Monday, January 9, 2012

Return of the Misc Box

As I described here, when we left Chicago, all of our careful packing ended with a pile of relatively unrelated items and an empty box. If we couldn't think of anyplace else it belonged, it went in that container: the Misc Box.

Now, as we leave Abu Dhabi, we are left with another Misc Box. (note: the boxes are smaller this time, so there are actually two)

Packing it is a matter of necessity. We can't take everything in suitcases, we don't need everything with us before we find an apartment, so it makes sense to ship it and store it. That's the only consideration.

But I wonder what they will be like to unpack? Will we be wondering why there are a handful of wall socket adapters, some playing cards and a bag of garam masala tucked into a springform pan? Will we be excited as we pull out a game we had forgotten about? Unfurl a poster we were thrilled to find?

I don't know the answer. But I can't wait to find out.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What would you do?

People living in the UAE consider it very safe. Violent crime is minimal and, for the most part, limited to the rather dismal industrial areas and prefab cities where "laborers," i.e., construction workers, are housed in massive, cramped barracks.

The main reason for this is that the justice system is horribly out of whack and you don't want to get caught up in it, even if you're innocent. If you're guilty (or found guilty), even some of the most minor offenses, like shoplifting, can get you deported. And for most of the blue-collar folks here--in other words, the have-nots, those most likely to commit theft--that's an economic death sentence, as their home countries offer worse wages, worse living conditions and fewer opportunities.

So what would you do if this happened to you?

Paying the taxi, I realised I'd left my wallet in the car. I called the girl at the service centre and headed back to Al Habtoor. I was laughing and joking with her as we got to the car together and I picked up my wallet, which had been relieved of its cash contents, about Dhs400 in all.

It didn't sink in at all until later. Someone had actually taken money from my car. To those of you living elsewhere, this will come as no surprise, you're probably sitting there thinking, 'Like, obviously, duh' and I appreciate why you would. But I live in one of the safest places in the world. We're all of us on the hog's back here, from labourers through to CEOs we're all in the UAE because we're better off than we would be back at home. Any criminal conviction, once you've done your time in El Slammer, means getting sent home and so crime, for the vast majority of us, doesn't pay.

The service centre manager was, I was told, investigating. After a while, he'd drawn a blank and, well, that was sort of that, really. I asked him to call the police. He said they wouldn't do anything, he'd had experience of this sort of thing before. I insisted. He refused. I pointed out it was his secure area, his employee and his responsibility. He said they had internal procedures and he couldn't call the police. I asked him to escalate to someone who could call the police and he ignored me. It all got a little heated. It wasn't really about Dhs400 by now, but about someone who had chosen to steal from me. I called the police myself. After ringing out twice, the 999 number answered. I had tried calling police HQ, but they didn't answer at all. You do wonder sometimes.

The CID chap turned up, a young chap in a baseball cap and dishdash. The service centre manager and I explained (he had no English) and he nodded sagely and took my ID, borrowing a pen and piece of paper from the manager to write down my details. Watching him, I was strongly reminded of our friend captain Mohammed filling out Paul's charge sheet in Olives, his tongue stuck out in concentration...

At this point one of the service staff popped in and put a wad of money on the manager's desk and murmered a name. I got the impression the staff had taken matters into their own hands - nobody really wants CID snooping around their workplace asking awkward questions. The culprit was called for - the most stupid thief imaginable - the man whose job it was to drive the cars around to the storage area prior to work commencing. He had already been through 20 minutes of questioning with the manager before the police were called and had professed his innocence. Now he broke down and pleaded for mercy.

On the one hand, you have been robbed. Dh400 is about US$100, not a ton of money but not trivial either. And there is principle to consider as well; no one likes the idea of a wrongdoer simply getting away with it.

On the other hand, in the U.S. stealing $100 would be a misdemeanor. The offender gets a fine, maybe some community service. Jail time is not likely unless they are wanted for some other crime too. To me, that's appropriate. It's punishment commensurate with the severity of the theft. In the UAE, as we see above, that guy is getting tossed out of the country, whether he winds up in court or not. I'm not sure I would want that on my conscience.

It actually reminds me of something that happened to me and Mrs. Blog the last time we were in the World's Greatest City. While walking back to our hotel on Michigan Avenue, a commotion broke out at a sidewalk restaurant ahead of us. A young man came sprinting out of the crowd, followed by cries of, "Stop that guy! He stole my phone!" I and a couple of other people who happened to be in front of him kind of corralled him and kept him from running. The woman whose phone had been jacked ran up and yelled at him. We let go of his arms and he gave the phone back.

And then everyone kind of unconsciously took a step back as the woman continued to berate him. He apologized, she shouted one last obscenity at him, and then he jogged away.

No one stopped him. Why? Again, I think it is that feeling that maybe holding this guy and calling the police might be a bit too much. He stole something, he got caught, end of story. I'm not sure that was the right thing to do, but collectively, that's what everyone apparently decided. If it happened again--or, more important, if Mrs. Blog or I were the person whose phone had been stolen--I might do things differently and get the police involved.

But here, having seen the way the police and courts operate, I think I would be predisposed toward not allowing them to punish someone for a minor theft. Right or wrong, I think I would rather get my money back and leave it at that. Justice may or may not have been served, but my life would barely be affected by losing Dh400, and it seems disproportionate to ruin someone else's life as a result.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Now you see it, now you... never saw it

As I put it to Friend of the Blog Chris, it's gratifying to see that science has finally caught up with our imaginations. The science experiment I'm about to describe is pretty mind-bending, and I admit I don't totally understand the science behind it. (Although, it should be noted, that's fair because Dammit, Jim, I'm a writer, not a scientist.)

But wow, is this ever intriguing. I haven't read the original journal article, but based on what I have seen elsewhere, it works something like this: by slowing the speed of light from an event by passing it through a denser material but leaving the light from the event's surroundings unchanged, you can make it seem as though that event never happened.
The entire experiment occurred inside a fiber optics cable. Researchers passed a beam of green light down the cable, and had it move through a lens that split the light into two frequencies, one moving slowly and the other faster. As that was happening, they shot a red laser through the beams. Since the laser “shooting” occurred during a teeny, tiny time gap, it was imperceptible.
My questions--again, writer, not scientist--revolve around what happens to the light from the event itself. Yes, it is slowed down, but it is not eliminated. Doesn't it arrive at the viewer at some point? Does that create some kind of a weird double-image later in time?

In any event, the same article quoted above notes, using present technology it would take a device more than 18,000 miles long to mask an event lasting one second. But still. Think of how many one-second events have changed history: a gunshot, a kiss, a word. This wouldn't let you alter events, exactly, but it would obviously do a number on how they were perceived.

The imagination boggles. Which, I guess, is great if you're a writer... or, it seems, a scientist.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

Well, Friends of the Blog, the holidays have slowed down my posting frequency. I hope you'll understand, and I'll try to illustrate my reasons with pictures if possible.

Christmas is an interesting affair here in the UAE. The malls and big stores are onboard with the holiday 100 percent--hey, it's another reason to spend money! The halls are all decked with boughs of fake holly, massive Christmas trees are erected, banners are hung from the rafters with care, and so on. The mall next to our current hotel digs even had a Santa, and there was always at least a small line of kids waiting to have their picture taken and tell him all about that Red Ryder BB gun they really, really wanted.

But of course, when you're 7,500 miles from home, there is still one crucial thing missing: family. (and snow, if you're into that kind of thing) No long table laden with turkey, no bowl games--yeah, even the crappy pre-New Year's games--no pretending that pair of socks from Aunt Doris really IS the most exciting gift anyone has ever received.

Although I do love a good pair of socks. I have big feet. But anyway.

When you're an expat, you have to make do. You're in unusual surroundings… do something unusual! So naturally we all planned a bowling party in honor of Jesus' birthday at the only alley in town that serves beer. And, as luck would have it, they catered in a turkey dinner too. Win-win-win. What about presents? you ask. Well, we also did a draw-a-number-and-pick-a-gift Secret Santa. That's how I wound up with this lovely ceramic coffee cup:

I love coffee and I love my name. Perfect!

Christmas weekend in general was pretty amazing, too. We had a fantastic brunch on the 23rd that ended up at one of the new beach clubs on Abu Dhabi's newest and betest island, Saadiyat. Saadiyat means "happiness," by the way, and although I have strong suspicions (sorry, Sheikh Mo) that most of its grand plans won't amount to anything, you can see why sitting on a beach out there might make a guy happy:

The sun sets on my last December 23 ever in the UAE.

Christmas Eve was another great get-together at another friend's house, filled with food, fun and Doyle-made Brandy Alexanders. There were Christmas crackers…

Filled with bad jokes and a crown.

… and fond holiday wishes. Also a fair amount of conversation about the caption to the sunset photo.

After nearly three years here, we're leaving the UAE. The National has led us to some tremendous experiences, and we have gotten to explore a region that most people we know will never visit. Fjords in Oman, cave dwellings in Turkey, pyramids in Egypt, ancient cities in Jordan--the list of once-in-a-lifetime type moments is long.

But we're ready to leave desert life, despite some really amazing winters (just LOOK at that sunset photo), behind. So in January, we're hopping a flight to Hong Kong. It's bigger, it's greener and perhaps most important, it's where my next job is, as an editor at what most people consider the leading international newspaper in the world. The move heralds another fascinating step in our lives since I left the Tribune.

Both Mrs. Blog and I are excited about seeing what Hong Kong, China and greater Asia have to offer. Just being in reach of amazing dim sum is enough to bring a smile to my face. There are going to be challenges--it is a tremendously crowded region, and Hong Kong is 95 percent Chinese, meaning there is a much higher language barrier than we're used to--but overcoming them will, I think, be part of the fun.

It will be sad to say goodbye to the good friends we have made here. But moving to Hong Kong means our new year is starting out with a bang--just the way the Chinese like it.

Here's to your 2012 getting off to a colorful, exciting, amazing start. Happy New Year!