Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Trouble With Stuff

English: Printed circuit board
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
During the recent hurricane Irma, a number of Tesla owners stuck in the traffic fleeing the path of the storm were delivered a software update by Tesla which upgraded their cars and extended the battery life and therefore range of their cars. Once the storm had blown over, another update removed the additional capacity and reduced their cars back down to the performance level they had paid for.

In fact, their cars were always capable of the extended range but they had chosen not to buy the full 75kw battery option. Few could have been aware that in fact their cars had the full battery installed, but that it had been effectively downgraded in software. Their cars were always capable of the extended range.

It all caused quite a bit of controversy, as you might imagine. But it's just an extension of a whole range of issues which are linked to the concept that you buy hardware but license software and that when you buy into any ecosystem, your rights are effectively limited. You might own that iPhone, bub, but you don't own the software or any of the content it stores and gives you access to. This is also true of your Kindle and your Apple TV or other box with your Netflix subscription.

We don't buy CD racks anymore and many of us don't have upgrade plans for those bookshelves. Content is digital, always-on and an Alexa command away. The ownership of content has changed forever. Of course, you never owned that book or music, you merely owned a physical medium containing the text or recording. The rights to the content subsisted with the author and publisher. But you could leave a book to your kid - you can't leave your Amazon account.

Worse, your iPhone, Kindle, Echo or Tesla is enabled by software which you only enjoy a grant of limited right to access. Amazon et al can simply turn your super-duper gizmo into a brick of e-waste at the blink of an eye.

Tesla extending that model to cars is sort of interesting. Next step is your house. An integrated home automation suite provided by the developer sounds really cool until you find out that if you break the terms of your licence (install the wrong type of shrub in your garden, say, if you've bought a Shiny) your kitchen will stop working.

Volvo has started down that road in a sort of legacy manufacturer trying to be hip with the kids kind of way with the announcement of a sort of extended leasing package called Care by Volvo.  You can bet other manufacturers are going to start exploring the delights of software/hardware industry models for disempowering consumers and disintermediating insurance companies and others who currently profit from the lack of a car 'ecosystem'. In this, Tesla is Apple.

Forget the threat of AIs and the like to our technological futures - here comes the spectre of the elife (and I don't mean Etisalat's crappy FTTH package) - your existence will be dominated by your parents' choice of life ecosystem for you and your world will be under license to The Man.

You mark my words...

Thursday, 31 August 2017

A Rare Descent Into Bookiness

English: Vintage portable Transistor radio &qu...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm going to be back on the radio on Saturday, from about 10.30am Dubai time on the revamped Talking Of Books show (103.8FM Dubai Eye radio or streaming). It's a rare return to booky things for me.

I've not been entirely lazy. I've just finished a hard edit of Beirut - An Explosive Thriller after spotting a couple of SNAFUs in the MS. I made a number of improvements, some based on reader feedback but many based on being a much more experienced editor now.

It's funny what a difference it makes knowing what you know now. There were a couple of joins showing where I'd knocked down walls and rebuilt them, which is a little embarrassing having shifted over 10,000 copies of the damn thing. Oh well.

Beirut is currently free on Amazon, which is driving a steady trickle of sales of the other books, particularly Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy but  also A Decent Bomber. I have a new project on the go, but I'm taking my sweet time and my wordcount is more like 1,000 words a month than 1,000 a day. I'm not really that fussed, tell the truth: life's quite busy enough right now.

But the chance to return to my favourite medium and talk about my favourite things was too great ever to refuse and so I'll be joining new host Annabelle Corton (she of Emirates LitFest fame) to talk about the three books in all the millions of books in the world I'd take to a desert island and to review Omar El Akkad's dystopian novel American War.

So there we go - now you know how to avoid me on Saturday morning!

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Leave And That...

Airbus A330-200 lands at London Heathrow Airport.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So I haven't posted in over a month. Sue me.

We've been on leave.

I hate flying, much as I love EK. A380s rock, the films were awful. Kindles rock more than A380s. Except in turbulence which we saw almost not at all. Heathrow sucks lemons.

Drove to Wales to see me mum for a couple of days, she's fine, thanks. Bit shaky. She's over 90 now. Fierce independent lady. The office calls, can I come back early? No. I shipped our bikes from there over to Northern Ireland. Halfords think I'm a totes jackass. They're all hardcore bike freaks, we have two bikes we love to ride when we're home. I got a puncture a while back and took the bike into them. They're all, like, can't you fix your own punctures? And I'm 'No.' And then they're, like, it's a quick release wheel so you don't have to bring the whole bike in. And I'm, 'Sue me.'

They boxed the bikes for me. They still think I'm a nutter, but now I'm another store's problem. They're happy about that.

Back to London for a couple of days in a Premier Inn because the sister-in-law's house (AKA Twickenham Central) is full of neeces. We like Premier Inns, actually. We got a great night's sleep every night, which is their promise, after all.

Photon checks into a hotel. Receptionist says, 'No bags?' Photon replies, 'Nah, I'm travelling light.'

Lovely week, Hampton Court, Thames Cruise, shit service at Pizza Express at the O2 (just drop the express, love, and you're fine) and mad wannabe BBC 2 Children's Presenters at Hamleys Regent Street. We reckoned these kids are freebasing to stay that hyper all day. They're so over the top even the neeces think they're a bit, well, mad. The office calls and asks if I can come back early. Still no.

And then we're on the open road to Salisbury for three idyllic nights at the Beckford Arms, a truly magnificent pub. These people offer you Bloody Mary for breakfast. They're very likeable. We spend the days wandering castles and long walks. There's a Catholic cemetery nearby, packed with little snippets of social history linked to the area's immigrants. The barman at the Beckford convinces me to take black pepper in my Hendricks. Oh me, oh my, people. Black pepper and strawberries in Hendricks. This is the future.

Heathrow, crappy BA and then Belfast. Meet up with the neeces again and do much neecing around. Business stuff, solicitors, banks and accountants. Oh, joy. We did a 5k Fun Run in Rathfriland. The bloody town's on an enormous hill. The outward jog is downhill. It's only when we turn the corner that the bleeding obvious finally hits our dull monkey brains. Ouch.

Two men walk into a bar. Ouch Ouch.

Drives up into the Mournes, Camogie practice, Mary Margaret's pub and wandering along the seafront at Warrenpoint. The Green Pea Café and their insane BLT (Brioche eggy bread, smoked bacon and sundried tomatoes with rocket. Oh dear me) and then the Hotel at Hilltown - the Downshire Arms to you, mate - for Sarah's birthday. Scallops, steak and dancing. The office calls. I get the message. We rearrange flights and hop to Heathrow, do a night in Twickenham Central and take the all-day flight the next day. I love EK, but that flight doesn't suit us. Back in the office for Wednesday, wiped out but functioning.

The weekend's almost over and it's all a vague memory now. A frenetic, lovely charge around the place doing things and seeing things and meeting people and laughing fit to bust, drinking stuff and eating stuff and driving around and just basically living it up.

And now we're back. You know, that sort of what are we doing here feeling mixed with the sense that we're back home and that. Settling back down into things, taking a weekend drive around the place and getting back into the rhythm. I have my wallet back in my back pocket and have stopped obsessing about the car being nicked. I'm back on 24x7 broadband mobile access and not paying Vodaphone two bleeding quid a day for data.

Life's good...

Sunday, 23 July 2017

A Dabble At The Dhaid Date Festival

Sharjah's inland town of Dhaid has an annual date festival. Who knew? We were wending (actually, waddling or wobbling might be more accurate) our way home after a particularly pleasant stay at the Hatta Fort Hotel and caught an overhead billboard advertising the Dhaid Date Festival. And we thought, 'Why not?'

We'd been promising ourselves a stay at the newly revamped JA Hatta Fort Hotel since we played chicken there a few weeks ago. I can only report that we had a fabulous time. Quirky, independent and offering service standards and food quality that I would argue go beyond any other hotel in the UAE, the hotel's facelift has preserved the retro charm of the place and yet brought it up to date. It's all rather chic and we went large for the weekend. Hence the waddling.

Part of the reason why Hatta made us fatta...

Dhaid is an oasis, fed by water from aquifers and the man-made network of aflaj irrigation tunnels running down from the nearby Hajar Mountains. It has long been so, reports from ancient Gazetteers such as old 'mutton chops' Lorimer put Dhaid as an important centre for agriculture and the coming together of the inland and coastal tribes. Even today, it's a notable agricultural centre. So the idea of a Date Festival not only makes sense, it quite tickled us. Anticipating a mixture of Killinascully meets Craggy Island's Funland, we made tracks Dhaidwards.

This is the second year of the Festival, which takes place in the Dhaid Cultural Centre. The hall is decked out in shell-scheme and carpets, with a stage and seating as well as a raised diwan area. The stalls are a wonderful mixture and we wandered, wide-eyed around them chatting to a wildly eclectic mix of people. There were date traders, farmers, agriculturalists and, gloriously, apiarists aplenty.

You'd be amazed at the sheer variety of dates grown in the UAE (one of the world's leading producers of dates, if you but knew it) and they were all on display at the festival, from pick and mix stands selling loose varieties through to enormous weighed bunches some ranging above 50 kilos.

We chatted about date palm propagation (as one does) and sampled dates from farms all over the UAE, learning our klas from our medjoul. Everyone was very shy but very friendly and we got the feeling that foreigners taking an interest was a rare and welcome surprise. But the high point for us wasn't the dates, but the honey. Sarah's dad keeps bees and bottles his own honey and we had already come across the bee keepers of Dhaid, but the date festival had brought a handful of colourful figures from further afield. One chap was selling wild honey from the RAK mountains, eye-wateringly expensive, black as night and gloopy.

Then we came across Mr Honey. A bee-keeper with 500 hives in Al Ain and RAK, Ahmed Al Mazrouei cut a genial figure as he showed us the different qualities of honey he'd spun out the combs he'd lifted from his hives, from his black mountain honey through single flower varieties. Dipping little plastic spoons into the jars, he took us on a tour around some of the most amazingly flavoured honey we'd ever encountered.

He had started the whole thing with six hives. Now his two sons work with him and he runs a delivery service through Whatsapp (you can find him on Instagram, too!)

Ahmed Al Mazrouei

Entranced, we bought a little jar of the black stuff for Da back home - honey so thick it piles up when it's dropped from a spoon back into the pot, tasting darkly of liquorice, molasses and deep caramel. I wish we'd bought another jar for ourselves, but now we've got contacts, baba...

A final whirl through perfumes, palm frond weaving and organic herbs and we found ourselves back out in the sunshine, blinking and very, very glad indeed that we'd taken the opportunity to drop in and say 'Hi'...

It'll be on again this time next year. I'd heartily commend a visit, too!

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Pinky, Lucky, Latta and Khan

They sound like a subcontinental Trumpton fire brigade, but they're not. They're the rocks of Sharjah's 'antique' trade, those four. Latta's has always been upstairs in the Blue Souk, but Pinky's has moved around a bit since we first came across it in Sharjah's unrestored old central souk area, now known as the 'Heart of Sharjah'.

Named after the owner's daughter Pinky, the shop was a treasure trove of Indian furniture and assorted knick-knacks, from battered water jugs through to carved wooden textile printing blocks.

Our first visit to Pinky Furniture had us stumbling wide-eyed around the stacked jumble. An Indian bench caught our eye. 'Is this old?' Sarah asked the proprietor as we made our way between piled cupboards and dressers.

'Oh, absolutely,' he replied. 'Made just last week.'

How could you not warm to that as a response? We got talking. Mr Mukri had a 'godown' where there was more furniture, Omani doors and the like. And there, baking slowly in the ambient heat, was a wonderful collection of dusty things, some new but many 'original' pieces nestled in the tottering piles of furniture.

There was some sort of family fall-out (to be honest I can't recall any details), resulting in Pinky's spawning a rival - Lucky's. We visited Lucky's once or twice, but it was always Pinky what had 'the good stuff'. The other game in town was Mr Khan, located at the back of the street the Post Office is on, who tended to stock the 'new style' of Indian furniture - the iron-banded browny stuff which made Marina Trading's fortune. We started to see this sort of thing popping up in London, in Lewis' and 'funky' furniture places. The basic rule of thumb on pricing seemed to be what cost a rupee in India cost a dirham in Sharjah and a quid in London.

We were furnishing our first villa, filling the vast yawning white spaces, so we bought benches and other stuff from Pinky, visiting regularly as his stock was topped up by containers coming in from India.

A while later, we'd fallen off the 'antique' furniture buying bandwagon and tended to look to Ikea rather than the furniture warehouses. We visited the brand new Souk Madinat Jumeirah, wandering around the alleyways of the fake new souk and realising that we were among old friends. Sure enough, all the traders were the boyos from upstairs at the Sharjah Blue Souk. After the third or fourth encounter it started to get surreal. 'Why are you here?' I asked one of the familiar faces.
He beamed back at me. 'Here it is fixed price! No haggle!'

It was indeed - the outrageous starting prices of Sharjah had become the fixed prices of Dubai and the tourists were, get this lads, paying them without so much a murmur, let alone a howl of 'Are you telling me that's not worth twenty shekels?'

And so, a while later, when I saw a shop close by Mall of the Emirates labelled 'Pinky Furniture & Novelties' I knew the exodus was complete. Pinky's, too, had clearly fallen for the bright lights and the allure of 'fixed prices'.

Only, as it turns out, they didn't. These days Pinky's is still to be found in Sharjah's industrial estate, run after his death by Mr Mukri's son and daughter, the eponymous Pinky. The Dubai adventure was brought to an end by outrageous rent increases (I mean, would you believe that? Really?) and the realisation that, actually, Pinky's customers are happy to make the journey and also that these days, Facebook is a vastly more powerful shop front.

We went for a visit and a wander down memory lane over Eid and walked away with two cupboards. It was just like old times - and I remembered (too late) how hard it always was to leave Pinky's without buying something.

Here's a pin. You're quite welcome.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Dubai Radio Ads

This is not a radio ad, but only marginally less annoying.

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Sorry. I forgot to turn the radio off after the news this morning and ran into the ad break. It was almost over before I realised and switched off.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Hatta Fort Hotel Makeover. And Chickens.

Sheikh Rashid opens the Hatta Fort, 1981

We walked into the reception of the Hatta Fort and peered around the transformed area. 'Good morning,' smiled the receptionist.

'Good morning,' we replied. 'We're here for a chicken.'

His smile faltered. 'Check-in?'

'Oh, no. Chicken.'

You could see him realising that perhaps this was going to be a long, long day...

The small and delightful Hatta Fort Hotel nestles way up in the Hajar Mountains, the rocky range that runs down the spine of the UAE and gives rain to the country's Eastern coastal towns. The hotel's been there since Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, first declared it open back in 1981 - a weekend treat for romantic couples and a destination for various groups from bikers and wadi bashers to companies organising team building events and conferences.

1981 again: the Gazebo restaurant notably absent!

Back in the day, it was home to all sorts of expatty events, murder weekends and meetings of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs (Ah, darling, the quenelles of crustacean were simply divine). We've been going there since the  late '80s to enjoy quick getaways in the tranquility of the mountains, walking in the grounds or driving around and exploring the Hatta tracks. These peregrinatory pleasures are now, thanks to the hardening of the Omani border, no longer possible - and the road to the hotel is no longer the Dubai-Awir-Lahbab-Hatta highway, again because of that border. You have to take the Mileiha road, which snakes around the Omani border. But the Hatta Fort nevertheless still makes for a glorious weekend away from it all.

The Hatta Fort was for many, many years managed by the same chap, one Sergio Magnaldi. At one stage he tried to retire but came back again. He ran a small but tight ship, the happiness of the staff was always notable and over the years it became clear that the people who worked at the Hatta Fort tended to stick around.

The hotel's really something of an old friend. The chalet-style rooms with their round '70s spotlights and tall wooden roofs, the Jeema restaurant with its classical French menu enlivened by some truly glorious curries and, of course, the amazing Roumoul Bar - my favourite bar in the world. I kid you not. The interior of the Roumoul Bar was pure James Bond: a huge, curving leather-sided walnut counter dominated the brown velour-walled room with its rich walnut panelled ceiling home to little glittering brass spotlights. You were instantly transported back in time when you pulled up a chair at the counter. Cocktail shakers would rattle. Home made crisps and - for a while - dishes of canapes would appear. And all was well with the world.

The Hatta Fort's rooms circa 1981. Spot the wall decoration.

You can perhaps imagine how we felt when word reached us that the Hatta Fort was being renovated. Clearly the potential to ruin the whole thing was enormous. Sergio's wife had already had a go at updating the rooms years ago and had made an awful job of it, installing insane tin dogs, huge red bed-heads and utterly inappropriate lighting fixtures, as well as introducing faux-antique 'Marina Trading' style chests and strange chaise longues into the rooms. And, for some reason, odd swathes of leopard skin print material draped around. The hotel managed to rise above the whole thing. Would it survive a complete makeover?

The room post Mrs Sergio - note the chicken has survived the changes.

And if they were going to completely remodel the rooms, what about the brass and enamel chickens that used to hang on the walls? They had been there since the year dot and had even survived Mrs Sergio's reforms. They were pure '70s, fantastic dangly things made up of sweeping leaves of brass and bronze with shiny enamel-centred flowers and things. Sarah nagged me for weeks to get in touch with the hotel and see if we could rescue a chicken. Finally, I sent them the email. Did they by any chance save any of the chickens when they'd redone the rooms? Could we buy one?

Just before the weekend, the reply came. Yes, they had managed to track down a chicken. Yes, we could have it. They'd be pleased to see us whenever we came next. Sarah couldn't wait. Nothing would do but that we hoiked off up there tout de suite. And so Saturday saw us noodling through the mountain roads on our chicken rescuing mission.

The Hatta Fort Hotel today

We had made up our minds to be brave. Change is inevitable and you can't get mired in the past. What to us was a comfortingly familiar, retro delight probably looked to the rest of the world as dated and dowdy. We told each other these things as we pulled up to the hotel. It was something we'd just have to take on the chin.

A new pergola outside the reception was the first sign of change. There were 'on brand' new burgundy umbrellas around the pool. And the reception area itself was transformed and made funky: slate tiled floors, silver and gold furnishings, a lot more airy and spacious. This time round, someone had brought in a real interior designer. It is different, very different. But it is also very nicely done.

We met the older members of staff, one by one. What did we think of it all? The Jeema restaurant and Roumoul were closed by day because of Ramadan, but the chaps took us up for a quick peek around. The restaurant has been rethought totally - airier, lighter and more open. The buffet had been brought into the main dining room. And then, gulp, on to the Roumoul Bar.

Oh, my dears, but it's gone. The new bar is a faint, flickering shadow of former glories. It's nice, mind - again whites and silvers and blacks, slate and grey. All very modern and even a tad chic. But it's not the Roumoul Bar As Was. And you know what? We lived through it. We had a shrug, agreed with the chaps that yes, it was a little sad and its loss a shame but we all have to move on.

And that was that.

We went downstairs and explored one of the rooms - they've been done up very nicely, in fact. In place of the chicken on the wall is a framed piece of calligraphy and the dark wood beamed roofs have been painted white - pale ash bedheads and furnishings add to the airiness. They've kept the Hatta stone walls and the bathrooms have just been teased a little to lift them to the new style. Had other old regulars been horrified? Yes, a couple, the duty manager smiled. But while a few had found it hard to settle, the vast majority had approved. We knew what he meant - it was a lot of change to a place that had become, for many, something of an institution.

The new chalets - beautifully bright, but *gasp* chickenless!

But as we drove home and chatted, our Hatta Chicken safely in the back of the car, we realised that what hadn't changed about the Hatta Fort was the most important thing of all. The staff were still there and were still the same happy, friendly, helpful and smiley bunch. They're as clearly happy to be there as you are. You rather feel like royalty, wandering the grounds and being recognised with grins and murmurs of 'Welcome back' from everyone you encounter.

Apart from the outstanding food (including one of the better breakfast buffets to be had in the Emirates) and the whole tranquility of the mountains thing, it's the staff who always made the Hatta Fort Hotel that little bit more special. And they're still there, as they always are.

And last, and by no means least, we've got the chicken!

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Roger The Radar Rotter

Zoom and Bored
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Roger the Radar Rotter generally lurks around the Sharjah University City area. His favourite places are the roads around the AUS campus, the back road that tracks along the landfill from the logistics center to the roundabout by Sharjah English School and the Middle Road from the Mileiha Road up to the 311. Oh! And also on the stretch of Middle Road just beyond the 311 turnoff towards Sharjah City.

He's more Wile E. Coyote than most. He likes to hide his little portable radar behind a lamp post and then drive a few hundred yards up the road and lurk, no doubt giggling softly to himself and drooling, waiting for the flashes to go off.

Knowing full well that we skittish victims can sniff he's around when he parks up, he often hides the car. This means the wary are rewarded with glimpses of cars parked in odd places as more trusting souls trigger the cheery 'pop' of the radar followed by the inevitable 'cherching' of the Sharjah Police cash register.

It's an expensive game these days: they've just put the fines up. So why speed at all? You ask, in all sensibility.

Well, the reason Roger has quite so much fun with his sneaky tricks is he likes to pick roads that have insane 60kph limits on them. The roads around the University are, for instance, long and straight and have two lanes. They are nowhere near any crossings or habitation, just long tarmac stretches running along outside the high campus walls. The UAE, very sensibly IMHO, has a 'grace limit' of 20kph above the actual speed limit, so you can travel a maximum 80kph on these roads. Nudge it just 1 kilo above it when Roger's around and POW you're toast, bub.

The wee back road behind Sharjah English is a long straight line of blacktop running along a fence and surrounded by scrubland. The low speed limits make the drive interminably frustrating and the old speedometer does rather tend to sneak up a little. And then you spot, out of the corner of your eye, a glint of something out of place. Slow down, pass by regally and breathe a little sigh of relief as Roger sits in his hidden car, shaking his fists and snarling, 'Damn you McNabb!'

The other day I was driving thusly, overtaking a very slow lorry on the road behind SES. I had spotted Roger's car on the hard shoulder ahead and was taking things easy, when I get some spotty Herbert in an FJ giving it socks on the flashers and horn behind me. With a resigned sigh I pulled in beyond the front of the lorry and moderated my speed.

With satanic glee, I watched my tormentor speed past me, honouring me with a great display of shade thrown sideways as he hit the throttle to let me know one of us was a real man with a real right foot and the other a sissy rated by all and sundry as less than zero.



I felt a little like Elric of Melniboné, Michael Moorcock's anti-hero whose sword feasts on souls and passes a little of the energy to its tragic albino* wielder.

For I had given Roger the soul he craved but the benefit, my precioussss, was mine, all mine...

*Apparently these days we're supposed to say 'person of albinism' but frankly, my dear...

Monday, 15 May 2017

Virus Attack Shock Horror. Don't Say I Didn't Tell Y'all...

A typical server "rack", commonly se...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
About 16 years ago, prescient me sat down to write a book to take my mind off my recently ceased 60 a day habit.

This amused me a great deal for a number of months and involved bringing together a self-manifesting roasted chicken and various other objects, the angriest policeman in the UK, a leather catsuited CIA operative who gained considerable sexual satisfaction from killing, a hapless doctor from Richmond, a shadowy cabal of evil octogenarians a sex worker called Kylie and divers other players.

These were gathered together to form the 100,000 word lump of idiocy that was to become my first, very silly, novel Space. Widely rejected by people who knew what they were doing, it reposes on Amazon at £0.99 simply because a few years ago I opened the thing and took a look and it amused me greatly. Its first Amazon review reads 'this book is not funny'...

Anyway, don't tell me I didn't warn you this was going to happen:

Trickling through the Internet like sand through pebbles, the Hellfire virus replicated itself, building heuristic databases on its host servers, configuring itself to match each host operating environment, squeezing itself into every device it could find, hijacking middleware, pushing Java subroutines into client devices. It built lists of target machines from lookup tables on its host servers, patiently gathering information, segmenting targets and flinging out code through ports to match vulnerabilities in hardware and software alike. 

Its primary target lists, defined on the servers at The Space Agency, replicated in China, Dubai and Portugal, started it on the scavenge for secondary targets. The core lists were updated as scavenger routines passed back server information. As each primary list was completed, the servers triggered client targeting routines, passing code across to client devices. 

The virus reached the last of the first batch of core target lists and started to disperse code across to the last class of servers. The folder named Utilities opened automatically and a fresh batch of code started to stream across the world’s networks as the virus targeted the next class of URLs in its fast-growing lookup databases. The virus completed its host lookup tables, closed the core folder then deleted it. The core code streamed out of the server farm at The Space Agency, triggering a delete routine it had left behind and flowed out through a single private network connection that had been preserved for this moment. 

It replicated its core, then: snaked out to a number of defined primary servers around the world. From these, it started again, using the information gathered by its hunter applets to send out new child routines to the new servers it had identified over the past 24 hours. Each child carried the core virus routines but also had added what it had learned over the past day, new backdoors and open port locations, new platform configurations added to its databases. The replicated core routines each started life anew, stronger, smarter and bulked by the data they carried. Its performance started to slow as links became clogged with virus traffic, new routes harder to find each time a search routine triggered. Slowly, Internet traffic died down so that only the virus was sending and receiving information across huge swathes of network. 

As terminals came live, the virus scavenged and infected them, triggering the Hellfire display and sound routines. They waited, counting processor cycles. Every machine the Hellfire virus had infected became inoperable as it closed down any inputs except the ones that waited for the next command from the virus. Global bandwidth utilisation soon dropped to an absolute minimum. There was no traffic. 

The Internet was dying.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Statutory EU Compensation, British Airways Customer Service And Ritually Disempowering Customers

Airbus A319 takes off from London Heathrow Airport
A BA plane taking off. This can take a while to actually happen sometimes...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Okay, so you've heard the story about how British Airways managed to screw up our flight at the New Year. Being a little annoyed at the way things turned out, I wrote them an email afterwards letting them know I thought they should pay compensation.

Here's what happened, in case you find yourself in the same boat. It's a long post, sorry.

Under EU regulations, airlines are liable to pay passengers compensation for a flight originating or landing in an EU country that is delayed over three hours. For a short haul flight (Under 1,500km - ie: Belfast to Heathrow), that compensation is €250 per passenger.

The opt-out for airlines is when the flight has been delayed by 'extraordinary circumstances'. These are a little fuzzy, but include acts of terror, the plane being turned into a giant pumpkin, dinosaur attacks, civil disturbances, strikes (NOTE here, not including industrial action by the airline's own employees!) and 'Weather conditions incompatible with the safe operation of the flight'.

Airlines really, really don't like this piece of EU legislation at all. Oh, no.

If you are delayed by more than two hours, the airline is in any case responsible for providing you with a reasonable amount of food and drink; a means for you to communicate (for instance refunding the cost of your calls); accommodation, if you’re delayed overnight and transport to and from the accommodation (or your home, if you are able to return there).

If the airline is unable to organise these (and in our case British Airways was clearly in no state to organise festivities in a brewery. You could argue the merits of an airline which will accept passengers for carriage from and to airports where it has no arrangement in place to manage customers in case something extraordinary happens), the CAA's guidance is that you have the right to organise reasonable care and assistance yourself and claim it back later.

Keep receipts for everything. In fact, keep any and all paperwork you have INCLUDING boarding passes that have been replaced or superseded, baggage slips, everything.

So we were delayed, apparently, because of the weather. Handily, the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) publishes a list of dates and flights cancelled from Heathrow which it believes would be grounds for refusing a compensation claim on the grounds of extraordinary circumstances. It's linked here for your handy reference.

Our New Year's flight - BA1417 on the 30th December 2016 - wasn't on that list. So I wrote to BA and told them I thought they should pay the compensation. To be fair, they had subjected us to a deeply unpleasant two-day incapability-of-providing-a-flying-machine experience and had totally failed to provide any assistance beyond a useless call centre and their Twitter team offering a refund in extremis (so we do what, walk home?) as well as some pretty meagre meal vouchers the next day.

They had also failed to properly notify passengers of their statutory rights - a nasty habit airlines have these days.

British Airways responded smartly enough to my email:

Your claim’s been refused because BA1417 on 30 December was delayed because of adverse weather conditions, which prevented the aircraft operating as scheduled. Under EU legislation, I’m afraid we’re not liable for a compensation payment in this situation. 

We take all reasonable measures to avoid delaying a flight and we always consider if there are any operational options available before we make a decision. We’re very sorry the delay was necessary in this case.

I love the 'I'm afraid' line in that. I wrote to them again - they have a handy online form for emails which means you don't get to keep a copy of what you've sent them, so it's important to cut and paste your text and keep a record of it in a Word file or some such.

This time the response was:

Thanks for coming back to us about your EU compensation claim. I'm sorry that you are unhappy with our response. 

I’ve reviewed your claim and can confirm that your flight BA1417 on 30 December 2016 was delayed because of adverse weather conditions, which prevented the aircraft operating as scheduled. On the day you were due to travel, there were Air Traffic Control restrictions in place affecting the aircraft coming in and out of London Heathrow, which was a direct result of the severe weather conditions. 

Under EU legislation, I’m afraid we’re not liable for a compensation payment in this situation. Article 5.3 of the EU Regulation 261/2004 states that a carrier is not obliged to pay compensation if it can prove that the delay or cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstances that couldn’t have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. In Recital 14 and 15 of EU Regulation 261/2004, extraordinary circumstances include weather, strike and the impact of an air traffic management decision which gives rise to a long delay. This means you’re not entitled to compensation under the EU Regulation for your delayed flight. 

I realise this will be disappointing for you but I hope this information will help you to understand our decision.

So we get a longer response with a load of obfuscatory waffle about EU regulations. Nope, I responded to them, you are SO liable for compensation.

A couple of ping pongs later (and by now we're at the end of January), I got this from them:

I felt the need to write back to you. I understand this is something you feel strongly about and I’m sorry you’re unhappy with our previous replies. 

We've received a reply from our Flight Investigation team. I'd like to inform you that we really want you to fly with us again and we know not resolving your complaint fully will affect the decisions you make when you need to travel in the future. I’ve had another look at your claim for compensation and I’ve taken time to make sure our response is accurate and up-to-date. 

I’m afraid our decision hasn’t changed and the responses you’ve received about the eligibility of your EU compensation claim are correct. As Your claim’s been refused because BA1417 on 30 December was delayed because of adverse weather conditions, which prevented the aircraft operating as scheduled, we’re unable to offer you any compensation. I know this isn’t the answer you were hoping for and I’m sorry to let you down. 

Given the information we hold about your delayed flight, our answer won’t change and we’re unable to respond to any further requests for compensation.

It's quite a clever piece of communication. I felt the need... we know not resolving your claim will... and I've taken the time to... as well as I know this isn't... I'm sorry to let you down are all smart use of language.

At this point, having jerked me around for a month, they have refused further correspondence: we’re unable to respond to any further requests for compensation.

What do you do now? I mean, clearly, you're being unreasonable. BA has responded to you time and again explaining why you're not liable for compensation IN THEIR VIEW which they often fail to make very clear. They act like they're the law, representing the law but in fact they are a plaintiff and you are the complainant.

They will unlikely take the same view of the situation as you, but they dress it up with such authority that any reasonable bloke will go 'Oh, right then' and wander off.

It is possible that I am unreasonable. I wouldn't like to deny the charge.

Your next step is to escalate to Alternative Dispute Resolution. You have to wait eight weeks AFTER your airline has refused compensation and then file your case with (if you're a BA passenger - other airlines could use other ADR providers) the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR). At this point, you have to put some skin in the game - if CEDR finds against you, you're liable to pay the £25 fee for the arbitration.

You can skip the eight week wait if your airline agrees to send the case to ADR but they won't. They'll depend on that eight week cooling off period breaking what little resolution you might have left. They really, really don't like that whole EU statutory compensation thing one little bit.

The CEDR website steps you through the process of filing a claim for compensation. It's a little gnarly, but this is where those receipts you kept come in handy. You can file additional documentation, too, so I took great delight in including our car hire receipt, a copy of British Airways' useless rebooking form with its wrong numbers and missing information and an account of how they cancelled, then delayed, then rescheduled, then delayed our flight and basically jerked us around.

I was able to reconstruct the two-day horror quite accurately from my blog post about it and also from my Twitter tirade. The 100-tweet rantathon was just me being bored and pissed off, but it did lead to the BBC getting in touch and filing a story online (Which I also included with my evidence) and did give me a handy list of times and events when I went back over it.

It's not the first time I have been glad of Twitter and I'm sure not the last, either.

The CEDR process takes two weeks. Within that time BA got in touch and gave up the ghost. They would, after all their denials and I'm afraid emails, pay the compensation. It has just arrived in our bank and so now I can post this happy little account. If it helps you in your claim for compensation, I am delighted.

Don't stop. Don't let them brush you off. If you believe you have a case, pursue it.

Be unreasonable!

Here, just in case you want a little fun, are the highlights of that 24-hour Twitterthon.

My sincerest thanks to the lovely people over at All My Tweets. It's best read from the bottom up...

  • Pursuing a claim for compensation from #BritishAirways, they've already denied it and refused to go to adjudicator three times. Nice people. Jan 08, 2017
  • #BritishAirways sent an automated customer service email the day after the Great Belfast Disaster. I responded. They've sent two more since. Jan 03, 2017
  • It's lucky we CHERISH departure lounges! Squee! We said as we lolled around for 10 hours with no information or contact! #BritishAirways Jan 01, 2017
  • Oh noes. After everything over the last 48 hours, #BritishAirways just sent me a 'Customer Satisfaction Survey'. I kid you not. Jan 01, 2017
  • Honestly, #BritishAirways, it would have been more sincere to have said I was a noisy pain in the arse and you're g… Jan 01, 2017
  • What's more, #BritishAirways - why thank me for my patience? I threw about 100 frustrated tweets your way yesterday… Jan 01, 2017
  • Well that's all very nice, #BritishAirways except you don't understand at all. How could you, sat in your office tweeting platitudes? Jan 01, 2017
  • Thanks for your company, Twitter. You know who y'all are. Off to London for New Year, finally! Dec 31, 2016
  • Café full of shiny, happy people now. Much elation. We're all going home/where we're going. It's only taken 26 hours... #britishairways Dec 31, 2016
  • Crew here = we there. Doing a little departure dance as we speak. #britishairways Dec 31, 2016
  • See, my issue is I don't see staff in pom pom outfits with #britishairways CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE TEAM tops lining the way to Gate A... Dec 31, 2016
  • I think we have spotted the extra crew. Either that or there's a #BritishAirways themed drag act doing a gig in #Belfast for #NewYear... Dec 31, 2016
  • The #BritishAirways Customer Experience Management Team, meanwhile, are experimenting with dropping cats down vertical blackboards... Dec 31, 2016
  • One detail on the Beeb story was incorrect, the BA note wasn't handwritten but in a horrible 'handwriting' style font. Dec 31, 2016
  • Ooh, lookit! I is on da Beeb! Dec 31, 2016
  • Man in clown mask bouncing up runway on Pogo stick. Thought it was incoming #britishairways Customer Experience Team. It's just a clown. Dec 31, 2016
  • Have just tried to move. My arse is now a right angle. Staggering around like Quasimodo. Or a #BritishAirways Customer Experience Manager. Dec 31, 2016
  • #BritishAirways 1415 to LHR is now getting ready for boarding. They're like golfers 'playing through'. We are happy for them. Really. Dec 31, 2016
  • A #BritishAirways plane has landed at BHD. We feel like worshippers of a cargo cult. Will there be crew? Yes, my son, there will be crew... Dec 31, 2016
  • For the uninitiated, an Ulster Fry is bacon, sausage, mushrooms, beans, black pudding, fried bread and fried egg. With white wine. Grief. Dec 31, 2016
  • Okay a new low for the weirdometer: two Ulster Fries being demolished with gusto washed down with glasses of white wine. #ThingsYouSeeInBHD Dec 31, 2016
  • Roses are red Violets are blue I'm having a #BritishAirways customer experience How about you? Dec 31, 2016
  • Me: When I said #BritishAirways would lock us in from 6am and jerk us around all day and you called me cynical... Sarah: ShutupShutupShutup Dec 31, 2016
  • #BritishAirways have more vouchers for us! £10 each! DOUBLE VOUCHER BONUS! #SoExcited #StockholmSyndrome Dec 31, 2016
  • I was serious about Sarah photographing her hat. Here's the photo. She's planning to go to Boots after lunch.… Dec 31, 2016
  • It's 09:10. There's a bloke here doing an Ulster Fry and a pint of lager. That's pretty hardcore, IMHO... Dec 31, 2016
  • Some men in CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE TEAM t-shirts started to erect a bouncy castle then left mumbling about a 'wrong location'. #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • tube on a stand at BHD and right now it's as useless as a #BritishAirways Customer Experience Manager. Dec 31, 2016
  • So the problem wasn't the slot, it was the crew. There's no bloody crew. Other flights will come and go, but we're stuck. #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • Help! Send entertainers! Or, better, #BritishAirways Customer Experience Management Team members and a selection of sharp, pointy things. Dec 31, 2016
  • It's now light. We can see #Belfast out of the window. It's 08:55am. 'Light refreshments' at the #BritishAirways Gate. Oh callooh callay! Dec 31, 2016
  • #BritishAirways #BA1417 to fly at 17:30. 'Regretfully the saga will continue - I know that's completely ridiculous' - announcer at BHD. Dec 31, 2016
  • Argh. @flybe are pushing back. Happy New Year, you smug, purply happy-looking bastards... #britishairways Dec 31, 2016
  • I can see the #BritishAirways 'Customer Experience Management' team meeting now. 'Let's do the Kraken now!' 'No, no! The Kraken later!' Dec 31, 2016
  • Sarah is taking iPhone photos of her hat. We might need the medical services team soon. It's getting light. #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • Sarah now threatening to buy a Radley bag out of boredom. This is getting twisted. We got up at 03:30. We're 5 hours in... #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • We apologise for the lateness of your next information, this was due to the late arrival of the previous next information. #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • 08:32: 'Next information at 08:30' #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • FOUR minutes to go until 'next information'! We're having a wee 'next information' party at our table. Silly hats and all. #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • Ah, it's okay. Panic over. The skeleton wasn't a dead pax. Apparently it's the Spirit of Customer Experience Past... #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • We've just spotted a skeleton under one of the tables in a darker corner. This isn't looking good... #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • Transcend your corporate newspeak and fake sympathy. Truly go beyond the ordinary. Really, for once, delight people. #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • I mean, here's an idea, #BritishAirways. Seriously, a positive #NewYear thought from me. Open up your business class lounge to #BA1417 pax. Dec 31, 2016
  • Ooh, yes, you're right. #BA1417 now showing departure 5.30pm on the #BritishAirways website. It's 08.00am. #Joy… Dec 31, 2016
  • Update 'Next information at 08:30' THERE HAS BEEN NO INFORMATION EVER YOU SPONGIFORM DOLTS! #YesBetterNowThanks #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • I'm waiting for 'Hitler finds out anything at all ever from #BritishAirways' to break... Dec 31, 2016
  • A woman has just stroked her husband's arm and said 'It'll be okay'. I kid you not. It's like Downfall around here... #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • The chap offering a glass of prosecco with a strawberry in it has just gone away. He'll be back in 30 mins, apparently. #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • The table next to us is getting hysterical. Their brittle laughter has collapsed into moans and nail-biting. #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • EI has just pulled back and I should be happy for them but I'm not. I hate them. Smug, travelling people going somewhere. #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • A one-man band just tap-danced past dressed as a pearly king. I thought it was a #BritishAirways 'Customer Experience Manager'. But, no. Dec 31, 2016
  • Sarah has taken to staring into her coffee. She's gone to the toilet for a change of scenery. It's still dark. All is lost. Send help. Dec 31, 2016
  • I mean, you treat us like cattle, obfuscate and misinform us, and this in the name of 'customer experience'? Nah. #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • 'Next information at 8am' showing. This follows 'Next information at 7 and 7:30'. #BritishAirways information: there is no information. Dec 31, 2016
  • A hunch-backed drooling gnome with a pointy hat is poking my leg with a sharp stick and cackling. This must be a #BritishAirways manager... Dec 31, 2016
  • The 7am 'information announcement' has now become a 7.30am 'information announcement'. There is no information. No hope. All is bleak. Dec 31, 2016
  • The face painting team hasn't showed up yet. The clown seems to have gone home. Oh, the joy of the #BritishAirways 'customer experience'! Dec 31, 2016
  • Sausages in the machine, we await our 'customer experience' as we watch boards promising information that never comes... #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • Herding the 'about to be processed' and dashing their hopes in a crushing, relentless tide of 'service experience'... #BritishAirways Dec 31, 2016
  • They shake up wasps in jam jars, pull kittens' nails and scare bush babies in a relentless quest to better the #BritishAirways experience! Dec 31, 2016
  • Oh, joy! Deep in the bowels of #BritishAirways HQ, the 'customer experience managers' experiment, Mengele-style on unwitting victims... Dec 31, 2016
  • Wait, what, you have 'customer experience managers'? Gosh, golly! What do THEY do every day of the year? Dec 31, 2016
  • £10 per pax for food and drink for an overnight 'delay' doesn't seem quite, well, cricket, does it? #BritishAirways #BA1417 Dec 31, 2016
  • It would be interesting to see what compensation is available from #BritishAirways - which has offered minimal assistance for #BA1417 pax... Dec 31, 2016
  • While we slowly rot, we're plotting how to spend our gorgeous £10 #britishairways 'compensation voucher'. Maybe share a breakfast roll... Dec 31, 2016
  • 'Next information at 07:00' says the chirpy wee screen at BHD: #BritishAirways rockin' real-time... @HeathrowAirport yet foggy, apparently. Dec 31, 2016
  • The Ulster Fry is the Lady Gaga of breakfasts - a terrible thing to behold. It's sort of wrong yet at the same time it gets your attention. Dec 31, 2016
  • The optimism all around me is heart-breaking. Everyone thinks it's over. We've all got boarding cards, but there's no slot for #BA1417... Dec 31, 2016
  • BTW, #BritishAirways, a 'breakfast roll' here at BHD costs £6.95 and two coffees is £5.20. But we must be grateful for small mercies... Dec 31, 2016
  • We're now checked onto today's 'free flight' - we have a plane, boarding cards and a VERY generous £5 'breakfast voucher'. Just no slot... Dec 31, 2016
  • So #BritishAirways has known all along it could accommodate all of yesterday's #BA1417 pax, it just didn't want to share for some reason. Dec 31, 2016
  • Right. We've found the missing #BritishAirways #BA1417. It's been sitting on the tarmac here at BHD all night. Just they didn't tell us. Dec 31, 2016
  • Obviously no BA staff on hand, tannoys or information. Just a queue. People sharing stories of disbelief in anything #britishairways says. Dec 31, 2016
  • 5am. BHD airport. All is quiet apart from a long, long queue for the #britishairways desk. No sign of the promised BA1417. Dec 31, 2016
  • We're assured we have a 6am flight BHD/LHR. That means getting up here in Newry at 3.30am. They'd better be serious... #britishairways Dec 30, 2016
  • We're being told our BHD/LHR flight is delayed until 6am tomorrow rather than today's cancellation. Don't trust it… Dec 30, 2016
  • Brilliant. @British_Airways has DMmed me and offered a full refund. I can have my money back and SWIM to the mainland. Great solution. Dec 30, 2016
  • "All our agents are busy at the moment but your call is important to us." Call centre case study, @British_Airways... Pure gold. Dec 30, 2016
  • It's a case study in screwed up comms. EVERY single comms tool is failing. @British_Airways is in a simple, straightforward, total mess. Dec 30, 2016
  • It's hard to think how an airline could have handled this more maladroitly than @British_Airways. Well, perhaps apart from @Ryanair... Dec 30, 2016
  • The @British_Airways airways app is as useless as a chocolate in a blast furnace and their website worse. Call centre now has 30 mins wait. Dec 30, 2016
  • No @British_Airways staff on hand to manage re-bookings. Handlers giving out leaflets with the wrong number to call 'between xx and xx'. Dec 30, 2016
  • So @British_Airways flight to LHR has been cancelled. They are singularly, spectacularly useless. Website, app, call centre. Nothing works. Dec 30, 2016
  • Mad freezing fog @HeathrowAirport, so we're sitting at George Best waiting to see if we can fly or not. Already 2 hrs 45 delayed. Oh joy... Dec 30, 2016

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