Monday, May 8, 2017

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Apart from coming up with one of the greatest ever (in my view) titles for a novel, old Philip K Dick was a pretty bright bloke, in that his book explores the relationship between humans and our machine counterparts - something we are only really scratching the surface of nearly 50 years after it was first published.

This robot was not featured at the conference, it's just a random picture, but ah, bless him, what a cutie
His book was never far from my mind when I was at the inaugural Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit (GMIS), at the end of March, in Abu Dhabi, because the topic of robots, automation and artificial intelligence arose again and again throughout.

I think I was probably one of the few people to have sat through the entire three day summit, as I was compiling a report for a forecasting and research company on the major outcomes, and I came away feeling slightly reassured that while perhaps we are all dooooooomed, doooooomed, I tell you, as all of our jobs, even mine will one day be taken over by a robot that is vastly more intelligent, efficient, and less demanding of biscuits, Yorkshire teabags, chicken sandwiches and Cadbury's Dairy Milk, than I am, it may not happen as quickly as some might think.

An electric sheep, also not featured at GMIS, but, oh you know, see above

Here are my key takeaways from the event:

1. Automation and robots are coming, there is nothing we can do about it. It is human instinct to want to find ways of doing things more efficiently, and eliminating human error through the use of robotics is therefore inevitable.

2. We have been here before. The headlines you are seeing about "humans need not apply" were described as "scaremongering" by an Oxford University academic, who said that all the arguments currently being made against automation were made in the first industrial revolution (we are on the fourth now) and that while technology exists, it is not being implemented as fast as you might expect. In addition, the origin of the word "sabotage" comes from when workers in the first industrial revolution threw their wooden clogs or "sabots" into machinery to jam it and make it appear faulty and inefficient, with the hope that they would keep their jobs for longer.

3. There are two schools of thought. One - robots are the beginning of the end for humans, they will take our jobs, we will be redundant, social problems will increase enormously as unemployment rises. Two - automisation will mean a massive improvement in the lives of workers in manufacturing, who will be able to work shorter hours and thus enjoy better quality of life as they depend on smart machines.

4. It's not just robots, it's co-bots. While in some areas, robotics are taking over, humans work alongside them in others. For example, in the Chinese jewellery industry - gem setting is increasingly done by robots, but the more delicate polishing work is done by humans.

5. "It's not about costs, it's a necessity". Back to China - one Chinese manufacturer said the new generation of Chinese workers have aspirations beyond the factory, and do not see themselves as manufacturers, therefore, manufacturers are using robotics in their production lines out of necessity, saying they could not fill the jobs with humans even if they wanted to.

6. We have to make it work for everyone. As previously discussed, automation is coming, whether we like it or not, and there is a great deal of fear and anxiety about what it will mean for society. We are only just beginning to understand what it will mean, and it has to work for everyone, not just the top one per cent, otherwise it is in danger of being a step backwards, not forwards.

7. Something needs to be done to bring in more women. Apart from in the media room, where there were several females of the species, XX chromosomal makeups were distinctly thin on the ground. Of a three-day conference, I could count on one hand the amount of female speakers. One of the women speakers particularly stuck in my mind, as she addressed the fact that women working in manufacturing, particularly at a high level, are rare.

To expand on this topic, as it's rather a big one, and obviously close to my heart, one of the few female speakers, Kathryn E Wengel, worldwide VP and  chief supply chain officer of Johnson & Johnson, said only five per cent of jobs at her level were filled by women. To paraphrase her view on the subject, we don't need to increase the number of women for the sake of it, but it's actually a necessity because there are millions of unfilled jobs globally, not just in manufacturing but in the wider STEM sectors, and the industries can't afford to not make sure more women play a part. The way to address that, she said, is looking at what happens to put girls off the science and maths subjects early on in education, as far back as kindergarten level, and work on it throughout schooling, to stop girls getting "tracked away" from those subjects and therefore being ruled out of that kind of career.

It got me thinking about my own education, the choices I made, and how that has impacted on my own life, career wise. It is true that I was much better at all the "artsy" type subjects, English, Music, languages, traditionally associated with females, and thus likely to get better results, so my school was pretty happy for me to follow that path. I don't ever remember anyone saying to me: "If you're not going to be a teacher, jobs in those fields are pretty few and far between, and the pay and conditions are rubbish, oh and there is this thing called the Internet coming which will make a lot of them totally disappear". Joking aside, as no one really had any idea what impact the Internet was going to have when I left school way back in *gulp* 1997, you could argue that it was the school's job to get good exam results and that was it, but I wonder how different it is for today's teenage girls.

I remember a definite undertone that, as long as I got my C at GCSE maths that showed I could count to 10 without breaking into a sweat, that was sufficient, and I could spend the rest of my schooling burying my strange little head in 20th century poetry and harmonising Bach chorales to my heart's content.

I don't meet many Brit teenagers these days, but when I attend conferences, if admittedly, not the most recent one, I do come across local women who are studying for Ph.ds and carrying out research in scientific fields that I cannot even begin to explain, due to aforesaid lack of ability in science and maths. They seem to outnumber the men, although that could well be due to the fact that traditionally, more Emirati men than women choose to study abroad, and may follow those paths elsewhere. However, a speaker from Kerala, India, said that women outnumber men in science and maths subjects at universities, although, I would point out that you would need to have a look in 20-30 years' time, to see how that levels out, whether all those women with STEM degrees actually manage to sustain careers in those industries.

Anyway, I could start banging the drum here about discrimination and poor maternity provision and lack of flexible working which limit women's choices once they reach a certain stage in their lives, as God knows, I and many women I know have had experience of that in recent years, but that wasn't the point of this post. Robots, people, they're coming. And hopefully they won't be trained to recognise your skin colour, sex, age, weight, height, disability, or whatever, and treat you differently according to what they think that says about you. That would be nice, wouldn't it?

Monday, March 13, 2017

There will be no one in the driving seat

I am not known for my early adoption of technology. I am a recent convert to the Careem driver app, (local equivalent of Uber) several years after everyone else, I clung to my keypad Blackberry, with friends picking it up and saying: "I can't remember the last time I saw a phone keypad, wow," until various members of my family despaired and clubbed together and bought me an iPhone a couple of Christmases ago, and my iPad these days is mainly used for showing Peppa Pig to Desert Baby while I am preparing her dinner. You just have to ask Him Indoors - any introduction of new technology to our house is met with swearing, grumbling, sighing, denial, sometimes even weeping, wailing and fist thumping before eventually I reluctantly admit that, yes, it is more efficient than whatever it is replacing.

However, an event I covered for work recently got me thinking about what self-driving vehicles will mean for a place like Dubai and I found myself, surprisingly, to be in favour.

I will start by showing you this picture of a self-driving vehicle that was on show at the World Government Summit, a Dubai-based gathering designed to encourage dialogue between governments and to share knowledge on how to revolutionise the way they operate for the 21st century.

This, my friends, is a passenger drone, capable of carrying a 100kg person, plus a small suitcase, operated from a central command unit. Apparently test flights have already taken place, and the RTA (Dubai's Road and Transport Authority) plans to have them operational from July 2017.

I discussed it with Him Indoors, who, not being the happiest of flyers at the best of times, remarked "Hell. No," when I asked how he would feel about giving it a go - climbing into and flying around in what is effectively a giant, computerised remote control helicopter.

I, on the other hand, remember being aged around 10, living in a relatively rural village, reliant on my parents to drive me if I wanted to go anywhere - after school activities, friends' houses, the sweet shop, and I imagined this very thing. Fair dues, my imaginary metal flying carpet of (*cough* 25 years ago) had its own manual steering mechanism, and it was open air, because I hadn't got to the practicalities of what what wind chill would feel like flying through the UK East Midlands air in mid winter, but, this is very much one of those sci-fi dreams becoming reality for me.

Also at the summit were everyone's favourite real life Iron Man Elon Musk, founder of Space X and electric car manufacturer Tesla, and the tech disruption king and Uber CEO everyone currently loves to hate Travis Kalanick. I did not hear all of Musk's session, as I had to run off to cover another part of the event, but I found him engaging, although there were grumblings from the summit floor that he was not at all charismatic. Personally, I think the expectation of a metal suit wearing, super genius wise cracker muttering "doth mother know you wearest her drapes?" is a bit much for anyone to live up to.

Tesla's cars, he revealed, are already equipped to be fully autonomous, it is just a matter of upgrading the software when the time comes that self-driving cars are legally permitted on public roads. What I liked about Mr Musk was the fact that he raised the issue of what will happen to those who drive for a living once the world's cars are fully autonomous - a process he believes will take about 20 years once underway. His calculations are that it will leave 12-15% of the world's workforce unemployed.

Mr Kalanick was perhaps the more charismatic speaker of the two, but it all felt rather blue sky to me. There was wild talk of no traffic on the roads in cities like Delhi within seven years, thanks to Uber, with his assertion being that people will not bother owning cars, they will simply summon an Uber Pool, with self-driving technology being integral. You can't help but feel that the motivation to get self-driving cars on the road for Mr Kalanick is at least 49% from a desire for no pesky humans whining about their dwindling incomes.

But still, another argument for self-driving for the Uber CEO is one few could disagree with - reducing road deaths. Death, I think we can all agree, is A Bad Thing, with vehicles being responsible for 1.3 million deaths worldwide every year. I don't know what percentage of those deaths are due to human error at the wheel, but if Dubai is anything to go by, it's a lot of them, with examples of poor driving such as tailgating never far from the agenda when it comes to road safety. That is why I personally would be in favour of self-driving car technology on the roads. Yes, it is the rise of the machines, and another example of an over-reliance on computers and technology for our daily lives, and yes, we stand to lose the skills that have given us independence, ie, driving a vehicle, but honestly, even six years down the line, I still find the dreadful driving standards on the UAE roads hair-raising. I am used to it, in that if you were my passenger, you wouldn't know that I find it hair-raising, but tailgating, cutting up, racing away from traffic lights, ignoring road markings and the frequent near misses that go with them are the norm, not the exception.

I covered another event in Abu Dhabi not long ago, and the 200 mile round trip commute, on top of sleepless nights thanks to one of Desert Baby's night-time party phases, was, frankly speaking, dangerous. Allowing a computer, programmed only to get the passenger to their destination safely, on a road with only other computers programmed to get their passengers to their destinations safely, without the human ego-fueled speed freak lunacy of the driving experience in the UAE, can only be a good thing as far as I am concerned.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Arrivederci, Ma'a salama and Farewell to Barnaby

One of the ways I spend my time here is trying to gain publicity for the Dubai Chamber Orchestra - a lovely bunch of professional and amateur musicians who are kind enough to let me saw away badly in the violin or viola section (depending on requirements) each Wednesday night and join them for concerts, even though I am usually late every week due to having to wait for Him Indoors to get home from work to look after Desert Baby so I can leave for rehearsal. 

In recent weeks, I have tried and failed magnificently to get various newspapers, magazines and websites interested in writing about the departure of our dear conductor and musical director Barnaby Priest, who conducted his final concert with us on Thursday, 2nd February, after more than eight years in charge. I am not sure why I failed, probably because I am not as efficient as I used to be post-Desert Baby, but also, I suspect, due to the fact that staff at most media outlets now barely have time to lift their heads up from inboxes bulging with press releases about the latest incontinence pants, "clean eating" diets and the most recent cacophony created by one Donald J Trump. Grrr, the state of 21st century journalism, etc. 

Another reason they were less than interested may be that that saying goodbye is a regular part of life for us expats here in Dubai - the majority of us are only here because we (or in our case Him Indoors) have something useful to contribute to society or business, and we are granted a visa to live and work here (I don't, I am a burden on society, I am on a spousal visa but that's another story).

 These figures, published last year, suggest that just 11 per cent of the 9 million odd population are actually UAE Nationals, with the biggest nationality group Indians at 28 per cent and Pakistanis at 13 per cent. Presumably the Brits are lumped in with "all other nationalities", although I've seen suggestions that the numbers in Dubai alone are in the hundreds of thousands. So basically, unless you do something pretty special, when retirement comes around, if you are not being sponsored by someone else, you are out. 

I digress, as the purpose of this post, then, due to my magnificent failure to do it elsewhere, is to say Shukran and Ma'a Salama to Barnaby, who has been the fearless leader of the Dubai Chamber Orchestra since 2008. 

The Dubai Chamber Orchestra is an impressive 13 and a half years old now, which is positively ancient by Dubai standards - Barnaby joined the orchestra in 2005, sitting in the viola section - that most mocked of instruments - sample joke:   

                         What's the difference between a viola and a coffin?
                         The coffin has the dead person on the inside.

Then he took over as musical director. I can only speak for the time since I joined in around 2011 or 2012, but I have always been staggered by his commitment - choosing repertoire, organising concert dates and venues, sourcing sheet music, badgering us all to turn up every week, and he has gone beyond that - composing and arranging music for the orchestra, and this is all on top of a full time job working at a university.  

I may have raised an eyebrow at some of his more unorthodox repertoire choices from time to time, but I can honestly say I have never looked back on any of our concerts and thought "well, that really didn't work". It's a long time since I've had stage fright, as I have been playing music in one form or another for (cough) 32 years, but I have never been so frightened in all my life as I was the night we played the really quite difficult Shostakovitch Chamber Symphony at our 10th anniversary concert. But, Barnaby has always managed to make it work in the end, it has always been alright on the night. 

It is a huge challenge conducting an orchestra in a place like Dubai. As I explained previously, most of us are here at the whim of some multinational company or other, so the orchestra line up changes on a season by season basis. Barnaby has always managed to search through his encyclopedic knowledge of orchestral repertoire and think of something that can be played by 10 violins, 3 violas, a couple of flutes, one oboe, two horns and a trumpet, or whoever happens to be available that season, or persuade absent or new players to join and make up the numbers. Or, failing that, he composes or arranges something himself. Just that one sentence alone sums up how incredibly lucky we have been to have someone like him in charge.

Harking back to my own early experiences of the orchestra, it's fair to say we have come a long way in five short years. When I joined, I am not sure I had opened my violin case for several years, but decided joining an orchestra would be a nice way to meet some new, like-minded friends. I turned up to Safa Private School and scraped away at the back of the violins really quite abysmally, my fingers stiff and unaccustomed to finding the notes and my bowing arm aching like crazy after just two short hours of rehearsal. I felt pretty discouraged by my horribly inept playing and considered leaving and never coming back, but I sidled up to Barnaby for a chat at the half-time break, and he said: "Can we do this over a cup of tea? I'm absolutely parched." 

It was if a window had opened in the ceiling and the sunlight poured in at that very moment (it hadn't, it was evening, but suspend your disbelief, damnit)  - the use of English colloquialism "parched", said with the ever so slight Southern England twang, - the desire to drink hot tea for refreshment even though it was several billion degrees Celsius outside. It was like coming home. "I think I am going to like it here," I said to myself. 

Since then I have played in as many concerts as I could when not heavily pregnant or dying of baby-related exhaustion, the orchestra's audience has swelled in size and enthusiasm, with us frequently receiving standing ovations. We have moved to a new rehearsal venue, the superb Centre for Musical Arts, and each season, I have watched new players arrive and be greeted with warmth, kindness and enthusiasm by Barnaby. 

Being allowed to play in the orchestra, in such a supportive, friendly environment, has done a huge amount for me - it opened the door to paid work as a musician, something I never would have had the opportunity for back home, including with the UAE's flagship orchestra, the NSO, and met and made friends I am sure I will keep for life.  I will always be grateful to Barnaby for those opportunities, because without him, they would simply have never happened. I am sure I am not the only one who can say that. 

Thank you, Barnaby, safe travels, and viva la musica

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

We are gold!

Living in a place with the international reputation for excess that Dubai has, you often hear the phrase "Only in Dubai" bandied about the place. There's the police super cars, the gold vending machines, the gold-laced and super expensive foods, and the sometimes but not always unfair reputation for coating everything that will stay still in gold. It won't surprise you to know that the super-glitz hyper-expensive side of life is of little relevance to us ordinary Dubai-residents, but every now and then, something happens to you that you know would never happen to you anywhere else in the world.

I have been debating writing about this as I am worried that you mere mortals may read it and then come and flex to my crib one night and steal all my swag. That's right, the vain usage of out-of-date street slang will give you a clue as to what is occurring here, yes that's right, Him Indoors and I have finally made it in Dubai, we have finally accessed the pot of gold that everyone thinks is going to fall into their lap when they move here. Yes, we have won gold.

Or for those of you with more, ahem, mature tastes:

How did we win gold? You may ask.
Well, first of all, here is a picture of the stupendous riches of which we are now in possession. Don't get too excited. Don't start the begging charity letters just yet, but here you go:

Calm down!

Stop rubbing your hands with glee, Gollum!

Four whole grams of gold! We are surely in the money, that must be worth, millions????? No?...... OK. Thousands.......? ... No, hundre....d????s OK, one hundred, $160USish depending on the gold price. Well, it's better than a slap in the face with a wet fish isn't it?

Let's face it, we would have to be in pretty dire financial straits for the bother of heading down to Dubai's Gold and Diamond Park in order to cash it in.

Goldie, as I have named him, was our reward for buying a massive shiny new fridge-freezer. We have been in Dubai well over six years now, and try as hard as you like, some of the sheer Dubai-ness of it starts to rub off on you and you gravitate towards the big and shiny.  But, it's not that bad. Despite having moved house, oh, I don't know, 11 billion times at the last count, Him Indoors and I have only ever bought two fridges in our time. The first was for our most recent old flat - our first flat ever to have not a stick of furniture, no fitted kitchen, no appliances, no nothing, so, having just dropped a minimum of AED 10,000 (2,200GBP at current exchange rates) for the privilege of moving house, we bought the rubbishest cheapest fridge we could find, which lasted a while, then we stored a large amount of fresh vegetables from Kibsons (don't judge us, we haven't become w***ers, it actually works out cheaper than the supermarket) in it, and it basically wet itself, by which I mean it sprung some kind of leak and set about urinating water all over all of our food and generally stopped being a fridge and became more of a cold swamp.

So, as we have a small child now, who requires about eight litres of fresh milk per day, and we do, *eugh, I really hate this phrase, it's bandied about on mum forums by martyrish witches who suddenly turn into Martha effing Stewart the second they reproduce*, "batch cooking" (vomits) it seemed a good idea to get a massive fridge-freezer. And because it was during the Dubai Shopping Festival, it has been decreed that he/she who spends a large amount of dosh at Carrefour in Mirdif Centre shall receive several scratch cards with which they can win gold if successful. Actual gold. And sure enough, one of them told us that we had won four grams of gold. So, off we went to the Carrefour cash desk to receive our prize, with Him Indoors saying: "They're not actually going to give us gold, that would be silly, they're just going to give us the cash equivalent of what the gold price is to.... Oh. No, they have given us gold, an actual gold coin. Bizarre."

What are we going to do with Goldie? I don't know. One idea is, that we could melt him down and make him into something nice for Desert Baby. Or we could just keep hold of him, chuckle to ourselves occasionally at his existence, and vaguely consider cashing him in if the gold price reaches an all time high, but actually never get round to it. That. That is what will happen to him, I expect.
But now, it is definitely one of our best "Only in Dubai" anecdotes - the time we won gold because we bought a fridge at the supermarket.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Into the Woods

If you don't live in the UAE, you won't be aware that Dubai now has a rain forest. I start this post in such a glib manner because, so used are we to improbable man made architectural exploits, that creating a rain forest in one of the dryest places on earth seems positively sensible.

I was pondering the lack of international publicity for this intriguing project, because you know, it's a rain forest, with the emphasis on "rain", the wet stuff, that we don't have much of. But that is, as I say, pretty run of the mill when you compare it to under water hotel rooms and man made islands with their own artificial weather systems to create snow, yet The Green Planet is a pretty diverting morning or afternoon out. Particularly so during the long, hot summer when indoor only activities are necessary and you need something do other than shop, eat and moan about the heat.

As you can see from this pic*, you can get pretty up close and personal with the wildlife, and it's a different kind of experience from the all encompassing fish fest that is The Dubai Mall Aquarium. You walk in through a small aquarium exhibit, featuring examples of rain forest fish, then take a lift to the top floor. The structure is built around a giant artificial tree with a spiraling walkway that takes you down through the various levels of the jungle canopy until you reach ground level. Along the way you meet guides who explain the significance of the various species. The tree structure is inside a bio-dome or "greenhouse", for those of you who prefer to call a spade a spade.

I have a confession to make, my best beloved readers, for which you are likely to mock me really quite severely. I live in skyscraper land, "Vegas on steroids" "the world capital of skyscrapers" etc, etc, yet, I am afraid of heights.

I spent a couple of our years here living on the 22nd floor, and when we were unceremoniously kicked out of that apartment, we looked at one of the 48th floor *vomits* but enough was enough. I had visions of multiple falling deaths the first time we threw a party, so we moved to floor seven then eventually to floor four, and that is quite high enough for me.

The reason I mention this, is that while the Green Planet is of piffling height compared to some of the mega structures in Dubai, I mean, it's like the equivalent of four floors I think, the fact that you can lean over the barriers of the spiral structure to look down at the forest floor below, and that there are optional rope bridge type walkways, had me biting my nails and nervously hanging on to Desert Baby. The thing about taking a nearly 20-month-old, you see, is they have no sense of danger, and they can get a bit wriggly and thrashy when you try to pick them up and point them in the direction you want them to go, rather than, say, let them run up and down past the same exhibit for a solid half hour tripping up various people as they go. And having a thrashy wriggly toddler next to a chest high barrier on a slightly flexible-feeling structure in front of a sheer drop, is, for the vertigo sufferer, "ungood".

Anyhoo. Please don't let this put you off visiting in any way. I am literally the world's biggest wuss about heights, and if you are not troubled by them, this will be no problem for you at all. I just thought the image of someone who lives in the land of mega buildings, and indeed, for now at least, the world's tallest building, who is afraid of heights, might amuse the heck out of you.

Practical stuff. The parental units among you will want to know if it's pushchair friendly. You can take them in, but they encourage you to leave them outside in the "stroller park" and to be honest, I think you're better without, as at busy times it would be a bit of a nightmare maneuvering the bulkier models on some of the narrow pathways. It's not loads of walking, so toddlers will manage it, possibly with a bit of a carry. Baby carriers are probably a better idea anyway because there's not much to see at buggy eye level.

It's not cheap - 95dhs per adult, 70dhs per child, and either under 3s or under 2s free, not sure which as both were indicated on signs. It's in the Entertainer, with a two for one adult ticket offer, and bound to be on other deal websites at some point. It opens at 10am until 10pm, except on Thursday and Friday when it is open until midnight. If you're keen, like we were (woken at dawn by toddler), then there is a little coffee shop next door when you can hang out until it opens and be first in the queue for tickets. I am told that if you go later in the day, the sloth is more likely to be awake, but, personally, considering his name, I would say there's not much point planning your visit around a sloth being awake or moving.

Bear in mind that the survival of the plant and wildlife species inside depend on conditions being kept similar to a rain forest, ie hot and steamy, so dress accordingly, particularly if you're the one wearing the baby.

It is definitely more than worth the visit, if nothing else, it is a much needed blast of green for us desiccated desert types, and, as is typical of Dubai, they have pulled out the stops with the architecture.

*All pics courtesy of Him Indoors and benevolent friends

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Night at Dubai Opera

Being a cantankerous, easily irritated sort, one of the things that really gets on my t**s is people who have never set foot in, let alone lived in Dubai, telling me that it has "no culture", "no soul", and nothing but sand and skyscrapers.

While it is the case that sand, yep, we have that in spades, sandy beach, sandy desert, sand invading our homes, gardens and roads during sand storms, sandy sandy sand. And yes, skyscrapers, there are a lot of those, some of them beautiful, some of them groundbreaking, in more ways than one, and some of them neither of those things.

This is a newsflash to those of you who have leveled the "no culture" claim, the sand has been here a long, long time, the skyscrapers less so, Western ideas of what constitutes "culture" an even shorter time, but, the powers that be have been seeking to rectify that "no culture" image of recent. The latest example of which, the Dubai Opera, I will come to shortly, but I just want to embark on a small rant as to why the lack of culture accusation really does do my head in.

Believe me, during the years I have lived here, I have from time to time felt frustrated by the fact that I can't just go to one of choice of hundreds of theatres, as I would in London, rely on a  thriving classical music scene to go and see concerts whenever I want or see some of the world's truly great works of art for free whenever I feel like hopping on the Tube into town. You don't need to tell me that those things have not been readily available here. I am aware of it, I am the one that lives here and experiences the lack of them every time the weekend arrives, particularly during the hot months, and I am not quite sure what to do with my free time. But, and this really is the key here, I would point out all those things are "culture" from a very Western perspective.

People lived and survived in this harsh, coastal corner of the Gulf for a very, very long time, though, without those things. They fished, kept camels, farmed dates and dived for pearls, and managed with no air conditioning in a climate that regularly tops 50C. And the descendants of those people are immensely proud of that extraordinary ability to survive in an arid climate, and you can learn about it at Dubai Museum and other places around the Emirate. Once you have spent a few summers here, even with the luxuries of air conditioned buildings and cars, you start to appreciate just how very strong that will to survive was.

That tradition that I am talking about, that will to survive, making the most of the natural resources - it has not necessarily been recorded on paper. Pre-oil there was not much interest or investment in this part of the world, and quite literally not much around to protect those who lived here from the raging sun, so, I suspect not recording their culture that much was down to the fact that they were too busy staying alive, to worry about what generations to come would think of the way they lived.

There is a tradition of storytelling, music and dance here that has been passed down the generations, which can be seen in this video and others on Youtube. It's culture, people, but not as we in the West think of it. There are not orchestral scores with 50 odd different instruments playing different parts, or giant canvases of skillfully rendered oil paintings or sculptures, but Emirati culture exists in all art forms. You only have to visit the historic district of Bastikiya to appreciate that.

So, having got the "no culture" accusation out of the way, can we agree that if you say it to me again, I will simply call you a post-colonial plonker and give you a shove? OK, good.

So, to Dubai Opera. Dubai Opera, along with the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman, Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, is one of a number of examples of Gulf investment in "Western" art forms. Pre economic crisis, the opera house was to be located on an island of Dubai Creek, but last week, it opened its doors in the newly minted "Opera District" in Downtown, just across the Dubai Fountain pond from The Dubai Mall.

As with many large scale projects in Dubai, it had that "miraculous" feel about it. Would it, or wouldn't it be finished in time? An ambitious deadline was set and the programme organised long before the building looked close to completion. Some friends of ours, who live next door and have some expertise on the matter, looked a bit concerned when we told them we had tickets for the third night. "You'll be lucky," were their precise words I think.

But yet, come Friday night, we left Desert Baby in their tender care, changed into some of our "posh" clothes (the ones not covered in yogurt and baby spit) and tripped next door for some culture.

I am willing to admit that I am going soft in my old age, but walking into the opera house for the first time, I felt emotional. Yes, it was obvious that a water feature snaking around the edge of the building had not been finished, and, yes, there was a little scaffolding still clinging to one side of the building that we were turned back from by a security guard, but it was finished, near as damnit.

"All the terrible things going on in the world," I mumbled to Him Indoors, "and they have managed to do this. It's marvellous."

I am no architectural expert, but it is a lovely building, inspired by a traditional Arabian dhow boat at the exterior, with a feeling of clean lines, modernism, light and space at the interior. It is a huge, positive gesture, a shrine to an elite art form, yes, but what is opera for other than to explore our capacity for love, joy and grief?

The foyer was packed with people of all ages, demographics, nationalities, excited about the performance of Rossini's The Barber of Seville that was to come, the house was full, and apart from what appeared to be a rather enthusiastic member of the catering team getting a bit over-exuberant while bashing an ice tray so the sound carried through to the auditorium, it all went without a hitch.

The Fondazione Teatro Lirico Guiseppe Verdi, Trieste, acquitted themselves well in what must have been a nerve wracking experience, being among the first to perform in a brand new venue. Beforehand, I had visions of the balcony on which leading lady Rosina appears collapsing, or clouds of construction dust invading the auditorium, but there was not a bit of it. There was widespread appreciation of a hugely popular opera, particularly Figaro's Aria, which was accomplished by Massimo Cavalletti with wit and charm.

For me, Rocio Ignacio as Rosina was the highlight. You can keep Katherine Jenkins, frankly. Give me an old fashioned highly trained soprano who can manage the vocal gymnastics of a difficult part while still filling an auditorium without the need for a microphone any day of the week.
Yes, I may have had a teeny, tiny snooze half way through the second half, but the finish time was 11pm and I have a 19 month old. I'm normally fast asleep by then. Don't judge me, or indeed the performance by that fact.

So, what's coming up at the opera? Well, if you look at the website, you will see that there is a fair amount of populist type fare, things like musicals, ice skating and magic shows coming up, as well as opera, ballet and classical music. It remains to be seen whether the opera house will pay its way as a venue for those elite "Western" art forms that we bemoan the lack of, but I think from what I saw on Wednesday night, many are willing it to succeed.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Get thee to soft play... and other summer expat commandments

It is the middle of August, which means we have officially "broken the back" of summer in Dubai. The countdown is on for when it's bearable to venture outside without arriving at your destination looking like you have stopped on the way for a fully-clothed sauna.

When I first moved here, I was asked quite a lot about how I manage in the summer heat. The short answer to that is box sets. There were summers when Him Indoors and I debated moving to Scandinavia and joining the police force, such was our familiarity with the fictional procedures of Wallander, Sarah Lund and (my personal favourite) Saga Noren.

Then Desert Baby arrived, and surprisingly, she is less keen on patiently unscrambling the fictional gruesome crime wave that is currently blighting the capital cities of Sweden and Denmark, and the need arose to actually leave the house.

So, what the heck do you do in summer with a toddler when it's 50C outside?

Well, those who have the kind of lives that allow such things, disappear for up to two months to escape the heat. Or, pack the children off to relatives or friends in cooler climes. I couldn't face the weeping, home sickness, separation anxiety and sleep regression that would result from that (and Desert Baby would not have been much better, boom boom) so that was out.

So, there is quite a lot of this:

Soft play is your friend, people. This is the first commandment of surviving the summer with a child in the UAE - "thou shalt go to soft play until you want to climb into the bottom of the ball pit and weep silently to thyself".

Love 'em or hate 'em, you're going to be there a lot. You need to take socks for you and offspring - something easily forgotten for the newly arrived expat who has just got used to schlepping around in sandals and can often be seen weeping next to the sign at the entrance which says "no socks, no play".  The savvy UAE parent carries socks for themselves and child along with the 500 other essential baby items in your giant detritus-filled bag of doom.

Desert Baby is pictured above at the mother all soft plays in my view - Cheeky Monkeys in Etihad Mall, Mirdif. There are several branches across Dubai and it's one of those places that makes me think, "crikey, children here in the UAE and in the 21st century really don't know they're born". Sponge ball guns, a set of four trampolines (which I may or may not have bounced on rather a lot), the "roller coaster" (see above) arts and crafts, ball pit, slides, giant jump-onable piano, it has the lot.

It doesn't come cheap - 50dhs per hour (more than GBP10.50 at current exchange rates) but thankfully it's on Him Indoors' employee discount scheme so it's doable. In common with Extreme Fun, Motor City, it has a cafe, serving kid-friendly food and coffee, which, unusually for such places in the UAE, does not taste like it has been vomited through a steamer and left to stew with rat's urine for several weeks before being served.

Soft plays in Dubai are excellent on the whole, clean and with good facilities. They would have to be, because they are they are the core of all summer child-tiring activities here. I have found cheaper ones - Fun 'N' Learn in Fun City, Arabian Centre, Mirdif, for example, is 30dhs to stay as long as you like.

One of the things that I like about living here with Minime is that Dubai is, in some respects, heaven for small children. Everyone seems to love rugrats. Desert Baby is cooed over and talked to by total strangers everywhere we go, from other mums to sales assistants and waiting staff to random blokes in sensible business attire. I have never been made to feel uncomfortable or asked to leave anywhere when I have her with me, tantrum or not. And there are child-friendly indoor amusements in most shopping malls with wide selection of flashy, noisy, games, cars, motorbikes and tiny buses to sit on and shout, wave fists and demand money to load on a swipe card to make them work.

Then there are things like Jump Boxx, a trampolining centre, the record-breakingly massive Dubai Aquarium at The Dubai Mall, Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates, which sometimes offer summer discounts and packages to keep your children busy.

Then there's the hallowed ground of what has, over the years, become a Dubai tradition - the mighty Modhesh World. It's a giant indoor fair which opens up in the Trade Centre over the summer, full of fairground type activities like shooting galleries, spooky ghost houses, enormous slides, those water orb things that you climb inside and float on, bumper cars, and more. If you go with an under two, it costs next to nothing as they are happy to run around and goggle in amazement at the sheer scale of this insane kid-paradise, but if you go with children old enough to understand and demand, be warned, you could be in for a pricey day as each attraction is charged separately.

I enjoyed going just to see the "Dubainess" of it. You know those little automated cars/boats/buses they have outside supermarkets in the UK, that you put a coin in and the jig your child around? There are HUNDREDS of them, brand new of all shapes, sizes and descriptions, and that's just the start, there's a regular parade of brightly dressed and made up dancing stage school types, two food courts, a soft play and the feeling that you've stepped into a Willy Wonka-style wonderland of child-attracting technicolour. We went in the morning when it was fairly quiet. I suspect in the afternoons and evenings it is actual mayhem.

Modhesh and other activities are pretty hard on the pocket, though, so bearing in mind that Desert Baby's parents are in retail and journalism rather than oil and gas or banking, we find ourselves seeking out cheaper alternatives.

So here is the second commandment of Dubai summer parenting -

"Thou shalt head north to Sharjah, and find child-friendly activities that are so cheap in comparison to Dubai, that it would not matter if they were total pants, but are actually on the whole pretty good."

The hands down favourite of the Sharjah-based activities is Arabia's Wildlife Centre which is home to a collection of animals native to the region including the incredibly cute sand cat, cheetahs, leopards, wolves and baboons.

The centre is educational and has decent explanations of all the species in English and Arabic and the enclosures are well constructed in a naturalistic way. Most importantly, while many of the animals are outside, you view from indoors, so you can go there at any time of year and not be troubled by the heat. There is also a restaurant, along the lines of one of those roadside places you see everywhere in the UAE, serving fresh juices, icecreams, tea, and "local" delights including byriani, "zinker" (zinger) chicken burgers and the like. If you're one of those crunchy, organic, gluten free parents, you're probably better off taking your own food.

As you can see from the above map link, the site is also home to the Natural History and Botanical Museum, which is another place to run round inside and look at some educational stuff, a "children's farm" (petting farm) and a breeding centre for endangered species. I'm not sure about the breeding centre but the cost you pay when you enter the main gate (15dhs per adult, free for Desert Baby until she's two at least,) covers you for all the attractions. Bargain.

For other Sharjah attractions, I recommend visiting the comprehensive Sharjah Museums website. So far we have visited the Discovery Centre, and the Aquarium, both are cheap as chips and occupied Desert Baby for a good couple of hours. The Maritime Museum, which is right next to the Aquarium, was closed for refurbishments when we went, so it's worth ringing ahead. Don't, repeat, don't, order the coffee at the cafes. I'm still traumatised by it.