Thursday, December 13, 2007

The doors in the mall go ding-a-ding-a-ding

I was amused to find this scrap of paper blowing around in the Mall of the Emirates car park. I guess someone was displeased about the number of parking spaces that someone else had occupied. Any guesses as to the nationalities of the protagonists?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Liwa experienced

Here's the report now that I've got all the expletive deleted sand out of the car.

Three hundred and fifty drivers and another fifty marshals. That is an enormous number of vehicles to hit the sands of Liwa. Yet this is what happened last Friday.

As a volunteer marshal on the Gulf News Fun Drive, I attended a couple of meetings organsised by Gulf News and made three drive-throughs prior to the big day. I noted here that the whole trip would involve a lot of hours behind the wheel. From Dubai, one of the run-throughs totalled around four hundred kilometres comprising asphalt roads, gatch tracks, sand tracks and dunes.

A major consideration was fuel. Fortunately the Goatmobile comes with two fuel tanks, so despite a capacity-robbing dent in one of them there’s plenty of reserve assuming that I gas up at the last petrol station before the off road bit. The ADNOC at Mafraq was still ninety kilometres from the start. The next petrol was at the end of the off-road section at Hmeem. An absolute minimum range of 250km would be required. I picked up a spare five gallons of petrol in a jerry can. Someone with a Wrangler or similar vehicle with a small tank and a huge engine might be grateful!

The original plan for the Fun Drive was for two days of desert driving with a camp-out at Moreeb Hill. Owing to ‘insurmountable technical difficulties’ it was not possible to organise the second day’s drive, so Day 1 was extended. At the end of this, everyone would head off along asphalt roads to Moreeb for food, beverages, entertainment and camping before returning home on Saturday at their leisure.

Marshals were required to have driven the entire route at least twice prior to the event. I drove the whole route twice plus the Day 2 route that was subsequently cancelled.

On the day itself the event was spectacularly well organised. There were separate areas of parking for marshals and drivers, there was breakfast, and a registration system to ensure that everyone got their lunch packs, water and goody bags. A fuel bowser was set up on site to fill everyone’s tanks. Cash only and, predictably, an enormous queue that resulted in a slight delay to some of the later starters. Marshals were inserted in pairs into the departing stream of traffic, and off everyone went.

With tulip diagrams and a GPS with the route programmed in, plus the huge numbers of wheel tracks in the sand, it was not easy to get lost. Added to this, the road book contained prominent landmarks, some of which had names that were also emblazoned on signs stuck on poles along the route.

There were a couple of inevitable stucks and unfortunately one or two breakdowns. Marshals were on hand to assist with minor repairs such as getting tyres back on to rims, pushing and towing. I felt it necessary to remind some participants to wear their seat belts. This included representatives of the Emirates Driving Institute, who I’d have thought should have known better. Everything was going swimmingly until we encountered the first big bowl. It was like a sandy version of the Battle of the Somme. What was supposed to be an easy drive down into a bowl and up the other side half a mile away turned into a morass of stuck vehicles. Of course, the dry sand didn’t help. It got chewed up by 1600 tyres and turned into talcum powder. Out came my tow rope and shovels.

“Have you lowered the tyre pressures?”

Of course everyone had, but several kilometres of sand driving had pushed the tyre temperatures up and the 15psi (one bar or 100kPa in new money) had turned into more than 20psi. In many cases, letting some more air out and giving a push was enough to get the stuck car moving again. One driver insisted that someone else drive his Land Cruiser out for him, so my navigator did so. I felt a bit guilty afterwards, so drove back in to give this family of pedestrians a lift up the hill to their car before they were either squashed by some high-speed loony or they fell over with the effort of walking up the slope.

Shortly thereafter my navigator spotted a camel actually giving birth. We stopped and waited, taking a well-earned breather from towing and pushing, and watched the rather wonderful sight of a new mother encouraging her brand new baby to get up on to its unreasonably long legs.

The Fun Drive route led in a very approximate semicircle back almost to the Hmeem Road. The deal for the competi- sorry, participants was that those who arrived at Check Point 2 before 2pm would be allowed to continue on to a more challenging additional section with lots of very large slip faces. Naturally, marshals were all very keen to do the last section. Just as well, really. There were plenty of stucks and a couple of breakdowns. Plus by this stage some drivers were getting a mite concerned about the red bit on the fuel gauge. We struggled to get a Nissan Patrol out of a horrid steep-sided soft bowl. Eventually we decided to check the driver’s claim that he’d lowered the tyre pressures instead of just taking his word for it.

“Hah! Twenty-one pounds per square inch!”

“But they were fifteen, honest!”

A quick session of deflation later and the Patrol drove straight out. There is a moral in there somewhere.

I got off the sand at around sunset and re-inflated using the facilities organised by Gulf News. A row of 4x4s lined up at the multiple filling whip looks to all the world like cattle at a trough. There were still plenty of cars in the desert behind me. The final sweep team and breakdown recovery must have had a very late night.

I can confirm having a whale of a time. I personally gave away fourteen ‘I’ve been rescued by ME4x4’ stickers.

I hope everyone else out there had fun, as per the name of the event. Commiserations to those who didn't finish because of mechanical failure. Hope it’s not put anyone off desert driving.

Marshalling again next year? You betcha!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Pretty birdie*!

Fourteen years of school and college
Filled my mind with useful knowledge:
Arithmetic, reading, writing; science subjects held no fear.
Compulsory athaletics
(Though at gym I was pathetic.
You can be unsympathetic). I was told one day that we’re
Interviewed by the headmaster, “University draws near.
Learn to be an engineer.”

Off I went to Portsmouth Poly
On some full-time student jolly
With a student grant that unbelievably should last all year.
Forty hours a week of study,
Then at weekends getting muddy.
End-of-term exams were bloody difficult to pass, I fear.
But I scraped through with a 2-2. Celebrated with a beer.
“Now I am an engineer.”

“Not so fast. There’s a recession,”
I was told. It caused depression.
Nobody required a newly-graduated engineer.
Six month’s gainless unemployment
Caused a dearth of life enjoyment.
Much rejection; much annoyment. Why did I choose this career?
Many dozen applications, ’til at last, “A job is here.
Come, ‘Assistant Engineer’.”

From my fam’ly I departed,
Now the world of work had started.
I, like Norman Tebbit’s dad, had ridden off to get to here.
Minuscule remuneration,
Highly-priced accommodation,
Financial emasculation. What a start to a career!
Far from grand, in bedsit land I lived, with everything too dear
For a civil engineer.

But I trained ‘under agreement’.
That is what my boss said. He meant
I should have no social life, training to be an engineer.
Ev’ry night another semin-
-Ar. (Do they let only men in
Wearing suits, not jeans or denim?) Always dress in business gear.
Sartorial elegance is mandatory, yes my dear,
If you are an engineer.

Ten years later, with a house,
And still as poor as a church mouse.
Mortgage payments, household bills, and not the cost of fags and beer.
Couldn’t make ends meet in Blighty,
So I made what was a mighty
Brave decision late one nighty. “I’m fed up of living here!
I am off to be an expat. Be an expat UAE-er
Where they’ll need an engineer.”

Twenty years since graduation,
I live in a foreign nation.
Finally the studying and training has paid off, my dear.
This is what it represents,
And why it’s no coincidence
Professionals oft take offence whenever the photocopier
Needs attendance by the man who styles himself as ‘engineer’.
He is not an engineer!

You don’t need a BSc
Or some post-graduate degree
To fix up the Electrolux because it’s making noises queer.
Characters like Casey Jones
Are cause of many anguished groans
From engineers, as I have shown. Do you agree? Then sign up here.
LL B or MD, MICE, and a PhD are
‘Lawyer’; ‘Doctor’; ‘Engineer’.

(*Edgar Allen Poe on Prozac)

Monday, December 03, 2007

Message by owl

I spent too much of the National Day weekend doing a chore that I've been putting off for too long. There is a decade's worth of pigeon poo all over the flat roof of the Falling Down Villa. I took a shovel, broom and a load of bin bags aloft and shovelled shit until I'd run out of empty bin bags. Getting the full bags to ground level resulted in some nasty rope burns. The polypropylene line was way too thin for a controlled descent. After lowering the bags to the ground with the tow rope out of the Goatmobile and much profanity (some of the bags burst, being Al Cheabo gossamer-thin), it looked as if I'd made hardly any progress at all in removing the guano.

Having shovelled for several hours, I fervently hope that the plague of pigeons may be over. I found some 'bird scarers' in the West Marine catalogue and asked Beloved Wife to arrange for a couple of them to be Shop 'n' Shipped from the good ol' US of A.

Pigeons are allegedly petrified of birds of prey, being both birds and prey. An oversized long-eared owl with yellow, staring eyes ought to put the willies up any self-respecting pigeon. It went up on to the roof last weekend, and is currently on top of the parapet. The message delivered by this particular owl should be clear and unequivocal. It involves pigeons, sex and travel. If they don't get the message, the pigeons are going to be subjected to the Lehrer Solution.

Detractors of scarecrows have observed that birds get used to a scarecrow, so the instruction booklet that came with the plastic bird of prey suggests moving the owl around periodically. Added to this, the head is on a rotating bearing, meaning that the slightest breeze has the owl apparently looking all around, impersonating Linda Blair, and therefore ought to be suitably scary.

There being no limit to the ingenuity of pigeon-haters, there's a different model as well, just in case the pigeons suss out that Linda Blair is in fact made of plastic. The latter consists of a plastic owl's head to be mounted on a stick (stick not supplied), and a four-foot wingspan. This owl flaps its wings in the breeze and also sports the obligatory scary stary eyes.

It remains to be seen how effective the owls are long-term. But I don't recall any evidence of pigeons at Hogwarts.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

My Little Phoney

It’s approaching time for a new mobile phone handset. I really like the Nokia 3100. It’s dead simple to use and has an inordinately long battery life. There isn’t a camera, FM radio or MP3 player, it doesn’t make tea, tell jokes or do the ironing, but in the words of a parody advert that I now can’t find, “Get a life. It's only a f****** phone.” Unfortunately, it now seems impossible to buy “only a f****** phone”, and the 3100 is as obsolete as flared trousers, kipper ties and vinyl records.

What I really wanted was a new handset that accepted the same computer cable and charger as the 3100. I have no desire to throw away a load of house and car chargers and the hands-free kit. The Nokia 6020 appeared to fit the bill. It does have a crappy camera, but this now seems unavoidable. Cheaper phones aren’t tri-band; a ‘must have’ when travelling to the States.

Unsurprisingly, mobile phone handsets on sale in the UAE come configured to support Arabic text. It’s not only on the keypad. Having bought the new handset I got it home and switched it on, only to be confronted with Right to Left text. Whilst I can read Arabic, albeit extremely slowly, I had to rummage through both English and Arabic manuals for some time before I could find the language settings buried deep within the menu tree.

Ah, success! English.

Except that any form of text input always defaulted to Arabic. Sure, hitting the ‘#’ key twice to get Latin characters was easy enough, but remembering to do this each and every time I wanted to search for a contact name or write a text message started to be a right royal pain en al shams la laisa*.

Back to the shop. “Oh, no problem Mr Goat. It’ll take us half an hour because we have to reprogram the handset to disable Arabic text support.”

The duly-appointed half an hour later, this had turned into: “All electronic devices sold in this country support Arabic text, and in the case of your phone it’s impossible to switch it off.”

All electronic devices? Half the laptops in your shop don’t even have Arabic keyboards, and neither do my old phone handset or my own laptop purchased from this very emporium. With all due respect [i.e., no respect at all; the amount you actually deserve], what you have just told me is complete bollocks. Anyway,” I enquired, “Why do your staff say that it’s no problem when you, and presumably they, know that the task is impossible?”

“It’s company policy,” the manager replied. “We always tell the customer that we can do it.”

Well, this sums up Dubai customer service, doesn’t it? Company policy deliberately to lie to the customers.

“We’ll give you a refund, but you’ll obviously have to go home, pick up all the paperwork and packaging and come back here again. We’re open until midnight.”

Having obtained my refund, an almost unprecedented occurrence, I tried several other shops in the mall, but to no avail. Eventually, I discovered that the i2 booth, located about as far as it’s caprinally possible to get from the ski slope without going outside, had a pile of Nokia 6020 handsets. The salesman and I booted one of them up and were confronted with Arabic text. His Arabic was worse than mine (is this actually possible?) but I found the language menu and changed it to English. Miracle of miracles, all references to Arabic text disappeared from the display. Sold.

So “’s impossible to switch [the Arabic] off” has now proved to be “complete bollocks.”

I returned to the first shop. Having defaced the English manual with handwritten PINs and PUKs, it was only fair to give the shop the clean one out of the new phone’s box. How interesting to learn from a further staff member that the technician who couldn’t disable the Arabic was “an idiot.”

Now all that remains to be done is to ensure that the phone doesn’t have an annoying ringtone, but is still obtrusive enough that I can hear it.

* Where the sun shineth not

Thursday, November 22, 2007


It's that time of year.

Happy Thanksgiving Day to all my readers, and especially to my new family.

Alas, no turkey for me. Guess that'll have to wait until Christmas.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Dibble whammy

A fictionalised proposed screenplay, loosely based on actual events as reported in the Gulf News. Maybe I could write for Hollywood.

A passer-by notices a young woman apparently being forced into a car. It’s impossible to identify the occupant or occupants of the vehicle because of the darkly-tinted windows. The witness, being concerned for the young woman’s welfare, alerts Plod with a description of the vehicle and its registration number.

CID picks up on this call, and upon spotting the car, pulls up in front of it. The suspect driver attempts to escape, initially by reversing away. An exciting car chase ensues.

Eventually, Uncle William traps the suspect vehicle in a cul-de-sac. He uses his police car to block the suspect’s escape. The suspect rams the police car. Old Bill, who has been issued with a sidearm and is trained in its use, fires at the suspect vehicle, hitting the bodywork and rear tyres. Arrests ensue.
So what happens then? An attempted kidnap is thwarted and a dangerous villain convicted and sentenced to a lengthy stay in Al Slammah?

Good heavens, no! The Yemeni policeman gets a three-month suspended sentence for endangering the lives of a young Emirati couple by shooting at their vehicle. His Somali colleague gets three months, suspended, for endangering the couple by chasing and blocking their vehicle. One month, suspended, for the unmarried couple owing to their illicit affair. Nothing for failing to stop, Zero for resisting arrest. Nada for deliberately damaging a police car and zilch for (presumably) driving like a hooligan.

The court, being astute, spotted that the marriage certificate was dated after the date of the incident and upheld the ‘illicit relationship’ charge. “Their legal advisor Abdul Hamid Al Kumity asked the court to dismiss the charge of ‘having an illicit relationship’ because they are married.” No chance.

The claim that the suspect reversed away and then stopped immediately is not borne out by the bullet holes in the rear of his vehicle. Neither is Dubai Police’s initial denial of the shooting incident.

If you were the police officer in this case, what would you have done?

I would suggest that you would first walk slowly towards the suspect. He may be a kidnapper, and could conceivably be armed. You remove a notebook from your shirt pocket and lick your pencil, perhaps. “Good evening, Citizen...”

At which point your suspect attempts to flee. “Stop in the name of the Law!”

Hmmm, no effect. You give chase. Suspect continues to resist being apprehended. Clearly he could be a dangerous villain. Trap him in a blind alley, and he knocks your car out of the way. What sort of desperate criminal am I dealing with here? “Stop, or I shoot!”

If the rozzers are going to be hauled up in court and convicted every time they engage in a car chase or draw a firearm, what possible incentive is there ever to do so? They’re better off sitting in the station, filling in forms and collecting traffic fines. Oh, wait...

Gulf News report 02 May 2006
Gulf News report 28 November 2006
Gulf news report 22 August 2007

Monday, November 19, 2007

They shall be classed 'stout'

A fat tax on airline passengers?

Seems logical, doesn't it? The more weight the aircraft has to lift off the ground, the more fuel it uses. So now global warming can all be blamed on the obese. It's not people driving single-occupant SUVs with V8 engines, nor those leaving all the aircons on full welly because they're not paying the bill. It isn't even the Chinese, opening a new coal-fired power station per week every week for the next seven years.

What's going to happen at the airport? Are we all going to be weighed in like jockeys at the Grand National? Actually, why not? Lightweight travellers must surely receive discounts, and that suits me just fine.

Solidum illegitimatum es*, as one might say following a skinful of larks' tongues and otters' noses. But I try to travel with the minimum possible amount of luggage. In fact, I'll check in no bags at all if I can possibly manage, thereby eliminating the chance of the luggage being mishandled and left festering for a week on the tarmac at Heathrow instead of arriving in Washington.

I wonder how much fuel an airline could save by not actually hauling crates of duty-free booze, fags and perfume back and forth across the Atlantic? It must surely make sense to buy the stuff at your destination. Ah, but of course a bottle of Smirnoff that costs £20 in Sainsbury's in Portsmouth and £10 in Dubai duty-free will set you back around £16 at Thiefrow just before you hit the crowd apparently protesting about 'Mr Smith' of the 'Mövenpick'. But I digress.

What is the actual difference in the fuel consumption of an airliner that's running empty rather than full to the gunwales? I did a little uninformed research. It is of course subject to E&OE.

It's possible to buy aviation kerosene for your private Learjet in and around Washington DC at around $5 per US gallon. In China, the same fuel apparently costs a broadly similar Dh2500 per tonne. So we're looking at around Dh3.50 per kilogramme for paraffin for jet engines. I assume that Sir Richard Branson could get a bulk-order discount off these prices, and I suspect Emirates and Qatar Airways get their fuel for almost no money at all, at least when they gas up at home. (I can imagine the pilot of EK029 being told by ENOC that they don't take cards, and has he got cash?) According to Lufthansa's 2005 freight haulage figures, for the past few years they've been moving freight around the world at a fleet-wide average of around 185 grammes of paraffin per tonne kilometre. I make the approximate fuel cost to transport stuff by air around Dh5.80/kilo.

Mr Ray Sing-Snek arrives at Dubai airport for a business trip to London and back again. He's carrying a laptop and a change of clothes, and weighs in at a total of 95kg. The return trip costs Dh550 in fuel only, based on the above figures. Meanwhile, Osama bin Lardarse shows up to get on the same flight with a couple of suitcases bulging with pies. He and his pies weigh 160kg, and as such his personal fuel cost is Dh930. Only Dh370 more for 65 additional kilogrammes. Less than six dirhams per kilogramme. Compare this with the outrageous excess baggage charge that I found quoted on t'internet of £18.37 per kg on Emirates one way DXB to LHR. That's equivalent to Dh275/kg in my example. KLM is around EUR12/kg each way (Dh120/kg in my example). Excess baggage charges are of course set by IATA, but are punitive; they're designed to discourage extractors of the micturition.

Having demonstrated that the actual cost implication of demonising the stout is really rather small, how would an airline discriminate between a fat passenger and a tall one? The fat already suffer from narrow seats, and tall people get persecuted by the minuscule seat pitch in cattle class. Perhaps the BMI Gestapo will have to be summoned. The idea of not charging Big Bad John ('Six foot six and two forty-five'; BMI=28.3) whilst hitting up Warwick Davis (3'6" and 77lb; BMI=30.5) for a obesity surcharge is clearly obscene and ludicrous.

* "I am a fat b^stard".

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I'm not holding my breath

I read on the Beeb that Cambodia is having problems with the nouveau riche. More specifically, the offspring of those with money, whose idea of a good time is to endanger themselves and everyone else with their high-speed antics in their high-powered cars. Does this sound in any way familiar?

What caught my attention is that the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, has staked his job on solving the problem. One of the solutions that has been suggested is to make the parents directly responsible for their kids' behaviour. Instead of making the lawbreaking unhappen with a wave of the wasta wand, perhaps even if the yoof won't respect the law, maybe they'll respect their parents.

    "He has ordered the police to detain parents if they come to collect their errant sons from custody."
If Daddy got seven days in Al Slammah every time his back-to-front bebaseball-capped offspring committed a traffic offence then maybe, just maybe, pressure would be brought to bear on the offender. It is a paternal society, after all.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Spaghetti Festival

The letters page of 7DAYS has included some recent correspondence concerning the apparent inability of some drivers to use the correct lane. My own understanding of the rule is that everyone should drive in the most right-hand lane possible. Although officially there’s no ‘slow’ lane or ‘fast’ lane, it is widely understood that faster vehicles should occupy the left lanes and slower vehicles should remain further to the right. For the purposes of my blog, I’ll adopt the UK traffic police convention of calling the slowest, right-hand lane ‘Lane 1’, and number the ‘faster’ ones consecutively to the left. Lane 6 may be found in and around Dubai, although the Al Ain road typically tops out at Lane 2 or Lane 3.

Echo and the Sunnymen may typically be found in the middle, stereotypically burbling along at 70kph in the 120kph limit with traffic whizzing past on both sides. The alleged illegality of ‘undertaking’ on the right seems to be unenforced. Perhaps it’s safer to stay in Lane 1 at 120kph than to move out to Lane 3, make the overtake and then move back into Lane 1.

I think the most useful rule of thumb on the subject is that, if you are undertaken, you're in the wrong lane. Either go faster or move further to the right. I’m always exasperated if I wish to overtake a Sunnyman but can’t use Lane 3 because it’s full of Land Cruisers doing the speed of sound. Eventually the Sunnyman might move over into the empty Lane 1 and then he invariably moves back into Lane 2 once I've gone past and dropped into Lane 1.

Enough of what happens; how about why?

Education is one reason. If student drivers are taught to drive in the middle lane, then this is what they’ll do. And their behaviour is surely reinforced when they see everyone else doing the same. Moreover, there’s zero incentive to drive in an urban Lane 1 when this is seemingly designated the correct lane for random double parking.

But I believe a fundamental cause lies in the design of the highway itself. I refer to it as ‘frivolous use of lane gains and lane drops.’ I’m sure we’ve all been here: Driving along in Lane 1 only to discover that this lane scoops us off on to the service road. Overhead gantry signs are supposed to indicate lane drops, but these are often unreliable indicators. The lane markings should differentiate between the highway main line and the lane drop, but in Dubai it’s only the last 20m or so when the dashed line becomes a continuous marking that any warning becomes apparent.

On a normal diverge taper or, come to that, a side turning, the normal lane line ---------------- should become - - - - - -. What’s wrong with putting this on the last 500m before a lane drop? The purpose of signs and markings is surely to assist driver comprehension, not to obfuscate.

I have an excellent specific example of the lack of lane consistency within new works in Dubai. Try driving from Business Not-Much-Like-A-Bay towards Mirdif. The huge new dual carriageway provides a massive choice of six lanes and a posted 80kph speed limit. Over Business Bay Bridge there are seven lanes, yet Lanes 1, 2 and 3 peel off into Festival City. In order to get on the road to Mirdif you have to be in Lanes 4 to 7. Then Lanes 6 and 7 head off towards the airport tunnel, Lanes 4 and 5 forming the diverge that becomes Lanes 3 and 4 through the interchange between Nad Shamma Park and the Coca-Cola factory.

This next section varies between 4 and 5 lanes wide. The new Lane 1 disappears off towards Nad Al Hamar, there are miscellaneous substandard lane gains and drops within the interchange, including an appalling approach to a petrol station, but in order to get on to the road that becomes Tripoli Street, stay in Lanes 2, 3 or 4. And then, on the approach to the interchange with the Emirates Road, Lane 1 vanishes off towards Abu Dhabi, and Lane 2 tapers away to nothing.

Despite the enormous carriageway width, there are actually only two continuous lanes from Business Bay Bridge to beyond the Emirates Road. To quote from the AASHTO 2001 design manual, the USA rulebook for highway design and the standard upon which the Dubai design manual is based:-

“The basic number of lanes should be established through a substantial length of freeway and should not be changed through pairs of interchanges... In other words, there should be continuity in the basic number of lanes.” (AASHTO page 815)

“Route continuity refers to provision of a directional path along and throughout the length of a designated route. Route continuity [includes] the principle of maintaining a basic number of lanes.

“The principle of route continuity simplifies the driving task in that it reduces lane changes, simplifies signing, delineates the through route, and reduces the driver's search for directional signing.

“Desirably, the through driver, especially the unfamiliar driver, should be provided a continuous through route on which changing lanes is not necessary to continue on the through route.”
(AASHTO page 811).

My point is that in practice, anyone who attempts to drive in Lane 1 will inevitably have to switch lanes at the approach to every junction and interchange. For the sake of an easy life, many drivers simply stay to the left and avoid the problem, one that is in part caused by failure of designers to adhere to the rules governing good highway design practice.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Unlucky for some

Did anyone catch up with the story about the drunken yahoos in Brisbane? According to the newspapers, as a prank they took a pet goat out of a field, dragged this pet to a church that was under construction and then beheaded the animal in a mock satanic ritual.

I know I'm a bit biased, but if the goat had been my family pet, I would have been extremely upset. We learn that Tracey Lee Arnold has been put on probation and has to undergo psychiatric treatment. And for some bizarre reason gets banned from driving.

To add insult to injury the goat, it seems, is worth $64 to its owner. That's around Dh240. Damage to the church is apparently $1417, Dh5200. It's good to see that the judiciary has its priorities right. The prosecutor reckoned that the prank '...would have caused serious offence, particularly to the church community.' And to the pet's owner???

Question: if someone broke into your back yard one night and stole and killed your pet labrador, how would you feel about it? I would hazard a guess that you'd be demanding a lot more than an apology and Dh240.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Turning over a new 'leaf

Once upon a time, before the RTA, highways and traffic matters in Dubai were dealt with by the Municipality. DM ordained in around around 2000 that a new interchange should be built on Al Ittihad Road immediately adjacent to the border with Sharjah. Following a careful, comprehensive and detailed traffic study it was decided that a cloverleaf junction would be the most appropriate solution, so one was built at a cost of (and I'm guessing) around Dh50 million.

Upon the opening of Al Mamzar, Interchange 66, traffic making the Sharjah schlepp into Dubai was able to divert towards Hamriya and get into Dubai along the coast road. Almost immediately, DM blocked the right turn from Sharjah and the loop from Hamriya to Sharjah. "It is inappropriate that commuters should drive through residential areas," we were told at the time. Oh yeah? Then why build the interchange?

It transpires that the reason for the closure was that nasty, smelly pickup trucks were daring to use the new interchange to access the old fruit and vegetable market at Hamriya. DM's solution was obvious: move the market elsewhere. So, in 2004 the market was relocated and the interchange was reopened. And closed again within two months.

Since then, the loop from Hamriya towards Sharjah has been opened to traffic. This is nothing to do witheasing congestion and everything to do with lack of traffic enforcement. With the loop closed, traffic from Hamriya heading towards Sharjah had to cross over Al Ittihad Road, and many drivers simply made an illegal U-turn at the first traffic lights. Rather than enforce the U-turn ban, DM simply opened the loop. Nowadays, the banned movement at the cloverleaf is the right turn from Sharjah towards Hamriya. It's also impossible to go left, aroud the loop, from Sharjah because both exits are attached to the same, blocked, service road.

Why did DM's careful, comprehensive and detailed traffic study fail to anticipate the obvious? If you have two parallel roads, one of which is gridlocked with traffic, drivers will divert to the other, less-trafficked route. Could it perhaps be that the forecast traffic flows were arbitrarily massaged in accordance with anecdotal evidence from senior members of DM's traffic engineering team, rather than accepting the outputs derived from observed data? Was the traffic model totally ignored because someone senior fancied a cloverleaf? Had a brown envelope changed hands between DM and a contractor? Was there a change of government policy?

The de facto policy is to limit access from Sharjah into Dubai. Make the cheapskates queue for hours to get through Al Qiyadah junction.

Releasing the choke point would have two immediate consequences. First, more traffic would flood into Dubai and probably overwhelm the already overstressed highway network. Secondly, if it were easy to travel from Sharjah to Dubai, yet more commuters would move north to avoid Dubai's Rahmanian rents and potty parking charges. Not that Sharjah has any difficulty in filling every square inch of the emirate with high-occupancy, high-rent, high-rise towers.

Back to Al Mamzar interchange. I suspect that the real reason for the partial closure of the interchange is related to complaints from some V.V.V.I.P. in Mamzar who rather dislikes the plebeians driving past his front gate every morning.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Muscat, Liwa and Ankh Morpork

No diving for me until December.

Following our Eid trip to the Daymaniyat Islands both Beloved Wife and I had to get our dive kit serviced. The dive centre very kindly washed our regulators after each day's diving, but allowed water to get into the innards of the first stages. Water pissed out of mine when I set it up for the next day's diving. As any diver will realise, that is a potential recipe for disaster. The water rots the innards and causes malfunctions and maybe interruptions to the supply of breathing gas. So upon our return, I dropped all the regulators off at Scuba Dubai. I also dropped off all our diving cylinders for cleaning and testing.

The lack of dive kit isn't going to present any immediate difficulties for weekend entertainment. Every weekend up to January I'm booked solid. So is Beloved Wife, who intends to visit gay Paree. She doesn't fancy a week of intravenous, total-immersion motorsport.

UAE Desert Challenge
I'm marshalling in this year's Challenge all next week. This year my job is to chauffeur some press photograpers. I'll have my camera kit with me; perhaps I'll get some decent shots.

The Challenge starts at DIMC in Dubai on Saturday 27th October with the Scrutineering. There's the Prologue from 4pm on Sunday on the desert round the back of the police training college in Umm Suquiem. The prologue is normally good for some car, bike, quad and truck action around a very tight course.

Monday 29th sees the ceremonial start from Abu Dhabi, and then everyone heads off to Liwa for the week. Finally, the rally finishes back at DIMC in the afternoon of Friday 2nd November in time for tea and medals.

Gulf News Fun Drive
I'm one of the marshals on this year's Fun Drive, which is going to be a two-day event in Liwa. Including all the tarmac sections, but excluding getting lost, the total drive from Dubai and back again is just shy of 1000km. ADNOC is apparently going to be providing a fuel bowser at the start and end of each day's off-road sections. Cash only. Any potential competi- sorry, participant with a thirsty engine and a tiny fuel tank (Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Fortuner and Cadillac Escalade owners please take note) might like to consider bringing a spare jerry can of go-juice.

The marshals have to drive the whole route at least twice prior to the event. Many do it a lot more times than that. This will take care of several weekends. The Fun Drive area is roughly where I went camping last February.

Guards! Guards!
The Dubai Drama Group's Christmas play is the stage adaptation of Terry Pratchett's novel. I've landed a role, so evenings and weekends are taken up with rehearsing, I have to learn the words and, in the case of last Sunday, I had a plaster cast made of my face. No, I'm not playing Lord Havelock Vetinari.

Patrons of live theatre please put knots in your handkies for Friday 14th and Saturday 15th December. It's over at the Centrepoint Theatre, DuCTAC, on the roof of the Mall of the Emirates.

The curtain will fall as Guards! Guards! closes, and then Beloved Wife and I are off to the Maldives for our diving honeymoon. A week or so later, we're due back in Dubai to drop off our dive kit, pick up our winter woollies then it's off to Blighty for Christmas. We're having a shindig immediately after Christmas for those who didn't make it to our wedding in the USA in August. I'm thinking of inviting our luggage, and possibly Sir Richard Branson. Incidentally, I've now managed to get hold of someone at Virgin Atlantic in Dubai who appears to believe in the importance of customer satisfaction, so hopefully the Strange Case (boom boom) of the Missing Luggage will soon be satisfactorily resolved.

Edited on 5th November to add that Virgin Atlantic has decided that a couple of return tickets to London constitute adequate compensation. Now all Beloved Wife and I have to do is find time to make the trip!

Friday, October 19, 2007

It's a gas

Not satisfied with charging customers for using their credit cards, the Triple 'E' Triumvirate of Enoc, Eppco and Emarat have after less than one month now decided to abandon credit cards altogether. In this high-tech, 21st century, go-ahead, first-biggest-and-best society, we're all expected to produce crinkly cash.

This radical change of direction occurs just after the Three 'E's have printed thousands of 'we're gonna charge you 1.65%' sticky notices. Now they'll all have to come down and be replaced with 'ain't yer got cash?' posters. How organised! I've seen more organised Brownian motion...

A recent letter in 7DAYS suggested that if the petrol companies want cash so much, we should shower them in small change rather than paper money.

An alternative to cash is prepaid cards. Naturally the petrol retailers love this. They get the money up front, and can collect the interest on it. By my rudimentary calclulation, if half a million punters each hold Dh100 on the card for a year, the petrol companies ought to collect the thick end of two million dirhams in interest alone. And there is the added advantage that a lost or destroyed card is to the customer's sole loss.

There is, however, a solution. Adnoc has never imposed the 1.65% surcharge, and after 20th October will continue to accept credit cards for fuel and other purchases. There is another advantage with Adnoc. The red-labelled 90 octane el cheapo petrol is only available at Adnoc. This is of academic interest to the Goatmobile, whose high-tech engine prefers the green-label 95 octane (or even blue 97 octane), but a Jeep Wrangler is quite happy with the red stuff.

Adnoc is alas 'not coming in Dubai'. I shall have to be organised and remember to gas up on my way home from work in Sharjah.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Little boxes, little boxes

Little boxes made for cricketers.
You stick one down your trousers
To protect you in the game.
There are pink ones and brown ones
And one made of aluminium,
But if you catch a googly
It will hurt you just the same.

Another type of box is the ubiquitous ISO container. Steel boxes, typically 40 feet or 20 feet long, designed to interlock like Lego and designed to fit on to trucks, freight rail wagons and on to ships and barges. The concept is brilliant. Rent or buy the volume and have it moved from here to there. Assuming that your box doesn't fall off the ship and spend its final hours being a hazard to navigation before descending into the abyss, all your worldly goods arrive unscathed at their destination.

I am not an expert on the minutiae of container handling. But something that I've noticed for a while has finally got me to the keyboard. It was brought to a head a couple of days ago when I spotted an interchange loop closed all day while a 40-foot container was being lifted out of the road by a large mobile crane and plonked back on to a flatbed truck. Evidently the truck had gone around the interchange at high speed (for a given value of high) and the container had slid or rolled off the back, landing with a clang on the road. I dread to think what happened to the contents. Hopefully not Ming vases, Queen Anne furniture or miscellaneous gentlemen who seem to have mislaid their passports.

Why did the box fall off? Look at the photo. At each of the eight corners is a hollow block which is designed to receive a locking device. I wonder if the container was actually locked on to the truck?

The twistlock typically takes the form of a rectangular lump of metal with a handle on the bottom and a pyramid on the top. The container is placed on the truck, and at each corner one of these devices is inserted up through the load bed into the container and given a quarter turn to lock it. Now the container can't possibly slide off, and can only roll by taking the entire vehicle with it.

And yet, in my unscientific and rather frightening survey last Friday, around 60% of the containers aboard trucks on the Emirates Road were unsecured. I don't know what the law says about it, but common sense suggests that a thirty-tonne brick (or 2.4 tonnes if it's empty) would do a lot of damage to the road if it were to fall off. It might hurt the truck driver if he stomped hard on his brakes and the container came hurtling through the back of the cab. Containers falling off trucks are not uncommon. Look for the huge gouges in the asphalt on interchange loops. Listen to the local radio for tales of traffic jam woe.

What really concerns me is the prospect of one of these containers unexpectedly sliding off and squashing a car. My car. With someone I know in it. There was a case reported a couple of years ago in Doha where a taxi and occupants were squashed flat by an errant container. The taxi was about 50cm thick, and that was only because the container hadn't managed to squash the engine block.

Surely there ought to be some laws, rules or Codes of Practice to prevent containers from being unsecured? And how about some enforcement? Preferably before someone else's household goods get rattled around like a couple of brickbats in a cement mixer.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Internal combustion

Customer service is alive and well.

But not in the Trading Enterprises Honda showroom on Airport Road a couple of Saturdays ago. Beloved Wife and her Goat dropped into the showroom to investigate the possible availability of an irresponsible little open-top car. We were politely greeted by a female assistant and we explained what we wanted to discuss.

Trading Enterprises: "Our SUV range, the MR-V, the..."

Grumpy Goat: "Er no thanks. we don't want an SUV. We're after an open-top car."

Trading Enterprises: "But the MR-V..."

Grumpy Goat: "What about the S2000?"

Trading Enterprises: (after going to find someone) "I'm not a salesperson. The S2000 is not available. We have no information. The 2008 model isn't due for at least three months. We don't know how much it'll cost. Bananas are marsupials. Cars run on gravy. Salmon live in trees and eat pencils."

  • Why is a non-salesperson working on the sales floor?
  • Why is there no information available?
  • Where are the sales staff?

  • I can answer the last point. They were all crowded in a big group in the middle of the showroom, watching their team getting defeated at cricket. And not doing any work: something that really impresses the customers.

    Yet even this level of attentiveness shines out like a beacon of excellence compared with what happened 24 hours later. I spent half an hour in the Liberty Automobiles showroom in Sharjah failing to get any attention at all from the sales staff. So the Invisible Goat turned and left.

    Customer service alive and well, I said? Yes, actually. The nice lady in Sharjah's Jeep showroom was polite and attentive, although was unable to offer a car that suited our requirements. And over at Festival City, Trading Enterprises' Volvo sales were nothing short of excellent.

    A test-drive of a Volvo C70 put this car definitely on the shortlist. We were a little bit concerned about the performance. The test drive was in the turbocharged version which, as predicted, went like a scalded cat. Unfortunately the T5 was prohibitively expensive, so a week or so later we test drove a different Volvo; one with the normally-aspirated 2.4 litre engine. Although a lot less powerful, it was still reasonably brisk, and was of course quiet and comfortable.

    I also courted the Peugeot dealer, and was reasonably interested in the 307cc. At about half the price of the Volvo C70 T5, it looked like a realistic alternative. The salesman was helpful and friendly, and arranged a test drive. What as disappointment! Beloved Wife and I both found the driver's seat excruciatingly uncomfortable. It's apparently designed solely to suit beanpole-thin Frenchmen. It was impossible to see any part of the car in front of the windscreen, which would make parking an interesting Braille exercise. And the engine was appallingly gutless. Acceleration was dismal, and this is as compared with the Goatmobile, not against the Volvo. Finally, Beloved Wife vetoed the idea. "I'd rather keep the Jeep."

    By this time, we'd decided against anything with a fabric roof, so no Honda S2000, no BMW Z3 and no Audi TT. The Saab and anything with a three-pointed star were rejected on the grounds of cost. But the Volkswagen Eos looked promising, so we dropped in for a chat and a test drive. Once again, the sales staff were helpful and attentive, becoming more so on our second and third visits. "Hmmm, customers must be serious..."

    Both the Goat and Beloved Wife enjoyed driving the Eos. Its 200BHP turbocharged two-litre engine, (faster than a speeding ticket...) provided the required level of irresponsibility, the car had loads of whistles and bells, and it was comfy and civilised. Except for the horn which, I discovered when getting cut up on the test drive, was raucously cacophonous. Brilliant!

    Now all we have to do is sell the Wrangler.

    The Volkswagen Eos FSi

    Sunday, September 23, 2007

    That's sandy

    Last weekend saw Middle East 4x4 Club's first formal meeting of the new season. The September Shakedown was a camp-out in the desert between Shwaib and Al Hayer. Although roasting hot, getting away from the coast meant a welcome escape from the evening humidity.

    We all met at Nad Al Sheba and were split up into small groups of four or so vehicles and briefed on the location of the camp site. "Here are some GPS co-ordinates. See you there." At first I agreed to 'sweep'; that is to bring up the rear, collect any bumpers that might have fallen off and advise the leader to slow or stop if anyone got stuck or needed a second run at a tricky bit.

    Having turned off Route 66, (not that one; the Al Ain Road) I was asked if I'd lead the convoy, which comprised the Goatmobile (a Prado), a Pajero, a Wrangler and a Land Rover Discovery. I apologised in advance that I was horribly out of practice because I'd not driven in the desert since the end of May, and would likely get stuck plenty of times. Actually, I only got stuck once. Having picked a line between a couple of small dunes that turned into a nasty powdery gully, I had to manoeuvre the Goatmobile in an awkward spot at a crazy angle. Not only was the gully at right angles to my route, it was right on the edge of an enormous slip face. Too slow and I'd get stuck in a bowl, whereas too fast would result in one of those groundskygroundskygroundsky moments. As it happened, I erred slightly on the side of caution, was not quite quick enough, and ended up perched on a tuft of camel grass on the edge of the bowl. Discovery and tow-ropes to the rescue. The desert bumpers paid off. With loads of ground clearance I didn't knock the corners or lose any hardware.

    At least I had realised my original error as I'd driven in, so was able to radio the rest of the convoy not to follow me lemming-like into the same predicament. Everybody else stood on a nearby vantage point and took photos and the mick.

    We had another minor stuck; the Pajero ended up bogged to its axles in talcum powder. We pushed it out. The car body was boiling hot. Memo to self: gardening gloves. A little later, I went over a sharp ridge and was surprised by a bush on the far side. I radioed to the convoy to follow me but slightly to my left, and the Pajero for some throttle-related reason came over the ridge airborne. There was a horrendous bang as the car landed on its nose, but by some miracle the damage was limited to a slightly bent bracket under the front bumper - something that we pulled straight in a few seconds. There is a minimum speed to get over dune crests successfully, but it's very close to the maximum speed.

    Excitement over, we arrived at the campsite. Everyone had been asked to bring firewood, so I hauled a 1cwt log out of the back of the Goatmobile and added it to the store for the pyromaniacs' entertainment later on. After setting up camp, it was more or less sunset, so out came the Food and Bev and also the music system and a CD of Wrinklies' Wrock. Then the barbecue was lit and we all set about having a social evening. I chose not to pitch my tent. The weather was warm enough(!) and there was no wind nor chance of rain. I've not slept under the stars for years. I still regard the pneumatic mattress as an excellent investment, as is the 12V low-pressure inflator that fills or empties it in under two minutes.

    Chatting about car mods, tyres and interesting stucks, I happened to notice an enormous cut in the sidewall of one of my front tyres. Air was staying in only by faith. For this reason I bailed out first thing on Saturday morning. I didn't wish to stress the tyre and risk a blow-out in an inconvenient spot, so made my way to the UAE/Oman border fence and thence to Shwaib for petrol and tyre inflation. ADNOC, incidentally, does not charge a 1.65% credit card surcharge.

    It being Ramadan, of course Tyre Express was shut when I got back to Dubai, so I got myself a new set of Cooper Discoverers from Renaissance Tyres because the latter was open. If they last as long as the previous Yokohama Geolandars, 66000km and 900 days, I shall not be displeased. Especially because the Coopers were cheaper! I've previously had Discoverer H/T tyres on a Discovery to successful effect. I'd wanted some slightly more aggressive A/T or ATR but these are apparently not coming in Dubai. Leastways, not for 17-inch rims.

    Tuesday, September 18, 2007

    Disinclined to acquiesce to your request

    Like anyone needs reminding, Wednesday is of course

    Read about it here. There's more here and yet more here.

    Wi'a wannion!

    Tuesday, September 11, 2007

    Parker, well done

    I parked my car and walked away
    In Sharjah, just like every day.
    (Ain't it sad?)
    And ever since September One
    My only parking space has gone.
    (That's too bad)
    My car was on a sandy plot.
    Two hundred chips is quite a lot.
    Pay the Municipality!
    It's inevitability...

    Money, money, money!
    They want money.
    Think of it as tax.
    Money, money, money!
    It's not funny.
    Milk us to the max!

    Aha! What can anyone do?
    They decide they want more money;
    Never mind the facts.

    We live here, and we find we are
    Unable just to park the car.
    (What a swiz!)
    Perhaps we are required to deign
    To park it in Umm Al Quwain?
    (Take the pizz!)
    Why do I make such a fuss?
    Catch the (non-existent) bus!
    Or maybe I could, if I like,
    Just break the law and ride a bike.

    Money, money, money!
    Making money.
    Greed's a Deadly Sin.
    Landlord, just for fun he
    Rents the dunny;
    Packs a family in!

    Aha! Only one thing to do.
    Simply smile and pay the money.
    There's no way to win.

    Friday, September 07, 2007

    Credit where credit's due

    The execrable Itisalot is at it again.

    When I moved from Sharjah to Dubai in order to live with Beloved Wife, I unsurprisingly had to close down my Sharjah telephone land line. As expected, Itisalot sent me a final bill that showed a credit. I dropped into the Sharjah office, one of those green cylinders with a golf ball on the top, and explained that I wished to credit the balance to the new Dubai land line that was in Beloved Wife's name. The man behind the counter gave me a form to fill in and then said that all the paperwork was done and the transfer would be effected in the next few days.

    A month later I received another bill, showing the same credit, for my non-existent land line. I rang Itisalot, was regaled by ten minutes of "Your call is important to us" music, and explained the problem.

    It's all my fault, apparently. I'm not allowed to move my credit balance to a telephone account in someone else's name. In order to do that, I need a No Objection letter from Beloved Wife. Then I need to visit Itisalot's golf ball again and humbly beg that the credit be transferred.

    This is from the same company whose website includes a "Pay 4 A Friend" [sic] facility. Anyone can go on line and use a credit card to pay anyone else's phone, internet, mobile or e-vision (cable TV) bill provided that the account number is known. So why can I pay my wife's phone bill with my plastic card but not with my credit note?

    On a related subject, the broadband connection at home, promised "in two weeks" from 10th August has to date not materialised. Apparently there aren't enough spare wires in the street to support more internet connections. This is despite ADSL's alleged ability to use the same pair of wires as the telephone.

    And the reason why this deplorable state of affairs prevails?

    <)". ."(>
    ( (..) )

    and of course

    Monday, September 03, 2007

    The flexible fiend

    I was insufficiently organised to gas up the Goatmobile last Friday, so I had the dubious privilege of being one of the first customers to pay the 1.65% surcharge when I proffered my credit card. ENOC, and presumably everyone else, has decided that because the banks charge the oil companies to process credit card transactions it's perfectly OK to pass this charge on to the consumers.

    What rot! Using a plastic card benefits the customer by deferring the evil moment of actually paying for something and eliminates the need to carry great wads of nickable or loseable cash. It benefits the bank because of the annual fee and the usuriously high interest rates payable should the customer not settle up in time. And plastic money benefits the retailer too. He gets the payment immediately without all that tedious moving of cash from the shop's cash register to the bank. The words 'nickable' and 'loseable' can be re-used here when describing the risks associated with cash transactions.

    This is where I insert the caveat about easy credit and responsible borrowing. The MasterVisaExpress only defers payment for up to a month, and anyone who has a credit card must surely realise this. Credit card interest rates can be atrociously high. Don't borrow at 25% or more whan a bank loan is available at 6%.

    About 25 years ago I had a part-time job working for Conoco. Operating the cash register at a Jet petrol station in Plymouth, I was confronted by whinging customers who objected to a flat 15p surcharge on all credit card transactions. It only lasted a couple of months until some legal expert decreed such a charge illegal. Hopefully this will soon happen in the UAE.

    The idea of imposing a surcharge on plastic transactions sets an alarming precedent. What if the entire retail trade suddenly decides to do likewise? With any luck there'll be a sudden move by the population back to crinkly cash. Everyone's plastic will lie dormant, unused and unloved, and in extreme cases cut in half. Felonious types with stockings over their heads will use the massive increase of cash in circulation to increase their income. So much for the cashless society.

    If shopkeepers wish to discourage credit card usage, the carrot of 'discount for cash' is more likely to receive approbation than the stick of 'extra for plastic.' Anyway, down at EPPCO 1.65% on a tankful for the Goatmobile is around Dh4, broadly the same as a tip to the guy who spends all day in the heat and humidity pumping gas, cleaning windscreens and generally being polite to customers for his derisory salary.

    It's not the amount of the credit charge surcharge that galls me, but the principle of imposing one at all. If there are any UAE gas stations where credit cards are accepted at face value, I'll take my custom there. Who's going to join me?

    Monday, August 27, 2007

    Branson's pickle

    The preparations for my marriage to Beloved have been under way for a while. I bought Qatar Airways e-tickets to Washington Dulles Airport back in May, Beloved and I chose our rings in June, and by July the venue and guest list had been finalised. What could possibly go wrong?

    Rather a lot, actually. Mostly where air travel was involved.

    Having, owing to bad planning and mismanagement, missed our Qatar Airways flight out of Dubai, I had to find an alternative carrier that would deposit us in Washington DC at more or less the same time as the Qatar Airways flight. It was imperative to get a marriage licence from the County Court on Friday, or else there'd be no wedding. We did have to pay for, rather than exchange, our tickets. this was a rather alarming Extra Over on the budget. We would also have to change aircraft at Heathrow rather than at Doha.

    Virgin Atlantic was very nice to us on both flights, even upgrading us to First Class for the transatlantic part of the trip. A flat bed was most welcome, the food was yummy, the cabin crew were exemplary in their friendly politeness and the flights as a whole were nothing short of excellent. Even the pre-flight safety video was amusingly entertaining. Full marks for Sir Richard Branson's airline so far.

    Sadly, however, this happy experience was short-lived. We accepted that in the ninety minutes between our failure to board Qatar Airways out of Dubai and Virgin's takeoff it was impossible for anyone to find our luggage. But this would not be a problem: the luggage would, we were assured, be found and loaded on to a following flight.

    At Heathrow there was no record of our delayed bags. We requested that a trace be put on them. It was important that the bags were located because they contained a lot of our wedding stuff!

    Naturally, the bags weren't at the carousel at Dulles. Beloved cleared Customs and Immigration before her (foreign) Goat who was busy providing hoofprints and eye-scans, and went in search of Virgin Atlantic's ground staff. Having obtained the information that the bags would arrive on tomorrow's flight, plus a phone number to try tomorrow, we headed off for the hotel and collapsed in a jet-lagged heap.

    The phone number yielded nothing more than 45 minutes of "We're a truly wonderful airline. Please hold on because your call is important to us." Not important enough to pick up the damn phone, though. Every day, in the absence of anyone to speak to on the phone, either Beloved or both of us travelled the 37 miles along the toll motorway from Alexandria to the airport, incurred between $8 and $12 in parking fees and then travelled the 37 miles back again having been told some variant of:-

  • "The bags are on this evening's flight."
  • "The bags are at Heathrow."
  • "We think the bags are at Heathrow, but we're not sure."
  • "It's not certain that the bags left Dubai."
  • "It's all British Airways' fault." Eh? Virgin employs BA staff to fail to answer their phones?
  • "There's nothing wrong with our helpdesk number." Patent nonsense: no-one ever picks up.
  • "Call me between 1pm and 3pm tomorrow." No answer.
  • "The boss will be here between 9am and 5pm." No-one from Virgin was at the airport at 10:30am.

    I detest being lied to.

    So the wedding went ahead without the luggage. No gifts for Beloved's relatives, whom she's not seen in over a year. No expensive make-up that she bought specially. No shoes ditto. No shirt studs, bow tie, cufflinks or dress shoes for the groom. I had to borrow shoes from one of the guests, and he's about 6ft 5in. Instead of chilling out with the guests on the morning of the wedding, Beloved spent all day rushing around buying replacements for all the stuff that was by some accounts sitting in a mouldering heap at Heathrow along with some fifteen thousand other suitcases. Beloved's father and the Goat entertained the guests from out of town: California, Michigan, Plymouth, Calgary...

    After the wedding, which went very well despite all the last-minute rushing around, thanks for asking, it was time to do a little sightseeing in and around Washington DC. Thanks to Jim for giving me his old size 12 sneakers so that I wouldn't get thrown out of the Capitol tour for looking too much like an oversized, hirsute hobbit. Then we headed off to Dulles (again) to send my family on their happy way back east to England. Beloved and I also checked with Virgin (again) only to be fobbed off (again). There should be an ombudsman who deals with customer service. OffFob, perhaps. I asked for our statutory $50 each 'buggering about' money following lost luggage, only to be told that this payment would only be made after 21 days, when the airline considered the bags to be 'irretrievably lost.' According to Virgin Atlantic in Dubai, this last bit is a piece of fiction invented by Virgin Atlantic staff in Washington, and should be added to their other infelicific attempts to win the Booker Prize.

    Eventually we did get our bags back. They arrived after Beloved and I had checked in for the return flight. We rescued our luggage from Virgin's clutches and gave it immediately to Qatar Airways, who transported it without fuss back to Dubai.

    Now, Sir Richard, what is the going rate for screwing up a wedding? Is there any form of compensation for being deceived, being lied to, and wasting several hours a day of one's entire holiday waiting for non-existent information delivered by Virgin Atlantic's egregious lost luggage staff?

    Edited on 5th November to add this: Following receipt of my letter of complaint, Virgin Atlantic at first emailed a standard put the punters off letter, offering to "consider payment of up to $50 compensation on production of the receipts." I regarded this as totally inadequate, and telephoned Virgin's Dubai office to say so. At length, I got through to someone senior; someone who actually seemed to realise the importance of customer satisfaction. We eventually agreed that two free return tickets to London would constitute adequate compensation.

    Now all Beloved Wife and I have to do is figure out when we're going to take the leave. And if possible, all our luggage will be carry-on!
  • Wednesday, August 15, 2007

    Fiscal paranoia

    I don't get out much, but when I do, it seems that the foreign exchange currency rate always bends to my disadvantage. I thought I was making this up until I checked the last couple of years GBP versus AED. The AED is pegged against the USD. This is a complete list of recent trips to Europe and the States:-

  • June 2004: 6.69
  • July 2004: 6.82 The pound gets 2% more expensive just as I arrive in the UK.

  • June 2005: 6.70
  • July 2005: 6.38 The pound gets 5% cheaper just as I leave the UK.

  • April 2006: 6.39
  • May 2006: 6.82 The pound gets 7% more expensive just as I arrive in the UK.

  • July 2007: 7.57
  • August 2007: 7.32 The dollar gets 3% more expensive, just as I leave for the USA.

    Players on the foreign currency exchange markets may like to know that I'm next due out of the UAE in December 2007.

    It's a similar story with the UK housing market. I buy a house in 1991 at the nadir of the house price slump. The value remains unchanged for the next eight years. I sell the house in 1999 for more or less what I paid for it, and within nanoseconds it'd doubled in value, doubling again over the following five years. I owe it to everyone involved in the property market in Dubai not to buy anything. The Goat is more than capable of single-hoofedly causing an immediate property crash.
  • Wednesday, August 08, 2007

    Unwanted gift

    Free: Several hundredweight of pigeon guano. Pick your own.

    I have been on the roof of the villa, resetting a tripped aircon outdoor unit and replacing the wire netting over the light well to keep the flying rats from roosting and reproducing just outside the bathroom window, with all the miasma that this implies. The entire villa roof is coated with a generous layer pigeon poo, dead birds and eggs.

    As for keeping the birds away, I'm open to suggestions. Concealing myself in a hide with a Thermos, some sandwiches and a sawn-off shotgun is probably not the best solution. In Mirdif there is probably an ordinance forbidding use of ordnance.


    Spring is here, ah, spring is here.
    Life is skittles and life is beer.
    I think the loveliest time of the year
    Is the spring. I do. Don't you? 'Course you do!

    But there's one thing that makes spring complete for me,
    That makes every Sunday a treat for me...

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007

    Pontoon poltroonery

    Finally, someone else has noticed that a floating barrier stretched across Dubai Creek provides an impenetrable obstruction for boat traffic. Not a problem for the abra service; these motor up and down between Bur Dubai and Deira, and can refuel at the dhow moorings next to Maktoum Bridge. Getting to the abra maintenance yard at Jadaf is a bit more tricky. Presumably the RTA in its mercy considers that an abra can make that journey in the middle of the night. The same attitude has clearly been imposed on boat owners with their gin palaces berthed at enormous expense in Dubai Creek and Festival City marinas. It's impossible to get to and from the sea except in the middle of the night. I was planning to use a boat to view this year's Flugtag in November, but boat access from Jumeira to Creekside Park is now impossible at a reasonable hour.

    Any thoughts of going fishing (or diving, or water-skiing) on a Friday, perhaps, are scuppered very early in the morning because the creek is blocked by 6am. OK, on Fridays the floating bridge isn't open to road traffic until 9am. Nevertheless, assuming a start at some ungodly hour, it'll be a very long day, not getting back until after 10pm. Suppose the weather turns a bit ugly during the early afternoon. Do we have to sit on our boats in the creek and wait for perhaps ten hours until the floating bridge is opened for maritime traffic? It would seem so.

    The new Garhoud Bridge is being built with plenty of air draught so that the taller vessels can access Festival City marina. It eliminates the need to use the lift span on the existing Garhoud Bridge. In an unprecedented attack of forward planning, Business Bay Bridge is similarly provided with loads of headroom. Unfortunately, apparently no-one has noticed that Maktoum Bridge has limited headroom, except for a lift span that only ever gets opened during the wee small hours, and then only with special permission and the inevitable form-filling.

    Traffic chaos will ensue while I move my sloop Grum P down the creek to the Gulf. Both Maktoum and the floating bridges will have to be opened while I pick my way delicately between the buoys and gulls some time after the witching hour.

    And another thing. It's already over five nautical miles from Festival City marina to Shindagha. That's at least an hour's travel at the maximum speed limit in the creek, not including evasive action to avoid the abra fleet's Brownian motion. It'll be over 6.5nm at 5 knots once the reclamation at Palm Deira is complete.That's nearly three hours of valuable leisure (or maritime business) time just getting to and from the ocean.

    What seems likely to happen? Despite the appalling shortage of marina berths along Dubai's ever-increasing waterfront, it seems more than possible that Festival City could have enormous difficulty in drumming up customers for its marina. Perhaps the clients that are attracted intend not to use their boats, except as floating Tupperware platforms for the sole purpose of consuming Bombay Sapphire.

    Thursday, July 26, 2007

    Son et lumière

    When I flash my headlights, this means:-
    • I'm going faster than you.
    • Get out of my way!
    • My car is better than yours.
    • Come on.
    • Stay back!
    • You can pull in front of me.
    • Don't pull in front of me!
    • There's a speed trap just ahead.
    • Turn off your high beams.
    • I haven't noticed my high beams are on.
    • My screenwash bottle is empty.

    When I sound my horn, this means:-
    • Wakey wakey!
    • I want a shwarma.
    • Your taxi has arrived.
    • Stay out of my lane!
    • The traffic lights have turned green.
    • You drive like a senile old crone.
    • The car security is now armed.
    • Please open the gate.
    • How dare you steal my parking space!
    • Please move your car. It's blocking me in.
    • Help! Help! This car is being stolen!
    • F***w**!
    • Any of the reasons for flashing my headlights.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007

    Green flash

    RED: Stop.
    AMBER: Stop. Unless you're so close to the signal that to stop would be hazardous.
    GREEN: Go. Provided it is safe to do so, take care when turning left or right and give way to pedestrians.

    And then there's FLASHING AMBER. Appearing at pedestrian crossings, this has exactly the same meaning as a Belisha beacon: Stop if there are any pedestrians crossing the road.

    If a GREEN light changes to AMBER as you approach it, what should you do? Slow down and stop, or drop a gear and accelerate into the junction? Only one of these constitutes the correct, safe, legal answer.

    The caveat is that the above are the rules for the UK. Other countries' rules might be a bit different, although as far as I know the basic RED = Stop, GREEN = Go is universal.

    So what the blue blazes is a FLASHING GREEN supposed to mean? Stop? Slow down? Accelerate? It tells drivers that the lights are about to change to AMBER, and might well encourage them to accelerate to beat the RED. They'll be going too fast to stop safely when the AMBER light appears and thus have a perfect reason not to stop. How sensible can it possibly be to encourage drivers to accelerate into a road hazard? It seems to me to be an exercise in accident promotion. Mind you, I bet that anyone who slows down at a FLASHING GREEN in anticipation of the AMBER and RED will get hooted, and in extreme cases rammed from behind. If there's a need to provide additional warning that the lights are about to change, what's wrong with increasing the AMBER time? It's already three seconds, although if the braking distance chart in the UK Highway Code is to be believed, three seconds isn't enough time to stop from more than around 40kph. Of course, the Highway Code chart was originally written donkey's years ago in the ancient times of drum brakes, no servo assistance, and gripless crossply tyres. The arithmetic produces a deceleration of around 0.3g to 0.5g, which a modern car and a dry road should easily be able to exceed.

    Some comments on the Gulf News article cite south-east Asia and Ajman as having the allegedly splendid idea of countdown timers on the signal heads. My own experiences in Thailand and Ajman are disconcerting, at least with regard to traffic lights. Passing through a junction with two or three seconds of GREEN to go, traffic waiting on the other phases suddenly launches into the junction when those drivers can see that there are only four or five seconds of RED still to go.

    Amber gamblers and light jumpers do not mix.

    Actually, I'm not too keen on the British two seconds of RED with AMBER either because that can also encourage jumping the lights. A change from RED directly to GREEN is perfectly acceptable. Yes, it takes time for the first driver in the queue to react to the appearance of a GREEN. Believe it or not, traffic engineers are aware of this, and factor it into the calculations of cycle time and phasing. Signals are not deliberately designed to cause maximum delay, nor to optimise inconvenience to the maximum possible number of road users. The lights do that all by themselves; they know when you're late for an appointment and do it deliberately. Resistentialism is the word.

    Purveyors of the New York Nanosecond might believe that it's compulsory to take off like a scalded cat the moment the lights change. Believe it or not, Monaco excepted, the public road network is neither a Formula 1 circuit nor a drag strip.

    Sunday, July 22, 2007

    Binary fission

    This is the means whereby large cardboard boxes reproduce. It doesn't matter how many we empty, there are always some more cartons full of stuff that needs a home. The bookcases are full, the kitchen cabinets are replete, the DVDs are stored near the TV or on bookcases, and the front yard is bulging with collapsed empty cartons awaiting collection by the removal men.

    And yet, as at the end of a weekend of unpacking and putting up shelves, there were still four more boxes to empty. The den, the maid's room and the other bedrooms currently resemble an explosion in Home Centre. The 'to do' list remains monstrous.

    The main bedroom now looks fairly civilised, as do the kitchen and lounge/diner. The manuals for the TV and DVD player emerged during the move, so I was at last able to set up the home theatre with a DVI digital video connection and six-speaker surround sound, whose primary purpose actually is not to annoy the neighbours.

    Still, the aquarium and fish seem to have come through the moving experience unscathed.

    Monday, July 16, 2007

    Money For Nothing

    "We gotta install microwave ovens
    Custom kitchen deliveries.
    We gotta move those refrigerators;
    We gotta move those colour TVs.

    Thank you Dire Straits. All of the above was really easy compared with shifting an aquarium.

    Microwave oven?
    Small and light. A doddle to move.

    Custom kitchen?
    I had to customise the 89cm slot for my 90cm stove, and, much to the astonishment and probable disappointment of the removal men, the stove slid neatly into its allocated space. All the existing cupboards are much improved by new Ikea doors to replace the incumbent ghastly, rotten papier mâché items. The wall cupboards are to be delivered, assembled and installed by Ikea's own experts. Then there remains the small matter of fitting a cooker hood cum extract-o-matic.

    Two upright fridge-freezers now stand side by side, pretending to be an oversized double-door unit. A third miniature fridge needs a home. Somewhere convenient for the beer. In the den, perhaps?

    Colour TVs?
    Despite the removers' concerns, the telly was surprisingly easy to move. Fortunately for everybody, when they moved part of the display unit and sent a shelf and ornaments crashing down it missed the TV and only dented a cabinet. The damaged unit is irreplaceable; it's a line discontinued by Ikea ever since I bought one. The removers knocked off some money in compensation, and I managed not to be too profane at the time.

    Anyway, the aquarium. I previously blogged about how every time I mentioned my fish tank one of its occupants went belly up. I have decided to risk publishing again. Googling moving house aquarium yields a lot of scary stories and dire injunctions against attempting to shift it with water in. Yeah, like 515kg (water plus gravel plus glass) can be shifted by a couple of guys. "Moving house is one of the most stressful things you can do," I'm led to believe. And that's before a fish tank is included in the equation. To complicate the issue, the tank is 1.5m long and the floor of the lift was 1.4m square. So the tank had to be upended.

    The first stage was to remove the ornaments from the tank and to put these along with about 60 litres of syphoned water into a clean plastic bin. While discarding most of the rest of the water with the syphon, I spent a happy half hour chasing some extremely rapid fish around their diminishing home. One at a time they ended up in the dustbin along with an immersed filter and a couple of airstones. So far so good. I only got bitten once. The smart money, according to t'internet, says to put each fish in its own ziplock bag with some water. I decided not to pursue this option because it would have made reconstructing the tank environment a huge rush to beat the fish running out of oxygen.

    Having drained all but the last few teaspoons of water I shovelled up the gravel and put it into clean and available polystyrene boxes, which I loaded into the back of the Goatmobile. The fish came next. A dustbin two thirds full of water and fish is unwieldy, to say the least. It took several tries to get it into the car the right way up and secure for a journey. And getting the bin out of the car in Mirdif was even more awkward because there was no security guard to assist, and Beloved was busy elsewhere. Once inside the building I re-established filtration and air supply, and let the fish calm down.

    The aquarium was delivered the following day by the removal men. As soon as I could I put the gravel and ornaments back in the tank and mostly filled it with tap water, treating for chlorine as I went. At one point the hosepipe obligingly fell out of the tank and poured several gallons of water all over the floor. Just as well, then, that it's tiles and not finest Axminster. I left the pumps and aeration running overnight to try to get the tank environment stable before introducing the fish to their new home.

    Sunday, July 08, 2007

    That time of the year

    Vehicle registration in the UAE can be a mysterious and Byzantine experience. For a completely stock car (which is totally different from a stock-car, but I digress) the annual trip to Tasjeel involves:-

      1. Drop off the car at the drive-in reception.

      2. Sit in the waiting room while the car is inspected. British readers will be familiar with the MOT test, which is very similar to this bit.

      3. When your number is called, pay for the test, accept the inspection report with a 'Pass' stamp and retrieve the car key.

      4. In Sharjah, take the car's fire extinguisher to be inspected, and obtain another 'Pass' stamp.

      5. Wait to be called to a second desk, pay for the new registration card and cough up for all the traffic fines recorded over the preceding year.

    At some point in the process, someone will need to check for valid motor insurance. There has to have at least a year left to run, so insurance companies generally provide 13 months' insurance so that it's still OK if the car fails and has to be re-presented.

    The Inspection
    The fun and games start if the car is modified from standard. The rules concerning spotlights, roof racks, bull bars, after-market bumpers, wide wheels, performance exhausts, superchargers, etc etc vary not only by emirate where the car is registered, but also on the individual inspector, the discretion of his boss, the nationality of the vehicle owner and the phase of the moon. An after-market supercharger, for example, can pass inspection one year and then be forbidden a year later. Spotlights, whether factory-fitted or after-market, are acceptable one minute, illegal the next, and currently OK provided they're presented for inspection with opaque covers. It seems that you can pimp 'n' bling your Hummer as much as you like with no problems because the after-market goodies are all GMC-approved and therefore come with a Liberty Automobiles certification to the effect that 'The owner of the dealership is a VVIP and he says the mods are OK.'

    Many of the desert safari tourism firms and a lot of desert-driving individuals like to replace their front bumpers with something with more strength and ground clearance. The original bumpers tend to be very low to the ground. This is fine on asphalt or even tracks, but over the dunes and through wadis the plastic tends to get torn off the car. Driving without bumpers is clearly unacceptable, so modified items are very popular. The trouble is that steel bumpers from ARB or TJM are officially illegal, at least in Sharjah. That is to say the car won't pass inspection with them. The farce is not only that the kit is widely available from car accessories shops all over the emirates, but that there are workshops that will temporarily fit an original bumper specifically for the inspection, and then replace the steel one for the other 364 days of the year. No-one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever been nicked for having dodgy car accessories outside a Tasjeel inspection.

    Not wishing to go through the annual rigmarole of removing the Goatmobile's front bumper, I went to Sharjah Traffic Police with a written request for special permission prior to having the modifications done. This was granted, as a result of which the Goatmobile passed with an after-market steel bumper and a lift kit all installed. Although I think I'll give the supercharger a miss.

    The fines
    I collected an astonishing three parking and two speeding fines last year. This is unprecedented. Parking offences were my failing to get back to the on-street Pay and Display chez Beloved in time to renew the ticket. I got a nice little bill from Dubai RTA for outstaying my welcome by ten minutes each time. A warning to anyone who bumps his car up on to the hardstanding in the Mall of the Emirates multi-storey car park along with the other dozens of cars: It counts as 'Parking on the Footway' even though it isn't a footway, and despite being on private land, is a Dubai Police matter. It might have been nice to leave the ticket on the windscreen; I wasn't even aware that parking in that particular place wasn't allowed until weeks after the event. And a note to the MotE: some 'No Parking' signs wouldn't go amiss.

    I'll put my hand up to getting caught by the ubiquitous speed cameras on two occasions. One was a mea culpa moment. The posted limit was 80kph and I got snapped at 108kph. At seven o'clock on a Friday morning on a deserted dead-straight three-lane dual carriageway. But c'est la vie. I am, however, extremely annoyed about the other one. The Sharjah-Kalba road near the Sharjah Institute of Technology is posted 100kph. I saw the camera and the signs, and I checked my speed. I was and I remain astonished that I was busted for 101kph in the 100kph limit. It is futile arguing with anyone at Tasjeel, who are only empowered to take money. Waiving fines would involve a lot of meeting with important police officers and would certainly take more time than the Dh200 that might be saved.

    The official behind the counter tried to cheer me up by noting that most people have to pay upwards of Dh 5,000 a year on speeding fines, and some particularly lead-footed characters have recently been billed upwards of Dh 20,000. Thanks. That's great solace.

    Wednesday, July 04, 2007

    A moving moment

    Regular readers of this blog will know that the Grumpy Goat and his Beloved are getting married in August. We're also both moving house, condensing the contents of two completely independent two-bedroom flats into one three bedroom villa. Owing to its situation: exactly halfway between where Beloved and I go to work, we've ended up in Mirdif. Or possibly Mirdiff. And not Midriff.

    I was impertinent enough to have visited the place while it was occupied by the previous tenant and check all the rooms' dimensions. It is a lot easier to move furniture around in AutoCAD than physically heaving it around the building after paying the removal men to shift it.

    "On second thoughts, the grand piano might be better downstairs after all." Quite. None of that, thank you. By being a little bit clever, we've in theory managed to fit all our stuff into the new place, except for one bed set that I've agreed with the new tenant of my current flat in Grumpy Goat Towers I'll leave behind. The new family is upgrading from one to two bedrooms and a free bed set looks like a good idea.

    Anyway, we got access in early July. The place was desperate for a clean, the kitchen needing particular attention. The landlord will apparently do nothing, so out came the moribund built-in oven leaving the deposits of at least seven years of cooking on the walls behind. I shall install my own cooker in the space.

    Now cookers come in two standard sizes: 60cm or 90cm wide. There are odd 80cm wide, but these don't come with closed-door grilling and electric oven ignition. I hate and detest grovelling in front of the oven or grill with a lighted match or its equivalent. Guess how wide the gap between the kitchen units is. 90cm? 80cm? No, wrong. It is in fact 89cm. What kind of imbecile builds a brick-and-tile kitchen (so you can't shove the cupboards along a bit) and makes the oven gap one centimetre too small? I have had two fun evenings with a hammer and cold chisel, removing the tiles to try to create a 90cm gap and then plastering over the raw concrete to make it smooth. Broken ceramic tiles are ferociously sharp, I have discovered.

    The professional cleaners came in this afternoon and gave the entire villa the scrubbing that it hasn't experienced in a long time. Beloved has selected paint colours and the painters are going to arrive tomorrow, it is alleged. Everything must be clean (done) and painted before we start to install furniture next week. It would be nice if the air conditioning worked too. All the split units seem to function except for the one in the kitchen that seems to be totally FUBAR. We're promised that all the aircons will be serviced and working before we officially move in.

    I'm instructed by Beloved that some of the kitchen units will have to go. I can't figure out how they're built. I suspect that frames were screwed to the walls and steel boxes were then pop-riveted together, making removing the cupboards a major undertaking. If only the cupboards were deeper, then we'd only have to replace the doors. Still, I have power tools... We also need to replace a lot of the hideous and/or broken light fittings, and to figure out which switch works each part of the building. When Phil The Greek made his comment about electrical wiring a few years back he might just possibly have been referring to our villa.

    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.