Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Picture frame

In a similar theme to the "7 Up" posts I did earlier I got really interesting gift -- a digital photo frame. One of those picture frames were you can store a lot of photos on it and it will slowly scroll through them all. My friends Carrie and Kamahl gave it to me for staying a couple of weekends at their place to take care of their cats while they were away. I was surprised that they gave me gifts, one would have thought eating their food for four days would have evened things out, but anyway...

So far I haven't put any pictures on the frame. This has more to do with some technical difficulties involving a USB memory stick then lack of interest in using the photo frame. But what was really cool about it was that it made me go through all of the pictures that I have on my computer, looking for nice ones to put in the frame. There were a lot of photos.

Sometimes I gripe about Doha being dull and things being repetitive but looking at the pictures I can't get over all the stuff that I actually did do (or to put it more accurately -- where I have travelled). In the past two-odd years I have travelled to 14 countries. 14!! And in the previous 36 years I had travelled to 7. This December I will probably be going to another one. And next March another one.

2 1/2 years.

I have pictures of Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Forbidden City, the skyline of Hong Kong, the ruins of Petra, the Swiss Alps, the Hagia Sophia, and the St. Charles Bridge.

I have climbed the Great Wall, toured Roman ruins, swam in the Dead Sea, and wandered through the Grand Mosque in Muscat.

I drank raki on the Galata Bridge, vodka at a jazz club in Shanghai, absinthe in Montmartre, pilsner in the High Tatras, a latte on Robson Street, and a pint on Portobello Road.

I have seen the Mona Lisa, the Rosetta Stone, the Kiss by Klimt, a Chinese Opera, and the Sword of the Prophet Mohammed.

I ate snake soup in Hong Kong, coq le vin in Paris, langhose in Slovakia, halwa in Oman, cheese fondue in Interlaken, and bangers & mash on the Strand.

Sometimes you have got to just put life in perspective.

Thanks Carrie and Kamahl.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Comprendez-vous francais?

During Ramadan pretty much every restaurant is closed until evening, which means I've been eating lunch at the office a lot. Thankfully my friend Serdar's wife works somewhere where they have a cafeteria that is still open during the day so Serdar and I went out there for lunch one day. The menu was French cuisine.

Now I studied French for a number of years in school. Not that I wanted to, it was just a requirement of the school system in Canada at the time. Now I wish I had paid more attention as I'm getting more interested in learning other languages. But as it stands my legacy of French knowledge from all those years of schooling is pretty dismal. And a little knowledge can be quite dangerous. Which is why when I saw couple of the items on the menu I was really thrown:

Boeuf a la mode et sa garniture
Poulet cocotte grand mere

What do you think these are?

My rough translation of the first one was "beef in a sauce and a garnish" but it was the second one that really threw me because I thought "cocotte" meant prostitute. I'll leave it to you to try and figure out what the rest of that one is from there.

Thankfully I spoke later to a French colleague who clarified what the real translation was. Just a misunderstanding on my part as there is a second meaning of cocotte.

The beef was really tasty.

But I didn't try the chicken.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

7 Up -- part 2

28: Location -- Vancouver, British Columbia

After finishing my degree in chemistry I went to the University of British Columbia to do a year and-a-half of work to get a degree in psychology. Needless to say arts degrees are easier than science degrees, I don't care what arts students tell you. Once that was over, and the final rejections for grad school came (UBC alone had over 600 applications for eight spots), I was left with little direction as to what I was going to do now. So I spent a couple of months looking for a job and passed the time playing games at a nearby game store -- Mishra's Game Factory. Out of the blue one of the guys who was part owner of the store asked if I wanted a job at the store, not sure exactly why they asked me but it sounded like a great deal.

Thus started a phase of my life which to this day I consider the most fun I've ever had.

I was already there a lot playing games and now I was getting paid to do it, selling the merchandise as well as organising gaming tournaments. Because the store was a hub of the local gaming community there were people constantly in the store playing the various games and I got to know a lot of people: George, Happy John, Bitter John, Bryan, Mike McPhee and his group of friends (such as Mike, Mike, & Mike, no I'm not kidding), Dean and Liz, Byrun (whose blog I have a link to), Matt Nakamura, Uri, Orson, Sing, Aidan and Kerry, Fred, Dennis, Peter and the other card sharks (like Terry and Terry), and many more whose names escape me at the moment. By age 28 I had worked there probably close to four years, enjoying every minute of it. I was living downtown sharing an apartment with my high-school buddy Jake and since downtown was pretty much where it's at I never needed a car. Life was good.

But by this time I was also finishing my entrance courses to become a Chartered Accountant. After a few years at the store I knew that there was no way I could continue doing this forever. Don't get me wrong, it was a blast, but I really wasn't making any money, store revenues were slowly going down, and I was getting concerned that if I did not make a change soon I would end up being "Comic Book Man" from the Simpsons. My father, who I'm quite sure hated my job, recommended that I study to become a CA. He agreed to pay the costs if I would agree to do it so I did.

So by this time 1998 I had finished my entrance courses and had found a job as a junior accountant in Kamloops, a city about five hours drive away. I was going to be moving in about a month to start my three year apprenticeship before becoming a full Chartered Accountant. The days of playing games and hanging out with my friends in Downtown Vancouver were about to end. Even at that time I knew that I would never have so much fun in my life again. At least though I had plans for the future and when I got my designation I would be able to make a decent amount of money so that I can actually start saving. I was 28 and barely had a couple of hundred bucks on me.

35: Location -- Bermuda

After my three years in Kamloops I had achieved my designation as a Chartered Account, including passing the brutal UFE exam (16 hours, four hours a day for four days) on my first try. I was not happy at the firm so as soon as I had my designation I immediately called a placement agency in the back of an accountant magazine that specialised in jobs in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. Had an phone interview with KPMG within a week and had a job offer about a week later. So I was off to Bermuda.

Shortly after I got to Bermuda my father passed away of cancer, leaving to catch my flight to Bermuda was the last time I saw him. Between that tragedy, moving to a new place where I did not know anyone, and being really busy with work I can definitely say that it was the worst winter I ever had. I spent six months being miserable and regretting my decision to move here.

That summer I was sent on a three-month secondment to the Bermuda Monatery Authority, the financial regulator. I was working in their Insurance Department helping out with some backlog. I worked well there, and they liked me working there, so they extended my secondment to the end of my KPMG contract and then hired me. I was now an insurance regulator. I liked my job. And because it was summer I was experiencing Bermuda's incredible beaches for the first time. Things were looking up.

Three years on I was still there but had moved on to the Policy Department by then. I was staying in a three-bedroom house on the water that I shared with two housemates, had a weekly tennis group that I played with, was volunteering at the zoo, and had a number of new friends: George, Knut and Petra, Janel, Gregg, Mike R and Jen, Lothar and Fiona, Martin, Zuzana, Eric & Fredericka, and others. But I had been in Bermuda for five years and it was a small island, very small. I was starting to get what locals called "Rock fever" and felt like I needed to get away. Also the Bermuda Immigration Department was very strict about work visas and would generally only foreigners work on the island for six years. And because Immigration also required that any job vacancy be posted my work would have had to post my new position if they wanted to give me a promotion -- so there was little room for me to advance. So it was either renew my contract for one year only or start looking for something else. By this time I was still uncertain as to what I was going to do, but by December I had made my decision...

38 (now): Location -- Qatar

And here I am, and insurance regulator in Qatar.

Looking back it is bizarre the path my life took. At any point in time if someone had told me where I would be, or what I would be doing, seven years later I would have told them that they were nuts.

A lot of other people can really plan for the future. They can tell you what the be doing 5, 10, or maybe even 15 years down the road and sure enough they do it. I can never plan like that, I always seem to just go with whatever opportunity happens to come by at the time I'm looking for one. Can't say that I have done too bad by it though, non?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Seven Up!

For the last couple of weeks the "classic movies" have been the Up Documentaries by Michael Apted. In 1963 of the group from the BBC interviewed about a dozen seven-year-old children from various backgrounds in a documentary called Seven Up. It proved to be a hit so every seven years thereafter they would track down the same children to interview them to see how they were doing with the resulting documentaries called 14-Up, 21-Up, 28-Up and so on. The most recent one is 49-Up which I think was released last year. So far friends and I have watched 7, 21 and 42, and the 49 we will see in a few weeks when a friend brings it back from the States. They're quite good and I recommend watching them, especially 7 which cracked me up something fierce.

Reflecting on the movies I thought it would be interesting to compose my own brief 7 Up blog entry, turns out my life had changed significantly every seven years...

Born: 1970

7 -- Location: Regina, Saskatchewan

Regina is where I was born. I went to an elementary school a little more than a block away and my house was fairly close to the edge of the city and the beginning of the prairie (now I'm sure it's a few kilometres away from the prairie since the city must have grown). Most of my time was spent playing with my friend Terry Dixon and getting into the standard hijinks a young boy that age would get into. I also seem to recall that the nearest corner store, where my friends and I would go buy candy, was I think six or seven blocks away. My street ended at a small hill beyond which was a large field with railway tracks, but I do not recall if there were any trains using them. I hope I have my year right but I believe around this time in 1977 my family was preparing to move to Penticton, British Columbia, where my father had been transferred. I remember looking forward to the move as it would mean a long journey into the mountains, which I had never seen before.

14 -- Location: Penticton, British Columbia

At this point I was attending McNicoll secondary school, about a 20 minute walk away. Oddly enough I do not recall much specific to myself around this time. It was 1984 is what I remember most was the changes that were occurring in technology and culture. Music videos were becoming huge, and personal computers were starting to become prevalent. My friend Joel and I were using his Commoadore Vic-20, and it may been 1984 that he got a Commodore-64, which for its time was absolutely mind-blowing. I was also spending a lot of time down at the arcades, which were a big thing in the 80s, and hanging out at the local comics store. I think I also started working summers that year, with my first job being at the concession stand at the Okanagan Game Farm (maybe that was 1985, can't remember). I do not recall that I had any real plans for the future, my plans probably consisted of going to university after I graduated from high school, but that would have been four long years away.

21 -- Location: Kelowna, British Columbia

By the time I graduated from high school the nearby college, Okanagan College, had opened a satellite campus in Penticton for first-year students so I did my first-year college there then transferred to the main campus about 70 km north in Kelowna for the second year, majoring in chemistry. The college was a two-year college at which point students would then transfer on to the major universities on the coast (University of British Columbia, Simon Freezer University... etc) to finish their degrees. Oddly enough when I was in second year Okanagan College announced that it had a new tie-in with the University of British Columbia and were thus going to offer full four-year degrees. So at 21 I signed up to Okanagan College for my third year ...

... and I was the only chemistry student!

That was kind of bizarre being the only chemistry major. Now most chemistry courses that I took had more than one student in it because of the biology and physics majors. It usually ranged from four students to about seven. But there was the occasional specialist chemistry class for which I was the only student. Just me and the professor in the classroom, and because rules required that during labs the professor and at least one lab assistant be present I had the occasional lab where I was the only student and had two people helping me. Weird, eh?

How professors treated it differed depending on the professor. Some treated it more as a tutorial while others just went into "teaching mode" and did the same routine that they would if they had a class of 50 people.

Being the only student did have its advantages and disadvantages. If I was sick or away all I had to do was let the teacher know and I wouldn't miss anything, which was pretty cool. I was also able to schedule a couple of my exams to be at a more convenient time since I was the only one writing them. Downsides were since there was no one else in the class there were no other students to kind of compare notes or answers on assignments, and the worst part of it was you had to pay attention the entire time in class. No matter how boring the lecture was you couldn't drift off or start daydreaming because the professor was talking directly to you the whole time! There were some days where it was pretty tough.

At the time I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment with two other guys from the college. It was a nice place and just across the street from the science buildings so it took me all of three minutes to walk to class sometimes. There were a number of housemates who came and went in that apartment but I think at the time I was rooming with Brad Wakefield and Mike Varga, two guys from a town called Salmon Arm a couple hours drive north. I was hanging out with some friends from high school who also moved up to Kelowna (Jake, Tyson, Scott), my best friend Rod Young, as well as the Salmon Arm crew Brad & Mike knew.

I also recall being pretty broke. I was working summers and weekends at a nearby Agricultural Research Station operated by the government which paid enough for me to not have to use student loans to pay for school but did not leave a lot of extra money for fun. I was also stubborn and would refrain from asking my parents for money as much as possible, even if that meant eating Raman noodles for dinner. I also remember I was starting to get less enamoured with chemistry and was not sure whether I would even be able to go on to graduate school. My favourite course was actually a geography class taught by a really nice professor who was big on getting students to use their brains and think a bit beyond just rote memorisation. I don't remember his name but I do recall he was close to retiring.

My plans for the future were unknown and I seem to recall being a little bit worried about it.

Next blog entry: 28-Up, 35-Up, and today.

Cell phone update

Well what do you know my mobile phone works after all! I tried charging it up again and everything worked fine. Motorola rules!
Except now the picture tube on my television is blown. If it is not one thing it is another...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Saudi cleric wants death for astrologers

So as you are aware there is a lot of financial turmoil in the markets now, what with many investment banks, as well as one of the largest insurance companies in the world (AIG), seeking buyers and/or facing bankruptcy. Someone e-mailed me for my opinion on it the other day. So what is my take on it? Sorry, that's work-related stuff. No work chat on the blog.

As for more mundane matters the knee is improving but not 100% yet. I've been seeing a physiotherapist recommended to me by a colleague and it seems to be working out well. No pain anymore but the right knee still gets uncomfortable when I stand for longer than 15 or 20 minutes. The physiotherapist has me on an exercise programme to strengthen the muscles so I'm sure in a few more weeks everything will be a-okay.

In critical thinking news a cleric in Saudi Arabia recently announced that astrologers should be put to death by the sword. A bit harsh, don'tcha think? I don't think the sharia courts of Saudi Arabia plan to follow through on that recommendation but I think things such as astrology are illegal there anyway so one astrologer would face a lesser penalty of some sort. Though I have not looked at the laws here I am sure it's illegal since you never see astrologers advertising their trade in Qatar. Now I am not a big fan of astrology, centuries of discovery and advancement in astronomy and related sciences have shown quite conclusively that astrology does not work. It has been studied extensively by scientists. The positions of celestial bodies do not influence us. That said, while I wish people would stop supporting astrology I am not some rabid anti-astrology campaigner. I know someone here who believes in astrology and they are a real nice person. I'm not about to start getting confrontational about astrology just to prove a point. I might consider getting in a confrontation if an astrologer was trying to skim money off of someone I knew, as while some astrologers are true believers I am of the opinion that most are just con-artists walking the walk to get easy money off of astrology-believers. Similar to a lot of the "psychics" that plague North America.

I suppose it is the same with any belief system, if you start to challenge a person's beliefs out of the blue people will just get defensive and "close the wagons" so to speak. That creates nothing but animosity. I would be the same. Better to make information available for people to educate themselves, or discuss it with them if they ask.

But back to Saudi Arabia. The unusual thing about this cleric is that for him to recommend the death penalty for astrologers means that he actually believes that astrology works. If I recall correctly sorcery is a very grave crime in Islam, so I think this cleric equates astrology to sorcerous practices. He would be better off educating himself a bit more about astronomy and physics and save the death-penalty rants for murderers and other horrendous criminals. I suppose he might be annoyed at the prevailance of such things on television in the Arab world. Many Arabic channels geared to young people have little "compatibility" charts on the side where viewers can text their name, a potential mate's name, and maybe their birth dates and watch as this little compatibility thing on TV spits shows a rating of how compatible you are. It is really a harmless gimmick to get teenage girls to text and would be shocked if people were actually using that to make choices about who they will marry. I suppose stranger things have happened though.

Sorcery being a crime has actually led to some interesting situations here in the Gulf -- the police treat seriously reports of individuals selling "magic amulets", "love potions" and other New Age tomfoolery and have arrested people in the past for it. The person arrested is now in a quandary as they will have to tell the court that they are either (a) a con artist as the stuff they were selling does not work, or (b) engaging in sorcery because the stuff does work. I suspect most opt for (a) as the penalties for sorcery or probably a lot greater.

E-album of Slovakia is almost done! You should see it soon.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Happy Birthday Mark!

My brother Mark turns something like 5 billion tomorrow. After reading about my recent injuries with the knee, hands etc he informed me that I would have more to come as once you turn 40 you just fall apart. Joy!

Anyway, Happy Birthday Mark!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

More random updates

Well, the phone still doesn't work. I guess I couldn't have expected it to after sitting on the bottom of the pool for about 20 minutes. Thankfully I still have my old mobile and the sim card survived the pool incident so I didn't lose any of my friends' numbers. I now have to explain to the friend who gave me the phone what happened to it. My old phone is such "old tech" (true) that they bought the phone for me as a gift because it bugged them that I was using it. They will definitely notice that I'm back on my old phone.

It's not that my friend is some technology snob, the phone really is old tech. I got it by boldly walking into a mobile phone store a couple of years ago and pretty much saying "Your cheapest phone please!". It works fine, it is just not fancy in any way. (For those of you whose curiosity has been piqued it is a Motorola C113)

Speaking of new tech I just bought a new camera. My old Olympus D-560 was just not cutting it any more. Bulky, slow, and had an annoying motor sound when it opened and closed, something I really noticed when I was on vacation. Even more embarrassing was that most mobile phones with a camera feature had better resolution. Considering the camera is a good six years old it has served me well but it is time to move on to something a little smaller and more high-tech. So I picked myself up an Olympus Stylus-820, fits nicely in a pocket, 5X optical zoom, 8.0 MP, image stabilisation, and my new memory card can hold almost 1300 pictures! I'll give it a good workout tonight at a Sohour dinner that I'm going to.

Have I mentioned that it is Ramadan? For 28 days all the Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset so the hotels have lavish banquets in the evenings. Every year the office invites all the staff to one, this year it is at the Sharq spa & resort, one of the nicest hotels in town, so it should be a good spread. They will likely have entertainment as well such as musicians and Sufi dancers (perhaps better known to you as Whirling Dervishes). No bellydancing though -- that's not allowed in Qatar. Too lewd for Qatari moral values I guess.

I also received a couple of requests for that e-album of Slovakia. You haven't missed it, is just not finished yet. I've actually been quite swamped with work but more importantly these albums always take more time than I realise. You see, when I put the pictures in the album I do research to flesh out the descriptions and try to have the information correct. This takes time especially when the album is a good hundred photos or so. Then I have to upload it all onto the net, and the connection at the compound is very slow. I'm almost there, I have the pictures already uploaded and am now starting to transfer the descriptions, just be patient.

For Eid I think that I am going to stay here for the first time ever. I was checking out flights and holiday packages but I left it too late and it just got too expensive. Between that and the knee problem I figure I should just take it easy. I was considering a quick holiday to Munich for Oktoberfest but the prices were brutal. Most decent hotels in the city wanted €300+ per night, and even a one star hotel wanted €120. Ack! What a rip-off, I'm not paying that kind of money just to drink beer from a fancy mug. The cost of flight and three nights hotel was almost the price of my nine-day London/Paris trip that I did last summer. No thanks. I'll just save the money and stay here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A crummy day.

Well yesterday turned out to be a fairly crappy day. You know, one of those days when you just would have been better off staying in bed.

Firstly, I had a doctor's appointment scheduled for 1:30 but at 9:30 that morning the clinic called to say that the doctor would not be available at 1:30 so can I change my appointment to an earlier time such as 11:30. That was somewhat inconvenient but not a big deal, these things happen. So I get to the clinic a little early (it was my first time there so they had told me I need to show up a little earlier in order to fill out paperwork), filled out the forms, and then waited to see the doctor...

Which happened at 1:00!

Yes, I was waiting there well over an hour and a half. Why in the world they told me to show up at 11:30 I have no idea. At least there was an AC Milan game on at the time which helped while always some time. And the staff were really apologetic about the delay, to the point where even another doctor turned to ask the staff why I was still waiting as he had noticed I had been there for a while.

I forgot to mention, why was I at the doctor? During my trip to Slovakia there was a lot of walking around and standing around at museums and for some reason my legs would get tired fairly quickly. Then my friend and I went hiking in the mountains. At the end of the first day my knees were in agony. Granted I had been hiking in mountains all day but my knees hurt more than they should have been. We tried hiking again two days later on an even gentler trail but my knees wound up in pain again. So once I got back to Doha I scheduled an appointment with this clinic as they had a doctor who specialised in knee injuries.

The diagnosis: (spelling may be a bit off here) Pataeua Condromalagia. Essentially a weakening of the muscles surrounding the kneecap, causing the kneecap to press more against the bones and tendons resulting in painful inflammation.

Well, that sucked. But it is not as bad as it could have been, at first the doctor suspected a condition called oesteoathrosis but he had a thick accent so I thought he said oesteoporosis! (you know, that weakening of the bones common in elderly ladies). I nearly fell out of my chair! Thankfully he corrected my mistake and a quick x-ray ruled out the oesteoathrosis, which sounded scary as well anyway.

So now I have to get physio to strengthen the muscles around my kneecap. My legs were the last place I ever thought I would have weak muscles considering I walk a lot and used to play a lot of tennis.

So that evening I decided to do some swimming since that would be exercise that would not really affect my knees. So I am swimming around the pool and after about 20 minutes I noticed that there was a mobile phone on the bottom of the pool. I knew that wasn't mine because mine was in my knapsack on the lounge chair so I assumed it belonged to the other gentlemen swimming in the pool. But when I pointed it out he said it was not his. A closer look revealed that was the same model as my phone.

And then I realised that, for some unknown stupid reason, I had put my phone in the pocket of my swimsuit when I headed out to the pool! That was my phone!! So not only did I decide to put my phone in my swimsuit pocket, something I've never done previously, I must have looked like an idiot in front this other guy. "Oh yeah, that's my phone!"

I have decided to dry my phone out for a couple of days in the hopes that it works. If it does I am going to send an e-mail to Motorola telling them they have absolutely amazing-quality phones.

I went to bed early telling myself that tomorrow had to be a better day.

Thankfully, it was.