Saturday, April 30, 2005
Thursday, April 28, 2005
Dark Tower 6
Uncle Bill loaned me volume 6 two weeks ago (Song of Susannah) and warned me that it was hard going. I thought he was joking, but after two weeks I am still only on page 98. Aargh! I don't know, it's just kinda more of the same. Bit like Tolkien really. I don't think novels can really work when they're spread over several volumes and ultimately have 1,000-2,000 pages.
So reading the entire Dark Tower series has become a bit of a chore, I'm sorry to say.
Hopefully the final episode will be a much more gripping read.
Spoke to my daddy on the mobbly jellyphone earlier, and he told me that Doncaster is now the proud owner of a brand-new, shiny airport. Actually the owner of it is Peel Airports and the website is here. Ryanair were apparently offering flights to Dublin for 49p! Outrageous.
But the other outrageous thing is the name of the place. It is apparently known as Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield Airport. Doncaster has lots of celebs associated with it - Paul Daniels, Laurie McMenemy, Kevin Keegan and me. But Robin Hood never got within 50 miles of the place. He was a Nottinghamshire bloke through and through, and it's outrageous that it has been given that name. Arthur Scargill Airport would have been more fitting.
And what has Sheffield got to do with it? Sheffield is a proper city and should have done something about getting itself an airport of its own years ago. Bobby Hood is on the far side of Donny from Sheffield, so it's not exactly on the doorstep.
Anyhoo, best of luck to them, and if Ryanair or anyone else wants to start direct low-cost flights to Dubai we'll certainly be up for it! And we'd pay a lot more than 49p, might even go as high as a fiver.
Yesterday a British visitor to Dubai was sentenced to four years in jail because she was found to have taken codeine. This is somewhat shocking, especially as she had been prescribed the med by a doctor in the UK, did not physically bring any tablets into the country, and probably did not have the slightest idea that it would be a problem here.
Come to that, I've lived here for 11 years, and was only vaguely aware that some commonplace Western meds are banned in the UAE. But I had absolutely no idea that 'possession' could carry a four year jail sentence. I can't say exactly what I think about this (I'm pretty sure there's a BlogCop Division at CID), but I think I can say that this sentence does nobody any good, and if it gets major publicity in the UK it will certainly damage the Dubai tourist trade.
Nobody wants to visit a country where you can get thrown in jail so easily for something that you did completely legally in your own country.
See Scotland on Sunday and Gulf News .
Adventures in Sharjah
This morning I had to go and pick up a small cheque from my only Sharjah client. Getting there was not a problem - I set off at 7.30 when everybody was trying to go the other way. Something horrible had happened on the Sheikh Zayed Highway just outside Internet City heading toward Jebel Ali, and the traffic was immobile for at least 10 kms. And then again on the main Dubai-Sharjah road the traffic heading into Dubai was actually doing no such thing - it was not moving and was backed up all the way into Sharjah itself. But I was going the other way.
I reached my destination with no trouble at all, did the biz, and asked my client for directions of how to get to the Emirates Road. He drew me a little map, and seemed fairly confident about it, but either it or I was wrong. I got hopelessly lost, as I always do in Sharjah, and it took me fifty minutes to find the end of the Emirates Road.
There's something about the roads in Sharjah that I just don't get. I've been to the place hundreds of times, even lived there for a bit, but I've never been able to get a permanent grip on the layout. I just can't make all the roads join up in my head, and I completely lose my sense of direction. This is not helped by the useless signboards. They are probably very good if you know the name of every little district in Sharjah, but they completely ignore the big picture stuff like 'Dubai, this way' or 'Town Centre, over there' or 'this way to the Sea' or even 'follow me to Ajman'.
And, concerned authorities please note, there are some wicked potholes on the 1st Industrial Road. I know this because I drove its entire length in both directions.
Monday, April 25, 2005
Yay. The occasion is the wedding of an ex-employee's brother-in-law. I've been invited to several Indian weddings in the past, but never gone because of pressure of work / shortage of funds etc.
This time, I'm definitely up for it. A big incentive is the launch of Air India Express at the end of this month. Finally, it will be possible to fly from Dubai to Kerala for a bit more than 1,000 dirhams. Previously you would have to pay around 1,500 - 2,000 dirhams for this privilege. Given that India is only about 3-4 hours flying time away, and that you can fly from Dubai to London (seven hours) for the same kind of money, I never felt that the Indian airlines were playing fair.
The wedding is in Cochin in Kerala, and my Interweb research so far makes it look pretty damn fabulous. BetterArf is thrilled - she does a fair bit of teaching of Kathakali, the traditional theatre form of Kerala, and reckons that if I go to Kerala for a few days I'll fall in lurve with it and insist that we spend every holiday from now until we pop our clogs in India. She might have a point.
So, gotta organise a visa but quick.
I've been watching my little hit counter quite closely of late because I was going to offer a prize, a Mercedes or something like that, to the person who was visitor number 5,000. But I just looked at it now and it has leapt up to 5062 in the last few hours. Must be Chuck or my publisher. So, sorry fans, you'll have to wait until we get to 10,000!
Still luv ya though.
Let's Learn Arabic
Yesterday I phoned one of my clients, a big Government organisation in Abu Dhabi. I had to get the number from the phone book (it wasn't stored on my SIM card when I got my new phone), and I got the wrong one. I asked the guy, a local, to give me the number for the head office. 'Arba'a, ithnain..'. 'Whoa buddy, can we do that in English?', I said. And I did feel ashamed. I kinda know the Arabic numbers, but not confidently enough to use them. So, here we go, a quick tutorial.
An interesting point, the numbers that we think of as 'arabic' are actually Indian (Hindi). The numbers that we use in the West (1,2,3 etc) are the true Arabic numbers! Bizarre. Another confusing thing is that even though Arabic text reads from right to left, the numbers read from left to right. Who am I to say it's crazy?
A few years ago the police in Sharjah decided that it would be sensible to use only Arabic numerals (the ones we think of as English) on vehicle registration plates. Deeply cool and much more legible than having both types of numbers or just the Hindi ones.
Thursday, April 21, 2005
I've always used the services of Media City to handle this procedure, but six months ago MMI (one of the 2 booze retailers in Dubai) started offering their own service for getting licences. So I ask DMC staff about renewing the licence and they say 'use MMI, they can issue it straight away'.
I go to MMI, get the application form and assemble the awesome array of documents required. It is a longer list than is required for absolutely anything else - application form completed signed and stamped by sponsor, 2 photos, copy of lease (accommodation), passport and visa copy, (plus sight of original), copy of company trade licence or no-objection letter from employer, copy of official labour contract (I don't have one, I own the company), salary certificate. And Dhs150 fee.
So, I carefully assembled all of the above, took it to MMI, and was somewhat pissed off that they wanted proof of salary. The problem here being that I own the company and do not actually pay myself a 'salary' - I will draw money when I need it and it's available. And the only person who could verify that is me.
I knew from past experience that Media City would not issue a salary certificate, on the quite reasonable grounds that it is none of their business. But I asked them anyway, and they said 'ok, how much shall we say?'. Marvlious.
Got the letter a couple of days later (in Arabic) and took it to MMI. 'Many thanks, we'll call you when it's done'. 'Hold on a minute, I was told you would issue it immediately!', I say. 'No no no, we take it to the Police and they do it. Takes 2-3 weeks'.
Bloody hell. It's quite a nice drive to Umm Al Quwain.
Blogging on the Move
UPDATE Dang, can't log on to my Blogger account because my username includes an underscore, and the Treo keyboard doesn't. So I guess I'll try to change my username when I get home.
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
When I came to Dubai my first employer was with Baroda, and I would occasionally have to go there to cash a cheque. The place was always swamped, the bureaucracy archaic, and the queueing horrendous (typical Indian queue, 1 deep and two hundred wide).
I'm a fairly forgiving sort of bloke, so I was prepared to believe that BoB might have improved in the last ten years. They might even have computers.
Wrong. (Well they do have computers, but they're probably only 386s).
I went in, and could not find a counter for Remittances. I asked a lady who did not seem too busy, and we had a difficult conversation. She pretended to misunderstand what I wanted at first and told me to go to the currency exchange house next door. I asked her if I was in BoB and she didn't seem too sure.
Eventually she grasped the idea that I wanted to give them money to deposit in a BoB account in India, and told me to fill in a form. 'Which form?' I ask. She points at the guy next to me. 'One of those'. 'Ah, and where would I get one of those?'. She waved at several stacks of forms. None of them have a title that would give you a clue about their purpose.
By now she has decided that I am a moron, but I go way down in her estimation when I try to fill it in. You would expect to see things like 'recipient's name' 'account number' etc. But no, we have a box labelled 'favouring'. Apparently this is the name of the recipient. The unlabelled box under this is for the account number. After that is a label 'words'. 'Don't put anything there!' says my helpful guide. Eventually it is all done, and I have to go queue to pay the money to a cashier.
The cashier yells at me because I have not filled in the denominations of the notes I am presenting. I explain to her that this is her job. Hmmm.
Anyway, all done, and I go back to the first lady and ask how long the transfer will take. '10 days' she says, with evident glee. I can't believe it.
Back at the car. Oh, I forgot to mention the other great thing about BoB in Dubai - you cannot easily park within half a mile of the building. Back at the car I have look at my receipt, and noticed it is being done as an MT - a Mail Transfer! For goodness' sake. I go back to BoB, which by this time is full of people, but eventually I get to the front of the queue and get them to change it to TT - Telegraphic Transfer'. First lady is shocked. She says 'but you have to pay 80 dirhams for that!', and I say it's not a problem.
Anyhoo, got it changed, and it'll be there in 2 days. But how interesting that this lady sold me the cheap but slow option, and when I queried the intended slowness of the service she did not even think to offer the more expensive but faster service. Hmmm. Not destined for a career in marketing, methinks.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Adobe Eats Macromedia
Why am I worried? Well, Adobe's offerings are somewhat more expensive than Macromedia's, and Adobe's interface design has always been lousy. Macromedia, on the other hand, have developed an extraordinarily good-looking and easy to use interface for their products.
I don't know what this takeover actually means for Macromedia - it may be that Adobe wants MM so that their products can share this common interface (yeah right). But for MM customers I think we can expect to see prices rising.
Saturday, April 16, 2005
When I get home after the soiree, I decide to take the entire bin out, plus a couple of carrier bags that had accumulated beside it over the last few days. I get down to the Molok, chuck in the bags and then attempt to empty the contents of the bin into it. Regrettably, I am too tired and emotional to hold onto our kitchen bin and so it goes into garbage hell along with its liner and the contents thereof. Bugger. It's too dark to see how far down it is (remember the Molok bin is about 3 metres deep). I am a bit distressed at the loss of the bin, and when I get back into the apartment I am even more distressed because I cannot find the cans of bierre that I had brought back from Bills. Dang. I assume that I have somehow taken them out with the rubbish and cast them into the pit of oblivion.
Up bright and early this morning, I have a quick look in the Molok. Joy, joy, happy joy, the garbage is only 3 or 4 feet below the top of the bin. While BetterArf holds the lid open, I am able to jump up onto the edge of the hole and lean down and retrieve the bin. But of the cans of bierre there is no sign. Hmmm. Half a result then.
Recounting these events with BetterArf this evening, she is puzzled about the missing bierre cans. She says, 'is that a different set of bierre cans from the set you put in the fridge when you got home yesterday?' Aaaaah. Result!!!
IBM Traffic Snarl
Awesome New Toy
I used to have a Palm 4, about 4 years ago, and it was seriously useful for organising my life. Then it upped and died. I was not a bunny of happiness. But even then what I really wanted was a PDA that was also a mobile phone. Things of that ilk started appearing on the market, but they were hideously expensive and just didn't seem to be worth the money. Plus they all had the form factor of a brick. Recently I've been reading reviews of the PalmOne Treo 650. Every one of them raves about this baby, and I started lusting after it. Anyhoo, throwing caution to the wind, today I bought one!
Oh man, it's awesome! A truly phenomenal piece of kit. You have the usual Palm stuff like Calendar, Memos and Diary. You have the telephone and messaging stuff. You have a camera, with a nifty little feature that lets you draw on a photo (using the stylus). There's a cut-down version of Microsoft Word and Excel. And there's an interWeb browser and email thingie. And all of this can be very easily synchronised with data on your main computer. Fan Bloody Tastic!
So the only thing wrong with this picture is that I have to do a little Etisalat Interaction (my favourite thing, as you know) to get GPRS enabled so I can use the interWeb features of the phone. It wasn't that bad actually, only 2 10-minute waits in call-centre-hell, and then a quick sign-up on their website. The website said that it would be set up within 24 hours, and it costs Dhs 30 a month (plus a small-looking fee for actual data transfer). This is actually the first time I've ever done anything with Etisalat that didn't involve long queues, form-filling and document providing. So yay!
And the phone has just gone beep to tell me there's a message. It's from Etisalat, telling me that the GPRS is now enabled. Yeehaaaa! Gonna play with it some more.
Thursday, April 14, 2005
More Thoughts on Shopping
The developers of IBM and MotE have both realised that the most critical factor for a successful mall is accessibility and parking. IBM built its own interchange on Sheikh Zayed Road, and Mall of the Emirates paid for an access bridge directly onto their site when the Police College Interchange was converted from a roundabout into spaghetti last year.
There are those nay-sayers who wonder whether Dubai can sustain these developments, but I believe it can. IBM is perfectly placed to serve 'New Dubai'. Within a 15 minute drive you have the Gardens, Dubai Marina, the Greens, Emirates Lakes and Emirates Hills and the Meadows. Within 3 years you will also have Discovery Gardens, Jumeirah Beach Residence and the Palm Jumeirah within the 15-minute drive area (when the roads are finished!). This will probably represent a population of about half a million affluent people. Within a 1-hour drive of IBM you can include the entire population of Dubai - currently put at 1.3 million and rising. Within a 90-minute drive you can include all of Abu Dhabi City, another 800,000 people. But a major factor driving retail growth in Dubai is its positioning in the regional market. You actually do get gazillions of people coming from the other Gulf States - shopping as tourism. It doesn't do a lot for me personally, but there are plenty of people out there who just do not have access to the range of goodies we have in Dubai, and who do come here just to buy stuff.
Up until about 5 years ago there was a different kind of tourism shopping. Nouveau riche Russians and CISers would come here, wallets bulging with dollars, and buy as many TVs, VCRs, mobile phones and other items of electrical gadgetry as they could. If you wandered around Deira, you would often see these items stacked on the pavement outside hotels because the hotels had nowhere else to store them.
It was all a bit puzzling to someone who grew up with these things as a matter of course. But then you cast your mind back to any image you've ever seen of Russian domestic technology, and you can see the appeal of a 29" flat-screen colour TV over an antiquated, valve-driven, black-and-white telly with a 5" circular screen mounted in a wooden box the size of a filing cabinet.
But I digress. As one of the world's major ports, Dubai has easy access to any goods kicking about on the world market. And as a major retail market we have most of the big names in 'luxury' goods beating a path to the door. But we also have the old soukhs, and these are very appealing too, especially to Westerners. How much do you pay for about 10 strands of saffron at a supermarket in the West? I'll tell you, you pay about 10 times too much! Saffron here is ridiculously cheap. And gold and jewellery? Persian rugs? Hand-embroidered silk garments?
I tell ya, if buying stuff is your thing, Dubai is the place to buy it.
Ibn Batutta - At Last!
But nothing can prepare your for the experience of being in the central area of the Persian Court. It's an amazing space topped by a huge, ornate dome. You expect to see things of this quality in palaces, grand mosques, cathedrals etc. But you really don't expect to see it in a 21st Century shopping mall. It is utterly magnificent.
And the India Court is no less amazing. It too has a central open area topped by a massive dome, and also a working replica of a clock mounted on the back of an elephant that has to be seen to be believed.
We were not able to see the China Court last night - this was cordoned-off and only VIPs were allowed in. We are only SIPs (Slightly Important People), so we'll have to explore China another time.
Interestingly, the entire 275 units are occupied. The mall was supposed to open in February, and the management had made a deal with the shop-owners to get them all to finish their fitting-out in time for the opening. Any shop that was not completed by the original opening date would suffer financial penalties. But if the mall did not open on time then the shop-owners would be paid for loss of income. There's probably 50-odd shops full of guys a-banging and a-hammering round the clock to get finished, but all-in-all the amount of stuff that is up-and-running is impressive.
So, Dubai gets another landmark.
Sunday, April 10, 2005
Whinging Poms And That
When I first came to Dubai, the Gulf News featured some spoof characters (actually they might have been real) like S. Ganguly and Dr Jingly. These guys were prolific posters and always expressed fairly outrageous views. It were grand. Sadly, for about the last 5 years, there's been nobody like that. What there is is a bunch of people moaning about things they're upset about, and mostly using the letters page as an easy way of complaining about Etisalat, taxis, buses and TV. 'Can the concerned authorities do something about this, that or the other?' And knowing how impossibly difficult it can be to get any kind of complaint or comment to these kinds of organisations, I don't blame them. Gulf News will actually take up your complaint with the relevant organisation, and generally get some kind of answer.
In recent weeks there has been much complaining about rising rents. Nearly everyone here lives in rented property that is owned by UAE nationals. If you are lucky, your company will pay your rent as part of your compensation package. But plenty of people have to pay their own rent. Rents have been increasing of late, by quite serious amounts, and nearly everyone is fed up with it, because their salaries are not increasing at all.
Now there must be some kind of supply and demand situation operating here, or it could just as easily be a cartel. Whatever, it's becoming a big problem and lots of people have been having their say about it in the Gulf News. So it was interesting to see this little beast appear on April 2:
"Stop cribbing – go home! Whinge, moan, whinge ... Am I the only person who is sick of people moaning about rising rents and road tolls?
It is quite simple - if you cannot afford the rents, leave, go back to where you came from ... do us all a favour.
This is a market economy, not a Stalinist state. Also, if you cannot afford to pay a couple of dirhams a day for a congestion charge, sell your car, use a bus, walk, share a car.
Why a certain segment of this population thinks it has a divine right to get everything for nothing is beyond me.
From Mr J. Andrews
Yow, scary stuff hey? We are here as guests of the country and so we have absolutely no right to express an opinion. Marvellous. No doubt Mr Andrews is comfortably off and has no worries about paying his rent. The 'certain segment of the population' he refers to is South Asian, typically earning Dhs 5,000 a month tops (except for a few senior management types and entrepreneurs). And the average rent for a small apartment in Dubai is Dhs 40,000 to 50,000 a year, and Sharjah maybe 30 to 40,000. I have no idea how these folks can manage it.
There is no doubt that the UAE has an economic problem - actually the whole Arabian Gulf region shares the same problem. As a halfway point between the East and the West, the region tries to be all things to all people. 30 years ago, when oil was coming onstream and the locals realised that they were sitting on a serious amount of money, the Gulf was a hardship posting. You had to pay people a lot of money to come and work here. Typically, a Westerner would be paid about twice what they would get back home. South Asians would get about 10 times what they could earn back home (because nobody could exist here if the pay was on a par with Indian or Pakistani wages). Expat Arabs would be somewhere in the middle. Working locals probably get a lot more than Westerners (but they're not letting on). As the place developed, the Gulf stopped being a hardship posting, and became a place that people actively want to come to.
You might want to read this article, Dubai's Fascination With Bigness (heh heh), and in particular the comments attached to the article.
So, pay packages for Westerners are nowhere near as good as they used to be, but a lot of South Asian workers still manage to live very cheaply and send a large proportion of their meagre income back to their families. The economic problem is, how can you have these different groups of people, with seriously different levels of income, and still make it possible for everyone to enjoy a reasonable standard of living? Answer? I'm stuffed if I know.
Saturday, April 09, 2005
The Marvels of Technology
Offspring is now residing in Engerland, and we thought it would be a bit cool (and cheap) to try communicating via webcam. I've tried this before a few years ago, with completely unimpressive results. But technology moves on. We both signed up for Yahoo Instant Messaging, and after a short period of fiddling about were able to get it working and had a jolly good chat.
I remember when I left school to go to college. Not only was there no phone where I lived, but my parents didn't have one! It took a bit of persuading to get them to have one installed. And then I had to go to a payphone with a stack of coins to feed it with. Eeeeh, I don't know, the Olden Days were a bit crap weren't they?
Anyhoo, we did reasonably good video-conferencing over the Interweb. Can't be bad, and Etisalat don't seem to be able to block it.
Which brings me to the topic of VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). This is the future of telephony, without any doubt. They said so on the Beeb World Service Ray-Dee-Oh today. We've had VOIP at Media & Internet Cities since they started 4 years ago (it is, apparently, the world's largest VOIP installation on a single site). But we pay handsomely for it - all calls are charged at about 80% of the Etisalat rate. We also have to pay for local calls, which are free in Etisalat-land. So somebody's making a bit of money on this.
About a year ago, my business partner in the UK suggested we should try Skype. Skype is a free bit of software that enables you to make Interweb voice calls to other people who have the software. So we both downloaded the software, and tried real hard to get it working. We could manage maybe 5 seconds before losing the signal. I suspect that the problem is with Etisalat (from my home) or TECOM (from the office). And their firewalls. If anyone reading this in the UAE has successfully used Skype, I would be deeply appreciative to know about it!
Friday, April 08, 2005
So we bought a couple of DVDs and stayed in watching those. A little-known thing called 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' was practically being given away in the cheapie bin. Amazingly, I have never seen this film before. It was quite good really.
But that was the B movie, the main feature of the evening was 'Shaun of the Dead'. I'd sort of vaguely heard of it in passing. I think it may have been shown here for about 10 minutes. It's not a film with any kind of global appeal, unless you are interested in the almost squalid 'ordinary Englishness' of things. Not that plagues of blood-sucking zombies are that common in England. Very funny, highly entertaining. Buy it now!
Wednesday, April 06, 2005
Channel 4 (based in Ajman!) was a bit of a breath of fresh air when it began broadcasting about 6 years ago. And for a few of those years it employed the services of one Jonathan Miles, whose total lack of reverence for just about anything was a joy to behold. Sadly Channel 4 sacked him in rather bizarre circumstances, and he is now working for a local radio station in Kent.
A couple of years after the launch of Channel 4 we got two new stations, the imaginatively named Radios 1 & 2. I'm far too old to listen to Radio 1 with it's endless stream of rap and hip-hop, but Radio 2 is sometimes worth a listen. R2 is a bit more 'talk-based'. Until recently it had a couple of Kiwi jocks, Shroder Evans and Tanya Burgess, and you can never really get enough of listening to Kiwis mangling their vowel sounds. The station's tagline is 'the Better Mix', and I always wanted to ask Tanya if she could remember the name of the failed VCR format from the 80s (BetaMax, which is exactly how Tanya pronounce Better Mix), just for a laugh and a bit of ritual Kiwi humiliation.
About a year ago, something weird happened to 92 FM. It was kind of taken over by (I think) the company that owns R1 & R2. They got rid of most of the old jocks, and turned the station into I don't know what really. The reason I don't know is that they abandoned the 92 FM frequency, and haven't really bothered to tell anyone what the new frequency is. And nobody has ever rushed up to me and said 'hey you should listen to this great new station, it used to be 92 FM'.
About a week ago, I made an amazing discovery - fiddling about trying to tune the radio in the new car, I heard the sound of Big Ben bonging, and the dulcet tones of an announcer saying 'this is the World Service of the BBC'. Yeehaaaa. Proper talkie radio. No advertising, and absolutely no-one who cannot pronounce 'tsunami'. And plenty of meaningful silence.
Gulf News Throws Teddy out of Pram
"The Ajman police chief should also not forget that the leadership of the UAE, including General Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Crown Prince and the UAE Minister of Defence, has always called for transparency and freedom of the press to obtain information.
"Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Information and Culture, has also called for transparency in public issues.
"These calls, however, are met with deaf ears in some departments.
"We need to see these words converted to deeds, especially by law enforcement authorities in Ajman."
In case you don't know, Ajman is a tiny little backwater on the other side of Sharjah. The fact that it has its own Police Department at all is remarkable.