Attacking the entrenched

saint denis notre-dame
A photo of Saint Denis, one of the patron saints of Paris, on the south wall of Notre Dame. You might recognize this view: it’s the picture at the top of my blog. Picture source:

Catching up on my favorite French news show by podcast after getting back from Japan, I immediately learnt some new words.  As my show was starting, the police attack on the terrorists in the Saint-Denis apartment was still in progress.

Saint-Denis was the burial place of the French royalty from the 600s to the 1820s.  Pépin le Bref, King of the Franks, was crowned there in 751; Graham Robb, in his book Parisians: An adventure history of Paris, tells the story of how Napoleon saw an operetta about him the night that he (Napoleon, not Pépin le Bref) lost his virginity.  Today Saint-Denis is better known for the role that it played in the Paris attacks of 13/11.

Here’s how the show opened.  My news show, not the operetta.  Zipf’s Law…

Des hommes sont aujourd’hui retranchés dans un appartement en Saint-Denis au nord de Paris. La police antiterroriste a donné l’assaut.

  • se retrancher:  to entrench oneself; to hide away, to take refuge.  (If it’s not reflexive, it means something totally different.)
  • un assaut: assault, attack.
  • prendre d’assaut:  to storm, to take by storm.
  • donner l’assaut (à):  to attack.

The avarice of the old: What to pack for an international flight

I love a good what-to-pack-for-your-international-flight list. Here’s mine, along with its intersection with Zipf’s Law.

The avarice of the old: it’s absurd to increase one’s luggage as one nears the journey’s end.

–Cicero, from Rand Lindsly’s Quotations and

I love a good what-to-pack-for-your-international-flight list.  Here’s mine, along with its intersection with Zipf’s Law.


la capuche (de jogging): Hoodie.  This is the number one most important thing in my travel trousseau, and I basically never get on a plane without one.  You want a pullover, not one that zips up the front, and you want a big hood.  There are reasons for both.

A good hoodie serves multiple purposes. (1) A hoodie keeps you warm. It can get cold on planes, especially on long international flights at altitude and/or when you’re sitting by a window. If you’re worried about getting too hot: you can take your hoodie off if it gets too hot, but if you don’t have it with you, you can’t put it on when it gets too cold. (2) A hoodie provides storage. Remember that you’re going to get one with a big front pocket. You can stick your boarding pass in there, your phone, etc.  Do, however, be careful about dropping things in the toilet–that big front pocket is convenient, but it’s not very secure.  (3) A hoodie covers your eyes while you sleep. Remember the big hood. No point in wearing one of those dorky eye masks.

Dark clothes in case of spills: one big gust of wind while you’re in the air is all it takes to spill a cup of coffee down your front.  Black clothes help to disguise spills. This includes the aforementioned hoodie.  Plus, if you’re going to France, you will fit right in.  Well, you’ll have to lose the hoodie.

Food: being hungry on a long flight is miserable.  Showing up at your hotel at 2 AM, exhausted but too hungry to sleep, is even worse.  You always want to have some kind of non-crumbly, non-greasy, non-messy food in your backpack.

Gum/toothbrush (small toothpaste only).  You’re going to feel gross when you get off of that long flight, and if you’re planning to kiss someone when you land…  Just remember that you can only carry on the little tubes.  (I tried to carry on a mostly empty regular-sized one way back when liquid restrictions first went into effect, and was informed by the proud TSA agent that mostly-empty regular toothpaste tubes with maybe 3 ounces of toothpaste in them are dangerous in a way that 3-ounce toothpaste tubes apparently are not.


le pantalon de treillis or le pantalon cargo:  (Loose) pants with cargo pockets: you’re going to be sitting in that airplane seat for a long time, and there are a number of things that you’ll want to get your hands on over the course of the flight–a phone, tablet, or iPod; your passport for filling out immigration and customs documents; headphones; and your wallet.  Put them in the seatback pocket, and you might forget them.  A pair of pants with cargo pockets gives you some extra storage on your person.  Make them loose just because it’s no fun sitting in tight pants for 6-12 hours.

Grid organizer
A grid organizer. (Picture source:
Organizer for storing cables, earphones, etc.  I use a grid of straps like this one.  The grid itself takes up some space, but it’s worth it to not have to find and disentangle your cords in four different pockets of your backpack.

Electrical adapter: one of the nicest things that can happen to you in an airport is discovering that United has put you on a Lufthansa flight to Europe. The only potential fly in the ointment is that your laptop battery is not going to last through the whole flight, Lufthansa has European plugs, and your European plug adapter is probably in your suitcase.  Solution: if you’re going someplace where you’ll need an adapter, toss it in your backpack, not in your suitcase.  This also prepares you for the hassle of lost luggage–when you get to where you’re going, you’ll be able to charge your cell phone if you thought to put the charger in your backpack, not your suitcase. The same logic applies to layovers in foreign airports, actually.

belkin power strip
Picture source:
la multiprise, la prise multiple: Power strip.  One of the biggest hassles in airports these days is finding an electric plug when you need one–an unoccupied one, that is. I carry a small, lightweight power strip with three regular sockets and a couple of USB plugs. If the only outlet that you can find is already occupied, just ask the occupant if they would mind letting you plug in the power strip. It doesn’t cost them any juice; not only have I never had anyone say no, but because there are three sockets, there’s yet another one for anyone else who’s been hanging around looking for an outlet, and you’re quite likely to make some random stranger happy. It feels good to make random strangers happy!  You can find a small one at Radio Shack or similar places for about $8, or get a really light-weight and space-efficient one for about $20.  (I should point out that the Guatemalan TSA once insisted on confiscating my power strip.  I’ve never had a problem anywhere else, though.)

Sunglasses case: You don’t need a reminder to bring sunglasses, but might not think to put your sunglasses case in your backpack.  What you’re trying to avoid is your sunglasses getting crushed in your coat pocket in the overhead bin, in your backpack–wherever.

Cell phone battery: this is the latest thing that I have no clue how I ever lived without. You can buy a spare external battery for your cell phone for about $20 to $50. This will get you enough juice to recharge your phone from one to four times, depending on how much you spend. I use it on planes, and on the long commute home, and in hotels rooms that don’t have a wall socket next to the bed, and…  You get the picture.

les pantoufles (f.) slippers and/or chaussettes (f.) socks:  This is a bit more of a judgement call. The problem to be solved is particularly a winter thing.  You’re wearing your big heavy boots because it’s cold outside on the way to the airport, but you don’t want to sleep in them. You can’t go into the disgusting airplane bathroom in your stocking feet, though. Slippers are comfy, but they take up a lot of room in your backpack. My current solution to this is the kind of non-slip socks that they give you in the hospital.  If you get the long ones, then they’re long enough to keep your ankles warm (i.e., be sure not to get hospital footies, which are too short), and I like to tell myself that the rubber strips on the bottom keep my tootsies out of the puddles of…I don’t want to know what…in the bathroom.  You will also want to bring regular socks in summer to wear under your sandals.  Yes, you will look like a little old man from the Midwest, but it’s better than freezing all the way through a transoceanic flight in the summertime.

les lentilles (f.) (pronounced [lɑ̃tij], transcription from contact lenses.  If you wear contact lenses, you might want to bring a contact lens case filled with solution and a pair of glasses for when you go to sleep on that long flight.  This has plusses and minusses.  The plus is that showing up somewhere with your lenses glued to the insides of your eyelids, unable to see if your taxi driver has turned the meter on or not, is a hassle.  The minus is that if that little contact lens case leaks in your backpack and gets a lifetime’s accumulation of USB thumb drives wet, you’re going to be unhappy (voice of experience…).

Spare set of clothes: I once spent my first (and only free) evening in amazing Cambridge, England searching for someplace to buy clean underwear instead of wandering the colleges, as my luggage hadn’t arrived with me.  Since then, I keep a zip-lock bag with a T-shirt, a pair of underwear, and a pair of socks in my empty suitcase when I’m at home, and I toss it in my backpack before a trip.  It takes up a lot of space, but it’s better than dirty underwear.

Pen: sounds banal, but most countries today still expect you to fill out immigration and customs paperwork by hand, and the flight attendant is not going to be happy about lending you theirs.

Carrying it all

le cartable: you probably already know the term sac à dos for a backpack, but you might not know this one.  You’re going to want a backpack to carry all of this stuff on the plane.  (Backpacks are a dead giveaway regarding your Americanness, but (a) you probably ARE American, and why bother trying to hide it, and (b) I haven’t figured out how to do without one.  For air travel, there are two or three things you can think about.  One is width.  You will often want or need to stick your backpack under the seat in front of you, and on some aircraft the aisle seat and window seat don’t have enough space between the brackets that hold them in place to accommodate a very wide bag.  Similarly, depth is an issue.  It’s tempting to buy a super-deep backpack that can carry half your wardrobe, but if you stuff one of those things full, there’s no way that it’s going to fit under the seat in front of you.  Just don’t go overboard with either width or depth, and you should be fine.  Compartments and pockets are another thing to think about.  If you don’t mind having a bunch of little pockets, they’re good for organization.  On the other hand, I would avoid a bag with lots of stupid straps and buckles that aren’t really necessary if you’re not mountaineering in the Himalayas–they just get caught on things.

I still haven’t figured out how to get my hair cut in French


What my hair looked like after I told the barber to cut it “for judo.”
 In Japan, I know how to  se débrouiller. I’m in a rush to get the airport, but the bus that I had planned to take is full?  No problem–I can figure out how to take the train. The taxi driver can’t read my carefully laminated map?  No problem–I know how to pronounce the English hotel name with a Japanese accent. The barber doesn’t speak English, and he wants to know how long I want my hair, and I don’t know how to say “really, really short” in Japanese?  Not an issue, ’cause I do know how to say “for judo,” and in Japanese that’s just another way to say “really short hair.”  

My general ability to se débrouiller (mostly) in Japan is actually quite surprising, because I’ve only spent maybe 10 weeks of my life here, and because I’ve spent much more time than that in France, where I do not know how to se débrouiller in the least.  In what kind of Parisian store does one buy flash cards?  I haven’t a clue. How do I find the door to the post office?  It’s a mystery. Is that woman flirting with me?  Honestly, I have no idea. 

The anthropologist Raymonde Carroll maintains that the reason that the French and Americans have so much trouble understanding each other is that we, and our countries, look so much alike. You go to Japan, and you expect things to be different and to work differently–everything (and everyone) looks different. To the American in France or the Frenchman in America, everything (and everyone) looks the same, and we expect everything to be the same and to work the same. Maybe that’s why I’m so surprised that I’m basically incompetent in France, and why I feel so capable when I manage to pull off the simplest interaction in Japan–my expectations of the place, and of myself, are very different in the two cases. 

I decided to stick with the “for judo” length–I’m old and fat, so why try to pretend that I have hair?  In France, I settle for whatever length the hairdresser decides to give me, ’cause I still haven’t figured out how to explain what I want. 

  • Se débrouiller:  to figure things out for oneself, figure out how to make things work, be resourceful. (Translation by me.)
  • Se débrouiller pour faire qqch: to manage to do something.  (Collins French-English Dictionary)

How to get a computer to answer a factoid question

Computers can now answer factoid questions–if they can tell what’s being asked…

An architecture for a question-answering system. Picture source: (By Tinmn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons)

France’s ability to keep on keeping on after the Paris attacks has been amazing.  In that spirit, here’s a post about something other than how horrified I am.

In a recent post, we talked about factoid questions–questions that typically start with words like who, what, when, or where, and typically have answers that are just a short phrase.  We’re pretty good at getting computers to answer those kinds of questions.

Once upon a time, the assumption in trying to get computers to answer questions (which we’re going to call question-answering in English, or questions-réponses in French) was that there was a database that contained the answers, and you were going to get the computer to process the question in such a way as to retrieve the answer from the database.  Today, the assumption is that there is a web page somewhere that has the answer.  So, how do you get to that answer?

The first step in question-answering is usually to figure out what kind of question you’re dealing with. This lets your system know what kind of answer it should be looking for.  
Where is Paris? and Where is the spleen?  call for very different kinds of answers.  On the other hand, Where is the capital of France? and What is the capital of France? need the same kind of answer.  So, it’s not as simple as just checking whether the question starts with who, what, when, or where. (Of course, there are many other ways that you can ask a factoid question—When was Mozart born? could more or less equivalently be asked as What year was Mozart born? You can see how difficult this can get.)

The French Wikipedia page on questions-réponses talks about some things that are helpful in making these kinds of distinctions between question types (and types of expected answers), and of course Zipf’s Law comes into play, so we’ll need to learn some new words (or, at least, I will–I don’t know about you):

  • le focus: As far as I can tell, this is an unassimilated English loan word that means “focus.”  Le focus d’une question correspond à la propriété ou l’entité recherchée par la question.  “The focus of a question corresponds to the property or the entity sought by the question.”
  • Le thème: theme, subject, or topic.  Le thème de la question (ou topic) est l’objet sur lequel se porte la question.  “The theme of the question (or topic) is the thing that the question is about.”
Question Focus Theme
Who is the president of Benin? Who the president of Benin
When was Mozart born? When Mozart
When do cells divide? When cells
How much does a kimono cost? How much a kimono
How much does an elephant weigh? How much an elephant

You can see from even a few examples that this is hard for a computer to do.  When was Mozart born? requires a very different answer from When do cells divide?, despite the fact that the focus looks the same in both questions.  Similarly, How much does a kimono cost? and How much does an elephant weigh? have focuses (foci?) that look the same, but they require very different types of answers.  However, determining the focus and the theme of a factoid question are a good start.  We’ll see in another post how identifying what are known as named entities can help to refine our understanding of the question.

What’s making us cry today

For context, (a) 9/11 didn’t make me cry per se; I was shocked, I was horrified, I gave blood, but I didn’t cry; and (b) I’m a middle-aged American male and hence have been raised from childhood not to cry.  But, this blog post brought me to tears.  It’s an excellent French lesson from the Lawless French web site.  It’s more or less a perfect lesson for intermediate-to-advanced students of French who already speak English–it includes a video segment, the French transcription, the English translation, a vocabulary section, a grammar points section, and links to further reading.  You couldn’t ask for more.

The tears-inducing part is that the lesson is centered completely around Hollande’s address to the French people right after the Friday 13 November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.  What got me was the contrast between the topic of the material and the topic of the material in French lessons when I was taking French 101 in college.  We had lessons centered around eating in a restaurant, renting an apartment, or meeting interesting French people (a little unrealistic, since Americans in France practically never meet French people on a personal level, but perhaps that’s part of its charm).  That was French language instruction when I was a younger man–French instruction today seems often to be about terrorism.  (If you look back through the previous year and a half’s worth of posts on this blog, you’ll find a disturbing number about vocabulary that I learnt in the context of news story about terrorist attacks.)  This is not the world that I grew up in…

Some vocabulary from Lawless French’s lesson on expressing sorrow and regret:

  • être désolé(e) de qqch: to be sorry about something.  Desole de ne pas vous avoir donne des nouvelles pendant un mois mais l’explication de ce sejour prolonge sera bientot l’objet d’un prochain article.  [NOTE: the author didn’t use any accents.]  “Sorry not to have given you any news for a month, but the explanation of this prolonged stay will soon be the object of a forthcoming article.”  (
  • être navré(e) de qqch: to be sorry about something.  Étant député d’une région où le taux de chômage est relativement élevé, je suis extrêmement navré de constater que ce gouvernement laisse tomber toute une catégorie de la population. “As a member of parliament for a region where the unemployment rate is relatively high, I am greatly distressed to see that this government is ignoring a whole category of the population.” (, via  Je suis navré d’apprendre la mort de L.B. Je le connaissais depuis plus de 30 ans.I am very sorry to learn of the death of L.B. I knew him for more than 30 years.”

In American English, “I’m sorry” can be an admission of guilt (“I’m sorry I broke your foot”) or an expression of sympathy (“I’m sorry you broke your foot”).  As far as I can tell, désolé tends more towards the former, but also works for the latter.  Navré seems to be more for the latter.  I haven’t found firm native speaker judgements about this; gives examples of both for désolé.


What’s surreal today

Surreal is when you’re memorizing kitchen vocabulary and find out that what you really need to know how to say is “rocket launcher.”

2015-11-16 16.49.31
PIcture source: screen shot of my cell phone.

Random words that showed up on the screen of my cell phone yesterday as France continues to deal with the aftermath of the 11/13 attacks.  Definitions from  It seems surreal that lately I’ve been trying to memorize the name of every single thing in my kitchen, while these are apparently the words that I need:

  • la perquisition: police search, police raid
  • le lance-roquettes: rocket launcher


One extra thing this time

Sign in Narita Airport baggage claim. Photo source: me.

This is my tenth trip to Japan, so I more or less have the routine down. Turn left out of Arrivals and go around the corner to the ATMs. Figure out which machine both takes American cards and has an English-language interface, since you don’t speak Japanese. Turn around, go back around the corner the other way, and down the escalator. Walk past the cobbler (why the hell is there a cobbler in the airport?) to the Keisei ticket counter. Crap–remember that you’re taking JR this time.  Get to the JR ticket counter. Eigo-ga wakarimasu ka?  “(Giggle) a little.”  “Mishima, please.”  Buy red bean paste manju and a can of coffee.  (Love those coffee vending machines.)  Find that funny glassed-in waiting area that must have once been a smoking lounge and settle in to wait for the train.  Oh, one extra thing to do this time: check the news from Paris to see if there’s been any more news about the terrorist attacks while you were in the air. Fuck–the current bilan is 129 dead, 352 injured.  Dicks.