Saturday, August 25, 2007

Shift Happens.

Ladies and Gentleman, I hope you enjoyed your flight today. Please remain seated until the plane is parked at the gate. At no time in history has a passenger beaten a plane to the gate. So please don't even try. Please be careful opening the overhead bins because 'shift happens'.

A little over a month ago:

A friend of mine asked if I would be interested in joining him on his thirty-foot boat. He wanted to sail it from Sicily to Tunis and needed an answer fairly quickly.

I'm an adventurer, and such an opportunity was way too enticing to pass up. I'm also married, and such an opportunity must be discussed with my wife, who was "maybe" going to Washington on an international conference during that exact same period.

We talked it over. It was about a month before the conference was supposed to start and she hadn't heard anything. She had no idea whether she'd get accepted or not, and was even doubtful.

A couple days later, my friend needed to know if I was in or not. Siham, doubtful the conference was a go, reluctantly agreed to let me go on the trip.

I called my buddy, said I was in, and started daydreaming about my upcoming adventure on the sea.

Sure enough, it was the same evening that Siham got the acceptance email.

"Shift happens."

She came to me, imploring, "I have to go on this conference, it's really important for my career. You have to stay and take care of the baby."

"But I promised my friend I'd go."

We came to a compromise. Siham's parents and their maid would come and help out with Zack. I was going to call my friend and tell him, "If you can find another third, then I'm out. If not, I'll hang in until the last minute and can come if I'm really needed. I'll even hang in until the last minute in case someone cancels."

My parents heard Siham was coming to Washington for a month and were ecstatic. They automatically expected that I would come to Canada. But I was handcuffed to the If-needed-sailor promise which I refused to break.

Finally, yesterday, everyone confirmed for the sailing trip and I was free to travel and do what I wanted to.

I scoured the internet for deals on flights to Canada - Not an easy task leading up to labour-day weekend. There were absolutely no direct flights from Morocco until mid September. I assume they're booked with students returning for school.

I played with different dates and different airlines and finally got something for a little over a thousand bucks. Had I waited a week or so, I probably could have saved another hundred, but I thought it was best to just head off.

Aside from seeing my family, expenses were a big part of the decision. I can't help it, but the cheap economist in me saw it the following way:

I could stay in Rabat and pay for another month of food for my Parent's in law, brother in law and their maid, not to mention periodic family guests of theirs which seem to drop in every other day for a meal. In Morocco its just expected that the host pays for everything.

They've already been here for a month and I've noticed my grocery bill has more than tripled.

Or I could buy on a plane ticket and go eat Canadian home-cooked food for a month, visit my family and friends who want to see the new baby. Do a bit of hiking, biking, and enjoying the beautiful Canadian summers. The cost would probably work out to about the same.

Poker with the boys; take Zack to see Mommy at her conference in DC; do some work; watch the new Bourne Movie and the new Harry Potter movie; golf with my dad; visit my buddies in Toronto and Ottawa; check out the climbing scene in Ontario; apply for some jobs to improve Siham's chances at getting a visa; check out the job market and try to find a promising job so Siham can get accepted into Canada more easily.

I'm not sure if my parents in law are disappointed. They've been here to see Zack for the last month. I think they also understand that shift happens!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Property search Morocco.

Housing markets seem to have been on an unprecented run throughout much of the past decade. I thought that being in Morocco, a developing country, may have spared me the worst of arriving late on the scene. Oops!

To dissect the price of buying a new home, you are buying a plot of land and the cost of construction for the home. It shouldn't be too much more than the going rate for the land plus the going rate to build.

My interest in owning a little place in Morocco is to have somewhere to leave the collection of belongings my wife an I have accumulated over the previous two years. The cost of a decent small appartment, I anticipated to be in the $45,000-75,000 range.

In and around Rabat would be the ideal place. Being in touch with the expat community here, we could likely find someone to rent the place year round while Siham and I go to live in Canada.

So Siham called the Moroccan version of a real-estate agent, known as the Simsar. It's their business to be familiar with the network of other Simsars in the area of Rabat. Together they know everything for sale and for rent.

The first place we checked out was about a fifteen minute drive from us, out in the suburb called Temara. It was an appartment complex, and I have to admit the appartments were nice, only way way way too expensive.

For a 102 square metre appartment they wanted around $150,000

This is quite far out of Rabat, and surrounded by some pretty shoddy neighbourhoods.

Strike one.

The following day our search led us down the street from where we are currently renting. It was a partially filled development complex.
Something that confuses me about Rabat is that they built poor neighbourhoods right in the midst of rich ones - and the price of land in the rich neighbourhood inflates the price in the poorer neighbourhood to nearly the same level. The cost to buy a home in a beautiful neighbourhood surrounded by leafy tree lined streets and wide sidewalks is about the same price as it costs to buy in the raddy potholed streets with uneven dying trees, unpainted buildings and fences overgrown with weeds, right next door.

Our second day searching led us to one such disparity neighbourhood a couple of kilometres down the road from where we currently live. The neighbourhood is a dumping spot for expropriated families from around Rabat. In return for the land they did't own, they get an appartment. We inquired about building a home. A piece of land, so tiny it would be about the size of a deep double garage, would cost us around $110,000. That's more expensive than just outside of Toronto where I grew up.

My wife described the squatting culture of Rabat. While some families are legitimate farmers who happened to live and work the land for more than a generation, others are families who find a promising piece of land likely for future development and squat. They build their shack and wait for the gov't to relocate them to a nice appartment.
Next step, they sell or rent out the appartment, find another promising place to squat, and do the same thing over again.

I get home, in disbelief over the sky-high cost of owning a tiny piece of land. From our current rented appartment, I look out my back window and see nothing but forest for miles and miles. At least another 100,000 homes worth of land just in my line of sight. Yet a tiny piece of land a kilometer to the west costs $110,000

To build a little three floor home only costs another $50,000.

But there wouldn't be any backyard. The neighbours house is attached to yours. There's no yard for the kids to play safely, just a garbage-filled patch of uneven dirt nearby. There's no park with swings, people haven't even heard of grass. No football pitch anywhere within walking distance. The roads would be potholed within a few years. It's every man for himself. Buy your tiny patch of high priced land and build a home.

To compare. Back home in Canada, my sister and her husband just bought a $250,000 house. Four bedrooms, unfinished basement, and acres of land surrounding it.

What I don't understand is how the middle-class Moroccan can afford a home even with no surrounding land? Where's the money coming from for this balooning middle class who are driving up the cost of property in Rabat?

Salaries here are much much lower than Canada or Europe. A middle class salary in Morocco (of which there isn't nearly the same proportion as Canada) might be half or a third what a counterpart would make in the West. Shouldn't housing prices reflect that gap?

Price of 90 square metres on the outskirts of Rabat - $110,000
Price of a three story home built on it - $50,000

Some people swear that property is the best investment there is.
If you're looking at Rabat, I disagree. There are so many uncontrollables. Politics and policies, natural disasters, economies, global warming, baby boomer generation in decline, interest rates.

Our search continues. The next round will take us north, to the beaches, or to somewhere well outside of Rabat.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Sunscreen, the supposed life saver, can be dangerous.

I've known about the dangers of antiperspirant for a long time. They are thought to be cancerous, and as such, I've only ever used just the basic deodorant.
Now I hear about the trusted sunscreen. The product people were buying to protect themselves from the dangerous UV rays sneaking through the ozone layer. Such a saviour product can't dangerous, can it?
On the website, they rate different cosmetics for harmful chemicals. For sunscreens, there are two categories, one being effectiveness blocking out the suns harmful rays, and the other danger from other chemicals either untested or known to have negative side effects.
The results are startling.
Avon and coppertone, two well known brands, have particularly terrible ratings in both categories. Coppertone kids sunscreen scores a seven out of ten on their overall danger chart, including a 9 in the chemical health hazard category. Their waterbabies sunscreen scores an eight in the same category!
Other baby sunscreens have similar dismal ratings. And we are using them to protect our little darlings!
Some familiar names with high hazard ratings are: Walgreens; Neutrogena; Hawaiian Tropic; most products from AVON; most products from coppertone; estee Lauder; Mary Kay; Banana Boat; Olay; Alba.

Most of the recommended sunscreens with good ratings were from companies I'd never heard of. Here are a few of the good guys names:

Keys soap solar; Miessence Reflect; Badger; UV Natural; California baby; boscia; Lavera; Mustela

Check out www.cosmeticsdatabase for more info.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Immigrants aren't the only ones frustrated by Canada's stupid policies.

(Excerpt which didn't fit with a recent article, but I want to share nonetheless)

Foreigners aren’t the only ones complaining of the stifling immigration bureaucracy. For a Canadian citizen to be issued a new passport overseas, some of the things they need to provide are:

- A Canadian birth certificate or citizenship card,
- A guarantor form signed by a local official who has known the applicant for two years.

These criteria need to be met even when the applicant is trying to replace a valid passport, either near expiry or running out of pages.

Few international travellers think to carry their birth certificates. But even more ridiculous is how Canadian immigration expects someone visiting a foreign country to have known a (doctor, lawyer, police officer, etc.) for two years.

Picture this scenario. One traveller is having a fit over how to fulfill the ridiculous passport renewal requirements. A second Canadian traveller next to him asks for a letter of recommendation in order to apply for a visa to Sudan or Saudi Arabia.

Embassies such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia require such a letter before granting a visa.

With a valid Canadian passport and the fee of fifty dollars, the Canadian embassy will write something similar to the following.

“Humble greetings from the Canadian Embassy, etc, etc… We would like to guarantee that Mr. John Doe is a Canadian citizen. We would appreciate your hospitality by granting him a passage through your wonderful country, etc, etc…”

“Wait a second,” the first traveller says. “The Canadian embassy will guarantee I have a valid Canadian passport in a letter to some Sudanese guy? Yet they need guarantor forms and a birth certificate when it comes time to replace that exact same passport for Canada’s own purposes?”

I write this because I've experienced both situations.

It took an afternoon to get each of my two embassy letters swearing I was a Canadian citizen.

It took me six months to get my birth certificate found and shipped to Cairo so I could get my passport renewed in Egypt. Don't tell the RCMP and get me arrested for forgery and fraud, but I only knew the dentist who signed my guarantor form for six months. It was either that or be stuck in Egypt illegally for two years.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Maxing Mini a major marketing mistake

There are several special vehicles in the world. For me, the VW Beetle tops that list. Another really special car is the Mini.


Well, for one, because it's so small! It reminds me of my childhood, playing with micromachines. It's Mr Bean's car, the one he put the brick on the gas pedal so he could change out of his pajamas.

It's historic, storied, classic. It's smallest car out there - thus its name, the mini. It's been reinvented brilliantly, yet remained tiny, and with lots of BMW pep under the hood!

BMW, the owners of Mini, are creating two new Mini cars. One an elongated version of the mini called the Mini Clubman. And another, an SUV called the Mini Colorado

It's a tempting thing for a company to lock onto a winner and try to extend the brand. But in the case of the Mini, it's a monumental mistake.

Take the word Mini. Miniature, small, tiny, little, puny, pipsqueek, etc.

That's why people love it. Beautiful things come in small packages. It's a statement, unique because it's the smallest. In a world of huge SUV's and guzzling sedans, the mini is refreshing. It makes it cool to own small.

And they want to make it bigger?

Big mistake!

If they want to alter it, they should change the shape slightly, add bells and whistles, sunroofs, convertibles. DONT MAKE IT BIGGER! A bigger car is not the Mini. It's a BMW. If I wanted a bigger car, I wouldn't buy a mini.
At best, you are capturing the interest of a few mini owners. At worst, you are pissing off your traditional market who have bought over one million mini cars to date.

As for mini stock - Probably a short sell.

I might be wrong, I'm made mistakes before. But so have car companies.