Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mea culpa

I learned to snorkel in the summer of 1973. Living in Poole at the time, the family went out for a day at the beach. This was actually a rare event, but off we schlepped with beach towels, Speedos, picnic, a very small inflatable dinghy and our flippers and goggles. It was a long walk from the car park to the beach. Getting to Durdle Door on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast (N 50°37.24' W002°16.35') - just along from Lulworth Cove - involved scaling a winding track down a cliff face to a little bay protected from the sea by a natural rock breakwater.

I’d previously played about in swimming pools with goggles and flippers, but on this occasion my father decreed that once I’d inflated the squidgy with a feeble foot-pump, I should learn to snorkel. And this I did, first in the shallows right next to the beach, and later out near the rock breakwater. It didn’t take long to get the hang of basic duck-diving, and even rolling off the dinghy into the oggin.

Back in 1973, apart from one area where the water was clear to a sandy sea bed, the bay was full of kelp. Swimming through thick seaweed fronds freaked me out then, and it still does. Grasping tendrils reaching up from the abyss? No thanks. I blame too much Marine Boy. You probably have to be in your forties even to remember Marine Boy... Intellectually I know that kelp is harmless, and some of my diving buddies assure me that there is a special thrill in diving through a kelp forest. Sorry, but phobias are by definition irrational. Maybe I should conquer my fear by donning a drysuit and doing some scuba off California.

But what of this culpa that is mea?

Well, while blobbing about in the inflatable, I discovered that if I blew a raspberry down the wrong end of a snorkel, I could impersonate a fog horn and thereby irritate everyone on the beach. Which is just grand when you’re ten.

Sorry folks: Although one Freddie “Saddam” Maake claims to have done so in 1965, the Goat may have invented the plastic vuvuzela.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pearls of wisdom

I generally listen to what passes for Talk Radio on my 90-minute daily commute. Dubai Eye (103.8MHz) does that Business Breakfast thing from 6am until I drop out of range at about 6:45 and have to switch to Radio 2 (106MHz) as I approach the capital. The journey home is marginally better because the BBC World Service (87.9MHz) is in English until 6pm.

On Wednesday I was tuned to Dubai Eye after 6pm, having put in ten of my contracted eight hours (less half an hour for lunch) and I was commuting home. Fortunately, the amount of foopball news was minimal; instead, there was an interesting half hour feature on ‘green buildings’.

Sorry, but as I was driving I wasn’t in any position to take notes, so no names, no firms, no phone numbers.

The presenter had a whine that, following years and years of living apartments, he’d moved into a villa. The air conditioning upstairs was apparently poor, and Mr Maintenance advised him that this was because of the sun. Apparently, sunlight heats the roof which, in turn, radiates heat into the building. Imagine that, eh? Strong sunlight in the Gulf. Who’d have thought it? The solution offered was to run the air conditioning at full throttle for three days until the ceiling and wall slabs had been cooled.

Here we have the problem. Buildings constructed “six months ago” are to the same standards that were considered appropriate for the region in about 1975. A typical build comprises a reinforced concrete frame on a concrete pad foundation, a single skin of hollow concrete blocks make the outside walls, and reinforced concrete slabs compose the upper floors and the roof. If it isn’t flat, the roof slab gets tiles nailed to the concrete. The walls, at least those bits that aren’t windows or doors, are rendered outside with cementicious stucco, and inside it’s plaster.

Where is the insulation? An air gap of about four inches really doesn’t have much insulating effect, particularly when it’s bridged by the block construction, the mortar and whatever the brickies dropped down the gap during construction.

But it’s cheap. And this is why energy inefficient buildings continue to be constructed. This is despite, as the radio article pointed out, “around Dh3000 spent on insulation” yielding a “Dh15000 saving” in terms of smaller air conditioning units running for fewer hours, to say nothing of not having to leave them on for three days. And at four kilowatts per unit, that’s a shedload of electricity.

Most real estate in the Gulf is owned by citizens: nationals. Those who pay little or nothing for their electricity have no real incentive not to run the air conditioning on maximum at all times. Heat pours into the building, and gets pumped out again essentially for nuppence. There’s a perceived financial advantage in throwing up a bespoke villa as cheaply as possible, and someone buying a developer’s house doesn't really have to worry about electricity bills either. You won’t realise your Dh12000 saving if your running cost is zero.

What about the other 85% of the population? Those who don’t get free electricity? These residents either rent or buy cheaply-built concrete boxes. Either way, the incentive is to build at minimum cost because the consequences of no insulation are borne by the tenant or in the latter case, the ‘freeholder’.

There's little incentive for a tenant to undertake substantial environmental building improvements. Even if the landlord allowed it and it were practically feasible, in a year or two you might have to walk away from expensive solar panels - or even compact fluorescent light bulbs, so the long-term benefits wouldn’t happen to the environmentalist or his wallet. And why, incidentally, do the so-called ‘long-life’ CF lightbulbs purchased at additional expense invariably fail within a few months? So much for the alleged ten-year life...

But there is good environmental news on the horizon. In Abu Dhabi there are moves towards more environmentally sustainable buildings. Estidama, which is Arabic for ‘sustainability’, promotes a so-called “Pearl Rating” that includes insulation requirements and a whole lot more besides. Proximity to public transport, non-toxic building materials, grey water recycling, bicycle parking, painting the exterior white, solar panels for free domestic hot water, and even advice on planting native plants outside that don’t drink vast quantities of water. One suggestion is even to use ceiling fans (anyone remember those?) instead of air conditioning in the spring and autumn.

I have downloaded the PDF blurb about villas. Whilst it’s not worth trying to retro-fit insulation in the Crumbling Villa, there may be some useful pearls (ba-doom, tsch!) of wisdom applicable for the Cyprus retirement palace.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tears of a clone

It’s that time of year again. The Day of Reckoning, when the entire year’s motoring violations are laid bare and payment of all fines in full is an integral part of the car registration process.

Imagine the scene. The Goatmobile undergoes its usual thorough 30-second inspection, the Goat produces evidence of having 13 months of insurance, payment is made, and then there is a problem. UAE residents are doubtless fully aware of the so-called ‘fairy fines’ or ‘phantom fines’ incurred owing to administrative error.
    Goat: “So, about this fine, officer: the one where I know my vehicle was most definitely elsewhere?”

    Tasjeel: “One moment, Mr Goat…” (click, clickety-click, beep) “Here is the photograph of your vehicle caught bang to rights. Give us your money.”

    Goat: “Just one problem. That is most definitely not the Goatmobile. It’s the wrong colour, the wrong make and the wrong model.”

    Tasjeel: “But it surely is your registration number, therefore you are as guilty as a puppy next to a pile of poo.”

    Goat: “Allow me to explain. My vehicle licence matches the Goatmobile in every respect. That car in the picture must be using fake plates.”

    Tasjeel: “Agreed, but as we don’t know who it is because all searches on that number plate point at you, Mr Goat, you must therefore be completely guilty.”

Such a shame that traffic enforcement by camera is incapable of checking the vehicle licence against the VIN, make and model, and then asking the driver awkward questions regarding the obvious discrepancy between the plate and the VIN.

Clearly this phantom menace needs to be apprehended. Then, if the Goat has anything to do with it, there will be an attack of the clones; possibly a clone war.


Sunday, June 06, 2010

A bird in the hand

Not for the first time, we had an avian visitor in the Crumbling Villa. The normal sequence of events is that I notice chirping coming from upstairs, I investigate, and discover a sparrow, finch or other Little Brown Job fluttering around the upstairs landing, perching on bookshelves and air conditioners, and occasionally smashing its poor diminutive bird brain on the large but unopenable window.

What’s the best way to remove a wild bird from the house? Very occasionally, opening the French window of the main bedroom, closing off all other doorways and curtains, and brandishing a broom at the creature is sufficient to encourage its escape. But sometimes this isn’t enough, and I’ve in the past resorted to chasing the bird until it’s too exhausted to fly. Then it’s easy to pick up off the bookshelf and carry outside. A bit stressful, of course, so this is not an ideal solution from the bird’s point of view.

How do birds get in, anyway? I once watched as a dove swooped in through the open front door, circumnavigated the sitting room and then swooped out again. But I theorise that in general, LBJs get into the house through the extractor fans. They perch outside, enjoying the wafts of cool air provided by the Crumbling Villa’s rickety, old and incontinent air conditioning. Then one enterprising soul climbs through and can’t find its way out again.

Not entirely true; I recently found evidence of LBJ in the bathroom. If guano on the floor, walls and mirror, and little claw marks in the soap and in the dust on the extractor fan are to be believed, the culprit made good its escape.

Our most recent visitor spent the evening in the kitchen. Of course, it utterly refused to fly into the dark void beyond the window we opened. Then I had the brilliant idea of shutting off the lights and using a torch. Sparrows can’t fly in the dark. One crash-landing on to Beloved Wife later, and I was able to scoop up the sparrow by hand and deposit it outside on the kitchen window sill.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Small change

A vital part of my recent change in employer is my change of address. Like most individuals in the middle east, I have in the past adopted my employer’s PO Box as my mailing address, and had my SnailMail™ delivered directly to my desk. There are no doorstep deliveries in the UAE, except by Pizza Hut.

So over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been informing the various organisations that send me mail of a new PO Box number. Most can manage this change on the strength of a telephone call or an email. But – alas – not my bankers, who require a hard copy document. Just for once, the local branch of Red Triangles Bank performed faultlessly. Sadly, the same cannot be said of another major international bank, whose customer service and credibility proceeded to go down in flames last evening.

I wrote in early May: “Dear Bank, Please note my new change of address. Yours, G. Goat, esq.”

The bank wrote back about three weeks later with other issues raised by my letter. Despite the bank’s studiously ignoring of my change of address, I eventually received the correspondence. It had been forwarded through my former employer’s various offices until I was phoned and asked to come and collect it yesterday.

To sort out the address issue, I rang the bank’s published UK phone number. It’s a free phone call from the UK, but not from the UAE, of course. Inevitably, the call was answered by someone in a call centre in India.

After picking my way through security, a real person answered. He proceeded to go through all the same security questions again before putting me on hold and cutting me off five minutes later. I rang back. Twenty minutes into the second call, I was ‘passed to a supervisor’, which is call-centre language for ‘put on hold for ten minutes and then cut off.’

The third call actually produced some coherent information. Apparently, the only way to update my postal address would be to do it through phone banking. Alas, (and there is always an ‘alas’, isn’t there?) I don’t have a phone banking password. Never fear: the bank would mail one to me, and then I’d be able to update my address by phoning the call centre (for the fourth time).

Given that the only address to which they’d mail it is my old address, how useful is that? I’d have to trust that my mail would be forwarded and not opened by persons unknown, or else binned. This third call-centre operative promised absolutely not to cut me off, and then did so without even the pretence of playing some hold muzak first.

I have now resorted to writing to the bank again. I’m also considering alternative banking, despite having been a customer for thirty years. The sock-under-the-mattress approach pays the same interest, fees and charges are lower, and I don’t have to deal with call-centre buffoonery.


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.