Wacky security questions

Filed under: travel — jlm @ 13:18

While I privately celebrate Independence Day, let me reminisce on a small, but odd, part of my recent trip to the mother country we independenced from. For a round-trip international flight, you’re questioned by security agents four times: by the TSA before leaving the country, by ICE upon your return, and by their equivalents in the foreign country upon arrival and departure there. The TSA screening was very routine, but the British immigration/customs officer had this weird thing where he’d repeat all my answers back with a really skeptical tone.

“Where are you going from here?”
“I’ll be staying here in London for the next five days.”
“You’re lodging in London?”
“Why are you coming here?”
“Primarily to visit my family.”
“You’re visiting family, who live in London?”
“And when are you leaving?”
“I fly back home on July 1st.”
“You’re flying back to the US on the 1st of July?”
“And how are you getting to London?”
“I bought a ticket for a National Express bus.” [The “Tube” was shut down due to a labor strike.]
“You’re taking a National Express bus to London?”
[Dropping the skeptical act] “Very good, welcome to the UK.”

Maybe the idea is somebody fabricating their answers will feel a need to elaborate instead of simply confirming? Whatever. The odder bit was the trip back, where each security officer asked me a strange question.

“Where is your journey starting from?”
“Uh, what?”
“Where is your flight leaving?”
[Borrowing the tone of his countryman] “You want to know the airport my flight departs from?”
“From this airport, London Heathrow.”
“Very good.”

And then, from ICE:

“What’s in London?”
“Uh, what?”
“You said you flew in from London, what’s there?”
“Well, there are a lot of things in London: Parliament, and a stretch of the River Thames, and several bridges over the river, and millions of people, one of whom is a first cousin, and his wife, and —” [at this point, the agent cuts me off, and I don’t even get a “very good”. I guess that’s a British thing.]


Reflections on Barcelona

Filed under: biking, travel — jlm @ 15:38

I recently spent two weeks working in Barcelona, Spain. Here are some of my thoughts about the place.

Externally, the buildings exhibit some amazing architecture. It was a pleasure to spend free time simply wandering on my bike and gawking at the buildings. The architects of Barcelona certainly put a lot of effort into the aesthetics their works project out onto the street. Once inside, however, it seemed like basic considerations for the buildings’ users were not given. Most doors opened inward only, despite this being very dangerous if a building needs to be evacuated, say due to a fire. Very often there were stairs on the way to the elevator, often only two or three steps, making it gratuitously wheelchair inaccessible. This blatant disregard for personal safety and accessibility greatly lessened my admiration for the work the architects put into their buildings’ appearance once I recognized that it was a common theme throughout the city.

After a few days, I realized I was missing plants. Barcelona has very little green space. There are a ton of plazas, but they’re all done edge to edge in paving stones. The residential areas have no lawns or gardens, and there’s not even a strip of grass or trees between the sidewalk and road (instead, they park motorcycles there). I don’t understand why, but Barcelonans feel they have to pave every bit of bare dirt. In the less maintained areas plants would valiantly sprout through the gaps in the paving, but most places even these were trimmed away.

Language is interesting — the native tongue of Barcelona is Catalan, not Spanish. The Catalans call all Spanish castellano, though my Spanish was definitely not castellano but a weak mexicano. (In Spain, if you want some juice, that’s zumo not jugo!) A few people object to you not using Catalan with them — to them español mexicano in Catalonia is a no-no, as if weren’t the case that the only reason our southern neighbor uses any form of español at all is their countrymen of old imposed it upon them.

Except for the tourist areas, the entire city seems to shut down on Sunday. This was annoying, as I had mostly the weekends to explore, and for half the weekend everything is shuttered. Is Spain really that Christian and observant of the Fourth Commandment? I’m wondering if Spain can give their economy a much-needed boost by opening for all seven days.

Catalonian cuisine seemed to magnify some of the worst aspects of American cuisine: The portions are larger, more heavily salted, and have few vegetables. And they add some vices absent in American cuisine: there’s dessert at lunch, and the food is so very bland. I finally got fed up and had a chicken shawarma at a Turkish place just to have some spice, and even it was a pale shadow compared to any İstanbul street vendor. With these large, salty meals, in the summer heat, I was surprised at how small the drinks served are (typically less than 10 oz.) and no complimentary water. And the meals alone are pricey without the overcharging for tiny drinks. (Meals were expensive, but goods in shops seemed quite reasonably priced or even cheap. Faint comfort to a traveler, but better for residents.) Having enjoyed American interpretations of Spanish food, the cuisine was very disappointing.

Despite being there during record summer heat, I found biking around Barcelona to be very nice. (Just dress appropriately and stay hydrated!) The city is small enough that you can bike anywhere in it, and it’s mostly flat or gentle grades. There are many bike paths. Most streets are one-way, though you’re not allowed to turn on a red (oddly, this was adhered to, yet people would go straight on a red if there were no cross traffic). The intersections aren’t well signed, however, and this can pose a problem for navigation when you first go to an area. There are many interesting small alleys, and they don’t twist much, so dead reckoning works well. There’s very little space between parked cars and motoring ones, but this means there’s no danger from being doored, because everyone checks before opening their door, as otherwise they’ll lose it!


Back from Skepticon

Filed under: travel — jlm @ 10:39

I went to Skepticon 3 this weekend and it was a blast.

John Corvino had an excellent talk comparing atheist and homosexuals’ rights movements. This is a tricky topic, needing to avoid trivializing the gay rights struggles while not minimizing the issues faced by atheists in communities of believers either. John struck this balance deftly — I’m not sure someone who was not both an atheist and GLBT activist could have pulled it off.

There were interesting talks on skepticism’s relationship with feminism and sexuality, and another on diversity inside the movement. The Con had a good gender balance, but was very, very white. Part of this has to do with the location in a less-diverse part of the country, but much had to do with the white-skewed demographics of the skeptics movement. Unfortunately, the talk on diversity was lacking when it came to concrete suggestions.

The first day ended with a panel discussion on whether skepticism begat atheism. James Randi brought up that there were two types of atheists, the first who believed there was no god, and the second who didn’t believe that there was a god (ie, actual belief in nonexistence vs. lack of belief in existence). D.J. Grothe segued from this to say he found the arguments in favor and against the existence of god lacking, so he disbelieved, pending new information (so far, so good) and didn’t think there were really type 1 atheists, or maybe a very few. This statement was “WTF?” for me, so at the Q&A I pointed out that there really were people who believed there was no god, because of the problem of natural evil or other arguments. And the next day, during his talk, Grothe made this “no type 1 atheists” claim again! At Q&A Corvino called out again that plenty of atheists have real belief in god’s nonexistence. I’m disappointed in Grothe — he knows better, so claiming that “strong atheism” is a fringe of the atheist movement is simply dishonest.

Before that panel was one on accomidation vs. confrontation. This seemed to quickly settle on a consensus of “we should pick our battles wisely”, and lacking dispute consequently wasn’t that interesting.

The second day had a talk on faith healers by James Randi, which was entertaining, but was mostly video clips. Alas, Randi seems to be suffering from his age. A talk on debunking ghosts and cryptic creatures and spontaneous human combustion was interesting. Dan Barker’s story of going from faithful to faithless was touching. P.Z. Myers talked about teaching genetics by analogy with poker, but I found it unconvincing. Then there was a talk by Rebecca Watson on the so-called War on Christmas, which was hilarious.

The third day was easily the weakest. Victor Stenger’s talk used unsettled cosmology, and was weak. It’d been better if when he’d gone into elementary particles and their wave functions, talk about how the waves interfere and their particles interact. And at least gone into quantum interpretations a little. These are the bits of QM that “quantum spiritualists” misuse, and the talk gave little ammunition to combat them.

Sam Singleton was amusing for his gimmick of impersonating the affect of an evangelical preacher, but that wore thin quickly. His grandfather dying from snake handling was a sad story, another grain in the immense pile of suffering religion has caused. J.T. Eberhard’s was the best of the day, funny, and absolutely true to how talking atheism to the religious runs.

Not actually part of the conference, I spent the non-conferring parts of the weekend wandering Springfield, MO’s city center. I was struck by how utterly inactive the city was. But not like a dead city: The businesses were open, not shuttered, but there was very little traffic, pedestrian or automotive, very strange.

I had a great time talking with complete strangers also there — lots of friendly and intelligent folks. I’m overall very impressed with the conference. I’ve been to industry technical conferences that weren’t run as well. That a college freethinkers group could pull this off without even charging admission is doubly impressive.


Death Valley gallery

Filed under: travel — jlm @ 17:02

I put a photo gallery from my Death Valley trip up. (Wishing for a left-handed camera…)


I’m back

Filed under: travel — jlm @ 11:19

I’m back home. I’ve written a lot into a travel journal, I’ll be putting it up online soon.


Türkiye’ye gitim.

Filed under: travel — jlm @ 14:12

(“I’m off to Turkey.”)

[Flag of Turkey]

Report once I get back.


Back from OSCon

Filed under: travel — jlm @ 16:45

I’m back from the O’Reilly Open Source Conference in Portland. The conference was great but surprisingly tiring. There were a huge number of people there. The exhibit hall was pretty small, and there were many (about 10) sessions going on at a time. Contrast this with say the Unicode Conference, which had a much larger exhibit hall, but only three sessions at a time (and a much lower attendance). Or compare to SCALE, which had a small attendance, but a small exhibit hall and many sessions, like OSCon.

I prefer the Unicode Conference model; with the way OSCon is set up, you always feel like you have to give up something you want to attend when you go to another session. With just three sessions at once, you only occasionally have that feeling. But I guess the big problem is that Open Source is such a wide audience that you need a ton of sessions to capture the appeal of enough people.

As my employer paid my way, I’m going to be talking about some of the more interesting sessions on its blog (link forthcoming) instead of here. Some good sessions, good conversations, good people make for good times. And it was very nice to be back visiting the Portland area again. The MAX system has grown and is impressive — too bad Angelinos are so dismissive of public transit, they don’t know what they’re missing (whereas I do, ugh). I finished up with a nice short hike in the Gorge to McCord Creek Falls; I was worried about the heat, but under the forest canopy it was nice and comfortable.

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