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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Photos For Wingnuts

I am a Wingnut myself. If I am having a conversation with you and I hear an aircraft passing overhead, forgive me if I look up into the sky in mid-sentence in order to look at the plane. It's not personal, I am not being rude but you must understand that I have an illness that causes involuntary upwards head movements whenever I hear a turbine whine or an unmuffled, aircooled horizontally opposed or radial engine overhead. Cessna, Boeing, Piper, Lockheed, Grumman or McDonnell-Douglas, it doesn't matter. I am gonna look.

I have been this way since I can remember. I can spend hours just looking at airplane photos on A perfect day for me is lying on the hood of my car at the approach end of the runway of an international airport watching the endless parade of airliners passing over my sunburned tonsils. Fellow sufferers of this malady will understand, the rest won't and never will.

To me, aircraft and the act of flying them is a combination of skill, beauty, art and technology. Nothing else comes close.

I wanted to share the attached photos that a good friend sent me (thanks Rog). They are of the F-35 Lightning II, the USAF's next generation air superiority fighter. Variants of the F-35 are being developed to serve with the Navy and Marine Corps including a VTOL version to replace the excellent, but aging Harrier.

The F-35 is chased by an F-16 Falcon. The photos are taken over the beaches of the Florida Panhandle which just happens to be where I was born and raised. The aircraft are based out of Eglin Air Force Base which is visible in the background in a couple of the photos.

To me, all aircraft are easy on the eye due to the "form follows function" rule, especially the high performance ones. Any machine designed to cheat gravity and go faster than a bullet at the same time has to have a pleasing, organic shape that gets along with, rather than fight natural forces.

The F-35 may be the last advanced U.S. fighter designed to have a human at the controls. The recent advances in remote control via satellite and the success that the UAV's have been having as armed platforms at the front lines may make manned fighters an anachronism. The end of an era for the "Knights of the Sky".

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Abu Dhabi Formula One Construction Update

It has been 3 months since I posted a photo of the construction of the Yas Island Formula One venue from my apartment balcony. At that time I questioned the progress so far and speculated that exceptional efforts would be needed to have the facility fully functional by race day on October 30th.

Attached are some new photos that I took today. Although the details are hard to see through the ubiquitous Abu Dhabi Summer haze, I tried to get some different angles. The part of the hotel that spans the track seems to be completed and some of the white fabric features are up over the Southern grandstands.

I will let you judge for yourselves, but with three months to go until race day, I can imagine there is a fair amount of stomach antacid being swilled in the construction managers' Porta-Kabins!

The first photo shows an overview.

The second photo shows a detail of the Support Pit Grandstands with the hotel on the right.

The third photo shows a detail of the South Grandstands with the hotel to the left.

The road in the foreground is the main Abu Dhabi-Dubai motorway.

I would like to attend the event, but with 2 day tickets starting at a cool $420 USD, I might have other plans. I could live like an Emperor at a NASCAR race for that kind of scratch!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Liwa Date Festival

Liwa is an oasis community in the extreme Southwest area of the Abu Dhabi emirate bordering on Saudi Arabia known as the Empty Quarter. The name accurately describes the environs. There you will find the the real Emerati culture as it was a mere 40 years ago. It is a world away from the hustle and bustle of Abu Dhabi City and Dubai and is just 2 hours down the road.

I always am surprised at the resiliency of the human race from the Eskimos in the Arctic regions to the residents of Liwa that have not only existed but thrived in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Because of a freak geological formation, the water table is unusually high in Liwa which allowed date palms to grow in a limited area. These seeds of the date palm are what sustained generations of Emeratis in the past centuries.

Google "date fruit" and you will find out that dates are a very complete food item densely packed with vitamins and minerals with many health benefits. Those of you in Western countries miss out on eating them from close to the source. I used to hate them until I tasted fresh ones here. The Emeratis have a very enjoyable custom of supplying fresh dates and a pot of sweet Arabic tea as hospitality items in business waiting rooms all over the country. I enjoyed this perk when I waited to have my oil changed in the Jeep at the dealership last week.

I have attached a video link to the Liwa Date Festival from one of the local newpapers. I understand it will be running though the 26th of July so I just may have to make a road trip!

If the video loads slow, hit pause and go get a beer and let it load fully and hit play again.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Mystery of Arabic Numerals

Like most people educated in the West, I was always told from a very early age that there were two major number systems in the world, Roman numerals and Arabic numerals. The Roman numerals were lightly touched upon as their use in modern times have been relegated to fancy clocks and copyright dates at the end of movies. All of those X's, L's, V's, C's and M's are rarely seen anymore much less understood. Like Latin, it is the numerical equivalent of that dead language (why the Latin language died is also a mystery to me). There is a good reason for the Roman numerals' demise which I will cover later.

So my whole life I thought that I had been using Arabic numerals on a daily basis. My watch, my speedometer, my electronic calculator, my bank statement, etc., were all in Arabic numerals, or so I thought until moving to the Middle East.

Take a look the photo above of a bi-numeral pay telephone keypad and you will immedeately see that REAL Arabic numerals look nothing like the ones I had come to know and love. The 1 looks kind of like a 1, the 2 and 3 bear no resemblance to the ones I am used to, the 4 looks like a backwards 3, the 5 a zero, The 6 a shaky 7, the 7 a V, the 8 a tent, the 9 looked vaguely familiar and the poor zero is nothing but a dot.

This surprised me as I thought that living in the middle of Arabia I would at least recognize the digits, after all that's what I was learning according to my educators from a very early age. Written Arabic is equally inscrutable. Like Japanese, it is written and read from right to left, but the cruel twist is that the numbers are written and read from left to right. Are you still with me?

A quick internet search revealed that India initially developed the current number system we all use. Indian mathematicians invented the concept of "zero" as a place holder and the concept of "positional notation" which simply means that a number positioned to the left of another number has 10X (in a base 10 system) the value of the number to its right. The zero acts as a place holder with no value but it moves the leftmost number one or more positions to the left which increases that number's value by 10X. For example: we all know the number 23 to mean 2 tens and 3 ones, add a place holder zero in the middle and the valueless zero promotes the 2 to represent 2 hundreds and three ones....203.

Well, this concept proved invaluable to the development of higher mathematics and spread Westward where some Arabian mathematicians developed algebra (the fiends!) and eventually the Western countries caught on to this better idea as a lot of them were still using Roman numerals which were very limited in mathematical utility.

The reason the Roman numeral system was flawed was that although it was a decimal system using 10 symbols (I-X....1 to 10) there was no zero to act as a place holder therefore there was no orderly way to multiply the numbers, no positional notation. IX=9 even though the I was to the left of the X, it subtracted from instead of neatly multiplying the number to the right 10X as the Hindu-Arabic system did. This made advanced mathematics unwieldy for the Roman system and it was quickly abandoned.

Because of its utility, the Hindu-Arabic system quickly spread Westward and became the world standard. The symbols for Hindu-Arabic numbers morphed into what we commonly recognize today in Western countries (0-9), but it is cool to see the original symbols still in use here in the Middle East!

One caution: at 2AM after several lagers in a dark pub, one would be advised to count the dots (zeros) on the local Dirham bills used to pay the tab. Those dots to the right are easy to miss in a dim light with compromised vision and will provide an expensive lesson in the role of zeros in positional notation when one pays a 50 Dirham tab with a 500 Dirham note. Ask me how I know!
See the corner of a 200 UAE Dirham bill above.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Gloved One

I have been watching on-and-off the news coverage of Michael Jackson's demise. In my opinion, he was one of the most talented, versatile and creative entertainers that I have experienced in my life and I give him unabashed credit for that.

On the other hand, he was a loner that abused drugs, kids, power and the freedom to have plastic surgery. To me he was constantly trying to put his blackness behind him as if he was ashamed. He lied about the skin bleachings by saying it was a skin condition. As it turns out, he had his three kids by artificial insemination, the sperm came from Caucasians and was implanted into white women. Apparently MJ did not want black offspring. In light of these revelations I am surprised at the U. S. black community embracing him now in death as one of their own when MJ so blatently tried to distance himself from them for almost his whole life.

It is sad to note that Michael Jackson's strange lifestyle was in large part due to his being robbed of his own normal, innocent childhood by a violent, greedy and manipulating father. At the end of the day, MJ's adult problems can probably be traced to his father, Joe Jackson, who considered his youngest son to be his personal ATM. Google images of Joe, he looks like Satan incarnate, he's a scary looking MoFo! MJ's will left not a penny to Papa. That says alot. Michael's longing for time with children, Neverland, Bubbles the Chimp and general escape from adult life was a desparate attempt to regain the chilhood he never had. I am not a psychologist but I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Michael Jackson was a great entertainer, but that's all he was, a court jester. Yes, he helped organize the "We are the World" circle jerk some decades ago and they raised a lot of money for hungry people but the entertainers went home in their Gulfstreams when the stage lights dimmed and didn't much give-a-damn where all that money went. Most likely the well-meaning cash from the innocent benefactors lined some tin-horned dictator's pockets and the food never got to the starving citizens. The dictator got a new Mercedes fleet and the entertainers slept well in their Bel Air mansions with a feeling of "giving back" and everyone was happy. M. J. blew through his own millions like a drunken sailor and died leaving tremendous debt. Some hero and role model for our kids, huh?

That is the problem in the U. S. today. Michael Jackson was a child and drug abuser yet his death from a drug overdose gets more coverage than the moon landing. He was a SAINT, don't you know? !?! Sure he had some problems that were due to an effed-up childhood but does his life and death warrant all this attention? Maybe a lot of the coverage is a distraction to the dire economic futures people have in the Republic. Maybe it is the deifying of celebrities because our own lives are so meaningless and boring. Maybe it is the ongoing feminization of America where the tough issues are ignored in favor of emotions and "feel-good" diversions (boy, will I get in trouble for that one!) re: Oprah, The View, Dr. Phil, Nancy Pelosi, Rosie O'Donnell et al.

Three question Michael Jackson quiz:

1. I would have let Michael Jackson babysit my children overnight without reservation.
Yes or No

2. The fact that Michael Jackson lived on this Earth at the same time I did made my life better.
Yes or No

3. Michael Jackson was a great singer and dancer.
Yes or No

Best 2 out of 3, no cheating! Now tell me again why this guy needs two weeks of hysterical news coverage! I enjoyed his music but I would not have cared to share a few beers with him. Just my opinion and you all know what that is worth.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

I Got Big Brothered!

Late last year the U.A.E. suddenly announced that EVERYONE (expats and citizens alike) residing within it's borders would have to get a new national I.D. card. Apparently it does not suffice that I have a driver's licence, a residence visa, a liquor licence, an employment sponsor, auto registration, health cards and that they have numerous copies of my passport-sized photos, NOC (No Objection) letters from my employer, copies of my passport and a scan of my retina.

The idea is to replace these numerous documents with a single smart card that you would present to facilitate everything from entering the country to getting your electricity and phone connected. It is a move toward e-Government as they said on the website.

That sounds all well and goood but there are 5 MILLION people that have to get these cards by the end of 2010 or some folks will be shit-out-of-luck. The way it is explained is that a person won't be able to get a loaf of bread or a tank full of gasoline unless they have one of these cards. As it is said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The premise may be well-meaning but the execution has been lacking so far. It takes a long time to process that many people.

I was lucky. My employer is a prominent one in Abu Dhabi and I guess they struck a deal with the Identity Ministry. I had to fill out an online Excel form from my HR department with all the same information I have submitted to them and the Government many times previous. Most others would have to pay to have someone convert the Excel form into the barcode version acceptable to the Ministry. Weeks later, I received an email with an attachment that was full of the barcodes and was told to print it and await further instructions. This was in April. Bond.... James Bond!

I got the "further instructions" 4 days ago via another email. I had an appointment on 05 July at 8AM to meet with a representative at the Ministry of Identity at 8AM. I was told to bring my original passport and money, always the money. I thought I would be expedited through the process by a company representative which was good because I had duty that day and didn't want my co-workers to shoulder my load during my absence.

So I get in the car and after a harrowing, always harrowing, drive down the Coast Road in rush hour traffic I found the office easily (it happened to be near where I buy my beer) and of all wonders, I did not have to circle for 20 minutes to find a parking space. In fact there were several to choose from! This simple discovery improved my mood immensely. You have to live here to understand.

I approached the check-in desk and had to show my documents. I asked about my representative that was supposed to hold my hand throughout the process, but was met with blank stares and was given a slip with a number on it, just like everyone else. I took a seat in the full waiting room, full of despair that things weren't going to go according to plan.

True to Arab custom, there were separate waiting rooms for men and women. That's OK, but I didn't know at the time that I had to sit and watch the Arab equivalent of CNN on a flat screen TV mounted behind the "gatekeeper" for 2 hours while I waited for my turn. It's ironic that the newscast I saw covered the recent U.S. Independence Day celebrations and showed fireworks and the Statue of Liberty but also showed video clips of the jets ramming into the World Trade Center on 9/11. The audio was in Arabic so I didn't know what the point was but I am sure it wasn't malicious, but I felt slightly uncomfortable. I want my fellow countrymen to know that the vast majority of Muslims here are appalled about that occurance.

In typical government efficiency, the order in which one was called had nothing to do with logic. Some were called by number and some were called by name. I was called by name so I got in relatively quickly. I never saw my HR representative but maybe he had something to do with it.
I waited in a small room and then was motioned to a desk and my barcodes were scanned by a guy with a bad attitude. He checked my passport for what seemed like forever and he looked up at me and asked"Are you an American?" Geez, I gave him an American passport and he looked at it and still wasn't convinced until I verbally answered in the affirmative. that seemed to satisfy him, he took my cash, stamped my forms three times and he motioned over to the next station.

They next guy was a bit more cordial. He was the photo, always the photos, and fingerprint guy. He had a high-tech device that would do inkless prints. The usual fingers and thumbs were taken but I was surprised when I had to do a full palm and little finger side of the hand print. Think Karate chop. This guy gave me his stamp on my papers and I was free to go. The new card will be delivered to my work or home.

I don't know what all this information is eventually going to be used for but I felt a little uneasy about giving up my biometrics so easily with the veiled threat that I wouldn't be able to eat, drive a car or enter and exit this country freely unless I did so. It can be used for the common good or it can be misused to the detriment of the citizens and residents.

I tend to think overall a national ID card like this is not a good idea for other nations and urge citizens of those nations to resist the temptations of their governments to implement the same policies. The choices I have is to stay and play or leave. I choose to stay for now and will see how this plays out here so I will abide by my host's rules as long as it benefits me in the long run.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Trip Back Home

I am regretful that I have not written on this blog for awhile but there are good reasons for that which I will detail later.

I recently travelled back to the U.S. in June for three weeks. I went back to the place where I lived and worked for the last ten years, St. George, Utah. I haven't been there since I initially left for Abu Dhabi in August, 2008 so it was a much anticipated trip. Most of my good friends and colleagues live there so it was a time
to catch up and renew bonds. I also own property and a house there so I consider it home.

The trip over was long but I am getting used to that. I arrived in JFK late in the afternoon and spent the night at a hotel near the airport. I took a Delta flight out the next day to Salt lake City. I arrived in St. George late on a Saturday night and after a few drinks at my hosts' house I promptly fell asleep.

The next day when I woke up, I had the strangest sense that I had never left. Everything was instantly so comfortable and familiar. My life in Abu Dhabi that I had left just two days before seemed like a distant memory. It was like a dream-Dorothy waking up at the end of the "Wizard of Oz". I never expected that. Also, I had a wicked case of jet lag that persisted for FOUR damn days. Extreme fatigue and mental dullness ruled those days caused by the 10 hour time zone difference.

I finally snapped out of it and me and some of the boys went to Lake Powell in Arizona for a couple of days of wakeboarding and beer drinking. I haven't had that much fun in a long time! Lake Powell is a unique place where one will see scenery like no other in the world. The initial spacecraft crash scene in the first "Planet of the Apes" movie was filmed there due to the other-worldly looks of the place. See the album.

Two days later, I went to Las Vegas to satisfy my urge to blow a wad of money and get into as much of an un-Muslim environment as possible with all the drinking, gambling and scantily clad women. I even stayed at the Hooter's Hotel and Casino, one of my favorites. I didn't do too bad at the tables and even remembered the basic rules of the games. I ended up losing only $100 after about 4 hours of play, that's a win in my book! A bonus was I met up with CC and her parental units, M&L at the casino. It was real good seeing them! M and I shot the shit at the bar while CC and L molested the slot machines.

The next day I flew to Tucson, Arizona with my St. George hosts to see another friend and ex-coworker. This guy has a Pepperidge Farm route in Tucson so we were awash in cookies and (non-Pepperidge Farm) tequila. His wife cooks the best breakfast burritos West of the Mississippi! Pass the hot sauce. A planned trip to a local bar to shoot pool was cancelled due to the participants' inclination to sit on the patio and veg-out with some cold frosties in the beautiful Southern Arizona desert.

The time to leave came all too soon. I woke up the day of my departure in dread of the 26 or so hours I would be "on the road" back to Abu Dhabi. CK drove me to the airport and it was a painful goodbye as I felt as if I was leaving my home all over again. When I arrived in Abu Dhabi after the 12+ hour flight, one of my checked bags was missing so I spent the next hour filling out forms and waiting for the employees to check the bag room. I would rather have been undergoing a root canal at that point as I was tired and just wanted to go to bed. The missing bag was delivered intact two days later.

I didn't have to report to work for a few days after my arrival back in Abu Dhabi so I had some time to decompress. I had the dreaded jet-lag again but it was combined with a severe case of acute depression. I didn't leave the apartment for four days. I had no energy and a dreadful mental attitude. I think it had to do with being in a comfortable and familiar situation for weeks and then suddenly thrust back into reality in the foreign country where I live and work. It was like leaving "home" all over again. That's why I didn't post to this blog, I needed some time to retreat to my cave. I am OK now but it was devastating for a while.

To all my buds, thanks for the good times---I miss you!

I went to the Spinney's Supermarket yesterday and THE PORK ROOM IS OPEN!!!!!!
Bacon and ham is cooling in my refrigerator right now.