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Qatar, Part II Posted on: 3/7/08 at 12:02:23 PM

I've been in Qatar for over two months now, so I am more than over due for a new entry. At this point I've settled in and thing have become much more routine. I've managed to keep myself quite busy and thus writing updates has taken a low priority. Fears that I would get bored here have proved to be unfounded at least for now. Quite a lot of stuff has happen so I'm not sure where to start.

I'll start with teaching since that is the main reason I'm here. I'm a teaching assistant for 3 classes, algorithm design and analysis (15-451), effective programming in C and Unix (15-123) and introduction to computer systems (15-213). Unfortunately 15-123 meets at 8:30 am and algorithm design and analysis meets at 4:00 pm. I also decided to take technology consulting in the community (15-391). More on that later. Algorithms in my main priority since there are 14 people in that class and this is the first semester that algorithms has been offered in Qatar. 13 people in the class are seniors and for 11 of them (including Meg, the other TA from Pittsburgh) it is the one course they need to graduate. This is the first year that Carnegie Mellon Qatar will be graduating students, supposedly both the president of Carnegie Mellon and the emir of Qatar's wife will be attending the ceremony so there is a lot of pressure to make sure as many students as possible pass the class. At the same time, since the students will be getting the same degree as Carnegie Mellon Pittsburgh, it is our job to make sure they are up to Pittsburgh standards. To ensure this, we give the same homework and tests as CMU Pittsburgh as well as teach from the same lecture notes. Of course I do the grading here, and the TAs in Pittsburgh do the grading there and since the Pittsburgh TAs don't publish grading rubrics, it could be the case that we do not have the same grading standards. I try to make sure this does not happen by grading to the same standards that I did when I was a TA in Pittsburgh, but of course there is no guarantee.

One of the huge differences between CMU Pittsburgh and CMU Qatar is in Qatar, even in computer science, girls outnumber the boys. My algorithms class has 3 boys and 11 girls. Eight of the girls are Qataris and 2 are Palestinian, while I believe the boys are India, Jordanian and Syrian. All of the girls, except Meg of course, wear the traditional black abaya that completely covers their hair. Only one girl wears a veil so I can still see their faces. This took a little while to get used to and made it a bit harder to learn everyone's names. The first several weeks of TAing algorithms was a bit frustrating, since the students struggled with the basic material. I gave them short quizzes in recitation, and the averages started out around around a 3/10. They have worked very hard since then and their averages have come up. It helps that we have two recitation sections scheduled while Pittsburgh only has one, so it gives us extra time to go over the material they have trouble with. Also the small class size really helps since I can work with students on an individual basis. Sometimes I think I give away too much help on the homework, so that the students do not learn how to solve the problems on their own. This is especially challenging with these set of students, who are much better at memorizing answers than thinking for themselves, in part I think due to their high school education. Nevertheless their improving quiz scores indicate that they are learning things, and hopefully that trend continues on their midterm they take this week.

My other two classes are even smaller. There are seven sophomores in 15123 and two seniors 15213. The demographics are completely different for 15123. There are 5 boys and 2 girls many of whom are Indian. The class as a whole is much stronger academically. They are probably comparable to a class in Pittsburgh. Also they seem to have a passion for computers that the seniors do not have. Meg, also TAing this class likes to teach them obscure unix commands, and I often see them coding away at her desk late into the night.

15213 is just being offered for two seniors who dropped the class twice in the past, and now need it for graduation. After I gave them a five hour help session and they still struggled through the first homework assignment, I was worried about their prospects. After they completed the second assignment on their own, my confidence in them as been greatly restored. The small class size and ample funding has really allowed CMUQ to cater to the individual student. In one of the faculty meeting I attended, they discussed every single computer science freshman on an individual basis, and what they could do to help them succeed. While it is great that they can take this approach now, this will not be sustainable if CMUQ gets much bigger.

For algorithms in Pittsburgh every fourth homework assignment, students have to give oral presentations in groups of three to either the professor or TAs. Due to the small class sizes and to keep grading standardized, all the presentations here were done for the professor. I attended one of the presentations out of curiosity of how the students were doing, and was impressed by their preparation and knowledge. When I got back to my desk, there was a slice of cheese cake and a valentines day thank you note from three of the girls I had help prepare for their oral presentation. I was surprised and this cute gift made my day. This stands in stark contrast to 60 miles away across the border in Saudi Arabia, where valentines day is illegal since it is viewed as a corrupting influence of the western world.

Besides classes, I have been attending some of the talks that take place on campus. Due to CMU's reputation and the fact that it has a campus in the middle east, it has attracted the attention of a lot of oil companies. Oil companies are particularly interested since they want highly qualified workers who also understand the culture of the middle east. One company, I think it might have been Shell offered to hire all the graduating seniors. In addition, the Qatar foundation is attempting to make Doha the center for startups in the middle east. The new Qatar Technology Park, which is being built across the street is going to provide office space and venture capital to startups wishing to headquarter in Doha. The area is setup as a free trade zone, so there will be no taxes, and unlike in the rest of the country companies can be owned and run by foreigners. The incentives must be somewhat enticing as one former CMU professor visited to investigate opening a branch for his startup here. His startup specializes in large scale storage systems and he has many clients that are oil companies so a middle east branch made sense.

One of the talks I attended was by a manager from ExxonMobil. I think the main purpose for his trip was to recruit the graduating seniors, but due to interest from the audience, he spent a lot of time talking about the details of the liquified natural gas business. Natural gas is a huge business here has Qatar has the worlds second largest reserves. I found some of the details quite surprising. For example, did you know that building an off shore drilling platform can cost between $500 million and $1 billion? I guess this means there are huge barriers to entering the oil industry and this allows companies like ExxonMobil to make huge profits. In fact ExxonMobil has been the most profitable company in the world for several years in a row. The thing I found most disturbing about his talk was when someone in the audience asked if ExxonMobil was investing in renewable resources since the world was going to run out of fossil fuels at some point. His response was that ExxonMobil was not investing in renewable resources since they believed that there was over 100 years of oil left, so they were not worried about it. It surprised me both that ExxonMobil would take such a sort sighted approach and also that they would admit to this with out trying to put any PR spin on it. I guess the speaker figured that since he was in an oil rich country, the audience would be receptive to these views. He failed to consider that he was speaking at an American university with many westerners in the crowd, who I presume we just as shocked at his answer as I was.

Another interesting event I went to was the screening of the documentary "Control Room", which examines Aljazeera's coverage of the Iraq war. The films takes the mostly positive view that Aljazeera serves as a much needed counterbalance to the bias of American media. After the film was over we had a brief discussion session. One of the people in the audience use to work for Aljazeera before getting a job in IT at Carnegie Mellon. He personally knew many of the people in the film, including the reporter that was killed when the US military bombed Aljazeera's headquarters in Iraq. Towards the end of the discussion, he brought up a speech that Jared Cohon, the president of Carnegie Mellon had made a few days earlier about Carnegie Mellon opening up a research campus in Saudi Arabia. Part of the justification that president Cohon gave for going to Saudi Arabia was that by bringing Western culture to Saudi Arabia, Carnegie Mellon could help change Saudi Arabia into a more tolerant society. The IT guy then argued that Americans should not go around trying to change other people's cultures. He said that Americans were welcome to bring education to Qatar, but if their ultimate goal is to change Qatari society, they were not welcome. He then went on to list some of the negative American influences. He main complaint was the noise level of the students in the hallways which he said made it hard for him to concentrate on work and prayer. He also complained that boys and girls were allowed to sit together since in traditional Qatari culture the only contact between the sexes is through family and marriage. I was a little taken back by this, since this was the first time I had heard anyone express that conservative a viewpoint. I guess this goes to show that the American cultural influence is quite strong and I find the views of students to be much closer to my own than that of the older generation.

Every other week, student activities holds a "Pizza and Politics" discussion, which is an informal debate among students and faculty over pizza from Pizza Hut. This very western style concept (and food) is held in a traditional Qatari tent in a court yard in the building. I missed the first two "Pizza and Politics" sessions since I had a schedule conflict, but was able to attend the third, which was on free speech. The debate was inspired by an agreement between all 22 countries of the Arab League to censor their media, with the exception of Qatar, which is of course home to Aljazeera, the most popular and controversial Arab news station. The students generally agreed that freedom of speech was a good thing, especially to expose government corruption, but when the subject of the controversial Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed came up, they believed such cartoons should be illegal since they were offensive to Islam. I didn't say anything in the debate, since it was my first time there and I wasn't sure want the boundaries were and I was afraid of saying something offensive. Also I was more interested in hearing the views of the students. From the questions and points that the faculty brought up, it appeared that the boundaries were the same as would be if the discussion were happening in a classroom in the United States. The faculty challenged the students on the view that Islam should not be criticized and the debate got quite heated at times, but it remained civilized and in the end I think everyone learned a lot about each other's cultures.

On a completely different subject, as stated above, I decided to take the technology consulting and the community class. In this class students partner up with a local non profit organization and perform technology consulting for them. There is a spin off of this class called technology consulting and the global community which is offered over the summer where students travel to developing countries and partner up with organizations there to provide technology consulting. At one point I was thinking about doing this after I finished with Qatar, but spending seven months outside of the United States seemed a bit much as did postponing my full time job for that long. Since Qatar is obviously a foreign country to me, I figured that taking the class here would be a pretty close substitute. The project that I am working on is geared towards helping the migrant worker communities. In Qatar, like many of the oil rich gulf states, the government provides for the native citizens so many of them do not have real jobs. As a result, the vast majority of the jobs are held by foreigners. The high skilled high pay jobs tend to be held by westerners like myself, while the low skill low pay jobs are held by workers from Asia, predominately India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nepal and Malaysia. These workers often need to sign a multiyear contract in order to obtain visas and if they lose their jobs they are deported immediately. The employer is responsible for providing housing for their workers. The positive aspect of all of this is that there are essentially zero homeless people and beggars in the streets of Doha. The downside is that employers essentially have complete control over their workers lives. In some cases, the employers confiscated the passport of the workers when they arrive, then refuse to pay them the wages in their original contracts. As the workers are forced to pay for their initial plane flight here they must pay this off before they are allowed to return home. Taken to the extreme, this is essentially a form of slavery, but even not in the extreme, workers have to work long hours for very little pay. They also have to spend years away from their families with very little communication back home.

The original project that I was going to work on was setting up a telecommunications center in one of the workers camps. Since sending mail to India is very pricey, but sending mail within India is cheap, the plan was that if workers wanted to write letters home, they could scan their letters and email them to a center in India, which would print them out and mail them to their destination. Also the telecommunications center could provide others services, such as cheap internet based phone calls to India. Silvia, one of the professors here had been in talks with the Indian ambassador to Qatar about this project. Unfortunately, the ambassador became very ill at the beginning of the semester, and thus the project was canceled.

As a replacement, I am now working with a student organization on campus called NeoMotion to provide free computer literacy skills to the workers at Eduction City. The hope is that with these new found skills, the workers will either be able to find better jobs when they return to their home countries, or that increased computer skills will give them new ways to communicate with their families back home. Originally there were four sections of the class scheduled. One for male security guards, one for female security guards, one for facilities staff and one for cafeteria staff. Unfortunately the managers of the facilities staff have been giving us a hard time and have not allowed us to meet with them. This is especially unfortunate since they are our main targeted audience. Most of the security guards tend to be well of Qataris who could afford to pay for their own computer lessons if necessary. At least we have been able to help out the cafeteria staff who are workers from Nepal, but there are only 10 of them so the impact will not be as big. The classes had a pretty good start, but many of the students, especially the Qatari security guards have complained lately that they are starting to get bored and attendance has been dropping. Hopefully if we ever do get the facilities staff to come they will be a lot more excited to learn.

In addition to the classes, there is a plan to set up a computer lab in the building for the workers to use. Currently we are using one of the regular computer labs for the classes, but IT does not allow the workers to use the computers outside of class. We just got a grant approved from Reach Out to Asia, a Qatar based charity for providing aid to Asian countries and their citizens. This will give us enough money to set up a temporary lab in the LAS building and set up a permanent lab when CMU opens in the new building. I've got two months left in the country, so hopefully this is enough time to make serious headway on the project.

I was intending to write some stuff about my out of work adventures, but this post is long enough as it is. I'll save that writing for another day, and hopefully this time I won't procrastinate about it for a month.

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Posted by Abhinav Sharma on 4/9/08 at 1:04:26 PM
A friend of mine recommended your blog to me. I must say that it makes for insightful reading. I'm going to CMU in Pittsburgh this fall for my undergrad studies. I'm hooked, so please keep posting, and it'd be great if you could put up an RSS feed.