Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More Arab Jokes

On the day before exams, the security guard called the principle to say that there had been a break in. The principle called all the teachers to say, 'There has been a break in, and you must make up a new exam.' Obviously, someone had to be last, and it was the math teacher, who did not get called until 1:00 a.m. Groggy, he prepared a new exam.

The first question on the math exam: 'A train is traveling at 200 kph. How many birds will be left in the tree if a restaurant sells soft drinks for $1?'

An Egyptian said (presumably in Arabic) 'I am feeling cold from the A/C.' A Saudi heard him and replied, 'I am Fahd from Jeddah.'

I believe I've mentioned that Farook took out ads seeking 'investors.' Farook's job is, basically, to separate fools from their money as expeditiously as possible, but, as my father always told me, 'There ain't no good jobs, son, you have to work in every darned one of them.'

Farook's first prospective investor (recorded previously, several weeks ago) was a Citizen who had been educated in England, who spoke English better than he spoke Arabic, and who, Farook thought, would be impressed by a Western associate.

Today, Farook's prospect was a Citizen who spoke no English whatsoever, so, after hearing all the jokes of the day, I left.

There were several more jokes, but all of a colour that I don't normally employ in this posting about life in Dubai, so I shall refrain from repeating them here.

So I'll conclude by saying that today is 'Goodbye, Rudy Tuesday.'

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Improved Dubai Bus Service???

According to a local newspaper, the RTA added more than 100 buses, but only saw a 3% increase in passengers.

As a confirmed bus rider (no car, no money for Dubai taxis), I was at a bus station Saturday. I checked the schedules, and indeed there are far more buses. Where the RTA once scheduled 4 buses per hour on my route, there are now 8 buses scheduled to run every hour on the route that should have taken me to my destination.

I saw a bus in the bay, and ran toward it, waving frantically. It departed without me. This should not have been a problem, since the next bus was scheduled to leave in just 10 minutes.

For those who do not ride buses, the bus stations have bays for each route. I was, naturally, standing on the platform beside the bay for the buses for my route.

An hour later, a bus for my route pulled into another bay, a bay for buses going in the opposite direction. I might not have noticed, except that the crowd waiting for my bus all moved to the next platform, and I followed. The driver took his mandatory 20 min break, and the bus took off.

When I arrived at my stop and got off, another (empty) bus pulled in behind us, and, as I was walking from the bus stop to my final destination, I saw one more empty bus drive by.

There may be more buses now, but not a significantly improved bus service.

I, at least, would greatly appreciate a bus service that conformed to the RTA schedule.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

An Introduction to the Sub-Prime Crisis

David Brooks wrote in the New York Times, “Financial instruments like adjustable-rate and subprime mortgages have allowed millions of people to get homes they could not otherwise purchase, and research shows that most of these tools have been used intelligently.”

Banks have, for thousands of years, had the problem of convincing depositors to give the bank their money, promising security, as evidenced by a vault and guards, and profit; they also have the problem of investing all those deposits in instruments that pay enough profit to provide the depositors with everything promised, plus a profit for the owners of the bank. In the 19th century, if the bank invested badly and could not pay depositors, the owner was hanged. People may soon think of the 19thcentury as a halcyon time, with excellent laws that have, most unfortunately, been allowed to lapse.

Investment banks always offered large depositors more of a choice: risky investments that paid a greater profit, or safe investments that paid a much smaller profit. This created an industry of evaluating financial investments for risk. Most people have heard of ‘AAA’ securities and ‘C’ securities, the former being considered quite safe, and the latter quite risky.

The building society was a kind of bank that once specialized in taking small deposits and loaning individual members of the middle and working classes the money to acquire their own homes. Traditionally, such societies were like those depicted in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The officers of the traditional building society were supposed to know their borrowers, and to be sure the borrower was a good worker with a secure job who would repay the loan. Typically, the borrower was expected to save up 20% of the purchase price as a down-payment. The officers were also supposed to have a very accurate appraisal of what the home would be worth. The building society could be severely damaged by a default, since foreclosure seldom recovered the full amount of the loan.

Then there is the sub-prime loan. I first heard of these loans more than 30 years ago: In exchange for paying a higher profit rate, the borrower need not put up a down-payment nor provide any proof of ability to make the payments. The people originating and selling these loans were also known in the investment community for accepting unrealistically high appraisals for the underlying properties. Most investors avoided these loans, and those who invested usually lost money.

Now, however, the institutions originating these sub-prime loans sold them to funds that pooled the loans. The funds then sold shares in the pools. Neither the loan originators nor the funds incurred any risk, though these financial instruments remained, as they always had been, very risky instruments.

Here’s the new part to the story: the ratings agencies all agreed that, should the borrower default, the mortgage could be foreclosed and all the money collected from the sale of the house, so these instruments were given the highest possible rating for safety.

Given that the instruments appeared to have high profit rates and complete safety, the loan originators and the funds selling shares in the pools were able to sell these instruments for a very good profit, and these instruments eventually ended up as a significant fraction of the portfolios of the largest financial institutions in the world.

As one final fillip, sub-prime borrowers were offered ‘teaser rates’ that increased substantially after a few years. The borrowers’ incomes were sufficient to pay the teaser rates, but once the teaser rates ended, many sub-prime borrowers were unable to make the higher payments, and the terms of the loan prohibited re-financing at a lower rate.

It remains unclear to me to what intelligent use Mr. Brooks thinks these loans could be put, other than enriching the loan originators and the funds that sold shares in the pools.

The first anyone realized that this was a problem occurred when the first of the teaser rates expired, many of the borrowers defaulted, and the foreclosures only recovered a small fraction of the loan.

The immediate result was that the ratings of these pooled instruments fell from ‘utterly safe’ to ‘highly risky’ and their value collapsed.

The solution proposed by President Bush was that the loans retain the teaser rates indefinitely. Of course, a loan instrument that promises to return the loan after 30 years with 2% profit is worth far less than an instrument that will return the loan with 12% profit, so much less that institutions that invested in such instruments will have a hard time re-paying their depositors.

All this leaves the question: How big is the real problem?

According to one news report, only a small fraction of mortgage loans were sub-prime, so more than 90% of all the mortgage loans in the pools should be repaid in full at the agreed profit rate, as well as some fraction of the value of the sub-prime loans after the property is foreclosed and sold by the loan servicing agency.

Obviously, if this is the case, the world is looking at a needless panic that will, in hindsight, be nothing more than a joke at how frightened everyone became for absolutely no reason.

However, as of current date, all the financial experts are saying that there is no way of knowing the extent of the problem, giving as their excuse the incredibly complicated nature of the sub-prime financial instruments.

By this time, this should not be a valid excuse. Most sub-prime loans were made with initial teaser rates followed by payments in excess of the borrowers’ incomes. Few of these loans will be repaid in full, and the over-appraised houses will be foreclosed and sold at a loss, a loss further exacerbated by the legal fees involved in a foreclosure. The total amount of all these loans should be clear by now, and that should be the total world exposure.

For an individual financial institution that purchased an instrument based on a pool of regular and sub-prime mortgages, the situation may remain murky for some time, but not the overall threat to the world economy.

But no one who might know will give any indication of how big the threat really is.

Which usually means it’s time to panic.

(In my case, I discovered from CitiBank that my CitiBank travellers’ cheques now good only as monopoly money.)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Job Offer?

An e-mail made it past my three spam filters to offer me a job. No experience necessary. Work from home.

The only thing that made it interesting was that the e-mail had clipped and incorporated the Google logo, and assured me that the offer was directly from Google (though why Google would send from another e-mail provider escapes me).

I lack sufficient courage to have actually clicked on the link, given what I've read about the new and improved malware that can infect a computer that clicks on a carefully constructed webpage with various overflow exploits.

And, if I did get a job with Google, I'd really want to work on the Google campus with the free meals (and a gym to work off those calories).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cinnamon Tea

Last Ramadan, I was invited to a tent where we were served many kinds of tea. One kind reminded me of a red candy I'd last had as a boy, only it wasn't red. I asked, and was told it was something that, to me, sounded like gerfa (but probably wasn't). The host sent the person handing out the cups of tea out to retrieve the key ingredient, which turned out to be cinnamon bark.

With the advent of the cooler months, I thought that cinnamon tea might be warming in at least two ways. Of course, this is partly because English uses the adjective 'hot' to refer to many different conditions, for which most other languages require at least four different words.

In any case, cinnamon bark is cheap and plentiful in Dubai, so I bought some and put a stick into a teapot and covered it with boiling water. The result tasted like hot water.

I then tried crushing the bark, putting it into a teapot, and covering it with boiling water. Slightly better, but still not at all like what I'd had in the tent.

I tried the Internet, but all I could find was: 'Take a tea bag and make tea as usual, then sprinkle with cinnamon powder.' Not, I think, any resemblance to what I'd had in the tent.

In desperation, I asked an Arab friend. 'Habibi,' he said, 'my mother used to make that for us. She would simmer the cinnamon for three days before it was ready.'

I still don't know exactly how much cinnamon and water to use, or if the tea uses other ingredients, but I now have an idea that the cinnamon must be simmered in water for a rather long time to produce proper tea.

And I'm still convinced it's an excellent drink for the cooler months.

Marxist History

One of my friends is a Marxist. He sent me the Marxist version of a well-known historical event. It was completely at variance with newspaper reports, other primary sources, and all non-Marxist historians.

I complained.

He replied, 'Marxist history uses the Marxist dialectic materialistic scientific principles. So it is the correct history. All other historians, since they do not use the dialectic materialistic scientific principles are either wrong, because they are mistaken, or deliberately wrong because they are just the tools of the Capitalists.'

I'm afraid that, while I'm not an historian, I approve of the use of primary sources to ascertain what really happened, especially newspapers, letters, government documents, and similar sources.

But, of course, Marxist history doesn't need any of that, since Marx explains in detail the scientific method for determining what really happened.

So I wrote back a Phillipic, and my Marxist friend has stopped all correspondence.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Trip to Abu Dhabi

Getting from Dubai to Abu Dhabi is quite easy these days, with a regular, full-sized bus, and several smaller buses that run between the times when the full-sized bus departs.

I was in Abu Dhabi several years ago, and found that Abu Dhabi taxis were cheap (unlike Dubai taxis) and plentiful. Now, however, the Abu Dhabi taxi seems to be an extinct species. Taxi stands are fairly close together, but at all of them, I saw a large number of people waiting, and no taxis. I finally walked the fairly long distance from the bus terminal to my destination.

Jaywalking has been in the local newspapers lately, with stories about the Abu Dhabi police arresting most jaywalkers and fining them heavily.

I saw many police cars in Abu Dhabi, and even more jaywalkers who proceeded to jaywalk directly in front of the police cars. So the stories, like most announcements in the local newspapers, must be about some future events. As of current date, the police I saw in Abu Dhabi had absolutely no interest in jaywalkers.

A friend had SMSed me to come at 6, and, having allowed what I thought was a reasonable amount of time, the lack of taxis meant a 90 minute walk, and I arrived just as the 90 minute long event which my friend wanted me to see was ending.

So I took the bus back to Dubai. Again, I had to walk from my Abu Dhabi destination to the bus terminal.

On returning to Dubai, the bus from the inter-Emirates bus station to my flat runs every 30 minutes, so, after two hours, four of them arrived to take me home.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Coffee with Farook

I'm not sure why Farook asked me to join him for coffee last week. Farook had placed an ad in the local newspapers saying he wanted a partner, and had gotten a few calls. He was to meet one of these callers, a Citizen of the UAE, for coffee.

The Citizen spoke perfect English, unlike Farook. He had been sent to an English school in Dubai, and then to a Canadian University. He said his father had died, leaving the family destitute, but, by hard work day-trading the Dubai stock market, he had accumulated more than five hundred thousand Euros.

Then Farook started speaking Arabic, and the citizen replied in Arabic.

As best I was able to obtain the result of the conversation, Farook said that his business generated gross revenues of €500,000 each year, and his expenses were only €50,000.

'Your employees, what nationality?' asked the citizen.

'One Philippina,' answered Farook.

'Very good, Philippinas are very good workers. And who else?'

'One Latvian.'

'Very bad. Latvians will always cheat you.'

The Citizen offered to pay 1/2 of Farook's expenses, in exchange for 1/2 of Farook's revenue.

Farook said he needed some money for 'goodwill,' but the citizen refused.

'There are many businesses in Dubai, and many do not ask for this money,' said the Citizen after Farook's desperate demands.

So Farook and I left.

As best I could tell, the citizen hoped that, for €25,000, he'd get €250,000. Farook hoped the citizen would invest, after which the business would prove unprofitable, rather like the movie and Broadway play, 'The Producers.'

So, except for me, I fear a good time was not had by anyone else.

Monday, January 14, 2008

What's Happening with Dubai Bus Service?

I believe it was a couple of years ago that a major UAE newspaper had an article about the Dubai bus service, stating that all the busses were running on time, and the quality of service was excellent.

Yesterday, the same newspaper had an article about the Dubai bus service stating that it was unacceptable, forcing everyone (well, everyone except Dubai@Random) to buy a car.

When the article came out two years ago lauding the Dubai bus service, I was a bit sceptical, since the service had many deficiencies, including the fact that, on some routes, the bus never stopped along the route, being filled beyond capacity at initiation, and dropping too few passengers off before the terminus to allow the driver to stop and admit any additional passengers. But it was better then than it is now.

What is surprising is that the newspaper was allowed to print a critical article. Most articles about anything in the UAE are government press releases. I've been told that the newspaper is allowed to edit the original English translation from the Arabic if the English leaves something to be desired, but the final result remains that nothing that any UAE government agency does is in any way short of perfection.

So this means that someone inside the government is trying to raise awareness of the problems with the Dubai bus service, and wants the newspapers to help raise this awareness.

Which may mean that public transport in Dubai is scheduled for a major improvement.

But I remain more in hope than expectation.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Arab Jokes

Many years ago, I read an article about Polish Jokes. There are many jokes in the English speaking world where the central character is a Pole, but this article was about the jokes that were then circulating among Poles.

Yesterday, Farook told me three jokes. So this is about three jokes now circulating among Arabs, and is presented for information only.

The first is a pun, which, I'm afraid, loses a lot (like most puns) in translation.

In Arabic, the word for 'watch' is the same as the word for 'hour:' ساعة

An Internet café had the sign, 5 ساعة

So a customer came in and asked, 'Are they waterproof?'

Farook's second joke was about a used car salesman who was not a Muslim. He'd been drinking, when he saw a police car, and wanted to convince the police that he was sober. 'How much you want for thish car?' he asked, in what he thought was his normal, sober, businessman mode. He was immediately placed in the prisoner's seat in the back of the Maria. The police turned the lights and siren on as they transported the used car salesman to jail.

'Be careful how you drive,' he warned, after noticing the lights and siren. 'There are shome police near ush.'

Finally, an old man was on his deathbed, and he knew the end was near, so he called for all his sons to come and hear his last words.

'After I die, you must tell everyone I died of AIDS.'

'But Baba, why do you want us to say that?' his sons asked.

'So your mother won't marry anyone else after I'm gone.'

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Diabetes in the UAE (1)

Today, Farook wished to visit a friend in a major Dubai hospital, and invited me to join him.

I've been to this hospital several times as a visitor. The hospital provides very cheap care (in wards) for anyone with a health card, and luxurious care for those willing to pay for it. From what I've seen, the quality of the care provided is excellent.

Farook's friend was in a posh private room with someone to assist him. I asked the friend's name, and was told only that he had a son named Ahmed, which narrows his identity down quite a lot.

As best I could tell, Ahmed's father was in hospital for gangrene resulting from diabetes.

In talking about diabetes, there are two measurements: the older English measurement is used in the US, I've seen it used in Indian newspapers, and it seems to be common in the UAE. The International measurement (now used by Europe, the UK, and the Antipodes) is 1/18 times the English measurement. Most non-diabetics have blood sugars of 70-100 (English) or 4 - 5.5 (International).

Blood sugars that are frequently above 200 (English)/ 11 (International) invariably lead to problems. I've seen the gangrene occur many times in diabetics who cannot control their sugars. The diabetic begins by losing toes, then feet, then legs.

Other problems include blindness, strokes, heart failure, kidney failure, and general circulatory failure (among others). It's just a question of which one will kill the uncontrolled diabetic first.

But, while I was curious, no one was speaking English.

'What is he taking?' I asked.

'Insulin tablets.'

Unfortunately, there are no insulin tablets, so whatever he's taking, they either didn't know, didn't understand the question, or didn't know the English for the correct answer.

'What are his sugars?' I asked.


If his sugars never exceed 135, he wouldn't have gangrene, so that answer was also not altogether in concordance with what I observed.

The discussion among Ahmed's father and the two visitors (Farook and Hajj Waleed) resumed in Arabic. Farook and Hajj Waleed had brought a book as a present, but I never learned what the book was.

I saw the lunch Ahmed's father had been given by the hospital, one with what is called a low glycaemic index, or the best possible meal for a diabetic.

The attendant then brought in four cups of very sweet tea and four sugary muffins, or, as most diabetologists will say, 'Poison for diabetics.' The patient (and Farook, and Hajj Waleed) all enjoyed their tea and their muffins.

From what I saw, the patient, in spite of the hospital's efforts, is not observing a proper diet, and must have had sugars that frequently exceeded 200 (English)/11 (International), or he wouldn't have gangrene.

But, while I had lots of questions, sadly, I have no answers.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The US Elections (1)

At this point, we've seen six months where everyone was certain Billary would win, followed by one week where everyone was certain Obama would win. The week of certainty that Obama would win was exacerbated by polls that showed he was certain to win New Hampshire, a certainty that did not come to pass.

For starters, if a recent amendment to the Constitution did not prohibit it, Bill would have been President for Life. He was immensely popular with 55% of the US voters, and intensely hated by 45%, but, in a Democracy, this means that, without term limits, he would have been President for the rest of his life. Sadly, Franklin Roosevelt kept Bill from having that opportunity.

In Texas, the legislature was once much more powerful (within Texas) than the US legislature is within the US. They voted that Pa Ferguson could never serve as governor of Texas, though an overwhelming majority of Texans thought he was the best possible governor. So his wife, Ma Ferguson, ran and easily won. She, of course, did whatever Pa wanted, so Pa Ferguson managed to remain as de facto governor in spite of the Legislature, and in spite of the fact that the de jure governor was not himself, but Ma.

Hillary, after Bill was forced out of office by the amendment to the Constitution, first won as Senator, then ran for President, so she wouldn't appear to be following in Ma Ferguson's footsteps. The American cartoonist Ted Rall has deeply regretted her decision to wait for eight years to show she wasn't getting elected like Ma Ferguson, because it meant (Rall's opinion) that the US had to suffer eight years of Bush. (I agree with Rall that Bush was awful, but am not sure that Billary would have been better.)

At this point, we are (for now) back where we were before Iowa: that Hillary has the election iced, partly because of Bill, and partly because of Bush.

Of course, this could all change on 5 Feb, when a plurality of the US votes.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Global Village and Yemeni Honey

A friend of an ethnicity and nationality that cannot be mentioned under UAE law belives that the best honey in all the world is that from the Yemen. He was only in Dubai for two days, and hoped to go to Global Village and purchase a suitcase-full of Yemeni honey as gifts, and, of course, some for himself. He arrived in Dubai late Sunday and is leaving today (i.e., Tuesday), so the only day available for him to go to Global Village was yesterday, i.e. Monday.

He drove out to Global Village and found that only families are admitted on Mondays, meaning women, children, and men who are accompanying women and children.

His response (not mine), 'Dubai is trying to convince the West that it is an open country, while trying to convince the Islamic world that it follows strict Islam. It can't do both, and how long will it be able to continue the pretence?'

I remember when Global Village was primarily for women and children. On several days of each week, no men at all were allowed inside the Village. Other days, only husbands were allowed with their wives and children, to help haul their wives' purchases back to the car (and a friend carried his wife's purchases back to the car, was refused re-admittance, and they only had one cell phone between them, so he couldn't call his wife to tell her what had happened).

Now, men are allowed into Global Village every day, but on Mondays only husbands escorting their wives and children are allowed into the village.

My own take is that this is not at all unreasonable, but it should be more widely disseminated. Every ad for Global Village should make it clear when single men are and are not allowed in, so people like my friend wouldn't make a long trip for nothing.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Dubai Central Post Office, 7:55 p.m.

The Abu Dhabi Central Post office closes at 10:00 p.m. The Dubai Airport Post Office doesn't close. But the Dubai Central Post Office closes at 8:00 p.m.

This means, no clerk may be working after 8:00 p.m., so customers are turned away beginning sometime before 8:00 p.m.

I saw a large crowd gathered at the Central Post Office between 7:55 and 8:00 p.m., all angry. One, with wasta, got himself admitted, but all the others were turned away.

The security guard explained the situation to those who understand Urdu, but, for the rest of us, it was not clear why we couldn't get into the post office at 7:55.

So I had to come up with my own explanation.