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Athens - downtown

sunny 63 °F

That title has a double meaning that will probably be a thread through most of this part of my blog. My first day in Athens I decided to head downtown and look at the central market and the Athens National Archaeological Museum. Unfortunately, my first immediate perception of Athens is graffiti. They are virtually everywhere - public signs, store fronts, walls, windows, sidewalks, you name it. It makes a horrible mess, but among folks I talked to, the basic attitude is they have other bigger problems to deal with. And they do; I think it's fair to say that Athens (and Greece) is the Detroit of Europe. They have taken a hammering and it shows on the faces of the people and in the state of the country. Like Detroit, there seems to be a sense that maybe the worst is in the past, but progress is difficult to discern.

Oh, let's be tourists again. My first stop was the Central Market which is as colorful and pungent as you might imagine. Every meat and fish stall has a butcher's block out front and some guy (always a guy) with a cleaver ready to hack the customer's request out of a larger piece of whatever they are selling. Here a a couple of photos of the market - an overview and lamb's heads on special (ew!)

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More conventional foodstuffs are also on display, including fruits and vegetables and you can get a good cup of Greek coffee while you wander. Interestingly, Greek coffee is just like Turkish coffee except that Greeks would never call it that - although if you look closely at the grinder in the picture, there is a little label that says "Turkish coffee."

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From here I headed to the museum. Suffice it to say that going to a Greek archaeological museum is absolutely guaranteed to be overwhelming. The National Museum is simply full of objects that fill world history and art textbooks with their images. I took pictures of some, and just gazed at others. Here are a few more or less familiar objects from the vast collection. Here is a head from 3000 BC, from the Cycladic culture and a gold death mask from the Mycenean era, about 1600 BC.

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Now a few youngsters, maybe 2000 years old, from the classic era of Greek art

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However, the high point for me was these relatively unpreposessing brass fragments from a 2000 year old shipwreck. This is the Antikytheria mechanism.

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It has taken decades to analyze this material but now it is clear that it was an extremely sophisticated analog computer, capable of a variety of calendrical functions for different calendars in use at the time as well as being able to predict the phases of the moon, the time of the next Olympiad and even solar eclipses. It is truly an extraordinary example of what was undoubtedly a fairly mature and highly advanced technological culture of which this single artifact and a few references in texts are our only evidence. The museum also includes many replicas built over the years to attempt to duplicate its funtions; here is a glimpse of the workings of one of the more recent models.

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Another cool feature is that it is its own owner's manual; the visible surfaces are covered with inscriptions describing its operation.

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Hey, I'm a techie, so excuse me if I say that I was deeply moved to contemplate this artifact. It represents an amazing Greek technological culture that disappeared from the face of the earth. Its like would not be seen for more than a millennium into the future. I know that technology is no cure-all for what ails human culture, but I just can't help thinking where we might be today technologically and possibly as a people if we had been able to build on this foundation instead of waiting 1000 years to start again.

Sigh.

Posted by tdeits 04:50 Archived in Greece Tagged shopping athens museum graffiti archaeology antikytheria Comments (0)

Paris

I visit a science museum - with robots !!!

overcast 49 °F

Had an early morning flight from Athens to Paris (economy class - oh, the horror!) and then negotiated the train and met with my host in Paris, Jean Jay. Settled into the apartment and did a bit of blogging, shopped for some food for breakfast and got ready for the first day in Paris.

Of course, the first place you go in Paris is the hands-on science museum, right? I Googled it up and when I got into the vicinity I thought to myself - 'interesting- they put the science museum right next to this enormous basketball stadium..'

My bad - the enormous building was the Cite des Sciences et de l' Industries

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And unlike the Tardis, it's just as big inside as outside.

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Fortuitously, there was a special exhibition on Robotic Art

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so I headed there first. It seems that there are two major universal challenges in the world of robotics that everyone is trying to solve and the rest of us can't figure out why. The first is a robot that can bring you a bottle of beer. The second is to make a 'real' Transformer. The exhibit attempted to tackle the second - but really, a mighty robot that transforms into..... a Citroen sedan?

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They were doing a video shoot while I was there so I got to see it transform. It took like 10 minutes; Megatron has nothing to be jealous of.

Here's a display from my favorite robot art exhibit

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The exhibit, complete with mad scientist video, describes some truly amazing thrill rides. Rather than try and shoot video of video, I strongly encourage you to visit the website of the Institute for Centrifugal Reseach, whose motto is "Gravity is our Enemy" or "We are spinning people around for future generations" or "Unpredictable since 1976" or something. Watch out, Cedar Point, you have some real competition!

A couple of other cool displays were a robot painstakingly drawing a 10 foot long mural of the surface of Mars using an image from the Curiosity Rover and a weird installation of 20 robotic hospital beds that slowly and subtly change elevation to ethereal music.

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You may have seen videos of Theo Jansen's 'Strandbeest's as they march down beaches. They had one of his creations on hand and I got to see it in motion

The other exhibits were quite impressive, very well designed and pitched to an older child/adult audience. There was an interesting exhibit on risk assessment that explained some of the techniques and pitfalls due to personal psychology to accurate risk assessment, a large exhibit on molecular biology and evolution and another on transportation. You can see the scale of the exhibits from the picture below of part of the transportation exhibit.

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They also have fablab. It's downstairs from the main exhibit hall and accessible without paying museum admission. It really has no interaction with the rest of the museum, either in space or in programming. I wandered in when it was opened and was basically ignored; I guess they get tired of tourists sticking their noses in, but I hope we can be sure that the outcome of the Innovation 5 project will be a more immediately welcoming place.

There are also separate areas for kids 2-7 and 5 - 12. I wasn't able to visit those on this day but I contacted the staff and they gave me permission to visit later. They normally don't let adults without children into these areas, understandably, but I used my Impression 5 credentials and, as they say, voila! There is even a third area for older teens and adults which I also haven't visited yet.

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Of course, there is a gift shop to exit through, but again, as in Perth essentially no branded merchandise. No doubt there is a career for some marketer to go around and teach museums overseas how to exploit their brands for revenue!

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Of course, given the scale and quality of the Cite, it may just be that they don't feel the need for more money - weird, right?

Posted by tdeits 03:53 Archived in France Tagged paris france museum science robots makerspaces Comments (0)

Paris, Pompidu and circumstance

Headed into the center of Paris for the first time. My first reaction is - it looks exactly like Paris. It is such a photographed city that it is hard not to come with a preconception of the city and it is hard for it not to be confirmed in the reality. As a result, I'm not tempted to take a bunch of pictures of the city per se (though I'm sure I'll sneak in a few). My second reaction is the city is a wonderful walkable mixed use community and that it achieves this by supporting a remarkably high population density. I have read estimates that the density is something like 200 dwelling units per acre, and given the vast number of 5, 6 and 7 storey apartments lining every street, I can believe. To put this in perspective for my Okemos friends, this is roughly equivalent to putting the entire township of Meridian in a space no larger than the Meridian Mall.

Well, all right, one picture - OK, two; one a quirky shot of the city at night and the other of the Pompidu center, my first museum destination.

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The Pompidu is famous for its aggressively mechanical architecture and as a center for modern art. It is also overwhelming. I spend the whole day there and I could only manage the visiting exhibitions; another whole huge floor of the permanent collection was more than I could handle. I started with an exhibit about Marcel Duchamp, who is most famous two works - Nude Descending A Staircase, one of the most shocking works ever to be exhibited in America in its era, and for painting a mustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa.

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The exhibit goes into exhaustive detail on the influences on Duchamp, starting with Dada and moving through Cubism, Fauvism, Impressionism, and more. It is interesting to see an artist work through all these styles, but I, as a layman, was left with the impression of more dilletantism with occasional brilliance. Interestingly, he wasn't a starving artist - he was supported by his wealthy father. Does this come into play in his inclination to move on in art rather than stake a claim and try to make it his, perhaps as other artists who needed the bread (literally) might be forced to do?

In any event, it was a lot to work through and it was nicely, if oddly, complemented by the other special exhibit of the works of Jeffery Koons. He has made no bones about making a living from his art and has become fabulously wealthy producing his unusual and frequently unsettling works. One element of the trajectory of his career can be encapsulated in three photos of objects from the beginning, middle and peak of his career.

The first is one of a set of assemblies of mundane inflatable objects and mirrors. In the second later piece he has retained the inflatable form and developed a reflective surface treatment. In the third and most recent object, he has scaled up and added color (and switched to a balloon dog). It's worth mentioning that an orange version of the inflatable dog sold for the highest price for any work by any living artist, $58.4 million.

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He does other work as well, of course, much of it unsettling and some totally NSFW. He reminds me of Rodin, who was also extremely successful at marketing his works (did you know there are 28 more-or-less original full size statues of The Thinker out there?) and who also was as much an artistic director as a hands-on artist, relying on craftsmen to execute his concepts.

That took most of the day! Time for a late French lunch. There is a fancy restaurant in the Pompidu so I decided to splurge. I had a French green bean and mushroom (yes, the big white discs are mushrooms) salad and a classic French beef carpaccio with a nice glass of Chablis.

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Armed with renewed strength, I tackled a Frank Gehry exhibit, equally deep and large, that took the rest of the day into evening (luckily the Pompidu is open quite late). There were interviews and documentaries and a huge collection of his models. He really kind of does work as shown in the Simpson's parody (where he crumples a letter from Marge asking him to build a building in Springfield and, after throwing it on the ground, decides it looks pretty good and so builds it) pushing and cutting chunks of cardboard and then staring at the result.

I like architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright fanboy) and in addition Robin works in a Gehry-designed building, the Stata Center. There was a model of the Stata center in the exhibition and I decided to out-Gehry Gehry. The model was in a display case and I set my phone for 'panorama' mode which is usually used to look out at a scene and instead I took an 'inside out' panorama, walking around the model. I think the result is pretty cool.

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Well, that was quite a day. My brain hurt. So I wrapped it up with Boeuf Bourginone in a nearby brasserie - with more wine, of course.

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I waddled back to the Metro and put my brain to bed. Nice day.

Posted by tdeits 23:15 Archived in France Tagged art food paris museum gehry koons duchamp pompidu Comments (0)

More snapshots of Paris

overcast 35 °F

My French expat friend Evelyn gave me an extensive list of must-do's in Paris and this entry is largely in honor of her success in laying out some great recommendations.

First, I went down to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

But before I do that maybe a word about getting around in Paris. The short answer is that there are two main ways to get around - the Metro and, for spots a bit out of town (like my apartment which was in Saint Denis, a northerly suburb), the suburban rail system, the RER. You can buy a combined pass for both systems for unlimited travel for 1 or more days at most train station ticket offices, which worked out extremely well for me; it's called a Paris Visite. Let me also say that while Mr. Google is an amazing travel companion and has stood by me in every transit system around the world, he does have a blind spot in Paris; he doesn't know how to work with trips that combine both the RER and the Metro which was the case for most of my trips. Fortunately, there's an app for that - it's called "Visit Paris by Metro - RATP" on the play store (somewhat misleadingly as it includes the RER which is not part of the Metro). The RATP app readily routes you efficiently on both systems. To give you an idea, the RATP app got me to the Notre Dame in one go in about 30 minutes from my door, while Mr. Google wanted a 20 minute walk followed by a 30 minute Metro ride.

OK- back to the Jardin des Plantes. It is a garden - containing plants. It's big. It's pretty formal and it is quite nice, even in winter.

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It has a variety of beds of different kinds of flowers, most of which, naturally, were not in bloom. It also has an extensive medicinal plant garden which is documented in great detail. It warmed the cockles of this chemist's heart to see molecular structures provided!

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Here's a kind of interesting vertical panorama of the trees that line either side of the formal gardens.

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and another picture of a bit of residual fall color.

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Next stop is the building you can see at the end of the garden in the first picture - the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution. This was a bit of a disappointment, frankly. It is a gorgeous building in the classical 'dead zoo' style of early 20th century natural history museums that they have tried to modernize by opening up the exhibits and cutting back on the number of glass cases, but that isn't the problem.

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It's more of a philsophical/educational issue. It is called a Gallery of Evolution but it is really a Gallery of diversity. Now that's fine, and the rich diversity of life is readily explained by the combination of deep time and the known mechanisms of evolution, but they nowhere bring up anything to do with fossil or molecular evidence, so it is kind of a one-legged table. I know this may be a quibble but as I try to follow the ongoing efforts to squelch good science in schools by proponents of creationism and its cousins like Intelligent Design, I really want to see strong arguments made every time we have the public's attention. I didn't think that this museum accomplished this goal, although I do understand that they were starting with a dead zoo and were doing their best within the context; I just think they should have tried harder to enrich the context as well.

Still, all was not lost. I got to see a stuffed dodo!

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Well, to clear the dust of the dead zoo, I headed across the street to another of Evelyn's suggestions; the Grande Mosquée de Paris for mint tea and pastries. Very nice indeed and not something I would have otherwise spotted.

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Another of Evelyn's suggestions was a visit to the Latin Quarter for some culture. I headed out there in the evening and first browsed a bit in Shakespeare and Company, a very large and interesting (primarily) English language bookstore. Sadly, not a lot of space left in the old suitcase at this point, but it was fun. Then on to the Caveau de la Huchette for a real musical treat. This is a jazz institution in Paris where you grab a beer at the bar and then descend down a narrow staircase into the depths. It does indeed look like a cave; I was surpised there were not beer stalactites descending from the ceiling. There was a 3 piece boogie woogie band playing up a storm and the pianist was a guy who had clearly been doing this for many, many, many years.

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And the crowd was definitely cutting a rug (or would have been if there had been a rug!).

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It was a complete gas of an evening and a day.

However as I warned, I was not going to be entirely chronological in this entry so I want to briefly describe another musical event I attended; a Mozart Requiem in the Eglise Madeleine. Here is a picture of the beautiful altar where the concert was held, taken earlier in the afternoon.

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The concert itself was quite good although not stellar - it clearly was not a regular ensemble of musicians and so some of the playing was a little bit ragged. Nonetheless, a musical experience like this in a place like this was truly special. There was also a distraction during the performance. One of the members of the chorus apparently fell ill during the performance. They moved them to stage left just behind a railing and for the rest of the concert there was an EMT team seen working. I don't know the outcome but I hope everything was all right.

I think I will have to paste together one more snapshot to complete the Paris experience. Stay tuned!

Posted by tdeits 12:24 Archived in France Tagged churches gardens food paris fall museum music mozart evolution boogie woogie Comments (0)

Santiago

overcast 78 °F

I left a cold and gray but delightful Paris and headed for Santiago, Chile - another 12 hour overnight flight, this time on Air France. I guess it's no surprise that they win the prize for best food so, with a modest amount of sleep it was really no problem. Perhaps it's worth mentioning that jet lag was never a problem on this trip. I have generally found that traveling east to west is much easier for me to avoid jet lag and that certainly was confirmed on this trip.

When morning came we were over the Andes so I can't resist a couple of airplane window snapshots. I later found out that there is a bus route from Argentina to Chile over the Andes that sounds like an awesome experience - next time?

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I disembarked and grabbed a shuttle bus to the hotel. After a quiet afternoon at the hotel sitting on the deck, sipping mojitos and blogging, I had a light dinner and hit the sack. By the way, the hotel was the Hyatt Place Vitacura and it was an extremely nice stay with an exceptionally helpful and friendly staff. A bit of a break from Airbnb's and well worth it.

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So what to do first? I know! Let's go to a hands-on science museum! I hit the subway system and zoomed out to MIM, the Museo Interactivo Mirador. It's a nice modern building with an attractively laid out interior.

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Each bay contains a related set of exhibits, and each had a volunteer explainer standing by. There were some maintenance issues with the exhibits, which is of course not uncommon, but overall it was quite well done. One exhibit was kind of unique- devoted to copper and copper mining. It had nice displays of different uses for copper and of different methods of ore refining. It also had an exhibit where kids could see themselves in the equipment used by various workers in the mines and refineries; a little bit of recruiting, I guess.

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One cool thing that appealed to me was their exhibit shop, just outside the museum proper.

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I seems to me that this would be an absolutely ideal place to install an Innovation5-style fablab for the surrounding community!

I walked around the neighborhood of the museum quite a bit to get a feel for the area. My overall impression was of modest and well-maintained single family homes. I did glimpse pockets of poverty in Santiago but I will say that in general the people seemed in good spirits. I also had the feeling of greater warmth of interactions between people wherever I went, including families with children, young couples and just regular folks. I would go so far as to say that I felt that the Chilean people were the most content population I saw on the trip. There are some very nice parks and perhaps surprisingly some very good and well-populated bicycle trails. They have had some tough times both politically and economically, but the economy is apparently recovering and people seem to be getting on with their lives pretty well.

I decided to go for a traditional Chilean meal and picked a place nearby called Chilenazo where I ordered a traditional Chilean barbeque specialty, the parrillada, cooked by this guy.

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It looks big, but it is in fact much bigger (this is the half portion, by the way). Imagine being served a delicious skirt steak that would be a full meal in any US restaurant along with a blood sausage. You wolf it down and the server brings a delicious flank steak of similar size and a nice big pork sausage. You work through that and then its an amazingly tender pork chop and a serving of barbequed tripe. Now in a state of total torpor and meat saturation you are served two more relatively small (waafer thin?) pork sausages. Oh and did I mention the potatoes? I failed completely, by the way.

I only had a couple of days in Santiago and I wandered around downtown for a while. Their central market is quite cool with lots of fruit and flowers. I also ran across this bridge which had a couple of interesting features. First, of course, are all the padlocks. I had seen this in Paris as well but apparently it's a worldwide thing - love locks. Couples write their names (or sometimes a wish) on a padlock and lock it to the bridge. It's becoming a bit of a problem in some places where the weight of the locks actually are damaging the bridges. The second interesting thing is the water. It's hard to tell from this photo, but that water is extremely muddy and moving extremely fast - Andean melt water which is carrying huge amounts of sediment even in mid summer.

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I really liked Santiago - from the great weather (upper 70's) moderated by their altitude, the surrounding Andes that poke up wherever you look, the decent infrastructure and people it is a pleasure to be around it's an extremely appealing part of the world.

Next, I'm off to Valparaiso a coastal city that has always intrigued me - and my final stop on this adventure!

Posted by tdeits 08:05 Archived in Chile Tagged mountains food hotels markets on museum santiago hands barbeque Comments (0)

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