Archive for September, 2010

Dubai Magic

29/09/2010

Thanks to Gubbi, I have discovered that Dubai has its very own resident magician.

Tomy has even met Paul Daniels.

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Innovating passion

26/09/2010

I saw an ad for GE Healthcare in Dubai airport today.

In de rigueur lower case lettering, it told me that GE have ‘innovative healthcare solutions’.

This current obsession with innovation baffles me. I’ve mentioned Sun’s worst ever ad on this blog before – ‘Passionate about innovation’, probably the most meaningless slogan Sun ever used. It said nothing about what we produced and what we could do. Even for a native English speaker, it’s hard to understand what on earth they were getting at. It was lazy advertising waffle.

Maybe I am simply being thick, or I am not the target market, but the majority of products and ‘solutions’ that are being touted as ‘innovative’ are not things I want to be innovative. It carries negative connontations for me. I think of innovative as being clever but unproven, nifty but unreliable.

I don’t want an ‘innovative’ healthcare solution for me and mine. I want to know that GE produce reliable solutions that work and which are tried and tested. I don’t want a seating solution, I want a chair.

I would also assume that innovation would be part of the process anyway and doesn’t need to be specifically mentioned – if we’re talking technology, saying that your latest product is innovative is pointless, surely? Does it not go without saying that you’ve been innovative? It’s not as if the competition are boasting that they’re producing the same old tat and you have to differentiate by making it clear you’re not.

The steering column in my Range Rover is innovative. It uses all sorts of innovative features to move in and out and up and down when you start the engine or stop it. The only passion it arouses is in its customers when it breaks, because some engineer in Coventry forgot to add robustness to their innovation. The dealer’s pricelist for fixing all these innovations is very innovative when it comes to fleecing customers. These are the things that come to mind when I hear the word ‘innovation’ , unless we’re talking about really high tech stuff, or a really clever and radical rethinking of an otherwise standard product or service.

Apple have go it right – ‘Think Different’ works well for me. They’re taking standard products and doing them really well, or giving them a new twist. I’m not sure if they were the first to do so, but by using ‘different’ rather than ‘differently’ Apple are also part of a slew of slogans using an adjective rather than an adverb. We also have ‘stay different’ (Jumeirah) and various others. Keep an eye out for them – as soon as you start looking, you’ll see they’re everywhere. Attentivate passionately and you’ll notice that this style of tagline ubiquitises global.

So come on, Mad Men of today, start being a bit more innovative when it comes to your campaigns. Be passionately against meaningless blurb and remember it’s not a solution if it’s a standard product that does what that product has always done for years – an x-ray machine, a chair, an oven, a car are not solutions and ‘innovation’ needs to be used wisely, not just slapped on everything because it sounds cool. Copywrite good, please.

Cool off

26/09/2010

I feel sorry for these people.

We have been in the same situation. When we bought our apartment, we were told the service fee would be 8Dhs per square foot. Later it rocketed to 35Dhs per square foot, then came down a bit…. and then went up a bit when we discovered all they had done was split out the cold air fee into a separate invoice.

As the article makes clear – tough luck, investor. You have no choice but to pay up.

We pay 8,160Dhs a year for our ‘cold air’. I haven’t lived in a villa in Dubai, so I’m not sure what you’d pay in terms of power costs if you were running your AC units off the mains, but I would expect it to be less than we are paying in our apartment.

What’s galling is having this fee simply added on to your bill at a random date, with no warning, as happened with us and as has happened to the owners in the development mentioned in the article.

What’s most annoying is the ‘flat fee’ approach – everyone pays the same per square foot, regardless of what you use. In 2010, this is plainly an idiotic way to handle something as energy intensive as air conditioning.

Our development, as with others, has no way at all of measuring what people use and then charging them appropriately. The result is a completely unfair flat rate that encourages wasteful behaviour, resentment and a general desire to stand on your balcony and scream with rage at the way property is managed here.

On top of the flat rate you have to pay, the buildings are inevitably badly insulated – common areas happily spew cold air out through gaps in doors that don’t close properly, or leak it skywards through roofs that aren’t insulated.

A sad state of affairs – incredibly short sighted.

At some point, I’m sure that metering will be introduced. I wonder who’ll bear the cost of implementing that? I had better start saving up for the metering implementation fee. In the meantime, I’ll just sit on my balcony in the 40C heat with the door open, enjoying the nice cool breeze from inside.

Abducted!

24/09/2010

Emirates have various images as ‘welcome screens’ on their (excellent) in-flight entertainment.

This one always makes me think that the hostie’s being abducted by a biker gang.

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If it ain’t broke, fix it

24/09/2010

One of the sad facts of living in Dubai is that if if an area’s settled and been built well, it’s probably not going to be long before it’s dug up, rearranged and probably ruined.

Yes, progress needs to march onwards. I’m baffled though by the decisions being made that ruin existing areas that are actually working really well.

We’re lucky enough to live in an area that’s been well designed aesthetically – it all matches, was reasonably well built by the same developer (at least in terms of the exteriors). The whole feel of the place is good – this contributes so much to the enjoyment of living here.

The developer’s also been very good in terms of making sure that the rules they have that make sure the area keeps its character are adhered to. They are strict about unsightly washing on balconies, satellite dishes, mess, etc, etc.

It’s been a pleasant, reasonably settled place for a while now, at least by Dubai standards.

Inevitably, the fiddling has begun.

The Boulevard is a lovely long curved road with a wide pavement, palm trees and street lights. The palms and streetlights complement the design of the ‘Old Town’ style buildings and the newer towers. The modern part – the Burj Khalifa – towers in the background. It works really well.

Not well enough for someone at the developer though. They seem to think that the area will be enhanced by installing hideous new streetlights. They don’t match the surrounding buildings. They are shiny and new in an area called the Old Town. They are silver amongst the beiges and blue/greens of the buildings. They are sharply angled against the smoother curves of the buildings. They create a weird box like effect across the boulevard and make the pavement area feel crowded.

Without the new lamp posts –

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With new lamp posts –

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These things must have cost a fortune and appear to serve no purpose other than the general uglification of a previoulsy pleasant area.

Who makes these decisions?

It’s such a shame. It’s also a reminder that regardless of whether you’ve invested in the area and are any kind of ‘stakeholder’, decisions that spoil where you live can be made at any time.

There are other odd decisions being made too. Private buildings are coming up in the areas around the development. There appears to have been no vetting of the designs, so the area is developing a crowded, oppressed feeling as one tower after another comes up, way too close to each other and each with a totally different design. On their own, they might look modern and exciting – crowded together the atmosphere they create is not a good one.

Here’s a new private tower being built metres away from a building that’s part of our development.

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This isn’t really a matter of taste, either. Sure, you can’t please everyone when it comes to architectural styles. What I don’t understand is why anyone thinks such a crowded mishmash is a good idea. Forget about whether Chris thinks it looks nice – surely spending so much money on an area that then has no claim to any kind of leadership in architecture and design is a waste of money? Your rental price is going to be higher in an area that attracts people. If you have a complete mess of styles randomly distributed across a bewildering road system, you aren’t going to be able to charge as much as you would for a well thought out area that looks good and is easy to get around.

I used to feel awed and inspired by the construction work I’d see around me in Dubai. Now I typically feel indifferent or depressed when I see so many of the new developments. It’s sad to see such a great opportunity to create something architecturally wonderful squandered. The money is clearly there – it’s just being spent in a way that I find hard to understand.

Sad. I like living here and, yes, I know that if I don’t like it I can leave. I don’t want to leave – I just think it’s sad when reasons to stay are chipped away slowly, for silly reasons.

Some assorted pics of mismatching buildings going up.

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Poor teachers

23/09/2010

How do things like this happen? Baffling.

Beirut car contrasts

21/09/2010

This photo gives a good idea of the contrasting cars you see in Beirut.

A clapped out 80s ear Peugeot next to a new Range Rover Sport. I didn’t blur the Peugeot’s number plate out for any privacy reasons – it boats its own naturally faded look.

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I’m definitely seeing more new Range Rovers on the streets – on previous trips there were new models and lots of previous models, including lots of Classics. The older ones are still there and lots more newer ones are on the streets. What good taste these gentlemen have.

All these Rangies are still vying for space next to the usual bewildering array of every type of car imaginable from the last 40 years. Reliable Japanese models are conspicuous by their absence, which always surprises me.

70s and 80s era Mercedes are still popular. You see some beautifully maintained examples, but more often than not they are like this taxi.

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Utterly filthy inside, with nothing working apart from the radio. I didn’t get a receipt, either.

Yesterday there was a very Beiruti site – Audi R8 dawdling along the motorway, beautiful lady inside this incredible sports car, simultaneously doing her make up, talking on the phone and nearly crashing into a 1960 Mercedes lorry.

My taxi experience from the airport was the usual disaster. I totally forgot to order a hotel car, or a taxi from one of the reliable firms whose numbers I now have.

Surrounded at the airport exit by unshaven men blowing smoke at me, trying to grab my luggage and shouting ’50 dollar 50 dollar 50 dollar’ at me before I could say where I was going, I finally broke free from these ‘official airport taxi drivers’ and was approached by an old man who said he’d take me to my hotel for 20 dollars, which seemed to be a fair price – the airport’s not that far out. I asked him where his cab was and he gestured at a reasonably new Camry. We jumped in to that car – which was already being driven by someone.

I was a bit confused about what was going on. The driver didn’t seem to want us in the car. Lots of shouting went on. We drove off around the corner and the cab stopped, we got out, my luggage was grabbed by the old man and we walked to… his cab.

This car was the dirtiest Peugeot I have ever seen. It only had one window, held in place by a screwdriver.

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A twenty minute drive to my hotel followed, with the car filling up with diesel fumes, as well as the smoke from the driver’s endless series of Lucky Strikes.

We arrived, miraculously, at my hotel. I have to admit I gave the guy a bit extra, as we he was very nice, chatting away in a mix of Arabic, French and English, pointing out where Rafic Hariri was murdered, complaining about all the bad drivers and willing his Peugeot onwards.

The whole experience was both awful and quite amusing. If I’d had a colleague travelling with me it would have been hilarious. On my own it was less so. I do think it’d be a good idea to get some of the guys in the US who make travel policy decisions over to some less developed places and see what we go through sometimes. I’d love to see their faces when they land in somewhere like Douala and the person they think is the hotel driver grabs their luggage, runs off into the car park and gets threatening when you don’t have any change to pay them for their ‘help’, for example.

All in all, after a ten minute escapade to get some change for my geriatric driver (I only had a $50 note), I was smiling when I said goodbye.

Then, as he drove off, I realised I’d forgotten to ask for a receipt.

Travel grump

21/09/2010

Kuwait then home on Sunday I did roam, then Beirut for two nights this week. Next week Oman on Sunday for a night, then two nights at home, then Kuwait for two days, then Cape Town from Sunday to Thursday.

Work travel has started up. Goodbye regular circuit training sessions and a bit of routine, hello mostly enjoyable work trips and efforts to stay fit leaping around my hotel room or the gym cupboards of the hotels I’m starting to find myself obliged to stay in.

What’s infuriating me at the moment is the new way we have to book and pay for travel.

In the past we emailed our travel agent who then got us the right flights, based on company policy and timings. He’d also make hotel reservations, most of the time at least.

Flights would be paid for by the travel agent and invoiced to our accounts department. I would pay for my hotel and other expenses on my credit card, claim the money back and pay my credit card myself. At one point travel would be approved via an online request tool, but in more recent times things go much easier, with an emailed approval from my manager to the travel agent.

The process now is somewhat different.

The most infuriating part is that I have to use my corporate credit card for everything. I’m forced to use it as this is company policy. In theory it makes life easier as the bill is linked to our expenses system. That’s nice, but it’s outweighed by the fact that I am being made responsible financially for the card, am obliged to use it wherever I can and get no benefit from it in the way of points, reward schemes, etc. In addition, the cost of flights goes on the card.

This means I have a much larger credit card bill every month, which I am responsible for and for which I get no benefit whatsoever. To top it off, I am invoiced in dollars, have to do the conversion to dirhams myself and pay the bill at a petrol station as direct debits aren’t possible.

I used to use my Citibank credit card for my previous work related expenses. This gave me an easily manageable way to pay for things and got me lots of nice Skywards miles – 1 Skywards mile for every dollar spent. If I was a bit late claiming expenses, it didn’t matter as I could manage a month or two’s bills. With the new system, I am forced to claim my expenses immediately as the amounts going through are now much larger, as flights are going on my card.

Claiming expenses promptly is obviously something every company wants their employees to do. The fact is that I am not always able to do so during times where I am travelling a lot. It is simply not possible to get onto our company network through the VPN in many of the countries I visit. I’ve been in a partner’s office all day today in Beirut, where the network speed made most online tools totally unusable. This region is not like the US, with ubiquitous wifi and 3G dongles giving you a highspeed connection that lets you get admin done whilst sitting in the airport.

This means that where I am not able to claim expenses on time, I still have to pay them myself to avoid interest fees on my credit card and paying my credit card can sometimes be totally impossible to do due to the logistics involved. I’m not sure they even provide us with online bills – hopefully they do, so I can at least get Mrs Saul to go and pay the thing on my behalf if I am travelling.

Booking travel is also a rigmarole. The easy online tool is annoying but usable with a fast connection. With a slow connection it is infuriating. Multiple page refreshes, idiotic routings, stupid ‘helpful’ suggestions. ‘I don’t recognise which airport you want as you mistyped Dubai. Here’s a list of provincial airports in Tennesee we think you might need’. Why do I have to fill out my address, gender and date of birth in for every trip – why is this not added automatically? The system knows it’s me and has no issues making sure it’s my credit card being charged, but I still have to fill in these same details every single time.

It used to take, as the absolute maximum if a complex trip was involved, about ten minutes of emailing and maybe the odd call to book my travel. It now takes at least twenty minutes of faffing around with things, provided I am on a good connection, followed by having to foot the bill myself with none of the modern conveniences of having a credit card.

Just before writing this twenty minutes of nonsense trying to book a flight to Kuwait spectacularly failed, forcing me to start from scratch.

I have better things to do with my time.

No doubt this system is super efficient and saves the company millions though. Hurrah. I can’t help but think that the old way can’t have been more expensive in real terms when compared to this approach. Maybe it’s all part of a secret incentive scheme to make people like me work as hard as possible in the vain hope that we’ll get promoted to a level where we’ll have an admin who can go through the pain of these online ‘processes’ for us.

Grumpy.

Holiday madness

06/09/2010

Eid falls on a Friday and Saturday this year, so we weren’t going to get any days as a holiday at Oracle. But we weren’t sure which days it would fall until Ramadan was announced earlier in August, even though everyone pretty much knew which days we ought to get off but because the Eid holiday wasn’t announced noone in HR made a decision until it was announced, even though it was obvious what the announcement would be.

Mrs Saul was given Thursday and Sunday off. Then, this week, she was given Weds, Thurs and Sunday off.

Earlier this week I was given Thursday and Sunday off which was better than just having Friday and Saturday off, as those were weekend days anyway – so they were off already.

Unfortunately, because it wasn’t clear what would be off and what wasn’t and I had a team meeting which turned out not take place at the last minute (that announcement was only made at the last minute), we have nothing planned for Eid.

Welcome to the world of holidays in the Gulf. It’s not changed in the 8 years I’ve been here and I can’t see that changing either.

I appreciate the tradition of using the naked eye to spot the moon and work things out from there. It’s still possible to use common sense and plan around that.

What I don’t appreciate it employers not making a decision early on and sticking with it so that we can all plan properly.

Worst of all is employers who don’t give an extra day, should the ‘holiday’ fall on a weekend day, which is a holiday anyway. Fortunately that didn’t happen to me, thanks to the last minute announcement.

Wife work

06/09/2010

‘Why your wife she not cook your lunch sir?’

Lots of the shops I shop in are staffed by ladies from the Philipines. Unfailingly polite, hard-working and friendly.

It’s always fun to hear the cultural differences and see the surprise in the ladies’ eyes if we end up talking about the chores a wife has to do around the home.

Let me make it very clear that Mrs Saul looks after me extremely well, particularly when it comes to dinner during the week and food during weekends. I do my bit though – I do tidy up, stack and unstack dishwashers and do my best to keep things nice. I also do my own laundry and take care of my breakfast and lunch during the working week.

What always surprises me about the ladies’ reaction to hearing this is that they tend not to be envious, but shocked at this state of affairs.

Today was a good example. I was pretending to be shocked at the cost of the sandwich I bought. I said to the lady at the counter that I should save money and make my own sandwich at home to bring to work. Maricel looked very surprised and said that she thought I was married, so surely my wife would make my sandwich for me. When I told her that my wife works fulltime she shook her head in disappointment.

‘Sir, in the Philipines, even if the wife is working, still she is doing these jobs for the husband’. This wasn’t said in a tone of voice that said ‘lucky English wives’. There was a definite sense of disapproval at the fact that poor Chris might have to make his own food from time to time.

I had a similar reaction from Joy at Spinneys when I bought lots of washing powder and was told that my wife would obviously be very busy washing with it. When I told her that I did my own laundry (up to a point – the gentleman at Sparkle also help with certain items), there was a look of utter shock. It was as if I’d told her that my wife was the breadwinner and I was a househusband.

‘Poor Mr Chris!’.

I think Philipino husbands may be getting an easy ride of things.