Saturday, November 30, 2013

PISA Test – Gender Differences in Reading, Math and Science

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (also known as PISA) is held every three years and in 2012 tens of thousands of 15-year-olds from 65 countries took part, including Qatar. This was Qatar’s third time participating in PISA and the results from the 2012 test will be available in a few days.

When I discussed the 2009 results I caused a bit of controversy in some East Asian forums by challenging the seemingly incredible results posted by Shanghai (here and here) but surprisingly there wasn't much of an issue with Qatar’s very low scores. Qatar did show some improvement between 2006 and 2009 and I sure hope that progress continues because right now Qatar’s scores are very low given the overall wealth of the country. Qataris I spoke to about the 2009 results were not surprised in the least and were generally cynical about the overall quality of the educational system. Plenty of reforms have been underway, and the Supreme Education Council has been doing the right thing by not trying to hide or downplay the PISA scores, even going so far as to post the PISA scores of individual schools.

While I was checking to see if the 2012 results were out I happened to come across a great analysis by the OCED where they take the 2009 results for each country and analyze them by various factors, including gender. I found the gender results to be the most interesting.

If you would like to see the results yourself, go to the following link and click on Table B1, which will then upload an excel spreadsheet with tons of tables and analysis.

With 66 countries participating in 2009 here’s the results:

Reading (Table I.2.3)

In every single country, girls had better reading scores than boys. The difference was statistically significant in every country whether it was in Europe, North America, East Asia, the Middle East, wherever. I was not expecting the results to be so consistent across the world, and while I have no definitive answer for why this would be the consistency across numerous cultures and peoples would seem to indicate that there is a biological component to it. Is the area of the brain that handles reading better developed in 15-year-old girls than boys? Are hormones playing a role?

Mathematics (Table I. 3.3)

Unlike the reading scores for math boys generally performed better than girls. In all OECD countries boys’ scores were either better or the same as girls – girls did not perform statistically better in any OECD nation. In 23 of 36 OECD nations the difference between boys’ and girls’ scores was statistically significant.

Things get interesting when we look at the non-OECD countries. In a handful of those countries girls performed statistically better.

There might be a cultural component. I analyzed it by geographic region and bizarrely:

1. In Scandinavia girls performed the same as boys (except in Denmark)
2. In former Soviet-bloc countries it was also more even, in 9 of 13 countries there was no statistical significance between girls and boys
3. However in the rest of Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand boys were resoundingly better, being statistically better in 16 of 18 countries. In none of these countries were girls statistically better than boys.
4. In East Asia boys and girls were even in 6 out of 9 countries, with boys better in the remaining three.
5. Qatar was one of the few countries where girls scored statistically better than boys (the others: Albania, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Peru, and Trinidad & Tobago)

Why is there such a discrepancy in places like UK, US, Canada, Germany, France and Australia, when in other parts of the world it appears to be a bit more even? Does it have something to do with that prevalent myth that “girls can't do math?” Does that attitude exist in places like Germany and France? Why are girls so much better in reading but lose ground in math? These are the sorts of things that I hope educational researchers are looking at.

Science (Table I.3.6)

Of the three categories science had the least variation between boys and girls in OCED countries. Of the 35 OECD countries boys were statistically better in 9, girls were statistically better in 5, and in the remaining 21 countries there was no difference.

Things are a little more varied in the non-OECD nations and the differences in terms of absolute results were also larger than in the OCED nations. Surprisingly, of the 31 nations boys were statistically better in only 2, girls were statistically better in 16 (wow!), and in the remaining 13 countries there was no difference.

Where did boys perform better? Pretty much Western Europe, North America and South America. If we count Scandinavia as separate from Western Europe then Denmark is the outlier as the only country not in the above regions where boys were better than girls. In Finland girls were better and there was no statistical difference in the remaining Scandinavian countries.

In every Soviet-bloc country girls either performed the same as boys or better than the boys.

Interestingly girls performed statistically better than boys in 9 out of 10 countries with a predominantly Muslim population (an argument could be made that Qatar and Dubai do not have a predominantly Muslim population in which case girls performed better in 7 out of 8 Muslim countries). In terms of the difference in absolute scores the greatest differences were in the Muslim countries so not only did girls perform better than boys in Muslim nations, the differences were the greatest.

The PISA website has all sorts of other studies and analysis so I recommend anyone interested in education to look through the papers.

PISA 2012 results are due out in less than a week. Here's hoping Qatar has continued to improve.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Trip to the Inland Sea

This weekend a Qatari friend invited me out to the Inland Sea for the day so I met him, his brother and a friend, on Friday morning at Sealine where he picked me up in his SUV and we all went into the desert.

As it was Friday morning once we got down to the Inland Sea it was getting close to time for the noon prayer. Since Muslims should try to be in a mosque for the Friday prayer I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a mosque all the way down here.

Looks like men from the camps all over the desert drove in. I think there were at least 80 vehicles.

While everyone went in to pray I went to the shore to take pictures. The dune sloped all the way down to the Inland Sea (that’s Saudi Arabia on the other side of the water). It was a really windy that day so a lot of sand was blowing off the dune.

After the prayer we went to a camp, then after chatting with some people went off to my friend’s camp.

In both camps the main tent was huge, around 12x7 meters. It of course had all the amenities, such as air conditioning, television, and even internet. The main tent serves as a majlis, there were other tents and trailers that served as bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom/shower etc.

I joked that camping in Canada is a just a wee bit more rough than this. One of the Qataris explained that they have these camps for around 5-6 months (typically November to March or April) so they tend to be designed for long-term stays. Many Qataris enjoy getting away from the city and staying in their camp as it is much quieter and more relaxing.

We then left the camp to check out a large dune where people in SUVs meet and go sliding across the dune. Check out how many people were there!

Almost everyone was there to watch the dune-bashing, not drive on it. The dune is large and quite steep so the people doing the sliding were driving souped-up vehicles with more powerful engines. A regular SUV doesn't have the power to go across the entire dune (I know because I saw a few try and they couldn’t make it across a third of it)

Standing on top of the dune was cool to get a view but was not without its hazards, especially if one of the sliders went higher up than expected.

Afterwards we went back to the camp where my friend cooked up a fantastic chicken biriyani, served Arab-style in a large platter that we sat around (on the floor) and ate using our right hands.

Thus ended my day at the Inland Sea. It was really cool of my friend to invite me along to his camp so I could experience a Qatari camp firsthand.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What to Expect When it Rains

This week it started raining, nice proper rain. The dry season is officially over!

It started on November 17 and by my recollection it was a bit early this year, as late November or early December seem to be the usual time. But why rely on my memory when there's plenty of data. Thanks to I was able to go back and look at when the end of the dry season was for the last 10 years.

Turns out my memory was pretty faulty. Mid-November is not that unusual and in the majority of the years November was when the first rainfall occurred. A couple of times it was even late October. There is a lot of variance as to when there was a decent rain though, in 2005 and 2007 technically the first rainfall occurred in October or November but it was one day and just a tiny sprinkle. In both those years the “real” rain didn't occur until January of next year. You can also have December be the rainiest month one year, then next year have no precipitation at all during December. Weird.

So for you people new to Qatar or planning to move to Qatar, what can you expect from the rainy season? Here’s my tips.

1) Drainage can be spotty

Let's face it, it doesn't rain much in Qatar so there isn't a pressing need to spend billions and billions of dollars on sophisticated drainage systems that might only be needed once or twice a year. Drains do exist on roads but not always in the most efficient way which means it is not usual to find huge puddles on roads. Roundabouts are especially vulnerable to this, if the roundabout is angled slightly towards the center then of course all the water flows towards the center and the inside lane becomes a massive puddle.

Qatar is not very sandy, more like clay with a thin layer of sand on top, which doesn’t drain water very well. With a heavy rain the open areas like empty lots can quickly become small ponds as all the water just sits on top. For example here’s a 2006 photo of an empty lot near Salwa Road.

That said there is some design to the drainage so Doha seems to fare better in rainstorms than some other cities in the region. Sadly large Saudi cities like Jeddah and Riyadh can have flash floods that result in casualties.

2) Things might leak

Construction is not always of the best quality and since heavy rain is so rare it could be a long time before anyone figures out a place is leaky. Today it was Villagio Mall making headlines for flooding in numerous areas of the mall:

3) Things will get coated in mud

You would normally think rain will do things like wash the dust off your car but in truth it makes things worse. Qatar has a lot of sand/dust in the air so when it rains the rain takes the dust, deposits it on your car, and then when it evaporates your car is filthy.

Some of the shades you see in parking lots can really make your car dirty when it rains. Most of them are a fine mesh that water can get through so the rain takes the 8-9 months of dust that accumulated on the shade and puts it on your car.

Only after it has rained for a while and taken the dust out of the air will the rain be “clean”.

On the bright side when it stops raining the air looks remarkably clear.

4) Be wary on unfamiliar roads

Many of the smaller roads and side roads in Doha can have potholes of various sizes, and in areas like the Industrial Area these can be huge. But when it rains the water fills up the hole so you won't know how deep it is when you drive over it. Some of these are much deeper than it looks so you need to be careful when driving down unfamiliar roads. Heck, sometimes when you drive down a road you are familiar with you need to be careful, because . . .

5) Shifting sand = shifting asphalt

Roads and sidewalks are built over that clay-like sandy soil and a heavy rain can cause it to shift or settle, which then causes the sidewalk or road above it to sink or warp. Don't be surprised if after a heavy rain there are unexpected bumps in the road.

And finally,

6) Go to the desert a month or so later

If there has been a good amount of rain then the normally dry, dusty desert will bloom. Grasses and shrubs start appearing from everywhere, and up north it can even look like grassland or prairie. I've only seen it once, after prolonged heavy rains in 2006, but it was cool to see. Check out these pictures from an abandoned village in northern Qatar. One was in September, the other in February after the rains.

I’m hoping the rains are good this year so maybe we’ll see the “Qatar Prairie” again.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Registration for the Qatar National Library

As noted previously I registered online for access to the Qatar National Library’s e-books but it requires you to visit their temporary offices in Education City. If you haven’t registered yet first go to the following link and register:

So then out I went to find them. I knew they were somewhere near Mathaf Museum and when I got to the end of the area just past the Museum there was a parking lot with a bunch of what looked like temporary buildings. I walked into one just to ask for directions and by sheer luck was in the right building!

The temporary offices of the QNL are located in the QMDI building, and there are signs around pointing you to that building. Look for “QMDI”, I don't think there any signs mentioning the Library.

As for a map QMDI’s website has their location (click on the link that says “map” at the bottom of their page)

When I asked for the Qatar National Library the front desk receptionist immediately contacted the QNL staff. A gentleman came to the lobby and once he knew I was here to register he apologized for people having to come to the office in person. Apparently some of the materials are age-restricted so the QNL has to have people register in person to ensure only adults are registered, otherwise kids could just go online and use their parents ID to register.

I gave him my Qatar ID so he could copy it and he went back to the office to get a PIN code for me. I had my passport with me just in case because the website seemed to indicate that you needed to show your RP but he only needed my Qatar ID. I waited in the lobby maybe five minutes and then I was given a PIN code. That was it, I can now log on to QNL’s e-book and periodicals collection. Your access is timed to the expiry date of your Qatar ID.

Browsing the collection I've discovered that some of the sections can only be accessed by researchers and Education City students but there appeared to be a huge amount of material for general registrants covering sciences, business, social sciences like anthropology, and so forth.

I am looking forward to some interesting reading.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Update on Beirut Restaurant in Souq Waqif

Tonight I was at Beirut Restaurant in Bin Mahmoud so I asked the guy at the counter what happened to the one in Souq Waqif. He said it was “closed for good” but he didn't know why.

So after almost 50 years it's gone. So much for my hope that it was just closed for renovations.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Wandering Around Souq Waqif

Now that the weather is better it makes it much easier to enjoy Souq Waqif. I was there last night and it looks like the 2013 Fall Collection of falcons is in the stores now.

They have also set up a tent in the middle of the Falcon Souq in case you wanted somewhere comfortable to sit.

The nearby horses are also enjoying the cooler weather.

The Pet Souq is also doing brisk business, I'm glad the weather is getting cooler as I always felt sorry for the animals sitting out in the heat, especially the rabbits and kittens.

Consider visiting the Souq for an evening. I'm sure you haven't been all summer.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Qatar National Library

[Update: Full details on the location of the Qatar National Library's offices can be found here]

Thanks to Dohanews I learned that Qatar National Library (currently under construction) is currently allowing online and e-book access with registration, including access to science journals and periodicals. I’m all for that!

To register you have to go here:

But then you have to go to their project offices and show proof of ID. I clicked on their map but it's still a bit confusing and as far as I can tell they are somewhere in the outside edge of the Qatar foundation. Compounding the challenge they're only open Sunday-Thursday from 7:30 to 3:30, which means you have to get out there during working hours -- which means dealing with all the traffic.

Well I'm going to try to get out there. I'll let everyone know how it works out and see if I can provide better directions.

Monday, November 04, 2013

More Traffic Woes

I don't know what it was today, maybe another road or roundabout was closed unexpectedly, but the traffic in West Bay was nightmarish. When I left the office and started walking to my car all I could see was gridlocked traffic in front of City Center, both ways, and a huge line of traffic coming from Arch Roundabout. Someone told me it been like that for at least the last 20 minutes. Nowadays traffic out of West Bay is pretty bad but this was something else.

I was in a rush to get anywhere so I went to a café, had a coffee, read the newspaper, occasionally checking twitter to read all of the "OMG what is with all the traffic?" tweets, and had a light snack. After about an hour I got in my car . . .

. . . and promptly got stuck in gridlocked traffic at Sheraton Roundabout.

Wow, so this has been going on for probably close to two hours? I think I was catching the tail end of it, there were cops at the intersections on the Corniche trying to keep traffic moving, but even then I'd say it took me almost 25 minutes just to get to Arumaila Park.

I feel sorry for all the people who are in a rush to pick up kids from school and so forth, having to deal with this kind of traffic every day must be a nightmare.

I sure hope this was an unusual event and that for some reason traffic got snarled up worse than usual but unfortunately I think this is providing a glimpse of the future. With over 75 cars being added to the road every day, more office towers being built in West Bay, and no new roads to West Bay, I'm sure by next year this will be the norm. I might be eating dinners every day at City Center Mall just to wait the traffic out.

Let's hope that the roadworks going on will actually make a difference and within a month things will have improved somewhat. In the longer term though I can see nothing but problems on the horizon.

Qatar‘s population is growing rapidly and will likely grow by 10% in 2014, adding another 200,000 people to the country. It is estimated that for the 2022 World Cup construction they could bring in up to 1.5 million construction workers alone, close to the current population of the entire country! Despite all of the road construction going on I don't think it will keep up with the growth -- it would require at least 30,000 new buses just to transport the workers alone.

As for the area north of West Bay: the embassy area, West Bay Lagoon, the Pearl, and Lusail, I haven't seen any plans yet for affordable housing in those areas. The plan is for Lusail to have dozens of office towers, where are most of the office workers going to live? I suspect the plan is for Lusail to have nothing but the same luxury housing found in West Bay, the Pearl etc, which leaves your average worker having to find cheaper accommodation, which means staying in the city, which means commuting. Can the highway being built between Lusail and West Bay handle all of that traffic? Are lots of people looking at two hour commutes from the city to Lusail? Hopefully I'm wrong about the planning and there will be plenty of affordable housing in Lusail so that your average office worker will be able to live much closer to the office.

What's the plan Doha? Let me know.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

A Day at the Beach – Arab Style

Some friends of mine invited me to join a bunch of people for a day at the beach.

So we headed out in 4x4s to the Western edge of Qatar, to a shore just south of Umm Bab to set up camp.

While some of the guys had brought some burgers and hot dogs the main attraction was barbecued sheep. A Yemeni friend of mine agreed to treat us all to a Yemini-style barbeque so he brought large chunks of sheep marinated in Arabic spices and wrapped in tinfoil for cooking.

First, we needed to dig a pit.

Then fill it with wood and some lighter fluid to get a good fire going.

Once it has burned down to a hot charcoal you put the packages of sheep on it, then cover it with sand.

Then put logs on top and start another fire.

From this point the meat had to cook for two hours, so some of the guys went into the sea to catch crabs. Here the sea was way too shallow for swimming (Can you see three other guys in the distance?). It looked like they were walking on water.

And as the sun set we sat around playing cards, chatting, and cooking some burgers and hot dogs. One guy took advantage of the abundance of charcoal to break out his shisha for a smoke.

After a couple of hours the meat was ready, all that was needed was a shovel to dig out the packages.

And voila, barbecue sheep, Yemeni-style. It tasted great, and the meat simply fell off the bones.

There was enough sheep that I was given a pack to take home. I had it for dinner tonight with some grilled vegetables.

After a couple more hours of eating, chatting and playing cards we called it a night and went back to the desert to the highway to get us back to Doha. All-in-all a great day.

Friday, November 01, 2013

3-Star Living

Last night I was out at one of the 5-star hotels catching up with a couple who were visiting Qatar that I hadn't seen in years (no, it was not a Halloween party, no costumes). It was pleasant sitting at the lounge chatting with people. Since I was driving I passed on the wine and fancy cocktails that everyone was drinking and only had a diet coke. Unless the law has changed in the last few years I believe the drinking and driving limit in Qatar is 0.00, if you drive after having even one drink you could be in big trouble. It's highly unlikely I'd be caught -- the police almost never do drinking and driving road checks, but I'm not going to jeopardize my job and living in Qatar for a glass of wine.

So when it was time for the bill I braced myself for what I knew was going to be a ridiculous charge for a soda and looked at the bill. Sure enough, QAR 30 (~$8.25) for one Diet Coke. I usually pay less than that for an entire dinner at the restaurants in the city. Oh well, the evening was about meeting friends and having a nice time.

I honestly don't understand why many people in Qatar frequently eat and drink at these 5-star hotels and pay those exorbitant prices. As far as I'm concerned once in a blue moon is fine when you want to treat yourself to something nice but many people are in these places two or three times a week, or more. *Shrug*, it’s their money I suppose. When laborers and other low-paid workers hear about the prices at these hotels they are absolutely dumbfounded. QAR 30 would be a day's wage for many of them, and you can buy a soda at a store for QAR 1.5.

I suppose many people would consider me cheap. That's fine, because I consider myself cheap. I just don't like paying lots of money for things that I know I can get for much less. I don't enjoy paying ridiculous prices for things. Some people ask me why I don't pay for business class tickets when I go to Canada and it's because, to me, paying an extra $3,000-4,000 so that I am in a more comfortable seat for 16 hours is just not worth it to me. There are much better things that could be done with that money, like giving it to my niece and nephew’s education fund.

Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, lots of Canadians that I know are like this. Perhaps it's a legacy of decades of the Canadian dollar being much less than the US dollar, making everything in the world seem expensive to us. I dunno.

However, for the record, I may be cheap but I'm not what I call “damn cheap”. What's the difference? “Damn cheap” is when someone is so cheap people go, “Damn, that guy is cheap!” essentially miserly. There is a difference. I like to travel, I eat out all the time, I have a cleaner who comes by once every couple of weeks, I treat friends to dinners, I enjoy having cappuccinos and lattes. I just don't drive a fancy car, live in expensive neighborhoods, or fly first class and stay in top hotels. I’m a 3-star guy and proud of it!

Cheap, not damn cheap.