Ah Zoetermeer!

There is a story that is popular in mathematical circles, of the young French mathematician Evariste Galois, who had come up with a profoundly original theory of solvability of polynomial equations.  Unfortunately, he had to fight a duel (these were the heady days after the French revolution, early nineteenth century, and they did that sort of thing those days in France). So, according to the story, he sat up the previous night and wrote up his theory feverishly in the form of a letter, and sent it off to his friend. He was unfortunately killed the next morning.  The story about his writing everything down in a letter before dying, at least in the form the story is generally told and retold, is probably apocryphal, but the theory referred to has turned out to be one of the most profound and most influential theories in mathematics.  (It is known, not unnaturally, as Galois theory, and among other things, introduces the objects known as groups that measure symmetry in nature.)

What does all this have to do with this blog? While not quite matching Galois’ talents, I nevertheless feel like young Galois would have felt the night before his duel, assuming the story is right.  Not that I have a duel to fight tomorrow, but I do have a flight back to Los Angeles to catch in the morning (and, in these post 9/11 days, one might argue that fighting a duel is easier). So I too must feverishly write up my last report from Europe this trip, and send it off to my friends (via wordpress).  Necessarily, it has to be brief.  I don’t expect it to have the impact of Galois’ work, but we all have our parts to play in this world: he his theory, me my blog post, be-it-ne’er-so-humble.

Now for the title of this post: Zoetermeer is a small town in the south of the Netherlands.  I got here a few nights ago to spend some time with my friend from college Ramesh (aka Yul to those readers who might know him).  Now, not only were Ramesh and I in college together, but our fathers, who indeed art in heaven, they both passed away last year, were themselves in college together. Such things create bonds, and so being within three hours of a fast train from Paris, I naturally took that fast train to see him.  Owing to his being a free-thinker and choosing to settle in the distant Netherlands instead of in the plain old U.S. of A. like most of the rest of us who graduated from the same college, this also happened to be the first time I was meeting his family.  And they were delightful: wife Usha, daughters Meena and Meghna.

The Netherlands is famous among those of us who are obsessed with bicycling (there I said it, yes, I am obsessed, didn’t you notice? 🙂 ) for possessing impressive bicycling infrastructure and as a country where just about everyone bicycles. An extensive network of bicycle paths separated from car traffic criss-crosses the country, making it very easy to go from town to town. Elsewhere, inside towns, clearly marked bicycle lanes (red in color) abound, with their own traffic signals. Children are taught early in school how to bicycle on roads with traffic, and car drivers are given special training on how to share the road with bicycles. Insurance laws routinely favor bicycles: almost always, it is the car driver’s insurance that has to pay for damages caused to a bicyclist.  As a result, cycling is relatively safe and immensely enjoyable in the country, and the Netherlands serves as a model for what is possible in the world of non-fossil transport to city planners around the world.

This visit was primarily to spend time with Ramesh and family, so I did not bicycle extensively.  Nevertheless, I borrowed a bicycle from Usha today and rode from Zoetermeer to Leiden, a nearby university town, primarily to get a feel for the infrastructure, and for the experience of having ridden in the Netherlands. It was a very enjoyable ride and a very enjoyable afternoon in Leiden (a town, incidentally, that we had all visited the day before as well; Meghna studies medicine in Leiden). I leave you with some photos; I know I will return some day for longer rides through this beautiful country.


My path from Zoetermeer to Leiden led through pretty countryside.  This country is laced with canals of course, and you are never far from large water bodies.


This must be the definition of bucolic. Still on the bike path from Zoetermeer to Leiden.


An example of clearly demarcated bicycle lanes, in red, on either side of a road for motor vehicles, that itself is a frontage road for a highway.


A typical parking lot for bicycles in Leiden.  You can have your bicycle impounded if it is parked improperly.


The Rhine, as it flows past the center of Leiden; this region is the Rhine delta.  That is the Leiden city hall in the background.


Bridge on the Rhine, in the center of town.  My (borrowed) bike briefly graced the railings as well.


Hooglandske church, an impressive Gothic monument in the center of town. It started life Catholic, but is now a Protestant church.


Probably every school child in America knows this, but I learned this for the first time here in Leiden: the Pilgrim fathers didn’t originally plan on emigrating to America from England.  Instead, they emigrated to Leiden, and set up shop here for several years, hoping to settle down here.  But they were unsatisfied, and from here, decided to check out America instead.  Not all made it. Several died right here in Leiden, and the plaque above, by St. Peter’s church (another imposing Gothic building in the town center) you will see a presumably partial list of some of the original pilgrims who died here. (You can double click or use your browser’s expansion capabilities.)


Ah Paris!

Paris, France.  Not Paris, Ontario,  not Paris, Texas. Not Paris of the East, not Paris of the West. Paris, the real-McCoy. Paris, 48.85N 2.35E. Paris of the Bastille, Paris of the Seine, and much more to my interest, Paris of Velib.

I flew here from Ljubljana three days ago, to check out Velib, the mother-of-all bike-share programs. Velib is not where it all started of course, two other cities in France already had such programs before Paris. But with 20,000 bicycles and 1800 stations, Paris’ Velib is the largest in the western world (Wuhan and Hangzhou in China have much larger programs), and its success has given other cities around the world, including New York, the confidence to institute their own programs.

(OK, OK. NSF is watching, so I should tell the truth. I came to Paris to work with my colleague and friend Jean-Claude on some mathematical problems in telecommunication.  Your tax dollars were well spent: the professional part of the visit was hugely productive. But let’s move on. 🙂 )

Having cut my teeth on Ljubljana’s bike-share program, Velib was not new to me at all. There are Velib stations within a half-kilometer of one another, and there was one less than 200 meters from my hotel.  I got onto a bike almost as soon as I was done with work the first day.

This is not my first trip to Paris of course, and it is not even my first trip in the recent past.  But this is the trip where I felt I got to know Paris.  And it was all because of Velib.  With Velib I would pick up a bike, ride at random till I found something interesting, examine it, then ride again at random till I found something else interesting, examine it too, and then, since this sort of thing can quickly build a powerful thirst, drop off the bike at some nearby station–there is always a nearby station–and find myself a cafe to sit outside and a pint of something on tap to help watch the world go by.  You do this a few times, and pretty soon, you get to know the place quite well.

My hotel, situated right next to Telecom Paris Tech where I am visiting, is in the “13th Arrondissement,” which is an area where most tourist will not go. On a map, if you don’t pay attention to the scale, it would seem to be on the outskirts, with its southern extremity on the ring road that encircles Paris. But Paris is small, I discovered. On my very first ride from my hotel, for instance, I found myself in no time at all in the famed Latin Quarter on the left bank, home to several university campuses, the Sorbonne, the College de France, the original Ecole Polytechnic, etc. etc.  It is in the 5th Arrondissement, and the area was hopping!

Paris is beautiful, there is no other word to describe it. I have been struck by its beauty on previous trips, but I am struck by it even more this visit as I ride around on a bicycle, whizzing along both the broad boulevards and the narrow alleys, stoping to examine every little thing of interest, which Paris has by the bucketful of course.

Enough of speaking in paragraphs, I leave you with some photographs:


 Evening sun on Saint Anne’s church, at the end of an alley way by my hotel.


I found a long line on outside what seemed like a Greek take out place, the one with the sign that says Au’Ptit Grec, on Rue Mouffetard, a narrow happening alley that runs north-south through the Latin Quarter. I asked one of the persons in line what the excitement was all about.  Turns out that this place is reputed to have the best crepes in Paris!  Imagine that, crepes are to Paris what pizza is to Naples and dosa is to Madras, so to be known for the best crepes in this town must be something else! (But the best crepes in a Greek place?)


Church of St. Etienne du Mont.  Didn’t know such a church existed till it showed up over my handlebars all of a sudden. Didn’t go in, but Jean-Claude told me later that I should have. Wikipedia tells me Pascal was buried here, I should have paid my respects.


The original Ecole Polytechnic, late evening. Some of the loftiest names in mathematics and physics graduated from  this place. I sat in reverence at a cafe across the square from it, sipping a holy beer brewed by none less than monks of Belgium.


St. Etienne du Mont again. The view from over my beer glass, as I sat contemplating scientific history across from the Ecole Polytechnic.


Notre Dame, of course. I attended a fabulous concert at the cathedral by the Notre Dame singers, it was a concert of Gregorian chants.  The singing was beautiful, the acoustics were brilliant.


View south from Pont Saint-Michel, dominated by Fountaine Saint-Michel. Me, I was looking at the bicyclists riding their Velibs!


 A typical building along a typical Parisian boulevard you think? But look closely at the signs on the building!  Do you see the dark desert highway? Do you feel the cool wind in your hair? Do you smell the warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air?


And now, Autolib!  Paris has an electric car share program that works just like a bike-share program.  Pick up a car at any station, and drop it off at any other station!

Hanging Out by the Ljubljanica

So, first, a little primer on Slovenia.  A tiny country (20,000 sq. km. according to tourist guides, which translates to about 90 miles by 90 miles, which, after some area-preserving twists, should fit into Southern California and leave room to spare), its last political manifestation before the current one was as the northern most part of the Yugoslav Republic.  Pretty much as soon as the Berlin Wall fell, Slovenia broke off from Yugoslavia and proclaimed independence. The rest of Yugoslavia didn’t know what to do with it (I suspect that till then, they hadn’t even realized that anybody could secede from them), and the breaking off happened essentially peacefully.  The Slovene region had been an integral part of the Austro-Hungarian empire till World War I, and therefore, this region, influenced historically by the Austrian culture, was situated well along the arc of modernity, significantly more so than its hapless neighbors in the Balkans. As a result, independent Slovenia developed rapidly, and today, is a very modern state in which things work, and work well. It is a part of the EU, and it adopted the Euro several years ago.

(In my earliest visits though, the Slovene Tolar, or SIT, was still the currency-de-jour. There were several thousand of these to the dollar, as I recall!)

The heart of Ljubljana, the capital, is a kilometer square area by the river Ljubljanica, and it is there that I pretty much hung out when not at the conference. Preseren square is at the very center of this region.  It is a hive of activity at any time of the day, and particularly during summer evenings, there is a dizzying array of things going on. Street music of every kind during the summer in particular, is my thing, and this visit, there were so many different groups of musicians that they had to search for spots to play where they would be out of earshot of the neighboring group!  (For instance, close to midnight one night, I couldn’t sleep owing to jetlag, so I walked over to this square, and found to my delight a group of about twenty teenaged and twenty-something boys had set themselves up and and were singing choir! Another large group of people were gathered around listening to them, and I speedily added myself to this pile and spent a pleasant fifteen minutes listening to excellent music.)

Every evening, I would pick up a bicycle at the nearest bike-share lot, and ride up and down the various streets along the river, watching people: students, families with little children, some tourists (tourist season starts in a couple of weeks, at which point they will be lots more of them), grandmas and grandpas out for strolls. There is a lively cafe culture in this place, and there are cafes every twenty meters, where people hang out drinking their coffees and beers and eating their ice creams.  I would have to dodge several bikes on my rides: just about everybody who comes here seems to come on their bicycles.  My kinda town of course!

And in this my kinda town, the one street where I spent most time, my kinda street, was Trubarjeva. Tomaz called it the “hippie street” and it sorta is!  No, I smelt marijuana just once, so not that sort of hippie, but definitely counter-culture. So this street has not one, but two vegan-only places.  I had a nice conversation in one of these vegan places with a young woman Katarina, who turned out to be an activist working at an NGO advocating for less cars on the road and more buses and bikes. We talked about activism, changing the world.  (Did I tell you that this is my kinda street?) This is also the street where one night I found that a massive crowd had gathered to listen to what turned out to be a phenomenal band: a vocalist, a lead guitarist, a bass guitarist, drummer, and saxophonist.  I learned that a falafel place on that street was celebrating its tenth year of existence, and they had organized the band as part of the celebration.  The band was really really good.  I spent a good half hour listening to them.

This street too, like much of Ljubljana, has changed character from when I first
knew it.  Ten years ago there was a single natural foods store on this street, and Prabha and I would come here for our oats and soy-milk.  There wasn’t a whole lot else.  But in the intervening ten years, a whole generation of kids have come into early adulthood in modern post-Yugoslav democratic Slovenia, and their stamp is evident everywhere, and on this street in particular.

Not everything is hunky-dory with Slovenia, of course.  Being a small country, the financial crisis precipitated by the banksters of wall street has hit them particularly hard.  I was talking to a young woman who worked at the bar in my hotel, she was clearly a college student.  She was graduating with a diploma soon in transportation and logistics (I don’t believe we offer that degree in the States!), and was lamenting the lack of jobs.  She and her boyfriend were seriously thinking of emigrating out, the only question was where to. Tomaz tells me that the graduates of the math department emigrate abroad, unless they have majored in financial mathematics, in which case they are swallowed immediately into the local economy. (That’s a sad commentary, if you ask me.)

Remember the penny-farthing bike from my last post? I walked into the store in front of which it was parked and asked the attendant about it.  Turned out it was her boss’ bicycle, and she went and got him, and we talked about it a bit.  It is made by a company called Abici in Italy (http://www.abici-italia.it/).  They have several stylish models, but this one, the Velocino, is the most whimsical.  But what I liked particularly about this company is their logo, which, I must disclose, I have copied without permission and presented here—I will assume that Abici will not mind since I am effectively promoting them!


(My sentiments exactly!)

I leave for Paris later today for some collaborative work with a professor at Telecom Paris Tech.  I leave with you some pictures of the region by the river in Ljubljana.

DSC02219 DSC02220 DSC02221 DSC02222 DSC02223 DSC02224 DSC02225 DSC02226 DSC02227

Ah Ljubljana!

So, you are probably going Ah Who??! Or maybe, Ah What??! Not surprising! Ljubljana is one of the better kept secrets of the planet, a delightful little city in a delightful little county located just south of whatsitsname and just east of wheresitat.

And then again, maybe not.  If you got to this page at all, then you are probably more geographically savvy than just about everybody else, and you probably know at least that that delightful little country located just south of Austria and just east of Italy is Slovenia, and you may even know that Ljubljana is its delightful little capital.

And I am here in Ljubljana without my Bike Friday, a conscious decision.

There was a time when I practically lived in Ljubljana.  Prabha and I spent  a large part of a sabbatical semester here.  This was about ten years ago; I was  collaborating on some research project with my friend and colleague Tomaz at the university here. I returned for more long visits in the subsequent years, and even brought students here.  One was my masters thesis student who came here to work with Tomaz. Another two were also masters students in the teaching program, who I brought for research exposure and to show them high schools in both Slovenia and neighboring Italy.  With Tomaz I have gone on several long hikes in the Alps, which form the north and west of the country, and with other friends and colleagues I have gone on walks and bicycle rides in the border region between Slovenia, Italy, and Austria where several peaks come together. Trieste in Italy is only an hour away by car, and Venice another hour from there, and I have driven to both places several times from Ljubljana during my past visits.  I have very fond memories of my sojourns here.

But I had not been to Slovenia in the past six years, and I was beginning to miss it.  So I decided to repair the situation and to renew my personal and professional connections with Tomaz and others here by attending a triennial conference organized by the faculty of the University of Ljubljana. I was planning on bringing my Bike Friday along, until just a week or so before I left, I read that Ljubljana had a public bicycle sharing program, much like Velib of Paris (which has become the model of bicycle sharing programs around the world, including several in the United States). I decided to leave my bicycle at home and check out the Ljubljana program.

Which I did, the very evening I landed.  The system is simply wonderful!  For just a euro a week, you can check out a bicycle from any of several bicycle stations scattered throughout the city, and ride free for an hour, returning it to any station that you are close to, and you can do this as often as you like during the day! There is a bicycle stand very close to my hotel, and I got myself a bike and rode all over my old haunts, reliving my memories of the place!  I was pleased to note that Ljubljana, always a rather “green” town, has transformed itself to an Amsterdam like city: there are bikes just about everywhere!  The city has consciously promoted cycling as a means of transport by banning cars on more and more streets in the city center, creating more bicycle lanes, and of course, instituting the bicycle share program.  As a result, you see men and women in business suits, students and grandmothers in all kinds of clothes, and women with infants in special seats behind them, all riding bicycles all around the center. Mostly beat up bicycles,  but functional commuter ones: with racks and fenders and lights and baskets and so forth.

More on Ljubljana in my next post. But I leave you now with a picture of a bike share stand and of a whimsical penny-farthing-themed thing I found leaning against a shop entrance.