Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I've got your number

OFFS. It fits, but those two black pads
are supposed to support a short plate.
I may have been visited by the OCD fairy.

No, I am not OCD. Neither am I CDO. It is not a disorder to want stuff ordered and tidy. How would you find the book you wanted in the British Library if all the books were piled in one dishevelled heap labelled ‘Miscellaneous”? 

Checking you’ve turned the tap off 36 times, and then having to go home from the airport because you’re still convinced you left it running? That’s a disorder.

I don’t know why it bugs me so much, but what is wrong with the people who put number plates on vehicles in this region? Having just lashed out maybe hundreds of thousands of riyals on a new car, I’d want the plates to be on straight, and not sticking out in an unsightly manner. Clearly I’m in a minority of one; everyone else just blithely drives around with wonky and ill-fitting plates and doesn’t give a shit. 

There are two basic shapes for car registration plates: long and thin, and short and fat.

Cars come with plate-shaped spaces. Most have some kind of space or hanger, or bolt holes on the front, and pretty much all of them have a special space on the back, complete with lights. Again, long and thin, or else short and fat. 

Doesn't the shape of the bumper give you a clue?
So why do they stick a long thin plate in a space that’s clearly designed for a short fat one? I had a friend who protested that his Land Rover’s long thin plate had to be tucked under the spare wheel, and could he have a short fat plate please? No he couldn’t. He got a ticket later from the same police force that issued the plate, for failing to display it clearly. 

I protested when my Terios was provided with a short fat plate in a long thin space. The plate stuck out below the bumper and kept catching on the sand and getting bent. I was told that they’d run out of one type of blank. Unlikely. I was also told that you can’t have one of each. Lies.

And what is this pop-riveting thing? What’s wrong with using bolts in the threaded holes provided? What’s wrong with using a frame that the plate clips into? No, my new pride and joy has to have holes drilled in it to mount the plate on the piss. They can’t even get it on straight.

Maybe the pop-rivets are to prevent tampering. Clearly nobody has ever in the history of metal fasteners drilled out a pop rivet. And riveting tools are only available to the licensing authority, and not to any old Joe shopping in a hardware store.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

A flute or sinking

I had a most exciting Friday. First, I rose unexpectedly early despite the alarm clock being switched off, and headed downstairs to the health club for my weekly weigh-in on their hyper-accurate scales. Oh curses and buggeration! Up two kilogrammes. Then I grabbed some semi-skimmed milk from the Kwik-E-Mart and went back to my concrete cube in the sky to cook breakfast.

It’s futile going out on Friday morning in Doha because almost everything is shut, so I had a quick surf of the internet to see if I could find what size ball bearings I would need to upgrade the gearshift on my motorbike from the rather crappy nylon bushing provided by Mr Kawasaki in a cost-cutting exercise. Apparently I need several 8x14x4 caged ball bearings, one 8x1.25x40  bolt, plus a couple of washers, and these - or at least the bearings - should be easily obtainable from an emporium of radio-controlled models. 

It’s a mile to Doha City Centre mall, so I walked. The model shop was as shut as a miser’s wallet, even though the mall was teeming with eaters of fried junk food and purchasers of shoes, these being the products on sale in about 90% of the shops. My guess is that the model shop is shut on Fridays while the proprietor goes out and flies his R/C aircraft. There was nothing worth watching on offer at the Cineplex, so I walked back to my concrete cube.

I went back to the model shop on Saturday afternoon when by some miracle it was open, to be assured that “We sell spare parts” as per the Facebook page actually means “We do not sell spare parts.” But I digress.

I picked up my tenor recorder later on Friday afternoon and spent an hour or two practising, mostly from memory, and also playing by ear along with pre-recorded tunes and professional performances on YouTube. My eclectic repertoire ranges from J. S. Bach, through J. P. Sousa to Henry Mancini, John Williams, Barry Gray, and Iron Maiden. I think playing heavy metal on an acoustic wind instrument is more than a little subversive. Unfortunately, I can only do the melody; chords are beyond the recorder’s scope, and certainly beyond mine. As it is, I mess with the key signatures these things are written in in order to get them into something that’s playable on a recorder with my limited digital dexterity. 

But Aces High, played in 3/4 time on a tenor recorder, sounds amusingly like some ancient English folk tune. This may be coincidence. I suspect that Pirates of the Caribbean and Gladiator both sounding like Packington’s Pound is not a coincidence.

As the fingering of a recorder and an EWI are almost the same, anything in the above list I can theoretically play on my electric wind instrument. I say theoretically, because the EWI requires absolutely accurate fingering, and you can’t bend a wrong note by half uncovering a hole. It’s all or nothing. As far as I know, the concrete cube next door is currently unoccupied. Nobody has complained about the noise yet.

I am under no illusions as to my true ability to play these instruments. It only takes being in the company of proper musicians (and that includes YouTube clips of EWI and recorder players) to expose me as the fraud I almost certainly am.

So, that was my weekend. I put some bread in the sandwich toaster for tea, chatted briefly with Beloved Wife on a flaky internet connection in Amman airport, and then retired to my bed in preparation of the next six days of consecutive frustration, starting at 0700 on Saturday. 


Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Little and dangerous

It’s really difficult for people to get their heads around stupidly large or absurdly tiny quantities. “I worked it out in nanoseconds” is a colloquialism that doesn’t really encompass quite how tiny a nano-anything is. For what it’s worth, there are around pi seconds in a nanocentury. So we end up using prefixes to produce sensible numbers. Seconds; not nanocenturies. You don’t go into Tiger Treats and ask for 0.0001 tonnes of liquorice unless you’re deliberately trying to be annoying; you ask for 100 grammes, or 4oz, or “a quarter” if you’re still Church of England.

This is not a metrication rant. It’s about the measurement of small but fatal risks.

Typically, for every one million scuba dives there are five fatalities. (75 deaths in 14 million dives, according to BS-AC in 1998-2009). Probability of dying: 0.000005

In nearly 4.9 million skydives over 1994 to 2013 there were 41 deaths: around 0.000009 chance of not surviving a jump.

All those leading zeroes are difficult, hence the concept of the micromort. One μmt = 1/1,000,000 chance of death. Thus:-
  • One BS-AC scuba dive 5 μmt 
  • One parachute jump 9 μmt 
  • Climbing Mount Everest 39,427 μmt
It’s relatively easy to collate micromort data for regulated activities such as diving, or parachute jumping, or flying as a fare-paying passenger. You simply add up the total number of deaths and divide by the total number of customers. For air travel, I found an ICAO safety report for 2009-2013 that says the average risk was 16.6 μmt/departure.

I found a separate figure of 22 μmt/departure elsewhere on the internet. This matches ICAO’s 2009 figures. It’s possible to calculate a risk in terms of micromorts per kilometre travelled, but as no-one has ever yet collided with the sky and most aviation incidents inevitably involve terrain, counting takeoffs is probably more meaningful. Because air travel generally involves vast distances, comparing it with other modes of transport on a risk per kilometre basis probably isn’t fair.

Ignoring airport transfers (the thrill-ride fun bus between Manila and Batangas springs to mind), if you fly to some exotic dive destination and do fewer than seven dives, the flights are more hazardous than the diving. So dive more. Three or four dives a day seems about right.

Problems with micromorts arise when attempting to assess risks associated with unregulated activities such as riding a motorbike. At last, we arrive at what I want to write about.

No amount of dressing up the figures will ever show that motorcycling is the safest way to travel. The rider is projected at speeds well in excess of what the human body was ever designed for, with almost nothing in the way of protection beyond a plastic pot on his head and some animal skins wrapped around his body and limbs. Hardly the same level of protection that is offered by being strapped inside a tonne or more of metal that is designed to crumple and absorb energy in a crash. I’m not going to attempt to show that bikes are as safe as cars; as the figures I’ve obtained from the University of Google offer extremely variable results, I’ll not discuss the subject of the private car and its relationship with the micromort.

Fortunately for me, the Google Elves have provided more coherent data with regard to motorcycles and micromorts.

US figures for 1999-2003 rate motorcycling risk at 5.37 μmt/trip. (3112 fatal injuries in 580 million person trips). Compare this with UK figures: over 2007 to 2013, the average annual number of motorcycle deaths was 460 from a fleet of some 1.1 million motorbikes. That’s 418 μmt/year.

In 2009, the NHTSA rate was 723μmt per US-registered motorbike. That’s 1.7 times the comparable UK figure. Perhaps there is something in mandatory staged licensing and compulsory helmets. More likely is that there’s insufficient data here to formulate any theories.

The US figures include a ‘per hundred million person trips’, and to offer any degree of confidence, the number of trips has to be accurate. How is this achieved? What is a ‘trip’? Is Chicago to Los Angeles one trip, or is each day of the Route 66 tour a separate trip? Commuting to and from work is two trips a day, right? There’s clearly an extremely wide variation in annual mileage too. You have daily bikers who clock hundreds of miles per week come rain or shine, and others who only take their bikes out to shine them and trailer them to Sturgis once a year. On the US-based Concours Owners Group forum, there are members who claim figures like 100,000 miles in three years, or “My 2009 Connie has 185,000 miles and has never missed a beat…” That’s 53,000km/year and 59,000km/year. And another selling a mint 2010 with only 15,000 miles, never seen rain, full service history, etc… (6,000km/year).

How can anyone possibly estimate a single risk based on trip numbers or distance travelled?

The UK figures produce their own set of difficulties. They fail to take into account trip numbers or distance travelled at all. Some owners have more than one machine, and can obviously only ride one at a time. It is theoretically possible by reductio ad absurdum, to die in a bike crash in the UK while your road-legal machine is parked in the garage and you’re at home watching the telly.

My personal motorcycle experience amounts to 385,000km over 35 years; what I regard as a moderate 11,000km/year. According to the University of Internet’s Faculty of Wikipedia, there’s a 2009 article in The Times newspaper that includes risk of mortality as “1 μmt = 6 miles on a motorbike,” or 0.1 μmt/km. That’s 1100 μmt/year with my annual mileage.

Adopting the US figure of 5.37 μmt/trip, the arithmetic throws out 205 trips per year and a typical trip of 54km. Both of these figures seem broadly in line with my own behaviour. Most of my motorcycle trips are commutes to and from the office, and regrettably few are epic tours.
  • UK figures: 460/1.1M = 418 μmt/year 
  • US figures: 205 x 5.37 = 1,100 μmt/year
I could get my personal risk figures down to the UK values if I did 4200km/year. Does the Average Motorcyclist really cover that little distance?

High mileage implies more experience and therefore lower risk, right? If you have a record of riding tens of thousands of miles without falling off or being hit by another vehicle, you’re obviously doing something right.

Conversely, you can argue that low mileage reduces your exposure to a given risk of riding an unstable machine among other vehicles being piloted by idiots who are too busy updating their Facebooks to look out of their windows... The truth is probably somewhere between the two. There's a low-risk sweet spot where the emptying bucket of Luck and the filling bucket of Experience together produce a minimum overall Risk.

As none of this blog post actually comes to any coherent conclusion, please feel free to cherry-pick the parts that best suit the case that you’re trying to argue.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

A life in the day

If the History of the Universe is compressed into one Earth year, with the Big Bang occurring very early on New Year's Day, this timescale results in dinosaurs becoming extinct on 29 December, writing being invented on 31 December at 23:59:45 and Christopher Columbus setting sail one second before midnight. A similar approach, compressing the history of Sol III into one day, has single-celled algae first appearing at about 14:08 and humans first appearing 17 seconds before midnight.

Out of curiosity, I looked at my own life, as similarly compressed into 24 hours. It says on this 'ere interweb that a British male can expect, on average, to live 79.5 years.

On that basis, I started school at 01:30 and graduated with my BSc at 06:38. There was a recession at the time, which meant that I actually got my first proper job at 06:47. This is eerily familiar; it's actually fairly typical of my actual start time at work in Real Life.

At 09:57 I left UK and became a career expatriate.

The time is currently 15:41 and I'm looking forward to going home. I'm hoping to retire at 18:06, or sooner if I can sneak off early. Again, this is astonishingly close to Real Life.

I am struck with wonder how closely a proportion of my day taken up by work resembles the proportion of my life. I also note with some satisfaction the enormousness of the evening I have to do whatever I please... until the money runs out.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Muttley, do something!

It apparently takes many months from sending a letter of enquiry to the authorities who are responsibly for our safety and security, and receiving any form of reply.

I found myself speculating on what might happen if an aerial attack were repulsed with a similar sense of urgency.

There goes the siren that warns of the air raid.
Just time to drink one more thimble of tea.
Lean back and press on the little white button,
Shout for the teaboy, “Bring chai now for me!”

We have a squadron or two of Mirages
Recently bought at colossal expense:
These will protect our small piece of the sandpit;
Nothing’s too much for our own self-defence.

Running, scrambling, flying
Rolling, turning, diving. Not this afternoon.
Running, scrambling, flying
Rolling, turning, diving…

Not at weekends, afternoons, early hours,
Nor summer months, Ramadan, happy hour...


Friday, February 20, 2015


One of my dear friends CJ has had some very bad news. It turns out that she has a ghastly brain tumour. Following surgery to remove it and a post-operative infection, the MRI scan has revealed more tumours deep in her brain that even the might of 21st century medicine can't currently get at.

As a token of support, she and her husband Jim have asked that as many people as possible fold origami cranes, take pictures, post them on the internet, and tag them #cranesforcj Post them in my comments if you like, and I'll forward the links.

CJ has long been a fan of origami in general and cranes in particular. So if you, dear reader, are willing and able, please fold a crane.

There's an old Japanese tradition that folding 1000 cranes will make a wish come true.

Goodbye, Chris.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Happy Hallmark Holiday

That was a busy weekend. First, I had to explain to my employers that I had a certain need to be visiting Beloved Wife in Dubai for Valentine's Day. Then I had to persuade the same employer of the need for me to have my passport in hand prior to my booking air tickets.

So it was on Wednesday that I finally received my passport complete with Iqama, or "Residence Permit", and my ID card. Despite having had to be fingerprinted - twice so far - the authorities have given me the same ID number as last time and the time before that. I don't suppose either my fingerprints or blood group have changed much since 1996. Doesn't hurt to check, I suppose.

Buying an air ticket was another simple task fraught with unnecessary difficulties. Fly Dubai had sent me emails advertising special offers, but their website fell over every time I tried to book. Qatar Airways had nothing for the return flight except at obscene expense. I'm not paying QAR 1200 one way for a 45 minute flight in cattle class. Eventually I ended up with cheapskate Air Arabia via Sharjah instead of Dubai. Fine. The only problem was the screaming brat at check-in who ended up being King of the Seat-Kickers right behind me. I gritted my teeth, put in my earbuds, and shutted the fcek up.

I spent Friday morning in the dust of a desert rally. About 90  knobbly-tyred motorbikes went past at speed over two hours, and my job as one of the many marshals was to keep track of when each and every bike went through my control, and to call into Base any who missed the gate. This was Round 5 of 6, but I can't be at the final round of the Emirates Desert Championship because of the Scottish Play.

I took Beloved Wife to the pictures that afternoon, and we were surprisingly entertained by "Kingsman." Knowing nothing about the film, we didn't know what to expect, but were treated to two hours of fun being poked at James Bond and Jason Bourne, with a hint of The Avengers (Steed, Purdey, Kinky Boots, etc., and not Marvel). See "Kingsman" if you enjoyed "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz", and be prepared for violence, gore, and copious use of Adult Language. Samuel L. Jackson does not disappoint in this area.

Following a further Valentine treat over at TFI Friday's, Beloved Wife and I returned home in good time for wine o'clock.

I'd promised myself a motorbike ride on Saturday, and to this end, on Friday afternoon I'd reinstalled the battery and fired up the Black Beast. First stab of the starter. Although I had set an early alarm for Saturday morning, when it rang I merely found the excuse of a nearly-flat phone battery to give myself an extra hour in bed.

My leathers not only still fit, but are in fact now comfortably loose around my midriff as well as baggy in the arse. The latter is a design feature to make sitting on a motorbike actually comfortable. My reprofiled seat is still a success. I covered some 400km on Saturday morning, seeking out known bendy roads over towards the eastern UAE and I only actually stopped and put a hoof down when refuelling. If you saw a streak of black lightning whizz past you at near-relativistic speed, it might have been me. If you clocked the registpration plate, it certainly was someone else.

The therapeutic benefits of going for a good thrash cannot be underestimated, except by non-motorcyclists, who don't understand.

Beloved Wife wished me a Happy Hallmark with a full English, and I went out afterwards, removed the battery and mothballed the bike again. I suspect that it needs new brake pads, for which I've been quotes a rather alarming QAR778, but it's due a service soon. That will have to wait until I'm not whizzing in from Doha about one weekend in eight.

To finish the weekend, we ran an errand up to Barracuda and I got out of the car at Sharjah airport for my 1830 flight.

I'm now back to bikeless, wifeless, catless Doha. My life is shortly to be taken over by the Bard of Avon; I'll not be able to get away any weekends until the end of March. Beloved Wife says she'll come to see the play, so there is some variety on the horizon to break up the soul-destroying cycle of work/rehearse/eat/sleep that epitomises my life.


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