Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pricing in Dubai

A few days ago, I was with a man who wanted to buy some coffee. As a promotion, a jar of coffee with a free cup was €2; without the free cup, it was €2.25. The man paid the extra €0.25 so he wouldn't have to deal with the cup.

I have a problem with this: a) I can't stand to squander €0.25 unnecessarily; b) I can't stand to throw away a perfectly good cup; and c) I have no space for another cup in my flat. So I didn't get any coffee that day.

An even more extreme example involves a pitcher (six glasses) of freshly squeezed juice.

Having freshly squeezed fruit juice on almost every corner is one of the delights of Dubai. My favourite stand is in the Souk Al Kabeer (translation, Big Bazaar), where a paper cup, filled with juice squeezed before your eyes, is €0.60. Most cafeterias charge from €2 to €4 for various freshly squeezed juice cocktails.

Hotels can charge as much as €10 for a glass of freshly squeezed juice, a price which, I understand, seems perfectly normal to Europeans who have just landed in Dubai, but is a bit of a shock for me.

I was at a Spanish restaurant, and the pitcher of freshly squeezed juices was €30, but, as a promotion, a paella and pitcher was only €18.

My companion hates paella, and didn't want any, but that would have cost us €12, so I got the paella to take home with me. (The restaurant only requires that you order the paella to get the €12 discount on the pitcher, you don't actually have to eat it.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Stop Lights

A scientist knows that, when observing phenomena, one must change only one independent variable at a time, otherwise, one does not know what is causing the changes in the dependent variables.

I grew up in a small village in the West, in the English-speaking world. We had one stop light. Everyone went to the stop light to watch it change until 9 p.m., when it was switched off. Everyone included at least one of the constabulary, as the light was easily visible from the window of the doughnut shop. As a result, no pedestrian ever tried to cross on red, nor did any village driver ever try to run the red light (though passers by from the cities who ran our red light helped fill the village coffers).

Now I'm in Dubai, a city in the East. Watching in Bur Dubai, I see at least as many people crossing when the stop lights are red as when they are green.

But I have no idea if this is because Dubai is a city, or if this is because Dubai is in the East.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


For anyone seeking free information on the Internet, the source that usually comes up first is Wikipedia. Since anyone can add to Wikipedia (anyone outside the Gulf, which is mostly blocked from adding or editing), the quality is variable.

There are only about five things that I know enough about to check the Wikipedia entry, and one was wrong.

The problem with a reference source in which, after checking, one verifies that even one entry is incomplete or incorrect is that one subsequently cannot trust any of the other entries without external verification.

So I was very dismayed when I looked up the history of the Chinese Merchant Marine in the fourteenth century, and found that the Wikipedia entry was just a lot of junk.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Breast Cancer Awareness

When I was 10 years old, my parents mysteriously vanished. I was abruptly dropped off at my uncle’s, and didn’t see them again for a month. No one would explain their disappearance or re-appearance. More than twenty years passed before I heard the explanation.

It started when a woman in our village began wearing a scarf. Word got out that she had lost her hair, and the word cancer was whispered behind her back. Cancer was an obscene word then, one that must never be spoken. My mother was frightened, and told my father she was very worried that she might have the disease that, in those days, dared not speak its name. My father ridiculed her, saying it was most improbable, but my mother was so hysterical that my father finally took her to the physician’s, and stayed in the room for the breast exam.

Afterwards, my mother was asked to leave the room. When my father emerged, he seemed annoyed at having his work interrupted for an unnecessary exam, and said he had some urgent business in a large city about 300 km distant, and my mother would have to accompany him. She had helped him start the business some fifteen years earlier, but had quit when I was born. My father assured her that, now that I was 10, I was old enough that I no longer needed her at home full time, and she must once again help out with the business. So I was placed with my uncle, and my parents went to the city.

My mother was surprised to find herself at the regional centre for cancer treatment, but assumed my father had some work to do for them. Instead, she was admitted as a patient, ‘just for some routine tests,’ the physician told her.

She was anaesthetised for the ‘tests.’ When she woke up, one of her breasts was gone. She was allowed to convalesce for a few weeks in hospital, and then my father took her to a store that fitted her for a prosthetic breast. My father then bought an ample supply of these prosthetic breasts to take home.

Finally, after a month, my parents returned and I went from my uncle’s house back to my own parents’ house, but, for twenty years, no one ever mentioned the reason for my parents’ month-long absence, and, to my 10 year old eyes, my mother looked just the same as when she left.

That happened more than half a century ago, and the customs of those days seem as strange and remote as Neolithic times. Today all women should know how to do a self-examination and go for regular check-ups.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Cricket in Dubai

The Gulf News has reported in several stories that most of the Dubai cricket pitches have been appropriated for development of commercial or residential buildings.

While wandering about, I managed to find at least one available pitch, not enough, of course, and with limited spectator seating, but at least it's a pitch.

It is located inside Zabeel Park, and seems to be the only cricket pitch operated by the Dubai Parks authority. Thanks to copious quantities of desalinated water, it looks as green as a pitch back in England.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Brief Guide to Investing

Purchasing stocks (NYSE, DFM, or anywhere else that stocks are available for purchase) means that the investors are buying shares in a company, shares in the company's assets and earnings. On average, investors make money with one exception: never buy a stock that has been recommended by anyone, even by your own grandmother, and, a fortiori, by an Internet spam message. (Granny's tips are included among the worthless ones because she probably got them off the Internet.)

Purchasing property can be a decent investment, though usually less profitable than stocks.

Purchasing a small business can be profitable in the West, but several people have told me that, if a small business could possibly be profitable in the Orient (i.e, East of Greece), the owner, if forced to sell, would be required to sell only to an extended family member. Hence, only unprofitable businesses, ones the owners' entire family said could not possibly be made profitable, are ever available for purchase.

For more than half a century, salesmen have approached me showing me the chart of some investment. All such charts are ragged lines. The salesmen (including my own sister) pointed out the peaks and troughs, and said they had a system for consistently buying at the exact bottom of each trough, and selling at the exact top of each peak. They all offered to invest my money for me. The only one I believed was my own sister (a mistake).

Most of these offers were made while I was still in the West, but I've gotten a few in Dubai.

My approach is to accept the 'free' dinner that comes with the sales pitch, then try to sneak out without a scene. Usually, though, a scene is the price of the 'free' dinner.

Summary: Banks will give you a small profit on your deposits; stocks will give about twice the profit the banks will pay, but with much more risk; property will give a profit between that provided by banks and that provided by stocks. And anyone promising more profit than these is just attempting to separate fools from their money.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Viruses (or Virii)

This year, the New York Times is advising parents to have their children vaccinated against flu, and old folks to have themselves vaccinated. One reason is a strain of Staphylococcus that is sometimes appearing as a fatal secondary infection to the flu in children and old people, but, in general, vaccinations are better than the illnesses they prevent. So Thursday I had my flu shot.

In a similar vein, I was installing software on a client's computer. I had everything in a folder, and I copied the folder to his computer and tried to open it. It turned out that his computer was changing all the folders on my flash drive to invisible, and putting copies of a .exe file in their place with a folder icon, So I was copying copies of his virus back to his machine, then double clicking them which would have run them, had the virus not already been running. When I realized this, I tried to remove my flash drive, but his computer kept saying, 'This drive is in use, files are open,' as the virus kept copying itself to my flash drive.

I checked, and his computer was sending out about 3,000 spam messages every second. I said, 'You must get an anti-virus.'

'So give me one. It should be included,' was his reply.

What I was charging for the installation I was doing was not enough to pay for an anti-virus. I said, 'An anti-virus costs about €25.'

'So give my one of yours.'

Of course, modern DRM protected anti-viruses can only be run on one machine. Ever. And I didn't have any extra copies. I tried some of the free anti-viruses, but they said he wasn't infected, and I could see that he was infected.

'Not my problem,' he said. 'If you have a free anti-virus I'll take it, but it's not hurting me if I have a virus, I didn't even know I had it until you showed me all the messages going out, and I don't really believe you. I think you're just trying to get €25 out of me.'

When I got home and put my flash drive into my own computer, my anti-virus found 12 viruses (and removed them).

Meanwhile, a) tons of spam are going out over the shared UAE computer connected to the Internet; so b) Google said I was a spamming machine and would not let me search Thursday night.

But my client is unwilling to pay €25 for a decent anti-virus, and I can't give away €25 anti-viruses to all the spambots in the UAE.

So what to do?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Financial Capital

Beginning around 1900, according to the New York Times, New York City became the financial centre of the world, since it was centrally located between the European nations and the thriving economies of their Asian colonies.

After World War II, New York City became the Financial Capital of the world, since the US produced almost 1/3 of the world's GDP, and almost all of the financial instruments based on that 1/3 were traded in New York City; in addition, the New York City markets expanded to include the trading of a significant proportion of the financial instruments based on the other 2/3 of the world's economic production.

Now, however, in a fit of angst, the New York Times listed several new competitors to New York City that might knock it out of first place. They didn't explain how they arrived at the order of these new competitors, but the first one they listed was Dubai.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Eid Mubarak

Somehow, the moonsighting committee saw a crescent yesterday evening. This is a day earlier than the day allowed by the latest Umm al Qura calculated day, which is generally a day earlier than the date on which the crescent can actually be seen (actually, tonight is the first evening when the crescent can be seen).

As soon as Eid is announced, Muslims are supposed to donate their zakat to the poor, so that the poor can have a nice Eid, similar to collections taken up before Christmas throughout Christendom.

Dubai has several charities who collect during Ramadan. The one most heavily promoted this year is to provide education to poor children, but others promised to provide food for the poor so they can have a nice dinner for Eid.

Most people get one to three days off work for Eid, although this Eid, two of the three days are a regular weekend in the UAE, so private businesses are only required to give employees their usual weekend off.

Even so, Eid will be a time when most families get together and have nice dinners, rather like Christmas.

So, I want to wish everyone a happy Eid, or, in Arabic, Eid Mubarak.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sohour with Farook

Tonight, Farook invited me to a tent for a meal at 11:00 p.m. As we
drove there, he told me that the labourers in the UAE wanted Ramadan to
last all year because, during Ramadan,

  1. Working hours, by law, are reduced by at least 25%; and

  2. There are lots of mosques (and Ramadan tents) with free iftars and

Certainly, during Ramadan, there is much more charity and provision for
the poor.

On the way, we stopped outside a mosque where the imam was preaching.
'What is it called when the imam is preaching, but it's not Friday?' I asked.
'It's called a dawah,' Farook answered. He tried to translate as the imam was preaching, but, mercifully, I had trouble following his translation.

After the dawah, Farook took me to the Ramadan tent of one of the leading Dubai
publishing houses. I asked, and was told that most of the people who
come to the tent are poets and journalists, but they were very glad to
have me. Our host was the head of the publishing house, a Sheikh who
was not recognized as a Sheikh by the British, but who remains a Sheikh
to the Arabs.

Infinity TV came by to interview our host about the meaning of Eid. He
spoke of his youth when all the young boys would go throughout the
neighbourhood (all relatives) and ask for Eid gifts. This was before
the UAE had its own currency, the dirham, and each house would give
each boy perhaps half a paisa, about ¼d, which he said would be about ¼
of the current UAE dirham, or about €0.05.

Only at Eid would the children have new clothes and a few toys.

Today, he said, any boy can go to his parents and get €200 from each
parent any time, and then go out and buy the latest Playstation®,
and the boys always have the latest fashionable clothes, so Eid is no
longer special, it has lost its traditional meaning.

After the interview, they brought out the food: Five goats, two roasted
and served over rice, and three steamed with rice and vegetables;
harees, a paste made from a puree of wheat, salt, and goat; some kind
of spicy macaroni, described as Italian, but I don't think any Italian
has ever tasted macaroni prepared in this way;  and three
traditional Arabic sweets. I asked our host what this meal was called,
and he said 'sohour.'

Normally, sohour is served 105 minutes before sunrise, so 11:00 p.m.
seemed rather early. My host said the old tradition was to get up
during Ramadan 105 minutes before sunrise, eat in less than 10 minutes,
wash in cold water, pray, and go to work in the fields before it got
too hot, quitting for the noon prayer and staying inside out of the sun
for the rest of the afternoon. Today, he said, he goes to work at 10:00
a.m., so he gets up at 8:30, washes, prays, and goes to work. (When it's
not Ramadan, he skips sohour, so he has breakfast before going to work.)

I asked, 'I thought the morning prayer had to be prayed before
sunrise?' 'Islam is a religion that allows man to adapt. When men had
to start work at sunrise, it made sense to have the prayer before
sunrise. That no longer makes sense, so now Islam requires us to pray
before we go to work, and allows the morning prayer after sunrise.'

Our host asked, 'Can you eat with your hands like we do?' 'No. I'm
sorry, but I can't.' So our host had a plate and spoons brought out
just for my benefit. I tried a bit of everything, and paid no attention to what anyone else was eating, but at the end, all the goat was gone while the other dishes remained mostly intact. I ended up stuffed. Apparently, so did everyone else.

So we all waddled away from the sohour.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Iftar at (the) Al Nasr Tent

I now know that the chef for the Al Nasr Iftar is Egyptian, but he was trained in the culinary arts at a school established by the Brits for the chefs at their military camps in Egypt, so the cuisine is Anglo-Arabic (or Anglo-Egyptian). They have marketed their iftars only in the Arabic venues. And no one came (except for me).

The manager said that most Muslims prefer to celebrate iftar at home, and the Gulf News did a poll in which 80% of respondents said they always had iftar at home. But I've seen packed iftars at other restaurants where the prices were higher and the food was strictly Arabic.

I cannot (and did not) see Arabs flocking to a venue with Grouper Veronica, Waldorf Salad, Mutton with Mint Sauce, and pudding with English custard. One would think that an Anglo-Arabic iftar must be marketed to ex-pat English, not to Arabs.

But the Al Nasr Club did not feel that way, so, for this entire Ramadan, they had a single customer: me.