27 December 2007

Benvenuto La Macchina

There is a logical explanation (or if you prefer, a lame excuse) for the subdued level of activity at Nomadicity over the past few weeks. Since mid-October most of my free time has been occupied with the complicated task of migrating from the Windows world over to the Mac platform. Yes, I know that Apple has an optimisticly worded web page that explains how simple it all is. In technical terms, they are big fat liars. The complexity was not entirely unexpected – I originally moved from the PC to the Mac environment shortly after Macs were first introduced in 1984. From that time, I was a big advocate of the platform, but when I moved to Poland in 1997, Mac support in the country was limited and my company gave me a Windows™ laptop for free (Resistence is futile! Lower your shields and prepare to be assimilated!). In those pre-WiFi, pre-magsafe days I was living in a flat with a phone jack on one side of the room and a power point on the other. So I had a choice – have a phone line snaking across the floor towards the power point, or have a power cord snaking across the floor towards the phone jack. One day the inevitable happened – I tripped over the cord and my mac laptop came crashing to the tile floor, breaking the LCD panel. So from that point on, I've been resigned to being a part of the global Windows®™© empire, patiently enduring an endless series of hangs, crashes, freezes, blue screens of death, viruses, trojans, spam, malware, adware, spyware, obtuse error messages, the cheerfully obnoxious Office®™ "assistant", and "wizards" more evil than anything JK Rowling ever dreamed up. After losing my job in 2002 and going freelance, I no longer had a company IT manager standing between me and a Mac, so when it came time to buy a new laptop in 2004 I came within a panther's whisker of doing so. But my business partner, who was hoping to maximise the discount we could get by buying several Dell machines together, planted doubts about system and platform incompatibilities in my mind, and in the end I chickened out. I almost did so again this time to – I actually prepared an order for a high-spec Fujitsu-Siemens machine with built-in HSDPSA from a local supplier in Stockholm earlier this year, but this time I had the good fortune to be working with several consultants who were Mac users and found that most of my compatibility concerns were unfounded. Printing on an office LAN, file and folder sharing, and even connecting to an Exchange®℠™®© server all apparently work reasonably well. This was also about the time all the Windows©®™®℠ Vista℠®©™® horror stories began to appear in the media. So, this past October I took the plunge.

It was a pretty deep plunge at that, at just over 40 thousand Swedish crowns for a MacBook Pro, software, extended warranty, etc. I must say that the initial impression did not disappoint in the least – judging from the packaging alone, Apple clearly deserves much of the hype it generates. The attention to detail and concern for æsthetics were obvious the instant I had the elegant black box in my hands. Inside, under a thoughtfully designed and implausibly attractive protective foam panel that precisely balanced the competing needs for protection, bulk, and weight, sat the laptop itself, and underneath, nestling in a sort of little niche that presented and protected it in the way that some holy object might be housed in the temple built to display it, was a elegant little box holding the OS DVD and the instruction manual, with the words "Tutto Mac" emblazoned in a confident, yet unassertive, 24 point dark gray sans-serif font. I thought the Italian was an attempt by some left-coast designer to try to nudge up Apple's cool factor another notch or two, no doubt after being inspired by Starbuck's belief that using the Italian words for coffee with milk somehow makes their drinks cooler. A glance inside the manual, however, revealed that, in fact, the entire manual was in Italian, and I soon learned that it had been delivered with an Italian keyboard as well. Hence, I decided to christen my new machine "La MACchina".

The patient, delicate and time-consuming effort I've gone through over the past few weeks to move everything over to the new environment and get it all working properly has reminded me why "macchina" is a feminine noun in Italian. I'm still fussing with getting the synching with my Palm device and telephones working properly. At various points, I had addresses but not calendars synching, then one phone but not the other, then both phones but not the Palm, then massive duplication of entries, then losing all the entries, then restoring the entries, and finally, as of yesterday, getting the calendars but not the addresses synching. Still some more fussing around to do, I am sure, but am getting close, and now I've finally managed to get Apple to replace the Italian keyboard with a Swedish one, as I originally ordered. I also ordered an English OS, but it arrived in Swedish, and that apparently I am stuck with.

Despite the pain, it's good to be back. Apple has come a long ways since I last used their OS under System 7, at a time when computers were simple enough that I knew what every last file in the System Folder was there for. Systems 8 and 9 have come and gone, and now System X has gone through several feline permutations – Jaguar, Panther, Tiger and now Leopard. Hopefully, they'll name the next one "Tabby".

Speaking of cats, the big news from the USA this week was the escape of a 4-year old, 150 kilo Siberian tiger named "Tatiana" who killed one and injured two at the San Francisco zoo. The police shot her to death, despite the fact that her species has been driven to the brink of extinction by humans, so she wasn't exactly unjustified in scoring a point or two for her own team. But I suppose if I were facing a member of the most powerful feline species in the world, moving towards me with fresh blood dripping from its claws and fangs, I would probably also reach for my police revolver if I had one handy. But I would probably do something else first, without taking the time to locate the nearest litter box to do it in. So if you have cats, it may not be a good idea to be watching the evening news with them in the room if the tiger attack story comes up – they might get ideas. Odds are you are a bit tastier than that dried, re-processed meat flavoured cereal you've been feeding them all these years anyway.

28 December 2007

17 November 2007

Fun with Republicans

Having long ago made up my mind on who to support in next year's Presidential election in the USA (Barack Obama), I haven't been bothering to pay much attention to what the other Democrats -- particularly Hilary Clinton -- have to say. Clinton is in fact one of the worst apologists for Israel amongst all United States Senators, a body long infamous for its extreme pro-Israel bias. I knew this about her long before her decision to support the Lieberman legislation that attempted to pressurise Iran over its civilian nuclear programme, even whilst Israel's 200 illegal nuclear weapons are ignored. But she has many other bad positions on a range of issues. One that particularly irritated me was her vocal support of the requirement adopted in 2003 that requires passengers simply transiting a US airport -- but not entering the country -- to have a US visa. At the time, Clinton made a number of irritating public statements, complaining to Tom Ridge that the lack of a visa requirement would allow a potential terrorist "to take a flight from a country with less-stringent security to a U.S. airport and possibly roam that U.S. airport during a layover." Just imagine! Someone freely ROAMING -- Buffalo style -- around in an airport! Possibly stopping at Starbucks for a skinny latte, wandering unmonitored down the single malt aisle at the duty-free, or even purchasing uncensored reading material from Hudson News! I contacted one of her staff, an apparent policy-wonk wannabee named Josh Albert, and asked how Clinton planned to handle things when the airlines started moving their transit hubs and the thousands of jobs that go with them out of the USA as a result of her short-sighted policies. He said he doubted that would happen, but in 2004, Iberia airlines did exactly that. So no need to waste our time over at the Hilary for President web site.

For pure entertainment value, however, the Republican candidate sites are unbeatable. Most amusing is their fascination with Nazi-style political slogans and tag-lines. Tom Tancredo is For a Secure America, Mike Huckabee's tag-line is Faith-Family-Freedom, whereas Fred Thompson prefers the decidedly non-alliterative Security-Unity-Prosperity. Mitt Romney offers the more verbose True Strength for America's Freedom, whereas Guiliani uses the unoriginal but still catchy Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Führer! Actually I just made that up -- "Rudy" not only doesn't use his surname, he also is the only Republican without a campaign slogan or tag line. Next time he runs, he'll probably take things a step further by stealing the Jenny Craig weight loss centre approach to branding by sticking an exclamation point after his name (Rudy!) as if it's impossible to articulate without getting excited.

All of them clearly are trying to adopt the proven election-winning approach pioneered by Cheney and Rove, which is to try to convince voters that letting anyone else into the oval office is essentially the equivalent of handing the country over to an unholy alliance of job-stealing Hispanics and wild-eyed jihadists. Tancredo, who earlier displayed his leadership skills by advocating that the US bomb Mecca and Medina in order to "deter" terrorism, has a new ad that opens with the words "Tough on Terrorism" (just in case you didn't get the message with his For a Secure America slogan) and closes with the tag line "Tom Tancredo: Before its too Late". In this ad, Tancredo first softens up his audience with images from the Atocha and London Underground (7/7) bombings as well as the Beslan incident, with ominously Rovian narration and music. Having put us in a suitably fearful state of mind, the narrator then solemnly informs us that foreigners pose a threat "beyond the 20 million aliens who've come to take our jobs," and blames "spineless politicians who refuse to defend our borders against those who've come to kill" and then shows an anonymous terrorist (in silhouette only -- no need to show him for the viewers to just know he has dark skin) depositing a bomb in a crowded shopping mall. Also no need to specify the kinds of measures those "spineless politicians" are refusing to take -- it goes without saying that Tancredo is just itching to expand the Guantanamo-Bagram-Abu Ghraib gulag system into the USA.

Mike Huckabee prefers to stick to discussions of more abstract concepts such as "leadership" on his campaign web site, allowing him to avoid more embarrassing topics, such as the fact that he's a racist, immigrant bashing, anti-abortion, gun-toting fruitcake whose supporters appear unable to articulate any reason for backing him other than their conviction that he was chosen by God.

Fred Thompson takes a more traditionally conservative view -- all problems are caused by foreigners and poor people, whom he intends to deport, kill or imprison until life gets better.

Mitt Romney is one of several Republican candidates who pledges to "punish sanctuary cities", those annoying municipalities who have the bad taste to try to provide some limited protections to immigrants, and worse, do it through legislation and initiatives enacted by democratically elected officials supported by voters. To his credit, he is the only republican who has a site in Spanish as well as English. But clicking on "en español" changes more than just the language. While the English press release section contains a long list of threatening declarations explaining how, as Governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed legislation to "allow state troopers to enforce Federal immigration laws," how he made immigrants pay higher tuition for the same education at state universities, forced them to learn English and prevented them from getting driving licenses, the message from el Romney hispanicó is entirely different. In the spanish press release list we learn that "Romney favorece más visas para trabajadores extranjeros" (Romney favours more visas for foreign workers) and the very short page on "migracíon" quotes Romney as saying "Queremos que Estados Unidos sea más atractivo para los inmigrantes legales" without, of course explaining how his extensive plans to harass, track, and intimidate them is going to achieve that.

Strength through Joy! Work Makes you Free!

23 November 2007

16 November 2007

Censors 2, BlognDog 1

As I blogged earlier, I thought I had finally put the net censorship issue behind me for good after finding some proxy sites that allow you to get through Qtel's filters. It's been working great, and one reason I was pleased is that one of the blocked sites, TorrentSpy, is where I've been getting my "LOST" fix every week. LOST is an American sci-fi/drama televsion show that I have become terribly addicted to, and until the season ended in May, I would wake early each Thursday morning, log on to TorrentSpy, and download the latest episode, which was always reliably uploaded by a contributor named "DEATH734" who did this for nothing more than the eternal gratitude of myself and thousands of others like me around the world. The files are high quality, no commercials, and they would be there just a few hours after the show finished airing in eastern Canada, where he lives. The site was not blocked in Saudi Arabia during the several weeks I spent there in January and February (thankfully, because I would have been apoplectic if I hadn't been able to get my weekly fix), but for whatever reason, the Qataris block it.

Although LOST is not being aired again until February, I logged on to TorrentSpy today to see if I could download an episode or two of the daily show, but upon attempting to search, I was presented with a message announcing "Torrentspy Acts to Protect Privacy - Sorry, but because you are located in the USA you cannot use the search features of the Torrentspy.com website. Torrentspy's decision to stop accepting US visitors was NOT compelled by any Court but rather an uncertain legal climate in the US regarding user privacy and an apparent tension between US and European Union privacy laws." Obviously, the site's operators are concerned about the growing power of the media industry in the USA, which has been successful to some degree in forcing ISPs to reveal private information about their customers. What wasn't so obvious is why I was getting this message, but a quick visit to IP Chicken showed that because of my proxy server, which had permitted me to visit the site, it appears to sites I visit that I am located in Dallas, in the USA. Bastards.

Somewhere I remember seeing another service similar to the one I am using, if I can find it, I'll have to see if it is based in Europe or somewhere.

In my efforts to search around today and see if I could find an alternative proxy solution that would allow me to use TorrentSpy, I happened across this site maintained by Harvard Law School, which lists many of the sites blocked by the Saudis. Unsurprisingly, this list includes numerous non-Muslim religious sites (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Scientology, and even the "Neo-Pagans"), anti-drug law sites, gay sites, human rights organisations, etc., but the list also included other sites such as anti-pornography sites (Porn-Free.org), "sex addiction" recovery (www.sexaddict.com), and the Warner Brothers Records site. But the most surprising of all was iVillage, a site for "busy women sharing solutions and advice". I had a look around the site (whose lead story today was titled "Tales of Turkey Trouble") to see what might have attracted the ire of the mutaween, but couldn't find anything that couldn't be honestly described as totally innocuous. Maybe they just don't like women going somewhere besides their husbands for advice.

Some excitement coming to Doha this weekend -- the World Powerboat Championship, which I last managed to see a couple of years ago in Oslo, is starting tomorrow, and on Sunday there will be an airshow put on by the Red Arrows, the RAF's precision flying team. And there isn't a better vantage point in the world to see both events than from the balcony outside my office on the 24th floor of West Bay Centre.

15 November 2007

27 October 2007

Social Networking Re-visited

Long-time readers know that part of my motivation for starting this blog was to observe and comment on some trends in blogging and social networking. At the time, "micro-blogging" sites like Twitter and Jaiku were just making their appearance, and others like Facebook and MySpace seemed to suddenly be the focus of a lot of attention, both in the blogosphere and on Wall Street. Things change fast in the techno-world.

When I first wrote about micro-blogging just a few months ago, it was a brand-new phenomenon. After checking out a number of them, I decided a little-known start-up called Jaiku was the best of the bunch, and earlier this month, it was acquired by Google for undisclosed terms (how does a publicly traded company like Google get away with that?).

I've been mostly ignoring the growing hype about MySpace and Facebook, because I've considered them mostly US-centric phenomena. A lot of the tech press is US-based, so they often carry on about what they view as huge technology sensations that are transforming entire societies, such as the Blackberry or the Palm Treo, that are often scarcely known outside of the USA, and at the same time not even notice transformative technologies such as SMS or Skype simply because the USA is one of the few markets they haven't had an impact on. Nonetheless, I thought it was time to have a look at these two social networking megasites, and also a couple of alternatives that haven't received as much attention.

As I've mentioned in earlier postings on technology issues, one of the things that irritates me the most about many US-based sites is their US centricism. For example, use any US-produced software package or web site that requires to specify your time zone and invariably, the default time zone will be San Francisco. Other producers don't suffer from this kind of egocentrism -- Finnish-based Jaiku or Nokia, for example, logically and neutrally default to Greenwich Mean Time. Facebook is unfortunately one of those sites that goes much further in this respect. The default time zone issue is only the beginning. "Social networking" as a web-site genre is a term coined to cover those like Facebook don't fit neatly into other categories. Some use it a business networking tool, à la LinkedIn; others use it for dating, more like Meetic or Match.com. I think the emergence of the category reflects the way in which the sharp dividing lines we once maintained between our personal and professional lives are gradually fading. One result, for Facebook, is that you are asked to answer a question in your profile about your "political views". You answer this question with a drop-down box, which displays a series of linear options, ranging from "very liberal" to "very conservative," reflecting the American belief in the two-party system in which everyone's politics can be plotted along a narrow linear spectrum. There is an option for "other," and presumably the designers of the Facebook web-site see nothing even vaguely inappropriate about lumping the Fascists, Socialists, Marxists, Monarchists, Anarchists, Platonists, Theocrats, Maoists, Greens, Peasant and rural parties, Federalists, Whigs, Tories, Trade Unionists and various other parts of the political continuum into this single catch-all category. This succinctly says more about American political and social attitudes than most PhD thesis dissertations on the topic probably do.

If that was just an irritation, another short-coming of the Facebook site that really inhibits its utility is the designer's decision that members may only belong to a single geographic "network" at a time. I was added by default to the "Sweden" network based on the address I provided when I signed up; if I want to change to the "Qatar" network I must drop my membership in Sweden, and the frequency of change is limited. Again, a decision very reflective of uniquely American prejudices, and not supportive of the increasingly globalised lifestyle most of us at (at least those of us outside of the USA) are now living. As I divide my time between Sweden and Qatar, it would be sensible for me to join both networks, and also to join networks in other countries I visit regularly and where I maintain active social and business networks, such as the UK, the USA, Jordan, Hungary and Poland. Overall, I like MySpace more than FaceBook, but there are two others I think are better than either .

First is LinkedIn, which for reasons of simple utility and effectiveness is a much better business networking tool than either Facebook or MySpace. It much more down to earth, with none of the vapid time-wasting nonsense like gifts, lists, groups, chats, "poking", "writing on someone's wall," etc. It's a well-designed, serious business tool that I have already used to do business networking, find jobs and projects, and share ideas.

But my favourite social networking site of all has been evolving into such a site from very different origins. Plaxo was originally designed as a clever utility that simply allowed members to have their Outlook contact databases automatically updated whenever another member changed their contact info. No need to send out emails when you moved, or to manually update your friends' details when they moved. Later they added synching of all your Outlook data -- calendar, tasks, and notes as well as contacts -- with Plaxo on-line, which enabled you to view this data from anywhere. With the latest version, it's moved much closer to a full social networking site, and has introduced a really cool feature called "Pulse" which is a sort of way of putting all of your friends activities in more than a dozen sites -- Jaiku, Flickr, Twitter, MySpace, Del.icio.us, YouTube, Digg, etc. into a single "Pulse" stream. As a Plaxo member, I can register my accounts with all these other sites into my Pulse, and then any of my contacts can receive a notification when I send out a new Jaiku, post a new video on YouTube, add new photos on Flickr, or make a new post to my blog. That way the connections I already have on Plaxo don't have to become "Friends" on Flickr or MySpace in order to keep up with what I'm doing -- with the proliferation of these services, I'm getting overwhelmed with email request to become "friends" with people I already connect with on two or three other sites.

27 October 2007
Doha, Qatar

04 October 2007

The Smörgåsbord Post

Life in Doha is as stable, boring, predictable and unbloggable as ever. My big excitement for the week was finally finding a way to get around Qatar's offensively paternalistic efforts at protecting me from web content I might not be able to handle through their internet filtering system. I happened across an internet ad for Proxy 1 Arabia, a service that guaranteed unfiltered access to the entire internet for the low, low price of 20 USD/month, or 90 USD for six months. I was a bit sceptical, but decided to risk 20 bucks, and paid for a month using my Google checkout (a competitor to those greedy fascists over at PayPal) account for the first time. To my surprise and delight, it worked like a charm, and one of the first things I did was check out a link to a video about Qatar a friend sent a couple of weeks ago, which I've been unable to view thanks to the censor. I'm not going to tell you anything about the content -- just check it out for yourself -- it's hysterically funny, and at time mark 0:45, there's a nice shot of the building I work in.

I titled this post the "Smörgåsbord Post" not because of my participation in a broad conspiracy to increase the usage of Swedish terms in the English language, but because of the somewhat diverse and disconnected of the subjects I wanted to touch on. Today's post is sort of the linguistic equivalent of my buffet lunches at the Four Seasons here in Doha -- yesterday I returned to my table from the buffet with a platter bearing some tabouleh, some sushi, some macaroni and cheese, some quiche, some aloo wat, and some chicken madras.

A couple of days ago I spoke with my brother, Maggot, in Hawaii. I was curious to know how the new interisland ferry service, the Hawaii Superferry, was faring. I have long found it almost inconceivable that the Hawaiian Islands do not have a ferry service sailing between them -- despite the fact that on a clear day, from a good elevation, you can see just about the entire island chain from the Big Island, the only way to get from one island to another is to fly. I regard the situation as just another manifestation of de Tocqueville's "American Exceptionalism," the phenomenon that dictates that Americans must do everything differently than the rest of world, no matter how immoral or illogical. Hence, the death penalty, 120 volt electricity and the use of the English system of weights and measures. America has very few ferries. If you cannot drive there, you probably have to fly there. Somehow, however, someone managed to sneak some logic into Hawaii whilst nobody was looking, and the state decided to introduce an inter-island service. Two gigantic state of the art ferries were ordered from Incat, in Hobart, Australia, the first of which was delivered to Honolulu in August. It should be understood that prior to the approval of this service, the plan had to survive all manner of legal and environmental challenges from every kind of fruitcake you can imagine. Some said it could injure migrating whales. Others said "invasive species" (I presume they were concerned about species other than environmental alarmists) would hitch-hike from island to island in the bilge water. All of these numerous hurdles were patiently dealt with by the planners of the service. The first of the two ferries arrived for service in Honolulu. The company's website opened for sales, and people began buying tickets. It was a huge success and all the acrimony and concern that marked the planning phase was quickly forgotten! No! Of COURSE not! This is America! Arriving in Kaua'i on 28 August, the ferry was met by a bunch of protesters, who were concerned about "the environment". Here's a video of this event:

No need for me to comment on the intelligence of the people participating in this protest. What really irritates me is that if you were truly were worried about the environment, you'd be out at the AIRPORT, blocking flights from landing out of concern for the massively larger carbon footprint of a flight in comparison with a relatively eco-friendly ferry journey. Beyond the lack of logic, the opponents of the ferry have attempted to slap every socially-charged label they can think of on this initiative -- according to them, it's a race issue, it's a class issue, it's a mainlander versus islander issue, it's a development vs. environmental protection issue, it's an Oahu vs. the other islands issue, it's a North-South issue, it's an East-West issue, it's a Conservative-Liberal issue, it's everything in the world EXCEPT a TRANSPOR*FUCKING*TATION issue! All I want is be able to take the ferry from Honolulu to the Big Island next time I visit my brother -- mostly because sea transport is my favourite mode of transportation, but also because it will mean two fewer encounters with the TSA.

Finally, I think readers should have look at the long and in-depth article the New York Times published today on the Bush torture programme. Although most of us have known for a long time that Bush's public denials of endorsing torture were blatant and obvious lies, now we finally have "smoking gun" proof that when Bush said "We do not torture," he was lying through his teeth. A few years ago, a Republican-controlled congress got its collective knickers in a twist over Clinton's declaration that "I did not have sex with that woman;" consistency demands they respond to Bush's lie the same way: impeachment.

4 October 2007

23 September 2007

Down from the Mountaintop

Apologies to my readers for leaving them hanging after my last entry. I was indeed successful in reaching the summit of Mt. Blanc at 10:10 the morning after my previous entry. All the training and preparation really paid off -- I got my pack reduced to a minimum, I was fuelled up, hydrated and mentally prepared when my alarm went off at 1:00 the next morning. I dressed and pulled on my boots by the light of my head-torch, joined my guide Jean-Pierre for a quick breakfast, and headed out the door of the refuge just before 2:00. The next three hours were an arduous 500 meter ascent to the Goûter refuge, on a route that was near vertical in many places. We were so fortunate with the weather -- it was clear, cold and still, and as we climbed we could see the lights of civilisation far below, even as far as Genéve in the distance.

From Goûter, the route switched to snow and we put on our crampons to climb the remaining 1100 meters to the summit. Dawn broke as we reached the Goûter Dome, and finally before us we could see the summit, which appeared quite manageable until you realised the tiny black specks that dotted its white surface were other climbers far above. But still at that point I felt 100% confident of success for the first time -- I had the time, I had the energy, and conditions were near perfect. All I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other for five more hours and then sure enough we were standing there on the highest point in the Alps.

My one regret is that my phone battery died part way up so I was unable to get an appropriately victorious summit photo. No doubt this was due in part to the fact that I used my phone to tap out my previous blog entry. However, thanks to one of my climbing companions from the Swiss part of the course, I do have this really macho looking shot of me belaying down one of the mountains we climbed during the preparatory course.

Returning to Tête Rousse took another six hours, and I was exhausted by the time we arrived. However, I did manage to find enough energy and enough battery power in my mobile to snap one more picture, this one of a sign posted in the refuge's lavatory:

I actually have no idea what this sign means, but I am hoping our friendly language police over at Grouperism can help sort this out, or at least suggest some appropriate punctuation.

23 September 2007

09 September 2007

High hopes

It's been a dull and uneventful summer spent working away for my client in Doha. The weeks passed in blur of routine activity - Sunday through Thursday in the office, Sunday evening Mass at Qatar's first and only Catholic church, a (censored) movie at the local mall on Friday, and lounging around the pool at the Four Seasons on Saturday. The only that kept things from getting too monotonous was the Four Season's luxurious fitness centre, where I spent hours every day preparing myself for the effort I will attempt tomorrow - an ascent to the summit of Mt. Blanc at 4810 meters.

Currently, I am at the Tête Rousse hut at 3167 meters, which I have reached after spending the past week in and around Arolla, in Switzerland on an Alpine skills course run by Jagged Globe. So after six months of physical conditioning, maintaining the discipline of my training regime in fitness centres in Sweden, Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Dubai and Qatar, undergoing a week of skills training, altitude acclimatisation and practice climbing on Swiss peaks, and having spent what seems like a small mountain of cash on shiny new kit, success or failure has now been reduced to the performance of myself and the mountain over the next 24 hours. If I can continue to ignore the blisters, the sunburn, the soreness and the stiffness, overcome my reluctance to trust a four centimer ledge of rock to support my foot over a 300 meter precipice, and above all, manage to keep putting one foot in front of another for 12+ hours; AND of course the mountain does its part by letting the absolutely flawless conditions we have been enjoying to continue for another day or two, then it will be hard not to succeed. I cannot see how my chances could be any better - my mind and body are prepared, I've got the right gear, a guide I feel comfortable with, and a good weather forecast. If all goes as I hope and believe, then my next post - inshallah - will be made from the summit. It's now about 20:30 and I'm about to turn in. At 1:30 tomorrow morning I'll drag myself back out of bed, put on a headlamp, crampons, climbing harness and all the clothing I've brought with me, and begin my trudge up the glacier.

As one of my many efforts to ensure success was to reduce the weight I am carrying to the minimum possible, I have reduced my usual complement of electronics (laptop, PDA and two mobiles) to a single small mobile, which means I have been forced to tap out this entry on a standard 12 key keypad. I am discovering it is an excellent way to incentivise linguistic brevity - if only lawmakers could be compelled to draft legislation; and lawyers their legal briefs - using such technology, we would all undoubtedly benefit.

Tête Rousse
9 September 2007

14 July 2007

Fascism for Everyone!

A happy Bastille Day to all. My recent experiences with the TSA in the U.S.A. have rekindled a latent interest in the TSA's ongoing efforts to undermine civil rights and the progress being made to counter them. It seems I'm not as special as I believed myself to be -- incidents like those I experienced recently are apparently quite common, as I have learned through a bit of Internet research over the past couple of weeks. In particular, calling over the cops and being threatened with arrest seems to be the standardised, approved response to any traveller who is uppity enough to actually exercise their civil rights anywhere near a TSA agent. You can find references to a lot of incidents just by googling a few select keywords (try "TSA" and "assholes" for starters), but there are two air travellers out there whom I think have been particularly exemplary in their efforts to expose the TSA's illegal and pointless practices.

First is Edward Hasbrouck, a writer, blogger and air traveller who has become a sort of self-taught expert on everything to do with air travel. I don't know anything about him beyond what's in his own blog, but he not only knows more about about fares, ticketing, air travel regulations, treaties, and history than anyone else, he writes about these issues in a very accessible way, and backs everything with detailed references to relevant legal code, treaties, etc. Hasbrouck had an experience similar to my own. (Both of our experiences took place at a Washington airport; mine at the one I refuse to name because it was named after the most virulently anti-Socialist President in U.S. history, one who actively supported genocidal megalomaniacs like Robert D'Aubisson and Jonas Savimbi simply because they professed to be 'anti-communist'; Hasbrouck on the other hand was flying out of the one I refuse to name because it was named after a certain U.S. Secretary of State, known for making his fortune by working with Nazi Germany and for starting the Viet Nam War). Hasbrouck was was detained, questioned and threatened with arrest simply for asking questions concerning the individual who was demanding to see his passport at the entrance to the inspection area. It turns out that this individual was an employee of a contractor called "Airserv," and therefore had no right whatsoever to ask for any one's identity documents. Hasbrouck, like myself, has travelled extensively and experienced his share of officiousness and arbitrary exercise of power at the hands of petty officials in many countries for all manner of real and imagined transgressions. He also notes (and my own experiences are similar) that nowhere else other than the USA, including numerous countries with reputations for totalitarian and/or authoritarian tendencies, has he ever been subjected to such aggressive harassment simply for asking some questions.

Although he is not as knowledgeable about or dedicated to air travel issues in the same way Hasbrouck is, the actions of traveller Ryan Bird were in many ways a more entertaining -- and therefore more effective -- response to the ludicrous "policies" promulgated by the TSA's security theatre apparatus. When TSA chief Kip Hawley announced the latest in the TSA's ongoing efforts to discover just how ridiculous they can make their demands yet still get compliance from the travelling public by decreeing that travellers now had to put all carry-on liquids in "3 ounce" bottles and pack these in a "one quart" plastic bag (and presumably carry-ons should now weigh no more than 2 stone, and not exceed 3/32 of a furlong in length and 7/16 of rod in width, or have a capacity of more than 17 gills), Bird decided to fashion his into what is now being called a "Freedom Bag" by using a marker to write "Kip Hawley is an Idiot" in large black letters on his bag before sending it through the X-Ray machine. The TSA inspectors at the security checkpoint in Milwaukee found it very amusing, passing it around and laughing at it in turn before handing it back and wishing him a pleasant flight. I am KIDDING of course! They summoned the police, who detained and questioned him before threatening him with arrest. When Bird reminded the TSA officer of his 1st Amendment rights, he was told "out there" you have rights, "in here" you don't. Bird subsequently started a forum thread on Flyer Talk that discusses the incident that as of today has grown to slightly under 2000 posts. It was also encouraging to see that Bird included a forum poll on this thread in which readers could vote on whether or not they approved of his actions -- almost 80% approved, which means that only a handful of travellers are actually being deceived by the TSA's "show us your papers, take off your shoes, don't carry on liquids" security theatre. However, it was discouraging to learn that despite all the intervening publicity and ridicule, the intervention of Bird's congressional representatives, and numerous follow-ups, the TSA has yet to officially respond to Bird, almost a year after the incident. And why is this overwhelming majority who are sympathetic to Bird, Hasbrouck and myself so pathetically timid? When I go through one of these checkpoints, I am clear, assertive and articulate about what I expect from the inspectors and specific about the demands I find silly and unnecessary. There are usually dozens of other travellers within clear earshot, yet not one of them has ever had the cojones to open his/her mouth and verbally support me -- something I would not hesitate to do if I witnessed another traveller being harassed for exercising their rights. Twice I have even had police or security officers involves discretely offer words of support, but only when out of earshot of their colleagues. Being a 'closet' freedom supporter isn't enough -- people need to speak up and get in the TSA's face more often.

I am still continuing on my own efforts to force the TSA to respond to my formal complaints about their threat to arrest me at SJO in 2004, and I have now filed complaints concerning my recent experiences at DCA and BOS. I am not optimistic, but if there are any developments, I'll write about them here.

Anyone who still doubts that the TSA is more concerned about maintaining the façade of their own security theatre -- as opposed to actually enhancing travel safety -- need only remember the cases of Nathaniel Heatwole and Christopher Soghoian. Heatwole was a college student who repeatedly smuggled box cutters (yes, the same kind used in the 9/11 hijackings) and fake explosive devices onto aircraft. He stashed them in rest rooms and other places, then emailed the TSA terror alert email address about their location, in an effort to bring these glaring security loopholes to light. First off, the TSA was forced to acknowledge that they didn't even read emails sent to that mailbox, since they "didn't have the resources." Worse, when they did eventually learn about the smuggled items they decided to prosecute him instead of giving him the medal he deserved. Why? Because the point is not to create security, but to create security theatre -- i.e., make the cowering masses of voters who have bought into the whole terrorist bogeyman thing feel like you are doing something about it. Heatwole's actions exposed the whole thing as an absurd farce, and therefore he had to pay the price. Soghoian's experience was similar: as a security researcher who regularly exposes security flaws in all sorts of public and private institutions, he created a web-site that allowed anyone to easily create and print a fake Northwest Airlines boarding pass authentic-looking enough to get you past the TSA's security monkeys. Again, rather than thanking this guy for demonstrating how flawed and inept the system is, he had his home raided by the FBI (at 2 o'clock in the morning, no less), and his computers taken away.

I suppose that's what irritates me the most -- even at the very moment you are being harrassed and annoyed by the TSA over your questioning of their petty and useless regulations, you can look around and in a few minutes mentally develop a half-dozen or more ways to defeat their ineffective measures. Figuring out a way to get some materials past some school drop-out with badge is no where near as challenging as the obstacles most of us successfully deal with every day in our professional lives. Yet when someone makes a successful and dramatic demonstration of how pointless the TSA's approach is, they're treated as if they are the threat, rather than the boneheads like Chertoff and Hawley who are responsible for this state of affairs.

14 July 2007

01 July 2007

The Fourth Reich Extends its Welcoming Embrace

Back in Doha after a brief sojourn in Paris, Washington and Boston. It's been only slightly over a week, but the intensity of my experiences makes it feel much longer. I've been through the entire range of emotions in the interim -- the thrill of long-anticipated reunions with friends and family, frustration over the unimaginable ignorance of the United States Congress; the pleasure of re-discovering familiar places, anger at the lack of progress in addressing old problems. Although I transit its airport several times a year, I haven't been into Paris for several years now. It's always a favourite city for many people, but I enjoyed it all the more since I was there to meet my brother and his family, whom I hadn't seen in two years. My brother, Maggot, hadn't been to Europe in more than 20 years, but now that his children (7 and 3) were getting to the age he was when he had his own first European experiences, he decided it was time for a visit.

That's me, the good-looking one

My visit was short -- just two days -- and my last night in town we put the kids to bed and went out for wine and oysters at a nearby bistro. I was to get up early the next morning to head for CDG to catch a flight to New York, but I was so drunk when I returned to my room that I neglected to set my alarm. Next morning I awoke (badly hung over) just 2 1/2 hours before my flight's departure. I packed everything up in 10 minutes -- discovering in the process that I had been surfing to a web site with current weather in Toronto the night before; I have no idea why -- and was checked out and in a taxi in 15. There were no lines for check-in, so I arrived at my gate in plenty of time. This was basically the last thing to go right travel-wise for the rest of my trip.

The image of the United States has been in free-fall for some years now. Once associated with liberty, democracy and freedom, the country has in a few short years come to be increasingly connected with torture, mass-murder, arrogance and ignorance. Like many, I've long blamed Bush and his cronies Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Ashcroft for the problem, but this visit has made it more clear to me that they are more symptom than cause of the underlying problems. The U.S. Congress deserves it's share of blame, as does the press, the schools, the military, industry, Wall Street, the legal system, the church, and a host of other institutions, but first and foremost it's now clear to me that it is the public at large, which has increasingly rejected thinking and reason in favour of a society built on fear and ideology, that deserves the bulk of the blame.

This state of affairs was not entirely unanticipated -- it's a big part of the reason I left the USA more than a decade ago -- but the speed of the decline, and the clear indications that the situation can be expected to continue to rapidly deteriorate are nonetheless breathtaking. I've known about the statistical indicators for some time -- the abyssmal levels of literacy, the third world levels of infant mortality, the shocking levels of greenhouse gas production, the incredible levels of incarceration -- but it was still stunning to witness the effects of this decline first-hand.

Osama bin Laden is presumably thrilled with this state of affairs. One thing that was consistent throughout my visit is that every failing, every weakness, every misfortune was routinely blamed on "9/11". The main purpose for my visit was to join a delegation from American Citizens Abroad, and to assist them in communicating with Senators and Representatives about citizeship, taxation, health care and other issues of concern to Americans living abroad. This effort involved a lot of running around on Capitol Hill, going from one meeting to another in the various House and Senate office buildings. Years ago, I had worked as a journalist in Washington and as a result knew those buildings and the maze of underground passageways that connect them quite well. Temperatures in Washington were near 40 degrees, with humidity at 100%, so knowing how to get from appointment to appointment without stepping outside was essential. Unfortunately, these passageways were now patrolled by security guards who explained that "since 9/11," visitors were no longer permitted to use the tunnels, so we were forced out into the heat. My suit was soon soaked through with sweat, but my colleague was in even worse shape. He had taken the train down from New York, and had no choice but to lug two heavy bags around all day because, Amtrak explained, they no longer had left luggage facilities "since 9/11". Even in London, where left luggage undergoes airport-style screening, they haven't taken such extreme measures.

Since we were meeting with elected representatives of the American people and the underpaid, inexperienced minions that comprise their staffs, these were far from the stupidest pronouncements we heard that day. In fact, nearly everyone we met with freely acknowledged that Congress was a seething nest of short-sighted, ignorant, incompetent know-nothings excepting, of course, their own office, which was burdened with the nearly impossible and completely thankless task of trying to get the morons who comprised the remainder of this institution to understand how important our issues were to the security and prosperity of the republic. Although I am usually quite partisan when it comes to politics, ACA's charter describes it as a "bi-partisan organisation," (like many Leftists, I had sometimes experienced "bi-curious" urges, and finally decided to act on them) so there really isn't an opposing viewpoint to our own on most of the issues we were advocating. As a good Leftist, I'm much more concerned about the social issues facing Americans abroad, such as those related to the transmission of citizenship, social security and medicare, but nonetheless broadly agree with my Republican colleagues on the tax issues they saw as more critical.

More than any of the numerous other manifestations of 21st-century America's unique blend of ignorance and arrogance I witnessed during my visit, the Capitol Hill experience provided the strongest indication that this is a society in free-fall. Many offices displayed boards showing the scale of the national debt (8,8 trillion and rising), but nobody seemed concerned about the growing trade deficit or the policies that inhibited American competitiveness and seriously threatens its prosperity and security. As one of my colleagues pointed out, the national debt is like a mortgage on your house, so it doesn't matter if you never pay it off, since you always have an asset to balance it against. The USA's budget deficit, at around 7% of GDP, is more or less in line with that of other industrialised countries. The trade deficit, on the other hand, is like credit-card debt, and it either gets re-paid directly in cash, or indirectly in the declining value of your currency. Not only is the USA racking up a record trade deficit (now approaching US$1 trillion/year), but the United States is in numerous other ways failing to capture any of the benefits of globalisation, whilst fully paying the costs. Everywhere else you go, you meet people learning a third or fourth language, raising kids with three passports, and maintaining homes on two continents. In the USA, Wyndam hotel's television advertising featured guests talking about why they chose the chain over others; one guest said it was "because I don't want to have to learn another language." Seriously -- indulging this kind of ignorance was actually touted as a benefit of this hotel chain. Whilst globally the number of managers working outside their home countries and the number of foreign tourists is establishing new records every year, both the number of Americans working outside the USA and the number of foreigners visitors to the USA are in free-fall. A society already noted for its insularity and ignorance is responding to the challenges of globalisation by burrowing deeper into its shell, apparently hoping the rest of the world will just go away and leave it alone. Unfortunately, that's exactly the result the USA is headed for -- as the deficit accelerates and the USA becomes less and less competitive, costs will rise, incomes will plummet, people will start demanding answers, and politicians will belatedly respond. But no one will likely do anything before it is too late. One of the few countervailing forces that is at least injecting some growth into this otherwise declining economy is the arrival of new immigrants, continuously providing the economy with fresh impetus. As such, one would imagine that Congress would do everything it could to encourage these new arrivals. Instead, on my last day in the USA, Congress defeated an immigration bill that would have created a guest worker programme and made it easier for those in the country to legalise their status. One gets the idea that if one of these legislators were drowning and you threw them a life-ring, they would try to beat themselves senseless with it.

We encountered many different kinds of ignorance during these visits, but if there were a single unifying thread, it's the apparent belief that this is still the 1950s, i.e., that the dollar is still the world's reserve currency, steel is still made in Bethlehem, cars are still made in Detroit, computers mean IBM and global trade is whatever the USA says it is. But, as I said at the beginning of this post, the roots of the problem go much deeper than Congress, to the people who actually put them in office. As an outsider, the things the American voter does appear bafflingly stupid -- voting for Bush, opposing foreign aid, supporting military adventures, discouraging immigration, etc. One of the many other manifestations of America's decline I experienced was its decaying airline industry. Once again, Congress has played its part by making it illegal for foreign investors to acquire US airlines. As one result, I missed my connecting flights on both my way in and my way out of the country (and am currently still waiting for the second of my two missing bags to show up). I fly very, very often, and cannot remember the last time I had a late or cancelled flight, or had a bag go missing. Yet on the one and only trip I take on an American-managed airline, all three things happen. The airline put me up at a horrible little hotel outside Boston, where I had nothing better to do than catch up on the news on television. I first tuned to CNN. Years ago, I learned that CNN actually makes two versions of its newscast -- one for its global audience, and another that produces simpler stories and avoids words with more than two syllables for its American viewers. CNN was showing an interview with Paris Hilton, who had just been released from jail and was discussing her "ordeal." No, Larry King isn't going to interview Khalid al-Masri about the 5 months he spent being tortured in the CIA's "Salt Pit" prison outside Khandahar on his next show, in case you were wondering. Al-Masri had dark skin and therefore deserved to be tortured. On CNN Headline News, the CNN sister station, I was able to learn in detail about some moron in Ohio or somewhere who had just murdered his pregnant girlfriend. The same story was being carried by Fox News and all the local stations. Nowhere did I find anything about the war in Iraq, genocide in Darfur, Iran's nuclear programme, the new British Prime Minister, the upcoming Bush-Putin summit, global warming, the EU constitutional crisis, the apparent wrongful conviction of the Lockerbie bombing suspect, Castro's birthday celebrations, the resistance to growing authoritarianism by U.S.-allied dictators by Supreme Court justices in Egypt and Pakistan, or any of numerous other meaningful stories that were being carried elsewhere. Here in Doha, I can choose between the international version of CNN in English, BBC World in English, Al-Jazeera in English or Arabic, France24 in English, French or Arabic, SkyNews in English, Deutsche Welle in English or German, EuroNews in English or French, RAI in Italian or TVE in Spanish. I don't think any of them were carrying the Paris Hilton story, and so it's little wonder Americans vote as if they are living in a different world than the rest of us.

Flying out of Washington, the TSA and I went into our familiar routine. They harass me, I object. They threaten me with arrest, I invite them to go ahead. They ask if I want to make my flight or not. I tell them I don't care one way or the other, and they finally let me go on my way. Turns out agents at this same airport managed to thwart a dangerous plot involving a toddler and a "sippy-cup" filled with water just a few weeks previously (this incident was no doubt at the top of the news cast). Clearly pumped after their successful show-down with Toddler-bin-Laden, who was probably concealing a poopy diaper (which are defined as a chemical weapon by the 2nd Geneva Convention) in addition to his Sippy-cup-of-Mass-Destruction, they made a point of detaining me past my scheduled departure time. But thanks to America's declining competitiveness, it made no difference -- my flight was 40 minutes late and I boarded no problem. Unfortunately, boarding meant pulling away from the gate and sitting on the tarmac for 90 minutes before we finally took off, which led to my missing my connection in Boston. There wasn't another flight until the same flight the next day, so I got to spend the night there.

Next day, I thought I might as well take the opportunity to do a little sight-seeing in Boston, a city I knew well but hadn't seen in some time. Although I had no choice but to wear the same clothes that day because everything else was in my checked bags, I still had my 10 kilo lap top bag with me. I tried to check it at the airport, but was told that -- Surprise! -- they no longer had left luggage facilities "since 9/11". So I spent the day lugging this horrible huge bag around with me all day, re-visiting familiar sights along Boston's famous "Freedom Trail," such as the Old North Church, from where American terrorists signalled the arrival of British troops to their co-conspirators, such as the famous terrorist Paul Revere, who then spread the information to other terror cells in the interior, so that leading terrorists like Samuel Adams could avoid capture, detention as "illegal combatants" and probable torture at the hands of the British. ("It's been like this ever since 7/4!")

Boston's Old North Church, scene of one of America's most successful terrorist conspiracies

One sight that wasn't familiar was the sight that wasn't there -- the I-93 overpass. This was a huge elevated highway that used to cut through the heart of Boston, separating out the North End from the rest of the city. In some ways I actually liked the old roadway -- you were elevated above the city as you passed through it, giving you a sense of intimacy and connection sort of like being on one of those rides at Disneyland. From the other perspective -- of seeing it looming above you as pedestrian, darkening the sky, spewing fumes and filling the air with an unending dull roar, it was however quite different. After years and years of work and incredibly huge amounts of money (and accusations of corruption, mis-management, incompetence, etc. etc. etc.), the formerly elevated highway has been sunk 10 meters below the surface, which is being covered with a park. Despite the fact that this project started around a decade ago, the finishing touches were still being applied -- trees, landscaping, benches and walkways were being installed as I passed over on my way to the North End. Big money, big effort, but I would say ultimately worth the end result.

Eventually, the wandering about with my laptop bag wore me out, so I headed back to Logan Airport, again went through my routine with the TSA ("we don't have to tolerate any complaints, sir"; "I know you don't, you can quit any time they get to be too much for you") and finally boarded my Paris flight and relaxed in my seat. The flight attendant offered us drinks; I asked for a beer. She asked for five dollars. I checked my wallet. Spent the last of my USD in Logan, offered to pay in Euros. "Sure," she said, "five Euros". I asked her why American Airlines was charging for drinks, as if it were a discount airline, yet charging full fare, as if it were a full-service airline, and then accepting money at a ridiculous exchange rate, to boot. "I know it's terrible," she said, "but ever since 9/11..."

1 July 2007

10 June 2007

Censor This!

Two weeks now in Doha and so far have had less interesting, blog-worthy experiences than I did in a typical hour in Budapest. My liver does seem grateful for the chance to recover, however.

It's looking as if Doha is going to become my home base for at least the next few years, so I've been doing a bit of investigation of my new environment. Although Doha hasn't attracted the same kind of media attention as nearby Dubai, it has shared Dubai's frantic pace of development over the past few years, and also its sky-rocketing rents. Both my office and my hotel are housed in tower-blocks that were completed less than 12 months ago. They are also right next to each other, so during the day I look out of my 24th-floor office window at my hotel:

And during the night, I look out of my 21st-floor hotel room window at my office:

The whole area is a giant construction zone -- a 5-year-old building like the iconic, pyramidal Sheraton Hotel is considered an ancient landmark. I would estimate 70% of the buildings I can see from my office window are still under construction:If you are wondering why these images look a bit washed-out, it's not that there is a defect with my camera; rather it's all the dust kicked up by all the construction activity that creates a sort of permanent haze in the air.

On balance, I think I will be happy enough here. True, there isn't a lot of entertainment, but unlike Jordan (where I lived until recently) there is a large expat community here, so I expect making friends and building a new social life will be relatively simple. There are some decent beaches and clubs, and I expect some good opportunities for activities like diving and sailing. Purchasing alcohol requires a licence, but I'll be able to obtain one as soon as my residence permit is sorted out, and then obtaining booze will be no more complicated than it is to buy from System Bolaget at home in Sweden. And unlike in Dubai, Skype is not blocked.

Naturally, there is plenty of down-side as well. Being on the sea means living at sea level, which at this latitude means long summers with temperatures regularly over 40°, and not infrequently over 45 or even 50 degrees. Alchohol may be available, but unlike Jordan or Dubai, pork is not. But most irritating to me is the censorship of the internet. Both Dubai and Qatar have grandiose ambitions to become leaders in media and internet services. Dubai has built Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City. Qatar has sponsored the establishment of Al-Jazeera, a first class global news channel that in the space of a few years has grown to rival the BBC and CNN. What I find incredibly and irritatingly short-sighted about the supposed visionaries behind these initiatives is their apparently complete failure to understand that you cannot build an information-based society in a controlled, fascist social environment. Even more irritating is the apparent mentality behind the censorship, which can be discerned by exploring which sites are blocked and which are not. A little exploration reveals an incredible level of stupidity and hypocrisy.

Not surprisingly, nearly every site that appears in the Google results for the search term "ass" will display only the Qatari censor's "this site has been blocked" notice.* I've never understood why Arab governments so completely fail to recognise the ancient and obvious correlation between creativity and naked girls. Throughout history, any place you've found writers, artists, musicians, etc., there has always been a nearby and plentiful source of naked girls, so if you expect your town to become the next art, film, or music capital of the world, you can't expect to hang on to whatever traditional sense of ambivalence towards female nudity your society may have developed during the period its economy was dependant on less glamourous industries, such as goat herding. As someone who enthusiastically embraces the whole naked-girls-running-around-stimulating-creativity concept, I find the Qatari attitude annoying enough, but some further investigation reveals that the underlying social attitudes are far more twisted than they initially appear. For example, Googling the term "penis" reveals that the Wikipedia entry for the word -- which has to be about the driest, dullest page on the internet containing the word, without even the slightest hint of prurient interest -- has been blocked by the Qatari censor. Similarly, dozens of other sites concerned with reproductive health, STDs, birth control, etc., have all been deemed to have a potentially harmful effect on Qatari society by the censor. More telling is the stuff that isn't censored -- whilst Qataris cannot find sites on sex toys (the Anne Summers site is blocked), they can have access to sites on how to beat their children properly, the Ku Klux Klan web site, the Aryan Nations web site (motto: "Violence Solves Everything"), and a whole slew of sites promoting racism, homophobia and misogyny.

You see the same sick, twisted thinking in the way films are censored. Go to see a James Bond, Bruce Willis or Steven Segal flick here in Doha and you will be sure not to miss a single frame of cars exploding, brains being splattered on walls, bad guys getting messily disembowelled by jagged metal objects, etc., but if Jerry Bruckheimer decides to throw in a short romantic scene as a sop to the women in the audience who have been dragged there by their boyfriends, you can be sure that anything steamier than a fond gaze gets chopped out by Qatar's defenders of public morality. This is, of course, a society that believes that allowing women to walk around with their heads uncovered will lead to fornication in the streets and the collapse of the family structure, as married men would be helpless to resist their basic animal urges on catching sight of, for example, a lady's naked ear.

This perverted mentality is of course not terribly different from the similarly hypocritical rantings that come out of certain quarters in the U.S.A. In 2004, Janet Jackson had a "wardrobe malfunction" during her performance in the traditional "half-time" entertainment during the "Super Bowl," America's national championship of American Football. For those of you not familiar with this "sport," it's basically ritualised, glorified violence, in which two teams of men with apparent thyroid problems, each wrapped in multiple layers of high-density plastic armour and lycra, hurl themselves at each other for 90 minutes whilst their fans work themselves up into a blood-thirsty frenzy. Half-way through this "game," they pause for a half-hour of singing and dancing about love, patriotism and neighbourliness by leading pop stars. American parents who had no problems with their children watching this spectacle of violence were up in arms that -- horrors! -- their children might have caught sight of an exposed nipple, and angrily demanded that the government do something about it.

So far, Nomadicity has escaped the attention of the Qataris, much to our disappointment, so in the hopes of joining the honoured ranks of the many web-sites that are considered unwholesome by Qatar's defenders of morality, we would like to present "Karen":
Actually, I have no idea if that's her real name -- I'm trying to keep my relationship with her casual, so we've agreed on no real names.

One day, I hope to start my own country here in the Middle East. It's going to be a different kind of place. For starters, no non-alcoholic beverages will be permitted. Men will not be allowed to drive -- a wise policy given that women will have to walk around with only their eyes covered. Anyone caught stealing will have an extra limb attached, and murderers will have an additional head surgically implanted. Most importantly, the internet will be filtered so that only porn sites will be available.

13 June 2007

*One key exception is the Wikipedia entry for the word, which notes that "ass" signifies (amongst other things) "the anus or the buttocks," as well as being a word for "donkey" derived from the Latin "asinus", or an acronym for the American Sociological Society, which in 1959 changed its name to the American Sociological Association. As the ASS was founded in 1905, it apparently took the directors of this undoubtedly esteemed and highly respected organisation composed of a brilliant and well-educated membership only slightly more than half a century to figure out why everyone sniggered upon reading their business cards.

25 May 2007

Dancing to BBC World

It's been an intensively social week back in Budapest, so much so that I am in some ways looking forward to travelling to the alcohol-free environment of Qatar tomorrow. In keeping with Nomadicity's strict policy of protecting the guilty through the use of nicknames, each of the numerous people I have been sharing thoughts, space and beer with over the past few days has been assigned a nickname, using Nomadicity's unique nickname generating methodology. In order to keep real world identities secure, and to prevent readers of Nomadicity from illegally profiting from information that might be used for inside trading purposes, this methodology employs a unique and powerful randomisation engine. How this works in practice is that after a random number of beers, I randomly ask someone who happens to be sitting nearby to randomly suggest nicknames for themselves and the others at the table. In this case, I was sitting at Bar Ellato -- my favourite in Budapest -- with a friend who designated himself "Akido Monkey" and then unhesitatingly declared the others to be named C3PO, Jaba the Hut, Han Solo and Adri. (Actually, he wanted Adri to be named R2D2, but C3PO insisted she already had the nickname "Adri", so why mess with it?). You might think from this response that Akido Monkey is some sort of nerdy Star Wars freak, but in fact, it's simply that he is a Scotsman with a somewhat limited imagination, and he was probably remembering those names from the commemorative glass he picked up at a Glasgow McDonalds 3 years ago that has since become a treasured possession. He undoubtedly used that glass earlier that day to serve himself a bracing belt of 18-year-old Glengoyne, inadvertently imprinting those names into his short term memory in the process, and they popped out of his consciousness again when prompted by me for suggestions.

C3Po is the latest in a series of petite women who have decided to take on the not insignificant challenge of being Akido Monkey's girlfriend. In exchange, Akido Monkey teaches her Akido self-defence techniques and English. Adri is C3PO's best friend, and both of them are prime examples of why Akido Monkey and Jaba the Hut decided to move to Budapest. That night in Ellato I asked a group of male expatriates "Why Hungary"? The instantaneous consensus response was "the women." Nobody seemed to think the food was particularly good, although "climate" came in a distant second. Apparently, I am the only foreigner in Hungary who would like to move there because of the national internet domain name, ".hu", which -- as far as I am aware -- is the only country domain that sounds like a sneeze when you say it, and thereby prompting others to say "bless you" every time you finish pronouncing your email address.

9 out of 10 expatriates polled believe "Hungarian women" are the best reason to live in Hungary (the 10th has since been demostrated to be clinically brain-dead and very possibly gay as well). Nomadicity plans to explore this issue further through a series of in-depth research projects.

All this fun was having a profoundly negative impact on my productivity. Sunday I spent mostly recovering from Saturday. Monday I managed to get a bit of work done, but Monday night found me back at Ellato, and Tuesday was another lost cause. Wednesday I managed to get a bit done, and then went to an excercise class led by a former ballet instructor named Zsolt, a powerful but compact trainer with almost no body fat and even less body hair (or head hair, for that matter). After the class, I was feeling pretty good (despite Zsolt's comment to me during the class that "I think you do not dance, no? Am I right?") and feeling optimistic that I could finally catch up on some of my work the next day. Then Akido Monkey suggested we go to Ellato "just for one drink."

I don't recall every detail of the next 9 hours, but the evening ended with four of us back in Akido Monkey's flat, polishing off his supply of Russian vodka and Scotch whiskey, and dancing on the hardwood floor as the sky was growing light. Actually, I'm not sure if C3PO agreed that what I was doing could properly be called "dancing", as she noted with some amusement that I have "completely no rhythm," and "I think you do not dance, no?" Gypsy-blooded girls like C3PO go through life in time with a powerful internal beat that carries on even when the music stops playing. She had proved this a couple days earlier when she and Akido Monkey demonstrated their ability to dance to a BBC World news cast.

Fortunately for me, Akido Monkey made the spontaneous decision to depart for Croatia early the next morning (in other words, about an hour after we finally went to sleep) with JtH and Han Solo. I didn't get out of bed until about 14:00, and spent the rest of the day nursing a terrible hangover. I went to bed early and this morning was up at 5:00 and have since spent 12 highly productive hours finishing off the Mexico project and a few other loose ends. Or maybe they were simply "productive," rather than "highly productive." It was a welcome distraction from my work when Adri and C3PO joined me for a final drink in Budapest earlier this evening, but Akido Monkey -- being a rather clever monkey -- discovered how he could be almost as disruptive remotely as he could in Budapest by finding an internet café in Split and -- not having anything better to do -- spending a few hours drinking expresso and sending me annoying messages via Skype. I do have to credit him for the fact that I now know how to make "mooning," "puking," "swearing," "middle finger salute," and other socially dodgy emoticons on Skype thanks to this interchange, a skill I will of course rush to add to my CV and make a point of highlighting during my next job interview. All concerned also agree that Wednesday night's drunken fiasco was entirely Akido Monkey's fault. Tomorrow I'm off to Doha, in Qatar, for a new project and possibly a new life.

As I suspected would eventually happen when I made the decision to start this blog without having sorted out my own nickname, I am pleased to announce that inspiration has struck, and that I will henceforth being signing off under the moniker "BlognDog." I have no explanation to offer for this choice, but am thoroughly pleased with it for a number of linguistic, cultural and personal reasons, including the fact that I think it has a nice rhythm to it when articulated. Not that I'm any sort of expert on such things.

25 May 2007

19 May 2007


Back in Budapest after a gruelling 24 hour journey from Mexico City. I had hoped to hold on to the spirit of Mexico for at least a few days longer through the special power of a bottle of premium añejo tequila, but thanks to global paranoid security culture, Lufthansa would not let me connect with it as cabin baggage in Frankfurt, and there was not sufficient time to check it. I do, however, have to thank the Lufthansa check-in staffer, who tried everything he could think of to try to find a way to let me bring it along, but in the end, his hands were tied by the security fascists, and I was forced to abandon my precious bottles at the check point.

Connecting through FRA does have its compensations, however. Generally, I do not like Germans or the German language, but I do have to admit to taking an inordinate amount of pleasure from saying the word "anschlußflug," a word which -- despite being German -- seems to roll off the tongue in the most satisfying way imaginable. I make a point of saying it several times whenever I connect through FRA, and this time was no exception.

But there were some more meaningful events in the world yesterday. Last winter, I had the pleasure of summitting Ben Nevis with some other London Business School alumni and students. For me it was short but pleasant escape from the work I was doing in Jordan at the time. For them, it was the first step in their 15 months of preparation for climbing Mt. Everest. Last I heard from them was a few weeks ago, when I received an email announcing their imminent departure for Nepal, and for no particular reason I was yesterday seized with the spontaneous urge to have a peek at their website. To my surprise and pleasure, I learned that two team members -- South African Greg Maud and Egyptian Omar Samra -- had successfully summitted just that morning. This was a first not only for London Business School, but Omar has now become the first Egyptian to reach the highest spot on the globe, so Nomadicity joins LBS and Egypt in wishing him a special "!مبروك" (congratulations!) on his effort.

18 May 2007

Adíos a Mexico

A quick update from the airport -- leaving Mexico and Budapest-bound once again. I'm not in the least bit eager to say "adíos" to Mexico, but I've delivered my deliverables to my client, packed up, checked out, gotten into a taxi, checked-in, passed through security and immigration, done my mandatory duty free shopping, found my gate, a bar, a power point, and a wireless internet connection. God willing, I'll be in Budapest after spending only most of a day strapped into a cramped seat in a tiny metal tube hurtling through the stratosphere at Mach 0,8. I'll blog you when I get there.

15 May 2007

Final Weekend in Mexico

Life flashes by -- although I still feel as if I just arrived here in Mexico, soon it will be time to pack up the metaphorical camels and wander off into the proverbial desert on the figurative saddle. This past weekend was my last weekend here, and although a part of me was tempted to spend it lounging poolside and drinking Pacifica Lager, I decided to make the most of it, hence my sore feet, aching legs and sunburned face. Saturday I headed up the Avenida de la Reforma to the Bosque de Chapultepec. Every decent city has such a park -- London has its Hyde Park, New York has its Central Park, Warsaw has Łażienki, and Berlin the Tiergarten -- and any city that doesn't isn't livable as far as I am concerned. That's one of the things I hated about my 3 1/2 years in Amman -- not a single decent park there.

Trying to compare parks is an apples and oranges thing, so I won't venture to rate Chapultepec against its peers, but I found it to be one of the best large urban parks anywhere, with a good mix of formally landscaped areas and more natural zones, monumental monuments and intimate corners. The other thing this particular park has is a large number of world-class museums. I only attempted to "do" two of them - the Museo Nacional Historia and the Museo Nacional Antropologia. The Museo Historia is housed in the Castillo Chapultepec, which is a former grand residence perched on bluff in the centre of the park, with a view straight down the Avenida de la Reforma. Formerly it has been the residence of the Presidents and Emperors of Mexico, as well as a military academy. It is a beautiful building, inside and out, and the exhibits describing Mexico's history from the Empire of the Mexica to the Spanish Conquest, the fight for independence, the wars with France and the United States, and the revolution of Villa and Zapata were really well done. I must admit that the swelling of outrage you cannot help but experience on reading the exhibits on the Texan and American aggression against Mexico, and the fabricated charges that were used to start the war (echoes of which were heard in subsequent conflicts initiated by the U.S.A. - the trumped up nonsense used to justify the coup d'etat carried out by the U.S. Marines that deposed Queen Lilioukalani of Hawaii, the cries of "Remember the Maine!" -- the falsified terror attack used to justify the Spanish-American War -- the war with Colombia started in order to sieze the Panama Canal Zone, the Tonkin Gulf incident, the "rescue" of medical students in Grenada, and most recently, Saddam Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction) is in part responsible for the recent strain of anti-Americanism on Nomadicity. More than the exhibits, though, I enjoyed simply wandering around the public and private rooms of the residence, and particularly the gardens and terraces. At one point I found myself on a huge terrace, surrounded by gardens and with a spectacular view of all of Mexico City in front of me, and despite the fact that it was mid-morning on a Saturday in city with more inhabitants than Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland combined, I had the entire place to myself, except for a few song-birds.

A corridor in the Castillo

A view of the gardens

After four hours of this, an ordinary correspondent would have called it a day, but I still had yet to see the Museo de Antropologia, which had been highly recommended to me as an don't-miss destination by several sources. As it turns out, they did not exaggerate. If you like Pre-Columbian New World history like I do, this museum is more fun than a drunken, under-aged congressional page and tube of K-Y is for a Republican Senator. I spent another four hours here, wandering through the Olmec, Toltec, Maya, Mexica, and other exhibits, and still managed to see only around 40% of the place. But one of my favourite things about the place was not an exhibit at all, but rather the unique fountain in the courtyard, which features water cascading from a ring shaped aperature in the roof around a central bronze column covered in Aztec reliefs.

Yesterday, Sunday, didn't begin auspiciously. My colleagues and I had agreed to meet early and to make the trek together by metro and bus to Teotihuacan, the site of Mexico's famous Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. The day started a bit bizarrely, as I headed to the small church down the street from our hotel for mass. I had been there the week before, but didn't notice the plaque on the wall -- written in Spanish and Hungarian -- noting the Hungarian embassy's assistance in restoring the stained glass windows with the images of Hungarian saints. It was really bizarre -- there was St. Stephen and a host of other Hungarian saints, along with the Hungarian shield with its double cross.

After mass, as I was getting a bit sick of our second rate hotel breakfast, I decided to head for a nearby restaurant. Hurrying back to meet my colleagues after breakfast, I stepped on an iron access plate in the pavement and had it give way under my foot. I was hurled forward, my fall broken by my hands, knees, and my head striking a metal pole. It took a few minutes to regain my feet and my dignity, and on inspecting the damage found I had lost skin on both knees and both hands, and had a lump on my head. Only later did it start to sink how much worse it could have been -- a multiple fracture or knocked out teeth would not have been difficult to manage, but aside from the sensation that I've recently been beaten up, I'm mostly OK.

Certainly OK enough to get myself out to the pyramids and climb several of them, including the Pyramid of the Sun.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Another view of the Pyramid

The Pyramid of the Sun as seen from the Pyramid of the Moon

Stairway to Heaven?

As you can imagine, the place was brimming with the usual assortment of annoying tourists and obnoxious souvenir vendors. It's this part of the experience of such places that makes me hesitate to visit them, but I find it difficult to avoid feeling compelled to see certain places. You delude yourself by convincing yourself that by going you rid yourself of the compulsion, but if you have (as I have) visited Copán and Petra and Stonehenge and Hadrian's Wall and the Kremlin and Mahabalipuram and Samarkand and the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, you still have the Great Wall and the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids and the Acropolis and Ankgor Wat and Mt. Rushmore nagging at your conscience. I have no answers, no solutions, no insights; only sympathy for those who share my affliction -- so I raise my tequila glass to the weary, the shorts-clad, the camera-toting, souvenir-buying masses, and pray to the gods of Kyoto, Kandy, Cairo, and Canterbury; of the Blue Mosque, Borobdopur, and Beijing; and of Palmyra, Persepolis and Isfashan, to bring soothing relief to their blistered feet, to spare them the tedium of indifferent tour guides, the humiliation of abusive taxi drivers and the frustration of garbled translations, filthy toilets and over-priced snack bars, and the sincerest wishes that their treks bring them some small measure of the transcendental experience they imagined and aspired to during the guide-book inspired travel planning reveries that proceeded their visit. Cheers and Amen.

Mexico City
17 May 2007

14 May 2007

The View from Jamestowne

The big news from the Fourth Reich this past week has been the 400th anniversary of the Jamestowne settlement, which as I noted in my last entry was the first successful English colony in the Americas. Elizabeth II herself was in the U.S.A. this past week to help with festivities, and as a result, Bush had to go and get a crash course on how to behave in civilised society.

As might be expected, Bush used the occasion of his recent visit to Jamestowne to talk about how the 400th anniversary celebrations represent a chance to "honour the beginnings of our democracy" and "to renew our commitment to help others around the world realise the great blessings of liberty." (Reuters News via Yahoo!)

As I noted in my last entry, the English settlement at Jamestowne, and the subsequent establishment of the Commonwealth of Virginia are anything but examples of liberty and democracy. On the contrary, they represent the worst of America, and are the prototype of the dark side of the moral dichotomy that Anglo-America has been from the start. Jamestowne and Virginia owe their survival and subsequent prosperity to the cultivation of a highly addictive weed, nicotiania, and this cultivation in turn could not have succeeded without the institution of slavery. The English settlers initially relied primarily on white indentured servants from Britain to provide labour to the colony, although the first black slaves, imported from Portuguese Angola, arrived not long after the colony was founded. The reason for the preference was simple -- whites were cheaper. Over the course of the 17th century, as increased slaving brought prices down, the economic dynamics changed, and from the middle of the century, Virginia's aristocracy began favouring imported black labour, and set about changing the colony's legal framework to suit their greed. In 1662 an unprecedented law was passed -- from then on, all children born to slave women were to be considered slaves. Slavery had previously existed in Europe, Asia and Africa for millenia -- Persia, Rome, Turkey and other empires had previously supported their economies by using the labour of captives, POWs and others, but never had any society made the condition of slavery hereditary. In 1667, laws which made it illegal to keep Christians as slaves were abolished in Virginia and in 1669, it was made legal for a slave owner to kill a slave as his personal property. Again, there been numerous other slave owning societies, but rarely were masters given the legal right to kill a slave, nor was it ever previously common for economic status to be explicitly and legally associated with skin colour. It has been often noted that the "democratic" Greeks owned slaves, but there was no ethnic difference between patrician, plebeian and slave in Greek society.

By the end of the century, black persons in Virginia were presumed to be slaves, and freed slaves were obliged to leave the Commonwealth. Even in other slave-labour dependent European colonies -- Spanish Cuba, French Guadeloupe, Dutch Suriname and British Antigua -- manumission was common and free blacks were an accepted part of society. Not so in proto-Fascist Virginia. According to the historian Edmund Morgan (author of American Slavery, American Freedom) Virginia whites began actively promoting racist ideology as a means to dividing black slave labourers from the white rural proletariat (otherwise known as "white trash"), which might have otherwise been natural allies in class struggle.

A century later, the whole racist house of cards was threatened by developments in England. On 22 June 1772, the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, ruling at the court at Westminster Hall, rendered judgement in a case involving a slave, James Somerset, who had been bought by one Charles Stewart in Virginia in 1749, and had subsequently followed in his service to Massachusetts, and then to London in 1769. Somerset, knowing that Stewart's visit in London was to be temporary, took the opportunity to escape, and in September 1771, disappeared from his master's service. Somerset was recaptured by slave catchers and placed in chains on a ship-- the Ann and Mary -- bound for the Caribbean and a life of labour in the cane fields. However, a witness to the seizure managed to secure a writ of habeus corpus, and the subsequent civil case revolved around whether or not a person could legally be considered property in the "free air" of England. Fortunately for Somerset, Mansfield's judgement was that "the exercise of the power of a master over his slave must be supported by the Laws of particular Countries; but no foreigner can in England claim such a right over a man." The consequence of this ruling was that regardless of his or her legal status in their master's home country, any slave was thenceforth considered to be legally free the instant they set foot on English soil.

Subsequently, opponents of slavery in Britain's American colonies sought to have the ruling applied to British America -- as well as England -- and the racist-capitalists of Georgia, the Carolinas, and above all, Virginia, knew that if they were successful, the party was over for them. Therefore, a handful of them, led by slave owners such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Arthur Middleton and John Rutledge, joined with northern abolitionists John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others in revolting against British rule, under the strict understanding with their northern compatriots that their rights as slave-owners were to be preserved under the new, independent government. Without the support of the Virginians, the enterprise was doomed to failure, and the country founded on this compromise was ever since fundamentally flawed.

This pact with devil is the source of the contradictions in American society that continue to today. The first manifestation of this fissure was the American Civil War, which resulted in the deaths of millions and legal eradication of slavery. During the subsequent Reconstruction period, when the southern United States was under military occupation, the southerners found more subtle ways to continue their racist domination, most notably through the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. To this day, a number of southern American states officially fly the flag of the Confederacy, the moral equivalent of, for example, allowing Bavaria to continue to use the Nazi swastika flag as a state symbol. Despite losing the war, the Virginians have managed to cling to their privileges; until recently forcing blacks into legal second class status through segregation. The Norfolk and Western Rail yard near Alexandria, in northern Virginia, was the spot where for decades Negroes travelling by rail from north to south had to move from integrated to segregated carriages. The The Civil Rights Movement has been no more successful than the Civil War in shaking the white trash grip on power and society. Recently, a Virginia candidate for the United States Senate only narrowly lost an election despite being caught on videotape using a blatantly racist slur to refer to a dark-skinned American of South Asian ethnicity. To the millions of Virginians who voted for him anyway, there was nothing wrong with this, as this sort of knee-jerk racism is what passes for thinking with this crowd. When John Ashcroft needed a bunch of racist, red-neck, inbred, sibling-fucking, xenophobic, white-trash crackers to serve as a jury in his show trial of the "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh (a trial he could have staged in any state in the U.S.A. as he claimed universal jurisdiction), he unhesitatingly chose Virginia as the most dependably racist jury pool, one that undoubtedly would have found Lindh's choice of religion reason enough to send him to prison. And of course, most recently, this warped and corrupt society produced Seung-Hui Cho, the gunman who carried out the Virginia Tech massacre. Despite the fact that Virginia Tech is nestled in the most violent, racist, red-neck corner of this violent, racist, red-neck state, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh lost no time in declaring the source of the problem to be "liberalism."

So ramble on all you want from the podium in Jamestowne, George, about liberty, democracy and all that, but the fact is that the Jamestowne colony and its legacy, the Commonwealth of Virginia, is a society based on violence, racism and exploitation, and is the first economy to be based on narco-terrorism. It is the origin of the problem America has faced throughout its history. The United States was meant to be a product of the Age of the Enlightenment, a liberal, egalitarian democracy founded on the principles of reason and intellect, and freed from the burdens of race, class and birth. Instead, it has been repeatedly co-opted by proponents of some of the lowest and most despicable social theories ever to be inflicted upon humanity. The proponents of this philosophy have been been repeatedly crushed -- legally, morally and militarily -- in the American Civil War, in World War II, and in the Civil Rights movement, yet they still keep coming back like a bad case of acne, most recently in the form of "Neo-Cons" and "Red States". Final victory will no doubt one day be achieved, but no doubt the battle will make even the mass carnage of the Civil War and the Second World War look relatively modest in comparison.

Mexico City
13 May 2007