Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dissenting Opinion

Am I the only one who thinks all the noise surrounding the Dark Knight film is over the top?

John Scalzi (who is an awesome writer btw and you should go and buy his Old Man's War books if you haven't already) has a column out where he dissects the film's Oscar chances. He makes a lot of very sensible points, both for and against, and concludes by saying that Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan (the director) will probably get their Oscars, and there will be a bunch of wins in technical nominations - but that it will not win Best Picture, because, quote, In the end, I expect giving the Best Picture to a movie about a guy in a bat suit will still be out of the mental comfort zone of the Academy.

Really? It was well within the Academy's mental comfort zone to give Best Picture to a film about a burning cunt suspended on top of a Gothic tower and a guy in spikey leather.

No, the reason why Dark Knight will not win Best Picture is because - and this is where I will ask that you hear me out before throwing various metaphorical kinds of rotten tomatoes at me - it is not an outstandingly good movie.

Not on balance.

There is absolutely no denying that The Joker was a spectacular, genre-shattering performance; this is the new gold standard of on-screen villainry and if, by some fluke of politics or mathematics, Heath Ledger will not receive a posthumous Oscar, it will be the end of the Academy, because its opinion will not be taken seriously by anyone again. Heath Ledger has had a tough time growing out of his heartthrob career (see his odd performance in Lords of Dogtown, where his character was a decrepid ruin opposed to the core cast of teenagers, producing a cognitive dissonance: Heath Ledger is suddenly old), but his Joker is absolutely phenomenal. No actor was this good in 2008; no actor has been this good in recent memory.

However, except for The Joker, what does Dark Knight really have? Batman Begins only got a single nomination for Best Cinematography, and the sequel has not actually moved the game on in any meaningful way. Christian Bale's Batman is as wooden as ever, and while he made this sort of character work really well in Equilibrium, here he has little opportunity to do that. Batman simply walks around responding passively and predictably to cues fed to him by the other characters; Bruce Wayne is better, as Bale actually manages to convey the disillusioned billionaire with a death wish. It would be entirely possible to go through the entire movie without Batman ever actually showing up. Bale gets far more screen time as Bruce Wayne anyway, and the fight scenes are your typical Hollywood choreography showcases; the fanboy audience expects a caped crusader, obviously, but if this wasn't a studio blockbuster, it might have been done as an arthouse adaptation without any footage of Batman in action at all - only scenes presumed and described by the other characters. Would not have limited Heath Ledger at all, but it would have been far more of a challenge (and accomplishment) for the director.

Aaron Eckhardt is far, far better. He's best known for Thank You for Smoking; both there and here he did an excellent job on pure, raw charisma. For two thirds of the movie I was impressed that they portrayed him as an absolute, incorruptable force for good, and the Two-Face character has merit as well; while the coin-flip plot device is long established in the Batman canon, Eckhardt somehow manages to pull off the ultimate sociopath: he is not the least bit disappointed if chance says the victim lives. He can kill you or not. Either way's good.

What he doesn't do quite as well is the transformation. Both Harvey Dent, the white knight, and Two-Face, the sword of chance, are excellent characters, but I am not convinced by the way one became the other. Two-Face's motivation could not simply be grief for his lost love and outrage at the betrayal of the corrupt policemen and inept superhero; surrendering yourself so utterly to blind luck requires true soul-searching, coming to the inevitable and logical conclusion that chance is the only thing in this universe that makes sense.

Besides all of which, longcat is looooooooong. Dark Knight feels drawn out in a way that the Lord of the Rings movies never did. They needed to pack in not only a lot of special-effects showmanship (in addition to giving Heath Ledger all the screen time he so richly deserves), but also the plot arc for a whole additional supervillain, plus the love interest - the latter felt like an afterthought with a strong Spiderman influence, which is absolutely not a compliment.

What else? The cinematography? It's good, but the long-established Gotham aesthetic readily lends itself to breathtaking backgrounds and haunting details. It'd almost be more effort to get it wrong.

The upshot is that Dark Knight is an excellent film, well worth the ticket price to go and see on the big screen (your home theatre would do it an injustice); but it is surrounded by an inordinate amount of hype. Heath Ledger's performance deserves all the hype it is getting, and more; but it does set a standard for the film's other components that they just do not live up to. Ledger is the best actor in 2008; Dark Knight simply is not the year's best film.

Gremlins from the Kremlin

Cute. I think I'll steal it. :)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Rome 319.jpg
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Rome pics are up.

In Which Flasher Does a James May Impression

(First of all, I would like to offer an official, on-the-record apology to Dana Gonzalez. I'm sorry for calling you an unreasonable American. By comparison, you are Kofi Annan.)

I seem to be coming across topics that stir up emotion a lot recently. One thing that is guaranteed to get an opinion out of everyone in Estonia, but especially expats, is consumer protection.

The short story is that there isn't any. Legally, it is nearly impossible to return a faulty product to the store and get your cash back. If you convince them that it is faulty, they send it off for an expert assessment, and if the expert says the problem is not subject to the warranty, you're done. The assessment can take months. You can pay to get a second opinion, but at that point you are likely to exceed the value of the item you are trying to get refunded.

Much like the whole swim trunks thing, this tends to bother foreigners a lot more than Estonians, who have just learned to deal with it. Mingus is angry about it at the moment, and I can't really say I blame him; what he says is true enough. I myself have had some horrible experiences with customer services in Estonia. I once bought a pair of fancy Salamander shoes that fell apart after a week; I took them back to the shop, which sent them off to the expert, and they returned with a generic verdict of "user error". A lot of money wasted, and faith in fancy brands ruined. Next pair of footwear I bought was a set of paratrooper combat boots from an Israeli army surplus store, and they've been awesome.

Yes, it's common wisdom that a lot of the builders do crap work; this is why I was not particularly bothered by the construction industry imploding: in a buyer's market builders will have to compete on merit, which is an unassailably good thing. And yes, it's true that Estonian service personnel is quite unlikely to be nice to you: Estonians consider politeness to be overrated. Actually, these days if a salesgirl smiles at me, it confuses me a bit - something is wrong with this picture.

But honestly, it's not a big deal. While the law is not very consumer-oriented, there is compensation by decent shops that want to preserve a reputation. I bought a pair of extremely nice mittens at Kaubamaja at the beginning of the previous winter - made out of individual scraps of fur, turned inside out and sewn together; they had visible seams on the outside, which I thought looked interesting, and natural fur on the inside, which made them very warm and soft and nice in the cold, dry climate that normally has me going through tubes of Neutrogena hand cream at an alarming rate. Unfortunately the stitching on the seams wasn't up to standards, and the bits of fur scrap started to come apart. I brought the mittens back to Kaubamaja, and a couple weeks later got a call from them - they gave me a full, cash refund. They didn't have to; maybe it was because they pulled up my loyalty card records and saw that I've given them a fair bit of business over the years; in any case, that behaviour has endeared Kaubamaja to me, and I continue to shop there as much as I can.

Same with construction. My apartment, in a brand new building, is some 15 months old now. The factory warranty is two years; at the end of the first year they asked me to email any issues I might have had with the flat, then sent over a team of workmen to go over the apartment and fix all the niggly bits, like re-seal the corners with fresh silicon, saw down the bathroom door frame so the door doesn't droop down (didn't affect it opening or closing, just looked nasty), replace the bits holding the pipework to the wall inside the water meter cabinet, etc. They even left a few tins of paint for me to use, because my apartment has a custom color scheme - they had to mix up those shades for the corner sealant jobs, and wouldn't be using them anywhere else in the building. Overall I was actually extremely happy with the warranty work that the building's developer did not strictly have to do.

Honestly, it's not like America is the land of consumer satisfaction. So yes, Estonia has problems with consumer rights, but it's not that bad. You just have to exercise some common sense; caveat emptor. Also, part of the Estonian mentality is that the customer is, indeed, not the king. A retail purchase is a business transaction; both sides have rights and obligations, and both sides can expect to be treated with dignity and respect. Just because you're giving someone some money for their merchandise does not mean you are entitled to any special treatment. Customer service staff does is not obliged to deal with your bullshit.

This is not meant to be unduly harsh on Mingus. Like I said, he's not wrong. However, his post did draw some odd comments, particularly from one James Graff.

Honestly, I urge you to go and read his comment on Mingus's article. Not only is it hilariously inaccurate (at this point there is very little price difference between most items in Estonia and elsewhere in Europe; differences with the US for electronics and other specific items are not unique to Estonia, but a result of manufacturers' market segmentation - which is why Amazon or Newegg are legally prohibited from shipping such items outside North America), but it is infuriatingly idiotic. When I went off on a rant about the Baltlantis swim shorts article, this is the sort of ignorant twat I was aiming for. The sort of xenophobic cretin that Vello Vikerkaar was talking about in his seminal work of Esto-American cultural anthropology, Are You an Expat Loser?. And it's not just the bitchfest on Mingus's blog, either - he's got more!

I've spent enough time on the Internet to understand that this James Graff character ( profile: Long haired singer/songwriter, lead guitarist, keyboard player, saxy saxyphonist...mainly over the hill LOSER!! (La - hoo - za - her)!! Ivy league, Wharton Business School/Moore School of Engineering Management and Technology BURNTOUT-DROPOUT!! ("I wouldn't work if you paid me!!" and "The only thing I learned in business school is that I don't want to "work" a day in my life...I want to "play" and get paid for it!!!") is almost certainly a troll, but what the hell, I'll bite.

I think that man is a danger, frankly. If there's one thing I can't stand it's long-haired, sanctimonious, patronising Americans in tartan trousers coming to Estonia and trying to persuade us to turn it into Lakewood, New Jersey. He wants Tartu full of sandal-wearing hippies pushing wheel-barrows full of amaranth grain, and he wants Tallinners to be Manhattan wannabes with Macbooks and guido stock brokers - "mornin' Jimmy, I've just bought some mortgage-backed securities, alright". I say, James, if you're reading... okay, you won't be reading obviously, because I'm not talking about indie rock bands or organic produce or Sarbanes Oxley, but if you happen to have looked in by mistake...

We're not interested in the views of stupid Americans who come over with their big video cameras saying "Gee I love your country, but it's just so wrong".


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Off the Grid in Estonia

There was a discussion on one of my forums about people with negative equity on their homes (owing more on the mortgage than the house can be sold for) and whether it's possible to just walk away and let the bank eat the difference. A British poster related the story of his wife's ex-husband, whose bank only foreclosed when they found out the guy was on unemployment benefits and didn't go after the ex-wife because the guy didn't tell them where she lived - fearing that she'd tell the bank how much he was really earning.

The first thing that I felt was odd about the situation was the fact that the bank had to rely on the ex-husband telling them where she lived; in hyper-connected Estonia, much of the ease and cheapness of consumer credit stems from the fact that you can't really hide. The second thing was that the bank had no way of knowing how much the guy was making.

Giustino once said that Estonia is a country where using cash is considered quaint, but burning wood to heat your home is fashionable. This got me thinking: is it even possible, in today's Estonia, to live entirely on cash, bypassing banks altogether?

People used to live on cash, way back when - in the 90s, when a lot of folks were on what was called "envelope pay" - you got some cash in an envelope at the end of the month and the man from Maksuamet didn't need to know. These days if you want a mortgage, or a car lease, or a credit card, or co-signing for your kid's student loan, you need at least six months' worth of demonstrable, legal income, not to mention that people under a certain age will have most of their retirement paid for out of a private pension fund that's fueled by a percentage of your salary that is matched twice over by the government. You need to be paying taxes to get all that, plus medical coverage. But let us presume that you are a young, healthy person earning a decent income from an untaxable source - I don't know, dealing weed, or selling inflatable dildos on eBay* or something. Can you actually have a normal life on par with credit-card-carrying Estonians? Not even in the long term, but day-to-day? Living on unsubstantiated income?

Foremost is accomodation. Let's say that your supplier drowned trying to swim across the Narva river and you've got enough cash that nobody is chasing after to buy an apartment. Can you do it? Unlikely: any real estate purchase in Estonia has to be certified by a notary public, who will either hold the money in escrow (via a special bank account), or at the very least want proof of payment to complete the transaction - something like a bank slip. Obviously depositing the cash in your bank account is out of the question (if you ever get caught, the police could get access to your bank records and inquire as to the source of the money). I suppose you could actually go to a bank branch and deposit the cash directly into the seller's account - if you can find a branch that does cash transactions, which a lot of them don't any more. I'm not sure if you have to show ID to deposit cash into an account normally, but you certainly would with a large enough sum to buy an apartment, there are money-laundering laws in place just for such occasions. Interestingly enough the seller might actually go for it: they are not obligated to know where you got the money. It's not their problem.

Or you could rent. If you're renting a flat long-term, there would have to be a contract - and a big part of why realtors are still in business in Estonia is because they will do background checks on potential renters. (I don't really understand what else realtors do - all the property in Estonia gets bought and sold via ads on the same two websites, and you still have to be there when potential buyers come and see the place.) Still, the realtor will only find out if you're wanted by creditors, and you don't really have to prove where the money is coming from; but if the flat's owner is going away for a year, they will want the rent to arrive in their bank accounts. Far more importantly, the utilities: paying your Eesti Energia bills in cash could be an issue, and paying the homeowners' union for the rest of the aggregate services without going through a bank is pretty much impossible.

A better option is to be renting a few rooms in a family's house - done often enough in Tartu - where the owner is actually right there and doesn't mind you covering the rent and your share of the utilities in cash each month.

In comparison, buying a car would be trivial. Private sellers will gladly accept cash, and all you need to register it in your name is a purchase contract signed by both parties, and the car's old registration slip. You have to pay a registration fee, but that can be done in cash - most registration offices have a bank branch on-site just for that. Also, as long as you don't leave the country and still have valid insurance and technical test coverage, you can actually keep driving a car you've bought without registering it for ages. If you've got the purchase contract, you're the legal owner of the car. There's still a beat-up old Honda Accord out there somewhere, registered to my name; I sold it for parts years ago, and since I have a copy of the purchase contract to prove I'm not the owner any more, I don't really care.

Daily expenses would be simpler. You'd be hard-pressed to pay mobile phone bills with cash outside a bank, but then you could have a pre-paid SIM card and buy top-up chunks for it in cash. They won't work abroad, but they are dirt cheap and disposable, which might come in handy if you're a drug dealer.

Not the result I expected. Now that I think about it, it's actually possible to live in Estonia entirely on cash; but it'd be really inconvenient...


* which I did in college, but you'll have to buy me a pint to hear the story.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

No Sleep Till Tallinn

First, to answer some comment queries:

1) The building behind me in the Forum video is the Rome city hall - still active and the residence of the mayor and city government. It's on Campidoglio, the original Capitoline hill where Rome allegedly began. The building does seem to be a Medieval structure built on top of ancient ruins, but then that's quite common in Rome. You'll see bits of millenia-old masonry sticking out of walls at random.

2) It's not a Hugh Laurie American accent, that's what I sound like at the moment. Since English was not always a primary language for me, I don't have an established accent; if I'm immersed in a culture long enough, I tend to pick up local speech patterns. Disturbingly, this happens not just with native-English regions; stay too long in Scandinavia and I start talking in the Swenglish pidgin. Mind you, I spend much more time writing English than speaking it, so I do have an accent beyond the American that I default to.

3) Hmph. I am against cover charges on philosophical grounds; the assumption is that I have to pay for the privilege of giving the establishment my business, which is a pretty fucking bold statement to be making, and let's face it, even in Rome few restaurants live up to it. I don't have anything against, say, a drinks minimum - if you take up space in a busy spot at rush hour, you shouldn't just be nursing a tap water, that falls under my general "don't be an asshole" policy, but Italian restaurants are a bit too eager to fleece you with auxiliary charges for my liking. Apparently the prices for the same foodstuffs are different not just for in-house or takeaway (which could be justified by the difference in waiters' salaries and cutlery washing costs), but for standing at the counter, sitting at a table, and sitting at a table outside. I have the same motivation for intensely disliking the American sales tax practice: it means that the price I see is not the price I pay, and that goes against my fundamental understanding of what is right and proper. It's not the expense that annoys me (although five Euro for a tin of iced tea is highway robbery); it's the mindfuck.

I've still got most of a day tomorrow, which I will probably spend ambling about and maybe looking at some of the shops - might as well; but I am happy to be heading home. Rome is an intriguing place, but it I haven't felt the same affinity with it as I have with, say, Stockholm. It's not an uncomfortable place for me, like Cologne or Berlin were, and it's a lot more comprehensible than London. My aversion is not just down to the heat either: I felt more at home in Jerusalem than I did here, and that was by far the most culturally alien place I've been yet. But it's not as stifling as Reykjavik either. Even as I am underwhelmed by Rome, it seems to have made every effort to accomodate me. (The quintessential Roman experience: watching an old silent movie being shown on an outdoor screen on the Isola Tiberina, standing on the Ponte Fabricio, while nursing a limone gelato.)

I saw a quote somewhere - I think it was by Verdi - "You can have the universe, if I can have Italy". Well, I understand the sentiment mate, but then again - you're welcome to it.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ostia Antica

What Rome doesn’t have is visible minorities. There are some, mainly South-East Asian, but I have seen very few people of African descent who could not legitimately have been tourists. My Roman friends confirm this: while Italy is actually a major entry point and transit hub for immigrants from the Mediterranean’s more exciting regions – what with a vast coastline and a thriving pleasure boating scene that probably makes immigration policing futile – very few immigrants, legal or otherwise, settle here. There seems to still be a lot of everyday-level racism here; not enormously evil (trivia from visiting the Jewish Ghetto: almost all of Rome’s Jewish community survived under Mussolini) but uncomfortable enough that people prefer to take their chances elsewhere. The upshot is that for a European city of this size, Rome is shockingly white.

In more ways than one, actually. Another thing that Rome does not appear to have is a counter-culture. There are no emo kids, no goths, not so much as a Metallica T-shirt in sight. Everybody seems to be dressed as if from Kaubamaja; the height of youthful rebellion is a football team’s shirt, or for the really preposterous macho types, a sleeveless maika. I tried doing the preppie thing at first, as you can see from the Forum video, but it’s just not me: I know I look good in business-casual, and I know how to tie a double Windsor, but I rarely do that. So Rome is a bit of a cognitive dissonance: the frame of reference for my dress style is Stockholm, and there my cargo fatigues and motorcycle club support tee barely register. In Rome, I’m the heaviest person around. Even the dudes on Harleys are wearing polo shirts.

Here’s a prevalent Roman mindfuck: bread in restaurants. While La Dolce Vita (Tartu’s culinary poster child, authentic enough to have a brick wood-fired oven and an Italian head chef) serves delicious freshly-baked rolls with your meal, these fuckers drop a basket with three dry, stale slices on the table whether you asked for them or not, and have the audacity to charge you a euro fifty for it. Well, that was your tip right there, buddy.

Roman nightlife is fun. The capital is the victim of much snobbery from Northern cultural outposts, but Romans really do not spend much time in nightclubs, preferring to go out at night, once it’s cooled down, and just sit there nursing a drink, talking about nothing. Less Atlantis, more Zavood, if you will. All the more strange that all the bars close at 2 am sharp. They’re doing it because it’s the law, and certainly not because they’re running out of customers by that point.

Assessment of Italian girls following several nights’ worth of pubcrawl in Trastevere: nice legs, shame about the face. I’m sure the temperament is exciting, but on the face of it (boo hiss), Northern Europe wins.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Don't Mention Dan Brown

I've got a few days of vacation after I get back on Monday - any Tallinn bloggers/readers fancy a pint?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Intermission: Oh for fuck's sake, just deal with it.

Looked at the front page of Baltlantis today, and saw this hapless jeremiad. This has been such a staple of American bitching stereotypes that it's not even amusing any more, just annoying.

(The following is best read to a background of German outfit H-Blockx's seminal punk anthem, "This is not America".)

Water parks in Estonia, like pretty much everywhere in Europe, frown upon swimming shorts. There are, historically, some valid reasons for it. Swimming shorts seem to have been designed in California, with the express purpose of wearing them as swimmable outerwear; you get out of the ocean, they dry out very quickly, and you can be on your way. I have a pair that I got at an Orange County Target a few years ago. They have both external pockets, big enough to fit, say, a wallet, and a conveniently secure inner pocket, which can store, say, a car key. By their very design, swimming shorts encourage being worn about town, to the drinks vendor, to the corner shop, etc. In the summer - and yes, Estonian summers do get hot enough to warrant this, however briefly and occasionally - it is not unreasonable to expect people to get out of their apartments in swim shorts and a T-shirt (or not), walk down to the beach or pool, and have a dip. If we're talking about Anne Kanal here, it's a perfectly legitimate and pleasant passtime.

This, however, has gotten some of the more sun-soaked European countries riled up about possible hygiene issues. The thinking is that shorts worn on the street are likely to bring bacteria or other contaminants into the swimming pools (especially ones less enthusiastic with the chlorine than Kalev). There is also the chance that you will forget some keys or coins in the pockets of your shirts, and they will end up fucking with the pumps and filters. So while I'm not sure if there is an actual EU directive proscribing swimming shorts, there is certainly a prevailing opinion.

For what it's worth, I've worn my Target shorts to the Aura swimming pool in Tartu and have never seen anyone take up issue with them; not for me, not for my friends, not for the stable minority of swimmers who choose to come to Aura in non-speedo gear. I'm fairly sure though that I would be stopped if I wore the shorts to the actual water park bit of it, the bit with the slides. People have been given a legitimate, sensible reason for this limitation: swimming shorts often have metal rivets, almost always have exposed seams, and without fail have loose legs. All of these could potentially generate friction and/or snagging on a water slide; however small the chance, the water park does not want the liability, and that's their right.

What's really annoying though is Mrs. Gonzalez's proud, militant, American ignorance. First of all, there is nothing wrong with Speedos: they are a superior choice for swimming, because they provide far less resistance than flappy shorts - the reason why even in genitalia-shy America, they are the choice of professional athletes. The assertion that she is unduly stressed by the vague outlines of male reproductive organs is, frankly, ludicrous. She mentions a husband in the article, so being married, presumably she has indeed seen what a penis looks like and what it can do. Dear Dana: this is not Utah. It is Estonia, a country with a sauna culture, where children grow up knowing that it is perfectly possible for people of opposite sexes to be naked in the same room without an orgy ensuing. Oh, and our age of consent is 14. Doesn't that just shock you?

We are human males, Mrs. Gonzalez. Near enough all of us do indeed possess both penises and testicles. Even, believe it or not, the President of America. If you can't stand the wienerfest, get out of the water.

And for fuck's sake, stop complaining about pool staff doing their jobs. Oh, you say they should rummage through your bags and/or require you to present swimming gear at the counter? How about, instead, and this is just a thought, you follow the fucking rules that you are perfectly well aware of, and stop expecting people to accomodate you just because you're American?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


From a pedestrian’s perspective, Rome’s legendary traffic is sorely overrated. The city was designed before cars, but not before carriages; while the grid is confusing, it does have nice, wide thoroughfares connecting most areas. Then again the streets do get remarkably narrow; this is by far the biggest market for Smart cars – because you can park them nose-in in an EU standard parking space. The Italian and French automakers have never developed a passenger car larger than the E-class-equivalent; there is simply no point, not in these cities.

From inside a vehicle, it is very different. I’d thought that it wasn’t that bad; I’ve driven in Riga, so presumably I could handle this. A ride in the passenger seat cured my misconception: the problem with Italian drivers is that they have no concept of lanes whatsoever. This is not the lawlessness of post-Soviet or Third World countries, where the right of way belongs to the more expensive or larger car; Italians seem to observe streetlights and no-entry signs well enough (certainly better than a lot of Estonian drivers). The problem is that they move without structure. Roads are shared by scooters, Smart cars, Golf-class cars (what the European nomenclature dubs a “small family car”), and posh Lancias, as well as the odd SUV or German luxobarge; maneuvering is done entirely by improvisation and consensus. You see an opening, you dash for it. Where Riga is congested because there are too many cars and too few bridges, and London is just an amalgamation of village roads entirely unsuitable for metropolis traffic, Romans seem to drive badly consciously. Mind you, somehow it all does work; for all the jostling and banging about, the average speed of traffic in central Rome is far beyond any comparable city.

The town I most compare Rome with is Jerusalem; this is obviously because of the bounds of my own experience, but the two great cities are very much contemporaries. Jerusalem is more distinctive, with its uniform facades, and feels just that little bit more exotic, but it has the same ethereal vibration of history about it; the sort of subdued confidence that comes from having been there for millennia. Rome has almost no modernity about it, certainly not in the center; the thing that stands out as recent is the “wedding cake”, the Vittoriano monument (my guidebook says that Vittorio Emmanuele II himself would have most likely disapproved of the exuberance, but it certainly is impressive). This was constructed in the early 20th century. There’s an area of Fascist architecture on the outskirts that I’ll probably go out and visit at some point; as I’ve mentioned before, totalitarian architecture is semiotically fascinating.

Rome has visible pollution; a faint layer of smog hanging over the city under absolutely clear skies, and I only notice it because my sunglasses (169eek at Prisma) have turned out to be really good; they eliminate the glare from the smog, so it’s apparent when I take them off. The glasses are too good, actually – I intentionally got the narrowest model I could find, but after two days walking around Rome, I now look like a raccoon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The Coliseum isn’t actually all that big. 55 thousand people, they say; maybe, but its footprint is less than that of the A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn, and the central arena (apparently named that because it was the Latin word for sand, which they covered the action area with) is significantly smaller than a football pitch. They say that before the catacombs below were built, the arena would sometimes be flooded, with naval battles staged there. Either they used scale models, or these were pretty shit battles.

Rumours of killer queues have been greatly exaggerated. Maybe people are outsmarting themselves, maybe far fewer folks are travelling because of the global economic clusterfuck, but I’ve not had any queue problems at all. 3-4 minutes waiting at the Forum to get my combined ticket to it, the Palatine hill and museum, and the Coliseum – 6.50 Euro total (I’m 24, this is the last year I get yoof discounts). Maybe 10 minutes waiting at the security control in the Coliseum, then walk right on through. Honestly, I spent more time queueing for the Eiffel Tower last year, and I wasn’t bothered then.

The heat does get to you, though. It’s sunny, just under 30 C, with gracious gusts of wind, but after some three or four hours on my feet, I am done. Sitting in the Gran Caffe Rossi Martini, typing this on my Mininote, about to spend a Euro and take the metro back to my hotel. Will go out with a local mate this evening, but a siesta is feeling mighty good right now.

The Gran Caffe Rossi Martini does not have WiFi. Maybe I’ve been too lenient on Rome.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Southtrip: Arrival

The new Tallinn Airport is a massive improvement. Naked concrete, exposed steelwork and lots of glass partitions make it feel genuinely Nordic-modern. I notice that they used rust panels on the outside – it’s a popular gimmick now: untreated metal that gets quickly covered in a thick, uniform layer of surface rust. The intention is to have a warm brown cover that is pretty much impervious to the elements, in that it has already rusted. Looking from afar, the pattern could be mistaken for massive wooden veneers.

There was a Japan Cargo 747 parked at Tallinn Airport for three days. It left as I was waiting for my flight. When a Jumbo takes off from an airfield as small as ours, you feel it in your dental fillings.

Estonian Air is also improving rapidly: only slightly more than an hour’s delay this time. Hey, last time it was five hours. They also persist with the delusion that is Estonian Air’s business class; the chairs are absolutely the same, the only difference is that you might get off the plane first, and you get free booze. Hardly seems worth triple the price of coach.

My first sensation of Rome was the pervasive whiff of urine, but then I suppose that is what I get for arriving at the central train station. My hotel room is basic, but clean, and at ~800 EEK per night in high season in East Central Rome, reasonably priced. Oh, and there is free WiFi in the hotel. Verdict: Italy is a civilized country.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


More ego-tripping. Does anyone want to see this stuff?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


It's been a while since I've written anything for AnTyx. In fact, if Baltlantis had actually been paying me any money, they might have had legitimate cause to be pissed.

Truth is, it's been a busy time for me personally, and nothing worthwhile has really happened. The country appears to be puttering along, politicians' folly has stayed within tolerable levels, and none of my fellow bloggers have written anything controversial enough for me to have a go at them about. I'm going on holiday soon, so you can look forward to Eurotrip '08.

Meanwhile, I decided to give you something different to read over your morning coffee. As any self-respecting English major, and any self-respecting tech writer, I have an unfinished novel in my desk (or rather on my Google Docs account). I think it's interesting and potentially good, but I'm still not sure how exactly it needs to work.

Besides that, though, I occasionally get these complete passages popping up in my head. My new HP Mininote allows me to quickly put them to file while lying in bed, but I don't even expect to ever finish the novel, never mind do anything about these. So I'm dumping them on you; read them and tell me if they're any good. If they are, it'll be good for my ego (not that it needs any more encouragement), and if they aren't, I can always go with the excuse that they just popped into my head and so I'm not really responsible for them.

Below are a couple of them.


The angel needed to file his report. He stopped in the middle of the street and bowed his head, cupping his hands together. Travel required a prayer, so he spoke the words – Pater Noster – and felt himself dragged upwards. His street clothes sizzled and turned to dust as enormous wings sprouted from his back, and then a shining white pillar seemed to shoot upwards. The sidewalk was singed where he had been standing.

Passersby chose not to notice the miracle, as they so often did.

Heaven was busy, but grateful for the important information. This was good news, relevant to many of the projects going on at the same time. The angel was thanked profusely and rewarded with taking the easy way back down. They even asked him if he would have preferred to stay up for a while – the new, reformed Heaven had finally given angels free will and encouraged them to use it whenever possible. But he chose to return to his earthly tasks; ever since he received a gender, he found the human plane a lot more entertaining.

Reconstituting on Earth was fairly simple. Most humans thought bringing a new sentient creature into existence required birth; but that was slow, even if the angel could find a stillborn, a child without a soul, and occupy the vessel to provide it with life. This time he got to do it differently.

Reconstitution involves creating a shape that mimics the operating being’s master. Fortunately the rule was vague enough: the similarity only had to be plausible, so a regular creature of the plane could believe that the form was indeed that entity. The angel started with the perfect human male, adjusted its age – young, but mature – and added a few touches for concealment: a scar here, a mole there, just enough imperfection that humans could convince themselves to perceive the body. It made a fairly believable God.

The angel added some nice clothes and prepared the golem. It appeared in the same place from which the angel departed. He didn’t bother creating a back story for the new pseudo-human; it was always more fun to make it up as he went along, and people often added their own assumptions of him into the mix.

The angel walked off, guided by his absolute moral compass.


As we grow up, we are taught to believe certain things. Among these things are half-truths: things which are undoubtedly correct, but don’t exactly tell the whole story. You would not believe how much trouble comes from half-truths.
One of such half-truths is that the Universe is bigger than we can imagine. Because we are taught to believe this, we spend a good chunk of time wondering how big the Universe really is, and end up with a vague idea of something really, really, incredibly big.

Of course, the Universe is really a lot bigger than that. But here is the secret: while the Universe is bigger than you can imagine, it’s actually not as big as you might think.

For example, all those parallel Universes. We are taught – because this is all anyone among the serious scientists can imagine – that there is an infinite (or near enough) number of Universes almost exactly like ours, each differing only by a very minor detail or two.

In reality, while each Universe is unimaginably big, there aren’t that many of them out there, and ours is really quite remarkable. Alone among all the parallel worlds, ours has absolutely no magic in it.


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