Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jurassic World: Presented by Michael Bay.

The named characters to die off are, in order: a Japanese security commander, an Indian CEO, a snooty British nanny. Oh, sorry, there was also a comically fat security guard who got eaten. Meanwhile, Vincent D'Onofrio's operatically terrible villain is the only white guy in Costa Rica to have actually picked up a strong tan, just to make sure you don't feel as bad for him when he dies horribly (offscreen, in case he needs to come back for the sequel), while his mwahaha-ing Chinese accomplice escapes with the seeds of the next disaster. Over in the control room, the one tech who volunteers to stay behind gets hilariously and humiliatingly rejected by a girl, because he is a NERD and how DARE he try to play the hero, he is nowhere near military-trained enough to be a protagonist we actually care about!

Bryce Dallas Howard plays a female executive who spends the first act being hysterical and inept in the face of crisis, until she goes back to the man she once dumped - Chris Pratt as Bronaeris Stormborn - whose gruff manliness inspires her to get her shit together and modify her outfit for more cleavage, signalling readiness to take on the hazards of the Central American jungle without ever taking off her stilettos. Of course, she only starts being a worthwhile character when she forgets everything she'd learned in her career and is overcome with nice, Christian, motherly concern for her nephews, whom she previously abandoned, the evil witch!

The Bro of Dragons
The nephews in question are a precocious boy genius already coming into his own as the superhero Background Exposition Man, and his big brother, the sullen kid whose main purpose is to give the camera an excuse to pan over to the hot teenage girls he's constantly ogling. Never mind - they will be fine, because at a key moment we will be told that they had just happened to restore their grandfather's old muscle car together, so they know exactly how to quickly repair a Jeep that's been rotting in a Central American jungle for twenty years.

The Big Bad Monster is always exactly as capable and powerful as the plot requires, which is explained away with "well, you didn't know this, but it also has genes from THIS animal!" - including being impervious to tranquilizer darts, bullets, and anti-tank rockets! Of course, he is also conveniently vulnerable to the teeth of another dinosaur once it's time for the money shot. Oh, and a velociraptor gets thrown into a souvenier shop window and EXPLODES IN A BALL OF FLAMES. 

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Stealing an idea: Estonia's counter-offer to the European Commission is to accept zero refugees in the country, but instead to issue e-residence for free to all refugees admitted into Europe, so that they can start their businesses and pay their taxes here (while still physically living somewhere else).
We'll even throw in a bunch of WiFi routers to set up around the camps on Lampedusa.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Couldn't we have just gone on without a government? It worked for Belgium...

If there's one word to describe the state of Estonian domestic politics, it's *sigh*.
After an election that put two new parties into parliament and should have forced a broad multiparty coalition, followed swiftly by the unexpected medium-term exile of the Dark Emperor, we ended up back with basically the same coalition we had after the last elections, with basically all the same old people back in the cabinet.
And there isn't even hope of them being punished by the voters next time around, because at least one of the new parties in parliament turned out to be *literally* made up of neonazis and petty thieves.
Does this intractable political swamp mean that we are well and truly a Western European nation now?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

AsiaTrip: Day One, If I Say It Is

There is a school of thought that says a day does not really end until you have fallen asleep and woken up again after a decent rest. By that standard, in one day I have gone very nearly around
the world.

The necessities of limited vacation time and ambitious planning led to a very dense start for this trip. I got up on Thursday morning, before the 7.45am alarm rang; I was leaving my own bed for more than a month. The next time I laid down properly - it's a quarter to 5pm, Tartu time. I am in Borneo.

My last pre-vacation day at the office was still busy, but I managed to sneak out at lunchtime, go to the sporting goods shop and spend twenty-odd euros on a pair of heavily discounted Mizuno running shoes; I'd suddenly found out that having thrown out a lotof things after moving house in July, I didn't have good plain summer footwear. In my bag was a pair of nice sandals, and a pair of hiking boots for the first and biggest challenge on this adventure trip. But the Timberlands I'd bought to replace my beloved old Merrel Jungle Mocassins - which are ragged but still functional enough for terrace slipper duty - had their soles worn through in a single trip to Italy last summer. And what I was going to do now... would involve a hell of a lot of walking.

Like most of my grand adventures, it was built around cheap tickets

with many intermediate stops. Thanks to a flexible vacation

schedule and a hard-won instinct to snap up an offer as soon as it

came on the market, I'd paid less than six hundred euros for a

succession of plane seats: Helsinki to Moscow to Hong Kong to Kota

Kinabalu, and Seoul to Taipei to Hong Kong to Moscow to Helsinki. I

got a free three-night stopover in Taiwan, which is an intermediate

landing in a Cathay flight from Seoul; but these cheap tickets got

a lot more expensive if they included a proper pause in Hong Kong

itself, despite the fact that Cathay is based there, and I would

need to transit through it regardless. Fortunately, my travel agent

found a solution that landed me at HK early in the morning, and

gave me most of the day until the outbound flight late in the

afternoon. That got shortened when Cathay decided it no longer felt

like flying to Moscow - possibly in the wake of the Malaysian

Boeing's destruction. First one and then the other parts of the

trip got switched from Moscow, connecting with Russia's S7

Airlines, to London with Finnair. I didn't mind much, although it

was a little annoying to see that the shortest air route from

London to its former colony takes it very nearly back over

Helsinki; I dislike backtracking on general principle.

So I was on the five o'clock bus out of Tartu, which, in the spirit

of cheap tickets, I got during a campaign for only 3.20 EUR. A

similarly great deal was to be had for the Helsinki ferry, which

only cost me 8 euros each way (a total discount of some 65 euros

from list price, which would have still been a hell of a lot

cheaper than taking the direct Tartu-Helsinki flight with checked

luggage). But the nine o'clock ferry came into Helsinki at eleven

PM, and my flight was at 8 AM the next morning. Knowing that

Helsinki is terrible value for accommodation - the cheapest

reasonable hostel dorm bed is nearly thirty euros - and armed with

the experience of spending uncomfortable but fiscally prudent

nights on buses and ferries during previous trips, I'd decided to

tough it out. Research suggested that Helsinki Airport had a

sleeping pod area - free capsule accommodation for tired visitors;

and maybe I'd get to use that.

Getting into Tallinn at 19.30, I had enough time to check in at the

port, and then get to the shopping center next door to get some hot

and halfway healthy food - plus a beer, which I'd hoped would knock

me out. These were consumed with very minimal shame in the bar area

of the nice big ferry - designed to entertain cruise passengers,

but de facto filled with either dog-tired Estonians commuting from

their construction jobs to their families for the weekend, or

inappropriately drunk Finns. I can think of no more apropos


The weather was not conducive to my initial plan of hanging out for

a while in downtown Helsinki, and neither were the drink prices, so

I caught one of the last Finnair shuttle buses. Helsinki-Vantaa

Airport is fairly far from the city, and not even that adjacent to its namesake village, and it has done very well out of scheduling red-eye connections between European and Asian capitals - but it still goes into a semi-shutdown overnight. I'd expected things to be livelier on the airside, but found to my dismay that while the automatic checkin machines were working well, and the security staff were ready to pat me down, there was no way drop off my bags - even the automatic drop-off machines were turned off! They only came on a couple of hours before the first scheduled departure, a 5.30am charter to some Iberian possession. Once I got airside, things were not much better - everything was closed, including the passport check station for the non-Schengen zone! Still, to the airport's credit, they had plenty of power sockets available to keep my laptop and phone charged, and most bars' comfier seating stays available while they're closed. I found the former sleeping area eventually, once I got out of Schengen - it was down to a few individual sleep pods, now being charged at 9 euros per hour, making it nearly always a worse value proposition than the airport hotel.

Finnair is not supposed to be a discount airline, and their London flight is one of the longer ones within Europe, so I was a bit disappointed that the in-flight economy class service consisted of a begrudging glass of blueberry juice - even Estonian Air can do better than that! Still, we arrived on time - and I learned that Heathrow airport has taken over the annoying American practice of putting arriving passengers through full security screenings, even if they are just transiting - something that is thankfully a distant memory within Schengen. In that line, I ended behind a burly dude in a Harley Davidson sweatshirt, commenting to his buddy about how people had to take off their belts - "well, I'm not getting through cleanly anyway, because of my metal knee." Thankful for the unintentional notice of upcoming confusion, I quickly switched to the next line, and got through relatively unscathed. Fish, chips, cup of tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary fucking Poppins... London.

I didn't even have time to find a reasonably priced bottle of water before my onward connection; fortunately, Cathay Pacific really is a rather lovely airline. It didn't hand out bottles of water to everyone, as I've seen some do, but the attendants came by with trays of juice and water often enough that dehydration was never a problem - and it was hilarious to see what a partially pressurized cabin does to a packet of complimentary vinegar crisps. The food was good by airline standards - I've only had better on Turkish Airlines, and only when originating from Istanbul - and the in-flight entertainment system was excellent, with a broad selection of movies, including some new ones. Eager to begin my cultural immersion, I watched a Taiwanese magic-realism love story; it is now my favourite film of the year so far, and I shall be subjecting my friends and movie club attendees to it. Still, while I passed out for some of the flight, I did not get any proper sleep; so it doesn't count as turning over to a new day. Besides, I didn't get to have a February 20th.

This was my second time in Hong Kong; every time I am only there for a short while, and I always wish I had the opportunity and purpose for an extended stay. While I enjoy living in a small town, Hong Kong is a metropolis that agrees with me. It has just the right level of dirt and ruin to feel alive (an advantage it maintains over Singapore), but is still a perfectly safe place to live. It is both exotic, as a Chinese city that has filtered every significant Asian civilization through itself, and comprehensible to an English-speaker (an advantage it maintains over anywhere in Japan and Brazil, even through they try).

The plane lands half an hour early; immigration is a breeze, although I am miffed that they have now stopped putting stamps into your passport for touristy visa-free entry: I want exotic stamps, goddammit! I will just have to use the entry permission slip they gave me to start a scrapbook or something. The Airport Express sells a same-day return ticket for the same price as a single, and after withdrawing 500 HKD and spending a hundred of them immediately on the ticket, I am off to the city. I am in Central Hong Kong by half past eight, and spend a ripoffy 11.50 HKD on a plain coffee - but it's still better than drinking the stuff on the plane. It's Saturday and most things are closed, and there's a heavy mist over the city; so I find the minibus station with the help of friendly locals, and spend another ten dollars on a ride up to Victoria Peak. The proper touristy way to do this is the Peak Tram, but I'd done it in my previous visit, it's more expensive, frequently packed with tourists, and, to be honest, not as engaging an experience as Hong Kong's public transport. Once we're into the foothills, progress is interrupted: the roads are only semi-open to accommodate the runners of the Mizuno Fat Choi Run. (I look at my new shoes appreciatively.) I think Fat Choi is the name of the new lunar year, the Year of the Goat (although parts of Hong Kong use it interchangeably with the Year of the Sheep) - it's only a day after the Chinese New Year celebrations, not a coincidence, as I've found on previous occasions that right before or right after a major national holiday is an excellent time to visit. The marathon runners include both semi-professionals and volunteers in it for the laugh - couples with baby strollers, men in chicken hats, and an improbable number of women at least in their 30s wearing Sailor Moon outfits.

I stroll around the Peak's viewing terraces and take a few pictures of towers rising eerily out of the fog, and stop by the 7-Eleven for a customary weird Asian soft drink (this time, a green tea soy latte in a bottle - not bad, but not as intense an experience as Pocari Sweat was). Then I decide to take the Old Peak Road down to the beef brisket neighborhood. My phone still carries a geostar from my last visit, for Mak's Noodles - a busy, dingy, delicious and ridiculously cheap eatery; new googling comes up with Kai Kee as the restaurant that now serves the best beef brisket noodles in town. I hike down, worrying a bit - the steep sloping descent is unusually punishing on my calf muscles, and I have a mountain to climb tomorrow. I am greeted by various ascenders, including dog walkers and a lot of those annoyingly well-preserved Chinese pensioners.

By the time I reach my destination, it's around 10am, but that's still not early enough for either place (or most others in the vicinity) to be open. So I walk down to Central, stumbling across a dragon show in front of a main street department store. The staff are blocking the entrance, and the viewing public has spilled out into traffic; security guards and the police helpfully steer cars around them, as passengers cheer the performers from the upper deck windows of those impossibly charming Central trams.

On my way to Central Piers, I go down the raised walkways interlinking the shopping malls, and encounter the rump of the Occupy movement. In a very Hong Kongese fashion, these protesters have used cardboard boxes to stake out their claims along the walkways, avoiding major disruption to the city's lifelines while not allowing the shopping classes to forget about the struggle. Around the corner, there's a massive line at the Apple Store. What could they be after? The iPhone 6 has been out for ages, and I don't think the Apple Watch is being released yet, even in Hong Kong... or that so many people would want to buy it.

I pay the equivalent of thirty-five eurocents to take the Star Ferry across to Kowloon, where the waterfront still carries decorations from the Year of the Goat celebrations (sorry, mate, that still looks like a sheep). I walk past the Peninsula Hotel, with its pair of dark-green Rolls Royces parked out front and ready to whisk paying guests to the airport or opera, and turn into Nathan Road. I stare at Chungking Mansions, but don't go in this time - I'm not hungry, not in the mood for Indian food anyway, and can't think of any electronics I need to buy right now, as my trusty old Olympus XZ-1 and its Dramatic Filter are still serving me well. Based on Wikitravel advice, I turn into Shanghai and Temple streets - the first a better representative of Old Kowloon as you've seen it in that one Call of Duty map, and the second ostensibly a restaurant haven, although at this time of day I am rather accosted by offers of massages from lady criers who are dressed in a fashion that hints heavily at happy endings. I flee to the nearby Taoist temple and inhale the thick incense fumes. Then I continue up Nathan Road until Mong Kok - somewhat retracing my previous visits, but other landmarks are too far for a short stopover. Besides, while I may not be achieving coverage, I am certainly achieving immersion, and that is more important.

I take the subway back to brisket heaven; Kai Kee is closed for the lunar holidays, but Mak's is still there. The only change is that the clipping under the perspex table cover that featured Bill Clinton praising the joint has been replaced with one of Anthony Bourdain; sic transit. I pay 54 dollars, plus a 5 dollar holiday service surcharge, for limitless tea and a bowl of brisket and wonton noodles; it may be slightly more expensive than the daily soup special at Pirogov, but it is still amazing value for a city as ostensibly expensive as Hong Kong. I do keep wondering about that; the food is cheap and good, the public transport likewise, and a look into a real estate agent's window shows some very nice potential rentals, including one highrise pad with a hell of a view that is being advertised for 5500 HKD. The rest is in Chinese characters, so I assume it must be per week, not per month. Otherwise Hong Kong would just be too awesome.

I walk back to Central and catch the express back to the airport, arriving a healthy hour and a half before my flight is to leave. Inbound security is reasonably smooth, and the passport check is a non-issue. The duty-free shop has half a dozen tasting stations operating at the same time, offering little sips of everything from XO cognac to Glenlivet; even men of the North can get reasonably sloshed on the good stuff here, before getting on the plane. I've spent very little of my cash - I still have 280 HKD left in bills, plus something like eleven in coins that I can't exchange outside the territory, so I look for something to buy, but there's nothing I need immediately on my next stop, and I'll be back here on my return trip to stock up on duty-free booze.

My next flight is on Dragonair, the low-cost subsidiary of Cathay; it leaves from a standalone little concourse, accessible by shuttle bus. Boarding starts later than it's supposed to, but proceeds quickly enough; and once the gate attendant scans my Helsinki-printed boarding card, the machine beeps a warning and says there's a Seating Issue. Ah, but they already have a new boarding pass printed out for me - and because the flight is full, I've been bumped up to Business Class. Perhaps they looked at the list of passengers and decided to put the fat laowai up front, so the normal people have more elbow room in Economy; perhaps they looked at my itinerary and figured I needed it more than the others. Either way, this is the first time in my life I am flying Business; Hong Kong has certainly been very good to me.

For all the nice touches - the comfy reclining seat, the better food, the orange juice that is actually fresh-squeezed and comes in a glass made of, well, glass - I am aware that the MSRP for a Business Class ticket on this one 2,5 hour leg is almost certainly higher than my entire Cathay ticket was, and by that standard, Business Class disappoints. It's great, but it's not worth the surcharge; of course, it's named that exactly because most people in it are not paying for the ticket with their own money.

We land smoothly at Kota Kinabalu; I am the first off the plane, and by the time I clear immigration (a very short wait), the luggage is already on the conveyer belt, and my bag that I last saw in Finland is right there. Considering that on my last trip, Estonian Air failed to put it on board at Brussels despite a two-hour connection window, I am impressed. I walk out into the Malaysian winter, and unlike the comfy gloom of overcast Hong Kong, this is a tropical mini-sauna. My 280 HKD got me 124 ringgit at the airport exchange (a much better rate than the extortionists at Travelex), and I spend 30 of them on a taxi to my hotel - there is no public transport to or from the airport in Kota Kinabalu.

I check into the hotel - decent, if expensive for Asia - and go for a quick walk around the town's touristy core. The night food market is a sensory impact of grilling seafood, but I'll pass for now - tomorrow is a day when I definitely don't want to have an upset stomach. Instead, I investigate the recommended local expat bar (ditto on the hangover), and grab a quick dessert at a place on the main drag that advertises itself as a specialist. To steal a thesis from a friend, Asians are famously horrid at desserts, even more surprisingly in the context of their admirable proficiency with main dishes. I order the Signature dish, and get what, my Facebook commenters quickly point out, looks like a bowl of turds that is covered in a finish that is different from a chef's usual use of the word. In terms of taste and texture, it's a non-trivial experience, and laudably low on sugar, but the Malaysians will not be challenging the French or Italians any time soon.

I walk back, stopping at a 7-Eleven for energy reserves for tomorrow, and walk out with two boxes of Pocky. Then I return to the hotel, pack my bags for tomorrow's adventure, set my alarm for 5.30 AM... then spend the next two hours writing this travelogue. Which is just as well, because - and I am not joking - there is a karaoke bar outside of my hotel window, and as I am finishing this sentence, someone just launched into a rendition of "I'm all about that bass".

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On the Impossibility of Cultural Estrangement

Charles Stross writes on his excellent blog about the lack of cultural estrangement in far-future science fiction. His objection is that far-flung societies ought to be significantly removed from what is familiar to us; and yet many space operas present a future that is essentially the status quo, plus made-up technology:
The gender politics, religious framework, ideologies, fashions(!) and attitudes of today—specifically, of a type of Anglophone developed-world middle class lifestyle that lots of folks aspire to—has become a universal norm. And nothing else gets much of a look in.
He brings up two examples, one of which I am unfamiliar with; the other one is Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton, the first book in his Commonwealth series, of which I am a big fan. I have my own problems with Hamilton's writing, but they are not the same as Stross's problems. In fact, I was very surprised by his objections; and while Charlie is very good about engaging with his fans, the comment thread stands at 348 entries as I am writing this, and I just don't see the value of riding into the middle of the discussion on the back of a white rhino. So you get to read this on my blog instead.

My first counter to Charlie's objection is that he is guilty of this himself. He grants that Hamilton at least has a fig-leaf explanation, that the rich people who are the majority of Hamilton's protagonists have access to rejuvenation and their society is therefore frozen in time (in the later books, access to rejuvenation for the middle classes and working poor is also addressed). Yet let's look at Stross's own far-future books. He's come up with two compelling space-opera universes: that of the Eschaton (abandoned due to mechanical inconsistencies that bother Stross far more than they ever bothered fans), and that of Saturn's Children. In the latter, society is frozen in a sort of today-plus-ten-years, with middle-class aesthetics predominantly influenced by the Western fascination with Japanese pop culture which has - today, in 2014 - become thoroughly mainstream and is well on its way to being diluted into banality; and much of the rest of that world is a direct copy of the modern vintage hipster approach, co-opting the symbology that is already retro in his reader's time. Stross's fig-leaf excuse is that he is describing a rump society left over after humanity essentially ground to a halt, stopped reproducing and died out, all within a lifetime of the observer's now, and the remnants are compelled at firmware level to ape that moment in time when their creators perished. In the Eschaton universe, Stross goes further still - his god-machine takes various historical human societies, including quite recent ones, and deposits them around the universe in such a way that they would come into contact with each other simultaneously - but at different points in their own development. The compelling culture of the original Eschaton book is late-stage Imperial Russia, but with starships and lasers. The most distinctive culture in the second Eschaton book is literally Space Nazis.

Secondly, the most obvious retort: every writer is told to write what they know, and every reader consumes a story via their own perspective. For a human, fallible writer to create a universe that is fundamentally unrecognizable would be a neat trick indeed, especially if it is supposed to have developed from an existing modern one. Have any managed this? Answers in the comments, please...)

For the human fallible reader, that universe would be confusing and without meaning - the semiotic equivalent of opening a PDF document in Notepad. This is why the works of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells do not accurately describe real-life 2014-or-thereabouts. For even the best futurist to predict events more than a decade or two in the future, without firmly grounding them in historical precedent of similar developments, is a blind lottery: you might succeed accidentally and occasionally, but you can't pull it off reliably and repeatedly.

Thirdly, I think there is a counter-argument to be made to Charlie's assertion that a comparison of our present with our own past implies an unrecognizable future. Yes, the world of 2014 is incredibly different from the world of 1914; but that world is far less removed from 1814 in the view of the man on the street. And the world of 1714, in that same perspective, would be remarkably similar to the world of 1214. That's just taking Europe - a continent and culture that famously had a thousand-year chasm in its civilizational development, from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Renaissance; and if Hamilton's criminally familiar universe is set 400 years in the future, well - there are 400-year-old buildings a stone's throw from where I'm sitting right now, still perfectly functional. And if I go into a shop, I can buy food from farmers and artisans who use 400-year-old methods to produce a premium, higher-added-value product. I live in a country that is often lauded in global media as the world's most advanced digital society, but in this same country, heating your house with a wood-burning stove is still a perfectly valid infrastructural choice.

The classic SF soundbite about the future being already here but unevenly distributed applies at both the macro and micro scales. Parts of our lives are incredibly advanced, but transport a modern literary novel four hundred years back in time, edit it slightly for spelling and vocabulary, and I think it would still be readable to the people of that age, as one of those new-fangled notions in the style of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Fourthly, I think the grounding of far-future SF in modern culture is simply a normal part of the compact between the reader and author. The escapism that draws readers to space opera is about being a better version of yourself - not about associating with someone entirely different. From the days of "Utopia", it is understood and accepted that the author uses the expanded horizon of speculative fiction to make a relevant point, to say something about the society in which we live today. If the future they have described does not come to pass, the artistic value of the work is not diminished - we still enjoy Verne and Wells, and Asimov and Heinlein.

The best futurists are not the ones who have guessed right - they are the ones who have presented a future so consistent, believable and attractive that the generation of their fans goes out and builds it.


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