31 March 2009

Temps perdu

From a recent issue of The Economist, here's a report that yet another remnant of our childhood is about to disappear. Unless ... Mom and Dad, do you still have any old reels stashed somewhere with Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, etc?

I was surprised to read that View-Masters date from the 1939 World's Fair my father visited with four Schenectady cronies (one gets sick in the car on the way down, if I remember the saga correctly, all over another who has no change of clothes).* I had always assumed that, like so much other Fisher-Price plastic, they appeared in the 1950s.

*I was conflating two stories here. Dad was taken to the World's Fair by Harold Britten and his parents; the other trip to NYC was in May 1942, with Dick Marvin, Ben Jakobowski, Mike Stanco, and Eddie Rifenbark--surveying squad A from sophomore year at Union College (Dad still remembers that they all got As). They were celebrating their new engineering degrees--with cigars. Hence the accident, which Dick Marvin, the target, tried to disguise with a bottle of cheap perfume.

3D viewers

The final reel

Mar 12th 2009 | ST LOUIS
From The Economist print edition

Goodbye to the Grand Canyon in 3D

A PIECE of the American experience has faded away. Fisher-Price, the toy company that used to market them, has just eliminated almost all the View-Master titles that have been a staple of young lives for almost 70 years.

The boxy binocular-style viewers remain; but the circular reels that brought three-dimensional images of the world to millions have now been cut back to a handful of children’s titles. Long before the internet, or even before most people had colour televisions, View-Masters gave millions a full-colour, three-dimensional view of the world.

View-Masters were introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and became an overnight sensation. During the second world war the armed forces produced training reels for identifying enemy and friendly aircraft and ships. After the war View-Masters became household items, as common as frozen food. Thousands of businesses promoted themselves using custom-made View-Master reels. Recently the University of Missouri football programme promoted its candidate for the Heisman trophy by giving away viewers moulded in the college colours and a reel of highlights from the season. Medical students used View-Master to study a 3D atlas of human anatomy. In all, more than 1.5 billion reels have been produced, every one of them to the same size and format, and usable in every model of viewer ever made.

The gutting of the View-Master comes just as 3D is experiencing a renaissance. Improved technology has made 3D films much easier to produce and view, allowing them to progress far beyond the gimmicky thrusting of objects into the audience seen in films briefly in vogue in the 1950s. The Jonas Brothers, the latest boy band for teenage girls, recently released a concert film in 3D and also appeared on a 3D magazine cover. Several commercials aired during the Super Bowl, the climax of the football season, were broadcast in 3D. George Lucas is said to be toying with the idea of re-releasing the “Star Wars” saga in a retrofitted 3D format; recent blockbusters, including “Kung Fu Panda” and “Beowulf” have appeared in 3D versions at special cinemas, with many more to come. But the experience of 3D in your hand, which the View-Master made possible, is now a thing of the past.

29 March 2009

More than you ever wanted to know about CRVO

I thought today I'd just paste in the account of my last eye appointment that I wrote up this morning for the CRVO support message board. What is particularly interesting here is the link to the video the founder of the site has made. Talk about altruism. . . . it's one of about six he's posted on youtube to make his seven years' worth of experience with central retinal vein occlusion available to the public. Even medical students praise the results of his research.

A couple of explanations:

IOP = intraocular pressure (the glaucoma test)

OCT = optical coherence tomography, a high-tech method of measuring the thickness of the retina

Friday's appointment was encouraging. Before I go into personal details, though, I want to comment on a change of procedure. Previously I've always had to wait half an hour after the Avastin was administered to have my IOP taken. Now the retina specialist community has decided three quick checks immediately after the injection mean the patient can safely leave right away. (1) A question: with the good eye closed, is your visual field black? (2) Second question, if answer to first was negative: can you count fingers held before the eye? (3) A test: RS checks that the artery is perfused. If so, home you go, eye bandaged, antibiotic drops in hand.

My Avastin injections are always given in a small operating theater. The RS and her assistant scrub up, I lie down, and various antiseptic and anaesthetic steps precede the needle. The Avastin itself, unlike Lucentis, is not extremely expensive. The £550 I pay each time is mostly for use of the room and, of course, the skills of the RS and her assistant.

On this visit, I was pleasantly surprised that, unlike last time, my OCT measurement was again down. Here is the the record of readings. [Occlusion occurred in June 2008, but the first test wasn't done until the three wait-and-see months had passed and I became a private rather than NHS patient.]

A normal reading would be from 140 to 200 microns.

12 Sept 2008 812 microns [at this stage, the image looked like a mountain landscape]

05 Dec 2008 664 [the long time gap between readings 1 & 2 occurred because I was in Kazakhstan]

16 Jan 2009 583

13 Feb 2009 502

27 Feb 2009 594 [it may or may not have made a difference that the usual technician did not take the measurement]

27 Mar 2009 483 [for the first time a slight depression at the fovea could be detected--a good sign]

Again, a reminder that to understand what these readings of retinal thickness at the fovea represent, go to Ken's video:


In the images, I could see the cysts of fluid he mentions and a (shrinking) pool of liquid under my retina.

My visual acuity with the CRVO eye was perhaps marginally sharper than last time. It's always hard to tell, because I can struggle to focus on a letter, identify it correctly, then look away or blink, and only see a blur until I concentrate again. What I do know, however, is that there is a world of difference between what I could see with the eye last summer and what I see now. Details are still hazy but I can, for example, track action on a TV screen that would previously have been nothing but a confusion of blob-like bodies with pinheads on top. The big question, though, is whether the improvement will remain when I discontinue the shots. My RS says for some of her patients it does, for some it doesn't. The good news: no one has ever ended up worse than where they were before the injections.

What especially pleased the RS was the discovery of more collateral blood vessels when she peered in my eye. A second set of fundus photos was taken and these were a revelation. I could see the new vessels she was so encouraged by and the shrinking of hemorrhaging to small points from the big splotches on the September photos. [She confirmed, Bartles, that, yes, the hemorrhaging does go on for about a year.] More disturbing was the sight of the scarring from my laser session. Not a pretty picture. I feel very lucky that only a small area has had to be blasted so far. This patch was ischemic; the damage had already been done and the photocoagulation prevented further leakage.

So there we are. My next appointment is May 1st, when, if progress is continuing and nothing unforeseen has suddenly happened, I'll have another shot. On June 12th, after a month in the States (I'm always sandwiching injections between flights--ideally you wait a week before getting on a plane), I'll have my one-year-post-occlusion check-up. A milestone of sorts . . . .

Carol (London)

26 March 2009

Narbonne - Day 2

Fueled by the hotel's continental breakfast, we made our way to Les Halles for some foodie purchases to take back to Laroque. Olive oil went in the bag first and then we retraced yesterday's steps to the Spanish jambon importer we'd seen. He was a delight, handing out wafer-thin samples of his expensive products, explaining where each cut was from, and vacuum packing our selections so that they'd last until our return to London.

At the bistro L'Estagnol the night before, next door to Les Halles, Michael had started his fixed-price, three-course meal with an order of baked St Marcellin cheese. It was heated up in the small terracotta dishes in which this sort of soft cheese is often sold and was decadently good--as well as being extremely easy to replicate. We asked the waiter where the cheese was from; he wrote "Gandolf" right on our paper tablecloth, a name close enough to Tolkein's wizard Gandalf for us to be able to remember which of the many fromage purveyors to head for in the morning. A great tip. French cheeses are marketed as fermier, artisanal, or industriel; these were clearly not in the last category. Imagine tender little pouches of soft goat cheese with sprigs of herb tucked into a fold in the middle; a flat disk with the Occitan cross left white in a sprinkling of powdered charcoal . . . so many fattening temptations!

After adding asparagus, blueberries, and what turned out to be superb bread to our haul, we returned to the sunshine and the classic sight of these two French gentlemen chatting outside the market:


In the square opposite was this emblematic French cockerel. Napoleon had rejected the bird as the national symbol, replacing it with an eagle, but after his fall, the rooster gradually regained its role as sentimental favorite.

Although we missed the demonstration, a healthy number of the good citizens of Narbonne, as feisty as their emblem, had taken to the streets as part of the national strike the day before--"9000 Narbonnais hier soir dans les rues" according to the local paper. Mid-afternoon we had heard some shouting, but didn't manage to intersect with yet another French "grève." It doesn't require much for French workers to stage a protest. One of my favorite news snippets from a few years ago, after more stringent enforcement of alcohol testing for drivers had been introduced, was about body shop owners parading with placards to demand that the rules be relaxed, because fewer accidents meant less work for them.

To kill time before the archaeological museum opened, we had a coffee at another market bistro and returned to a shop with a covetable handbag in the window that we'd spotted the evening before as we strolled across the bridge over the canal, the "Pont des Marchands." I didn't even want to go back--the price tag wasn't visible and I figured it would be in the 500 euro range, especially since 1-2-3 is a Paris-based chain. However, it was less than a third that price and is in my suitcase as (26 March now, almost a week later) we're packing for the Ryanair flight to Stansted.

It's now 29 March, we're back in London, and I'm determined to get this post finished quickly even though succinctness has never been one of my virtues.

Narbonne's archaeological museum has one of the largest collections of Roman mosaics and frescoes outside Italy. Pressed for time since we had to check out the hotel by 11:30, we rushed through all the Roman rooms and semi-reluctantly skipped the less immediately gripping paleolithic exhibits. The mosaics were extraordinary, design after graceful design picked out in tiny squares of stone; the painted still lifes, often in shades of terracotta and soft green, had a domestic softness one doesn't generally associate with the Romans, given how our history lessons are dominated by tales of military aggression. There were also sarcophagi, pieces of jewelry, glass bottles, coins, dinner plates, pots--all the detritus of ordinary lives that remain when a civilization disappears.

Here's the view looking back at Narbonne --flat, flat, flat--from the mountain which juts out of the river plain between the town and the Mediterranean. Massif de la Clape is the leading wine-producing area in the region, so inevitably our next destination.

The limestone provides just the sort of difficult conditions that vines seem to thrive in around these parts. You can see below some delicate white flowers managing to find a foothold in the same challenging environment. It's not suprising to discover that in Occitan "clape" means a stony place or a pile of stones.

Our first stop is Chateau Pech-Redon, the hottest and driest vignoble in France. Note the similarity of the "soil" to the close-up above.

Hard to believe that by May this gnarled vine will be covered in leaves with grape clusters beginning to appear.

Here is the chateau, not quite what you would find in Bordeaux or Burgundy. Good wine, though, and I felt less guilty about my handbag when Michael spent more here than I did at 1-2-3.

Two views of the vineyard, with Mont Clape rising in the background.

Another shot of the less than verdant terrain. I was reading a 1965 thriller set in France, Gavin Lyall's Midnight Plus One, and on p.98 I came across a perfect description of what we were looking at: "The hilltops turned into bare grey rock, the slopes into rock slides stitched in place by a few bushes or tough grass." I love the use of "stitched." Exactly right.

Next we descended to the coast. Michael scooped up some sand for his collection, but neither it nor the beach nor the unending holiday apartment blocks were in any way inspiring. We drove around the old fishing town of Gruissan in ever-diminishing hope of finding a decent place to eat, snagged a parking spot, and then got lucky.

La Fleur de Sel was down a side street. Its decor was quirky--you made your way past a vintage bicycle to be seated--but as soon as we saw the dishes being served to other diners we knew this wasn't your average tired village eatery. The cuisine had an oriental twist, unusual in itself since so many small restaurants here seem reluctant to in any way tweak traditional dishes. We had the best scallops we've ever eaten, large, succulent, and, as you can see below, beautifully browned in some sort of Asian spiced butter. The white puffs were crispy deep-fried rice balls; the purple flower was edible.

As Michael told our charming young waitress, sometimes the best things happen "par hasard" (we had learned on another occasion that "serendipty" isn't one of the many words where you can simply change which syllable is accented and be understood in French). She and her partner, the chef, dream of opening a restaurant California someday. May they get to do it and may they be hugely successful.

Our last stop was one more winery, Mas du Soleilla, before we started on our way back south to Laroque. Instead of Mont Clape, the backdrop here was the sea. These were the wines we had enjoyed so much at lunch in Narbonne the day before, so Michael stocked up with a couple more cases. We'll be toasting the memory of this overnight trip for a good long time.

23 March 2009

Narbonne -- Day 1

From Barcelona (population ~1.6 million) to Narbonne (~47,000) via Laroque-des-Albères (1,941 exactement, according to the community website--I wonder if this surprisingly precise number includes us and other on-and-off residents or not).

Narbonne may be a medium-sized town these days, but there was a time when it was a major urban center in Gaul or, as the province was called in Roman times, Gallia Narbonensis. In 118 BC Narbo Martius was founded along the route the proconsul Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus was building to link Rome with territories in what would become France and Spain. A segment of this road, the Via Domitia, was discovered in 1997 during construction excavation and has been beautifully preserved in Narbonne's Hôtel de Ville (town hall) square. Looking at the smooth surface of the huge cobbles, you can imagine legions tramping past. It must have been rather uncomfortable, though, to bump along the uneven paving in a wheeled vehicle.

Excavation is still ongoing:

In its glory days, Narbonne was a bustling port. Julius Caesar settled veterans from his tenth legion there in 45 BC; then came the Visigoths (410-719 AD), the Saracens (719-759), and the Franks, led by Pépin le Bref [doomed to relative insignificance not by his small stature, but by being sandwiched between a famous father (Charles Martel) and even more famous son (Charlemagne)]. Narbonne prospered until the early 14th century, when its port silted up. The change in course of the River Aude, the Black Death (1347-1350), and the depredations of England's Black Prince (1355) put an end to the city's dominance. In 2009 Narbonne is charming but slightly shabby, just like the hotel where we stayed.

Views around town:

The last photo above is of a less ancient cobbled street, rather more user-friendly than the Roman variety. Obviously the Narbonnais have continued to be seriously interested in working with rock, judging by all the stone buildings and pavements inset with marble parquet. We were surprised to find out when we visited the archaeological museum that the Romans had imported stone to Narbonne from all over their empire: Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Spain, to name a few places from the long list of sources. To Rome, yes, but to Colonia Narbo Martius? This may help explain why Martial described the province of GalliaNarbonensis as "the most beautiful" and Cicero, a century earlier, had said it was "the boulevard of the Latin world" (thank you, Michelin Green Guide, for the quotations).

And now for the more quotidian -- here's MacDonald's as you've never seen it before:

It was market day, and just so that you don't think the French are always tasteful, elegant, and refined, here are two photos of some of the goods for sale:

We did manage to find a stall selling minerals--or, I should say, crystals with supposed health-giving properties. We picked up piece of native copper (from Michigan!) and a lump of polished carnelian, plus a lovely example of labradorite, with its fugitive glimpses of kingfisher blue, that we had promised Emily.

Next stop was Les Halles, the fantastic indoor market. Borough Market, a short walk from our London flat, is only open two and a half days a week, but the lucky gourmands of Narbonne have access to their gastronomic mecca Monday through Sunday, from 7 am to 1 pm. The blown-up vintage photos you can see on the façade are from the 1907 protests against the collapse of wine prices that almost saw the Languedoc-Roussillon area secede from France and establish an Occitan-speaking state. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/languedoc-looks-back-in-anger-when-frances-wine-growers-saw-red-451367.html)

We were going to squeeze in a little culture before lunch, but the Lapidary Museum, housed in a deconsecrated 13th century church, was closed--of course!--from 12 to 2. We'd had breakfast at seven to get to Narbonne in good time, so it wasn't hard to convince ourselves that a leisurely lunch might be a pleasant method of whiling away the two hours.

In addition to their Green Guide, we had with us the 2004 Languedoc/Midi-Pyréneés edition of Michelin's Les Guides Gourmands. Les Cuisiniers Cavistes was listed, but as a purveyor of wine and homemade delectables in jars. We left with bags holding both of these, but the "épicerie fine" is now also a very good restaurant. For our first course we shared langoustine (similar to crayfish) cannelloni with butternut squash purée and asparagus; Michael then had scallops and I had loup (rockfish, seabass??--I'm not quite sure what this is other than a very tasty, moist white-fleshed fish), both served with the foam that seems to be de rigueur these days (we like it even if it is trendy), roast potatoes, and an al dente collection of snowpeas, carrots, courgettes, and florets of green cauliflower. All was delicious, including the bread from the bakery on the premises.

Below is the dessert plate. I wasn't so enamoured of these offerings, but I am a finicky, nit-picking dessert eater. The chocolate-filled choux pastry was the best.

In the sunshine, as shown below, we drank the house white and red, from Mas du Soleilla, which we visited the next day. A woman who was clearly one of the restaurant/bakery/deli proprietors greeted us with a cheery "bonjour" as she walked onto the patio and kissed all the other guests on the cheek. Small town life has many perks.

By now the Lapidary Museum was open and there is no question that it alone was worth coming to Narbonne for. The vaulted nave of the 13th century former church was lined with rows of Roman funerary monuments, mostly carved blocks that fitted neatly into stacks.

Here are two of the most memorable carvings, the one a touching family group, the other a rather disturbing openmouthed woman. I'm not sure of the significance of the latter, which was a recurring motif on several carved blocks. Any ideas, Paola?

The stripped-down nave and 1,300 monuments were impressive enough, but for an admission price of only a few euros there was also the best son et lumiére show we've ever experienced, created by the Italian master of the art, Gianfranco Ianuzzi. Images of Roman statuary and mosaics were projected on all four bare walls of the church, with the sounds of tramping legions in the background. The light show continued through medieval tapestries and illuminated manuscripts, flames for the Inquisition, paintings, stained glass--all accompanied by Gregorian chants or whatever other soundtrack was appropriate. I can't recommend this highly enough should anyone ever find themselves in the Narbonne vicinity.

We return to the 21st century with a stop at the local torréfacteur for some coffee beans (yet again, nowhere near as good as those Hans-Jörg and Cheri bring Michael from Germany) and then head back to the 14th at the Cathédrale St Just et St Pasteur, the tallest in southern France. This was never finished, due to lack of funds and lack of forward planning--building the nave and transept would have meant breaching the old ramparts that were still part of the city's fortifications. As a result, these photos are really of half a cathedral. Like most of Narbonne, it's constructed from the local limestone and, according to Viollet-le-Duc, the 19th-century architect who "restored" Carcassone, designed Narbonne's Hôtel de Ville, and desperately wanted to be allowed to finish the cathedral, it pushed the technical skills and knowledge of the time to their limits.

After a pit stop at the hotel to drop off our purchases, we hurried out again to get to a couple of other museums before they closed. First the underground Horreum (Latin for "warehouse"), where goods were stored for the market near the forum.

Then we were distracted by a visit to a toy shop. The owner was a collector of British antique games and generously showed us his rare specimens of Snakes and Ladders boards going back to the 19th century. We weren't tempted by those, but did buy a portable wooden cribbage board from the 1920s, a Victorian leather dice shaker, and a set of dice from Las Vegas. The proprietor was much amused that an American bought the Nevada dice.

From there we rushed to the archaeological museum in the Palais des Archevêques (Palace of the Archbishops). We thought it closed at 6pm, but that's only in the tourist season. Doors were firmly shut. Off-season hours are 10-12, 2-5, a very civilized schedule for the employees. This was a must-see, so we plan our next morning around coinciding with opening time. The whole Palais area, Vieux (7th century AD) and Neuf (14th), was wonderfully atmospheric. Here's the main cobbled alleyway, the Passage de l'Ancre; unfortunately you can't see in this photo the rusted old anchor from port days mounted on the wall as you enter.

Viollet-le-Duc's Hôtel de Ville, below on left, and a more ancient part of the imposing edifice that once housed generations of archbishops. [Michael is always looking for sandstone--far more successfully in Barcelona--but here he at least found some of the calcareous variety (i.e. sandstone comprised of grain-sized fragments of the limestone that dominates the town).]

We wandered around a bit more, past lots of students from the local lycée, chatting with each other and into mobile phones, just like high school kids everywhere. The only way you'd know they were French was the cheek-kissing that took place each time a group including girls dispersed.

We trekked up to the train station to check out the recommended restaurant there, but decided instead to have our evening meal--not that we really needed one after lunch--at the bistro near the covered market. Here, a couple of hours later, we tucked into hearty fare, sausages and pommes frites for Michael, the catch-of-the-day plate with garlicky aioli for me.

In closing (after somehow mysteriously losing several paragraphs I'd written before)--a few final first-day photos of Narbonne. First, two additions to Michael's weathered door collection:

Plus a view of the second door in situ:

And, for our musical daughter, the only two photos I took on this trip, of a glorious embellishment that was part of the stone entrance to another fine old building: