Saturday, January 31, 2009


It was great to be in Canada again (or more specifically, Alberta) to visit the family, despite the economic gloom. Economically things seem to be getting pretty bad. Housing prices are going down, unemployment is going up, and people are generally nervous about the future. All in all Canada made it through the sub-prime mortgage fiasco quite well, federal banking regulators did not allow sub-prime mortgages in Canada and the banking system was better leveraged than in the US, but that in-and-of-itself is not enough to protect Canada from the spill over in the US economy. When you export over 80% of your goods to the United States any economic decline in the US will affect you greatly. Until the US can turn itself around Canada is in for bleak times. Apparently the government is budgeting for a deficit this year -- the first one in over a decade.

Despite previously mentioning that housing prices were going down the prices in Calgary and surrounding area were still absurdly high. I saw real estate ads in Canmore advertising condos for $800,000+, which for a town of maybe 15,000 people seemed really ridiculous to me. You could get a decent place in Vancouver for that price.

I spent the holiday going tobogganing, swimming, shopping, doing a day trip to Canmore, waffle breakfast at a family friend's, and enjoying a Chinese New Year dinner with my brother's in-laws. I also received as a Christmas gift a facial and massage from a men-only spa. It was a surprise, I was only told one morning to be ready to go somewhere at 9:30 and it was not until I was ready that my sister-in-law told me where I was going. My brother Mark had a facial and massage done at the same time as well. Liked the massage, the facial was so-so but my face did feel smoother so I guess it did work.

My niece Karis is now 4-years old and had developed a bit of attitude from when I saw her last year. It was so funny, whenever she would get upset (which sometimes was over the most minor things) she would give you this look of utter indignation then run to her room sobbing. It was so primadonna/drama queen you couldn't help but laugh. She would even open the door of her bedroom occasionally to make sure that you could hear she was crying. It was so cute. My nephew Aiden is on the verge of walking and was overall a happier baby than last year, which my sister-in-law credits mostly to him moving to solid foods. He was also able to shake his head "no" which was handy during meals as when he was finished eating he would just shake his head when you put the food to his mouth. Mostly though he liked to grab whatever item was handy and hand it to you, usually with a "Da!". He really liked to do this and I'm sure if you let him he would hand you every toy and loose piece of paper in the room. He also drools a lot so I liked referring to him as "drool monster". He could soak through a bib in under a half-hour.

That reminds me my first night in Calgary I was given another surprise gift -- babysitting duty! My brother and his wife had to visit a potential school for Karis that evening so they left me with the kids. Now I have been a lifelong bachelor but to perhaps your surprise I was well versed in how to take care of a four-year-old and a one-year-old.

Yeah right ... I'm a bachelor! I had no idea what I was doing! Thankfully the kids were good and we spent the evening playing. I was glad that Aiden's diaper didn't need changing because I had no idea how to do it and my brother didn't leave any instructions anyway. Well it turns out that Aiden's diaper actually did need changing, I just didn't realise it. That, and he didn't cry either. Whoops, sorry about that Aiden. Despite the red butt I still say you we're better off waiting for your parents to come home anyway.

One thing I should not have done during the holiday was eat as much as I did. My diet went out the window for the holidays (as usual) as I generously ate nice meals, wonderful deserts, and excellent Christmas baking. *sigh* I seem to really lack of self-control when it comes to food, especially sweets. Anyway I am back in Doha and getting back on track. Today's dinner was steamed vegetables with a bit of pasta. I just have to make sure I do not dip into the treats at work. I do miss Tim Horton's coffee though, we were having it every day.

As for my knees my right knee is doing okay. Not great, but okay. I was inconsistant with exercising during the holidays so I am getting that back on track as well. Left knee has not had problems for well over a month which makes me a happy camper. Just gotta lose some weight.

Christmas in January

Looking back through my blog I realise that it just briefly touched on why I go to Canada in January (and that blog post was 2 years ago). Well about five years ago when I was working in Bermuda I was unable to get time off for the Christmas holidays -- it was my turn to be at the office while everyone else went away for the holidays. When I informed my mother that I was not going to be able to make it for Christmas she said "Well then we will just have Christmas when you can make it." And so arrangements were made for the family to meet in mid-January for Christmas. And you know what -- we liked it so much we've done it every year since!

Why was Christmas in January such a big hit?

• Airfares were cheaper
• airports aren't the crowded zoo they are during the holidays
• it was easy for everyone in the family to get time off work
• the malls are not crowded and have tons of sales
• my brother and his wife no longer had to worry about whose family they would spend Christmas day with. (hers on Dec 25th, his in mid-January)

And when I mean we have Christmas in January I mean we do the whole holiday tradition: tree, presents, turkey dinner, the whole 9 yards. It's nice, I really enjoy it. That we do not have Christmas on December 25 doesn't really phaze me at all. I think this year it was on January 22.

Merry belated Christmas everyone!


I always love visiting London but most times I am there in January so it is usually gray, miserable and cold. This time I was a bit better, the occasional bit of sunshine and temperatures around 7 or 8. I was also in better spirits because prices in London were a bit cheaper thanks to the pound plummeting against the US dollar in recent months, something like 30%. So things went from being stupidly expensive to "kind of expensive".

One surprise came the first morning I was there and I went to the nearby post office to mail a package. At 11:00am there was a long queue and after I waited in line for a while there was a bit of commotion behind me. It appeared that one lady jumped the queue a bit and went in front of another lady. Here's an approximation of how the conversation went:

"Hey, I was in the queue you know!"
"F*** you".
"WHAT! F*** you, you #^$&%@ !!"
" $^%$^# !!"
" *%#^& !!"

etc, etc. a few other people got involved as well shouting insults and stuff. Needless to say I was quite taken aback by the whole thing and couldn't wait to get out of there. I have never experienced such instantaneous swearing for queue-jumping in Canada.

Usually when us North Americans think of the English we tend to view them as polite and mannerly. Most of them are, but the English seem to have it at both ends of the spectrum. For every polite one there are downright crude ones. Cruder than I would usually see in North America. Who knows why that is, I'll leave it to the English to figure out.

Otherwise things went great during my brief stay. My friends and I went to the pub one evening and had dinner at a Brazilian restaurant the next. I did find some decent deals on Oxford Street so I picked up a few things. I also looked around a few stories in Kensington but the huge sales there were not enough to put things in my price range. And my friend Mary came up from Bournesmuth (sp?) so that we could tour the National Gallery and have lunch at a nice restaurant at the top floor of the Portrait Gallery with a view of Nelson's Column and the skyline of London.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Return

Okay, I'm back! Actually I got back a couple of days ago but it takes a while to recover from 25 hours of travel over 10 time zones. I also had to go to the office straight from the airport so needless to say that work day was not particularly fun. I have recovered now.

Amusingly enough the weather was colder in London than most days I was in Calgary. The weather in Calgary was mostly sunny with temperatures around -3 to +6 although one day it reached +10. Since it was the dry cold, as opposed to the wet cold in London, it was a lot more pleasant. The family and I went for a walk in a town near the Rockies, went tobogganing, shopping for presents, and generally had a relaxing time. There were a few days when it got a lot colder, around -13 to -20, but on days like that you just stayed inside.

I was only in London for a couple of days but that was long enough to visit friends, do a bit of shopping, and see the National Gallery. I like London a lot, great city.

What I do not like is dealing with overcrowded airports (i.e Heathrow). And for the second year in a row I have had to surrender something at Heathrow. Last year it was the maple butter that I bought at duty-free in Canada (paste over 100ml in carry-on, no it does not matter that it was purchased at the duty-free in North America), this year it was two small jars of honey. I didn't realise that you are not allowed to import honey into the UK from the Middle East so Customs seized it. *sigh*, my fault are not looking it up beforehand I guess. I am still a little miffed about it because it was expensive Yememi honey that I was bringing for a gift.

Anyway I'll blog a bit more about my vacation over the next few days, I've still got to unpack.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Vacation time again, this time for my annual trip back home to Canada. I fly to London where I am staying with my friend David and his fiancee for a couple of days before flying on to my brother's place in Calgary for 2 weeks. Blog posts will be sporadic I'm afraid but I will see if I can make one or two during my trip.

Back in Doha on the 28th.

More tennis!

Once again there is more a great tennis in Doha! The Qatar Open has as its big draws Federer, Nadal, Murray and Roddick, and I was fortunate to go to three of the days.

Much of the downsides of tennis in Doha were still there: school groups, people bringing in babies etc, and the first two days I attended it was dang cold. I was prepared this year -- I had four layers on and gloves. Last year I went straight from work wearing just a suit and froze my butt off. This year I was cozy.

Two of the days I went with Kamahl and his in-laws. Now his in-laws are Scottish so you know we had to go watch Andy Murray. We had purchased tickets over a week ago, gambling that Murray was going to be playing on the first day since he was champion last year. We were half-right, he was playing but it was doubles not singles. The only 'big' player playing singles that evening was Andy Roddick. So we watched the Roddick game before moving to Court 2 to watch Murray. Turns out seating at Court 2 was small (~150 seats in a total of 5 rows) so we were really close to the game. Kamahl's in-laws enjoyed the fact that they got to watch Andy Murray from about 30 feet away. We were sitting in seats by the baseline and during one game a long ball was called in by the umpire and Murray disputed it while we were all shouting "out" from our seats. The call stood, then Murray turned to us and said "How far was it out, this much?" while holding his hands about a foot apart. I don't think it was out by that much but we all laughed.

The best night was the quarter finals. While Roddick had an easy time with his game, the next game featuring Nadal and Gael Monfils was a different story. I had heard of Monfils (ATP rank #13) but had never seen him play. Turns out he has a very aggressive style and a bit of entertaining cockiness, like doing little moves after he scores a big point. By the middle of the first set the crowd was supporting him, and after he won the first set 6-4 with some excellent tennis the crowd was fully behind him to beat Nadal. The second set saw more excellent play by him and the wound up beating Nadal 6-4 6-4, probably the biggest win of his career.

I was hoping that he would win the semifinals against Roddick but alas he lost in three sets.

As for the other quarters Murray and Federer won their matches in straight sets. Federer's match was interesting as he was playing against Kohlschriber (ATP rank #28) so everyone was expecting a cakewalk. After winning the first set 6-2 Federer was up 4-1 when suddenly his game really started getting mediocre and he was missing a lot of shots. Kohlschriber came back from a 4-1 deficit to take it to a tie-breaker game! And in the tie-breaker game Kohlschriber went up 6-3, thus had triple-set point, but blew it and Federer managed to take the second set and the match 6-2, 7-6 (8). People were a little surprised that Federer had to scramble for that set and questioned whether he was fully in form.

Federer played Murray in the semis and lost in three sets so that appeared to answer that.

Murray and Roddick are playing in the finals right now. Sadly I did not have tickets but c'est la vie. I'm rooting for Murray.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Blog Spring Cleaning

As part of the new year I have decided to do a bit of spring cleaning on the blog. I'm going to start going back through the old postings and start adding some keyword references to them to make it easier for people to find certain categories of posts. It will not be like some blogs that wind up with 35 different categories of stuff, I figure four or five categories will do, even if one of them has to be "miscellaneous", "other" or something like that. As you can see I've started already.

I have also updated the links section to add some other interesting sites that I like: an extensive website that investigates and discusses medical scams, dubious "alt-med" cures, and other forms of quackery. I always go here first whenever I hear about some unusual medical procedure or practice. As part of its work the website will also list of things that you should be looking for when seeking treatment for various conditions.

Another web site that I occasionally browse is SkyscraperCity, a set of forums where people post pictures and discuss various skyscrapers that are going up around the world. I have found it to be a gold mine of information on the skyscrapers that are being built in Doha as enthusiasts post all sorts of information: name, planned height, completion dates, what the tower will be used for etc.

Why pay money for some classic novels when you can download for free any books whose copyright has expired at The Gutenburg Project. This website has thousands and thousands of books and other materials with expired copyrights. Here is where you can get works by Charles Dickens, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Shakespeare and so forth -- absolutely free. I think the main website has materials up to 1923, but there are offshoot websites based in other countries where you can get more recent stuff due to the differences in copyright laws. For example, Gutenburg Australia has the complete works of H.P Lovecraft (d. 1932) because the copyright on his works has expired in Australia. You could spend hours just browsing the titles available!

And finally the forums used by expats in Qatar to discuss what is going on locally (and maybe vent some frustrations) Great source for up-to-date info and rumours about Qatar.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Books and History

Happy New Year everyone!

Well after telling people in Qatar I was going to have a mellow New Year's Eve I got an invitation that day from my friend Serdar to attend a party at his compound. So New Year's Eve was spent with about 40 to 50 people, with a catered buffet dinner and everything. The host provided plastic bags with party favours (hats, blowers etc ) but a number of the bags also had spray cans of Silly String -- you can imagine what a party with 25 cans of Silly String looked like! Here's hoping the compound Club House staff can get all the silly string off the walls and carpeting.

Also in the last week I attended a book fair taking place at the Exhibition Centre with one of my Qatari colleagues. Now Doha does not have a lot in the way of English-language bookstores, in fact I can only think of three, and of those three the best one is the book section of a Virgin Store (not even a Megastore) so that should give you an idea of the level of book selection available. I would kill for a decent bookstore but so far nothing. Rumours surface every now and then that a bookstore chain called MacGrudy's is going to open a store in Qatar but it never seems to happen. Sigh. Anyway I was just going to the fair on a lark to see if there was anything of interest but I was not expecting much. Turns out the book fair had over 200 stalls with publishers from all over the Middle East selling books. Now out of those 200-plus stalls only about 20 had English-language books but it was still enough for me to find some interesting items and I walked out of there with seven books: a two-volume set of Islamic jurisprudence, a small book about astronomy during Islam's "Golden Age", a book that compiled the Arab's views of the Crusades, a book on Moorish Spain, and two books on the GCC that were given to me free from a Qatari gentlemen at a Government bookstall.

As for the rest of the exhibition it was crowded with people so I guess the Arabic-language bookstores do not have a great selection either. My colleague wound up with 4 bags of books, we had to make two separate trips to his truck to drop them all off. Two of the bags were a 12 (maybe 14) volume set of hadiths that he said his family did not have in their library. That is the lot of hadiths.

After the book fair it was off to the bar at the Ramada for Quiz Night. There is a core group of us from work who like to attend this once-a-month event, probably because we never win. (Sidenote: my Qatari colleague just dropped me off and did not join us, so those of you at work reading this don't be spreading rumours he was hanging out at the Shahrazad Bar). We have come in second twice, and third at least twice, but never won. Drives me nuts. First place gets a dinner voucher for 12 people at one of the Ramada's restaurants worth about $600 (!), second place gets a round of drinks, third place gets squat. Considering there is no entry fee for the quiz it is a pretty good deal and an entertaining way to spend an evening. Well the first round was Sports and we got crushed, scoring only 8/20. We pretty much wrote off our chances of winning, but after a decent second round, winning third round, and decent fourth round we suddenly found ourselves in fourth place going into the last round! The category was Entertainment and while I maybe knew about 25% of it one of my colleagues and her brother-in-law were total champs. We wound up scoring 27/29 to take . . .

. . . second place. Aaaaaaargh!!

Now, why am I bothering to mention a Quiz Night at a bar? Well one of the categories that evening was Qatar which I thought was amusing because at the time there were about a dozen drunk Qataris around (this is one of the few bars that serve Qataris) so we joked that maybe we should get one of them on our team so we could totally ace it. Later that night another work colleague who was on another team mentioned that the table next to his were all Qataris and they were terrible at the category! That struck me as a little odd so the next day we asked some of the questions from the quiz to two of our Qatari colleagues:

1) what does the white in the Qatari flag represent? (Peace, one of them knew it)
2) what year was Qatar's independence? (1971, one of them knew it was 71 or 72, the other did not know)
3) average rainfall? (70mm, neither of them knew and their guesses weren't close)

So in our discussion we found out that Qatari history was not taught at school in Qatar, which was why most Qataris would not know the answers to many questions about Qatar. The work colleague who did know some of the answers had actually taken an elective on Qatari history at University, which is how they knew. They agreed that it was kind of odd that local schools did not teach Qatari history but it was their understanding that it has changed now and is now taught in schools. So the younger generation will likely be a better bet for quiz night.

But it turns out that Qatari history is not an easy thing to find a lot of books or materials on. Which brings us right back to the book fair. My colleague was also looking for a book on the history of the Al-Thani family (the ruling family) which apparently was sold out almost everywhere. He eventually did find it and told me there are not many such books on the various tribes and families in the region because a book that showed a powerful family in an unflattering light would never be published and writers have to be careful about what they say. But the history of Qatar, Saudi, Bahrain etc, is chock-full of numerous tribal wars and conflicts and the tribes and families involved still exist today. It therefore becomes difficult to chronicle the battles/wars without there being a "good" side and a "bad" side, and even in a neutral chronicle powerful families do not want to be reminded of past defeats, embarrassments, or unbecoming behaviour (pillaging etc) that may have occurred in those times. So few people are willing to try to publish books describing this history. That is not to say that the history has been forgotten, many Qataris learn about the wars and battles orally through older family members, it just is not written down anywhere. And this was not all that long ago so it likely affects Qatari society today, only more clandestinly. I'm sure it has an impact on the arranged marriages as Qataris from one tribe/family would probably never marry someone from a family where there was a long history of rivalry and conflict.

Maybe I will learn more about this someday. If so I'll let you know.