Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Last Page

It's Bloody Marvellous isn't it? You start a second blog in order to keep the first one focused on its subject matter, then realise that you have two blogs with such general remits that everything you want to write about has a foot in each camp:

"It's about something I hate, so it must go in Bloody Marvellous."
"Yeah, but it's also about your life in Riyadh so it should belong on Neal of Arabia."
I have conversations like this with myself all the time.

Having two such blogs is like having two wives (so my friends in Utah tell me). You can't give one the attention it deserves without neglecting the other.

Therefore I sadly announce that this is the final posting I shall make to Bloody Marvellous! From now on everything, from holidays to Embassy functions to pet loves and peeves, will go on Neal of Arabia. It's a shame really because in some ways I enjoyed writing BM more, but the advantages outweigh the disadvantages believe me.

The full content of Bloody Marvellous! will remain on-line for your reading pleasure (who am I trying to kid?). Seriously there are some funny bits in here if you've got the time and energy to search them out, so next time you're looking for a diversion to put off doing something more responsible you could do worse than have a trawl through these archives.

This is Bloody Marvellous!, signing off. If any of you choose to run two blogs at the same time, make sure you have hobbies contrasting enough to make it work, like paintballing and crochet, for example.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Transformers: The Movie

We saw the new Transformers movie while in Kuala Lumpur recently. We'd ended up in a large shopping mall with multiplex cinema AND an IMAX screen and found that Transformers was showing in IMAX. I had not heard that a new Transformers movie was coming out to it was a complete surprise to me. I took the kids to see it while Karen got some pampering in the mall's Spa -- Yes, you heard right -- the mall had a spa too.

You remember Transformers the cartoon series from the Eighties? I don't too well but I remember the TV ads for the action figures, so I knew roughly what to expect. What I didn't expect was to enjoy the film so much. Films like this usually either take themselves too seriously or go to the opposite extreme and just become a comedy. The new movie successfully does a bit of both, and for every high-octane action sequence there is a quirky comdey moment to match. The special effects are totally stunning, as we've come to expect with CGI, and the plot is pretty good too. All in all a very entertaining family movie, and I'll definitely be getting the DVD.

Check out the official movie site, and the imdb page.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cheap 'n' Nasty Games

Are you a Nintendo Man or a Sony Man? Maybe you're a girl! Whatever you are, if you choose fancy graphics and sound over gameplay you're wrong, simple as that.

Nintendo are the gameplay masters and the Super Mario series of games boasts some of the best gameplay anywhere, ever. All of which explains my bitter disappointment when I failed to find Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga for my Game Boy in the shops yesterday.

It's actually quite hard to find genuine video games in Riyadh: even supermarket chains like Carrefour carry pirated copies. You can tell a pirated cartridge by the cheap, over-colourful printing on the box, the lack of a manual, and the fact that 9 out of 10 cartridges don't work properly -- but at least they're cheap.

The last shop I went in had hundreds of titles for Game Boy, XBox, PlayStation (1 & 2), and all were phoney. By the time the Indian shopkeeper had told me he didn't have my game of choice I was emotionally committed to making a purchase, so settled on The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, which is one of the few Zelda games I haven't played. I tested it in the shop and it seemed to work fine so I handed over my 35 Riyals (about £5).

Of course once I got it home I found I couldn't save my progress, which is kind of important in a massive role-playing adventure.

I took it back to the shop this morning and the man disappeared for a few minutes, then came back with -- joy! -- a copy of Mario & Luigi! He'd obviously knocked this one up sometime yesterday afternoon on the off chance that I came back. My joy was short-lived however when I tested the game out: this one wouldn't save either. I did find two games I fancied and that worked properly: DK King of Swing and Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land. Well, sometimes you have to blow into the cartridge and knock it on the table before loading it in your Game Boy to get it load, but THEN it works properly.

Fair play, the guy let me have both games in exchange for Zelda so I left feeling quite pleased with myself. At the next shop I found another copy of M&L, and this one worked just fine so I bought that too.

Today's haul

Three Game Boy games for around £10: bargain. I don't normally agree with buying pirated stuff, but when you can't get the originals and you need it there and then what choice do you have?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Cloud Atlas

One of the problems with trying to be a writer is that you have to spend a lot of time reading. Now if you're reading a book just for the pleasure of it then reading is no problem at all but one of life's greatest joys, but if you're a budding writer then reading the work of others can be quite demoralising.

The novel I'm currently reading is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and while the Reader in me is enjoying it immensely the Writer is being punched to the ground and savegely kicked where he lies. Reading stunningly good writing like this makes me realise how high and steep is the hill I have chosen to attempt.

Cloud Atlas is a series of six stories, all set in different times yet interconnected in sometimes simple, sometimes ingenious ways. The book begins with the first story, which is set in the nineteenth century, and moves through the stories (and jumps forward in time) until the sixth story is introduced in the middle of the book. That's the point I'm at right now but I was intrigued to see how the second half of the book would be handled so I flicked ahead and discovered that we have only the first half of each story, and that each will be revisited and finished in the latter half, travelling backward in time in the process.

What we have here is a mountain of a book whose peak I'm about to reach before beginning the descent to base camp. It makes me wonder how one can come up with such a multi-layered idea in the first place, let alone map it out to the required level of detail.

The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004, the prize that year being won by The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst.

I won't comment on the novel's merits until I've finished it but I will say that I am finding it a fascinating read and a maddening showcase of just how inventive and compelling writers can be. I look at my own scribblings to date and slump with dejection at the comparison.

Still, I bet even David Mitchell had to start somewhere and has some early drafts that he's not too proud of. Please say it's true!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sites about sites

Don't get me wrong, the world wide web is a wonderful thing, but lately I've been feeling a little swamped by all the sites, directories, blog search engines, and community portals that are supposed to make your life on-line easier, but have lately been having the opposite effect on me.

These are coming at me from a couple of different directions. Firstly there are those sites that help you promote your blog(s), propogating content around the internet in RSS feeds, indexing content for blog search engines, and those that gather statistics about your readership. Sites I've found/use in this category are:-
  • ClustrMaps - See map on left. They capture info about the geographical location of people hitting your site, the upshot being that over time your little world map is peppered with red blobs showing you where your readers are. I am currently a ClustrMaps User of the Month, which is nice.
  • Feedburner - RSS aggregator that captures your content and sends it to various hubs where people who use RSS readers can pick up their subcribed content. Essentially RSS feeds let you gather all the blogs you read into one place and read the content there instead of having to go to each site individually, and some RSS readers even have an off-line mode, so you can read Bloody Marvellous! on the plane :-)
  • Technorati - is a blog about blogs. They have rankings and log every time somebody adds your blog to their (Technorati) favourites. You can also search every registered blog here.
  • Statcounter - this is the latest one I've been playing with and it's very cool. It's a free service that gathers stats about all my visitors: not just location but also what operating system and web browser they're using, their screen resolution, and something called the "referring page". With this I can see when people land on my blogs as the result of a Google search, complete with the search term they typed in. If you have a blog of your own I recommend this service.
Then there are those famous ones I haven't tried yet:
  • del.ici.ous - no idea what this site is about but I see references to it everywhere
  • Digg - ditto
The second area where I'm feeling like a victim of the web firehose is in those sites aimed at teen networking and on-line discussion. Sites like MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, MSN Spaces, and Tagged are all about teenagers creating their own spaces and linking to all their friends. My two kids are obsessed with these, which means I have to be too if I'm to monitor what they're doing on-line and keep them out of harm's way. So I have to accept when Abigail invites me to be a Facebook buddy or Elliot creates a new Bebo page so I can make sure their on-line behaviour is as exemplary as in the real world.

Of course the result of all this is, not only do I have about twenty userid's and passwords to remember, I spend at least half my time on-line checking stats, accepting invitations, reading teen comments tht r all wrtn lk ths kwl lol (gives me a headache) and scanning my blog stats logs.

It's a good job I've got nothing better to do!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Lost in Translation: Episode 8

More Riyadh signs that don't quite make the journey from Arabic to English unscathed:

"Please use other door"

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Boneless Girl

Here she is, the star of iGoogle's game gadgets, it's Boneless Girl!
(code hacked to make her appear here without kind permission of TheWeather.TK: I hope they don't mind!)

If you're ever stuck for something to do just come back here and watch Boneless Girl fall about for a while. Actually she's not boneless at all, just floppy really (and a bit double-jointed), but Floppy Girl doesn't sound so good does it? You can watch idly as she plummets through the sky, and go "Ouch!" and "Eewww!" as her limbs get bashed into all sort of unnatural positions.


If she gets stuck you can grab any part of her anatomy (Oo-er!) with your mouse and either drag her through impossibly small gaps or fling her spinning up into the sky.

If you have iGoogle (and if you don't, get it!), you can add Boneless Girl to your page by clicking here.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

iGoogle: fun and easier than writing

Continuing my informal series on things you can do to put off doing any creative writing, this morning I discovered the web's perfect diversion for anyone wishing to further their procrastinating career: iGoogle.

Here's my iGoogle home page. You can add and delete gadgets with a couple of clicks, and rearrange them on the page by dragging 'n' dropping.

iGoogle is the new name for Google Homepage, and it's basically a fully customisable page which you can use instead of the regular or Once you have a Google account you can populate your iGoogle page with Gadgets -- small programs that each do one specific thing like givea weather forecast or show the BBC news headlines. There are all sorts of gadgets including games, and once your page is full of stuff you can just create a new tab and start filling up again. One really neat thing is the option to let Google fill your new tab automatically based on its name. Elliot, for example, created a tab called "Guitar" and Google filled it with guitar chord gadgets, tabulature finders, and other things a guitarist would want to have at their fingertips.

When you create a new tab you can have Google populate it with relevant content to the tab name. Here's my Writing tab.

By far and away the best gadget I've found so far is Boneless Girl: a completely pointless desktop diversion featuring a bikini-clad girl with no bones falling through a sky filled with large bubbles. As she hits each bubble or group of bubbles her body twists and turns in the kind of improbable positions you'd expect a girl with no bones to get into. It might not sound that interesting but the animation is so good I just can't stop watching it. I've put Boneless Girl on my Games tab in iGoogle and can happily waste half an hour watching her bounce around, dragging her out of tight spots with my mouse and flinging her across the sky for more painful-looking bouncing.

When I'm feeling really lazy I can head on over to my Games tab and work through a Sudoku while playing Deal Or No Deal and watching Boneless Girl go through her paces all at the same time. I've only been at it a day and already I've forgotten how I used to waste time before iGoogle.

It's one of those things you've just got to see to understand. To get your own iGoogle go to (or, your local Google) and create an account, then click iGoogle to get started.

It's fun, and a great way to not write.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Lost In Translation: Episode 7

Went supermarket shopping in Carrefour the other day: an excursion that is incomplete without roaming the children's clothing dept for garments bearing nonsensical slogans. They are an attempt to "be cool" by sporting slogans in English, but in reality they are designed, made, distributed, retailed, bought and worn by people who have no idea what the slogans say, let alone that they don't actually make any sense:

...then the other day I saw this new cafe in the Diplomatic Quarter.

My "Sandwish" is that it wouldn't get in my eyes, mouth and hair when I'm quadbiking!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Lost in Translation: Episode 6

Another great shop sign found in one of Riyadh's busiest shopping streets:

Click to enlarge

"Salaam Alaykum. Got anything for a black eye?"

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


I've just completed bulding a fab playlist of '70s Glam Rock hits for my iPod. This was prompted yesterday when I found (and bought) a couple of excellent "best of" albums in a Riyadh music shop.

When I got home I promptly added them to my iTunes library (which already has some cool '70s stuff), then went on to iTunes Music Store to find all the other favourites that my memory threw up once I started listening to Blockbuster by Sweet.

Here's my '70s playlist:

Page 1 (click to view)

Page 2 (click to view)

Page 3 (click to view)

Page 4 (click to view)

Are all your favourites here or have I missed some? If you're A) not from the UK or B) too young to remember the '70s, does this make any sense at all?


Sunday, May 20, 2007

"Damn Fine Coffee!"

The memory of a thing is often better than the thing revisited.

I recently took Twin Peaks Series 1 out of the DVD library because I remember having loved it in the '80s. It was a cult hit: weird, kooky, surprising, dark, edgy, and mysterious. Of course when you watch a murder mystery for the second time you will lose some of the mystery and surprise, but that's OK. You're not re-watching to be surprised, you're doing it to feel again what you felt the first time: that warm, tickly, slightly uncomfortable feeling that you're witnessing something totally original and ground-breaking. Twin Peaks hasn't changed since it was first aired, but I have and the World has. Fashions and music move on, historic events shape our world view, new technology in movies makes the impossible a commodity.

Twin Peaks in 2007 still retains its oddness but it has lost its edge; the clothes and hairstyles show its age, some of the gags seem more contrived than before, the villains seem more comical now rather than the dark menaces they used to be. Simply put, it doesn't scare me anymore.

All of this is unsurprising and understandable. I should have known to expect a different viewing experience this time around shouldn't I? I guess I should have, but the desire to feel again what I felt the first time was too great, and now that it's done, even my memory of it is tarnished.

Do you have s special TV memory that DVD technology is about to jog? Think carefully before opening that box.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Do anything but write


I've finally realised what my first best-selling book is going to be about. It's not going to be fiction though, but a self-help book aimed at all the budding writers out there who are wondering where to start, and searching desperately for inspiration.

It'll be called 100 Ways To Put Off Writing. Here are the first twenty off the top of my head:

1. Watch a movie
2. Make a cup of coffee
3. Water the plants
4. Feed the rabbit
5. Check your email
6. Go to the supermarket
7. Get a skinny triple latte from Starbucks, but make sure it's "to go" so you can get back to your writing.
8. Go rollerblading
9. Go to the DVD library to return some movies and take out some more for later in the week.
10. Write a work To-Do list, then curse when you realise you've accidentally soiled a page of your precious Writer's Journal with work stuff.
11. Check your email
12. Spend an hour troubleshooting why your Linux laptop doesn't keep time very well, then wonder why it's only taken 17 minutes.
13. Feed the rabbit (he looks like he could do with some Rollerblades of his own!)
14. Take out your Writer's Journal and stare at the blank page for half an hour.
15. Check your email
16. Write an email to someone in the hope that they reply, giving you something to check later.
17. Research writing on the internet and write down in your Journal, "It's vitally important to write something every day."
18. Have lunch.
19. Write some drivel on your blog.
20. Do your job.

See? It's easy. Well they say to write about what you know, don't they?

I think my second book will be about the tortuous but worthwhile path to my first book. I can feel a series coming on...

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Old Writing Game

Yes! I have finally finished my Open University course (A174: Start Writing Fiction). It was only a 12-week unit but it seemed much longer. I chatted with fellow students on an online forum, we did structured activities and posted it there, and we critiqued each other's work. All the way through I was thinking Yes, I want to be a writer and get my first novel published. Can't start yet though can I? Oh no, first I've got to focus on completing the course, THEN I can start being a writer proper.
I went out and bought a nice notebook to serve as my writer's journal, and I've made notes in it (about the course activities). I've even got a smart new Waterman pen that I won in the raffle at a recent Embassy ball. That's right, once this course is out of the way there'll be nothing to stop me. There I'll be, sitting on the grass in the shade of a large oak tree with my pen in my hand, crafting a masterpiece before tea...

Well the course IS over now and reality is very different. I've come to realise that writing is all about motivation, discipline, and staying power. Since the course I've lost my principal excuse for not writing, so I've been coming up with new ones. I'll just make a cup of coffee and some toast, then I'll start.... I'll watch a movie first to get me in the mood... I'll go for a walk to clear my head. If I put into my writing all the energy and creative thought that I put into procrastinating I'd be a bestselling author by now.

This is so frustrating!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Lost in Translation, Episode Five

Check out this coffee set we saw in a department store:

click to enlarge

Brings a whole new meaning to, "pop round for a coffee" !

A Touch Of Class

It may be a false economy but I just bought another of those cheap-as-chips DVD players, like the one I bought for the lounge last year. This one is for the children's TV room, because the one we had in there (brought with us from UK, bought at Tesco, just as cheap and nasty) has finally given up the ghost after six years' faithful service.

This time I decided to break with tradition and not buy the new player from a supermarket. Instead I went to Extra, a big electronics superstore chain (a bit like Currys in UK), determined to step up a couple of rungs on the quality ladder. I failed totally. The first thing Karen and I saw when we entered the showroom was a big stack of boxes advertising a play-anything, anywhere Taiwanese DVD player for 189 Riyals (about £25). Just like my other one, this has a usb port and slot for a memory card on the front, so you can view your digital photos on the TV screen, and this one even has a karaoke function, although I have yet to play with that particular feature.

The brand name is 'Class'. Says it all really.

It looks identical to my ATC player. Even the setup menus are the same!

You Hi-Fi snobs out there may be thinking I'm wasting my money on this rubbish, and that I can't possibly expect to get the ultimate movie-watching experience with something so cheap. You may be right, but I don't care. It's good enough, and so cheap that I can keep my options open for when HD is ready for primetime.

Off to watch a movie now...

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Workout Cook-out

I'm becoming a bit of a lard-ass.

Too much food, too much of the wrong kind of food. Too much to drink. Virtually no exercise. All of these add up to weight gain, and my trousers are starting to notice. We all know that clothes sizes can vary enormously and that one store's garments "come up small" or vice versa, but when that happens to me I'm very subjective in the way I react. If I buy a pair of 36" waist trousers and they feel loose, I kid myself that I'm losing weight, but if they're tight I blame the store for getting the size wrong. Guess I'm not unusual in that...

So, after a long break I went out Rollerblading the other day, just for a few minutes to get back into the swing (roll) of it, and today, for the first time in weeks, I actually feel like going out skating. Right now there's nothing I'd enjoy more than a good 30 minutes' vigorous skate around the Diplomatic Quarter to get my blood pumping and some fresh air in my lungs. Also we're going to a black tie ball tonight so a workout would be good prepartion for a big night out.

Trouble is, it's 45 degrees centigrade outside!

Blow it, I'll go anyway. If you don't hear from me I've probably keeled over from heat exhaustion!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Lost in Translation Episode Four

Blimey, I not only remembered that in my last LIT posting I started using episode numbers, I also remembered the right number for this one... scary.

I had to shoot up to the DQ mini-mart last night to get supplies for the childrens' packed lunches, and by the checkout I found this flyer for a special offer at the local Italian Restaurant.

click to enlarge

Oh No! It's all in Arabic: drat. How am I supposed to find out all about this great offer now? Not to worry: the nice people at Scalini have had the foresight to print the English version on the back:

click to enlarge

So, that's made perfect sense of it! All I now need to do is find out how a vagannzzzaaaa buffet lunch differs from an ordinary one, and whether the whole family will like it prepared in a live flam way. Still, at least the moods of sauces are combined with my taste to the pasta of my kind. You can't say fairer than that, can you?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A174 late!

Well, I'm back home in Riyadh after a hectic few weeks, what with a two-week trip to the UK preceded by my nine-day trip to Salt Lake City for Novell's BrainShare conference.

I had a great time, but unfortunately I am now behind with my Open University course A174: Start Writing Fiction. There are just under two weeks to go in this twelve-week course, and I reckon I'm about two weeks behind on the coursework exercises.

The bit that really matters is the end of course assignment. That's the bit you get marked on, and also the bit with a firm deadline, so I'll make sure I hit that and get it in on time, even if it means leaving some of the later exercises to do in my own time after the course has finished.

Once it's all over I'll post some of my assignment work here too, and maybe you'll let me know what you think of it.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Do not adjust your set.

We're having a fine old time in Edinburgh: seeing the sights, lots of walking, good food and even a dram or two.

But, we have no internet connection where we're staying, so blogging has been a no-no for the last few days.

I can send posts like this from my Blackberry but it' not the same: no pictures, and it makes my thumbs sore too.

Got lots of things to talk about and will try to write again by the end of the week.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Archos to the Rescue!

I cannot tell you how much I love my Archos AV500.

Oh alright then, I'll try.

This little beauty can record from TV and DVD onto its 100Gb hard disk, which means you can carry all your favourite movies, photos, and music with you wherever you go. It once again proved invaluable on my recent trip to the U.S., as the seatback video screens on my United flight from Heathrow to San Francisco weren't working, so while my fellow passengers had to go eleven hours with no video entertainment, I had all my favourite movies at my disposal (I watched Memento, followed by Rammstein Live in Nimes from the Volkerball DVD: superb!). Later in the flight I lent the Archos to the guy sitting next to me who was going mad with boredom, and he chuckled along to Nacho Libre for a couple of hours and was very grateful.

On the way home I flew bmi from London to Riyadh, on their old boneshaker of a plane. This one doesn't even have seatback screens, so we are forced to watch movies on 14" tellies mounted in the ceiling, just like a Wallace Arnold coach trip! This wouldn't be so bad if the fluorescent lights in the ceiling didn't reflect off the screens, making them almost unwatchable. Out came the Archos once more: this time it was Blade Runner, The Director's Cut, and Laurel & Hardy. The hours flew (sic) by!

I'm off again tonight, this time to UK for a holiday, and you can rest assured my trusty Archos will be in my carry on.

If you travel regularly and like movies, get one!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Bloody Marvellous Email!

I've just found out how to post to my blogs via email!

Now I can post from anywhere using my Blackberry -- Hurrah!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sights of Utah

Forgot to tell you I was going away on a business trip. I'm in Salt Lake City for Novell's BrainShare conference, so won't be posting anything here until I get back at the end of the week. Meanwhile, head over to Neal of Arabia to see some of the stunning scenery we found on our trip down to south-eastern Utah.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

In Memoriam: Philips 37" Plasma R.I.P. :-(

I finally heard back from the Philips service centre about my Philips plasma TV that they've had in the workshop for THREE MONTHS NOW, and the news is not good.

Apparently not only has the power supply blown (I could've told them this) but the screen is knackered as well, and it would cost SR15,000 (just over £2,000) to repair. It's obviously not worth doing, as a new replacement would cost only a few hundred pounds, so I've told them to send it back to me as-is. I now have a new TV anyway so it looks like we'll just have to give the old one a good send-off when it returns.

Anyone any interesting ideas what to do with a broken 37" plasma TV?

Saturday, March 10, 2007


Got a PSP? Then get Every Extend Extra, or E3 for short.

This is just my kind of game. Bright, colourful, challenging, lots happening on screen, fantastic visuals and thumping techno soundtrack.

If you're old like me you'll remember Asteroids. Well there's a very faint resemblance to that in E3, in that you get groups of enemies drifting across the screen and you maneouvre your craft to avoid crashing into them. But, instead of shooting at them you have to position your craft as close as you can to as large a group as you can, then detonate it!

The craft blows up, taking out all the enemies in its blast radius, and these in turn can also take out more distant enemies when they explode, so what you're trying for is the biggest chain reaction you can get. Once they've all exploded they leave bonus items behind that you have to scoop up.

The action starts quick and gets quicker, and even once you've mastered the gameplay enough to get through all the levels you'll keep coming back for more, as all this explosive carnage is very satisfying :-)
Oh, and the music's good too.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

T.V. News

STILL no sign of my Philips 37" plasma TV that broke down back in December. Since my last update back in January I've tried calling them four times and have got through twice, and received a satisfactory answer zero times. They have also called me back twice to apologise for the delay and to give me no further information.
The problem is that it's a European model that I brought to Saudi with me, which is why the power supply has blown. It is also the reason the Philips agent is giving for the delay: because they have to order the spare part from Europe. Fair enough but Europe isn't further away than the moon, and it shouldn't take two months to move a spare part from one part of the world to another!

When I do finally get the Philips TV back we're going to sell it, because....

I've bought a new telly! Karen and I both got fed up with waiting and we know that when we finally do get the Philips back it will have been adapted for the Middle East electricity supply, and hence useless anywhere else so not something we can take with us.

The new one is an LG 42" HD-ready TV with a built-in 80Gb hard disk, and I now have it set up with my 200 Riyal supermarket DVD player and home cinema system, and we now have the best picture and sound we've ever had. AND it's multi-voltage/multi-frequency, so it SHOULD still work wherever we end up next, when we leave Saudi at the end of the year.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Lost (and found) in Translation

Continuing the Lost In Translation files, or so I thought... I spotted this T-shirt in a supermarket the other day:

Click to enlarge image

A prime candidate for the LIT files I thought: what the heck is "Drunknmunky"? But then I searched the internet and it turns out to be a designer label

Just when I was starting to doubt my LIT-spotting powers I saw this complimentary wall calendar in the local photo printing shop:

The legend reads, "First Service in the Kingdom, which changed your imagination to reality"

Who dreams these things up???

Saturday, February 24, 2007

In Praise of Prado

We've just returned from a packed, exciting five-day trip to the United Arab Emirates, the full story of which I'll be writing on Neal of Arabia over the next few days.

This was a road -- and off-road -- trip, the kind of trip where your car makes the difference between dream and nightmare, and I'm very glad to say that the trip was a dream; thanks to my wonderful, trusty, smooth, comfortable, roomy, never-say-die Toyota Land Cruiser Prado.

On Monday I drove 1100km from Riyadh to Dubai in ten hours: the Prado cruised all the way.

On Tuesday we drove around Dubai, visiting shopping malls, cinemas and restaurants: the Prado was the ultimate town car.

On Wednesday we went "wadi-bashing": the Prado never missed a beat as I drove it over rough rocks and down the steep inclines of Wadi Asimah.

On Thursday we drove over hundreds of tightly-grouped, steep sand dunes in the desert, loaded with camping equipment: the Prado was as sure-footed as a Mountain Goat. We never got stuck in the sand once (others did), and we never broke a bumper (others did).

On Friday we drove back across the sand dunes, pumped up the tyres, and then drove the 1100km back to Riyadh, again in ten hours: the Prado cruised happily all the way.

This is the best, most reliable, practical car I have ever owned. It also looks good and is a joy to drive. What more could you ask? Well, better fuel consumption I suppose, but then I live in a country where petrol is practically free.

Thank you Toyota.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


I'm going away on a trip for few days, so won't be posting anything until Saturday probably. When I get back there'll be plenty to tell I'm sure, but in the meantime why not catch up on older posts you may have missed (see the Blog Archive section at the side of the page), or get to know my other blog Neal of Arabia.

Of course you could just ignore me completely and get on with your life...

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Object of Desire

Maybe we're unusual (no comments please) but my family has a thing about watches. My kids are always saying they "need a new one" and sometimes even prove the point by losing the old one. Personally I love them (watches I mean, not the kids), but I'm torn: do you go for lots of cheap watches so you have a different one for every occasion/day of the week/outfit, or do you splash out on a superbly crafted luxury watch that will be an elegant and trusty accessory for a lifetime? If your name is David Beckham then you can do both at once, but if you're Chris Neal there's a choice to be made (and you can't play football or snog Victoria).

I already have several nice watches, the most recent two of which I love and wear all the time, but I feel I haven't yet achieved my timepiece ambition in life.

Allow me to introduce you to the Omega Seamaster 300M Chronometer:
Truly a thing of beauty, and the watch of choice for James Bond in his last four movies (not that I'm swayed by that of course!) I've been admiring it from afar for some time now, laughing off the price tag as a sum I would never fork out for a watch, but today we went shopping in the Faisaliah Mall in Riyadh and -- Karen's fault for leaving me and Elliot alone too long -- I went into the shop and tried it on. The bracelet was too big, they always are unless you're a seven foot man-mountain (which I'm not), but that didn't matter. It felt good on my wrist, it's reassuringly heavy and when you turn it over you can see the movement inside through a little window.

When I was in photographic retail (a long time ago) we were trained to always put the camera in the customer's hands as soon as possible, because holding an object conveys a sense of ownership, helps you to feel what it will be like when it's yours, and helps to beckon those lovely words, "I'll take it!" So you see, despite the steep price tag I feel I just took a step onto the slippery slope towards acquiring me a Seamaster 300M.

"The name's Neal. Chris Neal." ... has a nice ring to it....

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Something Wiki This Way Comes

This is going to start off sounding geeky. I don't want to scare off my non-nerd readers but, being a stickler for correct explanation, I feel the need to define a wiki before I get onto what I really want to write about: what one pioneer is doing to improve the way you use the internet.

A wiki is a type of website. The name comes either from the acronym "What I Know Is..." or from the Hawaiian word "wiki-wiki", meaning "fast". I have no idea which is correct, and I don't really care. Look it up for yourselves if you really must know.

A regular website is created as a series of pages by an author, known as a Webmaster. These pages are then published on a web server, and from that point on the site is available on the internet as a read-only source of information. If you don't agree with what's there and want it changed you have to try and convince the Webmaster, who is the final authority and would have to make the change. A wiki is different. It's basically a database that you can edit, right from your web browser window. To the casual observer it may look like just another web page, but the big diffference is, if you don't like or don't agree with what is said, you can click the Edit button and change it!

The best-known wiki software is called Medawiki, and the best known example of the usefulness of a wiki is wikipedia : a free on-line encyclopedia containing over two million articles in 250 languages. Regular readers will know that I link to wikipedia entries regularly for further reading (see the Tweel piece as an example). Wikipedia is a great example of how free software can not only make the internet a better place, it can also leave control in the hands of the people who use the site.

Why bring all this up now?

Well I mention it as a prelude to telling you about a recent news story about Wikimedia's founder, Jimmy Wales. Jimmy, like many of us, sees how success can go to a company's head and turn them into corporate giants that can lose touch with the audiences they serve, to the point where their services are moulded and designed more to satisfy corporate profit targets, big-money investors or advertisers than the poor unsuspecting customer. Microsoft is an obvious example, but a less obvious one is Google.
Google is hugely successful. In a few years they have made the internet search market their own and even spawned a new verb: "It's true! Google it if you don't believe me!" Google makes its money from advertising and creates formulas called algorithms to take the words you type in and return the results. The two most important criteria are that those results should come back very quickly (internet users are an impatient bunch) and they should, wherever possible, provide links to the products and services of their advertisers, relevant to the search term. All well and good, but this puts Google in a position to "colour" your results in a way that benefits their clients and, by extension, them. If you are no longer sure of getting objective, unbiased results based purely on a close match with the string you typed, then perhaps it's time to wonder if there's another way.

Enter (or re-enter) Jimmy Wales and the world of wiki. Jimmy already has wikia, which is free wiki hosting for you and me. Anyone can go to wikia and start a wiki of their own and invite others to join, without having to install anything, for free. Now Jimmy has announced a new project called Search Wikia, which aims to give Google a run for its money by creating a search engine that gives users what Google cannot: real, honest, relevant search results that have no motive other than helping you find what you're looking for, all chaperoned by real people and algorithms that are open, transparent, and editable. It's in its infancy but progressing quickly. I wonder if Google are worried yet?

I already have my own two-pronged approach to internet search: if I'm looking for web pages or something here-and-now like concert tickets I'll use Google, but if I want to do some research or just find out more about a particular subject I go straight to wikipedia. I wonder how long it will before all my searches are handled by wikis.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

"When I'm Old I Shall Grow Curly"

He's getting grumpier and more cantankerous as he gets older. He'll opt to disobey the occasional basic rule just because it suddenly makes less sense to him, and he wants another little chance to 'stick it to the man' to get even for a youth of unquestioning obedience.

Who am I talking about? Could be any number of people I guess, including somebody you know. It definitely includes two that I know: myself, and my facial hair.

After years of wet shaving I switched to an electric shaver a few years ago. Any man who's tried both will tell you that nothing can match a wet shave for closeness, but that an electric shaver is good enough (if you take your time with it) and much more convenient and less hassle.

Whether in slow reply to this switch or whether, as suggested above, just because they're getting older and grumpier with me, my whiskers have started behaving badly. They start off by growing out as they've always done, but then they stubbornly launch off in any direction they choose other than straight out, more often than not with the effect that they "lie down" on my skin, reclining in safety where the foil of my shaver can't pick them up and lop off their heads. Even worse, once they're supine their new-found propensity to curl opens up an entirely new opportunity for them: "Hey I know, let's grow back into his face just for a laugh!" They're "Grumpy Old Hairs" alright, and they're getting back at me for all those years of being controlled.

My shave now takes twice as long as it used to because, after the shaver has done its level best, I have to attack these wrinkly rebels with a pair of tweezers, painfully yanking out the ringleaders by the root.

"I'll show you who's in charge!"

Monday, February 05, 2007

Lost in Translation, Episode 3

Actually I can't remember which episode this is. In fact I didn't even number the earlier ones so must've just now decided to have episode numbers, which must be annoying for you. Sorry. Anyway, the main one -- the one that started it all -- is here.

Some more examples of signs in Riyadh that have clearly suffered in translation from whatever their source language was into English, but which are much better value as a result.

1. A mannequin in Marks & Spencer in the Kingdom Centre wore a kid's T-shirt which bore the legend, "Master of Disas". We all stood there frustratedly going, "...ter! ...ter!" I took a photo of it with my mobile phone, but haven't figured out how to get it from there onto my PC for posting on the blog.

2. Our local supermarket fruit & veg dept is always a good source of merriment, selling produce such as "cheery tomatoes" (nice to think that what you're eating has a positive outlook on its short life), and "potatos baby" ("Yeah baby! Spudadelic!)

3. And our current favourite is a security warning sign at the entrance to the Diplomatic Quarter. As you approach the chicane of concrete blocks and National Guard checkpoint you are reminded to,

"Stop for cheeking".

Me: (winding window down with a cherry smile) "Evening officer"
Guard #1: "Who gave you that haircut? We'll get 'em for you, won't we Fahad?"
Guard #2: (dragging on a cigarette and blowing smoke through his smile) "Yeah"
Me: "Erm, can we come in please?"
Guard #1: "...and your T-shirt's very old-fashioned. It doesn't even have any hip English slogans on it! And that abaya your wife's wearing isn't very glamorous either."

More LITs as they come in.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


Just what is "A174"? What could it signify; some sort of code perhaps? Why don't you put it into Google and see what you get?

Alright then, I'll tell you (partly because that's why I decided to write this post in the first place and partly because I know none of you will bother looking it up anyway). Today marks the start of my participation in Open University Course A174: Start Writing Fiction.

You can probably tell from the fact that I have two blogs (the other one is here, by the way) that I like to write. Writing and I have a bit of a love/hate relationship; sometimes I love it to bits and get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment out of it, and other times I get really annoyed by my writer's block, or lack of motivation to write anything. The desire to instil some sort of discipline into my writing habits is one of the reasons I have enrolled in the course, and the other is that I would like to try my hand at writing fiction, he said obviously.

It's a twelve-week course which is delivered on-line, so heavy text books have given way to websites and PDFs. There is also an on-line conferencing aspect where you can share your thoughts and participate in activities with the others in your tutor group.

If I write anything that I'm particularly proud of, or at least not too embarrassed by, I'll post it here, but don't expect a masterpiece for the first few weeks -- I'm still only a learner!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

(Re)inventing the Tweel

Have you heard of the Tweel?

This is a revolutionary new type of tyre/wheel combination (hence the name) that does not require inflating with air. The cushioning effect of air in traditional tyres is provided instead by the wheel's design and material, consisting of energy-absorbing polyurethane spokes. In essence, the wheel crumples when it goes over a bump, then regains it's original shape. Read all about it in, as ever, good ol' Wikipedia.

I found out about it from a friend at the Embassy, who sent me some photocopied photos of the tweel being tested on a Audi saloon car. I thought we were being ultra "with-it" in making a new discovery, only to have my illusions shattered when I Googled the word "Tweel", to find that the concept has been around for nearly two years already!

Still a few years off from becoming an option on passenger cars, the Tweel is currently in production and is being tested for use on new types of personal vehicle such as the IBOT stair-climbing wheelchair and on Segway's Concept Centaur four-wheel ATV.

iBot (right) and the Segway Centaur, spinning their Tweels

It is also being considered for potential use on military vehicles, where the option of a puncture-proof tyre is very valuable.

Imagine a world without flat tyres! It could be nearer than you think.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Telly Update :-(

It's been five weeks since my Philips plasma TV went bust, and a little man came round and drove off with it on the back seat of his car. Since then I've had one phone call to say that it needs a new power supply, and that they have one on order from Europe, but since then, nothing.

(Trying to put photo of broken telly here, but Blogger won't let me.)

Saudi's electricity supply is at 60Hz, with Europe being 50Hz, the affect of which is that any European-model equipment you choose to use here will be prone to burnout sooner than under normal conditions. I'm guessing this is what happened to the TV. If it is, then replacing one European power supply with another is just going to give me some more borrowed time before it goes again (I don't think the set can fit a Middle East power supply; different model 'n' all that), but that's OK with me, as long as the set lasts us til we leave Riyadh.

I called the little man's mobile today to get an update on progress, and on the fourth attempt he picked up, only to fob me off with a, "yes sir I check it. Give me time and I call you back later."

I'm waiting by the phone...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Bloody bmi (again)!

I think the words, "Terms and conditions apply" must've been invented by bmi ( I continue to be disappointed by second-class service and so-called Gold Member Benefits that I can't use.

When they opened their Heathrow - Riyadh route at the end of 2005 it was amid much fanfare, even getting headline news coverage on their website for the first few months. The aircraft they used was a new model with a Premium Economy cabin in between Economy and Business Class (which bmi irritatingly and Delboy-ishly call, "The Business"), with a great in-flight entertainment system and all the other services you would expect on a long-haul flight; full meals, bar service etc. However the honeymoon period is now definitely over, and the shiny new plane has been replaced by a shabby old Boeing 767 with no seatback screens, no bar service (in Economy), and an obvious belt-tightening in the quality of the food service.

I have 300,000 bmi miles sitting in the "bank", yet am unable to use them to fly from Riyadh to London because there is never any availability of redemption seats, the website is only capable of showing availability in Economy, and when you call the "dedicated Gold Service helpline" the agents basically read from the website.

When they renewed my Diamond Club Gold membership recently they sent me four upgrade vouchers, each of which entitles me to a one-cabin upgrade: Econ - Premium, Premium - Business. The problem there is that this old tatty plane they've lumbered us with doesn't have a Premium Economy cabin, so I can't even use the vouchers.

Once, just once, I'd like to find an airline that actually delivers the treatment and the benefits they advertise for their most regular customers, without making us tiptoe through a minefield of terms, conditions, and restrictions designed to make their lives easier, not ours.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Getting back into photography with a vengeance now. Hot on the heels of my new flash unit at Christmas I recently bought an excellent new tripod as an early birthday present to myself, and also found a great photographer's website called

At this site photographers at any level can sign up and post their own portfolio of pictures. You have to become a subscriber to get unlimited storage and some other features, but it only costs $25 per year so it's pretty good value. The most valuable part though, is that you can ask the other members to critique your pictures, and also provide constructive feedback for theirs.

Click the picture to visit my portfolio

I consider myself a good technical photographer; I know how to get my shots in focus and I understand how to control exposure etc. What I am working on now is further improving my artistic ability and composition skills, to make my images really stand out.

My portfolio can be found HERE

I'd love to get your feedback on some of the images.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Flash! Bang! Wallop! Wot a Picture!

Karen bought me the most fabulous present for Christmas. The Nikon SB600 Speedlite is an accessory flash unit for my D70S camera, and it has totally transformed my attitude towards flash photography.

Up until now I've always just used the built-in flash that comes with whatever digital camera I'm using, and it's those results that have put me off flash photography in the past. When you're using an artificial light source that's flashing directly in the face of your subject, you too often get either bleached out faces, or red eyes, or both.

Direct, on-camera flash

The SB600 gets around these problems by having a head that can tilt and swivel, thus enabling you to "bounce" the light from the flash off other surfaces such as ceilings and walls. Of course you have to give some thought to the colour of the reflecting surface and best results are obtained from white or off-white surfaces, but this bouncing technique has some very nice effects. First, the light from the flash is diffused by the reflection, so it's not as harsh as direct flash. Second, because it has been bounced at an angle you can get some very nice side and top-lighting effects on your subject, which give your photos some real depth.

Flash "bounced" off the (white) ceiling

I've known about bounce flash for many years, even before the digital revolution, but had never owned one or played around with one seriously before now. The SB600 is perfectly matched to my camera too. When you switch the camera on and off the flash switches on and off in sync, the flash head zooms in and out in step with my zooming the lens, and best of all there is a remote wireless mode in which you can stand the flash unit anywhere you like -- even behind the subject -- and the little built-in flash acts as a master unit, setting the main flash off wirelessly.

SB600 Flash mounted on a tripod below and to the left, aimed directly at subject. The side lighting is preferable to front-on, but the direct flash is too harsh.

A much softer effect is achieved by "bouncing" the off-camera flash off a nearby (off-white) wall.

I used the new flash and played with bouncing the light during our Christmas visit to the UK, and I've got some much better examples of what is possible on my other blog: Neal of Arabia.