Archaeology Versus Diplomacy
Thursday, May 15, 2008
I climbed to the very top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge yesterday morning. One can only do this through an arranged tour (a rule enacted for safety and mercantile reasons). Very cool.
At least many of them. I still hold out hope for a few.
This is even dumber than the cashmere sweater knitted to feel like a cotton sweatshirt. At least Franck Muller's crazy hours watch does actually tell you the accurate time, if in a somewhat jumpy fashion. A
A $300,000 watch? Luxury. A $300,000 watch that doesn’t tell time — and that sells out? Pure genius.
According to several news reports flagged by my friends at Luxist, Swiss watchmaker Romain Jerome just launched the “Day&Night” watch. The watch won’t tell you what time it is. That’s so yesterday. But it does tell you whether it’s day or night — helpful, I guess, for billionaire types who can’t afford windows.
As the company’s Web site boasts: “With no display for the hours, minutes or seconds, the Day&Night offers a new way of measuring time, splitting the universe of time into two fundamentally opposing sections: day versus night.”
What’s most impressive about the Day&Night is its complexity, given its absolute uselessness. The watch features two tourbillons — devices that overcome the ill effects of earth’s gravity on a watch’s accuracy — connected by a differential mechanism. Instead of hands, the watch has a “contemplative tourbillon operation whereby the ‘Day’ tourbillon operates for 12 hours to symbolize working life, while the ‘Night’ tourbillon takes over afterward to represent an individual’s private time.”
Like other Romain Jerome watches, the watch is made in part with steel salvaged from the sunken Titanic, along with material from the shipyard where it was built. That sounds creepy to me, but maybe today’s buyers prefer morbid metals.
The company’s chief executive, Yvan Arpa, cited statistical studies to explain how the watch better reflects the time-philosophy of today’s wealthy.
“When you ask people what is the ultimate luxury, 80 percent answer ‘time’. Then when you look at other studies, 67 percent don’t look at their watch to tell what time it is,” he told Reuters.
He added that anyone can buy a watch that tells time — only a truly discerning customer can buy one that doesn’t.
And here’s the best part: The watch sold out within 48 hours of its launch.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Everyone likes to compare Dubai to SimCity (plant some residences here, throw down a few business areas there, all close to instantly), and hail the creation of a shining city from the desert in a relatively short time. I see their point. I write this in just such a shining tower in an area that was empty air and hot sand less than 10 years ago. But I still maintain that the more apt comparison is Metropolis in Fritz Lang's classic film of the same name. I enjoy the views, the ocean, the nice cars, (almost) tax-free income and generally not having to lift a finger for anything, knowing that someone, somewhere is taking care of it. But I also know that there is another side, and life for the underclass is very different. The work camps might as well be in a different country as my Marina-based existence. They aren't a secret, as in Metropolis, but they are invisible (at least one sprawling workers' area doesn't appear on any maps), and they definitely live different lives.
(click for larger version)
Sunday, May 11, 2008
but not in very many other places.
I am flying on four trips between New York, Sydney and Dubai over the next few weeks. Business class is full in three of them, but economy is mostly empty. This is not the first time that business class sold out before economy, which is very aggravating as I am not always able to plan my exact travel dates way in advance. But still interesting, as there are not many places where business class sells out before economy.
Monday, May 5, 2008
On more than one occasion, Emirates has messed up my seat. I like to wait to the last minute (or rather, my schedule and lifestyle is such that I'm always trying to buy tickets at the last minute), and use miles to upgrade a lot, which means ever so often there aren't any seats in business class and I get stuck in economy. This is fine when flying from Dubai to Bahrain, or even Yemen - then I'd rather save the money than pay to fly business. When flying to Sydney or New York however, both a little over fifteen hour flights, that extra leg room becomes a real issue and a full business class is a painful thing for my long-legged self.
I am a gold member at Emirates, which basically means that I fly a lot. I get preferential requests for bulkhead and emergency seats through this, which is nice. However, on three I have been given the seat behind the bulkhead, which is actually the worst, as the space underneath the seat in front of one (the actual bulkhead seat), is full and one can't even put one's feet there. One time I was traveling with a friend (who turned out to be a rather nasty person, but that is a whole other story and unrelated to our seating requests), who was rather injured falling off an elephant, and they messed up out seating, causing her significant additional pain on the Sri Lanka Dubai route and her return to the states Dubai to New York flight. When we complained, the stewardess said "it is easier for them to lie and tell you what you want to hear, because when you get on the plan it isn't their problem."
The last time I got stuck in economy was in March, but they were able to give me the bulkhead, which was good. However, there was a rather irate (and tall) Englishman in the aisle who had the same problem. He booked the bulkhead and got the seat behind. In his case, the stweardess was telling him that the reservation staff generally know which seats are the bulkheads, but they tend to vary by one number for different aircraft, but that said staff doesn't always check before reserving the seats. So apparently this whole "we reserve you a seat" thing is a bit of lie. Its more like "we promise you we'll get kind of close, but we also promise we won't make the full effort."
Which is why I have now started using the online seat reservation tool. One accesses this through a link on the confirmation email, and it shows a map of each plane, as well as your seat. I did manage to upgrade three of the four legs on my upcoming marathon trip (almost fifty hours of flying total), so I did that online, and then I went on to check that I did indeed have the bulkhead (and the window for the business class segments) I reserved. Which was good, as I also checked that the vegetarian meal I requested was confirmed, and it was not. This also happens quite a bit on Emirates.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
First the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs established the Россвязьохранкультура, or Rossvyazkhrankultura, which roughly translates as the Russian Online Culture Protection Service. Among other things, the Rosokhrankultura will eventually use data mining (now it is still done manually) to identify sites which carry “extremist” material (which is already illegal in Russia).
Note: in Russia, the definition of what is extremist is somewhat open to interpretation. The news and human rights site Ingushetia.ru is currently fighting the Moscow courts to avoid being declared extremist and closed. In November 2007 the site was closed more directly, when local ISPs blocked access and redirected visitors to a p*rn*graphic site). Their court case, which is was set for April 11 in a Moscow court (the government appealed after the Supreme Court of Ingushetia refused a request by the Ingushetian Public Prosecutor's Office to close the site), but that court refused to hear it on the grounds that the case was not within its juridiction and instead directed it to the Kuntsevo District Court, where Magomed Evloev the owner of the site in question, is registered. That it in the courts at all instead of just closed is because of timing; the case predates the creation of the Rosokhrankultura, which can simply declare sites “extremist” without any court involvement. The entire investigation is reported to have been initiatead by the FSB. The English news articles I could found about this have since been taken down, but here is a cached version of one. The same applies to coverage of the hearing itself.
The role Rosokhrankultura is not purely cultural of course (otherwise it would have bee formed as part of the Ministry of Culture, as opposed to the security-minded Ministry of Internal Affairs), but technically it has no power beyond identifying the sites. Enter the General Prosecutors Office; they were just given the power to close “extremist” sites. This is not the most important part, however. They were also given the power to suspend operations of Internet Service providers (ISPs) that host such sites. The option to shut entire businesses if they do not cooperate is a strong incentive for cooperation, as well as for ISPs to self-police.
Within days (on April 8) of gaining those powers, the General Prosecutor’s division of St. Petersburg temporarily suspended the operations of ten Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operating in that city, although the exact sites for which they were being punished for hosting is unclear. Even the exact companies are unknown. The police stated that they closed the ISPs only very briefly, which looks more like they did it as a warning to ISPs across Russia that their operations could and would be damaged should they choose to host such sites.
Should ISPs not police themselves as well as the state would like, there is a back-up plan: Deputy General Director of the Russian general Prosecutor Alexei Zhafiarov also called for legislation mandating such involvement if self-policing is not instituted. According to his reasoning, it is not always possible to determine who posted extremist materials, but it is possible to determine who is hosting it, and as such they should be held responsible.
One of the things people in other countries often ask one about Dubai is the Palm. Not all know that there is more than one, but the concept is certainly famous enough that people are curious. While parts of it are nice, there are less-appealing aspects, including the questionable environmental impact and less than fully reliable real estate arrangements. Add rumors of sinking sections causing damage, the fact that even palm Jumeirah is still a construction site (we rented a place out there a few months ago when some of my elephant polo team met up in town en route to a tournament, and our apartment door was labeled"occupied" to distinguish it from all the rest. I went swimming with the dear sister, and felt more than a little guilty swimming under the gaze of the near-by construction workers. The trunk road is also a pain; in order to minimize traffic, it is all one-way. If your place is on the left side of the trunk as you enter, you must drive down it to turn around to et to your building. This gets old. Even the larger, more expensive villas are pretty close to one another as well, making privacy difficult), my own concerns about traffic (the trunk connects to the road at one point, one future serious traffic choke point), rumors of sharks out near the end fronds (there are sharks in the Gulf, but far out. But the Palm is far out) and the general kitchiness question.
Now the mainstream press, often so positive (with the exception of some articles devoted to the plight of laborers and domestics) is starting to notice as well. The Guardian ran an article titled "Pitfalls in Paradise: Why Palm Jumeirah is Struggling to Live Up to the Hype," first brought to my attention by Grape Shisha.
To be fair, only roughly 4,000 people of the 65,000 who will eventually live there (plus the 40-odd hotels) have already moved in, so you can't say that the Jumeirah Palm is "done," so some of these issues may be fixed in the future. But some may also be exacerbated.
Among the issues detailed by the Guardian:
- Multimillion-pound villas squeezed together "like Coronation Street" (a British soap opera including a street of that name, full of tight houses). This is also apparently the result of deceptive construction practices ala the metro line. The article quotes Rachael Wilds, 42, an exhibition organiser from Surrey who moved in with her family to a palatial villa on one of the Palm's "fronds" a year ago, who complained that she found her £3m property squashed against a neighbour's and set in a barren, almost treeless, landscape. "It was absolutely nothing as it was depicted in the brochure," she says. "There was a massive gap between the villas and it was full of lush tropical gardens. We were totally shocked at the closeness of the villas." What is true elsewhere is doubly true in Dubai. Caveat Emptor.
- Air-conditioning bills of £800 a month (roughly 1600 USD). This is just poor engineering. Its not like the weather would be a surprise. Could they not make the houses more efficient? This is also the buyers' fault too though - they should have paid attention to such things.
- Overly-pushy PR. The villas were built by state-owned Nakheel Properties, and their is omnipresent on flags all over the island. For some residents, this is a little much. Again to be fair though, flags with logos and slogans are all over Dubai, especially along bridges and main roads. So complaining that the Palm is doing this may also fall under the "well, what did you expect" rubric.
- Intensive irrigation is necessary to maintain the landscaping, but uses tremendous amounts of water (note: most of the water will come from desalinization plants, which themselves use tremendous amounts of energy)
- Tallest trees actually mobile phone masts dressed up to look like palms (I didn't notice these, so they must be at least OK. There is one across from the entrance to Madinat though and it isn't bad for what it is)
- Guilt over the quality of life of the migrant construction workers. This is a real concern. But again, this is a pan-Dubai issue and one people should consider when purchasing anywhere here. Problems mentioned in the Guardian include low salaries of 200 USD per month, debts to agents in their home countries who paid for their passage with interest rates as high as 120% a year, increasing alcoholism and debts accumulated to pay for said drink, unpaid salaries, poor living conditions, rising suicide rates and separation from families at home.
13m: The number of liters of desalinated drinking water the Palm Jumeirah uses when at capacity (they didn't say in what period. It may in one day).
28: Bottlenose dolphins have been flown in from the Solomon Islands to populate Dolphin Bay, an 11-acre lagoon
94m: The cubic meters of sand used to build the Palm Jumeirah
84: The site has doubled the natural 42-mile coastline of Dubai
4: The Palm is four times the size of Hyde Park in central London
It used to be that getting a cab in Dubai wasn't that difficult. They were usually just "around." then more and more people came, the numbers of taxis did not increase
The other day I was unlucky to find myself in need of a taxi in Deira on a Friday night around 530pm. It took 45 minutes (I even saw several empty, on-duty cabs that I know saw me, but chose to drive empty to another location rather than pick me up in Deira). When I finally did get a taxi, I was almost beat out by a trio of men who were slightly faster, and the cab only gave me a ride faster much begging for him to chose me as I had been waiting so long and really had to leave. Prior to getting that cab, I tried getting one at a near-by hotel, but they told me that they had two groups of guests waiting for cabs they called over 30 minutes ago, and that I would have to wait for them first.
The driver that ultimately did pick me up was really, really nice. In fact, the nicest taxi driver that I've ever had in Dubai, and possibly the nicest I've ever had, ever. There are a couple others that also qualify, but still he went above and beyond in a few ways and I was very impressed.
Anyway, said driver said that the reason I couldn't get a cab in Deira is that drivers don't like to go there, and avoid it whenever possible. This is because traffic is so bad they don't make any money - they would rather take fares in other parts of the city where they cover kilometers quickly.
Which brings me to my Question of the Day: Why can't they just add a fair amount to the "waiting in traffic timer" to the meter? Then drivers would be paid for their time, and therefore more willing to pick people up. Passengers might complain, but they would at least get service, which is more important to me, anyway, and really, if they are spending time in traffic driving a customer around, then that time is part of the service, and passengers should pay.
The real problem of course is traffic, but solving that requires massive infrastructure programs and thoughtful long-term urban planning. In the mean time I would just be happy if I could get a cab in which to sit in said traffic.
Update: I took a taxi today where the driver, very newly arrived from Pakistan, did not know where the Marina is (the large neighborhood, not one of the actual places for docking boats). Fortunately I knew, but he clearly couldn't read English (he thought the Westin hotel's sign said Ritz Carlton, and he pronounced the latter Ride Car), and had difficulty understanding my directions, initially setting out towards Jebal Ali (another, far area in the wrong direction). Now of course, given the reliance on foreign labor to fill such positions, there will be drivers new to the city. But a basic course in the geography of the city should be required, and (as this I already technically required), enforced. I'm sure its cheaper and easier to just send the new drivers out and let them learn while the meter is running, but it isn't very helpful to the passengers. I at least knew where I was going. Dubai's many tourists will not, and will end up lost, frustrated and overcharged.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
The UAE Community Blog, is blocked for being a spam blog. How Google's automated tools got that idea, I have no idea, especially given the age of the blog and type of traffic it attracts. I review of the block was requested last week, so hopefully the Powers That Be will remove the block soon. Bizarre.