Monday, 16 April 2018

Madam Ghost Village Pano

Google being brilliant or scary, you call it. If you have an Android mobile and you're online, then take a number of snaps by rotating yourself, Google will generally recognise it's a panorama, stitch it and send it back to you. The shot above was from our weekend fossicking around Madam's 'Ghost Village'...

They did this stunner when we were a-hiking up in the Mourne Mountains a few weeks back. If you think about it, the processing power to analyse the volume of images uploaded to every Android mobile in the world and determine which ones would make a pano is alone a stunning thing...

Google's like Kate Bush's yoyo that glowed in the dark... what makes them special makes them dangerous...

That's all folks...

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Ghosts In The Desert? Madam!

Blog posts are like London buses or policemen. You don't see one for two months and when whoosh along come thousands of the swine.

I found myself down the usual wormhole in the Internet the other day and discovered an odd location in a map when I was looking for something else entirely. It caught my eye as I scanned the area and I zoomed in again to check the distinct impression of a strange label flickering on the map.

I'd never seen it before and it was oddly fascinating.

Sure enough, it was there: 'Ghost town'.

I checked it on Google Maps, where it was labelled 'Madam old town'. We went there - to Madam old town or Madam ghost town, depending on which source you believe - today.

Just south of Madam, (I still can't say that without thinking about Frankie Howerd and his 'Ooh, madam!') you turn right off the road and head into the sands. And there you'll find this:

It's all protected by a sort of berm of sand humped up at the village entrance, you have to take something of a leap of faith and just drive up over it. The sand's pretty soft, what with so little rain this winter.

What is it? Why's it there? Was it really Madam before the road brought strip development to this little inhabited area of Sharjah made famous only because it was on the road to Hatta, now blocked to all but Omanis, Emiratis and permit holders? It looks like corpo housing. The sand's reclaimed it in the main. There are neon light fittings but no sign of power or other infrastructure.

All in all very odd. A little mystery...


Wednesday, 11 April 2018


Look, I've been busy. It's been crazy busy with the day job, I got loads of admin work for things 'back home' and we just spent a week in Northern Ireland for Easter.

You ever wanna take a hike somewhere beautiful? Try the Mourne Mountains...

Anyway. That's it. I've been busy. I'm sort of writing, but taking my sweet time. I'm not really taking much notice of 'Dubai life' beyond work. I'm not very interesting beyond perhaps my abiding loathing for the weevils who staff Budget Ireland and my deep rooted hatred of Skoda Rapids.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move on...

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Meeting Mr Fox

Arabian Red Fox picture taken in Al Sukhnah, J...
Arabian Red Fox picture taken in Al Sukhnah, Jordan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I wrote this simply ages ago for Jordanian website/writer's collective Project Pen, but the site's down nowadays. So I'm putting it up here, just so's I can link to it when I want to and stuff. Enjoy!

Meeting Mr Fox 

The shell that almost killed them all came with no warning, sounded no different to the thousands of others scudding around the blue summer skies like little birds. Baba was reading a newspaper, his shirt sleeves rolled up. Ahmed was sitting under the wooden kitchen table, playing. The shell exploded and suddenly Ahmed wasn’t under the table anymore. There was a lot of dust and smoke. Baba looked asleep, but mother was holding her head in her hands and crying. Ahmed wanted to go to her but his legs wouldn’t work. Baba had eventually woken up and Ahmed had walked with a limp ever since.

After the shell, they had a big piece of orange plastic sheeting over the hole in the wall. It stretched from the floor to the roof. Now summer had fled and the winter had come, it billowed and flapped in the wind and let the cold in. Finding wood for the fire had become very difficult. The winter took everyone by surprise. This proved, Ahmed’s father growled as he hunched over the mean fire in their damaged kitchen, they were all donkeys. Winter always came, this year was no different. Except this year they were distracted as the fighting became worse, the houses shaking with relentless concussions. Ahmed didn’t go to school anymore, so he was at home when the soldiers came.

His mother was making bread, the bakery having been shut by an explosion that took away ovens and bakers alike in a single savage wrench. Baba had salvaged a sack of flour from the ruins before the flames took hold and the stock room collapsed on the heads of some thirty men trying to do the same. They ate bread every Friday to try and make the flour last. Baba was out looking for fuel and food. Foraging, his mother called it. Jamal said it was called looting, like taking the flour, but everyone had to do it because there were no shops. And anyway, nobody had money.

The soldiers shouted a lot and one of them punched Ahmed so stars came. His mother begged them but they didn’t listen to her. She cried as they held her arms and pushed her onto the floor. She screamed when they pulled at her clothes until one of them hit her too and she was quiet.

Ahmed ran and ran through the streets, his ankles twisting on the rubble strewn on the pock-marked ground. He called out for his baba but nobody replied. There was fighting but Ahmed didn’t care about the bullets and they seemed not to care about him, either. None of them plucked at his skin. They buzzed, whistled and spattered on stone. They called out to him. But he didn’t want them, he wanted baba to come and stop the soldiers hurting ummi.

He left the city behind as he tired and stopped running. He walked now, no longer certain of where he was going or why, but impelled by some instinct to get away from buildings and the soldiers and the vague idea that perhaps he would walk and walk until he found his baba. Perhaps God would help him. He started mumbling God’s names, just in case he was listening. He had learned ten of them when school had stopped.

There were soldiers on the road. Ahmed was tired and scared. His legs hurt. He bit his lip when he saw them and slipped off into the woodland. The light was fading and it started to snow. There was a big tree that hadn’t lost its leaves and the patch of ground around it was clear of snow. Ahmed sat down on the damp ground, shivering. He pulled up his knees and wrapped his arms around them, listening for the soldiers in case they had seen him. The woodland grew darker. The silence ached. Occasionally there would be a creak. There were no shells or machine gun fire here. Ahmed could hear his teeth chattering, the shivering convulsions making his weary body ache. The snowflakes became bigger.

Light-headed with exhaustion and cold, Ahmed tilted his head to catch a faint scratching sound. He noticed a hole in the ground. The scratching was coming from the hole. Something glittered in the darkness of the opening. Eyes. A head emerged, red fur and a snout with a black nose.

‘Good evening,’ said the fox in fuzha, the formal Arabic like they had taught at school.

Ahmed closed his eyes and shook his head as if it would make the talking fox go away, but it was still there when he opened them.

‘You’re not a very polite little boy,’ the fox pointed out as he came out of his set and padded over to Ahmed. He sat down a few feet away and cocked his head.

‘I’m sorry,’ Ahmed tried to remain calm. ‘I’ve just never met a talking dog before.’

The fox sniffed. ‘I am not a dog,’ he said pointedly. ‘I am a fox.’

‘Sorry,’ Ahmed mumbled.

‘And don’t mumble. There’s nothing worse than people who mumble. It’s the height of rudeness.’

Ahmed stopped shivering. He felt very calm. He fancied he saw the fox smiling, but he couldn’t be sure. The woodland was serene, the snowflakes calming and soft as they touched his cheek. ‘Where did you learn to talk?’

The fox rubbed his snout with a forepaw. ‘What sort of question is that? Where did you learn to talk? Humans really do take the biscuit. You’re an arrogant bunch aren’t you? All superior, yet you’ll not find us animals killing each other with weapons like you do.’

‘I don’t kill people. The soldiers kill people.’

 ‘Same thing, child. It’s your species kills people. Whether they wear uniforms or not. They kill foxes, too, when they can. They kill for sport. I wonder you don’t get sick of killing. You don’t even do it properly, to eat. You just kill to kill. Nasty lot, really.’

Ahmed wanted to cry. It seemed so unjust yet he didn’t have an argument against the wiser fox. ‘The soldiers do it. Not me.’

‘You’re just a child. You’ll grow up to it. All those soldiers were children once. The men who came to the wood with spades were children once. Mind you, the chickens were worth the trouble. Delicious.’

‘So why are you even talking to me if you hate humans so much?’

‘You looked lonely.’ The fox shifted and flicked his tail. ‘Where are your parents?’

‘In the city. I ran away from the soldiers. They were hurting ummi. My baba was out and they came.’

‘Shouldn’t you go back? It’s cold out here and you look blue.’

Ahmed nodded. The fox was right, yet he was too tired. He tried to move, but he was frozen to the spot. He felt frozen, too, like a chicken. They used to have a freezer in the house before the electricity went away. It had chickens in it. Ahmed’s eyes started to close, sleep overwhelming him. He moved to lie down and the fox came up to him.

‘Here,’ the animal said, not unkindly. ‘You can have some of my heat. I have it to spare.’

The warm little body snuggled against Ahmed's chest. He smiled. The fox had an animal pungency, his fur was soft. Ahmed closed his eyes.

Later on, the sky black and the moon casting shadows in the white woodland, the fox woke. He turned to the boy’s face and sniffed it. The warmth had left the still form. The fox licked the child’s soft cheek.

After a while, he started to eat.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

A Little Bit Of Gas A Little Bit Of VAT

English: Nouadhibou, Mauritania, cooking gas f...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We got back off leave to the much-awaited introduction of Value Added Tax in the UAE. VAT is very much a fact of life in the UK, where it is charged at a charming 20%. The UAE's 5% pales in comparison but it remains that most unwelcome of innovations - a tax.

Living for 25 years in a 'tax free' environment has been something of a privilege, I know. It has long amazed me that here we have an economy capable of functioning (and no, it's not about oil) without gouging its citizens for 25 or even 40% of their earnings. When you look at how little you get back from the UK government for all the taxes, fees and levies we pay, the UAE model is pretty compelling stuff.

But last year we saw the soda and fag tax (no bad thing, mind, although it does rather tend to hit one hard in the Fevertrees) as well as a rise in the property registration 'fee' in Sharjah from 2 to 4 per cent (because a payment to government leveraged as a percentage of a transaction is a fee and not a tax, you understand) and now the dreaded VAT is here. The background noise of expats moaning has increased as a consequence, but there's no doubt that it has sneaked a lot of cost overnight into a life already become more expensive.

VAT was the last thing on my mind the other night as I was cooking dinner, especially as the gas started to gutter. Having refused Sharjah Electricity and Water's cunningly worded invitation to give them Dhs 1,000 and the blood of our firstborn each month thereafter, we still rely on Fast, Faster and Faster Than Fastest gas and they duly rocked up soon after my call. Dhs130 for the gas and Dhs7 VAT, the chap informed me as he rolled the cylinder around to the back of the house. Tired and frustrated by the derailing of my sumptuous gastronomical event, I paid without demur. Only later did I stop to reflect that the wee swine had a) rounded it up to the nearest dirham b) taken VAT in cash without offering a VAT receipt. Guess where that Dhs7 is going (and I'm betting it's not the MoF!)?

I must confess I'd expected the introduction of the new tax to be an Emirates ID style disaster and I appear to have been wrong in that - things seem pretty fluid in comparison. The overhead for businesses, mind, is significant. Not only is there the additional cost on 'value added', but the auditing and compliance costs are significant. One aspect I hadn't considered was outlined to me by a pal the other day - cashflow. Her business tends to run on big ticket contracts and payments rarely take place within 90 days. Paying VAT on each quarter's invoices means she's going to take a huge hit up front.

That's not going to worry the lads over at Faster Than Fast, of course. Firmly embedded in the cash economy, they're likely laughing all the way to Al Ansari to send all that lovely VAT back to Swat to fund the construction of legion sprawling mansions...

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Manama, Ajman And The 'Dunes' Stamps

Manama Post Office

In an odd quirk of philatelic history, several of the Trucial States (prior to the formation of the UAE) issued stamps in huge and incongruous editions. I say incongruous, because none of them had anything to do with the UAE. I have a full sheet of 'Kings and queens of England' issued by Umm Al Qawain and others include celebrations of the Moscow Olympics and the space race.


Ask American philatelic entrepreneur (say that quickly after a couple of shandies) Finbar Kenny. As I have related before, Kenny travelled to the Trucial States in the early 1960s and did deals with the rulers of various emirates to issue stamps on their behalf. He then produced massive runs of stamps, which were destined to act as filler in every boy's stamp collection. In fact he overdid it so much that these 'Dunes' stamps are totally worthless even today. Stamps from Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Qawain and Fujeirah dating from the '60s can be picked up for pennies still.

Kenny, a somewhat colourful figure, signed up Ajman and so you can find stamp dealers still selling, stamps issued from 'Manama, Dependency of Ajman'. Manama, an inland exclave of Ajman in Sharjah (it's East of Dhaid, just off the Dhaid/Masafi highway) consisted at the time of little more than an adobe fort, a few cinder block houses and a tiny post office. That post office, responsible for issuing what must have been millions of stamps, is why we nipped off the beaten path for a few minutes yesterday, in order I could track down and take a snap of the offending institution.

So here it is in all its sleepy glory. In its time, one of the great stamp issuing centres of the world!

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Trouble With Stuff

English: Printed circuit board
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
During the recent hurricane Irma, a number of Tesla owners stuck in the traffic fleeing the path of the storm were delivered a software update by Tesla which upgraded their cars and extended the battery life and therefore range of their cars. Once the storm had blown over, another update removed the additional capacity and reduced their cars back down to the performance level they had paid for.

In fact, their cars were always capable of the extended range but they had chosen not to buy the full 75kw battery option. Few could have been aware that in fact their cars had the full battery installed, but that it had been effectively downgraded in software. Their cars were always capable of the extended range.

It all caused quite a bit of controversy, as you might imagine. But it's just an extension of a whole range of issues which are linked to the concept that you buy hardware but license software and that when you buy into any ecosystem, your rights are effectively limited. You might own that iPhone, bub, but you don't own the software or any of the content it stores and gives you access to. This is also true of your Kindle and your Apple TV or other box with your Netflix subscription.

We don't buy CD racks anymore and many of us don't have upgrade plans for those bookshelves. Content is digital, always-on and an Alexa command away. The ownership of content has changed forever. Of course, you never owned that book or music, you merely owned a physical medium containing the text or recording. The rights to the content subsisted with the author and publisher. But you could leave a book to your kid - you can't leave your Amazon account.

Worse, your iPhone, Kindle, Echo or Tesla is enabled by software which you only enjoy a grant of limited right to access. Amazon et al can simply turn your super-duper gizmo into a brick of e-waste at the blink of an eye.

Tesla extending that model to cars is sort of interesting. Next step is your house. An integrated home automation suite provided by the developer sounds really cool until you find out that if you break the terms of your licence (install the wrong type of shrub in your garden, say, if you've bought a Shiny) your kitchen will stop working.

Volvo has started down that road in a sort of legacy manufacturer trying to be hip with the kids kind of way with the announcement of a sort of extended leasing package called Care by Volvo.  You can bet other manufacturers are going to start exploring the delights of software/hardware industry models for disempowering consumers and disintermediating insurance companies and others who currently profit from the lack of a car 'ecosystem'. In this, Tesla is Apple.

Forget the threat of AIs and the like to our technological futures - here comes the spectre of the elife (and I don't mean Etisalat's crappy FTTH package) - your existence will be dominated by your parents' choice of life ecosystem for you and your world will be under license to The Man.

You mark my words...

Thursday, 31 August 2017

A Rare Descent Into Bookiness

English: Vintage portable Transistor radio &qu...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm going to be back on the radio on Saturday, from about 10.30am Dubai time on the revamped Talking Of Books show (103.8FM Dubai Eye radio or streaming). It's a rare return to booky things for me.

I've not been entirely lazy. I've just finished a hard edit of Beirut - An Explosive Thriller after spotting a couple of SNAFUs in the MS. I made a number of improvements, some based on reader feedback but many based on being a much more experienced editor now.

It's funny what a difference it makes knowing what you know now. There were a couple of joins showing where I'd knocked down walls and rebuilt them, which is a little embarrassing having shifted over 10,000 copies of the damn thing. Oh well.

Beirut is currently free on Amazon, which is driving a steady trickle of sales of the other books, particularly Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy but  also A Decent Bomber. I have a new project on the go, but I'm taking my sweet time and my wordcount is more like 1,000 words a month than 1,000 a day. I'm not really that fussed, tell the truth: life's quite busy enough right now.

But the chance to return to my favourite medium and talk about my favourite things was too great ever to refuse and so I'll be joining new host Annabelle Corton (she of Emirates LitFest fame) to talk about the three books in all the millions of books in the world I'd take to a desert island and to review Omar El Akkad's dystopian novel American War.

So there we go - now you know how to avoid me on Saturday morning!

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Leave And That...

Airbus A330-200 lands at London Heathrow Airport.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So I haven't posted in over a month. Sue me.

We've been on leave.

I hate flying, much as I love EK. A380s rock, the films were awful. Kindles rock more than A380s. Except in turbulence which we saw almost not at all. Heathrow sucks lemons.

Drove to Wales to see me mum for a couple of days, she's fine, thanks. Bit shaky. She's over 90 now. Fierce independent lady. The office calls, can I come back early? No. I shipped our bikes from there over to Northern Ireland. Halfords think I'm a totes jackass. They're all hardcore bike freaks, we have two bikes we love to ride when we're home. I got a puncture a while back and took the bike into them. They're all, like, can't you fix your own punctures? And I'm 'No.' And then they're, like, it's a quick release wheel so you don't have to bring the whole bike in. And I'm, 'Sue me.'

They boxed the bikes for me. They still think I'm a nutter, but now I'm another store's problem. They're happy about that.

Back to London for a couple of days in a Premier Inn because the sister-in-law's house (AKA Twickenham Central) is full of neeces. We like Premier Inns, actually. We got a great night's sleep every night, which is their promise, after all.

Photon checks into a hotel. Receptionist says, 'No bags?' Photon replies, 'Nah, I'm travelling light.'

Lovely week, Hampton Court, Thames Cruise, shit service at Pizza Express at the O2 (just drop the express, love, and you're fine) and mad wannabe BBC 2 Children's Presenters at Hamleys Regent Street. We reckoned these kids are freebasing to stay that hyper all day. They're so over the top even the neeces think they're a bit, well, mad. The office calls and asks if I can come back early. Still no.

And then we're on the open road to Salisbury for three idyllic nights at the Beckford Arms, a truly magnificent pub. These people offer you Bloody Mary for breakfast. They're very likeable. We spend the days wandering castles and long walks. There's a Catholic cemetery nearby, packed with little snippets of social history linked to the area's immigrants. The barman at the Beckford convinces me to take black pepper in my Hendricks. Oh me, oh my, people. Black pepper and strawberries in Hendricks. This is the future.

Heathrow, crappy BA and then Belfast. Meet up with the neeces again and do much neecing around. Business stuff, solicitors, banks and accountants. Oh, joy. We did a 5k Fun Run in Rathfriland. The bloody town's on an enormous hill. The outward jog is downhill. It's only when we turn the corner that the bleeding obvious finally hits our dull monkey brains. Ouch.

Two men walk into a bar. Ouch Ouch.

Drives up into the Mournes, Camogie practice, Mary Margaret's pub and wandering along the seafront at Warrenpoint. The Green Pea Café and their insane BLT (Brioche eggy bread, smoked bacon and sundried tomatoes with rocket. Oh dear me) and then the Hotel at Hilltown - the Downshire Arms to you, mate - for Sarah's birthday. Scallops, steak and dancing. The office calls. I get the message. We rearrange flights and hop to Heathrow, do a night in Twickenham Central and take the all-day flight the next day. I love EK, but that flight doesn't suit us. Back in the office for Wednesday, wiped out but functioning.

The weekend's almost over and it's all a vague memory now. A frenetic, lovely charge around the place doing things and seeing things and meeting people and laughing fit to bust, drinking stuff and eating stuff and driving around and just basically living it up.

And now we're back. You know, that sort of what are we doing here feeling mixed with the sense that we're back home and that. Settling back down into things, taking a weekend drive around the place and getting back into the rhythm. I have my wallet back in my back pocket and have stopped obsessing about the car being nicked. I'm back on 24x7 broadband mobile access and not paying Vodaphone two bleeding quid a day for data.

Life's good...

From The Dungeons

Book Marketing And McNabb's Theory Of Multitouch

(Photo credit: Wikipedia ) I clearly want to tell the world about A Decent Bomber . This is perfectly natural, it's my latest...