Posts Tagged ‘usa’
I have written before that I am not the worlds’ biggest fan of US cities. There are but a few exceptions to the rule, and I recently discovered another one.
Most metropolitan areas in America seem to be spread out across huge areas of land – without a real city center – and they are impossible to navigate by foot or by public transport. There are a few exceptions. New York was fun, but expensive and on the busy side. I love San Francisco and Seattle, and I could see myself living in either if they weren’t on the other side of the globe.
So my expectations for New Orleans were pretty low. Not having read up on its history like the good ignorant tourist I am I was expecting another clunky high concrete-to-services-ratio kind of town, perhaps with a little relief in the form of an overly polished mall. Not so.
New Orleans is a greasy, dirty kind of city – in a good way. It’s old, and lived. It’s got history and atmosphere. There’s jazz on every corner, and lots of dive bars and strip clubs that stay open all night. Bourbon Street is a bit too touristy for my taste, but there are many other interesting streets nearby. We spent most of our free days walking alongside the river delta and about the city streets. I found a couple of nice bookstores – proper bookstores with barely any light, a handwritten register, wobbly stacks of books and barely any room to move. Being the addict I am, I bought more books than I will be able to read in the next 6 months. In the evenings, we hung out in the dive bars and absynthe houses, we drunk beer and other crazy stuff, and listened to jazz and fusion.
I will definitely return if I get the chance.
You’ve probably heard of Bruce Schneier if you’ve ever done something with computer cryptography. These days he mostly writes about security and trust in general. I’m a fan of his writing, mostly because of his science-based and calm approach. It’s a refreshing read in a world where the reaction to terrorism and other threats is almost always the introduction of extra security checks and the knee-jerk outlawing of anything that has somehow been involved.
The Economist is currently hosting a debate between Schneier and the form director of the TSA about air travel security. A quote:
Exactly two things have made air travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door, and convincing passengers that they need to fight back. Everything else has been a waste of money. Add screening of checked bags and airport workers and we are done. All the rest is security theatre. If we truly want to be safer, we should return airport security to pre-9/11 levels and spend the savings on intelligence, investigation and emergency response.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
My first trip to the USA was a real eye-opener. All I had “seen” from the US up to that point was from movies and TV series. It involved drugs, drama, gangs and an unreasonable amount of violence. Some of the syndicated “real” TV shows painted an even worse picture, and portrayed wild car chases, domestic violence (“Cops”) and really (and I mean really) messed up families (“Jerry Springer”) as things that were normal day occurrances. If that, all nicely fitting in with the Dutch stereotypes about Americans, is all you can go by, then the US seems like a pretty fucked up place. Imagine the surprise of 17-year-old me when he found out that the people were not the fat lazy egoistical gun nuts he was expecting them to be.
Now, as I’m (properly) travelling through the Balkan for the first time, I am undergoing a similar experience to the one I had that first time I traveled to the US.
It’s my first time in Seattle, and also my first time in Washington state but I feel right at home here. It’s a lot closer to Canada here (both geographically and culturally) than e.g. Texas and the weather is almost as bad as in the Netherlands at the moment.
Oh, and there are even more reruns of Frasier on local TV than I was expecting. I have yet to be invited to a dinner party. Apparently they are not as common as the series makes them out to be.
In this part of the world, it is impossible to get by without credit cards. They’re probably one of the most flawed concepts ever invented for transferring money. Little plastic cards with a large integer on it. An integer that is supposed to be secret and personal but which, despite that, you are obliged to show to people you’ve never met on a daily basis. It doesn’t take a security expert to see the flaw in this magnificent scheme.
So – rather than actually trying to fix the whole thing from the ground up – banks have patched up the system as best they can. Useless (and optional) security measures have been added on top of the existing broken system. And transactions are being monitored for suspicious activity.
Trying to rent a car in Seattle this afternoon my bank apparently flagged my behaviour as “suspicious” and now declines all transactions. That is despite the fact that I have already used my credit card elsewhere in the U.S. this week without problems. What is so strange about me trying to rent a car? I have no fucking clue. And of course my bank is only available during CET office hours so I can’t yell at them to get my card unblocked.
To make matters worse, none of the rental agencies accept Meastro debit cards. FFS.
Update: Looks like buying coffee in Phoenix didn’t fit into my regular spending patterns. It’s not like I haven’t ever done that before. Of course the friendly bank employee I spoke to can not tell me why their algorithms flagged this particular transaction (“computer says no“).
Perhaps the thing that most shocked me was the fact that secretary Clinton asked diplomats to gather credit card numbers and DNA of UN diplomats. I’m sure there’s plenty more ahead.
There are no reported casualties from the information published by Wikileaks so far, and that suggests that they have actually done a pretty good job of censoring any information that could e.g. harm informants physically. No doubt that if such cases were known that the US government would be all over it.
The responsibility for the leaks appears to be placed almost exclusively on Wikileaks itself. That seems wrong to me. They are just the medium that is being used to publish these documents. The more fundamental problem is probably that over two and a half million people have access to these documents. Just based on those numbers alone I find it very optimistic to assume that among those there aren’t any others who are leaking documents – perhaps not to the press, but (more dangerously) to foreign powers. In other words, if three million people have access I wonder how “secret” these documents should be considered in the first place.
I’m very disappointed by the reactions of some of the pundits and politicians on the most recent leak. At least our PM responded appropriately (much to my surprise), stating that the leak was “hugely damaging” (within the boundaries of what can be expected when something like this happens to an allied country) but without pointing the finger at Wikileaks. As I commented earlier, it is strange to see some of the same US politicians who were previously defending Scooter Libby are now calling for Assange to be assassinated. If any action is taken against Wikileaks I would hope it is done according to law by the public prosecutor and through the judicial system. That said, nothing at this point suggests that Wikileaks or Assange have actively encouraged the leaking of these documents, which puts them in the same spot as “normal” media like the NY Times.
Wikileaks’s itself seems to have the ultimate goal of a completely transparent government. There is a
good writeup of Julian Assange’s views here (from a couple of years ago). Personally, I think there is reason for states to keep some information secret on a temporary basis, where justified – so e.g. diplomacy can work. But all of this needs to happen within reason. The public needs to be well informed, so they can (in theory, at least) monitor the government. Covering up civilian casualties and misinforming the public is not within reason.
And of course, leaving the question of ethics aside for a minute, it also just very interesting to see what is going on beneath the surface.
One of the things I find very strange about US television is the censoring of swearwords. Even if you have an issue with profanity then what use does beeping it out have? Everybody is going to know what word was censored. It’s all about meaning and context, not about individual words.
Swearing is self-expression and not (necessarily) a sign of a lack of vocabulary. Like so many things, it is best explained by Stephen Fry.