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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Ecological Devastation and Me Or swimming in an oil spill

I am at the forefront of the ecological devastation of the world because of fossil fuels and I only realized it today. The religious holiday of Eid has passed, and my company gave me three days off. For those in the West who don't know, Eid marks the end of the month long fasting period of Ramadan, where in Muslim countries it is illegal to eat, drink, or smoke in public during the day. Private fornication is also forbidden during the day as well, which is the mark of a very holy period of time in my book.

To mark the holiday I went with some friends to Fujairah, a rural neighboring Emirate that is mostly rocky desert and beach. The beaches are not as nice as the ones in Dubai in terms of having lifeguards, no poor people, and lawn chairs with towels, but the snorkeling to be had is amazing. I saw a shark (predators almost always have frowns on their faces), sea tortoises eating in reefs, and many different fish. I also saw oil.

There are two types of oil spills. There are large oil spills that cover miles with goopy tar. These tend to be publicized. Then there are small, constant oil spills that come from underegulated off shore drilling. I saw the latter. The oil that comes from these drills and from the ships that carry the oil is not big and goopy, but small and black and in a hard shell form. They are tiny specks that if squeezed turn into real oil, and they stain your skin and make it sticky. I was only yesterday in the water, and after two showers I still have some oil on my feet. It is disgusting stuff and it made my eyes and throat burn.

I can't imagine what it does to things that depend on the sea to live, but I would imagine that it isn't good. The oil comes in waves, depending on the tidal times. It leaves streaks across the dark brown sand, and these streaks look like little black pebbles. They're not of course, because when you step on them, the weight of your body turns them back into oil. Everyone who has done basic science in school knows that oil and water don't mix, so I would think it is going to be quite difficult for all that oil to be turned back into water. Or at least it's going to take a lot of human and animal contact to absorb the poison.

But it's the stuff that makes my car go in the morning and the evening, and it is what has allowed me to come to work today and write this blog entry (I don't have internet access at home). So maybe the devastation of the gateway of the Arabian Gulf to the Indian Ocean through the Gulf of Oman was worth it.

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

My car has been repaired

For about a couple weeks now, I have been back driving. Total cost to repair the damage: 350 dirhams (95 dollars). My insurance company will cover any damage up to 5000 dirhams worth (1359 dollars) for each claim, and all I have to pay is the 350 dirham cover. That's dramatically cheaper than anywhere in the developed world.

What's the catch? For a door ding like the one I had, it took 12 days to repair, and 2-3 days for the body shop to haggle with the insurance company. In America, the repair would probably take 4 days max. The insurance company had to send someone over to the shop to make the final judgment, and that takes time. But to go on for 12 days after that is a bit too long. Also, because my insurance costs were reduced because I had a no claims form, I wasn't given a rental car. That meant using cabs again. I hate cabs.

The job they did though was quite professional, and the car looks brand new. For a developing country the services here are quite good, but occasionally they are a little slow. A typical blowhard Western expat complaint, I will try to hold back next time.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Uh-oh

I less than 4 weeks of ownership, I have already damaged my car. I bumped into a pole while reparking the car and following the orders of a worker who was trying to direct me against incoming traffic.

The damage is on one door, and on a rear panel above one of the rear wheels. The damage is all on the same side.

I waited with my roommate over two hours in 45 degree heat waiting for the police to come in order to get the necessary police report that will allow me to legally repair my car. I almost died that day.

The good news, well it really isn't good news just sort of not bad news, is that my insurance company will charge me only 350 dirhams. I believe they cover everything else, but I'm not too certain. If someone believes otherwise, let me know.

I'll lose my car for a few days, and I have to drive all the way back to Sharjah. Sharjah is far away from me, and taking a cab back and forth is a bit pricey. Ugh.

Hopefully the repairs can be done quickly. Otherwise I might not repair the car for a bit!

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

I am Mobile

A few days ago, I purchased a brand new 2006 (as opposed to a 2007) Opel Astra.

A few days ago, I purchased a car from General Motors.

I like this car.

Kind of a shocker right? An American buying American? Well it's not really an American car. It uses a lot of American parts, but final assembly is in Belgium, and a lot of the engineering and design came from Germany. But Opel has been part of the GM empire since 1929. The car may be German, but the profits go back to Detroit for every one sold.

GM can make quality cars. I drive one. The Opel Astra is a best seller throughout Europe, it has largely seen positive reviews from the automotive press, and is a great alternative to the VW Golf.

And yet GM is screwing it up. Here in Dubai, they don't sell Opels. Instead the Opel dealership is in the neighbouring emirate of Sharjah. That's why in Dubai you rarely see Opels. Instead in Europe they are ubiquitous. Here they are a rarity.

Seeing a car here that is of such high quality being produced by General Motors, yet not sold in that company's largest market, America, showcases the myriad problems GM faces.

How is it that the German arm of GM can make great cars, yet the American arm, which is far larger and houses the entire conglomerate's headquarters, is virtually incapable of producing a quality small car? Why?

I think the answer lies in organization. I don't think Germans make better cars than Americans because they are German. I think they make better cars because their companies and bureaucracies are smaller. Holden of Australia, Opel of Germany make great vehicles people want. GM of America doesn't. Volvo, a Swedish subsidiary of Ford, makes great cars people want, Ford of America doesn't. Ford's smaller semi-independent European arm does well too.

The point is that the problems GM faces are due not to an American "cultural" issue, as many claim. They are due to the fact that the company is too big. It is too bulky to make good decisions. Committees rule the day there.

Look at Toyota. Toyota is quickly becoming the GM of Japan. In America the company now has three marques, Scion, Toyota, and Lexus. Their cars aren't of the same class leading quality they once were. They've just delayed the new Toyota Corolla. This isn't a perfect company anymore because it's just too big. It won't shrink any time soon, but it won't stay on top forever. Not now, but maybe in 20 years, a clever Chinese car company will come around and beat it. Or maybe Korean. We are seeing the cracks in the surface, and they are because of imperial overstretch. What happened to GM is now happening to Toyota. But it will take decades, literally decades for Toyota's momentum to stop. However, it already has for GM.

So GM needs to shrink. It needs to collapse a little bit. Not just in terms of laying off the factory worker, he or she doesn't make design decisions, transmission decisions, no what they need to do is get rid of the numerous copycat sedans they sell. There shouldn't be an Impala or a Malibu being sold against Toyota's one vehicle, the Camry, for that market segment. They should combine the two vehicles, and give more freedom to the design team. Be daring. Make cars that are exciting. Otherwise we won't buy any of them.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

GM and Renault and Nissan

I was planning on doing a series on what people drive in Dubai, and their place in the city's caste system, but because of this enormous piece of news, I must make a comment.

As most of you know by now, Renault/Nissan and the infamous Carlos Ghosn (le Cost Cutter as he is known in France) has begun talks to purchase a stake in General Motors. Kirk Kerkorian, the Las Vegas mafia front man who owns 10 percent of General Motors is said to be instigating this move by Ghosn and Renault.

My initial reaction to all of this has been some shock. But now that I work in a large corporation, I can see what issues are at play, and why Ghosn would be interested in this move.

From a corporate perspective, it would mean short term benefits for Nissan. Nissan and even Renault would be able to build their cars in the US, paying for them in dollars, which are worth less than Euros. That would save them money.

From a historical perspective it would feed Ghosn's ego. He would head by far, the largest car conglomerate in the world. At least for a while.

For Kerkorian it would mean a considerable rise in the stock value of GM, and a nice short term profit. Then Kerkorian, an 89 year old man, could go to his grave with a smile on his face. The future of either company is of little concern to him.

The long term problems would be considerable though from a merger expense perspective. The expenditures to make GM parts and Nissan parts be the same would be enormous. The cost to convert factories to one system would be enormous. Vehicles would start to look the same across the board. Look at Nissan and Renault now, especially the Tiida and the Megane. Both are quite similar, yet one is supposed to be Japanese and the other is supposed to be French. Customers notice these things, and sales have dropped for both companies.

In the end car companies sell essentially the same product, but must make an effort to superficially differentiate what they sell. They do that with different types of ride and handling, and of course design and power. Engines are the most expensive part of a car, and so you can expect this merger to immediately unify all engines produced by the company. That will mean noticeable similarities between 4 cylinder engines in Renaults and Pontiacs. That is probably not a good thing.

At the end of the day, this is the fault of GM's management. Cautiousness, ineptitude have ruled the day in Detroit, and driven down the stock price to such a low level that it is now conceivable that the world's largest car company will be purchased by a second rate player like Renault/Nissan. Regardless of what happens, Wagoner's head should roll.

More on this later.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

1.6 litre or 2.0

I have all but given up purchasing a used car. Now my goal is to buy an Opel Astra, perhaps one of the few quality small cars GM produces. This car intrigues because of the fact that it is not sold in the US (but will be soon as a Saturn), and because it is generally considered a high quality German engineered machine. Even though it is produced under the enormous American umbrella that is General Motors, the Opel subsidiary, at least to my knowledge, seems to be a somewhat independent entity.

But I must wait. I have only been working at my company for two months, and another month must pass before I am officially off "probation" and get all the goodies and bonuses that are given when you work for an international conglomerate. GM vehicles at a discount is one of these goodies.

So I am left with the Astra. The Corsa is too dated and too small, the Vectra too big, the Chevrolets too cheap or ugly, the GMCs and other trucks too expensive and vulgar. Astra once again.

The Astra, for those who don't know, is the size of a Golf. It is considered a family car in Europe, and the car of an elf or a western expat in the Middle East. I am an expat.

What is remarkable about the Astra, is that even though it is an extremely popular car in Europe, especially in the UK and Germany, I have to date only seen one in Dubai. Of any model year. In fact I haven't seen many Opels altogether.

Why? The answer probably lies in the fact that the Opel dealership is in Sharjah, the neighboring Emirate (but really almost a continuation of Dubai). Now this worries me. If the car dealership is in Sharjah, will I be charged extra for having the car registered in Dubai, where I live? Hopefully not.

My other big dilemma is the engine size. Is a 1.6 capable of cooling my body and maintaining highway worthy speeds in Dubai? The 2.0 would probably succeed, but insurance is higher, as well as price.

Does anyone know? What should I do? I'd rather have the 1.6, but I'm worried it won't be enough. And the 2.0, while expensive now, would probably be a vehicle I could be happy with for a few years to come as my career progresses and my income grows too. When I'm a big CEO and we have the monthly engine size comparison contest, a 2.0 won't merit as much of a ribbing. I'm taking a five year loan out, so this is important!

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Buying a Car is Hell

The search for a used car has probably met an end as I simply cannot find a quality used car in this country that I trust or like. I have test driven five vehicles, and I feel the used car dealers in this country are not reputable, or charge outrageous prices. My company allows me to get a huge deal on GM cars, and I think I am going to go with a new Opel Astra. I have yet to test drive one, but I plan to do so soon. The prices for new Astras are quite good, and I recently sat in an almost new VW Golf, a chief competitor to the Astra, and I liked the strength of the engine, as well as the strength of the A/C, as it battled 40 degree temperatures outside. Good enough for me, and a small 4 cylinder will be very cheap to fill up in this area of the world as well.

After sitting in dozens of cars, and test driving several others, I have to say it is quite clear in terms of initial quality that German cars are better made. Japanese cars are second, and American cars are a distant third. The interior quality of the Ford Mondeo and Euro-Focus, are decent, but still noticeably lacking. The Chevrolets are a disappointment, especially in terms of exterior aesthetics. Media photographs simply do not do these cars justice. German cars tend to photograph uglier, but in fact they are incredible inside. A colleague of mine recently bought a VW Golf, 2005 model, with only 20k km on the odometer, and the quality is stunning inside. They really are beautiful cars. I hope that an Astra will at least be comparable.

I will write more on this topic later, and soon. Needless to say, my experiences have been very eye-opening in many ways.

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