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April 25, 2012

A pleasant experience with the TSA

They say the way to succeed as a blogger is to use shocking headlines. Now you have mine.

And it’s true. This morning at the Seattle airport, I had a very pleasant experience going through Securty, and no, I am not referring to an especially loving pat-down. Because I am a Special Person, I got to go through the new TSA Pre screening…”pre” as in “pre-check.” (BTW, does the “pre-” really add anything in the word “pre-approved”?) They put you onto an extra-specially short line — you get pulled out of the First Class line to go on a yet-shorter line. There they tell you to keep your belt and shoes on, keep your laptop in your bag, leave the change in your pocket, and please feel free to keep your spring jacket on. They do want the cellphone to come out of your pocket. And then they put you through a plain old scanner that doesn’t take nude pictures of you and post them on the Internet on a Tranny Grannies page (a long story).

I was able to register for the TSA Pre program because I’d already gone through a pretty extensive screening to become part of the Global Entry program. The Global Entry program lets me go through Customs at some airports by sticking my head into a vending machine. I signed up for that program after getting a security clearance from the feds. If you are part of Global Entry, registering for the TSA Pre program just takes a quick trip to the Web. If you’re not, there’s some other process.

So, for Special People like me, the TSA Pre program is great. But it’s hardly a scalable solution. And, yes, I do feel like a traitor to species when I go on that specially short line. Still: It’s a specially short line! I’m only human!


October 19, 2010

In Rio

I’m giving two talks and participating in a panel discussion tomorrow at the national meeting of Brazilian university librarians in Rio. It was a long flight here, and I slept very badly on the plane, but it is still hard to complain about being given a free afternoon to wander around Rio.

I spent about 5 hours walking and only saw the beaches (Ipanema, not Copacabana … even the names have incredible resonance) and the Centro. I didn’t take the tram up to Christ the Redeemer on the grounds that I’d rather see the city from the ground than from the air. I didn’t take a favela tour, on the grounds that I didn’t have time and there’s something freaky about middle class Americans wandering through Brazilian poor neighborhoods, although it would have been fascinating. I spent most of my time lost.

So, what are my conclusions? Five hours is not enough to even fool myself into thinking I have seen Rio. My second conclusion is that Rio is clearly a very very interesting place. Not as resort-y as I’d thought (which is fine with me since I’m not a beach sort of guy) and full of life. Plus, everyone I’ve met, including the people I asked directions of, has been friendly and helpful. Sunny, one might say. Of course, the margin of error on my little incidental poll is about 45%. Still, you get a sense, a provisional sense.

I would like to come back for longer, if only because it’d be pretty much impossible to come back for any shorter. But mainly, I find the place fascinating. Not to mention that I am a Brazil fan.

Now for the ritualistic re-writing of the main talk I’m giving, even though I have worked hard on it and thought I had a final draft. Ah, neurosis! What work can’t it undo?

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April 16, 2010

Veggie in Barcelona

Just a note to fellow vegetarians passing through Barcelona: The best vegetarian restaurant we’ve found so far is BioCenter, 25 Fortuny, right off the Rambla. The menu is fairly small, but the food was really good. We had a very tasty seitan dish (sort of how I remember veal) and gnocchi. Reasonably priced, too. We haven’t been to many of the local veggie restaurants – see for a list – so there may be better ones, but you’ll get a tasty meal at BioCenter. And tell them Los Lobos sent you. (They won’t know what you’re talking about, but you might enjoy their momentary look of confusion.)


The next night: We had a lovely meal at Smilo, which bills itself as a pizzeria but has a very good Italian menu with numerous veggie entries. The pesta ravioli and veggie risotto were both delicious. The place is bright, clean, and very friendly.

Later still: We had a lovely, delicious meal at Vegatalia , off Las Ramblas. The eggrolls were fanatastic, and the risotto and seitan were delicious. Clean and friendly. Highly recommended.


April 14, 2010

In Barcelona

Light bloggage because my wife and I are in Barcelona for a few days. (Hint: Frequent flyer miles have a lot to do with it.)

I haven’t been here since 1971, when Generalissimo Franco cast his cold chill on the place. The city is as beautiful as ever, and now so lively. Loved our first half day. Looking forward to another two.

Some random observations:

Who was the first person who looked at one of Gaudi’s plans and said, “Yup, I want to spend a lot of money to build one of those”? The blueprints must have had laughinstock written all over them. Very cool, though. What you at first think is sort of silly at seemingly random turnings reveal angles of great beauty. These buildings make you remember how utterly boring most modern architecture is.

We visited a recently unearthed synagogue in the old quarter. Tiny. It’s not an active place of worship, but my wife discretely prayed there. The historical marker on the outside has been covered with a gradffito that – weirdly – only revealed itself in the photo I took: Free Palestine.

Why do street singers/guitarists around the world confine themselves to the 1960s-1970s songbook? Is “Knock Knock Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” really that good? On the other hand, we heard a street guitarist playing classical Spanish music so well that we bought her CD from her: Tita Avendaño.

We’ve seen almost no smokers. I’m beginning to think that Europe consists of two cultures at this point: Smoke-free surface-dwellers and smoking mole people. It’s the only explanation.

We’ve been eating well as veegetarians. We had a very good, simple tapas-like dinner last night in a local place, and right now we’re using the free Net at Ovni, an all you can eat buffet that is listed as vegetarian, although do very small pieces of ham count as vegetarian in Spain?

Anyway, having a great time. Wish you where here.


March 25, 2010

My two days in Saudi Arabia

I came back yesterday from a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t blog about it beforehand because I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the chances of my getting a visa, which arrived on the morning of the day I left.

Now I’m back and I’m suffering from a type of cognitive dissonance — something more like cultural dissonance. I’m having so much difficulty making sense of it that I’ve found myself anxious about trying to describe the two days to my family. Blogging about it is yet more difficult.

First, there are so many reasons I distrust my own impressions: I was there for two days. I hung out with Saudis studying the Internet and with Netty foreigners. I saw only the inside of the Marriott, King Saud University, and a coffee shop. I was one of two Americans (as far as I could tell) at the event I went for. I was the sole Jew (as far as I could tell). I am a Jew with deeply mixed feelings about Israel. (No, I won’t elaborate.) I’ve never been to the Middle East before. I speak no Arabic. I am liberal democrat (small “d”). I am a vegetarian who keeps incidentally kosher. I am male. In short, Saudi Arabia — The Kingdom — not only is so foreign to me that I have no reliable framework for understanding it, it challenges more aspects of my identity than anywhere I’ve been.

And yet, while the dissonance can be jarring, I know yet more of dissonance is hidden behind the normalcy of the Saudi world. The fact that the entire audience of the conference at which I spoke was male is simply normal for the Saudis. When the voice of a woman is piped in over a loudspeaker — the women students were watching over a fiber optic connection — to ask a question, the Saudis think they’re being progressive by allowing women to be heard, but the Westerner wants to walk out and enter a different century. Then there are the dissonances that are invisible to the tourist’s experience: death for homosexuals, an economy built on carbon, an all-powerful monarchy.

I went because I understood the day was intended to advance the cause of integrating Saudi Arabia into the rest of the world through a (relatively) open Internet. I’m in favor of that. The Internet track was part of the traditional Al Janadriyah festival; the festival’s theme this year was “One World — Multiple cultures,” which shows admirable intent. I was part of a morning panel, and gave a 10-minute talk that summarized a 10-page article I’d written for the event. Having given it, I now think that the talk wasn’t particularly useful, but I think and hope my being there helped in some tiny way to reinforce the belief that the Net is an opportunity for Saudis to engage with the rest of the world. (Disclosure: In addition to paying all expenses, the festival has promised to pay me a relatively modest speakers fee. [Update: They reneged on the promise to pay me.])

I was treated very hospitably by every man I met, no matter what his station. Every man was generous, seemed delighted to be talking with an American, was open-minded or at least willing to have a frank conversation. I did not talk with a single woman. I would have loved to have talked with one of the women’s classes, but in fact I didn’t meet with any classes, and I would not have been allowed to be in the same room as women students. The Saudis I did talk with (a non-representative sample) think that this segregation respects women and simultaneously were slightly apologetic, pointing to the progress women have made: The woman’s campus is being moved to be a mere half kilometer from the men’s, women “participate” on campus via fiber optic cable, more women have been sent abroad for study this year than men (which I found quite surprising), the King says women will eventually have full rights.

Of course this is outrageously unacceptable. And yet, you fly out of The Kingdom, stop at Frankfort, and are confronted by a newspaper that has a fully naked woman on the front page for no reason except to excite men, and the truth of your own culture’s outrageousness hits you right where your cultural dissonance lives. The structural oppression of women, the whipping of women for being the female participant in adultery, the removal of women’s voice from the public sphere, the systematic deprivation of power over their own fates, all of this goes far beyond whether the culture strips women naked or clothes them in sacks with eyeholes. Nevertheless, seeing that naked woman on the front page of a Western newspaper extended the cultural dissonance into my own culture.


I am going to continue my act of ridiculous generalization by telling you about the state of the Internet in Saudi Arabia. Please re-read the part above where I go through all the reasons I am not qualified to have an opinion about such things. It is especially important to remember that I only spoke with educated, Netty men, mainly people studying new media as faculty and students. I’m leaving them anonymous because I don’t want to get them in trouble, especially by misrepresenting them because of the language differences.

So, we know from the Open Net Initiative that the Saudi government filters porn, Jihadist sites, and some Israeli sites. I encountered little desire to undo that: Why would a devout Moslem want to see such sites? They are not looking for more liberty. Far more at the forefront of the
concerns of the men I met was the opposite issue: How can the Saudis not only maintain their traditional values on the Net but present themselves as they are so the world will understand them?

I asked one of my interlocutors whether the Saudis see the Net as transformative or as way of further accomplishing traditional goals. The answer: Mainly the latter. Saudis have traditionally taken new media as a way to route around traditional taboos, he said. When phones were first introduced, men would hold up signs with their numbers on them when stopped at lights so that women could call them if they wanted; phones were for forbidden flirting. Likewise, the Net is providing a new medium for flirting, and for meeting with women within the same (virtual) space. He said the Net is also for expressing risky political ideas, although that seemed secondary in his explanation.

The same man drew an appropriate distinction between the Net as an extension of old media — e.g., news organizations send out mass SMS news alerts — and as a transformative medium that allows new uses and new social forms. But just as I asked whether he thought the bottom-up nature of the Net might allow for a new configuration of power in The Kingdom, we got interrupted. Probably just as well. My guess is that he would have said no; Saudi Arabia works pretty well, if you’re a man.


I saw four places and stretches of road in between them. In order:

1. The Riyadh airport is large and modern, but empty of shops aside from some coffee-and-pastry stands, at least as far as I saw. While I was waiting for Customs clearance, I was taken to a hall in which I was served a small cup of cardamon-scented tea. Because of the total power of the government, the airport remains a somewhat scary experience, even while you are being served from a gold tray.

2. The Marriott is a fine hotel with friendly service and excellent buffet meals, slightly run down by US standards. The lobby, which circles around the central elevators, is a more social place than American lobbies. People hung out there — mainly men, but occasionally local women, as well as women from outside Riyadh in various stages of modest not-entirely-coveredness. (Riyadh is the most conservative city in Saudi Arabia.) Security is heavy at the hotel.

3. King Saud University is large and modern. It’s home to 70,000 male students. 75% of the faculty got their degrees abroad. (It might actually be that 75% got degrees in the U.S.) The Mass Media Department, which was the host of the Internet Day of the festival, is well-equipped. They are building more new media facilities. The head of the department seems to have warm and friendly relations with his staff, the students, and the service staff of the university.

The Kingdom is engaged in a massive school building program, creating new universities at an impressive pace. I don’t know the mix of male and female schools, although the NYT reported that at least one of the universities was going to have gender-mixed classes. As it is, only female teachers can be in the classroom with women students; the classrooms are connected by fiber optic cable so male teachers can beam in. For the first time, more women are being sent to study abroad than men. The government picks up all expenses for foreign study, as well as paying all students a stipend for attending university; university is free. (A couple of Saudis I spoke with complained about the grade schools, which, they say, are fine facilities but very weak on the elements of education other than Koranic studies.)

4. Three of us got taken through Riyadh by a graduate student, who drove us to a coffee shop about 20km from the Marriott (see #5). So, this was far from a comprehensive tour of the city, but the student said that what we saw was typical. And what we saw was a vast city, almost entirely newly built, with few buildings higher than four or five stories. The streets were straight, flat, wide, and choked with traffic. But, there were virtually no pedestrians, perhaps because the distances between places to go is so vast, and certainly because for months of the year, the sidewalks would melt your sandals. The sidewalks are so empty that when we passed a couple of blocks bordering a park, our host pointed out that there were people walking.

By the way, when I asked at the hotel desk for a pamphlet with tourist attractions, the clerk said that they didn’t have any such list. He sent me to the gift shop, which also did not. I’m not saying there aren’t interesting places to visit (e.g., there’s an old part of the city, a museum, a market); I’m saying that this is not a town geared up for the tourist trade. For example, there is no such thing as a tourist visa.

5. The coffee shop the student took us to was nothing like a coffee shop. Forget I even called it that. It was a walled area with some grassy spots and some covered areas for smoking hookahs and drinking tea or coffee. (As the entry form you get on the airplane tells you, drug dealers are executed, so you need not doubt me when I tell you it was tobacco in the hookahs. Given the Saudis’ barbaric penal system, you don’t f*ck around in The Kingdom.) We sat in one of the semi-enclosed areas. It consisted of eight stalls separated by low walls. You sit on cushions on the floor. The attendant brings a TV unasked and puts it on your front wall. Everyone else has his TV blaring. You order a flavor of tobacco — I mimicked our host and chose orange — and tea or coffee. You smoke and talk about the Internet. I don’t smoke, so I didn’t inhale (insofar as I could avoid it). Our host tells us that this is where his classmates and friends hang out at night. Later, when we were telling another Festival speaker about the oddness of the TV, he pointed out that in English pubs, there’s always a TV on. Good point.

Of course the coffee shop is for men only.


So, I am deep in cultural dissonance. The men I met were warm, hospitable, eager to connect to the rest of the world. Once I was identified as an American, several of them volunteered to me how upset they were by 9/11, how much they hate the Jihadists, and how they have squashed the terrorists within their own country. (There was news today about an additional assault on terrorists within The Kingdom.) When I identified myself as a Jew, they would offer that Islam is not the only path and that Judaism is among the great religions; more than once, this included a passing denunciation of Israel, by way of separating Judaism and Zionism. The hospitality they offered to a Western Jew would have put to shame the reception they would have received, dressed in their traditional clothes, in most places in America. I had conversations that were warm and frank. I only had conversations with men. I made genuine friendships. The Kingdom is brutal to offenders. People were open to differing ideas. The Kingdom represses half its population. German tabloids have naked women on their covers. The Kingdom executes homosexuals. The Kingdom pays its young people to go to college.

Cultural dissonance is, I am afraid, a type of truth.


March 6, 2009

Pluto is a planet in Illinois

The Illinois state legislature has declared Pluto a planet.

Ah, when will the madness stop? The delicious, delicious madness.

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February 1, 2009

Isenberg enacts his freedom to disconnect and Freedom to Connect

David Isenberg, exercising his freedom to disconnect, has posted photos from his trip to Antarctica here, here, and here.

Meanwhile, there’s still time to sign up for David’s Freedom to Connect conference, March 30-31, in Silver Spring MD (a subway ride from DC). It’s a terrific get-together and learning-fest for those who think that pervasive access to an open Internet is important and do-able. It attracts a whole bunch of the do-ers. I try not to miss it.

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November 1, 2008

Vegetarian restaurant in Beijing

In 2000, I wrote about Gong Di Lin, a fake-meat veggie restaurant. I went back tonight. It’s moved a few blocks. The place is now bright rather than dingy. But it’s still delicious, with a huge menu of foods, from chicken to jellyfish to intestines to “man-made horse feet.” I had Szichuan “chicken,” fried rice with “pork” and a very big bottle of beer. (80 yuan, or about US$12.) The man at the table next to me struck up a conversation — very friendly witha beautiful young teenage son. (I noticed many fathers with sons as I walked for 6 hours today. Maybe that’s only because I brought our son to Beijing when he was about that boy’s age.)

I can’t find the address of its new venue, so ask someone. But, if you walk down Wangfujing St., the big pedestrian shopping mall with all the fancy shops, and if you cross Quianmen East St. going south, it’s just a few buildings down. Unfortunately for us Westerners, the sign is Chinese-only. So, like I say, ask someone. You’ll be glad.

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October 28, 2008

Old-fashioned elevators

I built up on my nerve and successfully used the old-fashioned elevator at the hotel I’m at in Frankfurt. It’s a continuous, and continuously-moving, loop of open cubicles, large enough for two skinny people, or one American. No waiting, no doors. You step in as an empty compartment approaches and hop out as it moves past your floor.

The clerk assures me that there have been no injuries, although it seems easy to hurt yourself: mis-time your exit and you will be part way between the elevator and the floor as the elevator moves on. I’m surprised the lobby isn’t littered with severed arms and torsos split cleanly in two.

On the other hand, I only got in once the clerk assured me that if I panicked and was unable to force myself to hop out, it doesn’t turn the compartments upside down at the top of the loop.

Damn thrilled-crazed Europeans!

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October 27, 2008

I am a vegetarian, in Chinese

I’m about to begin a 4-city, 3-country, 7-day around the world trip, from Germany to China to Vancouver, arriving home on the morning of Election Day. And you know what I’d really like to find? A printable statement that explains in Chinese that I am a vegetarian, that I don’t eat any animals, including fish or shellfish, or anything made with animals (including fish juice in sauce, animal juice in soup, etc.). Any one have a quick pointer before I leave in a couple of hours?

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