Month: October 2009


Spatial narratives

Jarrett Walker has another thought-provoking post up, this time on spatial vs. narrative navigators, linking to a magazine article that gives more background. In the comments, Russ links to a paper(PDF) about the effect that the Tube Map has on people’s mental maps of London.

The distinction between spatial and narrative navigation makes a lot of sense to me, but disagree with the way that Jarrett seems to set them up as a zero-sum game – either you’re good at mental maps, or you’re good at remembering narratives, or you’re mediocre at both. This portrayal is supported by the Maguire study discussed in the article that indicated that London cabbies who create too big of a mental map wind up with hippocampi that are shrunk in the front. But I feel like I’m relatively good at spatial navigation and not so bad at narrative navigation, so I think it’s possible to develop both – at the expense of whatever else you could be learning, of course, like how to pick up women.

An interesting point in that area: when I developed my prototype English to American Sign Language machine translation system (PDF), the biggest obstacle were phrases like “winds SSW 30 mph gusty near canyons.”

I asked a native signer and professional interpreter the best way to say “gusty near canyons” in ASL, and she drew a map of Albuquerque in the air, pointed to the canyons with a topic marking nonmanual, and made the sign for “wind” with emphasis. I asked her if it could be said another way, just with the sign for “canyon,” but she said that the map would be much more natural for a native signer.

To get a machine translation system to handle that would not only require a kind of sophisticated mapping subsystem that’s not usually found in these programs, but also a lot of background knowledge of geographic features – for every locale that has weather reports. It made me realize that not only is ASL much more complicated than I had given it credit for, but it’s a lot harder to write down than spoken languages. In the terms of Jarrett’s post, it seems clear that the National Weather Service was using narrative description, while the interpreter I consulted was using spatial description.

While I would agree with the comment left by Pantheon that spatial navigation is more effective than narrative navigation, particularly when it’s done by computers, I strongly disagree with his condemnation of narrative navigators, or of inferior navigators in general. Complaining about people who have difficulty finding their way across town is like complaining about bad spelling or malapropisms. In some cases you can make the case that people should develop these skills betters, but for a lot of them it’s too late to learn. There’s a range of ability along both axes, and a transit agency that only caters to riders within certain limits will run the risk of alienating riders.


Gertrude Stein on Paris

I found this book in the library. To be honest I didn’t get into it enough to finish it before I had to bring it back, but there were a few good quotes. The first one relates to this post from the Streetsblog Network.

There are two things that french animals do not do, cats do not fight much and do not howl much and chickens do not get flustered running across the road, if they start to cross the road they keep on going which is what french people do too.
Anybody driving a car in Paris must know that. Anybody leaving the sidewalk to go on or walking anywhere goes on at a certain pace and that pace keeps up and nothing startles them nothing frightens them nothing makes them go faster or slower nothing not the most violent or unexpected noise makes them jump, or change their pace or their direction. If anybody jumps back or jumps at all in the streets of Paris you can be sure they are foreign not french. That is peaceful and exciting.

It turns out that the behavior Stein observes in the second quote is affected by economics:

Sarah Bernhardt made me see the thin arms of frenchwomen. When I came to Paris and saw the little midinettes and Montmartoises they all had them. It was only many years later when the styles changed, in those days they wore long skirts, that I realised what sturdy legs went with those thin arms. That is what makes the french such good soldiers the sturdy legs, thin arms and sturdy legs, if you see what I mean, peaceful and exciting.

That is what makes all the french able to ride up hill on bicycles the way they do, no hill is so steep but that slowly pedalling up and up they go, men and girls and little children, the sturdy legs and thin arms.


More to see in Greater Paris

First, a little background about how I came to find all these magical places in Greater Paris: some thanks is due to SUNY Stony Brook, which ran the study abroad program. They put us up in the Cit? Universitaire and gave us the option of studying at either Paris-IV Sorbonne or Paris-X Nanterre. That gave us experience with the RER, and those of us who went to Nanterre got at least some familiarity with the suburbs. So I already knew that it wasn’t some inhuman Corbusian wasteland.

Further credit goes to my friend Jeff, who visited me in Paris and mentioned that the Paris Peace Conference actually resulted in five treaties, each one signed at a different monument in the suburbs. When he got back to the States, he mailed me a list of the locations, which I took as inspiration for some exploratory walks.

Finally, the RER announcement boards themselves told me that there was a station called “Parc de Sceaux,” and I figured that a park big enough to have its own train station was worth a visit. (This is also true of the New York Botanic Garden and Prospect Park.)

Here are five more places that you might like in Greater Paris:

  • La D?fense: It all started with a monument to the defense of Paris against the German siege in 1870, which just happened to be situated on the axis defined by the Champs-Elys?es and the Tuileries, on the border between the suburbs of Puteaux and Courbevoie. Add to that the modernist horror of the Tour Montparnasse about five miles away, which provoked the Parisians to ban highrises from the city. The regional planners decided to put their new highrise business district here, and created a major commuter rail and bus hub under it. They also put all the pedestrian infrastructure on a platform completely separate from all the car and transit infrastructure. RER A, Transilien L or Metro Line 1 to La D?fense.
  • Noisy-le-Grand: I’m trying to remember who it was that suggested I visit this section of the new town of Marne-la-Vall?e: possibly Andrew, one of the grad students in the Stony Brook program. In any case, the postmodern architecture of the office and apartment buildings is positively trippy, and it’s got an interesting mall right over the train station. RER A to Noisy-le-Grand Mont d’Est.
  • Forest of Fontainebleau: This park, formerly royal hunting grounds, surrounds a number of villages including Fontainebleau and Barbizon and one of the largest royal palaces. The forest has inspired many artists and writers over the years, including several of the Impressionists. Transilien R to Fontainebleau-Avon or bus from Melun.
  • Ile des Impressionistes: My friend Marie-Laure introduced me to this small island in the Seine, which was also a popular destination and subject of the Impressionists. It has a park, a restaurant and a museum containing replicas of paintings that feature the island, including Renoir’s Lunch of the Boating Party. RER A to Chatou-Croissy.
  • La Malmaison: This is one of the less-known royal residences in the Paris area. It was bought by Napoleon’s wife Josephine in 1799 when he was First Consul, and subsequently enlarged into a mansion. When he divorced her in 1809, it became her primary residence until her death from pneumonia in 1814. It is now a museum to Josephine and the Empire. Bus 258 from La D?fense.

Exploring Greater Paris

In the comments to my previous post about Greater Paris, Alon Levy traces the Parisian fear of the suburbs to Baron Haussmann, who in 1865 demolished much of the proletarian city to make room for bourgeois housing.

But before that the suburbs were something of a refuge for the wealthy and powerful, particularly Louis XIV, who was besieged in the Palais-Royal when he was still a child. Partly in reaction to that experience, he never wanted to live in Paris again, and built Versailles to house the court instead.

The Revolutionaries aimed to reverse that by bringing Louis XVI back to Paris at gunpoint, but it wasn’t until Haussmann’s boss, the “people’s Emperor,” Napoleon III, that there was a monarch who really seemed happy to be living in the city. However, the legacy of the court at Versailles lingered on in the form of a favored quarter stretching from Versailles roughly to Neuilly.

For those who have rarely visited Greater Paris and seen its magical neighborhoods, I have prepared a selection of some of my favorite places outside the Paris city limits.

  • Versailles: if you’ve been anywhere outside Paris besides the airport, you’ve probably been to Versailles. If you haven’t, you should go. Of course it’s full of tourists, but it’s also full of history. It’s just as important to French history as the Eiffel Tower. If you really don’t want to take the palace tour, you should still go and see the extensive grounds and possibly the Trianons, and if you go on the right day you can visit the Tennis Court. RER C to Versailles-Rive Gauche.
  • Saint-Denis: The final resting place of the kings of France, it was desecrated during the Revolution, but has been mostly restored (minus the actual remains). Metro 13 to Basilique de Saint-Denis or RER D to Tramway T1.
  • Sceaux: Want Versailles without the pretension? Louis XIV’s finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert built his own mini-Versailles a few miles away, and now it’s a departmental park. Despite the impressive topiary, it feels much less like a museum and more like a place to picnic. RER B to Bourg-la-Reine or Parc de Sceaux.
  • The Coul?e Verte: This was once the path of the train from Paris to Chartres via Gallardan. After the line was abandoned in 1953, the government planned to put the A10 highway in the right-of-way. Fortunately, that plan fell through, and the route was instead used for the TGV Atlantique. It is now mostly decked over, and this greenway travels on top or next to it from Massy all the way to the city limits at Montrouge. It passes through all kinds of nice neighborhoods where you could stop for a lemonade. The best part is that it goes right by the Parc de Sceaux, so if you have a bicycle you could take a trip out and back. There’s a V?lib’ station at the trailhead in Montrouge, but it could get expensive if you linger. RER B or C to Massy-Verri?res, or Metro 13 to Ch?tillon – Montrouge.
  • Saint-Germain-en-Laye: One of the locales of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, this old royal chateau now contains the National Museum of Antiquities. The village is also charming, and the forest is a wonderful place for a walk. RER A to Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Masters of their own domain

Urban transit is a major hazard in Santo Domingo; vehicles destroyed.

Due?os del pa?s …en las suyas. October 9, 2009. Teofilo Bonilla, El Nacional.

The “surprise stoppage” that was carried out by the National Transportation Federation, New Option (Fenatrano) Thursday from six to ten AM wreaked havoc on the avenues of the National District and the Province of Santo Domingo and left thousands of commuters stranded. Transit in the South region was also paralyzed as ten people were injured and the windows were shattered in tens of buses.

Bus passengers had choice words for Fenatrano head Juan Hubieres, who they accused of “doing what he likes with his customers, while the authorities stay out of it because they’re afraid of him.” Student Cosiris Est?vez remarks that, “It’s been three days now that they’ve been making it hard for people to get to work or back home.”

This week, drivers affiliated with the three unions Fenatrano, Conatra and Unatrafin, have fought with each other to control the Yaguate-San Crist?bal-Ban? and Santo Domingo-San Crist?bal-Yaguate routes. Thirty-five people have been injured, drivers and passengers, by bats, stones and knives, and windows have been smashed in more than twenty buses.

Private employee Jos? Modesto says that there is chaos in the country. “They have to put a stop to this. Is there nobody who can rein in Hubieres? I’ve been here since seven AM, it’s nine o’clock now and I still haven’t been able to get a ride.”

Pirate cars have been making a killing. Some charge as much as fifty pesos for the trip from Parque Independencia to the corner of Lincoln and Churchill Avenues, or Lincoln and Jim?nez Moya Avenues, but they are filled with passengers desperate enough to pay the extra twenty pesos.

Fenatrano controls the following routes:

  • Pintura-27 de Febrero-Avenida Duarte
  • Parque Independencia-Avenida Bol?var-R?mulo Betancourt-esquina Caliente
  • Kil?metro 12 de la S?nchez-Isabel Aguiar-Kil?metro 9 de la autopista Duarte
  • La Agustinita-Tirandentes-Alma Mater-UASD
  • Esquina Caliente-R?mulo Betancourt- Jim?nez Moya-Independencia-Parque
  • Lope de Vega-Lincoln
  • Ortega y Gasset-avenida Reyes Cat?licos
  • El Torito-Hermanas Mirabal-M?ximo G?mez-UASD-Feria

Passengers coming from outlying areas of Santo Domingo Province, along the route covering kilometer markers 11 to 17 of the Americas highway, were frustrated as they tried to arrive on time at work, school, the airport, free trade zones, or errands.

Antonio Marte, of the National Confederation of Transportation (Conatra), warned Hubieres that if he continued to destroy buses registered to his union and to the National Union of Transportation and Affiliates (Unafin), he wanted to remind him “that he’s got buses too, and that no matter who gets hurt or who gets taken down, nobody steals our Yaguate route.”

Alfredo Pulinario Linares, transportation advisor to the administration, condemned the Fenatrano stoppage, now in its third day, “because the public should not be punished for a conflict between two trade groups.”

“Cambita” Linares promised that the twelve thousand drivers affiliated with his Central Committee for the Movement of the Transportation Drivers (Mochotran) will continue to provide service along the 64 routes it controls. He called on Hubieres and Marte, as well as the Surface Transportation Technology Office (OTTT) and the Transportation Reform Office (Opret) to hold a meeting to bring Fenatrano, Conatra and Unatrafin to an agreement that would spare the public further inconvenience.

Marte warned that he would not put up with further scare tactics from Hubieres. “He needs to realize that the drivers don’t want him anymore. The public will not tolerate this kind of surprise stoppage thuggery.” Marte said that this morning in Yaguate in San Crist?bal Province, ten buses had their windows smashed, seven in Las Americas, and three more on Caliente corner in the capital.

Ram?n P?rez Figuereo, director of the United National Central Committee of Transport Drivers (CNTU), also called on Diandino Pe?a of Opret to bring the drivers to the table and bring an end to the stoppages and the clashes between drivers. Arsenio Quevedo of Unatrafin blamed Hubieres for spreading terror and threatening drivers who did not want to continue as members of his organization.

Hubieres warned that the “surprise stoppages” would continue until the government ceased the “harassment, abuse and persecution” against him and the Fenatrano drivers by “paramilitary groups recruited by the police chief.” He claimed that yesterday, twelve men armed with shotguns, pistols, revolvers, knives and daggers were detained for an hour and then allowed to return to Yaguate where they attacked Fenatrano buses.


In praise of Greater Paris

Jarrett Walker read my translation of the Le Monde interview with Roland Castro, and picked up on a good quote: “The urban question has never been seen by intellectuals as central because this marvelous Paris, the Paris of Baudelaire, it’s their Paris.” He acknowledges that he has rarely left that central part of Paris, but that it’s important for people to do so – in any city.

Jarrett concludes, “That doesn’t mean I have to like everything I see in suburban belts, but to be credible when talking with people in a suburban community, I have to be able to point to what’s already working right there or nearby — not just what’s being achieved in a core city with centuries of history and momentum. So long as we stay inside our urbane inner-city enclaves, and dismiss all of suburbia with the same gesture, we won’t be able to engage such conversations. And there’s just too much suburbia to ignore.”

He’s right, but the thing is that the suburbs of Paris are generally not “suburban” the way many Americans think of the word. It’s not row after row of tacky 70s ranch houses punctuated by strip malls. A lot of it doesn’t even resemble the “banlieue” that makes bourgeois Parisians quake in their boots. There are Corbusian housing projects and run-down row houses, but the suburbs are by no means full of them.

You know how most French gourmet food is named after a place? Bordeaux wine comes from the area around the city of Bordeaux, and beef bourgignon comes from Burgundy, and so on. Well, it turns out that Brie cheese comes from the region of Brie, which is now the eastern Paris suburbs. There are tons of suburbs with en brie in their names.

I think that gets to the way the French suburbs really are. They were originally towns that happened to be near the capital – even Montmartre was such a town. Most of them contain a quaint old downtown with a church and narrow streets. Many have old palaces that were built by the kings as hunting lodges or other kinds of retreats, often surrounded by well-maintained forests. Some have old monasteries or convents. There is even some evidence suggesting that the original settlement of the Parisii was actually where Nanterre is now.

As the city grew, these towns were gradually absorbed into the metropolis. The railroads allowed people to live in Le Pecq and work in Paris, while an extensive network of streetcars and interurbans helped them move around locally. These also allowed artists to spend an afternoon or a weekend painting bridges and trees (not all intellectuals were as parochial as Jarrett describes). The extensive royal domains were nationalized into parks during the various revolutions and made available for public recreation.

Around the villages and parks, a mix of housing was built. Since it was transit-oriented development, it largely consisted of row houses near the stations, detached houses further out and larger houses even further. Beginning with the 1965 regional master plan, the government began to build the new towns, the universities and the business centers – and the highways. It is only then that you get the unpleasant projects that Parisians have come to associate with the suburbs.