Thursday, December 28, 2006

Getting physical

I have never been a beacon of excellence in the gym or on the sports field. The blame for this must largely go to school in general and to PE teachers in particular. My unenviable experiences of how Physical Education was taught under the English state-school system was enough to put me off sports for ever.

In any other subject, the function of a teacher is surely to teach. That is, to take knowledge and transfer it to the student. But this, it would appear, does not apply in the case of PE teachers. Because everyone already knows how to play football, the function of the teacher becomes that of a referee, blowing his whistle and yelling at anyone who isn't running around like some hyperactive springbok. Woe betide any student who doesn't actually know the rules of the game.

The most instructive piece of PE education I ever received was during a line-out in a rugby 'lesson'.

"Goat! You can't do that!"

"Why not, Sir?"

"Because it's in the rules. Don't you know the rules [that I haven't seen fit to explain]? Are you stupid?"

Clearly that is the answer. I'm stupid - because I don't understand the rules as taught using telepathy. And to this day, I still don't know what rule (or does rugby have laws?) I'd allegedly broken.

And similar things happened during public humiliation sessions euphemistically entitled 'hockey', 'basketball', 'cricket' and worst of all, 'athletics'. I am not built like some Kenyan beanpole, neither do I resemble Giant Haystacks. Long-jump, high-jump, shot-putt, discus, javelin? Nope. Can't do any of those. There are presumably techniques to get the projectile in question as far or as high as possible. But no-one ever chose to teach me these. It was a matter of throwing oneself over an alumininium pole or taking a running jump into a receptacle consisting of sand, fag ends and cat poo.

And the rugby pitch was similarly afflicted. It was, and still is as far as I know, invisible from the school buildings, and as such was used by the local populace to exercise their dogs. It was offputting, to say the least, when any form of rugby tackle invariably ended with the protagonists smelling like the local sewage works and the teacher protesting about the pong.

What didn't help was being excluded from the informal ball games. I'd demonstrated on the playing field that I had little ball-hand-eye co-ordination, and being the youngest and shortest kid in the year didn't help with being a runner. Who in their right mind would want me to play in their team? And who wants to be friends with the class swot anyway?

Things improved later in my school career when I was one of a few who were permitted to play badminton instead of soccer. Hooray! Something I actually enjoyed, despite the derisory and homophobic remarks made by the teacher and most of the rest of the class. Nevertheless, I've never been the right shape to play badminton well, so it was simply a means to while away the compulsory 40 minutes per week of physical activity.

Who knows? I might have been keen on something athletic if it hadn't been for the active stifling of my enthusiasm by a whole succession of teachers who were only interested in encouraging the lads who were already in the school teams.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Salutory tale

In recognition if the impending season, here are some words first published almost a century ago. Ignore the message at your peril.

The Reckoning

Now the festive season's ended
Comes the sequel parents dread;
Pale and visibly distended
Bilious Tommy lies in bed,
Face to face with retribution
And an outraged constitution.

What a change since, pink and perky
Tommy swiftly put away
Three enormous goes of turkey
At the feast on Christmas Day,
Getting by judicious bluffing
Double quantities of stuffing.

As to pudding, who could reckon
Tommy's load in terms of size?
Who attempt to keep a check on
Tommy's numberless mince pies?
Hopeless task! His present pallor
Proves his prodigies of valour.

Then I found him, notwithstanding
Such colossal feats as these,
After dinner on the landing
Secretly devouring cheese,
Flanked by ginger-beer-and-coffee,
Sweetened with a slab of toffee.

I, his uncle, gave him warning,
Showed him the error of his ways,
Hinted at tomorrow morning,
Talked about my boyhood days;
All in vain I waved the bogey
He despised me as a fogey.

Well, perhaps the pains he suffers
May be gifts of fairy gold,
Since he now says, 'Only duffers
Eat as much as they can hold.'
Thus, through physic and privations,
Tommy learns his limitations.

Punch, 2nd January 1907

Just the thing I need. How nice.

I am indebted to the Fluffkins for the Christmas gift presented to me at this year's Dive Club Christmas Champagne Brunch. Following last year's incident involving a table, a camera and the whirling blades of a ceiling fan, I was given this:

Apparently, when I hear bells ringing, I should duck.

How thoughtful.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Something completely different: ITS

Dubai's ambitious development includes an all-new Intelligent Transport System, or ITS to its friends. As any Dubai driver should have noticed by now, ITS manifests as a whole series of new gantries over the major roads that can flash variable messages in Arabic and English to road users. Part of the system has been put on to selected existing gantry signs, where the lack of spare space has restricted the new displays to lane arrows and speed limits.

According to one of my transportation spies, based on experience elsewhere on the planet the provision of ITS can reduce congestion by 15%. The idea is that by telling drivers well in advance about changes in the highway conditions ahead, they can get into the correct lane well in advance or possibly even take an alternative route rather than getting trapped in a traffic jam.

Another issue is variable speed limits. Although it appears to defy logic, reducing traffic speed from 120kph to 80kph actually increases the flow. Essentially, as we go slower we reduce our braking distances ('headway' in traffic engineer speak), so more vehicles go past per minute. One of the reasons for imposing lower speed limits through roadworks is to increase the flow through a reduced number of lanes. Naturally, another reason relates to the safety of the Boys In Blue.

So far the theory is fine. Operators continuously monitor the traffic using CCTV and detector loops, and with the help of computers the speed limits are varied so as to ease traffic flow. In extreme weather conditions, lower speed limits can be displayed to assist any drivers who are incapable of understanding that dry-weather speeds and stopping distances are inappropriate on slippery roads. If a lane gets blocked by an accident, breakdown or - perish the thought - a puddle, the green arrow can become a red 'X' to advise drivers to vacate that lane.

And in practice? This morning was typical: in the pouring rain, spray and generally foul driving conditions, the ITS signage continued with its 100kph clear road advice. Of course, 100kph is a limit, not a target. But in crawling traffic, how credible is that? On the Emirates Road last weekend in the rain, the large message signs told us to drive at 60kph, not 120kph, and to beware of standing water, yet the same system was simultaneously displaying a 100kph speed limit!

And I have yet to see a lane closed by an overhead display. It'll be as effective as a chocolate teapot. The only realistic way to close a lane is to block it with a uniformed officer of the law. And the best way of slowing traffic is to bend a couple of cars and then advertise them with some flashing blue lights. Everyone will inevitably slow down for a good look. There's never been a traffic accident in Dubai before...

If the variable message signs contradict each other, if they are never seen to vary, if the system is never seen to react to rapidly changing road conditions, will drivers simply assume that the ITS is an expensive system of illuminated signs that can, along with all the other street furniture, be ignored? Traffic police already have a difficult enough time enforcing traffic regulations. An additional system whose reliability no-one seriously believes will not make their job any easier. Without credibility, the ITS cannot perform a useful function. Without drivers' compliance, ITS cannot hope to deliver on its promises.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Fun Drive

It's the Gulf News Fun Drive on 8th December. I got involved at a very late stage as one of the new marshals. My job on the day will be part of a Mobile Rescue Team (MRT) who will drive the route and help out with any stuck or broken-down vehicles that we may encounter.

So it's important that I know the route. Last Friday I went out with a group of around ten marshals to tape the route. This job has to be done several times, tying bits of 'Gulf News' plastic tape to bushes, rocks and bits of fence so that the participants know that they're on the correct route. Why several times? Well, a secondary purpose of the plastic tape appears to be to provide some variety in the diet of the local camels. Driving the route also enabled me to record it on my GPS so that on the day I wouldn't be referring solely to the tulip diagrams and the tape.

Although the route started off easy, there were several tricky climbs in the soft sand. I kept getting 'refusals' until I checked my tyres and found that the heat had elevated the pressures to 22psi. Dropping the pressure to 1 bar (or 15 psi in old money) solved the problem.

I had one extremely hairy moment involving my car stuck sideways on a slip face. Entirely my fault: having failed to approach the slope sufficiently fast, I attempted to 'moon-shot' and loop around to the bottom, but the soft sand had other ideas. About six well-built gentlemen stood on the right-hand side step to counterbalance the car while I drove out. I had the bent side-step repaired yesterday. There's nothing in the Prado manual that tells me the maximum number of fat bastards permitted on a side-step, so I could probably sue Toyota, were I living in the States. In any event, repairing the step was doubtless cheaper than a whole load of panel-beating.

The Saturday run-through commenced with the Marshals' Breakfast and issue of equipment. The rainy weather persuaded me to use a bin liner as a waterproof tabard, which made me look like a refugee from a punk rock costume party. Almost no-one had brought any waterproofs.

Wet sand is amazingly easy to drive on. I was able to do most of the route without engaging 4-lock. The Prado has full-time 4WD, so it's not possible to drive in 2WD. I looked for where I previously got stuck on the slip face, and drove past without even noticing it. The disadvantage of the hard sand is that it is much more resistant to being dented by bumpers, so the risk of bodywork damage increases. I tried to be ever so careful on downward slopes so as not to lose my rear bumper, with limited success.

Flat areas were muddy and like greasy Teflon to drive on. This is fun until you realise that the scrubby bushes are not going to get out of the way of a car going sideways. And the mud goes everywhere. It is said that if there's no mud on the roof, you're not having enough fun.

The mountain section of the Fun Drive route was very interesting. Rain had washed out several sections of the graded track, so 4WD low ratio was the order of the day. We were unable to complete the mountain section on Saturday because at one point the entire track had been washed away. Twenty-seven vehicles turned round on top of a precipice on a track barely wider than a single car, and drove back to asphalt roads, arriving at around dusk. I rather hope that the track will have been regraded in time for the Fun Drive. The climbs, drops and views are all spectacular.

This post was originally going to be about those hardy campers who bravely stuck it out all weekend despite the weather. I seem to have threadjacked myself with the GNFD. Nevertheless, to all those who courageously stayed under canvas all weekend, despite the sky being as black as a bad guy's hat, in the expectation that it would stop raining, I salute you. You're more tenacious that I would have been.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Listing to starboard

I have here an example of some whinging expat doggerel
The quality is very poor; it should be wrote on bog-er-roll...

The tune, by Sir Arthur Sullivan, is here.

The landlords who increase the rent beyond the legal max.
I've got 'em on the list,
I've got 'em on the list.
The threat to boost inflation with that Value Added Tax.
I've got it on my list,
I've got it on my list.
Impatient wastafarians with flashing headlight, who
Would rather crash their cars than wait ten seconds in a queue.
The people whom you telephone because their product's cack.
They promise to return your call, but never ring you back.
And intolerance personified: the Danish boycottist.
I'm sure they'd not be missed,
You know they'd not be missed.

You may put 'em on the list,
You may put 'em on the list,
For they'd none of them be missed.
They'd none of them be missed.

The management who won't admit a man in overalls.
I've got 'em on the list,
I've got 'em on the list.
Monopolies who charge excessive rates to make phone calls.
I've got 'em on the list,
I've got 'em on the list.
The chip upon my shoulder that increases every day,
The law that says that it is not permitted to be gay,
The sweaty summer temperatures that make us stay indoors
Inside our concrete box comprising forty-seven floors,
And the genius who says you need a licence to get p!ssed.
I'm sure they'd not be missed,
You know they'd not be missed.

You may put 'em on the list,
You may put 'em on the list,
For they'd none of them be missed.
They'd none of them be missed.

The gentleman in uniform who'd rather just say, "No."
I've got him on my list,
I've got him on my list.
Though yesterday it was OK, today he orders: "Go!"
I've got him on my list,
I've got him on my list.
The high-rise towers everywhere, and ne'er a patch of green.
The concrete, steel and mirrored glass. No plant life can be seen.
The threat of a congestion charge: a most alarming sign,
Yet if you want the train you'll wait until two thousand nine.
And the fool who drives with hazard flashers on in rain and mist.
I'm sure he'd not be missed,
You know he'd not be missed.

You may put 'em on the list,
You may put 'em on the list,
For they'd none of them be missed.
They'd none of them be missed.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Protection racket

Those awfully nice people from the Red Triangles Bank wrote to me today with a new offer for credit cards. They have decided that I need protection against death or permanent total disability. After two months of this unsolicited free insurance, the brochure says, I'll be charged 0.2% of my credit card balance per month.

I wonder how Red Triangles' claims lawyers define 'permanent total'? "Sorry Mr Goat, you can voluntarily move your left eyelid. Your disability isn't total."

And as for the list of exclusions, I trotted along to and learned that the list of non-approved activities includes scuba diving, and also participation in any sport that involves an engine. Note that: 'participation'. Not 'competing'.

So if I go diving and travel to the dive site in a motor boat, I'd not get my credit card balance annulled if I died. Similarly if I were squashed by Carlos Sainz whilst photographing the Desert Challenge. And I suspect the loss adjustors would take a very dim view if I permanently totally disabled myself whilst chainsaw juggling.

I rang the Bank, as instructed in the leaflet, and asked to opt out of the feature. "Certainly Mr Goat. Just fax us a letter and..."

"No, I don't think so. You have given notice that you intend to charge me for a feature that I don't want. I have complied fully with your instructions by telephoning you. Please cancel the Credit Cover."

I shall watch my card statements. I have absolutely no intention of paying any Credit Cover premiums, nor interest accrued through their non-payment.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Desert Challenge

I first got involved in the UAE Desert Challenge in 2005. This five-day cross-country rally is an annual event that takes place around the Liwa crescent in deepest, darkest Abu Dhabi. It's so far south as to be almost in the Magic Kingdom.

Last year I took a couple of days off and spent these taking photos of the cars, bikes and trucks competing in the event. This year, because the opportunity was presented through the pages of ME4x4 I volunteered to be a member of the sweep team. I needed to take the whole week as leave. My duties, and there were two of us doing this, were to tow a trailer to various points where the rally route crossed roads and tracks, and to meet the other sweeps who had removed dead or crashed motorbikes from the course. These would be loaded on to my trailer and I'd return the machines to the bivouac at Moreeb so that they could be repaired in time to re-start the following morning.

Sometimes there was nothing wrong with the bike, and it was the rider who was exhausted or injured. On more than one occasion the rider was taken to the nearest road and he was then able to ride back to the bivouac.

I also got involved with Passage Controls. The PC's function was to stamp each competitor's time card to prove he passed through the PC. In addition, all times were recorded and radioed back to Rally Control so that everyone knew in which section each competitor was. As sweep, I had to be at a particular PC in time to meet the last bike (and therefore the sweep pick-ups) but by getting there early I was able to help out with running the PC, much to the relief of the PC chief who was chronically short-staffed.

I should add that all competitors and various marshals had Iritrac installed in their vehicles, a satellite-based tracking system telling Rally Control, among others exactly where everyone was in real time.

The rules of the rally allow anyone who starts on a particular day to start the following day. In practice, this means that provided you can get your vehicle through the start gate, you can then go back to the bivouac to continue to repair it. Of course, time penalties are incurred for each PC missed, but as more and more competitors drop out having destroyed their rides, just finishing becomes an important target.

I was there for the entire week. Accommodation was provided at the Liwa Rest House. Although very basic, spring mattresses on the floor of an air-conditioned majlis were nevertheless extremely welcome and beat the pants off sleeping on the sand at the bivouac, being constantly regaled by unsilenced internal combustion. Starts at the extremely uncivilised 0430 entailed a couple of mornings of driving in some pretty thick fog. Small wonder that on two occasions the rally start was delayed.

It can be hard work. It can also be extremely boring, waiting in the middle of nowhere for a pick-up to appear. But the rally simply cannot function without the hordes of volunteer marshals and the gargantuan efforts put in by more people and organisations that I can sensibly list here.

What did I get out of it? The satisfaction of a job well done, mainly. Plus lots of photo opportunities and a chance to get involved. I'm looking forward to the announcement of the dates for next year's Desert Challenge so I can book my leave well in advance.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Free press...

...with every ten packet tops.

I have just returned from marshalling on this year's UAE Desert Challenge. A blog about it, possibly with a photo or two, will follow once I've recovered from the sleep deprivation and jet lag that a week in Liwa entails.

This incident somewhat marred Thursday morning's proceedings, but, as reported in 7Days, most of the people in the chopper walked away and the pilot and co-pilot were taken for hospital treatment after a rather bumpy landing.

So the fact that an Abu Dhabi Police helicopter came down in an unplanned way is now public knowledge. Why then did the police find it necessary to stand over any and all photographers present and demand that all photographic evidence be deleted? Surely the crash hard landing investigators would have found photographic evidence invaluable? But no. Apparently, by expunging all pictures, it's as if the incident never occurred.

Speaking to a journalist working for one of the UAE national papers covering the Desert Challenge and in particular helicopter operations, I suggested that he might like to try some UnDelete software and apply it to the memory card in his camera. Whether pictures ever appear in the press is another matter.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Worldly wise

Reclamation of land to make the ambitious, some might say audacious, World development continues apace. We are promised by the developer, Nakheel, that reclamation will be complete by 2008. The plan, three hundred man-made islands surrounded by a barrier reef that form the shape of the earth's land masses, is supposed to become some of the most desirable pieces of real estate on the planet. Each island will be so exclusive that it can only be accessed by boat or helicopter. Obscenely rich people only need apply.

One of the things that concern me is the major discrepancy between the Ambition (as per Nakheel's website) and the Actual (as per Google Earth).

The Vision

The Reality

Yes, of course it's not finished yet. But shouldn't the outer barrier reef be aligned in one smooth curve rather than with an obvious break in the middle? Even if the gap is deliberate, I'd have expected the two halves to look like they'll join up.

Won't it be fun for the residents as they pick their way between the islands in their expensive boats? The layout is confusing enough on plan; nightmare navigation from the point of view of within the development. And that's in daylight. what about at night?

Doubtless I have no real concept of quite how rich the World's residents will be. Unlike the rest of us, who have to leave our apartments and go to work in order to pay the rent, these Über-rich won't need to find parking spaces for their speedboats and helicopters while they spend all day at the office. Which is just as well, given the chronic shortage of marina berths and airspace.

Having your own private island is a wonderful fantasy. I hope that the reality works out better than I foresee. If I could afford my own private island, it'd be one with a proper rock foundation and a history of not being washed away, not a small pile of sand.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Drive like the Bangles

Encouraged by comments on SD's post, the muse appeared and made me come up with this. Thank you to the Egyptian in the blue Chevy who hit a parked car and then was too busy to wait for the police to turn up. This despite it being The Law not to leave the scene of an traffic accident, however minor. Thanks to an alert watchman, the Man Who Parks By Braille's insurance company should soon be footing my repair bill. I wonder if the police would have been so relaxed about his non-attendance at the scene if he'd reversed over a small child?

All the dents and scrapes on your car:
Where do they come from? Don’t you know?
If you drive too fast, (oh, way, oh),
You will cause people lots of woe.

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

In an accident yesterday
I cried, “Woe, aye, woe
Aye, woe, aye, woe.”
'Cos of an Egyptian.

I parked my car in a space
When I arrived at my place of work.
Two hours on, I was told
It had been dented by a jerk.

By the time the police had arrived,
The other car was a long time gone.
Three hours I had to wait around
All because of that Egyptian.

Someone noted his licence plate,
So, why oh why
Is he allowed to
Drive like an Egyptian?

On the street put your feet on the dash
Shift the seat, so it’s leaning back.
Think you look so cool, (oh, way, oops),
As you collide with a Cadillac!

Now you need to find any cop,
So hang around for an hour or more.
When one arrives, (oh, way, oh),
You get the blame if you are insured.

All the rich kids with their Patrols,
And the Echo and the Sunnymen.
We all know that to survive
We’ve got to drive like Egyptians.

All the cops ever seem to do is
Say, “ ‘Ello,
‘Ello, ‘Ello, oh…
You drive like an Egyptian.”

Drive like an Egyptian.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Why don't drivers in the Emirates use their turn signals? My pet theory is that if I use my indicators, this will tell other road users what I intend to do. Therefore the movement of my car will become predictable.

And this destroys my tactical advantage.

I have more than once been advised NOT to indicate, "because this confuses everyone else." Certainly signalling left and turning right would confuse everyone, even a lobotomised cockroach (Thank you, Prometheus, who appears to be an illeist), but so many years of driving has made using indicators an ingrained habit that has proved impossible for me to break.

I am indebted to today's Gulf News for this item. It seems that the police at least are on my side. Presumably, because it's impossible to indicate when the four-way hazard flashers are on, anyone who changes lane in foggy weather is going to get busted.

The inappropriate use of hazard flashers is a bugbear of mine. Please: not when moving in fog! That is when low beam headlights are appropriate, and foglights front and rear too, if fitted. Neither do hazard flashers mean, "I'm double parked and blocking the road, but that's OK because the winkers are on." A dashboard switch that made the car the width of a bicycle might be good, but the hazard flashers make a poor substitute.

I do think using hazards when approaching or stopped at the back of a queue of stationary traffic is a good idea. So is the automatic switch that makes all the rear lights flash like a fairground ride on Prozac after a substantial impact. Anything that helps prevent a rear-end shunt seems like a good idea to me. I used to have a Land Rover that did the flashing light thing every time I drove over the crest of a sand dune and came down with a bit of a thud. The car needed to be completely switched off in order to reset the system. Flashing lights; Disco. How appropriate.

But back to the Gulf news article. The penultimate paragraph includes the gem:
"...but when they get the licence, they forget the rules, which can save their lives and those of others.”

At the risk of my appearing to be a punctuation Nazi, observe how the comma completely reverses what I hope Brigadier Al Zafein probably meant. Despite what Microsoft Word's grammar checker may suggest, which does not always have to be preceded by a comma! (I have chosen not to comment on licence rather than licences.)

Lynne Truss' book provides invaluable assistance in the zero tolerance approach to punctuation.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

St Crispin

Today, 25th October, is the 591st anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, when Henry V of England defeated Charles d'Albret of France.

Four days ago, 21st October, was the 201st anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

It has long been my opinion that UK public holidays need adjustment. There are too many in the first half of the year: Good Friday, Easter Monday, May Day and Late May Bank Holiday (aka Whitsun). Following August Bank Holiday there's then nothing until Christmas. Why not move one of the May events to break up the long autumn of work-work-work?

When should it be? Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday in November, has already been bagsied by the United States. Halloween on 31st October? The fifth of November is Bonfire Night. 2006 is the 401st anniversary of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. (Celebration used to be compulsory in England, by the way). Having a national holiday here rather risks offending Catholics everywhere, and mid to late October is not good, at least from the point of view of the French. I refer to the start of this post.

All of this is of academic interest in the Land of the Sand. I'm back at work today following a two-day Eid break. No three or four day holiday for Muggins, and certainly not nine consecutive days off. Ah, the delights of the private sector.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Just add water II - Adding the fish

Over the past week or so I've been populating my aquarium. I made an early decision to try to keep it looking reasonably natural, and to have all the fish from, very broadly, the same area of the planet. Having selected south-east Asia, my tank is inappropriate for Amazon piranha, South American angel fish or African cichlids. As part of the 'natural' decision, there is no room in my aquarium for bubbling plastic divers, skulls, treasure chests, sunken ruins or fairy castles. Instead there are a few interestingly-shaped pieces of bogwood, a big hollow (plastic) rock and some real plants. And some tropical fish.

The current list stands at:-
Tiger barb (tiger striped) - 5
Tiger barb (green) - 4
Bala shark - 3
Boeseman's rainbow - 4
Armoured catfish - 2
Black molly - 3

I lost a shark and a tiger barb to Ronnie (or possibly Reggie) Cray. Back to the shop with that one! And my experiment with one male Siamese Fighting Fish and four females soon ended with them all riding the porcelain express. It's a mystery why the all went belly-up; the other fish are all fine and the water tests say water quality is OK.

Future plans are for a small shoal of clown loach. These are currently not coming in Dubai, but deliveries are expected sometime this week, I'm told.

The only additional thing I need is an automatic feeder to prevent hungry fish from turning on each other if I go away for a few days.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Just add water

My aquarium is installed, commissioned and is teeming with life. After planting some genuine greenery, some real bogwood and an authentic plastic rock, it was time to check water quality. Chlorine, as found in tap water, is deadly to aquarium fish, but fortunately chemicals are available that instantly get rid of chlorine from the water. A small bottle of bacteria helped to get the nitrogen cycle running. The pumps are pumping, the bubbles are bubbling and the overhead light goes on and off.

The Aquarium: All 375 litres of it

After a week or so, everything looked good so it was time to introduce the first residents. I picked a couple of suckermouth catfish and four tiger barbs. The catfish are referred to locally as janitor fish, as they spend all their time hoovering algae off the glass, gravel and other tank hardware. The barbs' primary purpose is to be ornamental and cute. Tiger barbs are shoaling fish; I read on the InterWeb that a solitary one will pester other fish and take chunks out of their fins. If there is a shoal they generally pester each other and leave everyone else alone.

Within twenty-four hours I had an outbreak of the dreaded ich. White-spot is a protozoan infection that if left untreated will kill all the fish in the tank. Where it came from is a mystery. There could have been ich cysts in the gravel or any of the fish or the plants. "Immediate action" is the recommended course, so I immediately shot down to the aquarium shop in Sharjah and got hold of some methylene blue. The warmer the water the quicker the ich life-cycle will be, so 28C and 48 hours later I'd removed all symptoms and hopefully killed the infection stone dead. One dead tiger barb too, unfortunately.

I returned to Sharjah Aquarium Centre a day or so later to pick up some more fish, and some spare white-spot treatment just in case of another outbreak. I had a very careful look at the tiger barbs in the shop, and was able to confirm that there was no evidence of ich anywhere in that tank. I also collected four shark minnows. I'm pleased to report that the tank has apparently remained ichless. I bet the infection came in on the plants.

I had previously read that a small freshwater crayfish could be a good idea as a bottom-feeding scavenger. "They will have a go at fish occasionally, but are generally too slow to present any real danger," went the tropical aquarium website. Yeah, right. Lobby the lobster immediately started moving the furniture around in the tank. The following morning I discovered the decapitated corpse of a silver shark. Maybe it died, and the lobster had been noshing on the carrion. Or not: that afternoon one of the barbs got caught in a pincer movement. Either the lobster is a lot quicker than advertised or all the other fish are dozy and stupid. Or possibly both. I now learn from other aquaculture websites - those that are not concerned primarily with selling aquatic invertebrates to the punters - that lobsters, crayfish or what have you do not make harmonious and co-operative tank mates.

One of the Cray Twins

Bearing in mind the pincers, I was amused to see Jay, or possibly Edgar, slurping something off the lobster's carapace, just out of range of the latter's weaponry. Crustaceans can't generally do 'cross and annoyed', but this one came close. But it'll have to go. I explained to Abdul Kareem over at Sharjah Aquarium that even a tiny lobster seems too aggressive for my tank community. He has agreed to accept the lobster back and exchange it for some less nocuous fish. A pity really, because the crustacean is fascinating to watch. Ornamental fish are however a bit expensive to be used solely as one of the lower levels of a food pyramid.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

On The Buses

"When two or three are gathered together they shall discuss Dubai traffic." A great favourite has always been whether or not tolls should be introduced. I have always maintained that entrance tolls to Dubai are a cynical fund-raising exercise. Without a choice of mode of travel, travellers are simply forced to pay.

So Dubai's ambitious new bus system, unveiled recently and publicised here looks like one giant step in the right direction. This is in addition to the Dubai Metro, due to open on the easily remembered 09-09-09 and rumours of a tram route along the recently refurbished Jumeira beach Road. I do hope that such public transport initiatives are extended to inter-emirate routes. How else can the private car Sharjah Schlepp be reduced?

There will always remain the problem of buses keeping to a timetabled route on a traffic-congested highway. The usual solution under these circumstances is to delineate a dedicated bus lane. But how, given normal custom and practice in the UAE, would bus lanes not be permanently blocked by queue jumpers and parked Land Cruisers? Enforcement cameras, perhaps? We all know how effective these are in preventing speeding. They'd have no more success in keeping bus lanes clear.

I am nevertheless a little concerned about a comment made by the head of Dubai's Road and Transport Authority, reported in the same article:

Commenting on the introduction of toll system [Mattar Al Tayer, head of the RTA] said the RTA is studying the feasibility of introducing the system along with other emirates and dismissed reports the idea has been shelved.

Compare this statement with one from 14th September. Why don't they talk to each other and agree on a story before blabbing to the Press?

As for me, using the bus seems like a terrific idea... except when I'm hauling several diving cylinders to the club or dive shop for filling, or when I'm doing my fortnightly shop, or when my destination is miles from a bus stop, or when I'm towing a boat, or when I'm going driving in the desert, or when I'm taking the car to be serviced...

Monday, October 09, 2006

Just a phase we're going through

My congratulations to whoever thought up the idea of having a small exhibition in the Galleria at the Mall of the Emirates about Ramadan, Islam and the lunar calendar.

Unfortunately, someone made a serious series of errors with the 'phases of the moon' part of the display. What a terrific idea: a series of photographs of the quarters of the moon, each with a little explanatory plaque.

It might have been nice if the captions corresponded both to the pictures and to reality. Observed from the UAE at least, the waxing crescent illuminates the right-hand side of the lunar disc, not the left. The waning crescent illuminates the left-hand side (wi' a wanion!) Instead of showing two half-moon photos, the display has used two copies of the same image, with one of them inverted. This is appallingly obvious when checking the craters and seas on the illuminated side. I also suspect that the images have been created by some PhotoShopaholic blacking out different parts of copies of the same full moon image.

If the night sky isn't available to check, some correct moon images may be found here.

Running the photographs from either right to left or left to right would make sense, whereas putting up the images in a pseudo-random order does nothing for public education, which is presumably the main purpose of the display. Maybe it doesn't really matter and I'm fretting about nothing. But I would have thought that a culture that regards the lunar calendar in such high esteem would be very keen to educate the masses on such a significant subject.

If you're gonna do something, do it right!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

It wood be nice

For some time now I've been looking for a strong and well-built item of furniture for an aquarium. The basic problem is that the fish tank I've had my eye on for a while will weigh close to half a ton once the weight of water, gravel, glass and fish are all totted up. So it's not small. Ikea, emporium of budget furniture from Sweden, had nothing suitable on offer. Any wooden box of approximately the correct dimensions had the ominous 'maximum weight 100kg' on the label. Good for a TV perhaps, but not a fish tank. I encountered the same problem in Homes R Us, Home Centre, Marina and Pan Home Furnishings. Lots of stuff, all the wrong size, or too feeble, and in most cases both.

Chipboard is out, as is MDF. The problem with these is they're not strong enough. They bend under the weight of paperback books, so a few hundred kilos of aquarium is entirely unsuitable. The fish-tank shop offered a custom-built box for the tank to sit on. But at over Dh1000 for the cabinet this didn't strike me as particularly good value for a few square feet of the dreaded chipboard veneer. And despite the catalogue showing several colours, Petland was happy to impersonate Henry Ford. "Any color[sic] you like, as long as it's black."

I even drew up some dimensioned sketches and touted them around the carpentry souq. No-one I asked was willing (able?) to provide what I wanted; they all wanted to use MDF and most demonstrated an inability to read drawings in third angle projection.

At this point one of my friends - yes, actually I do have some of those - suggested Pinky's in Sharjah Industrial Area. Chunky furniture, made of real wood, I was told. The map on the Pinky's business card is not particularly helpful, and after an hour of Sharjah traffic and asking unsuccessfully for directions, I got through to the warehouse courtesy of Directory Enquiries. I arrived at the door just as the man was locking up for lunch.

"Hi. I see you're shut. Oh well. At least I know where you are now. See you some other time."

Not at all. He re-opened the warehouse and let me wander among the Indian reproduction antique-style furniture for the next half hour. Yes, in his lunch break. Although I couldn't find anything quite right I thanked the salesman and promised to be back.

I did go back a couple of days later. I'm pleased to report that I found a suitable sideboard that looks the business, which was polished and delivered exactly as requested. What a star! The extremely pleasant surprise of getting decent customer service has warranted these words.

And now I await the delivery of the aquarium itself. Even as I write, it has arrived, so the rest of my evening is going to involve reaching into a big glass box.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Norks like an Egyptian

I learned something new the other day. While window-shopping in the Mall of the Emirates I came across this display.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that Anubis, the Ancient Egyptian god of embalming and miscellaneous post-mortem business was a bloke. A jackal-headed bloke, but definitely male. I was not aware of any close relative of his, such as a labrador-headed sister.

She's a fortunate therianthrope*, that Ms Anubis. It appears she's the only female who's permitted to stand in full public gaze in Dubai with her tits out.

*(Possibly actually a therigynthrope)

Ship of the desert

The Hunt for Red October...
звероловство на красный октябрь...

Там оно, на дороге Al Ain как подводный корабль пустыни
There it is, on the Al Ain road, like an undersea ship of the desert.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Pirates of Penzance

New laptop? No problem. Pocket DVD player? Easy peasy. Credit-card sized six megapixel digital camera with HiFi sound and 4GB storage? Certainly sir; how many would you like? It's generally possible to buy the latest high-tech gizmo from any number of retail outlets in town. You would expect a new item to be faultless. If it didn't work when you got it home it should surely be replaced or the purchase price refunded. Not here. Retailers have a dreadful habit of referring to the small print at the bottom of the receipt that reads Goods once sold will not be taken back. Fair enough, perhaps, if you discover that you could have bought it elsewhere for less money (should have shopped around, perhaps) but it is totally unacceptable in my view to pay for a new camcorder and then wait for weeks while it languishes in the workshop until the replacement for the burned-out integrated circuit is finally delivered from Korea by pack llama.

Yet just about everywhere only sells boxes. Any technical queries invariably get referred to a workshop that is probably somewhere in the dingy depths of Rashidiya. Despite the plethora of goodies on sale, it's always difficult to locate anything that isn't entirely mainstream. How many times have I been advised by a retailer that the item I want is out of stock and will have to be ordered...from Japan? More often that I should, and that's if it's available at all.

It's not only consumer electronics. I had to trawl Karama's domestic appliance scrapyard before I found a suitable belt for my washing machine, and that was pre-owned. A new drive belt was totally impossible to find anywhere, and that was after a lot of phone calls and visits to any number of purveyors of white goods.

Of course, the retail trade isn't always like this. When good customer service occurs it is very good indeed. I was delighted, when I returned a burned-out battery charger, to be told, "Whoops, our mistake sir. Wrong voltage. Here, have a new one." I was similarly impressed when I rang the cooker shop about a broken pane of glass in my oven door. The replacement was delivered and installed within twenty-four hours, all free of charge.

The following ditty is not aimed at those retailers who believe in customer satisfaction. It commemorates only those who regard customer service as a quaint anomaly, and consequently do not wish for any particular client, or any of his family, or his friends or associates ever to visit his store. The tune is by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and originally appeared in The Pirates of Penzance as "A Policeman's Lot". Appropriate for 19th September, perhaps?

Do you fancy a new flat-screen home theatre,
(Home theatre)
Or a camera, or Sony PS3?
Before taking it away with you, you'd better
(You had better)
Check it's fully working, 'cos the guarantee
Is unlikely to provide you a replacement
(No replacement)
If it's broken when unpacked. The sales guy
(Sales guy)
Will send it for repairing in the basement,
(In the basement)
And refunds are not coming in Dubai.


If it's broken when it's bought,
Your satisfaction will be naught.
That's the way we all do business in Dubai.
(In Dubai)

They will look at you as if you've grown antennae
(Grown antennae)
If you ask for a replacement part or spare.
(Or a spare)
You might as well request a pile of any-
(Pile of any).
Thing that's from a rocking-horse's derrière.
My front-loader had a drive-belt that was broken,
(That was broken)
So it wouldn't spin my clothes to make them dry.
(Make them dry)
My garments hadn't washed, though they were soakin',
(They were soakin')
For a spare belt "was not coming in Dubai."


If it isn't on the shelf
You must import it for yourself,
For alas, "it isn't coming in Dubai."
(in Dubai)

For domestic bits and bobs in vain you forage,
(Vain you forage)
Though of gaskets, grommets, grub-screws for your car
(For your car)
There is never any shortage. At the garage
(At the garage)
They've all automotive spares, which is bizarre.
(Is bizarre)
If you want an iPod, I am a proponent
(A proponent)
That there seems an inexhaustible supply.
(Bull supply)
But if you need to source a spare component,
(Spare component)
You'll be told, "It isn't coming in Dubai."


You will find that in this region
Spares are anything but legion.
For they mostly "are not coming in Dubai."
(In Dubai).

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Yo! Ho! Ho!

Next Tuesday 19th September be Talk Like A Pirate Day, i'faith!

D'ye fancy filling your bucket-top boots with grog and dancing a hornpipe, wi'a curse? Then p'rhaps ye'd better be getting in some practice afore the big day. All hands to braces, wi'a wanion, or else damn ye as a bilge-rat landlubber! Knock the weevils out of the ship's biscuits, stick a parrot on your shoulder and say, "Arrr!" and ye could be rewarded with doubloons wi'out stint.

Or else curse ye as a backstay, devil a doubt! Swab the deck or ye'll be feeling a lick o'the cat, or else be clapped in the brig down below in the foetid orlop like some mutinous dog, belike!

And if ye enjoy the world of Jolly Rogers, rum-soaked pirate captains, buried treasure, Black Spots and walking the plank, there's more swashbuckling than ye can shake a cutlass at in The Pyrates by George Macdonald Fraser.

KEYBOARD: For the high-tech pirate

Now on to a tenuously related piece of inanity. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster teaches that it is the diminishing number of pirates that is responsible for global warming. That's not the 'speed boat and AK-47 in the Straits of Malacca' type; only the 'Captain Barbossa' type: the sort of pirate who might be 'disinclined to acquiesce to your request.'

The theory, basically fewer pirates = more global warming, includes as corroborative evidence the fact that in the USA, when Hallowe'en comes round at the end of October and countless thousands of American children walk the streets dressed as pirates, the temperature in the USA drops.

Perhaps we should all do our bit. Talk Like A Pirate and save the planet.

A few helpful definitions:

bucket-top boots
Thigh-length boots beloved by pirate captains. The tops are normally folded down and up again to make the boots knee-length. Hence the 'bucket top'.

A mixture of rum and water.

(Music for a) lively dance for sailors.

wi'a curse
With an expletive.

In advance of, before, or in front of.

hands to braces
Ship's crew to get ready to do some serious pulling on ropes.

A curse that relates to the waning of the moon.

The bottom of the ship and the noisome liquid that collects therein.

A non-sailor.

A beetle that infests ship's biscuits, Stegobium paniceum. Not actually a true weevil. Given the choice, always select the lesser of two weevils.

A gold coin weighing seven grammes. Originally worth two ducats.

wi'out stint

One of a series of ropes that prevent a vessel's mast from falling forwards when under sail.

devil a doubt
An expletive.

swab the deck
Clean the floor.

Cat-o'-nine-tails: a multi-strand whip used to enforce discipline. Hence 'not enough room to swing a cat' when describing my kitchen.

clapped in the brig
Incarcerated quickly and with determination in the ship's prison.

The lowest deck of a three-deck vessel.

Prone to committing mutiny.

A despicable and egregious person, presumably one with a wet nose and a waggly tail.

In this style.

Jolly Roger
The traditional pirate flag, comprising a white skull symbol on a black background.

walking the plank
A Victorian fallacy.

Literally, one who strikes noisily upon a small round shield. Or possibly one who slaps his thigh and cries, "Sa-ha!"

Short, slightly curved broad-bladed sword. Can be held between the teeth when swinging on ropes, but beware of narrow gaps, lest you impersonate a boiled egg.

Toll tales

Has the Roads and Transport Authority come to its senses? Last December I blogged about my take on the RTA (then Dubai Municipality) commissioning a study including proposals for tolls for traffic entering Dubai. According to today's Gulf News, "Reports about the road tolls in Dubai are baseless..." says Maitha Mohammad Bin Udai, the Chief Executive Officer. And 7Days confirms it, at least for now.

My guess is that the comprehensive study has shown that imposing a congestion charge without providing a viable alternative means of travel would do absolutely nothing to reduce traffic. According to the Gulf News, Mattar Al Tayer, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of the RTA, said "We will not do it for the sake of collecting money." However, "Never believe anything until it's officially denied."

Incidentally, who exactly is the CEO of the RTA? Maitha Mohammed Bin Udai or Mattar Al Tayer? Come on, Gulf News: it's Make Your Mind Up Time!

Everyone who lives here must know about the dreaded Sharjah Schlep*. This traffic jam impacts on all roads leading from Sharjah into Dubai every morning. My spies advise me that a senior Sharjah police officer wishes to see ramp metering installed on the merge ramp that takes traffic from Al Ta'awon in Sharjah on to the Dubai-bound Al Ittihad Road at Al Khan interchange. I think this is a brilliant idea...for revenue-raising. It would of course do nothing to relieve congestion.

Ramp metering works by limiting the amount of traffic entering the main road. Detector loops measure the amount of traffic on the main road, and control traffic signals on a merge sliproad. The busier the main road is, the less additional traffic is allowed to merge. More red and less green time. Logically, if the main road is completely gridlocked, there is zero spare capacity and the sliproad will be on permanent red. Drivers will assume that if they never turn green, the signals must be broken. Echo and the Sunnymen**, among others, will be tempted to push past the red light and thus get popped by the enforcement camera. K-ching! Several thousand per day times Dh200 is a sizeable chunk of change. (How much does running a red light cost in Sharjah? I know it involves Dh500 and vehicle confiscation in Dubai.)

Actually, there's a thought. Impound the car of everyone who runs the red light on the metered ramp, and very soon there'll be minimal traffic driving into Dubai from Sharjah. I'd better stop now before I produce any more half-baked ideas that become government policy.

* Thank you, Mme Cyn.
** Thank you, Secret Dubai.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ghosts do roam

Once upon a time a building was constructed. The apartments were decorated with plain walls, and all the floors were covered with patterned ceramic tiles. Landings were tiled throughout, with large mirrors to create the illusion of spaciousness. Three lifts were provided so that the tenants would not have to climb hundreds of steps. The gleaming edifice was opened To Let in 2003 with rents set to discourage all but professional tenants.

Sadly, soon after construction it became obvious that the building had been constructed over an ancient burial ground. The underground car park, the lifts and the landings were all possessed by a malevolent spirit. This ghost burned the buttons on the lift panels and painted over the digital displays. Curiously, only the buttons for floor 8 was at first attacked in this way. Other buttons were destroyed later, but the worst damage was always inflicted on Number 8.

The building maintenance team was in despair. As soon as the damaged buttons were replaced, they were once again burned. And there were further poltergeist activities: writing mysteriously appeared on the walls in the car park and landings; official notices from the building management were torn; the words WELL COM were scratched into one of the lift control panels. And then the djinn signed the name Riyas in two of the three lift cabins, scratching the word into the stainless steel. From the height of the writing above the floor, it was clear that this mischevious sprite stood at least 1.6m high, unless it possessed the power of levitation.

The landlord was at a loss. He declared that closed-circuit TV cameras would be installed in the lift cabins. But alas, to no avail. The cameras, so small that they were invisible, never provided any evidence as to what was damaging the lifts.

It remains possible that the actual perpetrator is a teenage smoker called Riyas who lives on the 8th floor. Alas, it seems beyond the wit of the building management to make this connection and evict the vandal.

But isn't the ghost story so much more interesting?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Goats do roam

If the presence of goats on the road is effective in keeping traffic speeds down, why doesn't it work in the Emirates?

According to this news item, Canada seems to be a goatless zone, and high speeds are therefore possible. Just as well our Swiss hero didn't find any caribou.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Wait for me

The UAE's change in working week produced the unexpected bonus of a three-day weekend. The old Thursday-Friday weekend prevailed in August, and as 1st September was a Friday, the new weekend meant that I didn't have to turn up for work until Sunday.

So Saturday suddenly became available for diving. Other Dive Club (ODC) needed someone to tow their boat and launch it in Khor Fakkan. I met ODC's dive marshal early on Saturday morning, hitched up the 30-foot speedboat and dragged it to the slipway. After putting my diving kit on board, I reversed the trailer into the water, where ODC backed the boat into the sea. In the forty-five seconds it took me to park my car and the empty trailer, ODC had turned round and headed (or do I mean sodded?) off to the other side of the harbour to pick up the other divers. Standing on the slipway and gesticulating was to no avail; after collecting everyone else, they headed off to go diving..., leaving Muggins on the slipway.

I made several phone calls and left various profane messages on answering machines. Eventually someone managed to contact the boat by telephone, which came back to collect me. A frank exchange of views followed. Apparently the misunderstanding was that I had quickly and efficiently towed and launched the boat, but was not going to dive. This despite the cylinders and bag of dive kit that I'd put on board; something that I regarded as a big clue. Despite an almost overwhelming temptation to go home and leave ODC with their own problem with recovering the boat to the trailer and towing it home, I decided to bury the hatchet and instead of stropping off in a huff I had a couple of splendid dives.

There is a monstrous honeycomb moray in a defunct air conditioner on Inchcape 1. Being immersed in 30m of sea water just off Al Aqah Beach Resort has done nothing for the aircon, but the moray seems to like its home. It's been living there for months, if not years.

At Martini Rock, which is just south of Khor Fakkan, I found the biggest turtle I have ever seen. According to my buddy it was almost as long as I am, easily exceeding the size of the more common hawksbill turtles. By approaching slowly and carefully I was able to get really close without the turtle getting spooked and swimming away. A turtle, despite its apparently non-hydrodynamic shape, is easily able to outrun a scuba diver with little discernible effort.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


This is what made my most recent trip to the Maldives really worthwhile! They're huge, they're graceful, and they come so-o-o-o close!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Power hungry

The Goat Pen

Dear Tenant,
Please register your tenancy agreement with Sharjah Municipality by the end of the month.
Yours truly,
Sharjah Municipality

Naturally, when I found this rather abrupt letter stuffed under my door I was a little concerned. But as the Firm dealt with all the tenancy contract details, I simply took the letter into the office adminisphere, where I was told by the Administratium that there was nothing to worry about. "It's all been dealt with. Everyone gets one of these letters." I was told.

The Goat Pen

Dear Tenant,
The tenancy has still not been registered with Sharjah Municipality. If you do not do so, steps will be taken.
Yours threateningly,
Sharjah Municipality

OMG. They're going to take steps. And I live on the 14th floor. How will I get to my entrance door now?

I took the second letter to the Administratium. "I thought you said you'd sorted this out?" I queried.

"Indeed we have, Mr Goat. Don't worry. Your tenancy agreement is registered and everything. Your well-being is absolutely assured."

And of course, I arrived home a couple of days later to find no electricity in my apartment. At first I thought there had been yet another brownout, but as everyone else had light and power there was definitely a different problem. The watchman explained that because I had refused to register my tenancy agreement, Someone Official had stolen the main fuses to my power supply.

Just as well it wasn't August, then. No power = no light, no aircon, no cooking. I found my way to bed by Braille and had an early night.

The next morning I was late for work. My alarm clock wasn't working because there was no mains power. D'oh! Followed by two hours in the lemming-like queue into Dubai instead of my usual 45 minutes, I was fuming by the time I reached the office. My conversation with the Administratium cannot be reproduced here for reasons related to profane language. Suffice to say that I obtained an apology and an undertaking to get the power restored.

Two days later I presented the Administratium with a receipt to the value of food in my freezer that had thawed out and had to be binned. Unsurprisingly I've not received any payment.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Instant hooligan

Just add (rather a lot of) petrol

It's doubtless this sort of thing that's got two-stroke outboards banned from Dubai Marina.

A bigger plot in Winchester

The other day I rang EggSalad to ask about an advertised feature of the new webmail beta service. According to the blurb, I was entitled to up to 1GB of email storage. EggSalad advised me that 5MB was all I was allowed, unless I rented additional storage.

"Perhaps," I suggested, "You might like to consider that Gmail provides nearly 3GB of free email storage. HoTMaiL, another free email provider, allows 250MB. So isn't a minuscule 5MB on a paid-for service a little parsimonious? And how am I supposed to download the contents of my gargantuan Gmail inbox into my titchy EggSalad one [should I wish to do so]?"

It would appear that EggSalad has for once listened to a Valued Customer. As of today, my inbox (and presumably those of the other Valued Customers) has increased tenfold, to 50MB. This is not in the same league as 3GB, but is, as a poke in the eye with a stick is, better than a poke in the eye with a hot, sharp stick. I wonder if my phone call had anything to do with it?

Winchester disk: Synonymous with hard drive, apparently.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A hole in the ocean

The Gulf states are famed for their maritime prowess.

There is today a growing amount of maritime traffic, consisting not only of containerised and loose cargo, but also fishing boats and pleasure craft. Dotted regularly along the coast of the UAE are numerous little harbours, largely filled with GRP open motor boats. There are also more traditional dhows in either wood or plastic, and less traditional and almost exclusively Tupperware sailing or motor yachts.

Some of the harbours and marinas aren't so little either, and the number of these is increasing.

Owning a boat is one of those things that 'rich' people seem to 'do'. The concept of someone scrimping and saving in order to afford a boat doesn't seem to occur to marina operators or purveyors of spare parts. Swindleries Chandleries appear to regard a boat owner's wallet as a goldmine to be worked to exhaustion at every available opportunity. Nevertheless, I confess to wishing to own a boat, but alas have no hope of being able to afford the sort of boat I'm willing to own. Not for me is the open-topped plastic projectile with about four-hundred two-stroke horses dangling off the back. Dubai Marina recently decided to ban two-stroke engines, which may be the thin end of the slippery slope to the demise of two-stroke outboard motor market here.

I want more comfort than that offered by an open boat. I want a cabin. And I want a vessel that's big enough to handle a sea that's rougher than a millpond. I fell in lust with a 42 foot trawler yacht when I was at the Dubai Boat Show earlier this year. Generous benefactors who fancy donating half a million quid to The Grumpy Goat's Afloat fund please let me know.

An unfortunate practicality of boat ownership involves where to go and what to do with it. As a diving platform, Dubai is no longer a good location. Poor underwater visibility because of dredging and reclamation through the rainbowing technique has rendered most west-coast dive sites not worth visiting. The Mussandam peninsula is very interesting from a boating and diving point of view, but it's in Oman and therefore requires a prohibitively high pile of paperwork to visit in one's own boat.

I read in the local press that Dubai is intending to increase the amount of pleasure-boat traffic by tenfold over the next few years. The mega-rich owners of islands on The World will almost certainly need a boat each. The only real alternatives - sea planes or helicopters - would be a lot more difficult to park in Dubai. How about water taxis? How likely does it seem that the mega-rich owners of their own private islands would rely on public transport?

So what do we find? An enormous increase in the number of marina berths to provide moorings for this projected geometric growth in private boat ownership. That's a lot of potential income for marina operators.

Years ago I used to own and operate a Marina, but it failed its MOT and had to be scrapped. boom! boom!

I may be wrong, but presumably people own boats in order to ride around on them. Alas, too many boats serve solely as tropies to bob in the marina collecting dust on top and barnacles beneath.

Dubai Coastguard's current requirements (which have the habit of changing with the wind) before one is permitted to take a boat offshore are currently fairly onerous. A copy of an official form has to be filled in with the name of the vessel, registration details, owner, people on board, destination, purpose of voyage, etc, etc, at least 24 hours in advance. The form gets officially signed and stamped 'approved' by some faceless bureaucrat before being faxed back. Occcasionally a phone call is required to remind the coastguard to fax the form back. Prior to leaving harbour this form, together with the boat registration and names and ID details of everyone on board, has to be given by hand to the local coastguard.

A couple of weeks ago, the Dive Club was, at that point, refused permission to launch. The reason given was that the club, that owns the boat and has it registered with the Dubai coastguard, was apparently not on the official approved list of 'people who are allowed to go diving'. Yet a week later the same coastguard wasn't even interested in seeing the paperwork.

Having, in their mercy, allowed us to go offshore, does the coastguard monitor our safe return? Not so I've noticed, although I make the effort to drop into the office and say that we're back. Could we call M'aidez on a marine-band radio in case of emergency? No chance. Marine VHF is virtually prohibited here. Anyone caught using one is liable to a hefty fine, and in any event all channels except Channel 16 'non-stop habibi music' must be disabled. Compare this with elsewhere in the world where owning at least one marine VHF radio and being licenced to use it is openly encouraged, if not compulsory, for any boat bigger than a coracle.

My point is this. If the grandees of Dubai coastguard wish to devise and operate a Byzantine if not to say Kafkaesque system to control boat movements, how do they hope to cope with a ten-fold increase in pleasure-boat traffic? It would be prudent in my opinion to allow boat users to talk to each other and to the coastguard, even when out of mobile-phone range. "Ahoy there! Can you let me know your phone number so I can call you to explain that you're about to run agr...oh, never mind." By all means licence marine VHF to control the idiots, but don't ban it. Some form of certificate of maritime competence might be wise too. The current rather frightening reality is that anyone with a sufficiently fat wallet can buy a boat and cruise away in it without the first idea how to use a chart, a compass or a rope.

Or perhaps the intention is to make going offshore such an administrative palaver that it ensures all boats are kept firmly moored in some posh marina, solely to provide somewhere for their owners to sit and drink their juniper-berry-flavoured beverages.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

An obscure anniversary

August 13th is vertumnalias, the feast of the shape-shifting Roman god of seasons, change, plant growth, gardens and fruit trees. His name is Vertumnus, and he could well be C. S. Lewis' inspiration for the name of this character.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Hand baggage

That'll please the operators of airport duty-free shops, won't it? The list of permitted items doesn't allow cameras, DVDs, MP3 players, stuffed camels or even paperback books. Presumably there's suddenly a fear of cabin crew being overpowered and bored to death with readings from 'the first thousand-page volume of a new trilogy from a major new talent...'

At least it's only flights to and from the UK and US that appear to be affected. Villains are apparently not tempted by the dubious delights of - to cite a couple of random examples - Prague to Frankfurt or Doha to Manila.

Look on the bright side, though. The mobile-phone addicts (and indeed the mobile phone-addicts) who are so desperate to contact their loved-ones the moment the wheels touch the runway will now have to wait until baggage reclaim. And with a total dearth of bags to collect from the overhead bins, no-one will find it necessary to spring up from their seats before the aircraft has come to a complete stop. I assume we'll all get additional baggage allowance to compensate for the six kilos of hand baggage now consigned to the hold.

With no liquids permitted on board, this will prevent passengers from spraying pungent odours all over themselves and through the rest of the cabin. I wonder if perfumes will be permitted in on-board duty-free? Surely not, especially if there's a transit stop. "I'm sorry madam. That half-gallon of Chanel No.5 that you bought en route from Dubai to Frankfurt is confiscated before you board the Frankfurt to Washington flight."

Perhaps, if we are serious about in-flight security, all passengers should strip to their birthday suits and fly in airline-issue disposable paper gowns akin to those issued to hospital patients. All clothing and other effects could then go securely into the hold so that they can be thrown, dropped, lost and occasionally stolen. Imagine the horror of arriving in Reykjavik for a high-level meeting only to discover that your Armani suit and Gucci shoes will shortly be arriving in Melbourne.

Facetiousness aside, full marks to the security services for uncovering the alleged plot and apprehending the alleged villains. Let us all hope they've got the lot, and normality can soon be restored.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Underground, overground

The deplorable local lack of pedestrian facilities is irritating and dangerous. I'm referring not only to the scant provision of pedestrian crossings, but also to something as fundamental as footways (or sidewalks or pavements, depending on your nationality).

It is impossible to reach Al Ta'awon Mall in Sharjah on foot, for example, unless you cross at least one three-lane dual carriageway. To get from my apartment to Hardees (for want of a better example) on Al Ittihad Road involves either a 3.2km walk and seven road crossings, or else a suicidal scamper across ten lanes of urban motorway. Apart from over the bridge at Al Khan interchange there's no footway. Unsurprisingly, despite living within 400 metres of the said Hardees, I never walk there. I seldom go there at all, but that's beside the point.

An awful lot of people do run the gauntlet of Al Ittihad Road. Even more frightening is the habit of pausing on the white lines, under the mistaken impression that cars always stay in lane.

Part of the solution is obvious: provide pedestrian bridges or underpasses. I wholeheartedly applaud Dubai's recent decision to provide pedestrian crossing facilities.

But why, when crossings are provided, do so many people not use them? I have lost count of how many times I've had to brake or swerve to avoid someone walking on Sharjah's Al Wahda Street. Residential apartments in Abu Shaghara district are connected to the local Al Falah Plaza shopping mall by a footbridge.

Yet despite the bridge, and the highway median barrier being topped by a tall spiky fence, significant numbers of shoppers cross the highway and scale the fence, sometimes while loaded with their purchases.

A couple of years ago I heard a traffic report on one of the local radio stations, possibly thi bitti mix. According to this report, two guys were attempting to transport a ladder across Sheikh Zayed Road opposite the Trade Centre Apartments. If it weren't so tragic, it'd be hilarious. I wonder what was wrong with the Fairmont footbridge? Not enough of a challenge, perhaps?

How about the big footbridge that connects (ish) Lamcy Plaza to Karama? About a third of this spans the road between Za'abeel and Maktoum Bridge. Amazingly, I've seen people cross this part on the footbridge, drop down the steps on to the wide median and then cross into Karama at road level. Why not stay on the bridge?

Background image courtesy of Google Earth.

< Hic! >

The picture simulates one of the effects of being drunk, but without the expense, hangover or risk to driving licence.

Monday, August 07, 2006

SEWAt I have to put up with?

How difficult should it be to pay an electricity bill?

In theory it's a doddle. In practice it is...sometimes. The combination of electronic billing and internet banking means that I merely have to tell the bank my SEWA customer number and the amount to pay, and the utilities bill is instantly paid. Huzzah! Another satisfied customer.

This month, in common with typically every second month, I was less fortunate. Log on, click here, pull down 'SEWA', type amount to pay, and...Incorrect bill amount. Payment rejected. Ring 'Red Triangles' bank (who is not ADCB, who only has one red triangle) and quote reference PM01.

I had a happy telephone session with the internet banking helpless desk, who decreed that it was all my browser's fault, and that I needed to fiddle with my PC and adjust the cookie and firewall settings. Seemingly the bank was incapable of understanding that the same settings were fine last month. Eventually it emerged that reference PM01 means 'payment rejected'. Ah, I'm glad that's clear then. Payment rejected. Quote reference 'Payment rejected'.

Eventually it emerged that the reason for the rejected payment was the amount I was trying to pay differed from the amount showing on the bank's computer. Last month's bill has not been updated.

"It's not our fault! [it never is, is it?] You have to talk to SEWA. And no, we at 'Red Triangles' are incapable of parking your instruction until the new amount gets uploaded, or paying SEWA the amount you have instructed anyway."

Telephoning SEWA proved difficult when I learned that their website was down. They don't seem to be listed in the UAE telephone directory. The main phone number listed on the bill was answered, but it was the wrong section. "You need to ring Consumer Section on this number."

"This number" turned out not to be Consumer Section. "Ring the main number." Now there was no reply at all. I was instead treated to 20 rings. "Three rings for the elven kings under the sky, seven for the dwarf lords in their halls of stone, nine for mortal men doomed to die and one for the dark lord on his dark throne in the land of SEWA where employees lie" before the line cut off.

Eventually I used a different phone number from the comprehensive selection of regional offices and got through to the computer section, where the kind man told me that SEWA had on 2 August informed the banks how much their customers owed.

Telephone the bank: "But SEWA hasn't told us to expect a payment. Don't blame us."

"Yes they have. On 2nd August, actually."

"Ah. [curses, foiled again] Well try in two days."

Yes, I'm told takes 'Red Triangles' an entire week to upload this information.

SEWA reads my meters on 7 July.
SEWA raises a bill in July.
SEWA advises the bank of the current balance on 2 August.
SEWA delivers my bill on 6 August.
Bank may upload the bill information on 9 August.

Meanwhile, the blurb on the back of the bill states that "Bill amount must be paid within 7 days, any delay will render the customer liable to disconnection without prior notice."[sic.] Am I really to believe that threat? And if so, what can possibly justify punishing me when something as simple as paying a bill is made impossible by the very people who deal with this sort of thing for a living?

Maybe I should go back to keeping my money under my California King mattress and paying for everything by visiting personally and handing over cash.

Monday, July 31, 2006

All together now...

The fashion for satirical ditties continues unabated...

(Who wants to be a millionaire?)

Who'd like a link that's proxy-free?
I would!
To utilise VoIP?
I would!
Can I view pictures on display in FlickR
And reunite friends
Who are scattered afar?

Who'd like to share a video?
I would!
Then to YouTube I ought to go!
I would,
But sites are blocked by my ISP;
They would!
They're playing the game 'Monopoly'.

Who wants to download some email
I do!
At a pace faster than a snail?
I do!
Doesn't seem likely in this dry desert land,
And that's even though
I paid for broadband.

When I think it can get no worse,
I do
Oft use bad language, swear and curse,
I do.
Can competition cure all my woes?
Aye, Du
Has got to be better, I suppose.

What's in a name?

Malaysian children will be relieved to learn that it has become illegal to be named Cedric. Or Sunny, or Cherry or even Tiida. But the restrictions on naming children after cars seems to be limited to Japanese marques. There therefore remains the possibility of being called Mercedes, Portia, Maurice (and possibly Maurice minor for his younger brother), Dennis (after the fire engine), or even Austin.

As it's an honorary title, is Prince forbidden? I refer to the name, not necessarily to the artist formerly known as 'The artist formerly known as Prince'.

The vegetable name ban would have prohibited Terry Pratchett's character Carrot from being so named. And the ban on colours would have made Red Adair's monicker less memorable. Arachne is presumably still OK because spiders aren't insects.

But they are animals, and parents aren't allowed to name their babies after animals. Any living thing that isn't a plant or one of those rather strange organisms like bacteria or viruses is in all likelihood an animal. By that definition, Tarzan's young sidekick Boy would not have gained the Malaysian seal of approval.

That's all for now from The Grumpy (I'm glad I'm not Malaysian) Goat.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

What a load of sheet

Home Centre is having a sale. I decided to get rid of my old bed and replace it with a decent over-size example, and as there's a special offer of effectively 25% discount, I went to the bed department and made my choice.

Now, a King Size bed is substantially larger than my existing one, so none of my bed linen will fit. Logically therefore, it would make sense to buy some new sheets. And at this point the problems started.

The Home Centre bed frame requires a mattress the same size - logically. And the mattress was indeed available. Made in the UAE, I might add. But I was naive enough to assume that sheets to fit the mattress would also be available. I was sort of right; there was one sheet in an acceptable colour. The other half-dozen or so fitted sheets were lurid pink and livid vermilion. I am not macho enough to own and sleep on pink bedding.

HC: "But this 2.0m sheet will fit, sir."

GG: "Prove it. Put it on the bed in the shop."

HC: "See. It fits!"

GG: "Only if you want me to sleep on a banana-shaped mattress. If I lie on that the sheet will rip. Thank you, but no."

In summary, Home Centre's stock of sheets to support the bed sizes they're selling is extremely limited.

A quick check on Wikipedia, and then I was off to the Mall of the Emirates, armed with the following piece of information:

Bed size 72" x 84" is 'California King' (also 'Western King' or 'West Coast King'), which is the standard size for a king-size bed on the Pacific coast of the United States.

Sadly, it is not a standard size in any of the myriad bed shops in the MotE. No-one had fitted sheets 2.1m long, and no flat sheets were big enough. Most shop assistants looked at me when I asked for 1.8m x 2.1m bed linen as if I'd grown an extra head. I eventually resorted to buying the biggest flat sheet I could find, and then taking it to the tailor.

I always use the same tailor, because he's reliable, accurate and cheap. His assistant was less helpful. After explaining with diagrams that I wanted corners and elastic putting into this flat piece of cloth, he decided fifteen minutes into my explanation that although he said he understood, in fact he didn't. Remember this is someone who's capable of turning flat cloth into the complicated shapes necessary to hug a human body and look good. But a rectangular mattress defeated him. Almost one of those, "Manuel, let me explain" moments.

I am relieved to report that I finally found a couple of sheets, and the tailor eventually got it right. This is just as well. The old bed was taken away yesterday and the new one arrived this afternoon. It's enormous!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


I've not done any on-line banking with the Red Triangles for a couple of weeks. Time, I thought, to check my balance and see how much of my recent credit card activity has filtered through the system.

Silly me! I fluffed up my password and had to reset it. Serves me right for not using it for a fortnight. Maffi mushkela. Reset password. Telephone bank to reactivate the account:

GG: Good afternoon. I've reset my internet banking password and a message says I have to phone you to get it activated.

HelpDesk: Indeed. What is your account number? And please key in your phone banking PIN.

GG: [fiddles with phone keypad, thereby proving his identity]

HD: Hello Mr Grumpy Goat. How much money is in your account?

GG: I don't know. I can't get on line.

HD: How much is in your deposit account?

GG: Errr, not sure. As I just told you, I can't get on line.

HD: What is the credit limit on your plastic card?

GG: Not a Scooby, I'm afraid. I could tell you if I could get on line.

HD: Date of birth?

GG: Bingo! I know that one.

HD: Very well, Mr Goat. You have demonstrated that you could be almost anyone, so your account will be reactivated within an hour.

And I can confirm that the account was indeed reactivated.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Get what you want. Punch someone!

Have you seen the lurid orange Axiom Telecom adverts in the cinema? The offer is simple enough. Buy a mobile phone, and if the price drops within five days, the shop will refund the difference.

The catch? The refund is in vouchers, not cash as implied by the adverts.

The previous advert featured - apparently - Barney Rubble on the psychiatrist's couch having all his problems solved when he learns that he's due a refund of couple of hundred dirhams. Inane but memorable.

The current advert features a manic, grinning employee, happily dispensing largesse in the form of vouchers to all those customers who were overcharged during the previous week. Then a stereotypical thug appears and demands a refund for a phone he bought five months ago. Through intimidation he gets his refund, and then assaults the shop assistant.

Alright, I know it's a cartoon. I know it isn't real. But the offer being advertised is real.

Leaving aside the ghastly colour and the advert's offensive content that have caused me to remember the product, what is the message?

Apparently, in Axiom telecom we can obtain money off vouchers to which we are not entitled provided we threaten, bully and punch the guy behind the counter. And here's me thinking that assault was a criminal offence.

I certainly shan't be buying anthing from that particular shop any time soon.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Another skyscraper II

There has been some progress since the job started. To date, however, there's been no progress upwards; all recent activity has remained up to four metres below the original ground level.

The piling is finished. I missed the pile test, where a selected pile is loaded with large numbers of eight-tonne concrete cubes and the amount of settlement is measured. The next stage is to expose the steel reinforcement to provide something for the concrete ground slab to attach itself to. Normal procedure is to break the concrete at the tops of the piles and thread foundation slab steel into the ground slab steel before pouring the foundation concrete.

The contractor has installed steel I-columns around the perimeter of the building footprint. These act as underground fence posts to hold back adjacent earth while the soil around the piles is excavated. Exactly the same technique was being used in Washington DC, as photographed by nzm.

Not many piles visible. Most are below ground

It is a little unfortunate that the steel columns were installed using a crane with a vibrator attachment; the columns are vibrated so that they glide into the ground, and will presumably be removed using the same technique. Everyone living or working nearby spent a couple of weeks having their dental fillings loosened by the all-pervasive vibration. Still, it's less noisy than a steam hammer donking away all day.

A crane

Now that dewatering has been installed, an excavator can trundle around the site without sinking into a noisome muddy pool. In fact, provided the pump keeps on running the ground will likely remain dry. Groundwater slurps up the little green pipes by suction and is ultimately discharged into a nearby storm sewer.

The consequences of inadequate dewatering

As the excavation started, it quickly became apparent that of all those piles that were installed, initially only two were visible, poking out of the bottom of the excavation. There were several suspicious-looking bent bits of reinforcing steel. I suspect that the tops of some of the piles were inadvertently demolished during the excavation process. Further excavation to around three metres below original ground level finally revealed several other piles. So they didn't all sink without trace into the quagmire. We are now regaled by jackhammers as the concrete is broken out to expose the steel bars.

I have finally managed to upload some pictures, courtesy of Picasa. That's on 22nd July, a week after uploading the text.


The opinions expressed in this weblog are the works of the Grumpy Goat, and are not necessarily the opinions shared by any person or organisation who may be referenced. Come to that, the opinions may not even be those of the Grumpy Goat, who could just be playing Devil's Advocate. Some posts may be of parody or satyrical [sic] nature. Nothing herein should be taken too seriously. The Grumpy Goat would prefer that offensive language or opinions not be posted in the comments. Offensive comments may be subject to deletion at the Grumpy Goat's sole discretion. The Grumpy Goat is not responsible for the content of other blogs or websites that are linked from this weblog. No goats were harmed in the making of this blog. Any resemblance to individuals or organisations mentioned herein and those that actually exist may or may not be intentional. May contain nuts.