Armistice Day in Alsace

The fortress of Verdun, November 2011

Today marks the 93nd anniversary of the end of the First World War. November 11 is not a public holiday in Sweden, which was not a combatant in either of the World Wars. It is a holiday here, and on the TV channel France24 one could see the ceremonies in Paris at 11:00 AM this morning. Strangely here in Strasbourg, as the war began part of Germany and a target for French liberation, I haven’t seen much notice of the day, besides most of the stores being closed. The city’s website only mentions that there will be no garbage collection today because of the public holiday.

Unlike most Sundays, the grocery stores are open today, with a sign in the window of Monoprix announcing it would be open on the anniversary of the Day of Solidarity.

Just over a week ago we were at Verdun, the fortress city where between 700,000 and 1 million died in the fighting between 1914 and 1918. Banners proclaimed Verdun as the “City of Peace”, but, perhaps shaped by our preconceptions and knowledge of what happened there, it seemed a sad little town.

We visited the Underground Fortress, which features a Disney-like mini-train journey through some of its many tunnels. Unlike Disney the journey was slow and not fast-paced. It was gripping, but it felt like its creators couldn’t decide whether to focus on the horrors of war, or French patriotism/nationalism.

The true city of peace is Strasbourg, home of many institutions devoted to making sure such a struggle cannot happen again, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, and the one week in four home of the European Parliament. The media may be filled with reports about the euro crisis, and some Euro-skeptic politicians may be taking a cruel delight as they proclaim the end of the common currency (and at least in Britain contemplate withdrawing from the EU completely).

"They Shall Not Pass" - The Underground Fortress in Verdun

Today we can drive back and forth across the Rhine, across this zone that saw occupation and horrible fighting during three wars between 1870 and 1945, without even noticing it is an international border. We shop on both sides with the same currency, in my favorite cafe here in Strasbourg there are German customers virtually every time I am there.

The European Parliament in Strasbourg

Terrible things happened here over the centuries (and World War II ended just four years before I was born). Rather than hailing the euro crisis, the skeptics ought to be embracing what the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the single currency have given us.

Off of my cloud?

The new iCloud certainly seems like a work in progress, especially the way it works (or does not work) together with the iTunes store.

Being able to use an ios device without having to hook it up to a computer all the time, forced to use the horrible iTunes app, seemed like a dream come true. At last untethered backup and shared files among iPads and iPhones. The reality has left a lot to be desired, even aside from all the original problems just getting the thing going (like where does it say that after you download and configure ios 5 to your devices you then have to open up your computer and create an iCloud account?).

It does seem to work, but even the parts that work act weirdly. It made a mess of my contacts, replacing the useful ones on my iPhone with more or less useless ones from my Yahoo Mail account. The Photostream is brilliant, but the promise of photos I take with my iPhone being saved instantly to the Cloud (something which my favorite Twit podcasts claimed did work) has not been fulfilled. I think it was Macbreak Weekly where someone said that even if the police and military of evil dictators erased photos on iPhones, it didn’t matter because they would already be in the Cloud. I certainly hope the ongoing Arab Revolt is not counting on iCloud as a quick distribution tool. My experience is that it takes a long time, easily an hour or more, before photos from my iPhone show up in the Photostream on my iPad or in my computer.

But what bothers me the most is the role of video in all of this. The pre-existing videos I had in my iPad are still there, but they certainly don’t seem to have appeared in any Cloud. Worst of all, TV programs and movies I buy in one place are not appearing in other places. I buy them in iTunes on my computer, in my iPad, and in our Apple TV, and there they seem to remain. Sometimes the Apple TV will know about something I bought, sometimes not. Generally this seems to work best with TV programs. I have one movie that I bought and downloaded to my computer that is appearing nowhere else in my Cloud of Devices. Two others are in my iPad, but not in iTunes on the computer. And none of appear anywhere in the Apple TV (unless I use Airplay from the iPad or find the computer library in the Apple TV menu and stream that way).

The Apple TV seems to know all about purchased TV programs, but not purchased movies.

Finally, the system completely fails to comprehend that users may have multiple accounts. These can be necessary for many reasons, such as family members sharing the devices and Apple TV. Lots of stuff in the American iTunes store is not in other stores. Until the launch of ios 5, there didn’t seem to be any video outside the American store. Now, the Swedish iTunes store has some TV programs, but no movies, while the French iTunes store has some movies, but no TV programs. There needs to be a global system.

On the other hand, something is better than nothing. I just found a a book I need to read in Google Books. I can put the Safari page as an icon in my iPad screen. But despite downloading the Google Books iPad app, and following the extremely hard to work out instructions to link my existing Google account to Google Books (why should I even need to do that?) the book is not appearing in the app, and the app totally lacks any way to access new books. It just wants me to download any of three free default books. Other than that, it is closed to the universe.

The help function is totally useless. So what I have previously said about iTunes seems to be true with iCloud as well. It is a terrible program, but still way better than ts rivals. (The exception might be Amazon. Anything I buy in the Kindle Store instantly appears in my iPad Kindle app, as well as our family Kindle reader. But since all the other touted Amazon Cloud functions, like video and music downloads, seem closed to those outside the US, there’s no way to evaluate how Amazon really stacks up against Apple.)

Strasbourg by Water

Batorama European Parliament ahead

The boat reaches the European Parliament

Our friends recently visited us from Sweden, and on the last day of their visit we took the Batorama boat tour of Strasbourg, which travels around the central island of the Old Town and then out to the European institutions, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, and the one week a month home of the EU Parliament.

This was the second time I took the tour, the first was on one of my first visits to Strasbourg. Now, after having wandered around the areas the boat parallets for more than two months, the trip was very different. I knew where we were the whole time, rather than a general feeling of being lost. And the commentary (provided in eight languages through headphones) was a lot more compelling, because it was about buildings and bridges I actually see all the time.

For example, I learned that the bridge that leads to the American Consulate is the Pont Kennedy, which probably is not a coincidence.

Vitamins in France are behind the counter?

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I needed to buy new vitamins here in Strasbourg, but neither of the two big grocery stores sold them, not even Monoprix, which is more like a little department store on three floors. So I checked a nearby pharmacy. On the shelves they had ginseng and other herbals, but no vitamins. And I didn’t feel like waiting in line at the counter to ask.

But then I checked another pharmacy, where they were so unbusy someone actually asked if I wanted help. They did sell vitamins, but they were behind the counter in the back of the store!

This is the way alcohol was sold in Sweden until about ten years ago. With liquor on the shelf at any little grocery store here, one wonders why vitamins are so in need of supervision?