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!