Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Traffic Rules OK

Many thanks to Ahmed The Fish, who has today sent me an email describing the penalties for various traffic offences that you may commit in Dubai and the penalties for doing so. There are 105 of them. I list below a tasty selection, with my comments...and by the way, I never knew they had penalty points on licences. Don't know how many gets ya disqualified or anyfink.

  • Entering the roundabout from the wrong lane. Dhs 100, 2 points on yer licence.
  • Overtaking vehicles on the right or in a dangerous way. Dhs 150, 3 points.
    Aha! Been doing it wrong all this time.
  • Failing to give signals when changing lanes or entering a roundabout. Dhs 150, 1 point.
    Not me mister.
  • Failing to leave enough between vehicles, Dhs 100, 1 point.
    Enough what?

  • Parking on the left side of the road. Dhs 150, 2 points .
  • Failing to ensure that the vehicle comes to a full stop. Dhs 150, 1 point.
  • Use of horn in restricted areas in a disturbing manner. Dhs 100, 1 point.
    Restricted? Disturbing?
  • Driving noise-producing vehicles, Dhs 100, 1 point
    That would be like, everyone!
  • Driving at a speed below "minimum speed" for the road. Dhs 100, 0 points.
    What is that exactly?
  • The sudden deviation in direction. Dhs 150, 1 point .
    But I need to go to Al Ain, NOW!
  • Driving in the wrong direction, Dhs 200, 3 points.
    This is the way to Al Ain, yes?
  • Enter the road in a dangerous way, Dhs 400, 4 points.
    3 of my 4 wheels are on the ground, what's your problem?
  • Littering motorists. Dhs 100, 2 points
    I try not to hit them, but they get everywhere.
  • Using rotating spot lights with different colors. Dhs 100, 2 points.
    Well the police. ambulance and fire service get away with it, why not me?
  • Leaving vehicle on the road with its engine running. Dhs 100, 3 points.
    Stuck on Sheikh Zayed Road again.
  • Opening the left hand door of a taxi. Dhs 100, 2 points.
    And if the passenger doesn't have a licence?

The list seems to be fairly comprehensive (actually too comprehensive) but the problem is to do with enforcement. I have witnessed most of these 'violations'- I've frequently seen punters speeding past police cars at well over the speed limit, and nothing ever happens.

Forgive me (deport me if you must), but I think we have a serious cultural problem here. Most of the cops on the street are Yemenis. They are poor, not-well-educated, and for them being a cop in Dubai is absolutely the best thing they could be. They are not going to rock any boats. They are not going to put themselves in a situation where they have to charge a rich and powerful local. The fines listed above are utterly meaningless to the rich young locals who cause most of the accidents. The confiscation of the vehicle is also meaningless - they have plenty more at home, and if they don't they can very easily get another one. Any problem that these guys face is dealt with by money and / or wasta (influence).

What it boils down to is respect for the rule of law (although it would help if the laws relating to driving were somewhat better publicised). There are cases in the UK where members of the royal family have been done for various traffic violations, and this is a splendid example. It shows that the law can and should be applied without fear or favour to all classes of society. Until the UAE can demonstrate that there is one law for everybody, no matter who they are and where they're from, we are all at risk from 'Road Surprises'. If you ever go to Abu Dhabi or the Northern Emirates, you will see signs saying 'Beware of Road Surprises' - I take this to mean unmarked speedbumps or lunatics in fast cars doing 200 kph up your donkey

All Alone, Coping, Nearly

Oh woe is me. BetterArf and Offspring departed for Engerland last night. BetterArf will return on Saturday, Offspring will be staying in England indefinitely (for reasons too complicated to explain).

My instructions are:
1) Feed the fish (a little bit every day, not the whole lot at once).
2) Water the plants (ditto).
3) Eat food (ditto).
4) Don't drink too much (ditto).
5) Try to wash some clothes.

The last point brings me to the topic of the extreme user-hostility of most of the gadgets that we stash in our kitchen. I can work the kettle, the toaster and the fridge without needing to read the manual. The washing machine, even after extensive consultation of the manual, remains a mystery, because it fails to explain the basic stuff like what kind of stuff needs a hot or a warm wash. I can intuit that boiling nylon is probably not a great idea, but beyond that I just don't know (and I suspect the engineers who 'design' these things don't either, which is why they avoid the subject).

But my favourite bugbear is the combi microwave / grill / convection oven. This beast is so complicated that the manual for it is permanently positioned on a shelf underneath it, and believe me it is referred to frequently. Let's run through the process for defrosting something. The manual says:

'Adj'? 'Code'? This is completely anti-intuitive. What I need is a big button that says 'DEFROST STUFF' - you click it and then you set the time to defrost for. How hard can that be to implement? Ach well, these are the same kind of people that gave us VCRs. It amazes me how they keep their jobs. No, it doesn't. It amazes me that big, well-known companies allow this stuff to hit the market, and that people actually buy it and never complain about how difficult the products are to use. Hmmm.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Good Morning

As mentioned previously, my car has a flat tyre. I had resolved to get up early so I could change the bloody thing before the sun came up and made everything too hot. I needn't have bothered, the weather this morning is 100% cloudy, with a bit of a cool breeze. Thankfully the spare had some air in it, and I had no trouble changing the tyre. I am almost an expert at this, having had quite a bit of practice over the years. I don't know why it is, but tyres never seem to last very long in Dubai. And usually when I have to change a wheel it's because I've just had a blowout on or near the Sheikh Zayed Highway, normally in the middle of roadworks where there's no hard shoulder and you just cannot stop, and always around about midday when the temperature is not less than 40° Celsius.

Small mercies, grateful.

So a bit later I attempted to go to the office, and had got maybe 5 metres when I heard a disconterting squeaking/grinding noise from the wheel that I'd replaced. Dang! Off with the jacket and out with jack to check that the wheel was on properly. It was. But the wheel itself was a bit out of kilter. Not going anywhere with a wheel like that. I called the hire company, and they said they would send a replacement car 'immediately'. Three hours later it turned up. Then we had to do a bit of jiggery-pokery with the spare wheel from the new car so that the guy who delivered it could drive it back safely. Which means that the spare in the new car has the slow-punctured tyre.

Remind me to get it fixed!

Our New Local Hypermarché

With little fanfare, Géant opened its new hypermarket at Ibn Battuta Mall yesterday. Yeehaa! We decided to take a stroll down to have a look in the evening. Passing my car on the way out, I noticed that it was sporting an exceedingly squished-looking tyre. Hmmm. However, our stroll to the mall took about 20 minutes (possibly a bit far to walk back from with a few tonnes of shopping). Géant itself was splendid, as hypermarkets always are. It has everything you would expect from such a place, and the layout is almost identical to Carrefour.

The mall itself was half-open. It won't open fully until April 21. But we had a wander round, and were duly impressed. We found a plan of the place that listed all the shops and their locations. Apart from Géant, there will be an MMI (booze shop), a Magrudy's (bookshop), and lots of other good stuff. So we will never need to leave Jebel Ali again!

Monday, March 21, 2005

Qatar Theatre Bombing

I don't know what the etiquette of posting seriously upsetting stuff on blogs is, but here goes anyway.

One Briton was killed in a suicide car-bomb attack on a theatre in Doha, Qatar, 2 days ago. I learnt yesterday afternoon that the dead man had been a friend of mine. I had suspected this as a possibility all day long, but the news reports resolutely refused to name the victim. When it was confirmed a being Jon, it was devastating news. This man had so much talent in his chosen fields, and for his life to be snuffed out in an instant by a suicidal maniac just makes no sense whatsoever.

What is more upsetting is that had the perp blown himself up about 10 minutes earlier, up to 100 people would have been killed (he had chosen to attack the cafeteria of the theatre, and did so shortly after the interval in the play). And that this could happen in Qatar, which has always been very hot on security and has never witnessed such an incident before. And that Qatar is almost no distance from the UAE. And that Al Qaeda's Saudi leader, Saleh al-Oufi has called on supporters in Qatar, Bahrain, Oman & the UAE to attack 'crusaders'. And that nobody actually knows what these people want, apart from an apparent desire to kill themselves and as many innocents as they can.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for this vile, cowardly, sickening and utterly bloody pointless attack.

RIP Jon, we miss you.


Saturday, March 19, 2005

What Happened to the Weekend?

Just to confuse all you folks who think the weekend is Saturday / Sunday, we've already finished our Thursday / Friday weekend. It's now 4.30 am on Saturday, and I was woken by heavy rain making its way through the partly-open bedroom window, and now I can't get back to sleep. Dang. So a little catch-up blog is in order.

As you no doubt know, Thursday was St Patrick's Day, and where better to celebrate it than the Irish Village (and no, I'm not sponsored by them, but maybe I should be). They had an 'all-day' music-fest featuring several bands, headlined by Aslan, Irish dancers, a bouncy castle for the grown-ups and all the Guinness you could afford. Actually it started at 3pm and went on until late (3am likely, but us old sensible folk had wimped out and gone home by then). The only crap thing was that the food buffet was not included in the ticket price, and they were charging an outrageous amount for it. But hey, everybody's rich in Dubai, so it doesn't really matter.

Oh, and I had another encounter with Luigi on Thursday morning. Or it might have been his brother - different car, different location, possibly a different bloke altogether. But he screeched to a halt as I was walking in Media City, wound down his window and said 'European?'. To which I replied 'Jackets?' and he said 'No, suits!'. Ciao baby.

Friday morning, up bright and early to read the last 30 pages of Dark Tower 5. Yay, 7 days!

Friday afternoon, a visit to the Boat Show. All very splendid if you like looking at great big lumps of floating fibreglass and big engines.

I've started reading 'Watching the English' by Kate Fox. Ouch. We English are so dodgy - all that reserve, all those secret rules about not talking to people. All that irony.

And my blog is nearly famous.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Speed Reading

Some time ago I mentioned I was reading Stephen King's 7-part Dark Tower trilogy (heptology?). I'd got as far as book 4 before Christmas, and have been hunting around for a copy of book 5 ever since. I thought I'd got it last weekend. Found it in a second-hand bookstore. Unfortunately, being an easily-confused idiot who can't count, what I actually bought was a second copy of book 4. Dang.

So we were having dinner at Bill's the other night. He's a King fan and is re-reading the entire series because he was given book 7 for Christmas. He hasn't opened it yet. He's currently working his way through book 4. He said he'd lend me book 5, but I had to read it in 10 days because that's when he expects to finish number 4. Are you confused yet?

Anyway, it's a bit of a challenge because book 5 is 600 pages long, and I'm not a particularly fast reader. The problem is that if I sit down on the sofa and start reading in the evening, I'll be fast asleep before I've read 10 pages. Then I'll lose my page, and start reading the preceding hundred pages before I realise that I've already read them. Completely hopeless.

So I've developed a new technique. It's called 'reading standing up'. I go out on the balcony, put the book on the parapet, and read it while standing. Not even I can go to sleep in this position. The only trouble is that the light is lousy, and I'm constantly hassled by flies, mosquitos and ants. I guess they all want to read it too (no they don't, they want their dinner, and they think I'm it). And the technique is working - I'm just past the halfway point after four days!

Oh, and it is a very very good book.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Luigi's Back

Five or six years ago, Dubai was 'home' to a slightly notorious scam-artist known as Luigi. He used to sell dodgy jackets that he claimed were made by Versace or Armani or something like that. I had one or two encounters with him, never bought anything from him - there was a very long sales pitch that you had to listen to before you got anywhere. The basic story was that the stuff had been flown in from Italy for an exhibition. Now they were a little bit tired, it wasn't worth sending them back to Italy, so he was just trying to flog them off at a cheap rate before going home. Yeah right.

There were letters about this guy in the Gulf News, and then he disappeared and faded from memory.

A few days ago, I was getting into my car at the Holiday Centre (always his favourite haunt). A guy pulled up behind me, and I assumed he wanted my space. No problem. Then he said something to me (can't remember what, or in what language, but it got my attention). I said something to him and he said 'ah, you are Eeenglish gentleman? I am Eeetaliano, I am working for Versace!'. The penny dropped immediately. I walked over to him and said 'you want to sell me a jacket right? I've met you before.' 'Ciao, have a nice day' he said, and sped off into the sunset.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Empty House

Our guests departed this morning. I think they had a great time. This is my supposition based on the fact that they kept saying 'we're having a great time'. I don't think you can actually 'do' Dubai in 3 days, but they certainly did the vital bits. These are:
  • Lunch at the Irish Village.
  • Abra (water-taxi) across the Creek.
  • Wander round the soukhs.
  • Buy something at the Gold Soukh.
  • Walk for miles around Deira City Centre.
  • Get lost trying to find our apartment building, after venturing into the city on the bus.
  • Hang around in a cafe at Media City while I have a meeting.
  • Have a good look at the little art galleries in Bastakiya.
  • Eat a shawarma.
  • Marvel at the amount of construction going on.

The only thing that was a bit disappointing was that they got confused about their departure date. They thought it was Thursday (tomorrow), but discovered yesterday that it was actually today. They tried to get it changed, but the flights are full. We had planned to take them on a desert 'safari' tonight - you get get driven around a bit of desert, end up at the tour operator's desert camp, do a bit of sandboarding (possibly not, our guests are about 70 - active but fragile), enjoy a barbecue buffet, watch a belly dancer and then go home. It's a shame we couldn't do this. We've lived here 11 years and never been on one of these things. But they've travelled halfway round the world to get here and didn't even get to see any sand dunes or camels.

A Joke

I've never been very good at telling jokes (although I am outstanding at off-the-cuff puns that bring tears to the recipient's eyes). I usually forget the punchline, or the story, or both, and I tend to get lost because I go wandering off down irrelevant side alleys. But I heard a joke a few days ago, and have managed to repeat it to several people who have actually laughed at the end! So, for your delight and general entertainment, here is the joke that I have remembered.

Bloke takes pet duck to Vet. Vet lays duck out on table, pronounces it deceased. Bloke is very upset. 'Are you sure?'. 'Well, I can get a second opinion', says Vet. 'OK', says Bloke. Big brown Labrador dog walks in, looks at duck, shakes head and walks out. A cat comes in, jumps on the table, looks the duck up and down and then leaves the room. Vet prints out the bill on his computer, gives it to Bloke. '$200!' exclaims Bloke. 'Why so much?' 'Well,' says Vet, 'it would have been $40 without the Lab Report and the Cat Scan'.

Boom boom.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The World's Local Bank

I have an account with the world's local bank. So does my business partner in the UK. This makes it pretty quick to transfer money between the two accounts (not as quick as it could be, but far quicker than any transfer involving a third-party bank).

I use their internet banking to check my balance before embarrassing myself by trying to withdraw non-existent money. Once I got the hang of it, it was pretty convenient, but a bit messy - the login process would spawn about 3 different browser windows that were only there to perform a bit of code-bashing, but had no actual visible content. Once I'd got the bank to explain to me what my username and password should be it was OK, but never brilliant. The reason they had to explain to me about the username and password was because the documents I had been given called these things by entirely different names, something like PhonePIN and Secret Access Code Whose Revelation Shall Result in Thy Death. Possibly a case of Marketing and IT departments not talking to each other.

Anyhoo, I did give the bank a fairly detailed critique of the user-friendliness-ness of their site, and a bloke did call me to explain they were working on a new version and my comments would be taken into account.

About a week ago, I tried to log on, and was told that a new system was in place, and could I please give the answer to an easy-to-remember question (mother's maiden name, name of favourite pet, nickname at school, etc). I supplied by mother's maiden name and the system rejected it on the grounds that it must be between 8-16 characters. For goodness' sake, my mother's maiden name is 7 letters long. So I must have entered something to bulk it out, but I immediately forgot about it, on the basis that they would never ask me this question again.

Next time I log on, it asks me for my username. I supply this, click OK, and wait a few minutes while the next screen loads. It's asking for my mother's maiden name. Dang, I can't remember what I told them. So I call the bank's call centre (your call is important to us, that's why we're keeping you on hold for 20 minutes), and get them to re-set the question. Back to the lappy I go, and go through the process again and answer a different stupid question.

The next challenge is to enter my password via an on-screen 'virtual keyboard'. Aargh! Numerous mouse-clicks to achieve something that I used to be able to do with my eyes closed.

Having finally logged on, I see that they have tweaked the presentation of the information, and completely removed the one feature that actually used to be useful. The bit that told you whether the cheque you deposited several days ago has cleared and turned into available money. I find that an ATM can give me this information, but the online banking system now only gives 'ledger balance', but not 'available balance'. I am not about to install an ATM in my house!

I had another run-in with the bank a few months ago over their online bill payment system. The idea is wonderful, but the implementation is woeful. Say you want to pay your electricity bill. First of all you have to set up the electricity company as a beneficiary (and this is not an easy thing to do). Then you can make the payment. A day later your electricity is cut off. You call the electricity company, all smug, and say I paid the bill yesterday via the Interweb. Electricity company laughs at your naivete and suggests you call the bank and get them to explain the system to you.

Another call to the people who claim my call is important to them. What about this then? 'Oh, it'll take 3-4 days for the money to get to the electricity company'. What! It seems the system is completely non-electronic. The bank couldn't explain the system in detail, but I reckon it goes like this. You authorise the removal of a certain amount of money from your account. The bank takes the money, and puts it in their overnight high-interest slush fund for a few days. Then they take it out and send a guy on a push-bike to the electricity company's office to pay the money on my behalf. Unbelievable!

I had a good old rant at the bank about this, suggesting that they should state very clearly on this section of the site the fact that it will take 3-4 days for the recipient to actually get the money. They had the temerity to tell me that that information is clearly displayed on the site - it's under a section entitled 'cut-off times'. As if that means anything to a mere mortal like me.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Still Can't Tell Left From Right

One of my very early posts was about my left-handedness. Part of this disablility means that I cannot readily tell left from right. I thought I had this sussed, because the only time it really matters is when I'm driving and BetterArf is giving navigational instructions. This is usually quite easily solved because we drive on the left (no we don't, we drive on the right - ED) in this country, so BetterArf is ALWAYS RIGHT.

With the impending arrival of visitors tomorrow, and the improbable hour of their arrival, we decided to email them a map and instructions, so that they could find their own way here in a taxi. So I've revised the map (which has been praised for its accuracy by several visitors), and sent it to them. But I thought it would be nice to send a textual description of how it goes. As in 'take the 3rd turn on the left, then the 2nd turn on the left' etc. A few hours ago BetterArf read this email out to me, and asked what was wrong with it. At which point I realised that every single reference to 'left' should actually have been 'right'. Oh my gawd. And really, I thought about this for a long time and was sure it was correct.

Nobody's perfect, except BetterArf. But I hope our guests follow the map rather than my crap instructions. Actually they literally could not do it - there are no left turns on any of the roads they will be using...

Friday, March 04, 2005

Running Out of Energy

Oh Flippin' 'eck,

I've become matey with Mr Energy Bloke over the last couple of months. Now every time I see him down the local club, he waves bits of paper or books or website addresses that are all saying the world is fast approaching something that resembles Armageddon. And all because fossil fuel supply has (probably) peaked. It's all downhill from here.

When I was a kid in school, I was led to believe that based on known supply and demand at that time, the crunch could be expected round about 2017, but don't worry, they keep finding new sources that are twice as big as previously known sources, so it could carry on indefinitely. Well, guess what. Oil companies have been fibbing about the size of their reserves, and some of them have bitten the bullet and publicly said 'actually, we don't have that much, we only have this much'. On top of that, global demand has increased dramatically - China was never factored into the earlier equations, but is now consuming oil like there's no tomorrow (to coin a phrase).

I had indicated in a previous post on this blog that I expected the UAE to pump resources into solar power as the crunch approached. But I guess I was wrong - the current methods of turning sunlight into electricity are staggeringly inefficient (especially if you take into account the cost of production of the necessary gadgetry - photo-voltaic cells or sun-tracking reflectors). Energy Bloke says we would need fields of mirrors covering an area as big as Saudi Arabia to supply our needs.

The problem is that the world, especially the developed bits, are now so reliant on oil / gas, and electricity produced from those sources that when the crunch comes there will be major violence, total disruption and staggering numbers of deaths. We have never seen anything like what may well be coming. We are not likely to see a gradual transformation back into an agrarian society. We are instead going to see major wars related to one country trying to secure a supply of oil from another (in fact, you've spotted it, that was what Iraq was about, sequels likely to be coming up every year or two from now on). It is not going to be nice.

If you can bear any more depressing news, read

Mind you, before that happens, we could all be wiped out by the latest strain of Asian Bird Flu.

Middle East Democracy

Sorry fans, I have not been exploring wider issues in our region. Possibly because I'm not a full-on political analyst, I only know what I think. Possibly because I was afraid of any repercussions, but I know hardly anyone reads this blog. Possibly I'm too lazy.

Anyhoo, prompted by a couple of things, I think it's about time I added my twopenn'orth*.

The first thing was a little article on democracy on small cavy's blog... the second was a very thought-provoking article in today's Gulf News. I reckon if it's OK for Gulf News to print it then it's OK for me to blog about it.

In my opinion, democracy is not that great. It has many notable features, but it can end up as a total compromise if you have a really big electorate (look at India). But when democracy can put a disingenuous evil-minded git like Dubya in charge of the world (twice!), then it ain't working. The idea of democracy and universal suffrage is superb, and the idea of 'Government by the people, for the people' is just sublime. We say to our 'rulers', 'we put you in charge, on our behalf. But never forget it. You are our representatives, not our bosses.' And when we get fed up of them we impeach them or we elect a replacement set.

That idea seems to have had its day or the so-called rulers in the West have forgotten it. Now the US has the disgusting Patriot Act, and the UK 'government' are trying to enact something very similar. Forgive me, but any law that allows detaining people (any people, no matter how long and straggly their beard may be) indefinitely without trial or even any charges being laid is wrong, wrong, wrong.

George Bush has been harping on about bringing 'democracy' to the Middle East. I laughed out loud when I first heard this idea. Bear in mind, it took hundreds of years for a form of democracy and eventually universal suffrage to become established in the minds and hearts of voters in Europe and North America. The notion that you think you can just transplant this to places like Afghanistan or Iraq is laughable.

But it will be interesting to see if, when and to what extent a little bit of voting will be allowed here in the UAE. Apparently the Constitution already allows for the election of members of the Federal National Council - the only problem right now is the severely restricted number of voters.

*= 'two penny worth', auld English idiom meaning 'my worthless contribution'.


It's All Happening Again

This is the time of year when lots of sporting and showbiz celebrities like to visit these shores. We have the Dubai Tennis Championships happening right now, and will shortly have the Golf Desert Classic. Musically we've had Mark Knopfler and later this month, The Darkness (surely they're not has-been's already?).

And tomorrow we have BetterArf's Aunt and Uncle, who are stopping over for a few days on their way back to the UK from a holiday in Oztralia. I've never met the uncle, but the aunt was at our wedding almost 19 years ago, so of course I'll recognise her!