Great British Retail

First shop, advertising itself as a “diamond and watch specialist”:

Me: “Can you stick a new battery in this watch (an ordinary Seiko) and replace the seal?”

Assistant: “No, we’d have to send it away for 6-8 weeks.  We don’t have the special tools here.”

The last time I changed the battery was in Dubai, where a bloke in a kiosk did it in 15 minutes.

Second shop, two minutes later, specialising in video games:

Me: “Where are the PC games?”

Assistant: “Oh, we don’t do those any more, but if you go to our other branch in…”

Me: “Nah, I’ll download it instead.”

A nation of shopkeepers, indeed.


Watch battery changed in Phuket in 5 minutes for $6, including leak test.  Computer game purchased in Phuket for $15.


Buying Airline Tickets in Russia

In February 2011 some changes were made to how you can book tickets on Thai Airways from Moscow.  The website on which the new rules are described speaks volumes about how business is conducted in Russia.

Please be informed that starting from February 1, 2011 service charge will be gathered for tickets issued in Thai Airways Moscow Ofiice.
Amount of service charge:
For Economy Class – 500 Rub per 1 ticket
For Royal Silk Class – 900 Rub per 1 ticket

Got that?  There is now a service charge for booking tickets at a ticket office.  Perhaps its primary function is to look pretty.  Or maybe they’re trying to encourage people to book online?  Oh, hang on:

If point of departure is Moscow then it is impossible to by the electronic ticket on-line via entering your card data on the web-site.

Only in Russia would you see the words “it is impossible” on the booking information page of an airline.  Before February 2011, it was quite possible.  So, what to do instead?

You can make a booking on the web-site, but further you will need to contact our office to specify the terms of payment and tariff.

How very modern.  Whilst the rest of the world embraces online booking and payment (Nigeria excepted), Russia takes a step backwards and advises that:

Payment is possible by cash or by card in our office as well as by one of the stated ways.

Oh.  So you need to go in person to Moscow (where the service charge will apply).  That’s handy if you live in Irkutsk.  Actually, it’s not.  So let’s take a look at these alternative “stated ways”:

1) By cashless settlement
2) With credit card on authorization letter (only for the tickets with Moscow as a point of origin).


At cashless settlement you have to call +7 (495) 647 1082, or send your request on fax +7 (495) 647 1083 or by e-mail: [email protected].

Unfortunately, that email address does not work (as my wife found out).  That leaves you having to find a fax machine (of course, everyone has one of those these days) or making what is likely to be a long distance or international phone call which, if somebody bothers to answer – a big “if” in Russia – would doubtless involve reading bank details out over a crackly line to somebody who is completely uninterested in the whole affair.  And of course, the office only works Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm.

After money come on our account we will contact you on the phone or by e-mail to confirm issuing of air-tickets. After confirming the issuance of the tickets we will send electronic tickets to your e-mail address.

Yes, this sounds quick and easy.  Arrange a bank transfer (which in Russia normally involves standing around in a bank for a couple of hours) then wait a few days for it to be processed, then wait for a confirmation email or phone call, praying the girl on the phone heard you properly.  This is far better than completing your booking online in 5 minutes, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Okay, so that’s shite.  What about Option 2?

At credit card payment on authorization letter, the card owner will have to fill in authorization letter and send it to [email protected] or by fax +7 (495) 647 1083, with copies of both sides of the card.

Ah, so we’re faced with the same problems as Option 1.  What’s more:

In authorization letter you need to specify exact cost of air-tickets in rubles on day of issuance the tickets. Only round up are possible.

But using the fax/bounced-email method above, this can be a couple of days later, more if it’s a weekend.  Far better to just pay a bit extra just to make sure.  Rounding up, it’s called.  As they make clear:

Receiving of credit card payment on authorization letter takes place daily from Monday till Friday till 16.00. In case of request coming after 16.00, issuance of tickets on the day when request was received is not guaranteed and could be transferred on the following day.

Sounds great.  Why isn’t the whole world doing this?

By the way, that authorisation letter is worth looking at more closely:

I __________________ authorize SRG Holdings Co. Ltd to make a charge to my card…

At which point most people would say “Who?  I thought I was dealing with Thai Airways here!”

Of course, this is one of the million intermediary companies in Russia who usually enjoy a near-monopoly on whatever product or service is on offer and charge a hefty fee for access.  Various rules and regulations make it notoriously difficult for an individual to deal directly with a foreign company (and a foreign company to deal with an individual) so you end up being pushed into going through a Russian intermediary.  This is why Russia is pretty much the only place I’ve been to where travel agents are still in business booking flights and holidays for people like we used to do in the UK before the 1990s.  I remember back in October 2007 we found that the travel agent had marked up an Aeroflot flight from Sakhalin to Istanbul via Moscow from $2,000 to $3,000.  We ended up booking it direct through Aeroflot and saved ourselves $,1000 each. 

When you look at the website of SRG Holdings, we learn that:

SRG Holdings Company Limited was founded in 2005 with the purpose of developing commercial projects to international standards in the Russian Federation…

…using the somewhat unusual methods of shunning online payments in favour of fax machines, non-functioning emails, and restrictive business hours.


SRG Holdings’s highly professional and service oriented personal serves THAI customers in “smooth as silk” manner, and of high international airline standards.

SRG Holdings’ directors need to get out of Russia some day and see how the developed world works.

No wonder the Russians are so looking forward to hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2018.  By then it will be a requirement that all travelling fans bring a rock for the construction of St. Petersburg.


Murdoch: Not Actually Stalin

Amongst all the speculation as to why Rupert Murdoch has not fired Rebekah Brooks, the chief editor of what was the News of the World, there doesn’t appear to be the most reasonable explanation: he considers her a valuable employee and gets on well with her.  Yes, we have an awful lot of theorising on what she knows, where the bodies are buried, where the skeletons are hidden, etc.  And to be fair, we do have some reasonable explanations as well, i.e. maybe it is better to have her on the payroll should this end up in court.

The thing is, I’ve seen an awful lot of blitheringly incompetent fools sitting at or near the top of organisations who have cost their company money and reputation, but never came close to getting fired.  I’ve worked in no fewer than three companies where a joke is made about a certain manager or director having pictures of the CEO with a chicken.  In other words, senior people making enormous fuckups does not lead to them getting fired half as often as you think.  Look at the oil business.  Tony Hayward did not get sacked from BP following the Macondo well blowout, he merely got replaced as CEO.  Yes, he left of his own accord (no doubt with a hefty payout) a little later, but he was not publicly removed from employment with the company.  Oil companies almost never sack their middle or lower management, never mind the senior staff.  If you fuck up in an oil company, they will move you sideways or promote you into a position where you can’t do too much damage (usually in the HSE department, writing procedures which nobody reads).  I have personally seen one person underperform to the point he was promoted in an oil company.  Actually, make that two people.  True, none of these committed blunders as grave as Rebekah Brooks (if you can call shifting millions of copy over a decade a blunder), but it was judged they were better retained than sacked.  I’ve heard this is quite common in other large companies too – every organisation, no matter how elite it is perceived to be, has useless, blundering people who everyone looks at and thinks “How the hell did he get in?”  There are reasons for this.  Personal relationships count for a lot in business, and the hard-nosed, ruthless manager who sacks people on a whim does exist, but he is rare.  The lower ranks will feel his wrath, and the subcontractors will take a beating (especially in the oil business where if the client fucks up, the subcontractor is always to blame), and newcomers will be vulnerable at any level, but I have never seen a senior manager who enjoyed a long and amicable relationship with the head of an organisation get fired.  Never.

It is often also the case that the damages done cannot be undone, and there is little point in compounding them further by sacking somebody.  People on the outside might not be able to judge an employee’s value to an organisation as well as those on the inside, especially the management.  A classic example of this was Alex Ferguson’s retention of Eric Cantona after he booted a Crystal Palace fan and caused an outcry amongst the FA, fans, and sponsors alike.  Ferguson employed Cantona to score goals, and his potential to score more goals (once his ban had ended) outweighed whatever damage limitation could be achieved by sacking him from the club.  Good managers have to think like this, whereas the public looking on…rarely think at all.  Plus, Ferguson probably quite liked having Cantona around.  I have heard in an interview with the former that they didn’t speak much and weren’t exactly friends, but he apparently played a useful role in being a mentor to the younger players (presumably when he wasn’t booting fans), and was an important figure in the dressing room.  Contrast this with the likes of Jaap Stam or Paul Ince who were performing well but fell out with Ferguson, and both found themselves rapidly transferred out. Going back to the oil business, many of those who appear to lead a charmed life have friends (or their wives do, at any rate) who backed them for reasons which went beyond good business.  A subsidiary of one company I worked for ensured its core of managers – who were, to a man, blindingly incompetent when they weren’t being dishonest – all hailed from Scotland, preferably Aberdeen.  Their contract staff turned over completely twice in the space of two years and they failed to deliver a single project, but the core management survived unscathed.

My point?  There is more than enough evidence that personal relationships have a lot more to do with whether somebody gets sacked or not than what somebody has actually done (or not done).  Couple a good personal relationship with a shrewd manager (as Ferguson was) who can see more clearly than a baying mob outside the window, and it is possible for the seemingly untenable to become quite tenable.

Now, as I remarked earlier, Rebekah Brooks was no shoddy performer.  Employed to flog newspapers, she did just that for years, selling more than any other title.  The methods used to achieve this impressive performance leave a lot to be desired, but this is a rather different matter than had she simply not performed and watched the publications go down the drain on her watch.  So, she obviously had skills which added considerable value to News International’s bottom line.  Does she still have them?  Certainly.  So she is still a valuable employee, provided they can find something else for her to do.  The damage is largely done, and sacking her now is unlikely to reduce that. Yes, it would relieve the “pressure” but I’m not entirely convinced Murdoch doesn’t think this pressure is more a figment of his commercial rivals’ imagination than anything he can’t handle.  If the British government block his bid to take over BSkyB then it will be everything to do with populist posturing on the part of politicians and little to do with the merits or otherwise of the deal, and if that’s the case then kicking out Brooks isn’t going to change anything.  So from a shrewd managerial point of view, which Murdoch almost certainly holds, he probably doesn’t see much advantage in sacking a valuable employee who would probably turn up in a rival organisation in any case.

But let’s speculate a bit about what sort of personal relationship Brooks enjoys with Murdoch?  Well, she was either deputy editor or editor of his two top-selling titles between 1998 and 2009, whereupon she became CEO of News International.  I think it is fair to say that the two enjoy a pretty good professional relationship, and it’s hard to imagine that the two do not enjoy a healthy personal relationship either.  Now, can anyone think of an instance where a senior executive has been sacked for something other than poor performance by somebody who has backed them for over a decade?  I can’t, but I’m not too hot on corporate comings and goings so I am prepared to be enlightened.  But let’s look for other set precedents.  Can anyone think of an instance where somebody has been kept in a company because they know too much, or have dirt on the CEO of the parent company?  No, I can’t either.  I would imagine it’s a lot easier to buy their silence and allow them to resign quietly than have them wandering around the corridors of power winking and nudging every time the boss speaks.  If you see Brooks resign for “personal reasons” in the next week or so and turn up a bit later in Monaco sipping pink gins on a yacht called Lady Becks, you know what’s happened.

I think what’s happened here is people have invented a pantomime villain in Murdoch and are now trying to equate what is actually happening with what a pantomime villain is supposed to do.  Unfortunately, Murdoch is not a pantomime villain as such a person would not survive long in business.  He might be a ruthless business operator, but it is quite likely that he enjoys a good personal relationship with Brooks, appreciates what’s she’s done for the past decade or more, and simply wants to have her around a little longer.  Businessmen, no matter how ruthless they appear, must compromise occasionally.  Somebody who walks around axing everybody will not get to head an organisation as successful as News Corporation.  In fact, I think the only people who can get to the top by shitting on absolutely everybody and would shoot their grandmothers to distract attention away from something shameful are politicians.  Perhaps the British public have been watching them for so long that they think everyone behaves like they do?


Uneducated Expats

This amused:

According to the Deputy Director, the Thailand Ministry of Education is warning all schools who offer Education Visas to foreigners to be legitimate and make sure students adhere to attendance and testing requirements.

At the Pattaya City Expats Club meeting on Sunday, Immigration Volunteer and former British Consul Barry Kenyan stated the problem with Education visas as he observed it first-hand in the local Immigration office on Jomtien Beach Road, Soi 5.

“A guy came in and wanted to renew his Education visa for a 7th straight year. He waited in the queue and when it was his turn he sat at the Immigration officer’s desk in charge of Education Visas. He had all of his documents from the school. His application was completed and he had the two photos now required for any visa. So the officer looked at him and said, ‘You have been learning Thai for six years already. Is that right?’ The answer was yes so the officer looked at a nearby fish tank and said in Thai, ‘The big fish eat the little fish.” The foreigner looked at him without a clue. The officer smiled and picked up a big red stamp and stamped “CANCELLED” on the remaining portion of the current visa and told the fellow he would not again receive an Education visa,” Barry reported.

That explained why my wife got given the third degree when she went to renew her education visa in Phuket last week.  Fortunately, being a child of the Soviet Union and understanding of the phrase “Учиться, учиться, учиться, как завещал великий Ленин“, she actually attends class and can speak a fair amount of Thai (enough to annoy the teacher), so was able to reply “Yes, but the little fish is not so tasty!”  Or something.  Anyhow, she got her visa renewed.  I’m guessing there are a few worried expats in Thailand right now (and a few worried Thai girlfriends), because of all the people I met living in Thailand on education visas, the only one who actually bothers studying the language with any seriousness is my wife.


Wet Season

We are now in the middle of what Nigerians call wet season, or rainy season.  This is the time of year when thunderstorms of extraordinary violence crash overhead sending down torrential rain which can last for hours.  It is far worse than anything I saw in the tropics of SE Asia, and in Lagos it would be better named flood season.

Lagos, like Venice, New Orleans, and recent housing developments in parts of England, is badly located.  I don’t suppose the Portugese who founded the place thought that it would become a city of fifteen million people, and the British who followed probably didn’t care.  But it is located on the shores and islands of  an enormous tidal lagoon, with many parts of the city barely above sea level.  When it rains there is nowhere for the water to go, especially where I work on Victoria Island.  I haven’t quite figured out if the streets have never had drains installed or whether drains exist but are permanently blocked, but the result is the streets themselves flood severely.  In some places it is knee-deep during a downpour, and the only route for the water to escape is along the road itself.  This causes some amount of chaos and considerable discomfort, to the city’s residents.

I am lucky in that I can jump in my 4WD after a 10m dash from my residence, and sit there fairly safe in the knowledge that the air intake is located above the waterline.  At the other end, I can stop outside and belt up the concrete steps to the office, leaving the driver to figure out where he is going to moor up.  Others are not so lucky, which includes most of the guys who work for me (only guys: I’m in engineering, something Nigerian women don’t appear to have taken much interest in).  A couple of Fridays ago we had a colossal storm hit us at about 7:00am, just as everyone was coming to work.  I arrived just after it started and watched it unfold outside my window.  The sky goes dark, so dark that it is closer to night than day at street level.  No tropical sunlight, no matter how strong, is going to penetrate these thunderclouds.  As the streets below filled up with water, one by one my guys straggled in.  Those who could drive were lucky, right up to the point where they realised the walk between the car park and office was knee-deep in brown water.  The unlucky ones came in on the back of an okada, the motorcycle taxis unique to Lagos in the manner in which they actively try to kill the passenger, or so it seems.  They emerged from the lift like drowned rats, drenched to the bone.  Fortunately they were wearing national dress (as is customary for a Friday) which takes the form of colourful pajamas made from linen or cotton.  At least this clobber dries out quickly, although the way some of them came in I was wondering if they’d die of pneumonia before then.  Like a lot of office blocks in the tropics or Middle East, powerful air-conditioning recreates the climatic conditions more usually associated with a Siberian labour camp.

The poor sods.  And you can add to their number a couple of million others who would be, as I saw myself, riding on the back of motorbikes, water up to their shins, with their suit trousers rolled up and their shoes and socks in their hands.  Not the ideal way to turn up to an interview, but this is Lagos where people do whatever is necessary to get by.  Their journeys are not only uncomfortable, but perilous too, even by Lagos standards.  Unfortunately, as in Dubai and Kuwait, torrential rain does nothing to modify drivers’ behaviour, and given slick, wet roads and poor visibility, you will always get some idiot flying down a clear bit of road – admittedly, pretty rare around here – without even his lights on towards a queue of stationary traffic and a couple of hundred okadas carrying passengers who wished they’d called in sick that morning.  It is horrendous.  Occasionally you see a van or car lying at an absurd angle where its front nearside wheel (and a goodly portion of the body) has disappeared into a large hole, easily avoided in the dry, but filled with water takes on an effective disguise as a mere puddle.  The Nigerian roadside rescue does not come swiftly.

Added to all this is the lightning strikes, which knock out electricity supplies (intermittent even in the best weather) taking the traffic lights with them.  The traffic police won’t work in the rain, so chaos ensues.  True, it is chaotic all the time, but if you look carefully there is a method to the madness of Lagos traffic.  People will slow down and eventually stop if you pull out in front of them, for nobody wants a crash.  A crash in Lagos will involve police, which will in turn involve handing over cash for little reward.  Better to step on the brake.  In the rain, people get scared that others can’t stop, and looking at some of the tyres on display, I can see why.  The lightning also kills people with disturbing regularity, cattle too.  Being caught outside in a Nigerian thunderstorm is no joke.  Being caught inside, especially on a Sunday afternoon, is quite nice though.  You can watch the rain hammer down and the lightning flash, utterly failing to take any photos to make this post much more interesting, and be quite content with life merely because you know you’re indoors.  Just pity the poor sods caught out in it, and know that it’ll be you at some point.