’ve only been to karaoke maybe five or six times in my life, but I love the city of Portland, and Dan’s experience resonated with me.

In the piece, Kois profiles John Brophy, who runs  Baby Ketten Karaoke in Portland and every week:

adds as many as 20 tracks to the Baby Ketten songbook. Some of these are songs he purchases from karaoke studios, not unlike any karaoke jockey, or K.J., in America. But many of them are songs hand-assembled by Brophy, much as he’s doing with “Electioneering” — B.K.K. originals that Brophy constructs either because the studios that recorded “official” karaoke versions did bad jobs, or because the song is such an obscurity that no studio has ever recorded a karaoke version. For example, if you’d like to sing Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl,” the Gregory Brothers’ “Bed Intruder Song” (with full Auto-Tune), Danger Doom’s “Sofa King” or Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” Baby Ketten has them all. (I know: I saw people sing them.) Your local karaoke bar doesn’t.

There are just so many things to learn from this article, such as the popularity of “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” a 1972 epic written in gibberish by the Italian performer Adriano Celentano, supposedly to mimic how English sounds to the Italian ear. The lyrics are pure gibberish, and the original music video is below:

 

 

In the piece, Dan meets Addie Beseda at Baby Ketten Karaoke. Here’s a clip of her nailing “Prisencolinensinainciusol”:

 

 

This paragraph was excellent, but you have to watch the video clip below to fully appreciate it:

A tall young man in a puffy jacket swayed up onto the stage, then kicked into the lyrics — but instead of imitating Jack White’s rock ’n’ roll keen, he sang in a rhythm-and-blues croon. The song was instantly transformed from dirty garage rock to bedroom soul. It sounded incredible, as if the song were written that way in the first place. When it was over, Justin bowed, accepting our applause, then replaced the microphone in its stand and walked out the door, never to return.

The slow rendition of “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes mentioned above:

 

 

Wow.

Dan Kois with a beautiful conclusion on the city of Portland:

Portland isn’t just the capital of karaoke, I was realizing. The Japanese influence, the small-business climate and the abundance of bands don’t really matter. Portland is the capital of America’s small ponds. It’s a city devoted to chasing that feeling — the feeling of doing something you love, just for a moment, and being recognized for it, no matter how obscure or unnecessary or ludicrous it might seem to the straight world. It is the capital of taking frivolity seriously, of being silly as if it’s your job.

I’ll be back in Portland in July 2013 for the annual World Domination Summit (here are some readings to get you familiar; here is my summary from Cal Newport, who spoke at WDS 2012). I am going to spend a few days outside the conference doing touristy things, and certainly on my list of things to do this year will be to check out the karaoke scene in Portland. Who’s with me?

Bill Gates on the Importance of Measurement

Writing in the Saturday essay for The Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates underscores the importance of measurement:

In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal—in a feedback loop similar to the one Mr. Rosen describes.

This may seem basic, but it is amazing how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right. Historically, foreign aid has been measured in terms of the total amount of money invested—and during the Cold War, by whether a country stayed on our side—but not by how well it performed in actually helping people. Closer to home, despite innovation in measuring teacher performance world-wide, more than 90% of educators in the U.S. still get zero feedback on how to improve.

The essay touches on many issues, including vaccinations and education. Here is Gates on education reform in America:

I think the most critical change we can make in U.S. K–12 education, with America lagging countries in Asia and Northern Europe when it comes to turning out top students, is to create teacher-feedback systems that are properly funded, high quality and trusted by teachers.

Strong points throughout. As I highlighted entry #2 in my best longreads of 2012, I believe the science of measurement will become the norm in the future (especially that of self-measurement/analytics).

James Lasdun on Being Stalked

“I Will Ruin Him” is a haunting story by James Lasdun, who found himself a victim of stalking by a former M.F.A. student of his:

It’s one thing to be abused in private: You experience it almost as an internal event, not so different from listening to the more punitive voices in your own head. But to have other people brought into the drama is another matter. It confers a different order of reality on the abuse: fuller and more objective. This strange, awful thing really is happening to you, and people are witnessing it.

Along with the accusations of theft, Janice had also received details of my supposed (but equally fictitious) affairs with Nasreen’s former classmates, complete with descriptions of various kinky sexual practices that Nasreen claimed to have heard I went in for. (She had an uncanny way with that transparent yet curiously effective device of rumor, the unattributed source: “I’m told he …” “I hear he …” “Everyone knows he ….”)

The abrupt ending, though? It’s because the essay is a prelude to Lasdun’s new book Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked.

Eric Schmidt’s Daughter on North Korea

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s daughter Sophie has posted a lengthy account with photos of their recent trip to North Korea. Some highlights from a post titled “It might not get weirder than this”:

  • The English-language customs form for North Korea requires declaration of “killing device” and “publishings of all kinds.”
  • None of the buildings visited by the delegation was heated, despite the cold. Sophie writes: “They’re proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.”
  • The delegation had two official minders always present with them (“2, so one can mind the other”) and no interaction with North Koreans not vetted by officials.
  • Eric Schmidt’s “reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open.”
  • The group could make international calls on rented cell phones but had no data service.

This was my favorite highlight from her trip:

The Kim Il Sung University e-Library, or as I like to call it, the e-Potemkin Village…

Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in–a noisy bunch, with media in tow–not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home.

Sophia’s takeaways:

  1. Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
  2.  If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.
  3.  Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.

Worth reading in entirety, especially for the photos. The only thing that sucks is the formatting of the post (google sites, what the heck?).

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Also worth seeing: these photos from North Korea.

On Details, Imagination, and Living

A wonderful post on details and imagination from James:

When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? For most of us, it’s shutting off the alarm, which is often on our phones now. If you already have your phone, in hand, you will probably at least be tempted to check your texts, or facebook, or the weather. If you don’t do it then, you will almost certainly do it when you turn on your laptop in the cold morning light. Even before the digital age, we consumed information, first, even before we consumed food or other necessities. Growing up in the Northeast, I spent many winter mornings bathed in the soft glow of my old, titanic Mitsubishi tube television. It towered over me as I sat there, like a religious supplicant, waiting for its divine judgment. Two hour delay, or wait, wait CLOSED, victory! During those tense minutes watching the list of schools in my area scroll by along the bottom of the talking heads, I never felt hungry, or thirsty, or even tired in the cold dawn on all those winter mornings. I needed one thing, and one thing only. Details. I needed data, information, about how my day was going to play out. I needed to know. And I had discovered one of the strongest, and potentially most dangerous of human desires.

This is an interesting point, and I think it comes about for two reasons: 1) fiction is more readily available to us today, now than anyone in our real lives 2) it takes a certain amount of vulnerability to become invested in someone on a proactive basis, and so we choose to go with the easier world of fiction:

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve become filled with pseudo-emotions. People often seem more invested in fictional families, friends, and lovers, than their own.

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(hat tip: Cheri Lucas)