Sunday, December 11, 2016

My Nipples Explode With Delight

There are days when everything goes right. There are other days when things all go wrong. Today was neither of these, yet was immensely frustrating nonetheless.

The irritation started yesterday with my Vodafone Hungary pre-paid account. First, there is no obvious way to top it up, and I have by repeated tries found that handing cash money over the counter at the Lotto shop (of all places!) achieves the required result: an increase in credit of exactly the same amount as the cash handed over. In separate enquiries involving repeated visits to the Vodafone shop, I have learned that connecting to the www.netinfo... website with the device results in a display of the amount of credit and what data remains to be used. Most of the time. Sometimes the website decides to send me through some stupid rigmarole involving registering my phone, and as it's entirely in Hungarian, where my hovercraft is full of eels, the exercise is frustraneous at best.

I discovered that my Budapest bank ATM includes a 'mobile phone top-up' option that I didn't dare use on a machine where "YES" and "NO" are an adventure in alien language. However, I found a similar thing on the bank's English (alhamdulillah :-) ) website, and I decided to avail myself of the facility.

I instructed 5000 to be moved from my bank account to the phone account and this all happened. I got an SMS from Vodafone confirming that my 5000 had become 5202 credit. Imagine my surprise and irritation then, when I received a second SMS stating that my credit balance was now 3048 after fees and charges! It should be noted that all of this SMS info came in Hungarian and had to be put through Google Translate. Blah, blah, hovercraft, eels.

So today, irritated at how most of my phone credit had seemingly been eaten in fees, I dropped into OTP Bank and, after a protracted wait, was kindly informed that the bank makes no charge for card transactions except ATM cash withdrawals.

Vodafone was less than helpful. After another interminable wait in the shop I was reliably informed that nobody had access to my account (lies), that they didn't know what fees were payable (possibly true but unlikely if the staff are competent), and that I had to call the telephone helpdesk because my showing Vodafone employees their own www.netinfo... web page and their own SMS texts merely demonstrated Jon Snowitis.

Wading through the Hungarian call tree eventually got me to the English menu with English speakers to talk to. Or not. "I am no speak English. I will not buy this record; it is scratched." Yes, I know this is Hungary, where they speak Hungarian. But this is the English service.

True to their word, Vodafone did phone me back. It turns out that there wasn't a massive fee deduction, but my particular package has a feature that when the credit exceeds 4000 the system immediately deducts 2000 in exchange for 1GB data. This does not happen when I add credit in the Lotto shop, but I was at this stage past arguing.

In summary: a charging structure that is so complicated that after several months and repeated personal visits to the shop I still get caught out by it suggests that Byzantine, if not Kafkaesque, tariffs are not useful for creating happy customers. Part of the problem is that the website is totally in incomprehensible Hungarian. There is an English version of the website, but clicking on it merely produces pictures of happy smiling people presumably yacking on their Vodafones and a load of marketing garbage. Attempts to navigate from this homepage also navigate away from English.

The icing on this particular cake is that Vodafone sent an SMS soliciting customer feedback, but owing to a 'server error', it is repeatedly impossible to provide any.

So I failed with Vodafone. Perhaps I'd have more success with IKEA.

Well, yes. Except that the bedside table I was interested in is probably a different colour from the one already in the flat. And it weighs 20kg, making it user unfriendly on the Metro and the walk home. I found a vast pile of Swedish Christmas goats in the remainders bin near the checkouts. It would seem that this year's colour is red and is not popular in Budapest. They're heavily discounted.

Unfortunately, the other thing I found near the IKEA checkouts was half the population of Budapest. I refused to queue for maybe an hour for one minor purchase; my next IKEA visit will doubtless be one morning in the middle of the week.

As it happens, the other half of Budapest's enormous population was at the Christmas market in the city centre. The place was a seething sea of shuffling shoppers. Busy is one thing, but the amusement factor of my repeated collisions with people who suddenly stop, reverse, or launch themselves out of shop doorways soon begins to wear very thin. Nose In Phone Syndrome doesn't help either. It is the Season of Goodwill, which is probably what helped me not to accidentally elbow anyone in the face.

Smoking in pubs is forbidden, so you typically get a group of lads standing outside on the narrow footway. Come on, guys. If you stood just slightly further apart you could block the footway entirely. And then at the next pub, the same again. And again. And again. And again. It's impossible to walk in the road because of traffic. Anyone who behaved in this way in a vehicle would be rightly lambasted as an ignorant arsehole. Yet when he's a pedestrian, the same manners are apparently perfectly acceptable.

I guess, because nothing is likely to change in the near future, that no-one should underestimate the stupidity of people in large groups.


Friday, December 09, 2016

Budapest VII

 There has been some significant development over the past couple of weeks. All the electrical conduits and power points have been installed, along with some of the cabling. The water and waste pipes are in and some have been buried in concrete. As plastering requires that the place isn't an ice box, the central heating boiler is installed and working, and all the radiators except the towel rail in the bathroom are warm. The radiators will of course have to come out again for final plastering and painting of the walls behind.

Let's see... Heating out, cold water in, hot water out, heating return, condensate
The boiler itself is a 'high-efficiency, fan-assisted, condensing' type, which means that it should be cheap to run. Exhaust fumes are physically blown up the chimney. There's no hot water tank; the boiler fires up on demand and is supposed to provide instant and practically unlimited hot water. A fresh-air intake was constructed within an existing ventilation duct, but this is going to need some finishing work so that it doesn't provide nesting space for the local avian wildlife.

I queried the rather basic boiler control panel, but the full set of controls are to be remotely attached to the wall in the living area where the main themostat is going.

Last look at the single huge room
 I anticipate the possibility of wall-mounted TV sets, so both sides of the plasterboard will have plywood backing to resist pull-out. I've had previous experience of the questionable strength of 20mm plywood to heavy objects affixed thereto. I'll keep careful record of where the plywood is located.

Those ceiling fans arrived four days after being ordered. These are sitting, boxed, in a different apartment until they can be fitted at the end of the renovation. A full set of bathroom fittings have been procured, except for a small wall-mounted sink for a vanity unit inside the main bedroom wardrobe. This will come from IKEA along with the wardrobes and indeed the kitchen.

The floor and wall tiles have arrived in Budapest and I paid for them. As the flat isn't yet ready for tiling, they're languishing in a warehouse. All the IKEA fixtures are similarly languishing, but these haven't yet been paid for. I'm assured no problem with any of the furniture as it's all definitely in stock, and if there's a sudden rush for SMØRGÅSÞÖERÐ reciprolating fondilators they can be obtained within a couple of working days.

And speaking of flooring, the wood floor for the main bedroom has been ordered. The rutted and wobbly parquet is up, and it turns out that levelling the floor is an easy fix. The floors in the flat consist of 300mm deep steel I beams with precast concrete forming the ceiling in the flat below. The void is filled with lightweight aggregate - slag - and surfaced with wooden planks. All the woodwork can come up and then be relaid at a more sensible single level.

Nasty underfloor planks need levelling
Bathroom with plumbing
I'm still waiting for the new entrance door and the windows; these are due for delivery on 14th December.

There remains an issue with the internal doors, in that no carpenter is interested in refurbishing the existing olde worlde woodwork.

I would prefer doors like this, but without the glass
I have found some 'classic' style modern doors, and await a price. I pointed out to the builder that the additional cost of the new doors should be offset against the time and labour cost of refinishing the old ones.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

Budapest VI

 The place is starting to look a little bit tidier, now that most of the rubble has been bagged and taken away. Central heating is in progress, with all the gas piping downstream of the meter completed with new shiny narrow-bore copper pipe instead of the original old and extremely chunky cast iron. 

Bed 1 looks tidier without bin bags full of rubble

New gas pipes. Shame about the obtrusive meter
There's still no boiler beyond a rectangle marked on the wall, but water pipes to the radiators are being installed today. I am told that the radiators themselves will be arriving next week, but before these can be fitted the holes in the walls left by the old gas burners have to be plugged and made good, and the walls behind the radiators painted in a suitable hue.

Central heating pipes
I went around the entire flat today with a red Sharpie and a couple of electricians. We discussed the final locations of all power outlets and switches, not forgetting the electrical supply to the boiler for ignition and fan. I am told that we also need an electric connection to the heated towel rail in the bathroom, otherwise it won't get warm during the summer when the heating's off. And there's also an extractor fan that will need a power supply. Power outlets are also provided above wardrobes and kitchen units so that concealed lighting is exactly 100% concealed and the cupboards aren't filled with plugs and transformers. 

The scrawls on the walls. Loads of power outlets, especially in the kitchen.
 All the light switches will be 1.2m above the floor so within easy reach of an adult human elbow, except for those controlling bedside lights. These are to be lower and within range of a prone person.

Having decided that air conditioning is too much of a fag for one month a year, ceiling fans are to be fitted. I found a nice model with reversible blades (for summer and winter, so the winter heat rising to the top of a 3.6m high room will be circulated down again where it can do some good) and a central light, and I ordered three: bedroom, bedroom, sitting room. The fans are each controlled by a magic wand, which has simplified the bedroom wiring somewhat. There's simply an over-ride master switch for each fan that will be left ON pretty much all the time, and the fan and light will be controlled 100% by the remote.  I got 10% discount for paying in advance, and the fans should arrive by tomorrow... maybe early next week.

I remember being advised to ensure connectivity for digital signals, so in addition to the main incoming cable carrying TV and internet to the sitting room, I've specified LAN and coaxial terminals in both bedrooms. The electricians will start chasing the walls for ducts on Monday.

While I was there, the guy from the window company turned up and finalised the dimensions for the new glassware. I'm told that the windows will be arriving the first week in December along with a new steel high-security door.

Naturally, because nothing is ever simple, three things have gone wrong. So far...

The only remaining existing ceramicware
Having chosen all the ceramicware for the bathroom, plus the shower cubicle and all the taps, I was annoyed to learn that the shower cubicle "has been sold to somebody else, but we do have another similar [but rather more expensive] one." Owing to my allergy to 'Bait and Switch', I have asked that my builder find similar items elsewhere and the previous supplier can go and engage in autofornication. Mucking a customer about over $200 and waving bye-bye to $900 does not strike me as particularly good business practice.

The other thing that has gone awry is the parquet floor. Now that the wall as gone it is obvious that the floor resembles the Rolling Hills of Eastern Europe. I have asked for a quote for skimming the concrete flat and relaying the parquet.

It doesn't look it, but there's about 70mm level difference across the parquet


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Budapest V

And so it begins. The contractor started last Thursday with a jackhammer.

The he ting system is going in this week and the electrics and plumbing will start a week after that.

New windows and front door have been ordered, the tiles will arrive in about three weeks, and I have made an initial payment.

Exciting, isn't it?


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Budapest IV

Progress is still slow. However, I got a partial quotation from a builder, and I now know what the kitchen will cost, and approximate costs for floors.

Pending finalising costs and getting a programme for getting it done before the heat death of the universe, I've been sightseeing. Although there's a comprehensive public transport network, I've walked bluddy miles in both kinds of weather. 

Roman baths at Florian ter flyover
Aquincum theatre
Aquincum in the rain
Aquincum colonnade
Aquincum: Painter's House reconstruction
Sunset over Pest
Buda Castle and the Danube
Elisabeth Bridge
Arpad Bridge and Margaret Island. Sunny weather
The other kind of weather

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Budapest III

Progress is agonisingly slow.

Builder No.1 turned up, listened to what I wanted to do, and said he's get back to me within a week. Then he disappeared into the aether, and two weeks later has been impossible to contact.

Builder No.2 appreciated my plans, noted that I know what I want and have some understanding of construction, and then told me that he's fully booked and can't possibly take on any new work until at least January next year. So why talk to me at all, if you've just signed contracts and filled your order book? Because I know what I'm talking about and there's limited chance of ripping me off, perhaps?

Builder No.3 appears keen, having been to the apartment twice and taken copious notes and measurements. But still no cost and time estimate. I'm stuck in Budapest at $35/day and achieving very little.

Not entirely true. I have made repeated visits to the premises and taken many measurements. The kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom layouts are pretty much finalised. I have an appointment early next week with a kitchen design specialist, and I have sources for tiles and hardwood flooring lined up.

The latest, and hopefully final, kitchen layout
Still no news on replacement windows and doors, nor on central heating or bathroom fittings.

As I said: agonisingly slow.


Thursday, October 06, 2016

Budapest II

So the Goat has met a builder and is awaiting a quote. He is meeting a second builder on Friday, and a third the following Tuesday. He's also been discussing tiling for walls and floors.


All manner of ceramic tiles are available, but blue terrazzo is inexplicably Not Coming In Budapest. The Goat has been on Facebook Messenger and Skype with Beloved Wife in an attempt to get an agreeable colour scheme, and to this end he's spent interminable hours in front of Google SketchUp.

The hallway with blue floor tiles
The hallway with slate tiles

The bathroom with slate

The kitchen with slate

The kitchen with blue terrazzo on the floor

The kitchen with wood worktops and floor
 No decisions have yet been made, except the layout of the kitchen is fixed so the power and water points can be finalised.


Monday, October 03, 2016

Budapest I

The exterior
The Goat has been busy since his contract in Qatar reached its logical conclusion.

Beloved Wife and her Goat have now got into the minefield known as ‘real estate’.

Having looked at numerous properties in Budapest, the Goat agreed that ‘The FixerUpper’ was the one that they’d want if only it were possible. And then the Goat suddenly reached the end of his contract in Doha and thus a construction industry project manager became available to oversee renovation of a fin de siècle apartment. 

There’s a lot of work to do. The place needs a total rewire, replumbing, new heating system, and gutting the gas system. The heating system consists of three horrible and ancient gas heaters that will have to go before they kill all the occupants by vomiting carbon monoxide… A combination boiler that will deliver hot water at the taps and for the heating is a major part of the refurbishment.

The master bedroom
 A wall needs to be moved, or more accurately demolished and a new one built a couple of metres away. Glorious parquet flooring will be retained where possible, a new kitchenette will be built, and the old and rather barren kitchen will become a master bedroom.

The kitchen
The kitchen and sitting room
The bathroom and toilet are both completely horrible, a situation made worse by the existence of the toilet in the ghastly German style.

Current advice includes that refurbishing the windows is probably more effort and cost than simply replacing them, and the old wooden units would still be draughty.

The Goat is currently preparing layouts in AutoCAD. He discovered that this building is far from square, which will be interesting. He’s staying in Budapest, seeing quotes from builders to do the work. Of course, all the really good English speakers are in the UK doing the ‘Polish plumber’ thing, so language may be an issue. Fun, innit?


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Raving

Six years in the State of Qatar made me richer; made me fatter;
Killed my student overdraft and bought a Nissan from some guy.
Just as I got comfortable came some unexpected trouble:
Made redundant. At the double, found a new job in Dubai.
Said to Qatar, “That’s goodbye”
Sold my stuff. Away did fly.

Then the global downturn floored us. Thus I got my marching orders.
Off I went to Abu Dhabi in a tiny rental car
Where it seems they were desiring those ambitious; those aspiring
Engineers, and they were hiring. It was close, but no cigar,
And so I said my au revoir
And found myself back in Qatar.

Now here comes a huge bombshell: I’d walked into the Job From Hell.
There really wasn’t anything that I could do to fix the mess.
Yet my slippy-shouldered boss who didn’t really give a toss
Or care who he could double-cross, he drowned me under piles of stress.
My valedictory address
Might well have been an SOS.

Thus I left, and I was banned , such are the rules of that fair land.
I had to wait two years, and then agreed to six months’ self-torment.
My brain had clearly gone haywire. I went from frying pan to fire
Because, alas, it did transpire that nobody would give consent
To anything I could present.
Hence my insanity descent.

“Six months,” they said, and two years on I can escape. Yes’ I’ll be gone.
I tried, but I’m not good enough to cope with this benighted place.
My shackles struck, and my release must surely offer me some peace:
The stress and grief at least will cease; I’m really not a waste of space.
And I’m not leaving in disgrace,
But entering the marketplace.


Saturday, August 06, 2016

Synch or swim

I’ve been attempting to improve my playing by the traditional method: practice. For grins mainly, I’ve posted some of my attempts on YouTube under my human alias, with a mixture of recorders and EWI, along with the computer playing along.

The rather splendid MuseScore website carries what appears to be crowdsourced sheet music, and a free download to read and to write music manuscript, and then to arrange it for bagpipes and taiko drum if you like, although I’ve generally been sticking to flute and strings and rearranging for recorder of playing along.

Telemann’s Canonic Sonata No.1 Allegro, for example, has two flutes playing the same tune with Flute 2 exactly one bar (two beats) behind Flute 1. I turned off Flute 2 and played that part, with Flute 1 and the scrolling sheet music being handled by the computer. The sound was all picked up by the computer’s internal microphone and the webcam captured the video to prove that it was actually Muggins playing.

The other software I use is the free Audacity, which captures just the sound and records it on one channel. Subsequent recordings go on separate channels that can then be edited for volume and timing, and the whole thing mixed. Multi-part playing becomes possible.

My video editing software is the free version of Cyberlink Power Director, so I can, at least theoretically, cut video of my playing each track into a single video file.

That’s a lot of skills to learn: playing, reading music, video capture, audio capture, video editing, audio editing…

Now on to the technicalities of audio capture.

The computer’s internal microphone is appalling. It’s designed for basic voice capture so that Skype is possible. I tried an external hand-held microphone, but that’s simply not sensitive enough. Instrument-mounted mics are both expensive and Not Coming in Doha™. Any noise gets picked up while recording,which includes all the other tracks that are playing, plus the air conditioning, plus any random bleeps and pings if the computer reports any incoming messages, virus alerts, yadda yadda.

One possible solution is to follow the sheet music and play in silence, and have the computer pick up just the line being played. Synching multiple lines then becomes impossible because real rhythm tends to drift without some audio feedback. It does when I’m playing, and I’ve got a good enough sense of rhythm to play drums. A metronome gets picked up on the same audio track and can’t be removed. Another approach is to play along to the other parts, but to pipe these into an earpiece so that I can hear what I’m playing with one ear, hear what the computer’s playing with the other, watch the sheet music, and capture only my live instrument.

Theoretically plugging in an acoustic instrument can work with a flute mic that’ll only pick up what a wind instrument is producing without all the ambient noise. Expensive and Not Coming in Doha™(q.v.)

It’s all a little easier with the EWI. I can plug the output from that instrument directly into the computer as if it’s an external mic. When I play the synch track through the computer I can hear it, but the computer only records what is coming out of the EWI. But because nothing is easy, I can’t hear what I’m playing. So I have to plug the EWI into a separate speaker. I’ve got a Fender Mustang Mini practice amp, so I use that. It’s the one I use for playing when I’m not using headphones and am disinclined to show consideration to my neighbours.

The net result, once I’ve made separate clean audio recordings of each line and separately captured each as audio and video, I can mix the audio and then add that to the video tracks. I do need to get all the video playback speeds exactly right so that audio and video match, and this is proving a challenge. Perhaps I need to pay for better video editing software, or learn how to use the package I’ve got.

The other thing, which is actually pivotal to success, is learning how to play the bluddy instruments!


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Meanwhile, in Dunkrugerstan

The Minister of Rubber Stamps had previously told the Trusted Advisor that he was required to comply with the Old Rule Book. One part of the design required that a desirable minimum value of 55 be used, but an absolute minimum allowed value was 30.

So the Trusted Advisor's design generally used more than 55, and in one or two places where this was not possible, he used between 31 and 35.

And the Minister of Rubber Stamps was displeased. "You must use 55," he said. Use of 30 is not allowed."

"It is according to the Old Rule Book," advised the Trusted Advisor.

"Then," said the Minister of Rubber Stamps," You must submit a detailed report that explains why you have not exceeded 55. We will let you go down to 36, which is permitted by the New Rule Book, provided you submit a report that I may or may not approve, at my whim.

"Or you can tear down what you have built and apply to demolish the Grand Frommaj's new stables to make 55 fit."

The Trusted Advisor shook his head. "The New Rule Book says we can use 26."

The Minister went purple with rage. "Which part of 'You must use the Old Rule Book' do you not understand?"

"The part where compliance is now, after 19 years since publication, suddenly not acceptable."


Friday, July 22, 2016

These brambles are tasty

Lifted from Rentagoat
(yes, I know goats don't have top front teeth)
For no better reason than it just occurring to me that the long-running children's comedy show Rentaghost (BBC 1976-1984) is ripe for a pun, I made the connection with Conservation Grazing.

That is, using goats to remove invasive plant species rather than pumping chemicals over the plants and everything besides, attacking the plants with whirling blades of death, or killing everything in the vicinity with fire.

The thing is, a Company Song is missing. Until now. The song is sung by a choir of company employees. Well, the last line of the song.

Tune and original lyrics by Michael Staniforth, who also starred in Rentaghost.

If your garden is a shambles, just call Rent-A-Goat.
Are your ditches full of brambles? You need Rent-A-Goat.
We’ll eradicate your kudzu and remove invasive weeds;
It can be verified we don’t use herbicide, so just call Rent-A-Goat.

If your stately home’s a mess you should call Rent-A-Goat.
That poison ivy we’ll address because we’re Rent-A-Goat.
We are quiet while we’re working, and we don’t need gasoline.
We work without a fuss; you’ll barely notice us from Rent-A-Goat.

Have you tried a pesticide with side-effects you can’t abide?
Are you reliant upon high technology?
Perhaps you should take note that by contacting Rent-A-Goat
You can achieve it more environmentally.

There is a goatherd who will stay alert. That’s Rent-A-Goat
Who will ensure your orchids won’t be hurt. That’s Rent-A-Goat.
Now that your land is neat and tidy, recommend us to your friends.
We’ll conservation-graze and we work seven days at Rent-A-Goat.



Sunday, July 10, 2016

Out, out, damn spot!

I wasn't allowed to vote. I did not get a say in the my own destiny. I wasn't allowed to contribute to the opinion.

What has the EU ever done for us? Well, google the long list.

And Brexit? Made imports cheaper, right up to the point when the UK HAS TO IMPORT SOMETHING. At which juncture the advantage evaporates.

What Brexit has achived at least in the short term is to remove 10% of my retirement savings, and potentially jeopardise any and all plans to retire to Cyprus. Who knows if a former EU citizen will be allowed to establish residence?

So what was the referendum supposed to achieve really? Answer: initially to shut UKIP up, and to destabilise the UK government and remove David Cameron from office. Nobody in office ever seriously imagined that a vote to leave would ever happen, which is why the Brexiteers could write cheques that they couldn't possibly cash. £300M to the NHS? Nope. Stop immigration? Not as such. Mandatory deportation of anyone with a bit of a suntan? Ansolutely not, despite the wishes of the unsavoury extreme end of the patriotic spectrum.

And now we find that the likes of BoJo the Clown and Farage the Fascist have exposed themselves as seagulls.

Fly in, squawk a lot and flap about. Shit all over everything, and then fly away leaving some other poor muggins to clear up the mess. Thank you for nothing.

Huzzah, so Cameron has gone, or at least has handed in his notice. To be replaced by a reasonable, even-handed, benevolent and wise successor.

Meanwhile, in the real world...

Stand by for the UK going into recession or worse as a result of a worthless currency, jobs to disappear, more people on benefits, cuts to public services to pay for it all, and further cuts because of this positive feedback loop.

And nobody saw this coming? Only the Remainiac experts, and what do they know?

One final thought. 36% of the electorate voted for this. At least suicide is no longer a capital offence under English law.


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Les Misérables

Yes, it's upside down. A distress signal.

Look down, look down don’t look them in the eye. 
We voted 'leave.' It’s time to say goodbye. 
The sun is hot. It’s June 2016 
And 52% of us are keen. 

I know we’re off. We’re floating in the sea; 
We’re rudderless and friendless, but we’re free! 
We’ve done no wrong; the EU is to blame 
And immigrants: we surely know their game.

"Now Prime Minister 246-10 
Your time is up and now you have to go. 
You know what that means?" 

'Yes! It means I’m free!'

"No! You’ll be replaced by Michael Gove 
Because of that tangled web you wove. 
You killed UK. You’ll

Go down in history." 

Look down look down. Don’t look me in the face. 
We’re sinking fast. We’re sinking without trace…


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Take a tip

The usual species of disclaimer: I am sure that there are plenty of Egyptians who do not drive in the manner described below, and as I’ve experienced similar in the Philippines and elsewhere, the problems are not limited to Egypt.

And the driving aside, I have a particular liking for Egyptology. Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, the Valley of the Kings, and ancient Karnak were all wonderful memorable experiences. I took loads of photos. The diving was also excellent, but at the time I didn’t own an underwater camera so my pictures were limited to a few around the hotel.

Way back in the late 1990s, for this is a yarn from þe olde days of yore, I was part of a group on two weeks’ holiday in Egypt. The first week we spent in Luxor for a week of temples and tombs. Then, having been generally pharaoed to exhaustion, we headed eastward towards Hurghada to enjoy the Red Sea Diving Experience.

I didn’t really notice the driving style in the transfer coach between Luxor airport and the hotel, not least because I quickly nodded off following a sleepless night and a problematic departure from London Heathrow that involved many hours of sitting around in the terminal.

However, when we went out to explore the town one evening, a weird and less than wonderful phenomenon became quickly apparent along the ill-illuminated streets:

All the bizarre men by the Nile 
They like to drive, for a lark, 
With headlights off (Oh, way oh!) 
So you can’t see them in the dark. 

Drive like an Egyptian. 

Almost every vehicle was trundling around with no lights on. Anyone who dared show a headlight was immediately vehemently flashed by oncoming drivers. The reason for this, I have subsequently been told by Egyptian colleagues, is that using the headlights flattens the battery. Clearly in Egypt the alternator, dynamo, or even magneto are optional extras. I've heard tell of cars hurtling across the desert roads at night running into the backs of slow-moving trucks, neither vehicle showing any lights.

But the true hairy scary wasn’t this; it was the journey west across the fertile Nile flood plain and then the desert from Luxor to Hurghada.

Following at least one incident in 1995 I think, when terrorists hijacked a tour bus and gunned down a load of foreign tourists in an apparent attempt to stem or more likely eliminate the inflow of foreign tourist dollarpounds, these trips now came with police escorts.

We assembled and found our allocated bus, and eventually about forty minibuses and coaches set off in convoy. At the front was a police Hilux with armed guards, at the rear was another, and there was a third in the middle of the convoy. By ‘armed guards’ I do not mean a couple of police officers with pistols. I mean a 50mm machine gun mounted on each truck and about four guys in fatigues and flak jackets, sporting automatic weapons.

So, with nowhere to go except Hurghada, and with everybody having to travel at the same speed as the police, the convoy threaded its way caravan-like across the Egyptian countryside, right? Wrong.

Every bus and coach driver engaged is a constant battle to get to the front, and every other driver closed up the gap to prevent it. About 260km of terror.

Particularly near the Nile, single carriageways are elevated on embankments to keep the roads dry when the Nile floods. So we have two lanes of traffic confined on top of an embankment by rickety-looking safety fences. And we also have coach drivers attempting overtakes.

A minibus pulls into the opposing lane and overtakes a coach. The coach driver accelerates. Meanwhile there’s an oncoming truck bearing down on us, yes US, and nobody has anywhere to go but through the barrier and into the date palm plantation. Our driver stomped on his brakes and inserted his vehicle back behind the coach. The truck roared past with its horn bellowing stentorian abuse. Then our driver tried it again.

At this point I spoke to the tour guide. “Are you going to tell him, or do I have to? Because I will be a lot less polite.”

Not that it made the tiniest scrap of difference. All forty drivers spent the next several hours in a competition to see who could drive closest to the police Hilux which, of course, still trundled along at a steady speed.

At last, at dear sweet last, we rolled into Hurghada. As is custom and practice, everyone in Egypt expects to receive a gratuity for doing absolutely anything at all. Our driver stood at the door of the bus with his hand out as we all dismounted. Nobody gave him anything.

Actually, not true. I was the only one to give our driver a tip, which was this: “If you don’t scare your passengers, they’re more likely to give you money.”


Sunday, May 22, 2016


A weekend of planned motorcycling failed to come to fruition.

As usual, I arrived back in Dubai late on Thursday evening and connected the bike to a charger to top up the battery. Then on Friday morning I kitted up, removed the bike cover, fired up the Black Beast, and noticed fluid on the ground where no fluid should be. Upon closer inspection, the said fluid turned out to be antifreeze. It might have been coming from an overflow; I had topped up the reserve bottle last time I rode the bike, but no. It was still dribbling after I took the bike around the block. So off came all my bike gear and out came the tools.

Then off came the plastic, and I eventually exposed a slight dripping of coolant from the water pump. Staining on the engine nearby indicated that this leak had probably started last time I rode the bike, which would go some way to explaining the low coolant level in the expansion bottle last time.

So motorbikes would be off the agenda this weekend. “Sassa, rassa, frassa, rassum…” etc.

On Saturday I rode the bike over to my friendly neighbourhood Kawasaki workshop. I figured I could get that far without losing all the coolant and cooking the engine. Beloved Wife followed me in the car that contained all the bike’s plastic that I hadn’t bothered reinstalling. There seemed little point, as the mechanic would only have to take it all off again. He took one look, nodded in agreement of my diagnosis, commented about a drain hole, and disconcertingly sucked air through his teeth. My cursory glance through the workshop manual had alerted me that removing the water pump would involve dropping the coolant and the engine oil, so I have left the bike to have a service too. And new rear brake pads. And a tyre pressure sensor/transmitter because the front one’s dead. 

I have also checked Cradley Kawasaki in Birmingham, where it is revealed that a TPMS would set me back £154 and a water pump (assuming that the problem isn’t merely a gasket that Sod’s Law says it isn’t because the parts fiche shows the water pump as a single irreducibly complex item with a single part number) a further £174. Naturally, I’ll probably end up paying about 30% more than these because they’ll have to be borne upon velvet cushions by rose-petal-scattering handmaidens all the way from Japan. Theoretically at least, brake pads and filters should be in stock.

There is a silver lining to this dark and pendulous cloud, and it is this: owing to the impending Holy Month of Ramadan, I will be unable to get away from Qatar throughout June, so I’d not be able to ride the bike anyway. Ergo, having the Black Beast in bits awaiting new bits is of no real inconvenience. And it’ll be spending the next few weeks in air-conditioned comfort rather than mouldering under a plastic cover at the Crumbling Villa. And of course I can save up in preparation for the wallet-wilting invoice that will be heading my way.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The games people play

It is a game.

A game, in which two players have different victory conditions.

One player wins by providing a robust design to a limited cost and time budget, and the other wins by delaying and frustrating progress as far and for as long as possible. To this end, the first player works to produce his best; he has no incentive to delay and incur additional costs. Meanwhile, the longer the second player is able to impede the first, the more money the latter receives.

It doesn't actually matter if the final built product ever emerges out of the ground. Neither does it matter how well the first player plays. If the second player can find anything - anything at all - right down to a misplaced punctuation mark in a document, he can delay while the entire document is rewritten, recopied , reissued, and reviewed to see if a different player on the second player's team can find anything else. The second player is also allowed to change the rules of the game at will to maintain his advantage.

With luck, the second player can extend the game usque finis mundi, and the first player will always lose.

When you play the Game of Roads, you win or you die.


Friday, April 29, 2016

Hours are the fury

My employment contract includes a requirement to work a minimum of 48 hours a week over six days. In keeping with plenty of senior posts, overtime isn’t payable, and we all put in additional hours as required to get the job done. The contract also allows 30 calendar days of paid annual leave, which amounts to roughly 22 working days off, and public holidays can bump this back up to 30.

Actually, deducting short Ramadan working days and public holidays results in around 2100 billable hours per year.

Fundamentally, a 365 day year amounts to 335 working days, which is around 4.3 – call it five - weeks off every year.

I work in a smoke-free environment. As smoking isn’t illegal, any smokers have to leave the building and stand outside for their nicotine fix. And that too is fine, because I don’t wish to work in a smoky office and it would be gross hypocrisy if I, an occasional pipe, cigar, and shisha smoker, demanded that tobacco be banned. So this is not an anti-smoking rant.

How much time do smoke breaks take? It certainly adds up:

Total 10 minutes seems not unreasonable, from desk to lift to outside and back again.
Assume four breaks a day. Two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Pre-work, post-work, and lunchtime don’t count.

Over a five day working week, that’s 3h20’.
Over a year that’s 47 x 3h20’ = 156 hours or over 18 working days; three working weeks.

And throughout this time, the non-smokers continue to sit at their desks and presumably work.

So here’s my suggestion for equity in the workforce. Non-smokers, or at least those employees who never take smoke breaks, get an additional three weeks of paid annual leave booked to the project.

It’s only fair, innit?


Sunday, April 10, 2016

That's sandy

Back in Doha after a week’s welcome break, the Goat finds it necessary to put hoof to keyboard in a brief “I went to that Desert Challenge again” web diary entry.

As he flew into Sharjah late on Thursday night on an astonishingly inexpensive Air Arabia, The Goat was unable to get up at sparrowfart on Friday and go to Yas Marina to help out with the scrutineering. Instead, he charged up his bike’s battery and pottered around the Crumbling Villa in Beloved Wife’s absence. The said Beloved Wife was jollying around St Petersburg at the time: that’s the baroque one in Russia and not the one in Florida.

The cats were both out when the Goat arrived and settled down for a quick pie and a pint before bed. They came in through the cat flap and when they discovered that the Goat had landed, it was as if all their birthdays had come at once on Christmas Day. A long session of cat-lap later, the Goat retired to his bed and slept the deep sleep of the extremely relieved not to be in Qatar.

Saturday would see the Desert Challenge Super Special Stage in Al Fursan, Abu Dhabi around a dirt track that included some extremely damp areas owing to recent rain. But first some running around Dubai by motorcycle on some errands. The Goat arrived in Abu Dhabi too early, and was assigned traffic control duty all day. This – unfortunately – meant that he saw precisely zero racing and missed delights such as this.

OK, so now all the competitors had been around the track two at a time and their times recorded, their positions for Saturday’s start were determined. The Goat picked up his goody bag full of this year’s marshals’ shirts and his car numbers, and then headed back to Dubai, running the gauntlet of ya shabab on the Abu Dhabi to Dubai road where there is allegedly an enforced 140km/h speed limit.

An early night was mandated by an incredibly early start on Sunday. The Goat had to be at White Sands ADNOC by 0730, and that’s halfway down Hameem Road in the back of beyond. He was up on his hind legs before the sparrows had even finished their sprout curry, and rendezvoused with the rest of the Finish Team. The convoy set off a further 30km south to the Special Stage 1 finish. They set up the Flying Finish and Finish Stop, and waited for the first competitor to arrive. Once everyone had been through the gate and got their finish times, the Finish Team packed up and headed to the bivouac near Qasr Al Sarab for luxury camping. Electric light and power in the tent, nearby warmish running water and for now civilised loos, and food.

Finish post. In the rain!
And repeat for five Special Stages across the planet Jakku. An Imperial Star Destroyer crash landed here some time back, but it has now been dismantled and removed.

The bivouac. Probably a remark hereabouts concerning a hive of scum and villainy
At closure of SS-05, the Finish Team headed back to Yas and dropped off all the marshalling kit. The Goat drove to the Ceremonial Finish, but arrived too soon and was selected from a host of applicant to undertake traffic control. Generally speaking, competitors had to queue up their tired and damaged vehicles in reverse order over here, whereas spectators and support teams would be parking over there. The Goat was somewhat amused by the catastrophic inability so many drivers have in the skill of reversing.

And then the after-show party with food and beverage, prizegiving, applause, live jazz quartet, and a stagger back to the Rotana. The Goat really did not fancy a drive back to Dubai after a hard day and a skinful of lager.

Beloved Wife had by now returned from Russia, so when the Goat arrived in Dubai on Friday morning, she cooked him a splendid Breakfast of Champions before he went and got the car washed and the wheels swapped around.


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