Saturday, February 25, 2006

One of those days

Last Monday 20th Feb I was asked to run a dive trip off the east coast of the Emirates. I agreed, and as the dive club has a 30-foot hard boat in Fujairah I wouldn't have to tow it 120km up and down 10% grades across the Hajjar mountains. Five people signed up on Monday night, including me.

By Tuesday morning the weather changed. Rain. It also rained on Thursday and was still showery on Friday. Not to worry; with little wind and dive sites close to the shore who cares? It's not as if we rufty-tufty divers don't want to get wet, is it?

But by this time two of the original sign-ups had phoned me to cancel. They had to work on Friday. Something about a meeting scheduled by someone who thinks our weekend is the same as his. Meanwhile two other club members had phoned me to get on the list, so we still had five. Three of us met at the dive club on Thursday morning (11.59am) to fill cylinders and pick up the boat safety equipment.

The trouble with a 9 am start on the east coast is an alarm clock set at the ungodly 05.30am. It was raining and still dark when I set off. When Friday dawned an hour or so later, I got a phone call from one of my divers: "I'm stuck in traffic. Route 44 is like a car park." An hour later still, he called me again. "I might as well be set in concrete. Haven't moved an inch." At this point, he decided to call it quits and go home once the traffic jam cleared. Ten minutes after that, I got yet another phone call. By now the police had decided to unbolt the Armco and let the traffic queue past the accident on the parallel service road. Yes, it took them over an hour before they did something about four lanes ( and probably about two miles) of traffic jam. The accident itself, I was advised, involved at least two heavy trucks, one of which had been cut in half by the other after losing control on the wet road.

With a sense of doom and foreboding I called the other divers. Yes, they were still on their way. The plan was to tow the boat from Fujairah to the petrol station to gas it up at enormous expense (Petrol is a pound a gallon, bah, humbug) and then to Khor Fakkan to launch it near the proposed dive sites. Upon arrival, it turned out that Khor Fakkan was hosting Formula 2000 powerboat racing, and the slipway and entire fishing harbour were covered with cranes, generators and also small and extremely irresponsible powerboats.

Officialdom decreed that we were permitted to launch, but there was nowhere to put the car and trailer, and we'd not be allowed to recover the boat until the racing had finished some nine hours later. By this time a return to Fujairah to launch the boat was also looking unlikely. Time was pressing on and the best guess was that no divers would be in the water before noon.

I can take a whole series of hints. Thwarted at just about every turn, I returned the boat unused to Fujairah and we all trooped back to Dubai, which was by now bathed in afternoon sunshine.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

What did you do in the rain, Daddy?

It rained overnight in the UAE. This morning the roads are wet and my drive to work involved the use of headlights and windscreen wipers. By a staggering piece of good fortune I bought new wiper blades yesterday!

At just about every sharp bend and junction in town on this morning's commute in was a bent vehicle with a police officer in attendance. It would seem that there are a lot of drivers who, to put it bluntly, can't drive in the rain. The expatriate population vastly outnumbers the locals, and most expats come from countries where wet roads are commonplace; Europe, India, Canada. But it would seem that there are a lot of drivers out there who have forgotten that wet roads are slippery.

Add to this some very dodgy tyres - the popular balloon sand tyres are pretty poor on asphalt at the best of times, and cheap Chinese rubber is similarly hopeless - and no apparent laws relating to minimum tread depth, and we have a recipe for a lot of trade down the panel-beating souq.

Incidentally, following an accident, it's unwise to move the vehicle until a policeman has attended and issued an accident report. Thus there is gridlock.

Hard at work?

Hot on the heels of my apparently pro-smoking rant comes this, possibly in the interests of balance, or possibly not.

I work as a desk pilot in an office where everyone is expected to put in a good nine hours a day. The office is non-smoking, which is good news for those individuals who have no need for nicotine, and bad news for the tobacco addicts.

Or is it? The smokers habitually step outside into the corridor, stair well or even outside five floors below to indulge in their habit. As far as I know, it is impossible to use a word processor, AutoCAD or a spreadsheet, less use the office intranet whilst propping up a wall several metres away from the workstation. Meanwhile, non-smokers remain at their desks, busily pounding away at keyboard and mouse.

How long does it take to smoke a cigarette? Five minutes, by the time a casual conversation with others is taken into account? Is six smoke breaks a day a reasonable estimate? If so, a non-smoker (and for these purposes someone who only smokes during lunch break or outside office hours counts as a non-smoker) is putting in an additional two-and-a-half hours a week of actual work, or over one day a month. Smoke breaks, of course, never appear on the timesheets as non-productive time; I for one object to paying a design engineer for the hours he or she spends smoking. There would be uproar if I took one day a month off, claiming I was taking all my smoke breaks. It was bad enough when everyone in my office stepped outside for a social chat and a cigarette (again), and I downed tools and started surfing the net. Apparently, the official line is non-smokers don't get smoke breaks and have to work more hours.

What of the additional costs of sickness owing to smoking-related illnesses? Well, at least being off sick doesn't get charged to individual projects.

I once knew someone who worked in the non-smoking office in an armaments store. The trade union had negotiated four ten-minute smoke breaks per day, but the designated smoking area was a 15-minute walk from the office. Health and Safety had decreed a minimum safe distance from any ordnance. Two hours and 40 minutes a day of paid idleness for each smoker, whilst a non-smoker had to continue to work. That's the British civil service for you.

Incidentally, during the holy month of Ramadan it is against the law here for anyone not just Muslims, to be seen smoking (and also eating or drinking) between dawn and dusk. Everyone can manage all day without a nicotine hit for one month, so why not every month?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Strike a light!

So the latest from the British nanny state is the proposal for a total ban of smoking in all indoor public places. Apparently, the current system of having separate smoking and non-smoking areas or advertising whether a particular establishment has a permit or prohibition is no longer good enough. We'll all have to trot outside for our nicotine fix. Why shouldn't I be allowed to go to a closed room with other consenting adults so that we can damage our health?

Contrary to the apparent belief of the Smoke Gestapo, smokers do not as a rule light up maliciously, specifically to annoy any nearby non-smokers. Neither do they gang up in doorways with the sole purpose of breathing second-hand smoke at everyone entering or leaving the building.

Those non-smokers who are currently crowing about this wonderful ban will doubtless be more than happy when their tax bill increases to cover the deficit in funds due to the absence of tobacco revenue. In Britain, smokers contribute £9.3 billion to the State annually. The cost of treatment of smoking-related illness is around £1.5 billion. It isn't rocket science to realize that the balance is £7.8 billion. In other words, with the NHS neither treating smokers nor receiving any funds from them, making up the shortfall would have to come out of everyone's pocket: Around £5 a week from each of Britain's 30 million or so taxpayers.

If the British Government is actually serious about controlling tobacco consumption (which I doubt), perhaps laws to criminalise it should be introduced? Use, possession, trading and import of tobacco would become an offence. But that would involve an enormous loss in excise revenue wouldn't it? The British National Health Service annual budget in 2002-03 was around £65 billion. Most of this money comes from direct taxation, with tobacco revenue contributing to the remaining 10%. Even assuming that the remaining 10% is entirely tobacco related, that's smokers donating £6.5 billion a year, leaving £2.8 billion for Her Majesty's Government to spend elsewhere. Deduct £1.5 billion for treatment of lung cancer, emphysema and other smoke-related morbidities, and that still leaves £4 billion that the NHS wouldn't have if tobacco didn't exist.

What is next on the list of things to ban? Alcohol perhaps, or fatty food? Maybe those carcinogenic barbecues should be made illegal, along with all dairy products? While we're about it, isn't red meat supposedly too dangerous for the public to eat?

Incidentally, the new healthy lifestyle to be imposed upon us by law will inevitably result in huge numbers of healthy senior citizens, all gleefully drawing their pensions well into their nineties and beyond. Paid for by whom, exactly? Presumably the same people who who also pay Customs and Excise to keep tobacco out of the Sceptred Isle.

And my own smoking habit? I enjoy the occasional cigar and the even more occasional pipe. I also have a sheesha (nargileh, hubble-bubble) once in a while. Cigarettes? No thanks.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The eyes have it

Today is the second anniversary of my refractive surgery.

I'd been considering laser surgery for some time, being a long-term wearer of contact lenses. I eventually summoned up the courage. I looked at several websites and had numerous conversations with Dubai clinics offering the service before selecting Gulf Eye Centre . Following a detailed eye examination, Dr Grim (eek!) suggested that I might consider Intacs as an alternative to laser surgery, and this is what I eventually did.

Intacs are for practical purposes surgically fitted contact lenses. The primary advantages of Intacs over Lasik are that the centre of the cornea (where most high-resolution eyesight is concentrated) remains untouched by the surgery, and the surgical procedure is reversible. I am assured that if my prescription changes or I get fed up of carrying bits of plastic in my eyes, the inserts can be pulled out by having a surgeon grab one end with a very small hook and gently pull...

I shall not go into details of the surgical procedure here. Perfectly normal people can become physically upset when confronted by graphic descriptions involving sharp objects and eyeballs. Local anaesthetic too, so I remember every part of the procedure. The surgery is relatively painless, for a given value of relative. There is definitely some discomfort. The pain comes over the following three or so days, after the topical local anaesthetic has worn off. All light feels like red-hot pokers and waking up in the morning feels like someone has spent all night polishing your eyes with wire wool.

But it does get better, and the improvement in vision is immediate. Gulf Eye Centre includes after-care in the surgery costs. This comprises weekly, monthly and quarterly inspections for up to a year. I now have better than 20-20 in one eye, approaching 20-16 in the other, and my astigmatism has vanished completely. I was initially faintly disappointed. Having got used to 20 16 in both eyes when corrected with glasses my new eyesight wasn't quite as good.

For clarification, having 20-16 means that you can see from 20 feet away what a hypothetical normal person needs to be 16 feet away to see. Birds of prey apparently have something like 200-20 vision, which is bad news for small rodents.

Two years on...

The good bits

I haven't had to wear any form of prescription lens for two years now, and I have no use for all the potions and other contact lens paraphernalia. There is no need to haul a shoe-box of eye stuff every time I go abroad or even camping.

No more 'grit under the contact lens' syndrome.

No more headaches caused by ill-fitting spectacles.

The sunglasses of choice, instead of being limited by the prescription.

I can see when I first wake up, and everything is in focus in the shower, swimming pool, water flume park and while scuba diving.

The bad bits

In low light, when my pupils open wide, I get haloes around points of light. This is only an issue when looking at the exit signs in the cinema and looking at my digital watch at three in the morning. The haloes were initially quite disturbing, but have mostly disappeared. Apparently the brain learns to switch them off.

One of the effects of the surgery is to upset tear formation. Dr Grim prescribed lubricating gel which was definitely necessary for the first couple of months.

Tiny salt crystals form around the inserts in the minuscule amount of fluid between the cornea and the plastic itself. This makes the insert a little more visible than officially advertised, but you still need to be less than a foot away to see them.

The inserts can't normally be felt, but an accidental poke in the eye is excruciating. I imagine a deliberate one would be too.

I had to buy a new diving mask: one with plain glass.


If you're going to get it done, do both eyes together and live with the pain. If you only do one eye, you'll be very reluctant to go back later for a second session.

Ensure the optical practice includes after-care. Do not be tempted to go abroad for a 'fit and forget' procedure.

Intacs can't help long-sightedness, big myopia or large astigmatism.

My total bill came to US$1230 for both eyes. It is theoretially a one-off lifetime payment. If this seems expensive, consider how many pairs of prescription spectacles that buys, how many packets of contact lenses, how many pints of saline solution, wetting agents, hydrogen peroxide, and so on. I can't put a number on the added value of convenience.

If I'd been able to afford it and Intacs had been available, I would have had the procedure done ten or more years ago.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dubai? Don't buy!

As an addendum to Blowing bubbles below, here is something I found out recently about the Dubai 'freehold' residences for expatriate puchase.

I have already discussed how the owner of this putative freehold actually owns his own concrete cube in a tower block, or possibly a villa on an artificial island. But he does not own the land it stands on and is therefore obliged to pay a maintenance charge. Failure to pay results in eviction.

Well, it gets better. Let us assume that all of my concerns about traffic congestion are unfounded, I pay my AED 2 million for a posh apartment, and pay for it over the next ten years. A year after that, I am unfortunate enough to drop dead. My last will and testament bequeaths the apartment (which is freehold and owned outright by me, remember) to my sister.

So my sister acquires a place in the sun? Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

As the law currently stands, it is impossible for any of these residences to be inherited. Upon the death of the original freeholder, ownership of the property reverts to the Government of the UAE.

Sensible investment? It makes the 3:30 at Kempton Park look like good value.

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