Friday, May 29, 2009


Man, it is hot. (Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking, "Really Glen, is it hot in the Arabian desert? Who knew?"). I mean that it is much hotter than usual for this time of year, odd since we had such a mild spring. The newspaper is expecting temperatures to reach 48°C today (118°F), and the temperature has been around that for the last week or so. On the bright side it is not humid so the heat is more bearable than it should be. Still it is not easy getting out and about. My car A/C struggles to keep the temperature tolerable, I still find myself sweating driving around.

Looks like GM might be going bankrupt. Good thing I warned a buddy of mine about that possibility, he was thinking of buying a Hummer earlier this week but I advised that he wait and see how the GM crisis pans out. The Qataris have been telling him to get a Toyota anyway (they love their Land Cruisers) but those are some of the most expensive SUVs here in the Middle East. Probably because they are in such high demand. I have heard a joke that the reason why there is a Japanese embassy here is because of all the business Toyota does with Qataris.

Otherwise things are staying pretty mellow. The Qatar Natural History Group is finished until October, Arabic classes end next week for the summer, and my next vacation is not until the end of July (Paris for a friend's wedding, isn't that cool?). Once the humidity kicks in it will be too hot to even go to Souq Waqif. Looks like a couple of months of reading books, watching DVDs, and wandering around malls.

I've been asked a few times how I can handle the heat, being Canadian and all, and I think the question comes from a misconception that Canada is always cool/cold. Most people are surprised to hear that where I grew up temperatures in the mid-30s were a regular occurrence in the summer. 40°C was rare but has happened. But that was a dry heat so more tolerable than the summer here. Oddly enough I think that the Canadian winters actually helps me tolerate the summer here. Canadians are used to spending three or four months of the year mostly indoors, going from your heated house to your heated car to your heated office/restaurant/mall. It is just like here in the summer only the temperature is reversed, going from your A/C'd house to your A/C'd car/office etc. I think people from temperate climates struggle more with the summer here because they are used to being able to go out any time of the year, so go stir crazy being stuck indoors for a few months. I'm not saying that summer here is fantastic but I tolerate it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Amusingly, someone just left a comment on my very first blog post back in September 2006. Every now and then I get comments on an old post but of course this one holds the record (although they did admit themselves that they were late). Rather than respond in the post itself, I figured I would reply here. No sense in starting a comment chain on a nearly three year old post.

The comment was as follows...

there are not anti-science groups or whatever they call it in Qatar, at least by the muslims. infact, islam encourages science and knowledge, it is considered worship! except the thing that humanity began from apes, and I think most religion agree with it I guess.

Now islam encouraging science may be true at some points in Islamic history, in some Islamic areas, but I do not think any scholar of Islamic history would agree that throughout the Islamic period science was embraced.

Islam went through a period that some refer to as their "Golden Age" but the timing of it varies depending on the area we are talking about. It is true that from around the 8th to 12th centuries in areas like Syria and Iraq, maybe the 13th century in Egypt, and from as late as the 15th century in southern Spain, these Islamic areas generally encouraged inquiry and research. The leading thinkers of the time read and translated the Greek and Latin works from ancient Greece and Rome, added ideas from the Babylonians, Indians, and Chinese, and expanded on the knowledge they now had. For a time the Islamic world could have had reasonable claim to contain the most advanced societies in the world in fields like medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and optics (though I'm sure the Chinese would probably argue the medicine claim at the very least). Europeans flocked to centres of learning such as Cordoba to learn from Islamic scholars and many of the works by such scholars would form the backbone of Rennisance learning. Maimonides, Geber, Rauxes (sp?), were latinized names of some of these Islamic scholars. Many of the ancient Greek and Roman works that we have now exist only because they were preserved by Islamic scholars who had translated them into Arabic.

But after a while the Islamic empires faded. Wars, invasions, and a move towards religious conservatism eroded Islamic scientific learning and things soon stagnated. By the time of the Ottoman Empire Islamic science was in decline, while Europe took up the mantle. By the 19th century the once mighty Ottoman Empire and other Islamic areas could only marvel at the scientific and engineering achievements in Europe. Much of the medical knowledge gained in the early Islamic period had been lost to its discoverers. In some parts of the Islamic world people were doing things such as wearing verses of the Qur'an as charms to heal illnesses and ward off evil, or drinking water that Qur'anic verses had been immersed in as medicine. Qatar did not even have its first official school until I think the 1950s (not including religious instruction), and I suspect its first hospital was around the same time.

Of course that is now once again changing and one could even say that the Islamic world is moving towards a second "Golden Age" of scientific learning and achievement. Countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE are building science and technology centres, encouraging research on items such as stem cells, sending its young citizens to universities around the world while inviting other prestigious institutions to set up satellite campuses. The Islamic world now has dozens and dozens of universities with fierce competition for students to get into them. From documentaries I've seen on education in places such as Palestine and Lebanon high school students are very serious about learning, preparing for final exams that determine whether they get one of the precious spots in good universities.

And it is not just men, women also attend university and go on to careers in science. Qatar University typically graduates 1500 students a year and around 80% of them are women. One of my Qatari colleagues has sisters studying in the UK, and many Lebanese women have degrees from Canada, US, or France. My dentist is a Lebanese woman (or maybe Jordanian), and in the medical clinic I go to I figure about 30% of the doctors are Muslim women. I even remember back when I was taking chemistry one of the students in my upper level chemistry class was woman who recently moved to Canada from Iran. Remember everyone, most of the Islamic world is not like Taleban-controlled Afghanistan.

I wouldn't say that the Islamic world is on the cutting-edge of the sciences yet but perhaps with time we will be hearing more and more about scientific discoveries in the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world. If an Islamic scientist, working primarily in the Islamic world in a university or research centre, were to win the Nobel prize in one of the sciences I think we could safely say that the second "Golden Age" has truly begun (maybe it has happened already, I have not combed the list of Nobel prize winners recently).

Do I think it is a good thing? Of course I do! Why would I want any society to reject science and learning? I would not care if one day every Nobel prize winner came from the Islamic world. Hopefully not because the West has descended into another Dark Age though.

Speaking of which it may be good that the Islamic world is moving towards learning in science because sometimes trends in places like the US worry me. Christian fundamentalism has been gaining strong footholds in the last few decades and in many parts of the US it has been affecting the quality of science education, especially in biology. When I went to conventions sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation many Americans I spoke to were definitely concerned about the impact fundamentalist Christians are having in their attacks on scientific learning. I have not seen religious anti-science attitudes here in Qatar anywhere near the extent one sees in North America. Hopefully now that Bush is out of the White House things will improve again -- the Bush administration definitely had some anti-science positions or interfering in issues such as biology, sex education, and certain aspects of NASA research. That recent court ruling against so-called "intelligent design" was also a positive step. And don't forget Obama rescinding the Bush restrictions on stem cell research. The US might be heading back to a more pro-science, pro-education stance. One can hope.

(btw humans are apes, genera Homo.)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Emir's Cup

Last week I went to the final soccer match of the year, the finals of the Emir's Cup. Since tickets were only QR 10 ($2.70) I figured why not, I had a good time at the Heir Apparent Cup a few weeks ago.

This time it was held at Khalifa Stadium, the largest stadium in Qatar and where the opening/closing ceremonies for in the Asian Games was held. What my friends and I weren't expecting was the large crowds in front of the stadium all going in to see the game. Signage was not very good and when we approached the gates into the stadium there would be a mass of people in front of it with police/security telling people they couldn't get in here and to go to a gate somewhere else. One attendant told us to go "east" to get in, so we started going east but it looked like hundreds of people were going in the opposite direction also looking for a gate so it struck us as a little odd that we would be sent in this direction.

Suddenly there was a big commotion up ahead. Someone had figured out that they could jump and grab a stairway railing to get up onto the stairs to the upper bleachers, so dozens of people started doing it as well. It was like a wave of white was flowing up the staircase railing (all the men were wearing white dishdasha). We stood around watching and my friend Vanessa pulled out her cell phone to record it. Then the police showed up with truncheons and chased after people, arresting one guy who climbed up on the railing as the police ran up. We watched as two guys dragged him away and cuffed him. As far as we can tell he was the only one the police arrested (poor guy, he was just the last person of about a hundred or so to climb up).

Anyway the gate near the stairwell was still crowded with people but we saw that a few people were being let in so we decided to try to get in here. We let Vanessa go in front of us -- she was the only woman in our group and we hoped security would be nice to her and let us in. Sure enough we were let through, while security was turning other people away and yelling at them in Arabic. It was a crazy scene, we couldn't figure out why there was all this hassle to get in. Once we got up the stairs we then realised what the issue was, this was the Family Section of the stadium. All the commotion was the police keeping out all the men who were not with women and children. The entrances the men needed to use were on the other side of the stadium. Organisers could have saved a lot of hassle by having signs indicating that those gates were for women and families only. Now we knew why Vanessa could get us in.

Anyway once you got in everything went smoothly. The stadium was packed but we were able to find seats and yes there were plenty of women there in their abayas to watch the game. The final was between Al Gharaffa and Al Rayyan (who lost in the finals of the Heir Apparent Cup on penalties) and both teams' supporters were out in force, waving flags and scarves in the team colours. His Highness the Emir was of course attending and video screens in the stadium showed his motorcade approaching then him walking in the stadium towards his seat. Naturally the game was not going to start until he had arrived.

While the first half of the game was okay the second half was excellent, Gharaffa had a man sent off so both teams went on the offensive because it was tied 1-1 and Gharaffa knew that with a man down they were unlikely to survive overtime. Gharaffa managed to get a penalty in the 80th minute and the guy missed it so the Rayyan supporters were joyously jumping up and down. But in the 90th minute Gharaffa managed to score an excellent goal which caused the other half of the stadium to jump up and down. There was no time left and Gharaffa won 2-1. The Gharaffa supporters around us were dancing on their seats, yelling and singing.

His Highness the Emir then shook hands with every member of both teams and handed the Cup to the winners. There was then a large fireworks display.

All in all we had a great time, I might have to start attending more Qatari soccer matches next season.

Friday, May 15, 2009

So... how is that financial crisis going?

I was reading the paper today and there were two articles discussing the impact of the financial crisis in the region. The first was about Dubai and how property prices continue to fall, in some parts of the city over 30% in just the last three months, not including any decreases before then. But before you think Dubai must be getting very cheap take a look at the prices being mentioned:

Renting a two-bedroom flat on the Palm Jumeirah, an island shaped like a palm frond and visible from space, was 14 to 33 percent cheaper in May than it was in March.

That puts annual rent at between Dh120,000 and Dh175,000 dirhams, or $2,723-$3,972 a month in May compared with $3,178-$5,901 in March.

Got that? Three months ago a two-bedroom apartment in an upscale neighbourhood could rent for as high as US$5,900 a month. A two-bedroom apartment!! So yes prices have plummeted to "only" $3,900 a month for the apartment, the cheaper ones for $2,700 a month. Gee what a deal, I'll take four please!

This is why I had said in my blog even two years ago that property prices in Dubai were heavily overinflated and I don't know how anyone who bought into that market seriously thought that prices were going to continue to increase 20 to 50% a year. Did they honestly think no one would mind paying US$5,000 a month to rent a small apartment? Did they expect that next year $6,000 a month would be reasonable? Or that an apartment that they bought at $400 a square foot would sell for $800+ a square foot three years later? Well, I guess for the last five or six years growth in property value of 20 to 50% a year was indeed how it worked in Dubai. I guess a lot of people thought it would last forever. Those people have now lost a ton of money.

From what I have read general expectations are that prices are going to continue to fall in Dubai for at least the rest of this year, possibly longer. They have got a long way to go yet before they get to what I would consider reasonably priced. There is a lot of speculation that there will be another mass exodus of people from Dubai in the summer who have just been waiting for the schools to finish for the year before moving out. If so rental prices will continue to plunge.

The other article was about deflation in Qatar. Prices have gone down a bit in the last quarter driven generally by rents and housing. I had not really noticed much of a decrease here but from the occasional snippet in the newspaper I guess rental prices have probably gone down 10 to 15 per cent. The cost to buy/sell property has apparently fallen more than that but almost all property here can only be purchased by Qataris (or maybe other GCC nationals as well) so it does not really have an impact on foreign investors. I think foreigners can only purchase property on the Pearl and Zigzag Towers and even those two developments are not completed yet. The Qatari government is probably breathing a sigh of relief that it did not get into property development to the extent Dubai did.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Whoops, I just realised it has been over a week since I last posted. I hope no one thought I had come down with H1N1 or something.

I have been reading This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, a book about the science behind how we perceive music and what makes certain combinations of sounds pleasant or unpleasant to people. One part of the book amused me, in the mid-90s a prominent scientist, who was not familiar with rock music, had asked him to bring six songs that "captured all that was important to know about rock 'n' roll". The scientist also noted that he was familiar with Elvis Presley so Daniel didn't need to bring any of his songs.

While Daniel felt that no six songs could really cover all that was important to know about rock 'n' roll this is what he brought:

"Long Tall Sally," Little Richard
"Roll Over Beethoven," the Beatles
"All Along the Watchtower," Jimi Hendrix
"Wonderful Tonight," Eric Clapton
"Little Red Corvette," Prince
"Anarchy in the UK," The Sex Pistols

Daniel did admit that now he would probably make some adjustments to the list, but didn't say what changes he'd make.

So that got me thinking what I would have chosen as six vital rock 'n' roll songs. Here is what I came up with:

1) "Jailhouse Rock," while Elvis Presley was excluded from the original list I won't constrain myself that way; this is one of Elvis's quintessential rock songs;
2) "Great Balls of Fire," Jerry Lee Lewis. Another early-era choice: I would put Jerry Lee Lewis or Bill Halley over Little Richard for that early piano-rock sound;
3) "Shook Me All Night Long," AC/DC. While I am not the biggest fan of AC/DC this song is high-energy and it is difficult to not tap or sway to the beat. Narrowly beat out "Gimme All Your Loving" by ZZTop;
4) "Bodies," The Sex Pistols. I think the Sex Pistols deserve to be on the list but I don't think "Anarchy in the UK" is their most rock-like song. While the lyrics of "Bodies" leaves something to be desired the music has a better beat and faster tempo. I even think "God Save the Queen" would be a better choice then "Anarchy". (Of course I doubt the Pistols would ever identify themselves as a rock band but it's my list dang-it);
5) Any three songs in quick succession by The Ramones. Really I don't think you can pick just one song by the Ramones, the kick lies in how they go from one song to another; and
6) "A Hard Day's Night," the Beatles. A lot of their other early songs sound, to me anyway, closely related to the other rock acts of the late 50s and early 60s that the Beatles were inspired by. I think "A Hard Day's Night," has a more original sound.

Looking at my list it appears that fast tempo is my key criteria for a good rock song, which is why I think guys like Clapton and Hendrix didn't make my list.

What would make your list?

Monday, May 04, 2009

A(H1N1) flu update

Okay looks like I was wrong in terms of manifestation of suspected cases. So far there have been no suspected cases reported in the Arabian Peninsula, despite cases being detected in more European countries. Governments here are continuing to monitor the situation. The Gulf region's Ministers of Health met on Saturday to discuss the issue, and have met again today to possibly iron out a regional strategy.

Airports in Dubai and Sharjah have now installed thermographic equipment to detects signs of fever in arriving passengers. I expect Doha Airport will be following shortly. Qatar Airways is also having all of its flight staff wear masks on flights from the United States. The Government recommends people not travel to affected countries but has put no restrictions on doing so.

Otherwise it is life as usual. People still go to work and school, shop at the mall, attend football matches and so forth. Maybe there is a bit of tension about it but for the most part everyone is staying cool. With any luck people will continue the hand-washing habits after this is over so that other germs won't spread. I had a flu about a month ago and I would rather not the repeat the experience thank you.