Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Russian Govenrment Cracking Down on the Internet

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 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.

Another review of the Palm

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.

Some numbers from the Guardian:

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

More Taxis Please. And Possibly a Traffic Policy.

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

UAE Community Blog Temporarily(?) Blocked by Google

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.

An Unforeseen Benefit of Hajj

Slate has an interesting article detailing the affects Hajj had on Pakistani Hajis. Researchers David Clingingsmith, Asim Khwaja, and Michael Kremer surveyed more than 1,600 Pakistanis, about half of whom went on the Hajj in 2006. The other half applied for visas, but were denied (in the face of literally overwhelming demand, Saudi gives each country a quota of how many Hajjis they can send each year. Pakistan holds a lottery for these visas, and the participants all took place in this lottery). Each group was roughly similar in terms of the distribution of various socio-economic groups, and all were Hajj-minded Pakistanis; the only difference was that some got to go and some didn't.

The researchers found that returning Hajjis expressed more moderate views on a range of issues, both religious and nonreligious (although mostly religious, which is really not that shocking), possibly as a result of seeing so many different peoples united in what they view as a holy and important event.

Some highlights:

- The Pakistani Hajjis were more likely to follow mainstream Muslim practices, such as praying five times a day, and eschew traditional and tribal practices related to religion, such as the veneration of local saints' tombs.

- The Pakistani Hajjis expressed more tolerant views of other Muslims. Just over half of the Pakistanis who didn't go on the Hajj told the survey team that they had a positive view of other Muslim countries. This figure jumped to nearly 70 percent among Hajj survey respondents.

- The Hajjis were 25 percent less likely to believe that it was impossible for Muslims of different ethnicities or sects to live together in harmony

- Hajjis were more likely than non-Hajjis to hold the opinion that people of all religions can live in harmony.

- Hajjis were also less likely to feel that extreme methods—such as suicide bombings or attacks on civilians—could be justified in dealing with disagreements between Muslims and non-Muslims.

- Fewer Hajjis thought that men are intellectually superior to women, and a greater fraction expressed a concern for crimes against women in Pakistan. (The authors hypothesize that this is "because in Mecca, men and women pray together. By contrast, women in Pakistan rarely attend religious services, and when they do, they're relegated to a separate part of the mosque from the men. Familiarity seems to breed tolerance and respect.")

Go Hajj!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Those Terrible, Terrible Maids

First of all, let me start of my saying that I love maids. Particularly my or my family's (even you, Sussana, who would tell my mother on me when I came home late or was even up and about the house after hours while I was in high school). But, something, anything, must be done to combat the scourge that is foreign domestic workers! Human Rights Watch clearly has no idea what is really going on.

First they abuse the poor Saudis by making unreasonable demands and running away en masse if they aren't spoiled by decent pay and a day off each week. They even had a dedicated series of "Be Nice to Maids" public service announcements.

Now they have turned their vicious eyes to the poor Kuwaiti men, tempting while they work and occasionally inveigling them into marrying them. Fortunately, the Kuwaiti government may step in to protect their boys. Nawal Al-Muqaihit, a third district candidate said that if she was elected to Parliament she would submit a proposal forbidding Kuwaiti men from employing attractive maid-servants in order to prevent them from getting married.

In a more serious tone, she has a point, only in that high rates of out-marriage can threaten a culture, particularly one that is already surrounded by a large number of foreigners. But I doubt attractive maids are the primary cause. If anything, such a measure may be in the attractive would-be maids wishing to avoid h

High Divorce Rate Among Nationals Due to Second Wives

I just saw this older article discussing the high divorce rate among Emirati men. Apparently 31.9 % of all divorces among UAE Nationals are due to the men taking a second wife. According to a study published by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs magazine, 28% of all marriages registered by Emirati men are to foreign women, and most of these are second marriages.

I'm not sure what the cause of this "second foreign wife" phenomenon is, but a few years ago I heard a story about a phenomenon amongst the Taliban, whereby the already-married Talibs arrived in Kabul (sans village wife) and married again to a more sophisticated and exciting city wife. These cases could be the same; "first I married, the socially-acceptable choice, now I marry the one I really like/hot on." Or it could be a case of expenses; marrying within the community costs tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dirhams, something that a man may not want to do twice. Or it may simply be the lack of good local options for a second wife; clearly bigamy is upsetting to the first wives; perhaps unmarried women also find it upsetting, and chose not to marry already-married men (original story here).

Alternatively, if a man would marry again over what are clearly his wife's strenuous objections, then maybe she just doesn't want to be with a man who could do something that upsetting to her.

Anyway, it's an interesting statistic.

PS In case you were wondering, 23.7% of divorces stemmed from financial problems, 34.4% childlessness (trying again with a different spouse. are there no fertility doctors to work out what is going on? Or are these divorces the result of people who have been, and are are seeking a spouse without confirmed fertility problems?), while 21.4% were the result of
parental intervention.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Save the Honey Bee

I love bees. They are friendly, cooperative little dears that are quite willing to be tough when necessary and work in incredibly complex networks throughout their lives. I also like honey, flowers and agriculture (honeybees and their hives are actually trucked from field to field in many places to maximize their pollination services throughout the growing season of various crops).

Which is why Colony Collapse Disorder is so concerning. The term is used to describe a mysterious phenomenon whereby what entire colonies of bees just disappear and die, and it is spreading fast enough and wide enough to threaten the millions of farms that depend on them to pollinate their crops (as well as the bees themselves) on a massive scale.

And which is also why I'm glad someone is making a public effort to improve the situation. Yes, it's Haagen-Daaz ice cream, and yes, they have a commercial/PR angle, but the money raised goes directly to research at the University of California and Davis and Penn State universities looking into causes and cures for this disease.

So take a minute, learn more and help the honeybees if you are so inclined.

The Hype is Moving West-ward

A few years ago, it was not uncommon to see ads for Dubai real estate in the US, specifically the DC and New York newspapers (those being the two US cities in which I spend the most time). There were even quasi-fraudulent "get rich investing in Dubai real estate" weekend seminars held in hotel ballrooms. Now that the market has stabilized (and may even go down a bit as more buildings are finally completed and go online, the marketing fury has moved on. I initially assumed it had just died down a bit to more rational levels, but my recent extended stay in Moscow suggests otherwise. There, ads for Dubai real estate about, with even flashing neon billboards and banners hanging from high rises touting apartments (sometime it is villas, but mostly apartments) here in DXB.

The advertising has even gone a step further. I am currently considering purchasing an apartment in Moscow (I would have done so already, but spending 1,300,000 Euros for a one bedroom, even a nice one, seems a bit much, and there isn't a lot of real estate that isn't either over budget or poor quality, which means I'm still looking), and I am starting to get annoyed by the number of listings, officially in Moscow, that are really for units in Dubai. I guess the idea is that anyone with money to buy real estate in Moscow could be tempted to spend instead in Dubai. The tactic must work, as these listings are everywhere, enough so that real Moscow sellers stopped using them and I've basically given up on independent listings and am sticking to Moscow real estate agencies and their own vetted listings. It's a real pain though - Moscow agencies don't usually cross list, which means that I have to work with several agencies to see a good range of places.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Ships Impounded for Middle East Internet Cable Cuts

Although Egyptian authorities said that satellite imagery showed no activity around the cable that was damaged off of their coast, Dubai disagrees.

It looks like last week Dubai authorities impounded two ships who were spotted in satellite photos near the damaged cables around the time that they were cut. The ships were identified by Reliance Globalcom, whose FLAG Telecom unit maintains the cables, and which in turn notified the Dubai Port Authority.

Officially, the two ships, the MV Hounslow and MT Ann improperly dropped anchor near the cables and accidentally severed them. When they arrived in Dubai on February 19, the Iraqi and Korean ships were seized. Reportedly, the Korean ship paid 60,000 USD in compensation to FLAG Telecom for repair costs while the Iraqi ship is sitll being held.

Whether other ships accidentally cut the other three cables serving the Middle East and caused a loss of power to a sixth is yet ot be determined. ;).

Friday, April 18, 2008

I don't get (fully) the Burj (Al-Arab)

The building is really quite special. It is attractive, distinctive, and has done much for Dubai's international profile. Tom Wright certainly earned his commission (attractive photos follow). However, the furniture is a bit overdone/tacky (even in flashy Dubai) and the food really isn't that great, especially for the price. Friends visited from out of town last weekend, and we had a better dinner at Buddha Bar than at Al-Mahara (although the aquarium is very cool. I really like fish and fully intend to install quite a serious installation if I ever stop traveling and moving round so often). At this point I think it gets a lot of mileage as a landmark, and I'll continue to take curious visitors form out of town there, but otherwise, I'm much happier looking at it from 360 (when that's open) than going inside.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Weekend in Turkey, Faces from the Past, Current Religious Tensions and the Nika Rebellion

Having left Moscow, but missing some of the people I left there (one in particular), I ran off to Istanbul for a bit. I mostly went to meet them, but also because I was tired of people saying "you haven't been to Istanbul? You have to go!" and of course because I am quite in love with history, and after having read so much about the region and the Ottoman Empire, I didn't want to miss an opportunity to see some of these famous sites(Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace,the spectacular Cistern and the Hippodrome, now a small plaza, which was the center of the Nika Rebellion) firsthand.

In addition to a lovely first morning sitting on my balcony and watching the seabirds dart about as the sun rose over the mighty Bosporus and its many ships, and a peaceful evening at a nargile (shisha) bar on a bridge above the water and spamming the two continents, there were quite a few spectacular sights.

Hagia Sophia was particularly interesting, not only for its own beauty, the architectural presence (Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles have my profound respect), and clearly visible history, but because I was there with the Dangerous Russian (so called not because he is a dangerous person, but rather because he is dangerous to me), which gave the visit a very different perspective. To my liberal eyes, Hagia Sophia is currently in a good situation; first for Christians, then Muslims, she is now open to all. The DR thinks quite differently, however. He is a true (Orthodox) believer and was quite upset over the imposition of Islam over so holy a site. His argument was that Christians should not desecrate Moslem sites and Mosques, while Mehmet the Conqeuror should never have made Hagia Sophia a Mosque, and remaining Islamic items, most notably the large calligraphic shields a desecration that should be removed out of respect to the Church.

Some of the Byzantine mosaics are in very poor repair as well, a situation exacerbated by the recent uncovering of many, which were beneath later Islamic plaster and decor. Exposed to the air, the grout crumbled and the mosaics imperiled. The Dangerous Russian was of the opinion that it might be deliberate, in order to eradicate Christian elements, an idea which I initially thought was a bit paranoid, but which I have since heard echoed in some calmer, more academic circles. Apparently the new, Islamic, government is making a few people nervous and whereas the elimination of rival religious or ethnic symbols is one of the first signs of impending conflict, the tragedy of the mosaics' loss (if they are not restored) is viewed by some as a sign that difficulties may be ahead. I'm not sure if I believe this, but it is an interesting perspective.

On a more secular front, also bought myself some highly secular Attatürk collectors' cards, each with a photo of Attatürk looking alternatively paternal, vigilant, visionary, caring, military, intelligent, hard working, etc and with an inspirational quite from the Great Man (alas, in Turkish only, which I don't speak, and which means that I must slowly accumulate translations from my few Turkish-speaking acquaintances), on the back.

It was also interesting to see how many traces of the Nika Rebellion remain. Such a short incident, almost 1500 years ago, and it is still visible. Which makes me wonder what other stories are still there, if one only knew what to look for.

The Aforementioned Shields in Hagia Sophia
One of the Remaining Christian Mosaic in Hagia Sophia

The Cistern. Originally built to hold water for the city, it is still elegant and graceful, an ambiance only enhanced by the cool temperature, alternatively ornamental and funky-looking fishes and the slow, soft Turkish music echoing throughout.

First of two large Medusa's heads used as bases for two columns in the northwest corner of the cistern. The heads (already Roman antiques when the cistern was built in the sixth century) were deliberately placed upside down and sideways, respectively, and would have been underwater when the cistern was full. The exact reason for doing this is unknown, although superstitions regarding the role of representations of Medusa in protecting buildings is documented.

The second, sideways, Medusa head/column base

Peaceful garden adjacent to a Mosque by the Galata Bridge

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Story of the Nika Rebellion

The story has it all - intrigues, violence, great philosophical and legal debates and changes, proud empresses and loyal, brilliant servants.

Wikipedia's take.

War and Game's Overview.

A More Personal Approach from Catholic Men's Quarterly

A section of the Second Hagia Sohpia (the current incarnation, built 532 and 537 AD, is the third), destroyed during the Nika Rebellion (more here and here) on 532 AD. The Church had a wooden roof, and it burned along with much of the city. There are 12 lambs total, representing the 12 Apostles.

The hilltop prior to the Nika Revolt (including Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome and the Palace (now occupied by the third Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, a park, a plaza and stores, shops and cafes. The Cistern is still below.)

The site of the Hippodrome. now a small plaza with two obelisks. Also the site of many pigeons, who may not understand the theory of circles, but in maintaining their "attack distance" (or, in this case "flight distance") have created one anyway. (Attack distance being the minimum distance at which an animal will attack/flee. It is roughly the same for all member of a species, be it pigeons or tigers, which is how one gets circular pigeon line-ups.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Very Bad Sign or Marketing Genius?

I'm going with both, although I'm glad to hear it will soon be illegal (who would let their child do that?)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My Very Thoughts

The Bush Family and American Fiscal Discipline

China and the Olympics