Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Istanbul shoe-shine scam

As mentioned in the previous post below. For the benefit of future travellers, this is how it works.

Walking back to our hotel, we have just entered a park on the southern bank of the Golden Horn when a slim, wiry fellow overtakes us. About 5 yards ahead he appears to drop a brush.

"Excuse me! Excuse me! You've dropped something" ... how very English.

The guy turns around, asks where we come from ('ah, you are Ingleesh?') and - as he is a shoe-shine guy - invites me to the edge of the path, beckoning me to have my shoes done. I'm confused, is he offering a free shoe-shine in gratitude? Hesitating, I am lost and off we go.

Another guy, who he introduces as his 'brother', joins us and sets up stall a few feet away: Clare is beckoned across to have her sandals done.

My shoe-shiner doesn't have much English, but he is very insistent about the children he has to support - I am given the impression that he has to do this rather menial work so that his children can go on to better things. Which of us has not had similar thoughts about his children?

Actually, he does a rather good job on my ancient walking shoes. We now get to payment time. Still thinking I was getting a favour, I was prepared to give him 5 Lira (about £2) 'for his children'. But now he suddenly becomes a very unhappy bunny. 'Change!' 'Change!' he shouts. We have got used to this cry in Istanbul, indicating the amount is far too small.

"How much?" I asked, in continuing confusion. 'Twenty five Lira' comes back (£10).

Excuse me? At last the worm turns. "Too much!" I exclaim firmly. In the end I was prepared to give him four Lira for myself and four for Clare (around £3.20 in toto)and we just walked away. I guess I was overcharged by a factor of 5-10.

As we walked away, with a bad taste in our mouths, I said to Clare "I bet he dropped that brush deliberately, just to get us into conversation."

"No" she said, "he wouldn't risk the tools of his trade like that."

Back at the hotel we recounted our experience over dinner. It turned out that two other couples had had exactly the same experience that day.

Scams in Istanbul

We were in Istanbul last week (Nov 14th - 20th), a holiday organised by Andante Travels with guide lecturer Professor Trevor Watkins. Trevor is a retired archaeologist from Edinburgh University.

We were pleased to see the usual sights: the AyaSofya Museum (Justinian's great 6th century Byzantine cathedral) and the Blue Mosque (pictured) as well as the great vaulted underground water reservoirs built by roman engineering.

The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed)
We also took the coach to see the Byzantine land walls constructed on the orders of Theodosius II in 413.

Clare at the Theodosius II land walls
The other great Mosque on the Istanbul skyline is the Sulaimaniya, built by the great 16th century architect Sinan. The interior is similar to that of the Blue Mosque, but feels rather 'warmer'.

The interior of the Sulaimaniya Mosque
The Topkapi palace is the other 'must see' in central Istanbul, and as the residence of the Sultan with his harem and Janissary elite troops, it was the centre of the Ottoman empire. Now you can walk around it freely. Here is a view from the palace looking across the Bosphorus to the Asia side.
The Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace
Our general feeling about Istanbul was of great classical architecture - beautiful and monumental - embedded within what is still a poor country. Most of the population live in crowded apartment blocks, there is a lot of rubbish in the streets (and feral cats) and the pavements are in poor repair.

Three feral cats around a fish cart
It seems that the whole population is out to fleece what they take to be wealthy western tourists: we were routinely overcharged in shops, harassed in bazaars by shopkeepers desperate to entice us, and subject to a shoe-shine scam. We did not find the 'retail experience' pleasant.

Still, we were informed that the country has improved by leaps and bounds over the last 20 years.

Monday, November 13, 2006

John Mayall + Chicken Shack

Sunday evening at The Anvil, Basingstoke to see Chicken Shack and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. The Anvil is a large theatre and it was not quite a sell-out. A slight preponderance of men in an audience mostly of couples, but more interesting was the age-homogeneity: this was an audience of fifty-somethings which had grown up with Mayall in the late sixties - like me. Wherever young people are getting the Blues, it was not here, not with these people. (At least not in Basingstoke).

I was underwhelmed with Chicken Shack. An anonymous bassist, drummer and rhythm guitarist overshadowed by the ego of Stan Webb, who presents as an alpha-male working-class rough diamond. Repartee with the audience and a vaudeville feel. This is a band without sparkle doing a workmanlike performance they have done a thousand times before.

The Bluesbreakers were a league above, in terms of crispness, talent and impact. John Mayall came across as a thoroughly nice, somewhat unassuming guy (but so old!) and made a fuss of the band members, especially his new protege Buddy Whittington (click here) who follows in his celebrated line of guitar-heroes (Eric Clapton notably).

Mayall is impressive on keyboard and harmonica and can still sing. Whittington has tight, incisive guitar which sounds a little Claptonesque, although without his inspiration.

Even so, I found my attention wandering some of the time. The Blues is quite a restrictive format, and it's hard not to fall into the rut of overlong improvisations on a predictable bass line.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

On Human Nature

I'm reading Edward Wilson's excellent book "On Human Nature" which really marked the start of the research programme today called evolutionary psychology. (Wilson still prefers the term he coined - sociobiology).

Wilson would have loved a recent example of his thinking. On the BBC nature programme 'Planet Earth' the film crew 'broke the rules' on non-intervention to save the life of an Emperor penguin chick which had become trapped in an ice-hole. Viewers were invited to comment on the ethics of this - of course, overwhelmingly they were in favour. Who could not want to save this cuddly chick? (See picture)

So why the reaction? Do we love all animals so unreservedly? Or do those chicks look awfully like ... human babies?

Suppose the camera crew had been filming a nest of enormous black, slimy, blood-sucking leeches slithering around, and one had come a little too close and fallen into a hole. My vote would have been with the guy with the petrol can and matches!

Interweave Consulting news: Wireless Cities in Newcastle

My current client assignment is with BT as a project manager for the Wireless Cities project, rolling out public WiFi across cities in the UK. My own cities include Newcastle, which went public on Thursday. The local press reported it -- click here.

Public WiFi networks depends on Radio Access Points, (RAPs), similar to a home wireless broadband router, installed on lamp posts. This is how we put them up (not me! I took the photo ...).

A 'cherry picker' putting up a RAP

And this is what they look like when they are up.

RAP mounted on lamp post

The Radio Access Point is larger than a home wireless router because it's housed in a weatherproof container. These are US devices and are hardened against hurricanes and shotgun blasts. Obviously not necessary in Newcastle!

Close-up of RAP

On the current plan, at this stage not a single operational device has been installed, so from a project point of view, this is all work which has to be done over the next few months.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Fireworks night at Penton Grafton

It's been frosty the last couple of nights, as Autumn belatedly made its appearance. Tonight we went down to the nearby village of Penton Grafton for the annual fireworks display. The enormous bonfire was a magnet for the 200-odd people who turned up.

Bonfire at Penton Grafton fireworks display

Here's a shot of Adrian and Clare basking in the heat, just before the fireworks display started.

Coffee and sausage-in-a-bread-roll

My camera phone wasn't much use for the fireworks themselves, so you have to imagine those.

Talking of the camera phone, my 4 GB memory card finally arrived and I now have more music on it than you could shake a stick at. Shame I can't use it on planes ...