Saturday, May 30, 2009

And now for the Chambre

Today we painted the chambre --- or bedroom.

The walls were extremely dirty, so it was about time they be freshened.

We first chipped some of the old paint, and then washed the walls and ceiling.

I got out the spackle and sealed some of the dents, holes, and cracks.

While the spackle was drying, I started painting the ceiling. Like the previous room, we made the ceiling white. I applied two coats this time, and used a small roller so that it would be as even as possible. Once I was done with the ceiling, the spackled areas were ready for sanding and a final washing.

Carla did the details while I taped and got out the big roller. We applied two coats to the walls for a nice thick color.

Et voila! We have a blue room to complement our green room! Actually, the name of the blue color is "piscene", which is French for "pool".

The tile splash does not fit now, but I am not about to pull that off the wall and replace it.

Carla sits at the bureau appearing to do some work. Notice how nice the line is between the wall and the ceiling. I learned that after painting the edge with tape applied, one should not wait to pull the tape off. This creates a nice straight line.

Here is a view of our blue room and our green room.

Next is the hallway! And for that we will be sticking with white.

The concert interrupted!

I (Bobby) was excited to go to the concert (mentioned in our last post), but due to some fast-acting green coconut curry we had to turn back near Champs Elysees--Clemenceau, and high-tail it home... and thankfully not a moment too late either. This is a problem in Paris: little availability of public restrooms. Carla learned this the extremely hard way on our trip in 2007 --- the story of which is below. So I wasn't about to take the chance of that; and neither did I want to wait until we arrived at the 400 year-old cathedral, whose facilities I am sure are more treacherous that the public Parisian toilets. So we did the responsible thing, and ran home (with the occasional gasp and clutching to walls for support). New rule: no coconut curry immediately prior to an engagement.

Now I present to you the true story from July of 2007 of Carla Trapped in a Toilet.

On Wednesday July 4, 2007, I had a guided tour of IRCAM, and earlier in the day Carla got stuck in a public toilet for 45 minutes.

IRCAM is one of the most important centers in the world for computer music, having had a hand in much of modern electroacoustic music. Great luminaries have worked there, including Max Mathews, Jean-Claude Risset, Luciano Berio, and of course Pierre Boulez. Carla called me on my mobile phone, frantic, because she was stuck in an automated public toilet. She didn't know how to open the door. She had a flute lesson in less than 30 minutes, and she just couldn't figure out how to open the door. Some of the public toilets here are self-cleaning, so I pictured Carla getting sprayed by blue foam and being vacuumed repeatedly---sort of like in the beginning of The Jetson's.

My friend Diemo Schwarz, who has been at IRCAM for nearly 10 years, invited me over for a tour. He also nicely suggested I give a research talk next Wednesday. So I had to hop on a metro to find the public toilet in which Carla was stuck. Luckily she remembered where she got off. It took me nearly 20 minutes to get there, and as soon as I exited the station it was pouring rain.

IRCAM is housed in a huge building that is above and below ground several stories, right next to the Centre Pompidou--a modern art musee. I had to go around knocking on the various public toilets to see if Carla was there. I finally found the toilet and was relieved she wasn't stuck in a small one, but a large one for the handicapped. How can anyone get stuck in a handicap toilet?

Diemo showed me the impressive research space, the huge concert space with completely configurable acoustics--including a ceiling that can be positioned only 2 meters from the floor--the numerous studios for composition and sound design, the classrooms, the lecture hall, the library, and the anechoic chamber---which is built upon a 2 ton piece of concrete that is basically floating to isolate the room from noise. Being in that room was frighteningly quiet. The public toilet, however, was not sound isolated, and luckily (or unluckily) was not continuously cleaning Carla. I tried pressing the button on the outside, I tried kicking the revolving door, I tried asking the drunk guy who just wanted to pee how to get the freaking door open---all in French of course.

After the tour Diemo gave me a demo his impressive real-time concatenative sound synthesis software in MAX/MSP. This is actually how I know Diemo: our research overlapped for a while. His PhD thesis was all about concatenative sound synthesis, and he has had an excellent article about it published in the IEEE Signal Processing Magazine. So I ran into the local pharmacy and decided it was best to describe the situation in English. I found someone who spoke English and asked them to call the police to pry my wife from the terrible jaws of a handicapped toilet. I grew tired of waiting and ran back out into the rain to try again. Through the crack in the edge I could see Carla looking back and so I put my fingers in to touch hers. It was such a heart-touching moment, and with just our pinkies touching it reminded me of a scence from E.T.

I finished the tour by describing some of my research to Diemo: breaking sound signals into atoms to be reconstituted into coherent voices, informative representations of content, malleable voices, the freedom to choose what functions to put in the dictionary, and the dark energy that is created when the functions are not orthogonal. Finally I got a few more fingers in the crack of the door, and together Carla and I finally pulled the stuck toilet door open. We immediately embraced, just like in the movies but not after having run across a beach. Fourty-five minutes after she freed herself of wee, she was now also free of all the other wee.

Here I am recreating the ordeal of trying to get the toilet open, but without the rain.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Tonight we are going to St. Eustache, home of the largest organ in France, to hear some music by Sven-David Sandstrom --- one of the world's greatest living composers. I will try to discretely record it using my computer and large microphone. It should be awesome!

Look! The man is so human, he even eats dinner.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A new paint job!

Here was our sejour, or living room. We had a mishmash of furnitures, and the walls were trying their hardest to be white, but the stains of decades were too much.

On one wall were these strange stickers added at some point as decoration. Pieces were peeling off the wall, but it just aren't our style. So we decided to do some Extreme Sejour Makeover, Paris Edition. Our landlady, Madame Casano, agreed to pay the costs in paint and supplies, and said we could paint whatever colors we wanted. So once we got some time we set right to it!

We chipped off the old paint where it was flaking, and then I sealed some holes in the walls with spackle, or maybe caulk. I don't know which. After letting it dry we sanded the spots, washed the walls, and walked to Castorama near Place de Clichy to buy our 2.5 liters of colorful paint --- which comes in a plastic container that looks like those that contain baby wipes. Once we returned home, and after a saussison sandwich, we set right to it.

We didn't have any big disasters, although when I first stepped off the ladder after our ceremonial first brush, my foot almost went in the paint diaper wipe bucket, and cracked the side of it so paint started spurting out onto the tarp we had luckily placed down to protect the wood floors. We quickly picked up the paint and set it in the pan, vowing then and there to be extremely careful around the paint bucket.

On the left is before, and on the right is after! Notice the baseboards, which we painted white for "good taste."

And we even did the ceiling a new white, which was difficult. Go Trojans!

Our Extreme Sejour Makeover, Paris Edition is complete! We painted the window area white so that it reflects the light into the room. I thought it would be cool to paint it silver, but that might have reflected a little too much light.

Next up: our chambre, or bedroom.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Montmartre Tour

Last Saturday was a fun filled day for Bobby and me. In the morning we took a guided walking tour of the Montmartre area, we dined on African couscous in the afternoon, and that night we took our crêpe pan on her maiden voyage!

The two hour walking tour of Montmartre (mount of martyrs) was both interesting and entertaining. Montmartre is the name of the hill in the 18th arrondisement. A 15 minute walk from our apartment, it is a very different neighborhood from our own. Famous for the Basilica Sacré Coeur (sacred heart) which caps the hilltop, the area also hosted artists Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Degas, Renoir, van Gogh, and Dali during its Bohemian days in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many young (and poor) artists flocked to this area because it was cheap. Now days, it is one of the more expensive areas to live in, not to mention crawling with tourists!

We expected the tour to focus on Sacré Coeur and the Bohemian history, but it instead focused on the history of the hill itself. The Montmartre hill (the tallest hill in Paris) is filled with gypsum, which was heavily mined by ancient Romans (mining did not stop until the 1830s). The hill was once covered with wind-mills, used to crush the gypsum. Two of these wind-mills remain today. The Romans built a temple, dedicated to Mercury, on top of the hill. The site of the Mercury temple is also where the legend of Saint Denis takes place. Saint Denis, the region's first bishop, refused to renounce Christianity, so the ruling Romans decapitated him next to the temple. The body of Saint Denis picked up his head and walked two miles, preaching the whole way. The place where he collapsed, finally dead, is where Basilica Saint Denis now sits, just north of the city. The original Roman temple was later converted into an abbey, Saint Pierre. Construction started in 1134, making it the second oldest church in Paris (Saint Germain des Prés is the oldest, with construction beginning in 990). Inside of the church you can still see some of the Roman columns, which were incorporated into the church's structure.

The vineyards of Montmartre are another ancient Roman layover. The wine produced from the very small vineyard is supposedly some of the worst wine produced in France! However, the proceeds from the wine go toward social programs (it is like going to your child's elementary school art auction: you don't expect spend a lot of money for a fine piece of art, you are supporting a cause). The arrondisement government picks one artist each year who designs a label for the wine, which is then sold at auction.

After our wonderful tour, Bobby and I headed into the true heart of the 18th arrondisement, off rue Barbès, for some authentic couscous. This area is heavily populated by African immigrants and boasts many African grocery stores and restaurants. I grew up traveling with my parents, and they taught me that when in doubt, eat in a crowded restaurant, not an empty one. With this advice in mind, we walked into a hole-in-the-wall 'restaurant'. Consisting of 4 communal tables, two dozen folding chairs, and a counter with 2 varieties of what I thought was couscous, 4 varieties of curry, and fried plantains, the place was packed! I ordered the red 'couscous' (we think it was some kind of short grain rice cooked with tomatoes) and some kind of beef curry. Bobby also ordered the red 'couscous' but topped it with a lamb curry. Both were accompanied by plantains and a spoonful of piment (hot sauce). After dishing up our plates, the man behind the counter then placed them in microwaves to warm up (I know, we should have left at this point). Once nuked, we took our plates to one of the large tables and dug into what we expected to be an awesome meal. About 3 unsatisfied bites in, Bobby and I looked up at each other and exchanged a knowing glance: there was no way we were going to escape diarrhea.

Quick lecture: our parents think Bobby and I are crazy eaters. My father in particular can not believe the food we eat. His rule for foreign travel eating: don't drink water, don't eat fruit, only eat boiled vegetables. Our rule for foreign travel eating: if we've never had it before, go for it. In Thailand, we visited local markets and gorged on fresh fruit and ate snail curry. In Cambodia, we cautiously ate whole eel curry. In Singapore, we considered eating fish head curry. In all of our adventures, neither one of us has gotten sick. I think this makes my Dad angry, or possibly jealous. When I told him about Bobby's unfortunate experience with the St. Malo oysters, Dad's response was along the lines of, "It's about time."

Back to the meal: Bobby stopped eating about half way through his plate, when he reached the cold, un-nuked portion of food, while I forged ahead and almost completed mine. Walking back home, we had a few moments of panic, but we managed to get home without incident. Oddly enough, we never did come down with the expected unpleasant side-effects. I'm pretty sure this will anger Dad!

As a way of celebrating non-exploding-stomachs, Bobby and I used our new crêpe pan that evening! With a fantastic batter recipe, Bobby made perfect crêpes which we filled with a variety of jams: lavender, violet, Earl Grey (yes, we have Earl Grey jam. It is awesome), black fig, and raspberry. What better way to celebrate iron stomachs?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In other newz, ...

I have finally finished a paper I am excited about, which we have submitted to the Tenth International Society for Music Information Retrieval Conference in Kobe JAPAN in October. In this work we extend a previously presented approach for image similarity search to work with databases of sound compressed and described using sparse approximation.

The graphic above, from our paper, shows one of the neatest results I have seen. In the background is the waveform of a bunch of sound data: six people saying "Cottage cheese is best with chives", one short segment of music, and another short segment of noise. We take one of the instances of "cheese" and ask our algorithm to find all portions of the signal that are similar to it --- but within the sparse approximation domain. Using only one atom pair (M=1) for each subsequence, we find a sharp spike exactly where the original "cheese" came from. When M=10, we are considering 55 atom pairs for each subsequence, and we see two additional humps. These correspond to "cheese", but said by other people, including one of the opposite sex! Now, if we take our "cheese" query, and nearly cover it up with noise (to the tune of -10 dB SNR!), then decompose it and look for similar portions of the signal, the results are hardly affected! As I have always said, sparse approximation can be incredibly robust to noise.

Finally, the part everyone has been waiting for, the story everyone is talking about. On Monday evening we had our inaugural meeting of the Puteaux Run Club. Though the first rule of the Puteaux Run Club is to not talk about the Puteaux Run Club on a blog such as this, we will make this one exception because of "various factors." These factors include the incredible diversity of wildlife one sees while running through Bois de Boulogne (map to left). This incredibly scenic "woods" is right outside of Paris, just below Puteaux --- which is why, and only why, we went running through here. Among the lakes are strewn fishermen; and on some lawns are picnickers. There are a few hippodromes for equestrian activities, and lots of rabbits that just sort of hop around. But most special of all, while running through a particular section, if you are lucky you can see, sometimes hiding in the bushes, sometimes lazing on the path, but always among a variety of lovely flora, well-dressed or un-dressed prostitutes of every stripe.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Updates to seminar schedule

Just a few updates to my seminar schedule!!

June 4: Music Technology Group, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, SPAIN
June 29: Deutsche Telekom Laboratories, Technische Universität, Berlin, GERMANY
July 1: Centre for Digital Music, Queen Mary University London, London, ENGLAND
July 2: Signal Processing and Communications Laboratory, Cambridge, ENGLAND
July 22: Tutorial presentation on Sparse Approximation and Dictionary-based Methods at 2009 Sound and Music Computing Conference.

And a picture.

My BFF (Best French Friend) cut this picture of Obama out of a French newspaper the day after the U. S. presidential election. It reads "A Dream." This election was extremely influential to all the world, and it has certainly been a topic of conversation when we have met various people here. Opinions of Obama are very high, and we can see the hope in many people that conditions in the world will now become better.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Birthday Extravaganza!

Yesterday was my (Carla) 25th birthday. The day was a perfect Parisian birthday, with a little American action movie thrown in. In the morning, Bobby went to the local boulangerie and picked up deux pain au chocolat. Quick lecture: I posted on Facebook that I would be eating a pain chocolat, and many people asked me if the chocolate was painful. Silly people: pain is French for bread. A pain au chocolat is like a chocolate croissant, but rectangle-shaped. It is delicious!

Moving on: Bobby brought back the pain au chocolat and made us a pot of tea. While eating our pastries and drinking tea, I opened the birthday cards I've received from my family. I also found the present Bobby had hid in my purse (Bobby likes to hide my presents) and opened it, to discover a beautiful pair of earrings! Bobby picked a beautiful cut and setting; I love my new bling!

After our breakfast, Bobby did a some work while I read in bed. After our lunch at home, Bobby took me on 'a walk'. As a child, whenever Jordan (my younger brother) or I misbehaved in a public place, we were always threatened with 'taking a walk' with my father. This 'walk' involved a stern talking to, and because of this, whenever someone asks if I want to go on a walk, I assume I'm in trouble. The walk Bobby took me on held no such threat, though. We stopped at a café and ordered our favorite cafés cremes, and people watched as we sat on the side-walk. The pink-haired lady is one of the people we watched.
We then found a cooking store that Bobby had hoped would be open, but alas, it was closed. Bobby then revealed my second present: a cast-iron crêpe pan! These pans are especially made for cooking perfectly flat and crisp crêpes, and we've been talking about purchasing one. Now we can make our own crêpes at home!

After our cafés and cooking store search, we decided to look at one more cooking store in the Les Halles area of Paris. This cooking store is huge and has more pans and kitchen gadgets and gizmos that you can imagine. We took the metro to the Les Halles area, walked for 30 minutes trying to find the place, found it closed, then walked around the area for a bit longer. We stopped at the Irish pub McBrides (Irish pubs in Europe are always filled with Irish people! We met our Irish friends there while they were visiting Paris, and while there, they saw 3 people they knew from Ireland) where Bobby enjoyed a pint of Guinness and I enjoyed a 1/2 pint of Magners cider. We then walked from the pub (near the Pompidou Centre) to the movie theater, which was near Opéra. We watched Wolverine (not a French word, just an italisized movie title) in the largest movie theater I've seen in Paris!

After the movie, we walked to our favorite Japanese restaurant where we ate Yakisoba, Japanese beef curry, and gyoza. From the restaurant, we headed for the Latin Quarter, walking past the Louvre and Notre Dame. Despite the light drizzle, it was a nice temperature out and the night was not yet fully dark (it stays light out till nearly 10 now). In the Latin Quarter we stopped for gelato and sorbet at Amorino. I love this place because you can get 2 or 3 flavors for only 3 euros. Bobby got 2 gelato flavors: pistache (pistachio) and crème caramel (vanilla with caramel). I got three sorbets: fraise (strawberry), framboise (raspberry), and mangue (mango). It was the perfect end to a perfect birthday!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Salad and nuts, lunch and shoes

Let's start with the shoes. Carla and I live near a street that hustles with clothes shops and the like. I can get a nice costume for under 200 euros around there; and there also happens to be a shop that sells second-hand clothing for cheap. Carla bought an excellent pair of black boots that had hardly any wear for three euros. And I found a pair of nice brown European shoes for 10 euros.

Now, I usually don't like to talk about salads on our blogs, but we should make this exception. Below is a close-up of one of the best parts of our dinners: roquette avec betteraves et noix --- arugula with beet and walnuts. We try to get our roquette fresh from the roquette box at our local street grocer. We pull the leaves out with our own hands and stuff it in a plastic baggie that we reuse just for the roquette. We follow our main meal with this salad and boy is it full of awesomeness. These greens are extremely spicy, the beets are sweet, and the walnuts provide a nice crunch. When we get the roquette prewashed from a sealed package it isn't as spicy.

After the salad, but before dessert, we eat more fresh nuts. This time we add some amandes. We must go through a pound of nuts a week. For a while we had no nut cracker and were forced to crack them open using one smacked onto another. Then I went to a store and asked the man, Avez vous quelque chose pour des noix? (Do you have something for the nuts?) My hand gesture of cracking didn't help, and I think I saw him wince.

Finally, here is a picture of a normal lunch at the cantine of the university I am at. We have pasta carbonara, steamed spinach and other vegetables, rolls, crème brulé (far), and a cherry something rather (near) that was excellent. This entire meal cost us about 4 euros each --- which would easily be 12 euros each at a restaurant. The price is so low because the university food service is subsidized by the state so that all students can afford to eat well.

That brings up an interesting thing we learned. We are running low on our multivitamins that we have taken for several years now. Carla looked at the price of vitamins in our local pharmacy, and for the same size jar as we get at Trader Joe's, the cost would be over 100 euros! We mentioned that price to our friends and they said, "What do you need vitamin supplements for? Only very sick people and elderly people take vitamins. You should be getting plenty of vitamins from the food here." Donnez-moi le roquette!

And finally we have learned about the current controversy in the U.S. over President Obama eating arugula, and asking for a hamburger with dijon mustard. Can you hear us laughing from there?

Friday, May 8, 2009

University of Sussex Concert

On Thursday, Emily and I performed at the University of Sussex. Our program was 20th Century American Flute Duets and Solos: Shulamit Ran's Sonatina for two flutes, Robert Dick's Lookout for solo flute, Katherine Hoover's Sound Bytes for two flutes, Katherine Hoover's Kokopeli for solo flute, and Robert Muczynski's Duos for Flutes. We played in a beautiful chapel on the campus and had a very attentive (if small) audience. Emily and I really enjoyed the program we put together and had fun playing together. Many thanks to Nick Collins, teacher/researcher/professor extraordinaire at Sussex, for helping us to put the concert on!

To get to England from France, I took the train through the chunnel, which run underneath the English Channel. It takes an incredibly short 20 minutes to cross the Channel! It was also fairly inexpensive and much easier that having to get to Charles de Gaulle airport, go through security, fly into Heathrow, pay an arm and a leg to get into London, then have to repeat the whole process going back to Paris. To take the train, I just had to take the metro to Gare de Nor, which is in the 18th arrondisement, go through security and passport control (which was much more rigorous getting into London than getting into Paris), then sit on a nice train for 2 hours and arrive in the heart of London. Nice and easy!

Once Emily and I arrived in London, we had 4 hours to kill before we had to take the train to Brighton. Our train from Paris arrived in St. Pancras station, which is in the northern part of London. Our train to Brighton left from Victoria station, in the south-west part of London. With our little bit of luggage, Emily and I walked from St. Pancras to Victoria, which led us past Picadilly Circus and Buckingham Palace. We watched the Palace guards (who were not wearing those funny furry hats... a little disappointing) do a funny little walking dance (probably to keep their feet from falling asleep) and saw a horse-drawn carriage drop someone off at the Palace (I guess the royal family doesn't know about motor vehicles yet, trapped as they are inside their monarchy bubble). I then tried to pick the Palace gate's lock with a credit card without being seen by the sans-funny hat guards. I didn't make it in, but I didn't get shot, either.

One area we walked through had a lot of tourist shops selling 'I Love London' bags and t-shirts, postcards, shortbread, and the most English of them all... bags with Barack Obama on them! As I took a photo of one of the Obama bags, the seller asked me, "Why does everyone love Obama so much?" I replied, "Because he's a hell of a lot better than George Bush."

Arriving at Victoria station, we boarded a train to take us to Brighton, one hour outside of London. Brighton is on the coast of England, facing France. A lovely sea-side town, it is 15 minutes away from the University of Sussex. Nick Collins, Bobby's and my friend whom we know through the conference world of computer music, greeted Emily and me at the station. He took us on a tour of the town, showing us 'the Lanes', an older part of town that has weaving, curving pedestrian roads, the Santa Monica-like pier, a walk along the pebbled beach, and ended at a fish and chips restaurant. We consumed the delicious fried fish and finished it off with three very English desserts: Treacle tart (tasted like honeyed corn bread floating in pudding), Rhubarb Crumble tart (this was a bit gross, with mushy green rhubarb in a muffin-like encasing, floating in pudding), and Spotted Dick (essentially a raisin muffin, again floating in pudding). Like a good English man, Nick then took us to a cozy pub, where we drank cider and local beer, and met Nick's partner, Clare. Clare is also a flutist, though she specializes in Renaissance and Baroque flute.

The next day Emily and I performed at the University. I was really excited to see the school, imagining Harry Potter-like buildings with students roaming about in gowns and attending classes in dungeon-like rooms. Alas, the University of Sussex was built in the 1960s (what, the 1960s? Not the 1760s?), so red brick buildings were the theme. As I mentioned above, we performed in a Chapel on campus, which had beautiful acoustics along with beautiful lighting.

After our concert, Emily and I headed back to London. We had another 4 hours to kill before I had to leave for Paris, so we again walked from Victoria station to St. Pancras. We took a different route this time, though, and saw Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Parliament building, and a few of the bridges crossing the Thames. After buying some Digestives (an oddly named cookie you eat with tea) and Polo mints for Bobby (ok, so I might eat a cookie or two...), I boarded my train for Paris. It's nice to be home again!