A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.
Mahatma Gandhi

Documentaries for a global perspective

I watch a lot of documentaries. I have stacks of them in DVD form. I’m a heavy user of YouTube. My wife and kids never let me pick for movie night.

Attempting to understand the modern geo-political landscape is difficult. You have to invest some serious time into the problem to begin to even scratch the surface. The more I learn, the less I feel I know.

The internet has made it easy to gather information from unlimited sources, but the challenge is piecing all those data points together into some king of logical narrative. There’s too much to remember. I’ve watched many of these documentaries more than once and I’m amazed at how much I forget, or re-interpret after future learning.

I’m going to try and list these docs is some kind of logical order. This will be my “start here” list. The list is going to grow over time as I stumble across new documentaties and remember previous viewings. Some are available on YouTube, others generally available for rent or purchase.

I have most of the these on DVD if you’re local and would like to borrow.

Please feel free to offer suggestions to the list.

1. The Shock Doctrine (2009)

2. Hearts and Minds (1974) wikipedia

3. Why We Fight (2005) wikipedia

4. Century of the Self (2002) wikipedia

5. The Power of Nightmares (2004) Part 2, Part 3 wikipedia>

6. Iran and the West (2009) Part 2, Part 3 wikipedia

7. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Chávez: Inside the Coup (2003) wikipedia

8. The War On Democracy (2007) wikipedia

9. South of the Border (2009) wikipedia

10. Crash Course in World History

In Tehran there’s a big tower called the Milad Tower. It’s a very big tower. Think CN tower big.

Apparently it’s the 6th tallest building in the world. The CN tower in Toronto Canada is now the 3rd tallest.

One night we drove (actually our driver drove) through crazy Tehran traffic to deposit us at the base and an agreement to pick us back up in a few hours. The tower and shopping complex at it’s base is an impressive new piece of engineering completed in 2007.

After purchasing tickets (approx $4 each), we started watching some kind of live play (or musical?) happening in the main lobby. We couldn’t really understand what was going on, and the volume was so loud that we just just headed straight up the escalators and over to the elevators.

We met a group of musicians from southern Iran who were performing later in the play. “Hello”, “How are you?”, “Where are you from?”, “Welcome to Iran!”. They all seemed very interested in why we were visiting Iran.

The ride up only takes a few moments to ascend the 1000+ feet (300+ meters) before arriving at the observation deck. You can also walk out onto the observation platform which circles the exterior of the observation deck. Open to the elements and an amazing view, even in the dark. There’s protective mesh to prevent you from throwing anything off (including yourself). It was freezing out there, so we did a quick circle around the deck, shot a few photos of the Tehran night lights, then headed in for a tea.

The guy serving us tea (which was a delicious fruity/flower mix) held a Computing Sciences degree and had recently studied in Bangalor India. He had excellent english skills and we chatted for a while about computing trends, including which fields within the industry looked the most promising. The girls each ordered a fancy milkshake.

I don’t think he wanted us to leave as the conversation was interesting and going well. But, it was getting late, the kids were tired and we still had to drive through the evening traffic to get back to the hotel.

Overall it was a fascinating experience and considering it costs $27+ per person to go up the CN Tower, I thought the $4 was once again a great value.

After a very early arrival at our hotel in Tehran, we went down to the restaurant for the included breakfast buffet.

We spent two nights at the the Escan Hotel in Tehran. Cost was approx $70/night. The quality of the hotel was on par with most upper range hotels in Canada/USA. In Edmonton, the best comparable hotel for quality and service level would be Sutton Place Hotel, although the Escan was smaller.

The front desk girls were very nice, helpful and spoke excellent english.

At the breakfast buffet a chef would make your omelette to order with fresh ingredients. Lots of delicious food to start the day.

More photos of the Imamzadeh-ye Ali Ebn-e Hamze shrine in Shiraz, Iran.

I would have liked to have seen a photo of my face when I walked in. I’m sure my chin was dragging on the floor in total amazement.

In Iran, there’s a style of using cut mirrors to adorn the interior spaces of mosques shrines and palaces. We visited some palace buildings (pre-revolution obviously) that were grander than the palaces of Napoleon and made dazzling use of cut mirror. The reflection of light within the spaces made the room turn magical.

Those palaces made elegant use of cut glass, but nothing prepared me for the Imamzadeh-ye Ali Ebn-e Hamze shrine in Shiraz, Iran. The whole interior (walls, ceilings, arches, etc) are completely tiled in intricate patterns of cut mirror. I was speechless.

Getting a good photo of the space that does it justice was a challenge. It’s not a photo scenario I’ve had experience with in the past. I thought this was one of the more interesting captures and hopefully gives you a bit of a sense of the scale and wonderment of the space.

One night at the 300 year old luxury Abbasi Hotel in the Safavid Suite. Cost was 6,460,000 rials ($200) per night (includes breakfast). Five star accommodation at a three star price (by international standards). There is a range of rooms to stay in, priced from about $70.

Located in Isfahan, Iran with a nice central location close to the river and Imam Square. The hotel has always been a place for travellers to stay which is known as a Caravanserai. The Abbasi might be the best hotel in Iran, and the Safavid Suite is an amazing room to stay in.

The last trip we took to Jasper we paid more ($215) to stay at the Jasper Inn, which was hard to choke back. So for $200 a night to stay in the Abbasi Safavid Suite we thought it was a bargin and had to give it a try, if only for a single night.

The inner court yard and fountains are a wonderful place to spend the afternoon having tea. There’s a nice swimming pool, women in the morning and afternoon for men. Some of the hotel reminded us of what the Titanic looked like. Grand staircases and crystal chandeliers.

The breakfast was amazing too. I’ll make a separate post about this.

More information and reviews available on Trip Advisor.

Bread and Circuses

One thing I actually appreciated (in a strange way) about the blatant internet monitoring in Iran was that is was blatant.

There was no forgetting you were being monitored.

This is in contrast to the USA (and I presume Canada/UK) where it’s easy to be lulled into thinking our actions on the internet are private, annonomous and, not being monitored.

All electronic communications (email, mobile phone, internet, etc) originating in, requested from, or passing through the USA (which includes almost everything) are aparently being (or will be soon) vacuumed up and stored for ‘processing’. See Wired Magazine and the Utah Data Center.

It is alleged to capture “all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Internet searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter’,” though its precise purpose is secret.

It seems like the Harper regime in Canada is also hell bent on restricting the rights of Canadians to the internet. The folks at Open Media and many others have been sounding the alarm bells, but few people are interested. Bread and Circuses is a powerful means of appeasement and most everyone seems content with that policy.

Given only six countries (Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Spain) in the world have passed laws making Internet access a human right, there’s a lot of room for improvement. It’s very easy to critise others, but when your own government is attempting to dip their toe in the same pool, it’s important for the people to push back, so our ‘leaders’ don’t get any fancy ideas of belly-flopping straight in.

One of the unknowns for me before leaving for Iran was how good or bad the internet service might be during our travels. For me, having a relatively decent connection to the internet is my only travel requirement. I would be perfectly fine staying in the crappiest hotels|hostels around the world, as long as they had a nice solid pipe to the internet. Bad internet connection and I get grumpy.

All the hotels we booked stated they included free wifi access and TripAdvisor reviews occasionally mentioned the wifi quality, but detailed information was still hard to come by.

I also knew some websites would be blocked and/or filtered. Facebook, YouTube, image hosting sites, etc.

Living in Canada, I’m certainly used to some video content (YouTube) being blocked, limited ecommerce service from some businesses (Amazon.com), and restricted access to some news sites. But, these blockages are typically related to geographical business arrangements or tax reasons and not political or religious.

Within Iran I connected to the internet in 6 different locations around the country, all hotel wifi services. In general I would rate the speed as ‘poor’. Sometimes frustratingly poor. Kind of what you would expect staying at a Super8 in the USA or Canada.

I’ll propose a list of reasons why I think the internet connections were slow:

  1. The hotels just don’t invest in quality equipment to provide good signal strength across the hotel. You would often see 2 or 3 bars out of 5 for signal strength. It doesn’t really matter how fast the internet connection is coming into the hotel if you have a poor signal strength from your device to the wifi router.

  2. Concrete, brick or stone walls which reduces signal strength. This was certainly an issue in several of the hotels we stayed at, although this weakness could be improved by providing better wifi equipment or wifi hotspots (see reason #1).

  3. Distance from the web servers. If you search for something using Google the results would snap into place almost instantly. Google has servers all over the world and they will redirect requests to the closest server. Other sites, which I know are hosted on servers only located in North America (California) may grind away for several seconds and sometimes minutes before fully loading. The further you are away from the web server, the longer the latency of the request.

  4. Country wide internet infrastructure that cannot handle the load being placed on it. I have no information supporting this argument, but I suspect it may be a contributing factor. Once you start talking to people inside the country, it’s obvious they are just as internet savvy as the rest of the world and are heavy users of social websites such as Facebook (more on this in a future post). Everyone seems to be carrying a smart phone, and plenty of those are iPhones. Maybe the internet infrastructure just cannot handle the amount of traffic being driven through it.

  5. Poor infrastructure on purpose. I also suspect they have poor internet on purpose. Limiting access to information and the flow of information is a tool used by those in power for all of humanity. The church always struck me as the masters of this technique of subjugation. The role has now been passed to various governments of the world. The powers within Iran have their reasons for limiting access to the internet, and I do have a good understanding of why. It’s not my place to criticise their actions, but I do make an attempt to understand the rational.

  6. Filtering. To the best of my knowledge all internet web page requests are filtered in Iran and some websites are blocked. You would think this shouldn’t take a lot of work filter these requests, and I suspect this extra layer of inspection really shouldn’t slow non-blocked websites down too much. I could be way off with this assumption though. If a website is blocked (forbidden), you are redirected to “friendly reminder” page stating the site is forbidden. A screen capture of this reminder page is attached to this post. This is also be related to items #4 and #5.

More than likely the poor internet speeds were a result of several of the above reasons all combining to slow things down, although I suspect item #5 has a lot to do with it.

Within Iran the filters are mostly symbolic at this point. It’s simple to circumvent the monitoring and it would seem everyone does it. I was told how about a dozen times, without me prompting for how.

Facebook is blocked, but everyone has a Facebook account. It just loads slow.

After spending 11 days in the country of Iran and seeing all the same sites, this episode of Rick Steves’ “Iran, Yesterday and Today” absolutely nails the subject perfectly. The video imagery and interviews capture the people as I remember, while doing an excellent job of documenting the scale and beauty of the sites.

I was watching to see if I recognised anybody in the video, but nope.

No intention of visiting Iran for yourself, but want to get better understanding of its people, history and beauty… this video is a must watch.

Well done Rick Steves, and thanks for sharing with the world.

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