Category Archives: Essays

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Review of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces”

This is a review of Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop, available here: http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Warrior-Cop-Militarization-Americas-ebook/dp/B00B3M3UFQ/

Police in the United States are a constituency politicians rarely feel comfortable taking on. Republicans praise police for being tough on crime, and Democrats are reluctant to criticize police because of their long-standing alliance with unions and public workers (and police represent both.) Nevertheless, if the news stories of the past several months have taught us anything, it’s that our police forces need much greater supervision and accountability. On top of that, we need real policy reform.

But how did we get here, and why? Radley Balko traces the origins of the modern American police force from its humble roots in the English constabulary to the contemporary SWAT team. He weaves a brisk, digestible narrative and introduces what he calls the Symbolic Third Amendment. If you’re unfamiliar with the Third Amendment, that’s because it tends to have little relevance in modern American jurisprudence, though it was quite important at the time of its writing. The Third Amendment is what forbids the government from forcing citizens to house soldiers. At a glance, this would seem to have nothing to do with policing at all, but Balko makes the case that this amendment signifies a clear dividing line between civilians and the military, that there are good historical (and modern) reasons we do not use the military for law enforcement, and so militarizing the police makes little sense, either. This separation between military tactics and civilian law enforcement makes up what Balko calls the Symbolic Third Amendment, a concept he revisits frequently through the first half of his book.

Where police used to be slightly-more-empowered civilians who intervened during crimes, they are now used as paramilitary forces to terrorize “undesirable” community residents and generate revenue for cash-strapped municipal coffers. But this transformation has come at a great cost: hundreds of innocent people being victimized by raids gone wrong, raids on the wrong homes, raids based on bad informant tips. And while SWAT teams were originally developed to handle dangerous, high-profile crimes like bank robberies and hostage situations, they are now used overwhelmingly to serve warrants against people merely suspected of possessing small amounts of drugs. The very notion that police should be empowered to break down your front door, shoot your dogs, and hold guns to your head while they tear your house apart looking for a dime bag is absurd on its face, and yet 90 to 95 percent of all SWAT raids consist of exactly this. The vast majority of the time, no weapons at all are found, and rarely are large quantities of drugs recovered. Even when police break into the wrong house, tear it apart, and injure or kill the people inside, they virtually never face consequences. Instead, the victims sue the municipality which normally settles the matter for a handsome sum of money–in other words, taxpayers foot the bill for police abuses, rather than police departments or officers themselves.

This state of affairs came about through a gradual shift in focus from community policing to highly militarized drug war tactics. Drug addicts used to be regarded as objects of sympathy who needed treatment, but the warlike drug policies of Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and their successors turned people in need of medical treatment into enemies of the state, worthy only of prison–or death. This is the cost of black-and-white, militaristic rhetoric used in the name of law enforcement. Even so, decades after it began, the drug war has been an expensive, freedom-destroying failure. Though crime rates have been falling for a generation, American police continue to acquire military-grade hardware and embark on raids that are often dangerously negligent in their preparations and effects.

Balko doesn’t mention it frequently, but the most common victims of these hostile policies are minorities and the poor–those least able to defend themselves, and those with the fewest options available for recourse. Police rarely bust down the doors of wealthy CEOs or high-ranking politicians, and most middle-class white suburbs escape the daily reality of America’s modern police. But as SWAT teams have spread even into peaceful suburbs, dangerous no-knock raids against low-level drug suspects have come to places almost devoid of crime, and Balko believes this development can help spark reform. Since this book was released well before the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others made national news, he couldn’t have predicted that a rash of black men and boys being killed by police would raise public awareness of these issues so dramatically. However, the confluence of these events sets a perfect stage for national reform, which is Balko’s goal. After tracing the rise of police militarization, he offers a set of policy reforms that should be familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to police abuses in recent memory: end the drug war, put surveillance mechanisms in place to monitor police behavior, track numerous enforcement-related statistics as well as opening court records, which would reveal judges who never decline to sign warrants–another common problem that discourages police accountability. He also recommends stemming the flow of military-grade equipment to police forces, and especially any federal support for this. Instead, he believes federal support should be used to encourage community policing methods–officers walking beats, getting to know the people they are sworn to protect, and dismantling the “us vs. them” attitude that too often results in unnecessary injury, death, and destruction. He acknowledges that these ideas are not all easy to implement, and would first require an American public willing to push for them–something we will hopefully see in the near future.

Rise of the Warrior Cop is an excellent primer on the history of America’s policing methods, especially when it comes to the origin of the SWAT team and its perverse mission creep. I would ultimately recommend this book, but it is not without its flaws. Notably, in discussions of reform and criminal justice policies more generally, Balko ignores how other countries approach policing. It is hard to imagine that the US has nothing to learn from other democratic countries whose police forces are far less militarized. To that extent, the book is a little too US-centric, as if policing outside this country does not exist (or doesn’t pertain in any way to his thesis.) Still, it is a relatively minor oversight in an otherwise well-conceived volume.

This book is an easy recommendation to anyone who is curious about the history of law enforcement in America, and especially its growing excesses. If you want a firm understanding of how we came to the current status quo, Rise of the Warrior Cop is a great place to start.

9/11: 12 Years Gone

Note: this piece will meander between personal narrative and editorializing. Pardon the erratic format.

September 11, 2001 was supposed to be just another ordinary day for me. I would get up, get showered and dressed, go to class, go to work, then come home and go to bed. I was a sophomore in college at the time. I lived with my mother, stepfather, and my younger sister and brother, in rural Indiana. New York City was an alien place I’d never been and didn’t think I’d ever see in person.

It’s odd what details you remember about a day when something profoundly unexpected happens. There are those moments in history where everyone can tell you where they were and what they were doing: when humans first walked on the Moon; when JFK was shot; when Dr. Martin Luther King was shot; when Reagan was shot; when the Berlin Wall fell. (It probably says more about me than anyone else that the events I think of tend involve people being killed.) For Millennials like myself, I suppose 9/11 was that moment. I was already up and dressed that morning. Everyone else had gone off to school or work, so I was home alone. Remembering something I had been meaning to do, I grabbed a PC game that had a cracked CD case, picked up one of the new jewel cases I’d bought the day before, and set about transferring the insert and booklet from the cracked case to the new one. It was while I was doing that that my mother called. She asked me if I’d turned on the TV today. “No. Why?” “You should turn it on. We’re under siege.”

I had no idea what she meant by that. The TV came on to one of the major news networks. The image was of the World Trade Center towers. One of them had a plume of smoke billowing from it. I don’t remember anything that was said on the phone after that. All my attention was on processing that visual and whatever it meant. A few minutes later, a second plane hit the second tower, which I saw happen live. I realized they couldn’t have been accidents, not to happen so close together like that. But who would do this, and why?

It was still a few hours before I had class, and I spent that time glued to the TV. All the major news networks were based in New York City, so their anchors and reporters were clearly shaken. Some came directly from the scene  to report what they’d witnessed. People were jumping from the burning towers. One reporter came to the studio after the towers collapsed, covered in debris and barely holding himself together. The Pentagon was also struck, and another plane went down in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t much past 10AM and we didn’t know if it was over. There was talk of shooting down any more planes if they appeared to be hijacked, given that all planes were told to land at the nearest airport. I had to leave for class without being sure if anything else was going to happen.

The one class I remember from that day was my Sociology 101 class. No one was in much of a mood for the scheduled course material. Our professor instead introduced us to the concept of anomie. That term probably describes better than anything else what I felt at the time. I wasn’t angry or sad or anything like that. Everything just felt “off.” This was something happening hundreds of miles away from me. It wasn’t something that affected me directly, but it happened in the country where I lived, to people “like” me: fellow Americans. I was never a very patriotic sort of person, but I sensed that collective loss all the same.

The professor opened the class to discussion. People talked about their feelings for a while. It was a jumbled mess. I don’t remember much of what was said. After everyone quieted down, the professor dismissed us. It was soon announced that classes would be optional for the rest of the day, in light of events. It was a sensible decision. I don’t think anyone was going to learn much–our minds were on other matters.

I nevertheless had to report to work at 6PM, which was a computer lab on campus. Each computer lab needed someone to sign students in and out, offer technical and application support, and make sure no one stole anything (yes, people stole stuff out of the labs.) The girl I came in to relieve had no idea anything unusual had happened. I asked her if she’d seen the news today, and she said, “No.” I explained what had happened and she was sure I’d made it up as some sick joke. I told her to check out a TV or any news website and she’d see I wasn’t kidding.

I had a four hour shift that night. The lab was quiet. Most people didn’t feel like coming to use the computers. I spent the time reading news articles, though very little was yet known at that point. At the time, I was subscribed to CNN email alerts, which had flooded my inbox through the course of the day with lots of stories that turned out not to be true: a bomb had gone off at the State Department, the Washington Mall was on fire, mass shootings at shopping malls, etc. I was relieved to learn that they were all false reports and that the attacks essentially ended the moment Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania cornfield.

President Bush addressed the country that night. He looked incredibly shaken. I don’t remember anything about what he said, though you can always read the transcript.

I remember the flurry of information that came out in the following days. We had a list of names. We knew al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were behind it. We also knew that Afghanistan was harboring bin Laden himself, and we demanded that the Taliban turn him over immediately. The way that whole scenario played out is something I don’t think we give much thought to, but represents an unnecessary rush to action. The Taliban were not and are not “nice guys.” They’re radical zealots who gladly oppress anyone who doesn’t follow their brand of Islam. Even so, we were giving them money when they ruled Afghanistan, to support their efforts to eliminate opium production. We weren’t allies, but weren’t enemies, either. The Taliban apparently believed the US wanted to negotiate over bin Laden. After all, that’s how international politics are supposed to work: country A wants something from country B, country B tries to negotiate a good exchange for it, country A makes a counteroffer, and either you come to terms or you let it go. Instead, we demanded they give us bin Laden unconditionally, the Taliban asked for time to consider a response, and in a little more than week we’d decided the time for talk was “over” and it was time for “action.” We gave the Taliban no time to respond in good faith to our demands, nor even to locate and hand over bin Laden, as it’s unlikely he would have simply cooperated with such a demand.

So, less than a month after the attacks, we invaded. We roundly thrashed the Taliban and, for the most part, drove them out of the country. We teamed up with the Northern Alliance and began helping the Afghans form a new government. In practice, this government ended up having control over Kabul and not much else. The government in Kabul itself quickly became a hotbed of corruption and favor trading. A dozen years later, almost 15,000 American and allied troops are dead, and at least the same number of Afghan civilians have been killed by combat and insurgent attacks. A resurgent Taliban have rebuilt to the point that we have no choice but to give them a place at the bargaining table, and the government is still as corrupt as ever. We spent over a trillion dollars and there’s not much to show for it. Afghanistan remains about as much of a failed state as it was under the Taliban. Our rush to action cost tens of thousands of lives and a trillion dollars to bring about virtually no real benefit. An enormous waste.

That’s not even addressing everything that grew out of 9/11’s aftermath. Not even a day after the attacks, the Defense Department was at work looking for a way to pin it on Saddam Hussein as a pretext for an invasion of Iraq–something the Bush administration desired since before even coming to power. On top of being justified by outright lies and fabrications, the costs of the Iraq war are in some ways greater than Afghanistan. Almost 5000 coalition troops died, and estimates range from 100,000 to over a million total violent deaths resulted from the US-led invasion, subsequent occupation, and resulting insurgency and sectarian warfare. That war’s total costs are estimated to be in the neighborhood of $6 trillion once long-term costs of caring for wounded veterans are accounted for, which make up a large portion of that estimate. Today, Iraq continues to suffer daily bouts with insurgent violence and sectarian tensions always threaten the government’s stability. Ongoing crises in surrounding countries (such as Syria) have effects that spill over into Iraq, making the situation even more precarious. Once again, tremendous costs in human lives, resources, and dollars have added up to not very much.

No one would argue that Saddam Hussein or the Taliban were good guys that should be in charge anywhere. But war is a messy and unpredictable business, and in these two cases we rushed to war with poor justifications, poor intelligence, poor forward planning, no concern for expense or realistic objectives, and with the supreme arrogance to believe we could invade countries with no substantial democratic traditions and convert them into shining examples of American-style democracy and capitalism. Deposing a hostile regime with military equipment decades out of date is not that hard. Building a functional state out of its ashes, however, turns out to be very difficult. This is not a lesson we should have had to learn again, either. The only situations in which our efforts at nation-building have been successful were during periods of total war, when as many national resources as possible were thrown at the problem. Really, we have two examples to our credit: Germany and Japan, post-World War II. Efforts in Korea and Vietnam may not be considered nation-building per se. In the ’90s, we had Somalia and Haiti, both of which were at least nominally nation-building efforts, and both of which failed miserably due to a combination of not fully understanding the political situations into which we’d inserted ourselves and not putting sufficient resources into our interventions. Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated amply that even with great time and expense, turning failed states into modern democracies is an extremely dicey prospect, and one which we should never rush into, regardless of how justified we might feel. We certainly should not undertake such measures out of a sense of national pride or ego.

In addition to our failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the legacy of 9/11 lives on in other ways: the federalization of airport security in the form of the TSA continues to inconvenience law-abiding travelers, and debatably violates the civil rights of people who are not under any suspicion; recent revelations regarding the NSA’s spying efforts show dramatic, virtually unchecked expansions, both at home and abroad, justified by 9/11 and enabled by cheap, ubiquitous computing technology; the assassination of American citizens without due process or trial is now a fact of life, executed under both Bush and Obama with virtually no outcry from the people; warrantless wiretapping and a whole slew of new legal and investigative tools give government officials ever more power to keep tabs on the people whom they are supposed to serve. As a people, we remain fearful and wounded. The Bush administration burned bridges with many of our allies, particularly over the war in Iraq. The UK–historically our staunchest ally–saw Tony Blair expend massive amounts of political capital in supporting that war, a mistake so embarrassing it’s made the UK unwilling to take any action in Syria, no matter how limited. We bomb other countries with impunity, even sending our troops into sovereign territory without permission (as we did with bin Laden.) Such behavior is generally considered an act of war, but we get away with it because we’re the US and no one dares stand up to us. The Obama administration has continued the worst excesses of the Bush years in terms of prosecuting the “war on terror.” All this is to say that the 9/11 mindset is our new normal, and it’s not just limited to our foreign relations and efforts to fight terrorism.

The 9/11 attacks deepened a nascent recession brought on by the dotcom bust. The Bush administration went into a spending frenzy. I’m sure we all remember those stimulus checks we got and then promptly spent on bills or new TVs? We needed to grow consumer spending, so we relaxed regulations on the banking and credit industries, allowing a vast housing and credit bubble to grow unchecked, which provoked a global financial crisis that decimated our economy and has left a whole generation of workers out in the cold. Would all that have happened without 9/11? It’s hard to say. Maybe it would have. But the fear we felt as a nation on that day seems to continue to plague us and every decision we make. It’s why talk of cutting defense spending is viewed as downright traitorous, even when we seem not to have any credible enemies to defend against. It’s as if we longed for the days of Cold War paranoia and 9/11 gave us the opportunity to live in fear again.

Circling back to the immediate aftermath of 9/11 itself: we also had no interest in understanding why anyone would want to do this to us. It was inconceivable that we could, in any way, have provoked this. In no way did we deserve it–who deserves to suffer such egregious violence?–but we held ourselves completely blameless and innocent, as if the day’s attacks occurred in a vacuum for no real reason. 9/11 was blowback for decades of reckless foreign policy in the Middle East. Robert Fisk elaborated on this point a couple years ago, noting that the 9/11 Commission softballed what they found to be the central motive behind the attacks: US support for Israel. While I think the US should support Israel’s right to exist, that support should not be unconditional and we should certainly not condone ongoing settlement efforts or violent, oppressive behavior toward Palestinians. The denial of a Palestinian state is itself a completely unacceptable state of affairs. And given that US support for Israel is cited as the primary motivation for the 9/11 attacks, is that not something everyone deserves to know, so it can inform our policies going forward? By no means do I believe we should abandon Israel as an ally, but when that alliance can have such profound consequences, we must go into it with our eyes wide open and not pretend nothing bad can come of it. As Fisk said, to do so is simply lying to ourselves.

Ultimately, I don’t believe we learned anything from 9/11. We Americans seem to like living in fear. We like reliving our traumas, whether they led to victory or defeat. We also have no stomach for self-examination or introspection. We’ll complain and argue, but we won’t change. The 9/11 narrative is and apparently always shall be that bad people attacked us for no reason and we responded by trying to bring democracy to the Middle East, and those ingrates just wanted to kill us and blow people up, so screw ’em. That’s what we’re left with. If we learned anything, it was all the wrong lessons. It was yet more validation of American exceptionalism and self-styled superiority. We’re just too good for this world, and that’s why “they” hate us, whoever “they” are. We don’t understand why people don’t like it when we try to “bring” them democracy and capitalism and freedom. We don’t understand why the world doesn’t appreciate us telling everyone what to do. We just don’t understand. And we don’t want to.

So, on this twelfth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I would ask you to take a moment to try to understand, to think about what happened that day, what led from it, and how it got us to where we are now, and if that’s a place we really want to be. And if not, where do we go from here? Do we want to simply reopen the wound to our national pride, or do we want to stop and seriously think about why this happened, how our policies have consequences, and how our arrogance and thirst for vengeance results in the deaths of real people who’ve done nothing to wrong us? We are not blameless and we are not innocent, and we need to take responsibility for our actions, or those actions will continue to come back to haunt us, over and over.

9/11 Timeline was a decent resource for nailing down the sequence of events, but by no means do I accept a lot of the conspiracy hoohah listed there.

Travelicious #4: Shiny!

I plan to have several entries regarding Budapest, considering that’s where I spent the bulk of my trip. They may be more impressionistic in nature rather than straight accounts of things that happened. After all, it has been almost a week since I returned and the days sort of run together. Fortunately, I have photos to jog my memory, or something.

I arrived in Budapest about 15 minutes earlier than scheduled. The plane landed, we disembarked onto the tarmac, and then a shuttle bus took us to the baggage claim area. There was no Skyway for whatever reason. While I waited for my suitcase, I pulled out some local money from an ATM. I must say, Hungarian Forints look more like real money than Euros. Euros look like Monopoly money. An observation about both of them is that they feel thinner and flimsier than US bills. I have my doubts that such money could survive a trip through the washing machine.

After claiming my suitcase, I headed for the exit. Almost all the signs in the airport were in both Hungarian and English, so it wasn’t hard to figure out where I needed to go. As I emerged into the arrival area, I saw a man holding up a sign with my name on it. Woohoo! He was, of course, the owner of the apartment I’d rented for the duration. He grabbed my suitcase and escorted me to his car, a small wagon that was nevertheless quite large compared to the other cars I saw. The rumors about cars in Europe being small are certainly true. I will say, though, that it was not uncomfortable.

My host talked to me as we drove off toward the city center. It was dark. Lots of things were lit up. One particular structure that caught my eye was the Dohany Street Synagogue. The golden glow of its two domed towers were very striking in the dark, so naturally I asked what it was, and he was happy to explain. As we drove, he pointed out other attractions I might want to see, and to be honest I forgot most of them almost immediately. I wound up seeing quite a few of them anyway, but he spoke so quickly it was difficult to capture everything he said. He pointed out West End as we drove past it, notable for the strobing lights all over the exterior. I feel bad for anyone who has to live next to that. It must be really annoying to have lights flashing in your window all night, every night. In any case, West End is a large mall with 4 stories and an imperial shit ton of stores and restaurants. There’s also a movie theater and an arcade. Many of the businesses use English signage and almost all the employees I spoke to knew at least enough English to take your order and otherwise help you out.

After about a 20 minute drive we came to Podmaniczky utca (street), where the apartment was located. One thing this area had in common with Brussels was the way buildings were pressed up against each other. No alleyways between them or anything like that, just wall-to-wall buildings everywhere. Totally understandable for cities that are hundreds of years old and densely populated.

We came in the front door of the apartment building and I was led to a small courtyard. It seems the interiors of most apartment buildings in Budapest possess such central courtyards. I’m not sure what the reasoning is. The building did look a little run down, with cracks in the walls and chipped paint. The courtyard wasn’t especially well cared for. But I can’t complain too much: the apartment was quite cheap and in a great location, close to many attractions.

The owner took me into the apartment, showed me the trick to locking the front door (it’s a little temperamental), gave me the layout of the place. It had a small refrigerator–bigger than a mini fridge but not quite full size, and with no freezer. There was a very small kitchen with a toaster oven that had a range top, a little sink, a coffee maker, an electric teapot, and some basics: salt, sugar, rice, olive oil. I had to taste test the salt and sugar to figure out which was which. D’oh. There were also plenty of dishes.

Next was the bathroom, which consisted of a toilet, a sink, and a shower stall. The shower got its water from a sink attachment, and let me tell you it had some crazy water pressure. It reminded me of that “Seinfeld” episode where Kramer and Newman don’t want the new “low flow” showerheads being installed in their building, so they buy black market showerheads from some Eastern European thugs. Apparently, there was some truth to that. This shower was crazy. I had to keep the water turned down to avoid being pelted with speeding bullets of water. Oh, it also leaked a little, so the floor got wet.

The living room/bedroom was easily the biggest room in the whole place. It had a queen-sized bed, a dresser with a little TV on it, a rocking chair, a small cabinet, and a couple nightstands.

I also forgot the dining room, which was separated from the living room/bedroom by a half-height wall and some posts. Said posts actually held up the loft, directly above the dining area, which had two very small beds. Those beds did not get much use. The stairs up to the loft were also quite steep and probably not worth attempting while drunk.

The main bed was pretty comfortable. I’ve had better, I’ve had worse. I think it was originally a sleeper sofa and they put a thin foam mattress on top of it. You could kind of feel the bars if you laid a certain way. Still, I slept pretty soundly on it. Can’t complain.

This is all probably too much detail. Tough cookies, eh? With all this business about the apartment out of the way, the next can cover some actual sights, plus the highlights of using Budapest’s public transportation system. Woohoo!

Also, having been up for 36 hours by that point, I slept like a fucking baby. Holy shit, dude.

Travelicious #3: Fear and Loathing in Brussels

I had the better part of a day to spend in Brussels, so rather than waste it just hanging around the airport, I decided to go into the city proper. The first thing I noticed was that everything in Brussels is in at least three languages. Dutch is almost always first, followed by French, and then either German or English. I think I saw Italian in a few places, too. Seeing the same thing written in a few languages certainly gives you clues as to what it’s saying even if you don’t actually know said languages.

Even so, getting to the city center proved more difficult than anticipated. It wasn’t a matter of logistics–I knew I just needed to take a train–but rather that the way the train schedules were displayed was extremely confusing. At the train terminal below the airport there was a posted list of all the trains, when they departed and from what platform. Many trains go to the city center but most of them don’t stop there, and the digital signs indicate only the train’s final destination. On top of that, the track number specified on the schedule often didn’t match where the train actually appeared. So, does the train to Leuven that leaves at 9:58 from track 2 go to Bruxelles-Midi even though the schedule says that train should be on track 1 a few minutes later? There was no consistency at all. Eventually, I bit the bullet and just jumped on one of the trains going to “Bruxelles-Zuid” (South Brussels) and got off at the central station.

The trains were pretty nice, a bit nicer than the commuter trains you can take in New Jersey. Rather than everyone facing the same direction and packed together as if you’re on an airplane, the standard in Europe appears to be for sets of opposing seats facing each other, sometimes with a small table in between. You can fit fewer people on such a train but it’s certainly more conversational and inviting.

Once I got off at the central station, I walked through the station and looked around a bit. Much of the station is actually underground. It doesn’t look very big from the outside, and is in fact mostly dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. Above the row of ticketing windows is a massive digital schedule, which was quite impressive to see. They had trains going everywhere from Antwerp to Bruges. After getting a feel for the interior of the station, I went out to the street and looked around. Maybe other parts of Brussels are laid out more sensibly, but the area around Brussels-Central is an ungodly maze. I avoided wandering too far afield for fear I wouldn’t be able to make it back to the station in time for my flight.

Despite the somewhat insane street layout, I did find Brussels to be an attractive city. It was busy but not insanely so–certainly no comparison with, say, Manhattan in the morning. During the few hours I spent near the station, I found a nice garden (under renovation but still attractive), an art museum, a water display that had something to do with a salt mine (don’t ask me, I don’t know), a bunch of flags, the remains of a castle butted up against a modern apartment building, some cathedrals, and a lot of stairs and cobblestone roads. For my first taste of Europe, it was visually appealing if not viscerally impressive.

The most negative aspect of my time in Brussels involved a set of young women outside the aforementioned garden. At one end of the garden was a set of steps leading up to another area with a fountain, from which you got a pretty nice view. No doubt it was a tourist trap, and at the first landing on said stairs (quite a large area in itself) there were a handful of women with clipboards, asking people if they spoke English. And if you did, why, it’s your lucky day! They talked about the problem of homelessness in Europe and that if you would just be kind enough to put down your name and hand over 20 Euro, you can help stamp out poverty in the EU. The cynic in me said that this was a scam and I should get away as quickly as possible. The cynic in me won out, yes it did. Maybe they were looking for English speakers because they’ve heard of the famed generosity of Americans–or perhaps they’re familiar with the famed gullibility of Americans, and were looking to take advantage of same. Suffice it to say, I moved on quickly.

Little else tarnished my brief stay in Brussels. After a few hours wandering about and looking at pretty things, I went back to the station and took a train up to the airport. This was substantially less frustrating, since the digital signs would all say “AIRPORT”. While waiting for the train, a couple of German women came up to me and asked if I spoke English. While I could have pretended only to speak Esperanto or somesuch, my wits failed me at that moment and I tried instead to be helpful. They said they were trying to get to Bruges and wondered if I knew what train to take. Oh, of course not. I told them I was also confused by the insanity of the Belgian trains. They wandered off and probably wound up in Amsterdam.

Back at the airport, I finally got hungry. There was a place called “Quality Burger Restaurant.” I do love truth in advertising. I had a “beef andalousse” burger, which cost like 2 Euro and was smaller than the smallest burger they sell at McDonald’s. Oh, what the hell, Europe? They had bigger ones, but my God, they were like 8 Euro a pop! No way, dude. So I got one of those andalousse thingies and a side salad, which was actually very good and not at all like the side salads you get in the US. It had feta cheese and other things in it which I am now forgetting. And balsamic vinaigrette dressing. That was good. I paid 10 Euro for an hour’s worth of Internet access. It was laggy and sucked ass. What a ripoff.

Later on, I found out there was an observation level at the airport where you could eat and watch the tarmac. I had to get in on that. Since you had to buy something to get into the restaurant, I wasn’t hungry, and I wasn’t sure about trying Belgian beer, I instead bought a bottle of French merlot which was something like 12.5% alcohol by volume. I drank it, watched the planes, started to feel very warm and amused, then decided to go through security to get to my proper terminal and gate. Alcohol kept me from properly emptying my pockets so I kept setting off the metal detector. The security personnel were visibly annoyed and I earned myself a patdown from an American gentleman who was for some reason working in the Brussels airport. This is what I get for not drinking in a year and a half and being a total lightweight to begin with.

It took me a few hours to sober up, by which time my plane had come and it was time to be off to Budapest. The sun was going down, and I hopped aboard a Malev Hungarian Airline flight. They served us cheese sandwiches and tea. I napped a little bit, but then they rammed my elbow with the meal cart. Fuck.

Travelicious #2: Terror at 38,000 Feet

I departed Newark a little late. The plane didn’t start boarding on time. There was a lot of pre-boarding. People didn’t queue up in any kind of sensible fashion for general boarding. Finally, a bunch of other planes had to take off before we got our chance. We got into the air a good 45 minutes later than scheduled. The pilot hoped we would get a chance to make up some time as we crossed the Atlantic.

This was my first experience with Jet Airways. Knowing that they are an Indian airline but not much else about them, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Most of the crew and passengers were Indian. I found out the plane was stopping in Brussels on its way to Mumbai. For those continuing onward, that meant about 8 hours to Brussels plus another 9 hours to their final destination–way too much time on a plane for one day!

All safety instructions were given in Hindi, then English. They had a rather creepy safety video, done with quasi-anime CGI. I remember when airplane safety videos had actual human beings in them and I wonder why we don’t still do that. CGI is relatively expensive, and it’s not like it would be hard to do the videos in a real environment. Airlines already have access to planes, crew, and passengers, so just bring a camera and a script in there and go! Maybe give some people a first class upgrade for agreeing to demonstrate in the video.

Moving on, this cute Indian girl sat next to me. She wasn’t very talkative, although we were both polite to each other. It wasn’t until we began our final descent that she finally started to get chatty. She explained that she grew up in New Zealand but spent the last 11 years in New York City. She was on her way back to India to visit family. I told her I was on my way to Budapest and her reaction was like that of most people: “Hungary? Why there??” Ha! For anyone who still hasn’t figured that out, it’s pretty simple. Traveling to Europe is nice and all, but Western Europe is, of course, very Western. It’s not dramatically different from being in the US, in my opinion. The time I spent in Brussels (to be described in the next blog) seemed to bear this out. I wanted to go somewhere more unique and different. My friend Nikki had been talking up Budapest for over a year so I decided to bite the bullet and make that my first trip to Europe.

The in-flight food was, I must say, pretty good for food served on an airplane. You could choose between vegetarian and non-vegetarian. I went non-vegetarian as I am a vicious carnivore. Then they asked if I wanted Indian chicken or grilled chicken. Duh! I went for the Indian food. The chicken was chopped up and in some kind of seasoned brown sauce. In the dish was also rice and a single green chili. A small bowl contained chickpeas and baby corn. There was also plain yogurt (yuck) and rice pudding, the latter of which was excellent. Rather than being plain rice pudding, it had small bits of fruit in it–melon and some other things I’m not sure about. The only thing I didn’t eat was the yogurt. Just not a fan of plain yogurt, eh. I offered it to the girl sitting next to me but she didn’t want it either. To drink, there was apple juice and water.

Dinner having been served around 10PM New Jersey time, a few hours later we were served breakfast. It is very strange to lose 6 hours, let me tell you. Breakfast consisted of a raisin muffin and some mixed fruit. I also opted to have coffee with that, which wasn’t bad.

Since it was dark for most of the flight, I didn’t see much of the Atlantic Ocean–as if there is much to see in the first place. But the timing worked out so that I could quite easily see Ireland during the sunrise. I got a sense of how rural most of the country is, most of the landscape carved up into farmland, and the towns I saw were all pretty small. Britain was definitely more urbanized, at least from what I could tell from the air. As we descended, there were numerous ships in the English Channel. I’d never given much thought to how busy that bit of water must be, but it is very heavily trafficked.

At this point you’re probably wondering where the “Terror” in the title comes from. Well, it doesn’t come from anywhere… except my brain. Got you to read this far, though, didn’t it? You can’t argue with success.

There was some mild turbulence and we didn’t get to make up much time due to strong headwinds, none of which bothered me since I had a long layover ahead of me. Hitting the ground an hour late was fine with me, though I’m sure it was inconvenient for some of my fellow passengers.

As for the plane itself, the A330-200 is a pretty sweet aircraft. On the back of each seat is a Linux-based entertainment and communications terminal. There’s a (wired) remote that you can use to control it. On one side of the remote are the standard controls: volume, channel, home, play, stop, etc. Flip it over and it’s both a QWERTY keyboard and a game controller (d-pad and four action buttons.) Most of the games sucked major ass, though there was a 3D pool game which wasn’t bad. There was a selection of movies and music which wasn’t great but it was better than nothing. I got see Tron Legacy which I hadn’t seen yet, so that’s something. Way more luxury than I’m used to having on a plane.

I would also like to mention that it sucks trying to sleep on a plane when babies are breaking out crying every few minutes. Argh! I propose crying children be sent down to the cargo hold, along with their parents. The kid behind me kept kicking my seat, too. What the hell, kids? A couple dirty looks embarrassed her father enough to control her.

And there you have it, somewhat scattered ramblings regarding my flight from Newark to Brussels. Next up: Brussels, city of Dutch things.

Travelicious #1: The Departure

In using #1 to designate this entry, you might think I’m boxing myself in and indicating there can’t and won’t be entries that describe events prior to this, such as planning and packing and so forth. Oh, but you would be wrong, because #0 and #-1 and so forth are still available. If it’s good enough for comic books, it’s good enough for me.

That little detour aside, I am sitting in Terminal B at Newark Liberty Airport, waiting for my plane to be called for boarding. That won’t happen for another couple hours, so I have plenty of time to kill. I’m seeing if I can pull one over on my wireless carrier and tether my phone without buying a separate plan. We’ll see how that goes. Not that it will do me any good in Europe. Did I mention that’s where I’m going? Well, that’s where I’m going. I will land in Brussels tomorrow morning, have just about an all day to kill, then I will fly to Budapest.

About that tethering thing: it worked. Sweet! Not that you care. This is a travel blog, not a technology blog. Nobody likes technology blogs anyway, unless they’re Slashdot, and everyone hates Slashdot, too. So I’m told.

I actually had to endure less security for this flight than I did during my last trip to Indiana. Go figure. But then I had to present a passport, and they scan that upon check-in, which no doubt pulls up any naughty things I’ve ever done. As long as I’m not bad enough, I guess they will continue to let me through. The stupid thing actually wouldn’t scan at their computer terminal for some reason. Brand new passport, wouldn’t scan. Figure that one out. On the fourth try it finally went through and they sent me on my way. They assured me my one and only checked suitcase–containing my clothes and other essentials–would be forwarded along to my connecting flight without me having to do anything. I know with some international flights this is not the case when you have a connection, so I at least made sure to ask.

Items of interest: in this terminal, there are no restaurants and I didn’t see any particularly interesting stores. What they do have is a Samuel Adams bar (with just alcohol, no food) and a duty free shop with alcohol, cosmetics, and cigarettes. All things which have just so much appeal for me, you know. I was thinking maybe I could get something to eat here but evidently that is a non-starter. I might wander back up the corridor and see if I missed a place with genuine food. Or I’ll get drunk. Who votes for drunk? That’s the spirit.

Unsurprisingly, most of the people in this terminal are Indian. In case you didn’t know, Jet Airways is an Indian airline. The name isn’t Indian so you might not pick up on it. There is also “India Air,” which I bet actually flies out of Malaysia or something, just to throw people off. But no, I have an Indian airline taking me from New Jersey to Belgium. Try to figure that one out. Not that I am complaining, since I got such a killer deal on the tickets, without which this trip would not have been possible. I stalked the prices for weeks and happened across a fare that was about half the normal rate. Just couldn’t pass that up.

The cab ride to the airport was uneventful, moreso than usual. Traffic was only bad along one a short stretch of a notoriously-lousy highway. The driver was young, possibly younger than me. Not very talkative, either. I like a cab driver who will chat you up a bit. He asked where I was going but beyond that he didn’t seem to care much, so I daydreamed and took in the architectural wonders of downtown Newark. (In case you’ve never been to Newark: that’s a joke. There isn’t much to look at, unless buildings with shattered windows and ubiquitous graffiti are your thing.)

I had no idea the whole check-in and security theater proces would take, but I got through everything in maybe 20 minutes. I think it might have taken less time than a domestic flight, somehow. I didn’t have as many people to wait for in the security line. I also “accidentally” left my belt on, and no one noticed. Whoops!

It occurs to me that this particular entry may not be very interesting since I have not actually seen anything interesting yet. But hey, maybe my prose is enjoyable enough on its own.

For the traveler who has never been to Newark Liberty Airport, it’s actually pretty damn nice once you get to the terminal area. Very clean, and there are pillars with electrical outlets so you can charge up your phone and/or laptop. You also get a sweet view of the flightline, if you are into that kind of thing, which I am.

If you arrive at the correct terminal to begin with, you will probably find EWR very easy to navigate. However, if you must go to another terminal (there are three), you’ll have to use the AirTram system. The AirTram itself is cool, but the connective tissue can be a little absurd. You might have to go upstairs and then downstairs and then upstairs again. Parts of the airport resemble a maze. This is really just a failing of the airport’s central facility. The terminals themselves are much more logically laid out, which is why I strongly recommend just hitting the proper terminal right off the bat. It is a nice airport, but I would say it’s not as nice as Indianapolis International. Indy’s airport is much newer, though, so that’s to be expected, right?

Given that I haven’t flown on anything besides short-hop commuter planes since the late ’90s, I’m interested to see what an Airbus A330 is like. I’ll be on the 200 model. From Brussels, I’ll be on a 737-800, I believe. My first flight is a window seat. I can hardly wait to see all that ocean. Oh yes. My second flight, however, is an aisle seat. I guess I get to enjoy the immense variety of economy-class flying. Bwahaha.

My next update will most likely be from Budapest. I have no idea if I will have Internet access in the Brussels airport. And even if I do, I’d rather be poking around the airport and the city while I have the opportunity than playing around on the computer. Nevertheless, I plan to put up a blog every couple days, minimum. Worst case, I will take down notes and compose the blog entries later. But they will come. And pictures! Yes, pictures. Everyone loves pictures.

So, until next time.

Homeworld

In honor of the 10th anniversary of the computer game Homeworld, I am reposting an essay I wrote on December 27, 2006. Enjoy!

Homeworld.

Released in 1999, it is still probably the best 3D real-time strategy game set in space ever made. Others have come and gone, but I always go back to Homeworld. Aside from being a good game in general, its story and atmosphere really sell it. I would dare say that without its intriguing, mystical ambiance, it would not be nearly as interesting a game.

As someone who creates worlds and cultures for fun, I appreciate the hard work that goes into the process. People who don’t do world-building (also called geofiction and subcreation) might assume it doesn’t involve much more than assembling a patchwork of cultural traits and drawing a crude map or two. While some projects never get past that stage, many go much further. A world with any amount of effort put into it won’t be a poorly-constructed synthesis of disparate elements, but a consistent, believable place.

That brings me to Homeworld’s universe. Some say it exhibits “aesthetic completion,” meaning its various parts, though abstract, fit together into a consistent whole. Homeworld achieves this by portraying all its graphics in an abstract fashion: battles are fought from a third-person perspective, where you view the ships participating. Because the ships are deliberately alien, there is no “right” way for them to look–as time goes on, they do not appear dated, because they have no real-world counterparts to make a valid comparison.

Naturally, most games also include cutscenes, which are either rendered in the game engine (a la Half-Life) or show up as interstitial CGI sequences. The problem with CGI is that it is expensive and dates quickly. If you don’t believe me, look at the opening sequences for any game made around 2000, and compare it with a new game. Chances are, even the in-game graphics look better than the 5-year-old cutscenes.

Homeworld avoids this issue, again, through abstraction. Instead of expensive and quickly-outdated CGI cutscenes, animatics were used. An animatic is essentially a storyboard that uses simple techniques to illustrate motion: panning over an image, or moving parts of it. Homeworld’s animatics are black-and-white, adding to the epic, historical feel of the game itself. Like the rest of the game, they do not illustrate people (with one understandable exception), but ships, cities, and technological artifacts. Once again, because everything illustrated is intentionally alien, the images never appear dated or incomplete.

The aesthetic cohesion doesn’t stop with the graphics. The sound also refuses to recall a particular era. Ships sounds are fairly generic–bullets, beams, explosions. Radio chatter is calm and serene. The music is ambient, often with a Celtic or Middle Eastern motif. Wordless vocals enhance several of the tracks. In fact, my favorite is the song played when the Kadeshi confront your fleet. It’s hard to explain how a song with a man humming can actually be ominous, but it is.

The developers of Homeworld originally wanted to make a Battlestar Galactica game. When they failed to secure that license, they came up with Homeworld, which has a similar story, but a completely different tone. The music and imagery, as well as some of the missions, conspire to lend a mystical feel to the proceedings–a sense of history being fulfilled. One of the designers discussed how the mysticism implied in the Homeworld games helps give them their timeless feel, and I am inclined to agree.

Even with all this talk of aesthetics and artistic themes, we’re still talking about what is a really good game. If the story doesn’t intrigue you at all, you would do well the pick up the game anyway, especially if you’re an RTS fan. There are copies you can find via Froogle, or you can try Homeworld: Cataclysm (which is a “standalone expansion”) or Homeworld 2, which is a lot like the original. If you can appreciate a game more because of its gameplay and story than because of its graphics, you should give this one a shot. And hey, it’s a bargain title these days…