Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I'm British - and a moron!

Hey, my camera wasn’t stolen after all! I found it!

I was driving around then suddenly remembered that back when I put my camera in the glove compartment I told myself “that’s dumb, if somebody broke into my car they’d find it easily”. So I hid it somewhere else in my car. And eventually forgot that I did that, only recalling that I put it in the glove compartment. So after straining my brain to recall that other hiding place I remembered, looked, and there it was!

Good thing I hadn’t bought a replacement camera yet.

Looks like ignorance really is bliss: I’m a moron, but now I’m a happy moron! :-)

Blimey! I'm British!

I got the call from the embassy and picked up my UK Passport today.

I'm officially British! (and Canadian too of course)

Now when I land at Heathrow I can use whichever passport line is shortest! Mwahahahaha.

Ironically my next trip out of Qatar, and the first one where I can use my new passport, is Britain. When I get there I'll have a pint to celebrate.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Grrrrrr, my camera was stolen!

Well what was becoming a really nice weekend had a major letdown on the realization that my camera had been stolen. Even worse - I have no clue when or where it happened. #&%*(#@ !

Sadly this was due to some poor coincidences and lack of memory power by yours truly. Two weeks ago I took my camera with me to the Corniche to take some pictures, then put it in my glove compartment when I went to the mall. Then for some reason I thought I had taken the camera out of the glove compartment later that evening and brought it back into the apartment.

Fast forward two weeks: yesterday I'm looking around my apartment for my camera as I wanted to take some pictures of some stuff downtown. Not finding it, I went "oh yeah, I must have left it in the glove compartment of my car!" Went down to my car and found . . . a completely empty glove compartment. Even my car manuals that I keep in there were gone, which was a sure sign that something had happened and not that I was being forgetful about the camera.

Now this confused me. My car had automatic locking - you know, where you press a button on your key chain, the car lights briefly and makes a "chirp-chirp" noise. And I didn't have a broken window, so how did someone get into the car?

So I stepped a couple of feet away from the car, and clicked the autolock.
"chirp, chirp", lights flash, doors lock -- then immediately unlock, like the locks were on a spring!

I tried again, pressed the button, doors lock -- then unlock.

What the hell!?! Tried a few more times, and same result each time. My autolock was busted and was sending both the lock & unlock signal at the same time. And since I was always walking away from the car when I "locked" it, and always far away when I unlocked it, I never noticed. Primarily because the car would flash and chirp like everything is fine. How long it has been like that I have no idea.

So for at least the past two weeks I've been leaving my car in various parking lots and streets completely unlocked with a camera in it. Talk about tempting fate. So of course I have no clue when someone rifled through my car. In the last two weeks my car has been parked at the Corniche, the Souqs, the docks for that dhow trip, various malls, hotels, at the school where I have Arabic class, and so forth. It could have happened anywhere.

So I'm a little upset at this but really it was only a matter of time I guess. I had been thinking about getting a new camera anyway (mine was 5 years old and was bottom-of-the-line even back then) but this still irks me. I hate being the victim of petty theft. I hope the thief chokes on it. At least since it's an old camera he probably won't get a lot for it, not that he had to do much work for it.

Grrrrrr, what a letdown to the day.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A tale about currency in the Gulf

Recently Kuwait has decided to remove its currency from its US dollar peg, instead tying it to a basket of currencies. It was a fairly big announcement for everyone in the region.

All of the countries in the Gulf peg their currency to a fixed exchange rate to the US dollar (for example in Qatar 3.64 riyals always equals $1 US). This generally made sense to petrodollar countries since oil is bought/sold in US dollars on the open market. By fixing your currency to the US dollar you remove any risk that would come with the currency fluctuating.

Unfortunately the US dollar has been sliding/underperforming so much in recent years that it is starting to affect the region. Inflation has been high in recent years as it costs more to import goods into the region due to the Gulf currencies weakening against exporting countries, despite the fact that the Gulf countries have booming economies due to petrorevenue. And I’m talking serious inflation, on the order of 25-35% a year right now (estimates I’ve seen for Qatar have it at around 27% for 2006). There are plans in the works for a unified Gulf currency by 2010, involving Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE and Oman, all of which have pegged $US currencies, at which point the currency should be strong enough to ‘free-float’ on the currency markets. With Kuwait removing its peg experts believe that the unified currency is no longer going to happen.

In response to the peg removal Saudi, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman said they have no plans to do so but UAE has so far not said anything. Speculation is that they might follow suit and remove their peg. If that happens the unified currency is definitely dead.

What does this mean to you? Right now Kuwait is a significant oil producer but not enough to really impact global oil markets. If other Gulf countries follow suit then currency exchange fluctuations will affect the price of oil, likely making it more expensive for North Americans as the Gulf currencies gain against the US dollar. Well, maybe not Canadians since the Canadian dollar has also gained strongly against the US.
So I’ll try to keep an eye on this and let you know if there are further developments.

No need to panic and hoard gas though, I doubt the price would impact more than 5-10% even if all the Gulf countries removed their pegs.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A trip to the British Embassy

For those of you who didn’t know I’m actually half-British. Dad was from Belfast while my Mom was from Winnipeg. This entitles me to British citizenship though it was something that I never pursued. Not sure why, I guess growing up in Western Canada it was never a big deal – if you were already a Canadian citizen what would being a UK citizen get you? It’s not like the family had any plans to move back.

30+ years and one EU later having that citizenship was looking more and more like a worthwhile thing, especially now that my work is more specialized in insurance & reinsurance. London is one of the ‘Big Three’ centres in this area (the others being Bermuda and New York) so it is definitely possible that I might wind up there in time. In any event it just seems prudent to get my UK passport before they do some crazy rule changes that would cut me out.

It took a while for my family and I to get the required documentation together from Northern Ireland and Canada but it was eventually compiled together. So with application and paperwork in hand it was off to the British Embassy in Doha to submit it.

Not surprisingly security at the embassy is fairly tight – concrete blocks to prevent cars parking near it, metal detector, security-monitored double doors (i.e. you go through one door into a small room, then a door at the other end of the room once the first door is closed) but it took maybe a couple of minutes to get through it all. After that I steeled myself for the ensuing chaos and walked inside to the passport section.

Now I was steeling myself because last year I had to renew my Canadian passport when visiting the family in Calgary. What a zoo that was. It was like a rock concert, you had to line up early just to guarantee that you’d be seen that day. I think each time I went the wait through the line up was something like 45-60 minutes – and I went pretty early. By the time I left they were always turning people away.

Anyway at the UK Embassy I had to:

- wait in line for a clerk to give them my forms
- wait for them to go through my forms to see if everything is there
- wait for them to go away with the forms for whatever reason
- be told to have a seat as I will be speaking with a consular officer about the application (I wasn’t expecting that)
- have an interview with the officer, basically to clarify some details like why after 30+ years I was applying for UK citizenship now.
- Pay my fees

Total time for all of this: 40 minutes!

Wow, was that ever fast! I figured it would take a lot longer, and the moment I was told to take a seat for a discussion with a consular officer I pretty much wrote off the rest of the morning right then and there. But it was all very fast, efficient, and best of all – pleasant. All of the staff were very nice and helpful, even the consular officer was kind and polite.

Maybe they do that to help soften the blow of the passport application fee, which is approximately US$245. Ack! That is some serious fees for a passport, I think my Canadian one was a third of that.

Anyway, the docs are submitted, the fees are paid. Now I’ll sit back and see what happens. I’m not even sure how long it will take. I hope the passport photos that I submitted were okay, but I had my friend Eric in Bermuda sign two different sets (he’s a laywer) and I submitted both of them, so that if one set is not acceptable to the passport office maybe the other ones will.

Hopefully in a month or so I’ll be a dual Canada/UK citizen!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Day in the Life

After sending that last e-album about Jordan I received a few emails noting that I must be having such an exciting time living in the Middle East. Uh, it's not all that actually. Remember, e-albums show the highlights, much of the week is the same toil & trouble that one gets from the average workday in the West.

So . . . here's my average workday, like today.

06:00 alarm goes off
06:15 I get up
06:50 I'm out the door to catch the carpool
07:20 dodge some crazy drivers and arrive at work
07:30-12:30 push paper around in a cubicle etc. I push a mean paper!
12:30-1:30 lunch at City Centre Mall food court. These days it's usually a veggie sub (no cheese). Gossip about work with coworkers.
1:30-5:00 push more paper, maybe go to a meeting or something.
5:00-5:30 dodge some crazy drivers and arrive at home
evening: dinner, 30-minutes on the treadmill, maybe do an errand or laundry, surf and answer emails if the server in the computer room isn't as slow as molasses that evening.
9:00ish chill out with a decaf coffee and reading
10:00 bedtime.

Yes, yes, I know, why aren't I selling this script to NBC? I mean, it's like Desperate Housewives, only with abayas and camels.

Now I'm depressed. Ugh, I need to pick things up a little. I think I'll spend the next week looking for something more exciting for the evenings than just doing Arabic lessons twice a week.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

DVDs, so what have I got

For those of you who know me I'm not a huge fan of movies. I'll go see one occasionally but it usually has to be one that I really want to see. I'm less inclined to go see a movie just for the sake of seeing one. I am always willing to see a film by certain directors (Terry Gilliam & Tim Burton come to mind) but otherwise it has to be something that would really catch my interest. The only movie I've seen in theatres here, and it was one of those things where I was hanging out with friends and they said "let's see a movie", was Little Man. Ugh, watching garbage like that is enough to put anyone off of movies for the next decade.

I rent movies even less and when I was in Bermuda I didn't even own a DVD player. I have a player now though, because in the summer you have to do something. Even picked up a few movies here and there. Not many though, it has to be something I would want to see more than once. My tastes lean towards sci-fi, fantasy and foreign films or documentaries. Right now my Babylon 5 DVDs are what I primarily watch, but I've taken the occasional break from that to watch 2001 or Afghani movies like Kandahar. I'm still looking around for a copy of Metropolis and Brazil, but I haven't had much luck around here. Looks like I'll have to wait until I visit Canada next.

Just for completion's sake, here's the list of the rest that I have:

Dark City
Born into Brothels
City of God
Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within
A Hard Day's Night
Monty Python: the Holy Grail
Blade Runner

and, uh, one or two others I can't remember off-hand. Don't plan on adding a lot more either but we'll see.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Critical Thinking - Nigerian Scams

Okay, I’m sure we’ve all heard about Nigerian email scams or 419 scams as they are also called. You get an email from someone you don’t know, usually in Africa (originally they were always from Nigeria but now people in other countries have picked up on it). This email usually has some long spiel with it but the crux is usually this: there’s a bank account in Africa with tons of money in it, usually multi-millions of dollars, and if you help them access it they will give you 50% of it etc., in other words a deal too good to be true. Of course to help them you have to send them some money first, for application expenses or whatever.

Anyone who send them money will never see a dime. Ever. And as for the bank account, they’ll keep stringing you along with expenses to squeeze more money out of you. Victims of this crime generally don’t come forward since they were technically helping someone commit fraud – they think they are assisting people to access a bank account that doesn’t belong to them in order to get millions.

There are other variants of this scam as well but basically you should never, ever, respond to any email that you weren’t expecting that was sent by someone that you don’t know. Never believe the tales of woe that these scammers spin. They’ve been doing this for years so they are very good at getting people to cough up some money (I saw one documentary that went to Nigeria and one of these scammers estimated that if someone replies to the email he has about a 70% success rate getting money). So just do not reply.

Now you might think “who falls for emails like that?” but millions of dollars is lost to these scammers every year. At one point there was an estimate that this scam was the 4th largest source of Nigeria’s foreign currency imports, but it has tapered off a little as people have gotten a little more savvy.

So why am I bringing this up? Due to a recent article in Australia. Here’s how bad it can be for victims of this crime:

“The biggest losses were incurred in the Nigerian investment scams, and only about 24 per cent of the people we contacted and told they were participating in this scam believed us," Supt Hay told reporters in Brisbane “So, 76 per cent continued to send millions of dollars after we told them they were participating in a scam."
So after the police track the victims down and told them it was a scam 76% continued to send the scammers money. They were so caught in the scammers web, so unwilling to admit that they had been duped, they kept chasing the dream. The human mind can be a very stubborn thing and unfortunately these people paid the price. Sometimes a true believer in something will continue to do so even if shown to be wrong.

This doesn’t happen just with Nigerian email scams but with other things as well; alternative medicine scammers thrive on this principle, as do cults, pseudoscience believers, doomsday prophets, conspiracy theorists; many reach a point where they have dug themselves in so deep that they can’t bear to admit that they were wrong, so they dig themselves in even further.

I remember being on the Bad Astronomy boards back in 2002-2003 where the fuss was this doomsday prophet predicting that some rogue planet would pass by Earth on May 15th 2003 causing mass tidal waves, earthquakes etc. A small number of people bought into this and started doing crazy things like selling their homes to move to ‘safe areas’ that this doomsday moron had said would be relatively safe from the disaster, there was even one report of a person killing their dog to spare them from the impending doom. No amount of common sense (things like “if this planet is going to hit us in a month why can’t we see it now?”) was convincing some of the diehard believers, who would instead find whatever piece of irrelevant evidence to shore up their beliefs.

So what happened after May 15th when nothing happened? Most of the believers saw the light, but many turned to the doomsday moron, who by this time had of course changed the date of our impeding doom - a common trend amongst doomsayers whose predictions don’t come true. I think that nut lost most of the followers by that time though. But there will always be another nut around the corner to ensnare the gullible.

Rant over. Please everyone, keep that adage “if it’s too good to be true . . . “ in mind with all of your dealings in life.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

An experience with the locals

So Friday I went out with the Qatar Natural History Group for a cruise in a dhow to celebrate the end of the season. Around 50 of us boarded the dhow at the Corniche for a cruise along the Corniche and the developments at West Bay (where my workplace is) before anchoring just off of an island a few miles away for a swim and barbeque. So far so good. Then trouble came.

Trouble is this case is jet skis. There were a number of other boats there along with small speed boats and well over 2-dozen locals zooming around on jet skis. Mostly guys in their early twenties with no consideration of other people. It actually got quite scary at times, our dhow was anchored maybe 50m from shore and the jet skis would constantly zoom along in-between the dhow and the shore while people were swimming. I was shocked that they’d do this since it would be easy to hurt someone who was swimming in the water. Many times the dhow owners and others who could speak Arabic would yell at the guys to go around the dhow because there were people swimming. A few did, but most either ignored us or basically brushed us off then deliberately rode through. Unbelievable.

Not surprisingly there is no such thing as a Coast Guard here that monitors pleasure craft. An American who was on the cruise was simply stunned and noted what would happen back home to reckless jet skiers and boaters. But here is not the US. Here being an idle rich kid with no sense of rules; where connections, money, and daddy’s influence puts you above the law; you can just do whatever you want. It’s really sad. And it doesn’t bode well for the citizenry in the future. Sadly many of these guys are probably the same ones getting themselves and others killed with reckless driving and drag racing.

But other than that downer note things went fine. No one was hurt, thankfully, and the BBQ and cruise back while the sun was setting was really nice. I’ll have to remember to do that again sometime, or maybe when guests come by, but it really depends on the time of year. It was almost at the point where it was too hot to do this, in a few weeks going out in a dhow would be quite uncomfortable. And December to February would be too cold. Anyway, an eventful day.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

I'm ready for the Weekend!

Well last night I started a new Arabic course. It has been around 8 months since I took Arabic, and I was really starting to lose what little of it that I had learned, so it’s good to get back in the saddle and learn. This time the course is being given by a nearby university (CHN Institute) and while it costs ~$400 for fifteen 2-hour classes work will compensate me for it if I attend most/all of the course.

So far it appears to be better than the previous free course that I took with the Qatar Centre for the Presentation of Islam, which was about 30% Arabic and 70% learning about Islam (search my blog for QCPI if you want to know more). The teacher is a Jordanian lady with decent English skills. From our first class it became obvious that this one is focused heavily on conversational, leaning key sentences and phrases that one would need in everyday life. Except maybe for the marital status issue. We learned many sentences about how to ask and reply about your marital status (married, single, divorced, widowed). Someone else in the class even asked if it was common for Arabs to enquire about this, it’s not something you generally get asked by everyone back home.

Otherwise the weekend is almost upon me. Only thing planned is a dhow cruise around the harbour on Friday with the Qatar Natural History Group. Sort of a farewell for the season, the group doesn’t meet during the summer because it is too hot for excursions. They are also making arrangements for an October trip to Yemen that I am tempted to sign up for. As for the cruise I haven’t been on a dhow yet so I’ll take some pictures. I’ll also spend some of the weekend sorting my Jordan pics for an e-album to send to everyone, and maybe watch some Babylon 5 episodes. Such a stressful life I lead.

Ma Asalaam (c u l8r)

Monday, May 07, 2007

Critical thinking news - beware of fake countries!

Just wanted to highlight an amusing report from Australia about a pair of con-men who formed a fake bank from their fake country and started printing up their own currency to spend. After speaking to a few of my Austalian collegues I found that these crooks have pulled this kind of scam before in the past. They go to jail for a few years, are released, then create a new "country" and continue scamming.

There is a reason why they do this - because they successfully either con people out of money or manage to use their fake money to pay expenses. People actually accept money from a fake bank/country.

Now while this is a rare anomaly, creating your own country, it is not new. Check out the wikipedia entry on
micronations. Over history there have been many of these, but the trend has been on the upswing in the last few decades, especially in Australia. Why Australia I have no idea, maybe because there are so many Pacific Islands out there with weird names (Vanuatu, Niue, Nauru etc) who's going to bother to check if one is legit or not? Sometimes these things are used by crooks, but other times it is used by deluded people as some form of tax protest - declare your own country therefore you don't have to pay taxes to that mean ol' government!

I think Family Guy did a parody of this once, the big guy declaring his house and yard a separate nation (for whatever reason).

Lesson to be learned - if you've never heard of a country, or don't know what their currency looks like when you're offered some, don't take it until you do some research. Beware of fake countries.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Hey, I've been here a year!

I just realized that it has been a year (since May 1) that I've been in Qatar. So to celebrate . . .

My apartment was fumigated! (Whoohoo! Let the okay times roll!)

Actually this is a standard thing that happens every three weeks to a month. Someone comes by and sprays some insecticide around the edges of the apartment. Stuff seems to work too as I find the occasional dead ant of silverfish every now and again. It's not like Bermuda in the summer though where you couldn't go a week without finding a column of ants attacking the garbage or a massive roach crawling around somewhere. Heck in Bermuda we even had a lizard living in the house plants.

Anyway what was different about this spraying was that the guy decided that 9:00am on a weekend was a great time to stop by (grrrrr). Thankfully I was pretty much awake by then so I was able to open the door for him. Then after spraying the stuff, which stinks up the place pretty nicely, I opened the balcony doors to let fresh hot air in.

Now as many of you know I'm one of those guys for whom odd things happen to. Not good things, not tragic things, just odd things. Like having a waiter quit in the middle of my order, things like that. Things that make you sit back and wonder at the unlikely coincidence of it all.

So here I was standing on the balcony for fresh air (I really do hate the smell of the insecticide, and the reminder that if I can smell it I'm also inhaling it) and I notice a couple of flies dart in then out of the door. Then a few more. Then more. Always dashing in, then dashing out. At that point I looked a bit closer and realized that they weren't flies - they were some type of small bee. I decided to go inside and shut the door as I didn't want some bees flying around my room. Good thing too because then came . . .

A bee swarm! Hundreds of the buggers came from nowhere and were flying all around the balcony! Gaaaaaa!

I quickly ran to the other balcony door and closed it as well. So now I was stuck in an apartment reeking of insecticide while a swarm of bees danced around outside preventing me from airing out the place.

I certainly didn't want to stick around inhaling chemicals so I put on a jacket (bee protection, its 40 degrees out), grabbed my car keys, and dashed out to my car. It was obvious that I wasn't going to be using my apartment for a while now. Went out to have breakfast, came back and the bees were gone. At least I hope so and that they haven't formed a nest nearby.

My place still reeks of insecticide. I think they switched brands because I've never known it to be that bad before. I took the chance and opened my balcony doors again. I sure hope that I don't regret doing that.

Maybe I'll reflect on a year here some other time.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Expensive hotels: R-I-P-O-F-F

In my last two business trips (Jordan & Bahrain) I had the privilege of staying in some pretty nice 5-star hotels. Not something that I'm used to doing. I didn't have a lot of cash in my younger days so whenever I went somewhere 'affordable' was the key word, which meant 2 & 3-star accomodation.

Thanks to recent stays at top hotels I can tell you two things:

1) they are not worth the extra $100+ a night
2) considering you're already paying so much for a room it's surprising how much they'll nickel-&-dime you to squeeze more money out of you.

Case in point: internet service. In both of my recent stays I needed to log on to the internet to check my work email. Now in 2 & 3-star hotels, if they have any kind of business centre or internet computer at all, the price ranges from free to something nominal like $2 an hour. I've been in motels in nowheresville Ontario that provided free internet access. So what happens in hotel #1 (Jordan)? I can buy a half-hour internet access card for US$7, or an hour for $10. $7 for 30 minutes!?! I looked at the front desk clerk like he just robbed me at gunpoint. Even though it was the company that was paying, still, $7?

I needed it to check email for four days so I purchased the $10 'deal', spent ten minutes checking my email, then left.

The next day I go back to the business centre and my card isn't working. I go back to the front desk and tell them. What do I get:

"Sorry sir, but the cards are one-use only. Once you log off you can't use them to log back in again."

ONE USE! I paid $10 for an internet card that you can only use once!! WTF! Nice that they told me that ahead of time.

Let's move on to Hotel #2 (Bahrain). I go to the business centre. Sure enough I have to buy an access card. What's the price? US$14 for 2 hours!

Now I'm only there for one night so I ask "do you have cards with less time on them?"

Nope. 2-hours minimum.

So having learned my lesson from Hotel #1 I ask "Is the card only one use or can I use it multiple times?". The guy tells me I can use it multiple times, which is nice, but then says . . .

"but the card expires after 24 hours."

WTF! The minimum card is two hours but it all has to be used within 24 hours? For US$14!?! Jeebuz H. Kee-rist! This is what you get for paying $200 a night for a room?

The way I see it these swank hotels figure that since you're already paying through the nose you must be rich - and you aren't going to care about a few more bucks here and there. Drives me nuts. And don't get me started about the price for everything else there like food etc. I'm stunned that I wasn't charged to use the pool, buncha gangsters.

And no, the rooms are not so special that it is worth the money. A room at a cheaper hotel is just as good it just may lack a couple of minor perks like having a wider array of free toiletries or a robe. The perks aren't worth the money.

I'm going to be travelling in London and probably Paris this summer and I can tell you that I'm going to be staying in 2 or 3 star whenever possible. These swank hotels are not worth it.