Security theatre strikes again

With the exception of two brief trips this past year, I’ve not been overseas since 2004. (2006 if you count literally overseas and include, er, Belfast). It’s not that I dislike going places – I enjoy it a lot – it’s just that I loathe flying. Being in the air is lovely; getting there is not.

I mean, flying as I remember it in the past isn’t much fun. I’m 6’2″, tall enough that short legroom is more of an annoyance than usual, and there’s always a lot of stress around airports – if you miss a connection, you have a lot less leeway for “oh, I’ll get on the next one” than you do with trains. You get stale food and lukewarm coffee, and you spend a lot of time in terminals at the mercy of overpriced concessions selling… well, stale food and lukewarm coffee.

But flying these days, of course, it’s all a bit more grim. Bags checked, shoes off, shoes on, bags checked again, seemingly random restrictions on what that bag can contain, etc etc, all of which largely spurious and done for the sake of looking secure rather than providing any significant benefit.

Not the sort of thing to make you look forward to the experience, all in all; I manage the rest of my life quite well without being treated like a criminal, and I don’t particularly want to pay for the privilege if I can avoid it. So, when I read today:

Among other steps being imposed, passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. … In effect, the restrictions mean that passengers on flights of 90 minutes or less would most likely not be able to leave their seats at all, since airlines do not allow passengers to walk around the cabin while a plane is climbing to its cruising altitude.
[New York Times]

…yeah. Any remaining desire I had to fly, I can feel just flowing out of me.

I mean, even were it a meaningful security step it would make it unpleasant enough to be a deterrent; as it is, the new system… wouldn’t even have prevented yesterday’s incident.

Mr Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom for about 20 minutes before the incident, court documents say.
When he got back to his seat, he said he had an upset stomach and he pulled a blanket over himself, the affidavit continues.
“Passengers then heard popping noises similar to firecrackers, smelled an odour, and some observed Abdulmutallab’s pants, leg and the wall of the airplane on fire,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.
[BBC News]

Imagine this rule was in place. What’d you have done, wanting to get around it? You’d have gone to the bathroom earlier, secreted the stuff about your person, and sat down. Wear a long loose shirt, say; you can manipulate stuff inside that easily enough, and I don’t see people patrolling the aisles, nursery-teacher style, to check your hands are neatly folded in your laps. Not exactly rocket science, really.

We have a security system, one that works well; people being alert and reacting when something goes wrong. You couldn’t manage a September 11th style hijacking any more, not because you’re not allowed knives on board but because people won’t be deterred by knives any more. And… that’s what happened here.

Bombs, they’re another kettle of fish. In the long run, you can’t stop people detonating them once they have them – not without tranquilising everyone and sealing them in glass boxes – because it’s an arms race, and there will always be a new method. You have to stop them being there to detonate, and normal security systems are – mostly – good at that. When they’re not, when people can still turn up carrying explosives, you need to think about that problem, not about what people are and aren’t allowed to do with their hands.

Film novels

Way back in the mists of time, Jurassic Park was released. I was… let me see, ten. It should not be surprising that I loved it uncritically. Move forward fifteen years, and I happened to watch it again; it was still a pretty good film, even if parts began to look faintly dated. I ferreted out a copy of the novel and, all in all, not bad. Not quite my thing, a little heavy on the Clever Scientific Concepts – I like my fiction without detours into chaos theory – but it was enjoyable and rattled along nicely for an afternoon.

Yesterday, feeling particularly cold, I ducked into a charity shop; the only thing on the shelf that looked even vaguely interesting was, unexpectedly, a copy of the sequel, The Lost World. So, I paid a pound for it, and went back out into the snow to catch my bus home.

All I knew about this novel was that it was a sequel, it was somewhat hastily written to respond to the ravening demand for one, and that it would have been written with the expectation of being turned into a film. So, you’d expect a bit of sloppiness in the plotting, a few sections in need of editorial help, the usual signs of a book that did not quite get the attention it deserved. And we had them; moments where the plot leapt ahead without quite making logical connections, a character who seems entirely unsurprised to run into someone he thought he’d murdered three chapters earlier, and a Big Clever Scientific Explanation near the end which doesn’t quite make sense. (The entire plot doesn’t make sense in the context of the previous book’s events, either, come to think of it – but I can let that one slide.)

Despite this, it’s the film aspect that really leapt out. There are chase scenes in this; passages which don’t really work, seeming fast and clumsy, but when you re-read them you realise they’d look impressive on camera. Exposition is done in monologues in preference to narrative text. Characters are flat and hard to distinguish from their written speech alone. An obligatory pair of annoyingly competent children are shoehorned in, without any real attempt to explain how or why or if it makes sense. It all feels very forced, very much an attempt to make it punchier and more glossy at the expense of what plot there was before.

(It could have been worse, of course. Wikipedia notes, with what seems to be restrained amusement, that “the novel does not feature an adult Tyrannosaurus rampaging in San Diego, unlike in the film.”)

It’s a pity, really; it’s easy to dismiss this sort of quasi-tie-in novel as going to be terrible anyway, but we can see from the previous iteration that there was scope for something decent here. I wonder if it holds for other such sequels? The only example I can think of offhand is 2001 – where the first novel was written almost simultaneously with the film – but that’s such an odd case it’d be hard to draw any conclusions from it. 2010 was invariably going to seem brasher and punchier than 2001, because so would virtually anything else…

A new planet

It’s strange that I go on holiday and promptly fail to have enough time to do anything, but there you go. Haven’t posted in weeks.

So, moving on, today’s (yesterdays?) news. A research team in the US has identified a planet orbiting the red dwarf GJ 1214. What makes this particularly interesting – by comparison to the long line of extrasolar planets discovered in the past ten years – is two things:

  • Its characteristics. It’s quite small – six and a half earth masses, and about twice the diameter – but it’s also quite light. This indicates an unusual composition; it’s probably composed of ice and a small core, with a thick atmosphere, rather than rock. It’s hot, though – not as hot as Venus, but certainly hotter than we’d like – and so that ice is probably in some exotic form.
  • …and the way it was discovered. This wasn’t identified as the result of a high-powered orbital mission, or of extensive searching on one of the major telescopes; it was a small group of researchers, cherry-picking likely targets, for a total cost probably under half a million dollars. We can hope to see quite a few more…

We’re about four centuries – give or take three weeks – from Galileo discovering the first icy worlds, little satellites in orbit around Jupiter. This new object – a super-Ganymede as much as a super-Earth – seems a pretty triumphant discovery to mark the anniversary.

Borders slowly dying

The Bookseller reports that Borders UK is a short distance from collapse; it’s been cut off by several major wholesale suppliers, it’s unable to meet its bills, and it’s sitting on the sale block.

The sale block is not a particularly enticing one, either; WH Smiths have turned down the opportunity to buy the firm, and HMV (who own Waterstones) are only interested in cherry-picking a few stores, presumably ones where they’re not in direct competition. There’s always the possibility someone new might swoop in and try to set up their own position in the market, but media retailers with spare cash are few and far between this year, and high-street bookselling isn’t a very tempting prospect these days.

There’s interesting implications here for the book market as a whole. Borders has far fewer stores than Waterstones, who have a very large share of the book market, but it has a high turnover; on 2008 figures, it had about 40% the business of Waterstones – Blackwells and Amazon UK equalled about a quarter of Waterstones apiece, though obviously the latter includes a large non-book element. It’s not unreasonable to say that Borders represents 5-10% of the British book market, at least.

So where’s that going to go? Interesting times loom ahead – but given the distribution of Waterstones and Borders stores, which are usually very closely placed and directly competing for the same passing trade, it seems pretty easy to guess who’ll get the benefit of it over Christmas.

Archives for the 21st Century

Mike Peel of WMUK points out the new governmental policy on public archives. A couple of interesting figures to highlight:

  • There are about 300 publicly funded archives; half local government, a quarter universities, then museums etc making up the remaining third.
  • Per-capita funding for archive services by local government varies by a factor of twenty-two between the best and least funded regions. (In absolute terms, which is a bit less meaningful due to sharp population distinctions, it’s a factor of forty)
  • Less than 50% of material is described in online catalogues; less than 1% is accessible via digitisation programs. (I suspect the missing word there is vastly less than 1%…) [p. 14]
  • The National Archives provides 170 digital documents for every one used in a reading room, and given the overall figures (112m) that suggests a reading-room usage of 650,000 per year. [p.18]

One figure that would have been very helpful would be an estimate – even an order-of-magnitude ballpark estimate – as to the economic value of public archives. Section 2 talks at some length about the tangible benefits of archives, and indeed mentions economic benefits twice alongside things such as supporting public decision-making or academic research, but the whole section is quite vague and devoid of numbers to quantify what those economic benefits are.

Whatever the plan that follows this report turns out to be, it’ll imply government spending in some way or another; to help make the case for supporting these services properly we need to be able to say – archives are [potentially] worth fifty million to the country a year, or a hundred million, or whatever number it might be. People make these numbers for libraries, for museums, for school playing fields… it shouldn’t be too difficult for the sector to say, upfront, this is what we’re worth to you, treat us accordingly.

(It may seem a bit blunt – but, well, arguing for more public funding without hard numbers is like going unarmed to a duel. You may go through all the motions, but unless your opponent is very scrupulous, you’ll lose)

Recipe: too much passata

Last night, we made pizzas. (This is now my favourite way of feeding a dozen people – the work can be shared out easily, it allows for complex democratisation of who eats what and how much of it, and you can spread it over an hour so you only need one oven.)

The problem was, we ended up with too much sauce. A small bowl of heavy, thick, gloopy passata-and-garlic-and-basil sauce which I salvaged for dinner today; nice and rich, but too thick to put on pasta.

So, take the sauce, bulk it out a bit with a small tin of tomato pureé and an equal amount of warm water; mix in chopped cooked sausages, chopped carrots, and some mushrooms. Cook for about thirty minutes at 200 degrees; stir, add some cheese on top, another twenty minutes. Serve with an enormous pile of rice.

Not bad, all told, but more filling than it looked at first! Two things that’d have improved it:

  • parboiling the carrots before adding them, as they came out a little too crunchy
  • using equal amounts of red wine and pureé, rather than water and pureé

We had red wine to hand, in fact, but vetoed using it because it seemed too nice to cook with and there wasn’t much left. I think that was the right decision, but it’s tough to say.

Government spending visualisations

An interesting new project: Where Does My Money Go? [currently an alpha version; details; announcement]

Basically, interactive visualisations of UK governmental spending, broken down by topic or by region. There’s also a time-series function, which is quite interesting to see – overall government spending, as a proportion of GDP, has just hit the bad old days of 1992.

Things that currently stand out as major issues:

  • uncleaned data means hideous governmental terminology – “n.e.c.” everywhere
  • expanding on that, the data needs a bit more organising – ensuring you can switch between subdivisions on the national-level, for example, would mean linking the ‘economic > transport’ sections together in the same way that the ‘economic’ sections currently are
  • the main charts are a little ambiguous as to which circles are subdivisions of each other
  • there’s no way to apply the time-series graph to “second level” data – so you can compare “general public services” spending over time, but you can’t compare the amount spent on debt servicing
  • mousing over a column really should display its numeric value

On the whole, though, promising – definitely worth ten minutes playing with. Gets the concept across a lot more clearly than the bare figures might.

Piglet squid

One of my current projects involves rebuilding the ePrints repository system to work as a well-structured database for archiving photographs. It’s going quite well, but the problem is that I can’t really demo it to anyone – the test server has virtually no content. So, any time I have to explain how it’ll work, I keep referring them to someone else doing the same sort of thing; the SERPENT project, who’re building up quite a nice collection of photographs of deep-sea creatures which have blundered into industrial submersibles.

Which means I occasionally spend a few minutes going, right, I need something to show what thumbnails on a multiple-image record look like, could I use manta rays? Dog sharks? Maybe something novel…

…and then I tripped over this, a Helicocranchia squid.

That is, in fact, a “piglet squid” – about 5-10cm long, and as the name suggests, looks like a cheerfully rotund piglet. I’m not sure quite how fads for pets begin, but that sentence sounds like a good attempt.

(More on the piglet squid – and some better photographs – here.)


Today is the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and – to a first approximation – the end of the German Democratic Republic. I don’t really have anything intelligent to say on the matter; I was seven at the time, and failed to notice much about it. I do remember, a couple of years later, visiting a relative with a little fragment of the Wall in the glass china case in their living room, and being duly impressed, but I’m not sure I could have explained why. (This is odd – I know I was aware of world news stories a year earlier, in 1988, perhaps even late ’87. Maybe my memory is at fault here, not my childish attention-spans.)

But it does reminds me, on the other hand, that I wanted to mention that:

  • there is a new discount bookshop open on St. Aldates;
  • it is selling copies of Stasiland for £2;
  • which is one of the best books I’ve read this year;
  • and you should be able to deduce #4 for yourself.

(Why, look at the tangential relevance. Classy, me.)

Stasiland is great. Absolutely, unqualifiedly, great. Well-written, moving, direct, vivid and detached; it describes horrors and terror without either dwelling on them or glossing over them, which is a rare skill. It’s a series of linked stories of daily life in East Germany – mostly East Berlin – told by former citizens, interspersed with a narrative of life in contemporary Berlin as the author tracked them down. She deliberately included interviews with ex-Stasi members, some devoted and some compelled, which provides an interesting second layer to the reminiscences.

Following on from Stasiland, I read Timothy Garton Ash’s The File a few months later. It was an interesting corollary, an attempt by a privileged observer – a Western historian – to trace back his time in East Germany through studying his file, to trace back the contacts with bystanders and informers. The problem is that neither is the book you’d really want to read; Funder tells a lot of stories second-hand, and Ash tells his own story and those entwined with his, but we never quite get a first-hand memoir of someone who actually lived under the regime and couldn’t, as Ash could, walk away.

Suggestions for further reading on East Germany, either from a social or a historic perspective, appreciated.

On a lighter note, Ben Lewis’s Hammer and Tickle was enjoyable as a jokebook and a vaguely serious study of humour in adversity – I did like his idea that you could follow the trajectory of people’s faith in The Whole Grand Communist Project by looking at the tone of their jokes about it – but could have done with cutting out the 20% of padding about the author’s private life. Perhaps best just to read the original essay.

And finally, I have not yet bought a copy of K Blows Top, but I expect it to be all you’d expect from a book detailing Khruschev’s wacky road-trip across fifties America. (This must be one of the few sentences where “wacky” is the only appropriate adjective.)