Beijing, August 2008

Security at this year’s Olympic Games in Beijing was impressive, at least to my five-year old son, _L_: one of the first things he built with his limited supply of Lego was a security checkpoint. I am less impressed.

It started in the airport. They wanted to scan all carry-on luggage upon arrival. I have no idea what they were looking for, but the scanning took place after people collected their checked luggage and had had a long time to move things back and forth thus making the scan effectively optional and thus pointless.

All subway entrances and all sporting venues had checks too, so authorities must have hired and trained thousands of new security people. All these people have no real experience and are constrained by having to maintain the flow of people uninterrupted. Just like when TSA was created, that makes for lousy security.

For example, when entering the venue for the US-China basketball game — where the US President was expected to attend — I arrive with my bag and camera. The bag goes into a scanner and gets hand-checked afterwards. Apart from a lot of fuss over an epipen, nothing happens. My camera comes with me through the metal detector which, of course, beeps. I get hand scanned. In other words, I just walked through with three pounds of unscanned equipment that looks like a camera! (It happens to be a camera, but how could they know?) That same equipment I later pointed at George and got a few pictures of him looking rather silly. Using the same tickets I could have walked through several times, so the size of a camera is not a limitation.

At another venue I accidentally brought a bottle of water with me. As you may know, water is a substance that is dangerous at sporting events, but not in subways. When found at a security checkpoint for a sporting venue it will be confiscated, but as a side effect, the security officer who found it will be so happy with himself that nothing else you carry will be checked. That is humanly understandable and shows that checking for liquids in the first place probably lowers the level of security. There are simply too many false positives, i.e., cases where harmless liquids are detected. Think of that the next time you wait in line at the airport.

Also, I have noticed — both in Beijing and in airports around the world — that when I put my camera equipment into my backpack, the backpack gets hand searched. I am fairly certain that it is because the operator of the scanner just sees a pile of stuff that he cannot identify, so a hand check is in order. The backpack I use is nothing special, but happens to have a lot of compartments. Generally, when the backpack is searched they miss half the compartments unless I feel like telling them.

This is all from passive observation while minding my own business. I am not trying to probe, let alone evade, security anywhere.

Conclusion: since stuff is not blowing up left and right, either the bad guys (a) are not trying; (b) are not thinking like I do; or (c) get caught or scared off by less visible parts of the security apparatus.

Source of the Life

I found this sign in a park in Beijing:

Mystery sign

I tried to follow it to see what it meant, but it turned out to be a dangling pointer.


A shark, a lot of little fish, and a few trees in one picture:

Shark, fish, tree

Taken at “Atlantis”, Paradise Island, The Bahamas.

Home Repair

It looks like every geographic area has its own version of duct tape
in the used-far-outside-its-intended-domain sense when it comes to
home repair.

In the neighbourhood of Home.1 it is paint. There is nothing that
cannot be fixed with an extra coat of paint. Door is scratched?
Paint it! Floor is not level? Paint it! Roof leaks? Paint it!
Window broken? That has not actually happened to me, but I am sure it
will get painted.

Near Home.2, things are different. The material of choice is sealant
of the type properly used for sealing around the tub. It is
everywhere. Cracked marble? Seal it! Lose tile? Seal it! Crack
between floor board and floor? Seal it! Need to make wall paper
stick at floor board? Seal it!

It could be worse, I guess. Maybe some places use floor wax or drain
opener to get through the day.

A public service announcement: anyone who suggests going furniture
shopping to me in the near future (i.e., months if not years) risks
getting whacked over the head with a corner sofa in his or her choice
of beige or red fine, Italian leather.

Quantum Traffic

In classical multi-lane traffic, cars travel in one lane or
another. When a driver wants to change to a different lane, he or she
does so quickly and order is maintained. However, in quantum
multi-lane traffic, it is quite common to observe a car that is, say,
70% in one lane and 30% in the next. The precise meaning of such a
state is unclear, probably ranging from “I think I want to be in this
lane, but I might need this other one later” to “My ego is too big for
just one lane.” Either way, it is rather unnerving for classically
trained drivers. You can find quantum multi-lane traffic all
over Beijing.

Speaking of Beijing traffic, one cannot help marvel at the city-wise
art show put on display for drivers in the city. I refer here to what
looks similar to the traffic lights you can find in most western
cities. It is only looks that are alike, though, because the Beijing
ones seem to have no traffic regulating function. Instead you can
imagine drivers admire yet another masterpiece from the artist’s “red”
period while proceeding at full throttle.

(To be fair, I’m sure there are rules. Some of them even written down, but clearly they are different from what I am used to. Then
again, I find the Pittsburgh left turns scary.)


I’ve been in Beijing for a while. This is the first of a series of
blog entries relating to that trip.

Why does it cost $10 to get internet connection for one day at an
airport like JFK? The cost behind it cannot be much more than a DSL
line at $30 per month and renting a closet at the airport.
One would assume that, if allowed, any of the stores present could
easily put up a competing service. They probably need the internet
connection or something similar for credit card authorization anyway.

But clearly competition is not working here as prices have not come
down from the skies. I would assume that there is a local monopoly in
place. I can see good reasons for imposing such a thing in an
airport. After all you do not want too much unrelated radio traffic
going on when you have a fleet of airplanes to handle, but couldn’t
they at least have made it a duopoly? Or put price limits on the

In the meantime, would it be unethical to set up a ip-over-dns gateway?
They seem to allow dns lookups for free.


I was flying back from The Bahamas yesterday and airport security[*]
decided to check out my shoes three times. I know they
might be a bit smelly and big enough to hide a Hummer, but why
not just check them thoroughly once?

But I was good. I even resisted the temptation of handing over
my three-year old for them to hold while I took off my shoes.
Someone would have gotten kicked, slapped, clawed, and/or worse.
He is cute, but he takes no prisoners.

[*] The use of the term “security” to describe people in airports is not to
be taken as an indication that their presence or function improves

Utility Functions

it is probably not that they are being inefficient or behaving illogically. It is more like that they are optimizing a utility
function somewhat different from the one you would naïvely expect.

(A mathematician takes a walk and comes by a house on fire; he calls
the fire department and they come and put out the fire. The next
day he comes by a house that is not on fire; he sets it on fire and
walks on after thus having reduced the problem to a previously solved