Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pyramid dust on my shoes

On the 19th of August I spent the day at the Pyramids. They are just on the edge of Cairo. The city has sprawled its way right up to the base of the Giza plateau and now the crowds of the living city are just a few hundred yards from the great necropolis.

I had the taxi driver drop me off at the north gate, near the ticket office. Clusters of boys, young and middle aged men were hovering around, hollering to get attention, trying to sell trinkets or offering to take me on tours. I've learned the art of ignoring and pushed my way through to the ticket office. Ticket safely in hand I braved the next bunch of clusters, paying special attention to ignore the young men who were trying to pass themselves off as some kind of "officials", wanting to get their hands on me, my ticket and I don't know what else.

I don't want to dwell on the negative. I'll just mention one more detail, the huge, noisy crowd between the gate and the first, largest pyramid, Khufu's tomb. There must have been over 1,000 boys and men, many racing their emaciated horses and camels, each of them pushing in front of the next to get my attention and try to convince me I wanted a camel ride.

A word of advice. Do not make eye contact or acknowledge them at all, unless you really do want to ride one of those poor beasts. If they get your attention they will NOT let you go. I anticipated the situation and slipped only once, letting one middle aged fellow engage me in conversation. He was all obsequious smiles until I repeatedly refused to buy whatever it was he was selling and expressed rather firmly that I wanted to get on with my visit of the pyramids. He then proceeded to swear at me in the filthiest way. But I was already out of his reach at that point.

One more word of advice. Women, expect to be sexually harassed. It is imperative to go with a man. But still expect the harassment. Among the few tourists I encountered (ratio of local to tourist appears to be about 20:1), was an Englishman with his 2 children, a girl of about 13 and a boy of about 8. The girl couldn't have been more than a year into puberty. The father told me that boys and men had been harassing her even in his very presence.

Okay, enough of the negative. As awful as it was it paled into infinitesimal insignificance in presence of the vast creation of those amazing people who flourished 5,000 years ago and whose presence still dominates the landscape. (What will there be to see of our civilization 5,000 years from now?)

The first pyramid is the tomb of Khufu, the oldest and largest of them all. I'm a firm believer that the best way to travel is on foot. That's the way to see things, slowly, from eye level. So off I set, on foot, across the sandy paths. I headed north, away from the crowd, and found myself in the "Western Cemetery".
It had the feeling of being a town, with roads, walls, doorways into interior courtyards... Although this area is called a cemetery I think it's possible people may have lived here as well, alongside the tombs, caretakers perhaps, and their families.

Archeologists now believe that about 10,000 people lived in the immediate vicinity of the pyramids. They would have been construction workers and the necessary support, such as bakers, and other trades. The idea that the pyramids were built by slaves has been discredited (though I've had a few Egyptians repeat the slave myth to me). Apparently, and not surprisingly, working at the pyramids was actually a very prestigious job because it put people in direct service to their God-King and earned them a lot of brownie points in the afterlife. After all, the afterlife was what it was all about for these people.

Beyond Khufu's tomb is the pyramid of Khafre, which still retains some of its facing stones at its peak. I scrambled around the mounds, made my way through the cemetery and found the road again.

This pyramid is at the highest point of the plateau. Like the other pyramids, it has a temple at its base. 
From here a road or causeway descends to the edge of the plateau and connects the pyramid complex to the village of Giza below. Beyond the village lies the river. In the next photo I am looking up towards the pyramid, with rock cut tombs on the left. 

In the photo below I am standing in the same spot but looking down towards the village and river. The Sphinx is at the left.

Here is a view of the surrounding rock cut tombs.

I believe they originally had some low relief decorations as well as other architectural ornaments, especially around the doorways. But these have mostly disappeared over the millenia.
The Sphinx sits at the end of the causeway, at the edge of the village, looking across the river towards the rising sun. By the way, the story that Napoleon's troops shot the nose off for target practice is totally false. It wasn't the evil European invader who did this. Apparently it was a fellow by the name of Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr, in 1378, who was offended when he saw peasants making offerings to it in the hopes of increasing their harvest. He attempted to destroy it (shades of Bamiyan?), starting with the face. For his efforts, he was lynched by the peasants.

The circus of the entry gate repeats itself around the Sphinx, even though the precinct around it has been enclosed by a chain link fence. Children and teenagers scramble over this fence, which is a good 15 feet high, and into the protected zone. The handful of security personnel don't even try to put a stop to it... Enough said.

At the base of Khafre's pyramid...
The furthest pyramid from the main gate is the tomb of Menkaure, accompanied by its 3 smaller pyramids for Queens. These 3 were never completed.

Despite being incomplete, these pyramids, along with Menkaure's, are the only pyramids in Giza that retain some of their original pink granite facing stones.
Yours truly, in front of one of the Queen's pyramids. This photo was taken by the English gentleman I mentioned at the start of this blog post.

Like the Sphinx, Menkaure's tomb was also victim to an act of vandalism. This was at the end of the 1100s. The ruler of Egypt at that time was al-Malek, al-Aziz Othman ben Yusuf. The large gash in the side was an attempt by him to demolish the pyramid. This gash was the result of 8 months of effort, at which point he and his crew gave up. He died shortly after, at the age of 27.
Boats, naturally, were central to the lives of the ancient Egyptians, given that their lives revolved around the river, its patterns and cycles. So it is no surprise that boats played a large part in their mythology and cosmology, and that boats have been found buried around the pyramids.

One boat was found extraordinarily well preserved, though it still took 14 years of work to restore it. The boat can now be seen in a special museum at the base of the Great Pyramid.
Imagine the river with these boats gliding along, following the course of the flow as they went downstream, or with their rows of oars splashing as they went back upstream again.
After about 5 hours of continuous walking through the sand and dust, scrambling over mounds of rocks, dodging horses, camels and vendors, I decided it was time for a break. Just outside the entrance to the whole complex is a 19th century palace that was turned into a hotel in the 1880s, catering to the British tourists who were flocking to Egypt at that time.

I took refuge in the peaceful comfort of this place, and enjoyed an exquisite light lunch. My table overlooked the garden.
Next time I visit the pyramids I'm going to plan my break a little later in the afternoon and enjoy their afternoon tea. They do a traditional British tea.
Once I had recovered my strength I went back up to Khufu's pyramid and went inside. I can't begin to describe the experience of climbing into it, all the way up to the main chamber. All I can say is that it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and must be done. It is physically challenging though. It is hot and in places it is necessary to proceed on hands and knees. So be prepared.

Speaking of preparations, wear a long sleeved shirt and a hat and bring your own water. There are people selling water but the quality is not to be trusted. Also, the only real officials on the site are in uniform. Anyone else who claims to be there in an official capacity is lying. They will show you ID and tell you all kinds of nonsense about rules that you're breaking. It's just a ruse to try to separate you from your money.
Finally, after it was all done, after I'd circumambulated all 3 pyramids, paid my respects to the Sphinx and climbed into the main chamber of Khufu's tomb, I taxied and limped my way back to my hotel on the other side of the city. I plopped down on the edge of the bed and stared down at my feet, trying to find the strength to bend down and take my shoes off. As I slipped off my tennis shoes, I noticed how their color had changed from an indigo blue of denim to a dusty rose, the color of pyramid dust.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Cairo - revelations in the Egyptian Museum

I arrived in Cairo yesterday and pretty much crashed at the hotel, sleeping much of the day then getting a bite to eat at the mall next door. I guess I was more tired than I realized. Anyhow, after sleeping all day, then eating, then sleeping all night I managed to lift myself out of bed this morning and have a huge breakfast, intended to keep me going all day. It worked.

I spent most of the day at the famous Egyptian antiquities museum just off Tahrir Square. After about 5.5 hours of non-stop walking through the museum I managed to scratch the surface.

It is an awe-inspiring experience. It is vast, endless. The power and living spirit in the art defies words. These people, who had an apparent obsession with life after death managed to leave an artistic legacy that conveys their individual spirits down to the present day, 5000 years later.
 I just hope we can do them justice and preserve this work well enough that it will be there another 5000 years from now, to reveal to the people of that future time the potential of our species.
 Photography is not allowed inside the museum. So I've taken photos of the photos in my guide book for posting here. I'm probably breaking copyright laws. But hopefully this will inspire a few more people to go to the Museum and have this amazing experience.

The picture above is an unfinished portrait of Queen Nefertiti. A very similar one, finished, can be seen in the Egyptian collection in Berlin. It is most definitely the same face. People mistakenly characterize Egyptian art as "stylized" or idealized. But this is not the case with the real portraits, such as in the photos above, or the last photo in the post.

Even the animals have specific and unique expressions. I was stunned to see that the lion heads on the funerary bed of King Tutankhamun had expressions of grief and eyes that looked to the horizon, while the lion heads on his throne stared fixedly ahead with expressions of power and strength.
 The photo above is from the Tutankhamun collection. She is one of four goddesses who protect the shrine that held his canopic jars. These four figures must be seen in person. Photos do them no justice. They are among the most beautiful sculptures of the female ever conceived. Radiant, their very human curves seem delicately wrapped in fine gold linen while their faces and and gestures express love and protection.
 The museum building itself is quite a delight, designed by a French architect, Marcel Dourgnon, in the Beaux Arts style. It opened in 1902. The scale of it allows entire architectural ensembles and monumental sculptures to be housed within. The sculpture in the photo above was at least 30 feet tall.
The museum contains more than just sculptures. There are endless rooms filled with all the miscellany of everyday life, sandles, linen shawls, jewelry, tools... 

I hope some of you who read this will go there and experience it for yourself. For me it was a revelation. In a glass case was a necklace made of semi-precious stones and gold beads. The gold beads were shaped in the form of pumpkin seeds. Next to this necklace was a silver cup in the form of a pomegranate. I looked at these exquisite reproductions of nature in precious metals and suddenly felt I understood something about what they were trying to do. All of matter, in all its seemingly infinite forms, is comprised of just a few basic elements. But somehow, there is an ordering force that brings these elements together in varying forms with varying qualities. The pumpkin seed, containing within itself the ability to reproduce, to nourish and to create dozens more new seeds ... the pomegranate filled with sweet juice and yet again the seeds of its own reproduction ...  What is the mysterious force that orders the same basic elements into a myriad of forms, each with its own qualities, the pumpkin seed, the pomegranate, Horus the hawk, Anubis the jackal, Bastet the cat? If we could somehow reproduce the forms, would we perhaps be able to capture inside those forms the essential ordering nature? Would we be able to bring that ordering force to work in our own lives?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

~~~ This started out as a letter to a friend, then morphed into a blog post, not about my life in Riyadh, but just about a few thoughts flitting across the surface of my mind, like water striders across a muddy pond. Please pardon me that there are no pretty pictures to provide relief.~~~

How's life? Beautiful? I hope it gets more so each day.

I once heard one of the famous motivational speakers, it might have been Zig Ziglar, say "If you want to change your life, change your habits."

That really struck me. It's the idea that the secret is not to do something exceptional and out of the ordinary, but rather, to make habitual acts powerful.

I also heard one of these guys say, "Most people overestimate what they can do in a day and underestimate what they can do in a year."

Doing something "in a year" is all about habitual acts.

Now that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and I'm not quite so down in the mouth I'm looking at my routine and thinking of ways I can develop some new habits to get through this tunnel even faster and come out the other end even more prosperous.


I saw in the news that Japan is considering reopening 2 nuclear reactors because the cost of power is getting too high and threatening their economy. What do you think? Do you think it's just a justification or it's for real?

(The person for whom I wrote this originally works in the nuclear industry, thus the questions, though you are all free to respond.)

I thought it was so great when they took the step to shut them all down. I believe Germany is on the path to shutting theirs all down too. I wish we could get an American president and house of representatives that "had the noive" of the Cowardly Lion to do the same. That would throw the world power structure into chaos, probably in a good way.

Though I suspect that it would make even better chaos if we made ourselves independent of Nigerian and Middle Eastern oil imports, even if it meant holding on to nuclear for a while longer.

It's interesting to speculate what would happen in situations like that. If the USA became so energy efficient that it no longer needed oil imports, that would reduce demand drastically, which would reduce the the price of oil on the world market, making the wasteful countries more likely to waste even more. So it appears to be a double edged sword.

Then of course, the more oil there is, and the cheaper it is, the more China can conquer world manufacturing, by reducing its energy costs and the prices on its exports.

So, not only does it seem to be a double edged sword, we might have even shot ourselves in the foot with it.

On the other hand, being dependent on expensive, imported oil doesn't really sound like the answer either. It seems, what we need is a world in which oil is expensive for everybody and the USA is so efficient that we don't need very much. Then we are not vulnerably dependent on volatile countries and China doesn't have a cheap energy source it can exploit.

But that won't happen until the world really HAS almost run out of oil, which isn't happening in the next 5-10 years...

which brings to mind Leo Tolstoy's immortal question, "What then must we do?", though, unlike Tolstoy, our concern is not about wretched poverty and social injustice but rather about how to hold onto our "middle class" lifestyles, our heated pools and our SUVs in the face of increasing energy costs and a world in which we appear to be less and less competitive in the global marketplace.

I am not going to profess that I have the answer, and certainly not one that fits neatly into a blog post. But I do begin to picture an America in which we are not dependent on imported energy, AND in which we manufacture most of what we consume, while maybe still exporting a bit, to put some icing on the cake.

That starts to look like a picture in which it doesn't matter much to us how cheap China manages to makes its goods, because we don't need them.

So there you have it, the answer to all our national economic troubles, glimpsed dimly through a thick fog.

One last question, do any of you reading this know how to start a catalog? I was thinking about those "catalogs of catalogs" where all the catalog carries is catalogs of other countries. I was thinking it would be great to make a catalog that carries the catalogs of companies that manufacture products MADE IN THE USA.

So, if any of you have experience with catalogs, or websites, for that matter, let me know. Maybe we can go into business together.

Well, those are some of the miscellaneous thoughts on my mind, as I sit here at my laptop, in the middle of the vast Arabian desert.

Cheers, thanks a lot! -Patsy in AbFab-

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Science and Certainty

I got into a discussion on a LinkedIn discussion board and thought I'd share the exchange.

The other person wrote:
"There is very little absolute scientific fact in most of the scientific evidences referring to global warming. Science is only a study of things. I look for the most logical and rational scientifically determined evidences. I look for words such as "could, may, possibly, are believed to be etc. as red flags for possible deceit. The more sensational the phrase that comes after any of these vague red flag words, the more I sense there is deceit."

My response:

I understand good science to be something that is essentially statistical. It does not deal in absolutes. An honest scientist will rarely give an absolute conclusion, but instead will qualify the conclusion to respect the limitations of the evidence on which it is based.

This is why the reproducibility of results was a cornerstone of early scientific work. This is what differentiated it from philosophy or theology.

Chemistry is a good example of a pure science. Mix chemical A into chemical B and a certain result occurs. There appears to be a direct cause-effect relationship.

Now a scientist at some other research institution conducts the same experiment and achieves the same results.

Statistically, the conclusion becomes more certain, not ABSOLUTELY certain. With each repetition of the test the certainty increases.

This is what might be called "pure science".

Unfortunately a lot of research is done within a natural context that makes it impossible to achieve that level of certainty. It may not be possible to control variables (Economics). Combinations of elements may be too numerous for our ability to compute them accurately (Atmospherics).

Good scientists, working in those less than ideal contexts, will recognize that their conclusions cannot be stated as absolutely as test tube chemistry. They will qualify their conclusions. They will point to correlations that MAY be cause-effect relationships...

Of course, that kind of language, which may be totally appropriate for scientific work, also is more easily abused and misused, to deceive people, for whatever reason.

Somebody making the statement, "X causes Y" can easily be checked by outside sources, and possibly shown to be wrong.

Somebody making the statement, "In 90% of samples observed a change in X correlated to a change in Y...", may be making an accurate scientific statement, correctly reflecting the level of certainty of the evidence. Or that person may be dishonestly connecting 2 things that are in fact completely unconnected. It's a lot harder to tell which is which.

In general I think it's a mistake to expect absolute certainty in most scientific conclusions. Most science does not occur in the ideal conditions that you find in test tube chemistry.

I think it is critical for scientists to do 2 things, make their conclusions precisely reflect the level of their evidence, and openly acknowledge the limits of their evidence.

Many good scientists do this, but too often, when their work gets reported in the media the finer details and subtleties of their work are not communicated and instead, the media superimpose a level of certainty that is not appropriate.

Excuse me for making this so long but some ideas are just too difficult to compress into a few sentences. If you made it to the end, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fukushima, Great Britain: What happens when bad news happens at home?

Have you noticed, how, sometimes, when something happens in a far-away, unfamiliar place, it's hard to grasp the scale of the thing? It's like, I know how far it is from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I know what if feels like to get in the car and do that drive. But when it's a place I've never been to and I hear about it in the news, I struggle to grasp the scale. For example, how far is it from Fukushima to Tokyo? I've got no idea!

Well, I thought it was time to bring Fukushima a little closer to home. What if Fukushima was in Great Britain.

The official exclusion zone around Fukushima is 20 kms and it's very likely that nearly all of that area will remain uninhabitable for the rest of our lifetimes. But in fact very high, unsafe levels of radioactivity have been measured more than 35 kms (22 miles) away.

In the case of Fukushima, the radioactive plume blew in the north-west direction. A similar event in a different place would, naturally, have different results. Wind direction, wind speed and who knows what else would cause a different fallout pattern. Nonetheless, I thought it would be interesting to impose a 35 km fallout radius on a map of Great Britain, at each of the nuclear power stations.

Here are the results.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

A better video of the rain


Someday this will all be lost under the sand

The view out my window on a normal day.

Today the wind picked up in a big way. We're having a real sandstorm. It's blowing so hard you almost can't walk against it. The weather reporters are predicting rain too. There have only been 2 days of rain since I arrived here last May.

When I was outside, walking back to my apartment and the wind was howling, I could smell water in the air. But so far there's been no rain. If it does start to rain I wonder if it's going to rain mud. That would be the kind of miserably suitable weather I'd expect in this God forsaken sand pit in the middle of the barren desert.

Here's the same view as above, but taken just a few minutes ago.

Another view down the street. The worst of the sandstorm is already past.

And another view.

Here's a 1 minute video of the rain. It finally arrived.

Welcome to Riyadh!


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Dust storm in Riyadh

The wind blew in last night and really kicked up a lot of dust. The sea of sand that surrounds Riyadh is really more like a sea of talcum powder. The desert here is this amazingly fine sand that gets absolutely everywhere. Because its so fine, once it gets kicked up it just suspends in the air and stays there.

Notice that there are no shadows in the photo. Today is not a cloudy day. It's the dust in the air that's stopping the sun from getting through.

Here's a car across the street.

By the way, my TV set and the table it's sitting on (top photo) were clean yesterday.

Don't you wish you were here with me in this exotic place?