The time between meeting and finally leaving is sometimes called falling in love

Leaving Venice was a lot harder than I had anticipated. I’d fallen for the place, hard, and with the expectation of Rome ahead, I can’t really say I was looking forward to taking off. Rome was a bit of a challenge, if only because my paranoia had been turned up to 11 by every third word in my guidebook being “thief” or “pickpocket” or “involuntary vehicular manslaughter.” Not exactly an auspicious way to begin things, is it? Yeah, I didn’t think so, either.

As predicted, Rome was gruling. It was hot — hotter than I’ve ever been, anywhere, and I’ve been to the desert in the summer. It was like stepping off an airplane in Texas in the middle of August and trying to breathe mayo. Hot and humid, I saw thermometers reading above 34, and if I get home to discover that Europe was in the grip of a senior-citizen-killing heat wave, I totally won’t be shocked.

Rome was also awful. Every damn thing required effort. The people were unhelpful in a way that made me think malice had to be involved (but probably, on second reflection, wasn’t). Going anywhere required a lineup, and frequently a long lineup. K. and I spent 2:15 in line to see the Vatican Museum, all of it in the sun, and all of it surrounded by a couple thousand of our close, personal friends. Thank god for the shortcut at the end of the Sistine Chapel that leads directly into the Basillica; we might never have made it out of there alive otherwise. It was so hot that by the beginning of our third day, we’d had enough of our cheap apartment without air conditioning and splurged on a hotel room (which, in true Rome style, was way the hell out in the middle of nowhere).

To be sure, the ancient stuff is… ancient. Not being of Judeo-Christian extraction I can’t really comment on the movingness of the Sistine Chapel or of St. Peter’s Basillica, but I can appreciate (a) age and (b) aesthetic beauty. The Chapel, in particular, is fascinating because of the work that went into it, and, knowing a bit about how much of a pain in the ass it was for Michelangelo makes it a bit more special. The Vatican has a nice collection of art but much of it is junk; I was much happier in the Belvedere in Vienna with the Klimts and Schieles, though I will give Raphael props for his exquisitly decorated rooms.

Unfortunately the Sistine Chapel is a no-photo zone. Which is fine, because the ceiling is too far away to get a meaningfully good picture. And they enforce it with guards, too, which is apparently necessary because a lot of people out there seem to think the no-photo rule applies to everyone except them. While watching the flashes pop (I mean, really), I wondered how damn stupid you have to be in order to do something like that. It’s a little like trying to think about how stupid you’d have to be to try smoking in an airplane bathroom but I apparently flew home with that guy from Tokyo a couple years ago, so I dunno. Afterwards I amused myself while walking back to our apartment by mentally composing a Cory Doctorow-style rant about the Vatican’s no-photo policy and, weirdly, came out on the Vatican’s side. (Not that this means much, mind you; I find I’m almost always on the other side of an issue from Cory.) The best part is that the no-photo policy came out of an agreement the Vatican made with the company that restored the frescos, so it’s not like its their policy, either! (You can see why this made for such a lovely Cory-rant.)

And to make matters worse, the Vatican apparently believes you can appreciate the splendor and beauty of the place with a thousand or so other people. WRONG. The Chapel desperately needs some kind of queuing system, though I guess after 2:15 in a lineup outside to get in another line might drive people to riot. Too many people talking too much (provoking the ire of the guards, again) makes for a decidely weird experience.

The frescos themselves are great. Bright, vivid, everything I’d been lead to believe they were not. It’s amazing what a few centuries of candle soot will do to something; I’m told people who saw them, pre-restoration, gasped when they saw the restored images. I can believe it.

I don’t have a whole lot else to say about Rome. I didn’t enjoy it, though people whose opinions I trust and respect seem to have exactly the opposite to say about the place, so I’m prepared to give it a second chance. But in the middle of the summer, on this trip, I wasn’t sorry to leave and arrive in the Cinque Terre, Italy’s Riviera.

This place… words aren’t enough. Five cute towns in the hills overlooking the Ligurian Sea, with beautiful beaches, warm waters, amazingly awesome food… what else do you want to know? Damn Rick Steves’ oily hide for making this place more popular! Our first choice town, Vernazza, was full and we weren’t able to get a reservation, so we ended up in Riomaggiore, which is to the south; a bigger town, but a lot quieter, and with blessedly fewer tourists. Vernazza, the Rickster’s “crown jewel,” is indeed nice (we had dinner there last night and are going back tonight) but damn is it ever noisy around the station (thanks, Trenitalia!) and it was so jammed full of tourists today that K. was grateful we didn’t end up staying there. (All of them, incidentally, packing a copy of Europe Through The Back Door.) We’ve taken the train the last two days to Monterosso, the most resorty of the towns, to lie on the beach and play in the surf, and holy frijoles, have we ever needed it. This is a vacation. Yeah, bitchez. I’m coming back here, you hear me?

Tomorrow we begin a nine-hour train trip out of Italy into Provence, which will be interesting: After two and a half weeks of being disoriented and having to guess at signs in Turkish, German, and Italian (usually with pretty good success),we’ll be in a comprehensible land once more. Two nights in Arles are followed by four in Paris, and for the first time since I was last in Montreal, over a decade ago, I’m going to have to make use of my French skills. Yahoo! Let’s find out how bilingual I still am!

And, on a personal note, I’d like to cite something here that drives me bananas: 41-39, .513, 2 games back of first place. I go and leave the Mariners in a state of total uselessness, and suddenly they discover how to play baseball again? Geez. At this rate, I’m gonna have to move to Uganda before they win the World Series.

Two if by canal

We arrived in Venice after a night of hell. As you might have guessed from the last entry, Vienna (and much of that part of the world) was under some kind of stagnant heat wave, the sort of thing that, back on the prairies, would be bringing thunderstorms around the corner. But in Europe.. enh. Who knows. So it was at 20:30 that we found ourselves onboard EuroNight 283 to Venice, in a T6 couchette with.. four other people, making a fully-loaded compartment. Our partners were an Australian pharmacist, and a family of Eucadorians — husband, wife, mother. It was, roughly, 35 degrees in that compartment before I managed to brute-force the window open, and with six of us cramped inside the humidity soared to over 80%.

OBB — the punk-ass organization that runs the trains in Austria — is a bunch of incompetent, passive-aggressive assholes. I mean this in the most derrogatory and insulting way possible. We were the only compartment that was full to the brim, and the three compartments next to us were empty. They had told us that we couldn’t move into the other compartments because the train would stop to pick up passengers along the way, including a middle-of-the-night stop in Salzburg, so no, we had to stay put. They even locked the other compartments, as if for emphasis. (K. pointed out to the woman that the whole reservation system was computerized so in theory it should be possible to know who was getting on and when; this didn’t seem to sway the OBB rep at all.) So fitfully, we went to sleep. The Eucadorians snored enough for everyone. The Australian stayed awake and read. K. fell asleep, eventually. I.. drifted in and out, waking up when the train roared through a tunnel or when we pulled into a station and the lights shone into the compartment.

Why, yes, the compartment did have a window shade. I’m glad you asked about that. The window shade had to stay open because we had to leave the window open because we believed the air conditioning was inoperative. I say “believed” because they unplugged us from the network at about 1:30 in the morning while waiting for an engine in the Salzburg rail yard, and the temperature immediately soared again. I didn’t think that little breeze was doing us much good; boy howdy was I ever wrong.

We got to Venice an hour late. To say that I am disappointed with my first encounter with European trains is an understatement; railway officials in Japan would have committed suicide over that kind of delay. I let it go and immediately sank into this gorgeous, sumptuous city that is easily my favorite spot on this trip, and I can honestly say I’m not sure how it might be topped.

“… The only way to care for Venice as she deserves it, is to give her a chance to touch you often–to linger and remain and return.” –Henry James

James was right about Venice: this is a city that will grow on you the more you let it. I’ve been here a whole whopping day and a half and I can honestly say that if I spent a month here I still don’t think I would have seen it all, or come to understand and/or know it. Things might be even better if I understood the history of this place more, but unfortunately the harried departure preparations precluded my spending any quality time with a European history book. Still, the parts of Venice that are impressive are impressively accessible even without knowing anything about the history. For instance, consider the Doge’s palace. Giant rooms. Huge, almost incomprehensible art. Big, scary-looking armory. Can you figure out that this was the seat of a powerful empire? Sure you can. You didn’t even need to look at the signs. If you understand, of course, that Venice used to be the seat of a seriously big republic that stood against the Byzantinium (and that later conquered Constantinople), and was a maritime empire for almost 500 years, then it starts to be a bit more comprehensible. Consider how rich you get when you keep invading countries and kicking ass — you end up with a lot of booty, the best of which got stuck in the Treasury in St. Mark’s Basillica.

The funny thing is, though, that the parts of Venice I like best have nothing to do with the history and everything to do with just being here. You know how you go to cities sometimes, and you know almost instantly that you’re going to like it? That’s Venice for me. Being here is incredibly easy in a way that other travel is not; in spite of the language barriers and the strange customs, it’s simple to find your way around, simple to get around, and simple to deal with the problems that come up. The historical awareness floats around you, kind of like the dead grandfather in Family Circus cartoons; you can think about it, actively, whenever you want, but if you ignore it and just be, it fades into the background of this deeply beautiful, deeply wonderful, deeply romantic city.

And, for my money, the most fun you can have in Venice is in St. Mark’s square. Buy an €1 bag of pidgeon food, and become, instantly, the most popular person in the square. I normally think pidgeons are filthy disease vectors; Venetian pidgeons are exactly the opposite. They’re like, I dunno, dogs that fly, or something.

One nit, though: I must be having Turkish decompression sickness, because I feel that there are entirely too many English-speaking tourists here, and in particular English-speaking tourists with a very specific accent. Guys, look. You’re in Venice. Take off that goddamn Miami Heat baseball cap, ok? You don’t have any idea how much of a dork you look like.

I love this place. I never want to leave. We are, though — to Rome tomorrow morning, with the hoards of tourists, touts, thieves, and 14% of the world’s historical sites.

Yugh

This is what I have to say about Vienna, in the briefest of terms (we’re only here for another 8+ hours, so I need to keep this short):

Conditions at Jun 22, 2006 - 06:20 EDT (1020 UTC)
Wind variable at 3 MPH (3 KT)
Visibility greater than 7 mile(s)
Sky conditions 	mostly cloudy
Temperature 75 F (24 C)
Dew Point 64 F (18 C)
Relative Humidity 69%
Pressure (altimeter) 29.97 in. Hg (1015 hPa)
ob LOWW 221020Z VRB03KT 9999 FEW035 BKN130 24/18 Q1015 NOSIG

It feels like I’m stuck back in the hammam in Istanbul!

Not Constantinople

The more I think about it, the more it seems that the best metaphor I can come up with for this place is.. the Internet. Stop laughing and work with me for a minute, I can support this admittedly flimsy theory.

It’s a crazy place. Flying over on approach to LTBA, or looking at the maps on Google Earth, there’s clearly some kind of organization at work. But on the ground, at an individual level, it’s hard to see where that organization went. There’s chaos all around you and it doesn’t seem like the place should work, and yet it clearly does. Good luck finding anything unless you know precisely where to look, but if you do know precisely where to look you can get more or less anything that you want. The parts of the place that work well work very well indeed; the other parts can drive you to insane degrees of frustration. And you don’t want to look too carefully at the parts that do work, because you might not like what you see.

And, of course, there’s advertising everywhere. Some of it is the usual banner kind. But some of it is the more intrusive pop-up kind, and, unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a real-world pop-up blocker.

That’s Istanbul in a nutshell: Chaotic, scary, fun, amazing, bewildering, and more. It’s a great place, and everyone should come here at least once, but should be well-prepared for the experience.

I arrived at LTBA with no luggage, thanks to an insane connection time at the worst airport in Europe. Here’s a tip: Do not trust the Alitalia reservations computer when connecting through LIMC. I don’t care what the damn thing says: (a) it’s Alitalia and (b) LIMC is vastly, vastly worse than anything you can imagine. It starts when you land 20 minutes late, thanks to a “ground hold” at EGLL that mostly seemed to feature wave after wave of incoming British Airways aircraft. Your A321 taxis to the furthest reaches of the airport, out by the friggin’ cargo terminal, whereupon you are herded out of the plane and onto waiting buses, KIAD-style. You are driven to the main terminal building, debarked (in no particular order) and begin running to make your connection. Oops! You get to go through security all over again. (Why, considering you were screened prior to departure in London, is a mystery.) This accomplished, you race all the way through the terminal building to the departure gate, which is a pen roughly 50 meters by 100 meters containing about 1,500 people and six active departure gates. There are no lines. You figure out which knots of people to follow by asking everyone you come to, and by joining what you think is the end of the line. (Invariably, it won’t be.) Your departure time comes and goes. Your line inches forward in tiny spurts. Eventually you are herded back onto another bus and drive out onto the ramp… to the parking spot immediately next to the aircraft you just got off. Your new flight leaves some 30 minutes late.

And somehow, in all of this, your bag failed to move the 35 meters between aircraft. Okay, I know it’s more complicated than that, but let’s get real here: I’ve made international connections in less than 50 minutes at other airports before, and I’m totally mystified as to why this one took so long. Alitalia sucks, but the ground handling agents in Istanbul rule. Sibel listened to me with a weary smile on her face and filled the paperwork out in record time (I’ve never had a lost bag dealt with so promptly or efficiently) and promised to have my bag delivered to my hotel the next day. “Call and use my name if the bag does not arrive,” she said in halting English. “We will make this right.” I’ve never had an airline or aviation-related company tell me that before.

Arriving in a city with no bags is weirdly liberating. You can walk around without getting pegged immediately as a newly-arrived tourist, and the walking is vastly easier without bags than with. This turned out to be significant in that I managed to find myself on the tram during rush hour; it’s a lot like Tokyo except there’s less room and where the Japanese might look at a full-to-the-brim car and think, “I’ll take the next one,” the Turks look at the same car and think, “Hey, there’s lots of room.” It was like some kind of Guiness stunt, only, you know, not. So trying to maneuver my bags on this extremely full tram might have been… complex. I got off in Sultanhamet and began searching for my hotel; a wrong turn lead me down towards the Hippodrome but I found the right track quickly enough, only to be picked up by a tout.

This was a strange and, in my 52-hours-awake-with-no-sleep-and-now-on-the-other-side-of-the-world state of mind, vaguely terrifying experience. It bothered me for about a day and a half before I figured something out: The touts are not looking to rob you — at least, not illegally. This is advertising, albeit a much more aggressive form of advertising than we’re used to. There isn’t a lot of difference between “My friend, my friend, excuse me, would you like to buy carpet?” or “Excuse me, where you from, would you like to buy carpet?” and “What year did you graduate high school?” or “Shock the monkey and win a free iPod!” It doesn’t seem like that at the time — like I say, it’s very aggressive and it can be extremely intimidating — but it’s nothing terrible and they’re not going to mug you or take you hostage and not let you leave. They want to sell you stuff. The Turks have perfected capitalism in a way that North Americans have not, and distilled it down to its purest essence; woe betide anyone who does not understand this, and ventures into a carpet (or any other) shop unaware.

That said, it’s a hilariously friendly country. Arriving jet lagged and tired (and waiting for K.’s flight from Greece to land), my hotel’s clerk shared his dinner with me and refused to let me pay for half. On our second day, we were invited to an engagement party being thrown by the woman who works in the travel agency next door — a party that ended up including a seven-course dinner and more or less unlimited wine. I’ve had countless cups of tea as the guest of various various organizations, all the way from hotels and travel agents to clothes merchants and, in the most memorable case, the First Turkish Army. (Yes, I’m talking about that Army. You know, the kind with guns and stuff.) Everyone has been happy to help, even the ones who could do nothing to help.

There’s truly strange stuff here. This is an old, old, old country. I know I said this when I was in Japan, but this stuff is older. It’s breathtaking — literally breathtaking — what happens when you’re standing in a 1,500 year old church turned mosque turned museum, or amidst the mosaics and frescos in a beautifully preserved Byzantine church or hanging out in front of a giant mosque with six minarets, or.. well, I could go on and on and on, and on, but what would be the point? This is just a terrifically interesting city, though, as I said, it takes some getting used to.

The city, in a snapshot, described by our last day here: We ate on the terrace of our hotel, in full view of the Blue Mosque and the Haigha Sophia, then wandered up to the Grand Bazaar to buy some souvenirs. We then took the tram over to Eiminonu, caught a ferry to Uskudar, went and hung out with the soldiers at Selimiye Barracks, walked back along the mouth of the Bosphorous, had lunch at a bufe outside the Uskudar ferry terminal, crossed back into Europe, and wandered around Divan Yolu for an hour or two before stumbling back here. There’s enough to do to keep even the busiest traveler occupied for days on end; I’ve been here almost a week now and feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. (To be fair, I feel that way about most places I visit.)

I’ve made a couple of references to it now, and the story is so interesting, so I guess the tale of my encounter with the First Turkish Army is worth telling. It turns out that there’s a museum dedicated to the memory of Florence Nightingale here in Istanbul, because this is where she did her greatest work during the Crimean War. The catch is, the museum is in the middle of a huuuuuge Army base, the Selimiye Barracks, headquarters of the Turkish 1st Army. (They’re nominally deployed in Thrace, but the headquarters are there.) This being Turkey, and Turkey having a bit of a historical terrorism problem without Osama’s hijinks, and this being a military base, you can’t just show up. You have to fax them a letter explaining what you want, specifying a date and time, and including copies of your passports. You go over, explain to the taxi driver where you want to go (getting a very strange look in return for your troubles), and are then driven at breakneck speed through a traffic jam, arriving on the street in front of the base. The guard at the gatehouse has only a fractured understanding of English but knows there’s a museum inside, so you show your passports, get a burst of Turkish back, and instructions to walk up the hill to the guard house. You are searched and your belongings x-rayed before being temporarily confiscated.

It’s at this point that they serve you tea and invite you to sit and wait. Smokes are passed out. You notice that, in contrast with every other military base you’ve ever been on, everyone is armed and the signs seem to suggest they’re at Condition Yellow. Whether this is positive news or not is open for discussion. You’re then told to follow another armed soldier, who walks you further up the hill past a magnificent stone building, the headquarters building itself, and around to the back, where a 2nd lieutenant from the Army introduces himself and explains that he’ll be your guide for your trip through to the museum. You sign in and walk through the barracks itself, down the halls lined with commemorative photographs and biographies of the commanders of the unit that date back to 1843. The museum is one of the towers and functions as a monument to both Nightingale and the First Army; the bottom depicts the First Army’s various battles, from Crimea through to the war of independence to Gallipoli, and off in the corner is one of Nightingale’s operating theatres. Above are her living quarters, and it’s suitably impressive to see one of those Places Where Shit Started. I mean, let’s face it — if you work in health care, chances are that you do something that was pioneered here; it’s not quite the same thing as seeing The Manger in Bethlehem, but for a professional’s soul, it’s roughly the same thing.

Go. It’s really cool, and you get to have the bonus experience of some teenager with a gun following you around all afternoon looking jumpy. (Who then runs off, with no explanation, leaving you puzzled and confused but, ah, who cares.)

Then there are some experiences you can’t have anywhere else — the outsourcing of what we’d consider essential bodily functions. You too can get scrubbed by a giant Turkish guy named Mesale who will bend you over so far that you think your L3 is going to snap, and scrub you in places you didn’t know you had, harder than you thought you could ever be scrubbed, for longer than you ever thought you could tolerate. A Turkish bath is a lot like a Japanese bath, except the Japanese version is strictly self-serve, and the Turkish one doesn’t come with bonus nudity from everyone. It’s tough to say whether I enjoyed the experience or not; it was, if nothing else, unique. Far more enjoyable are the YTL10 shaves that get you stubble-free more thoroughly than you could ever do on your own, and come with a bonus facial and neck massage. (Though it’s worth noting that it’s a little terrifying to be shaved with a straight razor for the first time.)

And, of course, no visit to any Muslim country comes without the daily adhan. Five times a day — and once in particular (4:30 while you’re asleep) — you get to hear a guy chanting, “Allāhu Akbar! Ash-hadu allā ilāha illallāh! Ash-hadu anna Muhammadur rasūlullāh! Hayya ‘alas-salāt! Hayya ‘alal-falāh!” Would that it might only take that long; what the adhan reminds me of — and I know I’m going to hell for this, so shut up already — is that scene from The Simpsons where Bleeding Gums Murphy performs the National Anthem at an Isotopes game, and it takes something like an hour and a half to get through the whole thing. In theory the adhan shouldn’t take that long, but most muezzins put their touches on it and it becomes kind of a contest to see who can do the best job of calling the faithful in for prayer. And in a city with 2,873 mosques, well, you can imagine what this might be like. (I can totally see why Cairo switched to one centralized adhan.)

Austria beckons. More later.

The Big Book of British Airports


It’s currently 23:00 on the nose, in whatever timezone EGLL is in and whatever its name is at the moment. I’ve been here for about two hours now, an hour of which was spent loitering in the baggage claims area waiting for my bag to show up (it didn’t). I couldn’t believe that, despite 3+ hour connection times in both Calgary and Toronto, Air Canada still managed some heretofore unknown level of incompetence by losing my bag. Except, not so much. As I was going through the process of filing the report (the “hey, jackasses” report, in the parlance of the trade), I noticed that my bag was lying off to the side, waiting for me. “Oh, it came in on an earlier flight,” the Guy Behind The Counter said. How I’m not sure. I thought one of the tenets of air travel security these days was that bags had to accompany passengers on their aircraft, though I suppose since I had no way of knowing whether the bag would or wouldn’t be on my particular plane the risk was lower than it would have otherwise been.

Heathrow is.. how to put this gently? Not nice. D. told me this earlier in the year and nothing she said could have prepared me for how truly ugly some parts of this airport are. I came into Terminal 3 and am now in Terminal 2 arrivals (thank you, late-night ACA arrival, and early-morning AZA departure, for making it impossible for me to sleep tonight!), and I passed through some seriously decrepit parts of the airport. It’s dingy. It’s dirty. People smoke. Everywhere. Even when they’re not supposed to. (About this, more later.) It’s maddening. But, I don’t have to spend a lot of time here, so that’s nice. Still, of the many airports I’ve been in, I definitely would but this one lower down on the list.

Except.. if you’re a plane nerd, this is heaven on earth. True, you won’t see a lot of variety in the types of aircraft, but the airlines! Oh my. Where else are you going to come face-to-face with a fabled Emirates 747-400 parked next to a Virgin Atlantic A340 (“4 engines 4 long haul”) next to a Royal Saudi 767 next to United next to.. maybe KJFK. I dunno. I’ve never been there. But the glimpses out the windows as I walked into the terminal were tantalizing!

I’m sending this on an Internet cafe-esque terminal in the T2 arrivals area. It’s being sent by e-mail because, for some inexplicable reason, it thinks that the LJ update form contains too many banned terms. I’ve never posted by e-mail before, so let’s hope this works.

And let’s hope I get some rest tonight, here on the ugly carpet of T2 Arrivals, because I’m going to be a damned zombie tomorrow if I don’t. Istanbul, here I come.

Morning glory

I woke up around 5:35 EDT somewhere over Lake Huron, after two hours of fitful sleep. It had been fitful, thanks to some loud girls two rows behind me, and because in spite of the added legroom and assroom, there’s something uncomfortable about the J seats on an Air Canada-configured A321 that makes sleeping difficult. The climate control system had run away on us overnight, leading to a moment where I woke up soaked with sweat, and another where I realized I was freezing cold. But it didn’t matter: 5:35, heading east-southeast over the Great Lakes, and the sun was coming up, peeking its way above the cloud deck hanging out around 20,000. It teased us for a while, the top of the disc popping up above the clouds as we traded altitude and angle and it rose in the sky. And then, as we left FL350, it finally rose, exploding in the cabin like a fireball, bathing everyone and everything in its brilliant red light.

Morning in the air — beautiful, even on two hours of (bad) sleep.

Climbout from Calgary was… interesting. I’d never before seen a thunderstorm from 9,000 feet, never mind been in one, and the lightning strobed all around us. Sitting on the ramp at CYYC, at the departure end of 34, I looked out the window at the city, lit in the glare of God’s own flashgun, a dozen within the space of about a minute. I wondered about the turbulance on climb, whether this would be the rollercoaster ride to end all rollercoaster rides, with thermal currents and microbursts and downdrafts and all the other meteorological phenomena hated by pilots… and it actually turned out to be pretty benign, much better than the WJA flight I took last month that was bumpy as all hell going into the same airport on final. A couple of ripples, a few nice thumps, but that was it. By the time we hit the flight levels, the storm was below and behind us.

The flight itself was OK. The service was suitably fawning and the food was surprisingly good, though I think whoever makes the menus at Air Canada should seriously reconsider putting noodles on a guy’s plate in mid-air. I’m not sure there’s an elegant way to eat fat noodles in an airplane, and it doesn’t help that my brain defaults to, “duh, slurp ’em,” which works in Shinjuku, but not in this part of the world. But whatever. I somehow managed to not make a mess, and figured out how my seat worked, and how to make the massage function work properly (result: about as well as any in-chair massage system you’ve ever used, meaning, of course, “not that well”). I think that’s about all that’s worth writing home about. The A321 is, of course, a hilariously uninspiring aircraft from a company with a hilariously uninspiring name that, in the process, manages to capture most of what’s wrong with commercial aviation today. Airbus?? Be serious. This is not a bus in the air, this is a damn airplane. Show a little respect for the thing. You don’t get to see sunrises over Lake Huron at 35,000 feet in a bus.

Go big or go home

Let me see if I’ve got this right: The RCMP busts a whole bunch of people who want to plant bombs and blow stuff up, but we’re not really sure what they were going to try to blow up. Fine, I understand why this is significant. So why are we paying all this attention to a guy who wanted to behead the Prime Minister. As in, get close enough to the PM not to blow him up, or shoot him, but to actually cut his head off.

I don’t know why, but I’ve got a weird, nagging feeling that this is, like, the terrorist equivalent of wanting a pony.

Moving target

A. and I were chatting (briefly) today about my upcoming vacation in Europe. “Did you hear about the new terrorist incidents in Turkey?” she said. I had not. She didn’t have any links (bad journalist! no gin for you!), but I’m guessing she was referring to this report of a small explosion, injuring about a dozen people in Mersin, down on the Mediterranian coast near the Syrian border.

Terrorism in That Part Of The WorldTM is nothing new, and some Kurdish groups have a bit of a problem with this kind of behavior, and so it might not exactly be the safest place to be. That said, staying home might be just as dangerous. So who knows?

Aw, fuckit. Ain’t getting any safer.

This is a security system?

I locked myself out of my online banking application the other day, the result of having flunked its “are you really you” verification system twice. It was asking me, after having punched in my giant bank card number and my password, what my favorite author was. You know why it does this, of course. But I was thinking that it might be kind of pointless.

The challenge-response system of security is great as an additional level, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably the weakest part of the system. Weirdly my banking password is stronger than any of the challenge-replies I could think of, inasmuch that it would be much harder to break my password than break any of the challenges. If you could guess my password, the odds are really good you could guess the answer to any challenge-response system out there on the Internet. Obviously this is entirely dependent on you knowing me, but consider the number of people in the world who know

  • your mother’s maiden name…
  • what your first pet’s name was…
  • who your favorite sports team is…
  • where you were born…
  • what year you graduated from high school…
  • what your first job was…

… among many others. OK, so the list is basically confined to your mom and your spouse and maybe some other family members, but the point is still the same: this kind of attack is trivial if you know anything about the person who owns the account you’re trying to compromise. And you may only need to know one of those things, depending on how broken the system is. Arguably, the dumber you are, the easier it is (though in fairness it should be pointed out that this kind of system may or may not have played a role in the break, not that this excuses anything).

There’s an obvious fix for this — let users craft their own questions — but I’m not sure why it isn’t more widely deployed.

And why did I manage to lock myself out? Because I couldn’t remember who my favorite author was. Was it author C, who’s been on my mind a lot lately? Was it author O, who I used to like a lot and haven’t read much of lately (okay, she’s dead and I’ve read everything)? Was it author F, who I use when I’m trying to sound smart and sophisticated (what, was I trying to impress the security robot)? Was the answer case-sensitive?

I never found out. The bank gave me two strikes; I blew it both times, and that was it.