Friday, February 29, 2008

Our 'hood in Al Barsha

Today is Friday, February 29th and the first day of the weekend in Islamic countries. I spent the morning catching up on some emails and doing computer maintenance, and lunchtime went down to the excellent Lebanese restaurant on the ground floor. As I was the only diner, I had five waiters looking after me, which I guess is service. The food was absolutely delicious anyway: a Lobster Thermidor made in heaven.

Afterwards I took a stroll out to our 'neighbourhood' to try and find a grocery shop where I could buy some fruit. Naturally, being as observant as an introverted bat with something on its mind, I strolled right past the only grocery shop for miles around, and embarked on a wide tour of our immediate environment. Halfway around, I took the following video - at the end you can see Dubai Ski, the gigantic indoor ski slope which I mentioned in a previous post.

Finally, in the end, almost by accident, I did spot the grocery shop - which is next door to the hotel - and bought some very fresh apples and bananas.

On current plans, I'm back in the UK in a week's time. After that, keep checking this site.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Mall of the Emirates

Running short of essential supplies (green tea) and in danger of death by minibar chocolate, I decided to walk up to the Mall of the Emirates, one of the biggest Malls in the world. It's about 15 minutes walk from our hotel here, and halfway I turned around and took a picture of the way I'd come. Yes, the hotel is literally in the middle of a construction site.

The Mall itself is quite familiar to those of us who have spent too much time in Basingstoke Mall ("Festival Place"). The only real difference is that it's ten times larger and there are a few more people around in Arabic clothing, not that you can see any in the picture.

The big surprise is the huge picture window on one side of the Mall, through which you can see the indoor slope of Ski Dubai. Yes, it's also enormous. In the summer it's more than 40 degrees C outside, but I'm sure that doesn't worry them. A rather tedious Mall video I took (3gp, 90 seconds, 2MB) can be downloaded here.

In case I'm giving the impression that Dubai is a building site with a few Malls, the place where we're working - called The Greens - has a more tranquil, even an oasis-feel to it, as in the picture below. Still the ubiquitous cranes though.

One of the pleasant things about Dubai -apart from the warm weather! - is that it feels entirely safe. This lack of crime is explained by the fact that almost 90% of the population are expatriate: the indian construction workers, Pakinstani taxi drivers, Filipino hotel staff and European and American "professionals", as we like to be called.

Dubai law is draconian as regards expats: you can basically be deported for almost anything, and you can never come back. For example: suppose you were here with your family and your kid did something silly, like spray-painting some graffiti. You and your family will be deported. I hate to say this, but it works (there is, for example, absolutely no graffiti on the many available surfaces).

You may recall we have a Radio 1 DJ, "Grooverider" currently doing a four year term here because the Dubai authorities found a spliff in his luggage when he flew in to DJ a gig last November. They don't mess around.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Catch 22 with the GSM network

Every time I try to use my mobile phone I get a recorded voice in Arabic and I can't progress. Sending a text, a message comes back "message blocked".

For a long time I believed that this was due to network congestion and so I blamed the local mobile operator. Eventually the correct reason occurred to me: I had transgressed my £140 credit limit. I called customer services and paid £100 into my account from my credit card. "Wait half an hour," she said "turn your phone off and then on again. You'll be fine."

Did that, and made a trial call. The Arabic lady came on the line again and this time I hung on. The recorded announcement eventually finished and was replaced by an English voice telling me my ability to make outbound calls had been suspended. I should call 155 to get unblocked.

Fine. I called 155. A familiar recorded female Arabic voice responded ...

I get mixed reports about how well Skype works here - definitely time to move on that, though. I'll pop round to the local Mall of the Emirates and buy a cheap call-centre style headset. The challenge is to persuade someone as technophobic as Clare to install Skype on the home machine. I knew I should have set all this up before I left.

I hear that in England right now it's freezing. Well folks, it's a little humid, but otherwise I would say that here in Dubai we're on the right side of 20 degrees and of course it's sunny. Feels like June in fact.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Wild and constrained life in Dubai

On the bus this morning, as we were going to work, and were stuck in traffic, we saw a wonderful little wildlife scene.

At the side of the road (no pavement) there was a circular area of baked white clay. I guess the base of a pond which had long dried up. To the side the ground rose slightly as gravel, and here were located 15 to 20 small, noisy brown birds, loitering and chattering to each other.

In the centre of the white, cracked area was an albino cat, quite motionless and in hunting mode, flat on the ground. It would creep forwards a metre or so, and the nearest birds would flutter to the other side of their group. Why do cats bother? Not a chance.

Coming back this evening, we took a long, long way round to avoid the traffic. This time we passed not wildlife, but a construction compound for labourers. Behind the adobe-looking walls were rows of huts, and over the gate the big sign said Chinese State Construction Engineering Company. It didn't look easy to get in or get out.

The times are uncertain. There was thick mist this morning and it has been quite humid all day. It turns out that Dubai has weather.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

10 days in Dubai

Logged on this evening from the hotel and the edit page came up completely in Arabic - Blogger being too smart for its own good. After a detour via French, I'm back in Anglais (Royaume-Uni).

The last few days, the weather has really warmed up here. Newspaper articles about infants crying from the cold because of an unseasonal 5 degrees C have ceased, as has the run on gas heaters. We were all cowering under an umbrella in the 25 degrees sun at 1 p.m. today, and it threatens to get to 30 soon.

Given the reputation of Dubai as a holiday getaway, I'm surprised at how expensive it is. A week or ten days at the beach doing the sights, with good meals and a bit of shopping thrown in could easily set you back a four figure sum. This is further validated by the number of really smart cars on the road - plenty of Porsches and Ferraris, while every other regular car is a Toyota.

Needless to say, our accommodation is considerably cheaper, and we take the hotel bus to and from work every day.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Friday night at Madinat Jumeirah

At last we’ve been introduced to a more tourist-friendly part of Dubai. One of the team, an old Dubai hand, took us to the coastal resort of Madinat Jumeirah, where creeks have been dug into the sand and an olde-worlde warren of bijou shops, restaurants, hotels and clubs created. Water-boats chug around between piers – hop-on and hop-off.

No expense has been spared, and beautiful people from a diversity of nations wander opulent corridors and walkways of Ottoman empire-style elegance. Over it all, lit up in blue, towers the Burj Al Arab, the world’s only 7-star hotel. Bathetically, it rather reminded me of Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower.

The view from Madinat Jumeirah looking to the coast

We’re working at “The Springs”, near Dubai Internet City, and our new hotel is only a few kilometres away, at Al Barsha. From my 6th floor window I can see the Burj Al Arab (pictured).

My hotel room view

But as you can see, nearer at hand, the hotel is in the middle of a construction site! My somewhat noisy home for the next two weeks.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Dubai in the morning

“Ooh” she squeaked. “You’re going to be met at the airport by someone from the hotel.”

“The difference between you and me, Clare,” I said, “is that you think that that’s going to happen.”

To be fair, I had watched my bag make three entire excursions around the carousel before I finally stopped believing BA had lost it - it looked so small there, somehow, against how I had remembered it. As I got out of my taxi at the hotel it must have been half past midnight and I was tired, deaf (the remains of my cold and the descent) and too disorganised even to ask for a receipt.

This morning I threw back the curtains at 7 a.m., eagerly anticipating my first daylight view of Dubai. Here is what I saw.

Advancing on the window, I was able to get the panoramic view.

Dubai, at least from a taxi, is a traffic-clogged set of six lane highways which crawl past giant skyscrapers, most as yet unbuilt, and some whose state of completion is not entirely clear. Around the base of each skyscraper are tired-looking, scruffy shops dealing in furniture, Kodak film processing and carpets.

As I was being driven the 15 miles (well over an hour!) to where we were working this morning, the driver proudly stated “All immigrants, see? Not a single native inhabitant in sight.” And indeed, the Indians were driving the taxis and doing other white collar jobs, the Filipinos were building the skyscrapers and doing manual work, while the east Asians (Koreans?) seemed to have cornered the hotel front office trade.

I wish I could say it’s really hot here, but to be honest I saw the outside world at 7.30 a.m. and again at 6.30 p.m. and both times it seemed rather chilly. Inside it was all air-con, and that was rather chilly too.

Department of infeasible coincidences. As I stood with colleagues outside the anonymous business office in Ali Jebel, south of Dubai City, waiting for someone to find a taxi home, I was hailed by this bloke who had come outside for a smoke. “Nigel? Nigel Seel? Is that you?” It was Jim B., still with Nortel, who I had last met in 1996 I guess, when I was working on a long-forgotten product called the Multimedia Carrier Switch. Amazing.

As I was trying to work out what had gone wrong with the heating in Dubai, Clare informed me by phone that for an exorbitant fee, the plumber had finally managed to make our boiler work. I missed it by a day!

On the way back to Dubai City, as we crawled for an hour through incredibly dense traffic to the accompaniment of the taxi driver’s radio, which was playing the Dubai version of Radio 1 with an estuary English DJ and a soundtrack of gangsta rap, I turned wearily to one of my companions and asked what exactly Dubai had going for it, based on evidence so far.

“The beach and the shopping malls.”

I could add that all the electric plugs are English – a decided advantage. At its commercial cultural core, Dubai is neither Arabic nor American. We made it in our image - it's English.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Canary Wharf to Dubai

My assignment amid the windwept rain- and sleet-lashed towers of Canary Wharf completed on Friday and I retured to our little Penton Corner home to recover from the heavy cold which plagued my final week. As the heating still doesn't work for reasons too tedious to outline here, this continues to involve a number of creative measures to keep individual rooms warm, as well as dressing like a polar bear.

Tuesday, however, I am off to Dubai, where it is a sunny 25 degrees - it's a communications systems design assignment for a new facility out there.

Roy Simpson wrote to me that he had discovered a "Simpsons Paradox" - no relation to himself, unfortunately. It reminded me of when I was working for Cable & Wireless in the states. I got selected to go to a meeting of an organisation called Vanguard, which allowed telecoms execs to meet with Internet luminaries and marvel at their intellects, while paying them substantial sums of money.

In the course of one such debate, Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet and a towering ego, got into an argument with Andrew Odlyzko, a mild-manned and very smart mathematician (one of his key articles here). Metcalfe was never going to lose this argument, irrespective of the facts of the matter, and closed by stating: "I've had a law named after me - what about you?"

Aparently when the allegedly-almost-autistic Paul Dirac met the young Richard Feynman for the first time, there was a painful silence until the great physicist said exactly the same thing: "I've had a law named after me - have you?"

I didn't hear what Feynman would have replied. Maybe "not yet"!