Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Environmental Impact of All Those Islands

A gold star to the Economist for discussing something that has bothered me for a long time. While swimming at the (Jumeirah) Palm beach for the first and only time last November, I noticed a few troubling things. The first of course was the ongoing construction - we were swimming on the trunk's beach, while a few hundred meters down the trunk construction workers toiled away on a new building, which made me feel a bit guilty/unwilling to get out of the water to avoid being looked at (even if they were far away). The other was the amount of shells on the beach. Being still mostly a construction site, the Palm didn't have that many people on it, and we were one of a few to have used the beach. It was covered in shells, some really good ones (large, colorful, etc), but almost all broken. At first I was thrilled, as I like shells and marine life in general, but then I realized what was going on; these were all of the shells dug up and crushed as part of the process of building the island. The water was crystal clear, and we saw a few fish (the emptiness of the beach meant that they were quite willing to come up to the waters edge, darting away only when my shadow fell on them), so clearly someone is enjoying the new islands, but I was quite worried by the sheer numbers implied by so many broken shells.

I also wonder about the sustainability of the islands' marine life. If the islands' fronds and coves are to stay clear, dredging and cleaning operations will likely be necessary. If this is the case, then they will be forever disturbing the "new life" these formations are to support. Not to mention the role played by the many boats, jetskis, swimmers etc that are sure to come.

PS The World, Universe, Palms, etc aren't the only islands. Apparently the wife of Sheikh Mohammed has one (although I'm not sure which wife - Hind, the first wife, has her own, Princess Haya, his more public junior wife, or the rumored Moroccan middle wife, who may or may not exist, may or may not really be his wife and/or may or may not be the mother of some of his children), and someone else has been making a reverse-island, i.e. custom waterways.


How green is The World?
Evaluating Dubai's island-reclamation project

ITS DEVELOPERS call the three hundred islands laid out in the shape of the world map just off Dubai’s coast the “most innovative real-estate development on Earth”. These new artificial islands, known as “The World”, are just part of a plan to create hundreds of kilometres of new waterfront for Dubai, attracting visitors and wealthy home-owners from around the (real) world.

The World’s developer, Nakheel, built its first artificial-island chain in Dubai in 2001 in the shape of a palm. By 2007, Palm Jumeirah, as it was called, claimed to be the world’s largest man-made island. Construction of two more giant islands, as well as other projects along the coast, are well underway. In January of this year, the last rock was put into The World's breakwater, which stretches for 27km and uses 34m tonnes of rock. Buyers have already started to move in.


ds are built the same way. Masses of sand are gathered from the seafloor of the Arabian Gulf. The sand is then brought to Dubai and sprayed in a giant arc onto the shallow (10.5 meter) seabed off the coast. The sand piles up until it breaks through the surface of the water and forms an island about 4.5m high. Then a massive breakwater is built around the islands to protect them from the stiff local sea currents. It is expensive work: each development typically costs billions of dollars.

The short-term environmental consequences of this reclamation are clear: the intensive construction of Palm Jumeirah created vast plumes of sediment that turned blue seawater milky and temporarily damaged marine life. It also destroyed turtle nesting sites and the only known coral reef along Dubai’s coast.

But Nakheel contends that the new rocky breakwaters of all these projects are creating vast artificial reefs, habitats for reef fish and meadows of sea grass in between the “fronds” of the Palm Jumeirah. They promise to build new turtle nesting sites. Furthermore, they say that the sandy, seafloor habitat held little marine life—and this habitat is common in the region. On balance, they contend that the environmental impact of the project is positive.

Already, the older reef around the Palm Jumeirah is starting to thrive, it says. Nakheel's website says of Palm Jumeirah's breakwater: “As the island was reclaimed, the fine sediments that were created by the reclamation eventually paved the way for a biologically and organically fertile soil on the sea bed, on which turtles and a variety of fish are living. This will lead to a highly oxygenated water, with excellent visibility for divers and snorkelers.”

But Milton Love, an expert on artificial reefs at the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, poses an interesting question: “Clearly, if you were a worm living in the soft sediment and someone dug your home up and replaced it with rock to form an island, you would be out of luck. On the other hand, if you were a butterfly fish and only lived around reefs, and someone changed the sand bottom to a reef, you might like that. But which view is the ‘right’ one? Strictly speaking, neither one is; it just depends on what a person’s philosophy is”.

If one's philosophy, for example is that the ocean should be largely left alone, then whether reclamation provides homes for more fish will not matter. Others, though, may take a more pragmatic view, thinking that the development has essentially created something from nothing. Indeed, many artificial reefs—scuttled ships and aircraft, sunken tyres and shopping trolleys—house marine life in otherwise empty waters.

That conclusion, however, risks oversimplification. While there may be more substrate for coral to grow, the question of whether there is actually more marine life is complicated. Do artificial structures in the ocean actually promote more life, or do they simply attract it? Dr Love reckons some reefs do one, some do the other and some do both. So while the artificial reefs have certainly created new habitats, it isn’t clear whether this is as a net benefit for the region.

That doesn’t give The World and the other islands a clean green bill of health. And focusing on what goes on under the water risks ignores a bigger question: where is all the fresh water for this paradise coming from? Dubai is famous for a number of things; not among them is a plentiful supply of water. So where do they get water for the swimming pools, spas, gardens, dishwashers and hotel laundries? Most of it comes from desalination plants, which expend a lot of energy and release plenty of carbon dioxide.

Anyone in the market for one of the Dubai islands might want to consider the contradictions inherent in their investment. As our climate continues to change, thanks at least in part to the addition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, sea levels will probably keep rising, turning low-lying islands into something less than a paradise.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

It was recently the Dear Sister's half birthday, which is a bit of an inside joke/holiday for us. So, in honor of the great, now six months older, Queen of the Moon, I dedicate the following (translation):

Poor girl, she has a problem with too many shoes and too many floors in her house (which divide her, standing at the garage exit on the bottom floor, from the shoes she prefers to wear, which are stored on the top floor. It is very sad and unfortunate). From now on I think I will call her MC Versailles.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Russian "How to Be a B*itch" Training Manual

A little over a year ago, the Western press got itself in a tizzy over Russian "Bitch Schools," which basically teach women how to go after men and get them. For the woman unable to attend such classes or seeking additional advice, there is now a book, as seen in what was supposed to be a new-age, peace-and-love Orientalist shop near my Moscow apartment called "The Way To Yourself." The real issue at hand is how women are expected to act, and what their are expected to achieve themselves, combined with a lack of good prospects and an obsession with becoming "elite."

No longer bogged down - the way to go
Be Happy
and Rich!
Bitch -Training
For Love and Money

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I Get the HIjab (a bit anyway)

I like Facebook. I joined it over five years ago (I am so very old ;)), and it is a useful little thing, mostly for getting/stay in contact with people. I also like to play ATTACK, which is a Risk-clone Facebook application. This is usually also a good thing. However, on occasion I get really harassed. ATTACK players can see your profile picture, and up until yesterday mine was rather flattering. It is isn't racy, or provocative (its me sitting at the kitchen table in a cowl neck sweater). I got hit on, friend requested, poked, complimented (heavily and oppressively) and just generally bothered. I don't know why, but every single time it was a Turk or Egyptian (with the exception of two times, once when it was a man named Manooj and once when it was a guy from Croatia). Yes, I can say I'm not interested, but it is a real pain. I even told one guy who is 7 years younger than me my age, as in "I am too old for you go away," and he told me I was lying and still kept bothering me. I wasn't, but if I were lying to divert his interest, wouldn't that be a sign to leave me alone? I want to be polite and nice and not hurt anyone's feelings , but in most cases they don't listen if I try that tack. Usually at that point I'll tell them to leave me alone more stridently, and often one of the other players tell them to shut up even less politely, and that often works, but not even always. In one case another player was typing STALKER STALKER into the chat window and the guy in question was still telling me he loved me and that I he wouldn't attack my pieces in the game if I would accept his friend request.

I thought about just not playing, but avoiding something I like because of there's bad behavior doesn't sit right with me. I have now changed my profile pic to one of just my shadow to avoid this fuss. It just wasn't worth it, and my friends can still see my pictures on my profile page.

So I get the hijab, at least a little more. I still think it is the men's fault for behaving so disgracefully, and their bad behavior should be controlled, not the women's, but I would much rather have a shadow profile pic than deal with that stuff or restrict my activities.

Facebook hijab

Monday, March 17, 2008

Obamania Theme Song

Don't get me wrong, I'll vote for the man, but the who Obamamania (an actual word in use in the US) is a bit much.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Growing Credit Market in Russia

I am a strong supporter of mortgages, as for many families they are the only means of ever building any real equity in anything; trying to save and invest money while also paying rest is just too hard. I've never had one, but I get car loans, as in many cities (including Dubai) the lack of option in getting around by any other way make cars are a necessity, although some aspects are more distasteful, including higher interest rates, the tendency to sell cars according to the monthly payment rather than total cost to the buyer, and the willingness of dealers to extend credit to people who really can't afford it, long-term (just like mortgage brokers, they resell the loans while getting a commission for making it, so long-term default rates don't really bother them). Credit cards and other consumer credit programs are another story; they are quite often deliberately usurious and use tricks to make it difficult to pay the bills or avoid additional hidden fees.

All of this is a real issue in the US, where poor mortgage decisions and high debt (credit card and otherwise) have made it very difficult for some families to live solvently and spend any money in the economy. The Russian economy is still growing, but I see worrying signs that credit is about to Reach Russia in a big way. Car loans are widely available, at least here in Moscow, and credit cards are promoted everywhere. The waiting couch at my neighborhood travel agency even had fake credit cards pushing debt as a means of paying for vacations. The small room also had a large banner offering up to 600,000 rubles with no interest for 90 days. On the metro I see little paper ads promising credit in one hour for up to 3500 rubles for all citizens of the Russian Federation, while the magazines, television and the two fashion channels on TV promote a lifestyle 95% of the country can't afford. Hopefully things won't get too out of hand, but the way things are looking now many Russian consumers are heading down the same credit-abuse path of the US, if not planning to exceed it.

Environment Not a Priority for Airlines

Surviving is. If the EU passes stricter regulations, this may change, but for now it's still all about the benajmins.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

My Ancestress Came from Atlantis

Through my American grandmother, I am part Mohegan. It is a very small part and I have little to do with the actual tribes, but I'm still proud of my long family history in the US (as well as in Europe), even if it is a small one. Now it appears that this connection may be older than I typically think; new research suggests that nearly all (95 percent) of Native Americans are related to six women who came over roughly 18,000 - 21,000 years ago, most likely to Beringia, a piece of land now submerged beneath the Bering Strait which divides the US and Russia. Which is pretty neat, I think, although its hard to picture actual family doing things like crossing the land bridge into a new continent that long ago.

Middle East Falcon Trade Threatens Russia's Birds of Prey

Just as I was reading Samurai Sam's Interesting Links of the Day on the UAE Community blog on Dubai's falcon hospital, the Russian news started to run a story on falcon smuggling from Russia, which is a cruel process during which many birds die. Even if they do not, the process poses a very serious threat to several of Russia's birds, which are taken out of the breeding population while they are young or at prime breeding age. All of this got me thinking as to where the UAE's birds come from. I know there are nurseries in the UAE and Saudi, but I also know that smuggling is a serious issue (the first case of bird flu in Saudi was actually detected in eagles smuggled from Kazakhstan), and in the case of some species (including the aforementioned Kazakh eagles), threatens their very survival.

Once in the UAE, I believe that most people treat their birds well. An acquaintance 's family even has their own falcon medical center, while every falcon that I've seen, in the UAE or Saudi, looked well-cared for. I'm also glad to know that there is a free hospital for owners who want to ensure that their birds get the best care without worrying about how to pay for it. But I just can't see it all as a feel-good story; these birds come from somewhere, and in many cases, it really hurts their species and their homelands.

Politics versus Safety in Nepal

I was lucky enough to visit Nepal last November, and to begin with, I must say that I recommend it highly. I wouldn't have gone if I weren't playing elephant polo, and I can't say enough how glad I am that I did. We encountered no security or political problems (if you don't count a man on the street in Kathmandu trying to sell me marijuana in front of my mother, which I don't. I told him that I wasn't interested and he moved on), and everyone, in the city and the country, was really friendly.

There was one security risk that I did see, however, although it wasn't to me or any other tourists. Motorcycles are common in Kathmandu, and often they have passengers. In almost all cases only the driver worse a helmet, however. At first I thought that this might be due to financial issues - helmets are expensive so maybe a family only bough tone for the primary user of the motorcycle. My mother thought it might be due to lack of consideration for the wife and children (it is the husband who is the driver, and the sole helmet-wearer), while Felix thought maybe it was just that safety wasn't that big a deal.

Daniel knew the real reason however, which makes me think that despite the pleasant tourism environment there may indeed be security risks, if only to Nepal's rulers. By law, only one person per motorcycle may wear a helmet. This was due to drive-by assassinations carried out on motorcycles, with one man driving and one shooting. Lawmakers couldn't bad safety helmets altogether, so they made them illegal for the passengers.

Maybe they thought that people just wouldn't share motorcycles, but most families don't have cars and have no other way to get around, and for the nervous lawmakers, their own security against a few potential attacks is far more important than the safety of the millions of Nepalese motorcycle riders.

Don Giovanii Coming to the UAE

This just in: Don Giovanni is coming to Al Ain. The Dear Sister's favorite opera (my favorite is Don Quichotte, ever since I was in it) and the first one I ever saw. It is sometimes easy to complain about the lack of real cultural events in the UAE, so I'm especially glad to see that this may be changing.

Where My Girls At?

I and some of my more risk-seeking associates will be spending part of next summer in a car race from London to Mongolia. The whole this is a charity fund raiser and more of an adventure than an actual race (the goal is to finish in the car you started with, something which roughly one third of the cars do). This is going to be fun. However, with the exception of my sister, all of my teammates are men. This is not deliberate; I invited all of my friends, but it was only men that were interested. There are four female members of my polo club, and maybe five female elephant polo players (I am one of two female captains). The only female helicopter pilot I know only signed up for classes because she was involved in some weird effort to stalk me/copy my life at the time My office (IT) is mostly men as well.

Which makes me ask, where are all the women? My female friends are a generally cool group, and are certainly well-traveled, well-educated and generally un-timid, but they just aren't interested in such "outgoing" challenges. I'm not a tomboy, and get along in everything else, but when it comes to adventures, its mostly the men who are interested. Why is this? Some of this is just plain sexism or mixed up gender roles - in elephant polo for example the women come, but cheer or serve as "stick chicks." They get a ladies game at the end but not even those ladies think of playing on the team itself, they just think how nice it is that they also had the chance to play (and it is). But a lot of it doesn't make sense.

Any ideas?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Top U.S. Commander in Mideast Resigns Early

Respected military official has a differing opinion, which, once this is made public, resigns. I am disappointed, but not surprised.

An excerpt...

WASHINGTON - The top U.S. military commander for the Middle East resigned Tuesday amid speculation about a rift over U.S. policy in Iran. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Adm. William J. Fallon, whose area of responsibility includes Iraq, had asked for permission to retire and that Gates agreed.

Ga tes said the decision, effective March 31, was entirely Fallon's and that Gates believed it was "the right thing to do."

Fallon was the subject of an article published last week in Esquire magazine that portrayed him as opposed to President Bush's Iran policy. It described Fallon as a lone voice against taking military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

"Recent press reports suggesting a disconnect between my views and the president's policy objectives have become a distraction at a critical time and hamper efforts in the Centcom region," Fallon, who is traveling in Iraq, said in a statement issued by his U.S. headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

"And although I don't believe there have ever been any differences about the objectives of our policy in the Central Command area of responsibility, the simple perception that there is makes it difficult for me to effectively serve America's interests there," he said.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Thoughful Russian Mindful of His Country's Reputation

I was running late this afternoon to meet a friend for coffee, so I took a taxi, and at the end of the admittedly short trip, my driver (not a taxi driver- just a regular citizen who picked me up for the fare - a common phenomenon in Russia. You just put your hand out, cars stop and you negotiate the fare) told me that the ride was on the house, the gift of the Russian people to their visitor on Women's Day (really yesterday, but its become a de facto three-day event starting on Friday). Seriously. He would not take payment. It was a very nice, generous thing to do and was also appreciated. Thank you, Respected Driver!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

My First Hawala Transfer

Being in Moscow, but without a Russian bank account, and wishing to transfer money from Dubai to here, I have a few options. I could put it in the account connected to my debit card, which is fine as long as I don't mind paying 0.5% and a daily withdrawal limit, which is is good for security reasons but bad for convenience reasons. I'm sure I could work out a way to wire oneself the money here, after a day or two of forms, faxes and arguing, but I decided to try something new, partially for convenience and partially because I'm interested to see how it works.

I am trying hawala, the traditional system of money transfer in the Muslim world (technically not just the Muslim word, but that is where it is the best known to Decadent Westerners such as myself). An Afghan friend of mine in Dubai graciously set it up, and this morning he called me with a man's first name, a phone number and a code. I called, gave that man the code (we spoke in Russian, but I have an accent that screams "Decadent Westerner" and I got the impresison that he is just as curious to see me as I am to see him), and we are going to meet tomorrow morning at a major metro station landmark to hand over the amount, all in cash. It would be today, but today is Women's Day, a major holiday in Russia, and we are both too busy to work out a schedule when we can both meet. My friend in Dubai is keeping an eye on it all (he asked me to call when we arranged on a meeting time, and was quite unimpressed that I have to wait until tomorrow), and asked against that I confirm when I have my money, which may be speeding the efficiency along, but I have to say - in less than a day, it transferred money from Dubai to Moscow with much less fuss of bureaucratic hassle than if I did it the more official way. If I weren't busy today it could have been even sooner.

I can also see how this system could be the bane of any law enforcement operation, as there are no official records and no way of tracking it (it even has a scandal named after it in India for this reason), but I can also see how attractive this would be, especially in places where banks are not reliable or the recipients and/or senders are unbanked. Money transfer services such as Western Union also do not have universal reach (and should sometimes be avoided for other reasons - I saw on in Sri Lanka with a gold shop in the same office as the Western Union, ready to take the remittances before the potential spenders made it out the door), but because it relies more on informal connections and less on official ties, it seems a lot easier for hawala to find a guy who knows a guy.

I will provide an update once I actually have the cash.

Update: I have the cash and it worked quite well. I arrived early and stood outside the metro station entrance where we agreed to meet. A Russian policeman came and stood directly in front of me about 15 feet away, which confused me a little until the next train load of metro passengers started to exit and he picked out a few Caucasian (in Russia this doesn't mean white, it means form the Caucuses), and Central Asian passengers and asked to see their documents. The station serves the largest outdoor market in Moscow where a lot of people form those regions work, and given prejudices against them here and the fact that the markets do provide work for many illegal immigrants, it would make sense for a policeman to choose that point on the morning before the big Sunday market operations.

Hamid eventually showed up. Officially I was supposed to give him the code but I was clearly not there to work at the market, nor shop there, and once I started speaking with my Decadent Westerner accent it was pretty obvious it was the same person he spoke to on the phone. It turns out he is Afghan so I tried out my basic Dari which surprised him even more (Decadent Westerner hawala users who speak Dari, no matter how bad, are rather rare I think). We walked to a small Uzbek cafe (Uzbek and Georgian food in Moscow are what Chinese and Lebanese food are in many other wares) called Bishkek (actually the capitol of Uzbekistan's neighbor Kyrgyzstan), ordered some Central Asian tea, complete with small tea bowls and the proper Central Asian ritual of using steaming hot tea to rinse the cups three times before using them while listening to a rather cheezy English-language ballad about the troubles in Belfast while a documentary on marmots played on mute on the TV over the cashier's corner.

He then provided the cash and asked me to count it, which I did as unobtrusively as possible. It was all there, as I expected. I'm getting good at counting cash - my goal is to be able to flip through it quickly with just three fingers, and I'd say I'm about a third of the way there.

We chatted a little more about life in Moscow and the operations of the market (in addition to being the cash delivery man Hamid also runs a store in the market selling sneakers, mostly knock-off Nike and Pumas. He came to Moscow from Afghanistan last year, has been learning Russian ever since, and after working for another store selling ladies handbags until his Russian improved, his family lent him the money to open his own stall, and he trusted as well enough to be the cash delivery point). His brother has a similar store in a Petersburg market.

Hamid also told me he knew my Afghan friend in Dubai (I know him from Afghanistan, where he performed a Very Good Feed and earned my gratitude ever since) who set the whole thing up, and that he himself was a friend of a friend, and that the typical transfer fee had therefore been waived. Which was appreciated, but was also a little disappointing from the true hawala experience side of it. I could see he was dying to ask me how exactly I was involved, but he didn't, and I figured that they really were good friends, my friend would have told him (as the perpetual solitary decadent (female!) Westerner I really am a very odd case in Afghan society, and as such don't invite any more gossip about myself than isn't already coming), and so didn't volunteer.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Unforeseen Hazards of Construction and Real Estate in Dubai

I have seen quite a few advertisements (including one flashing billboard) to buy real estate in Dubai during my stay in Moscow. Part of this I'm sure is just going farther afield efforts to prop up the real estate sales, but the fantastic promises made by advertisers here bring to mind some of the issues that are involved. I am also in the early stages of shopping for a new residence myself, which probably accounts for why these issues seem so fascinating and hazardous.

The first real issue for foreigners such as myself is the type of land. I am only interested in freehold, which means property which I can purchase and own, as opposed to leasehold, which is property that I own, but on land which I am only leasing from the government. This lease can be for 99 years, but it does increase restrictions on what I or any heirs can do with it. It was the introduction of widespread freehold property that really sparked the beginning of the property boom/bubble a few years back. That the offer of a residency visa (and the banking privileges that includes in the tax-free USE) with a purchased residence.

For starters, while a growing number of completed villas and apartments are available for sale throughout Dubai, many are still under construction. They tend to cost a little less than comparable ready-made residences, and there have been many cases where buyers could sell them at a great profit once they were ready, but there are also risks. I am only looking at completed housing, however, mostly because of the first two of the following concerns.

The first is the most obvious. An image which looks good in an artist's rendering may be put together with poor quality finishings, or not even look that way at all. I've seen ads showing grass and trees where there were none, and even ads which erase neighboring buildings, to give the building being sold the appearance of being in a more spacious area, or, in one case, on the waterfront where in reality and entire row of buildings stands before it (alas I misplaced the ad in question, but it was for a building in the Marina area and the ad is in the In-Flight magazine for Emirates, among other places). You buy now, and when you move in your wall could be cracked, the faucets super cheap and unattractive, the playground non-existent and the wide green lawn a small bricked over terrace. This is enough of an issue that there is an ad on the radio for one development using the promise that the completed development would match which was promised as their "hook."

New topography. One of the cooler things about construction in Dubai is the ability and willingness to change the topography to suit the building. The Palms are probably the most famous cases of this, but they are by far not the only ones. While the Marina was first being built, buildings that were on the water when first showed and sold later became a few rows away as the land was filled in. On the Jumeirah Palm apartments that had a canal view when sold now have a view of earth (a filled-in canal) which supports the elevated metro platform, and will one day be a view of the elevated metro itself. One person I know purchased their apartment across from the actual Marina because they were pretty sure that the Marina would be left alone and that his Gulf (and Palm) views would be preserved.

Financial risks. These aren't so terrible, but they exist. I do not mean that the prices of your purchase could go down; they could, and although a workers amnesty reduced the number of construction workers in Dubai, which reduced the number of construction sites that could run 24-hours cycles, or just extended-schedule cycles, which in turn slowed down how quickly they would all be on the market and increase supply, they will still be finished one day, which will increase supply, which will have an effect. The whole market could collapse entirely for that matter (I don't think it will, but it could).

The financial risk that I am talking about is the one borne when you put money down. This is of course a standard practice if you purchase an apartment or villa still under construction. I did the same when I bought an apartment in the US. The difference is that when I put my money down in the US it went to an escrow account, where neither I nor the developer could touch it. When the building was finished and we went to settlement, that money was added to the rest of my payment to pay the entire amount. In Dubai the developer gets the money immediately. They could save it, invest it conservatively, use it to fund the construction of your development or give it away for all the control you have. They tend to invest it. This became a problem a while back however, when one of Dubai's two major development firms gambled big and lost a lot a large portion of their assets on the Dubai stock market. The company could have gone under and everyone who made deposits would have been out of luck. The good part about an authoritarian government and (semi)managed economy, however, is that this was not allowed to happen; that company's leadership was ordered to save the company using their own considerable personal assets, which they did.

An ad for yet a tower in the marina area. The area looks like that, only the buildings are surrounded by many others, there is no water in the background, and the trees (clearly photoshopped in in the original photo) occupy area occupied by more buildings in real life.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Dubai as Product Placement

One of the many nice things about the Internet is that I can watch television shows from across the world, which really means the US (and in one case Canada), with the occasional Taiwanese drama thrown in. This includes Little Mosque on the Prairie (the Canadian exception). One of the characters just went to Dubai (temporarily) to work on the "World's Tallest Tower." Secret Dubai reports that Dubai was also in the US show Gossip Girl, that time referencing the Palm. Now, if this were a brand, or a specific resort, I would be confident that it is product placement. As it is, I am pretty sure that it is as well. Dubai does have a lot of hype surrounding it, but characters very rarely leave the scene of their shows, and the city is nothing if not good at self promotion.

This looks like a paid advertisement as well, although given 60 Minutes reputation as a major show I would like to think they haven't sold out that much, and are merely buying into it all (Dubai is pretty cool, after all, much as we like to complain about the negative aspects).

Update: I just saw the next Little Mosque on the Prairie and yes, it is product placement. The main plot line was about a character getting engaged, but within the first few minutes another main character (the one that came to Dubai in the last episode), was back, had an amazing time, mentioned that the restaurants are "indeed fabulous" and then got into an argument with his wife because, despite all of the wonderful shopping opportunities, he forgot to bring her a gift, which itself carried out into the first half of the show. The same wife character read her husband's Dubai guide while he was gone and mentioned that she learned about Sheikh Mohammaed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum. I love Dubai, and I agree, there are some good restaurants and shops, but it really makes no sense for the city to be featured in a show about a small town on the Canadian plains.

UAE Internet to Be Liberalized, Sort-Of

Business 24-7 recently ran a story on plans to "liberalize" the Internet within the UAE, specifically the system of blocks which restrict residents' access to websites which are "inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values United Arab Emirates" or compete with the two state-dominated Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which coincidentally also provide all land and mobile phone service in the country as well (which is why VOIP is banned). Sensitive political sites are also blocked, particularly those which highlight problems within the UAE itself.

Some of these are criminal (phishing sites, for example), or truly objectionable by any measure (I am 100% for blocking child pornography sites, for example, and although I disagree I see their point about regular pornographic sites or pages that are both untrue and nasty), but a lot of it is frustrating and overly controlling. An art site (with no pornography, but with the very occasional nude) is among the blocked, as is the photo sharing site Flickr, which means that I can't email my father a link to my latest vacation pictures (he's not the sort to VPN). Which is just as well because if he saw me and the Dear Sister feeding the elephants apples all sorts of mayhem would break out. Facebook was out too until public outcry forced it back on the .ae net.

Which is why I found it so interesting when the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), which oversees these blocks, announced that they are in the process of developing a plan to "liberalize" Internet access. In a way they are right; the new plan will permit them to block only sub-sites, for example those pages on Flickr showing "objectionable" images or the Facebook pages related to dating services. This could open up the rest of Flickr and other such sites, which I like. It will however bring in new controls to popular sites which are currently entirely open, including Facebook.

It also makes me wonder what exactly will be blocked? Any profile listing the member as interested in dating for example? Random play? I think that latter option is stupid (are you really looking for "random play" on Facebook?) but a lot of people list those. What about people who just list themselves as "single" or give each other virtual alcoholic drinks?

Even more concerning are plans to institute these new blocks on the services provided by Du. Right now Etisalat provides all coverage in the UAE except in some free zones, where Du provides unblocked access to the foreign companies and their employees which operate therein. These new restrictions will apply there as well, thereby closing the last avenue to free information available to those who lack the technical understanding to circumvent the blocks.

The TRA also promises that the plan will include measures to improve Internet service and lower prices in the country. Neither is that great right now, and real improvements are sure to be welcome, which is why I'm sure this topic, unrelated to the issue of censorship in terms of applicable regulations or economic measures, was included in the "liberalization" plan.

Photoshop madness

After writing my last entry about real estate companies Photoshopping out neighboring buildings and Photoshopping in plants, greenery and waterfront, I cam across a new blog (or at least new to me), appropriately titled Photoshop Disasters, which showcases Photoshop errors in major publications. Whereas this blends my two interests of graphics design and advertising/PR/media agenda, I thought it might be fun to show a few as well as two videos showing how it is done.

Decapitated Observer

I know moving her waist in makes her look thinner, but either someone was lazy with their distortions or Ann Coulter is part scary monster. Which would explain a few things.

I am sure that the two photos were taken at least a few months apart, but still, the difference is less than natural.

And two videos on how it is done (body and face). Warning: the body video (the second video) includes the image of half of a woman's naked derriére, and so may not be suitable for playing in some areas, such as that big conference or your three year old's birthday party.

The Face

The Body

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Different Perspective on the "Terrorist Threat"

The following is an American cartoon is from 1919, but, barring the identity of the Scary Terrorist (I blurred the label), it could be from today. That threat and the social uproar over that group is long gone, which is a hopeful sign for resolving the current debate. Anyway, you can find the identity of the bomber and the history behind him by clicking on the image, but before you do that, try to guess who it could be...

Update on the Russian Presidential Election Results

An update on this story...

It appears that Team Putin/Medvedev got what they wanted. Voter turnout was the highest on record (Official turnout in Chechnya was 91%, which was interesting, seeing as I didn't think that 91% of the registered population still lived there at all), and Medvedev won with a high percentage of the vote, 67.5%, the combination of both which made his victory look like it really was the result of the majority's will, even if his candidacy was created by Putin.

In further good news for Medvedev, his official victory results were not so high that they embarrassed Putin. The latter's highest election win was with 70.1%, and to exceed that might make Medvedev look more popular than his mentor, which would not due. Fortunately,
with 67.%, he scored high, won big, but did not exceed that threshold.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Saudi Gender Expectations

My Dear Sister is in rather challenging executive MBA program (she's smart like that). A lot of the work at said program is done in the same groups, and over time she got to know one of her classmates, a Saudi who works at the embassy. He's a very thoughtful guy, and ever since she told him that we used to live in there, he included her on the Embassy's gift list. This is great, and much appreciated around holidays and other events when the Embassy sends stuff out. This may be at an end however due to one scandalized embassy employee. I hope not , but we'll see.

It all started over this weekend, when a family friend's children participated at International Night at their school. They put a lot of effort into the table for their country, Afghanistan, as they really wanted to show it in the best light. Dear Sister and our mother were invited to come see it, so they went (the mother is a sucker for cute children, and as I have thus far proved uncooperative in producing grandchildren she gets her fix where she can). The Saudi table was next door, and Dear Sister started talking to a Saudi mother standing there. He husband came over as well and joined the conversation. It's a friendly, international school and Dear Sister didn't think anything about this until the following conversation:

Saudi Father: I work at the Saudi Embassy
Dear Sister: Oh really? I have a friend who works there.
Saudi Father: How nice, what is her name?
Dear Sister: Oh his name is Faisal.
- brief silence -
Saudi Father: But that is a boys name!
Dear Sister: Yes, his name is Faisal
Saudi Father: What is his family name? What is his job exactly?
Dear Sister: (realizing now that she may not be doing her friend any favors): Oh, I'm not sure. He's not really a friend, we just go to class together.
Saudi Father: Where do you study?
Dear Sister: -Major (and wrong) University-

Dear Sister then suddenly noticed our mother across the room and ran off as fast as she could. When she came back, the Saudi table was unmanned and the Saudi family stayed away from her scandalous self for the rest of the evening. She then wrote an email to Faisal to give him a head' s up that she may have compromised his reputation.

Ahh, drama!

Cool Sights Around Moscow

Moscow architecture, though attractive (large Soviet era apartment complexes excepted), is usually fairly conservative, so when I saw this building near the Patriarch Pond, it was a very pleasant surprise:

The following monument not far from the Kropotkinskay Metro is also pretty cool. It is a memorial to Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov, an author most famous for writing And Quiet Flows the Don, and depicts the author on a boat, taking a herd of horses across that river in a scene based on that book.

This Parking Lot Brought to You by the Crown Prince of Dubai

A few weeks ago Sheikh Mohammad announced that his third son Hamdan would succeed him, and that his second son Maktoum would be deputy ruler. Hamdan is also known as Faza'a (very rough translation; cool guy. He sort of chose this nickname when he started publishing poems under it, but the real origins before that are less clear. Maybe he chose it, maybe it was given to him, maybe a PR team did, I've heard different versions).

I suspected he was running for political office, so to speak, when large billboards with his face and website started popping up over town over a year ago (maybe earlier, but that's when I first noticed them), officially in connection to a traditional sports competition (they didn't mention the sports and they stay up a lot longer as well). The old site was even more dramatic, with Haman on a large horse, rearing up over the sand. The new one just has photos of the crown prince looking alternatively visionary (in a pose similar to that of father on the latter's book, My Vision) and cool, yet traditional. It also plays inspirational music that sounds a bit like second half of the finale in the Daniel Day-Lewis version of Last of the Mohicans. You can also vote on what you think of the new site design; good or wonderful.

Sheikh Hamdan also has a logo, which is on the photos below, based on his nickname Faza'a and the tendency of Arabic writers to write the letter غ(with or without the dot, which changes the pronunciation in Arabic) as 3 when typing in Latin characters. It's actually a pretty good logo; it incorporates the colors of the UAE, uses his nickname, connecting him to common appeal, and uses a combination of Latin, Arabic and transliterated characters, showing inclusiveness yet hipness and a it of tech savvy. The designers earned their fee on that one, in my opinion anyway.

It, and him, have been even more prevalent since his new role was announced. Although I'm in Moscow until the end of March, I went to Sana'a' very briefly (and in a lack of forethought, used up my last entry on my visa), which was amazing, and stopped in Dubai on the way back. For all the years they've been having it, I never went out to the Global Village, so I went to check it out.

The festival itself was mixed (some of the stores and salespeople were very interesting, a lot were not, and I avoided the rides section, as it reminded me more of the time I played a polo exhibition match at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair than anything else), but that is another post. Another interesting point was how heavily the entrance was covered with Hamdan and his logo. Sheikh Mohammed's image was present, but it was Faza'a (and that was the name that was everywhere, not Hamdan), who was really omnipresent. His logo was on the parking signs, one of the main buildings and there was an entire Faza'a gift shop where you could buy hats, T-Shirts, and even a Faza'a alarm clock. I bought the alarm clock, because I couldn't resist, and a hat for Diana. I'm not sure if I'll give it to her though; I think Faza'a was ripped off by his suppliers, as the quality is pretty poor. The resolution of the small printed logo on my alarm clock also isn't good, and a basic ink jet could take care of that. Anyway, I left with the impression that they really wanted me to feel grateful to Hamdan for proving all these wonderful things, as well as buy and show my support later throughout the UAE, plus reinforce my own support by doing so. It's not a new tactic, and in the UAE it is common to see events as under the patronage of one dignitary or another (both to give the even legitimacy, even more importantly to remind you that everything good stems from the current establishment) but it is still noteworthy because of how strongly it's being executed.

This parking lot brought to you by the Crown Prince, Our Guy Faza'a

This early morning alarm also brought to you by His Highness, Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai

Going Back to Dubailand

Yes, yes, I know its a development's name, but I've been using that term for the City that Runs on Hype since before that project was a twinkle in Sheikh Mohammad's eye,* and I'll use it is I choose. Anyway, Moscow has and continues to be wonderful, and I'll be very sad to leave (I'm sad just thinking about it), but I'm still happy to be getting back to DXB at the end of the month.

In the mean time, here are four of my favorite images from DXB. They aren't the best in terms of artistic quality, but they are my favorites in terms of what they show...

* As do many other projects in Dubai, the ruling family is the ultimate owner, or at least part owner. Dubailand is a project of Tatweer, itself a company owned by Dubai Holding, an investment company which belongs to Sheikh Mohammed.

A view of the beach, Gulf and one of the Palms

The Dubai Fort and an old-style hotel

The Dubai Dreams camel at the Emirates Towers

Real camels returning home at sunset. Reminds me of Saudi...

The Dilemma of Voting Results

Today are the presidential elections here in Moscow, and although everyone expects Dimitri Medvedev to win, the big question is at what percentage. There is a major push to get people to vote; advertising is everywhere, including on my metro fare card:

Translation: March 2 - Presidential Election of the Russian Federation

This effort is not just from above; governors, and in the case of Moscow, Mayor Luzhkov, are falling over themselves to get high turnout in order to show support for President Putin (and soon to be Prime Minister) and future President (and current Deputy Prime Minister) Medvedev. This is because high voter turnout numbers are necessary to provide legitimacy to the elections. It was always obvious than whomever Putin chose would be the next president (just as he became president after Yeltsin chose him), and if the elections are to appear legitimate, then a really high percentage of the electorate must vote. That way, when Medvedev wins, he can say that it really was the will of the people, despite the circumstances of his candidacy. If 80% of the country votes, and he wins 70% of the votes, then he has a case. If only 40% votes, then even 80% of that 40% won't be enough to show that he has a true mandate.

At the same time, he doesn't want too much of the actual vote. Putin got almost exactly 70% of the vote during his last election; to exceed that number would embarass his patron (and Prime Minister), and Medvedev has been very cautious not to do that. Even in Medvedev's own campaign billboards (some of which he shares with his patron) Putin stand a little forward.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Disturbing Sign of Housing and Credit Difficulties in the US

There is a service called You Walk Away now available in America which, for 1,000 USD, will help you set up a way to walk away from your mortgage, aka give up the house and let the bank foreclose. A growing number of people are doing this, as their mortgage rates go up as interests rise yet the value of their house declines, leaving them making payments on houses they can't afford which are worth less than what they owe.

The service promises to help you do this while avoiding calls from creditors, staying in your house without payments for eight months and removing the foreclosure from customers' credit record (I guess have to promise the eight-months-without-payments part in order to get people already in serious financial trouble to give them a thousand dollars). But the fact that such a service exists means that enough people are in a situation to considered walking away from their home and mortgage that You Walk Away thought that a business was viable. I'm sure it is, and all of the press coverage will only help.