Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Internet Access in Egypt

Interent access for tourists in Egypt can be summarized as expensive. The only exception was our first hotel in Cairo where I found an unsecured wifi that I could access from the hotel room.

The ship we cruised the Nile on for 4 days had access for about $11.00 for each 30 minutes. If the ship was moving the access was intermittent and rather slow. If the ship was docked, the access was rather slow but stable.

The Cairo hotel we stayed in when we were at the pyramids (it was less than a mile from the pyramids had wired Internet in the rooms. It cost about $ .90 per minute. It was a deal if you used a lot--only about $35 maximum for any one 24 hour period.

So, I'm getting my blog done at home.

Found out that only about 5% of Egyptians have Internet access of any kind (To help put this in persective, about 50% of the population live in rural areas.) I did see a couple Internet Cafes while we were driving.

Upper Nile (March 23)

The Cairo International Airport terminal for our charter flight to Abu Simbel and Aswan is chaotic. Lines start for security then turn in to a mass crowd all trying to get through. This terminal for domestic travel really needs to be expanded. We walk out and board a bus for a three minute ride to our plane.

Taking off over Cairo you can see the smog. We quickly get to the Eastern Desert. (Between Nile and the Red Sea). We are flying to the east of the Nile. We cross one paved road headed east—it must be one of the five roads that connect the upper Nile to the Red Sea. (The lower Nile is the delta—from slightly south of Cairo too the Mediterranean Sea. Everything else is the Upper Nile.) There is nothing down there. No plants. All sand and rock. There are some large canyons that are totally dry. It is hard to imagine water cutting them (Cairo gets rain about 6 days a yea (from the little rain we got in Alexandria, a day with rain seems to be defined as any day with even a trace of rain).

Flying over Lake Nasser lets you see how big the reservoir is behind the Aswan High Dam.

After about 2 hours we land at Abu Simbel; take a bus the 300 yards to the terminal; board a bus for the 10 minute ride to the Abu Simbel temple of Ramses II; balk down a hill; have our mouths drop open.
Abu Simbel
The temple is huge. The facade is over 100 feet high with four colossal statues of Ramses II. A little bit to the right is the temple Ramses II built to honor hiss favorite wife—Nefertari (which has more statues of Ramses than Nefertari). That is was built in the 13th century BCE is amazing. That the whole thing was moved to save it from flooding from the Aswan High Dam is also amazing. (If you look closely, you can see the saw cuts where the cut the temple into large blocks to move—but in most cases you have to look very closely.) One interesting addition was made when they moved it. There are very subtle slits in the ceiling next to the walls in some places—for fresh air that is forced in to reduce the humidity caused by all the tourists breathing and sweating.

We fly to Aswan International Airport (about ½ hour). Get off the plane and onto a bus for a 500 foot ride to the terminal (I'm beginning to realize this is the system used at all Egypt airports.).

Aswan is no longer a small town—about 1 million population. Population growth is because of the Aswan High Dam. The dam provides ¼ of the electricity for Egypt and that cheap energy has resulted in a lot of industry around Aswan. Not much air pollution and very light traffic. It seems to have a much more laid back personality than Cairo.

More about the Bus ride back to Cairo (March 21)

We did have some excitement with the bus loosing power—could only get into 2nd gear. It took about an hour to fix at the 2nd mechanic. All of this (we were driving at a top speed of about 30 MPH for over an hour to get to a mechanic) took about 3 hours.

We did stop of a Coptic Christian monastery in the desert. It dated from the 4th century.

Bibliotheca Alexandria

The historic Bibliotheca Alexandria was founded in the 3rd century BCE. It was the largest library in the ancient world. (Any ships landing at Alexandria were required to turn over all scrolls to the librarians—a copy was made and given to the ship—the library kept the original.

The new Bibliotheca Alexandria was finished in 2002 with the help of a number of nations and UNESCO. It seems to be a great library building—designed to function as a library. It includes an antiquities museum, a science museum, a planetarium, and a small art museum—this seems to follow the functions of the ancient Bibliottheca Alexandria. (Now it's the only library with a Planetarium--hopefully we'll succeed in getting the Minnesota Planetarium added to the Minneapolis Central Library as planned.) It has a 2000-seat reading room on seven tiered levels, and space for 8 million hard copy volumes. (currently the collection is quite small-- 800 thousand volumes). It has the copy of the Internet Archive, lots of computer terminals and an instant publishing service.

It is not a “Free Public Library” like US libraries. Everyone needs to pay a fee to enter (Annual fee for Egyptians is about $12 per year (less for students, children and retired persons), about $65 per year for non-Egyptians.

Alexandria (March 19-20)

There really isn't a lot of History to see in Alexandria. Very little Greek and Roman is left. We did go into Roman catacombs and a Roman Amphitheater. The catacomes are a series of tunnels, shafts and rooms mined out of sandstone where Romans had been buried. The art carved into the walls was a strange mix of influences from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman. In includes art of the mummification process--that gets it wrong.

The Alexandria National Museum includes sections on the Pharaohic periods (Old, Middle and New), the Coptic and the Muslim periods. A great, relatively small museum. It includes some of the treasures found off the coast near where the Ancient Alexandria Lighthouse was.

Alexandria is the second largest city in Egypt--about 2 million people. Traffic is not quite as bad as Cairo but still chaotic. It is a beautiful setting on the Mediterranean. It is the largest industrial port in Egypt (which we didn't see).

Had a chance to walk around the downtown shopping district. It is a series of small shops. We seem to at first be in the shoe section--shop after shop selling shoes. We then get into the cell phone section--again, shop after shop selling cell phones. Did pass two appliance stores--they have a much greater variety of colors for major appliances--bright red, blue and yellow are options. Otherwise, selection looks similar to US (except it seems to be on the smaller size end--no mammoth refrigerators, only apartment size clothes washers.

Nile Delta March 19-21

Train to Alexandria:
Mini van to the main Cairo railroad station. Busy place—even on a national holiday. All the trains look very worn on the outside. Inside of our train (first class) is in great shape.

Riding through Cairo on the train we notice all the buildings look worn on the outside. We're guessing the heat, sun and sand are hard on the exterior of things here. Lots of satellite dishes on every high rise. According to our guide, everyone in the building has their own

Train goes through the agricultural Nile delta. The agriculture seems to be all done by had and is very intense. Only walking paths (if any paths) between fields. All work seems to be done by hand. Land is very flat and only a couple feet above the level of the river. Large irrigation canal parallels the railroad for a while. Lots of small gas powered pumps getting water to the fields. Lots of small irrigation canals.
The train is nonstop to Alexandria. Has the right-of-way. Its speed seems to be faster than the autos on the 4 lane divided motorway that parallels it most of the way. We go a little slower through towns and when we get into Alexandria—sometimes slowing to a crawl in Alexandria. Two and a half hours to Alexandria (about 220 kilometers.)

Bus Back to Cairo:
On the bus ride back to Cairo, we took the desert road—a four lane divided highway. Agriculture here is by irrigation from wells. It isn't as intense as in the delta—the land just isn't as fertile. It is mainly sand. We actually see tractors--the work isn't done by hand here. Here the irrigation seems to be primarily by large moving sprinkler system (the kind you see in Western Minnesota and the other prairie states).

See our first pigeon houses. Silo like structures with lots of holes and a curved top. Used to raise pigeons for food.

Delta from the air (update):
It is clear when we leave Cairo for home. Flying over the delta we see a maze of irrigation canals. Very green landscape. It does look like about 10 percent of the delta is taken by small, medium and large towns/cities. According to our guide, one of the problems Egypt is facing is that the increasing urbanization of Egypt is taking very good farm land out of production.


Cairo has a population or 18 million (Egypt's population is about 85 million). Downtown streets could probably handle a population of 5 million max. Nonstop traffic from about 7:30 AM to 9 PM. There are a lot of traffic circles and most of downtown is no left turn from two way streets—you just go past the street you want to turn on by a couple blocks and make a U turn. Some motorways and flyovers downtown. Some of the flyovers rise up from narrow streets (2 lane) and you end up three stories up looking in apartments that are 10 feet away (think Chicago L but with cars).

Purple Haze:
While we are in Cairo, a constant haze of smog. Industry, cars (lots of cars stuck in traffic), and dust from the desert all contribute to it. It is obvious that this pollution is hard on the buildings—the all look dirty. Most of the surfaces that were shiny are not shiny.

Our first morning the tour included two historic mosques:

  • Mohammed Ali Mosque (1840 AD) is inside Al-Qalla (The Cidadel). Al Qalaa was founded in 1176 AD by Muslim commander Salah ad-Din (Saladin—the commander who defeated Richard the Lion Hearted in the Crusades). The Mohammed Ali Mosque was an Albanian Mercenary commander who won control in a three way contest and started the industrialization of Egypt. The mosque is beautiful but in need of significant restoration (which seems to have started). It is also called the Mosque of the five domes and is on a relatively high hill on the edge of the city. Looking out over the city, we are told that on a clear day you can see the pyramids. Today is NOT clear--a purple haze over the city.

  • Mosque of Ibn Tulun (AD 876) is the oldest mosque in Cairo. Much simpler design, less ornate. It has a simple beauty that is more powerful than the much larger and more ornate Mohammed Ali Mosque.

Khan El Kahili Market:
Lunch at a restaurant in the Khan El Khalili market. After lunch we look for souvenirs in the market. The plan is to just look around and get some prices. Bev decides she likes two stone cats. Negotiation on price starts at 1600 Egyptian Pounds for one. Merchant immediately comes down to 1200. Bev counters with 120 Pounds. I say it is way more than we want to spend. He comes down to 600 for one. I start to leave the shop. Before I'm out the door it is 600 for two cats. After about 10 minutes of this, we walk out of the shop with two cats for 300 Pounds.

When we get on the bus I ask the guide where the bombing was a month ago. She points to the coffee shops I just walked in front of. All visible damage has already been repaired. Considering the lack of maintenance on everything else—from streets and sidewalks to buildings (both public and private buildings), this quick repair is amazing—and a sign of how important the tourist industry is to Egypt.

Egypt Museum:
No pictures allowed in the Egypt museum. We go through two security check points. The museum has an amazing amount of stuff displayed—in a very haphazard way. Not a lot of organization or descriptions. Every kind of museum case is used—and many artifacts are not protected at all. It seems more a warehouse than museum. Some stone pieces outside are actually stored behind the air conditioning units, leaning against the building. It reminds me of scenes in the Indiana Jones movies. (They are building a new, larger museum that is scheduled for completion in 2010--nearer the Piramyds of Giza. If it is anything near the quality of the Biblioteca Alexandria or the Luxor museum, it will be wonderful.

In comparing the art of the major periods of ancient Egypt. (Old, Middle and New Kingdoms), what is striking is the different style between the old and new. The art of the Old Kingdom seems much more refined, much more detailed. Where they were aiming at realism, it is much more realistic. The art of the New Kingdom seems much more interested in covering the art with gold. It all seems much rougher.

Cairo City:
Cairo could be a beautiful city. It is called the City of 1000 minarets. It has the Nile. Most of the modern buildings (which is by far most of the buildings) are basic concrete apartment blocks of office towers. They all look like they are from the 1960s Soviet period. Some streets have green center boulevards but they are un-kept. Lots of trash/litter. Lots of buildings where the plaster/stucco on the outside is falling off. Lots of advertising—on everything.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Blogger in Egypt

Took a while to figure this out. When I went to my blogger website, the navigation at the top was all in Arabic. It took a while to figure out which link to click to log it. I don't read Arabic and since Arabic is read right to left, the links are in different places. Luckily, once I got to the dashboard, everything was in English.

Now having problems with the StarOffice "Send to Weblog" feature--freezing and crashing StarOffice.

Arriving in Cairo Wednesday, March 18

Got to Cairo after a 10 hour red-eye flight from JFK. Except for trying to sleep (Trying to sleep in economy class on a plane should be classified as torture.) , flying on Egypt Air was great: More space between rows of seats, comfortable seats, hot towels to refesh before breakfast, two real meals (they even served steamed fish that was not over cooked or cold) and a snack.Bus from plane to terminal for customs. Getting through customs was very fast.

The cab ride from the airport to our hotel in downtown Cairo was interesting. Bumper to bumper traffic. Very few traffic lights and the ones there were seemed to be ignored. On our side of the road, there were three stripped traffic lanes (no shoulder) but there were five lanes of traffic (lane stripes tend too be ignored. You have to be fearless to drive here.

We were going to send a few hours on our own exploring Cairo—decided to take a quick nap—woke up five hours later—no time for sight-seeing. I went out for a short walk along the Nile (hotel is on the Nile). A lot of permanently moored large boats turned into tourist restaurants.

It turns out that pedestrians have to be fearless also—in crossing the street. Pedestrians effectively do not have the right of way. You have to find a small gap in traffic and start crossing—a lane at a time—stopping between lanes if needed. At least drivers don't aim at pedestrians or speed up. So, at least it's better than NYC.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ice Shanties by Artists

I've uploaded a new slide show. Check the left sidebar. Ice fishing shanties created by artists. Medicine Lake, MN (just west of Minneapolis) in February, 2009.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What is new about a "Smart Power Grid"

What is all this talk about a "Smart Grid" for electric energy supply? There seems to be a lot of hype about how this will greatly increase energy supply or efficiency. From what I've read, the "Smart Grid" seems to be more of a PR term than a radical change. In fact, I don't see anything radical or new about it. From the Washington Post (March 10, 2009; Page A01):
"One gizmo allows you to run the dishwasher when electricity is cheapest. Another decides when to fire up the water heater if you plan on a 6 a.m. shower. "
I remember technology to do run high energy appliances in the off-peak hours in the 1980s. A utility in NW Minnesota had a system in the 80's that would allow them to switch customers between electric heat had automated wood burning furnaces.
"Another routes solar energy from a rooftop panel to a battery in your garage and the wiring in your house. ..."
Any solar energy system that includes batteries does this now.
"The power grid itself can react to trouble, rerouting juice from a healthy part of the system or isolating itself to prevent a larger meltdown..."
Power grids already do this.

What the "Smart Grid" seems to be is more of an on-going improvement of existing system rather than a radical change of technology. I wonder how much of this is an attempt by the electric utility industry to get federal money to do the ongoing maintenance and improvement that they should have been doing all along.

Maybe all we can expect from most major media now is just repeating industry press releases. Many of the reporters who had specialized in energy and the environment have been laid-off or reassigned. General assignment reporters just don't have any knowledge of the history of the issues.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Random stuff: Nonprofit database projects

Unless you're contemplating a database project--or are in the middle of one, this post is going to be kind of boring or esoteric. But I've seen way too many failed nonprofit database project to ignore. Below is my abbreviated step-by step guide for nonprofit database project. (At the bottom of this post is a link to a longer version.) This post is aimed at nonprofit organizations but probably also applies to for-profit and government organizations.

While you really need to do EVERYTHING right to have a successful database implementation, here are the basics.

Picking a database:
  • If at all possible, DO NOT decide on a totally custom database. DO NOT start from scratch. Use an existing product that is somewhat customizable. Don't hire a firm or and individual to create one from scratch. If you decide on a custom database, you will pay. You will pay in time, money, success and usability.
  • Pick a database that meets your organization's needs. Look at a number of options. Do not just pick one because it is low cost or because your executive director knows someone or because someone else uses it. This means starting by determining your needs and your wants. (Don't forget to specify reporting needs.
  • Get a demonstration with some of the potential day to day users in the room.
  • Don't pick a database because it "looks nice."
  • Don't pick a database because "everyone else uses it." (But do consider the benefits of having other users to call for help/suggestion/moral support.
  • Check vendor references. Check vendor references. Check vendor references.

  • The contract needs to include deliverable, the payments need to be tied to deliverable, and the needs to be a time-line.
  • Assign an internal project manager and give them enough time to manage the project.
  • Document all meetings and phone calls with the vendor. Share this with the vendor.
  • Your overall budget needs to include:
    • Cost of the vendor contract--set up and annual fees
    • Your costs of data conversion
    • An internal project manager (maybe part time, maybe full time
    • Cost of training your staff (both the cost of the training and to cost of their time
    • Cost of time your staff takes to get proficient with the database.
More Resources:

MS Word document: Nonprofit Project Management

Techsoup database articles:

The Minnesota Chapter of the Project Management Institute (Project Management Coaching)

Basecamp (team project management tool)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The "Give Us Your Membership List" business plan

Is it my imagination or are there a lot more companies that are offering "shop for charity" programs? These programs typically ask a nonprofit to link to an online shopping site and promote the shopping site to their members. In return, the nonprofit will get a small percentage of each sale.

There are a few questions any nonprofit should ask before agreeing to participate in this type of promotion.

The basic questions include:
  • Is the website you are linking to offering fair prices and providing quality service.
  • Is the website free of viruses?
  • Are transactions secure?
Probably more important:
  • Does sending people to this website fit your mission. For example, if you are a neighborhood group trying to build a viable community, does it make sense for you to send customers to an online store for things they could buy in your neighborhood?
  • What happens if your constituents or members have a bad experience on the site? What happens if you got the wrong answers to the first three questions?
  • Does the income you receive justify distracting your website visitors with this link? Could this promotion reduce the number of people who click on your "donate now" button?
And, since I'm not a lawyer, I haven't even asked any of the legal questions. Just make sure you consult a good nonprofit lawyer who knows 501.c.3 tax law before you agree.

Slightly related to this is a column in this month's Fast Company: Do Something: Jurassic Park Syndrome by Nancy Lublin (I really look forward to her columns). She talks about some trends ins cause marketing.

Note: I owe the term "Give Us Your Membership List" business plan to Tim Mills Groninger. He coined it a few years ago during a National Nonprofit Technology Conference (link to this years NTC) .