Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Palm Jumeirah

I saw this today on MSN. An artificial island owned by the government of Dubai.

Amazing to look at, but how will it all turn out?

According to the press material from the developers, the Jumeirah Palm island will feature themed boutique hotels, three types of villas (Signature Villas, Garden Homes and Canal Cove Town Homes), shoreline apartment buildings, beaches, marinas, restaurants, caf├ęs and a variety of retail outlets. Over 30 beachfront hotels will be opened by the end of 2009.

From Wikipedia: The Palm Jumeirah was created by pouring sand fill onto the 10.5 metre-deep seabed using dredgers. Above sea level, 3 metres of the reclamation were achieved by a dredging technique known as "rainbowing," in which the sand fill was sprayed over the surface of the rising island. Calcareous sand was used for the reclamation. The island includes a curved breakwater using natural rock, intended to encourage the creation of a natural reef and provide habitats for sea life. The land form was reclaimed by the Dutch company Van Oord, who are world experts in land reclamation. Total cost reached US$12.3 billion and maintaining the island is a costly expenditure.

Costly to say the least. I don't know that this project will turn out well. It's been delayed for the last two years. The workers are being mistreated. The temperature in Dubai averages close to 117 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. And there have been numerous environmental concerns about the project.

I found this revealing article from Guardian UK

Pitfalls in paradise: why Palm Jumeirah is struggling to live up to the hype
Low-paid workers and villa gripes cast a cloud over 'eighth wonder of the world' in Dubai

By Robert Booth in Dubai
The Guardian, Saturday April 26 2008

Dubai's sheikhs have claimed it is "the eighth wonder of the world", and seen from space the tree-shaped sand and rock formation of the Palm Jumeirah looks exactly that.

But after the hype about David Beckham buying a mansion here and the novelty of living four miles out to sea has faded, that claim is starting to look shaky. It seems there is a little trouble in paradise.

Four thousand "Palm pioneers" have moved in and are getting to grips with life in the sweltering Arabian Gulf. This week, when the Guardian visited, the gripes were as common as the plaudits among the Brits who are in the vanguard of this new community.

Multimillion-pound villas have been squeezed together "like Coronation Street", air-conditioning bills are hitting £800 a month and persistent snags have led some to joke it is more "eighth blunder" than "eighth wonder".

The villas were developed by the government-owned Nakheel Properties, and many residents believe the company's slogan, "Our vision inspires humanity", which flutters on flags around the place, is beginning to look over-egged.

It is not all bad news. The blue seas which lap the man-made shores are teeming with rays, hermit crabs and baracudas. Away from the ongoing construction, which has four years to run, life in the middle of the ocean is incredibly peaceful.

But for 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, it was not what she expected. 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."

Despite summer temperatures of 48C and high humidity, access to centralised air conditioning was not included in the purchase price of apartments, and residents are rebelling against plans to ask them to pay extra. More seriously, there is evidence the low-pay and hard conditions endured by the thousands of migrant workers who built the area are driving many into despair and debt.

It has made for an awkward start for a development that is far more than a whim of the Dubai royal family. Palm Jumeirah is the testing ground for the United Arab Emirates' strategy for life after oil - big-scale tourism. Once complete, there will be homes and hotel rooms for 65,000 people.

Crucially, the Palm adds 40 miles to Dubai's coastline. The sheikhs are gambling this will keep the visitors coming back. Two even bigger man-made islands are under way along the coast: a replica of an existing island called The World and another called The Universe.

The lab rats in this experiment are a strange mix. They include England footballers, a battalion of middle-class Britons from places such as Salisbury and Weybridge, and even, it is said, Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, who is thought to have a house opposite Kieron Dyer, the West Ham midfielder.

Raffaele Cannas, 47, a British property consultant, was one of the first to pick up his keys in late 2006 and found himself squeezing a couple of England players into his Mini after they'd asked to see how he had decorated his apartment. "I didn't know who they were at first, but I had David James doubled up in the front seat and Andy Cole tucked in the back," he says.

After the Brits came the Russians, and a growing number of rich Iranians. Many aspects to life here are undeniably good. Residents can soak up an incredible amount of sunshine - some years it never rains - and the beaches are groomed at least twice a week.

But this is no picture-book desert island. Its size is the most arresting characteristic for newcomers. An eight-lane motorway is at the Palm's trunk, and each frond is a mile long. Meanwhile, there is yet more expansion, with 40 hotels being built on the breakwater.

At times it is also a harsh environment. Lawns routinely wither without intense watering and the tallest trees are, in fact, mobile phone masts dressed up to look like palms.

Just 18 months after moving in, Cannas is thinking of leaving for New Zealand. "The marketing machine was so powerful, calling the Palm the eighth wonder of the world, that people's expectations went through the roof," he says. "It hasn't turned out like that."

For many soaring property prices have softened any discomforts. A "signature villa" which went for £750,000 in 2002 is now worth £3m.

A nagging guilt for some is the quality of life of the migrant construction workers who built all this. Most are from India and Bangladesh and they travel in bus convoys from labour camps in the desert each morning.

A typical labourer earns £25 a week, and many are in debt to agents in their home countries who paid for their passage. KV Shamsudheen, a workers' rights activist in Dubai, says interest rates can be as high as 120% a year.

One hundred migrant workers killed themselves in the Emirates in 2006, and the trend is rising, he says. Alcohol is a growing problem, with workers racking up debts to buy drink.

In Jebel Ali, a dusty camp almost 10 miles from the Palm, 30,000 male workers live up to 12 a room in prefabricated blocks. "I am not happy," says a Bangladeshi carpenter known locally as Sofiull, 52. "The company said I would earn £60 a week, but I am getting £30. They have delayed my pay two months and it's a great problem."

Mohamed Mahboub, 30, has been in Dubai for three years. He hasn't seen his daughter since she was a baby, but sends £30 of his £45-a-week supervisor's salary home. "I miss her, but I am a poor man and I owe money, so I cannot go back yet," he says.

It is a world away from the exclusive gated fronds back on the Palm, where the only sound is often the splash of a paddle from a kayak, the favourite pastime of Palm dwellers.

"Life here is 150% better than in the UK," says Donna Dempsey, 46, a ballet teacher from Kent. "We have our garbage collected every day, we have clean streets, we have low crime. You can really chill here. Sometimes it's hard to go to work."

In numbers

The number of litres of desalinated drinking water the Palm Jumeirah uses when at capacity

Bottlenose dolphins have been flown in from the Solomon Islands to populate Dolphin Bay, an 11-acre lagoon

The cubic metres of sand used to build the Palm Jumeirah

The site has doubled the natural 42-mile coastline of Dubai

The Palm is four times the size of Hyde Park in central London

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dark Knight

I finally got around to seeing The Dark Knight over the weekend.

And wow... the film looks nothing like the previous Batman movies.

In fact, it looks more like a Michael Mann movie.

The Chicago location gave Gotham a much more realistic city atmosphere than we've become accustomed to seeing in the previous Batman movies.

And when I read that one of director Christopher Nolan's biggest influences for the film's style was the movie Heat, which starred Al Pacino and Robert Deniro, I wasn't surprised.

Anyone viewing the two movies will immediately see this in the cinematography and editing styles. There's even a nod to Heat with the cameo appearance of William Fichtner as a Bank Manager during the opening robbery sequence.

In fact, if The Dark Knight wasn't a superhero movie, I'd swear it was a crime drama along the lines of Heat, Thief, Miami Vice or Collateral. From the use of the color blue as a motif to the glass window offices, penthouses and buildings of Gotham's inhabitants, the film just felt like a Michael Mann crime drama.

Heath Ledger's performance was excellent. It was dark, brooding and scary. I can see how he may have fallen into a depression after dwelling in the mind of such a psychopathic character.

As usual, there were some fun supporting character turns from Morgan Freeman and Micheal Caine, as well as a more nuanced performance from Gary Oldman, who I can't help but think looks like The Simpson's neighbor Ned Flanders when I see him wearing that mustache and glasses.

Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal also turned in first-rate performances that could easily have translated into more conventional crime drama movies.

The Dark Knight's grim and tragic sensibilities also gave it a totally different viewpoint than your standard superhero flick. Whether this is good or bad depends on the viewer.

Now, don't get me wrong. I loved the film. I'm a huge Michael Mann fan. And I applaud Nolan for a job well done.

I'm even convinced this is a better approach than the comic cartoon versions turned in previously starring Clooney, Kilmer, et al.

But all of this does bring up the question: Is this going to be a trend we can expect to see more of in American superhero action films?

Friday, July 25, 2008

PS2 game console incites real war?

I read this today online:

Playstation 2 component incites African war
Console war reaches past the couch and into the Congo, claims report.

Has the video game industry dug up its very own blood diamond?

According to a report by activist site Toward Freedom, for the past decade the search for a rare metal necessary in the manufacturing of Sony's Playstation 2 game console has fueled a brutal conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At the center of the conflict is the unrefined metallic ore, coltan. After processing, coltan turns into a powder called tantalum, which is used extensively in a wealth of western electronic devices including cell phones, computers and, of course, game consoles.

Allegedly, the demand for coltan prompted Rwandan military groups and western mining companies to plunder hundreds of millions of dollars worth of the rare metal, often by forcing prisoners-of-war and even children to work in the country's coltan mines.

"Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms," said Ex-British Parliament Member Oona King.

So where's the connection to Sony? According to Toward Freedom, during the 2000 launch of the PS2, the electronics giant was having trouble meeting consumer demand. To pump out more units, Sony required a significant increase in the production of electric capacitors, which are primarily made with tantalum. This helped drive the world price of the powder from $49/pound to a whopping $275/pound, resulting in the frenzied scouring of the Congolese hills known for being ripe with coltan.

Sony has since sworn off using tantalum acquired from the Congo, claiming that current builds of the PS2, PSP and PS3 consoles are sourced from a variety of mines in several different countries.

But according to researcher David Barouski, they're hardly off the hook.

"SONY's PlayStation 2 launch...was a big part of the huge increase in demand for coltan that began in early 1999," he explained. "SONY and other companies like it, have the benefit of plausible deniability, because the coltan ore trades hands so many times from when it is mined to when SONY gets a processed product, that a company often has no idea where the original coltan ore came from, and frankly don't care to know. But statistical analysis shows it to be nearly inconceivable that SONY made all its PlayStations without using Congolese coltan."

Currently, the Playstation 2 is the best-selling video game console of all-time, having sold through over 140 million units.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Toursim Malaysia

I'm back from Sarawak, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Despite some torrential tropical rain showers, I spent a fun weekend at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak near Damai Beach Resort where I took a swim in the South China Sea.

I was invited as part of a sponsored group by Tourism Malaysia, which also included a couple of American travel writers from New York (Max and Sonja) and one from L.A.

There were travel agents and travel writers from all over the world at the festival, including a large number of Australians (23 total), who turned out at the Tourism Malaysia Media event on my second day. I also met a group of travel writers and travel agents from Hong Kong and the U.K.

Since 1959, Toursim Malaysia has expanded to under the Tourism Development Corporation of Malaysia (TDCM) and has helped to increase tourism income from 4 million ringgit in 1989 to a whopping 46.1 billion ringgit in 2007, along with a record 20.9 million visitor arrivals.

Being from the United States, I was surprised to find that North America was not targeted among the top 10 countries for their 2008 marketing campaign. In fact, the majority of visitors to Malaysia come from Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei, followed by China, India, Japan, Philippines, Australia and the U.K.

This shouldn't be a big shock to anyone though once you look at Malaysia's drawing points: Eco-tourism, sea sports, hiking, trekking, adventure sports, caving or spelunking, beaches, etc.

For Americans, most of those activities can be accomplished stateside. And for those that want a little more of tropics, there's always Hawaii.

But not to take anything away from Malaysia, it's a great country, I loved it. And the price is right. Currently, one U.S. dollar is worth about 3.24 ringgit, which makes for some nice bargains for shoppers. However, once you factor in the price of airfare to get there, and the fact that Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, it kind of explains why most Americans don't travel there very often on vacation.

Aside from that, Malaysia is a beautiful country and world travelers will find it a unique destination. There's a rich history of cross-cultural exchange and a wide variety of different heritages on display, including Malay, Chinese, Indian and the local indigenous peoples in Borneo.
It's a great place to study abroad for International students seeking Homestay programs with native villagers or for those seeking educational Eco-tours at United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organization approved World Heritage Sites such the limestone caves in Mulu National Park.

My favorite part of our trip was a journey into the countryside to see the Annah Reis Longhouse inhabited by several generations of Bidayuh natives, as well as the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre where we saw orangutan, which are currently listed as endangered species.

Orangutan are only found in Borneo and Sumatra. The Sumatran orangutan have black fur, while the ones in Borneo have a brown color fur. They live in nests in the trees much like squirrels do, and they eat fruit, leaves and the occasional gekko.

Since 1988, the government has established a no hunting, no eating law regarding orangutan in Malaysia. Orangutan are totally protected under the law and persons breaking the law can be fined 50,000 ringgit and imprisoned for 5 years.

There are currently 23 living at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, including a newborn baby. The dominant male is named Ritchie and goes by the nickname "The Boss."

Interestingly enough, our guide told us that orangutan are 96 percent genetically similar to humans. They have a 50 year life span and live mostly solitary lives rather than in large groups.

What I found most amusing though was that in Malaysia, smoking is allowed almost everywhere. At the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, they had a huge urinal-like metal bin for smokers to put out their ashes before entering the park, but nevertheless people were smoking right next to the trees and foliage. Good thing it's the rainforest and wet! I doubt they'd ever allow smoking anywhere near a national park like Yosemite in the U.S.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Defenders of Nanking

I read this online. Interesting bit of history, heretofore relatively obscure to the general public:

Defenders of Nanking

By Raymond Cheung

Chinese-Americans featured prominently in the aerial defense of Nanking. Flight-Leader Capt. “Buffalo” Wong Sin-sui (Wang Xin-rui in Pinyin) of Los Angeles, California flew with the 17th Squadron, 3rd Pursuit Group, Republic of China Air Force. He is believed to have scored the first victory over Nanking on 15-Aug-37.

On that day, 20 G3M1 of the Kisarazu Air Group of the Japanese Naval Air Force took off from Omura in Japan to attack Nanking. The Chinese Air Raid Warning Network provided early warning of the approach of the Japanese planes. (This was a network set up by Claire Lee Chennault of ground observers connected to Chinese air bases by telephone).

With this early warning, the 3rd and 5th Pursuit Group defending Nanking was able to scramble a motley collection of Boeing P-26, Curtiss Hawk II and Italian Fiat CR-32 fighters to intercept the Japanese raiders. So timely was the warning that Hawk III fighters of the 4th Pursuit Group and Hawk II of the 34th Provisional Pursuit Group were also summoned from Shanghai to join the action. As a result, 4 of the Japanese raiders were shot down and another 6 damaged (some returning to Chejudo on one engine).

Buffalo Wong is thought to have downed the first Japanese bomber to fall on the Chinese capitol. Lt. Harry Low (Liu Leng-guang) of Portland, Oregon (flying an Italian CR-32) shared in the destruction of another. Japanese Navy records indicate that they were very surprised at the heavy resistance encountered.

On the following day (16-Aug-1937), Japanese bombers returned, belonging to the Kanoya Air Group flying from Matsuyama (now Sungshan) airbase in Taipei, Taiwan. Again the 3rd Pursuit Group scrambled their interceptors. This time, Capt. John Wong (Huang Pan-yang) of Seattle, Oregon and the leader of 17th Squadron, scored a major success, downing two of the Japanese bombers. First he downed the G3M1 flown by Ensign Yamanouchi before it was able to release its bombs. Then, seeing Lt. Wong Tse-tsim (Wang Ze-zhan) of Los Angeles, California, attacking another G3M1 without success, John joined in the fray. Diving below and then pulling up for a zero-deflection shot, John set the Japanese bomber alight and sent it crashing to the south of Da Xiao-chang Airfield. This turned out to be a major blow to the Japanese Naval Air Force as the pilot of this bomber was the Air Group Leader (Hikko-cho) Lt. Commander Nitta.

Lt. Art Chin (Chen Rui-qian) of Portland, Oregon chased another G3M1 all the way out to the mouth of the Yangtse in his Curtiss Hawk II biplane. Art shot up his victim but was unable to finish it off. He tried to ram the Japanese but his plane was too slow and was shot up himself by return fire for his trouble. Art managed to safely force land his plane. Japanese records show that his victim also had to force land at Chejudo. Apparently, Art had damaged its fuel tanks causing to leak badly. With insufficient fuel to regain Taipei and a wounded crew member, the Japanese pilot chose to divert to Chejudo and crash-landed there.

In a separate action on the same day, the 5th Pursuit Group, led by Col. Ding Ji-xue, shot down yet another G3M1 over Yangzhou. After suffering such heavy losses, the Japanese suspended daylight bombing raids on Nanking.

John, Art and Buffalo all became “aces” with more than 5 kills to their credit.

* Harry was killed defending Nanking on 19-Sep-1937.

* Buffalo also gave his life in the defense of China in March 1941 fighting the vastly superior Zero fighter in a Polikarpov I-153 biplane.

* Art suffered serious burns in an action over the Kunlun Pass in December 1939. He suffered through many reconstructive surgeries but survived to return to Portland after the War.

* John and T.T. Wong also survived the war. After the War, John moved to Thailand and T.T. returned to the U.S. In re-telling these little known feats I hope we will honor the defenders of Nanking and keep their memories alive. If there is interest, there will be more. Sure beats hate slanging, don’t you think!? Cheers, Raymond (Note: All the Chinese-Americans named above were Tai-shan Cantonese and their names were listed first in their home dialect which is the way they were remembered in the history books).

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Free Your Mind

I got this in an e-mail today.  Makes sense.

A Letter from Deepak

Dear Friends,

Do you love your mind? I’ve never met anyone who did.

The mind is the hardest part of ourselves to love because we so often feel trapped inside it, at the mercy of a host of uninvited guests – the fear that roams the mind at will, the dark depression that takes up residence and refuses to leave, the anger that blows through the circuits and ignites in turmoil.

Ancient cultures recognized the mind’s restless, unreliable nature. In India, the most common metaphor for the mind is the wild elephant, and in Buddhism, the mind is compared to a monkey peering out through the five senses. Monkeys are notoriously impulsive, liable to do anything without notice.

To cope with the frustrating antics of the monkey mind, the vast majority of people try to tame it – but that method never works. The mind is wild because we try to control and confine it. The solution is counterintuitive: To experience peace and calm, we have to free the mind.

When it is free, it settles down and becomes a channel for peace. In freedom, our thoughts and impulses flow in harmony with what is right and best for each of us.

How, then, can you set your mind free? The first step is understanding that your mind traps itself by spinning an elaborate story about who you are and what you believe, and then fiercely defends that story. Observing this human tendency, the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”

The most common story the mind tells is that you are your ego, a fixed “I” that is separate from the rest of the world. If you believe this story, it keeps you in bondage. The ego is limited, subject to fear, and consumed with the idea that it has to know what is going to happen in order to feel safe. The truth is that we don’t know what is going to happen. Really feeling safe, peaceful, and content comes from knowing that your true self is pure spirit, unbounded in time and space.

When you know the real you isn’t inside your head, you have been set free, like awareness itself. Embracing the wisdom of uncertainty not only frees you from the ego’s illusion of control, it puts you right in the middle of the joyful flow of cosmic creativity. That is a much more enjoyable place to live life.