The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Economic analysis of Dubai and the UAE

The Duke CCMBA has a five-term course called "Culture, Civilization, and Leadership" that gives us structures to help us understand—wait for it—cultures and civilizations. At the end of each term, each team produces a paper analyzing the place in which we started the term. This term, I drew the short straw volunteered to write the first draft. We just submitted the final paper, after a few days of revisions. If you're interested, here it is.

We didn't put it in the paper, but throughout the process, I kept hearing Ozymandias in my head. Can't think why:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

We'll see.

American exceptionalism

Once again, a major American newspaper has reported on something as universal fact, but that only makes sense in the U.S.:

The day is a palindromic date: 01-02-2010, meaning the number can be read the same way in either direction.

There will be 12 palindromic days this century, [Aziz Inan, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Portland in Oregon,] said, and Saturday is the second. The first was 10-02-2001. (To check out his complete list:

Well, only here. Almost everywhere else in the world, people use different formats for dates. In Europe, for example, today is 2/1/10; the next "palindrome" date is February 1st (01-02-2010), and the last was 10 February 2001 (10-02-2001).

Except maybe not. Most people don't customarily use leading zeroes when writing dates. That makes today 2/1/10 most places, and means the next "palindrome" really won't be until 1/1/11. Or 11/1/11. Or 11/11/11. (20-11-2011? What manner of numerical silliness will that date cause people?)

Don't even get me started on International System measurements and American exceptionalism[1]. But it's the same idea.

In his defense, Prof. Inan isn't serious (and neither am I): "Despite Inan's excitement, he dismisses the notion that mysticism and magic lie behind such dates. He doesn't, for example, fear Dec. 21, 2012, the date the Mayan "Long Count" calendar marks the end of a 5,126-year era. Some folks think the date portends a revolution or an apocalypse. Jan. 2, 2010, and Dec. 21, 2012, he said, just happen to be really cool dates."

[1] There are 310 million people in the U.S. of 6.5 billion worldwide—we're 1/19th of the world population—and the only country including England who still use the English system of measurements.

Better security at airports? Look at Israel

Not only does Ben Gurion Airport have, by every measure, more effective security than at U.S. airports, but they move passengers through more quickly, too:

Despite facing dozens of potential threats each day, the security set-up at Israel's largest hub, Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, has not been breached since 2002, when a passenger mistakenly carried a handgun onto a flight. How do they manage that?

The first layer of actual security that greets travellers at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport is a roadside check. All drivers are stopped and asked two questions: How are you? Where are you coming from?

"Two benign questions. The questions aren't important. The way people act when they answer them is," [Rafi Sela, the president of AR Challenges, a global transportation security consultancy] said.

Officers are looking for nervousness or other signs of "distress" — behavioural profiling. Sela rejects the argument that profiling is discriminatory.

In other words, more emphasis on people, less on technology. Will body scanners protect us against the next idiot who tries to blow up an airplane? Maybe; but watching people is probably more effective. Says Sela:

"First, [Israeli security is] fast — there's almost no line. That's because they're not looking for liquids, they're not looking at your shoes. They're not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you," said Sela. "Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes ... and that's how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys."

That's the process — six layers, four hard, two soft. The goal at Ben-Gurion is to move fliers from the parking lot to the airport lounge in a maximum of 25 minutes.

Instead, we're investing in body scanners, which have created a completely different kind of idiocy:

We're willing to ethnically profile, do all sorts extra-judicial surveillance, maintain massive databases of hundreds of thousands of people who have some vague relationship to extremism, torture captives, condemn people to hours unable to go the bathroom on planes, even launch various foreign military adventures, but when it comes to submitting to a quick scan that might show a vague outline of boobs or penises (almost certainly no more than is exposed in most bathing suits), that's a bridge too far.

Something about that doesn't compute to me. And what I like about this is that there's no clear partisan division on this one. Everyone seems to agree. It just tells me that at some level we're not really serious about this.

No, we're not really serious about this. It's theater. And it will continue until enough people care more about security than silliness.

Wrong type of snow

What is it with U.K. rail? One would think the wrong type of snow would no longer stop an entire train line, but the snow struck again:

IT'S NOT the snow that shut down Eurostar. It's the type of snow. "Fluffy" snowflakes got through special screens and into the power cars of five trains on Friday, shorting out the engines and stranding thousands of travellers in the Channel Tunnel for hours. Service remains cut by a third, and normal service will not resume before Christmas. Some 100,000 people have had their travel plans fouled up, by the Times' count.

... Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has ordered Eurostar to get its trains running again.

Airlines are charging up to £499 to fly between London and Paris until Eurostar gets things sorted.

My question: how exactly did it snow in the Chunnel?

Germany tells Emirates to raise prices

From the Economist's Gulliver blog:

The Germans said in a letter to the Dubai-based carrier that under European law it was not allowed “to engage in price leadership” on routes from Germany to non-EU locations. Emirates, which condemned the decision as “commercially nonsensical”, responded by raising prices by 20% on some routes.

Andrew Parker of Emirates told the Financial Times, "We are adamant this is selective and clearly an attempt by Lufthansa [Germany's national carrier] to pursue Emirates versus a legitimate policy."

Yes, but on the other hand, it would not surprise me to learn that Emirates had priced the seats as a loss-leader to undercut its competitors, including Lufthansa. Regardless, this seems a good example of the African proverb, "When elephants wrestle, the grass suffers."

At this writing, a 7-day advance, Saturday-to-Thursday (discount) business class ticket from Frankfurt to Dubai was €2,245 on Emirates and €2,954 on Lufthansa. I can see why Lufthansa (and the German goverment) might suspect anti-competitive behavior...but still, raising prices for everyone doesn't seem sporting.

Another predictable outcome

Of course the Taliban treat their prisoners better than we do. It's excellent P.R. for them, and makes us look really bad:

At first, our guards impressed me. They vowed to follow the tenets of Islam that mandate the good treatment of prisoners. In my case, they unquestionably did. They gave me bottled water, let me walk in a small yard each day and never beat me.

But they viewed me — a nonobservant Christian — as religiously unclean and demanded that I use a separate drinking glass to protect them from the diseases they believed festered inside nonbelievers.

My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners. But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban.

Of all the reasons to treat prisoners well, P.R. ranks at the bottom. It's still a reason, however. It's also something that we Americans invented, and usually do reasonably well. So, even if you don't agree that all prisoners deserve, by virtue of being human, a basic level of decent treatment, possibly you could agree that treating captives worse than the Taliban does will damage our brand a bit?

(Via Andrew Sullivan, who says: "So that's one more feather in Cheney's cap: he brought prisoner treatment under the US to below that of the Taliban.")

Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying

Via Wired, the U.S.S.R. built a fail-safe device à la Dr. Strangelove—not to deter us, but to deter themselves:

The point of the system...was to guarantee an automatic Soviet response to an American nuclear strike. Even if the US crippled the USSR with a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn't matter if the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched.

By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis. The point...was "to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge. Those who attack us will be punished."

Given the paranoia of the era, it is not unimaginable that a malfunctioning radar, a flock of geese that looked like an incoming warhead, or a misinterpreted American war exercise could have triggered a catastrophe. Indeed, all these events actually occurred at some point. If they had happened at the same time, Armageddon might have ensued.

Perimeter solved that problem. If Soviet radar picked up an ominous but ambiguous signal, the leaders could turn on Perimeter and wait. If it turned out to be geese, they could relax and Perimeter would stand down. Confirming actual detonations on Soviet soil is far easier than confirming distant launches.

As long as no one rides an H-Bomb down like a bronco...

Full of sound and fury signifying...what, exactly?

A number of confusing changes occurred to the world while I slept:

  • President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. I love the man; I voted for him; I gave lots of money[1] to two of his campaigns. I'm still confused. It might offend some of my fellow progressives to say, but possibly the prize means nothing more than "thank you for not being like the last guy, and keep up the good work." The President is, in fact, the second person who is not George W. Bush to win the Prize in the last four years.
  • For reasons which passeth all understanding[2], we crashed a rocket into the moon. We want to find out if the moon has enough water to make long-term habitation possible. Otherwise, we'll have to build a pipeline from the Great Lakes, which poses certain engineering challenges.
  • Both of these stories came to me during WBEZ-Chicago's pledge week, which started yesterday. Please, I beg all my readers in Chicago, please make a donation so they'll stop begging. The only glimmer of good news in the timing of the Fall pledge drive comes in the form of an exquisite torture perpetrated upon me and my 118 classmates by Fuqua. I won't be able to listen to much NPR this weekend because:
  • I have two final exams due this weekend, both take-home, one 90 minutes long and the other with 24 hours to complete. (The clock starts when we download the exams from the school's web portal.) The professor for exam #1 says it's relatively straightforward, everyone will pass, don't worry. The professor for exam #2, who served six years on the Financial Accounting Standards Board and who drafted important regulations of the accounting profession itself, says "someone who is reasonably prepared and who doesn't need to use notes should be able to complete it in 4 or 5 hours." So, a former FASB member who's taught accounting for 30 years will find it "challenging." One hundred eighteen people started crying. (One dude in our class is an accountant who got 117 out of 120 on the midterm.)
  • The U.S. dollar continues to slide slowly into uncomfortable depths. I got an alert while writing this entry that the Canadian dollar has risen against our currency from a low of 76c in March to 95c today. We're also slipping against the Euro and the Yen, but not, I'm happy to say, against Sterling or the Emirati Dirham, the two currencies I'm concerned about in the next few weeks.[3]
  • Finally, a dear friend from North Carolina sent a delightful finals-weekend care package to Parker and me, including doggie fortune cookies and human chocolate-chip cookies. And now Parker has the whole world in his paws (see below).

[1] Lots for me, anyway; NPR wouldn't have given me a mug for the amount I gave.

[2] Aaron Sorkin's favorite phrase, from Phillippans 4:7. Yes, athiests quote Bible verses sometimes.

[3] I'm concerned because I'm about to go to Dubai, via London, for school. The Dirham hasn't changed because it's pegged to the dollar...for now.

Gandhi's birthday

They only have about half an hour of Gandhi's birthday left in India, so I just got this under the wire.

Everybody knows that Gandhi fasted often, making him somewhat frail. People also know that he walked all over India barefoot in solidarity with the nation's poorest citizens, which gave him extremely tough feet.

Many people do not know that the Mahatma had bad breath, however. All of his treks across the Sub-Continent left him little time or opportunity to brush his teeth, it seems.

Anyway, if you put all of this together, you will see that Gandhi was...

(Wait for it.)

...a super-calloused fragile mystic who suffered halitosis.