Friday, September 24, 2004

Watching the Garden Grow

I don't have green fingers, not even a green thumb. Put me in charge of any plant that needs watering, and it'll be dead in a week. But my missus has always been keen on the idea of gardening and has recently taken to it with a vengeance. The only problem is, we don't have a garden. We have a balcony that measures about 1.2 metres by 3.5. And right now it is a lush field of green.

There's a little space just outside the balcony door where you can stand and admire it all, but we won't be having any more barbies or even putting the washing out to dry. The truly amazing thing about this is that none of it existed about three weeks ago. At that point, with the worst of the summer heat over and done with, the Head Gardener (Noelle) began directing the Head Chauffeur (Moi) to take her to the garden centre. Here she would spend copious amounts of hard-earned cash on planter boxes, seeds and vast amounts of compost.

Most of this vegetation is of the edible kind. We have courgettes (yuk), corn and tomatoes, and a complicated pot full of herby things and garlic. I don't know when any of these things will bear fruit (or vegetables), but it's certainly a lot of fun watching them hurl themselves out of the ground.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Recent Books and Movies

I just know you are dying to know about this, so here we go.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
An utterly brilliant movie. Jim Carrey has certainly come on incredibly since his early stupid guy movies.

I, Robot
I didn't notice Will Smith singing or rapping at any point in this movie. That's a big plus for me. The robots were very cute, and obviously not blokes dressed up. How do they do that? Oh, a computer does it. That must be real easy. Brilliant special effects, slightly believable plot, all-round well-made fillum.

Stepford Wives
Robots pretending to be people! Are we seeing a trend here? Splendid entertainment.

On Writing, by Stephen King
Somehow I missed the King phenomenon until about a year ago when a copy of 'Dreamcatcher' appeared from I don't know where. What an amazing writer! I picked up 'On Writing' in a second-hand shop, because I am a writer now (oh blog) and I thought I might pick up some tips. I have. Keep it short, keep it simple. Do not use unnecessary words. And watch out for sentences that may, through no fault of your own, contain too many clauses, because that, apparently, makes it difficult for your reader to follow the meaning. Aaah. A good read, although he does use the word 'apt' too much. I only noticed it because it is not a word I am apt to use. I would use 'likely' or some form of 'tend'. But hey, I'm nitpicking, the guy's just been reconstructed after being mashed almost to death by an idiot driving a truck. And he's published way more novels than me.

The Truth, by Terry Pratchett.
I am no sadder than thousands of other Pratchett fans who have read everything the man has ever produced. Several times. Honestly. I recently created a spreadsheet listing which Pratchett books I own. I have read them all, but I'm short of about a dozen on my actual bookshelf. I made the spreadsheet because I do not want to repeat a situation last year where I discovered I had three copies of 'Interesting Times'.
Back to the point. 'The Truth' is probably my favourite Pratchett novel. Mainly because I like a good pun. Aside: a scientific study into what makes a joke funny reveals that puns are the worst form of wit, because they only produce a groan as opposed to a full-on belly-laugh. But when you have dwarfs working on a printing press with names like Boddony and Gowdie (think typefaces), and the protagonist is William De Worde (Wynkyn De Worde was the assistant and eventual sucessor to Caxton, who invented printing), you have a pretty good pun-quotient. Add to that an exciting story, cameo appearances from many established Discworld characters plus a pair of insane bad guys, and you finish up with a stonker of a book.

Nostradamus Ate My Hamster by Robert Rankin
I don't always read the same kind of stuff, honest. But sometimes I just get into a mood for some mindless drivel, and that is generally what Mr Rankin provides. NAHM is certainly that.

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
An amusing collection of episodes in the career of Precious Ramotswe, just starting out as a lady detective in Botswana. Charmingly naive. Or naively charming.

A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani
See, not Sci-Fi/Fantasy or comedy. 566 pages of serious academic you-know-what. I read this book hoping to find some answers - Arabs always claim to have invented a few imporant things. I wanted to know more about this, but there's no answers in this book, I'm sorry to say.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Cooking with Death-Rays

Hello Blog,

We treated ourselves to a new toy last week, a combination microwave/grill/convection oven. I haven't really had a chance to do much with it since it took over the kitchen, but today being Friday (think 'Sunday' on the rest of the planet), I'm cooking the traditional roast dinner. I'm using the new toy to do a chunk of roast lamb, and then I'm going to put it through its paces doing Yorkshire Puddings.

I used to be able to make a mean, well-risen and crunchy YP, but you really need an oven that works properly. One that can actually reach the right temperature to pull it off. Ever since we moved to Dubai, we've lived in a variety of apartments where the cooking gear was part of the deal and usually not up to the job. Since moving to our present flat, the cooker is our own, but we were broke when we moved in so had to buy a very cheap one. The hob is OK, but the oven is utterly useless. My attempts at doing YPs in it always turned out to be Yorkshire Biscuits - the things wouldn't rise, no matter what I did.

We've also been without an effective grill with the current oven. There is a feeble gas jobbie in the top of the oven, but its heat output is practically zero. And we never bothered to replace our last microwave when it popped its magnetron (it was only ever used for defrosting and reheating).

Anyway, I know you can't bear the suspense. I've tested the new machine twice with cheese on toast - flying colours both times. I've defrosted something in it, and I've cooked some ribs in it. All very splendid. Now I must attend to the kitchen, but I'll let you know how we get on...

Took the meat out a while ago (still possibly too pink for anyone but me eat), and put the YPs in. Just checked them and they're all a good centimetre above the edge of the tray! So the new toy is declared a total success.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Another Bogus Name Story

Following on from the story about being Richard Branson, Elvis Presley & Bill Gates, here's another one (and I might tell you a story involving Rolf Harris at some stage, although it does reflect badly on UK 'yob culture').

A few years ago, when I was an active member of Dubai Drama Group, I was cast as Dr. Spivey in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. There was a tradition in the Group at that time that the Director of a play would reward the cast and crew with little presents at the end-of-run party. Usually these things would be cheap tat bought in the soukh. But Bill Bradley, who directed Cuckoo, had other ideas. Because most of the characters in the play seem to be chain-smokers, he decided to blow most of the budget for the play on genuine Zippo lighters, engraved with the name of the character.

So, the point of the story. A few weeks after the show, I was sitting at a bar, with fags and shiny new engraved Zippo on the counter in front of me. I finished my pint, and the attentive barchap came up to me and said 'same again Doctor?' I looked around, but no, he was talking to me. 'Dr. Spivey, yes?'.

I still have that lighter.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Day Off

Today is the Ascension of the Prophet, which means we can all have a day off. Sunday is normally a working day. The 'weekend' here is Thursday/Friday for government and schools, or Friday/Saturday for companies that have a lot of interaction with the west. So, no phone calls, no meetings, no nothing. Might as well go to the pub. Except it'll be shut. For religious holidays, bars close at about 6pm the evening before, and re-open at 6pm on the day.

I promised you a picture of my bad hair, but really the camera couldn't stand it. So here's a picture of the ex-stupid little beard instead. I dedicate it to Richard Branson. But why, I hear you ask. Well, it used to amuse some people to say that I looked like Mr. B. And it used to amuse me to say that I was Mr. B. and could I please have a bit of service and don't bother to present me with a bill.

On the subject of bogus names, the Indians here will often ask you 'what is your good name, sir?' To which I customarily reply that my Good Name is Elvis Presley, but my real name is... They never get it. I had a phone call the other day where the conversation continued 'Well, Mr. Presley, how much life insurance would you like to buy?" I'm not always Elvis, of course. Sometimes I'm Bill Gates. This caused some confusion recently at a restaurant that was running a summer promotion. You had to fill in a little form with your contact details so they could spam you. Naturally, I filled it in as Mr. W. Gates of Redmond (email They gave me a voucher that entitled me (well, Bill Gates, actually) to a free meal the next time I patronised the establishment. We did manage to redeem it, but every time I go there now the staff all call me Bill.

I've been tinkering with my Blogger template this morning. I've hacked the HTML so that I can include a scary picture in my profile, and I'll be fiddling with it a bit more to do some other stuff. Unless I go to the beach. That sounds appealing - get some rays on the chin.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Being Left Handed

I am a southpaw, a trait I share with 10% of the world's population, including such luminaries as Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Jimi Hendrix, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Bart Simpson and millions of others. It's never bothered me at all, no one tried to force me to be right-handed, and I can manage well enough with implements like pens, screwdrivers and motor cars.

I may have had more success in my teenage musical career as a bass player had I got my paws on a left-handed guitar (like Jimi H & Paul McCartney). But I didn't, so I was doomed to be a mediocre right-handed bass player.

It was only when I moved to the Middle East that left-handedness became a 'problem'. Before the move I read up on the customs of this part of the world, and discovered that the left hand has a bit of stigma attached to it. I believe this is mainly to do with toilet arrangements, and the lack of Andrex in the olden days. You are not supposed to touch a local with your left hand, eat with it, or pass anything to a local with it.

So, imagine the fun when a welcome dinner is thrown in my honour a week after I joined an engineering company in Riyadh (one day I might write about my year as a bachelor in Riyadh - but only if you're naughty). There is an abundance of mutton and rice, and tons of bread and salad. It is customary to eat with the hands - you scoop food up with the flat bread. I hadn't had a lot of practice with this technique, and as you can imagine there was rice and lettuce everywhere as a result of a left-hander trying to eat with his right hand. Eventually one of the guys whispered 'are you all right?'. I said 'I'm left handed'. And he said 'why don't you use your left hand then?'. Sheesh.

Ever since then I've used cutlery. And nobody, but nobody has ever expressed any surprise, indignation or offence when I use my left hand. Now, showing the soles of your feet to an Arab - that's a different story.

Addendum: I do have one small problem arising from being left-handed. I can't tell left from right. Well, I can eventually, but I have to think about it. Apparently lots of lefties have this problem. But my darling wife has invented a solution. When I'm driving and she's navigating, it is quite important to know your 'sinistra' from your 'a destra'. It seems that we drive on the , ummm, right in this country. This means that I'm sitting on the left, and the wife is ALWAYS RIGHT!

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Being A Libran

I don't *really* believe in Astrology, but I do read my stars in the paper and sometimes I can make what they say match up with what actually happened.

I'm a Libran. This means that my character traits are supposed to be something like this:
Diplomatic (not)
Intelligent (quite)
Thoughtful (mmm)
Sociable (after a few beers)
Strong sense of justice (yepp)
Likes change (dunno)
Flirty (erm...)
Visual (yepp)
Sentimental (a bit)
Optimistic (more often than not)
Indecisive (more on this later)
Charming (wife says I'm cute)
Artistic (yepp)
Harmonious (try to be)
Idealistic (yepp)
Self-indulgent (probably)
Romantic (!)
Over-generous (nope, I'm a Yorkshireman as well)
Tactful (missed that one)
Ambitious (yepp)
Creative (yepp)
Kind (I try)
Peace-loving (yepp)

I sound lovely don't I? But here's the problem. I do have a strong sense of justice, and I can be indecisive. These things are related. They mean that I can understand and empathise with several sides of any argument. An example. One project I worked on went badly wrong for two of the other contractors involved in it - they ended up not being paid the full amount due to them (or not - see, there I go again). The situation got to a point where the client would not speak to the other two, but they would all speak to me. And they did. One of them would even call me from London for 30-minute ranting sessions. In the end I got fed up with it, and sent them all an email to the effect that 'I am a Libran. I will listen sympathetically to anything you say. I will make encouraging noises. But there is nothing I can do to fix this problem. You may continue to bug me with emails and phone calls, but henceforth any time I spend listening to this will be charged at $50 a minute.' Strangely, the subject has gone deathly quiet, except for an email from the client who thought I was overcharging. I told him to forget I was a designer, and pretend I was a lawyer.

Even on simple things I can have a problem. Beloved wife says 'shall we go to see a movie?', and I say 'yes, no, yes, maybe, dunno'. This drives her nuts! After one such bout of ambiguity, she said 'isn't there a cure for being a Libran yet?'.

The receptionist at our UK office building is fanatical about astrology - when I first met her she wanted to know my star sign and that of my wife. Well my wife is a Scorpio. This apparently is bad news and the marriage is doomed to failure. I was in England in June this year, and I said to the receptionist 'we celebrated our eighteenth wedding anniversary last March'. With a toss of the head, she said 'ridiculous!'.

What to do?

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Comments on Blogger

As a web designer / developer, I must say I thought that setting up the blog and using the Blogger editor was an extremely cool experience. Except, of course for the inevitable irritation of using any web form designed by an American - they just don't understand that dates can be written in different formats in different parts of the world (these other parts of the world are called 'countries' and they do not belong to the USA - ed). So when I input my birthday, I suspected that I might get the date wrong, but the form offered no guidance on which box was the day and which was the month. This is bad design. In our work, we ALWAYS do the day and month (and sometimes the year) as a dropdown list. It's not hard to do, chaps.

I was impressed, though, when my birthday was translated into my star sign in my profile.

And at least this time I was not forced to invent a ZIP code. That's another bugbear. You would not believe how many forms I've tried to complete, but given up in frustration because my address doesn't fit their format.