Flag of the USA in front of a blue sky

Portrait of the twentieth century…

One of the tedious aspects of travelling to the USA is immigration check; even though I have a machine readable passport, all my travel data has been collected by the airline company and transmitted to the US authorities, and I have a valid ETSA, which is a visa in all but name, it is quite common for me to wait an hour at immigration.

Someone realised that this captive audience is perfect for some propaganda, so there are always multiple screens playing Welcome: Portraits of America, a movie that presents a sequence of clichés that supposedly depict the people in the US. The main problem of this movie is that it way too short: around 5 minutes. Disney, who donated that movie, should have taken into account the average waiting time in the lines, a longer movie is way better than one that is seen twelve times, after the 10th time, the welcomes at the end seem less sincere…

What I find interesting in this movie, is that this image of the US is basically stuck somewhere in the twentieth century: the most modern element of the whole movie is the space shuttle taking off. What kind of country presents images of a space program of the 80s which has in the meantime been abandoned? Other technological elements in the movie seem to be straight out of the 50s, early on, there is a yellow school bus, then there is a classical, long nosed truck, then there is an old looking tractor, and at the end of the movie, there is a bunch of bikers on old school motor-bikes. There are also some horse riding cowboys and the Canadian view of the Niagara falls…

I know this movie is supposed to depict people, but they are presented in what is allegedly their environnement, and if that movie is the reference, then people in the US live somewhere between the 50s and the 80s.

Notice of Inspection

Unlocked luggage…

Notice of Inspection

When I unpackaged my luggage, coming back from California, I found a crumpled bit of paper in my luggage: a notification of inspection (NOI) by private company Covenant Aviation Security working on behalf of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The paper tells me the obvious thing: somebody went over my luggage, there is a scribble that specifies the number of the screener 6541, my flight number (in case I took the wrong plane, I suppose), a stamp on the back marks the place and the date. The paper goes on to specify that if prohibited items were present, they were turned over to the appropriate authorities. So they might or might not have removed something from the bag. Hard to tell. But if they did, I better not complain, because the stuff was, by definition, prohibited.

The paper contains a web-site reference and a toll-free US phone number, which is kind of ironic for a service that screen people leaving the US. They also claim their web-site offers packing advice, which is not really true, it redirects to the page of packing on the TSA’s website. It would have been cool to put the QR-code of the web-site for easy lookup…

The paper also mentions the obvious, if your luggage was locked with something else than a TSA recognised lock, that something is now probably broken. I always considered the locking of luggage a mixed bag, it vaguely makes sense on a rigid suitcase, but most locks look like they could be forced open with a simple screwdriver. TSA-accepted locks have the additional weakness that they can be opened by the members of a 55000 employee organisation, plus the various corporations it outsourced work to, which is not a very restricted club…

Empire – Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card – Empire – Cover – Bob Warner

Saturday I was sick to the point to go to the permanency, my general cold had changed into an otitis and it hurts. I had taken a book for the waiting room, so I have started reading Orson Scott Card’s “Empire”. I generally like Orson Scott Card, without being a devout fan, but I had reasonably high expectation of the book. Once I got home I did something I rarely do, I went online and checked the reviews. I was full of doubts, was it because of my sorry state, or was this book, just, not good? One review gave me a hint: that the afterword of the book explained its nature, an essay on a political thema designed for a TV show. One review claimed that the book’s problem was that it is too leftist. In my opinion, it is just bad.

I agree with the author that the US political landscape is way to polarized, and I could certainly imagine a civil war tearing up the United States. I also do not have an intimate knowledge of the history of that country and would be interested in learning more on the subject. All this to say, that I would certainly be receptive to the whole thema of the book. The problem is that you can write an essay on US politics in a novel (Neal Stephenson certainly did novels on more esotheric subjects) or you can write the basis for an US TV show. Doing both is not possible, or at least not in the reach of Orscon Scott Card’s talent. The result is just a book with a lousy plot, bad characters and no depth.

The heroes are basically two top military guys, good US citizens, willing to lay down their lives for the constitution. One of them is married with a perfect wife that choose to raise their kids instead of being an aid to a senator. I would claim that Orscon Scott Card was channelling the late Heinlein, except that if this were the case the characters would have some depth, some interesting theories to tell. This is not the case. In fact the characters are so wooden that when the first good guy died, I was relieved because from now on, there was no risk of me mixing them up. The first guy is a croatian who married a serb girl (or the reverse), the second is an american whose father died. Not that I cared. There is also a supporting cast of good buddies of the hero to help both good guys A and B. The gang communicates in farsi, I suppose this is to show that they know about foreigners and stuff. The group also includes a black guy, but no girl. I think I have seen computer game characters that were more interesting. In the background there is also a smart university professor who explains everything and manipulates everybody until the end of the book – that bit I guessed somewhere in the first chapter. He ends up being elected president of the US by both parties, he also feels like the projection of the author into the book. He is supposed to be very smart, but his intelligence has clearly been calibrated for US TV show level, so don’t hold you breath.

The plot is riddled with holes and coincidence to the point where the characters themselves have to comment on the fact they are coincidences, never a good sign. Basically Rube (good guy A) writes potential scenarios to kill the president for helping counter-insurgency. Except the bad guys implement the scenario first (Hello “Six Days of the Condor”). Cole is the new good guy that will work with good guy Rube. They just happen to be near the white house when the attack is played out, they manage to kill one of the bad guys, but not the second. President gets killed, vice-president too (it was really a good plan). The two good guys try to avoid being framed, go to the media – which are not so bad guys in the end – the two good guys and family hide at the grand-mother’s place in the country side, except before going to mess on sunday morning, they want to go and see ground zero, where they get attacked by giant robots that shoots down everybody who wears an uniform… I’m not making that stuff up! The rest of the plot does not make much more sense, people go to places to get boxes and get killed, but they don’t really need them (the boxes), people are traitors for no clear reason, but the new President is in his heart a good guy, and avoids to much slaughter between good US citizens, by phoning the right guys. The story ends with a commando attack on the bad guy’s secret base, because this is clearly how civil wars are stopped.

So what about the political bits? Besides the professor’s initial lecture (a rant on the Roman Empire, not ground-breaking) the material again is very thin. Basically after the president is killed, the right wing and the army prepare for a coup, only to be preempted by a right-wing coup staged by a millionaire in a secret base in a artificial dam (no, the bad boss has no cat). The characters talk a lot about other civil wars, in England, in Yugoslavia, and the previous civil war in the US, but nobody goes to some depth, like discussing distribution of resources, or the secession of a part of the country because it disagrees with the decisions of the central government, or the problems related to the way elections are done, you know underlying reasons for civil wars. No, we have a James Bond bad guy doing a coup because he though the previous election was rigged – there is nothing deeper, no data, no discussion, just a badly done James Bond plot with less sexy girls, and no real bad guys, because in their hearts all the people involved are good american people – except the terrorists in the beginning, but they are never mentioned again. Who the hell blew up the White House in the first episode remains a mystery. Don’t expect anything about stuff outside the US, it only contains terrorists (to be killed) and weak diplomats (to be despised). Painful questions, like in the event of a civil war, who owes the US’s huge foreign debt are of course of no concern. But then again the giant robots could be build fully in the US without any involvement of foreign technology, so this is clearly science-fiction.

In conclusion this is in my opinion a bad book. Whatever Orson Scott card was trying to achieve with this book, failed. In fact I only felt this was a book by him because you can still feels his obsession with über-people and his religious slant. The book is already dated: it was written in 2006, but now that the US’s economical might has been crippled, the whole US empire discussion of the smug professor sounds like delusions.

La fin des SUV…

Hummer H2

Une des choses intéres­santes à vivre aux États-Unis ces jours, c’est que je suis aux premi­ères loges pour voir la fin d’une épo­que, celle du car­bu­rant pas cher. La hausse des prix du pé­trole est naturel­lement glo­bale, mais elle est très sen­sible ici, exa­cerbée par la chute du dol­lar une éco­no­mie mo­rose et le fait que toute la société, toutes les infra­structures ont été con­çues dans une optique d’énergie abon­dante. La hausse du prix du pé­trole a des victimes variées, parfois in­atten­dues. Ainsi, certaines ancien­nes stations service équi­pée de pom­pes mécaniques, in­capa­bles de gérer un prix supérieur à quatre dollar le gallon. Les pro­priétaires se re­trouvent devant le clas­sique dilem­me de la mise à jour: ache­ter de nouvel­les pom­pes à un mo­ment ou augmenter les prix pro­voquera une fuite des clients, tenter de mettre à jour une mé­canique vieille de quarante ans.

Un changement très sensible est le déclin rapide des SUV, qui consom­ment énormé­ment de car­burant. Les ventes de ces vé­hi­cules ont di­minué de ma­nière specta­culaire, pour la première fois depuis des an­nées, c’est une voiture com­pacte, la Honda’s Civic qui fait les meil­leures ventes du pays. C’est une dé­bacle pour les fa­bri­cants de voi­tures améri­caines qui faisaient une grande partie de leur pro­fits sur les SUV, dont les marges étaient bien supé­rieures aux voi­tures “normales”. La crise est telle que GM veut se sé­parer de la marque Hummer spé­ciali­sée dans les SUVs.

Outre les voitures légères, les voitures hy­brides sont très popu­laires, surtout en Cali­fornie ou elles béné­ficient de certains avan­tages. Le plus no­table est le droit de rouler dans la file de car pooling. Sur les auto­routes cali­forniennes, la piste la plus à gauche est réservée aux véhi­cules con­tenant plus qu’un pas­sager (ces pistes sont marquées d’un losange ♢) Les voi­tures hybrides sont auto­risées à y rouler même si elles ne trans­portent qu’un seul pas­sager. Si les voi­tures hy­brides com­portent un moteur à hydro­carbures classique, elles peuvent être re­chargées, mais cela im­pliquerait une infra­structure de stations de charge­ments qui n’existe pas encore. La mise en place d’un tel ré­seau est un des objectifs de la fondation Google.org.

Évidemment, XKCD a un petit strip totalement à propos

Mountain View Village

La ville archétypique au États-Unis est construite autours d’une rue principale. Mountain View n’échappe à ce principe, le centre-ville est situé sur Castro Street, qui relie l’Église à la gare, ou, en termes routiers, El Camino Real à la Central Expressway. La rue comporte quelques bâtiments à plusieurs étages, une banque, le centre culturel, mais il s’agit surtout de petite bâtisses à deux étages qui abritent des commerces. L’église elle-même a un clocher de petite taille, ce qui fait qu’elle n’apparaît pas réellement dans le paysage.

Castro Street, Mountain View, tôt le matin…

Si la région a une forte influence hispanique, le centre de Mountain View semble plutôt être une petit ville asiatique. La plupart des commerces ont des enseignes en chinois, les deux magasins d’alimentation sont chinois, et la majorité des restaurants sont asiatiques. Idem pour le magasin d’antiquités. La présence d’un magasin de livre d’occasion avec un rayonnage de livre de science-fiction impressionnant est le seul indice qu’il pourrait y avoir à proximité une grande concentration d’informaticiens…

Méditations Étasuniennes

Hors donc, cela fait six jours que je vis et travaille aux États-Unis. Ma première impression c’est que le pays, est sur-dimensionné, ou plutôt expansé. Tout semble grand, mais il n’y a plus de choses, juste plus d’espace. Le centre de Mountain View, où j’habite, est une agglomération de petits immeubles et de villas avec des rues bordées d’arbres. C’est très joli, mais comparé à la Suisse, j’ai l’impression qu’on a simplement inséré de l’espace vide pour l’agrandir. L’effet n’est pas sans rappeler l’algorithme de content aware resizing dont j’ai parlé il y a peu: pour étendre l’image, on insère de la pelouse et de la route, mais l’algorithme ne peut créer de l’information.

L’appartement ou je loge me fait le même effet. Il est très spacieux et largement vide. C’est un appartement conçu pour loger deux personnes, avec chacune une chambre et une salle de bain séparée avec un salon et une cuisine commune. Même une installation d’apparence bénigne comme une cuisinière est plus grande aux États-Unis, là encore cela ne veut pas dire qu’il y ait plus de feux, il y en a quatre. Je suppose que la différence est le four, probablement capable de griller une dinde entière. Évidemment, vu que l’appartement est occupé par des gens qui passent surtout beaucoup de temps au travail fait que l’appartement est largement vide.

Pour moi, c’est un contraste intéressant avec la vie au Japon, qui tendait à aller dans la direction inverse. Le Japon est plus compact, et cela s’accompagne d’une plus grosse interconnection sociale: moins d’infrastructures privées et plus de facilités communes. Des cuisinières plus petites, mais plus de restaurants. Je me demande si on peut faire la corrélation entre le niveau d’individualisme d’une société et la taille des frigos…

Joseph D. Grant Country Park

View of the Bay from the Joseph Grant Park
Inside the Joseph Grant Park

The best way I know to fight jet-lag is to get into the sun. Yesterday, my room-mate and myself went up on Mission Peak. And today I went hiking in the Joseph D. Grant Country Park.

My plan was to do the Ridgetop Ramble hike, described in the copy of San Francisco Bay Area: A Comprehensive Hiking Guide (p 180) that is in my flat, but I ended up doing a more complicated circuit, instead of returning to the parking via the San-Felipe trail, I followed the Eagle Trail, then the Cañada de Pala trail, the Yerba Buena trail and finally the Loop trail. This took me roughly five hours, while the original circuit was described as being difficult and needed 3 to 4 hours. I probably did twice the distance. Still the weather was perfect and the view down the into the Valley is indeed breathtaking.