Sunday, April 30, 2006

Wish I could

Woke up perfectly rested this morning having slept early last night. Suddenly got a terrible headache on the way to work and it just kept getting worse as the morning progressed. Kept thinking to myself that maybe I should take the rest of the day off and go back home but I knew that wasn't an option. Things have been really hectic and they are about to get a lot worse in the next few weeks due to staff shortages and the begining of the holiday season. Just as I finished reasoning with myself that I have to stay in the office one of my staff walked in and told me he's going home because he has a bad headache. Aaaaargh.

It was the same last week. I woke up every single morning feeling tired and had to push myself out of bed. Every day I had to convince myself that I shouldn't take a "casual" day and instead go to the office, finish off the most urgent work, and then take the rest of the day off by coming home before noon. Instead each day turned out to be busier than the day before. I never got home before 3.

Looks like the earliest I'm gonna be able to afford a day off is mid June.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Spring cleaning

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Yesterday I finally got around to doing something that I was planning to do for the past year and a half but never got around to: I finally unpacked the boxes that have been holding my CDs and DVDs since we moved out of our rented house 2 years ago. Before getting to that I had to clear out closet space for them which entailed going through some stuff that had been accumulating dust for close to 18 years. For example: piles of Sultan's School yellow math notebooks and pink English and other subjects' notes, a Canon Bubble Jet printer which I bought when I was in uni 12 years ago, stacks and stacks of floppy discs, a Yamaha acoustic guitar which I had made my dad buy for me when I was in 5th grade afterwhich I took about 3 or 4 afterschool guitar lessons with Ms Barbara before abandoning my musical dreams (God, that was in 1983!!) and most pleasantly, my 20 year-old Sinclair ZX Spectrum+ computer preserved for history in its original box in its full 64K glory. All except the guitar went straight to the trash.

I liberated all my DVDs and my favorite CDs, but there's still one more huge box of CDs which I still haven't gotten around to opening.

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I don't have the space to organize the DVDs so I just put them in stacks in the top part of my closet.

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Stacked three deep, so i don't really have access to the ones in the back rows. Oh well.. At least they're out of their box.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Rip Off

I saw an ad for this phone in one of the Dubai newspapers a couple weeks ago and I liked it. Looks like a nice basic clamshell phone. Nothing fancy, but perfect for me to use at work where I don't need anything like a megapixel camera. I went to the shop I usually buy phones from and they said they don't sell the lower-end Sony Ericsson because there's no market for them. I went to a couple other shops and they didn't have it either. I finally went to Bahwan Electronics who are the agents and they shocked me by quoting a price of 95 rials. I scratched the idea from my mind and never bought it. Yesterday I was going through Gulf News and saw an ad from Jumbo Electronics. They're selling it for 645 dirhams. Unbelievable, the Omani dealer is trying to get away with a profit margin of 30 rials on a phone. No wonder there's no market for low-end SE phones in Oman when the agent's acting like that. They're basically giving the market away to Nokia.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Higher education follow-up post

Some people found my previous post to be confusing. I started to write the following as a reply to the comments but decided to expand it and post it as a topic of its own.

My personal view on higher education is that governments should make it available to all. It doesn't have to be totally free but then again I don't think that a university degree should be privilege only for the best of the best, which unfortunately is the situation in Oman right now. Presently, close to 60,000 students graduate from highschool every year and our one free university has seats for less than 5% of them. The way I see it, that's just elitist. The government does provide 2400 internal scholarships every year mostly to low income students to study in private colleges. They also take in students into vocational colleges, teachers colleges, technical colleges, and so on. All put together that still brings the total at about 10 to 15% of high school grads. Let's face the facts. In some countries you can make an OK living as a brick layer. In Oman even college graduates have it hard. Jobs are scarce and pay is low. A person with nothing but a high school diploma is lucky to find a job and when they do they have to make do with salaries of around RO. 120 to 150 a month.

I think that there should be a two-tier system, maybe similar to the US where they have junior colleges feeding into full four-year colleges, and state colleges and universities. Likewise in the UK they had the top unis and the polytechnics which were later converted into being universities of their own. In Oman we have something slightly similar with the technical colleges now giving bachelor degrees (some not all, I think). It just needs to be expanded. You can have a system of each region having one or two "junior college" style colleges which give associate degrees and the best students from there getting admission to full unis, also regional. Instead of having just SQU in Muscat being a university for the best of the best. You can have a system of 4 to 6 other universities in the regions offering college degrees as well to those not fortunate enough to be admitted to SQU or who can't afford the private colleges.

SQU is an extravagant one-off experiment. 20 years ago when it was built, it cost over 200 million rials. We don't need more state of the art universities. What Oman needs now is efficient universities that deliver a quality education to the maximum number of students at a competitive price. For the price of one SQU, you can now build 4 excellent regional universities or even 10 large campuses all around Oman of a state university-type system. Of course beyond the set-up costs there will be huge overheads for running the universities, staffing the, operating, etc. But if you won't spend on educating future generations, what will you spend on?

The universities don't have to be totally free. Students can be partially subsidized. The availability of choices to students should end up improving the quality. Presently private colleges have no incentive to improve the quality of their education. They operate in a system where students are strapped for choice. If more free colleges are available, private colleges will have to improve the quality of their offerings to justify their 2 to 3000 rial per annum prices. Higher quality of education will lead to better quality graduates and translate into better job prospects for the graduates.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Higher Education (for all?)

The annual Gulf Higher Education Exhibition (GHEDEX) started yesterday and thousands of students and high school graduates began swarming to the expo center looking at their higher education options both in Oman and abroad. At the opening of the exhibition, the personal representative to His Majesty the Sultan and the undersecretary of higher education both made statements to the press which clearly spelled out the government's view on higher education.

"I would like to encourage everyone (diploma and secondary school certificate holders), including employees in the government and private sectors to complete their higher education," said Sayyid Asa'ad bin Tariq. "This is necessary to be competitive in the gulf and international job markets and on a long-term basis. You can now learn and work. There is a chance and you must not miss that chance," he said.

Asked if there were any plans by the government to start another university, Sayyid Asa'ad said: "I have not heard of anything of that sort. We have four public universities, and there is scope for them to expand. If, for example, they can teach 2000 students, they can easily teach 4000, and they teach 4000 they can go up to 6000. Nizwa University will be teaching around 4000 to 6000 students in the next 5 or 6 years."

But Nizwa University is a private university, not public. As we all know SQU is the only public university in Oman. The other 3 "public universities" that His Highness referred to are in fact all private universities: Dhofar University, Nizwa University and Sohar University. From what I hear, the government has been actively promoting the merger of the existing "university colleges" in Muscat such as Majan College, Muscat College, etc, into one single multi-campus university to be called Muscat University. But the colleges themselves are resisting.

Dr. Abdullah Al Sarmi, undersecretary of the ministry of higher education, yesterday made it clear to the press that the higher education council has stopped issuing licenses for setting up private universities and colleges. He also said that there is no mismatch between demand and supply with respect to the number of students graduating from secondary school and the number of seats available in higher education insititutions. He echoed Sayyid Asa'ad's view and explained that the institutions are operating at their minimal capacity and that they could probably accomodate four times as many students. Dr. Abdullah further explained that it was only the lack of proper means to educate themseles on the higher education segment, and not lack of awareness or any other reasons, that have stopped a segment of young Omanis from pursuing higher education.

And yet the government insists that there's no need for more public colleges?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Nothing in Life is Free

Blast from the Past:

Three years ago, as the Muscatis were getting off the plane on the first stop of their honeymoon retreat, the flight attendant comes over with a cake wrapped in a box and says:" Congratulations on your marriage from all of us!"

Awwww, I say! How sweet! Now that's customer service for you! Muscati just smiles. When we get the hotel, we open the box and look at the cake and say we'll have some later. We never do, and end up throwing it out.


Back to the future:

I was at a travel agency recently for something. It was crowded. Long cue. Four people ahead of me. When there was only one person left, I moved ahead and sat on the chair behind him. It was someone who was working on a honeymoon package for him and his future bride. He asked for some changes. They said they need 10-15 minutes. He said he would come back later and left. The travle agent asked me to hold on for a bit. Made a call. Asked them how much it would cost to make the changes the man had asked for. Before hanging up he said: I should add RO. 5 for the cost of the cake onto this, right? Aha. Nods head. Hangs up. Smiles at me and says: "How may I help you?"

I stare at him speechless.

I wish we had eaten our cake.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Here's something we don't experience very often

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I got this book at Family Bookshop yesterday. It's the new Lee Child novel which like all his other books feature the same character, Jack Reacher. I started reading these books last summer and they're good quick reads. What's interesting here is that I didn't know there was a new book out in the series. I saw it and bought it immediately. I then checked out Amazon.com and it turns out the book comes out in mid-May in the US and early July in the UK. It's only out now in Australia and Singpapore, and some WH Smith airport bookstores. For once we're getting something here ahead of the rest of the world.

So I went to Salalah

I stayed at the Hilton which was full of Swedish and Austrian tourists. The Hilton Salalah used to be a business hotel. Last time I stayed there it was quite empty and the only people who stay there are business people who choose it because it is close to the industrial estate. It is now marketed as a resort.

The Swedes come on charter flights direct from Stockholm which bring as many as 250 tourists to Hilton every Thursday. Some stay a week, some even stay two weeks.
I asked a cab driver about how business is these days with the hotels full of European tourists. He complained that there isn't much business from them. There's not much to do in Salalah but these tourists don't even venture out of the hotel very often. They mostly bake in the sun every single day morning till dusk. The guy in the hotel's souvenier shop echoed the same feelings. He said that these tourists don't spend much, they just come to relax. Most of them are retirees and they are on very tight budgets. I was surprised how everyone says that, especially since the Salalah Hilton is not exactly a budget hotel. Rooms usually go for around 80 rials a night. But I was even more interested to know why a European tourist would want to come and spend a couple weeks at a hotel right next to one of the busiest ports in the world in the world and an industrial estate. In fact from the view on one side of the Hilton's beach is of the cranes from port. One of the shop owners in the hotel told me that the Hilton sells its room in bulk to a Swedish tour company in advance for a year for just RO. 10 per night. I asked some business people in Salalah about this and they all said it's true. Just 10 rials a night! (though one of them claimed that they rate is actually 13 rials of which 3 rials is a subsidy from the Ministry of Tourism). The hotel gets the tourists cheap and then makes money from selling them food and beverages during their stay. Not a bad business model.

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The hotel has internet access in all rooms but it's at 5 rials an hour. Ouch! I went to their business center thinking I might get free access there to check my email but there it was 3 rials per 15 minutes.

Anyhow, if you're ever in the Salalah Hilton, you just have to try the food at the Palm Grove, the restaurant outside by the beach. It gets quite packed and you need a reservation, but the food is very very good.

I passed by the Crowne Plaza Resort the next day for luch and wow, it is definitely where I would stay next time I'm in Salalah. Last time I was in this hotel 8 years ago it was a dump. It's been totally redone and upgraded. I can't say anything about the rooms but I doubt they'd be as spacious as the rooms in the Hilton though the hotel has a true resort feel unlike the Hilton.


Interesting side story:

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I called house keeping to get a two-pin adaptor for my laptop. I asked the guy who brought it how come they don't keep these in all rooms since most of their guests are Europeans and most of their appliances are probably two-pin. He said they used to but most guests took the adaptors with them when they checked out. They lost two hundred adaptors before they decided to take them out of the rooms. How come people feel it's ok to take things from hotel rooms?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Ten

I think I must have at least half a dozen incomplete blog posts since the last time I posted on this blog. I just can't get my mind around anything blog-wise so I'm just gonna lay them all out here.

Where do we begin...

1. The Wave didn't manage to sell all their properties in their first offering. Can't be a good sign. My name never came in the draw not even in the reserve list but I got a call from them asking me if I want to come have a look at one of the available properties. They sent an email saying that they sold 90% of the offering, but a friend told me last night that 79 properties remain unsold. That's more like 30 or 40%. Looks like the highest demand was for the most expensive villas and the cheaper ones weren't much in demand. I dunno if Waterfront Developments is going to change any of their plans because of this.

2. I hate it when bloggers quit.

3. Basma Al-Kiyumi's article article on Women in Oman (Arabic) for Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper has caused quite a stir over the past two weeks. While I think Basma's views are a bit extreme and over emotional in some parts she does have a point for the most part. However, my agreeing with her won't take her and Oman's women neither here nor there unless the majority of them actually want more rights and fight for them. Unfortunately from what I read most of the female bloggers are defending their status in Oman instead of agreeing with Basma. The empowerment of women begins with their own realization that they have the power to make a change.

4. Dogs on the beach (no, not the name of an unplanned sequel to Samuel L Jackson's upcoming masterpiece, Snakes on a Plane). This issue is really hotting up especially in the letters page of The Week. A certain blogger who recently announced an exit from the blogosphere first brought this topic up a couple months ago but the specific blog that was started about dogs on the beach has mysteriously disappeared. It's a touchy topic. I totally understand why people wouldn't want dogs on the beach, especially unleashed. But then again if I had a dog (which will never happen) I would probably want to take it with me to the beach. The thing that's surprising me the most about this issue is that the local law very clearly prohibits dogs on the beach and there are signs clearly saying that at all beaches. And yet the expats (and one particular one actually who's apparently in the center of this controversy) have been very vocal about opposing this law. People are really passionate about their pets, I suppose. I wouldn't know, I've never had one.

5. I just can't get the DP World controversy out of my mind. It just keeps pissing me off everytime it comes up again in the news. If the Dubai government had balls they would have immediately cancelled one of their mega Boeing orders to make a point to the US. Unfortunately they danced all around the issue and tried to make it look as if they are ok with it.

6. I'm finally back to reading after a six month break away from books. I picked up The Shadow of the Wind right where I had put it down back in September and slowly managed my way through it. Despite all the praise and high recommendations, I found it a bit of a tedious read. Way too many flashbacks and character recollections that sometimes go on for 20 or 30 pages at a time. Didn't hate it, didn't care like it that much either.

7.
If you want to see regular folks losing their manners and turning into total assholes just go to the nearest hypermarket (preferably Carrefour or Lulu) on a Friday afternoon. People who are probably well mannered and considerate on all other days of the week turn into greedy animals with absolutely no consideration for anyone but themselves. It's like a destruction derby in there. The only way around it is to turn into an asshole yourself. And guess what, it works.

8. Music: They say that Kate Bush can sing listings from the phone book and make it sound good. Not entirely true, as evidenced by disc one of her double album, Aerial - her first album in 13 years! But disc two, entitled: A Sea of Honey, is absolutely sublime.

Got Prince's new album 3121 last night and after listening to 3/4 of it in the car today I can safely say that he's finally got the funk back. It's no Sign O' The Times caliber masterpiece but for us poor fans who have been making do or just plain giving up on his work in the past decade, this is definitely some of the best stuff coming from him in close to ten years.

Arctic Monkeys - Usually whenever the British music press hypes up a new band as the next big thing I end up dissappointed. Not these guys.

James Blunt - sorry, despite the good singles the album just didn't jibe with me.

9. Munich. Finally got to see this movie today and saw for myself what all the controversy is about. Good movie. Very well made. And oh so very pro-Israeli. At one point when the main character's wife told him that she loves him I expected him to reply "I love Israel more". The scenes that supposedly humanize the Arab terrorists are so short and yet somehow they were enough to make zionists hate the movie and worse make Arabs rally around it as if Spielberg had made a pro-Arab movie. How much more pathetic can we get as a people?

10. I bought a new laptop last week. It's an HP Pavilion with 15.4" widescreen, 2.0 GHz Centrino, 2GB RAM, 100GB HD, ATI 128MB graphics.. In short, it's hot shit. And yet here I am blogging from my old laptop because with the weak signal from our home WiFi network in my room this old laptop picks up the signal and sticks with it while the new laptop and searches and searches and when it finally logs it barely stays logged on more than a few minutes before it loses it again. Also, I still haven't gotten around to moving all my files to the new laptop, especially my mp3s and my iPod playlists. I got this program called PodUtil that was highly recommended by iLounge. I tried to copy direct from my iPod more than 5 times and it never once got all the files. The most successful try I got 7000 out of my 7450 songs and none of the playlists was complete. Sucks when technology doesn't come through for you.