Thursday, March 23, 2006

Do red state maps prove anything?

Does the 2004 election prove that the country is primarily red? An interesting twist on the usual red-blue maps is available at Maps and Cartograms of the 2004 Presidential Election. The authors note that the followoing purely state map is misleading:

If you make a map that takes population into account, you get the following:

And if you take counties and percentages into account, and shade colors from red to blue by the percentage votes, you come up with a truly complex conclusion of where we stand on red v. blue:

What are the views of all of those purple counties?

Food for thought.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dubai Travelogue

And now for something different: Richard's trip to the Middle East!

After a delicious salmon dinner in a Kennedy Airport restaurant with a surprisingly chic feel to it, I located the discreet entrance to the business-class lounge used by Emirates Airlines, Aer Lingus and others, where I indulged in wine-and-cheese largesse until my business associate arrived, not long before boarding the airline’s wide-body Airbus.

Once airborne, I forced down the evening light meal, secure in the knowledge that the bathroom was only a few steps away from my aisle seat. After determining that the seat-to-seat phone was out of order (my companion being seated at the far end of the cabin, beyond the bathrooms), I focused on understanding the articulating motorized chair. The personal video apparatus kept tempting my attention, but eventually I got the footrest to extend enough to straighten my legs. I said a silent thank-you and wondered what I would have done back in coach class, with my recently-arthritic left knee jammed up against the back of the seat next forward for thirteen hours (fourteen on the return). I decided I would have had to be sedated.

The most valuable of the many things I collected during the flight, besides a lot more calories from what seemed like three more meals – but the wine was flowing and I tend to lose count at three glasses (or was it four?) and so also at three meals – was the elegant white canvass toilet bag (and another one on the return). Six months later, I am still using the after-shave, cologne and several other items. (But not the razor – it had an old single-edge disposable cartridge which scraped from the first. Makes me wonder if Emirates has been slowly doling out the kits from some gargantuan purchase order of the 1960s.)

English was the primary language, though Arabic took precedence in signage (with French nowhere to be seen). The crew made its announcements, such as of meals and toilet kits, in English (recorded safety announcements began with Arabic and included several other languages after English). By their accents, the crew were not native English speakers. I wondered whether the preference for English stemmed from the period of British hegemony (before gaining independence in 1971, the Emirates’ were the Trucial States, a protectorate of the Crown) or whether it simply reflected English as the “world” language. (John McPhee would have tracked down the answer rather than make guesses.)

Our midnight arrival at Dubai International Airport saved us from immediately being subjected to the full light of the desert sun. On the gangway between the plane’s exit door and the long exit ramp, the midnight air felt warm and soft, reminding me of my two years in Liberia (or at least of my fonder memories of tropical breezes wafting through my little house by the ocean).

The surprising humidity continued inside the terminal, where we breezed through customs without purchasing visas and without inspection of our carry-on bags. Some of this should be attributed to our business-class tickets (reportedly costing four thousand dollars, though I did not pay the freight and so cannot speak with authority). Also, I am told that during daylight hours the terminal is jammed. The inspectors spoke to us in English, and seemed happy to see our US passports.

At our hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road (the main drag, only recently upgraded to multi-lane, divided-highway status), a letter from management, handed over with our card-keys, wished us “a memorable stay during the Holy Month of Ramadan” and then detailed the procedures concerning acceptable modes of dress and venues for eating, drinking and smoking (also don’t chew gum in public).

Certain areas, curtained off between sunrise and sunset, were reserved for off-limits activities (though none permitted consumption of alcohol during daylight hours) so that non-Muslims would not be forced to forego their meals until sundown for nearly thirty days running. Despite these warnings, one morning I absent mindedly donned my accustomed baseball cap prior to my workout (it clamps down my headphones and covers my balding pate) and had to be asked to remove it when I emerged from the locker room into the health club.

In the evenings, nightlife resumes; indeed, I am told and have read that during Ramadan nightlife takes on an extra savor and energy. Dubai’s great malls (new ones being built all the time) open up at sundown and stay open past midnight. The flood of shoppers is remarkably reminiscent of Herald Square in December. Not surprisingly considering that the daylight hours are supposed to be a time of fasting, the evenings also bring peak activity to the restaurant trade. Bars for the most part remain closed, which has resulted in a trend to do one’s drinking in restaurants that have liquor licenses (most of which are attached to the large hotels, which have justified the licensing on the basis of the tourist trade that is so vital to them).

In my hotel, one of the city’s larger luxury high-rise establishments, the Western-style sports bar was open, as well as the hotel’s several restaurants. I do not know how this was justified, although there is always the excuse that, like most sports bars, copious amounts of nachos and other munchies are downed every hour. What remained shuttered 24/7 throughout the Holy Month was the hotel’s piano bar. Even though Dubai has relaxed much of the restrictive character of Ramadan, the combination of alcohol with live entertainment still crosses the line of being deemed unseemly, even in a tourist establishment.

But there was another exception to the Ramadan restrictions. This was an establishment called “Cyclone, The Club,” which, judging by my cover-charge receipt (sixty dirhams, about sixteen dollars) is a part of a larger local entertainment firm called Al Nasr Leisureland. Cyclone was, needless to say, ready, willing and able to do business as a bar throughout Ramadan. On the evening of my appearance there, we had completed a lengthy post-sundown dinner with enough drinking to make us tell our host we’d like to see “something different.” When we arrived, we were told that the club had just opened for the evening, and it was implied that it would be open all night.

To get in, not only was there the cover charge but also a walk through a regular airport-style metal detector and a frisking by bouncers with what looked and felt (going up and down my legs) like nightsticks. (They also used one of the handheld metal-detector wands.) Opening the front doors of the two-storey building brought us into a long, narrow lobby with two sets of saloon doors, one on the right and one on the left.

We chose the right-hand doors and swung through in the time-honored style. Coming in behind my two hosts, I let the door swing back behind me then looked up and my jaw dropped. Slightly to my right was a long, U-shaped bar surrounded by what seemed like dozens of blondes in tube tops about whom I could hear my local host, a transplanted Brit, explaining, “Russians on the right.”

To my left, a few steps farther than the Russians but not many, was another U-shaped bar, this one surrounded by a like number of women in the requisite tube tops (the scantiest allowable mode of dress?), except that these women’s ancestry was plainly Asian. Hence, my host continued, “Asians on the left.”

While my Texas host (himself a transplanted Canadian) and I were recovering, three of the left-hand crowd took the bull by the horns (perhaps it was still early in the evening for the Russians) and stepped over close to us, smiling broadly. Squaring off, the taller one faced me and got out the words, “How are you?” in halting English.

Because of the usual bar noise, I couldn’t hear our British friend’s conversation at all and could carry on with Alan (not his real name) only when he and his partner sidled in close to me and mine (and then only by slowly piecing together the conversation for each of the girls). When Alan turned toward the bar for another round, his self-nominated escort would concentrate on me, giving me two to deal with, and in those moments I learned a bit more about her. (The beers were thirty dirhams, so we nursed them, but bouncer-like employees circulated among us, leaning over to check our bottles and offering to get us another when we were approaching halfway through.) Most of the time (we are talking about a half-hour max), I had to make conversation with my volunteer, piecing together the meanings and trying to check her for understanding.

My escort had arrived in Dubai six weeks before from Beijing and was Mongolian. (Alan’s comrade hailed from Taiwan and was a month in-country.) My partner, whose name was very clear to me for at least a week after I got back to the States but is now lost in the vagaries of memory, claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan. I tried to establish whether she was Mongolian by nationality as well as by descent, and I think it came out that her parents’ village was on the Chinese side of the border (Inner Mongolia). I asked about the Great Wall but am not sure she understood to what I was referring. The name of her village sounded like the old Mongol capital Karakorum, but she did not understand about that, either.

As the minutes passed, she began touching my arm and my midsection while describing herself as an expert in Mongolian massage. Feeling myself inexorably being backed into the proverbial corner, and knowing the way these things ended from encounters deep in the past with the much more aggressive women in Liberian bars, I quietly asked Alan for cab fare. He said, “Yeah, I’m not staying much longer myself,” and handed me a hundred dirhams. (Alan bankrolled me in everything I did in Dubai, it being understood the trip was on his company tab.) I slipped the bill in my pocket, feeling sure that, because of the language barrier, my attentive companion had no idea of my plans for it. Then I waited for her to smile, smiled back and said goodnight, using her name, then patting her hand and at the same time turning for the door a few steps behind me, not stopping until I was out in the night air. A taxi roared up and soon I was back in my sanctuary at the hotel.

Some of my questions to her concerned how she had come to leave her village and go to Beijing and how thence to Dubai. She seemed to be saying that something had happened to her village; her parents had had to move. (Shades of the rural land grabs that are a hot issue in China?) Of Beijing, she said there were no jobs. This may seem incredible, but I judged her age to be about twenty, and Beijing may not have been welcoming to a twenty-year-old female without much education (and possibly without much grasp of Mandarin). In fact, for her, being very pretty, and much in need of accommodation, all roads in Beijing may have seemed to lead to the brothels. In that light, Dubai, probably described in terms of all the new people arriving all the time (which is true) and all the money that’s building whole new neighborhoods (also true; they seem to build whole business districts at a time and boast that twenty percent of the world’s high-capacity construction cranes are engaged on Dubai projects), could very well have been made to seem a place of true possibility that contrasted mightily with the realities of Beijing.

The question is, and this question did not really sink home to me until afterward, what compromises did she and Alan’s girl from Taiwan and the dozens of Russians have to make in coming to Dubai? In entering through the security gate, inside the cordon of truncheons, was I in effect entering a prison? What if I had wanted to avail myself of her? Would I have taken her with me in the taxi, or, as seems likely, been escorted through a door at the back of the bar and shown to a room?

As against this, it is interesting that both girls were so recently arrived in Dubai. Could it be an indication that such arrivals are quickly paired off, departing the likes of the Cyclone for a life with a member of the Emirate’s largely immigrant work force, also newly arrived but with a reliable construction job?

The prison-like character of the nightspot would seem to argue against this, but, to push further down a speculative trail, there is some evidence, though very slight, that may indicate there’s yet something in this matching-up idea. The evidence, stamped right onto the aforementioned admission receipt (that I keep pinned to the wall next to my desk here at home), is the words, in Arabic and English, “Department of Tourism Commerce Marketing… Entertainment Control.” Could it be that Dubai imposes some kind of time limit on the proprietors of places like the Cyclone, after which each woman brought into the Emirate must be released? The time limit might be long enough for the proprietors to recover – from the women’s services – the cost of the recruiter middlemen (and their sources, going all the way back to Beijing and Taipei and dozens of other cities), plus, of course, a healthy profit.

Having tossed out all these guesses, it seems only right to add, once again, that John McPhee would have gotten answers rather than settle for guesses.

Perhaps that can be the next direction of this travelogue. I can do a little homework on the international female slavery market and try to find out if Dubai has a mercenary but still somewhat humanized way of dealing with it.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Class Rank: It hurts.

RE: Schools Avoid Class Ranking, Vexing Colleges (in The New York Times, March 5, 2006)

This article, featuring several pompous college admissions officers, was followed up by the publication of five letters to the editor -- including my own.

Do Class Rankings Help or Hurt? (5 Letters)

Two of the other letter writers, one a high-school teacher, were emphatically in agreement with my POV (NO to ranking). One, a college dean, offered an apologetic defense. And one, a certain Kevin Dayton of Roseville, California, was himself a valedictorian and has "no doubts and no regrets that the ranking helped distinguish me from 'the total child' of other applicants."

Interestingly, I believe I stood face to face with Mr. Dayton, on opposing sides at a political rally almost fifteen years ago (unbeknowst to Mr. Dayton). Here's how that works out:

First, how did I figure this out? Google, of course. Intensely curious about Mr. Dayton because of his in-your-face response on the class rank issue, I succeeded in unearthing that he is a "Fellow" of the "Pacific Research Institute" (read, the Pacific Right-Wing Propaganda Mill) of Sansome Street in San Francisco. In fact, even though his regular employment is as Vice President of Government Relations for the Golden Gate Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, he is "PRI's" Senior Fellow in Labor Union Studies (!!).

Still not satisfied, I unearthed Mr. Dayton's bio on the PRI site, which pegged him as a Yale grad, placing him in Connecticut, my former home state. Then, what do I read but that, during 1992-94, he was Legislative Assistant to Republican Congressman Gary Franks of Connecticut.

What's the significance of this? In 1992, I was quite active in the campaign against Franks. So active, that one Saturday in my home town of Wilton, I showed up at a Franks rally in the local supermarket parking lot, ostensibly to campaign for an opposing candidate, but really much more intent on being a spoiler for the Franks rally (much as I used to sit on home plate in our backyard baseball games when I didn't get my way).

I had been asked by my candidate to bring my camcorder, and, having filmed our candidate's counter-rally, parading round the parking lot, I found myself finished with my task, still holding my campaign sign, and directly opposite Gary Franks, who was propounding to the locals. I still had my camcorder, and I was standing about five feet from Franks, so I turned it on him, and he stared back into the lens, not knowing what to make of it. (An early instance of a private citizen using video to document the doings of the other side?)

Anyway, Franks was standing next to an aide, and -- this is where my memory is just not going to help me, for I have no mental picture of Franks' assistant -- couldn't that just possibly have been the Connecticut-based Dayton, who went on to become Franks' legislative assistant?

Such a satisfying search result (for me, anyway): once a jerk (working for Franks), always a jerk (sticking his class rank in our faces). And doubly confirmed by his cushy jobs: getting paid both by contractors and to opine on "Labor Union Studies."

And now, just in case The Times takes away the link (above), here's the text of my letter (for the text of the article, which The Times has already archived, you're going to have try your library... or your library's database... or buy it from Times "Select"):

To the Editor:

The demand by parents and high schools to look at the "total child" seems legitimate; colleges are looking at class rank because they are relying on grade point average, which seems illegitimate.

Comparing grades across schools is too fraught with pitfalls to be rescued by the addition of class rank. College admissions personnel, extending even to the Ivy League, behave like a secret society; they might as well be interpreting animal entrails to decide who shall walk their hallowed halls.

That they behave this way is understandable; they lack the resources necessary to assess the totality of their applicants' qualifications.

But the answer is not to devote more resources to the admissions process; the answer is to open up higher education to all who truly have the ambition for it.

Stop concentrating resources in elite institutions that (with questionable accuracy) award admission to those whom they deem deserving.

Richard Wolfe
Cumberland, Me., March 5, 2006