Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Bang and a Whimper

The game was epic. Not without a few glitches here and there, but considering that this was the team's first experience actually organizing it - with very light input from the regular game master, adjusting a few bits here and there - it was a roaring success. There were some unusual and well-received tasks, and the scenario I wrote for it even made the news.

The rest of the fun planned for April 26th? Nada. Tallinn was making a conscious effort to ignore it. People were lured out to shopping centers to bid in auctions for cheap package holidays, schoolkids were occupies and exhausted by the national essay exam, etc. The police were out in force, but didn't seem to actually go around harassing anyone. Night Watch did have a meeting downtown, but they had the good sense to not respond to provocation, for which I genuinely applaud them.

A beautiful spring Saturday spent far more productively than anyone feared.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Tallinn Motorshow


Photos are a bit odd, there should be a gallery of excellent shots by the improbably-named Roar later today.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

One Year Anniversary

Exactly one year ago today I moved into my new apartment. :)

Long day. Productive. Most of the results imminent on Baltlantis.

Best swag at Tallinn Motorshow: Nissan's USB memory keychains; Citroen's press pack CDs in cool ejector jewel cases that I'll be using for my own disks.

Most impressive part about Tallinn Motorshow: an Icelandic bloke from the support team that got Jeremy Clarkson to the North Pole in a Toyota Hilux. Complete with the actual car.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Night Game

Just outside the official border of Tallinn, there is a sideroad leading up to a handful of old, wrecked houses. They look vaguely military, one-floor brick jobs, long - like troop quarters. There isn't anything inside now, just the shell; except for the one that has a low stone border in the middle of the floor. Look inside this border, and you will see steps, leading down to a hatch. Go inside, and you may be surprised that the cellar doesn't end quite where you'd expect it to. In fact, the corridor keeps going. And going. Before you know it, you're three or four staircases down into the ground. Take the right route, and you'll eventually see the walls change from concrete to brickwork - progressively older. Some of these tunnels may just have been here since the time of Peter the Great.

They say there's a right tunnel you can find, but it's easier to head back out and walk a little out into the fields, where large mounds appear somewhat uncharacteristic of the Estonian countryside. Here and there you will find entrances, low doors framed in massive concrete. Go inside one of these, and you will find yourself inside more passages. Go far enough, and you will find a massive hall, semi-cylindrical, with gigantic reinforced ribs maintaining the curvature. This hall is easily tens of meters tall - three floors at least, with plenty of headroom on each one. There is nothing there now but dirt and rubbish and the occasional faded stencil on the wall - but a few decades ago, this was the secondary command post for the air defense forces of the Soviet Union's northwest corner. As impressive as this bunker may be, it was designed as the light alternative - built to withstand only relatively simple airborne attacks. They say the real control bunker, built for far more serious ordnance, is elsewhere.

On at least one of the hatches leading down into the bunker, you will find an arrow, with the letters DR next to it. Inside, if you look hard enough, you will find six sequences of digits, all starting with the same number - I think it was 13 - and all with the letters D and R in them.

You'll find these sequences all over the forlorn industrial sites of Tallinn.

The Dozor Night Game came from Russia, and the its name has the same roots as the Nochnoi Dozor activist group - a fantasy book by a prominent contemporary Russian author. But it has nothing to do with the Night Watch.

The Dozor Night Game and other similar projects have grown out of games that have been played for centuries; and certainly after the fall of the Soviet Union every young boy (and a surprising share of girls) all over its former territory went crawling around crumbling industrial parks. But the advent of modern technology - mobile phones, GPS, and the ubiquity of information on the Internet - has taken a pastime and turned it into a sport.

Every other Saturday night, a dozen or so people gather in a cafe in downtown Tallinn. They are there to hand over a piece of paper and a wad of cash to the host; the man who is entrusted by Dozor's central powers to run the game in this city. A few hours later, each of these visitors will be at the head of a crew of between five and fifty, with multiple cars positioned strategically throughout the city. Somewhere in an apartment or an all-night coffee shop with good WiFi, a handful of people per team are assembled around their computers. Their job is to put their minds to work, figuring out the riddles that conceal the location of the codes. Once a location has been found and confirmed, the closest car speeds through the night, full of people with ridiculously good flashlights. They know from the riddle if they'll need to look for the code at ground level or if it's concealed, but most of them hoping for Danger Level 3+. That means they can get seriously hurt trying to get to the code. But it also means they are heading somewhere really cool.

I'd heard about Dozor-style games in Russia, but it was through a friend that I started playing. Did a stint in the field, and decided I was far more use at the HQ - solving the riddles and talking to the host via IM, trying to squeeze out any clue or confirmation I can. The good thing is that I can do it from Tartu; all I need is a computer, a phone, and an Internet connection. And a brain.

I first started playing in the late fall, and have barely missed a game since. Between Tallinn and then Tartu, I play most weekends. This is significant, because normally there would be no way anything would hold my attention for that long. My team in Tartu is ranked top, but the team I play with in Tallinn - where the competition is far more difficult - doesn't win often. I don't do this for achievement, and I don't do this for money - although the winner does get a significant chunk of the entry fees. I do it because this combination of scavenger hunt, orienteering, geocashing, and the occasional downtown LARP to entertain a random audience, is in many ways the ultimate game. We don't break into private property; in fact a core rule of all these games is that all tasks can be performed within the boundaries of both the criminal and the traffic laws. But otherwise, this is a combination of GTA, Stalker, and a good few Spiderman games (plus a bitchin' IQ test for the headquarters), played out in real life.

Next weekend, on the anniversary of the Bronze Soldier riots, I will be in Tallinn. My team is finally getting to put a game together, find the right locations, make up the riddles, and create the performances. The theme is Dumas-style France; so if you see some random people in feathered hats and Musketeer cloaks running around town, don't be alarmed.

It's only the best game in town.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Oh Snap

Talking to Justin the other day, we got onto the topic of Andrus Ansip as the longest-serving (continuously) PM in the history of postsoviet Estonia. In fact, only one Estonian leader has ever served longer than him.

The Päts syndrome is a constant issue in Estonian internal politics. Personally I find it reassuring that since '91, Estonia has never had a government make it from one election to another. But Ansip is a prime candidate for a latter-day Päts, as he does have that central quality: an absolute conviction that he is right, and everyone around him is a moron. (If you think I'm overstating the issue, go and watch a Steinbock House press conference, especially one where the reporters ask him about something less than utterly practical.) He also has a core team that seems loyal to him.

What he does lack is vision. Reform is supposed to be the party of economic competence, but Ansip wants more than that - he wants to be a statesman. Unfortunately, that's pure ambition; he doesn't have an overarching idea of what needs changing, like Laar and his mates did back in the early 90s. He wants to be in power for the sake of power.

In this, he is destroying Reform's credibility. In the context of Estonian politics, it seems ludicrous that the bankers' party is firmly in charge of a country, but cannot stop an economic recession. We've missed the Euro accession (nevermind that a lot of people were unconvinced by the idea, it's annoying that we weren't allowed into the Eurozone rather than choosing not to enter), inflation is high, unemployment is growing for the first time in recent memory, and now it turns out that even our balanced budget, one of the cornerstones of Estonia's economic miracle, might not be that balanced after all. This is where Ansip's cult of personality is coming back to bite him, because nobody cares about the coalition - this is Ansip's fault.

The disingenuous bit here is claiming that the Bronze Soldier debacle caused the crisis, by cutting off Russian transit. It certainly contributed, but let's not exercise selective memory: for most of 2006 at least, everybody was saying that 12% annual growth was unsustainable and that the shit was only a few millimeters away from the fan. Russia accounts for 8% of exports and 13% of imports; losing Russia's business hurts, but it's not going to bring the economy crashing down all on its own. (It didn't before, when the double tariffs were introduced, and we're in much better shape now.)

But Russian trade aside, Ansip was still supposed to mitigate the effects of the upcoming crisis. This is what the Reform Party is for. The most public effort so far was the new labour bill, which significantly curtailed employees' rights and benefits in favour of the employers. I can see the idea behind it - make the market more attractive to foreign investment - and at the time I didn't much care, as I've never drawn unemployment or any other welfare benefits from the state, but then I have the advantage of apparently marketable skills. The labour bill was designed to achieve a similar effect as the flat tax system, but whereas Laar's great coup was a feat of engineering - making corporations happy while the people shrugged and were mildly grateful for simpler tax returns - Ansip's plan was going to make life demonstrably more difficult for the actual voters. Since the favourite food of an Estonian is another Estonian, even the other coalition parties took advantage of the public outcry, and delivered the thermonuclear boot to the labour bill.

Now, there are things that Ansip's cabinet gets to be quietly proud of - they seem to have managed to stave off the Eurocrats and keep the zero corporate tax provision alive. But as far as the public is concerned, that is overshadowed by practical embuggerances like the higher fuel excise, which - correct me if I'm wrong - the goverment did not strictly need to implement quite yet. (As far as I understand it, we are obliged by EU policy to eventually both get the fuel excise up to Central European levels, and to bring the tax system in line with the rest of the confederation, but not quite yet.) Ansip is determined to take credit personally for everything happening in Estonia, but the upshot is that he gets blamed personally as well. Reform approval ratings are still decent, though falling, but opinion polls do not actually tell you who people would vote for if the ballots were handed out tomorrow. A lot of people are angry at Ansip, and some of them, like former Prime Minister and transit mogul Tiit Vähi, have stopped being subtle about it:
The most serious problem [in the Estonian economy] is that our Prime Minister is incapable of discussion or listening. As long as that is the case, I do not foresee any positive changes for the Estonian economy. We'd all rather take monuments down and put monuments up, and damn the economy. The politicians' infighting is more important.

New policies come with new people, but right now, nobody wants a change of government. They'd rather let the Reform Party roast for as long as they can.

The solution would be a government of specialists or technocrats, like we had in 1992. [...] Andrus Ansip does not solve problems, he sees myths and thinks that the economic slowdown is the fault of international imperialism and the four seasons.

Of course Vähi's words should be taken with the appropriate amount of salt, and the economy will bounce back up once the current crisis has shaken people up a bit. But I have a sneaking suspicion that when we come out on the other side of this mess, PM Ansip will be conspicuous by his absence.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Finnish Muslims: the ultimate wigga?

There's an old joke, which may have originated in the Soviet Union but is applicable far more widely. A young black man is praying to God:

'Tell me, Lord, why was I born with this dark skin?'

And God answers:

'Because, child, the harsh sun of Africa would burn weak fair skin.'

The man asks again:

'Tell me, Lord, why was I born with this rough, wiry hair?'

'Because, child, the harsh sun of Africa would burn weak soft hair.'

And the man finally asks:

'Tell me, Lord, if that is the case, why was I born in Minnesota?'

The Finnish Muslim party (the what now?) has apparently posted an open letter on their website (designed circa 1998), addressed to the Estonian embassy. They are, apparently, quite angry about Estonia's presence in Iraq. (Nevermind that Estonia was not part of the conquering force, and only sent troops once the UN mandate came through, based on the invitation of the Iraqi government, to help out with peacekeeping.) They call it an affront to the Muslim world and, presumably, threaten vengeance. I don't know enough Finnish to read the website myself - anyone care to comment? Stockholm_slender?

Now, I've said it before and I will easily say it again: there is no great moral reason for Estonian troops to be in Iraq. War zone deployments cannot include conscripts, only volunteering contract soldiers; and at the end of the day we kept a platoon in Iraq for all these years in exchange for inclusion in the US visa waiver program - which the Bush administration has seemingly pulled off in its dying hours. (As much as I hate the Bush clique, they have managed to get one or two things done in foreign policy. I'm told Bush is genuinely, deservedly well-liked in Africa, for the massive amounts of aid the US has pumped into it. Well, maybe not Somalia.) We may as well pull out on November 8th.

However, the Finnish Muslim party can sit and spin. I realize full well that it's a terribly minor fringe group that does not deserve the publicity they're getting from getting their preposterous statements in the mainstream press, or whatever additional exposure they get from me talking about them; but I believe it is my duty, as a citizen and as a blogger, to take the piss out of these people. Finland has had its share of tragedy, but a militant Muslim cell in Espoo is a joke. We are a sovereign nation, we have repeatedly re-elected parties that have chosen to keep soldiers in Iraq, it has never been a serious issue (even for the bleeding-heart club of the Social Democrats and Strandberg), and we do not give a flying fuck about the opinion of a bunch of moose-herding geeks so bludgeoned by their nation's safety net that they have lost all capacity for independent thought or action. Sod off.

Bonus image: Mullah Tammi, the leader of the Finnish Muslim Party. With the best beard in the world, he'll still be a Jukka.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Do Want, Vol. 3

So the HP 2133 has more or less launched, and the reviews have been trickling in. I'm fairly certain now that it's the one I want. It falls down on two things only: the CPU is a bit shit, and the bigger battery makes it bulky and irregular-shaped. To be honest, I can live with it; and the early reviews as well as the announcement of UK availability has answered a very important question. Yes, there will be versions with Win XP. This means that I can easily go for the cheap 1gb RAM version with the slower hard drive, as I have spent four years with a Duron 1300, on 128mb RAM, running XP Pro, and I even played games on it. NFS Porsche Unleashed and GTA 2 (I still hold that GTA 2 was by far the funniest and most creative one of the entire series).

The new 9-inch Asus is comparatively far inferior. It's a little bit narrower, but has a much smaller keyboard, worse speakers, worse screen resolution, and inadequate storage at best (up to 20gb on the fancier versions, compared to 120gb or 160gb on the Hewlett-Packard). Supposedly the Asus will have a touchscreen and/or Apple-style gesture touchpad and/or built-in GPS, but I'm not quite as impressed by those as I am by a half-decent keyboard. Also, it seems that Asus has dumped its one unassailable advantage, by choosing not to ship with Atom processors in the beginning. I'm sure it's a smart business decision for Asus, but the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the HP. It's also prettier.

I've also had a chance to finger a MacBook Air at the Apple shop here in Tartu. It's nice, and I'd give it more serious consideration if it didn't cost over $2200 in basic spec.

Bonus story: the weirdest thing I've heard in a very, very fucking long time - Tanel Padar's 'Welcome to Estonia' (cover of James Brown's 'Living in America') sung in Russian. Reinars Kaupers, the guy from Brainstorm (who I saw live in Tartu on April fucking 28th last year, and who are brilliant) uses his soft Baltic accent to great effect in Russian; Tanel Padar just sucks completely.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Comparative Cityscape

So I went to Stockholm, right? I've been there a lot, I really like the city, and am starting to feel like I can navigate it - the center, at least, without a map.

One of those little places I've recommended to people with great success is the Science Fiction Bookshop on Västerlanggatan (the main shopping street going through the Old Town). Stopped by it on this trip to check out their English-language selection, and... well, let's just say - I had a moneyz, but I spended it. :(

Also have been spending inordinate amounts of weekend time in Tallinn. Odd how it doesn't really feel like home any more, even though I've spent three quarters of my life there. Mind you, in the six years since I've been a Tartu vaim it's changed considerably - and more rapidly in the last couple of years, when I've had very little cause to actually go there for any length of time. (Since I got a washing machine in my new apartment, I haven't been back to my dad's place as often, heh.)

There are a lot of things that differ between Tallinn and Tartu; I find it odd that the capital's roads are in remarkably worse shape than Tartu's, which in themselves are nothing to write home about. Sure, Tartu is far more walkable - to the point of its beleaguered public transport being written off by all but those layers of the population most challenged by mobility; I know people who regularly walk from across the river to Sepa, which by Tartu standards is the ass-end of nowhere. And yes, Tallinn has far nicer buses. But it's not like Tartu doesn't have a lot of cars; and the capital is supposed to have more cash for public works like road resurfacing. Have they spent their budget for years to come on the Tartu maantee renovation? Is it all going into the widening of Pirita tee so the rich Viimsians can get to work quicker in the morning? Who the hell knows.

Another Tallinn thing that I don't really see in Tartu is gentrification; new and capitally renovated buildings in the middle of Soviet prefab blocks. Some of these have a genuine point, like the building in Kopli that was built to house a phone switching station. The large equipment halls with their tall ceilings are bound to lend themselves nicely to original split-level open-plan apartments, and the fact that this really is an old Soviet industrial construction, sold off by a disinterested Elion to imaginative developers, lends it an air of curious authenticity.

But then there are the new monoliths at the edges of the old bedroom communities. These baffle me. I can almost comprehend the beauty of top-floor apartments at the summit of Lasnamäe - they get views of the sea - but that only applies to a small percentage of the new households. At the height of the real estate bubble, the cost of a newly-built apartment was not significantly higher than one in a Soviet tower block, but given the choice, who would willingly move to Lasnamäe? I was born and raised there - and I couldn't wait to get out.

Real estate is naturally all about location, but in Tartu there aren't that many unpleasant neighborhoods. I've lived at the far edge of Tammelinn, from where it took 40 minutes to get into the center of town by bus (and five minutes by car, of course), but it was still a very pleasant neighborhood - a few locally-designed late-Soviet apartment buildings in the middle of a sprawl of single-family homes on their own little plots of land. I've seen some remarkably odd placements while apartment-hunting two years ago, like the blocks at the far edge of Võru and Ringtee, behind the bus depot, but for the most part it's a few buildings dropped in the middle of a naturally developed small-town district. Tartu has two main Soviet-style enclaves - the massive Annelinn and the decrepid Hiinalinn/Shanghai (so named because its prefabs are of the most basic and ugly variety, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a shantytown) - but they're not being developed. Yes, people are renovating their own apartments in these buildings, but new ones are not inserted among them, as they are in Tallinn. The closest thing is the new building at the corner of Jaama and Raatuse - close to Shanghai - and it is being advertised as heavily discounted, with the biggest apartments losing a whole million kroons off their sticker price. Still, Raatuse street is slowly filling up with fancy shops and boutiques, thanks to the fact that you have to walk up this street to get to the Illusion nightclub. That house is actually one of the better efforts I've seen in modern construction - custom-designed to fit into the irregular, sloped landscape. But most of the new developments are either self-contained enclaves by major arteries, or dropped into neighborhoods that have been there for at least a century. It makes a difference. Tartu is all about atmosphere.

Tallinners seem more obsessed with image, though. I've accused Riga of this, but now I notice it more and more in Tallinn: people investing most of their resource into outwardly visible trappings of success. Taking the tram to the bus station, I was startled to see flash cars like BMW X5s parked next to the crumbling prefabs of Majaka. The owner of my old rented apartment drove an X5 - but he actually lived in a beautiful, large house outside the city; he'd obviously spent money on a home for his family first, and got a fancy car once that was done. (He's also remarkably un-flashy in person, despite running a very successful business.)

I have to wonder what will happen to Tallinn now that the real estate market has regained some semblance of sanity. Another friend just bought a beautiful apartment in Kadriorg; this time last year, the same money would have barely stretched to a hovel in the further reaches of Lasnamäe. The no man's land on the banks of the Laagna freeway will continue to be built up commercially, because the demand is there; but residentially, will this new phase of Soviet urban planning survive?


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