Thursday, December 31, 2009

The end is nigh

The Goat is suffering from a kind of festive Blogger’s Block. There are plenty of things to write about; the problem is finding something coherent to say that hasn’t already been done to death by other bloggers, newspapers, commentators or internet forums.

How about the Curious Case of the Algeria Street Speed Camera? The road runs from traffic lights at Tripoli Street to Uptown Mirdif. It’s a dual carriageway with a posted speed limit of 60kph owing to the curves, U-turns and junctions. But trust me: you’ll be run off the road by some hoon if you drive it at less than about 80kph. Do the authorities stick a camera halfway along the road, where it would catch almost everybody and make a tidy sum of revenue at Dh600 a pop? No. The camera is next to the Uptown Primary School junction where there’s invariably a tailback of U-turning vehicles and traffic speeds are approximately 15kph. I have a sneaking suspicion that the camera is meant to catch speeding motorists heading south, down the hill, but it’s been incompetently erected to face the wrong way.

Continuing with traffic and transportation, the last refuge of the Blogging Charlatan, I wonder what makes it OK for some people to display their tarmac tantrums (road rage, but a more appropriate name to illustrate their childishness) but not others? Having sounded my horn so that an erratically-piloted Lexus didn’t knock me off my bike one morning, the driver chose to sit about six inches behind the bike at the next red light and rev his engine against the limiter. And then to direct obscene gestures at me through his windscreen. Obviously I didn’t reciprocate. I know what happened to the Kiwi nurse.

How about the uniformed senior police officer, weaving all over the road in an entirely different erratically-piloted Lexus because he can’t drive with a phone stuck to his ear? Over Dh18,000 traffic fines currently outstanding, sir. You are clearly an exceptional driver.

I’ve now started keeping a written record for each memorable incident, the vehicle registration number, make and model, what the incident was and where it occurred.

I could also go on ad nauseam about my motorcycle accessories. The extended mudguards, the cruise control, the frame sliders in case it all goes pear-shaped. The sliders, or ‘crash mushrooms’ are already approximately pear-shaped, but might save the expensive plastic from excessive damage in the event of a low-speed get-off. Actually the bike is probably going to be farkled to the max once the sliders arrive from Germany. They're being shipped via Arizona because the shipping works out cheaper that way. I have no real need for an on-board radio, iPod, radar detector, heated grips, ape-hanger bars or beverage holders.

And then there’s the Gulf News Fun Drive. Details remain a secret for now, but all will be revealed in the newspaper early in 2010. Meanwhile the Goatmobile is stuck at the Crumbling Villa awaiting either warm or wet weather, or sand under the tyres. That’s where I’ll find the on-board radio and beverage holders.

The restaurant service charge fiasco has been discussed elsewhere on the blogosphere. Not that it would make one iota of difference how much I pay when I eat out, I’d prefer that gratuities go to the waiting staff, rather than be siphoned off by the proprietor.

Another piece of news is that petrol is going to be sold by the litre from tomorrow instead of by the gallon. This will leave the USA as the only country in the world still selling motor fuel in non-metric volumes. Unless you know different. It means that green petrol will cost Dh1.3748, and blue will be Dh1.4848 per litre.The change will make precisely zero difference to most drivers, who either “Fill ’er up!” or buy by the value: “Twenty dirhams of Super, please!” I shall be pleasantly surprised if petrol prices don’t get rounded up to Dh1.40 or Dh1.50 for green and blue respectively.

In an allied thought, I read recently that only the UK and USA still specify highway distances and vehicle speeds in imperial units. Everyone else, apparently, uses kilometres and kph. E&OE as usual.

Finally, on the subject of resistance to the metric system, here’s a little puzzle.
    In a field the shape of an equilateral triangle whose area is half an acre, there is an unspecified grazing animal. The beast is attached to one corner of the field by a rope, so that it can graze exactly 50% of the area of the field. To the nearest foot, how long is the rope? Show your working.

    (You can ignore those parts of the rope around the animal’s neck, around the post and making the knots, and you can assume as zero the distance between the rope and the animal’s mouth. It’s a straightforward geometry puzzle with no tricks.)

And that’s my lot for 2009. Happy New Year, folks.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

First impressions last

Beloved Wife declared last evening that we had to run an errand to the Mall of the Emirates. Having just spent all day on a Gulf News Fun Drive marshals’ run-through I was in no mood to drive. I thought of the nightmare of attempting to park in a busy mall car park, and, on a whim, brightly suggested trying the Metro.

We’ve not used the Metro before. My understanding is that all ticketing is electronic, with pre-paid credit being deducted from a so-called ‘NOL’ card.

But neither of us had a ‘nol’ card. We walked from the Crumbling Villa and waited in the ice-box bus shelter for the feeder bus. When it arrived, the driver said he couldn’t take our cash, and suggested that we go and buy our ‘nol’ cards from Spinneys. That can’t be right: surely it must be possible to buy a card from the bus driver, as Beloved Wife’s friend managed to do a couple of weeks ago?

No, apparently. Ah, well. Perhaps the driver’s English isn’t good, although how much of any language do you need to take money from the customer and issue a ticket/smart card/receipt? So I asked a bus passenger. He confirmed what the driver had said, except that it was Carrefour, not Spinneys. Neither one of these emporia is within walking distance of the Crumbling Villa, which is less than convenient.

There might be a bit of a logic leap here, but this was not as if I’d boarded the bus and attempted to buy 20 Marlboro. What kind of half-baked system exists to encourage people out of their cars on to public transport, and then refuses to sell them tickets to use that public transport?

The reason for my quandary is obvious. The bus driver was clearly an imbecile. Not a good way to sell your product, is it? But then again, Dubai is full of examples of retailers who populate their shops with staff who know the square-root of sod all about the product they’re selling, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I felt spurned and snubbed, and was all for rejecting Dubai’s public transport system for ever on the basis of this encounter. However, Beloved Wife still had to run her errand, so we walked home, drove to Rashidiya, parked the car, and bought our ‘nol’ cards at the station. From then on, using the Metro was painless.


Monday, December 14, 2009

The lazy doth protest too much, methinks

The Crumbling Villa continues its slow and inexorable descent into chaos, in full compliance with the Laws of Thermodynamics. As the landlord’s only apparent function it to receive his rent each year, it is incumbent upon the Goat to deal with repairs and maintenance.

GAMI (Get A Man In) is sometimes preferable to DIY (Damage It Yourself), such as when the work involves split-unit air conditioning units that were originally fitted in the Ark, or when the job involves shovelling pigeon poo off the roof, but as both Beloved Wife and Goat have full-time jobs it is sometimes difficult to arrange for tradesmen to turn up when we’re not out. Especially when “We will arrive at 5pm.” often actually means “At 3pm, or tomorrow at 10:30, or maybe not at all.”

So when the plumbing went wrong a while ago, Muggins replaced the hot water tank single-handed. My other hand was busy grasping for any handhold: the ladder, window frame, stopcock… At least the new tank wasn’t half full of limestone, so weighed less than the old and leaky one: a bonus when teetering atop a stepladder in a bathroom that’s swimming with water. Did I mention that the stopcock won’t fully shut off the water; merely reduce the Niagaresque torrent to a mere dribble? And yes I did turn off the water pump.

Just last week it became the shower’s turn to malfunction. The plastic (Plastic? What were they thinking?!) screw thread attaching the shower hose to the mixer tap snapped off. Initially it looked as if the entire mixer tap assembly would have to be replaced at enormous expense and inconvenience, and then I discovered that it was possible to unscrew the remainder of the plastic fitting.

Armed with this, off I went to the Plumbers’ Central.

So this is where my laziness creeps in. I don’t want to go to the time and effort of replacing the entire tap fitting when changing the screw adaptor takes only a few seconds, so I drive all over Dubai from Ace Hardware at Festival Centre, over to Speedex on SZR, thence into Satwa. All this in the huge traffic congestion that is an inevitable consequence of rainy weather. Twenty shops, three hours and about two gallons of petrol later, I was forced to conclude that this silly little tuppeny-ha’penny fitting was indeed Not Coming In Dubai. Just as you suspected, dear Reader.

Not to worry, tomorrow is another day, and it’s a well-known fact that you can get anything in Sharjah (with the possible exceptions of booze and pork). The trouble is, no-one who knows where is telling.

So this morning I got much the same story from any number of emporia of plumbing supplies. I eventually ended up at the same shop where I bought the hot water tank. The Man asserted that the thingummy I wanted was simply not available (big surprise). So I bought a whole new mixer tap – for the wallet-crippling price of sixty dirhams.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

These boots aren't made for walking

Rider's Eye View

This post is about GPS navigation, so it’s only fair that Abdulla Mohammed Ibrahim General Trading Est. (AMIT) is located using Lat/Long. The showroom is at N25 15.978' E055 17.715' where traffic is hideous and parking is a nightmare unless you’re on two wheels.

I originally bought my Garmin 276c way back in late 2004. It came with the City Select Europe map and a kit for mounting it on a car dashboard.

Naturally the Europe map was of only academic interest here in the UAE, so I immediately bought a copy of City Navigator Middle East. This of course went out of date almost immediately, but nevertheless remains of use especially away from the latest piece of concrete spaghetti. There are no roads in the desert or on the ocean, which is where I originally intended to use the unit.

In August 2007 I took the GPS to the USA and discovered that the base mapping was close to useless. Actually, the main lithium ion battery had also died after three years of abuse, cooking on the dashboard of the Goatmobile: luckily I’d found a supplier of a replacement, ordered one on line, and had it mailed to me all the way from California to Virginia.

And then late in 2008 the internal battery died. There’s a watch battery soldered to the circuit board whose purpose is to keep the internal clock running while the unit is switched off. That way, when it is switched on again, the GPS already has an idea of the correct time and can thus work out where to look for the satellites. Why this isn't user-replaceable like on a computer mother board remains a conundrum.

I found all this out from a GPS forum on the Interwebs, and perceived wisdom was that it would cost many money to get the internal battery changed and I’d be better off replacing the entire unit. Aieee, expense!

And then I remembered AMIT. The GPS mechanic took the unit for a few days, returned it good as new with a new internal battery, and charged me Dh75. Huzzah!

The 276c has performed faultlessly ever since. I bought a motorcycle mounting kit rather than a new Zumo. I also bought the North America road map for use during last August’s road trip. And that was when Beloved Wife and I started calling the machine ‘Clarissa’.

One shouldn’t anthropomorphise machines. They hate it when you do that.

To my disappointment the internal battery died last week, so I took Clarissa back to AMIT and explained. Instead of keeping track of the correct time, Clarissa was waking up and looking for satellites based on the date being New Year’s Day 2000 at 4am. AMIT advised that this time it would only take half an hour to fix, so I wandered off to the Naif souq to do some other shopping, and gave myself some blisters. Motorcycle boots are certainly not made for walking.

An hour later, and I was invited upstairs at AMIT to be shown that the wire connecting the battery to the printed circuit board had become mysteriously disconnected and I’d have to buy a new GPS. This was clearly unacceptable, and I began to prepare for a heated argument. Obviously the wire had been pulled out by the technician when either installing a battery two years ago or while trying to remove it today. He wished to imply that I’d somehow broken the wire myself, and was rather surprised when I told him the date AMIT had previously done the work and how much it had cost. Some of us never throw away old receipts.

Garmin mapping software is expensive and only works on a specific GPS receiver. After buying the data disks and uploading, it’s necessary to register the software with Garmin and tell the website the GPS’s unique serial number. It’s then impossible to upload the data and get it to run on to any other machine without buying another licence. This is all to stop the nefarious from buying one map and giving (or selling) copies to all their mates.

I was therefore forthright in that I wanted my unit repaired. I also had no real desire to replace the car mounting kit, the bike mounting kit and replacement mapping software. I left it with the man and his fine-point soldering iron. There’s no way I could repair it myself; my soldering always looks like it’s been sprayed on from ten paces.

Three days later, and I received a phone call. Clarissa was all better: repaired, fully working with a new backup battery, and there would be no charge. Huzzah again!

So what do I conclude?
  • I’ve had several GPS receivers, and the 276c has proved to be excellent for road and marine navigation. It has a long (8 hours or more) battery life and is easy to read and to use. The battery can be recharged by plugging it in at home, or using the fag-lighter socket while on the move.

  • Despite the Garmin mapping software being expensive and single-user, the maps are useful, usable and accurate.

  • AMIT can supply the receivers, all sorts of creatively-designed mounting hardware, and will carry out software upgrades and hardware repairs. They’ll do this in-house, quickly, reliably, and won’t charge the earth.

Clarissa is now five years old and is on her second main battery and third backup battery. I’m looking forward to at least a couple more years of use before my next foray into GPS repairs. I also hope to get lots more use out of my maps.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Turkey and chips

The tourist shot.
It might take a while for the desert sands to reclaim this little lot.

What news? What news indeed. The Goat’s brief blogging hiatus has been caused by Nanny Goat’s visit over the past two weeks. So no comments here about defaulting on loans or the alleged imminent demise of Dubai to be reclaimed by the desert sands. For further reading on the above subjects, please feel free to read what Seabee and The Real Nick have had to say.

Anyway, Nanny Goat. She arrived bearing gifts from Faun Parts: a small white goat that sits on its haunches and sings about A Lonely Goatherd, doing a passable imcaprination of Julie Andrews. Also motorcycle farkles, and new batteries to replace the old and dying items in various old and dying mobile phones. A ‘farkle’, incidentally, is a Fancy Accessory; Really Kool; Likely Expensive, and is generally to be found adorning a motorcycle. New extended fibreglass mudguards now keep more road crud off the expensive bits of rear suspension and the front of the engine, and a grille over the radiator protects against extremely expensive impact by stones and errant birds.

There’s a previous blog about the new zorst. Since then the bike went over to the Aprilia shop way over past the Autodrome in Dubai Investment Park, for a session on the dynamometer. It is gratifying to note that the gainsayers were wrong. The new exhaust pipe does not cock up the carburetion so that the engine runs super-lean and risks burning holes in pistons. Isn’t digital fuel injection wonderful? The air/fuel ratio is perfect up to 8000rpm and runs just slightly rich above that. Given that 8000rpm equates to about 240kph in top gear, doing anything about the rich mixture doesn’t seem worth the effort or expense. Over 130 horsepower isn’t bad either, although using it all on the public highway might be.

Bad for the fuel consumption; bad for the wallet; bad for the licence...

Not that the bike’s been out much during Nanny Goat’s visit. One morning there had been some spots of rain overnight and Diablo Black had become smeared with Dubai Beige, which was rather off-putting. I don’t like riding in the rain, particularly in an environment where most people don’t seem to be able to. The clouds have been a welcome change, though. Actual blue skies with fluffy white things make photos that include sky so much more interesting than the usual plain brown.

Following a week when the Goat was obliged to go to work (Keeps away the lupine pest) and Nanny Goat stayed at home and made pasties (Huzzah!),we’ve been swanning around the Emirates seeing the sights and doing that whole touristy thing either in the Goatmobile or with the roof of Beloved Wife’s tin-top convertible folded away. On her first evening here, there was a desert barbecue out past Bab Al Shams that was tricky to find in the dark even abetted by GPS. A separate BBQ over an adjacent dune proved distracting and confusing at first.

Later, we drove around almost the entire length of Palm Jumeira’s barrier reef. We didn’t go into the Atlantis, and will not do so until after the whale shark has been released.

Sharjah Heritage Village and its souq was available for use, so Nanny Goat and I wandered around buildings recently restored in the style common in the 1850s, or possibly even the 1950s. The door to the Heritage Museum was shut in our faces, and the Islamic Museum seems to have disappeared.

It was diverting to wander around the aquarium in Dubai Mall. The Goat tried and failed to take decent photographs with Nanny Goat’s new compact camera. There was a long and protracted session with Photoshop(TM) afterwards, trying to get the colour balance back to something approaching plausible. Incidentally, the same problem afflicted all the photos taken under the blue-glassed atrium of Mercato Mall. Messing with the white balance and other settings met with little success.

On the subject of said camera, it was astounding to see how cheap memory cards have become. So cheap in fact that 2GB was given away with the camera (an Olympus with 12 megapixels, if anyone’s interested) along with spare rechargeable batteries, a charger and a carrying case, and all for well under Dh500. Merry Christmas, Nanny Goat. Unfortunately such beneficence was not displayed when I enquired about a new Nikon DSLR body. That will have to wait for some considerable time, given that it’s probably Dh6500-worth cost of D300.

What else happened? Beloved Wife threw a massive and traditional turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Friday. We have now at last more or less got rid of all that food. There remain the final remnants of a pie that the Goat made from turkey leftovers, but the potatoes, cranberry sauce and squash have now gone the way of all food.

The blog’s normal service - complaining about stuff that gets up the Goat’s nose - will be resumed following Nanny Goat’s departure.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Brown remembered hills

"Mr Goat, you used to live in Doha, didn't you?"

"Yes, but why do you suddenly ask, right out of the blue, Mr Boss?"

"We need someone to go for a couple of days. It's urgent, it's at the drop of a hat, and you have been selected from a host of applicant."

And so it was on Tuesday morning when the alarm went off at an appallingly uncivilised 04:30. I have long regarded the alarm clock springing into action when the hour hand is on the right-hand side of the clock face as being a violation of the natural order of things. I mean, it was still as dark outside as when I went to bed. But such early starts are a necessary evil when the budget airline Fly Dubai is going to leave DXB Terminal 2 at half past seven.

Beloved wife kindly dropped me off at the airport, and with no fuss at all I was in Doha, having apparently taken no time at all. The aircraft disgorged its two hundred or so business executives into the waiting bus, and we all spent the next 20 minutes trundling around the perimeter of Doha International Airport. I've heard it said that DOH has one of the longest runways in the world; such a pity that the bus driver didn't take the shorter route.

As usual it was Karma Sutra Passport Control. Sixteen positions, but only a couple of them actually worked. A further half an hour later - and I was in the first dozen in the queue - I escaped and found my lift. The driver had grown a beard and turned grey while waiting but hadn't actually died of old age.

What I was doing in Doha involved driving all over town, and this was the reason why I'd been picked. Someone who'd lived there for several years might easily find his way around without becoming horribly lost.

Best-laid plans, unfortunately. Since my previous visit in 2006 there has been a lot of construction, some major roads are completely upgraded, and other major interchanges are under construction. In keeping with normal custom and practice, the traffic management for junctions under construction is to block all approaches and provide "Road Closed. U-Turn Only" signs. How helpful.

Rumours exist concerning the reason why construction of three major interchanges in Doha has stopped. In brief, the rumour goes something like this: The Contractor wishes to be paid for the work he's done, and the Client (who indirectly has dollar bills pouring uncontrolled out of the Ras Laffan gas pipes) promises to pay once the work has been done. The Contractor has previously learned that statements to that effect are so much horse-hockey, and the result is a stalemate. Eventually of course, another Contractor will have to be appointed at much-increased cost in order to get the work finished. But as this new incumbent won't be paid either, then the Client will be able to keep his cash.

I was amazed to discover the extent of new building work in Doha. And how the Aladdin's Kingdom has been demolished - although the road signs pointing to it are still in place. So I never did get to ride on that roller coaster after all.

I noted how little some things have changed since my initial departure back in 2002. Side roads in residential areas still haven't seen any maintenance (no international media coverage of the grotty back streets, so it's not worth spending anything), soft landscaping of some schemes completed in 2003 or earlier remain unfinished, although others have been planted and watered so that they've become rainforests. The prestigious and high-profile Aspire Park is of course surrounded by manicured lawn. Overall however, Doha is dusty and brown, brown, brown.

The local driving style is still slower than in Dubai, but this is compensated for by the complete enthusiasm for filling every available square inch of asphalt, breakdown lane and verge. I was hooted at with full New York Nanosecond tolerance by drivers of Land Cruisers, Totota Echos, Mitsubishi pickups and trucks. Being regaled in this way might have been understandable if I'd failed to accelerate smartly from a green light, but this was while travelling along the highway slow lane at the speed limit!

On one memorable occasion I was physically forced off the road on to the gravel verge by a small white pickup. Poised ready to remonstrate, it was startling to discover that the idiot delivery driver was in fact two uniformed Qatari police officers, neither of whom looked old enough to shave.

I had two long days of this sort of thing. At least I got to meet up with some old friends on Tuesday night for a beer or six before getting a lift (I don't drink and drive) back to the villa where I was staying overnight, way oop north near Umm S'lal Mohammed. The newly-finished villa was the last word in incompetent construction, with most lights not working upstairs, wall-banger aircons throughout except in the lounge where a split unit included hideous trunking all across one of the walls, leaky plumbing and wacky light switches. Why do they put the switches behind doors next to hinges? Why doesn't the carpenter simply hang the door the other way around? What's wrong with actually using that dormant organ between your ears?

On which subject, I failed to adjust the clock on my phone, which resulted in a 5am start on Wednesday rather than the marginally less unacceptable 6am.

The flight back to Dubai was uneventful. Unfortunately I got a "Maximum stay 30 days" stamp put in my passport despite my having presented it open at the UAE residence visa page. Somehow this then became my fault, as I queued behind half the population of Bangladesh in Terminal 2 until the Big Boss unlocked his safe and got hold of a red "Cancelled" stamp to put over the "30-days" bit.

So I got home at 2am on Thursday, was back in the office five hours later, and now one weekend after that I remain desperate for sleep.

Oh, blessed Morpheus...z.z.z.z.zzzz.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Beloved Wife and I spotted this last weekend. The only clouds in the sky were over Business Bay, and Dubaisengard - the tallest free-standing structure on the planet until someone builds a bigger one - wasn't so much scraping the sky as piercing it.

Apologies for the quality of the image. I was driving, and the only available camera was attached to an ancient Nokia steam-powered telephone.

Before anyone asks, the phone cam was wielded by Beloved Wife from her vantage point in the Goatmobile's passenger seat.


Monday, November 02, 2009

Death and taxes

These two things are certain, according to Daniel Defoe (1726) and Benjamin Franklin (1789). Well, putting death aside for the time being, I was somewhat irritated to encounter taxes on Monday.

In my previous blog I passed a comment that my motorbike was too quiet. The sewing-machine impression afforded by stock engine and exhaust lacks Presence, so I needed to do something about it. I canvassed opinion on a motorcycle forum and decided that several brands would be offensively loud and were rejected on that basis. "Which one is quietest?" was my fundamental question. What I have ended up with is a new stainless steel and carbon-fibre system that has been developed to maximise power without shaking every window in Mirdif or rattling the fillings out of the teeth of slugabeds when I set off in the early mornings.

I ordered the system from Area-P in California and it was duly despatched last Wednesday, courtesy of the United States Postal Service. Despite allegations that "The U.S. Post Service was established in 1775. You have had 234 years to get it right and it is broke", the USPS managed to contrive to get my package to Sharjah by Monday morning. And the Emirates Postal Service got it into my hand by 5pm that same day.

I had to go to the Post Office to collect it, of course. After signing for the package, it was x-rayed and then opened - presumably to confirm that the x-ray machine wasn't lying - and at that point I was invited to pay import duty.

I was ready for this: 5% tax on the value of the goods. The trouble was that the nice customs gentlemen were adamant that the duty was payable on the entire cost, including postage and packing. Naturally I argued the toss. And then explained the problem to the next official up the chain. Why should I pay 5% of the value of services bought, paid for and utilised last week in California to the UAE government? The goods, yes. But surely not the carriage?

Eventually I was forced to pay my Dh40 over the odds in order to get my stuff. But I am not pleased. I'm convinced that this is a rip-off.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Bird dog

A feature of living in Dubai is that the interesting, twisty roads are many miles away. Sure, there are plenty of ram-rod straight highways around the town. High speeds would be achievable were it not for the Road and Traffic Authority’s overindulgence in speed cameras. Actually, that last bit should read “...are achieved despite the Road and Traffic Authority’s overindulgence...” But not normally by me. I loathe and detest forking out my cash after having my number plate snapped, and have various methods for avoiding being photographed. Sticking to the speed limit is one (duh…) and another is resisting the temptation to gas past the car that moves over at last after holding me up for ages. Hinged or obscured number plates are of course terribly illegal, and that spray-on plate-obuscating stuff apparently doesn’t work.

Last Friday afternoon I went for a little bike ride. Beloved Wife was in Muscat for the weekend and I’d done as much laundry as I felt necessary. There were no changes to Facebook and I had received no new emails other than an amazing offer from a senior Nigerian government official involving his billions and my bank account.*

One feature of sports-touring motorcycles is that they’re typically both fast and comfortable. I had intended to whiz out to Kalba and back, but instead took a more scenic route into the mountains via Dhaid and Masafi. The Sharjah-Dhaid road wasn’t too busy; being Friday there were far fewer trucks on it than is usual during the week, and I made good headway. The Friday Market on the approach to Masafi was a seething mass of Land Cruisers, all crawling along the main road at walking pace. The occupants were presumably on the lookout for inflatable animals, animal-skin-print carpets, and potted plants. Clearing the market area, I hit Masafi roundabout and turned north.

More traffic congestion. I was surprised, frankly, how many cars there were and how slowly they were being driven for no apparent reason. The GTR’s engine was beginning to express its displeasure at this low-speed stuff by pumping boiling hot air all over my legs. The 1400GTR is famous for this trick, so much so that for 2010 Mr Kawasaki has completely redesigned the fairing to direct hot air away from the rider.

Anyway, once out of Masafi I was able to open the bike up a bit. All right, a lot. The road is a very scenic single carriageway, but you’ve gotta keep your eyes peeled for random speed humps and even more random donkeys and camels and goats (oh my!). I stopped for a water break and took a photo, and everyone I’d just overtaken drove past.

Dibba was quieter than Masafi, as I looped around the coast and headed south along the coast road past Al Aqah hotel and Snoopy Island. A few bikes went past in the other direction, but no-one else was apparently heading south on two wheels. Mid-afternoon in Khor Fakkan, and it seemed the world and his wife were promenading on the corniche, cruisin’ up and down the corniche road or possibly snacking on corniche pasties. Another session of hot legs for me then. The traffic was still busy south of Khor Fakkan into Murbah. I’m not sure what the guy in the black-windowed Lexus was trying to achieve by driving not six inches from my exhaust pipe in heavy traffic, but this is not an unknown phenomenon.

I headed south through Fujairah and Kalba until, at last, I could turn right and head west into the mountains. The bendy mountain road from Kalba to Shawka, is a great motorcycling favourite, twisting and turning up the mountainside, through a tunnel, down the other side and then repeat. It’s dual carriageway too, so there’s unlikely to be oncoming traffic. Care is nevertheless required. I have already mentioned donkeys and camels and goats (oh my!), and there is the additional risk of fallen rocks on the road or gravel washed from the mountain by recent rain. That black thing that went whizzing past you in almost total silence on the approach to Wadi Muddiq tunnel may have been me. If the pilot had his arse hanging off the seat and his knee scraping the asphalt it certainly wasn’t. Riding a tourer as if it’s a sports bike looks more than faintly ridiculous.

I enjoy bend-swinging, and the weight of my motorcycle seems to disappear, despite its huge size. As revealed in previous posts, I have lost a lot of my youthful bravado so I can’t (or at least don’t) lean over until the footpegs scrape the asphalt and the tyres are on the edges of their tread. “Ride where you’re comfortable. You’re s’posed to be enjoying yourself.”

And I was surely enjoying myself. So much that instead of following the road back to Sharjah I turned left at Munaiy and headed more-or-less south towards Hatta. The southern part of that road is very interesting, plunging in and out of a wadi. As a result, it’s very twisty and there’s a rough concrete section every time the road and wadi paths cross. It’s imperative to keep control here (as indeed everywhere) because the road is particularly bouncy and uneven.

Arriving at Hatta, I realised that I’d run out of bendy roads, and I headed back towards Dubai. An obliging Chevrolet driver signalled the location of every speed camera between Hatta and Madam by hitting his brakes. It’s called bird-dogging by Beloved Wife: allowing someone else to set off all the speed traps.

It was dark by the time I got to Big Red, which was festooned with the headlights of hundreds of bikes, quads and 4x4s. By this time, my bike had done over 300km and the “Feed Me!” light was on. The petrol station halfway between Big Red and Lahbab was of course full of quads, all swarming around the petrol pumps like wasps around a jam pot. We all obediently gassed up in turn and paid the attendant. Compared with everyone else, my bike was completely silent. I really must do something about that…

I had already decided to go to the cinema before returning home, so I turned left at Lahbab roundabout and followed the new, wide and deserted highway to Jebel Ali. Thence on to the Emirates Road to Ibn Battuta mall and the multiplex cinema. To be honest, I was mildly surprised at how tired and stiff I wasn’t after more than 400km of spirited riding.

After the film, ‘District 9* since you ask, I headed back to the Crumbling Villa along Al Khail Road. For the first time all day someone actually attempted to run me off the road with his SUV before heading off towards Business Bay bridge. I tailed him as he put his foot down. I was bird-dogging from several hundred metres back when the SUV was snapped at probably 180kph, significantly faster than me, and he stamped on his brakes. As I closed the distance, astonishingly he hit the loud pedal again. And got flashed at some ludicrous velocity. Again. An expensive evening out for someone.

Home again, home again, and after a good night’s kip it was time to clean the collection of dead bugs off the bike. As usual, they exacted their posthumous revenge by being almost impossible to shift.
    * Incidentally, I understand that the Nigerian government has complained to the makers of ‘District 9’ about the way in which Nigerians are portrayed in the film. In an official communication, all references to Nigeria are to be removed before the film is allowed to be released in that country. I suspect that, like me, Mr Peter Jackson knows better than to pay attention to emails from Nigerian government officials.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Jack in the greenwash

How much of an environmental footprint does a mobile phone leave? It’s huge, apparently. Apart from the packaging and the manual that weighs in at a pound or so, the handset is made of a miscellany of plastics, there’s a liquid-crystal screen, various bits of rare and precious metals, and a rechargeable battery.

Sony-Eriksson reckon that they can apply a 15% greenwash by using recycled plastics, reducing the packaging, and supplying the C901 phone manual electronically, in the handset itself. So if you can’t figure out how to install the battery or switch it on you’re gonna be royally shafted. I had a giggle at the idea of saving the Earth’s finite resources by using a 30 milliwatt charger instead of 100mW, and then, as is not mentioned, sitting around under the air conditioning for an additional hour at three kilowatts or more waiting for the battery to charge.

Lithium-ion batteries don’t last for ever. I’ve just discovered a fading battery which results in a super short standby time and my Nokia reporting a full battery when it obviously isn’t. So it’s time to replace the battery or buy a new phone. Surely extending the effective life of an otherwise serviceable handset by a couple of years is environmentally preferable to lashing out for a whole new one? By not changing the entire phone I also neatly avoid yet another new mains charger and replacing the car charger.

How much for an appropriate Nokia battery? In “Not Coming In” Dubai it’d be an astonishing and ridiculous Dh145. £25. Twenty-five quid. As the shop assistant pointed out, for only a little more cash I might as well buy a complete new handset. And charger. And manual. And carrying case. It’s the electronic version of flogging the car ‘cos the ashtrays are full, the only obvious beneficiary being the phonemonger.

In any case, the point is moot because nobody I asked had a BL-5B. They do exist on the interwebs though. They’re offered at between £5 and £15, plus whatever shipping charges are deemed appropriate. The problem here is that the on-line suppliers I contacted couldn’t ship beyond the impenetrable English Channel (Fog in Channel: Universe cut off) and were similarly incapable of accepting a credit card payment when the registered address isn’t in the United Kingdom. Only non-expatriate Brits ever use credit cards, obviously. promised to contact me with details for taking my order by email but they didn’t. So I’ll not be buying an iPhone or BlackBerry or N98 from them, will I?

I have now found a solution to the original battery problem at £6.95 that involves Nanny Goat, Eid Al Adha and Boeing. She’s coming anyway, so the carbon footprint incurred by schlepping a phone battery doesn’t count.

In related greenwash news, I have just learned that it is impossible for my UK-based credit card company to switch to paperless statements. The company needs a UK-based mobile phone number to SMS so that I’m reminded to check the balance and cough up the moolah. International numbers ‘aren’t acceptable’, and alerting me by email is ‘impossible’. So I shall have to continue receiving the dead tree version every month, air-freighted to my PO Box at enormous environmental expense.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Are you not entertained?

There is a lot more to the institution that is the Gulf News Fun Drive than simply showing up on the day and having a jolly time in the desert. Just some of the various odds and ends that need organising come to mind:- Welcome packs, Goody bags, Permissions from the police and local authorities, Sponsors, Start venue, Finish venue, Catering, Breakdown recovery, Marshalling, and of course a Route.

Route selection starts several months prior to the event, and to this end, the Goat and his Goatmobile joined a small band of intrepid marshals last Friday to drive part of a prospective GNFD route. Clearly it has to be entertaining to drive, yet not too difficult for Fun Drivers who might not have a lot of – or indeed any – previous offroad experience. Picking a route by squinting at Google Earth tends not to reveal new fences, locked gates and in extreme cases, mile upon mile of new motorway. It would be a bit pointless if an off-road drive involved long sections on asphalt. Having dropped the tyre pressures to 15psi or even lower for sand use, protracted asphalt bashing beats hell out of the rubber.

Anyway, the seven of us in five cars representing Japan, Britain and the United States spent eight hours last Friday sweeping across great sandy swathes of the UAE. The Goat is of course sworn to absolute secrecy as to the route, notwithstanding that it is surely going to change repeatedly up to a final drive-through to erect the temporary signs. We found some interesting rocky bits and a lot of seif dunes that might become decidedly unseif after the ridges have been driven along by several hundred Fun Drivers. And we also discovered a magnificently dusty bowl that got a Nissan Patrol cross-axled and mired to above the axles. It took two winches to extricate the vehicle. Of course, photos had to be taken before anyone could render assistance: that’s in the rules.

There is a limit to how much entertainment is permitted in one day. It would probably be better, on reflection, if that particular area of quicksand is avoided. Fear not: there are many others yet to be discovered.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Herbology expert

Beloved Wife and I spent Eid in Cyprus. We had commissioned a government-approved surveyor to mark out our plot boundaries in accordance with the official Land Registry records. Having met the surveyor on site, noted the lengths of rebar that he had banged into the ground at the corners, and paid the money, we are now in possession of an accurate survey. We have precise co-ordinates of the corners, a contour plan and the whole thing in AutoCAD as well as on paper. This ought to be enough to get an architect started on the planning permission for the Dream Home. But that won’t start in earnest until Beloved Wife and I agree the basic size, shape and orientation of the building.

Unlike defining a plot in town, where measuring off existing buildings and walls easily defines a plot, up in the boonies the surveyor had to measure half of Cyprus in order to ensure that our particular corner or a foreign field was precisely defined. And that, we were told, is why he wanted such a thick wad of banknotes. I was of course shrewd enough to get in writing beforehand that the price quoted was fully inclusive of all taxes, disbursements and those niggling extras that have an unfortunate habit of bunking up the bottom line so that it resembles the GNP of a small country.

The good news is that the plot is unexpectedly larger than we originally anticipated. The original advert said it was around 3300 sq.m; I’d measured the area using existing hedges as seen on Google Earth and discovered a disappointing 2740 sq.m. The survey reveals the actual plot fully includes one of the hedges and extends further south than expected, yielding 3578 sq.m, or 0.884 acres in old money.

I took hundreds of photographs of the land, the views, the existing herbaceous borders and the survey markers.

And this, dear reader, is where you come in: identifying the plants. Essentially, we’d like to retain as much of the mature planting as possible, but if it’s diseased or toxic to goats, it’ll have to go. Hopefully the greenery that remains will be pretty to look at, provide useful windbreaks, and might even produce edible fruit or something that gives a glossy coat.

No.1 and No.2
The first one is easy. It’s probably a carob tree Ceratonia siliqua and might even bear usable fruit. I could get hold of some wild honey and do a John the Baptist impersonation. The second plant appears to be some sort of parasite hanging off the carob. Its fruit is small black berries. No hints in any of our Mediterranean Plants and Gardens books or, so far, from the Interwebs.

That this is an oak of some sort is obvious from the acorns. But which one? There are holly oaks Quercus ilex around, but this one dares to be different. The leaves aren’t wobbly-edged as per the ‘traditional’ oak leaf, so which species is it?

The fruit smells of apple, so I suspect a crab-apple of some sort. But is that indeed the case, and is the fruit edible?

It seems that this one finished flowering a little while back and has perhaps gone to seed. Is it some kind of wild rose? There aren’t a load of thorns on the stems.

I think this may be Cistus ladanifer. But I'd appreciate the opinion of someone who knows more about plants than I. Most of the population, then.

I suspect this one is pistachio Pistacia lentiscus. The small berries are red and green. I guess they’re turning from red to black as they mature. Are these what eventually produce pistachio nuts?

Absolutely no clue at all with this plant.

Nor this one.

I found this page of the University of Reading's website of some use. Again, those who know and understand plants might get better use out of the page.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Off? Ah, you can't re-fuse

The other evening Beloved Wife and I were heading home after discovering that Geeekfest 2.0 had been postponed to October. While rummaging in the dark trying to plug in the phone charger, a coke can ring-pull fell into the socket and shorted the circuit with a briefly thrilling flash and a fuse blew.

We stopped at a petrol station to avail ourselves of the available light, I dug out the owner’s manual and found the fuse box. The task was not made any easier when Beloved Wife recovered her emergency wind-up torch from the boot and discovered that it was FUBAR. Neither was the job facilitated by the blue 15A fuse, as per the manual, mysteriously not being blown. It turned out that the relevant fuse as fitted by some German mechanic back in 2007 was a yellow 20A fuse. So much for Volkswagen’s dire injunctions against fitting fuses with different ratings from those stated in the manual. And the petrol station shop hadn’t got any blade fuses anyway. Loads of cuddly toys and phone accessories, but no automotive fuses. In a petrol station. Is there no limit to mercantile idiocy? Just as well the burned-out fuse only affected the fag lighter. If it’d been on the headlight circuit that night, there might have been more of a problem.

The following day it took four further attempts to buy a replacement fuse before I finally succeeded. Three car accessories shops, whose stock includes flashing lights, radios, spotlights, replacement lenses and any other related electric paraphernalia, didn’t stock automotive fuses. So they all fit aftermarket electrical accessories without any fuse protection, eh? And we wonder why in this country there seem to be so many cases of cars spontaneously combusting. I eventually found a tiny hardware shop where the man had a cut-down Masafi bottle full of 20A yellow blade fuses. He charged me a dirham, and then guiltily gave me a handful rather than just two. (One to use and one to lose.)

Anyway, back to the previous evening. I was fuming by the time we got home. Why? Well, Beloved Wife’s wind-up torch has never been used in anger. It has lived in a bag in the boot along with some jump leads for two years. And this evening the winding mechanism had mysteriously become broken. Come to that, the yellow case had also magically become battered and bruised.

What I suspect is that some unknown person who owned an old and broken wind-up torch swapped his with the decent one that he found lying around in someone’s car. It appears this could only have been the Volkswagen mechanics at Al Naboodah or the car valets at Yellow Hat. Except at the car wash where we stand over the cleaners, no-one else has had access to the boot, as far as either Beloved Wife or I can ascertain.

It isn’t the cost of the torch that I’m whingeing about. They’re cheap, and yes I can easily afford a new one. Unfortunately, when you need to use a torch, it’s dark, probably in the middle of nowhere and likely throwing down with rain too. And the inconvenience of changing a wheel by Braille easily outweighs the monetary value of the torch.

I guess this sort of petty theft goes with nicking small change: a perk, a tax on rich idiots who are careless enough to leave anything in the car that’s not bolted down.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Your money for your life

Much debate is to be heard especially over on the left bank of the Pond regarding President Obama's proposed reforms to the financing of healthcare. I shall try to put aside Michael Moore’s Sicko, in which he sought to portray the British National Health Service as a charity and its French equivalent as the same but more so, and the American system as being populated solely by money grabbers who would rather see people die than pay medical insurance claims.

First, I’d like to establish that medical practitioners, including doctors, surgeons, nurses, anaesthetists and pharmacologists do a lot of college, carry out hugely difficult and responsible jobs, and deserve to be remunerated appropriately. There is no justification for paying a doctor a pittance. British general practitioners seem to do all right under the NHS system. ‘The average family doctor earning over £100,000...’ does not seem to me to be a pittance. Yet this is what we’re told is the inevitable consequence of social medicine.

Any attempt to finance healthcare within the taxation system must, we are informed, surely produce under-resourced, third-rate medical care that has barely progressed beyond leeches and amputations without anaesthesia. Witness Fox and Fiends trotting out cases where MediCare failed, and we're to infer that if the poor unfortunate had only paid for his treatment, things would have turned out better. That the individual is poor and can't afford to pay isn't discussed. Neither are cases where top-quality hospitals screwed up.

The only way to ensure a decent level of healthcare, we’re advised, is to pay for it at its point of delivery. Actually, it’s paid for up front as medical insurance, with the insurance company ultimately footing the bill.

The problem as I see it with medical insurance is that the insurance company is a commercial enterprise. And like all commercial enterprises it exists ultimately to make money. Frankly, that company which promises you a first-rate healthcare plan has absolutely no interest in any individual’s fate. Provided that on average the premiums received exceed the claims paid, the insurance company and its shareholders are happy. The year the shareholders don’t get their payouts is the year everybody’s premiums go up.

And to this end, the insurance provider gets to set a few rules, such as:

    “We won't insure you if you have any of this long list of pre-existing conditions”

    “The Insured is not covered for any pre-existing condition that he didn't declare”

    “The Insured is not covered for kidney dialysis because he didn't tell us he had his tonsils out 30 years ago”

    “The Insured has to pay the first $2000 per year”

    “The Insured has to pay 20% of each and every claim”

    “The Insured is not covered for the consequences of HIV/AIDS howsoever caused”

    “The Insured is too fat/has diabetes/suffers from spina bifida/is haemophiliac and is therefore not covered”

So what do you do if you have some medical condition that is treatable but expensive? Go broke or die.

I did a little on-line research. I was offered medical insurance in Virginia at rates ranging from $170 to $294 per month, with various conditions and copayments. As these are the advertised rates gleaned off the Interwebs, I suspect that the actual amount spent by Muggins would creep up.

Compare these rates with the British National Health Service, whose current annual budget is around £90 billion. That means a monthly cost of around £200 ($320) per taxpayer, or £125 ($200) per person living in the UK. And this compares I think rather favourably with the above American insurance quotes. Particularly when you consider that there’s no pre-existing condition exclusion, no copayment, no consultation fees and no annual deductible. And it includes dental and (if you live in Scotland or Wales) prescription medication.

The NHS is not answerable to any shareholders. All the income can be directed at healthcare, without an annual rake-off given to people who are essentially profiting from the victims of illness or injury.

I guess the concern and alarm being expressed in the States is based on the difference between every individual paying the same number of dollars for medical insurance, versus taxation-based funding where the rich pay more and the poor pay less.

Where the NHS system goes wrong is when a particular specialist works part time for the NHS and in his private practice the rest of the time. My uncle was incensed to learn that he’d have to wait for over six months for his new titanium knee, yet if he were to go private – that is, to pay many thousands of pounds in cash immediately, that same consultant would carry out the same procedure in the same hospital within the week. The waiting list for NHS treatment was being caused in part by the consultant busily using the facilities for private jobs.

I think a doctor should either work in a private practice, funded by client payment or insurance, or the doctor should be salaried and work exclusively for the NHS.

That said, I have never personally experienced any delay in medical treatment. Perhaps I've just been lucky.

A final thought. My medical cover is a company insurance scheme and is fairly comprehensive with only a Dh50 deductible per visit. What I object to isn't paying the Dh50. Neither is it having the premium paid whether or not I make a claim. I object having to argue with the clinic, and potentially with the insurance company, about whether or not my condition is covered. Surely how poorly I am and what constitutes appropriate treatment is best decided by a doctor, not an accountant. If I’m ill, I just want to get better, not argue the toss from my sick bed.


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Bargain basement

Why does the nonsensical phrase “until stocks last” keep popping up where special offers are advertised? The phrase has amused and bemused me ever since I first encountered it in about 1996. I think I understand what the message seeks to convey: that the ‘two-for-the-price-of-one’, or ‘half-price with this coupon’ offer is only valid provided that the shop has still got supplies of the relevant items. According to Wikipedia, ‘...every reasonable person knows that goods advertised or displayed and [sic] shops are implicitly available “while stocks last”.’ The implication of actually writing it on the advert is that the offer is such a bargain that if you don’t drop everything and head for the mall this minute, it’ll all be gone.

But “until stocks last”? What on earth does this mean?

My understanding of the word ‘Until’, which is shared by Messrs Webster, Collins and others is that it indicates continuance up to a specified time or event. The word might also mean ‘before(a specified time)’.

And “Last”? Ignoring sillies such as the metal thing that cordwainers use, ‘last’ as a verb means ‘to continue in existence or in force’, or ‘to be enough for the needs of’, or ‘to keep adequately supplied.’

So according to the advert, the offer is valid up to the point when the stocks exist? Eh? So the ‘Buy One Get One Free’ (with the wonderful acronym BOGOF, but I digress) offer only applies if the shop has none in stock. Then, when new supplies arrive, the BOGOF is no longer available.

In the words of Inigo Montoya: “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

How about rewording the disclaimer to read “while stocks last”, “limited supplies”, or even “until we run out”?

On the subject of things that do not mean what they say, there was recently Sharaf DG’s paradoxical offer: “If we don’t have it, you get it free!”

I see. You will give me - for nuppence - the item I request, provided that you haven’t got one. In that case, I’ll have my free Princess 46 motor yacht.

Of course, the offer only applied to items normally held in stock, there were time limits on how long Sharaf DG would be allowed to obtain the requested item, and there was a comprehensive list of rules in the small print explaining how there was, in practice, almost no way to get something for nothing. This was no surprise. As Marvin the Paranoid Android quipped: “What does it remind me of? Ah, I remember: life.”

Beloved Wife and I are pleased to note that some of these special offers have been good for a long time and show little sign of abating. For this reason, we regularly BOGOF to Billy Blues on Sunday evenings for steak dinners.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Another dissatisfied 'Valued Customer'

I should like to thank my internet service provider, Itisalot, for the continued sterling efforts in providing and maintaining my connectivity. I should particularly like to express my gratitude to the Customer Services Manager at Itisalot’s Deira office who promised in July 2007 that ADSL would be connected to the Crumbling Villa “within two weeks.” He even gave me his business card. I am sure that his rejecting every call I made to the number on the card over the following several months was completely justified.

How wonderful then that Itisalot provided broadband at the Crumbling Villa in February 2009, a mere nineteen months after the initial application and only six weeks after cancelling a subsequent application. I was of course spared the inconvenience of being advised that my application had been cancelled. Itisalot was happy to accept my third application after I had queued for only 90 minutes at the Al Twar office.

Compared with dial-up that frequently dropped its connection, my new broadband was indeed “surprisingly fast at amazing low prices” as per Itisalot’s adverts back in 2006. My 1Mbps connection uploads data at an astounding 100kbps: at least 20 times the speed of dial-up, and I have occasionally seen downloads at nearly 700kbps.

Daily Telegraph 6th Aug 2009

As for the cost, a mere Dh2988 per year for unlimited downloads is nothing short of stupendous. To note that British Telecom can provide eight times the bandwidth for a third of the price is to make an unfair comparison. Unlike in the UK where urban development is sometimes centuries old, here in the UAE sufficient new telecommunications infrastructure could not possibly have been installed. The absence of meaningful competition has nothing to do with the usurious tariffs.

I am of course protected from the immorality and corruption so prevalent on the internet. I’m protected, for example, from viewing my own degenerate photographs of mosques in Istanbul and tropical fish that I previously uploaded on to Flickr, and from the expensive and unreliable services offered by VoIP providers.

Having established the broadband account, Itisalot explained how I should go about shutting down the old and now unused dial-up, transferring my email ID to the broadband email inbox. Clearly, making such a complicated series of adjustments will inevitably take several weeks. I was inadvertently misinformed by an enthusiastic Itisalot employee that it would take around two hours. It’s perfectly understandable that the occasional error is made, which is why after three weeks the user ID was changed but not the email ID. After nine personal visits, some very kind gentlemen at the Deira office provided their business cards so that I could follow up progress regarding my application, but these people have regrettably been too busy helping other Valued Customers to answer their telephones or emails.

The Customer Care helpline always provides a very polite answer to my queries. I do not know how many people work in Customer Care, but they are unerringly consistent, undertaking to refer my outstanding complaint to the IT department. I was advised to change my password using the website because a personal visit to an Itisalot office incurs a charge for that service. Consistent as ever, Customer Care advised that my complaint had been referred to IT when Itisalot’s system had after over three weeks failed to authorise the change of password.

Commenting to Customer Care that I was temporarily obliged to use the free WiFi in Times Square mall, as provided by D’uh, it was noted that I could actually use an Itisalot WiFi iZone HotSpot, paying for it at a mere Dh10 per hour from my mobile phone account. How reasonable that I should pay Dh249 per month for a non-existent service, plus Dh10 per hour to the same corporation to get any service at all. To say nothing of the FourBucks coffees and time and effort involved with making a special trip to a hotspot. Such a shame then that “There was a problem processing your request. Please try again.” And again. And again. Customer Care helpfully suggested that as the Deira City Centre iZone HotSpot was, erm, broken, perhaps I would like to try Ajman. Absolutely. I have nothing better to do with my Fridays than to cruise the UAE looking for somewhere to connect to the internet.

I am pleased to note that an unexpected telephone call from Itisalot last Tuesday confirmed that the issues have been corrected. It has only taken sixty-one days. I speculate idly whether my recent submission of the complaint details to the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has in any way influenced Itisalot’s Customer Care actually to sort out the problem and then to phone me several times and to be extremely helpful.

Apparently it’s possible to obtain a refund for non-existent internet connectivity. Itisalot conveniently has a mechanism in place, involving faxing to 06 746 0444 an explanatory letter, passport, visa, ID card and DNA sample. It has to be by fax of course, “because billing disputes have to go to the concerned department.” What, by carrier pigeon? Pack llama? It only took three tries before Itisalot’s fax was capable of receiving my written submission. Emailing a scanned version is clearly way too high-tech.

Incidentally, I wonder why D’uh offers such a mediocre WiFi service at Times Square? Because it’s free? As a temporary loss leader, if it were my telco, I’d convince my future customers how good I was by providing the most reliable and blisteringly quick WiFi I could possibly manage. What worries me is this might indeed be the case.

Edited 25 August to add:

The iniquities of Itisalot continue apparently without respite. I have just received hard copies of the current internet and telephone bills.

Changing the password through is supposed to be free. Yet according to the Helpless Desk at Customer Care 101 the billing computer went mad. Not only did I get charged for the password change, but Itisalot created three additional dial-up accounts and charged Dh50 to each of them.

It is a known issue. I was told that the computer had done this to everyone on 7th July. Itisalot has, I note, not seen fit to correct the error. It is incumbent on the overcharged subscribers to try to get their money back. A greater cynic than I might infer that Itisalot is hoping that some of the subscribers might simply pay the overcharge.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On reflection

So the rumour that I heard on Dubai Eye’s Business Breakfast on Monday morning may have some basis in fact. I searched in vain for any information pertaining to Dubai Eye’s one-line news report that reflective paint on cars was to be banned. And a day later, here is the Gulf News’ version of the story. I wonder how the radio station got it a day earlier?

“Abu Dhabi: The interior ministry is considering banning excessive window tints and reflective paint on cars, officials have said.”


“Until now, those wanting excessive tints require special permission from the traffic department. But if the new proposal is approved the department will stop issuing such permission. Also, those who were earlier given permission will have to get their tints removed.”

And also

“'According to the regulations, drivers have to consult the relevant licensing authorities before using any such paint and stickers on their vehicles,' said Colonel Gaith Al Za'abi, who heads the traffic department at the ministry.”

That’ll go down well. Someone fancies a really dark “I’m a mafia wannabe” tint and trundles along to the traffic department. He waves his wasta wand and gets permission to paste expensive, top-quality, heat-rejecting opaque black wallpaper all over the windows of his Mercedes and is a happy bunny. Only to be told a while later that there has been a clarification and the rules have now changed. The law, like his windows, isn’t exactly transparent. I forecast disappointment, pouting, and further waves of the wasta wand.

But it’s not difficult to see why ludicrously dark tints are a matter for concern. According to last Monday’s National, “…Abu Dhabi Police citing overly tinted windows as the fourth biggest cause of accidents in the emirate…” suggests that something ought to be done, yet forbidding excessive tinting from the outset, regardless of vehicle, passport or parentage seems to have eluded the decision makers. And a dark tint makes it impossible to enforce seatbelt and mobile phone legislation.

What confuses me is the Gulf News story appears to have lumped stickers and reflective paint in with this window tinting issue. Is it OK for your car to be dressed up like it’s about to do the Desert Challenge? Will participants of the Gulf News Fun Drive be prosecuted for displaying numbers on their doors? Is the AAA Service Center to be prosecuted for putting a logo in the bottom corner of every customer’s rear window? I do know that an Emirati friend was ordered to remove all self-adhesive stickers from the rear of his Patrol last time he went to get it registered in Dubai, and not just from the rear window. Apparently, plastering the windows with advertising banners is an impediment to visibility, and an overzealous inspector extended this to “All stickers”.

Salik tag excluded, of course. Also excluded are larger-than-life mugshots of Sheikh Mo and co., and massive adverts all over bus windows.

What of reflective paint? Is this the 100% reflective metallic window tinting, or is it, as Dubai Eye mentioned, the same retroreflective film that is used on traffic signs?

If the latter, we have the ridiculous situation of legislation being considered that would effectively outlaw drivers’ attempts to improve conspicuity. There is a reason why emergency vehicles are almost always emblazoned with reflective striping or in extreme cases a yellow and blue Battenburg pattern. There is also a reason why motorcycling apparel frequently comes with fluorescent or reflective panels. Yet the Ministry of the Interior appears to be planning to outlaw this particular contribution to road safety. Am I to understand that I should remove the white reflective pinstriping from my black motorcycle and render it even more invisible?

What comes next? Perhaps the ban on headlights should be extended to include all vehicles, and not be limited only to bicycles.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Road Trip USA

The Great American Road Trip is over. From Virginia to Boston and back again to see how far it is. Twelve hundred miles. Beloved Wife and I rented the cheapest Hertz rental car possible and ended up with a Ford Focus. Adorned with a suitably incongruous Georgia license plate (don’t need a front tag in Georgia) we set off to New England. My normal procedure, to pre-book and pre-pay the car rental in Dubai, turned out to have saved us about $500 over two weeks. Renting locally from the airport branch at Dulles would have been spectacularly expensive, and then insurance would have been extra.

I have been a convert to GPS highway navigation ever since I bought a Garmin GPSmap 276C many years ago. I’ve used the Middle East and Europe road maps successfully, except in Cyprus where most roads simply aren’t depicted. I bought the North America map for my GPS immediately prior to the trip, so was looking forward to the very prim and proper received pronunciation from Clarissa (who as we all know explains it all). I instructed Clarissa to take us by the shortest route, which turned out to be through some scary neighbourhoods once we got off the Interstate. I am assured that they’re nowhere near as bad as they appeared.

Our first stop was in New Jersey, about three doors down from Tony Soprano’s house, where my very old friend and motorcycling buddy Alistair and his wife Lois very kindly put us up. The original plan was to spend the night in NJ, thence to New York City the following day and then head on northwards. Unfortunately the weather refused to co-operate and we ended up spending all of Sunday sitting on the veranda, chatting and looking out at the rain that was hurling itself out of the leaden, featureless sky. Monday was much improved weatherwise. Alistair suggested that we travel into NYC by train, and then return that evening. We could then set off after a good night’s sleep. The train was surely less expensive than driving into the city and taking out a small mortgage in order to park the car.

New York New York

We emerged into the Big Apple from Pennsylvania Station. Yes, the one in the song. Beloved Wife forbade me to sing on the train, which of course brought the Chattanooga Choo-Choo to my attention, from where it refused to disappear all day. After walking briskly to Times Square, we grabbed breakfast bacon and bagels, and then returned southwards to climb the Empire State Building. Twenty dollars each, and a load of queuing to go through airport-style security, almost as if we were going to board an airship moored to the top. Views were predictably spectacular despite the haze. The tickets included adverts for the B&H photography toyshop a mere three blocks away. No prizes for guessing the next stop on our day trip.

I have now traded my 28-200 Nikkor zoom for an 18-200. I’ve wanted one of these for ages, and it was so very much cheaper than the same lens in Dubai. Beloved Wife bought me another lens, a super wide-angle zoom for architecture and landscapes, as a slightly early birthday present. Huzzah! She also renewed her underwater camera kit with a Canon set-up. I even got money back by trading my old lens, which was a pleasant surprise. I was horribly tempted by a new Nikon body too, but that was simply too much expense for one day. B&H is an Aladdin’s cave of camera kit. I picked up the latest mail-order catalogue while I was there, later described as ‘photo-p()rn’.

The Rockefeller Center was the next port of call. We checked out the sculptures and murals in and around the lobby, but didn’t find it necessary to pay a further $20 to go to the top of the tower.

St Patrick’s cathedral provided a brief respite from the bustle of NYC streets.

We walked up 5th Avenue as far as Central Park, pausing briefly outside Tiffany and Co. The interior is reassuringly and prohibitively expensive. Opposite the Plaza Hotel we gave ourselves a little comic relief in F.A.O. Schwartz toy emporium where I was confronted by, inter alia, a life-sized Lego Chewbacca and a load of muppets.

Cutting through the southern edge of Central Park provided some greenery and further respite. We were both by now tired, but I didn’t really wish to grab a cab for fear of missing some of the NYC experience. I refer of course to the sights, sounds and smells of the city, not being relieved of my wallet by some villain.

We headed south along Broadway, through Times Square and mercifully arrived back at Pennsylvania Station in time to take the train back into the suburbs. I haven’t walked ten miles in a day for as long as I can remember.

If this is Tuesday it must be Boston

I didn’t really fancy the I-95 all the way to Boston. Despite Clarissa’s frequent protests, I stayed on the parallel Merritt Parkway which was tree-lined, interestingly bendy and devoid of trucks. Eventually we ended up going in the wrong direction, so invited Clarissa to navigate us around the tiny lanes into Mystic. That extremely enjoyable rural trip included a car ferry, where Beloved Wife and I chatted to a couple of young teenagers out on a bicycle ride. They’d never heard of Dubai, and were hugely delighted at being given a Dh5 note. I can imagine the conversation that evening:

“Where did you get that?”

“Some bearded dude with a foreign-sounding accent gave it to me.”

Aroogah! Aroogah! Call out the National Guard!

Beloved Wife wished to drive around her old stomping grounds, and instructed that I should turn left here, up Memory Lane. There were plenty of comments concerning how that restaurant used to be a fabric shop, and wasn’t it a pity that Granny’s two-acre garden now had four houses on it. We had lunch in Mystic, watched the lift bridge do its thing, and then carried on our journey. Beloved Wife had arranged to meet various friends from her distant past who have recently been relocated courtesy of Facebook, and the first of these, Scott, was discovered in Boston. We went out to dinner and she and Scott reminisced before we retired to a motel and collapsed.

Public transport again on Wednesday morning. The motel was happy that we left the car in their car park all day, so we took a tram into central Boston and walked a further astonishing distance. We dropped into the meeting house where salty tea was invented and looked at any number of other historic buildings and commemorative statues.

Having planned to see Beloved Wife’s old friends Teresa and Rui and then to seek a motel, Clarissa took us straight to their house near Billerica. We were kindly offered overnight accommodation, meaning that we could now both drink the sangria. And then Teresa suggested that we could all go to Salem on Thursday in her Volvo. Thus three adults, two children and a dog piled into a huge car and off we went to see the House of Seven Gables. There wasn’t time to do anything ‘witchy’ in Salem, which (badoom, tsch!) was a pity. It does occur to me however the logical inconsistency of celebrating Salem’s witchy past. Witches, witches everywhere. If I’d been a witch in 1692, Salem is somewhere I’d have strenuously avoided.

Back in Billerica for bonfire and toasted marshmallows, we all went off to another great New England tradition: the ice cream parlour. This turned out to be way out in the sticks, and as there were pygmy goats to look at as well as ice cream to eat, it was a plan with no drawbacks. I’m glad I picked a small ice cream; I think the next size up was close to a gallon of the stuff.

These are the only ones of which the news had come to Hahvard

There is, apparently, only one place in the universe where Beloved Wife can obtain her favourite brand of hair brush. For this reason we found ourselves in the Colonial in Cambridge. And then went for a walk among the leafy shade of Academia, pretending to be checking out posh colleges for our ficticious offspring.

We had an arrangement to visit Dick and Frances some time on Friday. Old friends of my in-laws, they were pleased to feed us cake and dips, and to take us for a walk along the boardwalk and look at the sea near the mouth of the Thames (pronounced ‘Thames’ and not ‘Temz’) near New London. Like Teresa and Rui, Dick and Frances have a Toyota Prius, one of the new generation of hybrid vehicles. These Prii are disconcertingly quiet when being manoeuvred in the driveway or driven downhill because the petrol engine turns itself off and the electric motor is almost silent.

How useful is that?

Beloved Wife arranged for our friend Erika to obtain various culinary goodies from a shop in Vermont. Plan ‘A’ had been for Erika to return to the Magic Kingdom with these, and then to meet up in Muscat at the end of August. But now that we were unexpectedly in the States, we were able to meet at Erika’s cousin’s sprawling house near Hartford in Connecticut, where we were made most welcome. Instead of Erika submitting to the tender mercies of Amtrak, we agreed to drive her back to Washington where she had a rental car waiting.

The drive from Connecticut to Maryland, DC and thence to Virginia is a long one. Clarissa remained helpful, although was periodically overruled. The scenic route over Tappan Zee Bridge was deemed preferable to struggling through the Bronx. Clarissa disagreed until we were well past Nyack. And the Baltimore-Washington Parkway beats the Interstate all the way into Washington’s Beltway, past No Such Agency. Usefully, we were able to avoid traffic congestion on the Beltway courtesy of Clarissa, who was quite adept at finding an alternative parallel route past the accident and also past some cheaper petrol.

Sunday was of course wasted, sitting around indoors and blogging. I have an informal appointment at the Air and Space Museum in Herndon and there’s talk of taking in a movie, but apart from that I’m now jus’ chillin’.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Show them you're cross

Thinking about buying a new smart phone?
An iPhone or perhaps a BlackBerry?
Itisalot will want to give you software:
A software patch “for switching to 3G.”

That patch is made for spying
And that’s just what it’ll do.
Upload it, and your telco
Will be monitoring you.

It costs too much to rent palatial villas,
At least, if you’re a single family.
But if it’s big enough, perhaps by sharing,
Two live together, independently.

Except that it’s illegal.
Says, “Here’s a clar’fication
Issued since February.”

This evening I’m going to the gold souq
To buy a piece of tasteful jewelry.
In Sharjah I am not allowed to wear it
Because of gold chain’s illegality

If wearing gold’s offensive
Do up your buttons quick!
If you dress like Tom Jones
You will be hauled off to the nick.

Appropriate acknowledgements to Lee Hazlewood who wrote the original, and Nancy Sinatra who made it famous.


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