31 January 2006

Egypt Day 5: In Israel and I Hit My Lowest Ever Point

Who goes on holiday to get an alarm call from reception at 4:30 am? We're off to Israel on an full day trip to Masada (no real interest) and the Dead Sea (yes, oh yes). Two and a half hours after setting off, less a brief stop in a very good Israeli coffee shop (despite all their brochures being stapled the wrong way ;-) and we are entering a 2,000 year old fortress that is truly amazing. We go up to the level of the Mediterranean Sea via a cable car rather than the long snake route the Romans took. The Romans had it from 30BC to 66AD when King Herod used it as his winter palace, you can see Herod's private bath in some of the later shots. They reclaimed it in 72AD and kept it until 106AD when they abandoned it as it was no longer on the edge of their territory. The beauty of this site and the valleys and the awe of its ancient history was slightly ruined as US military jets flew over head on two occasions.

In the six year they didn't possess it, it was occupied by the Sicarii (a radical group of Zealots) which was around the beginning of the first Jewish Roman War (or Great Jewish Revolt). Masada is very important in Jewish history for what happened at the end of 72AD. Jerusalem had fallen two years earlier and the Romans were advancing on Masada. There were 960 Jewish people there but only around 180 men of fighting age. Compare this to the thousands of Roman Centurions marching their way through the desert and the outcome seems quite obvious. Think again. Faced with certain death and slavery for their families the men decided it was better to die with their freedom which itself it quite a controversial decision. I'm no expert on Jewish law but our excellent tour guide, Udi, informed us that it is okay for a Jewish person to eat pork. This was quite a shocking statement but here's the rationale. Under Jewish law nothing is more important than life itself. You can break nearly all Jewish laws if your life is a risk. So if somebody held a gun up to your head and said “Eat that pork now” you could without breaking the law. If however someone said “I have a tank behind that corner, eat that pork or I'll kill you” you couldn't as you don't know for certain that your life is at risk (you can't see the tank to start with). It makes sense that suicide is one of the gravest sins under Jewish law. To circumvent this the men all slaughtered their own wives and children and then each other until there were only 10 left. The drew lots and killed each other until only one remained who then had to commit suicide. When the Romans arrived the next day they found nearly 1,000 bodies (well, two women and five children hide and survived which are the sources for the information above) and the storerooms full to prove they chose to die.

Udi shared with us some fascinating stories, the best ones I want to share with you are relating to English sayings and traditions routed in Roman history. Romans introduced most of the world to toilets and the first surprise is that they were communal (the food goes in together so why not out together). Toilet paper had clearly not been invented yet so they use a communal sponge on a stick to scrub their arse clean. Can you just for a minute imagine how revolting that must have been. Now imagine your not paying attention and you get (here's the phrase) “the wrong end of the stick”. You will look ready to be sick the next time you hear someone say that I bet. The other great story is related to bathing, something the Romans used to love to do (it was high society socialising at its best). In the 19th century the average British person had a bath on average once a year. Queen Victoria was told she would live longer if she didn't insist on having a bath every three months. Usually the bath would take place at the end of May and so we have the tradition of the June wedding. The bride would be as clean as she could be (only a few weeks worth of stink on her) and the flowers she held should mask that.

After a quick pint of freshly squeezed orange juice we are finally off to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth (1,300 feet below the sea level of the Med)! Okay we have two hours to transform ourselves back to age 18 (ten year off). First off you have 15 minutes in the sulphur polls (loads of other minerals including salt so you do float). You have no idea how badly they smelled. What's worse is if a tiny bit got in your eyes or your mouth you needed to rinse it rapidly or you'd need first aid. We now wander outside to a great big yellow vat containing ... about half a million pounds worth of fresh Dead Sea mud (£200 per treatment it is in the UK I believe). Instructions for use: slap it on everywhere! Under your arms, right up to your eyes, as much of your thighs and bottoms as you can pleasurably take. When completely covered it is first you job to impersonate King Kong and then to run around threatening other people with a hug. Now for the painful part (there had to be one) – walk for six minutes down to the sea where you can wash it off. The sun will dry you as you walk and it's make your skin softer than any baby. You were told to bring flip flops to walk to the beach with? No? Oh, I hope you are able to walk on stone covered tarmac... I unfortunately was not. I cannot begin to describe just how sore it was – why do most women not have a problem with this? After such pain we reached the bottom only to find the beach was pure sharp pebbles, even KT couldn't take this. Almost to the water, just think about the 40% salt content making you float and remember not to get any in your mouth or you're in serious trouble. Have you ever wondered what the bed of the Dead Sea is like? Don't bother, I'll tell you – hug big crystal salt formations and structures far worse than any pebble! I cut my hand twice just resting on them and then got salt in the wound! Finally we get this mud off us so was it worth all the pain? Ooooh. I cannot describe how incredibly soft my skin is. It's claimed that with regular use it will make you look ten years younger and I don't doubt that for a second. I can confidentiality say we'll be back to the Dead Sea again!

Looking at my feet after dinner they are genuinely cut to pieces. I can't believe the rep never told us to bring sandal, just comfortable walking shoes for Masada. After all of today's pain I just tried to turn the lamp off and got a massive electric shock. At least now I know what 220v feels like instead of 240v!

30 January 2006

Egypt Days 1-4: First Impressions and Sunshine in January!

Day 1: Minutes before we get through our departure gate I decide to call Andy Regent, the guy who's looking after all my computers while I'm away. I just wanted to tell him our internet router died last night, probably due to overheating. He tells me all the systems are knacked and he can't make head nor tail of it – There's the boarding call I've got 2 minutes max to fix it! Lucking the words of advice I gave to Andy meant he was able to fix it, although I only found this out after calling him 5.5 hours later as we landed in Taba. I was a bit concerned during the flight as my lovely new phone, Sony Ericsson W800i (Walkman branded) has a option to turn the 2gb mp3 player on without the phone so I can use it on the plane. Of course to the unenlightened it will look like I'm playing with a mobile phone :-( Fortunately nobody noticed it as I kept it stuffed in my trouser pocket.

The first thing you may notice from my gallery of the holiday is that there is only one shaky photo outside Taba airport which is quite unusual for snapaholic me. The reason for that is, possibly to it's location on the top of a 1,000 foot high cliff, Taba is a military airport. Very unusual experience to say the least. Next up we find out we have a security guard on the coach and all 11 coaches travel in a convoy down the mountain. Are we really at risk? From later experiences it all seems to be a custom set up after the political bombings in the early '90s in Cairo and the convoy thing seems to be due to the shocking state of the roads as we descend 1,000 feet at night. As we arrived at Taba Heights (the large complex that has five major hotels) we come to a security check point who actually uses a mirror to check underneath the vehicle. Our Egyptian rep explains that this check point and then another one at the entrance to each hotel is in response to the attacks last year in Sharm el Sheik *and* London – cleverly phrased.

Okay we now have our first disaster. Somebody, possibly me, forgot to pick up the red bag from above our heads on the transfer coach and it has now sped off into the night. It had a couple of hundred pounds worth of electronics in it but no essential data (as it was my razor and our toothbrushes we lost). We tried to explain it to the guy at reception but he just did not seem to care – he even ignored us for five minutes by asking us to wait away from the desk as he answered phone calls. Deep breath. It seems my understanding of Egyptian customs are lacking to say the least. While looking like he was deliberately ignoring us Walid had actually contacted to next hotel who had contacted the driver and when he's finished his run he'll bring it back to the Sofitel (our 5* hotel). Walid even phoned later and offered to deliver it in person to the room – excellent service.

Dinner time and the restaurant is amazing, the whole hotel oozes class and grandiose designs. I think this week we'll be drinking Sakara Gold, the best Egyptian beer apparently. Strange though as the country is over 70% Muslim...

Day 2: The view from the balcony is amazing. Standing on Egyptian soil (well sand) I can see both Jordan (left) and Saudi Arabia (right) directly in front of me across the Red Sea. It gets better, the sky is completely blue, the sunshine is radiant and the temperature is over 20°ree;C. We are both putting all are trust in P20, it claims to only block UVA and allow the UVB through to give you a safe tan ... let's see if it's worth £20.

Day 3: Very lovely sunny day. Probably spent too long in the Sun as my back was a rather fruity shade of red. Fowler has rejoined Liverpool :-) Maybe Rafa was impressed by his five fingered salute or maybe Rafa reads my site and thought I was right... This is the second Liverpool related story I've posted and both have come true. Okay here goes, Liverpool will finish the season above Man Utd in second place. Now we have three more months of waiting...

Day 4: Cloudy all day. We ''sun bathed" with T-shirts on and towels over our legs. In light of yesterday's overdose it probably not such a bad thing.

25 January 2006

Five Months of *FREE* DVD Rentals & £44 Cash Back!

STOP!!! I've just learnt that most of these DVD rentals are available through quidco.com, an affiliates site that gives the money they earn back to you! All you need to do is register with quidco.com and go to the Entertainment section and then DVD rentals. You can now click on the links and register with the companies, not forgetting to add in the special codes otherwise you'll get a shorter lesser trial. In about two months time the money will be paid into your quidco.com account for you to withdraw (less an annual £5 fee but that only happens when you earn over £5). If there's no cahback just click on the link to get the better trial. NB: Lovefilm offers a great £13 through quidco.com but only for a 2 week trial. If you want the longer month you have to click the Sainsbury's link and you will not earn £13 (I think the £13 is a far better deal).

Below are all the details you need to get over five months of free DVD rentals. If you've never used a DVD rental service before, just start ploughing into them. If you have used one or two before, beware that Screenselect and LoveFilm power many other smaller sites (including Tesco's) so you should double check you haven't used them before trying to get a free trial from them (as they won't give you one and may charge you). Most of this info came from Martin Lewis' excellent website, moneysavingexpert.com - well worth bookmarking (after phillg.com of course). Enjoy!

ProviderDurationDiscs At OnceLimitationTime to CancelNumber of Days to Return DiscsCode or LinkQuidco Cash Back
Lovefilm (using Sainsbury's front end)1 month3 at a timeUnlimited1 day before end of trial1 day before end of trialSainsbury's£13 but only 2 week trial
Blockbuster1 month duration (possibly two)3 at a timeUnlimitedCancel day beforeUpto 28 days after cancellingmonsav151 (try "ST65447" for 2 months)£15
Screenselect30 day duration3 at a timeUnlimitedCancel two days beforeNoneTDV30£12.50
1DVD1 month1 at a timeUnlimitedCancel 5 days before end2 days before end of trial1dvdNothing
PostaDVD2 weeks3 at a timeUnlimitedCancel day before7 days after cancellingwww.postadvd.comNothing
Cinema Paradiso1 month2 at a timeMax 4Cancel day before7 days after cancellingQuidco.com50p
MyMovieStream2 weeks2/3/5 at a timeMax 4Cancel day before1 day before end of trialQuidco.com£3

If you use all these links you have over five months of fun, giving you somewhere in the region of 60 DVD rentals (based on an average of three a week) and an unbelievable £44 cash back for doing it! You'd have to be certifiably insane not to do it...

23 January 2006

Ikea Has The Most Amazing Customer Toilets!

In previous years I have written about the toilets in Mal Maison in Stockbridge (a giant mirror with a continual waterfall in front of it) or the unisex wash area of Bar 38 in George Street (thankfully they finally introduced dividers in the circular urinal), but the crown has to go to Ikea in Edinburgh. I took this picture there the other day in the gents at the customer restaurant. Take a look at it before continuing....

So, you've seen the sign I saw in the toilets at the restaurant. They are quite clean but the fact that "These facilities are also located in the Entrance and Exit area" just blows me away. To master building toilets that can be in two locations in space at the same point in time in the early 21st Century is just incredible. Hat's off to Ikea's designers.

17 January 2006

BBC2 Starts Putting On Decent Comedy Shocker!

I'm a bit too late to remind everyone that the excellent BBC Four show, The Thick of It, will now be shown on BBC2 on Monday nights. The first series (only three episodes) have already gone, but the second series starts this Monday, 23rd Jan at 10pm. It is some of my good friend* Armando Iannucci's best work. The night before Family Guy and American Dad return to BBC2 and carry on with some great episodes. If you've never seen either before, sit yourself down this Sunday and prepare to laugh. In other BBC2 news don't watch Hyperdrive because it's rubbish, or more aptly, hyper-rubbish.

* = He's not really my good friend, although when he signed my book he wrote "Phill, Sweety lovey fluff-pup. Armando". It's a long story.

Behold My Virgin Vision says Dick

Last year NTL bought Telewest, although technically Telewest swallowed up NTL so as to keep the joint partnership with the BBC going for the UK TV channels. It looks like this higher bid of NTL for Virgin Mobile will now be accepted, even if Branson has to put in £9m of his own money. This would create Britain's first quadruple play supplier (TV, phone, broadband and mobile), all under the Virgin name (as it's a great brand). However the approved name seems to be "Virgin Vision". I'm less than impressed. That said if they win the Premiership rights and take them off Sky (or at least strike a decent deal so I can watch them on cable) then they can call themselves "Baby Killers R Us" and I'll still subscribe (unless of course they introduce a download limit on broadband in which case I'll go postal).

15 January 2006

Loads More Harry Kewell Please ... Thank You!

Just watch a full hour of the Liverpool vs Tottenham game (all the time the ball was in play) and Liverpool played very well against an impressive Spurs. Harry Kewell's goal was majestic and worthy of winning any game. Anywho, I was looking through my calendar and noticed that twelve out of the next fourteen Liverpool games will be televised in the UK! It's only the mid-week Birmingham game and the derby at the end of March that won't (although the derby is already scheduled to kick-off at 12:45 so maybe there are plans for it to be broadcast live as nothing is listed on Sky's PPV listings for that weekend). In fact if you look back until the beginning of December, you find that eight of our last eleven games were televised live, meaning we are in the middle of an incredible streak of twenty live games out of a possible twenty four. I think we need our own channel...

In other Reds news, there are more calls to bring back Robbie Fowler - I'd personally love that to happen, he's the most natural goal scorer to ever play in the Premiership. Ignoring the real reasons behind this web talk, he's shown the true colour of his heart again this weekend. After scoring the third goal in Man City's 3-1 win against Man Utd, Robbie ran over and gave this insulting gesture to the Man Utd fans:
Robbie Fowler's five finger salute
In case there are any Man Utd fans reading this and need reminding, that's Rome, Wembley, Paris, Roma and Instanbul.

4 January 2006

The Newly Crowned Mr DIY 2006, Sorry Girls, I'm Taken!

So far in 2006 I have replaced a fancy light unit when the transformer burned out and then repaired my own Triton Topaz T80i electric shower by fiddling inside it and 2006 is only four days old! The issue with my shower was that the low pressure light came on even though the pressure was fine and when I set the heating dial to the very highest setting the water was only marginally warmed (and that's being generous). I looked up my shower's guide from the Triton website (great info, shame about the restrictive design, good job I use Firefox) and thought about the various possibilities. The heater or part of it could be faulty. The pressure sense could be dead so it thinks there is low pressure so it only heats the water a little bit to avoid scalding. I opened my shower and spoke to Triton who said it may be a pump type thing that may not be triggering but it was. Nothing inside the shower stood out to me as charred (as if it had just blow). I finally got a response from George Thompson, aka The Shower Doctor. He started a business in Edinburgh a few years ago to repair faulty showers as a lot of plumbers don't have the knowledge to diagnose the problem. I found his website by going through need a plumber .org (hey that's a very professional site, why thank you I designed it myself). Needless to say George is a SNIPEF Licensed Business and helpful member of the Edinburgh District Branch of SNIPEF too. He said I was on the right lines but it may also be a faulty micro-switch. Interesting, I thought. I could diagnose a faulty micro-switch. Another detailed inspection and I notice the inside of the cables connecting to one of the front most micro-switches looked rusty, as if the switch had blown. I turned off the power and removed it to test it out. The black button on the micro-switch did not click as I pressed it (and so did not activate the switch). I phoned Triton and got a spare but it was over the Christmas period so it took ages to arrive (thanks to Andy Regent for looking out for it when it did arrive though). Sadly it only had two connectors as most micro-switches do, but the one that was blown on mine had three (in fact it was part number V5S110CBX171 which is spare number 22005650 from Triton). A returned envelope and a delivery one day after the New Year's Holidays were over and I had my part. Five minutes later I have a fully working shower all for the cost of £12.44 and a little bit of research and effort!