The latest security restrictions in place in airports and on airlines are simply ridiculous.

British Airways:

Customers travelling from the UK will be able to take on board as hand baggage one cabin bag no bigger than 45cm x 35cm x 16cm, the size of a small laptop bag, inclusive of wheels and handles.

Cabin baggage MUST NOT contain:

  • Any cosmetics
  • Any toiletries
  • Any liquids
  • Any drinks
  • Cigarette lighters

Cabin baggage CAN contain the following:

  • Electronic equipment, including laptops, mobile phones, digital cameras and portable music and DVD players
  • Essential medicines in liquid form provided they are under 50ml. Customers will be asked to taste the liquid. If they cannot taste the liquid for any reason they will be asked to go to an airport pharmacy to have the medicine verified.
  • Baby milk and liquid baby food (the contents of each bottle MUST be tasted by the parent)

Nothing must be carried in pockets.

The TSA’s list says the same thing but with more detail, carefully forbidding such things as gel shoe inserts and eye drops.

And what is the point of this? How many terror attacks have been avoided by forbidding liquids? Not a single one. The suspected terrorists who were caught, were found through old-fashioned spy work.

The airline security people are thinking about and reacting to the last attack, not the next one. And not reacting in a rational way, either. There has been no analysis weighing the costs against the benefits. The measures put in place are unlikely to have much positive effect, while they cost a lot in money as well as lost time. It’s all security theatre, to use Bruce Schneier’s term: the people in charge want to be seen to be doing something, anything, no matter whether it’s efficacious at all. And of course, they don’t bear the costs, either.

If history repeats itself – which it often does – and things go the way they did after 9/11, these measures may be relieved somewhat, but a large part will become part of a new system and will remain in place for years. Just think of all those concrete barriers and blocked-off roads in lower Manhattan, and all the bag checks at every public building, including museums. Like the liquids thing, it’s mostly theatre: the bag checks at London’s museums are cursory at best. But once they’ve been put in place, they become sticky and remain, no matter how useless and annoying they are.

All this theatre achieves is whipping up hysteria. Which, as many people have pointed out, is exactly what terrorists would want.

Here are a few good articles about how we (that’s “we” in a very loose sense) are letting terrorists scare us into ridiculous and irrational behaviour.
Bruce Schneier on overreactions to so-called “security threats” and more of the same from Salon. The dropped iPod story is among the most ridiculous, but there are so many more that it’s hard to choose the most egregious ones among them.

For a longer-term perspective, read Cityscape of Fear, a Salon article about how security measures (of dubious value) trump design in architecture and planning. And again, appearances matter more than actual efficacy:

“A lot of security folks are trained to believe that a place needs to look secure,” Chakrabarti says. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of security infrastructure is that sometimes appearance can be more important than actual strength. A Tiger Trap is more effective at blocking a truck bomber than a Jersey barrier – but a Jersey barrier looks more menacing.

I don’t want to go along with this any more. I have – luckily – no flights planned for the near future. And when we plan our next holiday, I’m more likely to choose someplace I can get to by train. And I am turning back from entrances that impose yet another gratuitous bag check on me, most recently at the Scottish Parliament building.

I want the rest of the world to wake up and see the absurdity of what is going on.


On second thought, the silliest “security” action is pretty obvious after all: not allowing someone to fly because they had Arabic text on their T-shirt.

It is interesting, I think, that of the 20-odd people who were arrested in connection with the terrorist plot earlier this month, 3 were converts to Islam. Islam is becoming the default choice for angry young men, I guess.

When I was young 10–15 years ago, disaffected young men with a grudge against “the imperialist society” were drawn to communism / Marxism / Leninism etc. Now that communism has been solidly discredited as a way of running society, they had to find themselves a new pet ideology, and Islam was conveniently available.

There is something in angry young men that pulls them towards the “anti-establishment” movement du jour, one that offers a neat one-size-fits-all solution to the world’s problems, preferably with a strong authoritarian streak.

Some grow out of it, others don’t. And for those who don’t, it will be just like faddish clothes: a sign that can be used to tell when they stopped growing. If a man is (seriously) wearing long hair and brown flare cords, he is stuck in the 70s. If he preaches communism, he stopped paying attention to the world in the 80s. And if someone is still preaching Islamic fundamentalism 20 years from now, he’s stuck in the 00s.

Looking down and seeing a big belly and nothing else… I’m getting used to that, as well as the sensation of heaviness and bulkiness. What still surprises me is how the rest of the body has changed. Everything is rounder and fleshier: what used to be skinny and knobby, where every tendon and vein stood out, is now smooth and rounded. I’m not sure if it’s fat tissue or water, but it isn’t what I’m used to seeing. My feet don’t look like my feet, and my hands don’t look the same either, nor do most other previously-bony body parts.

My grandmother would have been happy to see this… she always used to encourage me to eat more, telling me how my face looked “skinny as a goat’s footprint”. (That sounds a lot better in Estonian, by the way: “nägu nagu kitsejälg”.)

I find it interesting to observe how radically my metabolism has changed. I am now eating about as much as I did before the pregnancy. Yet now I am gaining weight, almost faster than I’d like to, whereas previously I didn’t manage to gain a single kilo in almost a year. All due to the magical power of hormones.

Despite all the stories about how pregnancy feels awful, I feel great. During the first few months I was expected to feel sick, but didn’t. In the last trimester I’m supposed to feel swollen and achy and tired, but don’t. The hip and back pains are gone, after some help from a physiotherapist and a lot of help from the big V. I just have to be a bit careful with some movements, and not sit still in a bad position too long – but that applies to every body. The weekend in Edinburgh was an exquisite reminder of just how good that pillow is!

I’m also feeling a bit less out of breath now, since I started eating iron supplements (last week). Apparently my iron levels were low. The blood tests to detect that, by the way, gave me my life’s most impressive bruise. The whole crease of the elbow, plus 10cm both downstream and upstream along the veins, was dark purple for over a week.

Blump’s kicking keeps reaching new extremes. I remember, there was a time when it was barely detectable… Now Blump sometimes kicks so hard and so much that the whole belly is moving, and I find that I cannot concentrate on what I’m doing. I get the temptation to tell Blump, “Mother is working right now… go play somewhere else.” I wonder if all babies are so active.

An unanticipated advantage of being pregnant is that I no longer walk faster than most people around me. I’m now about as fast as the average tourist near Westminster, or a shopper on Oxford Street. Navigating the crowds is far less unpleasant when I don’t have to weave between lots of slow people, but can just go with the flow.

We went to Edinburgh this weekend for the Edinburgh Tattoo, which we’ve wanted to visit for several years (roughly since we moved to England, in fact) but never gotten around to. And since we were going anyway, we took some time to see Edinburgh itself too, as well as some of the events offered by the Edinburgh Fringe.

The tattoo was more or less – but not quite – as I had expected. The pipes and drums and marching were there, although I had expected more pipe music and less of other music. And I definitely hadn’t expected the more exotic parts of the programme, which this year included a children’s choir from Uganda and singers and dancers from Chile and Easter Island. However the pipe music was great, and the marching impressive, with a Swiss group of army drummers outclassing everybody else in terms of pure technical excellence.

When we checked the weather report the day before leaving, the forecast was for three days of unbroken “light rain”. It didn’t turn out quite that bad, but the first day was quite wet. Luckily the rain stopped before the Tattoo (which takes place outdoors, in the courtyard in front of Edinburgh Castle, and has no roofing) and while we got some rain after that, it stopped far from what the weather forecast had led me to expect.

The day before we left I took a quick look around to see what else one could do and see in Edinburgh, apart from just walking around, and realised that the Edinburgh Festivals were going on. (That’s Festivals in plural: I knew about the main festival and the Fringe, but it’s grown far beyond that now. All of central Edinburgh was taking part in some festival or other.) Read some reviews, did some Googling, and booked tickets to two pretty randomly chosen shows.

The first one was Sclavi: Song of an Emigrant – a piece of physical theatre / dance descibed as “gushing torrent of polyphonic songs punctuated by raw physicality”. That sounded sufficiently weird to be interesting, and indeed it was. There seemed to be a story there, but most of it was completely incomprehensible because it was in Czech – which didn’t really matter, because the singing was wonderful and the dancing beautiful. (Review by The Guardian.)

The second one was Jim Henson’s Puppet Improv: puppet improvisation theatre. Found by pure luck through The Edinburgh blog, this turned out to be even more hilariously funny than I expected. (Jim Henson is the guy behind the Muppets.) They had a daytime child-friendly version, but the ““adults only” label for evening show that we saw was definitely appropriate! Improvisation theatre doesn’t really lend itself to written descriptions… The show contained everything from the inevitable George Bush jokes to speed-dating aliens. Absolutely the highlight of the weekend!

We also popped in for a quick visit to the National Museum of Scotland. This was a bit of a disappointment: beautiful things in a beautiful building, but presented without any coherent order or story, so that we felt confused and lost rather than informed or enlightened.

Edinburgh is grayish-brown

The rest of the weekend was spent simply walking around and up and down Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a very pedestrian-friendly city and much more pleasant to walk around than London – or rather, a much larger proportion of it is pleasant for walking than in London. It looked like a nice town to live in, too. One thing that struck me was the uniformity of colour: 90% of all buildings in central Edinburgh were made of the same dark gray stone, which felt rather oppressive, especially in rainy weather.

The controversial parliament buildings were even uglier than I had expected, looking like a concrete bunker with bars in front of all windows. The only good views I’ve seen of it are from above (an angle from which few people will see it) although we were told that it looks better on the inside.

Scottish Parliament

We concluded the weekend with a nice climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat, which is a little (250m) extinct volcano about a mile east of the city centre: a pleasant piece of highland with excellent views of the city. (The photos here are not from the hill but from the Walter Scott monument in the middle of the city.)

Whenever I meet an acquaintance who did not yet know I was pregnant, or meet someone again after not having seen them for a while, their first question is always: “How far along are you?” or “When are you due?”

I don’t get it. What’s so interesting about the date? None of these people are close acquaintances who see me regularly, or work with me, so it’s not like they need to know from what date I won’t be around any more, or at what point to start asking about the baby.

Do they feel like they must ask something, in order to be polite, and that’s the first question that comes to mind? Do they have a mental scale of what a woman should look like at x months, and need to fit me in?

The second question is generally “Do you know what you’re having?” and I can understand why that would be interesting – it’s easier to imagine a little boy or a little girl than a little boy-or-girl.

I was thinking about this terrorist plot that was uncovered earlier this week. It struck me as interesting that airplanes are still among terrorists’ main targets, despite all the extra security measures that have been put in place in recent years. Why would that be the case?

  • Airplanes are eye-catching and dramatic. An explosion in an airplane sounds more horrible than an explosion killing the same number of people on a bus. Things falling out of the sky, big balls of fire etc.
  • Airplanes are global. When people hear about a train crash on a different continent, it sounds far away. It’s easier to relate to a distant plane crash. And of course it affects a large system, thus causing more disruption (although disruption is probably a secondary goal, if at all).
  • It’s a way to attack the US without ever being on US soil.

Here’s a book that has been constructed around a single idea – a gimmick, even.

A group of travellers take refuge for the night in a castle. They find themselves inexplicably mute, so they use a deck of tarot cards to tell each other their stories.

Tarot cards communicate concepts and ideas, not facts, so each one can be interpreted in many different ways. In the book, cards acquire different meanings depending on their setting, so the various narrators reuse the same sequences of cards to tell their different stories. The end result is a single tapestry of cards that tells all their stories using the whole deck of cards.

The idea is clever, and it’s interesting to see Calvino generate ever more fanciful adventures out of very little. It is really no different from what any fortune-teller does, but in fictional form there are fewer limits on where the cards and the interpreter’s imagination can take the story.

Some stories are based on legends and tales such as those of Helen of Troy, Hamlet, Oedipus etc. Others are wild and surreal flights of fancy, full of vampires, grave robbers, apocalypses and demons.

On the whole, I thought the gimmick dominated the story-telling. This is like one of those experimental creative writing exercises, where the writer sets himself a strict constraint, and sees what sort of story that leads to. Experiments of that kind are generally more useful to the writer than they are enjoyable for the audience. Calvino himself says in the afterword that he was obsessed with this idea of generating all the stories that could be contained in a tarot deck, and that he published this book to be free of it. It shows. I doubt that a writer without his reputation could have gotten this published at all.

One of the best gifts I got for Christmas was Lumines. After half a year, I had it thoroughly beaten: all slots in the high score list are showing 999,999, which is as high as it goes. While I still occasionally go back to Lumines, I feel like I’ve squeezed most of the fun out of it by now.

With excellent timing, LocoRoco has arrived to fill the gap (from the same source as Lumines: a gift from Eric).

(Side note: I also got Katamari Damacy a few months ago. I never really got into it, which surprised me a bit, since I’d heard so many good things about it. The concept was interesting, but I found the controls unintuitive and the game hard to master. I think it requires more experience of fast fiddly games, which I don’t have. Also, it had lots of tedious waiting between levels.)

LocoRoco is a kind of a platform game. You control a creature named LocoRoco, which is a cuddly amorphous yellow blob, sort of like a smiling water balloon. Well, the player doesn’t actually control the LocoRoco: you make it move by tilting the ground below it, making LocoRoco roll to one side. It can also jump, and be burst into smaller parts to get through narrow passages. So the game controls are extremely simple: the two tilt buttons at the top of the PSP, and one button to burst the LocoRoco.

LocoRoco rolls around in cheerful brightly coloured environments, backed by cheery songs, and grows by eating berries. Sometimes the LocoRocos separate themselves, line up like a children’s choir, and just sing. You’d think that a bright game with simple graphics and childish songs would get annoying, but the whole combination is surprisingly charming and amusing.

The game is commendably non-violent. The goal is to grow the LocoRoco by eating large red berries, which you discover by exploring each level, and to gather extra points by catching insects. Even the bad monsters are kind of cute. It truly is suitable for anyone from age 3 upwards just as the packaging indicates. Somehow, I find the idea of playing games meant for three-year-olds strangely appealing.

There are (according to reviews) dozens of levels, and each one looks and feels different. The difference is not just visual: the surface and terrain of the world also change. Some are icy and slippery, other are bouncy like jelly. While dexterity is required to get really good results in some levels, I found all levels perfectly manageable, unlike in Katamari Damacy, where I just got stuck.

Each level is quick to get through – around 3 to 5 minutes – which makes it great for brief bursts of playing. It’s easy to pick up the PSP for just one or two games, and that suits my gaming style very well. On the other hand, it encourages replay, since I’m always reminded of my best result for each level, as well as the best possible.

But the game’s greatest strength is that it keeps making me smile.

Screenshots at GameSpot.

I won’t be revealing much by telling you the starting point of the plot, since it’s in every review and on the back cover of the book. Fat Charlie Nancy, a wimpy, average guy, hears that his father has just died. And on top of that, it turns out that his father was a god – the trickster god Anansi. And Charlie has a brother that he didn’t know about. Charlie’s life is turned upside down, and he spends the rest of the book trying to right it up again.

This contrast between ordinary man and powerful gods sets the tone of the book: it’s a mixture of the mythical and the ordinary. On the one hand, people struggle with crappy jobs and unpleasant mother-in-laws – and at the same time they are persecuted by vindictive gods and go on dreamlike quests. The kind of book that reviewers inevitably describe as surreal. (Inevitably, I will do the same.)

One thing that the reviewers all agree on – and so do I – is that it’s a very funny book. Possibly too funny in places – the humour is too obvious, as if he was constantly grinning and winking at me. Despite this, I found the first half of the book slow going. I got to hear more than I wanted about Charlie’s drab life and his perpetual embarrassment about things.

In the second half (or thereabouts) the story comes more to life, and it starts to feel more like a Gaiman book: an unstoppable flow of surreal events takes off, pulling the characters with it, until everyone is spat out on the other side.

The plot was rather predictable and simple, and lacked the sense of mystery that Gaiman is usually able to create – the feeling that there is more to the world than we see. The mystery in this book is very clearly limited to Charlie and his brother, and that’s only because they are sons of a god. For everybody else, the world really is an ordinary predictable place.

The book does have some excellent scenes, where Gaiman lets loose his imagination and conjures up gods and ghosts and tigers. But these scenes don’t quite mesh with the rest of the book. All the various genres that Gaiman mixes in – slapstick, fantasy, crime, folk tale – never mix into one whole.

On the whole, not a bad book at all. Gaiman hasn’t written a single bad book. But it’s not as good as his other works. “Lightweight” is a word that comes to mind. Worth reading, but I won’t be going back to it again and again the way I do with Neverwhere or Stardust.

… I’d go into space.

I’ve been fascinated by space for many years. Other girls want to be doctors and teachers when they grow up; I want to be an astronaut. I’m not so interested in the particulars of space technology – I don’t collect miniature space crafts or read all about the physics involved – but more in the social and human aspects of it, and the endless possibilities it can lead to. A lot of good science fiction has been written about orbital cities or manufacturing bases, lunar colonies, exploration of other planets…

Many reasonable people have many reasonable arguments against manned space flight: it is a waste of resources, since it’s much cheaper (not to mention safer) to send little electric cars to Mars and just follow them remotely.

Regarding publicly funded projects such as NASA, I’d probably agree: if the aim is to generate useful scientific results, you get more bang for the buck if you keep human bodies out of the picture. But for the rest of us, there are good arguments for manned space flight: it’s exciting, it’s interesting, it’s a challenge. Exploring the world lies in man’s nature. Space is like a mountain waiting to be climbed.

Luckily I’m not the only one to think so, and state-funded space projects are no longer the only ones around. Scaled Composites kicked off private space flight two years ago, when their SpaceShipOne won the $10m X-prize for being the first private manned spacecraft to reach an altitude of 100km. It only took a year for them to announce plans for commercial space flights. Virgin Galactic has not only a very cool brand name, but its mission statement includes the simple yet fabulous goal to “allow affordable sub-orbital space tourism”.

They’re not alone in trying to get people into suborbital space: there’s Space Adventures’ Explorer, XCOR’s Xerus, Incredible Adventures’ Rocketplane XP and Blue Origin’s New Shepard, and probably others that I don’t know about. (No, I don’t follow them all – the Economist kindly listed them all a year ago (subscription).)

Transport is of course more useful if there’s something at the other end of the trip (those orbital stations and moon bases). Last week I read that another private venture is now taking care of that as well. Bigelow Aerospace launched Genesis I, a prototype for an inflatable orbital station. And in order to help space business along, he’s financing a follow-up for the X-prize: $50m for taking at least five people to an altitude 400km and completing two orbits.

I’m excited by this. I want to see the Earth from space, and stars in an endless black sky. I want to float around in weightlessness. I want to feel that the universe is a vast and wonderful place. And I simply want to go into space just because.

The cost of space tourism is no longer in the millions. Still well beyond the reach of my bank account, but if development continues at the current pace, it’ll be down at reasonable levels – comparable to long trips to exotic places on Earth – before I grow old.