Saturday, August 12, 2006

Dangerous Liquids, Exploding Opportunities, and Chewing Glass

This old Sierra Mist commercial is the best way to close the discussion on the Liquid Scare.

(via Cynical-C, by way of Cosmic Variance)

Perhaps you have seen Jon Steward's new Middle East commentator. Otherwise don't miss his perspective on the "birth pangs" of democracy.

And, last but not least, The Editors have a strategy against terrorism that makes as much sense as the current administration's one, but that is much cheaper to implement.

Flying on day 3

It's day three of the Great Liquid Scare, and I have a flight to catch. I arrive at the airport one hour and 40 minutes early, that is, one hour and ten minutes before boarding, fearing that I'll miss my flight because of the long lines.

Most people are checking their bags, slowing down the check-in line, which is, indeed, very, very long. After about five minutes, however, a person comes to direct me to an unused self-serve kiosk for people with no bags to check. This is a nice pay-off for my earlier decision to throw away my toothpaste, deodorant and sunscreen.

With an hour and five minutes to go until boarding, I reach the security check, hoping that I have enough time. (Waits of up to four hours were reported on Thursday.)

I find three people ahead of me, and by the time I put my wallet, cell phone and ipod in my bag, take out the laptop, and take off my shoes, I am holding up the line. There is a woman with two small children behind me, and she is too kind to complain. After we collect our bags, she and the small children are detained for further inspection, and I am free to go, with an hour to wait until boarding.

I browse the "bookstore." I notice two books, one that explains women to men, and one that explains men to women. The subtitles are different in a subtly sexist way. "All you need to know about the inner lives of men" versus "A straightforward guide to the inner lives of women." Women are needy, I understand, while men need directions. There is also a book on how to change your life in 24 hours. I have 55 minutes to kill and perhaps browsing through the book will change that. One chapter is devoted to changing your appearence. It relates the story of a person who, at an airport, walks up to a complete stranger and asks "what do you think is wrong with my appearence?" The stranger criticizes the other guy's eyewear and sideburns, and the fellow makes an appointment with a barber and an optician after returning home. The lesson, I suppose, is that a stranger can judge us with more impartiality than we can judge ourselves. Who buys these books? I fantasize about trying this approach, but the fear of being arrested for disorderly conduct (the loudspeakers invite to "report suspicious behavior") is too strong. Besides, I don't see anybody of trustworthy fashion sense. And I surely can judge them impartially.

Moving along, there is a book about the Rapture, and a book with Anderson Cooper's face on the cover. As I am warming up to the prospect of reading the in-flight magazine, I find Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book Bait and Switch. You may remember her from her book Nickel and Dimed, where she goes undercover to report on the lives of minimum-wage workers, or from the time she took over Maureen Dowd's column in The New York Times, and we had the rare experience of reading brilliant woman-authored op-eds in the Times. In Bait and Switch she goes undercover as an unemployed white-collar middle-aged woman looking for a corporate job.

The book makes for a fascinating reading on the downward mobility of the American middle class. Unfortunately (spoilers ahead!), after an almost year-long search, she is unable to land a job, and so the book is devoid of what might have been the most interesting part.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Fighting the last battle

What security measures to take against the threat of terrorism? The problem is that there is an almost endless number of ways in which a terrorist act can be carried out, and it is very hard, and probably impossible, to find ways of preventing every possible such plot. Perhaps inevitably, security measures are always reactive. Terrorists hijack four planes, kill three thousand people, and make George Bush win an election, all just with box cutters. Hence all box cutters and pointy objects are banned from flights. A would-be suicide attacker tries to detonate explosive hidden in his shoe. Hence we must X-ray all passengers' shoes. Female terrorists hide explosive in their bras. Hence the stories of passengers being indicently patted during security checks. Today we learn of the explosives to be made out of liquid chemicals. Now no liquids can be taken aboard US flights.

It is only a matter of time until a terrorist tries to smuggle explosive on an airplane by hiding it up his ass. And that's when I am going to stop flying.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Where do you come from?

In the month of July, the top referring sites for In Theory were, in this order, the Complexity Blog, Shtetl Optimized, my Berkeley home page, 3d Pancakes and Talk Talk China.

The top searches were less predictable: after various combinations of "Luca", "Trevisan", "blog" and "In Theory," the top search phrases were "Welcome Yonatan," "Fourier analysis of boolean functions," "Aridatece la Gioconda" and "Poincare conjecture." I wish good luck to the person who searched "How to get faculty housing at Columbia," and the one who searched "how to be dreamy." I hope never to meet the person who searched "'try it yourself' zidane." But it's "pizza hut food stand theories" and "theory of club floors" that I really can't understand.

USA (more than half of the total), Canada, Italy, Israel, and Germany were the nations with the most readers.

Cheers to the Hong Kong readers, who have come here a total of 68 times in July putting Hong Kong ahead of Japan and Australia (but behind Taiwan!) in the statistics that really matters. See you soon: I'll visit the Chinese University of Hong Kong in January.