Friday, August 28, 2009

The good, the bad and the I-need-to-do-this-every-day

So Mrs. Blog and I have arrived in California. Chicago is a memory, albeit a beautiful one, filled with great friends, great food and amazingly temperate summer weather. (one of the first things a Chicago friend said to me: "How can you be wearing shorts? It's freezing!")

The good part: arriving back in the states, seeing dear friends and eating bacon. Oh, glorious bacon. How I missed you. Bacon even met me at the airport--I'm not even making that up. I'll tell you about it over drinks sometime. Big, excellent, momentous things happened in Chicago. It's a wonderful place.

In transit through Heathrow. Part food court, part refugee camp.

The bad part: Moving. I hate moving in the same way I love bacon. Packing, carrying things, stressing out about what to keep and what to give away, realizing that you totally forgot about the hall closet--it's for suckers. And this is despite hiring professionals to actually haul my stuff into storage. Also bad was flying with our pets to Southern California. They were traumatized (or "traumatised," in case your name is Karl and you are worrying that I have rediscovered my American spelling roots) and we were stressed out of our minds. Fortunately, this was waiting for us:

Background: mountains. Foreground: beautiful greenery. In my stomach: a margarita.

This is the part I should be doing every day. Sitting by a "water feature"--you might know it as a "hot tub flanked by small waterfalls"--drinking a cold beer and looking out through beautiful, sunny air into a distance dominated by hazy mountains.


It's nice to finally be free of serious obligations and able to just, you know, be on vacation. And to celebrate that point, I'm going to go get another beer. Cheers.

Friday, August 21, 2009

It's going to get a little quiet

That's because, first, I will be sleeping on an airplane. (then being awake in an airport, then sleeping on another airplane, then waking up in Chicago!)

And then great things will be afoot. Things that don't involve laptops.

I'll post when I can about the experience of being a tourist in my own country, but expect things to be a little spotty for the next couple of weeks. So ma'a a-salaama--that means "I have a 5 a.m. cab ride to get ready for" in Arabic.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fury, success, redemption

Ah, dear readers, it has been an interesting day. Many things have to be accomplished before I hop on a government-owned airliner and begin my 23-hour sojourn back to a magical Place Where Water Falls From the Sky.

Among them was getting Internet set up in my apartment. And not even set up--just switched from my roommate's name to mine. On Sunday, we went down to the Etisalat office, filled out some paperwork, waited in a bunch of different lines... an then learned that there was a problem with the system and the switch couldn't be made right then. Instead, they would call me when the paperwork went through, I would go back down there and we would sort it all out over coffee.

"After tomorrow." Sounds familiar, right?

Yesterday I called and was told that the paperwork we had filed didn't exist. Awesome. Today I went down to the office and spoke with the clerk who helped us the most the first time around. He told me the request couldn't be processed because of "big problems" in the system. But seeing the fury (or hopelessness?) in my eyes, he kicked me upstairs to someone else. I handed him the paper work--which, it turns out, did exist--and after reading it, he said, and I quote: "What did that guy tell you?"

Not promising. But after getting bounced to a different counter, I finally got an answer that made sense. There was a fee to pay to transfer the account. No one had collected this fee. Therefore, the service couldn't be transferred. Dirhams paid, I walked out of the building an official Etisalat customer.

Next came the post office. I don't have a great track record there. Sure, there aren't many data points, but the last time I tried to pick up a package, it did not go smoothly.

This time, though, all kinds of good things happened. First of all, my UAE driver's license worked perfectly as ID. Which is great, because it means my passport can stay in a happy, safe place. Second, they found the package fast and brought it to me. Third, they didn't try to charge me anything to take it away. And fourth, the customs guy doing the customary "is someone trying to mail you porn?" search was in good spirits.

(pulls a pack of playing cards with cocktail recipes out of the box) Cards. For magic tricks?

Ha. Uh, yes. Magic tricks.

And then comes the best part. Waiting in the 115-degree sun for a taxi was brutal. All of them had passengers or only wanted to take me to Musaffah, which, unfortunately for both of us, wasn't where I wanted to go. Just as I'm considering getting on the next bus I see, giant package and all, a taxi with a passenger pulls up and honks at me.

It's Kamal. He's the cab driver I have on my cell phone--a number stolen shamelessly from my Scottish friends--to call when I need an arranged ride. But the last time I called him, he just didn't show up. I thought that was it. And yet here he is, rolling up just when I needed him.

The end result? A free ride home--he refused my money--and arrangements to take me to the airport on Friday morning.

Sometimes things work out despite all the sweat, bureaucracy and giant blocks of text on a blog.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Barack Obama and I have several things in common

Most notably, we were both born in August in Kenya.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to celebrate by running for president.

Monday, August 17, 2009

How about something happy and interesting

I'm sitting here at my desk at work accompanied by a five-gallon drum (that was the smallest they had!) of primer. I also am drenched in approximately five gallons of sweat from carrying it to work. Why work? Because I already had carried four gallons of paint home and work was a lot closer to the store. Now I have a few hours to cool off and figure out how to fix the Internet at home, which somewhat mysteriously stopped working for my roommate's computer but hums along just fine on mine.

And speaking of Australia,

There you go. Happy? Yes. Interesting? Yes. And in the time it took me to type this post, I think I've cooled off by at least 10 degrees (Fahrenheit, of course).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

But I don't have many more after tomorrows!

Went to get the Internet and phone service switched over to my name today, copies of my passport and visa in hand. Everything went smoothly until the clerk tried to put my information into the Etisalat computer.

Then the computer broke. Then I was promised a phone call when it was fixed. Then I learned that would mean another trip to the Etisalat office.

Elapsed time: two hours. But the clock continues ticking toward my flight back to Chicago on Friday....

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Thirty-two years ago today, something very interesting happened. It only lasted 72 seconds and, as far as anyone knows, it never happened again. Yet in that one minute and 12 seconds, we may have experienced the first--and only--communications from another planet.

It's called the Wow! signal. And it looks like this:

A pretty restrained reaction, actually.

Those letters and numbers represent a far-stronger-than-background-noise signal that rose and fell in intensity exactly as a broadcast radio signal from a point source would. The signal was picked up from a giant array at Ohio State University called the Big Ear. (it has since been dismantled to make way for a golf course)

Scientists at the university and elsewhere looked in that same patch of sky over and over with all kinds of high-tech listening devices and never saw the signal again. That's a bad thing in terms of really nailing down what it was the array picked up. But it's a good thing in that it would appear to rule out a lot of natural explanations.

The guy who jotted down the "Wow!" note on the printout gives a pretty good summation of what all of this means three decades later:
Thus, since all of the possibilities of a terrestrial origin have been either ruled out or seem improbable, and since the possibility of an extraterrestrial origin has not been able to be ruled out, I must conclude that an ETI (ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) might have sent the signal that we received as the Wow! source. The fact that we saw the signal in only one beam could be due to an ETI sending a beacon signal in our direction and then sending it in another direction that we couldn't detect. Of course, being a scientist, I await the reception of additional signals like the Wow! source that are able to be received and analyzed by many observatories. Thus, I must state that the origin of the Wow! signal is still an open question for me. There is simply too little data to draw many conclusions. In other words, as I stated above, I choose not to "draw vast conclusions from 'half-vast' data".
But until we can draw a conclusion, I'm going to dream, because that's what I do, that someday soon the odds will catch up with us and we'll find something--whether it's a bacterium or a radio signal--that makes us all, collectively, scream "Wow!"

Friday, August 14, 2009

Where the streets do, in fact, have names

Yeah, yeah, you've heard me complain a lot about how there are no addresses, how the postal service is considering home delivery via GPS coordinates, how it is virtually impossible to give someone directions to a place you haven't been before.

Well, for whatever reason, I noticed for the first time that there is actually a bit of a schematic of my neighborhood on the turnoff from the main road (next to the Oasis Chinese restaurant, if you're giving directions to a taxi driver). So let's walk through Tankar Mai, shall we?

Not a wiring diagram.

At the bottom of the picture is 15th Street. It has a proper name--a sheikh, I think--but no one uses it. In the blank area below that is not actually a giant field of nothing... it's where The National's offices are.

Moving along, to the left is Airport Road, aka Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum Road. The Maktoums, by the way, are the Dubai ruling family. On the right is Muroor Road. And at the top of the diagram is Delma Street, Delma being an island in Abu Dhabi emirate.

I live in one of the little circles in the upper-right, which--I think--designate street numbers within the neighborhood. It should be noted that no one actually uses these numbers for anything.

So there you go. If you ever get lost, just head to the corner of Muroor and 15th and look for the map.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

'Twin killjoys'

I missed the meteor shower last night, mostly for lack of a vehicle. I did look up into the Abu Dhabi sky around 2 a.m., but all I saw was streetlights.

As it turns out, though, I didn't miss much. As The National's Kareem Shaheen put it,

Campers looking to witness the Perseid meteor showers were disappointed to see the shooting stars they sought mostly blotted out by the twin killjoys of dust and the Moon.
(The story is not yet posted online, but it probably will be by the time the United States wakes up.)

Too bad. I have seen shooting stars, but never a whole sky full of them. If you didn't know what they were, what kind of an impression would they leave?

The big ones, of course, would leave craters.

Ah, well--they'll be back next year. The comet itself, unfortunately, won't make another appearance until 2126.

[Help] tha police

You know what's hard to find in Abu Dhabi? Gangsta rap.

Sure, sure--there are mohawked Filipinos singing Rage Against the Machine and the occasional Cypress Hill song at the gym. But I will bet my bottom dirham that NWA has never made a public appearance in the UAE.

Maybe this will help.

There you go. A way for the whole family to enjoy the musical stylings of Eazy-E.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

One nice thing about being in the desert

Meteor showers are, by all accounts, pretty brilliant.

The best bet for people hoping to see the showers – known as the Perseids – is to get away from well-lit towns, according to Hasan Ahmed al Hariri, the chief executive of the Dubai Astronomy Group, a non-profit association of astronomy enthusiasts with 1,300 members worldwide, including 800 in the UAE.

The group is assembling at Dubai’s Margham area to watch the climax of the event from the desert, which Mr al Hariri recommends for unimpeded viewing.

"Light pollution prevents us from even seeing the stars,” he said. In the desert, however, it is “quite dark, so it’s better to see the events”.

The Perseids will first appear in the small hours of Wednesday morning, when the meteorites will appear to emerge from a single point in the sky known as the radiant, in the constellation Perseus, which only rises after midnight in the UAE.
Of course, I don't have a car--or a camel--but we'll see if there is some way to get away from the arc-sodium madness of Abu Dhabi and check out some falling bits of rock.

Monday, August 10, 2009

From Kuwait with love

Ah, dear readers. It is a very stressful time for the Blog right now: a million important things must be done in the next couple of weeks before I hop on a 23-hour (!) flight back to Sweet Home Chicago/California/Kansas City. Also, I'm having my first-ever birthday in another country... a fact that didn't really register with me--along with the fact that I even had a birthday coming up--until just now.

Anyway, the point is, this is all the kind of stuff that makes a blogger lose sleep and gain a nervous twitch.

And then I arrived at work today to find an unmarked manila envelope on my desk. Unmarked, that is, except for my address here at the newspaper and a Kuwaiti postmark. What could it be?

Why, nothing but the only magazine I read in its entirety every month: Air&Space Smithsonian. It's like comfort food for the eyes. So even if I don't have a ton of recreational reading time the rest of the month, at least I'll have something to read during my many thousands of miles in the air.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

They paved paradise to put up a newer, shinier paradise

In my first few months here, I have spent quite a bit of time just wandering about the city. Sometimes it was because I was mildly lost. Other times I had an actual destination and an actual good idea of how to get there. It has led me to some interesting places, quite by accident, that I can then go back and look at a map and figure out what they were. The Giant Teapot Park (actually called, I think, the Public Gardens) is a great example.

Neither short nor stout.

Recently, I tried to do things in reverse. I looked at the map, said "Hey, a fish and vegetable souk--let's roll" and hailed a cab. The thing was supposed to be about a block Gulf-ward of the Al Hosn Palace, which is about the only bit of historical architecture left in Abu Dhabi, and which is inaccessible because it is being restored.

You know what else is under construction? The souk. Check that, it was razed and they're building a new one. It will, I assume, be glassed in and air conditioned. Why is it so hard to preserve historical character around here? I like narrow alleys and tiny storefronts and people trying to sell me things I don't need.

In the meantime, I'm told, I can go to the docks and buy fish. Maybe I'll give that a try--assuming it hasn't been replaced by a floating mall.

"You jump high"

It has been a couple of weeks since I played basketball--last Saturday, a bunch of people were out of town, plus there was a sandstorm, none of which made for a pleasant hooping experience.

Tonight there were a couple of new guys: a Kenyan named Abdul, who had a decent crossover and a good sense of humor, at least judging by the "Obama is from Kenya" jokes, and Mohammed, who had about three inches and 30 pounds on me, plus good enough handles to drive the basket.

It was good times. And the best part was, mostly because I had a week off, I was pretty bouncy. Which is not to say I was awesome or anything--my midrange game abandoned me for long stretches--but I was definitely more explosive. And that led to the best part of the night, after I blocked one of Mohammed's shots: "you jump high," he said to the almost-33-year-old with a tricky knee.

Better than a game-winning fall-away jumpshot after a pick-and-roll.*

*which I also did.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A happier Friday

As the pilgrimage to the homeland inches closer, one starts missing the big things--loved ones, familiar places--more than usual. I have this theory that it's kind of a "so close but so far" kind of deal.

But the little things are important as well. And that's why it was awesome to discover that the Aussie was making pork ribs for lunch today. He had boiled and marinated them; I suggested five minutes per side under the broiler to finish them... and they tasted like Midwestern summer.

Arthur Bryant's, I'm comin for ya.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sailcloth at the top of the tent

Hey, hey. Big things are afoot in the UAE. I missed the Red Bull air races in Al Ain and Womad in Abu Dhabi. In November, race fans--and I'm told there are many--will watch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, featuring the second "final race" of Formula One's Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher.

And, much more interestingly, the America's Cup race will be held in February in Ras al Khaimah.

The venue for the competition, which has been running since 1851, is chosen by the previous winner. The recent dominance of the Swiss Alinghi team – whose home country is landlocked – has meant selecting neutral venues.

Ras al Khaimah is the latest, named yesterday by Fred Mayer, the vice-commodore of the Societe Nautique de Genève, the yacht club behind the Alinghi team, who said that the UAE had an excellent record in preparing and hosting major international sporting events.

“This is a venue that offers perfect weather and great sailing conditions for a match in February; the authorities have shown tremendous interest in and support for hosting the America’s Cup, and the country has experience in organising first-class sporting events such as ATP tennis, PGA golf and Formula One.”

The event will be staged at the Al Hamra village, where an island will be constructed to house the teams and launch the boats.

This is really cool. The Father of the Blog is a huge sailing fan (and a good sailor, too, despite the occasional mast-bonking on a windy Michigan lake) and I always have enjoyed being on sailboats... although I am pretty inept when it comes to actually operating one. So my first inclination is to figure out how to spend a February weekend on the sunny shores of RAK.

My second inclination is to wonder if the new manmade island will have a novel shape. And my third inclination is to keep you, dear reader, from wondering what that tent reference is all about: Ras al Khaimah, which is situated at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, literally translates as "top of the tent."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Great, now they're destroying my past too

My first post-college job was as an editing intern at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Just for a summer. But it was great: I was surrounded by great colleagues, great interns and great sausages. I learned a lot and had a remarkable amount of fun. As you can probably gather, for a variety of reasons I look back on that summer as being pretty freaking awesome.

But times have gotten hard in the newspaper world. The bean counters have fewer beans to play with; publishers think Twitter is the answer to plummeting ad revenue; design gurus think that readers have the general intellect of a toddler.

And so it's more than a little painful to hear, from thousands of miles away, about the departure of my former boss there, an excellent editor and all-around cool person. She took a buyout and is at the moment filling graduate students' heads with good journalism. Hers is one of about 70 exits, both of the voluntary and involuntary type.

So, crap. I know the people still there will work hard and do their best to produce a great paper. But it's always sad to see this kind of thing happen. And it's doubly sad when you consider the poor business decisions that got it to this point.

So for now, I'll just focus on the good memories.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Proper documentation

Abu Dhabi so far has been an interesting and occasionally frustrating blend of the alien and the familiar. It's hard to explain sometimes. You say, "Hey, I passed a bunch of guys huddled around a TV shop on the way home from work last night, and they were watching WWF"* or "I'm drinking a mocha on an indoor ski slope," but can words really convey the vast, fascinating seas of information inherent in those situations? No. No, they cannot.

So I try to take pictures. But I hate being that guy who carries around a camera all the time. So I use my cell phone for impulse photography. The problem, though, is that my phone is barely a good phone... and it's an awful camera.

In conclusion, that's why I'm not posting the otherwise funny picture of guys watching pro wrestling on the sidewalk in Abu Dhabi. Blame Nokia.

*reliable sources tell me it's now the WWE. I have no idea what the E would stand for.

Monday, August 3, 2009

I can see clearly now

... the sand is gone. Mostly. But I see here in this morning's The National that more sandstorm--direct from northern Iraq--is on the way. Guess I better enjoy the sun (and 113-degree heat) while I can.

Now it's just a matter of getting a million things done, not to mention fight a couple of additional running battles against both state and company bureaucracy, before I return to the land of Target, barbecue and redheads. Fortunately, I have found a place that makes a decent margarita.

Demasiado guacamole

I followed through on my threat to go find Mexican food.

Just like madre used to make.

I had guacamole (which turned out to be made tableside) and what was basically steak fajita meat marinated in tamarind sauce and served with rice. Nary a burrito to be seen on the menu, but whatever. I had guacamole.

In case you're wondering, and I know you are, Abu Dhabi tableside guacamole is, well, just OK. Certainly not up to the standards of a Harvest Time or La Cocina Gunnison-Talman. For one thing, they don't use garlic. For another, they use oregano. And instead of lime juice, which besides the avocado is arguable the key ingredient, they used lemon juice. Yeah, I don't understand it either.

But those oddities didn't make it any less of a fiesta de driver's license. It tasted like... victory. (and oregano)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Let's take a moment to praise the Abu Dhabi Traffic and Licensing Department

You know what? Despite the huge pile of paperwork I had to amass, and even though the office was closed yesterday when it should have been opened, when I actually made it in there it was the smoothing bureaucratic experience of my life.

Two guys with oddly puffy hair.

Total time from when I walked into the lobby--the comfortable and easy-to-navigate lobby with a snack bar, I might add--to when I was handed my shiny new card was about 20 minutes. In the interim I took a "vision test" (identified three numbers with one eye closed) and answered a couple of questions. And that was it.

How shall I celebrate? I'm considering tracking down some comida Mexicana.

My eyes! My eyes!

Someone snatched my sunglasses off my desk at work. It's the only way I can explain their complete and utterly mysterious disappearance from my general vicinity last week. But whatever. They cost $15 at Target.

You know what, though? There are no Targets in the Middle East. And that, for the most part, means no cheap sunglasses. I spent a bit of time prowling through the Marina Mall this afternoon (thanks to a sandstorm that made doing anything outside a little hard on the lungs) trying to track down a replacement. But the cheapest pair I could find was Dh360, or just a hair under $100.

I'm reluctant to spend that much, because, well, something always happens to sunglasses I own. Getting stolen off my desk, for instance.

I did find a Dh10 pair in the market in Dubai, and they seem to work fine, but there is this paranoid voice in the back of my head telling me that these otherwise harmless-looking shades are going to burn a hole in my retina.

Alas, though, "mid-range" doesn't seem to exist here. It's either Dh1,000 Ray-Bans or their Dh10 market-stall brethren, Roy-Bans. Good thing I have a flight back to Target-land next month....

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The plot thickens

And by plot I mean sandstorm.

Air so thick you could cut it with a shovel.

The grit was definitely more noticeable in my mouth, too. Coming out of the gym I almost wanted to cover my face with my shirt. By comparison:

Friday: tall buildings still visible.

But hey, I'm not going to let the sand defeat me. I set out, sheaf of bureaucracy in hand, to get my driver's license. Somewhat ironically, there is no easily discernible address for the Traffic and Licensing Department. Somewhat fortunately, I ran into a kind and helpful Co-Worker of the Blog who not only had her driver's license, but was on her way to Dubai--she offered to drop me off at the correct office.

And so she did. But it was closed, despite assurances to the contrary on the Police Department website. The result, of course, is that I will be getting my license (say it with me!) after tomorrow.