Monday, 15 December 2014

Random Observations: On Bit Rates

English: A visual representation of my connect...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was watching my beloved - and soon to be replaced - Samsung copying a file over to my memory key and idly watching the nifty little data rate graph gadget that Microsoft has added to Windows 8 letting me know it was copying at a little over 10 Mbps or 10 megabits per second.

It reminded me of an argument I had back when Unisys (showing my age, I can actually remember Sperry, Burroughs and Rand) released a 'mainframe on a desktop' and I was editing a computer magazine. Pal Paul Lynch was GM of Saudi mainframe software company Al Falak and poo pooed my enthusiasm for this latest innovation with, 'Listen, when your desktop machine can manage the IBM 3090's 3 Megabits per second throughput, you can start talking to me about mainframes on a desktop.'

The IBM 3090 600E was the daddy of all mainframes in the late '80s. This was it, as good as it got; a ten million dollar room full of quietly humming cabinets that supported a stunning 256 Megabytes of storage. It streamed data to tape at an amazing 1.25 Mbps and its processor core clocked at a stellar 69 MHz. And its processor crashed through a blinding 10 MIPS (million instructions per second).

To put this in context, when we're looking at this gargantuan processing power in today's context that's something in the order of a singing birthday card.

The Samsung's replacement (Samsung, having made for me pretty much the perfect notebook in the shape of the Series 5 Ultra, if you discount the issue of Chuck The Trackpad, has now stopped making notebooks and only makes tablets and phones.) has up to 8 Gbytes of RAM, 256 Gbytes of onboard solid state storage and its 4Ghz processor runs, as far as I can tell from the confusing rash of conflicting numbers I can find online, at something like 52,000 MIPS. In short, it could execute every single instruction ever processed by every 3090 ever, take time off to eat a doughnut and take a leisurely coffee before having the job finished before its scheduled lunchtime nap.

I am glad to say it weighs a little less than an IBM 3090, too. And doesn't require water cooling, which is also nice...

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The UAE's Wikipedia Problem

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I don't quite remember why, but I looked up the place I live on Wikipedia a while ago. Al Heera is a suburb of Northern Sharjah, a sleepy wee harbour and an area of older mud brick houses that were until recently the homes of taxi drivers and labourers which has now been all but cleared. The 1970s era police station remains.

Wikipedia didn't have a page for Al Heera, but it did have one for Al Hayra. It contained nothing more than a line saying it was a suburb of Sharjah. But Al Heera has a lot more history than that (as I pointed out the other day in that ten things you didn't know about the UAE post). And it's spelled 'Al Heera' - that's what it says on the street signs and everything.

So I thought I'd change it. I haven't tried to edit Wikipedia for a while because anyone from the UAE fell foul of the way the UAE's IP addresses work. Wikipedia all too often locked you out because someone from your IP address had previously been blocked. I even took Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to task on this when Jess and I interviewed him for our Dubai Eye radio show a few years back (His response was 'suck it up', basically). But something has changed when I wasn't looking and now you can freely edit Wikipedia from the UAE. So I rolled up my sleeves and set about trying to change Al Hayra to Al Heera and filling the entry out a bit.

Well, my dears, what followed was an education. 'You can't do that' said members of the "Wikipedia community" - it's called Al Hayra.'

It's not. I live there. It's called Al Heera.

'Just because you live somewhere doesn't mean you can change Wikipedia. Because you say so doesn't make a truth. There are more Google results for Al Hayra than Al Heera. So it stays that way.'

But those results are all websites that have derived their miss-spelling of the place from Wikipedia. You're the reason for those results. Just because you've made a mistake and it's been echoed all over the Web doesn't make your echoes justify the fact what you originally shouted was wrong. You can't define a virtual world that has no link to reality. What next? You going to rename London as Loondown?'

'Look, it just stays that way, right?'

So I changed it myself, following a Wikipedia mantra to 'be bold'. And I added a photograph of Al Heera police station, with its sign that clearly says 'Al Heera Police Station'. And it stayed that way. I also filled out the history of the place, which is all a little Quixotic and even charming. I didn't exactly change the world, but I recorded a wee bit of little known history that relates to the neighbourhood I live in and it felt good. I had a look around at other UAE pages. And oh, my word, what a mess did I find. The article on the UAE's Prime Minister was embarrassing to say the least. The article on Dubai charts every single bad thing that's ever happened in the city and all too few of the good ones. Ajman was almost non-existent apart from a load of bitterness from someone who had clearly got caught out by the real estate bust. I quickly found out that if it's something negative about the UAE, it gets added to the pile eagerly but if you contribute something positive it gets hung out to dry and flagged up as promotion or POV or any number of other perceived violations of Wikipedia policy. Even if it's true, cited fact.

To be fair to Wikipedia, it gets attacked constantly by vandalism, lunatics with an agenda and narcissists both personal and commercial. Companies can't understand why they're not allowed to write their own pages, self-interest constantly battles to get its version of 'the truth' out there and the UAE doesn't have a great reputation for creating sound, neutral-tone, articles among members of the Wikipedia community.

But all that notwithstanding, the UAE on Wikipedia is largely unloved and patchy and all too frequently articles are unbalanced, inaccurate and misleading. Many articles are badly weighted, with a marked tendency to put slagging the place and its people off before letting the facts get out there. And nobody clearly cares: many unjustified assertions and snide asides in articles have been up there and left unchallenged for years and there are many, many such errors.

As the long time reader of this marginal and dusty corner of the Internet will attest, I have often aired my own beefs about the place in which I live and have even been what you might call outspoken and critical. I'd argue that a friend who'll tell you the truth to your face is worth having, but I know there are those who would disagree. The UAE's not perfect, not by any means. But it's done for us very nicely these past 21 years and we remain safe, happy and comfortable in our overseas home. I can't imagine anywhere else that would have given us what we enjoy here. And so I actually found myself feeling a bit affronted by it all. Why should the first result on Google return a page packed with violations of human rights, charges of Islamic Injustice and lurid accounts of the 'bust' when we are all here - labourer and CEO alike - because we're better off here? How is it that the UK article, for instance, doesn't outline every nasty killing, injustice or act of corporate malfeasance that takes place there but the UAE and Dubai ones do?

The latest example came yesterday when I stumbled across the fact the UAE gave 1.25% of its GDP in overseas development aid (ODA) last year - over $5 billion. I thought that was a lot and nipped off to check it on, naturally, Wikipedia. I was amazed to find the UAE would be the world's largest contributor of aid by percentage of GDP and stands as the ninth largest contributor of aid outright. Not bad for the world's thirtieth largest economy. But when you get to Wikipedia's 'List of governments by development aid', the UAE doesn't even feature on the 28 country listing. How could that be? Because the list given is of OECD countries - the assumption clearly being that if you're not in the OECD, you don't matter.

One of the ways of getting change to happen in Wikipedia is, frustrating as it can be, arguing a case. And so I opened up a dialogue on the 'talk page' (the best way of starting the conversation). The UAE is now - as a result of that dialogue - at least mentioned, although the main list still excludes non-OECD countries. It's a small (and frustrating) example of what I've found on Wikipedia. There's nobody out there who cares and so the whole country is constantly misrepresented and mischaracterised. The UAE is neglected and because of that neglect its coming up badly time after time when the world searches for it precisely because Google consistently places Wikipedia content up on that number one pedestal that we all crave so much that we're willing to call our children Boondark Binkysnangle so that at least they'll be searchable when they grow up.

Like the UAE, Wikipedia isn't perfect but it's on a journey. It's a community, reflecting all the human folly, foibles and fabulousness that you'll find in any community. There are more than a few nerds and nutters in there. But I've found you can usually initiate a dialogue and change things - not always everything you want, but better than it was before. Sometimes the dialogue can be infuriating and I have been amazed at the negative sentiment and blind ignorance I have encountered. There appears to be a broad assumption that nothing good can come out of the Middle East and so every conversation seems to start from a low point and struggle to make its way upwards. But that's the only way you promote change, no?

Blind assertion and wilful vandalism are, rightly, punished - and it can be a tough playground. But the worst thing of all is simply letting things go unchallenged and the more strident voices be heard because we can't be arsed to get involved.

And that's the UAE's Wikipedia problem. Sheer neglect.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Fear And Loathing In Jebel Ali

Brownian Motion on a Sphere. The generator of ...
Brownian Motion on a Sphere. The generator of ths process is ½ times the Laplace-Beltrami-Operator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Bring your own shade, said the email from the Jebel Ali Festive Market people. What it didn't say was you'd end up humping a two-ton umbrella base up a sandy assault course for mile after relentless mile. Well, a couple of hundred yards, but you know what I mean.

Our garden umbrella was too big, even if the base came in handy, so I nipped down to Carrefour and picked up a cheapie. I came to hate that umbrella as the afternoon wore on. It spent the day poking people's eyes out, twisting in the base or being blown over - anti-tank grade concrete lump notwithstanding.

I got sunburnt.

Talking children's author, mother of two and borderline lunatic Rachel Hamilton in was a fun start to the afternoon. She was, of course, lost. Her Brownian sense of direction is compounded by a complete inability to translate simple instructions into anything other than the complete opposite of their intent. Most people stopped setting up their stalls to gawp as I wandered around, screaming into the mobile like a parody of Dom Joly's parody of people screaming into mobiles. "NO, TURN LEFT AFTER THE SPINNEYS THEN LEFT AGAIN." Finally she hove into sight, her car resolving from the shimmer above the tarmac like a TV presenter doing the visual for the voice-over intro to a documentary about the Serengeti.

She brought the blasted pop-up again. This, of course, spent the afternoon billowing and swooping around like a malign spinnaker and needed every bit of equipment we had to pin it down. The nice chap on the stall to our right lent us some bricks to try and curb its most wayward tendencies. Always handy to have a few bricks with you, I say. Every now and then I'd be chatting pleasantly to someone then hurl myself to the right behind a flapping canary yellow banner, shout foul abuse and appear to be wrestling with a warthog. By the time I'd reappear, tousled and sweating, they'd usually either wandered away or gathered a crowd of speculative types gambling as to whether the warthog would win out.

Hamilton is, of course, above all this. I watched her trilling and cooing as she prised money out of small children's hands, the heart of Cruella DeVille disguised in the persona of Elsa From Frozen. Children can't resist. I watched them glimpse the bright coloured cover of her book and get drawn in as the evil hag cackled and gibbered. They're helpless, their eyes wide and their souls already on the trash-heap. By the time they've whispered 'The Case of the Exploding Loo?' and started giggling, she's gathered in the billowing mists of darkness and turned into Beloved Children's Author Rachel Hamilton, crooning about how she could sign their book for them if only they'd let 45 dirhams come to a new home where they'd be cared for with unicorns to play with and everything.

I'm stuck with people holding a book splashed with BEIRUT on the front cover asking me what it's about while Hamilton dances widdershins around her cash tin, children now queuing up to send their Dhs45 to the Happy Unicorn Place.

Hamilton finally has to brave the single chemical toilet. A small girl wanted to know where Much Beloved Children's Author Rachel Hamilton was because Hamilton had been performing an act of mass hypnosis at her school and the book was all she wanted for Christmas. 'She's in the loo,' I growled at her. 'And I hope it explodes.'

Don't you hate crying children?

I'd just finished patching it up with the parents by the time old poo pants got back. By now the heat's searing and a car park with no shade in Jebel Ali is not somewhere I wanted to be. Someone buys a book and I love car parks with no shade in Jebel Ali. We pulled off a double whammy, a lovely nuclear family walked away with two kids clutching exploding loo stories and two parents clutching exploding people stories. We were doing high fives and little We Sold Some Books dances when they come back to ask something or another. We tried to pretend it doesn't really matter when people buy our books because it happens all the time although it's always nice to think you've giving someone pleasure.

I started to wonder if that wee Spinneys sells the heavy turkey grade foil so I could make myself a heat exposure bag. A Lebanese chap stopped, seemingly mesmerised by the cover of 'Beirut.' What's it about? He asked. I said, 'It's about what happens when the future President of Lebanon acquires two Soviet nuclear warheads and European intelligence has to find out what he means to do with them.'

He put the book down and smiled a bitter smile. 'Trust me man, he does nothing with them. Nothing.' And walked off. I must confess it was the most brilliant reaction of the day and I was only stopped from running after him and giving him a book by having to wrestle with a warthog behind the yellow banner.

And that was it, really. I went home to immerse my head in aloe vera and Hamilton no doubt made it back to her tottering castle atop the dark hill to count out the gold into the vast coffer she keeps at the bottom of her four-poster bed with the skulls grinning down from their perches on each pillar.

There's probably a crow in there somewhere, too...

Friday, 5 December 2014

Gerbil Arlee

English: Great gerbil (Rhombomys opimus). Baik...
Dramatic Gerbil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was once chatting to an American gentleman who insisted he was going to Gerbil Arlee. It took a couple of repetitions for me to work out what the hell he meant. Ever since, the lesson in pronunciation has haunted me.

It's not often, living in Northern Sharjah, I get to visit Jebel Ali Village. Tomorrow gives me that rarest of things - a reason to do so. For tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen, is the Jebel Ali Village Festive Family Market and I have once again been talked into destroying any scant Serious Thriller Author Mystique I might have by old poo pants and am sharing a table with her to flog a handful of books to an uncaring and disinterested public.

This time I've got no 'get out of jail' card. I'm in it for the duration. And the good news is if you wanted to get your hands on a nice, freshly minted paperback copy of Shemlan: A Deadly Tragedy I have copies for sale. You'd otherwise have to buy 'em direct from Amazon or The Book Depository, while you can get Olives or Beirut from most reputable UAE bookshops.

It's on from 1-5pm. There are lots of stalls there, a tombola and other stuff. There may well be a goat stuck in a Ferris Wheel. You turn off the SZR at Junction 25 and sling a left at the second roundabout as if you were going to the Mövenpick Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel and the car park is to your right behind the ENOC station. Look, here's a Google map an' everyfin'.

Do by all means swing by and say hello or register your complaint or disappointment. No refunds given.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Ten things you probably didn’t know about the United Arab Emirates

Drawing of the United Arab Emirates flag in th...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Gosh, the UAE is 43! The UAE celebrates its 43rd National Day tomorrow, the 2nd December 2014, marking independence from Great Britain and the foundation of the Federation of seven emirates.

As always, the streets will be filled with hooning, happy people parading to celebrate their nation, not a sight you tend to see much of here in the Middle East, generally considered to be something of a tough neighbourhood.

It occasionally strikes me as odd to live in a country that's younger than I am. I'm also struck now and then to find people saying things like this place has got no history or culture, which is clearly twaddle - it has an unbelievably rich heritage which is rarely less than fascinating.

Here are ten geeky things you probably didn't know about the place.

Fujairah was the last emirate to become a Trucial State.

The UAE was founded out of the Trucial States, a number of sheikhdoms (emirates) on the east coast of the Persian Gulf which signed treaties with the British (Hence ‘trucial’) who in turn recognised them as sovereign powers. The last of these emirates to be so recognised was Fujairah, which only became a Trucial State in 1952 because British oil company Petroleum Concessions Limited (PCL) needed someone to sign a concession with.

That same year, the independent emirate of Kalba (recognised as a Trucial State by the British in 1936 as they wanted to build a back-up airstrip for the new Imperial Airways route that stopped overnight at Sharjah) became part of Sharjah. But for that, there’d be eight emirates today.

Mind you, small child Louis from Sarah’s class at Sharjah English a couple of years back had the solution to that one. “I know an eighth emirate!” he announced to the class when Sarah had named the seven emirates.

Mystified, Sarah asked him which Emirate that would be?

MALL of the Emirates! He piped, triumphantly.

Fair enough, actually…

Nahwa is a small Sharjah mountain village in Oman in the UAE. Whaaaat?

This exclave of Sharjah is actually nestled in an exclave of Oman called Madha which is itself entirely within the UAE, bordered by Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah.

Another example of exclave madness is Hatta - to get to Dubai exclave Hatta from the city of Dubai by road, you have to pass through Sharjah, Oman and Ajman!

It’s all because the UAE’s boundaries were set in 1971 based on a survey by the British Political Resident in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Julian Walker, who spent five years asking local tribal leaders which territory they considered to be theirs and which Sheikh they recognised as ruler and then drawing nice, comforting British lines on a map. The report he compiled stretches to over 4,000 pages. And it’s pretty much what we have as the UAE today, including mad doughnut-shaped exclaves.

Abu Dhabi phone numbers start with 02, Al Ain with 03 and Dubai with 04 but there’s no UAE 01 telephone code in use today.

That’s probably because the original constitution of the UAE forged in 1971 envisaged the creation of a new capital city to be called ‘Karama’, to be built between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The +971 code was originally issued in 1967 to cover the ‘Trucial States’ and so the 971 being the last three figures of the year of independence was just a coincidence. Dooodeedooodooo Dooodeedooodooo. For a time from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Dubai and Abu Dhabi were actually assigned their own individual international calling codes, +978 and +979 respectively.

It all took just a handshake…

The creation of the UAE was famously made possible by a handshake between Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum of Dubai, which took place on 18 February 1968 at the little village of Semeih on the Dubai/Abu Dhabi highway.

Except it didn’t: the roadside location was felt to be too noisy (even though it was little more than a desert track at the time) and the two rulers decamped to ‘Argoub El Sedirah’, a hill on the (rather fuzzy) border between the two emirates, now a few minutes’ drive south of Jebel Ali.

As the two men sat in a tent together discussing the idea of Federation they were served coffee by Sheikh Rashid’s dutiful 19 year-old son: Sheikh Mohammed.

The founding of the UAE required a window exit.

The UAE’s independence and status as a nation were confirmed by the signing of a treaty on the 2nd December 1971 in the round building located in Jumeirah One known today as ‘Union House’. Because of the press of the crowd, the signatories (The British Political Resident and the Sheikhs of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Qawain and Fujairah - Ras Al Khaimah didn’t join the UAE until the 10th February 1972) had to leave for lunch after the signing by exiting through a window.

The first days of the new nation weren’t all easy going.

As if things weren't bad enough with Iran choosing to strategically invade the disputed Tunbs Islands on the eve of the UAE's foundation, the period after 2 December 1971 brought a great deal of uncertainty and instability as people worked out quite what all this meant to them. There were skirmishes between aggrieved parties, one of which saw 22 people killed on the east coast before the newly formed Union Defence Force could restore the peace. There’s no doubt, it all took a great deal of resolution on the part of the UAE's leaders to keep everything together and must have taken pretty much all their persuasive powers, too.

The instability after Federation was to take the life of Sheikh Khalid bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, who was killed sometime in the night of the 24th and early morning of 25 January 1972 when his brother Saqr, who had previously been Ruler of Sharjah and removed from that position, attempted a come-back coup, less than two months after the new UAE nation Khalid had helped to found was born.

Khalid had previously attempted to erase his unpopular predecessor's memory by destroying Sharjah Fort (Al Hisn), an act his younger brother Sultan managed to rush back from his studies in Egypt to stop - just in time to save the last tower. After Khalid’s death, Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi became Ruler of Sharjah and, in 1997, had the fort rebuilt using the original windows and fittings he rescued from the ruins.

The last surviving UAE Ruler to sign the UAE founding treaty died in 2010. Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi of Ras Al Khaimah was the oldest reigning monarch in the world at the time of his passing.

The remote and tiny village of Manama, actually an inland exclave of Ajman, used to issue its own stamps.

In 1964, an American philatelic entrepreneur called Finbar Kenny travelled out to the Trucial States (which was actually quite a feat of derring-do at the time!) and did a deal with the governments of Ajman and Fujairah to franchise the production of the respective emirates’ stamps. He made something of a specialisation of signing up governments in out of the way places around the world and then releasing gaudy series of stamps aimed at the lucrative collector’s market.

I think he probably did deals in Umm Al Qawain and Ras Al Khaimah too, but info on this stuff is pretty scarce, so I can’t be sure.

Wholly irrelevant to the places they purported to come from, Kenny’s stamps flooded the world’s collectors’ markets and eventually devalued themselves. Two other companies also signed up franchises to produce stamps and the flood of these, plus a number of ‘illegal’ issues meant the Trucial States’ esoteric and almost worthless issues became known to collectors as ‘Dunes’. Some catalogues refuse to even list them.

Nine editions were published from ‘Manama, Dependency of Ajman’ after Kenny opened a ‘post office’ there. Few collectors in the 1960s would have realised Manama was a cluster of a few mud-brick houses and smallholdings in the barren plains overlooked by the Hajar Mountains…

Dubai’s Salik road toll is not the first road toll in the UAE.

In fact, a toll was levied on crossing Maktoum Bridge, introduced to help pay for the bridge’s construction after it was opened in 1963.

Like the visionary dredging of Dubai Creek that took place under Sheikh Rashid’s watch, the first Maktoum bridge was completed way ahead of any oil money flowing into Dubai (that didn’t happen until 1969). Some way to fund the project had to be found and a toll seemed to fit the bill. The 25 fils tickets were printed on blue paper and sold in booklets. The toll was levied on the crossing from Bur Dubai to Deira.

For ten years until 1973, a wooden toll booth was placed at the Deira side of the bridge and drivers would hold out their little blue tickets and release them into the air as they passed the collector (clearly not bothering to stop and actually hand the ticket over. I mean, why would you? This is Dubai, habibi…). As a consequence, the tarmac gradually turned blue.

Some odd places were once ‘Trucial States’.

The ‘Trucial States’ were forced to sign treaties with the British following two punitive naval expeditions against the warlike Al Qasimi (or ‘Joasmee’ or ‘Qawasim’), a loosely-knit federation of townships on the Arabian and Iranian coasts, including Lingeh. The Al Qasimi not unreasonably considered the waters off their coast to be theirs. The British branded them (probably unfairly) pirates and a great deal of harrying and smashing things up followed. The Brits buddied up with the Sultan of Muscat and in 1809 a big expeditionary force hove to off Ras Al Khaimah and beat it up with brio.

The whole exercise didn’t put the local boys down, though and had to be repeated in 1819, when a WG Keir led a force that razed RAK in a C19th Shock and Awe display that reduced the whole town to blazing ruins and generally made everyone nostalgic for Albuquerque and his gang of piratical Portugese nutters, who were by now seeming a damn sight reasonable than they had at first looked.

(“Albuquerque? He’d nail your head to the table, but he was a fair man…”)

The result was a treaty signed in 1820 with the local rulers of the ‘Pirate Coast’ turning it into the 'Trucial Coast'. This was followed by a number of other treaties leading up to the Perpetual Treaty of Maritime Peace, signed in 1853. This allowed the Gulf’s pearling fleets to operate peacefully and ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity for the coastal townships. It actually began to be seen as a good thing to have a treaty with the British and so trucial status became desirable.

A little known fact is that the Sheikhs of Khatt, Jazirah Al Hamrah and Rams (today suburbs of Ras Al Khaimah in the interior, south and north respectively) were signatories to that first 1820 treaty as Rulers in their own right. By 1892, when the Exclusive Agreement was signed by the Rulers of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain to conduct their foreign affairs through Britain in return for British protection, these ‘sheikhdoms’ had become subsumed into Ras Al Khaimah and were Trucial States No More. Two strong leaderships in the towns of Al Hamriyah and Al Heera variously declared independence from Sharjah or generally misbehaved, but neither was accorded trucial status by the British. Fujairah, as mentioned above, took its time to join the party…

Incidentally, the flags of the different emirates, all variations of a red motif on a white background, were originally specified by the Brits in that 1820 treaty in order to recognise who was responsible for a given boat sailing the Gulf at any time.

The place where I live once invaded Ajman.

I like this one, a lot.

The head of the Al Bu Shams tribe in Al Heera (currently a coastal suburb in Northern Sharjah), Sheikh Abdul Rahman bin Muhammad, briefly deposed the ruler of neighbouring emirate Ajman on the 15th June 1920 by invading Ajman Fort. At the time Al Heera was quite a large coastal pearling village of about 250 houses.

He was ousted by joint forces of the Rulers of Ajman and Sharjah but Abdul Rahman was promised safe passage by the British residency agent as he owed money to a number of British subjects. He was prevented from returning to Al Heera by the vengeful Sheikh of Ajman but after spending time in Ru'us Al Jibal in Oman and Al Khan in Sharjah, Abdul Rahman was finally allowed to return to Al Heera by the ruler of Sharjah in 1921 in a settlement at least partly enforced by the presence of the British ship Triad offshore.

Continuing to be a troublesome subject, Abdul Rahman was suspected of an attempt on the life of the British Residency Agent in October 1925, causing a major clash between the British government and the Rulers of the Trucial States, specifically Ras Al Khaimah, whose ruler refused to give Abdul Rahman up to the Brits in 1926. Abdul Rahman went on to rule Al Heera until his death in 1942, when the township once again became part of Sharjah.

Ajman Fort is today, incidentally, a charming museum and well worth the visit.

Happy National Day!

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Dear Blogger

A pebble.

I have increasingly become the target of press releases and media invitations, some sent using a system called Cision, which PR companies subscribe to, and some sent using proprietary lists. I don't mind getting them, to be honest. They are occasionally entertaining albeit rarely - if ever - relevant to me in any way.

Consequently, I'll get updates when the international governing body of aviation is announcing we're flying more now than ever or when a company is launching a new wireless networking adapter for small to medium enterprises and wants me to kindly 'cover' it. At one stage I was getting a lot of press releases about uninterruptible power supplies but these stopped abruptly. I suspect the client took a look at #UAEPR on Twitter, hauled his agency out back of the building and shot them like dogs in the street.

I can't remember if it was I started #UAEPR, @TomPaye or @TheRegos but the hashtag has collected some of the more entertaining examples of witlessness and the occasional sound of a screaming journalist pushed beyond reason. It's a little like having a drum kit in the office, it's therapeutic and cleansing and probably a lot more harmless than what some would call 'direct intervention'.

As well as the almost inevitably irrelevant nature of the announcements and media invites, one can't help to be charmed by their breathless tone. 'Hi. We've compiled an infographic of the density of chewing gum on London's streets and thought it might be interesting for readers of FAKE PLASTIC SOUKS, I've attached it but can send you a hi-res file if you like.' Occasionally the mail-merges go horribly wrong and you get addressed as 'Dear ,' or some such. One highlight was 'Dear , I hope you're having a great day!'

I was until now, yes thank you.

You might think I'm hardly in a position to throw bricks, given the day job. And you may well be right, but I'm not letting it stop me. When the agency I work for used to do a great deal more media relations work than it does now (we hardly do any and we almost never send out press releases. I think we've sent out one in the past year), I like to think we worked to a slightly higher standard, that it was about respecting the people you're dealing with and working to ensure that there was an exchange of value that made the interactions we had personal, pleasant and fruitful.

Of course, being targeted as 'a blogger' or a 'social media influencer' is slightly different. It's harder to do that exchange of value thing, because you're not really helping me to do my job by exhorting me to write about your innovation in right threaded sprockets. I don't run a right threaded sprocket magazine. And all too often you just come across as a user. You want me to write about your asparagus promotion so I can 'influence' the people who read my blog or Twitter feed. Then you can show your client you have been successful promoting their interest and they will give you money. Someone in this seeming trifecta is coming across as a donkey.

Do I like asparagus? You haven't bothered to find out, you've just sent me one of your 'Dear ,' emails. Do my readers like asparagus (do I even know who you guys are?)? Do I wish to serve my readers better by giving them more information about asparagus? Not really house style, is it? You might have a chance if you do a Dubai style three hour Bolly-laden brunch in which every dish is based on asparagus, including the desserts. That'd be worth a post, I'd reckon. And no, I don't actually want to come to your hotel and eat asparagus with you and the communications team pretending to like me.

I'll give Nokia credit, actually their agency, D'Abo, for managing a brilliant intervention when I hurled my Android mobile at a wall one night. Contextually appropriate, timely and sensitively managed, they had my much-beloved Lumia in my hands within the day and handled it so fluidly I barely saw them coming until it was too late. That was something of a rarity, I have to say.

What triggered this self-serving, snotty wee rant, you might ask? I was sent a media invitation to a mobile handset launch last night which commenced with the immortal words 'Dear Blogger'.

Look, if you want access to my tiny and frequently mystified readership, that's no problem. I'll sell 'em for a pebble, honestly. Most of them are cut-purses and charlatans anyway. All you have to do is bother to read the blog. Find out if there's any commonality or relevance to what you're pitching. Work out how likely I am to bite you for calling me out of the blue and suggesting I might like to 'depute a journalist and photographer' to your office opening. Perhaps consider the fact I have a day job and a busy old time outside that because of the writing addiction and never, ever write about the thing you're selling. And then maybe, just maybe, you might decide to pass me by. And that's just fine by me, Dear PR.

I hope you're having a great day.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Cairo? Not.

Cairo Tower by day.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I guess I was asking for it, posting this. Cairo's not happening, the team at The Townhouse have postponed the event until January.

Why? This here slice of madness.

Pal Mai told me the Salafist Kickoff was going to happen, so I got in touch with conference organiser Dina and we changed my flight to the morning so's I'd get in before the Friday mosques emptied and it all went batshit. But it turns out that wasn't enough.

It looks like downtown's going to be a mess of barricades from Thursday night and the increasingly frenetic tone of what's expected to go down on Friday meant that not only were overseas and local speakers looking at how they were going to make it safely to the venue, but whether there'd be an audience there waiting for them if they did.

In fact, anyone with any sense in downtown and even wider afield will be sat at home watching endless re-runs of 'Friends' or whatever boiled grey dross MBC's doling out rather than venturing into the streets.

So that's it. Game over. Watch this space for some Cairo-inspired fuss in January. I was looking forward to seeing the city again, catching up with friends and doing the Conference Thang.

Next year...

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Emirates LitFest 2015 Author Lineup Shock Horror

They've been and gone and done it. Last night in a glittering gala event with thousands of sizzling gypsies, the LitFest gang announced the 2015 lineup of authors who'll be workshopping, talking, panel sessioning and generally bringing books, poetry and literature in general to life.

I will, as usual, be infesting the event. The full list of authors is here, so I'm not going to attempt to list them here or pick favourites, but I will point out that Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is my top name of the whole wild and wacky bunch.

One of the things I've been tasked with at the MENA.Online.Literature.Today conference in Cairo (Did I mention I'm going to Cairo?) is talking about the LitFest and its impact on literature and publishing in the UAE and that'll be a sheer pleasure. I've made no secret of the fact I think the Festival has been transformational and has been responsible for the creation of a growing community of writers and people who think they can actually make something of the book they thought they had in them.

It's an important event, as well as a highly anticipated, lively and, well, jolly one. So now you know, block the 3-7 March and save up for the sessions you'll be attending.

I'm thinking of hiring a signing line this year. I've had enough of the sitting by yourself next to a chattering excited stream of people clutching someone else's books as they wait to have it scrawled on by the smiling, relaxed person sat next to me. Last year it was Lynda LaPlante. The press of punters stretched to infinity. I tried to get my queue to shuffle around and look longer, but they got fed up with me shouting at them and the man left while the young couple realised they were in the wrong line...

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Headed For Cairo

English: View from Cairo Tower
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It's been over seven years now since I was last a visitor to The Mother of the World (and, actually, that trip was itself my first for eight years. So you could say I was a little out of touch). A lot has happened since - Tahrir and all that for a start. I used to spend more time there than in Amman; we had an office in Garden City, the serene and beautiful area of old French colonial houses just off the Nile. I used to spend a great deal of my time shuttling back and forth. I was always fascinated by Cairo - its vicissitudes are the stuff of fairground rides: the highs and lows are never less than dizzying.

I remember being at Amman's QAIA, transiting on my way to Dubai back in the '80s, listening to a group of Christian tourists headed to Cairo. They were a snippy, ancient little lot and two or three of the men were jostling for dominance in the way only the English can: "With the greatest respect, Jolyon, I think we should be better rewarded worrying about quite where our luggage is..." and all that. They settled down to pray and I listened in, marvelling at their strange, Pythonesque faith. "Oh Lord, take care of us as we set out for Cairo, particularly Phyllis who is having trouble with her feet. Let us not have our bags stolen or drink anything with ice in it or otherwise get upset tummies."

Not that the risk of the latter is anything to sneer at. I have been miserably ill thanks to Cairene food, which is (unless something has changed in all those years) almost always 'interesting' at best. My constant travelling companions were always Immodium and Buscopan. I remember one Comdex Cairo a chap out from the UK who had brought an attaché case (I kid you not) of Jacob's Cream Crackers which, together with bottled water, is all he would allow past his lips for fear of The Cairene Revenge. All went swimmingly until the last day of the show when he injudiciously allowed a business partner to buy him a Pepsi. It had ice in it.

BLAM. He went down faster than a goat hit by a Pajero.*

I'm going back at the end of the month, thanks to a kind invitation to attend a conference taking place at the famed Townhouse Gallery, 'MENA. Online. Literature. Today.' The nice chaps at Townhouse seem to be under the misapprehension I have something to do with literature, can string together a coherent sentence in public and won't burn the place down.

They're clearly in for a terrible shock.

The conference aims to review the state of Middle East publishing, from the structure of the current publishing market to disruptive effects such as self publishing, small presses, ebooks and online publishing platforms. It'll also look at areas such as online governance, activism and censorship. It's a fascinating initiative and I, for one, am looking forward to encountering the various players and their viewpoints at the event.

I'm looking forward to it tremendously, wondering quite what I'll find compared to the city I knew and loved/loathed way back then.

* You might think that's a strange, Dan Brown-like choice of metaphors, but I have hit a goat with a Pajero and can assure you they drop fast, baby.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

A Day In The Life

English: Ian Dury in concert.
English: Ian Dury in concert. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Please note: this post is best read from the bottom up.

What happened?

Setting out to live blog a day when you're clearly in the poo for time and have a brand new Samsung which you don't know how to use and haven't yet downloaded key apps for was never going to be quite the breeze it appeared at 9am. Boy did I time out.
We had starters, mezze thingies and hot fatayer. I love mujaddara. Just saying.
Main course was a rich North African style lamb thingy with couscous and vegetables. I couldn't tell Rachel this for obvious reasons, principally the fact she had a cold shawarma at her side when I finally got back to her at 4.30 just as the ExpatWoman Festive Family Fun Fandango was shutting down for the day. She'd been too busy to eat lunch.
After the main course Lara got up and moderated. Liz talked. I talked. We answered questions from the audience. People bought books and asked us to sign them. I sold out of copies of Shemlan which was kind of nice.
For my part I talked about MECAS and Shemlan, the magic of Beirut and the shittiness of sectarianism, both in Beirut and in Northern Ireland, where my next book is set. And where Gerald Lynch the evil spy is more than comfortable because he understands the sectarianism that binds these two magical countries.
It was late in the afternoon as Gerald Lynch hopped along the uneven paving that lined Gouraud Street, the heart of Beirut’s bustling Gemayze area. He wore jeans and a leather jacket against the chill spring air, his hands in his pockets as he squeezed between the parked cars.
Gouraud’s bars, as ever, welcomed those who wanted to party and forget the woes of a world where violence and conflict were a distant memory but a constant worry. Orphaned by Belfast’s troubles, Lynch appreciated Beirut’s fragile peace and sectarian divides, the hot embers under the white ash on the surface of a fire that looked, to the casual observer, as if it had gone out. Lynch scowled as he passed a poster carrying Michel Freij’s smiling face, encircled in strong black script: ‘One Leader. One Lebanon.’
From 'Beirut - A Deadly Thriller'
So, what with eating lunch and all that talking, the afternoon flew by and I abandoned Rachel like the low cur I am. I rushed back to the Ranches, but it was too late. We had a chat about our respective afternoons and wandered our respective ways home. We're doing it again at Repton, but more about that later. I missed The Goat, but appreciated his kind gesture in leaving behind a security camera picture of him emptying my cash tin.
I finish by driving home, exhausted and elated. Raucous: Blur's Caramel, Kaiser Chiefs' In My Life, Chili Peppers' Californication.
It's very odd to spend a whole day rushing around talking to people about your books and then taking money from them. But it's one of the best ways of spending a day I know of.
So a heartfelt thank you to the ExpatWoman team for hosting the Author's Corner and to Jane Northcote and the team at Dubai World Trade Club - and Lara, the moderator with the mostest.
And now to a Djinn and Tonic...

Going in for lunch now. It's all glittering tines and starched white linen around here. Chattering, unsuspecting audience members are having drinks poured. I'm trying not to think of the blazing sun and poor old Rachel flogging books to the hordes. I'm dealing with it.

Oh wow. Placebo's Bulletproof Cupid and Foo Fighters Burn Away seeing me on the pell-mell dash from the Ranches to the Dubai World Trade Centre. Dury's Apples still haunting the edge of what passes for my mind. Got here on time, bit sweaty and over-excited but I'm good and the calm, monied halls of the World Trade Club are taking the edge off the Hunter Thompson vibe.
Rachel's got a wee stock of signed books and I actually feel sorry for her (now I've sold a tranche of books) in the sweltering heat while I loll around talking to the leisurely classes in the air conditioned luxury of Dubai's oldest members-only club.
It's going to be fun getting back to the Festive Fair, it was packed as I left, parking spaces only available out as far away as Studio City.
And now to lunch...

I have to dash to Trade Centre now. Books have been flying out of the door, which is lovely. I've been teasing Rachel about how much more money I make per sale than she does and she's pointed out that she only has to write 35,000 words to finish one of hers.
I'm working out how to do for her. Seriously.

Golly but it's hot. The sun's out, the smell of BBQs in the air and the crowds are out, people milling around and much chatter. The catering's a disaster, grinning staff who don't understand the words tea or sugar makes for an interesting service experience. Dhs 10 for an Aquafina, 18 for a coffee. Rachel's sold thousands of books, I haven't sold a thing. I hate her but have to be nice to her because she's looking after the stall at lunchtime. When I get back this afternoon I'm going to kill her and hide her body behind the clubhouse.

Guy at the gate stops me. I announce I am an Expat Woman but he doesn't crack a smile. He tells me there are new rules and I can't have pets or feed the horses. That's fine, then.
I meet the team behind Eva Lilly and the Three Toed Snooch. They have t-shirts. Rachel has brought a big yellow pop-up stand with The Case Of The Exploding Loo on it.
I feel I am building well on my positioning as a serious author of Middle East spy thrillers.

I'm on the road, having wiped out ADNOC's cash reserves by emptying their ATM and then buying a bottle of Masafi. They're going to go bust now but I've got a cash float and I don't care. Spiritualised's Broken Heart helps to erase Dury's Apples but it's going to take more than that. Feeder and System of a Down, Placebo and then Blur. That's done the trick. The MBZ road is clear and I'm flying along - I'd allowed an hour for the drive and I'm at the Ranches by 9.30.

The idea of noting down the day comes to me. I've got Ian Dury's 'Apples' in my head and Sarah has just handed me a tin cashbox. It occurs to me that I'm actually going to handle money today. True to form, I've double booked myself. I'm selling and signing books at the ExpatWoman Festive Family Fun Fair AND I'm doing a literary lunch event at the Dubai World Trade Club. Kids' author Rachel Hamilton asked if she could pitch in a couple of weeks ago which was fine by me. And then I realised about the double booking thing, which made her my lunchtime stand-in. For two hours or so today she gets to be me and speak all gruff.