Sunday, October 25, 2009

Gitex 2009

My first Gitex, some years ago, I was overwhelmed with the new technology.

This Gitex, I went to the Home of the Future. They had a display of a new charger system for those with multiple devices constantly in need of recharging, but whose flat has only one plug. The system could simultaneously recharge three devices and only needed one outlet.

'How does it work?' I asked. The exhibitor said, 'I'll show you,' and picked up one of the devices. The alarm went off, thinking the exhibitor was trying to steal the device. The alarm was quite loud, and none of the exhibitors knew how to turn it off, so I slipped away, not wanting to remain around as the ultimate cause, if not the proximate offender. And, in any case, I couldn't hear what the exhibitor was saying over the alarm.

Then I wandered into a talk on social networking. Basically, every young, with-it person is now part of multiple social networks, while we old fogies aren't.

I recall a paper newspaper reporter talking about her joining Facebook after being 'invited' by her daughter, who had access since the daughter was a student at Harvard (NB: the mother had gotten into Harvard only because her parents were from Harvard; her daughter had gotten into Harvard entirely on merit, without regard to her parents). What the reporter didn't say was that Facebook originally had no search function: you were offered to 'poke' only those Facebook members at your own university, and those whose Facebook accounts you already knew, so the reporter poked her own daughter, but was rebuffed. The mother's only friend was the default Facebook friend. Facebook is no longer like that: you no longer need either to be a Harvard student or alumnus to join, nor do you need an invitation from a Harvard student or alumnus, but paper newspaper reporters still write articles that their children do not appreciate having their parents poking them on Facebook. Whatever 'poking on Facebook' means. (As an old fogie, I have no idea.)

Since Facebook is a closed book to me, I again wandered off, and found I'd seen most of this year's Gitex, without seeing any technology that overwhelmed me.

Mainly because I now resist all new technology, unlike five years ago when I welcomed it.

But then, five years ago was before social networking.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Columbus Day, 2009

In the Kingsley Amis novel Lucky Jim, Jim is a young history lecturer whose department chair forces him to write a paper on fifteenth century European sailing ships, a paper Jim finds totally boring and useless. I suspect Mr. Amis found himself at the faculty dining table, buttonholed by one of the history faculty who was excited by a paper on the same subject as the one in the novel, and Mr. Amis made his character feel about the subject just as Mr. Amis felt, making for a great comic novel, and one I recommend.

However, the fifteenth century European sailing ship developments probably led to European domination of the entire world for several centuries, and on this day in 1492, one of the major successes took place as Columbus reached the West Indies.

In school, I was taught that Columbus was the first person to realise the world was round. This, as it happens, was a facile explanation for school children. The real story was the Italians had developed a ship that could beat against the wind, and were building a fleet with which to dominate the Med. Columbus took the ideas to Spain, and others took the ideas to Portugal, and both Spain and Portugal began sailing: Spain heading west and Portugal south against the prevailing winds.

Before the fifteenth century, all ships used oarsmen when they had to travel against the wind, which usually meant that their holds were full of oarsmen, who, when rowing, needed lots of food and water. The Vikings managed to row to Iceland and set up a viable colony, and managed to row to Greenland and Canada, but their ships could hold so few women and provisions that both the Greenland and Canadian colonies failed.

But a ship that travels under sail without any oarsmen has a hold that can be filled with food, water, passengers, horses, sheep, cows, and matériel. However, without oarsmen, it must either be able to beat against the wind, or else it can only run before the wind. The 1066 invasion of England used sailing ships that could only run before the wind, and the Normans had to sit and wait for favourable winds. Hoping for all favourable winds is not really an option when exploring new parts of the globe.

Columbus had favourable East winds for two weeks, and feared a mutiny: if the ship ran out of water and no land had been found, there would be no way to get back to Europe before everyone died horrible deaths from thirst. Then the winds turned Westerly, and the crew relaxed, knowing that, as long as they were beating against a strong headwind, they could quickly make it back to Spain when the water began to run low. The crew allowed Columbus to beat against the wind for two more months until they spotted land, which would not have been possible before the European fifteenth century sailing ship.

Which was why my imputed history faculty member was so excited about the paper, and why he button-holed Mr. Amis, providing Mr. Amis with the opening scene for Lucky Jim.


Thursday, October 08, 2009

Cityscape, Dubai, 2009

Not being a Real Estate professional or investor, I hadn't heard of Cityscape, but this morning Farook called and asked me to go with him 'for an hour or so.' I should have known.

First, we had to pick up Farook's nephew who needs a job. The Arab extended family tends to be close knit, so Farook must help his nephew. (I should note that they are not Citizens of the UAE.) As best I can tell, Farook invited me along because he thought I might be able to help.

'What is your university degree?' I asked. Before he could answer, Farook said, 'He engineer.' 'What kind?' 'R-squared.'

I have no idea what that might be, but Farook volunteered, 'He engineer buildings.' 'Oh, in English we call that a civil engineer.' 'No, he not civil.' So I have no idea what the nephew's degree is in. It is clear that the nephew went to school in Egypt and speaks absolutely no English, so, even if I did know a place that was hiring, they wouldn't be able to use Farook's nephew, since I only know places where the main language is English and where the Director only speaks English. For Arab owned and operated places that only do business in Arabic, Farook knows much better than I. So, as usual with Farook, I had no idea why I was dragged along.

Cityscape is a travelling International Property exhibition, with many nations and developments trying to sell properties, including, of course, many from the UAE, since this is the UAE Cityscape.

We first saw a water display board, and Farook approached the exhibitor and asked, 'You have smaller?' 'I'm sorry, this is the smallest we have.' 'I want buy one, but I need smaller. I take one today, but you must sell smaller one.' The negotiation for a smaller one went on for about fifteen minutes, but the exhibitor had brought his smallest one to display. I was impressed by the water display board. It drops water in the shape of letters and backlights them so the message is displayed in the water in different colours. Finally, Farook asked, 'This work in rain?' The answer is, 'Yes, if it's covered,' but the exhibitor just said, 'Yes' (after all, he's trying to sell as many of the things as he can). If rain (or anything else) comes between the backlight and the falling letters in waterdrops, the effect would be marred or spoiled. Finally Farook wandered off.

Farook spent 30 minutes to an hour at each exhibit. If it was Malaysian property, he asked, 'You have property in Thailand?' and kept asking and asking. If it was villas, he's ask for industrial properties, if industrial, he'd ask for flats. I wandered through Cityscape, which fills six large halls and has hundreds of exhibitors. Farook spoke with somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen exhibitors in the first open hall.

As I wandered through all six of the huge display halls, I saw hundreds of exhibitors selling property, selling tools to market and manage property, selling property analyses, selling anything and everything to do with properties from all over the world.

Finally, Farook saw the exhibit for the company where his son works. It is a captive loan company, rather like GMAC or Ford Finance, but for the owner's property developments, not for the owners' cars. It will only loan money to buyers of one of the owner's six developments, a fact of which Farook was well aware (but I wasn't).

It was also late, and I needed to have been home at least two hours earlier.

So Farook asked, 'You have villa for sale?' 'No we are a loan company. If you want to buy a villa, we can loan you the money to make the purchase.' 'Very good. I need villa in Fujairah.' (I should note that they are not based in Fujairah, and cannot loan on property in Fujairah.)

I tried to intervene in order to expedite matters: 'They are only a loan company. They only make loans. do not ask about villas, ask about their interest rates.'

'This haram. Interest haram. I no want interest. This Western way. West is Shaitan. West now rich, but West come down. This place is Arab place. we do things Arab way, not Western way. You no interrupt me again, I do business with these people and you just make problem.' Farook turned back to the exhibitor, 'You have villa in Sharjah?'

'No,' I said. 'They only make loans. Ask them about their loans.'

'Loans haram. I never ask about loan. You keep interrupting me, I cannot do business. I take you home and come back,' so Farook took me home, and I was grateful.

I think I know what was going on. About seven years ago, Farook was making about $100,000 a year, and the techniques he was using today worked. But Farook told me has hasn't earned anything for the last two years, and business was very slow the year before that, so his problems have nothing to do with the current crisis, but with the fact that the UAE, and especially Dubai, have changed. So, since Farook is my friend, I want to help him.

What I think Farook was doing was using a negotiating technique of which I do not approve.

First, you ask the other party totally inappropriate questions, such as, 'Very good, I like you, you sell me villa in Thailand?' when the other party is a representative of the Malaysia government selling a development in Malasia. This is just to get the other party off balance. Next, you waste time, lots of time. To the point where the other party will do anything just to get rid of you. Finally, you manage to get a great deal on whatever you were trying to buy or sell. Farook has been using this technique for years, and it used to work, but now it doesn't. Dubai, it seems, has changed. And Farook would say, not for the better. (Disclaimer: I take no responsibility for Farook's opinions, I just report them.)

Farook has no money (he spent his savings just keeping his family housed and fed for the last two years), so he is not buying any property. I was trying to tell him, 'Go get information from as many exhibitors as possible, then try to present the properties to your clients, and try for a few small commissions.'

But Farook hopes that, by getting the people off balance, they might reveal something they shouldn't. What that might be, and how he might profit from it, Farook didn't know, but a few highly profitable successes from many years ago leave hope eternal in Farook's breast.

I, however, felt bad because I can't help Farook re-start his business, and because he'd wasted a day when I had other things I really had to get done.

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