Doughnuts, networking and other writings

There is just a little over a week to be involved with a cool new doughnut startup by (no surprise) a fellow American in Paris.  Check his story out here.

Speaking of startups, I had my first meeting with someone via Shapr, which is the “tinder for business networking.”  It was, oddly enough, with someone on the Shapr team, and it was heartening to see someone in a tech startup be so excited about delivering a great app, against lots of obstacles, in a country that has a long way to go to become startup-friendly.  Give it a try – it’s slowly rolling out in parts of the US as well.

I was watching the PSG Champions League match this week with friends and at half time a French friend remarked that the extension of the “state of emergency” had him worried about civil liberties.  “It’s like the Patriot Act,” he told me.  I nodded, and didn’t say much more, as I was in football mode.  But I recently wrote about this, and other themes, for an American magazine’s April issue, and as such, I don’t own the digital rights to share it with you at the moment, but I can share some other writings I have done following the attacks, like this piece for Front Porch Republic and this one on Medium.

I also occasionally answer questions on Quora, write on business themes on LinkedIn, and share my thoughts on where to eat in Paris and lots of other places on Yelp.

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The loss of Netflix and Hulu, or “How I started reading again”

I’m an early adopter.  Not the “have it first” type, but the “that’s really cool I’d like to try that” type.  Sometimes this works out well, other times one accepts bad experiences as the cost of being among the first to try them.

Those of us in our 30s are not “digital natives.”  Email and the internet really hit their stride after our undergraduate years.  But it doesn’t mean we take to “appification” any less, particularly ones that involve video.  Some of those video apps that I have particularly become attached to in previous years include:

Amazon Prime

Hulu Plus

NBC Sports (meant I could watch Premier League matches)

Netflix

Pandora

I knew before I arrived in France that none of these applications were ordinarily available and had started to cogitate about work-arounds or (gasp!) the possibility that I would simply “go without” while I was in Europe.

My degree is in Literature and I have thousands of dead-tree books carefully collected through years of library book sales, out-of-control spending at Half-Price Books, or at any other known honeypot for a bookhound like myself.  The smell of those pages – old and new – were pheromones for me.  They woke me up – excited me – made me simply happy.

However, in the final two years of my residence in America my reading pace had slowed to a trickle.  Instead of the usual 2-3-4 books a month I had slowed to not even finishing one book per month.  I would sometimes go a week or longer without even touching a book.  It wasn’t until I was out of the warm comfort zone that was my American existence (that I created for myself – I don’t blame anyone else!) that I realized what had happened: Netflix and its imitators.

It wasn’t entirely Netflix’s fault.  I should say it was the fault of having easy access to a nearly infinite library of video titles.  While I’m happy to doff my hat to the era of television that played host to the original Twilight Zone or produced my beloved The Prisoner, I have to say that the current era of television is perhaps the finest in history.  If we look strictly at script and writer-driven shows, like Boardwalk Empire, Treme, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, Luther, Sherlock, and the like, we are witnessing the marriage of what any reader loves, whether he/she knows it or not: real, meaningful stories combined with expert costuming, cinematography, and directing.  There are many moments on any of the series I’ve listed above where one could freeze a frame and give an hour-long lecture on everything occurring in that sequence.

In a sense, I didn’t realize I had abandoned reading because I was still occupying my time with ideas and stories and concepts that mattered to me.  It was only when I had to confront having to get a VPN workaround (I hate the name of my service, but it works) and its own challenges – like only working 85% of the time – made it so that I accepted that I would just go without for a while.  There’s always time to catch up on those series at some point in my life.

What happened in that going without?  Reading, like the waters of spring coming forth from a snowmelt, burst in through all the well-known streambeds of my free time.  Public transportation facilitated this by giving me countless chances to get in a “quickie” with some novel or work I had downloaded for free (because it was in the public domain) and read on my Kindle app on my iphone or ipad.  That led to even more reading (I was foolish enough to bring a number of dead tree books with me to Europe) and before I knew it, the old paradigm had reasserted itself in my life: free time spent in large part reading, with a tiny bit of TV via the free Fox app and a weekly movie in the theaters.  Unwilling to pay for any premium services like Netflix, I simply enjoy Pandora (I still haven’t converted to Spotify, but I am open to listening to you tell me why I should) and the occasional guilty pleasure of Masterchef or Hell’s Kitchen (I love cooking and I love Gordon Ramsay).  Last week my mother told me I should watch the new Jack Bauer 24 series and I haven’t yet told her that I already watched the first episode, having failed to stop watching 24as I should have – after the 3rd season.  Remind me to tell you about my feelings on the art of non-finishing some time.

So, can I ask you to try something?  Something that can be done from the comfort of your own home?  Give up Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus for one month.  Watch what happens.  I’m not on a crusade here.  I just want you to experience what I wasn’t able to until I left everything I knew to move to a place where I only knew a handful of people.  All those programs you’re terrified you’ll miss will still be there for you.

If you ever go back.

Death in the Afternoon, or Sunday Chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg

Meetup is a great website.  If you don’t know it, it is a site that allows you to create a group based around a particular love or passion.  Want to play bridge?  Or go hiking?  How about practicing your English and French?  All you want, and then some.

The burden is on the organizer.  He/she pay$ to start the group and is responsible for its ups and downs.  The better the organizer, the better the group.  I’ve started two groups here.  One for soccer inside the city (there are a couple excellent groups that play in the big parks just outside the city…I can play soccer in a big field anywhere in the world.  But in front of Les Invalides?  Not too often.).  The other one is for chess, and has been pretty successful in its early days.  Our first get together found 8 strangers from all over the world drawn together by a common love for the game of black and white squares, and the pieces that inhabit them.

That first meeting was at Anti-Cafe, a “co-working” space.  More on that another time.  A great time was had by all and we played timed and untimed games.  We also took time to school a novice on the rules and some basic strategy.

Chess is fascinating on many levels, and during the year I lived in Saint Louis I was a member of the Saint Louis Chess Club, which hosts the US Championship every year and where you can get tutored by grandmasters.

Basic principles beyond the names and movement of pieces are manifold, but here are three that I share with any fellow novice:

1.  Try to capture/attack the center of the board

2.  Try to develop your pieces (move back-rank players forward)

3.  Try to consider each move through the two-fold criteria of what is this piece attacking and how is it attacked

These principles were on my mind last Sunday, during our latest meetup – our first outdoors – at the Jardin du Luxembourg.  After three successful meetups, where we had built up a strong core, I thought a fun tournament, with some euros on the line, might be fun.  5 euro buy-in.  We would see who would show up.

As a group becomes more carefully curated over time (again, depending on the organizer), the percentage of who signs up for an event vs who shows up may improve; my basic rule was 50%.  That is, if 8 people said they were coming, then 4 people, at best, would be actually coming.

Today was a bit better.  Ten committed, including myself.  We  had 5 plus myself actually show up.  There was an alleged “beginner” but as we played a quick game it became obvious he was just being modest.  I drew up a quick series of brackets that ensured everyone would play at least three games before we got to the final “money” matches.  It was imperfect for sure.  I had always played in well-organized round robins but as the sole organizer unsure of the number of attendees I hadn’t troubled too much with an elaborate schedule of matches.

Indeed, my focus (perhaps wrongly!) had been on bringing terrine, crackers, oranges, and vin rouge.  Who can play chess without drinking, surely?  But that is the least of the tournament transgressions we committed.

No one else had brought clocks so I loaned out my ipad and iphone, both of which had chess clock apps.  The iphone sadly gave up the ghost midway through the 3rd match, though the ipad lasted longer.  Some couldn’t play a timed match due to the paucity of clocks.

You also shouldn’t talk during tournaments, but the French are quite disposed to comment on everything, whether they know you or not, much less chess.  We were just a few feet away from the most popular players in the Jardin.  One of them was an old man with a grizzled sel et poivre beard.  The other was a man with palsy.

They played 3-5 minute blitz games, where moves were almost instinctive.  Winner stayed, loser walked.  Occasionally bets would be taken.  A group of 15 always surrounded whomever was playing – a variation on a nerd cage-fight.

Everyone was commenting on the game: some jeering, some offering officious (or kind) advice.  Players got into it also: “Allez, putain!”  I laughed heartily and leaned across to my adversary, “Les français sont très polis, non?”  He laughed also.

Tourists, taking in what had started as a beautiful day, continued to mill by even as it got overcast and slightly chilly.  I heard the snap and clickle of cameras and I wondered how my horrible losing positions might look on someone’s facebook, captioned, as, “what a moron: mate in 7!”

I had placed 4 of the 6 players in “advanced” brackets.  Yves, the self-proclaimed beginner, and I, occupied the “knockout” brackets, where we would play each other and the losers of the upper brackets (As an aside, I love names like Yves and Ombeline that we just don’t have in English).

Some played faster than others and in between Yves and I’s second matches, some parents cooed their precocious children our way.  The children looked reluctant and somewhat embarrassés about their French tigre mom who would take them to the tables of the Jardin to make them play chess with adults.

We looked friendly enough, as usual my goofy American smile was the “over here” beacon that allowed a French parent to come over and ask, “eut-il jouer avec vous?

Oui.”  Chess keeps you humble, I thought to myself as I reached out to sake the paw of the (I guessed) 10 year-old, also remembering to switch all my you-singulars to the familiar.  Children and animals get the “tu” treatment automatically.  “Tu” though he might be I figured that no kid who was going to come play with adults was a slouch.  I expected to lose.  I’m only in the mid-hundreds in USCF ratings, after returning to the game in 2011 after a nearly 2 decade absence.

“He’s terribly aggressive,” I thought to myself as he brought out his Queen in move 8.  Yes, I had people asking me questions, people wanted to know who played next, my own vin to pour, bien sûr, but all credit to the kid, he beat me handily, in fewer than 20 moves (I wasn’t notating, but that’s a fair guess).  I was a bit distracted but he beat me fair and square!

His sister was playing a slower, less aggressive game against Prem.  “Be careful, ah?” I said with a smile.  “He beat you?” Prem asked, almost astonished.  “Oui.”

An English father came up and asked in halting French if his kid – who looked 8 – could play.  After a bit of discussion, I let the battle of les enfants terribles commence and I chatted with the parents.

From London, and Arsenal fans, even better!  The kid was rated 1700, with the father in the 2000s.  Even mom was an 1100.

“We don’t have anything like this in London.”  “Yes, it’s wonderful, isn’t it?  Put some beautiful boards down and people will come.”

There was a bocce ball “field” right by a park in my arrondissement at the Square de Batignolles.  It was often occupied by Italian expats who took their native game quite seriously, grazie mille.  Angry Italian spewed out whenever a teammate was supposed to have made a poor throw.  No angry Italian, or angry any language here, really.

We laughed and looked back at the game at hand.  Your son’s quite deliberative.  “Yes, well, I blame his coach.”  “You, no doubt,” I surmised.  He didn’t say anything.  He was analyzing his son’s current position.  The mother was being indulgent.  She wanted to move on after the first game but we encouraged them to play une plus.

To keep her amused I switched into tour guide mode and told her a bit about the garden itself, its founding and recent history.  “You love this place,” she remarked.  “It’s my favorite big park in the city, yes,” I replied.

The kids wrapped up, I wished them well, and I notified all my players of the final matchups, collecting the euros and placing them under the clocks of the respective games: 15 euros for the top winner, 10 euros for the next bracket, and 5 euros for the final bracket.

Aranya (giving the peace sign here) actually won the final between him and elderly gentleman who went by the Meetup handle of “Whynot.”  Instead of taking the money and running, they went for 2 out of 3 and Aranya conceded the next two matches, and the 15 euros.  Why not stop? 🙂

Erkhem, who had only been knocked into the second bracket by one loss, took a bit longer to take out Prem.  They too played at least one more game, but Erkhem had the sense to confirm his winning after the first game.

Much of the food and drink I brought was uneaten (note for next time: food not so important for chess nerds) and as we shook hands almost four hours after we started, I promised more meetings for the months ahead.