Friday, September 30, 2005

The Wrong Trousers

Before my recent holiday I bought myself a pair of lightweight walking trousers. They were extremely baggy, had lots of pockets with zips and were exceedingly comfortable. The only problem was that they were about three sizes too big, but that was OK as long as I wore a belt.

I almost came unstuck while going through security at London Stansted on my way to Dublin. This was a week after the 7/7 bombings, so security was extra tight. I went through the X-ray machine and of course it went beep. It always, always does. I was instructed to remove belt and shoes and to have another go. I must have looked a bit suspicious, clutching at my belly to keep the trousers up, and was directed towards a chap who politely asked me if he could frisk me. I asked him if I could put my belt back on, otherwise I could only stick out one arm at a time. A bit fiddly, but they eventually let me continue on my way.

Returning from Dublin I made sure I wore trousers that could stay up without the aid of a belt, and when I got to the X-ray machine I put my shoes through it. I go through the arch, and it goes beep. It always, always does. I am directed to a frisky looking bloke and I adopt the scarecrow stance. He asks me where my shoes are, and thinks it's deeply suspicious that I put them through the machine without being asked to. Ah well, so much for trying to save a bit of time.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

I (heart) Saudi

I've just discovered an interesting Saudi Blog - Farah's Sowaleef - I came across it because of some comments I'd made on The Religious Policeman's blog - the post in question is entitled 'It's Good News Day! '. There seems to be a state of open warfare between these two people, with Farah being a youngish student in Riyadh, and luvvin' it, and Al Hamedi being the miserable old git exiled in England. Farah and many of her commenters doubt the veracity of Al Hamedi's claims to be a genuine Saudi. To which I say 'why claim to be Saudi if you're not?'. Bah. Have a read through Farah's blog though, it's very interesting and it might even make you want to visit. Not that they'd give you a visa or make you feel welcome or anything.

While we're on the subject of Saudis, Dubai is awash with them this week. It seems that 30-40,000 of them have come over to try to buy shares in the ludicrously underpriced IPO of Dana Gas. I had to visit my bank yesterday, and in the taxi on the way we were twice cut-up by cars bearing Saudi plates, and once stopped and asked for directions to a particular bank. When we got to my bank I could barely get through the doors, and the noise was unbelievable. The queue that was trailing out of the front door curved round to the staircase and up across the mezzanine floor, where, presumably, the applicants were being dealt with in an appropriate manner.

Apparently the big hoo-hah is because this particular IPO has been made available to all GCC nationals, rather than just UAE nationals. But in order to apply for the shares, you have to physically get a form from one of the participating banks in the UAE. Of course there's no guarantee that you will be allocated anything, and it looks like the whole thing is turning into a bit of a fiasco.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Your Number One Favourite Newspaper

Welcome to the fold, Emirates Today. It's about a week old, and already has done at least two pieces on our lovely blogging community.

Will it be a winner? I think that's a definite maybe. Their USP be seems to be that you get a lot of content in a small package. It's a one-piece tabloid - no magazines, no advertising paper-ettes. Just one fat newspaper, like they were in the olden days before they started splitting themselves up into more and more sections (and thereby, of course, wasting more and more trees). So that's a good thing - I have always been irritated by the sheer volume of paper that publishers seem to think their customers want.

ET seems to have a good bit of writing talent, and a no-nonsense approach to news. There's hardly any advertising at the moment, but I'm sure that will change as they develop a stable readership and can deliver readers to advertisers. But they don't have any comic strips, and I'm sure GN won't let them have Dilbert, so I think my two dirhams will stick with GN rather than ET.

Oh, and I'm not impressed by ET's design. It looks cheap and lacks class. The first time I saw the masthead I thought someone had spilt red ink or blood on it. Hmmm.

From Bad to Worse

What is the Gubment thinking? Today's Gulf News carries a story about the newly-established Telecoms Regulatory Authority. You might, in your naivety, think the TRA would be responsible for protecting the interests of consumers. But it turns out that they see their job as being exactly the opposite of that. It seems they exist to protect the interests of the duopoly partners.

They are saying there will be no opening up of the telecoms sector for at least ten years! Strangely, Etisalat are very happy to set up competitive networks in other countries (Saudi Arabia being their latest new market), but we'll have none of that at home, shukran.

I really, really, can't believe this.

'The TRA is working out a price-control mechanism to eliminate the possibility of a price war.

"We do not want a price war in the market. The two companies can compete on technology and service superiority," he (TRA Director General Mohammad N. Al Ghanim) said, without elaborating.'

How very cosy.


GIT ex

Here we go then. Today was the first time I've visited the Gulf Information Technology Exhibition in four years. You'll be thrilled to know that I don't think I missed anything. But I had a right hard time getting in just to check. They are proudly proclaiming that this is their 25th year, but looking at the registration process you could be forgiven for thinking they'd never ever done it before. I arrived at 10.30 a.m., and the queues near the main entrance were very long indeed. I headed off to the registration areas that were as far away from the main entrance as possible.

When I got to the far end of the building I saw a pile of people in front of a desk manned by two ladies. I could not make any headway in this melee, so I slipped round the back of the desk and asked the lady for a form. She more or less told me to f@#k off back into the queue. That I did, but ten minutes later I was no further on, while a few dozen people with much pointier elbows than me had been seen to. I'm sorry, I just cannot do the marching obliviously to the front of the queue thing. I can't do the 'queue, what queue?' thing. And I certainly can't do the thing with the elbows.

I went round to the back of the desk again, and the woman once again told me to f@#k off. I was on the point of abandoning the whole business, really I was. I approached an official-type person for a little moan about the shambolic nature of it all. Somebody was passing by and gave me an invitation form. I should mention at this point that I have dozens of these invites from various companies. But I never realised how important these things could be, so they all went into the round file. Being given a freebie was slightly wonderful, all I had to do was tick a few boxes. And then get the witch to stamp it.

Gsaaah! Eventually I got to the front of the pile, and got my form stamped. Then I had to stand in a very long queue where operators retype the details from your form and print out your ID card. So I think it took less than an hour to get in. Is that a cause for celebration or what?

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Well, I asked for a few hits and I got 'em! 15,003 and counting...

Hit Me!

My little hit counter is inching its way towards 15,000. I could just click the refresh button a few times, but that would be cheating. I could also go to the SiteMeter website and fiddle with the number, but that would be cheating also.

So come on people, hit me now!

Friday, September 23, 2005

Bankrupt By Any Other Name

The excrement continues to interact with the mechanical ventilation device. Al Hamed is the company that employs the guys who invaded Sheikh Zayed Highway last week to protest at non-payment of their wages.

Al Hamed's spokesperson has said
1) They currently have five active construction sites, and they pay the guys in rotation monthly (which means you get paid one month in five).
2) They are owed Dhs 100 million by clients for completed buildings.
3) They have a company policy of always keeping the guys 2 months in arrears with their salary to stop them absconding.

None of this surprises me that much - I've been in the Gulf long enough to have seen all these ideas in action. I am surprised that the company has apparently handed over finished buildings but not been paid for them. What steps is the company taking to recover this money? Do they think the 'owners' just forgot to pay?

The policy mentioned in item 3 is utterly disgraceful, not to mention illegal.

We seem to be talking about a company that is actually insolvent. But the UAE has no proper legal mechanism to deal with bankruptcy. If it did, the company could apply to have its non-paying clients closed down, and then seize and sell the assets of that client. Likewise, the company itself could apply for bankruptcy, which would give the owners some protection against their creditors and offer them a way out of what seems like an impossible situation.

The lack of a bankruptcy law is a major, major hole that needs to be plugged as soon as possible. The big guys have to pay the medium-sized guys, who can then pay the smaller guys and then the individuals can get paid. But companies that get into financial trouble need to have a way to solve the problem, without having to spend time in jail or (in the case of lots of expats) run away. Jailing people for debt has never been a great idea - I know we used to do it in the UK until about 100 years ago - if you have no money, and are prevented from earning any, how are you supposed to fix the problem?

I have done work for various Government Departments in the UAE, and some of them really have a good grip on the idea of prompt payment. Others, though, are completely clueless and seem to think that it benefits the country by delaying payment for as long as possible. And this is completely inexplicable given that there is a Hadith that says something like 'you should pay a man for the work he does for you before the sweat on his brow is dry.'

Kate Moss

I can't believe what this woman has just done to her career. Being photographed snorting massive amounts of what can only be cocaine, and not realising the likely consequences of that on her long-term contracts...

"In Kate's world everyone takes cocaine and she has been staggered by how outraged everyone has been,' said a source close to her.

Good grief. I wonder if she knows she will be arrested, tried, and locked up for a very long time when she returns to the UK?

Taxis Again

I'm still without wheels and using a combination of busses, taxis and walking to get around. Actually most of the time it's still far too hot to do any serious walking, so that doesn't happen too much. Over at Twisted , he's complaining about taxi drivers who whinge or just plain refuse to accept a Dhs 10 fare from the local hypermarket when they've been waiting in a queue for a long time hoping to get a big fare into Dubai.

I agree with some of what Twisted says, and it is of no concern to me whether the driver has been waiting several hours - that's his choice. I'm certainly not going to carry the week's shopping to my house in this climate!

Generally, though, I think Dubai Transport offers a reasonable service. Not all the drivers are as safe or considerate to passengers as they should be, but that's another issue. Recently I needed to get to Media City in a hurry, so I ordered a taxi. It usually takes 5-10 minutes for one to show up, so when I was still waiting after 20 minutes, I called DT again. They could not find my booking on their system. This would mean that either a taxi had shown up and somebody else had taken it, or the booking was not input in the first place. Hmm. The operator ordered another taxi and said it would take 20 minutes. I protested that it should not take more than 5 minutes, pointing out that there are always at least a dozen cabs waiting just down the road at Ibn Battuta Mall. She told me there were no taxis in the area, and the nearest one was coming from The Lakes!

Well, twenty minutes is a bit optimistic to get from The Lakes to the Gardens, but I didn't have a choice. And I was right, the taxi actually arrived after 35 minutes. As we drove past IBM I counted the waiting taxis - 23 of the buggers. I phoned Dubai Transport again and spoke to the Assistant Operations Manager who apologised profusely and told me the system had been down and was not showing the taxi locations. I explained that I couldn't understand why a taxi at The Lakes had picked up the order when there were almost two dozen cars at Ibn Battuta.

Needless to say I was hideously late for my meeting, and bubbling with frustration when I finally arrived.

Monday, September 19, 2005


Secret Dubai has been having a go at Gitex, the massive annual Computer exhibition in Dubai. I agree with what she says, it can be a very unpleasant experience. In fact I only go once every two or three years and I have an awful suspicion that this year I will have to go!

This morning I went to the Cityscape exhibition. This is much more manageable as it only occupies two halls. I only went because I love looking at architectural models - the one for FalconCity was particularly spectacular, even though it is a very silly project.

On my way into Dubai I passed a remarkable sight - hundreds of construction workers had completely blocked the Jebel Ali-bound carriageway of Sheikh Zayed road, apparently as a protest against non-payment of wages and poor living conditions. How they actually managed to get the traffic on the road to stop without anyone being hurt is a mystery to me, but the traffic was completely stopped and backed up for at least 5km when I passed the incident.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Less is More

In the design community, the aphorism 'less is more' is a very important concept. It means that if you remove anything that is unnecessary to your design, you finish up with something that is somehow more satisfying to the end user. In fact, thinking about it, I did a pretty good bit of less-is-moreism yesterday. I'm building a website for a company whose business is a seasonal activity that coincides with the school year.

Each year, they have to tell the system driving the website what the start and end dates are for each term (semester). I sat down and started building the page where they input these dates. What I could have done was this: have an input field where you type in the name of the season (e.g. '2005/2006'). And then type in the day, month and year for the start and end dates of each term. But that's quite a bit of work for the site administrator. What I've built is much simpler. Since we know that when they come to change the dates for the season, it will start in the current year, so we have a text entry field pre-filled with this year ('2005'). From that we know that the start and end year of the Winter term is currentyear, the year for the start and end of the Spring and Summer terms is 'currentyear + 1', and also that the name of this season is 'currentyear/currentyear + 1'. We also know that the various terms almost always start and end in certain months, so those are pre-selected by default.

So when the administrator comes to change the dates, instead of having to point, click and complete 19 different fields, it is only necessary to input the day (number) of the start and end of each term - 6 clicks only. Of course, doing it this way involves a fair bit of nasty Javascript programming for me, but the end result is a delighted client who just cannot believe how simple it is.

Anyhoo, I didn't start off this post with the idea of ego-massage (it was nice though), it was meant to be a rant about CD-labelling kits. About twice a year, one of my lovely clients calls me and says he wants another 25 / 50 / 100 of his corporate CDs. He won't invest in a large run of CDs, because he tends to change the content each time he does a new run. I have suggested that he should at least get a bunch of labels printed and we'll just stick them on, but this hasn't happened yet. CD labels are a royal pain in the derriere to print and stick on. They really are.

Every time I go to replenish my CD label supplies they have never heard of the brand I'm after and I end up having to buy whatever it is they have. This always involves buying the 'stomper' as well. What's a stomper?, I hear you ask. Well it's the device that aligns the CD and the label and then presses them together. I have lots of these, all completely different and incompatible with other manufacturer's labels. Regrettably I don't think there'd be any money in opening a Museo Di Stomperi DC.

Yesterday I had the call for a repeat order from my client, so off I go in search of either refills for one of my existing stompers, or, more likely, yet another flavour of stomper. What I actually bought has amazed me. I got a couple of 30-packs of Avery CD labels, each of which includes a 'label centering device'. The packs were very slim, and I couldn't imagine how an inflatable stomper would work, but they were also quite cheap so I bought them.

I got home and opened a pack. I located the 'label centering device'. It's a small plastic button that fits over the hole in the CD. You then peel your printed label off the backing sheet, place the hole in the sheet over the button and spread the label out over the disc. It works a treat! It only works, of course, because the labels are 'full-face' meaning that they cover all of the CD, rather than being the traditional and pointless 'donut' that leaves a clear ring around the centre.

So, less is more. I love it - no more stompers!

But speaking of pointlessness, why do CDs have a hole in the middle?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

My Blogroll

My blogroll has been growing alarmingly over the last few months. Of course I blame Secret Dubai for deliberately getting her site banned, thereby sparking lots of media coverage and generating lots of interest from the public (pron, pron, pron, ban me now, this site contains pron).

As a general rule I will add any blog to my blogroll if it is worth reading (in my humble opinion (bwuhahaha). I don't intend to list only local blogs, and I still have a bunch of foreign blogs left over from the early days when it was seriously hard to find decent local blogs to link to (they are still there because they are worth reading).

Recently, though, it's become pretty hard to remember whose blog is which or what blog is whose, so I've just trawled through my Blogroll and added little descriptions to most of them. Don't be offended if your entry didn't get changed, it means I can remember who you are without a prompt!

New Book

I'm probably the only person on the planet who hasn't read the latest Harry Potter (Hairy Porter and the Half-Dead Pringle), but I've been busy. Anyhoo, I spotted it for sale at our local Choithram's earlier. This branch doesn't normally sell books so I was a bit surprised to see it nestling between the baked beans and the canned tomatoes. A snip at Dhs 99.

Good News

Gulf News reports that Dubai Municipality is planning to build low-cost housing in and around Dubai. "We want low-income groups of people to spend not more than 30 per cent of their income on accommodation," said Engineer Abdullah Abdul Rahim, Director of the Planning and Survey Department at the Municipality.

Not quite sure how that would work, or how they would verify it, but this is a tremendous move by DM. The first two sites will be in Al Ghusais and Al Quoz, with many more planned for the future.

And also...
The qualifying threshold for Social Security payments for UAE nationals is to be raised by about 75%. The example given is for a couple with 3 children. Under the old system if their income was below Dhs 3,125 they would receive payments to bring them up to that level. The same family size will now qualify if they fall below the threshold of Dhs 5,468. Not a huge amount of money by any means, but better than a slap in the face with a wet fish, as they say.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Dear Anon

Hey fans,

I switched off anonymous posting to this blog a few weeks ago, but I've been missing all the abusive anonymous posts, so I've switched it back on again. Comment away! But I would appreciate some little snippet of identification from the poster.

The UAE Labour Market

More piffle confusion on the movement of labour front.

Workers still need to get the approval of their former employer if they want to change their jobs, unless they have worked for a minimum period of time with the first employer. Bizarrely, this length of time is determined by the level of education of the potential transferee. Post-graduate degree holders can switch after one year. Bachelor's degree holders can switch after two years. All others have to wait three years. But wait! You can override these conditions if you pay money! The conditions also do not apply under certain other conditions, such as the closure of the company due to the death of the owner, transfer of ownership of the company, non-payment of wages etc. You might think that these circumstances would automatically entitle a worker to the right to change his job, but they haven't done previously, and the onus is on the worker to prove that one of these situations applies. Employees in the Government and Free Zones are exempt.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. I don't get it. The UAE is supposed to be pro-business, encouraging entrepreneurship etc. I can understand one thing about why the labour market needs a bit of control (and I mean a bit). It has to do with the economics of hiring and training workers.

Sometimes, an employer pays to import workers. Sometimes, those workers get a bit of training. So that makes the employee a little bit more valuable in the local labour market. Therefore the employer should not have to 'suffer' if those people up and leave for better prospects or working conditions. In those cases, it would be fair to say that the employee has to complete at least one year with the original employer. And the reason for specifying 'one year' is that, by law, the employer then has to give the employee paid leave and a return air ticket to the point of origin, and that puts everybody back at square one, financially. In a case where an employer pays for additional training for an employee, then the employee can sign an agreement with the employer whereby he will re-imburse the costs of that training on a pro-rata basis if he leaves within an agreed period - I've had to do that with companies I've worked for in the UK, and I think it's perfectly fair.

So how do you stop an employee leaving? It's a tough question, I know, but I suspect it might have something to do with treating them well, paying them on time, and making them feel like their contribution is valued. It should have nothing at all to do with rules from the government.

This whole thing strikes me as being primarily aimed at controlling labour in the construction industry. As you all know, there is a stupendous amount of construction going on in Dubai. The big construction companies need thousands and thousands of workers to be able to complete a job. And a big construction company might be building several large projects simultaneously. But sooner or later, the work is done, and suddenly you have a thousand workers standing around twiddling their thumbs. Maybe there's another project starting in a few months' time. Or maybe there's a chance of another project, but you won't know until the decision is made in six weeks' time. Do you hang onto your workers in case the next job happens? Or do you let them go? The sensible thing would be to let them try to find other work in the slack time. Or rent them out to another construction company who's suddenly got a big project but can't get enough labour in for three months. But you cannot legally do that here. That flexibility doesn't exist.

So the industry is caught between a rock and a hard place - it's not easy to recruit and process a thousand guys for your next project. And I can imagine that owners of big construction companies have lobbied various government people and said 'we are in a cyclical business - we pay a lot to recruit workers and we need to be able to keep them hanging around just in case we need them', and that's how we got where we are. Don't know, just speculating.


Small Steps

Three stories that caught my eye today:

Etisalat to cut the cost of broadband: my connection will now cost Dhs 189 (US$51.45) a month instead of Dhs 250. This is for an allegedly 512Kb connection that is upgraded for free to 1Mb. Whatever speed it's supposed to be, it still costs a lot more than it should, even at the new price.

Dubai Creek Water Taxi (abra) fares are set to double from 50 fils (13 cents) to 1 dirham. This is the first increase in twenty years! The abras are wonderful things - you sit on a long box down the middle of the boat, back-to-back with the folks on the other side. You brace your feet against the edge of the boat, and you hang on tightly to your camera and mobile phone. It's absolutely the quickest and cheapest way to cross the creek, and I love it. There's talk of introducing solar powered abras, but I like the stench of diesel fumes emanating from the bit where the driver sits.

The third item has turned into a bit of a dissertation, so I'm gonna slap it into another post.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Ras Al Khaimah is complaining that nobody takes it seriously. Ah well. I've only ever really been there once.

About ten years ago.

We were fairly fresh in the country, and decided that we should really check it all out. So one weekend we jumped in the Jeep and headed up to RAK. We took stuff for a barbecue, and were looking forward to a nice day on the beach. After all, the place was recommended by Anna, BetterArf's sun-worshipping buddy, who would go up there at least once a month.

Well, we got to RAK Town: nothing much there. We headed off to the beach, which was strewn with the skeletons of goats, sheep and at least one camel. Maybe they had recently had some traditional animal-slaughtering festival. Maybe the stuff was washed up by the sea. Maybe this was just where animals went to die. Whatever, we couldn't figure it out, but we certainly weren't going to do a barbecue there. I think we had a quick lunch at one of the little hotels, and then drove back to Dubai as quickly as possible.

Sometime later BetterArf asked Anna about her pre-occupation with RAK. 'Oh no, I don't go for the beaches, my tailor lives there!'. Ah, so now we know.

Anyway, I'm probably being terribly unkind to Ras Al Khaimah, and after ten years it might be about time to give it a second chance. I'll be sure to let you know if we do.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Arrivaderci Oasis

One of Dubai's more popular medium-sized malls has been completely gutted by a fire. The Oasis Centre on Sheikh Zayed Road caught fire in the wee small hours and apparently the sprinklers didn't work. I'm just astonished that a fairly modern building (only about six years old) was unable to stop itself from burning to the ground. No humans were hurt in this incident, but tragically the entire stock of the Petland pet shop perished.

I think we can trust this news report - I'm really not expecting a withdrawal, reversal or denial tomorrow.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Taxi Tips

Inspired by this post on Desrt Idleness, I offer my own observations on tipping taxi drivers. My basic principle is that I will tip about 10% to good, safe drivers.

I will not tip drivers who pretend to have no change and kind of assume that the tip is theirs by right. I will never tip drivers who think they can manouevre a car round tight corners with only one hand on the wheel. Nor the ones who drive too fast and too close to other vehicles - they usually get rewarded by a question-and-answer session on stopping distances.

The ones who only wear their seatbelt when going onto the highway are also not getting a tip. Just like their colleagues who use their mobile phone without a hands-free.

Tough old sod I am.

But I made one guy's day recently when I told him to keep the change from a Dhs 20 note for a Dhs 14 fare.

'?!', he says.

'You're a very good driver - you earned it'.

Happy Birthday Keefieboy!

Today is the First Anniversary of Adventures in Dubai!

Actually, it isn't, it's one year and three days. I got confused because when you go to the archive for September 2004, the first date you see is the 24th. But that's actually the last post of the month, not the first. So I missed it.

But to celebrate this momentous event, I had planned to create a new blog containing the highlights of the year - maybe 3 or 4 articles from each month. idon't have time to do the whole thing now, but I've done the first two and a half months. It's at Keefieboy's Highlights.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Cultural Misunderstandings

What do you call your evening meal? Probably dinner. But us English seem to have a problem with that. It's too easy, I suppose. Depending on where you come from in England, and your 'social class', the various meals of the day can have different names. I will attempt to explain.

Breakfast is always breakfast.

The midday meal is 'lunch' if you live in the South. 'Luncheon' if you are posh, wherever you live. If you live in the North, it's 'dinner'.

The main meal of the day is 'dinner' if you live in the South, 'supper' if you are posh. 'Tea', if you live in the North. Northerners may also have a snack before going to bed, and this is called 'supper' I don't know if Southerners or posh people have an equivalent.

Aspirational middle-class folk will always use the Southern terminology, no matter where they live. Oh, there's also 'afternoon tea' but I'm not sure how that fits into anything. And 'elevenses', but I don't call a cup of tea and a biscuit a meal.

What's brought this on? I can hear you asking. Well, BetterArf is now back at work and yesterday invited one of her colleagues round for tea. 'Hell no, I'm not coming for tea! I'm an American, I drink coffee!"

I kid you not.

Monday, September 05, 2005


For reasons that I won't go into here, I have been sans wheels for the last week or so. So I've been using buses and taxis to get around.

We have a marvellous bus service that can take me from just outside my apartment to my office in 20 minutes for Dhs 1.50. This service theoretically runs every 20 minutes. The only problem is that the schedule doesn't take account of rush-hour traffic, so by mid-morning the buses seem to be running more-or-less randomly. The other problem is that there are no shelters at either of my departure points which means that in the summer heat you become a sweating, stinking wreck in almost no time.

But this is about taxis. When I first arrived in Dubai, taxis were run by private operators and they were unmetered. The fares, I think, were set by the police. The cars could be anything from a fairly new and clean Toyota Corolla to a 20-year-old falling-to-bits Nissan Sunny. The state of the drivers was similarly variable.

After we'd been here in Dubai for a few years, the Gubment announced that it was starting its own, smart, taxi service, and the old private cabs would be phased out. So here comes Dubai Transport Corporation with a fleet of brand-new Mercedeses, equipped with GPS-enabled meters and drivers in uniform. Marvellous! Obviously more expensive than what had gone before, but still a fraction of the price that a London cabbie would have to charge you.

After a bit the fleet was expanded, and the cars tended to be Toyota Camry's. More expansion followed, and other operators were allowed to 'compete'. But here's the thing - they were franchised by DTC, and had to charge the same fares.

Dubai Transport has had a pretty nifty booking system for the last few years. If you want to order a taxi, you call them, and if you are in their system it says 'we know where you are, your taxi is on its way'. This only works for landlines at the moment - if they could figure out where your mobile was that would be truly amazing! But it's pretty clever, and saves you having to explain your location every time. A message goes out to any taxi that is close to you (they all have GPS so the computer knows where the cars are), and the first one to get to you is rewarded with an extra dirham on the fare.

Since I've been using taxis again, I've noticed that the original meters in DTC cars are being replaced with a very small unit. The old meters used to be enormous - about 35 x 12 x 20 cms - and glued onto the top of the passenger-side dashboard. The new ones are about 6 x 4 x 1 cm, and screwed into the middle of the dashboard. The space where the old box used to be is covered in bits of epoxy glue that cannot be removed without melting the dashboard.

I was in a cab a few days ago, and the driver couldn't get the new meter to start. He rolled down the road a little way, and then it fired up. He explained that it was connected to the interweb, and with Etisalat's current problems they could not always get online. Hmm. I'd mistakenly shown a bit of interest in this so he was telling me all about the various foibles of this new gadget. How it would set itself to Dhs 20 if you took a speed bump too fast. How it wouldn't tell you the name of the person to pick up if you were answering a booking. Stuff like that.

I had to make a trip this morning. I called DTC and went down to wait outside my building. Taxi pulls up, I get in. 'So, Mr Marwan, where do you want to go?' says the driver (he's got an old meter, and is not scared of speed bumps). I tell him I'm not Mr Marwan, I'm Mr John. 'Oh, OK, never mind, let's go'. Then after a bit of banter he asks me to call Dubai Transport and cancel my booking. I do that, and take the opportunity to hopefully correct a small problem with their database. Ever since they started doing this service, their computer has told them that the bloke who lives in my apartment is called John. Which is a bit bizarre because we are the only folks who have occupied that flat since it was built. I ask the guy if he can change the details.

'Sure', he says, 'Mr Marwan, right?'

Friday, September 02, 2005

Lappy on the Blink

A little over eighteen months ago I bought myself a splendid little laptop computer which I now spend at least eight hours a day looking at. I hardly ever use desktop computers now, because everything I need is on this here laptop.

About five days before the warranty was due to expire, the screen began to flicker in a most annoying manner. On closer examination I noticed that little blue sparks could be seen coming from the cable leading out of the power supply when I wiggled it. Hmm. I switched everything off and unplugged it, and had a good look at this cable. Part of the outer sheathing was worn right through, and bare copper was visible.

So I call the 'service centre' who tell me that this often happens, and that the power supply is not covered by the warranty. Of course it's not, I didn't actually think that anything that is so badly designed that it cannot even withstand a year of normal use would be covered by any kind of warranty. They had a replacement unit in stock, it would cost Dhs 150 (about $41). That was OK, but their location was not - not far from the airport, in a very dense industrial area where parking is almost impossible.

Before going there I decided to try my luck in the computer soukh. Nobody really stocks these things, but I did find one shop who had a bunch of power supplies from various manufacturers, and I gave the guy my broken power supply to look at. He started rummaging in a cabinet, and said he was sure he could find one with the same technical specs. By the way, they're all priced at Dhs 300. I said no thanks, please give me back my broken power supply. He ignored me. I explained to him there was no way I was going to pay twice the real price, please give me back my power supply. He ignored me and kept on rummaging. In the end I had to physically grab the thing off him. He looked alarmed, he'd found one that he said would work. I said that was wonderful, but a) I was not prepared to take the risk, and b) I was not prepared to pay the price.

So off I go to the service centre, manage to find a not-very-legal parking spot about three streets away, trudge through the desert heat, and get fixed up with the real thing. I've been really careful with it, folding the cable properly and not too tightly.

In the last few days the lappie screen has started flickering again, intermittently, and it's not the power supply this time - it still does it if I use battery power. So it's either the power feed through the hinge, or a dodgy internal connection. Bugger. Things like this are hardly ever cost-effective to fix, and I really don't want to fork out for a complete new laptop right now.


Call Cabins

This article on The Emirates Economist reminded me of something long buried in the mists of time. I'm referring to the bit about 'call cabins' losing revenue due to the Saudi Telecoms Company (STC) beginning to provide a better level of service.

Before I came to Dubai, I worked in Riyadh for a year. Calling home was always a difficult exercise. I couldn't call from the office, and I couldn't get a phone installed in my apartment because the waiting list ran to several centuries at that time. So I had two alternatives;
1) Use a payphone.
2) Use a call cabin.

The problem with option 1 was that payphones would only take 'old' ten-halala coins. A smaller version of this coin had been introduced previously, but STC had never got around to converting their payphones to use it, so you had to find the obsolete version of the coin if you wanted to make an international call. Well, these coins were no longer in general circulation, because some canny old men had spotted a niche market and were exploiting it ruthlessly. They would somehow manage to collect all available old 10 halala coins, and they would hang around clusters of phone booths and sell a bag of nine coins for ten riyals. It was always a challenge to find one of these geezers when you needed coins, but there's nothing much else to do in Riyadh of an evening so I didn't mind all the wasted time too much.

After a few months of doing this somebody told me about option 2, call cabins. These are basically Portacabins equipped with maybe a dozen telephones. And a big queue. When you arrive you give your passport or iqama (ID card) to the operator. This is placed at the bottom of a pile of dozens of others. When it gets to the top, usually several hours later, you can make your call. When you are done, you pay for it using any Saudi coins or notes you care to, retrieve your ID and go on your merry way to spend another night of unbearable excitement in downtown Riyadh.