Thursday, January 25, 2007

Out in the open

Earlier this week we were driving back around 11pm from dinner at the Shangri-La when we stopped at the traffic lights by the Sheraton. The hotel closed down three weeks ago for 10 months' renovation in which the whole hotel will be made over. However from the bumper to bumper traffic of cars entering and exiting the hotel's parking lot you'd be excused if you thought it was still open. The reason all these cars are heading to the Sheraton? Lined up on the sidewalk at the hotel's exit is a long line of Chinese prostitutes. The cars come in, stop in front of the prostitutes, the customers view the merchandise on sale, make a choice, negotiate a price, and the chosen woman drives off in the car. Right there in plain view of anyone on the main street of the city's main business district. Apparently, ground central for these Chinese pros used to be the night club downstairs in the hotel. Now that the hotel has closed down they've taken their business outside. It's not like the police are doing anything about it.

Where did the gas go?

Wasn't natural gas supposed to be the panacea to all our economic ills?

In the mid-90's, the government announced that LNG was the key to the country's future economic sustainability. It was an integral part of the often quoted "Oman 2020 vision" which stated that crude oil's contribution to GDP will drop to 9% by the year 2020 while gas will contribute 10%. When the Oman LNG project was launched it was estimated that Oman's gas reserves stood at about 25 trillion cubic feet, and forecasted to rise to about 40 trillion cubic feet by the year 2015.

All the huge investment projects that were announced in the past few years, particularly the ones located in Sohar, rely on gas supplies to power them. All the new powerplants that were built in the past ten years such as Manah, Barka, Al Kamil, Dhofar Power, as well as the upcoming Sohar and Barka II use gas feedstock. And yet last year when Oman Cement Co wanted to increase its production capacity, it was told by the government that they are unable to provide additional gas supplies to them. No explanation was given at that time on why all of a sudden we had no more gas.

The December 15th issue of MEED had an article titled "Muscat Faces up to Gas Shortage" (subscription required) which states that:

Gas demand in the sultanate is forecast to reach 3,839 cf/d by 2010, compared with expected production of 2,659 million cf/d according to the latest figures from the Ministry of Oil & Gas (MOG). "IOCs (international oil companies) are central to increasing our gas production," MOG undersecretary Nasser Khamis Ali al-Jashmi told MEED on 10 December. "We're not able to unlock the gas without them. They bring financial capabilities and technological know-how, [and] they take the whole risk during the exploration phase."

Production has averaged 2,549 million cf/d so far this year, up from 2,027 million cf/d in 2005, and just above gas consumption of 2,472 million cf/d. Gas consumption in 2006 had been expected to reach 3,030 million cf/d, 558 million cf/d above supply.

"We bridged the gap because of a delay in [gas-based] projects. The gas plan included a polyethylene plant at Sohar that has been delayed," said Al-Jashmi.

Gas consumption increased in 2006 when Qalhat LNG's liquefied natural gas (LNG) train came on stream. The sultanate's three LNG trains account for more than half of consumption, using 1,341 million cf/d of gas. The national grid is the next biggest consumer.

Key to the gas expansion programme is the Khazzan and Makarem tight gas project in central Oman. The government is in negotiations with a shortlisted company, understood to be the UK's BP, to develop the fields.

Studies have estimated gas reserves in Khazzan and Makarem fields as high as 60 trillion cubic feet (tcf). "Potentially there is a huge reserve there," says Al-Jashmi. "It depends on the [company's] ability to extract the gas. The reservoirs have complicated characteristics."


A follow-up article, Oman: Strapped for Gas, repeated most of the previous article with a few more details on the expected supply from the Dolphin project.
Dolphin supplies are scheduled to arrive in Oman in early 2008, when the first flush of Qatari gas flows through the Maqta-Al-Ain pipeline into the sultanate. Though significant, the 200 million cubic feet a day (cf/d) of gas will only provide partial relief to the sultanate's looming gas shortage.

Muscat has looked at importing gas from other neighbours, including Iran, but its main focus is on a crash programme to develop its own fields with the help of international oil companies (IOCs). In late December, the quest to find more gas took a significant step forward when the UK's BP signed a production sharing agreement to develop two gas fields in the interior. The Khazzan and Makarem fields west of Saih Rawl could hold reserves of 20 trillion-60 trillion cubic feet (tcf), although how much can be recovered from the tight gas reservoirs remains to be seen. Initial production is set at 300 million cf/d, rising to 2,000 million cf/d.

..

"The [expected] demand was higher than supply in 2006 but we bridged the gap because of a delay in projects," says Al-Jashmi. "And the polyethylene plant at Sohar was due to be completed by 2009, but the date is not now realistic." The sultanate will experience significant demand growth when projects at Sohar industrial port, including an aluminium smelter, methanol facility and fertiliser plant, come on stream in the next two-three years. "If the polyethylene plant happens, there won't be any more gas-based industries to follow," says a source involved in the port's development.


And now, just over 10 years since the LNG dream began, all of a sudden, we're talking about coal power. With the prospect of no more gas supplies in the near future, PDO recently announced that they are appointing consultants to carry out a feasibility study on a $1 billion coal-fired power plant in Raysut. Coal a viable option in the 21st century? And in gas producing country no-less!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Poor guy

This guy will never let him off easy

Do you think this guy knew when he agreed to appear in the ad that the board in front of him would say "Breast Reduction (For Men)"? And on the front page of the newspaper no less!



Friday, January 12, 2007

Apple iPhone

So I'm a little late behind the bandwagon in writing about the iPhone that everyone and their grandmother in blogworld is excited about. I can't understand why anyone outside America can be excited over this phone. It won't come out in the states till June and it will be available exclusively with Cingular where you won't be able to get it without a 2 year contract. In fact, even if you are a Cingular customer with a contract you will have to extend it for another 2 years to get your hands on one of these babies. It's not like people this side of the world are going to be able to get theirs' ordered from the US and have it shipped over. It will come out in Europe at the end of the year and the rest of the world won't get to get their hands on an iPhone till next year. Unless Apple is planning to come out with a series of iPhones between now and then, I just can't get myself excited over a phone that's announced in Jan 2007 that I won't have a chance to buy till a year later.

4 years ago I bought a Qtek smartphone when they first came out. I sold it less than a month later because I couldn't deal with the touch screen. I need to have real buttons on my phone. 8 gigs of memory and all the cool functions that iPhone are all cool, but I text way more than I call, and I need to be able to text blindly without looking at the phone - like when I'm driving, for example. Without the touch of real keys, I can't see how a touch screen keypad can work for me.

Unlike other bloggers, I'm not gonna bitch about the lack of 3G for the simple pathetic fact that Oman still doesn't have 3G and even if it did, it would probably be so expensive that I'd never use it. We're still prehistoric here and regular data costs 1 baisa per kilobyte (that's 1 rial per mb). However, the 2 megapixel camera is pathetic, especially considering the 1 year into the future time-line. The Nokia 95 should be hitting stores anytime now with a 5 megapixel camera and by the end of the year I'm sure 5 megapixel phones will be available from Sony Ericsson and Samsung.

The 8GB iPhone is going to cost $599 with a 2 year contract. How much would it be for us who buy it off the shelf? I'm guessing it would probably not less than $800 or even $900. That's a tidy lump of change to put on a phone. Time magazine says "Apple's new iPhone could do to the cell phone market what the iPod did to the portable music player market: crush it pitilessly beneath the weight of its own superiority." I'm not so sure about that.


(Kottke.org has the best roundup of iPhone reactions from around the web.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bad ass dishdashas

it's fascinating to me that Emirati men still wear their traditional long, white robes. (They're called dishdashas—and wow is that a fun word to say.) Nearly all U.A.E. nationals—even the ruling heads of state—continue to resist trousers and other Western clothes. It's a little bit bad-ass, and it speaks to serious cultural pride. I suppose if your people survive in the harsh desert for millenniums, you don't let some pansy foreigner tell you what to wear.

Slate article on Dubai that's being linked all over. Quite a good read. My favorite part: the author, Seth Stevenson, goes to the Falcon Center and started asking the shopkeeper some questions

What were the specs on these falcons? What exactly were they capable of?

By way of response, he pulled out his cell phone, punched some buttons, and held the screen in front of my face. On the small display, I could make out a film of a falcon flying in the desert, its wings pumping up and down. A few seconds in, the bird swooped and totally blitzkrieged a helpless animal that appeared to be—I swear to God—some sort of small antelope.

At this point, I realized: I must have a falcon. I inquired as to the cost. The shopkeeper explained that this depends on the size of the falcon and its skill. But in general, they'll run you about five grand apiece.

Which is clearly worth it, when you think about it. I had my eye on the fierce-looking bird in the corner. I planned to name him Shrieky. I'd haul him out on my balcony in D.C., turn him loose, and wait for the freshly killed game to pile up. Perhaps a neighbor's Shih Tzu. Or infant.

Time waster of the day

Slate Magazine's Explainer where you get answers to questions like:

Is soap self-cleaning?, Does poison gas smell good?, and even How many cell phones can a person shove up his ass?

Old but good: The $40 million elbow


Steve Wynn bought the Picasso painting Le Rêve for $48 million in 1997. In October 2006 he finalized a deal to sell it for $139 million. The day after he finalized the deal he had some friends over at his office at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas to have a look at the painting before it gets shipped to its new owner.

The guests came at five-thirty, and Wynn ushered them in. On the wall to his left and right were several paintings, including a Matisse, a Renoir, and “Le Rêve.” The other three walls were glass, looking out onto an enclosed garden. He began to tell the story of the Picasso’s provenance. As he talked, he had his back to the picture. He was wearing jeans and a golf shirt. Wynn suffers from an eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, which affects his peripheral vision and therefore, occasionally, his interaction with proximate objects, and, without realizing it, he backed up a step or two as he talked. “So then I made a gesture with my right hand,” Wynn said, “and my right elbow hit the picture. It punctured the picture.” There was a distinct ripping sound. Wynn turned around and saw, on Marie-Thérèse Walter’s left forearm, in the lower-right quadrant of the painting, “a slight puncture, a two-inch tear. We all just stopped. I said, ‘I can’t believe I just did that. Oh, shit. Oh, man.’”

Wynn turned around again. He put his pinkie in the hole and observed that a flap of canvas had been pushed back. He told his guests, “Well, I’m glad I did it and not you.” He said that he’d have to call Cohen and William Acquavella, his dealer in New York, to tell them that the deal was off. Then he resumed talking about his paintings, almost, but not quite, as though he hadn’t just delivered what one of the guests would later call, in an impromptu stab at actuarial math, a “forty-million-dollar elbow.” (Link)

Also: A first person account from Nora Ephron.

Monday, January 08, 2007

"Bonus Heaven"

We finally finished doing our 2006 staff appraisals today and everybody's dreaming of getting a record bonus come March. While taking a break at the end of the work day I found myself on the Forbes website and the first article to catch my eye was titled "How to Bail with your Bonus" which is basically about how January and February are "that time of year when fed-up employees are most tempted to take their bonuses and head for the exits." I've seen it happen many times. People at work who you know hate their job, or who you've heard rumors about them having gotten offers from competitors, are just hanging in till they get their bonus and then immediately give their thanks by handing in their resignation letters. Anyhow, I have no plans of quiting my job any time soon and what really got my attention was that the article mentioned that Goldman Sachs has set aside an incredible $11 billion for bonuses this year!
"Anyone at the bonus line at Goldman Sachs died and went to bonus heaven," said Michael Holland, chairman of Holland & Company, a New York-based investment firm. "It doesn't get any better than this." (Link)
According to a December 2005 New York magazine article about Goldman Sachs' bonus that year:
If the firm split its potential $11 billion pie equally among all 22,000 employees worldwide, they’d each get $500,000. But that’s not how it works.

The Big Piece
There are 250 or so partner managing directors, each of whom would receive an average bonus of $2 million right off the top. The rest depends on the success of their part of the business, and it can be massive. Top income-producers like Mark McGoldrick, co-head of global proprietary investment, can make upward of $40 million.

The “Tide You Over Until You’re a Somebody” Piece
Executive managing directors, also known as “MD Lites,” can make up to $3 million.

The Table Scraps
Just-out-of-college analysts make $70,000 and hope to match that in bonus. Associates, with M.B.A.’s, hope to match their $95,000 salaries with a bonus, too. Secretaries who make as much as $75,000 have their sights set on bonuses of roughly $15,000.

Click to see price

You often see this "Price too low to display" or "call for price" crap when you shop for electronics online, and particularly with camera equipment. Apparently the reason for it is something called the "minimum advertised price" or MAP policy by manufacturers which restricts retailers from advertising prices below the manufacturers' MAP.

Read on if you want to know more:

MAP is usually enforced through marketing subsidies offered by a manufacturer to its resellers. If a retailer keeps prices at or above the minimum advertised price, then a manufacturer like Apple will give them money to help advertise. If a store's price dips too low, on the other hand, the manufacturer can withdraw these advertising subsidies.

MAP helps smaller retailers compete, since it aids in reducing the kind of cutthroat price competition from big-box stores that can put them out of business. But what's in it for a company like Apple? Stable prices are important to the company, because it's a manufacturer and a retailer (both online and through its chain of Apple Stores). If Apple resellers dropped prices on iPods and iMacs—selling at or below cost to get customers in the door, or as a way to cross-sell stuff like software or iPod skins—they could squeeze the Apple Stores out of their own markets.

There is a downside to all that stability, however. By limiting how low sellers can go, MAP keeps prices artificially high (or at least higher than they might otherwise be with unfettered price competition).

(Source: Why you can't get iPods at a discount)

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Hog shit

I've been catching up on my magazine reading and got to the December 18th issue of Rolling Stone magazine which has a long article on Smithfield Foods, America's largest pork producer. The article is basically all about the massive amount of pig shit that this company is producing and how it is has made one America's largest polluters.

An excerpt:
The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure. The reason it is so toxic is Smithfield's efficiency. The company produces 6 billion pounds of packaged pork each year. That's a remarkable achievement, a prolificacy unimagined only two decades ago, and the only way to do it is to raise pigs in astonishing, unprecedented concentrations.

Smithfield's pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs -- anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond.

The temperature inside hog houses is often hotter than ninety degrees. The air, saturated almost to the point of precipitation with gases from shit and chemicals, can be lethal to the pigs. Enormous exhaust fans run twenty-four hours a day. The ventilation systems function like the ventilators of terminal patients: If they break down for any length of time, pigs start dying.

From Smithfield's point of view, the problem with this lifestyle is immunological. Taken together, the immobility, poisonous air and terror of confinement badly damage the pigs' immune systems. They become susceptible to infection, and in such dense quarters microbes or parasites or fungi, once established in one pig, will rush spritelike through the whole population. Accordingly, factory pigs are infused with a huge range of antibiotics and vaccines, and are doused with insecticides. Without these compounds -- oxytetracycline, draxxin, ceftiofur, tiamulin -- diseases would likely kill them. Thus factory-farm pigs remain in a state of dying until they're slaughtered. When a pig nearly ready to be slaughtered grows ill, workers sometimes shoot it up with as many drugs as necessary to get it to the slaughterhouse under its own power. As long as the pig remains ambulatory, it can be legally killed and sold as meat.

The drugs Smithfield administers to its pigs, of course, exit its hog houses in pig shit. Industrial pig waste also contains a host of other toxic substances: ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals. In addition, the waste nurses more than 100 microbial pathogens that can cause illness in humans, including salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptocolli and girardia. Each gram of hog shit can contain as much as 100 million fecal coliform bacteria.

Smithfield's holding ponds -- the company calls them lagoons -- cover as much as 120,000 square feet. The area around a single slaughterhouse can contain hundreds of lagoons, some of which run thirty feet deep. The liquid in them is not brown. The interactions between the bacteria and blood and afterbirths and stillborn piglets and urine and excrement and chemicals and drugs turn the lagoons pink.

Even light rains can cause lagoons to overflow; major floods have transformed entire counties into pig-shit bayous. To alleviate swelling lagoons, workers sometimes pump the shit out of them and spray the waste on surrounding fields, which results in what the industry daintily refers to as "overapplication." This can turn hundreds of acres -- thousands of football fields -- into shallow mud puddles of pig shit. Tree branches drip with pig shit.

Some pig-farm lagoons have polyethylene liners, which can be punctured by rocks in the ground, allowing shit to seep beneath the liners and spread and ferment. Gases from the fermentation can inflate the liner like a hot-air balloon and rise in an expanding, accelerating bubble, forcing thousands of tons of feces out of the lagoon in all directions.

The lagoons themselves are so viscous and venomous that if someone falls in it is foolish to try to save him. A few years ago, a truck driver in Oklahoma was transferring pig shit to a lagoon when he and his truck went over the side. It took almost three weeks to recover his body. In 1992, when a worker making repairs to a lagoon in Minnesota began to choke to death on the fumes, another worker dived in after him, and they died the same death. In another instance, a worker who was repairing a lagoon in Michigan was overcome by the fumes and fell in. His fifteen-year-old nephew dived in to save him but was overcome, the worker's cousin went in to save the teenager but was overcome, the worker's older brother dived in to save them but was overcome, and then the worker's father dived in. They all died in pig shit.

(Link)

Disgusting, but a fascinating read.

No more Discovery Channel on Showtime

When did this happen? Apparently in the past couple of weeks since I last turned on the TV other than to watch a DVD, Showtime stopped carrying the Discovery Channel. I don't know why we even bother renewing our Showtime subscription. We watch less and less TV every year and Showtime just gets worse all the time.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

We're unionized and we didn't even know it

Pay increase

This is not new news. HM The Sultan ordered a 15% increase in basic pay for all civil servants a couple weeks ago. It was the first official pay increase for Omani civil servants in about 20 years. According to a friend in the HR industry, the average basic salary for Omani government employees is 200 rials only, so most of them will be getting about 30 extra rials a month, more or less. A college graduate who's been working 15 years might get 60 or 70 rials extra a month, depending on grade. That's almost $200, so it's not bad. But long overdue.

I have no issue or comment on the pay increase itself. The photo above is from a newspaper article that has been emailed all over the country about a week ago . According to the article, the president of the the "General Union for Omani Workers," Mr. Abduladhim Al Bahrani, is asking the private sector to follow His Majesty's lead by increasing their workers' pay by at least 10%, if not 15%.

Question, not that I disagree with his point of view, but: When was a union formed to represent me and when was Mr. Al Bahrani elected to speak on my behalf?

Where exactly is this union located, and being an Omani worker, am I automatically a member of it? Maybe I want to be an active member and want to take part in what they do? How do I make sure that their work is aligned with my views, and if it's not maybe I want to be there to represent those who are more like me.

Honestly, is there really a union or is this just an empty title put on Mr. Abduladhim by the ministry of manpower to make it look like Oman is progressive after signing the FTA with the US?

Correction: Mr. Abduladhim's is the Chairman of the General Federation of the Oman Trade Union.

Omani water not posh enough



A recent trend in Oman's more posh restaurant: serving exclusive or designer still water.

We went to lunch at The Chedi on the second day of eid. The waiter served us water from a brand I've never seen before. When I asked to see the bottle it turned out to be Speyside Glenlivet "quality" Scottish mineral water. When we were done with our bottle I asked the waiter if we can get some local mineral water instead. Quality or not, it didn't taste any different than any other water and didn't justify being 3 rials a bottle. The waiter disappeared for 5 minutes and came back to apologize that "we don't serve local water."

How very uncouth of me to ask.



Monday, January 01, 2007

It's a new year

- First of all, a very happy new year to you all, and by that I mean the few of you who still come to this blog despite our ever decreasing number of new posts. According to the blog stats this blog had 245 visitors in the past week. Not bad, I guess, considering that we haven't posted a thing all of December.

- We went to a New Year's party last night.
I've never been a party guy and I've been avoiding new years parties for years. Must be close to 10 years since I last been to one of these things. It was a private party and for once the music wasn't too loud and the crowd wasn't too weird.

- Speaking of parties and invitations, ever been invited somewhere and when you get there you realize that other than your host you don't really know anyone? I don't get this hodgepodge invitation thing. Even worse is when you're the only stranger in the bunch and they all know each other. The host is busy being the host and you're left with a bunch of people you don't know, but who all know one another and are having too much fun together to even bother to get to know you.

- Resolutions for 2007. I don't usually make resolutions, but goals for 2007 are: live healthier, get the house done by March and somehow find a way to furnish and move into it, blog more, be a better person. On the job front, much as I love my present job 2007 is the year I'm putting myself back in the market. I'm willing to look into new opportunities and new job offers. There are way too many exciting things happening right now in Oman and it's worth exploring what's available out there.