Some thoughts on Speed...

Some days ago, I was reading about the latest technological developments in Japan's bullet train or Shinkansen. I have taken trains in North America (Canada and the U.S), all over northern and southern Europe and in Northern Africa (where the heat made me hallucinate), but it is the Japanese Shinkansen that makes me salivate like Pavlov's dogs. Don't get me wrong, the French (TGV) and the Germans (ICE) all make fabulous high speed trains -

Computer generated image of the Shinkansen E5 - to be released in 2011.
(The image is from JR East Press release. www.jreast.co.jp/press/2008/20090112)

but nowhere else in the world do you have the extreme speed and punctuality, the cleanliness and comfort and a hot ōbento served at your seat. Japanese officials claim that the average train is late less than 30 seconds each year and that includes delays caused by earthquakes, typhoons and snow. (Ha! Only in Japan)! And in the line's 45 year history of transporting 7 billion passengers, there have been no deaths caused by derailment or collisions. (The shinkansen was originally developed for use during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics).

This is the present Shinkansen model in used, the S500 (image from wikipedia)

(Admiring) Sigh...

However, not satisfied with the status quo, JR Tokai is pushing forward with their plans to develop the magnetically levitated (maglev) Chuo Shinkansen. The superconductive maglev train holds the world speed rail travel record at 581 km/h (361 mph). This advanced transportation technology could in its commercial use - link Tokyo to Nagoya in 40 to 50 minutes (while traveling at a mere 500km/h). To provide some scale of that speed, commuters could go from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just over an hour. (To drive from LA to SF takes about 6 hours. Presently to take Amtrak from LA to San Francisco requires a couple if not more connections and over 8 hours of travel time). To be fair, I should note that construction of Chuo Shinkansen is anticipated start in Japan within the next two to three years and the line would open in 2025.

In the meantime, the E-5 series of trains is scheduled to take the rails in 2011 in Japan. This model will travel at a speed of 320km/h (200 mph). On the flip side, I live in a country where the railway tracks still used were laid around the time of the Civil War (1860's), and where every American industry is desperately looking for a handout from the government to stay afloat - I cannot help but admire that JR Tokai will cover the entire cost of the estimated 5 trillion yen to develop the Chuo Shinkansen by themselves without relying on any government subsidies.

The irony is that the maglev technology was first developed in America by Dr. James Powell and Dr. Gordon Danby in the 1960's. However, due to tremendous mind blowing short-sightedness, the ongoing development of this technology was terminated in the U.S. in the 1970's by the Department of Transportation under their faulty assumption that cars, trucks and planes would suffice for the future.

Bigger (depressed) sigh...

Aside from being infinitely more energy-efficient than flying and driving and virtually pollution free, there are many other potential positive repercussions of this superconductive maglev Shinkansen for Japan. While Tokyo is already an economic powerhouse, if easily linked by train to other urban centers like Nagoya and Osaka, connecting the rivaling Kansai and Kantō regions, these three cities could form a very dominant economic bloc. Additionally, with the option of taking a brief train ride from Tokyo to Osaka, Haneda Airport in Tokyo (the airport Tyler Brûlé cannot stop gushing about as the world's most efficient transit hub) would be able to increase its number of international flights and thereby strengthen its role as a gateway to Tokyo. Its proximity to Tokyo alone would make it a very attractive alternative to Narita Airport.

Hmm...mental note...make travel plans for Japan in 2025...book ticket for Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka...experience the future of travel.

For information on Maglev technology click here or here.


Faris al Saffar and his Magical World

The Fisherman

Yesterday, I went to a small art show exhibiting the work of Iraqi artist, Faris Al Saffar. The exhibition was called Baghdadism and was a collection of sketches influenced by the artist's life in Iraq. The gallery was simple and perhaps did not display the sketches in the best possible way but that did not diminish the magical quality of the images. The sketches which ranged in subject matter from children's songs, to horses, to children, to fishermen, to architecture and religion were playful, animated and dreamlike. Powerful and poignant in their seeming simplicity. Yet there were so many little details that enriched each image.
Children's Song

I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Al Saffar during the course of the evening. He was mild mannered, almost shy yet excited to share his work. Given my background in architecture, he was curious if architecture firms could use his rendering abilities. When I complimented him about his art - his eyes twinkled when he smiled. Given all the horror stories we often hear about Iraq, it was hard for me to reconcile the gentle man that stood before me with the life he lived under Saddam Hussein.

Born in Baghdad in 1964, he grew up on a multinational corporation's oil processing plant outside Karkuk. After university, he was drafted to serve in Saddam Hussein's military as a civil engineer where he was forced to work in secrecy on Saddam's long range missile project. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Al Saffar went AWOL and returned to Baghdad to protect his family. Managing to get through the Republican guards, he eventually fell into the custody of the American military. For the next year and a half he was sequestered in a refugee camp in the desert of Saudi Arabia along with 100,000 other Iraqis. During this time he taught himself English. With the intervention of the United Nations, Alsaffar was later given political asylum in the U.S.

Art and drawing has always been a passion of his. While in Iraq, the University of Technology in Baghdad sponsored 5 exhibitions of his work. Then in 1986, the university selected Al Saffar to be their representative at the prestigious Arab Gulf Universities Festival.
Children's Book 5

Since moving to America, Al Saffar has worked at Disney as a special effects artist. He also taught art at the City of Glendale Parks and Recreation. He also continues to study, always trying to perfect his craft.
Children's Book 1

After I came home, I took the business card he gave me and checked out more of his work on some of his blogs. His range of work blew me away. The mediums changed and some of the images were much more layered and complex. Each image captured my imagination, moving from one wondrous story to the next. The images were foreign yet welcoming. His portraits spoke volumes of lively characters and their mysterious stories.
Portrait 3

Portrait 4

I hope Faris Al Saffar continues to pursue his art with the same passion and devotion that has driven him so far. And I want to thank him for the joy his art has given me.

Caricature 4

Caricature 5

For more information on Faris Al Saffar and to see more of his art, visit the following websites:


Raising History - Alexandria's New Underwater Museum

Egypt, like so many other countries, struggles to maintain that delicate balance between providing for its own citizens and catering to tourism. When it is a poor country, with a not so transparent government and with limited funds, this balance is often less stable and more tenuous. More often than not, time and resources are spent attracting foreign currency acquired through tourism instead serving your own poor local population. For well run countries, this may not be a toss up. Money comes in, invest in improving the plight of the country. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case in Egypt.
The city of Alexandria along the Mediterranean had captured my imagination long before our bus pulled into the city's environs. Like the rest of Egypt, Alexandria is densely layered with centuries of history. Founded by its namesake Alexandria the Great, it is the location of the Lighthouse of Alexandria (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) and the ancient Library of Alexandria. It was ruled by Julius Caesar and Cleopatra and it is where the western world intersects the Arab world.
Alexandria along the Mediterranean

Modern day Alexandria unfortunately, is somewhat less glamorous. As Egypt's second largest city, traffic paralyzes the city and buildings that once spoke of the city's great diverse history are falling apart and blanketed with dense layers of pollution.

In 1994, just off the coast in the Mediterranean, divers discovered thousands of objects which included 26 sphinxes and pieces that are thought to be a part of the Pharos (Lighthouse) of the Alexandria. It is also believed that still underwater are the remnants of Cleopatra's palace complex. Built on an island, it was submerged by waves after an earthquake took down the island it stood upon in the 5th century. While some of these objects have been raised and can be viewed in a makeshift open air museum, there is now an huge somewhat controversial effort underway to build a giant underwater museum thereby allowing the rest of the sunken treasures to be viewed.

French architect Jacques Rougerie, an expert in water-based construction projects, with the blessing of UNESCO, is designing an fiberglass tunnel that would allow a close-up viewing of the sunken monuments. If all goes well, construction on both the inland and underwater pieces could start in 2010 and be completed within two and a half years. It all sounds very exciting and glamorous, as well it should with a US$140 million price tag. However, there are many critics who are less than thrilled and view this project more as a money pit and a wasteful diversion of funds - which reminds me of another project.

While I was in Alexandria, I visited the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the modern reincarnation of the ancient Library of Alexandria. Although it took hours to navigate through the streets of crazed traffic, the building in itself was incredible. It is light and airy and rich with exhibitions. Its technological capabilities are mind-blowing. The day I was there, college students had occupied every available table. It all seemed very hopeful (despite questions of censorship), this grandiose effort to restore Alexandria to its famous former historical intellectual glory. When I returned to Cairo, I shared my excitement with an Egyptian friend of mine. He was less enamored with the project. "We have spent US$220 million to construct this building of great learning, but Alexandria is nowhere near the great center of knowledge, research and learning it once was. All this money was spent on the construction of this one singular project when literacy rates in Egypt are so low (59% for women and 83% for men). The money could have been used to build a better education system throughout the entire country." For him, a flashy tourist destination won precedence over educating Egyptians. While there is free public education in Egypt, not one person I spoke to said it was any good. Instead they all agreed that there was dire need of a significant overhaul.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina - exterior
Bibliotheca Alexandrina - interior

Now the sources for the financing for this underwater museum is still unclear. The Egyptian government is hoping that it will come from private companies and organizations. Even if and when it does come, the technological and environmental challenges are many. The under water currents and strong and the dirty murky sea water does not allow for much visibility which may require the construction of a separate underwater lagoon. While government officials are hoping that this museum will make the often forgotten Alexandria a bigger tourist draw, there are others who feel that the money would be infinitely better used fixing up the crumbling buildings downtown, many of which are extraordinary examples of colonial-era architecture. US$140 million dollars in infrastructure improvements alone would go along way in improving the lives of the 4 million residents of Alexandria.

All this brings me back to my original dilemma. How do you find an equitable balance when resources are scarce and the range of need is great? Egypt runs on tourism and building these solitary and yet undoubtedly incredible landmarks like the Library of Alexandria or this underwater museum can help to increase revenue for all sectors. (It did not go unnoticed that our guide slipped a few police officers some money in return for their aid maneuvering through
(The four vertical structures are reminiscent of the Egyptian fellucas).

the cramped streets of Alexandria). However, with a corrupt government, the money rarely ever filters down to the people who need it. So should international organizations be less supportive of these one off types of projects and more supportive of using funds to build local infrastructure, restore buildings, improve education and other social conditions for the Egyptian people? It is a tough call. Especially if you view, those submerged monuments as part of world heritage and global human history as I am sure UNESCO does.

All I know is that if this museum is ever built, I will be on that bus again to Alexandria to check it out but maybe this time while I am there, I will consider working with some organizations that are trying to improve the everyday lives of the local residents.

*The top two and bottom two images are pictures of the proposed underwater museum. Images are from Jacques Rougerie Architect.
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