Pandemic Polemic

May you live in interesting times. Not, it seems, an “old Chinese curse,” but a curse no less. The article linked above has a good quote from an 1898 speech delivered by Joseph Chamberlain, father of Neville Chamberlain:

I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. (Hear, hear.) I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also, new objects for anxiety. (Hear, hear.)

Seems fairly apropos today. We are dealing with a polarized electorate, due at least in part (I mean, it’s always been somewhat polarized) to the intentional creation of right-wing media outlets, purportedly to counter a “liberal bias” in the media at large. We are living under a presidency that is the natural outcome of that. A surprisingly substantial percentage of the population of the U.S. has been brainwashed to believe that the sole sources of truth are Fox News and the president himself. Woe to those who’ve bought into that fallacy, as it’s exceedingly difficult to extract people from cults. Common sense should tell you that a single source of news is dangerous, especially when that news source is in league with the government, but you know what they (Voltaire) say about common sense.

While I consider myself liberal and progressive, I do not believe in a “my way or the highway” approach to governing, as the Tea Party movement of the GOP does, who advocate for a no compromise approach to governing — all conservative, all the time. I believe that governing necessarily requires compromise. America is a large and diverse country, and to believe that either party, which earns the sympathy of about half the population, should rule over the nation in the way they see fit just seems wrong.

So add to this our current COVID-19 pandemic. Even given a (hypothetical) thoughtful and organized response to this challenge, it would have been difficult. But this president and his “news” network chose to minimize the danger, chose to politicize this struggle that does and will affect Americans of all stripes, and given the choice would opt for hypothetical short term economic gains over American lives. If you previously thought the president’s mendacity and ignorance were somehow harmless, it should be abundantly clear by now that they are quite literally harmful.

I’m not at all sure I can claim to be hopeful, but I do believe there are opportunities for some positive things to come out of this terrible time. If people could take the following to heart, then something positive could come out of the coronavirus pandemic.

1 People should realize that facts are supremely important. We need to be able to agree on facts. Not alternative facts, not Liberal facts or Conservative facts. Without that, we are adrift in a stormy sea of opinion and feelings. There is a place for both of those things, but they don’t take the place of facts.

2 The news must be a place for facts. There cannot be be Right Wing news or Left Wing news. Having a Free Press has been vital to this country. The press cannot be an extension of the government, as Fox News is with the current administration. You don’t have to look far to see the evils that state sponsored media allow.

3 Science is the rigorous process of seeking truth and facts. While it is not perfect, it is the best way that humans have come up with to discover fundamental truth. Science must not be politicized, and scientists must not be silenced to further any particular political agenda. The truth must come first; politics only comes after the truth is known. But again, science is a process for getting to the truth. Our understanding of truth improves over time by the use of science. Pointing out the errors of science only proves that the process works.

We’re an American Pant!

As I started to write this, I searched for my previous post on the topic, and turns out I’ve not only written twice before but I already used a variant of the pun in the title. Sigh. Old habits…

Anyway, what brought me back to the writing desk is that my two current pairs of black jeans are no longer black but gray, and lighter every year. While I almost always wear jeans, I do like some variety, so having both blue and black fills that little void quite nicely, thank you very much. Variety is the spice of life, after all. When I last purchased black jeans, they were from my perennial favorite, All American Clothing, but they were on clearance because they had chosen to discontinue them. That was four years ago.

I did double check to see if All American had by some miracle decided to offer black jeans again, but alas, it seems not. So I searched once again for American made jeans. I certainly don’t make a point of buying everything American made, or even all my clothing, but as I wrote back in my first post on the topic, there was just something irksome about my previous favorite brand, Levis, building their brand image as uber-American, but then making their clothes overseas in the interest of greater profits. I guess that is ultimately the most American thing of all, but their greed made me want to find true American jeans.

My searching led me to an article where someone claimed to have surveyed the landscape of American made jeans, and found the Best Jeans. It’s pretty clear that this was a paper survey, and no pants were harmed in their “research.”

Here are the thirteen pairs of jeans they talk about. Note that if you purchased one pair of each of these, as you might for a true comparison review, you would have shelled out about $2500.

BrandStyleCost
American GiantDakota Straight148
Bluer DenimMen’s Classic Straight178
Bullet BluesRebel Indigo Tapered150
Dearborn DenimTailored Fit65
Freenote ClothRios250
Imogene + WillieRigid235
Jean Shop NYCRocker260
Left Field NYCChelsea Cone Mills200
Raleigh Denim WorkshopJones250
Stovall & YoungThe Martin Copper185
TellasonLadbroke Grove Slim Tapered230
Texas JeansMen’s Original30
Rising Sun Mfg. Co.New Rocker195

I don’t know how one can make claims about “fit” without buying the jeans, or “value” in jeans over $200. They may be good jeans (or not), but unless they are going to last more that four times as long as my $50 (ok, now $55) All American Clothing jeans, they’re not that great a value. And who exactly has the money to spend on $200-300 per pair of jeans?! That can’t, or oughtn’t to be, a big market. Some of these companies offer payment plans for their pants. For any rational person, needing to finance your pants ought to send up lots of red flags.

Happily, there were two brands that I learned about that are selling jeans for under $100 per pair. But why All American Clothing was excluded from this roundup, I don’t know. In the end, the only non-stretch black jeans I found were (ironically…) at Bluer Denim for $178, Bullet Blues for $160, and +$300 from Raleigh Denim.

In my searching, there were a couple of interesting articles I came across that document the demise of American denim. I gather that the biggest mill that was producing selvage/selvedge denim was Cone Mills in North Carolina, and their mill was closed down at the end of 2017. But some brands apparently still have some stock, which may to a degree explain some of the outrageous costs. But not all of them, because some of these “American” made jeans are made with Japanese denim.

TL;DR — no black jeans for me.

The Bug Hunt

A few years ago, someone’s project came up on my Twitter Feed (or elsewhere — it’s been a while, and I don’t remember with certainty) that caught my interest. This happens with an alarming frequency, but most of the time I can stifle the interest sufficiently to avoid ordering all the parts. Our house is littered with projects that I have bought the parts for, but never completed. Projects that are born of my own fevered brain, especially those whose inspiration is a really nifty part or gizmo I’ve come across, are especially susceptible to this fate. And the Classroom Clock started out like many — I purchased the necessary parts, and then they sat there for a couple of years.

But unlike so many others, this one did eventually come together. Probably at least in part because it was given as a Christmas gift to my wife, Susan, a middle school science teacher. It took some work to get it all together, but then the problem was that the kind of schedule it was originally programmed for didn’t really mesh well with the schedule at Susan’s school. Once I began to get familiar with the code, I realized I didn’t like it very well, so I rewrote most of it from scratch, in a somewhat more generalized way. This past year, I made some more minor updates to it, basically to make it easier to update the schedule and calendar from year to year. The official school clock seems to drift more than the Chronodot that’s at the heart of the Classroom Clock, so periodically I have to re-program the time. The original project didn’t have any means for user input, so there is no way to manually change the time on the clock. In fact, the only way to change the time is to reprogram the clock, and the only way to “synchronize” the time is to calculate exactly how long it takes to upload the code to the clock, and hard-code an appropriate time in the program. Argh!

My contribution in this area was to write a completely separate program that can be uploaded to the clock, with which you can interactively set the time. Then, you reload the normal clock firmware which no longer attempts to set the clock at all, and everything is good.

So one time in the fall, Susan’s students apparently wanted the clock to display in 24 hour time. This is of course an easy change. The Chronodot tracks time in 24 hour mode, so it was just a matter of not subtracting 12 from the hours.

Recently, the delta between the official school clock and the Classroom Clock got to be large enough to be annoying, so Susan asked me to come adjust it. We ended up bringing the clock home, and it was approaching 9 p.m. when I got around to looking at it. I wasn’t paying attention to the actual time, but when I powered up the clock, it said something like 10:43! It had always been completely reliable, so I was mystified as to why it would display a completely random time like that. After a few minutes, I realized that the minutes were correct, but why were the hours off by 2? That was a bizarre mystery.

A little while later, it finally dawned on me what the problem was. The clock might have read 10:43, but that’s only because it was in fact not designed for 24 hour time. The digit for tens of hours was not a full seven segment digit, but rather just the two rightmost vertical segments — an engineering shortcut if ever there was one! The code in the clock, when deciding what to display there, would turn both segments OFF if the hours were less than 10, and both segments ON otherwise. So, it was doing its darnedest to display 20:43, but couldn’t. And of course I was not thinking about the fact that it ought to be in 24 hour mode — I just saw 10:43 and eventually decided it was off by 2 hours somehow.

I asked Susan if she’d ever noticed it being wrong like that before, and she recalled that perhaps she had. When pressed, she remember that it was during parent-teacher conferences, in the evening. One of the only other times anyone would have been looking at the clock after 19:59.

It’s easy to see how a bug like this could cause lots of head scratching, because it would be easy to report the problem as “sometimes the clock is off by 2 hours” and leave it at that. And you’d be left poring over the code, trying to figure out how a simple math error could occur occasionally and seemingly randomly.

In the end, we decided to set the clock back to 12 hour mode.

I’ve long had a Version 2 of the clock in my brain. I’ve constructed it so that the “brains” of the clock can be transplanted while leaving the display parts intact. The brains for V2 will run on a chip that provides WiFi connectivity and runs microPython. It will therefore be able to:

  • query a timeserver on the internet for the actual time
  • periodically download a configuration file, which can have the calendar, schedule, and an offset to apply to the real time, so the clock can match the official school clocks

The hope is to write the code in a flexible enough manner that the config file can provide lots of different ways of arranging schedules and using the “extra” digit to denote the period, or day, or whatever.

And now I realize there ought to be a V2 of the display hardware as well, which would have a full digit for tens-of-hours to allow for 24 hour time, and also some form of explict PM indicator for 12 hour mode.

Some day…

Geneva Wrapup

All in all, we had a great trip to Geneva. This is (for us) a once-in-a-lifetime type of family vacation. We were immensely grateful to have Emma there as our guide and interpreter. It’s very clear that it’s possible to get around without any knowledge of French (or German or Italian, the two other common official languages of Switzerland, but Geneva is very much the French speaking part), but I always felt a bit on edge knowing I couldn’t readily communicate with anyone who couldn’t speak English.

Geneva is a wonderful city, small enough to be manageable, but big enough to have all kinds of things to see and do. We only scratched the surface in that respect, but were beginning to have a feel for the geography of the city. Public transportation is great there, with buses and trams covering everywhere we needed to get to, but given its size, a lot of it is very walkable. We did not regret doing without a car.

The weather might have been more pleasant, but it was winter after all, and it never really stopped us from doing anything. Our two trips to the flea market were disappointing to Emma, who wanted to show us its full glory, but rain and cold kept most vendors away. I might have preferred a warmer jacket, but we intentionally packed light. I was glad to have brought an umbrella.

We got to try many of Switzerland’s famous dishes, among them Fondue, Raclette, and Rösti. We tasted the unique Rivella, and had many (but never enough) chocolates.

AirBNB served us well, finding us an apartment that cost less than most of the hotels we were finding, and which provided us with a much better home base than a hotel. Most days we had a simple breakfast at home, ate a larger lunch, and came back to the apartment for a simple dinner. Money was fairly simple — we brought some Swiss francs with us, ordered through our local bank, and then used ATMs there when we needed more. There is a fee, of course. Both our Discover card, and one of our Visa cards, offered currency conversion with no fee, so we were able to use those for most purchases.

Travel Day 2

Travel Day 2 means time to go home, of course, which is sad in a way, but in other ways we were ready. We woke early, finished packing and cleaning, then headed off to a local boulangerie for breakfast, something we hadn’t done on the trip previously. Emma met us there, and we had a nice meal, then went back to the apartment to grab our luggage and head to Gare Cornavin where we got on a train to take us to the airport. We checked our bags, and said goodbye to Emma. We had a noon flight out of Geneva, which was scheduled to get us to Montreal at 2:20 in the afternoon, after 8 hours of flying. We ended up leaving a little late, but arrived on time, and after a quick pass through customs, were ready and waiting for the final flight home. This too was a little late, but not enough to be bothersome. It was also overbooked, so they offered $400 to people willing to take the next flight. Thankfully, they only announced once, and we got to Boston around 5:20. We took the Silver Line to the Red Line, and Alexx was once again willing to help get us home. 30 hour days are long days.

Montreux

Yesterday we took the train to Montreux.

No Jazz Festival at the moment, but we spent a good part of the day exploring Château de Chillon.

This is an amazing castle dating back to the 11th century. We walked all through the 47 tour stations, taking in bedrooms, dining halls, dungeons, latrines, etc. The views were spectacular, looking over Lac Leman and the surrounding countryside.

We had lunch at a restaurant back in Montreux, where we tried Raclette and the kind of fondue where you cook thin meat in broth. Again, we stopped at the grocery store at the train station near home and got some dinner supplies. After a simple dinner, Emma took Tyler and Clara out to a movie, and we went out to a hip whiskey bar in the Bohemian section of town, successfully negotiating the tram on our own, and ordering drinks. Thankfully, the bartender spoke English.

Shopping ConCERN

Today we met Emma at Gare Cornavin, bought tickets, and hopped on a tram headed to CERN.

We did not have tickets for a tour, but have heard mixed reviews on the tour anyway. So we were able to go into the Globe,

which is their visitors center. There was a theater with a brief video about the work they do, helping to understand the origins of matter and the universe. Pretty heady stuff! There were some interesting dioramas showing bits of the technology involved. The emotional favorite was Sir Tim Berners-Lee‘s NeXT computer where the first web server was programmed and/or run.

After our brief visit to CERN, we headed back home via the grocery store, and made ourselves a simple lunch. After lunch, we headed back towards the flea market to try our luck on a non-rainy day, and stopped along the way at the Smith Center and had a chance to meet the director there. Unfortunately, the cold and wind kept most of the vendors away from the flea market yet again, so that was a bit of a bust.

To make up for it, we did a little shopping at the nearby thrift stores, and Clara even found a candidate prom dress! From there, Emma had to head off to a class, so we had to fend for ourselves and find our way home. We took a quick bearing and headed in the general direction, and came upon the entrance to a park, and quickly discovered it was the Patinoire des Bastions where we had been yesterday, and from there we easily found our way back to Bel Air, and home from there.

For dinner, we made a simple chicken parm over spaghetti. Only one more day of fun in Geneva.

Old Town Geneva

Today, we met Emma at Bel Air,

and walked from there past all the high-end watch and designer stores. We went into a couple, but it was hard to feel comfortable looking at $10,000+ watches, with well dressed security guards all around, etc. We spent more time in the Swatch store, where we bought Tyler a souvenir, and a watch to give to Clara as a graduation present. From there, we walked by St. Peter’s Cathedral, and looked at some of the sights, then had lunch at the Spaghetti Factory, followed by actually going into the Cathedral and taking the tower tour.

Climbing bell towers is one of our favorite activities when visiting Europe, affording great views of the surrounding city. We probably have over 100 pictures from our brief time there.  After the Cathedral, we walked into the courtyard of the Geneva City Hall briefly, and stopped at Café Bar La Clémence for a quick beverage break.

From there, we walked through a park with the longest continuous wooden bench in the world,

and down to the famous monument, the Reformation Wall.

And for a really special ending to our big day out, Emma brought us to the the Patinoire des Bastions where there is a small outdoor skating rink where you can rent skates for CHF2, and everyone had a grand time!

From there, we walked back to our apartment via Bel Air. After a short down time, we headed out for our one fancy dinner for the week, at the Bistrot du Boeuf Rouge. It was a long, leisurely European dinner. We shared a bottle of local wine, a 2016 Gamay Mondeuse, and we had a variety of meals from steak medallions to a fish souffle, followed by Tiramisu and Creme Brulee for dessert.

Then we topped off the evening with an unintentional viewing of part of the Transformers movie, complete with French subtitles.

Return from Which Mountain?

From Villars, of course! In the morning, we had much better views of the Alps, which are incredibly breathtaking!

We spent a leisurely morning having breakfast and packing up at the chalet, then we took the local shuttle bus into town mostly to do some shopping for souvenirs. After wearying of shopping, we stopped at a local cafe for a snack before taking the train back to Bex, and then Geneva. The railway between Bex and Villars is surprisingly steep, and is therefore a cog (or rack) railway.

We did a little grocery shopping, and then returned to our home base, where we relaxed a bit, then prepared a simple dinner of bread, cheese, and salami, along with some fruits and vegetables. A short while later, Clara realized this was simply insufficient, so she and Tyler went out and tracked down a salami sandwich. For dessert, we later feasted on left over birthday cake and ice cream.

 

Villars

Today, we ventured into the Alps! We took a train from Geneva at 7:30,

changed trains twice, and arrived in Villars by 10:00. We explored the town a bit, dropped our luggage at our chalet, then had some lunch at Cookie Deli.

After lunch, we rented some ski equipment for the kids, bought lift tickets, and sent them on their way!

It was a little nerve-wracking, as it was Tyler’s first time skiing. But in fact we’ve not been there for any of our kids’ first ski experiences. It’s just that in Emma’s and Clara’s cases, they were in the hands of experienced skiers. In Tyler’s case, he was in the hands of his competent, but minimally experienced sisters. In any case, we didn’t let our anxiety get the best of us

It was insanely foggy, and often times you couldn’t see a block ahead on the road. Certainly no scenery was visible at all! We wondered about the visibility for our skiers. All went well, of course, but we did see someone else being carried onto the train back to town on a litter.

We stayed in a Swiss chalet, La Griotte, which was super fun. We all shared one room with a double bed and three twins, and the bathrooms were shared. We got to go into the basement TV room to watch some of the Olympics.

That picture is from the following morning, and our room is behind the window on the second floor. It was cute and cozy, and the host, Rita, was wonderful, and provided us with a lovely breakfast spread the following morning!

Dinner was at a small Italian restaurant about 100m away, called Pasta & Basta which provided us with good food. Clara had pizza, Tyler and I had pasta, and Susan and Emma had a Swiss specialty, Rösti, which is a pan fried dish of grated potatoes along with other things. Good food, especially for our hungry skiers (even if they did have some delicious crepes earlier).