The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Friday afternoon potpourri

Randomness:

Really. January.

Economic analysis of Dubai and the UAE

The Duke CCMBA has a five-term course called "Culture, Civilization, and Leadership" that gives us structures to help us understand—wait for it—cultures and civilizations. At the end of each term, each team produces a paper analyzing the place in which we started the term. This term, I drew the short straw volunteered to write the first draft. We just submitted the final paper, after a few days of revisions. If you're interested, here it is.

We didn't put it in the paper, but throughout the process, I kept hearing Ozymandias in my head. Can't think why:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

We'll see.

The price of free

Would you take more free stuff, or more stuff you pay for? Probably the latter, according to Duke University professor Dan Ariely:

DAN ARIELY: ... [T]here's some interesting exceptions [to cheaper prices being better]. And the most interesting one is the price of free. Imagine that one of your co-workers comes to the office with home-baked cookies, and she's offering you the cookies for a very cheap price. Let's say 5 cents per cookie. And she has 100 cookies on the tray, and there are 20 people in the office. How many cookies will you take?

KAI RYSSDAL: I'd probably take like five. I'd give her a quarter, and take five cookies.

ARIELY: OK, but what would happen if it was free?

RYSSDAL: Well, now see, I'm torn here, because I would either take a lot and be a real piggy, or I would take maybe one or two because I wouldn't want to be a glutton.

The entire conversation was on Marketplace tonight.

Passage to India

Silly me for forgetting that U.S. citizens need visas to visit India. (I'm usually more up on those things.) So yesterday I got mine, for the CCMBA Delhi residency.

Color me impressed. Travisa, the company that the Indian government employs to handle their visa processing, had me in and out in 15 minutes to drop off my application, then sent me a text the same afternoon letting me know my passport had come back, then had me in and out in 90 seconds in the afternoon. Total time spent getting the visa, including filling out the application: about 2½ hours, of which almost 2 hours was spent on buses getting to and from the Travisa office.

I sincerely hope (without much confidence) that China and Russia make it similarly easy.

Dubai cultural disconnect

The Duke CCMBA has a novel structure that includes two courses that spread out across five of the six terms. One of these, "Cultures, Civilization, and Leadership," aims to give us the context and a set of tools to deal with the myriad cultures we encounter during the program and after. The class requires us to compose a "cultural disconnect" essay each term, which the rest of the class, rather than the professors, evaluates.

Here's mine for Dubai. (The essay refers to some diagnostic and cultural tools we've used in the course, including Cornelius Grove's cultural dimensions and the Duke Inter-Cultural Expressions (ICE) profile.)


Trading commodities underpins the financial industry in my home city, Chicago. Contracts worth billions of dollars for corn, soybeans, and hog bellies (sometimes with the hogs still attached) pass through the Chicago Mercantile Exchange every day. The CME will soon phase out its open-outcry pits, but they still exist, and traders still yell and scream to keep the buy-sell spreads as small and as reflective of market conditions as possible.

The Dubai spice souk does very much the same thing in the same way: in it, people trade commodities and fix the prices based on yelling at each other.

I should mention right now, I’m not a trader. I write software for traders, and I think they’re great people, mostly. But people become traders because they feel a rush over getting one more sixteenth of a dollar on a put option. I’m happy to help, but I’m the last person anyone would want in a trading pit. Here’s why.

The day before our culture dash, I took the Dubai Metro across the Creek and walked through Deira to explore. My Lonely Planet guide not only told me where to find the spice and gold souks, but also gave me some information on something called “bargaining.” Because I’ve seen the CME I could understand the theory behind this phenomenon. Apparently, like at CME, people exchange things of value for money after yelling at each other. The scale is smaller and slower (grams instead of tonnes, dirhams instead of millions of dollars, hours instead of milliseconds), but the idea, I had read, was the same.

I poked around the spice souk for a few minutes, dodging the fake Rolex hawkers, and found a shop run by Ali and Malik. They both welcomed me in and immediately started pointing out the spices for sale: curry powder, rose petals, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, all right there in small bins. To emphasize the quality of the merchandise Ali physically maneuvered me from one bin to another and merrily explained what each spice was and what it was for. I nodded a lot and demonstrated my deep spice knowledge by saying things like “saffron” when he pointed at the cloves, for example. Malik, meanwhile, wandered in an out of the store, chuckling to himself.

I asked for about 50g each of four spices. Ali scooped them into bags and weighed them, informing me eventually that each bag had somehow become 60g (no cultural disconnect there—they “accidentally” add about 10% to every weighed item at the local Whole Foods, too). Then we stared at each other.

Ali, no dummy, realized that I completely missed the point about bargaining: the parties actually have to come up with a price before they can consummate the sale, which requires that someone make an offer. Ali also understood that “strategic silence” (something else I’ve read about in books on negotiating) might result in me blurting out a number so high that he would feel bad (but not that bad) taking it from me.

Finally he gave up and blurted out, “OK.” Then he consulted a dog-eared booklet, typed in some numbers, got out a calculator, and showed me what it said. After a little mental arithmetic I realized two things: (a) the price quoted for the spices in the bag were easily one-half what they would cost in Chicago; and (b) Ali would never sell these spices at that price to anyone who knew the first thing about bargaining.

This year’s Lonely Planet: Dubai promised that the real price for something will be 20% to 50% less than the opening offer. It also said that some people hate bargaining. Somewhere between these two facts, I offered 20% below the quoted price, and after several minutes managed to get a 10% discount on Ali’s opener. (In my defense this represented both producer surplus and consumer surplus, which means everyone got something he wanted out of the transaction.)

So what happened? My ICE profile shows I’m a typical Midwest-raised American. I have a Direct communication style in Ambiguity in Communication, and I’m Reserved in almost every indicator of space context. In other words, I prefer quiet, to-the-point discussions (not that I haven’t had less-than-quiet arguments every now and again), with less touching and more physical distance than even many other Americans. In the souk I faced an experienced bargainer with considerably more information about the transaction than I had, moving closer, and raising his voice.

Another factor: when viewed through Grove’s Cultural Dimensions, in this transaction Ali and I came from opposite ends of the Uncertainty Avoidance continuum. To Ali, not knowing the final price was expected; to me, it was disconcerting. Grove maps low Uncertainty Avoidance to informal interactions, lackadaisical recordkeeping, and informal norms; higher Uncertainty Avoidance shows formality in interactions, a desire for ordered data, formal procedures, and calculated risks.

As a reserved Midwesterner, I don’t usually interact with anyone while shopping until I’m ready to buy something. Then, I expect to pay the offered price (except for cars and real property, two important exceptions). If a merchant offers an item for sale at a price I think too high, I simply don’t buy it from her, without comment. A shop that offered items at 20% to 50% over the market-clearing price would soon go out of business in Chicago, as locals would think the place was a rip-off.

In Ali’s world, who can say what the price will be? He does know, to some extent, what his boss paid for the spices, and he knows he should sell them for more than that, but so what? A tourist might walk in any time and pay 50% over cost for a tiny bag of curry powder.

This style of trading is a vestige of the region’s long history of nomadic, barter-based society. In the desert, traders...well, traded, not for abstractions like money but for real things that they needed. They lived in an uncertain, hostile environment. A thing’s value could change from day to day, as conditions shifted or as they acquired other items through trade. Spices, in particular, had huge gyrations in value as they came through the region in large quantities but at irregular intervals. To imagine that you could trade a measure of cloves for an unvarying, arbitrary amount of bronze from one day to the next would be considered foolish; to imagine you could exchange it for paper would be considered insane.

In the end, I came to a rapprochement with Ali, when my entire team invaded his store the next day on the Culture Dash. I may have paid too much the day before, but for the extra business I brought him, and for taking a bag of pistachios for 80% of his first offered price (“for you, 20% off!” How could I refuse?), he gave us some cinnamon at the best price he could offer: free.

Quick update

Remember how I mentioned packing for two out of the three climates I expected to encounter on this trip? I should note that I expected London to be warmer than Chicago. I also expected that I would only be outside in Chicago traveling from the O'Hare tram to my car, and my car to my apartment.

I'm debating finding a wollens store and buying a good, heavy, Scottish sweater.

Our next residency lets me do the same thing only moreso, when I get to go from Chicago to Delhi, India, at the end of January. At least I'll have a heavy coat, gloves, and a hat with me on the trip. One of my classmates mentioned how cold Delhi gets in winter, but I think she meant "relative to summer" and not "relative to what anyone else would consider cold."

This isn't a complaint, of course. In Chicago, if you complain about any temperature warmer than, say, -20°C, you're just whining. So I'm not complaining. I'm just acknowledging that I'm dressed inappropriately for the weather.

Bonus photo from half an hour ago. I'm definitely not in Dubai anymore:

In transit

I've stopped in London for a day and a half to get my bearings and ease the transition back to real life. Also because it was less expensive than changing my return flight to the U.S. or staying one more night in Dubai.

Some observations:

  • This isn't your granddad's British Airways. The flight from Dubai landed early, and the flight's bags got to the carousel before the passengers. Yes, you say, because British immigration takes forever. No! I say, because from the plane stopping at the gate (in their spanking-new Terminal 5) to baggage claim took me 20 minutes. You can't even get from the gate to immigration at O'Hare Terminal 5 that fast.
  • While walking around South Kensington last night, I heard a weird snapping sound across the street from me. It turned out a fox was trying to remove a windshield wiper from a car. I must have spooked it because it jumped off the car and scooted into a nearby shrubbery when I looked at it. South Kensington is right smack in London's Zone 1—equivalent (in many ways) to Lincoln Park in Chicago, or the West Village in New York. You don't expect to see foxes in dense residential neighborhoods just like you don't expect to find coyotes in the drink cooler at a downtown Chicago Quizno's.
  • In Dubai you might see a shawerma restaurant next to a Lebanese restaurant, both with Arabic signs. In London last night I saw a shawerma place next to a Lebanese place, both with Arabic signs, but with a wine shop between them. That you don't see in Dubai.
  • Right now it's 34°C in Dubai, 4°C in London, and 14°C in Chicago. Good thing I packed for two out of three climates.

I am now off to explore this area of London, once I work out what day, time, and month it is.

Ante-pre-wrap (Dubai residency day 8)

The second CCMBA residency ended officially about an hour ago, so all that remains is the drinking. And the packing. And the flying to London and thence Chicago, and not having a functioning laptop for either flight.

One last photo for today, then on to other (if not better) things. I mentioned the Burj Dubai earlier, with factual comparisons to other tall buildings. I neglected to mention that it simply doesn't seem that tall, because it tapers to such a thin profile.

Last night, on the way to the desert dinner, I finally saw it from a perspective that convinced me, yes, it's really bloody tall:

Pity it hasn't opened yet. I might have gone up to see the view.

Placeholder (Dubai residency day 7)

The good news: our professor extended the deadline for our Cultural Disconnect paper until tomorrow. The bad news: tomorrow at 6am. This is almost a distinction without difference, some of us muttered, and it means that I will probably submit the paper at 12:05 instead of 11:55.

While I'm doing that, you can see more photos. First, our hotel and its sister building:

Another photo of the Dubai Creek:

And the view out my hotel window, of the Dubai International Finance Center (also known as "the Gate"):

More tomorrow, in the brief moment between the end of classes and the start of the party.