Saturday, January 28, 2012

Qatar Motor Show

This weekend couple friends and I decided to stop by the annual Qatar Motor Show at the Exhibition Centre. My friend tried a road rally simulator . . .

And otherwise we wandered around looking at all the nice cars that we will never be able to afford. So what was there? Here's some car eye-candy for you.

(I love the paint job on this car for some reason, I wonder what colour it is?)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Skin Whiteners

I was at a Sri Lankan barber the other day and after a shave he grabbed a bottle of lotion and rubbed some lotion on my face. When he put the bottle down on the counter I was able to read what it was, an after shave balm that also helps “whiten” the skin. Needless to say I found that amusing -- I don't think I need my skin any lighter than it already is. He probably wasn't even thinking about it when he grabbed the bottle, I've been to this barber shop many times and I've never seen another Caucasian there.

Skin whitening products – what’s the deal with that?

It's definitely something I've never seen in North America. It is however big business in South Asia and because of the huge South Asian population here you can find all sorts of skin whitening products at supermarkets and drugstores.

I decided to do a bit of googling as to why this is. Apparently in South Asia there is a definite preference for lighter colored skin (and before you jump the gun wiki notes it likely predates the British colonial times though it doesn't list a source) and this preference is apparently reinforced by TV and movies in South Asia. Just google image search “Bollywood stars” and you’ll get an idea.

When skin lightening products were first developed they became a big hit and they quickly grew to be a multibillion dollar business in South Asia. All sorts of cosmetics, lotions and powders promise to lighten the color of your skin. Both men and women use them.

My biggest worry is what is in these products. If these products actually do lighten your skin then they have to be doing something to it, and I wonder if long-term exposure to this something is really going to do you a lot of good.

No, really, I don’t want to know.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Arabic Lessons

So I'm back at FANAR taking Arabic again. I'm still struggling with the usual: ayns, plurals, invisible vowels, trying to memorize words ... etc. I find it's not really sinking in as much as I hoped and I'm thinking it's because there's not a lot of practicing conversation in the class, something that you really need to do when learning a language. A friend of mine and I are probably going to gather a few other people and hire a tutor to focus on conversation. We'll see what comes of that.

Meanwhile I spend time trying to translate text messages sent to me by my Qatari friends. I even bought a pocket-sized electronic Arabic-English dictionary to help me out, and I usually try to have it with me wherever I go. It also has a speaker so it is able to pronounce the word to give me an idea how it sounds, which is cool.

I remember in a previous post on Arabic going on about the things in Arabic that make it difficult to learn. In fairness I will highlight a few things that are easier.

1) Sometimes the nouns are similar to the related verbs so it is easier to remember. For example I was texting my friend (in Arabic) about booking a squash court and I had no idea what was Arabic for “court”. Went to my electronic dictionary and found out that it was “mahlab” and the verb “to play a sport” is “yahlab”. This is easier than English where the name of the playing surface has nothing to do with the verb. We say "play" but depending on the sport it's on a court, field, rink etc. In Arabic it’s “play” and I guess something like “area you play on”.

2) No capital letters so there's no need to worry about proper names and all that jazz.

3) So far I haven't come across any homonyms [e.g. to/too, here/hear, there/they’re/their], which I'm sure have to be one of the most confusing aspects of English. I'm not ruling out that homonyms don't exist in Arabic but so far I haven't encountered any so if they do exist it might not be for common words.

4) So far I've not encountered any irregular verbs. The present form of every verb is conjugated the same way. For example to conjugate the verb with "he" you put a “y” in front of it. Every time. (so far)

5) Arabic seems to have no issue with adopting English words. Words like computer, mobile and bank are commonly used in Qatar, including being spelled that way in Arabic. There are actual Arabic words for these things (for example computer is “hasoob”) but the English words are more widely used. My teachers at FANAR don't like me using them though and want the formal Arabic used, which contrasts with my Arabic-speaking friends who tend to look me a little funny when I start saying words like “hasoob”.

[Actually I think they look at me funny every time I try speaking Arabic] ;)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Clash of Cultures – Qatar and Alcohol

While I was away on business last month I missed the announcement that alcohol was no longer allowed to be served in restaurants on the Pearl Development, which was one of the few areas of Doha outside of an expensive hotel where alcohol was served.

The effect was immediate according to an article in Arabian Business, the number of customers in the restaurants has decreased by 50%.

While I'm not particularly fussed about the announcement (I'm not a big drinker), what I found more interesting was the comments section of the article, where it looks like a lot of people are weighing in. Comments generally fall into the following categories:

• Muslims who wholeheartedly approve because alcohol is haram;

• Muslims and non-Muslims who note that no one is forcing Muslims to drink alcohol and plenty of Muslim countries like Lebanon, UAE, and Egypt have alcohol yet it is not a threat to the Muslim population;

• Foreigners who argue that Qatar needs to make some sort of accommodation for foreigners (with the occasional dig at how Qatar is not going to have a successful 2022 World Cup by doing things like this);

• People concerned about the message this sends to people looking to develop businesses in Qatar -- the restaurant owners invested a lot of money developing the restaurants, calculated their margins based on the inclusion of alcohol, and suddenly the rules have changed on them;

• People who argue that Qatar is a strict Muslim country and you knew that when you signed on to be here. You can still get alcohol if you have a license or you can visit a bar in a hotel.

I think there is merit to point number four, it is hard to attract business if there is uncertainty, and actions like this reinforce uncertainty. I certainly have sympathies for the restaurant owners who decided to invest and open restaurants in the Pearl in part due to the alcohol (which any restaurant owner can tell you is one of the most profitable items). As for residents I find myself more in the “you knew it was a Muslim country when you signed on” side.

Given recent events in some parts of Europe regarding veils or the building of minarets it might be tough to argue that Qatar should be more open and accepting of Western culture. Western restaurant chains are here, movie theaters showing Hollywood films, you can get Western television on satellite, find the latest phones and gadgets, women don't have to wear headscarves or veils, and there are bars and nightclubs (just not as many as in a Western city). This is not Saudi Arabia. Heck, you don't even need to know Arabic to live here!

I speculate that Qatar is facing a tough balancing act. On the one hand it wants to respect its Islamic roots and morality while on the other has to make some accommodation for foreigners in order to attract workers, tourists, and business. In the time I've been here it is clear that His Highness the Emir doesn't want to be as strict as Saudi Arabia but he certainly doesn't want the country to be as liberal as Dubai or Bahrain. Too liberal and the religiously conservative citizens are unhappy, too conservative and the foreigners are less likely to come here, which means you'd need to pay a lot more to attract them. I don't know if there's an easy answer.

The comments to the article provide a window to that problem. Take some time to read them.

Monday, January 09, 2012

How to Renew an E-Gate Card

[Last updated 5 June 2013]

There is a system in Qatar whereby for a fee a resident can apply for an E-Gate card, which allows you to bypass passport security in Doha International Airport. Instead of going through passport control you scan the card at an E-Gate booth, enter and have your fingerprint scanned, at which point once your identity is confirmed you continue on. It is an extremely efficient system and I have never taken longer than 2 minutes to go through (it's usually much shorter than that but once the booth wasn't reading my fingerprint so I had to go to the next booth). There has also never been a lineup at E-Gate, unlike passport control which can get quite busy. My friends and I joke that the only major inconvenience with E-Gate is that you're through so quickly you have to wait a while for your luggage to arrive at the baggage carousel.

E-Gate even saved me from missing a flight earlier this year. Eid is by far the busiest time at the airport and the crowds were so massive that it took me over 90 minutes just to check-in my bag. Then I saw that the lineup for passport control was 15 minutes -- just to get into the passport control room! Who knows how long you'd stand in line once you were in there. No lineup at E-Gate though, I was through in under two minutes and on my way. I know a few people who missed their flights that day because of the crowding. E-Gate is awesome.

So work sent me a reminder that I needed to renew my E-Gate card and were happy to help with the arrangements. It turned out to be a complicated process so I'm glad they sent me along with someone who knew what to do because there are no signs or information at the Immigration Office to tell you the steps. Here's how it works:

1) Work arranged for some electronic form (in Arabic) filled out in my name [update: try here for a form]. I had to bring this with me along with my ID card, old E-Gate card, and a credit card so that I could pay the fee. Oddly while I was instructed to bring my old E-Gate card no one actually asked for it or looked at it so maybe it's something you bring along just in case.

2) Go to the Immigration Building just off of the Shammal Road near Landmark Mall (heading towards the airport from Landmark). When you go through security (tell them you're here for e-gate and they should let you by) and enter the “courtyard” of the Immigration Building go to entrance number 2 on your left, this will open into a big room with lots of seats (over a hundred), to your left will be civil servants in booths with flashing numbers over them to indicate the next ticket number. Don't go to them or look for a ticket number, just go straight across the room, turn right at the snack kiosk, and go to what kind of looks like some large booths on the left wall. This is where you have your photo and fingerprint taken for E-Gate.

[Warning: a commentator said that ladies might be turned away if wearing dresses or Capri pants so ladies you may want to consider full-length pants.]

3) Two ladies were working the E-Gate “booths”. One of them will take your ID card and the piece of paper, take you to a booth, and then:

• take your picture
• scan your fingerprint
• have you write your signature on a special electronic pad

she will then sign the paper and give it and your ID card back to you.

4) From there go back to the entrance. You will see a big desk with two or three civil servants behind it (and probably a big crowd of people around them). This is where you get your ticket number. Go up to them and say you are here for E-gate. They will give you a number and then you sit down and wait for your number to be called.

5) When it is getting close to your number being called I recommend trying to move to a place so that you can quickly get to the booth. It's a big room and the guys at the desks seem to give about 20 seconds before they move on to the next number. When it is your turn give the person the document, ID card, and credit card. They will charge the fee for the E-Gate card to your credit card and they will keep both the piece of paper and your ID card. That is because they have a new system where they have integrated E-Gate with your ID card so they will issue you a brand-new ID card that has E-Gate built in.

6) They will then tell you to sit down and wait until they call you to collect your new card. They might tell you to come back to the booth after x minutes. Generally the wait is anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes.

7) Now you have to activate your E-Gate card (again no one has told us anything about activating the card so had I not been with someone who knew the process the next time I went to the airport my E-Gate card wouldn’t have worked). Head back to the scanning booths near the snack kiosk. Behind them are what looks like two ATM machines. You use these to activate your card. There was a gentleman standing there who did it for me, typing in my ID numbers etc.

That's it, new ID/E-Gate card! Overall it took about an hour but the Immigration Office, while busy, was not packed so you might want to assume it will take longer in case the office is busier.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Doha Events

Unfortunately I've been unable to see the ExxonMobil tennis tournament, something I always look forward to watching. I was going to get tickets with a friend of mine to go see it but then he had to leave the country due to a family emergency so I didn't bother getting tickets. Now it's sold out. No seeing Federer or Nadal for me this year. Daniel Nestor didn’t attend this year so at least I didn’t miss a chance to see him play.

The last four months have been strange -- I've missed both the tennis and the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. I also haven't made it out to a Qatar Natural History Group event yet, something I always used to go to. Haven't made it out to a lecture at the Museum of Islamic Art either. Got to get back into a routine. Arabic lessons start again next week at FANAR so that will help.

Today I met up with some friends at the Pearl and afterward, since I was in the neighborhood, I figured I would stop by the Doha Trade Fair, which is on this week at the Exhibition Centre. The place was absolutely packed, thousands of people were there. (No pictures, everywhere you looked were Qatari ladies in abayas so I didn't want to cause a fuss by taking any photos). I wandered around and looked at all the things being sold by the merchants: perfumes, cosmetics, carpets, tapes, honey, clothing (mostly women's, ranging from lingerie to dresses and abayas). I didn't buy anything because I wasn't actually there for shopping, just wandering around. Not that wandering around was particularly easy, there are so many people there that sometimes it was difficult to navigate through the crowds. Most of the merchants seem to be doing a pretty brisk business though.

Tonight I just went for a walk on the Corniche for some exercise. Nothing exciting. The Corniche was pretty busy though with joggers or families having picnics and enjoying the mild weather.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Further Discussion on the India Pisa Results

Someone has posted a nice detailed comment in response to my recent post on PISA results for India. Because of the length of the comment rather than answer it in the comments section I figured I would reproduce it here:

The Indian results are unsurprising because it corroborates earlier studies all coming to a broadly similar conclusion. That Indian education is mediocre and overall level of human capital in India is very low. Please refer to the TIMMS test administered by Jishnu Das and Tristan Zajonc or the Wipro educational initiative results.

Your skepticism is unfortunately untempered by rationality. To expect high Indian results based from the selection of the highest scoring school in Qatar is the result of several cognitive biases. Chiefly there is the issue of selection bias, by comparing the most unrepresentative school in the nation with OECD averages. To apply your logic, I can pick the highest scoring school in the US or China in the PISA tests and it will make even the highest scoring Indian (Qatar) students, look like drooling idiots, relatively speaking.

For example Al Khur Interntational school only admits the children of the employees the state LNG monopoly. These aren't just the children of affluent Indians, these are the children of Indians that are, probably, greater than two standard deviations above the socio-economic mean of India. To be that selective in the US, you would have to administer such a test to only the children of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, etc alumni.

In fact, the Qatar results for Indian students, rather than showing the possibility of high Indian achievement actually comes to the opposite conclusion. That even a highly selected group of Indian students are just above the OECD mean (itself dragged down by relatively poor performing OECD nations). What does that say about the rest of India's human capital +/- one standard deviation from their mean? Nothing positive.

Thank you for the comment. I think you may be misinterpreting the background that led me to focus specifically on India and PISA. Throughout my life I've met many people from South Asia, either in Canada or here, and there always seemed to be a heavy focus by the families on education and there seemed to be more pressure on the children to study hard and do well in school than for most other kids. Documentaries on Indian education seemed to be about the competitive nature of the education system, typically focusing on teenagers spending long hours studying for various exams, or entrance tests to IIT, or whatever. Many South Asian schools here in Qatar did very well on the PISA tests compared to peers. The anecdotal evidence all pointed to India being able to post scores on PISA significantly higher than would be expected given its poorer economic situation than the OECD nations (on a per capita basis).

The problem was that the evidence was by and large anecdotal so could not be used to definitively make conclusions and I have never traveled in South Asia to see things for myself. That's why I was posting about how I wished South Asian countries would participate in PISA -- to see if a study on a large representative sample would support the conclusions that the anecdotal evidence indicated. It turns out it did not, but given all I had before was the anecdotal evidence that is why the PISA results for India were “below my expectations”.

I never stated that Al Khur Interntational achieving good results must mean that India has an amazing educational system, more akin to “Al Khur Interntational got good results, I’m curious as to how India would score generally on PISA”.
As it stands, what are the weaknesses in the Indian system: that society is not as education-focused as the anecdotal evidence led me to believe? Severe underfunding by the various levels of government? Too many children overwhelming the current educational resources? Poor pay for teachers compared to other fields? I was just curious as to what people from South Asia think the issues are.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

PISA 2009 update -- results from India, UAE, and a few other countries

The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tested an additional 10 countries/regions on the PISA 2009 test. Known as the “PISA 2009+” test countries, they include:

• Costa Rica
• Georgia
• 2 States in India (Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu)
• Malaysia
• Malta
• Mauritius
• 1 State in Venezuela (Miranda)
• Moldova
• The United Arab Emirates

Strangely enough you can’t find the report on the OCED website, you need to go to an Australian education website for it.

I was excited to see the update because in previous blog posts that discussed the PISA test I was always curious to see how India would do given the emphasis Indians place on education. Would India score high marks despite its relatively low GDP per capita?

It turns out its marks were -- not so good. Here is a table with some select countries for comparison. The first number is the reading score, followed by mathematics and science:

556 600 575 Shanghai (highest results of all participants)
536 541 554 Finland
520 529 539 Japan
524 527 529 Canada
500 487 502 United States
493 496 501 OCED average
494 492 514 UK
464 445 454 Turkey
431 421 438 UAE
425 419 416 Mexico (lowest scoring OECD country)
414 404 422 Malaysia
413 381 402 Columbia
402 371 383 Indonesia
372 368 379 Qatar
370 365 369 Peru (second lowest of all the countries tested in the original PISA 2009)
337 351 348 India (Tamil Nadu)
317 338 325 India (Himachal Pradesh)

314 331 330 Kyrgyzstan (lowest scoring of all the countries tested in the original PISA 2009)

Ummmm, wow. India scored way lower than I expected. Nearly bottom of the table, except for Kyrgyzstan, and Himachal Pradesh scored lower in science than them.

So what happened? I'm not sure yet. I thought at first maybe it would be the social economic correlation (wealthy Indians would test way higher) but the PISA report notes:

In Himachal Pradesh-India and Tamil Nadu-India the relationship between socioeconomic status and reading performance, as measured by PISA, was very weak. This may be because students in these populations perform very poorly in reading and have low socioeconomic status, as measured by PISA, and therefore the relationship between socioeconomic status and reading cannot be adequately detected using the PISA scales.

Translation: “everyone taking the test in India was poor by our standards so we couldn't measure the difference between rich and poor”. Thanks guys.

The India test results were very different than the results Indian schools in Qatar achieved so for now I'm going on the assumption that overall education in India may still be very poor, only those who can afford to send their children to decent private schools are getting a good education. Any Indian readers please feel free to leave a comment to clarify what happened here.