20 December 2008

Glory, Glory Halellujah!

I've held off on putting my own response to Obama's election down on virtual paper, mostly because so many other bloggers have been doing the same thing, and one thing we always try to avoid here at Nomadicity is being part of the crowd. Also, with so much being written about it, and so many facets to the political and historical significance of the event, I hesitate to implicitly suggest I have something to say about it that someone else hasn't already said, and said a bit more eloquently than I ever will. And, like many I am of course still holding my breath, unwilling let go of my final doubts that this isn't just yet another sophisticated plot by the capitalists and Washington insiders to create an illusion of change whilst continuing with the status quo. Progressives have noted with concern Obama cabinet choices, such as keeping Gates on in Defence, or his ill-advised appointment of Hilary Clinton to State. Yes, for a guy who ran on a platform of "change," he certainly seems to have surrounded himself with Beltway insiders: from his VP pick, Joe Biden, to Clinton, Gates and Tom Daschle for HHS. But most of his critics seemed to have overlooked many other choices. One traditional voice from the Left that has not is Mother Jones magazine, which devoted this article to cataloguing the numerous progressives that have been appointed to senior positions on the transition team.

But the concept of "change" that we projected onto Obama and his team became truly tangible for me for the first time today, when I read the article in today's New York Times entitled "Obama Appoints Climate Change Experts." With climate change being arguably the single biggest threat to our society (and indeed, our very survival), it should not of course be in the least bit remarkable that Obama has appointed some respected, knowledgable, capable and intelligent experts to be responsible for developing plans and formulating policy to address the problem. But of course it is very remarkable indeed, for the simple reason that for the last eight years, U.S. policy on climate change under Bush has been focussed around, a) pretending it doesn't exist, b) obstructing efforts by others to address the problem, and c) attempting to aggresively and viciously besmirch the reputation of anyone silly enough to note aloud the Emperor's lack of garments.

Many have noted the huge challenges Obama faces – cleaning up a whole range of tangled messes left by Bush and Cheney on everything from civil rights to foreign affairs to national finances. But perhaps no President has ever had it easier – Bush has lowered the bar so far that if Obama simply spent the next eight years ignoring problems – rather than exacerbating them – it would be a huge improvement. But for me at least, his choices for leadership on climate change indicate that even our highest hopes for this Administration have not been misplaced. But beyond the impeccable credentials of the two respected experts – John Holdren of Harvard as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Jane Lubchenco as head of the NOAA that Obama has chosen – for me it was his comments on these appointments that convinced me that we have indeed elected an individual who is truly committed to change:

''From landing on the moon, to sequencing the human genome, to inventing the Internet, America has been the first to cross that new frontier because we had leaders who paved the way,'' Obama said in announcing his selections in his weekly radio address. ''Leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respected the integrity of the scientific process.''''Because the truth is that promoting science isn't just about providing resources -- it's about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology,''

Ten years ago it would have been impossible for me to imagine that simple integrity amongst government scientists would seem so refreshing and different. Yet, thanks to Bush, that's where we are. The Truth is Marching On.

20 December 2008

12 October 2008

Back to the Smörgåsbord

We're feeling a bit dizzy and disoriented here at Nomadicity, having spent the last few months alternating between long, intense days at the office and relaxing holidays around the Mediterranean, watching the Republicans and the global financial system implode, visiting new places and meeting new people, and having the opportunity to hang out with old friends in familiar surroundings at home in Stockholm. So I felt it was time for another Nomadicity Smörgåsbord Post™, in which we bounce randomly from one topic to another in an unbalanced, intoxicated manner that I hope is as intriguing as it is irritating. It may help to pour yourself a glass or two before reading – God knows I plan to imbibe a bit while writing.

Let me begin with a Smörgåsbord Post™ tradition by sharing with you another interview by John Oliver of the Daily Show:

But Nomadicity's pandering to the masses doesn't end with an embedded video or two – in response to demand from our many semi-literate visitors, I am pleased to be able to dispense with our obligation to provide an update on our recent holiday travels around the eastern Mediterranean, Slovakia, Austria and Switzerland by borrowing a tradition from EuroNews by posting a dozen or so photo highlights from our travels with "no comment."

As a card-carrying member of the international digerati, being out of town didn't mean I was out of touch, and between surfing at hot spots and listening to BBC News podcasts, I was able to remain plugged into the 24/7 news cycle and didn't miss any of the numerous dramatic news stories that emerged during my travels, including the breathlessly delivered report that the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider did not create a massive black hole that swallowed the earth and most of the rest of the solar system, as a number of home-schooled conservatives expected it to. I was also able to watch Sarah Palin attempt to persuade voters that she was an better candidate for public office than Joe Biden by demonstrating that she was even more common and ordinary than George Bush, yet more paranoid and vicious than Dick Cheney, and of course to watch the cumulative effects of 8 years of Bush economic policy play out in the financial markets.

The Bush "bailout" package – a piece of legislation that caps his years' of effort to introduce communism to America – is the perfect complement to his earlier initiatives to develop gulags, torture programmes, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, and a party-loyalty based approach to managing the federal bureaucracy. Now, with the introduction of a planned economy, the transition is complete.

Sarah Palin was enthusiastic in her endorsement – "We need to make sure that we demand from the federal government strict oversight of those entities in charge of our investments and our savings" she said, and noted that "there was greed and there is corruption on Wall Street. And we need to stop that". Such talk might have won over a Socialist like myself, except that – secure in the knowledge that the morons that she and Bush call their "base" would never be bright enough to notice the difference – she promptly contradicted herself by revealing herself to be an unreformed advocate of liberal economics by declaring that "I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle " and talked directly to bad, evil, banking-and-financial-system-regulating government by saying: "government, you know, you're not always the solution. In fact, too often you're the problem so, government, lessen the tax burden and on our families and get out of the way and let the private sector and our families grow and thrive and prosper".

This is of course, precisely the mentality that got us into this mess in the first place. It all started with a repulsive little man named Ronald Reagan, who was the first politician to discover the previously untapped power of the now-critical moron voting bloc by declaring that "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" His ideological successor, George Bush, turned that ignorant statement into official policy by ensuring that no one in New Orleans ever heard anyone utter such terrifying words in the days following Hurricane Katrina. Those suffering from unemployment, lack of health insurance, or abusive lending practices have been similarly celebrating the absence of any official meddling with capitalism's unrestrained orgy of abuse during the Bush years. Those who want the party to continue will of course be voting McCain-Palin. Those of us who believe that wealth should bubble up from the masses, rather than trickling down from the capitalists, won't.

But let me conclude by counting a few of my many blessings. Doha is a much more liveable place than the one I left a few weeks ago -- the temperature has dropped substantially, Ramadan is over, and the bars are open again. All of my savings are in cash and gold. I don't have a mortgage or own real estate in the USA, the UK or Spain. So far, the Gulf is unaffected by the financial storms sweeping the rest of the world, and my job is secure. Barack Hussein Obama is all but certain to be the next President of the United States. With the exception of the fact that Britney has just released a new album, life is pretty good.

15 October 2008

24 August 2008

How do I Like Them Apples? I'm Glad you Asked...

Regular readers (yes, both of you) know that I switched back to the Mac platform after nearly a decade in the Windows®™ world. You may also know that I have had some mixed feelings about the result.

The biggest problem continues to be synching with other devices. Previously, I was carrying a Palm PDA, two Nokia phones and a Windows©☢☠ laptop, and synching between all those devices – and both Plaxo and Yahoo! on line – without any trouble.

Apple, on the other hand, doesn't even support synching of notes and to-dos at all, only calendars and contacts. What it does synch is buggy, prone to failure, and frequently generates duplicates (both duplicate records are created and information within a record are duplicated). I've spent many hours over the past year trying to get around this problem. I thought using Microsoft's Entourage (basically, Outlook for the Mac platform) might be the answer, but when I upgraded to Office 2008 this past February, they dropped support for Palm synching. Then I learned about the "Missing Synch," a third party synching application that seem to be written with people like me in mind. It claimed to be able to allow you to set your synching parameters, so you could sync your calendar and address book with the Mac OS, your to-dos with Entourage, and your notes with a special Mac Notes application provided in the package. As an added bonus, it also included a conduit for synching AvantGo, something that AvantGo itself did not offer. It also offered a way around one of the biggest problems with Mac calendar sync -- unlike the Windows world, in which calendar entries are assigned into "categories" (e.g., work, personal, etc.), Mac creates separate "calendars" for each. Palm also uses the Outlook "category" approach, so these two applications sync without problem, but synching a Palm with a Mac means you lose this feature. Missing Sync resolves this problem by translating between the two.

It all sounded great in theory, but in practice, Missing Synch always crashed when trying to sync either the Notes application or AvantGo, so I had to turn those two sync conduits off. My Palm was getting outdated anyway, and its paltry 64 mb of storage (which had seemed so generous when I upgraded from my earlier 8 mb Palm device 5 years ago) was causing problems. So I decided I could solve it all by moving to a new iPod touch as my handheld.

The iPod Touch is definitely a very cool device. High resolution graphics, an awesome touch screen interface, and of course, music. But the main thing that made my Palm my constant companion was all the applications available for it. I relied on the currency and units convertor, weather, time zone, and flight information in the WorldMate Companion, on the underground maps in Metro, my Lufthansa flight schedule and my DB rail timetable to get me around the world. I communicated with the help of my Ectacto French, Polish, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Swedish dictionaries, I passed the time waiting in ticket queues and at departure gates reading e-books, and I managed my expenses with the help of PocketMoney. None of these were available for the iPod touch, and although the release of this device was more or less simultaneous with the release of Leopard – which introduced a to-do list and notes application to the Mac platform – they still didn't sync with similar applications on the iPod or with on-line platforms such as Plaxo.

Additionally, synching with either of my Nokias has been a disaster. Both (a 6680 and an E65) worked flawlessly with Windows®✞☹ and both worked for a while with my Mac. But the E65 now refuses to sync altogether, and the 6680 I can only do a "reset sync info" on and override the data on it with data from my Mac, but cannot enter data on the phone and have it uploaded to the Mac. So away from my desk, I am doing something I haven't done since 1996 -- scribbling things down on paper and waiting until I have a chance to put them in the laptop later.

But enough whining. Here is the good news. First, iPhone has now come out with a new model that addresses most -- but not all -- of the flaws in the first model. First and foremost, it now supports 3G, and indeed, most of the various flavours of 3G found around the world, so it will work in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia like most phones, but it will also work withthe non-standard variants used in Australia, the United States, Japan and parts of Latin America. Second, Apple has seen the light and abandoned their retarded bundled marketing model, so I can buy a phone and then go out and decide which data plan I want to go with it. Or, I can swap out my home operator's SIM for one from the country I visiting. This is of course how everybody uses their phone, but that didn't stop Apple from deciding it was a smart idea to try to stop people from doing it.

At the same time, Apple upgraded their iPhone/iPod Touch software to fix a number of stupid problems. Amongst these was the fact that not only did the Mac OS Calendar application use separate calendars instead of categories, the iPhone supported only a single category. Anything synched to your iPhone from your Mac showed up all in one category, and if you entered a new event on your iPhone, it was placed in whichever category you pre-designated as default when synching with your Mac OS computer. The new software now includes the same categories as on the desktop (although stupidly the iPhone supports only 5 colours, instead of the 6 that are on the desktop version). And they still haven't addressed the problem of no syncing of to-dos or notes.

Another welcome introduction was the replacement of .mac with "mobileme". This is a web-based application that allows you to sync with a web-based back up (similar to Plaxo), and also to sych with Outlook. Finally! A solution to my problem – NOT! Plaxo synchs fine with my address book in both Mac and Outlook, and Plaxo calendar synchs fine with Outlook, but I cannot get Plaxo calendar to synch with Mac calendar. A calendar entry made in Mac OS will appear as it should in MobileMe on line, and then show up in Outlook. An entry made in MobileMe will show up in both Mac OS and Outlook. But an entry made in Outlook never shows up in MobileMe. What could the problem be? I decide to have a look around the Apple support web-site, and what do I find?

MobileMe syncing allows you to sync your contacts and calendars with Outlook, unless Outlook is connected to an Exchange server. In this situation, syncing your Outlook data with MobileMe is not supported.

So very typical of Apple – their marketing folks inundate us with sales pitches saying things like, "you use a Mac at home, and a Windows©™™℃ PC at work, get MobileMe and keep both of them in Sync!". Right, fine, as long as your office PC isn't connected to an Exchange server! All four or five people this applies to are probably delighted!

Additional disappointment came in the form of the drawbacks Apple did NOT address with the new iPhone and the new software. You still cannot:
  1. Use your iPhone to connect your laptop to the internet, like you can with just about any other phone made in the last decade
  2. Connect your iPhone to any Bluetooth device except the Apple proprietary Bluetooth headset (no, no listening to your tunes using wireless Bluetooth stereo headphones, or sending your photos to your laptop)
  3. Send an MMS(!)
  4. Make a video call(!)

So you are probably wondering by now -- where is the good news? There is a fair amount of it actually. Most exciting is the new "App Store" from Apple, in which they have unleashed the creative power of thousands of independent developers to bring specialised software to market. Unfortunately, to date, most of it is a bunch of gimmicky nonsense -- there are at least a half-dozen developers who have come up with clever pieces of software that manage the complex task of turning your iPhone into a flashlight in the event of an emergency. I am disappointed because for the most part, I have yet to see my favourite Palm applications appear there. MobiMate has informed me that they are not planning to develop an iPhone version of their WorldMate software. AvantGo seems to have halted development work of any kind. Metro has said on their web-site that they cannot develop for iPhone because they would need a Mac -- resulting in several devoted Metro users offering to send or buy them one if they would reconsider. I am pleased that Hardy Macia at Catamount Software has already released an iPhone version of his kick-ass PocketMoney software, probably the most useful, versatile and stable piece of software I've ever had the pleasure to use. (If only other developers were as good).

But Mac has unleashed the best energies the capitalist system has to offer (which, despite its many flaws, is really good at things like this), and I am confident that it will not be long before all the software we need will be available. Already it is possible to find single-city applications for major public transport systems such as New York, London and Tokyo -- and it shouldn't be long before we have something like Metro's application, featuring hundreds of cities -- from Aachen to Zagreb, including places like Quito, Poprad Tatry, Kazan and Cremona – available for the iPhone. No one has yet replicated WorldMate's all-in-one functionality (which included animated satellite weather maps), but I did today find a gem amongst the numerous "conversion" programmes on offer in the AppStore. "The Convertor" by Vladimir Kofman blows MobiMate out of the water with respect to the conversions function. It offers conversions in 26 different categories, including the old standards such as distance and area, but also more exotic measures such as luminance, charge, density and torque. It will calculate how many chi are in a light-year, or the number of kabiet in a sea league. Currency exchange uses an on-line source to give you the Gambian dalasi equivalent of the street snack you just bought in Tegulcigapa for 65 Honduran lempira. If you want to update the exchange rates from the on-line source, you just give your iPod a shake – is that cool or what?

I am still waiting for some decent foreign language dictionaries to appear -- so far, the limited offerings available so far are, well, limited. But given that it's only been possible to develop for this platform for a few months, I am sure we won't have long to wait for something better to appear. And no sign DB will make its railway timetables available in iPhone format.

More reason for optimism comes from Steve Jobs' public comments about the OS. The next version of the OS -- code-named "Snow Leopard" will, in Apple's words, "take a breather" from the addtion of new features and functions, and will instead focus on making it more compatible with Exchange. Does this mean we will finally be able to enjoy seamless, reliable synching with our other devices? Connect to our mail servers at work with our Macs?

I expect to see all these problems ironed out over the next 18 - 24 months. They had better be, since I have bet on them by now buying not only a PowerBook and an iPod, but also a Time Machine, and I expect to invest in an AppleTV box, an iMac and an iPhone in the near future. Obviously, I am reasonably confident this will happen, but it is still somewhat incredible that my devices are substantially less compatible and less integrated than the ones I was using 24 - 36 months ago.

24 August 2008

15 August 2008

Circle of Karma

Like many others (particularly in the blogosphere), I often fault the MSM (mainstream media) for their failure to report on stories that are odds with views and conventions dictated by "establishment" authorities, whether that means the Bush administration, the Pentagon, ExxonMobile or AIPAC. The purpose of my post today is not repeat or recount such failures, which have been adequately documented elsewhere. But what has not often been noted is that the MSM also frequently fails to note or recognise the connections between or broader implications of the stories they do report on.

Reading recent stories in the New York Times and elsewhere about the politicisation of the civil service by the Bush Administration, I wondered why none of the news analysts noted how this revelation fit into the broader historical framework; specifically, how the introduction of a Nomenklatura style approach to the recruitment of civil servants appears to be the final step in a natural progression, in which the ideology and methodology of the Soviet Union has been steadily and gradually incorporated into US policy since the end of the Cold War. The politicisation of the civil service was not by any means and isolated or exceptional development. A system of gulags for incarcerating American political enemies has been established (not so much an archipeligo as a constellation), complete with show trials run by kangaroo courts for putting a veneer of legitimacy on the system. Torture techniques used on prisoners held within this system were not merely inspired by Soviet methods, it has now emerged that in 2002 the C.I.A. actually reverse-engineered Soviet era torture manuals and trained "interrogators" to use the same techniques that American leaders and diplomats had spent decades criticising. Fox News now fills the role held by Pravda (Правда) under the Soviet system, complete with the demonisation and dehumanisation of political enemies and simplistic appeals to viewer emotions in place of objective fact gathering (both Fox and Pravda also of course share the Orwellian tradition of brazen assertion of obvious falsehood - "правда" is the Russian word for "truth," which was rarely found in the pages of Pravda, and Fox uses the tag-line "fair and balanced" for its blatantly partisan "news" casts).

But of course what the Americans are doing is nothing new. The Soviets themselves adopted these practices after defeating the Nazis, despite the fact they led this battle because they opposed everything the Nazis stood for. Similarly, the Americans spent blood and treasure in alliance with socialists such as Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh and others because they obstensibly supported their anti-colonialist message of liberty and self-determination, yet promptly betrayed their former allies in favour of reactionary forces in China, Japan, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere as soon as the Axis powers had been defeated. And the Jews of course, have been busy for years exterminating and oppressing the Palestinians with Prussian efficiency and ruthlessness for decades now.

But you'll find no observations about these obvious historical paralells in any analysis published in an American-controlled publication or broadcast.

15 August 2008

19 July 2008

Suck like an Egyptian

After having shared my thoughts on the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon in Mexico last year, I thought it obligatory to do the same for my recent visit to the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. I spent half a day there, my final day in a 10-day visit to Egypt, five of which were spent in Cairo. But this entry isn't really about the Pyramids (except perhaps incidentally), but rather about my impressions of Egypt.
The Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khufre, Giza

Egypt has spent many years near the top of the list of places I haven't been to but would really like to visit. I have many well-travelled friends who have visited, and they almost invariably loved the place. I too, found much to like about Egypt, but both OD and I both felt what can best described as a sense of frustration, frustration resulting from Egypt's failure to make small, easily achieved changes to its society that would have made the experience 1000 times better. Having travelled extensively throughout the Arab world, problems like corruption, nepotism, sexism, racism, sexual harassment, tribalism, hypocrisy, lack of transparency, lack of personal responsibility, indifference towards the environment, etc. are hardly new to me, nor are they unique to Egypt. They are endemic throughout the region, but nowhere else did I see any of them reach the levels the Egyptians have managed to accomplish.

The scope of these problems was evident before we even arrived. We travelled to Egypt by ferry from Aqaba in Jordan. The terminal there was half construction site, half disorganised pandemonium. We arrived fully expecting that the ferry would not depart for at least four hours after its scheduled departure time at noon, but the fact that it didn't actually depart from the pier until 18:50 was only the start of the problems. These started with the exit procedures. Signs at the entrance directed passengers to first go to the first floor to purchase a ticket, so we hauled our typically heavy load of baggage up the stairs and found the ticket window. The agent directed us to a travel agency on the other side of the hall. He, in turn, directed us back to another one of the shipping agency's ticket windows. The agent there informed us that tickets would not go on sale for another hour, and that we should check back.
Vehicles waiting to board the Aqaba-Nuweiba ferry: items tied to car roofs include sofas, toilets, refrigerators, water tanks and – possibly – other cars

In the meantime, I decided to get the emigration formalities sorted out. The emigration office was thoughtfully located near the ticket windows, but after reaching the front of a longish queue, I was informed that I first had to go downstairs to pay the exit tax. Logical. Go downstairs, pay the tax, come back upstairs, get the passport stamped. Sit and read for a while. Then a helpful Jordanian gentleman approaches and informs us that we should go buy tickets and head to the ferry now. I go back to the ticket window, even though a full hour has not passed. He again directs me back to the travel agency. This time I tell him I've already gone to the agent, and he's just directed me back again. He waves the agent over and says something to him in Arabic. The agent motions for me to accompany him back to his office. On the way, I tell the agent to be sure to give me tickets for the "speed boat." [There are two types of ferry operated by AB Maritime – hydrofoils (which they call the "speed boat") and conventional ferries.] He tells me, no, the speed boat is sold out for today. I insist that I must have a ticket for the speed boat. He repeats that it is "sold out." I repeat that he must sell me tickets for that boat. He turns around, heads back to the ticket office and speaks briefly to the agent, then turns back to me and says, "OK, no problem". By this point we have been waiting around for over an hour, we've been directed back and forth across the departure hall to one window after another, been given all manner of conflicting information, and then, finally, the agent simply takes my $140,00 cash from me and hands me two tickets. Done. We head for the port.

On board, we are surprised to see signage in English, Finnish and Estonian, and it soon becomes clear that this vessel – the Queen Nefertiti – was recently purchased (May 2007) from Tallink after previously serving on the Helsinki-Tallin run. Upstairs we find posters promoting tourism to Tallin still in place on the walls. Otherwise, it bears little resemblance to the clean, efficient Tallink vessels I see regularly in port at home in Stockholm. There is trash everywhere, and it's obvious that many surfaces have not seen a cleaning in some months. The inlaid hardwood floor, which would have been shined to a high polish under Tallink's management, is marred with thousands of aging globs of chewing gum. The condition of the vessel in no way resembles the gleaming pictures that AB Maritime proudly displays on its website (see http://www.abmaritime.com.jo/main.html). Later, OD is to find the floor of the ladies' toilet awash in 3cm of urine.

The boat experience fore-shadowed the problems (which admittedly never rose above the level of petty annoyance) that we experienced over the next few days. Every tourist site was mobbed with persistent, annoying vendors and littered with debris. The Egyptian museum, the Pyramids and other sites had strict rules against taking photographs in many areas, a rule which enabled the police to earn a steady side income in bribes collected in exchange for looking the other way while you took pictures. Egyptian men were incredibly creative in finding excuses to touch OD.

We spent our first few days at a resort in Sharm El-Sheikh. On our second night, I signed up for a tour that took us to St. Catherine's monastery, at the base of Mt. Sinai, arriving at around 2:30 in the morning. From there we climbed to the summit of Mt. Sinai, where I joined thousands of others in waiting for the sunrise. When it did rise, its rays illuminated a landscape of empty plastic bottles, cans, cups, foil, paper and dried feces. Returning to the base of the mountain, we were assailed by hordes of bedouin flogging guidebooks and cheap trinkets.

The Pyramids were even worse. You stand before these ancient and awe-inspiring monuments, attempting to reflect on their beauty and meaning, and you are assaulted with an unending barrage of "excuse me, where are you from?" For reasons I don't understand, this question has become the standard opening line in every Egyptian's attempt to sell you trinkets, offer you guide services, or (if you are a woman) to find an excuse to touch you somewhere. It doesn't matter how you respond: "England", "Sweden," "U.S.A.", "Italy", etc., the response is invariably "[Name of Country], number one!" You could say, "I'm from East Bumfuck, Texas," and they would enthusiastically respond, "East Bumfuck, number one!" If you told me them that you were a homeless person who was currently living in small, smelly shithole, their eyes would light up, they would break into a broad smile, and loudly pronounce, "Shithole, number one!" It doesn't matter, because Egyptians apparently believe that once you have responded, they now have a personal relationship with you, one that involves some combination of giving them money or (again, usually only if you are female) and allowing them to touch you in some manner.

Talk to Egyptians about these problems and they will readily acknowledge them. But they will never admit to any responsibility for causing them, something that will always be blamed on Mubarak and his cronies. In many ways, they are right to do so – the corruption and lack of acceptance of responsibility does start at the top and no doubt much of the problem is due simply to the rest of society simply imitating their leaders. Egyptians will also attempt to minimise the importance of these problems by noting that despite them, theirs is still the most ancient and amazing civilisation ever to exist, and what's a bit of litter in comparison with an accomplishment like the Pyramids? Trying to persuade them of the illogic of this thinking is pointless.

But like so many visitors before me, I still recommend a visit. It's a unique and amazing place.

20 July 2008

26 April 2008

A Sad Farewell

Back in Doha after a visit to the U.S.A., where I participated in a lobbying effort in Washington before heading to New England to pack up some things at my parents, who are on the verge of retiring and selling the house they have lived in for the past 20 odd years. All of that went according to plan, but unplanned was the sad yet somehow fortunately timed demise of the second of two cats I left in their care when I left the USA 13 years ago.

Although they were litter-mates, Spike and Spud had very different personalities, and although my ex-girlfriend and I named them before we had a real sense of their characters, time proved both of them to be appropriately named. Spud was the gentle, affectionate smaller one, whereas as Spike was the independent, assertive one that dictated the terms of his relationship with his owners from the very beginning. Not long after bringing him home from the shelter, we learned that failing to rise promptly at six and immediately tend to his empty food dish was to risk having him tunnel his way under the covers until he found an adequately sensitive area of flesh to nibble on until you understood that whether you fed him or not, you weren't going to get any more sleep.

Spike in healthier, happier days

Spud died a few years ago after developing a carcinoma in reaction to a feline leukemia shot, but Spike carried on, despite his significantly overweight 10 kg bulk. In December, my mother emailed me let me know that his health was deteriorating, but after a few weeks he rallied and regained his energy and appetite. Then, as I walking up 24th Street in Washington last week, on my way back from a day of meetings on the Hill to my hotel in the west end, my mother called to tell me he had taken a sudden turn for the worse, that the vet had drained 90 ml of bloody fluid from his lungs, and that he might expire any day.

I arrived a few days later to find Spike sitting on a towel in his favourite spot, where one of the overhead spotlights in the living room created a warm spot on the floor. His breathing was laboured, and he uncharacteristically was refusing all food. He rarely moved over the next few days, his legs unsteady and clearly exhausted by moving just a few meters. Occaisionally he would drink water, but rarely took any food. But gently stroking his ears or his back still elicited a gentle purring. A couple of days later he emitted a pained yowl, something he would do with increasing frequency until Thursday, when he began complaining almost constantly. He stopped purring in response to my attentions. He was so weak that he was unable to make the trip to his litter box and urinated on the floor. Finally we made the decision to have him put to sleep early Friday morning. Thursday night I spent sleeping on the sofa next to him, stroking him and calming him when his yowling let me know he was suffering.

Saying good-bye, 25 April 2008

I got up early on Friday and finished digging the grave my Dad had started for him the day before, next to the spot where he had laid Spud to rest some years previously. Then it was time. I snapped a few last photos of the two of us, wrapped him in a towel and carried him to the car. Immediately he found reserves of strength, scratching my arm deeply and crying out loudly and repeatedly. As my mother drove towards the vet's clinic, I pleaded with him to calm down and not make it harder on me. Just then my mobile rang; it was my ex-girlfriend, calling to check on him. As I updated her, he cried out again, then emitted a gasp, and was limp. I was grateful that he seemed to be finally resigning himself. I stayed on the phone with my ex- until we pulled into the car park and it occurred to me that he had already expired. It was obvious this was the case as soon as we brought him in and laid him on cold steel examination table. He had collapsed in such a natural position, with his forepaws on my arm and his head resting in the crook of my elbow it felt like he did when he was young, when his trust in me led him to sprawl limply and languidly across my lap. The vet came in and checked for a heartbeat, expressed his condolences and remarked on what a good cat he had been. So Spike died the way he lived – in his own time and on his own terms. We took his still-warm body home and laid it in the grave we had dug with two of his cat blankets. My mother stroked his head in farewell and then left me alone to cover him over and spread a blanket of pine needles back over the bare spot of earth. I am mourning him still, but so, so grateful for the 15 years he brightened my life with his unpredictable antics and unique personality.

26 April 2008

25 March 2008

We May be Americans, but We Ain't Stupid...

At least not us Democrats. Okay, at least not most of us Democrats. ALL RIGHT, at least not ALL of us Democrats!

Unbelievable what Hilary has just posted on her campaign web site. Yes, I know that things like re-electing George Bush (yes, he did have to cheat, but only a little) and believing that the "surge" was a "success" have led to some rather cynical views about the intelligence of the American electorate, but it is nonetheless shocking to read things like the proposal for bringing the USA out of its deepening, self-inflicted economic crisis that Hilary has just posted on her campaign web-site.

Amongst other key economic milestones the USA has achieved under Bush are:
  • for the first time in any nation at any time in the history of human civilisation, having a society in which more than 1% of the population is behind bars
  • the emergence of a two-tier society is indicated by a growing divergence in average life expectancy between rich and poor
  • nearly a third of Americans now live at or near the poverty line
  • most recently of course, there is the laissez-faire economic policy-driven liquidity crisis , which has directly bankrupted millions of Americans and indirectly led thousands to suicide and other acts of despair
Bush, of course, deserves much of blame, but we all know a half-wit like him could not have achieved such a total state of failure on his own. Bush's co-conspirators are well known, but instead of hunting them down and sending them to prison, Hilary proposes that Bush should immediately "appoint an Emergency Working Group on Foreclosures" and that this working group should consist of the very people who got us into this mess in the first place, "eminent leaders like Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker, and Bob Rubin".

Sure, Hilary, and then we'll ask ExxonMobil to solve the global warming problem, and have a Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice task force to figure out how to end the war in Iraq. And to think nearly half of registered Democrats think she should be President.

25 March 2008

23 March 2008

A Historic Easter in Doha

Last Saturday, I attended consecration ceremonies at the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church here in Doha. Any consecration is of course a special occaision, but this was the first church of any denomination to be built in Qatar in more than 1400 years.

Most states in the Gulf region have had hostile attitudes towards religions other than Islam for some time. In response to diplomatic pressures and the economic realities of needing to rely on an expatriate work-force, most have been gradually loosening these restrictions. Dubai has several large churches, and the Catholic and other churches have been operating more or less freely in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman for some time now. The two Wahabi states, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Qatar, have been the slowest to liberalise. Saudi Arabia continues to forbid the practice of any religion other than Islam, and priests who serve in the active underground church community there are subject to detention, torture and expulsion. As it is has in so many other areas, Qatar has dealt with the issue by trying to have it both ways. Churches have been formally banned, but buildings such as the shed-like structure I have been going to every Sunday for the past few months for Mass are ignored, with the understanding that the church does nothing to draw attention to them. Now the Emir has decided to take a step forward, and he has made a gift of land to several congregations so that real churches can be built here for the first time since the arrival of Islam in the 7th century (which of course in the Islamic calendar is the 1st century). My own Catholic church was the first, but it is to be followed by Anglican, Coptic and Orthodox churches, and an Indian church to be shared by 11 different Indian denominations.

This does not, however, mean the end of Qatar's tradition of ambivalence on this and other issues. As is the case elsewhere in the region, no overtly religious symbols – such as crosses – are permitted on the exterior, as are bells and steeples. Additionally, the land the Emir so generously gifted is a half hour drive outside of Doha, in the middle of flat, stony desert area it shares with petroleum storage tanks and power substations. You can see the church on the horizon in the photo below.
Although the church is finished, the road leading to it and the car park are not. The last 500 meters of the drive there was over rough, stony ground that was harder to drive on than the off-road desert tracks I've been cruising around on the weekends. The "car park" was just an area of field that some half-hearted effort had been made to remove the larger boulders from.

If all these things are not enough to discourage attendance, it has been reported that muslim extremist web-sites have made threats against the new church, if warnings provided by the American, British and Australian embassies are to be believed. (The Brits and the Australians have subsequently removed their warnings pertaining to the church).

All of this aside, it was a beautiful, if long (four hours) ceremony. I was exceptionally fortunate in getting a place to sit – thousands stood through the entire thing, including 2000 who were only able to watch it outside on giant video screens. I stood for the first half-hour or so, but one of the features of the ceremony – the "parade of nations," in which representatives from the 70-odd nationalities represented amongst the parishoners entered the church behind their national flags – resulted in the organisers reserving more seats than needed near the front, and once that part of the ceremony was over I was able to take one of the reserved seats for myself.
This must have been about 90 minutes into the 4-hour long consecration ceremony

The highlight of the ceremony was the depositing of the "relics" of Saint Padre Pio da Pietrelcina, a Capuchin monk who died in 1968 after spontaneously developing cruxifiction-type bleeding wounds on his hands and feet, into a reliquary built into the church's altar. None of the official material on the church or the ceremony have been terribly explicit about the nature of these relics. All that I can say is that when the presiding Bishop held the relics aloft and announced that he was about to place them in the altar, I couldn't really see anything, although I was sitting fairly close. Whatever parts they were, I think it's safe to say that the Vatican sent the better bits, such as his skull or femur, off to some other, more important church.

A happy and blessed Easter to all.

23 March 2008

06 March 2008


As Hillary's campaign failed to falter on schedule on 4th March, I have been deprived (temporarily, of course) of my rightful opportunity to gloat over her loss. So Nomadicity therefore has nothing to add to the discussion over the Democratic race.

We have, however, observed something about the Republicans that is so readily apparent to us it is baffling that no other commentators that we are aware of have picked up on it. Unlike the other candidate's spouses – who have been highly visible – John McCain's wife, Cindy, never caught our attention until photos of her dutifully standing by her man were splashed across front pages following rumours of an affair between John and a 40-something lobbyist.
Cindy McCain

Am I the only one to notice that she and Laura Bush both look like escapees from the set of the Stepford Wives? Is this a coincidence, or is it officially mandated policy of the Republican Party that all first ladies must conform to this standard?
Laura Bush

I'm not trying to be a conspiracy-monger -- but have a look at Paula Prentiss from the original 1975 Stepford Wives film and judge for yourself.
Paula Prentiss

I'm taking a welcome break from the stifling morality of Doha, spending some time in the anti-Doha, Prague, where pork, alcohol and provocatively dressed women are found in abundance. My former regular Prague hang-out, Square, has been converted to what the manager proudly described to me a few minutes ago as "the first Starbucks in Central Europe." I was further informed that Poland is next on their list, but as yet still no plans for Sweden. Not that I feel deprived.

6 March 2008

16 February 2008

Souk on This

After many months here in Doha, I am finally managing to find some things to see and do here besides complaining about the lack of things to see and do. One recent find was Doha's old souk. It's no competitor with Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, but amongst Doha's sterile forest of glass-façaded skyscrapers, I discovered Souk Wafiq, one of the few surviving fragments of old Doha. It's old character has not been destroyed by updating its shops and facilities to serve contemporary needs, but neither has its vibrancy been choked by well-intentioned but misguided attempts at "preservation", thus avoiding an artifical, Disney-esque result. Pavements, lighting, and ventilation have been upgraded; historical elements have been preserved, and its clear that obviously incongruous shops (such as computer retailers) have been kept out, but otherwise it's an ongoing commercial enterprise, with merchants selling spices, supplies, desert and maritime gear, jewelry, clothing, antiques, artwork, furniture and carpets. So often living in the Middle East imparts a sense of despair that Arab society is incapable of basic competency, but every so often something like Al Jazeera broadcasting or the Doha souk comes along to provide a bit of hope. Following are a few shots I took whilst wandering around on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

In addition to the souk itself, there are a few blocks of traditional homes around the souk area that have been carefully preserved, and even a traditional mud-plastered fortified tower (that no doubt once represented the bulk of Qatar's defence expenditure) has been retained.

And if you're worn out by a day of haggling and carrying around your purchases, at the end of the souk a cluster of cafés and restaurants – Turkish, Moroccan, Egyptian and Lebanese – stand ready to serve up a meal in traditional surroundings.

16 February 2008

25 January 2008

London Crack Whores

One of the few diversions I have in Doha's immorality-free environment is spending a few hours at the hotel's fitness centre, vainly trying to burn off the extra kilos I've piled on in the course of pursuing my only other diversion, namely, stuffing my face at the hotel's breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets.

The fitness centre -- or "spa" as they refer to it -- here at the Four Seasons is definitely the most lavish facility I've ever graced with my grotty work-out outfits and flabby physique. The whole place positively reeks of luxury from the moment you are greeted at the reception by the appropriately fit-looking staff. There are a number of water features, starting with a vertical cascade down ridged ceramic panels at the entrance, which creates a soothing, mountain stream kind of sound. Moving past the reception area, another oval fountain lined with river stones stands in front of an incredible backlit golden agate panel.

This wall was created from thinly sliced pieces of back-lit, translucent golden agate

Here's another view showing the small fountain in front. My simple camera phone snaps don't do it justice.

It all is very effective. The stunning visual effects, combined with the soothing sound of gurgling water, the relaxing new age ambient music and the scent of the aromatherapy oils in the air do combine to quickly put you in mellow, relaxed frame of mind. Downstairs – where you find the changing rooms, plunge pools, thalossotherapy baths, massage rooms, sauna, steam room, ice room, Swiss showers, and other facilities – there are some additional water features. In the massage area is huge bubbling baptismal font looking thing, and surrounding the main reception area (where they assign you your locker key and offer you a refreshing glass of honey lemonade after your massage or workout to restore your body's electrolyte balance) is an artificial stream that makes a pleasant babbling-brook type sound as it passes over the white river stones that line its bed. Until recently, you could actually hear that sound, but over Christmas, they installed tempered glass panels over the water channels, so that you no longer really hear it. And since the water condenses on the inside of the glass, you don't really see it either.

Here's a view of the glass-covered water channels that line the walls of the reception area the passage leading to the pool and thalossotherapy areas

A detail showing the glass covers that have been installed over the water channels

Many of you are probably wondering why they installed these panels, since the designer's objective is obvious – create a striking visual feature and the soothing, natural sound of rushing water. Those of you who are not baffled by this probably, like me, saw some of the recent news coverage concerning the numerous injuries that have been sustained by visitors to London's Tate Modern Gallery, which has recently installed a new work titled "Shibboleth" by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo in the museum's Turbine Hall. The work basically consists of a giant crack in the floor, which Salcedo says symbolises "racial hatred and division in society". I think that she secretly has meant it to symbolise the huge gap that separates most people from intelligence and awareness, since numerous art lovers have managed to hurt themselves by tripping on or falling into this crack in the floor since the piece was opened to the public this past October.

View of "Shibboleth" in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall

Just contemplate this for a minute. These are people who have taken time out of their busy lives expressly for the purpose of going to the Tate Modern for one reason -- so that they can look at a crack in the floor. Yet there is no escaping the conclusion that if people are managing to hurt themsleves on this exhibit, it can mean only one thing – they weren't looking. But what else can you do in the Turbine Hall besides look at this exhibit? It's not as if museum officials allow or encourage visitors to, for example, bring their ironing or reorganise their recipe collections whilst they are in the hall. Like the Four Seasons, Tate Modern officials considered covering Shibboleth with perspex panels. So without bothering to ask for confirmation of my suspicions from the staff at the Four Seasons spa, I think its safe to conclude that some moron has managed to hurt themselves on this water feature, and the Four Seasons lawyers have decreed that rather than banishing this idiot to the specially designated area that has been created for such morons on an island in the Bering Sea, the spa should instead totally ruin the inspired vision of the designer by completely neutralising the whole concept with some silly glass panels. It's a frustrating state of affairs, but it does go a long way towards explaining Bush's re-election in 2004.

25 January 2008