The Eurozone and the failure of today's politics

8:49am 8th June 2010

The recent volatility in the Euro and problems in the Greek economy have highlighted some of the deep divisions and structural problems within the Eurozone. The British government must be looking on with great amusement as the very concerns that saw them abstain from the Euro currency all those years ago have materialised. To me, the most interesting thing about the debates that surround this event are the facets of the socio-political paradigm of today's nations that they reveal.

One of the main characteristics of the Eurozone is that it requires the member economies to maintain a materially identical monetary policy, which is set by the European Central Bank in light of overall economic conditions in the Eurozone generally. Striped of sovereignty over domestic monetary policy, national governments are left with the other major economic tool in their bag, fiscal policy. However, governments must implement their fiscal policies in light of a monetary policy set by the ECB which may at best be appropriate for domestic conditions, or at worst, exacerbate problems and destroy advantages. Due to the enormous differences between member economies, it is inevitable that both situations will arise from time to time in different member states.

In other large national economies such as India or the United States, monetary policy is also set by a central bank for component economic units that may operate under vastly disparate circumstances. The current situation in the Eurozone could be compared to the US, where California, by far the largest state economy in the US, shares the same monetary policy with Vermont and North Dakota, the union's smallest economies.

How is the problem solved there? There are many ways that economic policy is harmonised, but the main way is through a complementary national fiscal policy. A set of taxes, subsidies and regulatory frameworks ensure that economic policy between the states are brought into consistency by transferring funds from rich states with large economic surpluses to those with deficits. This is a simplification of economic policy, but illustrates one of the main ways in which the overall economic strength of the United States is used to benefit all of its members, big and small. While larger, more well-developed states may be economically better off being independent, they reap significant political benefit by being part of the Union, while smaller economies give up some of the sovereignty they would otherwise have in return for the economic support of the US federal government.

Back to the Eurozone, implementing this would require putting fiscal policy control over national economies into the hands of the ECB, allowing fiscal transfers between member economies so that surpluses are put to work strengthening economies with deficits and turning them around with capital investment and infrastructure development rather than being spent on marginal gains in economies that are already well developed. Translating that into practice, the ECB would take money from Germany and France through taxation, and use it to subsidize things like factories in Spain, schools in Cyprus and highways in Portugal.

Unfortunately, under the current European political and economic structure, such systematic transfers would be unthinkable. The only way that such international transfers could be carried out are via bailouts, and they come with stiff penalties in the form of relatively high interest rates, nasty ratings adjustments to national governments' credit ratings and potentially ruinous blowouts to national debt levels. For it to be effective, it has to be conducted in a manner akin to national fiscal policy rather than international loans; the funds need to be given free. In the United States, California does not have a choice if the taxes paid by its residents are used to subsidize farmers in Nebraska.

However, almost all policymakers would baulk at the very suggestion that France should give money to Portugal for free. While it is clear that the members of the Eurozone derive benefit from economic consolidation, it does not appear that there are any benefits to be had by, say, Germany or France paying for highways or bridges in Portugal or Malta. The benefits only become apparent if one considers "benefit" in light of the total welfare of the Eurozone and thus, a welfare increase in Portugal is of benefit to Germany as well. Even at the highest levels, modern thinking is guided by self-interest, with cooperation only occurring where the parties both stand to gain, a benefit to one is not considered sufficient.

This seems almost nonsensical at first, but go back to the United States example; when the US federal government takes an action that benefits a few states but not others, the overall increase in strength of the union benefits all member states indirectly. In Western political thinking, the Us vs Them nation-state geopolitical paradigm means that unless there is total political integration between states, a benefit to one is not seen as a benefit to the other.

To further illustrate this point, assume you and I have $1,000 between us, split evenly. However, if I already have a house, a car and enough food, but you have nothing, the greatest joint benefit will be created by the spending of the whole of the money investing in your life assets (home, food etc). Given the way we think today, you'll spend your half on those things, while I'll spend my half on ice-cream or something else that will only marginally increase my welfare. In Europe, wealthy nations spend economic surpluses on such marginal increases to national welfare, such as sports stadiums or unnecessary infrastructure developments to ensure full employment. Less developed nations, however, struggle with investment in basic services and national infrastructure while burdened with far higher levels of unemployment.

This brings us to the core of the issue. Unless the EU finds a mechanism to integrate cross-border fiscal policy through fiscal transfers, the attempt to integrate Eurozone economies is doomed to failure. Countries that are not be able to balance their fiscal policies with the prevailing Eurozone monetary conditions will suffer greatly, and may even fail. This could be one of the reasons for Greece's current financial woes.

There must be a body that possesses the ability to set overall economic policy for the Eurozone as a whole, for the benefit of the Eurozone as a whole. member states need to recognize and accept that many of them will be benefited at some times, and disadvantaged at others. Right now, the Eurozone is considering bailouts and other options to save Greece from bankruptcy. However, if there were a properly federated economic structure in the Eurozone, these bailouts would take the form of subsidies to key Greek industries, tax breaks to struggling sectors of the Greek population and any other appropriate fiscal instruments to provide some financial breathing room to the Greek economy.

This would not be a "subsidy on stupidity". Economists agree that Greece's woes are not the result of it's own economic mismanagement. Rather, Greece is a victim of it's overall economic conditions, most of which are external. Unable to adjust monetary policy, Greece was almost powerless to avoid this situation. Thus, from a European point of view fiscal transfers to Greece could not fairly be viewed as supporting carelessness. The rest of Europe benefited from a monetary policy that suited them, it stands to reason that they should transfer some of that benefit to states that suffered as a result of it.

The EU stands at a crossroads right now: either integrate further to allow more harmonious management of its member economies and adopt a greater sense of international cooperation, or begin unravelling the integration of the last decade to give member economies better control over their own individual affairs given their own individual situations.

The latter option would result in the last decade of work on the Eurozone being undone, a reversal of historical proportions and a concession that true co-operation is just not possible under the nation-state paradigm due to the political attitudes of national governments and the inherently selfish nature of today's thinking.

The former option, however, as philosophically desirable as it may be, appears impossible in practice. The desire for superiority is too ingrained in current thinking and is fundamentally incompatible with the notion of true international cooperation. If a single nation is at an advantage over another, there is virtually no chance that politicians will give up that advantage in the interests of mutual benefit, especially if the benefit is weighted to the other side. The very notion that this could happen would be labelled "socialist" and disregarded. However, for the Eurozone to succeed, politicians must do just that; give up their tendency to take every advantage and concede some benefits to other nations who could use it to derive greater overall benefit.

In this blogger's opinion, the problem outlined here is intractable under current socio-political conditions. Selfishness is too strong a part of the modern mind. People, especially politicians, simply do not think cooperatively, which is why globalization is not really achievable in its true sense, and why it is just resulting in a descent into rule by the rich and powerful.

Panasonic Lumix LX3 with 10Bar underwater housing

8:28am 21st October 2009

Introduction

I would like to start off this review by explaining the various uses that cameras fulfill for me. My ideal camera would be the size of a small cell phone, have all the controls of a DSLR, a 20 megapixel sensor, a 10 hour/1,000 shot battery and a lens that captures enough light to be able to shoot bright shots at ISO 100 in a dim room. However, we all know that that is not going to happen. A Canon 5DMkII may fulfill those quality requirements, but I need a backpack to carry it along with all its accessories. On the other hand, my Casio EX-S10 is smaller than my iPhone, but the pics it takes are noticeably grainy in all but the most ideal of conditions due to the use of high ISOs to offset the small sensor and lens. So, what to do?

Being an avid photobug, I previously owned 2 cameras; a large DSLR-style Sony (now lost, will be replaced with a Canon EOS series DSLR) and a Casio EX-S series camera. The DSLR came with me to events and travel expeditions. While it took outstanding photos, many a photo opportunity was missed because I didn't have a camera on hand. This is what originally motivated me to get a second, compact cam. The photos from the Casio are excellent for an ultracompact, but they are clearly not from a high quality shooter. However, post-shot work in Photoshop can result in acceptable results, and a mediocre photo is better than no photo, when faced with a great photo op.

Soon, however, I was discovering that while the Casio was good enough for happy-snaps, I was more and more often wishing for the ability to take high quality shots in more situations. So I decided to buy another camera, specifically as a halfway between a DSLR and the Casio. Coincidentally, at the same time, I also decided to get an underwater camera for scuba trips. I started doing research, and almost bought the excellent Canon G10. However, I eventually decided on the Panasonic LX3. While they are both excellent cameras neither being better in all areas, the LX3 better suited the sort of shots that I would be taking; better low light performance and noise control at higher ISO settings, despite a lower megapixel count. I have nothing but disdain for the trend to up megapixel count at the expense of overall photo quality, but that rant is the subject of a whole other blog post.

Panasonic Lumix LX3

My choice was between the Panasonic LX3 and the Canon G10. Despite the fact that the G10's resolution is a full 50% more than the LX3 (15mp versus 10mp for the LX3) I chose the Lumix due to its smaller size, better low light performance, better noise control at higher ISO and the better reviews it received for its UI. I intended to use the camera underwater, where light is scarce and low light-performance is likely to be more important than raw megapixels. Also, I usually shoot in 7mp anyway to save space and reduce shot to shot latency. 7mp is high enough to print a full A3 poster sized print, and I doubt I'll ever need to print larger than that.

The camera's overall performance is outstanding. It is very compact and easy to use, and has a very weighty, substantial feel to it, nice and solid in the hand. Totally unlike the cheap plastic cameras that are so common today. It offers superb control over exposures, which would even make basic DSLR users happy.

The clarity is outstanding, detail is easily rendered right up to the 10mp of the sensor, and 100% crops reveal very little in the way of artifacts or chromatic aberration. Barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom is noticeable in shots where perspective lines trace into the corners, but this is to be expected in a camera this size. Noise does get detectable from above ISO 200, but the image processing goes a good job and the photos can always be Photoshopped to reduce noise and improve colour.

Colour reproduction is excellent. I'd previously only seen this level of rendering detail from DSLRs. All colours seem to be captured accurately, even those difficult bright reds that tend to destroy contrast. Noise is kept low, due to the sensor being able to make the most out of available light and use the lowest possible ISO setting. At ISO 80 the photos are indistinguishable from a good DSLR.

One of the most impressive things about the camera to me is the dynamic range of the sensor. Dark areas of a shot can be lightened without too much destruction of detail and bright areas don't get burned out either. This provides the editing process a lot more room to make adjustments to a photo in order to achieve the exact look that the photographer is aiming for.

I plan to buy a DSLR for those times when I'm going out specifically to take photos. It will stay in my travel bag and come with me whenever I travel somewhere interesting. I will keep my Casio, which is small enough to live permanently in my pocket next to my cell phone. Previously, my Casio and a DSLR were all that I required to always have a good cam, but the LX3 fills the spot in the middle, reducing the number of times I see a great shot but cannot capture it properly. It will come with me on day trips and other outings where the Casio will likely not suffice but where I don't want to be laden down with a large amount of camera kit. I think I will get a lot of good use out of my LX3.

10Bar Underwater Housing

The 10Bar underwater housing for the LX3 is excellent. It's acrylic back plate is extremely meaty and durable, and the overall build quality feels like it would withstand just about anything. The updated version that I have allows access to all controls, including the directional button that provides exposure control.

No issues have been experienced with it down to about 40m. The front glass appears to be made from good quality material, it seems to be quite scratch resistant and does not absorb much of the incident light or offset the colour the way cheap perspex housings tend to.

In addition to the greater difficulty one has manipulating the equipment underwater, there is the added factor that generally, underwater photography is more difficult to master than above water photography. Even the most basic of shots requires careful consideration of focal length, field depth, aperture and shutter settings, white balance, lighting and subject movement. Above water it seems any amateur can produce acceptable results with no knowledge of shutters and apertures these days. Below water, however, one can't rely on modern cameras' auto settings to produce even the most basic of photos. The LX3 does not provide the full range of controls that a DSLR does, however it does provide enough control to produce good photos that can be shown to dive buddies without drawing snickers.

I have purchased a Pelican case to keep the whole kit in. I keep the housing, the LX3, my Casio EX-S10, spare batteries and chargers for both in the one indestructible case. Having a contains-all kit like this has really simplified traveling with my photographic equipment. Overall cost of the case, cameras, housing and accessories is about $2,000; quite a good deal all considered.

Conclusion

For underwater photographers, I would highly recommend the LX3 and 10Bar housing as they provide a great entry point to the art and give you plenty of control over your shots. That a camera delivering this quality and feature set is as small as the LX3 is is unbelievable. Given that underwater photography is far more difficult than photography above water, the LX3 provides a gentle introduction into the more advanced skills while also doubling as an outstanding above water camera. For those who are not into scuba diving, the LX3 provides the absolute best camera possible short of a DSLR. The only other camera that comes close is the Canon G10, and that is significantly larger and heavier. It is also more complex, and if you are going to sacrifice portability and simplicity then you may as well just buy an entry-level DSLR and get all the benefits that it provides. For beginners looking for a point and shoot camera or pros looking for a good backup, the LX3 is the camera of choice.

Posted by The O. on 2010-01-14 02:47:27.616724+00
haha, i just realised your 'acceptable shot' link, the bridge of the River Kwai, they filmed a movie about that in Sri Lanka ages ago. Then after they made the movie, they destroyed the bridge, thus damaging the river in that area and leaving the people to suffer... *tragic* btw, whats the dif. b/w resolution and megapixel?

Arthroscopy

3:32pm 10th March 2009

Well hi there, dear readers. It may come as a surprise to many of you that I have just undergone surgery. Actually, it was a surprise to me too. Here's the scoop.

A few weeks ago I noticed a slight sensation in my right knee during Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training. It was not painful at all, but I could feel a slight sensation that let me know that there was something that may be not quite right. So, I decided to go for an MRI, which happened last week, Monday morning. Later that day, I went to see an orthopedic surgeon who had a look at the scans and informed me that I had a rather severe meniscus injury that required corrective surgery. I managed to get a spot in a hospital for the following Wednesday.

Having had the same operation, an arthroscopy, on the left knee several years ago, I was aware of what was going to happen. The surgery went well, and now, 6 days later I can definitely say that I can feel the knee slowly getting back to normal. I am still hobbling around on crutches, but the swelling is going down and I think I'll be back to normal in about 2 weeks.

Whenever one has experiences like this, where our body's limitations are illustrated with inescapable clarity, it is always an opportunity to ponder the real blessing that health and youth represent. Since the surgery, small things like showers and getting changed have become real challenges. The fact that I never noticed such things highlights just how true it is that we take everything for granted until it is lost. When one ponders this point, it becomes depressingly apparent how people today squander their very lives away; their health with things like alcohol, drugs and smoking, their time with tabloid junk and pointless television and their intelligence with obsession over sporting events and meaningless chatter.

It is only when one is faced with this sort of reminder that we are forced to contemplate our limits and our mortality. I pray that I do not lose sight of the fact that health, wealth and time are finite, and that failure to use these wisely and productively while I have them would be the most tragic waste of life as well as cause for unimaginable regret when, inevitably, I no longer have them.

Netgear SPH-101 WiFi Skype Phone review

11:47am 10th February 2009

I have recently purchased a Netgear SPH-101 WiFi Skype phone. Having previously owned a Netgear Skype Phone, the wired SPH-200D and having been pleased with it, I was expecting the newer WiFi version to be an improvement. Alas, I have to report that I am very disappointed with my experience thus far.

Before I launch into my whinings, I'll begin with the pros of the handset. After all, it's not all bad. Well, not quite, anyway. The handset is an attractive and simple design, making it accessible for non-techie users to approach without feeling intimidated. It feel reasonably sturdy in the hand. That's about all I can say to praise the unit. From here on, it's all bad.

Let me say right now that I do not recommend this phone. I had a far better experience with the SPH-200D, which gave far more reliable service and clearer connections. The 101 WiFi phone firstly seems to have a very poor WiFi chipset, as calls begin to garble as I walk away from my wireless access point. Ranges that are quite fine for my laptop cause the 101 to drop calls. This is my biggest gripe, as the 200D managed to get greater range from its base station than the 101 gets from the AP. There's not point in trading away the wired base station for WiFi connectivity if you're going to put a rubbish WiFi arrangement in the handset.

The other major problem I have with the phone is the software and CPU. While the software is familiar, essentially identical to the 200D with the exception that it cannot make calls from a normal landline (it has no base station to do this), the handset feels far more sluggish. The software is slow to respond to keypresses and takes upwards of a minute to boot from off. This is made all the more annoying by the fact that due to an abysmal battery life, the handset is almost always off when you want to use it, meaning your call becomes tethered to a charging cable.

Personally, had I a choice, I'd go back to the 200D. The ability to make normal landline calls, the far superior battery life, the greatly improved range and faster software performance far outweigh any benefit of having the handset WiFi enabled. Unless you plan on taking the handset traveling with you to hotspots elsewhere, this is not a benefit, and remember, it can only log onto hotspots where there is no authentication, only a simple WEP/WPA passphrase, making its usefulness even in this area severely limited.

In short, the SPH-101 is a poorly designed and badly thought out implementation of a Skype device. It is obvious to me that nobody from Netgear tested the device, as they would have discovered that its software speed is too slow to be considered tolerable. I will try to get my hands on a Belkin handset, and see if that is any better. When I have more information, I will report here. Watch this space!

Hajj: My journey in 2008AD / 1429AH

12:40pm 10th January 2009

Well hello there people. It's been a while since my last blog update. May of you may know that I recently went on Hajj. This blog entry will be an account of that journey, and there are also a bunch of photos available in the Hajj album.

The trip begins

The trip began with everyone meeting at Melbourne Airport. The group was mixed, some I knew well, others I'd only met in passing and many I had never met at all. It was an emotional farewell, many of us had not spent such a long time away from family, and the significance of the occasion to us seemed to elevate the emotions that everyone was feeling. We hugged our loved ones and wished each other well on the journey we were about to undertake. The flight to Singapore went smoothly, though I didn't manage to get any sleep, Not being tired, I spent the trip walking around getting to know my travel buddies.

When we arrived in Dubai, we had one day there to freshen up. We ate, napped and then our group leader made sure we all put on our ihram properly and prepared for the next leg of the journey. The flight to Jeddah was short, only about an hour, and when the aircraft was about to cross the Miquat we all read the dua and made our intention for entering into the proper state of ihram. This was the first part of the Hajj Tamattu, and we were all excited and looking forward to what was coming. Once we arrived in Saudi Arabia, we fell into the bureaucratic machine that is the Hujaj (visitors on Hajj) system. We passed passport control after about an hour of waiting in the terminal, and were then moved to the stage two waiting area where we endured around 8 hours before being cleared to board the bus. This time passed fairly easily, we all managed to get some sleep despite being in ihram and laden with our luggage. To be honest, I was expecting far worse.

Makkah and the first umrah

The bus ride to Makkah was pleasant. We stopped at a small Mosque for Fajr, where locals came and gave us dates and bottles of Zam Zam water. The locals all seemed very eager to provide services to visitors, and went out of their way to ensure that we were all taken care of. After arriving at our flats, we unpacked and settled in. The flats were modest, and we were sleeping 6 to 8 in a room. There was a small jamaat area on the ground floor where we made our salat, as well as an eating area where our meals were served. Our group was on the second floor. I liked the arrangement, the closeness with the rest of the group really encouraged us to get to know one another.

Soon after arriving at the flats, we had to make our way to the Masjid-al Haram to perform umrah as part of our Hajj Tamattu. The Haram itself is an enormous building, clad almost completely in marble. It is an imposing sight, both from far away and up close. I had visited Makkah before, but for many in the group, this was the first time they had seen the Ka'bah. Physically, it is a squat structure made from blocks of black granite quarried from the nearby hills and covered with a black cloth. To a non-Muslim, this would likely appear unimpressive, but to a Muslim who understands its significance, the spiritual impact of seeing it in reality is breathtaking, and I was no less awed seeing it this time than the first time.

After performing the rites of umrah, I returned with the group, now bare-headed, to the flats where we took off our ihram, showered, and freshened up. For me, the short period in ihram was like a trial run for the Hajj. Over the next few days we got used to the place, oriented ourselves with Makkah and spent time getting to know one another. One of the first things I did was go looking for shwarmas, as they were my favourite meal during my last visit back in 2000. I discovered, to my dismay, that all of the little stalls that I bought them from have been removed and the land around the Haram is being redeveloped into a complex of large hotels and shopping centres. I was also unable to find easy access to the Internet, the closest net café to our flats did not allow laptops. I had to ask around quite a long time before I found a place I could plug in my laptop and check my mail.

Hajj begins

The Hajj proper began a few days after arriving in Makkah. We all had showers, cleaned up thoroughly, and got ready for the journey, both in the physical sense by gathering the necessities, and in the spiritual sense by making our niyaat, extra salat as well as generally engaging in introspection and pondering the many benefits we hoped to derive from performing this holy rite and fulfilling a requirement of our religion. It was a sober preparation, and I personally was excited to be doing something that I had heard so many others talking about. I was also happy to have Mahmoud Kürkçu as our guide and group leader. I have always considered him to be a fantastic teacher, effective amir and close friend. It was also at his invitation that I came on the trip so my thanks go to him for giving me the little push that I needed in order to undertake this journey.

After leaving the flats, we arrived at the tents in Mina. I cannot describe the scale of the place, and no photo I can take would adequately capture it. I have no idea how many tents were there, but I am told that there are facilities for hosting up to 3 million people. The sea of tents stretched well out of sight. We unloaded from the bus, and moved to our designated tent number, only to find that it was already occupied. The officials moved us to another tent, which caused problems later when that tent's group showed up. They were moved elsewhere. I have no idea how the organizers managed to make the system work, but it seemed to be moving along fairly well. We settled in for the night, got out our sleeping bags had some quiet conversation and engaged in thikr and Qura'an reading. Being in Mina gave me a great sense of connectedness with the rest of the Muslim world. I met with some people from Senegal, and ate some dates and water with them. We also shared our tent with some brothers from France. Talking to all the people there from such a wide range of places really highlighted how diverse and yet united the Muslim world is. That same night in Mina there were nearly 2 million people, all there for the same reason, doing the exact same thing, thinking and feeling the same things. If only we, the Muslims of the world, could demonstrate such unity throughout the rest of the year, one can only imagine to what heights we as an ummah could soar.

The next morning we had to move 9km to Arafat. There was a bus, but many of the guys in my group, including myself, decided to walk it in order to get a small taste of what Hajj was like in centuries past. We gathered our belongings and started the hike. It was hot, probably over 30°C, but our ihram kept us cool. There was no shortage of water, as drinking fountains dotted the landscape, as well as food distribution points handing out meal packs which included things like date cookies, fruit juice and biscuits. The majority of people were walking, as buses were an expensive luxury that only those from comparatively wealthy nations were able to afford. For me, walking made the Hajj feel more like what I imagined Hajj would be like. Otherwise, it would have been just a few bus rides and sitting in tents. Yes, we engaged in extra thikr and Qura'an reading, but for me, the walk really pushed home the fact that I was in a different land, and that the journey I was on wasn't just another guided tour. The walk was reasonably easy, but when we got to Arafat we had a very difficult time finding the rest of the group. After all, there were 2 million people in the space of just a few square kilometers. Nonetheless, I am very glad I walked, and if I have the chance to go on Hajj again, I will definitely be doing as much of the distance on foot as possible إن شاء الله.

After the day of prayer at Arafat, we boarded a bus to take us to spend the night at Muzdalifah. This area had very few facilities, with only a few ablution blocks scattered around. Our supplies and water were running low, so we were all hungry and thirsty by the next morning. The girls managed to gather together the last of what we had and made sandwiches for everyone, and a supply truck dropped off some crates of bottled water. We packed up our bags but left the sleeping gear there. After Hajj, the area is scavenged by bedouins and poor people who collect anything of value, picking the place cleaner than any cleaning crew. We collected our rocks for use at the Jamarat, and headed back to our flats.

The Jamarat consists of three spots about 100 meters apart where pilgrims have to throw stones, symbolically stoning Shaytan the devil and expressing rejection of all of the undesirable aspects of ourselves such as greed, hatred and other sources of vice. This is the spot where Prophet Ibrahim was tempted by the Shaytan to disobey Allah. Rather than listening to him, he threw stones to indicate his refusal to be led astray, and pilgrims re-enact this to symbolise their own desire to cleanse themselves of disobedience.

We did it over 4 days. As our flats were in the Mina area, we were obliged to do it every day until we left. The Jamarat was a deeply spiritual experience. The physical act of throwing stones is supposed to translate into an internal desire to reject disobedience and sin. I don't know if I have the necessary willpower to convert the symbolic act of aggression into the complete rejection of wrongdoing, but I hope that Allah helps me improve myself and gives me a greater strength in the perpetual jihad against spiritual impurity إن شاء الله.

The Jamarat is where, in recent years, there have been people killed by crowd trampling. After going there, it is easy to see how. There are three spots where, in the space of 24 hours, 2 million people have to get within a few meters of. Imagining such large numbers of people in such a small space is difficult, and I can easily see how the crowd quickly becomes unmanageable. The problem, however, seems to have been solved. There are now ramps which ensure that the crowd only moves in one direction, rather than in and out from all directions. The ramps are enormous, 50 meters wide, and moving in a large loop, so the crowd comes in, moves past the Jamarat spots on both sides, and then goes on back to Makkah. The Jamarat spots themselves, which used to be small pillars, are now walls, around 20 meters long, running parallel to the crowd movement and in the centre of the ramps, which allow a large number of people on each side to approach at once. It is easy to approach and throw at leisure, whereas in past years getting within throwing range was difficult and many people had to throw from behind others, a practice which inevitably resulted in accidents. In addition to the ramp arrangement, there are multiple levels, stacked on top of each other. The Jamarat walls extend upwards through the levels, and the crowd is directed to move to whichever ramp is currently least crowded. The Jamarat now has capacity to handle crowds far larger than before. So large, I think, that when the Jamarat is finished, it will never be crowded again as bottlenecks elsewhere in the Hajj infrastructure, most notably the Haram itself, still limit the number that can be accommodated for the whole Hajj event.

Rags to riches; Moving to Zam Zam Towers

On the fourth day, we left the flats after performing our final Jamarat stoning and moved to our next stop; Zam Zam Towers. It is a luxurious five star hotel immediately outside the Haram and right next to the well-known Hilton building. The bottom 5 levels of the complex is a high class shopping centre, and the hotel is on floors above. This made getting into and out of the hotel annoyingly difficult, as one has to navigate the shopping centre, get into the special lifts, go up to the hotel lobby, and then take another set of lifts up to your rooms. This is an implementation of the design referred to by many US construction companies as Sky Lobby. However, it was badly executed, and the overall building design left much to be desired. Due to the poor floor plans, getting between the building's front door and your room could take upwards of 10 minutes.

The hotel itself was new and extravagantly designed. Constructed 2 years ago, it is the most expensive and luxurious hotel in Makkah. The management and staff were still getting their routines in order, so room cleaning and service levels were erratic, but overall, the experience was what one would expect from such an expensive establishment. The food was lavish, with daily buffets featuring an enormous range of well prepared, well presented dishes including appetisers and desserts.

Personally, I found it uncomfortable. I don't like such opulence, having always preferred to travel light and cheap to maximise the contact I have with the rest of humanity. Sitting in an expensive hotel, eating expensive food and being served by an army of imported labourers does not facilitate interaction with others. Worse yet, such extravagance detracts from one of the main goals of Hajj; namely, to concentrate on one's spirituality and disregard the physical self, even if only for a short while. While on Hajj, we wear ihram, and part of its purpose is ensuring that everyone ignores their physical state and also to highlight the equality of people before Allah. There is nothing more ironic than seeing a person in ihram standing in the lobby of a hotel where the nightly rate is above what three quarters of the world's population earns in a year. My view on luxury is that, at least for the Hajj season, all visitors should be equal. If we, people from the first world, cannot once in our lifetimes give up our luxury for the purpose of connecting with our fellow Muslims and demonstrating our awareness that we are all equal in the sight of Allah, then I feel that we have lost an important part of what it means to be Muslim. Perhaps we should look to people from poorer countries for guidance on this matter rather than arrogantly trying to "modernize" them.

Makkah is a buzz of development. All around the Haram are brand new buildings gleaming in the desert sun, most of which are only a few years old. This development is being carried out under the supervision of the Saudi royal family. Prices of everything from buses to visa applications are going up, and all the land in the immediate vicinity of the Haram is being redeveloped into expensive high rise hotels and shopping centres. Personally, I feel that the Saudi regime is destroying the Hajj and the sanctity of the holy sites. I met a man from Kenya, who said that already the Hajj prices were such that people from his country were having difficulty affording the trip. Everything from accommodation to food to transport costs were becoming more expensive, and there is no sign that the Saudi government is concerned about the welfare of the Hujaj as opposed to the profitability of the Hajj season.

The stay in Zam Zam Towers was, however, pleasant. We were scattered around the building, meaning that that close physical proximity that we had in the flats was lost, but many of the group preferred the greater creature comforts on offer. I made all but three of the salats of the stay in the Haram, and spent much of my time there reflecting and making thikr. It was a greatly enriching spiritual experience, as the physical proximity of the Ka'bah helped keep my mind focussed on striving for spiritual nearness to Allah. I hope that I have the opportunity to make the journey again, and owe great thanks to the group leader, Mahmoud Kürkçu for inviting me on the trip. Without his encouragement it is doubtful that I would have come.

One of the trips we made while in Makkah was to Jabal Noor, the mountain where the first contact between Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and the angel Jibreel occurred, and the first verse of the Qura'an was transmitted. The mountain has no special significance in Islam, however it was still a great experience being able to walk up the same mountain and go to the same spot where Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) must have sat. We took a minibus to the base of the mountain and then walked up the trail to the summit. It was good going during the night, as the heat of day would have made progress up the slope very difficult. It took about 40 minutes to reach the summit, and we spent about a half hour there taking photos and relaxing.

Towards the end of the stay in Makkah, I went with a few of the other guys in the group to perform an extra umrah. The closest miqat border was a place called the Masjid-al Aisha. When Aisha (رضي الله عنه) was traveling to Makkah with Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم), she was unable to enter ihram upon arrival. A few days later, when she was ready, Rasulullah sent her with a mahram to a place where he instructed her to enter into ihram and then perform her umrah. A masjid was built at this place, which is now known as Masjid-al Aisha, and this is considered a miqat area for the purpose of entering into ihram. So, on the last night of our stay, a few of the guys and I put on our ihram, went to this masjid and performed umrah. The masjid features a very modern and elegant design. It was night time and the lighting was poor, which meant that I was unable to take a photo, but I am sure that there are many photos on the Internet that one can find. I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Makkah the performance of an umrah from this masjid. The whole umrah from start to finish when using this spot as a miqat takes less than two hours from the making of intention for ihram to the cutting of the hair.

Onward to Medina

The next morning we packed our luggage and boarded a bus which was to take us to Medina for 8 days of visiting and tours. The journey took about 9 hours with breaks and a checkpoint clearance. It was a comfortable and pleasant ride. We were staying at the Mövenpick hotel just on the north west corner of Masjid-al Nabawi. According to a hadith, it is highly meritorious for a visitor to make 40 salat in this masjid without skipping any. We intended to do this, and to my knowledge, everyone in the group managed to make all 40 in a row. Medina was a great experience. Mahmoud spent a long time showing us many places in the area, taking great care to ensure that we all got at least a brief introduction to the historical significance of each site that we visited. The places included the site of the battle of Uhud, Masjid Quba and of course, the sites within what is now Masjid-al Nabawi. Visiting the tomb of Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was a deeply emotional experience, and visiting it and indeed spending time getting to know Medina should be a part of every Hajj trip.

Personally, I enjoyed the Medina stay far more than I enjoyed the Makkah stay. The people in Medina were far more friendly and warm, the available food on the street was of a far higher quality (although the hotel food was just as opulent) and the place generally felt less mercantile. In future Hajj trips, I would probably prefer to shorten the Makkah part and lengthen the Medina part. My favourite foods were shwarmas from a particular shop on the east side of the north row facing Masjid-al Nabawi, and ta'mia. I've always liked local food over hotel food, and while the local food shops are obviously being replaced by the 5 star facilities that the Saudi government is encouraging, there were still ample opportunities for the good food hunter to find authentic local food. There was also a far greater sense of history. In Makkah, virtually all of the old buildings had been torn down and replaced, in Medina however, one did not have to walk far to find buildings that were 100 years old or more. I made the effort to talk to the locals, and the prevailing view seemed to be that they favoured the simple lifestyle that Medina offered, and were glad that, aside from the development of the area around Masjid-al Nabawi, the city remained fairly untouched by the inroads that westernization had made into the rest of the country.

One of the most memorable experiences for me was the night that we went to visit the site of the battle of Uhud. A few days before, we'd been to the spot where visitors often go, but we went again one night, when the officials were not watching, so that we could climb the mountain to see the cave where Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and his companions retreated to after the battle had turned. The mountain itself has had housing built right up to its foot, and there are now small dwellings within a stone's throw of the cave itself, only a short climb up the slope. After navigating the slope, we entered the cave, really just a rocky niche, and sat in the same spot where they sat after the battle was over. This was not allowed by the officials, and we had to be on the lookout for police cars. This small re-tracing of the actual steps of Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was an exciting experience for me, and I am very glad that we had the opportunity to do it. Knowing that we were sitting on the very same rocks in the very same place that Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and his companions sat in over 1,400 years ago gave us a heightened sense of nearness to our Prophet, helping to overcome the chasm created by distance and time that separates us from him and his guidance for most of our lives in Australia. Were I to get the chance to go back to Medina, I would spend even more time going to as many original sites like this to try to more firmly establish a strong spiritual and emotional link with the life and times of Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and his companions.

The sad farewell

On the ninth day after arriving in Medina, it was time to leave. After the moving experiences of staying among the people of Makkah and Medina as well as being in the place where our religion was born, I was sad to leave, and, Allah willing, hope to return. The trip home involved taking a bus to Medina airport, then a plane to Jeddah and another to Dubai. We spent a night in Dubai, and then we all went our separate ways. Overall, I don't think that there was a single person in our group who did not have an excellent experience. We all owe Mahmoud a big thanks for being such an excellent guide for the journey, and I hope I get a chance to travel with him again at some point إن شاء الله, perhaps to perform another Hajj. For me, the journey was a deeply spiritual one, and I hope that I am able to implement the changes in my life that are needed for me to become a person and a better Muslim. I would also encourage any Muslim who is reading this and who has not yet done their Hajj to make an effort to do it as soon as possible. It really is an experience that cannot be described in words, and I hope that my feeble attempt to communicate the events of my journey do not in any way diminish the true value of Hajj.

So there you have it. My experience with Hajj 2008AD, or 1429AH. I do apologize for not having this entry ready sooner, but better late then never. If you haven't already, head over to my gallery and check out the photos from the Hajj album.