How to smile your way through the Parisian transit strike: Citymapper

The Internet has given us Trump, revenge porn, and catfishing; in recompense, it has also given us free on-line versions of a number of historical French dictionaries, and a way to weather public transportation strikes with a smile.

Executive summary: there’s an app called Citymapper available on the iPhone and Android that does an excellent job of staying on top of metro, train, and bus line operating hours.  Want to know about (1) linguistic trivia associated with strikes in French, and (2) public attitudes about the current action sociale?  Read on.

One of the things that I find very striking about Paris is that although the building located at any particular spot might change, the function carried out there can remain constant over centuries.  Millennia, even.  For example: the spot where Notre Dame de Paris is located has been a place of worship since the Druids were there.  The Palais de justice was the residence of the Roman administrator, and then the palace of the early French kings, before becoming the center of the French court system.  And, most relevant to today’s ravings: the location of the Parisian City Hall has been where the city was run out of for as long as Paris has been run by its bourgeois.

City Hall–in French, L’Hôtel de ville–is located on the Right Bank of Paris.  Although the Right Bank is very much the seat of Parisian power today, it started as mostly swampland.  (That fact figures into how the city was taken by the Romans–a story for another time.)  The expansion of Paris from the Left Bank to the Right in the early Middle Ages started with the area where the Hôtel de Ville is located today.  It was an early area of business, and the riverbank–la grève–in front of its current location was a gathering spot for laborers looking for work.  As the story goes (and I’m sorry that I can’t give you a citation for this, but I think that I ran across it in Metronome), over time the word for the place where laborers gathered became associated with strikes by laborers.

There’s some documentary evidence for this association.  Let’s work our way backward.  The Internet has given us Trump, revenge porn, and catfishing; in recompense, it has also given us free on-line versions of a number of historical French dictionaries.  Les-voilà.  Starting with the 8th edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, published 1932-1935, we have the following.  The first sentence is A level, flat surface covered with gravel or sand, going along the edge of a sea or a large river:

Screen Shot 2020-01-15 at 08.38.45
Screen shot from In the second paragraph (which I did not translate), they’re not shitting about the executions.  Notable ones that took place there that of include Jacques de Molay, the last grandmaster of the Knights Templar, who was burnt at the stake there on March 18th, 1314; and that of Robert-François Damiens, who was drawn and quartered there on March 28th, 1757.  (The event was extensively documented.  If you have a copy of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison on your bookshelf, you’ll find an accurate description of the event in the first chapter.  The savagery was difficult to imagine–one of the professional executioners went into retirement after participating.)

Continuing back in time to the 18th century, we have this from Jean-François Féraud’s Dictionnaire critique de la langue française, published 1787-1788.  It contains the definition level and sandy beach:

Screen Shot 2020-01-15 at 09.21.13
Linguists will notice the prescriptiveness of the entry, which includes the observation that the verbal form of the word, which means “to harm,” is “not often used outside of the Palace, and in ordinary language is not good style,” as well as the facts that (1) Richelet found it a bit old (Phil dAnge, who was Richelet?), (2) Trév says that it was becoming a bit outdated (Phil dAnge: Trév.??), and (3) the Academy includes it without comment. Do note that he is talking about a verb, not about the “(river) bank” sense of grève.) Source: screen shot from

Finally, going back to Jean Nicot’s Thresor de la langue française, published in 1606, we have the following, which includes words that I believe to mean “gravel, sand” (gravier and arena):

Screen Shot 2020-01-15 at 08.36.52
Nicot’s entry includes another meaning of the noun, which I think is a part of a suit of armor that goes on the legs. Source:

If you haven’t been reading the news from France lately: public transport workers in and around Paris have been on strike for the past six weeks.  A public transport strike in these parts does not mean a complete cessation, but rather a diminution, of service.  A given metro line might be operating at half capacity, or maybe only 1 out of 3 trains on the line are running; those services might be only available during the morning and evening rush hours (en heures de pointe), or just in the evening.  Trains are packed to bursting, electric scooter rentals are maxed out; Uber is running, but the automotive traffic is so heavy that a 30-minute ride can easily take an hour.  As I write this in mid-January of 2020, the exceptionally convenient low-cost mobility that is such a delight of normal life in the City of Light is only a fond memory.

Are Parisians frustrated by the disruptions caused by the strike?  Of course.  Are they complaining about it a lot?  Not really.  Here are typical comments from my friends about the motivation for the strikes–a proposed reorganization of the admittedly convoluted French retirement system:

  1. The reforms won’t hurt me, personally–but, I’m worried for my child.
  2. The transportation workers are striking for all of us.
  3. The strike has to screw up Paris, or it won’t have any effect.

The comments reflect some underlying widespread French attitudes about their famous work stoppages: (1) Everybody has to earn a living, and (2) Your strike may be screwing up my life today, but my strike will be screwing up yours tomorrow.  So: in general, people are pretty tolerant of this kind of thing.

…and with that, I’m off to check Citymapper to find the best way to get to the Musée de la paléontology et de l’anatomie comparéeone of the three best museums in the world, in my humble but reasonably informed opinion.

The picture of an écartèlement (“drawing and quartering” in English) at the top of this page is of a bas relief from northeastern Spain. I found it at

Conflict of interest statement: I don’t have any.  Citymapper does not pay me, nor do they offer me free services.

What’s making me happy today: élucubrations

You have to grab happiness where you can find it. What’s making me happy today: élucubrations.

You have to grab happiness wherever you can find it, right? I mean, I would love to be feeling happy today because I knew that the Constitution of the United States of America slept as safely last night as I did, or because I was confident that tomorrow’s foreign policy will not further weaken America and strengthen Russia. But, such is not my lot this morning–Trump is still in the White House, and not even his own cabinet knows what he talked with Putin about for two hours in Finland. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to feel good about, though.

Today my heart is gladdened by the existence of the word élucubration. I ran across it while reading the French-language translation of the magisterial World War Z, Max Brooks’s allegorical reflection on American culture in the early 20th century. Brooks on conspiracy theorists:

Le secret, ça fonctionne comme un trou sans fond ; et il y a toujours des paranoïaques pour essayer de le combler avec leurs élucubrations.

Word Reference defines élucubrations as “flights of fancy, hare-brained ideas.” (A hare is a kind of rabbit–lièvre, maybe?) French definitions emphasize the amount of work that goes into them:

Discours, pensée issus de recherches laborieuses mais dépourvus de bon sens (Maxipoche 2014, Larousse 2013)

Coming across the word in a translation as I did, it seemed too adorable to be true: surely such a lovely and useful word could not really exist in normal language? Wroooong again, Zipf.

In 1966, the singer Antoine released the song Les Élucubrations d’Antoine. According to Wikipedia, it differentiated itself from the typical yéyé (hippie) music of the time by its militancy, proposing that The Pill be sold in supermarkets and insulting music legend Johnny Halliday. The song sold like crazy and made his career. So…apparently I am the last person in the world to learn the world élucubration, and once again we see the awesome power of Zipf’s Law: most words are very rare–but, they do occur. Enjoy!

Combinatorics and pod hostels

Go to the shitty part of any decent-sized American city–usually on the edges of the old downtown area–in the early evening, and you will find a line of battered-looking men standing in line outside of a building–usually run-down.  The building is a homeless shelter.  A typical one will give you two nights a month for free, and more if you can pay a small amount.  Dinner is a baloney sandwich or something similar, almost always preceded by a non-optional and decidedly denominational church service. A couple of guys will walk up to the front and accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior.  The Christ will accept them with enthusiasm; the shelter staff, not so much, having seen it aaaaaaaall before.  Crusty old bums who may want to blow you, fuck you, get blown by you, or get fucked by you. (That’s 24 possible combinations of 1 or more sexual acts involving a crusty old bum and you, which equals 16; most of the time, nobody asks, and if they do, you politely say “no”–I am not judgmental, and I am not easily shocked–and that’s generally the end of it. So, a total of 17 possible outcomes, exactly one of which does not involve sexual contact between a crusty old bum and you.)  Breakfast is most likely to be a cup of coffee and a piece of toast (butter, unlike the church service, is optional), and then it’s out the door and on the street, regardless of the weather–no loitering during the day.  That’s fine, since you need to get to the day labor office really early if you want to find work, and if that part of your morning is unsuccessful, you need to haul ass to the plasma donation center as quickly as possible–otherwise your protein drops too low and they won’t let you donate, which means that you’re out round-trip bus fare and still have to figure out where you’re going to sleep that night.  The worst one that I’ve ever stayed in was a dank and dark one in Columbus, Ohio, next to a White Castle.  The best one that I’ve ever stayed in was a Veterans of America one outside of Sacramento, California–clean, sunny, and they offered some social-service-type stuff.  God bless the Veterans of America.  Hell, God bless anyone who will feed and house the homeless.

Then you join the Navy.  Boot camp is 80 guys in a large room; big, clean showers in the morning; 15 minutes three times a day to consume all of the food you can inhale (I actually gained weight in boot camp), and then it’s off to do interesting and/or fun things like make emergency flotation devices out of your clothing, learn what to do in case of nerve gas attack (gas mask on, syrette of atropine jammed hard into your thigh if you think you got exposed), and fight fires (pretty involved on a ship, since all of that water has to go somewhere outside of the vessel, or your ass is going to sink).  When you get to your ship, it’s three bunks deep in a compartment that smells of sweat, farts, and depression.  Plus, you learn to sleep with a 5-inch artillery piece firing directly over your head.  (I did, anyway.)  But, it’s warm, they feed you well, the food is quite good, and cigarettes are $1 a pack once you get out of American territorial waters.

Out of the Navy, you head to a super-nice college where everybody but you and the 12 kids in the theater department is polite; smart; attractive, even (possibly especially–who knows how the Upper East Side mates) in LL Bean boots; from New York, New Jersey, or Northern Virginia; and 18-22 years old.  But, you’re married and have a kid, and you’re paying your way via the GI Bill and weekends spent drawing arterial blood samples and adjusting the occasional ventilator at the local hospital, so you live in one of those apartment complexes.  That means (1) at night, entering the kitchen with your eyes closed, stomping like a motherfucker to kill as many cockroaches as possible, and then turning on the lights; and (2) during the day, hunting for their egg cases, ’cause every one that you crush and dump gleefully down the garbage disposal is 15 little cockroaches preemptively and preventatively obliterated.

…all of this to make it clear to my friends who have expressed concern about the fact that I’m living in a pod hostel at the moment that it is totally fine.  Warm, clean, and so far no bums have suggested blowing me, fucking me, me blowing them, or me fucking them.  Not that anyone makes a man of my age that kind of offer very often–I still politely say “no,” but being an old fat bald guy…at this point, I take it as a compliment.

English notes

Decent-sizednot small, but not necessarily big, either.  How much cake do you want?  Gimme a decent-size piece, but not too big, ’cause I’m old, fat, and bald.  How I used it in the post: Go to the shitty part of any decent-sized American city–usually on the edges of the old downtown area–in the early evening, and you will find a line of battered-looking men standing in line outside of a building–usually run-down.

To be out (something of value): To have spent a quantity of money or rendered something of value without getting anything in return.  I bought a bus ticket, but then I got stopped and frisked and I missed the bus, so now I’m out $25.50 and I’m still stuck in this shithole.  How I used it in the post:  You’re out round-trip bus fare and still have to figure out where you’re going to sleep that night.   

Boot camp is the American military’s basic training.  Recent graduates are known as boot camps, or just boots–confusing, I know.  No less than in France, where said recent graduates are either pieds-bleus (did I pluralize that correctly??), or just bleus.

Combinatorics is a branch of mathematics that (in my very limited understanding) has to do with efficiently calculating the number of  possible combinations of things.  No hate mail on this, please—just correct me in the Comments section.  The formula that appears in this post appeared on Quora–if you can prove it (in the mathematical sense), that would be much appreciated.  Note that I did not do the subtraction of 1, because the formula is for proper subsets only, and experience has given me no reason to exclude the non-proper subset option.

Proper subsets: subsets that do not contain all of the members of a set.

Non-proper subsets: subsets that include the subset containing all of the members of a set.  So, for the set = {1, 2}, the set of proper subsets is {1} and {2} (and maybe {}, the “empty set”–I don’t remember from Linguist School).  The set of non-proper subsets is {1}, {2}, and {1,2}.


What you do on Saturday night if you have no life whatsoever

That’s a whole lotta accents…

If you have no life whatsoever, what you do on Saturday night is (a) study French verb conjugations, and (b) binge-watch the excellent Netflix series Criminal: France–and not necessarily in that order, either.

I’ve recently been working on the passé simple, a French tense that’s used in some genres of writing, but only very rarely in the spoken language.  I love les chapeaux chinois (circumflex accents), and one of the nice things about the passé simple is that it uses them.  Specifically, they appear in the nous and vous forms: nouss aimâmes/finîmes/prîmes, vous aimâtes/finîtes/prîtes.

Find a verb with a circumflex accent in the stem, and it gets really fun.  So, it’s Saturday night, and I’m sitting on the back porch smoking a cigarette and and doing some exercises on the French Verb Forms iPhone app (no, I am not sponsored by Netflix, French Verb Forms, or Apple–I pay for that stuff just like everyone else), when I am presented with the verb apprêter “to prepare” to conjugate: Circumflex City!

No, the French do not hate Americans

It’s the weekend of the celebration of the liberation of Paris from the Nazis.  I step out on my balcony for a cigarette, and I see a parade of old World War II military vehicles roll down l’Avenue de la Motte-Picquet.  When the American vehicles come, the onlookers cheer and clap.  The French vehicles go by unapplauded.

It’s August in Paris, when there is dancing on the banks of the Seine.  I walk up to a woman and ask her to dance.  She walks into my arms and asks Where are you from?  Later, I ask her how she knew so immediately that I wasn’t French–in France, asking a French person where they’re from is rude, although it’s (mostly) fine for non-French.  (More on this below, in the French notes.)  You hesitated a bit before a word, she said.  Then she thought for a moment more: …and you walked up to me with this directness and openness that I admire in Americans.  

It’s my first time in France, and I don’t speak French. Someone is telling me where to find a specific hotel in Normandy, and says–in English, obviously–That’s where you saved our fucking asses–twice.

No, French people do not hate Americans.

L’Avenue du Président-Kennedy, seen from the Bir-Hakeïm Bridge in Paris. Source: Mbzt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
L’Avenue Franklin-D.-Roosevelt, Paris. Source: Mbzt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

French notes

In France, you do not ask a French person where they’re from (vous venez d’où ?).  It’s rude, because the implication is that you don’t really belong in French.  Rather, you ask What region are you from–vous venez de quelle région ?  Point of pride: when I first started spending time in France as a francophone, people would ask me So, you’re an American?  Then, they progressed to Where are you from?, or occasionally So, you’re British/Belgian/German/Suiss?  Now, after 5 years of constant and intensive study of the langue de Molière, I very, very occasionally get what region are you from?  Always warms my heart.

Billet-doux: love letter

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandmother, although it could be.  My favorite memories of her: sitting together on her front porch in the morning, sharing a cup of coffee and a cigarette, talking about nothing–or just not talking at all.

Prévert in Paris, 1946. Photographer: unknown. Cat: unknown.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to Jacques Prévert, although it could be.  I’m usually up at daybreak, and sometimes as the sun peeks over the horizon I’ll go outside to have a smoke and read his Encore une fois sur le fleuve.  I’ve read some of his poems so often that they form a sort of soundtrack in my head as I walk the streets.  In his photographs, he looks like the uncle you always wanted–a face that you can tell is just barely hiding a smile, a cigarette in his hand–or just hanging from his lips.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandmother, although it could be.  When she died, I found her long white evening gloves and her cigarette holder.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandfather, but it could be.  One of my mother’s friends told me this about him: his apartment was nothing but books and cigarette smoke.  

This is a love letter to cigarettes.  Yeah, I know: they’re gonna kill me.  Hell–if I didn’t smoke, I might live two years longer!  Two years against some connection, any connection, with the French grandfather who had my mother when he was as old as I am now (very), and died before I was born.  Two years against Jacque Prévert in my head when I walk the streets in Paris, or anywhere in the world, really.  Two years against that memory of my grandmother, the warm Florida mornings, the ashtray that my father made for her in summer camp.  Seems like I come out ahead on this one.

The picture at the top of this page is not my grandmother, but the American actress Carol Landis, photographed in 1946 for a Kislav glove ad.  Photographer: unknown.

English notes:

To walk the streets: be careful with this one.  It can mean walking nowhere in particular–not flâner, as it connotes a certain intensity and solitariness that is lacking in flâner.  It can also mean living by prostitution–compare the noun streetwalker, a prostitute qui fait le trottoir.  Yet another meaning: to be free after a time in prison.

  • How I used it in the post: I’ve read some of his poems so often that they form a sort of soundtrack in my head as I walk the streets.
  • With the “out of prison” meaning: Many are outraged that the convicted killer will be walking the streets after spending just two years in prison. (Source: the Farlex Free Dictionary.)
  • With the “prostitution” meaning, in a slightly different construction: 52 and still working the streets.

French notes:

le billet-doux: an old term for a love letter.  I understand that you can use it for comic effect.  But, compared to la lettre d’amour, I like the sound of billet-doux much more.  Doux: it just sounds…right.  (Phil dAnge, can you comment?)

Yes, please–do volunteer to be a reviewer

Yes, you CAN volunteer to be a peer reviewer!

Get any two researchers together in a bar at the end of a day at any randomly chosen conference.  They will get around to complaining about the difficulty of getting grant funding these days, service responsibilities in their institution, and how grad students don’t want to work as hard as we did back in the day.  But, before that, they will complain about the real pain point of academic work: reviewing.  (See the English notes below for an explanation of the expression “pain point.”)

“Peer review” is the process by which academic writing is considered for publication.  The mechanics of it are this:

  1. An author submits an article to a journal or conference.
  2. An “associate editor” at the journal or an “area chair” at the conference finds reviewers who are willing to read and comment on the paper–your “peers.”
  3. The reviewers read the paper, write up detailed comments on it, and make a suggestion regarding acceptance.
  4. The associate editor or area chair makes a decision about the paper.

That decision in step 4 can take a number of forms, including outright acceptance (rare), rejection (not rare), and giving the author the option of making changes in response to the reviewers’ comments and resubmitting the paper, in which case steps 3 and 4 repeat.  (They can repeat multiple times, too.)

At step 2, the associate editor or area chair needs to find three reviewers in the typical case–rarely fewer, and sometimes more.  (I once submitted a paper to a journal for which I am the deputy editor-in-chief, and the editor who handled it had it reviewed by SIX reviewers–the most I have ever seen.  To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, that made sense.)

Three reviewers per submission, and the big conferences in my area (computational linguistics) typically get between 1,000 and 2,500 submissions–that’s 3,000 to 7,500 reviews per conference.  There are several big conferences in my area–assume five per year, and that’s 15,000 to 37,500 reviews that need to get written per year.  And that’s just the conferences–journal publications are appearing faster than ever before in history, which is in itself not a surprise–most things are happening faster than ever before in history—but, the publication rate has been growing logarithmically, and if you’ve been reading about Zipf’s Law for a while, you know that that’s fast.   Journal submissions take quite a bit more time to review than conference papers, too–a conference paper in my field is typically limited to 8 pages, but most journals in my field no longer have page limits at all.

Just for grins, here are the page counts on my 5 most recent journal articles: 15, 8, 14, 24, and 12.  The 8-pager was in a journal with a page limit–of 7 pages!  We paid an extra-page fee.

Who writes those peer reviews?  Well…your peers.  You write your share of those 15,000 to 37,500 reviews, and the authors of those 5,000 to 12,500 papers write reviews of your papers, and… Well, it’s a huge workload.  How huge, exactly?  It’s hard to say what an average would be, but I have a reviewed a couple hundred papers over the course of the past couple of years.  Is that typical?  Probably.  And the conference papers come in bursts–conferences are deadline-driven, so all of the 1,000 to 2,500 submissions to an individual conference are being done at once.  A reviewer for a conference in my field is typically assigned 5 papers.  Of course, there is a limited set of time slots when conferences can happen–they mostly take place during breaks in the academic year, so either during the summer, or around the end-of-year holidays.  That means that their submission deadlines tend to cluster together, so you are probably reviewing for multiple conferences in the same time period.  How many?  I’ve written 14 in the past two weeks.  I may actually have spent more time reviewing other people’s papers than working on my current grant proposal–and it’s the grant proposals that bring in my salary.  Could I say no to review requests?  Of course.  But, it would not be fair to do so–while I’m reviewing those papers, someone else is reviewing mine.

….All of this en préambule to the answer to a question that I don’t get asked often enough: can you volunteer to be a reviewer?  The answer: yes.  Here’s a good example of a request that I got recently:

Dear Dr. Zipf:

I am a Ph.D. student at university name removed, majoring in computer science, under the supervision of advisor name removed. My main research fields are bioinformatics, deep learning, machine learning and  artificial intelligence.
I have done some researches in bimolecular function prediction, Nanopore sequencing, fluorescence microscope super resolution, MD simulation, sequence analysis, graph embedding and catastrophic forgetting, which were published in journals, such as PNAS, NAR and Bioinformatics, and conferences, such as ISMB, ECCB and AAAI. Attached please find my complete CV about my background.

I am very interested in serving the community and acting as a reviewer for the manuscripts which are related to my background. I know you are serving as an associate editor for a number of journals, such as BMC Bioinformatics. If you encounter some manuscripts which are highly related to my background, feel free to refer me as a reviewer.

Thank you very much for your consideration! Have a nice day!

My response:

Hi, name removed,

Thank you for writing–it is always nice to see a volunteer for reviewing!  However, I only handle articles on natural language processing, which seems outside of your areas of expertise.  I would recommend that you send your CV, and a similar email, to associate editors who specialize in your areas.  Your advisor could suggest some, and you could also look at the editorial board of relevant journals, especially ones in which you have published.
Thank you again for volunteering, and keep looking for opportunities–I am pretty sure that you will find them!
Best wishes,
Beauregard Zipf
Response to THAT:

Dear Dr. Zipf:

OK! Thank you very much for the clarification and the instruction! Have a nice day!

Notice what you do not see in this exchange: what people are afraid of, which is a response saying something along the lines of “who the hell do you think you are to dare to propose yourself as a reviewer?”  Of the 200 emails that I probably plowed through that day, this offer might have been the only message that actually brought me a little joy–even though I couldn’t use this particular reviewer, I’m certain that someone else will.  Yes: you can volunteer to be a peer reviewer!

French notes

en préambule (à): as a preamble, en guise d’introduction.
la relecture par les pairspeer review. also gives l’évaluation par les pairs and l’inter-évaluation, but I’ve never actually heard that last one.  Native speakers??
Want to read a French-language blog post about peer review in computational linguistics?  Here’s one by my colleagues Karën Fort and Aurélie Névéol.
English notes
pain pointa marketing term referring to the problem that a salesman is going to try to solve for you by selling you his product.  How I used it in the post: Before that, they will complain about the real pain point of academic work: reviewing.