Friday, 29 November 2013

More Doha rambling -hotels, pubs and window cleaners

So after an enjoyable week at home, it’s back to Doha for a five week stint leading up to Christmas.  This will present an interesting challenge – getting an extension to my 30 day visitor’s visa that expires three days before I’m due to travel home.  Working on the assumption that Qatari civil servants are the same as those I’ve encountered in England, Poland and Trinidad – which is to say largely unhelpful, and at worst downright unpleasant – I expect to spend most of one day next week sitting in a waiting room in a faceless government building while the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly round.   The signs so far have been mixed.  Admittedly my experience of the local civil service is limited to the folks manning the passport control booths at the airport, but still….    

The first guy was very pleasant and welcoming and laughed as much as I did when the machine failed completely to take an acceptable photo of me while he processed the visa stamp.  You’re supposed to stare at this camera thing with your eyes wide open and it takes a mug-shot – my problem is because of a lazy eye medical condition I actually can’t open my eyes wide unless I hold them open between fingers and thumbs – which is of course unacceptable.  After ten attempts he gave it up and waved me through.  Same going home – the guy then let me off without a pic too, probably on the basis he couldn’t find a matching arrival snap.  Second trip, the bloke said hardly a word, except for “Pin please” when he processed my credit card payment, but at least (for the only time so far) the machine managed to get a decent picture.  Going home the guy said even less, merely comparing me with my passport photo, accepting with a shrug my explanation about the (again) failed mug-shot, and waving me through without another word.

On arrival this time, an hour earlier because of a change in flight times courtesy of the clocks going back in Europe (they don’t in Qatar) the Arrivals Hall was packed and it took well over an hour to inch to the front of the Immigration line.  At the desk I was greeted by a very surly and extremely boss-eyed woman in the usual black robes who refused point blank to meet my gaze (that’s if she could – she seemed to be looking over my right shoulder all the time).  To make matters worse, she mumbled in heavily accented English so that I couldn’t understand what she was saying.  She asked me where I came from, and didn’t like my “Warsaw” answer……   ”Which country?” she snapped.  I told her politely, and she frowned and demanded why I had a British passport.  I told her I was British.  With ill grace, she accepted that.  “Address?”  I started spelling out my Warsaw street name but she furiously shook her head – “Here. Doha.”  I had to repeat the name three times before she understood “Le Park hotel”.  Eventually after a snapped “Pin” (no please, which I thought was needlessly rude) she stamped my passport and slapped it down in front of me.  I wished her a nice evening (it was nearly midnight) and left her to it.  Three days later I noticed she hadn’t stuck the exit date label in my passport, as is customary – so that should make extending it next week even more fun.

So anyway, I got here ok, and initially to the same shitty hotel I wrote about last time, Le Park.  Rated 111 out of 115 hotels in Doha on TripAdvisor (the other 4 have not been rated….) – deep joy.  In common with that rating, in the 10 days I’d been away nothing, literally nothing, had changed or as far as I could see even been touched.  In the bathroom (they gave me the same room) was the empty shower gel bottle I had left.  In the fridge was an unfinished tub of Anchor spreadable butter and half a jar of apricot jam.  A half empty packet of Corn Flakes was on the side, and in the ash tray the loose change I’d left for the cleaners.  The bed had been made but not clean sheeted, and the towels unchanged.  I couldn’t be bothered to argue as I was only staying a couple of nights before being re-located to the Ezdan Towers.
Ezdan Tower 4 - my home from home

Now this place has also been slated on the internet.  It seemed marginally better than the Park, but the list of complaints was similar – poorly maintained, rude and unhelpful staff, dingy corridors, lack of amenities etc etc.  Clearly an open mind would be needed for this gaff, and some staying power too – the bank insisted it would not consider any more changes.  On the plus side, the location looked better as it’s in the West Bay area, just back from the Corniche and close to the excellent City Centre Mall, and within walking distance of a couple of bars that actually serve beer (even if it is overpriced beer).  It also was reported to have an outdoor, Olympic sized swimming pool – though a number of reports mentioned broken tiles, the risk of cutting your feet in the scummy water and verrucas…….

Well, actually, I’ve been here just over a week now, and I have very little to complain about so far.  The location is very good, exactly as stated, and from my 21st floor room I have a nice view of the Corniche and, beyond it, Doha Bay.  The place is huge, 4 towers all around 40 floors high, three of which look like Lego bricks on end, with black centres and white surrounds.  The fourth is just a bloody tall building, it’s the newest and apparently the best block and luckily I’m in it, about halfway up.

The room is functional but comfortable, and joy of joys has a proper kitchen, complete with ample crockery, cutlery, pots and pans, a dishwasher and a washer/dryer.  The fridge is huge and efficient (I had to turn it down as my water was turning to ice after an hour or so), the tv is ok if with limited channel choice – no sport again, bugger – and the bed comfortable.  As is the three piece suite – for a studio apartment it’s a good size and well stocked with furniture:  there is also a dining table and six chairs, a coffee table, a pair of decent wardrobes with loads of hangers (strong plastic ones not crappy wire monstrosities) and the desk and chair where I’m writing this.  As with everywhere else in this town the high-speed internet is actually slow and unreliable.   The bathroom is laughable, just a sink, a toilet and a shower stall with a plastic curtain on a decidedly wonky rail……but it’s clean and the water is hot, so I’m ok with that.

That will do nicely....

Amenities?  Yep.  Half a dozen restaurants that I haven’t tried yet, a gym (ditto) and the Olympic sized outdoor pool (also ditto).  I’ve had a look at it and I can’t see any obvious problems with the tiling so I guess it’s safe enough.   There is also an on-site K-Mart supermarket that has pretty much all you need in terms of food, drink and household goods even if you have to pay a bit more for it.  So I stocked up with important stuff and settled in.  It will do fine.

The weather has changed now.  It’s a lot cooler than on my previous two trips, not more than 25C so far, on some days only about 20 and even cooler in the evening.  Winter is clearly fast approaching, and it’s dark by 5 in the evening.

We also had rain.  Not just a shower but for three or four days, persistent downpours.  I had to buy an umbrella.  Because of the rarity of the event (the rain that is, not buying an umbrella) the drainage can’t cope so there were several places that turned into ponds and rivers, especially around the office (which is in an area that is being heavily re-developed – it’s one huge building site).  The rain has cleared away now and the sun returned, but there is still an ankle deep pond at the end of the road.  Thursday morning there was fog, and for the first time my sea view was obscured.  But this weekend’s forecast is for a return to sunshine and something like 26 or 27C so I may give the pool a try, in between doing my laundry and food shop at Carrefour.

Last weekend I went for a mooch around here, as the sun was shining.  I figured I’d give the Irish Harp a try.  It’s in the Sheraton Hotel, perhaps 15 minutes’ walk from here, at the end of the Corniche, and has a good reputation.  The menu looks pretty good, typical Irish pub grub (so stew, bangers and mash, fish and chips, burgers, pizzas but interestingly no cottage pie) and a good range of draught beers including Guinness and Kilkenny.  There is a strict no shorts dress code, and big screen tv’s for viewing your sport.  So despite it being pretty hot I put my jeans on and headed off.  Well I found it alright, after wandering around inside the hotel for a while – and a fine complex the Sheraton is: from the outside it looks like the superstructure on an aircraft carrier, and from the inside like being inside a pyramid.  The rooms are on three sides, and the atrium area looks from the ground floor to the topmost ceiling, with balconies all round where is the room access.  All very swish.  There are a number of cafes and restaurants and shops scattered round this area, and sweeping staircases leading up and down at various points.  The Irish Harp was at the bottom of one of these, next door to an Italian restaurant that had access to the pool area and private beach. 

The pub was closed.  I had arrived early-ish, around 3:30, with the intention of watching the Everton – Liverpool derby over a Kilkenny or two and sausage mash and onion gravy, but that wasn’t going to happen – despite advertising on their Facebook page and various other sources that “big screen tv provides a great place to watch all Premier League matches” the place doesn’t open until 5:30 in the evening.  Outside the door there was an easel on which was pinned a list of House Rules, about 15 in all.  As well as the dress code (apart from a ban on shorts, apparently you’re not allowed to wear ostentatious jewellery – especially chains – or baseball caps) you are not allowed to talk too loud or create a disturbance that “may upset other patrons”.   For a place where, allegedly, football fans are expected to gather and sink a few beers while watching the game, this is clearly preposterous.  So I gave it a miss, and will not bother to go back there again.  Irish Harp indeed!

There was some power boat racing going on in the bay, so I strolled through the park beside the Sheraton to watch for a while.  It was a Formula 1 event apparently, and featured a team from land-locked Uzbekistan, which continues to puzzle me a week later.  The boats were small and sleek and ridiculously fast, and a few were placed on trestles for the public to examine and admire and photograph.  Of course I did all three.  A row of tents, fenced off from the public, was the pit area. A number of boats were being worked on here by the mechanics while others were being hoisted in and out of a calm sea.  Further along, another fenced off row of sun canopies comprised the “pit wall”, familiar to any F1 motor racing fan - half a dozen screens at each raised table with a couple of high chairs and assorted headsets where Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey and all the other great and good would have felt completely at home. 
Team Uzbekistan......

I sat on a wall a little further along the Corniche for a while, but apart from a couple of boats coming out for what seemed to be test runs nothing much seemed to be happening – certainly nothing I would recognize as “racing” anyway – so after a few snaps (one of which is actually quite good) I gave up and headed back to the hotel.

The West Bay area of Doha has some excellent buildings, modern skyscrapers that would not look out of place in New York or Hong Kong or any other modern city in the world.  Some are quite spectacular, especially after dark when a wonderful light show kicks off along the Corniche.  One, maybe 40 floors, is a vast rocket shaped structure with a twenty or thirty foot spike at its summit, looking for all the world like Flash Gordon’s spaceship.  It’s covered in an interesting metallic lattice work from top to bottom so that the windows which (I assume) are behind it cannot be seen.  At night it glows in ever changing pattern of light – golds, oranges, pale greens – like a Pink Floyd light show.  Behind it another building of similar height is shaped like a huge vase, circular and tapered at the waist, flaring equally at top and bottom, and the outside of that is covered by a diamond pattern of girders that are lit a vivid blue after dark.  Further along is the Doha World Trade Centre, again a good forty or fifty floors tall, and at the top is a circular disc-like structure jutting out over the pathway alongside the Corniche that I assume contains a very expensive restaurant – the views across the bay and city must be unrivalled from it.  This building is made of a very dark blue glass, and after dark it has its own light show – this time a constantly changing pattern of white and pale blue lights.

Check out the Images section on Google searching under “Doha skyline” – there are many pictures that illustrate it far better than I can describe it.   Suffice to say it’s without a doubt on of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen. It fascinates me.

In idle moments, I had wondered how the windows of these skyscrapers were cleaned.  I had assumed that, like the towers at Canary Wharf, cleaners are lowered down gradually in big cradles, cleaning as they go.
Nope.  As I walked back I passed, just behind the WTC, one of my favourite buildings.  It’s a good 60 storeys, and at various points on its towering sides there are uneven places – imagine you have a square fence post in the ground, say six feet tall, and every couple of feet on each side you get an axe and chop a notch into it.  It’s a bit like that – you’ll see it on the Google Images I’m sure. Anyway, as I walked past, I noticed there were several guy ropes tethered to the wall beside the footpath.  I followed them up – and there, right at the top, I would guess no more than three floors down, a squad of window cleaners was absailing down, armed with buckets of soapy water, chamoix leathers and squeegee mops, cleaning the windows as they came.  I took some pictures, and through the telephoto lens they were clearly having a blast – laughing and joking as they came.  They all looked to be Nepali, so I guess being from a mountainous country like that where mountaineering is second nature, from the cradle, swinging off the side of a sixty storey building washing the windows holds no fears for them at all.  But it made me feel sick!

Sod that for a living!

But they seem to enjoy it......

They are probably paid a pittance for doing the work, too, if the stories of “Nepali victims of slave labour in Qatar” that are published with monotonous regularity in the Mail and the Guardian are anything to go by, living ten to a room in squalid barracks conditions in the hot desert outside of Doha.  But they certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves up there.

I’ve just noticed, as I opened Blogger to post this little ramble, that it is my 100th post.  Well, fancy that.  And in all that time I have amassed 8 followers (thank you, ladies and gentlemen for your loyalty and staying power!) and a mere 19 Comments.  Not a lot for three years’ work!   But I will continue to write because I enjoy doing it (even if no-one enjoys reading it) and it gives me something to do on these lonely winter evenings far from home.

So good night, one and all, and here’s to the next hundred!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Arrogance of America and Other Stories

The Arrogance of America

For a country that is (self-styled) the Greatest on God’s Earth, the United States of America is a bit of mess.  It has been for years.

Despite the admittedly great advances made over the past thirty or forty years, it’s still an inherently racist place.  Huge numbers of non-white Americans remain in low paid jobs and housing, without health care (at least until the introduction of Obamacare – of which more in a moment).  Sure, there are millions of whites in the same situation, but the numbers of non-whites in the position is disproportionately large.  The problem is not restricted to Negros – Hispanics are particularly vulnerable in many southern states, and across the country minorities suffer, especially the new global threat, Muslims.  And this is without the continued bias against Native Americans.  In fairness, this is not a uniquely American things – minorities are vulnerable everywhere: look at the Roma in France, Muslims in the UK and elsewhere, Sunni in parts of Iraq, Shia in other parts of Iraq. 

What makes it worse in America is that it continues to badge itself the Land of the Free, the Land of Hope and Opportunity.  Millions of struggling immigrants would dispute this sales pitch I’m sure – just as many more, successfully integrated, would strenuously agree with it.

Drug abuse is still rife.  Gun crime seems to be getting worse instead of better – every news bulletin at the moment seems to bring reports of another shooting at a shopping mall or a high school somewhere.  Despite public opinion being generally in favour of some kind of gun control, the wealthy and powerful National Rifle Association gun lobby group continues to obstruct attempts to bring in legislation to make ownership of weapons harder to achieve (and in the case of heavy duty assault rifles, banned entirely).  Their money talks in the corridors of power in Washington D.C.

This is an indication of the mess that American politics is in.  America is a democracy, and the vote is there for men and women alike, as it is in the majority of the world.  Americans, especially American politicians, insist that their form of democracy is the best in the world, a model for ex-dictatorships to follow as they gain their “freedom from years of oppression”.  But the way their democracy operates, with a House of Representatives and a Congress designed to act as checks and balances to each other and keep everything nice and friendly and fair in formulating new legislation, stopped doing that years ago.  Now it’s possible for a relatively small number of law makers with “extremist” views to make the whole thing grind to a halt.
This happened as recently as last month, when a handful of Tea Party Republicans prevented a Democrat Budget from being passed because they demanded extensive changes to Obamacare – a measure that was written into law a couple of years ago, and was even then being implemented.  The result was a partial shutdown of the government and hours of CNN coverage and debate, and almost led to the country defaulting on its financial obligations – which would undoubtedly have led to a global financial meltdown.  At the eleventh hour a compromise was reached that avoided this, but seems to have merely pushed the problem back into the New Year – no doubt we’ll go through ti all again in 2014.

A guy interviewed on CNN at a protest march in Washington at the time – just an ordinary Joe Public, trying to earn a living – made the very pertinent observation that the American political system is broken, and was broken when career politicians, in it for the power and prestige and (of course) money, gained the ascendancy over people who genuinely sought election to represent the people in their town, city, county or state.   But in a system where, nowadays, gaining political office, especially the Presidency, costs millions of dollars, money counts more than ideas, cash is more important than empathy with the needs of Joe Public and his family, and sound bites are more critical than decency, the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.  This is  because “special interest groups”, like our old friends the National Rifle Association, are happy to pay those millions of dollars to buy influence, and keep their favoured (that is to say sympathetic) politicians in place and thus able to protect their “special interests”.

Dare I suggest that the American political system is not just broken, it is corrupt?  Sure, why not.  It is.

Finally, America is undoubtedly a powerful military state.  It has poured trillions of dollars into the development of an armoury that could win any conflict it chooses to participate in.  Used for good, this is fine.  But America sits on the sidelines while its client state, Israel, continues its Palestinian Genocide, using American manufactured weapons, doing nothing.  It storms into countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, toppling (admittedly evil) rulers but without a Plan B to control the power vacuum left over provokes decade’s long civil war and slaughter.  It uses drones to take out tribal leaders in the hinterland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, both nations notionally friends and allies, who are suspected of being terrorists – and takes out innocent women and children while so doing.  It does this time and again, the latest attack being on the eve of peace talks between the Pakistan government and Pakistan Taliban leaders aimed at resolving local difficulties that have no direct impact on America but could bring about a better life for both ordinary Pakistanis and Afghans.  It does so with no apology, and with no care about the effects on these already poverty stricken people. 

America spies on its allies.  This is not really news, most people realize and accept that spying goes on and has done so for years.  But usually such activities are confined to keeping track on what your enemies are up to.  What is new is hacking the mobile phones of your Allies’ leaders – prompting furious complaints from the presidents of Brazil, Spain, France and Germany, amongst others, who have either been directly tapped (Brazil and Germany – Mrs. Merkel was not at all happy) or whose citizens have been tapped (France and Spain protesting about millions of phone intercepts carried out in a matter of weeks).  Similarly, America spies on its own citizens, extensively.  Mobile phones and e-mails, Facebook and Twitter accounts are routinely “monitored” by the unapologetic National Security Agency, often with the assistance of the UK’s GCHQ.

This has come to light courtesy of a vast collection of documents liberated by one Edward Snowden, a contractor - in other words, an IT temp - working at the NSA who found it a little upsetting that this level of surveillance was going on and questioned its legality.  He did a runner to Hong Kong, and dumped the whole story on a couple of newspapers, notably the Guardian.  Then when the shit hit the fan, he wisely scarpered again, this time to Russia, where he now works for a local website while on a one year temporary residence visa.  The American government, predictably, is outraged, demanding his return to the US to face justice (for which read life in a high security facility for spying and crimes against the American government and its people).  The people, by contrast, generally applaud the bloke for bringing to their notice a whole raft of stuff, much of it barely legal, being done in their name but which they do not accept as being in any way justifiable. Especially when it’s being done to them without their knowledge.

With all this, Americans seem to be genuinely mystified why they are not flavor of the month.  It seems to be beyond them that playground bullies – which is what the American politicians have turned their country into – are generally unpopular.  They seem incapable of realizing that killing innocent people is not a very nice thing to do, whether it’s in the hall of a kindergarten in some Midwest town or some flea bitten hovel in a desperately poor mountain valley thousands of miles away.  They seem unable to realize that their version of democracy does not suit everyone, and that they do not have the right to force it upon everyone.  The usual defence that they are acting only to protect their own citizens, in this post 9/11 world, from terrorists who would not hesitate to maim and kill them just doesn’t wash…….because they are not the only nation to have been the victims of similar attacks – ask the citizens of Madrid and London, to name but two – without resorting to the duplicitous and murderous tactics that America employs.  Violence simply leads to more violence, but the cowboy mentality of America fails to realize or accept this.

There is a word in the dictionary that seems to have eluded them.  The word is “humility”

America should learn what it means.  Then practice it.  

The world may be a better place were they to do so.       

Hugo Lloris – brave or barmy?

Last weekend, Tottenham’s French international goalkeeper was wiped out (accidentally it has to be said) by Everton’s man-mountain striker Romelu Lukaku.  There was the best part of ten minutes stoppage while the Spurs medical team patched him up, before he played out the final 15 minutes or so, during which he made a brilliant match-winning save.  So all in a day’s work for the bloke.

But there has been uproar in the press and elsewhere over the incident.  Why?  Because for a short time, Lloris was unconscious, due to the whack on the head.  When he woke up, slightly woozy of course, there were conversations with him and his manager and the referee, as a result of which he insisted on continuing and his manager let him do so.   Both Lloris and the club and officials have been roundly condemned for allowing this to happen, citing that the risk of concussion or even – horrors! – death, should have meant he was withdrawn from play immediately.  But after the match, he underwent a CAT scan that proved there was not a trace of brain injury, concussion or anything else likely to affect his health, either short or long term.  So all the calls for action and rule changes by various head trauma charities, doctors (who weren’t present at the time and hence are in no real position to judge) and trade unions are, quite simply, a gross over reaction.

Lloris and Andre Villas–Boas (his club manager) are mystified at all the attention.  Both are of the opinion he did nothing particularly brave or outstanding.  Just doing his job.  This I fully agree with – the man is a very good goalkeeper, captain of his country, and earns a significant amount of money for doing exactly the sort of things he did against Everton.  Indeed, it’s good to see there are ‘keepers out there still prepared to take the inevitable knocks without making an issue of it or screaming foul play. 

As an ageing ‘keeper myself, it depresses me to see the way the game has gone nowadays.  Goalkeepers are overprotected – breathe on them and you’re likely to give away a free kick.  I could always expect to be knocked out in exactly the same way as Lloris at least three times over the course of a season, and often it was a deliberate assault rather than an accidental collision, and anyone playing at the time would expect the same.  You just got on with it – a bucket of cold water over the head to wake you up, a whiff of smelling salts (my eyes are watering now at the memory) to clear your head, and away you go.  The only time it happened to me and I didn’t carry on was when some pillock of a centre forward relocated my nose somewhere around my left ear.  Happy days. 

No, Lloris is neither brave nor barmy.
He’s a goalkeeper.  ‘Nuff said.

Time for Change at FIFA.

I’ve said it here before, but old Teflon Sepp Blatter really should step aside from his day job of running FIFA, and while he’s about it take with him the ageing bureaucrats who work for him.  For a multi-billion dollar organization charged with running the most popular sport on the planet, they really do make some funny decisions.  Maybe all those rumours of brown envelopes stuffed with dosh being handed around behind the scenes are true after all, despite the organization’s strenuous denials.  Just consider their choices for hosting the next three World Cups.

Next year it’s Brazil’s turn.  That could be very good – the country over the years has turned out some of the best teams and individual players ever to grace the game, and they’re always good to watch.  The country, too, is turning into an economic powerhouse, the B in the BRICs emerging market group (the others being Russia, India and China).  The weather’s nice too.  But right now, the place is riven by civil unrest, as the average Brazilian takes to the streets complaining about the billions of dollars being spent re-building football stadia, putting up new hotels, developing new airports and roads to ferry teams and fans around that vast country, and tearing down the favelas, the slums many of the population still call home, instead of building badly needed new schools and hospitals and other basic amenities.  This week the annual Soccerex beano was due to be held in Rio, but was called off at the last minute because the local government decided it couldn’t spare the manpower to police the event.  Fifa and the World Cup organizing committee insist everything will be alright on the night and the tournament will go off without a hitch, but given that a lot of the projects are running late I wouldn’t bet on it.

Next up is Russia, in 2018.  BRICs again, notice.  No longer Communist, of course, a fledgling democracy and wealthy as Croesus, so worthy of a World Cup in Sepp’s tunnel vision.   Well, yes.  It’s a democracy of sorts, but for pretty much all of this century run by Vladimir Putin, officially a President (and sometime Prime Minister) but in reality not much more than a dictator.  Anyone who dares to speak out against him and the way he runs the place is more or less guaranteed ten years in the gulag.  “Opposition” is not a word in his vocabulary.  The country is deeply homophobic.  It has passed laws that discriminate against homosexuals, and gay activists have been beaten and banged up.  It’s considered an illness, a sickness, rather than a way of life, something that should be cured by beatings or hidden away by imprisonment.  Lovely – I’m sure gay football supporters will have a blast there.  It’s also inherently racist.  Black players – and there are a number of them playing in the Russian league – are continually abused by their own fans, subjected to monkey noises and banana throwing the same as players in Britain were back in the 70s and early 80s.  One club has even written a statute into its rule book, at the insistence of its supporters, stipulating that the team remains 100% white – no blacks allowed.  CSKA Moscow have just had a partial ground closure applied after Manchester City star Yaya Toure (from Ivory Coast, currently the best African player in the world) suffered this kind of crap in a Champions League match.  So African teams and supporters will have a good time too.

Finally, we have Qatar in 2022.  I blogged about this one a couple of weeks ago, and previously way back in 2010 when they were awarded the tournament.   Now there is no absolute proof that the voting process that awarded them the tournament wasn’t all above board with no brown envelopes, but still – let’s say it was.  It’s still an odd decision, given the size of the place and its summer climate.  It may be the wealthiest country in the world, and it may still deliver a terrific tournament, but again, I have my doubts.

But all these examples – and there are many others – demonstrate that FIFA needs to change, before it loses all credibility.  It’s close to that already, and Sepp’s latest announcement (that qualification play-offs should be scrapped because the losers “might be upset”) doesn’t help.

Can someone please explain Twitter?

 Facebook, when it launched its IPO a couple of years, got the price wrong and bombed.    Twitter has launched today, at an opening price of $26 that is expected to climb to above $40 by close of business – time will tell.  But I can’t get my head around how a company that has never turned a profit, and is losing a hundred odd million a year, can have a stock market valuation of $18billion.

I don’t even understand the product.  OK, Facebook I can get.  I use it as a tool to see what my friends and relations back in the UK and elsewhere are doing, I can use it to post pictures of my kids and my trips so that they in turn can see what I’m up to.   I advertise when I’m adding a new blog post like this one.  I can see how Facebook uses adverts to make money, and how Likes can generate income by driving the ad process.  There are things about it I hate – the flood of posts that end up on my Wall (or whatever you call it) inviting me to play games in which I have no interest and that regular participation in can cost money.  The depressing and frankly Little Englander and racist, anti-everything sloganeering from some of the most disgusting websites in existence.  The posts that encourage you to Like something or post it on your Wall or you are the lowest of the low for not supporting that charity or this organization.  But weighing it all up, I can live with it because of that family element.

But Twitter?  Why??  What???  How????   From what little I have seen, mostly from articles or blogs in newspapers and websites, or posted on my bloody Wall, it seems no more than a way for publicity seeking “celebrities” or footballers to tell the world how wonderful they are, or what they ate for lunch, or something equally trivial.  Or to complain about something - #Sack Mourinho, for instance, after Chelsea had the temerity to lose a match.

How is that worth $18, let alone $18billion?

Sebastian Vettel – genius or lucky?

I’ve followed F1 since the good old days of James Hunt and Nikki Lauda back in the 70s, Hill and Senna and Prost in 80s and 90s.  Schumacher of course.  But I can’t say I’m that interested nowadays, mainly due to the processional nature of the races these days, where I think technology – whether it be the car or the tyre – is more important than driving ability.  The dominance of young Sebastian Vettel over the past few years hasn’t helped either.

The guy is 26.  He’s won the last 4 drivers’ championships in a Red Bull.  To date, he has 37 wins in a total of 118 races.  43 pole positions.  He’s won 11 races this season, including the last 7.  Most of these wins have been by wide margins – half a minute at the last race, which is nearly half a lap.

He has a simple tactic.  Get on the front row (first or second seems to be immaterial).  Get a good start.  Take the lead through the first corner.  Then toe down and disappear into the distance.  Build up a good lead, then change tyres, and let the car do the rest.  Very rarely does he drop down the field and have to race, to overtake people, and for this there are observers who doubt his abilities – but when he’s had to do it, he has, and very well too.

So personally, I think he is a superb driver, even though I don’t particularly like the boy – that one finger salute when he either gets pole or wins a race drives me up the wall.  But I have to say he delivers.
But how much of this is down to his abilities, and how much to luck – specifically, the luck in driving what has clearly been the best car for the last few years - as many believe?  Luck plays a part, in F1 more than perhaps any “sport” of course.  He is lucky to be driving an Adrian Newey car, certainly, but I think he has used his natural ability to make the most of that luck.  Mark Webber, a fine driver in his own right, has the same machinery by the same designer but, particularly the last couple of years, has been blown away.  Webber’s car breaks down more than Vettel’s – luck?  Team orders (even if no-one admits it) tend to favour Vettel – luck or (more likely) design?  Initially, I think it was luck, and Vettel had the breaks more often than Webber, but more recently I think it’s been a case of the team making the car just a little bit more suitable for Vettel – as he’s amassed points and wins and championships the team has been more and more built around him.  I can’t see anyone stopping him.

But Newey is the key.  The man is a genius at designing racing cars.  He’s done it for McLaren and Williams too, and won championships for both of them in the past.  Ask any driver, past or present, and they will all say they would love to drive one of his designs.  Those who have, invariably say it’s the best car they’ve ever driven.  So for Red Bull it’s been lucky that the right driver has come along at the right time to get the best out of the right car.  And dominate the sport.  And they’ll keep doing that until something changes.  Vettel is going nowhere – why should he?  He won’t get a better position.

But Adrian Newey might.  I saw an interview on BBC’s HARDtalk program last week with Sir Ben Ainslie, the bloke who’s won loads of Olympic sailing gold medals and this year led the US America’s Cup team to a 9-8 series win (after being 1-8 down).  He’s trying to raise funding to put together a British team to compete next time.  Interestingly, he let slip that he’s had some conversations with Adrian Newey, who is apparently also a keen sailor and has in the past expressed an ambition to do something different one day and design a racing yacht…….  When pressed, Ainslie looked sheepish, I thought, and insisted they were just chats over a glass of wine.  The probably were – but if he gets the funding together, and a team together, would it not be the perfect opportunity for Newey to realise his ambitions?  And where will that leave Red Bull?  And Vettel…
Watch this space, I think.