Eastern Parkway Encounter

March 30th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

I was walking along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn this evening, as I passed an Orthodox Jewish gentleman, wearing his traditional suit and hat. It was about half past six on a Friday afternoon, and he was getting his car detailed. He got my attention with a wave of his hand:

“Excuse me,” he asked, “are you Jewish?”

Somewhat taken aback by such a question, I just shook my head ‘no’.

“Have wonderful evening,” he responded, and I carried on my way.

I’ve been thinking about this for almost the entire time since. Why did he want to know? And, assuming I answered ‘yes’, what would have happened?

Berlin, in Retrospect

March 18th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

de1.gifAs regular readers already know, or have guessed from previous posts, I spent the last week in Germany, mostly in Berlin, generally pleasing myself and relaxing during my spring break from NYU.

For lack of any better terminology, the trip was fantastic. It’s been about five years since I was last in Germany, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Berlin. Since reunification, vast amounts of money have been poured into the city, and it shows, especially in the East, where Potsdamer Platz, the Reichstag, and the brand-new Hauptbahnhof (Main train station) are symbols of the so-called ‘New Berlin’: modern, clean, well-designed and open for business. The cost to rejuvinate the city must have run to many billions of Euros, but the result is incredible. It’s a bit of a shame that the West half of the city has become somewhat of a casualty in the process; the central parts of West Berlin seem to be neglected, especially near the Zoologischer Garten station, which, when contrasted with Stadtmitte, for example, looks quite run down and devoid of anything out of the ordinary.

John and I also spent a day visiting our friend Saskia in a very small town in Bayern: Bubenreuth, not too far from Nürnberg. We took the fairly lengthy train-ride down on a very fancy “ICE” [Inter City Express] train, and emerged in a field apparently in the middle of nowhere. It’s an interesting experience to alight a train and have no idea where you are. If you’d asked me to point to Bubenreuth on a map when we arrived, I wouldn’t have been able to.

I got the chance to exercise my lousy German-speaking skills while I was there. The trouble, I found, with trying to speak German-as-a-second-language in Berlin, is that most of the city’s inhabitants speak English better than I speak German. I’d often stammer out a sentence in German and get a response back in English. I’m sure it was my horrendous aussprache that gave me away. Still, it was useful to be immersed in German for a week, and to see and hear German constantly. It would be nice to return over the summer, too, to try and keep what little German skill I have sharp until the Fall semester.

Shameless Attention-Grabbing

March 18th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

I submitted one of my Berlin pictures to JPG Magazine. If you feel so inclined, check out the submission page at


And if you feel further inclined, state your preference for its inclusion in print, in either “Yeah!” or “Nah” flavour.

Berlin thus far

March 13th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve been in Berlin since Saturday, after a fairly tough journey (see below), but now that I’m actually where I wanted to get to, things are going really well. A recap:

Saturday Evening: Met up with Kyrsti, a friend of John’s from Whitman College, who is currently living in Berlin working for a German member of Parliament. We visited “Laugh Olympics Berlin” an improv comedy show that’s held in a yoga studio–I guess the owner likes improv. Perhaps a bit like Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, but in Berlin, in a much trendier setting.

Sunday: Visited the Fernsehturm, and actually went up it this time rather than wandering around the bottom. I took pictures there, but in the tradition of pictures-from-tall-places, they’re not all that interesting unless you were actually there.

Monday: Visited Checkpoint Charlie for obligatory touristy stuff, and paid a visit to the neighboring museum, which houses some artefacts that people used to escape East Berlin, like hollowed-out cars and improvised hot-air balloons. Hung out for a little while in the Sony Center in the newly-built Potsdamer Platz. Met up with Kyrsti for dinner and drinks in the evening

Today: Had some coffee back over at Potsdamer Platz. Had a look at where John used to live in the ‘burbs. Well, not really ‘burbs, more like just-outside-downtown. Currently sitting in a café having a beer. How can you be mad at that?

I think we’re planning on visiting another of John’s friends on Thursday, a couple of hours outside of Berlin on the train.

My guess is that this is pretty boring knowledge just to read about. I suggest you go and have a look at my photos from this trip, which I am keeping updated, here.

Why I Hate Pointless Security

March 10th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

I used to think that America took the trophy for useless security measures, good for nothing except, perhaps, a show of force; what Bruce Schneier calls “Security Theater”. America may still ultimately deserve the prize, but today, at least in my mind, the title goes to the Brits, and specifically BAA, the British Airports Authority, for their ‘one hand luggage item’ policy.

After the alleged liquid-explosive plot was foiled, British airport authorities stopped allowing cabin baggage altogether for a brief period, eventually loosening the restriction to let passengers bring a single item on board per person. Anything seems to qualify as an ‘item’. Got a laptop and a roll-on case? You’re out of luck, unless you can fit one inside the other.

I see three problems with this security strategy:

First, it’s a divergent standard from the rest of the world. Even the US, with its crack security team, the TSA, allows two pieces of carry-on baggage. I’ll demonstrate why this is a problem, using an example with completely random cities: Let’s say you’re flying from New York to Berlin with a stop in London. When you go through security at JFK, you’re carrying a laptop and a camera bag, containing a total of about $2500 of photographic and computing equipment, and you don’t particularly want to hand either of them over to the baggage handling machinery. You go through security at JFK unhindered, since your hand luggage fits within the US policy. When you get to London, and are made to go through another security check upon arrival, the standard has changed, and you’ve got an excess bit of luggage that you have to somehow ‘combine’, or jettison. This seems like a ‘When in Rome’ sort of scenario, except that the British standard doesn’t seem to be published at all at JFK. Judging by the crush of passengers around the Terminal 4 screening checkpoint, mobbing the guy assigned to enforce the ‘one bag’ rule, it came as a bit of a surprise to them.

Second, the policy is loosely enforced and has massive loopholes. Using our above example, if you can cram your camera bag into your laptop bag, you’re carrying one less ‘item’, but the amount of material you’re carrying onto the aircraft hasn’t changed at all. Or, if you clip one container to the other and treat it as one, the same statement applies: less containers, same stuff. I also saw people carrying two or three things onto the aircraft, explaining to security staff that they couldn’t check the other items because they were too fragile: artwork and musical instruments, for example. It’s a valid point, and one that the policy never seemed to take into consideration in the first place, so the enforcers and gatekeepers punch holes in the rules, ad-hoc, to keep traffic flowing.

Third, I fail to see how limiting the amount of carry-on baggage a single passenger can take on board an aircraft protects the assets under threat. Those assets are, in this case, the aircraft, its passengers, and its cargo. Assume a worst-case, where some form of contraband is available that is undetectable to current screening methods. Limiting the number of bags one can carry is an extremely poor defense: one could take a single envelope full or an entire suitcase of contraband and not break the policy. Even if bags were limited by size, it would take a relatively small team of attackers to circumvent the policy and bring the contraband on board by combining their baggage allowances.

Finally, let’s say the reason behind this policy is purely procedural, and just designed to speed things up at the security checkpoint–between the shoe removal and laptop examination and coat-stripping, that is. Reason one above breaks this theory, though: if passengers aren’t expecting the rule to be there, they’ll spend large amounts of time, complaining, cajoling, combining, kicking up a fuss, and generally slowing things down.

All-in-all, this seems to be a bad security trade-off and BAA ought to rescind it immediately. Where’s the public pressure on this stuff? Why are the average news soundbites of citizens saying “Well, anything that makes us safer” instead of “This is ridiculous and a waste of time, money, and resources”?