Thursday, November 29, 2007

Time Travel

I was wandering about Dubai when I saw a business with the name 'Time Travel.' When I lived in the West, I thought such things only the province of science fiction.

But here, in this part of the world, time travel is not the problem it is in the West.

In Dubai, I can walk from the 21st century to the 19th century, or I can take a bus back to the 14th century.

So my understanding is that 'Time Travel' have little difficulty delivering on the promise of their corporate appellation.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Problems in the Park

I was out for my evening constitutional in Zabeel Park, when I ran into a couple. He was in ordinary Western dress, and she was in an abaya and sheila. She pulled back, far away from us, but he approached me. 'Chairlift?' he asked.

This entailed two problems. The first is that the chairlift is in Creek Park, not Zabeel Park, and the second was that his English was pretty much limited to 'Chairlift?'

'Arabi?' he asked. He didn't look like he was from an Arabic speaking country, so my guess at the time was that he had picked up a very limited command of Arabic since arriving in Dubai, but his Arabic, while almost non-existent, was vastly better than his English. I also have a second theory, which is that I've been told that I look like I can speak fluent Arabic, which just goes to show about judging by appearances.

In any case, communication was impossible. I said, 'Chairlift Creek Park,' but got a glazed look in response.

He returned to his wife, and they wandered off. They looked very tired, as if they'd searched every square centimetre of Zabeel Park, perhaps repeatedly, without locating their much desired goal of the (non-existent) Zabeel Chairlift, but there was nothing further I could do for them.

Property in Dubai (2)

Zhanna wrote that one cannot lose if one buys property directly from the developers, in what is called 'off-plan.' One purchases desert, and, when the property is finished, the price has invariably doubled. At least in the past. As I wrote previously, prognostication can be much more difficult if applied to the future.

The basics of Western property investment are that prices are determined by rents. If it is more cost effective to rent, people will rent, driving rental prices up and purchase prices down; if it is more cost effective to buy, people will buy, driving purchase prices up and rental prices down. In a 'normal' market, investors pay 20%-25% down, and rents cover 100% of expenses the first year. The spouse of the property investor will invariably complain that a great expenditure of money produced no income.

Eventually, however, the mortgage is paid off, the investor has only the maintenance expenses on the property, and the investor has either a good source of income, or a property that can be sold for a good profit. If rents rise with inflation, and the investor has a fixed mortgage, the investment proves profitable long before the property has been paid off.

If prices are rising rapidly, investors might pay more than the rent can cover. This is invariably a bubble. At some point, investors find that no one is foolish enough to pay them far more than they paid, and prices collapse.

The Dubai market is complicated by attitudes toward financing in the Middle East, by the uncertainty about what, exactly, ownership entails, and by rent controls.

Without financing, only those who can pay 100% can purchase property, which is a tiny percentage of the population. Financing has been growing rapidly in Dubai, and today 95% financing is available for salaried employees. Of course, Dubai now has many self-employed workers who are not eligible for financing.

In addition, the original contracts proving ownership of property in Dubai were all in English, a language which has no legal status in Dubai. Today, registration (in Arabic) of properties is possible. However, what this registration means is not altogether clear to anyone who does not read Arabic. (And, I've been told and take on pure faith, what registration means is not altogether clear even if one does read Arabic.)

Finally, rent controls allow an almost guaranteed 7% increase in rents each year, which should provide a reasonable profit potential. But there is clamouring for total control on rents, with no increases at all allowed. If this happens, the value of Dubai properties should fall sharply.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Property in Dubai (1)

Some years ago, when Nakheel announced that they would be selling property to non-Citizens, I was taking some friends on a tour of Dubai. The tour pulled up to a bit of pristine, blue Gulf water, and the tour guide gave his spiel: 'All land that is part of the UAE is only for Citizens, so Nakheel building new land here that anyone of any nationality was able to buy. But all the land they going to build already sold, no more left for people who not UAE Citizens. All big movie stars buy land here.'

Meanwhile, Emaar was offering properties in the middle of the desert for 30% down. Actually, it was 10%, then, a few weeks later, another 10%, and a few weeks after that another 10%, but the final 70% wasn't due until the property was completed and ready for hand-over.

At this point, many investors lost their money. They put their first 10% down, and sold the property at a profit. Only they couldn't. 'Emaar sold the right to live in the property forever. This right is not transferable without Emarr's permission, and Emaar is not giving permission except under unusual circumstances.' So the speculators lost their 10% down payment.

For those who put up the entire 30%, Emaar began giving 'permission to transfer' letters long before they managed to complete the properties, and those speculators made a good profit.

On those early properties, Emaar charged enough to cover the costs of construction, plus a profit.

It wasn't clear what buyers were actually buying, so it wasn't clear if the properties were a good investment.

Since then, however, prices have more than doubled. People who put 30% down and borrowed the balance have a profit of more than 300% (because of leverage), so the properties were, in fact, a very good investment.

But the question of whether the properties are a good investment remains, since it is very difficult to prophesy, if one tries to do it with respect to the future.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Young Man in Need of Assistance

Wandering about Dubai yesterday, I was approached by a young man who showed me a card with the name of an antibiotic and the price. 'I need you help me. I have kidney failure, and no can work. I have wife and children in Karama. I must have this medicine. You please help me?'

In my home village, we had a charitable organization, but we didn't want our charity to go to the workers, so they were all unpaid volunteers, which meant they all had other jobs, and the charity office was only open a few hours a week. The Charity Officer was required to give regular presentations about how he was spending our money, and at one of these presentations he confessed that he had done a Bad Thing.

The Officer said he had been working at his paying job, and was very busy, but a man found out that he was Charity Officer and came into his office with a story about being desperate, about not having eaten for days.

The Officer said at his subsequent report to the contributors, 'I then did the wrong thing. I gave him enough money for a decent, hot meal, but I'm sure his meal was strictly liquid. I should have gone with him to the Charity Office and made him a nutritious meal, but I felt like I couldn't leave my work.'

So I offered to go to a pharmacy and purchase the medicine. The unfortunate young man then said, in a tearful, sobbing voice, 'You very good man. I have four sisters in Pakistan. I can no longer work and send money. They cannot get married if no dowry. Please, you help me?'

If I'd thought he understood English, I'd have said, 'Don't push your luck,' but I didn't, and started toward the nearest pharmacy. 'Please, we must go that pharmacy,' and he pointed in the opposite direction. So I proceeded with him to the pharmacy he wanted.

It was, as I had expected it would be, closed.

'I very tired. You please give me money, I go buy medicine.'

'Follow me,' I said, and started toward another pharmacy I knew. I also knew that the closed pharmacy had moved to a shop nearby, but took the poor young man another kilometre or so. 'Please, sir, I cannot walk any further,' but I made no response, I just kept walking.

He followed me to the pharmacy.

Written on his card was the name of a late generation, very expensive antibiotic, and the quantity for a week's regime.

I didn't have that much money to spare, so I bought him a day's worth.

'This only two pills. You see I need 14.'

'This is enough for today, and I don't have any more money.'

'I no understand. I no speak good English.'

But with that I walked off. I rather suspect he immediately returned to the pharmacy and tried to sell the antibiotic back to them, but I wasn't around to see if he did or not.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

'Bricked' Computer

Every month, my computer automatically updates itself. I normally recommend this, since the virus writers are constantly improving their methods for getting past firewalls and enrolling computers into botnets, and the new security updates try to stay one step ahead of the virus writers (with limited success).

On Wednesday night, my computer automatically updated itself. When the automatic update finished Thursday morning and re-started my computer, I got a black screen with nothing but the message 'bus error.' Restarting didn't work. Nothing worked. My computer was 'bricked.'

My original guess was that my hard drive had some minor corruption which was not a problem before the update, but the new security tools, finding the corruption, prevented my computer from booting. Attempts to check the hard drive for errors found none.

Finally, I managed to boot from a CD, ran a download program and downloaded the complete update, then applied it again.

My computer booted.

The problem was neither my hard drive nor the new, extra security in the update, but partly Etisalat, which corrupted the update during automatic update. The other party at fault was my OS provider, whose automatic update does not check the update for corruption before installation. (My download program does have an error check which can tell if the download is corrupted, and this could easily be incorporated into the automatic update, but it isn't.)

Anyway, after two days of agony, I am now back online.

I still recommend installing all the new security updates, but I may no longer use the automatic update feature, and instead install the updates manually.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

World Diabetes Day

Today, still barely November 14, has been declared World Diabetes Day by the UN, to remind people that the world has suddenly found itself with an epidemic of Diabetes Mellitus.

The ancient Greeks knew of diabetes. The word 'diabetes' comes from an ancient Greek word that either meant 'pass through' or 'siphon.' Most medical websites say that diabetes came from the word for 'siphon,' but a free Greek dictionary said it came from the word for 'pass through.' So I checked the Oxford English Dictionary, which said it came from a Greek word meaning either 'pass through' or 'siphon.' (I tried to check with a Greek friend, but he never answered my e-mails.)

For the ancient Greeks, diabetes meant a condition with polyuria and polydipsia, which, in English, means frequent urination, to the point of dehydration, followed by intense, excruciating thirst.

The ancient Greeks said there were two completely different types of diabetes, diabetes mellitus, in which the urine is very sweet, and diabetes insipidus, in which the urine is insipid. Diabetes insipidus is so rare, it has almost disappeared from the modern medical lexicon (according to The New York Times, one woman, suffering from severe diabetes insipidus, went to different doctors for almost four decades before finding one who had ever heard of, and who knew how to treat, diabetes insipidus).

The Oxford English Dictionary says that diabetes mellitus was just a polysyllabic utterance doctors formerly used to sound erudite, and the old term 'diabetes mellitus' have been replaced in modern English by diabetes. Most medical websites only have a listing for diabetes, by which they mean diabetes mellitus.

While the poor woman mentioned above survived almost four decades of diabetes insipidus with no permanent damage, diabetes mellitus, if untreated, is invariably fatal. The definition has changed from sugar in the urine to sugar in the blood, but the results are the same as they were in the days of the ancient Greeks: the sugar damages every organ in the body. The results are amputation of damaged extremities, blindness, strokes, heart disease, and eventually kidney failure, if the diabetic doesn't die of something else first.

I will reluctantly repeat what is on most of the websites: have yourself checked at a competent clinic, and, if diagnosed with diabetes, do what they tell you to treat the disease.

(The reason for my reluctance is the danger of being checked by an incompetent clinic, and given bad advice, something I have witnessed several times.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Farook Goes Green

When I met him, Farook drove a huge, gas-guzzling SUV, which enabled him to take shortcuts across the sands.

Recently, Farook was persuaded to go green by his teen-aged son.

Shortly after the son obtained his driver's license, he convinced Farook to loan him the SUV for a joy-ride with his teen-aged friends.

As I understand it, no one was injured, but the SUV was forced into permanent retirement.

After which, Farook's finances, impaired by university and wedding expenses, only ran to the purchase of a very small, fuel efficient replacement for the SUV.

If Farook is again convinced to loan his teen-aged son the small car, Farook may, like me, be reduced to public transport.

But I don't think that is likely to happen for the foreseeable future.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Throughout much of Dubai, there are traffic (and, for me, pedestrian) diversions marked 'DURL.' But nowhere did I see what 'DURL' stood for. 'D,' I assumed, was for Dubai, and 'R' must be for rail, but what were the 'U' and 'L'?

Finally, I found a helpful man wearing a DURL uniform, and I asked him. 'It's an acronym,' he replied. So now I know, 'DURL' comes from DUbai RaiL.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


On this day in 1918, World War I ended after almost 10,000,000 young men had died. It was to have been The War to End All Wars.

As promised, in exchange for massive efforts to support the allies against the Ottomans, the Arabs and most of the Kurds were freed of Ottoman domination. Of course, the British and French had their fingers crossed, so Kurdistan was divided between Turkey (the remnant of the Ottoman Empire), Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and the entire Arabian peninsula was placed under an Anglo-Gallic Mandate. So, having divested themselves of Muslim imperialists, the Arabs got European imperialists, and the Kurds got nothing.

I asked my father what happened, how, after four years of stalemate, the Allied (minus Russia) were suddenly able to overrun the Axis. My father said, 'British tanks.'

That was the standard answer in the English-speaking world until around 1950. Then, in an effort to get published, an author translated from the French, and wrote that British tanks had been introduced in 1914, but were easily stopped by German anti-tank defences. Then, in 1918, French artillery improved to the point that it could demolish the German defences deep within the trenches.

A later book, by an American author, said that the Axis and Allies were perfectly matched, and neither could do anything against the other. Both sides were desperate, since both had exhausted their National treasuries and their supplies of materiel. The German Navy promised that they could blockade the Allies and cut off their supplies. The British Navy easily overcame the Blockade, the US entered the war, and Germany knew it was defeated, finally surrendering effective 11/11. The US contribution was minuscule, but it tipped the scales that had, formerly, been perfectly balanced between Allies and Axis.

In short, no one knows how the war ended, only that it ended badly for the Arabs and Kurds, and, given what happened in 1939, for the Europeans as well.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Shisha to Go???

Throughout much of the Islamic world there are parlours for smoking with a device whose name varies with the country.

The word hookah was the first word to pass into English (from the Raj), and this was the only English word for a water pipe when I was growing up. Reading the reminiscences of British travellers to other parts of the Empire, some wrote of smoking the narghile or the hubbly-bubbly, words which have not yet passed into common English, at least not according to my spell-checker. A dictionary of foreign words gives the definition of both as 'hookah.'

Recently, US newspapers have begun using the word shisha, which seems to be the most common Arabic word for the pipes. These newspapers report that shisha parlours are becoming common (and very popular) in the US.

Shisha parlours are found throughout most of the UAE, except for Sharjah, which will not issue any licenses to operate such a parlour.

Now some anti-smokers have proposed banning shisha parlours throughout the entire UAE. Some want Dubai to ban shisha, even if the Federal government does not.

My flat is surrounded by shisha parlours, with three large ones sharing one building just outside one exit, and many more in the buildings just outside the other exit.

And last week, I saw an employee from one of the shisha parlours delivering a shisha to one of the flats in my building.

Which leaves us all in a state of uncertainly regarding shisha in the UAE: is the government of the UAE or of the municipality of Dubai really going to prohibit patrons from smoking in shisha parlours, and, if so, will they allow the parlours to continue operating as take-away providers?

Or is this just another of the innumerable rumours that incessantly swirl across the sands?