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Tonight thousands of San Franciscans and visitors took to the streets to celebrate (and many more will tomorrow) and today was Alan Turing’s hundredth birthday. Now, correlation does not imply causation, but at least some of the people on the streets dedicate the night to Turing, may he forever prove theorems and hook up with nineteen year olds in heaven.
I just returned from a trip to Rome. While there, I was asked by my friends what I miss most of Rome. Of course what one misses the most is the city itself. Anybody who has walked around, and gotten lost into, the side streets around via del Corso or Trastevere, especially in the late afternoon, when everything is bathed in an odd yellowish light, knows what I am talking about. One thing I don’t miss is Roman traditional food. Roman cuisine is one of the worst of Italy’s and a lot of its delicacies gross me out. One famous dish for example, la pajata, has been (and probably still is) illegal since the emergence of mad cow disease, because it’s made from veal intestines, including digestive juices. The matter of its legality has preoccupied Rome’s mayor to no end, and he has threatened “eat-ins” of pajata as acts of civil disobedience.
Back to the things I miss, in random order:
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The number 8 is considered lucky in Chinese popular culture. The Beijing Olympics, for example, took place in August, which is not the best month to be here, so that the opening ceremony could start at 8:08pm on August 8, 2008.
United Airlines, which has a major hub in San Francisco, labeled its daily flight from Beijing to San Francisco the flight United 888. The flight from San Francisco to Beijing is United 889. Without looking (no cheating!) guess what is United flight 887?
“Oh my God, this changes everything!”
[Woman standing next to me at the Bi Rite meat counter, after a butcher put a newly arrived pork belly in the display case. Emphasis in the original.]
A truck selling mini-cupcakes is parked in the Castro and doing business. It has its Twitter feed printed on the side. By subscribing to the mini-cupcakes truck Twitter feed, you can know in advance when it’s in your neighborhood. Or, if so inclined, you can follow it around the city.
A large man with a tiny dog looks at the cupcakes, then he turns to the tiny dog. “Would you like a cupcake?” he asks the dog, “remember when you had cupcake last time, you liked it.” The dog is not making eye contact with the man. “So, do you want a cupcake, or not? Tell me.”
Italian Minister for economic development Claudio Scajola (pronounced sky-olah) is in America for the week. He met his counterpart (Scajola is in charge, among other things, of energy policies) Steven Chu on Tuesday, and he signed a five-years agreement on nuclear energy research and development. (Italian voters rejected the use of nuclear energy in Italy 22 years ago, in a referendum that the government is planning to overrule.) It says something of the Berlusconi versus the Obama administrations that Scajola is a college dropout and Chu is a Nobel Laureate. Scajola then met Italian entrepreneurs in New York and in Detroit, and a bit of research turned out this embarrassing infomercial which was actual “journalistic” reporting from one of the two major Italian broadcast news program (on a Berlusconi-owned channel).
Finally, today, he arrived in San Francisco and this evening there was a reception in his honor at the Italian Consulate, to which I was invited for reasons that are not entirely clear (more later).
After dropping out of college, Scajola became mayor of his hometown, of which his father and brother had been mayors earlier. He resigned among corruption charges, then resurfaced as member of parliament for the Democrazia Cristiana, the dominant party in Italy from the end of WW2 to the early 1990s. When the party started crumbling under widespread corruption investigations, Scajola was one of the first to jump ship to the new party that Berlusconi was creating. He was in charge of the day-to-day operations for several years, and eventually was promoted minister of the interior. This is one of the highest profile cabinet positions, because the holder is in charge of Italian law enforcement and civilian security forces. When the 2002 Group of 8 meeting took place in Genoa, one of the demonstrators was shot dead, and widespread illegal detentions and abuses against demonstrators took place. No high-ranking official of the Italian police forces was indicted for the abuses. Later in 2002, Marco Biagi, a professor and government consultant for labor reform, was killed by domestic terrorists. In an infamous interview, Scajola was asked why Biagi was not under police protection, being a key player in certain tense labor negotiations. Scajola replied “ma quale figura centrale, Biagi era solo un rompicoglioni.” After that, he had to resign. He was back in the government in 2003.
Anyways, I am not one to turn down free drinks or the premise for a good story, so off I went to the lovely Pacific Heights Italian Consulate and mingled with A-list Italians. The one person I talked to was a Stanford professor of Architecture who knew my colleague Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, and who told me that in Japan they can construct buildings entirely with robots, no humans needed. So there I was drinking my free prosecco, wondering about the Japanese robots, and satisfied with the token of appreciation for scholarship implied by my presence there. Until, that is, Scajola made his speech and explained how he had just been to “Silicon Valley” for a roundtable discussion with Italian “researchers and entrepreneurs,” that I hadn’t been invited to. So, in the eyes of the Consulate, I am one to invite to parties but not one to talk to about research. Come to think of it, I am not sure if I should be flattered or offended.
The 2009 Theory of Cryptography Conference starts next weekend in San Francisco.
The Center for Asian-America Media has kindly arranged for the 2009 San Francisco Asian Film Festival to coincide with the conference.
Most of the movies are playing at the Kabuki theater, which is about a mile away from the conference hotel. The Kabuki is part of a Japanese mall which is worth a visit (and a dinner) anyways. Across the street, there is Dosa, an oddly located South-Indian restaurant which is also very much worth a visit. If you are coming earlier, on Friday night you should head to the Castro Theater (a great San Francisco landmark) for Serpent’s Path, a Japanese comedy-gangster mix about a mathematician who kidnaps a yakuza. On a more serious note, there is 24 City, playing on Sunday, the new Jia Zhangke movie about change in China. (I thought Still Life was exasperating, but I’ll give him another chance.)
Other than eating and going to film festivals, there is plenty more to do in San Francisco.
For example the new, rather dramatic, California Academy of Science Museum is open to the public. It’s best to buy tickets in advance. Across the street, the De Young Museum is in another rather beautiful new building in a city that otherwise has nearly no notable contemporary architecture. (The third exception is the new Federal Building.)
The stretch of Polk street just South of the conference hotel has several popular bars, such as the Hemlock.
Background: one-way fares on San Francisco MUNI lines (buses and subways) is $1.50, it is $.50 for minors under 18 and seniors over 65.
Today at the Powell MUNI station:
Young Lady Stuck at the Turnstile: I put fifty cents and it won’t let me in.
Muni Employee Inside Glass Booth: the machine doesn’t know how old are you.
MEIGB: when is your birthday?
YLST: August 28, 1984. . .
[YLST's friend, behind her, stifles a laugh]
YLST: No, I mean, 1988 . . .
[YLST's friend starts laughing out loud]
YLST: . . . No, it’s . . .
[MEIGB shakes her head, YLST walks away followed by her friend, leaving behind the $.50 she has already put in the turnstile.]