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September 28, 2004

Perforating Mexican Cinema - 100 feet underground, in the catacombs of Paris


The buried theater, located across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, seated 30 people on benches carved from rock and covered with wood for comfort.

It was discovered by police on August 23 of this year.

An urban explorers group called The Perforating Mexican set it up 18 months earlier, complete with bar, restaurant, and annex rooms for "privacy."

Electricity was siphoned off by wrapping wires around the state power company's cables.

A toilet drew water from the Trocadero gardens above.

Lazar Kunstmann, a spokesman for The Perforating Mexican, said the group has seven other subterranean sites underneath Paris, but would give no details.

Two decades ago, there were reportedly 300 access points into the catacombs, which were originally quarries for the limestone used to build the French capital.

Commander Luc Rougerie, the police chief in charge of underground Paris, was asked how many accesses exist today.

He replied, "There are those I know and those I don't."

Here's the Associated Press story.

Paris Has a Secret Subterranean Underworld

The City of Light harbors a city of darkness, a vast network of subterranean tunnels that once gave refuge to bandits, smugglers and saints, and cradles the bones of some 6 million Parisians.

Today, this eerie maze is the haunt of living spirits, from youths looking for adventure to urban explorers carving out a new frontier.

An underground movie house replete with bar and phone service, recently discovered by police, is but a slice of the thriving underworld below Paris.

Some 185 miles of tunnels and underground passageways honeycomb the underbelly of the city, most old quarries for the Lutecian limestone used to build the French capital.

Others house electricity and telephone cables.

In the deepest sphere, some 100 feet under, lie the catacombs, holding ancient bones from overstocked cemeteries.

Part of the catacombs are open to the public, but dropping into the rest city of darkness is illegal and can be hazardous.

This is not a journey for the faint of heart.

One way is a middle-of-the-night descent through a manhole and down a ladder.

Once inside, a sand-colored maze of galleries, nooks and crannies unfolds. Ominous holes seem to descend to the center of the Earth.

It's an all-weather trip that includes strolling, sloshing through mud and slithering through narrow tunnels.

"Paris is a Mecca" for underground exploration, said Lazar Kunstmann, a spokesman for the group that set up a cinema across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower.

The group has seven other subterranean sites, he said, refusing to give details.

In the eternal night of underground Paris, secrecy is sacrosanct, creating a subculture with its own code and names.

Slipping into the underground, social classes melt away, and "there's a sense of having a double life," said Patrick Aalk, a photographer with more than two decades of experience as an urban explorer.

Like Lewis Carroll's Alice discovered when she fell through a rabbit hole, fear, intrigue and wonder await the subterranean traveler.

Instead of a tea party with the Mad Hatter, there are parties by flashlight in dank, musty quarry rooms bearing names like "Byzance," "the Cellar" or "Room Z."

But this strange universe is being increasingly scarred by "cataphiles" who daub graffiti on walls or leave beer cans behind.

Some quarry rooms are covered in paint, irking another breed of subterranean spirits who call themselves urban explorers.

The police chief in charge of subterranean Paris fears the new generation of fun-seekers is on a collision course with the urban explorers who regard the underground as part of Paris' patrimony.

"It's a milieu that is becoming more and more mixed... with some people who can be in opposition to others," Commander Luc Rougerie told The Associated Press.

Cataphiles have haunted the Paris underworld for decades, but the Aug. 23 discovery by police of the cinema, set up by an urban explorers' group calling itself The Perforating Mexican, revealed just how sophisticated life below ground has become.

The cinema seated about 30 people on benches carved from rock and covered with wood for comfort, according to Kunstmann.

The complex included a bar, a restaurant and some annex rooms for privacy.

A toilet drew water from the Trocadero gardens above, where "there was a permanent leak," said Kunstmann.

Electricity was siphoned off by wrapping wires around the state power company's cables, he said.

"The problem is not to leave a trace on the electricity counter."

According to Kunstmann, the cinema, finished some 18 months ago, was a renovation of a crude theater built three years ago.

"There was a certain surprise" when police found the movie house, Commander Rougerie conceded.

A less sensational but more worrisome discovery was made across town, under the high-security La Sante prison.

There, several tunnels, once shut, were partially reopened.

Fears that prisoners were plotting an escape or, worse, that terrorists had invaded the underground set off alarms.

In the end, "we think it's amateurs of the underground looking for an old passage," said Catherine Briguet, judicial police spokeswoman.

There have been no arrests, she said.

Rougerie warns of dangers, from thin air that can cause queasiness to cave-ins.

He cited cases of people falling into 30-foot-deep wells or getting lost. There are no known deaths.

The catacombs have inspired writers from Victor Hugo to Gaston Leroux, whose "Phantom of the Opera" hid in "that infernal underground maze."

"When you go down, you enter the city's past. It's a voyage into the bowels of the city," said Aalk, the photographer.

Through the ages, the catacombs have harbored an eclectic lot. In the 13th century, bandits hid under the Chateau de Vauvert, now the Luxembourg Gardens, and sorcerers used the quarries for black masses during the 1348 plague.

St. Denis, patron saint of France, said Mass in the quarries during the Christian persecution, according to Simon Lacordaire's "The Secret History of Subterranean Paris."

During World War II, Resistance fighters used the network as hideouts.

Scoundrels still haunt the underworld.

People have been caught stealing telephone cables, "to resell the copper by the kilo," Rougerie said.

Some have also been found carrying old bones from the catacombs.

Nearly two decades ago, there were reportedly 300 accesses to the quarries.

Most have been sealed, but new entryways are uncovered by enterprising explorers.

Asked how many accesses exist today, Rougerie, the police official, conceded: "There are those I know and those I don't."

September 28, 2004 at 09:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

'4 Wars'


Kimberly Palmer wrote a fascinating front-page story for last Friday's Wall Street Journal about what I call the "4 Wars."

It seems that watchmakers are increasingly turning to IV instead of IIII to represent the number 4.


I learned in high school Latin (III years, IVyi) that IV is correct.

But historians say that IIII is probably the more normal ancient usage, and that IV didn't catch on until modern times when people began using Roman numerals as decorations and IV started appearing in textbooks.

The IV also appears on Big Ben in London and on the 151-year-old Tiffany clock adorning the company's flagship 5th Avenue store, even though John Loring, Tiffany's design director, says that IIII is the only correct usage.

Here's the article.

When the Big Hand Points to the IV, Some Get Ticked Off

Traditionalists Say IIII Is How the Romans Did It; Striking a Proper Balance

Underneath the gleaming countertops at Tiffany & Co.'s flagship store, classic gold watches feature "IIII" as their fourth digit.

John Loring, Tiffany's design director, says he wouldn't have it any other way.

"You cannot possibly balance the weight of the VIII on the left by putting an IV on the right," he says.

"It unbalances the whole thing."

But now IV watches are sold at Tiffany, too, including models made by the tony Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe, of Geneva.

The company has started using IV because that allows more features to fit on a dial.

The success of several new IV watches sold by Gucci Group's Bedat & Co., another Swiss watchmaker, is similarly challenging a central tenet of watchmaking that IIII goes better with VIII than IV does.

The new styles associated with European luxury and sophistication have sparked an outcry among purists who maintain that IIII is the proper way to represent 4 o'clock.

"We clock people maintain that the Romans marked their fours that way, so that's why we do it," says John Metcalfe, former curator of the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors' museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania.

Historians agree.

"IIII is probably the more normal ancient usage," says James J. O'Donnell, professor of classics and provost of Georgetown University in Washington.

Though the ancient Romans sometimes used IV to save space, he says, the shorthand didn't catch on until after the Middle Ages when people began using Roman numerals as decorations and IV started appearing in textbooks.

Some horologists - experts on timepieces - theorize that the Romans used IV as an abbreviation of the name Jove or Jupiter and therefore wouldn't have wanted the name of a god to appear as a number.

Those in the IV league say it's time for a change.

"It's unique and different from the industry," says Christian Bédat, who founded Bedat with his mother, Simone Bédat, in 1996.

The clash over the fourth digit deepens a rift between European and American watchmakers.

While the Europeans traditionally have emphasized handcrafting and limited collectors' items, Americans have focused on simpler watches that are easier to produce.

Four I's was seen as the plainest way to represent 4.

"The American time industry was built on mass production," says Daryn Schnipper, director of Sotheby's Watches and Clocks department.

"There were production contests over how many could you make in a day."

As a result, some see IV as an assault on American design.

Using IV, says Tiffany's Mr. Loring, "would be completely against my intellectual principle of going back to basics."

"It looks terrible," says Fred Bausch, owner of the Clocksmith, an online antique-clock store.

"The four ones balance the VIII. If you've ever seen where it's done the proper way,... (the IV) really looks out of place."

Half a dozen Web sites have sprung up in defense of the IIII method.

The National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors maintains a file on the subject.

Many people unaware of the history or the controversy believe IV is correct because that's what they were taught when they learned Roman numerals in school.

Greg Sheehan, a financial manager for the state of Utah, for example, described the four ones as "elegant" as he browsed the Tiffany watch counter on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

But, he said, "I've never done Roman numerals with four ones. I learned it's IV."

Marcus Riedle, a German businessman checking out the watches in the windows of a Tourneau timepiece store in midtown, said he, too, had been taught that the Roman numeral four is IV.

"I don't like it," he said of IIII. "I think it's wrong."

Officials at IV watchmakers in Switzerland also believe in the correctness of IV.

And it can work better on more complicated watches.

"As dials get busier and more things are going on, sometimes it's cleaner if you can put that [IV] in there," says Larry Pettinelli, vice president of sales for Patek Philippe in New York.

He notes customers are increasingly interested in large watches featuring dual time zones and celestial movements.

As a result, he says, the IV "may be something that creeps in more."

The Patek Philippe collection currently features two IV watches in its collection of mainly IIII watches: the Annual Calendar, which sells for $21,500 in yellow gold, and the Perpetual Calendar, which sells for $45,000 in yellow gold.

While the company doesn't disclose sales figures for each style, it says the Annual Calendar watch is one of its bestsellers.

"The real collector... may want one for their collection just because it's just a little different," says Mr. Pettinelli.

Mr. Bédat says his IV choice was primarily driven by a desire for authenticity.

"I thought it was nice to use a real Roman numeral so that's what I did," he says.

"I wanted to create a brand that even if it had been in the world only a few days, it would have an appeal like it has been here forever."

Bedat dials also stand out because they replace the Roman numeral eight with an Arabic eight, eliminating the need to balance a heavy VIII with a heavy IIII.

"On my dial it balances. It's subtle, and lighter than the four bars," says Mr. Bédat of his IV.

He says he has never heard a customer comment on the IV - though many notice the 8.

The IV also appears in some unexpected places - on the clocktower known as Big Ben in London and on a fall 2001, $65 Eddie Bauer watch.

Even the 151-year-old Tiffany clock adorning the company's Fifth Avenue store features an IV, despite the more traditional view of Tiffany's Mr. Loring.

"The basic way of counting is on your hands," he says, "and your hand clearly has four fingers to get to four."

September 28, 2004 at 06:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

MorphWorld: Dinocephalosaurus Orientalis into the Loch Ness Monster


A recently discovered fossil of the aquatic Triassic-era protorosaur in southeast China may be the remains of one of the first stealth hunters, a swimming dinosaur that could use its long neck to sneak up on prey and strike without warning.

Chun Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences describes the findings in the latest issue of the journal Science.

The fanged reptile, a resident of what was then a shallow sea, would have hunted in murky waters, its small head extending far from the bulky body.

"The long neck would allow it to approach prey without the whole body becoming visible," said Oliver Rippiel, a co-author of the report.


What I want to know is how this swimming dinosaur made it all the way to Loch Ness.

September 28, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

'Facing Silence' - by E.M. Cioran


Once you have come to set great store by silence, you have hit upon a fundamental expression of life in the margins. The reverence for silence of great solitaries and founders of religions has far deeper roots than we think. Men's presence must have been unendurable and their complex problems disgusting for one not to care about anything except silence.

Chronic fatigue predisposes to a love of silence, for in it words lose their meaning and strike the ear with the hollow sonority of mechanical hammers; concepts weaken, expressions lose their force, the word grows barren as the wilderness. The ebb and flow of the outside is like a distant monotonous murmur unable to stir interest or curiosity. Then you will think it useless to express an opinion, to take a stand, to make an impression; the noises you have renounced increase the anxiety of your soul. After having struggled madly to solve all problems, after having suffered on the heights of despair, in the supreme hour of revelation, you will find that the only answer, the only reality, is silence.

September 28, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Dell OptiPlex SX280 - what happens when the PC world tries to be like Apple


It's not pretty, is the bottom line; the new Dell advanced business desktop computer is D.O.A., it's so ugly.


I was reading the Wall Street Journal quietly just now, drinking my coffee, and turned the page to see a full-page ad for this abomination.

Even with the addition of the SX appellation in the model number to convey the idea of sexiness, a la car models, it falls flat on its icky dull face.


I enjoy looking at my next computer almost as much as I'll enjoy having it.

Isn't fantasy and daydreaming just the best?

September 28, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Foire aux Champignons - November 13/14 in St. Bonnet le Froid, France


That would be the annual mushroom fair.

St. Bonnet le Froid is a tiny village at the center of French mushroom country, set on a plateau over 3,000 feet above the Rhone valley.


Every year on the weekend following All Saints Day (the second weekend in November) it gives itself over to a single-minded mushroom feast.

The festival began sometime during the 19th century, but only took off in 1995 when Regis Marcon, chef-patron of the celebrated Auberge et Clos des Cimes in St. Bonnet, took charge of it.


The main street of St. Bonnet is closed to traffic for the weekend of the festival, instead being lined with stalls and stands.

On sale are sacks of walnuts and chestnuts, stacks of cheeses from neighboring Auverne, Atlantic oysters, braids of garlic and strings of sausages.

However, the chief function of the market is the sale of fresh and dried mushrooms.

It starts at 6:30 Saturday morning when trucks of all sizes take up positions on the square by the church and set out their mushrooms.

Chef Marcon joins forces with André Chatelard and Thierry Guyot, two other village chefs, to offer demonstrations of mushroom dishes.


In the tent next door, a competition for best tarte aux champignons takes place.

The highlight for most attendees, however, is the midday menu champignons, whose composition varies from year to year but whose central element is mushrooms.

Between 600 and 700 lunches are served in three shifts between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m, prepared by the three chefs.

Last year's menu began with a terrine of foie gras layered with potatoes and cepes with a handful of tiny autumn salad leaves, moved on to guinea fowl with a mushroom stuffing and spelt risotto, then concluded with selected cheeses from the region and a rich ice cream made of goats' milk served with a steamed chestnut sponge cake and a trickle of honey.

Most people present return every year from various parts of France.

For those who really want to experience the terroir, mycologist Gilles Boucheron is available for mushroom hunting excursions.


Simply ask for him at any local hotel.

[via Sue Style in The Financial Times]

September 28, 2004 at 06:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Françoise Sagan - 'Bonjour, Tristesse'


The rebellious French writer who in 1955 achieved international fame at age 19 with her first novel, "Bonjour, Tristesse," died last Friday in Honfleur, France. She was 69.


By early 1958, the novel had sold 810,000 copies in France and more than a million in the U.S. and had been translated into 20 languages.

She loved gambling, drinking, drugs, and fast cars.

She was twice convicted of narcotics offenses, in 1990 and 1995.

She once told an investigating magistrate, "I believe I have a right to destroy myself as long as it does not harm anyone. If I feel like swallowing a glass of caustic soda, that's my own problem."

She attended the Sorbonne in the early 1950s, failing her crucial year-end examinations in 1953, when she was 17.


She felt she "had to do something" to placate her parents, she recalled, so she sat down and wrote "Bonjour Tristesse" during August of that year.

The book began with what has come to be seen as a vintage Sagan sentence: "A strange melancholy pervades me, to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow."

Her views on romance could be somber. In a 1980 interview, she said, "I think love is like an illness, an intoxication. Sometimes I've been intoxicated for three or four years, but never more. I think that people can be happy together for longer than I used to believe, but I still don't think it can be forever."


[via Eric Pace in the New York Times]

September 28, 2004 at 03:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Woven packing-strap wastebasket


From Garnet Hill, a rather inventive use of conventional materials, in this instance those super-tough plastic packing straps that hold things together in transit.

Waterproof, easily cleaned, and so reminiscent of those African baskets made from discarded wire.

September 28, 2004 at 12:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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