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December 9, 2007

Amr Shannon on Egypt's deserts: 'If you expect logic to prevail, you will find your intelligence insulted 200 times a day'


So said Shannon (above), who has spent more than 30 years guiding visitors through Egypt's sprawling, forbidding deserts, in an August 18, 2007 New York Times profile, which follows.

    How the Vast Desert Teaches a Man Introspection

    The police were looking for five cars along a lonely stretch of desert road and, well, here were five cars. The license plates did not match the ones they were looking for, but there were five cars — so the police detained the convoy.

    “Egypt really is a logic-free zone,” said Amr Shannon, the desert guide whose five-car caravan was released after an officer finally acknowledged the obvious.

    The point here is not to embarrass the police at the checkpoint. It is, instead, to illustrate one of the first pieces of advice Mr. Shannon gives before taking tourists to some of the most beautiful and isolated destinations ranging across Egypt’s desert landscape.

    After more than three decades of introducing thousands of tourists to the thrill of Egypt’s unique and sprawling deserts, Mr. Shannon is planning to retire in the fall. Equal parts adventurer and philosopher — Indiana Jones meets Yoda — he is now helping to teach a new generation of guides not just to showcase Egypt’s natural beauty but also to behave as a life coach. Guides must know when to intervene (when the tires are buried deep in sand, for example) and when to fade into the background, so guests can experience the buzzing silence of the open desert.

    “When you go to the sea, you get prepared; you will pack your towel, your bathing suit,” he said. “When you go skiing, you pack skis. Now you are coming to Egypt; get prepared for it as well. If you expect logic to prevail, you will find your intelligence insulted 200 times a day.”

    Egypt is mostly desert, about 94 percent waves of sand and rock. Its 80 million people live on the remaining 6 percent of the land, most hugging the Nile Valley. As a general rule, Egyptians do not like the desert, with relatively few seeking solace in the hilly terrain of the Sinai or otherworldly landscape of the White Desert, which stretches to the west.

    In these ways, Mr. Shannon is a unique blend of East and West. He said his religion was “let it be,” a very common state of mind in Egypt. But he also pays attention to detail and has a tremendous work ethic, values Egyptians are not known to cherish.

    “When I take clients out,” Mr. Shannon said, “you did not pay me to show you things. You paid me for your time. My duty is to make the best of your time.”

    Mr. Shannon had a privileged childhood. His father, Mohsen, was an army general who had the added advantage of having graduated from the military academy in the same class as Gamal Abdel Nasser, who went on to become president. The family lived in a villa, had cars and servants and even made trips abroad.

    While his surname may sound Irish, Mr. Shannon said that he was 100 percent Egyptian, and that in 1724, the sheik of Al Azhar, the seat of Islamic learning for Sunni Muslims, was a Shannon. Today’s Mr. Shannon was introduced to the desert as a 10-year-old, when his father began taking him on weekend excursions, exploring the western desert and the coast along the Red Sea.

    “The only souls we saw were workers: checkpoint sentries, coast guard soldiers, lighthouse crewmen and road builders,” Mr. Shannon wrote in a short essay recalling his earliest childhood adventures. “These people, people who had adapted to the hardships and isolation of such remote places, captivated me. Through listening to their stories and sharing a small part of their lives, I fell in love with the mysterious desert.”

    As a young man, Mr. Shannon planned to follow his father into the military but instead found his passion in art. He studied for three years at an art school in Venice but eventually returned to Egypt and his first love — the desert.

    “This barren, sandy, rocky, deserted place could have been a sea, a lake, a river, a forest or even a human community at one time,” he wrote. “Knowing this turns the landscape into a mysterious book full of stories.”

    Mr. Shannon is 59, always has a multipurpose Leatherman tool on his left hip and favors a turquoise scarf to protect his neck against the wind and the nighttime chill of the desert. He has a mane of white hair that sweeps back to his shoulders and blue eyes set off by dark eyebrows. He married six years ago, and since then he and his wife, Maria, have driven into the desert in twin Jeep Cherokees tiger-striped blue and green, their favorite colors.

    Mr. Shannon’s musings can, at times, sound preachy and loaded with too much homespun philosophy. He seems to be engaged in a constant internal struggle to accept the limitations of people around him, and so he cloaks his frustrations in aphorisms.

    But it may also be the inevitable result of having spent so much time in the desert, where men have gone for centuries to find themselves, and something greater than themselves. Or it may be a result of the four days he spent stuck in the desert, convinced that he and his cousin were about to die. They survived on nothing but their own urine and a determination to stay calm.

    IT was 1989, and Mr. Shannon was driving in a desert rally. When his four-wheel-drive vehicle broke down, he turned on an emergency beacon and figured that he and his cousin would soon be rescued.

    They had run out of water — having made the wrong decision when they put the last of their drinking water into the radiator, assuming they would soon reach the finish. But the race organizers never came. It was only after Mr. Shannon’s uncle, the governor of the Suez region, called the military that they were rescued. That was in the middle of the fourth day in the scorching sun.

    “Events don’t change you,” Mr. Shannon said of the breakdown. “They can bring out what is already in you. People go through hard and dangerous situations all the time, and they never learn.”

    So what did this bring out in him?

    “We were actually very calm,” he said. “It must have been based on the belief nothing really matters.”

    Nothing matters, and everything matters, in the desert. Money is meaningless. During his four days in the desert, he said, he watched thousands of Egyptian pounds in the glove compartment of the car blow away in the desert wind. Bad decisions can lead to death. These are lessons learned; the journey is important, not the destination.

    A desert guide works under tremendous pressure, as the unexpected can be expected to happen. A radiator can burst hours from a paved road. Someone can get a scorpion bite or a snake bite, or twist an ankle, or be overcome by heat, or simply panic. The police can detain the wrong five cars.

    When Mr. Shannon and his wife prepare for their last few tours, they will have spare tires, extra water, food, a global positioning system, a satellite phone, a small sink and stove — a do-it-yourself, one-stop fix-it shop. But as Mr. Shannon says, the most important thing to carry in the desert is the right attitude. First, accept Egypt for Egypt.

    But the second “let it be” can be applied to the desert, or to the life of a man who once wanted to be a military man and then an artist, but ended up a guide in the desert.

    “People want to go from Point A to Point B,” Mr. Shannon said. “But sometimes fate gives you another path.”

December 9, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Reindeer Car Conversion Kit


By now you're probably tired of driving your Batmobile around town and besides, look what time of year it is.

From websites:

    Reindeer Car Set

    Alert everyone to your Christmas spirit!

    Dash through the snow in pure holiday style as you haul that sleigh-load around in your red-nosed vehicle.

    No one will miss these reindeer antlers and big, bright red nose mounted to your vehicle and people are sure to crack a smile at the sight.

    3-piece set includes a pair of jingle-bell plush "antlers" (each 16"L) and a 6" diameter "nose."

    Attaches in seconds without tools and won’t mar surfaces.


December 9, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Experts' Expert: What's your glove size?


Too bad about your parachute — maybe you should've picked a different color.

Or at least packed it properly.

I'm reminded of a button I have on my fridge — it says,

    If at first you don't succeed, parachuting's not for you

But I digress.

Very few people know how to properly determine their glove size.

I certainly didn't until I read the instructions up top.


Now we all do.

That wasn't so hard, was it?

I measured 9.25".

More on the subject here.

December 9, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Throwback Ice Crusher


From the website:

    1950's Ice Crusher

    Our ice crusher, with a heavy-duty polished chrome-on-metal top, crank handle, stainless steel blades and non-skid feet, is an original 50's design.

    Professional bartenders rely on crushers for the best frozen drinks, but home cooks will find many table-top uses too: a bed of ice for fresh fruit or crudités and for seafood such as crab or lobster cocktail.

    Polished chrome top.


I'll bet it makes a wonderfully satisfying noise too.


December 9, 2007 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Olive Pitting Hack



In the "Tips and Techniques" feature of the September/October 2007 issue of Cook's Illustrated was an inventive take on pitting olives.

Here's the suggestion as published.

    Pitting Olives

    The most common way to remove pits from olives without an olive pitter is to smash them on a cutting board. Marci Abbrecht of Wellesley, Massachusetts came up with a more elegant — and equally effective — alternative.

    1) Place a funnel upside down on the work surface.

    2) Stand one end of the olive on the spout and press down, allowing the pit to fall through the funnel.


No more chasing down the pits as they shoot all over the kitchen.

Tip: The best widely available brand of olives sold in the U.S. is Peloponnese.

December 9, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Portable Wind-Powered Charger


First I've seen of wind power harnessed on a small scale.

Eviana Hartman wrote about it in today's Washington Post, as follows.

    Hymini Portable Wind-Powered Charger

    Portable solar chargers are fairly common, but this is the first on-the-go device we've seen to power cellphones, MP3 players, personal digital assistants and digital cameras using the breeze.


    A built-in fan harnesses wind energy, and you can buy small solar attachments to increase the device's generating capability. Optional mounts allow it to be secured onto bike or motorcycle handlebars, or to your arm while you're running, skiing or driving. An included AC/DC plug adapter allows it to be used as a conventional portable power source.


Here's the website for the device, which comes in Green, Black, or White.



Note to the hymini design team: add a transparent version and you'll sell a bunch more.

December 9, 2007 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Experts' Expert: How to clean and preserve your paintbrushes


There was a lot of useful information in Tim Carter's August 18, 2007 Washington Post "Ask the Builder" column about the secret to keeping your paintbrushes looking like new, even after over 100 uses.

Here's the Q&A.

    Wetting, Washing and a Quick Wrist: The Tricks to Preserving Paintbrushes

    Q. I am having trouble cleaning paintbrushes. My high-quality brushes are stiff halfway up from the tips, even though I have been using latex paint and washing the brushes with warm water immediately after each use. I have tried using products that claim they will restore paintbrushes, but they haven't worked. In fact, they seem to harm the brushes. How do you clean paintbrushes so they last for years? Is it possible, or should I just buy disposable paintbrushes and throw them away after each job?

    A. The expensive brushes are being ruined because you are not cleaning them properly. It took me a few years of experimentation to figure out a good way to clean paintbrushes, whether they're synthetic fiber for latex paint or natural fiber for oil paints. I have a few paintbrushes I have used more than 100 times. They look like new, and the bristles have no paint where they connect to the brush body.

    As for the brush-revival products, you couldn't pay me to use them. The skull and crossbones on the labels of many of these products tells me they are highly toxic. Examine the labels, and you will often see chemicals such as acetone, methanol, methylene chloride, toluene and xylene. Some of these are dangerous and can cause serious and permanent health issues. It is easier and safer to learn how to care for your paintbrushes rather than try bringing them back from the dead.

    The process of cleaning a paintbrush starts at the beginning of the paint day. All too often, I see people take a new brush or a dry one and dip it in the paint. This is a mistake. On hot, dry days, the paint on the outside of the brushes up near the handle can harden within an hour or two.

    You can prevent, or slow, the hardening of the paint by wetting the brush before you start to use it. Use water when applying latex or water-based paint. If you are using oil paint, dip the brush in paint thinner before getting paint on the brush. Be sure to lightly shake out any excess water or paint thinner before dipping the brush into the paint for the first time.

    If you take breaks during painting, you need to get the brush out of the sun. It should be wrapped with a damp rag if you are using latex paint. The rag stops the evaporation of water and other chemicals from the paint. It keeps the paint that is on and in the brush fresh. Use a rag soaked in paint thinner if you are applying oil-based paint.

    If I am painting outdoors, I will clean my brush if I stop to eat lunch. It takes only two minutes to clean a brush.

    I have seen people ruin a new paintbrush the first time they clean it. They turn on the sink faucet and then turn the brush upside down to get the water stream to shoot straight into the tips of the bristles.

    Never do this. Another bad idea is pushing down on the bristles and bending them at a 90-degree angle to squeeze out the paint. This stresses the bristles and causes premature bristle failure.

    Through trial and error, I discovered that the best way to clean latex or water-based paint out of brushes is to rinse as much of it out as I can with warm water flowing over the outside of the bristles. The next step is to take an old paint can that has been cleaned of all paint and fill it halfway with warm, soapy water. Two tablespoons of liquid dish soap works well in a half-gallon of water.

    Dip the brush into the soapy water and rapidly move it back and forth, making sure the bristles do not touch the bottom of the can. Be careful, as vigorous movement can splash some of the soapy, paint-saturated water onto your clothes or in your face. Twenty seconds of back-and-forth motion will remove 95 percent of the paint from the brush.

    Refill the can halfway with clear warm water and repeat the process. If the water turns slightly cloudy, it means you still have more paint in the brush.

    Continue the fresh-water rinsing until the water remains clear. If there is hardened paint on the handle or tops of the bristles near the handle, use a stiff nylon brush to clean it off. Scrub the bristles gently at a 90-degree angle.

December 9, 2007 at 10:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

What to wear to the Thunderdome disco


Price on request at Balenciaga.

December 9, 2007 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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