Friday, July 23, 2010

We've got the power

I'm ever so glad I no longer live in Sharjah. The daily commute to Abu Dhabi is bad enough from the Crumbling Villa. It would be intolerable if I had to do the Sharjah schlepp to Dubai too. In fact, I only ever lived in Sharjah at all because that's where I worked. And as Beloved Wife absolutely refused to live in Grumpy Goat Towers, I moved out a couple of years ago.

The past few years have seen increasing strains put on Sharjah's electricity system. The increase in numbers of residences and businesses has outstripped the electricity and water authority's (SEWA's) ability and/or inclination to provide more 'lectric or sufficient electric string to deliver it.

Result: rolling power cuts. An hour or two once in a blue moon might, in extremis, be tolerable. This is what happened with tedious regularity when I first moved into a flat in Abu Shaghara district, and I lived in perpetual fear of being trapped all night in the lift.

But now we have reports of huge power cuts lasting hours and hours. Frozen foods are ruined; people are trapped in lifts; traffic lights don't work. And when it's pushing 40C at night and close to 50C in the heat of the day, the lack of air conditioning is not trivial.

Massive numbers of the affected population live in apartment blocks. Unlike traditional houses, and exactly like modern, traditional-looking houses, the residences are not designed to function without air conditioning. With neither aircon nor insulation there's no way to pump out the heat that pours in through the walls.

What solutions are on offer?
  • Sleeping in your air-conditioned car is possible.

  • A paraffin stove in your high-rise might be the only way to get cooked food.

  • It might be possible to run a portable air conditioner off a petrol-powered generator.

But these solutions are fraught with their own set of problems:-
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Food poisoning from putrid defrosted and inadequately cooked food.

  • Apartment blocks burning to the ground.

All these problems and more, available to Sharjah residents as a result of SEWA's inability or unwillingness to provide the services for which they charge.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

You can fuel some of the people all of the time...

The Gulf News recently published an article on how to save fuel, or more specifically, money, following the recent petrol price hike. For those readers who don’t keep pace with motor fuel prices in the UAE, petrol went up by 11% in April, and then a further 13% in July. Although, to be fair, the price of ‘Special’ did drop in January 2010 by 0.35% to my pleasant surprise.

A pity that the article seems to have been lifted word-for-word from Forbes. The only locally-produced word is the first one: ‘Dubai’.

Everything else relates to normal custom and practice in the States. Increased driving in the summer as suggested by the article does not match the Gulf tradition of emptying, with the remaining few priapic stallions limiting their travels to the bars of Sheikh Zayed Road.

And what of all these ‘miles’ and ‘gallons’ and ‘dollars’ and ‘ski racks’? ‘Ski racks’? Who in Dubai carries a ski rack? Is it too much to ask for some words, some practical fuel-saving tips, to be written for local consumption? Or maybe petrol at 30p, (or $1.72 per US gallon) is still regarded as ludicrously cheap. Given that with few exceptions (Antigua, Belize, Burma, Grenada, Guyana, Sierra Leone, E&OE), only the USA continues to dispense motor fuel in non-metric units, so some litres and kilometres might have been nice, as would have dirhams. Believe it or not, we don’t all mentally convert everything into dollars.

Even the metric-resistant UK now sells stuff by the kilogramme, litre and metre. Only on the roads do miles, yards and feet persist. Oh, and in pubs. Draught beer by the pint instead of the smaller half-litre. Huzzah!

Britain’s conversion from gallons to litres for motor fuel occurred back in the 1980s. Using the excuse that the old mechanical pump meters couldn’t handle more than one currency unit per volume unit, the oil companies switched to a smaller volume unit. How we laughed, way back then, at the prospect of unrealistically expensive £1 a litre. Oh, how Europe now yearns for the halcyon days of £1 a litre!

So Brits ended up buying petrol by the litre and burning it by the mile. Frankly, the ‘mile per litre’ unit of fuel consumption is an unholy hybrid; a spawn of two independent systems that will end in tears. As NASA found out in 1999.

Why did the UAE suddenly move from gallons to litres in January 2010? To align with most of the rest of planet Earth? Or to obfuscate the scale of impending price rises? The cynical might note that whacking 13% on the cost of a gallon of petrol (Dh6.91 for ‘Special’ becomes Dh7.82) looks like a gigantic increase, whereas sneaking 13% on to Dh1.52 to make it Dh1.72 is a mere 20 fils.

Precisely the same stunt was pulled in the UK, notwithstanding the mechanical metering excuse. Twenty pence on a gallon looks like a lot. Five pence on a litre looks less. Less is more. Freedom is slavery.

And I bet this is one reason for the public’s resistance to litres in the States: the suspicion that a change from customary units will inevitably be used as a means to rip off Joe Public.

Yet elsewhere in the automotive world, the metric system has been accepted with little or no fuss. Hardly anyone refers to engine capacities in cubic inches. There is a widespread understanding that a 50cc engine is for a moped, a 750cc motorbike will be acceptably rapid, 1800cc in a car is good for a family saloon and irresponsible when slung between two wheels (hee, hee, hee!). And a decent 4x4 wants around four litres.

But tyre pressures persist in pounds per square inch, even in metric-land. “Drop them to 15,” I’ll say, and everyone understands that I mean 15psi. Saying “one bar” or “100 kilopascals” or especially “10 newtons per square centimetre” will produce some strange looks in the desert; perhaps less so at the annual Mad Scientists’ Desert Campout. Newtons used to confuzzle me until someone told me that a 16 stone (i.e., well-built) bloke weighs about a kilonewton.

Brits over an uncertain age can’t do bodyweight in anything other than stones. To me, “245lb” is meaningless without doing mental arithmetic. It’s 17½ stone. That makes sense. Fourteen years of living in a metric environment means that to me, this “111kg bloke” also has meaning.

What should perhaps have happened in the UK was to go through the hell of instant metrication of everything. Instead of which, Brits have been drip-fed metric measures over nearly half a century, yet imperial measures persist on the roads and in pubs. Younglings get taught only metric in school, and then have to be bilingual in order to discuss quantities with their older relatives. Nanny Goat, for example, is keen to quote “a litre of water’s a pint and three quarters” and “two and a quarter pounds of jam weigh about a kilogramme” but she cannot apply these conversions while doing her grocery shopping. She converts petrol back into imperial gallons before being suitably outraged.

Boat fuel consumption continues to be expressed in gallons per hour when motor cruising at a particular speed. Perhaps ‘litres per hour’ produces scarily large numbers. Certainly ‘miles per gallon’ produces frighteningly low ones. Because knots – nautical miles per hour – are unavoidably associated with minutes of latitude, which is how distances are measured on nautical charts, there is a good and sensible reason for retaining nautical miles. I despair of those navigators who do their passage planning in nautical miles and then convert knots to kph because that’s what’s on the GPS.

Similarly in aviation. Logically, nautical miles make sense for the same reason that they do in the maritime world. I s’pose that’s why, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are cruising at 29,000 feet...” Perhaps “nine thousand metres” doesn’t sound high enough. A pilot friend of mine told me that the Russians use metres for altitude. Not enough metres: witness the elderly and possibly overloaded Antonovs desperately trying to gain altitude over the Crumbling Villa on those hot summer nights.

Everyone appears to prefer the term ‘mileage’ when discussing distances travelled by motor vehicles.
    “What mileage is your YARiS doing on your Abu Dhabi commute, Mr Goat?”

    “Oh, about 1800 kilometres a week.”
The trouble is, ‘kilometrage’ sounds less like a distance and more like an expression of truculent dissatisfaction with the metric system.

    Although the UK has officially adopted the metric system, there is no intention to replace the mile on road signs in the near future, owing to the British public’s attachment to traditional imperial units of distance, i.e., miles, yards and inches, and the cost of changing speed signs (which could not be replaced during general maintenance, like distance signs, for safety reasons). As of 11 September 2007, the EU has allowed Britain to continue using the imperial systems. EU commissioner Günter Verheugen said: “There is not now and never will be any requirement to drop imperial measurements.”

    In the US, the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 prohibits the use of federal-aid highway funds to convert existing signs or purchase new signs with metric units. However, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices since 2000 published in both metric and American Customary Units.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Lear, and present danger

The Muse strikes again. But which one? Not epic enough for Calliope, I’m aiming more at a combination of Euterpe, Thalia and Melpomene. And the picture from the BBC’s website on 17 June 10 was at least part of my inspiration.

The Client and the Architect went to work
On a glittering tower of glass.
With ink still damp from the company stamp,
The groundbreaking came to pass.
With blueprints approved, the Client then moved
The tower ten feet to the right.
“It’s better by far when arriving by car.
Particularly at night,
At night,
At night.
Particularly at night.”

They worked away for a year and a day
And the bills came rolling in.
“Some payment is needed,” the Architect pleaded.
Said the Client: “But my wallet is thin:
I spent all my cash on a speedboat that’s flash
And a diamond-encrusted new phone,
A villa that’s vast, and a racehorse that’s fast.
Why don’t you take out a loan,
A loan,
A loan?
Why don’t you take out a loan?”

The bills were unpaid, and the Architect made
The decision to go to a banker.
He borrowed, of course, for to pay his workforce,
’cos he’d got nothing out of his Client.
When the scheme was complete, he got to his feet
And he boarded a London-bound plane.
The Architect figured that he would be jiggered
If he ever worked here again,
If he ever worked here again.


Sunday, July 04, 2010


I should like to thank this week’s Xpress newspaper for the instruction manual on substance abuse. In addition to a full front page headline, there are four complete pages inside that include detailed information of the types of chemicals suitable for inhaling along with valuable instructions and diagrams showing some good ways to get stoned. *ahem!*

The issue of teenagers snorting butane, paint thinners, petrol, Tipp-Ex and EvoStik suddenly popped on to the local headlines following the recent tragic death of Anton Tahmasian. Since then, barely a day goes by without a related story appearing somewhere. The Xpress article suggests that solvent abuse is so widespread that business savvy teens are charging admission to parties in posh Jumeirah villas where less savvy teenagers abuse themselves into stupor on a lethal mix of vodka and butane. And here was I, believing that drink-driving was the traditional way of lethally combining hydrocarbons with alcohol.

In other news, another recent storyline involving teenagers and flammable substances concerned an explosion in a Mirdif villa that seriously burned four teenagers. Civil Defence (the Fire Brigade) is on record that investigations into the Mirdif blast are ongoing. The official line is that someone lit the oven, igniting a gas leak.

Interestingly, Xpress does not seem to believe this version of events. Last week’s issue included photographs that show no damage to the kitchen, cooking gas bottles outside remain untouched and almost full, yet the cellar looks like a bomb’s hit it. Big surprise, that. Methane leaking into the cellar from a broken septic tank in sufficient quantities to explode, yet no-one noticed the repugnant miasma of sewer gas? Another big surprise. Perhaps these noxious and highly flammable fumes were ignited by sparks from unicorns’ hooves. This appears about as likely as the rest of the hypothesis.

It was only a matter of time before someone connected the two stories. From Xpress:
    “I strongly believe that butane is the common thread that sews together the death of Anton, the four Mirdif teenage girls (whose faces were disfigured in a mysterious gas explosion inside a villa basement) and the poolside party gone wrong at our villa,” said the [anonymous] parent, who called on authorities “to do something before it’s too late”.

    A police source added weight to the parent’s statement stating there were indications that butane may have been one of the reasons behind the Mirdif blast.
The implication is clear. Mentioning the gas explosion in an article about substance abuse must surely be paving the way for some sensationalist “Shock! Horror! Snorting butane whilst smoking cigarette causes explosion” headline.

Incidentally, what does the parent expect the authorities to do “...before it’s too late”? Incidences of death and near-death indicate to me that “too late” is already upon us. Controlling one’s own offspring is apparently not an option. Neither, apparently, is Taking Responsibility For One’s Own Actions. It suddenly all becomes the government’s responsibility to deal with the problem. But how? Inhaling camping gas is clearly idiotically foolish, but is it actually illegal?

I anticipate the usual knee-jerk reaction: a ban. Extending this “Ban It” philosophy to its logical consequence, I shall particularly resent no longer being able to cook with gas while I’m camping, simply because some yoof believes that butane is for inhaling. No more cooking at home either, once all the guys in little red pickups are deported for purveying their Death in a Bottle.


Thursday, July 01, 2010

Best discount price, Habibi

Joy and delight! That speeding fine I incurred in Al Ain last October has suddenly dropped from Dh600 to Dh300. It’s part of Abu Dhabi government’s solution to the problem of vast numbers of unpaid traffic fines. That it’s difficult to pay a bill of Dh100,000 or more is no surprise to anyone. Apparently, so many drivers have such enormous sums owing that they can’t afford to pay. As a result, their vehicles can’t be re-registered and are therefore also uninsured. Getting these habitual offenders off the road doesn’t appear to be an option. A side effect is that one of Abu Dhabi’s revenue streams has become clogged to a mere trickle.

Time for some Drano. There’s a change of policy. Instead of the traditional no-nonsense, get-tough approach: increasing penalties for traffic violations in a futile attempt to improve driving standards, the authorities now reduce them in order to encourage payment. The punitive effect of fines is apparently less important than getting hold of the cash. It works too. Traffic police stations are now open until midnight instead of 7pm to cope with the vast numbers of motorists queuing up to avail themselves of the government’s sudden largesse.

What the government has discovered is that traffic fines are no deterrent, increasing them is no deterrent, and successfully getting recidivist motorists off the road is impossible. Fundamentally, anyone who thinks he won’t get caught, or believes he’ll have the fines quashed or reduced, or is rich enough not to give a monkey’s, is unlikely to be deterred from offending. A solution may involve the vehicle being impounded at the perpetrator’s personal inconvenience, and no you can’t have it back sooner if you pay extra money. Black Points on a licence won’t prevent anyone who’s simply going to drive while disqualified, and anyway, the camera that inspects a driver’s licence (or sobriety, come to that) has yet to be invented.

Of course, relying on ineffective but lucrative cameracentric traffic enforcement is a sovereign nation’s privilege. If, as we are repeatedly informed, bad driving causes fatalities, and if the UAE continues to accept a road death rate akin to that of east Africa; some six times Europe’s, then it’s down to each individual to drive extremely defensively. There are a lot of imbeciles out there, and some of them even have driving licences.

I’m reminded of the conflict of interest that some local authorities in the UK have experienced. Illegal parking generates fines that are dished out by enforcement officers, who are paid through income from those same fines. Effective enforcement means no illegal parking and hence no budget to pay for that enforcement. Enforcement degenerates into subterfuge. Cases occasionally pop up in the You Couldn’t Make It Up pages. Traffic wardens hiding in the bushes and pouncing on someone who stops to post a letter; the bus that gets a parking ticket when it stops at a bus stop. Authorities end up setting levels of fines high enough to discourage but not eliminate parking violations, but not so high that parking tickets get challenged rather than obediently paid. Abu Dhabi appears to be going through the process of deciding this level.

What I find particularly galling is that renting the Yaris means paying any traffic fines monthly. So last month’s inadvertent foray into illegality cost me Dh600, plus Hertz’s administration fee. If it had been the Goatmobile, I’d only have had to pay Dh300. I wonder if the discount is retroactive? Somehow I doubt it.


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