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Thursday, December 29

Benvenido a Miami

For some reason, something always goes wrong when I fly through Miami airport. Strangely, at least half the time it's not the fault of MIA, but I just seem to have some curse in relation to that particular airport. The front desk manager at the hotel (same one we stayed at last year) remembers me as Mr. Goldenberg whose luggage is always lost, which is rather telling, and that is what has happened this time.

I just wrote the following missive to Northwest Airlines, not that I really expect it to achieve anything, but it was cathartic:

Our luggage did not make it onto our flight, apparently because a Northwest baggage handler was asleep on the job. We were promised that it would be on the next flight from Detroit, which landed at midnight last night, and that from there it would be delivered to our hotel within 5-6 hours.

At 10am the following day [today] I finally managed to get through to a human being on the phone, and he informed me that it had finally left the airport an hour earlier and should be with us by 2pm.

It is now 5:45pm, and the luggage is still not with us. Frankly, a snail on a barbiturates bender could have personally hauled these bags to our hotel by now, but apparently the delivery service used by Northwest Airlines is not up to such exacting standards. To add insult to injury, for the first time in my life I had enough luggage to have to pay an overweight charge, so I have paid an extra $25 on top of the overpriced flight ticket for the 'privilege' of being without clean clothes for at least 25 hours, with no end in sight.

Of particular irritation is the characteristically poor communication from Northwest Airlines. This is not the first time I have had enormous difficulty getting through to any human being, but what is even worse than usual today is the lack of information even when my fiancee or I have managed to speak to someone. For one thing, it leaves us with little confidence that we will see our luggage today, but more importantly the whole problem could have been solved had we been given a realistic estimate of quite how slowly the luggage would be delivered. We have a car at our disposal, and are less than an hour's drive from the airport (which makes this delay all the more maddening), and had we been given useful information at any stage we could have gone to the airport ourselves and picked up the damn bags, either when the later Detroit flight came in, or first thing this morning. This would not only have saved us considerable aggravation, but also saved you money, as this delivery service is presumably costing Northwest Airlines some money, however poor the service turns out to be.

I would have preferred to have spoken to someone at head office, but repeated calls to the 800 number on the website have got me nowhere, and speaking to the Miami Airport luggage office makes it clear that the staff there are just as exasperated and powerless as I am over this situation. I hope that this email will actually get a response.

I fly around the US on a monthly basis, but each additional hour this drags on for, and each futile call to a NWA phone number makes me progressively less likely to choose Northwest in future.
posted @ 2:57 PM -

Friday, December 23

Happy December!

Melinda and I are about to go on our first trip together since arriving in Seattle. We're off to Michigan in a few hours, to spend Christmas with her family, and then off to Miami to see the new year in with mine.

See you in 2006.
posted @ 2:26 AM -

Thursday, December 22

You and whose army?

This afternoon I was walking home, and I noticed that the combination of car lights, moderate traffic and wet roadway was about right for some light trail photos where the Alaskan Way viaduct disappears into a tunnel, so I decided to pick up my camera and tripod, head back there and take some photos. It started well, but within a couple of minutes one of the area's many vagrants decided I looked worth bothering.

He came up to me and said something to the effect of You'd better not be taking a picture of me, I'm in the special forces, which was one of the more blatant lies I have heard in my life, as he was a scrawny little bugger who looked a more likely candidate for heroin rehab than any kind of military role. I replied that he could see where my camera was pointed, and I was taking pictures of the road. Ironic really, considering that I had been half-expecting trouble this evening, but a different sort of trouble, in which the police decide that I must be a trrrrist if I'm interested in taking photos of critical infrastructure, which would have left me wishing I could convince them that I was actually just taking pictures of passersby.

Naturally, the situation immediately devolved into him asking for money. Only this wasn't spare any change? so much as a flat out demand: Give me a dollar. I suppose this is the closest I've experienced to a mugging attempt (unless you count my brush with police corruption in Moscow), but it was a pretty pathetic one. I refused, and though he insistently kept demanding money so I can trust you, the amount kept dropping (just like the bent copper in Russia, whose bribe also turned out to be negotiable). Eventually he was demanding one penny off me, but threatening to smash the camera in if I didn't hand it over.

I must admit I was tempted to just give him his damn penny so he'd leave me alone, but I decided not to. Partly this was a matter of principle, and partly because he was so absurdly insistent for such a small sum of money that I smelt fish. In retrospect, I think he may have simply been somewhat unhinged, but it's also possible that he intended to snatch either my wallet or my camera while I was distracted fishing for a coin. I was pretty confident I didn't need to worry about fighting him (more because I was sure he was bluffing than because he was smaller than me - if there's one thing that a few years of kung fu taught me it's that winning a fight still hurts), but if he touched my camera all bets were off. I also kept speaking louder and more angrily to him, so that passersby would at least notice us, but of course no-one stopped (not that I can blame them - I wouldn't want to get involved in someone else's altercation either).

Then he finally noticed that my accent is not American, and suddenly decided he was Irish. Apparently this was supposed to scare me. It didn't, but unfortunately the bastard was persistent, so in the end I gave up on my photo shoot, gave him a piece of my mind and stormed off. He shouted vague indignant slogans about the British occupation of Northern Ireland—a screed sounding so film-like that it left me more convinced of his non-Irishness—but thought better of following me. I went round the block and then back to where I wanted to take more photos, correctly calling his bluff (he had disappeared and no-one else bothered me), but unfortunately it had started raining harder; enough to spoil the rest of the shoot. I couldn't get another 5 second exposure without rain hitting the lens, and I was starting to worry about how long it would take for the water to get into the workings of my camera and break it.

For a while I was quite rattled by the incident, but now I'm just angry and perplexed. Angry that some random stranger can come along and spoil my night like that, and perplexed about just what he was trying to achieve anyway. Was he simply unhinged, was he actually looking for a fight, or was he really hoping to get some money out of me?
posted @ 10:55 PM -

Tuesday, December 20

Thanks, readers

The times I enjoy blogging the most are the times when the response to something I've written makes me think. The discussion of the smoking ban has been one of the best examples of this, and if you haven't read the comments to that post I'd recommend them.

I still dislike the idea of a smoking ban, simply because it does feel like getting the government involved in something they shouldn't need to be involved in, but the comments have made me question my opposition to it in practice. There were two things that led me in this direction: the rights of bar staff, and the apparent failure of the market.

In my original post, I argued that banning smoking in offices made sense, because there's a subset of office workers who don't have enough economic power to either pick and choose workplaces or pressure their employers into giving them smokefree working conditions without the law forcing the issue. But as Alexis pointed out, a bar is also some peoples' workplace, and the people who work there are quite likely to also fit into the category of those who don't have the power to pick and choose jobs. There are students whose courses make it impractical to do any regular-hours or full-time job, and then there are the full-time bar staff, many of whom are not making a career out of waiting tables because they love it so, but because it's a job that pays the bills. Those people deserve protecting in a way that bar customers do not.

Having said that, the issue of customers' rights is not that easy to dismiss, because it seems the market has not been serving non-smokers as well as it should. In theory, if so many people feel strongly enough about keeping smoke out of their bars, then there should be a competitive advantage to an individual bar choosing to go smokefree while its competitors remain smoky, which ought to lead more bars going smokefree, until an equilibrium is reached that reflects the collective taste of local people. I would like this situation, because it would give me a good selection of smokefree bars without making smoky bars extinct. But there were two strands in the comments which collectively imply that this just hasn't worked. Alexis and Becky have [well-sourced] anecdotal evidence that suggests that in at least two cities (NYC Buffalo & Madison, respectively) business improved for at least some places after smoking was banned. But meanwhile everyone who expressed an opinion (Joanie, Erin, Felicia, Becky, and me, incidentally) felt that smokefree bars were too rare a commodity in their city (and this is a sampling of 4 different cities in 4 different states). I am still perplexed about why bar owners won't just go smokefree of their own accord if it's good for business, but apparently that's exactly how it's been working. When the market fails in this way, then I tend to think that legal intervention can be justified for the sake of the consumer.

So I'm starting to feel that perhaps circumstances I hadn't given enough thought to actually did make the smoking ban justified, and what I should be annoyed about is not the ban itself but the lack of initiative on the part of bar owners that caused this situation. There are still two details about Washington's ban in particular (the lack of exceptions for smoking-centric businesses, and the inane 25 foot conditional exclusion zone) that strike me as unquestionably wrong, and I notice none of the commenters have disagreed about those, but on the other hand the police also seem to be ignoring them.

I'm never satisfied with this law is stupid but the police aren't going to enforce it anyway, because it only takes one police officer (or politician or journalist) with a bee in their bonnet to change the de facto situation, but at least so far this part seems to be working out as I had hoped.

And finally, one other thing that the discussion seems to imply: apparently women care more about this issue than men. I have no idea why that should be so.
posted @ 6:34 PM -

Sunday, December 18

How quickly America forgets

Remember Jean Charles de Menezes? He was gunned down by police in London about 5 months ago, and the initial police story made it sound like they had to do what they did, but over the following weeks more and more information came out. It became clear that the police had acted without justification, and there will be an investigation that will most likely result in some heads rolling from the police force, if not also procedural changes. And his name is still in the news.

Remember Rigoberto Alpizar? I've been going back to Google News every couple of days to try and find any new information about his shooting, and there's nothing. It's not that he's disappeared from the news yet, just that a Google News search turns up no additional information. There are some op-eds—mostly very angry ones from very marginal sources—but no-one seems to be bothering to dig up more information, no-one close the the mainstream is pressing the government on this, and I see no sign of a proper investigation about to take place. For better or worse, the official version of events has been uncritically accepted by the mainstream media.

This unwillingness to question authority is at least as frightening to me as the incident itself.
posted @ 10:58 PM -

Saturday, December 17

A small, smoky victory

A little over a month ago, Washington voters overwhelmingly passed a far-reaching smoking ban (Initiative 901). I've been meaning to write about this ever since, because I was not impressed. The intiative bans smoking in all workplaces and indoor public places, and within 25 feet of windows and entrances, which makes it the strictest state smoking regulation in the country. I was annoyed for a number of reasons, all of which relate to smoking in bars or near entrances (I think a ban on smoking in offices and other public spaces like covered shopping centres is probably a good idea).

First and foremost, I just don't think that this is an area the government should be interfering in. A law about smoking in offices makes sense to me because a lot of people don't have the luxury of saying I'm not going to work for CompuGlobalHyperMegaNet because their office is too smoky, because the labour market is not so incredibly strong that they can be sure they'll get a decent alternative job. On the other hand, the bar market works just fine round here, so if someone finds a bar too smoky, it's easy enough to just vote with their feet and move on. So drinkers don't need legal protection from smoky bars, and if more people had actually voted with their feet the market would have naturally followed by providing more smokefree bars because there would have been a competitive advantage to a bar of going smokefree. Here in Seattle people clearly don't care enough about smoky bars to vote with their feet, yet they cared enough to turn up and vote for I-901, imposing smokefree bars on everyone who might actually want to smoke in them. Something is not right in this picture.

The other big issue is the 25-foot radius part. Initially, I had read that this was going to be a ban on anyone smoking within 25 feet of any entrance or window, which was particularly offensive as there's a significant area of Seattle where this would amount to an outdoor smoking ban achieved by stealth. That turned out to be poor reporting, but the reality was much sillier, if also less bad: it is permitted to smoke anywhere outdoors, except within 25 feet of an entrance or window of the bar/restaurant/business of which one is a patron. How the hell is that going to be enforceable? And what's the point anyway? Once you've thrown the smokers out of the building, surely the little bits of smoke that might get in through the door are insignificant compared to the air pollution of a city.

And then my rather weak third reason for being annoyed with the ban was the extremely selfish reasoning used by some of its supporters. The P-I article is typical, in that it quotes a smoker arguing that the ban will be good because it might help her give up smoking. Others had ex-smokers complaining about how they are tempted to start smoking again when they see other people smoking. So these people expect everyone else to change their behaviour in order to help them not smoke. In that case, why can't I ban cars from the city, seeing as that would encourage me to cycle more and help me get back in shape? Frankly, I think that measure would do more for public health anyway.

The ban went into effect last week, and just before it did, I discovered a particularly sad side-effect. It turns out that Seattle has a number of hookah bars, and these places were also under threat of closure thanks to I-901. This would have been even more annoying than banning smoking in bars, because when the purpose of a place is explicitly to go there and smoke, there's no legitimacy at all to complaints about secondhand smoke. And this is the only place where the ban affects me personally, because I don't smoke in bars, and I prefer bars to be less smoky, but a hookah bar is something I do actually see the appeal of.

Fortunately, the smoking ban seems so far to be getting implemented more sensibly than I had feared.

Yesterday morning I was walking past one of the hookah bars, when I noticed that it had neither closed down nor made any attempt to go underground. Instead, it had taken the opening hours off the door, and replaced them with a sign saying Private club - inquire within. Melinda & I decided to investigate in the evening, and for the time being at least it looks like they've found a way to stay open. In order to fit the technicality of being a private club, there's a membership list, and we had to sign in and get membership numbers, but there's no charge or restrictions. It's not quite clear whether this really does make the place exempt from I-901, but considering how fond the city is of gratuitously harassing bar owners, I expect the police would have taken an interest in this the day the ban took effect if the hookah bar were breaking the law.

I'm not naming the hookah bar in question, just in case it's not operating within the law. I would rather not be a catalyst for getting a nice place that does no-one any harm closed down.

And then we walked home, through our district that has a lot of bars, and noticed that while the bars had all gone smokefree, there was no enforcement of the 25-foot rule whatsoever. This may well be different in the suburbs, but at least in the areas where that rule is most absurd, because 25 feet from one bar's door is either in the middle of the road or by the next bar's door, it's being ignored.

I'm still not happy about the principle of a blanket smoking ban, but at least the details that made Washington's ban particularly onerous seem not to be materialising.
posted @ 11:09 AM -

Sunday, December 11

A sign of the times?

KEXP has a Sunday morning blues show, which is excellent. I was listening to it just now, and a song came on that I was particularly enjoying. It was a very hammond-driven traditional blues song—the sort of thing that inspired The Doors—but it had the following chorus: Computer, computer, took my job away.

Now I'm just waiting for 21st Century San Francisco blues music to hit the big time and bring us choruses about dot-com-bust, dot-com-bust or outsourcing, outsourcing.
posted @ 10:42 AM -

Friday, December 9

Cleveland

I'm going to be in Cleveland from Monday - Thursday of next week. One of these days I'll actually make my arrangements appropriately far in advance, but as you can see I have failed to do so for this trip. So anyway, would anyone who will be in the Cleveland area like to meet up? My plans so far are to spend Wednesday afternoon with my lab (non-working lunch followed by lab meeting), at some point get a visit to La Cave du Vin in, and eat at less expensive places than Pacific East this time because it's too easy to blow hundreds of dollars on a trip if I don't think about it. I'll be staying with friends near Coventry (thanks Chad & Amanda - you rock), and won't have a car, so any arrangements I make are likely to be at Coventry or near campus.
posted @ 12:35 PM -

Thursday, December 8

So what actually happened here?

I was quite upset to learn about this man getting shot by an air marshal as he tried to leave a plane. As with that innocent Brazilian shot by police in London in July, if the air marshals' story is to be believed then they did have some justification and he deserves little sympathy. However, as time went by it became clear that more and more of the official story regarding de Menezes [sp?] was wrong, and the more details that came out the less justified the police action turned out to be. So what should I expect from this story once there has been time for more of it to get out?

And as I write this I'm wondering... knowing that the dead man was not carrying a bomb—whether he made a threat or not—we know the total effect of the air marshal programme so far. Marshals have acted precisely once, and that was to kill someone who was not a threat to others. So we have this programme, operated at huge expense, which has so far saved no lives and claimed one. Good metaphor for security hysteria in general, anyone?

And then... what if it were me, and I were in fact running to the toilet, because that's something I have to do often? I certainly don't feel more safe because of the presence of armed air marshals on a flight (and for related reasons I try to avoid flying via DC). Of course this all depends on what exactly the dead man did, because if he really ran around shouting that he had a bomb then it's clearly a level of asking for trouble that I never reach, but what if it was just that the marshals took exception to his rushing off the plane? That's uncomfortably close to behaviour I engage in perfectly innocently on a regular basis.
posted @ 1:50 PM -

Wednesday, December 7

Religious freedom

Recently, in a discussion with Barry, I found myself arguing that freedom of religion and freedom from religion are not far removed from each other. The discussion was about a case in which the ACLU rather perversely supported a university's decision to ban RAs from holding bible studies. In that instance, I found myself agreeing with Barry's contention that this was perverse, because in effect the ACLU were arguing that an RA is never not at work, which is a horrible form of slavery (not to mention that if they were legally considered to be working 24/7 for the university their pay would be far below minimum wage).

Today I've seen another ACLU vs religious institution story, except that in this case I think the ACLU are right. A Catholic man was forced into a Pentecostalist rehab programme, as a condition of his probation; in effect the court gave him a choice between joining a church programme or going to jail, so the ACLU took up his case. As long as that report is a fair one, it's pretty hard to argue with what they're doing here, but the point I want to make is that this is an issue that can be labelled as either freedom of or freedom from religion. Had the victim been an atheist it would automatically get portrayed as freedom from religion—and this is how the ACLU serves my interests personally—but because the victim was instead a member of a different denomination, it's portrayed as freedom of religion. Yet is there a logical difference?
posted @ 9:52 AM -

Tuesday, December 6

Repeat after me: the Right are not our friends

Good Night, and Good Luck, along with someone reminding me of one of The Onion's truest stories, has kicked me back into wanting to vent about politics. Mostly I'd rather focus on local politics, because it's where there is some hope of achieving something, but for today I'm going to go back to an ideological issue I have vented about before.

First, a digression about terminology, because I can't write this post without using words that have been very much abused. A Jew is a member of the same race as me and/or a believer in a religion whose traditions I was brought up in but in which I do not believe. A zionist is a person who believes that it is morally imperative to establish a Jewish state in a location that is at least a subset of old-testament-era Israel. zionists is often used as code for Jews—generally by anti-Semites—and it is often erroneously assumed that if one is a Jew one must also be a Zionist. Please try to push those rhetorical sleights-of-hand out of your mind as you read what follows, because I do not use these terms interchangeably. Example: I am a Jew, and I am not a zionist.

Back to the point. It is my perception that the American Right wing gets significantly more support from Jews than it otherwise would, because many Jews are also zionists, and the American Right is perceived as being pro-Israel, whereas the American Left's distaste for specific things the Israeli government has done is often perceived as crossing the line into being anti-Israel, anti-Israeli, and even anti-Semitic.

I should mention that this perception of the Left (and this applies in the UK too) is not without merit. When I lived in the UK I associated with a lot of people whose politics were further left and more radical than my own, and I have seen this slide from outrage at specific actions by the IDF or Israeli government right across into anti-Semitism. I also got pretty tired of being expected to defend the policies of a country in which I do not even have the right to vote, just because I identify as Jewish. However, these people are at the fringe of the movement, and frankly judging the Right by its respective lunatic fringe makes it look no more palatable. I have as yet to meet a mainstream leftie who fails to understand the difference between Jew and setter of policy for the State of Israel.

However, there is anti-Semitism considerably closer to the mainstream of the Right. I'll let today's offender hang himself with his own words, but I should also make some context clear. Bill O'Reilly is not the mainstream of the Right, nor is he a part of the Bush administration. However, he is a very convenient ally of the current government, and he does have continual prime TV exposure, and he's really a lot closer to the mainstream than I would like him to be. To put this another way, there are far fewer steps in the path from him to the Republican Party's leadership than the path from, say, the Young Communist League to the Democratic Party's. So here we go, quoted from THE NEWS BLOG:
Bill O'Reilly on Neil Cavuto's Show

O'REILLY: Well, it's absurd. This is so insane, I don't think of anything -- I've seen anything this stupid in the 30 years I've been in this business. Here you have a national public holiday signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. Christmas, all right? Federal holiday, everybody gets off, no mail delivered, everybody shuts down. Federal holiday. Why is it there? To honor a philosopher, Jesus. Whose philosophy was part of the foundation of our country. All of this is indisputable. Can't dispute it. OK? A man was born, his name is Jesus, he had a philosophy, the philosophy was incorporated by the Founding Fathers to make up the United States of America, U.S. Grant signs into law the holiday, Christmas. Now, we have people who are offended by that. Well, tough, right? Tough. Some people are offended by fingernails; I'm not pulling mine out. So I'm feeling -- I'm offended by everything you do, we're not firing you. OK? Offended? Too bad. But then --

CAVUTO: But the point is with companies -- they may have a lot to be grateful for.

O'REILLY: You have to let me warm up.

CAVUTO: 'Cause you seem to be going off track.

O'REILLY: Well, I'm not. Then the business community says we don't want to offend anybody, so we're not going to say "Merry Christmas." We're going to say "Happy Holidays, all right? That offends millions of Christians, see? Eighty-five percent of the country calls itself Christian. Fifteen percent of the country -- you figure these people could do the math if they're CEOs. Eighty-five percent Christian; they are into Christmas, OK? That's their big day. Fifteen percent aren't. Now of those 15 percent, maybe 1 percent are totally insane. They're nuts. They're the ones who are offended. So what it comes down to is that these CEOs and big companies -- big companies, like Wal-Mart, Sears, KMart -- will not say "Merry Christmas" in their stores or advertising to cater to 1 percent of Americans who are insane.

...............................

O'REILLY: This is insulting to Christian America. It's insulting. This is driven by secular progressives --

CAVUTO: The Jews and Muslims say it's insulting to keep the Christmas.

O'REILLY: I say that Muslims are less than 1 percent of the population, and Jews are less than 3 percent of the population. They're entitled to their opinion, they're entitled to their opinion and they are entitled not to shop in places that say "Merry Christmas," just as I'm entitled not to shop in places that don't. That's what I say. But the bottom line on this is this: Secular progressives which are driving this movement, OK, don't want Christmas. They don't want it as a federal holiday, they don't want any message of spirituality or Judeo-Christian tradition because that stands in the way of gay marriage, legalized drugs, euthanasia, all of the greatest hits on the secular progressive play card. If they can succeed in getting religion out of the public arena --

CAVUTO: Who's "they?"

O'REILLY: George Soros. He's the moneyman behind it. It's a philosophy. Go on the websites and look at it. It's there. It's a secular, progressive ....
posted @ 9:51 AM -

Monday, December 5

...and when we reach that point, whatever has happened will happen again

Everyone must watch Good Night, and Good Luck. But be warned. The day after watching it, the film still has me angry.
posted @ 10:07 AM -
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