Sunday, December 31, 2006

It's . . . friggin chilly!

After five months of 40+ degree heat (with 80+% humidity) I never figured Doha would ever get the least bit chilly. I was told that during December and January you might need a jacket during the evenings blah, blah, blah. Whatever.

Well, it's friggin chilly right now! I'm told it's colder than it has been in the last few years but temps seem to be around 14-16 during the day and around 9-10 at night. A lot colder than I thought it would get, especially with the wind and humidity. Not surprisingly I don't have central heating in my apartment, the past week I've been wearing layers while sitting around the apartment.

Now I can already hear everyone in Canada moaning "Oh you poor dear, and to think it's a balmy -10 here", but it's not like you expect the Arabian desert to get this cold. And you have heating in your house too, it's not like your house is 15 degrees now is it?

I feel the most sorry for the construction workers and other guys brought over from India etc. I see them walking around in light jackets with scarves wrapped around their heads. Many of them have toques and gloves but some don't - they must be freezing.

Oh well, I'm off to Canada on Jan 6th so I guess I'll get back in touch with what real cold feels like.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

In tribute to Carl Sagan

10 years ago today the world lost a wonderful person. Carl Sagan might be best known (by the older crowd) as the host of Cosmos and his regular appearances on The Tonight Show (Carson used to do imitations of him with the catchphrase "billions and billions", even though Sagan had never actually said those words in Cosmos). Now I'm of a slightly younger generation and didn't watch Cosmos so my introduction to him came later by reading his books. Some of the best non-fiction books I've ever read.

If you've never read The Demon Haunted World then you're missing out. I think it is widely considered one of the best books for introducing people to thinking critically about the world, and to look at scientific pursuit as something truly wonderful, something that has really enhanced life for people. Sagan has an excellent writing style that is very approachable to scientific laymen, and doesn't bog you down in equations and calculus. In many instances he doesn't talk about science at all, only looking at the world critically.

Now, I do have a science education but I still appreciate how well written his books are. I have a number of Sagan's books: Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, Demon Haunted World, Billions and Billions, and Broca's Brain, but I always find myself rereading Demon Haunted World at least once a year.

I have wondered in the past what Sagan would have thought of today's world had he still been alive. He would have been thrilled at some of the discoveries astronomers and other scientists have made since his death: launching the probe onto Titan would have been a particular highlight for him since some of his research focused on Titan's atmosphere, but would there be things that would alarm him? In his writings were warnings about global warming, and things haven't gotten any better from that perspective. Wars still occur, and most people still believe in one superstition or another, and the media seems more obsessed with Hollywood than science than ever before. I would hope that he would still believe that despite some of the downsides that overall the world was progressing, and that in the end he would be pleased with what has occurred in the last 10 years.

I've never met him in person, but I miss him all the same.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Asian Games - badminton

Okay badminton is a game that I don't think I need to explain to everyone. The game is popular in East Asia so the matches that I saw had big crowds turning out to cheer on their favourites. Happened to sit behind a bunch of Thais with drums and so forth and they handed out flags to everyone to make sure there would be a big area of Thai supporters. It appeared to make a difference, the Thais with all the drums and flags didn't arrive until the 2nd set and at that point the Thai player lost the first set 21-6, but once the cheers and drumming started the game turned around and the Thai won the 2nd set 21-8. The 3rd set was a nail-biter but in the end the Thai lost 21-19. Afterward I watched some other singles and doubles matches, including a singles match with the current World Champion vs the current Olympic Champion. It was a great match, I can't figure out how they can even spot the birdie, much less return it, since it moves so fast.

Badminton is a fast paced game so is always good to watch. It's even better to see with top players and an active crowd.

Rating 8/10. Go Thailand!

Asian Games - boxing & wushu

Okay I've combined both boxing & wushu because both were similar. Now there are different forms of wushu, I went with a buddy of mine and we were hoping to see the weapons section, where people essentially do rhymic gymnastics only with weapons. It's apparantly really cool to watch as they brandish various weapons in interesting choreographed routines (I think Jet Li used to be a wushu champion before his film career). But there is another wushu discipline, called Nanshou I think, where atheletes fight each other wearing boxing gloves (without weapons) but you're allowed to kick as well as punch. That was what my buddy and I saw, turns out the weapons portion was earlier in the day. I was disappointed that I missed the weapons.

Now I also saw a number of boxing bouts during the Asian Games and I learned something about Olympic-level boxing -- it's not as exciting as standard boxing. At the Olympic level the boxers are wearing padded helmets and they only do four 2-minute rounds. It does cut back a lot of the excitement as it is unlikely that a guy is going to fall down, get KO'd or whatever. So you just watch guys throwing punches at one another for all of 12 minutes, including the time in-between rounds. And to make it worse all the bouts I saw were really one-sided. The closest bout I saw the winner had double the points of the loser and one match was almost 10:1! It says something that some guy took over 40 punches in 4 rounds and never even hit the mat. So all-in-all not that exciting. Sadly the wushu was similar, although there was an added element in that you could throw the guy onto the ground, but then it looks like you had to step back, you weren't allowed to pummel him or anything.

Upon reflection I had a more exciting time watching boxing back in Bermuda. Once a year they had an event called Fight Night where guys from various gyms (and anyone else who cared to sign up) could get in the ring and box with someone generally matched to their weight. Many of these guys had no clue how to box and the matches were fun to watch; some guys who you figured would get creamed wound up doing well, others ended in surprise KOs, others with training would show us why training matters by pummeling their not-so-well-trained opponents. Good fun, and exciting to watch, something that was missing here.

I really wish I saw the weapons part of the Wushu competition . . .

Rating: 3/10. I'd be happier watching non-Olympic boxing where there can be tension and excitement. Wushu gets 4/10 just because I hadn't seen it before, but it wasn't much more exciting than boxing - my buddy and I left after 45 minutes.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Asian Games - Kabbadi

Man it's been raining a lot here. The last two weeks have reminded me of Vancouver, it seems like everyday it has been rainy and drizzling. I think, like Vancouver, the rain record for Doha in December has been exceeded. After six months of never seeing a drop of rain I'm starting to wish for Sun again. Anyway, back to the Asian Games.

I briefly mentioned in the last post about a sport called kabbadi (kah-bah-dee). It's from India and is played primarily in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Definately an odd sport, like nothing I've ever seen, sort of a cross between tag and rugby.

Anyway here's how it works. You have seven players a side on a court roughly about the size of a badminton court. One player from a team crosses over to the other team's side to try to touch as may players as possible (that's the tag portion) then cross back into his zone. Any touched player is out and the tagger's team gets a point for each. While the tagger is in the other team's zone they are allowed to tackle him BUT if the tagger can even touch the middle line then everyone who touched him is out (remember the court is the size of a badminton court so that middle line is never too far away and all the tagger needs to do is touch it with the tips of his fingers). It creates an odd situation where the team has to stay far enough away to avoid a tag yet close enough to jump on the guy for a mass tackle. Meanwhile the tagger has to get close enough to tag guys yet try to remain close enough to the middle line to make a break for it if five-seven guys try to jump on him at once.

There's a few other rules but that's the basics in a nutshell. So when it is played at the professional level it almost looks like syncronized dance, as the tagger moves towards someone he moves out of the way while the rest of the team moves closer, then the tagger turns around and the other guys move away while their teammates move closer. Try to find a video of it on YouTube if you can. Seriously if you didn't know how it was played it looks like choreographed dance, with a sudden break when guys leap on somebody and paste him into the mat.

At the Asian Games there were five teams playing: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Japan (??). Sri Lanka didn't have a team but Indian coworkers told me that kabbadi is a northern India game which is not popular in southern India or Sri Lanka. No idea why Japan had a team though.

I saw a number of games and went to the final, India beat Pakistan for the win. Because Doha has a large number of workers from India and Pakistan thousands of people turned up to watch the final, but since the kabbadi ring only had about 600 seats most of them, me included, had to watch from a giant TV screen just outside. Apparantly hundreds more who didn't have tickets to the Aspire Sports Complex just stayed outside and watched it on screens out there.

Oh I almost forgot why it's called kabbadi. When the tagger crosses into the other team's zone he's not allowed to take a breath so he has to do his tagging and get back all in one breath. How does the refs monitor that he's not taking a breath? The tagger has to continuously say 'kabbadi' while in the other team's zone. I told you this game was odd.

Anyway it's does have it's slow moments but is definately worth watching at least once.

Rating: 7/10. I gave it an extra point just because for once in my life I had the hottest tickets in town. While walking towards the stadium I was asked twice by people if I had extra tickets, and hundreds were massed outside hoping to get a ticket. The Indian victory celebrations was pretty cool too.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Asian Games - Sepaktakraw

Okay, before the Asian Games started I had never even heard of sepaktakraw but it sounded interesting so I bought some tickets. In truth I went to any sport at the Asian Games that I had never heard of (kabbadi was another) but I liked the idea of sepaktakraw - volleyball but you can't use your hands. Sounded weird, but the game is popular in Thailand, Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia and apparantly tough to play.

Well, it was one of the best games I saw at the Asian Games!

While it is a lot like volleyball the net is lower, about 5 and a half feet. This allows players to set up the ball for spiking much like volleyball only using your feet instead of your hands. The flexibility and atheltic skill you need to be a good sepaktakraw player is astounding. Men were regularly doing full bicycle kicks to spike the ball but instead of landing on their back, like in soccer, they were landing on their feet! You'd have to though, the court surface is hard floor like in volleyball so if you landed on your back you were in for a world of hurt.

Watching players stretch out before the match you essentially have to be flexible enough to do the splits all the way to the floor. I saw one guy doing that and his coach was pushing on his back so that his chest was fully on the floor. Ouch! It looked painful just to watch. But that kind of flexibility is needed to do moves like spiking and blocking.

In the end I watched Vietnam get the gold in women's doubles, and Thailand won the men's. Myanmar (Burma) won silver in both.

Rating 9/10: if you get a chance to watch this sport on TV definately check it out. You'll go "whoa!" the first time you see someone spike the ball.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Asian Games - diving

So last night I watched men's synchonised diving. I know a bit about diving from watching Olympic coverage a couple of years ago, enough to know that the larger the splash going into the water the lower the score, but that's about the extent of my knowledge.

There were eight teams and each team had six dives, which made for more dives than a World Cup soccer match. The team from China was excellent and blew everyone else away, winning by such a wide margin that for their last dive they could have just fallen off the board and still won. Malaysia had an excellent final dive for a come-from-behind silver. I thought the judging seemed to be a bit off with what I thought was a crappy dive getting 7.5/10 and a better dive getting around the same score sometimes. But I'm not a professional so what do I know.

All in all diving is not that exciting to watch, while the first 20 minutes is interesting after that there isn't much more to see, the dives become repetitive, and I found boredom kicking in after 40 minutes. I was with a couple of other people and we left before the next event (women's synchro). I think when I watched Olympic coverage a couple of years back on TV it was a bit more interesting because the commentary from the reporters added a bit to it.

Overall 5/10: worth seeing live once but I'll stick to TV coverage from now on.

Asian Games - tennis

Now as pretty much everyone knows I love tennis. So I couldn't pass up a chance to watch the tennis at the Asian Games. The top players in the world weren't there since almost none of them are Asian (and unfortunately that top-20 mens player from Thailand was injured) but it was still good to see some quality tennis being played.

Matches were held at the Khalifa Tennis Complex near where I work and it was a pretty impressive area. The centre court could seat around 4,000 and the day I was there it was about 60% full. There was a woman from India playing, Sania something-or-other, and a large Indian crowd was out to watch her play. I figure at least 1,200-1,500 people there were from India. Sania was playing a mixed doubles match and decimated her Uzbekistan opponents 6-1, 6-3. People went crazy every time the Indian team scored a point.

With such a significant pro-Indian crowd it meant that only games where Indians were playing had a decent number of spectators, I went over to Court Two and watched two decent matches with non-Indian players and I think there was, at most, 25 people watching. I kind of felt sorry for the athletes - who wants to come all this way and have only a couple of dozen people turn out for your match while next door hundreds are cheering? I guess that is pretty standard in tennis, the crowd goes to watch the big names while the up-and-comers play on their own.

Overall I had a great day but a few things bothered me:

1) The marathon or some cycling event was held nearby so for the entire morning helicopters were buzzing around getting footage of that event. It is difficult to play tennis, let alone enjoy watching it, when helicopters are loudly flying around in the background. Thankfully they stopped by lunch time.

2) I don't think many locals knew a lot about tennis etiquette. I was stunned to see people coming into the Centre Court seating with babies & toddlers. Why would anyone bring small children to a tennis match?!? Not only that but people were constantly talking, cell phones were ringing, and people were even yelling out words of encouragement or whistling - even while the players were serving! I swear the ref was telling everyone to be quiet every second point but to no avail. Hopefully the organizers will have figured out that for the next big tennis tournament they'll at least prevent people from bringing in babies and toddlers, and maybe get people to turn off their cell phones before they come in. (Not that it'll help, I was at the chess venue where they checked to see that your cell phone was off and one guy just turned his back on once he was through security - and sure enough it rang and disturbed the players. Jerk.)

Overall 8/10, I'd go watch tennis again.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Not being an expert on martial arts I wasn't sure what to expect watching the Judo tournament. Unlike karate, kung fu and taekwondo, judo is a form of wrestling. The object of the match is to throw your opponent on their back, the moment you do that you score an ippon and win. There are other types of points that score less than an ippon but I don't recall their names; the scoreboard just showed I, W, Y, K with 'I' being ippon and the W being something like you manage to throw them but they land on their side instead of their back. Two 'W's is also a win, otherwise if no one has an I or W then the person with the most Y's win, followed by the most K's.

Since an ippon is an automatic win at any stage in the match a person always has a chance to win, doesn't matter how many other points your opponent has, or even if there's only 10 seconds left, flip them on their back and you win. It can make for quick matches but sometimes all they do is stand there gripping on to each other for minutes on end. For added excitement, choke and strangle holds are okay in judo. I saw two matches where the loser was unconscious from a choke hold, one girl in the bronze medal match was out for over 30 seconds just lying there on the mat.

In the end I watched a Mongolian win the under 73kg gold (took him almost 9 minutes) and a woman from North Korea win the under 65kg gold (her gold-medal match took 9 seconds, I didn't even get my camera out in time).

I give judo a 7 out of 10.

Monday, December 04, 2006

More Asian Games!

Okay this week has been hectic with all of the Asian Games activities. I was hesitant about the Games at first but it turns out that it's been really cool and I've been having a great time.

I skipped the Opening Ceremony because the tickets were QR500 (US$140) but I watched it on TV from a friend's place across the street. Good thing too because an hour before the ceremony started it bucketed with rain and many in the stadium, which was only partly covered, got soaked. The ceremony itself was great to watch though, culminating with a Qatari riding a horse up a long ramp to the top of the stadium to light the flame. Thanks to the wet conditions the horse barely made it up, nearly falling over because it was slipping so much. That would have been a disaster - the climax of the ceremony would have been ruined. Afterwards I ran outside to catch the fireworks.

Tickets for events are so cheap (US$1.35-2.75) I have tickets for every single day. So far I've seen badminton, gymnastics, boxing, basketball, judo & table tennis. In many of these sports the best in the world are playing; in badminton I watched the current world champion play the current Olympic champion and all of the table tennis matches that I saw were with top-15 players. I assume the judo was the same.

Doha doesn't have a lot of hotels (I think there are around 3000 rooms) so there aren't hoards of people. Most of the events are well attended but you can usually find a seat somewhere, which is handy.

I'll give updates on individual sports over the next couple of weeks.