Sunday, June 26, 2016

Les Misérables

Yes, it's upside down. A distress signal.

Look down, look down don’t look them in the eye. 
We voted 'leave.' It’s time to say goodbye. 
The sun is hot. It’s June 2016 
And 52% of us are keen. 

I know we’re off. We’re floating in the sea; 
We’re rudderless and friendless, but we’re free! 
We’ve done no wrong; the EU is to blame 
And immigrants: we surely know their game.

"Now Prime Minister 246-10 
Your time is up and now you have to go. 
You know what that means?" 

'Yes! It means I’m free!'

"No! You’ll be replaced by Michael Gove 
Because of that tangled web you wove. 
You killed UK. You’ll

Go down in history." 

Look down look down. Don’t look me in the face. 
We’re sinking fast. We’re sinking without trace…


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Take a tip

The usual species of disclaimer: I am sure that there are plenty of Egyptians who do not drive in the manner described below, and as I’ve experienced similar in the Philippines and elsewhere, the problems are not limited to Egypt.

And the driving aside, I have a particular liking for Egyptology. Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, the Valley of the Kings, and ancient Karnak were all wonderful memorable experiences. I took loads of photos. The diving was also excellent, but at the time I didn’t own an underwater camera so my pictures were limited to a few around the hotel.

Way back in the late 1990s, for this is a yarn from þe olde days of yore, I was part of a group on two weeks’ holiday in Egypt. The first week we spent in Luxor for a week of temples and tombs. Then, having been generally pharaoed to exhaustion, we headed eastward towards Hurghada to enjoy the Red Sea Diving Experience.

I didn’t really notice the driving style in the transfer coach between Luxor airport and the hotel, not least because I quickly nodded off following a sleepless night and a problematic departure from London Heathrow that involved many hours of sitting around in the terminal.

However, when we went out to explore the town one evening, a weird and less than wonderful phenomenon became quickly apparent along the ill-illuminated streets:

All the bizarre men by the Nile 
They like to drive, for a lark, 
With headlights off (Oh, way oh!) 
So you can’t see them in the dark. 

Drive like an Egyptian. 

Almost every vehicle was trundling around with no lights on. Anyone who dared show a headlight was immediately vehemently flashed by oncoming drivers. The reason for this, I have subsequently been told by Egyptian colleagues, is that using the headlights flattens the battery. Clearly in Egypt the alternator, dynamo, or even magneto are optional extras. I've heard tell of cars hurtling across the desert roads at night running into the backs of slow-moving trucks, neither vehicle showing any lights.

But the true hairy scary wasn’t this; it was the journey west across the fertile Nile flood plain and then the desert from Luxor to Hurghada.

Following at least one incident in 1995 I think, when terrorists hijacked a tour bus and gunned down a load of foreign tourists in an apparent attempt to stem or more likely eliminate the inflow of foreign tourist dollarpounds, these trips now came with police escorts.

We assembled and found our allocated bus, and eventually about forty minibuses and coaches set off in convoy. At the front was a police Hilux with armed guards, at the rear was another, and there was a third in the middle of the convoy. By ‘armed guards’ I do not mean a couple of police officers with pistols. I mean a 50mm machine gun mounted on each truck and about four guys in fatigues and flak jackets, sporting automatic weapons.

So, with nowhere to go except Hurghada, and with everybody having to travel at the same speed as the police, the convoy threaded its way caravan-like across the Egyptian countryside, right? Wrong.

Every bus and coach driver engaged is a constant battle to get to the front, and every other driver closed up the gap to prevent it. About 260km of terror.

Particularly near the Nile, single carriageways are elevated on embankments to keep the roads dry when the Nile floods. So we have two lanes of traffic confined on top of an embankment by rickety-looking safety fences. And we also have coach drivers attempting overtakes.

A minibus pulls into the opposing lane and overtakes a coach. The coach driver accelerates. Meanwhile there’s an oncoming truck bearing down on us, yes US, and nobody has anywhere to go but through the barrier and into the date palm plantation. Our driver stomped on his brakes and inserted his vehicle back behind the coach. The truck roared past with its horn bellowing stentorian abuse. Then our driver tried it again.

At this point I spoke to the tour guide. “Are you going to tell him, or do I have to? Because I will be a lot less polite.”

Not that it made the tiniest scrap of difference. All forty drivers spent the next several hours in a competition to see who could drive closest to the police Hilux which, of course, still trundled along at a steady speed.

At last, at dear sweet last, we rolled into Hurghada. As is custom and practice, everyone in Egypt expects to receive a gratuity for doing absolutely anything at all. Our driver stood at the door of the bus with his hand out as we all dismounted. Nobody gave him anything.

Actually, not true. I was the only one to give our driver a tip, which was this: “If you don’t scare your passengers, they’re more likely to give you money.”


Sunday, May 22, 2016


A weekend of planned motorcycling failed to come to fruition.

As usual, I arrived back in Dubai late on Thursday evening and connected the bike to a charger to top up the battery. Then on Friday morning I kitted up, removed the bike cover, fired up the Black Beast, and noticed fluid on the ground where no fluid should be. Upon closer inspection, the said fluid turned out to be antifreeze. It might have been coming from an overflow; I had topped up the reserve bottle last time I rode the bike, but no. It was still dribbling after I took the bike around the block. So off came all my bike gear and out came the tools.

Then off came the plastic, and I eventually exposed a slight dripping of coolant from the water pump. Staining on the engine nearby indicated that this leak had probably started last time I rode the bike, which would go some way to explaining the low coolant level in the expansion bottle last time.

So motorbikes would be off the agenda this weekend. “Sassa, rassa, frassa, rassum…” etc.

On Saturday I rode the bike over to my friendly neighbourhood Kawasaki workshop. I figured I could get that far without losing all the coolant and cooking the engine. Beloved Wife followed me in the car that contained all the bike’s plastic that I hadn’t bothered reinstalling. There seemed little point, as the mechanic would only have to take it all off again. He took one look, nodded in agreement of my diagnosis, commented about a drain hole, and disconcertingly sucked air through his teeth. My cursory glance through the workshop manual had alerted me that removing the water pump would involve dropping the coolant and the engine oil, so I have left the bike to have a service too. And new rear brake pads. And a tyre pressure sensor/transmitter because the front one’s dead. 

I have also checked Cradley Kawasaki in Birmingham, where it is revealed that a TPMS would set me back £154 and a water pump (assuming that the problem isn’t merely a gasket that Sod’s Law says it isn’t because the parts fiche shows the water pump as a single irreducibly complex item with a single part number) a further £174. Naturally, I’ll probably end up paying about 30% more than these because they’ll have to be borne upon velvet cushions by rose-petal-scattering handmaidens all the way from Japan. Theoretically at least, brake pads and filters should be in stock.

There is a silver lining to this dark and pendulous cloud, and it is this: owing to the impending Holy Month of Ramadan, I will be unable to get away from Qatar throughout June, so I’d not be able to ride the bike anyway. Ergo, having the Black Beast in bits awaiting new bits is of no real inconvenience. And it’ll be spending the next few weeks in air-conditioned comfort rather than mouldering under a plastic cover at the Crumbling Villa. And of course I can save up in preparation for the wallet-wilting invoice that will be heading my way.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The games people play

It is a game.

A game, in which two players have different victory conditions.

One player wins by providing a robust design to a limited cost and time budget, and the other wins by delaying and frustrating progress as far and for as long as possible. To this end, the first player works to produce his best; he has no incentive to delay and incur additional costs. Meanwhile, the longer the second player is able to impede the first, the more money the latter receives.

It doesn't actually matter if the final built product ever emerges out of the ground. Neither does it matter how well the first player plays. If the second player can find anything - anything at all - right down to a misplaced punctuation mark in a document, he can delay while the entire document is rewritten, recopied , reissued, and reviewed to see if a different player on the second player's team can find anything else. The second player is also allowed to change the rules of the game at will to maintain his advantage.

With luck, the second player can extend the game usque finis mundi, and the first player will always lose.

When you play the Game of Roads, you win or you die.


Friday, April 29, 2016

Hours are the fury

My employment contract includes a requirement to work a minimum of 48 hours a week over six days. In keeping with plenty of senior posts, overtime isn’t payable, and we all put in additional hours as required to get the job done. The contract also allows 30 calendar days of paid annual leave, which amounts to roughly 22 working days off, and public holidays can bump this back up to 30.

Actually, deducting short Ramadan working days and public holidays results in around 2100 billable hours per year.

Fundamentally, a 365 day year amounts to 335 working days, which is around 4.3 – call it five - weeks off every year.

I work in a smoke-free environment. As smoking isn’t illegal, any smokers have to leave the building and stand outside for their nicotine fix. And that too is fine, because I don’t wish to work in a smoky office and it would be gross hypocrisy if I, an occasional pipe, cigar, and shisha smoker, demanded that tobacco be banned. So this is not an anti-smoking rant.

How much time do smoke breaks take? It certainly adds up:

Total 10 minutes seems not unreasonable, from desk to lift to outside and back again.
Assume four breaks a day. Two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Pre-work, post-work, and lunchtime don’t count.

Over a five day working week, that’s 3h20’.
Over a year that’s 47 x 3h20’ = 156 hours or over 18 working days; three working weeks.

And throughout this time, the non-smokers continue to sit at their desks and presumably work.

So here’s my suggestion for equity in the workforce. Non-smokers, or at least those employees who never take smoke breaks, get an additional three weeks of paid annual leave booked to the project.

It’s only fair, innit?


Sunday, April 10, 2016

That's sandy

Back in Doha after a week’s welcome break, the Goat finds it necessary to put hoof to keyboard in a brief “I went to that Desert Challenge again” web diary entry.

As he flew into Sharjah late on Thursday night on an astonishingly inexpensive Air Arabia, The Goat was unable to get up at sparrowfart on Friday and go to Yas Marina to help out with the scrutineering. Instead, he charged up his bike’s battery and pottered around the Crumbling Villa in Beloved Wife’s absence. The said Beloved Wife was jollying around St Petersburg at the time: that’s the baroque one in Russia and not the one in Florida.

The cats were both out when the Goat arrived and settled down for a quick pie and a pint before bed. They came in through the cat flap and when they discovered that the Goat had landed, it was as if all their birthdays had come at once on Christmas Day. A long session of cat-lap later, the Goat retired to his bed and slept the deep sleep of the extremely relieved not to be in Qatar.

Saturday would see the Desert Challenge Super Special Stage in Al Fursan, Abu Dhabi around a dirt track that included some extremely damp areas owing to recent rain. But first some running around Dubai by motorcycle on some errands. The Goat arrived in Abu Dhabi too early, and was assigned traffic control duty all day. This – unfortunately – meant that he saw precisely zero racing and missed delights such as this.

OK, so now all the competitors had been around the track two at a time and their times recorded, their positions for Saturday’s start were determined. The Goat picked up his goody bag full of this year’s marshals’ shirts and his car numbers, and then headed back to Dubai, running the gauntlet of ya shabab on the Abu Dhabi to Dubai road where there is allegedly an enforced 140km/h speed limit.

An early night was mandated by an incredibly early start on Sunday. The Goat had to be at White Sands ADNOC by 0730, and that’s halfway down Hameem Road in the back of beyond. He was up on his hind legs before the sparrows had even finished their sprout curry, and rendezvoused with the rest of the Finish Team. The convoy set off a further 30km south to the Special Stage 1 finish. They set up the Flying Finish and Finish Stop, and waited for the first competitor to arrive. Once everyone had been through the gate and got their finish times, the Finish Team packed up and headed to the bivouac near Qasr Al Sarab for luxury camping. Electric light and power in the tent, nearby warmish running water and for now civilised loos, and food.

Finish post. In the rain!
And repeat for five Special Stages across the planet Jakku. An Imperial Star Destroyer crash landed here some time back, but it has now been dismantled and removed.

The bivouac. Probably a remark hereabouts concerning a hive of scum and villainy
At closure of SS-05, the Finish Team headed back to Yas and dropped off all the marshalling kit. The Goat drove to the Ceremonial Finish, but arrived too soon and was selected from a host of applicant to undertake traffic control. Generally speaking, competitors had to queue up their tired and damaged vehicles in reverse order over here, whereas spectators and support teams would be parking over there. The Goat was somewhat amused by the catastrophic inability so many drivers have in the skill of reversing.

And then the after-show party with food and beverage, prizegiving, applause, live jazz quartet, and a stagger back to the Rotana. The Goat really did not fancy a drive back to Dubai after a hard day and a skinful of lager.

Beloved Wife had by now returned from Russia, so when the Goat arrived in Dubai on Friday morning, she cooked him a splendid Breakfast of Champions before he went and got the car washed and the wheels swapped around.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

I aten't dead

Esmerelda Weatherwax
The blog has been quiet of late because nothing of any significance has happened.

Six days shalt thou labour, and on the seventh day shall thou be confronted by the Client, who has a proper two-day weekend, and verily shall he insist on talking Shop. Yea, and verily shall there be a full, frank, and extremely profane exchange of views.

That was the excitement last weekend.

This weekend, such as it is, consisted of me adding to my collection of musical recordings and uploading them to YouTube. I have at last figured out how to get the EWI to sound reasonable when piped through the computer. Increase the sampling rate. A welcome side effect is the sound that now comes out of the machine is no longer delayed, so I hear what I’m playing pretty much immediately rather than a fraction of a second late, which makes playing to anything like a sensible tempo a questionable ability.

My own ability remains fairly questionable, but abetted by a microphone, some coaxial cables, a computer, a webcam and sound card, and Audacity I have been having some fun recording and mixing. A recent effort produced three tracks of Muggins playing Misirlou on three tenor recorders. Actually one recorder, recorded three times and then multi-tracked. Arranged, mixed, and performed by me.

Interesting that Dick Dale and the Deltones (who did the extremely electric version of Misirlou that you know from Pulp Fiction) hold the copyright. I’m amused that a tune that existed before 1919 and is performed by me off sheet music published in 1936 can be copyright DD&D in 1963. However, I’m not a copyright lawyer, so I guess I’ll suck up the ads that may pop up on YouTube.

For what it’s worth, anyone who wishes to see and hear my eclectic collection of musical work may search for my real name on YouTube with the word ‘recorder’.

The job continues to stink. The Minister of Paper Clips, who says he’s desperate for all the designs to be completed, delights in finding further and more ingenious ways to delay his approvals. A recent one was to resubmit everything he’s already got in a slightly different format. He’ll be getting it in 16-point Comic Sans  if I get my way, along with a plain brown envelope containing some non-toxic crayons.

That’s it then. Day in, day out. Six days a week. I’ve not been out of the region since August 2015 and I’m getting a little stir crazy. There is a trip to UK planned, but that’s not until September 2016, and I have insufficient annual leave to go anywhere else between now and then.

I am holding on to my life, but my sanity is in tatters.


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