Tuesday, March 27, 2007

On the road again

...or should that be, "In the sky again"?

Had a very successful BrainShare conference in Salt Lake City last week. It was good to catch up with friends and colleagues (and remind them all what I look like!), and I had some very productive meetings.
A friend of mine, Kevin Smith, was involved in the keynote session on Monday, and he gave a great demo of our new product: Open Enterprise Server 2. Despite an early mistake that took a minute or two to fix, the demo went very well and he got some great feedback from the crowd afterwards.

Take a look for yourself here. Kevin's demo is about an hour in.

Tonight I'm off again, this time with the family to visit the UK for Easter holidays. We have a couple of days in England, then a five-day break in Edinburgh before returning to Berkshire to spend Easter with family, then flying back to Riyadh on Easter Monday.

I will be taking my laptop and will blog while I'm away, and even if it turns out that I can't get online, I can always send short updates from my Blackberry, so there's no escape for you!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Back in Riyadh

I landed back in Riyadh last night, after a very successful and enjoyable trip to BrainShare. I'll write more about it either tomorrow or Tuesday, but right now I'm very jet-lagged and struggling to keep my eyes open.

Off for an early night...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Testing, Testing

This post is to test Blogger's ability to receive blog updates via email. I am writing this in a regular email rather than going on the web and using Blogger's usual text editor. The how-to's say that as soon as I click Send, this post will appear.

How exciting!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Moab Trip: Canyonlands

Day Two, and we emerge fully refreshed from our sumptuous rooms at the Canyonlands Motor Inn, ready for another day's hiking and snapping.

Canyonlands National Park is a forty mile drive from the motel and about the same distance from Arches where we were the day before, but the difference between the two is striking.

On the way we stopped at Newspaper Rock: a large slab of slick rock bearing some ancient petroglyphs, some of which are thousands of years old.

Newspaper Rock

Our first stop inside the park was Wooden Shoe Arch. See if you can spot the clog in this picture:

Wooden Shoe Arch

The Needles

From there we drove on down a long dirt track (glad we had a 4x4) to Elephant Hill. There's an extreme 4x4 track here leading up from the car park to the top of the hill, over large rocks, deep ruts, and winding around tight hairpins and steep inclines. I took one look at it and decided no way would we ever make it to the top in our Toyota RAV4, so we parked up and prepared to hike to the top. Just then, an old gold-coloured Chevy SUV came past, with two old couples inside: the men in front and the women in back. They were all around 70 years old, but sure enough this clunking old vehicle headed straight for the track and started climbing it.

The old boy's 4x4 is halfway up the hill. Can you see it?

The three of us and several others assembled in the car park to observe this feat, all of us standing with arms crossed going, "No, they'll never make it.", and wincing every time we heard the grinding scrape of metal against rock. But we were wrong. Not only did they make it to the top, but they came back down smiling, and on congratulating them on their achievement we discovered that they were locals, and the driver had done this track, "many times".

When they rolled triumphantly back into the car park we all cheered, and breathed a sigh of relief.

After that excitement we hiked up to the top to take some more photos.

For lunch we went to the Stagecoach Diner, which is owned and run by Jim and Cheryl Nyland, parents of a Novell friend of ours JD Nyland. When JD heard we were going down to his home town he told us to "go see his folks", so we did. The food was excellent and the welcome we received even better.

Stagecoach Diner in Moab

After lunch we had time for just one more park before heading back to Salt Lake City. Dead Horse Point is a high hilltop from which you get some absolutely stunning views of the northern part of the Canyonlands park, with the Colorado River snaking its way around the canyon. This was the location used for the opening rock-climbing scene in Mission Impossible II.

Two stunning views from Dead Horse Point

I could've sat here all afternoon

All good things must come to an end though, and at 4pm we set off on the four-hour drive back to Salt Lake City.
Souteastern Utah is really beautiful, and if you're the outdoor type you'd be hard pressed to find a better holiday destination.

Moab Trip: The Arches

I'm back in Salt Lake City, getting ready for BrainShare after a great two-day trip down to South Eastern Utah. This area of the state has some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen, including sandstone arches, canyons, and ancient Indian petroglyphs.

The town of Moab lies roughly 300 miles South of Salt Lake City, and is very handy for the two national parks we planned to visit on this trip: Arches and Canyonlands. I'll cover Canyonlands in the next posting. I went with Novell colleagues Bernd and BP.

On the way down to Arches we nearly ran out of petrol, thanks to BP suggesting we take a slightly longer scenic route to Moab, following the Colorado river. I guess he wasn't to know that there were no services, in fact nothing but raw nature for around sixty miles. I was driving this section, and first noticed the fuel warning light come on about fifty miles out of Moab. There was nothing for it but to carry on, driving as economically as possible and hoping that we wouldn't break down in the middle of nowhere. I kept the lightest possible pressure on the accelerator, silently blessing each downhill and cursing each climb, but we made it in the end with just vapour to spare.

Arches National Park is a large area of natural sandstone arches, created over millions of years by a combination of underground salt bed shifting, remnants of ancient seabeds and surface erosion. I'll let the pictures take up the story...

The road into Arches.

This one's called Balanced Rock. I wonder why?

Landscape Arch. A 60ft-long chunk fell off the underside of the arch in 1991, making it even thinner.

From Landscape Arch we drove on to our next stop: the world famous Delicate Arch. This amazing structure sits atop a mountain, so it's a bit of a hike to get there. You leave the car park and walk/climb one and a half miles, climbing 500 ft in the process. The way is a mixture of gravel, sand, large stones, and solid rock, and there are some ledges to walk along with sheer drops beside them. It's pretty challenging but there were lots of people doing it, young and old alike. Bernd, being a card-carrying Goth, was dressed in his usual garb of black leather motorcycle trousers and heavy black leather boots. He has blisters now.

Biker Bernd regretting his decision to wear black leather trousers and heavy boots. If you click for larger image you may just be able to make out the car park along the line of the path into the distance. This shot was taken about half way up.

The hike was worth it though. The famous Delicate Arch.

It's actually pretty dangerous up here. In the UK I'm sure there would be safety fences everywhere to prevent people falling.

From there we went to catch the sunset at The Windows. Bernd's feet were hurting (everybody say Aaah) so he stayed by the car while BP and I hiked up with our cameras.
The sunset was one of the most spectacular I've ever seen, and the colour of the rocks changed several times in just a few minutes. A photographer's heaven!

North Window

...and again. Amazing things happen here at sunset. The rock went this fiery orange colour for only about five minutes.

Turret Arch

Dead tree "on fire"

We got to our motel at around 10.30, and collapsed exhausted into bed. They had only two rooms so I shared with BP, leaving Bernd to share with his feet.

Day Two to follow soon.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

BrainShare again

Last night's concert didn't go very well (if you know what I mean wink wink).

After tonight's lack of a repeat performance I'll be jetting off once again to Salt Lake City in Utah for Novell's annual BrainShare conference. Five days of drinking beer and talking about computer software with 6,000 other geeks... heavenly!

The Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City: home for the next week!

But before we plunge into BrainShare I'm going on a two-day trip with friends down to the Arches National Park in southern Utah, where my objective will be to get some dramatic photos of the stunning landscapes on offer thanks to its 2,000 natural sandstone arches.

I hope my own photos look this good.

So, off tonight and not back in Riyadh until Saturday week. I will try to carry on posting while I'm away but I'm not making any promises; the conference can get pretty intense, through the day and into the evening activities, and I have a lot of catching up to do with co-workers so I'm not sure how much personal time I'll get, but with the jet lag there are bound to be a couple of periods when I'm wide awake at four in the morning with nothing to do, so you never know your luck.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Not the Riyadh Choral Society Again.

Following on from the Christmas concert we didn't have in December, The RCS is not having a concert again tonight and tomorrow, not including several arrangements of Psalm 23, some Brahms gypsy songs and an Andrew Lloyd Webber medley.

So, still no furtive singers creeping around hugging their music folders to their chests, no whispering of passwords, no speakeasy rehearsal dens, no hiding plain brown envelopes of tickets inside our coats (apart from anything else, it's too hot for coats!)

What's even less scary is, I don't have a solo to sing!

I'll let you know how it didn't go tomorrow.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Royal Visit

We attended a reception in the Residence gardens the other evening in honour of the visit by HRH The Duke of York, otherwise known as Prince Andrew. The Prince spent a few days in the Kingdom, firstly in Riyadh and then in Eastern Province, I believe to promote UK trade and investment.
He didn't get as far as our group, but he did spend about an hour chatting to some of the hundren and fifty or so guests, made up of Embassy staff, representatives from the British and Saudi business communities, and members of the British military missions, in uniform; the Duke himself wore a suit.
He was particularly interested in the two falcons. Bridget had been presented with the birds by a Saudi (probably a prince I'm not sure). They live in the garden, spending most of their time tethered to perches on the lawn, and hooded, which I'm told calms them. Since Bridget left another woman at the Embassy has taken over their care, which includes taking them for a walk in the mornings (she walking, them sitting on her hand), and feeding them a live quail in the afternoons.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Emergency Exercise

Our Embassy, in fact all Embassies everywhere, plan for how they would handle emergency situations where their national citizens living abroad may be in distress or face danger. Such plans must be carefully drawn up and reviewed regularly, but no matter how often you revise such a document there is no substitute for actually testing the plan's effectiveness. Last week our Embassy here held an Emergency Exercise, in which Embassy staff responded to and acted upon a fictional emergency scenario and simulated putting the emergency plan into effect, watched by independent observers.

Whilst not directly involved I was asked to visit the Embassy during the morning of the exercise to take some photos of the proceedings, and the rest of the day I had to stay in the villa and respond to radio checks.

I won't go into any more detail than that, but from what I hear the exercise was a very worthwhile activity and the lessons learned will help to further strengthen the emergency plans.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Farewell to Sherard & Bridget

At the end of last week we sadly said goodbye to Sherard and Bridget. As Sherard's time as Her Majesty's Ambassador to Saudi Arabia comes to an end he now faces a new challenge, heading up the British Government's expanded diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. Sherard is universally liked and respected here, and he is widely acknowledged to have made an enormous contribution to UK-Saudi relations over the last three-and-a-half years.

Sir Sherard & Lady Bridget Cowper-Coles

Last month I was asked by the Embassy to take a few portraits of the couple, and also a group photo of the entire Embassy staff.

(placeholder for group photo)

The group photo was enlarged, framed, and presented to Sherard as a keepsake on his last working day at the Embassy last Saturday. His successor will be William Patey, formerly Her Majesty's Ambassador to the Republic of Iraq, who will arrive in Riyadh to take over in a few weeks' time.

Sherard, I wish you good luck and every success in your new position.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Dubai Trek: Fourth and final bit

This has been a while coming hasn't it? Must've been four days since the last episode, but I've got an excuse. Well, several excuses really including a black tie ball, a farewell party for Sherard, and the Embassy's Emergency Exercise, which I'll tell you about in a day or two.

For now though let's get back to the Dubai trip and finish one story off before we start another.

We left off just after the Roger Waters concert when Elliot and I picked Karen up from the airport in the wee small hours. Thursday morning came too soon and we hadn't had enough sleep. Maybe it was enough technically but we wanted more. But no, it was time to get up, pack the suitcase and re-load our camping gear from Gerard's garage back into the car (I'd forgotten to tell you I'd unloaded it on Wednesday morning so that we didn't have rubber mallets and saucepans bouncing around in the back as we rumbled along the wadi). It was then that I realised my mistake. I thought we were setting off first thing, but the plan was actually a noon departure. This pleased Karen no end because it meant we had time to to to the shopping mall for a couple of hours.

"Wagons Roll!"

On our return we made another trip to the local supermarket for supplies and then we were off on the road to Al Ain, a couple of hours' drive to the South of Dubai and quite close to the Oman border. Gerard is leading the convoy once more and has the co-ordinates taken from the book, "U.A.E. Off-Road" programmed into his GPS. After a couple of hours on the road we leave it once more and deflate our tyres in preparation for some dune-bashing. Gerard is the drive-first-and-ask-questions-later type when he sees an ocean of sand before him, and it's as much as Dave and I can do to keep up as he goes shooting off, the back of his 4x4 bouncing up, down, and sideways as he speeds away from us in a cloud of sand.

Gerard being towed clear by Dave

"Oi, out the way! 4x4s coming through!"

The dunes here are smaller but still steep and very tightly packed together compared with the desert driving we've done in Saudi, where the dunes are spaced out and huge. The driving here is, therefore, hairier than we've done before, because it's all dune: you're always on a slope, going either up it, down it, or sideways along it which is the most frightening. In the Saudi desert at least you have the option of driving around the base of the dunes and having a relatively sedate drive, but here is like a rollercoaster. Karen's clinging on for dear life in the passenger seat but nothing phases the children, who are sat in back with their sunglasses on listening to their iPods. Again and again I watch as Gerard's car shoots up a steep dune, then slowly tips forward at the top and then disappears at what looks like an almost vertical incline. I don't want to follow but have little choice as I'm not confident in finding myself a new path over the dune, so I accelerate and blindly tip over the top of the dune, trying to assess what's on the other side as quickly as possible after the car has righted itself enough for me to see where I'm going again. This goes on for about half an hour until we eventually find a suitable site to set up camp. It's not flat but it's close enough, and there are some nice dunes nearby for the children to play on. So we circle our wagons, so to speak and start unloading the gear.

Gerard's got his daft umbrella thing out again! Note our new "Real Man's Tent" in the background.

I think Megan likes it here!

Some sand...

Some more sand

The intrepid photographer looks for a good spot to shoot the sunset

It takes us around an hour to erect tents, tables, chairs, lanterns, barbecues, and to find some wood for a fire, during which time the children are playing with sandboards that someone has brought along. These are like snowboards; you stand on it and "surf" down the dune. It goes quite slowly when I have a go on it - must have picked a softer route than the others.

Emily, Abigail, Megan and Dave: Kings of the Castle

Elliot showing how it should be done

...and me showing how not to do it

Dave with daughter Megan. Dave's another Nikon owner: good lad!

Emily thinks she's on the beach in Blackpool!

I'm afraid we made a bit of a mess on the way in.

Nice picture of some sand

Over the course of the next few hours Gerard sets off to meet other families at the rendezvous point -- a petrol station. Some have had to work during the day and have followed us down late, but Gerard loves bouncing around the dunes so much we soon see his headlights as he bobs his way back to camp in the twilight, with two more terrified families on his coat-tails.

Another day draws to a close over the desert

Gerard leading in the latecomers

The party then gets into full swing: barbecued kebabs, burgers, beer wine, marshmallows toasted on the open fire, and as midnight draws near and most of the children have gone to bed, someone suggests a little Pink Floyd music might be in order and there is (almost) unanimous agreement, so I oblige by putting on Wish You Were Here on my iPod through the car stereo and leaving all the doors open, and we chill out in our folding chairs with a Heineken and the starry night sky.

I awake at around 0630 the next morning. The sun is up and light is streaming in through the roof of the tent. It takes the rest of the camp about an hour to emerge blinking from their tents and get the breakfast going, and we munch on bacon sandwiches and share cups of coffee because there isn't enough for one, with Dark Side Of The Moon playing in the background.

At around 9am we've loaded our car up and really need to get going. The others are staying in the desert for lunch and are packing things away leisurely, but we have a long drive back to Riyadh ahead of us so as soon as we're ready we say our goodbyes and Gerard leads us back to the petrol station and some lovely tarmac.

This is as exciting as the drive home got

Oops! Tell a lie! This was such a lovely surprise we nearly stopped by it for a picnic.

I regard tarmac as less lovely by the time we reach Riyadh and home some ten hours later.