An Explanation

Back at the beginning of June, I wrote that:

For reasons which are nothing whatsoever to do with censorship in the Middle East or as a result of pressure from the authorities, this blog will no longer be commenting on political events in the Middle East. 

I am now in a position to explain that choice.  Somebody at work had decided that my views on the Middle East were detrimental to client relations, and as such they should stop.  He considered them to be offensive to Arabs, although I had never received any complaint to this effect, and nor had the company.  The person in question was not an Arab, nor was he from the Middle East, and nor was he anything whatsoever to do with our Middle East business.  But nonetheless, he decided there was a problem and called my boss.

My boss handled it very well.  He had a look at the site for himself, could not find anything offensive, and did nothing.  Which should have been the end of it, but the chap who originally made the complaint (and who is not senior to my boss, by the way) decided this was not acceptable and complained to my boss’ boss, who told my boss to do something about it before it reaches head office.  So my boss called me in and told me the story (up to this point, I was completely unaware of what was going on), and explicitly said that he was not ordering me to stop writing, but advised that if I don’t make some kind of gesture then somebody in head office is likely to give me the choice of shutting down the site or get fired.  Of course, I could fight my corner by saying they are personal views, not representative of the company, I never mention the company name, and besides they are not anyway offensive; but I had to consider whether this was a course of action I really wanted to take, and after a moment’s thought decided it was better to make the compromise of agreeing not to write about Middle East politics again.  And that was the end of the matter.

But that was then.  Today is my last day with the company, having spent over 5 years working for them in the UK, Oman, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, and Korea, and therefore the restrictions on my writing can now be lifted.  I am not sure whether I will continue to write on the Middle East in the same way, but I will be addressing various issues at some point in the future.  I leave the company on a positive note and on good terms with almost everybody, but I feel I must make the public statement that the chap who complained about my website in the first place can go fuck himself.

The University of Manchester

I’m not sure why, but I have always been rather proud of having attended the University of Manchester (which has since joined with UMIST).  I guess it is because I have not attended any well-known school or worked for any company with a household name (with the exception of Marconi, which became famous during my brief tenure for the most spectacular corporate collapse in British history), yet everybody knows Manchester if not specifically its university.

Out here in the UAE, your alma mater is quite important.  In order to be granted a work permit for most positions, especially technical ones such as an engineer, it is necessary to have a degree in a relevant subject.  As part of the vetting process, you must get your degree certificate attested first by the British Council and then by the UAE authorities, who check it against a list of recognised institutions before stamping it with their approval.  As you can imagine, people show up here with all sorts of degrees and diplomas from the Kanchenjunga College of Higher Education in Darjeeling or The Billabong University of Western Australia and have awful trouble getting their qualifications recognised by the UAE authorities, who will not issue a work permit until they are satisfied they are not bringing in a fuckwit.  Unsurprisingly, the University of Manchester is recognised without hesitation, which makes things a lot easier when first arriving.

So it is with some degree of pride that I see the University of Manchester is ranked No. 58 in the Newsweek Top 100 Global Universities, and 8th amongst the British universities.  I am sure the university’s position has been boosted by the merger with UMIST, which I thought was a thoroughly sensible move in an attempt to position itself in the global higher education marketplace which the current Labour government and many other British universities seem determined to abandon.  Notably absent from the list are Durham University and St. Andrews, which I always thought ranked pretty highly.  I am pleased to see Manchester beat Nottingham (78th), which leaves Bristol (49th) as the target to surpass in the future.

Whatever the significance of the list and Manchester’s position, it is as good a reason as any to wear my university tie to work each week.

Russian Air Disasters

A BBC chronology of 2006 air disasters reads in its entirety as follows:

22 August: A Russian Tupolev-154 passenger plane with 170 people on board crashes north of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine.

9 July: A Russian S7 Airbus A-310 skids off the runway during landing at Irkutsk airport in Siberia. At least 124 people on board die, but more than 50 survive the crash.

3 May: An Armavia Airbus A-320 crashes into the Black Sea near Sochi, killing all 113 people on board.

Given that I am about to start regular flights on shaky old Antonovs and Tupolevs with Vladivostok Air, I am more than a little nervous.  Despite clocking up some 70,000 airmiles in three years, I am a nervous flier even when I’m with a decent airline who maintain their fuel pumps (a fear which is totally irrational).  My intention is to do the short hop to Tokyo and catch a decent plane from thereon, or take the Aeroflot Boeing to Moscow.  But the Yuzhno-Tokyo flight is not going to be much fun at all.

UPDATE

For those of you who can read Russian, here’s a report which just fills me with confidence:

В аэропорту Южно-Сахалинска вчера совершил аварийную посадку «Боинг-737», принадлежащий компании «Сахалинские авиатрассы». Никто из пассажиров не пострадал. Пилоты удачно посадили самолет, у которого при посадке не сработали закрылки.

Roughly translated as:

Yesterday a Boeing 737 belonging to Sakhalin Airways made an emergency landing at Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport.  The pilots managed to land the plane successfully after it was found the flaps were not working.  None of the passengers was hurt.

(Hat tip: Tatiana V.)

Rip-Off Britain

On Sunday I bought a North Face down jacket in preparation for my move to Sakhalin, almost identical to this one for sale in Cotswold Outdoor for £145.  I paid £53 for mine, a saving of £92, or 64%.

I can expect the usual glib replies that the one I bought is probably fake, but I’m betting these will come from Brits who cannot comprehend the degree to which they are being shafted by their own retailers.

Engineering Consultants’ Standing Orders

(Based on Rogers’ Rangers Standing Orders

1.  Don’t sign nothing.

2.  Have your CV clean as a whistle, job market scoured, 30 days notice given, and be ready to quit the project at a minute’s warning.

3.  When you’re late with a report, act the way you would if you was sneaking up on a deer.  See the enemy first.

4.  Lie through your arse about what you see and what you do.  There is a finance department depending on you to satisfy the client.  You can tell the truth all you please to other consultants on the job, but don’t ever tell the truth to clients or senior management.

5.  Don’t ever write a report you don’t have to.

6.  When we write reports, we do it together, so technical errors cannot be pinned on one man.

7.  If we get caught producing dodgy reports, we spread out onto other projects around the world, so it is harder to track us.

8.  When we work, we keep working till dark, so as to give us more hours to bill the client.

9.  When we attend a meeting, the Project Manager stays awake while the rest sleep.

10.  If the auditors come round, we keep ’em separate till we have had time to bullshit them, so they can’t get the true picture between ’em.

11.  Don’t ever work for the same client more than once.  Work for different companies so they won’t get wise to you.

12.  No matter whether we work on big projects or little ones, each project has to support at least one useless bastard in the team, one equally useless bastard sitting in the regional support office, and no fewer than four completely useless bastards employed at company headquarters.

13.  Every morning you’ll be told where to find another job if the client throws you off the project.

14.  Don’t sit down to eat without making sure it can be put on expenses.

15.  Don’t sleep beyond midday.  The client will be expecting you to show up every now and again.

16.  Don’t enter the office by a regular door.

17.  If somebody is identifying glaring errors in your work, make a circle, turn it all around, and accuse the person who is onto you as being technically incompetent.

18.  Don’t stand up when the client is coming.  Lie down, crouch down, hide behind the desk.

19.  Let the deadline come until it’s almost close enough to touch, then deliver some half-arsed report you’ve pinched from somebody else, move onto another project, and leave a graduate trainee to finish it off.

(Thanks to “Leisure Suit” Larry Barrow for the idea.)

The Ignorance of Americans

The Israeli assualt on Lebanon has not gone unnoticed by the denizens of the UAE Community Blog, and there have been several threads discussing the conflict.  I use that term loosely, and I don’t recommend my readers click through on the links unless they have a burning desire to read a collection of boiler-plate diatribes against Israel containing such wisdom as:

Every single war Israel launched since its unfortunate inception was a war of choice, except the 1973 war. Israeli propaganda has always trumpeted its wars as existential or wars for survival; that is simply not true. Even the 1948 war was started by Israel (a large scale military campaigns to secure Arab areas and force Palestinians into fleeing commenced in 1947; check historical record). Israel has NEVER been in danger of genocide; This is a vicious, cruel, immoral and murderous war; 

and:

This fighter-civilian “blending” is mostly used as a red herring to demonize groups and people and justify unacceptable violent behavior of states.

You know the stuff.  But the reoccurring theme which I really find ironic is that a group of people in the Middle East whose governments heavily restrict internet access, control the press with an iron fist, force political views on its population from early childhood, forbid criticism of government policy, refuse to recognise the existence of Israel and ban Jews from entering believe that it is the Americans who are completely ignorant of the real situation in the Middle East and they have been brainwashed by the American media which suppresses debate!

Take this for example, written by an American expat:

We, if I may speak for myself and other overseas Americans, will clearly have a broader perspective based on the fact of having lived both within and outside of the US. Contrast this with anyone who will not have had this opportunity. It isn’t to suggest that we are better or more intellegent. It is simply a matter of exposure. We have a wider variety of reference points; not only Gulf News and the sentiments of the local media and local population, but also that of the mainstream US media and population for having been in that setting too.

We simply are able to view things from a broader perspective–as too are a minortiy of States-side Americans, who for whatever reasons are well-informed.

The Gulf News?!!  Local media?!!  And exposure to this is supposed to give Americans a better perspective?  This is like saying that reading back issues of Pravda would give Americans a better understanding of the Vietnam war.

Many commentators express outrage that the Americans support Israel over anyone else in the Middle East.  They are left saddened, angry, and confused as to why Americans would take sides so blatantly.  Now I have argued at length that if somebody feels anger or confusion as to why people do things, then they have not researched the situation properly.  I have read few serious historical or political analyses of a situation when after reaching a conclusion the author has thrown his hands up in despair and expressed anger at his failure to understand.  If they do, they have missed something, a crucial factor somewhere.

Which leaves some of them scrabbling around desperate for answers, and what better answer can there be for America’s support for Israel than one whereby the Americans are as thick as pigshit and have been duped into supporting Israel against their interests by the sneaky, scheming Jews who of course control the US government and all media outlets?  Never has it occurred to them that the Israeli message might be one hell of a lot more palatable than the one the anti-Israel lobby is trying unsuccessfully to flog.  I’m just a dumb Brit, but I’m sure that most Yanks if forced to choose are not going to be rooting for a side which routinely burns their flag whilst chanting “Death to America” on TV, and supports those who fly passenger aircraft into American office blocks.  

Interestingly, I sometimes get accused of being Jewish, presumably because nobody can understand why an aethist growing up in a Welsh farming town who never met a Jew or Muslim until his late teens can wind up supporting Israel over its adversaries.  It doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that I might have come to this conclusion all on my own with pretty good access to the facts and without some nefarious Jewish lobby pushing me into it.  No, the charge I usually face is that I am either Jewish, or I am not in full possession of the facts.

So we end up in a situation whereby Americans – who occupy a country in which fierce debates on Israel and the Middle East rage across its newspapers, TV, and unrestricted websites along with dozens of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in its streets –  are accused of being ignorant of the facts and brainwashed by a government which nobody dares to question; and this accusation comes from a people who all agree on the same thing – which just so happens to be the same as the official government stance – read government-approved newspapers, have their internet access restricted, and are forbidden from taking part in any demonstration which does not support the official government line.

To a Martian, this must cause him to laugh his little green belly off.

The Economist and Me

I have been a subscriber to The Economist for about 5 years now, and when I first started reading it I was impressed by its strong and principled editorial line and well researched articles.  Sadly, although its articles are still well researched, its editorial line in the last two years has gone from strong and principled to piss-weak and confused.

They have handled the Iraq war with about as much competence as the US state department.  Apparently, the decision to support the war split the editorial board right down the middle, and correspondingly upset a large swathe of its readership.  Yet as the Iraq project slipped from conventional war into chaos, the publication has all too obviously been trying desperately to regain some if its former credibility with those readers who opposed the war in the first place.  The problem is, rather than admitting they made a mistake or sticking to their guns, they have flim-flammed in the middle saying the decision to go to war was the right one, but all the problems thereafter are solely the fault of the Bush Adminstration, not the war itself.  This is not an unusual position to hold, but it is a weak one.

There is much to criticise the Bush administration for in its handling of post-war Iraq, but on the other hand much of this criticism is bollocks.  Chastising Bush for failing to predict and respond to every eventuality in Iraq is the stuff of academics and hack journalists.  For instance, we can all look back and say that something should have been done about the looting, but I don’t recall anyone predicting that Iraqi society would seize the opportunity to strip each other of their belongings, and ordering the US army to shoot any civilian it catches carrying a microwave would probably have caused the same critics to wet their pants with outrage.  I would much prefer that The Economist recognises that many of the failures in post-war Iraq could not have been predicted nor prepared for, and also acknowledges that wars are generally messy and things do sometimes go badly wrong.  Supporting the war per se and then criticising every aspect and outcome from an editorial office in London is not something I enjoy paying to read.

All that said, I still like The Economist.  Its writing style and turn of phrase, not to mention many of its articles, still make the subsription fee worth paying.  Take by way of example the concluding paragraph in a recent article on the battle of the sexes:

Modern professional life is dominated by management, which these days sets high store by emotional intelligence, empathy and communication. Wise chaps seeking professional advancement should therefore spend their free time with groups of women, boning up on how to undermine somebody’s confidence while pretending to boost it, and how to turn an entire lunch table against an absent colleague without saying a mean word.

Few mainstream publications, especially ones available worldwide, would express this point in such a way that it would make me laugh as I did when I first read that.  Imagine the dour manner in which some bitter old hag would address the subject in The Guardian.  I doubt I’d make it beyond the first paragraph.  Entertaining as well as informing is a good way of parting me from my cash.

I also enjoyed The Economist’s article on disinformation in the former Soviet Union, where they come across a mysterious outfit by the name of the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDISS) which released a report promoting independence for Transdniestria, the breakaway region of Moldova which is propped up by Russia:

[The ICDISS] has no address and no telephone number. Although its website, and an entry on a write-it-yourself encyclopedia, Wikipedia, claim that it was founded in 1999, there is no trace of its activities, or of its supposed staff members, in news databases or the internet before January this year. Since then, it seems to be solely involved in promoting Transdniestria. It claims to be based in America, but does not appear to be a charity there.

Its website is registered at a hotel address in Mexico, with a phone that does not answer, and operated from a server in Latvia. And that is positively illuminating compared with the report’s other supposed publisher, the Euro-Atlantic Joint Forum Contact Group, which seems to have no existence other than its logo.

The jovial, mocking tone is probably what I like best about The Economist.  If they manage to regain their editorial integrity at some point, they can be assured of my subscription for a good while yet.

The Myth of Russian Women

Sakhalin Island may be a frozen wasteland without much entertainment laid on, but the letters page of The Sakhalin Times seems lively enough (emphasis added):

Men are men wherever they are in the world and Russia definitely does have an unfair proportion of beautiful woman. However the “concerned Sakhaliner” should visit nightspots such as 777 where (I suspect) “she” will find large number of young, predatory girls eager to find a foreign boyfriend to improve their lives either on a temporary or even permanent basis. Predatory tactics include jumping into bed with “old foreigners” without much hesitation so it’s no wonder that there is indeed a significant group of foreign men who will take advantage of opportunity. If the “concerned Sakhaliner” has ever met any US or British wives, then the attraction should be obvious.

Ouch!  I hope for his sake his wife doesn’t read the local paper, or at least is not from the US or UK.

Me, I think it’s all rather sad.  For a start, the presence of beautiful young Russian girls eager to leap into bed with a foreigner is exaggerated massively.  I heard stories of how in Yalta all you needed to do was flash your British passport and stunning women just throw themselves at your feet, begging to be dragged to your room and ravaged.  When I went there for myself, I was somewhat disappointed but not altogether surprised to find that the only women who would be remotely interested in such activities were a handful of ropey old tarts who wore cheap clothes and too much makeup.  Far from throwing themselves on foreigners, their sales pitch consisted of sitting round a table drinking heavily, chain smoking, and scowling at passers-by. 

Moscow and St. Petersburg are the same.  Tales abound of men arriving in a hotel to find themselves within five minutes being greeted in their room by a beautiful blonde who does whatever she is asked.  And these tales are probably true, only the storyteller leaves out the annoying facts that he had to pay her a hundred bucks, she didn’t do half what he wanted her to, and she wasn’t as good looking as any of a random selection of girls riding the metro.  I suppose it is possible, after a week or so of relentless purchasing of gifts and promises of marriage, for a visiting foreigner to persuade an ordinary Russian to sleep with him, but this is going to be pretty rare and in all likelihood he will find himself after a few days with a monster headache, an empty wallet, and the girl in question running rings around him.  Just recently, I caused a look of awful disappointment when I informed an Arab gentleman that if he went to Russia looking to find a nice woman to keep him entertained for the week he was going to have to put his hand in his pocket, and it won’t be cheap.  He genuinely thought that women in Moscow would be falling over themselves to sleep with him.  Who tells them this crap?  It’s easier to draw blood from a stone than to get a Muscovite woman to do what you want.

Things might be different in Sakhalin, though.  Certainly, almost all the Russian working girls one encounters in Dubai are from the provinces, usually some village in the middle of nowhere.  Not that they’ll admit this.  They’ll tell you they’re from a place “near to Moscow”, which turns out to be Ufa.  Having spent a fair bit of time in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, I never saw more than a handful of prostitutes, and they were standing in the street as opposed to hanging around the hotel lobbies.  Now, I’m sure you could go to a few dodgy bars or expat haunts and find a working girl or two, but for the large part – at least from where I was standing – they are invisible.  But Sakhalin being a pretty grim place by all accounts, the girls there might well be looking for a way out using a foreigner with not much hair but a lot of cash.  Not that this will be an easy ride, if you excuse the pun.  Any foreigner thinking he can go to a club and get involved with such a girl and emerge unscathed is going to get a nasty shock.

Take the chap writing the letter above, for instance.  He says that the girls will jump into bed without hesitation, but in the course of fumbling with his buttons and taking off his spotty boxers his head is filled only with excitement about shagging somebody his daughter’s age, and hence he has missed the significance of the preceding conversation in which the girl has committed this chap to providing a lot more than a minute and a half of limp action.  In short, he’s got sucked into something which he is going to struggle to get out of without causing an awful lot of distress and aggravation to himself.  Give him a month living with a girl like this, and he’ll be wishing he could rid himself of this stroppy little siren and crawl back under the Paisley bedspread with his now ex-wife who, although having lost her looks fifteen years back, at least behaved in a manner which betrayed a sense of reason, sincerity, and respect.  But by then it’s normally too late, and she’s fucked off with the house and kids.  Must be bags of fun that, having your kids grow up knowing that you ditched their Ma for some tart from a club on Sakhalin Island.

Anyway, I seem to have been rambling somewhat.  What was my point?  Ah, that’s right.  It’s about the last line in the excerpted passage above:

If the “concerned Sakhaliner” has ever met any US or British wives, then the attraction should be obvious. 

Sure, there are Russian women out there who – for some – do stack up favourably when compared to western women, although I would seriously guard against making such comparisons.  And in my case, the attraction of one particular Russian is indeed obvious.  But one thing is certain: you aren’t going to meet such women hanging around dodgy bars in Sakhalin, and they sure as hell aren’t going to be leaping into bed without hesitation with anybody, foreigner or otherwise.

An Emirati’s Thoughts

In contrast to the usual mountains of fuckwittery being spouted on the UAE blogs regarding the current Israel-Lebanon conflict, Emirati at An Emirati’s Thoughts has come up with a sensible suggestion of what Israel’s response should have been to the kidnapping of its soldiers by Hezbollah.  There have been very few sensible suggestions of what Israel’s reaction should have been, most advocating that Israel either does nothing or responds with maximum force depending on who you are supporting, and Emirati’s offering – although possibly unworkable in practice – at least addresses the issue calmly and sensibly.  Under the circumstances this is commendable, and I reproduce his proposal in full below.

1.  Protract this conflict to the South of Lebanon. Strike at Infrastructure in the South of Lebanon, all roads that lead to the Northern Parts of Lebanon. Use a ground offensive to push up till the 2000 pre-handover borders. Dont strike at all of Lebanon, because that will not allow you to later play off the Lebanese Government and people against the Hizb. Make Southern Lebanon Uninhabitable forcing the Civilians there to Relocate to other Areas in Lebanon, thus reducing the Amount of Collateral Damage.

2.  Carry out a Series of Special Forces Raids against Hizbollah Targets, Kidnapping and Interrogating them for Information on Positions of Hezbollah forces and Launchers. With Sufficient SO raids, you could capture and parade Hizbollah Members on Television. You could demoralize Hezbollah and Pro Hezbollah Lebanese into accepting an Inevitability. Guerilla Attacks are deeply Demoralizing and allow you to pull off operations with Minimum Loss of Civilian Life.

3.  Jam All Satellite Communications into Lebanon. No Satellite Television, No Cellular Phones. Neutralize any regional stations which broadcast pro Hezbollah Material by taking out their Antennas. In the meantime, Broadcast your own Materal Showing the IDF attacking Hezb Units.

4.  Leave Beirut and its airport Alone. With something to lose, the Lebanese Government will be more inclined to negotiate and cooperate. Restrict Travel into and From Lebanon. The Israeli Airforce will escort any plane bound to Beirut Airport. Any planes bound to Beirut must Stop at Cairo International, Amman International, or an Airport in Cyprus for an Inspection by UN Observers. Get Lebanon caught up in a non lethal beauraucracy in order to be able to put pressure on it without killing people.

5.  Swiftly Involve the United Nations and the rest of the World in this mess to put pressure on the Lebanese Government. Ask the US to provide Economic Incentives to Syria for non Intervention and Possible Cooperation. Promise to Withdraw from Entire South Lebanon Including Sheba Farms if Hezbollah is Disbanded and Replaced by Regular Lebanese Military Units.

6.  If Hezbollah Proves Undisbandable by politics, have Lebanese Government Request American Military Assistance in Neutralizing Hizbollah Threat or threaten to chase Hezbollah all the Way to the Beqaa Valley. The US will beef up Lebanese Military Units with Advisors, Training and Equipment. Lebanon is not Another Afghanistan. A concerted effort by US and Lebanese forces could wipe out the Hezb in a matter of weeks.

Rip-Off Britain

Yesterday evening I bought this Fujitsu-Siemens laptop, identical except mine has a 200Gb hard drive capacity instead of the 120Gb on the one advertised.

Had I bought it in the UK, as the advert shows, I would have paid £1209 including the VAT.  As I bought it in Dubai, I paid £670.  That is a saving of £539, or 45%.  Yes, I am sure you could get it cheaper than £1209 in the UK by not buying direct from Fujitsu-Siemens, but even so the consumers in the UK are being shafted royally.

If anybody asks you why some of us prefer to live in a 50 degree desert or minus 40 tundra than stay at home, be sure to direct them to this post.  Rip-off Britain is still alive and well.