I guess it’s worth trying to summarize what, if anything, I accomplished or at least experienced in the past year. Working in education, there’s a constant reminder to self that reflection is as important to growth and learning as absorbing new ideas and doing things. So here goes:
I created 5 new and updated 20 public source code repositories on Github.com.
To get acquainted with the Internet of Things, I tinkered with Arduino, the Particle Spark, RFM69 wireless chips, and the BeagleBone Black single-board computer. My electronics (and construction) tools and skills are still very rudimentary, so here’s a place for growth in the coming year.
I also got hands-on about (especially the MakerBot Replicator) 3D printers (how they work, how to calibrate them, how to repair them).
I upgraded my school district’s network to a new firewall and helped move students and staff toward a cloud-based future and away from reliance on individual workstations and physical servers (bidding farewell to 9-year-old Apple Xserves when they fail ungracefully).
Because of my school district’s master plan to modernize our school campuses, I learned a lot about (and generated even more questions about) what the physical and technological demands of a 21st century classroom should be. EdCamps, Google Hangouts, and face-to-face meetings (especially with talented groups of people like those on the CETPA Edtech mailing list, BAISNet, the Stanford FabLearn attendees, and the Bay Area Maker Educators Google Plus community) helped immensely, and I hope that I might have provided a few useful comments in return.
I don’t think I changed substantially for the better in 2015, but some milestones made an impact. There was an afternoon in April at a magnificent villa in Rio de Janeiro that my family and I spent reviewing touching correspondence that my late father received 40 years ago and that was essentially sealed away until recently. And my mother’s passing after a slow 10 year decline into forgetfulness and silence as sad as it was, did create opportunities to reach out to my siblings and their families and to eventually have a short but meaningful reunion on a beautiful New England October weekend.
In the dubious distinction category I logged 269 films on Letterboxd during 2015. Films continue to impart meaning to me, and my watchlist (films I need to see) grows longer every year, and I hope you had or have a chance to see some of the films on my 19-best list of 2015.
Just got back (April 2015) from an unstressed two weeks in Brazil and wanted to document just some of the highlights of my vacation for those of you who might be going.
Best Neighborhood in São Paulo (SP) – Vila Madalena
Ok well, those who have been living in Vila Madalena for 10 years or more say that it has been ruined by the publicity and crowds from the World Cup 2014, but it’s still a pleasant walkable place with restaurants, art galleries and bars of all stripes. And if you need a place to stay, you would be hard pressed to find a nicer place than this.
Best Modern Buildings – Edificios Copan and Italia, Centro, SP and MEC, Centro, Rio de Janeiro (RJ)
The Copan is undergoing a facial right now, covered in pale blue scrim, so if you go next year you might be lucky enough to see its beautiful mosaic-tiled brise-soleil facade restored. In the meantime if you don’t know a resident who can get you into the buidling, you can still visit the free, public art space PIVÔ and get a sense of Niemeyer’s greatness. Meanwhile, if you’re in Rio’s Centro on a weekday, you really should visit the MEC (aka Palacio Capanema), where Le Corbusier, Lucio Costa and Roberto Burle-Marx created an early masterpiece of urban architecture and planning without the crushing scale of some of Costa/Corb’s later projects.
Best Museum Space – Instituto Moreira Salles, Gávea, RJ
The former residence of Walter Moreira Salles in Gávea is another mid-20th century modern classic, this time on a residential scale, now converted into a elegant public gallery for photography and cultural events. Burle-Marx did the wonderful garden and swimming pool area. The cafe is charming.
Best 19th Century Building – Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, Centro, RJ
This reading room is among the world’s finest tributes to the power of books. The exterior is pretty great, too, with statues of emperors and of course, Vasco da Gama.
Best Espresso Coffee – Coffee Lab, Vila Madalena, SP
These folks are serious about their beans. The baristas ask you personally for your coffee selection and the atmosphere is conducive to philosophical discussions.
Best Drip Coffee and Pão de Queijo – Confeitaria Atlântica, Copacabana, RJ
Go in and get a café com leite at the bar on a workday morning. Super strong and good, and brewed hourly due to the popularity of this corner pastry store in working-class Copacabana.
Best Restaurant Closed for a Special Event – Bossa, Jardins, SP
Stunning wood-screened space in Jardins that is supposed to have great food as well. Too bad we picked the wrong night and couldn’t get in.
Best Restaurant in a Small Town – Banana da Terra, Paraty
We signed up (somewhat unwillingly) for the Thursday night tasting menu, and it was sublime. I’m not normally a foodie, but this was a pleasant experience with nice waiters and a combination of old Brazilian standbys like coxinha, and new ideas like lemongrass and squid soup.
Best Pizza – Ferro e Farinha, Catete, RJ
You have to go 30 minutes prior to opening to find a seat at one of their sidewalk tables. Don’t pass up the ginger spritzer while you eat all of their 5 different pizza combinations.
Best Gelato – Sorvetes Artesanais Nirulas, Paraty
We just stumbled into an art gallery with a gelato fridge in the back by happenstance. Turns out the Nirulas (based in the city of Itu in São Paulo State) makes some of the best gelato I have had anywhere. Interesting flavors, and a really nice guy who runs the store.
Best Unnoticed Bars – Seu Zé, Vila Madalena, SP and Urca Grill, Urca, RJ
No special reason to go to these places, but they are typical of the hospitality and cheap eats you can find in Brazil. Urca Grill has a fantastic location across the street from Urca’s little harbor. Go at night and hang out at the seawall.
Best Juice Bar – Lanches Hobby, Glória, RJ
Ask for the açaí natural (bananas instead of cane/corn syrup).
Best Caipirinha – Galería do Engenho, Paraty
You can get these with lime, pineapple (my choice) or mango and with a wide variety of local cachaças. Strong, fruity and satisfying. The restaurant serves healthy portions of authentically Brazilian staples.
Best Pousada with Hammocks – Morro do Forte, Paraty
Very nice staff and calming spot above picture-perfect Paraty. Plenty of shady and sunny spots to recline, ponder and lie in a hammock.
Hippest Haircut (Guys Only) – Barbearia 9 de Julho, Vila Madalena (SP)
Hole in the wall spot with some very good young haircutters. This is where Vila Madalena guys with full beards, coiffed hair and mustaches go for hour-long sessions that are old-world pampering to the max (facials, steaming towels, etc.); but gringos like me can also get a quick cut.
Best Public Art – Escadaria de Selaron, Lapa, RJ
A massive project by an expat artist, equivalent in scope and ambition to Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Every square inch of this stairway was hand-crafted. Amazing, even in a country with extraordinary graffiti work seemingly in every neighborhood.
Best 3.5 Km Early Morning Stroll – Aterro do Flamengo, Flamengo, RJ
Burle-Marx left his masterful mark on the Avenida Atlântica in Copacabana, but his real gift to Rio is the Aterro, a linear park wedged between Zona Sul’s automobile-dominated parkways and the beaches of Glória, Flamengo and Botafogo. Every 100 meters is a new combination of Brazilian trees. People run and walk by without noticing that they are moving through paradise.
Best Park for Meandering or Picnicking – Parque Lage, Lagoa, RJ
Mysterious caves, castles and a swimming pool court in a neo-baroque palace. The grounds are beautifully landscaped.
Best Park for Just Soaking it In – Largo das Letras, Santa Teresa, RJ
The cafe / bookstore / cultural center here was closed, but folks were still taking advantage of the quiet courtyard right above Santa Teresa’s “downtown” square, the Largo do Guimarães.
Best Park for Concerts and a View – Parque das Ruinas, Santa Teresa, RJ
Charming little cafe and terrace at the top of Santa Teresa. We were there on the Dia Nacional de Choro for a lilting noontime choro concert. Perfect views over Botafogo and Pão de Açucar.
Best Overlooked Beach – Cepilho’s, Trindade
While all tourists take the bus to the end of the line in Trindade (45 minutes and $2 from the Paraty bus station) and then begin the walk to the isolated beaches in the nature preserve to the south of the town, we jumped off at the first sight of water at Cepilho, a beer-and-shrimp shack on a beach hemmed in by massive rocks. It was a Friday in April and we had the place to ourselves. Space to wander around or sit under a palm tree, just like in the picture books.
Best Bar with Music in the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Rainforest) – Poço de Tarzan, Penha
Another short bus ride from Paraty takes you onto the former gold pipeline royal road in Penha. Beautiful waterfalls you can surf down, and, slightly up river, the Tarzan bar. Saturday afternoon an MPB trio of guitarists play under a tent while happy vacationing Brazilians while away the hours having snacks and beer. Apparently this place is for sale if you like the idea of operating a bar with a private waterfall and hanging bridge.
Best Hyped Samba Scene – Bip Bip, Copacabana, RJ
Everybody’s heard about this place that’s been a nightly jam session for sambistas for 30 years or more, but it’s still real and a delightful place to go and get scolded for applauding or talking during performances (snapping your fingers in appreciation is allowed). Newcomers quickly figure out the deal: you leave your name and the number of beers you’ve picked out of the kitchen with Alfredo, who is there every night parked by his telephone with a stack of dishes that act as a cash register and a big notebook where he keeps your tab.
Places We Didn’t Get To (Next Time!)
Sunday stroll on the Minhocão, SP
Hiking to Dos Irmãos, Vidigal, RJ
The top of Pão de Açucar (we only got halfway), RJ
The new Saraiva super-bookstore by Artur Casas, Barra de Tijuca, RJ
Floresta de Tijuca and Restaurante Os Esquilos, RJ
MAC (Niemeyer museum), Niterói
Sítio Burle-Marx, Barra de Guaratiba, RJ (currently closed for flood repairs and improvements)
Fresh from a fascination with Henry VIII, thanks to Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and the Korda brothers’ Private Life of Henry VIII, I started thinking about how Hans Holbein’s the Younger’s portrait of Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was powerful enough to change history. I guess Hans was the instant messenger of his day, sent over to the continent to bring back a picture for Henry’s Facebook wall, a picture that Henry’s friends could comment on and persuade him of Anne’s overwhelming beauty (which according to legend did not measure up in real life, leading to a quick annulment, but that’s another story).
What impresses me is that a simple portrait could have so much power. The painting, a watercolor, is now in the Louvre’s collection; I may have seen it on a visit to Paris eleven years ago without knowing about its legends. In any event, it’s now on my portrait bucket list, so that if and when I return to Paris, or if it ever travels to a distant shore as Anne herself did, and lands in San Francisco, I will seek it out.
And that got me thinking on what other portraits I would consider worth traveling to see. I’d start with the ones I’ve already seen, that have captured my attention for long minutes when the rest of the gallery has faded away and I have been left one-on-one with a vibrating image a few feet away from me.
Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate, in the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.
John Singer Sargent’s Daughters of Edward Darley Boit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Of course if I ever do see this painting, it will require a revisit to the Prado for the Velasquez original and to Barcelona for Picasso’s meditations on Velasquez).
Edouard Manet’s small portrait, Angelina, in Velasquez’ black palette that I saw at the Musee d’Orsay’s traveling exhibition, The Birth of Impressionism.
Any and all of Joaquín Sorolla’s loving portraits of his wife Clotilde at the Museo Sorolla in Madrid.
And the entire portrait collection at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. The Ghirlandaio portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni is just an example of the depth of this collection (which also has one of Holbein’s Henry VIII).
My wife and I just returned from an extremely pleasant vacation to Spain, which like most of the industrialized north, is trying to cope with the economic recession by (too little, too late?) pumping money into public works. We were really impressed to see how many freeways and bright blue highway bridges are popping up to connect underpopulated areas of Aragon, and it’s starting to look like Spain might out-TGV the rest of Europe in the near future. The Zapatero government’s response is called Plan E (E for Estímulo, Economía, Empleo and Español–they really know how to alliterate in Madrid!).
We did our best to enjoy Spain by spending as many euro as possible in shops, hotels and restaurants, but felt that just wasn’t enough. I worried that our stimulus money was probably being filtered through management, portions going to the IVA, banks, etc. So I personally took the initiative while my wife was checking into our hotel in Barcelona to implement Plan B (B for Bufone in Barcelona) and let the marvelously well organized BCN underground take advantage of me and remove a few trinkets from our rental car in broad daylight at a busy street corner in the trendy Born district, which like so much of Barcelona, is a bit of upscale SOHO overlaid on a former working-class neighborhood.
For those of you visiting this wonderful city (no sarcasm intended), I wanted to provide some advice on how you can help if you want to transfer a bit of wealth directly to those who need it most, the drug addicts and petty criminals working for the Barcelona union of organized pickpockets and car thieves. Here’s the eleven-point plan I worked with (see if you can improve on it).
11 Steps to Success
1. Ignore All Those Warnings and Bits of Advice
Of course I had been lectured many times about bag-grabbers and other nastiness in Barcelona (which is running ahead of Naples now as the prime picking for tourists; my guess is that BCN still has a way to go to catch up with, say Istanbul or São Paulo, but it’s still a world-class city for parting with belongings). So my wife and I considered safety belts, wire-mesh-reinforced fanny packs, and other ridiculous apparati, but supposing I still had some New York smarts still with me, we never used them.
We arrived in Spain after 29 hours of flying, and picked up our pretty new diesel Renault Clio at the Pamplona airport; the plan was to visit the Basque country and then drive to Barcelona. The first thing I noticed when getting into the car was a small notice placed on the dashboard (Europcar’s form E-20919), proclaiming in four languages:
Organised gangs who rob rental vehicle users have been reported in the area. The most usual ways they act are:
Stealing luggage at the counter while the documents are being prepared and/or in the parking lots while loading or unloading luggage from the vehicle. PLEASE WATCH YOUR LUGGAGE AT ALL TIMES.
Puncturing the vehicle tyre. They then tell the driver from another car. When the driver stops, they “kindly” offer help to change the wheel and tack advantage to steal your belongings. PLEASE DO NOT ACCEPT HELP IF IT IS NOT FROM THE POLICE OR CIVIL GUARD AND DO NOT STOP UNTIL YOU REACH A PETROL STATION OR POLICE STATION.
Do not leave or hand over the keys to your vehicle at any time, as there are cases of thieves ransacking houses or apartments [you’ve got to be kidding–Ed.] and taking the keys and the vehicle and people passing themselves off as rental company employees and asking you for the vehicle keys. Remember that you remain responsible for the car and its keys until Europcar has taken reception of these. PLEASE KEEP THE VEHICLE KEYS WITH YOU AT ALL TIMES. KEEP THEM IN YOUR HOLDAY HOME’S SAFE WHEN YOU ARE OUT OR AT NIGHT AND DO NOT HAND THE KEYS OVER TO ANY PERONS, EVEN IF THEY CLAIM TO BE AN EMPLOYEE. RETURN THE KEYS TO THE CAR HIRE OFFICE.
Of course I looked around and severely doubted that Pamplona airport was the spot for people to ransack me for car keys (well, maybe during the San Fermines, but not now in September). Make sure to ignore any thing that the car company tells you. I would wait until arriving in Barcelona to seek out those organised gangs.
2. Arrive in Barcelona by Car. Never Take Plane, Train or Taxi
Barcelona is like every other great old city–there is no place to park. When you first arrive in a rental car, unless you’re staying at a 5-star hotel, you are basically stuck with your car on the street until you find out where to dump it. If you come in by some other means of transportation, how are the street gangs going to be able to rob you?
3. Find A Place to Stop the Car That Is Easily Spotted by the BCN Syndicate
The theives of Barcelona are constantly cruising popular spots. My careful observation (after I was robbed) is that there are spotters who prowl around, whistling and calling for backup on mobile phones when they think they have a good opportunity. So you want to make sure to park your car somewhere with many sight lines, just to make it obvious that you want your stuff to be lifted. I think the intersection I stopped at (Carrer de la Princesa and Carrer de Comerç; see map link) was pretty good in this regard. It was pretty much a 5-way (maybe 6-way) intersection and Carrer de Comerc has got a lot of traffic.
4. Safety in Numbers – Not!
There are going to be at least three of them, so you don’t want to scare them off by keeping your wife, kids or other travelers with you; make sure that you are alone with the car.
5. Make Sure You Are (and Look) Dog-Tired
We came in on a Friday afternoon, after about 5 hours of driving in pouring rain through mountain passes, and then finished up in the usual Friday afternoon traffic. This ensures that you will look and feel completely out of it–they can spot this bleary “where am I” look and it will definitely increase your chances. Get out of the car and wander around aimlessly for a while as well to make sure you are spotted. And any little touches that can add to your look of innocent stupdity can help thieves dial you in. I chose to wear alpine gear (fleece vest, sweater, heavy jeans, hiking boots) and of course the weather in Barce was the usual 80 degrees F–but you have so many other choices to make you stand out in the crowds; be creative!
6. Advertise Your Presence by Turning on Emergency Lights
Just in case they can’t figure out that you’re a tourist, turn on your emergency flashers. Of course no Spaniard would ever do this; if they want to double-park, they just leave the car there.
7. Leave the Car Windows Open and All Doors Unlocked
It helps to forget where the window controls and emergency panic button (the one that locks all doors instantly–it’s right next to the emergency flashers you just turned on). Then open at least the driver’s side window–that’s where they will want to get your keys.
8. Showcase Your Treasure
This really helps. Now that the car is completely vulnerable, open the trunk and start moving your belongings around. Take interesting things (iPhone accessories) and move them from one bag to another. Lift your backpack out of the trunk, unzip it, and stuff things into it. By now you should notice that four young guys on the corners are starting to drool and flash hand signs back and forth. You are almost there. Put the backpack back in the trunk (but don’t lock the car–remember!) and then just stand around aimlessly again.
9. Action! — Handling The Approach
By now, you want to get to know the group that will be robbing you. The tall, ugly, threatening guy is the one who will be distracting you; he’s supposed to scare you. The normal, “Barcelona-cool” guy on the bike (with castellano features and the inevitable baseball cap) is the getaway guy. And there’s the rest of the team: the lookout and the assistant who will be executing the hand-off of valuables to the bicyclist. Make casual eye contact with these folks so they know you are ready for them. When the scary guy approaches for the set up, get back in the car defensively and politely say, “No thanks, I don’t need your assistance” (following the Europcar guidelines to “not accept help”).
10. The Handover: Accomplish The Transfer With Feigned Protest
While the scary guy is pulling on your unlocked door handle, complain loudly (but still leave the car unlocked; resist the logical thing which would be to press the panic button). Keep this up for at least 30 seconds. This is the time required for the assitant (with the cooperation of the lookout) to open the trunk, remove your backpack, and hand it to the nonchalantly pedaling getaway guy. Now you can start cursing at the top of your lungs (I used the “f-word” for authenticity) or honk the horn, etc., since they have gotten what they want.
11. Finale: Lock Car and “Chase” the Thief
Since by now you have an audience of amused tourists and locals (who are probably seeing this for the third or fourth time today) watching the whole thing, it looks a little more convincing if you chase after the getaway guy. He has to blend in, so he’s wearing your backpack and just treading along on his beater bike at a few km per hour, looking like any other resident. Walk, do not run, after him. Sadly accept the advice of locals who know him when they warn you, “Whoa, don’t go there, man”, and then tell them what happened. “Where did he go?” “Right down there [Carrer dels Assaonodors].” “What did they take?” “My backpack.” Etc. This kind of conversation helps make your gift look more convincing. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and head back to your hotel for “consolation”.
Reflections and Continuous Improvment
When you tell the bemused hotel deskperson about the incident, she will refer you to the Comisario of Police, located somewhere “underground in Plaça Catalunya”. I did actually pass by Plaça Catalunya the next morning, and although I found the underground Metro station, parking garage, and official tourist office, there was no trace of a police desk, nor any signs of where it might be. Needless to say, I saved my self hours of precious tourist time by not reporting the crime and having to fill out papers, bring the car down for fingerprints, get Europcar involved, etc. etc.
Luckily for my wife and me, as soon as we changed out of our mountain gear and went back on the street, there were numerous immediate opportunities to quaff cava, rueda, rioja, ribera del duero, txakoli, mojitos, and caipirinhas (more mojitos served in BCN than Habana, more caipirinhas than Rio, I’m sure), as well as the unworldly Gaudí architecture to take our minds off material things.
Looking back on the incident, about the only thing I didn’t do correctly (in order to accomplish maximum transfer of wealth) was to put anything of real value in the backpack. When the theives got to the trunk, they had several choices of pickings: a monstrously heavy suitcase, several plastic bags containing ugly US running shoes, a small point-and-shoot camera case that I foolishly left obviously empty, and the backpack that they had seen me stuffing with goodies. As it turned out, the only things that were in the backpack they stole were a terrific new novel written by a friend of mine (and not available yet in Spain–maybe that was the attraction for them), a few outdated guidebooks, a couple of pairs of socks, and the chargers for my iPhone and digital camera battery. (By the way, I can highly recommend the excellent staff at fnac, the Spanish national department store, to help with the replacement of any kind of electronic devices you may lose while in Barcelona or Madrid.) Sure, the items that we lost will no doubt help the needier elements of Barcelona find their way around town and learn about 19th century history, and might even fetch a few euro at a flea market; but next time I should stuff credit cards, passports and wads of 50-euro notes in there to really help out. But all and all I consider the operation a great success. My wife and I were able to spend the next four days in the city of Modernisme enjoying the food, shopping, and ambiance knowing that we had done our part.
It’s really every visitor’s duty to participate in whatever way he can–here’s hoping you can make Plan B a success!
Other Views and Resources
I like this justification (and the speed of transfer), from a British visitor:
“The thieves of Barcelona seem to be operating a one-city crusade to recover from English tourists all the treasure lost to the British Navy in four centuries of war (native Barcelonans blame most of the crime on Morocan immigrants, in which case much of the booty would drain out south across the Straits of Gibraltar). Eve and I went to take some pictures in the Parc Guell. Within minutes of our arrival, a pickpocket had opened her purse and taken her wallet.” [Philip Greenspun on photo.net]
Even George Orwell remarked in the efficiency of young Barcelonans to lighten the loads of foreigners during wartime:
“The younger militia boys, who seemed to regard the whole affair [the 1937 armed riots in downtown Barcelona] as a kind of picnic, were prowling round and trying to wheedle or steal rifles from anyone who had them. It was not long before one of them got my rifle away from me by a clever dodge and immediately made himself scarce.” [George Orwell, “Homage to Calalonia”, p. 124]
Bob Arno is in the business of researching and interviewing thieves and scammers. Besides the car dodge I got going here are a dozen other ways to lose your loved things in Barcelona. He doesn’t have much to say about the vehicle thief however:
Summer 2010 Update: “I was robbed in Spain” Facebook Page
The author of this Facebook Page asked me to post a link. I guess he collects such tales of woe to share them with the rest of the world. Enjoy the schadenfreude. Also, you might want to read a Google Knol on the subject. (Hat Tip to Andrew Korff for this one.)