04 January 2015

New Year's Greetings 2015

Whoosh! Zoom! Vroom! Yes, that indeed was another year of your life flying by without so much as a tip of the hat! Not at all as you and your best friend imagined it as you sat in a bar in Soho/le Grand Place/St. Germain/Adams-Morgan/South Beach or wherever you hung out when you were 19 years old and solved all the world’s problems together over a glass or three of Scotland’s finest or Brooklyn’s reasonably good back in whatever decade it was before you became jaded, cynical and calculating. But, here you are. And I am here with you, and I have no regrets about that.

We give up our delusions so reluctantly – in San Francisco, in 1979, I needed an ID photo for some visa application or something, so I did as we all did in those days and went to some crappy Chinese photo studio (“Cable Car Camera”) and got some Polaroid® instant photos done, which were delivered to me in a little cardboard wallet. I handed one over to my travel agent for the visa application, and kept the other one for future use – you never know when you’ll need another ID photo.

I only tossed this photo out last year, finally coming to terms with the fact that no government agency anywhere in the world would ever accept this image of a fresh-faced, long-haired, clear-skinned, bright-eyed youth as a valid and honest representation of my current self for identification purposes. This, for me, is life’s inherently tragic quality – we are never given looks, wisdom and experience at the same time, except perhaps for one fleeting afternoon in our late 30s. This is why we get tattoos – they are a message our younger selves send to our more mature, responsible selves – “Hey, you! Yes, you in the expensive suit! Remember the day you got this? Well, neither do I, but when I woke up with this tattoo on one arm and a naked, pale-skinned brunette on the other, I thought, ‘hey, must have been a good night’! So keep that in mind!” If only our future selves could message back to us as young people, warn us not to hesitate, not to fear, not to doubt, and above all, buy some Apple shares. But Einstein’s theories aside, time as we experience it flows only one way.

But here we are. My abs have absconded, my biceps gone bye-bye, and my glutes have headed south for the winter. Hair is mostly gone, except in my ears. But so is the doubt, the hesitancy, the fear, the ambiguity, the confusion, and the uniquely Democratic Party-ish urge to respect other people’s stupid opinions. I now fully embrace my understanding that Tea Partiers are complete and total morons, so bring it on – I am ready. Except for the duck heads and eel testicles and whale penis or anything else Anthony Bourdain has eaten on television, I am ready to take on anything. As I said, I have nothing left to prove, and I am NOT putting that thing in my mouth! It is important to say “yes,” to Life, but sometimes, yes, you need to need to follow Nancy Reagan’s advice and “just say no”.

I did not let life entirely slip through my fingers this year, and I sincerely hope you didn’t either. I did let another year go by without driving the Land Rover to Oman (I’m working on it!), but did manage to tick a few boxes on the proverbial bucket list. No sheep were harmed in any of these endeavours, I assure you. I moved a little closer to my goal of retiring in Prague by establishing a company there, and through that company, acquiring some investment properties. I got back to Stockholm, and indulged myself in the comfortable and familiar, hanging out with old friends in places with warm memories and cold artisanal beers. Kim and I went to London for about the 85th time, and -- unlike some previous visits -- being surrounded by Englishmen didn’t inspire her to test the limits of her ability to consume alcohol so unfortunately I don’t have another unique and memorable story involving her and Soho, Jazz bars, transvestites, night buses, or defending American honour with Tequila to add to the extensive existing anthology, but as always she was a warm and entertaining travel companion nonetheless. After London, we rented a car and headed north to the Yorkshire Dales, a first for both of us, where we indulged in all of our favourite activities – walking in the countryside, eating and drinking fireside in ancient, cosy pubs, and, course, shopping at Boots. Actually, that was more Kim than me, but I did get myself a new blister kit while I was there. Kim, I believe, bought one of just about everything else they sell.

From the Dales we drove to Heysham, caught the ferry to the Isle of Man and did more walking. I really loved the place – not least because its four main public transportation systems really haven’t changed in 200 years. Getting there, we took the Isle of Man Steam Packet company ferry, which claims to be the oldest continuously operated scheduled steamship line in the world. Within Douglas, the capital, you travel up and down its gracious seaside promenade by a horse-drawn tram that has been operating almost since the 18th century. To go to the southern part of the island, you take the miniature steam train that was the inspiration for “Thomas the Tank Engine”, and to go north, you take the electric railway that has been in operation since electricity was first invented or something. Both of these railways are operated using equipment that is at least a century old, and works just fine, thank you very much. Why mess with success?

From Douglas, another ferry took us to Dublin, Ireland’s elegant capital city, which was even more incredible than I remembered it being from my last visit 34 years ago. We had some good moments in Dublin, but the Irish countryside was by far the more enjoyable part of our visit, with green fields, sparkling waters and rainbows dominating the experience, with the afternoon Guinness buzz of course just enhancing it just that extra little bit. So I will add Ireland to my very short list of places (Paris, New Orleans, Jerusalem, St. Petersburg) that actually measure up to the over-the-top hype you hear about them.

Not long after I returned to Doha, however, I received some troubling news about my Mom, whom I learned has a malignant tumour in her lung. This was unexpected news on two levels – first, there is very little cancer in my very large extended family, and second, she comes from very long-lived stock. People in her family do not die in hospitals of extended illnesses. Typically, they expire in the course of a morning’s work at some point in their late 90s, usually in an incident involving stubborn in-laws and/or recalcitrant husbands or farm animals (in south-eastern Poland, where my mother’s family is from, these two terms are largely interchangeable).

Having barely been able to recover from this news, I got a text from my brother a couple weeks later saying that now my Dad been diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer, and not the Steve Jobs kind, which can linger for decades and cannot spread to Windows users. No apparently, this was the more common, and more virulent, variety that has a 95% mortality rate. My parents are not spring chickens by any means, but they’re really not that old – today, in fact, is my Mother’s 80th birthday, and my Dad is a few weeks younger.

Contemplating their mortality, I boggle my own mind (I believe the Catholic Church still considers self-boggling to be a sin) by considering the changes this world has gone through in their lifetimes. I’m not thinking about relatively recent stuff, such as the internet, which didn’t arrive until 80% of their current life spans were already lived, but more basic stuff. Think of all the stuff that didn’t exist in 1934 – not esoteric, exotic, or unusual stuff that most of us will never use, such as nuclear weapons. I mean the everyday stuff that is probably is within a few meters of you as you sit reading this: Epoxy cement. Plastic grocery bags. Nylon stockings Flea collars. Turbo-charged engines. McDonalds. Petrol stations that sell food. Drug stores that sell food. Grocery stores that sell condoms. Motorways. Gortex. Scotch-guard. Hair conditioner. Ferguson? Black people were still being strung up from trees in 1934 Missouri. I am one of the stubborn hold-outs who still gets a printed newspaper (Google it, young people) delivered to my front door every morning, and reading that paper some mornings it’s a bit depressing. I read about ISIS and the CIA and Ebola and Ukraine and the NYPD and it sometimes feels like we aren’t getting anywhere. But we are. We are having debates and discussions unthinkable just 2 decades ago. We are a gay-marrying, negro-electing, legal marijuana-smoking, bicycle lane-supporting, abusive cop-rejecting and female-clergy-enabling society very different from the one my parents were born into.

I spent Thanksgiving with my parents for the first time in over two decades, flying back to a Mid-west United States that was, to be honest, depressingly different than the one I left in 1966. It was impossible to avoid mentally comparing my parents’ illnesses with the malignant blight of unconstrained commercialism that the capitalist system has smeared across the once-beautiful State of Michigan, turning verdant fields into tarmac-paved shopping “malls” (a perversion of an English term -- which originally referred to a green urban park -- if there ever was one), whist at the same time turning once-vibrant urban neighbourhoods filled with family-run businesses into economically hollowed-out shadows of what they had once been, all the families they once respectfully supported now turned into Wal-Mart wage slaves.

My brother came as well, with his two awesome kids, and the two of us cooked Thanksgiving dinner. I did the turkey and the stuffing and the mashed potatoes and the gravy, and he did the Brussels sprouts and the cranberry chutney. My Mom made an incredible pumpkin flan for dessert, and my Dad opened a special bottle of wine, a vintage Margaux, I forget the year, but still can close my eyes and experience the taste.

On the weekend we put the kids in the car (the key to getting them in the car is to toss their iPhones in first) and drove into Detroit, first to see the Henry Ford museum, visiting which in 1965 is one of the earliest of my many fond memories of my father. On Sunday it was on to Hamtramck, the little Polish city on the edge of Detroit where my Mom grew up. We had planned to start with Polish mass at St. Ladlslas church, the church where my grandparents and parents were married, and my sister and grandmother and grandfather had their funerals, but arrived at the posted Mass time to find the car park empty and the doors locked. A car-load of Poles showed up, asking in Polish about the mass. No one knew anything, and after waiting until 10:15 we gave up, and had a wander around the neighbourhood, showing the kids the house where their grandmother grew up, and visiting some of the many businesses that had managed to survive there since her childhood. There was also a fancy new Polish grocery, where we stocked up on pickles and kiełbasa and mustard and ham and all the foods necessary to maintain one’s Polish identity.

We had some further identity reinforcement planned for lunchtime – we headed to the Polonia restaurant, one of two awesome Polish restaurants in the city. We started with smalec (spiced pork fat, basically clogged arteries in a tub) and bread and pickles, and then moved on to żurek and pierogis and finally roast pork and chicken and potatoes and of course plenty of Okocim beer to wash it all down.

If all of this isn’t inspiring you to start planning your next holiday in Detroit, then our afternoon experience almost certainly will be – I have three words for you: DIA. Yes, the Detroit Institute of Art. Of course, part of our motivation for going was the on-going threat of the breakup of this incredible collection in order to satisfy Detroit’s creditors, an act which can only be legitimately compared to the rape of Detroit’s inert corpse by the capitalist scum that have brought this once incredible city to its current state, and whom already have focussed most of their attentions on their next round of victims. But even if its future was 100% secure, this was still a visit worth making, and I say that as someone who has seen most, if not all, of the world’s great museums. This was really one of the great Art experiences of my life – it has everything – Pre-Columbian American, ancient Mediterranean, Chinese, Islamic, Medieval, Renaissance, Modern, Impressionist, Pop, Futurist, Romanticist, Primitive, etc. An absolutely stunning Diego Rivera Mural. All in an in incredibly elegant, urban setting that the network cameras never seem to rest on whenever they do a “Detroit” story, which according to guidelines originally developed by “Fox” news, must always contain images of overweight black people (See? Welfare Queens, just like I told you!”) and abandoned buildings, but which of course must never identify the Capitalist system as the source of the problem. And unlike many other American museums, such as the Boston Museum of Science and MoMA in New York, they haven’t let the MBAs come in and do a “yield management” (i.e., fleece the public for as much as possible) study for them – residents of Detroit and Wayne County get free entry, because this is a museum still living up to the ideal of bringing art, culture and enlightenment to the masses. No wonder the Koch brothers and their Tea Party supporters hate the place so much – their agenda depends on keeping everyone stupid.

We finished the day at my Aunt Helen’s, my mother’s elder sister. At one time, she could barely speak English, but now, trying to communicate with her in her native Polish was hopeless – she had completely lost her natal tongue. Nonetheless, she gratefully accepted the delicacies we brought her from the Polish market in Hamtramck, and then served us home-made pierogi made from her mother’s recipe, which she graciously shared with us.

I do of course, feel sadness about the fact that I will likely be losing so many of these people, people like my Aunt who still lives in the same house she did when I visited as a 12-year old. Most of all, of course, I am sad about expecting to lose my parents. But this sadness is not paralysing, it is energising. My lifelong sense of needing to make the most of my time here is reinforced and reinvigorated. I step out of my front door in the morning and the Land Rover looks more ready than ever for a drive around the world.

The world beckons. I have things left to do. I have plans, places left to see, and successes left to celebrate. I have ambitions. I no longer have hopes, as much as I have intentions. I intend to keep doing this on my terms, and I intend to see each and every one of you in the years ahead.

Happy New Year and God Bless.

Peace and Love


Back at the Keyboard

Obviously, there is no denying that my enthusiasm for keeping this blog current has faded a bit from the initial enthusiasm. Not infrequently, I do give thought to doing an update, but the longer the pause, the more intimidating it becomes -- I don't think it unnatural to have a sense that the first entry after a long break needs to be exceptional in some respect. Which of course becomes an obstacle, a source of writers' block in and of itself. Several friends have been urging me to write more, but what was a few voices became a chorus after my most recent holiday greetings, an annual message I have been writing and sharing for over a decade now. And it wasn't just friends, but friends of friends, people who have never met me or know anything about me, but yet had the most unexpectedly enthusiastic and encouraging response. So I feel almost compelled to return here. I am going to start by posting that message, my 2015 New Year's greeting, but then I am going to add some new stuff. I have, in fact, had a number of posts bouncing around inside my head for some months now, and it's time to release them into the wild. Hope you enjoy.


Doha, January 2015

04 January 2010

New Years Greeting 2010

For years I've been sharing New Year's greetings by email with friends; from this year, I've decided to start posting these messages here as well


Greetings of the season to all of you from Hong Kong, where I am spending a few days recovering from my “holiday” in Hawai’i (I spent it with my family, which thanks to my Mom, is as weird as ever, and thanks to my brother, larger than ever) before heading back to Doha to put my nose back to the proverbial grindstone.

I’ve had an absolutely great year (and hope you have, too) but based on what I’ve been reading in the press and on the web, that hasn’t been the case for most people. This being the end of a decade as well as the end of the year, many have been inspired to write essays and opinion pieces reflecting back on the decade just past, and I’ve yet to find one that suggests the author wishes this particular decade could be extended by a year or two. Paul Krugman’s piece in the New York Times, entitled “The Big Zero”, was a representative example. Paul noted that the “aughties” or “naughties” or whatever term we are supposed to use for this decade should in fact be referred to simply as “the zeroes” in recognition of the fact that this decade has been characterised by zero economic growth, zero job creation, ponzi schemes, and the property bubble. Others have noted that this was also the decade of the WTC attacks, two failed wars, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the Bush Administration, and of course, Britney Spears. I suspect many of you may share these depressing views on the last ten years, so rather than add yet another voice to this chorus of despair, I’ve decided not to do a “decade in review” as part of my annual greeting, but instead reflect my eternally and irrepressibly optimistic world view by offering you a “decade in preview,” in which I share my sunny predictions about the decade ahead. Here’s my year-by-year forecast for the twenty-teens:

2010: the decade will open with thousands of humour writers – on the brink of despair from the pressure of having to produce entertaining copy without the benefit of the Bush Administration – planning to drink themselves into oblivion on New Year’s Eve. Fortunately, most of them receive copies of Sarah Palin’s book for Christmas from concerned loved ones and fall weeping to their collective knees shouting “Thank you, thank you, there is a God!” (Most, however, drink a bit too much on New Year’s Eve regardless).

After experiencing chest pains over the holidays, Rush Limbaugh undergoes a heart examination at Queen’s Medical Centre in Honolulu, Rush Limbaugh notes the excellent care he received and declares that “I don’t think there’s one thing wrong with the American health care system. It is working just fine, just dandy.”* When doctors remind him that Hawai’i is the only U.S. state with the sort of socialised medicine that President Obama is trying to bring to the other 49 states, he experiences sudden recollections of long waits and sub-standard service.

In the mid-term elections, the American electorate decides it’s had enough of Capitol Hill gridlock, and so decides to punish Congress by voting just enough Republicans back into power to ensure that nothing whatsoever gets done.

Following a review of the Detroit incident, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) bans solids from U.S. aircraft

2011: A radicalised Indonesian madrassah student attempts to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner over Los Angeles using a gas explosive I.E.D. he had secreted in his rectum. The effort is thwarted by alert passengers who use their 100 ml shampoo bottles to extinguish the detonator. The TSA responds by finally admitting that none of their silly policies do anything to make travellers safer, and all 50 000 TSA employees resign en masse. I am JOKING of course! The actual TSA response will be to demand that Congress fund the hiring of thousands of Rectal Inspection Officers (RIOs) to deter future attacks. The general public expresses support for the TSA’s new policies on the basis that “it makes me feel safe”. All states of matter (liquid, solid and gas) are barred from aircraft.

Americans are outraged that the new Congress is attempting to restore all the failed policies (deregulation, tax cuts, “pre-emptive” war) that caused the economic and foreign policy mess of the 2000s. When reminded that this is happening because they voted the idiots who caused these problems in the first place back into office, the electorate claims “we forgot.” In a related development, France issues a statement noting that many of its cheeses exercise better political judgement than the American electorate.

Outraged over the obvious liberal bias of most social networking sites, American conservatives establish alternatives for their followers. Most popular are Sarah Palin’s Twatter and Rush Limbaugh’s Fascbook.

2012: Sarah Palin kicks off her presidential campaign with a Twatter posting noting that all of Obama’s so-called successes can be attributed to reality’s obvious liberal bias.

Speaking of reality, television networks in 2012 launch a new genre of television programming called Real Reality shows in response to a viewing public that has grown bored with a format in which participants are encouraged to compete with each other for prizes in order to create stress and tension on air. Instead, viewers are able to watch contestants complete various reality-based challenges such as trying to order cable service, get an insurance claim filed, renew their driving licences, or speak with an actual, live ****ing person by telephone at their ****ing bank.

The TSA thwarts an apparently wide-spread Al-Qaeda conspiracy when TSA RIOs detect thousands of would-be air passengers attempting to board aircraft with more than the permitted maximum of 100ml of gas hidden in their rectums.

President Obama wins re-election to a second term as President when a divided Supreme Court narrowly rules that Alaska, in fact, is not a real state (costing Palin the three electoral votes she needed for victory), and that the U.S. should ask Russia for its money back. President Medvedev, who is also re-elected as President of Russia, responds by noting that all sales of Russian territory can only be exchanged or refunded within 30 days of purchase, and that in any event, he “cannot do anything if America cannot find the receipt.”

2013: Climate change is back on top of the agenda as flash floods devastate Bangladesh, the Maldives national territory shrinks to the size of one of Britney Spears’ stage outfits, and Antarctic penguins abandon their tradition of dressing for dinner every evening, claiming that “it’s just too hot” for tuxedos. World leaders spring into action, flying thousands of heads of state, ministers, specialists and bureaucrats to a climate summit in Mexico City, which concludes with a firmly worded resolution noting that all are “seriously concerned” about global warming and committing all parties to schedule future talks aimed at exploring when they might start developing potential solutions to the problem “as soon as possible.” A footnote to the resolution clarifies that all parties agree that this means “when someone else is in office.”

Sarah Palin’s political career comes to an abrupt and tragic end when she and Dick Cheney go moose hunting in Alaska.

With passenger numbers shrinking and the TSA bureaucracy growing, Transportation Security Administration employees outnumber air travellers for the first time.

In a desperate effort to stimulate spending and re-start the still-struggling U.S. economy, the Treasury Department issues new 20-dollar bank notes featuring portraits of Britney Spears, Jennifer Anniston, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Lopez, and Ben Stiller, in the expectation that consumers “will want to get rid of them as quickly as possible.”

2014: Democrats are once again voted back into office in mid-term elections. Angry Republicans accuse them of wanting to “turn America into a socialist wasteland with a failed economic model,” before flying off to Beijing to beg China’s communist government for more loans to cover America’s growing budget deficit.

The TSA angrily rejects criticism over the discovery that Osama bin Laden was permitted to board a flight to Caracas at LAX, noting that their alert employees successfully confiscated both his toothpaste AND his litre bottle of Evian, as well as carefully verifying that the name on his boarding pass matched his ID, which clearly indicated that he was “Santa Claus” and that he lived at the North Pole. The TSA statement further clarifies that “in a red suit, he looks JUST like him.”

OPEC votes unanimously to begin pricing all petroleum contracts in Chinese Yuan.

2015: After winning preliminary rounds by successfully booking a plumber, having an error corrected in her credit record, and getting her insurance company to actually pay a claim for her daughter’s knee surgery, 42-year old Cindy Lynne Harper of Carbondale, Illinois wins Reality Challenge 2015 when she manages to sell a U.S.-manufactured product to China. The product, a “Chia-pet” bust of Abraham Lincoln, was purchased by housewife Aimee Li of Hangzhou, who proudly displays it on top of the water tank of her toilet.

In order to re-shape its curriculum to better reflect the preferred learning style of its students, New York City Public Schools restructures its school day into 168 class periods lasting 2½ minutes each.

2016: In an effort to re-connect with disinterested younger voters, the Republican and Democratic parties decide to drop their traditional nominating conventions in favour of choosing candidates via a poll on Facebook. Oprah Winfrey and Rush Limbaugh square off in the November election, which Oprah wins in large part due to her performance in the new “talent” portion of the contest, which Amendment 28 of the U.S. Constitution has restructured into a fresher, more youthful reality show style format.

The TSA claims vindication of its policies when a hijacked United Airlines flight from Chicago crashes into a corn field in Indiana and all three passengers, the pilot, and the flight crew are found to have been terrorists.

Wal-Mart announces it will no longer accept U.S. dollars at its North American stores, requiring all purchases to be made in Chinese Yuan.

2017: In a desperate attempt to limit the soaring cost of maintaining the landscaping around their homes, U.S. Senators pass the Stop Price Increases for Casual labour (SPIC) Act, which funds the construction of a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexican border in order to staunch the flood of undocumented aliens attempting to return home.

President Winfrey declares war on France after President Sarkhozy responds to a question from her by replying, “no, it’s the fat that makes you look fat.”

2018: Exasperated over Dick Cheney’s increasingly strident public statements claiming that her policies are “putting Americans at risk,” President Winfrey uses Bush-era anti-terror laws to have him declared an “Enemy Combatant” and water-boarded until he confesses to having planned, plotted and executed the “9-11” attacks, as well as being personally responsible for the Civil War, the explosion of the Maine, the Kennedy assassination, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and to being the previously unidentified evil genius behind American Idol.

In response to research that indicates that the only people still attempting to board commercial aircraft are terrorists, the TSA begins re-routing all US-originating air traffic directly to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where passengers are immediately arrested. After being driven past the base McDonalds, Starbucks, Papa John’s Pizza, bowling alley and cinema on their way to Camp X-Ray, where they are housed in cramped, uncomfortable quarters before taken to an interrogation centre for questioning, some 40% of travellers remain unaware that they have not actually landed in Cincinnati, checked into a Motel 6, and proceeded to their customer’s offices for a sales presentation as they had planned. The other 60% are tipped off when they notice that the coffee is much better than usual.

Two Chinese “taikonauts” successfully land on the moon. In a historic, live address to the people of the world broadcast from the lunar surface, taikonaut Jing Quan of Wuhan says “Ha, ha! Look at me! Moon is SO bouncy!”.

2019: New York City Public Schools decides to drop English composition from its curriculum, in recognition of the fact that student papers and essays “are comprised mostly of emoticons” and that no teacher could recall grading a student paper with anything recognisable as English since the spring of 2014. In fact, no student had actually delivered homework on paper since some years before that, with most assignments being submitted by text message a few minutes before start of class.

China successfully sues the United States for loss of resources and emotional distress after Chinese counterfeiters inadvertently produce and distribute millions of pirated copies of Britney Spears’ latest “album,” Britney Exposed, which Chinese consumers compare to the sound of “deranged chipmunks being stir-fried alive.”

Reporters from the New York Times attempt to interview the last reader of the Times print edition, 96-year-old Jack “Buster” Camigliano of Bay Shore, Long Island. According to an article in the final print edition, Mr. Camigliano responded to reporters’ questions by telling them to “get off of my lawn,” and asking “don’t you bums have anywhere to go?” Camigliano is in the news again a few months later when he is found wandering around his local Wal-Mart muttering “what have you dang commies done with the 8-tracks?”

2020: Oprah Winfrey trounces Rush Limbaugh in the Presidential election despite her running mate Britney Spears’ lacklustre results in the talent segment, in which voters overwhelmingly preferred Limbaugh running mate Glen Beck’s performance, particularly the part where demonstrated his intense patriotism by farting the first six bars of “God Bless America”.

America’s last air traveller, Bart Spencer of Lockwood, Pennsylvania, is put on the “No-Fly” list after it is learned that “he was only doing it for the free rectal exams.”

The U.S. Treasury unveils re-designed coins and notes. Officials explain how the different sizes and colours will make them easier to use for people with vision problems, and the new design, featuring a semi-profile of Mao Tse-Tung on the front of notes of all denominations, will eliminate “all those confusing presidential portraits.” Americans will be able to exchange 10 of their old dollar banknotes for one of the new ones. In a totally unrelated development, President Winfrey asks Americans – just to collect some initial, non-binding views on the idea – how they would feel about singing the March of the Volunteers in place of the Star Spangled Banner before baseball games.


*Actual news item

OK, so I’ve done all the hard work for you telling you what’s going to happen, now all you need to do is live through it all.

But I will depart from the forward-looking theme of this year’s message and take a little time to update all of you on what’s been happening in my world in 2009. I know it has not been a great year for many of you, so I hesitate to be too enthusiastic about what has been a really great year for me.

After five years of developing an independent telecommunications consulting practice that has taken me on assignments throughout the Middle East, as well as Europe, Africa and Latin America, I decided 2009 was the right year to return to full-time employment with an operator, and hence I joined Qtel as Business Development manager in June, with responsibility for Qtel’s new wholesale service business. I’ve recently had a range of other projects added to my portfolio as well, so I am keeping very busy, but the work is stimulating, I have an excellent team and most days cannot wait to get into the office and have at it. I have to admit that Doha often is not my favourite place in the world, but I am making the most of it and am looking forward to taking some trips into the desert with the new Land Rover Defender 110 I expect to take delivery of in January.

In September, I had the best holiday of my life when I spent five weeks in Honduras and Nicaragua diving, visiting Mayan ruins, slogging through rain forests, paddling across pristine lagoons, and visiting remote Indian villages. The experience confirmed for me my basic travel strategy of going places right after the U.S. embassy issues a consular warning sheet advising Americans to “avoid all non-essential travel.” Like my trip to Croatia shortly after the end of the civil war there, the hotels were empty, the beaches were un-crowded, and I never had a problem getting a restaurant reservation.

Like many of you, 2009 was the year I reconnected with many long-lost friends through Facebook, and felt the world shrink as current, but distant, friends became a part of my everyday life.

I finished the year with the trip I am still on, trying to finish this from my seat on board a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Dubai (back in the office tomorrow!). I spent Christmas with my brother, his two amazing children, and my parents in Hawai’i, where my brother’s family now lives on a coffee plantation. (If you have coffee bushes that are ready for harvest, my brother rents out his children for this purpose at very attractive rates. They also can do fruit harvesting, salt mining or other tasks involving heavy, poorly maintained machinery). Visited friends in Tokyo and Shenzen on the way there and back, did some diving, some hiking, ate some great meals and did my share of partying.

As always, hope to see some of you come for a visit this year; the rest of you I’ll see on Facebook.

Best wishes to all of you for 2010 and the decade ahead

30 March 2009

฿%€#$£±≈§! (the cranky old man post)

Progress is a two-sided coin, I guess. While hardly a day goes by that I don't bless the arrival of mobiles, the www and email, and wonder how we ever managed without these technologies, my thought was always that these would be in addition to – not instead of – existing technologies. I love email, but I do find it irritating that it's become next to impossible to send a telegram. Postal mail is the next under threat – the Royal Mail is talking about reducing deliveries to 3x weekly (after previously eliminating twice daily delivery), and the United States Post Office wants to eliminate Saturday deliveries.

The change has been a bit slow in arriving, but the global economic crisis seems to be spurring things along. Arriving here in Washington, I pick up a slimmed-down Washington Post and was dismayed to read that more reductions are on the way. The weekday Business section is being eliminated. Stock listings are being slashed. Comics eliminated. This comes in the wake of the news of other papers either being threatened, shut down, or moving to on-line only format. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer will be on-line only in the future. The Independent may not last through the end of the year. News articles cite statistics noting that the average age of newpaper readers is reaching into the 50s, and young people have never read one (OD once noted to me, "Do you know what I hate? Young people!"). I love all the new sources of news, I really do, but I don't want to ever, ever give up popping by the newstand, buying a paper, and sitting down with a cup of coffee and a croissant to read it end to end. It's just a different experience than the disjointed, fractured dribble of news you get throughout the day from web pages and podcasts.

The shrinking Post was bad enough, but just now I tried to go onto the IHT website. Not only is the IHT the best newspaper in the world, they also had the best web-site in the world – very user-friendly and organised. Now visits to www.iht.com are redirected to the "New York Times Global Edition", which is basically just a sort of one-page front-end on top of the NYT web site. Some day, newspapers and mail delivery will disappear altogether. I hope I'm dead by then.

Washington, D.C.
29 March 2009

27 March 2009

Sleepless in Washington

It has been a very long time since I have flown a U.S. airline and not come to regret it. I've spent a good part of the last 48 hours in the air, and the normal stresses associated with travel aside, most of it has been at least tolerable, if not pleasant. On BA between Doha and London, I stretched out for a reasonably comfortable night's sleep in one of their fully flat sleepers. Yesterday, I had quite a nice lunch on Lufthansa from Stockholm to Frankfurt. I chose Lufthansa because it offered one of the few itineraries that avoided U.S. airlines altogether. But as I've done so often in the past, I forgot about code-sharing, and looking for my flight on the departure board at FRA, I was dismayed to learn that the flight I had booked as LH9252 was in fact UA933.

The general crappiness I've come to expect from U.S. airlines started in the departure lounge. Again, I had spent quite a few hours over the previous days in various lounges, and this one was most definitely crappy in comparison. Unlike the sleek, spacious BA lounge at Heathrow terminal 5 I had just been in the day before, nibbling from the buffet of fresh fruit, warm ham sandwiches and other snacks, this one wasn't much bigger than a lot of your friend's living rooms, and looked like it last saw a decor refresh about 1987. A few sad looking platters of cheese and crackers were all that were on offer.

On board, not much better. This was not a new aircraft and the seats and entertainment system were ancient. The only laptop power used the special aircraft adaptors rather than the standard mains power that most jets are fitted with now. Since I didn't own such an adaptor, they helpfully offered to sell me one for US$125. At least the economy class passengers didn't have to suffer as I did on AA a couple years back when they not only charged for drinks, but made the Euro unit price the same as the price in USD; United at least charged €4 or $6.

But of course the worst was yet to come. In their ongoing efforts to insist that things that are done with no difficulties elsewhere in the world are impossible in the U.S.A., U.S. customs makes all arriving passengers claim their bags, go through customs with them, and then re-check them. Arriving at Dulles (yes, they named an airport after that S.O.B.) Airport in Virginia last night, I claimed my two bags, was selected for secondary inspection, had my bags searched, re-packed everything, and re-checked them. I then had to proceed to the main terminal 400 meters away to claim the bag. It was 23:00 by time I got through all that, but United assured me I would have my bags soon.

They repeated these assurances multiple times over the next several hours. They also told me that if I preferred, I could leave and they would have the bags delivered -- for US$75/bag, payable cash on delivery. At 2:30. they finally told me they couldn't find them and that they would have to deliver them (for free).

At this point, the only transportation option was a US$100+ cab ride, so I opted to wait at least until 6:00 when the buses would start running again. In the meantime, I checked in with the office a couple of times and had a very rude and impatient reception - "sir, we cannot do anything more for you."

Every bag loss incident I've had in recent years has involved a U.S. airline. I don't know why they cannot manage what airlines everywhere else do.

Dulles Airport, U.S.A.
27 March 2009