Saturday, September 27, 2008

Who do I know

that's coming back from the States in the second half of October?

Justin? Mingus? Anyone?
I travel for the experience, the memories and the change of scenery. Although I spend a considerable amount of money on travel, I rarely enjoy it at the time – it’s more about the satisfaction of having been somewhere. So when I found myself genuinely impressed by Montserrat and Barcelona, I knew it couldn’t last.

Andorra was scheduled as a day trip, because it is actually quite a long way from Barcelona – about four hours by coach each way. It is far more impressive in the journey than in the arrival, as the climb up through the Pyrenees takes you through the sort of scenic, rustic villages that you would think of, but hardly actually expect to find. The state itself uses the Euro and is jointly governed by the French head of state and the bishop of the nearest big congregation (on the Spanish side), but is resolutely outside the EU. This means borders, but also an independent tax policy, and that is very significant for goods normally subject to heavy, centrally mandated excise fees. People come to Andorra for booze and tobacco, but also other kinds of shopping.

The coach drops us off at a mall next to a highway, and we are told we have two hours for our retail needs. The mall may be impressive for a community of 70,000, but it is completely devoid of individuality or charm; think Võru Maksimarket. I buy a bottle of Crema de Catalunya and ponder the electronics selection, apparently a year or two behind the rest of Europe. Most of the others in the group take advantage of the lack of excise, returning with cartloads of cheap(er) booze. While it’s true that storing a crate of vodka in the cargo hold of a coach is probably the least troublesome way of shopping for ethanol on a holiday, I suspect that this is mostly due to a single specific factor: it makes Tallinners feel like all those reviled Finnish vodka-tourists.

Mercifully the trip does not conclude there, and the coach rumbles into downtown Andorra la Vella (as if it has any other sort of town). In a fit of glaring, stupefying incompetence of the tour guide that has been dragging along since Estonia, regaling us with occasional stunted passages of Wikipedia wisdom read out over the stereo, we are given less than an hour to wander through the streets of the tiny capital, during the specific period that half the shopping district shuts down for an extended lunch. I spend the time running around frantically, trying to find an open electronics store that has a Canon 450D in stock – since getting a 50D from the States is proving tricky, I was willing to settle for a good deal on a lesser body. I find a shop that is willing to sell it to me for 550 Euro, in kit form, which is some three thousand kroons cheaper than it retails for in Estonia; but the camera is physically in a branch that doesn’t open until half an hour after the coach leaves. As we depart, I am angry, and don’t bother to hide it. Still, Andorra is to be appreciated for its architecture, which is endearingly local. On return to the hotel, I go down to the seaside and fulfill my Catalan quota by consuming a paella and a sangria (or two).

Friday is a free day, and I’m feeling a bit too lazy to go back to Barcelona on my own, so instead I take in the area’s last great attraction, Marineland. Filled not with American soldiers (yes, I realize how awful a pun that is) but with dolphins, sea lions, and an assortment of the less trivial birds. The free shuttles from Calella and back leave some five hours at the destination, which is way too much since I’m not particularly interested in the attached water park. Still, dolphins are intrinsically awesome, as I’ve known since San Diego, and my patience is rewarded as I catch the later tropical bird show, and am called as one of the volunteers; an improbably large and polychromatic parrot-type creature is placed on my outstretched arm and I am told to give it a kiss on the beak. I go along with the act, and for my troubles the bird is made to perch on my head; before you ask, no, there are no photos, and if there were, I would not share them. Still, as something to have done at some point in your life, it’s fun.

Tomorrow afternoon we pile into the coach and begin the long five-day trek back home, via southern France and then Venice, the latter of which I am certainly looking forward to. Expect wifi to be sketchy.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


On the morning of the next day, we pile back into the coach and set off for Montserrat. I know of it simply as the first name of a famous opera singer, but am told by the guide that it is a monastery high up in the mountains. The destination fails to disappoint: in a region of the world famous for its outstanding architecture, the Montserrat sanctuary is exceptional. The long, windy track up to the 1200m elevation is one of those roads I would like to drive in a small, rear-engined roadster, with a steward at each end making sure there is no oncoming traffic. But it is still pretty exciting from the top of a double-decker.

Montserrat itself is a proper small town, albeit centered on a church. It has a couple of hotels, a supermarket, and lay accommodation for the various personnel that keep the tourist trap running. The church itself houses something called the black Madonna – literally, an icon of the Madonna as a Maur. Apparently it is faintly scandalous, but Montserrat is far enough out of everybody’s way that the practice was allowed to continue until it became tradition. I go into the church, but there is a mass in progress so I do not disturb the faithful by shuffling around.

I go into the handful of buildings making up the rest of the compound, and take an easy trek up to a vantage point, then come down to the railcar station. Montserrat proper is accessible from civilization-level by both road and rack-rail, and there is a little rail/cable arrangement leading from it up to the summit of this particular Pyrenean peak. I buy a return ticket.

At the top there is a small museum and three separate hiking paths. I go about half way up the simplest of them, on the other side of the mountain from the Barcelona freeway, and return, feeling vaguely disappointed that I do not have enough time for the 50-minute walk back down the mountain to the main compound. I will definitely need to come back here.

With half an hour before departure, I look through the gift shop for an appropriately hip black T-shirt, but instead settle on a tin of black tea and a bottle of monk-sourced booze, plus a sampler of various kinds of honey. I don’t even mind the price-gouging: whoever lives here and keeps this amazing place in good condition despite the throngs of tourists deserves my money.

We return to the hotel, and I make another attempt at Calella’s supposed major bookshop. It’s not Sunday, and it’s not siesta, yet the stubborn reality of steel shutters contradicts the promise of the opening hours listed on the door. Fuck ‘em. I go to a newspaper stand, search for a British car magazine without success, and pick up a Grisham paperback. That night there is a fireworks show on the beach, the culmination of a week-long festival, most of which we have missed. The show is quite cool, actually. After 11pm, the town is appreciably younger, as the retiree set is replaced by school trips.
Wednesday is our big day-trip into Barcelona. The Sagrada Familia is very cool, but located in what looks like a mildly disreputable residential area, not to mention covered in construction works; the church is being built completed on donations alone, although apparently the Spanish government promised it would make up the shortfall necessary to finally have it done by 2026.

Barcelona is big and feels healthy; the city buses carry red-and-yellow striped flags, in the same sort of way that Tallinn’s trams are adorned by two little flags whenever a particularly important foreign dignitary is visiting. With all the local pride, Barcelona definitely feels like the capital of Catalunya rather than a metropolis in Spain. I wonder about the region’s self-identification. They already have their own Internet domain; I suspect that the only thing stopping them from seceding is the sheer uselessness of aggravating the rest of Iberia. Between EU policies that would be binding anyway, and the heavy autonomy that Catalunya seems to enjoy, it seems to have as much independence in practice as it cares to claim.

For a closer look at Gaudi’s legacy, we go up to the Guell park, something very akin in concept to the Villa Borghese in Rome – a vast green space on what was the edge of the city when the industrialist for whom it’s named envisaged it as a community for Barcelona’s affluent. Only about five of a planned fifty stately homes has so far been completed, so the park remains a pleasant public recreation spot, with bits of impressive Gaudi sprinkled about. I find that I have taken quite a liking to pleasant hikes through moderately angled bits of nature.

The coach takes us down to Barcelona’s sprawling port complex and the statue of Columbus, on what is thought to be the spot where he first set foot on Spanish soil. We are given some time to stroll down the city’s main tourist street, the retroactively inevitable La Rambla. I make it up to Plaza Catalunya and back down again via sidestreets, eventually emerging with a copy of CAR Magazine; between that and a couple of the less suspect paperbacks from the hotel’s used book exchange, I feel confident I have enough reading material to see me through to the end of the trip. We have a quick look at the Olympic stadium, a place of some significance for Estonia because this is where Erika Salumäe received her gold medal in cycling, a significant affirmation for what was in 1992 a country with little outside recognition and even less faith. They hoisted the Estonian tricolor upside down, too.

Returning to Calella, I spend a couple of hours online, working on my stockpile of podcasts for the return trip. As the evening rolls in, I briefly consider attempting the gastronomic rape of the hotel’s dinner service, but decide against it. Food prices here can vary greatly: I paid over 15 Euro at a tourist trap in downtown Barcelona for a tapas-sized portion of fried shrimp in batter and a coke. (Tapas, the new thing that latte-sipping Guardian readers in Islington have been obsessing over, is indistinguishable from what Tartu pubs call an õlletaldrik – an assortment of unassuming, but functional snacks. The shrimp were fine.) Back in the hotel town I walk down to the nearest steak house. This being Catalunya, bull country, I feel obliged to go for the beef, but my ongoing quest for protein without lard steers me toward the mushroom sauce that comes with a very decent (and impressively huge) piece of pork. With chips and salad, plus a beer, the entire meal costs me less than 13 Euro. If the restaurant can make a profit on that, I feel even more appalled at the pile of inedible dung that my hotel has the gall to charge 9.50 for, without providing so much as tap water to wash down the crud. Still, the town of Calella feels a lot more agreeable after a pint of the local lager.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


A philosophical interlude, if you will indulge me. There is an old science fiction trope about immortality, that it can be achieved by recording a mindstate, either at the moment of death or before, and unpacking it into a new body if the original dies. The implication is that the new body would of course be in excellent physical condition, and the process could be repeated indefinitely (or the body is a robot of some sort that does not age).

The earliest example of this idea that I have encountered was in a Roger Zhelazny novel, which I read long ago, in translation, and do not remember the name of. It has also served as a significant world-building element for Tad Williams’ Otherland, John Scalzi’s Ghost Brigades, and I’m sure many others; the most recent one I have read is Iain M. Banks’ Look to Windward.

All SF novels that use this idea inevitably concern themselves with a case of two instances of the same identity existing, and interacting. But that was never as interesting to me as the question of whether it is, in fact, immortality.

The problem is a lack of continuity. Ghost Brigades is the second book in a trilogy, and in the establishing work, Scalzi comprehensively evaded the issue by declaring that in his world, a consciousness could only be transferred directly into a clone (albeit a heavily modified one). The mind was never copied, it was transferred, and the original body died, even if physically it was still perfectly viable.

In Otherland, the advocate of the technology, developed specifically for immortality, expounds that it does actually involve copying a mindstate and storing the copy inside a computer. The advents are encouraged to kill their physical bodies and minds at the moment of the transfer; not because the technology necessitates or results in it, but because the two consciousnesses would continue to exist, in parallel, and would diverge due to unsynchronized experiences.

In Look to Windward, mindstate backups are commonplace and accepted as a form of immortality; a restored creature is considered still the same one, just missing a few days or months. The society of the world takes great care to ensure that no two identical constructs are walking about the universe at the same time, but there is no natural barrier to that, and it does occasionally happen.

To me, this does not constitute immortality, because I am not convinced that the reconstituted entity can be equated to the original (except in circumstances carefully contrived to show that it is, such as Scalzi’s original interpretation – a masterful cauterization of a nagging question that was irrelevant to his story and only served to explain how a 75-year-old wreck of a human could be quickly turned into a supersoldier). If a copy is taken of me, my personality, thought patterns and memories, and stipulating that the copy is perfect in the context of the argument, then that copy could be used to create another iteration of me that would be indistinguishable to other people. For anyone grieving upon my demise, it would certainly be an acceptable resolution. But I continue to exist beyond the backup point, and when I die, what happens to the self-aware me? To suggest, as Banks and Zhelazny do, that the dead me simply wakes up somewhere else with a case of amnesia, is entirely unsatisfactory. Me-2 is the same person in the regard of everyone else, except me.

This bothers me, because it is the absolute biblical definition of soul. The line of reasoning presumes that there is some absolutely unique focus for my personality, inextricably linked to this body, and that if a copy of me is created with the exact same memories and thought patterns, a sentient, self-aware creature that is indistinguishable from me either biologically or behaviourally, passing any Turing-style test, then it will still not possess my soul. Atheism precludes me from accepting the idea of a soul, but then I am not entirely limited to perception – I can conceive that there are forces at work in our physical universe that cannot be perceived by current technology. An atheist should be willing to consider any falsifiable idea, and perhaps there is some mechanism whereby two copies of a consciousness cannot exist; where a restored backup is no more than a vessel that then draws in the departed soul. This would actually be a decent premise for an SF novel, though I believe it has been done at least partially.

But until such a mechanism is discovered and made to work, let’s get back to a world without souls. The question remains: is the death of a personality that was then restored to an earlier backup an actual death? For practical purposes it isn’t, the question is purely subjective, since it is a given in this scenario that the backup is indistinguishable from the original, minus the memories between the points of backup and death.

If it is indeed death, if an expiration of a sentient consciousness is a permanent loss despite the creation of identical one, then where is the line drawn? I know, in this scenario, that when I die, someone will wake up later who will be convinced he is me. In this case, is short-term amnesia effectively death? Remember, soul does not enter into it. Do I die if my streak of continuous self-awareness and experience of the surrounding world is broken, even temporarily? If the answer is yes, then do I die every time I fall asleep?

If it is not death, then what is the value of human life, and how much effort should we really put into sustaining it? The history of our society proves that in the short term at least, no suffering is unendurable; for every tragedy, there is an example of someone who got through it, and if everyone was sure that they will wake up in a week/month/year in a new, healthy body, without any memory of the pain, why wouldn’t you take the ultimate decision whenever faced with anything greater than an inconvenience? And not just physical pain, either. Had your heart broken? Kill yourself and leave a note asking to be restored to a version from before you met her/him. Sidestepping tragedy becomes simply a question of leaving enough assets behind to cover the cost of restoring yourself. And it might just be covered by your health insurance: with economies of scale, restoration could just prove cheaper than treatment.

But if you have no soul, then why restore? In our existing society, a single human life is worth more than anything except another human life. Yet a lot of lives, lived to their natural extent, turn out to have been inconsequential. The value of human life is therefore not only a recognition of infinite, invaluable potential in every human being, but also a safeguard against human lives in general being treated lightly; our history has taught us that this is one slippery slope that cannot be tread upon.

But if mortality ceases to be a certainty and becomes a choice, then how easy will the choice be? Certainly it should be in each person’s power to decide if they will be restored or simply left alone. If a merciful society gives everyone the ability for immortality, then a thinking person will inevitably have to make the crucial self-assessment: is my life worthwhile? Do I deserve the effort and energy it would take to put me back on this Earth? Do I actually matter?

This is the hardest philosophical question of all, but it occurs to me that irrespective of technology or faith, everyone needs to ask it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Viva la Wifi

If all goes right, you will be reading these three articles tonight; the F1 joint outside Valence purports to have WiFi, and while it’s the overpriced Orange variety and does not actually reach to my room, my information withdrawal is bad enough that I am willing to pay. They’re still twats for not having any English-speaking channels on the TV.

Germany was a merciful blur, and France is a massive improvement – at least in the evening, when we get off the autoroute and make our way through Lyon and beyond. The mountains are beautiful. Even the gas station food is miles better. (Incidentally, best thing I’ve bought at a gas station on this trip was a bottle of vanilla milk at a Polish Statoil.) It’s sunny and warm and the trip is beginning to justify itself.

Coach travel can be wearing, but after three days on the road I am surprisingly unphased. The key seems to be content: music, podcasts, books, and movies on the laptop, which now seems to have mercifully regained its proper 4,5-hour runtime on a single charge. Air travel is perhaps too quick, as you skip the sensation of actually going somewhere, unless you are crossing an ocean. Chalk it up to youthful optimism (if there is such a thing), but watching Europe roll by outside my coach’s panoramic window, I feel like I’m seeing my country. In much the same way that I need to grasp a city to be comfortable in it – to have a mental plan of it – overland travel allows one to grasp the EU, make it more than a heady concept. Everyone should do this at least once, but if you have any choice at all, avoid Poland. While Germany has ridiculously good roads and Lithuania and beyond just doesn’t have that much traffic volume – unless you’re enough of a fool to try getting through downtown Riga – Poland is the bottleneck. It would be far less frustrating to take the party boat to Stockholm, then blast down to Malmö and take the Öresund tunnel to Copenhagen.


Since you are reading this only now, obviously the Orange wifi did not work. Was not present in any discernible form. Still, the gas station food really is quite good: two Agip runs have yielded a passable ham & cheese sandwich, a box of really quite fair salad, and a slice of genuinely spectacular strawberry & coconut cake. That is well beyond the best that I could scrounge up in an enormous German supermarket. I’m sorry if I don’t have any better insights on France, but I only ever saw it from the tarmac.

On the fourth day, we cross the Pyrenees and finally enter Spain, where gas prices instantly drop 40 Eurocents per liter. For my American readers, that translates to about three hundred bucks per gallon, and I cannot describe the joy I feel in being able to make that gag, after suffering a decade of poor currency-exchange humor.

Our first stop is the Dali museum in Figueres. You would need to have either read a lot of the Antyx archive or spent time with me in person to properly appreciate my loathing for what grew out of modernist and particularly surrealist art, and the rest of you will simply have to believe when I say that Salvador Dali was the dude. His museum, an old theater building that he bought and converted, is layed out to subtly block suspicions of postmodernist twattery by starting with Dali’s more conservative pieces. He could, and did, paint both photorealistic images and ones that stun the viewer with their sheer technical prowess; stand there and smell the accomplishment. With an unassailable background like that, he was perfectly justified in dismantling the conventional wisdom. Besides which, he was the compleat rockstar, and still deeply and passionately loved his wife for the entirety of his life. As a sign of respect, I buy a T-shirt.

Our coach winds its way down the Costa Brava until it reaches our staging point: Calella, one of a series of tiny tourist towns on the Catalan coast. The hotel has wifi, mercifully, although only in the lobby – which is unfortunate, as I would have loved to make good use of my room’s balcony, blogging in the breeze. The hotel, like much of the town itself, leaves an odd impression of vague inauthenticity. While there are some ancient bits here and there, Calella mostly seems to be an amalgamation of hotels constructed some time in the last two decades. The age of a hotel can be roughly judged by the availability of power sockets, increasing as people started to carry more electronic gadgets; the Regency Hyatt in Jerusalem, an impressive pyramidal pile from the Seventies, scandalously offers pretty much none, despite claiming a five-star rating. This one is three stars, and doesn’t blow my mind. It is as if its crew had a guidebook to comfort that they studiously implemented, without ever truly understanding its essence. Some aspects, such as the painted concrete walls and naked flagstone floors, may just be a southern peculiarity, a way to keep the inside cool; but I do wonder how come this place, a resort hotel in a resort town, expecting its patrons to stay for a week or more, manages to feel less cozy than the Best Western Grand Hotel in the village of Bollnäs, where I can’t really imagine people staying for more than a day (there is nothing to do in Bollnäs for more than a day, even if a few thousand Swedes somehow manage to spend most of their lives there). My expectation of what a three-star hotel should be like is based on the Baron Hotel in Reykjavik; no three-star hotel in a Western European country should be worse. Hell, my B&B in Rome had in-room wifi.

That evening, we get back on the coach for a brief run down to Barcelona, to watch the fountain. The spectacle involves music (something classical that I recognize and really ought to know the name of) and color-filtered spotlights placed under the surface of an exceedingly elaborate system of pipes; the water dance is something truly to behold, and I say that as a skeptic who is rarely impressed with anything. If you want a more impressive experience of staring at some water, you will need to go to Iceland and look at waterfalls. There should be a picture or two on my Flickr.

The next day, it is overcast and (relatively) cold with a strong suggestion of rain. I grab a coat and go explore the town, walking down to the beach and then taking a progression of stairs and trails to hike the full 118 meter elevation of something called Los Torretes – the remainder of a couple of signaling towers used by some military or other in the mid 19th century. The towers are not intrinsically impressive, but the views are quite nice, although spoiled by the overcast weather. I may not be as extreme as Kristopher when it comes to walking, but I descend with a mild sense of achievement and amble around the town’s shopping district, desperately looking for reading material in English. (I have underestimated my reading speed and am almost done with the books I brought from home – and there is still the way back to Estonia to deal with.) I return to the hotel and kill time until dinner sitting in the lobby with my Mininote.

The hotel package comes with breakfast and dinner. Breakfast is acceptable, although that is too simple to get wrong, but dinner is an ugly smorgasbord of greasy fried meat, unimaginative salad components, and suspect desserts. Since my surgery, I do not eat very much, and therefore prefer to make each meal an experience; the hotel’s policy of emphasizing quantity over quality is directly at odds with that, so in the future I think I’ll skip the hotel dinner altogether and wonder out into town for something more interesting. Maybe a nice seafood paella.

(Incidentally: there is an email in one of my various inboxen dating from July 1st, from undoubtedly one of my most treasured readers, asking for a status report on the surgery and weightloss. The short answer is, it’s fine. An elaboration is in the works.)

Nach Berlin and Beyond

It is 5am, and I have just finished figuring out the charging system on my Mininote (apparently if you completely discharge a Li-Ion battery, it will take ages for it to get back the first 20%; after that it will charge rapidly, as normal). The bus’s electrical system is 24V, and my car charger isn’t rated for that.

Poland is bits of brilliant interstate bookended by stretches of dual carriageway in a very odd fashion; the autobahns appear to start from nowhere and lead nowhere. Germany, as seen from the road, is essentially featureless, and I look longingly at the posh bahnstormers in the left lane; I want to come back here with my own car. We stop for a late lunch at a massive strip mall on the Berlin bypass, basically a bigger Lõunakeskus – think of the Rocca-al-Mare mall in Tallinn and you’ll be about there. I trawl the shops and remark again upon the lack of visible counterculture in Western Europe. I have lost some 30kg since my surgery, and can now expect to find appropriate sizes in most big clothes stores, but as I walk around C&A – chosen because it doesn’t have stores in Estonia – I am disappointed: same drab stuff, nothing worth buying even at a bargain price. The electronics are marginally cheaper, but we’ll be doing a run to Andorra, Europe’s VAT-less shopping paradise, so I hold off. Besides, fucking Germans probably wouldn’t accept my Visa card anyway.

The F1 hotel outside Leipzig is conceptually impressive – just short of being entirely self-service. For 26 Euro per night per room, whether it fits one person or three, it is certainly good money. But I’m suffering from information withdrawal. Only the threat of horrifyingly expensive mobile roaming charges stops me from hooking up my mobile to the laptop. If Tele2 offered an m-pilet type deal on pan-European roaming – a fixed fee for 24 hours of unlimited data – you would have been reading this article a lot sooner.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Up & Down the Via Baltica

Day one, and an early start to Eurotrip 08/2. It’s a package tour, and the coach leaves Tartu at 5am sharp, heading up to Tallinn and then down to Pärnu, picking up sojourners along the way. It is now a quarter past ten; we’ve been on the road for over five hours, and have yet to leave Estonia. Mind you, had the bus gone from Tartu to Pärnu direct, we would not have saved more than an hour, since there is no decent direct freeway. Then again, had we headed south from Tartu, we would probably be in Lithuania by now.

One last stopover at a truck station, and the last chance to buy stuff for Estonian money. I eye the cans of Jim Beam & coke; not yet, but I don’t kid myself – I’ll be drinking before the day is over. There is a flask in my rucksack filled with Maxime Trijol VS.

I’ve surprised people with this trip, but then that’s kind of the point. It’s something that I would not have normally done, and it’s a new experience, which is the thing I’m really after right now.

Blew right through Latvia without slowing down; driving below the banks of the artificial lake east of Riga is unsettling, although not a big deal – I’ve seen the naughty side of 170km/h from the passenger seat of a Kia Pride in the Netherlands. Somewhere on the Internet is a picture of me rubbing the asscheeks of a bronze kid with his finger in the dike, as it were.

Got pulled over by border guards crossing into Lithuania, but fortunately nobody had forgotten their ID cards. Stopped for a late lunch at a combination roadside diner, museum and mini-zoo (ostriches and ponies, but might have been more). I’m tempted to remark that a lot of these roadside attractions in Latvia and Lithuania are log cabins, but then I remember that so is the Kükita Grill, my favourite eatery on the Tallinn-Tartu freeway – a dedicated truck stop that proves a universal truth: the best food and the best coffee will be found not where they are a matter of poshness, but where they are a matter of necessity. Three cheers for trucker fuel.

This is officially as far south as I have ever travelled overland, and it’s only 2pm. I’m very impressed by the coach’s progress, and keep thinking about driving down here on my own. The One Lap of the Baltic idea is still alive and kicking, but needs a relief driver, and to be honest, a better car. I’m working on it. Just hope the stock market bounces back.

It might be all in my head, but somehow I always notice a difference in the weather between Estonia and Latvia; Lithuania in the late afternoon is appreciably warmer than Tartu, or Tallinn, or Pärnu were this morning. Looks largely the same in terms of scenery though. We’re basically sticking to the Via Baltica, the main artery from Tallinn down to central Europe, renovated for EU cash. We are also getting further and further from civilization: WiFi is desperately thin on the ground. I’m hoping the hotel on the outskirts of Warsaw has it. Coach travel leaves a lot of free time to blog.

Just saw my first speed camera. They keep threatening to introduce them in Estonia, but haven’t so far, to my knowledge.

Closer to Poland, the landscape flattens out, far more field than forest. The Baltics have an established identity as small countries, but look at a map of Europe, and with a slight trick of distortion their total area will be roughly on par with that of Germany or other large European nations. Consumer goods manufacturers tend to lump us together as well – this is not entirely justified, as there are significant differences between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but together we are a market of some 7 million people – as much as Sweden.

This point is driven home as we cross into Poland, through by far the most elaborate border post yet. Maybe Germany’s will be bigger still, but this used to be the border of the Soviet Union proper, and while Poland was part of the Eastern bloc, it was a significantly different animal. The greatest difference is population density: Poland is a very large country, but with some 30 million residents, it also seems quite full. While it is conceivable to get from the Polish border all the way up to Paldiski or Sillamäe (for the cargo ferries to Sweden and Finland respectively) without driving through the heart of any population center, the road to Warsaw is a succession of towns and villages. I half-remember a story on the radio about some Polish townsfolk who were up in arms about delays in the construction of a bypass that would take transit traffic out of their community, but it’s a drop in an ocean. For all the transit business Poland does (2 euro per day for every heavy vehicle, that’s without a penny spent by crews in local shops and gas stations), its section of the Via Baltica seems curiously organic.

It is oddly, perhaps disturbingly comforting to spend fifteen hours on the road and end up in Poland just to stop off at a combination Statoil and McDonalds – exactly the same sort of place that we started from in Tartu. Wherever you go, you always know where to find a kabanoss. Makes you feel like a proper European.

Our Statoils have WiFi though.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Things I've accomplished in three days of vacation

1) Meet a new blogger - specifically Colm and his charming fiancee Eeva. Met up for lunch at the Place, where he regailed Justin and me with tales of Irishness, such as the experience of crossing the UK national border while having red hair, and the ultimate purpose of the Irish army (to guard all the weapons from being stolen by the IRA). While he objected forcefully that no Irish person has ever been known to actually utter the phrase "top o' the mornin' to ya", he does write "ye" in his emails.

2) Got excellent customer service at the New Yorker store I blogged about previously. I bought a jacket from them and the zipper broke. I was actually considering just getting a clothes repair place to put it a new zipper, but that would not have been blogworthy, so I went back to the store to complain. To my complete amazement, not only did they take the garment back (despite it being past the 14-day no-questions-asked return period - of course this was not a question of wrong size or style, but of an actual fault in its manufacture), but they gave me my money back. That's right: no dicking around with months of expert assessments and repairs, no store credit - cold, hard cash. I'm sure Mingus's worldview has just shattered.

3) Saw a couple interesting crawlspaces while prepping my team's nightgame. I might do an article about some of these prime locations after the game.

4) Shaved. I'm told I look completely different without facial hair.

Early tomorrow morning, I'm getting on a coach and buggering off on a two-week Eurotrip. Tartu to Barcelona and back again, with stops in exciting locations along the way. Stay tuned for trippin' bloggery.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Creative Traffic

This summer has seen a lot of roadbuilding activity in Tartu, including some of the busiest intersections. The first one to be comprehensively rearranged was the traffic circle at the end of Riia, a thoroughfare used by town traffic, shoppers headed for the nearby mall (there is really a ridiculous amount of them in Tartu), and commuters from the counties to the south. Whereas previously the traffic arrangement on the Riia Ring consisted of gunning it and hoping for the best, the new solution involves abundant directions on which lane goes where. There is a strong priority for people going from downtown to the mall and back, which has made the circle a lot more efficient. A few hundred meters away is the Aardla cicrle, which has heavily rebuilt to allow people to turn right without ever getting in the way of the other cars.

This sort of creative traffic management has now made its way to the other major hubs of Tartu traffic, and when combined with the apparent lack of foresight and coordination (which I'm sure Mingus will be happy to discuss with you at length), it has resulted in some very odd patterns.

The Sõpruse circle is definitely one of Tartu's busiest intersections, since almost every bit of traffic headed to the Annelinn bedroom community has to go through it. Over the summer, bits of it were closed off for major alterations. City planners attempted to surgically separate particular traffic flows and direct them down separate paths, wherever possible - but they didn't have the money for a multi-level cloverleaf like the one that has sprung up in Riga. So now you can turn both onto and off the bridge, making right turns, via dedicated lanes - so dedicated they are actually physically separated from the ones joining the circular traffic. And those, too, are separated from each other just before the circle.

It's confusing at the best of times, but some plausible manouvers have become downright dangerous. If I'm coming off the bridge and want to get to the Eeden mall (yes, there is a mall at every intersection in Tartu), I can either take the back road that leads to Ihaste, the slipway up to the top floor of Eeden's parking lot, the turnoff to the bottom floor, or either of two physically separated lanes that turn right onto Kalda tee - one that bypasses the circle traffic, and one that cuts through it.

On the face of it, this isn't too bad - a lot of people want to turn right off the bridge on weekday nights, and the tailbacks used to be stupendous. But there are at least two manouvers that have been made a lot more dangerous by this new arrangement. First, if I want to exit either the bottom floor of the Eeden parking lot or the Neste gas station, and join the circle, I have to completely across three lanes of cars flying off the bridge at the better part of 70 km/h, and then make a sharp 90 degree turn at the last second - I can't cut the corner because otherwise I will clip the safety island that separates the leftmost lane from the next one. And a lot of people want to do this: the other way of getting out of Eeden involves circling behind the big construction store next to it (yes, Tartu is a hotbed of consumption, deal with it). Or you could take your chances doing a U-turn on Kalda tee - which requires both practice and a car with a pretty tight turning radius.

The other dangerous manouver is if I want to go into either Eeden or the gas station while coming off the circle, from any direction except the bridge. Two lanes come off the circle onto Kalda tee, but there is another lane immediately to the right, the separate one off the bridge. The turn-in for Eeden and Neste is right there. I have to swerve rapidly to the right, cutting across the path of the people happily accelerating through the awesome new separate lane.

There's a similar trick with the entrance to the new Tasku mall's parking lot. It's a slipway just before the other busy car bridge in Tartu, and there is a right turn from Turu street onto the bridge. The streetlight pattern won't let you turn right from Turu at the same time as the main traffic flow from Riia, but you are indeed supposed to merge at the same time as the left-turn crowd from the direction of the new Kaubamaja. How long before two cars decide to occupy the same physical space in front of the Tasku parking slipway?

There is more odd traffic management elsewhere. There are now two lanes to turn left from the Riia bridge onto Turu; very useful at relieving a perpetual tailback, but they did it without widening the road, instead making all the lanes narrower. So now a bus or lorry just barely fits into a lane. I'm sure they will end up clipping other vehicles sooner rather than later. On Narva mnt, turning left from Raatuse, the road markings tell you to make a sharp 90-degree turn in the inner lane, instead of cutting the corner along a completely unused patch of asphalt (which everyone does, anyway).

Did anyone think this through properly?

Monday, September 01, 2008

No, It Really Is Your Fault

There is an old saying: every people end up with the leader they deserve. In Russian, it is the basis for a moderately clever wordplay, making the point that every people get buggered by their leader.

As the West's prime ideologue for the New Cold War, Edward Lucas is the natural pointman for Europe's backlash over the Georgia war. On his blog this weekend is a ready reckoner for the powers-that-be to express their disapproval. I draw your attention to point six:
Stop talking about "Russia" (except where journalistic convention demands it). These guys aren't Russia. They are criminal gang of bullies, crooks and murderers who have hijacked Russia.
This is a widely held opinion. It is also absolutely, inexcusably wrong. This assertion is so wrong, in fact, that it is past misguided - it is actively harmful.

I've said this before: the Russian mentality does not include a sense of immediate responsibility. The Western model of society is founded on the concept of citizens delegating their power to representatives; there is an implied obligation by the citizen to watch whom he hands over his power to. This is a very basic idea, and the entire philosophy of democracy and civil liberty is no more than guidelines to applying it in typical situations. And yes, this idea is applicable to Russia, because it is a country with a strong and proud revolutionary history. Russians have proven that when they are propery unhappy with their rulers, the rulers are going down.

Many Russians feel uncomfortable with the actions of their state, and they excuse themselves by imploring others not to equate the Russian people with the Russian government. I am disappointed in Edward Lucas for perpetuating this intellectual farce. They would have us believe that all the evil and injustice of Russia is down to the Chekists, or the Bolsheviks, or the Jews. But the bastards are only in the Kremlin because the common Russian people put them there. Every bullet through the brain of a journalist, every conscript beaten into a bloody pulp by his sergeant, every mortar round fired at a North Caucasus village, is the responsibility of every single Russian who did not march on Red Square and stay there until the thugs were hauled out of the government offices by the scruffs of their necks.

Only when individual Russians learn to take personal responsibility for actions taken on their behalf will Russia be a country that can be approached with Western terms.


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