This Blog Has Moved


New Address:

All posts are available in the new blog

Please do not post any comments here. Go to the new address to comment. Thank you.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Plastic World

I lost my wallet yesterday (or perhaps it was taken from me) on my way to the airport in Seoul, South Korea.

I remember using it last to pay for the airport bus at the hotel. A couple of hours later, at the airport, it was no longer with me. With only an hour or so to go until my flight, I barely had time to get my wits together and start cancelling my credit cards in 4 different countries. I had to continue the process during the flight itself; thank you Lufthansa for wireless access on board...

In one instant I came to realize how much we rely on the "Plastic World". I had several cards in my wallet: six credit cards, one ATM card, a DeutscheBahn train card, my medical insurance card, my drivers license, my dialling card and probably another few cards I don't quite remember were there. (Thankfully, my passport was in a separate place). Suddenly I was unable to withdraw cash, to make phone calls, to rent a car or to reserve anything online. It's going to take a while until all my cards are renewed and until then I will be living in a crippled, Plastic-less world.

Here's an idea for a startup: a memory chip that will contain all personal data and cards which, if lost, can be reproduced at any bank or post office in the world by identifying the owner, preferably using DNA, fingerprints, etc. The technology is surely there and it's only a question of putting the right checks and balances in place to avoid misuse of such a technology.

I'm off to London after Yom Kippur. It's going to be a cash-only trip as I won't have my credit cards renewed by then; I'm not looking forward to that experience...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Oriana Fallaci and Benedict

How symbolic is it that Oriana Fallaci, Italian journalist and author, passed away on the same week that Pope Benedict made his remarks about Islam, sparking the fury of Muslims worldwide and forcing him to make several public apologies to soothe the "hurt feelings" of the world's second-biggest religion.

Fallaci made her reputation in the 70s and 80s as a no-nonsense journalist who interviewed the world's leaders and put them on the spot time and again. In recent years she made headlines mostly as a result of her tireless tirades against the Islamisation of Europe (or "Eurabia" in her words). I recently read her last book "La Forza della Ragione" ("The Force of Reason"), which is a follow-up to her post-9/11 book "The Rage and the Pride". In "Reason", Fallaci tells the readers about the numerous death threats she received as a result of her comments in the first book. She identifies herself with Master Cecco, who was put to the stake by the Inquisition on account of his beliefs and heretical writings. Fallaci writes with passion but does not allow this passion to shadow the "force of reason" when examining the trends in her homeland. She writes in the first person, often addressing the reader directly, and I found her Italian to be fascinating and rich.

By now Pope Benedict and the Vatican msut have apologised perhaps seven times for daring to quote some obscure Byzantine emperor's views about the violent nature of Islam. I wonder how many of the offended Muslims, who attacked Christians and burnt down churches, paused to think how by their actions they are proving the accuracy of the Byzantine emperor's observations...

An appropriate epilogue to this post is this link to an article by Sam Harris in the LA Times this week. As Harris puts it, "a cult of death is forming in the Muslim world". Five years after 9/11, the Al Qaeda attack on the US is sadly proving to be only a prelude to the real war still ahead of us all.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Welcome Aboard

The following "truthful" in-flight announcement appeared in this week's The Economist. This is what these announcements would be like if the airlines would only tell us the truth.

Welcome aboard

In-flight announcements are not entirely truthful. What might an honest one sound like?

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We are delighted to welcome you aboard Veritas Airways, the airline that tells it like it is. Please ensure that your seat belt is fastened, your seat back is upright and your tray-table is stowed. At Veritas Airways, your safety is our first priority. Actually, that is not quite true: if it were, our seats would be rear-facing, like those in military aircraft, since they are safer in the event of an emergency landing. But then hardly anybody would buy our tickets and we would go bust.

The flight attendants are now pointing out the emergency exits. This is the part of the announcement that you might want to pay attention to. So stop your sudoku for a minute and listen: knowing in advance where the exits are makes a dramatic difference to your chances of survival if we have to evacuate the aircraft. Also, please keep your seat belt fastened when seated, even if the seat-belt light is not illuminated. This is to protect you from the risk of clear-air turbulence, a rare but extremely nasty form of disturbance that can cause severe injury. Imagine the heavy food trolleys jumping into the air and bashing into the overhead lockers, and you will have some idea of how nasty it can be. We don't want to scare you. Still, keep that seat belt fastened all the same.

Your life-jacket can be found under your seat, but please do not remove it now. In fact, do not bother to look for it at all. In the event of a landing on water, an unprecedented miracle will have occurred, because in the history of aviation the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is zero. This aircraft is equipped with inflatable slides that detach to form life rafts, not that it makes any difference. Please remove high-heeled shoes before using the slides. We might as well add that space helmets and anti-gravity belts should also be removed, since even to mention the use of the slides as rafts is to enter the realm of science fiction.

Please switch off all mobile phones, since they can interfere with the aircraft's navigation systems. At least, that's what you've always been told. The real reason to switch them off is because they interfere with mobile networks on the ground, but somehow that doesn't sound quite so good. On most flights a few mobile phones are left on by mistake, so if they were really dangerous we would not allow them on board at all, if you think about it. We will have to come clean about this next year, when we introduce in-flight calling across the Veritas fleet. At that point the prospect of taking a cut of the sky-high calling charges will miraculously cause our safety concerns about mobile phones to evaporate.

On channel 11 of our in-flight entertainment system you will find a video consisting of abstract imagery and a new-age soundtrack, with a voice-over explaining some exercises you can do to reduce the risk of deep-vein thrombosis. We are aware that this video is tedious, but it is not meant to be fun. It is meant to limit our liability in the event of lawsuits.

Once we have reached cruising altitude you will be offered a light meal and a choice of beverages—a word that sounds so much better than just saying ‘drinks’, don't you think? The purpose of these refreshments is partly to keep you in your seats where you cannot do yourselves or anyone else any harm. Please consume alcohol in moderate quantities so that you become mildly sedated but not rowdy. That said, we can always turn the cabin air-quality down a notch or two to help ensure that you are sufficiently drowsy.

After take-off, the most dangerous part of the flight, the captain will say a few words that will either be so quiet that you will not be able to hear them, or so loud that they could wake the dead. So please sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. We appreciate that you have a choice of airlines and we thank you for choosing Veritas, a member of an incomprehensible alliance of obscure foreign outfits, most of which you have never heard of. Cabin crew, please make sure we have remembered to close the doors. Sorry, I mean: ‘Doors to automatic and cross-check’. Thank you for flying Veritas.”

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Until I Find You, by John Irving

Whenever I get a chance to spend time wandering around a bookstore with no particular book in mind (sadly not too often), I always check if one of my favourite writers has published a new book. One of these writers is John Irving. For many years now, Irving has been near the top of my favourites list, with A Prayer for Owen Meany probably being one of the best, if not the best, novel I have ever read. It was therefore with great expectations that I took his latest book - Until I Find You - with me on my latest trip to Japan, looking forward to long hours of reading pleasure on the flights.

Alas, it was not to be. I have had disappointments from recent Irving books, but Until was probably the greatest letdown. I learnt a lot about tattoos but despite the familiar Irving prose this book somehow seemed too long and repetitive. And the ending was hugely disappointing.

The book tells the story of Jack Burns, "actor before he was an actor", son to Alice, a tattoo artist, and to William, an organ player. William falls out of love with Alice shortly after meeting her, but she is pregnant with child and does not agree to let William go without a fight. When Jack is four he tours Europe with Alice, moving from city to city, from church organ to church organ, in the hope of tracking William down and confronting him with his "abandoned responsibilities". In the first third of the book (total: >800 pages!) Jack recounts this odyssey through Europe, reconstructing it from the memory of 4-year-old.

After the failed hunt for William, Alice and Jack go back to Toronto and Jack is enrolled in an all-girls school, St. Hilda's, where boys are admitted until grade four. It is there that he discovers his affinity for "older women" and where he meets Emma Oastler, who becomes his mentor and life-time friend. From St. Hilda's Jack goes to a boarding school in New England, this time an all-boys school. Eventually, Jack moves to Los Angeles and becomes a famous actor, winning an Oscar for a screenplay adapted from one of Emma's books after her death. In the last third of the book, and after his mother dies, Jack discovers the truth about his parents and he embarks on a second odyssey to Europe, this time seeing the stories his mother told him in a totally different light.

As usual, Irving's characters are described in detail and become memorable personae: Jack's third-grade teacher, Catherine "The Wurtz", who ends up as his companion to the Oscars; Michelle Maher, one of Jack's many girlfriends, but the one he never forgets; numerous tattoo artists, all Alice's friends, who helped her and Jack during their voyage in Europe lending them a place to "sleep in the needles"; and many more. Irving's characters become very vivid in the reader's mind, and because of the length of his novels some of them become almost friends. I remember the feeling I had when I finished reading The Cider House Rules during my military duty: I felt very sad to have to "say goodbye" to some of the characters after weeks of companionship.

Some of Irving's regular and recurring themes are also present in Until: New England, boarding schools, wrestling and coaching, intra-family intimate ties, single motherhood, marital infedilities, etc. Curiously missing, though, are the bears... Irving's use of repeated phrases that become the leitmotif of the book are also present in Until, except that this time I found them to be somewhat too repetitive (how many times can one read about Jack's fondness for his penis being held by an older woman?).

As much as it pains me to write this, it seems that Irving is past his prime. He made his fame with A World According to Garp (personally not one of my favourites and a terrible movie adaptation) and then solidified his literary prominence through bestsellers such as The Cider House Rules, A Son of the Circus and The Fourth Hand. But it is his earlier novels - for example The Hotel New Hampshire or A Prayer for Owen Meany - that are truly his best. If you are new to Irving, Until I Find You is definitely not the book you should read first.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


I never really understood the hold gambling has on some people. On my visits to Las Vegas I have watched those people sitting in front of the slot machines, mechanically pushing the buttons or pulling the lever, watching the wheels turn round with glassy expressions for hours on end. I understand these people have a problem but I cannot grasp the depths of human misery that drives them to such senseless behaviour.

Pachinko is, by far, the most common form of gambling in Japan. A Pachinko machine is a cross between a pinball machine and a slot machine. The player buys a large number of small steel and, using a small knob, controls the speed at which the balls are fed into the machine. The balls drop down through an array of pins and are mostly ejected from the machine but, if you're lucky, some of them go through a gate which give the player points (i.e. more balls). At the end of the day, the more balls you're left with, the better. A modern, and increasingly more popular, version of the game is the Pachislot, basically a slot machine.

Pachinko parlours are usually located near train stations. They are noisy and smoky places, with a dazzling display of coloured lights and incessant annoying background music. Players sit in long rows in front of the machines, their right hand permanently on the knob and their eyes fixed on the dropping balls. It's a sad sight. Because gambling for money is illegal in Japan, the player can exchange the balls he earned for prizes such as stuffed toys, pens or cigarette lighters. Then, once outside, he can exchange these prizes for money at the small shops near the parlours that exist for this sole purpose. Neat loophole.

Allegedly, today's pachinko parlours are mostly owned by Korean immigrants and natually there is considerable involvement of the Japanese mafia (the infamous Yakuza) in this lucrative business. Every summer, there are reports of babies suffocating to death in parked cars, left there to wait while their father or mother are busy playing Pachinko.

In my four and half years living in Japan I have never visited a Pachinko parlour. Last week, on a short visit to Tokyo, I decided I should check it out. I went to the parlour outside Akasaka-Mitsuke station with a colleague from work. He was my tour guide. I inserted a 1,000 yen note (about $8.5) into the machine, got my balls, and started feeding them into the machine. Frankly speaking, there is absolutely nothing to it. It doesn't look as if the speed at which the balls enter the machine matters, although my friend insisted that I hold the knob so that the balls hit a specific area in the needle array. About 20 minutes and 5,000 yen later I got the point and put an end to my short and inglorious Pachinko career.