Saturday, August 29, 2009


Off on a business trip to attend a seminar at the Financial Stability Institute (FSI) in Basel Switzerland. The FSI is an educational centre for regulators initially developed by the Bank of International Settlements for educating banking regulators but has since expanded to providing seminars and training for insurance and securities regulators as well. I am attending a three-day seminar looking at reinsurance and other types of specialist risk transfer strategies.

I'll post again when I return. No chance I will be seeing Basel's most famous resident, Roger Federer, since he will be at the US Open. Shame, it would be really cool to be walking along a street in Basel and see him eating in a restaurant or something.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


At home I have a couple of shelves where I keep little mementos, photos, and other items that I picked up during my travels or are given to me as gifts. Looking at it now it is interesting to look at the items and recall their history:

• United Nations desk flag -- a souvenir of when I visited the UN building in New York
• two Remembrance Day poppies, British style. Can't remember where exactly I had picked these up, I have kept them so that I will have a poppy handy when it approaches Remembrance Day since they are not widely distributed here in Qatar
• pewter clamshell for holding business cards -- received in Dubai at a conference.
• Three Christmas cards from friends over the years, two from Doha and one from my friends Knut & Petra in Bermuda. My cleaner sometimes tapes them up on the wall of the shelf when he sees them loose there.
• One wooden recorder (the instrument), Slovakian. Given to me by my Slovak friend Martin as a going away present when I left Bermuda.
• Small Egyptian ankh, might be some type of soft stone like sandstone. From a merchant in Luxor.
• Empty box for holding a small wooden box for use as a business card holder. The wooden box is currently on my desk at work and has the faces of Chinese opera characters on the top. The empty box has a silk interior and is labelled " The World Congress of Scientific Inquiry and Human Well-Being: Improving Science Spirits and Building Harmony Society (no, I am not accidentally misspelling or missing any words). This was a science/critical thinking conference that I attended in Beijing in 2007.
• birth announcement of my friends Carrie and Kamahl's daughter
• stuffed toy, Panda wearing a blue silk Chinese apron -- purchased at the airport in Shanghai as I had some small bills of Chinese currency I wanted to get rid of.
• Goodbye card from the Bermuda Monatery Authority signed by the staff. Karen in the Communications Department made the card herself using pictures of me taken over the years at work functions and in the office (the cover is a picture of me sleeping on a couch in the breakout room, someone had made decaf coffee that day and not told anyone so by the afternoon I had a splitting headache from caffeine withdrawal!! I took some aspirin and lay down for a second on the couch. I fell asleep and people immediately called Karen over to take a picture)
• five pictures of family members, mostly of my niece but one photo of my brother's wedding. (I do have some pictures of my nephew Aiden but they are on the desk at work.)
• Small silver decorations (6-7cm) in two frames, one of a shisha that I received at a conference in Dubai, the other of an Omani dagger with a sheath, purchased in Oman.
• A tray containing items gathered from various Qatar Natural History Group field trips:
o five desert roses, ranging in size from 5 to 25 cm
o two fossilised shark teeth
o three fossilised shells about 2-3 cm in size
• carved wooden box, Nepalese -- given to me by my friend Mary when she stayed over in Doha for a few days on her way back to London from Nepal. She had been in Nepal teaching secretarial skills to teenage girls at an orphanage. I use the box for holding the contact details of various friends.
• Two iron spikes from the Al Boom restaurant in Kuwait City, a large wooden boat that now serves as a floating restaurant. They give you the spikes as souvenirs.
• A set of wooden salt & pepper shakers, purchased from a market stall in Poprad, Slovakia
• a small stone urn carved to resemble a canopic jar with the head of Horus. Purchased from a merchant in Luxor.
• A thin metal ashtray, carved with a picture of a camel in the desert and my name in Arabic -- from Tunisia. A Tunisian-French colleague got married there and brought these ashtrays back everyone in the office.
• . . . and a partridge in a pear tree! (just kidding)

As time goes on I'm sure I will add more things, and this does not include other items I have from Bermuda that I keep in another part of the apartment.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Spent a bit of time on the weekend rereading what I consider one of the most bizarre, yet interesting, books -- The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (from A to B and Back Again). Basically it is random musings from the King of Pop Art, and if he had lived in this decade it would probably be an internet blog. The guy's mind worked in very weird ways. Here's a sample, from three different parts of the book:

American money is very well-designed, really. I like it better than any other kind of money. I've thrown it in the East River down by the Staten Island ferry just to see it float.

I believe in living in one room. One empty room with just a bed, a tray, and a suitcase . . . . Everything is more glamorous when you do it in bed, anyway. Even peeling potatoes.

But being famous isn't all that important. If I weren't famous, I wouldn't have been shot for being Andy Warhol. Maybe I would have been shot for being in the Army. Or maybe I would be a fat schoolteacher. How do you ever know?

Now a lot of what he writes about I disagree with as he embraces materialism and fame, and sometimes borders on the obsession with brands and being rich, people looking rich, or how fascinating people who are rich and famous are (he must mention Elizabeth Taylor at least two dozen times). Of course, this type of thinking was the inspiration for his most famous works and I must admit a lot of his perceptions really hit the mark about American Culture. If you get the chance to track this book down, read it. You will probably finish it and wonder what his life must have been like. He really was on a completely different wavelength from most people.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


The holy month of Ramadan has started. For the next 28 or 29 days Muslims will be fasting from sunrise to sunset, and all restaurants in Qatar will be closed throughout the day. For us non-fasters that means brown-bagging it to work every day, and not having any water or coffee at your desk. The ubiquitous snacks and candies that are in every office have been put away. On the bright side the traffic in the mornings is better than usual but you do not want to be on the road when the sun is setting -- that is when Muslims are racing home so that they can break their fast with their families. I always felt that the driving was a little nuts here but imagine it when most of the drivers have not had anything to eat or drink all day and are in a rush (more of a rush than usual). Don't go out onto the roads until after the sun sets!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Karis's Birthday!

It is my niece Karis's birthday today! Let's do a little photomontage to celebrate from when I was last in Canada.

There she is!

And there she is hugging Daddy!

And there she is at the mall, where she grabbed this and started exclaiming she was a "Hootchie Mama" (I am not kidding. I figured someone in the mall was going to call social services.)

Whew, what an exhausting day!

Happy birthday Karis! Have some cake for me.

Love, Uncle Glen

Monday, August 17, 2009

Weighing evidence

There's been a bit of press coverage recently in the US about people who people deridedly call "Birthers". These are people who believe that President Obama was not actually born in the United States and thus not eligible to be President. This is a criticism that came up during his campaign and the Obama campaign countered by releasing a copy of his birth certificate showing that he was born in Hawaii. Other evidence has also been presented such as the birth announcement in a Hawaiian newspaper, confirmation of his birth by the Hawaiian Government etc. Birthers have fired back that the birth certificate was faked (offering all sorts of analysis is to how they can tell it is fake), government cover-ups and so forth. Never mind that once his candidacy became a possibility you could bet your boots that the Republicans poured over every detail of his life to try to dig up dirt on him. If he had not been born in the US you can bet they would have announced it. Hillary's team would have gone over everything as well. Yet the Birthers persist to this day.

Recently an anonymous source sent a birth certificate to one of the more vocal Birthers claiming it was Obama's birth certificate issued in Kenya. This was quickly hailed by some Birthers as the "smoking gun", but research by others managed to track down its origin -- an Australian birth certificate that a man had posted on a genealogy website, which was altered with Obama's name, Republic of Kenya, and whatever other relevant tidbits of information was needed to create the fake certificate.

This ultimately gets to the point of what I want to say. In this world there are many proponents of alternative views, speculations, and theories about things. Occasionally they are right (Mpemba effect, Watergate) but more often than not the evidence just does not add up and it moves into the realm of conspiracy theories or pseudoscience (JFK assassination, Moon landing hoax, 9/11 conspiracies, Bigfoot, alien abductions, cold fusion). One of the hallmarks of when it moves into the latter is . . .

proponents never subject evidence that supports their view to the same level of scrutiny as evidence which opposes it.

So when Obama's birth certificate is presented and confirmed as legitimate by the Hawaiian government Birthers immediately pour over every square centimetre of the scan, accusing fakery, doing detailed analysis of folds, accusing the Hawaiian government of being involved in the cover-up, and all sorts of stuff. But the moment a certificate which supports their view magically appears, provided by an "anonymous source", it is immediately accepted at face value.

If you see that a group appears to not subject supportive evidence to scrutiny it is a yellow flag that it is some kind of crankdom.

The "intelligent design" folks can follow this as well. Thousands upon thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers exist whose contents support evolutionary theory and they are dismissed by creationists and ID supporters. But if one paper is published that may be construed as supporting their views it is immediately hailed as important and valuable evidence. Shelves of books about evolutionary theory are ignored but many creationists have no problem jumping on a single quote by an evolutionist which could be interpreted as supporting their view (and in fact the quote always turns out to be just an example of quote mining and is not what the speaker meant at all.)

It's sad, but it happens all the time. Best to keep an eye out for instances where people do not appear to be objective in analysing evidence, it could save you a lot of hassle in the long run.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Traditional food

In the last month or so I have had the opportunity to try a number of traditional cuisines. It was not that I was hunting them out per se it just happened that I attended dinners or functions where traditional food was served:

Scottish: One night I was invited to dinner hosted by my friends Carrie and Kamahl. Carrie is Scottish and the main highlights of dinner were black pudding , and haggis with a traditional whisky sauce. Now I had never tried either before so I thought it was pretty cool that I was going to get to try these things for the first time -- especially haggis, which has a reputation in North America as a strange and icky food only eaten by Scots. Not surprisingly both dishes were not weird and they tasted pretty good. Haggis has a lot of oats and barley in it so it does not have a strong meat taste. Far exceeded my expectations. If anyone has a chance to try haggis or a black pudding don't turn it down or wrinkle your face, it is actually good stuff. Would definitely eat them again. (Maybe I should get out to Scotland one day)

Qatari: I was also invited to a Qatari's house one evening for a casual dinner and then watch a movie. There were four of us at dinner which was held in a small separate building called a majlis. In Arab society male visitors are generally not invited into one's home, the host has a separate area outside the home where the men meet. Sometimes it would be a tent, but many Qatari families have built separate small buildings adjacent to the house instead. This majlis consisted of a carpeted area about the size of a standard North American livingroom with cushioned benches lining the walls, a couple of coffee tables, a television, air conditioning (of course), and a washroom.

While we chatted a servant came in and unrolled a large piece of plastic on the floor for the dinner as we would be eating on the floor. Dinner was rice, Arabic bread, and what could best be described as a mild shrimp curry. It's Arabic name escapes me, I'll try to find out. While Qatari food can be what westerners would consider traditional Arabic cuisine (Lamb on rice, kebabs, hummous, etc) there are also a number of dishes with roots in Indian cuisine. The Gulf countries had traded with India for centuries, to the extent that it was only in the last 40 years or so that Qatar ceased using the Rupee as their currency, so many of the Indian spices and cooking techniques were adopted into Qatari cuisine. We sat on the floor and chatted away while eating dinner, the Qataris used their right hand for eating and had graciously provided cutlery for us non-Qataris. Traditionally Arabs eat with their right hand, never the left (you use your left hand for, um, wiping and stuff when you go to the bathroom, remember in the old days there was not a lot of soap and water around in the desert so in the interest of good hygiene Arabs would always eat with their right hand and never touch food with the left). After dinner we sat back on the benches and were served tea and traditional Arabic coffee. Dinner was great as expected, while I had never had that particular dish before I have of course had Arabic cuisine a zillion times while I have been in Qatar.

[A blog post with more Qatari dishes can be found here]

French: naturally during my recent trip to France I had plenty of opportunity to eat French cuisine, primarily at the wedding reception but whenever I was in a restaurant in Paris I always tried to order French food. Coq le vin, foie gras, croissants and pain de chocolat, baguettes, stake tartare, chicken tarragon (is that French?), veal in a cream sauce, a variety of amuse bouche, I had all sorts of things. I can't say I had any bad food the whole time. Aside from the pastries I like meat with the sauces that are a cornerstone of French cuisine. Potatoes and vegetables were not as exciting. I still have no idea why French people tend not to be as overweight as Brits or Americans, if I was French I would be constantly eating meat and pastries.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

H1N1 update

Did I say there are 43 cases? Sorry about that, the number is now 350. Geez, that's increased a little bit since last week . . .

Sunday, August 09, 2009

H1N1 update

The latest H1N1 update is 43 confirmed cases and, sadly, the death of one Qatari man from the flu (though he may have caught the flu in the UAE then came back to Qatar). This puts Qatar around 3.1 cases per 100,000 people, still lower than in most Western nations. I expect cases will start ramping up for the next couple of months then the number of new cases will start to decline, much like in the West. The Qatari government hopes to have thousands of doses of vaccine when it becomes available, probably in October.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Back from Paris

Okay, I'm back! Had a great time in France.

The first three nights I was staying at that Chateau outside of Paris, sharing a room with the groom. Nice place, and it was great to be in the green countryside under comfortable temperatures. I was told when I returned to Qatar that there had been a major dust storm for 2-3 days so it was ironic that I was enjoying the clean air of the French countryside while all my friends and colleagues had to stay indoors because of the dust.

Now in France couples have to get married in a civil ceremony at the town hall. They are allowed to have a religious ceremony afterward but cannot have the religious ceremony until they had done the civil one (the priest needs to see proof that the civil ceremony was done). So the civil ceremony was on Friday and the wedding on Saturday. I did not attend the civil ceremony instead I took the train into Paris and wandered around the neighbourhoods south of the Seine, since I was going to be meeting the now civil-married couple and a large number of their friends for dinner that evening at a restaurant in Saint-Michael. Roamed through the graveyard near Montparnasse, finding graves of famous French people such as Jean-Paul Sartre, then had a snack in the Jardin de Luxembourg before walking on to the Notre Dame Cathedral to join the throng of tourists in the square in front of it. I didn't go in though, the lineups were way too long, so I went to the park behind the cathedral and chilled out for a while watching the people go by, munching on a baguette that I purchased at a boulangerie. (I know it seems like a stereotype to us North Americans but the French really do buy those long baguettes. Every morning I would see people with them).

Paris is such a great city to just wander around, the neighbourhoods look exactly like what Paris looks like in the movies. The city is fairly protectionist when it comes to big chain stores so while you do see the occasional McDonald's etc they are uncommon which allows independently-owned stores to set up. As a result everywhere you go there are interesting shops and cafes. I found a bookstore are dedicated to books about theatre and dance, tiny art galleries exhibiting various abstract works, a shop dedicated to Jules Verne and other authors from the period, and so forth.

After dinner we went back to the Chateau for a good nights sleep since tomorrow was the big religious ceremony. Amusingly the groom and I still shared the room which led me to bug him that while I was flattered I thought it was very weird that his first night of marriage would be spent sharing a room with me!

Well the groom was racked with nerves and apparently didn't sleep much that night (I didn't notice because I slept like a rock). Got him down to breakfast and made him eat something before he was off to get ready as he had to drive into the city. For the rest of us staying at the Chateau a bus was coming by later to take us directly to the Cathedral.

The Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky is located about a five-minute walk north of the Arc de Triomphe in what appeared to be a small Russian neighbourhood since the two nearby restaurants were both Russian. We all waited around for about 20 minutes for the groom, bride, and the priests to show up, and then we all went inside.

Now a Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony is very different from a Catholic or Anglican one. Firstly, the Cathedral had no pews so everyone stands for the whole ceremony, though there were a few chairs along the side in case people needed to sit down. The couple enters the church together and are met at the door by two priests who after a couple of recitations places the rings on their fingers, so the couple get their rings at the beginning of the ceremony, not near the end like you would in a Catholic/Anglican wedding.

One of the priests was an older man and from the look of things was the head priest of the Cathedral while the other was a younger man in his 30s. Most of the recitations were sung and the younger priest had this amazing baritone voice almost like an opera singer, with accompaniment by a four-person choir near the altar. All of us attending the ceremony later remarked about it and it made me wonder if Orthodox priests are trained in singing.

The couple and the priests then walk further into the church where after a few more speeches (all of which were in a language I did not recognize, it certainly wasn't French, I was told later it was some form of ancient Slavic language) two crowns are presented and the best man and maid-of-honour hold the crowns over the couple's heads and have to do so for the remainder of the ceremony, including when the priest leads the couple around the altar three times.

[Needless to say in an Orthodox wedding brides shouldn't wear long trains since it would be nearly impossible for the maid of honour to hold the crown over the bride's head without stepping on her dress, something Katerina (the bride) clearly knew since her dress was ankle-length.]

There were more speeches and songs by the priests and a couple of times crown-holding duty was passed to other people attending the wedding to give the best man and maid of honour a break. Then the couple were led through a doorway to the nave of the church where the main altar is. I couldn't really see in the room (guests couldn't follow) so I'm not entirely sure what happened but they were back out in a couple of minutes. The crowns were returned and the couple left the church, followed by best man & maid of honour, then the groom's parents. The rest of us stood there waiting for the bride's parents to leave, figuring that was the proper etiquette, so we all stood there for about a minute until the best man came back to tell us that the ceremony is finished and we can go meet the couple now. oops.

Then we boarded the bus to take us back to the Chateau to get changed for the reception, which was in the Chateau de Breuil, about a 10 minute drive away from the Chateau we were staying at.

There were around 50 to 60 guests and for the first couple of hours we were all outside on a patio sipping champagne and eating amuse bouchées, including pan-seared foie gras. The bride threw her bouquet and since the bride did not have a garter a teddy bear was thrown instead for the men. Strange, but then again, that bear has done some crazy things. I did not manage to catch the bear. We then went inside to the dining hall for dinner. It was a lavish hall that one would expect from an 18th-century period drama -- 40 foot ceilings, paintings and frescoes adorning the walls etc. Really spectacular. There was great food served, lots of wine, and a few games. Apparently in French wedding receptions it is common to play games rather than have a lot of speeches (though the groom and the best man did give speeches, no one else did). The game I remember best was when they stood the bride and groom back-to-back and gave them each a placard with one side indicating the bride and another indicating the groom. They were then asked a series of questions (Who drinks more? Who will change the diapers when you have children?) and they had to flip their placards and we got to see if they agreed with one another, not unlike that old North American TV show "The Newlywed Game". To their credit all of their answers to important questions matched, including a diaper changing one (Him!!), which amused everyone greatly. I also recall that the ladies in charge of the games had also set a rope across the doorway from which hung a number of French postcards**. Guests were asked to pick a card, then on the back was a date sometime between now and the next year. Guests were asked to send the postcard back to the bride and groom on the date indicated so that the couple would have constant reminders over the next year of their wonderful wedding and the guests who attended it. I thought it was a great idea and took a postcard. It is with me at home and I will send it when it is time. For dessert there was a cutting of the cake. The cake was not a white tiered wedding cake commonly seen in North American weddings, it was a French one made up of a number of pastries stacked in a pyramid held together with I'm getting some sort of sugar-syrup. There were also a number of other cakes and desserts available, and a French Ska-Jazz band for the evening's dancing. I think I managed to get back to my room at the Chateau sometime after 3am. Not surprisingly, this time I had the room to myself.

I stumbled out of bed shortly after nine so that I would have time for breakfast before checking out of the Chateau. The groom still had a lot of stuff in the room so I made sure that his brother was aware of it so that they could move the stuff to another room just in case the groom was not available to pick it up before checkout time. I then shared a taxi with two other guests to the train station to grab the train to Paris, where I had booked two nights at a hotel near the Opera recommended to me by a French colleague. The room was not very big but I have been in smaller, and it was clean, on a quiet street, and the AC worked. For 95 Euro a night you couldn't ask for much better in central Paris.

I spent the next two days just wandering around. I do not go into any of the main tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower because I had already done that two summers ago. I just liked wandering around, eating in cafes, and going to places like the steps of Sacre Coeur Cathedral to see the views of the city, sit on the bank of the Seine and watch the boats go by, walk down the Champ de Elyeses, or people-watch at the fountain at Jardin de Tuilleres. A lot of the restaurants recommended by my French colleague were closed because it was August the main holiday time for the French, so I had to settle for the tourist cafes. Food was still good though. All in all a relaxing couple of days.

** -- postcards of France, not postcards with "R-rated" themes (well, most of them weren't anyway)