30 March 2009

฿%€#$£±≈§! (the cranky old man post)

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

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

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

Washington, D.C.
29 March 2009

27 March 2009

Sleepless in Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 March 2009

Nomadicity on Khouri on Obama on Iran

I am not generally one of those travellers who seeks out familiar reminders of home whilst they are travelling; generally, I am adventurous and flexible, and not infrequently, the things other Americans travellers gravitate towards whilst abroad are a source of irritation and annoyance on my part. I certainly do not share the stereotypical American enthusiasm for Big Macs, over-chilled lager, or drinks with 85 ice cubes.

One exception is my appreciation for the International Herald Tribune (IHT). I love this newspaper, and try to read it every day, even if its reporting does sometimes reflect the narrow-minded arrogance that is typically associated with things American. One reason I am able to forgive this transgression is that it does often break with North American conventional wisdom and publish a piece more reflective of the majority view. Today was one of those days, when the IHT’s editors saw fit to publish an opinion piece by Rami G. Khouri of the Daily Star, who wrote about Obama’s outreach to Iran.

The invisible propaganda machine appears to be shifting gears with respect to Iran. Recently, PM Gordon Brown of the U.K. publicly noted something that the MSM has previously gone out of its way not to acknowledge – that Iran has the right (under the terms of the NPT, to which it is a signatory) to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

Today’s opinion piece went ever further in bringing balance and objectivity to the discussion about Iran. Khouri noted some of the numerous positive aspects of Obama’s overture, not least of which was the “courage and self-confidence” it took for Obama to make his public appeal to Iran.

But Khouri also noted the “lingering streak of arrogance” inherent in “both the tone and substance” of the Obama message. Obama notes that Iran is “a great culture with proud traditions,” and then goes on to lecture Iran about the obligations of a leading member of the international community of nations. Khouri rightfully notes that this reflects a “lingering colonial tendency,” in which the West believes it is entitled to “write the rules of conduct for other nations.”

I congratulate the IHT for having the courage to print such candid observations, but also note what is missing from Khouri’s column. While the U.S.A. has engaged in lecturing, condescending language and arrogance towards Iran and other nations, it has also hypocritically ignored Iranian history.

At the time of the establishment of the United States in 1776, Iran had already passed its 200th year of peace with its western neighbour, Turkey, a peace that was not be broken until a successor state to the Turkish Empire, Iraq, under the leadership of a U.S. client by the name of Saddam Hussein and with U.S. encouragement, launched an unprovoked attack against Iran. Iran had also had a long and successful history of encouraging peace, stability, learning and trade, establishing friendly diplomatic relationships with numerous other powers to the East and West, despite its existence as a leading civilisation surrounded by less sophisticated, more brutal societies such as the Uzbeks to the north, the Afghans to the East, the Gulf pirates to the South and the Kurds to the West. The U.S.A would do well to emulate the enlightened, pragmatic approach taken by Persians in its effort to stabilise Afghanistan, and to heed its own advice about reliance on violence as a policy tool.

Thankfully, Condi Rice and her arrogant, non-negotiable pronouncements that frequently characterised her narrow, self-interested demands as something the “international community expects” (usually not the NAM, which represents a super-majority of the world’s people; their more legitmate articulations of the 'international community's' expectations were routinely ignored by "Doctor" Rice), have moved on, and Obama is attempting to put something more reasonable and pragmatic in their place, but the world should not relent on its demands for fairness and balance – as Khouri says, the choice is between attempting to “dictate rules,” or engage in honest, meaningful dialogue.

Over the North Atlantic

21 March 2009

Between Worlds

One of the many weak excuses I have for not updating Nomadicity more frequently of late has been the intensity of my work-load over the past few months. Besides that, the strict confidentiality rules around the work I've been doing wouldn't allow me to blog about work, and there hasn't been much to my life besides work for some time now. I essentially haven't had a break (except for a few days in December) since my trip to Slovakia in September.

As you may know, a consortium composed of Vodafone and the Qatar Foundation (an oil and gas revenue-funded foundation that serves as the vehicle for H.H. Shaika Mozah's sometimes flaky social development objectives*) was awarded the second mobile licence in Qatar in December 2007. ictQatar didn't manage to actually issue the licence until the following July, when I was on holiday, and I soon found myself being called back to Qatar to answer to Vodafone's impatient demands to commence interconnect negotiations. We've been working on a number of other agreements as well, and last week these months of effort finally bore fruit, in the form of the first two agreements signed between our respective companies.

As I said, there are more agreements in the works, but I am nonetheless taking a much-needed break. Yesterday I drove here to Manama, in neighbouring Bahrain, just to get away from Doha for a while. Naturally, I had to pass through Saudi Arabia on the way (the road and rail causeway linking the two countries is not expected to open until 2013) and can confirm that Saudi drivers are still maintaining their reputation as the world's most dangerous and irresponsible. I also had to mentally note, whilst driving the stretch between Salwa and Hofuf, that if someone ever organises a competition for the country that most resembles a giant litterbox, I believe Saudi Arabia stands a excellent chance of taking the top prize.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: sovereign nation? Or giant litterbox? We report, you decide.

So although I have a few more things to do next week to wrap things up with Vodafone, I am trying to relax here in Manama, forget about Vodafone, Qtel, Doha, and Qatar, and mentally shift gears for next week, when I head to Washington again for my third "Overseas Americans Week", a volunteer citizen-lobbyist effort that brings attention to issues of concern to Americans living overseas. Hopefully I'll be able to blog about those experiences as they unfold, but I won't be surprised if my work and social schedule makes that difficult. But I am looking forward to saying "good-bye" to Qatar and "hello" to Washington, at least for a short while.

Manama, Bahrain
21 March 2009

*H.H. recently publicly declared that "access to pornography on satellite television" was the "biggest problem facing Qatar today" (or words to that effect), and complained that these stations lacked "proper controls" (read: "censorship"). This in a country with the biggest per-capita carbon footprint in the world, in which youths seem to spend most of their time killing themselves and others through reckless, irresponsible driving, domestics are regularly physically and sexually abused by employers who are never held to account, and in which autocracy, religious prejudice, racism, superstition and tribalism are all enshrined in law, culture and practice.